Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reindeer Got Run Over by a Grandma

Mrs. Doris Huffnagel of North Miami Beach is in police custody after an early Christmas morning traffic incident involving a neighbor’s holiday display.

Huffnagel, 75, is accused of driving while intoxicated as well as reckless endangerment of a ruminant. She told police that she had drunk several eggnog shooters at her son’s home as part of a Christmas Eve celebration. “I was good to drive, though,” she insisted. “Sure, I got cataracts in both eyes, and because of my scoliosis I can barely see over the steering wheel, but I get around.”

Christine Christian, a neighbor of Huffnagel’s, decorates her home lavishly each holiday season. “Even though I’m a Jewish-Wiccan-Buddhist, and technically I shouldn’t even be celebrating, I figure that the goyim have commercialized the holidays so much I can have some fun. I call myself Chris Christmas and I really go all out with my decorations,” she said. “I have a Disney manger scene, with Mickey and Minnie as Joseph and the Virgin Mary, and Goofy, Donald and Pluto as the three wise men. I’ve got lights in all the trees, an alligator in a Santa hat, and all my elves are full-sized, because I don’t discriminate against little people. But my centerpiece is Santa’s airboat, pulled by Shaygets, Shiksa, Shlemiel, Schlimazl, Schnorrer, Shnook, Shande, and Shmatte, with Shikkerer in the lead.”

She paused to wipe a tear from her eye. “It was Shikkerer who got hit. He’s always so brave, leading the airboat through the Everglades. If he hadn’t taken the hit, who knows what would have happened.” She shook her head. “Sometimes the neighbors complain about the noise, between the airboat motor and the recording of the Barking Dogs singing “Jingle Bells.” But that’s no reason to run down an innocent reindeer.”

The scene of the accident is a grisly tableau. Shikkerer’s carcass is on its side, with tire tracks over its abdomen. Its bright red nose light is jammed in the grill of Huffnagel’s faded yellow 1972 Mustang Mach 1. The reins that connected Shikkerer to Shaygets and Shiksa lie broken on the artificial snow of Christian’s front yard.

Reporters were unable to reach anyone at the North Pole for comment, reaching only a voice mail recording indicating that the Naughty or Nice List was closed for this season.

(If you think this is funny, hope you'll check out my humorous mysteries: Genie for Hire, A Biff Andromeda Mystery, and The Golden Retriever Mystery series.)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Interview with Richard Stevenson

In a shameless attempt to get some publicity for my newest Mahu book, Accidental Contact and Other Mahu Investigations, I thought I'd reprint some writing I've done in the past which is no longer available on the web. And where better to begin than with this interview with one of my literary heroes, Richard Stevenson, whose Don Strachey novels were a great inspiration to me.

This interview took place in 2010 at the release of his novel, Death Vows, which confronts the issues involved in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It was originally published at a now-defunct website called GayWired.com. 

NSP: Death Vows has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it.  How did you come up with the plot?
RS: Homophobia is the villain, one way or another, in all the Strachey books.  It does terrible things to gay people and it does terrible things to straight people.  And since I witnessed the rage that gay marriage generated in some of its opponents in Massachusetts, it was easy to come up with a plot where gay marriage turns lethal.  I took part in some of the pro-gay-marriage demonstrations at the State House in Boston.  Counter-demonstrators were bused in by Catholic and Protestant right-wing groups, and I had never seen such hatred on human faces. 

NSP: There’s a theme of masks that runs through this book---everyone seems to be hiding something about who they are. 

RS: I lived behind masks for much of my early life, and what this does to people’s psyches interests and frightens me.  I think one reason I loved John LeCarre’s early spy novels was that his protagonists led double lives out of patriotism and not for reasons of shame or social embarrassment.  Of course, it was more complicated than that for LeCarre’s characters, just as it’s not all bad for closeted gay people.  Leading secret lives sometimes has a kind of romance to it too.  But overall the closet is self-destructive.  And the people in Death Vows who bravely refuse to lead lives of secret shame in their home towns are plainly the ones I admire most.

NSP: I love the repartee between Don and his long-time partner Timmy; it seems that their relationship is the cornerstone of the books, particularly in Death Vows.

Richard Stevenson
RS: I am never happier than when I’m watching these two go at each other in that half-maddening way of theirs.  Each, in my mind, is a whole person, and yet together they comprise a kind of third organism that I find likable and entertaining.  All the best relationships have this interesting mixture of tension, durability, fragility, despair, joy and---best of all---humor.  Relationships like this are high on the list of things that make life worth living.  I’ve been tremendously lucky in this regard, and it’s great fun writing about one of these relationships.

NSP: Death Trick, the first of the Don Strachey mysteries, came out in 1981.  How are Don and Timmy aging?

