Magical Venice!


Do believe in magic?

I do, but then I’m a writer, and writers are great believers in magic. We dream up stories, write them down and make them real–if that’s not magic, what is?

But until recently I hadn’t realized that there were truly magical places in the world, places where enchantment is the norm and not the exception–a place like Venice.

It was my first visit to Italy, and as I tend to approach travel from a historical stance, I did my homework and learned that people who would become the first Venetians fled to the lagoon on the Adriatic as a means to escape the “barbaric” invaders that swarmed the mainland after mighty Rome’s fall.

Lady Venice’s Triumph over Italy
The Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s hat

This isolation proved advantageous and during the middle ages the Republic of Venice became a great empire, ruled by a series of Doges, a series of pompous-looking white guys in funny hats.

Somehow these Doges paled when compared to  pale waxworks when compared to a Caesar or Medici.

Or maybe it was the hat. I really don’t like the hat.

And then I’d heard all the stories about the beauty and romance of Venice, stories that my contrary cynical thought too good to be true. Wasn’t that just travel-book fluff?

My husband and I arrived in the afternoon and while I was charmed by the gondolas and labyrinthine streets, and enjoyed the tour of the Doge’s Palace, something was missing. After an early evening rain, my husband and I walked back to San Marco’s Square.

The Piazzo was almost deserted, at least by Venetian standards.  We walked up and down the Piazzo, listening to the various orchestras in front of restaurants, stopping if we heard something we liked.

An Adriatic breeze had blown the last of the storm clouds away, and the sky was a unique shade of indigo blue. I was gazing at the silhouette of the winged lion of St. Mark, and at that moment, the violist started playing Moon River.

And that’s when it hit me–the magic of Venice.

The appreciation of true beauty always contains a tinge of sadness, and as the notes of Moon River floated over the Piazzo, I knew that this moment was just that–a single moment that would soon pass. But since nothing gold can stay and beauty doesn’t last, we should grab the moment when is comes and hold on for dear life.

The Venetians know this. Their forebears built this city out of desperation and fear. Riding Fortune’s Wheel, they won and lost an empire, but they left us this place, and made this beautiful night possible, questa bella notte.

Once back in the States, I put together a video to try to express my experience that magical night.

Venice is my magical place–what’s yours?

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Wicked Florida!

I’ve always said that Florida is the ideal home base for a mystery writers–there are just so many interesting ways to plan a murder.

This point was reinforced last year when I attended a fun exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History called Wicked Plants, based on the amazing book by Amy Stewart. While perusing some of Mother Nature’s nastier botanical creations, I couldn’t help notice that many of the plants could be found in my home state of Florida–a few are even in my garden.

Along with the usual suspects such as deadly nightshade and water hemlock, I discovered a wonderful new villain called the rosary pea, so-named for its beautiful, but highly toxic seeds that resemble rosary beads. Rosary peas have long been used in jewelry making, but many a careless person has died after pricking a finger while handling one of the seeds.

This immediately put my writer’s imagination in gear. Under the right circumstances, the little rosary pea would make a clever murder weapon. All a crafty killer had to do is slip a few rosary peas, which had been carefully pricked to release the toxin, into the bead box of an annoying jewelry maker. Pretty darn close to a perfect crime, don’t you think?

Inspired, I created a little video about not only the  wicked plants, but all the reptiles and critters that make up the darker side of the Sunshine State, the place I call  Wicked Florida.

Some of the creatures/poison plants are Florida natives, but many–like the rosary pea–are invasive, hitchhikers from all over the globe who’ve made their home in Florida and now thrive. So far I’ve used three of the wicked species from the video in my novels, though I’ve not yet been able to work a snake into one of my murderous plots, which is regrettable because snakes are such a vital part of the wild Florida that I love.

This pretty garter snake came into our house through the doggie door, making himself comfortable in the guest bedroom. The guest was not amused.

Although I’d come with several scenarios–one involving a pet python–none quite passed the credibility test. Sure, there’s a suspension of disbelief in fiction, but there’s a limit as to how far it will stretch before breaking.So imagine my surprise when last month one of my discarded plot points became reality when a deadly cobra escaped its cage in a quiet Florida neighborhood.

So the next time a seemingly impossible plot occurs to me, I’m going with it.

After all, I live in Wicked Florida!

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Mixing Genres: A Dangerous Game

Although I’d dreamed of writing when I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, life kept getting in the way of dreams, when it should have been the other way around. And so it was only after several careers, which included food service, English teacher and psych nurse, that I finally took the plunge and dove headfirst into fiction writing–though at first it felt more like a belly flop.

Coming from an academic background, I read lots of books on the craft of writing, most of which were unhelpful. (FYI, a decidedly helpful book is Stephen King’s On Writing.) Wading through the material, one warning kept appearing, usually in all caps and with an exclamation point or two:


“Thou shalt not mix genres!”

I understood the danger. Readers like to know what they’re getting into and if a book crossed too many genres–maybe a science-fiction western with a comic slant–it would fall by the wayside. And yet following this rule too strictly is self-limiting. I agree with David Byrne:

Putting everything into little genres is counterproductive. You’re not going to get too many surprises if you only focus on the stuff that fits inside the box that you know.

In other words, good writers make their own boxes. Either a book works, or it doesn’t.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet John Connolly at a book signing on a Friday night in London. Connolly is the author of the Charlie Parker thrillers. For those of you not familiar with the series, they’re rather odd books with elements of crime fiction, myth, supernatural, with a dash of dark humor for spice.

