Category Archives: Louise Ure

A Touch of Genius

By Louise

Do we recognize genius when we see it?

Earlier this year, the world-renowned classical violinist Joshua Bell put on a baseball cap and played a 43-minute free concert in a Metro Station in Washington D.C. Few rush hour commuters stopped to listen. Most didn’t even remember a musician in the station that day. He collected a total of $32.17, if you don’t count the $20 from the woman who recognized him from a concert at the Library of Congress three weeks earlier.


This link will take you to the Washington Post story about the musical experiment, along with some fascinating video and an audio download of the entire concert.

Clearly, the answer to the question above is, “not many of us.”

For the record, Bruce Springsteen pulled a similar stunt almost twenty years ago, stopping to sing The River with a street musician in Copenhagen. The video’s here. He had a better response from the crowd, and they were polite enough not to mob him. But I don’t know if that says more about Springsteen or about the Danes.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the rigors of publishing, as well. Whether we’re agents or editors, members of award judging panels, reviewers, or readers, do we recognize great writing when we see it?

Pity the poor agent. Hundreds of query letters come in each week. If they’re done professionally, they have, at most, one paragraph of description of the work on offer. They might have a few sample pages, but that’s only if your agency accepts that kind of thing in an initial query. And if it’s not professionally done, the agent might be reading cat scratches made with a No. 3 pencil or a red crayon.

After hours of flinging sound-alike, seen-that-before plots and characters onto the slush pyre, do agents still have the openness of spirit to recognize gold when it crosses their desk?

What must those agents have first thought of Jasper Fforde’s submission? “Well, it’s all done tongue-in-cheek, with lots of plays on words and literary references, and it’s kind of sci-fi … but more like a fairy tale. And there’s a bit of a mystery to it.” And a bit of genius too, I think.


For the most part, editors at least can start with the summary and praise from an agent they trust. The manuscript was at least good enough to get an agent’s attention. That doesn’t mean that an editor will agree, but it’s a good start. What then? Do they wait for their heart to beat faster? Do they cock an ear to hear a voice in the writing that is as clear and sweet as a bell ringing?

Judges on awards panels try to be objective in their reading, just like the editor or agent would be. But does that mean they would have judged Joshua Bell relative to all the other musicians in the Metro? Or relative to the best music they’d ever heard?

Reviewers try to be objective, too, although personal preferences and bias figure in sometimes. All in all, I think they’re listening for that perfect pitch, that single note that says "this is something special."


As readers, we have more options. We can take the word of a trusted bookseller or friend. We can read blurbs or reviews or chat list recommendations. Some of us are swayed by awards. Or by advertising. Or by the first sentence. Others wait until Oprah has blessed it.


But without those signposts of previous accolades, would we know great writing if we came across it in an unusual place?

Last Fall, I commented on one of Patty Smiley’s Naked Author blogs, and fessed up to having stolen somebody’s manuscript out of the dumpster. My next door neighbor, a software engineer, had placed her recycling bin right next to mine. And there, on the top, was a complete, rubber-banded manuscript. I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed it, stuffed it under my sweatshirt and hotfooted it back upstairs.


Now let’s be honest about the motivations here. I couldn’t stand the woman. She had a pinched and sour face, and looked like the Wicked Witch of the West as she pedaled off to work in the morning. She took great pleasure in attending planning commission meetings to protest any additions or improvements our neighbors wanted to make to their houses. She called the cops every time I worked on the race car, saying that the smell of the idling engine gave her a migraine.

I wanted to read her manuscript to take small green-toad pleasure in how bad it was. I didn’t have an open mind. I didn’t wish her well.

Upstairs, I slipped off the rubber bands.

It was a memoir – the saddest story I’ve ever read – of three generations of women in her family dying of breast cancer. She used simple language to express the deepest of emotions. She touched the most primal and vulnerable part of me. And she made sense of a senseless world.

It ended with the news of her own illness.

She died last year and I never had the guts to tell her how much her writing had meant to me.

Maybe — even without an open heart — we can find the glint of genius in unlikely places. I’ve learned my lesson. I now approach all my reading with an open mind. And I give every street musician a little money.

How about all you readers and reviewers and agents and editors and judges out there? Have you recognized something extraordinary where you didn’t expect to find it?

Mama’s Brains

By Louise

Several years ago, when I was home for a family holiday gathering in Tucson, my now 91-year old mother bemoaned the loss of Mama’s Brains.

Mama’s Brains was a treasured recipe from her mother, Mimi, handwritten on a lined 3 X 5 index card. It was usually crammed into a kitchen drawer, tucked under the nutcracker with a broken arm, and creased together with a newspaper clipping about ways to celebrate the Feast Day of San Juan Bautista.


I’€™ve always loved that recipe. Not for the taste, surely, but for the implicit prowess expressed in each step. It started with "Get some cow brains," as if my grandmother were as comfortable with the notion that one could kill a steer, cut off its head and pluck out the brain as she was going to the supermarket. One of my favorite cookbooks, the 1952 Eskimo Cookbook, has a similar recipe for whale. "Catch a whale. Cut whale in pieces and put into cooking pot. Add water and salt, and boil."


I’ve looked everywhere," Mama said. "Mama’s Brains are gone."

She was right, but we didn’€™t know it then. The recipe card had certainly gone missing, but soon enough, so had my mother’s brains.

