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!

by Eve Fisher

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.

10 May 2017

Rattling the Cupboards

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

by David Edgerley Gates

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy famously says, and each unhappy family unhappy in their own way. Tolstoy certainly knew from personal experience. John le Carré is another writer whose unsettling family history gave him not only a template, but a theme. He tells us the habits of concealment have served him a lifetime - not always with the desired result. Skeletons in closets.

Buried secrets are an old literary device. The buried past particularly. I'm always a sucker for it, and it's one I've used myself fairly often. I have to wonder too, like le Carré, how much of my personal history conspires to make the secret so attractive.

Well, first off, there's the official record - not all of it on the record, naturally. Most people know I was a Russian linguist and intercept analyst when I was in the Air Force, and probably as many people know from reading my posts here that my uncle Charlie Haskins was at Bletchley Park during WWII. He also served on Eisenhower's national security staff during Eisenhower's presidency. I suspect there's more to his life in the secret world, but I'll never know. Going back another generation, his own dad, the historian Charles Homer Haskins, was at Versailles with Wilson, in 1919. Specifically, he served on the commission to administer the Saar. You wouldn't think this was a political hot potato, because everybody pretty much conceded the French would control the coalfields, but it may have been one of Wilson's bargaining chips with Clemenceau. Wilson himself was impatient with the machinations at the conference, but his main advisor (and intelligence chief) Col. House didn't mind getting his hands dirty, and my grandfather reported to House. I can only guess, but given my fanciful nature, I imagine there's probably more to this than meets the eye.

Then, we got the unofficial. My mom's family, the same lineage as above, had one of those episodes everybody was deeply embarrassed about, and it was rarely spoken of. The problem being, for a kid, is that the hints and silent glances only made you want more, and more was never forthcoming, which of course made the whole thing out to be worse than it was. This dark blot on the escutcheon was the fact that my great-grandparents had divorced, a scandal that apparently shook late 19th-century St. Louis society, not least because he divorced her, which to all intents and purposes branded her a Scarlet Woman. A veil is drawn across what actually happened, but the point isn't what in fact actually happened - with a lot of spadework, my sister Bea has dug out the details - but that everybody felt it was too shameful, it had to stay hidden, it couldn't be talked of. Like the madwoman in the attic, Mrs. Rochester. There's more than a little of the Gothic, here.

It turns out there really is somebody in the attic, too, now you mention it. My grandfather, my mom's dad, the aforementioned Charles Homer Haskins, came down with Parkinson's. He had to give up teaching, and the slow degenerative process wore him down. It killed him at 66. For the last years of his life, he lived on the third floor of the house in Cambridge he and his wife had built early in their marriage. As a boy, I'd always found my grandmother's house spooky and dark, haunted not too strong a word. And it was only years later, when the house was being sold, that I ever ventured up to the third floor. To my enormous surprise, it was filled with light. Made me feel a lot better, truth be told, to know he wasn't left in darkness.

There's another legacy of shadow, the troubled relationship between their children, my mom and her two brothers. My uncle Charlie was the middle one, and from all the evidence a mediating influence. My uncle George was the oldest. Seen at this remove, a bully, emotionally abusive, a predator. Nothing to be done about it now. Not that I'd have a problem pissing on his grave. My real revenge would be to write a book about it, and cast him as the heavy.

It's odd to realize you get material out of this. If not the actual, the impulse. All that compacted sadness. It's not right, somehow. Or maybe we're making amends. That sorrow isn't of our making. It's gone, it's done, it's well beyond our control, it was never ours to begin with. Perhaps this is how we claim ownership, the way we bear witness. Survivors' guilt. We owe them. This is the coin we carry for the ferryman, to pay for our own crossing.

09 May 2017

The most important thing in the world

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

by Melissa Yi, Patreon

“Mom. You don’t spend enough time with us.”

“I finished the Wimpy Kid book and read most of Big Nate to you!” I told my grade one daughter, Anastasia, and my grade five son, Max, in turn. He likes Wimpy Kid too, but he’s finished them already.

“You’re always on your computer.”

“Right. Right. When I’m done, I’ll play with you.”

“But you’re never done!”

This is true. And yet, somehow we manage, much like Melodie Campbell pointed out. Still, there’s a reason that I grabbed Ayelet Waldeman’s book, Bad Mother, and ripped through it. I’d already enjoyed her Mommy Track mysteries, long before I had kids.



On the other hand, there’s this:

Anastasia: I wrote a book!

Me: Wow, that’s really good. I like the first three pages.

Anastasia: Now, you draw one page, Mommy.

Me: Oh, okay. I see it’s all blond girls. Let me draw one with brown skin.

Anastasia: I don’t like people with brown skin.

Me: But that’s us! That means you don’t like us. Clearly, we need to hang around with more brown people. [I draw a brown girl anyway.]

Max: Do you want to sell your book?

