Tuesday, December 23, 2008
In each of my "Snap" Malek Chicago historical mysteries, I immerse myself in the microfilm of Chicago newspapers from the 1920s and '30s at local libraries. When I tell friends how much time I spend poring over these pages, they roll their eyes, and I can almost see the word "geek" in the imaginary thought balloons above their heads.
Fact is, I relish spending hours on these old files, perhaps to the point of obsession. From them, I get all sorts of nuggets that help, I think, add color to my stories of a Chicago of decades past. In a 1938 paper, I learned Helen Hayes was in Chicago in the drama "Victoria Regina," where as Queen Victoria she aged 50 years each night on stage. I inserted Miss Hayes into my first Malek novel, "Three Strikes You're Dead," set in '38.
When researching my soon-to-be-published fourth Malek book, "A President in Peril," set in 1948, I discovered that was the year maverick automaker Preston Tucker built his revolutionary but doomed Tucker Torpedo cars in Chicago. In the book, Malek meets the man and test drives one of his autos.
There's a drawback to my microfilm fixation: Going through these files, I get sidetracked by all manner of interesting tidbits that will never make the printed page. For as friend and fellow author Max Allan Collins counsels, don't feel you must put every kernel you've gleaned into the finished product.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
I love to do research for my books. I enjoy research just because…just because I heard or read a word I’d never encountered before. What is its origin?
In the next Grace Marsden, The Innkeeper: An Unregistered Death, I present a cold case involving slaves and the Underground Railroad. During the course of my research I discovered stories about quilts used to signal ‘freedom seekers’. A quilt laid over a porch railing could either give directions or indicate it was safe to approach the house.
I became intrigued with the various symbols hidden in plain sight. My research led me to websites where I realized there were thousands of people interested in the subject.
In casual conversation about the book I discovered several people who I thought I knew well who revealed their interest in quilts and quilt making. I discovered societies for quilt making and quilt makers. My long time neighbor, who collects quilts, offered to help me put together a quilt depicting the Log Cabin design.
Does anyone make quilts with symbols from the Underground Railroad.? I’d love to hear about your quilts, maybe see some photos. I’m fascinated by this visual art form that served as a successful life-saving method of communication. The layers of meaning appeal to me; anyone else get that sense of full circle from that type of quilt?
I am embarking on my first quilt this holiday season. My neighbor, who is a grade school teacher, has time over her break to teach me. We have chosen the design and the pieces. I’m looking forward to spending my spare time learning a new art form.
I should be spending that time writing the next Grace Marsden but I can’t do two art forms at the same time. The compulsive format in my head allows concentration for only one project at a time.
Fortunately, I can walk and chew gum but I choose not to.
My next book, The Re-Enactor: A Staged Death, has a cold case involving Civil War re-enactors. I hope I don’t become obsessed with that period's clothing or lifestyle—I enjoy my jeans and my flush toilet!
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The organization is Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, a group of former and current athletes. CBCC has raised more than $12 million for cancer care, education, and research programs at Chicago hospitals. It also supports Camp One Step at a Time, a summer event for children with cancer.
The mass book signing, with at least 10 contributors on hand, was held in a North Side Chicago bar. I don't know who had the most fun, the folks who bought the books or the authors, all of whom--if I can speak for myself--came away feeling awfully good because they were part of a project that was both enjoyable and worthwhile.
For information on ordering "Cubbie Blues," go to www.cantmisspress.com
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Far-fetched? Maybe. But not nearly as far-fetched as what's been happening in Chicago lately. Unless you've been vacationing in the mountains of Nepal, you know that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been charged with an outlandish series of acts including trying to "sell" the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama and witholding state funds to a children's hospital unless they sent $50,000 his way.
How can fiction compete? No less a hardened observer of the Windy City scene than attorney and best-selling author Scott Turow wrote in the New York Times that "Even by Chicago's picaresque standards, Tuesday's events are mind-boggling." Indeed. Not long ago, I had this idea to build a plot in which a fictional Illinois governor has an affair and...oh, never mind. Now it all sounds pretty lame.
