Category Archives: Louise Ure

Dear Blank



By Louise Ure


They all start the same way. “Dear” and then a blank space with my name written in, in a nun-taught cursive style I haven’t seen since my parochial school days. What’s up with that? Even Nancy Pelosi has figured out how to send me a group letter with my name included in the typed salutation. But, no. I get Dear Blank, or worse, Dear Friends, as if we are too numerous and homogenous to bother remembering our individual identities.

Their popularity has waxed and waned over the years, but they never entirely go away. The Dreaded Christmas Letters.

Most of the ones I receive are from hometown and high school friends. Only three come from fellow writers. But even the writers seem to forget all the basic rules of social communication and good storytelling in their oeuvres.

My oldest Christmas Letter-correspondent’s annual missive reads like a travelogue. “We spent April in Siena (I dream of that pasta sometimes!) and May with the folks at Big Bear Lake so we sure needed that getaway for just the two of us at the house in Cabo to recuperate.” Feh. Does she even consider that some of us haven’t left our zip code for the last nine months?

If they have kids, no feat or skill is too small to mention. Little Scottie learned to read by his first birthday and he’s the darling of his pre-kindergarten soccer team. Cassidy might have scored 749 on the SATs, but if not, her ballet teacher’s comment that “she’s the next Maria Tallchief!” will feature prominently. The ne’er-do-well 26-year old who still lives with his parents and thought a job at McDonald’s was beneath him is “acting as the DJ at local parties and wowing the girls with his bright blue eyes.” I hope he gets crabs.

Then there are the organ recitals. “Myrna’s blood count continues read like an IQ score.” “Tom threw his back out in May and I swear, between the heat packs and muscle relaxants, we’re keeping Walgreens in business!” When they start to describe bowel movements, I quit.

Then there are the … what shall I call them … the creative types. The ones who have rewritten The Night Before Christmas to include the names of all their children and pets and have somehow managed to get the husband’s promotion at B of A to scan into the proper meter as well. The ones who rhyme quatrains divided by what they did each month.

And the pictures! Have you ever seen a more toothsome group? I swear, every one of my Christmas Letter pals is related to a dentist.

Once, just one, I’d like to get a Christmas letter that reflected the reality of life. Or even a Christmas letter that included one of the following sentences:


  • “Maggie dipped a toe into the world of heroin this year … not a lot, you understand, just experimenting … but the police didn’t see it that way.”


  • “Fido had a litter of seven puppies we couldn’t find homes for and the cat got hit chasing a car. Isn’t life supposed to go the other way around?”


  • “We were so proud to see Jake turn sixteen and get his driver’s license. And the new Prius we bought after Jake crashed the old Chevy gets much better mileage. I’ll bet we’re saving $200 a month, if you don’t include the new car payments.”


  • “Who knew you couldn’t stuff a cold turkey with hot dressing? Fortunately, my mother-in-law was the only one whose food poisoning required overnight hospitalization.”


  • “We took our vacation at my folks house this year. Well, not so much vacation as we moved in there. Please note the new address on the envelope! I never realized how nice their basement was when I was growing up. Back then we just thought of it as a place to store old furniture.”


It’s not that I wish bad news on my friends; I just want their Christmas Letters to sound like non-fiction instead of fantasy. And I want to feel like my life is maybe not so removed from the norm out there.

Tell you what. Next year don’t bother writing my name in by hand. Just leave it Dear Blank. That’s closer to how I’m usually feeling as the end of the year rolls around anyway.

Or better yet, send me one of those notes like Tim Robbins left under the wall for Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption: “Louise, if you’re reading this note then I know you made it through the year. I’ve done what I told you I’d do; I made it to that town I dreamed about. Pack up Bruce and the dog and come join me. I’ll have the margaritas waiting.”

Merry Christmas to you all! And here’s my Christmas present to all the writers here: Charles Dickens’ handwritten revisions to A Christmas Carol. It’s so nice to see that even he had the never-ending revision bug.


P.S. Don’t believe the snarky, Grinch-like tone of this post. I ‘m looking forward to a quiet, peaceful and loving Christmas season and hope the same for all of you, even the Christmas Letter-writers.





The Omniscient Narrator

By Louise Ure


Bear with me here. This is not a political blog; rather it’s a discussion of the use of point of view. Specifically that of an omniscient narrator in literature.

Last week an emailed first-hand account of a possible terrorist hijacking attempt on an AirTran plane flying between Atlanta and Houston was making the rounds on the blogosphere.

Forget for a moment whether you belong to the “This feels too much like socialism to me” camp or the “Could the wingnuts get any crazier?” one. Let’s look at this email from a strictly literary point of view.

The full copy of the email is below:



To: undisclosed-recipients

Sent: Friday, November 27, 2009 11:32 AM

Subject: Long story short….

One week ago, I went to Ohio on business and to see my father. On Tuesday, November the 17th, I returned home. If you read the papers the 18th you may have seen a blurb where a AirTran flight was cancelled from Atlanta to Houston due to a man who refused to get off of his cell phone before takeoff. It was on Fox.

This was NOT what happened.

I was in 1st class coming home. 11 Muslim men got on the plane in full attire. 2 sat in 1st class and the rest peppered themselves throughout the plane all the way to the back.

As the plane taxied to the runway the stewardesses gave the safety spiel we are all so familiar with. At that time, one of the men got on his cell and called one of his companions in the back and proceeded to talk on the phone in Arabic very loudly and very aggressively. This took the 1st stewardess out of the picture for she repeatedly told the man that cell phones were not permitted at the time. He ignored her as if she was not there.