Anastasia: Okay.

Max: I’ll give you 24 cents.

Anastasia: Okay.


Mixed feelings. On one hand, my kids have learned to make, sell, and buy books. On the other hand, I obviously have to work on race relations and self-love.



“That character is obviously Max,” said my husband, after reading about Kevin. “He takes off his pants and squashes your blanket? No contest.”

“That’s me,” said Max.

But actually, I started writing Hope’s little brother after I graduated from residency, years before I had him. It’s scary how long I’ve take to write these books, since now Max is older than Kevin, who’s turning nine. But he has definitely been incorporated into Kevin. When I was working with Kobo on a promotional campaign, the creative guy said, “I don’t know what eight-year-old boys like,” and I said, “I’ve got you covered.”

“Where’s me?” said Anastasia.

“She doesn’t have a little sister or cousin in this series. Maybe later,” I said.

She nodded. She’s good about stuff like that.



So family and writing has a variable relationship for me. Family cuts into my time, but also inspires my writing and makes my life so much richer and more vibrant.

John Wooden says, “The most important thing in the world is family and love.”

I feel torn about this. For sure, without my family, I could have medical and writing success, and I, personally, would feel empty.

On the other hand, I truly need a room, time, and mental space of my own in order to create.

How do we balance this?




In other news, Human Remains debuted April 25 th and hit the Kobo top ten, plus I made some inroads on Amazon. Celebrate with a free copy at https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/human-remains-5 with the promo code HRemains!

If you don’t know how to use a promo code on Kobo, I made a page here: http://melissayuaninnes.com/how-to-use-a-kobo-promo-code/.

Please note that the code HRemains does not work on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon UK, Amazon international, iTunes, iTunes Canada, B&N, or Google Play, but it’s only 99 cents on all platforms today.

Speaking of human remains, here’s a photo from my Montreal launch at Librairie Bertrand. Someone asked, “How many people here are doctors?”

I said, “Half. Hey, why don’t we get the civilians to lie on the floor and the doctors can pretend to resuscitate them?”

They thought I was nuts, but they’re my friends, so…

Aren’t they awesome?
Dr. Chryssi Paraskevopoulos with author Day's Lee, who interviewed me here;
Dr. Ted Wein with author Su J. Sokol; Dr. Melissa Yi with artist Jessica Sarrazin.
Not pictured: Dr. Rob Adams and reader Maria, and artist Jason Jason de Graaf

08 May 2017

The Song Remembers When

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

The following article is by my darling daughter, Karla Lee. Seems as if writing just runs in our genes. As for the song, Johnny Cash said it's one of the best ever written.
— Jan Grape
Karla Lee
Karla Lee— songwriter
The Craft of Songwriting

by Karla Lee

I’ve been dabbling in writing my entire life. I have a book of poetry that I wrote and illustrated when I was eight years old. It is handwritten on 3-hole loose leaf notebook paper with strings of orange yarn holding it together. At 12, I kept a diary (who didn’t?). At 16, I wrote poems full of angst, longing, and mystery. In my 20s, I started journaling about random thoughts, jobs, experiences, friends, heartbreak, happiness, which I continued when my life flowed its course into marriage, children, moving, divorce, personal challenges, triumphs, frustrations. In my 30s, I wrote a children’s book. (I received several nice rejections letters. I realized children’s books are much harder to write than one would imagine.) In my 40s, I took a creative writing class at my local community college. At the encouragement of my instructor, I submitted a few pieces to the literary journal and a couple of them were published. It was thrilling to see my work in print. Here I am in my 50s and I’m still journaling, currently in a five-year journal, which I find is a format that suits my lifestyle perfectly! It just takes a couple of minutes to jot down a few lines before I turn in at night. Writing has always been a large part of my life, but it has always remained just a hobby.

The writing format that has been my favorite since I was a teenager is the song lyric. I like the fact that it’s a short-term commitment. I can usually write a complete song lyric in a couple of hours, at least get the first draft finished. To me, it’s kind of like sitting down to solve a word puzzle, but with a lot of emotion thrown in. My mission is to succinctly convey a feeling or experience. Words are expensive in a song, so every one of them has to count. The meter has to work from line to line and it has to rhyme. If you’re lucky enough to play an instrument, you have the added bonus of being able to put music to the words, and suddenly, it’s alive! What a rush!

I live in Nashville. We have some of the best songwriters in the world. Writing GREAT song lyrics is a huge challenge. I’m not talking about songs that make us dance, although I love those too. I’m talking about songs that make us stop and listen. Songs that make us think. Songs that make us cry. Songs that take us and shake us to the core. Here in Nashville, publishers and recording artists are not looking for GOOD songs. They’re looking for knock-your-socks-off, stop-in-your-tracks songs. We have a saying in Nashville that a great song consists of three chords and the truth. It’s all about telling a believable story.

