Tuesday, September 30, 2008


"Sookie Stackhouse, the series’ heroine, is just a hoot to write..."

*** Charlaine Harris in 2003

So. You've see it, right? True Blood on HBO? All of us who were fans of Charlaine Harris (and her Sookie Stackhouse, among all the other terrific characters she's created) are thrilled to see the "uniquely compelling" (as one glowing review put it) series on TV!

With Anna Pacquin as Sookie, and...well, if you haven't watched yet, do. Sunday at 9. You'll never look at a vampire the same way.

Well, you know what I mean.

And it's a true joy to read the books--she's on her eighth Sookie, with more to come next year. (Two are now on the New York Times Best seller list!)

Five Auroras--and more to come. Lily Bard. And some wonderful anthologies, including a new one for Christmas.

Charlaine was gracious enough to chat with us..probably trailing fans in her wake. She's hilarious and generous. And she says she's an overnight success--it just took 25 years. Congratulations.

HANK: You've created an amazing parallel universe in your Sookie Stackhouse world. It's so--consistent. And quite believable. Hilarious. Do hold the whole world in your head? Or are you creating it as you go?

CHARLAINE: My head's not big enough to hold the whole world, after nine books (the ninth will be out next May). I've got a contract employee who's working on the "bible" for the series, to help me keep track of what I've said. I do create as I go, which is the fun part.

HANK: But let me ask. The rules for vampires...and how they behave and what they can do. Did you think of it all at moment one? Or is that evolving? And do you have to keep track of it all, somehow?

CHARLAINE: Yes, it evolves all the time. There are some questions I'm still debating within myself, and if I can't come up with an answer that feels right, I skirt the issue in the books until I can be sure of having the right answer.

HANK: Oh, I wish I could get you to tell us about the questions. But I suppose that would ruin it. You're getting a raft of new attention now, because of the TV series, for Sookie. But many fans have been reading about your telepathic waitress for years. And before (and during) her, Lily Bard, and before (and during ) her, Aurora Teagarden. Your brain must be very crowded. How do you juggle your worlds and characters?

CHARLAINE: I have to get "into character" for each one. It can be jarring to switch from one protagonist to another. When I'm about to start a new book, very often I read the last book in that series again to get myself rolling. Since I most often write in the first person, I have to slip on a particular persona to see the action unfolding as the book progresses.

HANK: So one day, the phone rings. And it's--well, how did you learn HBO wanted to make a TV series about Sookie Stackhouse? (And by the way, how did you come up with her name? Was she ever named anything else?)

CHARLAINE: I'd had an option on the Sookie books before. When it was about to expire, there were three offers for the books. My agent described all three to me and I talked to the interested parties on the telephone before deciding Alan's was the best fit.

Sookie was the name of my grandmother's best friend. It's an old southern nickname. I found the surname "Stackhouse" in a phonebook, and it just seemed to fit.

HANK: The first time you saw the finished product of episode one, say. When was that? Where? What did you think? Can you tell us just one cool secret thing about the shooting writing editing or stars of the show? (And what book is Gran reading in episode 1? I squinted to see the cover, but couldn't make it out.)

CHARLAINE: HBO sent me a copy of the first two episodes when they were still a bit rough. I was riveted. It was so exciting seeing my characters on the screen, and every now and then there was some dialogue straight from the book! But there were enough things I HADN'T written to keep me on my toes, because I wouldn't be sure how Alan played it.

And the sex scene was startling, of course, because although I knew Jason's character, I'd never followed him into the bedroom before, since Sookie never did. Gran is reading "Last Scene Alive," one of my Aurora Teagarden books.

Secret things? I wouldn't tell secrets, but I can tell you that Anna is as lovely in person as she is on the screen, Stephen has wonderful manners, Sam is a true son of the south, Nelsan trained at Juillard, Rutina trained as a dancer and is married, and they are all happy to be working for Alan Ball.

HANK: Your family must be so proud of you--you've been such a mainstay in the mystery world. Now--is your life a lot different? What's next for you?

CHARLAINE: I don't know yet how my life will change as a result of the TV show. I hope it won't change much, because I'm very happy the way I am now. I think my family is proud of me, and I am of them. I am the most incredibly lucky person.What's next for me? Writing more books, I guess. The work is always there, just waiting to be done. I think I'm more nervous now about it than I was before. I never felt like anyone was looking, before!
(Charlaine blogs on Femmes Fatales http://femmesfatales.typepad.com)

Thanks, Charlaine! You're really quite amazing. And inspirational.Tomorrow--Charlaine agrees to take the Jungle Red quiz! And she'll let us decide which of four things about her is false! (And being a vampire is not one of them...)

Monday, September 29, 2008



It’s a love story. A thriller. A tale of fear and friendship and family. It’s about the power of nature and the power of hard work. And of how the love of reading and writing brings us all together.

David and McKenna, off on their once in a lifetime romantic wedding adventure. Back home in Houston, their dear Murder By the Book in the path of the massive and destructive Hurricane Ike. The valiant bookstore owners, fighting nonstop and all night to save their precious inventory from rising water and howling wind. David and McKenna struggling to return, sheltered along the way by faithful friends.

And when the sun finally came up and the lights came on? All was back to–somewhat—normal.

Hank chatted with McKenna to get the whole scoop.

Hank: Start from the beginning. You had just had a lovely jetset wedding…

McKenna Jordan: Yes! David (Thompson) the assistant manager and I were on our honeymoon in Paris when we heard about the hurricane. The wedding was September 6 in Scotland –so when we left for the wedding we were worried about Hurricane Gustav. When we heard it went elsewhere, we were thrilled.

H: So you got married…

M: Yes, we got married, and went to Paris for the honeymoon. And it was there we heard on CNN that Ike was headed our way. And it was big and bad and ugly.

H: What did you do?

M: So we started getting concerned, and we were tracking its progress as often as we could. We were scheduled to fly home Friday the 12, they day it hit. We tried to switch to an earlier flight so we could get here, but hey unfortunately they wouldn’t let us to do that. Our flight was scheduled to get in 40 minutes before the airport had closed. But then they cancelled the flight altogether.

H: So were you trapped in Paris?

M: Well, David and I are friends with Alafair Burke and her husband Sean (Simpson), so I called them at 4am to see if we could switch our flights to New York so we could be in the US when the hurricane hit.
So we switched flights to New York—and they were gracious enough to put us up for 4 days! And then at we were able to get one of the first flights back into Houston on Monday.

H: Had you been in contact with everyone back home?

M: Oh, yes. We were up all night Friday, phoning home every 30 minutes to check on my mother and grandmother, and the store’s owners, Martha and Les Farrington.

H: What did they say?

M: Cell phone use for them was limited, but they said they had taped the windows and put plastic sheeting over the books and picked everything up off the floor in case of flooding. Actually Les wound up spending the night here Friday. He used towels to mop up by hand, and then he’d go out into the storm and wring them out, all by hand, all to keep the water out. With the storm, wet vacs were not an option.

Les is the one who kept the store in such great shape. As a result of his hard work, we don’t have to replace the carpet! Fortunately the front windows were all intact and no books were damaged. So we were fortunate as we could be. Of course we didn’t have electricity for 8 days! So that made sales tricky.

H: Was the store open? When?

M: On Tuesday, David and I came up and we were open for business for anyone who wanted to come in and buy books. Seventy per cent of the city didn’t have electricity, so people were trying to find generators and gasoline, more important things in this case, of course. But we were here and were able to ring people up. We had no electricity, and so no air conditioning, but the weather was dry and cool on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and it was lovely. So we didn’t need the AC. And it was good for drying out the carpet!

