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Kill Your Squirrels

By Cornelia Read


Writing scares me. Getting my ass in the chair and the Work-In-Progress Word file open is a goddamn struggle, every single time.

It’s like my head is filled with a bunch of really mean, sarcastic squirrels who don’t like me very much,

and I have to get each one of them to shut up even though they’re wearing body armor and keep ducking down behind these fat flood-watch sandbags of inertia and angst.

Oh, and they’re probably French.


That they are also zombies and radioactive no doubt goes without saying.

So, yeah, a head full of Kevlar-encased carnivorous undead glow-in-the-dark scathingly articulate plutonium-oozing Catherine-Deneuve squirrels who know me down to the last molecule of unworthy marrow: Fabulous.

I may be more squirrel-infested than you are, or less. I think we all have to play at least a little mental whack-a-mole in order to get down to work.

My squirrels remind me that I don’t have a backup job or health insurance, and that if my fourth book sucks butt–which it inevitably will, if I even manage to finish it–I will be unable to learn how to operate an espresso machine at Starbucks, and that I will therefore be doomed to labor on well into my toothless nineties wearing support hose and a McDonalds uniform.

Probably in Antartica.

(Yes, I am aware that there are no Eskimos in Antartica. This just means that my job at McDonalds will be more lonely.)

I am not alone in this, I know. Gene Fowler once said, “Writing is easy. You simply stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

(I first heard that from Douglas Adams in a speech he gave at an ABA breakfast in Anaheim, about seventeen years ago. And he didn’t credit Gene Fowler.)

The basic gist here is that in order to write, I have to keep reminding myself to kill my squirrels. Here are ten tips for squirrel maintenance that have served me well in this regard, even though I don’t always remember them.


Number One: They’re Only Squirrels.

Really. Not to mention imaginary.

It’s a negative soundtrack of your own devising. It’s not the voice of The New York Review of Books, Your Mother, or Fate. Anne Lamott called it Radio KFKD, and rightly pointed out that it’s bullshit.

Don’t let it stop you from getting your ass in the chair and opening the Word file. You are allowed to write crap. You are allowed to write a shitty first draft, and a shitty second draft, and as many steenking-piece-of-crap drafts as it takes.

The best novel you can ever write will be the result of small, sustained efforts, repeated over and over.

It will not be the product of continuous days of brilliance, with The Choir Eternal singing praise in your ears throughout. It will be built in layers. Many, many, many layers.

These efforts will at times feel infinitisemal, as though you are trying to unearth Pompeii with a bent spork and broken fingernails.

Some of these infinitisemal efforts will suck. That is inevitable, and it is okay. You will fix them. You do not have to turn straw into gold by lunchtime, or dinner, or even breakfast tomorrow.

Gandhi said, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” That’s your daily mantra.

Guy de Maupassant is credited with saying “Get black on white,” meaning just spill some ink on the paper.

Start. Pick a word and go.

I just re-read Stephen King’s On Writing. He relates an anecdote about a friend asking James Joyce what he’d managed to write that day.

“Seven words,” said Joyce.

“Well, James, that’s pretty good for you.”

Joyce shook his head. “But I don’t know which order they go in.”

What they say in AA is if you don’t know what to do, Do The Next Right Thing. It might be tiny, you might not know what comes next. Just do the next. right. thing.

We’re all digging with Sporks. Embrace the Spork. The Spork is Life.



Number Two: Writing is Like Working Out

If you’ve blown off exercising for a while, getting started up again sucks. The first day you feel like an idiot–you’re sweaty and ungainly and everyone else in the room is faster/stronger/better than you are.

The second day is worse because now you’re sore from the first day, and besides which the instructor lady is obviously a bulimic Nazi bitch who hates you.

But the third day… well, maybe the Stairmonster didn’t make you feel like barfing after only five minutes this time, or you actually finished the full sequence of leg-lift inner-thigh-torture things without collapsing to the floor like a lukewarm pool of spilled Hollandaise.

Writing is like that, too. Day one is a root canal, day two is a root canal with back spasms… but day three you might think up something funny, or have a few good lines of dialogue, or really nail the way newly delivered palm trees with their fronds tied up in the air:

kind of look like Pebbles Flintstone:

Whatever… day three you’ll have a little something to let you know you’re getting your mojo back, I promise.


Number Three: Watch Some Stupid TV.  After You’ve Written.

For the past two nights, I have been watching the CMT series about tryouts for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. This has helped my mental state immensely. I’m serious.

Here’s why: 99.9% of the chicks trying out for the squad are are nubile, gorgeous, great dancers, and have these huge smiles like they’ve got Vaseline on their teeth (they probably do have Vaseline on their teeth, if my Miss America trivia is at all trustworthy.)

600 of them showed up for the initial tryouts. Circa 150 got picked for a second round. Maybe 30 of those got to go to cheerleading camp, and another 15 of those got cut over the course of the next eight weeks of grueling workouts and vicious dance hazing.

Those final 15 who got cut? Mostly it was because they were nervous.

They didn’t throw caution to the wind and go for it, didn’t have fun, didn’t get outrageous and over-the-top with the whole thing.

The ones who made it were the ones who just shut up and did it–said to themselves, “Holy crap, I’m at fucking DALLAS COWBOYS CHEERLEADERS CAMP! What a trip! BE HERE NOW!”

The ones who thought about it too much froze, and missed out on the experience. And went home.

The ones who just went for it? They took criticism, and asked for help when they were called into the office. They said “yes ma’am” a lot and got better. And better. Bit by bit, rehearsal by rehearsal.

And they never stopped smiling.

Also, it reminded me that as hard as writing can be for me, it sure beats having to be a professional cheerleader.

If I had to smile that hard, my lips would fall off.

Seriously, aren’t you glad we don’t have to look this enthusiastic throughout Bouchercon?

Plus I can’t dance for shit. Not even with a bottle of tequila in hand and a gun to my head.


Number Four: Read a Really Crappy Book

If you’re struggling with your writerly self-esteem, read the crappiest book you can lay your hands on. I’m talking vampire e-porn, or the ugliest paperback in the drugstore rack.

