A Day in the Life

My guest today is SUSAN C. SHEA, who graciously agreed to introduce us to her third Dani O’Rourke Mystery, Mixed Up with Murder. Susan also shares a real-life “Day Job” story to rival the best fiction!

From SUSAN:

Dani is a fundraiser for a fictional San Francisco art museum, off to do a consulting job at a small liberal arts college outside of Boston. The springtime air is perfumed and all is bucolic except that the college officer who had doubts about a gift the school is about to receive drowns on the local golf course before he can share his concerns with Dani. An accident? The college president fervently hopes so, as does the donor, a slick Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a remarkable art collection he seems in an awful hurry to give to his alma mater.

In this book, I took special pleasure in creating a few characters reminiscent of my days in higher ed, particularly an academic dean. In a way, I feel for deans. They were once faculty, complaining about administrators. Now, they’re administrators. The faculty despise them as traitors and the other administrators look on them as 90-pound weaklings in the vicious game of campus politics. I never wanted to kill one of them, but I admit it was fun to give my fictional dean a pinky ring and a pompous style!

I’ll tell you a true and tragic story to illustrate your theme. I was the PR chief at Mills College in Oakland when, one quiet summer morning around 4:30, I got a call from the on-duty news director at KTVU-TV. He was sending a camera crew over to the campus to meet me. I had no idea what was up because Campus Security didn’t follow procedure and call me or the president after he called the police, whose scanner the TV station monitored. A naked man had been discovered on the ground outside a (women’s) dorm. Dead.

I threw on some clothes and drove from Marin to Mills in record time to find the Channel 2 crew and crews from KGO and KRON outside my office building, furious at me for not having information and unable to get around to the back of the building in question to get good shots as backdrop for their reporters, who were all on their way. I begged: I know nothing. Give me 20 minutes and I promise I will brief you on or off camera and try to get you to a close perimeter. They were good guys. One crazy cameraman I had known for a few years made coffee in my office and they perched, with their cameras, on the chairs in the conference room.

Indeed the poor man was dead. He was also naked. The Campus Security chief was almost as angry as me that his on-duty officer panicked and forgot procedure. But we sorted out enough to go live 20 minutes later with the basics. NAKED MAN FOUND DEAD AT WOMEN’S COLLEGE was the headline in the local papers that afternoon and the next morning.

The next day, the police released his name, which the wires carried. That’s when I found out it was an international story and fielded more than 100 calls. The deceased was a well-known choreographer who had just arrived from Europe a couple hours before to teach in a Mills summer dance workshop. Jet-lagged, the poor man took two sleeping pills, went to bed without jammies, and got up, probably to pee, took a wrong turn, stumbled and fell out the French balcony window of his room, and landed on his head. At least, that’s the best reconstruction that the coroner, the police, and his company dancers could come up with.

Dani O’Rourke’s experience at Lynthorpe College in Mixed Up with Murder gets even harder than what I experienced that week at Mills because there is murder, not mischance, at the heart of the puzzle. But the intimacy of a tragedy on a small campus has stuck with me all these years, and I think it shows in the scenes I wrote for this book.

SUSAN C SHEA spent more than two decades accumulating story material before creating her mystery series featuring a professional fundraiser for a fictional museum in San Francisco: MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT, THE KING’S JAR, and MIXED UP WITH MURDER (Feb. 2016).  A new, three-volume set will be released in early 2016. Currently the secretary of the national Sisters in Crime board, she’s a member of Mystery Writers of America. www.susancshea.com

Pin the Year on the Photo

Throwback Thursday:

Date? Extra credit for place!

PINPOINT (or guess) the year this photo was taken! Email me at camille (dot) minichino (at) gmail (dot) com with PHOTOQUIZ in the subject line. A prize to the one who gets it right, or who comes closest.

In Memoriam

January 28, 1986 – one of those days in history. We all remember where we were, what we were doing. Most adults who could, were watching television.

We saw it live: the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, killing all seven crew members. Flight commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; Ronald E. McNair; Ellison S. Onizuka; Judith A. Resnik; Gregory B. Jarvis; and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

The Evolution of Stored Music

Only a little arm-twisting and I got The Cable Guy to write about the evolution of stored music. I was inspired by the sight of boxes and boxes of CD’s now stored in a corner of our bedroom, compared to a “party favor” we handed out this summer — a small flash drive with hours and hours of music.

Here’s The Cable Guy, in his own words:

I got my first stored music in my life when, as a child, I listened to 78 RPM shellac records. A 12-inch record side could hold around 5 minutes. When I was a teenager, records came as 33 1/3 LPs and could hold around 22 minutes/side. When 1982 came around, the Compact Disc could hold around 75 minutes.