Monday, December 8, 2008
This annual event creates a winter wonderland for visitors. The zoo keeps animal buildings open until 8 p.m. and Docents are on hand to answer questions and help children with crafts and puppet plays.
The Holly Jolly Theatre provides entertainment from magicians to dance troupes to those Funny Little People. High school choirs and girl scout troops carol at different buildings.
Guest Guides lead visitors in singing to the animals at Bears Grotto, Dolphin Underwater Viewing and Big Cats. The park is awash with lights and color; it reverberates with laughter and song.
As in most years, I volunteer to be a town crier. I get to wear a festive cape and Santa hat and carry bells to ring and welcome guests as they enter the park. Town criers answer logistics questions—where’s the bathroom, where’s the Elf Train, what time is the laser show, where’s the laser show, is the tram running, et al.
I used the zoo as a setting for my second book, The Lion Tamer: A Caged Death. The mystery was set in the spring at another well known event, The Whirl. Every year when I sign up to work Holiday Magic I consider setting another mystery at the zoo during this event. The open parts of the park are brimming with light but the off limit paths are dark and uninviting. My imagination could conceive of evil lurking on the edge of joy.
Then I work the event and meet the groups of people who plan their holiday season around visiting the zoo and singing to their favorite animal. I watch as a group of girls comes upon the costume character Frosty and burst into an unexpectedly good rendition of Frosty the Snowman. I marvel at the grins on their teen age faces as I offer to take a picture of them with Frosty.
After an evening in the park greeting families and directing them to events then later thanking people for attending and wishing them Happy Christmas I remember why I’ve never set a murder mystery during Holiday Magic. People are smiling, singing, thanking me for thanking them as they leave. Children are stopping to wish me a Merry Christmas; they’re telling me about all the things they did, showing me their crafts, relating how they sang to the Polar Bear cub, Hudson. How could I possibly mar the magic with murder?
Does anyone have ‘off limits’ topics? Anything you’re too close to or involved with to be able to turn it bleak or dark?
Once again, I glanced at the dark areas of the zoo and decided to leave them off the page of the magical season at Brookfield Zoo.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Why, oh why, do these men and women seem to take particular satisfaction in telling us of approaching misery? You know the drill. It starts with an on-air promo for the upcoming news that goes something like this: "Brace yourself for the biggest (pick one) blizzard, windstorm, deluge, heat wave...in years! Details at 10!"
Okay, so it's important to be forewarned of impending trouble. But so often it appears that the weather folks relish delivering gloomy news, and are crushed when the worst doesn't happen. Here's a recent example on a Chicago TV station.
All day, we heard about a big, really big, snowsorm bearing down on us. We braced, and braced...and the storm fizzled out, giving us only a dusting. When the weather guy came on, he was, to say the least, deflated. "It just sort of, well...fell apart," he told the audience dejectedly. "It...didn't materialize."
It was pathetic to watch. His dreams of five-foot drifts and massive traffic tieups had been dashed, at least for the present. Almost everybody in the Chicago area was happy that December night. Almost everybody.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
“Mom, if it’s fiction it’s make believe, right? I mean you make it up and it’s not the truth, right? And it’s okay to do that, right?”
Three interrogatory ‘rights’ from my son and I knew something was wrong.
He squirmed through my interrogation and finally coughed up the note home from his teacher that I had to sign for class the next day. He’d been caught ‘writing fiction’ about two boys in grade six who had terrorized the younger kids on the playground. His fiction included unfounded facts about their upbringing that he may have heard at the dinner table. (‘raised by wolves’ was meant as a figure of speech; who knew he paid attention to anything I said.)
The teacher wasn’t particularly upset, having had those boys in her class two years earlier, but none the less a note had to come home.
So how real does fiction have to be?
When we ask our readers to suspend their disbelief we need to give those readers a tenable, alternate belief system.
The facts on which we build our stories must be commonly acknowledged to be true. We chose non refutable facts—true events, real people, actual locations and time periods then anchor a layer of our version of all of the above to those facts.
