Monday, December 31, 2007


by Michael Dymmoch

Conflict, the cliché goes, is the essence of story. Movie slug lines follow the formula: (protagonist) vs. (antagonist) in a world where... Fictional conflict tends to be glorified and hyperbolic. In his last blog, Sean confessed that bullets ripping through inanimate objects in slow motion was “utterly beautiful.” He didn’t show a video of bullets tearing through human skulls (or as shocking—and to some, more horrifying—through live animals) but we see it happen frequently in movies, and we read vivid (if inaccurate) descriptions in books. (Who, after all, would find the odor of putrefaction entertaining, or the smell of shit—as when the sphincters loosen and the bowels let go? Where’s the romance in scraping splattered brain tissue off a wall, or scooping human road kill from a highway?)

Violence has replaced conflict in most popular fiction. It’s easier to throw in a fight, car crash or gruesome murder than to convincingly simulate a gut-wrenching marital conflict, or the subtle but systematic verbal abuse that occurs every day, all around us. Everyone “gets” Jason Bourne, not many have the stomach to watch, much less appreciate the genius of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.

In real life, most of the conflict is subtle or banal. It makes us uncomfortable so we avoid it or tune it out. And most conflict takes place inside the protagonists (us, of course, the heroes of our own stories), often unnoticed (even by ourselves until the ulcer perforates or the heart seizes). In art, conflict must be externalized—the artist must behave oppositely in art as in life, must seek conflict out as diligently as he avoids it in his daily dealings, must study every subtle squirm and grimace. And he must understand conflict’s genesis.

So what? The Bourne Identity is entertaining. So is Pulp Fiction. And Shoot 'Em Up. What’s the point?

The point is what’s the point? When conflict exists purely for entertainment, it doesn’t satisfy. It’s like a diet of popcorn. You may keep consuming it—even past the point where you’re full—but it hasn’t much nutritional value. Conflict in art, leaves you sated. And wrung out. Unable to consume more until you’ve digested what you’ve just experienced. Great conflict has you revisiting a story for days, often for a lifetime. And great stories rarely allow for sequels. Can you imagine Two Hundred Years of Solitude? Hamlet III? Or Mystic River VII?

On a lighter note: Best wishes for a healthy, prosperous new year. And may all your serious conflicts be in fiction.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Details And Destruction . . .

by Sean Chercover

Note: The idea for this post was sparked by reading the blogs of J.D. Rhoades and David Terrenoire. They both write great books and great blogs, so check ‘em out.

David and J.D. both posted the following video, which got me thinking…

Sure, you can intellectualize about guns and bullets and their influence on human history; you can argue about the power of a gun to protect and defend the innocent and procure food, or you can argue about the power of a gun to murder and terrorize and accidentally kill children whose parents didn’t secure said gun responsibly.

But what I thought, while watching bullets rip through inanimate objects in extreme slow motion, was: How utterly beautiful.

Or, as David said on his blog, “Stuff blows up real good.” It sure does. (And, as an aside, this video also provides a lesson in the physics of energy transference, and shows that things do NOT fly backward through the air when shot.)

But let’s turn away from bullets. Here’s ultra slow motion video of the popping of a kernel of popcorn:

Beautiful, isn’t it?

And watch, how the water in a balloon retains the balloon’s shape after the balloon is popped, and then slowly succumbs to gravity:

Or how a dropped water balloon flattens out before exploding:

Okay, so what the hell does any of this have to do with writing?

For me, watching these videos is a reminder of the power of showing details that normally fly by unnoticed. Like that scene in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle becomes mesmerized by the fizzing Alka Seltzer in a glass of water, and disconnected from the people around him in the diner.

By zeroing-in on an unexpected detail, we slow down time, just like a high-speed camera, and we gain insight into the mind of the character doing the observing.

Of course, a little of this goes a long way. When I wrote BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD, I sent the manuscript to a few early readers, and one of them wrote back the following email:

“Great book. Too much furniture.”

Awesome note. I mean, I like furniture as much as the next guy, but he was right. In my desire to display Ray Dudgeon’s observational skills, I’d gone way too far.

So I went through and cut out a lot of the furniture. If it said something important about the character who lived there, or about Ray’s emotional reaction to the environment, then it stayed. Otherwise, it went. Which meant, most of it went.

As the master, Elmore Leonard, so famously advised: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And the really cool thing is, once the meaningless details are gone, the important details jump up and sing, creating the emotional impact of Travis Bickle’s Alka Seltzer dissonance moment.

It’s a fun challenge, deciding when to be brief and breezy, and when to slow down time and zero-in on that emotionally resonant detail that normally goes unnoticed.

The aforementioned J.D. Rhoades does this extremely well, stopping time in the middle of a scene of high action and focusing on the telling detail.

What authors do you admire in their judicious use of detail? Got any favorite moments?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Don't Know Much About Anatomy

By Kevin Guilfoile

We don't talk a lot about the publishing business here, largely because there are already blogs that cover that beat so well. But there was a feature in Friday's Wall Street Journal that is asking for a discussion only because the article the reporter was trying to write is a huge part of the story he was trying to cover.

The headline was Anatomy of a Thriller and the article was about the very early hype for a debut suspense novel, Child 44 by British screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, which will be published next May by Grand Central. The piece briefly deals with the content of the novel (which is about the hunt for a Soviet serial killer at the dawn of the Cold War), calling it "cleverly plotted, packed with chilling psychological drama and densely researched." That sounds great and I'd like to read more, but most of the piece is taken up with speculation about whether the book can possibly make back its million dollar US advance.

You see this story often. At a time when most US newspapers have made severe cuts to their review coverage, the American media still covers the business of publishing with some gusto. Always, the favorite angle of these articles is whether a gamble on this author or that one will pay off.*

And that's funny.

It's funny because although competition for review inches is fierce, one way a publisher can guarantee wide reviews and, better yet, capture coveted outside-the-book-section coverage in entertainment sections and business sections and in general interest magazines like Time and Newsweek is to give a first-time author a million dollars.

Which is not to say that million-dollar advances are always undeserved or the result of cynical strategizing among editors and marketing staff. In fact, they are almost always the result of auctions--competition between houses for a particular manuscript. But all of this media hand-wringing about whether or not a book is worth such a huge advance is not just objective speculation because once the advance is promised that money immediately becomes a marketing tool intended to generate media hand-wringing about whether or not the book is worth such a huge advance.

The publisher is willing to write that check in part because they know the Wall Street Journal will run a story wondering if they're crazy for writing it.

Publishers often employ the marketing strategy of self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't think anyone really believes for instance, that an expensive ad in USA Today or in the NYTBR can generate enough sales of that particular book to justify the ad's cost. But publishers take out those ads for two reasons (two that I know--there might be more). First of all, they advertise in order to subsidize book coverage. The reason book sections are disappearing in the US is that they can't support themselves financially. Publishers advertise in the New York Times Book Review because the continuing existence of the NYTBR is extremely important to them, more important than making back that investment on a particular book.

The second reason is the hope that if you treat a book like you believe it will be a bestseller, if you invest in a book as if you are certain it will be a blockbuster, it will become one. This sometimes works and it sometimes doesn't but it's probably as good a strategy as any. A couple years ago I suggested that you could accomplish pretty much the same thing by holding a press conference with a suitcase full of money and declaring, "We are so confident that Sean Chercover's book is going to be a bestseller, we're going to set a million dollars on fire." You'd get a million bucks worth of coverage for your cinders, I guarantee you.

