Archive for May, 2013

Today I’m turning this space over to the ever fabulous and very successful writer Hart Johnson, whom you can usually find naked and carrying on at her blog, Confessions of a Watery Tart.  Her latest cozy mystery, THE BEGONIA BRIBE (under her pen name Alyse Carlson), is out and I can tell you that it’s fun and witty and oh so entertaining.   You really must pick up a copy and enjoy this great read.  And now, without further ado, I give you Hart.


First I want to thank the divine Helena for having me here! We’ve been friends a couple years now, and she’s been one of the most fantastically supportive people I’ve met. (PLUS, The Compass Master is seriously the best book I read in 2012, so if you haven’t read it yet, get it). *cough*

Anyway… There are a lot of really cool things I would LOVE to do. I mean yes, I have my bucket list of things I really WILL do… but the things I probably will NOT actually do, that I’d LOVE to… at least in theory. I’d love to be some badass spy, speak a dozen languages, kick butt in fights (pacifist leanings aside), solve crime…

I think Helena is the only writer I know who actually committed to LEARNING all that stuff.

The reality is, I am slow, even when I’ve been a regular runner… I have pathetically poor upper body strength and a center of gravity at my butt, pulling me ever down and back, so climbing is out.  Once upon a time I have good balance and coordination, but those years are long past. I was not made for stealthy movement or hand-to-hand combat. I am lacking SKILLZ… spelled that way because the situation is really dire.

Now I DO have a tad more than the average intelligence. Not FBI intelligence or CIA intelligence… Not enough to write Sci-Fi or international espionage thrillers, but not too shabby, either. So there IS something I can do to PRETEND I can do all these things. I can write about them. I can live my bizarro-world fantasies out in words. I can imagine it and make it so.

Now I’m not inclined to write erotica, but one of the perks is definitely involving myself with a dreamy man or two. Cam and Annie, the main character and best friend in The Garden Society Mystery series, both have rather hot boyfriends… the reporter and the cop… useful, and oh-so-nice to look at.  I’ve given it a twist though.  You see, I am NO damsel in distress! (Never mind all the phone calls for my grandpa to rescue me from car mishaps as a teen.)  So I’ve made a point of my characters rescuing those boys more than the other way around.

And I’m not observant… other writers may recognize the inclination to tunnel-vision—tough to notice around us when we are busy with all the stuff inside our head… but my MC is sharp as a hawk—she misses NOTHING!  Oh, and is she organized!  (I am so disorganized I tell myself I don’t even WANT to be organized—how is that for delusion?)

I really love her people skills, though.  She can talk people into anything. (Me, not so much… mostly because I feel too awkward to even ask and hate confrontation, so if it’s uncomfortable? Forget it!)

I have other characters in other books with OTHER skills I’d like to have, too.  That’s the beauty of writing… no reason to limit our fantasy lives to just one awesome character!  And then there are the awe-inspiring ones I couldn’t even come up with on my own…

Just so long as I don’t forget Dumbledore’s advice:  “It does not do to dwell in dreams and forget to live,” this really makes life a lot more fun.

Anybody else living vicariously through characters they read or write?


Roanoke, Virginia, is home to some of the country’s most exquisite gardens, and it’s Camellia Harris’s job to promote them. But when a pint-sized beauty contest comes to town, someone decides to deliver a final judgment …

A beauty pageant for little girls—the Little Miss Begonia Pageant—has decided to hold their event in a Roanoke park. Camellia is called in to help deal with the botanical details, the cute contestants, and their catty mothers. She soon realizes that the drama onstage is nothing compared to the judges row. There’s jealousy, betrayal, and a love triangle involving local newsman—and known lothario—Telly Stevens. And a mysterious saboteur is trying to stop the pageant from happening at all.

But the drama turns deadly when Stevens is found dead, poisoned by some sort of plant. With a full flowerbed of potential suspects, Cam needs to dig through the evidence to uproot a killer with a deadly green thumb.

Alyse Carlson is the pen name for Hart Johnson who writes books from her bathtub and can be found at:  Confessions of a Watery Tart, on Facebook (author page, profile), Twitter, or Goodreads.

Did you see the movie Zero Dark Thirty? If you did, there’s no way you’d forget Maya.

At the very least you saw the trailers and know that Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) is the CIA analyst who was instrumental in helping to track down bin Laden.

What’s fantastic is that Maya is a real-life, flesh-and-blood woman.

What’s not so fantastic is that if any one of us writers created her and put her in a novel, we’d get nothing but grief.