It had definitely flooded, and there was no way to suck the water out. We got a generator Wednesday, at which point we could get fans on. And we got a computer up and running, which helped with people being able to call and we could look up their orders. We took an old plug in phone from 1979 and had that here so we could accept calls, and I think we did pretty well. Don Winslow actually signed on Wednesday! And we had about 30 people!

H: That’s amazing. Those are some devoted readers!

M: I think at that point, people were ready to have something to do. No one could go to work, no school, no electricity, so it was nice for our regular customers to get back into their regular routines, even a book signing.
We hadn’t adjusted the time of the event, so it was almost completely dark!

But he was a real trooper, so he appreciated the turnout. It was a fun evening—stressful! But fun. We took him out for hot dogs and hamburgers at a local restaurant—all they had was their grill.

By Friday it was hot! And we were thankful for the fans being on. It was really uncomfortable again, no electricity. We were all dreading Saturday. But then--the electricity was on again! And we all let out a sigh of relief.

H: What books did you sell during the storm?

M: Interred With Their Bones, just came out in paperback. That was a big book for us last year. The other one’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It’s not a mystery but an excellent book.

(David? What else did we sell?) Oh yes, the new George Pelecanos. We love that.

It has been a long three and a half weeks. We just got electricity back in our home this past Thursday, a few days after the storm. We’ve been living out of our luggage since Tuesday! Also we had David Handler here for a signing and he was scheduled to stay with us...so we were hoping to have electricity for that! And it came just in time.

H: Is your house okay?

M: Our house is fine, we had a tree lean—fall—on the corner of the garage. Now it’s been cut down, and there’s a tarp over the hole.

H: So. You go off for a glamorous wedding and honeymoon. Talk about unpredictable…

M: Yes, we’ll never forget it—it’s definitely a trial by fire on this whole marriage thing. And we came through with flying colors!

Here’s the other interesting element. The store owners retired in December, and they were trying to get through the year without any drama. And then this! I’m the one buying the store, and I’m hoping we don’t have another hurricane under my watch. But now at least we have the experience.

H: Any words to your fans and friends?

M: We were swamped with trying to catch up…overwhelmed with all the work, but what was a constant pleasure daily was getting the emails of support from customers and authors, people checking in on us. We even had an author offer to help, offered to fly in from Florida! Everyone has been wonderful. Customers have brought us food, and anything we needed, even gasoline for our generator. It’s been such a nice show of support for the store and everyone concerned.

H: So—does the wedding fade into the background?

M: David and I were pretty surprised. Some customers came in, and the first thing they said was Congratulations! And we’re like--for what?

H: We’re glad you’re home and happy—and we’ll all come visit when we can! Meanwhile—check out Murder By the Book on their website. (Since 1980, where a good crime is had by all!)

(MURDER BY THE BOOK is one of the nation's oldest & largest mystery specialty bookstores, established in 1980 by Martha Farrington. The store stocks over 25,000 books -- new & used, hardbacks & paperbacks, first editions, collectibles, gift items, mystery magazines, and more. They host dozens of the hottest mystery and crime authors for book signing events every year and have welcomed everyone from Dick Francis to P. D. James, Sue Grafton to Robert Crais, Michael Connelly to Patricia Cornwell, James Lee Burke to Daniel Silva.)

And watch this space for more news on bookstores we love.


"Once upon a time, there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith..."
*** the first line of "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein

HANK: On the way to work this morning, I said to my husband--what books did you read in college? What books did you love?

You know Jonathan. He gave me that droll look. And he said: In college, I didn't read books for pleasure.

That's no doubt why he powered through law school, and my college career was spotty. At best.

I practically majored in a field the college did not know it was offering: listening to records and reading the books I wanted to.

Yes, I did devour some of the books that were assigned. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Dickens. Austen. Tolkien's Ring books and CS Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet Trilogy were part of one course I took in my oh-so-liberal college. I think the class was called "Exploring Allegory." I also took the invitation-only "Seminar in Alice in Wonderland" which my mother still can't believe was an actual college course.

I was still devoted to Sherlock Holmes, of course. And all the Agatha Christie novels. But they weren't cool for school. So I was a closet mystery reader.

Was Catcher in the Rye college? I started talking and thinking like Holden the moment I met him--although my own language was carefully censored, I remember. (And I still think about him, every time I'm on the subway. Carrying the fencing equipment.) I forget who told me recently--the intial copies ofcatcher came out with the famously shy Salinger's photo on the back. He apparently freaked, and demanded all the copies be destroyed.

Stranger in a Strange Land. I just read something about that, how in revisionist criticism it's almost reviled as a screed against women, a pedantic rant. I don't remember that part. I remember "groking" and how that was one of them most evocative and descriptive made up words I'd ever heard. I still say--sometimes--yes, I grok that. And sometimes, people understand me.

I think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was just after college. That has stuck with me, profoundly. As a writer, the search for the understanding of quality haunts me every day. I found this copy in Amazon, as you can tell by the 'look inside' gizmos, which won't work here. But I really think my copy was pink.

I was so taken with Hallie's topic on our favorite books as kids--now I wonder, what books did you love in college?

ROBERTA: Okay, I'm drawing a blank on this one. I was busy making trouble I guess. And after wandering through biochemistry and art history, I finally settled on Romance language and literature as my major. So I was plugging through light reading such as The Stranger--in French!

HALLIE: I confess, I'm with Jonathan. College was a black hole for me as far as reading for pleasure goes. I’d read all the time through high school, but in college it was as if I’d undergone aversive conditioning… all those dense history and political science texts I ploughed through made reading painful. In four years I might have made it through “Exodus” and “Hawaii” and “Dr. Zhivago” but that’s about it.

When I finished school and could read just for the fun of it, I ploughed through all of Agatha Christie’s and Dorothy Sayers’ novels and short stories. Graduated to P. D. James’ “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman” with the delightful Cordelia Grey, and read everything else James wrote the minute it came out. Re-read all of Sherlock Holmes. Then I wallowed in the library mystery stacks and indiscriminately grabbed books, some of which I made it through.

When I got back to ‘real’ literature it was to discover Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”) and Dorothy Allison (“Bastard Out of Carolina”) and Barbara Kingsolver (“The Bean Trees”) and Carolyn Chute (“The Beans of Egypt Maine”) and John Irving (“A Song for Owen Meany”). And to re-read Alice in Wonderland and my favorite Sci-Fi novels (“Stranger in a Strange Land”, “A Wrinkle in Time”). And to rediscover the poems of e. e. cummings.

It should come as no surprise that I also got hooked on food writers—Calvin Trillin (“Alice, Let’s Eat) and Laurie Colwin (“Home Cooking”) and Ruth Reichel (“Tender at the Bone”), just for example.

JAN: During college, I think I was busy validating myself as a wild thing by reading books like: The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, One Flew Over the Cuckoos by Ken Kesey, and Kurt Vonnegut's short story collections.

I shifted out of my hippy theme years into a literary phase. This involved reading everything by Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy and Somerset Maugham.

Then for a while there, I got into reading every single book by Barbara Pym. Her novels were always set around some sort of English vicarage. There was no real theme here, I just really enjoyed her books.

RO: I was about to say that I was with Roberta...having too much..uh, fun..in college to remember what I read. Then Jan reminded me of all the hippie-type books I read. Vonnegut must be like Disney. Every generation gets to discover - and claim - him.

The cobwebs have cleared a bit and I'm probably getting the decades confused (all that sangria, I guess..)but I remember loving Small Changes by Marge Piercy, Something Happened by Joseph Heller..everything by Richard Yates.

I'll probably wake up in the middle of the night and say something like..Birdy! I loved that!! And wisely, my husband will sleep through the outburst.

