An Interview with Gary Corby

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Since winning a copy of his fourth book, The Marathon Conspiracy, in a Goodreads giveaway, I’ve become a serious fangirl of Australian author Gary Corby, whose series of mysteries set in ancient Greece are published by Soho Press. I sent him a message via Goodreads asking for an interview, and he was gracious enough to grant it. 

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From the detailed Author’s Notes at the end of each of your books, I get the impression that you were knowledgeable about Greek history long before you started writing your novels. Am I right? Tell me a little about your background.

 You’re right.  I was reading history even as a teenager — mostly ancient Greek and Roman.  But also mediaeval and WW2.  That was just for fun.  By training I’m a mathematician, weird as that may sound.  These days I’m a full time writer of murder mysteries.

 Classical Greece was an easy choice, when I decided to write a historical mystery.  To start with, I already knew a lot about the period.  Or I thought I did.  It’s one thing to know about the wars, the great art, and the geopolitics.  It’s another thing to know how the drains work!  Also how houses were built, what people ate, how they wore their hair, etc.  Now I know all that stuff, too.

 I first traveled about Greece, Turkey and the Aegean when I was in my early twenties.  Little did I know then that one day I’d be writing about the place.  But that local knowledge helps with descriptions.

 Mysteries are so series-oriented that it’s important to create characters that we, as writers, won’t get tired of writing about, and that readers won’t get tired of reading about. I can assure you that you’ve accomplished the latter! Can you tell me a little about how you created Nicolaos?

 Poor Nico!  He’s the dumbest guy in the room.   

 At the time Nico’s alive and detecting, there are about a dozen world-class geniuses walking around Athens.  There’s Pericles the famous statesman; Socrates the world’s greatest philosopher, but at this point he’s only twelve years old; Diotima the priestess-philosopher; Aspasia the brilliant speech writer; Hippocrates the Father of Medicine; the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; Herodotus the Father of History…the list goes on.

 Even Sherlock Holmes would struggle against this lot.  It meant that my detective couldn’t be the smartest guy in the room.  Since he couldn’t be the smartest, he had to be the dumbest.

 So Nico’s little brother is a genius.  His girlfriend is a genius.  His boss is a genius.   But Nico’s the one expected to solve all the puzzles. 

What about Diotima, Socrates, and the other real-life characters? Where does the historical figure end and the fictional portrayal begin?

 It varies with the character.  Socrates is easily the best documented person from that entire century.  There are good descriptions of his demeanour, his family, lists of his friends, where he lived, very long reports of his dialogues.  There’s even a first-hand account of his actions during a for-real battle. 

 Diotima on the other hand only gets mentioned in one place.  But if you can only get mentioned once in history, Plato’s Symposium is a good choice.  Her character I had to create.  Her intelligence was obviously top notch for her to have taught philosophy to Socrates, and for him to have been grateful for it.  She heads the most powerful student-teacher chain in history.  Diotima taught Socrates.  Socrates taught Plato.  Plato taught Aristotle.  Aristotle taught Alexander the Great.  Alexander conquered the world. 

 You can pull all sorts of enlightening tidbits from recorded history.  I have Pericles as being very stingy with his money, for example.  That’s because there’s a surviving court case in which it emerged that he underpaid his own son.

Many of the people who read my blog are writers themselves, who know that anything can happen during a speaking engagement—especially when you’re talking to kids! Would you please share with them your experiences when speaking at your daughter’s school (which you describe at the end of The Marathon Conspiracy), and how that experience gave you unexpected insight into Diotima’s character? Besides being a charming story in itself, it demonstrates how anything and everything becomes grist for the writer’s mill!

 It was the custom at the time that, when a girl came of age, she dedicated her toys to the goddess Artemis.  It was a coming of age rite. 

 I once gave a talk at my daughters’ school about ancient Greece, where I described the lives of girls in classical times.  I talked about how they wore their hair, what their clothes looked like, how school worked, etc.  Then I mentioned the dedication of the toys. 

 The girls were shocked.  Absolutely stunned. 

