When Will I Die, and Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?: Redux

Ah, yes, another oldie but goodie from the past (Sept. 2009), for your reading enjoyment; be aware these responses are from 2009, and some contain graphic wording: 

jpg_0627QUESTIONIt all started when when I wanted to use my silicone Bundt cake pan for the first time. Just before placing it in the oven, I wondered: Should I use a baking sheet to support the wobbly pan, or is this pan designed to use alone? I decided to do what anyone with a computer does: I Googled it. I intended to Google: “Should I use a baking sheet under a silicone pan?” but as soon as I typed, ”Should I,” a drop-down of popular suggestions appeared. I couldn’t ignore the juxtaposition of these responses. Some of the highlights (beware a graphic one) as they appear on Google:

“Should I…”
should i refinance my mortgage
should i stay or should i go (55.9 million results)
should i call him (85.4 million results)
should i shave my pubic hair
should i file bankruptcy
should i get a divorce

Magic 8 ballI didn’t know that Google had become a substitute for the Magic 8 ball (The Mattel Magic 8 ball, a toy used for seeking advice, was invented in 1946 by the son of a clairvoyant. You can even try an online version here).

(Concentrate and ask (Google) again….)

Typing “Should we…” in Google reveals a drop-down of the following:

“Should we….”
should we break up
should we get married (25 million results)
should weed be legal (over 45 million results)
should we have dropped the atomic bomb
should we file jointly
should we eliminate fats from our diet altogether and increase our proteins
should we move in together
should we get back together (99.9 million results)

Should I check “Does…”? (It is decidedly so.)
Does he like me (114 million results)
Does Obama smoke (over 30 million results)
Does hydroxycut/extenze/smooth away/alli work (responses condensed)
Does he love me
Does UPS delivery on Saturday
How about trying “Why”? (Without a doubt.)


why is the sky blue (25.2 million results)
why did the chicken cross the road
why men cheat
why did chris brown beat up rihanna
why do dogs eat poop
why did I get married (26 million results)

What kind of answers are Googlers expecting? (Reply hazy; try again.) What kind of answers are they finding? (Cannot predict now.)

I was on a roll. A peek at the results of “when,” “when will,” “how can,” and “how does”:

whejpg_Earth-from-spacen is the superbowl
when will i die (893 million results)
when i grow up
when will the world end (176 million results)

“When will….”
when will i get my tax refund
when will the recession end


when will the economy get better
when will i get married (30.7 million results)

“How can…”
how can you tell if a guy likes you
how can i make my hair grow faster
how can you tell if a girl likes you
how can i get pregnant
how can you tell if a girl is a virgin
how can you tell if someone is lying (over 9.2 million results)

This is like eating potato chips…

“How does…”
how does a bill become a law (173 million results)
how does birth control work
how does david blaine levitate
how does google make money
how does unemployment work
Questions surrounding finances, birth control, the end of life, relationships, and hair growth seem to be of utmost concern for so many inquiring minds. I thought the popular question about how a bill becomes law was promising.

Is anyone finding meaningful answers to such major life decisions online? (Cannot predict now.) Will Googlers stop asking such questions? (Very doubtful….)

Just one more? (Yes, definitely.)
“Can I…”
can I has cheeseburger
can I have your number
can I get pregnant on my period
can I afford a house

Oh ~ and the answer to my question about silicone bakeware? A baking sheet is recommended to stabilize. The chocolate cake came out just great!


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Summer Means Happy Birthday, Roller Rinks!

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

Did you know that today, August 11th, in 1866, the world’s first roller rink opened? (Because that happy event occurred in Newport, Rhode Island, I expect that our own Anne-Marie Sutton knows a lot more about it than I do.) But roller skating must’ve been a great way to manufacture your own breeze before electric fans and A/C, so opening in the dog days of summer makes perfect sense!

Did you also know that there’s a National Museum of Roller Skating in Nebraska? Well, there is, and from it, I learned that the first roller skate in recorded history was invented way back in the 1760s by this dignified-looking gent here. We’re also told:

Merlin wore a pair of his new skates to a masquerade party at Carlisle-House in London. Though he was a well-known inventor, he was not a good skater. He could not control his speed or direction and crashed into a large mirror, severely injuring himself and possibly setting back the sport of roller skating for years.

