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The Ick Factor

The Thursday Night Writers had another set-to this week over my exploding canary. Only four of us were present this time, but the controversy has raged through the whole group since I submitted the first draft of chapter 36 – longer ago than I care to admit.

Here’s the passage:

For my part, I kept the Stark file spread out all over my desk, like one of those impossible variations on solitaire. I inspected every line of every document, straining for some way in which it might imply a deadly secret. I marked Jeremiah’s house purchase with a Post-it memo to trace the sellers. Somehow, the sale wasn’t legitimate? Or Jeremiah’s check bounced? Or maybe way earlier, somebody with the same name had just pretended to be a descendant of Enoch Stark when they bought the house? Pretty thin, Eliza. But it got another yellow sticky note. In the end, the solitaire game looked like an explosion in a canary.

Disregard the plot conundrum. It can’t be quickly explained, and the only problem, as far as the TNWs were concerned, was the canary.

One member is admittedly squeamish. She loves cozies because of their basic rule: no explicit sex or gratuitous violence. Simile or not, she does not want a piecemeal canary obtruded into her consciousness. In a later chapter, a mere reference to “my canary” in the context of the annotated documents was enough to set her off. (Granted, she had been recently lacerated by an episode involving a frog in William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. It wasn’t a good week to reprise the canary.)

The others, it seemed to me, were going deeper into the image than … I was going to say “a normal person,” but perhaps I should just say “the reader” is likely to. There was speculation as to the appearance of a real exploded canary. A consensus emerged that the resulting color would not be yellow. I believe someone brought up the probable radius of the debris. And there was me, just visualizing little Tweety-colored feathers floating down.

The title of this post comes from a critique I received from Mary Carroll Moore, with whom I’ve taken two live workshops and one online class. She used it when she advised me to abandon the opening sentence of my novel and, indeed, to remove all technical or at least all vivid medical details from the scene, which takes place in a doctor’s office. Here’s the paragraph:

I don’t deny that I was riddled with parasites. I always was when I got back from a field trip. But I saw no reason for Brad to take that tone with a woman twice his age. His father never had a problem with my parasites.

I submitted that paragraph, as part of my first two pages, to a panel at the New Hampshire Writers Day last year. The panel consisted of well-known NH writers – all genres, not just mysteries. Each submission was read aloud by the moderator. The panelists were instructed to raise their hands at the first word, phrase or other issue that “stopped” them.

When my first sentence was read, three out of four of them jumped, but no hand went up. Which means…? You tell me. Please.

(We got well down the second page before I got a hand. Several at once, in fact. But that’s another story.)

So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m made of grosser clay than the average cozy fan. Or maybe I just make my friends and seek advice from lovely people who are more-than-average refined. The one thing I’m sure of is that neither the canary idea nor the existence of parasites would boggle the mind of my protagonist. So maybe I’ll keep them both.


The Ick Factor may be on my mind at the moment because of the winning response to the challenge I posed in my last blog: to use in mystery plot the following two words:

Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe

Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.

And the winner is….

Judy W.! She commented:

Your current words call to mind a Dick Francis-like mystery set in a racing stable. “The feaguing of the poor horse set loose an explosive diarrhea in the stall that splattered the walls like ylem after the Big Bang. Underneath the residue lay the missing gambler.” Ugh. Sorry, but you did issue a challenge.

Congratulations, Judy! After that, an exploding canary is nothing. It wouldn’t even cover up a dead gambler.

Wait, wait! It’s a mystery!

I should be writing Gothic fantasy, not mysteries. When I consult my pocket notebook (which I often do, because, as Oscar Wilde said, one should always have something sensational to read on the train), I seldom find jottings about sinister strangers or mysterious events. I seem to be attracted by weirdities. I overhear remarks that suggest the speaker is not living a boring life. My passersby live in an alternate universe.

So today I present a quiz, modeled on the radio news quiz, “Wait, wait! Don’t tell me!” The deal is, in each section, I give you three scenarios. One is from my notebook; I witnessed it. The other two are my efforts to create a similar, but more plausible, fiction. Your job is to guess which is the true event.

No prize; the answers are at the bottom of this post.

[Spoiler alert: I have no idea how to make the answers at the end show up upside-down. So don’t scroll past the fourth question till you’ve committed yourself to an answer.]

A London perfumerie in the exclusive Burlington Arcade has premiered its latest original scents. These are:

A. Breath of Bristol and Liverpool Breeze. “The tang of salt, seaweed and steamers to the Orient. The scent of Empire.”

B. Blasted Bloom and Blasted Heath. “Experience the Wild Scents of the British Coast.”

C. Rosalind and Lady MacBeth. “Are you a charmer or a femme fatale?”

Cutting edge European fashion in hair style currently includes:

A. The Angela Merkel short page boy

B. Thin, wispy curls arranged with scalp showing, a la Princess Charlotte

C. The Lisbon pony tail: a shaved head except for a long pony tail growing from the crown.

In his keynote address at Magna cum Murder XXI, author Simon Brett discussed:

A. The new Jane Austen app. It tracks all Jane Austen meetings, conventions and re-enactments worldwide, and lets users chat about their costume plans.

B. Sense and Sensuality, JA’s only attempt at a pornographic novel.

C. An academic article on a murder near Austen’s home at Chawton.

A British gentleman in business attire is walking down Piccadilly with a similarly dressed lady. She gives him a perky smile and says,

A. “So, they exhumed his body?”

B. “She stabbed him. But only with a fish knife.”

C. “My, what a tightly rolled umbrella!”



B, C, B, A

So, what do you find in your pocket notebook?


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


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