Monday, December 12, 2011

“Why doesn’t every writers group put together an anthology?”

The question took me by surprise. I was standing on the second floor of the Plaza Hotel in New York City the evening before the opening of Book Expo 2010, when literary agent Gareth Esersky inquired, shaking her head. I was there representing the Bethlehem Writers Group in accepting two Next Generation Indie Book Awards--Best Anthology and Best Short Fiction--for our anthology, A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales (available from IndieBound, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble).

My flippant answer was that there are laws against homicide.

If I hadn’t been so surprised by the question, I might have given a more thoughtful response. After considering the matter a bit, I think the answer is that putting together an anthology requires a great deal of dedication and patience, a variety of talents, and hard work by every member of the group. It isn't easy.

Authors of A Christmas Sampler
Standing: Emily P. W. Murphy, Paul Weidknecht, Will Wright,
Cindy Kelly, Ralph Hieb, Carol L. Wright, Courtney Annicchiarico
Seated: Jeff Baird, Carol A. Hanzl Birkas, Jo Ann Schaffer,
Sally Wyman Paradysz
Our group had already beaten the odds by thriving for over three years. Many writers groups find it hard to sustain a compatible and dedicated membership for such a long period of time. Our group included writers of various genres and levels of experience--hazardous to a group’s long-term success according to conventional wisdom. We were at various stages of life--from recent college grad to retired--and our personalities didn't always mesh well, but we'd found ways to reach accommodation. Through our biweekly meetings and group challenges, we'd established a rapport, a friendship, and a group identity. We were a family of writers. Publishing an anthology didn’t look like such a big leap for us . . . until we got started.

We decided to go for it in the summer of 2008, setting a publication goal of September, 2009. We thought we had plenty of time. Our first task was selecting a theme. But how do you create an anthology that incorporates children’s stories, sardonic satire, paranormal, fantasy, literary fiction, mystery, memoir, light romance, and more? 

Ultimately our location in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, nicknamed “Christmas City, USA,” gave us the direction we needed. We would compile Christmas stories. With that decided, we went to work writing our stories, each following his or her own muse. 

We brought early drafts of our stories to group meetings. Some went for a sentimental approach.

“Too schmaltzy,” one member complained.  

“But it’s a Christmas book,” the author argued. “It’s supposed to be sweet.”

“That doesn’t mean it has to be saccharine,” the first lobbed back.

When another author brought a cynical Santa story, and a third offered a vampire tale, our children’s writers must have wondered whether their stories would make the cut.

Somehow, by early spring of 2009, we had twenty-three stories of various lengths that the group voted to include in the anthology—with every author represented.

Then came the task of finding a title for such an eclectic collection. After about a hundred suggestions, we finally settled on A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales. (And we all knew which ones were strange.)

We celebrated our accomplishment, not realizing that the hardest work still laid ahead, requiring talents most writers don’t possess. These included copyediting, layout, cover design, bookkeeping, and the author’s least favorite: marketing. At times it seemed overwhelming.

We were lucky that two of our members had publishing experience. One did copyediting, while the other had the artistic talents, and the required software, to create our cover and do our layout. (She even made the quilt in the background on our cover.) Time was short, and there was more to do than we realized. Tempers frayed as we tried to learn new skills and create a professional-looking product. After a lot of hard work, trial and error, doing and re-doing, we sent our files to the printer in June. By the middle of August, we held the book in our hands.

We sent copies out for reviews, but learned that many places required a review copy three months ahead of the publication date or payment of a fee. We were too late and too broke by that point to get pre-publication reviews. Undaunted, we determined to create our own buzz.

With the help of friends in newspaper publishing we put together a marketing plan, press releases, and promotional materials. We started to see some interest through online retailers, but we had gone with print-on-demand, and found it next to impossible to get our book into the chain stores, even though our group then held its meetings at a Barnes and Noble.

Undeterred, our authors spread out, setting up dozens of book signings at libraries and independent bookstores. We became our own distributors, dealing with deliveries, invoices, and discounts, but we didn’t get any returns. With many authors we could be in several places at once. One indie bookstore had us back for three signings in our first holiday season. And we knew that a Christmas book was something we could continue to market year after year.

We entered two contests, the Indie Book Awards, where we won for best anthology and best short fiction, and the DIY book awards where we won honorable mention in the anthology category. It was a delight to update our cover to include our gold award seal.

Since then we have continued to come together for our regular meetings, and welcomed new members into our group.  For some of our members, publication in A Christmas Sampler satisfied their writing goals, and they have moved on to other pursuits. For others, however, the anthology was just a step in their writing careers. Will Wright, has a fantasy novel and short stories published on Smashwords ( Carol Birkas has published a children’s book that her daughter illustrated. Several others have full-length manuscripts that they are ready to shop to agents. Still more have added short stories, articles, contest wins, and writing awards to their credits.

As a group we have expanded our endeavors to include publication of a literary magazine, BethlehemWriters Roundtable, to enhance our platform and offer members and nonmembers an opportunity to publish short stories. Continuing our goal of encouraging writers both locally and beyond, we are offering a Short Story Award with cash prizes and offers of publication for the winners. 

The publication process was stressful, but what might have torn some groups apart, drew us together. In 2010 we once again launched a group effort to promote our book at book signings and author events, and repeatedly heard another surprising question: “When is your next book coming out?”

At first the idea sounded more like a punishment than an opportunity, but time has passed. They say that parents have their children two or more years apart because it takes that long to forget the pains of sleepless nights and endless diaper changes. It has taken us three years to decide that our anthology needs a younger sibling. Having forgotten the pain and remembering most of the joys of the past, we are currently developing a new anthology—this one is for any time of year. It is tentatively entitled Seasonal Pursuits: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales, and has an anticipated publication in the fall of 2012.  Like many second-time parents, we’re doing things a little differently, and hopefully even better this time around.

