Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes/From Here To Eternity

By Patrick Stuart, BCW President

Have you ever wondered about death? I don’t mean in the existentialist, why are we here, is there really an h-e-double-toothpicks-type-stuff, but rather the more, shall we say, grittier side of things. Such as how do we decompose? If someone dies at a Burger King, who’s responsible for the body? And what happens during a cremation? Admit it, you’re curious. Yo también. But be curious no more, because mortician and author Caitlin Doughty recounts her experiences in cremation, embalming and other practices in the book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory.

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” cover

In case you’re unfamiliar with Caitlin, she’s run a website for several years aiming to educate people in the death process (more on that later). But her growing popularity and success has led to books, travels around the world, a YouTube channel, TED talks and her own non-profit funeral home. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, she starts at the beginning as a college graduate with an esoteric liberal arts degree and zero job experience, which naturally leads to employment in a San Francisco mortuary. However, the first line of the book immediately sets up the author’s sense of humor and no-nonsense approach: ‘a girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.’ Be honest . . . as an opening, that’s killer (har, pun intended). But from that point on, she takes us on her journey as a body snatcher and crematory operator, discussing in frank detail all the fascinating bits involved with the processing of death. The ways bodies decompose, how to make corpses appear lifelike, what’s left after cremation, the details of embalming (and why she’s against it), and several other topics. Although the subject matter is dark, her approach is matter-of-fact, deliberately contrasting how death has become part voodoo/part taboo in our modern society. And as mystery writers who dole out death on a regular basis, let’s face it; we should know as much about the subject as possible.

A follow-up book by the same author is From Here to Eternity; Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. This time, Caitlin recounts her years between mortuary school and opening her own funeral home, traveling and observing various funerary rites and practices around the world. Her goal is similar; to educate and ‘normalize’ death by getting up close and personal to it, but this time from different cultural viewpoints. She visits a region of Indonesia known as Tana Toraja, where the local ethnic group mummifies their relatives and keeps them in their houses, sometimes even their beds, before moving them years later to their final resting place. There’s also Crestone, Colorado, one of the few places in the U.S. that allows natural, open-air cremations. Also skull worship in Bolivia. The mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico (which freaked out Ray Bradbury so much that he wrote a short story about them). And of course, the Western Carolina University ‘body farm’ of North Carolina. All with plenty of details to spur your writerly juices, and perhaps add a little oomph to the exposition in your next novel.

“From Here To Eternity” cover

Bonus: if you’re looking for even more information (or just want to kill some time), I highly suggest Caitlin’s YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. There’s several videos, ranging from roughly 5 – 15 minutes each, all covering a wide variety of topics from the Pearl Harbor Memorial (the author is originally from Hawaii) to necrophilia, shrunken heads, Victorian corpse photographs, what happens during a graveside exhumation, and many other subjects. As testament to their popularity, many of these videos have over one million views, being both informative and showcasing the author’s trademark droll sense of humor. And if you like, you can even make a quick, tiny contribution to her non-profit, which a) is how she pays for it all, and b) will cause you to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Or maybe that’s the expired sushi you discovered earlier in your refrigerator . . . either way, check it out. Oh, and keep writing.

2019 BCW Holiday Event!

It’s that time of year again. No, not visiting with family, trading gifts, and reveling in the shared humanity and peaceful coexistence of friends, colleagues and neighbors. It’s time to gather with others (like you) who spend their free time imagining how to creatively murder complete strangers! Then writing about it! In the hopes that millions of people will read it! All while thinking, ‘Damn, this (gal/guy) is one twisted $#@%* . . . when does the next book come out?’

In other words, it’s time for the annual BCW Holiday Event! If you haven’t been, this is the one event of the year not to be missed. Where we all gather at a local restaurant to eat, drink and be merry, talking about our writing successes and failures, our hopes and dreams, and discussing the upcoming BCW 2020 year. In addition, we’ll be having our annual book exchange, with our own Carolyn Melvin reciting another variation of the Wright family travails to keep us thoroughly discombobulated.

