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30 posts from November 2011

November 30, 2011

Butch? Or Sundance?

Butch? Or Sundance?

by Nancy Martin

The first movie that made me bawl BUCKETS of tears was not Bambi or Dumbo (because we lived in a small town too small for a movie theater, I didn't see those movies until I was way, way too cool to cry at stories)  but the movie Becket.

Becket stars Peter O'Toole as King Henry II of England and Richard Burton as his (at first) lusty drinking buddy Thomas Becket. These two happy-go-lucky ne'er-do-wells have some fun, romping adventures until Henry gets the idea that he can solve all his kingly problems with the Pope by appointing Thomas as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Things go awry when Thomas decides to give up good times for religion, and the two buddies become sworn enemies until Henry--in a drunken rage---hints that somebody ought to kill the "meddlesome priest," so some henchmen go murder Thomas, and that's the end. 


Yeah, okay, we could talk about all the big religious themes and meaty subject matter of statesmanship wrapped up in this story. To me, though, the story was the tragedy of two buddies--men who share some common qualities and reflect the best (strength?) and worst (ego?) back at each other-- who ended up at odds with each other, and that just broke my pre-teen heart.  I hid from my famiy in the bathroom and wept.

But, in retrospect, this is also the first movie where I became aware of the Kirk vs. Spock conundrum.

Ladies, if you needed a fictional boyfriend, would you choose Captain Kirk, the lusty, chatty, party boy, man of action? Or the cool, cerebral Mr. Spock who undoubtedly hides a complex heart and a prodigious sexual appetite beneath his quiet exterior? 


Let me put it another way. Butch or Sundance?



Mel Gibson or Danny Glover? Turner or Hooch?  How about some more current examples, Nancy?  Well, I must rely on the backbloggers for that. Suggestions?

In romance writing parlance, this question might come down to: Do you prefer thrusters? Or sliders?

Which character deserves love and self-actualization?

Here's a wonderful video by the AV Club that examines some characters who don't deserve love because they're just not fully-fleshed by the writer(s). (Those of you who adore Bridget Jones should brace yourselves) :


As NaNoWriMo winds down, all the writers who've been slugging coffee and banging out pages for a month now face the even greater challenge: The re-write.  How to shape 50,000 frantically typed words into an 80,000 word novel?

The question up for today's discussion is: Too shallow to be loved? Can you develop a thruster into a character with enough depth worthy of the reader's attention? Can you give a slider enough personality to make him remotely interesting beneath the strong and silent routine?  Can you make your reader bawl buckets the way Becket turned me into a quivering mess of emotion, hiding in the bathroom? How do you shape a caricature into a character with complex goals, and complex past, a hole-in-the-heart worthy of reader interest and---oh, yeah---all without resorting to a dump of backstory in the first 50 pages?

Or, if you prefer the pass/fail question: What the hell makes either of these archetypes so damn sexy??



November 29, 2011

The Love/Hate Conundrum

The Love/Hate Condundrum

By Kathy Reschini Sweeney, who knows what she likes

Are there things you want to love, but for various reasons, you just hate? Maybe those reasons have to do with your preferred vocabulary, or your GI system (and no, that is NOT an invitation to talk about it), your sensibilities, allergies, or the fact that you have eyes that register things that cannot be un-seen.  

Here is what I mean, and since everyone is still a bit hungover from the whole Thanksgiving/shopping/decorating thing, I'll break it down to make it easy to follow.

Food.  There are certain foods I want to love - coffee for example.  I love the smell of coffee.  I love the taste of the coffee bean. But I simply do not like regular coffee - it's too bitter and it gives me heartburn.  I prefer mine in Frappuccino form - which is really just liquified and diluted coffee ice cream.  Then there are peas.  They add color and they can look very festive, but I hate them.  I mean, I hate them so much that I am now allergic to them.  Don't tell me there is no body/mind connection. And never,ever, try to sneak in a pea on me.  One pea buried in a casserole, and I will taste it.  I do eat snap peas and I do eat soy beans/edamame.  Go figure.

Music.  I love all kinds of music.  I appreciate poetry and the art of lyrics.  But I hate most rap music. I like the percussion and the beat.  But I cannot abide the N word.  I know George Carlin said there are no 'bad' words, but that one is on a short list (along with a word that begins with C) that will result in me calling out a perfect stranger who uses it in public.  I do like more hip hop than rap (FYI - Hip Hop came first and there is a difference, but we did a TLC survey a couple of years ago and they told me enough with the music blogs, so I'll leave it at that.)

