royal caribbean oasis of the seas
Oasis of the Seas
If you’ve been wishing to study with me in person while drinking mojitos, this is it! Royal Caribbean is partnering with Florida-based Go Travel to introduce "Forensics at Sea: Mystery Writers Cruise" a 7-day western Caribbean cruise on Oasis of the Seas, sailing March 31-April 7, 2019 from Port Canaveral, FL. I’ll be giving an expanded version of my Mystery-Thriller Workshop. And I’ll be joined by Kelly Gillis, coroner and forensic anthropologist, and Jeffry Mouer, crime scene specialist and advisor to TV’s "Forensic Files."

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Thieves


Zestful Blog Post #286

I bet some of you remember Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, a counterculture guide that came out in 1971. I bought a copy, which tells you something about my ethics then. However, I did read it avidly and, being an impressionable youth, wished I had the guts to try some of Hoffman’s ideas for ‘sticking it to the man,’ like demanding my free buffalo from the federal government, or pretending I was hungry and broke to get food from trusting churches. Some of the stuff in it seemed just stupid to me, though, like pasting a postpaid piece of junk mail to a brick and dropping it in a mailbox so whatever corporation had to pay the postage due. Another uncomfortable one was going into a busy restaurant and eating leftover food before the tables get cleared. Ew. Not that I've led a shame-free life.

I worked in bookselling for ten years in the 1980s and 90s, first as a floor clerk (in a bookstore owned by two brothers named Tom and Louis Borders), then as a manager and regional executive. Lots of people would come in and steal books. We had a pretty good idea of how many books we lost to shrink (the retail euphemism) because once a year, we'd do a physical inventory count. You compare the stuff you have on hand with the list of stuff that's supposed to be in the store, and the difference is shrink, or shrinkage. We lost a lot of inventory.

It was rare to catch a thief in the act. We had no security staff or hidden cameras. Furthermore, it was assumed that staff would not steal, especially since everybody got $25 worth of store credit every month, plus a 25% discount on everything. What can I say? Borders, in those days, was a small company in the Midwest. And I think very few employees stole; giving stuff away to employees is a good way to create good will. When the company got big, financial experts came in and convinced top management to take away store credit, and the employee discount went down to 10%, if I remember right. (Members of the corporate board of directors got 25%, which as you might imagine went over great with the rank and file.) Stores also got primitive security systems, which at first were a joke, then got somewhat better.


 [A look at my home sports-and-leisure, nature, and reference sections.]

Scammers would try many tricks, from trying to return stolen books for cash, to paying with bad checks, to claiming to have lost a gift certificate to fire, pet digestion, or other imaginative mishap.

The vast majority of thieves got away. But once in a while, staff would spot somebody and realize they weren't a legitimate customer. There was one guy who focused on the computer book section. Pound for pound, computer books tended to be higher-priced, and they were easy to sell to used-bookstores. This fellow would appear to be browsing the low bookcases, taking a few books off the shelf, then he'd dip down into a squat where he was hidden from view. Then he'd rise up, empty-handed but bulkier around the middle, and hustle out the door to his car.

I didn't have the nerve to confront the guy (and by the time I could get the police there he'd have been long gone), but I did follow him to his car after I clearly saw him steal. I made sure he saw me, made sure he knew I knew, and watched him go, writing down his license plate number. Never saw him again.

More shocking to me were the employees who did steal. We caught one guy, who had worked out a system of hiding books behind empty boxes in the back receiving hall. Come time to clock out, he'd leave the store via the back way, collect his booty, and walk around to the parking lot from the alley. It was too cute, and another staffer figured out what he was doing and turned him in.

Come to think of it, I have a bunch of other stories about book thieves, and maybe I’ll write them down for a future post.

Although it's never right to steal, you can understand why a hungry person would steal or cheat for food. But books, you can take them home for free from the library, or you can sit and read them right in the store.