HANK: I'm going to ask my interns--all attending colleges across New England--what they're reading now. After you tell us what you read during those four (okay, or so) years, or if you read at all, care to predict what the students will say?

AND COMING UP LATER THIS WEEK! A visit from current double New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris, whose darkly hilarious novels are getting even more fans after the HBO blockbuster True Blood made Sookie Stackhouse a household name.
And that's not all--we'll chat with the new owners of Murder by the Book, the beloved bookstore--and how they stood up to Hurricane Ike.

But wait, there's more. Come chat with Lori Andrews, whose newest mystery Immunity is just out. Her real life? Is just as exciting than any fiction.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Butter Beer with Bernie Botts' Beans, Anyone?

HALLIE: Picking back up on our favorite kids' books and merging it with another favorite topic, food...

My sister Amy Ephron, has posted a wonderful essay by Agatha French on her ONE FOR THE TABLE web site. http://www.oneforthetable.com/oftt/stories/celebrating-anne.html

("Anne of Green Gables is, to put it plainly, a total badass," says Agatha. "The recipe for raspberry cordial, a drink that featured prominently in a famous episode of the book, begins with this Anne-ism: 'I love bright red drinks, don’t you? They just taste twice as good as any other color.' Which in my opinion is totally true.")

So then I started thinking about other great children's lit and the food it inspired...

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook--pioneer food. Recipes were adapted from her personal records. A lovely recipe for gingerbread.

The Narnia Cookbook written by one of C. S. Lewis's stepsons. Gooseberry fool and steamed pudding, anyone?

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen by P. L. Travers. Shepherd's pie and tips on making a souffle, delivered with MP's brand of dry wit: "You must wait for the souffle--it won't wait for you."

Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes--recipes, compiled by Josie Fison and Felicity Dahl and illustrated by the wonderful Quentin Blake, are for dainties like mosquitoes' toes and wampfish roes. Edible marshmallow pillows take two days to make.

Which took me back to Dr. Seuss's Scrambled Eggs Super and Green Eggs and Ham;" Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice; and my kids' favorite Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

HANK: Stone Soup, of course. And hunny, if you're planning a visit to the Hundred Acre Wood. Remember the search for what Eeyore liked to eat?

And in my beloved Many Moons, the Princess Lenore falls ill from "a surfeit of raspberry tarts."

Oh! And in Alice in Wonderland..remember Alice is so hungry, and finally gets to the Queen of Hearts' banquet. They show her the "joint," I think it is, and say something like: "Here's the joint." And then Alice reaches for a piece, and they say--oh no, you can't eat it now. Once you've been introduced to the food, the Hatter or someone tells her, you can no longer eat it.

My favorite line is "Alice, Pudding. Pudding, Alice." (I say it to myself all the time at restaurants, when the wait staff shows off the food. I always feel as if we're being introduced. And then I wonder if it's okay to eat it.

Oh--wait, my favorite line is "We had jam yesterday, and we'll have jam tomorrow. But never jam today." Something like that.

HALLIE: Ah, Alice – how I loved that book. And how lovely to find someone who remembers Many Moons, that wonderful book by James Thurber and illustrated by the great Louis Slobodkin, and in which the Royal Wizard avers that though he has “squeezed blood out of turnips for you, and turnips out of blood,” he cannot get the Princess Lenore the moon.

Please, share your food/kidlit memories...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gillian Roberts...she writes and teaches, but does she play the accordian?

Welcome to Gillian Roberta, this week's JRW guest. She's a fabulous writer, teacher, and simply one of the nicest people in the biz.

JRW: When you wrote the first Amanda Pepper novel, and then won the Anthony for best first mystery, did you have any idea how long that series would run and what you were getting yourself into?

GR: Writing the first Amanda Pepper was like being in a Mickey Rooney movie. While reading Winnie the Pooh to my sons, I stumbled across a fact I hadn’t known (Winnie’s actual name.) That could be a clue, I thought (having been reading mysteries for the very first time in my life) so hey—let’s write a mystery.

You don’t see anything about planning here, right? Or about realizing there were such things as series and one should ponder them. Or knowing that back then, in the dark ages (1980) humor in the mystery was verboten.

I finished the book in ’80 or ’81, and nobody bought it. I then wrote (and sold) three non-mysteries at which point (1985, perhaps?) somebody told me the market had changed, and I dragged out the unsold Caught Dead in Philadelphia and the first publisher (Scribner’s) who saw it bought it.

My agent called and said that they were assuming that it was the start of a series. What would you say given that phone call?

Had I but known, I wouldn’t have had the romance with C. K. Mackenzie blossom. Poor guy, I probably would have had to kill him off so she could have a wider sphere of bad situations. And I would have given Amanda some special skills aside from a smart mouth and a good working knowledge of literature and grammar.

But how could I have known? Let’s be honest: the idea of a crime-fighting English teacher is ludicrous. And you’d have to think that a teacher involved in fourteen separate murders was either a serial killer herself—or she’d be in a locked ward somewhere.

JRW: Amanda Pepper is the high school teacher we all wish we (or our children) had had. So where did she come from, and did you ever teach high school?

GR: I did indeed teach English, but of course Amanda is much smarter and quicker and taller and thinner than I. And I confess—I never have stumbled upon or had to deal with a murder, although now and then, teaching teens gave me murderous thoughts… But I am one of the odd people who truly like the strange, vulnerable weirdness of teens, so I have fond memories of teaching.

It should be said, however, that virtual teaching via Amanda is infinitely easier than the real thing. And it can be said that while Amanda is not autobiographical (although we are alike emotionally, and I have used some moments of actual teaching) the horrible administrator and school secretary are non-fiction.

JRW: Your latest series novel is All's Well that Ends Well. Is this THE END of the series?

GR: All’s Well That Ends is probably the end of the series, but everyone involved is alive and well, though no longer living in Philadelphia, so who knows? It just seemed time to give poor Amanda a break from murder before she had full-blown PTSD.

JRW: What are you working on now, and are you having fun with it?

GR: I wanted a writing challenge. Something different. So here I am, surrounded by books on Colonial Mexico, and thousands (literally) of pages of notes, all hard won because there isn’t a whole lot of (interesting) material about the period. I’m aiming for a historical mystery set in 1650 Mexico, the year after the biggest auto da fe the Inquisition had there.

So far, it has not been the most fun ever because…it’s challenging! (I forgot the small print: I wanted an easy challenge!) There’s almost no data on the texture of daily life, on what they wore and ate and slept in etc. etc. (If you compare it to the libraries full of books about England at the time, and if you’re me, you weep.) So I write a bit, trip over something that requires more research before I can make a plot work, (how would they get from one place to another? Were there taverns? Inns?) try to do more research, pick interesting, possibly usable facts out of reams of dry material, fumble some more…

Yesterday’s ridiculous stumbling block was: were the walls of their homes painted? How do you make paint? Where would their paint have come from? What’s the history of paint? What colors did they have? (If anybody knows—help!)

You see how my days are going. And of course, all of this is an effort to ultimately write a book in which you are unaware of any of this research—you just love the characters, feel as if you’re living back then, and find the whole shebang interesting and believable.

JRW: You've taught writing, and I love your book on writing, You Can Write a Mystery, and your "lessons on writing" on your web site www.gillianroberts.com are brilliant. What's the one mistake that tips you off that a manuscript is written by an inexperienced writer?

GR: For want of a better word—klutzy opening. There are too many ways to be clumsy and awkward to list (just about all of which I’ve learned about the hard way, by doing them), but the biggie would be starting way before the actual problem presents itself, before the story starts so there is no tension and little reason to keep reading. There’s also opening with a dull character, a place and situation with no ‘attitude,’ clumsy, unbelievable dialogue, bad writing and clich├ęd characters and situations.