Dementia set in gently. A pot left too long on boil. A sprinkler that ran all night. Reading the same newspaper article multiple times. She slowed down for the first time in her life, even pausing for a nap if no one was looking.

But she still drove. She shopped. She cooked. She forgot birthdays but sent notes and clippings for no reason at all. She took care of us all, just as she’d done all her life.

Then one day she drove to my brother’s house but couldn’t figure out how to get home.

We’ve moved into darker canyons now. She’s begun to wander. She’s forgotten the name of the daughter-in-law who sees her daily. And her conversations have been reduced to a ten second loop tape.

My brother has moved in with her, which was a good thing for both of them. And the patience and twenty-four hour care he’s giving have earned him the right to bypass Purgatory altogether. He’s building up so many karmic points that he’€™ll come back in the next life as a poodle and be pampered all day with chew treats and belly rubs.

I think she is comfortable in her senility. The same fog that has dimmed recent events has also allowed her to forget the loss of a child to cancer, and the death of her two mates. She still knows the words to all the old songs and she laughs easily. She sits in the morning sun "€œuntil the batteries are recharged."€

There’s another pleasant thing about dementia: good news goes on forever. I gave her the first copy of Forcing Amaryllis and watched her reverentially open the front cover. "You’ve written a book and it’s dedicated to me!" It was like watching a sunbeam smile. Then, thirty seconds later, she noticed the book again. "You’ve written a book and it’s dedicated to me!"

I made her happy one hundred times in an hour.

I’€™m heading back down to Tucson soon. This time with door security alarms, memory-prompting books, gentle exercise videos and other gadgets from the Alzheimer’s Store to make her safe and warm and comfortable and happy.

That recipe says to "drain brains well."€ That’s already been done. But I’€™m not throwing away the cooking liquid. That liqueur is the sweet distillation of a woman whose love and courage has not been diminished, even in the face of a sea of forgetfulness.

"Do not go gentle into that good night?" My mother could teach Dylan Thomas a thing or two about gracious decline. Hers is truly a gentle good night, and I’d pick that for her over raging, any day.


                                                 Jeanne C. Ure

                                                Tucson, Arizona

Comments are welcome. As are any suggestions on how to make her as happy and safe as possible.


 By LouiseBlock_exclam_paren_16338

A couple of weeks ago, somebody on one of the chat lists suggested that since it was so expensive and so time consuming to try reading all the new books that were available, perhaps publishers should get together and agree to issue only 200 to 300 new books a year. "That way the authors will get the royalties they deserve and we have a better chance of reading them," she said. "Who needs more than three hundred books a year anyway?"

Sweet Spotted Dick, I hope her tongue was planted firmly in her cheek. I cower to think of a world where we only have three hundred books in any given year to pick from.

But her comment made me think of Elwyn Brooks (Andy) White.


You know the guy. E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web and the redoubtable The Elements of Style, with his buddy William Strunk.


But he also wrote a wonderful piece called "Irtnog." An essay that fits nicely into Ms. Chatlist’s  desire for  fewer words to read.

"Along about 1920 it became apparent that more things were being written than people had time to read. That is to say, even if a man spent his entire time reading stories, articles, and news, as they appeared in books, magazines, and pamphlets, he fell behind. This was no fault of the reading public; on the contrary, readers made a real effort to keep pace with writers, and utilized every spare moment during their waking hours. They read while shaving in the morning and while waiting for trains and while riding on trains.



There came to be a kind of tacit agreement among numbers of the reading public that when one person laid down the baton, someone else must pick it up; and so when a customer entered a barbershop, the barber would lay aside the Boston Evening Globe and the customer would pick up Judge; or when a customer appeared in a shoeshining parlor, the bootblack would put away the Racing Form and the customer would open his briefcase and pull out The Sheik. So there was always somebody reading something. Motormen of trolley cars read while they waited on the switch. Errand boys read while walking from the corner of Thirty-ninth and Madison to the corner of Twenty-fifth and Broadway. Subway riders read constantly, even when they were in a crushed, upright position in which nobody could read his own paper but everyone could look over the next man’s shoulder. People passing newsstands would pause for a second to read headlines. Men in the backseats of limousines, northbound on Lafayette Street in the evening, switched on tiny dome lights and read the Wall Street Journal. Women in semi-detached houses joined circulating libraries and read Vachel Lindsay while the baby was taking his nap.




There was a tremendous volume of stuff that had to be read.  Writing began to give off all sorts of by-products.  Readers not only had to read the original works of a writer, but they also had to scan what the critics said, and they had to read the advertisements reprinting the favorable criticisms, and they had to read the book chat giving some rather odd piece of information about the writer—such as that he could write only when he had a gingersnap in his mouth. It all took time. Writers gained steadily, and readers lost.

Then along came the Reader’s Digest.


That was a wonderful idea.  It digested everything that was being written in leading magazines, and put new hope in the hearts of readers. Here, everybody thought, was the answer to the problem. Readers, badly discouraged by the rate they had been losing ground, took courage and set out once more to keep abreast of everything that was being written in the world. For a while they seemed to hold their own. But soon other digests and short cuts appeared, like Time, and The Best Short Stories of 1927, and the new Five-Foot shelf, and Wells’ Outline of History, and Newsweek, and Fiction Parade. By 1939 there were one hundred and seventy-three digests, or short cuts, in America, and even if a man read nothing but digests of selected material, and read continuously, he couldn’t keep up. It was obvious that something more concentrated than digests would have to come along to take up the slack.

