Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Looking to Grow Up?


Please welcome my Wednesday gust, Michele Drier. Michele was born in Santa Cruz and is a fifth generation Californian. She’s lived and worked all over the state, calling both southern and northern California home.  During her career in journalism—as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers—she won awards for producing investigative series.

SNAP: All That Jazz, Book Eight of The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, was published June 30, 2014.  The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles paranormal romance series include SNAP: The World Unfolds, SNAP: New Talent, Plague: A Love Story, DANUBE: A Tale of Murder, SNAP: Love for Blood, SNAP: Happily Ever After? SNAP: White Night and SNAP: All That Jazz.  SNAP: I, Vampire, Book Ten in the Kandesky Vampire Chronicles is scheduled for publication early 2015.

She also writes the Amy Hobbes Newspaper mysteries, Edited for Death and Labeled for Death. A third book, Delta for Death, is coming in 2014.

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I want to be an archeologist when I grow up.

That would be so cool...except I’m old enough that my knees wouldn’t hold up on a dig and I’m sure I’d lose my reading glasses at least once.

But I refuse to give up my love of research, of digging through information until I find those facts that answer questions, like “why?”

Mysteries, whether murder or otherwise, are the ultimate quest for “why,” as well as “who,” “when,” and “how,” and in my years as a journalist, I asked those plenty of times.

Now, writing mysteries, I still ask them, but my plots hang on them AND I have to know the answer before I write.

In my mysteries, my protagonist, Amy Hobbes, the managing editor of a daily newspaper works with her cops reporter, Clarice Stamms, to peel the onion back and find the kernel of “why.”

Having been close to crime and murders for much of my career, I discovered that an awful lot of murders are similar...and that there are usually only two motives: sex and money.  Unfortunately most murders today have some connection to drug and/or human trafficking. There are millions—maybe billions—of dollars at stake and the murder rate escalates as the value if the commodity rises.

Every so often, though, a murder stands out. Like the Yosemite Murders that happened while I was an editor at the nearest mid-sized daily in Modesto. I’m still haunted by the “why” although Cary Stayner had plenty of devils that led him to be a mass murderer.

To answer the “why,” mysteries are set against a larger issue. In Edited for Death, the issue was the theft of looted Nazi art works by a young GI. In Labeled for Death, it was the lure of substituting high-priced grapes with cheap varieties in some of California’s fine wines.

And Delta for Death is set against California’s water woes...an exceptional drought and a proposal to build tunnels under the Delta and ship northern California’s abundant water to central and southern California. There’s an old saying in California, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for war.”

Even though I thought I knew some of the water history of the Delta, research—time in the California collection at a couple of libraries, online archives of the local newspapers,and lunch with one of the deputy directors of the California Department of Water Resources—gave me both more information and more research paths to follow.

I’m pretty sure that my days as a beginning archeologist are long gone. At least, though, I can do this research and digging without leaving town.

That’s bittersweet. I’m never going to discover a lost city like Troy in California’s Central Valley, but when I lose my glasses, I know they’re somewhere in the house.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Blogcation

You know how people are taking staycations these days? Vacationing by staying home--either doing those undone chores or exploring their own home cities? Well, I'm taking a blogcation for a week or more. I'm thinking of it as time to regroup. Sometimes I feel my blogs have deteriorated into daily trivia or else I get too passionate about politics and humanitarian issues. I blog because it's fun for me, like keeping a journal only sharing it with others. I'm in a group that focuses on memoir, and when I think about doing a memoir I remember the blog. What I need to do is find time to cull out my favorites and compile them. But I won't get that done this week! Another reason for my blogcation is to catch up on some projects I've been putting off. I never knew retirement could be so busy!
But primarily I want to rethink the direction of my blog. I want to tell you more about my writing--triumphs, failures, lessons learned, etc. all of which is exciting to me and I hope to a few of you. And I hope to rethink some things that are important to me--family, friends, social justice, the direction of our country.
The good news is that I will have my regular Wednesday guest--this week Michele Drier is writing about growing up. Maybe that's what I need to do with my staycation.
Don't leave--I'll be back in a week or so. Meantime thanks for following me.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why do I write mysteries

