Monday, December 10, 2007

That Time of Year

I have taken an informal survey among friends, and found that many of us are having moody -- if not down right cranky -- days during this run up to the holidays. So if you're feeling a little blue or irritable, your misery has plenty of company to love.

I've at least temporarily taken care of my own moodiness by going to beautiful Kaua'i. Tim and I went to celebrate the wedding of our friends Toni and Billy, who are also Tim's bandmates in Down Tight. We had a great time there and enjoyed the company and kindness of new and old friends.

You may not be able to fit a trip to Kaua'i into your plans, so I'll offer a reminder that another Christmas season tradition is available to make you laugh: the Chicago Tribune's annual "Scared of Santa" photo collection. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Back to the Blog

Did you miss me? Sorry to take so long to get back here to the blog.

I finished the manuscript for the new book -- it's not a work of crime fiction, so it's not an Irene Kelly book. But Irene fans, do not fear. I've already started the next Irene book.

In and around starting that new one and finishing the previous manuscript, I spent time at a couple of conferences and speaking at a Sisters in Crime meeting. Had 16 folks here for Thanksgiving (our house is no mansion, but we managed!), and that was fun.

I'm now in the process of reassembling my life. In part that's routine, because all kinds of things get put on hold each time I finish a book, but this time it's a slower process than usual because I had a kind of crazy summer. (Yes, I realize it's almost winter, but once overwhelmed, it takes time to just get back to whelmed.) So I'm afraid it has taken me far longer than expected to get back here.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate your patience and support. Thanks for hanging in there!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Event Cancelled

Unfortunately, the air quality and other wildfire-related problems in San Diego County have led to the cancellation of this year's Step Out event to benefit the ADA, so we won't be in San Diego this weekend after all. I hope you'll still show your support for the organization, though. Most of all, I hope you'll become educated about diabetes and pre-diabetes, and get your blood glucose tested!

Again, to all affected by the fires, our thoughts are with you and yours.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Wildfires may affect event

Just after posting the announcement below about Step Out in San Diego, I received word that the event may be affected by the wildfires in San Diego. I'm sure there are concerns about air quality and other effects of the fires. (For those who may have wondered, although some of our family members are in evacuation areas -- and occasionally sheltering here -- Tim and I are safe, and so far, so are our loved ones. Any of you who are fire-affected areas of So Cal are in our thoughts.)

Updates and further information about the San Diego Step Out Event will be posted on the ADA Step Out Web site page for the event. I'll also try to keep you updated here.

Step Out to Fight Diabetes

I'll be walking in the Step Out to Fight Diabetes event in San Diego at 9:00 AM on Sunday, October 28 at Ingram Plaza - Liberty Station, which is located at 2750 Dewey Road, San Diego, CA 92106.

View Larger Map

This event raises money to support the important work of the American Diabetes Association.

Some quick facts about diabetes:
  • There is currently no cure for diabetes.
  • 20.8 million children and adults in the United States, or 7% of the population, have diabetes.
  • About 6 million of these people are unaware they have the disease.
  • 240 million people worldwide are living with diabetes. Within 20 years, this number is expected to grow to 380 million.
  • Many doctors consider diabetes to be the #1 health crisis in the U.S..
  • Diabetes disables and kills. Uncontrolled, diabetes can lead to heart attack, stroke, blindness, amputation, inability to fight infection and more.
  • Diabetes can strike anyone of any age, weight, or ethnicity.
  • In addition to the 20.8 million with diabetes, 54 million Americans have pre-diabetes, which must be treated as soon as possible to prevent this condition from leading to diabetes. Over time, the elevated blood glucose levels of pre-diabetes can also cause damage to the body, especially to the heart and circulatory system. Almost all people who develop Type 2 diabetes first have pre-diabetes.
The information above is from the ADA and the International Diabetes Federation.

If you haven't had your fasting blood glucose tested within the past year, please call your doctor today to make an appointment to do so.

And please generously support the work of the ADA -- look for a Step Out event in your area.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Where I've been, where I'll be

I've been kept busy and away from the blog by real life and writing, but here are a couple of places I hope to see some of you soon!

Surrey International Writers Conference, October 19-21 (in British Columbia).

Sisters in Crime's Forensic University in St. Louis, November 1-4.

Just got back from travel with my folks to watching one my nephews play football. Sheldon's nine. He lives in Texas, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a place that takes the game more seriously. That said, everyone seemed to remember to have fun, too!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Kidnapped is now out in paperback!

For those of you who've waited for the paperback edition, it's out now. I hope you'll enjoy this most recent Irene Kelly book.

I hope to see some of you in Santa Barbara this Saturday at the book festival.

You've all been extremely patient with me this month, and I appreciate that. I have a lot to tell you about, but for various reasons, I need to wait a day or two to post again. Meanwhile, know that I am truly thankful for my readers!


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Calling All Californians -- Urgent Help Needed for Our Labs

Did you know that in the State of California, there are more minimum requirements set by the state for the training of the person who cuts your hair than there are for those who examine evidence in murder cases?

If you live in California (or are willing to contact a friend or relative there to ask for help for crime labs, please fell free to forward this message):

Legislation to help California crime labs is now on the governor's desk. Assembly Bill 1079 would create a task force to conduct a much-needed review of the state of forensic science labs in the state. AB1079 was passed in the State Senate and Assembly, but Governor Schwarzenegger has thus far refused to sign it into law. We hope to avoid a veto of this important bill, and your help is urgently needed!

Please call, fax, e-mail or write a letter to the governor as soon as possible!

Here's the contact info:

The Honorable Arnold Schwarzenegger
Governor of California
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814

Phone: 916-445-2841
Fax: 916-445-4633
E-mail via

Here is a sample letter:

Dear Governor Schwarzenegger,

I am writing to express my strong support for AB1079, which would create the Crime Laboratory Review Task Force.

California's eleven state and nineteen local crime labs provide a wide range of forensic science services. However, there are no universal standards for certification for criminalists in California nor is there a mandatory requirement that all crime laboratories meet minimum standards. These labs evolved over decades without any statewide planning, review, or coordination to maximize their capabilities and effectiveness.

Our labs play a critical role in law enforcement, justice, and public health and safety. I urge you to sign AB1079 so that we may make the best use of this invaluable asset to our state.


[include your name, address and phone number when signing.]

Thank you! Please send a copy of your letter or e-mail message to
"contact [[@ ]] crime lab"
(remove all brackets and spaces in anything between the quotation marks, and don't include the quotation marks, either.)

If you want to read the legislation itself, please click here to see the original version -- or to see it as amended, click here and search by Bill Number for AB1079.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Slowly but surely

I'm way, way, behind on all kinds of things. Posting here, for one.

But I'm trying to catch up, and slowly but surely I'm making progress.

For the moment, I want to respond to some comments left here, and decided it would be easiest to do that in one post rather than hope that people see my reply back in the archives of the blog.

