Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Gorillas Always Grab Me

Albany natives are always asking me: Don’t you miss the City? They are unfailingly serious while asking the question, looking me in the eye intently, which is something I’ve observed that people rarely do anywhere. Put it down to my mystique. For a guy who was born in Brooklyn and never left except to move his residence first to Manhattan, then to Jackson Heights, Queens, do you doubt that I have mystique-in-spades in the eyes of my fellow Albanians?

We relocated here in October 2007: the other half of ‘we’ being Rose who is regarded as equally mysterious, rest assured, by her female ‘buds’ on Elm Street. We live in a red brick, three-story row house built in 1871 (the first house either of us has ever owned – the co-op apartment in Jackson Heights doesn’t count since it will always be to my mind an apartment, not a house) on tree-shrouded, rightly-named Elm Street, with a garden you get to by walking through the den and country kitchen on the ground floor (called the ‘garden floor’ by the real estate lady) out to the garden that Rose’s green hand has turned into the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

So in response to my local interrogators, I pause pregnantly while engaging their earnest gaze (I feel I owe them this nickel’s worth of apparent soul-searching, the least I can do) then respond: “The Bronx Zoo, that’s it.” The inevitable look of incomprehension follows once they manage to get their minds around this piece of intelligence. I see the gears whirling in there (Broadway… Neon lights and sirens… The City that never sleeps… The Yankees, the Mets).  Precious little they know about the Dark Side. Anyhow, I’m speaking the truth. The Bronx Zoo has always been my spiritual oasis.

In June, I led a safari into the beating heart of the Bronx: the Zoo. Rose’s two women friends, Rose and myself set out early that Tuesday morning (Can’t go on Wednesdays, it’s free admission for school kids) wearing trusty hiking shoes. The zoo is 265 acres through which the Bronx River flows. There’s a shuttle bus that drops you off at different sites around the park and a ride aboard a monorail through Wild Asia. That Tuesday, we split into two teams to cover ground: Rose and I, and Linda and Norma who are Olympic walkers (Me, I’m a dawdler, Rose is Olympic class). My team’s goal was to make contact with bears, cats, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, sea lions and gorillas. We lost track of our sister team as they headed into the interior.

We first met up with Grizzlies (Alaska brown bears), a surly lot whose open mouth looks like a sewer with fangs. They stand ten-feet tall on their hind legs and, it’s claimed, ‘can knock the head off a bison with a single swipe of a paw’ (How the hell do they know that? I wonder. Did they set up some poor bison for that?). We encountered the Indian Rhinoceros from the safety of the Wild Asia Monorail. He weighs a couple of tons (I’m hazy on the exact number because when they’re talking about someone who weighs more than me, I stop listening). As he stolidly eyed our choo choo train, he couldn’t have cared less that his ugly mug might one day grace a bottle of sunscreen, SPF Rhino. In the next door paddock, Patty the Hippo bathed in her mud wallow, a sensible choice in the 90-degree heat. I would have liked to join her in the pool.

The Formosan Panda is red and small enough to sleep in a tree, which he was doing while the elephants gave us scant notice, intent as they were employing their great trunks to toss dirt on each other’s backs to defeat the flies. The cats on Tiger Mountain were thrilling. Being a cat man, I was awed by the intent padding back and forth of the big, yellow-and-black-striped Siberian tiger; couldn’t help but wonder if there would be time to remark his beauty before he leapt on your back and ate you. After five hours, we rendezvoused with Team Two. Linda and Norma had met up with different species. For example, Bats in the Birds of Prey House. Having single-handedly captured nine bats winging their way around the top floor of my house (they drop down from the attic on very hot days, always after midnight, making me apprehensive that one night the Count himself may appear)—I’ve seen bats. Then the seals, great performers, diving and racing underwater in their contained watery world till they break the surface with a braying sound like a tuba. My observations confirm that only the male sea lions get to bray.

But I can never get enough of the lowland gorillas in their Congo Gorilla Forest. There is a glass wall between us. On their side, the Silverback honchos sit unmoving, silently watching, squatting on higher ground as the females and young go about their business for the paying customers. Then, the giant Silverback decides to amble down close to the glass to check you out. He stares into your eyes, unselfconsciously. He puts one giant hand against the glass in front of you and you put your child’s hand against his. He takes his away, then appears to examine yours before looking up into your eyes. Time stands still as you regard each other… Hey, bro!

When I die, I want to go to the Bronx Zoo.

Robert Knightly

Friday, July 29, 2011

Great Old Movies for Hot Weather

Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush

In a world where the temperature goes up over a hundred outdoors for three or four days running, and hovers around 80 indoors, and the humidity is so thick you can't see into the next block, it's useless to try to write. Instead of producing items of popular culture, it is time to consume them.

My binge of choice is a supply of frozen treats and a string of movies of the sort I used to watch on television when I was fourteen. I would lie on the rug, not so close that my mother would tell me to move back before I ruined my eyes, and get up only for the jingle of the bell on the Good Humor Man's ice cream truck. Lime ice pops. The Million Dollar Movie. Hot weather heaven.

