Give the Gift of Books

I’m a minimalist.

Except when it comes to books.

I’m not positive but I suspect it stems from moving so much in my life. Several times I’ve moved with all my belongings crammed in a car — a rolled-up futon, some clothes, and of course, a ton of books.

A few of those books were ones from my childhood. During all those times of culling my belongings and packing up my car to move cross-country, a few treasured childhood books have always made the cut.

In fact, the only items I have from when I was a child are those books.

That is why when it comes to gift giving time, the first thing I think about for a child is a book.

Books opened up the world to me when I was a child living in a small Northern California town.

Here’s what has made the cut in my life:

A set of mystery books by Wylly Folk St. John.

My oversized “This is Paris” book. Inside, my mother’s friend who went to Paris wrote that she hoped I would visit that city one day. I have.

A Babar book I loved to pieces.

A Fox in Sox book signed by my grandmother.

But my favorite is a child’s thesaurus my fourth grade teacher gave me. Inside, she wrote about how she knew one day I was going to be an author!

I would love to find Mrs. Ward and let her know that my dream came true. If find her, I’m going to let her know that she was one of those remarkable teachers that change a child’s life. But that’s a whole different post.

So, now as an adult, I give kids books as gifts. Maybe my book and its inscription will encourage them to write a book, to move to Paris, or simply to take pleasure in reading.

I don’t know if these gifted books will end up treasured items or land in the January donation box. Heck, I don’t even know if they’ll read them.

But if there is the slightest chance I can pass on a book that will become a treasured belonging in another person’s life, then I’ve done my job.


It Doesn’t Get Any Easier

It doesn’t get any easier.

Every time I face a book release, I get nervous. An advance review copy of that book has been out for a few months, and at the time I’m generally happy with the story. “Proofing is going to be a piece of cake,” I think. “This book is good to go.” And then I crack the spine of my roof copy and see everything I want to “fix.”

For THE BRIM REAPER, third in the Style & Error Mystery Series (out today), the fixes started on page six. That’s pretty good. That’s Proofing-This-Book-Is–Going-To-Be-A-Breeze good.

Sometimes proofing is as simple as striking a phrase, and sometimes it’s a matter of rephrasing a sentence. Sometimes it’s fixing errors like the 17 examples of “gallery” that should have been “museum,” and sometimes it’s correcting the misspelling of “Novak Djokovic.” And then there are pages like 217 that are more covered in red pen with notes in the margin and XXX’s over the current text. I’d share a screen shot if it wouldn’t give away a plot point.

My biggest challenge is in continuity. When I edit, I sometimes forget the time of day, the location, and the outfit of my characters. (I’ve been fried for this in early reviews on other books so now I’m hyper-sensitive.) So imagine my freak out on page 130 when I realized I’d set the scene in the wrong office of the gallery museum!

But the absolute beauty of proofing comes when  I happen upon something I forgot I wrote and I laugh out loud—which happened twice this time. (The extra bonus is that I can’t remember where it happened, but the Capricorn in me made me find it. I’m not telling.)

I have H-U-G-E respect for any person who writes a book and H-U-G-E respect for any person who puts it out there for others to read. Because no matter how many times we do it, one thing remains constant. There are easier ways to spend our time, but this is what we love to do. So put on your party hats and help celebrate Samantha Kidd’s latest escapade involving an exhibit of hats at the local museum. And whatever you do, don’t fear the reaper!


No Returns or Exchanges

The holiday season is upon us, robust with the joys and frustrations, excitement and irritation that the season offers. And with the arrival of the holidays comes the giving of gifts! The tangible kind: gaily wrapped packages, stockings or shoes stuffed with treats, boxes full of homemade cookies and candy. The intangible: the innocent joy we see in children’s faces as they view a beautiful menorah or decorated tree, the excitement of watching someone open the gift you’ve chosen for him or her, the warmth exchanged during holiday greetings.

To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year. It gets really cold in New England, and I’m not fond of that temperature (cold). (A New England-er born and bred, I blame my hatred of cold weather on a holiday break spent in Brazil during college; it spoiled me forever, I’m convinced.) I love giving gifts, but I hate shopping for them. I love wrapping gifts, but I hate the waste. I love celebrating with friends and family, but I hate cleaning my house first. Have you ever read Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham? A couple whose only child is out of the country for a year decide to forgo the season and all it’s trappings, and instead go on a cruise. It’s a bit of a farce, really, and I can’t say I loved the tale, but I’ve definitely been tempted to skip the holiday season once or twice.

But then, I remember. I get out of the gift-giving season what I put into it. If I let the gifts overwhelm, if I worry about whether I’ve spent too much or too little or if the color and size are right or if I’ve forgotten someone hates coffee and gave them a Starbucks gift card or if I’ve managed to leave a little something for the mailman (ours really is a man) and gosh, did I get a gift receipt for Aunt Lucy (who never likes her gifts), well then, I’m going to be miserable.