 It was instantly clear to me that my heroine Diotima would have done something about this rule.  To find out what she did, you’ll have to read the book!

From your Author’s Notes (which, by the way, I enjoy as much as I do the novels!), I suspect you’ve made at least one trip to Greece, Ephesus, etc. to research your books. My husband and I are planning a Mediterranean trip in the next few years. What locations do you suggest I and other literary-minded travelers might want to check out that might add to our enjoyment of the novels?

 For The Pericles Commission, you definitely want to visit Athens.  I know of people who’ve taken The Pericles Commission with them, to find the places.  The first murder scene is on an important rock outcrop beside the Acropolis, a place called the Areopagus.  You can easily find the spot where my first victim dies, and where Nico was standing when it happened.  (I plotted this out myself.)    Then go up to the Acropolis.  To the north you’ll see the agora, which Nico accidentally destroys in the book.  Also the Panathenaic Way which is the major connecting road.  To the south is the road to Piraeus, on which Nico has a knife fight in a later book.   If you look straight down from the Acropolis you’ll see the Theater of Dionysos, which is the setting for the next book, Death ex Machina.

 For The Ionia Sanction, visit the magnificent ruins at Ephesus, which these days is on the west coast of Turkey.  This is the same Ephesus that appears in the Bible (think Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians).   But in classical times it was a major port city.  The theater, the marketplace, the road to the wharves, the ancient brothel, Marble Road where Nico and Diotima have a flaming row…all those places are there to be seen. 

 Sacred Games is set at the ancient Olympics.  Go straight to Olympia!

 The Marathon Conspiracy is mostly set at a temple sanctuary at a place called Brauron in the ancient language, and Vravona in modern Greek.  The sanctuary and temple is a remarkably small area, but it was the world’s first official school for girls.  If you travel up the coast road from there you’ll come to the plain of Marathon, where they fought what was probably the most important battle in history. 

What’s next for Nico and Diotima? When can we look forward to reading about their next adventure?

 The book scheduled for next year is already written.  It’s called Death ex Machina and will be a rather theatrical mystery. 

 Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers or potential readers? Here’s your chance!

 People haven’t changed over thousands of years.  The same desires and fears that drive us today, greed, lust, ambition, love…those are what drove people two thousand five hundred years ago.  All that’s changed is the setting!

Thanks, Gary!

Note to my readers: If you haven’t read Gary’s books yet, I urge you to do so! And I strongly suggest that you start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with The Pericles Commission,  so you can follow the relationship between Nico and Diotima from the very beginning. You’ll love Nico, you’ll laugh out loud, and you might just learn something about Greek history.


When fan mail . . . isn’t.

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Looking back, I should have known what was coming when I saw the subject heading “Incorrect Word” in my email inbox. But like a fool, I opened it anyway. This is what I saw, reproduced here exactly as it appeared on my computer, complete with lack of salutation:

 “On page 11 of ‘A Dead Bore’ the correct word should be eminently in the sentence: ‘Although imminently suitable, …’.

 ”Also, in the same sentence you wrote ‘…was so daunting …’ As daunting means intimidating, why would Lady Fieldhurst accept the invitation that very day? Wouldn’t she hesitate to accept if she was intimidated? 

“I gave up reading at this point.”

I have to admit, the writer (I can hardly call him a “fan,” except, perhaps, in the worst sense of “fanatic,” and given that he quit reading on page 11, “reader” would hardly seem to fit, either) is correct in the first instance. The “eminent/imminent” distinction is one of those subtleties of language that I have to be constantly aware of, and in this case it managed to slip by not only me, but my critique partner and my editor at Five Star as well.

In the second example, however—and I admit to going back to look, secure in my understanding of the word “daunting”—he completely misread the sentence. Apparently he was so offended by the “eminent/imminent” issue that his reading comprehension skills were affected. Poor guy.

Now, I’ll admit, I hate it when I make this sort of error—most every writer I know does—but these things happen, and will happen as long as writers are human. That same typo (or “mindo” in this case, as it was my mind taking a brief hiatus, not my fingers hitting a wrong key, that was responsible) that jumps out at a reader is surprisingly difficult to spot when the words are my own. I knew what I “meant” to say, and that’s what I read. Every writer I know has this same dilemma.