So with apologies for the delay, I want to reply

to Mike, who is now already down in San Diego (and I hope you are enjoying that lovely city!), I can only hope you've already gone to Thornton's Irish Pub in nearby El Cajon and discovered that they have lots of parking, great entertainment, and wonderful food.

to Joyce, I can think of few ways to better waste time than 30 minutes of -- laughter is the best medicine, as they say.

to Louise, yes -- if you had told me a few years ago that I would be a big fan of an alligator, I don't think I'd have believed you. There you have it.

to Sharon, with thanks for asking, yes, Bloodlines is the next Irene Kelly book. Kidnapped after that. You can see the list of books in order on my Web site. The books with numbers as titles (Nine and Eighteen) are the only two not related to the series, although Eighteen (in some booksellers computers as 18) has two Irene short stories in it.

to Bill, thank you! I'm so glad you liked Kidnapped! I appreciate your taking the time to let me know -- hearing kind words from readers helps me through the days when I think my keyboard could be put to better use.

to Elizabeth, thank you. No need to feel guilt over the pleasure, though! ;-)
I can't really help people individually with their manuscripts or research problems -- I'm writing my own books, running the Crime Lab Project and the Crime Lab Project Foundation, and busy in other ways as well. You didn't tell me the nature of your questions, but if they are about writing a mystery, start with the MWA Handbook, Writing Mysteries.
If you can attend Sisters in Crime's Forensic University of St. Louis, go! It's a great opportunity. I'll be there, and that would be a great place to catch me to ask specific questions. I'll also be at the Surrey International Writers Conference. That's another good place to ask questions.
If you can't go to those events, and your questions are about police procedure, get Lee Lofland's new book. Questions about forensic science, read Doug Lyle's Forensics for Dummies and his new book, Forensics and Fiction. He also has a good course available on DVD. Hope this helps -- best of luck!

Photo of tortoise above used courtesy of bigal101 (Allan Lee), through

Monday, August 20, 2007

Getting the Big Picture re DNA and Cold Cases

Those who learn forensic science from TV may be shocked to hear that simply having a DNA match does not necessarily solve a case or lead to a conviction.

An article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle tells how the hard work of a cold case unit in San Jose paid off in solving the 1980 rape and murder of Bettina Sailer, a young German woman who was traveling and working in the U.S. before her death. It gives a good look at how DNA helped -- but was only part of what was needed to bring an accused to trial.

The article presents a solid case for the need for local jurisdictions to commit to investigation beyond the leads that DNA can provide. Funding DNA is important. However, your local lab can come up with DNA cold hits, but if no resources are devoted to assigning homicide detectives to do further investigation in these cases, convictions are unlikely.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

That's our super gator!

Those of you who read my post in May about Reggie the Gator, then our most famous local wild thing, may already know that he was captured shortly after that, and taken to the LA Zoo. I had nothing to do with it, but on the list of why I love LA: The motorcade was actually televised.

On August 10, he made his first public appearance at the zoo, all cleaned up and greeted by 150 cheering fans, according to this story in the LA Times.

Less than a week later, our remarkable Houdini gator has shown that he is no slave to celebrity! Read this story by Donna Littlejohn in today's Long Beach Press-Telegram -- "Reggie makes a moonlit run for freedom."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Still on the face of the Earth

although it may seem as if I've dropped off. This has been one wild month. And I'm still trying to finish writing a book....

So, you may not see much of me here for another week or two, but I'll be back, as the governor of this state once said in a movie.

In the meantime, if you want something extremely silly to look at (especially if you are a cat-lover), cheer yourself up here.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Among the many, many evil things

Voldemort has done, one of the worst has been ripping off Joe Satriani's look. Don't believe me? Check out true guitar wizard Satch's photo on the cover of this month's Guitar World.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Lots to catch up on

I'm way behind in posting news to you, and responding to comments -- a combination of post-travel discombobulation and working on finishing a book.

Which doesn't mean I'm short on news! It has been a great week! As some of you know, Kidnapped has been nominated for an Anthony Award for Best Novel, which will be voted on and given at Bouchercon. I know people joke about this, but really, it is an honor to be nominated, and this year I find myself in fine company. You can see the full list of nominees here.

The Summer 2007 issue of CLUES: A Journal of Detection is just out. Ed Gorman has posted some kind comments about my essay in it on his blog. I wrote about Charlotte Armstrong, and like Ed, I hope a small press will reissue some of her best books — she was a master of suspense.

Some of you have mentioned that it is now hard to find a photo of my dog Britches on my Web site. Cappy's on the cover of the books -- his one brown, one blue eye face always appeals to photographers more than Britches, who not only fails to sit still for them, he disappears into his own dark fur. So above, I've posted (or tried to -- Blogger seems not to be cooperating) a photo I took a while ago of him -- "helping" Tim to do a push-up.

More soon!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Looking forward to

1) The Down Tight gig at The Starting Gate next weekend.*

2) Getting my copy of the final installment of Harry Potter's adventures at midnight. I will NOT spoil the book for the rest of you, so don't be afraid to read the blog after today. ;-) I can't tell you how many Web sites and television broadcasts I've been avoiding this week.

3) Going to the NIJ Annual Conference next week!

4) The appearance (on July 22) of a post I wrote at the request of Rhys Bowen for The Lady Killers blog. They've been gathering posts from friends on the theme of "wish you were here/wish I was there."

*Sorry about the mix-up -- I had the wrong date up here for a few hours!

Photo above courtesy of Scott Liddell (hotblack), from

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Please do this now -- you'll help crime labs

As many of you know, I'm concerned about the many problems created by the lack of funding for public forensic science in the United States.

I've just received this message from Beth Lavach, lobbyist for the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations, about pending legislation that would help fund forensic science in the U.S. -- please lend your immediate support! Responding only takes a few minutes, and you can do a great deal of good by helping out.

As a result of the strong support and efforts of Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), the forensics community has an opportunity to expand and improve its technology, training and facilities. Senator Mikulski is the Chair of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Senator Shelby is the Ranking Member.

Because both Senators recognize the importance and value of forensic sciences in the advancement of justice for all citizens, they have approved appropriations of $40 million for Coverdell grants and $151 million for DNA testing and backlog in the Senate Appropriations Bill. The proposed Coverdell funds are more than twice as much as has ever been included in the nation's budget. The DNA figure represents an increase as well.

It is even more encouraging to learn that Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), a longtime supporter of forensics has joined with Senators Mikulski and Shelby to include additional funding in the authorization bill and, just as important, make the grant application and management process easier for state and local agencies.

While we in the forensics community have much to be pleased about, the real effort has just begun. It's time now to develop a grassroots effort to insure these welcomed beginning steps are made into law and will be just the first steps in an ongoing program.

Forensics needs your help. Each and every one of you!

Step One - contact these Senators and express your appreciation for their support.

Step Two - we need to get these bills through the House of Representatives before they become part of the final spending package. Contact Rep. Alan, Mollohan (D-WV) the Chairman of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. His support and vote are absolutely essential and you can play a major role in making him aware of the need for backing this funding proposal. Time is critical. This legislation is making its way through Congress as we speak. Get on the phone and or e-mail these legislators. Do all three and urge your colleagues to do the same. Do it now. It's up to the members of the community to make this happen. Thank the Senators for the work they have done and ask Congressman Mollohan to fund at the same level or above!

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Ph: 202-224-4654
Fax: 202-224-8858

Sen. Richard Shelby
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Ph: 202-224-5744
Fax: 202-224-3416

Sen. Joseph Biden
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Ph: 202-224-5042
Fax: 202-224-0139

The Honorable Alan B. Mollohan
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Ph: 202-225-4172
Fax: 202-225-7564

Monday, July 09, 2007

Getting back in gear

Thanks for your patience! I'm back home from a family reunion, the last day of the class was yesterday, and while there are any number of irons still in the fire, I'm probably going to be able to post here more often now.