Here’s why…

Maya has no personal life.  During the several years she and her teammates hunt for bin Laden, she obsessively works long hours at the office and then goes home to crash.  She learns to feel no sympathy for the man her colleagues are torturing.  She has no romance ever.  She has crappy social skills.  Doesn’t give a damn about networking.  Uses the F word like a gun. When she thinks her obsessive hunt is being undermined, she furiously shouts down her boss.  She makes it clear to a soldier that she wants him to KILL bin Laden.

There’s a wonderful scene when Maya is back at Langley and in a closed door meeting with a few men and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.  The topic of the meeting is about whether a) bin Laden is definitely in a compound in Abbottobad, and b) were they ready to go after him there?  Panetta looks at Maya and asks, “Who are you?”  Maya replies, “I’m the motherf—– who found him.”

Oh God I love that scene.

Yet if I put that dialogue in a novel, I’d get no end of grief.  “Does she really have to use language like that?” so many people would ask me – especially women.  “Must she be so unlikeable? Can’t you make her more sympathetic?  Someone we could identify with?”

Oh puke.

For me, the screenwriter (Mark Boal) was brilliant when he made Maya the main character.  This is a hard-as-nails story about a brutal secret war, and Maya played a hard-as-nails role in it.  Yet ironically, what makes her a riveting character in a real-life drama might put off many readers of fiction.

Is this where non-fiction has it all over fiction?

When I was writing The Compass Master and now with my upcoming Charity MacCay books, I didn’t have to strain to make Layla and Charity likeable because I genuinely like them.  Still, I envy the extremely rare fiction writer who can create a lead character – especially a female lead – who is difficult or even impossible to like but you can’t stop reading her story.  Think of Scarlet O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander.  They aren’t just characters, they’re ferocious forces of nature.

And in the realm of non-fiction, so is Maya.  Yet I really, really like her.

What about your own characters?  Have you ever attempted, or just been tempted, to create a difficult, unusual, on-the-edge extreme MC that would shock readers?  Did anyone try to discourage you?

So today, thanks to the ever resourceful and enthusiastic Alex J. Cavanaugh, I’m participating in the Best/Worst Move Remake Blogfest.  Here are my entries…



For me, the remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo (1999) is better than the original 1968 version with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

I’m old enough to have seen the original as a little kid, and I remember how the split-screen action scenes, the erotic chess game, and the song (Windmills of Your Mind) were very grown-up cool.  But I’ve also seen it as an adult and while it’s still a good flick, the remake is better.

Take the scenes where the female lead first appears.

In the original, Faye Dunaway walks off a plane in a miniskirt and big hat, the two detectives there to greet her are wowed by her sexy style, and they all have a nice little chat.  Blah.

In the remake, the main detective (Dennis Leary) is crouching in the museum room where the painting has been stolen and he’s theorizing aloud that an x-brand of helicopter must have been involved.  Then he hears a woman’s sultry voice explaining why it couldn’t have been x-brand because of its limited weight-bearing abilities, the other technical implausibilities, and what really must have happened.  He looks up to see a woman’s sexy leg and garter through the slit in a knee-length skirt (and yes, fashion is its own character in these two movies).  I mean, that scene just goes BAM!  WHAM! REMEMBER THIS WOMAN!

One more note I could give you out of many:  there’s a nifty scene in which Rene Russo calmly takes out a switchblade that you just know she carries with her and can wield like a ninja, even though she’s an elegant, ladylike sophisticate.  I so wanna be like her.



First, I have to confess that I have never seen this entire flick because I.  Just.  Can’t.  Watch.  It.

The original Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was directed by the great Frank Capra.  The story unfolds seamlessly, the dialogue crackles with life, a warm heart beats beneath the cynical wisecracks, and because the year is 1936, the Depression is still going on and people are suffering.  In the best such Depression movies, and this is one of them, there’s a strong social conscience.  We must help each other, is the message, and in language that to our modern politically correct ears sounds downright socialist but in those days was just common human decency.

Best of all, Longfellow Deeds in the original is played by Gary Cooper.

In the horrible remake:  Adam Sandler.

Could someone please explain to me why a dim overgrown boy like Sandler’s Deeds is supposed to be an appealing character?  And what morons thought it would be a good idea to a) remake a Capra masterpiece; b) replace a quietly understated manly man like Cooper with a smarmy smart-ass; then c) yuck up the story with dumb jokes and manufactured sentiment?

What a waste of everyone’s time and money.

