Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Had-I-But-Knowns of Ogden Nash

The wonderful Ogden Nash, who was born on this date in 1902, once wrote a whimsical poem about detective fiction called "Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You." The speaker of this particular poem complains of mystery novelists who "belong to the H.I.B.K. School--" that is, the "Had I But Known," and suggests that too many mysteries fall into this category of rather ridiculous plotting.

The poem appeared in the April 20th, 1940 issue of THE NEW YORKER, and for nostalgia's sake, and in Nash's memory, I spent five dollars to read the poem online. I won't plagiarize from the magazine, but I will give you the link if you're a Nash fan: click here to get the specific issue.

Nash was always playful, but sometimes in a pessimistic way; he started his poem "A Bas Ben Adhem" with

"My fellow man I do not care for.
I often ask me, What's he there for?"

Nash had more than one poem about mysteries, so I assume that, like me, he was a fan of the genre. All of his poems were rhymed verse, and Nash said he had tended to think in rhyme from the time he was small.

Thanks to his tendency to think in couplets, we are blessed with an abundance of Nash poetry.

(Image: The Ogden Nash postage stamp, 2002. Link here).

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Why Thomas L. Cook Reigns Supreme

When I started reading Thomas L. Cook's THE LAST TALK WITH LOLA FAYE, I thought, slightly disappointed, "Oh, the action is all going to take place in one hotel bar."

Then I kept reading, and the suspense layered on, and I thought excitedly, The action is all going to take place in one hotel bar!

Such is Cook's control: he can take a relatively mundane setting like a St. Louis hotel and make it a place of growing tension, of intriguing revelation, of horrifying possibilities. And LOLA FAYE, like the other Cook novels I've read, is everyday life laced with potential menace.

At the root of a story is the murder that binds Lucas Page and Lola Faye Gilroy together, and though the crime happened in the distant past, one chance meeting makes the details come back with surprising new dimensions.

When I interviewed Thomas L. Cook at the end of 2009, he spoke of his fiction as opposed to his non-fiction, suggesting that the latter "freed [one] from the very different rigors of the imagination." But it is Cook's imagination which rules the mystery world, because he writes not only about crime, but about the many dimensions of the people who commit them and the victims who suffer them. In his poetic prose one can read Cook's sympathy for flawed humanity even as his story proves that people can be nothing but flawed.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Impact of Writing

For all you writers and aspiring writers out there:

9TH ANNUAL FUNDSFORWRITERS ESSAY CONTEST and Literary Database team up to co-sponsor the 9th Annual FundsforWriters Essay Contest.

Theme: Writing that made a difference.

Both entry fee and no entry fee categories. First place winner receives $300. Six awards given. Limit 750 words. Deadline October 31, 2010. Winners announced December 1, 2010. /

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Beth Groundwater Chats about Distant Stars, Whitewater Rapids and Beautiful Colorado

Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series (A REAL BASKET CASE, nominated for the 2007 Best First Novel Agatha Award, and TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET, May, 2009). Beth also writes the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventure mystery series (the first, DEADLY CURRENTS, will be released March, 2011). Her science fiction novella, THE EPSILON ERIDANI ALTERNATIVE, was published December, 2009, and she has published eight short stories. Beth lives in Colorado and enjoys its many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting. She enjoys meeting with book clubs in person or via Skype or speakerphone to discuss her books. To find out more, please visit her website at and her blog at

Thanks for chatting with me, Beth!

I’ve always been curious about your surname. Does it have Native American roots?

That’s what a lot of people think, people who haven’t met my husband, that is, who is a light-skinned, freckled guy. The name and his family originate in Scotland. The legend behind the family name is that the Groundwaters fished and farmed, making their living from the ground and the water. I like having the name because it’s fairly unique, so if you Google my name, all you find are references to me. And so far, there’s only one Beth Groundwater on Facebook!

That's handy. Your first mystery series is about a woman who owns a gift basket business. Have you ever worked at a place like this?

No, but a hobby of mine is making gift baskets for family members, friends, charity auctions, etc. To learn more, I read how-to books and trade magazines for gift basket business owners. Also, I interviewed two women who owned a gift basket business and toured their warehouse/work area, so I could become more familiar with the “behind the scenes” aspects of the business. Now that I’ve written two books in the series, people think I’m an expert at it and I get asked to make gift baskets more often. I’m not as creative at making them as Claire Hanover is, though!

How did you come up with the idea for the “basket” mysteries?

I wanted to write a cozy mystery series and thought a craft-based series would work, since craft cozies are so popular. I’m a klutz when it comes to most crafts, though. Making gift baskets, however, was one of the few crafts I’ve tried that I thought I could do well and write knowledgeably about.

All of your fiction is set in Colorado, where you reside. Is this an example of “write what you know?” Or maybe “write where you know?

Yes, and it’s also an example of “write what you love.” My husband and I chose to move our family to Colorado because we fell in love with its scenery and opportunities for outdoor recreation. We’ve never regretted our decision!

Your science fiction novel is particularly intriguing to me. When you wrote The Epsilon Eridani Alternative, were you trying to choose the title with the most syllables ever?
Very funny, Julia! Actually, the “Epsilon Eridani” part of the title was a given, since the space colonists are sent to establish a colony on one of its planets. It is a real star, and it is one of the closest stars in our galaxy which space scientists have discovered has at least one planet. This mission is one of a few missions to different near-by planets, trying to find one or more that are hospitable for humans, so that’s where the word “alternative” came from.

