Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Chicago

"I've got the lights upon the Christmas tree, I've got the candle lit for you and me..."

Those words are from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's CD, "The Christmas Attic". It's my favorite Christmas CD, and I'm listening to it as the snow falls outside while I write this post. Christmas is one day and a wake up call away. I should be making the fudge and wrapping the last presents. But my mind is elsewhere today. I've gone back in time to another Christmas season, one that occured 41 years ago. The Christmas tree was up then, too, and the presents were wrapped and waiting beneath its branches.

But I wasn't home to see any of this. Instead, I was in a hospital, having just given birth to our first child. Joseph Frederic came into the world at 3:30 PM, and what a Christmas present he was! Fred and I couldn't have been happier. So today I'm thinking about my oldest son Joe, who himself is now the father of four beautiful children.

That's a picture of Joe above, and to the left is a picture of two of his children, Ashley in the brown coat, Christopher in front, along with my daughter Sarah's daughter, Cinnamon Rose in the pink coat. Yesterday, Joe's wife Melissa and I took the three of them to the Chicago Botanical Gardens to see the Wonderland Express, a special exhibit featuring hand-made buildings made out of natural-only material -- twigs, leaves, flower pods, seed, etc. -- nestled in a living landscape of trees and plants and made more intriguing by twelve trains that run through and over the exhibit to the delight of the Garden's many visitors.

Before going into the exhibit, we visited the two indoor conservatories where the children were duly impressed by the cacti, the orchids, and the banana trees with their green bunches of fruit.

As you can see by the pictures, even the consevatories were decorated for the holidays, with large red glass balls interspersed among the plants and huge poinsettia balls hanging from the ceilings.

With many of the plants in bloom, it was a sight to remember. I've never grown an orchid, but the one shown here took my breath away. The giant allium plants were pretty impressive, too.

And then it was time to check out the gingerbread houses created especially for the holiday exhibit. They included a train station and tunnel, a fire house, apartment buildings flanking a toy shop and candy store, and several houses surrounded by snowmen and decorated pine trees.

Four Christmas trees decorated by various gardening groups occupied the corners of the gingerbread room that led to the Wonderland Express exhibit. Picured here is a cleverly constructed copy of Navy Pier backed by the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower, all of them part of the downtown Chicago part of the exhibit. Not shown is a much smaller version of the Chicago River flowing past the buildings.

This is another view of the downtown Chicago part of the exhibit with the Chicago Water Tower, one of the few buildings that survived the great fire of 1871 that destroyed so much of the city. Next to the Water Tower is the Harold Washington Library with its gorgeous rooftop decorations.

Next is a truly gorgeous replica of one of our many museums. Again, all these buildings were created by hand and took weeks to make. Each year a few new buildings are added to the exhibit. One of the new ones this year was a replica of President Obama's Kenwood home.

This picture shows a neighborhood of typical Chicago-style bungalows. The train running past the home is somewhat blurred, but you get the idea of how the trains were incorporated into the exhibit.

This is a close-up picture of the Harold Washington Library, named for Chicago late Mayor. This new library (well, it's not all that new -- it's been around for a few years) replaced the old downtown building as our main library. It's a fantastic piece of architecture.

Lastly, this is a replica of Soldier's Field, home of the Chicago Bears, before the recent renovation. This is the only building in the exhibit that comes with sound: the Bears' fight song plays in the background.

I hope you enjoyed seeing these pictures. The kids loved the trip, which means we'll all be back in spring when the tulips and daffodils are in bloom in the gardens and hopefully all the snow has melted away! I hope you're able to do some special things with your family this holiday season, too. For us, it was a fun way to help count down the days until Christmas. :)


Monday, December 14, 2009

When Life Throws You a Curve

I last posted to this blog on Thanksgiving when I listed everything I was thankful for. Included on that list were my children and grandchildren, most of whom celebrated the holiday with my husband and I at our house.

Missing that day were daughter Jennifer, son-in-law Jay, and grandsons Dan and Zach. They had driven to Florida to celebrate the holiday with Jay's parents and weren't expected back in town until late Saturday evening. Nevertheless, Jen called on Thanksgiving, and since her birthday was the following day, Fred and I and the rest of the family sang a merry "Happy Birthday" to her over the phone. Hearing that all was well with them, I didn't expect to talk with Jen again until the following week when life for her family had returned to normal.

But the phone rang very early Sunday morning, and that was the end of normal for all of us.

It was Jenni on the line asking us to come as quickly as possible. Jay, a long-time Type 1 diabetic, was experiencing numbness on his left side. She was taking him to the hospital and needed us to stay at the house with the boys.

Having been a nurse for a long, long time, I knew in my heart as I drove the thirty miles to their home that my 43-year-old son-in-law had suffered a stroke. Waiting and praying for the best, while hiding my fears from 6-year-old Zack and 7-year-old Dan, was one of those awful things no mother wants to do. While waiting for a phone call from Jen at the hospital, I kept hoping my gut diagnosis would be proved wrong.

