Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why cell phones are like cigarettes.


JAN BROGAN - I was at the grocery store finishing up my weekly shopping and I got to the check out line, which was about three people deep.  I scanned the tabloids for trashy headlines, then pulled out my cell phone to check for texts and email messages.

The action itself stirred a memory.  Hmmm....What was it? 

My husband and I were driving to the ferry to Martha's Vineyard.  Just over the bridge, we pulled into a gas station.  My husband filled the tank, paid, and got back behind the wheel. Before he started the car, he checked his cell phone.  "Why am I checking this?" he asked himself aloud. He tossed the phone into the back seat and answered."Because it's here. That's the only reason."  

Then, worst of all, I spent the afternoon at The  Center at Westwoods, which was having a massive festival of mindfulness classes.  I took one in "cathartic breathing," and another in Kundalini yoga.  By the time I left, I was totally relaxed - so "in the moment," that I could be breath itself. What did I do as soon as I got into the car, even though it was a Saturday, and I had no urgent demands.

I checked my cell phone.

Now, I knew exactly what the memory was.  This reminded me of when I used to ski.  After a fabulous day of exercise and terrific mountain air,  I used to go into the lodge and light a cigarette.  What did I just do?  I sabotaged  an afternoon's effort at inner peace with a compulsive  scan of spam and other email attempts to sell me something. Rather than being where I was, I was searching for somewhere else.

It's been a long time since I was a cigarette smoker - almost thirty years.  But I remember that it was a default.   As soon as you got in the car, onto the barstool, or into your friend's living room, you lit up.  Smoking a cigarette was what you did when you weren't doing anything else.  It was what you did rather than just experience a moment. 

Hmmm....what does that remind me of?

I don't think I can give up my cell phone the way I gave up cigarettes (especially since I just ordered the IPHONE 5). And they don't yet have a "patch" to help ease you off your addiction. But I'm going to try to gain a little more control over it.

Maybe leave it in the car whenever I go on errands?  Or perhaps a single cell phone-free day each week? 

How about the rest of you out there....are you finding yourself checking for messages when you aren't expecting anything important?  Anyone else inhaling their telecommunications a little too often or a little too deeply?

Gram, Liz Mugavero, and Linda Rodriguez have won copies of Killer Show, please contact me at so I can get your addresses and have a book sent to your homes.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Killer Show, America's Deadliest Rock Concert

JAN BROGAN -  More than one hundred concertgoers lost their lives in 2003 when the band Great White set off pyrotechnics inside the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. It was a tragedy of epic proportions that didn't have to happen. 

John Barylick, the lead attorney representing the victims had an inside look at all the disturbing evidence and has written a non-fiction narrative account that Publisher's Weekly praised for its storytelling and called: "An exploration of the perils of greed and corruption as well as testament to the strength of the human spirit.: And added "Barylick has created a modern cautionary tale that will take your breath away." 

We are extremely lucky to have John as our guest today and even luckier to have three copies of Killer Show, America's Deadliest Rock Concert (University Press of New England) to give away to names chosen at random from our comments page, so get your comments and questions for John ready. 

 Drinking From a Fire Hose 
by John Barylick

My need to write Killer Show  arose when both the criminal and civil actions resulting from The Station nightclub fire resolved (by plea bargains or settlements) without trials.  There was a pervasive sense in Rhode Island of questions remaining unanswered, and frustration that facts suggesting culpability of many persons (some of whom did not face criminal charges) would never come to light.  

There would be no “Perry Mason moments;” no public accounting.
Also, when I’d tell friends about some of the back stories I learned about the Station Nightclub Fire, their reaction would be, “You couldn’t make this stuff up!  You’ve got to write a book about it.” They encouraged me to try to write a book that would, hopefully, become the definitive account of the tragedy.

I figured that’d be easy enough. Lawyers write stuff, right?  Lots of “whereas,” “heretofore,” and “party of the first part”.  Nothing to it.  A friend gave me Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and I started right in.

Lamott helpfully instructs fledgling writers to just “get that Shitty First Draft on paper.” An initial draft in my house was called an “SFD.”   My first cut at chapter 1 put the “S” in “SFD.”  Heavy on facts, light on description, it read like the introduction to a legal brief.  “More show, less tell,” advised my researcher friend.  I’d show her.

The second draft of chapter 1 was ALL show.  A forced metaphor here, a strained simile there….  Hmm, this writing a book might not be so easy.  Subsequent attempts eventually struck some kind of balance, and I was off and running for three years.

