Monday, December 31, 2012

True Confessions: Our 2012 Resolutions Revisited

HALLIE EPHRON: We all made resolutions for 2012, and the wonderful thing about a blog archive is that I can go back to this day, a year ago, and see what we promised ourselves. So how'd we do? I had three resolutions:
Finish the damned book.
Lose weight.
Chew more slowly.

I'm two for three... if you count two pounds as "losing weight" (I do!) In April, that book I was afraid I'd never finish comes out. Look for THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN in April.  It's a doozy. And how nice to look back and remember how lost I felt about that book, just like I'm feeling lost now with the next one.

Here you go, ladies, fess up! Did you(I cherry-picked or we'd be here all year...) --

RHYS, did you...
Have adventures.
Be patient with John's "little failings which are too numerous to mention here.
Take up a new sport.

RHYS BOWEN: I guess I can count falling and fracturing my pelvis as an adventure--not one I would have chosen, but certainly one that made me incredibly grateful for all the things I take for granted--being able to walk, drive myself, dance, play with grandkids.
John's little failings... uh, I try.

Did I really say take up a new sport? What was I thinking? I guess my new sport had to be learning to use a walker! But I hiked 5 miles yesterday and maybe more today so all is well.

RO, did you...
Pay more attention to the library  in Tanzania.
Spend less time online.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I did! And...maybe I didn't.
We went back to Tanzania in February and we've committed to funding for another year so the library is still very  much in operation. We always need books though, so that's an ongoing challenge.

In the last six months I spent less time online but that had less to do with a conscious decision than just not having enough time. Oooh, Hallie, very sneaky of you to dig these up!

JAN, did you...
Exercise LESS.
Be more productive as a writer.

JAN BROGAN: Actually, the technical resolution - in my head if not in the blog - was to play less tennis. SO YES, I DID
play less tennis. The fact that I tore my ulnar nerve was EXTREMELY helpful in that regard. In fact, I even wonder if I kept pushing my elbow into injury for just that reason. As of last July, I haven't played ANY tennis. 

So overall, I have exercised less, even though I have started running again (only a couple of times a week) and I've been way more productive as a journalist. A little more productive as a fiction writer.  The new year's resolution this year is to finish my first draft of my historical novel.

JULIA, did you...
Swim at least three times a week.
Keep better in touch.
Finish the next book.

I can't believe it's been a whole year and I still haven't finished the book! Clearly, for 2013, I need to come up with some concrete ways to a) stop procrastinating, b) better manage my writing time vs. my motherhood/volunteer/other professional obligations c) be accountable for my word production. Any suggestions are welcome.

I've been a tiny bit better at keeping in touch with my family, worse at staying connected to my friends, but a lot better at communicating what's going on with my editor and agent - so overall, I'll put this in the plus column.

Except for this summer (when we do lots of things outdoors) I have been swimming at least semi-regularly, and my knees have continued to thank me for it. So this coming year? More of the same, except with specific goals instead of those open-ended resolutions.

HANK, did you...
Banish fear.
Envision yourself differently.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, yeah, I kind of did! In a kind of a sometimes-fearless way. (Interesting that those were among my resolutions. Good ones!) I do think I had some realization that we only have one life and if we don't go for it now, when will we? I even had an experiment, I will confess, where I went to a party and just said anything I wanted, without a filter.

And I do envision myself a bit differently, tentatively, carefully--someone told me I had to allow myself to "get big," like cats do when they're angry. Wow. That really works.

SO I'm keeping those resolutions for the next year, too! And being fearless about THE WRONG GIRL,  which I'm very happy with. (And the new book, for which I have NO IDEA. But I am not afraid!)

DEBS, did you...
Do the best you could.
Remind yourself often that you were doing the best you could., and wish all our friends and readers and very happy and productive new year!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hallie, good on you for reminding us what we resolved last year. And now that my curiosity is piqued, I'll have to go back to that blog post and see what else I SAID I was going to do. I know one resolution was "finish the book," and like you, I did. By the skin of my teeth, but I did.
I think I also resolved to have more productive work habits, and to be more organized. Not sure I achieved either. But, hey, I FINISHED THE DAMNED BOOK. (And it's good, too. THE SOUND OF BROKEN GLASS, out February 19th!)

