Friday, December 6, 2013

Thanks for visiting Cicero's Children.

This website is currently being updated. 

Please visit again in January when the 
new, improved version is unveiled.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Thanksgiving Turkey for You!

Happy Thanksgiving!
(a little early)
To make you smile Today!
Let me be the FIRST to send you Thanksgiving Greetings.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night 2014

Bob Hill and his new wife Betty are vacationing in it happens, near Transylvania . They‘re driving in a rental car along a rather deserted highway. It’s late at night and raining very hard with thunder and lightning. Bob can barely see the road in front of the car. 

Suddenly, the car skids out of control! Bob attempts to control it, but to no avail. The car swerves and smashes into a tree.

Moments later, Bob shakes his head to clear the fog. Dazed, he looks over at the passenger seat and sees his wife unconscious, with her head bleeding! Despite the rain and unfamiliar countryside, Bob knows he has to get help. Bob picks up his wife and begins trudging down the road. 

After a short while, he sees a light. He heads towards the light, which is coming from a large, old house. He approaches the door and knocks.

A minute passes and a small, hunched old man opens the door. Bob immediately blurts out, "Help! My name is Bob Hill, and this is my wife Betty. We've been in a terrible accident, and my wife is seriously hurt. Can I please use your phone?"

"I'm sorry," replies the hunchback, "but we don't have a phone. But my master is a doctor. Come in, and I will get him!"

Bob enters as another older man comes down the stairs. "I'm afraid my assistant may have misled you. I am not a medical doctor. I am a scientist. However, it is many miles to the nearest clinic, and since I’ve had some medical training, I’ll see what I can do for your wife. Igor, bring them down to the laboratory."

With that, Igor picks up Betty and carries her downstairs, with Bob following closely behind. Igor places Betty on a table in the lab. Bob collapses from exhaustion and his own injuries, so Igor places Bob on an adjoining table.

After a brief examination, Igor's master looks worried. "Things are serious, Igor. Prepare a transfusion."

Igor and his master work feverishly, but despite all they do, both Bob and Betty Hill pass away.

The Hills' deaths upset Igor's master greatly. Wearily, he climbs the steps to his conservatory, which houses his grand piano. Music has always brought him solace, so he begins to play, and a stirring, almost haunting melody fills the house. 

Meanwhile, Igor is still in the lab tidying up. His eyes catch movement, and he notices the fingers on Betty's hand twitching, keeping time to the haunting piano music. Stunned, he watches as Bob's arm begins to rise, marking the beat. He is further amazed when both Betty and Bob suddenly sit upright on the examining tables.

 Unable to contain himself, Igor dashes up the stairs to the conservatory, bursts in, and shouts,"Master! Master!

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music!"

I am Soooooo Sorry.....
But You Really
Should've Seen That Coming!!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Welcoming Author Marilyn Meredith

Today I'm happy to host my good friend Marilyn Meredith here at Cicero's Children. Marilyn Meredith is the author of over thirty published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series. She borrows a lot from where she lives in the Southern Sierra for the town of Bear Creek and the surrounding area, including the nearby Tule River Indian Reservation. She does like to remind everyone that she is writing fiction. Marilyn is a member of EPIC, three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America. Visit her at and follow her blog at

Halloween Memories

When I was kid, trick-or-treating was an adventure. We traipsed all over the neighborhood with no adults supervising. We older kids, and I’m talking nine or ten, had our younger siblings in tow. At least we had them until they got too tired and then we took them back home, and headed out again.

Those were the war years (WWII) and sugar was rationed, so the most wonderful treats were the homemade ones like popcorn balls, chocolate chip cookies, and candied apples. We had no reason to fear razor blades or poison. And we weren’t ashamed to hit up a house with homemade goodies a second time. We also passed the word where the “good stuff” was to others on the street.

One time I ventured out on my own. I can’t remember why, but probably my friends had tired and given up. I know I was on a street several blocks from home and had to climb a whole flight of stairs to a house I’d never been to before. I knocked and shouted, “Trick or Treat.”

A man with a fierce expression opened the door with a rifle pointed right at me. He growled, “You know what I do to kids who come trick or treating?”

Positive I was about to die, I managed to squeak out, “No, sir.”
He grinned, lowered the rifle and said, “I give them candy,” and he did.

I hightailed it home after that—and though I don’t know for sure, I have a strong feeling I never went trick-or-treating on my own after that.

What about you? What kind of Halloween Memories do you have?

About Spirit Shapes, Marilyn's latest book: Ghost hunters stumble upon a murdered teen in a haunted house. Deputy Tempe Crabtree's investigation pulls her into a whirlwind of restless spirits, good and evil, intertwined with the past and the present, and demons and angels at war.


The person who comments on the most blogs on Marilyn's blog tour will have the opportunity to have a character named after him or her in the next Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery.

