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25 posts from March 2006

March 31, 2006

Looking for Love in All the Wrong URLs

Looking for Love in All the Wrong URLs

By Anonymous Guest Blogger (aka, A Well-Shod Tartlett Who Shall Remain Nameless Because There Is Such A Thing As Google)

My life has been good lately. I’ve got a job I enjoy, with co-workers I can not only stand to be around but actually like. I have a nice home, a loving family, more shoes than any sane person needs and good friends who are almost as crazy as I am...and none of the really bad singers made it to the last round of American Idol. Even my writing has been going well.  All in all I am as happy as I have ever been.

Clearly, it was time to screw this up.

I had been thinking about trying the online dating thing for a while. Some of my friends had great luck with it, including one couple who are getting married this summer.

“You should try it,” they told me. “It’s easy! It’s fun! It’s eternal love and happiness for $24.95 a month!”


I signed up for one of the recommended services last week--we’ll call it d-Larmony. This particular site requires its users to complete a long personality test with questions like, “On a scale of 1-7, rate how much you agree with the following statement: ‘When I am in a relationship, I like to have total control of my partner’s actions, thoughts and personal hygiene choices.'” Then their magic voodoo program uses your answers to either plumb the depths of your very soul or slap together a bunch of generalizations, depending on your perspective, reaches into the database, pulls up other people who answered the same questions (opposite sex only--the fine folks at d-Larmony don’t swing that way) and says, basically, that you should marry one or possibly all of them.

You are expected to contact these people and so I, being the modern, liberated woman that I am, don’t. I wait for them to contact me because I know, from a hard lesson learned over time and culminating in me taking a teddy bear as my date to the prom, that even modern, liberated guys really aren’t into that kind of thing.

So I wait. And wait. And a couple of them make contact (I’ll get to that in a minute), but most of them don’t, presenting me with an entire list of people who took one look at my picture and said, “nah."

I have not been taking this very well.

My self-image, which had recently stabilized at "pretty okay," plummeted. Convinced it was my weight that was the problem, I contracted a forty-eight hour case of anorexia, which ended abruptly when I discovered I had some of those lemon cookies from Trader Joe’s. I switched my photographs on a regular basis, each time sure that the one previously posted made me look like the dowdiest person in the history of dowdiness. After three days of nonstop self-torture I realized that I needed moral support, so I sent an email to my friend Mary.

"Tell me I’m not ugly," I begged. "Lie if you have to." She very kindly obliged, pointing out that not only am I cute, I also have a nice rack (although I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t say I’m not fat).

Of course, I immediately rejected the idea that the lack of interest was because of my height, my job or the fact that I listed as the "things I can’t live without," air, water, Tivo and food, in that order. Because even if those things might have been factors, I knew in my heart that if I was a stone-cold hottie none of them would matter.

Making it even worse was the fact that these guys were not exactly the stuff young girls’ dreams are made of. I’ll admit, before I started this deeply misguided quest I entertained some optimistic fantasies about my future e-boyfriend. I’m not asking for much--we’re not talking a young Pierce Brosnan here--just some sweet-faced boy who could give my sadly underused hormones a workout. Okay, and maybe he could be tall and somewhat athletic without being completely obsessed, and smart but not a know-it-all, and think I was pretty and funny and brilliant. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, yes.  I have seen the harsh light of reality, and it has some really unfortunate facial hair.

And let’s not even get into how many of them list The Da Vinci Code as their favorite book.

(I realize that someone reading the preceding paragraphs might come to the conclusion that I am a shallow hypocrite. To which I say, “Well, yeah. And your point is?” But in my defense I should point out that I have responded to every guy who has contacted me, regardless of height, weight, or knowledge of the difference between "they’re" and "there." However, I did end up closing a match with a guy--who I could tell was looking for someone who was not me--when one of his questions was “What do you find attractive?” and in order to answer honestly I would have had to say “the opposite of you.”)

Of course, there is the possibility, however dim and distant, that I have just gotten off to a rough start. Perhaps in the weeks to come I will encounter attractive and interesting people who are also attracted to and interested in me. And we will hit it off great and maybe even interact in a way that doesn’t involve typing, and I will laugh and shake my head when I think back to all the anxiety I put myself through.

Or perhaps I am about to learn, in excruciating detail, exactly how many jerks and losers there are in the greater Bay Area, and I will spend the rest of my life in a dimly-lit room with a bag over my head, eating celery sticks.

Either way, I’ve got a non-refundable six-month membership, so whatever this is going to be, it isn’t over yet.

March 30, 2006

Great Pick Up Lines

by Nancy

I'm typing this from a Holiday Inn Express where I'm staying in preparation for a signing tonight at Chester County Books and Music, a store I've heard raves about. The hotel, on the other hand, is low rent. Last night in the elevator, an agitated young woman turned to me as soon as the door was closed and blurted out, "A man just asked if I wanted a fuck buddy tonight!"

Naturally, I wanted all the details, but being as I was old enough to be her mother, I made a few soothing, maternal remarks and offered to walk her to her room in case he hadn't taken her "no" seriously enough, but she was so spooked I think she thought I was trying to pick her up, too.

Back in my room, I turned the incident over in my imagination a few thousand times. Maybe because of Sarah's blog about swinging on Tuesday, I found  myself considering what circumstances might tempt me to accept a hotel lobby offer.

Which I'm not going to describe here, so relax.  Some imaginations should not be open books.

Eventually, I started to think about last weekend's hotel, which served as headquarters for the Virginia Festival of the Book. There, the best pickup lines weren't, "Do you come here often?" or even the profoundly poetic, "Do you want a fuck buddy tonight?" 

