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fb keyChapter One Death in the Afternoon

Here is how I happened upon the murder that saved me.

Sometimes in life you think it’s about where you’re going, but it turns out to be about where you change trains. On my way from California to New York City I had taken the northern route, which required me to change trains in the storied village of Tranquility, New York. On that fateful afternoon the posted schedule informed me that, should I decide to bolt and visit Montreal, I could leave within the hour. The train heading south for New York City, however, would not be along until 4 p.m.

It was an April afternoon; the colors on the trees and bushes were still the watery palate of spring. Here and there, forsythia burst in insistent bursts of golden glory.

I needed a drink.

Tranquility has been famous for a long time. Best known for hosting the Winter Olympics back in 19-whatever, it was a weird blend of small village, arts community, ski mecca, gigantic hotels and Olympic facilities. I suppose you could see the part that met your fancy and turn a blind eye to the rest.

Certainly there was somewhere here a person could get lunch.

The train station, made of light-colored stone, was on the southern tip of the main street, which followed the shores of Lake Serenity. Lake Tranquility itself was actually in the next town over.

Go figure.

Across the street was a shiny modern hotel of the upscale chain variety. Just down the road, father south, was a large, meandering, one-of-a-kind inn called MacTavish’s Seaside Cottage. It looked nothing like a cottage, and there were no seas. I doubted the existence of a MacTavish.

I headed over at once.

The place was evocative of a lost inn in Brigadoon, had the highlands such a place. There was a square main building of only a single story with wings jutting off at various angles into the rolling hills beyond. Yet there were windows enough that the lobby was bright and airy. Two full suits of armor stood guard by the check-in desk to the left, while a life-sized bronze statue of two downhill skiers stood under a skylight in the middle of the room.

Behind the statue, straight back, was the Breezy, a sleek, glass-enclosed restaurant and bar that sat overlooking Lake Serenity. It had an outdoor wrap-around deck that was filled with greenery and tourists on this balmy day, eating and holding tight to their napkins lest they be lost to the murky depths.

Off to the right, in seemingly the only dark corner in the vast common area was a small door marked Weeper’s Gate. A tavern name if I ever heard one.

Sure enough, once I pulled open the heavy door, the pub name etched into leaded glass, I had to pause a moment and let my eyes adjust to the change in light, atmosphere, and, possibly, century.

Only two of the booths against the far wall were taken, one by a middle age tourist couple and one by three local women lingering over lunch. Two of the center tables had patrons who had finished eating and even settled the bill. A young man of 17 or 18 was bussing their table.

I sat at the bar.

The bar was at a right angle as you entered the room, and it ran the length of the wall. It was hand-carved and matched the carved back bar, which held 200 bottles, easily.

A bartender’s dream, or her undoing.

Only one other person was seated at the bar during this low time between meal services. He was a tall gentleman with a square face, weathered skin, and dark hair pulled back into a pony tail.

He looked me over as I sat down. As I perused the menu, I could feel his cold stare, so I gave up and stared back.

“Flying Crow,” he said. “Native American.”

“Tristan,” I said. “Train changer.”

I went back to my menu reading. I was surprised to find oysters were a featured dish.

“Tristan?” he finally said. “But you’re a—”

“Woman,” I answered. “I know. Flying Crow? You’re in a Scottish pub.”

“Ask him what Oswego means.” This was from the bartender, a lanky man with salt-and-pepper hair. “Oh, but place your order first.”

“Are the oysters good?” I asked.

“Oddly, yes. One of the best things on the menu. Us being seaside, and all.”

“All right, then. Oysters it is. And a really dry vodka martini.”

I turned to Flying Crow. “So what does Oswego mean?”

“It means, ‘Nothing Here, Give It to the Crazy White Folks.’ Owego, on the other hand means, ‘Nothing Here Either.’”

“How about Otego? And Otsego and Otisco?”

His eyebrow raised. He was impressed by my knowledge of bizarre town names in New York State. “They all mean, ‘We’re Just Messing with You Now.’”

“Hey,” I said, raising my newly delivered martini. “Thanks for coming clean.”

He raised his own glass of firewater in return.

“Coming clean?” asked the bartender, and he chuckled, then dropped his voice. “If he’s coming clean, his name is Lesley.”

“And you are?” He wasn’t wearing a name tag.


“Skol,” I said, raising my glass. “Is this bar really called Weeper’s Gate? It doesn’t sound like a real traffic-driver.”

“Nah,” he said, flipping over the menu. “That’s just the name for the entry hall. The actual pub is The Crooked Elbow.”

As he spoke, the leaded door of which we spoke banged open and two men in chinos and shirtsleeves arrived, talking loudly to each other. The door opened again, just behind them, admitting a stream of ten more folks—both women and men, all wearing business casual. Some were more casual than others. There was one man with silvering hair who actually wore a suit and tie, and another in a white artist’s shirt, his black hair in a bun. The women’s garments, too, ran the gamut from suited to flowing. One, of medium height, even wore a white blouse, navy blue skirt and jacket, finished with hose and pumps. And a priest’s dog collar.

“Conventioneers staying at the hotel?” I asked Joseph. Even as I asked, I knew it didn’t make sense. No specific corporate culture was in evidence.

