Category Archives: Good Reads

Giveaway Books. Or Not.

Awaiting you at the Five College Book Sale

Awaiting you at the Five Colleges Book Sale


The annual Five Colleges Book Sale is a big deal here in the Upper Valley. Organized to fund scholarships for New Hampshire and Vermont students at Mt. Holyoke, Simmons, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley colleges, it is the largest second-hand book sale in northern New England. For this book addict, it is a blessed way to reduce my library, at least for the two weeks between when I drop off my contributions and when I attend the sale.

Today, I went down to the basement to pack up the pile of books that I have winnowed over the last year. Here are a few of the items you’ll be able to buy at a really good price, while benefitting worthy young scholars:

The German Cookbook, by Mimi Sheraton. I bought this book hoping to please my Germanophile husband with the dishes of his ancestors.

After rolling the strudel dough

After rolling the strudel dough

I should have checked the apple strudel recipe before I forked over the cash. It involves rolling out dough, which you have already slapped down on the pastry board 115 times, over a whole kitchen table until it is as thin as tissue paper. Guess I’ll have to think of some other way to please my husband.

Two biographies of Samuel Johnson. I tried hard to like Johnson. I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and was sure he had to be right about his idol. So I read these books. Doubtless they are great works of scholarship. But what kind of idiot tries to write a life of Johnson after Boswell?

Six paperback murder mysteries, published between 1993 and 2014. I read them all within the last two or three years. I cannot remember the plot of a single one. This confirms me in my dreary notion that my own mystery manuscript will have to be re-re-re-revised till Judgment Day.

AngelsAndDemonsAngels and Demons, by Dan Brown. Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a page turner, I admit. No matter that it read like its own outline. Like everyone else, I couldn’t put it down. So I went and paid the hardback price for his earlier book. It was like The Da Vinci Code if The Da Vinci Code had never been outlined at all. It had angels and demons. I guess. Further, deponent remembereth not.

The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. His Life and Works, by Angus Wilson. I haven’t read this one. It belonged to my late husband. I’d like to read it…but there just isn’t TIME. I flipped through it… it looks fascinating…with photos, yet…a Spy cartoon…but something’s got to go. I can’t keep retrieving things from the pile.

Which brings me to the more interesting part of this list. Below are several books from the pile that the Five-Colleges sale will not be seeing. How long have they languished in this limbo? And more important, what was I thinking when I put them there?

Something of Myself, by Rudyard Kipling. I compromised. I’ll give up the biography and keep the autobiography. I flipped through this, too. I cannot discard a book that includes the sentence, “For the great J.M. [Cook] himself – the man with the iron mouth and domed brow – had been one of my father’s guests at Lahore when he was trying to induce the Indian Government to let him take over the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as a business proposition.”

The Letters of Madame, Vol. II. Princess Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, known as “Madame,” married Louis XIV’s brother in 1671. She was a woman

Madame, in her later years

Madame, in her later years

who did not pussyfoot. She slapped her son’s face before the whole court when she learned that he had agreed to marry one of his royal uncle’s bastards. She never had the slightest desire to participate in court intrigue, love affairs, government or fashion. She liked hunting all day, she liked her meals large and regular, and she loved to write letters. The accounts she sent to her German family and friends about the court at Versailles were so frank that the government used them to blackmail her in later life. Their demand? That she shut up about her opinion of Mme. de Maintenon, the king’s mistress. I found this second volume, without its first, in a second-hand bookstore, and I have been looking for Volume I ever since.

Howe & Hummel: Their True and Scandalous History, by Richard H. Rovere. William F. Howe and Abraham H. Hummel were New York lawyers in the second half of the nineteenth century. They got murderers off scot free. They got Lilian Russell divorced – frequently. They bought off witnesses. Hummel eventually went to jail himself. If you liked the movie Chicago, you’d love Howe & Hummel.

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. Good grief! This is a first edition, bought by my mother when it came out in 1964. Just last year, I bought the new edition that includes the parts that Hemingway’s publishers cut, and I hunted for this book to compare it with. And there it was, down in the giveaway pile. I must have been mad.

These notes are based on the contents of the first two grocery bags of books that made up the pile. There are two more. I don’t dare look into them.