I don’t have any major “cuts”. But I’ve studied the craft of songwriting all my life and continue to write in my spare time. In Nashville, we sometimes say that songs aren’t written, they’re RE-written! It’s important to not be “married” to the first words/rhymes/lines that pop into your head. Yes, get them down on paper. But, once I have a first draft, it’s time to ask myself some tough questions:
  1. Will the opening line grab people and make them keep listening?
  2. Is the hook STRONG?
  3. Have I said something in a way that nobody else has ever said it before?
  4. Are the lyrics conversational?
  5. Does each line further the story along, or are some of the lines “throw away”?
  6. Is there a beginning, middle, and end of the story?
  7. Does the story make sense? Is it believable?
  8. Is it relatable in a personal and a universal way?
  9. Are the rhymes too predictable?
If I can’t answer yes to most of these questions, I need to keep working on the puzzle. A lot of songwriters settle for their first draft instead of taking the time to craft the lyric into something special. One song that I think is a beautiful example of someone taking the time to get it perfect was written in 1993 by Hugh Prestwood and recorded by Trisha Yearwood. Obviously, much of the “mood” is lost without the music (for full impact, pull it up on your phone or computer and listen while you read), but the wordsmithing is magnificent.


The Song Remembers When
by Hugh Prestwood
I was standing at the counter
I was waiting for the change
When I heard that old familiar music start
It was like a lighted match
Had been tossed into my soul
It was like a dam had broken in my heart
After taking every detour
Getting lost and losing track
So that even if I wanted
I could not find my way back
After driving out the memory
Of the way things might have been
After I'd forgotten all about us
The song remembers when

We were rolling through the Rockies
We were up above the clouds
When a station out of Jackson played that song
And it seemed to fit the moment
And the moment seemed to freeze
When we turned the music up and sang along
And there was a God in Heaven
And the world made perfect sense
We were young and were in love
And we were easy to convince
We were headed straight for Eden
It was just around the bend
And though I have forgotten all about it
The song remembers when.
I guess something must have happened
And we must have said goodbye
And my heart must have been broken
Though I can't recall just why
The song remembers when

Well, for all the miles between us
And for all the time that's passed
You would think I haven't gotten very far
And I hope my hasty heart
Will forgive me just this once
If I stop to wonder how on Earth you are
But that's just a lot of water
Underneath a bridge I burned
And there's no use in backtracking
Around corners I have turned
Still I guess some things we bury
Are just bound to rise again
For even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when

Yeah, and even if
    the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when.


©1992-1993
Trisha Yearwood

In thinking about lyric writing and the questions that I ask myself to make a song as strong as it can possibly be, I realize that these questions apply to all writing, no matter the format. Taking the extra time to dig deeper and search further is worth it. This is when the magic happens. It’s the difference between mediocre and amazing.



Karla Lee is an office manager for an engineering company in Nashville and has two grown sons. When she’s not working or writing, she spends time traveling and having fun with friends.

07 May 2017

Meet the Mendozas: A Family of Cultural Relativists in An Age of Absolutism

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

Diego Mendoza, a nice Jewish boy from Seville, was born knocking on the inside of my head one night, demanding that I tell his story: he sailed with Columbus on the voyage of discovery on the very day in 1492 that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Why did Columbus take him on? (I have my reasons for not believing the theory that Columbus himself was Jewish.) Diego's dad was shipwrecked with Columbus off the coast of Portugal in their youth (the shipwreck is historical fact), and he'd remained a friend of the family. Young Columbus also had a crush on Diego's mother, though that didn't come out till Journey of Strangers, the second novel, as a piece of ancient family history.

So Diego had a father, did he? Diego escaped to what turned out to be "the Indies." Where did the rest of the family go? In "The Green Cross," the first of two Diego stories about the first voyage that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, I sent Diego's "parents and sisters" to Italy, where many Spanish Jews fled at the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora. Diego sprang to such vivid life that I decided he deserved a novel, which presented new challenges.

I needed women characters, so I created Diego's sister Rachel, a spirited and endearing girl of 13 who had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona for safety's sake and left behind due to the ruthless speed of the expulsion. Her only protector was an aunt, Doña Marina Mendes y Torres, a true converso rather than a marrano who secretly practiced Judaism. I intended Doña Marina to be stern and forbidding, but the lady surprised me, eventually becoming a staunch protector to her niece and nephew and putting up with a fair amount of discomfort and shenanigans. The first half of Voyage of Strangers takes place in Spain, where Columbus is received at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and charged with outfitting a fleet for the second voyage. Rachel is burning to go along, and in the end, Diego and Columbus combined fail to stop her.