He laughed. “Nah. Conference people always eat at the Blowy. Er, Breezy. Tranquility’s Chamber of Commerce meeting just let out.” His grey eyes danced. “They can never agree on anything, but their entertainment quotient is fairly high. And they drive each other to drink.”

Flying Crow Leslie shook his head.

Most of the new arrivals found tables in the center of the room. Seven of them scooted the smaller tables together, others continued their conversations or arguments on their own.

“Marta!” Joseph called, leaning through a door in the back wall beside the bar.

A curvy girl with nose and eyebrow rings and mega eye shadow clumped through. Her eyes widened when she saw the influx of patrons.

I was glad my order was in. In fact, Joseph slid the grilled oysters with fennel butter in front of me. “Want anything else before the rush?” he asked, referring to the liquor behind me.

“I’d better hold off. Just in case there’s a disaster and I end up having to drive the train.”

He nodded knowingly. “Good luck with that.”

I took out my phone, but re-pocketed it without unlocking it. I wanted a few more uncomplicated hours before re-entering the real world. Turning to my right, I found that Flying Crow had vanished. In his stead, several bar stools down sat a Scotsman in full regalia: kilt, Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket and a fly plaid. It was predominantly red with blue stripes.

Wow. Native Americans, Scotsmen and women priests in pantyhose. This was quite a town.

Joseph was looking at an order screen, and five drinks in different glasses were already lined up ready for Marta to deliver.

My phone buzzed. I fought with myself. I turned it on.

I was grabbed by tentacles of the past.

When I looked up, filled with emotions I didn’t care to have, I decided I did need another drink; fuck driving the train.

The line of drink glasses was gone, as were Marta and Joseph.

I checked the time. I’d been in Underland for fifteen minutes, 20 at the most. It was just past three. I had maybe forty-five minutes before I should move on.

Marta swung through the kitchen door, and put her head down to stave off the multiple calls from the center tables. She stood in front of me, punching information into the point of service station, doing the No Eye Contact Tactical Maneuver.

“Have you seen Joseph?” I asked.

“No,” she murmured, not looking up.

“When you do, I’d like another drink,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.

She looked up then, troubled. “Everyone wants drinks,” she said, “and I don’t know where he’s gone.”

“How long since you’ve seen him?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Ten minutes?”

A man in kitchen whites swung the kitchen door open. “Here’s the ice Joe wanted.” He set down a bucket with a thunk and disappeared.

So Joseph wasn’t in the kitchen.

“Could he be in the restroom?”

“I asked Arthur when he came out, but he said there was nobody else.”

I nodded at Marta, glad for a reason to stand up. I started by going out through Weeper’s Gate, to see if perhaps he’d met someone in the lobby. A family with four children checking in. No sign of the bartender.

I swung back through into the woodsy-smelling darkness of the Crooked Elbow, and shook my head at the troubled Marta. I walked past to the circular window in the door. The industrial kitchen was white and well-lit, and as large as it was, I could see straight through to the Breezy.

On this side, there was a hallway to the restrooms, and another wooden door that led outside. I looked back at Marta and nodded to the door.

“It doesn’t go anywhere,” she said. “Just to a little smoker’s deck.”

I wondered if Joseph smoked, tobacco or otherwise. Certainly the arrival of most of a Chamber of Commerce would suggest it to me. I pushed on the wooden door. It seemed locked. I gave it one more try, and, though it didn’t open, it did budge a little bit.

This time I went at it with my full shoulder. There was a thud, and it wedged open enough that I could slip through.

It could hardly be called a deck. You couldn’t put a table or even a lounge chair out there.
Especially with the body taking up so much of the space.

It was Joseph. I knelt quickly and felt for a pulse at his neck, but it was clear he was inanimate. He was still sitting up, although my pushing the door open had made him lean at an angle. I couldn’t tell if the look on his face was one of pain or surprise.

Crap. He was always nice to me. Well, during the half an hour I’d known him, he had been nice to me.

What is protocol when one discovers a corpse? Should I call in the priest? But she was within a group and it would certainly start a panic. Call 911?

Yes, that would be good. That way they could decide if you call the hospital or the police or both.

My phone was back in my purse.

And, you know what? I didn’t want the call to come from me. I was just passing through.

I pulled the door back open and walked to Marta behind the bar. “Call 911,” I said. “I found Joseph.”

It took the ambulance and the police five minutes to arrive. The paramedics went through first, and brought a gurney around outside so as to not freak out everyone in the hotel. They loaded Joseph on and sped off, just in case there was anything to be done.

I knew there wasn’t.

The police, on the other hand, worked at securing the place which might become a crime scene. They blocked all the doorways and announced no one could leave.

I was still behind the bar with Marta. She was shaking.

“Give me another Scotch,” said the Scotsman at the bar.

I looked at the bottles and was pleasantly surprised by the selection. “I think this calls for Black Maple Hill,” I said, only kind of surprised at my reflexive tendency to upsell. The Hill was a smooth pour but not the absolute priciest.

He nodded. I poured.

