Category Archives: Louise Ure


By Louise Ure


When that man pulled a knife and said he would kill me before the sun came up … I couldn’t scream.

When my (then) boyfriend pushed me off the cliff at Seven Falls … I couldn’t scream.

When the burglar broke into my New York apartment and I awoke to find him standing over me … I couldn’t scream.

When the brakes failed on the car and I plunged through the guardrail … I couldn’t scream.

I don’t even think I would scream if I won the lottery.

There must be something wrong with me. I don’t have that girl-gene that allows the emotional release of pent up anger or fear (or euphoria) in a scream.

Pari would probably tell me that in martial arts a good yell releases little green bubbles of endorphins or adrenaline to help you fight. It probably does.

Barry Eisler would agree that screaming is a good thing, but for different reasons. At Left Coast Crime in Bristol last year, I stopped by a self-defense class that Barry was teaching. (The entire audience was women, but I don’t think the subject matter was the only deciding factor there.)

“Forget knives and mace and tasers and martial arts,” he said. “You have to get too close to the attacker to use any of them. A gun is good, but people who don’t know how to use one well, will most likely have the gun turned against them.”

The best protection, according to Barry? “A healthy dose of precaution, good locks on the door, and a great scream.”

To borrow my friend Ken’s Irish phrasing, I’m fooked.

Instead of screaming, I automatically go into this psychobabble of let’s-just-think-this-through-together routine.

Until the most egregious of those examples at the top of the column occurred, I had never found any situation that I couldn’t talk my way out of.

I know better now.

But I still can’t scream.


I’ve often longed to be the Janet Leigh of screamers. Full-throated, no hesitation, and LOUD. Alas, it’s not meant to be.

And here’s the weird thing: I can’t write screamers either.

When my protagonists – or my victims, for that matter – are confronted, they freeze. Total silence. Their inner crisis is huge, their fear beyond reason, but they don’t lash out verbally. They don’t scream.

My characters are getting better at reacting physically, and I think that’s a good thing, although I personally still jump through a set of mental hoops before I can do the same. Should I or shouldn’t I? Will I hurt him? Kill him? Will I wind up in court myself? What if his intentions aren’t as bad as they appear?

If I tried to write about a screamer, I know I would get it wrong.

We all have things we can’t or won’t write about. Things like killing cats.  Torture. Hurting children. But what about those other things, not crimes by any stretch of the imagination, but things that are so intrinsic to our own personalities that we could not faithfully create a character who acted differently than we would?


If you hate cigarettes, can you write a protagonist who is an unrepentant chain-smoker?

If you are religious, can you convincingly create an agnostic hero?

If you’re a homophobe, can you paint a positive portrait of a gay man?

If you’re a vegan, can you wax eloquent about a fine meal of veal and liver?

It’s different, I think, than writing about a serial killer when you despise serial killers. Different than just stepping into the bad guy’s shoes, or writing from the point of view of the opposite sex. That’s the accepted norm. We’re supposed to be able to do all that.

But what happens when you’re asked to argue in favor of a person or a habit or a belief that is different to your own? Or, as a reader, you’re asked to empathize with a character that is unlike you in such a visceral way. Can you do it? Do you choose to do it?

We bring so much of ourselves to the stories we write and the stories we choose to read.

I choose not to read Christian-themed mysteries. That thinking doesn’t match my worldview, so no matter how good the writing is, I know I’m going to bristle and gnash my teeth at the thoughts expressed by the characters.

Maybe that makes me narrow-minded and maybe I’m missing out on a lot of good books, but there you go.

On the other hand, David Liss’s Ethical Assassin got me thinking about a vegan lifestyle in ways I never had before.

But I still eat meat.

And I still can’t write screamers.

What about you guys? Have you ever chosen to write about a character who significantly differs from you at a real gut level? And readers, have you ever fallen for a character whose world view was diametrically opposed to yours?

Has it ever changed your mind?



Just Add 89,700 Words

By Louise Ure

“What in the world has come over you?
What in heaven’s name have you done?
Broken the speed at the sound of loneliness
Out there running just to be on the run.”

–    Amos Lee
     Speed at the Sound of Loneliness

There’s something special about a songwriter’s ability to distill a character, an emotion, an entire story down to fewer than three hundred words. They can often say more in a chorus or a three chord transition than we can with chapters of dialogue and description and narrative.

It is a skill I admire.

An economy of words. And just the right words at that.

And they’ve got the advantage of being able to use that haunting minor chord, or guitar twang or perfect soprano voice to wrench our hearts even further.