Tomorrow Marilyn will be visiting here:

To buy directly from Marilyn's publisher in all formats:
Her books are also available directly from Amazon.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Bullet to the Shoulder

Have you ever noticed how many mystery novel characters take a bullet to the shoulder and bounce right back into action in the next chapter? Is this realistic, or are some modern day writers simply following a pattern created by dime novel authors back in the years when fictional tough guys were all the rage?

Sometimes it's necessary to the story to let your hero take a beating or be shot by the bad guys. After all, criminals aren't nice people, and if your hero is involved in catching criminals for a living -- say he is a cop or a P.I. -- he stands a good chance of needing medical care at least once or twice in his life. 

Lydia Chin, a P.I. in S.J. Rozan's CHINA TRADE, took a classic beating in that book. Chin didn't miraculously recover from the attack in one day flat. Instead, Rozan portrayed her painful physical recovery over a matter of time, including limiting her ability to perform certain activities for the first few days. Rozan dealt in realism, unlike so many writers who minimize the effects of physical assaults on their characters. 

Now let's consider that bullet to the shoulder I mentioned earlier. If you look at the picture on the left, you'll notice there are more bones than muscle showing in the upper arm and shoulder area. Sure, a writer could simply "wing" his victim, grazing the upper outer arm with a bullet and leaving a nice gash there, but little other damage. That gash might require stitches, and it would certainly hurt like heck for a few days, but a tough hero could probably grimace his way through the pain while fighting off the bad guys, especially if he had the biceps of a football player with lots of muscle between skin and bone. 

But what if he's shot a little higher in the shoulder? Or what if he's lacking big biceps? And what if he's a size 4 she?? What then? You can probably deduce from the picture that a bullet of any size could do considerable harm to the clavicle, the scapula, or the humerus itself. Damage to any of those bones means our hero -- or heroine -- will be out of the competition for a while. 

And what about blood? In these pictures, the red indicates arteries, the blue indicates veins.

 "Winging" someone wouldn't cause much bleeding, but a bullet to the inside of the shoulder area could cause massive hemorrhage.

Shooting a character in the shoulder requires some thoughtful decision making on the part of the writer. Can the character be out of heavy duty action for anywhere from several days to several weeks? Can he do his job while wearing a sling on his arm or a figure-8 clavicle strap on his upper body? Will he bleed a little or a lot? Will he experience the minor but annoying pain of a simple gash, or the more exquisite pain of a shattered bone?

It's all up to the writer -- if the scene is to be written realistically.

So, how much damage would a bullet do to you? Check yourself out in a mirror. If you're a small woman like I am, you might be surprised at how little muscle separates skin from bones in your shoulder.



Monday, September 23, 2013


It's hard to believe we only have one week left in September. Seems like only yesterday when the kids were starting back to school. But it's true -- October is right around the corner, and that means Halloween is fast approaching. 

To help celebrate the spirit of this spooky season, I'm presenting below the first chapter in my Halloween mystery, THE SCARECROW MURDERS, preceded by the informational blurb from the book. Hope you enjoy it!

It's a battle of the sexes in little Rhineburg, Illinois when Bruck University's fledgling football team butts heads with female rodeo riders during Halloween Homecoming Days. 

The Big Bad Bruins can’t believe it when Bruck President Garrison Hurst hires the Moore Sisters' Rodeo to perform in the school's new stadium the night before the homecoming game. The 3Bs—AKA “The Freebies” because of their losing style—may be lousy at football, but as country boys, they know what a herd of angry Brahma bulls can do to a grass field. Accompanied by every able-bodied man in town, they form a picket line outside Hurst’s office and raise their voices in protest.

Will the president meet the team’s demands to cancel the rodeo? Not if Donna Moore can help it. Backed by an iron-clad contract and a smart lawyer, Donna rallies the women of Rhineburg in support of their cowgirl sisters. Marching with signs in hand, the women out shout and out maneuver their male counterparts, taking over the college security office and generally causing havoc on Bruck’s campus.

Caroline Rhodes’ son and daughter-in-law take opposite sides in the argument—until a football player is found murdered in a rodeo bullpen and Martin Rhodes is named the prime suspect. Caroline looks to Professor Carl Atwater, Maddy “Mad” Moeller, and the ladies of the Rhineburg Boarding House and Home for Gentle Women for help in catching a clever killer.


