Monday, March 31, 2008

Stress Ball

HALLIE: It's morning, prime writing time. I'm working away and the phone rings. I race across the house to get it, pick up and hear "Hi there! I'm looking for the woman of the house." "She's not here," I snarl and shoot the receiver back in its cradle (our house phone,believe it or not, has a rotary kids' friends don't know how to use it.)

Before I'm back in my home office, my office phone rings. A different woman's voice is on the other end: "I'm calling from the Patriot Ledger." Before she can go on, I say, "I'm not interested in getting the Ledger," and smack the phone down.

Instant remorse. Within seconds I'm agonizing--have I have just mouthed off all snarky-like to a reporter calling to interview me about my latest book? Probably not. But still, it's one of those lessons I've learned the hard way...even when you don't feel like it, BE NICE! Because you never know which call or event or person will turn out to be THE ONE who gives your career that little extra noodge. Not to mention the fact that there's entirely too much negative energy floating around in our universe, why add to it?

Sometimes you've just gotta suck it up and smile 'til it aches. Have you found that it pays to always always always play nice, and that breaks can come from the least expected places?

JAN: When I was in high school, I took a six week job telemarketing for the local paper. It was the hardest six weeks of my life. I'm always nice to telemarketers, even as I dismiss them. I'm a little harder on people looking for charitable contributions -- especially police or fire organizations -- since I've done a lot of stories about fraudulent charities and paid soliciters who get 75 percent of the take. I ask A LOT of questions and sound like a hardass, but I still try to be civil.

And yes, I think the world has enough negative energy in it to fuel a power plant. I think that both negative and positive energy are sort of contagious. So why not spread positive energy --even if it isn't even related to a big break.

I should add that I think its equally important to stand up for yourself. And not be "nice" when you need to be direct and honest. Ah,but determining which way to go.... that's the fine art.

HANK: The voice on the phone says--oh so casually, and friendly-like--is John there? My husband's name is Jonathan, and no one calls him John. So this ain't no friend. My hackles go up. Suspicious.

No, he isn't, I say. Hissing. May I take a message?

When they say no, I stop them. Who is this,I demand? And it's always someone raising money, and pretending to be someone Jonathan knows in order to get him to come to the phone. I truly hate that.

But when there's a little voice on the phone, a tentative person who's a telemarketer, I say--look. I know you're just doing your job. But I'm never never never going to buy whatever you're selling. SO you'll be better off calling someone else.

And if someone calls to ask me to take a survey, I always do it. I'm such a dupe. But I think they get money if someone answers the questions, and I figure, why not. They might be--a poor college student. And I am lucky and happy. So many times, you do something, and then it turns out to have roots and legs and ramifications. And you wonder--wow. What if I had...or hadn't...

But, yeah, Hallie. I can see where you would have a moment of wondering--was that the book editor who wanted to do a big article on me and now he/she is calling (insert competitor here) because I was rude? It wasn't, of course. (And a reporter would have called back, right?) But it may have been the universe sending you a little signal. So thanks for passing it on. We can all use it.

ROBERTA: Here's my new screening technique: When someone I don't recognize asks for me--or my husband--I say we're not home and can I take a message. The telemarketing types say they'll call another time. What are they going to do, insist I'm really me? And Hank, I never answer surveys unless it's related to a product I already bought. My life seems to be so full of tedious little time-wasters these days. And that makes me a little crabby...and that makes me rude when interrupted...which isn't good for the universe's energy...

I think I'd better go pop my yoga tape in right this minute.

RO: I had to laugh...I'm in Charlottesville VA now for the VA Festival of the Book. I called my husband last night and he picked up the phone and snapped "Don't call here!" I thought..that's it, he's finally sick of me and the endless tour..or wait a Bambi there? Did I interrupt something? Of course I called right back and he explained that he had gotten 3 telemarketers in a row and he was convinced I was a fourth.

Generally when there's a half second of silence before someone asks to speak to me, I just say no..assuming it's a telemarketer. I hate to talk on the phone anyway. I'm much more of an email person.

HANK: May I just add? If you call me at home I probably won't answer. My husband and I always have a litle flurry of--you get it. No, you get it. No, it's going to be your mother. No, it isn't. Then we let it go to voice mail.Why should we do what the phone tells us to do? (Hallie, how did we get to talking about this instead of about being nice?)

HALLIE: Because we're all stressed, and besides, it's so much more fun to talk about being snarky.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Shoes tell.....

Hank's post about nurses salaries being based on what they wear (see yesterday's comments) falls into the "as if we needed any further proof" category. Have you ever noticed how differently you can be treated based on what shoes you are wearing?

I'm in the habit of wearing black New Balance athletic shoes when I have a lot of running around (no pun intended) to do in NYC. I made the mistake of wearing them to a new hair salon - my colorist has just moved and whither she goest - and I'm convinced that they treated me badly because I looked like what in NYC is referred to as "bridge and tunnel."

The flip side of that was when I brought pointy, ankle strap shoes to a work thing and got looks that suggested "my god, there's a woman in there!"
What do your shoes say about you?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Guest blogger Blaize Clement

RO: In one of the first reviews for Pushing Up Daisies, some delightful person wrote in Library Journal that .."writers like Rosemary Harris and Blaize Clement were redefining cozy..."

Well call me happy. I realize I'm a newcomer, but how that four letter C word is still in use is a little beyond me..but that's another blog...

Anyway, I had read one Dixie Hemingway book (Blaize's series) and despite the appearance of the word catsitter in the title, Even Catsitters Get the Blues, the b0ok - and the author - are more edgy, quirky, a little naughty, and laugh out loud funny than you might think!
I was lucky enough to meet Blaize at Sleuthfest last month and asked her to come visit us at Jungle Red.