A friend of mine sent a link to Ursula K. LeGuin's commentary, "On Serious Literature," which I am adding to a long list of reasons to cherish LeGuin.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Medical Examiners and Coroners Offices

I'll talk more about this after I finish up with the class I'm teaching, but...

In case you missed the news, the Bureau of Justice Statistics just issued a report on a study of Medical Examiners and Coroners Offices in the US, based on the year 2004.

News releases noted that there are over 13,500 unidentified human remains on record in those offices.

The report is also another resource for those who want to see numbers on how overworked public forensic science providers are these days.

Friday, June 22, 2007

One great thing about teaching

is that it forces you to look at what the heck you're doing, and to think about the basics. You think about what helped you to understand those basics.

I don't know how long I would have floundered without Lawrence Block's books on writing. For my money, they're still hard to beat. I wrote a letter to him when Goodnight, Irene was sold, thanking him for helping me to understand what went into writing a novel. I'm far from the only writer who read and reread his books before setting out on this adventure, nor am I the only author who goes back to them every now and then.

There are other fine books on writing — Oakley Hall's Art & Craft of Novel Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird come to mind. But Block's straightforward and insightful explanations of the essentials show that this four-time Edgar-winner and MWA Grand Master also has a gift for teaching. His writing books should be in every new writer's library.

The ones that helped me to get started:
Spider, Spin Me A Web
Writing the Novel From Plot to Print
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

Friday, June 15, 2007

what is otherwise occupying my time

aside from writing, is teaching. The class has nearly completed its first week, so I'm just getting the hang of balancing this among all other objects juggled. May not see me here quite so often as a result!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Which should win the title of "Thought for the Day," I wonder?

From an article in the May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, "The Golden Man," in which Paul Theroux describes the tyranny of the late ruler of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Bashi:

...he regarded himself as an accomplished writer — a clear sign of madness in anyone.
This would have been my favorite sentence in the article, if he hadn't added this a few paragraphs later:

This [memory of his mother's smile] was perhaps why many of the portraits of Bashi showed him with a smile, though he never looked less amused than when he was grinning; his smile -- and this may be true of all political leaders -- was his most sinister feature.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sisters in Crime LA/Downey Library

Had a wonderful time this weekend, speaking at the Downey Library's Friends of the Library event and at the "No Crime Unpublished" conference sponsored by the LA Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Both groups generously contributed to the CLP Foundation. I especially appreciate all the LA Sisters in Crime folks did for their raffle.

Those of you who are interested in forensic science should definitely sign up for Sisters in Crime's Forensic University -- after June 15th the cost of registration increases.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Excellent hockey night in California

Hooray for the Ducks!

Those of you who've read the Irene Kelly books have probably figured out that I'm a hockey fan. I became a fan when I started dating a guy who'd been playing the game from the age of five. First time I went to watch him play, I couldn't tell where he was on the ice, let alone the puck. But it didn't take long for me to fall in love with the game. I was already head over heels for the guy, and a couple of decades later I still am. We're still together and he's still playing hockey.

Now I've seen a local team win the Stanley Cup -- amazing. I wondered if I'd live to see the day when a West Coast team won it, at least until this team started to show it could take on all comers.

And to top it all off, when they played about four hours after the Ducks-Senators game, Tim's hockey team won last night!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 7

Sorry for the delay...commencements, visitors, and various and sundry other matters...did I mention that I write books?...conspired against blogging last week.

More on all of that another day.

Back to vampires. But first... are you amazed at all the recent TB news? See? Read this blog and you will be so ahead of the game.

Okay, back to the story of the story, "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow"...

Paul and I exchanged e-mails and met once more in person (a lunch meeting at an AAFS convention in Florida, IIRC), setting up how we would write the story from two different coasts. Paul was incredibly easy to work with.

We soon agreed that the protagonist would be in the situation Paul spoke of — of growing up in a rural area where vampire folklore existed, and being forced to participate in these rituals performed on the remains of beloved family members. This could cover a range of time and places in New England. We decided to set it in the 19th century, in Rhode Island. What more could we bring to the story?

We tossed around several ideas. Paul sent some reference materials on the vampire beliefs to me, and I looked into the history of TB as well. I was struck by how late some of these rituals were performed, given the progress being made in treating TB in the late 19th century.

Perhaps the most famous New England vampire story is that of Mercy Brown. I mentioned her case in a previous post. The exhumation of Mercy Brown, who had died from TB at the age of 19, took place in 1892. Although her father apparently did not believe in the power of these rituals, he succumbed to local pressure to allow them to be performed. Her heart was removed and burned, and the ashes were given to her brother, Edwin, to drink. (Despite this attempted remedy, he died of TB two months later.)

The rituals performed on Mercy Brown received newspaper attention, in stories which decried them as rustic superstition. The stories inspired H.P. Lovecraft (his "The Shunned House" refers to it) and a clipping of the story was found among Bram Stoker's possessions.

So a new possibility for the story occurred to us. What if a young man grew up in rural Rhode Island in the late 19th century, in a community where vampire folklore existed as an explanation for deaths from consumption (the name then given to TB), and this young man's family was pressured into performing these rituals on the bodies of beloved family members, BUT...later he is offered a chance to study medicine, and returns to the community to be of help, now knowing that TB is caused by bacteria? How might the community react? If he were believed, what effect would his new knowledge have on those who had endured the ritual?

We each took sections of the story, wrote them, pieced them together and smoothed them out. Paul's contributions to the history and science in the story were key, but I also want to say here and now that I was amazed at his writing abilities. It was hard to believe this was his first attempt at fiction. By the late spring of 1999, we had a story to submit to the Crime Through Time III anthology.

Before I wind up my series of blogs about this story, I want to make a note about a decision in telling the story. Michael Bell says that the term "vampire" was never used by these New England families. (Someday I'll have to ask him how he came to that conclusion, but I am sure he knows what he's talking about -- he did the decades of extensive research, not me!)

Bell's research now noted, I'll point out that in 1892, the term was most definitely in use in that part of the United States.

It's an old word. The word "upyr" and synonyms have been part of the Slavic languages since the middle ages and the terms "vampire" or "vampyre" had been used in English by 1688.
(For a fascinating scholarly study of history the word, see Katharina M. Wilson's article, "The History of the Word 'Vampire'," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 46, No. 4. (Oct. - Dec., 1985), pp. 577-583.)

This became the only real point of disagreement between us that I can recall, though. Paul, familiar with Bell and his work, thought we should not have the characters use the word "vampire." I thought the story worked better if they did use it, in part because the word was in use at that time in Rhode Island (and carrying a meaning that conformed with their use of it). My opinion was that in a work of fiction, it wouldn't be out of line to have the characters use the word "vampire," provided we weren't using a word that had not yet been coined, or using a word that had a different meaning at that time, or using it in one time as if it had a later meaning (such as OK, which has undergone a change in meaning since its 1840 origins). We shouldn't have people using anachronistic terms in historical short stories, but I didn't think this was anachronistic usage.

So for the public record, Paul disagreed, but graciously let me have my bratty writer way.