There are a few songs – mostly old ballads and country western songs – that spell the whole story out for us.

Marty Robbins’ “El Paso
Puff the Magic Dragon
Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe
Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl



"Goodbye, Earl
Those black-eyed peas

They tasted all right to me, Earl
You’re feeling weak?
Why don’t you lay down
and sleep, Earl
Ain’t it dark

Wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?"

And my all time favorite in the category: “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” by Meatloaf.



“Ain’t no doubt about it
We were doubly blessed

‘Cause we were barely seventeen

And we were barely dressed.”

These are no one act plays. They tell the whole story — all the way from asshole to appetite. We know the characters, we know the plot, we know the conflict, we know the ending.

But there are other songs that touch me and make me ache to hear more. Not just of the song, but of the story told. Those are the songs I’d like to turn into novels.

Amos Lee, quoted above, is one of those. His song is a sad plaint about a woman living on the edge, making bad choices, and leaving a good man in her wake. Who is she? Why has she driven herself to this lonely place? It’s a book I’d like to read. It’d be a perfect vehicle for Ken Bruen. Or Denise Mina. Or Sara Gran, dontcha’ think? Somebody who carves into the hearts that beat in cold gray places.

How about Janis Joplin’s version of "Me and Bobby McGee?



I want four hundred pages of the saga of these two drifters. And would we dare turn this tale of harpoon-blowing hitchhikers into a crime story? Duane S. could do it. Or Megan Abbott.

Maybe Solomon Burke’s "Honey, Where’s the Money Gone?"


Even the oldie “Walk Away Renee” leaves me wanting more pages. (Although the new ballad version by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy seems to tell more of a story than the old Four Tops pop-and-R&B song.)


Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still find a way to haunt me
Though they’re so small

Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame”

What drove these young lovers apart? A pregnancy? An abortion? Narrow-minded parents? A new lover? “Romeo and Juliet” was written with less inspiration than these lyrics.

And Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is tailor-made for a mystery novel.


“Well, I started throwing things
And I scared folks half to death

I got up in his face
And smelled whiskey on his breath

I didn’t give a second thought
To being thrown in jail

Cause baby to a hammer
Everything looks like a nail.”

I want to write that book. The wacko ex-girlfriend who hunts down the sleazy ex and his trashy new lady. I do so love writing about strong women bent on revenge.

And I was going to add that Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” would make a good book, too, but she seems to be living out that story for us live and in person. Still, ya gotta love that song. It’s got echoes of  “Dancing in the Streets,” but only if you’re dancing in a funeral procession.


How about you guys? Is there a song you’d like to see taken to 400-page length?

Is it one you like to read or one you’d like to write?

And if you aren’t the perfect person to write it, which author should we talk into it?


Angel Line Contemporary Baby Crib

By Louise Ure

We all have things we keep – holding them close to our heart. Other things we sell or give away, their meaning no longer important to us. But then there are the things we’ve lost. Things that define us even though we don’t have them anymore. And those are the ones that hurt the most.

It was a humid August afternoon in Austin, Texas, and I’d just finished lunch with the account team at GSD&M Advertising. It is only coincidence that I usually associate those initials with Greed, Sex, Drugs & Money – the four best reasons to commit a crime.

I was working on something that would make no difference in anyone’s life … a new feature on a cell phone, a new long distance pricing plan. Whatever it was, I cared deeply about it at the time, and the conversation was heated. Tempers flared and hands flew.

I knocked over my coffee, spilling it on my hands and lap and strewing those little packets of mysterious whitener like starter kits of cocaine across the table.


It wasn’t until I was back in the hotel room several hours later that I realized the loss.

There was an airy space where my wedding ring should have been.

In a moment of pure photographic recall, I remembered taking off my ring, wiping the coffee from my hands, cleaning the ring, bundling everything up in paper napkins and throwing it all away.

My arm ached with the sense memory of trying to call back that toss.

I drove back to the agency, where a stooped, sixty-five year old Mexican man met me at the door with a bucket in his hand.

“Ayúdame … por favor.”

The night cleaning crew took pity on me. We pawed through the trashcans in the conference room. We got down on our hands and knees and searched the floor. We emptied the vacuum cleaner bags. We stood shoulder to shoulder in the dumpster out back and went through every plastic bag with flashlights.


It was gone.

I wasn’t dreading telling my husband. Hell, he’d left his wedding ring in three different hotel rooms around the world and had to have it mailed back to him.

No, the diamond belonged to Mimi.

