Of All Things Super and Fat

I was going to write about teachers, and I promise I will, but since it’s the day after Super Tuesday, two days after the Super Bowl, and it’s Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday—the superest of quasi-religious celebrations—as I write this, I need to address all of these topics. Today we’ll be talking about things that are either Super or Fat. Or both.

Let’s start with Super Tuesday. I was lucky enough (or was at the top of the alphabet enough) to partake in one of those surveys from a local college about the primary. Now’s a good time to disclose that I’m not a poller, a pollist, or a pollizer, whatever the term is. I’m polarizing and want to learn to pole dance but know nothing about polls. I can answer questions (or thought I could until I partook in this poll) but I could never write a substantive or informative poll question. So, I feel a little guilty talking about polls in a mildly disparaging way, but let me detail the kinds of questions I was asked. Then you can decide for yourself. After we got through my age (somewhere between seventeen and a hundred and fifty), my race (let’s just say that I’m somewhere between the color of alabaster and whale blubber), my income (hey, I’m a writer—take a guess!), and number of children (of the ones who will claim me as mother, just one, although I’ve borne two), we were ready to go with the real questions. Which were harder to answer than I would have imagined.

First question. “Did Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama make you more likely or less likely to vote for him?”

And already I was stumped. Love Caroline Kennedy but I hadn’t given the whole thing much thought.

“Well,” I stammered. “It really doesn’t make a difference.”

Now she was stumped. “You have to answer the question.”

“More likely?” I guessed.

She let out a sigh of relief. “Great. Next question. Did Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama make you more likely or less likely to vote for him?”

I could see where this was going but all I could think of was that I had looked in the mirror that very morning and thought that my hair was starting to look like Ted Kennedy’s. The question should have been “Did seeing Ted Kennedy endorse Barack Obama make you more likely or less likely to call Carla, the hairdresser, to set up a hair appointment?” But I decided to play it straight with her on the whole endorsement question. “Less likely?” But may I mention that my head looks more fat than super right now? No, you may not.

More relief on the pollster’s part. The questions continued in this vein until I admitted that “Project Runway” was just about to start and I needed to go. Because in my world, at this time and in this place, whether or not Romi can pull out a win over Christian is all I need to know. I also need to know if jodhpurs are coming back in style, too, because if so, there’s some work I need to do. And it has nothing to do with sewing and everything to do with liposuction. Because the legs? They are fat.

Onto the Super Bowl. I’m still in a state of shock and awe. Although I will admit that I don’t have a stomach for contests that are decided by a mere field goal and that I did go to bed with a pillow over my head so I couldn’t hear the outcome. And as a result, missed the David Tyree catch heard round the world that broke open the game and brought the Giants their first Super Bowl win in many, many years.

The moral of this story? Hang tough and watch the game as hard as it is to do it. Otherwise you will miss something super.

And onto our last topic: Mardi Gras. Tonight is our church’s annual celebration of Fat Tuesday, which is basically a pot luck supper in the gymnasium. There are silly hats, free beads, and thankfully, no exposing of one’s bare torso. (Yet. There’s also free wine and beer, so it’s just a matter of time really.) It’s a family affair and I do love me some free beads. But the weather is lousy, I have to run the gauntlet that is voting in this town (what district am I in? I can never remember when confronted with all of those tables and little old ladies eating Dunkin’ Munchkins—hey, which will make you fat even if it is Super Tuesday!), and I haven’t made a proper dinner in weeks. I owe my family at least one decent meal and by golly, Fat Tuesday is the day for it! And let’s face it: dragging the kids to a church function in the middle of the week won’t be an easy task. Even with the promise of free beads.

Oh, and incidentally, I just ordered my first pair of Spanx, from what I gather, great for the stomach fat and super tight. Stay tuned to see if I, like my friend–we’ll call her “M.”–will use the jaws of life to free myself from them in the ladies’ room during a bat mitzvah. I’ll let you know in the coming weeks.

You now have my musings on all things super and fat. Do with them what you will.