Fabric.  Ever since I joined the Sisterhood of the Eternal Summer, I have been focusing on natural fabrics - cotton, linen, silk.  They breathe.  And I want to like wool.  I really do.  It is beautiful and it's warm and it's natural.  But no matter what they do, it makes me itch like crazy.  Yes, I know they make lovely wool and poly blends, but I have to stay away from the poly because if I have a hot flash, that stuff is combustable.

Comedy.  I love comedy - and I think comedians are some of the smartest, most clever people on earth (my dream day includes an afternoon in the Writers' Room of The Colbert Report) but there are certain types that just make me, well, cringe.  Cringe comedy (you know, the Larry David or Jack Black or Ricky Gervais stuff that just crosses too many lines); raunch comedy (this includes South Park and anything else with scatalogical or genetalia - oriented jokes) and - don't kill me - much of British comedy are not my cup of tea.  Yes, the dead parrot bit and the Monty Python movies have some great laughs, but the dressing in drag, the boob jokes and the snoot factor make it difficult for me to enjoy.  Maybe it was the early (and thankfully, limited) exposure to Benny Hill.  Idiots.  Also - dumb people hurting themselves are not funny.  It's not just these idiots who set themselves up for bodily harm on YouTube either - the 3 Stooges have always been on my last nerve.

Stomachs.  This is a new one.  I think people of all shapes and sizes and colors are beautiful. With restrictions. If you are a baby, or a little kid, or even a teenager, I don't care if you wear a shirt that doesn't quite meet your pants/skirt/shorts/whatever.  Otherwise - and I do not differentiate by body type or weight or anything else - I do not want to see your stomach.  (I hate the word belly - don't know why - I just do, so I use the word stomach even though it is an internal organ. These aren't the MCATs.)  On the flipside, I do not want to see the top of your bum either.  Get a longer shirt or bigger pants or some damn thing because that is just rude and I am calling it out. (Restrictions do not apply to swimming pools or strip clubs, neither of which are high on my list of preferred destinations).

And finally:

People.  Don't tell me I am the only one here, either, because I know many of you better than that! I try to find the best in people - I really do, especially as I get older and more patient (hah! As if.) Unfortunately, there are some people who are just stone jagoffs and that's all there is to it.  Racists, bigots, anti-semites, homophobes, cheats, vocal ignoramoses (see most politicians) - I can't stand them.  My friend Robin and I had a real epiphany about ten years ago - we don't spend time with people who are certified asshats.  I used to tangle with these people - challenge their illogical thinking, or embarass them into shutting up.  Now, I really try to avoid them.  Because these people do not understand reason or fact.  They have no bullshit meter, and still think if someone on TV says it, it must be true.

What about you?  What is it that you really want to love, but cannot.  And I wasn't kidding about the medical stuff - I don't want to hear the details about any substance that leaves your body in any form whatsoever.  That stuff?  No love there.  That's why I treat words and not people.










November 28, 2011


Christmas treeHANK:  Happy Thanksgiving! Oh, wait, that’s over. Hope you had fun…but now—don’t stop dancing!

You know what comes next. You’ve known it from the moment you put away the tree last year. You’ve known it from the moment you say that first display of cards in the drugstore—just after Labor Day, it seems. Holiday creep (we don’t mean holiday creeps, that’s a different blog) is relentless, we know. And we can never figure out why there are now bathing suits at the department stores when there weren’t any in August. But that’s another blog, too.

 So, let us be—well, okay, clearly we're not the first—to welcome in the rest of the holiday season. How ya doin’ so far?

Today, the three H's stand for Ho Ho Ho. (Hush. Like  Santa, we mean.)

>> When do you start thinking about Christmas and Chanukah shopping?

HARLEY: Why are we even discussing this when . . . oh. I see. It's nearly December. When did that happen?

HANK: Like I said.  Holidays come and go so quickly around here. I start thinking about it..well, I never stop thinking about it. Which doesn’t help in any way. It’s like thinking about your novel. It’s all wonderful—but it doesn’t mean any pages get written.

 HEATHER: I think about it way ahead sometimes. But I think that if I buy that perfect gift for someone, I will lose it or give it to them far before Christmas. I have now seen so much hype on "black Friday" that I'm terrified. 

HANK:  TLC'ers..for extra credit..did you shop?

>> When do you actually DO your Christmas and Chanukah shopping?

