Dangerous Donuts, etc.

When you’re a writer, nothing goes to waste. No insult, no embarrassment, no foolishness. If I lived it, I can write about it. This has certainly been the case with my Maggie Dove mysteries, in which I’ve drawn on my experiences as a Sunday School teacher to help Maggie solve murders. But I’ve had other career experiences that have also been useful.    1. I helped compile the Fortune 500. Yes, that one. It was my job as a young reporter at Fortune magazine to read through about 1,000 annual reports (I’m not exaggerating; it might have been more). My job was to figure out which U.S. companies had the highest revenues, and in which sectors of the economy. It took months. Never in my life did I make my grandfather so happy as when that list came out and my name was on it. There are no Fortune reporters appearing in Maggie Dove, yet. However there is an economist! 2. I worked as a docent at Sunnyside, which is where Washington Irving lived. You have to know what I look like to appreciate the humor in this. Sufficient to say that on a very good day, if the wind isn’t blowing hard, I’m about 5 feet. Dressed in 19th century clothes, with an apron, and a bonnet, I looked a bit like a dumpling. And yes, there is a docent in Maggie Dove, but she’s gorgeous. I figured, why not? 3. One of my first jobs was as an obituary writer, which is probably perfect training for a mystery writer. It wasn’t a job I excelled at because I didn’t like prying into people’s lives at a difficult time. And how do you feel now that your husband’s dead body has been laid out? But I suppose it did give me various ideas, and my mother was very proud. For years we had a framed picture of a fatal accident in our kitchen, with my byline underneath. 4. My most horrifying job was at a donut store. I had to get there at 4 a.m., and it was my job to pluck the glazed donuts out of the boiling oil with my finger. I’m sure in the decades since I worked there, some governmental agency has stepped in, but I was just a teenager and my boss said, put your finger in the boiling and I said, Sure. I don’t know what I learned from that except that it’s good to question authority. How about you? Any horrifying job experiences? 

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Writing, Blogging, Editing and Reading–All At Once

The first book was difficult because I didn’t have a publisher. I spent hours each day writing it without knowing whether anyone besides my mother and husband would ever read my work. Without a deadline, I had to apply pressure on myself to get it finished, making up deadlines as I went along and justifying to myself why I had to stay up late or wake up early in order to make them. After it was done, I had to hold my breath and pray that my agent would be able to sell it. The anxiety was horrible. The second book was difficult because I did have a publisher. I had to write it while also tearing up chapters in my first book that my editor found boring or distracting. I had to rejigger secondary plot lines and beef up character arcs in between penning chapters for the second book. Essentially, I wrote two books at the same time. When book one was with my editor, I went back to book number two. When my editor gave book one back to me, I put down book number two to rework another chapter or review another copy edit.  While doing this, I also had to read the books in my genre and do what I normally do each day as a stay at home mom of two children who, at the time, were both under five-years-old. I’m not alone in this. Most writers I know are juggling day jobs or full-time family responsibilities with writing multiple books at a time and publicizing previously published books.  Now, I’m on my third and fourth books. My third is in with my publisher and I am two-thirds of the way done with the first draft of my fourth. I am also in the midst of publicity for the second book which includes blogging and radio interviews and writing guest posts for other people’s publications.  I know that the edit for the third will come back soon and I’ll have to start the two book trade-off. I also have a list of must-read books (many by fellow authors on this blog) that I intend to finish before the year is out.  Writing is 10% inspiration, 60% perspiration and 30% time management.     

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Getting In Touch With My Villains

 The other day, I lost it on my daughter. She had taken out a school library book for the third time and, for the third time, she’d completely and utterly forgotten where she could have possibly put it. The first time my six-year-old lost a library book, I was a good mom. I explained to her the importance of taking responsibility for her things, particularly things on loan. I reminded her of the designated spot in her room where the library books lived when she wasn’t reading them (this spot is not on her bookcase mixed in with the hundred books or so that she and her sister own). I found the book, buried in a toy box, and told her that I would pay the fine but that she had to help me Swiffer the kitchen floor to earn back some of the $5 fee. The second time, I was calm—albeit a little less so. Again, I pointed out the spot where she should keep the book when she was done reading it. This time, rather than dole out a chore, I took away a toy that was the amount of the fee and, since I couldn’t find the book, bought back the book that she’d lost at a store and had her bring it in. The third time, I yelled and nagged. I slammed my hand down on the desk in her room where she was supposed to keep her library books and asked her why in the heck she couldn’t remember to put them there. I told her that money didn’t grow on trees (horrible both because it’s a cliché and because it means I’m turning into my own parents) and that we had paid thirty dollars in fines in the past three months, also known as the cost of takeout dinner for our family of four. I threatened to have her write a note to her teacher explaining that she was not allowed anymore library books because nothing her mommy did could help her remember to be responsible. On and on I went, until she cried. It was not a good day for either of us. Afterward, I felt very guilty. She’s six. She forgets things. It’s developmental. It’s also an accident. She’s not trying to get me to buy the book by hiding it. To be completely honest, if she left the book in the kitchen while I was cleaning, I might have tucked it away somewhere and forgotten about it. I also had learned something I can apply to my villains. Sometimes a villain doesn’t start out bad. They try to do the right thing and it doesn’t work. Then, they try again and it doesn’t work. Ultimately because of a lack of patience, inability to deal with frustration or some other moral flaw, they lose it and opt to do something negative in order to achieve a desired result.  Yelling at my kid is bad. By the end of my tirade, I’m sure that she no more remembered where to put the book than she had the first time I’d shown her the special spot on her desk. All she was thinking about was that mommy had made her feel horrible. But, I was frustrated and annoyed that doing the patient parent thing wasn’t helping and I got angry. I became the villain. Clearly, I still feel guilty about my behavior because I’m blogging about it. But at least I can bring the insight to bear on my writing.

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Thriller Writers And The Artist's Burden

 As America struggles to reconcile herself with the results of the recent election and a divided populace, I’ve been thinking about what role artists and, specifically, genre writers have to play in the process. We in the mystery community are more apt to call ourselves craftsmen than artists. Unlike poets and literature authors who proudly wield their MFA degrees and discuss the power of words to change the world, mystery and suspense novelists are a more quiet bunch. In the privacy of our own homes, we plot out winding roads to our conclusions. We don’t claim to be moralists, though our murder detectives, CIA-agents, journalists, amateur sleuths and other protagonists are often endowed with heroic human qualities. We don’t claim to be ethicists, yet our books—arguably more than those of any other genre—are charged with having good win our over evil in the end. Regardless of what we claim, however, I believe all thriller writers must accept that part of our job is to hold up a mirror to some of the worst aspects of the human heart and our societies. At our best, we should also prescribe solutions to these failings through our narrative resolutions. I tried to live up to this responsibility in my first two books. In Dark Turns, I wanted to say something about how success in young people is measured in America and how these yard sticks can encourage education to emphasize academic achievement over the development of required human virtues. The primary antagonist in Dark Turns, Aubrey, is a beautiful young woman who is a gifted dancer and excels academically, but has little empathy for others. Without involved parents, Aubrey relies on her teachers to provide her moral guidance. They fail her. Her scholarly achievements and the resulting accolades they bestow on her school encourages the administration to overlook her apparent haughtiness and cruel behaviors to others. In the end, I make sure that the school is punished for its role in churning out high achieving people who are encouraged to be more competitive than kind. In The Widower’s Wife, I created characters who, because of their financial success, lose sight of what is important to their family–indeed, to all families. And they pay for it. A lot. I was inspired, in part, by the 2008 financial crisis which showed how greed on both large and small scales tanked the American economy and frayed the fabric of our communities.  In my next book, I tackle the importance of being true to oneself and how societal structures that encourage conformity to certain ideals can end up corrupting people. In writing that suspense authors should reflect society and prescribe solutions to its ills, I don’t mean that we must be blunt instruments. We should tell good stories. We should have unexpected twists. We should be, above all, entertaining. But we can do all these things and still shoulder the artist’s calling: laying bare the dark side of humanity and showing, by the example of our characters, how we must all appeal to our better angels.    

