Next Stop: Dysfunction Junction

  One of my favorite TV series is “Midsomer Murders,” the British cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town England, now in its twentieth season. Other, newer favorites include “The Brokenwood Mysteries,” a darker cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town New Zealand, and “Hinterlands,” so dark it’s actually Scandi-noir masquerading as village fare, set in small town Wales. All three shows share commonalities. They focus on police investigation of crimes in rural areas with adjusted per capita murder rates that rival Chicago’s. The biggest difference between the three is the degree of dysfunction in the main characters. Midsomer’s DCI Barnaby is an ordinary guy, a well-adjusted everyman with a well-adjusted wife and daughter. His home life is ordinary, if not outright idyllic. The drama and trauma occur on the job. Brokenwood’s DSS Shepherd, on the other hand, is a man with a complicated past that includes several ex-wives and at least one dead one. You get the sense he’s experienced a lot of unhappiness in a life accented by the show’s country/alt rock soundtrack. Hinterland’s (the darkest of the shows) DCI Mathias makes Kurt Wallander look like the president of the pep club in comparison. Devastated by the death of one of his children, he’s lost his wife and home and spends as much time battling inner demons as he spends tracking murderers.

Dysfunctional protagonists seem to be the “thing” in modern books, TV, and movies. The damaged hero is often as “messed up” as the villain. It’s gotten to the point where you wonder if there’s an unofficial competition to create the world’s most broken protagonist. I’ve heard authors admit to “piling on” the trauma, going out of their way to load down their character’s pasts with as much tragedy and affliction as possible. I’ve read some books where the author went so far with the dysfunction device, the protagonist (and most of the supporting characters) ended up being a walking collection of problems that bogged the story down more than advanced it. The dysfunctional hero trope is so common it’s now used to comic effect. Wreck-It Ralph, a hilarious movie about the secret lives of arcade game characters, explicitly describes one as “being programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”. The Ref, a hilarious movie about a home invasion, plays on the idea that the victims are so screwed up, the “bad guy” ends up becoming their counselor.

I’m not opposed to dysfunction in film and literature on general principle, as long as the dysfunction is an integral part of the story and not just something glommed onto a character in an effort to be trendy. Some of my favorite characters have issues. I’ll add Det. Bobby Goren to the ones mentioned above. A schizophrenic mother, a uninvolved stepfather, and a serial killer biological father certainly put the quirky star of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” high on the screwed-up life list. But I do think dysfunction has been overdone. It’s so prevalent, it’s become humdrum. Take a pill, already, see a therapist. Some authors (including authors of screenplays) don’t even try anymore. They grab a psychopathology textbook and saddle their protagonists with a laundry list of complexes and personal problems, occasionally throwing in a physical issue or two for variety, and call it a day. They assume that’s all that’s required to create a character worth sticking with for a couple hundred pages or a couple of hours in a theater or past the first commercial break. But “effed up” is not a synonym for interesting. I admit syrupy-sweet, “perfect” characters with charmed lives are annoyingly Pollyanna-ish. Average characters, however, are not. At least they don’t have to be. Don’t we all know at least one “basically normal” person who interests us? A dysfunctional background is not a prerequisite for drama and conflict. And well-adjusted doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Look at the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. James Stewart and Doris Day epitomize middle-class normality on vacation. Then they witness a murder. Then their daughter is kidnapped. Bad things. Not boring. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, an average, well-adjusted girl must confront the fact that seemingly normal, well-adjusted Uncle Charlie may not be. The ordinariness, bordering on banality, of the people and the town heighten the suspense and terror in the film. The devil comes to visit Norman Rockwell. In Suddenly, Frank Sinatra’s hitman holds an average family hostage in their ordinary home as part of his plot to assassinate the President. Nothing dull about that. The Slender Thread offers “regular-guy,” college student Sidney Poitier as a crisis hotline volunteer who must locate the suicidal woman who calls him before the pills she swallowed have their intended effect. Plenty of drama. Normal is not a synonym for snooze-fest.