Don’t get me wrong. Every reader has the right to put aside a book that isn’t working for them. I’m sure we’ve all done it; I know I have. And everyone has their hot buttons, things are deal breakers when it comes to finishing a book or not. Maybe it’s because I was the target here, but I thought this one gaffe was pretty small, compared to some I’ve seen. Ironically, just before I received this email I’d finished a book in which the author cited “The Lady or the Tiger?” a full eighty years before the short story of that name was published. While it did pull me briefly out of the story, I didn’t throw the book down in disgust. In fact, I kept on reading, and would have cheated myself out of a very enjoyable read if I had done otherwise. While as for contacting the author to point out her error and inform her that I was casting the book aside, and why—well, such a thing would never cross my mind. Who does that, anyway?

Seriously, I’d really like to know. What did the writer of the email hope to accomplish? Given that the edition he was reading was published in 2008, there was nothing I could do about it at this late date. (I might also add that this book earned me my first-ever review in Publishers Weekly, who called it “delightful,” so apparently it had some redeeming qualities.) What did the writer get out of this, except perhaps a brief feeling of superiority? Perhaps more important to me personally was the question: what was I to do about it? How should I respond?

I wrestled with that one all afternoon. Maybe I could send a very polite and charming email, acknowledging my own error in the first instance, and pointing out his in the second. Then I could offer an exchange: if he would give the book another try, I would promise to be more careful with my eminent/imminents in the future. But no, polite and charming or not, wasn’t my real goal to say “I’m right and you’re wrong?” Wasn’t that exactly what he’d done to me? And, that being the case, would I really change his mind, even if he agreed to such a bargain? Or would he be that much more determined to catch me in some new error?

So what did I do? Nothing. I decided not to engage with him in any way. Was it satisfying? Of course not. Part of me still wants to point out his error, as a gentle reminder to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But unsatisfying as it is, I know silence is not only the best policy, but the only real option. I’ll have to be content with imagining his frustration as he wonders if I’ve received his email yet, or if its arrival is still imminent. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Better yet, I can stay busy preparing for the release of the next book in the series, coming out in November.

Because as they say, success is the best revenge.


Book Review: The Pelican Bride

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The “Pelican” of the title refers to the ship Pélican, which sailed from France to what is now Mobile, Alabama in 1704, with brides for the colonists. Among the young women is Genevieve Gaillain, a Protestant Christian escaping persecution in Catholic France. But Genevieve soon discovers that a new world doesn’t necessarily promise love or happiness, or even the safety and security she craves.

In the past, Christian fiction has been criticized (often rightfully so) for featuring too-good-to-be-true characters who face trite conflicts which are resolved with simplistic solutions. The genre has come a long way in recent years, however, and nowhere is this welcome change more evident than in Beth White’s meaty historical romance, The Pelican Bride. Contrary to many of the Christian romances you may have read in the past, everyone does not get “saved” by the end of the book, and of those who do, their experience appears to be more of a gradual process than a sudden “Damascus road” experience. Likewise, White leaves unresolved the question of whether Genevieve is doing the right thing by hiding her Protestant faith in a Catholic colony. Readers who look for more overt evangelism in their Christian fiction may find this ambiguity disappointing, but I found it both realistic and refreshingly honest.

It’s a pity, really, that The Pelican Bride is labeled as historical romance, for it doesn’t fit easily into so small a box. In a way, it’s more of a historical novel with elements of romance, as both the lead and secondary couples spend a significant portion of the book apart. The action during these separations never drags, however, for there’s plenty going on in the young French colony located in what is now southern Alabama, including Indian raids, threats from the rival British, and political conflicts in the faraway mother country—to say nothing of the humidity, mosquitoes, and torrential rainfall. White deserves high praise for tackling a little-known period of history, many of the details of which have been lost to antiquity. In the absence of hard and fast evidence (after all, no one saw the need to write down explanations of the minutiae of colonial life, since it was assumed that everyone at the time knew how to bake bread, load a musket, etc.), she had to deduce what she could from the known details, supplemented by her own imagination.