No, the best pickup lines started with, "I'm writing a book about . . . " because writers practice their pitches with each other at conventions like the VA Festival.

And there--as with the fuck buddy question---I began to consider under what circumstances I'd accept a pitch if I were an agent looking for books to represent.

Everyone from the raw beginner who has only written 25 pages of a manuscript to the seasoned author with nearly 50 books under her belt (ahem!) needs to come up with a quick way of describing what exactly we’re writing about.  Perfecting your pitch never stops. If you’re talking up your 48th book to a crowd of readers at your local bookstore, you still need to find a simple, clear and entertaining way of describing your book in order to sell it. The new writer may find herself pitching to agents and editors.

If I were an agent, my own taste would play the biggest role in my decision-making process.

Mind you, you can go to real sources if you want more useful information than I can give you.  (Like this book about pitching or the wonderful agent Miss Snark, who pulls no punches.) But from my perspective, I found myself listening for a book with a great idea—one that hadn’t been done before, one that promised me a peek into a world I’d never known, one that started with a character I was intrigued by, one with a problem at its core that grabbed me by the throat of my personal sensibililties.

I felt the best pitches start with the genre. Are you writing a sexy romance? A hard-edged suspense novel? Maybe a young adult fantasy?

Next—in my view—comes the world of the book—the geographic setting, yes, but also the environment where the protagonist functions. My mystery series, for instance, takes place in the drawing room, horse stables and charity galas of Philadelphia's aristocratic high society. Other books might take place in the high pressure world of Wall Street traders or among the quirky residents of a Cape Cod village, at a high stakes poker tournament in Vegas or among the close-knit competitors of the professional rodeo circuit. To an editor, the "world" of  book is especially important in genre fiction because it’s a marketing element.  And if you can’t make it interesting in your pitch, maybe it’s time to re-think the world of your novel.

Also included in a good pitch should be the tone of the novel.  Is the book funny? So should the pitch be.  Suspenseful? Ditto. Nowadays the writer’s voice is incredibly important is the marketablility of a manuscript.  A good, distinctive writerly voice can lift an otherwise mediocre story out of the slush pile, so it’s up to the writer to put the voice into the pitch, too. 

The plot? Oh, yeah, that ought to be in the pitch, too.  But sometimes the plot is understood simply when you name your genre.  In a romance we kinda get the point that plenty of the usual romantic thrills are in store if you say: "The fiery daughter of an Irish king is kidnapped by a  Spanish pirate who stages nightly raids on coastal villages." Or work the conflict into your pitch as soon as possible:  "A determined elf, armed with only his wits, sets out to defeat an evil wizard who threatens to destroy the kingdom of Northunderland to find his lost daughter." Or name the protagonist's goal:  "Detective Joe Healy must find a serial killer before more NYU coeds are brutally raped and murdered--including his own niece who is the only young woman who has seen the killer's face." (Notice that the consequences of the protagonist's failure serve to heighten the tension in this last example.)

Some pitches include a list of interesting story elements: “In a post-apocalyptic prison camp, three rebels outwit a vampire guard, tunnel past a nuclear waste dump that threatens to explode and battle their way past an alien shapeshifter to gain freedom and a chance to save the world from certain annihilation."  Or maybe: "Detective Steve Barret outwits a trio of scheming criminals--a steroid-crazed ex-boxer, a wily hooker and one of New York's finest gone bad--to find his way undercover into the world of a ruthless gangster who has killed once and most certainly will again."

In a query letter, a pitch must be succinct.  But in a verbal pitch, a writer can be more conversational. If it’s too stilted, it sounds overly rehearsed or—worse yet—overwritten. I liked the pitches that use casual language--nothing too hifalutin or too esoteric. (No “John fights his inner demons to reach an epiphany about the human condition … “)

Myself, I start with a single sentence (albeit a whopping run-on!) and watch my audience for non-verbal cues.  If someone seems interested, I add a second sentence, maybe a third or fourth as I flesh out the characters just a bit, maybe add some plot details.  (In a mystery, I add some info about the more interesting suspects.)  Then I try to engage my listener in a conversation—a give-and-take about their tastes to see if my work fits. 

The bad news is that when you start pitching your work—or trying to summarize your story in a query letter---some writers belatedly become aware of the book’s shortcomings.  (You haven’t read my earlier sermons about outlining, have  you?)  If your story lacks a crucial element (like a clear conflict, plausible motivation, dire consequences of failure, escalating tension with complications, twists and reversals, a foreshadowed climax, a cohesive theme to unite your story, etc.) the time when you sit down to write your pitch may be the awful moment when you realize you must go back and re-write the whole damn thing.  You’re not alone.  It happens to the best of us.

Anyway, pitching is a big part of the business—both for newcomers and the multi-published author.  Perfecting your sales pitch never ends.  It’s good to practice on friends any chance you get.  But keep in mind an important part of pitching is listening  to your audience.  Be alert to wandering concentration, the puzzled pucker in an agent's brow, a withheld sigh of boredom.  Prepare to tweak your presentation as you learn from the reactions of your audience.