The 2nd man who answered the phone did the same and this took out the 2nd stewardess. In the back of the plane at this time, 2 younger Muslims, one in the back, isle, and one in front of him, window, began to show footage of a porno they had taped the night before, and were very loud about it. Now….they are only permitted to do this prior to Jihad. If a Muslim man goes into a strip club, he has to view the woman via mirror with his back to her. (don’t ask me….I don’t make the rules, but I’ve studied) The 3rd stewardess informed them that they were not to have electronic devices on at this time. To which one of the men said “shut up infidel dog!” She went to take the camcorder and he began to scream in her face in Arabic. At that exact moment, all 11 of them got up and started to walk the cabin. This is where I had had enough! I got up and started to the back where I heard a voice behind me from another Texan twice my size say “I got your back.” I grabbed the man who had been on the phone by the arm and said “you WILL go sit down or you Will be thrown from this plane!” As I “led” him around me to take his seat, the fellow Texan grabbed him by the back of his neck and his waist and headed out with him. I then grabbed the 2nd man and said, “You WILL do the same!” He protested but adrenaline was flowing now and he was going to go. As I escorted him forward the plane doors open and 3 TSA agents and 4 police officers entered. Me and my new Texan friend were told to cease and desist for they had this under control. I was happy to oblige actually. There was some commotion in the back, but within moments, all 11 were escorted off the plane. They then unloaded their luggage.

We talked about the occurrence and were in disbelief that it had happen, when suddenly, the door open again and on walked all 11!! Stone faced, eyes front and robotic (the only way I can describe it). The stewardess from the back had been in tears and when she saw this, she was having NONE of it! Being that I was up front, I heard and saw the whole ordeal. She told the TSA agent there was NO WAY she was staying on the plane with these men. The agent told her they had searched them and were going to go through their luggage with a fine tooth comb and that they were allowed to proceed to Houston . The captain and co-captain came out and told the agent “we and our crew will not fly this plane!” After a word or two, the entire crew, luggage in tow, left the plane. 5 minutes later, the cabin door opened again and a whole new crew walked on.

Again…..this is where I had had enough!!! I got up and asked “What the hell is going on!?!?” I was told to take my seat. They were sorry for the delay and I would be home shortly. I said “I’m getting off this plane”. The stewardess sternly told me that she could not allow me to get off. (now I’m mad!) I said “I am a grown man who bought this ticket, who’s time is mine with a family at home and I am going through that door, or I’m going through that door with you under my arm!! But I am going through that door!!” And I heard a voice behind me say “so am I”. Then everyone behind us started to get up and say the same. Within 2 minutes, I was walking off that plane where I was met with more agents who asked me to write a statement. I had 5 hours to kill at this point so why the hell not. Due to the amount of people who got off that flight, it was cancelled. I was supposed to be in Houston at 6pm. I got here at 12:30am.

Look up the date. Flight 297 Atlanta to Houston .

If this wasn’t a dry run, I don’t know what one is. The terrorists wanted to see how TSA would handle it, how the crew would handle it, and how the passengers would handle it.

I’m telling this to you because I want you to know….

The threat is real. I saw it with my own eyes….

-Tedd Petruna


The airline quickly posted a response to the email, debunking the passenger’s account, and adding the red-faced information that Petruna wasn’t even on the plane. He’d missed his connection.

So okay, we’re dealing with fiction. As fiction, how does it rate?


  • It’s crying out for a new title. “Long story short” is enough to make my eyes glaze over. It sounds like my father-in-law, twenty-five minutes and three drinks into a bad joke.


  • He gets points for decent research. Even though he wasn’t really on the plane, he managed to get a fair number of facts (the large group of foreign-speaking passengers, the controversy over a cell phone, the passengers reboard) correct.


  • The opening was a bit slow. He might have started a little closer to the action, perhaps when he first notices the flight attendant and the man with the cell phone.


  • He starts telling the story from a first person point of view. That’s a good thing: we can identify with this kind of everyman-action hero, a mythical Bruce Willis forever on his way to visit his daughter for Christmas when he comes across Big Time Evil.


  • He lets his research/assumptions show too much in the paragraph where he says Muslims have to watch porn in a mirror with their backs to the actress/ecdysiast. A nice addition might have been a short paragraph flashing back to his own investigation into Muslims and pornography, which might also have filled in some important backstory for us.


  • Good use of pacing and action sequences, although I find the dialogue (“Shut up, infidel dog!”) to be a bit clichéd.


  • Prior to publication, I wish he or his (internal) editor had used spellcheck or a universal search for exclamation points.


  • And the big one for me: he’s fallen out of the first person POV to tell us two things: that the person with the cell phone in first class had used the phone to call an ally in coach, and that the foreigners in coach were watching pornographic movies they’d taped the night before. How could our first person narrator have known these things?


For that matter, how did Petruna come up with any of this stuff, given that he wasn’t on the plane?


But that’s the very definition of good fiction, isn’t it? Making us believe a story that comes, at least in part, out of our heads. He shouldn’t have broken that implicit contract with us by leaping into an omniscient narrator’s POV midstream to carry the story along.

Oh, and the ending stinks. He shoulda’ had the plane blow up and the hero barely get all the good guys out the emergency slide at the last minute.

All in all, I guess it’s a good action yarn but still needs a bit of weeding and pruning. Thank God for slush piles.

Disappearing Inc.


By Louise Ure


Back in August I got an email from an old friend, Jake Young, the Managing Editor at WIRED magazine. “I generally avoid spamming my friends with WIRED stories, but this one – about how to ditch your current life and start over – seemed perfect for you.” 

He was right.