 And I, for one, think she does a fine job. The only misstep for me came when I ran across a couple of brief references to men buttoning up their shirts; the shirts of the time would have pulled over the head, with a single button-and-loop closure at the neck. Also, the wording in a couple of places jerked me briefly out of the story, once when a young Indian slave girl “squared her mouth” (I never did figure out what that meant) and another time when a male character’s eyebrows “hooked together over his nose.” I knew what she meant—his eyebrows drawing together to indicate concentration, disapproval, etc.—but I was briefly distracted by the ludicrous mental image of the man’s eyebrows linking together. This is a personal preference, though, and other readers may not find it bothersome at all. More troublesome, as far as the conventions of romance go, was the Big Reveal at the end, which lost some of its angst due to the fact that much of the subject had already been discussed some 65 pages earlier. As I said, though, in some ways this is more of a historical novel than a romance, so it is perhaps unfair to judge it by the conventions of the romance genre.

In sum, The Pelican Bride is a richly textured tapestry of a book sure to please anyone who wants an inside look at an all-but-forgotten time in our nation’s history, as seen through the eyes of the people—some real, some imagined—who struggled to create a home out of the wilderness. Highly recommended.


On Discipline and Inspiration

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a very disciplined writer. After all, I’m an Artist. As everyone knows, Artists work when—and only when—they are inspired by their muse. And if my muse decides to take a pet and not show up for a few days—or weeks, or months—well, that’s not my fault, is it? My muse will return when it’s Time.

 All that changed when I had coffee with Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo awards and perhaps the premier science fiction writer in the country. My daughter is a major Connie Willis fan girl, so shortly after moving to Colorado, I contacted Connie Willis and asked if she would be willing to autograph a book for my daughter’s birthday. She agreed, and we met at a Starbucks in Greeley, where she is apparently a regular fixture.

 We talked for an hour, and during the course of our conversation, she told me she does all her writing at Starbucks; when she tries to write at home, she said, she looks around the house and sees all the other things she “ought” to be doing instead.

 Hmm, I thought, that sounds familiar. So the next morning, I took my laptop and went to Starbucks (not the same one; I don’t stalk Connie Willis). I discovered that the internet connection there, while okay for the occasional bit of research, is too slow for efficiently posting status updates to Facebook, reading and replying to email, playing Candy Crush, and all the other things that tend to distract me when I’m on the computer. By the time I left Starbucks an hour later, I’d written a thousand words—and all without a peep from that fickle muse.

 Since that first visit to Starbucks, I’ve written three novels of 65,000 words each, sold two of them, and started a fourth, which at the time of this writing is about 20% complete.

 Thanks, Connie. I needed that.


Patrick Colquhoun, London magistrate

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Some of my favorite comments from readers regarding the John Pickett mystery series concern the father-son relationship of Pickett and his magistrate, and how much the reader enjoys it. In fact, of the questions I’m asked most frequently about the series (aside from the obvious ones about if, when, and/or how Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst will ever get together), several concern the character of Pickett’s magistrate, Patrick Colquhoun. Readers want to know how his name is pronounced, and why I chose to give a character such a difficult name. To answer the first question, according to Debrett’s Correct Form, the name is pronounced “Ca-HOON,” at least in the United Kingdom.

 As for the second question, I chose it because Patrick Colquhoun was a real person, and a real magistrate at the time the books are set. And while I could find no evidence that he ever served in that capacity in Bow Street (in fact, my research sources place him at Queen Square), certain aspects of his life dovetail so nicely with that of John Pickett that I thought he would make a good mentor for my fictional Bow Street Runner.

Patrick Colquhoun was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, on 14 March 1745 (making him 63 years old in 1808, where the John Pickett mysteries begin). He was orphaned at age 16, and traveled to the British colony of Virginia to seek his fortune. He returned to Scotland in 1766 and settled in Glasgow, going into business for himself in the linen trade. When war broke out in the colonies ten years later, he joined with thirteen other Glasgow businessmen in financing a local regiment, contributing £100 of his personal funds to fight the colonists—possibly one of the few bad business decisions he ever made.

