Thursday, April 30, 2009

Catch the Lie

JAN: We know Peter Abrahams can pull off a fib. First, he convinced us he was Spencer Quinn, the author of the bestselling new mystery, Dog Gone It. And as Spencer Quinn, he managed to thoroughly convince us he was inside the canine mind, as Chet, the K-9 Academy dropout.

But can he fool us with his personal lies??Only one way to find out? Make him take the Jungle Red Quiz!

JR:Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?

PA: Neither.

JR: Sex or violence?

PA:The former.

JR:Pizza or chocolate?

PA:The former again.

JR: Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan? Who makes the better Bond?

PA: Sean Connery

JR: Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?

PA: They both drive me crazy.

JR: First person or Third Person?

PA: First..JR:Prologue or no prologue?

PA: Nope.

JR: Facebook or MySpace or Twitter?

PA: Facebook

JR: Your favorite non-mystery book?

PA: Crime and Punishment (certainly a crime novel, but not a mystery).

JR: Making dinner or making reservations?

PA: Making dinner.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. I drowned once.

2. I took a few points off Jimmy Connors.

3. I never cheated on a test or exam.

4. I had a phone conversation with a Manson family member.

Make your best guess, we'll get the truth out of Peter by the end of the day.

And if you want to know more about the storytelling Chet, himself, can come up with, check out

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On canine narrators

It was a mystery.

Who the heck was Spencer Quinn -- this Cape Cod author with a debut novel, Dog On It, that skyrocketed to the New York Times Bestsellers list, had ten overseas publication deals and the film rights sold? None other than New England's own, Peter Abrahams, the author of eighteen novels, including End of Story, Oblivion, and Lights Out, which was nominated for an Edgar best novel award. He also writes the best-selling Echo Falls series for younger readers.

JAN: I have to admit, when Hallie first started raving about this book, with the dog protagonist, I was skeptical. I didn't know about it making the New York Times Bestsellers list, but when Hallie figured out that you were the real author, I gave it a try. I absolutely loved it. I’ve been raving about it ever since. The brilliant thing about the book is the voice, how effectively you write from a dog’s point of view. Please tell us how you went about that?

Peter: First, I’m glad you liked the book, Jan. I’m a big admirer of your work, as I’m sure you know. As for the voice question, I guess from a technical standpoint we’re talking about writing with a limited narrator. I’ve messed around in that area before, but always in third-person close (Oblivion, for example, after Nick Petrov’s brain damage sets in.) With Chet I used first person, which I’d never done, by the way. Always good to try new things! But enough technical blah blah. The true answer is I sat down and started writing the thing and what happened happened. I’ve lived with lots of dogs during my life, and osmosis is one of a writer’s best friends.

JAN: There are obvious limitations to a dog’s experience, analysis he can’t make, and human events he can’t understand. These are all handled deftly, but I’m wondering were their any points in the plot where you worried the dog point of view wouldn’t work? Or any maneuvering you had to do, to keep in Chet’s voice? And with Chet’s unique doggy attitude?

Peter: In a way, writing a novel is all about maneuvering, isn’t it? I didn’t sense any more of that happening than usual. I liked the idea of setting a dog loose in a classic sort of P.I. story – it’s almost like playing a piece of music with a non-customary instrument. (Remember when Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner with his electric guitar? That worked!) But what interested me most, and what I always kept my eye on, was the relationship between Chet and Bernie.

JAN: I love that Chet is not simply K-9 trained, which gives him some necessary skills in bad guy detection, but that he’s a K-9 Academy drop out. Did you do that to explain why he’s not working for the police force and adopted by Bernie, or was that to give him dimension, a dark past like a human drinking problem or divorce?

Peter: Both. I like to have one thing do two jobs, or even more. Call it paper-saving, my little contribution to the green movement.

JAN: The scenes I love the most are when Chet’s own explanation of events is interrupted by his lack of impulse control and the human scolding that follows. But what was your favorite part of writing Dog On It, or your favorite scene?

Peter: I was writing the beginning of Chapter 5, where Chet, Iggy and the she-barker all get going, when a couple of people stopped by my office. I read it aloud to them, and their reaction was very gratifying. I laughed a bit myself, like someone else had written it.

JAN: Yes, I actually read that part aloud to my husband, and we both laughed. Why did you write this under the name Spencer Quinn?

Peter: It was so different from my previous work that we wanted it to have a different label.

JAN: What’s up next? Do Bernie and his love interest Suzie have a future? And more importantly, will we hear more about the She-bark that tantalizes Chet from time to time?

Peter: All of that and more! At this point, we’re dealing with at least a 4-book series. #2, Thereby Hangs A Tail, comes out January 2010. (Also, there’s with a new post every day. I’m trying out some things over there – it’s almost like an old-fashioned daily comic strip.)

Come back tomorrow when we ask Peter to take the Jungle Red Quiz and lie to us. And in the meantime, don't forget to go check out, I'm on my way there, right now.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

On why we like murder....

JAN: At the moment, the world is captivated with the Craiglist's murderer. For any of you who haven't been watching the Today Show, etc., that's the 23-year old Boston U. medical school student, Philip Markoff, accused of killing a woman allegedly selling massage and erotic services on Craigslist. He's also charged with robbing and assaulting another.

Any murder and violence against women is horrific, but unfortunately, there is so much of it, it doesn't capture the world imagination. Murder and the sale of sexual services have no doubt been linked since prostitution began in -- what? Cave man times - and this is a single murder, not the serial variety that usually gets our attention.

So is it the innovative use of Craigslist to advertise sex (which, I found UNBELIEVABLY direct and rampant, BTW, when I was researching Teaser.) Or is it because the suspected murderer is so upscale, with his medical school pedigree and $1400 a month apartment? And if it IS because our culprit is upscale -- what does it say about us - that we love this combination of affluence and violence?

ROBERTA: Or is it that we can't tear our eyes away from the pedigree brought down? I think that is particularly titillating--the idea that someone is so not what he appeared. And that someone who seemed to have it all going for him had screwed up in such a major way. Or here's another theory, maybe we're fascinated because in some ways we can imagine ourselves stepping over a line like he did?

Jan, I have to admit I haven't read Teaser yet--deliberately, because the book I'm working on has some similar elements, Craigslist included, and I'm afraid I'd steal everything you wrote! I'm saving it for when I'm finished:)

RO: Are we not even considering the possibility that the poor girl may have really been a massage therapist? Up until quite recently, I used to get a massage every week. (Fraser, I miss you!) People really do this for a living. And they probably keep a certain number of loonies sane - certainly kept me sane.

JAN: Call me cynical, but considering how dangerous it would be to conduct business that way, I'm guessing a real, certified massage therapist doesn't drive up from NY to meet strange male clients in hotels -- no matter how nice the hotel.

RO: Have table, will travel. But okay, let's say she was a sex worker. It's Craiglist. It's the name. The Boston Strangler. The Honeymoon Killers. It's like, instant story.
And all of these guys are sort of cute and respectable-looking. Let's face it how many women are going to go home with a drooling hunchback with horns and fangs? (Unless of course, that's your thing..which is fine by judgments here.)

HANK: But wasn't it about the money? He--and of course he's presumed innocent and it really could be that he is, and it's sad that people just assume he did it, what if he were your brother?--apparently had lots of gambling debts, and it's the theory that he was targeting edgy Craig's List advertisers, figuring they wouldn't turn him in.

RO: How much money could he possibly have hoped to steal from her? $200? $300?

JAN: If it's at the end of the day,I'm saying it could be a grand, but sounds like theft might have been only an introductory motive (See Hallie's comments below).

But Hank, I take your innocent-until-proven guilty point. I once had a homocide detective confide to me that cops make up their minds in the first five minutes on the scene who probably did it -- and that influences the way they collect evidence. He also said that the investigators very stubbornly hold onto whatever original theory they came up with. On the other hand, the Globe reported Friday that the gun and DNA matched so.....