Something with a bad ersatz Fabio on the cover and a lot of overly-serifed swirly fonts in gold is good.

Something where every woman’s hair is “a deep auburn,” and they talk about “his manhood” a lot.

Better yet, open up an Ayn Rand novel and read the dialogue aloud to yourself, preferably in a Sesame-Street Swedish Chef accent.

You can do better than that. You WILL do better than that. You already *ARE* DOING WAAAAAY BETTER THAN THAT.

Lather, rinse, repeat as needed.



Number Five: Do Something Mindless But Slightly Engaging for a While

I’ve heard it said that when super-computer designer Robert Cray got stuck, he’d dig tunnels in his back yard. Serious tunnels. Great Escape tunnels–with wooden struts and stuff.

There’s something to be said for doing some mindless shitwork that engages your front brain but leaves your messy subconscious bits free to play around on their own. Some of the best ideas I’ve ever had came while I was driving my kids back and forth to school for three months in a car with a broken radio.

The driving was just the right amount of engagement for my internal editor/critic to be absorbed by, but the rest of me was bored enough to start free-associating in kind of wild ways. Worked like a charm.

Raking leaves might work. Walking on a treadmill with no music could, too. I hear that some people swear by long showers for inspiration.

You want something that takes just a little concentration–probably with a slight amount of sensory deprivation and some sort of physical engagement. Distraction, basically, but not all-engrossing. The idea is to free yourself up to fly a little.

Think Steve McQueen stuck in The Cooler with his baseball and his mitt.


Number Six: Play “The Galaxy Song” a Couple of Times





Number Seven: Dude, Count Your Blessings Already.

First of all, you are not a little kid in Guernica when the Germans are testing out how well bombing civilians works for invoking general terror.

Neither are you getting strafed by Jap Zeros in a rice paddy in 1939 Nanking, with nothing to protect you but a straw hat.

Yea verily, I doubt that you are starving in Armenia,

Or chained in the bowels of a boat on your way to a torturous life of horrid indentured servitude,

Or being pillaged by rampaging Vikings at this very moment.

Additionally, there is probably NOT an IED strapped under your desk. You just have imaginary squirrels in your head.

Remember: It’s only writing–not famine or pestilence or doom.

In all the times throughout history that you could have been born, this one is pretty damn good.  There are antibiotics, for instance, and if you get sick, it’s a good bet no one will try bleeding you to release the bad humors.

Plus, if you’re reading this, you not only know how to read, you have access to a computer. The universe has indeed smiled upon you.

Be grateful.

Be happy.

Type something.


Number Eight: You Can Make it if You Try-igh-igh

As God is my witness, you can finish a book (or books)!

You may have to write it seven words at a time. You may not know what order they go in, at least right away. But if you get your ass in the chair and open the file every day, it will happen.

I don’t care if it’s for fifteen minutes at a stretch… you need to assume the position for inspiration to find you. You need to be typing.

I also don’t care if you start out typing “all work and no play…” etc. over and over again, until you figure out something better (though I recommend staying away from axes and creepy empty hotels, generally.)


Number Nine: Cornelia Says Relax

So does Ginger Rogers.





Number Ten: Fill in the Blanks

As Max Ehrman wrote,

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should

‘Ratis, what works for you, when your squirrels are restless and your hypos have the upper hand?

Inquiring minds want to know…

Come Hang With Us in Berkeley!

By Cornelia Read

Okay, so this is me, totally shilling for an event, but it’s going to be very fun so I hope you’ll bear with me here. I’m doing a weekend mystery-writing workshop at the really cool and historic Claremont Resort & Spa in Berkeley, California, the weekend before Thanksgiving (November 21 & 22) with an extremely great group of people, and if anyone reading this is working on a crime novel and wondering about the business, I hope you’ll consider joining us.

The Claremont is gorgeous and awesome, and has a great bar. It was built in 1915, and is a AAA Four Diamond kind of place:


(and did I mention spa? There’s a spa.

And tennis. And amazing views of San Francisco Bay. And really, really good food.)

They’re giving us a special discount on rooms for anyone who wants to stay over for the weekend, too. Which is immensely wonderful of them.

We’re flying in two special guest type people from New York to join the presenters: Peter Riegert, actor/director/screenwriter extraordinaire,


and astonishingly awesome literary agent Barbara Poelle, from the Irene Goodman Agency.

Writers on the faculty include Juliet Blackwell (AKA Hailey  Lind–,

Tony Broadbent,

Sophie Littlefield,

Tim Maleeny,

and, well, me.

I’m not sure what I look like on stage, but I can tell you that the rest of these guys are smart and funny and wonderful and will give you all kinds of groovy inspiration and insider dirt and food for thought and all that good stuff. We are also going to have a kickass gang of law enforcement pros for even MORE insider dirt on the procedural angles of our writing lives of crime (representatives of both SFPD Homicide and the SF District Attorney’s office.)

Seriously, what’s not to like? You should totally come hang with us. It’s going to be most excellent.

For more info, downloadable brochure, and registration coordinates, please visit

(Space is limited to 35 people.)


Hope to see you there, and thanks for reading this!

Weasel Vomit and the Whole Genre v. Literary Debate Thing

 By Cornelia Read

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about genre lately.

Here’s a definition of the word from The American Heritage Dictionary:



  • A type or class: “Emaciated famine victims … on television focused a new genre of attention on the continent” (Helen Kitchen).
  • A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content: “his six String Quartets … the most important works in the genre since Beethoven’s” (Time).
  • A realistic style of painting that depicts scenes from everyday life.

French, from Old French, kind, from Latin genus , gener-; see gen- in Indo-European roots

I’ve been thinking a lot about it for the past month or so because my editor is urging me to write my fourth novel as a non-mystery, which is difficult for me to get my head around. Especially since he would like it to be a novel containing my established series characters.

