Friday, February 27, 2009

From the Front Porch

I’m off to the SC Book Festival where I hope to see lots of fellow bloggers. Scott Turow is the keynote speaker, and I have a little story about him. A while back I was one of the featured authors at a book festival (which shall go unnamed). This particular festival required authors to sit for six hours in a signing area as potential book buyers filed through.

At the opening reception, all the authors were buzzing about the long signing time and I, knowing Scott Turow was in attendance, said, “Do you think someone as famous as Scott Turow is going to sit around for six hours? No frigging way.”
I said this very loudly (Blame the wine!) while a fellow author tried to signal me with frantic eye gymnastics.

Well… turned out Mr. Turow was standing behind me and heard every word I said.
And yes, he did sit for six hours just like the rest of us.

On another note, I’ve mentioned this novel once before but now I’ve finally read it and while we I don’t generally review books here, I had to make an exception for The Help.

Here’s my take:

“I’m always a little sad when I finish a truly one-of-a-kind, outstanding book. First I hate to leave behind the world the author has created. Second, I know that it will probably be a very long while before I read another book that is even half good as the one I’ve just finished.That’s how I felt after reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a novel set in the early sixties in Jackson, Mississppi about the relationship between white women and their black maids. I want to thank Ms. Stockett for creating such vivid, endearing character-characters I will never forget--and for putting them in situations that kept me eagerly turning the pages.As I read, I felt a rare whoosh of realization that I was reading a novel destined to be a classic and to take its proud place with Secret Life of Bees and To Kill A Mockingbird. If you read only one novel this year, let it be this one.”

Kathyrn will be at the festival, and I’m definitely getting a signed book.

Lit Links

Can a woman write the great American novel?

One way to plot a novel.

Creating sympathetic characters.

Take that Michiko. Norman Mailer spouts off.

A Warm, Interesting Place

by Cathy Pickens.

In the midst of continuing bad economic news, I’ve seen glimmers of good news. Last week in Hilton Head, record numbers of readers turned out to raise funds to support literacy efforts. Today in Columbia, the South Carolina Book Festival opens, with readers gathering in Columbia to hear writers from around the country talk about their favorite topic – books. What could be more fun than that?

Books are a perennial bright spot. I’ve lately found myself reading even more than usual. Because the weather has been cold and I want to nestle into a cocoon? Because who can bear to watch TV when the newsbreaks are naught but bad news?

Whatever the reason, I’ve been devouring books. And the reading has been good. I stayed up late last night to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I wanted to pack Dan Simmons’ new book Drood for this weekend’s trip to the Festival.

Last weekend, I finished Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows. Wow! It reminded me of hearing mystery writer Martha Grimes talk about lying in bed as she finished one of Dennis Lehane’s books. She closed the book and said to herself, “Well, Martha. You didn’t write that book. You might as well just die.”

I wasn’t ready to die at the end of Air and Shadows, but I did sit amazed at how he’d put together such an amazing, literate page-turner.

How else can you travel to a rainy wood in England or meet a quirky Polish family in Queens, all while curled up in front of a fire?

If you have the wherewithal, buy a book. Give books as gifts. Treat yourself to a new author or an old favorite. Books are remarkable bargains. Remember bookstores, writers, and even libraries need your patronage. So they can keep writing and offering books, so we can keep going to interesting places.

No need to wait for "beach book" season. Share your favorite reads with friends and family. Join a book club, if you haven’t already. Go listen to writers and readers talk about books at some place like the SC Book Festival. Best of all, just enjoy!

New book news: Can’t Never Tell, the 5th Southern Fried mystery, is now available. The carnival comes to town for the 4th of July, bringing a mysterious mummy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Writing Better than Doing / Book Festival

Sometimes Writing is Better than Doing...

(and check out the SC Book Festival)

by T. Lynn Ocean

If you're a writer, you spend lots of time sitting on your butt. Your brain might be in overdrive and your alter ego might be swinging from a bedpost during a hot and steamy sex scene. But your body is dutifully positioned in front of the monitor, fingers making music on their familiar alphabetic keyboard.

Which is why it's so important to get active. Which is why, after opening a second written notice from the neighborhood appearance board about my newly installed fence—they wanted it to be white—I decided to get off my butt and paint the thing. The nice man at Lowes told me exactly which product to use and how much of it I needed. A friend let me borrow their electric sprayer. How hard could it be?

Well, lemmie tell you. Hard. Really hard. Imagine doing deep knee squats, then stretching your hands above your shoulders, for five hours straight, all the while holding a twenty-five pound weight with a trigger. Oh, yeah. A really LOUD twenty-five pound weight. After half an hour, my ears were ringing. I stopped to make a trip to the local drugstore for earplugs. Seeing me, the clerk did a double take and frowned as she took my money. Her reaction made sense when, back in my car, I caught a reflection of my face in the rearview. Both nostrils were coated with a fine white powder. I immediately headed back inside for a face mask, too.

Two hours later, grunting and sweat-soaked despite the chilly air, I met one of my neighbors for the first time. Apparently she'd walked over to investigate the noise. I suppose my latex gloves, earplugs, headband, and face mask made me look more like a crazed surgeon than a painter but I didn't much care. Whatever. My thigh muscles burned and my arms were rubber.

"No speak English," I said, figuring she wouldn't recognize me later anyway. No need to be sociable. I had a fence to paint. A six-foot high privacy fence that seemed to be growing taller and longer by the minute.