HANK: Oh, it's an amazing story. It's the fiancee, really, that puts it over the edge for me. This woman, who's studying to be a doctor. And she gets engaged to a doctor. And they're planning this elaborate wedding, with a web page and all. And then--wham. Guess what.

(Let me just say, parenthetically. All this about the "panties" he supposedly took as souvenirs. Have you EVER used the word "panties"? Forgive me, but I think that's disgusting.)

RO: Anyone remember that great scene in Anatomy of a Murder when the judge discusses "the panties" and says something like "get your snickering over now. There's nothing funny about a case where one man is dead and another may go to prison"?

JAN: There is just something about term panty that sounds both infantile and sordid. I think men use this word a lot more than women. Except that my husband wears some sort of tight, lycra, short things to ride the exercise bike in that supposedly keep the muscles warm -- my daughter labeled them his "man panties," and we now use this term to make fun of him whenever possible.

RO: Compression shorts. I was researching jockstraps the other day and that's what they call them. Apparently men don't wear those other things anymore.

JAN: Researching jockstraps?? Trying not to giggle.

HALLIE: If Markoff takes their underwear, then it's not about money.

HANK: True. It's about money and sex and power and panic and megalomania. I mean--police say he hid stuff in a hollowed out copy of Gray's Anatomy. It's--as creepy as it gets.

HALLIE: And this guy lives about 1/3 mile from me. Creepy creepy creepy. The hubris of it gets me. I think we're fascinated because someone that young, gifted, and with all the trappings of the boy next door, the doctor your mother wanted you to marry, is this twisted. The veneer of the everyday makes it particularly sinister.

JAN: Want to know more about Markoff? Here's a link to Sunday's Boston Globe piece on how shocked his friends were to find out.... Http://
Tell us what makes you follow this murder in the news? And why we seem so fascinated in it.

And come back Wednesday, when I interview, Spencer Quinn AKA Peter Abrahams, about his hysterical new book, featuring a canine, PI, Dog On It.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


HANK: I'm just not sure I believe this. I saw this--somewhere, who knows. And when I watch it, I definitely see it just one way. I asked my producer Mary to look at it, and she absolutely saw it the other way. I mean, we were looking at the same thing at the same time!

And then at one point, I saw it change. And then go back to the way it was initially.

What do you see? Is this some kind of a trick that has duped me? Here's what the article said.

The Right Brain vs Left Brain test ... do you see the dancer turning clockwise or anti-clockwise?

If clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.

Most of us would see the dancer turning anti-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it.

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies

uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Brand New Disease

"A crime reporter investigates the murder of her brother, a cabaret nightingale, in Cantrell's haunting debut novel...Evocative, compassionate and compelling."

— Kirkus starred review of A Trace of Smoke

Rebecca Cantrell may be patient zero. The very first person to report on a new disease. Have you had it?


I know it’s just past Easter, and if I have to refer to a Betty McDonald title, “The Egg and I” is more apropos. However, I’m sick and there appears to be nothing I can do about it. I think I have Pre-Publication Syndrome, PPS.

Here’s how it went down: Last week my thoughtful husband informed me that my book would be on shelves in just one month, on May 13th. A mere twenty-three months after acceptance, A Trace of Smoke will see the light of day. You would think after almost two years of waiting, I’d be ready. But I wasn’t. I gulped, tried to concentrate on the next book in the series, and within two hours I had a fever of 101.
Coincidence, or PPS?

I started polling other debut authors. It’s a hazardous time. I found authors who came down with colds, laryngitis, and stomach flu, plus a few who were involved in fender benders. But Kelli Stanley handily won the book launch illness contest. She contracted pneumonia right before her debut, Nox Dormienda, came out. That’s the kind of enthusiasm that won her the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery award. And advanced PPS.

By comparison, my cold seems pretty mid-list, but it has led me to discover that we have far too many tea cups. I just went to make myself a cup of tea and discovered a cold cup of tea right next to the hot water dispenser. So I went to stick it in the microwave and discovered another cup of tea already there. I took that one out and put it on the counter next to…another cup of tea. Undaunted, I took that to the sink, where it joined two other untouched cups of tea. My husband keeps telling me to drink more, but clearly that’s not going to happen unless he pours it down my gullet himself.

It’s a scary time when your dreams come to fruition. I guess that’s why we have words like “opening night jitters” for actors or “cold feet” for brides and grooms. It’s the big day, and it’s finally almost here. As I grab another tissue, a little voice in my head says that the problem isn’t really the tea cups, or coincidence. It’s PPS and me.

I confessed to being in my cups, or not being in my cups with my cold, so what’s the craziest thing you ever did while sick?

P.S. Thanks, Hank, for letting me blog today. I promise to wipe everything down after I’m done.

P.P.S. Just in case, run your virus-protection software after I leave…

HANK: It's very difficult to type while laughing. And of course, the Purell is gunking up the keys.
(And I keep thinking--Three Cups of Tea. Didn't that work out pretty well for someone?)

As a reporter, I tend to get laryngitis after a big stressful story...a couple of times, it's come before the story, and on the air, you can really tell my voice is leaving me. Easier as a writer--and, actually, kind of a boon. I shrug my shoulders--can't talk, I say, acting all remorseful. Gotta go home.

(And write.)

What about you? As Rebecca wonders: what's the craziest thing you've ever done while sick? What's more--Do you get PPS?

A few years ago Rebecca Cantrell quit her job, sold her house, and moved to Hawaii to write a novel because, at seven, she decided that she would be a writer. She lives there now with her Ironman husband and son.

A Trace of Smoke: (click for the trailer!)

Monday, April 20, 2009

What Lynne Wanted to Be

"Griffin’s carefully crafted characters ring heartbreakingly true and her finely wrought plot will snare readers from the first page."

**Publishers Weekly starred review of Life Without Summer

Rhys wanted to be a lion tamer. Ken wanted to be an astronaut. Susannah, a ballet dancer. (So did many of us.) We were talking out our childhood ambitions yesterday, and how we got where we are. Or where we thought we would go. How does it happen?

Lynne Reeves Griffin--whose Life Without Summer is getting raves--has been thinking about this, too.

Life with Lynne

After graduating from high school, I had aspirations to attend college for theater arts, but in the seventies girls were still strongly encouraged to choose teaching, nursing, or business occupations. So, I attended nursing school and later earned a Master’s degree in counseling.

Early in my career as a family life expert, I knew I would write a book on parenting. I have strong opinions on contemporary issues affecting families and have written articles and newspaper columns for years. When it became harder to capture my thoughts in those limited venues, that’s when I knew it was time to tackle a full length guide. Hence, the nonfiction title, Negotiation Generation, published in 2007 by Penguin.

As for fiction, though I was an actress in high school and college, sang professionally for a time, and have always journaled as a means of personal reflection, I’m a relative newcomer to writing stories. I began writing fiction five years ago and was part of a wonderful writers’ group with author of Tethered, Amy MacKinnon. I wasn’t half-way through a draft of Life Without Summer when I realized I’d found the artistic outlet I’d always been searching for. I am completely at home writing fiction. Though I certainly took a circuitous route to the art—these many years later a debut novelist—my healthcare, psychology, and education backgrounds have informed my fiction in countless ways. I have to believe my journey played out as it was meant to.

Life Without Summer is a story told in alternating voices, following the experiences of bereaved mother, Tessa, who is swept up by an increasingly bleak search for answers after her four-year-old daughter is killed in a hit-and-run accident, and her grief counselor, Celia, whose efforts to help Tessa are marked by painful family memories and emotions she’s tried to keep hidden from her family, and herself, for years.

Writing this story gave me the chance to explore the fears that plague mothers. The experiences the women face when their parental identities are shaken and loss threatens to break up more than just one family highlights not one, but two distinct paths toward grieving after loss.

