Monday, April 30, 2012

A day in the life of Dulcie Schwartz, grad student

Good morning. Thank you for meeting me here, in the library. I know it sounds funny to say, after five years of research, that I am under the gun. But the truth is, I am. You see, I’m working on my doctoral thesis and every day counts. I don’t want to be Dulcie Schwartz “ABD” – all but dissertation – and so I really have to get to work.

That said, I’m happy to talk with you. Sometimes, I know, I can get a little caught up in my own head. Even though my boyfriend, Chris, is an applied science student, a computer geek, I know I tend to stick with the bookish types in the English and American Literature and Languages department, my friend Trista, especially. And we do tend to keep to ourselves. Which, come to think of it, may be why none of them have stumbled across a dead body in a while.

Ghosts? Do I believe in ghosts? Of course not! Yes, you’ve probably heard that Lucy, my mother, is a former hippie and that I was raised on a commune. And, yes, she’s always calling me to tell me that Jupiter is aligned with Venus or that she’s had some dream or other. But that’s part of the reason I’m a graduate student. I believe in the life of the mind. In rational thought. In reason – and in books. Well, yes, I am visited on occasion by the shade of Mr. Grey. But Mr. Grey was a special cat, a very special pet, and he only comes by to keep me company sometimes, when I get down. Well, yes, sometimes he has helped me out, but not too much. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a cat to tell you what to do – or who to suspect, would you? Why should a ghost cat be any different?

Right now, though, I could use some help. You see, the acting head of my department has been looking at me funny. He seems to think I’m involved in the theft of a real treasure, the Dunster Codex. Yes, I know it’s only a book – but a very ancient and rare one. But I swear I’ve only seen it once or twice, and I know Trista isn’t involved, whatever the cops are saying. Though, no, come to think of it, I don’t have any idea where she has disappeared to, either. Mr. Grey, could you help?

This blog originally ran in Dru's Book Musings:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A day in the life of Wallis the tabby

What, you were expecting a person?

Yes, I supposed I should cede this space to Pru. My roommate – the one who opens the cans – is Pru Marlowe. She’s also the one who dragged us both out of the city and to this godforsaken town a little over a year ago, as you people reckon it. Couldn’t handle the pressures of city life. The men, the fun. Couldn’t handle that suddenly, after a bad bout of flu, she could hear me, Wallis, the cat. Not her cat, please. May as well call Pru my human. Considering who does most of the thinking around here, it really would be more accurate.

Not that I get out much anymore. At 12, I’m a mature tabby, and really, keeping up this fine tiger-striped coat takes a good deal of time. No, I leave the adventures, such as they are, to Pru. She’s half in love with that old muscle car of hers, anyway, driving around this little podunk – excuse me, scenic – Berkshires town. And now that she can hear us, she’s always getting in trouble. Saving the animals, she calls it. Saving humans from themselves is more like it, though, yes, I’ll admit it. Sometimes my fellow quadrupeds do need a human hand to help them out.

Take this Persian, for example. Now, as a proper cat, I have little use for those flat faces. But this girl? I don’t care about the gun powder in her white fur – she could bathe, you know. I don’t believe she shot her person. From what I hear about the other humans in that household – that scolding wife, the pretty but vapid “aide” – I think old Donal was the best of the bunch. At any rate, a gun – even a rare antique dueling pistol – is not a weapon for a cat. No, I think Pru may be right on this one. I think someone has framed that cat. You humans have an expression, something about a “cat’s paw,” don’t you?

Still, couldn’t Pru leave it to Jim Creighton, that handsome young cop? I like the way he pets me, smoothing my thick fur down right. He likes her, too, though she can be a bit odd around lawmen. Maybe it’s because of her history. She’s been a bit of a wild one. Maybe it’s because her ex is in town. Now he’s feisty, a regular old tomcat. I don’t know what his connection is with the Persian, or with that gun, but I’m sure Pru will figure it out. I’ll help, of course. After my nap.