I kept the trigger engaged, the air powered sprayer doing its thing, and muttered something that may or may not have sounded like Spanish. Finally, she went away. It wasn't long before another neighbor ventured over and he didn't leave until I accidentally sprayed his shoes. My mood had soured. I wanted to go back to the charming Lowes paint man and tell him where he could put the five-gallon bucket of gloppy stain. I wanted to tell the homeowner's community appearance board where they could put their pissy-grams. But mostly, I wanted to finish what I'd come to do. Refill the tank. Move the tarps. Spray. Tell my complaining muscles that it was only a stupid fence and it wasn't going to kick my ass. Spray some more. Catch my breath. Refill the tank. Move the tarps… you get the idea.

I managed to finish the fence before dusk set in, and did a pretty darn good job of it. Since I had trouble walking for the next few days (seriously) it was a perfect time to plop my butt back in front of the computer screen. Bottom line? I'd much rather write about painting a freakin' fence than actually ever doing it again!

On a separate note, I'm thrilled to be attending the annual SC Book Festival in Columbia this weekend. For details, visit their website at If you're anywhere near Columbia, this is a must do. More than 80 authors, panels, seminars, and special events. If you go, look me up! I'll be the one who has a FAB French manicure. Well, actually it's the white stain beneath my nail tips that won't wash off… but hey. At least I got the stuff out of my nose.
P.S. I just found this old photo of my sisters and cousins. Can you guess which is me?
Cheers, T. Lynn

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Let Jessica Have Her Cake by Susan Reinhardt

Bravo to Jessica Simpson for finally doing something substantial. Seems she’s having her cake and eating it, too.
All the magazines and newspapers that enjoy splashing stars’ bods on the covers had a fit over her new zaftig figure. To me, her more curvy shape is how a woman should appear.
The photos show her in jeans – albeit those not so flattering “mommy” jeans – looking if she’s shunned the typical Hollywood diet of coffee and colonics. Good for her.
If other models and stars packed a few pounds on their skeletal frames, the rate of anorexia among young teens might show a downward curve.
Too many young girls, even those in elementary school, talk about going on diets and losing weight. It’s frightening and can be partially corrected if the media would applaud celebrities who are a size 6 to 8 instead the usual boneyard parade of zeroes and 2’s.
Personally, I think we writers are the best size. Who doesn’t love to rip open a bag of Cape Cod potato chips while the muse tries her best to strike?
My favorite Prose Muse is peanut M&M’s. I just seem to write gooder when I eat them.
I’m also now a size 10 due to my Muse losing her job to corporate cutbacks. She’s pissed she has no insurance and her 401-K drained itself emptier than her cupboards. I just don’t have the money to pay her. My agent is having trouble selling my new novel. Maybe it sucks. Maybe I suck and should get a job teaching exercise at Curves.
Maybe I’ll just go to the grocery store and get some 90 percent off Valentine’s candy and tell Cupid to strike instead.
Back to Jessica, who seems to lack a bit of gray matter. While she’s never been someone I admire, but at least she’s defending her new shape. She says she’s happy. Happy people generally eat. Writers with fat advances eat well.
When the tabloids hit the grocery stores last week, many in the media rose up in waddling arms over her new and much fuller figure.
I guess people want their celebrities to look like breasts tottering on two sticks. No fat, no muscle. Just give the public their stars in a cadaverous form and all is well.
Take the latest issue of “Sports Illustrated,” the famous swimsuit section. Each February the slick skin sheet seems to get more daring in its baring.
I remember when my Daddy subscribed to SI. As a young girl, I’d scan that famous yearly swimsuit issue and think it quite scandalous.
This year’s “Sports Illustrated” cover featured a model in what is described as a string bikini, but all I saw was string. The muckety-mucks at the magazine bragged about what a curvy model they’d chosen. The only noticeable curves were a couple of hefty dollops of silicone.
As for Jessica and her new weight, the same ugly chatter arose when Britney Spear’s body wasn’t buff as a waxed car.
Give these gals a break. Many have given birth and the pressure to restore a pre-baby body is as intense as going all out to win an Olympic gold.
If Jessica gains a few, people say she’s fat. If she or another star loses a few, all the chatter is about anorexia.
At least when the tabloids posted her Jessica’s fuller figure, other celebs rushed to her defense, including singers LeAnn Rimes and former “American Idol” contestant, Kellie Pickler.
The gossipy show “Entertainment Tonight,” filmed them blasting the criticisms of Jess’s new body.
“She looks awesome,” Kellie Pickler, who loves the word “awesome,” said. “She’s stunning. She is so tiny.”
As for LeAnn Rimes, she’s weathered her share of harsh words regarding her weight.
“You know how many unflattering photos we’ve all taken?” she said. “You can have an armpit stain and people don’t understand it’s a million degrees outside.”
In the media’s eyes, “You’re never going to be perfect,” she said.
It’s long overdue we celebrate the fuller figures. That is if we want our children to grow up with healthy role models.
It’s also long overdue I had a truffle. Come back, Muse. I’ll buy you some Cape Cods!

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Freshly Unemployed Publishing Professional Listens To The New Springsteen Album

Axes fall. So do chips. So does the sky. The bottom? It drops like my stomach does when I use the word "unemployed" to refer to my status in the current socioeconomic climate. A friend on twitter (or a "twal" as they're referred to in the arcane infantile rebranding of babytalk portmanteaus that passes for a network-specific "language" on there)has informed me that I need to be more sensitive (let's say sensitiver) to the branding needs of all of us super-literate now-jobless folks awash on the dirty, jellyfish-laden shore of the book world. As such, at my friend's request, I am not "unemployed", I am "self-employed". Actually, in terms of putting a big, bright, ravey-yellow smiley face sticker over the stigma of being jobless, I by far prefer the term "under-employed".