As can be noted, as time passed, the volume of space needed to store music declined significantly. The birth of the CD brought music into the era when it could be stored in digital form.  The personal computer could now be used to supply audio signals to a sound reproduction system which had no moving parts to wear out.  Each replaying of the stored music was as good as the last.

Along with the technological progress in computers, storage of digital data became more reliable, needed less space and had larger storage capacity.

WHAT I DID WITH MY MUSIC STORAGE LATELY

In the last year or so, I converted all my analog music sources to digital files. These included records, tapes and CD’s.
As a summary of this activity, all of the CD’s in my collection were converted to .mp3 files by using the Apple iTunes software program.

The 6 boxes shown contain about 750 CDs:

A view of the inside of one of the boxes:

The conversion of about 200 Clssical CDs to .mp3 files resulted in 53GB of digital data.  This amount of music can fit into the USB flash drive shown on the left side of the image below.
My entire 700 CD collection has 122GB of digital data and can fit into the USB flash drive shown in the middle.
The 2 1/4 inch SSD shown can hold almost 1000GB of digital data.

To provide a perspective of the volume of space that has changed over my lifetime, consider the time on the side of a LP record (22 minutes/side) compared to the 10 hours that the 64GB flash drive can hold.

Back to the Crown

I have limited computer access this week, so I’m cheating and forwarding a Proclamation sent to me by a fellow writer, Chuck McFadden.

The only item I disagree with is #3 – like (as in #2), I’m not giving up the Fourth of July.

A MESSAGE FROM THE QUEEN TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

In light of your failure in recent years…to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately. (You should look up ‘revocation’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (except North Dakota, which she does not fancy).

Your new Prime Minister, David Cameron, will appoint a Governor for America without the need for further elections.

Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

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1. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘colour,’ ‘favour,’ ‘labour’ and ‘neighbour.’ Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters, and the suffix ‘-ize’ will be replaced by the suffix ‘-ise.’ Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. (look up ‘vocabulary’ in the Oxford dictionary).

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2. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as ”like’ and ‘you know’ is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. There is no such thing as U.S. English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take into account the reinstated letter ‘u” and the elimination of ‘-ize.’

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3. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.

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4. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers, or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not quite ready to be independent. Guns should only be used for shooting grouse. If you can’t sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, then you’re not ready to shoot grouse.

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5. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler. Although a permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.

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6. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left side with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

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7. The former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) of roughly $10/US gallon. Get used to it.

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8. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.

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9. The cold, tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. South African beer is also acceptable, as they are pound for pound the greatest sporting nation on earth and it can only be due to the beer. This goes for Canada as well. They are both part of the British Commonwealth – see what it did for them. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.

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10. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters. Watching Andie Macdowell attempt English dialect in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one’s ears removed with a cheese grater.

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11. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancys).

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12. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. You will learn cricket, and we will let you face the South Africans first to take the sting out of their deliveries.

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13. You must tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us mad.

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14. An internal revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).

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15. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 p.m. with proper cups, with saucers, and never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; plus strawberries (with cream) when in season.

God Save the Queen!

PS: Only share this with friends who have a good sense of humour (NOT humor)!

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

I remember a time when waiting for reviews of my book was a nail-biting experience. Not that I’m completely over it —  I’m still thrilled by a good one, cranky at a bad one.

But after 25+ novels and short stories, I don’t get quite so anxious. Without actually counting, I’d say the good ones outnumber the bad ones by at least a small margin!

Here a few favorites.

1. In one of my early books, a character refers to May 5 as Mexican Independence Day.

Oops – I’m from Boston, where our big holidays are Patriot’s Day (April 19) and Bunker Hill Day (June 17). How was I to know that Mexican Independence Day is September 16? I don’t remember any fuss being made on that day that matches the fuss in California on Cinco de Mayo.

I received an email from a professor at a college in Mexico City. “Gringos!” she wrote, and proceeded to lecture me on Mexican military history; a few nasty terms were included. Following my rule of never defending myself, I apologized, and in turn received an apology from her for being less than civil.

2. An amazon reviewer gave one of Margaret Grace’s Miniature Mysteries one star because she thought Maddie, 11, was a spoiled brat. I didn’t respond, but wondered what kind of grandmother she’d make. Another reviewer complained about the books because she doesn’t like miniatures. Hello?

Possibly my favorite is a reviewer who said one of Ada Madison’s books was “awful” and listed reasons. At the end, he said he bought the next one in the hope that it would be better. Well, thanks, sir, as long as you keep trying  . . . I can’t ask for more than that.

