18 May 2017

Mad Dix Finds a Home


Family Fortnight + Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the penultimate essay in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Dixon Hill


It's been a while since I last posted, and it feels nice to visit again.

Hope some of you feel the same! LOL

As you may recall, my wife, Madeleine (aka: "Double-Clutch Click," "Mad Dog" or simply "Mad") and I bought a house last year. (In case you're wondering, Click happens to be her maiden name.)

And, unfortunately, I was having a hard time finding a place to write, because we simply had too much stuff.

Of course, it also had do with the fact that I tend to smoke cigars when I write, and I didn't want to smoke inside the house.

Which, landed me on the back patio – not a good solution during the Phoenix summer.


So, I've been pretty busy since I last visited with you, working to make myself a new backyard office, which is very nearly done.

The photos below show how our backyard has looked for most of my absence …




And, what it looks like now.



We still have a lot of work to do: plants to install (as well as a drip system), retaining walls, etc. But, I'm almost done with my office. Only have to sand the "mud" then paint. After that, I'll move in and start work in earnest ... though, in truth, I've already been using it. I've sent out a short story to a magazine I've long wanted to land a spot in, and I think I've got a fairly good chance of being picked up, having done my homework. (Of course, you never know! Do you?) And, I've sent out a revamp of an old novel, to see to if it can stick to somebody's wall. We'll see what happens.

My office porch and steps, as well as the interior wood trim will come later. First, I want to crank out a large number of stories that are sitting in limbo on my computer. Meanwhile, I'm taking classes on desert landscaping at the Desert Botanical Garden which is just down the road from our house.

In April, we went to the Garden Sale there, and here I am toting home a Totem Pole Cactus. I've also brought in a half-ton of sand stone slabs, which you can see as the stepping stones in that picture above.

But, this post isn't really just about me letting you know what I've been up to. It's really about the way my suffering from "The Writing Bug" affects my marriage, and what my wife has to deal with because of it.

Writing, for me at least, isn't a thing I can turn on or off. Plots and ideas slosh around in the back of my mind, and sometimes parts of them slip out into my conscience thought when I least expect them to. Sometimes when I wish they'd have stayed floating around in whatever sludge inhabits my "little grey cells" a certain fictional sleuth might put it.

I don't know how many times I've been simply driving down the road, or sitting in a chair in the living room, only to hear my wife ask: "Oh, my God! Who are now? And who are you talking to with that look on your face? You look like you're getting ready to choke somebody to death."

See, this is part of my problem, one of the ways it manifests itself when I'm not expecting it. I might have a problem with one of my stories -- a scene, perhaps, in which I've gotten everything on paper, all the little boxes are checked with all the little scraps of information that I needed to get into that scene, but it just isn't right. Maybe it's too mechanical in its writing. Or, perhaps one of the characters just doesn't feel true. Sometimes, one or more of the characters fight me, wanting to do things, other than, or in a very different manner than, the parts I've written them into. And, about that time, it's usually necessary to start dinner. So, I set it all down, shut off my computer, and go in to cook.

But that scene, those characters, their actions, and their feelings: All those things are whirling around in my mind while I cook, as I eat, when I'm trying to talk to my wife and kids.

And here another little puzzle piece fits itself in. See, when I was in high school, I took acting classes at my school for two years, but I also took professional on-camera acting classes at a private academy. I'm not sure if it's fortunate, or unfortunate, but that academy stressed method acting, in which an actor tries to become the character who's persona s/he is trying to assume. And, this can have rather odd effects when I've got a scene whirling around in the back of my mind.

And, as I said earlier, sometimes it slips out. Often, this means that I've gone from just thinking about the scene, to thinking about ways to rewrite it, sometimes by looking at it through the eyes of one of my characters.

Which is why, I'll suddenly hear my wife asking me who I'm talking to, who I'm being, and what the hell I think I'm doing. And, I realize that, though I haven't uttered a word (though I sometimes evidently sort of growl) I've been silently yelling, or telling another character off, or even just letting the angry character silently vent through my face.

Madeleine and the kids have come to accept this (I think) though I'm sure they're not terribly comfortable with it. As for myself, I seldom realize it's happening until I'm brought up short by my wife. At which point I apologize, but can seldom explain my actions in any coherent way.

That's not all my family has to put up with, of course, but I thought I'd give you this example, just to provide a little taste of the weirdness of living with me.

Now, to explain her view of things, I'd like to introduce my wife: a woman of great courage and moral fiber, whom I met in the army; mother of my three children; a woman who fought in the First Gulf War driving an unarmed fuel truck deep into enemy territory; the woman who puts up with my personal eccentricities and (most important to me!) the one and only woman I love:

Madeleine Hill:

When people ask me what my husband does, I tell them he's a freelance writer. Almost immediately, their eyes go soft and look of wonder comes over them. To most people, a writer is the maker of worlds and the ultimate creator. They live in awe of writers and most people wish they had been given the gift of writing.

I seldom reveal the truth to them. I would not steal from them that look of childish wonder, and my lips remain sealed. I will, however, share it with you as what I am going to tell you is probably already known to you. I married Dr. Jekyll, but I LIVE with Mr. Hyde. There it is ... the truth.

The man I married, Dr. Jekyll, is the perfect spouse. He is kind and patient. He is extremely intelligent and full of fun and laughter. He is always reading and gains knowledge by the day. He loves me and our children. He will spend hours with us in perfect harmony. Whatever happens he is rational and forgives easily.

However, when he is in the middle of a writing project, he is transformed into Mr. Hyde.