Unfortunately, I wasn't wrong. Jay's MRI showed he'd suffered two strokes, one sometime in the recent past and one overnight on Saturday. Known as lacunar strokes, they occured deep in the brain and were most likely the result of complications caused by his diabetes.

The good news is, Jay's strokes were sensory in nature. He is home now and has full use of his limbs. His speech was unaffected, and his mind is as clear as ever (which means his jokes are as corny as ever!). What he's experiencing now is a lack of normal sensation on the left side of his entire body. Instead, he has painful burning sensations in his arm and leg, and he cannot actually feel anything he touches with his hand or foot. His walking is improving with the use of a cane and daily physical therapy; he's getting accustomed to not feeling the floor under his foot as he walks.

It will be a long time before life seems "normal" again for Jenni and Jay. But faith and the support of family and friends is easing the way for them. The entire family will be celebrating Christmas at their house this year with Jen preparing the turkey and the rest of us bringing all the side dishes. It will be a happy Christmas this year because Jay is with us and the family is still intact. His strokes could have been much worse, and we're tremendously thankful they weren't.

We're also thankful because Jay's sense of humor is one thing he didn't lose. He may not like having to walk with a cane, but he enjoys swatting Jen with it whenever she walks by. (His latest prank -- removing all the towels from the bathroom while she was taking a shower -- earned him a swat from her in return!)

Jay's upbeat attitude combined with Jenni's courage has inspired all of us in the family. Life threw them -- and us -- a curve. We're not sure where that curve is leading us, but we're making the journey together. The way I see it, that's what family is all about.

I hope all of you reading this post will be as thankful for life as we are this year, regardless of the curves thrown at you by fate. May your Christmas be Christ-filled and merry, and may the Source of all life give you hope and peace.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I'm thankful today for all that God's given me. I deserve none of it, have done nothing to earn it, yet I've received it all nonetheless.

I'm thankful first for life, every single day of it. I'm thankful to wake up and see sunlight or clouds, rain or snow, outside my window. I'm thankful that I can see the sunlight or clouds or rain or snow, that I have eyesight that may require glasses, but I have eyesight nonetheless. And I'm thankful that no matter what the weather is outside, I am inside, safe and secure and fortunate to be in my own home.

I'm thankful for family, my husband and children and grandchildren and sisters and brothers and cousins and friends who are my extended family. I'm thankful we are all still together, thankful for every day we can still see or speak with each other, thankful I can hear their voices and still have a mind that remembers their names.

I'm thankful for colors that make the world around me bright and varied. I'm thankful for the natural world that gives me such pleasure, for the mountains I've seen and the rocky hills I've climbed, for the lakes and rivers I've dipped a toe in, for the trees and flowers that amaze me with their variety.

I'm thankful for sunrises and sunsets and sharing them with people I love. I'm thankful for the stars and the moon at night and the wonder of the galaxy of which I'm a part. I'm thankful for sandy beaches and backyard gardens and fields of corn and wheat and sunflowers.

I'm thankful for the good and the bad that's happened in my life. I've learned from both and grown because of it.

I'm thankful for mercy and compassion and laughter and tears. I've needed them all and shared them all.

I'm thankful for science and medicine, how it worked together to save my granddaughter. I'm thankful for education that made it all possible. And I'm thankful for all the people who give of themselves to make life better for the rest of us.

Most of all today, I'm thankful that I have faith in a God who created me and all that is around me. I'm thankful that while I often question the unanswerable, I still believe in the Source.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. May we be thankful every day of our lives and not just on this holiday.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Fun Friday the 13th!

Welcome to Fun Friday the 13th on Cicero's Children! It's time to have some fun with weird news stories I've collected from around the world. These first two news bit were sent to me by my son Matt. I can't verify the accuracy of the reports, but true or not, they have to make you shake your head in wonder.

From Matt: Two animal rights defenders were protesting the cruelty of sending pigs to a slaughterhouse in Bonn, Germany. Suddenly, all two thousand pigs broke loose and escaped through a broken fence, stampeding madly. The two helpless protesters were trampled to death.

And: The average cost of rehabilitating a seal after the Exxon Valdez Oil spill in Alaska a few years back was $80,000. At a special ceremony, two of the most expensively saved animals were being released back into the wild amid cheers and applause from onlookers. A minute later, in full view, a killer whale ate them both.

This story comes from my own home state. The Kane County, Illinois Sheriff's Department orders plain white patrol units and has the graphics applied locally.
In this case, what they ordered was not quite what they got. This car was driven for one week before an officer noticed what the graphics company employee did on the passenger side of the car. The employee did this on his last day working for the graphics company before he retired.

As I always say, better retired than fired!

Worried about the swine flu?? So is my daughter-in-law Cheryl. She sent me this picture showing how she's making sure my grandson Christian is safe even at home.

Can't recall who sent me the following classified ads, but they tickled my funnybone. Hope they do the same for yours. These ads actually ran in newspapers.

8-years old. Hateful little bastard. Bites!

1/2 Cocker Spaniel, 1/2 sneaky neighbor's dog.

Mother, AKC German Shepherd.
Father, Super to leap tall fences in a single bound.

Looks like a rat. Been out a while.
Better be a big reward.

