Thursday, January 31, 2008

An Inspiration

I heard this interesting quote today from a speech by Nelson Mandela:

"It is not our darkness that frightens us, but our light. . . ."

It really gave me pause, in that I thought there were a couple of interesting ways to interpret those words, and in general I found them inspirational. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

One Could Do Worse . . .

On this day in 1963 Robert Frost died. I was born the next year, but Frost's poetry had such depth that it has influenced me throughout my life, and continues to influence people young and old.

Perhaps its timelessness is rooted in the truth of nature and its cycles--Frost wrote about the universal with painful honesty, but also with a playfulness that revealed his joy in life.

I just quoted him a few posts ago with "Stopping by Woods," but another favorite Frost poem of mine is this:

from "Birches"

by Robert Frost

. . . I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost

What Book Are You?

My friend Cindy sent me this interesting quiz which matches you with a book that might fit your particular personality. I've taken it twice with two different results, and ironically both were books that I teach: Siddhartha and Huckleberry Finn. Sort of an interesting coincidence.

Cindy, on the other hand, was Watership Down.

What book are you?

Click here to take the quiz.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Darkest Evening of the Year

The very cold weather has put a favorite old poem into my head, so I thought I'd share it with a picture of an unexpected snow that we encountered on our spring vacation last year.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Muskrat Mystery

In honor of Lee Lofland's comment on that last post, I will tell a fascinating little story that is all about the mystery of language acquisition.

My sons both talked early, and my younger son, at about two, once sat on my hip while we walked through the back yard and looked at our spring tulips (which were sparse, because mother was a sub-par gardener). Graham's eyes, though, were on our eighty-year-old neighbor, who puttered around in his yard, cigar clamped in his mouth, doing the serious gardening that I hadn't been able to achieve.

We went back into the house, Graham looking thoughtful. "Mom, will Joe always have a muskrat?"

"What? You mean a mustache?" I asked.

He looked at me, disappointed at my inability to understand. "No--a muskrat!" he insisted.

We both shrugged, and the puzzle remained undeciphered. It's so hard to be two and have an obtuse parent. :)

Later, though, Graham said something about seeing someone with a cigarette, which he pronounced "cig-rat." And then, slowly, it dawned on me. "Cig-rat," was obviously in the same family as "musk-rat." Graham knew that what Joe was smoking was a two syllable word, and he knew that it was similar to a cigrat. He'd obviously heard the word muskrat somewhere, so his brain made a very clever connection: the small white ones are cigrats, and the big brown ones are muskrats!

So a muskrat, I finally determined, was a cigar.

The sad thing was that once I discussed this with Graham, he never called it a muskrat again, because his brain had captured the proper term. He didn't appreciate thinking that people would chuckle at his tentative vocabulary, and so he fiercely self-corrected anything that he perceived was not entirely correct.

But I, in my nostalgia, still like to think of them as muskrats, which by the way are not good for your health. :)

(Art link here.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Exposing Secrets

One thing that a parent has to keep in mind is that her children talk, and often to large groups of people.

I recently had to e-mail my son's third-grade teacher to ask a question about his upcoming project, in which he must take on the persona of George Washington and give a speech to the class. In the process of answering me, she wrote, "Oh, and I hope your husband is feeling better. Graham has been praying for his eyes every morning."

I had forgotten, not only that they started the day with prayer time, but that third grade children like to be called on to chat about their family's maladies. My husband had been suffering from some sort of allergic reaction that made his eyes relentlessly red and itchy, even weepy. I had no idea that Graham was sharing this information with his entire class AND with God. :)

In any case, I read the e-mail and felt a moment of fear: what else had Graham prayed for? Did he pray that his mother would lose weight on that diet of hers? Had I mentioned any odd aches or pains to him, or told him I'd be visiting the gynecologist? The horror of having a third grade class praying for a good outcome for my yearly test results did not bear thinking about.