Then we come up to ‘today,’ meaning post-digital-publishing-revolution, and we have book pirates. That term makes them seem somehow romantic, like modern-day Robin Hoods. In fact, they are scum. I subscribe to an anti-pirate service called Blasty, which searches for and somehow removes from search engines websites claiming to have my books downloadable for free. It doesn’t take down the sites or send cease-and-desist letters, but I think what they do is just about as good.

I’ve found that most of these pirate sites are merely phishing holes. For instance, if you want a free copy of The Actress, click here and enter a bunch of your personal information: your contact info, and hey, if you keep clicking through they’ll ask for your credit card number, just as a precaution to secure your account, and hey, they won’t actually charge anything on it. I guess some people fall for all that. And of course they don’t have a digital copy of the book to give you anyway. Come back tomorrow. If Abbie Hoffman were alive today, I’ve no doubt he would learn code and try to be a hacker. But he committed suicide in 1989, partly because he was no longer under 30. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

I don’t worry too much about these pirate sites, because if somebody wants to download my book for free, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would have bought it otherwise. Lots of enraged authors miss this point. So somebody gets to read your book for free, and maybe they’d like more, and maybe they’ll eventually buy something. You can’t get too worked up about this stuff.

But in conclusion, book pirates are scum.

What do you think? Do you have a book theft/piracy story? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, October 11, 2018

You're All Right


Zestful Blog Post #285

I knew a woman who made it her life’s work to become unblocked. To realize her potential. When I met her she was middle-aged, divorced, with two grown kids and a rucksack full of dreams waiting to come true.

But somewhere along the line she’d decided—or agreed with some shrink or shaman or dead parent—that the way she was wasn’t right enough. She ought not to act on those dreams until she’d gotten herself right.

She occupied herself with all sorts of things to self-actualize, to ‘awaken her inner artist’ or something, to figure out what she really should be doing, to free up, to become worthy. To become who she was. Perhaps she should sign on as an animal research assistant and observe beautiful creatures in far-flung habitats. Perhaps she should take flying lessons and try to get a job as a cargo pilot. Or perhaps she should write a novel. Fine. 



She died at age 52 of ovarian cancer before the process was complete. I sadly suspect she could have lived until 102 and still never completed her process of ‘becoming.’

I say, screw becoming. Screw preparing. Be and do. The being and the doing will make all processing moot. Screaming at an effigy of your mother in the woods, taking ice baths or firewalks? You could. But only living freely—with openness to mistakes and crappy results—will make us live well. And only writing freely—with openness to mistakes and crappy results—will make us write well.

It is so very simple.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Old-School Tech Tests


Zestful Blog Post #284

This beefy post is the first part of a feature I wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine's November/December 2018 issue, themed ‘the throwback issue.’ I believe it’s hitting subscriber mailboxes now; should be on newsstands now or soon. I had a great time writing this, and have already heard happy comments from enthusiastic readers who write.

[Excerpt begins]
I’m an analogue girl in a digital world. I like old things and old style. I used a rotary-dial phone until the march of progress threatened to crush us both. My car just celebrated its twenty-fourth birthday. I like canvas sneakers, gin martinis, and homemade afghans.

But I’m a writer in contemporary times, and I’ve adapted to new technologies. Frankly, most of it has been a blur. I do remember, though, sitting alone at night in an office building sometime in the 1980s, watching my boss’s printer slowly excrete 200 pages of random ASCII characters. For all I knew, the computer was trying to tell us something. I sent the pages to the tech guys at headquarters for analysis. They still haven’t gotten back to me.

Fast-forward to now, when miniature microphones and voice-to-text software literally enable us to write as fast as we can talk. I understand the next phase is nearly upon us, where a machine will write my novels for me. And no doubt publish them, collect royalties, and spend the money on nice things for itself.

But I feel it’s time to ask: Is more tech necessarily better? Is faster better than slower? Is more output worthier than less? Is the destination more important than the journey?

With those questions in mind, I took it upon myself to investigate. To re-immerse myself in the materials and sensations I used to enjoy so often—and also to experiment with even older methods—I spent a weekend working on my current novel using an assortment of technology that originated between the building of the Sphinx and opening night of “My Fair Lady.”