Christmas presents HARLEY: Whenever I can squeeze it in. With luck, when I'm not actually in the presence of the person for whom I'm shopping. 

 HEATHER:  Christmas shopping . . . hm. I'm looking at the some of the treasures I got the kids last year that are actually still on my back porch. I'm thinking gift certificates! (Or green stuff. That always works.)  If anyone knows my kids, by the way, I would love the new IPad!

 HANK:  Sadly, more and more, I don’t. I mean—I do two kinds of shopping.  On an emergency basis—as in: oh my GOSH I need something for (insert name here) RIGHT NOW!! And then I panic. Or, on the planning extremely ahead basis, which is I buy the PERFECT thing for whoever in like, July. Then I’m very proud of myself. Then I lose the thing. Or forget I ever had it..

 >> What secret thing have you learned about holiday shopping?

 HARLEY: Nothing. That's what I expect from TLC. The secrets to life.

 MenorahHEATHER: Be someone other than me. Be one of those clever and wonderful people who can shop way ahead--and remember where they put the gifts!

HANK: Seriously? No one remembers what you gave them. If you ask me what pick-a-person gave me for Christmas/Chanukah last year, I have NO idea.  And the corollary ,that I have no idea what I gave anyone. I’m sure there are people who got the same thing from me for several years. Shrugging. You can’t have too many silver pens, just saying.

>> Re-gifting. Discuss

 HARLEY :I buy a lot of gift cards and then end up keeping them. Does it count if one is the beneficiary of one's own regifting process?

HANK: Brilliant. I do, too. But then I forget I have them. Or I lose them.  Regifting scares me. I don’t object, morally, I guess, I just fear getting caught.

 HEATHER: I believe in re-gifting. If I've given you a gift that you can't use but it saves you when you suddenly and desperately need a gift--I believe that was a gift! So there!

>> Is your family really good about doing their own shopping? Or do you have to step in?

 HARLEY:  As my family is mostly under the age of 12, and 33% of them are canines, I do it. 

 HANK: My family only shops for themselves.  What can I say. And we’re very good at it.

 HEATHER: I'm not so sure my husband has ever shopped . . . no, that's a lie. He'd gotten the kids movies, cds, and T-shirts. Ah, wait, darn! The two year old and the four year old are not excited about money. I will have to shop. And Nikki and Ozzie and the cats don't actually understand it, either. (Rather than something to chew if it's lying around.) I will have to shop. 

>> Teachers. Agents. Trash guys. Hairdressers. Letter carriers. Presents or not? What?

 HEATHER: I'm horrible with anything that has to go through the mail. If I can hand it to you, you will get it. Okay, so yes, editors and agent. Yes, but thank God! They like E-gift certificates!

HARLEY:  This is my nightmare. Teacher gifts I leave to the Room Moms, who are saints. I will donate any amount of money in order not to have to think about it. Agent, yes. Trash guys, no. Hairdressers, letter carriers, no, and I feel VERY GUILTY about this. I never learned the rules. Are there rules? I do send a lot of cards. Does that count?

 HANK: Every year magazines and newspapers have lists of rules—what you give everyone for presents. And every year—what they says just doesn’t seem right. Agent, yes. Editor, yes. Trash guys-yes. Letter carrier, yes.  Hairdresser, you bet.  Producer, yes. Video editor, yes. I guess I’m just a—yes.   

>> Is there someone in your family who always gets it right?

HARLEY: My children. Whatever they give me is perfect. How can it not be? And--this is so wacky--their dad's girlfriend gives fantastic presents. I even save the wrapping.

HANK: Jonathan. Is perfect.   And my mother, who once gave me pale pink leather gloves. I mean—who’d-a thought? I’ve never worn them, because they’re too pink.  The next year she gave me ultra-thin red suede gloves with a tiny red-suede rose on each wrist. I mean—gorgeous. But as yet, unworn. Too delicate. I might use them as a table decorations…or tree ornaments!

 HEATHER:  My sister's sister-in-law. T. She just gets Christmas right. Cards sent, presents wrapped . . . beautifully. My sister was like that. I'm organizationally challenged. Maybe it was in the genes, and it just skipped me. (Like small feet, you know?)

>> Is there someone in your family who always gets it wrong?

HARLEY: Nope. There are no bad gifts. (But some I do . . . recycle.)

 HEATHER:  I agree--but when kids are all over the place, it's Christmas for me just to have them with me.

 HANK:  Oh, you two are so adorable. But Harley, yes, there are. I mean, theoretically, no, gifts are gifts and it’s wonderful. But I’ve gotten some WEIRD stuff.  A table runner, once. But not from family.