In that article, WIRED writer Evan Ratliff chronicles the attempt by Matthew Alan Sheppard to fake a suicide and disappear. And writing the story led him to wonder just how difficult it would be for someone to drop out of their current life and disappear completely in this digital age.


“Starting over, however, is not as simple as it used to be. Digital information collection, location-aware technology, and post-9/11 security measures have radically changed the equation for both fugitives and pursuers. Yesteryear’s Day of the Jackal-like methods for adopting a new identity — peruse a graveyard, pick out a name, obtain a birth certificate — have given way to online markets for social security numbers and Photoshop forgeries. Escapees can set up new addresses online, disguise their communications through anonymous email, and hide behind prepaid phones.

In other ways, however, the advantage has tipped in favor of investigators. Where once you could move a few states over, adopt a new name, and live on with minimal risk, today your trail is littered with digital bread crumbs dropped by GPS-enabled cell phones, electronic bank transactions, IP addresses, airline ID checks, and, increasingly, the clues you voluntarily leave behind on social networking sites. It’s almost easier to steal an identity today than to shed your own. Investigators can utilize crosslinked government and private databases, easy public distribution of information via the Internet and television, and data tucked away in corporate files to track you without leaving their desks. Even the most clever disappearing act is easily undone. One poorly considered email or oversharing tweet and there will be a knock at your door. As missing-person investigators like to say, they can make a thousand mistakes. You only have to make one.”


He decided to find out for himself and on August 13, 2009, Evan Ratliff disappeared.

Although he had an emergency link to his parents and his girlfriend, no one, not even his boss at WIRED who had organized the hunt, knew what his name would be or where he would go.  His goal was to remain undiscovered for thirty days. If someone tracked him down they were to approach him and use the word “fluke” and take his picture. The prize money for the discovery was $5000, much of it coming from Evan’s own pocket.

The “hunters” – some professional missing-persons trackers and some high-tech junkies – were given lots of personal information to aide in their pursuit, just like the police or a regular PI would discover in looking for a missing person. In Evan’s case they knew his middle name, his credit card and telephone numbers, and his email and Twitter accounts, along with the fact that his diet was gluten-free and he was a rabid soccer fan.

Here’s the story of his run. 

Evan’s accounting of the time-consuming, attention-requiring, ultimately lonely life of the runaway is an incredible read. Traveling under the name James Gatz (the name that Jay Gatsby drops to start over in The Great Gatsby),  he was far more wiley and technologically savvy than I would ever know how to be, using online cut-outs and identity concealing apps, hitching rides, making up friends, and making it through several close encounters with nothing more than sheer bravado. I’m not sure I would have been as successful, although I think I would have done better in the disguise department than he did.

But it got me thinking: could I disappear? If I needed my own version of Witness Protection or just wanted to drop out and get away from sixty years* of being Louise Ure, could I do it?

Ratliff says to go someplace you’ve been before so that you at least have a cursory overview of the city and its transportation system. That doesn’t sound right to me; I think I’d have to go places I’d never been before otherwise I’d likely run into old friends on the street or haunt my old favorite restaurants. I guess that means you’d be looking for me in the mid-West.

I’d have to give up smoking; there are too few smokers, especially of my brand, to not be obvious.

What else would give me away? My book buying habits? My tendency to visit liberal blogs? My love of Golden Retrievers? My absolute inability to not check in with my family.

What about you, ‘Rati? What one “trick” would you be sure to use? What would catch you up in the end? And have you ever want to just disappear?



* BTW, I’m not really sixty yet. I always add a few years just so I can get used to saying it by the time the real age rolls around. And in the meantime I can bask in those “Gosh you look good for your age!” comments.


Say What?



By Louise Ure


I’m not touring and teaching like Alex this week, nor have I been at a high-powered writers’ workshop like Pari, or out striking big TV deals like Rob.

What I’ve been doing is falling in love with words. Again. As usual.

In my last post I wrote about my gelatophobia, one of those top-drawer words that does not mean at all what it sounds like. Others on my “I don’t think so” list would be: enervate, choleric, pulchritude, necromancy, fungible and my newest favorite, gongoozler. “Choleric” has nothing to do with cholera, “pulchritude” is actually a good thing, and a “gongoozler” is an idle speculator, especially one who stares for a long time at nothing.

That’s me today.

And that idle staring has taken me on a detour through idioms today. An idiom is an expression that usually can’t be translated literally. Its meaning is often quite different from the specific word-for-word translation. They’re the worst kind of clichés if we dare to use them in our writing. In dialogue, they connote a lazy-thinker or someone from Hicksville.

“I’m not pulling your leg.”

“It’s no good crying over spilt milk.”

“I’m living the life of Riley.”

They’ve become such comfortable, worn out moccasins of phrase that we don’t even think about them any more. But they jump up like a soliloquy on stage when you hear them in another language.

“I’m not hanging noodles on your ears” (Russian) and “I’m not pulling the hair out of your nostrils” (Japanese) = Not pulling your leg.

“Biting the elbow” (German) = Crying over spilt milk.

“To fart into silk” (French) and “live like a maggot in bacon” (German) = Live the life of Riley

In Spain, if you feel like a fish out of water you’re “like an octopus in a garage,” and if two things are well suited for each other they’re “like fingernails and dirt.”

A “mouse milker” in German is a detailed-oriented person, but an “ant milker” in Arabic is a miser or a tightwad. In Spanish, that same tightwad would be someone who “walks with his elbows.”

In English, you could be “in a jam” or “in a pickle.” In Latvian, you’d be “up a stovepipe.”

We make a mountain out of a molehill, but the Poles “make a fork out of a needle.”

We think of ourselves as “the third wheel” – the unnecessary one – on a date, but the Portuguese would say they were “holding a candle.” Yep, someone just standing there, lighting the scene so the two lovers could see each other.