W? Or Not?


Would-be writers can always be lured into taking just one more how-to-write course, buying just one more book, attending just one more conference. Flailing and weeping in the chaos of our own material, we’re sure that someone out there has a system. No, has The System that, with one hard shake, will order our characters, themes and events into a page-turning plot.

I lost a lot of time trying to cram my plot into the shape recommended by imgresMary Carroll Moore’s Your Book Starts Here. Her system is to shape your plot like the letter W. Your protagonist encounters loss or danger, plunges to the depths, pulls herself together and addresses her problem with some success – we’re now at the peak of the first upstroke of the W – then gets really whacked by some failure or complication, descends to the uttermost depths, and finally wrestles her way back to whatever fate you have in store for her.

The W method is good for making a start, and also for combatting saggy-middle syndrome. In the end, though, you have to compound your own prescription. So today, I offer a few alternative plot shapes, as discussed by Kurt Vonnegut on the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog.” In a hilarious (truly!) video Vonnegut explains how simple it all is, really.

Plot 1 is “Man in Hole.” The hero starts in a reasonably comfortable condition, encounters a problem, solves it and ends up better off. Vonnegut graphs this vonnegut-man-in-a-holefrom beginning to end as a nice even sine wave on a happy-unhappy vertical axis. Events head down into negative territory, reverse course at the bottom, and end up even higher on the happy scale than they started. Wonkblog’s example: Arsenic and Old Lace. Note that Mary Carroll Moore’s W could be titled “Man in Two Holes.”

Plot 2 is “Boy Meets Girl,” in which the initial events head upward on the graph, i.e., boy falls in love. From there on, Plot 2 replicates Plot 1, as the lovers are separated, then reunited. Traditionally, “Boy Meets Girl” ends higher on the vertical scale than “Man in Hole,”since (as we all know) they lived happily ever after.

Now we get into the kind of plot I like best: Cinderella. No, not for the happy ending. By me, that prince is a Ken doll. According to Vonnegut (and strangely

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, ""

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, “”

mis-graphed in the Post article), “Cinderella” is distinguished by its beginning – among the cinders, way, way below the middle of the happy-unhappy axis. Then (and this is what I love), progress toward the Prince’s ball takes place not in a smooth curve, but in a series of stair-steps. The gown. The glass slippers. The pumpkin coach. The mouse-horses. These lovely items are provided by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, but in more interesting stories, each has its own provenance, sometimes but not always obtained by the heroine’s own efforts.

Broccoli's fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

Broccoli’s fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

It’s the detail that grabs me. The plot takes on the shape of a Fibonacci sequence. Every step can replicate into a handful of details or issues, which in turn can replicate. This is why I like Proust. (Trouble is, I haven’t yet been able to work out what the heck his stair-steps are leading to.)

The stair-steps also occur in the folkloric creation story, in which a deity or deities generate successive gifts which, combined, produce the world. My favorite literary example is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but of course Genesis I is better known. According to Vonnegut, the Old Testament is simply the creation story with an unhappy ending tacked on: God makes the world, we live in it, we die. With the addition of the New Testament, we are back to Cinderella.

Vonnegut does not ignore modern literature. There’s “From Bad to Worse,” in which some poor schlemiel simply gets hammered, and that’s it. Wonkblog’s example: The Metamorphosis. And then there’s “Which Way is Up?”, exemplified by that most modern of stories, “Hamlet.”

You can noodle around with these curves forever, and come up with a story to match anything you can draw . At present, I have no idea what shape my own story (fictional, that is) will take. I got troubles, I got worries, I got stair steps, nobody gets a girl … who could ask for anything more?


I’ve always had an interest in rediscovering old mysteries.  I love seeing how the stories are constructed and the characters fleshed out, and comparing the authors’ techniques to the contemporary writers I read.  I love finding new (to me) words and phrasings—meaching, roistering. Most of allWomen-Crime-box_JT_rev, though, I delight in finding the cultural and historical threads that connect my own time to the period of the old books—political jokes that haven’t changed, societal expectations that have.