I did recall that, back in first grade, and much to our mortification, Graham had drawn a little list of wishes, which the teacher had hung up for open house; one of them had said "I wish my parents had more money." This was not so much because he had mercenary tendencies, we decided, as because he was so used to hearing us saying "No, we can't take you there, we don't have enough money," Or "No, we can't just buy another car, we don't have enough money." Therefore, his logical little brain determined that we were poor.

Now that I thought about it, I supposed praying for his father's eyes was the least embarrassing of many possible things he could have selected, and of course very sweet. And if anyone's prayers go directly to the ears of God, I think it would be those of these little grade schoolers who send their entreaties with earnest hearts and simple faith.

Still, though, I must warn all parents to be careful. There really are no secrets when a nine-year-old is listening.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

LIM Looms

The first weekend in February will bring the annual Love is Murder Mystery Conference with famed panelists that include Lee Child, Barry Eisler, Tess Gerritsen, and William Kent Krueger.

On a lower tier, it will contain me; I will be there on Saturday on two different panels. This should be a fun chance to see mystery writer friends and make some new ones. Will you be there? Let me know!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cloverfield: Conflict and Then Some

We went to see Cloverfield today, a Godzilla film for modern America which ensures that one will have a series of small heart attacks throughout the tension-packed movie. The premise is that a group of attractive young people have gathered to wish one of their own farewell: he is traveling to Japan the next day as the Vice President of something, although he looks like he's only recently graduated from college. In any case, the young hero is conflicted because he is newly in love, and he is leaving the girl behind and they are both pretending, poorly, not to care.

Then, suddenly, there is ominous booming and scary explosioning and the Statue of Liberty's head comes flying right into the street, and it is clear that the conflict will no longer be about love (although it sort of is, and it's about friendship, as well).

I have given away nothing that the trailers didn't, and I'll say nothing more except to mention that I eventually looked for consolation by holding the hand of my nine-year-old, who wasn't as scared as I was, and who patted my hand compassionately while his eyes devoured the screen, filled with the shaky visuals of a hand-held camera.

It was a bit disturbing that some of the images in the film were reminiscent of 9-11, which I have to assume was intentional, since the movie was set in Manhattan. Perhaps it is meant to be an homage of sorts. Perhaps the giant monster is a metaphor. In any case, it's a tense and interesting film, sure to promote discussion afterward.

Go see it! But bring someone along in case hand-squeezing becomes a necessity.

(Visual courtesy of

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Keyboard Fatigue

Did you ever just fall right asleep when you sat at your computer? Or is that just me?

Sometimes my stolen writing moments are my first chance to sit down after a long work day. Sometimes I find myself waking up with my fingers still resting on the keyboard, having typed nothing. I can relate to this little Siamese fellow.

Once again this is a photo I received in an e-mail from my friend Lisa, so I don't know its origins, but the pic seems to have been taken in Japan, based on what I see on the laptop screen.

One Below: A Frigid Setting for Mystery

Chicago is unusually cold tonight; we're expecting a low of -4 overnight, and it was not much above zero all day. The tales of Jack London kept floating through my mind, telling me I was a wimp to feel cold; after all, in his classic "To Build A Fire" the temperature was 75 degrees below zero.

In any case, I was thinking what an interesting setting this weather would make for a mystery. Who would go out to commit a crime on a night like this? What would make someone venture into that impossible cold? Saving another person? Murdering him?

The ice photo, once again, is compliments of my poorly insulated house. :) This is what nature painted on my frigid front porch window.

One Below: A Frigid Setting for Mystery

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pondering Life in a Cone

With some reluctance, we took our cat Mr. Mulliner to be neutered this morning. He had to come back with this annoying cone on his head so that he won't bother his incision. He also can't be with his friends (our other pets) because THEY might bother his incision. Also the doctor tells us that they will not know each other because his scent has changed. He must be isolated for at least three days, in a room alone, in his cone.

