Stream of Consciousness from an Airport

by J.T. Ellison

Have you ever noticed that we writers are a little strange? Here’s a great example for you…

I’m sitting in the airport at the moment, one of my favorite places in the whole world. There are so many PEOPLE around, so many strangers, big and thing, short and tall, black and white and hispanic and asian  (and I swear to God, an albino) blonde and brunette, male and female and kids, and babies, lots of babies. I know it’s rude to stare, but how can you not, when there are all of these different people around — all shapes and sizes and colors and smells and length of facial hair?

There’s the granola couple with the waist long dreadlocks and their newborn, the cheerleaders with their sweatpants rolled just over, just barely covering their butts, the Amazon woman — she has to be 6’6" is she’s an inch, and thin as a reed. Everyone wears different clothes and shoes and carries multiple bags and briefcases bags and look happy or sad or tired or annoyed . . . Oh, my, she really needs to put a sweater on. Ouch, that eyebrow piercing must have hurt like hell, why would you do that — really, eyebrows are so sensitive, just try getting them waxed.

It’s so strange because I’m in a city that I haven’t visited in at least ten years yet I keep imagining I recognize people walking by, because if you stop and think about it, as diverse and unique as people are, everyone still looks just like the people you know back home, I bet there’s some studies on why we ascribe certain facial affects and features onto strangers to make them feel like home.

That redhead really needs some aspirin, she’s been holding her head for five minutes now. Can you tell me why, exactly, women wear four inch heels and run late to their flights? The sweet-faced Finnish blonde is chatting with the heavyset older woman and you can see that she’s thinking about her mother as they chat. I wonder if she’s still alive?

Everyone is so busy, busy, busy, working on their computers or phones or blackberry or iPods — there really is nothing better than an elderly hippie with an iPod. Do you think they’re listening to ABBA or maybe some Stevie Nicks? That’s what it sounds like to me.

Oh, I like those sneakers, I wonder where I can find them? Can you tell me why there are wheels on a bag that’s only a foot square, because really, how heavy can you make a bag that could only carry a brick, tops?

Why aren’t more people reading? There’s a woman with a Dan Brown and a guy across from her reading something with a swastika on the front cover, and I’ve got Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION in my bag and I’m hoping I run out of battery soon so I have an excuse to turn this off and quit working and get back to the book, because it’s really quite good.

Do you ever notice how people don’t touch anymore — outside of the chicks who wear the four inch heels and rush to meet their planes, because they have no choice but to cling like a burr to the man (invariably bleached blonde tips on his spiky gel laced hair) walking next to her as they miss their gate and have to run the other direction. I shouldn’t get so amused at other people’s expense, karma’s going to bite me on the butt and sit me next to a crying baby for being so damn uncharitable to that poor girl but come on, honey, if you need to run take off the stupid shoes already.

Law and Order is playing on the television instead of twenty-four hour news stations, and everyone who isn’t reading (and that would be more than 3/4) are watching it blankly. I wonder how many times we’ve all seen this particular episode?

Mmmm, I smell fried chicken, real down-home fried chicken that smells so incredibly good, and there, they called my flight, I better go.

Faithfully transcribed from Midway, Chicago. Punctuation layered in later.

And so it goes. I love airports, and I love traveling, because somewhere in this little exposition there’s a gem waiting to be seized upon. After rereading it, I know what it is, and I’ll use it in my new book.

I’ve had to travel more and more in support of my books — to conferences and to signings all over the country. A simple four day conference is enough to exhaust me for a week anymore, which is pretty damn sad. Happily, I’ve wrapped up the last tour stop for my debut, and now get to focus on the next book. I’m curtailing my travel for this one, picking my dates very carefully. I’ll do some travel, but nothing as extensive as my 12 states from November to May. It’s just too much.

Now, enough of my babble, let’s talk about Mayhem in the Midlands. This is an exceptional conference, filled to the gills with READERS! The Omaha Public Library puts this one on, and from the minute I checked in I had a good feeling (maybe it was the book bag with an Agatha Christie novel in it?) One thing I’ve learned in the past six months, I prefer the reader conferences to the writer’s conventions. Not that I don’t love hanging with my friends, but that doesn’t get me in front of readers, which is where my bread and butter is.  Mayhem did an amazing job this year: the guest of honor, Alex Kava, worked with the conference organizers to develop a full-day forensics track with experts from the Douglas County crime lab, C.L. Retelsdorf and David Kofoed, the ADA from Douglas County, Leigh Ann Retelsdorf (siblings, not spouses…), and Dr. Melissa Connor, an incredible woman who handles excavation of mass graves, and in her spare time runs the Forensic Program at Nebraska Wesleyan. An embarrassment of riches, no doubt.