Seriously, though, I love the premise: “Space colonists from Earth crash-land on a planet orbiting the star Epsilon Eridani and immediately wrestle with an ethical dilemma. They emerge from their stasis pods 33 years older than when they started and must decide whether or not to harvest stem cells from alien infants to counteract the effects of human aging... even though the process will kill the infants.”

Obviously you’ve done a great deal of thinking about the stem cell debate and its moral complications. What made you take this modern-day ethics issue and put it on a distant star?

That’s almost like asking “Where do you get your ideas?” ;-) Every fiction author struggles with that question, because in reality we don’t usually know the answer. Our subconscious works on problems, issues, and ideas while we sleep, and when we wake up, scenes start appearing in our heads. At least that’s the way it works for me! I started this novella with the “What if?” question of “What if space colonists woke up from their statis pods after a long journey and discovered that they were all old, that the pods hadn’t worked?” The moral issues of stem cell use, evolution, and natural selection, all fell out of what those colonists had to do to survive and perform their mission.

You’ve recently sold a new Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures mystery series about Mindy Tanner, a whitewater ranger. Are you a whitewater rafter?

Yes, I am a true “river rat” and love the adrenaline highs I get from running rapids. I started paddling canoes filled with floatation bags down whitewater rivers back east in the 1980s. Those were the days before self-bailing rafts were invented, which have now replaced canoes on whitewater rivers. The “river rat” language, subculture and techniques for reading the water and finding routes through the rapids has remained the same, though!

Did you interview rangers while you were researching these books?

I interviewed two river rangers who worked for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, where Mandy Tanner works. One of them teaches the spring Swiftwater Rescue course that new seasonal river rangers take each spring, along with local firefighters and other rescue personnel. He invited me to audit a class, and I observed the last day of the three-day course. Most of that day was spent practicing techniques on and off the river for rescuing people and rafts from rocks and “keeper” holes in the river. I chatted with some of the students during breaks, including the female river ranger trainees, to get even more information.

What’s your biggest challenge when you’re writing a novel?

Nowadays, it’s staying on schedule. With my recent Midnight Ink contracts, I’m now on a book-every-eight-months production schedule, and I’ve never taken less than a year to write a book before. My children are grown and I don’t have a “day job,” so I certainly should be able to meet that schedule, but I’ll have to crack the whip on my own back to do it.

Do you follow a particular process when you’re in the midst of a writing project?

As a retired software engineer, as one would suspect, I tend to “engineer” my mysteries. Before writing the first draft, I spend 2-3 months doing research, creating character profiles, and creating a scene-by-scene outline. That doesn’t mean I don’t allow for innovation to occur during the writing process, but by knowing where I’m headed, I can veer that innovation in the right direction to still arrive at the ultimate ending I planned. When I’m writing the first draft, I try to produce about 20 pages a week, which requires me to spend 1-2 sessions lasting 2-3 hours at the computer every workday (Monday – Friday). After finishing the rough draft, I spend 2-3 months editing.

Very organized! Who are some authors whose work you love to read?

Since I’m working on an outdoor-oriented mystery series, I’ve been reading authors with similar sleuths/settings, such as C.J. Box, Dana Stabenow, William Kent Krueger, Nancy Pickard, Craig Johnson, and Margaret Coel. I’ve really been enjoying all of these authors.

You’ve already written in two genres—do you plan to explore others?

I think I’ve bitten off plenty right now—almost more than I can chew! I hope to be able to focus on and write books in my two mystery series for quite awhile. After experimenting with the hard science fiction genre, I’ve decided that it requires too much research. Mystery is the genre I really feel comfortable writing now.

I can think of a million things that seem appealing about Colorado, but you live there—what’s the best? Are there any drawbacks to living in this apparent paradise?

What I like best about living in Colorado is the outdoor ethic among the people who live here. Most try to keep in good-enough shape to enjoy being active outside. The only drawback is the need to protect your skin from the sun when you’re outside in Colorado. Because of our altitude and the thin-air, sunburn and skin cancer are major concerns.

If you had to relocate but could pick anyplace on earth, where would you go?

After living near skiing, but having to travel to go to the ocean, I think I’d try the reverse, living on a beautiful beach in Hawaii, with access to flights to Utah or Colorado to feed my appetite for skiing.

Lovely choice! What’s your favorite hobby aside from writing?

It’s too hard to pick just one! In the winter, I like to be out on the snow skiing, and in the summer, I like to be in the water, either on a river in a raft/tube/duckie or in the ocean snorkeling.

Do you have fun plans for the last of summer?

I’ve already had my three weeks of summer fun with a trip to the Hill Country of Texas, followed by a couple of whitewater rafting trips and my two grown kids coming for a visit over July 4th. Now it’s time to buckle down and get to work on the third book in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series.

Thanks for chatting with me, Beth!

About Beth's book, Deadly Currents: When Mandy Tanner, a 27-year-old river ranger for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in Salida, Colorado, rescues a man who fell out of a raft on the upper Arkansas River and he dies on the river bank, she feels driven to find out what—or who—killed him.