It did. Someone conceived the idea of digesting the digests.  He brought out a little publication called Pith, no bigger than your thumb. It was a digest of Reader’s Digest, Time, Concise Spicy Tales, and the daily News Summary of the New York Herald Tribune.  Everything was so extremely condensed that a reader could absorb everything that was being published in the world in about forty-five minutes.  It was a tremendous financial success, and of course other publications sprang up, aping it:  one called Core, another called Nub, and a third called Nutshell. Nutshell folded up, because, an expert said, the name was too long; but half a dozen others sprang up to take its place, and for another short period readers enjoyed a breathing spell and managed to stay abreast of writers.  In fact, at one juncture, soon after the appearance of Nub, some person of unsound business tendencies felt that the digest rage had been carried too far and that there would be room in the magazine field for a counterdigest—a publication devoted to restoring literary bulk.


He raised some money and issued a huge thing called Amplifo, undigesting the digests. In the second issue the name had been changed to Regurgitans. The third issue never reached the stands. Pith and Core continued to gain, and became so extraordinarily profitable that hundreds of other digests of digests came into being. Again readers felt themselves slipping. Distillate came along, a superdigest which condensed a Hemingway novel to the single word “Bang!” and reduced a long article about the problem of the unruly child to the words “Hit him.”

You would think that with such drastic condensation going on, the situation would have resolved itself and that an adjustment would have been set up between writer and reader. Unfortunately, writers still forged ahead. Digests and superdigests, because of their rich returns, became as numerous as the things digested. It was not until 1960, when a Stevens Tech graduate named Abe Shapiro stepped in with an immense ingenious formula, that a permanent balance was established between writers and readers.  Shapiro was a sort of Einstein.  He had read prodigiously; and as he thought back over all the things that he had ever read, he became convinced that it would be possible to express them in mathematical quintessence. He was positive that he could take everything that was written and published each day, and reduce it to a six-letter word. He worked out a secret formula and began posting daily bulletins, telling his result.  Everything that had been written during the first day of his formula came down to the word “Irtnog.”  The second day, everything reduced to “Efsitz.”


 P ([X/n-p] ≤ ∑) + (ƒ x 9.4121) – (π ≠µ) = Efsitz


People accepted these mathematical distillations; and strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, people were thoroughly satisfied—which would lead one to believe that what readers really craved was not so much the contents of the books, magazines, and papers as the assurance that they were not missing anything. Shapiro found that his bulletin board was inadequate, so he made a deal with a printer and issued a handbill at five o’clock every afternoon, giving the Word of the Day. It caught hold instantly.

The effect on the populace was salutary. Readers, once they felt confident that they had one-hundred-per-cent coverage, were able to discard the unnatural habit of focusing their eyes on words every instant. Freed of the exhausting consequences of their hopeless race against writers, they found their health returning, along with a certain tranquility and a more poised way of living. There was a marked decrease in stomach ulcers, which, doctors said, had been the result of allowing the eye to jump nervously from one newspaper headline to another after a heavy meal. With the dwindling of reading, writing fell off. Forests, which had been plundered for newsprint, grew tall again; droughts were unheard of; and people dwelt in slow comfort, in a green world."


Thank goodness we’ve not yet reached the point of Irtnog. Nor Efsitz.

But if Nutshell was too long a word for a digest … if abridged audio books sell better than unabridged … and if we already have an entire television network called E! … can a digest called simply "!" be far behind?

My challenge for readers today: In the spirit of E.B. White’s faux-paean to digests, give me a three-words-or-less summary of any book you want.

Example: A Tale of Two Cities = "Off with têtes."


(And thanks to Secret Admirer Tom, for producing a pristine copy of Irtnog for today’s blog.)


Music To My Ears


By Louise

I was born without a music gene. More specifically, the tiny, misshapen music gene I did have included a lot of the same DNA molecules found in white bread and low-fat cottage cheese.

But I’m learning, with the help of three superb teachers. A Seattle-based R&B drummer. My favorite crime fiction authors. And Pandora.

But let’s start at the beginning.

While the rest of America was grooving to Elvis, I was crooning Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand.” When my classmates discovered Ray Charles, I was busy singing along to “Teen Angel.”

Hell, I thought “The White Album” was by some guy named White.

All that began to change when I got married. My husband grew up in center city Seattle, and was distinctly in the white minority at Garfield High School. He started playing drums in an R&B band at fifteen, often having to get smuggled into the adult-only after-hours bars for his gigs.

So, while I was swooning to Gerry and the Pacemakers, Bruce was getting paid to play Coltrane, Bobby Bland and James Brown. And he wasn’t about to marry a musical illiterate. You know the old good luck wedding ritual of gathering “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue?” I got the blue. Blues, that is. And Jazz. And Rock ‘n Roll.

Hendrix. Miles Davis. The Rolling Stones. Laura Nyro. Lena Horne, Art Blakey. Thelonius Monk. Dinah Washington and Grant Green. Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans.

They put my Beach Boys to shame.

These days my musical education is continuing with crime fiction. What’s that you say? Have you never noticed how many mystery protagonists have an obsession with jazz?

  • John Harvey’s Resnick is a jazz fan.
  • As is J.A. Jance’s J.P. Beaumont.
  • Michael Connelly even assembled as CD of Harry Bosch’s favorite jazz artists from DARK SACRED NIGHT, including Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins. Louis Armstrong sings “What A Wonderful World.”