On the positive side, it’s a huge boost when anyone likes a book and, I must admit, when a reviewer claims to have “learned something,” whether about science, miniatures, academic life, or—most recently—interesting facts about the USPS.

Finally, one anecdote about my nonfiction “How to Live with an Engineer.”

It’s a short book, and a woman read just about the whole book while standing in front of me at a table at a fair. I was curious about whether she’d buy it after the long perusal. She did, asking me to sign it.

“How would you like me to address it?” I asked.

She thought a minute. “Just say, ‘To Ellen, good luck with Scott’.”

The best of . . .

Don’t you love all the year-end lists? Some of them?

I’m falling into the “BEST OF” trap and reprinting an answer to “Best book read in 2015.”

I heard a talk by Margaret Atwood a few years ago. During Q/A, someone in the audience asked her, If you could take just one book with you to a desert island  . . .

Atwood’s answer: I’d take the longest one, of course.

I could borrow her answer for this blog topic, but that would be cheating. Except that, in a way, my favorite was one of the longest ones, taken together: THE GLASGOW TRILOGY by Malcolm Mackay.

The books have everything I love in crime fiction: a hit man protagonist, writing that you want read over and over, and a story that grabs you and won’t let go until the end, when you sit back and say wow, or some other brilliant comment.

Calum MacLean, 29, is a lot like Dexter, except he’s a hit man instead of a serial killer. Each is engaging, lives by a code, and is smarter than everyone around him.

Here’s a sample that I gave my writing class. I could have chosen any two pages. The pages are full of emotional elements, subtext, and suspense. See if you don’t run out (or in) and grab these up.

CLICK TO VIEW LARGER AND READ

Merry Christmas

This year’s Christmas card. Even Sacred Scripture acknowledges the work of the USPS.

You are our letter, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:3

The WHEN, WHO, HOW, and WHY of Writing

Now and then The Real Me shares a writing tip. Here’s one repurposed from The LadyKillers blog, my other blog home.

I’m working on the manuscript for my 25th mystery novel, ADDRESSED TO KILL, the third book in the Postmistress Mysteries by Jean Flowers. That’s a lot of victims, killers, weapons, and motives. I worry that I’ll repeat a pattern and there will be no mystery in the next mystery.

So, before I decide on the main elements of a novel, I consult my recorded history. In an effort to have my pub list be egalitarian (as many female as male victims and killers) and diverse (varying the weapons and the motives) I maintain the following chart*

Book   Victim          Killer              Weapon          Motive

1.               M                    F                      gun                  jealousy

2.              F                      F                      vehicle             politics

3.              F                      M                    poison             blackmail

4.            M                     M                      knife                greed

and so on.

* To avoid spoilers for those catching up with my backlist, these entries are fake. But you see the value in the real chart – it helps me spot patterns and avoid predictability. What if a reader notices that a gun is used in every third book, or that a male killer never uses a rope? Not that this guarantees unpredictability, but it helps!

I wonder who else uses gimmicks to support “creativity?”

WHAT I’M READING: A MEDLEY

Recently, Marshal Zeringue invited me to share my current reading. In case you missed it on his site, which is always interesting.

I always have several books going at the same time, some paper copies, some on my e-reader.

Here’s my current stack and the excuses to read them:

1. Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, for a nonfiction book group that has been meeting monthly in my home for more than 20 years. Like all his narratives, Larson’s detailed presentation of the WWI disaster reads like the best fiction. Here the characters are a luxury ocean liner and a German U-boat. I’m always amazed when a writer can accomplish suspense, even when we all know the outcome.

2. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Kalili. Heavy! This one will take a while to finish. Biology is so much more complex than physics (five simple equations and you’re done).

3. Guilt by Degrees, by attorney Marcia Clark, for the December meeting of the Castro Valley Library Mystery Book Club, another longstanding group. The story, or “case”, is interesting, the author’s many years reading police reports obvious.

4. Fatal Voyage, by Karin Fossim, my new favorite thriller writer. For me, the darker the better when it comes to reading crime fiction.

5. Assorted magazines: The New Yorker (of course; makes feel like one); Science & Technology Review (to stay connected); Writers Digest and Publishers Weekly (to feel like a writer); Real Simple (makes me feel organized); the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (to enter a different world); and miniatures magazines (makes me feel crafty).

And, finally, just for fun

6. Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by San Roberts. Probably my favorite place on earth, and probably because I grew up with the radio show long before I ever saw the terminal. What can be more exciting to listen to while ironing than the crossroads of a million private lives?