This blog originally ran on Dru's Book Musings:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The writing life: Doubt, joy, and the importance of good friends

Writer extraordinaire first ran this interview on her blog, but she gave me permission to reprint it. It was so much fun, I couldn't resist:

Caroline: I first met Clea Simon on this writing site we both frequented. I really liked the funny, smart way she was presenting her ideas, but more than that, I was thrilled that she was the author of Fatherless Women, a book I loved. We became friends online first, and then began to manage to see each other once a year. I read more of her books and loved all of them. We go to each other's readings, we do a daily email check in, we boost each other up and cajole and nag and talk about everything from writing to money to morale--honestly, I depend on Clea and I don't know what I'd do without her.

I'm thrilled she has two absolutely terrific, smart new mysteries out, with another coming out next year--and I'm even more thrilled she's here on my blog. Big hugs and thanks, Clea!

Writing is a lonely business, which is one reason I’m so lucky to have Caroline as a writing buddy. She and I email each other all the time, complaining of plot complications that won’t be resolved. Character flip-flops that caught us unawares, and inevitable insecurities of the wait, when the agent, the editor, the reviewer reads our work. Sitting here, alone in my office, I don’t know how I’d get my work done if it weren’t for friends like Caroline.

But even as we bat our anxieties back and forth, and she reassures me that, yes, after thirteen books, maybe I am a “real” writer, I’ve become increasingly aware of a major difference between us. You see, for the past few years, I’ve been writing series mysteries. Specifically, I am now writing two series for two different publishers: the Dulcie Schwartz mysteries, which feature a graduate student in Gothic literature, who happens to get visits from the ghost of her late cat, and the Pru Marlowe pet noirs, which feature a tough-girl animal behaviorist who can hear what animals are thinking (and has an even tougher tabby as a sidekick). This month, I’ve got the two newest books in each series out – Grey Expectations (Severn House) is the Dulcie, Cats Can’t Shoot (Poisoned Pen) is the Pru. Next year, when Caroline’s next book will be out, I may have three.

Crazy, isn’t it? Caroline and I go through so many of the same processes – the electric thrill of inspiration, the crazed zone of furious writing, the doubt, and the joy – but these days, I seem to be doing it double time. And so when she and I talked about what I could guestblog about, I thought that writing series might be a good topic, and she obliged by asking me some questions.

What is your schedule this year?
I’m actually writing three books right now. Severn House decided they wanted my Dulcies to come out a little more frequently, and they contracted me for two more. How could I say no? But I also had the last in my three-book Pru contract due, so... I turned in the manuscript for the fifth Dulcie, True Grey, last month, and am awaiting edits. I am now finishing up Parrots Prove Deadly, the third Pru book, which is due in June, and when I’m done with that, I have another Dulcie due Sept. 1. What I’m hoping is that going over the edits for True Grey will get me back in the Dulcie mindset and remind me of the threads I left hanging. (I also have pretty good notes.)

How do you get it all done?
I’ve had to become super disciplined. I don’t outline, I find it kills creativity, but I do have a good idea of the direction of each book. And I make myself write at least a certain number of words each day. The good part is, when I’m writing regularly (1,500 or 2,000 words a day is standard for me), I find the ideas keep coming. The problem is that sometimes I get so caught up I lose track of time. Over the winter, there were many days when I did not get outdoors during daylight. And I’ve learned to keep a portable egg timer with me. Too often, I’d put up something for dinner and not heard the timer down in the kitchen going off. We had many scalded pots and acrid artichokes before I started carrying my little egg timer back up to my office with me.

Do you worry about repeating yourself?
Yes, I’m terrified of it. But there is so much out there, so many possibilities, that what usually happens is that I run into something that I think I can use and I can’t fit it in. And I rely on happy accidents: I was having Pru work with a raccoon and it hit me: She gets that close to a wild animal, it’s going to bite her. Suddenly, I was researching rabies and rabies vaccines, and my book was going off in a whole different direction.
Both your protagonists are so different. Is it difficult to switch voices?
Yes, I need a little rest time between. When I’m writing Pru, as I am right now, I think of Dulcie as a wimp. Na├»ve and silly. But when I’m in a Dulcie book, I adore her, and I think of Pru as an unsympathetic bitch. At some level, it’s probably good for me to explore both these characters!

