Sunday, March 31, 2013

A bunch of crime fiction writers walk into a bar...

Writers spend a lot of time alone. Most of us are introverts to some degree — you almost have to be, to deal with the solitary nature of the gig, to spend that much time in your head. But many of us also need our social outlets —and there's nothing like the chance to spend a few days with other members of your tribe.

The crime fiction community is fortunate to have a number of annual conventions, gatherings of writers and readers. What these events seem to have in common is that they all center around the hotel bar. I'm not suggesting that all writers drink a lot, but I think it's safe to say that most writers drink some. And drinking or not, the hotel bar is where you go to socialize.

(bar food at Left Coast Crime Colorado)

I just got back from Left Coast Crime, one of the two annual events I attend. The other is Bouchercon, the Big Kahuna of crime fiction conferences. Bouchercons typically bring in 1500+ attendees: authors, readers, publishers, agents, editors, reviewers, librarians and sales reps. Left Coast Crime is a more intimate affair, but equally professional in its organization and execution.

This year, Left Coast was in Colorado Springs, at the lovely Cheyenne Mountain Resort. This was the view from my window the first day of the conference:

This is a little misleading, because if you turn to your left, you'd see a really huge golf course (winter brown at least) and a bunch of "ranchettes." But still a beautiful setting.

So, a crime fiction conference -- what do you do?

There are panels to attend, on topics ranging from forensics to writing other cultures, to discussions on genre, on using social media, on cold cases, panels on craft, panels on marketing. 

(Panel:"The Character, The 'Why' in Mystery," featuring Jeanne Matthews, Terry Shames, David...crap, I'm really sorry I'm spacing on his name, cause he was an interesting guy, Shannon Baker, hello, I can't remember her name either, and she's also not in my conference program, and likewise had a lot of interesting things to say, plus moderator Robert Kresge, not pictured)

I was on two panels, "International Intrigue" and "What You Don't Know About Thriller Writers." Both were a blast. But as one of my fellow panelists said to me on the last night of the conference, "It's not about the panels. It's about...this!" An expansive wave around the bar. 

Even at this late hour, on the last night of the conference, there were groups of attendees moving chairs to make larger circles around tables, clustered in twos and threes around the bar, some going from group to group to chat with old friends and to make new ones. 

Yeah, I realize this all sounds pretty corny. But it's true. 

The first day of the conference, some of my fellow Los Angeles Sisters and Misters in Crime took an excursion to the Garden of the Gods. Beautiful...

But of course, what made it especially fun was the company...

(We Might Be Rock Stars)

The conference ran from Thursday through Sunday. On Saturday, a good-sized storm came through Colorado. Again, the view from my window:

(cold, white stuff falling from the sky)

By Sunday, the view looked like this:

(cold, white stuff no longer falling from the sky, but sticking to the ground)

Going to wonderful events like this and getting to hang out with people with whom I have so much in common, as a writer and as a reader, is really one of the best perks of this author gig. I'm very psyched that I still have Bouchercon to look forward to this year. And next year's Left Coast Crime is in gorgeous Monterey, CA! And the US Guest of Honor is none other than....(drumroll)...our own Cara Black! 

The rest of the line-up is equally epic.

Yes, I've already registered.

Lisa -- Sunday....

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Home Is Where the Heart Is.

I want to go home…to the sun, the sea, the souvla.  Pittsburgh, here I come!  Whoops, I mean Mykonos. Of course, the mistake is understandable what with both places once renown for feared Pirates who’d roamed about them so very long ago. 

Mykonos is known for a lot of things…and fantasized over for many more, but this is about what is special to me, what first comes to mind when I think of Mykonos.

The Island’s many whites…

The Windmills symbolic of its nickname, “the Island of the Winds”...

The differences of place so closely tied to the same Aegean Sea…

Little Venice…

The Lighthouse…

Armenistis lighthouse with Tinos island in background

And, in thanks to you, Maestro Dimitris Koutsoukas, for the photographs I pilfered from your collection for this post, this one’s for you...


Friday, March 29, 2013

The Granite City- Aberdeen

There are a few things you should know about Aberdeen. One is that the city is made of granite and therefore has a very high background level of radiation. The locally quarried grey granite used in the buildings sparkles like silver due to the high mica content and the city is known as The Granite City or The Silver City. Unlike other Scottish cities where sandstone has been used (a delicious warm red in Glasgow), the buildings are not weathering and need very little structural maintenance on their masonry. As I have been told Aberdonians can be a bit stingey, this is a good thing.