Oh, and I lost ten pounds, although that wasn't a resolution. I'm calling it the "Stress over finishing the damned book diet."

LUCY, you escaped last year by seconding Rhys's list. Sneaky. So how'd you do?

LUCY BURDETTE: Geez, that was kind of lame, wasn't it? And you guys let me get away with that? And meanwhile poor Hank was supposed to banish fear? Yikes!
So I did have some adventures--a week on a bare-bones sailboat in the British Virgin Islands, when I am a weenie about the open sea and scary sea creatures, and get easily seasick (and did!) Snorkeling I think should count as my new sport...

Let's see, what else? Two books in one year was a big adventure:).

As for being patient with my John, I think I'll add that back onto this year's list because being kind to your life partner is always a win-win, don't you think? And I'm going to take one from Hallie for this year--chew more slowly--and one from Debs--remind myself that I'm doing the best I can. If I am. (And I'll try...) Happy new year everyone!

HALLIE: So how about the rest of you? Did you do what you promised yourself, or are you pushing those resolutions into 2013... or just accepting whatever tomorrow brings?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hot soup for a cold day


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  It's Sunday, we have almost two feet of snow on the ground (and falling) and that means soup at my house. I am the Queen of Quick Soups, many recipes of which I have from my mother, the Empress of Quick Soups. This start-with-one, end-with-two recipe is my own, however, devised by streamlining a couple more complicated soups into one easy process.


Start with two large soup pots. For both soups, you will need:

1/2 pound bacon, diced and divided
2 onions, chopped
diced potatoes - enough to fill each pot 3/4 full
chicken stock - enough to just cover the potatoes
4 bay leaves, divided

Saute half  the bacon with one onion in each pot. Fill with the diced potatoes, bay leaves, and cover with chicken stock. Boil gently until the potatoes are fork-tender. 

For the Baked Potato Soup:
1/4 to 1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 cup shredded chedder cheese or to taste

Add the sour cream and the cheese. Stir until melted, then add milk until the soup looks nice and chowder-y. 

For the Corn Chowder:

1 can corn
1 can creamed corn

Add the corn, creamed corn, and the milk until it, too is nice and chowder-like.

We go very low-sodium in my house, but you can add salt to taste. I always like to crack a goodly bit of pepper into the pot as well. If you are cooking vegetarian, substitute finely diced celery and butter for the bacon, and use vegetable broth instead of chicken. You can add faux bacon bits at the end, if you like. Serve with warm bread or rolls and a nice wine.

Speaking of recipe here on Jungle Reds, we served Deb Crombie's Christmas Cocktails at our Christmas Day dinner for 24 and they were a huge hit. Spencer, who was tending bar, added extra juice and sparkling water, so they were light and refreshing. I highly commend them for all your holiday parties!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best! Worst! The Reds Review 2012

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  Just a two more days to go until we can see 2012 out the door with a sigh of relief. Hurricanes, droughts, horrific murders and the longest presidential campaign in human history made this one for the record books - and not a minute too soon.

Still all of us here at Jungle Reds had our high and low points. For me, a big best-of moment was earlier this month, when my son Spencer received a congressional nomination to the service academies. We're still waiting to see if he gets an appointment, but it was a great way to cap off the year-long application process. A worst moment? Its a toss-up between blowing through yet another book deadline and my colonoscopy.

Best book? CLAWBACK by Mike Cooper, which took two subjects that usually make my eyes cross with incomprehension - high-end financial instruments cutting-edge computer manipulation - and turned them into a page-turning, deeply enjoyable mystery. Worst book? Any thriller that treats women like plot points with breasts. Guys, watch Bridesmaids a couple times, then go back for a second draft.
ROSEMARY HARRIS: Colonoscopy...was that one of the high points? Oh..just reread. ;-)

This may sound obnoxious but my regular life is so good that just sitting by the fire reading is a high point. We're still here. Nothing hurts. The house
didn't blow away in the storm. my husband survived a terrifying fall off a balcony. It's all good!
If pressed...finishing my first non-mystery. Obama getting re-elected.They were high points. Favorite book, hard to say and I'm sure I'm forgetting something from early in the year, but I really liked The Informationist. Least favorite - 50 SHADES. Give me a break. I had better sex than that when I was sixteen.

