"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The return of Benny Needles

People-In-General: "So when's the next book coming out?"

Me: "As soon as I write it", "It's about halfway done", "Not sure", "Ummmm..."

I'm getting this question a lot lately. There are probably folks out there with a lot of She-Should'ves advice. As in, She should've been writing the second one as soon as the first one was finished. She should've been working harder on the second one. She should've had several plots lined up before she even wrote the first one.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Here's the thing: Even though I'm just a genre writer, who writes fun and entertaining romps, I take my writing seriously. I can't just plop the same characters into the same location with a different dead body and call it a book. I need a crime that appeals to me, either in its cleverness or its irony. I need a twist. I need subplots that show my characters going through real situations.

Wow. I sure sound needy, don't I?

So, I'm more than halfway through the first draft. I'm happy with the crime, the criminals, and what Peri's going through in this story. I can finally settle onto my tush and do some serious writing this week because I don't have to travel to an honor choir or sell concessions or do anything besides write and teach a few riding lessons. (Sorry, housework - you're gonna have to wait.)

In the meantime, here's a teaser for HIT OR MISSUS: A Peri Minneopa Mystery -

When private investigator Peri Minneopa takes on a surveillance job for a suspicious husband, she finds herself being stalked, possibly by the woman she's trying to follow. Is this rich housewife dabbling in more than infidelity?

There's more, but you'll have to be patient. Skip is back, as well as Blanche, and the other members of the PPD. In addition, Benny Needles is back. I hadn't planned for him to re-appear so soon, but he has become such an overwhelmingly popular guy, I found a way for him to return. Here's an excerpt for your amusement (note: Peri is temporarily fostering her neighbor's cat. The neighbor, an elderly woman, died of a sudden heart attack - or was it something else?):

* * * * *

As she flipped through the papers, Peri became aware of a whirring noise in her tote bag, so she excavated her cell phone and answered it.

"Miss Menopause?" The voice was unmistakable.

"Benny, please call me Peri."

"Oh. Yeah. Miss Peri. I'm out of jail."

Peri's former client, Benny Needles had been convicted of receiving stolen property. With no priors and a full, weeping confession, he had only spent 30 days behind bars. She heard he was now completing a few hours of community service.

"I know. How are you?"

"I'm good. I'm good."

"I was a little worried about you in jail. I'm glad you're out." Peri didn't think Benny's obsessive-compulsive constitution would hold up well in an Orange County Jail cell. In addition to his OCD, Benny was an incurable Dean Martin fan, and had stuffed his house with Dino memorabilia. He needed his things, just as he needed certain foods, and a certain schedule. Under stress, Benny either suffered anxiety attacks requiring hospitalization, or he reverted into Dino mode. Neither of these was a pretty sight.

"It wasn't so bad," he told her. "Except I missed my house and my things. And they wouldn't let me wear my suits in jail. And their food didn't taste very good. But I taught all the guys in my block to sing 'That's Amore'."

"That's nice," Peri said. "What can I do for you?"

"I have to do community service, Miss Mmm-Peri. One hundred fifty hours. It's hard."

"What are you doing?"

"That's the thing… I was working as a janitor at Aunt Esmy's church, but I guess I don't keep things too clean, which was okay 'cause they never played any Dino music there. So then I went to work at the library, but the director didn't think the Dean Martin biography belonged at the front of the shelves. We kinda fought about that, so I wasn't invited back. I tried to help out at Bradford Square, but those people are so old and cranky."

"Geez, Benny, how many jobs have you had?"


Peri felt uneasy, but asked, "How many hours do you have left?"

"A hundred. I was wondering if you had anything for me to do."

"Oh, Benny, I can’t really think of any-"

"Miss Peri, please." His voice rose. "I need these hours or they'll maybe send me back. I can't go back there. I can put papers in files, or dust or something. You used to clean for my mom. I could clean for you."

Peri nearly erupted in laughter, but held herself back. "I don't know-"

"I could run errands, do your shopping. Miss Peri, I gotta do something and it won't even cost you."

Not in money, but probably my sanity, Peri thought. The cat's bad enough - do I have to foster Benny too?

"Okay, Ben, we'll try it out," she told him, while Robbie the Robot appeared in her head, bellowing Danger, Danger, Will Robinson. "Come to my office tomorrow afternoon at two o'clock and I'll give you something to do."

"At two? But Rio Bravo is on TV then, and I wanted to-"

"Don't push me, Benny. Be there at two tomorrow or the deal's off."

* * * * *

Now, if you don't mind, I gotta get back to writing.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

This has nothing to do with writing, except that I wrote it.

We're home, thank God. Did you miss me?