Google Street View is responsible for documenting this sign discovered along a road in Vancouver, Canada. Apparently there's an outbreak of Elephantitis among the deer population there. I feel sorry for the poor critters, but even sorrier for the driver who happens to hit one! Be careful on the roads, all you Canadians!

Talk about weird stories! This one takes the cake. A 22-year-old Norwegian citizen was arrested for smuggling in Kristiansand, Norway after arriving from Denmark with 14 royal pythons and 10 albino leopard geckos hidden under his clothes. The pythons were hidden in stockings duct-taped to the guy's abdomen, and the geckos were in boxes taped to his thighs. A tarantula was also found in one of his bags.

Did he really think he could get away with it???

Well, that's all the weird news for today. Fun Friday returns next week with more strange and wonderful stories. Until then, if you have a weird news item you'd like to see posted on Fun Friday, email it to me at Fun Fridays will run until the week before Christmas when YOU the reader get to vote on the best story. The sender of that story will receive a free copy of my Christmas mystery, A MERRY LITTLE MURDER. Until Monday, have a great weekend!


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Barbara DeShong (cont'd)

Welcome back to Cicero's Children where Barbara DeShong is our featured guest today. On Monday, Barbara began telling us how she started on the path to publiction. Today she's finishing up what's turned out to be quite a unique story. At the close of Barb's blog I'll be providing a review of her book, TOO RICH AND TOO THIN: NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. I hope you enjoy Barb's blog and the review.


"Extreme Writing for Publication"

Phase two of Extreme Writing for Publication involved submitting work at conferences where pre-conference reads were available. This was a very important element as these conferences provide a wide variety of views on the quality of writing and marketability of work. The temptation (and I did this in spades) is to want to only submit work at pre-read conferences to agents—as a way to maybe be accepted as a client. While this can happen, often pre-reads by non-agents can be really helpful. Pre-read results can also be discouraging, in fact, if you pony up the effort, discouragement is to be expected.

The next step after I had a completed and edited manuscript, was to put together the dreaded synopsis and gasp—a pitch. As I’ve learned is often the case, when I sat down to write a synopsis, I would be gripped by an attack of what is best described as ‘situational retardation’. My sentences made no sense and my attempts came out as ‘kitchen sink’ paragraphs or over-generalized, meaningless clichés. Having benefited from my conference-going fury, I returned to the Net and signed up for a couple of New York Pitch and Shop weekends.

When I gave my first three-minute pitch, the moderator said, “I have absolutely no idea what you are even talking about.” I took his suggestion and spent lunch in my hotel room redoing the pitch. The workshops focused on ‘pitch’ were very helpful and meeting at the Greer Studios was a real kick. Not all the benefits of conferences were inside meetings. Each one offered chances to talk with other people from all over the country doing the same sort of projects. Those of us suffering and learning in the pitch workshops put together on-going email groups.

The last step of Extreme Writing was taking my pitch on the road to conferences with agent and editor feedback. I met Karen Syed at a Southern California Writers Conference…I know…where I started by walking into that hotel by accident…and Echelon bought and published “Too Rich and Too Thin, Not an Autobiography.”

I know not everyone has the time or ability to do all the travelling I did, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Since I’ve calmed down, I’ve discovered programs in my own area covering the same topics I flew across the country to attend. My decision to seek help outside the state is more the result of my wanting to accomplish a lot in a short period of time.

My goal in writing this is to speak to others who don’t have twenty years to get published. The way I see it, you can speed things up if you make a plan and go at it in a concentrated and relentless way. Relentless means not allocating time to dawdling away years in a snit after a deluge of rejections. The main thing I learned was I needed to learn to write, but even more I needed to learn to listen, even when what I heard and still hear is painful. After all, I’d like it so much better if I already knew everything.

But then, you’d think I would have stayed with just one profession. If you’ve read this far, you have the urge to write, too. And what a fabulous way to go. For me, since I was a kid, books carried me away. And what a privilege to write. I remember a line from the film about Virginia Woolf (paraphrased) when one of Virginia’s sisters remarks, “Virginia is lucky. She has two worlds to live in. The one’s she’s actually living and the one she is writing.”
So, there you go.

Barbara DeShong



Psychologist Jessica LeFave is not high on the "Favorote Persons" list of her local Texas police department. Ever since her husband's car was dragged out of Lake Austin -- with her dead husband in it -- Jessica has been insisting that the police investigate what she claims is his murder. The cops think otherwise, calling the death an unfortunate accident and pointing to a Hilton hotel receipt and another woman's wedding ring found in his pocket as proof that he was cheating on Jessica.

"Bull!" says Jessica. Convinced that her husband -- also a psychologist -- was killed in order to bury a secret revealed in therapy, Jessica begins investigating his former patients. Luck smiles on her when the cops reluctantly ask her to profile the killer of Bernice Jackson, a wealthy Texan who twisted known historical events into outrageous melodramas for her soft-porn romance novels and films. It's not a secret that Bernice was hated by historical anti-revisionists, but could an outsider sneak into a gala party held at Bernice's mansion and lure her into her mirrored bedroom in order to drive a spike through her heart? Pretty doubtful say the cops, and Jessica agrees. It's more likely that a family member or one of the actors at the party did it. But the question is, why?