Now, my editor is a very smart guy who’s been in the business a long time, and it’s amazingly wonderful that he’s taking this much interest in my future as a writer, and also too I don’t take anything he suggests lightly, but this is tricky for me on a lot of levels. I’m kind of going through Kubler-Ross-esque emotional stages about it–i.e. fear, confusion, swearing, and belligerence–not necessarily in that order and indeed often simultaneously.

His arguments in favor of me taking this tack are as follows:

  • He thinks my strengths are description, dialogue, and voice.
  • He thinks I pretty much suck at the “procedural stuff” (though he worded it much more kindly) and is concerned because he has to keep pushing me to get more action into my stories and raise the stakes all the time and stuff.
  • He thinks he could position me differently if I wrote a non-genre novel, which would be more likely to be a commercial success.

My first response during our phone call about this was to say, “yeah, but, um… I think my plots actually suck because I suck at plotting… and somehow I don’t think moving AWAY from genre is going to make that better…”

And that is a big part of it for me–I like having a known structure to mess around with. I compare it to writing a sonnet or something: there are rules, and you can stick with them or rebel against them as you so desire, but it’s mostly helpful to know that they’re there whether or not you want to follow them strictly.

But there’s also my feeling that the best writing today is happening in crime fiction–mysteries and thrillers. I’ve often said on panels and stuff that literary fiction lost me in the Eighties. I just couldn’t get behind minimalist New Yorker stories, the whole juiceless scraped-dry-bones minimalist Gordon Lish thing. I want detail, I want passion, I want big fat zaftig stuff about things that actually matter. Most of all, I want resolution. I can’t stand novels that just kind of drift around about vaporous bullshit and then wander out of the room at the end without a point. I am not much of a Proust fan, and Thomas Mann gives me hives.

In fact, I think the closest thing to summing up my idea of what makes great literature is a quote from D.H. Lawrence, even though I think his fiction is kind of dopy, too. He wrote, in his Studies in Classic American Literature:

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral.

But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.

Now that isn’t to say that I think all crime fiction is superior to all “literary” fiction–in fact I agree with Sarah Weinman that the most important distinction we can make among books is to say that there are good ones and bad ones, and everything else really doesn’t matter in the end. But for me what is most essential about writing as an art is happening a lot more these days in genre fiction than outside it.

I do tend to blame that a bit on the MFA model of writing, though some of my best friends have done MFA programs, so it doesn’t all suck. But it just seems as though this rather artificial division between genre and non-genre has sprung up over the last couple of decades, and that the champions of contemporary standards of what has come to define “literature” have done a good deal to squeeze the life out of narrative in general.

When Sarah posted a great piece on her blog about Lev Grossman’s dismissal of Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution as “highbrow fiction being assaulted by low-brow genre,” Laura Lippman wondered:

Who benefits from the debate, that’s what I want to know? Not genre writers. Not readers. So it must be the literary writers who keep beating this dead horse. Such pieces always make me feel as if I’m an ill-behaved dog running amok in the great marble temple of literature….

“Stop her! She’s peeing on the floor! She’s drinking out of the toilet! She won’t play by the rules — except those tired genre conventions that mark her work as second-rate. Ohmigod — she’s humping Nadine Gordimer’s leg. Get her out!

Which prompted me to codify my own feelings on the subject for the first time, as follows:


I think they’re all just pissed off because they’ve turned “literature” into the kind of Filboid-Studge Latin whose precise declensions can only be enforced with Joycean pandy-bats viciously applied to the reader’s tender palms and footsoles,

and meanwhile we’re all having so much goddamn fun over here in Vibrant Street-Italian Vernacular Land it should be illegal.

Okay, I guess that covers the “belligerence” phase of my response to the idea of writing a book in which no murder takes place. Besides which I am loyal to the genre, and the people who write in it, and I’m sick of all of us getting dissed by a bunch of whiny-ass bitches who couldn’t, in my opinion, write their collective way out of a wet house of cheap cards.

(And I should probably also throw in that I can’t stand literary cocktail parties unless they are peopled with crime writers. This just feels like my tribe–as opposed to the last time I was drinking with a roomful of academician poets, back in Syracuse,


who were so humorless I ended up swilling beer in the kitchen with the insurance salesman who lived next door and was actually a pretty interesting dude.)

Also, I just have a perverse fascination with crime generally, and murder in particular. I don’t think there’s any human conundrum more morbidly intriguing than the question of why we kill each other. I want to know what that part of us is, I want to see if there’s any way to keep it from happening. I care deeply about justice, and morality, and what it all means in the end.

I was intending to base the central plot of my fourth book on the murder of a friend of my mother’s about twenty years ago. She went out to get the morning paper at the end of her driveway–in view of about eight other houses on her cul-de-sac–and was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Probably by her ex-husband or her son.

My editor asked why I want to write about baseball bats.

I ran all this by Tana French in an email soon after, because she’s a writer whose work I think is exquisite and extremely literary in the best possible way.

She wrote back:

How the hell do you plot a book without ‘Someone gets killed, someone else finds out whodunit’ to give you a structure? I’m as fond of character and dialogue and all that fancy stuff as the next girl, but without the murder mystery to bookend things, all my books would go on for thousands of pages and never get anywhere much… What does your editor have against the baseball bat?




And that’s where the “fear and confusion” Kubler-Rossity comes into this for me. I mean, I’m not saying I hate all novels in which a murder does not take place (I love Joshilyn Jackson’s work, for instance. Which does tend to be rather dark and have death here and there, but is otherwise not genre). But I don’t know if *I* could come up with a plot that actually went anywhere without the genre form to guide me. I mean, I spent twenty years (off and on) futzing around with a memoir that never gelled into a narrative, despite several hundred pages of typing and thousands of hours of agita on my part.

Plus which, to quote the late, great Brenda Ueland: “There is absolutely no evidence that I could write a good book. It might very well be the most awful weasel vomit.”

And also too, I just think it’s weird to write three books in a series that revolve around murders and then have all the same people just bop hither and yon in the fourth book without any blood spatter whatsoever, you know?

So I don’t actually have any sort of good thumping conclusion to this post, because I haven’t figured this stuff out yet. All of the above is twirling around in my head like those proverbial visions of sugar plums.