I’m not sure if it was Marta’s tears, or the fact we weren’t allowed to leave, but local bigwigs had realized something was amiss.

“Excuse me,” said one of the men in a suit. “Someone said that Joseph is dead.”

“Yes,” I said. “He does seem to be.”

Marta swung out of the kitchen, her eyeliner half down her face. “Al, these are your oysters,” she said. He took them.

“So,” he continued, and I wondered what meaningful words he’d have to say. “You’re pouring drinks?”

It took only a moment to realize that, were I the owner of this establishment, I’d find this a great opportunity.

“Seems so,” I said.

“What goes with oysters?” he asked.

That was a no-brainer. I’d spied the green bottle of absinthe while having my own meal. I poured about 3 tablespoons into the glass. I then opened a bottle of Prosecco, poured it, and waited for the milky cloud to form.

He took a sip, looked at me, and raised the glass. “If I want another of these, what do I ask for?”

It was only then that I realized I’d dispensed one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite libations. “Death in the Afternoon,” I replied.

He nodded and went back to his table.

And I realized I wasn’t going to make my train.



3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) absinthe
1/2 to 3/4 cup (4 to 6 ounces) cold Champagne or sparkling wine

Hemmingway’s advice, circa 1935: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”


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World Book Day is celebrated this month in the United Kingdom (here it is World Book Night in April). School children are urged to dress up as a fictional character. Apparently one little boy has already been sent home for coming in a “Christian Grey” suit. (If he was in my class, I’d have him go back to the hall and re-enter as Willy Loman. Problem solved.)

So, while it’s not OFFICIALLY World Book Day here, it did get me thinking that ANY day is the perfect time to celebrate books.

In that spirit, let me celebrate the books I am reading right now, or have recently finished. I don’t usually read 5 books at a time, but I am just now, all very different, and for different reasons.

station 11STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel 

You might have heard that I’m not a big fan of end-of-civilization novels (scroll down to the post, “Hi-tailing It Out of Distopia” for an explanation). But my husband went out of town and left me this book with a note saying, “I think you’ll love it! Enjoy.” Now, my husband is sparing with his exclamation points, so I took the note seriously. The book is about a time in the not-too-distant future after a pandemic thinned the population by, well, almost everyone.

The story follows a small travelling company of actors and musicians who perform classical music and Shakespeare in the small settlements that remain. Granted, I haven’t finished the book, but the characters are interesting and real, and the book does seem to celebrate the good in humanity and even the “magical” everyday things we current readers take for granted.

DEAD UNTIL DAWN by Charlaine Harris

Yes, I realize I’m about 10 years behind everyone else, but there was a copy left by the bathtub and dead until Darkwhat is a girl to do? Isn’t it great that once books are written, they continue to exist and be unique? I’ve met Ms. Harris, she is a down-to-earth person who is nice to other writers and willing to dish about Alexander Skarsgard. I’d heard the Sookie novels were “episodic,” and the series was a little much for me. But what the heck?

Here’s the what: Sookie jumps in on the first page, a fully-realized character with a clear eye, a sense of humor and a big chain. There isn’t much she isn’t afraid of, and her crazy Southern world is introduced as normal-wacky. Vampires? Shape-shifters? Southerners you recognize and a town that feels like a real place? Obviously, a kajillion people read these books because they’re just plain fun. So what if the plots aren’t exactly tightly woven? And my best guess about the series is that somehow the men–the showrunners, the producers, writers, directors–co-opted Sookie and struck out on their own. Obviously they were successful, but it’s not the same thing.

Kaiulani Crown Princess WebbKAIULANI: CROWN PRINCESS OF HAWAII by Nancy and Jean Francis Webb

This one might strike you as kind of odd, after all, I did write a biography of Princess Kaiulani myself (that won the Carter Woodson Award, yay), and this biography was written back in 1962.  But here’s the deal. During the time my husband and I honeymooned in Hawaii, we saw a small newspaper article about Princess Kaiulani, and I fell in love with her.

I found the Webb’s book (and every other book on Hawaiian history in print) and then, we found the Webbs. They lived in Manhattan, as we did. By then, Nancy was battling Parkinson’s, but they welcomed us, time and time again, into their apartment. We would sit and talk for hours. A lot about Kaiulani and their journey to write the book, but also about their journey(s), period. They wrote radio dramas in the Good Old Days and had wonderful stories of a New York and a writing life not long gone. There is a new edition of their book out now, in paperback. My copy of their book is the hardcover, and it is signed. It is also falling apart. It is a prized possession.

Why did I pick this book up to start reading it? It was the beginning of a long journey, and I hadn’t read it in a long time. Some of the language used in 1962 sounds outdated now, even a bit insulting, but back then it was the politically correct speech of the day. But, they were a step closer to 1899, when “our princess” died. When they wrote, people who remembered Kaiulani were still alive. Honolulu was different 50 years ago, as it had been 50 years before the Webbs. But I’m loving it. Like a visit with old, beloved friends–and I mean both the Webbs and the Kalakauas.