All the early skates were in-line, and the father of the modern, 4-wheel, easier to manuever skate is James L. Plimpton, who, I gathered from The Pandora Society, also founded the New York Roller Skating Association (NYRSA) and, on its behalf, rented the dining room of the Atlantic House, a resort hotel in Newport, to convert for open skating. And that, as they say, is history.


The image below is an engraving of Victorians skating indoors, and came from Curbed‘s interesting history of the roller rink, its attendant immoralities (!), and its growth with the nation, by Scott Garner.

Interior of a Victorian roller skating rinkPerhaps coincidentally, or not, this week is also the 35th anniversary of when the roller-skating-disco cinematic awesomeness that is Xanadu opened at the box office. It was about an artist who’s bored with his work and stuck in a rut until he meets one of the Muses. (Couldn’t we all use that kind of assistance?) People‘s Drew Mackie says:

Roller skating. Greek mythology. Hollywood. Olivia Newton-John. Gene Kelly. Electric Light Orchestra. By some measures, Xanadu should have been a hit.

It wasn’t, however. Upon its release in theaters on Aug. 8, 1980 – 35 years ago this week – the disco musical Xanadu was met with negative reviews and middling box office returns. That didn’t stop it, however, and this hypercolor fantasy has persisted, becoming a cult favorite in spite of its inauspicious beginnings.

XanaduIf you’re a glutton, as I am, you can read lots of little known facts about the production and the talented people involved, many of whom went on to do things better-received, though, to be fair, the soundtrack album was a mega-monster international hit. I also didn’t know the fact the film is kind of a sequel of a sequel and also, sadly, was Gene Kelly’s last, for which he choreographed the number he performed with Olivia Newton-John.

So yeah, having a dull day? Take yourself and you various pads and braces and helmets and grandchildren out to have some fun on wheels. After all, the Hickory Record tells me there’s a man who skates every week and just turned 89! Gene Elliott says, “I don’t feel old. When I get out there on that floor, it takes me a while to get loosened up but once I do, I’m back in my 60s and 70s.” I admit it, I have no excuse.

Skating Around the law by Joelle CharbonneauAnd because it’s Women of Mystery, I must also shout-out to Joelle Charbonneau, who’s since become hugely popular with her cool sff/dystopian adventures for younger readers, but who’s also written the Skating Series of mysteries, Book 1 being Skating Around the Law. Description: Rebecca Robbins is a woman on a mission–to sell the roller rink she inherited in her rural hometown and get back to her life in Chicago. Fast. What she didn’t count on was discovering a dead body head-first in a rink toilet. Now Rebecca is stuck in a small town where her former neighbors think she’s a city slicker who doesn’t belong, relying on a police department that’s better at gardening than solving crimes. With the help of a handsome veterinarian, a former circus camel, and her scarily frisky grandfather, Rebecca must discover the identity of the murderer before she becomes the next victim.

So, whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, hope you’re rolling on with summer fun!

Juror # 5

I am on jury duty this week and I have been selected for a trial. This is actually my third time as a jury member. One homicide. One dental malpractice civil suit. One criminal misdemeanor.


Did you ever see the thrilling drama Twelve Angry Men, in the classic movie, the excellent tv version or on stage a few years ago? 12-Angry-Men-Images

And of course who could ever forget the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird? Peck

Ah, actually it isn’t much like that. However, anyone who writes or reads about fictional crime would find this an interesting experience. Even the dental suit – a week of dental charts! – became interesting for the human interactions in the jury room. I met a man who works for Spike Lee on that one.

Since I cannot write about this time until it is done, and am kind of trapped, far from my computer, for the duration, this will be my brief post for today. A full report is promised as soon as I am sprung.

Anne of the Fens: Author Chat & Giveaway

image004Last Friday I posted about Gretchen Gibbs’ newly released Anne of the Fens,  a YA historical romance. What follows is my interview with Gretchen, but first let me tell you about our Giveaway: Readers who leave a comment following this post are entered in a contest to win a paperback copy of Anne of the Fens. I’ll announce the winner on Tuesday, May 12, so check back then. (Be sure to give me some way to reach you.)

Now, here’s Gretchen, who’ll be responding to comments and questions when she returns from her morning tennis game.

