Name This Bird!


Life is quiet at my stepmother’s home Glen Ellyn, IL, where the default on cable is the Hallmark channel, and the browser goes into hysterics if I even think about Facebook. My main occupation during my recent visit was stalking the very shy blue heron that has lived in the park behind the house for, well, I don’t know, but it’s been a very long time. My dad and his wife watched it for years before Dad died. I painted a not particularly good picture of it ten years ago, from a fuzzy photo I took with my first digital camera.


This trip I was determined to get a decent photo of him. I especially wanted a shot of him flying, which meant creeping up, getting the camera ready, then taking that one step further to make him bolt. I still don’t have the timing right to catch that moment when he first spreads his wings, but the results weren’t bad.


It occurred to me while I was pursuing him that he has been like a member of the family for a very long time and no one has given him the dignity of a name.


I need help, People. I’m at a loss. What would you name this bird?

The Starving Artist Cookbook – Get it While it’s Free!

Click Image to see on Amazon
Click Image to see on Amazon

On August 22, Self-Publishing Guru Joe Konrath reported that he got drunk and wrote, edited, formatted, designed a cover for and published a short on Amazon in an hour. On four different occasions. He found this exercise tremendously freeing and challenged his readers to try it, giving them 8 hours to accomplish what he did in one.

On August 26, he promised to feature anyone who met the challenge in his August 30 blog: 8 Hour Contest Winners. He gave us until August 29th to complete this and send him the info (click the link to see the books, many of them are free tonight and tomorrow).

I’m not a huge Konrath fan, but I was outside of Chicago at the time visiting my stepmother. Her only computer is an ancient Dell that can surf for exactly five minutes before the browser locks up. There’s only so much I can do on my Kindle Fire. Like watch my on-line writing group buds whooping it up over the silly books they were writing under groaner pen-names. The more fun they were having, the more I felt like I was missing out.

Then I remembered. Back before Lia Anderson was a gleam in my eye, I was researching publishing options. Not because I thought I had a novel in me. Because I wanted to write a cookbook. I abandoned this project for two reasons: 1. I upgraded my word processing app and it ate my MS and 2. I thought eating right was going to cure my TBI (fool, I) and when I realized I didn’t have all the food answers, I dropped the project until such time that I did.

I never did find my answers, but I realized I had a lot of recipes I’d collected along the way. I got back into Cincinnati at 11 p.m. on August 27. Twelve hours later I sat down at my computer (lovely, lovely Mac! How I missed you!) and tossed together The Starving Artist Cookbook, skimming just under Konrath’s 8 hour deadline.

It’s not perfect. I didn’t get to include everything I wanted. The cover is, admittedly, ‘Meh.’ I didn’t have time to create a table of contents. But it’s out there. And tonight and tomorrow, it’s FREE! After that it’s $.99.

I will be adding to this book (and raising the price to a lofty $2.99) sometime this fall. Then I will contact the ‘Zon and tell them I have improved my book, and would they please let all the nice people who already bought it, download the improved version.

It’s written from Lia’s perspective, since she and I share the same quirky attitude about food. It has a large section featuring vegan smoothies, including Lia’s famous ‘pond scum’ smoothies. There’s info about making yogurt (which you can do with almond milk, if you like) and cultured veggies (yum!) and many raw food recipes. There are only a few recipes with include fish and chicken, and none with red meat. It includes several chocolate recipes, including raw fudge and my own crazy cake. One of the first things I’m going to add when I update the book will be Jim McDonald’s crazy cake recipe (which gets a mention in soon-to-be-released Maximum Security).

So, get your copy of The Starving Artist Cookbook now, while it’s free. I guarantee you’ll find at least one keeper recipe in it. And if you don’t, I’ll give you back every penny you didn’t spend on it.

Blue Jasmine: Blanche Dubois Lives!

As my stepmother and I were waiting for the matinee crowd to disperse, the nice woman sitting on the other side of her asked me how I liked the movie.

I said,”I don’t think wives in the Hamptons deserve that much of our attention.”

She said, “It’s supposed to be funny.”

OH. I guess I’d forgotten that this is a Woody Allen film. I’ve made a point not to watch Woody Allen films since he made that one, the title of which I forget, about his relationship with Mia Farrow’s seventeen year-old adopted daughter.

Not because I’m a moralist. Because I refuse to justify the narcissism of many New Yorkers, that those of us who are not privileged to live in the Big Apple are endlessly fascinated by the neuroses of those who do.

That said, Blue Jasmine is a compelling character study of a woman who has held her blue chip life together with daily doses of denial and a husband who feeds her narcissism. Cate Blanchett (whom I love) gives possibly the best performance of her career. This film is worth seeing simply to watch her fall apart in a genteel version of The Bad Lieutenant (The Harvy Keitel version, not the Nicholas Cage remake).