And now, the Jungle Red Writers Quiz:

Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple?
Definitely Miss Marple. She had street smarts (or perhaps in a village it’s Lane Smarts?)

Sex or Chocolate?
Sex! (Does anybody you invite back prefer violence???) Chocolate—but day before yesterday I had a pizza topped with figs, prosciutto and rosemary and that’s a close tie with chocolate.

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?
Pierce Brosnan.

Katherine or Audrey Hepburn?
Audrey Hepburn. Love Katherine, but Audrey was truly stellar--from another universe altogether.

First person or third?
I actually enjoy both first and (close) third person, which are almost the same thing. The W.I.P. is multiple third, at least for now.

Prologue or no prologue?
I try to avoid prologues, but it isn’t a point of honor for me. I think that when they work, and need to be there, they’re great. Mostly, they don’t need to be there.

Making dinner or making reservations?
I love to cook (and now, so does my retired husband) and love trying out new recipes, and having friends over to share whatever results during a long, leisurely time together.

What were your Harry Potters?
The closest I came to a Harry Potter was the Andrew Lang Fairy Tale Books. I just googled him and looked at the table of contents of The Blue Fairy Tale Book. It includes Aladdin, Puss in Boots, Why the Sea is Salt, Cinderella, A Voyage to Lilliput—and on and on for 37 stories. And there were a dozen of these books—a treasure house of imagination and story-telling. I remember how sad it was to come to end of the series (the Lilac Fairy Tale Book, I think...)

Three true things about you and one lie; we'll guess which:
I’m a pastellist, mostly portraits.
I collect frogs.
I once appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.
Lisa Scottoline’s uncle urged me to become a professional accordionist.

Monday, September 22, 2008

On Our Harry Potters...

HALLIE: I was over at Buttonwood Books this week to talk about my "1001 Books for Every Mood" and as I wandered around the store I found myself, as usual, drawn to YA titles. There were all the Harry Potter books which I read and loved.

There, too, were so many of the books I devoured as a kid. "Wind in the Willows." "A Wrinkle in Time." "Stuart Little." "The Little Princess." "The Secret Garden." "Anne of Green Gables."

But my "Harry Potters" were the Oz Books, starting with "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." If you haven't read the original, you're in for a treat. The cyclone is in the opening chapter, and the description of Kansas would make any little girl want to run somewhere green: "When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it.

Shades of "Grapes of Wrath."

From the Wonderful Wizard I went on to "The Marvelous Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz" and on until I'd consumed all 15 or so that Baum himself wrote, each one with new fantastical creatures, good against evil, a Homeric journey in the guise of an episodic trek to somewhere (or to get BACK from somewhere), overcoming obstacles along the way.

So...what were your Harry Potters?

JAN: I guess I was never much for fantasy -- not even as a kid. My aunt Clare lived next door and was a former school teacher, and pretty much the source of all novels that both my mother and I read. She gave me "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, which I adored, and then "Eight Cousins." I also loved "Celia Garth" by Gwen Bristow, which was about a young woman, a dressmaker in Charlestown, who becomes a spy for the patriots during the Revolutionary War. I think I was especially intrigued with the descriptions of muslin and the idea that each dress had to be specially made. Then I read Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, no kidding, seven times.

To this day, I love going back in time, not forward to sci-fi. Magic doesn't do it for me, I absolutely hated "Alice In Wonderland". I did read and enjoy "The Hobbit", but couldn't get through the trilogy. I enjoyed the first Harry Potter book, but not enough to read the later books.

ROBERTA: I can't say I had a "Harry Potter", although I read and loved plenty of books. "Wind in the Willows"--a total classic. Ditto "Winnie the Pooh". And all of E.B. White's books, "Charlotte's Web", "Stuart Little", "The Trumpet of the Swan". Need I even mention Nancy Drew?

But I don't remember waiting on the edge of my seat for a sequel, maybe because there was no media/Internet working us up into a frenzy for an author's next book?

Now this is embarrassing, but when I was a young, gawky, geeky, miserable teen, I adored the short stories in "Stories to Live By"--a collection gathered and originally published in "The American Girl" in the '50's. Stories about going steady, cheating on the football field, being overweight, first dates--I read these until the binding crumbled. In fact, in the very first article I ever had published, I wrote about one of these stories--how I showed it to my stepdaughter and we had a mini-connection over it. (Those moments were few and far between in the early days.)

I think there's a link back to Harry Potter there too:). After all, he never quite feels like he fits in either....

HANK: You mean other than sneaking "Marjorie Morningstar" and "Butterfield 8" from my parents' bookshelves? And I read the "Thurber Carnival" when I was about 12, I think. And love love loved it.

I had a huge love affair with horse books--there was some series, which I can't find now but I bet Mom still has them...which included "Golden Sovereign" and "Midnight Moon"? And "Silver Birch"? About a teenaged, maybe, girl who had horses. I adored them. Anyone know more about these? There was another author who wrote "Cammie's Choice" about another equestrian teenager who obviously had to make some choice which I forget what was. Plus all the Misty of Chincoteague books. (I had to clean out stalls in the mornings, so I loved reading about others who did, too.)

"Diamond in the Window" by Jane Langton, was so pivotal for me. Charming, intelligent, clever, and shows kids could be smart and still be cool. I could read that again, right now! Love it. It's right up there with Wrinkle in Time, another true true classic.

And because my grandson Eli is really a great reader now, at age 5, I got to share the Edward Eager books with him. They're also fantasy, about 4 siblings who have adventures. "Knight's Castle", "Half Magic", "Magic or Not". So witty and so clever! And even at my age, 53 years OLDER than Eli! still wonderful.

Let's see. Narnia--didn't read til college! Hobbit and Rings--also college. Harry Potter, loved. Loved them all.
Oz, yes. Little Princess, no. (I just never liked that book. I think it's creepy.) Charlotte's Web, loved it but too sad for me as a kid.

My next door neighbor two year old and I read "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus", which is pretty great. And "Knuffle Bunny". And I'm pushing "A Hole is to Dig" pretty hard. But that's probably funnier for adults.

RO: I wasn't much of a fantasy fan as a kid - not now either. I seem to remember reading a lot of biographies when I was little. And of course, like Hank, my spiritual sister..horse books. Although I wasn't shovelling too much horse manure in Brooklyn. I devoured the Misty and Black Stallion books. And dog books...Irish Red was one of them. Then I stumbled upon a copy of The Group. 'Nuff said?

HANK: Hallie, are you doing a 1001 books for kids? (And yay for Buttonwood Books. That's a fantastic store.)

HALLIE: No 1001 Books for Kids...but what a great idea. And "A Hole is to Dig" is a favorite of mine, too, and it's in "1001 Books for Every Mood. When Jennie the dog packs her bag to leave home, the potted plant asks: “Why are you leaving?” “Because I am discontented. I want something I do not have. There must be more to life than having everything.” Ah, words to live by.

So...what books have stuck with you since way back when?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Guest Blogger Jane Cleland

Jane Cleland has to be one of the smartest and hardest working women in the mystery community. I first met Jane at a Mystery Writers of America/NY Chapter meeting. Jane is the current president of MWA/NY as well as an Agatha-nominated writer (of the Josie Prescott series), business writer and speaker, and marketing exec. There doesn't seem to be anything Jane can't do, and that's why this story is such a good lesson for the rest of us mere mortals. Enjoy!

