Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Are You Giving Up This Year for... Christmas?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The last day if November is a good time to take a look ahead and plan out your strategy for the upcoming holidays. Unless you're one of those women who already has all your presents bought and wrapped, several homemade fruit cakes soaking in rum in your pantry, and the decorations up. If you are, all I can say, in the true spirit of love and Christmas, is "drop dead."

For the rest of us, the month of December is a cross between a scavenger hunt, a family counseling session, and a marathon of The Martha Stewart Show episodes. And we all know who's responsible. All of us here at Jungle Red Writers have remarkable husbands, but when it comes to Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Solstice or Diwali, it's up to women to make it work. If you could go back in time two thousand years, you'd find a Roman housewife frantically pickling fish, setting out candles, and making little Saturnalia gift baskets for the neighbors.

I myself was one of those women who feels she has to do everything for everybody (and it all better be by hand instead of store bought.) Then one year I found myself alone in the kitchen at 2a.m., baking and decorating ten different types of cookies, sobbing from frustration and fatigue. "Why," I thought, "am I doing this to myself?" My kids didn't care if the cookies they brought in to the school parties were homemade or not. My husband didn't care if we sent out 300 personalized Christmas cards, or none. The guests who came for Christmas dinner didn't care if my house was immaculate. And I didn't care if we all had coordinating outfits for a seasonal family photograph. (Okay, I cared a little.)

That was the year I started to give up things for Christmas. I gave up baking (except for the occasional Toll House cookies, which we make year-round anyway.) I gave up cards. I gave up gingerbread houses (oh, my God, what a nightmare those used to be.) I gave up homemade presents. (Wouldn't you really have a nice gift card from Target instead?) And you know what? I have much more relaxed holidays than I used to. Not entirely - I still stress over presents and spend too much time running from the school concert to the Christmas pageant to the Yankee swap, but I can guarantee I'm not breaking down in the kitchen anymore. How about you, Reds? What have you given up for the holidays?

LUCY BURDETTE: We're going to be traveling to see relatives most of the last two weeks of December so I'm giving up--gulp--decorating! Why put up a tree if we won't be here to enjoy? It's just about killing me, but having a book due TODAY and another launching January 3 is helping rein those feelings in. I like having Christmas cookies around, so I hope to squeeze in some time for making those...

HALLIE EPHRON: We've never done the holidays up big so there's not much to cut back from. And no, I don't care how unhealthy they are, I'm not giving up potato latkes. And they've GOT to be homemade because there's just no substitute that tastes remotely as good. We eat them standing up in the kitchen, right out of the fryer with (whole fat) sour cream to dip them in.

JULIA: It's okay, Hallie. I have it on good authority that holiday food has no cumulative fat or calories.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: We didn't have a tree last year - okay we were away for most of the holiday - but I missed it. And we haven't had a holiday party since my first book came out (rewrites in December.)Yes, it's days out of my life, the cleaning, the decorating, the baking, but I totally miss them. I worry that every year I'll cut another thing, and another thing until it's just the two of us with a pine scented pillow. So back and forth on this year. We still have a large hole in the roof from the Halloween snowstorm - right in the kitchen where I usually put my tree - maybe I can drape it with garland. Do you think people would mind?

RHYS BOWEN: This year I'll be doing the opposite of cutting back. I'll be hosting the biggest Christmas I've ever attempted. It started when my brother and wife announced that he was coming from Australia to spend Christmas with us. That made all our kids decide they had to be there. And daughter Anne asked to bring a friend... which means 16 people for almost a week. That's a lot of cooking and present wrapping. I'm trying to be organized and have a roster of who is doing what for which meal but I'm also going to have a lot of casseroles and soups cooked in advance. It should be fun (at least this is what I'm telling myself now.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Yeah, I don't know. It's a tough call. If I say--I'm just not doing it, then something is missing. I tear up on Chanukah, and Christmas morning, if he traditions aren't there. But then--you can't do everything. You can't be--perfect. Whatever that is. SO we do what works, depending on where we are and what's important at the time. But no one is keeping track, right? So we realize we're lucky, and we count blessings, and a champagne toast goes a long way. And, dear Julia, let's see that photograph!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, just the thought of what you're doing would send me to the funny farm. Hats off to you, and a glass or few of champagne!

We've cut back over the last few years, as you do when your kids are grown. For years, we made our own Christmas cards, at first by hand, then from photos that we spent ages composing and getting just right. But last year we sent e-cards, and this year... we'll see.

And we have always had a real tree. That has been my one absolutely non-negotiable Christmas MUST. But I somehow hurt my back over Thanksgiving, and right now the idea of carrying an eight-foot tree into the house, decorating it (after carrying all the loads of boxes down from the attic) is unthinkable. As is putting up Christmas lights, and all the other decorations (while writing 2000 words a day.) And cooking? After Thanksgiving, I'd settle for Taco Bell.

So we'll reassess in a week or so. But at the moment a cup of hot cocoa and Christmas movies sound just the ticket.

JAN BROGAN: The nice thing about having grown up children? My daughter, who loves Christmas, comes home to do the decorating. As is our custom, we always pick out the tree (AND YES, it has to be FRESH and I have to have a tree) on her birthday, December 12th And because I started this insane custom of making candy and giving it the neighbors, I'm stuck with it. I tried to give it up one year, but then as everyone dropped off their homemade Greek cookies, etc., I got terrible pangs of guilt. Besides, my daughter comes home and helps me make the candies, so it's sort of worth it. And last year I made Hallie's awesome orange/chocolate twisty things and now they are a part of my annual repertoire.

The sad thing is that I gave up Christmas cards, and they were actually my favorite part of Christmas. I AM determined this year to cut down on the number of presents under the tree. Some years, it's actually been embarrassing. What happens is that I go out and shop for everyone and then, at the last minute, my husband decides he needs to personally go out and get things for everyone, and with my daughter (are you catching on to a theme here?) in tow, they buy TOO MUCH STUFF and too much of it is for me.

