The Luck of the Irish

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

In the spirit of the holiday, I decided to learn a little more about legends of good luck connected to the Irish and Ireland. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit thinking that this research would be quick and easy, and lead to simple definitions. I was out of luck there! But, it was fun in spite of the findings (and a good reminder about assumptions).

Shamrocks, four-leaf clovers, and the Luck of the Irish

For instance, many people believe that the saying “Luck of the Irish” refers to an abundance of fortune enjoyed by the peoples of Ireland. In fact, historians cannot agree on where the saying originated, much less what it means. The first of the two most common theories suggests the saying is a somewhat derogatory one, actually meaning bad luck. After 1,000 years of strife and famine in Ireland, I’m not surprised at this conclusion. However, it seems that the second of the most common theories is that the saying is an American one, originating during the gold and silver rushes of 19th century America. It turns out that a number of the most successful and/or famous miners were either Irish or Irish-American, and thus possessing high quantities of good luck. 

Are Shamrocks Irish? Yes. How many leaves do they have? If you said, three, congratulations! However, if you said four, your confusion would be understandable. Most reliable sources conclude that four-leaf clovers really have nothing to do with the Irish or Ireland, but agree that it is a symbol of good luck.  There are stories suggesting the Druids carried four-leaf clovers, and one version of the story of Adam and Eve suggests that Eve had a four-leaf clover with her when they left the Garden of Eden. Irish or not, the four-leaf clover is not a Shamrock. (If you love plants, there’s a lot of fascinating information regarding clover species and origins available.) Oddly, opinions on this issue are quite strong!  Image

Personally, I don’t have anything that I carry or keep “for luck,” but I love the idea of good luck charms. I definitely check my clover patches for the four-leafed ones! Do you have a lucky charm?

Have a wonderful, and good-luck filled St. Patrick’s Day!

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The Making of LUCKY CHARMS: 12 Crime Tales

LuckyCharms_eBook_082113

The Mary Roberts Rinehart chapter of Sisters in Crime has always dreamed big. But in the fall of 2011, we went really big.

We decided to publish our own short-story anthology.

After all, digital publishing was “the next big thing.” We were writers. Surely this was a do-able project. All it would take is planning and hard work. We underestimated both of those – and totally forgot about the third element. Luck.

Ironically, our first step was to determine a theme for the anthology. We batted around a couple of ideas before someone said, “How about a St. Patrick’s Day launch with a theme of luck?” It sounded promising, and we came up with three criteria for story submission:

  1. word count
  2. the story must contain a crime (after all, we are crime writers)
  3. the story must have a reference to “luck”

That third one was the big one, and resulted in a ton of questions. Does the luck need to be related to the crime? No. What kind of luck? A charm, a superstition, a belief, paranormal? Yes. Naturally, that answer drove some writers, who wanted very concrete definition of “luck,” crazy.

But the very vagueness of that criterion resulted in some wonderful stories. There is a touch of paranormal. Some writers riffed on different types of “lucky items,” such as cigarette lighters. There is a bit of noir-ish justice luck. Some stories were about the luck experienced by the characters. One explored luck in the form of athlete superstition. And two even named things in the story (a boat and a pub) “Lucky Charm.”

What we didn’t anticipate was the role of luck in creating the anthology. First, we were incredibly lucky to have a dedicated group, determined to bring this project to light. We received a solid group of stories and had a great editor (Ramona DeFelice Long, who has edited several anthologies, including two for the Sisters in Crime Guppies).

Our next bit of luck came in finding a great cover designer, Karen Phillips. With only a very few tweaks, Karen gave us a beautiful cover – and even was able to accommodate us when we decided to do print-on-demand in addition to ebook (and we were very lucky indeed to have such a patient artist, because getting an acceptable POD cover was challenging).

And we were, and are, incredibly lucky to have a wonderful bookseller resource in Mystery Lovers Bookshop and owner Laurie Stephens, who has not only kept our anthology in stock, but threw a phenomenal launch party that resulted in the sale of all 200 POD copies in the initial order (the party really was epic).

The anthology truly was a labor of love – and luck. All of those involved learned a lot, had a lot of fun – and gained a new appreciation for the amount of luck involved in publishing.

With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, why not share in our tales of luck – or luck gone bad? Visit our website for more information.

If this story has inspired you to get a group together for anthology, know that it is possible with a lot of hard work, a good attitude, time, professionalism – and a healthy dose of luck!

