Monday, April 14, 2014

The People Who Understand You

Yesterday was Salon Day--not the kind where I go for a mani/pedi/facial/whatever. (That's far from my idea of fun.) Our salon is based on the old European idea of a group of people who meet to discuss things they're interested in, learn from each other, and compare ideas. Mine is made up of mystery writers.
We discuss really deep topics--okay, maybe not. We gripe about the publishing industry. We talk about what we've been doing lately, everything from tapping maple trees to knitting hats. And we talk about what we read and what we write, what we like about it and what drives us crazy. There are two rules: We don't plan anything for the group to do: None of us needs more work. And we don't relay specifics of what we talk about to others: Everyone is safe to say what she thinks without worrying someone will hear about it later.
The Salon is like any other group of like-minded people, and if you have such a group, you know how wonderful it is to talk with others who get it, whether its horses or guns or cooking or raising children. There's no need for long explanations, and often just mentioning a topic is enough to get everyone else nodding in sympathy.
If you don't have a group you get together with periodically, a group that understands your situation with all its good and bad aspects, you need to find one.
Or start one. That's what I did!

Monday, April 7, 2014

"I Don't Read Fiction" Lah Di Dah!

I'm sitting in a bookstore or a library or a conference, surrounded by my books, which are all novels. Inevitably, someone looks them over and pronounces those four words: "I don't read fiction." Though some say it without malice, merely as a way of saying they won't be buying one. Okay, that's fine with me.
Others, however, raise their noses and say it with an air of disdain. They're putting me in my place, which is waaaay at the back of "real" books. It's funny sometimes, irritating others.

I like fiction. I read fiction, not exclusively, but mostly. Nonfiction is great for keeping up on things, for learning things, for studying things. Fiction has a completely different purpose, so why does there have to be that sniping tone when some people mention it?

For lovers of fiction, reading is often an escape. Only this morning I read on another author's blog that she was thinking of killing off one of the characters in her series. Readers replied in various forms, "Don't do it! Reality is sad enough--your books contain people we like, and we don't want them to die."

Last night a reader called me to talk about the Loser books, asking if there might be more than three. She also mentioned she'd like a sequel to Go Home and Die because the main characters were so interesting to her. These characters don't exist and never did, but readers become attached to them. My daughter used to cry every single time Dorothy had to leave Oz and her friends behind. I still get angry every time Scarlett and Rhett don't work out their differences and admit they love each other. Millions of people identify with fictional characters like Harry Potter, Mr. Spock, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Mary Poppins, even arguing about how they'd react in certain situations or what they'd eat for breakfast (a la Big Bang Theory).

We "own" fictional characters, making them look as we imagine them in our minds. We know them better than we know our own friends and family, because we've seen them in situations no real person has encountered. I  mean, how would your Aunt Mildred react to being chosen for the Hunger Games?

Some people are busy, and fiction doesn't fit into their lives. I get that. Others decide it's somehow below them, as if intelligent people should only deal with facts. You can learn as much from Barbara Kingsolver as you can from Malcolm Gladwell (though I love MG's work). It's just learning in a different way.

You don't read fiction? That makes me a little sad for you, because you're missing out on lots of imaginary friends.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Paid to Be Wrong?

All the coverage of the missing airliner and March Madness and springtime weather brought a question to my mind: How many people on TV are paid to be wrong?
Many experts who predict things with serious faces and impressive-sounding logic are wrong so often that it makes me wonder how they can stand up there a second or eighth or hundredth time and make more predictions.
One of the funniest to me happened last week when a popular thriller writer was asked what he thought might have happened to Flight 370. That's a little like asking Rick Castle to help the police solve a murder: fun to watch but...Come on, Man!
Recently, some expert somewhere screamed that the Democrats have no hope of controlling the Senate after the next election. Only a day later, a different article said the Republican party cannot possibly prevail. (Gee, if nobody wins control, maybe they'd have to work together-gasp)
It isn't just politics. Stock market trends. The path of the next typhoon. Medical miracles. Who'll win the pennant this year. What women will be wearing. Whether some celebrity I've never heard of will exit rehab with a new attitude. Someone in a suit gets paid a lot of money to look into the camera with a serious face and say, "Here's how it's going to go, Bob." And Bob (or Barbara) listens with apparent concern, thanks him/her for the "expert" reporting, and goes to commercial.
And as often as not, the experts are wrong, wrong, wrong.
Still, they keep predicting, and sadly enough, we keep listening.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Read to Your Childen--Hey, Read to Anybody's Children!

