Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Shady Lady's Garden

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I was a gardener well before I became a writer. I can probably blame Mrs. Hayes, my fourth grade teacher for instilling in me my love of gardening.  As much as I'd like to say it was my gray-haired nanny, she only grew four things. Roses, tomatoes, basil and figs. Nothing wrong with any of those, but a little limited. And I didn't learn to love figs until I was in my twenties. Nope, it was Mrs. Hayes and her cutoff milk containers, carrot tops and avocado pits.

When I got my first apartment in Brooklyn I filled the windowsills with herbs and ferns. And hanging plants - spider plants and asparagus ferns. (Remember those? And no...they were not in macrame thingys.) In one of my New York City apartments I created a roof garden - morning glories, coreopsis and a kiddie wading pool for those really hot days. It was great until the ceiling fell down in my living room.

It would be years before I got my first real garden. Three+ acres, some of it wooded and some which every year I manage to reclaim.

Let the other Reds rhapsodize about cheese or prosciutto. I'm all about loam and beneficial insects. Shrubs and perennials. Ground covers.

I have more than my fair share of deer and slugs but this year I've also had some wonderful wildlife sightings - spotted salamanders, frogs, barred owls and hummingbirds.

As you can see I have a lot of shade so I grow shadelovers like rhodys, azaleas, pieris, leucothoe.

And after close to twenty years my garden is finally starting to come along. Not done, of course.

It will never be done. It's a work-in-progress!
And when I'm not in my garden I write about someone who is...busman's honeymoon I think they call it.

So take a look, tell me what you think.

Do you garden? How does your garden grow??

Friday, June 29, 2012

Greatest comebacks...

"I get knocked down, but I get up again
They're never gonna keep me down.."

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Most sports fans would say that comeback victories are more exciting than routs.

Comebacks are thrilling because most of us can identify with the impulse to pull the covers over our heads and want to go to sleep (or...whatever your preferred method of avoidance is) when we suffer a setback. And sometimes that's the right thing to do. Other times, we have to get back up and fight.
We get knocked down but we get up the song says.

Winston Churchill, Robert Downey Jr., much as I hate to reference them, the 2004 Boston Red Sox. People and groups who come back against all the odds are exciting.

They earn our admiration and they inspire us to do better, to not give up. To pay no attention to "the odds" and to keep doing what we are doing. No matter what it is. One book at a time. One base hit at a time. One point at a time.

Yesterday, a little-known Czech tennis player named Lukas Rosol beat Rafael Nadel in the second round at Wimbledon. Rosol lost the first set, it went to five sets. No one - except perhaps Rosol's parents and his coach - were betting on him.  Even if you're not a tennis fan, or a fan of David versus Goliath stories, you have to hand it to a guy who has so much belief in himself that it doesn't matter if thousands of people are expecting him to lose, and in fact cheeringf for him to do so, so that they can eventually see a more marquee matchup.

 Right now I'm thinking of Maria Sharapova, who came back from shoulder surgery to regain the number one ranking and win the French Open last month. But it's not just sports figures. Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Steve Jobs were great comeback stories.

Do you have a favorite comeback story? Someone famous? A family member or friend? Whose story helps you get back up?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Today Jungle Red welcomes one of the terrific writers and teachers from MWA University and she claims that despite the calm, efficient, brilliant demeanor she displays at those events - she's really a little crazy.

I am a catastrophic thinker. I'm not saying I'm a worrier, or that I have an overactive imagination. I’m saying I’m crazy. Here’s an example:

My kids and I attend Tae Kwon Do classes every Tuesday and Thursday, and every Tuesday and Thursday, we return to our little house in small-town Minnesota at 8:30 pm. This particular Thursday in early April, we’d arrived home to find a potted begonia on our back step. The temperature was hovering around 12 degrees above zero, but that begonia was green and fresh in its brown paper bag. Somebody knew exactly when we were returning home and had timed their flower-leaving accordingly. Five more minutes, and it would have been frozen solid.

My kids thought it was a nice gesture, and I encouraged that. In my head, though, I was thinking: We've recently moved to town. We don't know anyone here. All my friends and family live at least 30 minutes away. No one I know would leave a flower on my back step without a note. Clearly, a serial killer has been tracking me and my babies for weeks, he has learned when we come and go, and he's leaving his calling card--the orange begonia--right before he murders us in our sleep.

That night, I slept on the couch with a knife. It was my chef's knife without the tip, which I had broken off a couple years earlier in a pound of frozen ground turkey that wasn't thawing fast enough. It was the sharpest one I had, but that's hardly the point, is it? SOMEBODY LEFT ME A FLOWER AND IT MADE ME SLEEP WITH A KNIFE.

And there's something about having kids that super-revs the powers of catastrophic thinking. I have to travel to conferences and out-of-state signings about seven times a year, and I leave my kids, ages 10 and 13, with my parents. Every time I go, I say the same thing to my mom: "Don't forget you're watching them."

And she always says the same thing back. "Don't worry. I raised you, remember?"

I might not be her best reference. I remember how many times she let me walk to the store alone when I was five, or how she encouraged me to miss two weeks of 5th grade because we didn't like the politics of the long-term sub. But I get her point. I survived, and my kids will too.

Still, when my plane leaves the ground or my wheels cross the state line, my catastrophic thinking kicks in. What if one of my children was kidnapped? Would I be able to find them? Could I go on living if I didn't find them? Or if they were in the hospital, how long would it take me to get back to them? What do you even think about when you're waiting to catch a flight back to your children in a hospital? Should I call and make sure they're okay? Or should I wait until I've been gone five minutes?