The problem wasn’t a lack of material for KILLER SHOW.  The problem was an overabundance of evidence and stories.  Thousands of pages of witness statements and grand jury testimony had become available to the public in response to a public records request made by several newspapers.  To use an unfortunate analogy in the context of the case, making sense of it all was like trying to drink from a fire hose.

The eventual solution was to record bits of story arcs on small strips of paper and put them into thirty separate manila chapter envelopes.  When approaching a chapter, I’d lay out all the strips in its envelope, arrange and rearrange them, then begin writing.   I’m sure that there exist software packages designed to computerize this task, but I just can’t imagine doing it without having physical story chunks to manipulate.  It at least gave me the illusion of control.
From a writer’s standpoint, my challenge was to present all this information while maintaining a fast-paced narrative – and without exhausting the reader.  One of the devices chosen to accomplish this was insertion of “lesson chapters” amidst “action chapters.”  The lesson chapters address subjects such as fire science, crowd behavior, sprinkler systems, burn medicine and tort law.  Hopefully, these breaks from the action not only provide richer context for the story, but also provide the reader a short breather, particularly from the actual fire chapters, which can be emotionally exhausting to read.

I’m wondering what level of technical background JRW bloggers prefer in their non-fiction narratives?  What are their favorites in the genre, and how did those authors handle the delicate balance between “action” and “lessons”?  (Personally, A Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, and Devil in the White City are some of my favorites for striking this balance between research and narrative. I don’t think I’m the only reader in whose brain Sebastian Junger’s detailed description of drowning is forever imprinted!)

The Epilogue was added at the urging of my editor at University Press of New England, who felt that readers would like to “catch up with” characters they met in earlier chapters.  I’m very glad for that suggestion, because the Epilogue provided an opportunity to relate a final poignant vignette about one of the fire’s heroes.

Do JRW readers tend to establish an emotional connection to characters, even in non-fiction, and do they want to learn more recent history about them?  (Or, is that what Google’s best suited for?)

 Or more info, check out and on Facebook.

JAN BROGAN - First I want to thank John for a terrific post; next I want to remind you all that we have three copies of Killer Show to give away, and lastly, I want second at least two of John's choices for my favorite narrative non-fiction books, A Perfect Storm and the Devil In the White City.   I'll  add one of my own,  The Big Short by Michael Lewis, and ask, how about you? What are your favorites?

LISA ALBER won yesterday's copy of The Art Forger. Lisa, please email me at 

Friday, September 28, 2012

B.A. Shapiro: The highs and lows of publishing

JAN BROGAN - This may be one of the happiest interviews I have ever posted on this blog.  Today, I am welcoming Barbara Shapiro, who I first met 23-years ago in a novel writing class.  We were both aspiring authors and we formed a writer's group. In the years that followed, we have beaten up each other up over structure and prose,  drank champagne over successes, (it became a rule) cried over disappointments (involuntary) and stuck together as others came and left our group. 

Barbara was the first to get published, but after five novels, she hit a  dry spell. For eight years, she couldn't get published and even with this last manuscript, The Art Forger, she heard a lot of rejection.  Inexplicable rejection. The book was terrific, which made the rejection worse. Editors kept saying it didn't fit neatly into one of their genres. After being insanely persistent, Barbara started talking about retiring from this crazy, nonsensical industry.  How much rejection, she asked me, can one person take?

But she had a wonderful agent, Anne Collette of the Rees Agency, who wouldn't give up and one day Barbara got the call we all wait for.  Algonquin Books wanted to publish The Art Forger.  Not much later, it became an in-house favorite. They started to view it as a big book. The publishers planned to send her on a 30-city tour.  Publishers Weekly named The Art Forger as  one of Ten Promising Titles of the 2012 BEA (Book Expo of America), Amazon chose it as Editor's Pick for fall;  The Art Forger was named the number 1 Indie Nextpick for November.

 The Art Forger, which Booklist praised as   “an entrancingly visual, historically rich, deliciously witty, sensuous, and smart tale of authenticity versus fakery," is about down-and-out Boston artist, Claire Roth who subsists on painting reproductions until she gets her big break.  Her big break arrives in the form of an offer from a Newbury Street galley owner and kingmaker who will give her her own show, if she agrees to forge a painting for him.  The painting he wants her to forge is Degas' After The Bath - one of the paintings stolen in the storied Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum heist. 

JAN:  How did you come up with the idea for The Art Forger?