When the Japanese dine with a foreigner, they’re having “a sideways meal.” (Since the Japanese write vertically and most westerners write sideways, talking to a foreigner is “speaking sideways” and lunching with one becomes equally horizontal.)

When the French stand someone up for an appointment, they “donner le lapin” (give a rabbit.) For the Spanish, it’s “give a pumpkin.” Which would probably leave their Russian date “looking like September” (looking miserable).

If an Italian woman decided to “reheat cabbage” (rekindle an old romance), her Chinese husband might be accused of “having a pretty green hat” (having a cheating wife).

A window-shopper in France is “window-licking” and to attempt the impossible would be like “biting the moon” (French) or “climbing a tree to catch a fish” (Chinese). That would be nothing more than “making tea with your navel” (laughable, in Japanese).

Clearly, you should always look before you leap for, as the French say, “in candlelight, a goat looks like a lady.”

I know I’ll never be able to use this linguistic exercise in my work. I don’t want to write in trite idioms nor do I often like characters who speak that way. But it’s fun. And it gets my mind working.

And maybe, just maybe, it helps me come up with new metaphors on my own.

Whatcha’ think, Rati? Do you have any favorite idioms (English or otherwise) that I’ve missed? Or would you like to create a new one to confound all future students of English As A Second Language?





Fear of Ice Cream


By Louise Ure


Gelatophobia. Okay, I know it doesn’t mean Fear of Ice Cream, but gelatophobia is what I’ve got.  The fear of being laughed at.

(For the moment, I’m going to ignore the topic of words that don’t look like what they really mean. “Gelatophobia,” for one. “Rosacea,” for another. It should be a beautiful Latina’s name instead of a skin desease. But that’s a blog theme for another day.)

Unlike our Rob, whose video rendition of “Mandy” in last week’s blog post proves he does not suffer from this malady, gelatophobia has shaped me in ways that I could never have imagined.

And I blame it all on the circus.

We weren’t big on family outings when I was growing up. We had one driving vacation as a family and that was to Disneyland and San Diego. I got a nail in my foot at Disneyland and got picked up by the cops as a lost child in San Diego.

I remember only one family dinner in a restaurant and that was a Bob’s Big Boy. My mother learned her lesson after that. I’ll bet the waitress still has nightmares.

And then there was the circus. All five of us kids were lined up like jaybirds on the sixth row of bleachers, close enough to smell the elephants, far enough away that everything still looked like magic. I was enthralled.

Until the clowns came out, of course. Six of them crawled out of a car the size of a pram and began honking and squirting and big-foot flopping all over the ring. One clown with a bright red nose held an oversized camera, the old-fashioned kind with an accordion baffle and flash bulb on top. He looked high and low through the crowd and settled on me as his partner.




Feeling fully justified in taking my place in the center ring, I proudly joined him in the arena. He fussed and primped and tsk-tsked, all the while making sure I was posed correctly. Then he stood back and clicked the shutter release.

Somehow, with his fertile imagination and hand gestures, he got us to believe that that bulky old Kodak had morphed into a new fangled Polaroid and it spit out the picture …



 … of a donkey.

I have hated clowns ever since, but have lived in greater terror of the sound I heard that day – the full-throated, cackling derision of people laughing because I was the butt of their joke.

I’ve rarely been on the opposite side of that feeling. I don’t laugh at pratfalls or choose to see pie-in-the-face comedies. I don’t make fun of people’s looks or mistakes (unless the mistakes are grammatical or the attitudes suggest that uniquely evil combination of arrogance and ignorance).

And I don’t go to the circus anymore.

But I realized that my gelatophobia had colored other areas of my life as well. Take sports, for example.

I tried to ski once and wound up goring a would-be rescuer with my pole as he came to save me on the bunnyslope. I gave up running after coming in second in a relay race. You’ll never see me on a karaoke stage.

Stupid, I know. But there you are.

On the other hand, I was awarded with immediate praise when I first started painting with oils, I took naturally to the ballet-like stretches of Pilates, and flying a plane seemed like second nature to me. Those continued to be hobbies and habits for a long time.

Which brings me to writing, of course.

I wrote my first book in five months after accepting a dare from a friend. I credit my writer’s group for that initial rush of praise; had they been less fulsome, I would have abandoned it in a nanosecond. The early success of securing an agent and selling the book when it was finally done sealed the deal.

I never would have/could have been one of those writers with six manuscripts in a box under the bed; one of those writers who aspire, who practice, who get better and better with no recognition of their talent but their own unflagging determination and belief.

I admire them – those with hearts much stronger and surer than my own – those people who try and fail and get up to try again. Even if they’re on the receiving end of the literary equivalent of that crowd’s laughter.

Think it’s too late for me? Is sixty too old to start competitive diving?



The Real Deal


By Louise Ure

On September 22, Joan Rosenthal, a 75-year old grandmother of five and a woman with a passion for reading, was shot dead on her front patio in the upscale community of Tiburon, California. This was only the fourth murder in the town’s history.

She was “dressed the way a lot of us look when we first get up in the morning,” police chief Mike Cronin said at the news conference later in the day. Nothing was taken from the house.

For reasons they haven’t yet specified, the police believe that Mrs. Rosenthal’s death was caused by someone she knew.

Less than a mile away as the crow flies is the home of mystery writer Judy Greber (Gillian Roberts). She was a friend of Rosenthal’s in the way that many Tiburon residents are friends. They would greet each other and chat at the local Safeway, comparing grandchildren’s antics and proclivities. They might run into each other at the Tuburon library: one the author of books there and a presenter, the other an organizer of reading groups and a docent.