Ack. And don't even get me started on public speaking. You know how people say, "It was an honor just to be nominated?" I mean it. I like staying in the audience. I'm pretty sure that if I ever had to stand and speak in front of a crowd of people I respected in any capacity other than teaching, I'd start bleating like a sheep right before my bowels relaxed. (Ro's hard to believe as Jess is a wonderful speaker!)

So there you have it. The true confessions of a catastrophic thinker. I imagine there’s a medication for it, but I think the same part of my brain that takes these wicked spirals is the part that loves reading and spinning stories. All it takes is a spark, and I can run with it. Also, the superstitious part of me is sure that thinking about all the bad stuff that could happen is protection AGAINST it happening. Sorry, author of the The Secret.

p.s. An old college friend who lived 35 miles away and had heard I'd moved back to town was the one who left the begonia. She was dropping it off on a whim and didn't leave a note because she didn't have a pen. See? All my worrying scared off the serial killer.

Jess Lourey writes the Lefty-nominated Murder-by-Month Mysteries.

In a starred review of November Hunt, her latest, Booklist writes, "It's not easy to make people laugh while they're on the edge of their seats, but Lourey pulls it off!"

Jess’ first in a young adult fantasy series, The Toadhouse Trilogy, Book One, hits bookshelves in early July. The Toadhouse aims to do for classic literature what Rick Riordan did for Greek mythology. You can visit her at (mysteries) or (YA).

Read an excerpt of The Toadhouse Trilogy here

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron 1941-2012

We had intended to post
a - hopefully-  Nora Ephron-like piece today on why we felt bad about our hair, but our thoughts  on Jungle Red run much deeper today.

Nora Ephron, filmmaker, director, producer, screenwriter, novelist, essayist and beloved sister of Hallie has passed away.

She was glamorous, brilliant, and funny and her observations on everything from breasts to her neck (which she felt bad about)  made us laugh and made us feel good about ours.

I didn't realize it at the time but I wanted to be her when I saw Sandra Dee in the movie Take Her, She's Mine, which Nora's parents wrote based on her letters from college and we all wanted to have what Meg Ryan was having in When Harry Met Sally. From Silkwood to Heartburn to Sleepless in Seattle Nora Ephron created characters that will stay with us forever.
Rest in peace.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Adventures in Self-Publishing

ROSEMARY HARRIS:  If anyone had told me five years ago - or even two  - that I would be self-pubbing a book, I would have said Absolutely Not! In fact, even a few years back there was still the faint whiff of disapproval or sympathy regarding self-pubbed authors.  And I was on the fringes of that camp.

I didn't come to my decision on a soapbox ranting about the evils of NY publishing.  I had - and still have - a great agent - and I've had four books traditionally published, including the one I have just self-pubbed in paperback. My first three books were hard/soft with MacMillan. Originally Slugfest, the fourth book in the series was to have been released in paperback by the hardcover publisher. There it was...listed on Amazon with a March 29, 2012 release date. My agent and editor confirmed it. I planned Spring 2012 accordingly.

And then, I got the news that they had changed their minds. O-kaaaayyyy. The reasons are varied and are best told at the bar at Bouchercon, but I didn't see why I shouldn't try my hand at self-publishing. All of the others had had some life as pbs. I wouldn't have the advantage of publishing the ebook, the original publisher had retained those rights, so I wouldn't be able to give my book away for free or sell it for .99 and then claim it was a bestseller. I was going the route that conventional wisdom said was a dead end - trade paperback publishing.

I investigated both Lightning Source and CreateSpace and truth be told their numbers, offers and potential were very similar. I chose CreateSpace because their website was slightly easier for me to negotiate, but that might not be the same for everyone.
They offered three cover design options which basically allow you to have as much or as little help designing your cover as you like. I took the middle road. I found the artwork, wrote the back cover copy and communicated via email with a designer who made numerous changes at my request. I'm pretty happy with the cover although if I had it to do over I might have made the title bigger (tough to do with an eight letter word but elongated type might have helped.)

Then I had to decide on price. If I wanted to avail myself of CS's Expanded Distribution (and not lose money on every book sold) I'd need a cover price of $11.99. Expanded distribution would enable me to be listed on Baker&Taylor's website and Ingram's. There was also the possibility of a sale to B&N. But no guarantees. And no salesperson except for me. And I'd be busy trying to let consumers know that the book was now available in paperback. If I said no to Expanded Distribution, I could go out with an $8.99 price point - more consumer friendly and more competitive with other cozy or light mystery titles - and it was trade, not mass market sized. So that's what I did. I felt it was a longshot that B&N was going to carry the reprint and most libraries that wanted the book had bought it in hardcover. I am sorry the book isn't going to be available through independent bookstores, but it wasn't going to be anyway (if I hadn't self-pubbed.)

The CreateSpace process was remarkable. Fast, easy and responsive to my frequent calls and emails. (There is a system in place that let's you click a button that says Call Me Now! and dang if someone doesn't call you about your book.)My out of pocket costs were about $500 - the lion's share of that being cover design, $350, so it could have been a lot less.

And it seemed to me that was a reasonable price to pay  to learn if any of the promotional activities, social media, mailings, etc. I was doing were generating sales or if it was all still about being on the front table at Barnes & Noble. Few things compare to getting that kind of exposure, but I'd only had that for one of my previous books anyway (Pushing Up Daisies) and over time the paperbacks had sold so why not try it for my self-pubbed book?

