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…

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Why do I let myself worry wondering what in the world did I do?

By Kevin Guilfoile

Jeanette Sliwinski, the lingerie model who killed three Chicago musicians, including my friend Doug Meis, was found mentally ill and guilty of reckless homicide instead of the three counts of first-degree murder sought by prosecutors. Rather than life in prison, Sliwinski faces a maximum of ten years in prison when she is sentenced later this month.


When Michael Mukasey, President Bush's nominee to succeed Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General, faced Congress last week he was presented with a long list of questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he was expected to respond in writing. The resulting document is well over 100 pages. Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, asked Mukasey specifically about the Cornbleet murder case, which has been reported on and discussed extensively at this site. Mukasey's responses are not edifying in any way, but the fact that the question was asked is significant and so, in the interest of completeness, here is the text of the exchange:

34. On October 24, 2006, Dr. David Cornbleet of Chicago was brutally murdered in his office by a former patient, Hans Peterson. Peterson is a U.S. Citizen who was born in the United States and lived in the United States up until the time of the murder. After the murder, Peterson fled to the French West Indies, turned himself in to the French authorities, and confessed to killing Dr. Cornbleet. Peterson's mother was a French citizen, and therefore Peterson is also considered a French citizen under French law. Because French law prohibits the extradition of French citizens to the United States, France is refusing to extradite Peterson to face trial for his crimes in Illinois. Media reports indicate the [sic] Peterson purposefully fled to French territory and turned himself in to French authorities because he knew that if he was convicted for murder under French law, he would face more lenient punishment than under American law.

a. If you are confirmed as Attorney General, will you work to see that justice is done in the matter of Dr. Cornbleet's murder?

ANSWER: I am not familiar with the specific facts of Dr. Cornbleet's murder.

b. If you are confirmed as Attorney General, will you work with other federal agencies to ensure that U.S. citizens who have dual citizenship with another country are not able to commit murder within the United States and then surrender to the authorities of the other country in order to avoid justice in the United States?

ANSWER: It is true that dual citizenship can raise complex issues. I would consider this type of question on a case-by-case basis and examine the facts and applicable law in each situation in which it arose.

On October 24, the first anniversary of Dr. Cornbleet's murder, Channel 5 in Chicago ran another update on the case. Much of this material will be used in the upcoming Dateline NBC feature.

The Cornbleet family is still asking people to contact the US State Department and urge them to continue to pressure the French to extradite Hans Peterson for the crime.

UPDATE: The story of Dr. Cornbleet's murder will air tonight (Monday, November 5) on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 at 9:00 PM Central Time.

Friday, November 02, 2007

What Can One Person Do, Anyway?


I went to the Frankfurt book fair this year. It's the oldest book fair in the world, goes back to around 1200, when books were written by hand, and now it's the biggest scrum on the planet. Living in Chicago, I'm used to McCormick Place, but the Buchmesse buildings could swallow McCormick Place and come back for seconds.

There are 400,000 books on display at the fair, ranging from Ich Nicht to A History of Heat Transfer, and they cheered me up and depressed me at the same time--depressed me because when you see so much in print, you think, why bother adding to the heap? What is your little ant-like voice trying to accomplish, anyway. But they cheered me because they gave me the illusion that the book is a robust "delivery vehicle" for stories and ideas, despite people getting Jane Austen on their Blackberries.

I met book wholesalers from around the world, and they, too, are in love with the word on the page. I learned that in India and South Africa, English continues to be an important language of literature, but that in Lebanon, it's French. Lebanon has its own big book fair every fall; it takes place just about now, and the French writers who come are crucial for the fair's success. Two weeks ago the French government withdrew all French writers from the fair. They think it is all too likely that the U.S. will start bombing Iran at any moment and if that's the case, no one in the Middle East will be safe.

The Lebanese wholesaler was distraught. She has already lost a grandmother and a brother in the bombings of the last decades, from Israel, from Hamas, from Syria. "You don't know what it's like, to be lying in a cellar, not knowing where your family is, not knowing if you'll have a home to return to when the bombs stop falling," she said, and she's right. "You don't know what it feels like, the uncertainty, not knowing if each day you can live your life, or if the planes and the bombs will come again."

She challenged me to find a way to stop the madness, stop my country from dropping more bombs, this time on Iran. I wish I could. I've called the White House and sent my e-mails to Senators and to Dick Cheney. Tell me what else I can do to stop them.

By the way, Ich Nicht is the memoir of the Fest family, who own Frankfurt's main newspaper. They stood up to the Nazi regime for twelve years. The book details all the meannesses they suffered as a result, including loss of the newspaper, and the stress on the family for opposing Hitler, but it also shows how one person can stay moral in the midst of insanity. No one in America wants to publish it.

Sara Paretsky
Chicago November 2007