In truth, Life Without Summer started off as a portrait of two families whose lives converge unexpectedly after a tragedy, but it became so much more. It's about the choices people make when faced with unbelievable pain. It's about what really holds relationships together when they're tested. It's about the choice we all have to forgive. I hope the novel’s strongest message is that there is hope in healing.

JRW: How does the reality of being an "author" differ from what you thought it would be?
LRG: I never imagined that it would be so fiercely competitive. Not author against author per se; more that there’s a lot of jockeying for media coverage, book store placement, and the like. I suppose I had romantic notions, along the lines of write a good book and you’re golden. It is painstaking work to find your readers.

JRW: So it's a mystery?
LRG: I once heard Hallie say that all novels are either mysteries or romances—so if that’s true, it’s a mystery. Yet I don’t see it as a mystery in the true sense. It’s been labeled psychological suspense, upmarket fiction, and women’s fiction. Yet my intention was simply to write a story about two women who have grief stories that echo one another’s. And I knew from the beginning that their lives would converge unexpectedly when lies and betrayals were revealed.

JRW: What's one bit of advice?
LRG: Learn to accept ambivalence. There’s a lot to be hopeful about when you’re launching a book into the world, but there’s a lot you must become resigned to. You can control what you write and the public image you portray. Yet you can not control whether or not you’ll get reviewed or whether or not you’ll schedule worthwhile events. There is so much that is out of your control.

JRW: Lynne is also a monster at promotion--she'll be here to answer questions. And I'll bet Lynne she'll have some thoughts about raising kids, too. (HANK: She's changed my life as a Grammy, that's for sure!)

At Hallie's launch: Barbara Shapiro, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Amy MacKinnon, Hallie Ephron, Kate Flora, and Lynne Reeves Griffin.

Lynne Griffin writes about family life. Her debut novel, Life Without Summer (St. Martin’s Press, 2009) is in bookstores now. She is the author of Negotiation Generation (Penguin, 2007) and appears regularly as parenting contributor on Boston’s Fox Morning News. To learn more about Lynne, visit her website,

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I took the road less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.
*** Robert Frost

HANK: How did you turn out the way you turned out? Was it what you planned? Dreamed of? When I was given the some multiple-choice preference test, back in whenever-it-was, the high school guidance counselor told me I had scored high in "literature" and "persuasion."

"You should work in a book store, I guess," she said.

All righty then.

But I remember, vividly, that my first job aspiration was to be an airline stewardess. Yes, that's what they were called. You got to go cool places, look chic, bring passengers whatever free stuff they wanted, and tell people what to do. (That was a key element of it, as I remember.) Then I decided I'd rather be an English teacher. Then, a geneticist. Then a radio disc jockey. Then, in college, I decided I would be the lawyer for the Mine Workers' union.

The unplanned and surprising road to TV reporter went through a stint as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, a job I got at age 20 by going door to door with my resume. Wound up as the press secretary to a congressman from Texas. Then at Rolling Stone magazine as an editorial assistant. And then--my first job in TV, at age 25. And there I was, doing my life's work. And now writing mysteries about it.

Literature, and persuasion. Pretty funny. What did you want to be when you grew up?

JAN: I decided in first grade that I was going to be writer. When you think about it, that's actually when you learn to write, first grade. So the first thing, I learned. I stuck with.

I remember the first story I wrote: The Cat on the Moon, about a poor kitten tormented by a pack of little boys (much like the author was tormented by her three older brothers). Even at six year's old, I had delusions of being published, and was infuriated when I found a book by the same title on my second grade shelf. Those sneaky plagiarists!

RHYS: I wanted to be a lion tamer when I was a little kid, but nobody would give me a lion to practice on.

HANK: Oh, Rhys, I'd love to see photos.

RHYS: When I was a teenager I wanted to be a movie star. I have always written, edited the school magazine, wrote short stories, was invited to have tea with Iris Murdoch when she came to my school, and then edited the college newspaper. This convinced me that I didn't want to be a journalist. Too much hard work and deadline pressure.

HANK: Smart girl, even then.

RHYS: So my thwarted theatrical ambitions were channeled into the production side of BBC drama instead. It was while I was there that I decided some of the plays weren't that good and I wrote my own. As only a 22 year old can do, I took it personally to head of drama. He liked it and the BBC produced it. More followed. I might still have been there but I got lured to Australia by ABC, met my husband and wound up in San Francisco. Funny how life takes side turns.

ROBERTA: I edited the yearbook instead of the newspaper and performed some very bit parts in the school plays--no danger of reaching Broadway there! I finished college without any firm idea of what was next, having run through majors of biochemistry and art history before settling on French lit. so naturally my first job was--in a book store! Then I spent some time as a vocational rehabilitation counselor before going back to school for clinical psychology. I never anticipated becoming a writer--in fact I could kick myself now for opportunities I didn't seize when I was young. But I wasn't ready--just happy to be here now!

RO: I wanted to be exactly what I turned out to be..someone who has a lot of fun, travels, does cool things and hangs out with cute guys.

HANK: Come on, RO. Fess up. And yup, Roberta, timing is everything. Sometimes I think, gosh, I should have started writing mysteries sooner. But then, I wouldn’t be who I am now, so the books couldn’t be the same. I do think Rhys still has a future as a movie star, though. And Jan, do you still have Cat on the Moon? We’d all love to read it!

And how about you all? What did you want to be when you grew up? Is that who and what you are?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On Internet Resources for Writers with Sal Towse contains a treasure trove of lists within lists of links especially selected for writers. Writer Sal Towse is the brains and sweat behind it.

Sal started collecting links back in 2001. The site gets more than 1400 visitors from all over the world each week. It was named a top web site for writers by Writers Digest Press, and a couple of months back someone offered to buy her beautiful ad-free site. She turned them down.

Sal also blogs on

JRW: Welcome to Jungle Red Writers, Sal! Thanks for letting us pick your brain. Can you give us a quick overview of the range of links a writer finds on Writers’ Resources?

SAL: grew from writing-related links I used to post to the Usenet newsgroup misc.writing. Folks there encouraged me to setup a separate site. As the collection grew, I realized for it to be navigable, I needed to sort it and breaking it into subject specific areas: networking, business, reference, fiction, non-fiction, word stuff, markets, publishers, agents.

JRW: Where would you recommend for writers looking to network with each other?

SAL: For mysteries: rec.arts.mystery and DorothyL are the grand old parties. Mystery Writers Forum, Short Mystery Fiction Society and others are also busy. SistersinCrime has a mailing list. There are Yahoo! mailing groups like CrimeSceneWriters and 4_Mystery_Addicts.

Facebook is also a good place for networking. There's a lot of chatter and connecting going on there. "Friend" the writers you know. Meet others in the comments threads and connect with them. Make plans to meet up at conferences or chat in e-mail. Most of the mystery writers I know, I first met at conferences or SinC or MWA meetings.

JRW: Where would you recommend for writers looking to connect with readers?

SAL: rec.arts.mystery and DorothyL, again. Other mailing lists. I first heard of Keith Snyder and Karin Slaughter on RAM (and then met them and heard them talk about their work at Bouchercon). Get out there. Behave yourself. Be interesting.

I've been intrigued by what writers like Barry Eisler and JAKonrath have done with their Facebook pages and blogs, encouraging readers to get involved, to show up for their signings and to look forward to their next book.

Laura Lippman has her fascinating Memory Project. Sometimes she's just talking about being on the road flogging her latest book. Other times she talking about memories and asking her readers to chip in their own memories. The discussions are far-ranging.

I meet and discover writers at Left Coast Crime, Bouchercon, and other conferences. If you can afford to go, do. You'll meet readers like me, and other writers too. My ace #1 hint for conferences? If you're new to all this, go by yourself. If you go with a buddy, it's far too easy to hang out with the buddy and not connect with people around you.

JRW: What about some prime places for folks researching and writing novels to know about?