Every year, our church reads a book collectively during Lent. We are a church of people who love to learnListening for the Heartbeat and to discuss ideas. This is a book about Celtic Spirituality, and it is fascinating. Oftentimes we Christians don’t realize how much of what we find in the Scriptures has to do with the lens through which we read the text. For example, the idea of Original Sin was pretty much plunked whole into Church theology by Augustine, who did us some mighty favors and some mighty disservices.

It’s interesting to hear the argument for the theologians who lost the argument at that one specific time in history. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Suppose that theological statement is actually fact?  Wonderful, necessary discussions. I LOVE ideas. I LOVE discussions. I LOVE books.

Here are two books I just finished, and I found them interesting counterpoints to each other.

Boston GirlTHE BOSTON GIRL by Anita Diamant

The Boston girl is a grandmother who is telling the story of when she became herself to her granddaughter. It’s a very workable conceit. The main character came from a family of Jewish immigrants who arrived stone poor to live in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. The possibility of education for girls was a far-away thought. And yet.

YET. Our heroine has pluck, she has hope–but mostly, she has friends. Her world broadens. Her thinking broadens. Her prospects,–finally–broaden. It is a specific person’s story, but in many ways, it is every immigrant’s story. It is a fast read, and it is wonderful.

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas

Another immigrant saga, this one of poor Irish in the mid-to-late 20th century, it takes place in the Wwe are not ourselvesOuter Boroughs of New York City. Our heroine is also from a family who arrived stone poor (actually, drunk poor). Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. She managed an education. And yet.

YET. Our heroine is stoic, not plucky; without hope that things will get better (not because they couldn’t, but because, well, wherever you go, there you are), and most trenchantly, she has no friends. She is completely self-contained and self-absorbed. Friendship is dealt, like cards, not fallen into. It was the kind of book you admire greatly and don’t enjoy for a minute.

At least, that’s me. But the great thing is, there are books out there for everyone! There are new worlds and new ideas and new ways to think and to view the world and make us appreciate what we have, and then, on to the next. It’s quite the most marvelous thing.

julia-child-my-life-in-franceOkay, last one up: My Life in France by Julia Child

Very possibly, one of the most wonderful books, ever. And not because it’s Dostoevsky or even Mary Stewart. Simply because Julia Child is an  indomitable woman, who can find delight in any situation. If you have trouble sleeping at night, keep this book by your bed. When you wake up, start reading. The phantoms of the night will fade into the France of the 1950s, your worries will fade into butter (it is Julia), and you will soon drift off, with a smile on your face.


Did you watch the Oscars this year? It was my favorite Oscars, ever.

I am usually ambivalent about awards that pit artists against each other. Talent is unique, material is unique, and deciding which actor, musician or writer is “better” than others at the top of their game is a stunt pulled by and for marketing. What I especially hate are the “losers.” Yes, everyone feels sorry for the nominees who don’t win, but, honestly, they’ve been feted and will continue to be. They’ve grabbed the brass ring. Then winners inevitably give “the speech.” You know the one–“Hey, kid in the middle of nowhere who doesn’t fit in! I once was you, and here I am! Your dreams CAN come true!” Obviously for the statue-holder, that is correct. He was feeling alone and misunderstood in Paducah, yet here he (or she) stands. Can’t argue with that.

If your dream is to live through middle school and high school and eventually end up somewhere where you feel comfortable in your own skin, absolutely true.

If your dream is to win an Emmy or a Tony or a Grammy or an Oscar–no, those dreams CAN’T come true, unless you are one person out of 500,000 truly talented working professionals in any art form during any given year.

To my mind, the real “losers” on these shows aren’t the non-winning nominees. They’re the uber-talented, hardworking artists who aren’t in the auditorium and will never be. In other words, most of us. Talented artists who spend hours doing art and also work at the hardware store, the library, the community college because we live in a society where bankers and plumbers are valued and dancers and poets and painters and singers and writers are not. The losers are also the general public who are only made aware of certain easily-accessible pieces of art which are mostly “entertainment.”

But this year showed there was another possible way to win.

Okay, as far as entertainment value, it wasn’t close to the best Oscars. The opening number was XXX 2015_OSCARS_RD025_20150222_APS.JPG A  ENT USA CAinfectious and jaw-dropping as far as the special effects. The rest of the show proved that even Neil Patrick Harris, who rocked the Tonys and the Emmys, could not hold up the behemoth that is the Oscar telecast. It still implodes under the weight of its own importance. This year’s ceremony was crippled by the fact that all the winners were givens. (Although I’ve got to say that Meryl sold the grief bit before the “In Memorium” better than anyone ever has and proved her worthiness for yearly nominations all over again.)

But the reason it was great was that it was the first time I remember that we were all called to remember WHY we do art.