Jessica begins her own investigation when she discovers that her husband was counseling Bernice Jackson at the time of his death. Jessica drags her old friend George Ramsdale into her quest for justice. A lawyer who's more concerned about his new car's interior/exterior color combination than his practice, George agrees to drive Jessica to a remote town near the Mexican border in search of answers. With George busy oogling the local beauties (human and female only), Jessica must make nice with Bernice's drug-seeking son, her binge-eating daughter, a passel of actors and hanger-oners, plus the resident motorcycle gang, while at the same time winning the confidence of the only man who can lead her to the truth.

Texas may never be the same now that Barbara DeShong hit the writing scene. Psychotics abound in this humorous and nicely plotted mystery featuring gutsy Dr. Jessica LeFave and her off-the-wall buddy George. A sprinkling of red herrings may throw the most avid armchair detective off the track, but the ending is both logical and satisfying in this series debut. Amateur sleuth fans will look forward to more mysteries by DeShong after reading this fun and action-filled adventure. I give the book five stars for originality, characterization, and a setting that can't be beat.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Barbara DeShong's Extreme Writing

I'm thrilled to have Barbara DeShong as my guest blogger today. Barb is the author of the humorous mystery TOO RICH AND TOO THIN: NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. A psychologist in private practice and consulting in Texas, Barb previously wrote a book on stress that led to speaking engagements both in her home state and across the country. Following the publication of that book, she exchanged the insanity and long hours of the writing world for the insanity and broken bones of showing horses. She credits her current writing style to having unexpectedly dismounted and landed on her head too many times without a helmet.

A blend of doing psychotherapy and writing humorous fiction is a perfect fit for Barb since she loves stories and is constitutionally incapable of staying out of other people’s business. Today she's going to share some thoughts with us on her writing style, or what she calls "Extreme Writing for Publication".


What kind of crazy person trades in a two hundred dollar an hour indoor profession with all sorts of ego-patting perks for an occupation requiring infinite unpaid work hours and multileveled rejection?

A writer. My spiral into the writing world began when strolling through Old Town in San Diego a few years back, I stuck my head into the lobby of a hotel hosting the Southern California Writers Conference. In the sort of whimsical mood that comes with February sunshine in Southern California, I strolled up to the conference registration table. When the smiling woman asked if I was registered, I laughed, coyly.

“Oh, no. I’ve thought about writing fiction…maybe I will once I retire.”

“Don’t wait. Start now,” the woman said, looking straight into my eyes. (Those Southern Californians are stronger than the rest of us. It’s the freeway experience.)

“Who knows?” I said, slipping a brochure for the next conference in my jeans pocket. Any excuse to come to San Diego in February, right?

I should explain why I was more than naïve about what was required to complete a readable work of fiction and why I was oblivious to the perils of selling a novel. I wrote and sold a successful nonfiction on the heels of graduate school. The process was as follows: After presenting a workshop in New York, an editor from a respectable publishing company asked me to submit a proposal on my workshop topic. I did, they bought it, sent me a fat advance, and I wrote. Every month the editor flew to Texas to consult with me on how it was going. The book came out, the checks came in, and I received invitations to speak around the nation.

Here’s the place where you laugh. I really believed getting a novel published would be the same sort of enterprise. I know, I know. And, perhaps, had I’d kept my coy smile and thoughts of writing until I was too old to actually try, I would be one more professional, like the many you’ve met, who smiles knowingly on hearing of your writing struggles…then says, “I’m thinking I should write a novel…maybe later when I have more time.”

Discovering my view of the profession was, shall we say, a bit off the mark, I set out to learn two things: how to write fiction and how to get published.

Though I’d written many professional pieces, I did not know enough about writing fiction to complete even the most common sort of fictional piece—an auto insurance commercial. I was informed of my deficits by my kind English professor brother-in-law who, bless his heart, actually read every word of my 170,000 confessional manuscript. We met for breakfast and I handed him the four-inch stack of brilliance. Tell you what kind of guy he is, he didn’t even cry. At least not until he was out of eyesight.

I waited, heart-pounding, for return of the manuscript…which I was sure needed a few, tiny corrections and maybe neatening of a couple of chapter endings. Okay, you can laugh here, too. Brother-in-law returned the manuscript at another breakfast meeting and I should have noticed he was staring at his coffee instead of looking me in the eye. On the cover page, he’d summarized his thoughts. The first sentence went thusly: “First, dear sister-in-law of mine, (‘dear’, that means trouble ahead) let me congratulate you on your courage and discipline…”

Yep. You’ve got the picture. That first paragraph ended with a hint that I might want to take a few classes on creative writing. Me? Classes?

Having gone through undergrad as pre-med with a biology major, I hadn’t taken an English course since high school. But, I’d taught psychology and had some neat ideas. I hope you’re giggling here at my folly, because I deserve it.