To me, this would be a recipe for insanity; then again, I think I might glean some writing inspiration from cone life. But the enforced isolation would take some getting used to. Mulliner doesn't seem to know what's what quite yet. He's spending most of his time trying to remove the cone, but he also sits in the litter box and plays with the pellets. I'm hoping he'll remember what the litter box is actually for by the time he's interested in eating again.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Page 99 Test: The Dark Backward

Marshal Zeringue kindly invited me to take the page 99 test with my novel The Dark Backward. The links can be viewed here and here.

Does it entice you? :)

Marshal also mentions my orphaned novel, Madeline Mann, which was cut by the publisher four weeks before its release, rendering my year and a half of promotion rather pointless and expensive. The book had received nice reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal, which Marshal generously pointed out.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Another Carnival Ride

Barbara Fister's Blog Carnival continues, this time with our blog friend Peter Rozovsky. Check out his international choices here and be sure to leave a comment so he knows you came to the party.

I'm in the mood for some cotton candy, or maybe an elephant ear. But no, I haven't forgotten the Wonder Woman program. This is just virtual candy. :)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nothing Like A Good New Read

I was thrilled to be at the launch of Julie Hyzy's STATE OF THE ONION today, albeit for only a few minutes. My annoying cold and the surprise obligation of having to help build a third grader's volcano by tomorrow precluded any lingering.

But I got to see how lovely Julie looked, and what an awesome cover her book has--that alone should sell lots of copies, not to mention Julie's really interesting sounding mystery involving amateur sleuth Ollie Paras, the White House chef.

I'll be looking forward to reading it while I lie around recovering. :)

Oh, and if you'd like to re-read the interview I did with Julie last year, click here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Why Colds are Unproductive

I'm not sure where I caught this particular cold, but because I just feel like lying around, I'm behind in just about every facet of life. So I'm re-running a blog I did last year about Why Having a Cold Does Not Allow for a Productive Writing Life.

1. Blogging is easier than revising.

2. I want to take a nap.

3. While my mind is racing with things I need to do, phone calls I need to make, new toys I need to put away, dishes I need to wash, etcetera--my body mostly wants to sit in a chair.

4. The office is the coldest room in the house. I would rather be sitting ON the heater, inside a tub of hot tea.

5. I found my morning shower to be a difficult task.

6. I want to take a nap.

7. I need to make some sort of nutritious food, but I don't have the wherewithal to open cabinet doors and make decisions.

8. Upon reflection, the entire new writing project seems dumb.

9. The cat is sitting on me.

10. The children just popped in a movie--that's just about my speed.

Anyone else ever been in this bind?

(image from

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Elaine Viets on The Joy of Good Editors, The Love of Great Mysteries, and The Horror of Giant Lizards

You got your start as a newspaper columnist. How did you eventually move into mystery writing?
I got fired, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I spent a month cleaning the house, getting the dirty wax buildup out of the corners with a knife and vacuuming every square inch of carpet. My husband walked around in socks, afraid to wear shoes in the house. Even the cats went around on tiptoe.

One day, a man came to fix the plaster ceiling. His boots were dirty. "Wait! You have dust on your boots," I said, and shined them while he stood there. open-mouthed.

After that, I resolved that I would either clean house for a living or write. I started writing mystery novels.

I am much happier now, but my house is a mess.

Do you have favorite mystery authors?
Many. I think we're in a golden age of mysteries, and there isn't room to list them all. Here are a few favorites: Nancy Pickard, Michael Connelly, Nancy Martin, Sue Grafton, Michele Martinez, Harley Jane Kozak, Sarah Strohmeyer, and David Balducci. I could probably fill this page with the complete list. I thought Charlaine Harris' series about the woman who finds dead people was amazing.

You are from St. Louis , but now live in Florida . When I interviewed your fellow Floridian Nancy Cohen, she described the giant flying cockroaches in her Florida town. Do you have those? If so, do they make you miss St. Louis?
No, St. Louis has giant cockroaches, too. We discovered some monsters when we rehabbed a hundred-year-old home. What made me miss St. Louis most was the day I encountered a six-foot monitor lizard sunning itself on Sheridan Road in South Florida. That was a dinosaur, not a lizard. I wanted to go home to St. Louis where lizards were little. I didn't want to see reptiles as long as my car.