Mimi was my grandmother, Leonora Bianca Cosamini, born in the mountain town of Lucca per Barga in Tuscany in 1896 and carried to America as a baby. Unlike many Italian immigrants, they came west. West to a land still punctuated with gunfire and cattle rustling and barefoot Papago Indians making daily treks to market down the middle of a dirt road grandly named Broadway.


She was as intrepid and independent as her new land, running away at thirteen from the convent where she’d been in training, and eloping with a thirty-three year-old man with bright blue eyes. Her parents had him arrested for kidnapping and sent her back to Italy.

Fat lot of good that did. Jimmy Counter found her in Lucca and kidnapped her all over again.

Thus began their short, hot life together. Only three years later, Jimmy died in a plane crash while trying to strew rose petals over the house in apology for a spat the night before.


He left her with two children … and that diamond ring.

It was an Old Miner’s Cut stone, more cushion-shaped than today’s brilliant cuts, with a smaller table on the top and greater depth than diamonds carved today. A cut like that doesn’t reflect much light; it holds it close and keeps the joy inside.



Mimi died in 1971. The ring is what I had of her.

I need to know what happened to it.

In my mind’s eye, it was found the next day in the city dump by a young Latina named Genoveva, whose pregnancy demanded a marriage ceremony, but whose young lover could not afford a ring.

They consider it a miracle, just like the child growing inside her.

They thank the Virgin Mary every night in their prayers and the guardian angels who left heaven to drop the ring at their feet.


They lived happily ever after.

Well, that’s the way it should have been anyway.

I hold the memory of that ring inside me. And the love behind it.

What, my friends, defines you, even in its absence? What have you ever lost that you would give your heart to get back?

P.S. Check out this terrific half-day seminar on "How to Create Killer Openings," sponsored by MWA Norcal. September 8, in San Mateo, California. Details are here.


Me and Barry Bonds

By Louise Ure

I’m a San Francisco girl, so I’ve been especially interested in baseball this last few weeks.

Unless you’re a hermit living off the grid, you probably know that Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron’s longstanding home run record of 755 on Saturday and tried to reach the magic 756 at a home game last night. Alas, to no avail.


And while that’s a lot of pressure, that’s also pretty cool, right? I mean, he’s making more money than God and he’s a master at his craft, even if he is an arrogant SOB with all the credibility of Alberto Gonzales in front of a Senate Judiciary committee.

I could have hoped that Hank Aaron and Commissioner Bud Selig would be better gents during this home run hunt, but I guess they’re doing what they have to do.

Does Bonds deserve to be called the best home run hitter in all of baseball? Will his name ever be typed without an asterisk?

Don’t give me any shit, you sports nuts out there. I don’t care if he took steroids. We’ve all got our crutches. So what if his head and feet are three sizes bigger than they were a couple of years ago? I know writers whose heads swell up with the slightest compliment. And my shoe size can increase with a big lunch.


Whether you come down on the asterisk or no asterisk side of the argument, one thing is clear: Barry Bonds, like just about any major sports figure today, lives under a microscope.

For a moment I’d like you to walk a mile in those size thirteens of his. How would you like it if your performance … like that of any baseball player or quarterback or point guard or golfer … was followed and publicly critiqued at every turn?

Imagine if authors were subjected to the same analysis, scrutiny and statistics that sports figures endure. Your every move would be analyzed; each sentence parsed and graded.

“He’s been in a slump. Only sold three books at his last signing.”

“Her Ingram sales numbers are down this week from the same week last year.”

“His word count is up, but the sophisticated analogies and literary references are down.”

Sure, we’ve got our share of folks who tell us just what they think of us. We start growing a thicker skin well before publication, back when that first critic in our writers’ group says the characters are dull and the writing is flat.

The skin hardens with each subsequent rejection … first by agents, then by editors.

 “The willing suspension of disbelief does not mean that you have to grab it by the throat, suspend it in mid-air and then shake it until it is dead.”

“I just wasn’t as wowed as I’d hoped to be.”

Later, even the copy editors become critics of our work.

“On page 37 you’ve described the cowlick on the back of his head. Please note that on page 246 it has moved to the front of his head.”

“This courtroom scene is set on a Sunday. Did you intend that?”

And they rarely add a smiley face notation.

By the time the book is published, we’ve practically grown a carapace.

Reviews can be elating, illuminating or just plain hurtful. Maybe you learn to take them all with a measure of salt after a few books. At this point though, I still disbelieve the good ones, learn from the thoughtful ones … and memorize the negative ones.

“Despite a clunky and obvious plot …”

“I read this book so you don’t have to.”

But, even with all that commentary, we still don’t have to put up with the daily microscope of the media or the analysis of every day’s work like those sports figures do.