This is a question that bugs me off and on--why do I write mysteries? At 76, I've lived a full life, learned a lot, and look back on my 30s and 40s and wonder how naïve I was in those days. I can almost measure the wisdom (well, I think that's what it is) that I've gathered and learned over the last thirty years, and I truly feel I'm a better, more caring, more thoughtful--yeah, even wiser--person than I was. So why don't I write memoir or philosophical treatises to impart that wisdom to my fellow sisters who are following in my footsteps. I truly believe the tenet that is one of the justifications of an academic press: to contribute to the existing body of knowledge. Surely, in my own way, I could do that. Instead, I write mysteries.
I've often pondered the question of what mysteries contribute to the general body of existing knowledge--or whether or not they need to make that contribution. Maybe they are written for diversion, entertainment, an escape for the reader from the daily grind. Is that a good enough reason or should they still be contributing to that amorphous existing body of knowledge?
I find that my main characters are usually in their thirties, an age when I was particularly blind to the world and wrapped up in my own marriage and young children. So do I impart wisdom to my characters that I didn't have at that time? I hope so, but I can't be sure. Sometimes, almost against my wishes, they do the most foolish things. It's an old saw among authors--your characters tell the story, you don't. And sometimes mine, like those of a lot of other authors, get out of hand.
So how am I helping the world? I don't know, besides perhaps providing a bit of distraction and enjoyment. And maybe that's all they're meant to do. Maybe I don't have to worry so much about making the world a better place with every mystery I write. Did Nancy Drew improve the world or did she just enjoy grand adventures? Maybe helping readers--I'm sure most of mine are women--escape their daily lives for a few minutes is my contribution.
I have a lot of things on my mind and on my plate this week, so I treasure those few minutes late at night when I read the novel I'm on now. So perhaps that's what I do for others. And maybe it isn't all bad.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Anxiety, Depression, and Robin Williams

I think everyone in the country has had their say about Robin Williams today--the high quality of hilarity he brought into our lives, the tragedy of his death, dealing with depression. It's been dissected from all angles, and I swore I wasn't going to add to the babble. Yet I can't help myself. I want to speak out.
Of all the Facebook posts I've seen today, most seem to miss the point that dancing fast is a way to hide from depression. For all his clever craziness, comedy was probably always a mask that Williams used to hide himself from his desperation. I think many of the silliest, funniest people we know in our daily lives are doing the exact same thing. What so many Americans can't seem to grasp is how common anxiety and depression are. I know first-hand.
I awoke about five this morning feeling anxious and made myself lie there and analyze what was causing this mild anxiety. I could quickly pin it down: I had a dental appointment this morning, which I always dread. Memories of my childhood come roaring back--I had bad teeth and lots of cavities in the days before high-speed drills and painless dentistry. Our dentist was a taciturn man but also one of my uncles--not blood but close enough to the family that he was called "Uncle Walt." As an adult, I learned to appreciate and value him; as a kid, I was terrified. I survived today's appointment with good grace I think.
The other was my new computer which is causing me grief because I can't get around it the way I could the old one. I'm slower, can't find some sites, don't know how to keep several sites open at one time, though I think that should be easy.
It was, as I said, mild anxiety. But there was a period in my life when I was housebound with anxiety, afraid to drive anywhere, afraid to be alone. I've worked hard to get where I am--still don't drive on the highway, don't like self-service elevators if I'm alone, can't do escalators, lots of lingering fears but few of them crippling. The biggest one is a fear of going new places alone in case I meet an elevator or set of steps without railings that I can't handle. Yes, my legendary lack of balance is purely anxiety driven. And I can't explain the truly helpless feeling when a panic attack takes over. To people who say, "Buck up and get over it," I want to say, "Walk a mile in my moccasins."
Yet I drive around town, live alone and like it, do all kinds of things I once thought I couldn't. I didn't--and don't--want anxiety to define my life. And I don't think it does. I'm fortunate to live a full, busy, and happy life. At the ripe old age of 76, I'm building a new career. It's fun.
Why couldn't Williams also overcome his depression? From what I've read, he worked hard at it all his life. I've never been that depressed, but I can imagine what he felt like just from the few black moments I've experienced. To feel that way constantly would be unbearable. A man must be desperate to leave behind wife, children, career. I understand.
A word about addiction: apparently Williams was sober for twenty years and then started drinking again. It's another common way people hide their depression, though it often just adds to the problem. I drink too much wine, I know it. But I control it because I more desperately don't want to feel bad in the morning. I knew one out-and-out alcoholic--he worked for me and nearly drove me crazy. But in retrospect I recognize PTSD, and I grieve for him too, as I grieve for Williams and the pain he endured, for his family, for all of us. And I've still got a tiny bit of anxiety because there's something I haven't done but should do--it just won't come to the front of my consciousness.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A computer day

