Saturday, November 22, 2014

When Opportunity knocked, I said, go away

America is the Land of Opportunity. While we seek opportunity, sometimes it is thrust right at us and even when the chance to get ahead is this obvious, we might fail to see what fate has dropped in our lap, gift wrapped.

Years ago, during my call up from the Army reserves for Desert Storm (the easy war against Iraq), in the latter part of my deployment I was stationed in Washington, DC. My boss, another reservist, a lieutenant colonel from Utah, suggested that while we were in DC, we should visit our congressional representatives and say hello.

At the time, I lived in California. I called my local congressman and senators, all Democrats. Interestingly, the common response from every office was, "Are you calling to contribute to the congressman's campaign?" Well, no. "Then why are you bothering us?" When I explained that I was returning from the war overseas, the reaction was a big yawn. My congressman from Fresno did agree to meet and I arrived all spiffy in my Class As. One of his assistants told me the congressman was running late. And late. Later still. He never bothered to show up.

My boss had better luck arranging visits with his reps, all Republicans I have to add and none of them asked if we were there to contribute money. I tagged along to visit Senator Orrin Hatch, then the third-most powerful man in the US Senate. Senator Hatch's office looked like an executive suite in a five-star hotel. His secretary was an older, very professional woman who wore a red dress and lots of gold jewelry. She led us to the senator's inner sanctum. I remember black leather furniture, glass cabinets filled with expensive gratuities, and a trophy wall of photos showing the senator with celebrities and honchos of every stripe.

This was the first time I'd ever had a private meeting with such a political big shot. Senator Hatch oozed power and charisma and yet he made it seem like the colonel and I were doing him a favor by taking time out of our lives to visit him. Man, this guy was slick.

He asked my boss and me if there was a favor he could do for us.

Now, to put this in perspective. Lobbyists pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to sit with a man like Senator Hatch. Not only did we have an hour of his time, he was asking us if there was something that we needed. Within a few weeks I was about to get mustered out and sent home, a jobless veteran. Could I have used a favor from one of the most powerful men in America?

Fuck yeah.

So what did the colonel and I do?

"No," we both answered, "we don't need no favors."

I'm sure that Senator Hatch secretly rolled his eyes at these two clueless goobers in front of him. So he asked again, "Are you sure I can't do something for you?" Wink, wink. Hint, hint.

Meanwhile, my inner Mario must have been picking his nose because the outer Mario answered. "No, I don't think so."

For a third time, Senator Orrin Hatch, a man with his hand on all kinds of levers in the US government, asked us, "Are you sure I can't do anything for you?"

And for the third time, the colonel and I shuffled our feet and replied, "Aw shucks, Senator, we don't need nuthin." Our time was up. We shook hands with our host and left. I imagine that after his secretary ushered us out the door, he said to her, "Goddamn, weren't those two a couple of dense dumb asses."

So dense that it didn't dawn on me until much later, when I was struggling to find any kind of work, that I once had a US Senator offer me the golden key of opportunity and I had said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Food, Exercise, and Writing

I admit it. I would be a great hypochondriac. Luckily, I'm usually too busy to think about what my body's doing until something happens to remind me I should be attending. That happened this morning. I woke up with a topic for today's blog post – crime theories in crime fiction – and my scribbled notes ready beside my lap top. I sat down, looked out the window at the gray morning, and felt my energy draining away. Along with that loss of energy went my enthusiasm for my post. I spent twenty minutes trying to get it to come together and finally gave up. I decided to have some breakfast to see if that would help.

A famous cereal company would be pleased to hear me say that a bowl of their little O's (with almond milk and a banana) did wonders for my mood and got me back to my laptop. Or, maybe it was the big mug of green tea with honey and lemon that did the trick. In any case, I had breakfast and I was ready to write. That got me thinking about how good nutrition – as opposed to the half-dozen miniature candy canes I munched last night - and exercise might improve my stamina and concentration. Would eating right make me a better writer? Would putting on my running shoes help to garner great reviews?

