Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Writing Lesson: James Bond Is My Boyfriend (and Other Exciting Fiction)

I finally saw Casino Royale, and I found it to be an enjoyable flick. However, it wasn't because of the plot (which I couldn't really follow unless I rewound a few times), and it wasn't necessarily because of the new James's charm or his amazing Greek Godly physique. (Although those were nice, and my husband glared at me during the entire "walking out of the ocean" scene).

What I found, in fact, was that I was in total agreement with my sons: the appeal was in the action. Granted, this has always been a James Bond staple, so it wasn't surprising that the most compelling parts of the movie were the chase scenes. But I found, when we dissected the film after viewing it, that we weren't saying, "That was a clever line that he said to the bad guy at the poker table." None of that really stayed with me, and I can't even remember what he said to the pretty woman as he flipped her around in the bed as if she were an attractive pancake.

What I remembered was what my boys remembered: that the guy Bond was chasing was really fast, and James was really fast, and it was exciting to watch two fast guys running. Then the bad guy did this amazing launch of his body through a tiny window, but James came barreling right through the wall in a most unexpected (and satisfying) way, and we all cheered like groundlings.

In the process, I learned a lesson which I want to apply to my writing: description and narration are necessary and can be beautiful, frightening, fun. But action will raise the reader's blood pressure, action will make them turn those pages, and action might be the only thing they remember when they close the book.

Sometimes, it's all in the action.

Image: Yahoo Images

Thursday, March 29, 2007

April Comes Like An Idiot

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gaslight in a New Age

Today I rented GASLIGHT, the wonderful moody film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. I loved it when I first saw it, and I'm going to try to make my boys look beyond the black and white (which they see as primitive and somehow not good) to the coolness of the story.

It's an appropriate choice, since I had my own GASLIGHT moment this week. The premise of the movie, of course, is that the cruel Charles Boyer is trying to make Ingrid Bergman's character appear insane, even to herself.

This week I was going to show another moody film to my writing class--the movie REBECCA. I accidentally ordered the wrong disk from Netflix (I had wanted the Joan Fontaine version), so I decided to go with my second choice, the PBS version with Emilia Fox, which we had in the library at the school at which I teach.

I went there and perused the shelves--I knew the color of the DVD, knew it was a double set, knew what was on the cover. I'd shown it before; I'd held it in my hand. Still, I couldn't locate it, so when Molly, our wonderful librarian, came by, I asked her about it.

"I can't find REBECCA," I said. "Do you know if someone took it out?"

"The novel?" she asked.

"No--the DVD. We purchased it a couple of years ago and I've shown it to my class," I said.

She looked perplexed. "I've never seen that movie before. Let me check our system."

It wasn't in the system. Only the novel was listed there. "Let me ask Sue when she comes in," she said. (Sue is the other librarian). "I'm sure she'll know something about it."

Sue didn't know when she came in; she had never seen the DVD; neither had Molly.

"But I know it was here," I said. "I could swear it was on the shelf last week! And Judy (a former librarian) bought it for my class when I created a writing assignment around it!"

It didn't ring a bell: not with the librarians, the other teachers, or the English Department Chair. It was as if the film had never been here--except that I was sure it had. I was starting to fear they would tell me that Judy had never existed.

I still have no resolution for the film that never was. We've left a message for Judy, who is retired, to see if she can shed light on the problem.

In the meantime, I am left questioning the validity of my own memory. Perhaps I'm just looking for an excuse to compare myself to the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, but I saw a parallel between the situations.

Anyone else ever had a GASLIGHT moment?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Support the Great Robert Goldsborough

Carol Flynn of the Ridge Historical Society asked me to post this information about our own local great, Robert Goldsborough, who took up where Rex Stout left off and penned several Nero Wolfe books, and now has his own popular series.


Join the Ridge Historical Society for an
successor to the late Rex Stout as the author of Nero Wolfe novels. Mr. Goldsborough authored the last seven Wolfe novels that have been published.

ROBERT GOLDSBOROUGH is also the author of a series of novels starring Steve Malek, a fictional Chicago Tribune crime reporter, set in 1930’s – 40’s Chicago. These books will be available for purchase and signing.

This event will take place on:
SATURDAY, MARCH 31, 2007, at 7:00 PM
Cost: $10.00 for members,
$15.00 for non-members
Refreshments (prepared from recipes from the Nero Wolfe Cookbook) will be served.

The Ridge Historical Society
10621 South Seeley Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643

Reservations are required. Call the Society on
Monday through Friday, between 2:00 and 5:00 PM,
to make reservations or for more information.

A book from Robert's latest series is:

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Phil Locascio on Meeting Horror Writers, Writing Mysteries, and Dining with Edgar Allan Poe

I met Phil Locascio at Love is Murder in February. He's a nice guy, and while a newcomer to mystery, he's not at all a novice writer. Phil has published several horror titles, but his latest book is in the mystery genre. He kindly consented to chat with me about it.

Hi, Phil! Thanks for chatting with me.

How are things in the Illinois capital?

Well, I work for the State of Illinois and we haven’t had a raise in a few years. The Governor’s a real a__hole toward state employees. The good news is I only have 8 days left before I could retire if I wanted. I've got a 13-year-old, so not yet I’m afraid, but it’s good to get to that point.