My new Grace Marsden mystery, The Inn Keeper: An Unregistered Death, involves elements of the Underground Railroad in Illinois.
Fact: An Underground Railroad operated in the Hinsdale area at Graue Mill.
Fact: Frederick Graue and his wife Mary hid freedom seekers from slave catchers.
Fiction: Frederick Graue had a brother who pretended to be an abolitionist.
Fiction: This brother had a home in Oak Park.
Fact: A known Underground Railroad station was in Maywood, Illinois.
Fact: Stations sometimes had secret panels to secret rooms and underground tunnels.
Fiction: Hidden cupboards are discovered during a rehab of the Oak Park home.
What are the differentiators between the fact and fiction statements? Could they be successfully interchanged?
If readers can ‘hang their hat’ on some of the statements why not all? There in lies the weaving of the story we want to tell in the framework we agree to be true.
I love a mystery that could have happened if only this or that slight change in reality had occurred. Who is to say it couldn’t? If we’ve done our job properly—no one!
Monday, November 17, 2008
A couple of things struck us, though: One, the lack of facilities for the disabled in the vast Underground (subway) system. On numeous occasions, we saw people struggling on stairs with canes and crutches or a baby carriage because of an absence of elevators. Two, the West End theater is still flourishing but playbills are no longer free. They cost 3 pounds, or about $4.50!
Enough with the complaints. This remains the city of which the esteemed Dr. Samuel Johnson spoke 200-plus years ago: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."
Sunday, November 16, 2008
I don’t know who said that. I saw it in print with the tag ‘unknown author’.
I cut it out and tacked it to my cork board thirty years ago. I had it put on a plaque for my niece when she graduated high school, my character, Grace Marsden, has it on her bulletin board, I use it on my email signature and I’ve said it to my son from the time he was a toddler.
Perhaps I should have been shouting it to my peers. I see friends approaching retirement and fretting (yes, I still use that word) about what they’ll do—not financially (although that’s an issue) but physically when they no longer march to the tune of gainful employment. My friends, as I am, are the Boomer generation, a group which has been tagged as those ‘living to work’ therefore defined by an employer, a position, a title.
Have we been working in dream jobs or defining careers? When we leave those careers, as 70 million of us will over the next ten years (the rate of one boomer retiring every 8 seconds), what will we do to re-define who we are?
Will we succumb to a sedentary life style that our parents most likely embraced after years on the assembly line or in the secretarial pool?
Nope, I think not. We are the children of the sixties. We dreamed first, grew up fast, worked hard and I hope will retire to dream again.
Boomer at Large
Monday, November 10, 2008
My Alma mater, Dominican University in River Forest, IL always offers a Memoriam Mass on the appropriate Sunday. As an undergraduate at Rosary College (before the name change) I loved attending mass in the beautiful chapel.
The mass for All Souls Day brought back those memories even though the attendees filled the chapel and the reading room adjacent to the chapel. I was honored to carry, in the processional, the picture of Mother Emily Power, for whom a student dorm is named. Over thirty participants carried icons and candles through the chapel placing them at their stations of honor during the mass.
The feelings of union in Christ and His purpose settled over the people as it had before during so many masses I attended.
Our coming together in our faith to remember and celebrate our deceased loved ones bonded us sincerely and totally for those sixty minutes of worship.
After the mass, the school provided a lovely brunch for those in attendance; a great time to catch up with friends and faculty.
Elegance and genuineness don’t often dwell in the same space. Not so in the Rosary Chapel on that morning.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
I used to be a binge writer, taking a vacation day from work to write all day. In a few weeks I’d repeat the process. Subsequent binges required I re-read the pages from the previous binge. The process became more re-reading to get the threads firmly in my hands and less writing.
I shifted to weekend writing in the upstairs bedroom which served as the “office” for my husband and general junk room for the family. When you work in someone’s office or in the family storage room you’re most likely going to be interrupted by someone or the family or both and especially on the weekend.