Here's Blaize's take on Inner Critics....something I know I can identify with and I bet you can, too.

Maybe mystery writers are harder on themselves than other people, or maybe we're just more willing to admit it. Whatever, it seems like any time I talk to another mystery writer, we end up laughing and/or groaning about our inner critics. Mine not only wakes me in the middle of the night to tell me I've given a singular verb to a plural noun, it also condemns my work habits. If I sleep late one morning and slog around all day in a ratty robe and slippers and don't write a lick but eat potato chips and watch some sappy tear-jerker on TV, my inner critic immediately scorns me for being a loser who sleeps late and slogs around in her robe and eats potato chips. It doesn't stop there, either. It goes on to say I'll always be a loser and there's nothing I or anybody else in the whole friggin' universe can do about it.

On other days, even if I set my alarm for an ungodly hour when birds aren't awake yet, my inner critic continues to sneer at my slothfulness. So I eat oatmeal for penance and work nonstop to demonstrate that while I may be a potato-chip-eating slob, I am valiantly trying to become disciplined, not to mention shampooed and flat-ironed. I'm perfumed too, because my inner critic says I should use up all those free cosmetic-counter samples before they evaporate. Not that they have anything to do with writing, but because scent evaporation would be wasteful and therefore further proof of my slothfulness. Besides, if I don't try them I'll never know how they smelled, which would be some kind of loss of an opportunity for research, and God knows being a writer carries with it a mandate for research.

There's also the matter of dress. My inner critic would prefer me to be the kind of writer who wears floaty hand-painted silk dresses with vague ruffles falling from them. That will never happen, of course, no matter how good I smell, but if a movie is ever done of my life I hope the actress playing me will wear things like that. That's one place where my inner critic and I are in agreement, although I doubt I'd be a better writer if my jeans didn't have shaggy edges.

The only good thing about my inner critic is that she's been around as long as I have, and both of us have become a bit less tyrannical. Sometimes I catch her shrugging her shoulders and rolling her eyes in a who-the-blip-cares way, pretty much like I do about a lot of stuff that used to make me rabid. My hope is that the next time I sleep late and slog around all day in my pj's and watch dumb movies and eat potato chips, she'll approve it as research.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

House of...worth?

She's not exactly one of us, if one of us means mystery writer in the traditional sense, but Edith Wharton was a woman who wrote when it wasn't easy for a woman to write, with a husband who wasn't always supportive, (can you say aggressively unsupportive?) A woman who kept at it whatever the feedback was. In that sense she was one of us. And now her house is under seige, in danger of being foreclosed on by a bank. It happens. The bank is not the enemy, but that's not the point.
The Mount, in Lenox Massachusetts is a wonderful place. I feel particularly sad about this, not just because I'm an Edith Wharton fan, but because the garden in Pushing Up Daisies was loosely based on Wharton's garden at The Mount. I had an inspirational visit there a few years back and thought that Edith or Beatrix Farrand, who designed her gardens, were long past minding a similar layout in my book.
If this were Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West I wouldn't to be writing this. I wouldn't need to. Some professor or university or movie star would pick up the gauntlet and raise the money needed to prevent his home from being turned into condos or a spa or whatever the heck new owners might want to do with the property.
Any other Edith Wharton fans out there? The place where she created masterpieces of American literature should be preserved and you can help. Check out
HANK: She's one of my favorites. In fact, when I still was in a book club (pre-Charlie) and we all got to choose a book for the group, I picked Custom of the Country--which if you haven't read, do. It's astonishingly modern and incredibly well-written. A wonderful story--compelling and irresistible, with a complicated and unique main character, and no punches pulled.
And then, half of my book group just hated it. Which has always baffled me. I thought it was staggering. And House of Mirth. Sometimes I just can't get it out of my mind.
But anyway--we go to Lenox every summer, to hear the symphony at Tanglewood and walk through the sculpture garden at Chesterwood and go to the Book Store on Housatonic Street and have espresso slushes at Soco and martinis at Bistro Zinc. And we never miss The Mount. We've seen it through the highs and lows, and watched Wharton's one-act plays performed in her parlor, had lemonade on the balcony.
Now its kind of weirdly re-made into a decorators show house kind of place, where they've designed rooms that aren't even the way "Edith's" were, which frankly drives me crazy. Because--what's the point? Plus, she was the expert and icon in architecture and decorating before she went on to literature, and the idea that they...oh, well.
Anyway. Ro is so right. The idea that it's going to be foreclosed on seems bizarrely anachronistic. Or something like that. To take such a 21st century phenomenon, and slap it across an historic site. Seems, what? Crass? Absurd? Short-sighted? And do what with it? Make the Mount a furniture store?
HALLIE: "Custom of the Country." Check--now it's on my TBR list. Still, can you imagine how bizarre it would be to look back from your grave, 70-plus years post mortem, and see the world trying to make the place where you wrote into a monument?? And how heavenly(!) it would be if anyone would be blogging (will they still blog?) about your writing.
HANK: Who owns it, anyway?
RO: It´s the Edith Wharton Foundation, and try as I might I wasn´t able to find the suggestion any mishandling of seems they just got caught up in some unfavorable loans and bad refinancing deals. I have to say...I´m writing this from El Salvador..where I´m finishing up a blitz build with Habitat for Humanity. Fifty four houses are going up (pix on my website in a week or so) for less than it would cost to...I don´t know... replace Edith´s azaleas. It´s strange to have these two situations side by side in my brain, but I do.
ROBERTA: Now I've got Custom of the Country on my TBR list too. Have never been to Edith Wharton's home, but I did tour Hemingway's house in Key West this winter--twice. The place is constantly mobbed with tourists who want to hear the story of his life--he had four or five wives, I can't remember, and was a hard-drinking, adventurous and tragic figure in the end. You would absolutely salivate over the room where he wrote. It would be very sad to see Wharton's--or Hemingway's--home disappear. This is the kind of "museum" where ordinary people can go to appreciate the mastery and humanness of writers.
RO: Does anybody else think Hank has the coolest life? Espresso slushes..? Martinis? Tanglewood..every time I go, it rains.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hurray for independent bookstores day!