Unbroken heroes can carry a story as well as broken ones. They can confront the same danger, conflict, and obstacles. What differs is how they handle those things. A protagonist from a happy, or at least functional, background is already out of her comfort zone when she’s unexpectedly faced with a crisis or put into dangerous circumstances. Instant drama. A character from a dysfunctional background is used to trauma, expects conflict, approaches the world from the assumption that rotten things are more likely to happen as not and life kind of sucks. They’ve developed survival skills to get them this far, survival skills they can call on to help them through the next trauma, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise in their hyper-vigilant existence. But a character who’s never experienced adversity, never had to learn to cope? Someone who, like the subject of the Mighty, Might Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get,” has “never been tested”? They have no survival skill set to fall back on, no ingrained coping mechanisms. The “untested” hero faces a steep learning curve in the “deal with it or die” game. How would someone who led a charmed life cope when that charm wears off? What does someone do when their basic assumptions–that life works out the way you want it to, that the world and people in it are basically good, that terrible things only happen to nonspecific “others”–prove wrong? When life which seemed so pleasant and harmless rears up without warning and smacks them upside the head? Then kicks them in the teeth? Do they crumple, unable to dip into their reserves and find a way to fight back? Do they rail against the injustice about to crush them, angry that they did all the right things and got sucker punched anyway? Lose faith because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved? Or do they rise to the challenge? Show their resilience? Draw on strengths they didn’t know they possessed–or borrow strength from others–and overcome the obstacles? How do they change, knowing the world isn’t really the warm, safe place they once believed it to be?

Which side of the dysfunction junction do you fall on? The more problems the better? Enough with the traumatic backstory already? Somewhere in the middle? No preference as long as it’s a well-drawn character involved in a gripping plot?


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Party at the Deer Path Inn

 Yesterday was book launch day or, as I prefer to call it, book birthday for Death in D Minor, the second book in the Gethsemane Brown series. Thank you to my fellow Missdemeanors for hosting a blog party. I was in meetings all day at my, to borrow a phrase, daytime situation so I appreciate their help making the day a success.
After work, I celebrated my new novel’s release at one of my favorite places, the Deer Path Inn. This historic inn opened in its current location in 1929. Architect William C. Jones of Holabird and Root fashioned it after a Tudor manor house in Chiddingstone, Kent, England so it looks as if it came straight out of an Agatha Christie mystery. When I arrived at the inn, after a hearty “Welcome back” from several staff members (yes, I visit a lot), I headed for the White Hart Pub. I started with a new (to me) cocktail called The Chancellor, a slightly sweet, completely delicious concoction of Balvenie 12yr scotch, 10yr tawny port, and campano vermouth. I followed up with the charcuterie (a French word that, a friend explains, translates to “big ole pile of cured meat”) tray and topped the evening off with coffee and chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream. Then I went home and slept until around 1 a.m. when lightning flashed so close it illuminated my bedroom and thunder boomed loudly enough to shake the house. I interpreted these as a celestial fireworks show celebrating my new book instead of harbingers of the power-outing, stoplight-frying, flood-inducing storm that’s created a Chicagoland traffic nightmare this morning.

What places do you frequent that transport you into your favorite mystery? 

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A Suitable Job for a Sleuth

  I spent part of the workday, yesterday, moving boxes and furniture because our office is being renovated. (Yes, with us in it.) I felt like a mover. Some time ago, while researching ideas for a potential novel, I stumbled across a New York Times article from the 1800s about professional mourners in Paris going on strike for better wages. Turns out professional mourners are called moirologists. They’re still around, although the term “moirologist ” isn’t commonly used anymore. There’s a UK-based company called Rent a Mourner,, that offers “discreet and professional” people to “attend funerals and wakes”. This got me thinking about jobs. Specifically, jobs for an amateur sleuth. How might a sleuth’s occupation lead to mayhem and mystery?
My question for my fellow Miss Demeanors: What’s the strangest and/or coolest job you can think of for an amateur sleuth? The job doesn’t have to exist currently. An amateur sleuth in the speculative fiction realm could be a professional vampire hunter or a space junk remover. A sleuth in a historical novel might have a job that used to exist but no longer does, like a gas lamplighter or a resurrectionist. (I hope resurrectionist is a now-obsolete job.) Here’s what my co-bloggers had to say.