A couple of years ago, I was eNYTM_Actors_71diting a really wonderful book in which working actors talked about their craft, and how to have a successful life while being an actor. One of the best was Eden Sher, who plays Sue Heck on THE MIDDLE. She is phenomenal. USA TODAY and other periodicals have gotten tired of trying to call the attention of Emmy voters to this consistently bravura (and totally funny) show. They have never gotten the respect they deserve, but Eden is committed to her art and to her character (even at the expense of having “the Hollywood look” every week.)  Another mega-talent in the book was an English actor named David Oyelowo. I know lots of actors, and each actor has a pet project they will produce/star in some day. They also have a reasonable plan about how this is going to come about. Usually, this plan is in its 13th or 14th iteration. Mr. Oyelowo had played Henry VI for the RSC almost right out of drama school. He had then done a couple of interesting turns in quality BBC shows, after which he moved to the States. He was in EVERYTHING. In tiny roles. He was the pastor in THE HELP. (Do you remember there was a pastor in THE HELP?) The school principal in INTERSTELLAR. One of the Union soldiers who recite the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln in LINCOLN. The bag guy in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.  The other bad guy in JACK REACHER. So he was working all the time. But he had this pet project. He was going to play Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time he was interviewed for the book, he was on plan 12. Everyone in Hollywood knew that the project had been bouncing around for years and had lost funding (and directors) more than once. A lot more than once. But this one felt different to David. He is a man of principles and faith, and he felt the MLK movie was about more than David advancing his career. It was why he acts. He spoke about it in his NOW YOU TELL ME! entry. I thought of those as “genre comments,” filed under pet project.

You might notice I haven’t blogged much lately, even though I’m under strict instructions to be habitual. But I was tired of being a writer. Not of writing, but of being a writer. Making artistic decisions that are market driven. Trying to be fun and myself and yet do my part to market and sell my books. Watching famous friends who have grabbed the ring do it more easily than I (or at least in bigger houses and at fancier events). Truthfully, they often have people who do it for them. I thought, maybe I’ll just go back to writing little things that I like and that no one else has to like because no one else has money riding on it. (We writers often default to the introspective cave mentality.)

Now You Tell Me! 12 Actors Give the Best Advice They Never Got with all this wonderful acting (and artistic and living) advice came out, and it did fine. No brass bands, no brass ring, fine. Like so many wonderful books by wonderful people. Fine.

After the big push for my most recent novel, I was tired. I didn’t blog. I didn’t write. (I also didn’t clean the kitchen, lest you get the wrong idea.) I was just kind of worn down.

Then, last Wednesday night, I turned on the television, and THE MIDDLE was on. It was a 2-parter, in which Sue (our friend Eden) had to tell her boyfriend why she couldn’t marry him. This was just a regular sitcom on a regular night, not even a “very special episode.” And at the end of the show, Sue finally gaveeden middle Darrin her answer. It was one of the longest monologues I’ve ever heard on television–but you didn’t think of that, then. Because to “Sue,” every word of it was new and being discovered as she spoke it and deeply true. It was one of the most bravura pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. I was agog. This is WHY she acts.  (It is also WHY I watch actors.) If she isn’t nominated for her performance in “The Answer,” there is no justice in the world.  There’s every chance she won’t be. But as she was doing that scene, through however many takes, her WHY was plainly and proudly on display. Eden Sher, you GO, girl!

Which brings us back to the Oscars. You probably heard that David Oyelowo played the radical son of Oprah and Forest Whttaker in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER. He and his family spent Christmas with selmaOprah, and David told her about his pet project. Lo and behold, it’s 2015 and SELMA, starring David Oyelowo, is up for Best Picture.  You probably also heard that his performance was overlooked for an award. So, in the eyes of many, he was a loser. In fact, the Hollywood Reporter always runs “brutally honest” ballot deconstructions in which various anonymous members of the Academy tell why they voted as they did. One woman said she found it very distasteful that the cast and crew of SELMA actually took a stand on current matters of civil rights. Apparently, they should make movies about it, but not actually DO anything about it. But that was David’s WHY.

On Sunday night, John Legend and Common performed “Glory,” the Oscar-nominated song they’d written for SELMA. The production of it was stirring. At the end, the audience in the auditorium leaped to their feet in an ovation that you knew was not just for the song, but for the film, for Martin Luther King, Jr., for nonviolent resistance, for the call for justice in this broken world.

The camera cut to David Oyelowo, who was doing his best not to cry. And then he was crying. david-oweloyo-crying-selma.ls.22215

And it had nothing to do with winning, or even with whether he was nominated or not.

It had everything to do with the WHY.

And I thought, God bless you, David. God bless everyone who is brave enough to speak up and speak out and work for justice. God bless everyone who holds onto the pet project that encapsulates her WHY.

And hell no, I’m not crawling back into any cave. I’m writing what I want, what I’m SUPPOSED to be writing, the things that feed my soul and tell me WHY I write. And I don’t care about the “voters” who want us to write about things but not DO things. This is about LIFE. It isn’t about awards. Or marketing.

David, man, you awakened courage and purpose in many of us, not by winning, but by caring.

And to my fellow artists, writers, actors painters, I say, “remember the WHY. And let’s go.”



Last week I was the guest at a library book group. The librarian who booked me warned that they were a feisty group who would speak their minds. They were reading my movie murder mystery, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS.

crazy writer on bedThey were a feisty group, all right, and we had a fine time. They were an intelligent group, also, who spotted and wanted to discuss not only plot and characters, but ways I’d decided to work with the literary references and mystery tropes. One man said, “I admit it that at first I thought the book had a little too much estrogen for me, but then I started seeing how you were playing with the reader, and I became fascinated. It became a great psychological game of cat and mouse.” We talked about the writing process and the reading process and the contract implicit between author and reader.