From this perspective a huge advance actually makes more sense than an ad campaign (at least with respect to a particular book) because if it works it doesn't cost the publisher a dime. Unlike the cost of advertising, every penny advanced to the author would be pennies they'd have to pay him in royalties anyway if they'd given a small advance and the book turned into a big hit.

So it's really not quite the outrageous gamble the Wall Street Journal says it is, as long as the Wall Street Journal keeps printing stories about what an outrageous gamble it is.


But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. To make the point about what's at stake for Grand Central the reporter, Jeffrey Trachtenberg, says:

It's especially difficult to crack the thriller genre. The field is so crowded that retailers and publishers prefer to focus on brand-name authors and seldom make big bets on first time authors.

He repeats the claim in a sidebar and includes a vague supporting quote from a publishing executive about there being "too many good writers out there already" (I'll take that as a compliment, thanks). It's an assertion that sounds factual because it has its own internal logic, but is it really true? It's difficult to get a book published in any genre, but the reason there are so many people writing thrillers is that there are so many people buying them, which means you need to publish more thrillers and so on. Is it any more difficult to sell your debut thriller than it is to sell your literary novel? Or your historical fiction? James Patterson's diabolical and mostly successful attempts to corner the bestseller market notwithstanding, it looks like each year there are more thrillers by more authors, not fewer.

MJ Rose must have statistics on this, yeah?


* Even as I write this, I notice that this piece is categorized by the WSJ as a "Hollywood" story, apparently because Ridley Scott has optioned the film rights to Child 44. That would seem to be odd given that the money involved in the film option, at least until the movie is actually made, would be a shallow pocket of worn nickels compared to the publishing deals, but I guess movie talk is sexy in a way that book talk is not.

JUST ADDED: Time magazine's Top 10 Crime Stories of 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Jean Dixon Wannabes -- This is for You

by Sara Paretsky

Calling all Jean Dixon wannabes. Forecast the future. Tell us, what lies ahead for Chicago under new Police Superintendent (designate) Jody Weis? When he was Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia FBI, he indicted an electrical contractor for allegedly pilfering $869,000 from union funds, he broke up the pizza terrorist ring, and he was able to restore the original manuscript of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth to the Buck family trust after it had been stolen by Buck's former secretary. Obviously, the mayor had access to way more information than I do on how Weis handled these tricky operations.

The CPD is going through one of its sine-curve peaks of bad deeds and bad vibes. The Burge torture cases leave a lingering cloud over the force. Six members of the elite Special Operations Section are under investigation, for "issues" including planning the murder of an SOS officer who was cooperating with an investigation into the unite. The video-taping of officers assaulting women in bars has also caused some eyebrows to be raised, at least after people stopped their endless prurient viewing of the tapes on YouTube. Steve Mills recently wrote in the Tribune about the number of times Chicago Police shoot suspects in the back--hundreds--and the times they're investigated or reprimanded--close to zero.

Jody Weis helped fire Chicago FBI agent Robert Wright for publicly criticizing the FBI's anti-terrorist acts. Does this mean he'll stifle dissent here in Chicago? Or does it simply mean he'll run an orderly ship? Will he help the African-American community combat decades of harassment and false arrest? Will he be able to bring officers like Burge to justice?

Look into your crystal balls, you seekers of truth, justice, or prurient excitement. How will Chicago fare under the Mayor's handpicked choice?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gifts, Candied Fruit, and So Forth

by Barbara D'Amato

I don’t know about you, but I am FULL UP TO HERE with stuff.

Last year at this time I posted a suggestion for avoiding most of the fruitcake and other items that you either guiltily regift or permit to clog your closet.

The suggestion was to get the name of a family in need and tell your own family and friends that, instead of giving you gifts, the gifts should go to the needy family. With a little looking, you can find a name, either from your church, your job, advice from friends, even from your local police department, of a family strapped because of fire, flood, financial reversal, or an unexpected illness. You and your friends can send the gifts anonymously if you like [actually I would advise it]. Just have whoever gave you the name check first to be sure the gifts will be welcome.

By the way, almost any needy family can use a nice set of new towels.

Another option is to trade charities. Suppose your uncle in Florida always sends you a box of candied fruit. You hate candied fruit and everybody you know hates it, and you can’t even sell it on EBay. But say your uncle is into greyhound rescue and you are a cat-lover. Can he give a donation to your local animal shelter and you give one to the Greyhound rescue people?

But let’s talk about children without toys.

There are a lot of organizations that give toys to children. The Marine Toys for Tots programs is a good one. However, they want cash donations. Suppose you want to do something a little more personal.

It is possible to get the names of women’s shelter sponsors or battered women’s organizations. It is NOT possible, nor should it be, to get the addresses of those shelters, as they are kept well protected. But with two or three degrees of separation, you can find somebody who can get the toys to somebody else, who---well, you see. Many of the women in these shelters have children with them and no resources. If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, whatever, put the word out that you are collecting unwanted toys. Most of us have an uncle who thinks out seventeen-year old and our college sophomore are still six and ten, and we therefore have toys that are inappropriate, one way or another. If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of children, you may be able to put the word out that you are collecting toys that the children they were intended for just don’t want. Have a block party. Fill the car. Then drive them to your contact person.

For most organizations, try to get the toys while they are still in the box. Some shelters are needy enough that as long as they are clean they will be accepted.

And now for something completely different--

If you want to give at the holidays and not get, but children are not your thing--

Mystery Writers of America has a loan fund that is available for members who are experiencing temporary financial difficulties and the Author Sponsorship Fund. The second is intended to help fund special events. A third possibility is a donation to Reads, the children’s literacy program. All you need to do it send a check to Mystery Writers of America, and let Margery Flax know which fund you are donating to.

For the price of a couple of hardcovers, make somebody happy.

Barbara D’Amato

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Surviving the Winter of 1969

We called again. And again. On the third go-round, the inspector had pity on us. "Girls," he said, because we were clearly children, not adults, "Girls, the building is owned by a precinct captain. She gets ninety-two percent voter turnout in this precinct. No one cares how cold your building is."

From From Sara's terrific "Ode to the Season" essay in today's Tribune.

High Fives to our Guys

Big high-fives to Outfitters Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey!

Their novels made January Magazine's Best Crime Fiction of 2007 list AND Oline Cogdill’s 20 Best Mystery Picks of 2007.

Friday, December 14, 2007


by Michael Dymmoch

Libby's last blog ("Explanation or Excuse?") got me thinking.  I believe the problem with our society is not so much permissiveness or excusing wrong behavior by psychoanalyzing it and using the analysis as excuse.  It's more we fail to act on what we know.  We don't eliminate the factors in our society that generate bad behaviors.  Once the crazy kid picks up a gun and starts shooting, we get 20/20 hindsight, say "Why didn't anyone act?  The signals were so obvious."

Because it isn't easy to change what led him to feel so worthless and insignificant that he had to destroy strangers to get someone to notice.

We have a crisis of responsibility in our nation.  Not the "We're responsible-for-blowing-up-(fill in the blank)-and-we're-proud-of-it" kind. (Any time something bad goes down, any number of nut-cases step forward to claim they did it.)  But the kind of responsibility my mother taught me when she asked, "How would you feel if...?"; or made me apologize for a rude remark; or asked, "What did you do to him?" when a sibling complained she'd been attacked.

