Thursday, February 23, 2012

This blog may be contagious...

 Oh my God, I thought I was going to die.

For awhile there I was sure I'd be one of the lucky ones and escape this season's flu epidemic, despite the fact that I neglected to get my flu shot this year. I heaved a sigh of relief when everyone around me seemed to come down with this hideous flu except me.

And then I just heaved.

Yep, I got it. Bad. As much as I tried to avoid contagious "carriers" with bloodshot eyes, hacking coughs, and runny noses, nothing could prevent me from contracting the latest H1N1/Swine/Pan/Avian flu.

My son's family had had it, his in-laws had had it, their entire family had had it. It was only a matter of time before the CDC came to our house and quarantined us, with a big black X on the front door and a sign that read "Contaminated! Run for your lives!"

Naturally I went on Wikipedia to get the latest medical advice. That's where I learned what the flu bug looks like magnified a zillion times (a bunch of circles). I studied how to look for symptoms -- achy head, yucky stomach, demon red eyes, sensitive hair, tight-fitting clothes, bad attitude and poor handwriting. I had them all.

Next I checked the etiology of the disease -- which I learned from "House" meant where I might contract it. The list was endless -- my grandkids, my students, my family members, people at the mall, people near me, or people in general.

Finally I read about prevention. Besides avoiding any kind of human contact, I washed my hands until there was no skin left. I used Fantastik on everything from the kitchen counter to the cats. And I avoided public places like the plague, just in case the plague had somehow found its way to the local restaurants, outlet malls, hospitals, parks and shoe stores.

But "it" finally caught up with me in the middle of the night while I was sleeping, slinking in and replacing my gastrointestinal track like a poisonous snake.

Oh my God, I thought I was going to die.

I know you don't want the details. Let's just say for 36 long hours I alternated between the bedroom and the bathroom, wondering where I could get some heroin or whatever drug it was that made you not care anymore, but I couldn't even lift my cell phone.

After the worst subsided, I had a craving for red Jell-O, Saltines, and grape Popsicles. Once I kept those down, I was able to progress to good old Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Nothing tastes better than mac and cheese after a long night of heaving.

I spent the rest of my recuperation lying on the couch, dozing off during Lifetime movies and telling my cats how much I loved them. At some point, in the middle of all this, I promised a higher power that I'd never to do anything bad ever again if I could just hold my head up long enough to brush the scum off my teeth.

Now that I'm well, things are back in perspective. I can eat normal food and operate the remote, and shower again. But I'm not setting foot outside for the rest of winter without wearing a hazmat suit.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

What's the difference between a cozy and a thriller?

If you're wondering how a cozy mystery differs from a thriller, here are some tips:
   1.    A cozy centers around a small puzzle, like “Who Killed The Cat Lady?” while a thriller is concerned with a larger crime, such as “Where is the President’s Birth Certificate?”

2.    A cozy heroine uses her hobby to solve the crime, such as her quilting skills or cooking knowledge, while a thriller hero uses his contacts with the police or hookers.

3.    A cozy has more to do with figuring out whodunit, like “Was it the ex-con or vicar?” while a thriller deals with emotions, such “What kind of person would kidnap a dog?”

4.    In a cozy, the sex and violence take place off the page and behind closed doors, while a thriller offers lurid and explicit details of throbbing thighs and rare poisonous darts.

5.    A cozy is set in a small town, such as Podunk, Iowa or Flat Skunk, California, while a thriller takes place on a larger stage, like Berlin, Moscow, or the Antarctica.

6.    A cozy offers clever clues like broken lipsticks and strange keys, while a thriller provides shocking surprises, such as secret safe deposit boxes and iPhones with microchips.

7.    A cozy keeps the killer’s identity a secret until the end, such as the butler did it, while a thriller tells you the butler escaped from an insane asylum and is a ticking time bomb.

8.    Cozies are usually series, filled with victims who are friends or family members, while thrillers are usually standalones, with larger-than-life victims like Enron presidents.

9.    Cozies look for suspects, like men with scars and women who work as “masseuses,” while thrillers look for betrayers, such as your own husband, child, or hairdresser.

10.    Cozies have ordinary protagonists, like beekeepers, seamstresses, and cupcake makers, while thrillers have disgruntled CIA agents, nearly retired cops, and reformed ex-cons.