I was recently talking to a historian who specializes in Tudor jewelry. I think that could lead to some mayhem. Also, Alexia, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Christine Trent, but her protagonist is a Victorian undertaker.

In Jamaica, folks hire professional mourners when someone dies without a lot of living relatives. People actually cry and gnash teeth. It’s just too embarrassing to leave this earth unmourned. My mom says that she’s been to funerals with them. You wouldn’t want to not do it and have grandpa wandering around waiting for people to cry for him.

I think an electrician would be a cool job for an amateur sleuth. He’d get to go into strangers’ houses –maybe deal with cases in which the electricity had been cut to disarm the alarm system. Or maybe it’s a better job for a villain. After I send my current book into my publisher, I intend to write a story about a guy solving a personal mystery who owns a home tech company. What did Jarvis do?

I’ve thought about a freelance mortician’s makeup artist as an amateur sleuth. Kind of outside my area of expertise but would make for an entertaining, if grisly, series. A slightly weirder and more fun idea I’ve got on the back burner is a car mechanic as the sleuth. Every car built after September 1, 2014 has the automotive version of an airplane “black box” originally intended to provide crash data that mechanics now use for diagnostics. These black boxes also give law enforcement all kinds of information on cars and their drivers.

I believe professional mourners ate common in Asian countries. Maybe their popularity in certain areas is related to ancestors/elders being revered in those places. I like the idea of hiring moirologists. A sparsely attended funeral just seems tragic.

Could an electrician or a mechanic tamper with the car’s black box to make it seem to have been someplace it wasn’t? Maybe the mortician’s makeup artist is the mechanic’s girlfriend. I could see them faking injuries and tampering with the black box to mislead an investigation. An episode of “Midsomer Murders” hinges on the ability of a makeup artist to apply fake bruises.

At Malice Domestic this year one author described her new series with a “Professional Organizer” as the sleuth. Made sense to me…. they nose around in people’s private (and forgotten) junk. Perfect for an amateur sleuth to fall into mysteries.

Every time I have a manicure or pedicure, I marvel at the creative names given nail polish and say I’d like that job. Not manicurist, but the position where you get to make up names like “Meet Me at the Altar” and “I’m Suzy and I’m a Chocoholic.” Imagine sitting somewhere all day dreaming up names like “Hands off My Kielbasa” (from the international collection) to “No Tan Lines” (from the Fiji collection). But could my Creative Polish Namer (CNP) become an amateur sleuth? Absolutely. The competition between Opi and Esse must be murderous. The pressure to come up with the sexiest names for the most alluring colors a motive to kill. Surely there would be leaks within the ranks. Beauty magazine editors selling secrets. The CPN at one company is found dead holding a bottle of “Blood Bath” (from the Lady Killer collection). Her competition is a person of interest. A new color, “Nailed,” is christened at the end when we find out who killed the CNP.
Oddly enough, this sounds like a cozy to me.

Did you see the article about the AI programmer who tried to teach her computer (recurrent neural network–I guess that’s a fancy computer) to come up with names for paint colors? It came up with names like Barfly, spring tumchid, jeurici rain, mud, bank butt, dorkwood, caring tan, and sink. Personal faves: copper panty and shivable peach.
Hey, maybe neural network programmer would be a good job for a sleuth. She could investigate the “murder” of her neural networked computer by a human nail polish color namer who was made redundant by her AI program.

Here’s a fun example of machine learning (aka neural network which isn’t exactly a computer but the explanation is long and boring):
It creates a new NSA code name and “project sheet” based on words used collections, dumps and leaks found online. They make for intriguing story prompts

Love that!
We have a cottage behind our house (it started off as the original kitchen for the house) and we had a tenant who was 21 and studying to be a mortician. Struck me as an odd choice if you weren’t born into the tradition …

Fun though…. maybe we can have a contest on missdemeanors to come up with a story about a theme (500 to 1000 words) … make a story about the mortician’s girlfriend. We will write our own and then ask readers to submit. Publish the best one on the blog in a nonbinding way….