SAL: I have a collection of links to media resources and experts -- for writers who need background or want to know whether their facts are accurate. I have a subsection specifically for Mystery/Crime Fiction which has links to forensic entomology sites and crime scene investigation, forensics, true crime.

Zeno Geradts' Forensic Site has an amazing collection of links. Gillian Roberts has her online tutorial HOW TO WRITE A MYSTERY. The Police List of Resources has information on ballistics and forensics. If you're writing historical fiction, the Web is awash with information for almost any period. You can also read contemporary works and, if the period is right, see contemporary photographs. The Library of Congress has amazing photographic resources.

Use Google Maps. Streetview is amazing. If you're in the right city, MapJack is even more useful than Google Streetview. I was reading a recent book that had the protagonist slipping into a hard-to-find parking space on Grant in front of Moose's. Moose's is no longer there (no fault of the writer), but Moose's was on Stockton at the edge of Washington Square Park. Grant is one block further east. Little errors like that are like nails on a chalkboard. Search for the restaurant's address, if you want to name a real restaurant, and make sure you place it on the correct street.

JRW: How about for the business of writing?

SAL: Business information comes in three flavors. You need information about contracts and copyright. (I toss e-publishing and POD publishing in this category too.) You also need to know about submissions -- the nuts and bolts, queries and synopses, markets. I have links to agents that are accepting manuscripts and another section with links to publishers that accept unagented manuscripts. And, after you have your book accepted, you need to worry about book signings, publicity, Web sites, blogs -- what can you do to market, publicize and promote your book when it's published.

JRW: I love that you have, on the same page, links to “Games and Distractions” alongside “Time Management and Procrastination.” What’s your favorite oddball category and web sites?

Ah, yes. My "Writer's Life" subsection. Chocolate. Pens. I'm a fiend for Sudoku and crosswords. I have a link to the Degree Confluence Project. Ever heard of it? The site encourages photographers to visit latitude/longitude intersections and take photographs, which they then post at the site along with a description of what the site was like, whether they were able to get EXACTLY to the confluence, what dangers they encountered. Angola has 106 confluences, of which six have been visited. I think there might be um. problems getting around in Angola. The USA has 3/4ths of its confluences covered. The site is a marvelous distraction, if you're looking for a distraction.

I also highly recommend sites like and, sites with "lost" photographs to trigger your what-if bone, if you're looking for a creativity nudge.

Will you be adding to your lists?

SAL: I'm planning on adding a collection of links to blogs (writers, agents, publishers) at some point but that can get dicey. Hard to tell someone that their blog won't be included because it's not meaty enough and I'm trying to keep the number of links manageable.

I'm for sure adding (maybe this week!) a link to Janet Reid's QueryShark blog. Have you seen that? It's marvelous.

JRW: Sal will be hanging around Jungle Red today so this your chance to get your questions asked about Internet resources for writers. Ask away!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Revision with a Pro

HALLIE: When I wrote my first mystery novel, I was old enough to know that I didn’t want to waste a lot of time sending out a manuscript that wasn’t ready for prime time. So I took it as far as I could on my own, and then I brought it to freelance editor Lorraine Bodger.

The good news was that I had a great plot. The bad news was that my characters were, well, insufficiently developed. Cardboard and bland. I had a major revision ahead. But when I was finished, I did find an agent.

Lorrie has published more than thirty books of her own, and she’s been a professional freelance editor for more than fifteen years. She says, “Writing books makes me a better editor, and editing makes me a better writer.” And though most of her own books are nonfiction, she found that she had a gift for editing fiction and personal memoir. “It’s all about telling a story.”

She remembers working with author Ted Kerasote on his first novel. Until then he’d written only nonfiction about the wild. “He came to me with a 450-page manuscript that his agent wanted cut by at least 100 pages. Which we did, and it was a wonderful story, but it never quite worked. After that it was hard for Ted to find his next book, and I kept telling him, ‘You talk to me all the time about your dog, why don’t you write about your dog?’ I nudged him mercilessly. And finally he wrote his hugely best-selling Merle’s Door.”

Lorrie, welcome to Jungle Red Writers. (Lorrie can be reached at roxielifton “at” hotmail dot com.)

JRW: You see a lot of crime fiction from aspiring writers. What are the most common problems?

LORRIE: Top of the list: unoriginal plot and undeveloped characters.

JRW: Yikes, that about covers it. What do you usually see lacking in the plot?

LORRIE: Invention. The plot feels like chewed-over material—too imitative of David Baldacci or Agatha Christie, for instance. The writer hasn’t found or worked with his or her own originality. Often it’s missing an interesting hook, or the plot points aren’t clear enough, or they come too soon or too late, or the story isn’t hanging together in a compelling way. A good mystery or thriller keeps you turning the pages.

JRW: And what’s wrong with the characters?

LORRIE: They’re flat, two-dimensional. Or they’re generic to the point that you could give them titles like “The He-man” or “The Nasty Mother-in-law”—so stock that they’re not interesting.

JRW: Are writers surprised when you tell them the plot and characters are weak?

LORRIE: Writers I work with are often astonished when I explain the problems. They’re too close to the manuscript and they can’t “see” it anymore. Every writer suffers that—it’s why we have other writers read our work. But it’s extreme with new writers, and that’s the value of having a fresh and professional eye look at your draft.

JRW: What do you look for in an opening?

LORRIE: The important thing is that the reader must attach to the main character. And I almost always tell writers to think twice about starting with a prologue. With rare exceptions, and of course there are those, it’s a distraction that keeps the reader from getting into the book. Better to plunge right in and take the reader with you.

JRW: Do you think most new writers are willing to do what it takes to revise a manuscript?

LORRIE: What I’ve found is that people who are open to change are more likely to be able to do the crucial rewrites—because they’re flexible enough to change direction and make the work better.

But I couldn’t count the number of writers whose manuscripts I’ve read and critted who say, “I’m going to go back and revise it,” and then don’t. What distinguishes an amateur writer from a budding professional is understanding that good writing takes time and doesn’t happen on the first try. You have to take the long view. And it’s very hard for impatient new writers to take the long view.

One of the best writers I’ve worked with was a woman living in a small town in Oregon. The minute I read her manuscript I said whoa, she’s really got it. It was a little bit Sue Grafton, but it was also very original. She worked really hard and took crit really well. She got a lot of agents to read her manuscript, and she got very close to a sale. If she goes on and writes another manuscript or even does more rewrite on the first one, there’s a good chance she’ll get her work published. You have to understand that getting close is a very big deal.

JRW: Is that the measure of success a new writer should shoot for?

LORRIE: Aim for publication, of course, but to get an agent to read more than your query letter and your five submitted pages is major. It opens the door for the future. You can go back to those agents with your next query and manuscript and they’ll respond positively to hearing from you. And you can’t get anywhere without an agent.

JRW: Do you think that if a writer works long and hard enough, and writes a good enough manuscript, that it will find a publisher?

LORRIE: Not necessarily. I wish I could be more positive, but lots of very good work doesn’t find a publisher. It’s totally unpredictable. There are so many uncontrollable exigencies of the marketplace at the moment you send out your manuscript. What you can do is pay attention to what’s happening in your genre right this minute. But at the same time, search for your own originality.

JRW: If a writer is going to work with a freelance editor, when is the best time to do it?

LORRIE: When you have a complete manuscript—preferably copy-edited and using industry-standard page setup—and you’ve taken the writing as far as you can get on your own.

JRW: Thanks, Lorrie. Any questions for Lorrie? Now’s your chance… Or reach Lorrie one-on-one, e-mail her: roxielifton “at” hotmail dot com.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Signs of the Times: For Better and for Worse

HALLIE: Signs of economic downturn are everywhere:
- I call a stone mason about getting a chimney repaired. He comes that day to give me an estimate and does the
work the next.
- The lights have gone out on the Zakim bridge.
- “Cash for gold” ads are popping up everywhere.
- Worst of all, my newspaper is shrinking and threatening to disappear entirely.