How is the Worst Thing the Luckiest Thing?

Robert McKee, author of Story and film guru, recommends in his seminars that writers ask ourselves this question: How can the worst thing that can happen to our characters also be the best thing that can happen to them?

Frodo gets the Ring of Power, is chased by orcs and the Nazgûl, almost dies on Mount Doom, but he saves the world.

Rust in True Detective has to quit his job, gets seduced by his partner’s wife, then beat up by his partner, then is suspected to be the mass murderer he’s chasing, and is almost killed by said mass murderer, but in his near-death coma, he discovers the love of his dead child. (OK, so that’s dark.)

Fox Mulder loses his sister, thinks she’s been abducted by aliens, is labeled crazy, but gains the best partner in the world, Scully, and they fall in love.

Does this hold true for life? Is the worst thing that happens the thing that teaches us the most?

How many times have you heard people say they’re grateful for cancer because it taught them how to live again? There’s a man in Denver who advocated for clemency for the murderer of his son. He says he’s learned the value of life by wanting the death penalty for years for this man, but then confronting the murderer and then finding compassion.

Does this idea hold true in your own writing? Or does this belong on some horror or therapy blog?

Luck in Retrospect

I will admit that when I first decided to upload The Enemy We Know to KDP in March 2011, self-publishing was not my first choice. In fact, it was my last. I’d already traveled a convoluted, but rather typical, journey in my attempts to snag sign with a publishing house and, having not done so, decided I had nothing to lose… except, maybe, a little self-respect. (This was “Then” thinking.)

One thing that was clear to me was that it really was a last resort. I felt confident that I had exhausted all other routes, and indeed, had come close a few times. For instance, the first book that I wrote (now the third in the series) finaled in a Malice Domestic/ St. Martin’s Press “First Novel” contest. That, all by itself, was a confidence builder. And shortly after I was signed up by an agent, which was really heady stuff.

Agent #1 was just starting out and most of her connections were in the Christian market. Still… an agent! She started sending the mss. on the rounds and we received some good feedback, but no offers. After a few months, my agent stopped responding to emails and when I called it went to voice mail oblivion.

Ah well. We had an agreement that allowed for cancellation with a 30-day notice, so after weeks of no response, I sent a formal letter and yada yada yada. Overall, I was lucky because, despite the way we parted, she was ethical and provided me a list of all houses where she had submitted my mss. It could have been worse.

By that time I had been learning more about publishing, and specifically about branding and the benefits of writing in a series. I’d come up with the idea to use the 12 Steps of AA as a series hook.  Unfortunately, (I thought at the time) because of the current book’s plot, now titled The Secrets We Keep would logically fall into place around third or fourth in the series. Thus, the first book I wrote ended up the third in the series. Of course, I’d been writing a follow up book, so that meant the second book I was writing was now going to be the fourth book. Books one and two still needed to be written.

Le sigh…

Confused yet? I know I was. However, I buckled down and got busy on The Enemy We Know. After polishing it up through my critique group, several beta readers, and a professional editor, I started querying agents again. Not long after, I signed with Kristin Lindquist. She was terribly excited by Enemy and after tweaking a few things, we sent it on its rounds to the Big Six and all of their incestuous imprints. We came close. Again. But no go.

By New Year’s 2011, I had two full novels, three-quarters of a third, and a detailed outline for a fourth. Was it all for nothing?

No. No way.

While learning about the business of publishing, I’d come across Joe Konrath’s blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” and had started to get excited about the opportunities of self-publishing. I’d met and heard Joe talk at several conferences and knew his credentials. So, why not self-publish?

And so I did. The joy of holding a print copy of my very own book was just as sweet as I’d ever imagined. Watching the ebook version making sales bit by bit was enormously gratifying. But still, an element of embarrassment clung to me like stink on a skunk. A part of me still felt if I had had just a little more talent, a little more skill—a little more luck—the series would have been picked up by a “real” publisher. When I mentioned having published a book, I invariably would add, “Well, I self-published, but it has good reviews.”

Over the years, I’ve outgrown that sense of lesser-than.  In fact, I’ve gone completely 360 now, and I just feel incredibly lucky that my Letty Whittaker series wasn’t discovered” by a traditional publisher. For me, being discovered by readers has completely supplanted the desire for a trad pub. Readers are my validation.