Now in the 2011 holiday season, we’re again enjoying book signings while meeting deadlines for submissions for our new anthology. We’re very busy, but perhaps that’s part of why we’re still here. Our authors are continually engaged.

At this point, we don’t know how many “children” we’ll choose to have, but we expect to enjoy them all, and hope that readers will, too. 

(A version of this blog entry was originally published on

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Writer's Thanksgiving Prayer

Thank you, Lord, for many blessings:
For a mother who gave me words and encouraged me to read,
For a father who supported my education and pushed me to reach for my dreams,
For a little brother who listened to my stories when we were young, and told me to write them when we grew up,
For a wealth of writer friends who will read my work and tell me when it's bad--or even when it's good,
For an actor-son who has shown me what it means to persevere against all odds--and by doing so to succeed,
For a writer-daughter who is my best editor and writing partner,
And for a wonderfully supportive husband who is and always will be my love and inspiration,

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Going Home Again

While I have lived in Pennsylvania most of my adult life, I grew up in Acton, Massachusetts.

Acton's not really a famous place, but it is right next door to a town that is rather well known: Concord. (By the way, the town's name is pronounced more like "conquered" than like "concorde.") Acton was once part of Concord, but became independent in 1735, so it's just a young whipper snapper by New England standards.

The Battle at the Old North Bridge
Not surprisingly, my childhood was fully steeped in local Revolutionary War history. We took field trips to the Old North Bridge where the battle of Concord was fought. Every April 19th we would re-enact the minutemen's march to Concord from the homestead of the captain of the Acton militia, Isaac Davis. Even as a nine-year-old, I made the several-mile march, and I have the scroll to prove it--signed by Isaac Davis's descendant, Marie Davis Hunt.

Minuteman at Old North Bridge
Captain Davis had a metal shop on his farm, and made bayonets for his men. Naturally, the Acton Minutemen were in the front lines in the stand against the British that fateful day. The Redcoats shot first, and Captain Davis was the first to fall. When the minutemen returned fire, many British soldiers were hit, and their ranks broke. This was the site of the first armed resistance to the British. We from Acton always think of Isaac Davis when we see the famous Minuteman statue at the Old North Bridge, and read its inscription from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concord Hymn:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard 'round the world.
Last weekend, my niece got married in Groton, Massachusetts, about a half hour west of Acton and Concord. I was happy when one of our party, who had never spent time in the area before, expressed an interest in visiting Concord. It had been a long time since I had played tour guide to the sites I once knew so well.

Summer Orchard House
Alcott's Orchard House
A cold drizzle, that preceded a late-October snow, fell as we traveled east on Route 2, but it didn't dampen my enthusiasm as we approached my old stomping ground. We visited the bridge, and saw the Bullet Hole House and Old Manse. But Concord is known for so much more than a single battle.

Walden Pond in early 1900s
The rich cultural heritage of Concord still lives there. The buildings that were once the homes of authors Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Sidney still stand and have become museums to their literary and philosophic accomplishments. Other authors also called Concord home, including Henry David Thoreau and poet Ellery Channing. Thoreau's former places of residence are not noted--except, of course, for Walden Pond (where I took swimming lessons). Thoreau famously spent two years in a cabin in the woods on its shores, and wrote about it in one of his most famous works. (I ought to know. We spent one quarter of my English class in my junior year of high school dissecting Walden.) Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, Channing, and Emerson are all buried in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in what is known as "Author's Ridge."

Despite a wintry mix pelting us as we went from place to place, showing our friend these sites was strangely renewing for me. While so much has changed in the world since I was last a Bay Stater, much of Concord remains as I remember it.

With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, maybe you can go home again.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Writers' Rules

At our regular meeting of the Bethlehem Writers Group last night, one of our members quoted some advice she had heard from a well-known agent that one should not have any back story in the first 100 pages of a novel. The pronouncement was greeted with a general moan. 

Writers often hear such arbitrary rules. Good ideas offered one writer are passed on to others until they are nearly etched in stone. Some authors try to follow them all to the point of sacrificing storytelling for the sake of the "rules." 

One of the more mineralized bits of wisdom for fiction writing is "show, don't tell." In fact, we usually hear it quoted by one member or another at each of our meetings. It's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what this means. Looking at an example of the two ways of accomplishing the same thing might help. 

Suppose we have a man and a woman involved in a discussion. In the dialogue, we hear their words, but through the narrative we learn about the feelings behind those words. We can do that through showing (e.g. "She pursed her lips, shook her head, and looked away,") or through telling (e.g. "She did not agree with what he said, but didn't want to say so.")

With with the former, we, as readers, feel more like we're there in the scene, watching it unfold, and interpreting the woman's body language based on our own lives and experience. With telling, we might actually know a little more about what is going on inside the woman's head, but with showing we feel more connected. That connection is what can keep a reader involved and turning pages, which is why "show, don't tell" became a rule.

Still, there are times when telling is the best way to get through a section. If you want the reader to know something, but it's not worth half a page to show them, then telling is the more efficient means. The rule "show, don't tell," isn't unbreakable.

Such cases remind me of the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In it, the fair maid, Elizabeth, is negotiating with the pirate Barbossa to exchange a piece of pirate gold for the safety of her town. 

Geoffrey Rush and Keira Knightley
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Barbossa: Very well, you hand it over and we'll put your town to our rudder and ne'er return.
Elizabeth: [she hands it over] Our bargain?
[Barbossa walks away from her]
Bo'sun: Still the guns and stow 'em, Signal the men, set the flags and make good to clear port.
Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren...
: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner. 

For writers, I believe, like Barbossa, there are very few absolutes. (I've read that the one unbreakable rule is that one should never start a story with "And," but I'm sure there are stories that begin that way.) Tenets like "show, don't tell" and "no back story in the first 100 pages" became rules for a reason, but writers would be well advised to consider them "more what you'd call 'guidelines' . . ." They are often the best advice. But they're not right for every situation. Sometimes, breaking the rules helps a writer find a better way to tell the story. 