B.A. Shapiro: I started with the idea of writing a novel about Isabella Stewart Gardner, which led me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in which $500 million dollars of art was stolen – the largest unsolved art robbery in history – which led me to art theft and art forgery. I suddenly had a book about many things at many different points in time, but no real story nor any idea of how to weave it all together. So I started playing with the idea of a contemporary character who might interact with all of the things I was so fascinated by, and after many iterations I came up with a working outline that became the skeleton for The Art Forger.

 JAN: The novel also interweaves the story of Isabella Gardner's procurement of the Degas painting. How did you handle the  historical and the contemporary stories?

B.A. Shapiro: There actually are three stories in the book: the present story about the eponymous Claire Roth, Claire’s backstory which takes place three years earlier and the story of Isabella Stewart Gardner and Edgar Degas which takes place in the late nineteenth century. I developed each story separately, using charts and diagrams and other such obsessive tools, and then pulled each one apart and put them back together as a whole in which one story pushed the next story forward which pushed the next story forward. It was really fun.

JAN: How much of your own experiences with rejection helped inform the creation of Claire, your struggling protagonist?

B.A. Shapiro: It’s funny, when I was writing the novel, I wasn’t really thinking that Claire’s struggles were mine – I’m a writer after all and she’s an artist – but in retrospect, I’ve got to say that there are strong similarities. So much so that when I was doing the final edits for the book – once it had become clear that my publisher was getting behind it in a major way – I realized that I was experiencing the same emotions Claire had under similar circumstances. I guess I was being a wee bit thick.

JAN: How much do you think moving to Boston from the suburbs may have shaped this novel?

B.A. Shapiro: A lot. In two different ways. The first is that I could suddenly walk to hundreds of museums and art galleries, which I took great advantage of. I visited as many as I could, multiple times, took classes at the MFA and joined a group that wandered museums and galleries with an artist/art historian who opened my eyes to everything art. The second is that we moved to the South End of Boston, home to many artists, which is where Claire lives and works.

JAN: How did you survive the eight years you went unpublished? What kept you going and what advice would you give other authors struggling in this tough market climate?

B.A. Shapiro: The support of my family and my friends as well as a driving desire to tell stories. It wasn’t easy – and I’m not sure “survived” is even the correct term – after five published novels I wrote four more that couldn’t find a home. I was thinking about a career change when The Art Forger was acquired by Algonquin Books after many, many rejections by other publishers. I immediately bagged the change idea and started writing a new novel. As far as advice goes, all I can say is that sometimes – not always – but sometimes when you want something badly enough, it can happen. You’ve just got to get your butt into the chair so that you’re there when it strikes.

JAN: The Art Forger doesn't hit the shelves until mid-October, but you can pre-order it online today.  Barbara will be stopping by to ask any questions you have about the book or how to stay positive in this grueling business. 

One name will be chosen at random from the comments page to receive a free copy of The Art Forger, stop by with your questions or comments for Barbara.

And please come back  tomorrow when John Barylick talks about why he had to write Killer Show, America's Deadliest Rock Concert, a narrative non-fiction account of  The Station Nightclub fire that killed more than 100 people in 2003.  It's like Christmas around here at Jungle Red, three free copies will be given away.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Audiobooks and some literary fashion

JAN BROGAN: When my son was young, he was terrible at any chore you gave him.  His main job was to empty the dishwasher. Each time he left at least three glasses or plates in the upper rack for no apparent reason.  If you asked him to clean his bedroom, he threw the covers on the bed and called it "made," left at least one bureau drawer hanging open, and several pairs of socks still on the floor.  One day in his teens, he decided to put on on his IPOD when I assigned him to clean the finished basement.  After about an hour and half later, when he was still down there, I went to check on him. The basement was spotless and he was still vacuuming. He was having such a good time singing along with the music, he kept looking for new things to clean.  

Well, I find the same thing is happening to me and audiobooks.  Normally, I have little patience for mundane tasks. Like my son, I tend to do as little as I can to get the job over with as soon as possible.   But with an audiobook in my ear, my life had changed. Suddenly, I am a perfectionist. 

A good audiobook can make me walk five miles when I set out to walk three. It can make me paint the trim on the kitchen door I've left unpainted for years.   To finish the Steve Jobs biography, I brought it with me to the track, which I normally consider torture, and ran - round and round and round - two tedious two miles with a smile on my face. I have cleaned closets that I've ignored since we bought the house. And last week, I finally sorted out my junk drawer.

Back when audiobooks came in cassette form, I played them only during long car trips or on airplanes. Now that I can put books on my IPHONE, I pretty much carry an ongoing story everywhere. In the car, at the allergist's office, in an amplifier for when I'm cooking in the kitchen, and upstairs with headphones in my bed when my eyes are too tired to read. 

Recently, I listened to the Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which I highly recommend for both its great storytelling and the mesmerizing rhythms of the prose. Following Katey's love affair, I found myself scrubbing frantically into the always cruddy corners of my cake pans, first with just the sponge, then with COMET. They now look like they belong in Martha Stuart's kitchen.   Yesterday, I  started Hank's The Other Woman, walked the trails until it got dark, then today added three errands to my task list so that I could finish chapter eight. Tomorrow, I just might reorganize my sock drawer.

SPEAKING OF SOCKS:  This has nothing to do with audiobooks, but I was scrolling through the New York Daily News Pageviews blog and came across a piece on literary fashion trends for hipsters.

These stockings might look good on hipsters, but I think they'd be great for writers, readers, librarians and anyone who spends a lot of time on Jungle Red.  

Wouldn't these be perfect at Bouchercon or the New England Crime Bake? 

In other business:  Nancy was chosen at random from the comments page to win a copy of Edith Maxwell's Speaking of Murder. Please contact me Nancy at to get your book. 

BACK TO AUDIOBOOKS:  Am I the only one altered by technology? Or has anyone else discovered the amazing motivating ability of audiobooks? 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Edith Maxwell

JAN BROGAN -  It's my pleasure to welcome here today a friend, as well as a regular Jungle Red commenter, Edith Maxwell. Her first murder mystery, Speaking of Murder, which features Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau as sleuth, was first runner up in the Linda Howard Award for Excellence contest, and it is hitting the book shelves this week. It is published under her pen name Tace Baker by Barking Rain Press.

Why the pen name? Because when it rains success, it pours. Edith also has another book, first in her  Local Foods Mystery series, A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die, featuring organic farmer Cam Flaherty, coming out in June, published under her real name by Kensington Publishing.

Her short stories have appeared in Thin Ice and Riptide by Level Best Books, the Burning Bridges anthology, the Larcom Review, and the North Shore Weekly, with one forthcoming in the Fish Nets anthology. She is active in the Sisters in Crime Guppies group and on the board of SINC New England.

Best of all, Edith is willing to give away a free copy of Speaking of Murder to one lucky mystery fan who will be chosen at random from the comments page. So please give Edith a big round of welcoming applause.

EDITH MAXWELL/TACE BAKER: It’s such a thrill to be here in this illustrious company, and on the other side of the Comments page that I haunt every morning. Thanks for having me to visit, Jungle Reds, my esteemed mentors and pals.

Crime novels always have something bad that happens, often to someone good. Sometimes something good comes out of it, sometimes not. Four years ago something bad happened to me. One early morning I drove from my home in Ipswich, Massachusets to my job as a technical writer for a software company, as I had for the past fourteen years. By 8 AM word had already spread through the cubicles that it was a Layoff Day. Ouch. Nobody got any work done, as my colleagues and I clustered in the halls, waiting to hear who would be axed this time. When I heard the phone on my desk ring, I knew I was the next victim of a Reduction in Force (in the software industry, people speak of being RIF’d).

I drove home, stunned. I polished my resume, searched for a new job, applied for unemployment, signed up for Cobra. The economy was collapsing around us and I had no idea how long I would be out of work. But once my mood stabilized a little, I knew writing fiction would make me feel better. So I wrote a short story of murderous revenge called “Reduction in Force.” It was published in Thin Ice by Level Best Books in 2009. And then I told myself, You can’t look for a job all day long. Might as well write that book. And why not write what I knew?

I’m a native Californian who started my adult life living in Brazil as an exchange student for a year when I was 17. I earned a BA in linguistics and then taught English in Japan for two years.  I went on to earn a PhD in linguistics in southern Indiana, taught a few classes, spent a few years in high-tech in the Boston area, and spent a few more raising babies and organic vegetables north of the city. I attended a Friends meeting on Sundays and started to write crime fiction. I lived with my now ex-husband and (still-current) sons in West Africa for two separate years. When I reentered the paid work force, it was to write documentation for Avid Technology, the company that eventually RIF’d me, a company that produces a video-editing application augmented for forensics by small police departments and used to win Oscars by big film studios.

So when I started writing the book, I dreamed up a linguistics professor. Made her a Quaker, a world traveler, and a runner (did I mention I ran the Boston Marathon in 1998?). Gave her a boyfriend who is the local police department’s video forensics expert. Placed her in a fictional town very much like Ipswich, and made up a larger town nearby where I located the college where she teaches, a Friends Meeting, and a hospital. Even incorporated a fictional owner of the very real decrepit boat shop that actually burned down in Ipswich while I was writing the book. And then I followed the professor and the other characters around and wrote down what happened to them. Which turned out to be a lot.

