Spying on the Neighbors

I live in a courtyard building. About a year ago, a quarrel broke out between my next door neighbor and the person catty corner from him. Somehow, the quarrel escalated from an angry exchange of words in the 3 a.m. hour to a restraining order, a lawsuit, and a camera being trained on his—and subsequently, my—front door.

Not being 100% on board with the whole filming my comings and goings part of the scenario, I took an interest in what was going down. The offended person, let’s call her Missy, started decorating her windows with message signs to tenants who passed her apartment. “This camera is legal, just ask the LAPD,” said one. Another spoke to Karma, and additional signs addressed peace, respect, and a community of “getting along.” Missy might have pasted a sign about getting along, but the problem was that passing her windows every day led to tension within the building.

I complained to my landlord and—not willing to trust a scotch taped sign–checked about the legalities of the camera with the LAPD. It seemed there was nothing I could do. My neighbor, let’s call him Guy, moved out after over a decade of living in my building. The harassment wasn’t worth it, he said.

One afternoon, while doing my usual writing/tweeting/FB’ing/checking email/pretending-to-get-through-a-draft thing, I heard a loud knock on a door. Being a nosy curious person by nature, I stopped playing FreeCell and listened. It appeared that someone in my building was being evicted.

Now, I’m too sly to press my nose up against the window in such situations, but I did catch a name: Missy. And later that day, after realizing I have ample amateur sleuthing skills in my arsenal, I checked the directory and the mailboxes, came up with a last name, hopped on the internet, and discovered who I was dealing with. Let’s just say, there was a history of similar behavior out there.

And in the next 30 seconds, I saw a potential cozy mystery unfold before my eyes. Clearly Missy would be the victim. And suspects? Easy:

1. Guy, who had a restraining order—that was now part of his permanent record–filed against him.

2. Resident Artist, who had had numerous smoking complaints lodged against her.

3. Landlord, who had been ignored after multiple warnings about silly things like overdue rent.

4. Previous apartment manager, who had evicted her too.

5. Former boss in the TV industry, who had Missy’s character written off on the first week of her show, for unexplained reasons.

(It really is fascinating how much dirt you can dig up on someone when you come to terms with your inner amateur sleuth.)

I don’t know what became of the real Missy. After the eviction papers were served, she kept a low profile. My started getting egged once a week, coincidentally on the same days I heard the shower running in her apartment. On the weekend she moved out, her mother gave me the finger.

And funny thing, my car hasn’t been egged since.

PS: On a personal note, to celebrate Doris Day’s 90th Birthday, I’m kicking off a Mad for Mod fundraiser for Doris Day’s Animal Foundation. I didn’t want to hijack the spying theme from the Mysteristas, but if you’re interested, click here.

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Why I Wrote Blessed are the Dead Part III

The dimly lit interview room at the jail was full of shadows. The only light shone down on a row of tiny cubicles. Night after night, I sat down in one of the cubicles, put a grungy black phone up to my ear, and looked into the eyes of a monster. A piece of scratched glass the only barrier between a psychopath and me. Video cameras perched up high above us, recording every move and probably every word.

From the first interview with Curtis Dean Anderson, my goal had been to get him to slip up and confess something that might indicate whether he had also kidnapped Xiana, the little girl missing from Vallejo. But I soon realized I had to develop a rapport with this man so he would trust me enough to reveal his secrets.

I told him maybe he would feel better if he told someone about his crimes, someone like me, someone who wasn’t a cop.

He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’ve been keeping in stuff worse than that for more than twenty years.”

“Like what? What is worse than that?” I asked. “When you tell me that it makes me think you’ve been killing people for twenty years.”

He took a small pencil and wadded up piece of paper out of his shirt pocket. He slowly smoothed the paper out, scribbled something, and then held it up to the glass for me to read:

1st kidnap 1981

Rape

Kill

He’d been doing this a long time. Our conversations made it clear he had zero remorse or empathy. He was a stereotypical psychopath and a predator, a killer. When he told me there had been others, I continued to try to get information about Xiana, in the hopes she was still alive somewhere. But I also tried to get him to tell me about his other victims. He kept promising to reveal details, but never did, stringing me along for months, using elaborate grids to point out areas where the bodies were supposedly hid. But he was slippery and never gave any concrete details. At least not to me.