“She promised a new scene, but only wrote five hundred words today.”

“Her Amazon ranking has slipped in the last hour, and now a full 80% of the people who click on her page wind up buying Laura Lippman’s book instead.”

“He’s oh-for-four in awards nominations this year. Doesn’t look like he’s going to the Edgars.”

You’d think we’d all be turtles by now, jaded and hard-shelled when someone comments on our words and our work. And mostly we are.

But then along comes some nameless blogger or Amazon reviewer or dull-witted relative who can still cut us to the core with a hasty, inexpert jab. And we still bleed. We put our hearts out there on the tracks and wait for the train to come along. And so it does.

But hey, things could be worse. We could be Barry Bonds.


"To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing."

                                             – Elbert Hubbard




Letters Home


By Louise Ure

“Throw forty or fifty loose tampons into the box. That way, they won’t go through it.”

I first met Maya eighteen years ago, when she was seven. She was crying. She and her nine-year old brother, Brian, had been unceremoniously dumped at my house for the weekend. Their grandmother had taken ill in Louisiana, and their single mother had to return home to take care of her. They didn’t know anyone in San Francisco. And my husband had just hired their mother as a receptionist.


Maya hated everything that weekend. The chilly temperature of my house. The lack of a cartoon channel on TV. The way I made hot chocolate. I thought we’d never make it to Sunday night.

“There’s no running water or electricity where I’m staying, but I do have a pump out in the yard, so I’m one of the lucky ones. Others have to walk two miles to the river to get water.”

Her world was alien to me. Wiry black hair while mine was straight, dishwater brown. Chocolate skin versus my winter-in-San Francisco vanilla. She had never seen a horse except on television. She lived in a basement apartment and could tell the weather by the shoes that filed past.

“They don’t believe I’m an American.They’ve never seen a black American before.”

After that first meeting, stayovers became routine. Their mother needed time to herself, and Bruce and I thought it was the perfect way to have kids: borrow them for the weekend. We spent our Saturdays and Sundays together for the next ten years.


I taught Maya French and her brother Spanish. When we played Scrabble, I was only allowed to use words in English.

She usually slept until after noon, rising only when something on the stove smelled good or her brother sounded like he was having fun. She had the attention span of a flea, and was guaranteed to lose something on every visit.

“I had some kind of allergic reaction to the napia grass while we were planting trees today. A couple of Benedryls did the trick.”

I taught her to ride a horse – Western style, of course. We’d gallop right into the flocks of seagulls on the beach, her stick-legs flapping like stunted wings.


No one was more surprised than I when she said she wanted to be a lawyer. Studied debate had never been the way Maya won arguments. She was a pouter, a thrower of chess pieces, a disengager.

“I’ve got the pedal powered generator set up now. With any luck I’ll be able to power up my cell phone and laptop for at least a few minutes at a time.”

She gave one of the keynote addresses at her college graduation. And there, at the podium, she introduced me as “my other mother.”

“Today, for the first time, I know why I’m here. And I’m making a difference.”


Last year she decided that The Law could wait, and she signed up for the Peace Corps. She’s been in a small village in Kenya for a month now, tasked with educating woman barely younger than herself about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.

And we just got her first letters home.

“If you send me anything, be sure to draw crosses everywhere and write ‘Jesus Is Watching You’ all over the box. It’s no guarantee, but it’s less likely to be stolen that way.”

Travel well, Sweet Girl.

I’m no longer a religious person, but I’ll write “Jesus is Watching You” all over those boxes.

And I’ll mean every word of it.



Motorcycle Accessories

   By Louise                              


I’ve been ignoring writing in favor of watching cooking shows the last couple of days, hoping that mindless viewing of celebrity chefs and exotic ingredients would spark an idea that would get me past the big dime I got stuck on in this third book.

No big ideas yet. That dime is as sturdy and immovable a K-wall roadblock.

But I did get a kick out of my weekend-long immersion in the Food Network. In fact, I found a whole new way to categorize the shows: celebrity chefs as crime fiction writers.

Cozy chefs: Semi Homemade’s Sandra Lee. Robin Miller. The diet conscious Ellie Krieger. And the big sister of them all, Rachel Ray.

Sandra Lee, a willowy blond whose curtains and dish towels always match her menu, began as a purveyor of craft, quilting and scrapbooking supplies to Target and K-Mart. (And if I ever use the phrases “tablescape” or “cute little accessories” in public, just go ahead and shoot me.)

Robin Miller (Quick Fix Meals) can show you how to stretch a meal over three days. Ellie Krieger  (Healthy Appetite) will tell you how to cut calories so that it tastes one third as good.