Incredibly, these disparate elements come together to form a compelling universe of good and evil, and something in-between.

Here I am, schmoozing with John Connolly

It doesn’t hurt that his writer’s toolbox is full. He’s a gifted stylist whose prose often veers into the poetic. And he’s no slouch at characterization. His characters not only bleed, but eat, fall in love, and make bad jokes. They live outside the pages.So how does Connolly do it?

For me, one of Connoly’s  most touching characterizations was that of mechanic Willie Brew, whose story figures prominently in  The Reapers. Save for his association with Charlie Parker and his lethal friends Louis and Angel, Willie’s  sixty years on earth have passed largely unnoticed. A workaday everyman, he worked at fixing cars, got married, got divorced, then worked some more. But in Connolly’s hands Willie’s small life becomes very large, achieving a certain dignity. When Willie’s asked to put everything at risk for his friends, we know exactly what he’s giving up.

I still think about Willie Brew. If he had the chance to do it all over again, would he make the same decision?

But perhaps the most compelling part of these novels is in Connolly’s portrayal of evil.  Too often evil is rendered in the abstract, Have you ever noticed that evil is often sensed, rather than seen or felt? I think writers sometimes shy away from the concrete in their descriptions because they fear winding up with a cartoon devil with horns and tail that wouldn’t scare a five-year-old.

Here’s hoping Charlie Parker keeps fighting the darkness for a long, long time.But Connolly doesn’t look away from the face of evil. In his books, it is felt, seen, smelled, touched and even…well, you get the idea.


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April in the City of Light

The Eiffel Tower puts on a show! WHAT MAKES A CITY GREAT? I’m not sure what makes a city great, but I know a great city when I meet one. I’ve been fortunate to have visited some of the famed … Continue reading

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Sweet Dreams

People often ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Of course, all fiction stems from the imagination and the simplest answer is that I make it up. But the imagination is not an bottomless pool of ideas–like anything else, it needs to be fed. So when not actually scribbling away, I’m busy replenishing the toolbox of imagination.

One sure way to get my creative juices flowing is a visit to an old graveyard. From Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel to Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, writers have sought inspiration in these cities of the dead. Join me for a little tour of some of my favorite spots.

Is she looking homeward?
The Angel of Peace
Forest Hills Cemetery,  Boston

This contemplative angel brought to mind the sad lyricism of Thomas Wolfe,

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile….back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory–Thomas Wolfe

A penny for your thoughts?
Antietam Cemetery, Maryland

The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, was  the bloodiest day in American combat history with over 23,000 casualties on both sides. More than twice as  many Americans were killed or mortally wounded in combat at Antietam that day as in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined.

Previous visitors had left coins on many of the soldiers’s headstone. Most were pennies, though I spotted a few nickles. Was this a fee for the ferryman or was there some other meaning?

Later I read that coins left at grave sites held a special meaning for the military dead, with each denomination meaning something different. But it all comes down to remembrance, which is the last gift the living give the dead.

Antietam Battlefield
City of the Dead, with luxurious above-ground accommodations,
courtesy of Marie Laveau
Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans

Mark Twain was much impressed with the neat necropolises of New Orleans:

Many of the cemeteries are beautiful, and are kept in perfect order. When one goes from the levee or the business streets to a cemetery, he observes… that if those people down there would live as neatly while they are alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages in it; and besides, their quarter would be the wonder and admiration of the business world.

I was touched by these dual headstones in Copp’s Hill, the grave site of two young brothers, one-year-old Josiah and his three-year-old Nathaniel, who died on the same bleak November day in 1721.In not too long a time, the writing on the stones will be erased.

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground

I have heard it said that parents in olden days didn’t mourn their lost children as we do because childhood death was so common. What nonsense! Here is the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet lamenting the death of her infant  grandson, who died being but a month, and one day old.

No sooner came, but gone, and fall’n asleep,
Acquaintance short, yet parting caused us weep;
Three flowers, two scarcely blown, the last I’ th’ bud,
Cropt by th’ Almighty’s hand; yet is He good.
With dreadful awe before Him let’s be mute,
Such was His will, but why, let’s not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let’s say He’s merciful as well as just.
He will return and make up all our losses,
And smile again after our bitter crosses
Go pretty babe, go rest with sisters twain;
Among the blest in endless joys remain.

Memorials aren’t limited to angels and headstones. When Grace died at five years old from whooping cough, her lifelike statue was encased in glass, where it remains as pure and unblemished as the day it was created. From her expression, she must have been a serious little soul.

Forest Hills Cemetery

Some statuary borders on the whimsical–check out this pair of beds.

This might just be a straightforward representation of the actual beds of the deceased, but every time I look at this picture I think of Prospero’s words, when he realized the party was indeed over.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
I bet Shakespeare visited a graveyard or two in his day!
Sweet dreams.
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A Visit with Mr. Dickens

Throughout his all-too-brief life, Charles Dickens was constantly on the move. By any measure, his list of residences is astounding. Perhaps he inherited this restless spirit from his father, who moved from pillar to post, usually one step ahead of … Continue reading

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The Detection Club

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As such things go, detective fiction is the new kid on the literary block. Unlike romance, which can trace its roots back to the middle ages, the detective story burst on the scene in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s detective Auguste … Continue reading

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Murder in Mystic Cove wins Book of the Month poll at LASR

BoM 2014 October Murder in Mystic Cove

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Murder in Mystic Cove Cracks Bestseller List!

Murder in Mystic Cove made the USA Today Bestseller list!

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Murder in Mystic Cove Book Trailer

Check out my new book trailer!

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