I was lucky enough to participate in two panels on Forensic Friday, both discussing forensics in our books and the realities of researching crime scene minutiae. It was enlightening, and a lot of fun. There was a presentation over lunch that covered a case handled by the Douglas County Crime Lab and prosecuted by Leigh Ann Retelsdorf — Jessica O’Grady — whose body was never found, but her killer is in prison for life. It was an incredible and intimate view of a forensics-laden case, replete with blood spatter analysis, detailed drawings, photographs and  diagrams, including a 3-D video reenactment of the crime scene. Suffice it to say I left lunch with a book already underway.

I think what I liked so much about this weekend was the vibe. The authors attended the panels with the readers, everyone participated, there was no posturing or pitching or ass-kissing, just genuine interest in each other. The line-up was stellar, and I was honored to be able to do a day of drive-by signings with my dear friends Shane Gericke, Rick Mofina, J.A. Konrath (aka James Patterson), Alex Kava and Erica Spindler (yes, it was an INCREDIBLE day!) then walked into the hotel and met toastmaster Jeff Abbott, who is as cool as his books, and makes a pretty good toast. I finally met Barbara Fister and Doris Ann Norris, and Carl Brookings, and Charlaine Harris!!! Jan Burke was there, her always gracious self, toting her incredible, vast knowledge of all things forensic. I got to hang with Libby Fischer Hellman and Marilyn Meredith, Sean Doolittle and the irrepressible Trey Barker, waved at least five times to Toni Kelner, ate with the adorable Chris Everhart and his writing partner, Gary Bush, and the elegant David Walker, got to spend some actual quality time with the always gorgeous and surprising Twist Phelan. I missigned Anthony Neil Smith’s copy of my book (duh, it’s NEIL), traded quips with my bud Chris Grabenstein, watched Donna Andrews work the room like the pro she is, put a face to the great name Honora Finkelstein and met her writing partner Sue Smiley.

Deb Carlin, Alex Kava’s business manager, had the four days scheduled like a well-oiled machine, and it was such a pleasure to be directed by her! There were four different booksellers in the bookroom, all of whom were adorable and kind, especially Becci West from I Love A Mystery in Mission, Kansas — the skull with the sunglasses was too much!

There was more: more people I met for the first time, more hands shaken, contacts made, laughter joined, but you get the picture. All in all, this was a great con, one that I’d be honored to attend again.

The best part though? I came home with a plethora of new ideas. Stuff to work into my current WIP, an entire book I want to do… and a true sense that I’m finding my place in all this. It’s scary to fly across the country to meet 200 people you don’t know, to have three panels to present, to be on for four days straight. But I’d go back tomorrow, it was just that good. Pictures here!

So what makes a good conference for you? And if you answer in stream of consciousness, I’ll give extra points — actually, anyone who comments today will be entered in the drawing for an ARC of my newest novel, 14.

Wine of the Week: I was introduced to this one by the lovely and talented Erica Spindler (another amazingly cool author you must read) Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel — rich, big and spicy, a fantastic partner with the soft-as-butter fillet I had Saturday night. (and yes, I’m on a zin kick!)

18 thoughts on “Stream of Consciousness from an Airport

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    “Have you ever noticed that we writers are a little strange?

    I’m sitting in the airport at the moment, one of my favorite places in the whole world.”

    JT, That says it all right there. Sorry, as a business traveller that holds United Airlines Global Sevies Card (Never heard of that one, did you? Reserved for the ranks of frequent international flyers), AA Platinum and advanced level FF cards on several other airlines, I REALLY don’t like airports.

    Only kidding with you, JT. Not about me hating airports however.

    Oh yeah, Conferences. You asked about conferences. I’ve only been to 4. And all of those have been as a wannabe author. I’ll be attending Magna Cum Murder in Oct. and hopefully Bouchercon this year as a published author and I’m sure conferences will take on a whole new flair.

    So in my very first conference, my very first pitch wound up being to the editor that is publishing my first book. The last conference I went to was more relaxing since I had nothing to pitch. I guess the nerves come back inot play when you are on your first panel.

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    Conferences you say? I always like the ones that are a good mix of readers and writers. Of course being currently unpublished, I favor the writer ones a little more right now. It would be a good way for me to improve my craft and of course network.

    When I lived in Boston, I found one of the best places to people watch was on the subways. You want to talk about diverse, it certainly was that. I have a notebook with a bunch of character sketches, a good percentage of it inspired by those daily commuters.

  3. Kaye Barley

    JT – What a fun post! People watching is one of my all time favorite things to do. That and eavesdropping.Now I’m off to look at your pictures from Mayhem. Glad it was a good one for you!

  4. Chuck

    Excellent thoughts this week, JT. I especially enjoyed the airport people-watching. I travel quite a bit, and it definitely flavors my writing. I can even see evidence of it, months later when proofing. “Oh yeah, I was sitting outside a Starbucks in San Diego when I wrote that awful line.”