And don't for a minute, think I'm being unselfish. We put our house on the market earlier this year and there is nothing like cleaning out your basement (and all the juicers, mini vacuums, and knicknacks) to make you NEVER WANT ANOTHER CHRISTMAS present in your life.

JULIA: I'm still laughing over Ro's eventual Christmas: "the two of us and a pine scented pillow." How about you, dear readers? Have you given up any holiday traditions to save your sanity?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

True Crime Tuesday: Finding Purpose in Writing - a guest blog by Det. Ken Lang

Detective Ken Lang is a decorated, 22-year veteran of the Maryland State Police. For the past fifteen years, he's been with the Criminal Investigation Division, dealing with sex crimes, robberies and homicides, as well as assisting other divisions as a Forensic Artist. More to our purpose, he's also a fine true-crime writer. His self-published debut, Walking Among the Dead: True Stories from a Homicide Detective is the first in his planned three-book memoir about the cases he's worked in his career. Today, he's here to tell us what motivates his writing:

Finding Purpose

Her withered fingers wrestled with the tattered tissue, her hollow gaze portraying a mother's loss of hope.

"Detective Lang, my son is dead and no one seems to be able to answer any of my questions. Every time I call the investigator, he gives me the same ol’ runaround,
'We're working the case and we have a subject of interest,' but he won’t answer my questions."

My heart wrenched. The grieving mother who so desperately sought to find resolution in her son's murder had lost all hope. I could see the fatigue weighing heavy across her brow. Her small, frail body spent from many sleepless nights.

"I don't know if this helps, but have you tried..."

Her head cocked and a small grin curled in the corner of her mouth. Her eyes shifted as she mused over the suggestion. "Well, no, detective. I can't say that I thought of
that." I sat back in my chair and watched as her fears were quietly replaced with hope.

Seeing the small achievement, my mind recalled the circumstances that brought me to this meeting for the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. The invitation came quite unexpectedly. Having released my debut book, Walking Among the Dead: True Stories from a Homicide Detective, I was attending my first book signing when a victim’s mother eagerly approached me and asked if I would share my experiences in dealing with homicide victim’s families. Her request was genuine. It was honest. How could I resist?

One by one, family after family, I sat and listened to their desperate pleas. Each searched for suggestions hoping to bring closure to their case. They recounted their unique stories. They shared their predicaments. Some expressed their frustrations with an inexperienced detective or an ill-equipped agency tasked with a monumental investigation. And as I listened, a revelation unfolded right before my eyes. In the stagnant meeting room at the back of the VFW, I realized the purpose of my writing.

How could I have been so narrow-minded, missing the importance in the power of my words? Like a blind man seeing daylight for the first time, I realized just how profound my writing could be, how it could impact people in such a positive way, changing their lives for the better.

A lifetime of experience, encased in words captivated this audience who hoped to glean some small tangent of information that could, just by chance, bring their loved one’s killer to justice. And I was just starting to see the light.

The meeting drew to a close and a brisk September breeze chilled me as I walked to my car. My mind raced with the events that just transpired and the lesson I learned. Twisting the key, the engine fired up, the headlights chasing away the darkness. A light sprinkle began coating the windshield as I thought about my latest writing project. Dropping the gearshift into drive and accelerating off the lot, I felt the urgency to get back home to my writing.

So many families are depending on me.

Usually, we at Jungle Red invite our readers to engage our guest writers on the back blog. Today that's not going to be possible - Ken Lang is off in the wilds of Pennsylvania on a father-son hunting trip. He'll be reading and answering your questions when he returns later this week. In the meanwhile, I encourage you all to read his account of a trip earlier this fall: his first time turkey hunting with his son Sean. They didn't bring back a bird, but...well, I'll let you read the rest. You can find out more about Det. Lang at his website , fan him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Black Friday - Buyer's Remorse

ROSEMARY HARRIS: So Black Friday is over. I spent the day at home writing and stuffing envelopes and sending emails (I had a free book offer on my newsletter and over 1500 people responded!)
I didn't spend a dime. Am I un-American?
I have friends who camped out at their favorite stores waiting for the doors to open and one who is already trying to unload an HP laptop that she bought on Friday. (No idea if it was a proposed gift that's already been rejected or she just couldn't pass up a great buy.)
I guess we've all done it. Bought something on sale that you normally wouldn't have purchased - just because it was on sale.
My very abbreviated list -
-The one-shoulder lilac sequined, attached on one side by velcro strips dress which I've never worn. It's Armani. Need I say more?
-The knee high orange boots (Donna Karan) that only pinched a little in the store.
-The black Tracy Tooker hat I wore once because I thought it made me look like Audrey Hepburn.
-The silver platform sandals. No idea what the thinking was here. Maybe I thought disco was coming back.
Any shopping mistakes you'd like to share as the holiday season kicks into high gear?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Writers' Challenge Week FOUR

JAN BROGAN - Okay everyone, we are at the finish line. Not the best week for productivity, at least for me. I cooked for fifteen on Thanksgiving and got started on Wednesday, but I did manage to finish an article for the paper, rough out an essay, and finish two books that I've picked up for research.
The good news is that I've learned that I really love being in the mid 1800s, and that I actually look forward to going there each day. That's got to to help with the actual writing.
Likely just as soon as the Challenge is over (tomorrow) I'll get real fiction pages written, but that's okay, I feel like I've accomplished quite a bit.
Prizes are awarded and announced next Sunday. In the meantime, tell me how you fared over these four weeks, and if you managed to hurdle over this vacation week, or were slowed by it.
And of course, what your plans are for staying productive during the unproductive month of December.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hooray, it's the Jungle Red Saturday List, and now that Thanksgiving is over, we are of course thinking about Christmas. But just to take the sting out of all the hoopla of shopping, wrapping, mailing, decorating, and sending cards, I thought we should turn our minds to pure, unadulterated pleasure--Christmas movies. I love Christmas movies, unabashedly, and would happily watch them non-stop for a month if I could find the time.