JULIA: I'm laughing out loud right now, Ro. 

HALLIE EPHRON: This year our daughter announced she was pregnant - it doesn't GET better than that. We also had an absolutely fabulous trip to Trinidad. We stayed in at the Asa Wright nature center and within the first twenty minutes, standing on their beautiful veranda overlooking the valley, identified 40 birds, species we'd never seen before (they have counted 460 species of bird). Took a hike into the wood and heard what sounded like an hammer hitting an anvil --  we knew it was the elusive bell bird, and that it was high in the canopy ahead of us. We stalked it, got it in our spotting scope, and just stood there marveling at one of the weirdest looking birds ever making its decidedly un-birdlike sounds.
Best book, hands down, EDGE OF DARK WATER by Joe R. Lansdale. Best movie? An oldie that somehow I'd missed: DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS.

On my worst list was dealing with a chimney that needed to be rebuilt. They had to break through the wall in the basement. What a mess. Soot coating everything... still.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, good stuff...lots of it. Book things mostly, which you know about.  Still constantly in delight about this mid-life career addition of being able to make things up.  I still look at Jonathan sometimes and forget that his heart is fixed--and I am so happy when I remember he's fine! The dot they took off my face was nothing. And I agree, a lot of little stuff. We inherited part of my mother and step-father's wine collection, so we are having fun with that!  And I saw geese flying in a V the other day and burst into applause.
Best book, ah, Trust Your Eyes, by Linwood Barclay. Terrific. And a new one by Becky Masterman called Rage Against the Dying.  Best movie? Besides Love, Actually? (which I watched AGAIN)--maybe ARGO, which was absolutely riveting.

My worst list? Interestingly, when a bad thing happens, I say to myself: someday I will forget this, so I'm going to start forgetting it now. The guest bedroom ceiling fell in last week because of a water leak-AT MIDNIGHT--but no one was hurt. And I'm forgetting about that now.

JAN BROGAN - On the best list was my daughter getting into UPENN Medical School and the lovely white coat ceremony in Philly. On the worst list is the investment banking firm my husband worked for in New York; the founding partners will someday find themselves in one of my mysteries as either the villains or the corpse.   Favorite book?  Either The Steve Jobs biography, Rules of Civility or Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (recommended to my by Debs).  Worst book:  It's hard to get any worse than Fifty Shades of Grey, which I'm convinced actually subtracts knowledge from you. Best movie: Argo.  Guilty Pleasure: the movie TED. Worst movie? I've forgotten it already. How about worst entertainment?  The Red Sox's last season.  I am still in mourning.
HANK: Jan, I am howling with laughter. It SUBTRACTS knowledge. Like celery and calories. Perfect. 

LUCY BURDETTE: Worst thing--so busy can't remember sh*t. Best thing--so busy can't remember sh*t:). Good news--two book out in 2012 and first-ever Publisher's Weekly review! Not good--lost my dad in January. He struggled at the end, but still he was my dad and I miss him dearly.

Read lots of good books this year, including Barbara O'Neal's THE 
GARDEN OF HAPPY ENDINGS and Vanessa Diffenbaugh's THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS. More good stuff: Lots of great friends and loving and lovable family and wonderful food and endlessly entertaining pets. And bad stuff--what is wrong with people in our world with all this shooting and fighting and negative energy? Let's hope and pray for better in 2013!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Best things--NO MARK UPON HER making the New York Times Bestseller list. A life-long dream. And finishing the next book.

Worst things--finishing the next book. You'd think I'd know by now that writing is really, really hard work. But there's always the NEXT book, which I'm sure I'll get written in a timely and organized manner...
Losing our dear fourteen-year-old dog, Hallie. We still miss her terribly.

But, best thing again, a new puppy to brighten our days--and wear us out. Viva Dax!