Congratulations, Gretchen, on publishing Anne
of the Fens!
  I’ll start with the hardest question: I think readers most want to know why they should read your book!  
“Thanks for inviting me! I can tell you some reasons why I think readers will like Anne. First, people say it’s a page-turner, what with a secret room in a castle, a handsome scoundrel, and a chase scene through the fens, no less. Anne of the Fens by Gretchen GibbsSecond, the novel’s a love story. Who can resist a romance? Third, it’s about a fascinating woman who became America’s first poet, Anne Dudley Bradstreet. She came to the Colonies on an ocean voyage fraught with hardship, and she bore eight children under circumstances of extreme deprivation. I thought, what kind of adolescence would such a strong woman have had?”

How did you get interested in Anne Bradstreet?   “I’ve always loved poetry, but IMaggie_Cover_Thumb
discovered Anne in a different way. My first novel, The Book of Maggie Bradstreet, told the story of the Colonial witch trials from the perspective of one of my ancestors, a young woman who found herself caught up in them. Anne Bradstreet was Maggie’s grandmother, and once I had told Maggie’s story I began to get interested in Anne as a character. I owe my interest, ultimately, to my mother, who discovered we’re descendants of the Bradstreets.”

What kind of research did you do for the book?   “I read a lot about Anne; there are several good biographies, the latest by Charlotte Gordon, and a number of books about Anne’s poetry. Then I discovered that intriguing, key fact: The family emigrated because of the traitor they housed. Not much is known about her childhood, but she wrote a few things in a notebook that her own children scribbled over. (She said she had been religious, but became ‘loose from God’ at fourteen or fifteen, when she was taken over by her carnal feelings.) I also read some English history, as I was unfamiliar with Charles I and his struggles with Parliament. I’m sure most Britons know all about that period, but Americans are apt to associate the name ‘King Charles’ with a handsome breed of spaniel!”

Given that kind of unfamiliarity, was it hard to set your book in England?   “I spent some time in England, where I found myself quite taken with the fen lands. Many people love mountains, and I admire them too, but I am often drawn to flat areas; oceans and big sky country, as they say in the American West. The fens were like that; they’ve been drained and filled in dramatically in the 400 years since Anne’s harrowing adventures, but there’s still that flatness. Tattershall was the only castle made of brick I’d ever seen – warm, and beautifully restored. Nearby Boston was a great town, with a street called “Wormgate,” and St. Botolph’s church, the largest in England, if you don’t count cathedrals. Seeing it helped me visualize the book’s first scene, where Anne runs after Sarah around the corner of the church.”

So what’s next? Anne of the Fens is the second in the Bradstreet Chronicles. Will there be a third?   “I’d love to write about Anne’s great-grandfather, who was from the nobility that Anne’s father was so proud of. At fourteen, he was a British spy. He was imprisoned twice in France, escaped both times, and became a Knight of Malta, which is where he lived.”

Thank you Gretchen. You’ve given us a real feel for Anne Bradstreet and your own enthusiasm.  “It’s been fun.
I’m happy to chat about Anne.

Read more about Gretchen and her young adult historical novels at www.gretchengibbs.com.

Don’t forget to comment here for a chance to win a copy of Anne of the Fens, then check back next Tuesday for the winner.

MWA Symposium

Mystery writers took over New York! Did the crime rate go up? No. Mostly we just talk about crime, though I did once hear the late, great Donald Westlake claim he learned about bank robbery by pulling a job. He was kidding. I think

EdgarThis is the week of the annual Mystery Writers of America get together.The Edgar Awards dinner. (“Dress to kill. Black tie preferred.”) A launch party for an MWA collection. Editors and agents invited to a cocktail party to meet mystery writers. Note to all: that is free for members. I’m not sure if anyone finds an agent that way, but it can be a fun way to meet and greet.

One day is usually a daylong symposium, a series of talks or panels that are a mystery writer’s mini-conference. Is it worth the fee? And a day away from work, whether day job or writing? And traveling if you are not in New York? I’m only a subway ride away, but some years the speakers were not exciting or the topics were just not useful enough for me. Another memorable year, the opening speaker was so terrific his talk alone was worth the entire price.