Okay, for what it's worth, here's my pitch.  Which I deliver smiling (even laughing) and with a certain arch tone:

My Blackbird Sisters mysteries are funny, sexy mysteries about three Philadelphia heiresses whose parents have run off with their trust funds, and they have to go out into the real world and get jobs.  (A word I deliver with mock horror.)  Nora Blackbird goes to work as a society columnist for a Philadelphia rag.  She goes to parties for a living--not much different from her life in the Junior League--but she seems to stumble over a lot of dead bodies and ends up solving murders on the Main Line. From an old, respected aristocratic family herself, Nora takes the reader on an insider's tour of Philadelphia's high society, and she investigates the murders with the help—and hindrance—of her two wacky sisters. (If I’ve got time, I slip in a line about each of the sisters, but if the clock is ticking, I cut directly to the love interest)  Unfortunately, Nora finds herself falling in love (or lust) for a dangerous man from the  other side of the tracks—the sexy son of a New Jersey mob boss.

(From this point--if my listener hasn't tuned me out yet--I talk about the victim in whatever book I’m pitching, then mention some of the suspects.  All of those suspects should be amusing and show that I'm not writing about ordinary people like accountants.  I finish by going totally cheesy:)  “The stories are a little bit Murder She Wrote, a little Desperate Housewives and a little bit Sex and the City.”

Sure, it reads disjointedly, but I can deliver it pretty smoothly now, and I pull it out at least once a day for one purpose or another.

Think it would get me picked up in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express?

I’m sure the other Tarts and some of our esteemed writer pals have good advice about pitches, so feel free to comment or ask questions. Me, I’ll be hanging around hotel lobbies for a while…. 

March 29, 2006

Yes, Virginia, there is a Book Festival in Charlottesville....

Yes, Virginia, there is a Book Festival in Charlottesville...and it rocked!

by Susan

Warning:  Reading this lengthy travelogue may cause drowsiness.  Do not operate heavy machinery or drive while perusing.  And note that anything inside quotation marks is my version of the actual dialogue--in other words, the James Frey Memoir Technique.

I had the great pleasure of participating in my second Virginia Festival of the Book last weekend in Charlottesville, and I figured I'd give you the blow-by-blow so you could almost feel like you were there. The lovely Laura Durham was kind enough to play chauffeur, picking up me and Ed at Reagan National on Friday afternoon so we could catch up during the two-hour trip (loved Laura's stories about weddings involving strippers) and making a pit-stop to chow at an Olive Garden so I could fill my belly and dispel any notions that I only eat lettuce.  (As a matter of fact, I do have hollow legs, which is where all the breadsticks, salad and pizza went.)

Upon arrival at the Omni Hotel in C-ville, we ran into David Montgomery, moderator of my Saturday morning panel.  I introduced him to Ed, who, upon being asked what he did for a living, said, "I work in the mail room."  David went, "Huh, and Susan told me you were a software engineer."  Aw, geez, computer dudes are such comedians!  We ended up in the elevator with Karin Slaughter, whom I'd never met but had emailed many moons ago regarding agent stuff, and so I introduced myself while Laura and Ed looked on with amusement.  (And that wasn't nearly as amusing as my elevator trip with two musicians in Nashville who encourged me to sing Def Leppard...so I did.  Maybe why they raced off the elevator at their floor, never to be seen again.)

After freshening up, we strolled the cobbled street behind the Omni lined with shops, restaurants and movie theatres ("Hey," Ed noted, "Larry the Cable Guy is playing!"), ending up at the Gravity Lounge where the mystery authors' cocktail party was in full swing.  And awfully dark.  It reminded me of a CSI episode where the crime scene is examined with tiny Maglites, as no one seems to want to flip the light switch.  Despite the dim, I spotted Ms. Nancy with pal Ramona, and I made Michele Martinez show me her shoes ("Oh, these old things?  They're just strappy little Michael Kors, nothing exciting").  I glimpsed David yakking with Jeffrey Deaver and John Lescroat (whose last name I can't pronounce--can someone spell it out for me phonetically?), was bear-hugged by Marcia Talley, and finally met up with Ron Hogan of Beatrice.com and Galleycat.  Bob and Ellen Byerrum were hangin' with the homeys, too, and we all quickly settled into chat-mode.  Ed was quite interested in the bar's vast selection of beer. I had my heart set on a margarita but had to settle for a lo-cal brew that Ed ended up finishing for me.  We took off as soon as the Gravity Lounge folks cleared away what was left of the hors d'oeurves and did a sound check for the bongo player of the band appearing that night.  Call me psychic, but I had a strong sense they wanted us out of there.

Saturday morning dawned crisp...and frigging cold!  So, of course, I put on a short-sleeved top with my black pants for the 10 a.m. panel.  I figured the conference rooms would be heated to make up for the chilly temps outside.  Heat in a hotel meeting room?  Ha ha, I know, I'm hilarious.  David did a faboo job moderating, "Keeping Up Appearances:  Cozy Mysteries," asking each of us different Vfbpanel questions to spice things up.  I'd been on panels with Laura, Ellen, and Nancy before...but never Emyl Jenkins, antiques appraiser and author of STEALING WITH STYLE.  Emyl's no wallflower, that's for sure!  I need to shore up some good stories for the next time I share a mike with her (if anyone has some side-splitting tales I can borrow, please email them).  We discussed the definition of a cozy (hmm, none of our books have cats, so we agreed it meant little on-the-page violence and only the rare appearance of maggots), Ellen's escapades taking PI lessons, Laura's desire to kill with ice sculptures, and the tiring research I do to keep up with the latest fashions ("sigh, must check out Prada.com...sigh again, must read the latest issues of Harper's Bazaar and Lucky").  Book signings followed and then the Crime Wave Luncheon, where Michael Connelly talked about how mystery authors are like grill-smiths who fry Krispy Kreams.  (I'm still trying to figure out that one.)