By the way, I’ve never gone back and re-worked that first manuscript because it just isn’t that good. I’d read over and over, as you have, that the first ‘novel’ written is often never publishable. When you’re writing that first novel, the very thought that the pages you are grinding out with drops of blood oozing out of your forehead…are going to end up on a shelf…is enough to make you want to stalk the author who even suggested such a travesty…that you are sitting there all those hours doing the best you can…and your plans for the work are never to be.

Thus, reality a bit closer, I decided to launch ‘Extreme Writing for Publication’. That is, since I was approaching the retirement I’d talked to the Southern Californian woman so cavalierly about, I knew I did not have time to go back for a creative writing degree or even to play around going to one or two local conferences. I needed to sink myself in the project.

Extreme Writing for Publication had several phases. Phase one was finding an editor I could listen to without threatening to jump out of tall buildings. I presented my plan to the nice lady in San Diego and she agreed to give it a go. I need to say, because I’ve since learned my experience might be unusual, the editor, Jean Jenkins, refused to accept a cent. That’s right. She thought the project sounded like something she’d like to work on and we hit it off.

With an editor who was willing to join my efforts, I launched stage two of Extreme Writing for Publication. I signed up for six Writing Conferences for the following year. I realize not everyone can afford that many trips, but I was seeing the project as consolidating ten years of conference going. I learned a tremendous amount, including that some conferences were more useful than others and that conferences vary in what is offered from ‘boot camps’ focused on hard-nosed all-day writing to ‘overviews of basics’, to conferences with inspiring speakers. If there’s an interest, I’ll make another entry on conference experiences.

The conference going stage of my process also included book-buying and movie elements. I bought around twenty books on fiction writing and studied like crazy. As with conferences, some were more helpful than others. The movie-going aspect had two parts. One, I went to several movies a week, good and bad, to learn how to follow story lines, highs and lows. Second I picked a few movies which I saw multiple times in the same week. Multiple views provided a way to see different elements of the story line. I saw “The Quiet American” daily for six days, taking something new away with each viewing.


Barb will return on Wednesday with "Phase Two" of "Extreme Writing for Publication". I hope you will join us then for the rest of this delightful blog post and a review of TOO RICH AND TOO THIN: NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Barbara DeShong. Until then, click on the title of this blog to read about TOO RICH AND TOO THIN at


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Old Friends, School Reunions, and Books

If you were writing the story of your life, how would you recall your school days? Love 'em? Hate 'em? Wish you could live them all over again?

For me, grade school was great until the end of sixth grade. That's when my family moved to a new home and I ended up in a dying little academy school with nine other girls as classmates. I say dying because the school was closing down, so two grades -- 7th and 8th -- shared one room with about ten girls in each grade. Seventh and eighth grade were the worst years of my life. I was not in the "in" group, the "Big Six" who were the "cool" kids, and I didn't have much in common with the other three girls in the "out" group. Worst of all, I was of German heritage, and this was a Polish school with Polish teachers and mainly kids of Polish descent. You would have thought I'd started World War II all by myself the way my 7th grade teacher acted. She related every atrocity ever commiteed by the Nazis against the Polish people on a daily basis while my classmates pointedly stared at me. It was a hellish year, and 8th grade wasn't much better.

I hated every minute of those two years and was sooooo glad when graduation finally arrived and I could make some real friends in the larger high school setting. Like most teens, I had my ups and downs in high school. It wasn't my favorite place to be, but I did survive and I got a good education while doing so. It wasn't until I started nursing school at St. Anne's Hospital that I discovered what a joy school could be. Not only were the classes fascinating, but my classmates became my closest and dearest friends. I count the years I spent with them as some of the best in my life.

Ten days ago some of us who graduated together from St. Anne's met for lunch in a nearby Chicago suburb. That's a picture of us at the top of this page. (I'm in the red jacket in the back row.) Barb (third from the left) brought her old school uniform along, and we had a ball recounting how cool we all felt the first time we wore them in the hospital. Barb hadn't realized it, but her nursing cap was balled up in the sleeve of the uniform. That's it hanging atop the uniform in this picture, not as good looking as when it was starched and pinned to fit, but the real thing nevertheless. Back then we used to wet them down with starch, plaster them on the window to dry, and once they were stiff as a board, we'd iron and fold them to fit, then apply our black ribbons (one ribbon for a junior, two for a senior) to the right side edge of the cap. Some girls pinned the ribbons in place. Those of us who were more creative used toothpaste to glue them in place. Amazingly, the toothpaste held really well and didn't leave a mark like pins did.

I have so many fond memories of my years at St. Anne's. Not only did I make some lifelong friends there, but it's also the place where I met my future husband. (No, he wasn't a patient; he was my best friend's boyfriend's best friend, or, to put it more simply, Sue was dating Rich and Fred was Rich's best buddy.) It seemed only natural when I began writing A MERRY LITTLE MURDER to name the fictional hospital in the book after my old stomping grounds. My protagonist, Caroline Rhodes, is an ER nurse at the fictional St. Anne's who moonlights as a house mother in the nursing dorm. I patterned the domitory after the dorm I lived in while in nursing school so many years ago. Like so many community hospitals, the real St. Anne's closed in the 1980's when fiscal mismanagement of the Medicare/Medicaid program by the Reagan administration left payments to hospitals in arrears by 9-12 months. In short, St. Anne's went broke. That's one thing I don't have to worry about with my fictional hospital. Since it's purely a product of my imagination, I can have it stay solvent forever. Another difference between the real and the fictional St. Anne's is this: no one was ever murdered at the real St. Anne's. In A MERRY LITTLE MURDER, I kill off seven people in the very first chapter. The fun part for the reader is trying to figure out which of the seven was the actual intended victim. Until you know that, you can't guess who the murderer is.