Lessons From A Trash Can
by Jane Cleland

The first time I spoke in public professionally, I fell upside down in a trash can. There were seventy-six people in the room. This is true.
I was walking backwards up the center aisle in a hotel’s meeting room holding an example of excellent graphic design high above my head when I ran into an oversized garbage can that one of the hotel workers had forgotten to remove after the noontime refresh. I was wearing a skirt and high heels, and I hit the trash can at just the right place to tiddlewink myself into the can head first.
I recall the moment well.
My first thought was for my hair. I have baby fine hair that's hard to style, and all I could think of was how awful and unprofessional I'd look once I got out of the trash can.
My second thought was for my suit. It was a soft gray wool suit, the first I'd ever bought and the only one I owned. I had another seminar scheduled in Dayton the next day. What would I do, I wondered, if I couldn't salvage my suit?
My third thought was for my carefully mounted example, which had frisbeed somewhere to my left as I’d flipped upside down. It was a really, really great example of an important principle relating to eye path design, and now, as far as I knew, it was gone. How could I make the points I needed to make without it? How could I possibly replace it by the time I got to Dayton?
Time seemed to stand still. Truly, I have no idea if this nightmare lasted seconds or minutes or even longer. At first, I thought I could handle the situation with aplomb. Then, as panic set in, I stopped thinking. I suddenly realized the true horror of my situation. I was upside down in a trash can with no hope of getting out.
People weren't laughing, but I didn't take this to be good news. I figured they were stunned, and thus silent; mortified, and therefore ignoring the situation; or so embarrassed on my behalf that there was no comment worth making. I decided to stay in the trash can until every single one of those seventy-six participants left the room. I figured that eventually someone from the hotel would arrive and haul me out and I could skulk away, never to return.
Two men seated nearby approached the can, peered down, and with a quiet “you take the thigh, I'll take the hip,” hoisted me out and set me upright. They stepped back. I smiled and thanked them politely. Then I thought of my hair and my suit. The trash can was filled with dry goods: discarded newspapers, crumpled napkins and unwanted advertising flyers, that sort of thing.
This was good news. My naturally buoyant optimism leapt forth as I realized that I wouldn’t have to worry about clumps of cherry Danish matting my hair or staining my skirt. It was my lucky day – I’d fallen into the dry goods trash can. Can you imagine how awful it would be to do a header into the discarded coffee bin?
During those first few seconds of recovery, I had the presence of mind to thank my rescuers, smile broadly as if everyone knew this was nothing more than a really clever goof on Jane and they should therefore relax and share the joke, and accept the offering of my beloved, nicely mounted example of excellent design from the woman six rows back who assured me that the bruise she'd received when it struck her shoulder would soon fade from memory. I went on with enormous (if I do say so myself) savoir faire. The seminar was a success.
Which goes to show you that sometimes things that start out bad can end up good. My protagonist Josie Prescott, for example, got chased out of her high-powered New York City job because she was the whistle-blower in a price-fixing scandal, and ends up owning her own company in beautiful, business-friendly New Hampshire. The trick is not to panic, and to show grace under pressure. Remember that the next time you fall into a trash can.

Jane's newest Josie Prescott mystery is Antiques to Die For. Visit Jane (and Josie) at http://www.janecleland.net/

This is a Work of Fiction

fic*tion (fik'shun) n. - an imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.
-American Heritage College Dictionary

RO: I am about to write an Author's note for my second mystery novel, The Big Dirt Nap. I didn't do it for the first because it didn't seem necessary. After all, I was writing fiction. Did I really need to explain that these characters didn't exist? This town didn't exist? Apparently so.

My editor thinks I need to explain that there is really no native American tribe called the Quepochas, a fictional group that is referenced in the book. While I think this is amusing, she's probably right. One online reviewer complained that my debut novel, Pushing Up Daisies, wasn't accurate because there was no UConn campus where I had one in the book. It didn't seem to bother her that there was no TOWN, no diner and no people there, only that there was no campus. Go figure.

Is it that readers nowadays assume everything is ripped from the headlines, and they are looking for what they believe to be mistakes? Have the lines between fiction and non-fiction become so blurred that people can't tell one from the other?What the hell..I should probably just call it a memoir. Then no one would expect it to be accurate.

Author's NoteThe Big Dirt Nap is a work of fiction. While there is a state of Connecticut and a University of Connecticut, pretty much everything else in the book just exists between my ears. Any other descriptions, laws, people, places or events that are accurate are purely accidental.

ROBERTA: Interesting Ro! There is an automatic disclaimer on the copyright page of all my books, mostly there to protect the publisher from lawsuits I imagine. Do you think some angry fan would assault you (legally) for making up an Indian tribe? I do kind of like the idea of an author's note providing info for READERS, not just for protection. I would put it at the back of the book if you had a choice. And by the way, do you prefer acknowledgments at the front or the back? And how many other obsessive people even look at those pages? (Aside from the aspiring writers who are instructed to look there for agent mentions as a matter of course...and that's not bad advice.)

HANK: I think it's kind of--funny, actually. Maybe it's because you made up such a believable and clever name for the tribe. But I agree--if it's fiction, it's um, made up.

And yes, Roberta, I always read those pages. It's a kind of--six degreees of separation game. I love to see if I know who they know. Or whether the info is illuminating or revealing in any way. Front of the book or back? Hmmm. Put them in the front and there's the problem of: I'd like to thank Dr. Joe Shmo for all his help in learing about how to recognize fake fingerprints.... So much for THAT plot!

In Prime Time and Face Time, I kind of tweaked the geography of Swampscott, Massachusetts and the highway to the Cape. And I just said so in the author's page. And I make up the names of streets in Boston if bad things happen. In DRIVE TIME, I have to make up names of cars! And so far, I've created a problem car called a Calera. Would you pronounce that Ka-LEHR-a?

HALLIE: Interesting, isn't it, how we write those disclaimers--and yet most characters and situations in a novel (or in MY novels, at any rate) are sparked by something real. In my new book, there's a character who vacuums her front walk...I had a neighbor who did that. And there's a Victorian ark of a house on which my husband and I were (fortunately) overbid; the people who bought it found a hidden room. That house, with its leather wallpaper and stained glass, is in "Never Tell a Lie."
I love reading acknowledgments, too. Aren't they kind of a Rorschach? I'm always curious to discover whether writing the book took "a village" as mine do. And what does it mean, I wonder, when there are NO acknowledgments?

RO: Ugh, there was a typo in my acks. After going over my manuscript so carefully, apparently no one looked at the acks, which by the way were PERFECT when I sent them in.

PS.....Don't forget to come back for Wednesday's post when our guest blogger will be Jane Cleland, president of MWA/NY Chapter and author of the Agatha-nominated Josie Prescott series.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On our visual world

JAN: At Illumination night on Martha's Vineyard, everyone in Oak Bluffs decorates their Gingerbread houses with candle or electric-illuminated paper lanterns. On the last note of a sing-along concert at the Tabernacle, all the houses light up at once. Its a beautiful event that transports you to back to earlier, more innocent days.

As usual, this year, the massive crowd strolls down the streets oo-ing and aw-ing. But what was different was bottlenecks in pedestrian traffic as every single person, it seemed, stopped and photograph each house.

Even me -- which is weird, because I'm not a visual person. But I've got a new digital camera that I finally understand, so I used the night-setting to capture every little detail. Even as I was doing this, I was wondering what the hell I was going to do with ALL these photographs -- aside from including a few in my blog, of course.

Still, I snapped and snapped, as if to give purpose to the experience. And then I realized what was going on. In the old days of photography, you had a 24 or 36 frame roll of film. You had to be judicious in what you decided to photograph. Now that there's no film involved, there's no discrimation. Everybody just photographs everything

Because I'm both non-visual and a Luddite, I take the photos and they sit in my camera for months until I finally upload them to my computer where, for the most part, they remain, useless.