Edsuevfb Okay, fast forward past lunch with Ed at The Nook (my favorite greasy-spoon--where else can you get a Veggie Melt, chunky applesauce and sweet potato fries for, like, $4.95?), the stock signing at the Barnes & Noble on Emmet Street, and Ed's and my aborted attempt to go ice skating ("it's rented out to a private party, so come back after seven when I've Zamboni'd").  Caught a bus to the reception at the house of the president of UVA that evening, which David Baldacci was hosting (I did introduce myself to him, chatted a bit about our respective publishers, made the mistake of thinking his wife was hosting with him when it was his sister Sharon...oops).  Schmoozed with Ron Hogan, who took some pics for Suelaura Galleycat (don't ask about the one where Ed stuck his cup o' wine in my face, and I did my infamous bug-eyes and open mouth expression), met some nice folks, petted the outdoor kitty Sebastian, and admired a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, framed on the wall.  (Yes, Tom was snarking on George Washington...again.  Like I haven't heard that a million times before.)

Ed and I went back to the skating rink afterward, donned the ugly blue plastic boots with blades (what happened to renting leather skates?), and whipped around the ice a few hundred times until I got a bloody blister through my thin sock.  Julian Rubenstein showed up about then, loaned me $1.50 for a hot chocolate (okay, so he'll never see that buck-fifty again), and I sat it out while he and Ed skated 'round and 'round, along with loads of kids, a crying Michele Kwan wannabe with a large red "ouch" on her thigh, and a woman in a cat suit who splatted on the ice right in front of me.  As if that wasn't the perfect way to end the weekend, Ed and I went back to The Nook the next morning (dragging Laura) and had their famous pancakes (banana nut for me and chocolate chip for him).  Ahhhhh.  I do hope I get invited back to Charlottesville next year, so I can do it all over again.

Now, WAKE UP, Y'ALL.  It wasn't that boring, was it?

Cheers, Susan

P.S.  Big breaking news!  Def Leppard is touring this summer with Journey!  They'll be in St. Louis in July!  Eeeeeeeee!  Lisa Coutant, you'd better check and see if they're going to Philly, girl!

March 28, 2006

Swinging Blonds

By Sarah

I grew up on a quiet street of "swingers" - a happenstance that has essentially shaped my writing career.

Being eleven, I didn't know what my parents were talking about when they whispered that The Mancusos were "swingers," except that the house the Mancusos rented had the most fantastic rope swing that plunged into a deep, wooded and often chilly crevasse. Great in the hot, sticky Pennsylvania summers.

What I did know was that I had a crush, for lack of a better word, on Mrs. Mancuso and that she had this funny, vibrating thing in a box under her bed which her daughter, Marie, had shown me several times. Marie was my age but not my close friend, partially because the Mancusos were temporary residents. (He, Don with the comb-over, was one of the many ambitious Bethlehem Steel vice president wannabees.) Also because The Mancusos, for all their illicit swinging, were hardcore, uhm, Catholics and Marie went to Catholic school.

This only added to the rope-swinging, vibrating Mancusos' allure. Especially on Sundays when Mrs. Mancuso would sit shotgun in Don's beige convertible wearing a white lace veil over her pile of bleached blond hair. I loved that hair, the veil, her blue eyeshadow, the fact that Mrs. Mancuso wore black stirrup pants and tight boat-necked sweaters. But I thought Don with the comb-over was gross and having recently been introduced to the mystery of sex wondered how she could do that with him and what that veil was all about anyway.

Little did I know that she wasn't only doing that with him, but that he was doing that with her best friend Marla whose husband was doing that with Mrs. Mancuso. And they were all doing it at the same time in the same room. Which might explain the veil.

Mrs. Mancuso fast became my role model. She was right up there with "Aunt" Dee Dee, another Bethlehem Steel wife whom my mother had essentially adopted after all the other Bethlehem Steel wives drove her from the fold following a kind of Sock-It-To-the-Harper-Valley-PTA episode. Aunt Dee Dee could stop traffic, my mother used to say. She, too, had piles of bleached blond hair and a penchant for super-sheer black stockings and blue eyeshadow. Every memory I have of Aunt Dee Dee is of her with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Later, when her throat cancer morphed into bone cancer, Aunt Dee Dee strapped herself into her wheelchair and rolled into her Florida swimming pool. This was a "very courageous move on Dee's part," my mother said at her memorial service.

Both these women - Aunt Dee Dee and Mrs. Mancuso - were a far cry from my "Pepperidge Farm" mother, as Jay Leno calls middle-aged New England women. They did not have shelves and shelves of cookbooks, they did not darn socks or store cans in the basement in case of the Great Depression II. My mother dyed her own hair a sensible (boring!) shade of L'Oreal Ash Blonde and Dark Blonde and wore a navy sweater to church, sans veil. She did not own a pair of stirrup pants and didn't have the legs to pull them off anyway. She read mysteries and did crossword puzzles and eschewed all makeup aside from an abused tube of Desert Rose lipstick.

As much as I pleaded, she would not take her hair color up a lighter shade.

Mrs. Mancuso and Aunt Dee Dee faded from my life, but I missed them. So I wrote Bubbles, who doesn't swing, but who was married (and may remarry) a Don (Dan in the Bubbles books).  Bubbles wears the tight black pants and the high blond hair. The blonder the better.

And as I slip deeper and deeper into middle age, I find myself rebelling against my mother's frugality, her modesty, and, with my hairdresser's urging, have begun highlighting my hair to blinding brilliance. Recently, I tossed out my "mom jeans" and bought several pairs of low-riding flares that look fantastic. Every morning, though I am stuck in an old bedroom writing, writing, writing, I slather on the makeup and plunk in earrings. I line my lips and do my eyes.

