Valentine’s Day Blues

I think Valentine’s Day is kind of a wimpy holiday. For a lot of people, it’s an afterthought. For the others? The ones with great expectations of romantic gestures and heartfelt expressions of undying devotion? Well, the results are usually a disappointment.

By the way, if you haven’t already figured it out, the author Evelyn David is really two people. The smart, witty posts on Mondays are written by the Northern Evelyn. The “what the heck does that have to do with writing” posts that show up on Thursdays are done by me – the Southern Evelyn.

Today, in between annoying coal miners, legislators, and federal regulators, all within the same eight hours (a personal best for me at my day job), I’ve been worrying about this blog. It should be easy for me to write 600 words on anything. Normally, I can’t even write the opening to a scene in less than 300. But today (which is yesterday if you’re reading this) my mind was scattered. Gathering any blogging ideas was much akin to herding cats (I know, I know, that phrase has been overused, but it’s still a favorite of mine and I intend to use it until I find another that means chasing down elusive, furry things that bite and scratch when you finally nab them.) I drafted several blogs – one on lying before congressional committees (don’t go before them and don’t lie) and one on the powers of the number 3 (don’t ask, I was digging deep for that one).

Valentine’s Day was an obvious topic choice. But what to say that hasn’t been said before? I could discuss the impossible search for a perfect card and color coordinated envelope (a real feat if you shop in a super store.) Ever notice how many people don’t take the envelope that the card gods intended to go with a particular card? What’s with that? By the time I start looking, the remaining cards and envelopes don’t match up – not even in size. Sometimes I’m choosing the card not for the design or sentiment inside; I’m picking it because it fits in the one remaining uncrumpled envelope.

And then there’s the chocolate . . . . I’ve always thought that chocolate was an excellent gift choice on Valentine’s Day – but please don’t give me those heart shaped boxes of chocolate wrapped in red foil and ribbon. For me eating the chocolate in those boxes is a scavenger hunt with some nasty surprises. I don’t like nuts. I don’t like coconut. I’m not crazy about caramel or hidden cherries. My favorites are those pieces that taste the most like a plain 3 Musketeers’ candy bar.

When I was younger, my brother always parked himself by my side when I opened the boxes of Valentine’s candy. One tiny test bite and I was usually handing off the offensive piece to him – who, like the Mikey of cereal commercials, would literally eat any kind of candy. One time I made the old fashioned fudge – the cooked kind with butter, salt, cocoa and sugar. I got some measurement wrong. The stuff set up harder than a brick and I literally used a dishtowel-wrapped hammer to break it into pieces. It was also lacking in sugar. I couldn’t eat it. My parents couldn’t eat it. It took my brother a couple of months, but he finally finished off the whole batch. He was a real trooper! Thinking of it – I probably owe him some money for dental bills.

Before leaving work, I took an informal survey of the other ladies in the office. What were they expecting to get for Valentine’s Day? Surprisingly, the answer was much the same. To avoid a lot of hassle and hurtful recriminations, they now bought their own gifts and picked out exactly what they wanted. Their husbands and significant others reimbursed them later for the costs.

I think I’ll do the same. Anyone care for a Klondike ice cream bar with a red ribbon?

Maybe, I’ll just skip the ribbon.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Evelyn David

All Hail Teachers!

I promised I would come back to the topic of teachers—a topic about which I’m passionate—and here I am.

I’m talking about why I’ll never be a teacher. And why you shouldn’t be one either, unless you identify with the information below.

My protagonist, Alison Bergeron, is a teacher. And I’m married to a teacher. An experienced, dedicated, innovative, effective seventh-grade homeroom teacher, who also happens to specialize in teaching French. Nobody, besides all of us here at Chateau Barbieri, sees what he does when he’s not in the classroom: grading papers, planning classes, calling parents, responding to emails from colleagues. Nobody sees him get up at five o’clock in the morning so that he can catch the 6:18 a.m. train so that he can be at his desk by 7:45 to drink his one cup of coffee before students arrive. And nobody sees him get off the train at 6:00 at night because his school day is eight hours long and ends after four.