Plus, I was invited to meet various old friends for lunch and dinner. So there is that. Retired from my day job and mostly home writing, a day in Manhattan and some socializing obviously counts as a mental health day. 2 Pershing-Square

Herewith, my report. The opening session, on crossing genres, a topic of no interest to me, was lively and fun anyway, due to the smart, entertaining panelists. The second session on location, moderated by the distinguished reviewer, Oline Cogdill, was excellent. I made a potentially useful contact with one panelist, and on a frivolous note, I was fascinated to learn that Karin Slaughter is that famous writer’s real name, and that though she writes violent stories, she is in person a delicate-looking woman with a wispy voice and wispy hairdo. The third session, on research, was a little too wordy at times with five panelists but worthwhile anyway. One panelist, Julia Dahl, wrote an Edgar-nominated book about the Hasidic world in Brooklyn, and we had a conversation after about special Brooklyn resources. eagl0491

Otto Penzler interviewed new Grand Master James Ellroy. It won’t surprise anyone who’s read his books – or even a review of them!- that he is a pretty unusual person. It was impossible to figure out how much of the flamboyant, gonzo character was shtick,how much might be camouflage for whoever he really is, and how much is real.It was both entertaining and annoying. New Grand Master Lois Duncan was interviewed by Laura Lippman, so of course that was entirely a five-star interview, beginning to end.

Duncan Ellroy

Adding on the cocktail party, it was a very long day but worthwhile day.

Forget Pi Day, it’s what writers do Every Day!

Let’s play a game, shall we, you doomed-to-be creative types?

Tell me whether you can get through these events and items related to today’s date, 3/25, without even a tiny, unwelcome twinge of curiosity, or even worse, an idea. *shudders*

ConstantineIn the Julian Calendar, 325 (C.E.) was known as the Year of the Consulship of Proculus and Paulinus. It marked the year of the Council of Nicea, the beginning of the colossal marble head of Constantine, and the outlawing of gladiatorial combat in the Roman Empire.


PercocetThe prescription narcotic painkiller Percocet comes in a popular 325-stamped dose.




lennon-325John Lennon’s early guitar is an oft-discussed Rickenbacker 325, an unusual model nicknamed the “Hamburg,” because that’s where he got it.



Donald_WestlakeThere are new Seattle lofts under development at 325 Westlake, an address which can’t fail to remind me of one of my favorite authors, a crime-writing Grand Master who wrote “I believe my subject is bewilderment. But I could be wrong.”



Bobcat-325Bobcat makes a 325 Compact Excavator, designed for tight spaces, which “with its multi-attachment versatility, can dig everything from trenches to postholes, break up concrete and carve landscape features. Its compact size and rubber track flotation allows you to have excellent flotation through mud….”


bmw-325Who could forget BMW’s famous and very fast 325?




Winchester-325Or Winchester‘s?




USS-LST-325USS LST-325 is the designation for a tank landing ship (acronymed as landing ship, tank) launched in October, 1942. She participated in D-Day at Omaha Beach, Normandy, also the invasion of Sicily and Salerno in 1943. Surprisingly, she served for decades more as part of the Greek Navy, and now docks in Evansville, Indiana as a museum that still sails!


In addition, March 25th in history saw:

  • the founding of Venice
  • the first horse race in America
  • Sicily’s Mt Etna erupting
  • Sputnik carrying a dog into orbit
  • Cagney & Lacey’s TV premiere
  • the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
  • Elton John and Gloria Steinem and Jack Ruby born
  • the Boston Patriots becoming the New England Patriots (you know I had to mention!)
  • the Supreme Court’s ruling against “poll taxes”
  • the Great Dayton Flood
  • the first modern Olympics in Athens
  • Robert the Bruce’s crowning as King of Scots

How did you do? Most authors I know laugh, maniacally even, when people say they’ll supply a goldmine of an idea and all the writer has to do is execute it. Most writers don’t have any problem with getting ideas–they have much more trouble making them stop.

If you read this calmly and placidly with serene disinterest, experiencing not even a flicker of a “what if” crossing your mind, congratulations on having a Wednesday!

But as Flannery O’Connor, also born this day, once said: The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention. So if you couldn’t get through unscathed, well, you have my condolences. You might be a writer.

You may be right, but Poe’s handwriting makes me suspicious

There’s a new book, The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel by Jerome McGann, which is, very aptly, all about his poetry. (I’m ignorant enough not to have known what a fanboi Baudelaire was.) However, from reviewer Dominc Green’s perspective in The Weekly Standard (emphasis mine):

Poe is an acquired taste, like whiskey or opium. He was a poet in the way that William Blake was an artist: idiosyncratic and obscure, a commercial adventurer who lacked business sense, a marginal antagonist who became a national treasure, an etcher of sharp and violent lines with a dazzled eye for overdone color. His hero was Byron: a first-rate celebrity but a second-rate poet; really, a debauched Augustan. No less conventionally, Poe called Tennyson the greatest living poet. If Poe’s biography is Byron’s catastrophe on a budget, his poetry is Tennyson unhinged by Thomas de Quincey. As heroic Romanticism slides into boggling horror, meter becomes an avalanche.

