A Cave of My Own

Recently I attended a gathering at the home of a writer friend who lives in Marin County, California.

Her house overlooks San Rafael Bay. The guests oohed and aahed over her workspace, which has a full wall of window facing the water. There were ducks and other creatures within feeding distance. Everything was bright and sunny. If we weren’t talking, the air was filled with silence and the occasional sound of a nonhuman species.

Scary.

I’d never survive in such a space, let alone do anything productive. I’d be too nervous, thinking maybe the world had ended for humans, or wondering if an ocean mutant might break through the glass and land on my lap. The space was too open, held too much wildlife. The only “buildings” in view were a few other houses around the edge of the Bay. Nothing over two stories.

I prefer caves.

My office is small and dark. I keep it that way by having my blinds closed during the day. The only things in my field of view are my 26″ computer, a TV, 2 printers, scanner, DVD player, and books, of course. Nothing scary, like a duck or a bird, or long weeds full of insects, or the blinding sun.

I’m sure this preference comes from childhood. My bedroom window for the first 21 years of my life was about one yard away from the jukebox in the pizza parlor next door. The only sounds I heard were human (recorded or otherwise, and sometimes accompanied by sirens); the only vista a brick wall on one side, a fire escape on the other.

The pizza parlor that was an extension of my bedroom.

I spent the next 20 years shuffling from one big city to another. Boston; Hartford, Connecticut; The Bronx; Washington, DC. Not exactly prairie land.

The combination of buildings, subway tunnels, and city noises is still comforting to me, and the place I work best.

Am I in the minority here?

Guest: Ellen Kirschman: A Doctor in Turnouts

My guest today is one of those people whose amazing success in a professional field has made her only more willing to share what she knows with others. Dr. Ellen Kirschman’s I Love a Cop and I Love a Fireman are among my first go-to books for help as I write characters she knows better than I do! Thanks for joining us today, Ellen.

How did I get here?: Years ago, Camille invited me to talk to a gathering of mystery writers.  She told me that she used a “dog eared copy” of my first book, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know as a reference for her own writing. Neither of us knew that twenty plus years later she would be “blurbing” my first ever novel, Burying Ben: A Dot Meyerhoff mystery and inviting me to be a guest on her blog. You’ve been a role model and a pal. Thanks Camille.

How and why I went from writing non-fiction to fiction:

After writing two more non-fiction books about public safety psychology, I began to think it would be easier to make things up. Boy, was I delusional! Readers can put a non-fiction book down and pick it up without losing the thread. But a good mystery should have the reader baring her teeth at anyone or anything that interrupts her before she finishes the story.

I started writing when I was a child and never stopped. I used to be a probation officer. Once a supervisor told me that a report I had submitted was the best piece of writing he had ever received. The only problem was that he didn’t think it had anything to do with the person I was investigating. I guess that would be the first time I began turning my real work into fiction.

Years later, as a police psychologist, I wondered how I would react if a client of mine committed suicide. Cops are two, perhaps three, times as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty. Fortunately, the only time I had to deal with this was when I wrote   Burying Ben and created Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, using my mother’s first name and my maternal grandmother’s maiden name.

People ask me if Burying Ben is autobiographical. Not really. I’m not nearly as gutsy, young or thin as Dot and I certainly never did the things she does to bring the right people to justice; impersonating a public official, breaking and entering, and assault with a deadly weapon. Dot’s father was a student activist at Berkeley in the 60’s who was beaten by the police and injured for life. His legacy puts Dot in perpetual conflict with the officers she’s been hired to help. My father was a Republican. On the other hand, Dot and I do have some things in common. We’re both divorced and we’ve both had an uphill battle trying to get officers to trust us because we’re civilians, women, and “shrinks.” I spent 25 years consulting at one agency and the day I left there were still some cops who believed I had a video camera in my office that connected directly to the Chief’s desk.

Some things that really happened  have found their way into the book, mostly scenes having to do with stories I heard or things that happened when I was riding with the cops. I’ve always had an ear for how cops talk and for years I’ve been keeping a record of the funny, off-the-wall things they say. Officer Eddie Rimbauer, is a composite of many people, but he sounds so real, there was an on-line pool of cops trying to guess his real identity.

Some readers want to know if Dot’s first post-miserable-divorce new love interest, Frank, is really modeled after my husband. He is.  My husband wants to know if Frank will get lucky in the sequel. I’m not telling. He’ll have to read the book.