The ubiquitous Rachel Ray has taken over the cooking universe, with at least three shows running on the Food Network, and one on NBC, along with a whole line of books, cooking utensils and videos. If I ever wind up in a white-tiled room like that in the denouement of “The Devil and Miss Jones,” Rachel Ray will be my companion in that room, and I will be doomed to an eternity of her vapid ejaculations of “Delish! Yum-oh! It’s a stoup! Thinner than a stew, thicker than a soup. Just add E-V-O-O!”

I do not mean to cast aspersions on cozy writers with this list. I enjoy a good cozy as much as I enjoy a home-cooked meal. But none of our cozy writers misuse the word “nice” like these women do on their shows. “Nice and spicy.” “Nice and cold.” “Nice and tight.” “Nice and brown.” When did “nice” become an adjectival replacement for “very?” Herewith, I’m asking them nicely to stop it.

The Researchers: Think Tom Clancy. Ridley Pearson. Any writer whose book can teach you about cavitation on a nuclear submarine or how to uncouple a train car with one hand.


Their cooking equivalent is Alton Brown, a man who takes the mystery out of food by explaining the science of oxidation or the thermal dynamics of cooking in a pouch. Alton’s an egghead, and if he were a writer, I bet he’d be an outliner.

England’s Jamie Oliver gives us the opposite characteristic: a seat-of-the-pants creator. Use a recipe? Measure? Moi? “Just bang a knob of butter in there.”

The Pros: These guys might be the culinary equivalents of our legal thrillers and police procedural writers. Guys who have been trained to get the job done, and have a fine time showing us how. Bobby Flay. Tyler Florence. Mario Batali. Emeril Lagasse. They were trained as chefs. They own restaurants with stars behind their names. They never tasted an ingredient they couldn’t name.


If Mario Batali were writing crime fiction, his character would be a pizza-chomping,  orange clog-wearing detective on the Lower East Side. And he’d solve every crime with the help of his Sicilian cousin, Marco.

The Amateurs: Well, they’re hardly amateur chefs, anymore than our characters are really amateur PI’s. They’re the caterers and the party pros. Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa). Michael Chiarello (Easy Entertaining). Dino’s granddaughter, Giada De Laurentiis.

There may be a crossover to traditional mystery writing here; I see their literary equivalents as the teachers, the veterinarians, the real estate agents and the tarot readers that populate our genre today.


The Regionals: Paula Deen (Paula’s Home Cooking), who never met a pound of butter she didn’t like, could represent every gumbo-eating, sweet tea-sucking, Southern ex-debutante in crime fiction. Her roots, like those of her mystery counterparts, are as important to the story as the crime/recipe itself.


Noir: the bad boys of chefdom. I give you Tony Bourdain (No Reservations) and Gordon Ramsey (The F Word).

I wouldn’t classify Lee Child’s work as noir, but I can’t help drawing a connection between Bourdain’s lanky, smoky, different-location-in-each-episode presence and that of Jack Reacher. And I love spending time with both of them. And Ramsey’s curse-strewn, high-octane approach to cooking mirrors that of some of our darkest writers.

And finally, one of my all time favorite categories: the international chefs. Nigella Lawson. Kylie Kwong. Their exoticism is as important as their food. They whisper  words like“cardamom” or “star anise” and I melt. They transport me to another world.

Hmmm … maybe it’s time to order in some sushi and pull that new Natsuo Kirino off the shelf.

Do you have any author candidates that fit somewhere in these categories? Or have I left some categories out? Come sit, have a nosh, and tell me.


My First Dead Body

By Louise


I came across my first dead body when I was sixteen. I don’t remember his name and I’m sorry about that. Especially because I had so much to do with killing him.

I was cheerleader-fit that summer, and as callous and superficial as only a teenage girl can be. My mind was on high dives and bikini lines. Kevin and Eldon and Keith.  Not on the job at hand.

I was the rent collector at my mother’s rooming house and I wasn’t happy about it.


The boarding house had a proud past and a dissolute future. It was built in 1888 to house the engineers, conductors and brakemen from the new transcontinental railroad that had just reached territorial Arizona, and was both the first-built and the last-standing two-story adobe building in Tucson.

By 1967, the time of my story, its decline was complete. The two-foot thick adobe walls were crumbling. Mice and mosquitoes used the sliced screen doors as grand promenades. There were only three hallway bathrooms left to service the twenty-eight guest rooms.

The clientele was in similar decline. We now catered only to the drunk, the sad, and the desperate. Sometimes they were the same person.