My latest discovery is The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis. Originally published in 1946, it has been republished in Sarah Weinman’s excellent two-volume collection of novels by women crime writers of the ’40s and ’50s. The Horizontal Man takes place at a fictional women’s college in the Berkshires, and in many ways echoes the cozy, village-set mysteries of Agatha Christie. Set in autumn, when the leaves have strayed from the trees, the small college town is exposed to Eustis’s crisp, satirical delineations. The murder of a handsome, sexually attractive English professor brings to the fore the neuroses, pretensions, snobbery, and jealousies that flourish in a quaint, academic environment. Helen Eustis, too, knew that environment well: She married her English professor when she was a student at Smith College.

Plus ça change . . . Eustis could be describing any English department functioning today. Her character studies, especially of the minds of the insecure professors grappling for position, are so spot on, you feel you’ve met these people before. She pokes a little fun at them, but they aren’t so overdrawn as to become caricatures. The Horizontal Man manages to be a smart mystery that expects its readers to be as smart as its characters.

What is out of date? Well, for one, the psycho-babble is risible now—but that was our understanding of the human mind at the time the novel was written. The unmarried professors live in boarding houses, the students’ dorms have house mothers. To me this is all part of the fun of discovering what the day-to-day life of a college community was like in the forties.

Helen Eustis was not a prolific writer. In fact, The Horizontal Man was her only novel, but it was critically acclaimed at the time and it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. In addition to a collection of short stories, The Captain and the Kings Depart and Other Stories (1943), she wrote for the New Yorker and other periodicals and translated George Simenon into English.

Sarah Weinman in her anthology is saving Helen Eustis and the other women crime writers she included—Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, to name a few—from drifting into obscurity. And their novels are worthy of our attention and study for their craft, their engaging suspense, and the way they weave in a woman’s perspective from an era on the cusp of revolutionary societal changes.

Do what you love

I’m still hard at work on the short story (“The Intruder”) that takes place in my daughter’s house in Virginia. I reduced the word count and simplified the convoluted plot line and am now ready to smooth the rough edges, increase the word count, and add complexity to the plot line. I plan to have a draft to submit to my writing group “soon” after we arrive in Arizona. Warning to my group: do not expect it the week we arrive (next week).

Recently I read on a writing blog (not certain which one) that a writer (obviously) keeps a journal for each writing project that she works on. I promptly went to Barnes and Noble, purchased one of their ubiquitous,


Journal for short story, “The Intruder

always “reduced price,” journals, and started recording my experience revising my short story. I have two entries.

This is the year (I hope) that we get FaceTime functioning so that I can participate in our Thursday night writing group from Arizona. Even if we are only able to communicate via the phone, I will be satisfied. Without the structure of my group to motivate me, I spend my time there basking in the sunshine, resting, and exploring. Add being a spectator at the numerous sports and activities that our three active grandchildren participate in and you can see why I haven’t gotten much writing done these past two winters.

Something that has limited my writing in Virginia is that, as a Christmas present to myself, I renewed my subscription to My daughter and I have been researching rabidly various branches of my husband’s family. She’s traced his paternal grandfather’s ancestors back to hanging out with William Bradford, a Pilgrim governor of Massachusetts. (I thought I had done well to determine my fifth great-grandfather was a Minuteman!) It’s an addictive–and at times frustrating–hobby.

Last year in Arizona I participated in an online support group for writers, “Creative Monsters Club,” with other members from around the world. Our mentor, Marcy Mason McKay, has published (among other writings) an award-winning novel, “Pennies from Burger Heaven.” She soon plans to start work on the second book in the Burger Heaven series. I am going to post a review of her book on Goodreads and Amazon, which I have never done before. The quality and detail of the reviews I have read prior to deciding to purchase a book have deterred me from contributing my own paltry review. But I’m going to take the plunge and submit a brief review of this book. Please read her book–my review is optional!





. . .but it could be a lot worse.

Inside, it’s delightful. There are plenty of Christmas leftovers, mostly the dessert variety, and numerous books to read.

My daughter was given a book for Christmas (which I wrestled away from her), called, Quack This Way. It’s an interview of David Foster Wallace by Bryan A. Garner. It’s a fun, but short read. Its fast pace makes it seem even shorter as the two men take a romping, lolloping, constitutional through discussions of writing, language, and usage. The interview was conducted in Los Angeles in 2006, two years before DFW committed suicide.