11.    Cozies are often humorous, with comical sidekicks who work as inept prostitutes, while thrillers aren’t funny, because they’re really serious.

12.    Cozies have cute tongue-in-titles, like Dead Body Language or How to Host a Killer Party, while thrillers have pithy, dynamic titles, like Murder One! or Perfect Alibi!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

From Cozy Writer to Thriller Writer in a Single Penstroke

 I’m what you call a “cozy” mystery writer. That means I write mysteries that don’t contain any on-page sex, violence, or bad language. The worst “crime” a cozy writer can commit is harming an animal, especially a cat. We’re allowed to “kill” bad people, bratty teenagers, and the like, but if that cat so much as loses a whisker, our books will never be read in this town again.

Some would question “Why read a cozy at all, if there’s no sex, violence or bad language?” but the cozy mystery has many fans who prefer solving the puzzle to skimming the grit. Plus, there’s almost always a love interest, and creating that particular character fulfills any writer’s fantasy. My love interests are usually men who have the minds of poets and the bodies of construction workers. Naturally my husband thinks he’s the role model for this fantasy man, in spite of the fact that he has the mind of a construction worker and the body of a poet. Let’s not spoil it for him…

So yes, I write cozies, and while some authors who write in the genre prefer to call themselves “traditional,” the word “cozy” suits me fine. I like the idea of a reader curling up by a fire (on “burn allowable” days, of course), sipping a cup of tea (perhaps with a splash of vodka), and petting the lap cat (rescued, naturally), while reading my book.

Now imagine my surprise when I was asked to participate in the prestigious San Francisco Writers Conference next weekend. I immediately looked up the list of speakers. Oh my goodness (as they say in cozy mysteries.) Lisa See (Dreams of Joy). Ellen Sussman (French Lessons.)  Lolly Winston (Happiness Sold Separately). Michael Krasny (KQED, Spiritual Envy). 

What was a little old cozy writer doing in a literary place like this?
Being awestruck, like everyone other reader and writer, that’s what.

I looked up my assignment, skimming past the incredible lineup of workshops like,  “Putting your passion on the page,” “Crafting wickedly effective prose,” “Designing a killer online promotion plan,” and the essential “Getting paid to write your book.” Those are workshops I needed to attend!

And then I saw it: My panel. “BLOOD MONEY: Writing Thrillers and Crime Fiction.” I was to be sandwiched between bestselling thriller writers Robert Dugoni (Murder One) and Sheldon Siegel (Perfect Alibi). Wha-what? Granted it was the perfect sandwich, being right in the middle of two handsome men who could easily have played the parts of my love interests in my cozy novels. But I don’t write thrillers. I was out of my league with my terribly cozy How to Party with a Killer Vampire.    
I emailed back the people in charge. “Are you sure you don’t want me on a nice little cozy panel? Or perhaps a workshop on writing for kids, since my no-sex, no-violence, no-cursing novels are perfect for the eight-to-12-year-old set?”

“Oh, we’re putting you on the writing-for-kids panel too,” came the response. “And as for being ‘sandwiched’ between Bob and Sheldon, you’re more like the baloney in the middle.”

Ha. Apparently, I’m to be the comic relief. Still sounds cozy to me.

The San Francisco Writers Conference runs Thursday, February 16 through Sunday, February 19 at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. For more information go to


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How To Fake it at a Super Bowl Party

    Cooped up in our RV last weekend, isolated in a giant redwood forest without Internet access, and unable to set foot outside for fear I might freeze to death, I was forced to watch some football games. Four of them. Practically in a row. Talk about a weekend in hell.

    I actually felt sorry for my husband, who only had me to talk to about the games. I tried to look interested, even asked questions like “Why’s that guy crying?” and “Who would name their kid “He Hate Me” or “Ochocinco.” But I’m not very good at faking it. At least, not when it comes to sports.

    During the games I entertained myself by focusing on the important details, like “Who picked the colors Red and Gold?” and “John Harbaugh? I thought it was Jim Harbaugh.” That’s the only thing that kept me from going crazy with boredom. Truthfully, I’d rather watch “Ice-Road-Trucking New Jersey Housewife Hoarders” than football.