Friday was always a good day for collections. I took in thirty-five one-dollar bills from the Indian in room fourteen, keeping a wary eye on the knife handle sticking out from under his mattress. Lucy, my longest guest-in-residence in number twenty-three, wore only a polyester slip and painted on eyebrows. She had an open bottle of vodka on the bedside table. No glass in sight.

The character in room seven was my biggest problem. A thin, wild-eyed Latino, he’d arrived only two weeks before but was already behind on the rent.

“I have one room left,” I’d told him. “Top of the stairs at the front of the building.”

My brother and I had used plywood and discarded railroad ties to cobble together another two rooms out of the grand old wooden balcony on the second floor.


The man had no luggage — that wasn’t unusual for my clientele — but when I opened the door to the porch room, he recoiled.

“It’s wood!”

“Yes, and it’s thirty five-dollars a week.”

“But I cannot …”

“You don’t want the room?”

“It’s the splinters.”

He was haunted by splinters from New Mexico, he said. They swarmed around him and prevented him from leaving town. They even kept him from going to see his daughter for help.


“They attack. They jab like knives. They try to blind me.”

“Take it or leave it.”

He’d steeled himself and swallowed hard. I handed him the key, but he was still standing in the hallway when I started back down the stairs.

Crazy fucker.

I did have one other room, but it hadn’t been cleaned and I wasn’t about to do that when it was a hundred and ten degrees out. And what the hell, it had a wooden ceiling too.

He’d paid for the first week, but I hadn’t seen him since. I’d squinted through the screen door when I’d come by on Wednesday. He was asleep on the bed and no amount of pounding or yelling could rouse him.

I wouldn’t go away empty handed today. I was hot and tired and angry about having to be a slumlord-cheerleader. I felt almost justified in having sentenced Mr. Cabeza Loca to a windowless, all-wooden room for the week.

But something was different today. The air was not just hot but fetid. There was a thickness to the smell, something that clung to the back of my throat like sewage.

He was on the bed. Dirty gray boxers and yellow toenails. One hand flung sideways off the mattress.

This time there was no rise and fall of his chest. No thin wheeze of restless sleep.

And his fingers were covered in a dark red tint.

The paramedics didn’t arrive very quickly. It was August, after all, and they had lots of dead bodies to attend to in this heat. When they did get there, I heard one paramedic tell his partner, “Did you see his fingers? He tried to claw his way out of there.”

I do not take death lightly now. Not in life and not in literature.

It is never pretty. It is rarely peaceful. And it can be soul rending to those left behind.

And I can’t read crime fiction that devalues that experience. I don’t care if you’re writing about an amateur sleuth who keeps tripping over bodies or the police detective who has to deal with them every day. Don’t make a joke of it. Or, if you do, show me that humor is the only way the character can deal with the death, because his heart is breaking.

Ken Bruen reminded us several weeks ago about the Bossuet quote:

“One must know oneself,

to the point of being horrified.” 

I do, and this nameless man on a Friday in August, 1967, is part of it.

We’re all carrying splinters from New Mexico somewhere in our past.




Eb Game Game

By Louise


I believe that people grow into their given names. A baby Bubba will indeed grow up to be a Bubba. Tracie and Gertrude will become different kinds of women.

I don’t have children, but the naming part must be an awesome task. Do you whisper to the Genius Gods with names like Isaac and Albert? Do you tempt fate by calling your daughters Precious and Belle?

Unlike human parents, I’ve noticed that many dog owners prefer ironic names for their pets. How else to explain the number of Bichon Frises  named Rocky?



My family has always followed the Last-Out-First-In rule for naming. That is, you name your newborn after the most recently deceased relative of the same sex. It can lead to a covey of Leonas and Louises in one generation. And it will be a long time before any more Jennifers or Jasons show up.

There are some folks who recognize early on that they have been mislabeled. Like fixing a recipe, sometimes it calls for just a tweak — a little more salt, perhaps. Leonas become Lees. Elizabeth becomes Betty.

Others throw out the recipe all together. My old friend Maddie Werner became Illiani Matisse. And webmistress-extraordinaire Heidi Mack became Madeira James. She never felt like a Heidi, and finally did something about it.

Why all this talk about names? Because I can’t start writing without one.


I need a title for a book before I can even write the first sentence.

I know this isn’€™t true for all writers. Some folks find that nugget of a title from a sentence they wrote on page 386. Others have been so burned by title changes at the publisher that they no longer care what name the book starts out with.

But that’s not me.