What are the other challenges of writing series books on deadline?
I’m terrified of what I might miss. I force myself to be hypervigilant when I’m revising, and I am extremely grateful both to my small, core group of readers and my editors for their input. But still, in Cats Can’t Shoot, there was a stupid gun error – I don’t even want to repeat it – in the ARC. A reader caught it, and I was able to make the change before the printed version, but that’s what gives me nightmares. I try to write freely and wildly, but I have to be extra careful in every stage of revisions, because there’s just no time.

Yikes! Are there advantages?
Yes, indeed! I love my characters, and I love watching them grow and change from book to book. Relationships are developing and changing. All sorts of stuff that really has no connection to the mystery in each book, but is deeply gratifying to me. Plus, I get to avoid that post-book post-partum depression. I know I’ll see these folks again soon.

Still, you must have some pet peeves?
Oh, I do. It still amazes me how many people look down on mysteries– they say they’re “just” mysteries, not “real books” – like mysteries are automatically a lower form of writing. Yes, I write quickly, but I revise carefully – and writing slowly is no guarantee of quality. When you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone. That said, I’ve written more serious books, nonfiction, and this is what I want to be doing now, so I try not to let that get to me (too much).

Sounds like I should let you get back to it!
It was lovely to take a break with you, Caroline! Thanks so much for letting me talk about the series side of writing. – Clea

Excerpts from Clea’s books may be found on her website, at

This ran originally on Carolineleavittville at

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fun with rabies...

Shh… don’t tell anyone, but I’m having fun with rabies. And I’m not the only one. When I told Jessica, the publisher of Poisoned Pen Press, that I was researching rabies, she got nearly as excited as I was. After all, it’s a fascinating disease. What other viral infection has an incubation of anywhere from 10 days to seven years? A virus that can be stopped by a vaccine (these days, usually through a series of four shots), but if its not, makes its inexorable way to your brain… from which it cannot be cured. (And,yes, people have survived rabies recently – thanks to some risky treatments, including medically induced comas, but its still overwhelmingly fatal.) What other lethal disease can be contracted nearly anywhere in the world? Even the UK, where rabies was virtually eliminated for years, is now falling victim: rabies-infected bats have been found in Scotland. It’s a disease so innately terrifying that you’d think Pru Marlowe, my bad girl animal psychic/animal behaviorist, would take it seriously. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You see, I shouldn’t be doing this now. I should be celebrating my new Pru Marlowe pet noir, Cats Can’t Shoot. After all, it’s officially out this month from the Press, and I’m very excited about it. I have already made notes on the talk I’ll give at my book launch at my local indie, Harvard Book Store tomorrow, and have traded some ideas with my fellow Sisters in Crime panelists for our presentation at the Popular Culture Association‘s annual conference (to be held on Friday the 13th, hmmmm…). But what I’m really caught up in right now is the next book. Yup, Pru #3, a lovely little adventure I’ve been calling Parrots Prove Deadly. And its for this book that I’ve been reading CDC pamphlets, talking to vets, and bugging my local hospital to show me the needles used in this famously painful (ok, they say the newest version isn’t that bad) shots. So, yeah, I should be living in the moment. Celebrating my new book. But really? I’m out in the field, helping Pru save a raccoon who may or may not have just signed her death warrant.

Oh, did you know that you don’t even have to be bitten to be infected? That’s right. And the symptoms? Well, they start with anxiety, maybe a little tension or excitability. Before long, the thirst will get to you – the muscle spasms and the inability to swallow. But don’t worry, really. By the time the convulsions start, there’s really nothing you can do anyway. Rabies… the gift that keeps on giving.

This blog originally ran on the Poisoned Pen Press blog: