Thursday, October 8, 2015

Advice Can Be Deadly @LucyBurdette #mystery

LUCY BURDETTE: Today I’m celebrating because the third book in my advice column mystery series is finally out as an ebook! Dr. Butterman (AKA Dr. Aster), the main character in this series, including ASKING FOR MURDER, is an advice columnist. Even though I’m a psychologist and an advice column junkie, I found that writing her columns was not so easy. After cranking out three of her books, I figured out how she would describe her approach: “Most people have a pretty good idea of where they’re already headed when they ask for advice. A wise friend simply shines a flashlight on the path.” 

But it didn’t come naturally to me, and I realize that other advice-giving professionals struggle too.

Dr. Phil, for example, is not one to stand by on the sidelines holding a flashlight. In 2006 while visiting Los Angeles for the “Sisters in Crime Goes to Hollywood” conference, I attended the filming of one of the shows in the doctor’s live studio audience. A pair of sisters who’d been estranged by boyfriend/husband issues fought like cats and dogs for the better part of their fifteen-minute segment. Even Dr. Phil, an expert on handling catfights, looked defeated by the end of the show. These women had come to Dr. Phil for help as a last resort, but darned if they were going to let him get a word in edgewise. After several attempts to expose the bones of the problem and redirect the sisters, he slumped on his barstool, chin in hand, and rolled his eyes at the audience—as if asking the question “where did I go wrong?”
 And Dr. Butterman (aka Dr. Aster) has a very young editor who always wants the columns a little more chipper than feels right to Rebecca. Here’s a little excerpt from ASKING FOR MURDER, showing how she sometimes struggled to hit the right note too:

I used the remaining minutes of my aborted lunch hour to choose a question for my advice column and rough out an answer. I’m a clinical psychologist by day, but in the off hours, I whisk on my advice columnist cloak and write the Ask Dr. Aster column for Bloom! ezine. Sometimes the column feels downright silly; other times, profound. I love it most when it evolves into a Greek chorus of my life, that I didn’t consciously intend. 

This month, my twelve-year-old (a slight exaggeration) editor, Jillian, had asked for columns that fit the category “Bloom! In spring!” In other words, no downers, no freaking stages of grief, no miserable housewives in housecoats abandoned by their freshly-vital, chemically-driven husbands. The advice should be uplifting, encouraging, bursting with new life and new possibilities. Sigh again.

“Happy people don’t ask for advice,” I told her.

“You’ll come up with something!” she chirped back. “I’ll check in with you later in the week.” (Scroll all the way to the bottom to read the column she came up with.)

LUCY AGAIN: I read every advice column I come across, but my favorite is Philip Galanes, who writes “Social Q’s” for the New York Times Style section every Sunday. He’s funny and sensible and pulls no punches. Dr. Aster could definitely learn from him!

Do you read advice columns? Any particular advice that has struck home?

And don’t forget, ASKING FOR MURDER is now available for Kindle. You can download it right here.

PS My favorite advice column fangirl moment? Our friend Pat Kennedy introduced me to Margo Howard, Ann Landers’s daughter, and a stellar columnist herself. She kept writing as she was reading DEADLY ADVICE, wondering if she'd sussed out the murderer: "I think it’s XXX. No it must be YYY." And so on. And here was her blurb:

A really plummy mystery, flawlessly plotted, that I especially loved because the heroine is an advice columnist – and a good one! Margo Howard
       “Dear Margo” on Yahoo! News and in 200 newspapers.
                                 (Formerly “Dear Prudence”)

Dear Dr. Aster: 

I volunteer at a local charity that fights mental illness.  I got involved because I believe in the cause, but I also hoped it might be a way to meet a nice guy with similar interests. (Isn’t that what you always recommend to your readers?)  The people on my committee are smart, caring, dedicated--and all married, except for one widower who's slightly older than me though smart and attractive. Lately the married folks take every opportunity to push us together.  There's a lot of winking and elbowing going on, and it's very embarrassing.  He's a nice guy, but there's no chemistry between us—certainly not on my side!  What can I do to stop the matchmaking?  I’d hate to ditch the committee to escape the man.
Yenta's Volunteer Victim in Vermont