The perfect arrangement came in the form of an old desk that I received from the alumni director after I presented my debut novel, The Rosary Bride, at my alma mater’s reunion weekend at Rosary College. The college was upgrading the dorm furniture and classic hutch type desks were available.
The photo of me on my website is taken at that desk which is tucked in a corner of the landing on the second floor. I’m a daily writer now, rising at 5 a.m. most days and writing for two hours before I get ready for work. When everyone else starts stirring I stop writing and join in the family flow.
I have a corner window the view mostly filled with a sturdy crab apple tree. I have my reference books on the built-in shelves and I have my solitude. I have my laptop that I share with no one. Writing is a solitary adventure requiring the right place and the right time to make it happen. It happens for me in the wee hours in a room of my own right out in the open.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Kit was home this weekend. He had dinner with us last night. He wanted a home-cooked meal so his dad made grilled pork chops, baked potatoes and corn for our hungry college kid. Within an hour he’d eaten, chatted and prepared to head out the door to meet up with his friends. He threatened us with the prospect that they might all come back to the house afterwards. To a college aged kid ‘afterwards’ means after 11:00 p.m. Of course we’d be fast asleep by then.
His plan for Saturday was interesting: use his dad’s excellent chili recipe to make enough chili to take back to the dorm so they could eat chili while they watched the Bears game, cut down two tree branches from lopsided snow crab (loves that chain-saw), use my car (not his gas) and spend time with his friends the rest of the day.
On Sunday he’d sleep till the last possible moment, get up and rush to get ready for church then leave for school right after so he could catch up with the friends he hadn’t seen since Friday! Somewhere in the itinerary I thought I heard ‘get in some studying’. Don’t think it’s my hearing—his otherwise clear speech disintegrates into mumbles after parental questions.
No matter; he’s home for two days. He brought home his laundry. What a son, he knows how to make my day. Hopeless aren’t I?
Monday, October 13, 2008
First off, our youngest, Bonnie, ran the great Chicago Marathon, along with 31,000-plus others. A first-timer, she finished the 26.2-mile race–not in the time she hoped for–but she did finish, footsore but ambulatory.
That’s good news, but it’s only part of the good news. Her three siblings all jumped into the race at various points along the way to “push her along.”
Colleen, who drove in from the suburbs with her husband and three small daughters, ran with Bonnie for a couple of miles at about the midpoint of the marathon.
Suzy came along a bit later, as did brother Bob, and the two of them ran with her for much of the final stretch, with Bob right alongside her until it came time to enter the chute at the finish line. And Janet and I even joined in at mile 25 and jogged with her for a few blocks. Hardly grueling on our part, to be sure, but we were flying the family flag.
Bonnie got her marathon medal, and the rest of us got untold satisfaction.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
People ask me if I’d like to write that breakthrough book so I can give up my day job. My paycheck is my passion. So is writing.
Can a person have two passions? I own an employment agency (The Hire Solution) that helps people, mainly women, find jobs. I have been an employment counselor for thirty years and I can’t imagine not helping people find new jobs.
I’ve been writing for longer than thirty years; published since 2003. Even when I wasn’t earning money with my writing I still wrote. That’s passion, or stubbornness.
When people say they’ve read my books and enjoyed them, I grin from ear to ear. How lovely to get paid to give people a few hours of enjoyment.
When I find a job for someone, I change their lives. Sometimes I get a card like the one that said, “Not only did you find me a job but you helped me get my self worth back.” The single mom I placed two weeks before Christmas, thanked me because now that she knew she had a job she could afford to buy her kids Christmas gifts.
That made my soul smile.
In July, Today’s Chicago Woman Magazine did an article about women who balance work and home and passion. I was thrilled to be included.
Monday, October 6, 2008
A baseball franchise that hasn’t won a World Series for 100 years will now have to move into its second century of futility. The team that showed so much promise throughout the season—they finished with the best record in the National League—imploded in a three-game playoff series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, losing three straight games and being outscored 20 runs to 6.
As a longtime Cub fan whose ardor has cooled in recent years, I felt somehow strangely detached during these games, as if I knew precisely what was coming and accepted it with a fatalistic passivity. Sometime early in the second game of this series rout, I knew beyond any doubt that the Cubs were finished, wiped out decisively.