(copyright 2004, 2012 by Mary V. Welk)

"Run, Martin! Run!"
Nikki Rhodes megaphoned her plea through cupped hands tinged blue by a cold October wind. The practical side of her brain ridiculed her efforts even as she shouted. The day had dawned gray, with a battery of storm clouds stacked like black casino chips on the far horizon. The clouds had edged ever closer to Rhineburg until, as if pushed by some invisible croupier's hand, they'd spilled into the skies above Bruck University, announcing their arrival with a smattering of thin raindrops. The dribble had quickly turned into a torrent that pummeled the school's auditorium and matted the yellow grass behind it.
Now, with the temperature dipping towards the freezing point, the rain had become a crystal curtain of sleet. It battered Nikki's cries into icy little whispers that spiraled out of control in the gusting wind. Common sense told her Martin could neither see nor hear her.
Despite what her head knew to be true, Nikki's heart rebelled at the thought of defeat. The man she loved was fighting for his life only sixty yards away. Somehow she had to let him know she was there for him.
She called out again, this time expending every inch of breath available in her hundred-and-twenty pound frame.
"Please, Martin! Ru-unn!"
This second appeal was barely born before a slap shot of arctic air splintered her words into shards of sound that boomeranged back into Nikki's face. Fragmented syllables ricocheted inside the hood of her yellow vinyl slicker and echoed in her ears like the muffled chant of a ghost choir. She shivered, spooked by the eerie mimicry of the wind.
"Run, Mar-tinnnn! You can make it, boy!"
 Nikki darted a look at the grandfather-like figure roaring encouragement over her left shoulder. Sleet bounced off the bill of Carl Atwater’s Bruck U. baseball cap and trickled down his drooping mustache and Santa Claus beard. Seeking further purchase, the ice crystals burrowed into the red and black checkerboard of his size 54 jacket, pinged off the fat metal buttons marching soldier-like down his stomach, and splashed to the ground in ever-growing puddles around his scuffed boots.
The veteran professor of history seemed oblivious to the sudden downpour that had turned a merely gray day into a cold and miserable one. The brutal wind reddened his face beyond its usual weathered look, but his eyes never wavered from the trio of mud-spattered bodies dashing across the field behind Hildegard Hall. He exhorted the lead runner with a series of deafening war whoops, emphasizing his demands for speed with a clenched fist raised high to punch tight little circles at the charcoal sky.
Watching him bob up and down on the balls of his feet, frozen raindrops sprinkling the air with each thrust of his arm, a picture came to Nikki's mind of a fat old sheep dog shaking off the residue of a Saturday night bath. It was a comforting image, if not a lasting one.
"Aw, come on, Martin! Wake up and move your feet!"
Nikki's dark eyes narrowed. Her mellow sheep dog had vanished, melted in the rain like the Wicked Witch of the West. In its place stood an oversized pit bull complete with bared fangs and a bad dude attitude.
"Stop it, Professor!" Nikki waggled a frostbitten finger under Atwater's nose. "One more word of criticism out of you, and I swear I'll…I'll…"
Biting back words that would have shocked her mother, Nikki drew in her breath and finished the sentence with a frustrated shake of her head. The professor responded in typical male fashion. His eyebrows rose in stunned surprise, then fused into a frown mirroring his inner confusion. He seemed baffled as to the reason for Nikki's anger. He also appeared hurt by the vehemence in her voice.
Nikki chose to ignore the look of mystified pain on the professor's face. Atwater deserved to be told off, she thought, and not only because he'd criticized Martin. This entire mess was his fault. If he hadn’t egged him on, her husband would be safe at home today instead of running for his life from a pack of thugs. But his mentor's devious plot had appealed to the macho side of Martin's character. Testosterone had triumphed over common sense, and her own dire warnings had been in vain. Now Martin was about to die, and for no good reason at all.
Nikki's Greek blood boiled, her fear for Martin's safety now preempted by an overwhelming desire to throttle the chairman of the history department.
The professor seemed to read at least a part of her thoughts. He leaned forward, his damp beard brushing the hood of her slicker. "Don't you worry. Martin's going to come out of this in one piece."
"Yeah, sure."
The burning sensation in the pit of her stomach spread upward to her throat as Nikki stared out over the field. The sleet and driving rain distorted her view, but she could see the gap steadily closing between her husband and the two men chasing him. The taller of Martin's pursuers appeared to be less than a yard behind him and slightly to his right. A shorter, huskier fellow was closing from the left, a step ahead of his partner and at a better angle to intercept his prey. It was like watching a pyramid collapse, the tip slowly crumbling to be buried by the rubble at the bottom.
Without warning, the shorter man launched himself into the air. His momentum propelled him several feet forward directly into Martin's path. He fell to the earth with a bone-jarring thud, then twisted to the right, arms outstretched, and grabbed his victim by the ankle.
Nikki reached out blindly and clutched the arm of her mother-in-law. Her fingernails dug a trench in the other woman's wrist as she watched her husband struggle to escape. Martin was still on his feet, stumbling forward and dragging his attacker with him across the slick grass. Covered in mud, the man held on until the second pursuer caught up with them. This fellow slammed into Martin's back, seized him by the shoulders, and unceremoniously hauled him backwards.
"Uh, oh," groaned the professor. "I think he's a goner."
Nikki's lips trembled. She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to watch her husband's premature demise at the hands of the two thugs.
"It's over," she whimpered. "They've made me a widow."
Caroline Rhodes smothered a yelp as her daughter-in-law's nails triggered yet another spasm of pain in her wrist.
"Look on the bright side," she muttered through clenched teeth. "Martin may be dead meat, but you'll look smashing dressed in black."