ROBERTA: We hear so much bad news about independent bookstores closing, I thought we could use a day to celebrate our favorites. I'm lucky to live in Madison, CT, which hosts one of the best bookstores in the country, RJ Julia. But I love each indy I've visited because of their interesting selections, friendly, well-informed booksellers, and wealth of events they bring to a community. Can you think of a better way to spend an afternoon than perusing a room full of books and choosing which you'll bring home? (I'm making it sound like a singles bar--trust me, the bookstore experience wins hands down!)

To celebrate independent bookstores on "Anything can happen Friday", here are links to two blog posts that feature some of those stores. The first article (I should confess) is from my own husband's website, Top Retirements, in which he ponders whether you can choose a retirement community by its bookstore. The second essay is from Jim Huang, owner of the Mystery Company, an independent mystery bookstore in Indiana. He talks about his store's involvement in the community.

And now your turn--tell us about your favorite bookstore. And then go out and buy some books today!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I'm so excited to bring you a special guest blogger for Wacky Wednesday! Kathryn R. Wall lives in the South Carolina Lowcountry where her series of mystery novels is set. Her eighth book, The Mercy Oak, which features widowed financial consultant and part-time detective Bay Tanner, will be released April 29.

I've gotten to know Kathy through her work as treasurer of Sisters in Crime. I'm truly in awe that one person can be so gifted with both words and numbers. Read on to hear her take on when it's time to stop writing a series. Welcome Kathy!

Thanks, ladies, for inviting me to share your forum. I enjoy your postings, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute—hopefully—to the dialogue.

I haven’t written a word on my new manuscript for more than two weeks, which is an extended drought for me. True, I’ve been occupied elsewhere. My husband was hospitalized for four days with a scary infection. His recuperation is occupying most of my time and energy, and writing has been the last thing on my mind. Still, I have a deadline, and I need to get back in the game before too much longer.

The eighth Bay Tanner mystery, The Mercy Oak, will be released at the end of April. I’m working on the 2009 book now, and I have to say that, for the most part, I’m still loving the process as well as the characters I’ve created over the past eleven years. It’s tremendously gratifying when people approach me at a signing or speaking event and talk about Bay and the Judge and Red and Lavinia as if they were real people. The nicest compliment I’ve ever received was from a reader who said Bay was like an old friend who owed her a letter—she needed to catch up on what had been happening in Bay’s life. I’ve worked hard at allowing my principal characters to grow and evolve through the triumphs and tragedies I’ve made them face, and I feel as if they still have stories and secrets to reveal to me.

What I’m wondering about this morning is if I’ll know when it’s time to stop.

Of course, that decision may be taken out of my hands. It’s happened to a lot of my writer friends whose series have been dropped by their publishers for one reason or another. But I’m thinking about authors like Sue Grafton, Marcia Mueller, and others whose series entries exceed twenty books. (I’ll probably be in the “home” before I get that far.) These talented writers continue to captivate faithful readers and garner new ones despite their works’ spanning a couple of decades.

We can all remember television series that went on one season too long—Fonzie “jumping the shark” springs immediately to mind. Yet I think the final episode of M*A*S*H still holds the record for the largest viewing audience ever. We see it, too, with professional athletes who play past their prime. And getting back on track, there are certainly authors who keep grinding them out—no names, please—with what seems to be a decreasing level of the excellence and energy they began with, simply mailing it in, or so it seems. That’s a sorority I certainly don’t want to pledge. But the question persists: how do you know when it’s time to fold your tent gracefully and steal away into the night? Will there be a sign—flashing lights in the sky, an inner voice shouting in your ear?—that says it’s time to move on to something else?

If I had the answer, I wouldn’t be posing the question. I’m hoping some of the regulars here may have some wisdom to pass along. I’ll admit it’s a dilemma aspiring writers dream about having, so please don’t throw tomatoes at your monitors. They make a real mess.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Stars in Our Eyes

"You don't have to be a star, baby, to be in my show..." Marilyn McCoo stars

ROBERTA: Don't take this the wrong way, girls, because of course each one of you is a star in my eyes! But I wrote this post from Left Coast Crime in Denver where the guest of honor this year was Stephen White, one of my steady favorite crime fiction writers. White has just seen the 16th book in his Alan Gregory series published this month. I own every one of these books in hardcover--they feature a clinical psychologist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado. I haven't loved all the books equally, but I do love the world he's constructed and the people he's filled it with. (Okay, not all of them. I'm really hoping the wife will be cut loose, but that's another story.) Like me, White worked as a psychologist before he started writing so he really understands that universe. And he gets it absolutely right in his books. And he's a huge commercial success to boot. I'm full of admiration.

He doesn't travel the mystery convention circles much, so a sighting is fairly rare. Which of course didn't stop me from asking him for advice about getting published back in 1999. I can't remember what he told me but there was a long line of fans waiting so when the throat-clearing behind me began to drown out our conversation, I finally had to step aside. A couple years later, I invited him to appear on a panel of psychologists writing crime fiction. He politely turned us down--family obligations. And a few years after that, I asked if he'd consider reading DEADLY ADVICE for possible blurb. He reported that his publisher told him he had to stop, he was becoming a "blurb whore." It's even possible that that was the second book I'd asked him to blurb. Umm, these things do run together.

