Stop. Look. Listen.

I like to keep an eye on the competition.

It’s not so much that I want to be better than someone else, it’s that I want to be better than I am. I’m competitive by nature, and I’ve found that just knowing what others are up to makes me rise to the occasion—regardless of what the occasion is.

Take learning to play the flute: I had weekly lessons during the school year, and I was mediocre at best. My instructor had the patience of a saint, listening to me not improve over a nine month period. She collected money from my parents and showed up each week. (Now I’m starting to understand where she found the patience of a saint!)

During one summer, I went to my best friend’s house. I arrived early, during her French horn lesson, and I listened to her play. So. Much. Better than I was. Surprisingly, that was the motivation I needed to practice. I spent the rest of the summer getting up to snuff, and when my instructor returned, she was shocked at the transformation. From then on, I was one of her star pupils. I even anchored the annual recital.

I find myself spying on the competition—watching them without telling them their being watched is spying, right?—and taking away that push to make myself better. I took away contests from one author, newsletter tips from another. Twitter tips from a third. Not because they gave me advice, but because I stalked them followed them and watched what they did.

What it comes down to is that some people do things better than I do, which makes me work harder to be the better than I am.

What about you? Ever spy on the competition to help raise your own bar of excellence?

Advertisements

Spying is a Window into Another World

By Kristi Belcamino

Reporters are nosy.

It goes with the job description.

And it is probably a small part of why reporters decide to jump into the journalism rat race. (Hint: we don’t do it for the money!)

Although as a writer, I’ve done my fair share of eavesdropping into another person’s world (hello reality TV, or while sitting at a cafe or riding the bus), as a reporter, I have a first-class ticket to be a spy. Sort of a VIP pass.

Because as a reporter, I’m essentially spying into another person’s world. Sometimes they know it (when I identify myself as a reporter). And sometimes they don’t: When I hear about what is happening on the city streets by listening day in and day out to the police scanner.

But either way, I have a VIP Pass to be a spy into another world.

For instance, while most people slow down at an accident scene (lookie loos) and try to figure out what just happened, I pull my car over, flash my press pass, duck under the crime scene tape (not always) and walk over to a guy who gives me all the details.

Yes, a VIP Pass to Spying – or Nosiness, if you will.

Or when the rest of the world is wondering just why on earth this man went off the deep end and killed his parents, I go talk to him in a jail cell and he tells me what was going through his mind.

Sure, especially in that above example, sometimes it is better off not knowing (often ignorance is bliss), but the mere fact that I’m a reporter makes people want to talk to me. It makes people want to share their stories and innermost thoughts. Sometimes I don’t get it, but just go with it.

Because I realize that my VIP Pass comes with some heavy responsibility. These people are entrusting me with their stories, their pain sometimes, and officials are trusting me with information they assume I will correctly convey to the mass public. I know that to do my job well and to do it in a way in whichI can live with myself, I have to have the upmost integrity in how I obtain this information and in how I pass it along to others.

But at its heart, I realize it is also another way for me to indulge my nosiness and spy on another person’s world.

Gadgets and Goodies Galore!

My husband and I love watching crime shows on TV, as well as the occasional action flick. Some are better than others, and we’ve adopted a saying: Suspend Your Disbelief. As in, you know you’re watching fiction, but sometimes things are just too farfetched, and you have to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the show. Can you really slide all the way down a 100-story building on a banner and survive? Sure. Can you really jump out of a plane without a parachute and survive? Definitely. And of course you can cause an object with no fuel and no flammable parts to explode in a giant fireball with a single, standard bullet. Duh! We’ve found that I have a much higher tolerance for those stories that push the boundaries of reality than he does, but overall, we’re happy to hop on the train and go for the ride. But that’s the action. What about the toys you see on these shows, those fabulous, crazy toys?

They use some pretty cool toys on the shows we watch; for instance, any crime lab on any CSI.  Those kinds of labs and toys don’t exist, at least not the way they’re represented on TV. You just can’t put pixels that weren’t captured in the security video back in (law enforcement experts presenting at writers’ conferences can be dreadfully honest about these things). But, far more of the gadgets we see actually do exist than you might realize. I did a quick Google search on “spy gadgets.” Wow. Just, wow. First, I guess I should have expected both Amazon.com and Ebay.com to have lots of entries here, but I didn’t. And my favorite site name? SpyGadgets.com. What can you find at SpyGadgets.com?

Night Vision Hidden Camera Alarm Clock? Check.

Portable Pen Bug Detector? Check.

Fifty-cent Covert Knife Coin? Check. (Betcha didn’t know you could get one of those, didya?)