A number of other crime fiction protagonists love the blues.

  • Ace Atkins’ series features sometime blues history teacher, Nick Travers, in New Orleans.
  • In Lee Child’s KILLING FLOOR, Jack Reacher travels to Margrave, Georgia because famed blues guitarist Blind Blake died there.


  • Blues and R&B were so important to George Pelecanos in his Derek Strange novel, HARD REVOLUTION, that he too, released a CD with music to accompany the book. Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It” sets the stage for the novel. Solomon Burke, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge and Otis Redding tell the rest of the tale.

There are also detectives and sleuths who favor classical music.


  • S.J. Rozan’s Bill Smith plays classical piano.
  • Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks listens to classical music as well as rock, and his son is in a band.
  • Then there’s Irene Adler, the opera diva of Carol Nelson Douglas’s series.
  • And Colin Dexter’s Morse likes Mozart, Schubert and Wagner. (An interesting lagniappe about Morse’s music, found by Cornelia Read: The theme music for the Morse series was written by Barrington Pheloung and uses a motif based on the Morse code for M-O-R-S-E. Pheloung occasionally spelled out the name of the killer in Morse code in the music for the television series, as well.)

Rock ‘n Roll has its fans, too, as any reader of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole series can tell you.

And some crime writers have put music at the heart of their story.

  • Paul Charles, himself a noted British rock promoter, peppered I LOVE THE SOUND OF BREAKING GLASS with the words and sounds of Paul Simon, Nick Lowe and ABBA.
  • David Hiltbrand’s series character, Jim McNamara (DYING TO BE FAMOUS and DEADER THAN DISCO), is a private eye who hunts killers in the world of rock ‘n roll.
  • Hal Glatzer’s series features Katy Green and an all-girl swing band in the 1940’s.
  • And Charlotte Carter’s Nanette Hayes is a jazz saxophonist.

Other writers are a little more eclectic in their music choices.

  • Eileen Dreyer’s nurse characters seem to spend their time in pubs listening to Irish music.
  • Cornelia Read’s heroine, Madeline Dare, likes The Dead Kennedys and the Allman Brothers, but listens to Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez when her husband is out of town.
  • And Ken Bruen’s more-evil-than-evil villain, Dade, in AMERICAN SKIN, has an obsession with Tammy Wynette.


Clearly, my musical repertoire has increased with my reading. I may not even be classified as musically-challenged anymore.

But now a third teacher has entered the room. Oh, how I urge you to try Pandora! This is free internet radio the way it was meant to be. You type in any song or artist that catches your fancy. They match it – in instrumentation, key tonality, chord progression, tempo, genre, voice quality, regional influences, extent of vamping and vocal harmony, and a hundred other variables based on the Music Genome Project – and create a radio station based solely around that music.

You get an unending, perfectly mixed concert based on music you know you like. And you discover artist after artist that you’ve never heard of before.

Go ahead. Try it. I’ll wait. (My apologies to our international blog visitors. I understand that Pandora only works for US based internet users right now.)

So my questions for you today are:

Who have I left off this list of music lovers in crime fiction?

And who (or what song) did you type in as your first Pandora radio station?


(Special thanks today to Rae Helmsworth, Cornelia Read, Sharon Wheeler and Andi Shechter for helping with the list of music lovers in crime fiction. Their memories are clearly sharper than mine.)

The Germ of an Idea

By Louise                              


Every writer has a different approach to beginning a book. But there’s one thing that we all have in common: the germ of an idea.

It might be an image of a character that takes hold in your mind. Someone you’ve never met but you want to spend time with. Maybe it’s her ruptured sense of loyalty that intrigues you. Maybe it’s the chewed down fingernails and the skunk-white stripe in her red hair. For some reason, your character is the germ of the idea, the thing around which everything else in the novel will revolve.

Colin Cotterill’s’s work feels this way to me. I’ll bet he started with the character of Laotian Coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun, and took it from there.

Maybe the idea includes a situation or a job (like Cotterill’s coroner.) I wonder if Chris Grabenstein started out with the notion of two cops who worked at a Jersey shore amusement park, and then built a whole world around those rides.

I started Forcing Amaryllis with the idea of writing about a jury consultant because I’d been fascinated by the field since the days of the O.J. Simpson trial. In literature and in film, jury consultants have been portrayed as a combination of P.T. Barnum and Pavlov, with a little David Ogilvy and Satan thrown in for good measure. I wanted to create one who still had scruples.

The germ of an idea can come from anywhere.

Those tiny newspaper crime report summaries can be gems for starter ideas.  Like this one, from last October’s Oakland paper:

Starting Wednesday night, the sound of gunfire will become a criminal’s worst enemy, according to the Oakland Police Department. That’s because they’re now able to listen for gunshots through a network of sensors and high-tech computers piped directly into police headquarters. The system is called Shot Spotter. It uses a Global Positioning System to pinpoint the source of the gunfire.”

Ooh. Now that could be interesting.

The internet is also a wonderful source of unexpected plots. I was recently trolling through the ozone and came across these sad, lonely lines:

“Subject: I can’t find my daughter

I left Chicago in June of 1998 to come here to Tampa to live. My daughter got caught up in the streets of Chicago and I could not find her. Because I had already gotten the job in Tampa, I was forced to leave without her and I have not seen nor heard from her since. I really miss her and pray for her. I spent $100 on a finding company to find her, all to no avail. Her birth date is 7/30/83 and her name is Martha LuAnne Johnson. If you see her, please tell her I love her and contact me. Thanks for listening. I am now 54 years old, but seeing her would be the high point of my fast fading life.”