I'm going to leave at that for now, hoping Paul will find time to tell more about this from his perspective! I hope you'll find time to read and enjoy "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Approximately Part 6

Paul mentioned to me that he might want to try his hand at writing fiction, perhaps a short story. So we started talking about choosing ideas for short stories.

I told him the background on my short story, "Two Bits." While researching Hocus, I read books and studies on kidnapping and hostage-taking. Almost any book that gave a historical perspective on kidnapping mentioned the story of "Little Charley Ross." If you've been reading this series of posts, you'll remember that story from this post.

The story of the Ross kidnapping is as moving today as it was over 100 years ago. And there are several aspects of it that might intrigue a fiction writer. Any of the following fictional paths might be taken from the starting point of the true crime story:

  • The side of the kidnapping we don't know -- the story of what the kidnappers did after they abandoned Charley's brother.
  • The story of what became of Charley if he survived.
  • The story of a third person who might have either been in on the kidnapping or discovered Charley abandoned, and decided to keep him.
  • The story of Mr. Ross, as this parade of fake Charleys is brought before him over the years.
  • The story of the men who shot the burglars/presumed kidnappers.
  • The story of the judge, whose installment of a burglar alarm had unintended consequences.
  • The story of Mrs. Ross, who was away from home when the kidnapping took place.

These are just a few of the possibilities, of course. For me, the story that was most intriguing, though, was the story of Charley's brother.

This was in part because I had been hearing accounts about a more recent case. Some who had worked on it had noticed that the brother of the little girl who had been taken not only suffered tremendous guilt (he was present when she was taken), but was subject to a strange combination of abandonment and over-protectiveness by his parents. The over-protectiveness was understandable. Also understandably, his parents became obsessed with discovering their daughter's whereabouts. All their time and energy went into these efforts — for an extended period of time. The case received a great amount of media attention, and his parents gave endless interviews and coordinated major efforts to find her. He was withdrawn and on the sidelines.

In the Ross case, what would it be like, I wondered, to be the older brother who left his little brother with strangers? To have taken two bits and run happily into a store, oblivious to danger, only to have nearly everything about one's life change after that moment? A series of "what ifs" followed.

So I created a fictional family and subjected them to a few of the events experienced by the Ross family, and wrote "Two Bits." The story I wanted to tell came from that question, "What would it be like to be the brother?" I do not claim to know what happened emotionally or otherwise to the real-life brother, but within this fictional family, I tried to answer it for the fictional brother. And found another story within that one, one of those unexpected discoveries that often come along while writing, as one gets to know the characters.

I told this story of a story to Paul, and asked him if among the many possible stories he could tell, there was a similar question.

"I've always wondered," he said, "what it would have been like to have to been a member of one of those families in New England -- to have been a son who had to watch his mother's grave exhumed, her heart cut out and burned, and then to be told to eat her ashes."

We were off and running from there....

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Such a deal

If you're just starting out as a writer of crime fiction, you may want to sign up for the OCC/RWA online course I'm teaching, Crime 101. This will be nuts and bolts basics. You can learn more about it here.

It's only $20 for members of OCC/RWA and $30 for non-members. Hurry -- deadline for enrollment is June 9!

Vampire, Resumed

Is it still Tuesday anywhere in the world? No? I apologize. Got back home from a trip out of town (where I got some writing done) and conked out for most of the day yesterday.

But to go back to the story of the story...

You'll recall that when Paul Sledzik and other researchers and anthropologists went to work on the recovery of the Walton Cemetery near Griswold, Connecticut, they found a coffin on the lid of which "JB-55" was spelled out in tacks, and within, remains that had clearly been altered after an exhumation -- the skull and large leg bones rearranged into a skull and crossbones configuration. They were the bones of a male who was probably 50-55 years old when he died, so it is likely that his initials were "JB" and his age at death was 55.

JB's bones showed lesions that are caused by tuberculosis. Sledzik and Bellatoni noted:

No other cases of tuberculosis were noted in the remains from the cemetery. Two burials are believed to be related to "JB." Both burials, a 45- to 55-year-old female and a 13- to 14-year-old subadult, were buried in a manner similar to "JB" and had the initials "IB-45" and "NB-13" spelled, respectively, in tacks on the coffin lid....

To date, 12 historic accounts documenting vampire beliefs and activities in 18th and 19th century New England have been located... These accounts are found in southern and western Rhode Island, central-southern Vermont, southeastern
Massachusetts, and eastern Connecticut, and range in time from the late 1700s to the late 1800s. Eleven of the 12 accounts denote consumption as the cause of death of the vampire and any deceased relatives....
[From "Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief," which appeared in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1994.]

An 1801 history of Griswold noted that in the previous 25 years, many people in the area had died of consumption (another name for tuberculosis).

Saying vampires caused consumption was a way to explain the deaths of several people in the same family from the disease. (For more on the history of the treatment of TB, see this post. To get an idea of where matters stood on germ theory, look here.) These New Englanders' beliefs about vampires were probably related in some ways to the beliefs of the European communities from which they or their ancestors immigrated, but as often happens when communities are separated, folk beliefs take on new features in new places.

Those who suffered from consumption did indeed seem to be consumed -- they grew pale and thin, and often coughed up blood, which stained their mouths and lips. Despite this, they remained active and had appetites. If their disease was blamed on a vampire, in the minds of believers, clearly the vampire was feeding from them, but leaving them alive. In New England this was a family affair, not one of caped aristocrats luring unsuspecting strangers into their castles.

As little understood as consumption were the causes of changes in a body after death and burial. A grave opened to "examine" a suspected vampire might reveal a body that had bloated (assumed to have fed), an appearance of hair and fingernail growth after death, blood draining from the mouth, and blood or fluid in the heart. These are now known to be aspects of natural decomposition, but in the New England folk belief, blood in the heart of the deceased was a sign of a vampire, who could only be "killed" by the removal and burning of the heart. (A family member might be required to eat the ashes.) If the heart had decomposed, rearrangement of the skull and bones would disrupt the vampire's ability to "walk."

If you'd like to read a few stories about these rituals, check out the book I mentioned previously, by folklorist Michael Bell. Or these sites:

The Jewett City Vampires
Rhode Island Vampires
Stories from the New Standard Times
Vampires of Rhode Island

In the late spring of 1998, four years after his study of "JB-55" had been published, I visited Washington D.C. and met with my friend Paul Sledzik. Over a late Tex-Mex lunch, we began to talk about short stories, and what might be potential short story material....

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Vampire, Interrupted

I need to finish some work that pays better than blogging...I'll be back with more on the Vampire story on Tuesday. Thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 4

Yesterday I wrote about the 1990 discovery of the 19th century grave of JB-55 and those of two other individuals buried in the same manner near Griswold, Connecticut. These were not the first known cases of evidence of belief in vampires in New England.

In Rhode Island, state folklorist Michael E Bell, who has found evidence of a least 16 such cases taking place from the mid-18th century to the late 19th century, has made extensive studies of the subject. If you want to know more about New England vampire beliefs than you'll find on this blog, read his book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. You should also visit his Food for the Dead and Quahog folklore sites.

Bell first took interest in New England vampire lore when he talked to Everett Peck in 1981. Peck, a lifelong resident of Exeter, Rhode Island is a descendant of family of perhaps the last person in New England exhumed as a vampire: Mercy Brown.