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YOUR Day on St. John: Come Away With Me

Dear Readers, You have had a rough couple of weeks. The election, the loss of DST, the dreariness of November. Please allow me to transport you for a day to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands where I set my books, No Virgin Island and Permanent Sunset. I wrote this originally for someone who was too ill to travel but was able to visualize a day in paradise. You awaken in a bed not your own but as comfortable. You stretch, feeling tropical breezes brushing your body. There are no aches, no pains, just anticipation of another day in paradise. The smell of coffee brewing lures you from your bedroom into the kitchen where you grab a mug and pick a croissant or scone and some strawberry jam and head out to the back deck.     The sun is rising over Ram Head spilling light onto the lush mountains and vast ocean. The colors grow so brilliant your eyes wonder can those verdant greens and cool azure blues be real.     You realize you have decisions to make. What will you have for dinner that evening? Lime tarragon swordfish on the grill? Chicken piccata with capers and lemon? Or maybe shrimp scampi? And you need to choose which beach you will go to today. Will you settle in at Francis Bay, where there is sun and shade to pick from and simple but sweet snorkeling? Perhaps a day at Trunk where the sand is so perfectly fine you don’t care how many tourists are sharing it with you. Or will you go to Gibney down that long driveway onto a beach under a glorious canopy of palm trees so quiet, you are sure it must be private?Next, you must decide what book you will bring? Should you crawl into a good Louise Perry or has Lee Child written a new one just for you?     You realize you cannot possibly make these decisions without first taking a dip in the pool. You slid out of your sarong and pause at the edge of the pool, feeling the warmth of the tropical sun slide down the back of your body, filling your spine with a growing glow that spreads throughout every cell. You look up at the cloudless cornflower blue sky and dunk into the warm water, moving slowly with ease.     Now you are ready to make those decisions and go. Soon you are at the beach of your choice, with your book open on your lap as you sit in the world’s most comfortable beach chair, occasionally running the sugar-fine white sand through your toes. You dip into the silky turquoise water at your will, floating in the warmth of water so clean you can see your toes and the little fish that want to swim with you.     By the end of the day, you’re ready to toast the setting sun on the back deck overlooking St. Thomas with its lights twinkling like a Christmas tree and Puerto Rico in the distance. Your raspberry Stoli lemonade slides down your throat while you munch on stuffed mushrooms and ciabetta dipped in aoli.     Dinner over candlelight is divine. Good company, the glow of a little sunburn with a touch of red wine makes the food even better.     You watch a little silly local television while you nibble at a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Bourbon Browned Butter ice cream and yawn. You grab that book you are so into and return to your fluffy bed with pillows just like the ones at home. You crawl in, listening to the tree frogs lullaby you. You need to get some sleep.     You get to do this all over again tomorrow.   

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TOOLS OF THE TRADE

 I have a confession to make. I love school/office supplies. While other women flock to Sephora enraptured by the latest eyeliner from Bobbi Brown, I am pacing up and down the aisles of Staples checking out the latest notebooks and highlighters. I ponder whether my post-its should be lined or not in the same fashion other people decide what kind of car to buy.            What’s with that, you might ask. Indeed, I have asked that same question many times. I connect it to my love of writing. These are the tools of the trade. And for me, the ultimate tool is the fountain pen.            When I attended a Catholic grammar school, the nuns would not let us write with anything but a fountain pen. Ballpoint pens were considered suspect and vulgar.  Blue ink was a must, although secretly I would purchase a bottle of peacock blue ink, which was the color of the Caribbean. I would use it covertly to write notes to my classmates, hoping traces of it would not be visible when I switched to traditional blue.         We practiced the Palmer method daily until the muscles in our forearms pleaded for mercy. Often my clothes became stained with ink because it was more common then to fill your fountain pen from a bottle of ink. Modern day cartridges were regarded with disdain.        Over the years, I moved on to other kinds of pens. In law school, I became partial to the Papermate “Jotter” ballpoint pen. It wrote smoothly and fit nicely into my hand. I protected it zealously, carrying a cheap Bic pen in case anyone wanted to borrow a pen. No one was going to get his or her hands on my Jotter.       Sometimes I missed my fountain pen, but I thought using one would only complicate my busy life as a lawyer. When I discovered the Uniball Gel Impact  Roller with its bold 1mm line, I was in heaven. This baby writes as smooth as jelly sliding over peanut butter. Clients would admire the Uniball while signing documents. I gave a fair number away.       But I still missed the fountain pens from youth. There is something elegant about writing with a fountain pen. It says “I want my words to be worthy of this noble instrument.” A few years ago while attending a writing seminar in Boston, I strolled into a Levenger store (sadly no longer there) during the lunch break. There it was. A fountain pen with my name on it. I bought it, returning to the workshop, poised to write notes with my long lost friend.        The feel of this pen in my hand, the sensation of the ink flowing across the page, is soothing to me. It makes writing as much as a physical act as a cerebral one. While not practical for drafting lengthy manuscripts,  at least not for me, note taking and journaling with my trusty fountain pen bring me great pleasure, I’m almost embarrassed to admit. But for me, it’s about revering an object that connects what’s in my head to the page.Do you connect your passion for something to an object or supplies that make it happen? Is anyone else out there finding more bliss in Staples than Sephora?