You have a strong reputation as a horror writer, but now you’ve entered the realm of mystery with The Sins of Orville Sand. Can we assume that, with your bent toward horror, this is a rather dark book?
Actually I don’t consider it a “dark” book. It’s really a story about the things people “have to do," and how even if you want to do the right thing, somebody’s liable to get hurt. It’s an ongoing theme of my work. Both of my first novels revolve around it, as does the one I am working on now.

Based on what you’ve said about Orville Sand, you seem to have a sort of Stephen King sensibility in your theme: the ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events. Is this a fair assessment?
Yeah, my heroes are generally young people who find themselves entering that part of their lives when they have to start doing and figuring things out for themselves, and it is not always clear what the right course of action is. They want to choose good, because that’s what they have always been taught. But no one told them doing the right thing would be so hard to figure out.

The supernatural or horror /suspense element of the story is sometimes just a vehicle for me to deliver the message I want to.

I met you at Love is Murder, and you are a very friendly, mild-mannered person. Why do people so often think that a friendly personality is incompatible with writing horror?
Some of the nicest people I have met are horror writers. Basically I find them to be low key, very sensitive, intelligent and friendly. There are some prima donnas also, but they are everywhere. I think you have to be intelligent and sensitive to write good horror. Otherwise it turns into messy bloody slasher bullshit. Generaly good horror always has an underlying message it’s trying to tell that is apart from anything to do with horror.

You mentioned, on one of your panels, that people are always surprised when they read your books, saying, “It was actually good!” Why are people unwilling to believe in the writing ability of their friends and neighbors?
Because they can’t conceive that their friends actually could be one of those writers of great books they have read. Sometimes the anonymous nature of (reading)keeps up the illusion that some “wonderful, fabulous” writer is responsible for the work. Or that the book just “came to be” from out of the ether, like looking at a majestic mountain in the distance. No one is really responsible. It’s just there!!!!

Okay, that was two “why” questions in a row, so I’ll toss a “how” question at you. How do you go about plotting your books? Do you have a specific process?
Yeah. I sit in a chair, stare at walls, and think about possible plots. I also am constantly reviewing the short stories I wrote earlier, trying to think of how I can make them into longer pieces. I think that if I found a good story to make a short story out of, then I was convinced of the [quality of the]work in the past and therefore [could conclude] there was a good story there.

Will your next book be horror or mystery?
If it’s either, it will be as a side issue to my main point of people having to try and wind their way through a maze of decisions they must make. The one I am working on now is basically a suspense/thriller. I think that is what I really write.

What are some of your favorite books, and what are you reading now?

I am reading The Terror by Dan Simmons, who is one of my favorite authors. Ken Follett is another. Some of my favorite novels are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, The Dead Zone by King, Intensity, by Koontz, and The Man from St. Petersburg,” by Follett.

An interesting mix. Do you find it difficult to make time for writing, or are you able to work it into your daily schedule?
It’s hard to find the time. You've got to fit it in wherever you can. Just like finding time to work out. Got to put your mind to it and always keep it in the forefront of your motivations.

Tell me about it. How are you promoting Orville Sand?
Any way I can. Just had an article published about me in the latest issue of Springfield’s Own Magazine. It is a Springfield, Illinois hometown magazine, but very well done, all color. And they sell them at Barnes and Noble. I have done signings, been on radio interview shows, had a newspaper article written about me, etc. I also had made up color bookmark-type postcards that I mailed to everybody in the Horror Writer’s Association, and I give them out everywhere I go, to everybody I know.

Good tips. I'm writing those down. There’s some discussion about unusual names on DorothyL this week. Your character’s name is, in fact, unusual. How did you come up with it?
I wanted a name that would portray a guy with a kind of a semi-nerd first name but dominant second. Both intellectual and driven. I think I accomplished that.

Is your wife also a horror or mystery fan?
Nope. She wonders what goes on in the head of that man next to her in the bed.

I was recently in Springfield, and I visited Lincoln’s tomb, where I witnessed a moving 21-gun salute to the 16th president. What other sites would you recommend?
The brand new Lincoln presidential Museum is an absolute must see. State of the art, like a Disney attraction type thing. Outstandingly done. Well worth the trip. Also Lincoln’s home, his office, etc.

If you could have lunch with any writer, living or deceased, who would it be? Why?
Edgar Allan Poe, my favorite. Did I forget to mention him earlier?????

What’s the best part about being a writer?
Going to Barnes and Noble, seeing a friend there who doesn’t know I am a writer, drag him over to the book shelf and say to him “Have you ever read anything by this guy?”

That's good. I'll have to try that. :)

Thanks for talking with me, Phil. Good luck with the promotion.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gypsy Rovers and Other Romantic Notions

When we were little our mother used to sing us a song that went like this:

The Gypsy Rover went over the hill,
And down through the valley so shady--
He whistled and he sang
Till the green woods rang,
And he won the heart of a lady.

My mother had a whole basket full of those songs, and somehow she knew all the words to them, verse upon verse. Somehow I know them all now, too. I can't help but wonder if it was these songs, as much as the books I read, that spoke to my little imagination. I always wondered about the Gypsy Rover: what did he look like? Did he win the lady with his whistling? His singing? His roving? I would lie in bed and think about him, picture him as a dashing, gentlemanly character who swept the lady (who was rich, by the way) off of her feet.

We all tend to romanticize the gypsy--look at the Manet painting above and you see how artists, writers, singers, all wanted to capture something that they felt the gypsy stood for: perhaps it was freedom.

My grandparents, who hearkened from gypsy country, would have told you a different story. I recall, also back when I was a tike, and both of my Hungarian grandparents had come out for some event in our church hall, that my grandfather looked at me, his blue eyes twinkling, and pointed at a woman who looked as if she had applied her make-up with a trowel.