I am ready to swing. How about you?


March 27, 2006

Got Pot?

By Harley

There’s a guy stationed at the bottom of the hill near my house, at the intersection of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a place where people often stand with homemade “Will work for food” signs, but this guy’s sign says, “Got Pot? Will work for buds.”

I relate.

It’s not that I don’t work for food, especially chocolate—back in my NYU student days, there were nights when what got me to my waitressing job was the free meal that came with the shift. Other times, though, when down to my last five bucks, I’d opt for pot over chicken pot pie. As it turned out, I did my life’s quota of marijuana in one decade and had to quit cold turkey, but at heart I’m still a stoner, and somewhere in a parallel universe, I’m sharing a joint with that guy on Pacific Coast Highway.

In this universe, there are other things I’d put in extra hours for. Work a double shift for. For instance: 

1. An Over-the-Counter Diet Pill That Works. I’ll be sleeping on the steps of Rite-Aid the night before this product hits the shelves. I know they’re working on it, because that’s the kind of news I follow in the L.A. Times, but what the heck is taking so long? Hard to believe we can clone sheep but haven’t yet developed a non-prescription formula to get my mind off what’s going on in the refrigerator.
2. A delete button for that voice that yells, “loser! You’re a loser!” when faced with a particular bete noir—karaoke, public speaking, walking in late across a crowded room. Mine is dancing. Not square dancing or tap dancing or ballroom dancing, but the kind of free-form, sexy, Born to be Wild dancing that one faces at weddings and company Christmas parties. I hit the dance floor and go from rational person to traumatized 14-year old in eleven seconds, convinced everyone’s staring at me.
3. A fade-to-black button for those terrifying images brought on by the late night horror movie you were unwise enough to watch alone. For me, it’s THE SHINING with Jack Nicholson. Those German twin girls standing at the end of the hallway, in their little dresses. The word “Redrum.”
4. Related to number one: a camera that subtracts ten pounds. You always hear about the camera adding ten pounds, but why? Given technology that can put cameras in cell phones, on Mars, and into your brain, how hard can it be to reverse that?
5. A shoe in size ten and a half. And not some orthopedic specialty catalogue Big & Tall style with rubber heels, thank you. Did you know that most shoes come in half sizes, until they reach ten, at which point they jump to eleven? No, because you have normal-sized feet. Do I have to form a support group and hire a lobbyist to get this handled?
6. An equalizer machine. The one that makes me as relaxed and in possession of all my faculties when suddenly face-to-face with some public figure or literary icon as I am when hanging out with my dogs.
7. A Life’s Too Short antibiotic, something that can zap those obsessive-compulsive thoughts of “why did I say that, what did she mean by that, why doesn’t he like me/my books/my kids, are my kids okay, what made me think I look good in these jeans, how could I possibly f--- that up so badly, what will we do when all the landfills are filled, what if the recurring headache is actually a brain tumor, and the old stand-by: what if my work-in-progress sucks?

Meanwhile . . .
Happy Monday!

March 24, 2006

Multitasking by Laura Durham


by Laura Durham, guest blogger, wedding planner extraordinaire, and author of FOR BETTER OR HEARSE

It sure helps to have an epidural when you’re multitasking. After planning weddings for ten years, I considered myself a champion multitasker. I could juggle bridezillas, Monsters-in-Law and neurotic bridesmaids with one hand tied behind my back. Then I became a mother and learned the real meaning of multitasking.

I had my pregnancy planned out like any proper event planner would-- I made a prioritized “to do” list. I took care of the major things like buying car seats and cribs (and selecting the perfect, slimming outfit to wear home from the hospital) early on but since I was on a book tour up until month eight, I planned to get the last-minute details taken care of at the end. I’d heard that most first babies were late, so I figured I’d even have a few extra days.  My plan was watertight. Until my water broke ten days early.


I was only halfway through reviewing the copyedited pages of For Better Or Hearse, the wallpaper border we’d gotten to cover the hideous one already hanging in the nursery hadn’t been put up, and the car seat wasn’t installed. I dismissed the thought of trying to hang the wallpaper border before waking up my husband at 3 a.m., but I did slip the manuscript in my hospital bag as we dashed out the door (despite my husband giving me a “you’ve got to be kidding” look).

I got the same look from the nurses while I edited through my labor. I must admit that by the end I would have agreed with almost any suggestion the copyeditor made short of making my protagonist a transsexual. My saint of a husband must have been inspired by my lunacy because he installed the car seat and hung the wallpaper border before we brought the baby home.  Apparently, hanging wallpaper solo is not an easy task but I was too delirious from lack of sleep to notice that the job was a bit slapdash. It took me weeks to realize that some of the butterflies are cut in half and patched over and some have one yellow wing and one blue one. But since I’ve had a baby, my housekeeping standards have dropped dramatically so it looks just fine to me.

When I realized that I would never again have hours of uninterrupted time to write, I began writing book three with the baby strapped to me in a front carrier (yes, typing is tricky) or during the two hour morning nap. I became the fastest and most focused person imaginable during that two hour block. And my chapters became shorter.  Just when I felt like I’d gotten the hang of juggling the baby’s schedule with my writing deadlines, she stopped napping for two hours at a time. It seems that she now prefers thirty minute cat naps and not too many of them. I’m seriously considering a career writing greeting cards.

Laura Durham is the author of the Annabelle Archer wedding planner mysteries Better Off Wed and For Better Or Hearse. Better Off Wed was recently nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. It took her two naps to write this blog.