But on September 22, all that changed. Joan Rosenthal lost her life. And Judy Greber was assaulted by the unthinking comment of a neighbor, “I’ll bet that would make a good mystery novel for you.”

She didn’t know whether to grimace, grin or slap the questioner.

I understand her reaction. What is it about some people that they don’t understand the distinction between writing about death and deception and having to bear witness to it as part of our lives?

I think I told you that when I was interviewed for jury duty this summer the prosecutor asked me, “How can we be sure that you can tell the difference between what you hear here in the courtroom and what you write on that page when you get home at night?”

“That’s easy,” I told her. “One is fact and the other fiction.”

What I could have said is that one is a mental exercise where I’m creating characters and angst and pathos out of the thin air, and the other is the gut-churning, eye-reddening, sleep-depriving horror of man’s inhumanity to man, reaching far too close to home.

It is true that writers draw inspiration from everything around them. I’m happy to use my neighbor’s squeaky voice, my high school teacher’s illogical mantra, a colleague’s singular tattoo.

But I could never write a crime novel based on someone close to me.

I cannot use that real rape. I cannot depict that real bi-polar relative. I cannot fictionalize a real neighbor’s murder.

It would be akin to posting someone else’s naked pictures online. Sure, you can do it, but only because you have betrayed a trust, because you have taken advantage of special access and abused the privilege.

And it’s a step away from humanity that I do not choose to take.

I can evoke the smell of fresh-spilled blood but I do not wish to imagine that that pool of blood springs from a friend of mine. I can write about violence and abuse but do not wish to paint the faces of my family into those imaginings.

I don’t mean to disparage writers of non-fiction works here. To catalog the descent of a Ted Bundy or The Son of Sam somehow falls into a different category for me. (Perhaps it’s only because they weren’t part of my circle of family and friends.)

Nor do I mean to condemn our fascination with celebrity (Michael Jackson’s or Steve McNair’s murder, for example). But if that celebrity was my step-sister, I don’t think I could read about it.

Call me a coward. Call me empathetic. But do not discuss the murder of a neighbor as if it’s all grist for the mill and tell me “it would make a good mystery novel” for me.

How about you readers and writers? Do you wish to write about a real life crime or violence close to you?  And how would you feel reading about real crimes that have effected people you feel you’ve known?




Story Time



By Louise Ure


A writer friend sent me a present this week that I initially thought might possibly be the finest gift (short of a lifetime publishing contract) that any writer could get.


It’s called “Deal a Story.”  Or Plot in a Box. Or Writers Unblocked. Or How to Waste an Afternoon and Call it Work.


It’s the size of a canasta game, a box with two decks of cards in it.


  • ·      16 Hero cards
  • ·      16 Heroine cards
  • ·      16 Villain Cards
  • ·      16 Flaw cards
  • ·      16 Plot cards
  • ·      16 Genre cards
  • ·        5 Wild cards, for when you get stuck.


Just deal yourself a hand and all your troubles are over!


Let’s start with the genre cards.


I’m not writing “Inspirational Novels” or “Fantasy,” so I can put a couple of these aside. (Cornelia, there’s not one card here for “Literary Fiction” so I guess I can’t help you with the plotting in that non-genre category.) Inexplicably, they have five separate cards for “Thriller,” “Action,” “Crime,” “Mystery,” and “Suspense.” I could argue for a little consolidation there, but I understand their desire to offer sixteen separate cards so they used a little literary license. “Patriot Games” is a Thriller according to them, but “Ice Station Zebra” is an Action book. “Mildred Pierce” is a “Crime Novel,” but “Along Came a Spider” is a Mystery. Go figure.


The Hero cards are defined as:


  • ·      The Outcast
  • ·      Mr. Nice Guy
  • ·      Mr. Organized
  • ·      The Knight
  • ·      The Explorer
  • ·      The Daredevil
  • ·      The Conquerer
  • ·      The Confidant
  • ·      The Boy From the Wrong Side of the Tracks
  • ·      The Born Leader
  • ·      The Avenger
  • ·      The Absent-Minded Professor
  • ·      The Wanderer
  • ·      The Rogue
  • ·      The Rebel
  • ·      The Playboy


They’d probably consider Jack Reacher and “Avenger” or a “Knight,” but I prefer the notion of a Palladin. (He’s definitely not a “Wanderer,” as they describe that character as: “Lonely, he is easily hurt emotionally by criticism and censure, is unsure of his own abilities and feelings and is discontented with life. A vulnerable soul looking for acceptance.”) Not Jack Reacher at all.


I don’t want to write about Wanderers or Mr. Organized. Blech. What kind of hero would they be?


Heroines are equally pigeon-holed:


  • ·      The Innocent
  • ·      The Girl Next Door
  • ·      The Darling
  • ·      The Dark Lady
  • ·      The Comedian
  • ·      The Caregiver
  • ·      The Bookworm
  • ·      The Zealot
  • ·      The Working Girl
  • ·      The Wise Woman
  • ·      The Trail Blazer
  • ·      The Siren
  • ·      The Rescuer
  • ·      The Princess
  • ·      The Orphan
  • ·      The Know-It-All


I know I’ve written about a “Rescuer” before, but I hope never to create a “Darling” heroine, as their description reads: “The Darling grew up loved and adored by everyone around her and tends to make decisions with her emotions. Self-assured but impulsive, she often finds herself in a ‘pickle’ and needs help getting out. However, most of the time her ‘crazy’ logic will save the day. See Elli Woods in ‘Legally Blonde.’” God help us all.