So anyway when I saw him behind the book counter at the hotel in Denver, I quickly bought DEAD TIME and hurried over to introduce myself and ask him to sign it.

"I know who you are," he said.

Of course he knew who I was, see paragraph two above. And then he wrote a lovely inscription about how it was an honor to be on my bookshelf and I stumbled off happy, with stars in my eyes.

Your turn to dish now, Jungle Red Writers. Tell us about meeting your favorite writer.

RO: Oooh, this is a tough one. I've met so many great people in the last year. My, ahem, admiration for a certain tall, thriller writer is well-documented so I needn't go into that again.

I'd have to say two women have blown me away with their kindness and generousity - and I was a fan anyway...Carolyn Hart and Barbara D'Amato. The first time I met Carolyn, we'd had a few email exchanges, but I never imagined she'd remember me..she called me Ro, as if she'd been doing it for years. I instantly loved her. And I was lucky enough to sit at Barb D'Amato's table at Malice last year. She's extremely cool, and maybe just as tough as Cat Marsala.

Then again, I gushed pretty good when I met Laura Lippman. I'd just read What the Dead Know, and had sent her an email. I said hello to her at Malice and she said, "didn't you send me an email?" I was like a fourteen yr-old meeting Miley Cyrus. This is embarassing..I'd better stop at those three...

HANK: Well, Ro, you and I both share the tall-thriller-writer syndrome. But it's only because he's so incredibly talented.

I must say, I was pretty intimidated when I first met Hallie. She was teaching a writing class, and I felt like a third-grader. I once wanted to tell Sarah Strohmeyer what an amazing panel she gave, and it was all I could do to put a coherent sentence together. Katherine Hall Page, as gracious and warm and friendly as anyone could be. She came up to me to introduce herself! Puh-lease! And Sara Paretsky--beyond charming. Here I was, new as anyone could possibly be, with my brand new book cover just out that day, and she insisted on seeing it. Just as if she wasn't at the top of the Pantheon (can that be?) and me just a beginner.

I gushed at Julia Spencer-Fleming, I'm embarrassed to say, and was hoping she didn't notice. I talked about the genius and warmth of John Lescroart so much that my usually patient husband began to roll his eyes. But the worst I've ever been was with Robert Pinsky. I asked a question at one of his poetry readings, and he said "good question, it's clear you've read my stuff." Or something like that. And twinkled at me. (or so I thought.)

Well, that was it for me. Pinsky Fan Club president? Any day.

You've got to admit, Roberta, that it shows what a wonderful community this is. If you had asked--who was NOT nice to you? I can't really think of anyone.

Oh, wait. (Smiling.) Yes, I can. But she doesn't write mysteries... And I'll never tell.

HALLIE: The biggies for me... I got to interview Michael Connelly about plotting at last year's Book Passage Mystery Writing Conference. I'd boned up by reading his then latest, THE NARROWS, and my copy of the book is still papered with Post-Its with quotes and questions I wanted to ask. Turns out he plots by the seat of his pants, but an analysis of the book's structure reveals that tried-and-true three-act structure. It's simply the organics of the novel. Second biggie was when I met Ian Rankin at R. J. Julia's in Connecticut and interviewed him for a piece I was writing for Writer magazine. He's got rapscallion eyebrows and still smokes, and his real passion is the city of Edinburgh. Another seat-of-the-pants writer who lets his characters guide him, and oh what chararcters they are. Third--Nancy Pickard. I interviewed her at Bouchercon in Madison for another article. I'd loved-loved-loved VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS and was dying to know how she'd come up with her opening scene, which is a knockout, so perfect for setting up that story and those characters. Turned out, the opening scene was the LAST scene she'd written. Three interviews...restored my faith in writing from the gut (combined with prodigious talent, of course).

JAN: Okay guys, since you have hit all the crime thriller stars, I'm going to go in COMPLETELY different direction. On Valentine's Day, my husband and I were doubledating with my good friends Beth and Steve. Beth works for public television on the Between the Lions children's show. We were joined on our date by one of her colleagues and his girlfriend. Her colleague was Chris Cerf, whose name you may or maynot have ever heard, but he's a songwriter. And he wrote all my favorite Sesame Street songs, including Put Down the Duckie and Monster In the Mirror.
Yes, I admit, I was starstruck over Seasame Street.
Besides always watching the show with my kids,I had the tape of those songs and my son and I sang every single song on that tape pretty much every day for months....years....??? Honestly, I felt like I was meeting one of the Beatles. I pretty much gushed all during the dinner. The best part was that Chris, unlike the Beatles, apparently never gets a lot of gushing, so he was thrilled too. Then the six of us went out to hear Marcia Ball sing jazz at Skullers and she covered one of Chris's grown up jazz tunes that night in the club. It was pretty cool. (And my son, now 18-years old and writing his own songs, thought so, too.)

ROBERTA: Ok now I've thought of tons of other names, but enough about us! Let's hear from the Jungle Red readers: what writers in the flesh gave you a thrill? (Oh heck, you know what I mean...)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

LORI On Aging

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.
****Edith Wharton

HANK: So Edith had it right--about so many things. Still, you've got to admit, the aging thing has its downside. But if anyone can make the downside have an upside, it's the always hilarious Lori Avocato. You know her from her series of mystery novels, and from mystery and romance conventions--she's the one in the middle of group where everyone is laughing.
And she's now the Chief Commanding Officer of the Mystery Chix and Private Dix, a fab and funny group of mystery/romantic suspense authors making its debut at the upcoming Romantic Times Convention. (Some of us Chix and Dix are going to wear costumes. Not me. I'm going to dress up like someone who knows what they're doing at such a convention. That'll fool 'em.)