In the second half of Voyage of Strangers, Diego and Rachel meet and fall in love with the gentle, generous Taino, the indigenous population of Quisqueya (Hispaniola) and are powerless to prevent its destruction by the Spaniards. We get to know more about their parents and their upbringing via the principles instilled in them, which allow them to embrace a culture very different from their own. As Jews, they have always been outsiders in the Christian mainstream culture of Europe. This has made cultural relativism their natural point of view. For example, the Taino teach Diego and Rachel batey, a game not unlike soccer.
We both became skilled at batey. In such perilous times, one might think that sport would be abandoned. But batey was a religious observance, the game a ceremony like the Christian Mass or, in Judaism, carrying the Torah. In troubled times, spiritual practice is a necessity. My father had told me so, and the Taino understood this as well.
Both Papa and Mama Mendoza are revealed as counselors whose wisdom their children cling to in difficult situations, since they are far from home and have no one to rely on but each other. In one historically accurate scene, Diego and Rachel are forced to listen to the sounds of a young Taino girl being beaten and raped by a childhood friend of Columbus. The man himself wrote an account of it when he returned to Europe. The story survived because historians quoted it as a comical anecdote as late as 1942. That's right: Samuel Eliot Morison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Columbus, thought the rape of an Indian maiden, with a beating to make her compliant, was funny.
“Diego!” Rachel cried. “What is he doing to her?”

I took her hand and pulled her down beside me on a coil of rope.

“Do you know what is meant to happen between a man and a woman?”

“Yes,” she said. “Elvira told me.”

“What did she tell you?” I asked. Our eldest sister loved to hoard information and spring it on us at the moment when it would most devastate or embarrass us, and she did not always pause to verify her facts.

“She said a man and a woman do the same as when a bull is set to a cow, so she will bear a calf and furnish milk. And that is how human folk make a baby.”

“And what do you think of that?” I asked. I expected her to say that she found it hard to believe of our parents, who both had a full measure of dignity.

“I know it is true,” she said, “for I asked Mama. She said there is pleasure in it too, when it is done correctly.”

Papa had said the same. I would not admit to Rachel that I had had no opportunity yet to investigate the matter for myself. So I simply nodded, hoping my little sister thought me wiser than I was.

“Mama told me about rape too,” Rachel said. “That is what Cuneo is doing, is it not?”

“Yes, but—Mama told you?”

“She knew it was a danger, sending me to Barcelona when things were getting worse,” Rachel said, “and none knew what the King and Queen would do about the Jews. She said I must have this knowledge so that if I were taken, at least I would not be taken by surprise.”
For Journey of Strangers, I had to do some serious research on the Sephardic diaspora so I could address the issue of what had become of the rest of the Mendoza family. I quickly found out that the Mendoza family could not have stayed in Firenze (Florence), where I had so blithely put them, under the protection of Lorenzo di Medici. First, Lorenzo died in January 1492. Second, his successor, along with the Jews who had sought refuge there, fled the city in November 1494, when King Charles VIII conquered it. Many of them ended up in Istanbul, where Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them, although the famous one-liner, still quoted– "You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" –was made up by a writer, who else, in 1523. So the Mendozas settled in Istanbul, and I got to develop the characters of Papa and Mama, along with older sisters Elvira and Susanna and their fianćes, later husbands, and in-laws.

The complex rules governing the lives of Jews in Istanbul in the late 1490s; the trauma of their travels; the pressure on the Jewish community to marry their children young and have them reproduce as many Jews as possible--very much like the situation of Jews after the Holocaust--all of these challenge Papa and Mama Mendoza to show what stuff they're made of. Into this situation come their long-lost children, who have befriended naked Taino and helped Moorish slaves escape. Their best friend is Hutia, a lone Taino survivor, and Rachel is determined to marry him. They've been running around the Caribbean half-naked and fighting their way through Europe living by their wits. How are you going to box them into a nice Jewish marriage and a job in Papa's business?

Rachel, with Mama's help, finds herself a job as a personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. Diego goes into partnership with a Muslim ship's captain and former pirate. The plot thickens as Hutia must decide whether conversion to Judaism or to Islam is more likely to win him Rachel's hand in marriage. No spoilers. Read the books! Both are available as trade paperbacks and e-books. Instead, I'll give you the final lines of the homecoming scene (the end of Chapter 23 in Journey of Strangers, when Diego, Rachel, and Hutia finally arrive in Istanbul). I confess that I cried not only the first three times I read it over, but also while I was writing it.
Someone must be coming to the door. It swung open. A young man I did not recognize, wearing a tallit, peered out at us, squinting as if nearsighted.

“Yes?”

Then I heard my sister Elvira’s voice call out, “Akiva? Who is it?”

A girl with a mop of hair as unruly as Rachel’s came flying out of an inner room, shrieking, “It’s them! It’s them!”

My sister Susanna flung herself upon me, arms tight around my neck and legs clinging to my waist.

“Mama! Papa! Come quickly! Diego and Rachel have come home!”