As you can guess by the cover, this is a winter holiday mystery complete with snowstorms and Christmas trees. If you'd like to read the first chapter of A MERRY LITTLE MURDER, you can find it at my website at (Hint, hint: it makes a great holiday gift for the mystery fan in your life.)

Thanks for stopping by. Next week I'll be featuring Barbara DeShong as my guest blogger. A Texan who gave up a successful career as a practicing psychologist to write mysteries with a dash of humor, Barb is the author of TOO RICH AND TOO THIN: NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. I absolutely loved this book and I know you will, too. Stop by if you can on Monday to chat with Barb. Being a Texan, Barb may carry a concealed weapon, but I promise you, she won't do anything more dangerous than tickle your funny bone with her great blog entitled "Extreme Writing for Publication".

Until then, have a great weekend!


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nick Valentino and THOMAS RILEY

It's Monday, and that means it's Guest Blogger Day here at Cicero's Children. My guest today is Nick Valentino, author of the just-released novel, THOMAS RILEY. Nick hails from Nashville, TN. He's an ex-band member and music lover, a hockey and roller derby fan, and a confirmed beer nerd who regularly writes reviews of favorite brews. (Sam Adams Boston Lager received a 4.8 mugs rating from Nick.) He's here today to tell us about his book and explain the term "Steampunk" as it relates to his writing. And so.... Take it away, Nick!


Many many thanks to Mary for hosting me today. This is my ninth stop on the old blog tour and it couldn’t be going any better. My novel, Thomas Riley, was just published by Echelon Press and came out Friday October 23rd. When writing blogs I usually follow up with ‘It’s a Steampunk novel’. The following question is ALWAYS, well, what is Steampunk? Another way to look at the genre is through the eyes of alternative history. Take the Victorian era, but make science evolve about one hundred years. What’s the trick? Well, you can’t use a lot of electricity or fossil fuels. Take those pretty much out of the equation and replace them with steam power. The cars, planes, blimps, and even guns are powered with steam. Anything you can imagine just power it by steam and that in effect is Steampunk.

So now that we have that weird little word defined, let’s move on to what are some basic elements of a Steampunk story. I will digress for a moment. If you’ve been to a writers conference you will learn 1) that there are very strict rules to everything in writing. Grammar, punctuation, dialog, well everything is rigidly monitored, scrutinized and critiqued. 2) You will then learn that as long as you break those rules with style, attitude, a powerful voice and a darn good story, then the sky’s the limit. (See Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Road” for a perfect example.) My point is Steampunk really has no limits. It’s what makes it fun to read and write. Steampunk spans from high flying adventure to Victorian romance, from space exploration to deep sea treasure hunts. Really the limits of the genre are pretty nonexistent.

An important rule that Steampunk breaks is the strength of women in a Victorian era setting. In Thomas Riley, the women often have jobs, responsibilities and strengths that were not necessarily available to them in true Victorian times. Cynthia Basset, Thomas’ assistant breaks many of the social standards of the day by commanding an equal and sometimes more important voice. All the women in the book are strong figures, all but one of the airship captains are women. I see the women of the book as often more calculating and dangerous than some of their male counterparts.

So just like that last writers conference you attended, there are plenty of rules, but they all can be broken if you break them correctly.

Back Cover Blurb
For more than twenty years West Canvia and Lemuria have been at war. From the safety of his laboratory, weapons designer Thomas Riley has cleverly and proudly empowered the West Canvian forces. But when a risky alchemy experiment goes horribly wrong, Thomas and his wily assistant Cynthia Bassett are thrust onto the front lines of battle and forced into shaky alliances with murderous sky pirates in a deadly race to kidnap the only man who can undo the damage: the mad genius behind Lemuria's cunning armaments.

If strong women airship pilots interest you, then take a look at the links below.

Learn more about the book:

Thomas Riley is available here:


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Dance of Death

Happy two days before Halloween, everyone! As you can see from the picture here, I've already been celebrating this spooky holiday. It was taken at Augie Aleksy's Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore last week during "The Big Read" tribute to Edgar Allan Poe sponsored by the Oak Park/River Forest/Forest Park libraries. That's me on the left standing next to Michael Black (Hostile Takeover), Bob Goldsborough (A President in Peril), and Luisa Buehler (The Innkeeper: A Registered Death) with Augie fronting us dressed as a monk. Thanks to the 30+ people who came out to hear us discuss Poe and all his wonderful works. We had a ball.

I promised to post a Halloween tale here today, so here goes!

by Mary Welk

I never thought it would be so easy to die.