Anyway, besides her very funny mysteries about nurse Pauline Sokol (the newest is Dead On Arrival), Lori's branching out into other writing. Essays on whatever strikes her fancy! And we convinced her to try one out on anything-can-happen-Friday on JungleRed.

Ah, aging gracefully.

Who the heck came up with that one? I mean, as far as clich├ęs go, this one has to be right up there with good things come in small packages--leaving out: cars, houses, boats, planes etcetera.

Here’s how graceful aging can be. Your eyesight starts to blur so you can’t even read the newspaper without glasses you rarely can find, and soon the food on your plate blends into a fog of color. Thank goodness the sense of smell doesn’t go as quickly or we might starve.

“What?” becomes a frequent flyer off of your tongue. Of course if you have teenagers, who tend to mumble, your hearing may not be as bad as you think or at least as bad as they claim it is. But before you go spending a gazillion dollars on a hearing aid, have your ears checked. My doctor told me to tell my kids to speak up, and I’d save a gazillion dollars.

Skin is the body’s first defense against infection. When it gets cut, the chance of getting germs inside your body highly increases. So why with the “aging” process does the skin insist on increasing? Are we more prone to infection mid-life that the skin over our eyes droops down to nearly impede our vision? Does the skin below our jaw line really need to stretch out and fold itself over and over and over? And, really, does the skin of our upper arms have get my point.

Aging gracefully? Puleeze.

Those creaking sounds you hear in this graceful process are your joints. Joints that have “matured” so that bone clicks against bone, causing you to “ooh,” “ah,” “aye,” and all together writhe in pain as you merely stand up from your seat, making it difficult to appear poised.

One would think that we’d want to spend less time sleeping as we hit the middle age mark of our years. I mean, if this is halfway shouldn’t we be going gangbusters the next half so as not to waste any time?

Let me put it this way: I call my daily naps “power siestas.” Somehow this legitimizes them and certainly lets others think that I am aging gracefully. After all, a power siesta implies, well, that I am powerful and following a tradition practiced by many countries for years. Surely it has to be good for us along with a proper diet.

Ah, diet and exercise. They really should go hand in hand. I’m not saying part of aging is dieting. Far from it. I think if you hit your eighties, you should imbibe in whatever strikes your fancy. In your seventies you should imbibe in half of whatever strikes your fancy and so on. Who cares if you enjoy a daily Martini, a cupcake or two, or a handful of salty potato chips? Age smage.

When I say diet I do not mean eating only grapefruits, all carbs, no carbs, carbs disguised as food (don’t get me started on “Tofurky”) or any other “diet.” I mean our daily intake of food--balanced from all the food groups (which I understand has recently been overhauled. However, I refuse to do any research on the new group structure unless chocolate has been added as the tip of the pyramid.) Against our wishes, we are what we eat seems to be proven on a daily basis.

To age gracefully, we really do need to keep moving. Our joints will attest to the fact that the longer we remain immobile our bodies will assume this should be our position for all eternity and give get my point.
So, motion seems to be a very good idea. Daily walking, swimming, playing tennis, or doing mild aerobics is all part of the process. However when we hit middle age, the word exercise receives an honorary degree into the four-letter words hall of fame. A necessary evil. Oh we can try doing it in tandem with a friend, a group, or to jazzy music, but the thought of that power siesta always teases our bodies as we age gracefully.

I chuckle when a relative or friend now says they just can’t seem to wake up as early in the morning or they now take their own version of my power siesta every afternoon.

The irony of life and this thing called “aging gracefully” slaps us in our faces once again.

Age gracefully, one and all, and do not under any circumstances remain stationary for more then thirty-three minutes at a time.
If this is a slice of life...I’m way too old to lift my fork.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


"The theme, not the plot."

***John Lescroart

HANK: That's not John Lescroart with the stethoscope, its the wildly acclaimed CJ Lyons, whose new book Lifelines is flying off the shelves. But I just came from a John Lescroart signing and chat--and what he emphasized and what CJ and I were chatting about recently turned out to be the same thing. Theme. (He's so terrific, of course, and I'm sure you've read all his stuff. I certainly have. And he's one of the authors whose books I'll instantly buy without knowing a thing about it. His newest, Betrayal, is intimidatingly good. And his daughter was at the signing--and when he read a particularly lovely passage from his new book, she was in tears. Which brought tears to his eyes. And then the whole event was up for grabs. It was quite a moment.)

Anyway! Someone in the audience asked why he thought his books worked so well--was it plot or character? And he said his books were character-driven, that the plot evolved from the characters--but that in the final analysis, the books didn't work unless there was a bigger theme that brought it all together. (He said all this more beautifully than I did.) But I wrote down the above quote and will put it on my bulletin board.

Which makes today's Wednesday-special-guest blog from CJ Lyons all the more perfect.

CJ is a physician trained in Pediatric Emergency Medicine. She's assisted police and prosecutors with cases involving child abuse, rape, homicide and Munchausen by Proxy and has worked in numerous trauma centers, as a crisis counselor, victim advocate, as well as a flight physician for Life Flight.

Publisher's Weekly proclaimed her novel, LIFELINES "a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick.

Nice. We'll be together as part of the Mystery Chix and Private Dix at the Romantic Times convention next month. And here she is on Jungle Red!

Theme, It's Not a Four Letter Word

Thanks Hank and everyone here at Jungle Red for inviting me! Hank and I were talking about theme—now, don't run and hide, I promise, this will be fun!
You see, to me, theme is important no matter your genre. So important that I think every writer has a personal theme that defines their "brand" and voice.
It took me a loooooong time to figure all this out—and I'm still learning!