In the last two weeks since the book went live on Amazon, I've solicited reviews, written a few guest blogs, and sent out a newsletter and press release (cross your fingers that the fellow from the Washington Post likes it as much as he liked the first book which went into a second printing. And that Garrison Keillor actually reads it, likes it and chats it up!!)
I've also sent an email to about fifty writing pals asking for help in getting the word out. I confess that was a little awkward but I was absolutely heartened by the response I got (and I will flog forever books written by those authors who were kind enough to give me a shout-out!)

So that's where I am. I try not to obsessively check my CreateSpace or Amazon number but I am human. ;-) One interesting side note, sales of my first three books have seen a little spike since I started yakking about Slugfest
I have very realistic and modest sales expectations for the book.  If the shelf life of a traditionally released paperback is somewhere between milk and yogurt, I'm told a self-pubbed release is more like good scotch - but I certainly hope the book doesn't take 12-20 years to sell! I will make a determination on the success or failure of the project at the end of the year. And then we'll see. I still hope to have my WIP traditionally published, but I am keeping my options open.
So.. as Dr. Pangloss might say....any questions?

Monday, June 25, 2012

What's on Your Summer Playlist?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: People change their closets when the seasons change.  Some women change their makeup (I used to change my hair color...more gold highlights in the summer, more red in the winter.) Although I swore I never would after seeing my mother do it for years, I change all the curtains, from velvet to cotton.

One of the biggest seasonal changes for me is music. The first time I hear Feliz Navidad in November I love it. By January 6 I'm less feliz about hearing it and I'm ready to pack it away with the Christmas ornaments. And when it gets warm, my playlist changes again.

For me summertime will always mean Coppertone. Potato knishes on the beaches in Brooklyn and Queens - Neponsit, Manhattan Beach, Brighton, Riis Park. Dr Scholl's sandals. Sun-in, which we apparently all tried and hoped that it would create sexy, beachy streaks that didn't turn orange like Jan's did.
Most of my pals stayed in the city for the summer. We took the bus to the beach and got there early to work on our tans. And the music we listened to then takes me back every time I hear it.
In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry, Hot Fun in the Summertime by Sly and the Family Stone, A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy. Anything by the Beach Boys.  These songs instantly turn me into a teenager, whether they were new and hits or already moldy oldies by the time I heard them. Anyone remember Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini? See You in September?
Pass the baby oil and iodine! Which songs take you back to the beach?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Not the beach for me, Ro, but the country club swimming pool.  The smell of chlorine, Sea n' Ski, and I Can't Get No Satisfaction on the pool jukebox. The Beach Boys, of course, but probably my fave summer song EVER is Summer in the City by The Loving Spoonful.  Now I've got to go see if it's on my playlist somewhere....

RHYS BOWEN: In England I lived too far from the beach to go with friends (and nobody had cars anyway--driving age 18). It was the un-heated swimming pool that I had to sneak to without my mother knowing, as she'd forbidden me to go there because of polio scares. (the vaccine reached us while I was in middle school but she still didn't trust it)

Beach Boys are the ultimate for me too. And Summer Nights from Grease. And all the silly camp songs we used to sing.

JAN BROGAN: One summer I worked on a disco on the New Jersey Beach, the Surf Club, which I'm pretty sure Snookie et crew from Jersey Shore must frequent or would have frequented when I worked there because I actually remember those people. Anyway, I worked every single day and Friday and Saturday nights. There was a live band that played Heaven Must be Missing an Angel and all those Barry White and KC and the Sunshine Band songs from 4 p.m. on.  I worked there when I was deep into my cowgirl phase (playing a lot of guitar and going to a lot of Eagles, Grateful Dead and Jackson Brown concerts), so I detested the music in an irrational, I-must-remain-loyal-to-my-identity-kind-of-way.  I was anti-disco.  The funny part is, now when I hear that Barry White music, it brings back only the pleasant summer memories.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh yes, we spent a ton of time at the beach, both the Jersey shore and Hatteras Island off the coast of NC, as my mom was nuts for the ocean. I remember all the songs you're naming, but no one has yet named the pop classic "Red Rubber Ball" sung by the Cyrkle. (And what kind of oddball group name is that anyway??) And who writes those lyrics?
I should have known you'd bid me farewell
There's a lesson to be learned from this and I learned it very well
Now, I know you're not the only starfish in the sea
If I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me

And I think it's gonna be alright
Yeah, the worst is over now
The mornin' sun is shinin' like a red rubber ball

John and I were having this discussion recently when I couldn't get "Macarthur Park" out of my head. "Someone left the cake out in the rain...I don't think that I can take it, cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that recipe agaiinnnnnn...oh noooooo". Could that be the silliest song ever written?

ROSEMARY: There's always Louie, Louie...that was a pretty dumb song. Wooly Bully?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Well of course the beach boys--Surfer Girl and the silly song called Car Club"-- remember that? And Jan and Dean's Little Deuce Couple "it's got a positraction  clutch with a four on the floor"...whatever that means. And there was Summertime Summertime Sum Sum Summertime..but I won't mention that.
There's an album by Basia that always take me to summer..and how about the Girl from Ipanema?
The fragrance of coconuts and chlorine. How the sun hits you when you get off an airplane  somewhere summery.  Sun mom laid down the law. So..well, she told me it would turn my hair orange.
But! How about iodine and baby oil?