On Saturday morning, I settled down at my writing table, a mug of coffee at my side and a wood-cased pencil in my hand. I chose a Blackwing 602, known for its smooth core and fragrant cedar casing. (I’d decided to skip inscribing words on stone or wet clay tablets and start with the next writing technology most closely related to those, graphite.)

Pencil sharpening is an act of beginning. You sit down, you gather yourself, you sharpen. You feel and hear the sharpener working—whether a cranker or handheld—and you smell that fresh wood. You behold your newly exposed graphite. If the point is sharp, you feel brief anxiety over whether the microscopic conical top section will break off as you touch it to paper.

I enjoy the deliberateness of the pencil experience. As you write, the point degrades to whatever degree of dullness you feel like tolerating. You rotate the point to take advantage of the wear pattern—every rotation offers a sharper edge.

When you write with a pencil, you are in a very real sense, drawing. You’re laying down the two-dimensional images of words. You can write little or big; with light pressure or hard; you can print carefully or race along in whatever version of cursive is yours.

You can erase mistakes! But if you’re on a tear, you can just strike through with vigor and keep going. Or you can flurry down a satisfying storm of obliterating zigzags. The re-sharpening pause is a balm. While sharpening, you have a chance to look up, change the focal length of your gaze, quit thinking for a moment, and use your hands differently.

I wrote about a thousand words with the Blackwing 602, savoring its straightforward sturdiness. You don’t have to baby a pencil; you can leave it lying around; you can even lose it without too much grief. You can write with it in a canoe or on a mountain ledge, or upside-down while lying in bed. No worries about ink, mechanisms, batteries.


The assortment. 

Mid-morning, I skipped ahead in time and unholstered my trusty plastic Pentel automatic, with a .7mm lead, in the relatively soft and bold 2B grade I like. The obvious advantage of the automatic pencil is no sharpening, no bother. You click a button or twist the barrel to advance your lead, and you can write fast and precise. The writing experience is less varied, though. That’s the price you pay.

With any pencil, one must bring some pressure to bear, which puts wear and tear on you. My writing elbow got sore after a few hours of pencil work.

After lunch I turned to a group of instruments you have to dip in ink, that marvelous liquid humans first concocted in Neolithic times. Hollow reeds served as writing tools in ancient Egypt, China, and the Middle East. They’re still used for drawing and special calligraphy.

I’d found a reed pen in my art box, so I started with that. It was a seven-inch-long wand about half an inch in diameter and cut to a quill-like point. I opened a bottle of black Noodler’s ink, dipped the reed in, and started writing. I blobbed too much ink down at first, then got the hang of making bold strokes.

I had to reload with ink every few words, however. Because of that, and apart from the novelty, the experience was wearying and just not practical. I perceived how a fine reed with an expertly-done point—and a halfway experienced scribe—could work some beauty.

Writing with a quill didn’t go much better. I’d found a large feather during a walk a few years ago and saved it. Now, following an online tutorial, I made a writing point from its shaft. Like the reed, the quill emitted an ugly blot before scratchily producing a contiguous line. After about ten words, it ran dry. I reloaded and kept going, but the work went slowly and vexingly. Thinking about the fact that Shakespeare wrote all of his plays with such an instrument made me nearly sick with pity. But life was slower then, and I think everybody had more patience.
[This is the end of the excerpt. For the rest of the article, hustle out to your favorite newsstand and pick up the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.]

What do you think of old-school writing tech? Do you have favorite tools and practices? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments. [Photo by ES]
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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Zuh Cow


Zestful Blog Post #283

Some of my favorite imperishable quotations are from people’s grandparents. My friend Linda was musing on wisdom from her German grandmother:

“Linda. Linda. If you dun’t learn to milk zuh cow, you dun’t haff to milk zuh cow.”
Think about it. Not learning something excuses you from dealing with it, and that can be liberating. I mean, I’ve watched cows being milked by hand. Sometimes they smack you in the face with their damp, urine-scented tail. Good morning!