Mr. Hyde is quite different than the good doctor. Mr. Hyde has little patience and is quick to anger. He is restless and is partial to self-loathing. He is a man in agony. We try to treat Mr. Hyde like the doctor but we rarely succeed. Mr. Hyde will hide himself away for days taking breaks only for meals and the little sleep he allows himself. The work he does, his ART requires nothing short of parts of his soul which he is all too ready to render. To the outside world such a being can be terrifying to see but it is all part of the man we love.

This may all seem a little dramatic but it is the way I can best describe living with a writer, my own creator of worlds.
Mad w/ New Tree

Madeleine



Well, that's it for this visit. You might find it interesting to note that this was written on Mother's Day, while the new hot tub was being filled and fired-up for the first time.

See you some time in the future!
Dixon

P.S.: This is my office at night:

17 May 2017

Family


  Family Fortnight +   Following the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you another article in a series about mystery writers’ view on families. Here’s Fran’s take on the family of her original character, Callie Parrish. Settle back and enjoy!

by Callie Parrish

When Leigh Lundin invited Fran Rizer to participate in Sleuth-sayers' celebration of families, she encouraged her older son, who is in law enforcement, to write the blog. He has a great fiction voice and has been published, but he declined. She consulted her younger son, who after teaching in Japan for years, returned state-side and now works in a nationally acclaimed library. He specializes in children's literature. Turned down again, Rizer asked her teenaged grandson. He replied, "Aw, G-Mama, just use the essay I did before."

What to do? Rizer considered writing about a true crime family like Ma Barker's brood, the James brothers, or any one of numerous others she Googled. In the end, she got busy, and like she's done most of the time since 2007 when the first of eight cozyesque mysteries about me was published, she shoved the writing off on me.

I'm Callie Parrish. After graduating from USC in Columbia, South Carolina, I married and was teaching kindergarten when my then husband did what he did that made me divorce him. He is NO longer part of my family. Robert Frost wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." I came home to St. Mary, on the coast of South Carolina, where I was raised. (I know "reared" is the correct word, but we southerners don't always speak proper English.) Didn't take long living with my redneck father and most of my five older brothers, who also move back home between relationships and jobs, to convince me to get my own place.

My mother died giving birth to me, which is why I'm called Callie. Daddy got drunk, really drunk, after my mother died. When he filled out the papers, he tried to think feminine, which he equated to pink. He couldn't think of anything that color except the stuff folks put on poison oak rash. He named me Calamine Lotion Parrish, which is bad enough. Thank heaven he didn't think of Pepto Bismol.

Role playing at a book signing--left to right: Callie Parrish,
Fran Rizer, Jane Baker.
After my divorce, I realized I was tired of five-year-olds who wouldn't lie still for naptime. Back home, I used the SC Cosmetologist License I earned in high school voc ed to work at Middleton's Mortuary as a cosmetician (Funeraleze for cosmetologist). I like my work because my clients don't get up and run around, nor need to tee tee every five minutes.

Okay, so that's my immediate family--Daddy and five brothers, but to me, my family is much bigger. My bosses, Odell and Otis Middleton, are no longer identical as they were at birth. When they began losing hair, Otis got hair plugs; Odell shaved his head. Otis is a vegetarian who put a tanning bed in the prep room at the funeral home
--not for the dearly departed, but for his personal use. Odell is addicted to barbecue and weighs about forty pounds more than his twin. They treat me so well that I consider them family, also.

Jane Baker has been my best friend since ninth grade when she came back to St. Mary from boarding school. Some folks say Jane is visually challenged, but I call a spade a flippin' shovel. Jane is blind. She works as Roxanne, whom Jane describes as a "phone fantasy actress." What this means is she spends her nights on a 900 line to support herself without depending on anyone for transportation to and from a job. My other best friend, a gorgeous Gullah lady named Rizzie Profit, owns G-Three, which stands for Gastric Gullah Grill. Rizzie has a teenaged brother named Tyrone. I count Jane, Rizzie, Ty, and even Roxanne, as family, too.

To be truthful, and I try to be (most of the time), I used to be a little green-eyed about Jane and Rizzie. Both are better endowed than I am. Inflatable bras and padded fanny panties solve that problem for me.

I don't have any children (yet), but I do have a fur-baby, if you can call any animal his size a baby. That's him with me in my author photo above. When my brother's girlfriend gave me a puppy, I had no idea how large Great Dane dogs grow. Like Topsy, Big Boy just grew and grew and grew. He's an important part of my family, and it terrifies me when he's kidnapped in Ring Around the Rosie, A SKULL FULL OF POSIES, scheduled for publication in September, 2017.

Thank you for letting me introduce you to the most important people in my life. I consider all of them family. To paraphrase my favorite quotation about families: "Family are the people who love you when you're least lovable." The people I've told you about have definitely shown me love over the years, frequently when I probably didn't deserve it.

My employers are Otis and Odell Middleton, but Fran Rizer bosses all of us around. She told me to close with this true anecdote.

An adopted child asked his mother, "Do you love my sister more than me? She's your biological child, and blood is thicker than water."

The mom replied, "I love you both, and love is thicker than blood."

Fran Rizer with two friends who are like family to her.
Left is Richard D. Laudenslager, her collaborator on
SOUTHERN SWAMPS AND RUINS. Right is Gene
Holdway, her "partner in rhyme," with whom she
co-writes music. No, Rizer is not a "little person."
Her writing partners are both over six feet, three.

Until we meet again, take care of … YOU!



In addition to the Callie Parrish mystery series, Rizer's published works include KUDZU RIVER (a southern serial killer thriller), SOUTHERN SWAMPS AND RUINS (a collection of haunting tales in collaboration with Richard D. Laudenslager), and THE HORROR OF JULIE BATES.