I can’t get this woman and her lost fifteen-year old out of my head. Did the girl just step away to get some gum and her mother boarded the bus without her? Was the child caught up in a gang or a romance and ran away to avoid a move to Florida? Somehow … someday … I’m going to write their story.

That germ of an idea is what Stephen King describes as the “what if?” What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (King’s Salem’s Lot) What if you lost your hand and had a new one grafted on, but the widow of the donor wanted visitation rights?  (John Irving’s The Fourth Hand) What if you got away with a crime seven years ago, but your partner is out of jail now and looking for you? (Marcus Sakey’s The Blade Itself) What if you just met this woman in a bar and the first words out of her mouth are “I just poisoned your drink?” (Duane Swierczynski’s The Blonde)

The “what ifs” can go some crazy places. If you’re a writer, they’re the things that keep your friends worrying about your sanity.

But here’s the dilemma: how do you know when that germ of an idea isn’t germinating? How do you know if it’s a big enough idea to support a hundred thousand words and a year of your life?

Can you recognize that an idea only has legs long enough for a short story? Or maybe a subplot? And dear Dog, have you ever walked away from an idea a hundred pages into the book saying, “There’s not enough here?”

So that’s my question for writers out there today. Have you ever stopped writing a book halfway through? How did you know that it wasn’t a book-worthy idea?

And for all of us mystery aficionados, have you ever read a book that made you think, “Damn, she’s stretched this measly little idea out so far it’s gonna snap like a bad bungee cord?”

Do tell.




PS: Check out the International Thriller Writers’ launch of its “Brunch & Bullets” luncheon series, debuting Saturday, March 17 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, California. A second luncheon is slated for May 5 in Greenwich, Connecticut. For more information, go to

Reality Check Ahead

By Louise



     Last September, I was shaken – like so many others – by the mid-air collision of two planes over the Amazon rainforest. A Boeing 737 clipped an executive jet (an Embraer Legacy) at 37,000 feet.  The Embraer Legacy passengers, while aware that something had taken off the end of their wing and damaged the automatic controls, didn’t know what had happened. The Embraer pilots found a small, military landing strip in the jungle and wrestled the plane safely to the ground.


     The B737 plunged nose first into the jungle, killing all 154 on board.

     There’s the horror of it: one hundred and fifty four lives gone in less time than it would take to say a Hail Mary.

     And imagine the terror of those on the Embraer jet, as well. Almost thirty minutes of crippled flight, knowing that no one survives a crash at 37,000 feet. Enough time to jot notes of love and farewell to families. Enough time to regret all the things you haven’t done with your life. Joe Sharkey, one of the passengers on the smaller jet, recounted what those thirty minutes were like to the NY Times.

     Anyone who has ever flown can identify with the plight of the passengers on both of those planes, as well as the grief of the families of the dead.

     Okay, all that’s bad enough. But here’s the latest.

     Two weeks ago, photos surfaced that purportedly came from the downed B737.


“The two photos were apparently taken by one of the passengers in the B737, after the collision and before the aircraft crashed. These photos were found in a digital Casio Z7501, amidst the remains in Serra do Cachimbo. Although the camera was destroyed, the memory stick was recovered and the photos were retrieved. In the first photo, there is a gaping hole in the fuselage through which you can see the tail and vertical fin of the aircraft. In the second photo, one of the passengers is being sucked out of the gaping hole."




     Oh my holy God. My heart broke all over again. And now I had visual images as well as mental ones to anguish over. The gabble rachet of noise as the tail tore off. The unbreathable ice of the air rushing in. A terror so complete that it can’t even register on your face.

     I shared the pictures with friends, including the ever-watchful Andy Dellenbach of L.A. film post-production company Mind Over Eye. “Amazing what Photoshop can do these days,” Andy wrote back.

     He found five “where’s Waldo” images in the two photos:

  • “The plane is still flying straight and level while the tail section is ripped away. The kind of physical violence resulting from that separation would almost certainly alter the level course of the plane.” Well, yeah, I see what you mean.
  • “It’s interesting that shots that require someone to be standing up in one half of a disintegrating plane can result in exactly the same angle and framing, twice in a row.”  Well, if he’s frozen in place, maybe.
  • “The unused air bag on the left remains in exactly the same position, no matter how much buffeting is supposedly going on in the plane.” Damn. And those things are lightweight.
  • “Nobody, not even one person, is turning around to see what that horrendous noise is. In even the nano-second that could have taken, someone would be looking.” Not me. My eyes would be closed.
  • And perhaps best of all: “Take a look at the earlier photo where you can see the supposed tail section of the plane trailing off the fuselage. Notice the aisle seat in the last row (on the left side of the plane if you were sitting in the plane.) In this photo there is no seat there, as if it had been sucked away. Then look at the later shot, with the passenger being sucked out the back of the plane. The tail section has already disappeared, but the last row now has the aisle seat back in it!”

     Then, to add insult to computer-enhanced injury, I learned that the hoax was even cheesier than I’d thought. The two photos were frames lifted from the pilot episode of the TV show “Lost.”