  >>Opening presents on Christmas eve or Christmas day? For Chanukah celebrators--how many big presents?

 HEATHER: One on Christmas Eve--the rest on Christmas day! (Unless one of the animals has chewed up the wrapping and they're half open already.)

 HARLEY: Christmas day. Always.

 HANK: When I was a kid, we celebrated Chanukah just as you’re supposed to, and Christmas just as you’re supposed to. Well, okay, not exactly, of course.  My mother would always try to weasel the presents in the final days—like giving us packs of Juicy Fruit, when we wanted stuffed animals.  Gift opening on Christmas morning only was pretty sacrosanct, no matter how often and relentlessly the five of us kids lobbied for Christmas Eve openings.

Now, as an adult, I would NEVER open anything early. Waiting is part of the fun.

>> Real tree, artificial tree? NO tree?

 HARLEY: Real tree.

 HEATHER: Whichever I can find that year that fits right on the little table in the back. Above the level where Ozzie-Cudjo thinks it's like an outside tree, but tied in the corner where the cats don't continually try to climb it.

 HANK: Real tree. Have you seen the rosemary ones? I’m tempted. Jonathan and I don’t have a tree, though. Sigh. “We’re Jewish,” he says, like that’s supposed to end that discussion.

>> Too early to be discussing this? Yes? No? Discuss.

 HARLEY:  Sigh. No. It just feels like it's too early, like the postcard that comes reminding me it's time to get my teeth cleaned. 

 HEATHER:  Ditto to Harley's sigh. December? You are kidding me!

 HANK:  With ya on the sigh.  Time goes by too quickly, no matter what season. So I guess the only thing to do is embrace it.    And wear the red suede gloves.

HANK:  So how about you, TLC'ers? Shopping secrets? Gift-giving revelations? Hints to loved ones? Give us your scoop and wisdom on the approaching holidays...anything you're going to do differently this year? 

And hey--Happy Holidays! We have a signed copy of Margaret Maron's new book for one lucky commenter!  (Ho Ho HO!!)

November 27, 2011

And happy last day of the Thanksgiving weekend.

The Book Tarts and friends are taking a day off today, but they will all be back by Monday, starting with The Three H's tomorrow (that's Hank Phillipi Ryan, Heather Graham, and Harley Jane Kozak for our new readers).

November 26, 2011

New Rules for Funerals

By Nancy Pickard


This is not going to be the most sensitive blog post you'll ever read.

 If you have recently been involved with a funeral of someone you loved and whom you miss terribly, you might want to skip this. Either that, or accept my apologies in advance. I don't mean to offend. What I mean to do is to CORRECT, and what I want to correct is. . .funerals.

 I've just about had it with long-winded, self-indulgent funerals, and the self to whom I'm referring is not the deceased person. It's her relatives, friends, and ministerial windbag. Funerals can be sad, funny, serious, light-hearted, any of that and more, and it's all good; they can make us laugh and cry and they can comfort the heartbroken, and it's all good, but what they don't need to do is contend for the Guiness Book of World Records, Longest Funeral category.

So I'm going to lay down some new rules here. Feel free to add your own. As we go over these new rules together, we will keep in mind that grieving people need sympathy and help. They cannot be expected to think straight without our guidance, which we will offer kindly and gently, if I can keep from yelling.

First, some historical perspective: If you're old enough, maybe you'll recall that 115 people didn't used to get up to speak at any given funeral. We got the clergyperson, a little music, a couple of prayers, and that was it, unless the person who died was Catholic or Episcopalian, and then you needed to arrange for a late supper because you wouldn't be getting home any time soon.

Then somebody, somewhere, decided that three brothers, two sisters, and an aunt should also get up and speak. Before long, somebody else added the best friend. Then the second-best friend. Then along came two clergypeople, often from opposing religions. The old joke was no longer, "A rabbi, a Baptist minister, and a Catholic priest walked into a bar." Now it was, "A rabbi, a Baptist minister, and a Catholic priest walked into a funeral."

And so the era of The Everlasting Funeral was born.

I'm sorry if this seems heartless, but really, have a heart, People Who Plan Funerals!

I speak from too much experience, not because I've lost a slew of friends of my own lately, but because my mom is very old. Having gone through all the funerals of the people she knew who would, if alive, be in their 100's now, we are working our way down through all the funerals of the young people she knows--in their 80's and 70's. There was one of those today and I couldn't face it: I am here at my office writing this while she is seated in a pew, and I will pick her up there when it's over. I know she's going to be in pain and exhausted by the time I see her.