RS: Ver-r-r-ry slowly.  My original editor at St. Martin’s, the estimable Michael Denneny, advised me not to age them as I aged, which was my original plan.  He said readers would not put up with an old-fart gay private eye.  So they have aged at about half the rate nature ordinarily requires.  In 1981 they’re about forty.  Now I’m pushing seventy and they’re in their early fifties.  That’s quite a feat for them.  In Death Vows there’s actually an AARP joke. 

NSP: How have the changing times affected what you write?  For example, I recall in the early books Don was more of a sexual hound dog.

RS: Death Trick is the only pre-AIDS book in the series.  It’s set in that last spasm of 1970s gay sexual hedonism and social rebellion.  Strachey loved that life---the sexual variety, the adventure.  Timmy was more conventional in his emotional makeup, and I guess there was a chance their relationship might not have survived that era.  But Strachey was forced to alter his habits because of AIDS and also because he loved Timmy and didn’t want to lose him.  And Timmy gradually loosened up a bit too.  In Death Vows there’s a brief reference to the two of them going to Paris twice a year and together attending “the over-forty grope” at the Odessa Baths.

NSP: How do you feel about the here! TV versions of your books (three so far)?  Have you had any input?

RS: I have been kept at a very long arm’s length.  They pay me (not much), and that’s it.  Overall, I’m glad the whole thing happened, because it’s revived interest in the books by, among others, me.  Two of the films, Third Man Out and On the Other Hand, Death, are more or less faithful to the spirit and substance of the books and are pretty good in their different ways. Shock to the System, however, the second film, was just ghastly and a real betrayal of the Strachey character.  Some bozo at here! took a mordant black comedy about the barbarism of reparative therapy and turned it into a cliché-ridden turgid melodrama in which Strachey boo-hoo-ingly laments that he was ever born gay---until, that is, Timmy talks him out of this foolishness.  It’s just totally nuts.   I haven’t seen the fourth film, Ice Blues, yet.

NSP: How has seeing Don come to life on TV changed your ideas of him?

Chad Allen
RS: My ideas of him haven’t changed.  But interestingly, I now have two Stracheys in my head.  There’s young Chad Allen, who’s very good as Strachey, and there’s also the “real” older Strachey---i.e., the one who’s been in my head since 1979 when he first appeared there.

NSP: You’re on your ninth book.  How do you keep the series fresh? 

RS: By writing a book only when I think I have a fresh idea.  Most publishers insist that mystery writers produce a book a year.  This practice has led to too much not-so-interesting stuff.  And even though I have resisted this practice, some books in the Strachey series are plainly better than others.

NSP: You live in Massachusetts yourself.  Any wedding plans? 

RS: Joe Wheaton and I have been together for over 18 years.  We were married in May, 2004.  We planned on being the first to sign up at Becket Town Hall, but two women beat us to it.  

Richard Stevenson and I are both published by MLR Press, and you can find both of us there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sylvia's Mother

My parents were talk-radio listeners when I was growing up. My mother played New York’s WOR, programs like "Rambling with Gambling" and the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. My father listened to news, weather and traffic reports. So the only exposure I had to contemporary pop music was through the school bus radio.

A lot of the songs I remember from that era I first heard sitting on those yellow school buses, either parked at the bus dock waiting to leave, or navigating the curving suburban streets or narrow farm roads. Our bus trip was about a half hour each way, which gave time for lots of listening. And sometimes I’d stay after school for the Math Team or Forensics or Drama, and I’d take the late bus home, which took a much more meandering route, and I’d hear a lot of late-afternoon music.

I can remember riding along to “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest; “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” the song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, sung by B.J. Thomas;  and songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Three Dog Night and The Carpenters. But one of the songs that still sticks with me is “Sylvia’s Mother” a 1972 hit by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

I’m not sure why it keeps resonating with me. It was written by Shel Silverstein, who went on to best-seller status with Playboy cartoons and children’s books. He also co-wrote “A Boy Named Sue” with Johnny Cash.

“Sylvia’s Mother” was apparently based on a failed relationship he had with a woman named Sylvia, and calls he himself made to Sylvia’s mother. The singer is trying to get hold of his ex-girlfriend, but her mother is playing interference. Though Sylvia’s there in the background, it’s clear that her mother isn’t letting her know who’s on the phone.

Maybe I like this song so much because it tells a whole story in just a couple of stanzas and a chorus. I can hear the pain in Dr. Hook’s voice as he begs, “Please Mrs. Avery, I just want to talk to her. I’ll only keep her a while.” And then there’s the chorus, where “the operator says forty cents more, for the next three minutes,” which is a reference I doubt anyone born after the demise of pay phones will understand.

The song reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and charted in many other countries, including Australia, Ireland and South Africa. It spawned covers, including on by Jon Bon Jovi, translations and even a follow up song by British folk rockers. So maybe I’m not the only one still haunted by it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Manuscript Origins

Last year, I went to the Gay Rom Lit conference in Atlanta. I wasn't there as an author, because I didn't register in time. But I had an airplane ticket I had to use, and one of my publishers, MLR Press, needed some help with a big event they were sponsoring.