     Now I’m pissed. I had worked up a righteous pile of grief about the people in those photos. They came to life for me in the pictures (albeit not long before their actual deaths) in ways that the printed news announcements about the crash hadn’t been able to do. I wanted to find this Photoshop-Houdini and punch his lights out. Rip the goddamned mouse from his cold dead hand. How dare he screw with my emotions like that.

     And then I realized that good fiction writers do exactly the same thing.

     The best writers blur the distinction between the possible and the factual. They create a world of people we care about, without ever having met them. Characters who will often stay in our hearts longer than our acquaintances. Sometimes even longer than our families. We know what their sweat smells like. We share in their happiness. We taste their fear in our mouths.

     Call it storytelling. Or imagination. Or empathy. It’s why the best writers write. And why most of us read.

     The French writer Colette said, “I write in order to live life twice.” I’ve always thought that was true. But I think I read in order to live someone else’s life.

     How about you? Do you live vicariously through your reading or your writing? And have you had any "Where’s Waldo moments" that took you out of a book — that spoiled that sense of authentic invention?




     I’m still not cutting that Photoshop asshole any slack. He used
real people – people who died – to wring my sympathy sponge. And that’s
not fair to anyone who cared about them before we saw the photos. And
it is especially unfair to their families.    

     How did you react to these plane photos?


Angus of Dog


By Louise

I still have a Left Coast Crime hangover. It was a grand weekend, especially because I got to spend so much time getting to know my fellow Rati face-to-face instead of screen-to-screen. But  I’m all done twinkling and grinning and talking about crime fiction for a while.

So let me tell you what’s really on my mind right now. Angus of Dog.

Angus is my husband’s dog. If that was ever unclear to me, it has become obvious this week while my husband is out of town.

You need a little background here.

We got Angus four years ago from Northern California’s Golden Retriever Rescue group. (Who’d a thunk Golden Retrievers needed rescuing anyway? That’s like saying Lollipop Rescue Group.) They’re a terrific organization, with caring, loving people who go out of their way to find good homes for these sweet animals.

They said Angus was eight years old. And he was, for a couple of days. Then he was nine, putting him squarely in the “Senior Dogs who are harder to place” category.

That’s okay with me. I like a dog I can keep up with. And my husband has always felt that older dogs, like older women, are the finest companions to have around.

Angus comes from hard-scrabble Oakland, from a fenced-in house on a tiny triangle of space between two busy streets. The couple who raised him loved him and coddled him. Except that they never took him out of the yard.

For eight years, his only exposure to the outside world was through the diamond-shaped window of a chain link fence. Chainlinkfence_1

Then the wife died unexpectedly during knee replacement surgery and the husband spiraled down into despair. The husband and dog both lost the will to live. But the resources were there for the man. He decided to move to Hawaii and live with his daughter, and not take Angus with him.

We picked Angus up on Valentine’s Day, 2003. He had fleas, an ear infection, knew no commands, and had grown to 120 pounds in his misery.

“He’s not a perfect dog, but he’s a good dog, and he deserves another chance,” I said. 

That was the Pollyanna in me talking. I didn’t know then that he wanted Bichon Frisé for lunch. That he would attack babies in carriages if their rattles sounded like dog tags. That joggers in sunglasses would become terrorists in his eyes.

We tried everything that Golden Retriever Rescue recommended. We had him neutered – somewhat belatedly – but discovered that nine years of learned behavior trumps testosterone every time.

And we had great hope for improvement with the recommended dog behaviorist, a stern Germanic woman who could threaten with a single syllable or a crooked finger. Gus did improve. We actually got him within thirty feet of another dog before he lunged.

He was The Only Mean-Spirited Golden Retriever In The World.

Our neighbors have learned to cross the street when they see us coming.

I’ve grown to love Angus over the last four years. We overlook each other’s shortcomings. And he’s a real pussycat (if you’ll forgive the term) when he’s indoors. But out on the street he still goes Baskerville on us.

Which brings me to the topic at the head of this column. He’s Bruce’s dog. And Bruce is in Korea. So Angus has come up with a new trick.

Angus_1He waits until we get halfway across the street, then splays himself across the double yellow lines. “Going Ghandi,” as Cornelia Read puts it.

Have I mentioned that he’s a hundred and twenty pounds? Fat, yes, but also big boned and tall for a Golden Retriever. We’ve had people come up to us on the street – from a safe distance, of course – and ask if he’s some new kind of giant dog breed. Maybe a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog with lowlands instead of Alps in his family. More like Lower Seacliff Condo Dog.

A hundred and twenty pounds of immovable canine. A walrus with red fur. And no matter what I do, I’m going to look either inept or cruel to the motorists trying to get past us.

So I cajole. I coo four letter words in an uber-soprano range that only dogs can hear. I drop pieces of fresh venison just beyond his outstretched paws. I pretend that this is a joyful game we play and I bellylaugh with the motorists who point and guffaw at us.

Margaret Maron calls this "the things we do for love." Things like cleaning up bathroom messes for senile parents. Sitting through tedious dinners with rude people because your sister asked you to. Loving an unlovable dog because you know how important it is to your spouse.

Maybe Bruce should take Angus with him on his next trip. But they eat dogs in Korea, don’t they? Hmmmmm.


So tell me, what are those things you do for love? Or do you have an Angus of Dog in your life?

Diamond Turquoise

By Louise



      I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about windows this week. Both the view we see through them and the eyes we use doing it.