You can find this book at:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Birthdays and Deamsicle Pie

So yesterday -- Sunday -- we had the kids and grandkids here at our house to celebrate Fred's and my birthdays. Fred is exactly one week older than I, which means for one week I can say I married an older man. (Of course, for that same week, Fred likes to say he married a younger woman!) 

We picked the perfect day for a backyard party with the temperature reaching a comfortable 77 degrees. (Today the temp topped out at 94 degrees with high humidity!) Dinner consisted of fried chicken, sloppy joes, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans, and a variety of liquid refreshment followed by a red velvet birthday cake for Fred and a chocolate birthday cake for me. 

That wasn't the end of the desserts, though. Daughter Jenni brought a homemade peach pie, the fresh peaches having come from the Elberta peach tree in her back yard. Daughter Sarah wasn't to be outdone by her younger sister; she brought homemade brownies, lemon squares, and raspberry crunch cookies.

So yes, this wasn't the most calorie conscious, fat free dinner of all time, but boy! it sure was good! :) The only thing missing was a Deamsicle pie. My sister sent me this recipe and said her family loved it. Being a Dreansicle fan -- you know, those vanilla ice cream bars covered in orange sherbet -- I intend to make this pie very soon, although I'll probably substitute a graham cracker crust for the cookie crust. I'm including the recipe below in case you'd like to try it, too.

And speaking of recipes, Carolyn Haines, author of the Bones series starring Sarah Booth Delaney, has a cookbook coming out next spring. Called BONE-A-FIED DELICIOUS, Recipes from Zinnia's Finest Chefs, the book features the best recipes out of 700 submissions sent to Carolyn from readers and writers across the country. The book will debut at Carolyn's annual Daddy's Girls Weekend, April 3-6, 2014 in Mobile, Alabama. This is a great conference for readers and writers alike with author conversations and panel discussions interspersed with fun activities like the Big Daddy contest. For more information, visit Carolyn's website at or go directly to the Daddy's Girls website,

Happy recipe testing!


Thursday, September 5, 2013


It's September, and that means the dog days of summer are coming to a close and school is back in session. 

It also means that Harlequin/Worldwide has released the third book in my Rhodes to Murder mystery series, and I'm ready to give away some FREE copies! 

Here's the front cover and the back cover blurb from Harlequin's mass market paperback edition of TO KILL A KING:

A Summer to Die For…

After receiving a desperate plea for help from her best friend, Molly O'Neal, Caroline Rhodes takes a leave of absence from her nursing duties at St. Anne's Hospital. She heads back to Chicago to work with her friend as an E.R. nurse at a medical center that is overcrowded, understaffed and under renovation. Caroline came prepared for tough shifts, but the reality is much worse—it's murder.

When the first victim is found, Molly becomes the prime suspect, and Caroline knows she has to find the truth. But as a Chicago heat wave hits, the list of suspects—and victims—rises with the temperature, and Caroline starts to sweat. Because a killer thinks the perfect place for her to cool down permanently…is the morgue.

TO KILL A KING is also available from Amazon in trade paperback format and as a Kindle e-book, and from B&N as a Nook e-book.

Here's the front cover and the back cover blurb from those editions:

When Caroline Rhodes agrees to return to Ascension Medical Center for the summer, she has no idea she'll be walking into an Emergency Room marked for murder. But two days after her arrival a female employee is found dead, smothered with a lavender silk pillow.

Caroline's persistent questions concerning the murder earn her a warning from ER doc Chan Daley. "As me sainted mother used to say," quips the doctor, "man who stands beneath tail of elephant must prepare for much dung to drop on head." But Caroline is willing to risk the fallout when a second death results in the arrest of the ER's nurse manager. Determined to clear her best friend of a charge of murder, Caroline forms a strange three-way pact with an aging Mafia boss and the administrator of Ascension Medical Center.

As if murder isn't enough, Caroline must investigate charges of sexual harassment against a doctor, while also coping with a heat wave that sends residents of suburban Niles, Illinois flocking to the hospital for relief. The last thing Caroline and the ER needs is the arrival of an irate cab driver with a dead passenger, a litter of hungry puppies, and a plastic shopping bag full of dead fish. Add to that a medical resident who can't stay on his feet and you're looking at the kind of problems that send most people scurrying for cover.

But not Caroline Rhodes. Aided by her friends from the little town of Rhineburg, Illinois, the veteran ER nurse proves once again that attention to detail is the key to solving any crime.

I have several dozen copies of the mass market paperback edition of TO KILL A KING that I'll give away FREE to anyone who contacts me at . There's a catch to this giveaway, though. 

1. It's first come, first served until I run out of books.

2. If you enjoy the mystery, I request that you leave a brief comment under "Customer Reviews" on the book's Amazon page: 

As you'll notice, this page displays the trade paperback and e-book edition of TO KILL A KING with the blue cover. It is the exact same book--same words, same story--as the Harlequin mass market edition that you'll receive. Only the covers are different.