Then one woman spoke up. “Well,” she said. “You surprise me. You’re not what I expected a writer would be like. I mean, we hear so much about writers being loners and anti-social. You speak English really well. I mean, you talk really interesting. I mean–well, you know.”

Green quoteThe thing is, I do know. Truth is, if you’re naturally gregarious and a doer rather than a ponderer, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer. (At least not a fiction writer. You’ll likely do well at writing and selling self-help.) Fiction writers are made from the stares of kids looking out the window during class, often accused of “being somewhere else” while something not as interesting (say, math or the rest of life) is going on.

It’s not that we writers are an unfriendly bunch. It’s that we keep to ourselves for a living. In fact, I belong to a group of professional fiction writers who work hard at helping their aspiring counterparts and giving opportunities to each other. I brought a friend to a recent party. No one talked to her. I posit this is because chatting is not a writer’s strong suit. (In fact, during my formative years,  my father was the pastor of a large Midwestern church, hence, my definition of Hell is still “a coffee hour you cannot leave.”)  On the bright side, the aforementioned gathering was at a painter’s club andl the painters were thrilled to meet my friend. She is planning to start taking watercolor classes there.

Now, there are sometimes when being something “for a writer” comes in handy. For example,  sitting around a pool in Hollywood, surrounded by people with body types unavailable to most of us, it helps to think, “Hey, I look pretty good for a writer!” Or, perhaps you’re in an endless PTA meeting where a few completely jerkish parents are STILL holding forth on an issue of seemingly no consequence, and you think, “wow, I haven’t killed anyone. Great self-control for a writer.” Or, you’re watching a TV show in which they’re having “adventures” with the ghosts on the Queen Mary, but the voice over is using the word “ironically” in such an egregiously incorrect way that it’s much more jolting than ghosts talking–but you don’t throw anything heavy at the television. “Wow, staying really calm…for writer.” (Okay, I turned the show off. Couldn’t take it any more.)

Most fiction writers would likely agree with John Green’s quote, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” I know the feeling.

And yet. Yet, now, somehow I’ve slipped over. I do love telling stories while looking people in the eye. More that that, some of the most fun times of my year are the “The Book Inside You Workshops” I lead  with fellow author and editor Tom Mattingly. It surprised me when I realized this had happened–this morph into a novelist who enjoyed standing in front of others and talking out loud.

I know exactly when it began to happen.

I started working in book publishing in New York while I was still at NYU, and I continued after graduation. My first two editorial jobs, at William Morrow and Taplinger, opened my eyes and taught me so much about books and authors and publishing. When visiting my parents in California, the writing teacher at the local community college asked if I’d come and talk to his creative writing class about publishing. I said sure. As I prepared my notes, I began to get excited. There was so much insider information I could give these writers that I would have loved to have had when I was starting out! I went to the class, and we all started talking–and talking and talking. Afterwards, I realized it didn’t matter what I’d worn or how I’d come across, all that mattered was the exchange of information. We were in it together.

storytellerSlowly, that’s what changed everything for me. It no longer became about me talking and others watching, it became about the exciting information I had to share, or the wonderful adventure of a story we were going to go on together.

Oddly, I stopped dreading looking people in the eyes when I realized that, instead of looking at each other,  we were looking together in the same direction. I got to be the one holding the lamp.

I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason, when I talk to others such as the library group, I seem pretty sane. (Also, I now realize that people will think you’re stuck up if they talk to you and you’re gazing into the distance so I’ve cut down a lot on that.)

Perhaps when we meet up, we’ll get into a stirring conversation about fantastical things. Perhaps we’ll use the word ironically correctly. Perhaps we’ll even discover we speak pretty good English for writers.

Until then, perhaps I’ll meet you in the middle distance…just beyond the next horizon…

1typewriterSo. This book you’re writing. That you mean to write. That you’ve written some of. That you mean to get back to.

You’ve got the idea. You’ve got the talent. You’ve made the commitment. Why aren’t you writing?

You tell people it’s Writer’s Block, which can be kind of a catch-all, but usually means you’re unable to interact with the material in a meaningful way. Thousands of pages of advice on getting past Writer’s Block have been written.

But what if it has nothing to do with the material? What if you know what happens next, or you need a next book and your mind is as empty as the cornbread shelf at the grocery store on Thanksgiving?

Or you mean to write, you want to write, you know what to write…and it’s not happening?

Here are three possible culprits–once you’ve identified the suspect, it’s easier to make the arrest.

1)  Place in your creative cycle. 1 kayak over falls

This is something I’ve seldom seen discussed, but the fact is that human creativity has a cycle. Unless you’re a machine, you can’t constantly be on the “output” setting without taking time on the “input” setting. You need to see new places, talk to different people, read new books, think new thoughts, or you’ll have nothing to write about. Sometimes you’ve put all your creativity out there, and you simply need time to refill and replenish. Don’t beat yourself up about this. Think of it as a new beginning, a an important, wonderful phase for your personhood. Dive into that stack of novels awaiting you. Take that trip. Drive around your town at 5 in the morning or email a blogger or journalist whose thoughts you’ve admired. Watch documentaries. Listen to NPR. Agree or disagree and have a fine time doing it. When you start feeling feisty or excited or surprised or wonder-filled or ticked off, you’ll know it’s almost time to enter “output” mode once again.