March 23, 2006

A Basic Human Hunger

by Nancy

It's a basic human need. You want it. Some nights you want it so bad the hunger gnaws deep inside your body.

I'm back from 10 days on the road--the first leg of a 2-month promotional marathon--living out of a suitcase, eating crackers for dinner, sleeping in hotels--and I got home late one afternoon thinking of just one thing. Forget unpacking.  I threw my suitcase onto the bedroom floor, tore off my clothes, took a hot shower and got ready for it.

You know what I'm talking about.

Home cooked food.  Go to fullsize image

Because I've been away, my husband and I were flooded with invitations over the weekend. And I threw a quasi dinner party, too. (On St. Patrick's day, we ate while watching March Madness with the girls and their significant others. Yes YMWINMBF is officially Sarah's Boyfriend.)

Saturday night, my college roommate invited us for pork barbecue and a tour of their new home. (Heads up, Architectural Digest!) Because she's an exec for a corporation that makes catsup--among 57 other products--we were treated to one of the famous recipes from the famous test kitchen. Pork barbecue made with catsup and root beer.  Scream if you like, but it was the best barbecue I've ever eaten, honest, and I've had a lot. We played billiards and talked about what my roomie plans to do in her second career now that she's retiring from the catsup company. The food and the beer reminded us of our college years together, but on a bigger budget.

On Sunday evening, another couple we met just a few years ago invited us for delicious salmon with a shallot and white wine reduction--Barbara's a Gourmet magazine reader and clearly enjoys entertaining. We talked about real estate because their house is for sale. With the kids out of the house, they want more leisure time, fewer hours spent fixing leaky gutters.

My daughter's new husband cooks, too! (I think this is a phenomenon among younger men.) Gordon got his start by watching The Food Network in his fraternity house where Iron Chef was Must See TV. Now Gordon can whip up eggs Benedict on a Sunday morning with no fuss. His mother and her husband were visiting, and we had a wild conversation about--well, you name it, because Rita is smart and funny and peripatetic.  Rita never cooks. Never did.  So my son-in-law ate in restaurants every night growing up. Maybe that's why he wanted to learn his way around a Cuisinart in his own home?

Food has figured large in my marriage, too.  Sharing popcorn in a dark movie theater morphed into cold ice cream in a hot bed and finally pancakes for breakfast on Sundays. One Christmas my husband received a gift ham from a customer. A whole ham, by the way, is a hell of a lot bigger than you think. We wrestled it to the kitchen counter and tried to cut it up into freezer-friendly pieces using a hack saw. I can still hear the grinding rasp of steel on bone. For an hour, slathered in pig grease, we panted and cussed and laughed and finally wrapped up the pieces, and because my children read this blog I won't describe what we did next.

On our honeymoon, Jeff and I spread a picnic table with newspaper and ate crabs with the Atlantic breeze stinging our faces and warm butter dripping off our elbows.  Do you dare to eat a peach?

The most memorable meal I ever ate was the plate of roasted chicken and mashed potatoes I was served in the hospital after delivering my first child. I was so hungry, so tired, so euphoric that anything might have tasted good. But with the lights turned low, my husband perched on the bed beside me holding our astonishingly alert new daughter, that chicken was the best food I'd ever consumed.

My aunt, a diabetic, likes to play the game What Would You Eat If You Knew It Would Be Your Last Meal. Her choices include plenty of gooey desserts.

As a kid, I remember my grandfather painstakingly cleaning out aluminum paint cans so he could carry them up into the hills to pick blackberries. He came back one afternoon with the trunk of his Chevrolet full of cans so brimming with berries that my mother and her mother spent days making blackberry jelly.  And pies. Those pies were so luscious that my brother Jock--who did not speak until the age of 3--finally blurted out his first word in a moment of overwhelming joy.  He leaped up and seized my grandmother around her leg, crying, "Pie!"

As a young homemaker, I was obsessed with roasting the perfect chicken.  One day I put one into the oven and ran out on some errands.  Janet, who cleaned my house for years, pulled it out when the timer went off and left it on the stove to cool.  And to grow bacteria. I ate some of that chicken and developed food poisoning so appalling that I lost 17 pounds in 2 weeks. I haven't roasted a chicken since.

Food in books?  Patrick O'Brian wrote so deliciously about Jack Aubrey's nightly toasted cheese, that I set out to learn assorted ways to make it myself. Peter Mayle's meals in Provence, Frances Mayes in Tuscany, Calvin Trillin's rhapsodic descriptions of Kansas City barbecue--they seduced me. Anthony Bourdain's KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL sits in a place of honor on my bookshelves because he melds sex and food and wicked humor into one sensual experience.

Yesterday I finished reading JULIE AND JULIA--a very winning book about a young woman at a crossroads who took it into her head to spend a year making every single recipe in Julia Child's MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. Her journey of self-discovery is intertwined with her frustration with aspic and her epiphany de-boning a duck. Read the book.  You'll understand what a triumph that duck was.

Good writers employ all five senses. I want to smell the food, taste the sweetness, lick the crunchy salt from my own lips. And to understand what it all means for the characters. When Robert Parker's Spenser baked biscuits for Susan, the act was so laden with love that I put down the book and made a pan of biscuits for my husband.  (Count me in the camp who dislikes Susan Silverman. Her controlling, nitpicky eating habits cancel out the great sex. Which means, perhaps, Parker is even better than we think.) I use food in my books, too.  (See page 119 of HAVE YOUR CAKE.)

There's something about food that's spiritual. Comfort food eases our anxieties, even in fiction. Just like real people, characters bond with friends and family over good food and bad. Come to conclusions, make decisions.  Learn to understand each other. Accept our differences and move on. Giving meaning.