So I flew up to Atlanta for a couple of days. I hung out with fans and talked about books, I went to the parties at night and had fun, and I wrote.
The first night, I was standing in the buffet line behind this great-looking older guy who just oozed sexuality. I was stunned into near-silence, which is pretty unusual for me, and we talked for just a moment or two about the crowd.
Later I realized that he was an actual porn star who was there to promote a line of books he was editing. I admit, I got a little obsessed with him, and he started my imagination going.
There was a Starbucks about a ten-minute walk from the hotel, and the next morning I trekked over there with my trusty netbook. I opened a new document and started to write.
Usually the most I can get out of a writing session is about two hours, before my inspiration starts to flag and I begin to remember all the things I have to accomplish that day. But that morning in Atlanta, I had to reason to hurry back to the hotel, and I kept writing and writing.
I felt almost like Jack Kerouac with his endless roll of paper, typing away at On the Road. That’s what obsession feels like, when the words just pour out through your fingertips, with no idea where the story is going. It was a very different experience for me; while I often start hearing a character’s voice in my head, I also begin with an idea of what kind of book I’m writing, and where it’s going.
Will it be a romance? A mystery? A piece of erotica, or a non-fiction article?
With Freddie Venus and Newt Camilleri, I was just eavesdropping on their situation. But once they got together I had no idea what they were going to do or what kind of story they were in.
Between that day and the next, I ended up with about fifty pages. I had no idea where it was going, but it started with a retired porn star living in isolation in southern France, and the overweight, middle-aged fan-boy/writer who gets obsessed with him.

When I got home, I had to go back to manuscripts that had deadlines attached to them, and besides, I had no idea what to do with Freddie and Newt. It was only over the next few months that I realized I’d set these guys up in the territory where my bodyguard heroes, Aidan and Liam, live. So their story, which begins as a romance, was going to have to turn into a case for the Have Body, Will Guard team.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

New computer

So about a week ago, my faithful netbook died. It had given me a blue screen of death at least once before, but recovered, but when I sat down at Starbucks one morning to write, it just wouldn't load Windows. It had lived a long and productive life, though, being used almost every day of the year for writing.

I went looking for a replacement and settled on an 11" HP Pavilion laptop with Windows 8 and Office 2013. I figured that would be small enough to carry around easily, and since we're getting Office 2013 at school I could get a head start on learning to use it.

Big mistake. I'm not sure where my problems came from -- was it the hardware? The software? A combination of both? It was very difficult to right-click on a Word document, which was a big pain in the neck for me, as I right-click all the time, to add words to the dictionary, correct spelling, and update the table of contents, among other things.

I think that was a hardware issue. The touchpad just wasn't responsive.

Second problem was in saving files. I am in the habit of saving all the time -- I hit control-S every few paragraphs, or at least every page. The Pavilion was SO SLOW in saving that the screen would display Microsoft Word Not Responding, and I'd have to wait and wait in order to continue to type. Not good when you're relying on inspiration!

It also seemed like there were many more steps involved to the simplest actions. I couldn't just hit "Save as" and have the dialog box pop up. Had to jump through several hoops for that. Couldn't shut down very quickly, either, though I did figure out a work-around for that.

In the end, I just couldn't tolerate the computer, so I sent it back and got an Acer with Windows 7, and put the copy of Office 2010 I already own on it. It's like a miracle -- everything works again, just like I want it to! Let's hope this computer lasts for as long as the netbook.

Monday, June 23, 2014

New Adult M/M #MFRWauthor

I've been reading about the developing category of New Adult fiction for a while. Most recently, Stephan Lee, writing in the June 20 edition of Entertainment Weekly, defined the genre as “millennial tube-top rippers” and noted “Books in the genre – which thrives in the digital sphere – are also defined by their roller-coaster intensity.”

In the same article, St. Martin’s Griffin publisher Jennifer Enderlin is quoted as saying that New Adult is “young people dealing with more angsty issues than in YA. There’s much more emphasis on toxic relationships, sex and drugs, a lot of passion and emotion.”

When I read that article, I realized that my own work has been moving towards the New Adult category, and I started to wonder if there was already an M/M subdivision. One of the first mentions I found was a this mention of a book by E.K. Blair, Fading. “What’s interesting is that this New Adult book is about the gay best friend and his roommate. I've read all over the internet how this book is “popping the m/m cherry” for many readers.”

My protagonists seem to be getting younger and younger. Kimo Kanapa’aka, the hero of my Mahu Investigations, sprung into existence at thirty-two, when he was dragged out of the closet after a clandestine visit to a gay bar. Kimo had a long romantic history with women behind him, and though he’s a tough cop, he was scared of what being gay might mean for his job, his family, and his whole life.