But everyone else, it seems, is incorporating photos into the communication of even the most minor events. For example, last week, we were cooking crabs that my daughter and her boyfriend, Mike had caught. He grabbed his digital camera, snapped the crabs before boiling and immediately emailed the photo to his parents in Houston. So clearly digital photography is altering all our lives. For good mostly (see link below to Roberta's terrific video) but as writer, I naturally worry about its long term effects. Eventually will we no longer need words to describe the world because everything little thing is communicated visually and instantly? Or am I an alarmist to believe there has to be a verbal loss for all this visual gain?

RO: Whoa, that's a lot to chew on. Yes, every picture tells a story, don't it? There is this absolute conviction some of us have that everything we do should be in a reality tv show, or least memorialized digitally. Now that I have a blog and a website, I find myself snapping away and asking others to take my pic. I didn't even have a photographer at MY WEDDING I'm so averse to pix! But people are more likely to spend a few seconds looking at something than they are reading something. So I'm guilty too. Maybe when I've written a few more books I'll have fewer pix on my website!

To your point about a verbal loss, I would hope that the picture serves as a headline, not a substitute for content. I know that's naive. Anyone who remembers the pic of Michael Dukakis in the tank knows that, But I can hope.

JAN: And in the-picture-as-headline-department, let me rave about Roberta's video - her trailer for her new book, Deadly Advice. Being the non-visual type, I'm tough on book trailers. I usually think they are too long and purposeless, but Roberta is making me rethink. This video is brief and intriguing Of course, that goes for the very concept behind her books -- advice columnist protagonist. Who can pass over the advice column in the paper? Who can't be drawn to Roberta's mysteries?

CHECK OUT her trailer either by clicking below for a QuickTime version or at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdYZMWzdxy4

And give me your thoughts on this increasingly visual world. Has anyone else but me noticed that no moment goes unphotographed anymore?

Thursday, September 11, 2008


"Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does."

***Steuart Henderson Britt

HANK: Ah yes, did we tempt you back here for day two of the fantastic Dani Greer? If yes--then she's taught us well. As you know, she's the knower of all knowledge about blogging...and promises to share it all with us!

Now you're saying: Hank. Get on with it. We want Dani.


HANK: What's the biggest mistake bloggers make? Okay, the two biggest mistakes?

DANI: The very biggest mistake is not posting regularly on the blog (several times a week at least), and not treating the blogging as an important aspect of their writing careers. There are still writers out there who think blogging is a waste of time, and not "real" writing.

The second big mistake is not having a "buy" button for their books. Don't be shy about asking your readers to purchase a copy of your book, and make it easy for them to do so.

Can I have one more? Okay, third big mistake is not paying attention to your blog statistics. How many readers you have, where they're coming from, how the stats relate to posts on your blog. These numbers are very telling especially during a blog tour, whether your own tour or a writer you're hosting. It's a numbers game, and the better you play it, the more likely you'll have another book published.

HANK: Oh--tell us more about statistics!

DANI: Statistics are kind of like grades in school. They're a measure of how well you're doing. Don't let them depress or confuse you. Numbers that are useful to you during a blog book tour include:

1. Your amazon ranking before, during, and after a tour. Title Z (http://www.titlez.com/) is a good place to monitor this.

2. Your blog traffic before, during, and after a tour and pay special note to the types of tour stops that will get the most traffic. It's no surprise that a book giveaway will draw hits and comments. Use the Mad Clicker approach at your site meter's webpage and look at all the various reports. The coolest are the bar graphics showing hits each day, and I like the referral page that shows me where my visitors are coming from.

If 1/3 of your hits are jumping over from Twitter (http://twitter.com/), or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/), or The Cozy Chicks (http://www.cozychicksblog.com/) because you had a guest post over there, you know you're using those tools effectively. It's sort of like meeting new people at a party, who then visit your place because they think you're interesting. You might not like that scenario in real life, but it's very cool in the virtual world.

HANK: Sometimes, when it's late and the blog is due and you just can't think of a topic, it's easy to wonder if it's all worth it. How do we know blogging is worth the effort? I mean--is there a way to quantify?And, because it's so much fun to analyze other people's blogs--do the number of comments reflect the number of views?

DANI: The number of comments rarely reflect your average daily views - they only suggest that particular blog post was a hot-button for some reason.

Usually, it's a controversial subject, an empathy topic like a death, or a contest that will goose reader response. As to ways of quantifying your blog's success, it's a bit like determining whether your store advertisement brought in traffic. Unless you offer a coupon, how will you know?

Customers might mention it when they come in, but that's not a reliable source. Good retailers know that advertising works over the long run if you do it regularly, and the same holds true for your blog. Post three times a week and mention it everywhere you go online, and you'll eventually get traffic, and pick up new readers.

It also becomes much easier to find topics when you have a good writing habit established. (Isn't that a brilliant insight?) It all takes time and it's work. It's part of running your writing business and selling your books. Which brings us to your ultimate statistic - how many books you actually sell. The more you get the word out, the more readers will know that there's a product available for purchase. Your royalty check is your ultimate statistic.

HANK: On the spellcheck of my email, "blog" is not recognized as a word. Nor is "blogger." Spellcheck wants them to be "bog" and "logger." what do you think about that?

DANI: Old email program? Nutty in any case, since blogging isn't exactly a new concept, if the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blogging) article is any indication. How long have we been doing this - ten years? I'm a late bloomer, but I know writers who have been blogging for a decade.

HANK: Thanks Dani--you're amazing. Questions? Comments? Dani's here!


When Dani Greer isn't blogging for book tours, she creates and maintains other group blogs like The Blood Red Pencil (http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/) and Penny Dreadful (http://pdreadful.blogspot.com/). Email her at hotbuttonpress AT gmail DOT com if you'd like to participate on either one.

She's also the mogul of Blog Book Tours Yahoo Group, a peer support group which now has 125 author members learning to arrange their own virtual promotions.


Links are terrific. And important! But they can also be a pain. Here's what was shown on yesterday's blog here:

In fact, I remember my first blogging experience. Ann Parker (http://www.annparker.net)and/ I went to the Women Writing the West Conference and we agreed to blog the event on their brand-spanking-new blog(http://womenwritingtheest.blogspot.com/).

Lovely. But the links don't work.

In the first one, the "and" somehow got connected. (Bzzzt. Wrong.)

In the second one, the "w" in west was omitted. (Bzzt! Wrong.)

Here's the corrected version:

In fact, I remember my first blogging experience. Ann Parker (http://www.annparker.net/) and I went to the Women Writing the West Conference and we agreed to blog the event on their brand-spanking-new blog (http://womenwritingthewest.blogspot.com/).

BSP: Don't forget our own wonderfulRoberta Isleib is on blog-tour for Asking For Murder! http://robertaisleib.com/blog/

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


"Communication works for those who work at it.
***John Powell

What are the secrets to a terrific blog? You read blogs—you’re here, right? And you probably write them. Have you ever thought—this is fun, but is it worth it? And now, Jungle Red Writers bring you to the guru.

Dani Greer—you know her from the Blog Book Tours Yahoo! Group, a peer support group, now has 125 author members learning to arrange their own virtual promotions. (Four member tours are underway in September including our own Roberta’s Asking For Murder tour.)

But did you know:
She was once a Blue Ribbon Expert for Martha Stewart OmniMedia?
English is her second language? Her red accordion has mysteriously vanished? She feeds 22 cats... homecooked meals? She knows how to use a real scythe?

She’s also got websites and all kinds of resources for bloggers and would-bes--but she's here today and tomorrow to impart her wisdom in a special Jungle Red visit!

HANK: So nice to see you here! Thank you. You're unquestionably the knower-of-all-knowledge about everything blog.