Maggie Barbieri

On Writing About a Culture I’m Not Really a Part Of

(Yes, I know that’s terrible grammar, but “On Writing About a Culture of Which I’m Not Really a Part” sounds terribly stilted.)

My heroine, Deputy Tempe Crabtree is an American Indian and I’m not. My closest relationship to native people are my daughter-in-law and a four-year-old great-grandaughter. When I first created Tempe, her native blood wasn’t a big part of life. With each book, she learns more and more about her roots. I’ve learned right along with her.

Tempe belongs to the Yanduchi tribe which is part of the Yokuts. Yanduchi is not a real tribe, though quite similar sounding to one. The Yokut Indians have many off-shoots and were and are located all over the Central Valley of California. The Bear Creek Reservation where many Yanduchi live has a strong resemblance to the Tule River Reservation which is located fairly close to where I live.

In looks, Tempe resembles my daughter-in-law who is part Yaqui, but her personality is her own. I’ve also been very much influenced by two female law enforcement officers I know.

Whenever I’ve put Yokut legends in a novel, the legends are true. Calling the Dead has quite a few that seemed to fit what was going on in the story. A future book, Dispel the Mist, is based on a Tule River Indian legend that isn’t well-known, but oh, so much fun to write about. To find out more about the legend, I was invited to go along with the anthropology class to the Tule River Reservation and visit the Painted Rocks.

Though I have attended Pow Wows and visited with our local Indians as part of my research, much of what I’ve used has come from books, especially when I’m writing about supernatural and spiritual aspects of the culture. I want to be respectful and that’s one of the reasons I always emphasize I’m writing fiction.

The town of Bear Creek is a fictionalized version of the town I live in, though I’ve moved it a thousand feet higher into the mountains. In all the years I’ve lived in my little town, there’s only been one murder and a second in a mountain community several miles above us. Bear Creek isn’t so lucky. The worst that happens on the real reservation are vehicle accidents on the narrow, winding road leading to the reservation and it’s casino.

Fortunately, I’m thrilled to say, the Native Americans who’ve read my books seem to like them.
My latest, Judgment Fire, besides investigating the murder of a battered wife, Tempe participates in a Starlight ceremony that opens her eyes to some buried painful memories of her highschool years.

Writing this series has brought me great pleasure and some faithful fans.

Marilyn http://fiction foryou.com

P.S. I met in person half of Evelyn David this past weekend at Love is Murder. Actually I’d met her before though I didn’t realize it. We all had a great time at LIM.

Does the Dog Die?

The Southern half of Evelyn David thought things had gone pretty well. It was her first library talk after the publication of Murder Off the Books. Good turnout, delicious refreshments, the group had laughed at the jokes and listened with interest to the creative process that goes into writing a murder mystery. She opened up the floor to questions.

“Can you promise me that no dogs or humans are killed in your book?”


Well, it was easy enough to promise the first. We guarantee that no animals were harmed in the creation of this mystery.

But as to the second? No vows could be made.

In fact, as a murder mystery, it seems to me that there is an implicit agreement between readers and the author: somebody will bite the dust. In Murder Off the Books, in fact, somebody kicks the bucket (or has the bucket kicked for them) in the first paragraph.

We decided to ignore the old showbiz warning: Never work with kids and dogs. Whiskey, the adorable and adored Irish wolfhound in our book, weighs 120 pounds, is six feet tall when she stands on her hind legs, and has never met a cheeseburger she didn’t enjoy. She instinctively knows the good guys from the bad guys, offers licks to those she loves, and growls to those who are dangerous. She brings warmth, goodness, and yes, humanity, to a book that explores the origins and effects of evil.

Animals in books serve many purposes – much like they do in our lives. Of course, Whiskey is a plot device. In Murder Off the Books, the hairy beast is a sounding board for our protagonist Mac Sullivan’s inner thoughts. Whiskey is also comic relief, our version of the gravedigger in Hamlet. She provides the audience with a laugh in the midst of murder and mayhem. And unlike the humans who surround her, Whiskey is clearly drawn with no shades of gray. Everybody, but bad guys, likes Whiskey.