He also loved taunting Xiana’s aunt, telling her he had taken Xiana. She told me he had given her at least one piece of information that only Xiana could have told him.

For months, I visited him in jail, accepted his collect phone calls to my desk phone at the newspaper and read the letters he mailed me. I developed a rapport with a monster. He was the one we are taught to be afraid of. He was the embodiment of pure evil. I listened to his terrible stories and took notes. But what disturbed me the most was my ability to go sit there and talk to him night after night trying to get information out of him.

It frightened me because I was talking to a killer like I would have a conversation with anyone else. But I had to. I had to put on a front, as if we were friends, to get him to trust me. So, I did it. Sometimes I wonder if I lost a piece of my soul by doing this: smiling at him and encouraging him to share his sick stories with me.

But my motivation was the purest sort: justice for his victims.

He eventually was convicted of kidnapping the little girl who escaped and sent away to prison. He continued to write me letters full of misspellings and nonsense. One letter contained a three-page list of the books he had read. Most, like “Helter Skelter,” were about horrific killings.

He later confessed to killing and kidnapping Xiana and that sentence was added to his previous one.

The Xiana story faded away; as all these horrible stories about kidnapped children tragically and eventually do, fading from the news and the public eye, but never from the lives of the people who loved them.

I moved to Minnesota and started my own family.

One day I got a call from a reporter at my newspaper. Curtis Dean Anderson had died in prison, of natural causes, they said. Police were saying he had confessed to killing other kids during his time in prison. They say he claimed to have taken Amber Swartz, as well.

When I moved to Minnesota I had carted a giant box of file folders and reporters’ notebooks having to do with Curtis Dean Anderson and Xiana. I thought one day I would write a nonfiction book. But then I sat down at the computer and something else emerged – a story about an Italian-American newspaper reporter named Gabriella Giovanni whose sister had been kidnapped and killed when they were children.

Giovanni hasn’t yet dealt with the trauma of that in any meaningful way. But then she is forced to when a little girl disappears on the way to the bus stop and she is assigned the story. When a man is jailed on kidnapping charges, Giovanni is caught up in the web of trying to get him to confess to taking both her sister and the still missing other girl. In the end, the kidnapper is released from jail on a technicality and goes after Giovanni.

Blessed are the Dead is my attempt to honor these girls — Traci, Christina, Polly, Amber, Nikki, and Xiana — who have marked me forever and at the same time, purge this monster — Curtis Dean Anderson — out of my head. So I won’t have to think about him anymore.

 Read part one here and part two here

 

 

I Spy, with My Little Eye

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Nancy Drew. Trixie Belden. Encyclopedia Brown. Boxcar Children. These are just a few of my childhood heroes (yes, I’m dating myself), characters with whom I spent endless hours, lost in worlds of the authors’ making. As an only child growing up in a rural area, reading was my first choice of entertainment and escape. By third grade, I’d read my way through the children’s room of our small, local library, and had moved on to more adult choices. Elizabeth Peters, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lillian Jackson Braun. (Agatha Christie is still a favorite.) Eventually, I ran out of adult books, too (it’s a small library, and the summer was looooong). What was it about these books that caught and held the attention of a young girl? The stories, the setting, the characters, yes, but I think what I loved best, if I’m being honest?

The spying.

Imagine young me, following along with Trixie and Honey and the gang. Those tantalizing, overheard conversations that set off grand adventures. Beginning, as a child, to realize the power of knowing something you shouldn’t, information gained by stealthily creeping along the edge of the house to settle under the open window of the room where adults were sharing the juiciest of gossip. Information discovered by picking up the phone extension (remember when people had wired phones?!?). Wondering what it would be like to spot the real thief snatching the candy bar without paying, because you were the one staring at the mirrors in the corners of the store while your mom or dad droned on and on with someone they ran into at the corner store. I spent as much time dreaming about being that stealthy sneaker, that saver of the day, as I did reading those books! And of course, the endings were always happy and tidy, the danger minimized in the end.