PS - Happy birthday today, Rick.

16 May 2017

Until a Split Infinitive Do Us Part


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eighteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Amy Marks
As we close in on the end of family fortnight at SleuthSayers, I’d like to introduce my wife Amy. Some of you may know her already. But whether you do or not, hopefully you’ll get to know her a little better here. Over the years she’s become my editor, my “Max Perkins”. I think every writer needs a Max Perkins and I’m very lucky to have her. And lucky, too, that she likes editing. We’ve had some “discussions” about some of her suggestions, but she’s a great and intuitive editor, and I go with about 75-80% of what she suggests. Our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up in June, so something must be working. And they said it wouldn’t last. —Take it away, Amy:
— Paul





I’m not a writer, but I’m married to one. Which is kind of like that old commercial, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” In fact, I’m not really much of a reader either—or wasn’t when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I love books and I love reading. But when I was a kid I stubbornly refused to wear the glasses that had been prescribed to me from the age of six. I hated them, but without them, reading was a chore. The only time I would wear my glasses is when the lights went out in the movie theater and I would sneak them out of my purse and put them on, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I got contact lenses that I began to enjoy being able to see clearly…and read.

So how did I end up married to a writer? Well, it wasn’t because I was hanging out at literary events. It was because both of us had friends who roped us into “volunteering” to make phone calls to raise money for Unicef. They were doing an old-time, live-audience radio show on Halloween and needed volunteers to call people up and ask for donations. Phone calls, and particularly phone calls asking for money, is not something I enjoy doing… But my one good deed led to meeting Paul, so I guess it was good karma.

When I met Paul he was a screenwriter/script doctor, I’d never read a screenplay before and was curious, so I asked if I could read some stuff. Paul said I could only if I agreed to give him honest feedback and criticism. He didn’t need someone just to tell him how wonderful it was (he had his mom for that). I said, “Sure! No problem.” So I read a couple of screenplays and Paul asked me what I thought of them. And I said, “They were great. I enjoyed them!” And then he asked me why. And I said, “I don’t know, I just liked them.”

Paul "cracking the whip" in the early days.
Well, that didn’t really help and I knew I wasn’t doing him any favors if I just blindly liked everything he wrote.

It took me a while, but I started to learn how to read critically. In fact, one story Paul wrote I didn’t like at all and I told him so. He asked me why I didn’t like it. And again I said, “I don’t know.” I realized it was just as hard to define why I didn’t like something as it was to define why I did. I had to learn how to think critically and how to articulate those thoughts.

At some point I started not only reading and providing feedback, but doing actual editing on Paul’s work. While my day job is as a trust administrator for a bank, I like having this sort of alter-ego, creative side that I can change into when I get home. I love my day job, but I also like being able to stretch out and be an editor. Sometimes it’s a challenge and Paul and I don’t always agree on things. I’ve learned to speak my mind and stand up for my point of view. Sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t.

Paul and I arguing about edits.
I guess I could have not gotten involved in Paul’s writing at all. I could have said, “I’m not a writer. That’s your thing, not mine. I’ll just sit here and do my own thing while you write.” But I wanted to be involved in his work. I loved his writing. I loved his ability to create stories and characters. To turn words into experiences and feelings. I wanted to share in that experience. So we became a partnership, a team, a rock band (without all the break-ups or the replaceable drummers).

Over the years of our marriage, and as Paul transitioned from screenwriting to short stories and novels, I’ve had to learn a lot of things that I never would have had to learn or experience if I hadn’t met him. I’ve had to learn why I like something and why I don’t. Why one book is memorable and another is a bore. I had to understand my own tastes and preferences and learn how to be objective (if one can be objective). I’ve also had to learn a whole bunch of things that might not mean a lot to most people, but that to a writer are important: the difference between an en dash and an em dash. When to use a comma (well, sometimes, I still struggle with when a comma is really necessary). The three act structure. The difference between a shot and a slug line. The difference between it’s and its. What’s a character arc? What’s purple prose? What’s a plot twist? A reversal? And even the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic. And I love being able to keep learning new things.
Paul and Amy in the early years

Some people have asked me if I’ve ever wanted to write my own stuff. No way. I get my fun out of reading and editing, contributing ideas and thoughts. My creative juices flow more towards visual arts, I like to paint and draw, and problem solving and brain storming, just as I like solving real puzzles. In fact, when we were in New York just a few weeks ago when Paul won the Ellery Queen Readers Poll award, I met Peter Kanter the president of Dell Magazines/Penny Publications and told him how much I like their logic puzzles. When we got home, there was a package waiting at our P.O. Box full of Dell puzzle books and logic puzzle books in particular. How cool is that? Thank you! Yes, I’m a puzzle geek and in another life I probably would have been a mathematician or a detective.

And there are a lot of other perks. Meeting cool and interesting people, other writers and people in the publishing industry, traveling. And tons of free books all over the place. So many that we’re being “booked” out of house and home…

If I hadn't met Paul I wouldn't have met that other Paul
and had backstage passes for Paul McCartney.
And that was really cool!
I’ve read some of the other blogs from family members over the past few weeks and it’s struck me how everyone has the same challenges. I just read Art Taylor’s interview with his wife Tara Laskowski and realized we’re not alone in how time-crunched we are. And we don’t even have a five year old, but we do have two big dogs and until recently two cats! That’s like having a five year old or two… And I related to Robyn Thornton’s story about being frustrated when her husband Brian was too busy to help her put together a stool. It can be hard to put up with the demanding writing “mistress” taking up all their time.