 So, new Rules:

1. No more than two, at most three, friends or family members will speak.  The exception would be in the case of a memorial service in which a lot of people get up to say just a few sentences.  I recently saw this done beautifully at a graveside where there had not been a formal funeral earlier. Eight people spoke in pithy, pungent, and parsimonious style.  Werther
Then we placed packs of cigarettes, packs of playing cards, a bag of Werther's candy, and roses on the casket to accompany the deceased to the Great Card Game in the Sky. It was funny, fond, and completely respectful.

2. At a formal funeral, each speaker will be given a firm 5-minute time limit and if they exceed it the organist will start playing "Rock of Ages, Fall on Thee."

3. Each speaker is to keep firmly in mind that the funeral is not about them. Here is a clue so they can tell: See that casket at the front of the sanctuary?  YOU ARE NOT IN IT.  If it is a casketless funeral, check the printed program: if your name is not listed there with both a birth and death date, then all of these people are not gathered here today in your honor. Don't be sad about this: your time will come. But you won't get to speak.

Speakers are encouraged to count the number of first-person pronouns in their little speech. Little speech. Little. If they count more "I," "Me" and "Mine," words than "Him" or Her" words, then they think they are speaking at their own funeral service. Listen up: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU!


                  "John was a talented writer and a generous one." Followed by an ancedote that makes John look good without making the speaker look better.


                  "I'll never forget how generous John was to me when I was just starting out as a writer. NarcissimI treasure the blurb he gave me on my first book, NARCISSISM AND ME, when he wrote, This is a brilliant book!' He wasn't even jealous when my latest book jumped over his on the bestseller lists.  He was far too modest to be anything but delighted for me."

4.  Family and friends will not tell identical stories. You will check with each other first, if possible. If you can't do that--because your sister will have a hissy fit if she doesn't get to tell the story, even though you were the one who was there, not she--or your brother will rewrite your entire speech--or some of you aren't speaking to each other--then you must be prepared to edit your speech on the spot, so we don't get five stories about the time your dad drove the car into the lake to prove it could float.  If you make this sacrifice, your sister may get the laughs, but you will get our grateful recommendation to Heaven.  And trust me, even if your sister gets the laugh, there will be people walking out who whisper to each other, "Suzie's speech was funny, but she should have cut it in half." To which someone else will reply, "Oh, my God, yes! I thought she would never stop."

5. If the deceased was elderly, you will remember that many of the mourners will be old, too. It is better if you don't talk so long that one of them dies in the pews while you are still speaking. Clue: When one of them groans and bends over her cane, as I saw an old lady do at a funeral recently, you will take that as a hint to QUIT TALKING. Lordy, show a little mercy, will you?  Oldladywithcane Also, minimize the getting up and the sitting back down again, for heaven's sake. It's hard on those old knees and, yes, nobody *has* to stand up for every hymn, but a lot of old people like to be respectful of tradition and some of them don't want to appear as infirm as they are. 

6. The cleryperson will limit his or her remarks to ten minutes. If he or she goes over, the organist will start playing, "What a friend we have in egg timers."

These are simple rules that will, when followed, pour down blessings on you and all your descendents forevermore, amen.

Thank you.







November 25, 2011

Slipping into the winter dark

by Barbara O'Neal

6267442647_89428073c0_zAs the long winter nights close in, the most basic human desire is to curl up by the hearth and rest. Nap and be quiet.  Read. Tell stories to children, tales of adventure, tales of caution, tales of romance. Sleep long, with a mate tucked close to your side, or the warm body of a cat or a dog.   The winter dark is a time for stews and fragrant teas and candles and fires.

All of the old traditions tell us that this is what we should do now.  Rest our bodies and minds as the earth rests.   

What are we doing instead? Black Friday. Christmas shopping.  Frenetic layers of activity piled on the already busy live we live, always connected, always talking, always learning one more new thing from our online worlds.

In an ideal world, we would all reduce our activity through the short dark days of the next two months. In the modern world, that’s a foolish dream.  We have to work. We have to get ready for the holidays and then host them.  Many of us have to travel, attend Christmas plays and recitals, visit neighbors, go to parties…..make merry for a month or more.

Nothing wrong with making merry, of course.  Food and drink and good company are some of my very favorite things. 