Nowadays Turner Classic Movies usually does the job, but on a day when they're showing crappy stuff from the seventies and eighties Netflix offers some good choices, or I might pull out something I bought off the rack at the drugstore. Amazon also has a nice selection of old movies. If you click on any of my links and buy a movie from Amazon they might send me the price of an ice pop.

There are certain criteria for great hot weather movies. They should not try to make you think. Climate-wise, you can go one of two ways: go with the flow and watch a movie set in the tropics or the burning desert (The Letter,  KimLawrence of Arabia, Casablanca) or flee to colder climes and wallow in snow (The Gold Rush, The Road to Utopia). Or you can watch a movie with a lot of water in it. An Esther Williams movie. Captains Courageous. The Hurricane. You can watch a cold-hearted film noir such as Double Indemnity. Or a horror film frightening enough to make you shiver, like Them.

My favorite hot weather movies are in black and white and made way before I was born. I Cover the Waterfront is exemplary. The crimes of the old fisherman are chilling and involve a lot of cold water. The romance of the newsman and the fisherman's daughter is hot. What more could you ask for? Besides a soft, cool rug and an ice pop.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is Aurelio Zen Italian?

Don't get me wrong; I like Michael Dibdin's books. I loved "Dead Lagoon." It did a lot more than entertain me. It taught me enough about how to structure a murder mystery to help me write one. I miss having new books of his. He died much too young. His language, enlivened by his Irish education, is a knockout. You hear the "but" coming, right?

Here it is: I have enjoyed Dibdin's books enormously, BUT only because I willingly suspended disbelief and accepted that Aurelio Zen is an Italian policeman. That is not how he reads on the page. Almost all Dibdin’s “Italians” are, like their creator, essentially English. In the beginning, while reading him, this fact distracted me, kept me thinking about what a strange Italian Zen was. Culturally, all Dibdin’s characters, especially Zen, do not behave like any Italians I know. For instance, at three in the afternoon, when the day is getting to be too much for him, Zen wants a drink – an alcoholic one, not a coffee. Sometimes, he has an espresso, but with a shot of the strong stuff in it. So does whatever “Italian” he is drinking with.

Zen lives with his mother. How Italian is that? Well, yes, we all know that Italy has lots of adult male "mammoni" who are too attached to their mothers to move out of the house. But Zen and his mother don't seem attached at all. He and his mom don't worry about one another, unless there is an immediate physical threat. They don't talk much to one another. She doesn't kiss him hello and goodbye. He doesn't long for her food when he's out of town, which he is A LOT. She doesn't try to ply him with it when he gets home. Their relationship is all too quiet and distant. On the surface they are Italians, but deep down, to me, they seem typically English.

Then there are Zen's attitudes toward his fellow Italians. He looks down on them, which could work, but he hates them for all the wrong reasons. Not, as an Italian would, because they are inefficient or sloppy or cold. But because they are too complex, too difficult to understand. A real Italian would hardly notice this since it would be expected.

It occurs to me that there is a discussion we could have about Zen being atypical, not stereotypically Italian. Couldn't there be an Italian like Zen, who reaches for alcohol in times of stress, whose mother never kisses him or prepares him his favorite dish, who is essentially cool, rather than warm, whose sense of humor is dark and ironic rather than one that laughs at the slings and arrows of life in order to make them bearable? Sure. But why not make him just a little bit Italian, for verisimilitude.

The director and producers of the BBC television adaptations of the Zen books, currently airing on PBS Masterpiece Mystery, have gone Dibdin one better. Zen and almost all the major characters in the series so far are played by English actors. This does not bother me at all. The series takes place in Rome. Since early childhood, I have become accustomed to Romans, especially ancient ones, sounding like upper class Englishmen and looking like Rex Harrison or Richard Burton. Even in the HBO series “Rome,” those hunky centurions and emperors were Englishmen.

The Masterpiece Mystery Zen series, however, does something very odd with the casting. All the educated and powerful characters are English actors and sound very British and classy. Zen’s love interest, on the other hand, speaks English with a thick Italian accent. I suppose that is to make her appear sexier. But also, she is a secretary — not a person with a university degree or a good salary. The everyday people that Zen passes on his way around gorgeous Rome — garbage collectors and waiters, in other words all the negligible people with no status in society — they all speak Italian!

This is the kind of stereotyping that could drive me nuts. But instead I laugh at it. Want to know why? Because that’s Italian.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, July 25, 2011

What do Dorothy L. Sayers and Beatrix Potter have in common?

They both aspired to lofty academic heights. Sayers yearned to be remembered as a medieval scholar and theologian. Potter aimed to become a botanical illustrator esteemed by botanists. Although each achieved their goals, they are remembered and acclaimed for their more frivolous, playful works, i.e. the Peter Wimsey novels and the Tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle Duck, etc.