Who could resist a chapter called, ‘Crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose’, or one simply called, ‘You need to quack this way’.

Our writing group read a short story by Wallace last winter entitled Mr. Squishy. I loved it. I’m loving Quack This Way, and decided to go whole hog (duck?) and downloaded Wallace’s Infinite Jest to put the icing on the holiday-reading cake.

I’ve only just begun this almost 1,000 page tome. It’s a North American dystopian novel taking place in the giant corporation subsidized years of ‘The Depend Adult Undergarment’, and ‘The Trial-Sized Dove Bar’, where our cold (weather outside is frightful) New England States have become Canada’s waste dump.

Yes, it’s a humorous novel, but only as it is written. Underneath it could become melancholic, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

One critic for the New York Times called Infinite Jest a vast encyclopedic compendium of whatever crossed Wallace’s mind’. That may not be so bad. Years later that same critic backpedaled and hailed it for having enriched today’s literary landscape.

Wallace himself said that his heavy use of end notes in Infinite Jest were a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some narrative cohesion. There are plenty of them.

Well, I’m off to a lolloping romp through Infinite Jest this Year of the ‘Whisper Quiet Maytag Dishwasher’, or maybe it’s the ‘Year of Glad’. I’m not sure yet, but I imagine that I’ll enjoy the outing.

It’s Christmas!


My pre-order has been in for weeks (at my local independent bookstore, of course.) Tomorrow I shall swoop down and scoop up my copy of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. It is Salman Rushdie’s first new novel in seven years. Everything else I’m currently reading will start gathering dust.

I encountered Rushdie in the same way many others did: I bought a copy of The Satanic Verses purely to show solidarity against censorship, after Iranian clerics ordered that Rushdie be murdered for the “blasphemy” it contained. It sat on my shelf unread for years. Once I finally read it, I began a reading marathon of everything he ever wrote.

How to explain his magic? Plot summaries wouldn’t do it, even if I could recall every twist and turn of the fantastic events that befall his characters…his myriad characters, his worldsful of characters, the armies of imagined people who march, parasang upon parasang, the length and breadth of the Rushdie universes.

The universes themselves are miracles. These are not alternate worlds like Middle Earth or Westeros. They contain, for example, the India we all know, the England, the United States. They also contain impossible events (two men survive a fall from a bombed plane miles in the air), strange powers (e.g., telepathy and witchcraft), eerie coincidences (an Indian songwriter anticipates all Elvis’s greatest hits.) Real-world politics, popular culture, “high” culture – usually taken down a peg – toss these very-not-ordinary people hither and yon. Some of them survive and even triumph, in a way. Others are ground to bits by the entirely ordinary evil and stupidity that permeate every human institution. But somehow, Rushdie’s Children defeat even defeat itself, simply by being more genuine – realer – than the real-world institutions that destroy them.

If I had to choose one characteristic that will keep me reading Rushdie till they bury me, it would be his perfect pitch for detail. Given his tortuous plots, many in the 500-600 page range, he must select just the right objects to bring the meaning of each scene into focus. Here is a passage that begins by evoking a real-world place in rather general terms, only to explode into the imaginary detail it calls forth from a character’s mind. From Fury:


“In Amsterdam in his middle twenties Malik Solanka – in the city to speak on religion and politics at a left-leaning institute funded by Fabergé money – visited the Rijksmuseum and was entranced by that great treasure-trove’s displays of meticulously period-furnished dollhouses, those unique descriptions of the interior life of Holland down the ages. They were open-fronted, as if bombs had knocked away their façades; or like little theatres, which he completed by being there….

“After a few visits, however, it became clear that mere houses would not be enough for him. His imaginary environments must be peopled. Without people there was no point. The Dutch dollhouses, for all their intricacy and beauty… finally made him think of the end of the world, some strange cataclysm in which property had remained undamaged…. After he had this idea, the place began to revolt him. He started imagining back rooms in the museum filled with giant heaps of the miniature dead: birds, animals, children, servants, actors, ladies, lords.”


