Envious of the Dead?

Every writer has “favorites” that inspire him or her. “Inspire” can be of the monetary, notoriety or just plain, “how (s)he do dat?” variety. We prefer not to engage in literary envy, “thou shalt not covet” being the 10th commandment—“commandment” being a stronger level of prohibition than “spiffy tip for self empowerment.”

Our dream is to approximate the first line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, …”). Our nightmare is to write like the oft-parodied first line of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”) Bulwer-Lytton did have a writing contest named after him … for atrocious first lines.

That said, we admit to having our literary inspirations, mostly in the vein of, “Wow, I wish I could write like that.” Noting of course, that in some cases of particularly lofty writers, there is fat chance of it to the point where we might be better off entering the Bulwer-Lytton contest where the www means wretched writers welcome.

At the top of our list of writers to emulate is C.J. Box. He writes mysteries, just like us, only better. Way better, it pains us to admit. Box’s Joe Pickett books are so well written, you want to read them more than once, even though you already know whodunnit and howdunnit and that the bad guy really, really deserved to get eaten by a mountain lion. Just picking a couple of things to like (and there’s a lot to like) in his writing, it’s not an exaggeration to say that wilderness is, a character in his Joe Pickett stories––Pickett is a Wyoming game warden. The descriptions of nature, and the way Box weaves nature into his stories makes you want to drop everything and head to Wyoming, even on a freakin’ freezing winter day. Because the wilderness is part and parcel of his writing, he weaves in issues such as the environmental protection, competing interests in land usage, and endangered species. And he does so Without Hitting You Over The Head With His Opinion. Thoughtful, interesting, never fails to entertain, in a “go away and don’t bother me I want to finish this book and I ain’t budging until I do (unless there is chocolate involved)” way.

Not surprisingly, C.J. Box has multiple awards. A partial list includes the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel (Blue Heaven, 2009) as well as the Anthony Award, Prix Calibre 38 (France), and the Macavity Award. His novels have been translated into 27 languages and been optioned for film and television. Envious? Ah, er…let’s say, his writing is something to aspire to. We don’t envy, we aspire.

Another writer we like is John Buchan. One of us is an outright fanatic, nearly cleaning out the “B” shelf in an Edinburgh bookshop on one occasion (he is a native son). Probably best known for The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan has written so much more than that and had an interesting life; he worked in naval intelligence in WWI and was the Governor-General of Canada. Buchan weaves in history, political intrigue, and comes up with plot devices that are intriguing and then some. One book, John MacNab, involves a contest among four rather bored aristocratic types to poach a salmon or a stag from a friend’s estate but turns into – well, much more than that. Warning: once you start on Buchan, you won’t be able to stop. Book that trip to Edinburgh right now – it’s not so easy to find all his work in the US – and sign up for that 12-step Buchan Detox program, because you will become an addict. He’s a dang good writer, but we don’t envy him. He’s dead. But we envy the ability to spin a great story.


Lessons from HGTV

No, we’re not writing a blog about buying, flipping, destroying, restoring, or being elected to houses of any kind. Sorry to disappoint, but we’re still writing about writing.

One of us will confess to watching HGTV. About ten in the evening, it’s time to unwind from the day by snuggling up with the dog, sinking down on the coach, and watching something mindless on TV, which is pretty much everything on TV. Knowing that the outcome of House Hunters is, like a short story—predetermined— we often enjoy watching the drama unfold. [Our favorite moments are when a couple encounters the horror of kitchen appliances that are not stainless steel: goodbye, cruel world), or when they decide the perfectly functional five-year old kitchen is not to their taste and will have to be completely gutted before they move in.] We confess to learning critical life lessons, such as the fact that you can hardly hold your head up in public if you don’t have granite counter tops. Similarly, one of us is ashamed to admit that she feels her life is—sob —incomplete without a spa tub. These little dramas, and comedies, have lessons for writers.

Lesson 1: Characters have to be realistic. It’s hard to watch a program or read a story about a character that seems to be from a different planet, unless you are reading Sci-fi. One episode of House Hunters International featured a couple that had moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with no savings and no jobs. The man wanted a place close to a club where he hoped to make a living as a stand-up comedian, in English. The woman wanted a quiet place amidst the other 1.5 million residents so she could practice her yoga for hours at a time. We couldn’t watch: how does one identify with or care about such characters? A good short story need believable characters or the reader will have no faith or interest in the story that follows. (Moving to Phnom Penh to start a drug cartel would have at least been plausible: how else to afford the Must Have walk-in closet?)

Lesson 2: The resolution must make sense. We watched a couple debate their way through the usual three homes offered for sale. Usually, the TV viewer has a good idea which way the couple will go, but this time, it was a surprise. The husband loved one house and the wife loved another. They talked it over and, we kid you not, decided to go for the house that neither of them liked as much. Even though the outcome is foreordained, but the pretension for the viewer is she is watching reality. Is reality that a couple makes their largest financial investment in a house neither much likes? Since they were both Polish [NOT an ethnic slur] is there a cultural dynamic we don’t understand? In a short story or novel, the resolution must make sense to the reader, particularly in a mystery where the reader likes to be able to find hints of the outcome and ‘solve’ the case before the end. We’ve all invested time reading a story to discover the ending is implausible. Naturally, we feel cheated and are less likely to read that author’s work in the future. In this case, we feel it would have been more plausible if one killed the other for not getting the house with the “neutral palette throughout and the open floor plan.” Religious (housing) differences can well and truly scuttle a marriage.