Somewhere in my bookshelves, hiding from view right now, is a book that I bought years ago. I can't remember the title, but the book is advice about nutrition and exercise for writers. As I recall, the author (herself a writer) advocated sensible strategies such as taking a break from the keyboard to go for a walk and eating healthy meals at the table rather than gobbling snacks in front of the computer. Of course, by now, we all know what we should be doing. But knowing and doing are two different things (my cliche for the day). 

However, I think I may be saved from myself by Harry, my new cat. According to his vet, Harry (weighing in at 19+ pounds) should lose 2 or 3 pounds. He's hefty even for a Maine Coon mix. I don't think Harry understood the discussion we had right in front of him. But now that he is on prescription cat food for his finicky stomach, he seems to be naturally gravitating toward getting more movement into his life. Sure, he likes to sit and look out the window and have a nap in the sun. But he gets up and stretches. He strolls through the house. And now and then, he jumps up and does a dash into the next room. Harry is ready to play any time I reach for the laser light. Only a few minutes at a time – when he's bored, he strolls over and indicates he's done – but Harry is getting up and moving. He's an eight year old, but he is calling on his inner kitten. Want to bet which one of us is going to be looking slim and fit when he goes in for his three month weigh-in?

It is not New Year's Day, but I hereby pledge to spend the next three months getting into shape – fruits, veggies, and healthy protein, exercise at least five days a week, get 7-8 hours sleep. . . can't wait! Three months from now, I'm going to be in shape and ready to write my way onto the best-seller list.


On my way to buy new running shoes (well, walk/run shoes). . .I will not stop for a nap first. I'm a writer on a mission. . .not to be outdone by a cat.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving. Already?

I've spent the past two weeks holed up, writing furiously on the next Alafair book, trying to get the first 100 pages in some kind of order so I can send it to my editor for her approval sometime shortly after Thanksgiving. I barely check my email or Facebook or any other electronic media. My house is badly in need of a dusting and a sweep. Meals have been slap-dash affairs. I'm in a bit of a panic because I can't see how I'm going to get this all to come together. In other words, same-old same-old.

And – oh yeah! Thanksgiving is next week for us United Statesians!* This morning Don and I grabbed brunch at a salad buffet restaurant and discussed the menu for the first time this season. Thanksgiving has been something of a problem for us for the past several years since we (mainly he) has so many dietary restrictions. We've been vegetarian for the past thirty-five years, though I've relaxed my meatlessness a lot lately when I'm not at home. Sometimes it's just too much trouble to ask what is in the soup. On top of that, Don is supposed to avoid too many oxalates, so no greens, rhubarb, strawberries, beans or pumpkin. Since the cancer operation, no refined sugar or pure fruit juices, either, and certainly no artificial sweeteners. Stevia is all right, if it's pure stevia leaf and no dextrose.

Have you ever tried to make a non-pumpkin, non-sugar pumpkin pie? Believe it or not, it can be done. Don has become an expert stevia-sweetened pastry chef. He can make a "pumpkin" pie out of pureed butternut squash and stevia which I defy you to tell the difference between it and the real thing. It's the spices that make the pie, I think.

Substituting squash for pumpkin is no big deal, anyway. Ever tried sweet potato pie? My grandmother used to make pies out of the most unlikely ingredients. Whatever she had on hand. Apple cider vinegar pie tastes like apples. One of my favorites was her Ritz cracker pies. I haven't had that since...well, practically forever. The crackers dissolved into a pudding-like consistency. I don't know how she did it.


Speaking of family recipes, I contributed a recipe for my aunt Loreen's chocolate gravy, as well as a little writing and a little relationship advice, to a wonderful new cookbook edited by Lois Winston called Bake, Love, Write: 105 Authors Share Dessert Recipes and Advice on Love and Writing. The cookbook is available on Kobo, iTunes, Nook, and Amazon, in paper and as an ebook. You might come up with something new and fabulous for Thanksgiving. What could be better?
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* Many years ago I was checking into a hotel in London, and in the space on the form where I was supposed to put my nationality, I wrote “American”. The clerk looked at it and said, "don't you think that's arrogant? What about Canadians and Mexicans? They're from the Americas, too." To which I replied, "What do you suggest? United Statesian?" Yes, he was rude, but dang it, I never forgot that, and now whether I say it or not, I think United Statesian every time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A community of friends