I’m not my protagonist Lauren Rousseau, by any means. She’s younger and taller, slimmer and fitter, and is a tenured college professor, a job I never managed to snag. And she still has knees that can run, unlike me. But the research part of the book? I’d already lived much of it.

Which fictional character’s experiences would you like to have in real life? Writers, which parts of your real life did you use in your fiction? And what bad thing were you able to turn into something good?

JAN BROGAN _ Don't forget a free copy of Speaking of Murder will be sent to one lucky commenter.  Look for Edith M. Maxwell on Facebook and @edithmaxwell on Twitter. She blogs weekly at Tace Baker can be found at, @tacebaker, and

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On Language: Word extinction

JAN BROGAN - There's nothing like a little historical research to illuminate how much the English language has changed.

Not that I'm against a changing language.  The Linguistic Society of America tells us that only dead languages stay the same. As well as that we should go ahead and split infinitives if we want to because the rule against them was based on one guy's decision in 1600 that English should more closely mimic Latin.
But I digress. 

 Despite my recognition that language should change, I'm here to mourn the loss of a words that were really cool in the 1800s or even a few decades ago. Words I want to bring back, and have people text on their cell phones, or post on Facebook.  Words I just  like for some completely irrational reason.

Obliged: I think I've talked about "obliged" before.  But I just love that word. I am obliged to you.  It signifies much more than simple thanks. I pretty much means I AM COMPLETELY AWARE THAT I OWE YOU FOR THIS. All in just a single word.

Regulating:  In the 19th century, women didn't just clean their houses or their bedrooms. They cleaned and regulated them.  Regulated meant putting them back in order, but I like the power it implies. It gives the person stuck with doing the work a bit of military control.  They don't just shuffle things around, they REGULATE them.

Commenced:  You didn't so much begin cooking dinner, as you commenced cooking dinner. And other people commenced doing things for you. There is no real reason I like this better than "begin," I just think it makes the action's start somehow more official.

Forenoon:  Why can't we bring back forenoon?  It actually means all of morning, betweeen sunrise and lunch, but I think it's a perfect way to describe late morning. Like right before lunch. And while we are at it:  why not bring back... 

Fortnight: There is no other one-word description for a 14-day period that I know of, so why say two-weeks when you can say fortnight?  

Rugged:  I like how they used to use rugged to describe the weather or the sea. As in the weather was rugged this morning.  Now rugged seems destined only to describe men who have those perpetual five o'clock shadows and look off toward prairies or oceans or maybe football fields.

Vexatious:  Why use vexing when you could use vexatious - which clearly spits out your meaning all the more emphatically. In the 1800s, though, they spelled it vexacious.

Countenance:  What a perfect way to get at, not just what a person looks like physically, but what aura they are giving off. I first came across this word when I read in Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham.  Then I noticed it appeared frequently in nearly all of his short stories.  That and "singular." But his use of singular always left me with a fuzzy understanding of what he was trying to say, where countenance was just perfect.

Ignominious: It's not that this word has disappeared from our vocabulary yet -- it's just that I really like it a lot and it does seem to be fading (you'd think everyone would be calling everyone else ignominious in an election year). So I think, in a effort to keep it in use, we should all apply it liberally, as in those ignominious paparazzi who took poor Kate's topless pictures. And those doctors, priests, camp counselors who keep getting caught with child pornography. And more recently, those replacement refs in the NFL.  (Was anyone else outraged by the shameful calling of the Patriots/Ravens game?)

 Imagine my delight when I googled lost words and found others in the universe who also pine (another great verb ) for good words gone by.  At Wayne State University, they have made a mission of it, and even allow you to vote for words that need to be resurrected or protected --  like dinosaurs or piping plovers. Here's a list of the top vote getters in lost words:

So Reds, you can vote officially there, or you can vote unofficially here. Tell us favored words or expressions that we must keep from extinction.

And come back tomorrow, when our own Edith Maxwell guest posts about how when bad things can lead to great things!   Her first mystery, Speaking of Murder,  out on shelves now! 

Monday, September 24, 2012

The more things change, the more they actually DON'T stay the same

JAN BROGAN - We often talk about how great things used to be, and how today's rude drivers, bad manners, cell phones, etc. annoy us. 

It's not that I can't complain with best of 'em, it's that every once in a while it's a good idea to take deep breath and put it all in perspective. One thing I've learned in historical research, especially when I was looking back at the 1970s, is that some things actually improve and we don't notice  We all have a tendency take the improvements for granted and whine about what's not up to par.