I meant to say limit your choice to one movie, but since I'm going to cheat and put in two, everyone else can, too.

Oh, so many to choose from! But my very close second spot goes to LOVE ACTUALLY, which I will undoubtedly make my husband watch at least once, and he will complain that it's incredibly sappy but watch it anyway, bless him.

#1, however, must go to A Christmas Story. Although this movie debuted in 1983, I didn't see it until my husband introduced me to it in the mid-nineties, and I've been in love with it ever since. It is a writer's movie if ever there was one, adapted from Jean Shepherd's story, "Red Ryder Nails the Hammond Kid," first published in the December, 1965, issue of Playboy Magazine. (How many of you knew that?) Wonderful performances from Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, and Peter Billingsly as "Ralphie." (Peter Billingsly, by the way, grew up to be quite dishy. Recognize him without the glasses?)

So, Reds, what are YOUR faves?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: LOVE, ACTUALLY, is my favorite. Absolutely. NO question, no second thoughts. I play the album all the time--and people say, isn't that a Christmas movie? And I don't care. Second? Ah...I'm stumped. I do like It's a Wonderful Life, especially the dancing on the swimming pool,but --shrugging. Sometimes I think it's creepy. (What can I say? He was going to kill himself, and leave his whole family?) You've Got Mail? How about that? But I don't like the ending.

JAN BROGAN: Miracle on 34th Street, hands down. What better fantasy than one of those shopping mall Santas is the real guy. And it's got to be the version with Natalie Wood as the little girl. Although I am a big fan of A Christmas Story, I still think my second place goes to It's A Wonderful Life - even if I groan a little at the length of it.

RHYS BOWEN: I have so many favorites, including "You'll shoot your eye out!" but every year I don't feel Christmassy until I watch WHITE CHRISTMAS and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (And I also love Scrooge, but that would be cheating to slip another one in, wouldn't it :)

ROSEMARY HARRIS: So mean to make us stick to just two! I love all of the movies mentioned - Albert Finney as Scrooge, so brilliant.(But so was Bill Murray.)
Okay...stop cheating.)

A Christmas Carol - must be the Alistair Sim version and Love Actually. I will probably watch that twice between now and New Year's. "I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes....."

DEBS: Hank and Rosemary, I LOVE the soundtrack to Love Actually. It's stayed at the top of my playlist for years. I wonder what ever happened to that darling girl singer?

ROSEMARY: I had googled her a while ago! Her name is Olivia Olson and she's still singing and still cute as a button. Here's a link to her version of All I Want from Love Actually:

HALLIE EPHRON: You've named all my favorites! Top of the list, I agree with you, Debs: A Christmas Story. Testament to its staying power: I saw in one of the store ads (K-Mart? Target?) that sexy leg and tassel lamp the father lusts after.

For a little less treacle, I like Home for the Holidays. Holly Hunter has to spend the holidays with her family, where she so does NOT want to be. Brilliant turn by Robert Downey Jr. Plus Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart at their most vulnerable) - watch it back to back with its adaptation You've Got Mail.

LUCY BURDETTE: Sleepless in Seattle, not completely Christmas but the holiday's in there. Going to watch Love Actually again, along with A Christmas Story and Home for the Holidays. thanks for the suggestions!

JAN: Lucy, I think you just cheated :) Watch out for coal in your stocking from my Macy's Santa.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I must be the oldies fan in the bunch. Two of my favorites are Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and White Christmas (1954.) The first one has the stunningly fashionable Barbara Stanwick who does what we'd call lifestyle blogging today. Except she's a complete fake who lives in a West Side apartment and who can't cook. Caught out by her publisher's offer to host a wounded vet, she has to scramble to recreate her "perfect" rural lifestyle - complete with husband and baby!

Everyone knows the second. How can you go wrong with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and Vera Lynne and the incomparable Rosemary Harris, all harmonizing on "Snow" as they take the train up to Vermont? It has all the hallmarks of the 1950's musical - songs that make no sense, silly romantic mix-ups, and a stage in a barn that's larger than Lincoln Center. I love it.

DEBS: Okay, I'm cheating--how could I have forgotten The Holiday? I love that one,
and would watch it over and over just to see Eli Wallach.

I'm putting Home for the Holidays on my to-watch list, and some of the ones I haven't seen in years, like Christmas in Connecticut and White Christmas.

Sounds like a great alternative to shopping!

So, what about you, readers? No cheating--well, maybe a little... Tell us your faves!

Friday, November 25, 2011


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Or ... What to do with the damned turkey!

For those of you who, like me, are designated as Keeper of the Sacred Bird, you have to deal with the aftermath!

And, of course, those of you who don't have to address the business of the turkey carcass are saying, "Turkey sandwiches. Yum!"

Okay, the neatly sliced turkey is easy enough, into the baggies or Tupperware it goes. It's the rest of it that's the problem, all that good stuff that's left on the bones, and I'm the one that's usually still standing in the kitchen at midnight on Thanksgiving night, staring in distress at the bird.

A friend suggested that I could just THROW IT OUT. I recoiled in horror. Throw out the turkey??? Sacrilege. My mother and my grandmother lived through the Depression. The turkey was never thrown out. There was turkey hash and turkey soup and turkey tetrazini until I never wanted to see another turkey as long as I lived, and especially not a month later at Christmas.

Funny thing, though--no one ever went to such pains to get every bit of meat off a chicken, so I'm not quite sure I follow the logic of this dictum.