Some writing coaches agree with me, but advise writers to be sure to know all the rules before attempting to break any of them.

That's probably good advice . . . but it's not a rule.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Dialogue on Dialogue

"What are the keys to writing good dialogue?" I asked a writer friend.

"Well, as you well know, I am an avid reader and the author of several yet-to-be-published books, and I know about such things from writing many manuscripts starting when I was only seven years old growing up in Saskatchewan. It makes sense that you would ask me, your Facebook friend, and a person who, while raising seventeen cats, still has time to write every day. One thing you should always do is put a character's back story into your dialogue. It tells the reader about your character and is much livelier than including it in narrative."

"So I see."

"And ending sentences with a preposition, once totally taboo, is something you can use dialogue for."

"I thought we used dialogue to relate what characters said."

"That reminds me. Never use 'said' for tagging your dialogue. The English language is full of much more interesting words to use for a dialogue tag. Try ranted, exclaimed, reposted, averred, proclaimed, and so on. 'Said' will just disappear so that the reader will only focus on what the characters are saying instead of on your creative way of expressing it."

"Okay. I can do that," I said. "How can I make my dialogue sound natural?"

"Well, uh, part of your, um, problem could be that when people are talking in, uh, real life, sometimes they . . . pause . . . or, uh, su-su-su-stammer, or, um, re-reach for just the right . . . turn of phrase . . . and, um, writers sometimes leave this out and make their dialogue, uh, unnatural. By putting it into your dialogue, you'll, uh, make the reader feel like . . . he or she . . . is reading what a real person is, um, saying."

"Isn't that a little hard to read?"

"Really, Sam? Isn't it clear, Sam? Which reminds me, Sam, that making your dialogue personal by mentioning the other character's name over and over again, lets you know who's talking. You understand don't you, Sam?"

"My name's Carol."

"And do not use contractions. I could not be clearer. I would like to think you will follow my advice. I cannot imagine that you are unable to understand why. This is not email, you know. It is formal writing."

"I'll try to remember that."

"Nother whay to mike somethin' sound jes' raht, is to use spellin' that'll tell the reedah the kinda accent yer kerkter haz."


"And always write in complete sentences. Never use a single word or two as a response. It shows a disrespect for the reader."


"Trust me. Writing dialogue is easy. Why when I write dialogue I always try to make sure that the speaker, or in this case the character who is represented on the page by the author as having spoken, gives lengthy and thorough responses to all questions posed. Thereby, they can expound upon the important issues that surround the matter at hand, whatever that might be in the context of the story the author is attempting to tell. There is a reason that Shakespeare used the soliloquy. It was so that an individual character could command the stage, singularly and alone, for all to see, to talk, perchance to muse, upon a subject without interruption from anyone else. Being able to hold the floor with other characters on stage, or in the room, so to speak, or on the page, is even more important, for any character who is worth writing about should be able to go on and on and on and on and on and on. After all, that is the way people actually talk, never allowing for interruption until they have expressed a complete, well-designed, and gracefully executed barrage of language with or without meaning. Such is the way of the world, and it is in this manner that you should write your dialogue. Otherwise it lacks verisimilitude, which is a word, you, as a writer, should know means having a quality of realism, or of being true to reality."

"I don't think people really converse that way."

"Think not? My bad. But I'm just too sick to care. Because my dialogue is always surge, you, my reader peeps, no matter when you read my work, will know that I am awesome, because I always use the latest language fads to appear hep and up to date."


"And don't forget to repeat yourself. You shouldn't forget to repeat yourself. People do it all the time. For emphasis, or to be sure they understand. To be sure they understand what's been said. People do it all the time. You should repeat yourself."

"Doesn't that make it a bit tedious?"

"Such palaver. You will also want your dialogue to limn a protagonist with whom your reader can colligate. Write dialogue that imbues the character with perspicacity and sagacity."

"I don't know what half those words mean. Should my readers have a dictionary close at hand, or should I just include a glossary?"

"If you follow all of these rules, you, too, might be able to write several unpublished manuscripts with dialogue as good as mine."

"Thanks," I said. I think I'm sorry I asked.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lost Cat!

We've all seen posters and classified ads for lost pets. They always makes me a bit sad. I have had one or more pets nearly all my life, and feel for the loss and worry these people are suffering. We know how they love their pets--each with its own special place in their hearts.

Like many writers, I have a hard time using "it" to describe a pet, but in our gender-neutral language, only homo sapiens are granted the personal pronouns of "he" or "she" in formal writing. This, however, is not formal writing, because I am writing about my missing cat. She is a three-year-old calico, indoor-only cat. She slipped out last Sunday, and we've seen no sign of her since. We've searched everywhere she might have gone, talked to neighbors, called local shelters, left out food, distributed flyers, and put ads in the classifieds, but after four days, she is still missing.

She was part of a litter of five that was born in our garage. We had successive generations of feral cats in and around our yard during the preceding years, but when the new litter was born right in our garage, we decided to collect the kittens and hand raise them so that they could become someone's pets. It turned out that they became our pets. We've had them since they were three weeks old, and they have always been indoor cats.

Our missing kitty is a bit shy and is not much of a cuddle-cat. She doesn't like to be picked up, and only tolerates stroking when necessary to get a treat, so she would be very hard for a stranger to catch. But she is lively and funny and vocal, and is very much missed.

People are kind. A neighbor called upon seeing a cat who, it must be said, despite the photos we put on our flyer bore no resemblance to ours. It's the thought that counts. Another person responded to our Craig's List ad that we shouldn't lose hope. Her cat came back after 10 days with no sign of him. That helped quite a bit.

But what will help the most is an actual sighting of her--or her return. While she is out in the world, where she has no experience fending for herself, there is not much more we can do--except worry.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Can You Find Independence Day on a Calendar?

If so, you're among the 94% of Americans who can. Unfortunately, that means 6% of us cannot.