 I  hear a lot of people today complain about young kids in the workforce. They can't write complete sentences. Their spelling is atrocious. They can't take criticism because they have been praised all their lives.

But I've been working on a writing project, interviewing eighteen people under thirty. What I've been struck by is their dedication. What I've also noticed in this group,  and in my kid's graduating classes, a lot of young people have a strong sense of "giving back" and doing something worthwhile for the world. All the emphasis on community service in high school and college - that I thought was a lot of resume padding - actually had an effect. These kids are willing to work for very little money to take jobs in really rough places to try to make them better.

In my generation, a lot of people talked about saving the world, but in this generation, a lot people are actually making sacrifices to try to do it.

So that's the one thing I've noticed is getting better today, (that and the ready availability of really good coffee) So how about you, what's the ONE thing you notice is improving?

HALLIE EPHRON: So Jan goes right to charity and good works. Where does my mind go? Food! Oh, gosh, I can remember when eggplant was considered a delicacy in the supermarket, along with soppressata and fava beans. And the only breads you could get were "brown" or "white." Now, if anything, there are too many choices. Vive la global economy! Not to mention local farms.

And remember when you had to watch where you stepped on city streets? I never thought people would scoop their poop, but they do. Or not smoke. Remember when the minute the lights went out in the movie theater someone lit up? And how men in the work place used to think it was fine to say the most embarrassing things to women. And you not only had to deal with telephone calls from people selling you something you didn't want, they came to the door! Yes, some things have changed for the better.

RHYS BOWEN: I will blend both Hallie and Jan's comments and say that we are more aware that we live on a fragile planet and have to husband resources. Until recently the earth was seen as a big candy store from which we could take what we wanted. Now we're recycling, conserving and going back to local farming. All good things. As is the whole world speaking English, making travel so easy.

Smaller good changes? Women not having to sit under a hair dryer in rollers, no more recipes that include cool whip, jello or cream of mushroom soup.

LUCY BURDETTE: Rhys, you're right about conserving resources. It wasn't too long ago that bringing in a reusable bag to the grocery store was considered the territory of a nut job. Now everyone has cloth bags--hurray!

But Hallie's right about food, as usual. Farmer's markets everywhere...and no one would consider serving slimy chop suey out of a can, the way my mom did. Do you remember that stuff? The only thing edible was the crunchy noodles that you sprinkled on top.

And although I know some people love old cars, I have to say new cars have improved a lot--more comfortable, safer, better mileage...I wouldn't go back to my old Dodge Dart!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I agree with all of the above (except I am terrible at actually remembering to take my reusable bags into the supermarket...) but Rhys's comments about sitting under hairdryers in rollers cracked me up. I would add, having come of age in the era of the blow-dryer, that I think flat irons for women's hair are a great boon to civilization. I used to iron my hair straight on the ironing board!

And I second no-more-chow-mein from a can, and at least fewer recipes calling for Cool Whip or Cream of Mushroom Soup.

But one of the changes I'm most grateful for in my lifetime is the ban on smoking in public places. Oh my gosh, especially traveling in the UK, where often there was no place to eat other than the local pub. You walked into a pall of smoke. Your eyes stung, your throat hurt, and then you couldn't get the smell out of your hair or your clothes... I consider Smoke Free a huge leap forward for mankind.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Absolutely agree with Debs on smoke-free. I grew up with 3 smokers - it's no wonder I love the outdoors, I started going out on my own at age 8! I would add nutrition labeling on food. I don't know what I did before that...I had a little calorie booklet that I bought at the market. And I can't resist the mention of technology. I've driven over 20 hours in the last 8 days and I don't know what I would have done without the GPS.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ah, you don't have to get up to change the channel on TV? And you can watch whatever you want, whenever your want? Fine, maybe easier TV is not the one thing.  ATMs? On-line banking? I just read an article saying that deaths from traffic accidents have decreased--because cars are so much safer. Oh--sunscreen!
JAN BROGAN - See, life isn't so bad, after all. Tell us  Reds, what is the one thing you notice is getting better?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

She's Bad, She's Bad, She's Really Really Bad

HANK: Who's your favorite bad guy? Hannibal Lecter? Moriarty? The Agatha-winning Sandra Parshall (who doesnt have an evil bone in her body--she loves animals and flowers and is a very good pal to writers) has been thinking about bad guys. And why the bad ones are good--and why the good ones are bad.