But including a dog in the narrative is tricky. You have to appeal to readers without turning them off. I still can’t re-watch Old Yeller because while I understand the dramatic purpose of the dog’s death, I vividly recall the childhood trauma of hearing the rifle shot and understanding what had transpired off-screen. I’m perfectly fine with killing all the villains in whatever gruesome manner an author chooses – but anything with four legs must survive. Thank goodness Trusty in Lady and the Tramp had no more than a broken leg.

I recognize that over-crowded animal shelters and Michael Vick’s off-season “hobby” are clear evidence that, in real life, animals are frequently at risk. And yet, I can’t write fictional stories with that kind of storyline. It’s not that those books can’t be done with taste and care – but my imagination won’t let me travel that road.

Clio, the Irish terrier who shares my office while I write, fulfills many of the same roles that Whiskey does. She’s privy to my musings on how to create fictional havoc; she offers comfort when writer’s block descends; she’s always good for a laugh as she rolls on her back, four legs in the air, and waits for a tummy rub. Maybe that’s the reason why I can’t create stories where animals are harmed? It’s too close to home.

In the meantime, I’ll just re-read The Thin Man. I’ll visit speakeasies, sip martinis with Nick and Nora, and toss a treat to Asta. She’s a schnauzer with a nose for murder. I’d like to introduce her to Whiskey.

Evelyn David

Callie’s Southern Voice

Guest blogger Fran Rizer is the author of A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket. The second Callie Parrish mystery, Hey Diddle, Diddle, the Corpse & the Fiddle will be released by Berkley Prime Crime on March 4, 2008. Her website is www.franrizer.com

Southern literature has been defined as writings about the South, written by authors raised in the South, characterized by importance of family, importance of time and place, and use of southern voice and intellect. I didn’t set out to write the Callie Parrish mysteries to fit this description, but Callie is, in fact, southern. Why?

Write about what you know—I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard, read, and taught those words. They’re why the Callie Parrish mysteries take place in the south. I’ve lived in South Carolina my entire life. The laid-back charm of the land and life are as distinctive and apparent as the southern dialect.

Southerners are gracious—A successful mystery writer recommends that protagonists have “unusual occupations.” Callie was a kindergarten teacher, but she grew tired of five-year-olds who wouldn’t be quiet or lie still for their naps. She solved that problem by becoming a mortuary cosmetologist, a job she loves because her clients are silent, don’t jump around, and don’t have to tee tee every five minutes.

I’m surprised how many of Callie’s fans have worked in funeral homes. Until I set out to learn the business, I didn’t even know that in Funeraleze, Callie’s position is called a cosmetician, not a cosmetologist. I learned through the graciousness of Southerners, who, for the most part, are courteous and helpful, especially those super polite undertakers.
The graciousness of my southern relatives is why my family members didn’t freak out when I went missing at funerals and visitations. They’d be looking for me, and finally someone would tell the others, “I saw her go downstairs (or upstairs or to the back) with the mortician. She’s probably asking questions and climbing around the caskets again.”

The kindnesses of people at the School of Mortuary Science less than a hundred miles from my home and the South Carolina Undertakers Association are also very helpful. Caution to non-southerners: Beware of southern graciousness. Sometimes smiles are masks some southerners wear while they call you “Sweetie” as they knife you in the back.

The “Bless her heart” syndrome grants grace—Authors say they like to write southern because it’s okay to say anything bad about a person, so long it’s followed by “Bless her heart.” Example: “That woman is just an evil, conniving bitch. Bless her heart.” The blessing makes everything okay.

I haven’t used that expression yet because Callie defies the stereotype and has a tendency to “call a spade a flippin’ shovel” without adding “bless her heart.”

Southerners are easy to describe—When Callie says her daddy “looks and acts just like a sixty-something-year-old Larry the Cable Guy,” nothing else is needed.