In my case, the advantages of self-publishing have far out-weighed the costs of the latter route. Aside from arguments re: royalty splits or control over cover choices or such, one of the biggest benefits of being my own boss is I make my own release schedule. I don’t have to stress deadlines, except those I set myself. For someone saddled with a disability, that flexibility is priceless. There are simply days I can’t write. Yet now, I don’t have to feel like I’m letting anyone down when I can’t.

It’s funny what a little time and perspective can do. Instead of regret, I feel very, very lucky about the career decision I made in March 2011.

  

Luck and Perspective

I don’t have a lot to say about luck in general.  Sometimes, I think it’s a matter of perspective.

For example, last year, I went to a steampunk convention:  a conference for people who read or write a fantasy/sci fi/speculative fiction genre where the books are (a) set in an alternative Victorian era where steam is the main power so introduces cool gadgets that never really existed, OR (b) set in an alternative future but using the “signs” of the Victorian era, OR (c) break the first two rules but involve fantastic mechanicals.  Steampunk celebrators dress up in things like top hats and suits, or long flowing skirts with corsets or bustles, but wear them with aviator goggles or steam-powered jet packs or conglomerations involving gears.

The first day was spectacular—a veritable feast for the eyes plus myriad family-friendly activities—and I thought my kids might like to attend.  So I bought a couple of top hats from the conference shop.  Then on the drive home, I tried very hard to think of a way to condense the definition of steampunk for an audience of two, both under ten years old; I basically whittled it down to “a party for stories that have gears and goggles.”  I didn’t know if it would be exciting enough to lure them into a literary conference.  But when I walked in the front door, here’s what happened.

Son:  Hey, are those top hats?
Me:  Yes.
Son [putting it on his head]:  I always wanted one of these.
Me:  You did?
Son:  Of course.  Top o’ the mornin’ to ye.

Behold the power of the top hat.

That certainly was lucky, I thought. Who knew they would like top hats?  So much that when I mentioned going to the conference, all they asked was, Can we wear our top hats?  And when I said yes, they were like THEN LET’S GO RIGHT NOW.

I’ll admit to having had visions of my children later crediting this very conference for contributing to their happily book-centric lives. Yet, soon after we arrived, I was “volunteered” for an event which involved being shoved into an elaborate hat-and-cape combination and forced to sing something.  In front of a crowd.  Of strangers.

I have no idea how that happened. But my kids thought they were pretty lucky to witness that.

As I said: a matter of perspective…

Hard-to-Shake Superstition

I’m incredibly superstitious.

I’m a grown, well-educated adult, but for some reason, I can’t shake the idea of superstitions, especially when it comes to sports—both watching them and playing them.

My proudest (or stupidest) example: I spent the last two minutes and all of the five-minute overtime during the 2008 NCAA National Title game in the bathroom.

In a huff because my Kansas Jayhawks were losing to Memphis, I decided I’d just go wash my face and get ready for bed. I didn’t care that we had company over. I was pissed.

But then, through the bathroom door, I heard screaming. Hooting. Hollering. The vibration of my husband jumping up and down. The Jayhawks were coming back.

So I didn’t move.

I stayed right there, sitting on the toilet, through the biggest moments my team has had this decade: “Mario’s Miracle” three-pointer at the buzzer, the obliteration of Memphis in overtime, my team’s first NCAA championship in 20 years.

Sure, I could’ve moved. I could’ve seen it go down live. But what would’ve happened if I’d left the bathroom?

That’s a “what if” I don’t want to think about.

I know it’s completely silly to think that anything I do in my own home is going to affect the luck of a bunch of college kids I don’t know/have never met/who work really hard to make their own luck.

Yet, I still do all I can by being superstitious.

Other things I’ve done for my Jayhawks? Changed shirts at halftime to help spark a rally. Ordered the same food on gameday for weeks on end during the NCAA Tournament, because if eating pizza worked the first time, it’d work the next time (until we lost). Sat on the floor for two straight hours, terrified to move because they were up in a close game.

Does any of this make my team more lucky? Probably not. But does it make me feel better? Yes.

This is the same reason I always eat the same food before my ultramarathons (animal crackers from a certain bin at our co-op), always wear the same visor to said races, and tend to have the same post-race food (Chipotle).

So, yep, superstitions are real to me even if they’re silly. Are you superstitious?