ROSEMARY: Another baby oil and iodine devotee! It's wonder we have any skin left!!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Care and Feeding of Writers

LUCY BURDETTE: I read a blog post today by one of my author friends, Lorna Barrett, about how readers can help the authors they love stay in business.

And this got me thinking that lots of readers don't realize how much power they have. So here are some suggestions for ways you can be sure to keep getting the books you love:

--click the "like" button generously, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Facebook, you name it. Believe it or not, publishers look at these numbers!

--Share your opinions about the good books you read--on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, Twitter, Shelfari, Facebook--this can make a big difference when folks are looking for something to read

--buy books! this may sound obvious, but it isn't. Sales mean that writers can continue to keep writing. Low sales mean contracts aren't renewed. Of course I don't buy every book I read--some are from the library or borrowed from a friend, but I buy a lot of them. And when I'm thinking about gifts, I think books!

How about you Reds? Any suggestions for how readers can support writers?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: It's true, we all need some love sometimes. Yes to everything Lucy said. Believe it or not, simply clicking Like on the Amazon book page or facebook author page has an impact. In the baroque and not easily explained (at least by me) Amazon system the more Likes you have, the more your titles will pop up when people buy similar books. That's the Cliff's Notes version, but it's a good thing.

Two things I'd add to Lucy and Lorna's list (say that three times fast) - click Agree with the Amazon tags at the bottom of the Amazon book page. The descriptive ones not the dopey ones that say the book is too expensive, as if the author has anything to do with that. Other thing, Share our good news on facebook. In fact...Share all the JR posts that you like. It's just like mentioning it to a friend. And then they'll tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends...;-)

DEBORAH CROMBIE: If you like a book (and we hope you like ours) take the time to post a review on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or both!  It doesn't have to be long. Publishers look at the number of reviews as well as the number of LIKES, and the book's rating. And the really big thing is PRE-ORDER! This makes a huge difference to the publisher, and gets buzz going on the book so that more people will buy it. You can pre-order from your local or favorite independent bookstore as well as the online sites. And lastly, what Ro and Lucy said, and it's really easy.  If you love a book, TALK TALK TALK. On Facebook, on Twitter, on Goodreads, on your blog, to your friends, to your librarian. It's free, and it makes a really big difference! We want to keep writing!

RHYS BOWEN: I think many people don't realize that authors don't make a penny from second hand books. I've had people say excitedly, "I found one of your books at the used book store and passed it around all my friends," and they wonder I don't kiss their feet in gratitude.

But if you're a reader don't apologize for getting my book from the library, not buying it. Of course nobody can go out and buy every book they want to read. If the book is taken out constantly from the library they will buy more copies next time. So authors love libraries.

JAN BROGAN: Well, you guys have it all so well covered. I'll only add that word of mouth is the greatest thing. And that authors really do appreciate every encouraging email and reminder the our characters and stories meant something to the reader.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Diva Does Diet by Krista Davis

LUCY BURDETTE: Since we tortured you with cake talk yesterday, it may be a relief for you to read this next post from Krista Davis. I had to giggle when I scanned it, as I'm just now finishing up Krista's brand new release THE DIVA DIGS UP THE DIRT. Her main character, Sophie, never meets a meal or a snack she doesn't like and she's a wonderful cook--which is part of the great fun in this series. And she's a regular person too--sometimes she has to resort to pants with an elastic waistline. Welcome Krista--and congrats on your New York Times bestselling author status!

KRISTA DAVIS: Warning: this post contains a four letter word that may be upsetting to some readers: diet.

I have been eating and overeating for years. So many that you’d think I would have it all figured out by now. As the author of the Domestic Diva Mysteries, I write about food, and I try out a lot of recipes. Well, I have to. It’s part of my job! But there came a time, not so coincidentally after Christmas, when my last guests left, and I had to face the truth. It was time.

Surprisingly, I discovered a few interesting things about food. I have to admit that I subscribe to the theory that you are what you eat. It’s pretty amazing how our bodies react to the fuel we put in them.

For instance, I found that when I ate a protein lunch with no breads or pasta, I didn’t get the three o’clock snooze crisis. Complex carbs were okay, like lentils or quinoa, but those pesky and wonderful breads and pastas put me right to sleep.

And speaking of sleeping, I scoffed at recommendations that sleep is important in losing weight. Whoops, so wrong. Days when I hadn’t slept enough were the worst. I compensate for lack of sleep by eating. When I’m tired, I try to perk up and find energy through food so I wind up consuming more. Who knew?

I was skeptical about the British study that recommended eating two eggs every day for breakfast. Seems women who did that lost more weight than those who ate something else. Those who ate eggs claimed they weren’t hungry mid-morning. They were right!

Thanks to research by the folks at Reader’s Digest, I learned that there are also fat-releasing foods. How cool is that? About an hour after exercising, we’re supposed to drink nonfat milk. It builds up our bones and sheds fat! Even better, small amounts of chocolate (yes, chocolate!) and walnuts also help us lose fat. Nonfat dairy, lean meats, and complex carbs help in that regard, too.

Remember, the no-fat-not-even-a-gram will pass my lips craze? How many bags of those fat-free cookies did we snarf? Hah! Turns out it’s still about calories and exercise.

But wait! There’s even news about exercise. The cool people (you know them, the ones who say things like awesome sauce when something good happens) call it cross-training. Turns out that if you exercise the same way every day your body gets used to it and figures out how to use fewer calories to accomplish it. So we don’t have to knock ourselves out on a treadmill every day (okay, I’m not fooling anyone, that’s something I never did, but I walk twice a day, uphill all the way both times). It’s better to lift weights one day and walk or run the next day. And that weight-lifting? Even the little bitty ones help. If you work out with them, they charge your metabolism and (I love this so much!) you burn calories while you sleep that night!