How about it? Anyone want to take us up on the challenge? Write a short (500-1000 word) story about a mechanic, a mortician’s makeup artist, and a moirologist. It has to be a mystery, of course. Bonus points if you can work in Tudor jewelry, a professional organizer, and nail polish. The contest isn’t affiliated with Wix, Facebook, or anybody except us. The only prizes are bragging rights and a really cool Missdemeanors webcam cover to keep homicidal neural networks (or human hackers) from spying on you through your laptop’s camera. Also handy for covering peepholes in hotel doors. Participating doesn’t obligate us to you nor you to us in any way, shape, or form. Your story remains yours but we’ll post the winner on the blog. We’ll be the judges. We can’t guarantee you fame, fortune, or a book deal but we’re pretty certain you’ll have fun.
Not up to writing a story? Share your ideas for crazy, cool, or freaky amateur sleuth jobs instead.

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Be Careful What You Say; You Might End Up in My Novel

 I struggled to come up with an idea for a blog post today. I mean I had nothing. Nothing struck me as new or blogworthy. I didn’t feel I had anything to say about anything, at least nothing that hadn’t been said countless times already. No new spins, no new twists. Until I decided to get dinner and went out for a sandwich.
My town boasts a lovely cheese market. They sell more varieties of cheese than I imagined possible. Cheese made from milk produced by every animal except yak, I think. Cheese from more countries than you can find on Google Earth. Plain cheese and cheese with add-ins ranging from berries to nuts to nettles to bourbon. Pure cheese nirvana. The market also sells deli meats, salads, pastries, beverages, and heat-and-eat meals. And sandwiches. Which is why I was there. As I waited for my panino (which I just learned is the singular of panini) to come off the grill, a man approached the counter with a tub of grated parmesan cheese. The cashier rang up the cheese and asked the man if he wanted anything else. “No,” the man said. He swiped his card to pay for his cheese and left.
Grated parmesan. That’s all he bought. No pasta, no bread, no wine. Just a single tub of grated parmesan. Who goes to the store and buys only a tub of grated parmesan? What’s he going to do with it? I looked him over—unobtrusively, I hoped. Middle-aged. Handsome. A bit of gray flecked his dark hair and beard. His beard fell into the scruffy category—too heavy to be five o’clock shadow, too scant to be called full. Neat and trim enough to suggest he worked to keep it that way. He wore a nice suit and carried a stainless-steel travel coffee mug. The lid was on but he held it sideways, suggesting he’d finished the contents at some earlier point in his commute. It also suggested he’d just come from the train. If he’d driven, he’d have left the mug in his vehicle. In other words, he looked like an average businessman, no different from some zillion other average commuters. Nothing sinister about him.
But, because this is how my brain works, I immediately started to attribute sinister motive behind buying only a tub of grated parmesan cheese. I decided he was going to mix poison in it and swap it for an unadulterated tub. A regular brain would assume he was planning a spaghetti dinner and simply forgot the parmesan so stopped by the store on the way from work to get some. Or someone was fixing spaghetti for him and called or texted him to say they were out of cheese and please get some on the way home. A regular brain would assume these things. My brain is not regular. My brain writes murder mysteries. A friend once asked me if I spent all my time imagining ways my friends would die if they were characters in my novels. I told him my “friends” have nothing to worry about. But, yeah, I kind of do. Every place I visit is a potential crime scene in some future novel. Every person I see is a model for a fictional victim or suspect. Every overheard conversation becomes the basis for potential dialog or a plot. It’s been said that authors steal lives. Authors steal entire worlds. Everything, even the most mundane situation (and, really, what’s more mundane than buying a tub of cheese?) is fair game for future fiction. And, you know what? I’m not sorry. No apologies. As an introvert, I’ve lived in my head my entire life. I enjoy the stories swirling around in there. I’m not hurting anyone. I don’t shout at strangers, “Hey! Who are you going to poison with that cheese?” Making up stories satisfies my urge to create, fulfills my God complex. The world in my head operates the way I want it to. Good triumphs over evil, the bad guy never gets away with it, repentance and redemption are the rules, not the exceptions, chaos becomes order, wrongs are made right, justice prevails.
So, Mr. Cheese, if you happen to read this, don’t worry. I don’t really think you’re a mad poisoner. My assessment of your food choice may have been influenced by the advanced reader’s copy of fellow Missdemeanor, Cate Holahan’s, new domestic thriller, The Lies She Told. A good domestic thriller makes you suspicious of all things associated with domestic tranquility. You give every mundane action, every scene of commonplace life, the side eye, wondering what darkness lurks beneath the Norman Rockwell-esque veneer. But, please, enjoy your pasta or whatever you plan to sprinkle with parmesan. I’ll keep my thoughts about your purchase to myself. Unless I come across a breaking news headline about the Spaghetti Murders. 