Perhaps this year I'll take my friend's advice and just dump the remains IN THE TRASH.

There. I've at least contemplated the deed. But just in case I change my mind, do my fellow Reds and our fabulous readers have any must-make ideas for leftover turkey????

JAN BROGAN:: I haven't actually done this myself, but my husband heard this story and I may try it this year. You either get a store bought pie crust or you make one yourself and stuff all the leftovers TOGETHER inside the pie and bake it.

I'm a little picky. There are certain leftovers I would not include. But it would be a culinary adventure, if nothing else.

RHYS BOWEN: John always makes turkey curry, in fact the family often begs us to cook a turkey during the year so they can have the turkey curry more often. We'll have it on Boxing Day!

ROSEMARY HARRIS: What leftovers?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Turkey tetrazzini. It is DELICIOUS!!! White meat shredded, and sautteed mushrooms, and a white wine cream sauce, mix all together, bake with a huge amount of parmesan on top. It takes EVERY pan and dish in the kitchen, and it is fabulous. (Email me if you want the recipe. Or--ask the Joy of Cooking. :-) Just add more wine and mushrooms and pepper than it calls for.)

HALLIE EPHRON: Mmmm, turkey tetrazzini. Haven't had that in ages. We used to make it with sherry.

At our house, we pick pick pick until there's not much meat left on those bones, and then break up the carcass and it goes into the soup pot with lots of chopped up carrots and celery and onions, and TURNIP (don't forget turnip)! Some bouillon cubes (after it's cooked a carcass doesn't have quite enough taste), S&P and a handful of parsley and a few bay leaves, peppercorns, plus any of your favorite herbs of course. Cover with water, bring it to a boil and simmer for hours. I add lots of quartered mushrooms when it's about an hour from done.

Cool it. Fish out the bones and rescue the meat which goes back into the pot.
Voila. Dinner for at least another 3 nights.

LUCY BURDETTE: Yeah, I'm in the "what leftovers" camp. I bought a 20-pounder and I hope it's enough! But I love all the Reds ideas so ready if needed!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The whole point of roasting a turkey is to have leftovers! In fact, in those rare times when we're not hosting the dinner ourselves, I go out and get either a hotel-style breast or a very small turkey to cook at home. And I'm with Hallie - don't bother to make something else with it, just send anyone hungry to the fridge with orders to slice off a bit until it's gone. Then it's time to make and freeze turkey broth! That homemade broth is the basis for every soup my family eats between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

DEBS: Hank and Hallie, my mom used to make turkey tetrazini with sherry, too, and I loved it. But my DH doesn't like casseroles, or anything with sherry, or mushrooms, or especially green peppers, so that's pretty much out.

I've made delicious soup from the turkey bones, especially my friend Franny's recipe, which has yummy vegetables, lots of sage, wild rice, and little dumplings made from the leftover dressing.

But this year I decided to throw tradition to the winds. I saved enough for sandwiches and another dinner, and then I did, I really did--I threw the rest out!

Maybe next year I'll make curry.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


DEBORAH CROMBIE: When I was growing up, our house was the Thanksgiving hub for both sides of the family. It was never really a Norman Rockwell scene, with everyone neatly seated and the turkey carved at the table--there were too many of us. The turkey was sliced up in the kitchen, the plates served buffet-style, and people found seats not only at the dining room table, but at card tables set up wherever we could stick them. The "kid's table" was, of course, the best, and without doubt the silliest.
I don't, however, remember anyone attending these Thanksgiving dinners who wasn't related, on one side or the other. I'm sure it wasn't a deliberate exclusion, but just that it was assumed that everyone had their own "family" dinner.

Fast forward a half century (that's a scary thought!) and our Thanksgiving looks both the same and different. Our house is now the hub, and it is full. The turkey still gets carved in the kitchen. There is a long dining room table, more like the one in the painting than my parents' table, in fact, although there will likely be overflow to the living room. And there is family--our daughter and her boyfriend.

But the other guests are a mix of our daughter's friends, our friends, neighbors, and those who may not have someplace else to go. (And our friends' nine-month-old daughter! We have a "little" for the first time in years, and are thrilled! Will she like sweet potatoes?) We no longer assume that the day is solely a celebration of nuclear family. We do, in fact, MAKE our family, and we celebrate friendship and community.

So, Jungle Reds, and dear readers, how do you celebrate the day?

: I'm cooking for fifteen, but ours is still mostly about family, mainly because my husband's family lives nearby. There's often a significant other and sometimes that significant other's entire family, but I don't think that's what you mean. I can't think of anything thing more in keeping with the holiday than opening up your doors and inviting friends who are either like family, or have no where else to go. Plus, that's just got to make for better dinner conversation, don't you think?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: People are going to want to send me food baskets...I'm an orphan. No surviving siblings. Husband was an only child. When his sons were young they spent T'giving with their mothers. Now they're married and/or living out of state. So I'll make a turkey breast and use the good china just for the two of us. Sometimes we volunteer at a shelter (I once served TGD to 300+ in New Orleans and may do the Unitarian Church this week.) But this year as in many past I'll celebrate with good friends on Saturday.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ah, Rosemary? We're doing EXACTLY the same thing. Champagne, and all the extras. And we are SO happy to be together. The baby children are all in New York and California, celebrating with friends, and we will miss them. My Mom is in Indianapolis, and I will make sure our turkey is dry, in her honor. KIDDING!

I miss our family mother and stepfather were married on Thanksgiving, so it was always very special.

HALLIE EPHRON: We'll have it here with old and dear friends Anne and Larry and their grown children Gordon and Leah, plus our daughters Molly and Naomi and our son-in-law Jack. We make the turkey and our friends bring the fixins (they're vegetarians who will tolerate the bird on the table). I make a great turkey, if I do say so myself. The secret: Lawry's seasoning salt. Really.