"Tell you Grandma," he said in his beautiful accented English, "that lady looks like a gypsy."

My grandmother had heard him, though, and leaned across me to give him a fierce look. "You watch your mouth!" she said.

Grandpa just smiled. He lived to bait her; it was the nature of their relationship. But they both knew that gypsies, where they came from, didn't have good reputations.

Still, I think that there's nothing lovelier than the notion of a happy wanderer, and some of the most beautiful songs in the world are Gypsy Aires, played on a weeping violin.

What is it about the gypsy? Do we all dream, every once in a while, that we could leave our belongings behind, put a little pack on our backs, and walk off into some beautiful scenery? Or has that notion become less appealing in our modern world?

IMAGE: A fragment of the painting Les Gitanes, by Manet (Yahoo Images)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Inkspot is the Place to Be

I am lucky, as a writer published by Midnight Ink, to be in the company of many other talented mystery writers who share that publisher. We decided, after an idea by Jess Lourey to get together and blog about the mystery biz, to do just that, and our group blog, or GROG, is now viewable at

Check us out! I think this will be worth adding to your blog list, because it's a big group of writers who share a great genre. There's a lot of talent packed into the Inkspot page.

Okay, that's my commercial for the day. Now on with our scheduled programming.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Henrik Ibsen and Realistic Dialogue

Today is the birthday of the great Henrik Ibsen (1828). Aside from sporting some of the finest mutton chops in literary history, Ibsen wrote plays that changed the world of literature, and we revere him as the "father" of the modern prose drama.

For years I've taught Ibsen's play A Doll's House, and each year I find it a bit more satisfying, simply because Ibsen's powers of observation make it a timeless study of human foibles. What impresses me even more is the way that Ibsen's writings from the latter part of the 19th Century can still have such an impact on young women of today. There are always a few girls who are simply bowled over by A Doll's House and what it suggests, not only about relationships between men and women, but about the notion of justice.

Ibsen once wrote:

"... And what does it mean, then, to be a poet? It was a long time before I realized that to be a poet means essentially to see, but mark well, to see in such a way that whatever is seen is perceived by the audience just as the poet saw it. But only what has been lived through can be seen in that way and accepted in that way. And the secret of modern literature lies precisely in this matter of experiences that are lived through. All that I have written these last ten years, I have lived through spiritually." ('Speech to the Norwegian Students, September 10, 1874, from Speeches and New Letters, 1910)

Ibsen changed drama in many ways, and one important one was in his use of realistic dialogue. Ibsen felt that drama should reflect the conflicts of humanity, and therefore he wrote words that sounded human, that made his characters come alive in a way that dramatic characters had never been expected to come alive before. Previous to Ibsen, there were tragic heroes with tragic flaws. With Ibsen, characters had real flaws and were not necessarily heroic at all.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

What a Difference a Word Makes

Mark Twain was so right when he made the analogy (and I'm paraphrasing here) that the difference between the right word and the wrong one was the difference between lighting and a lightning bug. The right word can change everything.

An illustration of this point occurred yesterday, when I looked out my back door and saw my elder son holding a garbage can lid and my younger son smacking the lid with a baseball bat. I sighed and went about my business, but soon they were clustering around the door, telling me that Graham had been injured and as a result had lost his memory.

"Who's that?" asked Ian, pointing at me.

"Mom," said Graham, memory intact.

That issue settled, I asked how he came to put his memory in jeopardy.

"It happened while we were jousting," he said. "I struck Ian's shield, and my sword missed and I smacked into it with my head."

This got my attention, not because he almost brained himself, but because of his noble choice of words. I hadn't realized they'd been jousting. I thought they were just playing with bats and garbage can lids. Now the whole thing had a much more Arthurian flavor, a gallant struggle on a legendary battlefield (rather than our muddy yard).

Not only did I realize, in that moment, the power of a well-chosen word to win over an audience, but I saw the world through the eyes of childhood, which I sometimes, as a mother, have the privilege to do. For a child at play, anything is possible, and the worlds he creates are as real as he'd like them to be. It's a beautiful reminder of limitless imagination.

A few minutes later Graham approached me wearing giant ski goggles. He was metamorphosing now from a knight into something else--a superhero or a giant bug, I wasn't sure which. He did it with such enthusiasm, though, that I knew I'd buy into it.

I hope I can remember that the next time I'm writing fiction.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Writer/Reader Challenge

There's a downside to writing, and to the writing life. I've always been a relatively sedentary person. Before I was a writer I was a reader, and even as a teen, my favorite sport was lying around and reading books--often whole books in one day.

Now I've graduated to writing books, which requires hours at a keyboard on a regular basis. When I'm not writing I often have to catch up with reading, both for business and pleasure. I'm a teacher, which means more reading and more computer time--handouts, tests, quizzes. Added to all of these tasks that require sitting, I enjoy watching television. We are a big tv family--we have our favorite sitcoms, and then we enjoy watching DVDs that we get from Netflix.

You get the idea. Both my husband and I have come to the realization, between looking at photos of ourselves and listening to stern warnings from our doctor, that we need to make some changes. We need to move, before our bodies freeze or fossilize, and we need to eat less fat. We're not thrilled about either of these things, but we've committed to make wiser decisions, to be more abstemious for the sake of health.