With that, we are off to design our next short story, the plot of which will not at all revolve around the importance of hardwood floors.

Got Any Chloroform?

With our move to short stories––as the next Emma Jones book simmers on the back burner––comes tighter writing, a shorter turnaround, and more opportunities to contemplate how to off someone. In a delightful literary sense, of course, as we have no plans to do a dry run, even if one feels especially homicidally inspired when being tailgated at high speed by a real %#&^%$$er. It is so difficult to visualize world peace in those situations, don’t you think?

One of our inspirations is Cruella De Vil who, while a real baddie, was a baddie with style. The title of this blog entry comes from a scene in (the original animated) 101 Dalmatians, wherein Cruella De Vil is contemplating offing the Dalmatian puppies she has amassed for their coats. She exclaims to her henchmen, Horace and Jasper: “I don’t care how you kill the little beasts, just do it. Poison them! Drown them! Got any chloroform?”

Says Jasper, “Not a drop.”

Never fear, Cruella, there are so many more delightful ways to dispatch someone (but leave the cute doggies alone, please!)

It’s astonishing where we get our inspiration. A summer of hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains made us contemplate how you’d kill someone on a hike and get away with it (and make natural phenomena like eclipses work for you). Skiing together made us think about how to off someone in a blizzard. In one story, we used animals to finger the perp after one of us read a book about how intelligent corvidae are, and that they remember faces and hold a grudge.

It isn’t merely humans we consider dispatching: a current short story under development involves an act of revenge for killing someone’s pet. After long and exhaustive market research and big data analytics (okay, we didn’t use big data analytics but it’s a techno-sexy term we wanted to use), we decided to dispatch a cat (because we both like doggies too much to––gulp––kill one, even in a literary cause). We also decided the cat would be really nasty, so we don’t feel the slightest bit bad for offing Satan, er, Fluffy. (For you ailurophiles: never fear, the cat will be avenged.)

Poisoning, long a favorite tool of mystery writers, is becoming harder to execute. The sales of many poisonous substances are controlled, and others one might cultivate in the garden are easy for the medical examiner to detect. Planning murders requires one to consider more exotic methods of dispatch. Some of the following we’ve actually used: faulty medical devices, robots with an attitude, hacked self-driving cars, lightning strikes, rampaging elephants, meteors, Hawaiian spirits in the form of sharks, super glue, and creamed corn. Okay, we haven’t worked out how the last one could kill anyone, but the last time one of us ate it, she was convinced her mother was trying to kill her.

We are happy to consider suggested methods of killing off people who deserve it. Feel free to leave a comment with your ideas, and please don’t feel the need to check its validity by conducting a test run.

We Interrupt This Broadcast …

For one of our ongoing writing projects––more on that in a later blog––we have been researching attitudes towards women athletes in the 20th century. It comes as no surprise that while moderate exercise has long been considered healthy for all, women in the first half of the century were warned of the potential harm to their reproductive systems of engaging in vigorous exercise. Even after World War II, when women worked long, hard hours in factories and played baseball with its attendant running, diving and sliding, the attitude persisted in some quarters that strenuous exercise threatened a woman’s fertility.

Since the 1950s, such pseudo-science about women’s biology seems to have diminished. So, we were astonished to find an article this week in The Daily Telegraph section on Women’s Health an article entitled, “Is the gym ruining your sex life?” Let us say again, this was in the Women’s Health section and made no mention of how men might be ruining a woman’s sex life … or their own.

Here are the five horrible things that could occur through exercise.

  1. Sensitivity: Studies [which were not cited] have shown “intensive cycling could potentially have a negative impact on a woman’s pelvic floor and cause genital insensitivity” [emphasis ours]. Based on the rationale given for this occurrence, we recommend you wear biking shorts, don’t squirm in the saddle, and /or make sure handlebars are at the right height.
  2. Self-Confidence: Failing to lose weight through exercise could serious damage one’s self-esteem. Our recommendation is to take up boxing or one of the martial arts; if someone makes a crack about your weight, floor ‘em. Don’t forget to say, “have a nice day” afterwards. It’s very important to be polite when dispatching a jackass.
  3. Libido: The stress of working out on top of work anxiety, parenting, and running a household could cause one’s reproductive instincts to shut down. There are many ways to attack this. Our favorite is to learn to live with a dirty, messy house. When you are dead and gone, no one will say they miss you because you kept such an immaculate home. Also, it’s ok if someone writes their name in the dust as long as they don’t put the year.
  4. Injury: You could get hurt and might spend too much time with ibuprofen and hot water bottles to think of sex. Really! We are NOT making this up. Our advice: teach your husband/significant other how to do massages. Better yet, try the Mai Tai method of pain relief.
  5. It’s expensive: Spending all that money on gym memberships or equipment could stretch your budget, making you anxious; when you are anxious and unhappy, you are not beautiful and your sex life suffers. Yup, that’s what it said. So, we recommend you buy used equipment to keep the cost down, and sneak into the health club so you don’t have to pay. Or better yet, take up running. You can run down the doofuses (or is it “doofi?”) who write such drivel and let them eat your dust.

Feel free to visit the website to read the entire thing, although we’ve given you the best bits.


Now that this blog is written, one of us is off to Nordic ski. (She is letting her dog pull her on skis. She isn’t too worried about his sex life being affected by exercise since he has already been neutered. ) The other, fearful of engaging in too much exercise, is headed for the couch with a mojito and bonbons.

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