Here's my take on it all: a brand is a subliminal promise to your readers—that any book written under this author's name will promise this type of emotional experience.

For example, even though I love to cross genres from women's fiction to suspense to thrillers to romance, every book I write has a theme central to my life: they're all about making a difference, trying to change the world.
Once I realized this fact, my tagline came easily: No One is Immune to Danger

Note that tagline is an emotional concept, not a promise of specifics. I did this on purpose because I knew up front that I didn't want to get locked into writing only medical thrillers. It works with medical thrillers, woman's fiction, romantic suspense, mainstream thrillers, etc. And it reminds the reader that I’m a physician—which is part of my platform or unique selling proposition.
So, you can see how finding your unique personal theme can really help build your brand as an author.
I also love finding themes for each of my books. It's often connected to the main character's inner conflict/greatest need.

So, while the entire story they're focused on a goal, what they want, the audience is subliminally connecting to the character because they understand what this character really, really needs—even if the character doesn't know it.
For instance, in LIFELINES (out now from Berkley!), the main character just wants to figure out why her patient died. Did she fail? Was she responsible? What should she have done differently?
As she investigates, she places everything in jeopardy: her job, her reputation, her career, her life. And then, as an unintended consequence, the lives of her patients.

That's when she learns what she really needs. It's not answers. It's people, she needs to sacrifice her independence and accept others into her life.
She needs LIFELINES. How cool is that?

I can't take credit for it—my agent, editor and I went through 71 titles (count 'em!!!) before the chief copy editor at Berkley was glancing through an early draft in order to decide which copy editor to assign it to. She stopped glancing, started actually reading, and was hooked!!!

A huge compliment in its own right—do you have any ideas how many books cross her desk in a week? Anyway, she knew we were looking for a title and suggested LIFELINES.
Duh! Smack to the head—I'd been telling my editor all along that the theme of this series was: it's not medicine that saves lives, it's people. And that this book in particular was the lone stranger come to town who could either leave alone, still a stranger, or embrace her new "family" and find a home.

Her family—the people she comes in contact with through the book—become her lifeline.
Why was knowing my theme important? Because it helped me to focus each scene, each character arc, each subplot around that theme. Now that I knew the book was about the general theme of "family" I went back and looked.
Thank goodness my reptile brain is smarter than the rest of me! I'd already woven through the book images of families—intact families, families that worked, families that didn't, families who weren't related, families who were created through the traumas they survived. It was all there.
All I needed to do was a little fine-tuning. Imagery, word choice, highlighting some conflicts, dampening others. All those little decisions we make every time our fingers hit the keyboard.
Know yourself, know your theme. Know your characters, know your book's theme.
Use them both to power up your writing and to grab your audience!
And most of all, have fun with it!
Thanks for reading,

Contact her at

Friday, March 7, 2008

On Hangovers

I feel like I have a hangover, without all the happy memories and mystery bruises."

Ellen DeGeneres

JAN: When I was a full-time reporter, I'd have days when I'd work an eleven hour day to meet my deadline on a takeout on, say, say downtown development, the power of the bank lobby, or some other wide-ranging topic that required a lot of steamlining and double-checking. I noticed that even though I'd come to work the next day, I was entirely useless. My brain was fried. I had a writing hangover.

It made me wonder about those proclamations by scientists that we really only use ten percent of our brains. It felt like I'd actually used up my brain, and now it had to rest.

I mention that because I recently had to work a crazy schedule to get my latest book, Teaser, to my publisher to meet my deadline. (that's the twice extended deadline, not the first one.) Okay, I worked weekends and late hours the final two weeks, but everyone who writes seems to do that. That was almost a month ago, and I still don't feel like writing.

Luckly, my next project, which is non-fiction, requires a lot of upfront research. This allows me to spend my days reading and writing lists, which feels like luxury.

But I'm wondering. Have the rest of you experienced writing hangovers, or am I just a writing wimp?

ROBERTA: oh definitely! Big hangover here! I wonder if some of it doesn't have to do with our over-connectedness too. There was an essay in the New York Times style section this Sunday about a guy forcing himself to take a day off from email, phones, etc every week. And another essay in MORE magazine about a woman taking a month-long email hiatus. We're not just writing books, we're writing email constantly. And blogs. And reading listservs. And planning conferences and promotions. No wonder our poor brains are tired.

I went to see a movie about a New York man and his psychoanalyst in January. After the show, the author came out to answer questions. Someone asked if being a writer impinged on his real life. I thought it was a silly question until I heard him talk about how he's always in the process of observing and cataloging events to use in his fiction. Yes of course you're tired! Take a brain vacation--you deserve it!

HALLIE: I just turned a revision of "Baby, Baby" in to my editor and I confess, for me it doesn't feel like hangover so much as postpartum depression. I mean you work on a manuscript practically 7 days a week for (in this case) nearly two years, and then COLD TURKEY.
And I'm not someone who writes feverishly at the end. I can't handle the stress of it. I'm nearly always ready before I need to be and spend the last few days/week polishing.

Now, literally two days after, I'm ready to be thinking about the next novel but not no how ready to be writing it. Fortunately I have the book reviewing gig and some freelance magazine work which make a perfect palate cleanser (is this, in hangover terms, "the hair of the dog" cure?)

RO: Jeez, I'm still so new at this that I'm still indulging and haven't experienced the hangover yet. Maybe this is comparable...I worked so long and hard on my presentation for the Philadelphia Flower Show that once it was over I felt as if I was 10 lbs lighter. (It went well but I felt so much pressure that I'm glad it's done. If I don't use Powerpoint for another year that's okay with me.)