Burying Ben went through some eighteen revisions.  I was teaching myself a new craft. Writing a mystery was a puzzle to be solved, one that challenged all my weak points – an abhorrence for details and a non-linear mind. My big “aha” moment came when I changed from third person point of view to first person. Once I put my psychologist hat back on, I was in familiar territory. My next challenge was to stop telling myself that whatever was happening in the book wouldn’t really happen this way in the real world. Faithfully adhering to reality is what drives non-fiction. But reality can be boring and is not the stuff that keeps a reader reading.

Promotion and marketing:

Few of my friends had read my other books, which were aimed at specific readers.  But they’re all reading Burying Ben. That would include my hair stylist, my dentist, my dentist’s receptionist, my doctor, my neighbors, and some strangers I met in the airport. Other people carry photos of their kids and grandkids. I carry postcards of my mystery and I’m not shy about handing them out. Not something I did, or needed to do, with my non-fiction work. Especially since psychologists are prohibited from promoting themselves, other than to provide general information that is neither misleading nor deceptive and does not offer discounts or inducements.

Doing research:

I did most of my research in the back of a patrol car or in my consulting room. But if you’re writing about cops and you don’t have the kind of access I was fortunate to have, you might consider attending a citizens police academy at your local PD or the Writers Police Academy (www.writerspoliceacademy.com). Both will give you hands-on experience. Go on a ride-along. After all these years I still learn something new every time I do. Learn about guns. Practice on the range. Try your hand at a firearms training simulator (FATS). If you’re qualified and have the time to invest, consider becoming a reserve officer or putting yourself through a police academy. I went through a condensed fire academy designed for journalists when I wrote I Love a Fire Fighter. Whatever you do, don’t watch cop shows on television. Join the Public Safety Writers Association (www.policewriter.com). You’ll meet a lot of active and retired public safety professionals who are also writers. I Love a Cop, I Love a Fire Fighter and Counseling Cops all contain real-life scenarios that, as Camille says, can enhance your stories and deepen your characters.

Is there a doctor in that suit?

Bio: Ellen Kirschman has been a police and public safety psychologist for over 30 years. She is the winner of the California Psychological Association’s 2014 Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology. Her work with first responders has taken her to four countries and 22 states. She is the author of four books. I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, has sold more than 100,000 copies.  I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know was penned after the tragic events of 9/11. Her third non-fiction book is Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. Burying BenA Dot Meyerhoff Mystery (2013) is her first foray into fiction and the first in a series.  Ellen spends her time writing, teaching, and volunteering as a clinician at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat (www.wcpr2001.org) for first responders. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, a photographer and a retired remodeling contractor. Ellen loves to hear from readers. You can contact her at www.ellenkirschman.com.  You can order her books from Guilford Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more of your favorite vendors, in print or as e-books.

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Technology and Social Change

My online class starts at the end of August: Science, Technology, and Social Change. A favorite topic, a favorite class.

I’m gearing up by gathering blogs, articles, and rants about what social media, smartphones and other electronic devices are doing to our teens, our dining habits, our culture.

Has our attention span suffered? Have we lost the ability to focus, to enjoy the moment?

Here’s one way to look at it: people haven’t changed. Only the tools have changed.

For example:

• In 1989, pre-smartphones, pre-Facebook, pre-almost everything, a college student in the northwest sent me postcards regularly. The usual message: I’m here in the library, studying hard.

My (unwritten) response: No, you’re not. You’re writing postcards, connecting to family and friends.

That same person, now 45 years old, posts on Facebook. The message: Thanks to (our babysitter), my husband and I are having a nice dinner out by ourselves.*

My (unwritten) response: No, you’re not. You’re posting on Facebook, connecting to even more family and friends.

Like?

Is technology ruining our ability to focus or is it simply filling a need?

*Actually, she writes Me and my husband are having a nice dinner . . . but we can’t blame technology for that, can we?

Booked

A few nonfiction selections

On LadyKillers recently, we were asked: What do our characters read?

My answer: Not much.

I’m what you might call a heavy reader; I’m not sure why no one in my gallery of characters is even a light reader. They confine themselves to literature that’s pertinent to their jobs or interests, almost never including fiction or reading for relaxation. For example:

• Dr. Gloria Lamerino, retired physicist, reads Physics Today, Scientific American, and the New Yorker cartoons.

• Gerry Porter, retired English teacher and miniaturist, often quotes Shakespeare, but not once in 8 books has she picked up a volume and had a quiet read. She does occasionally leaf through a miniatures or crafts magazine.

• Professor Sophie Knowles, college math teacher, reads and contributes to mathematics journals and puzzle magazines. No fiction.

Finally, with my 4th series, I might have a reader.