I admire that sentiment. Your husband is a writer, too. Does he edit your manuscripts?
My manuscripts are edited by Kara Cesare at Penguin. She's one of those rareties, a real editor who worries about plot, pace and character. Many editors are too busy to really have time for that, but she cares.

Don always reads my manuscripts for me and is really good at spotting typos.

I notice a lot of kitties on your website. One is described as your writing partner. Are the others envious? Don’t they have literary aspirations?
Harry, our striped rescue cat, is my muse. Or is it mews? Anyway, Harry herds me into the office each morning to make sure I write.

Mystery, my husband's cat, is too lazy to be jealous. She has achieved her aspirations. Meals are served at her pleasure, she has a sunny place to sleep and she never works.

Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind that, either.

You have won both the Agatha and the Anthony award, and have been nominated for both of them as well as the Lefty, the Barry, and the Macavity. Did you know, when you started writing, that there WERE that many mystery writing awards? Does being an award winner make you feel you must continue to win awards? (And this just in: Elaine's mystery Murder With Reservations has just been nominated for a Lefty Award at Left Coast Crime.)

I was thrilled to win both awards. Being nominated is always a delightful, unexpected surprise. When I actually won the Agatha, it was hard to pry that teapot out of my hands so I could sleep.

I had no idea there were so many awards when I started, but I didn't know as much about the mystery world as I should have. The recognition I get from an award is wonderful. But I can't predict which ones will be nominated. I just try to write the best possible book. The awards come second to the writing.

Well said. You named at least one of your characters after a real person: Margery Flax. How did this come about?
Margery bid on having her name as a character in one of my Francesca Vierling books at a charity auction. The series was promptly canceled, but I had a new one in the works. I gave Margery the choice of appearing in my Dead-End Job series as a young babe, a police detective or an older woman.

She chose to be 76-year-old Margery, a woman who smoked, wore purple and liked sexy shoes. It was a good choice. Margery has been in six novels and two short stories and readers seem to like her.

On your website, you recommend that people tip hotel maids. Do we have to?
Aww, come on. It's only a buck a day. Life is incredibly hard for hotel maids, and your dollar can make a huge difference to a working woman. Plus, you'll get huge amounts of towels.

You seem to really research your novels, often by living the life your character must live. Is writing your full-time job?
Yes. I love it. I spent too many years as a corporate wonk in St. Louis.

Last year you suffered a stroke, but made an awe-inspiring recovery. How are you feeling now?
I'm getting better, thanks. Recovery is slower than I wish. I'm an impatient patient. I really appreciate everything that friends, fans and fellow mystery writers did for me, with the "tour by proxy." The cards, gifts, chocolate, balloons and emails really kept me going.

It is the new year; do you have a new book in the works?
I'm working on the next Dead-End Job and the next Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper book.

What are you reading now?
Just finished Sue Grafton's "T Is for Trespass." I also liked Stephen White's "Dry Ice." He's the Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime and I'm looking forward to meeting him. "A Dog About Town," by J. F. Englert, was a hilarious paperback.

If I ever go back to Florida , what’s the one thing that I should see?
The ocean, especially at sunset. It's gorgeous. My favorite Florida sight was a flock of pink flamingoes skimming the water at sunset.

What a lovely image.

How can readers find out more about you and your much-acclaimed mysteries?

My Website,, lists all my books, with a sample chapter of each one. There are also reading group discussion questions for each novel, and a list of upcoming events.

Also, I blog every Wednesday at The Lipstick Chronicles. My blog sisters are Nancy Martin, Michele Martinez, Sarah Strohmeyer, Rebecca the Bookseller, and Harley Jane Kozak. Drop in for a good read.