But this year, I find I’m not in the mood.  I want a fire and piles of books and mugs of mulled cider at

my elbow.  I want to dream and think, to restore my batteries and eat nourishing things.  I am in the mood for planting seeds that might grow in the spring, when the cycle turns again.  

Like everyone else, I have obligations.  Work and home and family, friends and exercise and spiritual activities.  I get hundreds of emails that have to be sorted, just as you do.  I have social media gnawing on my ankle.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering the question. How do I, as a modern woman, create the rest the winter dark demands, while meeting the demands of my busy life?

I’ve come up with a few things to try.  Maybe you’ll find one or more of them helpful. 

1.  Read more.  Everyday, maybe for a whole hour.  I’m going to read whatever I want, too, not what anyone tells me I should read, or have to read.  What. Ever. I. Want . 

2. Go to bed a half hour early on weeknights, and sleep later on weekend mornings.  Not that easy if you have children, of course, and my dog will awaken me when he thinks its morning, but a thing 5375998813_c37321e5cc_z doesn’t have to be perfect to be helpful.

3.  Take Sunday afternoons off.  From noon to six, I am not required to do anything.  No writing.  No email or Facebook.  No housework or cooking or shopping.  Just me and whatever I feel might be nourishing, restful, fun.   I might go to the movies.  I might sprawl on the couch and read.  I might have coffee with a friend, but not because I should, only because I want to.

4.  Leave the computer alone after seven pm.  Just walk away and let the world run on its own until morning.

5.  Eat nourishing, hearty soups.  Lentils, maybe.  Bean.  Carrot and barley. 

Maybe if I honor the old ways by resting just this much, I will be better prepared to manage the full-on rush of the modern holiday season.  Maybe I’ll be more discerning when I shop.  Maybe I’ll buy more books as gifts over glittery geegaws.  Maybe I’ll be more relaxed when the people I love gather around.  And maybe, when spring rolls around, I'll be ready with new ideas, projects, possibilities. 

Tonight, as the winter dark closes in, I will start reading a thick new novel,  Clash of Kings by George RR Martin.  I’ll have a cup of mulled cider at my elbow, and a son reading on the couch beside me. 

What are your plans for this holiday weekend? What are you reading? Do you have any winter rituals?

November 24, 2011

Thanks for the Memories!


The Tarts are all running around like turkeys with their heads cut off, but we want to pause and thank you all for friendship and support and sharing life experiences that we sometimes adapt for our books.

We know you all are busy, too, but we'd love it if you'll reach back in memory and tell us of a particularly happy or funny Thanksgiving.

MARGARET: I'll start. It was shortly after those roasting bags came on the market and my mother, who fancied herself the hip one in the farm family decided to do the turkey for the big family feast. I don't know if she didn't read the instructions correctly or what, but the announced dinner time came and went and the turkey still looked raw. One of the uncles started a bonfire. One of the aunts straightened coathangers and we roasted hotdogs for our dinner. I believe the turkey was gobbled at midnight.

ELAINE: My grandparents always had Thanksgiving at their house, and Grandpa carved the turkey. While he carved he’d "drop" some white meat for the grandkids. We’d laugh and cheer his turkey burglary. The best parts of the turkey were reserved for the grownups. One Thanksgiving, Grandpa got carried away and gave away all the white meat to us kids. It was a taste of adulthood.

November 23, 2011

Noir? No Way!

Margaret Maron

51RZ3r2ozbL._SL500_SL135_I recently taught a seminar on mystery writing to people who were fairly unfamiliar with the genre.  To give them an overview, I drew a continuum from the lightest fluffiest cozy to the post-apocalyptic/balls-to-the-wall/slasher novels and explained that most people do not read across the whole spectrum.  Some start with Lillian Jackson Braun and end with Agatha Christie.  Some
51K0eQo94dL._AA160_begin with Nero Wolfe and end with Michael Connelly, while others begin with I the Jury and end with Silence of the Lambs or in an even bleaker misogynistic wasteland. I further explained that good and bad writing is to be found in all the permutations and that it's silly to say that a badly written slasher book should be taken more seriously than a beautifully written body-on-the-vicarage-rug book

So many male writers and reviewers have no hesitation in trashing traditional fair-play mysteries, romantic suspense, or what they dismissively call “cozies with cats and cooking,” that I’m sure they won’t mind if I say how very much I dislike the “boy books” they champion so vigorously—the gratuitously violent,implausible noir novels. The hero  has women lusting for him wherever he turns, and the books are so poorly plotted that whenever the story starts to drag, the author drops in an explicit sex scene or the bad guys inexplicably turn up just where the hero happens to be with no explanation of how they knew where to find him.  That's when we get the obligatory fight scene in which the hero takes kidney punches, kicks in the face, etc. etc., yet bounces back almost immediately.Even if the hero is technically “clean”, he often has a sidekick who will do all the nasty things his moral code won’t let him do (think Spenser and Hawke, or George Bush and Dick Cheney.) 