I got my first personal computer in 1988 and my first internet connection in 1995. Since then, the reach and usefulness of the world wide web has increased exponentially. For a writer, it's an absolute boon. I can't even remember half the agonies of researching material before the internet age. Trips to the library, long hours spent pawing through index cards in the catalogue, trying to guess the keywords under which the material has been filed, travelling up to the designated floor with a list of book and articles, squinting at long, arcane call numbers only to realize that the desired call number is missing. Hunching over a stack of books in the library or carting them home to pile on the coffee table. Thumbing through newspapers and microfilm, cold-calling experts with a list of questions...

Much of this information is now at our fingertips, a mere Google search away. And the ease of internet research means that I research small pieces of information that I would not have bothered to in the past. I would have glossed over the details or made them up. Need a particular brand of hunting rife? In the old days, I would have simply called it a rifle. Now I can call it a 308. Need to know a good name for a 65-year-old woman from Newfoundland? There's a website for that too.

I have used the internet for city maps, Google street view and satellite view, for images and videos of everything from poison plants to motorcycles to icebergs. I have watched YouTube videos of whitewater canoeing, dog tracking, and shrimp fishing. As a psychologist, I used the internet to gather the latest information and network with colleagues far more easily and effectively than through books and published journals. I think all professions have found that the internet has revolutionized their practice.

Through social media, the internet has changed our connections to the world as well. There is a great deal of hand-wringing about how people today are more connected to their phones and iPads than to each other and to the world around them. The art of conversation is dead, the quiet appreciation of nature is a lost art, and so on. There's a lot of truth to this, but I have also found surprise benefits. I have reconnected with old friends, built stronger relationships with family members in far-flung places, and have even built a community of "cyberfriends" with whom I have an interest or quirky outlook in common. I know people who have cyber friends to play Scrabble with, or some other online game. These friends mustn't replace the daily friendships with those around us, but as the number of people living alone increases, and as we get older and more housebound, this cyber community is an increasing source of comfort and fun.

And it doesn't stop there. Occasionally I combine the two ways in which I use the internet by putting out a call to my Facebook friends for information I can't easily tease from Google. I hope that somewhere, someone among my friends will have the answer or know someone who has the answer. A while ago I asked what kind of handgun a small woman would be likely to have stored in her kitchen in the country. Sure enough, I got not only the answer but also a link to the photo.

This past week I put out the call to my Facebook friends and family from Newfoundland, hoping to find out about blackout regulations and Bonfire Night activities during the Second World War. This was a harder question because none of them had been alive at the time, but I got some excellent memories, details and connections that will help me move forward. Others from nearby New Brunswick chimed in too, and it generated an enjoyable bout of reminiscences for everyone, quite apart from my research needs.

The internet and social media moves information and connects ideas with incredible speed and versatility. Grapevines had nothing on Facebook. I don't know where it will all end. Twenty years ago, when I was just contemplating the leap to primitive dial-up, I could never have imagined what Facebook, Twitter and email would bring. What do you suppose the next big leap will be?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Story time

One of my fondest memories of childhood is being sick. (Huh? Where’s the fun in being sick?) Why? Because my mother would read to me. And the sicker I was, the more she’d read.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to read. I learned to do that when I was five. What made being really sick special was the simple act of being read to. My mother told stories to us over lunch when I was really little. It’s one of my earliest memories. My brother is two years older than I, and I clearly remember story time where my sister (two years younger) was not around. She may have been napping, but my mom’s stories were about my brother and me, or at least two children that were a lot like us: Eduard and Richard, the little Swiss boys, or Eduardo and Ricardo, the little Spanish boys (you get the drift). I know my sister wasn’t involved because I remember being severely put out when my mom’s stories began to include “and little Lynette”. So, I could not have been much older than three.