LUCY BURDETTE: Growing up we always celebrated with my mother's two sisters and their families. But now my siblings are far away so we no longer have a regular rotation. This year though, I'm hosting 17, some of John's big family, one son, two neighbors, two good friends and their daughters. And everyone's contributing so I'm only responsible for turkey, stuffing, gravy and pies. I set the table on Tuesday when I was procrastinating about my edits (book due 12/1--yikes!!) And then immediately began to worry that the cat would find the whole thing immensely appealing...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: We usually have a huge crowd of friends and "orphans" at our house - I think the head count last year was above 30. We and most of our friends live a very long way from family, so this is how we have a Norman Rockwell dinner without burning up one day in either direction traveling.

The big table in the dining room seats 14 adults, the older teens get to eat buffet style in the family room, the younger teens are at the kitchen table, and the littlest ones have a card table set up in front of the fireplace (sounds dicey but it's the closest they can get to the adult table.) Everyone brings favorite dishes and our musical friends come with their instruments, so there's often an impromptu concert/singalong afterwards.

DEBS: If there is a hospitality contest, I think Julia and Ross win it! The thought of feeding thirty people makes me feel faint. But it sounds wonderful, as does an intimate Thanksgiving for two.

Wherever you are, and however you celebrate, we at Jungle Reds wish you a happy day and blessings galore.


DEBORAH CROMBIE: It's quiz day on Jungle Red!

Thanksgiving is about:

A: Stuffing yourself with really rich food until you think you'll pop.

B: People dressing up in Pilgrim hats and turkey costumes (we all remember that from primary school.)

C: Football.

D: Macy's parade.

E: Shopping. It is, after all, the day before Black Friday.

Well, maybe a little bit of all of those things, although in our family we don't shop on Black Friday. (I can't imagine many things I'd rather do less...) We do love the food, and the gathering of friends and family. And I even like the ritual football, though I'm not a regular fan.

It is, of course, also a celebration of gratitude, but isn't it weird--or maybe uniquely American--that we set aside merely one day for thanksgiving? The Japanese have a custom of beginning meals by placing the palms together in front of the heart and saying aloud itadakimasu, roughly translated as "I humbly receive."

This little tidbit is courtesy of Dr. Andrew Weil's new book, Spontaneous Happiness, in a section about practicing gratitude to improve one's emotional well-being. According to Dr. Weil, scientists are finding that regularly practicing grateful thinking can move your emotional set point for happiness as much as 25 percent in the right direction. (Robert A. Emmons, editor in chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, has written a book called, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.)

It seems that the method for measuring the effect of gratitude used most frequently by researchers is the Gratitude Journal.

I was a bit surprised to hear that this was "new," as I've kept a gratitude journal off and on for about twenty years. And I've found that when I do this regularly, I feel better, mentally and physically, I'm more productive, and probably much nicer to be around.

But the key word here is regularly. I backslide. I get busy and tired and stressed and stop doing something that I KNOW will make me feel better.

So I wondered if any of you, fellow Reds and readers, had used gratitude journals, and if so, do you have any tips for the rest of us?

LUCY BURDETTE: I've never kept a journal of any kind--that's probably kind of weird for a writer. And counterproductive too. Imagine the notes and stories I could be falling back on...

But anyway, I totally believe that practicing gratitude can effect change. (Literature I've read wouldn't agree that a happiness "set point" could be moved by as much as 25% but who knows?) But running through a list of what we're grateful for can't help make us feel a little more positive, right? My Thanksgiving table decor this year will include brown paper instead of tablecloths, because I don't have two big ones that match. This way everyone can write what they're grateful for right on the table! Crayons all around...

As for me, I'm grateful for family, friends, health, pets, eyesight to read, and all the gang at Jungle Red Writers! Oh must mention, AN APPETITE FOR MURDER, launching in January:)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I've kept journals, In my twenties. I went back and looked, hoping for insight. What I got was: men. No more needs be said.

As for gratitude: The other day, an acquaintance and I were in a Burger King. (Glamorous business lunch.) A particularly unpleasant/unhappy/unkempt couple walked in. My colleague turned to me and whispered "Deliverance." At just the same time, I turned to her and whispered: "There but for fortune."

Oh, Lucy, the brown paper Thanksgiving! Wonderful. Write on it for me, okay? Health, and love, and family, and brains, and imagination and joy. And my darling Jungle Reds. (And THE OTHER WOMAN, coming in September, for which there is a BRILLIANT cover!)

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm a big blessing counter (my glass is half full!), though I don't catalog them in a journal. I do feel inordinately fortunate to have the life I have--a career that's going on twelve years old, opportunities to travel, friends who are mystery writers (simply the best, most generous and interesting people) whom I'd otherwise never have gotten to know. Two gorgeous (grown) daughters and a (very grown) husband who still tolerate me.

Not to mention the simplest of things--like today I peeled granny smith apples for pie and had the loveliest plate of apple peels with my lunch.

RHYS BOWEN: I've also never been able to keep a journal. I find I simply can't put down my innermost thoughts on paper. But I think a gratitude journal is a great idea and may even start one. I've lots of things to be thankful for, starting with celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. To be surrounded by the love of family and friends is the most important thing in the world to me.

And as Hank has said, I'm amazed and blessed by the number of true friends I've made in the mystery field. They make every meeting and convention a joy.

I am grateful for my health and certainly don't take it for granted any longer.

I am grateful for a writing career that has spanned a lifetime and the miracle that I still have two publishers who like my books and fans who will buy them.

I am grateful that I have had a chance to travel and see the world, and appreciate nature and beauty and that I'm never bored, and love to laugh.