In 1775, at age 30, he married Janet Colquhoun, a distant cousin. They had seven children, but only four—one son and three daughters—lived to adulthood.

Patrick Colquhoun was a keen collector of statistics as well as a prolific writer, first on economic issues and later on topics relating to crime. His economic activities in Scotland—he formed the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures, and served as its first chairman—brought him into contact with political circles, into which he was soon throwing his considerable energy. He moved his family to London in November 1789, and was appointed as a Police Magistrate in 1792.

His first reform efforts involved trade on the River Thames, where an estimated half-million pounds worth of cargo was stolen every year. Colquhoun made the shocking claim that fully one-third of the 33,000 river workers were known criminals who were in on the take—a claim which seemed to be confirmed when a mob attempted to burn down the office of the newly formed Thames River Police.

The English people were suspicious of a standing police force, citing abuses by the police in France. By couching the debate in pragmatic terms, often as a matter of cost-benefit, he was able to allay many of these concerns, leading eventually to Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police in 1829. Of Colquhoun’s many books and pamphlets, perhaps the most significant was his Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis, which emphasized the ineffectiveness of the old London “charlies” as a deterrent to crime.

Patrick Colquhoun retired from his magistracy in 1818 and died two years later on 25 April 1820, at age 76. He is revered in England as a police reformer; in fact, the Metropolitan Marine Police—the modern incarnation of the Thames River Police—has a police boat named the Patrick Colquhoun.

One biographer notes that “although Mr. Colquhoun bore externally a somewhat pompous and domineering aspect . . . there never, perhaps, was a heart more alive than his to the domestic interests of the poor, or a mind more actively bent upon improving both their physical and moral condition.”


On the Trail of John Pickett in London

I recently had the pleasure of going on a cruise on the English Channel—stops in Rotterdam and on the island of Guernsey, culminating in a couple of days in London before heading back home. This was actually my second visit to London. During the first, thirteen years ago, I’d concentrated on places that would have been fashionable during the Regency period, including day trips to Brighton and Bath.

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But that was before my reinvention as a mystery writer. This time around, I decided to focus on places that would have been familiar to John Pickett. The logical place to start, then, was Bow Street, where he and his fellow Runners were based, and Drury Lane, where he hired rooms. (Warning: You may notice that I refer to my characters as if they are/were real people. I’m sorry if this strikes you as pretentious or silly, but I don’t know how else to do it—they ARE real to me!)

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Anyway, my husband and I set out early Tuesday morning, navigating the Tube until we reached Bow Street. We hadn’t walked far until we came to the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, where I was determined to have my picture taken! Pity my poor husband, who admits he is no photographer: I made him take this picture
four times before he got one that suited me!


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Next, we walked northeast to the upper end of Drury Lane and began following it southeast. I already knew that I wouldn’t find John Pickett’s hired lodgings; besides the fact that I made them up out of whole cloth, the entire lower end of Drury Lane was razed around the turn of the 20th century to make room for the area now known as Aldwych. For the sake of my trip, this might have been a good thing: better, surely, not to find it at all than to discover I’d gotten it wrong! In fact, there was a theatre situated just about where I’d pictured Pickett’s flat as being located—and that theatre was staging a production of Top Hat, based on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical of the same name! Later that day, we rushed off to Leicester Square and bought tickets, and returned to Drury Lane that night to see the show.

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But that’s a subject for another blog. I took a picture of the Drury Lane street sign, just to prove I had really been there, and we continued
southwest along Russell Street past the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Just to show what a good sport my husband is, when I told him that this theatre was the one built in 1812, he said, “Oh, is that the one that replaced the one you burned
down?” Naturally, I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!” (In fact, the theatre did burn in 1809, which is a major plot point in the as yet untitled John Pickett mystery #5. But we sure gave all the other tourists something to think about!)