Ignorance of our past is nothing new. Jay Leno has poked a lot of fun at Americans who think the first flag was sewn by Betty Ford, the first president was Benjamin Franklin, and Louis Armstrong was the first man on the moon. These are some of the same people who can't name the vice president or tell you in which country you would find the Panama Canal. We laugh and assume such ignorance is rare, and that Leno had to ask a lot of questions before getting the answers he put on the air. 

Now, however, we have more cause for concern. The Department of Education reported in May that only 20% of 6th graders, 17% of 8th graders, and 12% of high school seniors scored at the "proficient" level for history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Only 1% of seniors scored as "advanced."

If high school seniors enter college knowing very little about history, the colleges must spend time teaching things that their students should already know. In turn, this means that colleges do not have the time to give students a higher level of education on the subject, leaving college-educated adults with minimal knowledge and understanding of history.

And it's not just history. Knowledge of all social studies is lacking. Facebook has revealed Americans' ignorance of geography, ranking 117th among 193 countries. Knowledge of civics is similarly poor. In 2009, when Oklahoma high school students were given the U.S. citizenship test--the test given to those who hope to become naturalized U.S. citizens--only 2.8% passed.  Compare that to the 92% pass rate for those from other countries who are seeking U.S. citizenship. In addition, only 23% of the Oklahoma students tested correctly identified the first president of the United States. Subsequently, Newsweek found that 38% of their sample of 1000 Americans also failed the citizenship test. See the test questions Newsweek used here

This is embarrassing, but so what? Is this really such a problem?

Putting aside the often-quoted maxim that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, in a democracy, this is very important. The majority of recent high school graduates meet the age requirement for voting. Citizens can run for office. But can a democracy thrive if its voters are ignorant, or if they put ignorant people into office? 

I'm not talking about the slips of the tongue to which all politicians fall victim. There is no doubt that President Obama knows that there are 50 states in the U.S.--not 57 as he once said in an off-hand comment at a campaign stop. Michele Bachmann, if she had thought about it, probably would not have said that Concord, New Hampshire was where the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired. Campaigning is exhausting; people make mistakes. Just ask Joe Biden. (He's the vice president, you know.)

But when they refuse to acknowledge their own ignorance, we have a problem. We saw this when Michele Bachmann refused to admit her error in saying, "But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents [e.g. Declaration of Independence] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." Bachmann's statement sounded good, but the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, died in 1832, decades before the end of slavery. She then referred to the abolitionist efforts of John Quincy Adams, who was not quite nine years old when we declared our independence, and who died in 1848, nearly fifteen years before the Emmancipation Proclamation. This rhetorical error was not nearly as important as the content of the rest of her speech, but because she refused to admit that she misspoke, it has become the only thing people know about her talk.

Sarah Palin staunchly defended her description of Paul Revere's famous ride to secretly warn colonists of the movements by the British regulars as, ". . . he who warned, uh, the, the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and, and, um, making sure as he's ridin' his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free." It was a forgivable blunder if she owned up to it, but instead she stood by it saying she knew her history. What is even worse, some of her supporters tried to change the Wikipedia page on Paul Revere to coincide with her erroneous statement.  Fortunately, Wikipedia closed the page to revision when it discovered the effort.

Ignorance can be cured, but a dogged persistence in, and defense of it cannot. Nor can the willful distortion of "facts" so often engaged in by politicians and pundits.

I am fortunate to occasionally co-teach a day-long seminar on civics for high school students. These students are hand selected by civic organizations for this special program, and they give up some of their free time to attend. They are usually well informed and enthusiastic about the subject. And they always pass the U.S. citizenship test. These young people give me hope for the leaders of tomorrow, but they are few. What about the rest of our young people?

President Obama has called for reform of No Child Left Behind which focuses on achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics. Knowing that we're doing so poorly in teaching our children history, geography, and civics, perhaps we can take this opportunity to refocus our energies in that direction. Our schools are not just there to generate test scores. They help create informed and involved citizens.

What do you think? Are social studies as important as reading, writing, and math? And on this Independence Day weekend, are you willing to take a challenge?

Take the sample test questions on the NAEP History assessment here. There are five questions each at three different levels: 4th grade, 8th grade, and 12th grade. Let us know how you did.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Serial (and Very Serious) Comma

To comma, or not to comma . . .

That question has been debated among writers for some time. Since a comma is used to replace the word "and" when listing several items in a sentence, must one use a comma before the last item listed even when there is an "and" before it? Example (with the debated comma): I bought bread, apples, and peanut butter at the grocery store.

Over the years, the University of Oxford Guide to Style has insisted upon including the last comma in this situation. The serial comma has become so identified with the university that it is known as the "Oxford comma." Oxford's position has been echoed by the Chicago Manual of Style, Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and the BBC.  (Thanks to the Oxford comma, you know when reading the preceeding sentence that Elements of Style is by Strunk and White, not by Strunk, White, and the BBC.)

Others have disagreed about the necessity of the final comma. The AP Stylebook, for instance, says that the comma before the last item in a list should be omitted unless it is necessary for comprehension. The AP Stylebook is primarily intended for journalists, but we have seen that journalistic style has a way of entering the mainstream. Consider, for example, the greater acceptance of the use of "alright," when traditionally (and more correctly) it should be written "all right."

So when word came out that the University of Oxford was abandoning it's own comma, punctuation nerds felt the ground shake a bit. Cries of angst arose on Twitter and Facebook as people tried to make sense of it all. It took several hours before it became clear that only the public relations office at the university had changed its guidelines for press releases to journalists, having no affect whatsoever on the advice offered in the Guide to Style. 

So grammar geeks can heave a sigh of relief. Their Oxford comma is safe. Everything, it appears, is alright.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Following Police Orders vs. Exercising Your Rights

I respect the police. They have a very difficult job--one that most people are unwilling or unable to do. They never know from moment to moment, on duty or off, when someone might produce a weapon and try to end their lives. Yet, they are sworn to protect the public, and put themselves at risk for us every day. Even after their shifts end, they cannot turn off their instincts, grounded in their training and experience, to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings--to identify dangers before they become tragedies.