On March 19, 1892, the Providence Journal carried a front page story about the exhumation, written in the classic overblown style of the journalism of its day. It exclaimed over the superstitions that led to the horrors of the rituals performed on the remains of Mercy, a 19-year-old woman who had lived and died in Exeter.

The Brown family had experienced a number of deaths from consumption, as tuberculosis was known then. Her mother had died of the disease, her sister in 1888, and her brother had fallen ill with it as well. Mercy caught it and died in January 1892.

The article in the Providence Journal used the term "vampire," but Bell has said this word was not used by the families or communities that practiced these rituals.

Whatever they named those who came from the grave, the belief — especially in families where mulitiple deaths occurred in a short space of time — was that in some manner the dead were drawing their sustenance from the living. The way to "kill" the one who was feeding on the others was through these rituals.

Before going into the nature of these rituals and some of the stories associated with them, let's take a quick look at the history and current status of the real cause of those deaths, tuberculosis.

For many centuries, tuberculosis was one of the most widespread of deadly diseases. The bacteria that causes it has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2400 BCE. In 19th century Europe, as many as one in four deaths were caused by this disease.

Far ahead of his time, in 1720 English physician Benjamin Marten first theorized that "wonderfully minute living creatures" might be causing it.

In 1854, Hermann Brehmer, a Silesian botany student cured of the disease after following his physician's recommendation of a change of climate, went on to study medicine and presented a paper, Tuberculosis is a Curable Disease, and started a sanatorium. This became the model for other facilities for TB patients, and was a major step in efforts to fight the disease.

In 1865, Jean-Antoine Villemin of France proved that TB could be transferred from humans to cattle and cattle to rabbits. It was proof that a microorganism was causing the disease.

In 1882, Robert Koch discovered a staining technique that allowed him to see that microorganism — Mycobacterium tuberculosis— under a microscope.

The development of X-rays helped in the study of the disease, but it was not until 1944 that the first effective antibiotic for the treatment of human TB cases were developed. Further progress in developing anti-TB drugs continued to be made over the next decades. Death rates dropped in industrialized countries until the mid-1980s.

TB is still causing deaths today — although curable, it causes 1.6 million deaths worldwide every year. Experts believe that 10 million people in the U.S. are currently infected — and one in ten of those infected will develop the disease. (The remaining 90% will not get the disease or infect others.)

The American Lung Association notes:

It is not easy to become infected with tuberculosis. Usually a person has to be close to someone with TB disease for a long period of time. TB is usually spread between family members, close friends, and people who work or live together. TB is spread most easily in closed spaces over a long period of time.
Consider family life in rural farming communities in the 18th and 19th centuries -- small homes, several siblings often sharing the same bed, the whole family working and living together. Add to this the long-held belief that drafts and fresh air were unhealthy. Put these and other factors together, and one sees why a family like Mercy Brown's fell prey to this disease.

Many of the points I've discussed here are part of the story I wrote with Paul Sledzik, "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow."

More tomorrow on how consumption, exhumations, the history of medicine, and vampires served as not only the inspiration for the story, but also its central conflict....

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 3

In November of 1990, near Griswold, Connecticut, an abandoned rural farm family cemetery was discovered. The Walton Cemetery dated from the 18th-19th centuries, and those buried there were of European descent.

The initial -- and accidental -- discovery was made made by a sand and gravel company working at the site of the forgotten cemetery. Because of the instability of the sand and gravel knoll in which they were discovered, the burials could not be preserved where they were, and an archeological team had to remove them from the site.

As Paul Sledzik and Nicholas Bellantoni reported in "Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief," which appeared in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1994:

The skeletal remains of 29 individuals (15 subadults, 6 adult males, and 8 adult females) were excavated in the course of 1 year. Documentary evidence in land deeds indicated that the Walton family, who had emigrated to Griswold in 1690, had utilized the knoll as a family burial ground by the 1750s.

What no one could anticipate when the cemetery was discovered in 1990 was that a few years later, a spate of news stories about vampires in New England would result.

All most all of us get our ideas about vampires from an Irish author — Bram Stoker. Although Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, and other writers have given us new ways to imagine vampires, Stoker's creation of Dracula has provided Hollywood with its model for the creatures, and almost everything that has followed bears at least an imprint of Stoker's creation.

But folk legends of vampires go back for centuries before the Count. And Stoker was not the first to write of them.

The first English language work of vampire fiction, "The Vampyre," was published in 1819. It was written by John William Polidori, a young man with a fascinating history of his own. He was 20 years old and traveling in Europe as Lord Byron's physician (he obtained his medical degree at 19) when he participated in the famous ghost-story-writing challenge that lead to the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. Polidori took a fragment of a story abandoned by Byron, and reworked it into The Vampyre.

But artistocratic biters were not the image of a vampire that came to mind everywhere throughout Europe before Polidori, Stoker and their successors picked up their pens. Nor were stakes through the heart, garlic, and the like the remedy.

Among the burials recovered from that abandoned, damaged graveyard in Griswold, scientists would discover three sets of remains that bore the signs of an older remedy. In a stone-lined grave, they found the first. Within it was a coffin, the lid of which bore tacks arranged to spelled out "JB-55" — presumably, the deceased's initials and age at death. But what drew special attention to JB-55 when that coffin was carefully opened was that his bones had been deliberately rearranged -- his skull and largest leg bones (his femurs) had been placed atop his ribs and spine in a classic "skull and cross-bones" orientation.

It seems someone had made sure a man believed to be a vampire would no longer trouble the living...

More about New England vampires in the next installment.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 2.5

This Part 2.5 instead of Part 3 -- I said I'd be talking about vampires in part 3, and that was before I checked my schedule.

This will be brief, because I'm getting up early to go to San Diego tomorrow, where I'll be one of the stand-ins at the Elaine Viets Tour-by-Proxy event at Mysterious Galaxy.

So a little more delay. But I think it would be good to give you a couple of quick Web site reading assignments in the meantime, warning that they will still not seem to have anything to do with vampires, or even "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow." But they do have something to do with a key conversation I had with Paul Sledzik about writing short stories, which you'll hear more about in the next post, probably on Monday.

During that conversation, I talked to him about the story "Two Bits." To read about the historical case that inspired that short story, I invite you to visit Web sites about the first (or perhaps first publicized) kidnapping for ransom case in the U.S., the most notorious kidnapping case prior to the Lindbergh case -- a case that gained national attention before there were radios or newsreels.

So click here or here or here to learn about Charley Ross, and on his name to see a portrait of this four-year-old boy on the cover of sheet music for "Bring Back Our Darling," one of the songs written about him in 1874 -- the year of his disappearance. A project that brings attention to missing children's cold cases bears his name.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 2

[See yesterday's post for the start of this tale.]

Most of us would not want our deaths to become mysteries. We would not want those we love to spend years wondering what had become of us. We would not want to be John or Jane Does lying unknown and unclaimed.

If our remains were found in some forest or desert, we would hope someone would be able to figure out who we were, and let our loved ones know what had become of us. And especially if we had the misfortune to be murdered — we would hope for immediate justice, for someone to figure out what had happened to us, and catch the killer.

Perhaps more than we hope for these things for ourselves, we want them for those we love. We want this for ourselves and our families, but we are moved by the stories of strangers as well. Most of us want to live in a society that will do its best to see that no individual within it is denied identity or justice.