We had a few extra hours that afternoon, so we spent them walking up and down many of the streets my Regency characters would have known. This may not have meant much to my husband, but it was a real kick in the pants for me to see the street names and say, “Oh, look, Mike! Audley Street! Lady Dunnington lives there!” (Have I mentioned what a good sport Mike is?)

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One of the places we walked through was Berkeley Square. Those who have been following the John Pickett mysteries from their beginning (In Milady’s Chamber) may remember that it is in the Fieldhurst town house in Berkeley Square that Lord Fieldhurst is murdered, leaving Lady Fieldhurst (a) a
widow; and (b) a suspect in her husband’s death. It is here that John Pickett first sees her and is instantly smitten. Now, as I looked around Berkeley Square, I found this house and
decided it looked like it might have been the one.


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Finally, we returned to our hotel, which happened to be located just around the corner from New Scotland Yard—appropriate enough, since it was the Metropolitan Police Service, formed in 1829 and headquartered at Scotland Yard, that eventually replaced the Bow Street force.


The Rape of the Lock, Part Deux

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When I was finishing up my English degree at the University of South Alabama, I took a class in 17th and 18th century English literature. One of the things we had to read for that class was Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem, THE RAPE OF THE LOCK. I found it absolutely charming! For those unfamiliar with the poem, the “rape” in question is the unauthorized cutting of a lock of the fair Belinda’s hair by the Baron, without the lady’s knowledge or permission, while her attention is engaged in playing cards. Believe it or not, it was based on an actual event, which apparently caused quite a rift between the families of the lady and gentleman involved! Pope was requested to write the poem as a way of telling the parties to “get over it, already.” Anyway, the class was instructed to write a paper on the poem. We could choose our own topic, as long as we cleared it with the professor beforehand. So after class, I approached Dr. Patricia Stevens and said, “I want to write a sequel!” She asked for clarification, and I promised her a sequel written in iambic pentameter with rhymed couplets, just like the original. She gave me her permission, and soon returned the paper to me with the following comments: “This is excellent, Sheri. You’ve captured both the style and the spirit of the poem. A+.” More than that, she made a copy of my poem and kept it on her bulletin board for years afterwards.

Since many of my readers are history/literature buffs, I thought you might like to read it as well. You may share it if you wish, as long as you give me (and Pope!) author credit, as below.


THE RAPE OF THE LOCK, Part Deux
by Sheri Cobb South
(with apologies to Alexander Pope)

Since Pope did on the fair Belinda dwell,
And offered not the Baron’s side to tell,
I here allow the Rapist equal chance
To speak his case and plead his own defense.
“My lady, he begins, “I must object,
My character and honor here protect.
It seems to me appropriate to claim
That I a victim more than villain am.”
“A victim? You?” outraged Belinda cries,
“You ought to blush with shame to tell such lies!
Behold, where once two sable locks were worn,
My neck, now bare: both of its ringlets shorn.
The first was cut by your deceitful hand;
Its twin, alas, cut at my own command.
Now, having seen my poor, ravaged locks,
Can you deny your guilt, oh cunning fox?”
“I don’t deny,” said he. “I must confess
‘Twas my own hand that stole the shining tress.
But, fair nymph, if malice here there be,
‘Twas but to avenge that which you stole from me.”
“What stole I e’er from you?” the nymph shot back,
“Save but a game of cards of red and black?”
With forcefulness that made Belinda start,
The Baron cried, “Fair maid, you stole my heart!
Come, my lady, come, let us be fair:
You have my heart, so why not I your hair?
Yet now I find (though much to my disgrace)
A thousand locks cannot one heart replace.
Though I the lock have claimed, my heart’s yours still,
And though hairs grow again, hearts never will.”
The Baron wooed Belinda with such charms,
At last she smiled, and laid aside her arms.
“Dear sir,” she said, “if you had asked of me,
I might have given the lock most willingly.”
“Alas, ’tis now too late,” the Baron said,
“But might I hope to have your hand instead?”
Belinda offers him her fingertips;
The grateful Baron lifts them to his lips.
For thus it is with lovers the world around:
For each thing lost, a better thing is found.
If one should lose, they never lose alone;
But when one wins, then both the vict’ry own.”