I Love the Broken Ones 
                          by Sandra Parshall

Maybe I should be happy when readers tell me they despise Judith, my protagonist Rachel Goddard’s mother. I should smile when they say they’d like to heat up a vat of boiling oil for Lindsay, Rachel’s rival and Tom Bridger’s former girlfriend. If readers hate my “bad” characters, that means I’ve made them convincingly villainous, right?
But for me it’s not that easy.
I understand my villains, inside and out. I know all the life experiences that shaped them and drove them to behave the way they do. Understanding leads to compassion. No, I can’t defend Judith’s actions, but every time a reader gets started on what an evil witch she is, I find myself interrupting with, “Yes, but…” I doubt that I’ve persuaded anyone to view her more kindly. The one and only time a reader said, unprompted by me, “I felt sorry for Judith. She had such a sad life,” I wanted to cheer. At last, somebody got Judith.
 Tom’s old girlfriend, Lindsay, who wreaks havoc in Broken Places, is a real piece of work, I’ll admit. A lot of readers think I should have come down harder on her. As in: dropped a concrete slab on her from a great height. Dropped her from a great height. No punishment would be bad enough to satisfy the readers who hate Lindsay. But I feel compelled to point out that other people/characters, including Tom, bear some responsibility for Lindsay turning out the way she did.
The damaged characters who provoke strong reactions from readers and conflicting emotions in their creator are the most fun to write about. I love Rachel and Tom, but they are good, honorable people who always try to do the right thing, and they won’t hold a reader’s interest unless they’re challenged by villains who are worthy opponents. Occasionally Rachel and Tom have to be tempted to do the wrong thing because that seems the only way to defeat the bad guys. I enjoy nothing more than dreaming up characters who are strong enough to push my goodhearted protagonists to the edge. The more complex my bad guys are, the farther away from pure evil I can take them, the more I like them.
There are exceptions. Some villains are evil through and through, and I can’t summon any pity for them. The ultimate villains in Under the Dog Star and my new book, Bleeding Through, are pond scum and deserve what they get. The people around them, though, who get drawn into helping them, merit a little more sympathy.
At least I think they do. But then, as the song says, I can’t help it, I love the broken ones.
How do you like to see villains portrayed? Do you want to be able to hate them without reservation? Or can you find it in your heart to understand why they behave the way they do?
HANK:   An article about thriller writing I once read discussed the tension between the hero and the villain--it said they had to be "equals." That it had to be a "fair fight." And that each one had to have believable reasons for what they do. Who's your favorite? And why?  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Bad News..and the Good news

HANK: Here's where I usually write the introduction to the day's blogger. But right now, I have tears in my eyes and the letters are blurring.

Let's just let our dear friend Toni Kelner talk.

When is Lung Cancer Good News? 

My big sister Brenda has lung cancer.

And that’s good news.

Before you conclude that I am the worst baby sister in the history of sisterhood, let me give you the background. Some months back, after a particularly nasty case of pneumonia, Brenda was diagnosed with lung cancer.

I was terrified for her, and so very angry, but I refused to consider the possibility that she wouldn’t get better. She’s really ornery. She’s been known to break a stick over the head of a man hitting her husband, and to break the back windshield of a car swerving to purposely hit a cat. I couldn’t imagine that she couldn’t beat a puny ole’ tumor.

She went through a round of chemo, and responded very well to it. The tumor shrank quite a lot a lot, and the doctors were pretty sure they could avoid surgery.

Then, about a month ago, cancer was detected in her kidney, indicating that her cancer had spread. I hit the web for information, and what I found was devastating. Without going into the horrifying details, when lung cancer starts to spread, the prognosis is very bad. They start talking about months of life, not years. Also, once lung cancer spreads, it often heads for the brain. Brenda needed to have that checked, too. She was immediately put onto another course of chemo and scheduled for a brain scan.

I don’t think I need to tell you what my feelings were, especially not when it fell to me to tell my parents and my other sisters.

That’s where it stood as of August 24. Today I found out the latest test results, and I laughed and cried at the same time. Brenda’s cancer has not spread to her kidney. Nor does she have a second cancer developing. The cells found in her kidney are almost certainly leftovers as the cancer is being flushed from her system. As for the brain, she gave me the best straight line in the world when she said, “The brain scan? They didn’t find anything.” We laughed for five minutes straight.

Of course she still has lung cancer, which isn’t exactly a walk on the beach. She has some other health problems, too. But compared to what she could have had--what we thought she did have--they all seem minor. Like the tumor in her lung, they are shrinking in importance. 

It’s all a matter of perspective.