I love the grits and gravy heritage—Southern greats set wonderful precedents. William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe wrote sentences that ran on over half a page, longer than my paragraphs. Some are about as lengthy as my chapters. (Hyperbole is part of the southern speech pattern.)

They knew about run-on sentences; they simply wrote their stories in the rhythm and flow of the South. I didn’t set out to write “southern.” Callie’s rhythm and flow are her own, and occasionally that means sentence fragments and unusual structures. Being classified as “southern” enables writers to break rules though I can’t say being southern lets me get away with murder. Callie always solves the crime…bless her heart!

The Monster under the Crepe Myrtle

When I was six years old my parents, younger brother, and I lived in a house next door to my grandparents in a neighborhood parked on the edge of a sleepy southern Oklahoma town. My brother and I had the run of both places, probably ten acres or more of hay pasture, vegetable gardens and flowerbeds to get lost in.

I look back on that summer before first grade as one big adventure. I had two friends my same age and gender who lived in houses off the same dusty road. And of course my brother was always three steps behind whether or not I wanted him to be. We played hard from early morning until the evening mosquitoes drove us inside.

Our favorite games were skits – Daniel Boone was popular on television that year. And we knew all the episodes by heart. We reenacted the battles, protected the fort, shared the genuine imitation coonskin cap owned by my brother, and of necessity, expanded the roles of the supporting characters (they got surly otherwise). Yes, I was usually directing the action and handing out lines to my cast. I loved making up stories.

My grandmother was a natural storyteller. I don’t remember if her stories were particularly good or bad, but they certainly held our attention that summer. She’d take us fishing and while we watched the cork bob up and down, she’d tell us real, blood and guts stories. She wasn’t afraid to kill off the main characters, leaving us in tears, or scare the you-know-what out of us with descriptions of creatures she had hiding behind every gnarly bush or plot twist. We took in every nuance of the yarns she told us and begged for more. No fairy tales for us, we wanted adventure and most of all mystery.

She also created and tended massive flowerbeds. Today, for most families, their whole yard isn’t nearly as large as her flowerbeds. Ornamental trees, shrubs, honeysuckle, rose bushes, tiger lilies, massive hydrangeas, she planted them all together and created a true riot of color and smell. Even though we weren’t supposed to, we played hide and seek in those flowerbeds, dodging honey bees, collecting horned toads, and finding the occasional turtle or two.

One hot summer morning I headed for my favorite hiding place – a hollowed out area under a massive crepe myrtle tree near the barbed wire fence separating the back of the flowerbed from the hay pasture. Running full out, bare feet flying, I dove under the heavy blooms and encountered my first real monster.

It was huge. At least three times my size. Bristly hair, stretched leathery skin, flat nose, and the smell … the smell was the worst thing I could have ever imagined. The gates of hell had surely been left open and something evil and vile had escaped. I screamed and scrambled backwards as fast as possible, catching skin and hair on rose thorns and barbed wire.

My location betrayed, my cohorts arrived posthaste and after a collective survey of my ragged condition, and with visible trepidation, they slowly advanced close enough to peer beneath the branches. While they stood with stunned disbelief etched across their faces, I went for help.

Okay – it wasn’t a monster. It was a 200-pound hog that had escaped from the stockyard about a mile away which had died in that dark spot under the crepe myrtle. The hog was so bloated, so badly distorted, that a six year old would never recognize it for anything other than a monster.

My friends and I told and retold that adventure until it barely resembled the original event. I made up whole stories about that hog and why it ended up in my grandmother’s flowerbed. In essence, I created my first murder mystery.

There was a real monster there with us that day, but we wouldn’t know it for several months; childhood leukemia – a death sentence back in 1964. One of my friends never started first grade with us that fall, she was too ill. But I can still see her face when we retold that story– that look of real pleasure as we scared each other over and over.

So you see, I’ve loved mysteries for a long, long time.

Today, I’m on my way to Chicago to attend the Love Is Murder conference. I’m going to be on two panels – “We Killed” and “Cupid’s Call.” Stop by and chat about monsters, mysteries, or even hogs, if you’re in the area.