I shudder to imagine life without my daily Boston Globe. We call it “the paper” (not “the screen”) for a reason. I love the whole unwieldy thing, from front page to editorials to local news, from sports to crossword puzzle. What would I do without local arts coverage (including my very own On Crime column)? I save the comics to read last, like I saved the cherry in fruit cocktail to eat last. Like visits with old friends I read “For Better or for Worse,” “Rhymes with Orange,” and catch up with the hilarious Alice and her jaundiced take on the world in “Cul de Sac.” I like it that my fingers are stained black by the time I rinse my cereal bowl.

More horrifying, what will the world be without reporters? Okay, they didn’t do such a great job sussing out those nonexistent Iraqi WMDs, but our local pols would have a lot more cover without the Globe reporters’ probing and poking.

I just hope we hit bottom before it’s too late to rebound.

RHYS: Hallie, I agree. Somehow the news on the computer and TV can never replace the newspaper. However, I think that newspapers are digging their own graves at the moment. As they cut back they are letting reporters go, so that they are manned by a skeleton staff and most of their news stories come in on the wire. I can get those stories online. I want the personal take on the mayor's misbehavior, the quirky local story, the blistering editorial--and the great reviews. I want the paper to reflect my community and that has almost gone, I'm afraid.

ROBERTA: One scary sign of the times seems to be an increase in robberies. My sister reports that in her Florida (nice but not fancy middle-class folks) neighborhood, they are experiencing 3 to 4 break-ins PER WEEK! Wow, that's scary. My town too, is reporting more crime. It scares me that the common law of do not steal is becoming less common as people lose jobs and get desperate.

RO: I'm cutting back on diet red bull. Those babies go for $5 a can at the airport. Seriously...personally, I did my tour differently this year..I've embraced my La Quinta Rewards status. I ate at a Big Boy (once.) I remember to ask for the AAA rate. I've turned down the thermostat in my house (which is a big deal since the house is mostly glass.) In my neighborhood, I haven't seen too many changes except some of the For Sale signs which have been there forever.

I read the NYTimes Book Review today and it was frighteningly slim because so few publishers were advertising. I'd be very bummed if the Globe or the New York Times went away. First of all where would I get the ideas for my books ;-) but really...the news online just doesn't feel like the real news to me. And what about all those great articles you read that you never would have known about if some editor hadn't decided to put them in the paper?

I worry that the news will be all Octomom, all the time.

HALLIE: Now that's a nightmare.

JAN: The worst part about losing any local paper, but especially the Boston Globe, will be the loss of the Investigative AdTeam. In a one-party state like Massachusetts, the investigative team is incredibly important in keeping a check on political corruption.

But I refuse to be completely negative. Some positive signs of the time may be the flourishing of energy and fuel conservation -- the end of suburban Hummers and the non-stop summer buzz of air conditioning units!

HANK: Transition is always difficult, huh? We live in interesting times, right in the middle of such enormous changes. Tumultuous. And who's to say what's "good"?. Remember when there were only 3 tv stations, sometimes a fuzzy fourth? Now there are 900. Is that good? Bad? I can't believe all the closed stores.

I think people a being a bit nicer to each other. There's not such a sense of greed. Yes, the shocking economy--which might be getting better?--has caused immense harm to people's lives. Some way,we'll all have to regroup and then maybe come out better.

My second grandson, Josh!, was born Friday! He's great, and his mom is fine. And his dad. We all just have to make sure the world is the best possible one for him. And Hallie, thanks for the kind words about reporters.

HALLIE: Well, our kids having kids is absolutely a 'sign of the times' - Congratulations Hank! And let's hear it for fertility, which I hear is trending downward.

On another up-note, Saturday I got my hair cut (Yay, Salon Capri in Hyde Park) and the owner Gina was saying customers no longer complain if there's a wait...they're just so pleased to see the place doing such a brisk business.

So, good and not so good, what signs are you seeing of these transitional times?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Centraal Station Antwerpen gaat uit zijn dak!

Sound of Music - Central Station Antwerp (Belgium)

I was pretty tired of bad news this week and found this on the Good News Channel. I dare you not to smile and start singing.
What song would you start singing if you could get an entire train station filled with people to join in?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lethal Legacy

Ro: Welcome back, Linda Fairstein, author of the best-selling Alex Cooper series. I just finished Lethal Legacy and I loved it! I’ll never be able to pass the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue without thinking of the intrigue behind those doors, and underneath the library itself. Did you already have extensive knowledge of the library before you started to write LL or was the research done specifically for the book?
Linda: Don’t you just love the NYPL? I hope your readers will come see the little video on my website ( which features some of the library’s hidden treasures.

Ro: The video is extremely cool, and it was fun to see the hidden rooms described in the book.

Linda: All of my research was done exclusively for LETHAL LEGACY. I love libraries and I am fascinated by rare books and collectors, but I was always afraid to approach the administrators there because it’s such a, well, such a literary place, and I write more commercial fiction. But I have a great friend who is on the board of trustees, and she took me by the hand and introduced me to the fabulous David Ferriero, who is the head of the NYPL’s four research libraries, and embraced my project with open arms. I had visited the library, of course, and I had read several books about it, so I knew some of the wondrous things that were inside, but on my research tours I was given access to more incredible books, maps and manuscripts than I ever imagined. I spent several weeks doing research there, and they practically had to kick me out to get rid of me.

Ro: The details in the book were fascinating. Are the works you described in your book real and did you have a chance to see any of them?

Linda: All the books and maps described in the novel are indeed real. I have a great affinity for that world, and am fascinated by the people who are such generous patrons of our libraries and museums, and those who need to possess the rare objects for their own pleasure. I collect modern first edition crime novels and mysteries, and each time I publish a book, I treat myself to an old “rare” book, but so far I wouldn’t say that I’ve got anything to kill for. Any of your readers can see their treasures, too. The NYPL conducts two tours a day – and David is toying with the idea of the deadly Alex Cooper tour, to see some of the hidden sites to which I had access. But you can see the first Gutenberg Bible brought to America or the last letter that Keats wrote to Fanny before he died or rare political manuscripts and hundreds of sixteenth century maps of the world. It’s the most fascinating cultural institution we have in New York.

Ro: Luc Rouget, Alex’s sweetheart, is my dream date. Please tell me he’s based on a real person.

Linda: Oh, Luc! My readers either love or hate him – nothing in between. And yes, he’s based on a real guy. Before I met my husband, I had a long romance with a fabulous Frenchman named Andre who was a restaurateur and lived in a fairy-tale village in the south of France. Talk about escaping from the violence and mayhem of my day job! So he’s very real, and very kind and charming….and I think we’ll have a mystery set in the world he inhabits before too long.

Ro: How have you been able to maintain the excitement in the series after almost a dozen successful books?
Linda: Maintaining the excitement and the tension is tough to do, as all your writer-readers know. I’ve studied this genre forever by reading in it so extensively, and am always inspired by the ways that other writers I admire keep their stories fresh. Coop ages much more slowly than we do, you may have noticed. There are only three or four months between stories, so she’s not aging in real time. That helps me a lot in terms of plotting her personal evolution. And then there are endless advances in forensic techniques, and no shortage of criminal schemes. Loyal readers come back to series fiction if they like the characters and invest themselves in their stories, so that keeps me thoroughly engaged, too. There are so many series I hope will never end that it makes me focus on my own work, to keep Alex and Mike and Mercer vital enough to attract their fans.

Ro: You’re involved with a number of groups dedicated to women’s issues and child welfare. Are there any in particular that you’d like to tell our Jungle Red readers about?