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The (Not So) Great Debate

 Last night, while clicking through Facebook posts, I stumbled across a post that weighed in on the (non?) issue of literary versus genre fiction. I’ll summarize in case you missed updates from the battlefield. Teams have formed around both styles of writing. Each claims ardent devotees who scorn the other side with the sort of rabid disdain usually associated with British soccer hooligans. “Literary fiction” is dismissed by genre fans as snobbish tomes with herculean word counts, as devoid of plot as filled with florid description, favored with numerous obscure literary awards but absent actual readers. “Genre fiction” is written off, in turn, as fluff scribbled by MFA-less hacks, inexplicably popular with the masses and unfairly awarded with higher sales than its worthier cousin. A skirmish in the larger battle over which is the “best” fiction involves the foray of “literary” authors into “genre” fiction and what to make of (and where to shelve) the Frankenstein’s monster-ish cross-genre works such efforts produce.
The article I read focused on the invasion of science fiction by authors better known for literary works. I’m not sure which side of the literary-genre fence the article’s writer came down on or whether she loved or hated the cross pollination. The article vacillated between extolling the virtues of literary authors bringing the perceived superiority of their MFA-sanctioned writing to the pop fiction table and blasting the same authors for obliviousness to the nuances of the sci-fi genre and for being too stuck up to admit they were writing a genre work. I do, however, know where I stand. I have both feet planted in the camp of “who cares what you call it as long as you get something out of reading it?”. The literary and genre fiction labels are artificial constructs invented by people trying to figure out where to display books in stores. The only thing that really matters about books, the only thing that should matter, anyway, is whether the book offers you something that makes it worth the time and effort you invest in reading it. You, the reader, decide what “something” is. Escape, edification, confirmation, inspiration, whatever. You’re the only one who can decide if a book is “good” or worthy or worth it to you because you’re the one reading it. You’re the one investing your precious time and brain cells engaging with the words on the page or on the screen or in the audio file. Not your mother, not your neighbor, not your spouse or child, not your best friend, nor the people around the water cooler, nor some critic opining in a publication you never heard of. Your time, your mental and emotional energy, your decision. Call it literary, call it genre, call it Bob. As long as it tells a good story—again, “good” is your call. Plot, character, language, an abundance of ninja salamanders, whatever you want—and doesn’t leave you regretting hours of your life you’ll never get back, it’s legit.

What’s your opinion about the literary vs genre debate? Favor one over the other? Love both? Think “literary” and “genre” authors should each stay in their lane? Think labels are meaningless? 

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Black moments

Guest post by Sherry Harris Black Moments

Two weeks ago my daughter and I went to a movie right after I’d spent a weekend with writer friends talking about plotting. Instead of just watching the action, I sat there thinking: there’s the call to action, there’s the black moment, there’s the renewed call, there’s the climactic moment, and there’s the return to what will be the character’s new normal. I still enjoyed the movie, but jeez, I wish I hadn’t analyzed it at the same time.

In this particular movie the protagonist has his black moment in the woods, in the mud, during a rain storm. He wallowed for a bit, before he realized he had to go forward, to accept the call, to become the hero of his journey. It made me think about black moments in mystery writing.

There’s a difference between black moments and giving your protagonist trouble. Trouble is: your protagonist is being chased through the dark, she comes to a river, she finds a raft, she shoves off, a terrible storm comes up, she loses the pole she has for steering, she hears a speed boat pursing her and a waterfall ahead. That’s a lot of trouble.

Where does the black moment fit in to all of this? It could be at the crucial moment where she hears the speed boat behind and the rapids ahead. She lies on the raft thinking it’s all over. The storm hammers her. She will either die at the hands of her pursuers or by going over the waterfall. There is no future, the past no longer matters.