JAN BROGAN: Debs, I think its funny that you are surprised by the Japanese beginning their meals by placing their palms together and saying I humbly receive.

I mean, isn't that grace? I grew up saying grace BEFORE the meal, with the lines "Blessed is the Lord with these thy gifts we are about to receive." And we actually had to say grace after dinner before we got to leave the table, too.

Today, at least in Massachusetts, home of the pilgrims, I'm sorry to say that many people would look at you askance if you said grace, even quietly, in a public place, UNLESS you said it in JAPANESE. Or maybe Hindu. Sometimes they allow it at Thanksgiving, though.

But I digress. Yes, absolutely. Gratitude is the antidote for unhappiness or malaise. We all get so used to our incredible lives that we take them for granted and focus on what we don't have. But I think the most positive thing about getting older is that you really do learn gratitude. I kept a journal for years that was a lot like Hank's. Mostly about boys/men. I should burn the evidence. But I do meditate each morning and I end each session with a few minutes of gratitude and don't tell anyone, even prayer.

DEBS: Lucy, I LOVE the brown paper tablecloths! My daughter is making a "thanksgiving tree", an arrangement of bare branches, with tags that guests can write on and attach. Two lovely ideas to celebrate the day.

And Jan, I didn't forget about saying grace, but to me the Japanese custom seemed more secular. But this may be because I grew up in a family that didn't say grace, and anyone doing so would have been a huge embarrassment. A shame, that.

Hallie, the apples are the kind of thing that I put in a gratitude journal, when I manage to keep one. Five things a day, even if sometimes the only thing you can manage to write is "bed" five times:-) But it teaches you to be mindful of those little things, as well as the big ones, and it is the little things that make up the chain of our days.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I never kept a journal as a child - I'd be curious to see what I would have written, probably just the little dramas of puberty like everyone else!

I'm grateful every day and I'm constantly telling myself how lucky I am. Yes, I have all the basics (and then some) but I have a wonderful husband who lets me drag him up mountains, down rivers, onto houseboats and into tents and almost never complains. I've had fun jobs all my life and even though I never made a ton of money I had great experiences and met some incredible people. And now I'm getting to try my hand at writing. (After 4 books I think I'm still learning) and I'm fortunate enough to have the time and the opportunity to make this dream a reality.

At the risk of sounding corny, this year I'm also grateful that I live in America, that my parents instilled in me their values, that I'm still learning new things and making new friends, that I've read so many good books this year and shared good times with the people I love. And just because I'm me and can't ever be totally serious - I'm glad I found that black dress on sale, that Lou Reed has a new album, that I have tickets to see Mandy Patinkin and Patti Lupone on my birthday, and that Demi Moore has finally dumped Ashton Kutcher. You can do BETTER!

DEBS: Can I say AMEN to that?

We at Jungle Red wish you all an equally rich list of blessings, and a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Here on Jungle Red we've talked about mistakes writers make in American books on legal matters, so I thought it would be fun and informative to get an expert's view on the mistakes in the television portrayals of the legal system in the UK--especially LAW & ORDER UK, because although it's a great cast, when I watch the show I always think, "Really? They'd really do that?"

So I asked Ayo Onatade to give us the scoop. Many of you may know Ayo from mystery conferences, from her contributions to the SHOTS blog, and from her involvement in MYSTERY WOMEN, a UK not-for-profit organization created to raise the profile of crime fiction.

But I knew what Ayo's day job was, and now she's going to tell you.

AYO ONATADE: In August, as usual I attended St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference. The theme this year was “The Anatomy of Justice” and I gave a paper on “Life along the Judicial Corridor”. Not a lot of people knew what my day job was as I am generally extremely vague about what I do. Working with Judges has meant that I have a rather more jaded view on books, films and programmes that have courtroom scenes.

It did however get me thinking when I was invited to do a guest blog on Jungle Red Writers about the differences between the US and UK legal systems. It also made me think about crime novels that are court based. I freely admit that I don’t really have a problem when it comes to reading US authors that base their books and storyline in the US court system mainly because I do not have an intricate working knowledge of the US legal system.

On the other hand, I do have an intimate knowledge of the UK court system, which is where I work.
This does cause a major problem with me when it comes to reading books, or watching television programmes that involve courts as I am constantly picking holes in them.

Two programmes that come to mind are Law & Order UK and Judge John Deed! The mistakes that I saw in them made me growl with annoyance. I am all for artistic license but please! Some people completely forget that these programmes are fiction and they believe everything that they see on television. It ’s a bit like the “CSI effect”. People think that DNA evidence takes minutes instead of days or sometimes months! The only programme that I can remember getting things right is Crown Court, which they used to show in the seventies!
I freely admit that I barely watched any Law & Order UK. This was because I knew that I would be unable to watch the programme without getting thoroughly annoyed. Law & Order UK is based on the US television series albeit with the US episodes adapted for the UK. Generally speaking it is a really good programme, however there are things about it that don’t ring true.

Members of the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) are overworked, underpaid and have a caseload that is unbelievably high. They do not have the luxury of having more than one member of the CPS on each case. You will never see 3 members of the CPS in court on one case. One of the reasons that I prefer the US version is because it is a lot more morally ambiguous than the UK version. Funnily enough if any of the prosecutors pulled any of the stunts that McCoy did they would be more likely to find themselves pulled up in front of the Bar Council Disciplinary Committee.