If he falls in love, she will usually be the victim or the killer so that our hero is free to lust again in his next outing.

I do not willingly read pornography that substitutes for character development.  I always find myself wondering if the writer is at heart a sniggering 12-year-old or indulging in self-gratification when he goes on and on about penises and [insert crude noir terms for a woman's sex organs] as if his protagonist is the first man ever to notice how well the male and female parts fit together.

Nor do I enjoy lovingly detailed pages of serial killers torturing and then dissecting their victims, of fingernails being pulled out, or of lit cigarettes being touched to a woman’s nipples.

Or of bombs wired to a woman’s nipples.

Or of clamps being applied to a woman’s nipples.  51SgP+e2KfL-1._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

In fact, if I never again have to read about painful things being done to a woman’s nipples, it would suit me just fine.

I remember having a similar discussion with one of these macho writers several years ago.  “It’s just fiction,” he said.  “Don’t get uptight about it.”

And then Tony Fennelly wrote The Glory Hole Murders  in which a penis is nailed to a bathhouse wall while it’s still attached to its owner, and howls went up from Mr. Macho and his like-minded colleagues.  “But it’s just fiction,” I told him.

He was not amused.

Do you have parameters?


November 22, 2011

Candy, Little Girl?

By Sarah

I was working on the outline of a novel the other day involving a neurotic mother who worries about her children's every move. (Sound familiar?) But something was missing. WHY was this woman so neurotic? What had happened to her in her past that caused her to instantly leap to the conclusion that her children had been kidnapped/molested/murdered?

MolesterI had only to look at my own childhood to find the answer, a "Highway Safety Foundation" film shown to us in second grade at the Spring Garden Elementary School. It was called The Child Molester and, to be honest, since seeing it I have never been the same.

And lately I've been wondering if it possibly saved my life.

I didn't remember the title until I did some digging while working on this proposal, though the movie itself is so vivid in my memory that I can recall in crystal clear detail the faces of the two girls who foolishly accepted candy from the strange man who first appears as a shadow over their chalk-drawn hopscotch. From there, it's all downhill. They get into his car, a 1950s Cadillac with huge fenders, and off they go in shoddy Technicolor to their doom.

The Child Molester spares no detail in hammering home its lesson. With its backdrop of idealized post-war suburban white picket fences and happy drugstore soda counters, this crappy public safety film could be another Twilight Zone episode were it not for the authentic crime scene footage of the murder scene at the end. Yes, you read that right.

Turns out, The Child Molester was based on an actual abduction and murder of two girls, ages seven and nine, in Mansfield, Ohio, and the so-called Highway Safety Foundation felt it was necessary to show us their actual bodies, bloodied and naked aside from their pleated plaid skirts, in horrific grainy footage.

This is what they showed us in second grade as a cautionary tale about the dangers of strangers with candy. And to think my mother wouldn't even let me watch Love, American Style.

Funny. I don't remember the crime scene footage. What I remember was the final shot of a "red" sneaker floating down the creek to the tune of "Let's Go Fly a Kite," a song I have always despised. Kites To make matters worse, I grew up with a creek in my backyard along with a woods eerily similar to the one where the girls were taken and where they tried to escape. (With the murderer yelling, "Come back or I'll kill you now," illogically enough.) A little too close for comfort, you might say.

I didn't sleep for weeks it seemed. I refused to walk home from the bus, insisting my mother pick me up. My "problem" became a big deal even though my mother, furious, had called the school board and thrown a fit over the movie. My previously normal and safe life was now fraught with lurking predators behind every bush and tree, peeking in my bedroom window and waiting at every bus stop.

Finally, I recovered enough to deliver Girl Scout cookies on a rainy February Sunday afternoon. I was at the end of Langhorne Avenue, about a half mile from my house, when a car pulled up slowly. The man didn't get out. Instead, he pushed open the passenger door and asked if I wanted a ride. I blanched.

"No, thanks," I said as cheerily as possible. (This was how the "good" blond girl had answered the bad man when he asked if she'd like to come into his car for more candy. She survived.)