The black moment, therefore, is the darkest point before the proverbial dawn.

And the dawn will come—in a mystery at least (unless you’re talking noir). But your character doesn’t know it, not until the renewed call to action occurs.

Picture the protagonist lying there, thinking of the people who depend on her. She can’t give up so she dives into the water, fights the current, and swims to shore—her call to action renewed! Her pursuers think she’s gone over the falls, so she’s free (for the time being) to solve the mystery.

There are lots of opinions about where this black moment should occur in a manuscript. Some people think it should be at the midpoint of the book, some at the end of the second act, and some right before or during the climactic scene. Whoa! What’s a writer to do? People who are strict plotters will probably disagree with me, but I think it depends on your book. It might be slightly different depending on your story and what your protagonist is up against.

Black moments don’t need to stand out with a big neon flashing sign over your character saying: Attention, this is the black moment. Really, you don’t want your readers to stop and think, aha, the black moment. You want it to be part of your protagonist’s emotional journey. In my fourth book, A Good Day To Buy, Sarah’s black moment is when she realizes she’s about to be caught in a lie and will have to face betraying two people she loves. In the third book, All Murders Final, it’s when Sarah wants to walk away from her investigation and leave it to the professionals.

So far, there’s been no wallowing in mud for Sarah, her black moments have been more subtle. But, hey, who knows. Maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

Writers: Do you think about black moments as you write? Readers: Do you spot black moments in books?

Sherry Harris, a former director of marketing for a financial planning company, decided writing fiction couldn’t be that different than writing ads. She couldn’t have been more wrong. But eventually because of a series of fortunate events and a great many people helping her along the way, Kensington published Tagged For Death the first in the Agatha Award nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. Sherry is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters In Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters In Crime, where she serves as President.

Sherry honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. She uses her love of garage sales, her life as a military spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for the series. She blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.


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Brain overload

 I recently turned in the first draft of my third novel, A Killing in C Sharp. During the last two weeks of writing, I cut myself off from nearly all distractions in order to get the manuscript finished. Cut off, as in, no social media, no podcasts, no blogging, no streaming, no email, no pleasure reading, no dining out. I even skipped Sunday church services. I went to my day job then I came home and wrote. That’s it. I retreated deep inside my mental well and stayed there until I hit send on the email to my editors with my manuscript attached. When I returned from my self-imposed psychic exile to the land of the living all of the things I’d neglected hit me full in the face. Sensory overload. My head hurt, I felt lost, adrift. Everything demanded my attention at once and I didn’t know where to begin. Email, Facebook, Instagram, laundry, grocery shopping, yard maintenance? What to do? As if I needed more to cope with, story ideas bombarded me while I dealt with the practical aspects of catching up with my life. Normally, story ideas stream through my head constantly, like a background podcast. I give each one a little attention in turn–jot down a few notes, scribble a reminder–then move on to the next thing. But to get my manuscript finished I forced thoughts of all stories except the one I was writing out of my head. They’d nibble at the edge of consciousness but I’d shove them away. They paid me back by bumrushing me. They amped up their demands for notice and flooded my brain. I couldn’t choose which to pay attention to first. The story about the cop who investigates the murder of his ex’s new husband? The one about the guy framed for murdering his girlfriend’s twin sister? How about the princess who foils an assassination attempt on the uncle who cheated her out of her inheritance? Or one of the dozen others jammed in my brain? After several days of struggling to make sense of the stimuli flooding my brain, and getting nothing done as a result, I conceded that my brain needed a rest. Some time off. I turned to Facebook. Mistake. There aren’t enough heartwarming stories about furry animals or geeky articles about sci-fi cult favorites in the universe to counteract the toxicity of the current political climate. Two days of FB and I felt worse than I had on my most sleep-deprived writing day. I spent some time on Instagram as pictures of food and flowers are pretty low key but the food had a negative impact on my waistline and wallet. Finally, I turned to technology-free walks downtown–I live in a lovely town, I needed the exercise, and nothing beats a walk for clearing the head–setting cheerful flowers out in the garden, and re-bingeing on some mystery favorites via my streaming services. Rewatching shows let’s me focus on plotting, pacing, and character development instead of just being entertained.  How do you deal with sensory overload?