Maybe the thing to do is come up with a better mystery plot than I’ve so far managed to do, so that my editor feels more comfortable with my actually *earning* the genre pigeonhole? But everything I’m coming up with so far seems to be brimming with weasel vomit.

Oy. Feh. Vey ist mir.

What say you, ‘Ratis?


Just Close Your Eyes and Think of England

By Cornelia Read

It is reputed that Queen Victoria’s advice to her daughters on the subject of their wedding nights was “Just close your eyes and think of England.” 



That’s about how I feel about having my picture taken. Not like the camera’s going to steal my soul or something–hey, camera, welcome to it–but more like it’s going to superimpose the face of this weird looking chick who is not at all what I think I look like.

In short, I have a bad case of what my sister calls “Camera Face,” in that I totally freeze up whenever I know the lens is focused on me. I end up with one of two expressions:

The Joker, if I smile,

 or Queen Victoria if I don’t.


I shit you not. Here, check it out… smiling:


Not smiling:


 I mean, pin the Order of the Garter on that sweater and throw a linen napkin on my head…

…and I could be Victoria Regina Imperatrix Redux. Shut your eyes and think of Belgium, for chrissake. Or possibly Bumfuq, Egypt:

This is all rather on my mind because of a new feature on Google, which is that when you Google yourself they show four pictures of you on the front page about halfway down if there are that many of you tagged with your name online. And, of course, you can’t control the four pictures that actually come up.

I mean, this one doesn’t suck, which is why I may have it on my dust jackets forever (okay, it’s three years old and yes, Photoshop *is* my friend):

And I even kind of like this one (which my ex took which may be why I look so fucking pissed off):

But could those two show up on the first page of Google? God forbid.

Instead I get that one of me in Scottsdale sitting next to Jacqueline Winspear which is so far past Queen Victoria it’s kind of into Zero Mostel territory. 

And this one, in which it appears that albino Oompa Loompas have dumped a bucket of Clorox on my head, to achieve unwitting solidarity on my part:

I am not particularly vain, but I just like to think that the off sighting of a picture of me online for some random stranger kind enough to Google me should not induce the proverbial technicolor yawn, you know?

Frankly, the only shots of me I like these days are the ones in which I am drunk, such as this:

Or this:


Or even this:

Which of course has a dash of the old Cesar Romero, but still at least has a little style.

Better yet are the photos in which my face does not actually feature, such as this shot of my thigh boots at the Edgars this year (the elegant wearer of wicked pumps is the justly famous Christa Faust):


(although I would like to add that that is TWO of my legs, it’s just that I’ve got one foot tucked behind the other. Ahem.)

Anyway, I need to get a new author photo for my third novel, Invisible Boy. Wouldn’t it be great if I could just send in a blank sheet of paper and go, “hey look! INVISIBLE CORNELIA!!! With her best friend, POLAR BEAR IN A SNOWSTORM!!!!!”

Or I could give them this one:

Yes, I’m fat, pale, shiny, and my hair is bright orange, but at least Tony Broadbent and Jacqueline Winspear look wonderful, so maybe that will distract people from looking at my scary visage.

Just shoot me. Or better yet, don’t.

So, basically, about the only thing I don’t like about being a published person is this whole ugly-pictures-of-me-widely-disseminated thing. Well, and self-employment taxes.

‘Ratis, what’s the worst picture of you ever taken? (provide URL if you dare… they can’t be worse than mine, right?)

Left Coast Crime 2011 and other GREAT MURDERATI NEWS!

This is a good week. We have enough in place that I get to announce the details of Left Coast Crime Santa Fe. In addition to that, I’m absolutely delighted to tell our ‘Rati readers that starting next Monday, August 31, Alafair Burke—yes, you read that right—will be joining our blog.

Left Coast Crime 2011: The Big Chile

First off, let me introduce you to a new word: “chile”. Yep. Lower case. In New Mexico that’s how we spell what most of the rest of the country spells chilli or chili. So don’t pronounce it a la Southern for “child.”

Guests of Honor
When I was thinking about guests of honor, I wanted to make sure we’d have a variety of  crime fiction subgenres represented. I also very much wanted to make sure that all of our guests had a tie with New Mexico—that they “got” what my state is all about. I’m very excited to announce this line up:

Martin Cruz Smith – Lifetime Achievement

Margaret Coel and Steven Havill – Guests of Honor

Marv Lachman – Fan Guest of Honor

Steve Brewer – Toastmaster

Dorothy B Hughes and Frances Crane – Ghosts of Honor

Pretty wonderful, hunh?

March 24-27

I plan to have at least one side trip, maybe two, before the convention starts. Right now I’m thinking of a combined trip to either Los Alamos and Bandelier National Monument OR Taos (the pueblo and town). We also might have a specialty writing day such as LCC 2010 is having on that Thursday.

Convention Hotel
La Fonda on the Plaza

This incredible historic hotel epitomizes New Mexico to me. Think adobe. Think hand-painted Mexican tiles in the bathrooms. Think saltillo tiles, a restaurant with huge sky lights and a lovely fountain in its center. La Fonda is unlike any other hotel you’ll ever visit or stay in. We’ve negotiated the rates for standard rooms down to $179/night. This is a great deal, especially since the hotel is right on Santa Fe’s world famous Plaza.

I’d encourage anyone who wants to stay at La Fonda to make their reservations EARLY –you can do it today!—because rooms will fill up fast. I can tell you right now that we are definitely going to have at least one overflow hotel. Of course there are many places to stay in the area – many far more expensive — and even a few motels a little further away, but La Fonda is a once in a life time experience.

Website and Registration
We’ve got the LCC 2011 website up–though there may be portions that aren’t quite ready for primetime yet–but you can register right this minute if you want. We’ve tried to keep the prices reasonable and there are benefits to signing up early.

We are definitely including the buffet awards dinner and at least one continental breakfast in the convention package. I plan to include a second continental b-fast, but that will depend on how many people sign up and what we can afford.