At the moment, I am MOST DEFINITELY under-employed.

This is news that has "broken" (OMFG someone call Barbara Walters-wait, don't, actually, as I haven't the string cheese and Fiji water she requires)elsewhere and in more detail, so the links are here and here if you care to read that.

Shakes is shakes, though, unless you're Richard Blais and your shakes have foie gras in them. I am jobless and moving from Atlanta to New York at the end of March to find my way in the world.

Qualifiers in regards to the above paragraph: Jobless= Trying to scurry up freelance marketing and publicity projects under my "RussComm" name while I hunt for something full-time and constant. Preferably something with health insurance-you know, that mythical beast that allows an option for dealing with illness other than "die miserably and painfully".

Moving to NY=Yup.

My theory is that the math on the unemployment numbers work out as such: there are 100% more jobs I may or may not be qualified for in New York, which makes my odds double what they'd be if I remained in Atlanta. If my calculations are correct, then there are about 200% more jobs in NY RIGHT NOW. Those are damn near horserace odds. So I'm throwing my money down on the one named "uproot yr damnself". And thus I am.

I vacillate between a giddy free-falling hopefulness, like Fievel Mousekewitz moving to America, and a terrified and free-falling anxiety. However, lately, given my situation, a serious anger comes out whenever I listen to Bruce Springsteen.
And that's just weird.

I mean I tend towards angst by default, and this whole jobless thing has found me strangely complacent. But I never would've thought that it'd be my first and only real listen to Springsteen's new album, Working On A Dream that would see me super-over-entitled, Grandma-demanding-photos-at-the-wedding angry.

There is, apparently, something in me lately that snaps, sparks, really, at privilege. I feel awful, defeated, awfully defeated, trudging to the unemployment office and claiming what's rightfully mine, and I feel like a starving caged tiger shown raw, bloody meat when I listen to Springsteen's new songs of change, growth and renewal.

To these ears, they're empty platitudes entirely.

Mostly, because Springsteen plays as though he's a migrant steel worker, wiping work-sweat from his brow with his blue collar. In fact, I daresay I blame "working on a dream" for a lot of things. Other than its pervasive sense of 'we did it", a sentiment that makes my stomach queasy for reasons I won't get into, Working On A Dream gets a fat-ass wedge of my ire because, in a time when I, screw everyone else, I need something super-uplifting and inspirational, something to make me feel blindly, formlessly empowered, drunk on the feeling like a Human Resources rep at 4:59 PM on a Friday-sassy and ready to party-Springsteen, the American King of the Smart Arena Rock Anthem For The Working Class, has produced an album that's absolutely nothing but a letdown. To wit, I point to the single worst song he's ever written, which is on this album: "Queen Of The Supermarket".

Yeah. It's that bad.

Right now, more than ever, what's needed isn't a working-class hero, but an under-employed hero. Preferably in publishing. Again: this is just me, thinking solely of myself. Springsteen? Sorry, bud, you let me down this year. Hope is most certainly on the way, but not from you. These tales of "good things coming" ring as empty and hollow as the guy at the unemployment office leading the "work skills" class telling the room full of sighing, heaving, coughing folks that "the job market's never looked brighter!". Emphasis his, not mine.

If Working On A Dream proves to be anything, it's an insult to those of us who've followed the Springsteenian mythos to its inevitable conclusion: a giant brick wall of government checks and boxes upon boxes of unread ARCs. Oh, wait-again I'm just talking about me here.

On that note, consider this an open solicitation: publishers, publicists, authors, folks with great french fry recipes-if you need freelance marketing or publicity work, if you're looking for a publicist full-time, if you hear of a great job lead in NYC, if you're in New York and would like to treat a really awesome fellow to an espresso, a martini, or an espresso martini? Don't hesitate to email me at RussCommunications at gmail dot com. Next time we chat, I'll be in New York. Doing...something. Hoping, mostly. I hear it's on the way. It apparently shows up at the same time as my unemployment check. 

Russ Marshalek, formerly marketing and pr director for Wordsmiths Books in Decatur, really really needs a job in NYC like right now k thanks. 

How to Get Lost

by Mindy Friddle

"I like to believe that imagination
transcends boundaries of geography.
If you think it up, you can make it better."

There’s a parking garage in downtown Greenville, South Carolina that makes me feel trapped in the surreal staircase of an Escher painting—I drive around and around, stuck on the same level. But then, I’ve never had a strong sense of direction. Using a compass? Reading topography maps? Yikes. That navigation badge in Girl Scouts always eluded me. These days, despite the modern wonder of GPS—with that nice lady telling you where to exit—I still veer off course. “Recalculating route,” the GPS lady repeats, with a certain edge to her voice.

Maybe that explains why one of my favorite parts about writing fiction is taking a familiar setting, tweaking it, and making it my own. Or—more accurately—a character’s own. You won’t believe how liberating it is to depart from a map, wander away from the grid of streets, and imagine a slightly skewed version of a place. Two novels I’ve written are set in “Palmetto,” a thinly veiled Greenville, SC (my hometown). But the resemblance isn’t so much identical as fraternal. Familiar landmarks have a way of appearing in my fiction—a little warped.