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NANOWRIMO DEFEATS THE DEADLY DUO

Fear. I could probably write a thousand blogs about it. I have written a few. This is the newest installment. Call this one, ”The Terror of Trying Something New.”            Perfect.  The need to do something perfectly feeds and fuels fear. Fear and Perfection: The Deadly Duo for a writer.            I have written six entire novels, two of which have been published, I’m grateful to share. I think I have found my voice, but I’m not sure if that hasn’t made me think I am limited in some way in what I write.            First, I am a mystery writer, born from a lifetime of reading and loving mysteries. I enjoy many kinds of mysteries, including traditional, police procedural, domestic suspense, and cozies. I love it when a mystery takes me to a new location or returns me to a beloved one.  Transplant me back into time and I’m  there with the protagonist into challenges of the era.  But I wondered, could I possibly write in one of the unchartered venues or subgenres?  Would the Deadly Duo prevent me from even trying?            Enter NANOWRIMO, the annual November challenge to writers to write a 50,000- word novel during the month of November. I’d tried once before,  but given up when I realized 50,000 words in 30 days does not allow you to be perfect.  For reasons shared only with my therapist and well beyond the limitations of this blog, I need to be perfect.            But the gentle side of living past the age of 60 has shown me I can try anything if I give up on the notion I  must be perfect, so even though November was scheduled to be the month from hell for me, I said, why not?            Since I was already giving myself the option of being humanly imperfect,  the relief I felt was liberating. Hell, if it doesn’t have to be perfect, I could try anything.  I chose a protagonist who was far younger than I am comfortable writing. Her past suggested her story would fit the suspense, if not thriller, subgenre.  The location was urban, not island or small town.  It was exhilarating to dabble in previously unchartered choices that risked imperfection. The more daring I became, the more excited I got, and the less frightened of failure.  After all, it’s only NANOWRIMO, right?            When I realized early on that having cataract surgery on both eyes in the same month might impact my word count, I was tempted to say, I’ll never get the 50,00 word count and wished I could count the number of characters or letters I had written. I was ready to quit.  But my protagonist,  Olivia, screamed at me and said, “What? You’re going to leave us on the page in this mess?”            I started writing plot points and ideas on brightly colored post-its and stuck them on a board so I wouldn’t lose the thoughts that were coming to me so rapidly I was afraid they would be gone if I couldn’t write them on the page. I’d never done this before, although many of my talented writing colleagues use this technique.  Soon the board was nearly filled with fluorescent stickies where I had spilled my brain. I was on fire. And if a particular idea didn’t work, wasn’t perfect enough for my unrealistic self-established standard, I could take it down, crush it in my hand and toss it into the wastebasket.  A revolutionary act for a perfectionist. I had declared war on the Deadly Duo.            Will I finish in time to meet the 50,000-word count by the deadline.? I honestly don’t know. I’m trying, but hey, I’m not perfect. Will I finish this book.  Hell, yes.  I’m on fire and the Deadly Duo won’t  stand in my way, thanks to NANOWRIMO. And guess what. I’m having fun not being perfect.            Does the Deadly Duo affect your writing or reaching other goals?  What is NANOWRIMO teaching you?  