Could this be because they did their best work when they were relaxed and thought what they were doing didn’t really matter? While writing mysteries and tales for children they were no longer uptight, worrying what their critics and peers might think, and consequently did their best work? Or was their academic work simply less popular with the general population?

Whatever, I’m so glad Sayers and Potter did relax and let their playful side take over now and then, so they could give us some of the most entertaining stories ever written.

Maybe we should all give our lofty ambitions a rest and relax a little.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Can You Tell a Book by its Cover?

by Thelma Jacqueline Straw

The setting was idyllic. Outdoors near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Mountains, clouds, pure clean fragrant air, open cabins, good food, great atmosphere, terrific comrades, wonderful teachers!

The Perry-Mansfield School of the Dance and Theatre, the gold star of Dance-Drama summer training.

We were taught by stars - Daniel Nagrin, Helen Tamiris, Harriette Anne Gray, the best in the field.

We ate, drank, talked dance and theater 25 hours a day!

We bonded. Made instant best friends.

When the session was over, I joined in the drive east with my friend Ginny, who was to become a world celebrity at PBS, as series producer of the famous Adams Chronicles, who would also receive the highest TV honors worldwide for this work.

Ginny also shared her car with two fellow students.

Larry, a handsome, young blond god, a charmer who saught a great future on Broadway. He brought a friend, a nice but quiet young fellow, not terribly gifted, who'd spent the summer sweeping the floors of the theater and filling in for the more handsome, talented actors.

We all felt kind of sorry for him. But he was on his way to the bright lights too. Maybe he'd get to sweep the great floors on Broadway, while Larry shone on stage.

We shared motel quarters, ladies on one side, gents on the other.

All very modest and proper.

At Omaha we parted ways, the others headed for New York, I to my home on a Tennessee mountain, back to teach college prep students modern dance.

Ginny and I were sure we'd soon see Larry's name in huge lights.

Time passed . . .

A few years later, I saw an ad for a hot new film. Everyone was raving about it, coast to coast! And its leading man.

It was called THE GRADUATE.

His picture looked familiar. My companion from the trip east.

He'd said his name was Dusty.

As they say, the rest is history.

Can you ever tell a book by its cover?

P.S. Larry WHO?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Winning on the Internet

What I wanted to talk about this morning is how the Moguls of the Internet hold all the cards in this game.

I'm not here to whine about it. Young folks whine about stuff. At my time of life I'm supposed to strike a philosophical attitude. If you live long enough you see that nothing changes. No point in complaining.

But here's the scoop. The Facebook Moguls are in charge of Facebook. Any benefit you derive from being on Facebook is secondary to the benefit that Facebook derives from exposing you to advertising, messing with your friend list, denying you access to disapproved YouTube videos, shutting down your fan page for no discernible reason and doing all the other weird unexpected stuff that gives them pleasure.

Blogger, same thing. Okay, maybe not quite so blatant, but still. The Blogger folks suggest to you that you can "monetize" your blog by letting them put ads on it, in case anybody actually reads your blog. I say that's just crass. In the case of my personal blog ( hardly anybody views it anyhow, except for a strange cadre of Russian spambots that keep trying to leave comments in Cyrillic, with links to counterfeit shoe sites and the like. Lotsa luck gaining any advantage by exposing these entities to advertising.

And yet Blogger also offers to link you to in case anybody wants to buy a book or product you happen to mention. Amazon will give you money if anybody clicks on the link and buys the item.

When I saw that, I thought, view halloo. Maybe the Crimewriters could pick up enough change to treat themselves to a latte from time to time. So I signed up for it.

And I mentioned a book on last Monday's blog. It was Harold Davis's   An International Community on the St. Croix (1604-1930), and if you want to buy it, go ahead and click. It's an intensely sentimental item to me, probably not of much interest to very many other people. If I didn't already have my own copy, tattered, held together with duct tape, an heirloom passed down to me from my father, I would want it, and I would gladly pay $75 for it, going without food for a couple of days to pay for it, or going without new shoes for maybe a month. But you probably don't want it. Anyway if you do we get a cut of the proceeds. Just to let you know.

Unless Amazon decides to mess with us somehow.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Looking for the Real Eva Peron

I'm about half through the first draft of my third South American historical mystery. Research continues, but one aspect of the history—the most difficult one—is becoming a bit clearer: who was the real Evita?

The little girl, born a bastard child who grew up with her Mother's maiden name—Ibaguren, later took her father's name, Duarte. At the age of fifteen, she left the small, sad, remote town where she had grown up, and moved to Buenos Aires to pursue her dream, born of childhood trips to the movies and an addiction to movie magazines: to become an actress. After some minor roles in plays and movies that barely kept her alive, she finally achieved some success as an actress in radio soap operas. Then, she met Juan Peron, and eventually became the first lady of Argentina and the most famous woman in the world.