What now? Long-suffering Cub loyalists will no doubt fill Wrigley Field to capacity for every game again in 2009, ignoring the jibes from White Sox fans who can justly claim that their team did not collapse this year the way the Cubs did yet again.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
It’s not as bad as it sounds. The Sunday that Hurricane Ike raced through Illinois produced two days of torrential rain that dropped over 8 inches of water on the ground.
Brookfield Zoo experienced something that had never happened during their entire history—the zoo didn’t open for business.
I’m a docent at the zoo and it was my duty day. I received a phone call an hour before my sign in time alerting me to the problem at the zoo. Security requested that all non-essential personnel be cancelled.
Most flood victims worry about rising water because of damage to property. At the zoo, keepers worried about flooded moats. When the moats at certain exhibits, (big cats, wolves, and polar bears), fill to the top, those animals could swim out to “our” side of the exhibit!
There was an occurrence years ago when the polar bear moat filled with water to the point where the two bears were able to swim to fence and climb over with ease. I didn’t volunteer there at the time but the story goes that the park was already opened and filling with visitors when someone alerted security that a polar bear was loose at Bears Grotto.
The park is prepared for most contingencies and an immediate evacuation took place.
The rest of the story in the telling and re-telling sounds like a hoot. I don't know how much embellishment has occured but the story is that three keepers in a golf cart drove to the flooded exhibit. One rode shotgun (literally carrying a tranquilizer pellet prepared for a bear size animal) while the other drove and the third laid a path using polar bear comfort food (fish and more fish) back across the fence.
At the same time keepers from inside the exhibit were stocking the area near the door to off exhibit with more lures. The dilemma was how to coax these huge land mammals back across the moat and into their den before the water level dropped and the bears were trapped outside.
The plan worked and the two bears decided to go for the “picnic basket” instead of roaming for food. Whew!
So when the call came that Sunday morning you can imagine my first question. Rose answered before I finished asking. “The bears were brought in hours ago!”
An ounce of prevention worth 1,000 pounds of cure!
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Armed with my cut out milk gallon, 100 bags of peanuts, and a nifty orange-tie at the sides-over your head KIWANIS PEANUT DAY vest.
My goal---to collect donations from motorists on their way into work. The day was sunny and warm, most people were smiling (it is after all a worthy cause for which you get peanuts and it is FRIDAY.
Traffic lights at a 4-way intersection are tricky. Not all light sequences are created equal. The light that stayed red for a count of 12 seconds doesn’t synch with the left turn arrow on cross traffic.
I’m sure it works well for traffic; not too good for middle age volunteers accustomed to sitting in a car, not standing outside in the midst of them.
I was styling, tan open-toed flats, long tan Capris, and a butternut sweater set, drop earrings and matching big bead necklace. The peanut coordinator said I looked elegant. Of course, he’d been up since 4:30!
Mission accomplished! I gave out all my peanut bags, smiled and exchanged pleasantries with at least 100 new friends. Last step was to turn in my money jug at the local bank.
My reward---doing a small thing to help a great cause. And oh, yes, I went to Burger King to relax with a cuppa Joe and those cute hash brown tots. I was in my office by 9:45 am. Not a bad morning.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Luisa Scala Buehler grew up in the town of Berkeley, IL, a suburb of Chicago.
Her parents made the decision to sell their home on the west side of the city. The small bungalow on Victoria Street was perfect for her family: two parents, older brother and an uncle.
Her first exposure to a public library was the small "volunteer" library located in the basement of a grocery store on Taft Avenue. It was there that she discovered Nancy Drew. Luisa realized that this would be her career; not girl detective, but girl mystery writer. About that time, her family subscribed to the Sunday paper and Luisa found another fascinating role model in the comic pages, Brenda Starr, reporter!
Luisa attended Proviso West High School in Hillside, IL where she immediately joined the newspaper staff. Her advisor suggested that she try another release for her writing when she continually failed to meet deadlines for the tabloid. Her articles were stirring but they never made it to press on time.