Sometimes, however, their instincts can lead them to go too far. Take, for example, the case of Emily Good, a resident of Rochester, NY, who, last month, videotaped a traffic stop outside her home. Ms. Good is a self-proclaimed activist who, earlier this year, was arrested with others who were trying to prevent a home foreclosure. But this time Ms. Good was standing in her own yard recording what was happening in the street right in front of her house.

After the person stopped was under police control, one of the officers addressed Ms. Good directly. He told her he did not "feel safe" with her standing behind him. She asserted that she clearly had no weapons and that it was her right to observe and record what was happening in her neighborhood from her own yard. The police officer said that she seemed anti-police from some unspecified thing he claimed she said to him before she started recording. (Other witnesses say Ms. Good said nothing to the officers before beginning to record them.) Refusing to return to her house as the officer suggested, Ms. Good was arrested for the crime of "obstructing governmental administration," for not following police orders. You can see her video here:

Putting aside for a moment that it is difficult to imagine how observing and recording an event from a distance is "obstructing governmental administration," one still has to wonder why this confrontation ever took place. Perhaps the officer did not feel safe at first. There was someone standing several feet away, whose intentions were unknown, while their attention was focussed elsewhere. Taking control of a situation is the best way to avoid having things get out of hand. But after realizing that the witness did not pose a physical threat, why did the officer pursue it? A less generous interpretation might be that the officer did not want his actions recorded in case they might tend to show him in an unfavorable light. If that were his motive, he certainly failed to avoid that unhappy result. But as you watch the video, it seems that the officer just doesn't like that a person refuses to automatically do whatever he says.

Granted, Emily Good did not give in, but she was fully within her rights as a citizen to do what she was doing. The fact that she continued to record the encounter after the officer threatened her with arrest showed a certain grit and determination that she will now have to defend in court.

So where does one draw the line between obeying the police and standing up for one's rights?

Certainly there are times when bystanders need to follow police orders for their own safety or the safety of others, even if they don't understand why. But there are also times when the police need to be reined in and told that they have gone too far.

It seems to me that one of the best ways to protect our rights as citizens is to use them. I also believe that peacefully recording the police from a distance while they are engaged in a traffic stop should not subject one to arrest. Sometimes, as with the Rodney King police brutality case, only a bystander with a camera can help a victim get justice. As the lauded Supreme Court justice, Louis D. Brandeis, said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant."

What do you think? Would you have done what Emily Good did? Do you think the officer's reaction was justifiable? Just how far would you go to defend your rights?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Is it "Next Year" Yet?

As you probably know by now, I grew up in New England--Massachusetts, to be precise. And, like many of my peers, I grew up to be a life-long Red Sox fan.

Now, when I was a kid, the Red Sox were not known for winning championships. The last one they had won was in 1918, so there weren't too many people around who could remember it. But every season, we would root for them, and hope that this was the year when they would beat the odds, and bring us another World Series Championship. When they came close (and they nearly always came close) but didn't win, we'd say, along with fans of most other teams, "Just wait 'til next year."

Our "next year" finally came with a World Series win in 2004, and, surprise, surprise, again in 2007. This year, they're predicted, along with the Philadelphia Phillies--my new hometown team--to make it to the World Series again.This year, they say, the Sox have put it all together: phenomenal pitching, great fielding, and hitting beyond belief. 

But Boston lost their first three games and are tied for last in the AL East. What about our dominating pitching staff? In our second game of the season they let in twelve runs. Not a very auspicious beginning.

To take our minds off of our troubles, a bunch of us decided to participate in a fantasy baseball league. I've never done this before, so I knew I would make some rookie mistakes. We held our draft yesterday, and I really had no idea how it worked. The only thing I knew for sure was that you had to draft a player for each position, six utility hitters, and one entire squad for pitching--not individual pitchers. 

I did some homework. Okay, my husband helped me--even though he was drafting a competing team. He pulled out his many scouting books, and researched everyone online. (I told you we New Englanders were fans!) All I knew was that I wanted to draft Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox Gold Glove first baseman, who this year will be going back to his original position, playing third base. He once told the manager that he would be willing to play any position except catcher. How can you not like a guy like that?

And I knew I didn't want to draft any Yankees. There was no way I would end up cheering for a Yankee player just because it would help my fantasy team.

But I was so worried about pitching that when my first pick came (8th out of 10 in the first round), I picked my pitching squad. Apparently, that was against protocol. Other players seemed shocked, and suddenly were flinging papers everywhere, trying to adjust their next picks. Hmmm--throwing off the competition. Maybe I'm better at this than I thought. Which pitching squad did I pick? The Phillies. You might think this a bit disloyal, but the Phillies are undefeated, and in first place in their division, their league, and all of Major League Baseball!

Everyone was given 90 seconds per pick, so I expected the draft to take forever, giving me a chance to sort through and select my players with care. But everyone picked so quickly, that before I knew it, it was my turn again, and I got Youkilis! Fist pump of joy! On my next pick I got Dustin Pedroia, also of the Red Sox--our second baseman and former Rookie of the Year and AL MVP. Two fist pumps of joy! 

The draft was stressful, but went so fast, I hardly knew who I had until it was all over. It turns out, I have a pretty good team. At least they look pretty good on paper--so far. So I'm pulling for my Sox, the Phillies, and my fantasy team, "Mama's Boys." I hope they all win.

But if they don't, well, just wait 'til next year!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A New Friend

My husband and I adopted a dog last weekend. We've always had pets. Mostly we've had cats, but we've had a dog before--a sweet, lively Australian Shepherd named "Cindy," that we loved for thirteen years. It has taken us five years to be ready to adopt a dog again.