Poe was a peerless self-destructor: He was a liar and a plagiarist, a drunk in the office and a beggar in the street, who pandered to a public he despised and married his 13-year-old cousin. McGann skirts the biographical disaster and concentrates on Poe’s writing. But without the tragic setting, Poe’s verse wilts into melodrama, and as McGann forgoes context, he takes Poe at his own assessment, which Poe, a chronic self-publicist, supplied in his marginalia and essays.

Well, okay, all this may be so–it’s certainly the commonly-held view of the wild rebelliousness and dangerous edge that Poe himself seems to have cultivated among readers to provoke and sell papers. Disclaimer: I’m cognizant of the incompleteness of my knowledge. I’m not saying that artifice is the only cause for Poe’s reputation and that it was nothing more than his flair for showmanship. But smart Poe people who I’ve asked seem to read in his words–some of which I got to peruse myself– that his self-cultivated sensationalism was at least part of the hype surrounding him. Now, when I’m reading florid summaries of Poe’s epically rock-n-roll ‘tude, I always think back to visiting the Poe exhibit at the Morgan library. Something popped out at me then that my own lying eyes cannot forget. I further blame my former stints as a bartender and all the mysteries and crime fiction I’ve read.

On diplay were many long scrolls of hand-written manuscripts in a beautiful hand, some impossibly small and perfectly-placed. For publicity and commemorative purposes, Poe made lavishly calligraphed works on scrolls. If you saw this kind of execution in Poe’s own hand–and perhaps you did, too, so share in the comments!– and the sheer volume of other documents, revised copies, bound books, and even ledgers in tiny, almost-impeccable script, you might have your doubts, too, about his being a career drunk. First of all, where would he have found the time to spend what must’ve been endless hours in painstaking transcription? For a guy on the hustle, and always in need of scratch, hours away from the writing board were hungry hours, and he did have his little family who he’s reputed to have cared for.

When people blithely cite Poe’s years of alcohol abuse, I think what they likely mean, and it’s a big difference, is long stints of near-teetotaling sobriety–which are documented in at least a couple spots by him as being his intention–punctuated with blackout binges. From the people I spoke to at the exhibit, it wasn’t even attested that Poe could really “put it away,” like a hard-core drunk. He was a small man and likely a lightweight. When he did fall off the wagon, he would’ve been a cheap date, to mix my metaphors. Perhaps his outsized reputation is why, at his death, people may have been dragging him around town, pouring ever more down him, not aware that a sporadic binger couldn’t tolerate it like a hollow-legged merchant marine. Then again, maybe they didn’t care.

Yes, writing was Poe’s business and he’d have had more automatic, muscle-memorized skills than many, but seriously. In a career drunk, as we say, the eyes go blinky and the hands go wobbly long before the liver fails. No man with regularly-pounding hangovers, throbbing vision, delirium tremens (or whatever else the popular perception of his condition) could have, in my view, penned the regularly exacting duplicating work I saw any more than one could be so impaired while illuminating in one’s monkish cubicle at the scriptorium or even painting on a grain of rice at the mall. The advent of word processors, with their endless, invisible corrections was a gift to sozzled writers everywhere.

1849-Poe-EssayThe document above is not able to be enlarged to readability (sorry!), but it is a page from an essay Poe handwrote in 1849, the year he died. The image and dimensions are from the PoeMuseum.org. This page, one of three, is 10″ x 8″. It’s far from the tightest, cleanest copy I saw. Nonetheless, as I roughly calculate it by number of lines and word spacing, to fit all this onto the page, around 500 words, Poe’s work here is approximately 11pt font, single-spaced. I’m not sure I can do that now, and I know I can’t do it evenly and legibly.

Edgar-Allan-Poe-Analyzes-HandwritingMaybe that’s why I noticed his penmanship after all, because mine is so foul. But Poe was so attentive to the art, he actually wrote his own treatise on graphology, including literary criticism and analysis of major literary figures of his time.

To me, this is exactly the kind of situation where a visit to a museum or archive to look at the original source material can offer so much more food for thought than just a transcription of words that were on the page. Whether I’m right (or write), after seeing the flourishes of all his beautiful words, I’ll never look at Poe the same way, and I’ll never be able to take those “everybody knows” biographical claims of his grinding, utter dissolution at purely face value.

That’s only my opinion–feel free to share yours!

A Character by Any Other Name

I don’t know what your process is in naming character, but I put a lot of thought and research into it. I want to be sure my character’s name suits the personality, the family and background, and the growth process during the book. There are some great names from famous mystery writers that I tend to think will always be around.

ThinManNick and Nora Charles were the sophisticated investigators created by Dashill Hammett for his novel, The Thin Man. Who could forget this engaging couple and their adventures? They still show up regularly in crossword puzzles and on the old movie channels. I love their elegance and sharp wit when pursuing mysteries.


Agatha Christie has perhaps the most famous amateur sleuths with Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. These mysteries were complicated and often filled with a large cast of characters who were all suspect.

An editor recently asked us to stop giving everyone in our small town names. She said there were too many people who readers needed to identify so we began saying thing like “the man who owned the hardware store” and “the librarian, who had been working in the school system for too many years.” This became a painful process for us because we’d gotten to know the people in the town, and we felt it took away a layer of the story that gave it more warmth.

OrientExpressI think I can safely say that Murder on the Orient Express is my favorite Christie book. It was a compelling story with a lot of double entendres and secrets. Going through the investigative process with Poirot while having everyone trapped on the train was fascinating. I do love that story and am equally fascinated with the movie. The cast was brilliant and gave excellent performances. There were so many characters it’s difficult to name them all here, but they had a connection with the American who was stabbed many, many times during the night on the train. The story unravels slowly and feels you with a strong sense of justice being done.

DeadlineOther characters I’ve appreciated through the years include Hieronymus Bosch, the dedicated LA cop created by Michael Connelly. I also enjoy J.A. Jance’s Joanna Brady and J.P. Beaumont, two very different people who solve crimes in their own way. As I mentioned before, Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, characters created by John Sandford are two of my absolute favorites. and who can forget Eve Dallas and Roark. I enjoy the futuristic element in these police procedurals.

I could probably go on for hours about great characters names like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March will always be with me. I also enjoy The Five Little Peppers, and felt their names fit perfectly.

Mysteries will always be popular, and I always think about the name I’m using just in case it ends up being in crossword puzzles and movie references. I want to be sure it will look and sound good.

Share some of your favorite character names! I’d love to hear from you.



BJ Bourg: Righting Crime Fiction

BJ Bourg, crime fiction writer and publisher of Mouth Full of Bullets, a webzine that ran from 2006-2008 and published over 120 writers (including this one), has worked in law enforcement for twenty-four years. He recently announced the inception of Righting Crime Fiction, a blog designed to provide crime fiction writers with accurate information regarding aspects of police procedure.

The current issue, the third in a series on guns and ammunition, focuses on spent casings, how they’re deposited at a crime scene and what they reveal to the investigating detective. As you’ll see when you check out the blog, the information is detailed, clearly presented and illustrated with photographs as well as video clips.

In addition, BJ generously invites writers to contact him (rcf@bjbourg.com)  if they need information on a specific topic.

Righting Crime Fiction promises to be a great resource.

Women of Mystery (and Graves) in the New York Times!

Our own Triss Stein and I both attended last Sunday’s event, held as a joint fundraiser and writers workshop by the Woodlawn cemetery’s Conservancy and MWA’s New York Chapter. Here’s a tidbit from the NYT article by James Barron:

The question was about the shotgun shells. Had anybody actually used shells that were made that way, or were they just keepsakes?

“Actually used,” Ernie Kassoff said from behind a lectern.

Mr. Kassoff said the shotgun shells had been made with ashes from a body that had been cremated.

Tell that to an audience of mystery writers, as Mr. Kassoff did on Sunday, and possible plot points whirl. “I thought, ‘What could I do with that?’ “ said Triss Stein, who has written two mysteries set in Brooklyn, where she lives. “It’s so weird, and that’s what writers want.”

I’m pretty sure that with her name and the word Brooklyn, anyone will be able to find her fine series, including the latest, set largely in Woodlawn’s sister cemetery in Brooklyn, Green-Wood, and also featuring abundant Tiffany glass.