For example, my forthcoming novel, Secret Keepers, includes a place called McCann Square, "the first temperature-controlled shopping center" in Palmetto, which once “dazzled the fickle town like a mistress” and lured away downtown’s department stores:
From the moment it opened in 1968, McCann Square’s long passages of indoor shops and artificial lighting, the acres of asphalt parking, left the town smitten. Suddenly, downtown Palmetto, with its paved-over trolley tracks, old-fashioned tattered awnings, and stand-alone three-story brick buildings, seemed shopworn and tired, and a little embarrassing. Who wanted to brave the elements anymore for a pair of socks?
(McCann Square is based on the history of a place here in Greenville called McAlister Square--one of those one-story malls from the 1960's. No matter where you live, you probably have--or had--one of those starter malls in your town.) My grandmother actually remembers pre-mall shopping. On Friday nights--this was in the post-war boom of the 1950's--she headed to downtown Greenville after work, strolling along Main Street, shopping at the crowded department stores and browsing in the new dress shops. If you needed gloves or shoes or curtains, anything fashionable—downtown was the place to go. I can imagine just how liberating a little “walking around” money felt after a decade of economic depression and a world war. Finally the sounds of noisy commerce had returned to Main Street: coins rattling, cash registers ringing, and downtown trolley bells clanging.

In the next decade, my mother’s generation took shopping inside. When McAlister Square opened its doors in 1968, it was the largest mall in South Carolina, anchored by Ivey’s and Meyers-Arnold, department stores that shuttered their downtown locations. In 1982, when I had a driver’s license, a part-time job, and a penchant for a little retail therapy of my own, McAlister Square included shops such as the Record Bar, where I’d buy REO Speedwagon and Styx cassette tapes. I put a dress on lay-away at Casual Corner, and bought my first Member’s Only jacket at Ivey’s. By the 1990’s, in the face of increased competition from Haywood Mall, McAlister Square began to lose its stores, and its fate looked grim, until it was rescued and reinvented. These days McAlister Square is anchored by Greenville Technical College.

But I remember McAlister Square in its heyday, and I find strolling through it now a little disorienting. As I recently walked through its eerily quiet corridors, passing government offices, classrooms, a lone restaurant, and a pipe shop, I was unprepared for a twinge of nostalgia. The same cheery lights overhead, the familiar tiles underfoot, the empty stage in the center, on which countless school choruses had sung. Same structure, but a different place entirely.

In Secret Keepers, McCann Square is rescued from abandonment when investors turn the place into a “faith-based commerce mall.” Renamed Crossroads, it attracts stores such as Hole in the Sole Shoe Repair, Pray and Pay Title Loans, and Testamints Candy Shop. One character in the novel, Dora, harbors an uneasy attachment to the revamped shopping center. In her wayward youth Dora frequented McCann Square, but now she is trying—and failing—to forget her past and reinvent herself. But try as she might, she still sees McCann Square winking at her behind the veil of Crossroads.

The old house that figures prominently in my first novel, The Garden Angel, was originally based on a boarded-up residence off an old highway here, White Horse Road. By the time I finished drafting the novel, the house had sprouted cupolas and spires—a composite of architecture from Earle Street and Hampton Pinckney—moved across town, and gained a family cemetery in the backyard. In other words, the city-swallowed, once-grand estate in the story had come into its own. Still, some folks want to know where the “real” house is. They want to visit it, to see a solid structure, perhaps to compare it with the house they pictured in their heads. As for me, I like to believe that imagination transcends boundaries of geography. If you think it up, you can make it better.

“I created a cosmos of my own,” William Faulkner said about Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for most of his novels and short stories, patterned upon Faulkner’s actual home in Lafayette County, Mississippi. In his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! he even included a hand-drawn map of his “apocryphal county,” signing it, "William Faulkner, Sole Owner & Proprietor."

I don’t know if I’ll ever go as far as sketching a map. When people tell me they loved getting lost in my book, it pretty much makes my day.

Mindy Friddle's second novel, Secret Keepers, will be published in May. She is author of The Garden Angel, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Visit to read excerpts. And visit her blog, Novel Thoughts: Random Musings from a Novelist and Gardener on Reading, Writing and the Earth. And friend her on Facebook.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

From the Front Porch

Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Full-time writers used to lock themselves in lonely garrets, and it was just the writer and their typewriter. Now writers lock themselves in lonely garrets and it’s the writer, their computer, their yahoo group, their email friends, their blogs, their Facebook account and… well, you get the idea.

Today's writers aren’t nearly as lonely but they do have a lot more ways to procrastinate, thanks to the Internet.

Every morning before I write I check out my favorite sites. Mondays are a favorite for me. I always nip by Publishers Weekly to check out the week’s fiction reviews. (You click on Book Life and then Reviews.) No subscription necessary.

Then I head over to the BookEnds, LLC Literary Agency blog. There’s always a great article about some aspect of the pub business. It’s my favorite agent blog.

Onward to GalleyCat which keeps up with all the pertinent publishing news.

My favorite grog (besides this one) is Writer Unboxed which bills itself as being about the art and craft of genre fiction.

I also have two favorite author blogs: Ask Allison a blog by author, Allison Winn Scotch answers publishing questions and talks about her own writing process, and J.A. Konraths’s blog about author promotion and inspiration called A Newbie's Guide to Publishing .

After catching up, I’m ready to start my writing day. What are your favorite sites and blogs on writing? I’d love to know. (As if I needed more opportunities to procrastinate.)

Book Spotlight

No racy sex, drugs or rock and rock in the life of beloved short-story Flannery O’Conner, but the reviews say that Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch is worth a gander. (Did you know she loved peacocks?)

Lit Links

Lit agent Kristin Nelson demystifies the dreaded synopsis.

The secret to being a successful writer? Developing confidence.

A very funny blog entry from lit agent Rachelle Gardner about what NOT to say in a query letter for the Christian market.

Miss Snark's First Victim regularly hosts “Secret Agent” where a mystery agent critiques slush pile submissions.

Looking for a book publicist? Here’s a comprehensive list.