Soooo...if you're agreeable to my request, send your name and address to me at (please don't forget the "v" in the address) and I'll send you a copy ASAP.  

And if you're interested in purchasing the Harlequin edition of  TO KILL A KING for a friend or relative, please go to:


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Miserable Failure as an Eyewitness

Don't you love this picture? Three raccoons with black masks accenting the white fur around their noses. See how... Oh! Wait a minute! There are only two raccoons here. The little guy behind them is a cat! A cat disguised as a raccoon, his black mask helping him blend in with the two fellows in the forefront of the photo. Oh, well. They do kind of look alike. Can't blame a person for making such a mistake, right? It's easy to do.

Unfortunately, it's extremely easy to do. People misidentify other people all the time, and I should know. I did it just last week.

Let me tell you about it.

My son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids were vacationing in Florida. During their absence, my youngest daughter and I were taking turns dogsitting their 13-year-old mixed breed mutt, Snipper.

It was Saturday evening, and my turn to check on the dog. My husband decided to come along with me, and on our arrival, we noticed an older model blue car parked in the driveway of the home next door to our son's place. Now, that house has been empty for months and is currently being maintained by a bank. The house across the street from my son is also empty, the owners having recently faced foreclosure.

Two empty houses. One unfamiliar blue car. Enough to make this mystery writer suspicious, especially when a man emerged from the upper end of the driveway, the part partially hidden by the side of the house. The man approached the front of the blue car, but stopped when he saw me standing in my son's driveway. We stared at each other for several long seconds, neither one of us saying anything. Then the man veered to his left and walked rapidly to the passenger side of the car where he again stopped and stared over the hood at me. With the car between us, I could only see him from the waist up, and what caught my attention the most about him were his dark eyes and his thick, jet black hair cut short on the sides but rising a good inch in height above the scalp line on the top of his head. 

I'll admit, this may sound pretty dumb to you, but as I gazed at the guy, the only thought crossing my mind was, I wonder if he uses mousse to make his hair stand up that way. 

My preoccupation with his hair didn't last long because the man suddenly turned away from the passenger door and headed back around the front of the car to the driver's side. In one swift movement, he opened the door and got into the car, then he started it up, backed out of the driveway, and took off down the street. This all happened so quickly that I never got a clear look at the car's license plate.

My husband was already in the backyard with the dog when the man left. I walked back to join him there. After discussing with him what I saw, I decided to call the police. After all, the house next door was empty. The man might have been trying to break in. Since my son's house would also be empty that night -- no one home but the dog, and he was too old and arthritic to be much of a match for a burglar -- I worried that we'd come back the next day to find the place ransacked, computer and other valuables gone, never to be found again.

The officer with whom I spoke on the phone asked me for a description of the man. I guessed him to be in his late teens or early twenties, a white man, maybe 5'9" tall, wearing a navy blue T-shirt. For the life of me, I couldn't say if he was wearing long pants or shorts or what color they were. All I could recall was seeing a flash of plaid when he climbed into the car. For all I knew, that could have been his underwear creeping up above low slung pants.

Not more than five minutes later, a police car pulled up outside my son's home. A very nice officer calmly listened to my story and then checked out the empty house. When he returned, he told me everything looked to be in order with no signs of a break-in. He said he would drive by several times during the night to check both that house and the empty one across the street, and when I told him my son's house would also be unattended over night, he promised to check it also. 

I figured that was the end of it, but maybe ten minutes later, the policeman returned, this time with a smile on his face. He told me he'd been checking around with the neighbors and discovered that the car belonged to one neighbor who'd been parking it overnight in that driveway for a couple of weeks after catching kids drinking beer behind the empty home's garage. The idea was to scare the kids off if they returned. 

According to the man's wife, I witnessed him leaving for work. She said he was probably checking me out because he'd never met me or my husband and wondered who we were. I was totally embarrassed about the whole thing, but the officer kindly assured me I'd done the right thing calling the police. 

I was even more embarrassed when I later learned from my daughter-in-law that the man in question was much older than I thought. The father of two grade school children, he was at least thirty years old, and probably older. 

So how good was I as an eyewitness? Not good at all. I misjudged the man's age by a good ten years. I couldn't describe his clothing. I didn't know the make or model of the car, or the license plate numbers. I was only thirty feet away from the man, and all I could really describe was his hair color and style. 

Considering the incident in hindsight, I believe my description of the man was unconsciously affected by a preconceived notion of who he was. First of all, the car was older, and it looked dusty and dirty, as if it hadn't seen a wash or a wax job in years. To me, a car like that automatically registers as belonging to someone who either doesn't give a darn what state his car is in as long as it runs, or someone who lacks the money to take care of his car. In my mind, both of those conditions apply to teenage boys.