So what about Judge John Deed? Let me start by saying that it was one of the few television programmes that made me want to physically throw something at the television within thirty minutes of me starting to watch it. If you believe Judge John Deed then judges spend part of their time interfering in cases or getting their clerk to do so on their behalf or having clandestine meetings. This is certainly not the case in real life.
Firstly, judges never investigate cases – why should they? It is not their duty to do so. They are there to listen to and weigh up the evidence before them before coming to a decision. They may request the parties to furnish the court with some evidence but the judge would not (unlike in Judge John Deed) interfere in an investigation. Secondly, a judge would never hear a case where any of the barristers (prosecuting or defence) is their spouse, partner or girlfriend. This would definitely not happen. Thirdly, it would be totally inappropriate for a judge and/or barristers to start having a relationship with any of the parties. They would certainly have to recuse themselves from the case. To put it more succinctly, if any of the judges that I knew (and I know a lot of judges) did half the things that Judge John Deed did then they would be off the bench as quickly as it could be organised. It would also give grounds for an appeal.

The legal system in the UK is vastly different than that of the US. To begin with in the UK you have barristers and solicitors. In the UK barristers generally are the only ones that can appear before a judge in a case, as they are the “advocate”. Furthermore, solicitors have generally tended to be the only ones who are allowed to have direct contact with the client. New laws have, however, changed the division of roles between barristers and solicitors. This is unlike in the US where attorneys not only appear in court but also have direct contact with the client.
One of the biggest differences however is the fact that unlike in the US where you have an automatic right of appeal that is not the case in the UK.

In the UK it is the judge (in the case of the US this would be the trial judge) that decides whether or not to give permission to appeal. If the judge that hears the case decides not to give permission to appeal then all is not lost because the losing party can then (and only after permission to appeal has been denied by the judge who heard the case) apply to the higher court for permission to appeal. A decision is then made.

Applying to the higher court directly does not give you an automatic right of appeal. They may still be refused that right.

Whilst the American legal system has its basis in English law there are still some big differences in not only the legal structure but also the way in which cases are heard.

Finally, in the UK jurors are selected at random, unlike in the US where jurors can be analysed and challenged by the attorneys of both sides.

In the UK we have one court system whereas in the US you have the Federal and the State system. In the UK cases start either in the Magistrates court (for criminal cases) or the County Court (for civil cases). Depending on the seriousness of the criminal case (e.g. murder, manslaughter, or armed robbery) then they will be heard in a Crown Court by a judge and jury, or if it is felt that the Magistrates sentencing powers are not enough then the sentencing part of the case would be transferred to the Crown Court to be dealt with. Appeals from Magistrates Courts also go to the Crown Court.

The next tier is the High Court which deals with civil cases, hears appeals in criminal cases, and also has the power to review the actions of individuals or organisations to make sure they have acted legally and justly. The High Court has three divisions--the Family Division, the Chancery Division, and the Queen’s bench Division. Appeals from the High Court go to either to the Criminal Court of Appeal or the Civil Court of Appeal. As for the Supreme Court - The UK Supreme Court deals with civil and criminal appeals from the Court of Appeal, or in some cases the High Court where the case involves a point of law or is of general public importance.

In the Supreme Court in the UK the judges also sit as a constitution of 5, 7, or 9 depending on the seriousness of the case. Furthermore, unlike in the US where the parties have a limited time in which to present their cases, in the UK cases are listed for hearing for as long as they are judged to take and counsel are not restricted by time limits in the presentation of their argument to the Judges.

That being said, what are the worst mistakes that I have seen writers make? Generally speaking authors don’t make as many mistakes as television writers do. It could be because they have a lot more time in which to explain things. The worst mistakes I have seen relate mainly to television as opposed to books.

1. Not getting court procedure right. – Getting court procedure right is pretty basic and fundamental and there is no reason not to. – It is easy to check and can be done by spending some time in court whether it be a criminal court or a court that hears civil cases.

2. Interrupting the Judge in mid-sentence or ignoring a judge’s ruling – Whilst it might make a court case interesting, interrupting a judge whilst he is talking in court is a big breach of protocol. Not only do you not hear what the judge is saying, you do yourself and your client a disservice. Added to that if a judge makes a ruling in court he expects it to be obeyed. It also shows that you are not aware of how parties are supposed to appear in court. In the UK you are not going to see counsel being given a dressing- down in the Judges chambers.

3. Not getting the titles of Judges right! How difficult is it to ensure that you have done your research properly? The different levels of Judges have different titles.

4. The “CSI effect” – DNA evidence is not produced by the click of your fingers. It takes time, sometimes months.

5. Expecting judgment to be given immediately. This does not happen. With a case that involves a jury they will go and deliberate and come to a decision. If it is a case that is heard solely by a judge then he is likely to reserve judgment and it may take sometime before it is given.
One gets a lot of joy out of reading crime novels and watching programmes on television especially where the research has been done properly.

DEBS: Thanks, Ayo! Ayo will be checking in today if Reds or readers have more questions for her.

And I have a few, as in "Did even Rumpole get it wrong? Tell me it's not so!", and "What's with the wigs, anyway?"

Monday, November 21, 2011

Too Much Tech?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Okay, we're all wired. Otherwise, we wouldn't be reading this blog on our desktops, laptops, notebooks, or smartphones. And we like it, or at least I do, I freely admit. But there is ongoing--and sometimes less than coherent as well as contradictory--research and dialogue about how constant exposure to digital data is affecting our brains and our lives.

The consensus among most researchers (as I switch from article to article on the internet) is that the human brain was not built for multitasking, and that it has not yet rewired itself. While that may happen sometime in the future, we are now doing many more things at once, and doing them less well. There's an upside, of course. A certain amount of social connectedness may make us more emotionally healthy, but there are limits. (I would like to have lunch with my daughter without her constantly texting someone else and checking in on Facebook. And my husband reads me posts on his Facebook page over dinner... He is, however, talking TO me, so maybe this isn't so bad.)

But in following the comments on our Jungle Red Writer's Challenge check-in the last few weeks, I'm most interested in how the constant deluge of data affects us as writers. Our challenge was to write for two hours every day without checking email, Facebook, or using the Internet in any way other than to do absolutely necessary research. And almost everyone who's participated has found cutting off the data flow a CHALLENGE.