Linda: Thanks for this opportunity. I’m on a number of non-profit boards, and my primary focus is on helping victims of violence – both in the courtroom and in the recovery process. SAFE HORIZON is the country’s largest victim advocacy organization – – and it does extraordinary work, moving victims from crisis to confidence. Check the website to see the great range of programs it has – including brick-and-mortar facilities for battered women and their kids that are real homes, individual apartments in safe houses and not the horrible ‘shelters’ we used to see. We have just opened a state-of-the-art Child Advocacy Center – for victims of sexual assault – the child makes one stop – and there, at this beautifully calm center, she or he is examined by one of the best pediatricians in the city, sees a detective and district attorney, and has his or her own social worker/advocate assigned.
My board colleagues surprised me by dedicating the staff wing in my honor, for my thirty years of prosecutorial work; and when my mother died so suddenly last summer (she had been a pediatric nurse and worked for forty years with abused children), we raised funds to dedicate the pediatric medical suite in her memory. We partner often with Mariska’s beloved Joyful Heart ( to do more alternative healing, and we have a huge gala coming up in May (buy a ticket!) at which Mariska will speak, Chris Meloni will emcee, Dick Wolf will be honored, and Sheryl Crow will perform. Then, if you want to do some forensic research for your writing, check out the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine ( where all the cutting edge law enforcement technology is tested and taught. Sign up for a seminar and use it in your work!

Ro: It’s really wonderful that you’re giving so much back. It's a great example for the newbies among us.
What’s up next for you? We know Alex Cooper loves Martha’s Vineyard, any plans for a series set there?
Linda: Alex loves the Vineyard. For her, as it was for me, Martha’s Vineyard is really the beautiful, calm paradise that restores her when she is overwhelmed by everything in her professional life. It really transports her, and she feels completely safe, soothed by the water that surrounds that tranquil island. There are wonderful Vineyard series – my friend Cynthia Riggs has a great one going, and the much loved, late Phil Craig is still a Vineyard vacation must-read. I know I’ll set something there one day, but probably not an entire series. It’s a dramatic setting for a good stand-alone.
Next one is the still-untitled twelfth in the series story, which will have Coop and gang back about the same time next year. I couldn’t resist marching into all the political scandals and personal peccadilloes that have overtaken New York politics in the last year. So the historical setting is the rich background of city politics – and the only three remaining Federal period mansions in Manhattan, all of which date to 1800, and have riveting political histories. Gracie Mansion, home of the rich merchant Archibald Gracie, and given to the city for our mayoral residence – but our mayor has a fancier mansion – so imagine what goes on at Gracie, with nobody home! The other two are Hamilton Grange – the home of Alexander Hamilton; and the glorious Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights – and the widow Jumel married Aaron Burr. Gracie, Hamilton and Burr were all involved in a murder case in 1800 – and so, the new scandals have a link to the old. That’s the next territory. I’d love to come back and talk to you about it then.
Thanks so very much for letting me drop in to chat. Best to all!
photo: Peter Simon

Linda will be stopping back to answer any questions on the Alex Cooper series, writing and research. And you’ll have a chance to see Linda in person at these upcoming events.

4/ 18 – Keynoting the first Connecticut mystery conference – MURDER 203 (tix and info at Four Jungle Red Writers will be there too!
4/23 – Hosting Luncheon at the Plaza Hotel for God’s Love We Deliver (tix and info available at
4/28 – 6-8pm – Mysterious Bookshop – Signing the new MWA anthology – THE PROSECUTION RESTS
May 1 – 12-2pm – Luncheon for the Morristown, NJ Junior League (tix and info available at
May 14 – 12-2 – Domestic Violence Committee of Central CT– Luncheon honoring Joan Lunden
May 14 – 6-8pm – SINC event at NYC’s Muhlenberg Branch of the NYPL
August 2 – Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival in Chilmark!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Welcome Linda Fairstein!

photo: Peter Simon

Ro: This week Jungle Red is thrilled to welcome NYTimes best-selling writer Linda Fairstein, author of the Alex Cooper series, and its latest installment, Lethal Legacy for a two-part interview. Today we’ll ask Linda about her first career and the beginnings of the Alex Cooper series and tomorrow she’ll come back to tell us about Lethal Legacy.

Welcome, Linda! As a native New Yorker I knew your name well before you published your first mystery. You were an Assistant District Attorney in NYC in 1972 and head of its Sex Crimes Unit by 1976. I have to ask you about your first illustrious career - how was it for a young, beautiful blond handling high profile cases such as the Preppy Murder case? Do you think it was harder because you’re a woman?

Linda: Thanks so much for the kind words. I spent thirty years in the office of the New York County District Attorney, and when I took over the newly formed, pioneering Sex Crimes Unit in 1976 (just four years out of law school), I never dreamed work would become a passion. As your readers know, those times were very different for women in many careers. In the criminal law, most doors were closed to us – the Manhattan DA’s office had almost two hundred lawyers on staff, and only seven were women. Had I stopped to think about the challenge of doing that work at that tender age, or had I any of the wisdom I’d accumulated over the years since, I probably wouldn’t have approached the courtroom so buoyantly. But everything seemed possible to me – I’m hopelessly optimistic – and the chance to help victims triumph in cases when they had been denied access to the system for (literally) centuries was enormously uplifting.
Then, in 1986, I was introduced to my three favorite letters of the alphabet – DNA – and that scientific technique revolutionized everything we were doing – exonerating the innocent and making it impossible for the guilty to beat the system. So, yes, the very early days were quite difficult for young women trying to make careers as prosecutors or defense attorneys, but I was supported in all I did by some extraordinarily generous men – including NYC’s legendary District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, who is my professional patron saint (think my fictional Paul Battaglia) – and by scores of colleagues in the office and in the NYPD who kept me grounded and reinforced the need to never lose a sense of fairness, or sense of humor.

Ro: Were you keeping notes on Final Jeopardy, your first Alex Cooper novel during those early years on the job, or was FJ inspired by a particular case?

Linda: I wish I had been smart enough to keep notes from my first days on the job, but every time I started a daily journal, I’d be overwhelmed by work and witnesses before I got two pages into it. Fortunately, I have a good memory for cases and characters and details, and always loved storytelling. I’d wanted to be a writer throughout my adolescence, and became an English lit major at Vassar for that very reason. My second draw was public service, so I figured I could support myself with a career in the law until I got around to writing. I was asked to write a non-fiction book about our groundbreaking reforms in special victims work, and that became SEXUAL VIOLENCE, published in 1993. Once I’d disciplined myself well enough to do that book and keep the day job, I set out to start my series. Yes, FINAL JEOPARDY was inspired by a particular case – or rather, by the perp in that case. The story I tell is entirely fictitious, but the killer has a psychiatric condition I’d never heard of until I encountered it in a defendant who committed multiple crimes over a number of years…and it fascinated me. So that condition became the hook that launched Coop’s first caper.

Ro: I imagine you have hundreds of stories that would make bestselling novels. Where do you personally draw the line on “ripped from the headlines” stories?

Linda: I really didn’t start writing to tell the stories of cases I had prosecuted throughout my career. I’m hoping to do that someday in a non-fiction book. I love crime fiction and series characters, and longed to be in that world. And while I draw from motives in cases and characters I’ve met, my stories are all original, rather than retellings of cases I actually handled. For instance, LETHAL LEGACY opens with a perp using the ruse of starting a fire outside the apartment of a woman whose home he wanted to enter. He was dressed as a fireman at the time. The young woman smells fire, looks through her peephole and sees smoke – and sees a fireman who is trying to help her. Now who wouldn’t open her door under those circumstances. Pretty clever ruse to gain entry, I thought. That happened in an actual high-profile case after I left the office. I don’t tell the story of the original stalker – that didn’t interest me – but I loved ‘borrowing’ the ruse from the real case, and getting my bad guy inside for an entirely different reason. I’ve got my eight million stories from the naked city, and someday I’d love to tell me. But not in this series.

Ro: I understand that you are good friends with Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order SUV. And how do you rate the L&O SUV team for realism?