And how about that “left-leaning institute funded by Fabergé money”?

So tomorrow I shall vanish from the world for some days, to read Rushdie and do nothing else. I hope my friends will speculate that something very odd may have happened to me. After all, I understand that in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, genies rise up from the sea bed in New York Harbor and eat the Staten Island ferry.

Word Death

Eventually, the words get you.

You struggle with plots, with character development, with the godawful job of pulling it all together. And while you are wrestling with that angel, the words he is made of creep through your pores and invade your brain. They become the plaque that stops the neurons firing.

It happened to James Thurber. Much of his last two books, Lanterns and Lances and the posthumously published Credos and Curios,

My 1962 copy of Credos and Curios

My 1962 copy of Credos and Curios

were compendia of words that had dug their little claws into his mind and wouldn’t let go, long lists of words that had, perhaps, only sounds in common, or were all place names or first names beginning with O. He packed them up and disguised them as essays and stories, and his most devoted fans slogged their way through, but even they knew it was crazy.

Thurber had shown signs of the word disease much earlier. After “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Night the Ghost Got In,” he wrote “More Alarms at Night.” In it, you hear the Siren song of verbal miscellany. One of the episodes recounted in “More Alarms” begins when the words won’t let Thurber sleep:

I had been trying all afternoon, in vain, to think of the name Perth Amboy. It seems now like a very simple name to recall and yet on the day in question I thought of every other town in the country, as well as such words and names and phrases as terra cotta, Walla-Walla, bill of lading, vice versa, hoity-toity, Pall Mall, Bodley Head, Schumann-Heink, etc., without even coming close to Perth Amboy…. I began to suspect that one might lose one’s mind over some such trivial mental tic as a futile search for terra firma Piggly Wiggly Gorgonzola Prester John Arc de Triomphe Holy Moses Lares and Penates….

When I read that for the first time, I nearly fell off the end of my mother’s bed, laughing. Mother, propped up at the head and reading herself to sleep, listened with a grin as I read it aloud, choking with laughter. But in Thurber’s later books, the humor had drained out, leaving only the words.

Thurber’s woes came back to me when I read Howard Elman’s Farewell, Ernest Hebert’s wonderful finale to the Darby Chronicles. In the first book of the Chronicles, The Dogs of March, Howard Elman is an illiterate adult, a man with a good eye and a wondering mind but few words with which to order his experience. His rural New Hampshire world is being invaded by the come-heres, wordy, untrustworthy flatlanders who end by taking not only Howard’s land but also his children into their insubstantial world of hot air and incomprehensible notions.

In the Farewell, Howard has learned to read, and death approaches. He is now up against the next generation of strangers, who are obsessed with ones and zeroes and with an ‘ecosystem’ apparently coterminous with, but different from, the New Hampshire forests he loves. They seem to have invaded, not from the flat lands, but from Mars. One of them is his son, who has changed his name.

In this milieu, words have begun to bother Howard. You accumulate them, they name new things that may or may not exist, and then when you put them up against each other, you can see that they don’t make sense. What do they mean, “the prime evil forest”? “Why does ‘purposes’ sound so much like ‘porpoises’?” Howard has begun talking to himself in a final attempt to ‘combobulate’ his world. “How to say it and make it make sense?”

Perhaps it’s a problem of scale. Thurber vanished into minutiae. From Howard Elman’s point of view, his son’s new friends operate in a world of vast, airy nothings. All their words are code words, but the code refers to nothing he can get a grip on. Behind the airy nothings he can see only more airy nothings.

For those of us less talented than James Thurber and Ernest Hebert, a focus on the words themselves just produces ‘darlings’ – abominable cutenesses and dreadfully, dreadfully clever repartée. Once these insinuate themselves into a first draft, the novice writer can find them impossible to dislodge, even knowing that the reader will find them impossible to stomach. When the words begin to preen themselves this way, when you feel the poison creeping into your writerly veins, what to do? Here is one suggestion: imagine this question from an innocent, eager child reader:

But what happened next?