If, however, I remember to appreciate all the gifts of the holiday, like how lovely the house smells when there’s a fresh tree inside, the excitement our child has about the parties and food and decorations (oh, my!), and the anticipation of delivering donations to a local charity, the steady stream of fun, personal mail–well, then I remember that I love the gift-giving season. After all, while there are no returns or exchanges on these gifts, luckily, they are the very best kind to receive.

Choosing a book for myself can be just as challenging as any holiday gift shopping. After all, what more discerning gift-recipient will I buy for than me? And it’s not just the choosing, it’s the actual reading that is often fraught with anxiety for me. I have a huge TO BE READ pile next to my bed. All are by authors I’ve had the good fortune to meet, and some I’ve come to consider friends. But, (lowers voice to whisper), what if I don’t like them? It’s as though I think there’s a direct connection between the thought in my head and the author, and they’ll know, they’ll just know that I didn’t like their work. (Yes, I worry about these things.)

Following my rules on holiday gift-giving however, I remember that I get out of the reading experience what I put into it, and I have to let go of the worries. Maybe I won’t like it, but maybe I’ll find a new favorite author. Did I try a new genre or author? Good for me! Perhaps I chose something simply to support a fellow writer, and shared the author’s joy that sales numbers went up (even if only by one). And, there’s the fact that the TO BE READ pile has shrunk by one (and I can shop for a new book!). If all else fails, maybe I have a gift for Aunt Lucy, signed by the author.

No returns or exchanges, of course.

Happy Thanksgiving

The gang at Mysteristas would like to express our gratitude to each and every one of you for reading our blogs and participating in our interviews. Thank you very much.

Wishing you and yours a very wonderful Thanksgiving, if you’re with dozens of people or alone, if you’re eating turkey or tofurkey, if you’re rolling your eyes at the wild antics of your family or laughing with your chosen family.

Happy Hanukah for those who celebrate.


Home, Sweet Home

Years ago, my family moved “up Nort’” looking for small town living to raise our children in and, boy, did we find it. With a population of only 2,012 souls in our little “city,” we get to know our neighbors pretty well. And they know us. In fact, if we drive down Main Street, it’s a bit of a parade—lots of waving and smiling and hollering “hi” to folks, even if you just saw them last night at the town meeting.

We felt safe.

When my husband had to go out of town for a week on business, I thought nothing of sending him off with a kiss and a smile. My kids, four-years and eighteen-months-old, kept me running all day, so we went to bed early. At some point in the night, my four-year-old got up to use the bathroom and then crawled in bed with me. (Thankfully, in that order.)

The next morning, we overslept and I had to scramble to get him ready for his half-day kindergarten class. Neither he nor I are morning people, so we had the usual hassle trying to get him (and myself) awake enough to accurately apply toothbrush to teeth and perform the other morning rituals before navigating the stairs to the main floor.

I got the kids set up at the kitchen table, splashed milk over the cereal and juice into the sippy cups—the whole time grumbling to myself about how cold the house seemed to be that October morning.  Then, I went to the laundry room to get their clothes for the day.

Except the door to our garage was broken off its hinges and leaning sideways across the hallway, blocking my path to the laundry. My first thought, “Holy sh*t! How did that happen?” was quickly replaced with “Oh, crap. Are they still here?”

They weren’t. The cops responded quickly and walked through the whole house while the kids and I stood shivering in the kitchen. Strangely enough, even though the intruders broke the connecting door to the garage down (how did we not hear that?), they exited out the kitchen. All they’d taken was a flashlight and three dollars my dad had given my four-year-old for being brave when he got his vaccinations. The police found the flashlight sitting benignly on the stoop outside, as though the intruders were saying, “No thanks. We have our own.”

They’d kept my kid’s money, though.

After reassuring my son that I’d reimburse his bucks-for-shots and popping him on the school bus, I followed the cops around as “we” looked for clues. By now, I had calmed down and transitioned to the writers’ this-will-make-a-good-scene-in-my-next-book stage. We figured out how they had broken in (pried the overhead garage door open); that they had ransacked my car, including a lockbox I’d kept in there for transporting confidential files (also pried open, contents dumped, and lockbox tossed against the wall); that they’d taken the flashlight from the glass-fronted cabinet in the kitchen where we’d stored it (the blinking light that’s supposed to help us locate it during power outages also apparently alerts bad guys to the cool, “hi-tech” flashlight); that they’d missed the bank bag with our construction company’s petty cash in it that was sitting right next to the flashlight (apparently they were distracted by the pretty, blinky light); that they’d taken my son’s money from the counter (cuz they’re greedy [insert swear word of your choice here]); and, finally, that they must have heard something that sent them out the side door, sans “booty.”