As anyone who has shared a home with both dogs and cats can tell you, while you adore both, the relationship with the two species is quite different. Your cats honor you with their attention, while your dog lets you know the honor is all his. Dogs live for you, trying their best to please you, whether they succeed or not. If you've never had a dog, read Marley and Me. You'll get the idea. Losing a dog leaves a big hole in your life, and it takes time to be ready to have another dog.

But now we are ready. We decided to go with a shelter dog--a mutt. I searched online, and found that a local shelter, Furry Feet Rescue, had a litter of eight Australian Shepherd mix puppies who were ready to find homes. Another Aussie. It sounded great. Cindy was a great dog. She had the personality and energy of a puppy nearly all her life. Her joie de vivre was infectious. And she was smart enough to train her people to understand her. She mostly left our cats alone, and they tolerated each other well.  Our memories of life with Cindy made us want another Aussie.

Then we saw the litter. Oh my. They were such an adorable bunch of puppies. Playing, chewing, tugging on each other with seemingly boundless energy until they simply exhausted each other and fell into a heap for a nap. Nothing could be cuter than a pile of puppies. My husband picked one he liked best, I had another. So we decided to go home and think about it.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if such a high-energy dog was best for us. We're not as young as we were when we got Cindy. And we have more cats than we did when we had her. We were concerned that our clowder would find the rough play of an Aussie puppy too difficult to bear.

That's when another dog went up on the rescue's website. This was a Newfoundland mix pup. I didn't know anything about "Newfies," as they are often called, so I looked them up on the internet. The first thing I saw was that they can be enormous. That sounds like a dog that will need a lot of space and a lot of exercise. The next thing I read was that they can make good "apartment" dogs. What? How can those two go together?

It turns out that the Newfie, while being smart and extremely affectionate, is not big on exercise. They can be content with a little play, a short walk, and then spend the rest of the day relaxing at their people's feet. This sounded like a dog that was more our speed. We're both writers, so we spend much of our time in more quiet pursuits. In this light, a hyperactive puppy seemed impractical. A couch potato seemed just right.

Newfies can also be good watch dogs, although they are gentle by nature. They are great with children. "Nana," the dog/guardian of the Darling children in Peter Pan, was a Newfie. And if you ever need a fishing net dragged ashore, or fall overboard on an ocean voyage, well, a Newfie is the only dog for you. They have often been credited with saving scores of people at a time from shipwrecks. One is credited with saving Napoleon who fell overboard in rough seas during his escape from Elba.

I contacted Furry Feet Rescue and asked to see the Newfie and our two favorites among the Aussies again. After that, it was simple. The Newfie picked us. We brought him home last night.

The cats are very wary of this new beast in the house, but he's indifferent to them--much more interested in lying at our feet after a relatively short period of gentle play than in chasing cats. We hope for a swift detente among them.

Now we're back in the business of housetraining, and bonding with a puppy. Of course, he is a mix with nobody-knows-what kind of dog. This will have an impact on how he grows and develops. It already appears that he will be on the smaller side for his breed--which might be good. But he is definitely more of a couch potato--even at his young age.

We've named him Mr. Darcy. It's a great name for a tall, dark, and handsome fellow, don't you think? (I guess I'll tell him when he wakes up.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day

Interesting, isn't it, that we choose to commemorate someone's death by giving each other Hallmark cards and boxes of chocolates?

It's true. Saints' days are celebrated on the dates of their deaths--not their births, as we so often do for modern heroes from Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Elvis. But it gets even more complicated.

Apparently there were several saints named Valentine. The one whose death was recorded to have occurred on February 14 was, according to Wikipedia, "martyred in Africa with a number of companions, but nothing more is known about him."  He and two others, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni, share the saints' day established about 500 A.D. While all of the Valentines were doubtless ardent believers and died in the faith, none of them seems to have been particularly romantic so far as we know.

So why do we consider Valentine's Day a day of romance and love? Ask Chaucer. Apparently it was in the 14th century when he wrote, "For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."  And from there we get to the Hallmark holiday we know today.

I have known people who hate Valentine's Day, in part because the world pairs off, and if one is without a mate, the celebrations of the day only accentuate that state. Others feel that the day is an artificial excuse for florists, chocolatiers, and greeting card companies to dip into our wallets. And still others revere it as a chance to focus on their significant others, and tell them, in words they might not often say, that they are important and loved. Whatever the origin or exploitation of the day, that can't be all bad.

What do you think? Do love Valentine's Day? Hate it? Or are you somewhere in between?

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Cozy by Any Other Name . . .

For a while now, I have been happily telling people that I am writing a cozy mystery. My story meets all the usual criteria: a puzzle to solve, an amateur detective (i.e. not a police officer, private detective, medical examiner, or other professional), a small town setting, a lack of gore and violence, no explicit sex, and an emphasis on plot and character instead of action. I thought I was pretty safe with declaring "cozy" to be my subgenre.

But recently I have been in touch with other authors who have set me straight. "Cozy," they tell me, is no longer the word-of-choice to describe what I am writing. Cozies get a bad rap for being simplistic fluff. Writers of other mystery genres quietly look down on cozies, I'm told, while writers of literary novels look down on mysteries. In order to retain a more respectable position in the hierarchy, cozy writers, they tell me, should claim to write "traditional" mysteries.

Traditional vs. Cozy. What's the difference?

At a recent writers conference, an editor said that her house publishes traditional mysteries, but not cozies. Where, I asked her, does she draw the line between the two? She wasn't able to articulate it. So I have made an effort to compile a list of criteria most often cited as distinguishing one from the other.
  • I have heard that a cozy is almost always a part of a series, while a traditional mystery may be, but might not. (Isn't that the same thing?)
  • Some say that a cozy must include a craft, recipes, talking animals or the like, while others say that while such books are definitely cozy, those elements are not required for a book to fall into the cozy category. (Dame Agatha did not include any of the above, yet she is considered the mother of the genre.)
  • A cozy, some argue, has a female protagonist, while a tradition mystery can have either a male or female protagonist. (Is it me, or is that just sexist?)
  • It is said that the protagonist in a cozy must be likable, whereas the protagonist in a traditional mystery might be more damaged. (Don't all protagonists need flaws?)
  • The mood in a cozy, some suggest, is more apt to be light-hearted than in a traditional mystery. (Simplistic fluff? Hardly true of the cozies I've read.)
I seems that most of these distinctions are in shades of grey, rather than real differences. Perhaps there is no real line between the two, and this labeling has little to do with what we write. Both involve amateur detectives working on a puzzle, usually in a closed community. Both have to play fair with the reader, avoiding the deus ex machina ending. Both are supposed to have Good win against Evil in the end. So why call them by different names?