Hubby, son, and I took two different trips to northern California on two consecutive weekends. Marcus auditioned for two all-state choirs, performing on back-to-back weekends. At the time he was auditioning, I explained the meaning of "back-to-back" weekends, family finances, blah-blah-blah. He stared blankly, so I said, "Go ahead and apply for both. We'll let God make the call."

God has such a sense of humor, especially with me. Marcus made both choirs.

So, last Wednesday, we left Orange County around 5 p.m. for Sacramento. Yes, I know it's a seven hour drive. Yes, I know 5 p.m. is late. What can I say? Dale and Marcus wanted tacos.

Since Dale's hands were busy stuffing his face, I volunteered to drive. I thought I'd at least get us through the Grapevine. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with California, there are a very few routes north from the southern end of the state. The most common road is Interstate 5, which cuts across the Tejon Pass of the Tehachapi Mountains along a route we call the Grapevine. It consists of four lanes, straight uphill for half the distance, followed by straight downhill in the second half, where semis fill the right two lanes and cars are left with the other two.)

Off we went, the sun slowly sinking toward my eyeballs as we drove west on the I-210 toward the I-5. By the time we started the long haul uphill through the pass, the sun had disappeared and I was wondering if I could drive and dig the Excedrin out of my tote at the same time. I had just turned the headlights on when I saw the big sign on the roadside: "Left Two Lanes Closed at Vista Del Lago Road. Two Hour Delay."

NOOOOOOOO! Okay, I told myself, maybe it was left up from road construction earlier today. Maybe the traffic's already cleared. Maybe it's not as bad as it… is.

Turns out, the horrific winds blowing sideways through the pass (how do they do that?) had blown a semi pulling one of those half-a-prefab-homes onto its side. We crept for an hour or more, slowly scrunching our way over lanes, jockeying for position with other creepers, until we could survey the damage, after which, we were on our way.

We made it to Sacramento around one in the morning, had a great time, and were home by ten o'clock Saturday night.

Oh, some quick observations about Sacramento:
1. The Capitol building is really pretty. So's the park.
2. Loved the Train Museum.
3. Saw the Guvernator. That man's head is too big for his body. Seriously. He's his own Bobblehead doll.

The following Wednesday, we had to go to San Jose. Once again, Dale wanted tacos, and once again, I volunteered to drive. What was the worst that could happen?

Nothing, you negative Nellys. We got to San Jose around ten thirty. San Jose was a love/hate city. We did some fun things, Dale got to watch lots of basketball in the lounge (NCAA championships, baby), but that city is SOOOO expensive. I'm telling you, it bled us D.R.Y.

On Saturday night, we knew we'd have a long trip home. The concert didn't end until 9 p.m., but I just couldn't justify one more night in the Fairmont, which gave us a group rate but nickel-and-dimed us for everything. I mean, $14 for WiFi? Really?

Dale drove. All we had to do was go down the 101, across the 152 to the I-5, then straight home. That's alllll we had to do…

It's not Dale's fault, but he missed the turnoff to the 152. Lola, his GPS, cooed the instructions, but he just didn't follow them. I've done this before. Your mind goes somewhere else for a minute and suddenly you're not where you want to be. Much like the rest of my life.

Lola, in her usual Zen-like calm, recalculated and told Dale to get off on the next road, which he did. We thought she would take him on a parallel road that would lead back to the 152.

God knows she tried.

We drove miles and miles, down dark country highways. Four miles here, then turn left, then four more miles and turn right. At some point, he and Lola stopped speaking the same language. She would tell him to take a "slight" right and he'd take a "hard" right. She'd recalculate. At one point, she told him to take a road that had been closed due to construction. When she started telling us to drive eight miles, then make a legal U-turn, even Dale wanted to slap her.

By ten thirty, we weren't even past Gilroy yet. To add to the stress, we were low on gas, and the radio found a station that played the most progressive-rock, fuzzy-stoner-guitar-riddled, acid-trip-to-hell music I've ever heard. I was pretty certain the cast of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre were going to jump from behind a tree at some point.

In an attempt to keep from screaming, I played with Wanda, the GPS lady in my cell phone. According to her, we were on Route 25, which would wind through King City before dumping us back on the 101. I didn't know whether I'd cry because we'd wasted an hour wandering in a circle, or I'd weep for joy that we were back on a major highway, but I knew there'd be tears involved.

But Lola prevailed, and finally got us back to the 152 toward Gilroy and Interstate 5. I may have "whooped" a little when we got to the interstate, after which I fell into that restless sleep of the car passenger with no pillow.

In the end, we were home by 3:30 Sunday morning. Thank God.