• Cassie Miller (debuting in 2015), postmaster in a small Massachusetts town, reads crime fiction. Though I don’t give specific titles, I do have Cassie commenting on certain plot devices, and actually trying to read crime novels or watch crime dramas before bedtime. Granted she’s quickly distracted and turns to focusing on “the case” at hand.

One reason my amateur sleuths don’t read: they’re very busy people! In general, they solve a murder case in a week or at most two weeks. That’s pretty quick, considering real cops sometimes take months, often years. Also, reading is very passive, as opposed to, say, a car chase, a shoot-out, or even a quiet stalking scene. It’s hard to make a reading scene exciting.

She stretched out on the couch, put on her reading glasses, picked up a book, found the bookmark, opened the book,  . . .

See what I mean?

I’m in no such hurry, however, and under no obligation to live an action-packed life, so here’s what I’m reading.

Literary Fiction – recently finished The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson, not as “original” IMO, as his The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.

Mystery Fiction – often a cozy and a thriller going at the same time. Now: re-reading California Roll by John Vorhaus, for a book club.

Nonfiction – Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, and Carlin Flora’s Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are

Technical – A new edition of my text for a fall class, Society and Technological Change, by Rudy Volti.

Assorted Magazines: Writers Digest, Publishers Weekly, the New Yorker (cartoons + articles), and for a Real Break, Real Simple.

My Book on TV: A True Story

A few years ago, Hallmark produced a TV movie based on Citizen Jane, a true crime book by Bay Area’s James Dalessandro. In one scene, Jane’s aunt is pictured sitting comfortably, reading. The book: my first, The Hydrogen Murder! She holds it up, the cover plain as day.

And then an intruder breaks in and murders her!

The book falls out of her hands and onto the floor, cover side up, immortalized as a part of the crime scene.

So, although my characters aren’t reading, someone is reading my characters!

Welcome Guest: Patricia Driscoll

Welcoming Patricia Driscoll, mystery writer, probation officer today. (I try to stay on the right side of the law!)

I’d like to thank Camille Minichino for inviting me to be a guest on her blog. After all, I hold Camille partly responsible for getting me involved in this crazy world of mystery writing. Several years ago, I interrupted her while she was taking a quiet break on the patio during the Book Passage Mystery Conference. I asked her to sign my newly purchased copy of “The Nitrogen Murders,” and from there a conversation was born.

What am I working on/writing?

I’m working on the final edits of my sequel to “Shedding Light on Murder.”  The working title is “Shedding Light on Evil.” The setting is an antique lamp store called Pearl’s which is located in a Cape Cod village. The lamp shop is inspired by a real lamp store in Yarmouth Port, where my mother worked for 27 years. It’s a very unique store, with beautiful lamps, mostly glass oil lamps that the owners have refurbished and repaired. They also make shades out of gorgeous papers and fabrics. A nice setting for a cozy mystery.

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?

As far as I know, there aren’t any other probation officers or former probation officers writing mysteries. Grace Tolliver, my protagonist, is a former probation officer who has decided to give up her career to take over Pearl’s lamp shop. My experience as a probation officer for San Francisco Adult Probation, gave me exposure to the entire criminal justice system. I like to say that the police have the excitement of the chase, the lawyers the drama of the courtroom, and the probation officers the less than glamorous years spent working with the defendants on a personal basis. P.O.’s visit defendant’s homes, and meet their families, all in an effort to keep them from re-offending.  Experience with issues such as drugs and alcohol, mental health, domestic violence, stalking, gangs, sex abuse, robbery, burglary etc. give the probation officer an up close and personal understanding of the criminal, their motivations and desires. I also interviewed several murderers who were never going to be granted probation, but by law, are entitled to a pre-sentence report. All fodder for mystery writing.

Why do I write what I do?

I spend a lot of time on Cape Cod, as my family lives there. I chose the setting for my books first. I’m inspired by the Cape, a unique place surrounded by water, filled with historic homes, dirt roads that disappear into groves of shrub pines, hidden lakes, and ponds known only to the locals and what I like to think of as curious nooks and crannies. It struck me as a perfect setting for mystery. I write cozies despite my background working with real life offenders, who are anything but cozy.

How does my writing process work?

Since Grace Tolliver is an amateur sleuth I feel that it’s important to have a reason for her to get involved in a case, so I start with that. In “Shedding Light on Murder,” Grace is directly involved because an employee of hers is accused of the murder of a customer, who has been hit over the head with a lamp. (Of course!)

In the sequel, Grace discovers a body floating in a pool, while hiking with the merry widows hiking group. The murdered man is the godson of Bella, Grace’s friend and employee. Bella makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Grace will help her find the killer.