But I also love coming home at night where Paul and I will plunk ourselves down in front of our side by side computers and dig into the writing work. We usually don’t break for dinner until around 8 or 8:30 pm. Dinner is often microwave frozen stuff—nothing that takes more than 10 minutes, maybe catch the end of a murder show on TV and try to get to bed by 10 pm. And, I have a confession to make: our house doesn’t get cleaned very often… If you meet a writer with a clean house, I would suspect writer’s block has something to do with it.

Paul and I at a Sisters in Crime Holiday Party
- photo by Andrew Pierce.
Have there been times when I’ve wondered what it would be like to not be married to a writer? What it would be like to come home and sit in front of the TV, veg out for a couple of hours, take a leisurely bath and sleep eight maybe nine hours? Yes, and to be honest, I think I could do that for a few days (it’s called vacation). Then I’d probably be bored out of my skull.

We work hard, but we have fun doing it. We get to work on stuff together, learn stuff together and sometimes (or often) make mistakes together. And we are never, never bored.


Oh, yeah, we have fun!
And then there’s that other thing that many of the other family members who’ve blogged this past few weeks have mentioned: understanding that writing is not a job, it’s not a nine-to-five vocation. You don’t turn off the lights and lock the office door at 5 o’clock. You don’t put it away for the weekend. You live and breathe it every day.

So, it’s crazy and fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love that we can work together and that we understand each other. I understand his need to write. And he understands my need to not be a writer, but to be the one figuring out where to put the commas and how to keep the machinery running smoothly.




And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.





15 May 2017

The Ties That Bind


  Family Fortnight +   Today, the 15th of May, marks the International Day of Families. For the past two weeks, our mystery writers have written of kith and kin, of loved ones and dear ones, and we have more articles to go plus some follow-ups. We’re happy to invite David and daughter to celebrate this world holiday. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Dean and Bridgid Dean

Today is International Family Day, an occasion that I was unaware of until Leigh Lundin made me so. He also asked if I would consider writing an article on the subject. Being an internationally recognized expert on the subject of families, this was agreeable to me.

Most of us have families, whether through blood, adoption, or, in some cases, through convenient, and hopefully beneficial, social arrangements. I wouldn't be going out on a limb if I also added that most of us have, or have had, conflicting feelings about these same families. It's safe to say that much of the stress, anguish, and worry we experience in our lives comes as a result of these unruly, and often ungovernable, social units. Growing up we can hardly contain our exuberance when thinking of that blessed day when we, too, will be adults like our awful parents… and free! Then, for reasons both unclear and diabolical, we finally do leave home, find a mate, produce children, and become truly awful parents ourselves. Maybe not every moment of every day (we do have to sleep after all), but in the invisible yet meticulously maintained ledger of infractions kept by all children, we are judged sadly lacking in all the important categories. Clearly, the only thing learned from our own awful parents was to reproduce their sad failings. And then there's adolescence…

When children enter into this infernal stage the very gates of family hell swing wide emitting foul odors and spewing forth imps and devils, artfully, and awfully, disguised as your own issue. Entering into this dark region slays and tramples all remaining hopes but one– that someday, and God willing, someday soon, those children of the damned will also be visited with adulthood and leave the family manse… if it still stands!

And yet, for reasons that are mostly unreasonable, we find ourselves dreading that day, as well, and saddened when it finally does happen; comically nostalgic for the days we were a young family. Even those children turned adults, having now tasted the dubious freedoms they once longed for, purr like contented kittens during visits home. It has even been remarked by my children that their mother and I have grown more intelligent and reasonable with the years, a possibility none of them had foreseen.

So how did we weather the tumultuous years that we now look back so fondly to? There were two methods employed to save us from the lengthy prisons terms we all contemplated from time to time. The first was a dog. Not just any dog, but a Welsh Corgi. We are a Celtic-derived family and therefore must have a Celtic canine. Silke, as she came to be called, fit right in, being both untrainable and demanding. She was just as uncompromising as the rest of us, only probably smarter. Yet, the kids adored her, and their mother and I were roped in as well.

Corgi
In a very Celtic way Silke became our sin-eater. No matter how badly we behaved toward one another, she was always available to be stroked and petted, somehow soothing and calming us in the process of tending to her unending need for affection. By being so needy and demanding, she drew us out of our own selfishness. And because she was inadvertently comical and endearing, she was a subject we could always talk about. Silke was a movable conflict-free zone.

But it is the second method--reading, that is more germane to this blog site. The family I grew up in did not often indulge in the written word. My parents were not well educated and, having grown up working, had never had the leisure time for recreational reading. It was my good fortune, and through their hard work, that I was provided with that very luxury– a gift beyond rubies. Not that they encouraged me to read, but seeing that I had a knack for it, they did not oppose it. In fact, when they observed that I was becoming a voracious reader of stories, novels, newspapers, and comic books, they were mildly amused, if somewhat cautious, being unsure of the results of such indiscriminate mental activity.

At greater family gatherings it was sometimes pointed out with a certain pride that I read a lot of books. My relatives' reaction to such an announcement ran the gamut from mild astonishment as to why anyone would do such a thing, to concern for my mental health and spiritual well-being. Still, I pressed on, and many years later looked about me one day to find that all of my own progeny had picked up books from somewhere and were reading them. It must have been the silence and unaccustomed peacefulness of my suddenly unfamiliar surroundings that tipped me off. I had failed to notice the start of this phenomenon and was, like my relatives before me, mildly astonished at the development. Could it be that my children and I shared some common thread beside DNA, I asked myself. Was it possible?