Movies? I think I'll go with a Best TV series. I LOVED Call the Midwife on 
PBS. I'd read one of Jennifer Worth's books when I was researching a book set in the East End, and they did a fabulous job of bringing the stories to life. (Take note, producers of Jack Reacher, etc. Worst movie? It would probably be Twilight something but I spared myself.

Best Book? So many! But I'm going to make it books and go with a find
from Jungle Red; James R. Benn's Billy Boyle series. I still have two books to go to catch up, and am anticipating them. Worst book? Again, I spared myself from Fifty Shades:-)

And best of all, all my family is safe and well.

JULIA: Clearly, ladies, in 2013 we need to go ahead with the book we outlined (with the help of several bottles of wine) at Hank and Jonathan's house: FIFTY SHADES OF SILVER, an erotic novel for the over-fifty set. (Sequels will be FIFTY SHADES OF READING GLASSES and FIFTY SHADES AARP.)

How about you, dear readers? Let us in on your own highs and lows, best and worsts of 2012!

Hallie's Bell Bird - strange, indeed. Maybe we should make it the official mascot of the Reds in 2013?

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Politics of Murder, Then and Now: a guest blog by Sam Thomas

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Here's something you don't know about me: I am deeply, deeply interested in 17th century Puritanism. My history concentration in college was the English Civil War; in grad school; New England Puritanism. My thesis in Law School was on the influence of the English Commonwealth's theologians on the Massachusetts colony's attempts at creating a Mosaic civil law. (Have I made your eyes roll into the back of your head yet?) 

I find England and America in the 17th century endlessly fascinating, but the period is almost unexplored in popular fiction. Which is why I got so excited when I heard about Dr. Sam Thomas. Late of Wittenberg University and UA Huntsville, Sam jumped off the tenure track to teach at University School in Ohio. He's also (lucky for me!) taken to crime fiction with The Midwife's Tale, which our own Rhys Bowen enthusiastically blurbed. Here's the cover copy for The Midwife's Tale:


It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer. 

What most interests me about the turbulent 17th century? The many parallels with our own 21st century culture. Today, Sam is going to tell us one of the ways the past informs the present.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the nation came together, united in support of the victims and their families. And then, at varying speeds, partisans in America’s culture wars returned to the ramparts intent on linking the killings to larger social ills. Those on the left took a practical approach, pointing to the woeful state of our mental health system and decrying the free and easy access to assault weapons. Some (though by no means all) on the political right have offered a different narrative, passing over the weapons the killer used in favor of the culture in which he lived. Charles Krauthammer went some distance down this road, and the NRA criticized “blood-soaked slasher films” and “vicious, violent video games with names like…Grand Theft Auto.”

While few observers can profess genuine surprise at these developments it is worth noting that the politicization of murder is no new thing. In the seventeenth century, England found itself in the midst of its own culture wars, as the nation split along religious lines between Puritans on one hand, and more moderate believers on the other. But whatever a faction’s religious leanings, when the blood started to flow each tried to turn it to their advantage. By looking back at these early modern conflicts, I would argue that we can gain a new perspective on our own society’s reaction to such a tragedy.

One Sunday in 1668, an apprentice named Thomas Savage slipped out of his master’s house and, instead of going to church, went to a brothel. When his money ran out so too did the fun, so one of the prostitutes urged him to rob his master and return. Thomas took this advice, but was discovered by a fellow servant who reprimanded him for his sinful life. He responded by beating her to death.

After his execution, a group of Puritan ministers published a book about Savage’s crime, and it is in their retelling that politics were injected into the story. According to the authors, Savage represented England’s depravity: he was a drunkard, a whoremonger, a thief, and a murderer. What is more, he killed his victim when she pointed out his sin and urged him to repent. From the Puritan perspective, this was how the world worked: They warned sinners of their impending doom, and the sinners responded with violence rather than thanks.

A few decades earlier, however, it was Puritanism’s enemies who spun a gruesome murder to their advantage after a young man named Enoch ap Evan murdered his brother and mother with an axe. While it is likely that Enoch was insane, this was not the explanation favored by Peter Studley, a virulent anti-Puritan.