If you’ve got ideas or comments, either include them here or send them to me privately. At this point, with more than eighteen months’ lead time, we’re fairly open to suggestions. Now is the time to make your voices heard. No guarantees that we’ll be able to accommodate every creative concept, but we’d sure like to make this convention memorable for all the right reasons.

If anyone wants to take a larger, planning piece of this puzzle, let me know and I’ll email you privately (provided I can find your information).




I feel sheepish giving so many details about LCC and so little space to Alafair, but what can I say about this fabulous and accomplished writer? Only this: I wasn’t looking to give up my solo blogging on Mondays. I liked being the only ’Rati who didn’t alternate with someone else.

It took an extremely special person to make me reconsider.

There’s no question in my mind that Alafair will add a wonderful voice to our mix. She’ll bring a depth and level of excellence that just makes my heart sing.

Alafair will post her first blog with us next Monday, August 31, and thereafter will alternate Mondays with me.

I know you’ll make her feel welcome. All of us at the ‘Rati are absolutely delighted. We hope you are too.


I think that’s enough information on a Monday morning.

— Tell me what you think about Left Coast Crime 2011: The Big Chile

— Tell us what you think about Alafair joining the ‘Rati.

The Poignance of Summer Places

By Cornelia Read



For the last ten days or so I’ve been enjoying the final remnant of my robber-baron ancestry–my paternal family’s “Great Camp” in the Adirondack Mountains. We just call it Camp, though the quasi-official name is Three Star Camp, since Grandaddy Read retired from the Navy as a three-star admiral.


This is the longest I’ve been here at a stretch since 1972, when my dad and his girlfriend Martica brought us up here for a month from her place in the Bahamas, before he moved into his VW van behind the old Chevron Station in Malibu for about a decade. It’s also the first time I’ve been here since I started writing my novel A Field of Darkness, back in 2001.

Camp is the most beautiful place in the world to me, and I usually describe it to friends as “my spiritual homeland.” It’s also where the final confrontation in Field takes place, and in his dying moments, the bad guy burns the whole place down.

This freaked the hell out of my actual relatives, as you might imagine, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time this trip explaining to various aunts and cousins and what-have-you that I wrote it that way not because I have any pyromaniac tendencies–or indeed any unrequited poor-relation pissed-offness, per se–but because that is the very worst thing a bad guy could do, in the Islamic Republic of Cornelia’s Fictional Universe. Well, in addition to being a serial killer and stuff, but I hope that goes without saying.

Camp was built in 1907 by my great-grandfather William A. Read, a year after he took over a seventy-four-year-old investment bank and renamed it after himself. It became Dillon Read in 1916 after he died, then SBC Warburg Dillon Read when the Swiss bought it, and then some more Swiss bought that or whatever and now you probably can’t even get a t-shirt. So it goes. We are an illustration of the old adage about “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” or, as my college pal Derek Guth once remarked, “y’all are like rich gone to seed or some shit.” Amen. (see VW Camper, above.)


Here is my fictional version of its origins:


Camp was on its own “pond” to the south, a fish-shaped three-mile length of water called, redundantly, Little Smalls. Great-grandfather Lapthorne had bought the five thousand acres surrounding this in about 1892, when building “Great Camps” was just becoming fashionable among the rich who wanted to summer more rustically than was possible in Newport or Long Island.

He commissioned a sprawling lodge of dark wood on the edge of the water, connected to its outbuildings by a series of covered walkways through the forest. There was an icehouse and a boathouse, servants’ quarters above an octagonal dining room, and an old stable that had been converted to a garage, complete with a Deco gas pump out front.


I haven’t been thinking about the financial stuff too much while I’ve been here, though (other than hoping my house deal goes through before my next rent check is due, and that I have enough gas left to get home to New Hampshire on Wednesday).


I’ve been thinking more about the poignance of summer places, those locales we bond with in early childhood: cabins or beach houses or rented cottages which ever afterwards imprint us with nostalgia for fireflies and the sandy back seats of station wagons, for having to wait a whole half hour before you can go back in the water, for being told you have to come out again far too soon because your lips are blue, for whatever treasured place it was that made you chant “are we there yet?” with such brimming expectancy, because it always took so very long to arrive.

It’s those early years when you learn all the secret places, the treasures you think you alone have discovered–maybe a long-empty maid’s room above the kitchen…

Or a tiny cove alongside the boathouse…


Or a chair that everyone else is too big to sit on, anymore…


Maybe it’s your favorite old boat…



Or some tiny detail that couldn’t be anywhere else…

Or just a certain quality of light…


…out on the lake, or looking over it from the land… 

Maybe it’s getting called back to the dining room, from the far shore…


Or a lonely afternoon when it’s too rainy to go out, and everyone else is up at the house, playing Sardines…

And then you come back as a grownup, and it’s time for the next generation to make the place their own…


What’s been the best thing for me about this visit, though, was sitting out on the dining room porch talking with Peter Riegert, who’s optioned the film rights on Field. It was really cool to have someone so invested in the story talk with me about things he sees things in it that never occurred to me, like the fact that all the people who are murdered are attacked in the throat, because the whole point of the story is my protagonist trying to find her voice. Whoa, dude…hardcore insight.



It’s a pretty fine experience to share time with somebody smart who gets why this place became the impetus for a narrative, the fuel behind a novel. His take is that I had to burn it down because Madeline had to choose between her past and her future, and that was the only way.

In real life, I still want both. Maybe I’ll figure that out in book four.



E.B. White wrote of his own childhood summer place in the essay “Once More to the Lake”:

Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design…. It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving. There had been jollity and peace and goodness.


His description of returning to the lake each summer is wonderful:


The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water. The shouts and cries of the other campers when they saw you, and the trunks to be unpacked, to give up their rich burden.


My own far-less-elegant words for returning to Camp were as follows:


Coming into the Adirondack Park was like driving suddenly out of Appalachia and into the forests of Bavaria. From the nearly treeless expanse of the Mohawk’s run between Syracuse and Albany, the road plunged into a landscape dense with brooding, wizard-hatted pines and spruce.