Jasmine’s (nee Jeanette) fall from grace is occasioned by the arrest of her husband for financial crimes which bilked investors out of millions. We see her as she arrives in San Francisco with her Louis Vitton luggage to live with her grocery cashier sister,Ginger, in a situation borrowed heavily from Tenneessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

Correspondences to the classic play include Ginger’s Stanley Kowaski type boyfriend, Chili, Jasmine’s dependence on alcohol and Xanax to get her through the day, and even a mild sexual assault (though not perpetrated by Stanley).

Jasmine’s attempts to reinvent herself are interspersed with glimpses of her former life with Hal (played by Alec Baldwin, in the smug operator persona he has perfected over the course of his career).

Perhaps the film is an attempt to give those of us whose lives were affected by financial hocus pocus such as that perpetrated by Hal, an opportunity to feel superior to the 1%.

But funny? Since when is Blanche Dubois funny?

Pass Me another Dead Body, Will You?

Back in the day, long before I ever thought I’d write novels, a woman named Karen Shaffer invited me to bring my signature good-will guerrilla art project, New Leaf, to Abingdon, VA for an arts festival.

There I met her husband, Charles Vess. If you’ve never heard of Charles Vess, he’s an amazing illustrator who became disenchanted with drawing Spiderman for Marvel Comics. When I met him, he had just finished collaborating with Neil Gaiman on Stardust.

He told me he got tired of brawn being the ultimate solution in the comic book world. He went looking for stories that were resolved through ingenuity instead. Fast forward some years, and Stardust is made into a major motion picture featuring both Michelle Pfieffer and Robert De Niro. What does Hollywood do to this terrific book? They tossed in a lot of the POW! BAM! that Charles had turned his back on.

I enjoyed the movie and have watched it several times. I do not enjoy it more than the book despite the appearance of Robert De Niro in a :-X (sorry, can’t tell you. I don’t do spoilers).

As I was considering my recent review of Elysium, I remembered this bit of irony, and it brought to mind popular plot devices (read: lazy shortcuts) that disturb me as a mystery novelist.

One of the most over-abused practices: “If the pace drags, kill someone.”

This has become so popular that even romantic suspense writers such as Amanda Quick now litter their books with multiple corpses. When she started her writing career, one dead body would do just fine.

I’m not a prude about dead bodies. My first two books were about a serial killer (it says that, right in the blurb). But there just aren’t all that many serial killers out there, and ordinary, run of the mill murderers do not normally leave a trail of bodies behind them to cover up their crimes.

So I’m in the middle of novel number three, and I’m thinking about pacing without the easy device of gratuitous murder. I read some experts.

What do writing gurus have to say about plotting? There are variations on the exact wording, but the common wisdom is that “A plot is a series of disasters that get progressively worse as the book goes along until the triumph (or not) of the final confrontation.”

Seriously? I like to think my characters are smarter than that.

This makes me think about Patricia Cornwell, whose books I used to love until the exacerbating negativity finally got to me. The last book she wrote, I’d finally had enough. Within the first two pages, Kay Scarpetta is fuming about some bit of incompetence engineered by Pete Marino. She’s kept this guy around for twenty years with all the stuff he’s pulled and she hasn’t gotten rid of him? Why does everyone she works with eventually betray her? Is she that big a bitch?

And what about Lucy and Benton? Why do we never see her having a good time with the two people she loves most? Does she really love anyone? Why hasn’t someone sent her to the therapist she so obviously needs? This is entertainment?

So, yes, a novel needs obstacles or it isn’t compelling, or even real. But I like some triumphs and good times, too.

Other devices that annoy me: undetectable poisons that kill rapidly in tiny amounts, over-reliance on a network of readily available informants, silenced guns that are actually silent, same day DNA tests, and protagonists who have more money than God so they can drive around in fancy cars and fly to Bimini to pursue clues at the drop of a hat.

Edit: My friend, Jacques, just reminded me about duct-work large enough for a football lineman to crawl through. Doh.

Edit #2: More of a movie convention, but still worth mentioning: Endless thugs that multiply like tribbles, especially the ones who teleport in front of you, no matter how fast you’re going or how many times you’ve eluded them.

Where am I going with this rant? I have a small request to make. While I might slip from time to time, if I ever become reliant on such silly devices, please put a drop of that undetectable poison in my coffee and put me out of my misery.

Elysium: An Unfortunate Waste of Talent

Science fiction is supposed to be the triumph of thought-provoking story concepts, where an author’s imagination is rich enough to extrapolate the future out of bits of the present. Such scrutiny applies a magnifying glass to current social issues, weighing them against technological advances and tossing the mix with human nature.