Death stood in the doorway, beckoning with a gnarled finger while I danced what I now knew would be my last tango. I really didn't mind Death's arrival, although I hadn't expected to meet it so soon. I was, after all, only thirty-five.

Still, I'd grown tired of Tom and his endless dance lessons, his striving for perfection with every move, his criticism when I failed to meet his expectations. I felt as if I'd been dancing for years, and now that I thought of it, I had.

I didn't know when I married Tom that his hobby would become an obsession. I even enjoyed it at first, dancing the night away with my handsome husband. But then he discovered that damned televison program where celebrities are matched with professional dancers and don outrageous costumes to compete against each other. That's when Tom decided we needed lessons and I began to fall out of love. Five years later I was sick to death of the endless evenings of cha-chas, waltzes, rumbas, and tonight, the tango.

Funny I should use that phrase, sick to death. I was sick to death of dancing. I was also sick to death of Tom. Death seemed the only way out, and now it had come for me, come to cure my pain. I almost smiled at the tall figure in the black cape as we whirled and tangoed towards him. His skeletal finger summoned me, 'Come closer, closer!' I obeyed and danced unhesitatingly towards my destiny.

Then Death stepped forward and we danced right through it, Tom with a puzzled look on his face, me with a feeling of freedom I'd long forgotten. We danced through Death's cloak like it was nothing more than a whisper of air, through its bones like they were puffs of cold breath only we could feel.

And once through, Tom stopped dancing. He wilted in my arms like a flower hit by frost.

I looked up in wonder as Tom fell to the floor. Death was smiling.


Monday, October 26, 2009


I'm celebrating the 200th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe and the upcoming Halloween holiday today at with a blog that includes my flash fiction short story "The Tell-Tale Glow". This is a modern take on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" written in 500 words. Hope you can stop by this Echelon Shorts blogsite and read it. To do so, just click on the title of this blog. That'll take you directly to the blog and story.

On Thursday I'll be posting a different Halloween short story for your reading pleasure here, so I hope you'll check out Cicero's Children in three days

Until then, enjoy!


Saturday, October 24, 2009

At Witt's End -- The Importance of Location

Don't be taken in by the sweet smile on the face of the woman shown here. Yes, Beth Solheim LOOKS like the kindly lady next door who bakes donuts for all the neighborhood kids, but she's actually a WANTED SERIAL KILLER!!!!

Oh, wait. Wrong picture. Uh... Mmm... Right. My serial killer blog is scheduled for next week. (blush, blush) Sorry about that, Beth.

Okay. I'll start over.

Beth Solheim actually is a kindly lady who lives in the lake country of northern Minnesota. (Think Lake Bemidji, cold winters, tons of snow.) I don't know if she bakes donuts for the neighborhood kids, but I do know she shares her life with a wonderful husband and a menagerie of wildlife critters. Blessed with two grown children and two grandsons, Beth is very much like the main character in her Sadie Witt mystery series: she was born with a healthy dose of imagination and a hankering to solve a puzzle. She learned her reverence for reading from her mother, who was never without a book in her hand.

By day, Beth works in Human Resources. By night she morphs into a writer who frequents lake resorts and mortuaries and hosts a ghost or two in her humorous paranormal mysteries. She's visiting Cicero's Children today to tell you a little about her upcoming book, AT WITT'S END, and to discuss the importance of location in a mystery novel. So, without further ado, here's Beth!


Thanks, Mary! And hello everyone!

As readers well know, settings can be as important to the story as the plot, especially in a cozy mystery series. Cozies welcome readers back time and time again to a small community or a friendly neighborhood where returning characters confront a new adventure.

Cozies are a fun read and engage the reader by shadowing an amateur sleuth who solves crime in a gentle manner—no blatant violence, graphic sex or jarring profanity. Cozy characters are often eccentric, funny, likeable, and the kind you’d enjoy visiting on a regular basis. Settings have equal significance. Each locale offers unique features, seasons, structures, or lends credibility to the profession of the amateur sleuth.

I decided to use a resort situated next door to a mortuary as the setting for my Sadie Witt Mystery Series. That location suited the wacky twin sisters who own the At Witt’s End resort and the occasional ghost who moseys over from the adjacent mortuary. Glorious sunsets, wildlife, the sounds of gentle lapping waves, and the scent of fragrant pine are peppered throughout the story.

Sadie Witt sees the dead. She’s a flamboyant character who uses unorthodox means when challenged with the task of helping the recently departed solve their issues. Some of these issues place Sadie in harm’s way. Because the Witt’s End Resort is centered in a tight-knit community, Sadie is able to draw on her life-long experiences and her cohorts to solve a murder. Settings have to blend with the character, as well as their beliefs and their lifestyles. Sadie may visit a metropolitan area, but would never choose to live there.

A small community and the freedom to experience the beauty of nature are important to me. I live in resort country in Northern Minnesota and only have to step out my patio door to relish the wonders of nature. We have a gray fox who visits daily and two fawns to love to nibble on bread I toss to them. An occasional bear wanders through and raccoons compete with the fox for attention. I drew on these experiences when building a world for my Sadie Witt Mystery Series and a few of these critters show up on the pages now and then. So do some of the zany characters who frequent our Minnesota resorts.