Like an animal trainer that's been bitten and mauled, I proceeded with caution, gently inquiring as to the subjects of their readings, while sliding books of my own choosing through the bars of their theoretical cages. Mostly, after a sniff or two, these were rejected– though not with snarls or bared fangs, just shifted back to me without comment. I was encouraged and found that with patience and literary forbearance we soon began to use the spoken word to discuss authors and stories, even progressing to the ideas and inspirations that might have motivated them. And all of this without heated argument or emotional eruptions! I questioned my own sanity. Could this really be happening? My wife assured me that it was all real.

Julian and J. Joyce in Dublin
Oh, how I wish I could say that the Dean household's serenity was nevermore disturbed by a voice raised in anger, or shrill with indignation. Alas for all you hopeful young parents out there, it cannot be done. We devolved on more occasions than I would willingly recall… but now there were bright oases that we arrived at from time to time in our family journey, like restful, green isles scattered across a turbulent, grey sea. Just when it seemed that my mutinous crew would finally toss me overboard, we would wash up onto a wide, warm beach and peace be restored with the opening of a book.

Many years later, I still discuss stories, books, and writers with my adult children. And it's rare I come away from visits to their homes without a book selected from their shelves.

Our son, Julian, is turning his love of reading into a profession, having just been accepted into Notre Dame University's PH.d program for literature. He will be specializing in Irish works. It seems Ireland has produced some decent authors over the years. Who knew?

My eldest girl, Tanya, still waxes nostalgic over our reading of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when she was but a child.

Her sister, Bridgid, not only retained her appetite for literature, but has become a writer, as well, having produced her first novella, The Girl In The Forest. (You'll hear from her in just a moment.)

So here you have it, on this International Family Day, all of my wisdom and experience contained in these two exhortations: Get a pet and scatter books about like landmines! It worked for us and could for you.



Bridgid’s View of Things

While it is hard to argue with the notion that my parents have grown more reasonable over the years since we've left home (probably because they didn't have us kids around, irritating them to distraction!) I would like to point out that I always thought they were intelligent. This point was particularly impressed upon me when, at the age of eight, I heard that my dad was going to have a story published for the first time.

My sister was already in college and my brother was only five, but I was at home and just old enough to be in the midst of really discovering reading for myself. I recall eight as the age when the books no longer had pictures, becoming, instead, thin novels with exciting covers, full of amazing plot twists. They were peopled with characters that made you wonder who you might one day be, what you might do in those unfathomable years ahead. I was probably in the midst of devouring yet another John Bellairs book when I heard the news of the my dad's first story being published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magzine. And, as though someone had opened a window in the house, a fresh breeze scented with possibility wafted through, rifling the pages of my book.

This was also the year in school when we first had to keep a journal as an assignment, writing for some designated period of each day. It soon became apparent that I loved to write; my classmates would gladly close their notebooks once they had completed the minimum requirement but I kept going, filling page after page, stopping only when the teacher said we had to move on to something else. Later in the year, while talking about occupations, my teacher said she could see me becoming a writer. Right then and there I decided that that this was exactly what I wanted to do. Quite thoughtfully, my dad had just begun proving that this was an achievable goal for readers like us.

As my dad mentioned, books were always present in our house. Book shelves were stocked like bomber pantries, the library was visited twice a week, and favorite books were passed between us like sacred gifts. My sister's gift of the Hobbit, decades later, still sits on my shelf, read many times. From my dad I got Graham Greene, from my mother, Jane Austen. To my brother I bequeathed Anne Rice, though he might not care to admit it to his fellow doctoral students.

Happy International Family Day
Even when distance or time kept us from discussing a book that we had shared, the act of sharing it always felt significant. My older sister is the fantasy reader amongst us, with the Hobbit she offered me a doorway into a world to which I had not yet entered, but one that I knew was very significant to her.

Books felt, sometimes, like keys in this way. Keys to the inner worlds of our family members, keys to what they loved, and a means of sharing in it. Books have provided a common ground, a shared interest, and, at times, something else to argue about. What could be more significant?

Well… okay. Maybe a Corgi.

14 May 2017

Opposites Attract


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the sixteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy this Mother’s Day article!

by Leigh Lundin

My parents were complete opposites. Dad was tall and enormously strong at 6’4 and 240 pounds. Legend said he once lifted a tractor off a man. On the way into the city for my world debut, their car slid off an icy Iowa country road. Dad shouldered the car back onto the track, and they continued to the hospital.

Mom weighed a hundred pounds and topped a shade over five feet. Even so, she could be ferocious. Dad was easy-going; Mom was anything but. The word ‘feisty’ was one of the milder applicable adjectives.

Dad was slow-talking and patient. Mom wasn’t. She could fit a couple of paragraphs in between any two words of his. As for patience, I think she ripped that page out of the dictionary.

Animals, children, and women of all sorts loved Dad. Mom could stare down lions and tigers.

Dad farmed and was gifted at mechanics, but unexpectedly, he was a self-taught polymath. It’s difficult to discuss his range of interests, because they included pretty much everything– math, science, psychology, philosophy, literature, art, poetry, and world events. On Sundays, he’d listen to opera on the radio followed by baseball. He was a google before Google– it seemed impossible to name a subject he either didn’t know or know where to find it.

Each year, my mother purchased a Playboy subscription for my father. She often pointed out pretty women on the street. When her friends questioned her sanity, she said she liked that her husband appreciated beautiful women and preferred her most of all.

In these days of parental hysteria, if little Johnny or Jane sees a bare boob or bottom, the child’s life is considered ruined. This seems so alien to the way I was raised given not only my parents, but my artist Aunt Rae. Nudity in art hung on walls and appeared in books all around us. We weren’t actually proffered Playboy, but being kids, we discovered where they were kept and we caught up on the ‘articles’ from time to time. We learned the lesson that sex was natural and part of a loving environment. When I moved to New York, many residents appeared repressed to me. Bear in mind that New York then had restrictions on selling of condoms and even discussions of birth control.