Today many new authors write amazing, wonderful mysteries to engage a young person’s attention, taking them on adventures while introducing them to the next generation of heroes, in series such: 39 Clues, Cam Jansen, Calendar Mysteries, and Sisters Grimm, to name but a few. Many classics also continue to transcend time, entertaining and introducing new generations of readers to the magic of mysteries.  My own tastes in reading have varied over the years, but my go-to books remain, to this day, mysteries. I’m still particularly drawn to series, where the characters become friends with whom I can grow, evolve, and journey.

And yes, I sometimes catch myself dreaming about being Kinsey Milhone, J.D. Robb, or Sherlock Holmes.

The beauty of being a writer, of course, is that all that day-dreaming can come in handy! My characters definitely have a little bit of me in them, and they can do all those scary/crazy/brave/brazen/amazing things that I couldn’t quite bring myself to do in real life (I’m truly opposed to being arrested. Or shot. Or kidnapped.). But how much fun it is to close my eyes and type like mad, spinning the twisty-turniest story I can imagine, with the most courageous female protagonist (one with a broad streak of “I love to spy” in her) having the grandest adventure I can come up with. Of course, as any writer will tell you, it’s not all fun and games being a writer. Sometimes these characters become willful, stubborn, downright frustrating. The lead character in the novel I’m working on has stopped speaking to me. And the one in my short thriller? Rolling her eyes with an “Are you really that dumb?” attitude, one worth of any pre-teen.

But that’s okay, too. Because I’ll spend a little time with my old friends Miss Marple, Kinsey, J.D., or Sherlock or I’ll reach out and explore the characters and stories created by wonderful new authors (I find many right here on this blog), I’ll head to the mall and watch the people (maybe catch a little of their conversations, by accident of course) or I’ll just grab a newspaper (one on actual paper!), and suddenly I just. have. to. write. The characters start speaking to me, I figure out who-done-it, and then all is right with this writer’s world.

What were some of your childhood favorites?

Interview: Annette Dashofy

Please welcome Annette Dashofy, author of the Zoe Chambers Mystery series.

Circle of Influence Cover FrontWhat’s your idea of a perfect day?
A perfect work day would be one with no phone calls and no family obligations so I could write undisturbed. A perfect day off would sunny and warm, but not humid, and spent in the woods on horseback.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I tend to wear a lot of turquoise. The color, but also the stone. Until recently, I even drove a turquoise car!

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Only three? That’s tough because I’ve been surrounded by wonderful influences over the years. I’ll say Nancy Martin, who woke me up to the reality of how much work I had–and continue to have–to do to create good fiction; Timons Esaias—I enjoy simply sitting and listening to him lecture, absorbing all his genius; and Hank Phillippi Ryan, whose work ethic puts me to shame.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Only if I’m trying to work while Hubby has the TV volume cranked up in the next room. I prefer quiet so I can listen to the voices in my head. Mwahahaha.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Dark with lots of nuts. That’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it?

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Several years back there was some local political bickering going on, and I overheard the line, “Someone should just kill him and put him out of our misery.” It occurred me this is NOT the kind of line you should say in front of a mystery writer—or a cop. My brain immediately started spinning out the idea for the story. The line made it into the book, and was of course, said in the presence of the chief of police.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Families—and not just the standard biological type—and redemption. Also, it’s been pointed out to me that I have a…shall we say DISTURBING…fascination with death, but mostly how it affects those left behind.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Zoe lost her father when she was eight and has been seeking male approval ever since. That’s led her to make some very bad choices in her life. Now those choices and secrets are coming back to bite her in the—well, you get the idea. She’s been on her own for a long time, and she’s chosen a career (paramedic) that provides excitement, but also a chance to take care of those who are most vulnerable.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
That’s a tough one. I asked one of my critique buddies for help with it, and he said “Vic” from the Longmire series. More the TV version than Craig Johnson’s books, I think. So I’d have to say Zoe might be the love child of Vic and “Johnny Gage” from the old TV show Emergency! and she LOOKS like Jenna Elfman in her Dharma and Greg years.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Craig Johnson, Aimee Thurlo, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Robert Parker, and John Lawton. I’ve met Craig, Hank, Julia, and John and they’re all fantastic story-tellers. I wish I’d met Ms. Thurlo and Mr. Parker before they passed, so I’d love a chance to pick their brains.