Sunday was purely gorgeous, sunny and in the low 60s with an autumnal nip in the air. The art and monuments on the site were inspiring. I kept losing my tour group as I stopped for photos. I will not inflict every one of those pictures on you (yet) and may be saving some for another purpose–more on that later, I hope. But here I present some goodies from the day that I think writers will really appreciate. One of our three sections of presentations was given by Mitch Rose, CEO and President of The Woodlawn Cemetery. He delivered the Interment and Entombment section with lots of backstage, operational information, talking us through a gold mine of info in our folders! Pardon all the blurs in my cell phone photos, my under-caffeinated hands were shaking.

Within this handsome and colorful folder reside bunches of brochures and site information, also copies of relevant forms and laws used, so handy for nosy writers!


L to R: Packet of plot information, forms, and interment orders–better focused items from this below/ also an Authorization for Cremation and Disposition/ even a set of the New York State Crematory Regulations!

Below is an order for interment (burial). You can see it has all the information about who and where and when, not to mention the status of payment. Cemeteries look bad suing people, so all fees and costs must be paid in advance or at “time of need.” Without a death certificate and one of these, nothing happens.


Order for Interment

But sometimes, after an interment, there needs to be a reversal or a do-over. Thus, the disinterment permit below. Disinterment or exhumation happens more often than most people imagine, we were told. Families get new plots, relocate, there are actually many reasons people want to and do move the already-buried.


Disinterment Permit

And that’s where this next one comes in. If family members are in dispute about which wife is being buried on Dad’s right side, or who has the right to relocate Aunt Edna, unless there are specific legal documents to the contrary (and most people just don’t bother or want to think about it), later on, the legal priority of those claims will be established through lineage. This chart explains the order of who gets to make the calls.


A chart of lineage showing the legal priority of descendants.

That’s just a taste of the nuts-and-bolts info we got, and we had 2 other sections in the morning, including Cremation with Ernie, who’s mentioned in the NYT article linked above. He had a slide show with pictures of the equipment and its operation, and had tons of slightly ghoulish and fascinating information to share about the history and popularity of the practice. Did you know that about 42% of people are cremated now? They think it will be over half in another decade.

In our third section, we also all got to tour highlights of the grounds with Susan Olsen, Woodlawn’s Director of Historical Services, who did the lion’s share of organizing this event (thanks to her volunteers as well!). She spear-headed it because of her own love for crime writing and desire to see authors get the information right. One of the places we viewed is the famous Harbeck mausoleum, incredible inside and out for its architectural grandeur and Tiffany windows. Since my images are still in my memory card, I borrowed this magnificent photo of it at night from the Woodlawn Cemetery’s website. It’s part of a collection by Gavin Ashworth, and you can browse much more of the history with gorgeous images through a brand-new book, Sylvan Cemetery: Architecture, Art and Landscape at Woodlawn, released concurrently with an exhibit of even more images and materials at Columbia University through November 1, 2014.

Harbeck-at-NightAfter the three “stations,” we had a picnic box lunch before beginning the afternoon with author panels in the Woolworth Chapel. The first panel featured bestselling authors Linda Fairstein and Heather Graham discussing their personal and literary connections to cemeteries, as well as their research methods. Then there was a slideshow of international funerary art by novelist and travel writer Hilary Davidson, who joined Lyndsay Faye and the legendary (but perfectly real) Lawrence Block for the final panel discussion of the afternoon.

Woodlawn-Authors-and Clare

L to R: Lawrence Block, Heather Graham, me (grinning like a plum fool–wouldn’t you?), Lyndsay Faye, Hilary Davidson, and Linda Fairstein.

Closing out the afternoon, we got goody bags (see examples in front of the authors), with this essential writer’s tool.


Woodlawn Mug- mine’s already broken in.

Heather Graham also gifted us all with books–how cool! This one’s set in Salem, Massachusetts, with a distinctly post-mortem vibe.

Hexed-by-Heather-Graham-swagAnd last, here’s a little event souvenir I put together for attendees to get signed, because who knows when these leading lights shall be assembled again, or at least, who knows when else we could ever get people to sign their own gravestones? : )

Autographed-CardI think a great day was had by all, and I hope to have more images and info to come, but right now… I seriously need more coffee, dark, dark, dark as the grave.