A good title opens whole new worlds for me. Something called Cold Kill could be a survival story in the bleakest winter. Or it could describe a passionless execution by a serial killer. Louise Penny’s Still Life evokes artwork, but also made me ask, "Is that an unmoving and stagnant life? Or is a still life another name for death?"


I keep three "idea folders" in my desk drawer. One for plot lines and book ideas. One for description, dialog, and character inspiration. One for titles. Guess which one is as fat as a mid-summer tomato?

I once tried to write a book without having a title. I was rudderless. Too many places I could go, and no destination in mind. I got 130 pages into it and realized that it was a collection of scenes, but not a story.

It didn’€™t have a name. And a name would have defined it.

Years ago, I decided that I would someday write a book called Forcing Amaryllis€. (You know, of course, that it was said in the grandest tone — back in the days when I talked about writing rather than actually doing it.) I had seen the words on an instruction sheet at the nursery. How to force an amaryllis bulb to open after its months-long slumber. Hmmm, I wonder what that book would be about?


My second novel is €œThe Fault Tree,€ and it, too was named years before it was written. I was driving through Golden Gate Park when the radio announcer broke the news of the space shuttle Columbia’s disintegration in the Texas sky. "They’ve already scheduled a fault tree analysis to see if they can determine what went wrong." Ah, there are so many ways something can go wrong. My own Fault Tree proves it.

The next book will be Liars Anonymous. Then After That Day. Then maybe The Glam Squad. I have no idea what these books are about but the words hang at the point of my tongue, teasing and taunting.

How about €œSnuff Radio? Or Gabble Ratchet or A Silver Bullet for Miss Kahlil.€


Maybe €œDime Store Pope or €œSin Lagrimas, when the English-reading world is ready for a Spanish-titled book.

I’m not at a loss for titles. The hard part is creating the books that live up to them. After all, we grow into our given names, don’€™t we?

What about you all? Are you as drawn to titles as I am? When you’re in a bookstore, can a title alone get you to pick up a book? And writers, can you nurture a nameless child? Or must you, like me, name him first?


And just because I think it’s so cool … here’s 500 years of female portraiture in three minutes:


Back Home on the Range

By Louise

I am now on a first name basis with two grocery clerks at Fry’s and a guy at Ace Hardware, in a city I don’t live in.

I spent last week in Arizona, visiting my mother. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations – I was there to clean and repair things, to encourage her to eat, to hold her hand and make her smile, even if that moment would be forgotten in the time it takes a hummingbird to bat a wing.


Walt at Ace Hardware down the block had helpful hints for the cleaning and repair part. I stopped in every morning at 7:00 with a new list. Thin wire and a patch kit to repair the screen door. A brightly painted toilet roll bar so she’d see it and not throw it out when she changed the roll. A real drop-the-slice-in-toaster instead of a toaster oven so she wouldn’t mistake it for a microwave. Oven cleaner for the pots she had inadvertently burned up.


By the fifth day, he was making suggestions for things I hadn’t even thought to repair. A hook and eye, set high up on the door, so she couldn’t wander. A flow limiter added to the hoses so she won’t flood the yard. Thank you, Walt.

Socorro and Natalie at Fry’s did the same. My mother, now in her ninth decade in Tucson, has decided that life is too short to eat anything but pasta. Spaghetti and meatballs one night. Shrimp and cream sauced fettuccine the next. “How about Beef Stroganoff tomorrow?” Natalie suggested. “With ground beef so she can chew it.” Socorro voted for albondigas soup with orzo added to the recipe so she’d still think it was a pasta dish. In the land of hard-shelled tacos and tortilla chips, I made soft food.

It was soft weather as well. Only a couple of days over a hundred, and evenings full of star-studded skies. My mother wore a sweatshirt and a lap blanket.

My daily visits to Fry’s were a diary of the Tucson I’d left behind thirty years ago, its aisles full of the memories of my childhood. An herb mix for menudo. Mexican oregano, chili de arbol, and safflower on the spice rack. Dried corn husks and fresh masa dough for tamale making. An entire aisle dedicated to varieties of refried beans.

There were new additions to the offered fare since I’d left town. Fenugreek, berbere, and niter kibbeh to satisfy the spice-loving community of Ethiopians that that moved into the neighborhood in the last several years. Gumbo and creole fixings for the Katrina victims who had taken over the apartment complex on Seneca.

The only better way to take the pulse of a community than the local grocery store is the yellow pages. Flip through the phone book next time you visit a new city. Is there a listing for “Churches – Satanic” (page 301 in the San Francisco phone book)? Do they offer Anger Management Services as well as gun retailers? Is there a category for “Water Witches/Dowsers” to help you site your well (page 476 in the Tucson book)?