Liam McCullough, one of the two protagonists in my HaveBody, Will Guard series, came to terms with being gay while a Navy SEAL, when he risked his life to save a teammate, and realized that he had to value his own life, and tell the truth about it. He was in his early thirties then, as well.

In my very first gay romance novel, GayLife.com, I made my hero in his late twenties. I figured he’d have gone through the angst of coming out by then, and be ready for a real relationship. The book was also a coming-of-age story for Brian, who had hopped around from job to job and one casual encounter to the next.

A couple of years ago, I noticed that a collection of college-boy erotica I self-published was doing very well in sales, so I came up with the idea of writing a series of erotic shorts about the members of an all-gay fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, at Florida University (FU) in Miami.

It was a lot of fun to write about these guys who were more open about their sexuality at a much younger age than my usual protagonists. I thought that it reflected the changing times as well. I couldn't imagine Kimo having sex when he was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, or Liam getting it on with a fellow SEAL in the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But these frat brothers came from a new generation.

The guys became more real to me the more I wrote about them, and in the back of my mind they began demanding their own stories. They wanted more than just some casual sex. They wanted their own HEA – happily ever after – or at least an HFN – happy for now.

So I sketched out a plan for a trilogy of M/M romance novels focused on three of the guys, in the summer after their college graduation. In Love on Site, armed with his construction management degree (and a thing for older guys) Manny Garcia goes to work for handsome, sexy real estate developer Walter Loredo, who’s going through a divorce. As Manny figures out how to navigate his way through the macho world of construction, he falls for Walter big-time.

This book felt very personal to me, because my first career out of business school was in real estate development, though I came at the field through my MBA and my degree in operations management. I still feel a pang of longing for those days whenever I pass a shopping center under construction, and it was great fun to relive those days of early morning meetings and sweaty shirtless workmen.

The next guy I tackled was Larry Leavis, a skinny beanpole whose first experience of sex comes as part of a threesome with new frat brothers. Larry’s a computer geek, a species I know well, because my next career move was to computer game development. My coworkers were young guys with awesome technical skills and a disregard for personal hygiene. I spent hours testing computer games from Fisher-Price Firehouse Rescue to Wheel of Fortune to space invaders and simulated golf.

Larry’s story was tough, because halfway through a minor character took over, and wanted to take the book into a much darker direction. So I shelved it and moved on to the guy whose story I knew least about, Gavin Kaczmarek. I’ve been intrigued for a long time by people with a tangential connection to fame – children and grandchildren of actors, musicians and athletes. What’s it like for those kids?

In Three Lambs, Gavin is introduced as a very handsome guy who begins to explore modeling, and his story, “Head Shots,” ended up in an erotic anthology I edited for Cleis, Model Men. I started to wonder what the guy behind that beautiful façade was like, and made him the grandson of one of the members of a trio of singing sisters from the 1940s who had achieved minor success.

Though I studied piano for three years, I can’t sing a note and don’t know very much about music. I was able to learn what I needed as I shepherded Gavin on the same journey, as he learns to manage the gift of voice he inherited from his Grandma Frances, falling in love along the way.

After I finished that book, I was able to go back to Larry’s book and realize that the guy he was in love with was nothing more than a crush, and that his real love was someone who’d been hanging around on the periphery of the book, patiently waiting his turn.

Now that I have thought my way through all these stories (Gavin’s book, Love on Stage, should come out from Loose Id in late summer or early fall, and Larry’s book, Love on the Web, will follow early in 2015) I realized that I've been writing New Adult romances, though in the M/M genre. I've been describing the books as “recent college grads looking for love and success on South Beach,” and that seems to fit the NA genre.

The books are angsty, as Enderlin says – Manny’s family are conservative Catholic Cuban-Americans; Larry’s folks are lower-middle-class people from a rural area, and South Beach is like another world to them. There are toxic relationships and kinky sex—one of my editor’s comments for Love on Stage was a request to amp up the tension in a kinky scene. And of course, passion and emotion are essential to any romance. I've taken a quote from my favorite Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, as the epigraph for the series. Beatrice says, “Benedick, love on. I will requite thee!” The giddy exuberance of that declaration reflects the way my new adult heroes face love head-on.

What New Adult M/M romance have you been reading – or writing? Please add your titles in the comments, and let’s get a whole list going.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Lilacs of Bucks County

I have lived in Florida nearly thirty years, more than half my life, but there are still a few things I miss from my life up north, in Pennsylvania. And in spring, the one that I think of most is the lilac.
When I was growing up, we had a lilac bush along the back side of the house, and each spring it would blossom with armloads of light purple blossoms just about this time, the last two weeks of May. They wouldn’t just appear in our back yard; they’d show up in bunches at the grocery and the florist. I loved to see them and smell them, and I enjoyed the heart-shaped green leaves as much as the fragrant flowers.