The work of the forensic anthropologist often provides the last opportunity for identity and justice for the dead. I have the great privilege of counting among my friends a number of these bright, highly trained, compassionate and dedicated individuals, and I met most of them through Paul Sledzik.

Paul now works for the National Transportation Safety Board, but when I met him, he was the Curator of Anatomical Collections for the National Museum of Health and Medicine. (If you visit the Washington, D.C. area, take time to stop by this museum. Admission is free.) Through his work with DMORT, he has led or worked on teams that identified remains from mass fatality incidents — events such bombings and airplane crashes, as well as natural disasters. At the time we met, he had recently worked on the identification of remains from the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. A few years later, on September 11, 2001, as Commander of DMORT Team III, he was called to Pennsylvania help identify those who had been on United Flight 93.

In those years, he was also the director of a forensic anthropology course taught at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. I was able to take the course, and much of Bones was inspired by Paul and the other forensic anthropologists I met through the AFIP class. I was struck again and again by their compassion, their willingness to be in incredibly stressful and horrific situations, all to give names to the dead, to give a voice to victims who could no longer speak for themselves, and to aid the grieving process of the families left behind.

Paul was quoted in the National Library of Medicine's "Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body" exhibit:

What intrigues me about anthropology is how the study of all
aspects of humans—their past, culture, language, and biology—
helps solve complicated human problems....
[The exhibit will be at NLM until February, 2008 and is worth visiting -- even if the section on crime fiction is crappy.]

Paul has also written about historical military medicine and worked on a number of historic skeletal biology cases. I was to learn more about these when we started talking about writing a story.

Next: we finally get to the vampire part of this story

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 1

What does a photo of a plane crash have to do with vampires?

Read on.

Someone asked me to write here about the background of "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow," which is one of the stories you can find in the collection of my stories, Eighteen. (Some places list it as 18. Yes, I've learned my lesson about numbers as titles.)

How did I end up writing a story about vampires? Or is it really about vampires? Why did I co-write it? Who is Paul Sledzik? Were there really vampires in New England? What's the forensic science side of the story? The history? How did the story end up in a collection of historical short stories?

The story of the short story is sort of a long story, at least the way I've decided to tell it, which will be over more than one post. This will give those of you who haven't read it yet a chance to look it over (if you want to do) so before I get into spoiler territory. I'll try to avoid that as much as possible, and warn about it, but some elements of "Carrick Hollow" relate to the research and story behind it, so I can't completely separate them.

I thought it might be fun to really trace back the threads that led to the writing of "Carrick Hollow," long before the story itself first appeared in print.

So back we go...let's start with how I met my co-author, Paul Sledzik.

Before my second book was published, I realized I needed to know more about forensic science. Okay, I wanted to know more about it, too. I had enjoyed what I learned researching Goodnight, Irene. But where did a new writer learn such things?

This was long before CSI was on television, and in retrospect, I'm grateful for that, because I didn't learn about forensic science from a television drama. An author friend (and fellow CSULB alumna), Wendy Hornsby , mentioned that she had taken a good class from Larry Ragle at UC Irvine. I saw that the UCI Extension was offering it again, and signed up for it. The class met in the fall of 1992.

Larry was the Director of Forensic Sciences for Orange County, California. (Those of you who like to read about forensic science will enjoy his book Crime Scene.) The class was a perfect introduction to forensic science.

Among the many fascinating speakers he invited into the class was a forensic odontologist who talked about working with Larry Ragle and with Dr. Judy Suchey, a forensic anthropologist then on the faculty of California State University, Fullerton. He included a presentation on the recovery of remains from what was probably Orange County's biggest air disaster -- something most of the locals refer to as the Cerritos plane crash -- after the town where the planes mowed the swath of destruction you see above.

The midair collision of Aeromexico Flight 498 (a DC-9 with 56 passengers and crew of 6 aboard) and a Piper Archer (with a pilot and two passengers aboard) on August 31, 1986, caused the planes to fall into a suburb on the LA/OC border, where it killed 15 people on the ground, wounded 8 others, and destroyed or damaged a dozen houses. (Contrary to popular belief, the pilot of the Piper did not have a heart attack. You can read a full analysis of the crash from the AOPA here.) Identifying the dead was a complex and (given the chemical and other hazards from the crash) dangerous task.

I later learned that Judy Suchey was teaching classes in forensic anthropology for lay people. I found her course equally fascinating. I asked her for information on textbooks and bought a few and did my best to work my way through them. Again, although her course was packed, forensic anthropology really wasn't a hot topic, and wasn't on television dramas yet. In addition to other work as an anthropologist and teacher, Judy Suchey worked on the Charles Manson case, the Hillside Strangler case, and many others in the more than 35 years she has devoted to her field. She is also noted as an author of important studies and a developer of a number techniques in use in the field of anthropology.

Those of you who have read my novels may recall that Larry Ragle had been mentioned in my acknowledgements, and that one of the people to whom Bones is dedicated is Judy Suchey. And a presentation Judy Suchey gave was one of the sparks that led to the short story, "Two Bits." So these courses in the early and mid 1990s had an impact on both my writing and my interest in forensic science.

Later (I believe it was 1995, but I'll have to look up old program books to be sure) I was at a Malice Domestic Convention, and assigned to a panel on research. In the green room before our session, the five panelists gathered for the first time. Soon, two of the other panelists were in close conversation with the moderator. A gentleman I hadn't met sat quietly by himself. I introduced myself to him — he was Paul Sledzik. He told me he was a forensic anthropologist. I asked him if he knew Judy Suchey. He did — and soon we were talking to each other about forensic anthropology, and research, and reading. A friendship I number among those most important to me.

[photographer of Cerritos air crash photo, above, is unknown]

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

If you're anywhere near Brentwood tonight...

meet me at Dutton's! I'll be there for a booksigning by Dick Lochte -- I'm looking forward to reading his latest, Croaked, a comedy-thriller set in Los Angeles in 1965.

I love his writing, and anyone who has read his books can tell you that he is a keen observer with a delightfully wicked sense of humor.

This event is tonight, Tuesday, May 8, 7-9 PM
Dutton's is at 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles 90049.

This weekend, on Saturday, I'll be in San Diego at Mysterious Galaxy. You can read about that event below, on the May 1 post.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Before you shed any tears for Paris Hilton

Remember that the original conviction, for which she did not serve any time, was for driving under the influence.

According to a story in today's Los Angeles Times, at the time of that initial incident:

Within hours of her arrest, she dismissed the incident as "nothing" to radio host Ryan Seacrest, explaining: "I was just really hungry, and I wanted to have an In-N-Out burger.
Guess who kills more people than those who commit homicides by firing guns directly at other human beings?

If you answered drunk drivers, you are right. As a result of drunk drivers' murderous handiwork in just one year, 2004, the families of almost 17,000 people are now grieving for loved ones who lost their lives.

Not exactly "nothing."

The next time you see a friend who has been drinking getting ready to drive, ask yourself if taking his or her keys away would be easier than disarming someone. Because you're definitely letting them use a lethal weapon while their judgement is impaired.

So stop them. Even if they really want an In-and-Out burger.