P.S. Here's what Marcus did in Sacramento (he's the first male soloist):

Monday, March 15, 2010

The song remembers when

When you have a child who is completely wrapped up in his/her passion, it's hard not to be dragged into it as well, which is why I'm so engulfed in music these days. Music has always been significant in my life - doesn't everyone have a favorite song or group? But now, thanks to Marcus, I notice the soundtrack to every movie and TV show, I listen to the complexity of the chords, and I try to catalogue the genre.

Before, I just gave it thumbs up, or thumbs down.

A couple of weeks ago, the VHS choir held "Cabaret Night" - an evening of songs in an intimate setting, with desserts and hot drinks at intermission. The students selected the theme, Music from the Soul, and contained songs that meant something to them.

Each song was introduced, by either the soloist or a member of the group, to explain to the audience why it was chosen. I was touched by the selections and their reasons. One girl chose a song because she had moved so much as a child that, once her family settled, she found she had to work at her friendships, to tear down the walls that protected her heart. One girl spoke of her pain when her parents divorced and sang a song about finding your love once in your life. And one boy described liking a girl and not knowing what to say to her.

I started thinking about all the songs that meant something to me in my life. There are a couple of categories of these. One kind is the songs that bring back specific memories. The ones that you always associate with a specific time and place, no matter how many times you hear them.

When I hear Love's Theme from Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra, I picture myself in an apartment in Decatur, Illinois, looking out the window at the snow on the ground, waiting for my first husband to come home from work. I can smell dinner cooking. It was a happy time in our marriage, before it all went sour.

The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again makes me visualize Route 48 between Oreana and Decatur; I'm driving to the county fair in my 1972 MG Midget. The top is down and I'm blasting the song on my little AM radio.

The other category of song is the one that gives you the grand Aha! moment. We get Ahas in lots of ways, but there's something about words put to music that pushes the message past your brain into your heart.

My first was when I was seventeen. It's not bragging for me to say that I had been a Good Little Girl growing up. Pleasing my parents meant the world to me, so I got good grades and I stayed out of trouble and I did everything I was asked to do, or at least 90 percent of the time. The problem was that my mother wanted to live vicariously through me, so it wasn't enough. I needed to dress the way she wanted and do the things she wanted and think the way she wanted. As I grew older, I was increasingly discontent, but didn't know why. I was everyone's dream - except mine.

One day I heard Sunshine, by Jonathan Edwards. Sounds like a happy song, but the words are:

Sunshine, go away today
I don't feel much like dancing
Some man's gone and tried to run my life
He don't know what he's asking.

To me, it was an upbeat tune about a guy who's discovered his anger and is excited to be finally standing up for himself. It took a lot of years for me to get where he was, but this song helped me put the finger on what wasn't working in my life.

Songs served me in that capacity for a long time. I didn't know how unhappy I was in my second marriage until I listened to Bruce Springsteen. It wasn't one song, although The River stands out, with its line, "is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?" His early albums touched a yearning for intimacy, for emotional stability, for things my relationship was missing. Until I listened to him, it's not that I was unhappy - it's that I didn't know I was unhappy. I thought I was an ungrateful wife who had everything a girl could want, except a husband with whom she could share herself.

In the past few years, one song reaches out and twists my heart into a knot. The Dixie Chicks' Godspeed is a simple lullaby to a little boy. "Sweet dreams little man," Natalie Maines croons. "Oh, my love will fly to you each night on angel's wings." Not only did I have my own little boy to think about when that song debuted, but my dear friends had just lost their 6-year old son to leukemia. The simple words about Superman in pajamas on the couch, blessing Mommy and Matchbox Cars, were so descriptive of being parent to a little boy - it broke my heart to think that my friends could no longer enjoy their kiddo. It's been six or seven years now, and I still weep when I hear it.

What about you? What songs take you someplace special? Which ones opened your eyes to your life? I'd love to hear your stories.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What we have heah is a failure to communicate.

A couple of posts ago, I spoke of David Mathison's talk at the Southern California Writer's Conference, and asked for opinions and discussion about the future of the paper book. The responses to the post, and to some other blogs I've been lurking on, lead me to believe I might have been misunderstood.

My quandry was this: As children, our first experiences with books are tactile ones. We chew on the fabric picture book, then we touch the patches of fluffy and slick and rough on board books, and slowly graduate up through chapter books, etc. While many of us are embracing the world of e-books, gobbling up Kindles, Nooks, and eReaders, almost everyone with Kindle-in-hand says, "but I still like to read paper books," or some such statement. I wondered what, if anything, would replace those early childhood sensations to allow us to completely give up our dependency upon the feeling of a book in our hands as adults?

Let me make my position clear: I'm NOT opposed to ebooks. I want a Kindle, or a Nook. As a nerd, I adore technology and welcome new toys.