Poet and Writers has the BEST interviews with industry folk. (Supposedly they loosen their lips with wine.) This time they chat up four young editors.


I have a copy of The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife's Memoir to give away. For a chance to win, comment on any blog entry this week. Let me know which blog, you commented on and email me at Last week’s winner was Pat Strefling.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Confessions of a Southern Writer
By Peggy Webb

I love Delta blues, grits and fried green tomatoes, and sitting on my front porch swing sipping a big glass of iced sweet tea while mocking birds fight in my magnolia tree. I have a deep Southern drawl and love excess. I have a gazillion first cousins and hear every one of their secrets at funerals – the second best social event in the deep South after football. I am Scarlett O’Hara about my farm and would subsist on radishes before I’d sell an inch of it. I call perfect strangers hon, my neighbors by their first name and my enemies that heifer. And when summer comes and the fragrance of gardenia, jasmine and sweet olive fills my gardens, I am so overcome by joy I dance half-naked under the full moon. But only where that heifer can’t see me and gossip.

What does any of that have to do with being a Southern writer? Everything! Blues and sweet tea and jasmine are in my blood. Magnolias and funeral foods and secrets are in my bones. The land is my soul. When I write I’m doing more than telling a story: I’m slicing myself open and coloring every page with my blood, bones and soul. And I’m doing it without conscious effort.

When I decided to write my first mystery, Elvis and the Dearly Departed, (after twenty-five years of writing romance and women’s fiction) I tapped deep into my roots to come up with my zany family of amateur sleuths. Like most Southern families, the Valentines have secrets galore and cousins who spend so much time nosing around in each other’s business they barely have time to tend to their own.

As an old pro with sixty something books under my belt, I had no trouble coming up with funny, endearing characters I absolutely LOVE.

The same was true of setting. Guided by Eudora Welty’s example of writing with a strong sense of place, I put in all the places that are dear to me. My farm (you guessed that, right?), the convenience store on the corner that keeps a flea market going in the parking lot (with a name change, of course), Mooreville Seed and Feed Store where you can buy everything from rose food to horse collars, the four-way stop, and the neighborhood beauty shop where little old ladies sit under hooded dryers and gossip then leave to wrap their “do” in toilet paper - and lord help the man who tries to mess it up.

Mysteries are plot driven, and I knew my story would require careful structuring with no room for error. By the time I’d finished killing people off, strewing around red herrings and pointing the finger at several suspects while keeping my amateur sleuths hopping from frying pan to fire, I had plenty of bones on which I could hang the meat of the story.
But I still needed that little spark to propel my cozy to another level. It would make good copy if I could say I meditated in my lovely gardens while my muse sprinkled me with brilliant ideas. But the plain fact is that my 100-pound chocolate Labrador retriever, Jefferson, provided the spark. While he snoozed under my desk, I toyed with the idea of using Elvis as a ghost in my Southern Cousins Mystery Series. Then Jefferson stood up and did his little doggie dance. You know the one: “Take me outside now or I’ll pee on your shoes!” Suddenly I KNEW…Elvis was a dog. Not your ordinary droopy eared, sleeping on the front porch variety, but a sassy, sleuthing Basset Hound who thinks he’s the reincarnated King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Satisfied that I was all done with the plotting and could set to work the next day writing the chapters, I prepared for a good night’s sleep. But Elvis had other ideas. He started talking to me. Not only did he want to be a dog who was a world-wide icon in his other life as a fat man in a white jumpsuit, but he wanted to co-narrate the book. As any writer worth his salt knows, when a character is that insistent you sit down at the keyboard and type what he tells you.

Elvis told me plenty! And he’s still talking!

I’m having so much writing the Southern Cousins Mystery Series, I keep looking over my shoulder to see if the hard-work police are going to come and snatch my computer.
I love hearing what readers have to say, so talk to me - about Elvis (my dog), Southern fiction, gardens, farms, favorite summertime memories, chocolate, inspiration…anything at all.
And do watch for the second Southern Cousins Mystery, Elvis and the Grateful Dead, Sept. 28, 2009. Visit my website for details,

Peggy Webb is the award-winning author of 60 plus romance novels, 200 magazine humor columns and two screenplays. Her comedic Southern Cousins Mystery Series, launched in 2008 with Elvis and the Dearly Departed, features amateur sleuths Callie Jones, her cousin Lovie (who’s had more lovers than Elvis has fleas), and her Basset Hound who thinks he’s the reincarnated King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Peggy is former adjunct instructor at MS State University. Her website is

Special Justice Chinese-Style

I am writing this from a room on the twenty-fifth floor of the White Swan Hotel on the bank of the Pearl River in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China. My wife and I have traveled here for our fourth Chinese adoption. (A boy, this time, who suffers from heart disease.) It is my third trip to China in five years.

I suppose this is as good a time and place as any to reflect on at least one of the major influences that led me to write Record Of Wrongs, which is a story about justice, DNA exoneration, and redemption. I could spend this entire column talking about how very different things look from this side of the planet, how arbitrary and money-driven justice remains in much of the world. But in the end, the concept of justice is about people, just as it is in Record Of Wrongs. And justice for the impoverished or oppressed, I’ve discovered, isn’t always about waving signs or mounting major protests. Sometimes, it can just be about finding a place to serve.

So I think I’d rather focus on some of the people we’ve met on our most recent journey.

Like Americans Stacy and Pat, Doug and Janice, Karen and Byron, Caroline, Jacob and Carrie, and Australian Joyce and Brit Robin. Like the many other non-Chinese who have relocated here—not in hopes of cashing in on the great economic boom, but to serve the Chinese people, to help bring better conditions and health care to young orphans who, by of accident of birth, would otherwise be relegated to shortened lives of poverty and despair. Like the many heroic Chinese workers and volunteers who have also embraced this ideal and made it their own.