Now if I could only figure out a way for a computer mouse to charge up my metabolism. Thanks for inviting me to be here today. Now where did I leave that cupcake?

Krista Davis writes the Domestic Diva Mysteries. Her latest release, The Diva Digs up the Dirt, hit #31 on the extended New York Times Bestseller list. Visit Krista at and

LUCY: And now we'd love to hear from you--tips about eating what you love but staying healthy too? 

Friday, June 22, 2012

On Birthday Cake

LUCY BURDETTE: The birthday season is coming up in my household, so I've got cake on the brain. One of the traditions we had in my family growing up was that the birthday person got to choose their cake. I went with angel food cake with whipped cream frosting, tinted pink with food coloring.

But with the family I married into,  the choice is always chocolate. The recipe that I use for feathery fudge cake with chocolate sour cream frosting comes from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.

My birthday falls in early January--not only are there no other bakers in my family, most of the good bakeries in the area are closed, exhausted from the holidays. So every once in while I splurge and bake the cake I would choose: yellow cake spread with whipped cream and crammed with strawberries. I found this on a Softasilk cake flour box years ago--it's a winner.


1 and 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 C butter
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
4 egg yolks
2 1/4 C Softasilk cake flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
whipped cream

To make the cake: grease and flour 2 round pans, heat oven to 350. Beat sugar and butter until fluffy. beat in vanilla, eggs and egg yolks, one at a time. mix flour, baking powder and salt. Mix in alternately with the milk, beating after each addition just until blended, beginning and ending with flour mixture. pour into pans. Bake 25 min or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. cool 10 min, remove from pans. cool completely.

Frost with fresh whipped cream sweetened with a tbsp of sugar and a dash of vanilla. I put chopped strawberries in the middle layer and decorate the top with halved strawberries, maybe a few blueberries too.

 What cake do you crave on your birthday? And as I saw my friend Steve Ulfelder ask on facebook the other day, would you serve it with ice cream? (I'm a purist--I think ice cream makes it soggy...)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

How Not to Plan a Party Menu by Laura Alden

LUCY BURDETTE: Speaking of writing fast, Laura Alden offers this lesson on how important it is to pay attention to your husband when you're writing! (And Laura, we're all waiting for our invitations!)

LAURA ALDEN: My husband and I moved into our house ten years ago. To my husband,
this means it’s a perfect time to have a party. Now there are parties
and there are Parties, and my husband figures that if you’re going to
have a party you might as well have a Party. As in, invite friends and
family from near and far, get a keg, killed the fatted calf, and serve
it up with all the fixings.

We first discussed having a big shindig in February. Back then I was
frantically busy trying to work through the first draft of PTA Mystery
#4. At dinner one night, my husband casually mentioned that he’d like
to have a Party this summer. “A what?” I said vaguely. “Sure. Sounds

In early May, I was frantically busy trying to finish the final edits
of #4 before the May 15 deadline. He asked if I thought early July
would be a good date for the party. “Um, this July?” I asked vaguely.
“Sure. Sounds great.”

Then the other day I was starting to work on the synopsis for PTA #5.
My husband said, “We should probably start thinking about a menu.”

I blinked at him. “Menu? For what?”

“For our party.”

Though I didn’t actually ask, What party? I came pretty close. “Oh,” I
said. “Right. The party.”

He gave me a look. “You remember that we’re having a party, right?”

“Pulled pork,” I said quickly. “You cook a great pulled pork.”

He smiled modestly. “Well, it’s not bad, but the recipe could use a
little tweaking.”

While he went on about the ratio of vinegar to barbecue sauce, I
mentally lined up a list of easy-to-cook foods. Easy was crucial, for
while #4 was on my editor’s desk, the synopsis for #5 was due June 15,
and I really, really needed to get started on writing the first book
in my new series, the bookmobile cat mysteries. (Pen name, Laurie
Cass.) After my husband settled on how he was going to make the
perfect pulled pork, I asked, “How about grilling some hot dogs?”

“Okay, sure.”

“And the potato salad from that restaurant supply store is excellent.
Their spinach dip is good, and what do you think about getting some of
their vegetable trays?”

He eyed me. After umpteen years of marriage, he knows me pretty well.
Which is nice come Christmas, but he also knew perfectly well that I
was trying to weasel out of anything that remotely resembled cooking.
“It’d be nice if you made those shrimpy things.”

I bit my lower lip. The shrimp puffs were tasty, and I could make them
ahead and freeze the little buggers, but making enough for a Party
would take half a precious Saturday, at least.

“If you make those,” my husband said, “I’ll make baked beans.”

A marriage is made of many things. One of them is knowing when to bow
to the inevitable. “Deal,” I said.

Moral of the story? Pay attention to what your husband says in
February. You just might find yourself spending a Saturday in July
cooking shrimp puffs.

Laura’s debut novel, Murder at the PTA was an Agatha Award finalist for Best
First Novel. Her third book, "Plotting at the PTA," will be released
in early July. JRW tried to get her husband's pulled pork recipe, but he claims he doesn't use one! But here is the link for Laura's shrimp puffs, straight from the Food Network.