     My brother, Jim, called to say that he was going back to Hawaii on vacation for the first time since he sold his house on Oahu eighteen years ago. But when he searched Google for "Hawaiian vacation rentals," the first listing that came up was his old house in Kawela Bay.

     He decided to try going back home.

     Sure, they’d tarted it up with new paint and bathroom fixtures, but it was the same bedroom where his wife had given birth to two babies. The same backyard where he’d dug a pit and buried a whole pig for a luau. The same front yard where the damned breadfruit tree had attacked me with a seven-pound missile.

     I wondered what it would be like for him — eighteen years later — to look out those same windows. Would the view have changed? Or just the eyes that regarded it?


 The pet goat would no longer be tied to the mango tree in the side yard. He’d no longer be able to see into his best friend’s kitchen window on the next lot over. His kids’ tiny baby clothes would not grace the clothes line strung between the palms.

     Of course, the shoreline wouldn’t have changed much. Unless they’d cut down the trees and added a golf course, that is.


      Then I realized that I, too, had tried to go home once before. To see through old windows with new eyes.

     Donkey’s years ago, I lived in New York City, on the top floor of a five-story, walk-up brownstone on East 39th Street. It was a long thin slice of a room, with one exposed brick wall, and a handkerchief-sized kitchen that I would now describe as adequate for camping. An even smaller bedroom — not much wider than a double bed — was upstairs.

     The best part about the apartment was the private roof deck. Covered in astroturf and populated with dozens of city smog-resistant plants, it was larger than the entire apartment below it.

     And it made it the easiest apartment to break into on the entire East Side.

     My address must have been printed on the inside of matchbook covers, right under the ad that said "You, too, can learn to rob a brownstone!" I had four burglar-visitors in one year.

     But that was the price I thought you had to pay for charm in NYC. And I learned to shout and flail at most of the would-be intruders, threatening them with the wrath of a non-existent dog or gun.



       So, thirty years later, when I discovered that the New York hotel
I’d booked for a business trip was on the same block as my old
apartment, I thought it would be interesting to see how the
neighborhood had changed.

     The W hotel had rejiggered five brownstones on the block, keeping much of the facades and gutting the interior. I asked for a fifth floor room on the front.

     The room was what I could only have fantasized about in my advertising executive-in-utero days. Subtle lighting. Eight-hundred thread count sheets. A bathtub you could actually stretch out in. The raw brick wall was gone. As was the roof deck.

     But they kept the same windows. 



     I pulled aside the curtains, absentmindedly wiping a clean spot on the glass with my shirt sleeve, the way I used to. It didn’t need it. And the window sill was no longer littered with grains of black soot that would sneak in like thieves when the wind blew from the north.

     The brownstones across the street were still pretty much the same, although the fruit market on the corner, where I’d stopped to buy daisies on my way home every Friday, had been replaced with a pan-Asian fusion restaurant.

     The trees were thirty years taller; I could almost reach out and touch them. But they didn’t obscure the thin, between-the-buildings view of the Chrysler Building, still gleaming like a gemstone hidden in a pile of Legos.



 I looked down. They’d replaced the sidewalk and the old brownstone entrances, erasing the crack in the pavement from when I’d thrown a waist-high potted palm out the window to stop the last of those fleeing burglars.(The first cop on the scene had tactfully dragged the unconscious man back into the entryway, so that I could claim he was on the property when I attacked him with the lethal greenery.)

     So, not much had changed.

     Or had it? Had my eyes changed more that the view?

     In the last thirty years, I’ve been loved by fumblers, and hurt by experts. Found new roads and dug deeper ditches. Forgotten all the words and learned to pun in three languages. And I wouldn’t have changed any of it.

     My new eyes were perfectly at home, gazing through those old windows.

     So, what do you think? Are there any old windows you’d like to go look out of again? Maybe that  cactus-framed window in Arizona where you first fell in love? Or the porthole on the houseboat in the South of France? The dorm room with dusty white blinds? Or maybe your parent’s  kitchen window.

     Do you think you could find the person who used to stand there?  Or has the view changed so much that you wouldn’t even recognize it with new  eyes?



150thrillersbanner1_1 And by the way, did I mention the new "150 Thrillers" contest? Just by signing up here for the free online ITW newsletter, you’ll be entered for a chance to win a whole library of new, author-signed thrillers. A hundred and fifty, in all. Can’t beat that with a stick.

The Book From Hell

By Louise

Let me start out with the best news of all: I just signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. The first of those two books will be THE FAULT TREE, the story of a blind female auto mechanic who overhears a murder take place. Think “Wait Until Dark,” with a protagonist who knows how to change the oil in your Chevy.    


Now the bad news. I just got the editorial notes from Michael Homler, my new editor at St. Martin’s. I haven’t met him yet, but his voice still holds a passion for this business, and his words waft down like rose petals on my head.


He loves the book. He says things like, “Don’t you dare change a word here. This is one of the best scenes in the book.” He says, “Your writing is too fine to touch.”

He did ask if I’d think about deleting one sentence. I’ve given it some thought. He’s right.

But here’s where he’s wrong.

I haven’t read the manuscript for a couple of months now, so I’m approaching it with fresh eyes.

; Suck

It sucks.

Whatever made me think those words could come out of that character’s mouth? Why didn’t I change that hackneyed phrase before anyone outside my nuclear family ever read this tripe? How is it possible that I’ve strung together 80,000 words of pure shit?