My new computer absorbed my day. Pretty much I got along okay with it--better than I expected. But there were problems: email is not bringing up my address list, though the university tech resources people did call, take control of my computer, and install Outlook for which I am everlastingly grateful. Still can't figure out how to save a file in Dropbox--which will be a big problem in a week when I start to do the neighborhood newsletter.
I have joined the computer wars--is Windows 8 as bad as they say? Not really, and I'm trying to get used to it. Jamie installed Windows 7 too, so that's a help. But I figure I should get used to 8. I'm sure there are shortcuts I haven't discovered, but my big accomplishment for the day was to write a guest blog post for a fellow author. But it seems every time I do something I have to close out that program and go back and start over, whereas with Windows 7 I could keep several things open. The touch screen is great--but I don't use it much because I work on a monitor. The screen saver on the monitor is a picture of six of my seven grandchildren--so large that it's fuzzy--and I feel them staring at me. Oops, just discovered a new problem--I can't upload a picture. The upload button takes me to Outlooks which is not where my pictures are stored. I can get to some pictures--arranged in I don't know what order--but not to the pictures files in my computer, where pictures are sorted and arranged in labeled files. You'll have to take my word for it--it's disconcerting to see six faces staring at me, some smiling, some looking concerned, as I sit at my desk. But, hey, this is day one. I figure I'll work all those bugs out--sooner rather than later, I hope.
The new phones are great. They call out who's calling. At lunch, when I had guests, the phone boomed, "Burton. Christian." I wondered why my son-in-law was calling but it turned out to be my daughter. She came over and was delighted with the huge monitor because she could look at pictures of Jacob from the camp.
Just now I hit something and I have this post on half the screen and half the picture on the other part. Not sure what to do without losing what I've written. But I figure a learning process is inevitable. Meantime I may ask for help on the Sisters in Crime Guppies list.
I'm ready to give it up for the day and read A Little Night Murder, the newest Blackbird Sisters Mystery from Nancy Martin.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The excitement and fright of a new computer

After two hours in Best Buy with my second son and oldest granddaughter, I am the proud owner of a new computer, a  new remote monitor, keyboard and mouse, a subscription to Microsoft Office, and a new landline telephone. Best Buy is their favorite store and they are like two happy children cavorting around in there. Jamie looks at this one, then that one, then decides on one, then changes his mind. Wants me to judge which weight is better, which keyboard. I finally sorted out my priorities--keyboard matters when I travel and don't have a remote keyboard; weight is less important because the difference is small. We've been so preoccupied with the computer, no one has even looked at the phone--have to figure that out later. I must say Jamie has been absorbed all afternoon--I have had a nap and kind of been a casual onlooker--I have no idea how to transfer files, etc. And, frankly, the idea scares me--what if some deathless piece of prose doesn't make it to the new computer. So far, apparently, everything has been transferred to the new Lenovo except my email, which is causing great angst and may well take someone from TCU to figure it out. But of course no one is there on a Saturday.
Jamie was out the door this morning at 5:30 to bike and ride--30 miles and six. I know he's tired, and I've urged him to quit. But he says "just one more time." I wish I could be more helpful."
But there's a plus. I've had the company of some of my favorite people today. And I'm so grateful to Jamie for doing this. When he's really frustrated about the email he says, "I'm not a computer guy, not a tecchie." Unfortunately, his brother-in-law who is a computer consultant by trade is in Hawaii--which is another story. Now I have to worry about children and grandchildren in stormy Hawaii.
And Jacob, who had a wonderful day at football scrimmage at Baylor and met players and the coach, leaves for a week at camp tomorrow. Sometimes it's all too much change to comprehend, but I figure being flexible about change is on way to keep young. On the other hand, not sure I wanted to keep young by learning Windows 8.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

What triggers anxiety?