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FINALLY FINDING MY PEOPLE

I thought the search would never end, but in some ways I didn’t even know what I was seeking. I was the poster child in a world where you are told you can be anything you want to be. But how do you know what you want to be, and more importantly, who you want to be?            At the end of my attendance at a traditional Catholic high school, there stood three lines for women. You got into the line for nurses if you were scientifically inclined. If you weren’t, you got into the line next to it, which was for teachers. If you couldn’t make up your mind or weren’t motivated, you were relegated to the third line for secretaries.  It was 1967.            BOOM! The world exploded almost immediately after that. Vietnam. Civil Rights. Peace, Love, and Happiness. And so much more. I had been given a second chance to make choices.            And did I ever make choices. Having gotten in the nurse line first, I quickly realized I wasn’t well equipped for a profession for which I have the most profound respect. I just didn’t belong. I had always wanted to be an advocate, a lawyer. So off to law school I trotted, while I worked as a welfare director in a city during the Regan administration. Talk about not belonging.            The lawyer-gig fit better. I practiced family law, where the human skills I learned as a nurse could be combined with deductive reasoning and advocacy. But I didn’t really identify with my fellow lawyers. I certainly didn’t want to play golf with them and steered clear of bar association memberships.            I discovered I enjoyed mediating conflict better than duking it out in court where families are psychologically dismembered by words spoken by lawyers and then swiftly forgotten. In mediation, I found comfort and support in other professionals who agreed there was a better way to disagree. But many mediators come to the field driven by many diverse motivations. I had yet to feel I had found my community.            While a brief stint as a yoga teacher brought me joy, I still didn’t feel as if I had found “my peeps.”            All the while, my inner writer had been gestating. The lawyer gig had revealed how much I love to tell people’s stories. After all, that’s what I did for my clients. I told judges their stories as persuasively as I could, trying to distinguish them from the myriads of other tragedies poured like lagers of misery.            At first I was afraid to admit I was a writer. But then I joined a writing group where I found others afflicted with the same addiction to words and storytelling. Buoyed by connecting with other writers and sharing  the alternating elation and despondence only writers can appreciate punctuate the love of writing, I began joining writer’s organizations and attending writer’s conferences.             How can I describe the relief and jubilation I felt at finally finding my people? Although the initial encounters with other writers are often awkward and stilted because everyone knows writers are short on social graces, what follows usually are conversations,  laughter, and laments on a level resonating with the “who” I finally have found me to be.  I had discovered where I belonged, who my tribe was, and the pleasure of being with my peeps.             

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THE EYES HAVE IT

 You know that old expression, “The ayes have it,” don’t you? Actually, it could be a pretty controversial expression this week, given the debate about the popular vote versus the vote of the Electoral College. But I’m talking about the eyes, as in you cannot be grateful enough for good vision, particularly if you are a writer.            Recently I’d noticed that I wasn’t seeing so well, even with my pricey Ralph Lauren faux tortoise-shell frames with navy blue sides. I’d pass exits on the highway and began confusing words. I’d see “promise” as “premise.”            A trip to the eye doctor confirmed that my vision had declined and yes, I was a perfect candidate for cataract surgery. Me and five million other baby boomers. Knowing how pricey new glasses are and that they would likely be good for only a year, I signed the consent form and last week I had the left eye done. The second eye will be done two weeks later.            The procedure is only momentarily painful, worse than the humility I felt at becoming Miss Daisy, driven by my husband everywhere for a day or two. I can’t say I enjoyed the feeling of being herded through a procession of appointments with my fellow AARP members, but I kept reminding myself not to be a curmudgeon and that the goal was to see better.            I warned the students in a law class I teach that I would be a movie star last week, wearing over-sized sunglasses after the surgery to class  under the glare of the fluorescent lights. They chuckled politely, but when one student sweetly suggested the class could send their emails in larger fonts, I experienced a combination of appreciation with suppressed indignation.            The after-effects of the surgery on the first eye have been minimal. I told my husband that I thought highway driving at night might actually be more enjoyable for everyone if they could see the same illuminated angel wings I witnessed in the place of headlights. Someone shared the experience of thinking she was perfectly back to normal in one day until she poured wine between the two glasses she had placed on the counter. A little embarrassing, inconvenient, but no big deal.            The real deal about having cataract surgery is this: You get your eyes back. It is amazing what I am seeing even less than one week later out of that lucky left eye that got to go first. The right eye is jealous, struggling to keep up with the print I can see on labels, the definition of objects, and especially in the words I read and write. I had no idea how much I was struggling.            I also didn’t have enough appreciation for the gift of sight. So here’s a toast to the two little orbs sitting above our nose. Eye, eye!            Have any of you learned to love your eyes the hard way? P.S. Please excuse any typos in the blog this week, but after that, cut me no slack.           

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