Evelyn David

Editor, My Editor!

In my other life, I am an editor. Nothing so glamorous as mystery novels, I assure you—I’m a college textbook editor. I help authors craft the “story” of their book—or what will be the overall sales handle—help them lay out the organization, direct them toward what features to include and how to handle them, and give them gentle nudges towards completion of the manuscript along the way. I’m a cheerleader with a laptop and a knowledge of what sells in a particular market, say, like the book I’m working on now, the Introduction to Dinosaurs course. Not so different from what my editor does, with a difference: none of the authors with whom I work whine as much as I do.

On that we can rely, as the song goes.

My third novel, now called “Quick Study,” as opposed to “Book 3,” as it was known for most of last year, was due to my editor on December 31, 2007. As that date approached and I got wrapped up—literally—in the holiday hubbub, the ending of the novel got further and further away from my grasp. I have never missed a deadline. Never. So, I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I wrote when the ham was in the oven on Christmas Eve, mere minutes before my loud, Irish, family descended on us. I wrote after a serious bout of the stomach flu the day after Christmas. (I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t pretty. And the kids get really, really terrified when Mommy makes scary noises.) I wrote while my kids played with their new Wii, and my husband—on holiday break from teaching—lounged downstairs, the most well-deserved session of lounging that you could imagine. (More in a future blog on why I will never be a teacher.) I wrote while the dog stared at me for hours on end as if to say, “Aren’t you done with the dang thing yet?”

It was painful.

At this point, I think it’s relevant to say that I used to be disparaging towards parents who treated pink eye like the bubonic plague. Until I got pink eye and awoke one morning only to find that I couldn’t open my eyes. And I used to scoff at writers who pronounced our profession “hard.” Until I became a writer who had deadlines. And now I have had my comeuppance.

You know what? Writing is hard. But I finished and I hit “send” on New Year’s Eve. Because I MAKE MY DEADLINES, DARN IT!

You’d think I’d be relieved. Yet, with each passing day, dread gnaws at my insides. Because, in my haste to end the novel, the best I could come with was: “And then they all died. THE END.”

That’s not really the end, but it’s pretty darn close.

So, I await my editor’s wise words, her gentle coaching, her therapeutic massaging of what I think are maybe the best 300,000 words of the lot, and not so great 102, 943 words in a four-hundred page manuscript.

And more than once while I wait, I’ll think, “they’re really not paying her enough” something I hope some of my authors say about me as I plow through pages and pages of dissertation on anything from reading skills to paleobiology.

It’s nice to dream, isn’t it?

Maggie Barbieri

A Bit of History

By way of introduction, I am the granny of the group. I’ve been on this planet for a long, long time. I remember listening to President Roosevelt on the radio announcing that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. (Maybe my memory has been enhanced a bit by hearing that announcement so many times afterwards.)

Despite the fact I grew up during World War II, I had an absolutely wonderful childhood. In fact my imagination was enhanced by the war. Because they were sending English children to various places to be safe, I told everyone my little sister was a princess and we were caring for her until the war was over. No one really believed me except my sister, who for years thought she was adopted.

Blackouts (when the whole city of Los Angeles went dark) were great fun. You have no idea how exciting it was to ride in a car with no headlights, no lights on the street or traffic lights. (I’m sure my parents were not as thrilled as I was.) We had an inner room inside our house where we could wait until the air raid was over and a place we could have a small light. We played board games and ate snacks my mom had stashed away in the cupboards.

My secret ambition was to be a spy if and when the enemy took over our city. Who would suspect a kid? My friends and I dug secret tunnels in the empty lots and concocted poisons to take care of the enemy. None of our parents had any idea what we were up to because back in those times, as long as you were home for dinner no one worried.

On a regular basis the air raid warden held meetings at his home and everyone in the neighborhood was expected to attend. The adults learned how to grow victory gardens and do first aid, we kids had a great time playing hide’n go seek and various other games. The refreshments were always great despite the fact sugar was rationed.