According to Studley, Enoch represented the logical outcome of Puritanism. He was a religious fanatic who saw himself as one of God’s Elect, singled out for salvation no matter how sinful his life. In Studley’s telling, Enoch killed his family in a dispute over whether communion should be taken while kneeling, which Puritans viewed as a form of idolatry. As evidence of Enoch’s Puritanism, Studley cited his habit of walking for miles in search of Puritan preachers, and his over-heated dedication to religion. While Thomas Savage killed because he was not religious enough, Enoch killed because Puritan religion had filled him with pride.

What ties these cases together is that whether they are writing in the seventeenth century or the twenty-first, these culture warriors describe the world as they would like to see it. The Puritans who wrote about Thomas Savage imagined an England free from sin and dedicated to the Lord, while Studley envisioned an England united in belief as it had been before the rise of Puritanism.

In the same way, when those on the left look at Sandy Hook, they hope it will serve as a catalyst for better health care and tighter regulations on guns. The NRA, in contrast, imagines an America with fewer guns in video games, but many more in its elementary schools.

I suppose it is up to us to choose which vision of the future we wish to pursue.

Note: This interpretation of Enoch ap Evan’s case is drawn from Peter Lake, “Puritanism, Arminianism, and a Shropshire-Murder,” Midland History, Volume 15 (1990), pp. 37-64. The interpretation of Savage’s case is my own.

Something you've always wanted to know about Puritans? Or maybe you want to weigh in on your own favorite historical period - and its fiction? Join us on the back blog. One lucky commentor will get a copy of The Midwife's Tale!

You can find out more about Sam Thomas and read an excerpt from The Midwife's Tale at his website. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter as @SamThomasBooks, and delve into all things historical fiction at his blog, A Bloody Good Read

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  Twas the day after the day after Christmas(1), and all through the house, not a creature was stirring... certainly not the kids, who have decided the winter vacation means they get to sleep until one in the afternoon. 

Yes, parents, it's the most wonderful time of the year, when your collegiate offspring come home dragging giant duffle bags of dirty laundry and your high-schooler gets to revel in fun and friends, until December 29, when he will suddenly remember he has a twelve-page research paper due the day he gets back to school. Oh, and his teacher insists on references from books - can you drive him to the library?

How to survive the infestation visitation of your own little Magi? Here are a few tips:

1. Try to rein in the nocturnal lifestyle of your kids. Left to their own devices, teens and young adults will fall into a vampiric rhythm; rising close to sunset and staying up until the dawn. This means you'll only have a tiny slice of "family time," each twenty-four hours, as you are nestled all snug in your bed at 10:55, ready to watch the WHDH-TV 7 news(2) and then turn out the lights. 

Don't bother to demand your kids adhere to a bedtime - their laughter (or polite amusement) will only humiliate you. Instead, try the guerilla approach: wake everyone for snow shoveling detail at 8:00am. A couple days of dawn patrol will turn the creatures of the night into--well, not humans,  exactly, but at least they'll be more like the Cullens.(3)

2. Speaking of dragging them outside, your teens will tend to fall into one of two camps. The first will refuse to come out of her room except for meals, spending all her time instant messaging her friends on some social networking platform that you won't even know about until two years from now when the New York Times does an article namechecking it as the hot new trend.(4)

The other kid will only appear as a blur in the corner of your eye, as he slams out the door headed for the slopes/the gym/his friend's house/the dance club. 

If you are the parent of the shy woodland creature, try laying a trail of Cheetos and Diet Dr. Pepper from her doorway into the family room. You can then trap her into watching TV with the rest of the family.(5)  If your teen is Action Dude, it's even simpler to get him to participate in family fun: just withhold the money he needs for lift tickets/gas/snacks/admission. Offer him five bucks for every property he can accumulate in Monopoly, and watch board game night take off!

3. On the subject of money - and your teen or young adult will rarely stray off  the subject of money - prepare for the unexpected expenses of his or her stay at home. Your weekly shopping trip will turn to daily dashes to the store, as your high schooler consumes an entire loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter, and gallon of milk daily.(6) Your college kid, who has discovered ethical locovorism, will only eat guaranteed cruelty-free organic meats raised by farmers in your area code. 