It seems to me too many parents are afraid to say such things to their children.  Or are afraid to say "NO."  Too few set a good example.  Dad wants a new car, why shouldn't he get one?  Never mind if he needs it or can pay for it--that's what credit's for.  And Mom always has the latest styles, so why shouldn't Junior have an iPhone or the newest exciting (violent) video game?  And why shouldn't he watch R-rated movies?

Children learn responsibility from example.  And by suffering the consequences (within reason) of irresponsible behavior.  But parents often give their children what they want, not what's best for them.  And parents don't want their children to hurt, so they shield them from painful experiences.  From learning experiences.  (Just ask any teacher how often she's been attacked for giving Junior the C, D, or F he deserved.)

Part of the problem is complexity.  People go wrong gradually--grow wrong.  (John Wayne Gacy wasn't born a serial killer.)  By the time they're noticeably deranged, it's often too late to fix them.  And when a fix is possible, it's long-term and prohibitively expensive. (Insurance companies pay hundreds of thousands for heart transplants.  How much for mental health care?)

Part of the problem is that simplistic solutions seem easier, even for complicated problems.  It's easier to blame a teacher than admit your kid failed, easier to blame the kid than accept your lack of parenting skills.  It's easier to tell your kids "Just say no" than to address the self esteem issues that might cause them to say "yes."  Easier to start a war than sit through long, tedious negotiations with people whose world views differ from your own.

In the short run.

Eventually, though, Junior turns 18 and daddy can't "fix" the fixes Junior gets into--Cops and States Attorneys won't back down as quickly as the teacher.  Or Junior graduates from pot to meth or cocaine.  Or the Gulf War turns into Iraq.  Or Vietnam.

A lot of problems could be avoided with a little foresight but, apparently, they don't teach history any longer.  So the news is deja vu.

And BTW, violent running amok isn't peculiar to young white males.  Black critics are right.  The white kids get all the press.  Overall, black gang-bangers kill far more innocent bystanders than school shooters do, but not in such great concentrations.  Most victims are killed by members of their own race.  And homicide is the leading cause of death for African-Americans 10-24 years old.*  The troubled white youth who've gone postal in schools and shopping malls are acting out what they learned from hundreds of hours of live-on-the-scene coverage of previous shootings.  Murders by Black or Hispanic gang members don't usually get that kind of attention--a day or two in the news at most--and certainly not with all the anguished detail and dissection.

That's my take.  How do you see it?

*53.1/100,000 for African-Americans, and the second leading C.O.D. for Hispanics 10-24 years old (20.1/100,000).  The rate for white 10-24 year olds is 3.3/100,000.  "CDC Youth Violence Data Sheet," Summer 2007.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

by Sean Chercover

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Writers Guild of America is still on strike. Even though I have personal financial reasons to want this strike over, I stand firm on the side of the WGA.

In case you haven’t been following the story, here’s a video that explains the basic WGA position (which is extremely reasonable, in my opinion):

If that was too compliated, here’s the WGA position, as explained by a five-year-old:

Just to be fair, let's listen to some voices of uncertainty from the other side of the bargaining table:

Okay, now it’s all clear as . . . (not "mud", because that would be a cliché . . . something else that isn’t mud, but also isn't clear . . . something that the reader doesn't expect, but that makes perfect sense . . . damn, I wish the writers weren’t on strike; they could give me a great simile):

Speaking of a world without writers, check out these classic movie lines, revised:

But seriously, we realize that this strike is hard on everyone. Here’s a look at how the strike is harming others in Hollywood (WARNING: offensive language):

Okay, maybe that was harsh. But you know, despite the acrimony, we all want to see a happy ending to this thing, and the next video should warm your cockles:

And finally, there’s the "Writers Strike Dance" guy (if anyone can explain this, please send me an email. And if the Writers Strike Dance Guy is reading this, can you hook me up?):

So what can you do to help?

Well, you can visit to learn more and get involved. You can give things other than DVDs for Christmas (or whatever) this year.

Or, you can just surf around YouTube and enjoy more entertaining videos about the strike. It beats the hell of whatever's left on television these days.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Explanation or Excuse?

by Libby Hellmann

I picked up NINETEEN MINUTES by Jody Picoult a couple of days ago, ironically, on the same day Robert Hawkins mowed down eight people at the Omaha mall…and two days before the two recent Colorado shootings. For those of you who might not know, Picoult’s book is about a high school shooting during which a 17-year old boy kills 10 people and wounds many more, most of them students.

Much of the book deals with the ramifications and consequences of the shooting. It turns out the boy was bullied mercilessly since the age of five, mostly by other kids, but sometimes by his older brother. As the book opens, that brother is dead – the result of in an auto accident -- and the boy’s parents, overwhelmed with their own grief, have not really dealt with his. The boy never sought or received any help; consequently, his rage festered and ultimately exploded. I haven’t finished it yet, so the ending might surprise me (there was a twist in MY SISTERS KEEPER, another wonderful novel by the same author), but in the main, the book examines why an alienated teenager would go on a rampage.

I’m sure the people of Omaha… and Denver… and Virginia… and Columbine… and Minnesota (in 2005) are asking and trying to answer the same question. And they should.

But here’s my question. At what point does the explanation become an excuse?

One thing we baby boomers have bequeathed to society is a tolerance for permissiveness. Unlike the straight-laced “Father Knows Best” Fifties, we started to explore and cross many boundaries in the Sixties. As we did, we rationalized our behavior. Remember “let it all hang out?” “If it feels good, do it?” “Whatever gets you through the night..” “It’s your thing…” In some quarters, we even honored it. “He’s such a freak…”

We created not just a culture of permissiveness, but a comfort with acting on our whims and impulses. We wouldn’t put anyone down. We wouldn’t judge. Everyone – and everything – was accepted. If someone did something aberrant, we’d explain it away. “His head was in the wrong place.” “He freaked out.”

Those attitudes have had significant ramifications. Our legal and penal systems aren’t as clear-cut or simple anymore. Although we're currently in retreat from it, we’ve played with the death penalty for decades. And we now have legal-psychological defenses for battered wives, abused children, and others that have stretched what can stand up in court.

Still, I think we need to ask what our permissiveness has done to our approach to these horrors. Has it in some way contributed to them? Is the fact that we see so many copycats of Columbine because we have put our arms around it, labeled it, explained it?

Kids killing kids is not the mark of a healthy society. I have two kids on campuses right now and I’m afraid. What have we wrought? Are we making these heinous rampages more acceptable because we can put words and ideas and theories behind them? Are we – in some way – excusing them? Tell me I’m off base here.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Here Come the Rooster, Yeah

It's not exactly The Night Before Christmas but here's the story I tell every year around this time.

A few years ago I was up late at night drinking with some friends of mine at The Morning News and we were talking about how much we enjoy literary awards in spite of the fact they are also silly and arbitrary. The idea that we should accept the word of any small group of people--people in most cases whose names we don't even know--about something so subjective as the best literature of the year is pretty ridiculous, and forcing authors to compete against each other is just sort of stupid on its face. Anyway, the bottles drained pretty quickly and by the next morning we had the rough outlines of something called The Tournament of Books, in which we would seed the most celebrated books of the year in a March Madness tournament-type bracket and pit those novels against each other in a "Battle Royale of Literary Exellence." For reasons that are probably now forgotten along with the name of that shiraz, we decided we'd present the winning author with a live rooster.