 The  other thing you should know is that Aberdeen is Gaelic for pneumonia.
 Well, that's not really true - it means "at the confluence of the river  Don  with the sea'.
but you get the picture. It is a  bitter cold place. 
As you may have gathered I have just returned from a world tour of Aberdeen, four events over two days, a drive of 550 miles which probably sounds nothing to you guys but three days before we set off Aberdeen was cut off from all civilised society by huge snow drifts.  The librarian pointed out that  it was sunny one day last year. He referred to any good weather as a 'remission'. I decided to drive because the last time I went to Aberdeen I was chummed by another writer with a strong spring on their tongue and by the  time I got home  after a twelve hour train journey with constant chit chat, ( well chat as it was one-way, I had no opperchancity to chit back!), my ears were bleeding. The train had hit a deer - the deer was fatally wounded but had managed to knacker both the braking system and ALL the heating system on the train.

Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe, the  third most populous city in Scotland and the natives are a hardy breed. There has been human settlement there for the last 8000 years. Remnants of a two thousand year old settlements can be seen spotted around the hills, like this 1600 century fortress where only the front door remains.

This is a fairly typical Aberdonian building in a place called Inverurie and while the lovely gray pallor gives a very light city landscape, it doesn’t exactly warm the soul. We stopped here to get a heat in the chippie. I read that  Aberdeen features an 'oceanic climate' and 'that it is  far milder than one might expect for its northern location.' I read that with a huge degree of tourist guide cynicism then I read the next sentence. 'although statistically it is the coldest city in the UK.'  So it is official.
 In high summer it has nautical twilight that lasts all night. You just won't notice it because of the driving icy rain that will be stinging your eyes and your tears will blind you.  

Driving around to small libraries in the  outlying areas,  the names of the  villages gave us a sense of the of historical romance about them: Oyne, Weet, Clart, Insch.  One of my favourites is 'Fettercairn'. I also like a place on the  road up to Aberdeen-  Findo Gask, very  Tolkienesque.  As we  made our way through drifts the  economy of the countryside became very evident. Sheep, more sheep, distillery, wild deer, pheasant, more sheep. More sheep. That's about it.

 (Many  of the distilleries around us used geese as security until very  recently. They are vicious and make a hell of a hullaballoo if disrupted. But once the housing estates got closer the residents complained and the geese joined the investment bankers in the dole queue. )

 We did notice that these small hamlets have an intense amount of house building going on, it became a talking point at events- the commuter belt of Aberdeen is stretching far now, the economy is bouncing. Wikipedia says that  Aberdeen  was the 54th most liveable city in the World, as well as the third most liveable city in Britain. All I can say is that they must have different criteria to me! 
In 2012 HSBS named Aberdeen as one of the eight 'super cities' that will lead the recovery of the  UK economy. The heliport  in Aberdeen is one of the busiest commercial heliports in the world. It was the only city in Scotland to receive this accolade as the rest of us are still looking at increasing dole queues, half built houses, ever spiraling heating bills and starting to feel rather Cypriot about the whole thing.  I've also read that one Aberdeen postcode has the second highest number of millionaires of any postcode in the UK while 20% of Aberdonians live below the poverty line. Like most of these situations, the millionaires will not be native, but those on the poverty line certainly will be.

The weather was intensely snowy, blizzardy and just on this side of dangerous. We stopped listening to the sat nav as  she confidently instructed us to  turn left- onto the road with the huge warning signs, Road closed,  ski gates closed, peril beyond this point, beware of low flying motorcycles. Yip, we were confused about that last one as well.

Here is me having a wee chat  with some natives- the highland pony ( furry, friendly and quite far from the ground) and a Shetland (furry, friendly and not very far of the ground). He is not standing in deep  snow by the way, his legs are that short! 

As a breed, the highland pony was much  loved by Queen Victoria and was bred specifically  to be the 'all terrain utility vehicle'  of its time. Heavy enough to act in harness, light enough to live off meagre rations,  hardy enough to withstand the cold and  nimble enough to ride. They are also broad enough to carry dead deer piled up on their backs.