Plus, there’ll also be the BCW Short Story Contest, where prizes of dubious value will be awarded and the winner will be published on the BCW website (see details below). So mark your calendar/Outlook for noon, Saturday, December 7, 2019, at the New Albany Rusty Bucket (180 Market Street, New Albany). Spouses, relatives, friends, significant others, and anyone just looking to hang with like-minded people on a Saturday afternoon are also encouraged to attend . . . just remember to bring a wrapped book from yourself and each member of your entourage (and be prepared to explain your choice when the wrapping comes off). See you there!

2019 BCW Short Story Contest!

As mentioned above, BCW is having a Short Story Contest for our last meeting of 2019. The concept: write a story of 200 words or less involving the photo included with this post. The only condition is that your story mentions the holidays/season. Otherwise, write whatever you want: be murderous, humorous, mysterious, use first/second/third person, an unreliable narrator, scatter red herrings like breadcrumbs . . . go nuts. Then turn it in by midnight, Thursday, December 5, to buckeyecrimewriters@gmail.com (just one submission per entrant, and don’t forget to include your name). Afterwards, show up at our holiday event Saturday (see above) for the awards and the basking of glory to be heaped upon all submitters. So why are you still reading this? Start writing . . . now!

Book signing!

BCW board member Connie Berry, along with Amanda Flower, are signing books this weekend (Nov. 23)! Check out the below for details.

NaNoWriMo 2019

An airplane mechanic works on a plane's propeller.
It’s time to crank it up!

Me (BCW President Patrick Stuart):  Wake up. It’s time for NaNoWriMo! 

You (you):  NaNowuuuhhhhhh? 

Me:  You heard me; NaNoWriMo. National. Novel. Writing. Month. That time of year where you burn incense to the writing gods, sacrifice a Stephen King novel or two, and start warming up the Keurig maker. Because you’re going to be rocking that caffeine to get a 50,000 word rough draft done by the end of November.

You:  Hahahahaha! (wiping tears from eyes). I thought you said ’50,000 words.’

Me:  I did.

You:  Holy (word redacted). You’re serious!

Me:  Damn straight. We do this every year. It’s a 30-day writing marathon that started in 1999 with 21 people in San Francisco.  Fifteen years later there were over 400,000 participants. 

You:  And how many met their goal? (skeptical face)

Me:  About one in ten.

You:  That’s not very many.

Me:  It’s the journey, not the destination, grasshopper.

You:  I hate it when you do that pseudo-Buddhist (word redacted).  Besides, I’ll bet those manuscripts sucked.

Me:  That’s not the point. The point is to end up with a rough draft, or at least a good start on one. Which can then be refined into something beautiful later.

You:  Like what?

Me:  Water for Elephants , by Sara Gruen. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. Or The Darwin Elevator series, by Jason Hough. All of those started as NaNoWriMo manuscripts.

You:  So you’re saying if I finish 50k words, I’ll soon be sitting on a six-figure publishing deal?

Me:  Hahahahaha! (wiping tears from eyes). That’s funny! 

You:  You’re a terrible president.

Me:  True dat. But NaNoWriMo is about starting, not finishing. Or as my grandpa used to say, when the ‘poop hits the propeller.’ So go to the Bexley Library, 2411 E. Main Street, Bexley, Ohio on Saturday, November 16, from noon to 4:00 p.m. BCW has the Technology Room reserved, so you can sit with your fellow writers and write your fingers to the bloody nubs. We’ll even have refreshments, and a cattle prod in case you fall asleep. Would you like a demonstration?

You:  Yeah, right (zzzzzzzzzzzz-snap). Sweet (several words redacted). That hurts!

Me:  Pain is just weakness leaving the body, grasshopper. See you there.

WhoDoURead&Y?

Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl.  Paula Hawkins and The Girl on the Train.  Lee Child, Patricia Cornwell, Jo Nesbø, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton, Stieg Larsson, or (insert your favorite author here).  But what makes them special?  Do the quirky British characters of Agatha Christie awaken your inner Anglophile?  Are the pages of a Carl Hiaasen book tinged with sultry weirdness, coconut oil and mosquito repellant?  Or does Janet Evanovich’s over-the-top bounty hunter protagonist make you secretly wish for big hair, hoop earrings and a Joisey accent?

(hint:  you know it does)

And more importantly, as writers how do we tap into this nebulous and diabolical vein of readership desire?  After all, we can string words together too.  But it’s concocting that #%$*& secret sauce.  That pinch of missing ingredient, to create the perfect combination of plot, dialogue, mood, character, setting . . . whatever.  Crafting the right proportions to make people feel.  Think about us on the subway ride to work.  Taking a shower.  Being trapped in a conversation with a boring neighbor.  Having that last, final conscious thought before drowsing off to sleep at night.  How do we occupy that space?

If you want to know, join us on Saturday, October 19, at the Hilliard Library (4500 Hickory Chase Way), from 12:30 – 2:30.  Together we will discuss our favorite authors, what we like about them, then list and compare those traits to (hopefully) create a roadmap for how to reach that same rarified level of Hamilton-like popularity.  Note:  whether you’re a reader, writer or both, novice or expert, this will be an interactive discussion so be prepared to participate.  Pinkie-finger-promise though, it will be an awesome, transformational and inspiring experience (or at the very least, a good way to kill a couple of hours).  And as usual, please feel free to join us for lunch afterwards, where we will discuss writing, the Buckeyes, home repair, Balinese shadow puppetry, or whatever else strikes our fancy.   But until then . . . keep writing.

‘A Legacy of Murder:’ An interview with Connie Berry

Connie Berry’s follow-up novel to the riveting A Dream of Death is coming out this month! A Legacy of Murder hits the shelves Oct. 8. Connie took a break from writing about Kate Hamilton to discuss the latest launch with BCW’s Jim Sabin.

Connie Berry
Connie Berry

JS: Congratulations on the publication of your second novel, A Legacy of Murder. How does it feel to have your first two books published in the same year?

CB: It feels really fast—and probably will never happen again. When Crooked Lane acquired the Kate Hamilton Mystery series, I had the first book, A Dream of Death, ready to go and the second, A Legacy of Murder, well under way. I know plenty of authors who write multiple series, and I give them credit. Writing two books a year is one thing. Publicizing and promoting them is another—and way harder.

JS: You’ve taken Kate Hamilton from the Hebrides in Scotland to the east coast of England. What prompted you to choose settings so far from home?

CB: Writers are often encouraged to write what they know, and I do know Britain quite well, having gone to college in Oxford and now traveling there a couple of times a year. My paternal grandparents were Scottish, so I grew up with the Scots’ accent and food. Today the cuisine in Scotland is marvelous, but back then, Scottish food meant oats porridge for breakfast, peas porridge for lunch, and lots of well-done roasts and overcooked veg for dinner. But there’s another reason I chose the UK for my setting. When I was in graduate school, my thesis advisor encouraged me to choose a topic I really loved because I’d be spending a lot of time there. I’m a card-carrying, died-in-the-wool Anglophile. Setting books in the UK means I ‘m able to spend lots of mental time there. And then there’s in-country research, which is the best.

JS: Kate Hamilton, your main character, is rather inquisitive, as you might expect from an antiques dealer. How does that help her solve mysteries in the present day?

CB: Like me, Kate can’t abide a mystery. My kids used to call me “Sherlock Holmes” because when something didn’t make sense, I would track it down until I learned the truth. Several years ago I solved a real mystery—finding a long-lost Scottish relative (then deceased) and learning what happened to her after she vanished. Kate’s desire to solve mysteries and her ability to discern patterns and connections, helpful in the antiques trade, give her an advantage as an amateur sleuth. But amateur sleuths need more than curiosity. They need a believable motivation for sleuthing. In A Dream of Death, Kate’s motivation was to save her husband’s best childhood friend from wrongful prosecution. In A Legacy of Murder, her motivation is even more compelling.