So I thought I'd extend the challenge to any blog readers out there. Who would like to join me for a one-month how-much-better-shape-can-you-get-in-by-April-17 challenge? We can support one another through those chocolate craving times, those times when we think "You know what would be fun? Sitting in this chair for hours."

By April 17 we'll know just how much self-discipline we have, and we can share tips with one another. Community support helps, and it's free (at least here it is).

And if we do well in that one month? It will encourage us, of course, to sign on for another month, and get used to the new habits that we're forming. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, and all that.

Who's with me?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Some Words of Advice from a Master of Mystery

"The first thing is to get your idea. Having got that key idea one's next task is to conceal it and lay emphasis on everything which can make for a different explanation."

--Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures (A Memoir)

And from Sherlock Holmes himself:

"To a great mind, nothing is little."
(Holmes to Watson, A Study in Scarlet)

"Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth."
(Holmes to Watson, The Sign of Four)

"I never guess. It is a shocking habit--destructive to the logical faculty."
(Holmes to Watson, ibid.)

"Women are never to be entirely trusted--not the best of them."
(Holmes to Watson, ibid).

"Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is on logic rather than on crime that you should dwell."
(Holmes to Watson, "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches")


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I am a Victim

My bank sent me a letter a week ago saying that my debit account may have been "compromised" in a recent computer glitch, and therefore they were sending me a new card. I should destroy the old card when the new one arrived. As another security precaution they locked me out of my online access, so it wasn't until yesterday that I got back on and was able to see that someone had been using my number to make all sorts of purchases--chiefly electronics and liquor. Someone has been having a glorious party with my hard-earned dollars (and my husband's).

Naturally, I feel victimized by the nameless people who are somehow wielding my number (I still have the old card) with great success in a wide variety of suburbs. But I'm concerned about the bank, that Goliath that takes in all of my money electronically and then sends a letter saying "Oops--someone may have gotten access." This is especially vexing because they now tell me that I will have the right to "dispute" the charges; this terminology makes it sound like I'm somehow taking this to court, which should be unnecessary. The bank should say, "This is our fault, and we'll take care of it."

But maybe I'm thinking of a time when banks were littler, and the people you dealt with had faces. However, I plan to make myself such a nuisance that they'll have to deal with me one way or the other. But again, why should I have to take time out of my day? None of this was my fault. I didn't leave my card lying around for someone to steal; I don't allow other people access to my online banking. This was simply a gigantic bank error, and I'm paying about 1000 dollars in damages.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Crocus Means Mirth

Earlier this month I blogged about the rhododendron, plant of danger. But because the weather was so lovely today here in Chicago (despite recent snow!), I could smell spring, and I knew that the crocus and tulips would be just around the corner. So I consulted my Language of Flowers tome once again; the tulips mean love, of course (although the yellow tulip means hopeless love, which is rather sad), and the crocus stands for mirth.

According to Pamela Todd, "They moved Homer to declare, 'The flaming crocus made the mountain glow,' and Greek myth tells of a beautiful youth, named Crocus, who was consumed by the ardency of his love for the shepherdess Smilax, and was afterwards metamorphosed into the flower."

That's all for today, although I also blogged at about psychology in mystery.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Congratulations to a Fellow Inker

Hurrah for Bill Cameron, who got his author's copies of his book in the mail for his very first mystery novel! Huzzah, Bill!

What a wonderful feeling that is, to touch the glossy cover and marvel at your name on the side. Bill, how will you celebrate? Are you going to Disney World?

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Good Garbage of Mickey Spillane

“I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends.”

“ My work may be garbage, but it's good garbage.”

Mickey Spillane

Today is the date on which Mickey Spillane was born in 1918. (He died last year).

Spillane was always a controversial figure in the mystery world because critics tended to hate his work. But as Spillane himself pointed out, his "garbage" sold well: Wikipedia says that he can boast of "seven titles among the ten best-selling American books of the 20th century."

Spillane was said to have a feud with Hemingway, who had publicly criticized his writing; however, when asked by an interviewer if he had read Hemingway's review, Spillane said, "Hemingway who?" This earned him a huge laugh from the audience and the permanent dislike of Hemingway.

The debate of books as products versus books as art still goes on today, often within an individual author. There's no doubt that authors would like to earn fine reviews for their work; there's also no doubt that authors would like to make money as much as the next person would. There's a certain wild appeal, therefore, in Spillane's claim that he had plenty of "customers" even if his books were considered trash.

Not everyone disliked Spillane, of course, which was why he had all those customers. His books were raw, different, new, in a time when the world was still recovering from war and was ready for heroes who were a bit larger than life, a bit more violent and a bit sexier than heroes had been before. Mike Hammer was as much of an icon as was Mickey Spillane, and in fact Spillane played his own character in the film Ring of Fear. (No, wait--my friend John Dandola has corrected me. He says Spillane played Spillane in that movie, and "He played Mike Hammer in the equally dreadful The Girl Hunters." :) Thanks, John).

There's no doubt that Spillane influenced the modern world: its literature, its film, even its perception of heroes. And of course he remains an icon in the world of the hard-boiled mystery.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Mary Stewart, My Idol

I've always loved Mary Stewart, ever since I was about fourteen years old and my mom handed me one of her romantic suspense novels--probably MADAM, WILL YOU TALK?--and I read it almost all in one sitting (or lying, as I tended to read while draped across our couch), amazed by the thrill ride that was a MS novel.