No—what people see is a man who is off for two weeks at the end of March, has a few extra days off around the holidays because he’s on a private school schedule, a man who takes his class to Cape Cod for a seafaring, science adventure every fall, and a man who takes over the lion’s share of the parenting duties in the summer, dropping the kids off at their various camps and activities while his wife slaves away in an un-air conditioned attic (that’s a choice, by the way. I like the heat. It keeps me “hungry.” And it’s a better climate for my shoes, which I keep stashed next to me. At least that’s what I tell myself.)

People’s reaction to seeing him around? “I should be a teacher. That’s some schedule you’ve got!”

Yes, go ahead. Be a teacher. Good luck with that.

To me, that’s like saying to your dentist, “Wow! You’ve got all of this neat oral hygiene equipment AND you make a lot of money? I should be a dentist!” Or to the local police officer, “You mean you can drive fast whenever you want? And wear a sexy gun belt dripping with weapons? And you won’t get a ticket for talking on your cell phone while in the car? I think I’LL be a cop! It sounds fun!”

You know what teaching is? It’s a calling. You don’t wake up one day and decide to teach, you teach because it’s the only thing you ever wanted to do or thought that you’d be good at. You teach because you love kids, want to see them grow and learn, and help them find their own path. You teach because you love learning and want to pass that on to your students.

Which is why I work in an attic, by myself, all day long.

Why, you ask? What about the summers off? What about the extra three days around Christmas? Here’s the god’s honest truth: I don’t like the kids in mass quantity part, and am menze menze (I apologize to my Italian friends for bad spelling) on the learning part (although I would love to learn how to make my own California rolls…and pole dance). But I’m grateful to, and astounded by, the people who want to do it.

Two of my best friends are also teachers—one teaches four-year-olds at a preschool and the other teaches high school students who have various learning difficulties, two very different types of teaching positions. And while they have their bad days—someone eats too much play-doh and hurls in the classroom, or someone can’t figure out how to write an essay in under three days flat and the SAT’s are around the corner—both are committed, dedicated, and professional above all. I admire and respect them and even if there were not another person on the planet and they needed a sub for the day would I say, “Hey, I’ll fill in for you! Sounds like fun!” I’d rather have a colonoscopy than get in front of a class of kids. Because you know what? I’d be really, really bad at it.

I was born to make up stories about women who can’t keep their noses out of police investigations, not to spend the days with a bunch of kids who can’t keep their noses out of their own armpits.

I wonder, sometimes, why Alison Bergeron—my protagonist and aforementioned nosy sleuth—is a teacher. Is it an homage to the profession? Or, does it just allow me to fill her days with interesting and slightly off-beat characters? Because if you’ve been on a college campus, in a middle school, or even around a bunch of elementary-school children, you know that the halls of academia are filled with characters. But whatever it is, she’s a teacher, she’s smart as hell, and she also has the summers off, which allows her extra time to play Nancy Drew.

So, here’s to our teachers who are specialized, trained, passionate, committed, and teaching our kids. Respect what they do. Thank them occasionally. And never, never say, on a hot summer day, “Hey—that’s some schedule you’ve got. I should teach!”

Not unless you want to be hit in the face with a flying eraser.

Maggie Barbieri

Weather and Other Items of Interest … or Not

Hubby and I just returned from the Central Coast (California) community of Arroyo Grande. The weather was wonderful! Sunny and gorgeous. As we drove down the coast, the ocean sparkled. People who want to visit California beaches would be smart to go in February when the weather is often sunny as can be. In the summer, often the fog rolls in, making it chilly.

The weather was quite a contrast to the previous weekend when we were in snowy Chicago. We loved that too, though. In fact, I thanked the organizers of Love is Murder, our reason for being there, for having such a lovely snow storm for our entertainment.