Even if their exercise consists solely of walking from the table to the TV, both offspring will take daily half-hour long showers. Your electrical bill will not be spared, as your teens cannot be in a room without turning on the TV/radio/stereo/computer. Needless to say, turning off electrical devices and lights is not one of their skill sets. There is nothing, really, that you can do about these added expenses, except reflect that your child's room and board bill is perhaps not as unreasonable as you first thought.

4. After a few days wallowing in the detritus of crumpled wrapping paper and thrice-heated leftovers, everyone needs a break. I suggest the movies. There are some wonderful films out there right now that brilliantly illuminate family life:

     Les Miserables: What awaits you if you don't finish those college applications and get them in by January 2nd!
     The Hobbit: Will irresistibly remind you of your last family trip, complete with lousy food, unexpectedly bad accommodations, and that one person who really doesn't want to be there and lets everyone else know it.
     Jack Reacher. Did you know Jack Reacher is a West Point grad? It's true. Wouldn't you like to be like Jack Reacher? Get the damn application in, already. 

Good luck, my fellow parents. With patience, humor, a couple bottles of wine and a Zoloft or two, you can get through the vacation intact. If you have any other gems of wisdom, dear readers, please share it with the rest of us on the back blog. At the very least, when your kids come wandering through and ask what you're doing, you can tell them you're hanging with your online homies on some social media site they've never heard of.

(1)Yes, fellow liturgical fans, I  know it's really the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. I wasn't born in a barn.

(2)Help Me, Hank!

(3)Twilight reference, oldsters. Pale skin and deep circles under their eyes. If your teen actually glitters in sunlight, seek professional assistance.

(4)By that time, everyone under the age of thirty will have long abandoned it for something else you (and the New York Times) doesn't know about.

(5) Be ready to sacrifice Sixty Minutes and How I Met Your Mother for some obscure cable show about zombies or time-travelers. Feign enthusiasm: you may be able to entice your kid to show you her fanfiction on AO3. If she uses the word, slash, don't look. Take my word on this.

(6) How does he do that? I mean, really? Does he have reticulated jaws and an infinitely stretchable stomach, like a python? 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Yin and Yang of Writing: a guest post by Jenny Milchman

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The day after Christmas, thoughts tend to turn toward - well, yes, toward returns and post-Christmas sales, but also toward the New Year. A time to start fresh: a new calendar, new prospects, new resolutions. For many of us who write, the New Year will be marked with one important resolution: get that novel started. Or finished. Or both.

Jenny Milchman knows this resolution well. It took her eleven years, twenty-two drafts and a one hundred and eighty thousand word manuscript to get to the place she is now: awaiting the January 15th publication of Cover of Snow, a stunning thriller that's gotten rave pre-pub reviews from Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Louise Penny and Yours Truly. Obviously, the years spent honing her craft were well worth it. But how does a writer keep going? How does he or she handle the crazy ups and downs of the literary life? Jenny is going to tell us how to stay motivated and make that resolution a reality:

Writing is a craft that wears two faces. You know the ones I mean. There is the part where the writer finishes his or her day’s work, sits back, and smiles like the Cheshire Cat bathed in cream.

“Man, am I a good writer. Not a good writer. A great writer. In fact, a word has not been invented yet to describe what a fantastic writer I am. Maybe I should coin a word to describe what a great writer I am, like Lewis Carroll coined the word chortle. Lucky I’m such a great writer.”

A few days pass. Maybe the writer gives those pages out to some trusty readers. Maybe he or she submits them somewhere, or begins querying on the project. The feedback and rejections start trickling in.

“Man, do I suck. What made me think I should let anyone even read this dreck that just came spilling out of my incompetent fingertips? I am such a bad writer, not writing isn’t sufficient consequence for me. I shouldn’t stop writing, I should stop living.”

Right now you’re either nodding in recognition, or looking at me like I’m crazy. Maybe I am crazy. I’m a writer. This passion of ours could drive a person nuts.