Interview: Sandra Parshall

Please welcome Sandra Parshall, Agatha Award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard Mysteries.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I hate to say this, but it wouldn’t involve writing. A perfect day would be me alone with my camera (and a big memory card) in a beautiful place with lots of wildlife and other intriguing things to photograph. Taking a perfect picture of a place or thing is Poisoned Ground 300every bit as satisfying as writing a perfect description of it.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I seem to wear a lot of blue, but it’s not a conscious “signature” color. Since one friend expressed shock when she saw me wearing something other than blue, I’ve tried to vary my choices. Isn’t it irksome how we get into ruts, always choosing the comfortable and familiar without realizing what we’re doing? That’s a bad habit for a writer. No fragrance — perfume makes me sneeze!

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
I had one teacher, and only one, who told me that I had a talent for writing and should develop it. Most of my inspiration has come from reading. The work of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers had the strongest influence on me. Although they had different styles and tones, both were southerners, as I am, and wrote about ordinary people — poor, working class, middle class — living through the kind of domestic dramas that can break hearts and taint souls but will never make headlines. Their work made make see that daily life contains all the inspiration any writer will ever need.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No, because I’m sensitive to sounds and music would distract me. Even the grandfather clock chiming in our foyer breaks my concentration sometimes.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Snicker’s — unpretentious but richly textured, with a surprising blend of smoothness and crunch, darkness and lightness, and thoroughly satisfying!

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Rural areas all over the U.S. are under pressure from development, and that gave me the starting point for the plot. A big developer wants to build a resort for the rich in the Blue Ridge Mountains community of Mason County, and the promise of sudden wealth and plentiful jobs — at the expense of the land and a way of life many cherish — divides neighbors and families. The guns come out and several people are killed. But as I said, the development fight is just the starting point. The controversy re-ignites old issues, rivalries, jealousies, and creates a storm of dangerous confusion in the mind of one older man suffering from Alzheimer’s.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I don’t do it deliberately, but every book I write has a strong parent-child element. These relationships are all dysfunctional, of course; they wouldn’t be much use to me in a crime novel if they were perfect. I started with Rachel and Judith in The Heat of the Moon and I’ve added one or more bad parent-child relationships in every book since. As for why, I’m not sure I want to get into that!

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
When I began writing about Rachel in The Heat of the Moon, she was tormented by memories she didn’t understand and intimidated by her authoritarian mother, Judith. The bravest thing she’d done was defying Judith’s wish that she become a medical doctor by choosing veterinary medicine instead. She had to wage a psychological battle with her mother to find out the truth about her family, and she emerged a stronger but deeply scarred person. In every book, she’s faced challenges that have strengthened her, and she’s developed into a confident woman who not only stands up for herself but doesn’t hesitate to defend those who are weaker. Her love for animals and her inability to stand by and do nothing when she witnesses injustice are the qualities that define her.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
My heroine is Jane Goodall, and Rachel feels the same deep connection to animals and desire to protect them that Dr. Goodall demonstrates. She has our own real-life veterinarian’s approach to patients and clients. In her personality and character traits, though, I’ve tried hard not to pattern Rachel on any actual person or to draw qualities from other writers’ characters. I want her to be uniquely herself, unlike anyone else. I’m afraid that if I started thinking of her as being like So-and-so, I’d lose my grasp on her.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
It would be fun to eavesdrop on a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Dennis Lehane. I’d love to ask Agatha Christie about the current state of crime writing — What would she make of the amount of action and violence against women in thrillers? Does she feel flattered or bemused when today’s cozies are likened to her books? Would she join Sisters in Crime? I would love to hear what Ruth Rendell and Janet Evanovich might have to say to one another. And Tess Gerritsen would improve any gathering.

What’s next for you?
I’m leaving Rachel to live in peace and quiet for a change while I write a psychological suspense novel that’s been growing in my imagination and demands to be recorded. I think leaving the familiarity of my series, at least for a while, will be good for me, and fun too.

***

Sandra Parshall is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard Mysteries. Although her series features a young female veterinarian and animals abound in the stories, the books aren’t cozies. They’ve been called thrillers, suspense novels, and dark mysteries, and the author considers them a blend of all three subgenres. Sandra and her journalist husband share their home in the Washington, DC, area with two unbelievably spoiled cats, Emma and Gabriel, who have acquired their own fan base on Facebook and never let Mom forget it for a second.

Sandra is a past member of the national board of Sisters in Crime and a member of Mystery Writers of America. She interviews other writers regularly for the The Big Thrill, newsletter of International Thriller Writers, and she reviews crime fiction for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Website: sandraparshall.com