HANK: Hmm. No hangover here, either. (Maybe I'm not working hard enough.) I'm like Ro (hurray!). I'm so focused on what I have to get done, and so thrilled when it works, that I'm dancing around when it's over. Like the storm clouds of responsibility and looming performance have lifted. (And we're the newbies, too, I guess.)

I'm also so used to working, you know, that when I'm finished, I feel as if I must be forgetting something. When I turned in the synopsis for Drive Time, my brain was still churning about it. And I'd literally stop and remember--wait, that's already submitted. You did it. And then I'd do a little hip wiggle (I was generally alone, thankfully, at those times) and go on to whatever I was supposed to do next.

People always say--you've got to stop. Hmm. I'd worry if there were nothing.

But! At my office, at the station, my producer and I do have a sign that we post on our door from time to time. Generally after we've aired a big story. It says:

** Sorry, we're closed. Brains FULL.**

Say Cheese, Not Cheesey!

On this fabulous Friday, I asked my blogmates and you all for tips on taking a great publicity photo because I am in the throes of having a new one taken for publicity. The impetus is my new psychological suspense novel "Baby, Baby" which is coming out next February, and because I no longer look like my publicity stills. Sigh.
So -- what's the trick for looking absolutely FABULOUS??
- Chin out/in?
- Look up/down?
- Smile/don't smile?
- Cowl neck/V-neck/turtleneck/shirt collar?
- And what about the hand-to-chin thing?

HANK: A great pal of mine once gave me some great photo advice: channel your brain to think: I am SO happy, I am SO lucky, and I'm absolutely confident about what I'm doing. It kind of works--it makes your eyes shine or something. Can't wait to see the photos! In TV, the mantra is never look down into the camera. Don't have the lens lower than eye level. Smiling. Well, you don't want to have the "I'm so THRILLED I have A BOOK!!!" expression. Again, whatever feels like you look confident. And you know how you look best. Ro said (And I'm sure tongue in cheek) she practiced a Mona Lisa smile for her photo...and I think that really worked for her. If I tried that expression, I'd look goofy. Just me, now, but I regret the hand to chin thing. It works, it's kind of natural, it gives your hand something to do and your face isn't off floating in space. Those are the pros. The cons--well, I don't know. When I look at my photo now, all I see is the hand. Although lots of authors do it. Yeah, well, you asked the obsessive/compulsive JR sister. That'll teach ya.

JAN: That sounds like awesome advice from a true professional. Hallie, is Lynn Wayne doing your photos again? Because the thing she taught me was to EMOTE through your eyes. Not through your smile or mouth.

HALLIE: Yes, Lynn Wayne who is the best ever. I guess that would be my STEP ONE AND MOST IMPORTANT: Hire a pro. This is not something to stand out in your backyard and have your husband/best friend/neighbor snap.

ROBERTA: I think it's all in the photographer. We're beautiful just as we are :)

HANK: And you're right about the beautiful as we are. You are the wise one, counselor. (Although false eyelashes can't hurt, I always say)

RO: At the Dec. 8 Sisters in Crime (New England) meeting I was whining about how I hate to have my picture taken and Jeremiah Healey started to give me tips...he's in the chin down camp. Also advised me to keep my eyes open wide. FYI I looked as if I stuck my finger into an electrical outlet. I am currently in love with JT Ellison's pic. She's straight-on, serious, nonsmiling. I love it and will try for that next time. Of course she's a good-looking 30 yr old blond so I may have some trouble replicating, but I'll try. I have the hand on neck thing, not sure why they made me do that, but it looks like my neck least hand on face would have covered my newly developed Michael Douglas pouches.

HALLIE: Ro, those pouches are our friends.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Welcome to Carnival of the Criminal Mind's March offering! And we're so happy to be on the merry-go-round.

What is Carnival of the CM, you ask? Well--the website says: "It’s a movable feast, a progressive party, a chance for bloggers to get to know one another and for readers to get introduced to blogs they might have missed. Each blogger who participates hosts the carnival by posting a round-up of what’s going on in the blogosphere: what are people saying, reading, reacting to, complaining about, and who said something brilliant that shouldn’t be missed."

But you can read it here--first! Because this month--we're hosting! And thank you to the wonderful Barbara Fister for inviting us.

When this month arrives in New England and the northeast, it brings hope that someday, winter will be over. Not soon enough, of course, and not for good (there's always that April snow storm), but there is a promise.

Hank says she saw three robins today. And the snow on the sidewalks has melted. But we certainly don't want to wish the time away--when there's so much to do and so many wonderful things happening.

In Jungle Red world, Rosemary's book just came out. Hallie's newest: 1001 Books for Every Mood, will be on shelves momentarily. Hank's first book got an Agatha nomination for best first novel. Roberta's now President of national Sisters in Crime and her latest mystery is flying out of stores. Jan finished the manuscript of Teaser and the rest of us can't wait to read it.

At Jungle Red Writers, we're having a great first year. And we're surviving the winter by making it cozy with cocoa and lattes, good friends, lots of revisions, and certainly with the help of some great books and some great blogs.

Since there are so many great blogs to choose from, we limited our search. Our theme is Strong Women, a topic near and dear to all five of our hearts.

JAN: I have a quote on the bulletin board over my laptop which reminds me to "be funny, be profound, or be quiet." And this is how I feel about blog writing.
In the be funny category, I love to check in with The Good Girls Kill for Money Club,( which has made me laugh hard over Valentines' Day (Regina Harvey,) kids' school assignments (Sara Rosett,) and relating to Felix the Cat (Diana Killian.)