    My husband, on the other hand, seems to experience a wide range of emotions while watching the games. For example, that game the other day between those Red and Gold guys versus those Black and Gold guys? I was afraid I was going to have to sedate him but I couldn’t get him out of his “lucky chair.” First he was shouting. Then he was crying. Then he was biting his nails. Then he was screaming. Then he was outside jumping up and down with some RV neighbors he didn’t even know.

    I felt so sorry for him that I offered to host an upcoming Super Bowl Party. I told him I’d make some cute little invitations written on mini footballs and stuff them into large puffy envelopes filled with crushed peanut shells. I would ask our guests to come dressed as cheerleaders, referees, or food vendors.

    To create the right atmosphere, I’d set out sports equipment, like hockey masks, baseball mitts, and tennis racquets. Then I’d mark the party room floor with field yard lines using tape. As for a centerpiece, I’d set out Ace bandages, Ben-Gay, and crushed beer cans. And each guest would get one of those big foam “We’re Number One” fingers so they could have pretend swordfights during commercials.

    When the game inevitably becomes slow and boring, I’d keep the party alive by having the guests place bets on everything from “Who will win the coin toss?” to “Which player will spit next?”  Then we’d play a sports trivia game, with questions like “What’s the name of the team we’re rooting for?” and “Who’s the cutest guy in tight pants?” At halftime, we could go outside for a brisk game of balloon badminton or planking.

    Finally, I’d serve typical ballpark food, such as Pigs in a Blanket, mini-quiches, Jell-O shots, and Vodka lattes. Then, depending on whether his team wins or loses, I’d send the guests home with either a Team Logo celebration banner or an embroidered crying towel.

    “I think I’ll just get some beer, make some chili, and call a few friends,” he said when I finished telling him my party plans.

     That’s fine. If he needs me, he knows where to find me. At the mall.

The Perfect Place to Write Your Book

    I began my writing career typing on a Commodore 64 in a corner of my bedroom. After my son left for college, I moved into his room (boy was he surprised when he came back for winter break…), and enjoyed the quiet and seclusion there.
Commodore    But a few years ago when I was under deadline—and had already planned a trip to Disneyland with the family—I found myself writing at a café table on Main Street. While my kids headed for their favorite rides, I ignored the crowds, the noise, and the commotion, and amazingly, was able to focus on my story.
Castle    From that I learned this: I can write anywhere. I don’t need a garret or a coffee shop, a quiet bedroom or a table at Disneyland, to write. In fact, no matter where I go, each location offers something no doubt finds its way into my book. Except Hawaii. By the time I’ve had my third pina colada, I can’t even remember the alphabet.
Pina coladaHere are some suggestions for places to write that you may not have thought of:
Hospital1.    Hospital cafeteria. Think about all the drama that’s going on at a hospital and you’re right in the middle of it! And if you need medical advice, just grab a nearby nurse or doctor on lunch break and grill them!
Airport2.    Airport waiting room. Absorb some of that glamorous jet-setting crowd and writer your book as you watch passengers come and go. You may even spot a movie star you can weave into your plot.
Hotel3.    Hotel lobby. Find a comfy chair at a hotel like the Claremont or Mark Hopkins, pull out your laptop, and write your book in the lush surroundings of upscale accommodations. Need a latte while you work? Drop by the hotel coffee shop and pick up a pick-me-up to keep you going.
Library4.    University library. I used to hang out at my university library to meet smart guys, but now it’s the perfect place to pen your novel—and have access to all those resources you might need along the way. Plus, you’re in good company, with the works of your favorite authors.
Secret passage5.    Secret Passageway. Find an old mansion, do a little wall-tapping, and find yourself a secret passageway. Then hide yourself away and don’t come out until that book is done (or the residents come home.) Talk about atmosphere!
Dmv6.    DMV or Post office lines. Instead of wasting your time waiting for the next available clerk, write your next chapter on your portable, lightweight iPad. Tap into that seething emotion from other line-waiters and your story will be filled with passion.
Jail7.    Jail. If you can’t get yourself arrested, you can at least find a spot in the waiting room to write that dramatic action scene. Plus, you’ll find lots of character archetypes and may even overhear some good plot twists.

So what’s your favorite place to write?