 I thought that practice might have died out now but  they are considered environmentally friendly and no vehicle can manage the accessibility  up steep slopes and into steep forests like these wee ponies. The only person I know who farms with highlands on a croft up in Sutherland says the great thing about them is they follow you around, without being told. When they are digging peats or tattie hawking they are always right where they should be. I saw on TV recently ponies working in vineyards doing the same thing - going at the same pace as the grape pickers.  Highland ponies are  quiet steady beasts, nothing much impresses them.

Between events we drove around  Aberdeenshire  on roads with no other traffic. Slightly eerie to be so close to a major city (20-30 miles) and drive without passing another car or seeing another soul. At one point we joked that the world had ended in some terrible nuclear incident, and nobody had told us.  So either everybody was just somewhere else or.... Aberdeenshire is empty.

MIE readers are probably most familiar with Aberdeen as the setting  of Stuart McBride books and a fair bit of Ian Rankin's Black and Blue is set in Aberdeen, furry boot town as he called it.

I must go there again some time. In the summer.
Next  week I am hoping to do an all action blog on location.
I will be here.....

                                                                          loch ness

Looking for this.....

Wish me luck!

Caro Ramsay, GB 29th March 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013


I am in the midst of dealing with workmen at my home, as well as preparing for leaving South Africa for six months, so I will have to keep this blog short.
For the first time since I have been returning to South Africa for at least six months a year, I am seeing a great deal of impatience with what is happening here.  Particularly amongst Whites who were delighted by the change to a democratic government in 1994.
Jacob Zuma - president
From my perspective, what is happening is a confluence of different unpleasant and unacceptable events that have been grabbing the headlines recently.   
First, there is the ongoing disgust about the behaviour of our president, Jacob Zuma.  He has authorized the government to enhance his private residence in Zululand to the tune of several hundred million rands (over $20 million).  Of course he claims he claims that the security apparatus in South Africa required that he make the upgrades, which include a safe bunker!  Safe from what? I ask.  Perhaps he is worried that the millions of people who have not benefited from the transition from apartheid will come knocking on his doorstep for a handout – of food.
Jacon Zuma - traditional leader
Also, President Zuma, is constantly accused of corruption.  Whenever the accusations look as though they may stick, personnel in the appropriate agency dealing with the cases are changed, including the police and judiciary.  And the cases go away. 
Zuma’s track record has been painstakingly documented by investigative journalist, Adriaan Basson, in Zuma Exposed.  It makes sad reading to learn how Zuma has enriched himself and his family, often at government expense, often through ‘donations’ from business contacts.
Finally, although legal under certain circumstances in South Africa, Zuma is a polygamist, who has had 6 wives, of which 4 are current.  He has an estimated 20 children in and out of wedlock.  His sexual and marital circumstances make him an easy target for ridicule.
Second, the past year has seen a breakdown in confidence in the police force.  The horrendous massacre of about 40 miners at Marikana, plus a large number of incidents of police brutality has shocked South Africans, irrespective of colour.  The fact that most police do a reasonably good job doesn’t make a difference to these attitudes because it is only the bad press that one reads about in the media.  In a recent poll, a little under 40% of the popuation were actually afraid of the police.
Marikana massacre
Third, the education system is not good at all.  This is one area I am at odds with most of my white friends.  They are highly critical of the lack of quality.  Although we agree on the lack of quality, I am more forgiving because I just cannot see how it could be any better at the moment.  The Bantu Education Act of the apartheid government basically prevented by law Blacks from getting what most people in the West would call a normal education.  Blacks, with rare exceptions, were only allowed to learn menial skills – hewers of wood and drawers of water.  If my memory serves me well a rare event – at the time the current government took office in 1994, for the same class size to exist for all South Africans as then existed for Whites, the country would have had to build a school a day for ten years of more.  Of course this an impossible task and is one still being addressed.  However, more difficult, was finding people to be adequate teachers.  If few Blacks were well educated in 1994, and there were few schools available after 1994, it seems to me to be an impossible task to have all schools staffed by competent teachers less than 20 years later.
Nevertheless, the education system is in a sorry state, no matter whether one thinks that was inevitable or not.  To make things worse, the current minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr. Blade Nzimande, does not instill much confidence in those who understand education’s problems.
All of these forces are coming together at the moment, plus numerous others that I may address in another blog, such as poor health services.  So, for the first time, I am seeing educated Whites and Blacks becoming very pessimistic about the future of the country.  And this means more educated South Africans will seek their futures elsewhere, which would be tragic for a country that needs all the brainpower it can get.
I am still cautiously optimistic, however, because I see more and more erstwhile supporters of the ruling ANC becoming fed up with the lack of ethics at the top levels, as well as at the almost total lack of service provision.  I am also beginning to see very talented men and women beginning to stand up to Zuma and his cronies.  The majority of South Africans want the same thing: stability, hope, education, and decent living conditions.  With good leadership and management, this is attainable.  The question, of course, is whether we can elect politicians who share this dream.