Anyway, back to being sick. I had all the usual childhood illnesses (mumps, measles, strep throat, flu, terrible colds. My mother would have to stay home with me, of course, and since I was bedridden, there wasn’t much I could do. Of course, I’d read to myself, but the special time was when mom would appear in the doorway with a book in her hand.

The most memorable time, she had a brand new one bought just for me. It had a lovely cover and its title was Uncle Wiggily in the Country by Howard R. Garis. (I still have it.) I loved the stories in that book. I’m sure my mother did, too, since it was episodic (the book was a collection of his stories published every day in newspapers in the early part of the 1900s), so she could read me a satisfying little story, then disappear off to do whatever she was doing. After lunch, I’d get another story, and if I was really lucky, another mid-afternoon and one after dinner, possibly with my dad reading (that was really special. When Uncle Wiggily appeared I was sick for a number of days, so we made it a good way into the book before I got better.

Funny thing is, I still enjoy being read to. I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling. Nobody does it much for me anymore, but it is a lovely thing when it happens. And remembering this, I am always up for reading to someone else.

Today is my grandson Jackson’s very first birthday. We babysit him one or two days a week and it just so happens he’s with us on his special day. I plan on reading to him when it’s time for his nap. Uncle Wiggily will be on the menu, and even though he probably doesn’t understand anything I’m saying, just the tone of voice will be enjoyable to him. I know because we read to our two boys just about every night, starting in infancy and continuing until they were three or four. It was a special time for all of us and fondly remembered.

We have lots of books to share with Jackson in the coming months, but years from now, maybe he’ll remember his very special day and a very special book (to his grandfather, at least). I would love nothing more than for him to become an avid reader.

With that in mind, maybe you should read this.

Or get someone else to read it to you! Sorry, but I’m already booked…

Monday, November 17, 2014

Starting Out

My last post was about finishing a book. Now, after a respectful pause and a wonderful holiday in Turkey, my mind has turned to the new one. The idea has been tugging at my sleeve for months now, like a kid getting impatient because his mother is talking to someone else and ignoring him. Now at last I feel I’m ready to give it my full attention.

But I’m nor going to indulge it, allowing it to frolic about all over the place. It’s time to talk tough. One of the best pieces of advice for a writer when it comes to plot is ‘Make it then try to break it ,’ so I’m doing what they call a ‘due diligence’ check in legal circles.

I’ve got to be absolutely sure that it’s complex enough  to carry the weight of a whole book. An untested inspiration will collapse in a dispiriting way – around chapter five, usually, once the initial impetus has faded. That's a lot of time wasted.

It’s particularly important for a writer like me because I never have a book plan that’s set in stone. I think I know what's going to happen at the end but more often than not I’m wrong. I like it that way; if the twists and turns fool me I think they will probably fool my readers as well. And I’m in good company on this – Ruth Rendell doesn’t choose her murderer until quite near the end on the theory that if she doesn’t know who did it, the reader can’t guess.

As a result, it gets a bit tense in the middle there when I’m not absolutely clear about the next step and the old four-in-the-morning, it’s-useless-and-so-am-I routine starts. I have learnt to say firmly, ‘Trust the story. Now shut up and go to sleep.’ And it works; the story has always drawn me along, until things start falling into place.

So at the moment I’m testing it to destruction. There’s been some superficial damage, but so far the central structure seems sound. Fingers crossed!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Marni Graff: Giving Life to a Series Character

Frankie’s guest blogger this weekend is Marni Graff. She asked me to publish this for her because she’s off galavanting at Bouchercon this weekend — the lucky stiff! —Rick

Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney Mysteries, set in England. The Blue Virgin introduces Nora, an American writer living in Oxford. The Green Remains and The Scarlet Wench trace Nora’s move to the Lake District where murder follows her. In process is The Golden Hour, set in Bath, and premiering in Spring 2015 will be Graff’s new Manhattan series, Death Unscripted, featuring nurse Trudy Genova, a medical consultant for a New York movie studio. Graff is also co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes crime book reviews at www.auntiemwrites.com and is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven. All of Graff’s books can be bought at Amazon.com or at http://www.bridlepathpress.com and are available as eBooks.
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I’ve always been a voracious reader, and because I also read for a crime review blog, there is always a stack of books on my TBR pile. Once I find a writer whose work I enjoy, it’s my habit to go back and read his or her books in the order they were written to see the expansion of the continuing characters. When I decided to write mysteries, I knew a series would allow me to stretch and grow my characters in the same way I’ve enjoyed the growth of those readers whose books I reach for again and again.