What’s next for you?
Zoe Chambers Mystery #2, Lost Legacy, is scheduled for a September 16, 2014 release. “On a sultry summer afternoon, Paramedic Zoe Chambers responds to a call and finds a farmer’s body hanging from the rafters of his hay barn. What first appears to be a suicide quickly becomes something sinister when Zoe links the victim to a pair of deaths forty-five years earlier. Her attempts to wheedle information from her mother and stepfather hit a brick wall of deception, one that brings into question everything Zoe knows about her late father, who died in a car crash when she was eight. Or did he?”

***

Annette Dashofy, a Pennsylvania farm gal born and bred, grew up with horses, cattle, and chickens. After high school, she spent five years as an EMT for the local ambulance service, giving her plenty of fodder for her Zoe Chambers mystery series including Circle of Influence (Henery Press, March 2014) and Lost Legacy (Henery Press, September 2014) Her short fiction, including a 2007 Derringer nominee, has appeared in Spinetingler, Mysterical-e, Fish Tales: the Guppy Anthology, and Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales (December 2013).

Website: annettedashofy.com
Facebook: /annette.dashofy
Twitter: @Annette_Dashofy

The Hand of Fate — or Is It Luck?

It was a lucky day for me when I took a friend’s advice and went to investigate an ancient Mayan artifact that was visiting Hawaii the same time I was. This was a crystal skull named Max. Strange, but I enjoyed the lecture and seeing this curious object. Perfect for a paranormal mystery writer.

When I got back home, I moved to Boulder, and as luck would have it, Max came to visit my new town. I went to visit Max again and met this guy who had studied crystal skulls when he worked as a research scientist for the Rosicrucian Order AMORC in San Jose. He told us all about his research. He was also fascinated with Egypt. In fact, he’d studied Egypt all his life. This was his true love, and he finally went in 1992. One thing led to another, and we became a couple.

We brought each other luck. Stephen started doing yearly tours to Egypt starting the year we got together. I was lucky enough to get a sabbatical in 1999 and even luckier that enough people signed up for that year’s tour so I could come along. That got me started on my first novel, Under the Stone Paw, about the urban legend that a stash of ancient technology is buried beneath the paw of the Sphinx.

My second novel came from a tour we did together in England and Scotland. Stephen came as the Rosicrucian historian, and I got to tag along again. That’s where Beneath the Hallowed Hill was born, a novel exploring several myths of Glastonbury, formerly Avalon.

Luck was with me once more when I was browsing books at the International New Age Book Fair in Denver and found Marsha Keith Schuchard’s book William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision. My husband was off doing an interview on his latest book, so I was wandering. Luck guided my steps. Or fate? Jung’s serendipity? Is there a difference?

The British edition was titled Why Mrs. Blake Cried. Why did she cry? Because Blake wanted to practice sacred sexuality as taught by his mother’s church and Catherine didn’t want to. Blake suggested he have a concubine of sorts. So she cried. Leave it to that randy Sagittarius visionary poet to suggest such a thing.

Wait, what? His mother’s church? The Moravian Lodge in Fetter Lane?

The who? Moravian?

Wait, I was raised in the Moravian Church, and we certainly didn’t condone such activities. No concubines in my neighborhood.

Turns out Blake made that part up based on Abraham of the Old Testament. But Schuchard was right about the sacred sexuality part.

I was floored. Amazed. I had to know more.

This was the lucky start of my last novel. I’m waiting for fate to strike again. Meanwhile, I’m still working on the next two novels. Maybe when I heard about the house falling in on the Giza Plateau because they were digging for antiquities in their basement, that was fate. We shall see.

Guest Post: Sue Star

Luck

Luck is a four-letter word. Luck happens.

One of my good friends has the best luck of any person I’ve ever known. You know the type? It never rains at any picnic she attends. I love her dearly, but how boring is that?