The tournament is in its fourth season now (see 2004, 2005, 2006) and it has evolved into a major event with corporate sponsors and celebrity judges. It's also great fun and every year I discover two or three unbelievably good novels from the tourney (look back through The Outfit archives for any of the earlier posts by either Marcus or me about the winner of the first ToB, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas). This year's competition won't begin until March, but the fellows over at TMN are currently narrowing the list of competitors. And as always, they are asking for help.

Head over there right now and nominate your favorite book from 2007 (you can actually nominate two). If we're about anything over here at The Outfit it's that the best book of the year very well might be a suspense novel so don't be shy about nominating your favorite crime fiction. The only criteria is that it must be a novel published for the first time in 2007.

And after you've done that, come back here and tell us in the comments which books you've nominated. We can have a little hot stove debate until the real bloodshed begins.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Where is the Outrage?

This isn't going to be a very coherent post==I've been traveling all day; the weather snafus turned a four hour door-to-door trip into thirteen hours--but I want to add a little to Barb's quite wonderful post.

The people who did quite heroic acts during the Holocaust to save Jews or other targeted people were usually ordinary people whose only distinguishing trait was that in ordinary times they usually did the right thing--helped the homeless, were open to others, did the decent acts of every day life that I too often am too busy or too guarded or too cynical to perform. My detective, V I, acts out of a sense of noticeable outrage, but the person she's most often outraged with is me, not some anonymous member of the larger world. I've always been afraid that when the chips were down I would be a collaborator, not a resister.

And that brings me to these times. Last week, the Supremes let stand a lower court ruling that allows the San Diego welfare department to break into the homes of welfare recipients without a warrant to make sure they're not committing fraud. This is not a violation of the 4th Amendment for some reason that I don't understand. I wish I could believe they would break into the home of Dick Cheney's friends and former co-workers, who have been living on government welfare for 7 years, enriching themselves at our expense, but of course that will never happen.

I guess what I want to know is, where is the outrage? Where is the outrage when the Supremes announced that women's health is irrelevant to questions about abortion? Where is the outrage about the many thousands of American dead in Iraq, the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died, the millions of Iraqis who have become refugees, the forty or fifty thousand Americans maimed for life? Where is the outrage over the cost of this unjust and pernicious war, now at $1.6 trillion, and likely to be doubled that--in a country which can't afford health care, public transit, or good schools?

I would like to be the person heroic enough, moral enough, to take action, but all I do is grumble and go Christmas shopping. No wonder V I is outraged with me.

Sara Paretsky

Monday, December 03, 2007


By BarbaraD'Amato

Writers of crime fiction generally subscribe to the notion that any one of us might kill if given enough provocation. Mystery novels rely on the ability of the author to show that most of the characters in the story might have dunnit. There is a belief, and not just among crime writers, that all humans have a potential for evil acts. It may be correct.

But that’s not the whole story.

I remembered vaguely the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 outside Washington D.C. in 1982. Something about a hero, I thought. But I didn’t know the details until I read an article by Christopher Mcdougall in Men’s Health online a few days ago.

It was late afternoon, January 12, freezing cold and getting colder. In high winds and snow, the plane faltered and crashed into the ice-choked Potomac River. Most of the passengers died instantly but six, badly injured, some with bones broken, fought their way out of the plane and clutched onto the cold metal of the tail.

They were forty yards from shore, where horrified would-be rescuers grasped at anything to save them. Some tried stretching utility ladders to the doomed people, but they did not reach. Mcdougall says, “One man even tried dog-paddling through the ice chunks, hauling a jury-rigged rescue rope along with him. He couldn’t get close and was nearly unconscious when they dragged him in.”

Survival time in water between thirty-two and forty degrees is fifteen to thirty minutes.

Daylight was failing when a rescue helicopter appeared. Mcdougall: “It dropped a life ring right into the hands of one of the survivors and plucked him from the water. Then things turned really strange.”

When the ring was dropped to the second person, he passed it to another of the survivors. When the plane came back, he handed the ring away again. And a third. And he handed it to the fifth survivor when he must have known he couldn’t hold on any longer. He sank into the ice-filled water.

It seemed no one would ever know who the hero was. The pilot of the helicopter said he was middle-aged and balding. But when the bodies were recovered, only one was found to have water in his lungs. He was Arland Williams Jr., from Mattoon, Illinois. Williams was neither a Navy Seal nor a religious zealot, but a bank examiner who was afraid of water. He had attended the Citadel many years before and did his military service stateside, after which he had spent his life since going from bank to bank examining their books. Williams was forty-six and had two children.

Probably he, like almost everyone later interviewed for acts like his, would have said, “I’m no hero.” If you had asked him the day before—even the hour before—whether he would give his life for five total strangers, he most likely would have said no.

Where does such altruism come from? Evolution might favor people who will go to great effort or risk to help each other out. Extreme heroism, like Mr. Williams’, is harder to explain, since the people who give their lives for others may not have offspring. It may have originated at a time when humans lived in small tribes and everyone you ever knew was related, closely or distantly, by blood. Extreme heroism saved members of the extended family.

Well, okay, but I’m finding, with all the evil in the world, I don’t care too much about where human good comes from. To crime writers, who spend a lot of time dwelling on the idea of a bit of evil in all of us, it’s a boon to think there is a bit of hero in all of us as well.

That’s my holiday gift thought to us all for the holiday season.

An interesting book cited by Mcdougall is: The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, by Lee Dugatkin.

Friday, November 30, 2007


by Marcus Sakey

So I caved. After years of resisting the pressure, I created a Facebook page.

Facebook, like MySpace and texting, is becoming one of those technical divides that marks a change between age groups. For me, it was email--when I was in college, email was just coming into mainstream use, and a remember many a conversation with "old folks" who didn't see the point. "Why not just call? they would ask, reasonably enough. And I'd try to explain as best I could, none of it really coming down to something you could put your finger on, just a statement that it was cool, and useful, and that like it or not, it was the way of the future.

Surprise! I'm one of the old folks now. I'm a little baffled by Facebook. Not how to work it--I'm a pretty technical guy, and have been on computers my whole life, so it's not that I don't understand. I understand. I just don't get it.

Or didn't, at least. After having spent a couple of days playing around, adding friends, installing widgets, and rating movies, it's starting to make a little more sense, at least as a way of keeping in touch with people. I can see how it would be especially useful if, say, your high school gang was going to different colleges. It's an easy, noncommittal way to say hello, to share your pictures, to keep people up on your moods. That part I can see.

Where I'm not sure it's useful is as a marketing tool. Unless I'm missing something--and I may well be, so fill me in--it doesn't seem like it's easy for people I don't know to find me, even if they're searching, unless we have a chain of friendships in common. Plus, once they get there, I'm still a little baffled about what they would do then. Compare their movie taste to mine? I guess that's something, but I'm not sure it's much.

I don't know. Anybody have thoughts on Facebook in general, or on using it as a marketing tool?

And anybody wanna be my friend?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Drew Peterson Reality Check

by Libby Hellmann

Now that his image has been splashed across the cover of People Magazine,
supermarket tabloids, and network news programs, (Can Law and Order be far behind?), former cop Drew Peterson’s face is becoming as familiar as that other “media sensation” who got away with murder.