Depending on where one looks, one finds very different Evitas. I have found three. Two are extreme:

Evita the Whore: the young woman who slept her way into roles in the theater and movies. In this characterization, she is the embodiment of an ambitious bitch, without morals, who will do anything to get ahead and stay ahead. She ultimately reached the pinnacle of Argentinean fame and fortune by becoming the mistress of Juan Peron, the most powerful man in the country. This is the Evita one finds in contemporary accounts in places like Time Magazine, in British anti-Peronist polemics, and in the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical: Evita.

Evita the Saint: This is the Eva, great benefactress of the poor, who worked tirelessly once she became First Lady. She kissed the sick, even lepers, who came to her for charity. This is the passionate supporter of the man she thought the only hope for the lowest level workers. She was a she-wolf, a relentless enemy of the oppressive oligarchy and all members of the idle ruling class.

Which one of these two extremes was the real historical Evita?

To me, it's beginning to seem as if they are both real. There is no doubt that Eva Duarte lived with Juan Peron for almost two years before they were married. It is also quite possible that she slept with directors or producers of plays and movies when she was a teenager, desperate for a break. I imagine such a thing was often required of a starving girl with stars in her eyes. Though cohabitation out of wedlock is hardly considered a reason to call a woman a whore these days, and few would call the casting couch a form of prostitution, in the 1940's and 50's, lots of people would have thought so. Her real behaviors would have been an excuse for anyone who hated her enough to discredit her.

Nor is there any doubt that Evita spent huge amounts of her time listening to and trying to ameliorate the problems of the poorest in Argentina. She did kiss them, even if they were sick. That she died a very painful death of cancer when she was only thirty-three made it easy for those who wanted to canonize her to make their case.

But a third Evita is also emerging from the pages of the books I am studying. An energetic, dynamic, ill-educated young woman with a chip on her shoulder about how the upper classes treated her and her family when she was a child. A dreamer without any reason to hope who, against all odds, wanted to be somebody. A girl whose powerful (from her poverty-stricken point of view) father had abandoned her family, who longed for a truly powerful man to take care of her (and the rest of the poor). A politically naïve, but charismatic young person with a talent for mass-communication who was easily manipulated by a cool, withdrawn, massively ambitious politician who, at the moment when he met her, sorely needed an attractive mouthpiece.

Evita’s story is fascinating. And thereby hangs my next tale.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, July 18, 2011

Return from a Writers’ Retreat

Retreats vary from luxurious escapes to exotic locations, to rough camp-outs, fighting weather and wildlife in the wilderness. The one I attended fell somewhere in between. Three of us — Caroline Todd, co-author of the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford mysteries, Elena Santangelo, author of the Pat Montello series, the latest, Fear Itself, just out — and me. We were ensconced in a small 1890s cottage in the wilds of south Jersey with no telephone (the wire to the land-line phone was down and our cells often couldn’t get signals in that remote area), no TV, and no newspapers. We did have a radio, but the reception was so lousy we never played it. The only high-tech devices we had were our computers, but with no access to e-mail or the Internet.

Our rules were few and simple:

  1. No talking except at meals.
  2. The cost of our meals were split three ways.
  3. All labor — cooking, washing up, housekeeping, etc. — was split three ways.
  4. No alcohol.
  5. Silence during working hours (similar to the “Quiet Car” on a train.)

Despite these limitations, we managed to slip in some entertainment. A visit to a pre-Revolutionary cemetery, a sojourn to the town dump, always an uplifting experience (uplifting the trash bags to empty into the correct bins), a drop-in at “The Three Grays,” an intriguing shop that sells everything from antique furniture to used books and rolling pins, and a stop at Stow Creek, where Elena spied a bald eagle (her first!), and a horsefly attacked Caroline, (not her first). I escaped unscathed, except for tripping over the carcass of a snapping turtle. Earlier I had witnessed a family of wild turkeys crossing the road. Momma and babies first, while Papa stood right in front of my car, glaring at me. He didn’t move a muscle until his extended family had made it safely to the other side.

Another high point was exploring a secret road into a field where we stumbled on a small brick house. Elena was able to date it by the shape of the roof and its two chimneys before we spotted the date engraved on the roof, “1781,” with the builder‘s initials, “JW.” I wanted to go inside, but my wiser companions persuaded me not to. (I think they were afraid they’d be stuck hauling me out of the cellar when the rotten floorboards gave way.) But it was interesting to speculate on who had lived there. I knew some of the founders of the neighborhood had names that began with “W,” such as, “Watson” and “Ware.” Maybe…

In the evenings we listened to spooky or funny old radio shows that Elena had downloaded on her computer. The stars ranged from Basil Rathbone to Jeanette MacDonald. But the commercials were the best part. From Lux flakes “for your treasured nylons” to Bromoseltzer, that chugged along like a noisy locomotive, they took me back to my youth. The rest of the party was too young for such memories.

The last night we watched a full moon rise over the opposite meadow, and even in its glare, Elena was able to pick out the North Star and a number of constellations.