How'd that happen?

DANI: ROFLMFO (rollingonthefloorlaughingmyfannyoff)! I have no idea how it happened, except through my enthusiasm about them. Several years ago, I didn't even have a blog. Not sure I even knew what one really was.

In fact, I remember my first blogging experience. Ann Parker (http://www.annparker.net)and/ I went to the Women Writing the West Conference and we agreed to blog the event on their brand-spanking-new blog

We were both clueless!

Ann had her laptop, and I was technologically stunned by my first digital camera, too, but we managed to bumble our way through. It didn't take us long to get the hang of it, despite the fact that I'm a techno-idiot and Ann wasn't much wiser in the ways of blogs.

We soon realized it really wasn't rocket science. Most importantly, I quickly realized that blogging is one of those dynamic tools that has unbelievable advertising potential, and it's better than cheap.

My former life as a self-employed artist has trained me well to always be on the look-out for the best promo tools which means some combination of best cost and most effective results. Blogs perfectly match those qualifications - free and viral. But, you have to learn to use the tool well. That's what the Blog Book Tours group is all about. (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/blogbooktours)

HANK: Bet you're not a techno-idiot anymore! And more about that in a minute. But "Learn to use the tool well," you say. Yup, that's what intrigues us all. Sometimes I read blogs that end with a thud. Are there tricks to keeping readers interested? I know, after thirty years in TV, the value of a "tease' or a 'promo', and of course, the value of a good old contest. It's not just about writing an interesting essay, right?

DANI: Not a complete idiot anymore. You learn a lot clicking every live link you can find. One must be fearless when it comes to discovering virtual worlds!

Interesting essays count big-time on a writer's blog, too. Every fan wants the "back story" behind that latest book. But a nice mix of long and short, funny and serious, guests and excerpts, jokes and photos, history and current events, posts with a natural flow from day to day, will bring readers back to your blog. Yes, of course, contests draw participation. That's the number one way to get a lot of visitors fast.

You also have to set-up your blog so it's easy for your fans. Have a bookmarking button, for example. A way for fans to email you. A great blogroll of blogs just as hot as yours that somehow expand on your blog's focus.

My favorite and most obvious trick for getting readers? End your post with a question inviting reader participation. It's the favorite trick of The Tarts over at The Lipstick Chronicles and it obviously works. (http://thelipstickchronicles.typepad.com/ http://thelipstickchronicles.typepad.com/> ?)

The tease? I would suggest you tweet about it over at Twitter (http://twitter.com/ http://twitter.com/> ). I've doubled my hits since I started posting teasers and links to cool sites. I tweet about everything including Roberta's blog book tour. I'll be tweeting about our conversation here, too. Tweet-tweet. Do you suppose your fans are wondering what tree I fell out of right about now?

HANK: Oh, we're devoted fans of Lipstick. They're amazing. And talented. (I'm just saying.) And yeah, Twitter. You and I have to chat about that. I'm afraid I have a bit of twitter-fear. But I know you can cure me. But let me ask you--for me and all your fans. Where are you? Where are you from? What do you do when you're not giving advice to the blog-lorn?

DANI: I'm smack in the middle - Colorado to be exact. Hubby and I are self-employed artists who make art for churches. We're currently finishing stained glass for a new church on the High Plains and painting iconography for an Eastern Orthodox Temple in Colorado Springs. Writing about it, too, of course, which is how I got into the writing world to begin with. Middle-age has put me in serious career-shift mode. So I started focusing more on writing than on my art. It's been a slow and rough process for me. Some days, I'm not sure I even enjoy writing.

I also knew after my first writing conference that I wouldn't be headed down a traditional publishing path, nor would I promote a book with the usual live book tour. I'd have to find another way, a better way for me, and that's part of why I learned (am still learning) about blog book tours, and all the related virtual tools. Really, with environmental and energy issues, not to mention the economic downturn, I think most authors will have to find smarter ways to promote their new releases.

In today's world, a two-week blog tour and a week on the road in one's immediate region makes perfect sense. In a few years, we might have to skip the live tours entirely. Times are changing, and the publishing industry right along with it.

HANK: What's the biggest mistake bloggers make? Okay, the two biggest mistakes?

Oh—sorry gang. We’re out of time for today! Dani will be back with more tomorrow!

Monday, September 8, 2008

On summer's end

Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability. ~Sam Keen

JAN: I biked down to South Beach this morning to get my last glimpse of the ocean before heading home. And now I'm laundering beach towels and packing up coolers with all the windows and doors open so I can get my fill of sea breezes.

And you know what I feel? Relief.

I loved the crystal clear days, the strong sun, the stars at night. But now? Enough of that.

How can I focus on the right name for a character or the clearest definition if all I want to do is get on my bike and ride to the beach? How can I puzzle out a workable plot when someone needs a fourth for doubles on a beautiful day? Clearly to get anything done, I need a chill outside, lots of clouds, and preferably a downpour.

In fact, I do my best writing between January and March just because the weather is so bad. Obviously, I have issues with self-discipline -- I've had to remove Solitaire from every computer I've ever had. I also get bored easily, have little tolerance for routine, and need a change in seasons just so I don't have to eat barbequed food for another eight months.

So it could just be me, but does anyone else look forward to cold weather for its positive effect on productivity?.

ROBERTA: Funny that you're so patient with slogging through tedious or difficult reading, Jan! You saw with Friday's post how much I'll regret the end of the summer produce season. (that's me, eating first!) We had to pull our cucumber plants out, and the zucchini, and the beans are looking peaked. And like Hallie, I hate winter. The thing that bothers me even more than the cold is the light. Or lack of it, I should say. It gets dark here in Connecticut by 4:30 in the worst part of the season. And that makes me feel like hibernating, not writing.

HALLIE: So THAT'S why I haven't gotten but a piddling amount of my new book written for the last three months!

For me, end of summer means college starts and my husband goes back to work. Which is one fewer distraction in the house but no one to hang out with at lunch. The worst thing about summer ending is winter is not far off. I hate hate hate winter. Hate ice, hate snow, hate being cold cold cold.

Ro: Summer started late for me and in the past few years it's ended late. In September I rent a house in Wellfleet. Most of the other renters and tourists have gone home and I get to pretend that I live in a small town with a general store that just happens to have a beach outside. The restaurants start to close and as the days go by there a fewer and fewer people on the road and on the beach. It's wonderful. I finished my first book at the house so it will always be special to me.For me the worst thing about the summer ending is that everything else is going to come so fast...Bouchercon, Crimebake, holidays, then the conferences start...aaayyyy!!

HANK: A box arrived at our porch in mid-July. Usually I'm the one who orders things, but I wasn't expecting a parcel. My husband said--oh, this is a surprise for us. Huh.

Inside was a turquoise blue two-person swimming pool float. Like a floating double chaise, where the two people are facing each other as they float. It's perfect for reading, and even has little spaces that are just the size of a diet coke bottle. Heaven.

All my vacation, 17 wonderful days from mid August til Labor Day, I'd write in the morning, we'd have lunch by the pool, then I'd come back in and write til 4. Then from 4 to 6--floating and reading.

Today, we're putting our float away. (After the football game, Jonathan says.)

Sigh. My white skirt is looking tired. Gin and tonics seem a little too chilly. My bathing suit is hanging on the shower rack, and hasn't budged for a week. We cook inside. Transition is transitioning.

But the dahlias are still blooming like mad. And the air is clear and dry. And I don't have to face a new math teacher or clique of classmates. I like it.

JAN: Oh dear, Hank. Now you're making me miss summer, when I was so determined to do away with it. But I must remind myself that the swimming pool float would be useless to me -- what without the pool. And of course, as you remind me, Patriots are on this afternoon -- and although I don't watch football -- I do make nachos at halftime. A perfect transition!