But what made her special? Lots of people have written suspense, and lots more have written tales with romantic storylines. But Mary Stewart's greatness lay not only in her plots, nor was it found only in her strong, loveable heroines or her sweetly old-fashioned heroes. Her special skill, her ineffable Stewart-ness, was in her literary sensibility and her sophisticated tone. One understood, reading her books, that she was smart, ladylike, but ready for adventure, if only between the pages of her mysteries. And her settings--the estates of England, the elegant French chateaus, the wildly beautiful Greek islands--they were like little vacations for the reader. Vacations, I might add, that I rarely wanted to end, despite my desire for denouement.

So Mary, wherever you are, and in your 90s now, I salute you. You have always been my favorite, and I will happily re-read your books forever.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Next Best Thing

The booksigning I spoke of in the last post was a gathering of The Outfit, or those writers who blog together under that name: Sean Chercover, Barb D'Amato,and Libby Hellman, (the picture above) and Kevin Guilfoile, Michael Dymmoch, and Markus Sakey (pictured below). I went to hear them speak, which was very entertaining, and naturally I wanted to get some books signed. At the beginning of the event, Augie Aleksy announced that Sara Paretsky had been unable to attend, and sent her apologies.

An elderly woman in the front row didn't hear him, and asked, "Who is it that's not here?"
"Sara Paretsky," he replied.
"Oh, she's the one I came to see," she said in consternation, as six writers sat before her smiling graciously.
She consulted her notes. "What about Barbara D'Amato? Is she here?"
Several hands pointed to Barbara, who humbly raised her hand. "Well, I guess that's the next best thing," said the woman.
I was impressed by her ability to insult so many people at the same time, but she seemed immune to her own talents in this area. I felt partial sympathy with her, because as a reader I would be disappointed if my favorite writer were not present at a signing; still, as a writer, I felt once again what an odd business promotion is, especially when one is promoting something as personal as writing.
You can be a real sport about being willing to come out and greet fans and potential readers, and yet no matter how good your writing is, or how famous you have become in SOME circles, there will always be someone to take you down a peg.

In any case, it was a great signing; these people aren't just good writers, but fun people, and funny people to boot. There was much laughter, starting with Markus Sakey introducing himself as Sara Paretsky (although this did not placate the woman in the front row). I accidentally cut off Markus's book in the picture above, but I doubt it will affect his sales.

In the final picture is local author Donald G. Evans, who wrote the much-acclaimed Good Money After Bad, a book about Chicago's gambling community.

If nothing else, it's nice to see that writers come out for each other. That, too, is the next best thing.

A Nice Little Surprise

Last Sunday I went to a signing (more about that later), and the bookseller said, "Oh, Julia, I'm still reading your galley copy."

"My what?" I asked.

"Your galley," he said, holding up a copy of Madeline Mann, which I did not know existed yet in book form. That was a lovely little surprise to appear at someone else's signing! So I took a picture of it.
Isn't she cute? She still doesn't come out for many months, but it's wonderful to see the book in bound form at long last.

Monday, March 05, 2007

John Dandola Chats About The Vikings, Scaramouche, and Beautiful, Beautiful Lindisfarne

Hi, John. Thanks for chatting with me.

Thanks to my perusal of your website, I know that you are a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the author of six mystery novels. [You have] also written a biography, four children's histories, three non-fiction books, various magazine articles, and [are] a recipient of several writing awards. [You are] the editor of an additional four titles and the ghost-writer of seven more, and your photographs and illustrations have been published both here and abroad. You are also a member of the Writers Guild of America as a screenwriter. Wow! Do you have free time?
What’s free time? Actually, in the ten years that I’ve been married, my wife has forced me to have free time–which is a very good thing. I used to work pretty much non-stop and my writing hours were usually through the night which I found to be the most quiet. I’m the oldest of five children and for solitude and concentration I struck on those hours very early on. Since I’m married, those work hours have now changed. I work days like a real human being. Nowadays, my office is not in the house but in a separate building on my property so my wife can pretty much stand in front of the door and say, “No, you are not going back to work. RELAX!” She’s very sensible. But there are always legal pads around to jot down ideas or dialogue or entire scenes no matter what the time. Did I mention that my wife is also very tolerant?

You are a historian as well as a mystery writer, and you are an expert in the Medieval world, especially the Vikings. So let me get this straight: they were known as the Normans, the Norsemen AND the Vikings?
Vikings were known by a variety of names: Norsemen, Northmen, Danes which were given to them by the monks and scribes who wrote of their ravages on European settlements. The names did not differentiate which of the present-day Scandinavian countries was the home of any particular raiding party. At the time, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland shared a common culture, religion, and language (present-day Icelandic is very, very close to the way the Vikings spoke).The origin of the word “viking” is unclear. “Vik” in the Old Norse language means bay, harbor, or inlet. The leap has been made that since that is where ships where sheltered that “to go viking” or “to go a-viking” conveys some sort of idiom suggesting “to go raiding.” Because not all Scandinavians were raiders–they were farmers and traders, the most popular theory is that raiding came about because of over-population and a shortage of land to support it–the word Norse stipulates all Scandinavians at the time. Vikings were merely the raiding faction. Normans, on the other hand, were the descendants of Vikings who raided then settled in what is now called the French region of Normandy.

You’ve lived in many locations, but you’ve noted that the most memorable was Lindisfarne. Where is this? Why is it such a memorable place? Is it related to the Vikings?