Cunningly avoiding learning how to do something can indeed be liberating. Most grandmas are not stupid. But being helpless, we know, can also backfire: Beyond not being able to get milk when you want it, think of all the young executives in the ’70s and ’80s who resolutely refused to learn how to type. Ambitious women especially were warned away from learning how to type, because typing was for assistants. If you typed, you were pigeonholed into a subservient role. That was the thinking. But then—“Wuh-oh. What’s this new computer thingy on my desk? It gots a keyboard! Wuh-oh!” We had a generation of executives who were clumsy on the keyboard and therefore inefficient because they didn’t learn to touch-type with all ten fingers. I mentioned a couple of years ago here that one of the best things I ever did was take a typing class in high school with a scary bastard perfectionist teacher. I use typing here just as an example. It could be plunging a clogged sink, sewing on a button, starting a campfire, reading a paper map for God’s sake, even pumping gas.

Do we want to be dependent on others? Sometimes, hell yeah. But it’s a game of subtlety and judgment. Grownups deal with whatever shit they really have to. I think Linda’s grandma really meant: Figure out what you really want in life, and screw everything else, because life’s too short to get slapped in the face by a cow.

What do you think? Are there things where you just go “To hell with that!” and why? Or, have you an imperishable quotation from a grandparent to share? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, September 20, 2018

New Books from Pals


Zestful Blog Post #282

Now and then a pal publishes a book! Here are two recent ones I’m happy to share out. Congratulations to Bev Prescott and Neil Plakcy.

 2 Degrees by Bev Prescott

In the year 2092, climate change has transformed the face of Earth. Storms, disease, famine, thirst and war show no mercy on the living. Sharon Clausen, a self-reliant farmer, has a secret apple tree—a tree that keeps Sharon and her wife, Eve, fed. 

The only other people who know of her secret, or so she thinks, is Dr. Ryan, a long-time confidant, and his wife, Areva. Once a month, Sharon and Eve travel from Maine to Boston to trade apples with Dr. Ryan for Eve’s leukemia treatment. Everything suddenly changes when Eve is kidnapped and the Ryans are murdered. Sharon learns that her best kept secrets are known and coveted by a man known as the Strelitzia—a coldly practical villain.

Sharon sets out on a harrowing journey across North America to rescue Eve. Along the way, she teams up with an Inuit refugee boy, a stray dog named Erik the Red, an eccentric former school teacher, a jujitsu master, an Argentinian opera star, and a brilliant scientist who leads an alliance of eclectic people known as the Qaunik. Together, this ragtag group battle horrific storms, an unrelenting desert, terrifying criminal gangs, feral humans, and the Strelitzia.

In the end, Sharon must face her greatest challenge—risk all that she loves for something much greater than herself.

Buy it HERE.

 Neil Plakcy Survival Dying Art


Special Agent Angus Green is still in his twenties, and his red hair and good looks often make people underestimate him, but he’s a smart, fearless cop who believes in the FBI motto: Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.

Fort Lauderdale retiree Frank Sena is working with pawn shop owner Jesse Venable to retrieve a painting stolen from Frank’s uncle, a gay Venetian killed during the Holocaust. Angus volunteers to help Frank, and discovers Venable is the subject of a task force looking into smuggling immigrants out of war-torn countries in the Middle East.

Angus, who knows nothing about art and speaks no Italian, may be in over his head as he is assigned to befriend, and ultimately betray, Venable. But with the help of his Italian-speaking brother and his art-loving boyfriend, he may be able not only to retrieve the painting, but solve a smuggling case and potentially save thousands of lives.

The investigation will take him from the sun-drenched rooftops of Venice to a private yacht speeding down Fort Lauderdale’s New River. Along the way, he’ll learn the true meaning of survival.

Buy it HERE.

If you’re a subscriber to this blog or to my newschat, do let me know when you’ve published a book, and I’ll shout it out one way or another, OK?