And talk to someone who has lost a child in a drunk driving accident if you feel the need to cry.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Living Wild in Los Angeles County

You've all been patient while I've been working on the Elaine Viets "Tour by Proxy" Project, and I appreciate that. If you are in the San Diego area, I also hope you'll join me, Randy Hicks, and other authors as we do our part to support Elaine on Saturday, May 12, at 10:30 AM at Mysterious Galaxy Books 7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite 302 San Diego, CA. And if you can't show up, consider ordering a copy of Murder With Reservations from your own favorite bookstores.

So I am still putting in a lot of time for the project for Elaine and writing and getting ready for the grand opening of the new Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab and all kinds of other stuff. Today I also found time to walk the dogs in our local park. (They usually get night walks.) It was a beautiful day to be outdoors.

For those of you who think the LA area is nothing but concrete and cars -- well, mostly, you're right. But we have our enclaves of wildlife here, too -- both local and imported. And we make celebrities of our wildlife. Yesterday both Reggie the Alligator and the Three Bears of Bradbury made the local evening news.

Reggie isn't a native, but we are an area that enjoys a population with roots from just about any place you could name. Reggie's living in Lake Machado, a place you'll hardly recognize as LA County if you click on that last link. There are those who want us to believe Reggie is blogging and selling his own "official" (puh-leeze!) gear. But the blog is a nice way to keep up with the news on this LA-based gator.

Black bears (even ones that look brown) are native to California. And bears in Bradbury shouldn't be such a big surprise. It's been hot, the people in Bradbury have ponds and pools, and put their trash out today, all of which makes it really attractive if you are foraging in a fur coat. Which should not be unexpected in Bradbury, because it's in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Which could get me talking about how much wilderness is actually part of the big county of Los Angeles, and that could lead me to talk about why I decided to set Nine there and make the protagonist a member of the LASD.

I won't do that just now, but I feel so much better actually bringing all of this around to talking about books again....

Photo above is clearly neither an alligator nor a California Black Bear. But global warming going unchecked, I fully expect to hear any day now that someone in LA has found a polar bear in his backyard pool. This photo is used courtesy of Monica Mueller, from

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What's all this I hear about Elaine Viets?

Elaine Viets

As many of you know, Elaine Viets suffered a stroke just before the release of the newest entry in her "Dead End Job Series" -- Murder With Reservations. Happily, she is on the road to recovery, but she won't be able to tour for the new book. So her friends are "touring" for her— we're asking you to buy her book, either by ordering it from your favorite bookseller, or attending one of the many events her "stand-ins" are hosting for her.

You can find a list of those events here. (Part of the Web site of PJ Nunn, her publicist.)
Check back frequently, as more are being added.

If you wonder why we're troubling to do this, it's because Elaine has given thousands of hours of her time and effort to other writers, both individually and through Sisters in Crime and MWA. She's been generous and kind, and we'd like to return a little of that kindness. And we also think you'll enjoy the book -- it has had great reviews -- and Elaine manages to balance both humor and social consciousness in her books. This time, Helen Hawthorne takes a job as hotel housekeeper -- you'll never feel the same way about staying in a hotel! You can also read a sample chapter on Elaine's Web site.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

How to Help Elaine Viets

As the recent outpouring of messages of concern and well-wishes for Elaine Viets have shown, Elaine has a lot of friends in the mystery community. It's no wonder -- she's not only a delightful person and beloved writer, she has given a lot of time and energy to helping others through her service in MWA, Sisters in Crime, and other groups.

She also has a new book coming out in May, MURDER WITH RESERVATIONS, and one of her biggest worries has been that due to the stroke, she won't be able to tour.

So we're offering her friends a chance to actively help her -- we're going to "tour" for her!

Here's what to do

1) Send an e-mail to

2) Let us know what part of the country (or world) you are in and if you are

a) an author
b) a bookseller
c) a fan

3) Let us would be willing to:

a) place a stack of Elaine's books on your table as you sign on your own tour

b) help set up an "Elaine Viets" party at your store or a store near you
(if you are not a store owner, PLEASE do NOT contact stores directly at this point!)

c) serve as a "stand-in" by hosting a nearby scheduled signing on Elaine's tour.

d) place an image of Murder With Reservations with a note about this effort on your Web site or blog.

PJ Nunn, Elaine's publicist, is offering to reward the kindness of Elaine's author friends with publicity help for their own books.

We will have more details for you soon!

I know this community is one that has many generous people in it, people who are willing to act on their concern for others. I look forward to hearing from you!

Please feel free to forward this message.

Jan Burke

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Elaine Viets

Those of you who are hooked into the mystery fandom lists and blogs probably know by now that Elaine Viets is hospitalized, after having suffered a stroke. (More on that here.)

Elaine has devoted thousands of hours of her time to other writers through her work with MWA and Sisters in Crime. She's helped to raise money for the St. Louis Humane Society and other animal charities, and she's also a member of the Crime Lab Project — she was one of the first to join.

Elaine has a new book due out in May, Murder With Reservations. It got a starred PW review, and is the latest in her humorous "Dead End Job" series. Some of Elaine's friends are working on a way to help her to "tour" while she recovers — I'm one of those folks. So you may not see me here much for the next few days while I help out with plans!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Finding an Agent - Authors Tell You Their Own Stories

At the end of March, I posted some suggestions for those who are trying to find an agent — so if you're looking for representation, you may want to read that before you dive into this post.

You may remember that the March post was inspired by someone who believed that you needed an author recommendation to get anywhere in the agent hunt. I disagreed. Whole books have been written on this topic, and I don't intend to replace them with this blog. I only hope these comments from other writers about their experiences will encourage some of you who are looking for agents. Especially if you've been feeling that your chances of getting published are nil just because you
    • never saved an author from drowning,
    • don't hang out in bars with leading literary lights, and
    • haven't located a copy of the Harry Potter book of spells to help you ensorcel a writer by e-mail into being your champion.
Maybe one day the AAR will publish a scientific study whereby agents list their clients who were "discovered" by them — their first-time authors only — and specify how those clients came to work with them. This might provide something more than guesswork on the number of unknown authors who were referred by other clients, were brought to their attention by writing instructors, made the connection through queries, were met through conferences, etc. (To the best of my knowledge, this isn't available now.)

I will readily admit that what I'm posting here is anecdotal. My intention is to show that writers find agents in lots of different ways, and to dispel the myth that the world of publishing is closed and "members only."

Please understand that I am not saying that it is easy to get an agent. Many agents get over a thousand queries a week, and of course they don't take all of those folks on. But here are a few stories from some people who didn't have any special insider help:

From Denise Swanson, national bestselling author of Murder of A Botoxed Blonde and eight other novels:

I found my first agent using a query letter, although I did have the permission of [the late, renowned Mysterious Press editor] Sara Ann Freed to use a quote from the critique she did of my manuscript at the Harriette Austin Writers Conference.

The book I used to come up with the list of agents I eventually queried was the Insider's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents by Jeff Herman.

From Meg Chittenden, bestselling author of over 100 short stories and articles, a book on writing, three children's books, and 33 novels that include romance, suspense, mystery, and mainstream — her latest suspense novel is Snap Shot:

Way back in 1971 — would you believe it, I must have been in kindergarten — I received a manila envelope back in the mail — one of my SASE that I was sending out with all the submissions I was making. Disheartened, I let it sit on my desk a while. Luckily I opened it before going to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference. Inside was a contract from Follett for my first children's book. I took it to the conference, talked to an agent who was there, who agreed to represent me (hey, they'd already mentioned money!) and actually got me more money than they had offered. She then repped me through my GH short story days, another children's book and my first novel, which she suggested I write....