What I want are ideas... what's out there to replace this? I know there are interactive books for the computer. My son had one, and delighted in clicking on things to find hidden clues. But what else?

Will anything replace this? We've got a few of these three-dimensional bug-eyed books and they were fun novelties to him.

Maybe they'll have a Baby's First Kindle, although it would need to be shatter-proof, slobber-proof and spill-proof. Will it be big enough to sit in Mom or Dad's lap every night and find the mouse?

Or how about books that are really works of art? This book has very few, very thoughtful words, accompanied by beautiful pictures.

I'm asking for all you folks who are thinking outside the box, who've glimpsed the future and seen some of the sights, who are dreaming of the paperless world, to tell me what's coming and what may be.

What would the paperless world look like, if you had your way?

Monday, March 1, 2010

How deep is your brand?

It all started this weekend, while I was in our bathroom, putting on my make-up. We were getting some kind of movie channel for free - we never pay for the premium movie channels, but Dale will watch them during those Subscribe Now! weekends. The latest Mission Impossible movie had just ended, I had stopped picking it apart, and Dale had left the bedroom, probably to escape my witty-yet-annoying commentary. Another movie started, but which one?

The stars rotated around the screen: Paramount Pictures presents. Then came an idyllic scene that might feature happy bunnies, except the music sounded like ominous and depressing drumming, along with a dash of moaning. I was pretty sure happy bunnies would not like this soundtrack, even if it was from Shangri-La productions. At that point, the idyll was replaced by what looked like a wall of dark rock, all grey and rust tones, with another company's name - ImageMovers on the screen.

"Oh for pity's sake, just tell me what movie it is," I told the TV. Then my brain said, I'll bet this is Beowulf.

Guess what? My brain was right. It was that hot mess from a couple of years ago that kinda sorta told the Beowulf legend in pre-Avatar live yet animated effects. Not only did I not see the film, I didn't even pay attention to the trailer, except to note that Angelina Jolie had taken her clothes off again.

But apparently the trailer had reached a piece of my brain, enabling me to recognize the movie from the music and the image of that rock wall. Either that or I'm psychic, and I'm pretty sure I can't see the future. If I could, I'd have better luck in Vegas.

This event dovetailed with a conversation I had at the SCWC with Andy Peterson. He's the author of First to Kill, a great thriller that was released in 2008. His next book will be out this year, featuring the same characters, and we were talking about writing series.

"My next book will be 'Forced to Kill'," he said. "To link the titles together. Are you doing something like that after Freezer Burn?"

Until he brought it up, I hadn't thought about giving my books similar names. I remember Barry Eisler talking about how much he hated his books' names, but the publisher wanted to capitalize on his character, John Rain. So there was Hard Rain and Rain Fall and Rain Storm, and - well, you get the picture. Clever, but nothing about the names told you they were thrillers about a Japanese/American assassin.

Barry's books were problematic for me, because I couldn't keep them straight and kept ordering the same one. Even Sue Grafton's alphabet series gets dicey for me. You can jump around from letter to letter, but I don't always associate the title of her books with the plots, and I find myself asking if I've read B or D.

That's the main problem with series, at least for me. If the title doesn't suggest something about the plot, I'm liable to forget whether I've read it. I bought Patricia Cornwell's All That Remains, read it, and almost enjoyed it (the ending felt unsatisfying). Then, I bought it again, because I loved the title and didn't remember reading it. By contrast, I bought Point of Origin, enjoyed it well enough, but won't buy it again because I know Point of Origin has to do with fire, and the plot has to do with fire. Voila! The memory connection has been made. Oh, plus they burned a bunch of horses in the plot and I'm still just a little sick about that, even if they are pretend horses.

So my first book is titled Freezer Burn, because it revolves around what is found in a freezer and how the twists of the mystery burn our heroine. The second one is tentatively titled Hit or Missus, because Peri must investigate a group of bored, rich women who may or may not have an Assassins-for-Hire business.

Having said that, I felt a sudden pang during my talk with Andy, as if I had done something wrong and needed to go home and figure out a title that plays on 'freezer' or 'burn'. I mumbled words about how I may have to think about it, and nothing's set in stone and sometimes publishers change your title anyway. Then I had a glass of wine and thought about my 'brand.'

By the next day, I had a plan of action. I would continue to give my books titles that represent their plots, but I would work with my publisher to include the bloody hand and martini glass on each cover. We could make it a game, like the Playboy bunny on the magazine. (Calm down, boys, I sincerely doubt ANY of my covers will look like Playboy.)

I'd love to hear some discussion about this - do you have any problems remembering individual books in a series? Do you like them to have similar or different titles, or does it matter? What do you think of my idea to tie my books together?

Or if you want, just stop by and say hi.

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