The ill-kept two-lane road jumped and dove ahead of us, revealing, from between the stands of evergreens beginning to blacken in the ebbing light, sudden glimpses of great, still, pewtered lakes or flashes of deciduous trees whose fall color was so intense I continually mistook them for fire.


To that, in this place, I’m always tempted to add a passage Nelson Aldrich wrote in his book Old Money:


In the end there may not be much more to the special gift of aristocrats than the old image of casual grace…. Worse, the image can’t seem to stand by itself. Its light must have a field of darkness, some dull impasto of despair with a glint of violence flashing through. Without fear, the image lacks shape and substance, and dissolves into a pale, thin air of American possibility. With it, the image comes clear, and so does the gift of courage.

‘Ratis, which is the place for which you’re the most nostalgic, and why? Have you ever written about it?







Pilgrims! SCREE!! SCREE!!! SCREE!!!!

By Cornelia Read

So last Sunday I moved to New Hampshire, which is kind of a trip. This means I have lived in seven states in my life, officially (NY, HI, CA, MA, VT, CO, and now NH–not necessarily in that order.)

I kind of have a thing about New England, though, in that I think my Puritan ancestors are going to rise up from the mists and get me for not being all Pilgrim-y and shit. I mean, those people had a serious attitude problem.

(well, okay, maybe these ones are just pissed off because they’re not sure whether they’re supposed to be Pilgrims or leprechauns–or maybe they’re more worried about how much better-endowed the Indians are– but whatever.)

I once had to write a paper in college about William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, and the shit seriously freaked me out (Although I did like my line about how when they executed the teenage boy who had had sexual congress with {if memory serves} a cow, a horse, a goat, two sheep, and a turkey, and then buried him with the also-executed cow, horse, goat, and two sheep, that “one could surmise the turkey did not survive the initial encounter.”)


I flew east with no furniture and only a couple of duffel bags full of stuff, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes someplace feel like home. I did bring five pictures with me… menus from a South American cruise line illustrated with a bunch of people in “native” garb that used to hang in my Smith grandparents’ kitchen. My favorite one is the Nicaraguan chick, who’s pulled her skirt up so she can roll a cigar on her thigh. If I’d packed a scanner, I’d reproduce that here, but I didn’t oh well.

Oh, wait… I totally have my iPhone, so here:

And I also brought the dessert menu from this really cool funky restaurant in Carmel Valley which only operates on Monday nights at the Cachagua General Store (50 points to the first person who spots why I saved it):


Okay, yes, I ALSO like the Marcus Aurelius quotation.

Other than that, I threw out about half my clothes and just brought sneakers and stuff. It’s been fun hitting garage sales to stock up on the usual crap, and my pal Candace just left her third husband and so offered me some of her furniture from their house in Vermont, now that she’s in Texas. This includes a truly hideous purple naugahyde sofa, which feels really karmic since I once had a purple naugahyde sofa in Syracuse, which even made it into chapter one of my first novel. It’s really a tossup which one is more hideous. I’m hoping someone buys my house in Berkeley so I can light this one on fire and go to IKEA. Seriously.

(if it were this one I might not mind so much. Sigh.)

Yesterday I drove three hours to go to a church sale in Vermont with my Aunt Julie. I scored four chairs, two tables, an old floral print, a pitcher, a salt shaker, and the ever-important cocktail shaker (take *that*, pilgrim scum!!)

What’s really cool about being here so far is that I scored an astonishing apartment, right on the Squamscott River in an old mill building. It’s about twice as big as my house in California and has twice as many bathrooms, for about a third of my old mortgage payment. This may seem like less of a bargain in February, of course.

Here is a bird’s eye view (look for the smokestack):

Here is a closeup, as of yesterday rather than in 1864:

Here is what it looks like on the inside:

(This is the living room, pre-purple-sofa. Note distinct lack of furniture. Mom found the rug in the dumpster. For a sense of scale, the windows are about twelve feet tall.)

So what’s kind of weird about all this is that I’m in a completely new-to-me town, and I’m going to be writing a novel about moving to Boulder, Colorado, fifteen years ago. Right now I’m in about the same state of mind as I was in Boulder–figuring out where the drugstore is, and whether or not they have decent Chinese food (which is my gauge of a locale’s level of civilization. Also Mexican food, but hey, it’s New England. Pilgrims definitely still trump decent salsa up here.)

I know this is a very scattered post, but I’ve driven 900 miles in the last two days, I’m not fully unpacked yet, and I can’t figure out how to make Candace’s TV work, except for channel three, which is a really boring channel.

How about you guys… what makes a place feel like home to you, and what makes a place somewhere you can feel settled enough to write? I’m already missing going to my writing partner Sharon’s house every weekday, and desperately missing my writing group, and my Bay Area mystery peeps.

Also, if you live in this neck of the woods, what’s the best thing about being here, and how do you survive February? All suggestions most welcome…

In the meantime, I am hoping to run into Squanto.

I have a feeling he knows who delivers the primo Szechuan around here.

And if any Pilgrims ask where I moved to, tell them Vermont.

Also, if anyone wants a house in Berkeley, I’ll trade you my old one (click here to see it) for a decent sofa.

p.s. that is SO not my furniture–the broker brought in a stager. But the blue stove is awesome and the built-in espresso maker speaks thirteen languages. Pinky swear. Open house tomorrow, I think.

Life is a pitch meeting.

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I spoke to a college screenwriting class the other night, and I realized something that I guess I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve never actually put into words.

Life is a constant pitch meeting.

There were about a dozen kids in this class. Okay, not all kids. I talked for about forty-five minutes, my whole story of breaking into the film business and what the job is really like and how it’s different from being an author, all the usual, and the rest of the two-hour class I was just taking questions.

Out of the whole class, only five of the students asked questions, although more did answer when I asked them questions to draw them out. And out of those, only two people actually voluntarily told me what they were working on, in detail. And those were two out of the three who continued to ask questions throughout the class.

Guess which students I remember from the class?

If I were an executive handing out jobs or assignments, guess which ones would get the job?