Lindisfarne is a small island off the coast of Northumberland just opposite Berwick-Upon-Tweed, the last village in England. Lindisfarne is one of the Farne islands. Lindisfarne is considered the cradle of Christianity in Britain. A monastery was founded there in the mid-seventh century by St. Aidan. It rose to prominence under St. Cuthbert during the late-seventh century. Circa 700 A.D., the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels were penned there. Because of the monastery, the island was referred to as The Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Now it is simply called Holy Island. It is a tidal island and it can be reached by car or bus at low tide. With the incoming tide, the road and mud flats flood over. This usually happens so quickly that many a vehicle has been stranded and hence several refuge shelters were built on stilts along the road so marooned motorists could wait out the hours until the tide recedes. The island itself supports a village of a few hundred fishermen, pretty stone cottages, two old hotels, a few pubs (of course), and the Lindisfarne Mead Factory (a.k.a. St. Aidan’s Winery). Some of the old fishing sheds have been converted into vacation homes. It has its own small fortress, sixteenth-century Lindisfarne Castle, which rises above the entire island like something out of a fairy tale. It was built as a harbor defense during the Scottish border raids. The centerpiece of the village is the eerie sandstone ruin of a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery. The first monastery was sacked and burned by the Vikings in their first recorded raid in 793 A.D. You can just feel the history which hangs over the place. The surrounding Farne islands are stipulated as bird sanctuaries and birds chirp everywhere. The North Sea glistens all around met by white beaches and emerald green pastures. It’s it’s own little world and it’s heaven. It was also the setting for my first sold screenplay even though the movie never got made.

That’s the damnable thing about writing for movies. You do the job and get paid but so very few screenplays ever get produced due to a million unpredictable, unforeseeable, uncontrollable reasons, that your work never gets seen. What I got out of it was the gift of spending time on Lindisfarne.

You have undertaken an adaptation of Scaramouche for Wolf Productions in Copenhagen. A few questions: How did you get involved with Wolf Productions? Who was Scaramouche? Why did Queen sing that line “Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango?”
I met Annette Wolf when we were both living in Los Angeles. She was directing plays and we both managed to be used and abused by the same egotistical actor-turned-producer. Annette’s daughter is a well-known Hollywood publicist. In due time, both Annette and I left L.A. She returned to her native Denmark and continued her theatrical career; I came back to the east coast and continued my writing career. The Scaramouche connection goes as follows (the small details are to the best of my recollection): When Annette was a young girl, her uncle was some sort of Danish diplomat stationed in England. The 1952 M.G.M. screen version starring Stewart Granger had recently premiered and during a reception, she actually met the actor. He was everything a young girl would have expected of a swashbuckler–all charm and polish and kindness and good looks.

Needless to say, the occasion was memorable for her. When Annette and I met, the movie came up in conversation and we both agreed it was among each of our favorites in that genre. She asked what I thought about doing a remake. I’m always hesitant about remakes especially when the original was such a hit but I did know from having read the novel (by Rafael Sabatini who also wrote Captain Blood) that a great deal of censorship had to be applied in the previous two screen adaptations (one had been an M.G.M. silent film). I set out to craft a more complex, less censored screenplay but I also appreciated and respected the work of the 1952 screenwriters so I stipulated that their work was to be taken into account and fully credited. All a moot point since it’s another project which has yet to be produced.

Scaramouche is the name of a character in Commedia dell’arte which was a popular form of theatre for the European masses during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries in which specific characters wore specific masks and costumes as a form of shorthand so that audiences automatically knew what their roles represented. Theatre Majors study about it in college but the best feeling and rendition of how it was played can be seen in the 1952 M.G.M. film in which a swordsman masquerades as the Scaramouche character to elude the French authorities.

Somehow, Queen was struck by the character and added him to the lyric in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Who knows? Maybe Freddie Mercury was taken by the character’s costume–white leotards with thick black wavy stripes.

You spent the summer of 2003 “adapting the English mystery novel, A Wisp of Smoke, which is intended as the pilot for a British television series based on the Arnold Landon Mysteries by Roy Lewis. The nineteen (and counting) novels feature an amateur historian in present-day Northumberland.” What drew you to this project? Why do you love Northumberland?
A screenwriter friend sent me one of Roy Lewis’ books because it involved a Viking element and Roy’s style of writing is similar to my own. I liked what I read and tracked down his other books–all of which have medieval overtones and frequent archaeological digs. I saw some of myself in the Landon character and I thought I could bring out something special in the novels if I was the one to adapt them. They had, at that point, been optioned who knows how many times and the options were all allowed to lapse without anyone ever having attempted writing a script. That’s the amazing thing about the modern movie-making mentality, a producer shells out a sizeable amount of money to option a novel or series of novels but doesn’t hire someone who specializes in adaptations to take a look at the book. They just pass the novel around and if it isn’t apparent exactly how to make heads or tails of the way to proceed, they let the options lapse. Roy and I communicated for the better part of a year and then I took on the project. It’s still making the rounds but I will continue to adapt as many of the novels as possible so that they’re ready to go. I’m at work on another two as we speak.

Why do I love Northumberland? Because it’s all wrapped up in the history that I love, set against a landscape that I love, with the style of architecture that I love. It’s home to Bamburgh Castle, the Roman Wall, Holy Island. It reeks of the Dark Ages. It has wide sweeping terrain checkered with a green and yellow patchwork of farmland (the yellow is a crop called “rape” which is raised for feed and the color is positively luminescent in the sunlight). Even in summer, there’s always that bit of nip in the air which exhilarates me. It’s like an extension of Ireland. I’m half Irish–-my wife corrects that I’m all Irish, since my Irish grandmother had a hand in my upbringing (the Italian half is from Northern Italy, which doesn’t seem to count for much here in America).