The reason we were in Arroyo Grande was for me to participate with the Central Coast chapter of Sisters in Crime in a library presentation–which I did, of course. I’m always up for talking about my books and meeting new people. A chance to go to the coast was a huge incentive. We used to live in Oxnard (which is near Ventura) about one mile from the beach, and frankly, I miss the proximity to the ocean.

It was in Oxnard that I first became interested in writing about law enforcement. Our first house was in a neighborhood with police officers, firemen, and Navy personnel and their families. We partied and had coffee with our neighbors and got to know them all very well. Years later, my youngest daughter married a police officer who loved to tell me stories about what happened on his shift–he even took me on a tour of the police station and on a rather scary ride-along.

In my Rocky Bluff series (much darker than my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series), I’ve drawn quite a bit on my experiences from the days I hung out with those policemen and their families. If you’re interested, here’s a video about the latest book, Smell of Death,

And to bring this back around to the beach, the Rocky Bluff series is set in a fictional beach community somewhere on the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara–with some resemblance to Oxnard back in the time when I lived there.

Traveling around to promote books is fun, though not at all profitable. What I truly like best is meeting new people and my travels have been a great way to do it.

Now, back to working on my income taxes. Ugh!


Fiction is easy; Living is hard

We all know that feeling. Those times, we’ve stared at the computer screen for an hour and found that we couldn’t even compose a shopping list, let alone the next chapter of an overdue book. We’ve all experienced that panicky sensation that our muses have taken a Celebrity cruise through the Panama Canal and forgotten to take us along or even send a post card.

And then there are those moments, when I’ve worked myself up into a frenzy, when I’ve started checking the want ads for administrative assistant jobs because I don’t think knowing how to make a fabulous matzoh ball soup is a marketable skill, and something happens which essentially is a message directly from the Lord telling me to “chill, girl.”

I had one of those epiphanies a few weeks ago. I was visiting the M. Allan Fogelson Regional Branch Library in Voorhees, New Jersey, with fellow Stiletto author Maggie Barbieri. It was a lovely, lovely event, billed as “Tea and Crumpets with Mystery Authors.” The turnout was great (and the refreshments were fantastic!).

I had just started talking about my book and the creative process when a group of 10 teenaged boys joined the audience. While they’re not the standard mystery fans found at these events, they listened respectfully as Maggie and I talked about our work.

Afterwards, one of the boys shyly approached me, encouraged by a man I assumed was the group’s leader. The teen told me he was 14 and liked to write. I asked him to tell me about one of his stories. It was a fantasy tale about a young boy who was locked out of his home for three days. He detailed a series of adventures and dangers, and the surprise twist at the end — the hero wakes up and finds it was all a dream.

Later, privately, the group leader explained that these teens were from a program funded by the Juvenile Justice Commission of New Jersey. They were at risk kids who’d already entered the court system. This program was an alternative to a detention center. A final chance to turn around lives headed for big trouble. And the fantasy tale this boy wrote? Not so much a fantasy. He lived it.

My emotions were all over the place.

I was furious that any child should have to worry about where he will sleep at night. That should be a given.

I was worried about this youngster’s future. On a basic level, would he learn from the program, get an education, pursue his dream? Or would he ditch this chance and end up back in the courts? Would he be locked out of a future?

And then there was the reality check. Was this child smart enough, strong enough, stubborn enough to pursue a life as a writer? For all the thrills and satisfaction that writing brings me, I also know how frustrating and disappointing this career can be when the mail brings another rejection letter. The odds of a high school basketball player making it to the pros are .03 percent. I’d bet that those are the same odds for a high school kid making it as a professional writer.

I don’t know what I can do to help that child – and the millions of others like him. Writing – his and mine – can be one answer. For him, it can be a way of channeling his emotions and using words, not violence, to handle the frustrations of his life. For me, writing can be a way of exposing the underbelly of life, with all its glory and despair.

I always end my library talks with the explanation that I write mysteries because I want the good guys to win. How I hope that there can be the same neat, clean resolution for the real-life story I heard in Voorhees.