Swelter Smelter

Dad slept two to four hours a night. Mom could sleep twelve and take an afternoon nap. My father owned pajamas, but apparently never wore them. My mother would appear in the late morning swathed in his oversized PJs, a fuzzy towel pinned around her neck, an ancient green cardigan buttoned over that, boy’s argyle socks… and that’s merely the part we could see. If Dad slept nude, Mom covered up for an Arctic winter.

Once a year, Mother made an exception when Dad’s mother visited. My mom and grandmother loved each other, but they also loved to annoy each other. During her mother-in-law’s visits, Mom wore short-shorts and a halter top, clearly hoping to needle Granny. How Mom survived those freezing 98° temperatures, no one knows.

Mom’s broken thermostat and susceptibility to chills carried over into the car. On a summer day with the windows rolled up and no air conditioning, we kids gasped for oxygen. If we dared roll down the window a crack, Mom would say, “There’s a draft… I can feel it.” Dad typically responded with a dry admonition. “Boys, it’s only 98° and your mother’s chilled. If your flesh isn’t melting, roll up the window.”

Supercharged Action Heroine

Dad usually drove an old truck or car that interested him at the time, but he made sure Mom had a nice car. He bought Mom a Packard with a supercharged V-8 and the acceleration of a Lear Jet.

Mom sat on a cushion to peer over the hood. To a casual observer unable to see a driver, the Packard must have looked like it drove itself.

For such a tiny thing, Mom had a lead foot. Her gas pedal had only two positions– off and full on. One of my grade school classmates described a Sunday morning when we met at a highway crossroads. Both vehicles politely stopped at the stop signs and then Mom rocketed off. Roger claimed that by the time their family reached the town limits, we were sitting in church singing hymns.

Mom versus Chuck Berry

Two branches of a local Everhart family turned out wildly divergent. One exhibited a wicked sense of humor, the other had no humor gene at all. Naturally this latter bullying branch, Lloyd, Floyd, and Lester, rode our school bus and made life miserable for the rest of us. Actually Lloyd wasn’t bad, but the other two had the girth and temperament of constipated Cape buffalo. Flexing arms the size of 55-gallon drums, they boyishly liked to stress-test the reflexes of kids three, four, five years younger. As long as they didn't get blood or body parts on the seats, our school bus driver was content to ignore their playful antics.

Slight relief came about when Floyd reached high school age and bought an old Studebaker junker. He souped up the engine and from there on out, terrified citizens on the highway instead of us kids on the bus.

Studebaker versus the Packard
1951 Studebaker Commander 1958 Studebaker Packard Hawk

One fine day on a ride with Mom, she swept up on the bumper of Everhart, who wasn't used to seeing anything arrive in his rear-view mirror. About now you can start humming Maybellene.
As we was motivatin’ over the hill,
Everhart was whuppin’ a Coup de Ville.
His Studebaker a-rollin’ out of the gate,
But nothin’ outrun Mom’s Packard V-8.
Mom swung out to pass him, again not something bully boy Everhart was used to seeing. He leaned forward and gripped the wheel.
His Studebaker doin’ about ninety-five,
She's bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side.
He punched the accelerator. The barrels of his carburetor opened, gulping raw gasoline into the cylinders. The gutted mufflers roared flaming unburned fuel.
Next thing I saw that Studebaker grill
Doin’ a hundred and ten gallopin’ over that hill.
Off hill curve, a downhill stretch,
We and that Studebaker neck and neck.
Realizing she wasn't passing as expected, Mom goosed the accelerator. Thrown back in our seats, my brother and I, mouths agape in horror, were petrified– NO ONE messed with an angry Everhart. Seeing he was losing ground, he plunged his pedal to the floor. He was determined no broad was going to pull ahead of him.
The Studebaker pulled up door to door,
Struggling and straining, it wouldn't do no more.
The sky clouded over and it started to rain.
Mom tooted her horn from the passin’ lane.
Still in the left side of the road, Mom glanced over and said, "What is that boy doing?" She floored it. The supercharger clutch engaged. Its rotors whined as it spun up, pressurizing air, vaporizing fuel, taching 6000… 7000 RPM.
The motor wound up, the shift went down
And that’s when we heard that highway sound.
The Studebaker lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
She passed Everhart at the top of the hill.
Everhart faded to a dim speck on the horizon. Uh-oh.

My brother and I, half the size of Everhart, fully expected him to corner us and beat us to death with a rusty tire iron. We hadn’t, however, counted on his embarrassment. Everhart was so mortified, so humiliated to be out-raced by our tiny mother, he avoided us, turning away whenever he saw us coming.

Gossip of the escapade reached my father. He quietly removed the belt from the supercharger, claiming its bearings had overheated. Mom noticed something amiss and complained its get-up-and-go had got up and gone.

Just another day in the life of my family. With characters like my parents, how could anyone not expect me to write?

13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."

12 May 2017

Two Writers—And a Third in the Making?


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fourteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Art Taylor

Earlier in our Family Fortnight series, Brian Thornton asked his wife Robyn to contribute a post about being married to a writer—a terrific and insightful essay all around, ending with Robyn inspired to start writing herself. I'd already planned on getting my wife, Tara Laskowski, involved in my post, but in our case, Tara and I are both long-time writers—which at times may seem double trouble (more on that below!) and at other times may give us at least glimpses into what the other person is going through, whether that's a burst of creative energy (needing time for ideas to play out, for the imagination to indulge itself) or a stroke of self-doubt (needing support and encouragement).