Not only that, but these two guys caught my attention from the very first moment they walked into the class. They are attention whores. One walked in with a Nerf – Uzi, it looked like, in violent neon colors. At the slightest prompting he pulled that puppy out of his backpack, loaded a clip of Nerf bullets with awesome efficiency, and fired several lethal rounds into the whiteboard at the front of the class. It was a thing of beauty.

The other shuffled in, collapsed into his seat in a posture of abject and total martyrdom, made sure everyone could see the bruise under his eye, and proceeded (again with the most minimal prompting) to tell a woeful tale of being assaulted by his girlfriend over the weekend. She subsequently harassed his roommates and was arrested by the cops.

Now THOSE are entrances. THOSE are characters.

I don’t know if either of those guys can write worth a damn; I don’t know if they’ve got the drive and dedication to do what the job is, but I would give them a chance to show me more, just because they’re standouts – and because in two hours I learned so much more about them and their writing than I did about anyone else in the class. They moved themselves to the top of the theoretical list just by being forthcoming. They put the spotlight on themselves.

Furthermore, the guy with the nerf Uzi draws and writes comic books, and the guy with the out-of-control love life is writing a wacky romantic comedy.

Do we see the pattern here?

They were ILLUSTRATING the kinds of writers they are, in clothing, props, actions, and their entire personal presentations. They were pitching their writing with everything that they did last night. And oh, do film executives love visual aids. Who doesn’t?

At twenty-two or whatever, these guys already have it down.

In screenwriting, because so much of the job is pitching, you have to stand out for simple job survival. Film executives will take six or seven or ten pitch meetings in a day. OF COURSE you have to have a great story to tell, but you equally have to make sure they’re actually awake enough to pay attention.

It’s a lot the same if you’re an author. The more interesting character is going to get more attention from the media (essential for our job survival). You will get more attention from your publisher if they sense you will get extra attention from the media. That’s just reality.

Take a look at successful authors you admire. There’s something beyond their amazing writing, isn’t there? They’re also fascinating people. They have star power in person. You can always find them in a crowded room, and once you spot them, it’s hard to take your eyes off them.  (Have you ever watched Lee Child smoking a cigarette, for example?  Now, tell me that’s not a living advertisment for the Reacher books.)

Now, that is not at all to say that you can’t make a bestselling career as a recluse. It’s happened throughout the ages. Great writing finds a spotlight, even when the author can’t. But I suspect it’s a lot harder to make a career that way, especially these days.

Even though I wasn’t handing out jobs in that class last night, I am a highly connected industry professional who was right in front of them, at their disposal, for two hours. That’s an opportunity that doesn’t get handed to most people every day. There is no reward for being shy in that situation. You need to milk an opportunity like that for all it’s worth.

But the fact is, the Universe is ALWAYS handing us chances to get exactly what we want. It’s a matter of whether or not we’re prepared enough, professionally and emotionally, to TAKE the chances we’re given.

Sometimes we’re just not ready.

Those two guys I’m talking about didn’t know who I was or that I was going to be in class that night. They didn’t put on those little performances for me. They are clearly people who are ALWAYS performing. But the point is, you never know when someone who can help you is going to be watching, or who might take an interest in you and your career simply because you’re interesting.

II you are ready… and that’s a big if – you need to put yourself out there so that people can see who you are. You need to talk passionately and specifically about your work. My friend and literary idol Margaret Maron calls it “sparkling”, and Margaret truly does. You have to sparkle.

I know a lot of us have just been out there at conferences, it’s the season. Think back over your conference experiences. Did you make the most of the HUNDREDS of opportunities that presented themselves to you over the conference weekend?

You aren’t ever going to be on all the time, let’s just be realistic about that! But were you on most of the time? Did you talk passionately and specifically about your newest projects so that editor or agent on the sidelines of the group made a mental note (“Read that author” or “Keep track of that person”).

Did you sparkle?

And if you didn’t, do you maybe not present yourself at full power because somewhere inside you don’t feel ready?

I think that’s an important question for all of us to consider, and regularly. Because when it feels like we’re being held back, it’s usually something inside US that is putting the brakes on.

So those are my questions for the day, and also – who are some examples of authors who sparkle, for you?

The Joys of Writing

By Cornelia Read



There are days when writing makes me feel like this guy. Actually, every day I write I feel like this guy, at least at the beginning. That’s because beginning is the hardest part, contrary to that annoying song by Tom Petty which claimed that waiting is the hardest part. (actually, I’m much more on board with what Fran Lebowitz had to say about waiting: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” But enough said.)

I was on a panel at the magnificent and life-altering Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference last weekend during which we were supposed to talk about writing rituals, and things we had learned on the way to becoming professional writers. Here is what I have learned, in that the following four things are the bedrock of my complete lack of moral fiber when it comes to writing:


And angst. Don’t forget the angst.


I had coffee with a novelist friend who doesn’t write crime fiction while I was at the conference. I asked her how it was going. She said, “My second novel almost killed me. Actually, it may have killed me. I might be walking around dead right now. My brain is so fried I wouldn’t really know the difference at this point. Writing sucks. Did your second novel almost kill you? Because mine almost killed me. Have I mentioned that?”

I said, “Dude, every moment I worked on my second novel, I didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. Some days I did both.”

She laughed in recognition of this mental state. “Third one’s a piece of cake, though, right?”

“A piece of shit, more like,” I said. 


I said I would always remember what Jan Burke told me, when I confessed how hard it was to be writing my second novel, back when I was writing my second novel. Here is what she said, “Yeah, they all suck. It’s always excruciating. Don’t expect it to ever get any better.”

My non-crime-writing novelist friend laughed again… the bitter laugh of the completely hosed.

“I think that was really cruel of Jan Burke to say, don’t you?” I continued. “I mean, couldn’t she have lied? Couldn’t she have said, ‘kid, here’s the thing–the second one almost kills you, and you won’t know whether to cry or throw up, most days, but after that it’s like falling off a log. No problem. Just get through this one, and the rest of them you can write in your sleep with both hands tied behind your back,’ right? I mean, would it have killed her to lie about that?”