In the be profound department, I like Writer's Plot ( where Kate Flora started a full-scale controversy by being refreshingly honest about the mystery writing business. I applaud her candor, which I found cathartic.

In the both Profound and Funny category, I offer Mo Walsh's Momentary Lapses blog ( She doesn't blog to fill space on a daily basis, but speaks when she has something to say.

She made me weep over Christmas with an incredibly honest and soulful revelation about losing a child, and made me laugh out loud more recently with her spoof, called The Decomposing Press Room, where her fictional publisher offered examples of the new detective series its launching. The series featured everything from a garbage man (making remarkable sleuth sense) to a virtual detective that is a software program.

HALLIE: In the some things wise/vintage and other things smart/hip category...
The Lady Killers ( are the former, and in their blog "seven female writers of mystery fiction share their wit and wisdom, writing tips and travel experiences." What a group: Rhys Bowen, Sharan Newman, Ann Parker, Carola Dunn, Jane Finnis, Mary Anna Evans, Cara Black.

I'm enjoying Ann's multi-part blog on the etiquette of wooing, Victorian style, complete with simply gorgeous Victorian valentines from Rhys for musings on what it takes to write these suckers, and her real pleasure in being in the company of other writers: "It is still a source of wonder to me that we enjoy each other's company so much. In other genres writers regard each other as rivals. We are a huge sorority and fraternity, hanging out together whenever possible, sharing in each other's triumphs and disasters." And of course Cara for sojourns to Paris and everything French.

On the hipster side...I know Jennifer Cruisie isn't, strictly speaking, a crime fiction writer, but her latest book's got hit men and a kidnapping to season the romance and humor Her blog, "argh ink" (, is honest, always amusing, and her play-with-your-brain posts are a hoot. At one point, she tells us she's thinking of writing about a mystery writer who's sick and tired of her series, and she asks our help in coming up with mystery titles with colors in the name. Her list begins:Red Hot and DeadYellow Rose of CorpsesGold Dead FingersHow Now Brown Shroud (from Gaffney, of course)Lavender's Dead, Killer, KillerTan Little CorpsesOrange You Glad I Didn't Say Murder? There's also a fascinating piece about splitting with her agent who incidentally represents many mystery authors.
I am in awe and taking notes...this girl can blog.

HANK: How about My Love's Like a Dead Dead Rose? Or: Who Blue Him Away? Okay, maybe not.

How does Nancy Pickard do it? Her books are astonshingly well-written, and her blog Ah Sweet Mystery of Life The bloggers are four amazingly successful writers, three from the south shore of Massachusetts, another who moved from there to California. It's quite an unusual story. When the blog began, they were just a writer's group, like so many authors have, who met every Monday to share and critique their work. All had aspirations to write the great novel. None had sold. They took turns writing very honestly and caringly about their ups and downs, their fears, their writing techniques. Faithful readers participated in every element of their journey. And sure enough, two of them are now beyond-belief successful, and the other two are well on the way. (Go look at their bios! And you won't be able to resist checking Publisher's Lunch.) It's always inspirational.

And Lipstick Chronicles. What can I say? This group has got it. Perfectly. Put together the blazingly successful team of Harley Jane Kozak, Nancy Martin, Sarah Strohmeyer, Elaine Viets and Michele Martinez, add Rebecca the Bookseller, and you've got an irresistible combination. Oh, and the elusive and mysterious Me, Margie. (Just saying.) What makes TLC so intriguing, though, is that the topics sometimes appear to be all fun (The obituary of a lady wrestler named The Fabulous Moolah, or losing a favorite ski hat, or male cheerleaders, or one called :"The Oscars Suck and I Don't Care") but inevitably they turn out to be clever, intelligently written, thoughtful and satisfying. And oh, so very very funny.

ROBERTA: I love reading blogs that lay it all out, in a helpful way. Tess Gerritsen does just that ( She's a hugely successful crime writer, with books like THE MEPHISTO CLUB to her name, but she speaks from the heart about the difficulties and joys of the writing life. A recent post is "The Writer's Guide to Staying Sane"--it may be too late for some of us--with tips like:

*Stop checking your Amazon index
*Stop Googling yourself
*Learn to say NO
*Chase other interests

There, that should keep us busy! If not sane...

And last but not least, check out the blog that'll be hosting the next carnival, HEY THERE'S A DEAD GUY IN THE LIVING ROOM ( They deserve a shout just for the title alone, but the content is good stuff too--comments on writing and crime fiction from the perspectives of booksellers, publicists, editors, writers, and our favorite smart a** agent, the irrepressible Janet Reid. (And yes, I know there are men in this group and we're writing about strong women--we made an exception. Besides, we like those guys!)

RO's caught in airline hell book tour hell, so she'll weigh in shortly! thanks for stopping in at Jungle Red Writers...
RO: Thanks for understanding. I assumed I'd get stuck somewhere on this tour..going through Chicago four times at this time of year it seemed inevitable. But I got stuck in Miami of all places! Go figure.
Two of my favorite blogs these days typify March weather - lions and lambs. (I can't help myself...I'm a gardener and hoky sayings rule in the gardening universe...along the lines of "When you hear the cuckoos shout, 'tis time to plant your tatties out.")
ANYWAY, the lions (lionesses?) are the estimable women of The Outfit - Barbara D'Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Libby Hellman and Sara Paretsky. Yes there are guys in The Outfit, but I confess I always think of it as the grande dame blog.
And the lambs? A group of relative newbies who've just started a fun blog promising mysteries, humor and high heels. I personally love all of those things, and The Stiletto Gang has inspired me to pack a pair of heels on my upcoming trip to Left Coast Crime. Hope it doesn't snow! Check out