Friday, September 5, 2008

On End of Summer Eating

"Eating well is the best revenge." anon

ROBERTA: Okay, I hardly have time to eat right now, never mind cook. But I can't help myself. Here's what was on the counter yesterday. The peaches come from Bishop's Orchards down the road--I wait all year for those! The squash is from our workman's garden (yes, they are STILL here.) And the tomatoes are from mine. So tonight we're having baked squash, with onions sauteed in butter and then some cheese mixed in, and all baked a second time. Some of the tomatoes I'll chop, then add olive oil, basil, and chunks of fresh mozzarella--poured over penne pasta. The peaches I've frozen so I can make a classic peach pie later in the fall, page 479 from the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking cookbook. Only I leave out the rum. And cheat on the crust by using my father's recipe--easiest in the world and yet worlds above a frozen purchased crust:

Sift 2 cups of all purpose flour into a bowl, along with 1 and 1/2 tsp salt.
Pour over that 1/2 cup of salad oil and 1/4 cup of milk.
Stir lightly until blended. Gather into a ball and divide.
Flatten each half between 2 sheets of waxed paper and roll out. Then you peel off one of the pieces of waxed paper, dump the crust into the 9" pan, and peel the second sheet off.

And fill it with your favorite pie!

It's Friday and we want to hear about what special end-of-summer treats you're eating!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

on what we're reading

Wear the old coat and buy the new book. - Austin Phelps

ROBERTA: full disclosure, last week when I was in charge of coming up with brilliant blog topics or scintillating guests, I was on vacation in Greece. Reading. Having run out of reading material in a Spanish-speaking country on my last big trip, I know how important it is to pack the right books. And enough of them. As a big fan of Mystic River, I chose a review of copy of Dennis Lehane's new book, due out in October. It's a whopper. 700 pages. I started it on the plane and became immediately discouraged by the historical context and the heavy emphasis on baseball. Hours and pages later, I couldn't bear to put it down. Don't expect a mystery or crime fiction or the kind of puzzles Lehane has crafted in his other books. This a grand historical saga following several families through the years at the end of WWI. Babe Ruth is an actual character. (I didn't know you could do that!) Exquisitely written of course, though I don't care for his depiction of women. Is that the era or the author? Anyway, John plowed through it too and we passed it off to our traveling companions to avoid repacking in the carry-on bags that were already overweight.

Then I launched into a mini-series of foodie books, including THE LAST CHINESE CHEF by Nicole Mones about a widowed food writer on assignment to cover a banquet that will determine the top chefs of China. This will make you hungry for Chinese food, and you'll be hard put to accept the local takeout joint.

And I finished up with JULIE AND JULIA by Julie Powell, a memoir by a woman who decides to spend the year cooking every recipe in MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING by Julia Child. This woman is nuts! But I found it highly entertaining (liberal swears and a cache of maggots in the kitchen aside), and couldn't help marveling at the brilliant concept of her project, her blog, and the ensuing book deal!

That's it--you're up! What are you reading?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Surprise

"Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain." Carl Jung

ROBERTA: I hope you all will indulge me today as my new book is out and I can't help wanting to talk writing actually how our writing can surprise us. When I began writing Deadly Advice, I needed a sidekick for Rebecca Butterman; for reasons unknown, I chose a sandplay therapist. As sometimes happens, that character moved forward to take a leading role in the new mystery, ASKING FOR MURDER. Since I was basically ignorant about sandplay therapy, I ordered a book on the subject and began to struggle through it. Le crap, I said to myself before long. You know nothing about this and one book isn't going to answer your questions.

So I Googled sandplay therapists and found one in New Hampshire who was very interested in helping me portray this kind of treatment accurately. She spent several hours on the phone walking me through what her office looked like, how a session would be conducted, and then how the therapist would help the patient understand the arrangement she'd made in the sand tray. And then I wrote the book. This summer, months after the book was in production, I went to visit this therapist. WOW! Her walls were lined with shelves carrying thousands of figurines. I desperately wanted to study them, choose the ones that called to me and place them in the sand, and then have Sally help me understand what I'd done. Oddly enough, Rebecca had already done this in the book! What I mean is, I'd written the scene and now I was living it as my character had.

So that's the question for today, Jungle Red Writers, what's the most interesting surprise you've come across lately in your writing or your reading?

RO: That's a timely question for me since I just had a lengthy meeting at my publishers and have been talking about my second book a lot. I thought I was writing a fun and frisky book about a missing woman, some fake native Americans, and Ukrainian mobsters with a few health-conscious bikers thrown in, and what I really did was write a book about three female friends. It seems I've done both, quite unintentionally.

On the reading side, recently I was surprised by the ending of the latest Lee Child, Nothing To Lose. It was more overtly political than I expected it to be.
Not that I minded, or was shocked by his position..just surprised.

JAN: In the life-imitating art category: When I researched A Confidential Source, I needed help on how criminal law worked in Rhode Island. I got it from a lawyer named Patrick Lynch. When I created a prosecutor love interest for Hallie Ahern, my protagonist, I carefully steered away from any "P" names.

After much deliberation, I chose Matt as the perfect name for Hallie's boyfriend, and made him ambitious to become the head of the Criminal Division. Then, my source, Patrick Lynch ran for Attorney General -- and won. When I began researching Yesterday's Fatal, I didn't want to take up the AG's valuable time asking my tedious fiction questions, so I asked him if he could introduce me to a willing prosecutor who worked for him.

Well, as it turned out, the prosecutor's name was Matt. We had a few lunches, and he was so incredibly helpful, he became essential to my storytelling. Not only that, he was soon promoted to chief of the Criminal Division.

I had to warn real Matt that everybody in Rhode Island would mistake him for fictional Matt -- especially after I mentioned him in the acknowledgements. But he was a really good sport about it.

HALLIE: Of late I’ve been reading about con men. In the news, Clark Rockefeller with his string of aliases and missing former landlords. Two books just out about Han Van Meegeren, a successful painter who got back at art critics by forging Vermeers. A riveting New Yorker article about of Frederic Bourdin who repeatedly passed himself off as a homeless teenager, inventing scores of identities in more than fifteen countries and five languages. He goes too far when he tries to pass himself off as a family’s son who disappeared years earlier and stumbles into what may have been a murder. Shades of Josephine Tey’s wonderful “Brat Ferrar.”

Art imitating life or the other way around? You couldn’t make up more fascinating characters.

HANK: I so agree, Hallie. The "Clark Rockfeller" story is incredible. I just met someone who had talked with him at length--she said he was charming,well-spoken.But for some reason, when she went home, she looked up some stuff he had said about his education. It was all a lie.

What surprised me? I'm so sorry to bring it up, and I know it's old news, but I'm still not over John Edwards. How pitiful, of course. But here he was, running for president. What if he had won the nomination? He risked--pulling the entire election out from under the Democrats. He had to decide--which was more important, the future of the country? Or what he wanted to do. And he decided: what he wanted was more important.

The "Most self-centered person on the planet" award gets retired, don't you think? Awarded to him forever for lifetime achievement in selfishness?
It still surprises me.

ROBERTA: Ro, we can't wait to read that book! And Jan, has Matt gotten comments about his new fictional self? I'm still astonished about John Edwards too--maybe he was imitating some art and we just don't know about it yet. I'm never surprised when people do dumb things--we have so many layers and we wander through them half-aware. But it is astonishing that someone in a position that high could convince himself none of it would come out. Maybe he could have used a few sessions with my friend Sally, the sandplay therapist, and saved himself a lot of embarrassment and his family a lot of pain.