In America, we spend millions on technology and court appeals in pursuit of a more perfect justice. Here, across the increasingly rich and vast kaleidoscope that is modern China, where pollution and other problems at times seem almost apocalyptic, many toil with little thanks or recognition under a system in which justice remains mainly an illusion. But they don’t complain. They understand that, while they may never be able to change the system, they can at least make a difference in the lives of a few, one child at a time.

Somewhere, I suppose, in the heart of every mystery writer, is a desire to see justice done, to write entertaining stories that also help make a little bit more sense of our crazy world. Being here inspires me, yet again, to try to do a better job.

website -

(For more information on our new son and our latest China journey, visit

Part Czech and part Tennessean, Shamus Award-winning crime novelist Andy Straka is a transplanted New Yorker who has lived in Charlottesville, Virginia since 1988.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

As I Stand Speaking...

Hey Y'all, let's chat...~smile~

This may be a TMI moment, but here goes. A bunch of people live in my brain. This wouldn't be so bad it they weren't all storytellers, and if they weren't all bent on telling their stories at the same exact time. We get along fairly well in private but this group thing can be especially trying when one is speaking before live audiences. Every story I begin reminds the individuals that comprise this interesting fellowship of another story-- and what's worse-- everyone thinks she should go next as her story is better, more appropriate, more interesting. As I stand speaking the audience sees one person. They do not see the full out mud slinging cat fight going on inside my head. This is good. It could be the sole reason I haven't been put away. That, and the fact that I am Southern, which explains a lot to a lot of people, at least the type that generally book me. This, too, is good. Note to self: Do not travel outside the South without your papers, or your people, or both.

The south is full of storytellers. Some have to write them down. What happens that causes the first to become the second? It's a question I like to ask other authors on my live show, All Things Southern LIVE at that was born out of my website, I never tire of hearing their answers. (Did you see those shameless plugs? It's a gift.)

So, how would I answer my own question? You mean after I wrestled "the group". I'd begin with one of my all time favorite quotes on writing: "Everyone says they'd like to write a book. What they mean is that they would like to have written a book." Big. Difference. I think the folks who cross the line, the storytellers who write 'em down are the ones who have to, flat out have to. Most little kids write play words before they can read, pretend words, squibbles. Some never stop.

By now, if you're still with me, you may have scooted over to my website. By now, you may think you know the type of stories I tell. I understand that you would feel that way, but you don't. You can't know the words spilled all over my house. If you hold my latest book in your hand you see the words Penguin (God love 'em) decided were worthy of the light of day. There are so many others that, and this is probably good, will never be seen. Novels, short stories, and poems that jump indiscriminately from one genre to another. And since I don't think the poetress is ever going to wrestle the others down long enough to perfect her craft, I think I will now give her a moment in the sun.

What follows are thoughts of my paternal grandmother who saw in me a famous writer. She gave me a typewritter when I was eleven. My siblings thought it the strangest gift. I was elated. I used it to write my first novel,"Martha and her Horse".

Grandma was a Kentucky woman who came to the Delta in a horse drawn carriage and kept house in a tent until she and her husband could afford a home. She didn't have an education, but she was enamored with words. Finding a grandchild who loved to write them made her glow with pride. I wish every child knew the feeling of having some one think his or her words are worthy. I post these now because Grandma never saw my words in print. Or did she.

“My Father’s Mother”

climbing four cracked steps

as the bus plods off

first grade reader in hand

I knew I’d find you

in your green chair

near the window

voices whisper

she does nothing

but watch the flickering lights

of make believe lives

I don’t care

I liked you there, in your chair

worried faces

her feet, too heavy

ankles swelling at awkward angles

I didn’t mind you being heavy

I needed you solid

like a rock

let ‘em frown

did they come to the delta

keep house in a tent

birth a baby alone

while the youngest tugs,

his dress held beneath the bed’s leg

bending and picking scratchy white cotton

with ten of your own

baby waiting in the shade

see, you talked

they listened

but I heard

Anxious hearts

they say he died at lunch

with crops waiting in the field

broke her heart in two

she threw in the towel

sat down for good

house was empty

noses wiped

bottoms cleaned

meals cooked

Grandma, did you quit

or were you through

later they wiped you with the others

old and tired

and wondered why you hung on

I wondered how you’d feel

who your spirit would be

when your body wasn’t tired

from babies

and cooking

and scrubbing

I missed you then

I miss you now

I wish I could sit in your chair


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Odd Eggs

By Theresa Shadrix

The spring of 1939 was the perfect time for dreaming in Alabama.

The south was hypnotized by Margaret’s Mitchell’s book Gone with the Wind and with the movie premier later that year in December, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh would become southern royalty.

Even with the depression and looming war, folks were optimistic.

Classrooms were filling up with students wanting to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Farmers were preserving crops by refrigeration.

Industry was booming.

It was the ideal atmosphere for a 21-year-old dreamer.

While most of her friends were setting up house or pursuing careers as nurses and teachers, one young woman set out to become a real newspaper reporter.

Sure, she’d written movie reviews for her cousin’s paper in Thomasville as a pre-teen and the clicking of typewriters in the newsroom held her captive since before puberty.

While other girls played with dolls, she played with wooden type cases and learned to set headlines.

But, just because she had been a shadow in the newsroom, it didn’t make her a real reporter.

In 1939, fresh out of college, she was armed the achievement as class valedictorian of her high school and a degree when she walked into The Montgomery Advertiser for her first job interview.