I didn't sleep well last night for several reasons. I think I had worked myself into anxiety because I had Jacob overnight, had to get him to day camp and get myself out the door by 8:30 for a doctor's appointment. Then I had a small grocery store run to make, a luncheon appointment, and a happy hour scheduled. It all seemed overwhelming, but anticipation is the great ally of anxiety. When push came to shove, it all worked out fine.
Jacob was at day camp shortly after eight--teeth brushed, mouthwash used, breakfast eaten, lunch in a paper sack because they were going on a field trip. Never mind that he had on the same shorts he'd worn yesterday and refused to brush his hair--it's curly and looks a mess when he wakes up. He would wear a hat, he said. I suppose I would be more strict if I were the parent, but I'm not--I'm the grandmother. Jordan looks at me and demands, "What's wrong with you? You never would have let me do that!"
I also didn't sleep well because something has scared Jacob in the back room where his bed is, and he  slept in my bed. Like sleeping with a churning furnace and occasionally realizing there was a hand poised over my face, sort of like a spider.
Not sleeping, I was up early--watered plants, fixed his lunch, was terribly efficient. Got him to day camp, went to my doctor apt. (I feel an opus on osteopathic manipulative medicine coming up! I feel so much better!), did my quick Central Market shopping--all with the company of my good friend  Betty, who acted like Central Market was a foreign country. Got home in plenty of time for my lunch appointment--even got some work done.
Happy hour as really a chance for me to see Jacob one more time before he goes to camp--he was unimpressed by the sentimental occasion. And then I was home alone, did some work, and am so sleepy I'm going to bed much earlier than usual.
But anxiety is what intrigues me about the day, because about six in the morning I thought I needed to take an anti-anxiety pill. Was it Jacob? The schedule? The doctor appointment? One can never tell, but I sure worked myself into a state. Once I was up, moving, into my morning routine I was much better. Every time that happens to me, I tell myself I should recognize the signs and override them--but it ain't easy at three a.m. when you can't sleep and there's a whirling dervish next to you in the bed. Surely he'll realize soon that he's too old to sleep with his grandmother--on the other hand, as a friend said this afternoon, there's something sweet about it. Except now when I say, "Night, Jacob. Sweet dreams," he says, "Scoot over. And give me some covers." I think he's really growing up.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Power of the Pitch—Who, not What

Please welcome my Wednesday guest, Terry Shames, author of the highly acclaimed Samuel Craddock series set in the fictional town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. Terry grew up in Texas and has great affection for the town where her grandparents lived, the model for Jarrett Creek. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two rowdy terriers. Find out more about A Killing at Cotton Hill, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, and Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek on Terry’s website: www.Terryshames.com.

          "There may be no protagonist in our genre today as decently compelling as Samuel Craddock.  And there may be no better chronicler of the character and complexity of small town America than Terry Shames.  With Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, she absolutely won my heart." William Kent Krueger, author of Ordinary Grace

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Just because I’m now a published author doesn’t mean I don’t still have to think about “the pitch.” That’s the dreaded 30-second statement telling what a book is about. I need it to tell my editor what my next book is going to be about. I need it when I introduce myself at bookstore and library events, or when I meet someone new and they ask what my book is about.

I’m thinking about this because recently I was at Thrillerfest and I was interested to know what books people were working on. So I asked. And the answers were all over the place. In essence, I was asking, “What’s your pitch?” Only the most seasoned writers seemed able to spout their pitches in relaxed, complete sentences: “In the next book, I’m sending My Hero to Cambodia to get to the bottom of a human trafficking ring.” Or “I’m writing a stand-alone about a woman lawyer whose husband is accused of murder—and she thinks he might have done it.”
 
The less experienced might pause, shoot me a look of panic and then say something like, “Well…the idea is that there is a group of people doing human trafficking. They’re in Asia and my hero has to investigate.” Or “A guy’s friend gets killed and he’s accused. His wife is a lawyer, and she has to decide whether to help him, since she’s suspicious of him.”

And then there are those (a substantial number) who really do not understand the power of the pitch. Their reply might be something like, “Oh, wow. This is hard. Okay. It’s about human trafficking and how terrible that is. It’s set in Asia.” Or “It’s about a guy getting killed and the cops think his best friend did it. The wife doesn’t know what to think.”