Laura says: Nothing fancy; just don't overfill the muffin cups. First time I made
this the bottom of the oven was a monstrous mess...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How to Write FAST By Peter Andrews

LUCY BURDETTE: Today's guest was another presenter I met at the Connecticut Fiction Fest. Once he explained how he increased his productivity to 10,000 words per week, I was hooked. And I thought you all would be interested in his common sense ideas and homework too. Help us Peter!

PETER ANDREWS: There are many reasons why people want to increase their productivity. Bloggers may want to post frequently enough to attract an audience. Journalists may need to deliver copy on deadline. Genre novelists may need to produce enough to keep editors and agents happy. Academics may be facing “publish or perish.”
Really, anyone can write quickly. The trick is to write more productively. You don’t want to simply put more words on paper. You want to get more of your manuscript done for each hour of work.
I began to learn how to write more quickly when I took a job as a radio producer. I was responsible for three radio programs every week. It was like march or die for writers. A year into that job, I found that I was writing three times faster than I had been, and I’ve continued to look for ways to become more productive since.
Here are a few things I focus on, along with exercises that can help you up your productivity:
Obstacles and Excuses Know what stops you from writing or cuts into your efficiency.
Try this at home: Make a list of ten or more things that get in the way and brainstorm solutions. When something new gets in the way, add it to your list and find solutions for it. When a solution doesn’t work, come up with a new one.
Prep Make notes in full sentences. Add references, as appropriate. Set up a productivity/process journal. Decide what you will write the day before. Choose your audience. Reduce distractions.
Try this at home: Set a timer for 10 minutes and write (in full sentences, but without making any corrections) why being more productive is critical for you and what success will be for you as a writer. Count your words. 
Draft Give yourself permission to write lousy. Write (or complete) a sentence immediately. Keep writing. Avoid rewriting, editing, or even reading what you’ve written until you hit your word count.
Try this at home: Set a timer for 10 minutes. Write a letter to a friend about what you have learned about Fast Writing.
Rewriting Put aside a set amount of time. Set a goal and choose your documented rewriting process the day before. Either do what you promised the day before or try something new and document the results.
Try this at home: Document a process that you use (for restructuring, editing, rewording, proofing, etc.) in a productivity/process journal.
There’s a lot more to try. You can explore why you are writing, and document it. You can work with a writing buddy. And you should find ways to reward yourself and celebrate success.
But through it all, remind yourself that this is supposed to be fun. Enthusiasm is the best tool of all for productive writing.
Peter Andrews teaches How to Write Fast and is the author of a forthcoming book by the same name. He has worked as a speechwriter, teacher, chemist, and radio producer, and he is the co-author of Innovation Passport. He can be reached at
LUCY: Peter will be checking in today to talk about writing fast and help brainstorm what gets in your way. Questions? Comments?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Writing What You Don’t Know: Former Spy Writes Supernatural Thriller

 LUCY BURDETTE:  When I met Alma Katsu recently at the Connecticut Fiction Fest and heard about her career as a CIA analyst, I was wildly jealous. That's exactly the kind of background (says me) that translates into a bestseller kind of platform (me thinks.) But Alma is here today to tell us why it isn't as easy as it seems. Welcome Alma!

ALMA KATSU:  When I was an analyst at CIA, many of my coworkers thought about sitting down one day and writing a spy novel. Obviously, few did. (Even I didn’t: my first novel, The Taker, is historical with a supernatural element and had nothing to do with my intelligence career.)
But one analyst had penned a spoof of The Hunt for Red October as if it had been written in the rigid style taught to analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence. I wish I could show it to you—I’ve been told that a copy is floating around the Internet, but I couldn’t find it—because it perfectly illustrates the difference between being a spy in real life and being one in a novel. Needless to say, it made real intelligence analysts laugh so hard they blew Coke through their noses when they read it.
I worked in intelligence for nearly thirty years, splitting my time between the National Security Agency (known to you civilians as “the super-secret National Security Agency”) and CIA. Thirty years is a long time to do anything, long enough to ingrain the many quirks and peculiarities of the intelligence business into my DNA. (For instance, I find I must correct the inaccurate statement I made above, though it is a common misconception: technically, intelligence professionals are not “spies.” The people they recruit to give up secrets are spies.)
I was midway through my career as an analyst when I decided to return to writing fiction, something I’d abandoned once I started at NSA, as being a published writer is pretty much incompatible with working in intelligence. When literary agents found out about my day job, they’d invariably encourage me to write a spy novel. “You could show what it’s really like,” they’d say, and I took them at their word.
So I wrote a spy novel. It was a lot of work. I wanted to pick the right international conflict, one that I found interesting and I thought Americans should know more about. I wanted it to be accurate: my professional reputation was on the line.
I showed it to agents. To say they were underwhelmed is putting it kindly. I remember one telling me pointedly, “No one wants to read about someone doing their job.”
Of course, many writers are perfectly able to write great thrillers based on their day job: bookshelves are crammed with novels written by doctors, lawyers, police officers, pathologists, detectives, military personnel, police, you name it. For me, the decision not to write spy thrillers came down to this: it wasn’t fun. To me, writing is a means to be somewhere I want to be, with characters I want to be around—an escape. Writing spy novels kept me tethered to my workaday world, and it wasn’t rejuvenating.
Writing The Taker was fun, in that peculiar way we have of deriving enjoyment from mastering a difficult task. It took ten years to get it right, but it is a book I am proud of (Booklist chose it as one of the top ten debuts of last year, so my pride feels a little justified). The Reckoning was less fun to write, if I’m honest, because of the pressure that comes with writing your second book. Oddly enough, the reviews are better than the ones for The Taker, so maybe all that neurotic polishing paid off.
Will I write a spy novel? Someday, maybe. For now, my editors have asked that I stick to writing more books like The Taker. But stay tuned: I haven’t ruled it out.   