For those of you not in Chicago, or who’ve been living under a rock the past month, Drew Peterson is the Bolingbrook cop whose 4th wife, Stacy, disappeared in October without a trace. His third wife, Kathleen Savio, it was revealed, accidentally drowned in a bathtub, according to the original coroner’s report. That’s being challenged now, and her body was exhumed recently for another autopsy.

Peterson has been named a suspect in his 4th wife’s disappearance, and, if Savio’s death is declared a homicide – Michael Baden, an OJ alumni and one of the most experienced forensic pathologists in the country says it is -- he’ll probably be named a suspect there, too. He was forced to resign from the Bolingbrook police in disgrace, although he’s still getting a healthy pension.

The guy has expressed no concern for his missing wife – he blamed her depression on PMS – and he persists in saying she ran away with another man. Despite multiple allegations of his physical and emotional abuse by both wives, he says he had nothing to do with either one’s demise. And, of course, he’s attacked the media for his problems. In other words, he’s the stereotype of an arrogant, controlling cop who thinks he can outfox everyone because he’s so smart.

Guess what? So far, he’s succeeding.

Although most people think he’s guilty as sin, (and, as my friend Judy Bobalik says, if he isn’t he should be, because he’s stupid) there is no evidence linking him to either crime – er, situation. None. There’s no crime scene. No body. Not much circumstantial evidence that we know about either, except a blue barrel and -- as of late Tuesday night -- the declaration of a relative who said he might have helped Peterson dispose of his wife's body. That relative is now in the hospital for attempted suicide. So while we're all waiting for the other shoe to drop, there is a chance it never will. We may never know what Peterson did or didn’t do. In other words, he might skate.

That isn’t the way I wanted the story to end, and in my novels, it probably wouldn't. There would be a resolution one way or the other. Justice would be served. But after talking to several people in law enforcement here in Chicago, I’m starting to think it might not happen.

Bill Lustig is the Chief of Police in Northfield,Illinois. Northfield,adjacent to Winnetka, is smaller and less diverse than Bolingbrook, but Lustig is the kind of cop I’d want on my side if I needed one. He’s smart, compassionate, and committed to protecting people. He said it’s clear we’re not being told the entire story, and that’s the way it should be. The Illinois State Police are up against an aggressive media; they can’t afford any leaks that could sabotage their investigation. When I asked how he thought it was being handled, he said, “They’re looking for a body, and they’re doing everything we would do. They’re reaching out – through volunteers, horseback riders, heat sensors, even borrowing water equipment.” But he acknowledged, “you have to connect the dots. The evidence has to be there.” And not just circumstantial evidence, he added. So far, we haven’t seen it.

Private Investigator and attorney Joel Ostrander agrees. He says no one really knows what the State Police are doing or what evidence they have. However, he believes there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. If Peterson did kill either wife, it will come back to haunt him sooner or later. Peterson didn’t do himself any favors, Ostrander adds, by going on the Today Show. His body language and eye movements were “consistent with someone who was lying”… especially when he asked his wife to “come home.” Still, Ostrander is at a loss to explain what happened. No mother would logically ever leave young children without letting them know where she was. Then again, was she “logical” when she left? Did she reach some kind of boiling point and just blow up? Is the family of Stacy Peterson telling us everything or just what they want us to know?

As for the 18 domestic calls to the Bolingbrook police by Stacy Peterson that the police apparently never followed up on, Ostrander says it might be a case of the “boy who cried wolf.” Or maybe not. The problem is we may never know.

Dan Franks, a prominent defense attorney who was involved in the David Dowaliby case as well as Jeanine Nicarico’s murder, tends to think that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” He was surprised to see a number of bruises on the original protocol of Kathleen Savio’s autopsy, as well as hair that apparently was drenched in blood. Although, he added, it could be explained.

I asked if the coroner system in Will County (Cook County has a medical examiner while Will County depends on a jury to make manner of death decisions) makes a difference. Franks is impressed with the ME system. “You can get a straight answer…” he says. Still, he has no reason to doubt Will County’s procedure. However, he did say that both the victim and her husband had a relationship with the community. (Savio worked for the city of Naperville, at least for a while). That might have generated political pressure in some quarters.

When I asked what he would do if he was Peterson’s lawyer, Franks said he should stop talking to the media. “You rarely help yourself when you do. If anyone does speak in public, it should be a spokesman.” Apparently his second lawyer followed that advice in a second Today Show appearance.

Robert Egan is the Deputy Chief of the Public Interest Bureau at the Cook County States Attorney’s office. He’s prosecuted a number of high-profile cases over the years, including John Wayne Gacy,
Monroe Lampkin, a triple murder on I-57, and James Nathaniel Davis, a Kenilworth man convicted of murdering his wife.

Egan believes, as a general principle, that a case is what the media makes it. He also believes the thoroughness of the investigation is directly proportional to the media interest, so he’s sure the Illinois State Police are pulling out all the stops on the Peterson case. Or cases. He did say there appears to be “dueling pathologists” in the Savio autopsy, and speculated that there’s probably a lively discussion going on between the two camps right now. While Michael Baden, who consulted on the JFK autopsy is “about as experienced as it gets”, Egan says the hardest thing in the world to find a dead person and figure out what happened.

He also said not to draw much from Peterson’s behavior. “Even cops are allowed to be weird…” (Among other things, Peterson shot pictures of the media with his video camera on Tuesday.) It might take years to build a case, Egan explains. He was assigned the James Nathaniel Davis in September, but didn’t arrest him until the following May.

He also said it’s not that unusual to try… and even convict… someone without a body. He mentioned the case of Ed Lyng who was convicted of killing his wife in Mt. Prospect although the body was never found. If probable cause is there, and the pieces of the circumstantial puzzle can be put together, a case can be quite solid. But Egan did point out that Stacy Peterson’s mother abandoned her kids when Stacy was quite young. Did Stacy do the same thing? “At this point,” he said, “Who knows?”

I wish I had a definitive, wise conclusion to wrap up this overlong blog. (Thanks for hanging in there…) I’m better informed – perhaps you are too – but I confess I’m still hoping the other shoe will drop. Even though it might not.

What about you? What do you think of the Drew Peterson case?

Btw, what is it with the name “Peterson” and crime? There’s Hans Peterson, the self-confessed murderer of Chicago dermatologist Cornbleet, a case that the Outfit’s Kevin Guilfoile’s been following… Scott Peterson, convicted of killing wife Lacey… and now Drew Peterson… Hmmm...

Monday, November 26, 2007

No, Virginia, There Isn't . . .

By Sean Chercover

If you’re under the age of eight, you shouldn’t be reading this. Really. Go away, before I tell your mother. . .

Okay . . . now that the little tykes are gone, let’s talk about the non-existence of Santa. The Mouse is only 1, but my wife and I are planning ahead. And we’ve decided that, in our house, Santa Claus will be a game of make-believe. We’re not going to run a con job on the kid and convince him that Santa exists.

Martine (the aforementioned wife) grew up knowing that Santa Claus was pretend, and never felt short-changed. Being half-Norwegian, she actually got double the fun because, in addition to Santa, she and her folks also pretended that a diminutive troll named Julenisse (pictured to the right) was coming over to leave presents . . . as long as she put out a bowl of porridge for him.

The downside is that Julenisse is a spiteful little bastard, and if the Norwegian kiddies forget to leave him some porridge, he will make their crops fail and their cattle barren. Or worse.

In Norway, you do not screw with the nissen.