Art and Tara at Malice Domestic, April 2016
Tara and I first met at George Mason University, where we were both working toward our MFAs in creative writing. We were in fiction workshops together, sharing and commenting on our respective stories, and it was our mutual admiration for one another's work that led first to friendship and then to more. Since graduation, we have both been very fortunate with the generous attention our writing has received, especially in more recent years—and even recent days. Since my last post here at SleuthSayers, my story "Parallel Play" won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and in recent weeks, Tara's collection Bystanders won the Balcones Fiction Prize and her story "The Jar" was named by Wigleaf among the top 50 flash fiction stories of 2016. We're grateful on all counts, of course, but while friends and acquaintances have sometimes complimented us how how easily we seem to navigate being writers alongside managing day jobs and raising our son Dash, the truth is that behind the scenes... well, let's get straight to the interview.

Art Taylor: We talk sometimes about navigating our various day-to-day roles and responsibilities, but too often that “navigation” seems more like steering a foundering ship through tempest-tossed seas. (This sentence is, of course, the most creative writing I’ve done in a while.) Can you give folks a glimpse into our writing processes? How do we accomplish things as two writers in the same household, parenting a five-year-old and more? 
Tara Laskowski: I don’t know. How do we? Do we actually accomplish anything? Sometimes I feel like we are super-hero bad-asses. Other times I feel like we are fumbling and failing. I suppose that’s part of your tempest sea, right? The up-and-down motion of the waves. Sadly, I get really seasick, so this isn’t boding well for me…

Ok, writing process. Well, you have the summer and winter breaks in between classes to do massive crunch time writing since the academic year provides a challenge. I have a 40-minute train ride to and from work each day to try to fit in my work. I guess that’s how we’ve been managing it, with a few luxurious-seeming writing retreats and an occasional “I need an hour to do this thing” on the weekend request. It all feels very piecemeal at times, but it seems to be working for us, right now anyway.
Earlier this week here at SleuthSayers, Melissa Yi wrote about her children telling her, “Mom. You don’t spend enough time with us” and “You’re always on your computer.” Do you get those questions or feel that pressure as well? And if so, how do you deal with that—by which I mean both deal with the question and deal with it internally, emotionally, etc.?
Oh yes. That is a horrible guilt. Every time I pick up my phone to check something with Dash in the room, I hear the "Cats in the Cradle" song start playing in my head. That is a constant struggle. So much of what we do is device-related. It's not even just writing—although I often suffer from "novel head" where I'm working on a scene or thinking about a character while going about my normal daily life. If I have a second, I usually am reminded of something I need to put on our grocery list (which is on my phone) or someone I need to email back. Or we're talking and we can't remember who wrote that song or what the weather is going to be like the next day. The worst thing Dash ever utters to either of us is "Come play with me!" when we're doing something on our phone or computer. I think we try with varying degrees of success to put the phone away, but it's definitely not something that either of us has figured out how to conquer. Would you agree?
I would—and you’re right that it’s not just writing but everything. I still remember a small epiphany back during those first couple of years, when I was teaching online classes and evening classes so I could take care of Dash during the day. I had ended up in a middle of a tense series of emails with a student complaining about a grade, and I felt this urgency to keep responding. Even though Dash and I were out at a playground and Dash was pulling at me to pay attention to him, I kept peck, peck, pecking at my phone and—and suddenly I realized that the email could wait and that in the long-run this student wasn’t going to remember me or the class, but that the little boy in front of me…. well, short-term, long-run, he was the one who meant the most. I put the phone away, and these days I put it away each evening until after Dash is in bed, just to keep my attention centered.

Shift in focus now. The year that Dash was born, I read a story—a Derringer Award finalist—that was about the abduction and then return of a child, and even though references to abuse were only hinted at instead of explicitly depicted, the story was nearly crippling to read. And yet, not long after that, I wrote a story myself that was about a child in peril and a parent’s determination to protect her son and about the anxieties of parenting in general. How has your own writing or your reading changed since Dash was born?

I am a huge horror fan. Before Dash, I’d watch pretty much any horror movie, even the torture porn (though it was never my favorite). After Dash, that changed dramatically. I still love the genre, but I can’t read or watch anything that involves kids or even something very domestic (think Funny Games). I trend more toward the supernatural scares now, I guess. Part of it is just some parental instinct, I think—you can’t help but project yourself on the things you watch/read, and you certainly cannot bear to think of your child being in harm’s way. But more than that, I’ve realized how senseless some of the kid stuff is in horror. It either seems like a cheap device to get an emotional reaction out of the consumer, or it is just badly done.

I’ve also found that I write more about kids now that I have one. I was always hesitant to put children characters in my writing because I didn’t think I knew them well enough—knew how they thought, acted, etc. (See my above gripe about this being badly done.) But now that so much of my life is interacting with these little people, I feel like I have a slightly (slightly!) better understanding of how they work. And that is: they never want to brush their teeth, they never want to put on their shoes, they never want to take a bath, they never want to get out of the bath, they never want to go to sleep, they never want to get up in the morning. So they are, basically, just like me.
Dash at his first writing conference:
Bay to Ocean, Maryland, March 2016
I can’t recall if it was after I'd been away at Malice Domestic one year or after Bouchercon, but I do remember the evening that we caught Dash sitting up in bed, his stuffed animals arranged in a semi-circle in front of them, and each of them with a book tucked next to them. “We’re at a conference,” he told us, when we asked what he was doing.