JS: You devote a lot of time to the craft of writing, including doing outlines for your books. How does that help you when it comes time to actually sit down and write?

CB: I’m proof of the old adage: If you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there. I know many wonderful authors who call themselves “pantsers” (writing by the seat of their pants), but I write better when I know where I’m going. However, planning doesn’t rule out the unexpected. Sometimes my characters say and do things I’d never planned, and I have to adjust my outline. Usually for the better.

JS: Your first book, A Dream of Death, seems to have opened up some opportunities for you to join panels and other activities. What has changed for you since it came out?

CB: First I had to learn to be a writer. Now I’m learning how to be an author. Today, being an author is a business that includes promotion, advertising, developing an audience, travel, speaking, expenses, attending conferences. Right now I’m blogging with two online groups: Miss Demeanors and Writers Who Kill. This year I will attend four conferences—in Dallas, Boston, San Diego, and Bethesda, MD—so I’ll be flying coast-to-coast twice. At the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in early November, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Amateur.” In December, I’ll be speaking at libraries in Mayfield Village, Ohio, and Middleburg Heights, Ohio. Besides writing, what I love most is talking about the world of crime fiction.

JS: So, tell us a bit about A Legacy of Murder.

CB: What could be lovelier than Christmas in England? American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton arrives in the Suffolk village of Long Barston, dreaming of log fires, steaming wassail, and Tom Mallory, the detective inspector she met during a recent murder investigation in Scotland. Kate also looks forward to spending time with her daughter, Christine, an intern at Finchley Hall, famous for the unearthing in 1818 of a treasure trove known as The Finchley Hoard. When the body of a young woman, an intern planning an exhibition of the hoard, is found floating in Blackwater Lake, Kate is naturally concerned for her daughter’s safely. But when another murder and an attack on a second intern occur, Christine becomes the prime suspect. Determined to prove her daughter’s innocence, Kate launches her own investigation. What she finds are clues pointing backward four hundred years to a missing blood-red ruby ring and an infamous legacy of murder.

JS: And how can we get a copy?

CB: A Legacy of Murder, second in the Kate Hamilton Mystery series, is available in hardcover and e-book at all outlets: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, Indiebound, Kobo, Target, Walmart. And discerning bookshops, of course!

Thanks for the great questions, Jim. If anyone lives in central Ohio, I hope they can attend the launch party for A Legacy of Murder — Saturday, October 12, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Fortin Ironworks, 944 W. 5th Ave., Columbus, Ohio 43212. Parking in the small Fortin lot for handicapped only. Parking for others in the lot across the street, in The View on the corner of W. 5th and Holly, or on the street. Besides champagne and a real English tea, there will be book signing and a drawing for prizes. Books available through The Book Loft.

‘A Legacy of Murder’ cover

BCW member talks writing, and her newest book

Buckeye Crime Member Eileen Curley Hammond just released the fourth book in her Merry March Mystery series, Murder So Deadly. Board member Kandy Williams chatted with her recently.

KW: You’ve released four books in just over a year. How did you do it?

ECH: It’s not quite as fast as it seems. I worked on the first one for over a year, and then started on the second one. As it turned out, I was editing the first one when the second one was nearly done. Although I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way, the advantage was that I could still change something in the first book when it made the second one better. I released Murder So Sinful in August of 2018 and Murder So Festive in October last year. In hindsight, that was too close, and I hindered my ability to launch my debut book. Unfortunately, the second book takes place at Christmas, so to capture those sales I needed to publish by October.

KW: You’re an independent author. Why did you decide to pursue that path versus traditional publishing?

ECH: Everyone’s path is different. I’m slightly north of 60 and a cancer survivor. I decided I would rather spend my time writing, than going through the long process associated with traditional publishing. I’m also a bit of a control freak, so being independent suits me.