I’m not the only writer to find them appealing. Here are some great lilac quotes:
“Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” ― T.S. Eliot
 “Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room” – Rupert Brooke

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed
And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night” – Walt Whitman

“Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn't far from London!) “ – Alfred Noyes

A black cat among roses,
phlox, lilac-misted under a quarter moon,
the sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock. The garden is very still.
It is dazed with moonlight,
contented with perfume...”
― Amy Lowell
“The lilac branches are bowed under the weight of the flowers: blooming is hard, and the most important thing is - to bloom”   Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Sadly, unlike me, lilacs like the cold weather, so they won’t grow in Florida’s subtropical climate. So I will have to be content with memories and pictures.  But I do think the next Golden Retriever mystery that takes place in springtime will have to have lilacs!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chocolate Bars Studded with Walnuts

Readers of my golden retriever mysteries may recall the cafe in the center of Stewart's Crossing, The Chocolate Ear, where Steve often visits. The proprietor, Gail Dukowski is like Steve a returnee to Bucks County after a career as a pastry chef in New York. She prepares delicious sandwiches and desserts for her human customers, and always has some fresh-baked biscuits for Rochester, too.

In the first chapter of Whom Dog Hath Joined, Steve and his girlfriend Lili take Rochester with them to the Harvest Fair at the Friends' Meeting in Stewart's Crossing. Gail is there, selling her walnut-studded chocolate bars as an introduction to new customers.

One of the great things about belonging to the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America has been meeting and becoming friends with lots of other terrific authors. One of those is yacht chef Victoria Allmann, who has already published two volumes of her foodie adventures on the high seas. She was kind enough to develop this recipe for me, for chocolate bars very much like those Gail sells. With only two ingredients, they're easy enough for any home chef to prepare.

Chocolate Bars Studded with Walnuts
I don’t have plastic chocolate molds so I use square tart pans (sold as individual brownie pans) lined with parchment paper as molds but you can use mini muffin tins or any metal mold as well. The chocolate shrinks slightly when setting so they will slip out of the molds easily.
* 8 ounces semi-sweet good-quality dark chocolate, chopped finely
* 3/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Place the walnuts on a cookie sheet in a flat layer and bake for 5-7 minutes to toast them.

3. Remove from oven and cool completely.

4. Melt 6 ounces chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water.

5. Once the chocolate is melted, remove the bowl from the pan and add 2 ounces of finely chopped chocolate, stirring constantly to melt it.

Victoria's note: This two-step process of melting chocolate in stages is called tempering the chocolate. For reasons that I don't understand, chocolate gets a white chalky bloom if you melt it straight. Tempering chocolate is what gives it that shiny look of finished chocolates instead of the dull chalky look of raw chocolate out of a package. Like a lot of cooking/baking, there is a science behind it that has to do with molecular structure but I can not fathom it or explain it, I just know you have to do it ;-) 

6. Pour a layer of chocolate the molds, then, working quickly, top with 

7. Shake the pan slightly to level chocolate.

8. Put the bars in the refrigerator until firm, five minutes.

9. Remove from molds and store at room temperature for up to one month…or eat instantly.

Learn more about Victoria's career at her website, where you can see her awesome photographs and read about her two books, Sea Fare: A Chef's Journey Across the Ocean and SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with her Captain.

Thank you very much, Victoria!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Special Memorial Day Feature

From time to time, I'll be posting features from the Stewart's Crossing Boat-Gazette, the weekly paper from the fictional Bucks County, PA town that is the setting for my golden retriever mysteries.

This Memorial Day, the Boat-Gazette memorializes a veteran who, while not a son of Stewart's Crossing, had a strong connection to
our town.

Spec. Eric Morgan, a native of Cheltenham, PA was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), based in Fort Bragg, N.C. He died after his transport convoy encountered a roadside bomb outside the Iraqi city of Fallujah. He is survived by his widow, Stewarts Crossing native Tamsen Morgan, and his son, Justin, eight.

Eric and Tamsen met in college and became sweethearts there, despite her Quaker upbringing and his activites in ROTC. "We just clicked," Tamsen said. "My family wasn't happy about me marrying a soldier, but Eric had such a great personality that they loved him as much as I did."

Today, the Boat-Gazette salutes all veterans, as well as their families and friends. Thank you for your service.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Map of Steve and Rochester's World

I commissioned this map to show the various locations around Stewart's Crossing. I'm hoping to commission another one just of the town and River Bend.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Whom Dog Hath Joined

Here's an excerpt from my newest Golden Retriever Mystery, Whom Dog Hath Joined:

“There’s Gail,” Lili said, pointing at a table where our friend Gail Dukowski, who ran The Chocolate Ear café in downtown, was selling her cookies and pastries from a pair of flimsy card tables covered with green and white striped cloths that matched her store’s awnings.