And then there was the time he tried to explain to his preschool teachers that he’d been at a book launch over the weekend, and he got frustrated when they didn’t understand the phrase. (“You bought a book and then had lunch?”) How do you think it impacts Dash’s life to have two writers as parents?
I think Dash will either completely embrace reading and writing as his life or he will rebel against us and do something completely, utterly different. I do not care. I mean, I care a little; obviously I’d like for him to be a lit geek. But as long as he has a passion for learning and creativity in whatever form that takes—computers, math, fine arts, dancing, video game design, dinosaurs, baseball—I’m cool with it. I hope that in seeing how passionate we are about our craft, Dash will understand the importance of keeping at something even when it’s difficult, even when you fail sometimes. That’s all I ask.

11 May 2017

Who's your family?


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the thirteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

May 15th is the International Day of the Family, which will undoubtedly be celebrated by many people pretending they're going to get Norman Rockwell, but knowing it'll be more twisted:

Call me cynical, but I've been around. More as an observer than as a participant, because, as many of you know by now, I was an adopted child. As I've said before, I arrived here back in 1957, a mystified 2½-year-old, with a bad cold, a TWA flight bag (which I still have), and a charm against the evil eye pinned to my dress. But I finally made it, and I became Charlie and Elaine's daughter.

Now it wasn't always sweetness and light in our house – there were a few alcohol issues, for one thing – but I don't think it's sweetness and light at any house except on the Hallmark channel. But I can assure you that I was their daughter, and they were my parents, legally, emotionally, really. Which was surprisingly hard to get across to a lot of people.

Some standard stupid comments and/or questions:
Me, in the Athens orphanage
  • "Shame your parents couldn't have children of their own." (Uh, they did. Me.)
  • "Don't you wonder who your real parents were?" (Uh, biologically, yes - I need to know who to blame for the thalassemia and the arthritis. But I know who my REAL parents were: they were the people who raised me, fed me, housed me, clothed me, loved me, and generally put up with me for all those years.)
  • "Do you ever wish you had a real family?" (See answer to above. I do at times wish we had been a LARGER family - I had no brothers or sisters, and only one uncle, who we rarely saw. It would have been nice to have a few more people to talk to or at least someone else to take the heat…)
  • "Have you ever thought of finding your biological parents?" (Yeah, especially when I was a teenager and trying to hurt my real parents, as in, somewhere I'm a PRINCESS, dammit! Or Aristotle Onassis' illegitimate daughter, and when I get the money, I'm going to do ANYTHING I WANT!!!! Sigh. Teenagers.)  
Actually, I did try, years after my parents died, to "discover my roots" and it didn't end well. Far from it. The story was one of illegitimacy and shame and abandonment and the hope that I would vanish forever. So I did. But it still hurt. As a contrast to all those TV shows and articles about adoptees hunting down their biological parents so "they can find out who they are." Listen, if you need someone else to tell you who you are, what you really need is therapy, not more relatives in the mix.

Speaking of finding out who you are, years ago, I was at the great tribal family reunion back in my grandmother's home town. BTW, it's my personal theory that family reunions are what gave Peter (or whoever translated 1 Peter 2:9 back in King James' time) the idea of calling us "a peculiar people". Anyway, various members of the tribe were acting like complete lunatics, and I realized, in a flash of insight: "I don't have to be like these people. this is not my gene pool." It was an extremely liberating experience, because at that moment I realized that I could be anyone and anything I wanted to be. I didn't have to find myself, I could become myself. There were no pre-set patterns. And that's very important.

Because sometimes not being adopted gets in the way. In small towns, you hear all the time, "Well, they can't help it, they're just like their father/mother/whoever", or "what can you expect, with that family?" Small towns never forget, and they always bring it up (whatever it is), and this is another reason why young people move to big cities. It's the equivalent of getting themselves adopted.

Another advantage is that, in the immortal words of Chance the Gardener, "I get to watch." I watch as people tell me that their family is everything to them. Sometimes this is true, and they have a wonderful family straight out of the Waltons. Other times, however, I see people giving up friends, education, opportunities, careers, even love, all for the sake of not rocking the boat, or (gasp! the horror!) being different from the rest of the tribe. I watch as people somehow manage to live in the same house with people they never speak to.
  • NOTE: I was working for a lawyer in Tennessee, when a woman came in to talk about the situation at home. She was afraid that her mother, a widow, was giving all her money to the ne'er-do-well youngest, and she didn't know what to do about it. I asked where her mother lived, and she said, "With me." I asked, "Well, why don't you talk to her about it?" "Oh, I couldn't do that." Jeez, Louise...
This is why I think another advantage of being adopted is that I've learned that whoever loves you is your family. Blood is irrelevant. Friends can indeed "stick closer than a brother".

Paget Holmes Yellow Face child.jpgFinally, I'd like to submit to you what is often described as Arthur Conan Doyle's most sentimental piece, and an old favorite of mine: "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Grant Munro's wife, Effie, has been begging money from him and begging him to not ask why. Mr. Munro fears that his wife's first husband, presumed dead in America from yellow fever, did not die, and is now blackmailing her for being a bigamist. He has followed her to an obscure cottage, where a creature with a livid inhuman face stared out the window. Holmes, Watson, and Mr. Munro go to the cottage and force their way in. The creature is a little girl in a mask, who, unmasked, proves to be Effie's daughter by her [truly] deceased husband, John Hebron, who was "of African descent". Effie explains everything, saying that she was, and still is, afraid that Mr. Munro would never accept a black child in his home.
It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door.
“We can talk it over more comfortably at home,” said he. “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”
What can I say? I tear up a little every time I read that. God bless you, Mother and Daddy, and thank you for being better than you ever knew.