I am told, one must be very careful about how one describes one's work. For instance, a writer told me that "amateur detective" is no longer the favored term; I should call my protagonist an "accidental sleuth." I guess that sounds more traditional.

My work has no recipes, crafts, or talking pets (but I read those that do). My non-professional female protagonist is curious, intelligent, and a bit damaged. It is set in a small town with, I hope, a cast of interesting characters. I don't write humor, but it has its lighter moments. I hope it will be a series.

So what am I writing?

A traditional cozy.

What do you think? Is there a difference between a "traditional" and a "cozy" mystery, or are these distinctions without a difference?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Interview with Jessie Crockett

The title of Jessie Crockett's debut novel with Mainly Murder Press, Live Free or Die, is the state motto of New Hampshire, and her book embodies all that we've come to expect of a good New England cozy mystery. The protagonist is the widowed postmistress of tiny Winslow Falls, NH. In her day job, she hears all the town's gossip, which helps her solve a mystery in her other life--as a volunteer firefighter suddenly in charge of an investigation of a spate of unexplained fires. In the ashes of the latest, she found the body of one of the town's most beloved citizens. When a tall, red-bearded, state fire investigator arrives to help unravel the mystery, sparks of another sort fly. 
Her book is available at AmazonSmashwordsBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound, among other outlets.  I'm happy to welcome Jessie to my blog today.

CLW: Hi Jessie. Having grown up in New England, and having spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, I really enjoyed the setting for your book. How did you make it seem so believable?

JC: I've lived in New Hampshire since I was a young child. My parents and all my extended family are from Maine so my own experience is centered around New England. I think it also comes down to the fact that I was very shy until I became an adult.  Shy people tend to be hyper-aware of their surroundings. And they are natural observers because they are usually on the outside of what is happening.

CLW: Your protagonist, Gwen Fifield, is the town’s widowed postmistress and a member of the volunteer fire department. What a combination. Is she based on anyone you know?

JC: My husband and I bought a home in a very small New Hampshire village sixteen years ago. The first person I met in town was the postmistress.  She was kind, helpful and friendly. I came to value not only her friendship but the everyday things she did to grease the social wheels of our tiny community. The time finally arrived a few years ago for her to retire. The long string of temporary replacement postmistresses we were sent did not fill her shoes. I was heartbroken and decided the only way to get my beloved postmistress back was to make one up. Gwen's best qualities, those of wisdom and community-mindedness, are very much shared by the real life postmistress from my village. The rest of the story, faithless husbands, difficult sisters, and arguments with local law enforcement, are entirely from my imagination. 

CLW: You have a large cast of characters, all with a variety of motives that keep us guessing throughout the book. How did you keep them all straight as you plotted your mystery?

JC: I'm glad to hear I kept you guessing! Keeping my characters and their motives straight never gives me any trouble. When I am writing I feel like I am in the story. I can see and hear the characters. When things are going well, writing about them feels like transcribing a memory instead of like I am making things up. If I don't feel that way I stop because I realize I am off course. That being said, what I do have trouble with is the order of events. I know everyone and why they do what they do, I just don't always remember when they do it.  

I write in scenes and when I was writing Live Free or Die I used one sticky note for each scene. My office has a flat chair rail running all the way around it. I used it as a timeline for the scenes and would rearrange them on it until everything was finally in the right order. Some of the sticky notes completely lost their stick from being repositioned so many times. I would find myself with plot holes created by actions out of order and clues Gwen could not possibly have found when she did. I even had her live one day twice and then skip another by accident. Now I have a giant sheet of glass mounted to my office wall and I write on it with different colored markers which seems to be working at least as well as the sticky notes.

CLW: The romance between Gwen and the state fire investigator, Hugh Larsen, is especially endearing.  We’d love to see more of him, too. Are you planning a series?

JC: I am writing a series. The second is underway right now and I plan to have it completed by April 1. I don't have a release date yet, but I what I do know is the title: Body of Water. The community will face flooding as well as interest from a large corporation wanting to set up shop in Winslow Falls. Gwen and Hugh will be back along with Augusta, Clive, Winston, and Ray, as well as a bunch of new faces around the village.

CLW: What drew you to writing a traditional mystery? Have you written in other genres?

JC: The first chapter book I ever read was The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. I was so proud of reading a book that seemed so grown-up I think I automatically associated mysteries with pleasure. I love to read in many genres but at this point I prefer to write mysteries. I like the structure of it and the commitment to the reader to stay within the rules while misdirecting their attention. I also like that most mysteries can be counted on to provide a story with a satisfying ending. So much of day to day life remains undone. There is always more laundry to do, more meals to cook, more loose clapboards to nail back onto the house. Usually, in a mystery, at the end you feel it is complete.

CLW: What was the hardest part of writing your mystery?

JC:  First drafts are my biggest challenge. I've heard a lot of other writers talk about how much they hate editing and going through all the drafts necessary to polish work. I prefer rewriting. I feel like I can fix a mess. What is harder, for me, is to make one in the first place. The first one third to one half of the manuscript is the worst. Once I've gotten through that, I start to know what the story really is about and then I sail on through to the end. It's a lot like knitting. The first several rows of any project are hard to hold onto and don't look at all like what the piece will become. You stop and start and maybe even change needles as you get a feel for what works for this particular project and what doesn't. But before long you catch the rhythm and everything becomes a pleasure. 