Anyway, those are my choices.  Here’s the list of the blogfest hosts with their lists of participants.

Thanks for stopping by.

Blogfest Hosts:

Alex J. Cavanaugh  Stephen Tremp  |   Father Dragon Al   |   Livia Peterson 


It’s kinda embarrassing – no, it’s VERY embarrassing to admit I’ve started to watch Dead Files on the Travel Channel.

I mean, here’s Michael Offut over at SLC Kismet giving savvy reviews of excellent shows like Game of Thrones.  Then there’s Alex J. Cavanaugh talking about science fiction films, and he seems to have seen all of them.

Then there’s me. (Sigh)

But honestly, I’m mentioning this show because it might be a resource for any of you writing in the paranormal genre or perhaps in science fiction.

See, Dead Files is yet another ghost hunting show, but with a twist.  The premise is that a retired NY cop investigates a (supposedly) haunted homes or buildings via the residents, documents, local historians, and so on.  Meanwhile, a psychic investigates the property separately, and only at the show’s end do the cop and psychic get together, compare notes, and tell the property owners how to fix the ghostly problem.

In the latest episode, the psychic recommended that the homeowners bring in a hoodoo practitioner.  She explained that hoodoo is not the same as voodoo (sounds like the lyrics to a song), and how it’s an African folk religion that was practiced by some slaves.  Its purpose was to control souls.

Yes, I kinda laughed, but not much because the property being investigated had once been a slave plantation.  The historical records revealed that many slaves had suffered and died in that old house and on that land.  It was as if human evil had poisoned them both, and no one living there now would find peace.

There’s a part of me (the Irish part) that kind of believes such curses.  What if violence and bloodshed and intense human suffering can indelbly mark a place?  And years later some of us might pass over it and feel – what?  Memories, emotions, the lives of people long gone?

Okay, now I’m sounding flaky mystical, which is a signal for me to call it quits for tonight.

But seriously, I’d love to know if any of you have ever had an inexplicable feeling in some house or on a piece of land.  Anything that perhaps inspired a story for you?

Yeah, I thought the title would get your attention.

Unfortunately, my thighs aren’t quivering with lust or because they’re having a good time.   Same thing with my ankles and feet.  Happily my abs and arms aren’t too bad, which means they’re in good shape.

See, this morning (Sunday) I went to a rec center and took my first barre class.  I thought I’d do fine.  After all, I stay in pretty good Layla shape and when I was young I had ten years of ballet, so I know my way around a barre.

This was so not like my ballet classes.

Oh, I could do the exercises.  They were pretty much  a combination of ballet, pilates, and Callanetics.  But before now I never had to do certain movements FIVE HUNDRED TIMES!

I’m not really kidding.  Each movement was done over and over and over, and just when you think you’re done and you’re sweating like a fiend, the evil instructor calls out, “Last twenty times!”


At least I made it through the class, and I vow to keep up these exercises on my own until my legs and behind are like iron and I’m ready to take another barre class.  Maybe I’ll even go to those classes kinda regularly.  Masochist that I am.

Now for a completely different topic:

As some of you know, in The Compass Master I give an historical account of how two ancient epistles are kept hidden and safe by different people over the centuries.  At one point in the 16th century the protectors  include the pivotal character Sister Roswitha, who was not a nun but a deaconess and canoness in Germany.

“This meant she lived in a community of women that was not a convent and did  not have strict rules, where women took no vows of chastity and might be widows or could leave to marry or stay to work as teachers.”

Well, I thought that such female-only communities faded away centuries ago.  I was wrong.  This last week The Economist had an obituary of Marcella Pattyn, “the world’s last Beguine,” which pretty much means a canoness.

As The Economist explains, these veiled women lived in Beguinages, communities of hundreds or even thousands that sprang up spontaneously in the Low Countries from the early 13th century and on.  They led lives of prayer and service but could leave when they wanted, made their own rules, and lived without male guidance.  They were “encouraged to study and read, and they were expected to earn their keep by working, especially in the booming cloth trade.”  They lived in a “state of autonomy which was highly unusual for medieval women and highly disturbing to medieval men.”

And — damn it! — the Beguines were often persecuted by their own Catholic clergy, then by Protestants who almost destroyed them, and their property was confiscated in the French Revolution.  Somehow, they survived.  But now Sister Marcella has died, “And then there were none.”

A sad passing to a fascinating way of life.

So when you’ve done your own writing and researching, have you uncovered facts that surprised you?  Come across an intriguing  mystery?  I’d love to hear about it.