Here are some truly strange stories of bad behavior by Julenissen all over Norway.

Still, we should pity the little Christmas bastard, because he's being pushed aside by American cultural imperialism, and is turning into the Santa Claus, who is unbearably jolly and whose most interesting sin is leaving lumps of coal lying around.

But I digress…

The point is, you can have plenty of fun with Santa and Julenisse without actually believing in them.

Although I’m sure I enjoyed believing in Santa, my stronger memory is of the day I realized that he didn’t exist. The day I realized that there was a massive conspiracy to make me look like an idiot, and that my parents, my older sister, my grandparents, my teachers . . . the whole GODDAMNED SOCIETY WAS IN ON IT!!!!

In short, I’d been duped. I’d been a mark, a pigeon, a rube. They all knew and I didn’t. What a fool I’d been! What a sucker. And now that I’d finally wised up to the truth, I was expected to play along and help con the younger kids.

Well. I didn’t care much for that, and I’ve been pretty mum on the subject of Santa since then. When my sister had kids, I didn’t burst their bubble, but I didn’t play along with much enthusiasm. I was not the uncle who would say, “And what did Santa bring you this year?”

I remember one of my nieces saying, “Santa’s real, right Uncle Sean?” when she was about six. I don’t remember my answer, but it was probably something like, “How the hell would I know? I’ve never been to the North Pole.”

Anyway, when the time comes, Martine and I will introduce The Mouse to Santa Claus and Julenissen as a game of make-believe.

You might be surprised how intense the negative reaction has been, from some quarters. We certainly were.

Some folks insist that we will be robbing our son of one of the greatest wonders of childhood. Maybe, but we’ll also be sparing him one of the greatest disappointments of childhood.

The only real downside I can see is that The Mouse will be that kid in the schoolyard who says, “Santa is just pretend,” and the other kids will run home crying and the other parents will hate our guts.

I think I can live with that.

Oh, and just in case you're not yet convinced that the entire country of Norway is on drugs, check out this Christmas video:

Friday, November 23, 2007

I’m thankful for my great grandmother. Or was it just a coincidence?

by Michael Dymmoch

Yesterday was Thank You day, and I hope everyone got thanked for something. I was thanked for being a good mom, and for having dinner at my house. I’m thankful to my family and friends for coming. (It was a lot of work to clean the house and cook—which I’d have to do anyway—but the jobs seem more rewarding if you’re sharing.)

Most of what I’m most thankful for, I try to mention as life goes along. My friends—especially the writers (I was an ugly duckling until I discovered other writers—we’re all ugly ducklings. They’ve showed me we’re all something else as well.), my editor, my readers, and all the people who do work for me--door persons, building engineers, cleaning staff, the people at the Book Bin and the Northbrook Post Offfice--Downtown Station. I'm also thankful for great books and great writers, for Charley Rose, Tavis Smiley, Oprah...

I’m thankful my mother taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right. And to keep asking myself, how would you feel if...? And that people need love most when they deserve it least.

I’m thankful my father taught me that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. And for building a floor to ceiling bookshelf for mom’s books before he even finished building our house. (Now that the house is gone, I have the bookshelf to remind me of my dad.)

I’m thankful for my maternal grandmother who read to me every day until I learned to read for myself. And to my maternal great grandmother, who was such a compulsive reader she often got in trouble for reading when she should have been working

I’m thankful to my former husband for a number of things, mostly for our terrific son. Which brings me around to coincidence...

It was just a coincidence that we ever met. I was job hunting, with a list of places I planned to apply. I started with the company closest to my house, got the job, and stopped looking. I wasn’t looking for a husband or even a relationship. I’d planned to earn some money and go back to school. But on the job I met a man...

It was a coincidence that my grandparents ever met—on a cruise ship, going to Europe.

By coincidence (or really good luck), I’ve had some of the best teachers on the planet—even at schools that weren’t known for writing or philosophy or the things those teachers taught me.

Mystery writers are only allowed one coincidence per book. And it better be early on. And the book better be pretty damn compelling or it’ll get reviews like “The solid, sometimes tedious but always believable details of Thinnes’s investigation of a series of arson murders serves as ballast for some heavy coincidences that ground the plot.” ( Publishers Weekly on Incendiary Designs)

But in real life things you could never put in a book happen all the time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You Still Mystify And I Want To Know Why

By Kevin Guilfoile

Like a lot of baseball fans I don't care much for Barry Bonds. The thing is, he doesn't like me either. Or at least he didn't, but that was a long time ago.

I spent the summer of 1989 as a media relations intern for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was a 20-year-old American studies major making $500 a month. Barry was a 24-year-old leadoff hitter, a player with tremendous potential, but he wasn't yet the superstar he would be a few years later, or the superhuman he would become a few years after that. The season I spent with Barry he had a respectable 19 home runs and an impressive 32 stolen bases, but he batted just .248. Four barely remembered members of the Pirates starting lineup--Bobby Bonilla, Gary Redus, Jay Bell, and R.J. Reynolds--hit for a better average on a fifth-place team. No one was calling Barry Bonds a future Hall of Famer just yet.

On a typical day at Three Rivers Stadium I did research and helped with media inquiries and wrote articles for various in-house publications. During games I worked in the press box, basically as a gofer. When the team was home I had one other chore which I should have been able to do in about 15 minutes. Because of Barry Bonds it often took me more than two hours.

Every morning I would get a list of names--sick kids in hospitals or the children of people who knew one of the owners, mostly--and I would walk down to the locker room to get autographs. I tried to limit the number of requests per player--I don't think there was ever a day when I had more than four or five requests for any one individual. I didn't want to burden them.

Now that I'm a writer who is occasionally asked to sign his name in books, it seems absurd that I was worried about burdening anyone with the task of signing autographs. I think I can speak for every writer in The Outfit--and probably every writer I know--when I say that it's a great privilege to sign books for readers. It's amazing to me that anyone would ever ask for my signature, much less go out of her way to come to a bookstore to get it. The idea that I'd ever feel put out by someone asking for my autograph seems ridiculous.

Nevertheless if celebrity is currency in America, writer fame surely has the lowest street value. As I've said before, no matter how many books a novelist sells, no one is going to ask him to appear on Dancing With The Stars. Outside of book events and his own neighborhood hardly any writer (except maybe the memorably featured Stephen King) ever gets recognized out of context, out in the world. Robert B. Parker, who has written something like 50 novels and who is one of the most popular authors on the planet, recently got recognized while dining at a restaurant in his own hometown of Boston and he was so pleasantly surprised he wrote an essay about it for The New York Times Magazine.

That's how rarely it happens.

I can't imagine what it must be like to be movie actor famous. Or athlete famous. To never be able to finish a meal at a restaurant, or shop for pants, or go to a movie without being interrupted by a stranger. And while every reader I've ever met has been nothing but gracious, for the truly famous the signature-seeking strangers in malls and movie theaters aren't always so deferential. I have seen a lot of bad behavior from fans who think an out-of-uniform athlete owes them his attention, without regard for the hundreds or even thousands of others who make the same demand of him every day. For athletes, locker rooms are something like sanctuaries. They might have to deal with reporters on occasion, but the rest of the time the locker room is a place where they can relax and eat and watch television and read fan mail and decompress and joke around and cuss (oh man, do they cuss) and not have to worry about crowds of signature-seeking strangers monopolizing their time. So I was sensitive to all that and most of the ballplayers treated me with kindness or at least respect. A few probably even hoped their name would be on my list, the fact that some kid had asked for their autograph being a good sign for their careers. Others thought of me as a minor nuisance that could be disposed of with a few seconds of Sharpie wielding.