; Sbholdpilepapers_1

And he doesn’t want me to change anything.


Last week Simon Wood wrote about tinkering with a manuscript he thought was already done. He approached that rewrite with the attitude that he’d grown and improved in his writing since it was first “finished.”

I’m approaching this revision with the cowering, cringing mantra: “What could I have been thinking?”


The gang over at First Offenders calls this syndrome: ITOTALLYSUCKITIS.

I totally understand ITOTALLYSUCKITIS.

In typical insecure-author behavior, I emailed my buddy, Jude Greber. “The pacing is glacial. The writing is drivel. I hate it.”

“Oh yeah, I heard that St. Martin’s was looking for a particularly plodding, badly written book for next year. Glad you guys got together,” she replied.


Sarcasm doesn’t become her.

I hear that some authors have inflated egos. That they’re stunned when their work is not recognized with awards and Top Ten rankings. When reviewers call it “a good read” instead of “a great read.”

I’m not one of them.When I read a review of my work, my eyes skim over everything until I get to the word "however." Sometimes it’s "but." The rest of the sentence will be seared onto my retinas forever.

I swoon when an editor says nice things. I renamed my dog after the sweet reader who sent a complimentary email. (I’d rename a child, but I don’t have one.)

And then I question their taste and their judgment.

What is it about author insecurities that we’re more than willing to accept  the criticism, but find it hard to embrace the accolades? Or maybe it’s a personal character flaw, and has nothing to do with writing at all.

In any case, I held my nose as I approached the revision. To paraphrase a C&W song-writing cousin of mine, I’d rather be knee deep in disease and go bald-headed from the burning fever than to have to go back through this manuscript again. But I did.

Hey, wait a minute, there’s a nice turn of phrase on page fourteen. And that minor character from the auto body shop still makes me laugh.

And you know what? Michael’s right about this scene. It doesn’t need any changes at all.


What about you other writer guys? Do you accept a pat on the back as readily as a slap on the face? Or is it the other way around? Any readers want to chime in on the lack o’ confidence question?

Useless Things

from Louise
It’s over. All the hoopla and shopping and cooking and eating and celebrating. Presents unwrapped, eggnog downed, credit cards maxed out. It was a fine example of that strange ritual called The American Christmas; an event both sacred and profane.

Last night, somewhere after the smoked trout and turkey, but before the port and carmelized pear tarte, awash in a sea of wrapping paper and bows, the conversation turned to Useless Things.

Certainly not those presents we’d just opened. Not the baseball cap with the three little lights on the brim so you can see the dog poop you’re trying to pick up in the middle of the night. Caplights

Not the ballpoint pen with the picure of a hunky, black-haired man in a Speedo who loses his swimsuit when the pen is held upright. Nakedmanpen_1

Not even the hatbox-shaped plastic purse from Japan that says “It’s so fabulous being me!”

I mean truly Useless Things. Those items we’ve owned, whether through our own besotted bad judgment or the misplaced affection of someone else with just a fingerhold on sanity.

Everyone had a story.

Karen talked about the olive tray from Hell. Clanceyolive_2Two feet long and one olive wide, it was The Rockettes of all olive trays. It could hold two dozen of the black olives we used to stick our fingers in, or fifteen of the big green ones that look like they’re staring at you. This is your eyeball on drugs.

Her husband ate an olive and she glared. Where once had been a perfect symmetry of olives doing a high kick in unison, there now lay a briny gap in the line. She corrected the design with a new olive, served from the Tupperware container in her hand.

Another one was eaten. She refilled. And refilled. She spent the night hovering near the crudités, a handful of pristine olives at the ready, unable to walk away from a tray that only looked good when full.

My own story was The Toast. Surely, you remember The Toast? Toast_1That crusty bit of dried out, seven-grain bread with the face of The Runaway Bride on it? She looked wistful, vulnerable. Yeah, and bug-eyed, too.Runawaybride_1

When I spotted it on eBay, I had to have it. It was the perfect example of all things useless. Food you can’t eat. Art that isn’t art. A person of fame simply for being a person of fame. A spiritual visitation of the most superficial sort.

I placed a bid and watched — aghast — as another offer came in. I upped the ante. Nobody else was going home with my toast. Two minutes and fourteen seconds left in bidding. I was still five bucks under the limit I’d set for myself. There was wiggle room.

Thirty seconds left. Somebody bid the price up ten bucks. Who was this evil creature, Mr. He took the prize. I hated him. And I hope he choked on the toast.

Dennis’s story was better than mine. He had bought a thousand gross of arrow fletchings. Not the arrows themselves, mind you. Not the arrow heads. Just the little feather things on the back that make the arrow fly straight and true.Arrow_fletching_1

“Why?” I asked him.

“Because they were such a good deal.”

Now all he needs are 144,000 boy scouts who want to earn merit badges in archery.

My friend Bob nodded his head, understanding completely. “I bought airplane tires.”

“Airplane tires?”

He nodded again. “Eight hundred of them. For 747’s.”7474lndklm He looked as proud as a retriever with a dead duck in its mouth.

His wife, Joanna, snorted. “You’ll recognize him on eBay. He’s the guy who writes ‘my wife says I have to sell them or she’ll leave me.”Aircraft_tires

So what’s your most useless gift or purchase? C’mon. Fess up.Shopping_for_uselesscrap_1