Elysium’s battle of the haves against the have-nots chose to drown out its premise with so-called action, consisting of a nauseating amount of jiggle-cam and exploding body parts.

If you like gore, you’ll leave the theater fully satiated.

As an action film, it’s okay. My disappointment stems from a potential that was not fulfilled. It is the smaller moments in Elysium which are most successful and most affecting, and there are too few of them: Matt Damon trying to explain himself to a robot parole officer; a friend’s charming attempt to lure Matt Damon back into criminal activity; the whipped-dog look on an evil supervisor’s face when the more-evil company founder berates him for a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t decision. Matt Damon’s distress when his childhood friend begs for help while he knows that every second he spends near her is putting her in more danger.

The lines drawn between the haves and have-nots are a bit black and white for my taste. All poor people are good, even the criminals understand honor and friendship. All the wealthy elite are evil. At their very best, they are willfully ignorant.

The only exception is the team of covert operatives Jodie Foster sends after Matt Damon. They don’t count because they are privileged in their own way, having advanced toys and license to carry out their psychopathic tendencies.

We see the touching struggles of the people of Earth. I wish we had been given a more human face of those born to privileged Elysium.

Some Really Great Advice About Writing and Everything Else

George Wier, if you haven’t heard of him, is author of the Bill Travis Mysteries. These days he is spending most of his time hopping around the Southwest doing book signings for Long Fall From Heaven. He still finds time to pop into our online writer’s group.

George at a recent book convention
George at a recent book convention

Last night he shared the following. This beautiful little essay on writing had me thinking of the New York Sun op-ed piece written over a hundred years ago. You know the one I mean. It begins, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Here’s George:

A bit of advice I gave someone yesterday on writing. Maybe I should start paying attention to it myself:


While I would never dissuade you from reading other writers, or reading as much as you can on the subject of writing, I suggest that you dive in head first. As a reader you know what you like to read. I suggest you write exactly what you yourself like to read, and nothing more. Also, you should start writing out of the blue. In fact, get used to writing the moment (if possible) an idea hits you so that what you put down can be raw and true and from the gut. There ARE NO authorities on writing. You are the authority on your OWN writing. Period. So, write for you, first. Second, write a lot. Hone your skills, either over time or through a high degree of output, or both (as it usually works out that way anyway). As far as the “length” of what you should write, forget about length. Right now, at this stage, that’s not even in the equation. A story is it’s own universe, just as I say in the videos. It has it’s own internal laws. And what you write in a story will come out right if you pay ZERO attention to length, or whether there’s too much dialogue, or not enough of this or that, or whatever. Don’t put your attention on anything other than telling the story. And… at BEST, the story will begin to write itself. You’ll know what this feels like when it begins to happen. There is no other feeling quite like it. For me it is like being carried along by a strong current. It has swept you out to the middle of the channel and it is taking you somewhere. It’s best not to fight it, but to instead go along. Don’t bother swimming against the current, or even necessarily WITH the current, and definitely not towards shore. Just tuck your hands behind your head and let that story carry you along. That’s the best advice I can give.

So, Marc, what I want you to do is…today, or tomorrow, or as soon as you can, sit down and write something. And don’t worry about whether it’s good or not. Just write it. For it’s own sake. And that is really all there is. I could teach a seminar for weeks on the subject, but really, it all comes down to just this paragraph. Just…write.

Here’s George again, snuggling with his dog:

George and Casey
George and Casey

Meet Simba, Cover Dog Photo Contest Winner!

I feel like Dorothy, at the end of the Wizard of Oz, where she wakes up and pontificates about finding things in her own back yard. For three months I scoured the internet, looking for the perfect escape-artist cover-dog for Maximum Security. Doh. He lives next door.

Meet Simba. Simba Lives with Jerome Wilson, owner of Northside Grange Pet and Urban Farm Supply, where I get my grain-free kibble.

Simba is a bright and talented young man. I’ve known him since he came to live with Jerome as a pup less than a year ago. One day in July I was hanging over the fence and being neighborly. Simba has his own yard-within-a-yard, to keep him out of the garden. I noticed a small stock pallet leaning against the gate to Simba’s playpen, blocking the gap between the bottom of the gate and the ground.

“Does Simba ever try to escape?” I asked.

Turns out escape is one of his great pleasures in life.
Watch Simba in action.










Simba Wiggled through, only to meet his warden . . . er, owner, Jerome, on the other side.

I haven’t decided which picture to use yet because I don’t know which is my favorite. I’ll be sure to post the oil painting here when it’s done. Meanwhile, I’ve been playing with this image and I like it alot.

If you’d like to see some of my other entrants, click here and here.