Luisa shifted to the yearbook staff, rationalizing that she would have an entire year to submit her copy.
Her desire to major in English was no surprise to anyone who knew her. She attended Rosary College in River Forest, IL and completed her B.A. degree in English in three years. She was anxious to start working at her new job at the Chicago Sun Times-Daily News. Her intention was to write for the paper, but her reality was typing up ads as an ad-taker in the classified department of the paper.
Life doesn't always take a straight line towards a goal. Luisa transferred to inside sales on the Stamps and Coins Desk selling ads for that department and then to outside sales selling classified ads to employment agencies located in the Loop.
A small start-up magazine called Environs recruited her. The magazine covered the near west suburbs. The offer was to sell ads, write articles, and even model, when necessary, for some of the ads.
The line to a writing career blurred again when the magazine closed shop and Luisa found a job as a production assistant in a steel company in Broadview, IL. She was promoted to inside sales after her supervisor recognized her innate ease in dealing with people. She was laid off from that company during the steel industry downturn in the seventies.
Searching the classifieds for a new job, Luisa spotted the name of a friend from high school in one of the help wanted ads. She called, interviewed and hired on at Wide Scope Staffing Services, Inc.
Her writing skills were discovered when she fell back on her training from the Sun Times and started writing all the company help wanted ads. She offered to write some marketing pieces, promotional material, resumes, and letters to customers.
Luisa joined the volunteer Docent program at Brookfield Zoo in 1987 to pursue her interest in animals. An earlier idea, to write children's books seemed to fit with her duties at the zoo. She answered questions from zoo-goers concerning animal habitat, behaviors, type of food and the number one non-animal question, where is the closest restroom?
Through the years that followed Luisa wrote many business pieces, but also short stories, poems, garden journals, and ultimately The Rosary Bride: A Cloistered Death. After submitting her writing for five years without gaining publishing success, Luisa put the novel away and took up the position of Webelos Leader with her son Christopher's Cub Scout pack. She continued to write, starting her second mystery. She continued in scouting as her son bridged over to Boy Scouts by becoming a trained leader for Troop 562 in Woodridge, IL.
In 2002, two events played a major role in Luisa's life. She successfully bid for, bought the company she had worked for since 1977, and she signed a publishing contract for The Rosary Bride.
With two major hats to wear, Luisa sincerely tells people to, "Be careful what you pray for."
She lives in Lisle, IL with her husband Gerry, their son Chris (Kit), and family cat, Martin Marmalade. In her spare time, Luisa loves to garden.
You can visit Luisa's web site at
In his early teens, Robert Goldsborough began reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. This started when he complained to his mother one summer day that he had 'nothing to do.' An avid reader of the Wolfe stories, she gave him a magazine serialization, and he became hooked on the adventures of the corpulent Nero and his irreverent sidekick, Archie Goodwin.
Through his school years and beyond, Goldsborough devoured virtually all of the 70-plus Wolfe mysteries. It was during his tenure with the Chicago Tribune that the paper printed the obituary of Rex Stout. On reading it, his mother lamented that 'Now there won’t be any more Nero Wolfe stories.'
'There might be one more,' Goldsborough mused, and began writing an original Wolfe novel for his mother. As a bound typescript, this story, 'Murder in E Minor,' became a Christmas present to her in 1978. For years, that’s all the story was–a typescript. But in the mid-80s, Goldsborough received permission from the Stout estate to publish 'E Minor,' which appeared as a Bantam hardcover, then paperback. Six more Wolfe novels followed, to favorable reviews.
But as much as he enjoyed writing these books, Goldsborough longed to create his own characters, which he has done in 'Three Strikes Your Dead,' set in the gang-ridden Chicago of the late 1930s and narrated by a Tribune police reporter.
Goldsborough, a lifelong Chicagoan who has logged 45 years as a writer and editor with the Tribune and with marketing journal Advertising Age, says it was 'Probably inevitable that I would end up using a newspaperman as my protagonist.'