When I developed the character of Nora Tierney, an American writer living in England, I made her reasonably young to allow for years of change as I decided on her “bible—” the history of her life that may or may not make it to the page. This background helps me know Nora better, and gives me a feel for how she would react in certain situations. I’ve found the two most important things I have to know for any character are: what they want the most, and what they fear the most. And sometimes it’s the same thing.

As a former journalist now writing children’s books, Nora loves research of any kind and is an information gatherer. I gave her an insatiable curiosity, which leads to her snooping, and a strong sense of fairness and justice, both of which contribute to her tendency to become involved in murder investigations. Nora has been known to lie at the drop of a hat if it will further her gathering of what she considers important or necessary information. She sees these fabrications as harmless. The detectives whose investigations she runs across don’t necessarily agree.

While there is a specific theme for each mystery, the underlying thread of all the books is how the choices we make affect our lives, and Nora’s background had to have some kind of kink in it that has ramifications for her now. Nora still suffers guilt from her father’s death in a sailing accident. A teenager at the time, she’d turned down his offer for an evening sail in favor of a date, a reasonable thing for anyone of that age, until a squall capsized his boat. She carries the unreasonable idea that if she’d gone with him, he would have survived. This has had an impact on her relationships with men. She’s often confused about her feelings for those she cares about and has difficulty becoming too attached, shying away from commitment.

I threw in a real kicker in the first book, The Blue Virgin, one that has had ramifications for me as a writer and obviously for Nora. Her back-story had her unhappily engaged to a workaholic scientist. Nora was on the verge of calling the engagement off when her fiancĂ© was killed in an accident. Fast-forward to the current action in the book weeks later, and she discovers she’s pregnant and has to decide whether to keep the baby as a single parent—those choices we make who decide who we are, hitting her full force. This is in the midst of trying to prove her best friend, artist Val Rogan, is innocent of a murder charge in the death of Val’s partner, Bryn Wallace. The book is set in Oxford, where Nora is packing up to move to Cumbria. But first, she is determined to clear Val.

Saddling Nora with a child to raise alone in the future gave her many challenges and responsibilities that thwart her natural desires as her instinct to strike out has been seriously curbed. During the second book, The Green Remains, Nora is living in the Lake District and heavily pregnant. I had to keep in mind Nora’s physical condition and how that would impact and interfere with her ability to snoop actively when she stumbles across a body at the edge of Lake Windermere. The theme here is the depth of a mother’s love, and as Nora faces her impending fears of motherhood, that is echoed in the plot that unfolds.

In The Scarlet Wench, with her son six months old, a theatre troupe takes over the lodge where she’s temporarily living with her illustrator and his sister. While the troupe are there to stage Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, a series of escalating pranks will result in a murder Nora is determined to solve. I had a time writing this one as I needed to always account for the normal demands of a new mother with an infant, as Nora tries to solve a murder with her baby on the premises. The theme here is how different people have different levels of commitment to relationships, part of the plot that is echoed in Nora’s budding relationship with Detective Inspector Declan Barnes. As always, I’m looking for readers to see growth and development in Nora as she makes her way in the world I’ve created for her.

I’m writing The Golden Hour this fall, which takes Nora and her son to stay with a friend for a week in Bath for her to attend an author event at Mr. B’s Reading Emporium, a real bookstore in the heart of the city where Jane Austen once lived. The theme here is: “Where is home?” as Nora must decide where she will put down roots. On this trip she’ll have the help of her friend to take Sean for walks when she’s busy, but where will the mystery come from? I can promise it won’t be the usual three-murder cozy format, but you’ll have to read it to find out what I’ve planned for Nora’s next adventure.