Next, most of the break-ins and thefts that have occurred in my neighborhood have been committed by neighborhood teenagers. I'm not surprised when I hear of a bike being stolen from a nearby garage, or computers being stolen from a local school. It happens in every neighborhood today, and all too often teen boys are to blame.

So yes, I believe I automatically assumed the man was a teenager intent on stealing whatever he could from an empty house. I believe that assumption might have colored my view of the man's actions. Maybe he wasn't trying to hide from me when he walked around to the passenger side of the car. Maybe he wasn't driving too fast when he pulled out of the driveway. Maybe I saw only what I expected to see from a thief -- deception and a quick getaway.

One thing I know for sure, it's a good thing that police officer took the time to question the neighbors. I might have embarrassed myself, but at least I didn't get an innocent man in trouble with the law. 

BTW, did you know that 239 criminal convictions have been overturned by DNA testing since 1990? 73% of those convictions came as a result of faulty eyewitness testimony. Now that's something to think about.

(Statistics courtesy of The Innocence Project)


Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Self-Editing a Book is Like Navigating a River

A few weeks ago I wrote about a simple memory jogging acronym I use when self-editing my work.

S—Sentence Structure
E—Eliminating Errors: Spelling, Capitalization, Punctuation, POV
D—Dialogue and Description
I—Internal and External Conflict
T—Typos, Tired Words, and Tense Changes
I—Inaccurate Facts and Inconsistencies
N—Narrative and Backstory


Today I'm addressing language and flow.

When I edit my own work -- or when I'm editing another writer's work --  I look at the story as if I'm exploring an unknown river. 
Despite the occasional bend or curve in a riverbed, all rivers flow in one direction only. Just like a river, the plot of a story should flow in one logical direction from start to finish. And if there's a subplot in the story, it should branch off from the main plot in the same way that a creek branches off from a river; a creek may veer off in a slightly different direction--maybe southeast instead of due south--but it's still part and parcel of the main waterway.   

Rivers--and the fish in them--often twist and turn as they travel across the landscape. Are there a sufficient number of twists, turns, and red herrings in the story to keep the reader guessing? 

How about obstacles? Rocks, fallen trees, and other debris can change the course of a river or alter the rate of its flow. Are there enough reasonable obstacles thrown in the path of the protagonist to keep the story interesting? Do these obstacles slow the pace of the plot or, hopefully, increase both the pace and the tension?

Last but not least, all rivers have boundaries of some kind. Be they rocky walls or grassy banks, they contain in place the water flowing between them. Sometimes, though, a river overflows its boundaries, causing damage to anything in its path with a flood of water.
Language is to a story what water is to a river. The right words--and the right number of words--can make the plot flow at a pace that encourages a reader to keep turning the pages. The trick is staying within the boundaries. What I mean by that is, you can damage, or even destroy, a good story by using the wrong words, too many words, or too many of the same words in your writing. 

So what's a wrong word? Dull verbs come to mind right away. People "running" or "stopping" instead of "fleeing" or "skidding to a stop". And don't get me started on "was" and "had" and "came" and "went". 

Too many words? Well, we've all written those 100,000 word Greatest Novels and discovered we'd be much better off if we cut out at least 25,000 little beauties. Sometimes we simply can't resist flooding our first drafts with words, but there's nothing like wordiness to slow the pace and cool the tension in a story. Cut out unnecessary scenes, tag lines, adjectives, and adverbs. Cut to the chase and you'll tell a better story.

As for too many of the same words, we all have our favorites that seem to creep into every other paragraph. "Just" is one of my favorites; I'm ruthless at cutting out "just" when I self-edit my work. Making a list of your favorite words and doing a word count of them in your manuscript helps when it comes to deleting overused and hackneyed words.

Self-editing isn't easy, but it's a necessary evil that must be learned by every writer who hopes to succeed in this business. Using the above acronym has helped me with my writing. I hope it will help you, too.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Lessons From the Lone Ranger

Here's a story that speaks to the need for self-editing. 

The Lone Ranger and Tonto went camping in the desert. After raising their tent, the two men crawled into it and fell asleep.

Some hours later, Tonto wakes the Lone Ranger and says, "Kemo Sabe, look up and tell me what you see."

The Lone Ranger replies, "I see the sky, and in it, thousands of stars."

"What does that tell you?" asks Tonto.

The Lone Ranger ponders the question for a minute and then says, "Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, it says the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, we'll probably have a beautiful day. What does it tell you, Tonto?"

Tonto rolls his eyes in disgust. "It tells me someone stole our tent!"

Tom Stern at defines homing in as getting to the crux of a problem. In the story above, the Lone Ranger failed to home in on the real problem because he concentrated only on what he saw and not on what he didn't see.

We writers often do the same thing when we self-edit our work. We are so familiar with our stories, and can so readily visualize our settings and characters, that we often read what we think we wrote rather than what we did write. 