    Thanks for the insight!

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Airports, love ’em because if I have layovers I usually watch the river and the rocks. There’s the flow of the traffic just beyond the gate areas where you get mild riffs of humanity and can come up with tiny vignettes — the teen carrying a baby, the nuns and monks who look so serene, the children with their excited faces; I try to remember how big the world seemed to me at those ages.

    Then there are the rocks — or the banks — of that river. The gate areas with all of their dramas. I look at physical characteristics but more often get caught up in what I think the emotions are, the stories of the moment that I’ve intruded upon — and I create entire histories about these unsuspecting subjects in a matter of seconds or minutes.

    I’m glad you had such a good time in Omaha. It’s a wonderful, interesting, happy and very well organized convention. I wish I could’ve been there, but my travel is going to be much curtailed in the years to come. I need to be closer to home; my family felt this year’s travel far too much.

  6. Louise Ure

    Airports are great for people watching, but my favorite eavesdropping is in coffee shops.

    And my favorite con? It’s always the last one. And next week that will be Murder in the Grove in Boise. I can’t wait!

  7. Karen Olson

    JT, hate to burst that bubble, but “older hippies” aren’t listening to ABBA. My god. More like Clapton or the Doors, maybe.

    This is when I start feeling really old.

    Sorry I had to miss Mayhem this year. Went last year, and it’s such a great small con.

  8. JT Ellison

    Hi Karen!Don’t feel old. I swear it was either ABBA or Fleetwood Mac. It was definitely a female seventies rock back, incongruous with the whole aging hipster thing. See what iTunes has done?

    Louise, I’ve heard great things about Murder in the Grove too. Definitely putting that one on my list for one of these years, I want to see Idaho!

    Pari, leave it to you to make a river out of a thought. Lovely analogy! I know what you mean about family missing you — Jade the cat is quite upset with my frequent leaving.

    Chuck, don’t you love that? Being able to identify the influence, be it a stranger or a situation, brings my writing home to me. And your lines SO don’t suck!

    Hi sweet Kaye! I love eavesdropping too — I was sitting next to a woman the other day who was nannering on a cellphone about her DUI arrest — and she was a nurse. What blew me away was when she said, “The funny thing was, I’ve driven away from X bar much worse off than I was last night and never got pulled over.” Now she’s who I want starting an IV…)

    Katherine, when I’m late, I just imagine what I’d be thinking about myself charging through and rushing around, and cringe : ) I’m going to go read your post now…

    Will — your travel might be a bit much — considering it’s massive overseas trips. How long does it take to get to Japan and China? I can’t imagine being stuck in a flying tube of steel that long, I need breaks. And you’re right, when your breaking in, the writer’s cons are the place to be. Next week, I’m going to try to tackle a Do’s & Don’ts list, something I wish I had as I was traveling into my first conferences.

  9. Wilfred Bereswill

    Total time in route to interior China is about 24 hours and then add 13 hours in time zones.

    Pari, nice comparison, airport to river. Then there’s O’hare. The Hoover dam of airports.

  10. JT Ellison

    Many apologies — Typepad seems to be having some issues with the comments today. If you’d like to be entered in the drawing for the ARC of 14, either send me an email at JTEllison at, or simply sign up for the newsletter at my website,

    Will, I think I’d lose my mind. I can’t sleep on planes, so it would get awfully tedious. Though they have those cushy fold-out seats now, right?

    Tash — you know it : )

  11. R.J. Mangahas

    In addition to the subway, like the airport, the train station is always a great place to people watch as well. Though you’d probably see a lot more at the airport…but still.

  12. Catherine

    If I did it more often, my love of all things travel, may die. Yet,I think some of the things I enjoy though are what most people find so annoying. That there is a point where I have close to sweet bugger all control over the process. Gawd I’m perverse…it’s at those times where you have to switch from gate 23 to gate 47 and there’s maybe 5 minutes to get there to board, after waiting for 30 minutes at gate 23 and you’re in a airport you’ve never been in and the freaking thing is shaped like a horseshoe…that’s when I love people watching. I’ve seen little old ladies scooped up on those buggy things and then getting the driver to stop for some young woman teetering along in highheels and more carry-on luggage than any spine should be subjected to. It’s interesting watching people try to maintain some resemblence of civilised behaviour.When you’re all crammed into a tiny space and unlikely to ever met again, it’s amazing what people will reveal to you.I like travel, especially airports.

  13. JT Ellison

    I love Hah-vahd, RJ. Nearly went to the Kennedy School — good thing I didn’t, I wouldn’t have met the husband.

    Catherine — the semblance of civilized behavior — PERFECT line. It’s the truth, the thin veneer of niceness that snaps with the slightest provocation. It’s kind of like the line at the post office.


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