I love comments. To post one, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Some readers have recently reported problems with posting. If you experience a problem, please let me know at esims@elizabethsims.com.
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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Half an Hour to Dramatic Improvement


Zestful Blog Post #281

Here's something to try for the hell of it. (Have you done something for the hell of it this week yet?) I swear if you do this you will write about your world with greater confidence and pleasure. Even reading this will help you.

Go to your favorite coffeehouse and sit with your notebook. Relax your jaw. Which should prompt your neck to relax. Which should prompt your shoulders to relax, and so on down. You’re welcome. Without moving from that spot, write down everything you can sense. Open all those chakras or whatever they are and write down what you're seeing and sensing, head to toe. Don’t judge anything, just describe it.

What do you see? Start with the place and write it. Floor, walls, ceiling. What do you see through the windows? Is it day or night? What is the quality of the light—is it bright, muted, pearly, golden? Maybe it's blue, or maroon! Look into the shadows. Notice how different the light is there. Describe it. What do you hear? What's playing on the sound system, if anything? Is it loud or quiet? Do you know the tune?

Next, the people. Who's there and what are they like? What do they look like, what clothing? Who's talking and what are they saying? What are their voices like? What else do you hear? Doors banging open and shut as people come and go? Beeps from the machines behind the counter? Cell phones? The paddle fan squeaking slightly as it rotates overhead? What's that squeak like? Focus on one sound and write it thoroughly.

What do you smell? Probably a great many smells are coming together. What is the bouquet of the place? Are you smelling coffee, maybe sweets, maybe something like the mop-water disinfectant that sort of lingers very slightly beneath everything? A whiff of strong perfume or aftershave trailing behind someone like a wake from a vessel?

 What are you eating and drinking? Maybe a roll and some coffee. Describe the flavors. How does each one taste separately? Consistency, texture, temperature. How do they mingle together in your mouth? What else can you describe about how they taste? Do the comestibles (love that word) bring up memories, like Proust's madeleines? What are they?



[could be beignets...]

Does anything else you're experiencing bring up other thoughts, memories, feelings?
What are you sensing bodily? What is your chair like? Is it interacting with your thighs and butt in a satisfactory fashion?

How's your posture? How does the back of your neck feel? Has your jaw re-tightened? Can you sense air currents on your face? On your hands? On your legs if you're wearing shorts or a skirt? Describe the air currents. Where are they coming from, where are they going? Is your body sore or tight anywhere? Don't judge anything, just describe it. Are you wearing a watch or jewelry? A ring? Can you feel the jewelry on your skin? The weight of a necklace on your collarbones?

Finally: What are you sensing beneath it all? I believe in the sixth sense, or intuition. Is there a general mood in the place? If so, where's it coming from? Are the baristas a happy crew? Why, do you suppose, or why not? Is there a little corner of negativity over there surrounding that frowning customer studying his phone? Is there something creative happening over there between those three people talking excitedly? Is there something in the spirit of the place that brings you in? Something you can sense but not label? Write it as best you can and see what happens.

How do you feel beneath your exterior? What is your deepest state right now?

What do you think? Have you ever done something like this? How did it go? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in. [Photo by ES]

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Full Emptiness


Zestful Blog Post #280

1.
I once overheard a professional golfer say, of good putting technique, “You’ve almost gotta go brain-dead to get it perfect.” Which is so totally Zen, so totally about quieting your mind to allow terrific performance to happen. Can you be a great putter without practice? No. But you can be a crummy putter even if you practice a lot, but habitually psych yourself out when on the course. “Is that the right line, for sure? Let’s set up that way. On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong. Oh, heck, I’ll stroke it anyway. Can’t think about it all day. Aaannd…dang.”


It wants to go in so bad.

2.
There’s a line from a song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! that goes, “Never have I asked the August sky, ‘Where has last July gone?’” Is that somehow Zen too? You bet it is: complete acceptance of what has been, and total presence in the now. No regrets. (The song is “Many a New Day”.)

Lessons for writers? Yeah. Sometimes I really need to remind myself of that golfer and that song.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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