Disappearing ink pen, hidden handcuff keys (in many forms), telephone voice changers, listening device jammers, hat cameras, telephone blockers (to keep those pesky incoming calls away), smart phone activity monitoring (complete with data recovery for any deleted texts), and my favorite: the Titanium Escape Ring (with built in saw blade and handcuff shim pick combo tool). A quick perusal of other sites  lands you a watch with a hidden, high-end video camera and microphone, hidden camera sunglasses, and a stun gun cell phone. Cameras, stun guns, and pepper spray disguised as lipstick. There was even a laser-surveillance by-pass gadget, and a Windows software password breaker. One site had a “James Bond Gadgets” sub-category. These sites even have blogs! No conscientious consumer should make a purchase without reading the “Hidden Camera Buyers Guide.” Right?

The next time you’re watching a cool action flick or a great detective show, remember this–you probably can’t identify a suspect from a partial fingerprint in under three seconds from an international database, but you can likely clear your kitchen of listening devices, record your cat’s nightly prowl, and remain prepared to break out of handcuffs with your friends and family being none the wiser.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some shopping to do.

 

 

Interview: Triss Stein

Please welcome Triss Stein, author of the Erica Donato mystery series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Uninterrupted writing time- and the writing goes well; a sunny day; a walk where there are flowers blooming (Am I looking for spring? Oh, yes).  Alternatively, a day in London, doing anything at all, with no cell phone and no responsibilities.Brooklyn Graves 2

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My grown daughters would say it is a big, heavy “grandma” purse. Also, I am a sucker for beautiful textiles and have a vast collection of scarves. Naturally, as I am a NY woman (!) I wear black a lot because it always looks right, but brightened up with colorful accessories. I don’t have a signature meal – I like to cook and make all kinds of things – but guests can always count on there being dessert, often baked.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Honestly, I can’t answer this. Mostly it was other books that made me want to write some. The real answer might be membership in Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. I learned a lot that was so useful and I learned to take myself seriously.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Only when I am doing something boring like spell-checking. Otherwise it distracts me, and I find I am not focused on the writing or the music.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
M &M’s because of their colors. Stained glass comes into this book quite a bit.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Long ago, news stories about theft at neglected old cemeteries caught my eye. It seemed like the background for an interesting mystery. Then, I live not far from Green-Wood, a famous beautiful and historic cemetery, not at all neglected, but worth writing about. And so I started thinking about who, and why and how could I put Erica, my main character and historian in training, in that setting.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I am always writing about family and about history in some way. And Brooklyn neighborhoods! That is what the series is all about. I know I will never run out of Brooklyn stories.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
She was a Brooklyn neighborhood girl, married young to her high school sweetheart, mother of a toddler and expecting a life right there. When her husband is killed by a drunk driver, she had to remake her life. A return to college for some extra credits led her to graduate school and an almost-PhD in urban history, and a different world, a different life altogether. She likes it but sometimes finds it an imperfect fit. She is curious and stubborn, has a good heart, loves her daughter, has a touchy relationship with her father, is too busy with work/school/parenting to have much time for a social life. (Her now teen daughter disagrees.)

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
I am stumped by this question.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I would start with Donald Westlake; I think he’d be a lot of fun (I never met him but did hear him speak.) And Ross Thomas. I admire his books and think he was a guy with a whole lot of interesting secrets. A lot of the writers I know are great fun, but I’m not so sure about the great ones from the past. So I’d choose fictional characters instead, and start with Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane ( we could talk about writing!) and Phryne Fisher. Let’s include Spenser so Phryne would have someone to flirt with.

What’s next for you?
I am working on a new book about Erica and crime in Brooklyn, past and present. This one is about Brownsville, where I worked many years ago, and about the mob which was active there in the 20’s and ’30s. It was and is a tough neighborhood; I think this will be a tougher book.

Come find me on my website  http://trissstein.com/  or on Facebook. I have an Author page at Triss Stein. I also blog on the 4th of the month with other Poisoned Pen Press authors  http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/category/news-and-blog/  and twice a month irregularly with author friends at Women of Mystery http://www.womenofmystery.net/

***

Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York state’s dairy country who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn, her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. Brooklyn Graves will be out from Poisoned Pen Press in March and is second in the series, after Brooklyn Bones.
Triss is also the co-chair of Mystery Writers of America/New York chapter library committee.