By the time we left to return to civilization, we each had fatter manuscripts under our arms and some nice experiences to share. (Plus a few extra pounds from all the ice cream we consumed. Unfortunately, there was no rule against that!)

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mystery Mavens: Quick Tips for Writers

Neophytes and seasoned writers alike occasionally troll for that trusty tome that will yield up esoteric secrets on How to Write - Edit - Sell the Perfect Crime Novel.

Most writers have favorite standbys: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (the original beloved "little book" of 1919), Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron, Jack Bickham's 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Writing the Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman, You can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyon, or Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

A wise man said once, "When you're looking for wisdom, go to every tent in the bazaar."

In 1993 Eleanor Hyde, Ruth Furie, Herma Werner, Jean Fiedler, Eva C. Schegulla and the Midlantic Sisters in Crime produced six pocket-sized gems called "Quick Tips for Writers", the SinC's version of a "parvum opus."

  • 39 Steps to Self Editing
  • How to Plot a Mystery
  • Building Suspense
  • Narrative Style
  • Clues to Good Character
  • Murder She Said - Dialogue Do's and Don'ts

Assistant editors and contributors included many well-known members of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America: Marilyn Henderson, Ronnie Klaskin, E.W. Count, Renee Gardner, Annette Meyers, Camilla Trinchieri, Mary Anne Kelly, Elaine Budd, Claire R. Jacobs, Carolyn Wheat, K. T. Anders, Marissa Piesman, Mickey Friedman, and Stephanie Matteson.

For your edification here are a few "rich deposits of gold" (a la Strunk and White) from this series:

Take out words that add nothing to the narrative. Example: "She sorted through papers, notebooks and folded drawings." Is it important that the drawings are folded? If not, take it out.

Don't fall so in love with your words that you can't part with them.

Avoid over-long chapters - shorter chapters help the plot to move quickly.

Accept the fact that the middle is often a hazy uncharted area that seems to be waiting for an inspired direction. When it comes - also called "mystical intervention" or, more prosaically, "as "the unconscious kicking in," the direction of the plot grows clear.

No matter how exciting your plot is, you need at least one additional subplot to provide texture, movement, and additional interest.

Sting endings to chapters are useful steps to keeping the suspense going. A sting ending is another way of saying that each chapter should end with a cliffhanger.

Open with a hook, the punch in the stomach that gets the reader's attention.

The reader also wants to discover truths about life and about how different segments of society function. Research your subject. Realism makes a book scarier.

Author intrusion and overwriting undermine suspense by slowing down the flow of the story. Keep your writing as tight as possible.

John Gardner likens fiction to a dream. It's your dream and you want the reader to enter it. You control the lighting as you reveal the landscape. That means choosing detail that reflects the characters and the states they are in. Your tools are the five senses.

Don't stop the narrative and toss in a shovel full of back story. Get out your eye dropper, instead, and insert bits the reader needs in small doses and in places where the information can slide in easily.

Give the protagonist human feelings and the villain virtues along with her vices.

Writing a villain often means tapping into your rage, your emotions.

The best way to learn how to write dialogue is to listen to conversations. Eavesdrop in restaurnats and elevators. Use the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Even if your character is an odious villain, she should be intriguing enough to make you want to ask her to lunch.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

P.S. If you are interested in a copy of my set of these gems, email me at

P.P.S. For a quick shot in the arm of writerly inspiration, review E.B. White's Introduction to The Elements of Style, Third Edition.

Full disclosure: Kate Gallison has put links to in this blog. If you buy any books through these links the Crime Writers will use their commission to get together and buy themselves a coffee.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Bounty of Summer

It's the middle of July, and time to start hanging out at Solebury Orchards, where the apricots and peaches are ripe and you can pick your own blueberries right off the bush.

I must confess that I have not picked any blueberries yet. I buy them already picked, freeze half of them on a cookie sheet, and pour the little hard marbles into plastic freezer bags for future reference. I have no time to pick berries, because I'm writing a thriller, and when I'm not doing that I'm trying to publicize Irene Fleming's next offering, The Brink of Fame, which will be released August 16, a date that is barreling down on us at breakneck speed. To jump in the car, zip off to Solebury Orchards, stock up on delicious ripe local fruit and then rush home to enjoy it makes a nice break from my writerly toil.

The berries are lovely. The whole Solebury Orchard experience is lovely, driving down the old back road, strolling around the grounds smelling the fresh air, walking through ranks of flowers into the shop, admiring the wares, chatting with the friendly sales folk.

The peaches are wonderful too. Here's a thing I've found:
  1. You can peel, seed and blend good ripe peaches,
  2. throw in some sugar (a couple of teaspoons for each peach)
  3. and two or three drops of vanilla extract, blend some more,
  4. add Land o'Lakes low fat half and half (which isn't really all that low fat but is at least not heavy cream) until the color pleases you,
  5. blend some more, and
  6. pour into an ice cream freezer.
Half an hour later you will have something divine. With less half and half, it will be more like sherbet; with more, it will be more like ice cream.