And then there was Barry Bonds.

Barry wasn't the kind of jerk who was nice to people only when he needed something from them. As far as I could tell, Barry was pretty much an ass to everybody all the time. I remember one game when Barry hit a home run that set some minor record and the twelve-year-old boy who caught the ball returned it to the clubhouse so Barry could have it. The next day I asked him to sign a different ball to send to the kid as as a thank you. Barry signed it (after about twenty minutes of pretending he couldn't hear me), but when I asked him to write "To Christopher" on it, or maybe "Thanks Christopher" Barry refused. "He'll take whatever I give him," he said.

Most of the players had as little to do with him as possible. Bobby Bonilla had a locker next to his, though. At the time Bonilla was a bigger star than Bonds and he was one of the few players in that clubhouse who was on friendly terms with Barry. Instead of berating me directly or just ignoring me, Barry would sometimes talk about me like I wasn't there. Sometimes he would tell Bobby that I was lying to them and these autographs weren't for fans and that I was just selling these pictures to professional dealers, that I was just another no-talent white man exploiting black men who possessed real ability. Sometimes he would tell Bobby that the two of them were like slaves and I was--actually I never understood who I was supposed to be in Barry's slavery scenario. Anyway, when Barry was around, Bobby would wave a hand in my face and tell me to go away and then when Barry would leave the room, Bobby would wave me back and apologize and sign everything I had.
The thing that most people can't figure out about Barry Bonds (and as a writer interested in character it fascinates me, too) is how he turned out to be such a colossal knob. Barry's father had an outstanding professional baseball career. Barry grew up in a good home, as far as anyone can tell. He went to good schools. He's smart. He was blessed with amazing athletic ability. It seems like it should be pretty easy for him to not be entirely consumed by his own hate. And yet Barry not only has chosen to make his own life impossible, he's thrown away tens of millions--maybe hundreds of millions--on lost endorsements simply because he never passes on an opportunity to demonstrate to anyone, big or small, that he doesn't give a damn about them.

Last week, Barry Bonds was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in an investigation of the distribution and use of illegal steroids. He faces a possible thirty years in prison, basically for being the same arrogant ass to a grand jury that he always was to me, and it seems like I should feel a certain amount of schadenfreude over the news. But I don't. On the days when I wasted two hours standing behind his chair with a glossy photo and a Post-It trying to get Barry Bonds to acknowledge me, I'm sure I had revenge fantasies. I don't remember them now, but I suspect they were more about me having something Barry desperately wanted--like maybe an albino panda for his private zoo--and refusing to give it to him. He is probably the meanest person I've ever met and he's defiled a game that I love, but I can't imagine what satisfaction it would give me to know he's in prison. He has kids. I have kids. You put their dad in jail and now they really do have a reason to be angry at the world.

As a passionate baseball fan this steroids story has brought me nothing but sadness. In the next few months we can expect to hear many more names linked to the investigation. There are going to be huge fines. Long suspensions. Baseball is going to be something less than it once was as a result. And some of these players who disrespected themselves and the game won't be as easy to hate as Barry Bonds. Some are going to be players I really like.

The worst is yet to come, I'm afraid.

Every part of your life ends up in your writing and I think there are at least two qualities in my books that come directly from my summer in Barry's clubhouse. The first is a fondness for existential villains, people who do bad things not because someone did bad things to them, but simply because they choose to.

The second is cussing. My characters swear way more than they should. Especially in the first draft. But every f-bomb in my stories is a little tribute to the '89 Pirates.

They were really nice guys, most of them.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Where the Dark Streets Go

Dorothy Salisbury Davis turned 91 last April. She wrote an original short story for our Sisters on the Case anthology. Called "Dies Irae," it's set in 1934, as Prohibition is about to end, and features two sisters whose lives have been at odds probably since they were born. Like all the best of Dorothy's writing, the insights into human need and loneliness are powerful and unflinching.

When she talks about her writing, Dorothy says she's always sided with the villains because she understands their motivations better. I've been rereading her novels and I think what she means is that she understands what lies behind villainy. Where the Dark Streets Go, a novel she wrote in her fifties, tells the story of a priest who is summoned to the side of a man dying from a knife wound. The novel is very uninterested in tracking down the murderer. Instead, it is a gripping story of the struggle by the priest to understand himself, his passions, his calling, and the difference between "will and want," as he says at one point. Hamlet said to Horatio, "Give me the man who is not passion's slave/and I will hold him in my heart..." The quest of Father Joseph, and of many Davis protagonists, is to understand how they have become passion's slaves, and what they can do to free themselves. In other novels, like Davis's early A Town of Masks,the novel is told through the voice of a woman who is totally in thrall to her own needs, and at the end, with no hope for redemption, has to kill herself.

Dorothy's novels aren't violent or graphic, but they're very disturbing. They force me into an uncomfortable self-examination, of my life as well as my writing, which seems, in contrast to hers, overly bombastic. I often make myself as well as those around me uncomfortable by being passion's slave.

Whose work have you been reading that has unsettled you in the way Dorothy's writing unsettles me?

by Sara Paretsky

Friday, November 16, 2007


By Barbara D'Amato

Two of my blogmates and I each finished a book in the last couple of weeks. Given that a book may take a year, more or less, to write, sometimes a lot more, finishing is a cause for celebration. How do people celebrate?

For me, getting past the sagging middle is a big thing. The middle is the place I wonder why I ever thought this was a good idea for a book and where I realize the great, golden idea I had before I started wasn’t going to quite turn out the way I vaguely pictured it. After that, I begin to be happy about the ideas I never guessed earlier I would think of. They appear to be gifts from the ether. When I finish the book, I am already planning the next one.

And clean the office.

Here are some other responses:

Sara Paretsky:

I almost always suffer postpartum depression and do nothing, not the good kind of nothing, but the empty unhappy kind. A few months after finishing Bleeding Kansas I turned 60. I had grandiose plans--renting a cottage in France or Italy or having a big party--but in the end I just sat in the garden with my dog until my agent called to demand that I start work on a new project. I can't even lay claims to a 3-day binge--one of the things that separates me from the world of "real" writers is that I have a very low tolerance for alcohol--more than a glass of wine or whisky makes me sick. I guess I ate my weight in hot fudge sundaes for 3 months and reread old favorites like Allingham and Gilbert.

Kevin Guilfoile:

In no particular order: see the doctor, see the dentist, clean the garage, change the oil in the car, sell my house, start running again, condense about thirty hours of video I've shot of the kids the last two years into something watchable, clean my office, help my parents move, fix the snowblower, see a movie, and read, read read.

Libby Hellmann:

I give myself a day or two to do whatever I want… then I start feeling guilty that I’m not writing and start a new book or short story.

Michael Allen Dymmoch:

I try to avoid decompression sickness--the physical reaction, usually cold or flu symptoms or actual illness that occurs when the pressure is suddenly off. Avoidance may take the form of plunging into another project, sleeping for a day or two, or compulsive reading or TV consumption.