Drivin’ and Cryin’

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I have a confession to make. I don’t really like to drive. Oh, I can drive, mind you; in fact, I got my driver’s license in a VW beetle with a stick shift. And apparently I’m pretty good at it: in thirty-eight years behind the wheel, I’ve never had a wreck. But I don’t take any particular pleasure in the act of driving. It gets me where I want to go, and that’s it. I’ll never be like my dad, who loves to get out and drive in ice and snow just to show the neighbors he can, or my son, who when moving his car across the country took turns driving with my husband, but insisted on doing the driving through Nashville, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver himself.
 
But I’ll go a step further than that, and admit that while I never got any particular joy out of driving in my hometown of Cullman,  Alabama, the prospect of driving in large cities scares me spitless. I still remember my first time driving in Mobile, which is a big city compared
to the town I grew up in. I was on Interstate 65 just getting into the city traffic when the heavens opened and the floods descended. A few months of living in Mobile would teach me that this is typical summer weather for the Gulf Coast, but at that time I didn’t know that all I had to do was pull over and wait, and it would all be gone in ten minutes. All I knew was that it was raining so hard my windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. Which is why I was driving down I-65 singing “Jesus, Hold My Hand.” But I got more accustomed with time, and by the time we moved away from Mobile almost thirty years later, I was unfazed even by Airport Boulevard at rush hour.
 
Fast forward to May 2012, and my first solo trip to Denver. Mind you, it took nothing less than a writer’s conference–and with it the opportunity to meet other local writers–to make me set out from Loveland on the hour-long trek down I-25. I had just sighted the conference hotel and was congratulating myself on having successfully navigated the trip when my GPS guide, Carmen the Garmin, let me down. It seems the street she was telling me to turn on had a sign calling it by a completely different name, and so I didn’t recognize my turn until I was already past it. Carmen rolled her eyes, huffed “Recalculating,” and proceeded to take me on a very roundabout journey back.
 
After I arrived at the hotel, I was fine (a little shaky, but fine) until time to go home that evening, when I found myself in the second-to-the-right lane of a highway with five lanes going in each direction. In order to make a left-hand turn onto northbound I-25, I had to position myself in the far left lane, so that I could scoot into one of the two lanes (for anyone who’s counting, that would be lane number 6 or 7) that formed the ramps onto I-25. With very little room in which to get over, I put on my blinker, gritted my teeth, and  swerved across three lanes of traffic. Success! One very nice man in a pickup truck even held back to let me cut in front of him. Or maybe he was just scared of me. Either way, within an hour I was home, having driven to Denver and back and lived to tell the tale.

I don’t doubt that there will be other times I’ll have to drive to Denver, and I don’t doubt that I’ll be just as terrified as I was that first time. But with each experience, I’ll get a little more confident, just as I did with driving in Cullman as a teenager and in Mobile as a young adult.
That’s the way it is with things that push you out of your comfort zone: eventually you get a bigger comfort zone.

What do you sometimes have to do that makes you uncomfortable? How do you handle it? Inquiring minds want to know!


My Life as a Femme Fatale

I love writers’ conferences. Anything can happen at them, and it usually turns out that the most memorable events are not those listed in the program: the editor who called me out in the middle of her keynote address and asked me to submit my Royal Ascot Award-winning manuscript; the Golden Heart finalist on the airport shuttle who, upon discovering that I was the author of the 1991 Bantam Sweet Dreams title Wrong-Way Romance, squealed,
“I remember that book! That book is the one that made me want to write romance!”

 But one conference that will live forever in my memory is a mystery writers’ conference I attended in 2006, when I quite unexpectedly found myself the belle of Malice Domestic. Mind you, I was never a great beauty; people who knew me in high school will remember me as a
brainiac and a band geek (although neither of those terms were in use in the mid-‘70s) who usually had her nose stuck in a book.