Then, I set out the general story line, keeping in mind the basics of novel writing such as acts, characters arcs, and plot twists. I figure out who did the crime, and how the case is solved. I loosely outline the first few chapters. As the story develops, often in ways that surprise me, I make the necessary changes. When I get stuck, I take a long, hard walk up and down the hills in my neighborhood. For some reason, this always works and I get much needed exercise as well!

NYC Quiz

On Sunday 7/13 in New York City, there were many Camilles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here are two of them. If you can identify both, a prize is yours!

Top of the Rock

I’m in New York for ThrillerFest, and looking forward to a panel with both old and new friends.

It’s only fitting that I took my first Selfie at the Top of the Rock overlooking Central Park during ThrillerFest 2013. Here it is as a placeholder for next week’s report.

Long May It Wave

I’m a big fan of the American flag. One of my favorite reminders is a present from my sister-in-law, years ago: a flag attached to an electric base. Switch it on and the flag waves!  Here it’s pictured next to the miniature post office I’ve been working on in connection with my new series: the Post Office Mysteries.

THE FLAG is at the very beginning of the first book in the series:

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On most days, I love my job. Who else gets to start the day by raising the American flag outside her office? Military personnel, I suppose, and maybe law enforcement officers. But they have to suit up with a belt full of tools and weapons, while I just shrug into a comfortable blue shirt and a striped scarf with its special, ready-made, sewn-in knot that sits low and soft on my neck. Not exactly clubbing clothes, but then there aren’t any clubs in North Ashcot, Massachusetts, and, anyway, it’s Monday and I’m here to work.

Postmaster Cassie Miller reporting for duty.

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Wishing everyone a great 4th of July weekend!

Blog Hopping with Friends

Diana Orgain, the very talented author of the Maternal Instincts Mystery Series and many other stories, asked me to participate in a BLOG HOP (which is the only kind of hopping you’ll see me do these days!) The blogs are devoted to how writers go through their process of writing. I hope you enjoy our hop, and will tune in to the writers featured at the end of this blog.

Meanwhile, here are my responses to the Blog Hop questions.

What am I working on/writing? I’m working on a new series for  Berkley Prime Crime: the Post Office Mysteries. I’ve been talking about it for a while, but it’s been official for only the last week! (As one of my author friends says, it’s official when the check clears!)

The first book in the series; Death Takes Priority will be released in August 2015. My protagonist, Postmaster Cassie Miller has already taught me a thing or two about the USPS. Did you know, for example:

• The Postal Service delivers to about one hundred fifty-two million addresses nationwide.

•Almost forty million changes of address are processed each year.

• The Postal Service has zero dependence on tax dollars, relying on the sale of products and services for its operating costs.

• There are nearly forty-two thousand zip codes in the country.

• Many famous people have spent time in the Postal Service: Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Harry S Truman; entertainers Rock Hudson, Bing Crosby, and Walt Disney; aviator Charles Lindbergh; and novelist William Faulkner. Also yours truly, and, no, not when it was pony express.

If you have any interesting/fun/horror post office stories, send them along to me!

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?

I try to make my characters a little quirky, but not too much. So, Sophie Knowles is obsessed with puzzles; Gerry Porter with dollhouses and her granddaughter; Gloria Lamerino with costume jewelry pins with a science motif; and Cassie Miller, the new girl on the scene, with all things postal. Not that she actually goes postal.

My mysteries are cozy, so no on-camera sex or violence, but also no crazy mothers-in-law with red wigs, and no groan-worthy puns. Not that there’s anything wrong with . . .

Why do I write what I do? I love puzzles, and cozy mysteries present the ultimate puzzle: the whodunit. But there’s more — writing a novel requires an intimate connection with the characters, and I find it hard to sustain that intensity with a really bad person! So, while I love reading Dexter-type books, I can’t write them. I do experiment with nasty protagonists through flash fiction and short stories.

How does my writing process work? Like Diana, I use every trick and procedure I can think of. When one isn’t working I move to the next. For the most part, I’m a pantser—writing by the seat of my pants. BUT at the end of every book, when I’m struggling with tying it all together, I vow to outline the next time. It hasn’t happened yet.

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Next week’s Blog Hop, Monday, June 30 – Meet three awesome writers who will answer the same questions. Rita Lakin, Andrew MacRae, and Ann Parker.

Andrew MacRae is a misplaced Midwesterner who rolled downhill to California and the Bay Area twenty-five years ago. Although his studies were in theater he has worked in the high tech field for most of his adult life, doing engineering work in such fields as real-time process control, operating systems, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. One of his projects in VR was the creation of the Virtual Globe Theatre, a model of Shakespeare’s theater as it stood in 1599.