I started writing my first novel in 1998 (I’m not including that Victorian-esque thing I wrote when I was studying English Lit in college, or the ones with magic marker illustrations from when I was six.) I was an intern pursuing a graduate degree in psych, and I had this very intense case. I think the reason I’d never finished a real novel before was because I thought I had to write something like the classics I’d studied, and hadn’t come to the fairly obvious realization that you should write what you like to read (even if you’re not going to write what you know).

What I read was suspense. Thrillers. Mysteries. And now I had a case that was right out of a suspense novel, and don’t we all start with something autobiographical? So I created a sleuth who was, what else, a psychologist-in-training. And got her into all sorts of fixes. 180,000 words later, I was done. My novel wasn’t, but you couldn’t tell that to me. I was firmly embedded in the every-word-I-wrote-is-a-freaking-miracle phase, and refused to revise until a handful of kindly agents showed me the error of my ways.

There’s another aspect of writing that wears two faces, like one of those tragedy/comedy masks from theater, and that’s publishing.

Cruelest business in the world. It could make you long to be a coal miner. (I fully understand that coal mining is harder than any day ever spent at a computer. Just sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.)

A hasty auto-sent rejection might be the only response you see to your carefully crafted query and the pages you suffered through the aforementioned yin and yang of writing to create. And that’s if you’re lucky. You might get no rejection, no response at all, and just be left hoping day after day after day that this could be the morning when your pages are finally read. And that the agent will call to say she or he didn’t even bother signing you before getting you a major book deal and selling the film rights to boot.

But every yin has its yang, and one day that tragic scowl just might flip.

I wrote eight novels, signed with three agents, and stayed on more or less continuous submission for eleven years before the magic happened, and so I know just why people keep at this for so long.

When the publishing game is going well, there is no greater high. Publishing is like gambling, writing is, too, and we risk it all every time we sit down at our machines, or take out a pad and a pen, or slide a slice of paper into a typewriter (which I hear is gaining in popularity again).

Of course, typewriters are gaining in popularity again! At least a rejection won’t ever come in on one.

But this could be the day that your agent calls on the honest-to-goodness telephone, instead of emailing, to say that an editor wants to buy your book.

And when you get that call, you’re not going to remember the fifty or eighty or hundred form rejections, all the months (years) spent on submission, getting close but smoking no cigars, or anything else from the tails side of this particular coin. You’re rolling heads now, baby, and there is no better business than this.

Which is only reasonable, you chortle.

After all, the pages you just submitted were the very best ones ever penned in the entire history of the world.

Until you look at them again the next day.

How about you, dear reader? Is this the year you're going to write that novel? Or are you just looking forward to reading some great new ones? Let us know!


Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and in an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. Her first novel, Coverof Snow, will be published by Ballantine in January.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

From all of us at Jungle Red Writers, to all our friends, family, and readers, we wish you a holiday season filled with great joys and quiet moments both.


A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye
Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves,
And also the partridge in a pear tree
And the golden rings and the turtle doves.
In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue
Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled,
Enduring the cold and also the flu,
Taking the garbage out and keeping the sidewalk shoveled.
Not much triumph going on here—and yet
There is much we do not understand.
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand.
Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
And are there angels singing overhead? Hark.

- Gary Johnson

Monday, December 24, 2012

Yes, Virginia,...

     DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
     Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
     Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
     Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

                               VIRGINIA O'HANLON.
                               115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Have you noticed a lot of people seem to get their noses
out of joint about Santa these days? Maybe it's just on the Internet, where we all feel compelled to give our unvarnished opinion as firmly as possible, but it seems like there's a cloud of disapproval over the jolly old elf. There are folks who don't like Santa elbowing infant Jesus out of the picture. There are folks who dislike Santa's tie-in to the commercial feeding frenzy. But most of the comments I've seen are from virtuous citizens who are shocked and appalled that we are LYING to CHILDREN. Won't someone think of the children?

As someone who makes a living by writing down lies and convincing others to buy them, this doesn't particularly bother me. I'm a great proponent of myths, fables, fairy tales and fiction. I've taught my kids that they should never let the truth interfere with a good story. There are many things that ought to be fixed in our society today, but an excess of fancy is not one of them.