That last point gave me pause. It took me out of  my writer brain and reactivated the somebody-was-in-my-house brain.  What had happened to make them leave without anything more than three lousy dollars?  Had they tripped over our good-for-belly-rubs-only Bassett Hound? She’s sweet-natured and her only response to any person, friend or foe, would be to flop upside-down at their feet and assume the petmepetmepetme position. Had they heard my eighteen-month-old as she shifted in her sleep? We kept the baby monitor on constantly and it was set up in the kitchen. Had they heard my four-year-old as he stumbled to the bathroom, making his way through the dark house?

We’ll never know. But now we know enough to be wary of what seems safe, to be aware that bad things can happen anywhere, anytime. We know enough to install an alarm system, to double-check the locks on the doors, to check the shadows.


And it’s just that kind of dichotomy that makes suspense novels suspenseful. (See what I did there? It’s a transition. Not necessarily a good one, but still…) Writing about evil in the midst of good is what made Mary Higgens Clark the Queen of Suspense. Her books are a constant reminder that the ordinary can shape-shift into the treacherous at any moment. In Clark’s worlds, it’s not a good idea to get too comfortable.

When I’m writing, I try to imbue my stories with the wisdom that the “safe” world has only a tenuous hold on reality.  It can change at any moment. The memory of the cold atmosphere on the morning—the first clue, ignored—teaches me to use a light hand with foreshadowing. I use the fear and confusion that struck when I came around the corner and saw the door canted sideways, broken. Broken into. When I’m plotting, I try to reenact piecing together the story of the steps the intruders had taken, the attempt to see the path they took so as to understand why they made the choices they made.

Thankfully, my daughter was too young to remember any of it and my son’s memories are consumed by being able to handle the nice cop’s handcuffs, but despite that, there is no denying the sense of violation that resulted from that morning. 

If you’re a writer, what experiences have you had that you’ve “used” in your writing?

If you’re a reader, have you ever read a scene that resonated with something you had experienced?



Harry Potter and the Great Synthesis

This month, we’ve been talking about home in various ways, and I’d like to consider characters we find inextricable from homes/settings.  I’d planned to make a list, but there are so many examples that I decided to offer just one and invite you to play along.  More fun that way, yes?

Here’s mine: In the first Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling mentions early on that he lives in a cupboard under the stairs. This small detail resonated on several levels for me as a reader.  It was haunting.  I felt incredibly sympathetic toward this young man, about whom I knew very little.  And in a metaphorical sense, he wasn’t even at the foot of the stairs, the great climb, the ascension to the top that is to be his quest.  He was under the stairs at Privet Drive.

Turns out that Harry’s true home is Hogwarts, of course, and there are endless ways in which that place functions as a special sort of sanctuary for him (even though it  holds dangers and challenges as well).  He has moved from the cramped confines of the cupboard to the vast and ever-changing space that is Hogwarts.  And there, the stairways move around unexpectedly, symbolically mirroring the way his quest seems to be aimed first at one adventure/goal and then another.

These two “homes” in direct opposition prepare us for Harry’s transformation from alienated young boy to great wizard belonging to a community.  It’s difficult to imagine the story set anywhere else, so complete is the synthesis of character and place.

Your turn!  Please add your favorite character + place pair in the comments. (Or we can talk more about Harry Potter, if you prefer…there’s always time for HP chat.)

Finding Home in a Face I Didn’t Know

Today is my son’s fifth birthday.

And from the day he was born, I’ve had a very different definition of “home” in my life.

Up until the moment I saw his blond little head, I would’ve answered that my home was wherever my address said it was.

And in the years before he was born, that “home” was all over the place.

Journalism school grads, my husband and spent those first early years bumping around the East Coast. Places where we had a home but never really felt at home.

The year before the kiddo was born, we moved “home.” Back to Kansas. To the little-big town where we’d gone to college. It was funny, coming back to this place we’d spent four years, living on other people’s money in an environment that was as much a commune as it was a pressure cooker.

But we weren’t kids anymore.

Maybe because of that, we both felt at home back in Lawrence, Kansas—Hey, we know how to get to Target!—and not at all. We both associated this place with a certain period in our lives, and now we were past that.

Heck, we’d been away five years. We’d owned a house. Survived three major hurricanes and those bizarre and bumbling opening years of a career.

The second I finally felt at home back “home”? The morning after Kansas won the 2008 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

Our first title in exactly 20 years. Obviously, it was very exciting—a title to go with a come-from-behind overtime victory over Memphis.

But that excitement faded a few minutes after I woke up and a new excitement stormed in: That little pink line on a pregnancy test.

Suddenly, home wasn’t going to be defined by our street number or zip code or whether or not we felt like we fit in a town teeming with college kids and Prius-driving professors. Because now none of that mattered.

From that second on, home would be wherever our child would be with us.

Since that pink line, we’ve changed our address three times. Going from apartment to townhome to a house much different than the one we owned back when home was South Florida.

We could move 20 more times and I wouldn’t care. As long as my son is with me, I’m at home.

Happy birthday, N.