Enjoy. But be sure to get local fruit, if it's available where you are.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learn to Write a Mystery

Special announcement! Annamaria Alfieri is passing on a fabulous opportunity for our readers within hailing distance of New York City.

Mystery Writers of America is offering a great course at an unbelievable price.  For just $50, you can learn or hone your skills under the tutelage of award-winning mystery writers.  I know most of the teachers.  They will be fascinating speakers as well as practical instructors.  This is a great opportunity.  Here are the particulars.

August 13, 2011

MWA University - New York | New York, National
Register NOW for MWA University - New York

Location: Fordham University School of Law
McNally Auditorium - Atrium Level
140 W 62nd St (between Columbus & Amsterdam Avenues)
New York, NY 10023
What: An entire day of top-notch classes. Novice or pro, you will benefit from hearing the experts discuss their strategies for all facets of writing and publishing.

Below is a schedule preview (subject to change).

8:15 - 8:50: Check-in

8:55 – 9:00: Welcome – MWA's Executive Vice President – LARRY LIGHT

9:00-10:00: After the Idea

Teacher: Jess Lourey (Jess Lourey is the author of the Murder-by-Month mysteries and a tenured professor of English and sociology at a two-year Minnesota college.)

"If you wish to be a writer, write." But how? You've got the great idea, the one that won't let you go, that embellishes itself as you walk around your day. But how do you grow that kernel into a compelling story, and where do you find the time? This class gives you the tools to turn a good idea into a great novel. Bring a notebook and writing utensil.

10:15 -11:15: Dramatic Structure & Plot

Teacher: Hallie Ephron (Hallie Ephron is the author of psychological suspense Never Tell a Lie, crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe, and author of the Edgar-nominated Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.)

Since Aristotle, the three-act structure for storytelling has reigned supreme, but does it still hold true for modern crime writers? Is it the best way, or the only way, to tell your tale? Is plotting simply sequencing your scenes or is there more to it? This class will teach you the art of storytelling and plotting so your manuscript will attract the attention it deserves.

11:30 – 12:30: Setting & Description

Teacher: Daniel Stashower (Daniel Stashower is a two-time Edgar award winner, and a recipient of the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective and Crime Fiction Writing.

"I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday," Raymond Chandler once said, and this seemingly tossed-off remark has much to teach us about the gentle arts of setting and description. This class will guide you through the process and potential pitfalls of choosing a setting, and explore the ways in which descriptive passages can be honed to illuminate characters and themes.

12:30 – 1:30: Lunch Break

1:30 – 2:30: Character & Dialogue

Teacher: Cordelia Frances Biddle (Cordelia Frances Biddle is an adjunct professor at Drexel University's Honors College. Her courses include "Writing Killer Fiction", "Character as Catalyst", and "Histories and Mystery." She has taught at Philadelphia's University of the Arts and Temple University. She's the author of a critically-acclaimed mystery series featuring heiress Martha Beale: The Conjurer, Deception's Daughter, Without Fear.)

From Agatha Christie's Miss Marple to Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlings, character is arguably the most memorable element of a mystery novel and a series. How do you create a full-realized unique protagonist that leaps from the page? How should you develop secondary characters as well as the protagonist's nemesis? This class will challenge you to eliminate cardboard characterizations and create something new and fresh.

2:45 – 3:45: Writing as Re-Writing

Teacher: Reed Farrel Coleman (Twice nominated for the Edgar® and a three-time winner of the Shamus Award, Reed Farrel Coleman is an adjunct professor of English at Hofstra University.)

If editing was good enough for William Shakespeare, it's good enough for you. More often than not, it's the things you remove, the tweaks you make, and the tinkering you do, that are the difference between another slush pile manuscript and a new book contract. There are some easy methods to learn and follow to help you develop an editorial ear. Give us fifty minutes and we'll give you a better chance with agents and editors.

4:00 – 5:00: The Writing Life

Teacher: Hank Phillippi Ryan (Winner of two Agatha Awards as well as the Anthony and the Macavity, Boston TV reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan has won 27 Emmys for her investigative journalism.)

"I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning." That's how Peter DeVries balanced art and craft. What's the reality of the writing life? The journey from your great idea to 90,000 words will mean hours of solitude. Days of self-doubt. Revision. Rejection. And then--rejoicing. You'll often say: "I wish someone had explained this to me!" In this class, they will.

Cost: $50 for both members and non-members of Mystery Writers of America. You must register by Wednesday, August 3, 2011. Registration is limited to 200 people.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

The Thrill of the Thrift Shop

I’m not sure when I got my taste for thrift shops. I think it was when I was first married, we had no money and every penny counted (not that they don’t count now!). I stumbled into a Salvation Army store that was near our house and it was like stepping into wonderland. Acres of used clothes for a song. I came home with a new wardrobe for under $10.00, and urged my husband to come with me next time. To his amazement some gentleman, just his size, had donated a whole collection of winter suits (Harris Tweed, no less), overcoats, and hand-knit sweaters. This same man came every year, twice a year, with equally elegant offerings, keeping Bob outfitted for life.