Gail looked frazzled. We got in line behind a sixty-something woman holding a small girl by the hand, a pair of teenagers, and a cluster of other eager customers. Gail’s blonde hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat, her face was smudged with chocolate, and her eyes looked tired. She wore a big chef’s apron over her T-shirt and slacks.

Rochester was excited to see Gail, tugging at his leash and nodding his shaggy head. When we went to The Chocolate Ear, she always had a special dog biscuit for him. A platter of them, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with a dog-paw patterned ribbon, sat at one end of the table.

“You’re on your own here?” I asked as we reached her.

She nodded. “Ginny ate something funny from the kitchen and had to go home.”

“Can we help you?” Lili asked.

The line behind us had continued to grow. “That would be such a blessing,” Gail said. “My mother’s coming at noon but I could sure use some help now.”

“I’ll man the cash box,” I said.

“You take the orders and I’ll box them up,” Lili said to Gail.

“Thank you so much!” Gail stepped aside to let Lili and me scoot behind the table.

I dropped a dollar in the cash box and unwrapped one of the big biscuits. Rochester settled on the ground underneath, chewing noisily. “Stay there and keep out of trouble,” I said, scratching him behind the ears.

I sat in one of the café’s big wicker chairs with green and white striped cushions and began to accept people’s dimes and quarters and wrinkled dollar bills. I made change and told them about all the treats Gail hadn’t been able to bring to the fair, like her lemon bars, her flaky croissants and her special dark chocolate hazelnut tarts.

Gail cut the walnut-studded chocolate bars and Lil boxed them up. I snacked on the crumbs and Lili slapped my hand. Every now and then I reached down to scratch behind Rochester’s ears as he rested his big square head on his front paws and stared out at the passing crowd.

“These are delicious!” a heavy-set woman said, as brownie crumbs dribbled out of her mouth.

“Fantastic,” a big man in a tank top agreed. His shirt read “If assholes could fly this place would be an airport,” which made me suspicious of his taste. Although his sheer size indicated he had a lot of experience with high-calorie foods.

We handled the backlog of customers quickly and Gail slumped into the chair next to me. “I’ve been up since five this morning, baking chocolate bars, cutting them and stacking them on trays,” she said. “At seven, I met Ginny here and we set up the booth. She went home about an hour ago and it’s been a zoo ever since.”

I leaned forward and discovered that if I pressed too hard on the table the chocolate bars went slip-sliding toward Mrs. Holt’s adjoining table of crocheted pink and lavender toilet paper covers topped by Barbie knock-offs. They were a shocking example of what happened when people with too much time on their hands possessed the deluded notion that they had some artistic talent, but she had bought two chocolate bars so I was willing to cut her a little slack.

“We sure need some good food in Stewart’s Crossing,” said a young mom with twins in a double stroller.

I took her money and told her the café sold terrific take-out sandwiches in kid-friendly flavors like meatballs and grilled cheese as well as desserts.

Then I heard a scream.

I reached down below the table to grab Rochester’s leash and keep him from tearing off toward the sound. But he was already gone.

“Oh, crap,” I said, jumping up.

“You both go,” Gail said. “I can handle things until my mother gets here.”

“Where do you think he is?” Lili asked, taking off the apron she’d been wearing. The silver bangle bracelets on her arm jingled.

“Wherever that scream came from,” I said.

I darted around slow-moving elderly people, parents grabbing dilly-dallying little kids, and curious folks headed toward the Meeting House. The scatter of gold and orange leaves crunched beneath my feet, mixing with distant car horns and the sound of someone sobbing.

The big white double doors at the center of the building stood open, and a walkway along the front of the building was lined with piles of osage oranges and green and white gourds. The three-part slate roof—peaked in the center, flat on the sides—was dusted with a covering of red and gold leaves.

A crowd had already gathered outside the right side of the building, the part with no windows. A teenaged girl huddled against her mother, crying. “She was just trying to pet the dog,” the woman was saying to others in the crowd. “And then she saw what he was digging, and she screamed.”

Others were watching my determined golden, who tugged at the something near the foundation. An elderly man was trying, without result, to talk Rochester away, but he looked too timid to touch the dog himself.

Up close I could see the wood of the exterior wall was disintegrating, with long vertical cracks through the planks. I pushed forward, excusing myself and calling Rochester’s name. When I reached him, I grabbed his collar and lifted his head away from where he had been digging, and saw that he’d dragged a disintegrating tennis shoe through the gap.

A single bone, like the one I filled with peanut butter for him, remained, sticking out of the shoe. Only this bone wasn’t the kind sold at pet stores.

“Rochester, this has to stop!” I scolded. “No more digging up dead bodies.”