2)  Priorities. 1 Yoda

Let’s get down to it. If you really really want to write but you just don’t have the time, well, you don’t really really want to write. Harlan Coben points out that Mary Higgins Clark was a single mom with 3 young children and a full time job when she wrote her first book. She did it by getting up at 5 in the morning before anyone else was up. James Patterson had a family and a high-powered 20-hour a day job running an ad agency, but he started coming in an hour early and closing his door and writing his own stuff. If you want to do it, you can find a way. Get up early. Stay up late. Bring a sandwich and write at lunch. Don’t watch a favorite show.

Some very important caveats: a) If you don’t have the time because you’re feeling too guilty because other things like housework and shopping and waxing the floor and seeing your mother and baking cookies for the bazaar are getting in your way, have a very stern talk with yourself. Explain that nothing trumps writing. Your writing time isn’t time you’re stealing from others, it’s a commitment you’ve made to yourself. Say that until you mean it. NOTHING TRUMPS WRITING.

b) Carve out that time on purpose: when and where it will be. In your home office at 5 a.m.; in your work office an hour before you’re “on call.” Make that sacred. You’re working.

c) Create your boundaries and explain them to others. Then make them actual boundaries. If the door to dad’s study being closed means kids, dogs and neighbors can come in and say, “what are you writing?” or “where are the car keys?” it isn’t a boundary. Kids, spouses and friends are remarkably trainable. If 5 to 6 is your writing time and you won’t be answering the phone, opening the door or responding to texts, give them a week, they’ll stop calling/knocking/texting. But your boundaries are only as firm as YOU make them.

3) Resistance.resistance

This is the internal force that fights against the undertaking of any creative project. It’s what makes you decide to mop the floor instead of working on your book when the floor isn’t even dirty. It’s what gets you to log on to your computer, open your manuscript–and go play games or watch videos for an hour. Steven Pressman, in his book (and his discussion with Oprah, below) claims Resistance rears its ugly head whenever you are poised to start something that will “move you to the next level” creatively or personally. It’s why there’s something important you need to do, you want to do, you know how to do–and you can’t make yourself actually do.

How do you overcome resistance? Apparently, there’s only one way. You identify it, call it by name and then run the creative ball down the field, knocking it down in the process.

In other words, you JUST DO IT.

(Of course, sometimes you might need encouragement and a plan. If that’s the case, you’re invited to one of the next TheBook Inside You workshops, in which Tom Mattingly and I work participating writers through whatever is stopping them and into a functional plan to finish their book and get it out into the world.  February 7 & 8, 2015 at the Middletown Courtyard Marriott and April 10 & 11, 2015 at Hyatt Place in Mystic, CT)

The Book Inside You Workshops


You Write

As you know, we writers spend our days in deep philosophical reveries, contemplating Life, the Universe, and Everything. However, there are some questions that seemingly cannot be answered, even by fiction. I have started keeping a list, and I present some of them here. If you have any more of these questions yourself–or, have answers to any of these questions (huzzah!) please weigh in.

+ Why is the song “My Way” only sung by known jerks?

blue roses

+ When did flowers cease to be about fragrance? The idea that we invent roses that look pretty but have no smell amazes me, and not in a good way.

+ Do we really need both “hearty” and “hardy”? It seems either will do.

+ Why do they make it so an $800 dishwasher depends on a 3 cent piece of plastic that holds the detergent chamber closed?

drink dispenser+ Why are the spigots in those lovely beverage dispensers so high up? A good quarter of the drink will be un-pourable.

+Why do people who make toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash assume everyone likes the flavor of mint?

+ Why do so many people think you need to come to a complete stop in a car before turning right?

+ Why do drivers now assume they MUST pass left-turning cars on the right, even if it’s dangerous, when they only save 10 or 20 seconds?

+ Why do people use “vanilla” to connote something boring or uninspired? I believe the flavor vanilla is phenomenal.

+ Why do they make pens that don’t write? Or at least don’t write for long, and are so choosy about types of paper and surfaces?

+ Why have police vehicles gone from flashing lights to a roadside light show extravaganza that blinds passing motorists?

+ Why do butter pecan and chocolate ice cream taste better when they come together in the same carton, rather than if you scoop them from separate cartons into the same bowl?

+ If the flies who are buzzing against the screen have lived their entire lives inside the house, are they suddenly really confused if they’re loosed into the vast expanse of sky?

+ Does Benedict Cumberbatch smoke simply to keep from being perfect? And can he not think of another fault that wouldn’t kill him?

+ Did they need to pay to install this sign?

not a through stree


sex wedding nightThere’s been some hoo-ha lately over the sex scenes in the Starz drama OUTLANDER, based on the popular series of books by Diana Gabaldan. Seems the sex comes to us via the sensibilities of the protagonist, Claire, who is–as her name might suggest–a woman.