KW: Have you had any surprises along the way?

ECH: I learn something new every day. Joining Buckeye Crime Writers was one of the smarter things I’ve done. This group continues to be an important touchstone in many ways, especially for a new writer. First, the speakers at the monthly meetings are great. I’m using what I learned from Franklin County Chief Toxicologist Dan Baker in my latest book. Second, the connections you make at the meetings with other members are invaluable. I always walk away with new ideas.

One big surprise (which shouldn’t have been) is how much work an independent author does that isn’t related to writing. I had to find someone to do my covers, contract with an editor, and design the inside of the book. The good news was that Amazon has a relatively good add on to Word, which makes the inside design work more manageable. It’s not perfect and has some hiccups, but I think the result is quite professional.

Marketing is always a challenge, but traditionally published authors have some of the same issues.

KW: Are you a planner, or a pantser?

ECH: I’m a pantser. I look at planners’ outlines and plans with envy. I never have any idea what’s going to happen. I follow Stephen King’s advice. I write at least 1,000 words a day Monday through Friday. Sometimes it’s agony, other times it’s quick. Before I adopted this habit, I had trouble balancing my life. When I was writing, I felt guilty for not doing other things. If I did the wash, I felt guilty for not writing. Now I know if I complete my 1,000 words I’m done with writing for the day.

KW: Tell us a little about your book.

ECH: The main character is Meredith March. She owns a property and casualty insurance operation in the small town of Hopeful. Merry is divorced and has custody of her 17-year-old daughter. Her ex ran a financial scam that duped many of the people living in town. He was convicted and served four years in jail. Merry now has a serious boyfriend and is working on getting an annulment.

In my latest book, Merry and her friend Patty go on a stakeout. Here’s an excerpt from Murder So Deadly:

“I shouldn’t have had that extra glass of water at dinner,” Patty said. “How much longer are we going to be here?”

“Wimp. There’s a bathroom past the front desk. I’m sure if you ask nicely, they’ll let you use it.”

Patty eased open the door while I covered the car light with my purse.

I hissed, “Hurry back.”

She scurried to the door, pushed it open, and passed the two men we were supposed to be following. Patty disappeared into the motel. The two men walked to a large black Lincoln and slid in. The car purred as it passed me moving toward the exit. I stared daggers at the motel door. “C’mon Patty. Where the heck are you?”

She darted out the door, running full tilt toward the car. I pulled up next to her. “Get in.” Patty jumped into the car, and I floored it. “Didn’t you see them come out?”

“Of course. They held the door for me.”

“I’m happy they still have their manners…”

KW: You sound busy. Is there anything else going on?

ECH: I’ve become an active member of Twitter’s Writing Community. One of the fun things to do is VSS365 (Very Short Story). The moderator sends out a daily word prompt, and the challenge is to write a 280-character poem or story that includes that word. A curated book of the best writings was just released called VSS365 Anthology, and I’m proud to say that one of my stories was chosen. All proceeds from the sale of the book benefit a children’s literacy charity called The Book Bus.

KW: How do we get Murder So Deadly?

ECH: Thanks for asking. Just click on the link: https://www.amazon.com/Murder-So-Deadly-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B07WHT5PN9/.

Lessons Learned from My First Book Expo

This summer, I received a Tweet touting a Mid-Ohio Independent Authors Book Expo. Since it was nearby (in Grove City), I thought it would be a good test run to see if I could gain traction.

Before the expo (things I did right):

Eileen Curley Hammond visits her first book fair.
Eileen Curley Hammond visits her first book fair.
  • Ordered author’s copies of my books. I had no idea what to expect, so I over-ordered, figuring better to have too many.
  • Obtained a mobile credit card swiper/chip reader. (I decided on PayPal. The exhibitors next to me had Four Square. Both worked.) Preloaded my prices and tax so that I only had to press a few buttons. I also brought change with me for cash buyers.
  • Designed and ordered an overlay table cloth. (The tables came with cloths, I wanted to brand mine.) Vistaprint made this an easy process, as all I had to do was the wording; they had a design I liked. I also used them for a tabletop sign for my book that will be released end of September.
  • Ordered wire display holders (stands) for my books.
  • Became a Transient Vendor for the State of Ohio so that I could collect sales tax. (You can do this online.)
  • Checked my stock of bookmarks.
  • Practiced my elevator pitch.
  • Touted the expo on my social media platforms. (In hindsight, I would have done this earlier and more frequently.)