Friday, May 02, 2014

Lei Day

Yesterday was May 1, Lei Day in Hawaii. I love the way that different states have their own holidays – Flag Day in Pennsylvania, Casimir Pulaski Day in Illinois and San Jacinto Day in Texas. Though Lei Day isn’t an official holiday, it’s celebrated with lei-making demonstrations and information about the history of this uniquely Hawaiian artifact. They crop up all over the islands, and throughout my books, starting with “the cheap shell leis they give you when you tour the aloha shirt factory” (Mahu). Here are two descriptions of the lei shops in Honolulu’s Chinatown:

“There were still a bunch of lei stores on South Beretania & Maunakea Streets, but they were tiny rooms with folding shutters or rolling grills, and the leis were all behind glass refrigerator cases. You could walk past and only smell car exhaust and fried oil, not a single flower” (Mahu).

inventory at a lei store

“Tinny Chinese music played somewhere as we walked over to Hotel Street, past a stand with row upon row of leis made of orchids, velvety orange ‘ilima flowers, and fragrant maile leaves intertwined with tiny white pikake blossoms. Behind the counter, an elderly grandmother sat stringing even more. Chattering teenagers and haole tourists crowded around the booth, debating the merits of different leis and bargaining for better prices” (Mahu Vice)

People often wear leis in everyday situations:

“[Melody] was dressed for work by then, a light yellow linen dress and sandals, a lei of shiny brown kukui nuts and a sports watch her only jewelry” (Mahu Surfer).

Schoolgirls wearing kukui nut leis

“I spotted my mother, wearing a bright red holoku, a sort of formal mu’umu’u, walking with my two of my nephews, both wearing aloha shirts and shorts, with kukui nut leis. We waved at each other” (Mahu Blood).

Plumeria and moss lei
At a fancy party in Mahu Fire, Kimo mentions the way that many service people in the islands wear leis as part of their uniforms. “The waiters and waitresses all wore plumeria leis and aloha shirts, and they were offering a choice of mai tais or champagne cocktails.” When Kimo goes car shopping in Mahu Vice, he notes, “The dealership was playing KINE, Hawaiian 105, in the background, and the two receptionists at the front desk wore fragrant leis of red carnations.”

Living people aren’t the only ones wearing leis. In Mahu Surfer, Kimo visits a surf shop on the North Shore, noticing:

“Mana’o Company was playing low in the background, encouraging us to ‘Spread a Little Aloha’ around the world, and in one corner of the room a bust of King Kamehameha surveyed us, an electric blue plastic lei around his neck.”

 Leis are part of celebrations as well:

“The downtown streets were crowded with tourists in convertibles, delivery trucks, and a wedding couple in a white horse-drawn carriage. Both bride and groom were decked out in colorful leis and plumeria headbands” (Mahu Vice).

Leis are also worn at graduations, and in Mahu Blood Kimo sees a photo of someone he’s investigating. “The walls were hung with photos of him at his graduation, draped in leis, and of him as a soldier, his rifle casually slung over his shoulder.” And “Behind [Lieutenant Sampson], I saw a photo of his stepdaughter Kitty, in her dark green UH cap and gown, holding her diploma case against her side, with a collection of leis around her neck.”

Leis are a powerful symbol of Hawaiian heritage, and after a protest rally in Honolulu, Kimo says, “Walking back into the federal building, Ray and I saw the debris from the demonstration everywhere—crumpled flyers, crushed leis, and a lot of empty plastic water bottles” (Mahu Vice). And “We passed a pickup truck festooned with plastic leis in every color, so many that you couldn’t see the rails, with a battered statue of King Kamehameha propped up in the back” (Mahu Blood).

A domestic scene later in Mahu Blood shows the ubiquity of leis. “Edith’s mattress had been taken off the bed and sliced open; the same for her pillows. Her clothes were strewn on the floor, along with cheap paper fans, plastic leis and stuffed animals she must have used to amuse the baby.” And another, prettier one, from Zero Break: “Fake flower leis hung from the ceilings, and the walls were hung with reproductions of hapa-haole music covers, the ones from the twenties and thirties with a beautiful island girl strumming a ukulele.”

Leis are also a frequent pattern on aloha shirts. “One of the guys, Japanese by the looks of him, was wearing a bright aloha shirt with a pattern of ilima flowers, the kind used in fragrant leis, and carrying a white canvas bag with a wooden handle” (Mahu Blood).

The cover of Mahu Blood includes an image of a statue of Queen Liliu'okalani holding leis in her outstretched arm.
Finally, here’s a bit from a short story called “Refuge,” about a camping trip that Kimo and his friend Gunter make to Ho’okena Beach on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

There were two plumeria leis on our open sleeping bags. I didn’t even wonder where they’d come from. I knew.

“Do you think...” Gunter asked.