Thanks so much for chatting, Elaine.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Wonder Woman Plan

Last year I set some goals about fitness and weight loss. Pounds lost: zero.
This is not an uncommon occurrence for me; like many people who struggle with weight, I have been on many diets, and my weight has gone up and down (mostly up).

With the dawn of the new year, I am once again inspired to be healthy. Because I have a notebook with Wonder Woman on it (in which I can record my exercise, eating, and general thoughts and goals), I've decided to make Wonder Woman my symbol for this plan. There are several reasons why she is a workable icon:

1) I can always keep that revealing suit in mind. Will eating French Silk Pie allow for maximum suit attractiveness? I think not.

2) I need to be active. Wonder Woman did a lot of criminal catching and wielding of the golden lasso. I'll have to come up with some sort of workout related to that. Maybe I'll play the theme song from the old tv show.

3) If I really were Wonder Woman, I would have taken off the uniform and the heels, put on sweats, and spent all of my time reading in the invisible plane rather than running and fighting. I need to shift that lazy vision and be more active. I must picture Wonder Woman in action. There's a reason that these superheroines are never just lying around when depicted in the comics and on tv.

4) Wonder Woman, when successful, is a hero. People who make it through a life change (from unhealthy to healthy) are heroes, too.

So if anyone wants to join me on the Wonder Woman plan, feel free. It's about eating healthy and light, and keeping on the move.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Inspiration for a New Year

"Nothing is worth more than this day."


"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year."


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Coolest Photograph of the Year

Once again I received this photo in an e-mail, so I cannot provide attribution, but it was identified as a picture taken at the North Pole when the moon is directly above the setting sun.

I find it unspeakably beautiful, especially because of the reflection in the ice. It reminds me of this poem by Robert Frost.


Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire;
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


Friday, January 04, 2008

Suspense and a Lesson

I finally got around to reading a book I've always been interested in--Henning Mankell's Firewall. Reading a book like this is like taking a class in how to write a mystery. I'm amazed at the way that Mankell can include so much detail in his story--the endless details of a policeman's day--and yet maintain suspense.

I haven't finished yet, but I already feel that I've taken a little mini-course from Mr. Mankell, both in how to write a clean sentence and how to construct an important chapter.

I know that the text is translated from Swedish, but I am assuming that this is very close to Mankell's style if I were reading it in his actual language. The translation by Ebba Segerberg is clear and lucid, and at times I get the sense that it simplifies some Swedish idioms that are difficult to re-word.

In any case, this is my second Mankell novel and I'm enjoying it greatly. And then I'm moving on to an Australian mystery writer I just discovered.

Only two more days of break: must read.

Art link

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Luxury of Dreaming

Today I noticed that my cat was gazing out the window with a rather dreamy expression. Perhaps she's making New Year resolutions. The great thing about early January is that there is a real psychological boost in being able to start over--in my case with a new book, a new diet, new confidence, even a new age, since I always turn a year older just as the world does.
Or perhaps Rose was looking at this beautiful etching on our window--crystalline art that appeared after a frigid night. I found them lovely--the cat and the ice--so I thought I'd share the pictures along with my January philosophy.

Happy New Year to all.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Snow and New Beginnings

It was a snowy December, and January 1 brought more snow, which we enjoyed a bit today, despite the bitter cold. My youngest still thinks it's an honor to shovel the snow, while the eldest stayed snug inside, avoiding work as his new teen status encourages him to do.

Here's a poem in honor of the day.

New Year Snow

by Frances Horovitz

For three days we waited,
a bowl of dull quartz for sky.
At night the valley dreamed of snow,
lost Christmas angels with dark-white wings
flailing the hills.
I dreamed a poem, perfect
as the first five-pointed flake,
that melted at dawn:
a Janus-time
to peer back at guttering dark days,
trajectories of the spent year.
And then snow fell.
Within an hour, a world immaculate
as January's new-hung page.
We breathe the radiant air like men new-born.
The children rush before us.
As in a dream of snow
we track through crystal fields
to the green horizon
and the sun's reflected rose.