And then Rachel was sobbing in Mama’s arms, and Papa was lifting Susanna down so he could hug me himself, his beard wet with tears as it brushed against my cheek, or maybe the tears were mine.

“My boy, my boy!” Papa said. “Baruch Ha’shem! Thank God you’re home!”
After I'd finished writing Journey, I realized that not only did Papa and Mama Mendoza represent an idealized version of my own parents and a blueprint for the aspects of family that I would have liked and hadn't had, but they also reminded me of the March parents in Little Women, who in turn were Louisa May Alcott's idealized portrait of her own parents, the high-minded but impractical philosopher Bronson Alcott and her beloved mother, immortalized as the March sisters' Marmee. Wise, kind, ethical, loving, principled without being the slightest bit dogmatic, fiercely loyal to family, flexible, open-minded on a deeply intelligent level, and utterly reliable. Cultural relativists. Who wouldn't want such parents? My own being long gone, I'd go home with them in a flash.

Elizabeth Zelvin, a once and forever SleuthSayer, is the author of the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, the Bruce Kohler mystery series beginning with Death Will Get You Sober, and numerous short stories. Her stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer Award and three times for the Agatha Award.

Liz is currently editing the fourth Murder New York Style anthology for the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find her on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin page, on her website at elizabethzelvin.com, and on Facebook as Elizabeth Zelvin.

06 May 2017

Two out of Fifteen–So Far

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

I've enjoyed reading, over the past week, about the families of my fellow SleuthSayers, and especially about the talent (and love of) writing that exists among their family members.

As for my own crew, here's some background. Our immediate family has now grown to 15, not counting my mother, and it's a number that doesn't sound all that big until we all get together (usually every June for a summer outing and every Christmas for a one-to-two-week gathering at our home in Mississippi). Then it's quickly obvious how much larger and younger and louder our group has become.


For anyone who's interested, my wife Carolyn and I have three grown kids and seven blue-eyed grandchildren. Our son Michael is a chemical engineer with DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia; he and his wife Jennifer (also a chem. e. and currently a stay-at-home mom) have three children: Lily (11), Anna (9), and Gabriel (6). David, our second son, is a physician at St. Dominic's Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi; he and his wife Jamie (also a doctor, and currently a stay-at-home mother and aerobics instructor) have two kids: Charlie (9) and Susannah (7). Karen, our youngest child, is also a stay-at-home mom, and a former music teacher at a local elementary school; she and her husband Collin Berger (a computer technician) live in Pearl, Mississippi, and have two kiddos: Richard (4) and Julia (1). My wife and I feel extremely fortunate that we have two of our three children and four of our seven grandkids living nearby and that we're able to have all fifteen of our family together at least twice a year. (We're also thankful for FaceTime--as we used to be for Skype.)

I'm always reminded, any time I think of family, of two old sayings. One is "The offspring done sprung higher than them they sprung off of" (which in my case is certainly true) and the other is "By the time the rich man has enough money to afford children, the fool has enough kids to support him." I especially like that second one. Now, if they'll only support me . . .

As for writers and writing--so far, although several of our brood have done some technical and professional writing, only one (besides me) has shown much interest in creating fiction. That's our granddaughter Susannah--on the left in the photo below, taken last Christmas--who'll be eight years old next month. She's an avid reader, especially of series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and likes to write fantasy stories and tales that involve animals of any kind. (Her people-doctor parents already suspect that they might be raising a veterinarian.) Currently Susannah is collaborating with a school friend, and together they've written several stories that I think have turned out really well. At that age I was probably still trying to learn how to tie my shoes.


So that's it, for the Floyds. One final point: although not many of us are writers, I'm very pleased to say that all of us--even my mom, who's 90--are readers.

That's the important thing. Right?

05 May 2017

First Signing like a First Kiss

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


Like a first kiss - there has been nothing as good as my first signing. GRIM REAPER was released in 1988, and a local bookstore (back when local bookstores carried my books) had a signing for me. My publisher, Zebra Books coughed up some money (money I later discovered came out of my royalties) and I brought food and drink. My father brought beer of course.

We hoped to sell 30 books and the bookstore (part of a small chain) had 300 shipped in. The big surprise came quickly. A lot of my friends and my family showed up. I come from a big family - my father was one of 12 and my mother was one of 12. At that time, I had 95 first cousins and most of them had kids.


My brother is the tall one in this picture. The one non-family member is the third from the right. She was a retired nun. She was the principal at my grammar school, Our Lady of The Holy Rosary. She sent a note after reading the book, wondering who taught me to curse like that. I blamed it on the Christian Brothers at Archbishop Rummel (where I went to high school). Gotta love a Catholic education. I spent two years at a Jesuit university.


These are some of my aunts, a cousin and one of my sisters. They got all dressed up for this. My Aunt Earline (in red) lived to be 99. My Aunt Bess (second from the right) got married again when she was 80 years old.


My 2-year old son pitched in.