Besides, I believe in good Saint Nick, and I'm, shall we say, considerably older than eight. When I was ten or eleven or so, my mother sat me down and had a serious talk with me. She explained that Santa was the spirit of loving and giving, and as such, could never die. The details of how that love and generosity made their way into the world were not the important part.

So how about you, Reds? What have you taught your kids or grandkids - and what did you believe when you were a little girl? What's your take on Father Christmas and his fellow travelers -  fairies and angels, ghosts and golems?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I'm with you, Julia! I say, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story--or elf!" People who won't let their kids believe in Santa are just big spoilsports, in my opinion. My parents never had the "the talk" with me. They knew by the time I was about seven that I knew they were Santa, but everyone enjoyed the tradition too much to give it up.

We still have Santa at our house--only now my daughter does my stocking. I track Santa on NORAD on Christmas Eve.  Why take a little magic away from children, or grown-ups, when there is so much sadness in the world?

JULIA:   Deb, as an Air Force and Army kid, I used to listen to the hourly updates on Santa's flight on the Armed Forced Radio Service. Now, like you, the kids and I follow along online.

RHYS BOWEN: I'm another who has never stopped believing. We have one daughter who told her kids from day one that there was no Santa, and another daughter whose kids still half believe at ten (she's also the one who has her daughters put out their shoes on the night of the full moon and the moon fairy leaves a treat). The plan is always to keep these two families apart at Christmas time.

I think any ounce of innocence or magic has to encouraged in this commercial world where the media is full of violence and tragedy.

HANK PHILLIPI RYAN: This is the strangest thing. Reading your question, I asked myself--did I ever truly believe in Santa?  A person in a red suit who came down the chimney,etc?   And I don't remember. I don't remember. Oh. Did I just get old?

I DO remember, at some point, thinking "that's pret-ty unlikely." Don't get me wrong. Omens? Yes. ESP? Yes. Alien life on other planets? Possible.

JULIA: And thus, an investigative reporter was born.

HANK: I believe in secret gifts, and secret good deeds, and anonymous charity and outrageous tips for the holiday season.  But, did I ever believe in Santa? Let me think about that.

HALLIE EPHRON: I don't remember ever believing in Santa Claus, either. I remember thinking Santa was like the Wizard of Oz, a character in a story. Which was wonderful enough. I just asked my kids and they don't remember believing in SC either, though my younger remembers being terrified of him (she had a very bad feeling about the Easter Bunny, too.)

For me Christmas wasn't about religion or Santa Claus, it was about gifts and traditions passed down. And of course, food. Christmas morning: buttery scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and Wolferman's jams... growing up, it was the ONLY morning my mother ever cooked and the only breakfast we all sat down to together.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh yeah, I believed in Santa. But when my sister (who is eleven months older than me) asked my parents how come the poor kids didn't get as much stuff as we did for Christmas, they sat us both down and told us the truth. I was shocked, I tell you, shocked. The curtain yanked away from the wizard at the age of seven.

But after that it was kind of fun to help spin the story for my two younger siblings. We made up a tradition called an "elf tree", which involved elves leaving a big branch decorated with ribbons and little presents on the front porch on Christmas eve. The whole family is still very attached to stuffing stockings with good loot--not too heavy on the tangerines and nuts, thank you very much:). Here's a joke I played on my family the year after someone complained that my stocking seemed to have more in it than theirs...

  (Bobbie is Lucy/Roberta's family nickname)

JULIA:  I'm sure they were very pleased to see what Santa had brought them, Lucy!

I'm going to leave the final word to my favorite author, Lois McMaster Bujold. From her book, MIRROR DANCE:

     “It’s like trying to give a Winterfair gift to Father Frost himself."
     “Yes, I’ve been puzzling over that one.”
     “Sometimes you can’t give back. You just have to give on. Did you, ah … sign those credit chits to the clones?”
     “Sort of. Actually, I signed them ’Father Frost.’ ” Mark cleared his throat. “That’s the purpose of Winterfair, I think. To teach you how to … give on. Being Father Frost is the end-game, isn’t it?"

     "I think so.”
     “I’m getting it figured out,” Mark nodded in determination.
 How about you, dear readers? Will you be leaving milk and cookies out tonight?