So even though Aunt Anna has always lived in North Dakota (it says so on page eight of our novel), our hero ends up on Interstate 90 when he's driving to her home.  With one slip of the finger, we changed I-94 to I-90 and sent Aunt Agatha -- or was it Anna? -- to South Dakota. 

For me, one of the best ways to avoid unintentional errors is by setting my work aside for a few weeks after finishing it. Once I have the story pretty well out of my mind, I can go back and read it over with a fresh eye for mistakes or inconsistencies. Doing it this way, I've found I can catch most errors before my readers do.

So what's your secret for catching mistakes in your writing? Are you Tonto or the Lone Ranger when it comes to self-editing your work?


Friday, June 21, 2013

More on Advance Directives

Earlier this month I blogged about advance directives and how they came to be accepted here in the U.S. In response to that blog, Sarah Glenn shared a story about her father. 

She wrote: "My father made sure we all knew his wishes once he knew he wasn't going to live much longer. It spared us from several hard decisions. Not everyone has this 'luxury' of time, though."

Sarah is right when she says we don't all have the luxury of time on our side. Sometimes events catch us unaware of the long-term implications. 

To prove that point, let me tell you about my nephew. Neil was a healthy 42-year-old bachelor who loved sports and the great outdoors. Last November, after spending three days in bed with flu-like symptoms, he suddenly collapsed on his bedroom floor. When the paramedics arrived, they found him in cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated, but never regained consciousness. After two days on life support in the ICU, he died. The diagnosis: septic shock due to a massive infection. 

Neil never filled out advance directives, nor did he assign anyone as his Power of Attorney for Health Care, even though he was a surgical tech at a large hospital and knew the value of such forms . When he became ill, his mom figured that, as next of kin, she'd have some say in his hospital care. But because of the HIPAA privacy act and the lack of advance directives, she was told she had no legal right to consult with his doctors, nor could she request an autopsy after Neil died. To this day, my sister-in-law wonders what caused the infection that killed her son. 

Neil's death taught the entire family a hard lesson: you're never too young or too healthy to consider filling our advance directives. 

So what are the various types of advance directives? 
The first is called a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. A DPAHC is a legal document recognized by all fifty states. It names a person who will make health care decisions for you if you become mentally incapacitated due to illness and are unable to express your wishes in any manner whatsoever. A DPAHC should be made before you become ill, at a time when you can discuss your wishes with the person you name as your agent. If a life-threatening event occurs, do you want to be placed on a ventilator? Do want a feeding tube inserted? Do you want to be kept alive artificially? These decisions are yours to make and your agent's to carry out in your name. 

A Living Will lists information provided by you concerning your decisions regarding medical treatment. It provides that information to your family, your DPAHC agent, your doctor, and any other healthcare providers you come in contact with in a hospital or nursing home setting. 

A Living Will is a formal document, but unlike a DPAHC, it is not legally binding in all states. If you have both a DPAHC and a Living Will, you can be pretty sure your wishes will be followed. If you only have a Living Will, your wishes can be dismissed by family members who feel differently than you do about certain medical procedures. Examples of this occur all the time, especially when it comes to feeding tube placement and use of ventilators to artificially prolong life. Doctors can also ignore Living Wills and order medical and/or surgical interventions that you would refuse if you were able to make your own decisions.

If your state is like mine (Illinois), you can download a DPAHC from your state website. The wording of the document can change slightly from state to state, so it is best if you check locally before downloading a generic version of a DPAHC. Donor registration forms can also be downloaded from your state website.

A third form you will want to consider is a simple DNR, or Do Not Resuscitate, advance directive. On this form you can chose if you want to have CPR performed if you suffer a full cardiopulmonary arrest, meaning both your heart and your breathing stops. CPR in this case includes chest compressions and endotracheal intubation (insertion of a breathing tube) with patient placement on a mechanical ventilator.

A newer and better kind of DNR form is known as a POLST -- Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. Using this form you can chose to accept or refuse CPR; accept or refuse artificial nutrition through tubes mechanically placed down the nose or surgically placed into the stomach; ask for comfort measures only, including oxygen and pain medication; accept or refuse IVs, antibiotics, and breathing machines other than ventilators (BiPAP and CPAP); accept or refuse intubation and placement on a ventilator.

Both the simple DNR form and the POLST form need to be signed by a doctor after consultation with the patient. This can be done during a normal office visit or in a hospital setting.

Despite advances in CPR, a 2010 study reported in Cardiology Today found that people who suffer a cardiac arrest have an arrest-to-hospital-admission survival rate of only 23.8%, and an arrest-to-hospital-discharge survival rate of only 7.6%. The study covered 142,740 patients who suffered cardiac arrest between 1950 and 2008. 

Currently, only 8% of patients who suffer cardiac arrest survive to hospital discharge; the other 92% spend their remaining days in hospital ICUs. Of those who survive, most suffer neurological damage; only 3% to 7% return to their previous level of functioning.