Spies in The Game of Thrones

I’m a late comer to this show. My husband’s away in Egypt and my brain quits on me in the evenings, so I took advantage of the recent watchathon to see what all the fuss was about. One of the episodes in season one was called “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things.” I think these are the ones that make the best spies.
Take Varys, for example. Caught as a young boy, his manhood was cut from him and offered up in some black magic ritual, leaving him a eunuch. He is a broken one, but in season three, he talks about influence growing through patience, growing like weeds, until it has many branches and tendrils. He is a master spies with many satellite spies he calls his little birds. He is sneaky, creepy, and the longer I watch, the more I admire him. He is a broken thing who has made a place for himself and not become a monster.
Then there’s Tyrion Lannister. Born to the richest, most powerful family in all the realms, he had the misfortune to be born a dwarf. He is rejected by his father, scorned by his brothers and sisters, and mocked by the knights. Denied the physical violence his family uses to assert their authority (except for his sister Cersei), Tyrion turns to more subtle means of gaining influence—spying. He, too, has a strong network of informants. He also loves women and wine, and his high-born status makes the women of the brothels love him. I rejoiced when Shae fell in love with him—not in a silly, head-over-heels sort of way, but in a real world acceptance of all the ugly beauty of him and their world. He deserved that.
Bran Stark is the most interesting spy to me. You might not think of him as a spy. He is a lucid dreamer. This ability is called ‘warg’ in the story, being able to enter animals and see through their eyes. Very handy for someone the Lannister family casually tried to kill because he learned one of their closely guarded secrets. I thought he might be too young to understand what he saw, but they didn’t worry about that. They shoved him from a high tower, but he survived. He became a cripple. He cannot walk, and perhaps because of this, his dreaming grows stronger. He walks and climbs in his dreams where he sees the future. That’s my favorite kind of spying since I write paranormals. I love psychics, scryers and fortune tellers of all kinds. Visionaries.
I prefer these broken characters. They’re much more interesting than the blustering, arrogant and adolescent haughtiness or the slippery, sickening, insinuating manipulations of many of the other ones.
But shhh, I’m still in the middle of season three. Don’t tell me what happens next.

Spying — A Family Affair

My family humors me.   One time when Hubby and I were visiting one of our grown daughters in Washington D.C. we found ourselves free–no plans for half a day.  Hubby and Daughter were in luck, because it was my turn to choose how to fill that extra time.  Now, I LOVE visiting D.C. and all of its national treasures, and there are hundreds of fascinating places to go…but of course my first choice was the International Spy Museum.   After a few snickers (Mom, the kid) and financial protests (but, but…it’s one of the few museums in D.C. that charges admission), off we went.   I was writing a book at the time that deals with Cold War spying in 1950’s Turkey.  (That book is tentatively called Dancing with the General and should come out early next year.)  My character in question is not a professional spy, but she’s recruited by the baddies to do a small job of spying on her neighbors.  She is given some old equipment from the WWII era, and I wanted to see (and play with) examples in the museum of what my character might’ve used.   That museum is a gold mine of information.  And such fun, too!  Visitors get to pretend they’re real spies, experiencing the tools of their trade through some interactive exhibits.   Here are just a few fun examples of what you can find there:  

  • Cameras hidden inside watches, cigarette cases, and buttons.  
  • Transmitters hidden inside shoe heels.  
  • Pistols disguised as lipstick.  
  • Messages hidden inside hollow coins.  
  • Secret codes and devices like Enigma.  

That visit brought out the inner James Bond in all of us.  And now we agree:  learning about spies is a fun family affair, even if you have to drag half the family there!  

Announcement: Membership Changes

We here at Mysteristas are bidding a fond farewell to Donna White Glaser; we have enjoyed Donna’s wonderful contributions and will miss her tremendously. Best of luck in all things, Donna!

We are delighted to announce new member Sue Star, who will be blogging on second and fourth Wednesdays.  PleaMurderDojoFinalWebse join us in welcoming her!  Sue Star writes mysteries about families in chaos. Murder in the Dojo introduces her amateur sleuth, a single mom who teaches martial arts despite the opinions of her teenage daughter, sophisticated sister-in-law, and crotchety dad. Their misadventures continue in Murder with Altitude, soon to be released from D.M. Kreg Publishing. Like her character, Sue has also trained and taught the martial arts, but unlike her character, Sue believes her life is more stable. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and just hanging out with her family. Sue has collected several stand-alone short mystery stories in Trophy Hunting and Organized Death. She also writes suspense with a touch of romance as Rebecca Williamson and is the author of The Drowning of Chittenden.

Find out more about her writing at

http://www.dmkregpublishing.com

http://rebeccawriter.blogspot.com

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sue-Star/546146592165545

(You might also be interested in reading her previous Mysteristas guest post.)