I need to live in places where I can identify with the local heritage. I’m not big on our Civil War, so our South holds no interest for me. Cowboys and the Old West can only preoccupy me for so long. Our northeast has colonial roots which appeals to me but except for small pockets most of that has been built over and lost. In Britain, you can still see how things might have been and feel how things might have been. That’s why Northumberland.

You just debuted a stage adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown Mysteries. Are you a fan of Chesterton’s mysteries?
I’m a fan of one of my former college theatre professors, who asked me to do the adaptation. He likes my mystery novels and thought that my doing the adaptation would be a good marriage of adaptor to material. He was correct. I hadn’t ever read any of the Father Brown short stories, but what was supposed to happen in a good adaptation happened: I immediately got a visual sense of the material and I was in tune with Chesterton’s writing style. Even though these stories were written in the 1910's when authors tended to be verbose, the edits to dialogue and dramaturgy were so second nature that it was a breeze to complete. We did it as a radio play live on stage, sound effects and all. There are plans to record it and there’s talk from the G. K. Chesterton Institute (who co-sponsored this production) of doing several more. If I was born forty years earlier, I could have made a name for myself writing radio drama and loved every minute of it.

Despite all of your lovely British connections, you live in West Orange, New Jersey. Is there also an interesting history of West Orange?
I live in a house built for my family in 1923 by the grandfather of a high school classmate. I’ve stayed in town because of some family obligations. My Dead mystery novels use 1940's West Orange as a backdrop and a springboard.

West Orange has a very interesting history with seventeenth-century roots even though it wasn’t christened “West Orange” until the 1860's. During the last seventy-five years, I’m the only one who has written any accurate, in-depth, down-to-the-present histories of the town. No one else seems to know how to research or write anything historical without fabricating and exaggerating things for political gain.

My family has lived here for more that two-hundred-and-fifty years. My wife’s family arrived here from Ireland about one-hundred-and-twenty years ago. West Orange used to be a town like that; people stayed, families stayed. Now it’s over-built and over-taxed. People and families are no longer staying. We’ve got a mayor who double-dips as a state legislator. First, he raises municipal taxes through the roof, then he co-sponsors a state bill for tax relief. That’s the God’s honest truth. I write fiction and I couldn’t ask my readers to believe that if I made it up.

The town’s biggest claim to fame is that Thomas Alva Edison lived and worked here for the last fifty years of his life. My grandfather worked as one of Edison’s personal messenger boys running from his laboratory to the different buildings of his factory. West Orange is the unlikely home of the world’s first motion picture studio and it’s where M.G.M. held the World Premiere of Edison, the Man starring Spencer Tracy in 1940.

None of your mysteries is set in the present. How do you research your books?

Actually, my series of Wind novels are set in present-day New England with flashbacks to the past. For the Wind series, I develop an historical fiction premise and intertwine it with present-day happenings. Because the premise is historical fiction, I have enough latitude in making the pieces fit together. When it comes to research, I am dogged. I just seem to have that extra bone in my head which makes me question everything I should be questioning and making sure I find real and true historical facts to back up my premise. My Dead series is much more difficult to research and those novels take much longer to write because I establish a timeline in the telling and I go out of my way to make sure what was happening on that day both locally and globally. Mystery Scene Magazine recently said when it comes to such elements, my approach “melds them seamlessly.” I take great pride in having accomplished that.

Tell us about Dead at the Box Office and Dead in Their Sights. Were these your first two mysteries? What was appealing about the 1940's as a setting?

My first mystery novel was Dead at the Box Office. My second was Wind of Time.

I wrote Dead at the Box Office at the urging of the late Orson Welles, who found my family connection to Edison fascinating. A murder mystery was set against the World Premiere of Edison, the Man in West Orange, the novel debuted in time for the fiftieth anniversary of that event. I had considered it a one-shot deal but the novel went through several printings, had its movie rights optioned several times (I wrote the script), and amazingly got enough fan mail to make me consider writing a sequel. Dead in Their Sights deals with potential World War II sabotage of the Edison factory which was a very real concern at the time. Sights fared just as well as Box Office and a series was born. Dead by All Appearances will be the third novel.

As for why I find the 1940's appealing, as I said previously, I was born at the wrong time. Having said that, I must give the following explanation: as an historian, I know full-well that considering life in another time, people more often than not tend to forget about daily mundane factors such as lack of hygiene, lack of medical and dental treatments, harshness of living conditions, etc. I do not. But the 1930's and 1940's offer such things close to our own standards even though current medical breakthroughs make it seem as though those decades are removed from ours by light years. Another stipulation I must make is that styles in music, fashion, cars, and architecture are not really determined by precise decades. They usually follow from halfway point to halfway point (1935-1945, 1945-1955, 1955-1965, etc.) Recently, we’ve lost sight of that and we attribute styles and mindsets to decades which often provides glaring errors in soundtracks and designs for period movies (i.e. the hippie movement didn’t take up until the late 1960's, the first half of that decade was just a run-on of the 1950's).