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Egypt exceeds expectations. And expectations were high.

The only snag so far on this trip has nothing to do with the country, just one of those things that can happen when travelling. On route here the plane from Cairo to Sharm el Sheik was delayed because of a sandstorm. The delay ended up being 12 hours, a lovely time spent in the waiting area by the gate.

My family and I were not greatly bothered. It sucked since we did not intend to vacation in an airport, but so do countless other things in life. When we had been there about eight hours it even became fun. Not because of the great ambiance, courtesy of the plastic benches, but because of a group of passengers that became highly agitated by the whole situation. They formed a revolt group that I managed to follow closely since their meetings were held in the adjoining smoking room – blissfully situated next to our gate. A social study of sorts.

These people were severely pissed. But at the same time pretty ridiculous. Sometimes it makes sense to take a stand, sometimes such efforts are a complete waste of time. The airport staff we had access to were not to blame, nor were they in any sort of authority to take charge and hire a plane to save us from our predicament once it became clear that the sandstorm was no longer and the wait was for a rested flight crew.

At first when things were just beginning to get heated, there actually was a sandstorm. Someone with connections to a pilot within the resistance movement managed to google some site where visibility figures for airports were listed. Our planned airport of landing had 5000 somethings when 8000 somethings were needed. At this point the revolters wanted the airport manager to come and apologise, although his connection to the sandstorm hundreds of miles away was unclear. They also wanted blankets, pillows and tea, something I think would have added to the refugee camp feeling in the waiting room. Instead we got pizza and coke.

One of the things that seemed most upsetting to the huddled bunch was that they believed they were not getting respect. I never managed to realise who exactly was disrespecting them but considering the frequent references to Star Alliance maybe they believed this organisation or company had something to do with us not flying.

At one ridiculous moment they even phoned the police and wanted them to come and arrest the airline employees. Now that would certainly have helped the situation greatly. What they ended up getting was two guys from airport security that arrested no one but did a lot of head shaking over the whole situation. Without being sure I think airport security guys are a mere step up from mall cop, so you can imagine the disappointment to the rebels when they arrived. To give the airport cops justice they did hand out some papers for the rebels to fill out and for a while it was quieter while they struggled to fill out the paperwork - which I am almost certain ended in someone‘s shredder. Maybe one belonging to Star Alliance.

But it was not only amusing in the smoking room. The waiting room had its moments as well. At one point in the middle of the night in of the women thought she saw a mouse and became hysterical. The mouse magically disappeared when everyone started looking, so the incident is chalked down to a unverified mouse sighting brought on by depression and boredom.

Another passenger, a man that took the whole thing in stride and seemed pretty reasonable tried to rally up a war cry for coffee and ended up standing in the middle of the waiting room yelling “Coffee! Coffee!” all by himself. No one took the bait and yelled with him which had probably been his plan. I really wanted coffee as well but the scene was just so perfect as a solo performance that I did not want to ruin it by joining in.

Back to the resistance. At their most cheesy moment one of its members actually said “And what about the children?” And here I was thinking that this particular alignment of words was only used sarcastically or as a joke. But these guys were not joking. They became quite agitated about the welfare of the young and stranded. However, if they had paid any attention to the passengers they believed themselves to be representing they would have seen that the children amongst them were the calmest and coolest of the whole bunch. Aside from me and my family.

One has to enjoy life. Every moment you can. A minute past is a minute that you will not reclaim for better use. And most situations offer up something one would not liked to have missed anyway – aside from bureaucracy related stuff and the dentist.