Broken down into understandable numbers, this means that for every 1000 people experiencing cardiac arrest, only 80 survive to hospital discharge. At best, only 5 of those 80 people return to their previous level of neurological function. 

That's something to think about before you tell your doctor, "If my heart stops, I want everything possible done to prolong my life." 
It's especially true if you're a senior citizen. People over 65 have a lower rate of survival after cardiac arrest than those younger than 65. 

Despite all the statistics, a recent poll of baby boomers -- the 76 million folks born between 1946 and 1964 -- showed that 62% of the respondents believed they were too healthy to bother with filling out advance directives. 

To my way of thinking, that's akin to sticking your head in the sand. 

What do you think?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Advance Directives -- Do You Need Them?

Last week I answered a writer's question about a scene in which a woman pulls the plug on the ventilator of a patient in ICU. In the course of my answer, I mentioned a form called a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. The illustration on the left (courtesy of Cleveland Clinic) shows how a DPAHC is only one part of the umbrella called Advance Directives that protect a person's legal right to participate in medical decisions and accept or refuse medical treatment. This right includes personal decisions involving end-of-life care that mirror the person's values and beliefs.

Are advance directives important to a writer? Well, you could throw in a nasty little twist to your story if a character produces a false DPAHC form in order to hasten Aunt Lizzie's death and thus inherit her estate.

On the whole, though, advance directives are more important to you as a person than as a writer. 

As we all know, s**t happens, regardless of our age or present health. The most famous example of this is the 1983 case of Nancy Cruzan. At twenty-five years of age, Cruzan was involved in an auto accident that left her in a coma and on life support for seven years, despite the fact that she had previously told people she never wanted to be kept alive artificially. It wasn't until 1990 that a judge ruled in the family's favor, ordered life support discontinued, and allowed Cruzan to die peacefully and with dignity. 

In reaction to this case -- and others like it -- President George H. Bush signed into law the Patient Self-Determination Act of 1990. The law required hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care providers to provide information on health care advance planning to adults admitted to their facilities. 

Unfortunately, the law didn't go far enough, because it didn't require that doctors provide the same sort of information to their patients. 

But then the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, authorized "initial preventative physical examinations" by doctors as part of Medicare Part B. Included in those exams were "education, counseling, and referral" services. In 2008, legislators attempted to expand this initial exam to include "end-of-life planning" and information concerning "an individual's ability to prepare an advance directive in the case that an injury or illness causes the individual to be unable to make health care decisions". 

Many doctors resisted the proposed change because legislators failed to include mention of financial reimbursement for what doctors felt would be a time consuming process. President Bush vetoed the proposed amendment, only to have his veto overturned by a combined Democrat/Republican majority. Doctors treating Medicare and Medicaid patients were now required in include "end-of-life planning" in initial exams.

Financial reimbursement to doctors for advance directive education and counseling was proposed in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Legislators cut the proposal from the bill, though, after politicians eager for publicity falsely called the measure a government creation of "death panels". To date, doctors still do not receive reimbursement for the time spent discussing advance directives with their patients.

Which is why there are still some doctors who fail to inform patients of their legal right to refuse procedures that only extend the dying process.

As one doctor told me, "I don't talk to my patients about that (meaning advance planning). I leave that up to you nurses."

We all understand that talking about end-of-life care isn't easy. Here's a true-life example of how one doctor reacted to the impending death of his patient.

An extremely elderly woman with multiple physical maladies was brought to the ER from a nursing home. Her daughter accompanied her. The patient had been in decline for several weeks and was now only semi-conscious. The daughter wanted her mother to be made comfortable, but did not want any extreme measures taken to prolong her suffering. The ER doctor agreed and suggested the patient be moved to the hospital's hospice unit for her final days. The daughter agreed to the plan, so the nurse caring for the patient called the woman's doctor to inform him of the decision. The attending doctor flew into a rage on the phone. His exact words were, "My patients don't die! Tell the daughter to get a new doctor."

You can imagine how his reply affected the patient's daughter. The poor woman broke into tears, utterly shaken by the doctor's response and now wondering if placing her mom in hospice was the right thing to do. 

In the end, the decision was taken out of the daughter's hands. Her mother died peacefully in the ER before she could be transferred to a room.

Advance planning would have relieved the daughter of much of her heartache. If end-of-life care had been discussed with her mother before she grew too ill to make a decision for herself -- and if a more sympathetic doctor had been the attending in this case -- the process would have been easier for both the patient and her daughter.

Lacking one-on-one discussions with their doctors, people can only rely on those ubiquitous stacks of paper thrust into a patient's -- or family member's -- hands on admittance to a hospital. Among those papers one will find a lawyer-produced pink form pertaining to advance directives, often written in such legalese that the average person has little idea what the darn thing says. I can tell you from experience that, most often, those forms end up in the waste basket. 

I've talked long enough here, but I'll be back another day with more on the differences between Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney for Health Care, and which one -- if not both -- you might consider filling out for yourself. Until then, stay safe and in good health! :)