Choosing Your Color


England’s Royal Arms

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the second son of an English duke. You’ve guessed, of course: I’m devoted to Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers’ renowned aristocratic sleuth. There was something of a vogue for detection among the fictional peerage of the mid-twentieth century.  The fashion waned and probably received its death blow from the dreary antics of late-twentieth-century royalty.

Sayers (imho) made better use of aristocracy, or at least of wealth, than any of her contemporaries. In all too many a mystery, a mink stole or an ancient and expensive brandy drops into the scene for no better reason than to remind the reader that s/he is expected to be enjoying the idea of being rich. Sayers said that she surrounded Lord Peter with just those luxuries she would have loved herself: rare books, one’s own library, top-notch food and drink and presumably Wimsey’s high-powered Daimler, “Mrs. Merdle.” Her genuine delight in Wimsey’s primrose-and-black library, grand piano and excellent wine cellar call forth an equal delight in the reader.

With Sayers, this kind of detail is never just color, in the dreadful sense of the word as used by sportscasters. Our longest visit to Wimsey’s library contrasts its beauty and peace with his agony as he struggles to work out a case against a murderer who has framed the woman Wimsey loves. Dining on snails at an elegant restaurant, Wimsey notices that his guest views that dish askance, and calls for oysters instead. Attentive friend blends with money-no-object host.


The New York Stock Exchange (Amazing Travel Photos)

The issue of color is on my mind because my fellow Thursday Night Writer Linda Landrigan persuaded me to try the mysteries of Emma Lathen, a queen of Golden Age detective fiction. Lathen was the nom de plume of two women, Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha Henissart, a lawyer. Their detective is John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust Company. From his Wall Street office, he solves murders that occur in the world of business, especially high finance.

And for me it doesn’t work. I spent twenty years as an economist for investment firms. What is color to most of Lathen’s readers is just another Monday morning to me. My colleagues were not such buffoons as those Thatcher encounters (though I could have given Lathen a useful vignette or three.) But office life as described by an economist and a lawyer reaches me in pure monochrome. For Lathen’s many fans, it apparently works like a charm.

In the end, the characters and plot of Accounting for Murder pulled me in, but I doubt that I’ll read the whole series. And we all know that if you want to sell a mystery these days, and you aren’t an established author, you’d better be able to offer a series that will pull your first readers along with you.

So what about the color in my own mystery? In the literal sense, it starts out red, yellow and orange, the colors of fall in the New Hampshire mountains. It goes white and gray with winter, then a damp tan with mud season, and finally, joyously, green with spring. Figuratively, it’s the atmosphere of an Ivy League college, of a retirement home for some of its eccentric faculty, and of the rural village in transition that surrounds it.

Enough color? Not enough? Been done already? How about if the protagonist is an anthropologist specializing in African witchcraft? Too much yet? No? How about if I add a couple of ferrets? Okay, enough, right? But then I put the octopus in.

Maybe I need to rethink this….


Maine Crime Wave 2


I finally got up the courage to expose myself. Right: I entered “Two Minutes in the Slammer,” a flash fiction contest that inaugurated the 2nd annual Maine Crime Wave last weekend. The conference MCW posteris held at the University of Southern Maine and sponsored by Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. It lasted only a day, but not a minute was wasted.

The fun began Friday night. The flash fiction slam was hosted at the Portland Public Library by my favorite mystery blog, The winning entries were “slams” indeed, uproariously funny and full of action, all in two minutes. The next time I slam, I’m going for uproar.

I didn’t win that prize, but I got another one: Chris Holm, author of the Collector series of mysteries and most recently of The Killing Kind, told me he liked my story, suggested that I submit it to Thuglit, and then poured forth suggestions for other e-venues that could be appropriate for me! The story went in to Thuglit as soon as I got home, and the next one is being spiffed up for submission.

That’s the best aspect of mystery conferences: there are so many friendly and helpful people. Much-published and admired authors are generous with advice and encouragement. Sort of makes you wonder why literary authors have such a reputation for behaving like twits.

The conference attendees are an equal attraction. At our post-slam dinner, I met Peter Murray, a retired police detective, now a chef. He’s doing research for a book based on the first unsolved murder in Westbrook, Maine, the bludgeoning of Abigail Stack on January 5, 1888. Over dinner, Pete told me about his work on the second unsolved murder – in 1987. Those Westbrook cops are good.  Check out Pete’s blog, especially the post about the pigeons and the lady who tried to poison them with a mixture of whiskey and Alka-Seltzer.