My non-crime-writing friend said, “So now you’re laying that same horrible view of my future on me, even though you’re still pissed with Jan Burke for telling you the truth. Thanks so much.”



I nodded. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Jan Burke… it’s just that I might have thrown up a few fewer times if she’d lied in that instance, you know?”

“Yeah. Aren’t we the lucky ones?”

“We are. We could be throwing up and not published.”



“That could still happen.”

“Yeah, any day now,” I said.

“So how was it writing your third book?” asked my friend.


“Shit,” I said. “Unmitigated shit. And I hate the fourth book already.”

“How much of the fourth one have you written?”

“About a page and a half,” I said. “And it’s already a stinking pile of unreadable crap.”

“Right on.”


“You know what Dorothy Parker said are the two best things you can do to help out aspiring writers?” I asked.

“No, what?” asked my friend.

“She said the second most helpful thing you can do is buy them a copy of Strunk and White.”


“What’s the first most helpful?”

“‘Shoot them now, while they’re still happy.'”

Then we spent the next twenty minutes talking about how everyone who sold more books than we do should die, unless they were really nice to us. Successful novelists who don’t know us should be loaded onto a bus and driven off the edge of the Grand Canyon, we figured. With bells on.



This is why I love hanging out with fellow writers. We’re all nuts in similar ways, which makes me feel better.

We are none of us exactly Little Mary Sunshine.



But as I said to my stepmom a few weeks ago, sitting down to right every morning is like knowing you have to punch your way through a brick wall. Except every morning you realize again that the bricks are made of styrofoam, as soon as you screw up the courage to throw that first roundhouse.

On the other hand, I still have a page and a half of book four. So, you know, it’s not quite like falling off a log yet. Or maybe it’s like falling off a log with both hands tied behind my back.



And also, I am a whiny little bitch.



‘Ratis, what do you tell yourself when it’s time to get started? How do you talk yourselves out of believing everything is doomed to failure, and that it’s time for The Rapture? Inquiring Cornelias want to know…

Back in the Day

By Cornelia Read


So I’m hanging out in Carmel, California, where I spent much of my childhood. It’s a little weird to be here. I posted on Facebook the other day that it’s like reliving my teenage ennui, only without the clove cigarettes.

There are parts of this place that I cherish, and some good memories. A lot of shitty ones, too. I achieved escape velocity at age fifteen, when I got a full scholarship to go to my mom’s boarding school in New York, and once there I swore I would never again live on the west coast. That resolution faltered when I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with young twins in my mid-Thirties–looking out the window one February morning realizing that I had to find the *fourth* mitten again before I’d have my kids ready for the schoolbus, out in the snow.

Now I’m gearing up to move to New Hampshire for a year, having sworn in 2000 I’d never again live in New England, or anyplace where that fucking white stuff falls out of the sky. Famous semi-last words, I guess, and karma’s a bitch and all that.

But the coolest thing about being here so far has been the person chosen to introduce me when I gave a talk to the local chapter of the California Writers Club a couple of weeks ago: Mrs. Boys, my second grade teacher from Carmel River School.


(Mrs. Boys in center… I’m on the right in the paisley minidress)

I hadn’t seen her since the early Seventies, and she is still eminently cool and wonderful. She’s also the first person who ever got me writing, and encouraged me to keep going.

I used the tall binder paper (instead of the horizontal beige stuff with room for a picture on top) for the first time in her class, back in 1970–I wrote a little essay on why I was pissed off about the treatment of Angela Davis, and the Christmas carpet bombings in Vietnam. I wrote my first poetry at her urging, and one of my haiku written then was the first piece of work I ever had published.

I owe this woman a great deal, and have a tremendous number of fond memories of what we did in her class that year.

What was even cooler than having her as a surprise speaker that evening was that she brought her scrapbook from that school year, and let me go through it. When I said I’d love to come over someday and scan some of the pictures, she pulled another small scrapbook out of her bag and handed it to me–she’d already made copies of all the pictures I appeared in, which totally made me cry for happy.

I remembered so much of what she did with us that year… especially the field trips. She had an old Frito-Lay steptruck with shag rug in the back, and she’d just load the entire class into the back of it and take us on the road. (“Yeah,” she said at dinner the other night, “imagine trying THAT with a class of twenty-odd kids today… no seatbelts.”)

We went hiking up Pico Blanco in Big Sur, because this cement company wanted to chop it up for the limestone and we needed to know why that was totally evil:


We went down to the Carmel Library, on Ocean Avenue, and got our pictures in the paper:



She let us run wild on the beach, even in cowboy boots:


But the best trips of all were when she loaded us all up and took us out into the world “to be writers.”



We’d go to a park, or somewhere else that was beautiful, and just sit outside and think and write our little heads off–Mrs. Boys wanted us to know that that was all it took to be a writer, just putting the words on the paper, and doing the best you could with them.

I learned a lot of other cool stuff that year, like how to tie-dye, and folk dance:


(if not keep both kneesocks up at the same time.) We learned a Russian folk song so we’d know what to sing “come the revolution,” we described our dreams on a tape recorder (“I knew there was something different about Cornelia the first time we tried that,” said Mrs. Boys during her introduction. “All the other kids in the class fit their collective dreams onto a single thirty-minute cassette. Cornelia needed a thirty-minute tape all to herself.” [in my defense, it was a really cool dream where I worked with a team of kids from every country in the world to build a rocket ship out of the flags of each of our countries, all pasted together, and then we went to Mars where the skies were orange and the plants were see-through in different colors and there was this thing that looked like a cobalt-blue kickball, only when I kicked it it turned into a hedgehog and ran away… and, well, you get the idea. Ahem.])

I learned how to play the Marine Corps Hymn on a soprano recorder, and plant a tree for Earth Day:



And cut across the horse pasture behind school to get to the river:



But the most important thing I learned was how to believe I was a writer, from the get-go:



And that’s pretty damn cool–even if it’s gotten a little trickier now that I know I have to use quotation marks and stuff.


Thank you, Mrs. Boys. You are awesome.

‘Ratis, who’s the teacher you owe the most, and what did they allow you to learn about yourself?