Dear Yenta’s Victim:

    Gold stars are in order—I do recommend exactly the path you’ve taken. But oh dear, I had not anticipated this particular roadblock. One question: does Mr. Wonderful seem to feel the same lack of chemistry that you do? If so, it might be easy enough to enlist his help in shrugging off the well-meaning nudges. However, if he appears to have feelings for you, you’ll need another tactic. How about dropping a few not-so-subtle hints about the recent social whirl your new BOYFRIEND has swept you up in?
    And here’s one more thought: Since you signed your letter “Volunteer Victim,” don’t overlook your possible contribution to the drama that’s unfolded. Your fellow workers might be reacting to your subtly-sawing violin strings. Check to be sure you haven’t been moaning about your single status without being aware of it! If that’s the case, dost thou protest too much?
                    Keep up the good works and Happy Spring!


  1. Congratulations on your eBook, Lucy.
    My mom enjoyed watching Doctor Phil, but I found the folks like the fighting sisters you mentioned to be far too annoying.
    No, I don't generally read advice columns, but this excerpt is such fun I simply must read the book! [Perhaps I should think about checking out some of those advice columns, too???]

  2. thanks Joan! You would enjoy Philip Galanes--if you don't get the NY Times near you, you can google him and read some online.

    On the Dr. Phil show, I'm with you, once was enough!

  3. Lucy, just the incentive I need to move your advice columnist mystery series to the head of my TBR list! I always save the advice columns in the newspapers (and the funnies) to savor last, after the news, obits, ads, etc.

    I was reading something online about Kate Wilhelm releasing a series of mystery novellas in ebook format--and that took me to her Constance and Charlie stories--I am a big fan of her series with the lawyer-protagonist, but had never come across the novellas. For all the struggles with getting work out there in terms of electronic formats--I find it's a great way to sample work by new authors, check out backlists, AND find something new to read when I'm stuck at home in the winter and can't get to the bookstore or library.

  4. I love the "Dear Sugar" column on the Rumpus web site. Since I became a fan, Sugar's identity has been revealed to be Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild!

  5. I mine the Washington Post advice columns for character and plot ideas: Carolyn Hax, Amy Dickinson, Miss Manners and Emily Yoffe, who has jumped to Slate as Dear Prudence. Hax's recent wedding Hootenanny column was hysterical.

    I look forward to reading your new book.

  6. I love these suggestions for advice columnists. Thanks Susan and Margaret. And what a good idea to look for character and plot ideas! Susan, can't believe that Cheryl moonlights as a columnist! I will have to check those out.

  7. FChurch, you are so right about the reasons that getting a back list eat published is important. And hopefully it leads readers to newer books as you are describing!

  8. Lucy/Roberta, I am loving these books. So happy to have the third one out on e-book.
    Avid Reader in Atlanta

  9. Oh thank you Avid Reader! I'm thrilled that you are enjoying them. And very happy that they are discovering new life out in the ether. They were published before ebooks and facebook and Twitter were much more than a glimmer in some eyes, so I'm glad they are getting another chance.

    and ps, I hope you don't mind if I politely beg you to leave a review on any or all? this helps so much in getting the word out. Thanks! xoxo Lucy/Roberta

  10. Lucy/Roberta,

    I borrowed all three of the books a long time ago from the library, and I LOVED them. I took advantage of your Special Offer to now get all three books for my Kindle; this time I don't want to have to return them! Right now I'm about 60% through the first one, and I honestly don't remember the ending, so it's like reading it for the first time.

    It's been years since I read any advice columns. On occasion I do enjoy looking up Miss Manners.

  11. I am a very late adopter of ebook technology, and this was my first download on a Kindle Fire my sister gave me -- I loved the book and the Kindle reading experience. I am reading the new Donna Leon now.

    I LOVE advice columns -- grew up on "Can This Marriage Be Saved" & I agree about that NYTimes guy in the Sunday Style section. I find, though, that these days I have lived beyond most of the dramas.

    AND, keep this series alive -- I love it. And, I spend a lot of time in New Haven so I enjoy the local references. What an awful commute!