Linda: I love Mariska Hargitay! This is her tenth year as Detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order’s SVU. Dick Wolf, who has produced the whole L and O franchise has done a brilliant job. His staff is composed of dozens of ex-cops and prosecutors who craft the stories that are so often ripped from the headlines. Hey – it’s meant to be entertainment, but it has educated so many people about these issues – and in prime time, when I never thought people would be discussing sexual assault and child abuse. Mariska has had such incredible viewer reaction to her character that five years ago she created an organization to help heal survivors of sexual assault. It’s called the Joyful Heart Foundation – and as a proud board member, I can honestly say that it has done extraordinary work in this field, all because of the reach of Mariska’s fictional detective.

Ro: Linda will be back tomorrow to tell us about Lethal Legacy (which I just read and loved), the incredible work that she’s doing with the Joyful Heart Foundation, Safe Horizon and other victim’s advocacy groups, a super tip and website for forensic research, and what’s up next for herself and Alex Cooper.

Catch Linda in person at Murder 203, CT's Mystery Festival,


Bella citta.

Ro: Six or seven years ago I took a long weekend to Rome with a dear friend of mine, Renata. (Yes, I did borrow her name for a character in Pushing Up Daisies.) I met Renata some years back when I was planning a trip to Venice and wanted to brush up my Italian, which never really gets beyond the Ciao, Bella! or non, grazie, lei aspetto mio marito (no thanks, I'm waiting for my husband) stage.

Renata stayed with her aunt and uncle, Benita and Renzo. Renzo is a writer of some reknown in Italy and Benita, well, try to imagine an Italian Simone Signoret. I was besotted. I stayed at The Hassler (this was before I was a writer and still had a few bucks) and I drank in the bar and walked up and down the Spanish Steps as if I were Audrey Hepburn looking for Gregory Peck.

It was wonderful trip., and a touch glamorous. Renata writes for an Italian fine arts magazine and one evening she and her editor, Nuccio had something special planned for us. We drove out of Rome to a small town I'd never heard of where we went to the theatre and, as Renata has recently reminded me, the local opera house was opened for us so that we could tour the landmark building. Afterwards we went to a restaurant wheere they treated like us visiting celebs..but I think they treated everyone that way, I was just more used to the typical surly New York waitstaff. After dinner at 11pm and much wine i slept most of the way back to Rome. I kept the postcard from L'Aquila on my fridge for years..until we renovated and I had to take everything off the refrigerator.

I am heartbroken to learn of the earthquake in L'Aquila. Here's a link to a Guardian article on this medieval university town.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

What's on your mind?

RO: Most mystery fans know that Carl Hiaasen has pretty strong views on the environment, in Florida, in particular. And why should he hide them? He's got a bully pulpit now. But it wouldn't work if he hadn't written some terrific books first. The Cosby Show was enormously popular before the anti-apartheid posters starting showing up in the kids' bedrooms. Later on this week (Wednesday!)our guest blogger will be NYTimes best-selling author Linda Fairstein, who, as a former NYC prosecutor and former head of NY's Sex Crimes Unit has made no secret of some of the issues that are important to her.

I gently (I am still a newbie, after all) raised the issue of day laborers in Pushing Up Daisies, and casino gambling in The Big Dirt Nap. How comfortable are you mentioning real issues in your books? We know the story has to be served first, but what about after that's done?

JAN: I always have an issue in my books. In Teaser, it was the dangers social networking pose for teenagers; in Yesterday's Fatal it was the exploitation of illegal immigrants in staged car accidents; and A Confidential Source it was casino and state-sponsored gambling. But I wouldn't exactly call it a bully pulpit. I'm not sure murder mysteries are an effective forum for advancing social change. They are more an avenue for me to research and explore the crime trends that fascinate and disturb me.

RO: Well, I guess I'm asking, not so much about advancing social change (would that we all had the power of Oprah, or to a much lesser degree Carl Hiaasen) as I'm asking about revealing your own positions on issues.

HALLIE: I think it works when Hiaasen does it because he's so funny about it. You do it with humor, too, Ro. So even though there may be a serious intent, it doesn't come off as confrontational.

ROBERTA: I think we all reveal ourselves (whether we start out with that intention or not) in our choice of characters and story. As long as the opinions read like they come from the characters rather than the heavy hand of the author, I'm all for it. Celebrities do have unusual opportunities to bring attention to world problems and I admire the ones who do that.

HANK: Yes, Roberta, I agree. It's a great way to put a spotlight on reality without beating readers over the head with it. For instance? Franklin Parrish, Charlie McNally's producer, is black. That's not really discussed, except for one brief introduction. each book there are situations that, unfortunately, would happen to Franklin and not to Charlie, who is white. He's pulled aside by airport security. He's followed by suspicious salespeople in a used car lot. He's ignored by salespeople in a posh store.
"Look at the bright side," Charlie suggests. "At least they're not bothering you." "There is no bright side," Franklin says. Charlie pauses. "I guess not." As an author, I don't need to say any more.

RO: That's that famous Ryan touch. Not too heavy, not too light!

HANK: Aw. Thanks. xo.

RHYS: I also strive for a balance between light and dark in my books.Even though I write historicals, I focus a lot on social issues and I leave the reader to draw interesting comparisons between the early twentieth century and the present day. My latest Molly book is all about the role of women in society, how women leave Vassar with bright, awakened minds, only to marry and be caged by what society thinks a wife should be. We've come a long way in that respect, but I've also written about conditions in sweat shops and the powerlessness of the immigrant--which haven't changed all that much. Even my Royal Spyness books, light as they are, have a darker underpinning of the great depression. I think that if my sleuth is a real person, she can't fail to be aware of conditions and injustices around her and they have to creep into the book.

RO: As readers and writers how do you feel when you're reading a mystery and you can feel the writer's political or social positions coming out? Do you need to agree with the main character's opinions in order to enjoy the book?

(And don't forget to come back Wednesday for the first of our two interviews with Linda Fairstein.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Telling Stories

ROBERTA: Today's guest is a blast from my past--a woman I went to college with some (cough, cough) years ago. She has sworn in blood not to tell embarrassing tales. Since our graduation, Susan Danoff has become a storyteller, teacher, and writer, the author of The Golden Thread: Storytelling in Teaching and Learning and a CD, Women of Vision. She's most interested in bringing storytelling to children and teachers. From 1996 - 2007 Susan founded and ran a nonprofit corporation which served low-income and special needs school children through long-term storytelling programs. Susan has just begun a new project - The Story House Retreat Center in southern New Hampshire - where she will hold residential workshops in storytelling and creativity.

She's here today to tell us about her most unusual career. Welcome Susan! Let's start with the obvious questions. What exactly does a storyteller do and how did you get into this business?

SUSAN: It was because of this initial experience in Trenton that I decided to form a nonprofit corporation to bring storytelling to more children in low-income schools where literacy scores are low and drop out rates are high. For twelve years I worked with nine storytelling colleagues, and we found that wherever we went - whether it was a Head Start program or a Detention Center - once the story began, the attention was immediate, even among children who have attention issues. Because of this, it has been one of my career goals to bring storytelling to as many teachers as I can.
Storytellers “tell” stories to live audiences. Since we don't read from a book, the presentation of the material is shaped, not only by language, but by nonverbal expression and direct and immediate connection with the audience. Listening to an effective storyteller should be a transporting experience. You float off into the world of the story, forgetting where you are. In that way it is like reading a book you love, but it's also different. There's an intensity that is created by the energy generated from the story, the storyteller, and the audience response.

I heard my first storyteller almost thirty years ago and fell in love with the art form immediately. I set out to become a storyteller though I had no idea this would be a lifelong journey for me. I tell mostly international folktales and some literary stories. If you read a folk story, chances are it will feel very flat on the page. That's because folktales need the voice of the storyteller to make them come alive. I love the folk and fairytales because of their wisdom, humor, and enchantment. For thousands of years they survived because people wanted and needed to tell them to someone else. They still carry that immediacy today.