During the expo (things I learned):

  • A wheeled cart is a back and arm saver. The venue indicated that they’d have people help with load-in; they did, but they were hopping. I’m going to order one along with plastic containers to store my books. The exhibitor across from me had a very sturdy looking cart and one enormous bin for his books. He said that the bin was over 100 lbs. I will be buying smaller bins and stacking them.
  • Introduce yourself to the exhibitors around you and let them know what you write. That way if a customer tells you they only read sci-fi, you can refer them next door. (Mutual referrals happened several times.)
  • In addition to your display books, put at least a few of your stock on the table too. I thought it was better to have a clean look to the table, but one reader was hesitant to buy because she thought she’d be getting the display. (I put several on the table after that experience.)
  • Think about bringing a candy bowl or dish and keep it filled as an enticement for customers to speak to you.
  • Smile and be bold. Make eye contact, ask what the person reads, and tout your book(s). Don’t be afraid to step away from the table and into the aisle.
  • Ask another author to take your picture; post it on social media while you are at the venue. (Make sure your boxes are out of the way.)

Was it worth it? This particular book expo was not well attended, though I did sell several books. The organizers did a good job getting the word out, but it was a lovely Saturday before many kids went back to school. From my perspective, it was positive, as it gave me a chance to get the kinks out. Now I need to determine the next best one to attend.

So, you want to promote your book on social media, eh?

Writing a book is a huge challenge, of course, but once you get there, the next trick is – what to do with it? More importantly, how do you sell it? There are many answers (and all of them take some work), but one of the cheapest, yet hardest, is to promote it on social media.

Three of Buckeye Crime Writers’ members will lead this session on how to make the best use of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and will touch on some other methods, such as joining podcasts. These are all free (unless you choose to pay for additional advertising). Dan Stout (author of Titanshade), Eileen Curley Hammond (author of the Merry March series), and Jim Sabin (longtime journalist and public relations professional) will share their tips for finding your social media voice, knowing which social media to use (and how), and how to deal with the inevitable trolls. Join us at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Old Worthington Library, and stay tuned to this space for more details.

Let’s play Name That Bandit!

Quick, which writer invented the Church Lady Bandit?

How about the Droopy Drawers Bandit?

How about the Two-Hat Robber?

These are not characters from a cozy or the latest murder mystery. They were actually real people, though their nicknames were conveyed upon them not by some enterprising journalist, but by an FBI agent. Contrary to what you may have heard in Men In Black, FBI agents DO have a sense of humor that they’re aware of, and now-retired FBI Special Agent Harry Trombitas used his to humanize the bank robbers he was charged with catching.

Trombitas will bring those stories, and many more, to our next meeting, and we can’t wait to hear them!

Trombitas served in the FBI from 1983 until his retirement in 2012. He worked in Omaha, Nebraska, St. Louis, and New York before coming to Columbus in December 1991, and he served as spokesman for the Columbus office from 2003 until his retirement. Before that, he worked as a police officer and detective at Northwestern University and director of public safety at Creighton University. He has a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Ohio State and a master’s in counseling and psychology from Creighton, and is a lecturer in sociology at Ohio State. He is also the system vice president of security operations at OhioHealth and director of the Police Executive Leadership College for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police.

His wife of 40 years and his two children all graduated from Ohio State, so he’s clearly a Buckeye through and through.

Please join us Aug. 17 at the Old Worthington Library, 820 High Street, Worthington, at 12:30 for your chance to hear about Harry’s career and observations.