Not that I’m complaining about all the soggy sandwiches I’ve wolfed down in my rained-out picnics. In fact, the more things that go wrong, the luckier I feel. Because I’m a writer.

And when-things-go-wrong makes interesting fiction.

We readers want to read about interesting events and their consequences, things that will take us out of our ordinary, dull, day-to-day lives. We want to rubberneck, and how much better when the disaster isn’t even real! We want to know what happens when you miss an important meeting that will make or break your career. Where does that unexplained detour take you and how does it change an ordinary person’s life? Horrors, what if you stumble across a dead body?? What would you do?

That’s what happens to one of the characters I write about. On the surface, Nell Letterly seems to have a lot going for her: she’s a loving mom and daughter and lives in fun-city Boulder, Colorado. She’s just trying to raise her daughter, herd her martial arts students, and keep everyone safe in a crazy world. But she’s a bit down on her luck, which I hope makes her a more interesting character. Her husband has disappeared, her house is one step ahead of foreclosure, her teenage daughter thinks she’s stupid, and her job is anything but secure.

When we like our characters, it’s extra hard to throw rocks at them when they’re down. But we have to get over that. We can’t allow ourselves to treat our characters too nicely. It’s for the sake of story.

If your story threatens to become dull, here’s a family-tested recipe to spice things up:

Ingredients:

1 lucky villain
1 or more unlucky victims
an unusual method

Mix lightly, until crime begins to form.
Add interesting setting (i.e., no sunny picnics).
Drop in characters, one at a time.
Stir until blended and sleuth’s theories granulate.
Fold in gently: motivation and means.
Knead until new theory emerges.
Bake until done.

Justice is served and villain’s luck has run out.

***

Sue Star writes mysteries about families in chaos. Murder in the MurderDojoFinalWebDojo is the first novel of her black belt mystery series. The second of the series, Murder with Altitude, will be released from D.M. Kreg Publishing later this year. She has also collected several short mystery stories in Trophy Hunting and Organized Death. Sue Star is the mystery pen name for Rebecca Bates, who also writes science fiction, fantasy, and women’s fiction with a touch of magical realism. In real life, she has taught young adults, and in her leisure time, she enjoys hiking, skiing, martial arts, and hanging out with her family.

Find out more about her writing here:

Contact Sue at suestarauthor@gmail.com.

Third Time’s the Charm, Even When It Isn’t

I suppose it’s my luck that I get a chance to write about luck for a third time this month. Third time’s a charm and all that.

Sure, I could pick another topic. Write about something besides luck. But I’m a huge believer in that things happen for a reason. And I get the chance to write about luck for a third time in the lucky month of March.

And, as luck would have it, I’m feeling very unlucky this morning. As I mentioned last time, I’m a huge fan of the Kansas Jayhawks…the very same No. 2 seed that decided to bite it in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

While watching that game, I kept thinking it was amazing how many unlucky bounces a ball can make off a metal rim. Or how a player can get mauled and then be called for a foul. Or how something can seem inconsequential early on and mean so much by the time the seconds tick down.

Of course, March Madness is all about luck or the lack there of. It’s the luck of the draw, the luck of health over injury. The luck of shots going in at just the right time, of taking something on paper and turning it into reality, of guessing correctly how a person you don’t know will react and then capitalizing on it.

In reality, this is a lot like writing.

As writers, we never know if when we sit down in front of our computers if everything we have in our heads will fall out perfectly and land with a swish on the page.

Maybe we’ll airball the entire scene we worked on for hours and have to scrap it.

Maybe our dialogue will just clang around, never quite hitting the mark.

Maybe our luck will run out and we’ll have to stop short while really feeling a scene just to take care of some real-life need…and come back to the page with none of the momentum we left with.

In a way, writing is about luck, too. Somedays, it just wasn’t meant to be (as was the Jayhawks’ tournament, apparently) and somedays it’s all working and no one can beat us at our own game.

The key is to cull together just enough good days to outweigh the frustrating ones.

And march on.

Because the only way to get out of a slump is to shoot through it. And, luckily for we writers, we don’t have to wait until next season.