I was at a Flea Market in Indianapolis last week, and I picked up a Little Golden Book of children's poetry. The cover didn't seem familiar, but when I opened the book, I heard, almost as if she were standing next to me, my mother's voice reading the poems aloud. I heard her inflections, heard the enjoyment in her voice at a particular one that was a favorite.

Both our parents read to us. Mom was the better reader, but Dad made books funny by changing certain lines and using different voices. (He always ended "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with the line, "And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,/Touch him, lady, he won't bite!")

We were fortunate, too, in having teachers who read to us. Our school librarian had a voice perfect for reading and a knack for choosing stories we loved, like Paddle-to-the-Sea and Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.  Many of my elementary teachers read to us after lunch recess, which I now figure was a way to calm us down after rowdy games of Red Rover and King of the Hill. In addition, though, it interested me in many subjects and led me to seek out more books, particularly on history.

And poetry! Any teacher who doesn't know that poetry must be shared aloud (including everything by Shakespeare) is doomed to failure.

Here are some reasons to read to any small child who will allow you to do it:
*Studies show that children understand at a much higher level than they can read, so reading to
them can increase their intelligence.
*Bonding occurs between readers and listeners. As ability permits, listeners can take turns reading, building their skills. Short turns encourage them to decode words while adults' longer turns keep the story moving.
*Variety can be encouraged; children will listen to a book they wouldn't necessarily choose for themselves.
*It encourages love of books and reading (Duh!)
*It builds community. We feel united when we share stories and can talk about them.
*Someday, when some adult picks up an old book at a flea market, she might hear your voice reading to her, which is the greatest legacy you can leave behind when you're gone from this earth.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Connecting with Customers--It's an Art

I went to Indianapolis last week to attend the Public Librarians' Conference. It was huge, 9000 librarians in attendance, and booths offered every possible idea, item, or product a librarian might take interest in.
Since I was there to sign books and had lots of free time, I was a casual observer of how products are presented to customers. I noticed some interesting things.
The first booth I came to when I walked in the door had lots of high-tech stuff sitting on pedestals, and it was roped off so people had to "enter" the space in order to get a closer look. The message was "this stuff is special" and the result was the presenters had customers boxed in so they could zero in on them. Pretty good idea, since those who walk on by probably aren't possible sales anyway.
As I walked along the front of the exhibit hall, I came to people playing a game. A microphoned emcee made it sound like everyone was having fun (which they were, because they were winning books), and it was hard not to stop and watch for a while. (The booth turned out to be representing one of my publishers, so I got to meet some people who have only been names on the computer screen for years.)
The side aisle displayers had to work a little harder to get attention, since there were so many lanes to choose from. At one booth, two guys were selling shoe inserts to ease foot pain--not a bad idea at a librarians' con. They were very aggressive, though. One of them shouted at me, "What size shoe do you wear?" At the same time he was guiding a woman to a chair, where he sat her down and pulled off her shoe. She didn't look pleased. When I didn't answer, he repeated, "What size shoe do you wear? We have an insole that will change your life!" I said, "Thanks, I already have prescription orthotics," and he shouted (still working on the other woman's foot) "Come over here and sit down! Our product will amaze you!" The woman caught my eye and mouthed the word "Run!" I didn't run, but I walked away very quickly and avoided that aisle for the rest of the day.
At other booths, there were well-dressed, good-looking reps who frowned over their smart phones and never looked up as I passed. Others stood or (even worse) sat chatting with each other, and I might have been a bug crawling by for all they noticed.
So who impressed me? Reps who met my eye, smiled, and said something. Sometimes it was just hello, sometimes "If I can help with anything let me know." They acknowledged my presence and managed to appear pleased about it, even if they were wishing for a pair of those amazing shoe inserts. They were willing to talk, even after I confessed I wasn't a librarian. They made the best of the fact that they were there and I was there. I learned something from each of them, which I might pass on to others. One never knows.
Some people are born knowing how to meet and greet customers with neither a too aggressive tone nor a too disinterested one. Others need to be taught, and companies who do that are to be commended. Restaurants who actually train their wait staff. Sales companies who focus on customer appreciation, not customer manipulation. Public organizations that teach their staff the customer is a human being, no matter how he's dressed or what she's done.
There's a lot to be said for a friendly approach, a sincere offer of help--and maybe a game with some prizes.