As a writer, I think that one of the best things we can do for our readers is give them a kind of perspective. As in, “Yes, my job was annoying today, but at least there wasn’t a serial killer lurking in my office building,” or “Maybe I wish my husband would trim his toenails before bed, but at least he’s not a werewolf.” 

In An Apple for the Creature, the latest anthology from editing team Charlaine Harris and me, we give readers all kinds of perspectives on the horrors of school days.

 Was your high school bad? At least your principal wasn’t a devil. Is that training seminar you have to attend for work a pain in the tail end? At least you don’t have to learn how to deal with vampires. Do you have to work with a total idiot for your college project? At least your idiot didn’t accidentally raise a demon. Have you lost touch with old friends? At least you’re not a new werewolf who doesn’t know any other werewolves.

Perspective is everything.

So my big sister has lung cancer. Just lung cancer. And that’s good news.

HANK: Toni, we love you. And much love to your dear sister. She's very lucky to have such a wonderful--and TALL!--baby sister. Right, gang?   

Friday, September 21, 2012

What Scares You?

Do one thing every day that scares you. 
                        –  Eleanor Roosevelt

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Is that a good idea? Really? I don't think Mrs. Roosevelt meant things like--touch a spider. Or eat raw sea urchin. But if life becomes predictable and ordinary, your experiences will pale and fade away--and you just have this one life, right? (Far as we know....)

 I guess what Mrs. Roosevelt meant was--go for it.

Our guest today exemplifies going for it.  And here she shares her journey!

And we have a lovely copy of Death of A Schoolgirl for one commenter who tells us something brave they did! (I drove a stick shift in actual traffic..does that count? I went down the diamond slope skiing...but I splatted. I guess that doesn't count.)


One Thing That Scared Me
                     Joanna Campbell Slan

Last month my seventeen-year-old niece came for a visit. She’d never flown without her parents before. She’d never been in a taxi. And she’d never walked through a revolving door. As she tackled each of these new ventures, I noticed the glow of pride suffuse her face. Watching her tickled me, because each experience recalled similar moments in my life.  Moments when I felt that panic of uncertainty, that thrill of determination, that shock of the unknown, and finally that welcome relief of accomplishment.

This year I did something that scared me. Something really big. I wrote a historical mystery. Not just any historical mystery…   I borrowed the protagonist from Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre.

The idea had been noodling around in my head for years.
Could I do it?
Could I pull it off?

Could I manage all the research—and not commit such humongous errors as to make myself a laughingstock?

Fate intervened.

At an MWA meeting, I was fortunate enough to sit next to Louis Bayard, an author whose work I’ve long admired. We’d corresponded in the past because I’d suggested Mr. Timothy to my online book club, the one I’m in with a dozen other writers. When we had questions about the novel that demanded answers, I wrote Louis. I figured, “What the heck? If he doesn’t respond, that’s fine.”

But he did. Graciously.

Now as we chatted over dinner, I reminded him of our correspondence. He was as generous in person as he’d been via email. I told him I was thinking of writing a historical mystery, but I worried about the research. Seemed to me that he’d done absolutely tons of research. It goes without saying that Louis is an erudite man. He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post.

He assured me that he might not have done as much research as I thought.
Honest, he said, and he smiled.
And then I started thinking…

Maybe the biggest stumbling block wasn’t the research. It was my fear of doing something new. Something that would cause me to stretch. Something at which I might well fail. Something that could embarrass me.

So, Dear Reader, I wrote the book, my historical mystery.

Death of a Schoolgirl begins where Jane Eyre ends. Jane is happily married to her beloved Edward Rochester, when a cryptic letter arrives from his former ward Adéle. Worried about her safety, Jane hurries to London. Upon visiting the girls’ school that Adéle is attending, Jane learns that a student has died under suspicious circumstances. Taking advantage of a case of mistaken identity, Jane poses as an errant German teacher so she can track down the killer—and safeguard the lives of the children. 

And yes, Dear Reader, much of the time that I was writing, I was scared to death!
How about you? What have you done this year that scared you?


Multi-published author Joanna Campbell Slan’s newest work—Death of a Schoolgirl—has been said by Publishers Weekly to “credibly recreate Regency London and the era of the Bow Street Runners.” Kirkus Reviews has noted that the book “refashions a beloved heroine as a surprisingly canny detective.” RT Book Reviews calls it “a very entertaining, believable extension of Jane Eyre” and continues to praise Slan’s work by saying, “she has done an impressive job using rich historical details to transport readers back in time.” Visit an incredibly relieved Joanna at