The Villain cards run the gamut you’d expect: Evil Genius, the Devil, Corrupt Leaders, Assassins, Aliens, Psychopaths, Monsters, Machines, Tyrants, Terrorists and Traitors. I think they’ve forgotten that some of the most vile behavior is carried out by those closer to home: the Selfish, the Cruel, the Zealots.


I thought the Flaw cards might be the answer to all my problems. Deal a Story separates their suggestions onto cards labeled Challenges, Secrets and Attitudes among other flaw categories. On the Flaw/Challenges card, you’re encouraged to create a character that has “lost a limb, or is wheelchair bound, or has a speech impediment, or is unattractive, or is hearing impaired, or is awkward or is blind.” WTF? Being unattractive is now a flaw that a hero has to overcome? Sheesh.


I won’t bother much with the plot cards as I guarantee that they won’t be descriptive enough for you to say, “Eureka! Now I know what my next book is going to be about!” (Unless of course, you’re bowled over by headings like Puzzle, Pursuit, Relationships, Rescue, Rivalry, Conversion, Coming of Age. Hell, I could have gotten better ideas by reading the dictionary, let alone the TV Guide listings.)


In short, my afternoon of dealing myself a story was a bust. I could write a “(Genre Card)Suspense Novel” where the “(Heroine)Working Girl” who is a “(Flaw card) Nosy Parker/Blackmailer” takes “(Plot Card)Revenge” on “(Villain Card) Tyrant”  who fired her father.

Hell, it’s probably better than what I’m working on right now.


So tell me, ‘Rati. What tricks, games and self-deception do you use when you’re stuck in a story. How do you deal yourself a story?









Pitch Perfect


By Louise Ure


Some months ago I wrote two blog posts on query letters – how to write them and where to send them. Today I’m tackling another area of interest to new writers and that is, “How to Pitch to an Agent.”


There are two occasions in which you might find yourself face-to-face with that rarest of all indigenous creatures, the literary agent:


  •  Meeting them casually at conventions


  • Getting one of those coveted pitch session time slots at a writers’ conference


Let’s take the first of those: the convention run-in. You’re at Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime. There, sitting by himself at the end of the bar and putting his cell phone away is that agent that you have your heart set on. You know, the guy who represented what’s-his-name … who got the big advance for that newbie author who went on win all the awards. You want to meet him. How do you handle that?


In the immortal words of the much-missed Miss Snark:


What to say after you say hello:

1. What are you reading now that you love?

2. How did you get started agenting? Do you love it?

3. Is this your first time here (if it’s not in NYC).
Do you have a place you like to tell everyone to see here in NYC?

4. What was your favorite book as a kid?

5. May I buy you a drink?

Things NOT to say:

1. What advice can you give me?

2. Are you having a good time?

3. You look tired.

4. Can I show you my manuscript/query letter/pages?

5. I know I’m not supposed to do/say this but….

6. Can I have lunch with you?

7. You rejected me but…

8. I sent you a query/email. Do you remember…

9. Remember me?


I would add to Miss Snark’s wise advice:

  • You might move #5 (“May I buy you a drink?”) up to #1.
  • Leave before his eyes glass over. If he’s looking over your shoulder or down at his iPhone, you’ve already overstayed your welcome. Remember, these few conference days are also when agents need to spend time with their current clients and check in with editors they don’t see regularly.
  • Talk about anything other than your book, so that said agent doesn’t have to hide when he sees you coming for the rest of the con.
  •  If the agent does ask what you’re writing, boil it down to a conversational but tight 25-words-or-less. (“It’s about a blind female auto mechanic in Arizona who becomes the only witness to a murder.) If he’s intrigued, he can always ask for more detail.
  • No agent is going to ask for a copy of your manuscript based on a two-minute casual conversation. But that short interchange may lead to a later email where you say how nice it was to spend a bit of time with the agent and now that you’ve met her and know about her passion for Jane Eyre, you realize that your just completed novel may be of interest to her.
  • Oh, and if Philip Spitzer is the agent you’ve buttonholed, always laugh at his jokes.


Now on to the more gut-wrenching, hysteria-inducing “pitch sessions.” Sometimes you can pay extra at a writers’ conference or win a lottery to get one of the “pitch session” slots with an agent. You’ll have somewhere between three and fifteen minutes to introduce yourself and your work and leave the agent with the impression that she simply must read your novel.


Easy, right?




First of all, many writers are introverts and a pitch session feels a lot like being naked, walking up to a stranger and asking her to marry you. It takes confidence to do that. Balls, some would say.


Secondly, writers as a breed are not noted for their salesmanship. It’s not a skill many of us practice until we find ourselves on out on that first book tour. (Speaking of authors’ skills on book tours, check out this marvelous page on the author Jincy Willett’s website.)


And third, you’re probably thinking that this five-minute agent pitch is going to be the make-it-or-break-it moment in your literary career and you’re hyperventilating just thinking about it.


The best thing to do is to practice. I recently attended a local RWA meeting where they set aside a period of time for interested members to rehearse and practice their pitches in mock interview sessions. Afterward, the rest of the chapter commented and made suggestions about how the performance could be strengthened. It served two goals: perfecting the language of the pitch itself and easing the nerves of the writer who is facing this situation for the first time.


Once you have your pitch session lined up, here’s what I think you need to do:

  • Keep your pitch short. Just because you have fifteen minutes to fill doesn’t mean you have to. The very best pitch session is one where that agent is interested enough to ask questions and make comments. Leave her the time to do so.


  • Focus on your character and the major conflict in your novel. You don’t have to go through every detail and twist and turn. Who’s the character? What does she want? What’s stopping her from getting it?


  • You’re not just a talking head. Tell the agent something about yourself, why you started writing and what drove you to write this particular novel.