When our children arrived, I found another shop called “House of Bargains,” that kept our two girls clothed until they were teenagers and began to rebel. I must admit they did look a bit dowdy in some of the pictures we have of them as tots. The dresses are a bit long, the sweaters a trifle gaudy. But I know they never suffered from the cold.

But the real thrill of the thrift shop is the thrill of the hunt. The possibility that you will find some treasure that everyone else has overlooked. Antique shops are no fun because everything has been evaluated and priced already. There are no surprises, and seldom any bargains. But at thrift shops you never can tell. A few of my finds were – a set of eight cut glass wine glasses, a spinning wheel that actually worked, and some lovely antique jewelry. But my greatest windfall I landed just a few months ago. I wasn’t planning on shopping – actually I was in a rush – but I couldn’t pass my favorite thrift store on 3rd Ave. On an impulse, I went in. I swear this item had called to me. There it was, standing square in the front of the shop with a big sign hanging from it: $20. A wooden lectern bearing a massive Webster’s Dictionary that I’m sure had never been opened.

“Does the dictionary come with the stand?” I asked excitedly.

The salesman nodded and smiled.

I plunked down a twenty-dollar bill and said my husband would pick it up in his car tomorrow.
This handsome twosome now decorates our living room, and is a conversation piece as well as a very useful item. Despite the so-called convenience of online dictionaries and Kindle touch-type, instant definitions, there’s nothing like browsing through an enormous tome, pausing here and there at an intriguing, unknown word or a drawing of a sailing ship with all its masts and rigging labeled.

Sort of like wandering through a thrift shop and pausing before a strange cooking utensil. “Now what could that be for?” or a lace antimacassar like my grandmother used to have. Price? $1.50. I feel my dictionary on its lectern is a monument to a past that wasn’t all hat bad. And to think, I found it in a thrift shop!

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Insights from the Field

by Thelma Jacqueline Straw

My Kind of Guy

The first time I saw Robert M. Gates was at a meeting by-invitation-only at the New York Athletic Club. He had just been appointed head of the C.I.A. and his troops at the Association of Former Intelligence Officers snagged him for an evening presentation at the tony Manhattan Club.

As we waited for his entrance I was mightily impressed by the closed ranks of the men in dark suits and black shoes that ringed the entire perimeter of the room. I felt my very thoughts could be read and carefully scrutinized. The wall-to-wall guards were as still as the stones at Stonehenge. I was scared to breathe.

The new DCI did not walk in. He rushed into the room. You were aware a very important person had come in the door.

I don't remember much of WHAT he said that night, but HOW he spoke made such an impression I now feel deep emotion at the thought of his leaving the life of public service at a time when we so sorely need men of his brand of integrity and impeccable stature.

An historian by training, Gates was the first Secretary of Defense to work for two presidents of different parties.

I find it now historically touching that his Pentagon office with sweeping views of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and a Potomac River marina will soon be inhabited by another DCI I admire, Leon Paretta, also a faithful soldier for the homeland.

A native of Kansas, Bob Gates will not miss his heavy ubiquitous security entourage.

One of his first moves in his post Washington D.C. life to a calmer setting in Washington state will be to drive himself to Burger King!

With or without fries, Mr. Secretary???

Bob Gates, my kind of guy...

Under Attack?

Watched the famous golf game the other day down at Andrews Air Force Base.

Happiness all around. Long pants. Short pants. Shoes like teenagers wore in the Forties.

I grinned. Their families grinned. The world grinned.

Five hours long, the only focus an itty-bitty white ball, so tiny a puppy could push it in one of the teensy holes.

Maybe now they'd stop all the fussing and cussing. The Beltway would unparalyze. Jobs could flow. The " fractious, backbiting, finger-pointing, polarizing, partisan, kick-the-can-down-the-road brinkmanship" of Washington politics would cease.

Then, it s-l-o-w-l-y dawned on me: Out top three leaders were all standing on one small piece of green turf !!!

Ohmygod, WHAT IF?????

My POTUS, my Veep, and my Speaker . . . all so close on a minuscule piece of sod. One breath of the wrong wind could take them out quicker than you can read this sentence.

I know from Potential Disaster. I pour over those erudite tomes by my pals Vince and Tom and Brad.

And I keep an eye on those know-all pundits on CNN and MSNBC. Plus all 3 C-SPANS!

I know as much as Candy or Diane or Brian or Chuck!

I'm privy to all the esoterica that Bob Mueller 3, Leon CIA/DEF, Newt and Jay Leno know.

Did the Secret Service inspect every single ball? Somebody could insert a time-sensitive explosive in one of those toys! And if it rained somebody with an umbrella could shoot one of them with some of that ricin stuff.

Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn could tell you precisely how to do it.

And those fellas that help the bigwigs dress. Did they inspect all the pockets and drawer inseams?