She felt confident, sure of herself and at home.

After all, the Advertiser newsroom was the incubator of her childhood companions – the words of newspapermen like Grover Hall, Max Moseley and Atticus Mullin.

But, on this spring day in 1939, the dream of this young woman would begin with a compliment and end with devastation.

“I’ve read some of your articles. You write well,” Hartwell Hatton told her. Then he added, “If you were a man, I’d hire you. But, I don’t want any female reporters.”

Confidence and good writing could not change the fact she was a woman.

Kathryn Tucker Windham didn’t give up her dream that day. She wasn’t skipping with glee when she returned home to Thomasville to work with her mother at an insurance office. But, she kept on writing.

She wrote stories for her cousin’s newspaper, The Thomasville Times, and became as a stringer for the Mobile Press-Register, The Montgomery Advertiser and The Birmingham News.

It would take World War II before Windham finally received the call she’d dreamed about. In March 1941, she accepted the position at The Montgomery Advertiser left vacant by Allen Rankin when he became a soldier. She was paid less than Rankin for the same job, but she was finally a real newspaper reporter.

She didn’t have much time to breathe when the real world hit her as two young girls initiated her into the fraternity of reporting. On April 21, 1941 the naive, girl reporter from small town Alabama had to gather facts on the drownings of Euline Hicks, 12, and her sister Juanita, 10.

When one of the bodies was discovered by the river, Windham was the one the police asked the stand guard while they retrieved equipment. This newspaper world didn’t smell as sweet as she recalled in her dreams, but she told every detail in her stories to readers.

Along with being the police reporter, Windham also shared stories of the “odd eggs’ in town and was crowned the “Odd Egg Editor”. Telling odd stories would become her trademark, in print and in spoken word. She shined not only in reporting, but in photography and storytelling.
She was also a widow and mother to three young children at a time when being a single working mother seemed very odd indeed.

Although I was struck by her charm the first time I met her and in correspondence that followed the Longleaf Style magazine feature on Windham in 2007, it took my reading her book, Odd-egg Editor, to appreciate the oddity of Kathryn Tucker Windham. In the current era, when newspapers struggle with identity and reporters want to dictate what stories are important, it is refreshing to remember the dreams and perseverance of a young reporter 70 years ago. Kathryn Tucker Windham excelled at being the odd-woman out and by simply by telling stories. It's a goal that doesn't seem so odd.

Theresa Shadrix is the managing editor of Longleaf Style magazine. Among her most prized books is an autographed copy of Odd-Egg Editor sent by Mrs. Windham that reads, “To Theresa Shadrix, to give account of what it was like to be a girl reporter a long time ago. Kathryn Tucker Windham. Selma, August 2008.”

Saturday, February 14, 2009

From the Front Porch

Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.
- Truman Capote

I, Karin Gillespie, blog proprietor, have decided to add a new feature to "A Good Blog Is Hard To Find," a kind of newsy, reflective, kick-back entry that will appear only on weekends. In it, I’ll talk about publishing news, releases from Southern authors, and anything that I think might appeal to readers.

To start off: I’m always reading some sort of writing book and this week it’s BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande, originally published in 1934. I first read it many years ago when I was taking the first baby-steps to learning to be a writer. Now with five novels published, I definitely consider myself a “real” writer, but back then I was still trying on the identity not entirely sure it was a good fit.

Years later another author, Julie Cameron, borrowed some of Brande’s ideas and wrote The Artists Way, a book that, along with Brande’s helped me become a writer.

Most writing books dive right into technique: characterization, POV, plotting etc. Those books are necessary later but many developing writers have to deal first with the psychological issues of a being a writer, i.e. the procrastination, the imposter syndrome, the blocks, the unforgiving critic.

I’ve been writing so long it’s hard to remember those dark days when I struggled with issues that kept me from writing. Now, it’s the exact opposite, I usually have to unpeel my fingers from the computer. (But that’s another story.)

Still I remember doing Brande’s and Cameron’s Morning Pages and how they truly did a voo-doo number on head, finally turning me into a writer, as surely as a fairy tales turn frogs into princes.

The Morning Pages were the most powerful exercise for me, but there were others in those books that helped me. Most writers have to almost be tricked into writing-the resistance can be so great. The exercises reminded me of the young student waxing cars in the Karate Kid. (“Wax on, wax off.”) They seem truly idiotic while you’re doing them, but, little by little, they are like little miners in your head, chipping away at all of your reasons not to write.

Here are a couple of other books that are life-changing for beginning writers (or old-timers who lose their way).

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland (Also published in the thirties.)

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg:

Feel free to suggest your own.


I’ve been hearing raves about The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the sixties and one that explores the relationships between black maids (the “help”) and the families they care for.


Have you ever bought a novel because the critics were crowing about it but it ended up being dull as dirt? You’re not alone. Welcome to group griping, otherwise known as Amazon reviews.

Everyone wants to write a high concept novel but what is it really? Here’s the skinny.
Where’s the glamour in publishing?


I have a copy of BECOMING A WRITER to give away. For a chance to win, comment on any blog entry this week. Let me know which blog, you commented on and email me at Winner will be picked by a drawing early morning Saturday and announced shortly afterwards. Watch this space for more contests.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Go In Joy

We met for the first time over the phone when I was 23 and he was 13 years older than I was. That was in 1983. He was planning to show a film to a group at his enormous downtown Baptist church, where he was a singles minister. I was a journalist. For the unlikeliest of reasons, he thought a story would be amusing.