CLW: Can you tell us how you found your publisher?

JC: I belong to The Guppies, which is the internet chapter of the Sisters in Crime. The Guppies main function is to provide information and support for, as yet, unpublished mystery writers. Someone in the group sent out an email mentioning Mainly Murder Press being open to submissions. I sent in Live Free or Die and was published nine months later.

CLW: Was there anything about the publishing process that surprised you?

JC: Belonging to groups like The Guppies and Sisters in Crime really helped to prepare me for what the process of being published would actually entail so I wasn't really surprised by much other than my own reaction to the realization I was about to join the ranks of the published. I floated around on a cloud of pure joy for months. 

CLW: Now that your book is out, do you have any advice for emerging writers?  
JC: Have fun. Enjoy the process of discovering how you work best and the voice you like to use to tell your stories. If you want to move from being pre-published to professional you need to behave like a professional. This means understanding that professionals in the industry, such as agents and editors, know their markets and are not rejecting you personally if they are not interested in your work. If you want to succeed I suggest you limit feelings of bitterness and self pity to one fifteen-minute session weekly. I like Friday mornings between 6 and 6:15. I usually forget and then I have to stay in a positive frame of mind for another week. I also love the advice my husband gave me the day I had received my eighth rejections in seven days: Chin up, pen down.

CLW: Great advice. Thanks for joining us today, and best of luck with your writing career

If you enjoy a good New England cozy mystery, be sure to pick up a copy of Jessie's book Live Free or Die. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

B&N Shows our Writers' Group the Door

I received an email yesterday from an old friend. She is the Community Relations Manager of the Bethlehem, PA Barnes and Noble. I've known her for years. I used to work with her, and for nearly five years, she has been the contact person at the store for the  Bethlehem Writers Group (BWG) that meets there 2-3 times per month.

The email came as something of a surprise. She informed me that as of February 1 (the date of our next scheduled meeting) the store would no longer have its upholstered chairs, and the space formerly reserved for meetings would be taken up with more bookshelves. And, since we are a fairly large group, they would not have room for us to meet in the cafe. In other words, it's been nice, but don't let the door hit you on the way out.

I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. More and more of the floor space in that store has been assigned to other sales: home schooling materials, toys and games, and now a large (and usually empty) Apple-store style space dedicated solely to Nook sales. As a reader, I am glad that the store will be adding back some more space for what made Barnes and Noble great: books.

But as a writer and BWG member, it is sad for me. I started the BWG nearly five years ago at that store, at the request of the then-manager. Unlike many bookstore-instigated writers groups that dwindle after only a few weeks or months, our group thrived. Our numbers swelled to an ungainly 18 members by our first summer, but has settled down to a much more manageable 8-10 members per meeting. In 2009 we published a compilation of Christmas stories by our authors: A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales. Being from Bethlehem, what could be more natural than a book of Christmas stories? We were enormously proud of it, especially after it won two awards from the Next Generation Indie Book Awards: best short fiction and best anthology.

We were pleased to hold book signings in 2009 at a wide range of book stores and libraries, but never happier than when we did two signings at our "home" Barnes and Noble. We did many more book signings this past holiday season, but our B&N would not host one in 2010. It wasn't personal. My friend assured me they were not holding any book signings between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And I hear from my friends in Sisters in Crime that they're finding the same thing to be true at their B&N stores, but not limited to the holiday season.

Although the store's only association with us has been to announce our meetings in the newspaper and put it in their newsletter, we felt a loyalty to the store--more apparently than they felt toward us. None of this was at the store's discretion, of course. Such decisions come down from above. But considering the relationship, it would have been nice to get a phone call--and maybe an expression of regret at the severing of our relationship.

That aside, I can't help but wonder at B&N's corporate decision making. I remember growing up in the Boston area hearing people speak in hushed tones about the Barnes and Noble on Washington Street as if it were for book lovers like visiting the Vatican might be for devout Roman Catholics. When I finally had a chance to visit it, I could understand their awe. Many floors filled with books--every book you could imagine--and even a few records. Yes, it was long enough ago that there were records; it was even before Starbucks, if that is imaginable.

After moving from the Boston area it was a while before I lived near another Barnes and Noble store, but eventually one came to my town. Now I live within an easy distance of three.

When I contacted another B&N to see if we could move our group meetings there, the CRM told me "we are no longer advertising or reserving space for large groups." I understand that the economy has hit all booksellers hard, and while faring best among the bricks and mortar book purveyors, B&N is also feeling the pinch. In the changing dynamic of publishing, it is trying to get ahead of the curve, or at least keep up. I'm not sure, however, that they are going in the right direction.

It seems to me that there are two reasons for book people to remain loyal to a big-box bookstore.

  1. If you want or need a particular book right away, the big box store is more likely to have it on the shelf than a smaller, independent bookstore, even if it costs a little more than Amazon, or even
  2. They have heretofore been wonderful places to stop in, browse, sit, read, meet with friends, attend a book signing, and yes, have a cup of coffee. As the character of Joe Fox said in the movie You've Got Mail about his big-box Fox Books, "I said you could sit and read for hours and no one will bother you. I said we have a hundred and fifty thousand titles. . . . I said we were a goddamn Piazza! A place in the city where people can mingle and mix and be." 
With the exponential growth of e-readers, the first of these is becoming less and less a factor. If I need a book right away, chances are I can download it on my Kindle for less bother and less money than getting into the car, driving over, and buying it at the store. 

Now it appears that B&N has lost sight of the importance of the second reason for buyer loyalty. While they might have more books on the floor, I doubt I will buy as many books at B&N as I did when my writers group brought me there 2-3 times per month. 

We all have to change with the times, and the Bethlehem Writers Group will adapt, find a new place to meet, and continue to thrive. But some of what I loved about my old B&N is gone, and I will miss it.

What do you think? Is B&N doing what it must to stay commercially viable? Or are they alienating some of their best customers?