  12. I used to read Dear Abby religiously, when I was young. And I always thoroughly enjoyed Miss Manners. We could use someone with her strict adherence to the rules about now.

    Remember the Playboy forum? Now there was an advice column! Thinly disguised porn, but always entertaining.

    However, Dr. Phil and his ilk (yeah, I used that word) have caused, in my view, a nation of crass, rude attention-seekers. When we were kids people were horrified if someone aired their proverbial dirty laundry in public, right? And now they go on TV in front of God and everybody and talk about the most intimate and awful stuff, no holds barred. It's no wonder we have Congressmen yelling "You lie!" to the President in the middle of a State of the Union address, or people of Walmart sashaying around in public barely dressed.

    Sounds like I need advice on handling the level of lack of respect these days, doesn't it?

    As for back lists: thank goodness for e-books! And make mine Nook, please. No Kindle here.

  13. thanks a million Deb R! I have that feeling often--did I really read this before? Or even worse, did I write this? Usually it's a happy discovery, thank goodness!

  14. Denise, I was crazy for "Can this marriage be saved?" I never could decide whether to read it first or last in LHJ. Believe me, couples counseling in real life was not nearly so interesting and easy! I think there used to be a column, maybe there or maybe not, called "Should this marriage be saved?" An interesting distinction.

    And I'm honored to be your first ebook!

  15. No, no Karen, it sounds like you need a turn on an advice column! You'd tell them like it is. It's definitely bizarre the things people will say in public, on TV. And with Dr. Phil, I always hoped the people would get some follow-up counseling, because one session rarely makes a lasting change.

  16. Is anyone else a Gershwin fan? I never understood the lyric of one of their songs, "But Not For Me", that goes "Beatrice Fairfax, don't you dare, ever tell me she will care... I'm certain, it's the final curtain"

    Turns out, Beatrice Fairfax was the nom de plume of America's first advice columnist, Marie Manning! She had a column beginning in 1898.

    I never would have known this, if I had not Googled advice columnists this morning.

  17. I started reading Ask Amy after meeting Amy Dickinson at the Orange County Women's Literary Festival. We were both presenting that year and spent a fun evening talking over dinner and drinks. She said the two primary qualifications for an good advice columnist were common sense and an entertaining writing voice.

    One of my favorite reads recently is Here's That Bad Advice You Were Hoping For, where The Bad Advisor answers questions that originally appeared in Dear Abby, Carolyn Hax, Dear Prudence, etc. The twist is, she gives the letter-writers the answer they were clearly hoping to receive. Column titles include Do I Have To Settle For A Wife With An 8-Megapixel Camera?, Help, Our Daughter Believes She Has A Right To Define The Terms Of Her Own Lived Experience and This Faceless Corporation Acts Like I Don’t Even Exist. Very funny and well worth a look.

  18. Whoops! I neglected to add CONGRATULATIONS, LUCY!!!

  19. thanks Julia--sounds hysterical. I will go look after I've done something productive:)

    Karen, not familiar with the song, but what great history!

  20. I love the idea of an advice columnist sleuth. That's just hilarious by itself. Congrats, Lucy!

    I used to read Dear Abby when I was young. These days, I catch the odd advice column in fashion magazines when I'm standing the grocery store line. :-)

  21. thanks Lisa. Those magazines at the checkout are very handy! I always read the mini-mysteries in Woman's World:)

  22. Having been raised in Britain, manners are instilled from the high chair.. If you have civility, plus good manners you are at ease in any, but the most dire situation. Airing one's personal problems to the world, either by t,v help shows, or advice columns is anathema to me.
    Certainly good professional counseling is always to be considered. I find that a good and trusted friend, wth similar previously mentioned civilities is sometimes a great help.

  23. Oh civility and good manners, what a lovely combination! Seems like our American Congress could use some advice like this. Thanks for the comment!

  24. Manners and civility can help you through a lot of situations. I had some bibliotherapy once, and my first assignment was to buy and "engage with" a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette. That was helpful in the culture I was trying to adapt to but not at all helpful in my own culture.