  • Be passionate about your work. Passion equals confidence and confidence equals success. Nobody wants to represent a writer who is wishy-washy about her story.


  • Listen to what the agent has to say. No agent in a pitch session is going to tell you your idea sucks. Instead, they might make suggestions or ask questions and that feedback is invaluable to you. It will tell you what caught their attention or what piece of information is missing in your delivery. It will help you sell your novel.


Agent Kimberley Cameron sums it up beautifully: “Breathe.”

 “They tend to feel so nervous that they speak way too quickly,” Kimberley goes on to say. “What we agents are looking for is a story that resonates, and the best way to deliver that is to share it with us, as if we were a friend.  We all are looking to make something happen together, and the best pitches I get are relaxed and fun. I always ask the author to tell me about themselves and their writing to relax them and start a dialog together.

 “In the best scenario, their genre will be just what I’m looking for, and they will have hooked me with a good premise – it’s really nothing more than that!  Tell them to be positive and genuine, and that communication is the key, which is two ways… “


See? It’s more like a blind date than walking up naked and asking her to marry you after all.


How about all you ‘Ratini out there? Any other advice for giving the perfect pitch? Or any horror stories about close encounters with an agent?







Cooking Up a Character

By Louise Ure


I think the fascination started for me with Lawrence Sanders’ retired chief of detectives, Edward X. “Iron Balls” Delaney and his distinction between “dry” sandwiches (which could be eaten in front of the TV) and “wet” sandwiches (which could only be consumed while leaning over the sink). That detail – his appreciation of the various combinations of food, his inability to actually cook anything, his meals eaten alone – told me more about the man than a dozen pages of dry, descriptive prose could ever have.


It’s funny how those little asides – those distinctive and distinguishing marks we give our characters – can become so memorable. They are the details that round out our characters, that give them life and breath, that make them human. Nero Wolfe’s orchids. Matthew Scudder’s drinking and tithing. Dave Robicheaux’s fishing.


In earlier days, those idiosyncrasies and character traits were often vices, like gambling, drinking and smoking, but those days are gone for all but Lee Child and the noirest of protagonists. I remember Elaine Flinn telling me about all the reader emails she got condemning the fact that Molly Doyle smoked. “Doesn’t she know how bad it is for her? She’s got to quit!” ran the virtual outrage against this fictional character. Even J.P. Beaumont walked away from his Makers Mark.


In retreat, some authors have turned to food preferences as a way of describing our characters more fully. Kinsey Millhone adores Quarter Pounders with Cheese and Spenser’s Susan lives on lettuce leaves. I made sure that the blind mechanic in The Fault Tree was an accomplished cook because that was another way to show how capable she was, even in her blindness.


But tread lightly: these little identifying tics – whether they’re food related or something else entirely (like a character cracking his knuckles) – can easily be overdone. I read a book last year where one of the cops was distinguished by his use of plastic wrapped candy. Every time this guy showed up, there went the hand in the pocket, the crinkly paper unwrapping, the pop it in the mouth, the slow sucking sound. Every freaking time. OK. I got it. He’s the cop with the candy habit. I remember him from two pages ago.


Which brings me, with about a mile and a half of dirt road detour, to the food-related, character-defining trait I’ve always wanted to write about.


I want to create a character who cooks food on the manifold in her car’s engine while she’s driving around solving the crime.


Call it Manifold Destiny, if you will (except that that fabulous title has already been taken by a couple of enterprising cooks back in 1989). Car-be-que. Road Kill Dining. MPH (Meals Per Hour) Cookery. Engine Block Eating.The Sedan Sauté. Overdrive Oven. Fourth Gear Gourmet.


Whatever you call it, it says a lot about a character. She plans ahead. She’s prepared for obstructions and reversals. She takes care of herself. She’s agile and quick-witted. She’s frugal: making her gas-dollar go a long way. And she likes to eat.


Or maybe it means she’s an absolute loon, one of those folks with a two-foot machete under the bed and a year’s worth of MRE’s cached in case she has to go live in the mountains after the apocalypse.


Either way, I think it would make for a fairly distinctive character trait.


Can’t you just imagine her wrapping a salmon filet, some sliced onions, garlic and lemons in a foil pouch and tucking it under the air intake hose as she heads out to the cabin where the young girl was last seen? It’s going to be almost dark when she gets there and there probably won’t be a 7-Eleven within thirty miles. She notes the wide tire tracks in the driveway at the cabin (hmmm… it looks like a truck was here), peers in the dusty windows, then settles down on the front porch to enjoy the fragrant dinner she’s just liberated from the engine compartment.


I have no idea whether car cooking can be done with a hybrid or an electric car, but I’m guessing not, or not as well. That means that my protagonist probably will not have participated in the Cash for Clunkers program. She’s driving some beat up old piece of American sheet metal and the only time she changes the oil is when the ratatouille explodes all over the engine block.


I like her already.


So today, in honor of kooky (“cooky?”) protagonists with food/eating idiosyncrasies, I give you my favorite recipes (along with the speed and distance you need to travel) for your next car-be-que:


The basics:


Usually, the hottest part of the engine will be the exhaust manifold. On older cars, the top of the engine block will be a good, sizzling place. Cooler parts of the engine work well for vegetables and fish. Choose places that don’t move when the car is running. (Duh.)


Wrap your soon-to-be-cooked food in aluminum foil and seal it tightly. Then do it again. And again. Triple wrap, with separate sealing folds, is the only way to go.


The package either needs to fit snugly between the manifold and the hood or, better yet, secured to the manifold with a wire. If it’s loose enough to move around, it’s loose enough to fall off.