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5 Reasons Book Events Beat Concerts

Last night, I had the great please of attending my friend Rakesh Satyal’s NYC Book Launch for his latest novel No One Can Pronounce My Name. It was a fun, stimulating, and laugh-out-loud experience that topped many other forms of entertainment. Book readings, I find, often best my existing plans. Here are 5 reasons why: #1. Book Events Are Parties For The Brain Movies require sitting back and watching. Concerts? Standing and swaying. But book events invite the audience to engage with the author. Ask questions. Listen to the author’s motivations for writing a recent novel and weigh them against your own hopes for reading it. Wonder aloud whether the literary themes explored apply to your life and how. Book readings nearly always end in a Q&A. #2. Authors Are CharactersListen to Brad Parks sing about writing the “Big Book.” Hear Rakesh Satyal impersonate an Indian female character or perform a literary-inspired rendition of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. Watch Karin Slaughter’s witty interviews with fellow mystery masters. You’ll see what I mean. Authors, by and large, are entertaining people–perhaps because their art requires that they engage an audience for DAYS. #3. They’re The Perfect Place To Talk To Strangers Concerts don’t allow much conversation aside from shouting “awesome” and “WHAT?!!!” Literary events, on the other hand, often take place at quiet libraries or bookstores. Once the author’s talk ends, there are few places more conducive to chatting about favorite character traits. #4. The Guest of Honor Shakes Hands, Signs Books and, if you want, will kiss your babyNosebleed seats don’t exist at book events. You’ll see your author speak. After that, step right up and shake hands.  #5. They’re FreeJust show up at the bookstore and you’re in. Though, if you enjoy yourself and find the author’s work interesting, a hardcover sale is always appreciated.   

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B.O.A.T.S. (Based on a True Story)

 I heard information today at work that made me say to myself, “That would make a great movie.” (No details here–it’s an active project.) It got me thinking about other true stories that would make gripping fiction. The art world provides a plethora of material suitable for a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. Art isn’t nearly as sedate as those 6th grade field trips to dim, musty museums led you to believe. A search of Artsy turned up an article about an agoraphobic photographer who uses Google Street View to take screenshots of the people and landscapes she encounters in her virtual world travels. What if she grabbed a screenshot of a crime committed thousands of miles away? What would this homebound woman do? A deeper dip into Artsy’s archives turns up several articles on the hunt for, recovery of, and restoration of Nazi-looted art. What’s been described as the world’s greatest art theft has already inspired novels, movies, and TV shows: Portrait of a Woman in White, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Woman in Gold, and episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Father Brown, and Agatha Christie’s Marple, to name a few. Newspapers and magazines often feature stranger-than-fiction stories. The Telegraph and Business Insider report on professional mourners hired to grieve at funerals. (Rent A Mourner is a legit UK-based business offering “discreet and professional mourners”.) Turns out, this isn’t a new thing. Mourners for hire date back to ancient Greece and are traditional in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They’re called moirologists and in 1910, in Paris, threatened to go on strike, complaining of not being paid living wages. Imagine an experienced moirologist noticing something odd about the deceased she’s been hired to mourn. An unusual Mark on the body? A bruise not hidden by the undertaker’s makeup? A face she recognized? I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Internet and good, old-fashioned eavesdropping as sources for strange-but-true material. Last week I listened, fascinated, as the man at the table next to me recounted how his brother witnessed a massacre during a coup and developed PTSD so severe he suffered violent outbursts that eventually led to a life-or-death fight with the storyteller. Literally life-or-death. Think broken bones, manual strangulation, and bystander intervention. Drama fit for a Man Booker prize. Google “can’t make this stuff up” and get 18 million hits: links to newspaper articles, listicles, blogs, and Facebook pages. Here’s a recent one from FB: a woman breaks into a celebrity’s house (Drake, if you must know) and steals Pepsi, Sprite, Fiji water, and a hoodie. What if an obsessed fan broke into a celebrity’s house and found Nazi-looted art or witnessed his idol committing a crime? What life-imitates-art stories would you like to see fictionalized?

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