Marcus Sakey:

I do have a ritual. It's called the Sacred Week of Fuck-All. Basically, I give myself a week off, and spend it catching matinees (this time, No Country For Old Men), pampering myself (got a massage), doing mildly adventurous things (I went rock climbing), reading (LAMB and EVERY CROOKED POT), treating myself to lunch (fish & chips at Duke of Perth, barbeque at Sheffields, burgers at the Billy Goat), and playing videogames (Bioshock).
Sadly, this week ended on Sunday. Which means I'm back to work yesterday and today. But even that's kind of nice, because I'm doing promotional stuff, redesigning my website, planning my tour, that sort of thing. Stuff I can do while listening to music, and without the self doubt that accompanies the rest of the year, when I'm writing.

Anybody out there with stories?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


by Marcus Sakey

This being November, it's time again for a little exercise in insanity called NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month. To quote their website:

"National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly."

I've had a lot of people, especially students, ask what I think about NaNo, and it's this:

I think it's a terrible idea.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing inherently evil about it. The organizers are very upfront about the fact that since all that matters is output, you'll mostly be producing crap. However, they argue that you'll also produce some pieces of value, and that you'll overcome the mental block that's preventing you from writing a novel. So in theory, come December, you could take a break, look over what you've written, and attack it fresh, keeping the good parts and dumping the junk.

Except I don't believe it actually works that way. I think that unless you are a professional who is doing this on something of a lark, like my friend Joe Konrath, what you'll end up with is 50,000 nigh unusable words and no skill set to improve them.

Look at it this way: would you participate in National House Building Month if you had to live in the result? Of course not, because a house takes care to build. It takes time and skill and forethought and consideration. Could you slap something together in a month? Sure. And in theory, you could come back and fix the leaky roof and sinking basement later.

But the truth is that once you've laid a foundation, even a rotten one, it's hard to change. Moving walls and adding stories isn't easy. And if you're going to take the time to do that part right, why not take the time to do it properly in the first place?

Whenever authors talk about how difficult writing can be, people have an urge to say, "Yeah, but you could be digging ditches." And they're right--being a novelist is a very pleasant way to make a living. But I've dug ditches, and while I'd rather write novels, it's not because it's easier. More rewarding, definitely. But not easier.

If what you want is to spend a month toying with your creativity, then by all means, go with NaNo. It's a charge, I'm sure, and there's a terrific community around it, and when you're done, you'll have the joy of printing out something you've written that's two inches thick. All of which is groovy.

On the other hand, if your goal is to write a novel, then don't kid yourself. A month's worth of coffee and sore fingers ain't going to do it.

But hey, that's just my opinion. Anybody have good luck with NaNoWriMo?

Monday, November 12, 2007

It Has Come To This . . .

Sean Chercover.

Last Wednesday, former AT&T technician Mark Klein testified before a congressional Judiciary committee, blowing the proverbial whistle on his former employee, and on our own government. You can (and really should) read about it here, here, here, and here.

AT&T has, for years now, been keeping a copy of everything that passes through its computers. All your emails, phone records, Internet surfing trails, have been saved and AT&T has been passing your information to the NSA.

Not, as some of our elected officials would have you believe, just communication between Americans and suspected foreign terrorists. Everything. The email you sent to your old buddy from high school? Check. The drunken phone call you made at 2am to an ex-girlfriend? Got it. All the websites you’ve surfed. You betcha.

Everything. And the other giant telecoms (with the possible exception of Qwest) have reportedly followed along.

The government didn't even try to deny these allegations. Far from it. Caught with their sweaty hands in the cookie jar (yet again), our government instead sent Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of national intelligence, to tell Americans that we must redefine privacy. “Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Kerr said. “I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up…”

This is scary stuff, kids. Fully aware that AT&T (and the other major telecoms that collected our private data for Big Brother) have broken the law, the administration is insisting that the telecoms be granted a blanket immunity for their misdeeds. And many in congress are happy to go along. This is not a Republican/Democrat issue, since major players in both parties have been bought and paid for by the same lobbyists.

They would like us to officially wave goodbye the fourth amendment. You know, the one that reads,

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Yeah, that one. Are we really willing to go even further down this road than we have already? Do we really want China's today to be America's tomorrow?

The really scary thing is, most Americans have fallen for Big Brother's scare tactics, and don't even care that we're abandoning the principles that made this country great. Among the minority of true patriots who do give a crap and who are fighting to preserve our constitution, you'll find the nation's librarians. I love the librarians, but I'm not sure I like their chances against Big Brother and the military industrial complex, when most of their fellow Americans seem perfectly willing to trade the title "citizen" for "subject".

Okay, so this is very depressing. I recommend settling down with a stiff drink and re-reading Orwell's 1984.

Oh, and this may (or may not) lighten the mood . . .

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gunfights, Interrogations, and More

by Libby Hellmann

Did you know that most gunfights in law enforcement last 3 seconds or less? That police officers hit their targets only 20 per cent of the time? That blood never oozes from a dead body? That there are over 15 ways to tell if a person is lying?

I learned all the above -- and more -- at a stellar conference last weekend in St. Louis. The conference was called “Forensic U” and it was sponsored by Sisters in Crime. It was an incredible opportunity for crime writers – at any stage of their career -- to immerse themselves in subjects that, to the uninitiated, can seem arcane, even gruesome. But to us, it’s research, and it’s all fascinating. At least to me.

The fact that it was sponsored by Sisters in Crime, an organization founded twenty years ago by the Outfit’s own Sara Paretsky, and that both Barb D’Amato and I served as president of, made it special. As far as I know, SINC is the only writers’ organization to offer this kind of information specifically to the crime fiction community. Sure, there are conferences on writing, publishing, and promoting. There's also that NRA/firearms conference in Las Vegas. But I’m not aware of any writers' programs specifically focused on tradecraft. Kudos to Joanna Slan and Michelle Becker for co-chairing the event.

The curriculum was impressive and just this side of overwhelming. There were workshops on DNA, forensic anthropology, pathology, police procedure, toxicology, interviews and interrogations, blood spatter, warrants and searches… and more. (In fact, here’s a link to the agenda.) A judge spoke to us about CSI and how it’s affected jurors, a pathologist took us through a death investigation that turned out to be a homicide, and the head of the St. Louis crime lab told us how they’re structured.

Jan Burke talked to us about the history of forensics and the Crime Lab Project; Doug Lyle talked about evidence, poisons, and blood spatter; former cop Lee Lofland talked about undercover tactics and police procedure; and Rick McMahan talked about the use of force, firearms, street fighting, self-defense (photo by Bonnie Cardone), and the ATF. Happily, some, but not enough, of the classes were offered more than once, so if you missed one, you could catch it again.

All of the workshops were conducted in layman’s language, but I never felt I was being patronized. In fact, I was surprised by how many attendees weren’t writers. Apparently, there is a hunger out there, from readers as well as writers, for accuracy and information about forensics -- beyond what's available in the media and on TV.

Which prompted a question: what do you want to know about forensics? Do you want to know how DNA is analyzed? What happens to a bullet from the time it’s loaded in a gun until it hits a target? How an autopsy reveals clues to a person’s death? Which poisons are virtually undetectable?

And here’s another question: what would it take for you to come to a conference like this? I’m pretty sure SINC will repeat the conference sometime in the next two years. Is there anything you feel is a must?

Btw, the conference included a trip to the gun range. I shot a .22 and a Glock 9 millimeter. But only two rounds. I need more. I did apply for my FOID card last week. Assuming I pass the background check, it should arrive in a month or so.

To be continued…