Road Recipes:


Pork Tenderloin – Cooking distance: 250 miles at highway speed



    1 large pork tenderloin, butterflied

    3 tbsp Dijon mustard

    2 tbsp dry white wine

    1/2 cup red onion, minced

    2 tsp rosemary (fresh), crushed

    Salt & pepper


Blend together the last five ingredients and spread across the inside of the pork tenderloin. Close up the pork, triple-wrap in foil and place on a medium-hot part of the engine. Turn once (125 miles) during cooking.




Cajun Shrimp – Cooking distance: 35 miles at a good city clip or highway speed. No traffic jams or the shrimp will be overdone.



    1 pound large shrimp, in shells.

    1 jalapeño

    2 cloves garlic

    1 medium onion, finely chopped

    Butter or spread

    Salt & pepper


Remove seeds and ribs from jalapeño dice with the onion and garlic. Butter your foil, add the shrimp and cover with your spicy mixture. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper, then triple-wrap and place in a medium part of the engine.




Breakfast To Go – Cooking distance: 55 miles at highway speed




    1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, cubed

    6 eggs    

    Diced Canadian bacon (optional)

    6 empty tuna-fish cans for cooking

    Pinch of cayenne and paprika (optional)

    Butter or spread.

    Salt & pepper.


Wash 6 empty tuna cans and butter the insides. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs into each can and shake to cover the base evenly. Dump out excess. Now cover the bottom with mozzarella (and bacon if desired) then crack an egg on top of each, add seasonings and spices on top, then cover with mozzarella. Wrap cans tightly in foil, place on a hot part of the engine with good contact for the base of each can, and after 55 miles they should be good. If not, keep driving till the cheese has melted.



And what would she cook if she didn’t have to go anywhere that day? Dishwasher Lasagne, of course.


So tell me, ‘Rati. What’s the “incidental information” that attracted you to your favorite sleuth?




And The Winner Is …


By Louise Ure

The crime fiction community is certainly not shy about patting itself on the back. Maybe it’s a reaction to that whole “genre fiction isn’t as important as literary fiction” guff, but we sure do like to celebrate ourselves with awards.

Here’s a partial list of some of the mystery awards out there.

• The Edgar®
• The Anthony
• The Agatha
• The Thriller Award
• Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award
• The Shamus
• The Lefty
• The Dilys
• The Crime Writer Association (CWA) Dagger Awards
• The Nero
• The Barry
• The Gumshoe
• The Macavity
• The Simon & Schuster/Mary Higgins Clark Award
• The Arthur Ellis Award
• The Lambda Literary Award
• The Lovey
• The Quill
• The Davitt Award
• The CrimeFest Awards
• The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award
• The Reviewers Choice Award
• The IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award)
• The Hammett Prize
• The David Award
• The Ned Kelley Award
• The SMM/Minotaur First Crime Contest
• The Spotted Owl
• The Falcon Award

Some of the awards (like Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar®, the granddaddy of them all, beginning in 1946) are determined by a committee of member-writers who make the selection. Others are more reader/fan based, like the Anthony or the Agatha. In those cases, attendees at mystery conferences like Bouchercon or Malice Domestic vote for their favorite crime writing of the year.

Other awards winners (e.g. The Barry, The Macavity) are selected by the followers of a particular crime fiction organization or magazine (Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Readers International, in this case).

The criteria for an award might be broadly stated (like The Nero’s “for literary excellence in the mystery genre”) or much more narrowly defined, like this list for the Simon & Schuster/Mary Higgins Clark Award:

“The winner is selected by a special MWA committee for the book most closely written in the Mary Higgins Clark tradition, according to the following guidelines set forth by Ms. Clark:

* The protagonist is a very nice young woman, 27-38 or so, whose life is suddenly invaded. She is not looking for trouble – she is doing exactly what she should be doing and something cuts across her bow (as in ship).
* She solves her problem by her own courage and intelligence.
* She’s in an interesting job.
* She’s self-made – independent – has primarily good family relationships.
* No on-scene violence.
* No four-letter words or explicit sex scenes.”

Many of these awards are U.S.-centric, but others are also geographically specific, like the Falcon (“to honor the best hard-boiled mystery novel published in Japan”), the Arthur Ellis (“recognizing excellence in Canadian crime writing”) or the Ned Kelly (Australian authors only). And while the Spotted Owl Award celebrates the “best mystery by a Pacific Northwest author” many U.S. states also have prizes for the best crime fiction set in that location or authored by a resident.

With all this going on you’d think that each and every one of us — fiction writer, non-fiction writer, short story writer and debut author – would be covered in glory by now. We’d each have so many blue ribbons and commemorative plaques and prize-winning teapots and crystal statuettes that we’d have no room for cups and glasses in the cupboard anymore.

Not so … but it’s nice to dream.

I don’t have a “favorite” award, although I must admit I go all Sally Field (“You like me! You really like me!) just thinking about those jury-of-your-peers committee review awards. On the other hand, there would be nothing nicer than getting one of the public vote awards and knowing your work resonated with the people it was supposed to: people who love to read crime fiction.

And while I don’t think awards do much for sales, if they make just one publisher, just one bookseller, just one hesitant consumer take another look at your work, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Last year’s book, The Fault Tree, is a finalist for a few awards this year and I can tell you – as a person who has both won and lost awards in the past – that the nomination itself is the most important part for me. It says, “Somebody somewhere thought you did something right once.” And it gives me a reason to sit down at the computer in the morning and try to do it again. Sure, it would be nice to win, but I will already have been buzzing with the nomination for three months anyway.

So how about you, ‘Rati? Do you have a favorite award or judging system? Do you think awards matter? And has seeing award information on the cover ever made you pick up a book?