“You know what they call the plumeria, don’t you?” Gunter didn’t know. “The dead man flower, because you see so many of them in cemeteries. Some of the hula halaus, when they need to make leis for a performance, they go to the cemetery and take the plumerias.” Gunter looked at me. “Well, it’s cheaper than buying them.”

“This is creepy.”

I picked up one lei and put it over Gunter’s head, draping it around his neck. Then I kissed him once on each cheek. “Go on,” I said. “Your turn.”

He picked up the remaining lei, put it around my neck, and kissed me. We both wore the leis all the way back to Honolulu.

So even though Lei Day has passed, I hope these excerpts give you a sense of how important these floral necklaces are to Hawaiian culture. For more about my Mahu Investigations, click here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cover Reveal: The Noblest Vengeance

Here it is...

Bodyguard partners Aidan and Liam are deeply in love, living as expatriates in Nice, France. When Aidan’s distant cousins in Istanbul need protection from dangerous adversaries he and Liam are on the the next plane to Turkey – but the real danger to their relationship may come from their very different ideas about family connections. Can their love withstand assassins with a deadly secret to keep hidden – and Liam’s foul-mouthed mother?

I love this cover -- and the book behind it, of course! Can't wait to see it released on May 6.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Moscow on the Intracoastal

“Florida is a giant bug light for crazy people.” ~Phyllis Smallman, Sleuthfest 2014

It’s no surprise to any author living in Florida that some of the craziest stories we can write are actually inspired by true events in our sunshine state. Join us in exploring a different side of Florida than the travel bureau promotes with our first Blog Hop sponsored by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Read on, click the links below to read another member’s view of crazy Florida, comment, share your favorite stories, and enter the contest to win a Kindle Paperwhite.

A1A in Sunny Isles Beach
The first time I saw Cyrillic writing on a storefront in South Florida I was baffled. москва видео: Moscow Video?
The tiny video rental store was in a run-down group of shops at the eastern end of the 163rd Street causeway, which links the mainland to the barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Sandwiched between the tattered blue awnings of Bikini City and a run down Miami Subs, Moscow Video didn’t last long. The entire block of shops was knocked down for a huge high-rise complex with ocean views. The neighborhood was incorporated as the city of Sunny Isles Beach, and as I traveled through it, I began to see more and more businesses that catered to a Russian clientele.

Russian Sodas
Here’s what Biff Andromeda, the hero of GENIE FOR HIRE, knows about the area: “There was a sizable Russian community in Sunny Isles Beach, just over the causeway from his office, a Little Moscow without the snow, the art-filled subway system or the communist legacy. You could buy Russian-language DVDs, read the news in a newspaper printed in Cyrillic characters, eat borscht and pelmeni, or hire a Russian-speaking escort from a selection on Craig’s List.”

In my teaching job, at Broward College, I began to see more Eastern European students, often with names like Boris and Natasha. Maybe those names will be familiar to you – if, like me, you grew up on Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. Boris and Natasha Badenov were the villains, always trying to “make beeg trouble for moose and squirrel.” I also had those Eastern European accents in my head, courtesy of my great-aunts, great-uncles and grandparents, born in Lithuania, Russia and Poland.

A Russian Deli
So it was easy for me to slide into this world, even creating a squirrel sidekick for Biff named Raki. Biff’s case begins when a Russian-born photographer employs him to retrieve some stolen digital files – boudoir shots of the wife of a Russian mobster. I loved the research, including this: “Because he couldn’t resist, Biff stopped at the Crimean Sea bakery on Collins Avenue and treated himself to a kartoshka, a chocolate-covered pastry that looked like a potato.”

Biff discovers a sunny society that’s built on dark crime – my favorite kind of contrast. I hope readers will enjoy the trip.

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 Victoria Allman, Gator Bites, http://www.victoriaallman.com/blog

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Gregg E. Brickman, Crazy South Florida—How it got to be home, http://www.GreggEBrickman.com/blog.html

Diane Capri, Fishnado!, http://www.dianecapri.com/blog

Nancy J. Cohen, Characters Too Weird to Be True, http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

Joan Lipinsky Cochran, The Million Dollar Squatter: Crazy in the Land of Coconuts and Bagels, http://www.joanlipinskycochran.com/blog.htm?post=952677

jd daniels He Did What? http://www.live-from-jd.com

Joy Wallace Dickinson, “In Florida, It's Great to Be a Cracker”, http://www.FindingJoyinFlorida.com

Linda Gordon Hengerer Crazy Treasure on the Treasure Coast, http://footballfoodandfiction.blogspot.com/

Vicki Landis, Eavesdropping 101, http://www.victorialandis.com

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Johnny Ray Utilizing Google Plus Air to Facilitate Author Interviews, http://www.sirjohn.us

Joanna Campbell Slan, Honey, You'll Never Guess What Rolled Up in the Surf http://www.joannaslan.blogspot.com