NOTE: I didn't say what I did there. I signed and gave away books for Sisters in Crime, an organization of (mainly) female crime writers that promotes fairness in the publishing industry. And as usual, I forgot to take pictures, but so did everyone else. I served with Catriona McPherson, Laura Benedict, Lori Rader-Day, Susan Furlong-Bolliger, Laura deSilverio, Kate George, Cari Dubiel (the good boss), Doris Ann (the world's oldest librarian, she claims) and my buddy Susan Froetchel. My books were gone long before my shift was up, but I didn't have the heart to make John drive back to downtown Indy (with basketball play-offs happening everywhere) to bring me more, so I gave away other authors' books. For the record, everyone I worked with was professional, greeting people who stopped or walked by and making them feel welcome at our booth. And of course, we gave away books. What more could a librarian ask?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Is There a Killer in Your Kitchen?

It came to my attention recently that there has been little study into the safety of waxed paper, and I'm shocked--SHOCKED--I tell you, that we've let this potential killer slip by the thousands of watchdogs in our nation informing the public about what might kill us.
I mean, come on! We wrap our kids' sandwiches in it. We put it over combs and show them how to hum crazy tunes. In the fall we iron beautiful red and gold leaves between layers of it and store them for long periods. Shouldn't someone find out for us how unhealthy all that might be? Isn't there someone just dying to find new warnings to shriek at us in order to make themselves feel smarter than everybody else?
First, the government should allocate billions of dollars for universities and laboratories to study waxed paper. What is it really? Is it just wax and paper, and if it is, what happens when wax and paper combine? Cancer? Alzheimer's? Autism? Something worse than all those?
Once we've studied the potential problem and arrived at potential dangers, we can spread the word. There will, of course, be PSAs from the government warning us to use waxed paper wisely if we must use it at all. Those fresh-faced young people on the local news can sign off each night with advice about being "careful with waxed paper out there."
Children too young to understand the hazards can still be taught to be afraid of waxed paper and to run to a trusted adult if they come across it. Teachers can design lesson plans around the Safe Steps for Using Waxed Paper. Facebook will no doubt be the main vehicle for getting the word out, because once something has been shared on Facebook at least twice, everyone understands that it must be true.
So call or email your Congressman today. Demand that waxed paper is studied, analyzed, and exposed for the silent killer it well might be. He or she will be only too glad to get behind your idea, because it will make him look like he's doing something. Within two years it will be unheard of, unthinkable--downright unAmerican to casually tear off a sheet of waxed paper and lay it on the counter for your just-out-of-the-oven cookies.
Really! What were you thinking?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Five Ways to Survive March

There's an old riddle: Why is everyone so tired on April first?
Because we've just had a March of 31 days.
Ba dum bump!

In the northern climes, March is a bad thing and a good thing. We've made it through December, January, and February (paradoxically the shortest yet the longest month). Spring must come, and March will contain days that show us glimpses (though this year maybe not until later).
So what to do while we wait for that first crocus or the first day we can leave the house without bundling up like Yuri Zhivago?
1. Plan your garden. Whether it's flowers, vegetables, or both, you can dream about warm soil, green plants, and an aching back (it doesn't hurt as badly when you're just dreaming).
2. Take a mini-break. I'm going to a librarian's conference in Indianapolis this month. No, it isn't the height of excitement, but it'll be different from what I've been doing since November: writing, dusting, napping.
3. Get into shape. Winter is a natural down time for most of us. I for one end up counting pulling on my boots as my daily workout. It's time to start a real one, or those summer clothes aren't going to fit.
4. Write something. If you're always saying you're going to start a novel, a memoir, a letter, or a list, March is a great time to do it. For me March is a time for gearing up for my busy season: signings, talks, conferences, etc., so while I'm ALWAYS writing a book, now I have lots of lists to make.
5. Celebrate something. (Okay, we've missed Oscar night, but there are lots of things to celebrate!)

  • 2 Oscar Night 2014
  • 4 Mardi Gras(Fat Tuesday)
  • 5 Ash Wednesday
  • 8 International Women's Day
  • 9 Daylight Savings Begins at 2:00 a.m.
  • 15 Ides of March
  • 15 Purim begins at sundown
  • 17 St. Patrick's Day
  • 20 Spring (Vernal) Equinox
  • 20 International Earth Day - also called Sun-Earth Day
  • 25 Feast of the Annunciation
  •  Irish American Month
  • Music in Our Schools Month
  • National Craft Month
  • National Frozen Food Month
  • National Irish American Heritage Month- designated by Congress in 1995.
  • National Nutrition Month
  • National Peanut Month
  • National Women's History Month
  • Red Cross Month
  • Social Workers Month 
  • So there it is: a list of things to do so the next time you look at the calendar, March will be almost gone. As Paul Simon says, "April, Come She Will" and I for one will be glad, even if she only brings mud!