But back to writers’ conferences. Up to that point, the conference I’d had the most experience with was the Romance Writers of America conference, which averages about 2,000 attendees, the overwhelming majority of whom are female. (In fact, the female-to-male ratio is so lop-sided that at once such conference one of the men’s restrooms was confiscated in an effort to shorten the lines at the ladies’ room. I can still recall the white sheets draped discreetly over the urinals.) Malice Domestic, however, is a conference for writers of “cozy” mysteries, and its attendance breaks down along much more balanced gender lines.

 I was attending the conference as a new mystery writer, my first work in that genre, In
Milady’s Chamber
, having just been published in January of that year. I was one of four published mystery authors taking part in a panel discussion on the use of humor in mystery. At the beginning of the panel, each of us introduced ourselves and made a few opening remarks. When my turn came and I began to speak, the man on my left interrupted me to say, “Don’t let her accent fool you! Sheri Cobb South is really British!” (Since my mysteries are set in early 19th century England, being taken for British by readers is, in my opinion, a Good Thing, although I don’t flatter myself that readers in the UK would be so easily deceived.)

 But the surprises at the panel discussion were far from over. Later in the discussion, the man on my left (yes, that one) was making a point about how much of humor derives from the  unexpected—whereupon the mega-published man on my right grabbed me, “dipped” me, and pretended to kiss me. He certainly made the speaker’s point; everyone in the audience howled! (I wonder if it’s any coincidence that, when I visited the conference bookstore later that afternoon, every single copy of In Milady’s Chamber was sold out.)

 But wait! There’s more! On the plane back home, the man seated beside me tried to hit on me. We had been chatting back and forth during boarding and, once airborne, the flight attendant came through and asked, “Can I get anything for you?”  My seatmate promptly pointed at me and said, “How about her phone number?” We both laughed, but I had the distinct impression (after all, women have an instinct about these things) that if I had volunteered it, he would not have turned it down!

 Yes, it was a memorable conference; sadly, I haven’t been back to Malice Domestic since then.

My husband won’t let me.

Writing a Novel as an Act of Faith

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I started writing a book this week. When it’s complete (notice I didn’t say “if”!), this will be the fourth book in the John Pickett series of Regency mysteries. And as eager as I am to be writing it (I’m impatient to get to Book 5!), I find the process more than a little bit daunting.

It’s always this way. I look at my book-to-be—at this point, nothing more than a handful of color-coded sticky notes on a tri-fold foam board—and think, “I’ve got to get an entire book out of this?” It doesn’t look like I have
nearly enough plot to fill up 15,000 words, much less 65,000. Maybe I should take more notes, do more research, try a new plotting method I saw on the internet. And sometimes I do those things. But at some point, I have stop
jotting in notebooks and on sticky notes, get off the internet, open a document file, and write.

I never feel ready. I’m always terrified that I’ll get all the way to “The End,” then run a word count and discover that the whole thing is only 40 pages long. It always happens this way, and yet the feeling that the task is too big, too overwhelming, always feels new.

To me, writing a book is an act of faith. Just as God told Abraham to leave his home and travel to a strange land, basically saying, “You’ll know it when you get there,” I set out with a keyboard and a blank Word document, certain in my mind of what will happen in the first couple of chapters, a major scene or two in the middle, and, of course, the ending. But then there’s that vast unknown Middle. That’s the part that always scares me.

After sixteen published novels, though, I’ve learned one thing: if I wait until I have the whole thing plotted out in my head, I’ll never write at all. I must plow ahead with the little bit I have, following the light I’ve got, trusting that when I need it, that scene will be in my imagination, waiting for me to catch up. This, to me, is the miracle of creating. It’s happened too many
times for me to doubt it: in the violin that magically appeared among James Weatherly’s belongings in Of Paupers and Peers; in the gypsy lad who turned up at the vicar’s funeral in A Dead Bore; in the fishing boat on which poor John Pickett gets seasick in my upcoming mystery, Family Plot. None of these things were in my original vision of the book; all were things that came to me along the way, and each one took the book in new and unexpected
directions. That, for me, is the joy of the journey that is writing fiction.
 
And so I’ll celebrate the Easter season this weekend, and then on Monday morning I’ll take my laptop to Starbuck’s, order a nonfat mocha frappuccino, and plug in my flash drive. And I’ll write.