 To boil it down, an effective pitch needs to emphasize “who” not “what.” In the first two pitches, the hero is introduced first, and then it tells what they are up against. In the second two, although the “what” is introduced first, there is still a reference to the hero. In the third, it’s all about “what,” and there is no “who.”

One man I talked to said, with great drama, “My story is about the idea that nobody is who they seem to be.” I ached to tell him that this was the most generic pitch in history—every book of fiction ever written has an element of that in it; especially thrillers.

Your pitch needs to start with your hero—man or woman—and tell what they are up against. “Mr. X’s child is kidnapped after he makes a big mistake. He has to fight the mafia to get the child back.”  “Ms. Y finds that her bank account has been wiped out and her identity stolen. To get her life back, she has to confront a brilliant hacker who has ruined many lives.” Notice, these sentences don’t take 30 seconds. You can always add a sentence to sharpen the focus, but even if that’s all you say, your listener understands what your story is about. And that’s what a pitch is supposed to do.

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Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek:  With Jarrett Creek bankrupt and the police department in disarray, former police chief Samuel Craddock takes on a murder investigation. He discovers that the town’s financial woes had nothing to do with incompetence and that murder is only one of the crimes he must solve.
 

 

 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Our dogs are always with us

My Aussie, Scooby, died two years ago at twelve, a respectable age for an Aussie. He was perhaps the sweetest dog I've ever had but he had quirks and problems, mostly from having been an abused, neglected "backyard junk" dog for the first three years of his life and then being in a cage at the humane society which is where I found him. He knew his house manners...but he couldn't be relied on. He chewed things until I taught him better. He jumped on people, and we had to relearn that. But he was so eager to please that he soon gave up jumping. He was an incurable food thief--once I found him in the living room with a banana on the floor in front of him. The look on his face said, "Okay. Now I've got it. What do I do with it?"
Sophie and I both grieved when Scoob died in his sleep one night. He had idiopathic vestibular disease--the only way he could keep the world straight was to tilt his head--and he was losing the use of his back legs. One day he crawled to the back of his dog house and wouldn't come out. I crawled in to get him, and he oh-so-gently put his mouth around my wrist. It was his way of saying, "I don't want you to do this," but he never would have bitten me. He was ready to die, and he knew it.
Sometimes I sense that there's a dog behind me at my desk. Sophie rarely lies there and she's usually asleep in her chair across from my desk. But when I look down to my left, I see the patch of old wood floor where the finish is completely worn off--it's where Scooby lay, right next to me, every evening and lots of days, for nine years. I like to think he's still there, seeking my company and watching after me.

Monday, August 04, 2014

BSP--Blatant Self Promotion

What a day it has been! I feel like a real writer. I started off the day with a guest post on Killer Crafts and Crafty Killers, hosted by Lois Winston. My topic was Chinese embroidery which may seem far afield to those of you who know me but trust me, it links right into the newest Kelly O'Connell Mystery, Deception in Strange Places. (http://anastasiapollack.blogspot.com/) Then I got a flattering note from the owners of a site named mytaste.com saying that they had been impressed by my recipes on Potluck with Judy and wanted to list me among their recommended food blogs--so now I have a widget on that Sunday-only blog about mytaste.com. Then came a lovely review of the forthcoming The Perfect Coed from D.Donovan, Senior eBooks Reviewer at Midwest Book Reviews . It opens with "Few mysteries begin with such eye-popping intrigue but The Perfect Coed is full of such moments..." Read it at http://www.midwestbookreview.com/mbw/aug_14.htm#donovan.
This afternoon I got my first audition tape for an audible version of my short story collection, Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories. Short stories are a hard sell, but I've always thought some of these were among my best work and two won Wrangler (Western Heritage Awards) from the National Cowboy Museum. So pardon me if I have the big head for at least one evening.
Also, there's only one day left to sign up for my Goodreads giveaway of Murder at the Tremont House. Go ahead--toss your name in the hat--nothing to lose, maybe a free book to gain.
All this kept me busy today but I did manage lunch with a good friend. Then I cooked a birthday dinner for Christian, our meat-and-potatoes man. No potatoes this time but a giant hamburger stuffed with dressing (like you'd put in a turkey but seasoned differently), his favorite green beans (with bacon and vinegar--even Jacob loves them), and Jordan's special blue cheese salad. We ate on the deck--nice ending to a busy day.