[Unfortunately, her first agent died. Meg tells how she found her next agent:]

I wrote to Emilie Jacobson at Curtis Brown, who took me on right away and is still my agent. I wrote her because she was Willo Davis Roberts agent and Willo was doing pretty good, seemed to me. Note that I did not ask Willo to recommend me. I did not tell Emilie I was a friend of Willo.

Because, and this is what I tell people who want me to recommend them to my agent — I believe a writer needs an agent who is enthusiastic about his or her work. I didn't want an agent to take me on because so-and-so asked her to and she maybe felt she owed so-and-so something.

From Toni L.P. Kelner, award-winning author of nine novels, including the forthcoming Without Mercy, as well as numerous short stories:

When I was going to events, trying to figure out how this business works (thinking that I could figure it out), I used to ask writers, "How do you get an agent?"
The usual answer was, "Consult one of the books that list agents and their needs, and query them."
Then I'd say, "Is that how you got your agent?"
And they would almost always say, "No, I knew somebody."

Well, I did NOT know anybody. I actually got my agent via one of those guide books. She was the sixteenth I queried, as a matter of fact, and we didn't meet in person until a few years after we started working together.

So if anybody asks, those guidebooks work!

From Jerrilyn Farmer, award-winning author of seven novels in the Madeline Bean series and short stories, and member of the faculty of the UCLA Extension Writers Program:

The best advice I read was to research which agents rep which authors (by checking the Acknowledgments pages of their books), and to send query letters to agents whose authors are similar in style/genre to yours. In addition, I found the Writers Market and other guides to Literary Agents helpful for their listings of agents who specialize in particular kinds of books. This is how I found my agent.

Sometimes it feels like you need a special introduction to get noticed, but I agree with Meg who said that an agent shouldn't be doing anyone a favor to take you on, but be completely enthusiastic about your books.

From Robin Burcell, Anthony Award winner and author crime fiction novels, including Cold Case:

I went about the whole agent hunting thing backwards.

I sold my first book on my own (a process I do not recommend) and acquired my first agent after being introduced via phone by another writer represented by the same agency. Right around the time I switched genres, my agent left the agency. I sent my first mystery to the same publisher, who was very interested in it.

In the meantime, I was introduced to a second agent at the same agency, who said she was
interested in seeing the mystery. Sent it off to her, then got a call from the publisher saying they wanted to buy it. Second agent negotiated this book. And then my editor said she wanted to buy the second mystery in the series, which she'd read, but needed to wait until
her return from medical leave. During this medical leave, my second agent left the agency, and I took that as my cue to find a new agency myself.

After several queries, I wasn't able to find an agent before my editor returned, and I finally called her, asking if she was still interested in the book, because I was now agentless. She was, asked me what I was looking for, and I gave her my wish list. She gave me a list of agents to query based on that list. I interviewed several while at Bouchercon, then made a decision.

We've been happy ever since.

Paul Guyot brings a slightly different perspective, from the world of television writing — considered by most to be nearly impossible to break into. Shows he has written for include Felicity and Judging Amy.

I found my agent the old fashion way - query letters. I had ZERO connections in Hollywood. None. So I sent a dozen queries out and was rejected or ignored across the board. So then I began to query managers - in Hollywood a manager is someone who acts just like an agent, but isn't accredited. They can get your stuff to maybe 75% of the places an agent can, but 75% of something is better than 100% of nothing. For a complete newbie like myself, managers - especially newer just-starting-out managers - were more willing to read a new writer. Of the approximately four or five queries to managers, only one was interested, so I figured we were a match made in heaven, and I signed with him.

Well, he was able to get my material in front of studio and network executives who put me on their "approved" lists - executives love lists - and from there I was able to very quickly secure an agent, then my first job, and have never been unemployed since. I subsequently fired the manager within my first year of employment. It was perhaps a bit mercenary of me (though there were other issues), but once I had the accredited agent and employment, the manager became superfluous.

I agree with what Stephen King, Elmore Leonard and several other major writers believe - good writing always finds a home. If you write well, you eliminate a huge variable, and thus reduce the importance or need for connections and recommendations. Unfortunately, many aspiring writers (screen and prose) put more effort into getting an agent or getting published than they do the actual writing.

From Sharan Newman, author of the fabulous Catherine LeVendeur historical mystery novels, nonfiction including The Real History Behind the DaVinci Code and (forthcoming in July) The Real History Behind the Templars, as well as short stories and other works:

I published my first three books without an agent, something I don't recommend. I didn't know any other writers. I got mine by going to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, listening to and talking with the agents there. One of them liked me. That was 1984 and we've been together ever since.

I might also add that, although I have suggested other writers to my agency none of them have been a match.

Sorry, I still think the best way to get an agent is to write a good book, then go to a couple of the conferences or start writing query letters. Knowing another author is not really that useful.

So there are just a few examples of published writers who found agents without recommendations from other writers. My thanks to all of them!

I hope you'll take note of something several of those above have said — having an author recommend you isn't as important as finding an agent who is genuinely enthusiastic about your work. And I strongly agree that your focus must be on creating a work of quality. A recommendation from the hottest author on the NYT list will not help you if your manuscript is weak. If you've written an original and engaging story with a fresh voice, your manuscript will provide what you need most in your quest for an agent.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Abuse of fiction

From the Drug Enforcement Agency's March issue of the Microgram Bulletin:


The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory (Little Rock) recently received a paperback novel that had apparent yellow highlighter stains on several pages, that field-tested positive for methamphetamine (see Photo 5). The exhibit was seized by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office from an individual who was visiting the Washington County Jail (located in Fayetteville). Analysis of a methanolic extract of the most heavily stained pages by color testing, TLC, and GC/MS confirmed methamphetamine (not quantitated, but a high loading based on TIC). This is the first seizure of this type submitted to the laboratory.

I suppose you should also see the DEA Disclaimers:

1) All material published in either Microgram Bulletin or Microgram Journal is reviewed prior to publication. However, the reliability and accuracy of all published information are the responsibility of the respective contributors, and publication in Microgram Bulletin implies no endorsement by the United States Department of Justice or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

2) Due to the ease of scanning, copying, electronic manipulation, and/or reprinting, only the posted copies of Microgram Bulletin (on are absolutely valid. All other copies, whether electronic or hard, are necessarily suspect unless verified against the posted versions.

3) WARNING!: Due to the often lengthy time delays between the actual dates of seizures and their subsequent reporting in Microgram Bulletin, and also because of the often wide variety of seizure types with superficially similar physical attributes, published material cannot be utilized to visually identify controlled substances currently circulating in clandestine markets. The United States Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration assume no liability for the use or misuse of the information published in Microgram Bulletin.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Spring break may be over...

but I'll bet some of you still have these creatures in your house. And apparently, they're nearly as indestructible as these.

Still, I think this is carrying things too far.

And while we're at it, do you suppose they could supply ammo for this? Probably not. But if any of you are aunts and uncles who supply the nephews and nieces with toys that make their parents say, "You shouldn't have!" in a meaningful way, you may want to consider this gift item.

(My niece Timbrely, who still gets weird presents from me, provided a couple of these links. Not the one that caused you to say "Eeeew!")

Photo above courtesy of rosevita, from