Whew, I get nervous just thinking about what could have happened that nice Saturday down at Andrews golf course on that perfect grass.

Speaking of grass – didn't those bozos hear about how bean sprouts and cucumbers could gun you down? Think what poisoned GRASS could do???

I grab my Diet Coke and inhale a slug of caffeine.

Did the D.C. handlers realize the imminent dangers? Were the Secret Service only a heartbeat away – or were they taking a time-out to put new batteries in their ears or synchronize their Platinum Rolexes?

And that guy with the chain-cum-suitcase: Where was he on that piece of sod?

Was he wearing long or short pants?

Did he don golf gloves to better grab hold of his little powder keg?

Did the Andrews groundskeepers sniff every inch of that turf?

You can put one helluva punch in a pinch of explosives and hide it down in those teensy holes.

Ask the guys down at Quantico or over at Fort Detrick.

I got scared stiff. All those photo ops on TV. Every human on the planet could see MY guys were on their own.

And how about them Greys, snooping on us from their UFO cylinders in Outer Space???

Hey, don't get me started on THAT WHAT IF !!!

Friday, July 8, 2011

It's Getting Hot in Here

It's a little-known fact that summer weather in the Delaware Valley is quite similar to summer weather in Mississippi. Harold was born and raised in Mississippi; he likes it. I spent my best summers in Canada. I do not. It's one of the few subjects we disagree on, the others being the optimum distance for following the car ahead of you on the interstate and whether it's really a good idea to smoke cigars and drink whiskey.

Now that summer has come to Lambertville, I have begun resorting to the usual strategems to keep my brain from baking like a moist meatloaf, a process that begins somewhere between 83 F and 90 F, depending on the humidity. The steps that I take to cool the house are modest. There is a ceiling fan over the dining room table. I turn it on. There are windows. I close them about eleven a.m. As the steam rises on the streets outside, the animals seek shade, the plants revel in the wet warmth, and Harold relaxes on the front porch, reading a good book, enjoying the hot steam on his skin and lighting up another Ropo de Stinko, I retire to my office with a tall glass of iced limeade to see what sort of trouble my characters will get into next.

Sometimes I turn on the air conditioner in the attic and open the door, letting the cool air flow down into the second-floor hall, where it can be directed into the second floor rooms by means of whisper-quiet fans. Sometimes I put crushed ice on my neck, but only because the chiropractor said it was good for the pinched nerve. In this way we get through the summer.

You may ask yourself, why don't they have central air? First off, because Harold hates air conditioning even worse than I hate the heat, and secondly because neither one of us could stand the noise. To say nothing of forking over all that money to the electric company.

As far as I know we're both perfectly happy. And so to work. It looks like a hot one today.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Criminal Psyche

A month ago, The Criminal Brain was my subject. Since then I have been thinking about something I learned years ago, an insight into the making of a criminal. The Keynote speaker at a Mystery Writers of America Edgar-Week Symposium was a gentleman from The Fortune Society, an organization that defines itself like this:

The Fortune Society is a nonprofit social service and advocacy organization, founded in 1967, whose mission is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities.

The speaker at the symposium was an executive of the Society who was also an ex-convict. A man of about sixty, he described his life before he found The Fortune Society. He had been raised in New York City in several different foster homes, in many of which he was abused physically and sexually. As soon as he turned twelve years old, he started to run away from those toxic environments and from orphanages that were similarly horrifying. At the age of eighteen, he told us, he was “released to the streets of New York” without any preparation, support, or continuing guidance. Within a short time he was arrested for robbing a gas station. He spent the next twenty-five or thirty years in and out of jail for robbery, his final conviction as an accessory to murder, after he robbed a convenience store with a fellow ex-con who shot and killed the proprietor.

The Fortune Society’s counselors turned him around in his middle years. Eventually, he became one of those counselors himself. By the time he got to the stage of the MWA Symposium, he was an executive of the organization and very proud to tell us that he had a daughter who was starting college that year.

During the Q&A after his presentation, a member of the audience asked him if he had, in prison or as a counselor at the Fortune Society, ever met a violent criminal who had not been abused as a child. He said,”No.” He hadn’t. Not ever.

For the rest of that day-long symposium, cops, lawyers, FBI agents, criminal psychologists paraded across the stage, speaking on panels, telling us how to make our works of crime fiction more authentic. One or another member of the audience asked that same question of all of them: have you ever met a violent criminal who was not abused as a child. All of them, even the toughest New York cops, said, “No.” They hadn’t.

This is not a bleeding heart “they’re-depraved-on-accounta-they’re-deprived” argument; no rationale that society needs to go soft on criminals. It’s about insight. First and foremost about the possible causes of the kinds of crimes that get harshly punished in our society. (Unlike the unjustly lenient desserts doled out to greedy crooks who steal with a pen or a computer.)

Also, knowing this might help us crime writers infuse our bad guys with a dollop of childhood realism.

Annamaria Alfieri