Alma Katsu’s novels have been compared to Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander: historicals with romantic and supernatural elements, but with a unique character all their own. For more information on Alma’s books, visit her website at She’s giving away a NOOK tablet ($199 value) to celebrate The Reckoning’s release; the contest is open until June 30 and you can find details at

Monday, June 18, 2012

Takeaways from Downton Abbey

LUCY BURDETTE: Back we were all talking about Downton Abbey, I was late to the party. But now I've watched both seasons and we're breathlessly waiting for the next installment. I find myself thinking quite a bit about the storyline and the characters, and thinking that there are lessons there for both writing and life.

For example, (I'll try to avoid spoilers but maybe cover your eyes if you haven't watched!), that thing that Mary did with the Turkish attache--didn't this lead to the most amazing plot complications? But looking back on the story, isn't it kind of amazing that she did do this? But we bought it, and that leads me to lesson #1--make sure your characters' actions feel believable and come from motives that are plausible, or your fancy plot falls to pieces.

Our favorite character probably turned out to be the dowager Grantham (Maggie Smith,) who in the early episodes was a real pill. But the writer also made her funny and gave her the chance to make clever new alliances with other characters. Lesson #2 leads right back to Blake Snyder's main thesis in his wonderful book on screenwriting, SAVE THE CAT--give even your nasty characters something the reader can root for.

How about you guys? Takeaways from Downton Abbey?

JAN BROGAN: Actually, premarital sex in that era wasn't as rare as we think, so Mary's dalliance with the Turk wasn't jumping the shark or anything, historically. In the 1850s and 1860s even the middle class women I'm researching indulged - although most often with a man they were going to eventually marry.
My takeaway from Downton Abbey is this: We want to escape into an era of more honor, more courtesy, and yes, even more restriction. And good dialogue always wins the day!

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I may have to watch the Mr. Pamuk episode again. I got the impression that they were going to have oral sex, in which case Mary quite likely would have gone to bed happy but not have had to explain anything to the maids in the morning. Was I wrong? In that case the lesson would be - no matter how cagey you think you're being THEY will find out.

My Maggie Smith lesson is that with a good enough actress you will forgive anything. I don't remember any St Paul moment where she turned into a nice but crotch-et-y person - except perhaps her generous act at the flower show. Was that an epiphany for her? She went straight from "what's a weekend?" to trying to save William from conscription.

RHYS BOWEN: I was uncomfortable about that Mary/Pamuk sex episode because it wasn't as if she welcomed him into her bedroom. He forced himself on her and maybe she enjoyed it eventually but she certainly resisted. If she had told her mother that she resisted but he was too strong for her, all would have been okay.

There were several Downton plot points I didn't agree with and one that stands out to me, at this moment is Matthew getting up to save Lavinia when he has been confined to a wheelchair for ages. As one who has spent a month in a wheelchair I know that there is no way he could stand and move without falling over. His legs would not have held him up. So reminder to self--check improbably physical actions before I put them in my story!

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm with Rhys on the "Heidi" moment for Matthew. And also I got a bit sick of his too-good-to-live fiancee. Having said that I completely bought Lady Mary's succumbing to passion. Those women are SO sheltered. That she'd have stuck with the slime-ball newspaper tsar as long as she did? Not so much. ORAL SEX? Really???? I must have been dozing.

I am forever fascinated by the house, which brings me to MY lesson: a great house can be like a great character in a book.

JAN BROGAN: Wow, we must all have different interpretations of that sex scene. I don't remember oral sex either Hallie, but then I also didn't think Pamuk forced himself on Lady Mary. I thought she resisted, but only at first and not that convincingly. Maybe that's the takeaway: everybody takes away something different.

ROSEMARY: Can you say Rashomon?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oral sex? I'm with Hallie. Really? Um, I thought she was not really resisting ,and.. oh, well. What I wondered about was them getting away with wrapping the body in a sheet and moving it and never saying a word and not being noticed. For our books, we have to remember to think about what would really work and what would be not only physically but psychologically believable.

I was also fascinated by the rehabilitation of Edith. Her nasty note was the beginning of all the trouble,s which I thought was great...but then she seemed to turn into a good person. Was her comeuppance that she was dumped by her once-suitor? And that allowed her to be written as good again?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Okay, I missed the oral sex thing, too. And no, I didn't think Mary's resistance was more than token. As I understand it--(this from years of reading British crime novels, of course) bed-hopping should have been considered an Olympic event at country house weekends. But only among the married or the conveniently widowed or separated. Almina, the real Countess of Carnarvon at Highclere Abbey during the war, was supposedly the illegitimate daughter of Baron de Rothschild by a woman who was conveniently separated from her husband.

The point being, Mary really did screw up (no pun intended.) And if she'd really resisted and screamed bloody murder when Pamuk came in, that would have caused a big stink, too, with diplomatic complications.

As for Matthew's Heidi moment, I think he might have stood up, said, "Oh, blimey!" and plopped back in his chair, or fallen on his face, but that wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic. And the fiance was really really too good to be true. Made me want to kill her off.

I actually didn't have a problem with Edith's character arc. I couldn't blame her for being jealous and resentful of her sisters. Not very nice, but understandable. But war changed people. So much loss, so much suffering. And it was a long, long four years. Edith not only had a chance to grow up, but to find something of value in herself.