Well, we ran out of books. Sold 300 paperbacks. Never happened again, although my family continued to come to my signings through the 1990s. They don't come anymore. My books are too hardboiled and they haven't given the historicals a chance. You can only read so many curse words, I guess. Such is life.

But I'll always remember that first kiss.

PS: I did not write the promo on the flyer. Vendetta of blood?

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

04 May 2017

My Husband, the Writer

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the sixth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Robyn Thornton
In honor of the fast-approaching International Family Day, I asked my wife, Robyn, to write something up for this week's blog entry. This is what she came up with. Thanks, Honey! One thing, though: see below–all the way at the bottom of this page–for pictures from our ACTUAL honeymoon, lest you think the ONLY honeymoon my wife got was getting to tag along while I pressed the flesh at B'con!
— Brian
On our first date, Brian brought me a signed copy of his Lincoln biography.  I thought it was one of the coolest gifts I had ever received.  We discovered that we had a lot of other common interests, but our love of all things related to books and the creation of them was certainly one of the first threads in our shared tapestry.  I soon learned how much dedication and headspace was needed to weave together those stories as I spent many weekends both in awe of Brian’s discipline and wrestling with my jealousy over the amount of time that he needed to focus.  It was difficult for me to understand in the beginning of our relationship, but his determination to persevere in chasing his passion for writing was inspiring.

When we knew that our relationship was getting more serious, his writing took a back seat to making sure I felt I was a priority.

For my birthday that year, Brian took me on a trip to Oregon.  As I slept in the hotel, Brian stayed up all night to finish a book deadline. He wanted to make sure I got a good night’s sleep, so he had set up his laptop on the sink in the bathroom.  I remember waking up several times in the night to see the light streaming from under the door.  His kindness and compassionate spirit were more reasons why I was falling in love with him.

So, when Brian and I got married, I thought I knew what to expect.

I was so wrong.

Brian worked hard to finish a book to take me on a mini-honeymoon to San Francisco (We took the
My husband, flashing his "convention smile."
real one in the UK the following Summer).  Bouchercon was in that city the week after we tied the knot, so our trip served a double purpose: both as a mini-honeymoon and for Brian to attend panels and to network.  It was there that I learned that it’s not just about what you write, but how you market. And then there’s the networking: one of the most important tools in a writer’s toolkit.  I’ll admit that the shop talk at the time was not as captivating as I now find it and we had to learn how to balance our leisure time with business objectives.   But I found myself wanting more of his time and it proved to be harder on both of us.

It was one of the first lessons we had to learn as a newlywed couple.  We planned a big wedding, got married, and bought a house, all in the same nine month period.

Brian continued to juggle his book projects with us moving in and getting settled.  I recall one Sunday night in particular that makes us laugh now.  I was assembling a couple of kitchen stools while Brian was frantically reviewing final edits (the “galleys” as he called them) on a book whose deadline was 9 AM the next morning.

I had asked him to take a break and tighten one bolt and when he refused, I said in frustration, “Fine, why don’t you just work on your stupid book!”

Boy, do I regret that now.

What I also now realize more than ever, is that it’s not easy.

It’s not easy juggling two full-time careers, a young son with boundless energy, taking care of the day-to-day responsibilities and finding time and headspace to write every day.  Brian’s been able to do this.  And he’s now inspired me to start writing too.

And I now understand the sacrifices that he made and what it takes to commit and stay on track.  I get how satisfying it is to be able to devise plots and character arcs and stories that just need to be told. And as you continue to work and rework and distill and then rework again, the elation of knowing that someday, there’ll be readers to enjoy and discover what you’ve created.  And there’s nothing like seeing Brian’s face after he’s completed his word count for the day and the joy that this accomplishment gives him.


For that, it makes it all worth it and I wouldn’t trade one moment.

(And now, UK honeymoon pics!)




03 May 2017

The Story Gene

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

 by Robert Lopresti

This appeared on Criminal Brief in 2009.  Seemed appropriate for our family celebration.

I just got back from a week of visiting family on the east coast. I spent a few days with all three of my siblings for the first time in a decade – although we’ve all seen each other more often than that.

There were nine family members, plus a couple of other special guests who were there part of the time. Almost sixty years of age separated the oldest from the youngest. So, what did we do when we got together?

Well, we ate. Mmm, lasagna! But mostly we told stories.

First we talked about travel. Miserable plane trips. Who we saw before arriving. Where we toured the day before.

Next came news briefs: job changes, school stuff, future plans.

Then came health issues. Plenty there to discuss as most of us travel through (or past) middle age.
But finally we got to what you might call Deep Story: family memories, some of them dating back before my birth. Do you remember the time the tree fell on the house? When did we sell the bungalow down the shore? Did you hear that Grandma worked for Thomas Edison?