As you read this, I'll be on my way to the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. Last year, 23,000 people attended. I'll see old friends and meet new ones. My dear friend Ramona will be there--she of the magnificent gumbo and ettouffe and who taught me about roux. I'm looking forward to seeing her.  If you're going too, look me up.

March 22, 2006

Much Ado About Nothing (Really)

Much Ado About Nothing (Really)

by Susan

I can’t seem to think of any one subject to blog about this week, so I figured I’d spit out a host of things on my mind.

Like the snowstorm that hit after the first day of spring, when I was about to clean out the closets and shift my winter stuff somewhere less accessible so the warm weather clothes could have the primo spots.  I wonder if this is just another example of Mother Nature shaking her finger at us, saying, “You might be able to control your room temperature, but you can’t control me.”  I won’t even get into global warming and how it terrifies me.

Got my hair “trimmed” yesterday.  I told Chad “take off an inch all around,” and then I watched 2” to 3” pieces fall to the floor.  When I pointed this out, he picked up a two-incher and said, “This is an inch,” and I wondered, in what world?  Last time, when I asked him to take an inch off, he barely cut a smidge. I guess this inch thing is variable in the realm of hair-styling.  I’m not sure how to remedy this, short of cutting my own hair (almost as scary a thought as global warming).

It took three days to get my tax prep done—all those danged receipts that I toss into various folders and don’t pretend to organize chronologically or otherwise until a month before April 15—and I dumped my itemized report off with my CPA last week.  I know he thinks I’m about as nit-picky as they come but surely he has to be grateful for that when he’s sorting out all the numbers.  Afterward, I treated myself to Charlaine Harris’s GRAVE SIGHTS, and I finished off SECRET DEAD MEN by Duane Swierczynski.  I’ve got Michael Connelly’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER next up on my TBR pile and loads of books in the wings that I wanted to read all winter but didn’t quite get to.  Does anyone else feel like heaven would be a comfy place to curl up while you read without interruption for a month straight? 

I’m having massive cravings for salty things and nearly consumed a big bag of whole wheat pretzel twists last night.  I used to die for chocolate, and now I’m fixated on tomato basil chips, wheat crackers, and, yeah, pretzels.  Does that mean something in the scheme of things?  Or am I just bound and determined to consume food that makes me retain water?

I’m helping with a fundraiser, having agreed to be a “celebrity bartender” at the Central Library for a cocktail party on June 1 (don’t worry, they’ll have real bartenders making the drinks, otherwise everyone would have to make do with margaritas).  I’ve been recruiting other local mystery authors, and it’s been such a joy exchanging emails with these folks, some of them friends and others friendly acquaintances.  It reminds me how many truly nice people there are in the business, and how ready they are to pitch in when you ask them.  And enticing them with free alcohol doesn’t hurt.

Do you think Bill Gates uses Windows on his personal computers?  If the damned thing isn’t working, does he call himself and ball himself out?  Just curious.

Can you overdose on cereal?  I love Maple & Brown Sugar Mini Wheats, Cinnamon Harvest, and Honey Bunches of Oats.  But I’ve noticed lately that, for the $4 price tag (on average), you sure get a lot less inside the box.  Do they think that we’re fooled by the big box with the smaller bag inside?  Can we stage a cereal protest and make them put more back in?  Does anyone care?

My sister just came back from Turks & Caicos and is brown as a berry, as they say (though what kind of berries are brown, might I ask?).  I guess I should be glad she spent the 10 days of her vacation working on her St. Tropez tan rather than inciting a revolution; but I’m wondering if her behavior is a sign that all the noise about skin cancers in the past twenty years or so hasn’t penetrated most people’s brains.  Or am I just jealous because I’m, like, the whitest white person on the planet (if you discount albinos) and wish I had enough melanin to even vaguely resemble a weak cup of tea.  Who else dreads shorts weather? 

I’m heading off on Friday to the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA, with My Dude in tow.  I’m on a panel with Ms. Nancy, as well as buddies Laura Durham and Ellen Byerrum, moderated by David Montgomery on Saturday morning at 10 a.m.  Michael Connelly is the Crime Wave Luncheon speaker…can’t wait to hear his presentation, as Michael isn’t exactly the talkative type. Michele Martinez will be there, too, and I’ll likely be drooling over her Manolos.  (If Harley were coming, I'd ask her to swipe them for me…rats, Harley, where are you when I need you?)



P.S.  After a month of guest-blogging at the Literary Chicks, my final bit is up today!

March 21, 2006

My Noble Career as an Amateur Anthropologist.

By Sarah

I am, by nature and profession, a Peeping Tom. (Or is that Tomasina?)

I love looking in the golden windows of my neighbors at night. Which makes sense as it would be pretty odd, me going up to the windows of my neighbors during the day. Plus, it's really hard to see inside then. Not that I've tried, er, hardly.

Nor do I actually walk up and peek. My preferred method is a slow drive by. Or a stroll on a summer's evening. Because then you can catch the human subjects in action - watching TV, setting the table for dinner, lingering over wine - all of which are far more interesting than glimpsing into an empty house and being left with nothing to do except admire the owners' choice of Ralph Lauren Home Design.

My urge to peep stems not so much from the naughty desire to happen upon someone naked- though I have seen that and it was startling! - but, as an Amateur Anthropologist, from a need to learn how others live. (Throat clearing here.)