ROBERTA: Do you write any of the stories you tell? If so, please tell us how you go about that.

SUSAN: When I work with a folktale, I try to understand it through movement and visualization. When I think I have a handle on it, I write my own version. This continues to change as I tell it. I also write what are called literary fairytales. These are original stories that have the literary conventions of folk and fairytales. The most famous writer of literary fairytales is Hans Christian Andersen, but others are Oscar Wilde, James Thurber, and Jane Yolen.

ROBERTA: Please tell us about the experience of getting your disadvantaged students excited about writing their own stories.

SUSAN: Around 1985 I was working as a visiting storyteller/writer for the NJ State Council on the Arts, and I was placed in an elementary school in Trenton. This was an urban school with many problems associated with poverty - one of which was literacy. I was amazed by the children's response. When I told stories, it was as if light bulbs were turning on inside the children. They couldn't wait to hear the stories, and their listening was highly focused. Once I had their attention, I found that I could follow up easily with writing. Over the years I have created many writing activities to help children to visualize, articulate what they imagine, tap memories, and create stories and poetry.

ROBERTA: thanks for stopping by JRW today! Now the floor is open for questions, comments, or votes on your favorite stories of all time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Visiting with Laurie King

ROBERTA: Today Jungle Red Writers is positively elated to welcome Laurie King, author of nineteen novels including this month’s release, The Language of Bees. Laurie has won the Edgar, the Creasey, the Macavity, the Nero Wolfe, and the Lambda awards, and has been nominated for Macavities, Edgars, Anthony and Agatha awards. We could go on and on, but we’d rather hear from Laurie herself. Laurie, welcome, and let’s start with the new book. THE LANGUAGE OF BEES is the ninth installment of a series featuring Mary Russell, the wife of Sherlock Holmes. Please tell us how you came up with that amazing idea.

LAURIE: Thanks Roberta, for inviting me to be an honorary Jungle dweller. Mary Russell is what happens when a young mother (me, 20 years ago) faces the daily investigative demands of raising small children and thinks, Why did Sherlock Holmes get all the points for figuring stuff out? A woman looks at a kid with no appetite, sees the diminished cookie jar, knows instantly what happened, and at the most gets credited with “feminine intuition.” A man follows the same process, calls it deduction, and you have Watson standing there exclaiming, “Holmes, I just don’t know how you do it!” I thought it would be interesting to put that mind of Holmes (which, granted, is a superior model of mind) into another package—instead of a middle-aged Victorian male, a young, twentieth century, intellectually inclined female: Mary Russell.

ROBERTA: Since this series is set in early 20th century England, we’d love to experience vicariously how you get your facts right. What kind of research is involved?

LAURIE: Being a recovering academic, research is a dangerous project—although I can give it up any time, I swear! Information about a time or a place needs to be intimate to be of any use for a story—historical photographs are intensely flavored with their time, as well as giving detail of clothing and technology (although you have to be careful that they’re actually from the dates the publisher claims, since photo captions are not always completely accurate.) I love old guide books, which are all about the day-to-day needs of moving about a country or city (where to hire armed guards for your trip through the Sinai; the monastery whose “divans are infested with fleas...”) Sometimes you can find governmental surveys that cover a given year, or diaries, although many times those are too self-reflective to be of use to an idea-thief: give me facts, not feelings! One of my best finds in the course of research started when I was looking at the life of British officers in India during the early 20th century, and came across mention of pig sticking, when young British men were encouraged to work off their energy (in the 110 degree heat) by climbing on their ponies and hunting wild pigs with long spears. Can you believe it, there’s an entire book written on the art of pig-sticking, written by the Boy Scout man Baden Powell—what kind of spear, what to look for in a horse, techniques of the sport, you name it. And of course, Mary Russell (good Jewish girl) just had to go pig sticking (that’s in The Game.)

ROBERTA: Tell us about the logistics of using someone else’s character in your books. How does that work?

LAURIE: For me, it only works because I pick up Sherlock Holmes and his companions after the original author was finished with them. The last date Conan Doyle set a story was literally the eve of the Great War, 1914. For him, Holmes was too inextricably a member of the previous era. Under the terrible light of the War and the vast social changes that followed, his Holmes would fade into obscurity. However, it seemed to me that a person as brilliant and mentally flexible as Holmes (yes, even though a male) would have thrown himself at the changes with gusto. These are not pastiches, which use the characters of others and slip them into the existing stories; they are Russell stories, with Holmes as a supporting character—or as the publisher put it, they are about “The world’s greatest detective—and her husband, Sherlock Holmes.” Because I continue Holmes after Conan Doyle, not during his tales, I can show Holmes growing as a character, which a pastiche really cannot.

ROBERTA: Since you write two different series, along with standalones, how do you choose what comes next and then keep everything straight?

LAURIE: As far as the Russells go, after nine books, it’s definitely tricky to keep details straight, especially when I try to pick up material that I wrote ten or fifteen years ago. Short of having to read my books time and again (which would be pure hell) I often depend on the people who know my books better than I do—readers. If I can’t remember where I talked about Russell’s childhood psychotherapist, or what color Lee Cooper’s eyes are, one of them will know. And I make sure to give one or two of the more committed an early ARC as a last-minute chance to catch mistakes.

In general, though, because the various projects are so very different—time, place, person, language—my head seems to keep track of them without too much difficulty.

ROBERTA: We have a number of aspiring writers who follow this blog. Could you give us some advice about writing and publishing? I’m impressed with your promotion—blogs, book clubs, Myspace, Facebook…how do you fit it all in?

LAURIE: You have to remember, I’ve been published for sixteen years and nineteen books. My local bookseller (Capitola Bookcafe—hooray for Independents!) gave me signings, but my first “tour” was a visit to the ALA in Miami (in late June!) to give away copies of the third book (To Play the Fool.) I didn’t go onto a proper book tour until the fourth (Chicago in January—oh, the romance of this job!)

It can be a real problem for new writers to be told that they need to self-promote. Some of them have both the time and the interest, to hang around Facebook and Dorothy L and so on, chatting people up and spreading the word. And if a person enjoys that, if it’s entertainment and an agreeable social network, fine, getting your name out there certainly can’t hurt sales.

However, to do these things as part of the job is another matter. I feel very strongly that the primary task of a writer is to write. Not post, not blog, not make flyers: to write. Anything that interferes with that task should be dumped. The hours spent every week online could better be spent honing skills—taking a course, analyzing loved books, studying bloggers who write about writing.

At the moment, the LRK universe is going through an intensive phase online, which we’re calling the Fifteen Weeks of Bees, an oh-so-clever way to tie together The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (the first Russell) with the new book The Language of Bees (number nine.) This has involved asking “fans”—they call themselves Friends of Laurie (FOLs) or LRKers—if there’s anything they’d like to do to celebrate Russell. One woman came up with three puzzles for the contests (this week’s contest is one of her crosswords.) Another is helping keep track of Myspace and Twitter, others have taken charge of Goodreads. In each of these, I’m involved, but they provide the energy and time, giving me a list of the responses that I can answer all at once, for example, instead of having to log onto the site every day. It’s a temporary state, and will subside the middle of May, but everyone enjoys it and it can’t hurt sales, so I put in the extra effort to Tweet and wrote an ongoing Mary Russell story for Myspace and do guest blogs like this one.

However, after mid-May I’m back to my electronic hermitage, with occasional outings to the spaces, and I’m writing.

I swear, this too I can give up any time!

And now for the official Jungle Red stumper! Please tell us three truths and a lie and we’ll try to guess….


1. Laurie’s first real job was managing a coffee store.
2. Laurie once dropped her wedding ring into a human skull on Easter Island.
3. Laurie once owned a Coatimundi.
4. Laurie searches out B and C roads on her British Ordnance Survey maps.

(Laurie is on tour for The Language of Bees from LA to Boston during April and May—visit her at an event near you.)