Let’s get right down to it. Sex on cable is often fantasy sex. You can see provocative body parts of Hollywood-beautiful individuals, usually well-oiled and lovingly lit. This is certainly true of OUTLANDER, the same way it is true of, say, GAME OF THRONES, which is written by a man. So why all the fuss?sex well oiled

Well, for one thing, Clare isn’t just there to satisfy the man, she enjoys herself. But so do the willing lines of strumpets in GoT–or at least, they pretend they do, if they know what’s good for them.

But in the OUTLANDER books(which, by the way, are great), as in virtually every book I’ve read that has steamy sex scenes written by women, there is one major difference: the sex, for better or worse, is all about relationship.

I write mysteries and thrillers, so I’ll admit that there are many fine thrillers out there now that are written by enlightened men, and have strong, intelligent, brave female characters. Robert Langdon, of DA VINCI CODE fame,  couldn’t get along without one. These women are, not surprisingly, gorgeous to a fault. And after our heroes are through racing along the razor’s edge between life and death, they will inevitably act on the fact that they find each other incredibly attractive. They’ll fall into bed, both willingly, as equals. And, next book, our hero will have hit the reset button, and do it again with another incredibly smart, remarkably lithe female companion.

In other words, men’s fantasy sex seems to include a gorgeously unavailable, yet (just for you!) willing partner who is also, for some reason, just passing through.

In women’s fantasy sex, the men are also built, gorgeously unavailable, yet (just for you!) headlong in love, and…willing to talk. A lot.

Kristen Stewart, James PattinsonI’m not saying that Clare’s first lovemaking with Jamie in OUTLANDER quite matched my favorite girl-fantasy conversation of all time. That was from TWILIGHT, in which Edward Cullen actually says something to the effect of, “If I have sex with you, it would be so powerful that I would likely kill you. So let’s just talk. What’s your favorite color?” On a “Yeah, right” scale of 1 to 10, that definitely comes in at a 15.

In the book of OUTLANDER, Claire and Jamie, who’ve been circling each other with interest, are suddenly forced to marry to save her from the Redcoats, and to save him from the lonely life of a man on the run. It’s vitally important they fulfill the letter of the law and consummate their marriage, and the group of “witnesses” gather below their room to make certain they do just that. So, they get married, repair to their room…and start talking. In time, for hours. In book talk, pages (and pages) of exposition. Of course, once they jump each other bones (finally!!) they pretty much can’t stop. This scene in the book always earned a 12 on that “Yeah, right” scale of 1 to 10. I was doubtful that even the talented Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, was going to be able to pull off that much of a female fantasy and make it seem realistic. He kind of did. He added a “you’re joking, right?” laugh as they started into the clinch, and then Claire pulled away and  said, “Tell me about your family.”  Which is apparently the Scottish clan version of “what’s your favorite color?”

sex fifty shades

Even in 50 SHADES OF GREY, which featured lots of sex written by a woman (though women of the world seemed startlingly unaware that Romantic Times Book Review has reviewed actual, well-written erotica for decades) the entire point was that our heroine was willing to play along with Christian Grey’s sexual proclivities because, unlike his long line of former submissive partners, she was able to LURE HIM INTO A RELATIONSHIP. Not just sex. A RELATIONSHIP for which he was willing to face his demons and maybe even occasionally MAKE LOVE instead of just have sex.

I’m not saying that female writers don’t enjoy writing hot things about their male protagonists, and even some pretty heavy duty s & m. OUTLANDER’s Jamie Fraser is a prime example, because there are thousands of pages already written about him, and inside the first book ALONE, he is shot, stabbed, beaten, spanked (and these by his friends and family), has his shoulder dislocated, is whipped (multiple times and nearly to death), tortured, and brutalized. He shows his manly virtue by shooting, stabbing and fist-fighting legions of Redcoats, deserters, and drunken MacKenzies. Which makes him manly enough to admit to Claire that he’s a virgin at the beginning of their (lengthy) wedding night. Yet he’s such a fantasy-NICE GUY that I was almost relieved when he finally stood up to Claire when she is sulkingly withholding sex.

So, using an admittedly small sample of female-written sexuality (although including in the background sex scenes in my latest mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, in which an actress is torn between her co-star and her director, and in the most recent Eden Thrillers, especially TREASURE OF EDEN, which has the infamous cave scene, and PLAGUES OF EDEN, in which our Army chaplain heroine must choose between the secret agent she just married and the philanthropist rock star who burns for her), here is what I conclude.

When women write sex scenes that are meant to be violent and harrowing, they are just that. Especially because the reader often experiences them from inside the mind of the female.

But, when a female author writes sex scenes in which the female protagonist is a willing participant, while the sex itself can be as hot and creative as possible, it is in the context of RELATIONSHIP. And there is often a lot of TALK to get them there. While male heroes can pretty much be turned on by the sight of a naked woman, a female protagonist has to be fully on board. Her mind has to be engaged. And it helps if the man finds her SO FREAKING ATTRACTIVE because of WHO SHE IS that he can’t help himself–but he DOES, DAMMIT–barely–until she gives the nod.

If that’s causing a big hoo-ha on television these days, well, it’s about time.

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