He didn’t understand that had he reached any other reporter on the telephone, he would’ve been shredded. But he’d gotten me; I did have to show some professional unbias about That Sort Of Thing. Still, the film he planned to show -- Thea -- portrayed God as a woman, thea, the Greek feminine form of theos. Ballsy to want the mainstream press there, especially if you get a cub reporter. A kid working for a daily newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Notebook in hand and mind as open as the sky, I found this preternaturally attractive young preacher. He was dynamic, alive with humor, simmering with light. My newsfeature story turned out great – he loved it, anyway. I’m not sure I even kept a clip. I remember readers responded positively. He didn’t get into any trouble from the Powers at the enormous downtown conservative church, where he was one of a dozen or so staff clergy.

We became lifelong friends.

He prayed me through my kidney transplant in 1984. He prayed me through celebrations and missteps. I got him drunk the first time.

Once, we once drove up to visit his mom. Somewhere along the back roads, I had to pee. We stopped by the side of the road in cave-dark middle-of-nowhere BigHat-BigStickville. Deputy pulled up behind his sporty little British convertible, top down. Kid, the deputy asked, why you peein’ on my road? that’s indecent exposure. I was fixin’ to say: Exposin’ myself to whom, exactly? At this particular hour? In this, um, necessarily desolate, albeit lovely, wasteland. Rather, I tried to reason with the lawnforcement officer whose gut was out to here and his weapon out to there.

Howsomever, my friend jumped between us and proceeded to plead with his elder that I HAD to pee because, why, look at all his SCARS from the brand-spanking new transplant, Officer, and if my NEW friend doesn’t relieve himself NOW, why, he’d explode and prolly die.

My new and best and most intimate friend saved us from certain incarceration and …

We saw each other over the years and in many, many places. We peeled the Cosmic Onion, layer by layer. We answered a lot of questions, ours and God’s. Asked plenty more. He answered a good bit of them for me; after all, he was my senior, though not a mentor, he just happened to be that much wiser, a man of The Word, the Cloth and a proud and fine family man. Best of all, he was what he liked to call One Of My Intimates. It’s rare for men to have a BFF of that depth and continuity. We didn’t even call them BFFs then. We actually had real conversations and handwritten or long typewritten letters, because we didn’t have texting and such.

Once, I wrote him a 15-page letter whining about something. He sent every page back with one big word in red, circled in red ink, on the first page: BULLSHIT. I was a bit pissed at first, then realized he was right.

He ended all of his sermons: Go in joy. What he really was saying was: Go enjoy. He left the preacherhood after a decade or so, even though he’d been at it since he was 16. He got into another line of work, got into money and his gorgeous family, got into mission work and even started attending my brand of Church – Episcopalian. I like the Church I grew up in. I like the High Liturgy, songs so baroque your tongue can’t fix ’em, incense that gives you allergies, and the tapestroidic history that makes you wonder whether those early Romans really must have thought they were crashing cannibalistic orgies when they showed up during those first-century Eucharists. He loved his new Church, too.

Anyway, back when we first became best friends, his son was six or seven, and used to beat me up all the time. A couple of days ago, his son sent me an email. He told me that on Jan. 6, his dad made the bed in their “museum-like” downtown apartment, took a shower and got dressed. My friend’s son’s mom had gone to work. (He said in his email that his sister -- my best friend’s daughter and her husband and kids -- live far away.) Then, the email said, one of the few men I’ve deeply loved stretched out on the couch and swallowed several bottles of sleeping pills.

What are all those stages of grief? I’m in one – or maybe all -- of them. Sure, I’ve seen, known losses, just like everyone else. I’m just not sure I know one like this.

My first novel was published Jan. 20, after 20 years of rejections piled upon rejections – probably akin to rejections he may have suffered in ways I will never know. Still, he was supposed to celebrate this lotteryesque milestone with me.

In fact, at this moment, I have every expectation of seeing him again. I’m a bit miffed that he did what he did. But we never got around to that question, in peeling the Cosmic Onion, so he never answered one way or the other.

One step ahead of the other . . . I’m trying to promote my novel. All I can say about that is that writing’s a lot easier, and this is the first REAL attempt I’ve made at writing much of anything since … well … since Karin let me blog here last time. Otherwise, I’m busy booking bands at my concert venue, The Handlebar. Which he never visited. (That could annoy me, too, if I get to thinking about it, so I won’t; let’s just say, I’ll give in to some understanding.)

My wife says that you don’t need to be a drunk, angry, angst-ridden, pill-popping, self-absorbed wingnut Artist with a capital Hole to be a Great Writer.

Let me just say it’s total joy to get hungry reading this blog, to read the shavings carved from the lives of these lovely writers, moms who cook and have kids, those who write and don’t have kids, those who write and teach and either have or don’t have kids – and all of y’all are just so damned nice.

Still, my friend’s death provides an Old-School Artist impetus to grease those creative skids. Forgive me …I will move on. Maybe somehow someday I can enjoy again … and BE in joy.

Because that’s all we got.

Meantime, thank y’all for being there for me.

John Jeter's novel, THE PLUNDER ROOM (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books) was published Jan. 20. He is founder and co-owner of The Handlebar, where he has the sexiest job: Talent Buyer. Which means he procures the performers among the 2,500 who have played at the Greenville, SC, concert venue since he and his wife, Kathy Laughlin (who also edits his mss.), opened in 1994. Performers have included Joan Baez, John Mayer, Robert Earl Keen, Bela Fleck, John Hiatt, David Sanborn - and will soon include George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic. John still has no literary agent. No writing partners (though Joshilyn says he needs one/some) and is trying to figure out the blogosphere, in which to promote his book, his first published.