The door closed and the car proceeded. Then stopped. Then reversed. 

He was after me.

Thin mintI dropped my cookies. (Not many. I was a lousy salesgirl.) And I fled to the Herricks house. They were a kindly retired couple who were always home. When they answered their door, I burst in.

The car sped off immediately.

My mother, frustrated, came to pick me up, but I think her tune changed when she heard the story. 

That was over thirty years ago. When I posted the film on Facebook, a couple of classmates from Spring Garden emailed to tell me they, too, had been traumatized by the film and had passed on their neuroses to their own children. Online, similar stories. Anyone who saw this film in the 1960s or 70s never forgets it, though, like me, they can't recall the crime scene footage. What they do remember, however, is the shoe which, turns out, wasn't red; it was bloody.

Think you can handle it? Here's the movie in its entirety

And here's my question: is this over the top? Or is this movie what we need to protect our kids? I'll let you talk amongst yourselves.



November 21, 2011

Did They Think No One Would Notice?

by Harley

Dsc04617qYears ago I saw Dead Poets’ Society. I recall nothing about it because I was with my friend Laurie. Laurie does wardrobe for film and TV, and she spent the whole movie outraged about collar button continuity. It’s all she could see, collars buttoned in one shot and unbuttoned in the next. Collars wrinkled becoming ironed in closeup and then once again wrinkled, all in the space of 2.3 seconds. It made her crazy. She nearly walked out of the theatre.

A few years later I dated a producer—not the kind that puts up the money, the kind that’s on set to make sure the money is being properly spent. Every movie we saw had a running commentary from Eddie: “A two-shot? That scene’s crying for a closeup. And that's not New York, that’s Vancouver, it's Stanley Park, for God’s sake! And are they using the same three extras over and over? That guy died ten minutes ago in the battle scene.”

For my friend Andrew, a former jockey, it’s horse films. In the olden days, rather than cast “Indians” who could ride bareback, they’d throw Indian blankets over saddles, thinking, “who’s going to notice?” Andrew noticed. Andrew also knows that a real cowboy wouldn’t ride a horse with four white socks, as Adam Images Cartwright did in the last episodes of Bonanza. Worst of all are racing movies, “the jockey whispering kind and encouraging words in the middle of the race, while traveling 40 mph and wailing away at the horse with a stick. No race-rider talks like that," Andrew says. "It’s all swearing and screaming.”

We, the audience, will put up with the ridiculous in order to enter into the magic of the story. It’s called the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Most of us don’t care about self-buttoning collars or Stanley Park masquerading as Central Park, or racehorse whisperers. But we all have something, some expertise that throws us out of the story and back into our theatre seats, cranky because they didn’t get it right.

For intance:

The Implausible Apartment: if you’ve ever lived in New York, you’re calculating how much rent the poor-but-plucky heroine is paying for that charming brownstone and whether she’s sleeping with the super to afford it.

Fargo_movie-11589The We’re Not All Hicks Complaint: Apparently the residents of North Dakota weren’t universally happy with how they were portrayed in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. The Americans of Italian Descent version of this is We’re Not All Mafiosi. With the polygamists, it’s We’re Not All Big Love.

The Player Piano Piano Player: Even if we don’t see hands of the “piano player" actor, if her body’s gonna sway, it should sway to the right when Placido-domingo the music goes higher, and the left when she’s playing the bass chords. And I’m no Placido Domingo, but every shower singer knows that the dubbed actor should take a breath while belting out “Nessun Dorma” because you can’t sing like this without exercising your lungs.

William_talman_raymond_burrThe Perry Mason Exception:  On Perry Mason, district attorney Hamilton Burger was always saying, “Your honor, Mr. Mason is turning this courtroom into a circus!” That’s right, Ham. Because Perry’s the star. Nothing’s changed. Watch Law & Order with a trial lawyer and see how long he can go without yelling “Objection!” at Sam Waterston.                                    

The CSI Effect: Try getting a crime lab scientist to watch a CSI episode without rolling her eyes.

The Giant Baby Phenomenon: Ask a new mother to believe that the newborn popping out of the TV tummy isn’t a six-week-old.

You don’t have to be a professional hairdresser or a Native American to wonder 8925_view what’s going on with Mary McDonnell’s hair in Dances with Wolves. (I’m not blaming Mary. I’m an actor; I never blame actors.)

So what is it that makes you throw popcorn and yell at the TV, “Did you think no one would notice?”