Evelyn David

Where Have All the Bad Guys Gone?

Guest Author Sheila Curran joins us today.

Back in the day, I wrote a murder mystery. As in – back in the day – before I was published. Looking back, I realize the problem. I am a terrific wimp when it comes to violence, since I will absorb all information about such things and imagine them happening to me. As my dear friend Julianna Baggott said to her children when they wanted to watch a scary movie with her, “I get scared playing CLUE.”

Me too, which is why I don’t think I could bear to do the research involved in creating a convincing murder-mystery. It’s the way I am. There’s a deep niche in my brain that collects danger, disaster, death and destruction, and a long slippery chute by which all things happy drop through a trap door, never to be seen again.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this character flaw, I have to say that the most common complaint/compliment I hear from readers is this inability to murder those who deserve it. I speak of the many letters I’ve gotten having to do with a particular character in my first novel, DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN. Readers are vociferous, they are unequivocal, and many of them are after blood, or at least justice. You see, my protagonist, Diana, is married to an overbearing, some might even say vile man. As my most recent email, from an eminent, internationally known scholar of comparative religions, proclaimed “And as for Ted–what a shmuck! A really memorable literary asshole!”

One of my first letters came from a federal prosecutor in Arizona who was deeply disappointed by my ending, only because he felt that Ted had gotten off far too easily. (Of course, I reminded him that this is what sequels are for.) Sweet little old ladies with names like Eustice and Bertha write to ask why I would have neglected the opportunity to ‘cut off the man’s balls and hang him up to dry.’

Certain reviewers and friends alike have quibbled that surely there did not really exist in nature a villain as bastardly as Ted, while others still have congratulated me for finally ‘outing’ what they see as a fairly pernicious trend among certain people who manage to be both successful at their subject area but complete failures when it comes to those things for which their careers don’t give awards, say kindness, generosity, a propensity to ask others (including their wives and children) about themselves, that sort of thing.

Now, on the other hand, I have many many professor friends who are the opposite of this. I’m married to one, my very best boy friend, who is, at this very moment mixing me a martini and cooking dinner. I hang out with the good ones, and there are many. However, I must report, gentle readers, that there does exist, both in nature and way more frequently in culture, such a creature as Ted.

If you clicked on the links above, you may have noticed my vile husband contest. First, I apologize that the deadline of December 31st, 2005 has come and gone, but the truth is that 1.) I didn’t get a single entry and 2.) I don’t have the technical wherewithal to change the date or details of the contest without falling into the rabbit hole known as the learning curve of internet protocols.
Poor web management aside, I’m flummoxed. Is there not a single woman who can tell me a story I might share with others? (Believe me, I will change his name and yours too.) I myself have seen real, live, vile husbands on other women’s arms and wondered how in the world they managed to STAY MARRIED. In fact, it was curiosity about that general question, the witnessing of some seriously difficult husbands and just the slightest bit of imaginative fairy-wand-waving that made me write the book in the first place. (The fairy-wand thing came from my niece, Tasha, who, when she was in second grade would wave her hand through the air at people she didn’t love a whole lot and say, with a flourish and a pointed finger “POOF, you’re gone!”)

So that’s the sort of mystery I’m bent on solving. Where have all the vile husbands gone? Has some group of geriatric vigilantes come along and hung them out to dry, their most precious valuables removed for safekeeping? Or have I set the bar too high, asking for a completely vile person when no one is exactly such. Even Ted had his strengths, which will, if I ever publish the sequel, be tested. The poor man will already suffer at least a short exile to Wales, sans alcohol and professional status, plus shallow in-laws, wandering wife, and a baby-on-board.. Until then, I leave it to my hosts, women with gumption, gumshoes and at least a little glitter, to bravely go where few before them have gone, into the Ass-Hat-Sphere, magnifying glasses in hand, to seek revenge, or even revelation, of the crimes no one, or at least no one in my cyber-circle, is willing to commit. (At least to memory.)

Sheila Curran