I organized 4th of July parades with the kids in the neighborhood, everyone decorating their bikes and wagons.

And to bring it around to writing related matters, I wrote plays for my friends to perform, in middle school (called junior high back then) and I put out my own magazine and authored all the stories and articles.

Now, I’m the author of the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series (Judgment Fire) as well as other books. I’d never thought of my series as being cozy, though since my characters don’t swear, not much blood is spilled on stage, there’s a laugh or two, and yes, the bad guy always gets it in the in, I guess the term cozy fits.

Years ago I wore high heels, now I stick to whatever is comfortable. Despite all this, I’m extremely pleased I was asked to join these talented young women.


Shoes Make the Writer

I promise to circle back to shoes. This is the Stiletto Gang and since we’re women and we’re mystery writers, we were impressed with our little wordplay. I know nothing about stiletto knives, but as a shoe whore I’ve got plenty to say about stiletto heels.

But first, why another blog from a bunch of mystery writers?

Here’s the down and dirty, simple truth. Why not? We’re writers. Blogging is a way of touching base with fellow mystery fans; a way of promoting our books; and it’s what we do. We write (or play free cell).

I’ve been watching a lot of political debates lately and always sympathize with the candidate who has to give the first answer. Sure you get your point out early, but you just know that the other guy (gal) has an extra few minutes to figure out something cleverer to say.

So it was probably not the smartest thing to volunteer to write the first entry for The Stiletto Gang. But then it struck me that the best way to meet the challenge is to quote somebody smarter than me: Carolyn Hart.

At the last Malice Domestic, she explained why she wrote cozy mysteries. “In my books, the good guys always win.”

It was the proverbial light bulb moment. Now I knew why I loved writing mysteries. Mini-control freak that I am, writing who-dunnits gives me the opportunity to create a universe with the outcomes I want. In the world of Mac Sullivan, Rachel Brenner, and Whiskey, the adorable and adored Irish wolfhound, the good guys always prevail.

That doesn’t mean that I want a Pollyanna solving mysteries in her spare time. Sure there are days when I want life to be simple. I want some blessings that aren’t in disguise. But I want to create complex, multi-layered characters who encounter conflict and struggle not with black-and-white issues, but with all the shades of gray that life entails.

My good guys love coconut cream pie, and have the love handles to show for it. My heroines have ex-husbands who cheated on them, and they have footprints on their backs from being doormats. They have pasts that haunt them, futures that worry them, and bills to pay. Me too. The question isn’t whether evil exists in my world. It most certainly does. It’s just that I get to thwart it, one killer at a time.

Now, a tad late in the essay, let me say welcome to The Stiletto Gang blog. We’re four writers, although two of us share a name. Evelyn David has a split personality. I’m Marian, the Northern half, and I live in New York. Rhonda, the Southern half, lives in Oklahoma. Our first mystery is Murder Off the Books (Echelon, 2007). We’re frantically finishing the sequel, Murder Takes the Cake. Check out our web site, http://www.evelyndavid.com/, and discover the intriguing secret of how our book was written.

Tomorrow you’ll meet Marilyn Meredith. Marilyn is the author of the acclaimed Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, as well as the Rocky Bluff P.D. series.

Wednesdays, Maggie Barbieri, author of the Allison Bergeron series (which has taken off like gangbusters), mans the helm.

Thursdays, Rhonda Dossett, the Southern half of Evelyn David, puts pen to paper (make that fingers to keyboard, but you get the drift.)

Fridays, we’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts in a guest blog.

A promise is a promise. Let me circle back to stiletto heels. I’m a writer, so let’s be real. My default writing footwear is bedroom slippers. For dress-up, I wear a pair of black suede Merrell slip-ons. When I win an Edgar, I’ll wear stiletto heels. Promise.

My wish for you all: a world where the men are good looking; the women are brilliant and beautiful; the dogs are loyal and loving … and where the good guys always win.

Evelyn David