One aisle of the supermarket hadn’t changed: the offertory candles. Fry’s dedicates one entire aisle to the eight-inch votive candles. Three for three bucks. Now that’s a deal.


Sometimes there’s an image and a prayer. Chango Macho, the Spirit of Good Luck. Chuparrosa, with a hummingbird’s picture, to bring you a relationship that is honest and true. Justo Juez, for a favorable ruling from a judge.



Sometimes it’s the color of the wax that counts. Brown wax for luck in court cases. Green for luck in gambling. Black when you’re conducting business in private and to keep your enemies away.

I bought three. A blue wax Milagrosa candle to bring my mother comfort, healing and rest. An orange wax Road Opener for myself to clear up old messes, setbacks and slow downs and start new projects.

And one green wax La Suerte de la Loteria in hopes of supplementing my advance from St. Martin’s.

All important issues covered now. Peace found for three bucks plus tax.

All in all, the visit was a good one. My mother’s mind was so much better than I expected. “I can still think,” she said. “It just takes a little more time and doesn’t hang around as long.” She laughs easily and still gets all the jokes. And the only times she got stuck on those ten-second loop tapes I’d come to expect was when she first got up in the morning.

“I’m not having any fun,” she’d call from the living room if I was wrapped up in a project for too long.

I wrote “Louise was here” across the first ten days in her June calendar and added hearts and exclamation points. Maybe she’ll glance at that page sometime and remember.

Random thought while making smoked salmon bowtie pasta in Tucson: If the lyrics to “Home on the Range,” say “and the skies are not cloudy all day,” does that mean that the clouds did arrive for part of the day?


What about your childhood grocery stores, my friends? What would you have found on those shelves that truly let you know you were home?

Thanks Giving

By Louise


I finished the copy edits on The Fault Tree this week and was ready to send it back to my publisher … but wait … there was one more small item to be done. And it’s not an easy task. The Acknowledgments page.

I stink at writing the Acknowledgments.


First of all, this book has had more incarnations than Vishnu, and I know I’m going to forget someone who helped along the way. Someone important. Like my editor. Or my first reader. Or the character I based the protagonist on.

Oh, sure, I made notes to myself as I worked. “Don’t forget Robbie!” Huh? By the time it came to assemble that thank you list on the Acknowledgments page, I had no memory of ever meeting or knowing someone named Robbie.

I could take the easy way out, and thank everybody I’d ever met. Just copy my whole email address book right onto the page. That would do it. But what about that guy in the bar who told the funny story that got me to thinking about …? Or the maiden aunt who praised my early attempts to write fairy tales? See? I told you I’d forget someone.

Spouses or Significant Others have a special place on the page, for their undying support of the writer. But how hyperbolic or treacly sweet can you get in your thanks before both the spouse and the reader throw up?  Does the reader (or even the typesetter, for that matter) really need to know that I haven’t cooked anything but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and haven’t done laundry for a year while writing this book? That, in all likelihood, my spouse’s cell phone number will be featured prominently in the D.C. Madam’s call logs?  Maybe I should settle for the more vague “as always” or “my love and thanks for everything.”


And then there’s the issue of thanking your expert resources. I want to give them credit. Really I do.They’ve been a tremendous help to me. But if I include their names for teaching me how to poison sun tea, or for getting me all that great information on detonators and explosives, they’re likely to be getting a visit from the feds.


I should know. Just try explaining why your first two Google Earth searches were for up close and personal photos of Camp David and the Crawford ranch. Ruh-roh.

I can tell you who won’t be on the Acknowledgments page but probably should be.

•    My tax guy, for making this all possible.

•    The lady at the nail salon who has taught me how to say, “Yes, I’m still working on the same book” in Vietnamese.

•    The guy who gave me directions to the signing, when I was late and lost in Los Angeles. (Sorry I was so rude. I thought you were a homeless guy looking to wash my windows.)

•    My high school guidance counselor who said I’d “do well in retail.” Hell, I thought I’d at least have the choices from the jump rope song. (Tinker, tailor, cowboy, sailor … doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.) Come to think of it, those were supposed to be your potential spouse’s occupations, right?

•    My dog Angus, who barks if I get up from the computer before Keith Olbermann comes on.

•    Every great writer who put out a book this year. You make me spit-green with envy, but inspire me every day.

Let’s create the Ultimate Acknowledgments Page. What would you most like to include in yours (if your mother and your publisher weren’t looking over your shoulder)? And readers, what outrageous thank you would you most like to see?