On the writing side, he has had several mystery and crime stories published recently as well as slipstream, historical stories and children’s stories. For the past dozen years he has also had some success with poetry as well, placing poems in various literary journals and picking up occasional awards.

His mystery writing tends to alternate between cozy and noir. His novel, Murder Misdirected, on the light noir side, is about a pickpocket who picks the wrong pocket one day and is now on the run from the police, the FBI and a mysterious and murderous criminal. While not himself adept at pickpocketing, he is conversant in the techniques and skills employed by those who practice that art and references them in his novel.

In his spare time he leads a monthly folk music jam, hosts a monthly open mic, presents showings of classic movies, produces concerts and staged radio shows and serves on a city historic architecture review board.

Visit Andy at http://www.murdermisdirected.com

Rita Lakin spent twenty-five years in Television as a writer and a producer. Some of her credits include Dr. Kildare, Peyton Place, Mod Squad & Dynasty. She has just completed writing her memoir about those early years in Hollywood, entitled The Only Woman in the Room.

She has written seven comedy mystery novels about Gladdy Gold and her senior group of private eyes. She won Left Coast Crime LEFTY AWARD in 2009 for Getting Old is a Disaster. Her third Gladdy Gold book, Getting Old is Criminal is being produced as a TV movie in Germany.

Her many nominations and awards include Writers Guild of America, MWA Edgar, and the Avery Hopwood award from the University of Michigan.

Visit Rita  at www.ritalakin.com


Ann Parker lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is a science/corporate writer by day and a crime fiction writer by night (sometimes vice versa).

Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Silver Rush historical series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver boomtown of Leadville. Books in the series  order include SILVER LIES … IRON TIES … LEADEN SKIES … and, most recently … MERCURY’S RISE.

Her series is published by Poisoned Pen Press, and the books are available in print (hardback and tradepaper), bits and bytes (i.e., ebook), and audiobook formats. Ann has a somewhat dusty personal blog at http://silverrushmysteries.blogspot.com/ (time to pull out the dust rag!) as well as being co-administrator and member blogger of The LadyKillers authors blog: http://theladykillers.typepad.com.

She can be also be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/annparker.writer. Website: www.annparker.net.

Re-Blogging

I’m in a cutting corners kind of place — very busy, so why bother folding pajamas, when you’re just going to have to unfold them to wear them? Have you been there?

That intro is by way of saying, this piece on Fairy Tales is being re-blogged, from the LadyKillers where I also show up. If you’ve read it there and are aggravated at the repeat, let me know, and I’ll never do it again!

A Fairy Tale

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a fairy tale. But if I remember correctly, most of them are scary, with disastrous endings for some, if not all, of the characters, sometimes my favorites. Like the step-mother in Cinderella. Doesn’t she get carted off to jail by CPS? I’m a step-mother, so I wasn’t pleased by that.

I went on a search for “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” to see if there were any with happy endings. I learned that the book contains 209 tales! I clicked on a few, with mixed success, until I came upon this one. At last, a fairy tale that I can use in a math or physics class! Here it is, The Shepherd Boy:

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There was once upon a time a shepherd boy whose fame spread

far and wide because of the wise answers which he gave to every

question.

The king of the country heard of it likewise, but

did not believe it, and sent for the boy. Then he said to

him, if you can give me an answer to three questions which I

will ask you, I will look on you as my own child, and you shall

dwell with me in my royal palace.

The boy said, what are the three questions.

The king said, the first is, how many drops

of water are there in the ocean.  The shepherd boy answered, lord

king, if you will have all the rivers on earth dammed up so that

not a single drop runs from them into the sea until I have

counted it, I will tell you how many drops there are in the sea.

The king said, the next question is, how many stars are there

in the sky.  The shepherd boy said, give me a great sheet of

white paper, and then he made so many fine points on it with a

pen that they could scarcely be seen,

and it was all but impossible to count them,

any one who looked at them would have lost his sight.  Then he

said, there are as many stars in the sky as there are points

on the paper.  Just count them.  But no one was able to do it.

The king said, the third question is, how many seconds of time

are there in eternity.  Then said the shepherd boy, in

lower pomerania is the diamond mountain, which is two miles

high, two miles wide, and two miles deep.  Every hundred

years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and

when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first

second of eternity will be over.

The king said, you have answered the three questions like a

wise man, and shall henceforth dwell with me in my royal

palace, and I will regard you as my own child.

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If you have a better explanation for infinity, or for the limits in calculus, or for the great theological questions, let’s hear them!