A death coach is expected to counsel patients experiencing life-threatening illness. But that’s not the case for sixty-four year old Sadie Witt, owner of the Witt’s End Resort, because her clients are already dead. They checked into Cabin 14, where no guest leaves alive. Her guests will be shocked to learn that the flamboyant Sadie is their conduit to the hereafter. Clad in the latest fashion trends (fads typically reserved for those without sagging body parts) and sporting hairdos that make bystanders want to look away but can’t, Sadie realizes that one of the guests had been murdered and must work against the clock to untangle the web and prevent further mayhem.

Five guests, all with hidden agendas, must help Sadie solve the murder and protect the mysterious contents of a black leather briefcase. They are ill prepared for the unorthodox manner in which this colorful woman leads them on their final journey.

I hope you enjoy my visit to Cicero's children. I’d love to hear your comments, so please email me at

Visit my Blog, Facebook and Twitter pages and check back for updates. -- AT WITT'S END, released by Echelon Press in early 2010


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bouchercon, Books, and Babies

Bouchercon has come and gone, but what a treat it was! Jim Huang and his fellow organizers put on quite a show in Indianapolis this past weekend. I drove down there from chicago on Wednesday afternoon with my traveling buddy and fellow author Luisa Buehler (The Innkeeper: A Registered Death), arriving at our off-site hotel just in time to have dinner with Echelon publisher Karen Syed and her lovely mother Nancy. Bob Goldsborough (A President in Peril)joined us at the hotel on Thursday, and off we all went to the Hyatt Regency where Bouchercon was just getting into high gear.

After registering, I was off to the Hospitality Suite where I was volunteering an hour each day. Hospitality was managed by Brenda Stewart, and a more capable, friendly, and organized woman I've yet to meet. Kudos to Brenda for an outstanding job. Working Hospitality was fun as I met a lot of old friends who stopped by there for a cup of coffee and other goodies provided by the Indy chapter of Sisters in Crime. Pictured here are Deb Baker, Barb D'Amato, Kaye Barley with Mary Jane Maffini, retired librarian extraordinaire Doris Ann Norris, and Anthony Award winner Julie Hyzy.

Deb writes two series, one set in Michigan and one in Arizone. Both are amateur sleuth series, and both are great IMHO. Doris is an avid mystery reader who goes out of her way to welcome new authors to the fold. She is truly a friend to all in the mystery community. Kaye is a long time member of DorothyL, an online list for mystery fans, and writes the "Meanderings and Muses" blog. Like Doris, Kaye is knowledgeable about books in general and mysteries in particular.

Mary Jane Maffini is a Canadian whose three series are set in Canada and feature wonderfully memorable charaters. Mary Jane is also known for her short stories, especially those found in the six "Ladies Killing Circle" anthologies.

I dare anyone to say they don't know Barbara D'Amato. Barb is the award winning author of two series and several stand-alone mysteries, a playwright and researcher, and a past president of Sisters in Crime and MWA.

Her Figueroa & Bennis novel, Authorized Personnel Only, won the first annual Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2001. Her latest book is the thriller Foolproof, co-written with Jeanne M. Dams and Mark Richard Zubro, to be published in December 2009. She has a new yet-untitled novel coming out from Tor/Forge in 2010.

Last but not least, here's a pic of Julie Hyzy speaking at the Anthony awards ceremony after receiving an Anthony for "State of the Onion" for Best Paperback Original mystery. I've known Julie for years and I was thrilled when her name was announced at the awards ceremony. Julie is a fine writer, and after years of honing her craft, she truly deserves all the success she's now enjoying.

Bouchercon was great fun and finished with a bang with an author book giveaway preceeded by the silent and live auctions benefiting Indy literacy activities. Congratulations to Deb Watson and Sandy Tooley who so capably ran the two auctions. You both did a magnificent job!

And now, just a little news of my own. The third book in my "Rhodes to Murder" series is being re-released by Echelon Press in 2010. This revised edition of "To Kill A King" will feature a new cover and will be released under the title "The Heat Wave Murders". I'm thrilled to have my entire backlist available again and hope you all approved of this newly edited edition.

Some of you have been asking to see updated photos of my youngest grandson. Well, here they are. Christian is now eight months old and is doing just beautifully. He's a happy baby, very strong and active, and wants only to walk, walk, walk! No, he can't walk on his own yet, but does he ever scoot around in his rolling walker! He loves our driveway where he can roll on and on and on.

We have another baby in the family, except this one's a dog! Bonita (pictured here with my daughter Jennifer)is a Newfoundland Lansier. Jen and husband Jay got her when she was ten weeks old. She's now thirteen weeks old and has gained five pound a week since arriving in their home.

Our grandsons Dan and Zach love their new puppy, but guess what! Bonita has already eaten their homework! Yes, at thirteen weeks she reached over the edge of the kitchen table and gobbled up their papers. If you know anything about Newfies, you'll understand how she managed it. Bonita's mom weighed 145 pounds and her dad weighed 185. We're taking bets on how big this baby will get! :)