Sometimes it turns out we heard the stories differently, or even remember the same events differently. But that just made the discussion more interesting. (The youngest of the clan politely ignored the chatter of her elders, while offering her own salute to story-telling: she was rereading Harry Potter.)

At one point I held the floor for several minutes (probably too long), telling everyone about one of my adventures. And as all eyes were turned in my direction I starting thinking about the narrative urge. The desire to tell and listen to stories, which keeps us writers of fiction in business, seems to be built into the family heritage. And I don’t mean just the Lopresti family.

A very old story

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, two sisters were born. Since language had recently been invented, the proud parents were able to name their children, and they called them Og and Zog. The girls resembled each other in looks and personalities, but there was one tiny difference between them.
Og was fascinated with stories. She liked to hear them and to tell them. Zog, on the other hand, didn’t care for them.

It turned out that Og’s children inherited her fondness for stories. And that’s where things get interesting.

When gatherers came back and reported where they had found the most honey, Og’s children paid close attention. When a hunter came back, frightened and bleeding, and explained why you should never, ever cross a meadow if animals are behaving in a certain way, the sons and daughters of Og took in every word. And when the wild-thinker in the tribe explained that these berries were sacred to the gods and must never be eaten, guess who took this rule to heart.

Which meant Og’s children were slightly more likely than Zog’s to find the honey, avoid the lion, and ignore the poisonous berries. Which gave them a tiny advantage in survival.

And so, while Og and Zog had the same number of children, Og had more grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. Give or take a few thousand generations and most of us have some of Og’s blood in our veins. That’s evolution, baby.
 

A love story

I feel like I need to pay this off with a family story, so here’s one I heard the last time I visited my father, a few months before he passed.

Dad told me that his father came to the United States from Sicily early in the twentieth century. John remembered a family from his village who had come to New Jersey earlier. Mostly he remembered a girl named Mamie.

He went to the Garden State and found the family, but alas, Mamie had made up her mind to become a nun. This, of course, was not what John had in mind.

Now it happened that Mamie’s father ran an ice cream parlor in Plainfield, New Jersey. He wasn’t very good at it. The ice cream was fine. The problem was when customers came in he had a habit of telling them “I’m busy. Go away.” Experts in retail tend to frown on this as a sales technique.

It occurred to him that if John married his daughter they could take the shop off his hands. So, with a little paternal persuasion, Mamie agreed to give up her hopes for the nunnery and instead become a wife and eventually the mother of four children.

Her husband John turned the ice cream parlor into a grocery store, which is what you see in the picture above. (Alas, the people in sight are not my relatives.)

“So what happened to Great-grampa?” I asked my father. “Did he find a business where he didn’t have to deal with the public?”

“Not exactly,” said Dad. “He became a bootlegger.”

Final thought

Do you have relatives your own age or older? Have you asked what they remember about your family’s history? Is anyone writing these stories down?

Because if not, they will soon be as lost as the stories Og told her children.

02 May 2017

The Good and Bad of Societal Family Expectations

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

"So, are you married yet?"

Those five words from an old friend's husband set my teeth on edge more than a decade ago, when I was in my early thirties. They still bother me. Not because they make me feel like a bit of a failure in such an important aspect of life (as they did then), but because they represent what still seems to be a ridiculous societal expectation. You grow up, you get married. And if you don't, you're incomplete; there must be something wrong with you.

Indeed, my own mother had this perspective. To her dying day, she believed I was unhappy. I had to be, she reasoned, because I wasn't married. Nothing I said or did to show I was happy by myself made any difference. To her, a woman couldn't be happy if she doesn't have a husband.

Well, on behalf of all my single friends, I say poppycock. (If you know me at all, you know I actually used an expletive instead of poppycock. But I wrote poppycock because this is a family blog. (Did you see what I did there?))

In fact, I'll wager that not having a husband has been good for me, at least creatively. Imagine how much less writing I would get done if I had a husband and children to care for and spend time with. I can barely manage giving my dog enough attention.

Of course, it's possible that having a husband and children would inspire more stories. Thinking back to old boyfriends, there was the one who liked to interrupt me; the one who spent money like he made it in the basement; the one who liked to blame the victim. Yes, being stuck in close quarters with any of them could have inspired a lot of murder mysteries. Or at least murders. Sure, then I'd go to prison, but think of all the writing time I'd have.

Not that I need a husband to come up with murder stories. I have parents, two brothers, and a sister, so I've got more than enough history to delve for creative inspiration. Indeed I've written a large number of stories involving killing or maiming members of your family. My sister has accused me  several times of creating sister characters with her in mind and has said that she doesn't want to get on my bad side. (Too late! Kidding! Maybe.)

And family can also have a broad definition. I'm sure many people have friends they aren't related to but whom they think of as family. And when you care about someone so much, they can end up inspiring ire (either because of something they did or something done to them). Indeed in my newest short story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, my main character, Myra, thinks of her boss of forty years, Douglas, as her little brother. And when pushed, she decides that it's time she teaches her little brother a lesson in humility. It's the family thing to do, to help make him a better person.