For example, a wealthy doctor I know recently reconverted a house downtown and added an indoor swimming pool. My dream! But after the house was finished and I did my drive by, I was more impressed by his maroon-colored mudroom and the number of hooks for coats, cubicles for shoes, etc. This was organization! The very kind missing from my life. No wonder he was so successful.

Or the artist who lives at the corner and who does really cool things with tiny white lights. Her house is filled with tiny white lights strung across her mantlepiece, wrapped around plants, lining window frames. Give me a string of tiny white lights and I get tangled. Maybe that's another reason I'm a Peeping Tom - because I have absolutely no interior decorating skills whatsoever. My standard line is that I reserve my creative talent for writing. Like anybody's buying that.

Then there's the perfect mother of four, now five, kids who are immersed in after-school programs and are beautifully behaved, who come to school with bows in their hair and neatly pressed collars. That's the house with three TVs on, simultaneously. Constantly.

This is a bad habit of mine, I know. But, as Kathy Sweeney of page 119 in Have Your Cake and Kill Him Too, would say - "Add it to the list." And I have no justification except that - as I've said - I am an "Amateur Anthropologist." This is a title that covers many of my numerous sins. You can borrow it if you want.

Being an Amateur Anthropologist has lots of perks. Like being allowed to study Mormon-ish polygamy, which we discussed last week, or my wasting of numerous hours decoding the real estate ads in the New York Times. As an Amateur Anthropologist, I need to know how anyone justifies paying a half a million dollars for a matchbox studio with two windows, even if it is in The Village. Or the Tribeca loft with no windows, aside from a couple of skylights, that's on the market for $1.5 million. I mean, how do these people pay that kind of money for space that doesn't even have a washer/dryer?

I'd like to say that all of this peeping comes in handy writing books. It doesn't. It serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever, except that if someone tells me they live in a two-bedroom apartment with a view of Central Park, I'll know that they forked over $2 million and have to pay $1.400 in maintenance for that address. Or if, on a whim, I get out the bongos and dance naked around the house to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, I'll remember to draw the curtains.

But what I've really learned is that if you enjoy sitting around in your bathrobe, drinking a beer and doing the crossword puzzle, then it's best to avoid decorating with the Ralph Lauren Modern Duke collection of "rich tartans and paisley, layered with exotic zebra and crocodile." Much better to stick with the Rue Madame.



March 20, 2006

How I Ended Up Writing The Blog

How I, Writers Conference Newbie, Ended Up Writing The Blog
by Nancie Hays

Friday night among the San Diego Romance Writers of America, Harley mentioned she had no idea what to blog about this week.

I say, “Oh, I’m sure I can give you some help.”

And she hears, “I’ll write it for you.”

“I’d love for you to write it for me!” she says. My mind races in adrenaline overload. Topic-I got nothing. Time-practically nonexistent. Computer-left that at home. If Harley is forced to decipher my handwriting, her brain will implode and ooze out of her ears. So she loans me her laptop, successfully averting death by guest blogger.

The Spring into Romance Conference has been interesting and extremely fun. In a sea of writers who are Published, Just Signed, or Aspiring to Become Published and Seeking Appointments with Agents and Editors, I fall into category D, None of The Above. I start out on Friday with Harley’s workshop, “SEX AND DEATH: What Makes Mysteries So Romantic?” Did I mention the theme song from SWAT blaring on my cell phone as she sets up her visual aids? This is not the way I planned to introduce myself, but it’s better than tripping over the metal runner in the doorway and crashing into chairs in the entrance style I’ve perfected over the years.

Saturday, I won a dinner with Catherine Coulter, which was a surprise, since I hadn’t entered the raffle. Dinner was a blast, but as I was to rendezvous with Harley at 9 PM, I graciously excused myself after the entree.

“Where are you going?” Catherine demanded, and then insisted I bring Harley back to join us.

I nodded, knowing if I failed in this mission, I was in big trouble. Catherine has an assistant, Karen, who is instructed to smack you on command, something Catherine will do herself if she’s within smacking distance.

Thankfully, I had observed Harley’s ability to locate chocolate within a hundred-yard radius, and was able to lure her with the promise of mousse cake. Had I resorted to physical violence, she would’ve pulled some of her Krav Maga moves, and then Catherine would’ve been smacking us both. These Romance people are a violent bunch.

I met many wonderful authors in addition to Catherine Coulter, like Jennifer Crusie, and Bob Mayer, and I attended a number of workshops. In the workshops, opinions varied about what you should and shouldn’t do as a writer. I think Jennifer Crusie said it best: “There are many roads to Oz, and this is only one of them.” You find the style, tone, and rhythm that works for you, and don’t allow others to influence how you write by declaring your strategy wrong.

The highlight of the conference for me, was of course meeting Harley for the first time. Thanks Harley, for making this a great experience, and allowing me to tag along these past few days.

(Harley did manage to keep her veneer intact for the duration of the conference, so the vampire tooth was never put to use.)

Harley’s Note: Having done two workshops and a panel this weekend, I’m ready to try my hand at starting a cult. Imagine—one little whine about having no time to blog and there’s Nancie to the rescue. Thanks, Nancie. On another note, Catherine Coulter has the best legs in the business. Also, I’ve heard some great keynote speeches, but never one delivered in a better pair of shoes—little red ones with black bows. I wanted to rush the stage and steal them. For Susan McBride. They’d never fit me, with feet the size of canoes.

Lastly, I don’t believe that Nancie lacks authorial aspirations. I’m thinking a new genre: Gun Romance. And for any of you with unpublished manuscripts dying to be read, check out the Orange Rose Contest at www.occrwa.com My friend Jennifer Crooks is organizing it and it could just be your big break.

Happy Monday!