LinkI've started turning off email and Facebook on my computer, not just for two hours, but for big blocks of the day. And I've been turning off the notification alerts on my phone. It vibrates when I get a phone call, but I'm no longer constantly responding to the Pavlovian data ding. (Scientists call this reaction to stimulation a "dopamine squirt", which sounds really disgusting.) Imagine, using a phone as a phone!

Has it helped my writing concentration? Without a doubt. Have I missed the constant connectedness? Not too much. But I'm finding I really enjoy it as a treat a few times a day, and I've stopped worrying quite so much that I'm missing something if I don't check in all the time.

None of us are likely to give up the internet. For me, at least, it's an amazing research tool, although it still hasn't replaced books. But I think a lot about how much time we spend every day doing things that never have our full attention, and that we forget almost instantly. There are few of us, writers and readers, who are going to leave collections of letters or diaries behind for future generations.

So what about you, fellow Reds? How much tech is too much tech? Do you find you have to set limits, and if so, what works for you?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I definitely have to set limits. There's a powerful urge to check emails first thing in the morning and first thing in the morning can quickly turn into 12pm if I'm not careful. I've taken to writing in another room just to be physically away from the siren song of the computer.

I also had a mini-epiphany when I realized I could turn off the Ping! sound my computer made every time a new email arrived. ( COULD have been Johnny Depp emailing ..) The challenge has been great for me as it's made me more conscious of how wisely I spend my time online. I'm going to do it, but I've been less likely to check out Demi's marital troubles just because the link pops up 100 times a day.

RHYS BOWEN: I'm afraid the internet has become a huge time waster. I used to read my emails before I started work. Now I go on Facebook, Twitter, my own blog, Jungle Red, even check my Amazon and B & N stats before I start writing. I'm trying to cut down but it is addictive. However when I was out of email contact in Morocco for almost a week--guess what? There were no emails of great significance waiting for me. I have to tell myself that it really isn't important who has mentioned me today on Twitter.

And the internet has its dark side too--bad reviews in blogs from ordinary readers not qualified reviewers. (I blog about that on Rhys's Pieces this week) Being slammed on Amazon by those with an axe to grind. I know these things shouldn't matter but they depress me and hinder my writing creativity. So when I start my next book, I vow to keep up the challenge. No online until my number of words for the day is complete!

HALLIE EPHRON: Oh, yes yes yes! The Internet is a demanding and fickle friend. I turn off my wifi when I get serious about writing.

Reminds me of those pigeons in B. F. Skinner's operant conditioning chamber. When a pigeon was rewarded EVERY time it pressed a lever, it learned to press on the lever. When the rewards stopped coming, the pecking behavior soon diminished and stopped. But when pigeons were trained with rewards delivered not with every press but at random intermittent intervals, the pigeons kept right on pressing the lever long after the rewards stopped coming. We are addicted to news, emails, etc. just like old BFS's trained pigeons.

LUCY BURDETTE: Yes it's absolutely weird how sane people (such as ourselves) are turned into rats following the Internet's Pied Piper. I watch myself when I'm beginning something hard (like writing my fresh 1000 words/day)--that Firefox logo is like a giant magnet calling "touch me, open me, something urgent is waiting!" I have an old email address that's now difficult to access, though it still gets tons of spam. Every month or six weeks, I make the effort to check it. Very rarely do I find something I wish I'd had earlier--a few lost friends, but I can reconnect with those. If someone wants to contact me about a movie deal, I bet they'd try a little harder!

JAN BROGAN: The thing about email is this: You get an email: you respond. The sender responds to your response. You think of something witty and you just have to respond one more time. And thus ten to twenty minutes is completely wasted.

Interesting, when I cut way back on my email and Internet exposure, my mood improved. I felt really a palpable brain relief. And more than most people, I am not a multi-tasker. So it makes sense that too much digital data would mess me up. Now I think of email as having a glass of wine or a beer. Once or two you feel pretty good. If you have more than that in a day, you'll get a terrible headache.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: You know, it's funny-and I hope I'm not stepping on an toes. But the thing about answering emails immediately--I used to pride myself on it. Now--unless it's an emergency or something where someone obviously needs an answer--I just wait until I'm finished what I'm doing.

I just took a step to the dark side...and got an iPhone. I LOVE it. But I consciously try to stay away from it. I control IT--it doesn't control me.

The other life-change is how little I TALK on the phone. But that's probably another blog.

DEBS: So JR readers, how about you? Do you answer the bell, or let it ring? (At least occasionally...)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writers' Challenge Week THREE

I have to confess that I had to adapt the rules of the Writer's Challenge to my own diabolical purposes.
I am at the beginning of a new book that is a historical, so while I've tried to write actual prose, it just wouldn't come. I wrote up character descriptions, but they seemed thin. I needed to steep myself in the early to mid 19th century to get to know my protagonist and her world. So instead writing six out of seven days, I've been researching seven out of seven days. And instead of writing each day before I check my email, I've been limiting myself to checking four separate times throughout the day when my alarm clock interrupts me from note-taking or careening between Internet websites.
The result: I've only written about five pages - and its all synopsis, but I am firmly in the 19 century and is there anyone happier than a writer who has a brand new book starting to form in her head? (Except maybe a writer who has a brand new book completely written?)
At the Creative Brain workshop at The New England Crime Bake, author Shelley Carson called this the "absorb" method. I think of it as the percolating stage. But it's still hard for me to think of reading and highlighting and writing down notes as "work." For one thing, it's so much less of a struggle than writing, for another, it's hard to measure.
I'm wondering how everyone else measures or sets goals for the research phase of a book. And I also how the Writer's Challenge has worked this week for the rest of you. What are you successes and failures? Or your discoveries?