So, am I married yet? Nope. But that doesn't matter. I have more than enough friends and family to inspire my writing. Maybe I'll go kill off another one today. On paper, of course.

01 May 2017

How Growing Up With a Writer (Inadvertently) Made Me a Marketer

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the third in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
When we talked about inviting family in, I asked both my wife and my daughter if they were interested. Jenn runs my website and Barb, my wife (who declined) used to write ad copy for radio and still acts in several productions a year. Both are better writers than I am, and both are great sources for feedback when I'm stuck. So here's Jenn.
— Steve

by Jenn (Liskow) Waltner

My dad is author Steve Liskow.

When I was growing up, he was English teacher Mr. Liskow at a high school I didn't attend (and really, kids should NEVER have to go to a school where one of their parents teaches).

As a kid, I had no idea how my dad's likes, passions, and aptitudes would influence my own career path. Sure, the ceramic dinosaur collection he had as a boy made me want to be a paleontologist when other kids couldn't even SPELL the word, but then I discovered that science wasn't really my thing and decided I should come up with another plan.

"Content marketer" was totally not that plan.

Here's how it happened. I wanted to go to college for photojournalism, but the school that threw money at me to attend didn't have that major. I figured I'd go for two years, knock off a bunch of core classes and then transfer somewhere with the program I wanted.

I went in as an English major. I figured it was a common major that would transfer easily and I'd do well because I grew up reading voraciously. But more than that, I grew up understanding the different components of storytelling and connecting with an audience--largely thanks to my dad.

It never occurred to me that those skills could lead to a career.

I've been doing this stuff daily for the last two decades as a marketer, mostly for high tech software companies.

When I was little, my dad explained different forms of writing: fiction vs. nonfiction, short stories vs. novels, poetry vs. prose, sonnets vs. sestinas (which I love) vs. haiku vs. blank verse vs. all the other forms of poetry I have forgotten, scripts vs graphic novels...you get the point. When you write, at some point you have to choose your format. The same holds true for marketing. I have to identify the best vehicle for telling each story. Should it be an eBook, a webinar, a blog post, a video, an infographic? Something else entirely? How can I adapt the story to work in different formats?

Next question: who;s the best person to tell the story? I vividly recall my father reading me the opening pages of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to show me how the whole story can change depending on who tells it. In marketing, having a trustworthy narrator is crucial. I often get to decide whether a particular piece of content should come from an internal author or if it works better coming from a customer, analyst, or media partner. Understanding how the choice of narrator influences the audience's perception has proven invaluable in my career over the years.

If you've read any of my dad's work, you know he's a huge music fan. Listening to songs together helped me wrap my head around style. Led Zeppelin covering Willie Dixon, Aerosmith playing Yardbirds songs, the Cramps covering Jack Scott, everyone in the world doing Bob Dylan stuff...two artists may be playing the same song, but with entirely different results. As a marketer, I work to define a brand's particular style and bring it to life. Is this brand sassy or buttoned-up? A little bit country or a little bit rock and roll? It's a fun choice to make.

My father's affinity for Westerns and his experience directing stage plays also helped build my marketing chops. Think visual storytelling. It's not all about words. Go watch the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (or better yet, the final gunfight). With no dialog, narrative, or subtitles for a good few minutes, the action and images let the audience know exactly what's going on.

With a theatrical production, the set and the costume choices give the audience critical information about the characters and the mood. I use visual storytelling in almost every piece of content I touch, whether it's choosing an image for a blog post, building a slide deck for sales, working with an agency to create a new product video, or teaming up with a designer to develop an infographic.

Discussions about bad writing and books that didn't work helped me just as much as conversations about books my dad and I both loved--seeing how a plot falls apart is a great lesson in user experience. My dad and I both hate books with deus ex machina endings that leave readers feeling cheated. With a little more planning, the writer could have injected pieces into the story that let the conclusion feel more natural--delivering a better reader experience.

So often simple changes--a scene in Chapter 3, a paragraph in Chapter 17, an extra line of dialog on page 243--can make those transitions easier for the reader. That's the essence of user experience--making things easier. User experience often guides my discussions with web developers, product engineers and graphic designers. Questions like "Can we make that text easier to read?" or "What happens if we move that button over here?" may seem trivial, but can make a huge difference for someone encountering a web page, trade show display or product welcome screen for the first time.

Finally, my dad's teaching background helped me learn how to coach other writers. When I edit, I don't just make changes--I mark up documents with comments so the writer can see what I changed and why. The "why" matters most--good writers learn from my comments and correct similar bits on their own future projects.

Despite my 20+ years as a marketer, I'm still learning my craft--often inadvertently--through discussions with my dad, the writer.