Roaming through the crowd, I met a marine ecologist and the former president of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, both writing their first mysteries. I’m an ex-economist and ex-teacher of Latin and Greek. Is the criminal mind really so widespread throughout the professions? (Anne Jenkins, the museum president, also gave me an update on the meteoric rise of Rockland as a tourist destination. I’ll be checking that out with a mini-vacation soon.)

Barbara Ross, author of the Maine Clambake Mystery Series, gave a blockbuster workshop on how to revise your manuscript. Her handout is now one of my prized possessions. She advocates multiple read-throughs with revisions for one single issue each time. You take the issues in the order that will produce the least wasted effort on things that may disappear in revision anyway. I would have thought of that myself, in time. Sure.

Chris Holm and me

Chris Holm and me

There was a certain amount of genre-blending at the conference. Sarah Graves, who writes the Home Repair is Homicide mysteries, mentioned that #11 in the series, The Book of Old Houses, was inspired in part by H.P. Lovecraft. And then there’s Chris Holm’s Collector mysteries, whose first volume I had just finished. See, there’s this dead guy, who’s been damned for murder and now has to collect the souls of other evildoers when their time comes. But being dead doesn’t mean being dumb. When he gets an assignment that just doesn’t smell right…. I picked up another Collector volume at the Kelly’s Books to Go table in the lobby, where speakers and audience alike were busting their book budgets.

Kelly's Books to Go

Kelly’s Books to Go


Barbara Kelly, the aforementioned bookseller, was on the final panel, the one on the business of getting your book sold to readers once you get it published. It was heartening to hear what enthusiastic fans booksellers can be, if you just take the trouble to make friends at your local bookstores. Barbara will sometimes take books she loves to a conference on a totally unrelated topic, and push them hard to attendees. The panel as a whole agreed on a new (to me) and upbeat concept: the “good rejection.” If your story comes back with comments, you’re onto something. The piece is just “not there yet.” So it’s worthwhile wandering in your personal wilderness yet awhile.


A venerable denizen of the USM campus


Quandaries in Teapots

As you know, we are five writers in search of a reason not to work on the book right now. Reasons, good reasons, are hard to come by which is why you find me actually working on my novel in progress. It’s a cozy mystery, or maybe it’s a cozy thriller. I won’t know until it’s finished. Lately a lot of genres have been morphing into other genres, and that usually makes for just as good a read, but hard to classify. One of my favorite authors, Jasper Fforde, calls these morphings, cross-genre. If you haven’t read Jasper Fforde yet, he’s amazing. He does a great comedy/fantasy/mystery series that follows the adventures of Thursday Next. I won’t tell you anything more, but please send in a comment if you have read or plan to read anything by J. Ff.

Yes, I ran out of reasons NOT to work on my cozy/thriller/mystery set in New Hampshire in the not-so fictional town of Poke. If my heroine, Gracie Smithwick, has her way the spelling of the town’s name will revert back to Poughke at the next town meeting day. She’s up against great odds not only in re-establishing the correct spelling, but in thwarting THE BAD GUY as he attempts to do BAD things. I’m on my third revision and there’s really no good reason not to continue. I plan to drop some dandy carrots in my postings to entice you to entice me to finish.

If you’re reading this blog you are either fellow writers, or fellow readers. If you are cozy writers or readers, maybe you can help me with a small problem. Problems become reasons not to work on the book right now, and I want no more of that. At least not right now.

If, when you are reading cozies, do you find that the heroine falls for the local law enforcement persona way to often? Like in ad nauseum? Like in cliched tropism?  I’m taking a poll and looking for interesting occupations for my heroine’s potential fellow. If I fall head over heels in love with a suggestion not only will I use it, but I’ll give you credit for the idea. How’s that for a bargain. You scratch my back and I’ll wash your hand. Well, that analogy sounds bizarre, but you know what I mean, a nice symbiotic relationship to ward off any reason for me not to work on my book right now.

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