As for 1935-1950 or so, I just like the styles of pretty much everything. In architecture, the old still survived along side the new. Women’s clothes were gorgeous and flattering; I need to like the way women look in their attire when I write about them. Since my Dead mysteries employ a movie-hook, the Studio System of the time was a factory environment which made clear-cut sense. You knew who was in charge of what, unlike the movie business today. It was a period just on the edge of becoming modern and high tech yet there were societal amenities and niceties. People actually spoke to one another; read books; went to movies in real theatres with big screens; socialized in a much less hectic way. Things were just fast enough but not too fast. People took the time to do things because they had no other choice and they learned to enjoy or at least to tolerate the process. As far as the dramaturgy of a mystery novel is concerned, it gives an author much more leeway. Having a character find a telephone booth and work at getting the correct change to place a phone call is much more tense and dramatic and obstacle-driven than just having a character snap open a cell phone. Having characters talk and conjecture and trick and spy is much more interesting and ingenious than having them jump onto the internet. It’s a time period in which I can employ the intricacies of puzzle-solving with limited technology yet still be in the twentieth century so that the reader can identify with what is being talked about but, at the same time, it doesn’t just hand the solutions to the reader.

This is a little off-topic but it also is tied in. The oddest question I am repeatedly asked (and it’s always asked by women readers) goes along these lines: Why did I chose to have women as half of my mystery-solving teams and, being a man, what do I have to do to prepare myself to write for woman characters? This is a question which would never have been asked years ago. It is a part of the modern mindset in which women are perceived by both sexes as oddly different. I don’t and won’t ever get into any of that discussion. I will say that I have always been surrounded by strong, independent, intelligent women who also happened to be damn good mothers and grandmothers and aunts. I like women. I find them extraordinarily interesting. In many ways, I think they often make better choices in situations than men. Creating a pairing to solve mysteries gives an author two sides of a coin. One partner tempers the other. It doesn’t matter if the pairing is comprised of the same sex or if it is comprised of opposite sexes. What matters is that the pairing has to work within the parameters of the author’s intentions. As a writer, I write about people and personalities (of both genders) whom I know and understand. If that resonates with readers, it’s because I’ve created well-rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses and foibles that are clearly understood. It has nothing to do with mind-reading or role-playing or the current political-correctness on my part.

Your Wind novels sound fascinating. How did you come up with the plot for Wind of Time?

Wind of Time came about because of a screenplay I had written based on someone else’s novel. The novel didn’t lend itself well to a direct adaptation and I had to disassemble and reassemble the chapters and elements to make it work for the screen. In doing so, I had to invent a great many of my own original scenes and elements to make it blend. I write in a similar fashion as movies are shot and edited; which is to say that, once I set my premise, I often write scenes completely out-of-sequence and then fit them together later. By the time I had finished the screenplay in question, I had entire files of original scenes and elements left over. They were what I considered good and very original scenes and elements and they were entirely of my own creation. I set them aside.

A few years later, I visited a quirky historic site on my way to vacation on a small island off the coast of New England. I like small islands (personally, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Block Island are too large to give me that insulated feeling I need on an island). I think well in the isolation of a small island–especially on the beach lulled by the surf–and pieces for a story started to come together in my head. Historic facts and mysteries and speculations entered the mix along with those good and very original scenes and elements I had written a few years before. I topped it all off by using the small island as a setting with the characters making jaunts back and forth to the mainland. I know it sounds odd but that’s how Wind of Time evolved. It even got optioned for a motion picture and, once again, I wrote the script.

Do you spend most of your time writing or researching, or do you spend some time on promotion?
I’m always writing something; often several things simultaneously. Research is done as needed. I love to do it, so I have to guard myself that I’m not getting so hooked I might be going off on too many tangents and not focusing on the work at hand. A necessary evil of a writing career is, of course, promotion. I know how to go about it and I do it quite willingly, but it’s a double-edged sword, since I’m never sure I like being that much the center of attention. Writing is something one does alone and behind closed doors; sometimes it’s difficult getting past that...

What are you writing now?
I’m trying desperately to finish the third Dead mystery so I can get to work on the fourth Wind mystery (preliminary scenes for which are already written). The third Wind manuscript has been turned in to my publisher. To clear my head, I always start tinkering with another Arnold Landon script or an occasional stage play.

Aside from historical texts, what do you like to read?
I find that the worst part about being a novelist is that I don’t read as much fiction as I once did because I’m afraid of being too influenced. That said, I always eagerly await the next Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker and the next Arnold Landon mystery by Roy Lewis. I make time to read those.

How can readers and history lovers find out more about you and your work?
Thankfully, my name pops up all over the internet but the most direct route is to go to my web site ( which is always kept updated. I also can be contacted through the e-mail link on my site and I love hearing from readers.

Thanks for chatting with me, John, and for sharing these beautiful photographs!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Flower of Mystery, Flower of Danger

"O'er pine-clad hills, and dusky plains,
In silent state rhododendron reigns.
And spreads, in beauty's softest blooms,
Her purple glories through the glooms."
--George Shaw

One of my favorite books is a little volume called Forget Me Not: Sentiments and Plant Lore from THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS. In it one can find the symbolism and literary allusions for all plants. Today I looked up the plant that signals danger, and that honor goes to the lovely Rhododendron.

According to author Pamela Todd, "The danger signified by the rhododendron lurks in its flowers, for honey made from their pollen can be poisonous." However, it is also a healer: "The rhododendrum crysanthum is native to Siberia, where it was used as a remedy for rheumatism and gout."

Good ol' Rhododendron. It can kill or cure, and through it all it retains its loveliness.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Master of Winds, Marshal of Storms

Happy March, of which Swinburne wrote, "March, master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite."

Bring on the winds.