All in all, I can't wait for the next season!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I can't wait to see what sort of search engine hits we get with this discussion of exactly what sexual technique the suave Turkish diplomat was going to introduce Lady Mary to...

Looking at Downton Abbey critically, it's easy to point out the jaw-dropping events that come out of nowhere and leave you scratching your head - the burn-scarred amnesiac Canadian cousin, for instance. Even my eleven-year-old, who is as much of a groupie as we are, asked, "Why would amnesia make his accent change?" From Mysterious Deaths that Point The Finger at a beloved character to Miraculous Cures that Save the Family Bloodline, Julian Fellowes uses hoary old plot chestnuts at which Dickens himself would have turned up his nose. (Although the saintly fiancee's beautiful, bodily-fluids-free death could have come straight out of Little Nell.)

Yet we couldn't stop watching, and are eager for more. So my takeaway is that character trumps plot. Give the reader/audience member wonderful, flawed characters they love (or love to hate) and he or she will forgive even amnesiac Canadians.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Perfect Summer Meal

RHYS: I don't know about you but picnics are my favorite meals. To sit amid the beauties of nature nibbling at good food and sipping good wine is my idea of heaven. Sometimes when I'm on a hike with my friends and we find a spot high on Mount Tamalpais overlooking the Bay and the ocean we look at each other and agree that life doesn't get any better than this.

Since I've been stuck in the house I've been looking forward to my first picnic of summer and thinking back over the most memorable ones. And the winner is my mother's 75th birthday. She requested a picnic and my brother's family planned it. It took place on the cliffs above the Pacific just outside Sydney, Australia, a site shaded by gum trees. And spread on the table was every kind of cold seafood--oysters, lobster, Balmain bugs (a kind of crustation) jumbo prawns, and then a complete cheese board, salads and chilled champagne. We worked our way through it all afternoon, dozed, went for a swim, started eating again. That was when the desserts were produced--Pavlova, fresh fruit, a home made birthday cake, chocolates, port and liqueurs. I want the same for my 75th!

So, dear Reds--your most memorable picnic or your fantasy picnic please.

HALLIE: That sounds so fabulous, Rhys! So perfect -- and seafood and champagne, what luxury! My favorite picnic foods: cold fried chicken, homemade cole slaw and a slice of (also homemade of course) apple pie... or chocolate cake. Cold beer. Eat it anywhere.

Memorable picnics past are traveling in Nice, sitting on a bench by the water and eating a fresh baguette and brie cheese and smoked ham and peaches... huge ripe peaches.

JAN BROGAN:  I confess that as much as I'm into cooking and good meals, I am not a big picnic fan.  I love dining al fresco at home or at a restaurant, but I'm not fond of packing and transporting food and then eating it awkwardly on a lap or blanket.  It seems really messy to me, and I'm always just waiting to be done with it.

That said: Although I never think of it as a picnic,  my absolute favorite thing to do is to take a bottle of white wine, cheese and crackers or pita bread and hummus to watch the sunset at Menemsha on Martha's Vineyard. For me, it's not really about the food, but the scene - the little kids and puppies on the beach, the beauty of the fading day - and the crowd cheering together over nature's performance art. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Picnic. Um, no. There's no place to sit, and there are bugs. And your drinks tip over and then you have to clean up. Okay, you know I am not a complainer, but...not a fan. (With ya, Jannie.) I do love when we sit in the back yard, watching the summer stars and sipping palmyras and snacking on prosciutto and's so peaceful. We picnicked (at a TABLE) in Castellina in Chianti, with wine and pecorino and fresh peaches. Does that count as a "picnic"?  (I just typed "peachful." And wish I didn't have to change it.)

RHYS: Hank, you and John should have hooked up. His idea of a picnic is eating the food in the car as we drive toward the beauty spot. And if we have to eat outside... gulp...then he needs his side plate and napkin and to sit way above any ants!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Texas in the summer is not ideal picnic land.  Start with flies, ants, and ferocious mosquitoes. Add heat, and if the sun is still shining, sunburn.

I want Rhys's picnic!!  I've always hankered after one of those very English picnic hampers you see in catalogs, and imagined a picnic like that... Champagne or chilled white wine, oysters, fruit, good cheese... overlooking the seaside or the beautiful rolling hills of somewhere like the Cotswolds or Somerset.  Big sigh. But as for real life, I think my most memorable picnics were with my parents when we took long summer car vacations when I was a child.  We'd stop at roadside parks and snack on Ritz crackers with Cracker Barrel cheddar, deviled ham, and Vienna sausages. With root beer, which was a special treat. (And sometimes, bizarrely, sardines.) I know it sounds horrible now, but I loved it then.

And then traveling in Europe with my parents when I was in my twenties we had some wonderful picnics--we bought croissants or French bread, Camenbert, salami, fresh fruit, and wine, and picnicked on the trains.  Certainly a step up from Vienna sausage! Lovely times.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: If we're defining picnics as al fresco dining that doesn't include a waiter or a menu - pb&j at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in Canyonlands National Park. Champagne and marmite and lettuce sandwiches on the Masai Mara. Chicken salad on the lawn at Tanglewood. Chablis and who remembers what we ate at a vineyard in Burgundy. Cold beer and chicken by the Merced river in Yosemite. Must go...I'm getting hungry.

RHYS: So it's all about location, location, isn't it? The food doesn't really matter... unless it's oysters, lobster, cheese board etc.. and then it does. Any memorable picnics to share?