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A Gift from A Writer

December 11, 2017

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”  -Naguib Mahfouz, writer, Nobel laureate (11 Dec 1911-2006)

I subscribe to a site called Wordsmith and this quote came up this morning. It reminded me of a writer I admire and prompted me to re-post this from several years ago.

Many wonderful writers have taken me to exotic locales, but one who has been in my thoughts a great deal lately is Naguib Mahfouz. Thanks to this man, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, I feel a kinship with the people whose lives are very different from mine. They are more than the TV images of a street filled with an angry mob. I don’t mean to say that those images don’t tell a story in their own right, but rather that, having read Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy, it’s easy for me to empathize with the individuals who make up the crowd.

The first book in the trilogy, Palace Walk, set in the period during and immediately following World War I, introduces us to the family of a successful merchant, el-Sayyed Ahmed Abd Gawad, his wife, Amina, their two daughters, and three sons. I found it both fascinating and frustrating to spend time with Amina as she waited for her husband to come home after an evening out drinking with his friends. Here’s how the book begins:

“She woke at midnight. …Habit woke her at this hour. It was an old habit she had developed when young and it had stayed with her as she matured. She had learned it along with the other rules of married life. She woke up at midnight to await her husband’s return from his evening’s entertainment. Then she would serve him until he went to sleep.”

Mahfouz goes on to describe Amina and her home, making the reader a silent companion as she goes out onto the balcony to watch for her husband.  We accompany her into the “closed cage formed by the wooden latticework” and stand beside her, watching her turn her face “right and left while she peeked out through the tiny, round openings of the latticework panels that protected her from being seen from the street.” When, finally, she hears “the tip of his walking stick strike the steps of the stairway, she held the lamp out over the banister to light his way.”

It would be hard to imagine a life and attitude more different from mine than Amina’s. Yet, due to the skill with which Mahfouz drew his setting, I vicariously live her life and respect her attitude, even if I only partially understand it.

Palace of Desire, the second book of the trilogy, takes place mostly in the 1920s and shows the effect of modern influences and political turmoil on the various family members. Kamal, the youngest son, goes to college and falls in love. He meets people whose ideas challenge the orderly world in which he grew up.  Sugar Street covers the period from roughly 1935 through the end of World War II. As in the Palace Walk, Mahfouz draws his setting with exquisite detail, so that I absorb the culture and feel a part of this household.

Over the  course of the three novels. I take vicarious part in the rapidly changing social and political climate of Egypt from World War I through the 1950s. I watch as the old ways disappear and a new world, seemingly without rules, takes its place, bringing unique challenges to each family member. Perhaps the most poignant for me was the plight of Amina. I turned the pages of the first book, longing for changes to occur that would give her some freedom, some control over her own destiny, only to realize that, after a lifetime of knowing exactly what was expected of her, freedom was a bewildering concept. Taken as a whole, the three books helped me understand a little better why change does not come easy in that part of the world (perhaps in any part of the world). Having been given a glimpse into the life of one Egyptian family, I look into individual faces of the crowds on the television screen and wonder where each member of that family would be in this situation.

As Mr. Mahfouz himself said, “Events at home, at work, in the street – these are the bases for a story.” These are the things that make up setting and give creditability to our characters and their actions.


Willa Cather – A Strong Woman

December 7, 2017


Willa CatherIn the summer of 2013 I set aside a month to immerse myself in the work of one writer and chose Willa Cather. It was a good choice. Note: this is a repeat of a post I wrote a little over a year ago, but since I’m now engaged in a similar reading experiment, I decided to re-visit and re-post my thoughts about this exceptional woman. If you’ve already read this and want to skip it this time, that’s okay – you’re excused – but I do hope you’ll come back.

Why was Ms. Cather a good choice? For me, reading is all about characters. The books that I love and go back to again and again are those with strong characters – people with whom I fall in love and cheer for, or sometimes hate and jeer at. Either way, these people real to me. After I…

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A Woman of Worth – a review

November 29, 2017

A Woman of WorthA Woman of Worth  is a deeply touching account of a remarkable human being. Reading it feels like sitting around a kitchen table with an old friend, sipping tea and listening to stories from a shameful part of America’s history.

Laura Mitchell Keene lived in difficult times when obstacles were placed before her because of the color of her skin. She doesn’t sugarcoat the prejudice, still a reality for many, but, remarkably, neither does she let it make her bitter or cynical. Mrs. Worth found her way past the obstacles to become (in her words) “someone of worth”.  It is an up-close and very personal story of a woman who maintained her dignity and sense of self against seemingly insurmountable odds. The fact that it is true makes that much more affecting.

About the author: Laura Mitchell Keene spent her childhood in Philadelphia and New Jersey during the Great Depression, and studied at Temple and Howard Universities. She became a nurse at the start of World War II, and married the late artist Paul Keene, with whom she made a home in Pennsylvania, France and Haiti. She worked as a substitute elementary school teacher and is the mother of two, grandmother of four and great-grandmother of three. She lives in Warrington, PA.

A Woman of Worth is published by the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center and is a worthy continuation of Ms. Buck’s legacy. It is a short book (40 pages), and is well worth the hour or so it will take you to read it. I highly recommend it.


Thanksgiving Blessings – and a Hopeful Wish

November 21, 2017


I have so much for which to be thankful that I can’t begin to list everything here. I suspect the same is thanksgivingtrue for most of the people who will read this. I know some of you are going through difficult times, and to you, I send my heartfelt hope that they pass quickly and leave you wiser for having gone through them.

Blessings to all and a hopeful wish that next Thanksgiving will see fewer people on our planet living in hopeless situations. May those of us who are blessed turn our gratitude into empathy and work to eliminate the artificial barriers that separate us. May civility and understanding overcome hostility and division, and …

May all of you spend this holiday surrounded by people you love.

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Meet Heather Weidner & Her Characters

November 13, 2017

Heather WeidnerMeet the Characters in the Delanie Fitzgerald Mystery Series

Thank you so much for letting me visit today. I write mystery novels and short stories. Secret Lives and Private Eyes is my debut Delanie Fitzgerald mystery, and the second book in the series, The Tulip Shirt Murders, launches in mid-November 2017. These are both traditional mysteries with a strong, female sleuth. Delanie Fitzgerald is a private investigator who lives in Central Virginia.

I always liked Dave Letterman’s “Top 10 Lists,” so here ten things about each of my main characters that I’d like readers to know.

Delanie Fitzgerald, Private Investigator

  1. Delanie is a redhead like 1-2% of the human population. She has grit, determination, and a spunky spirit. In The Tulip Shirt Murders, she’s exposed to larping (live action role playing) and trading elbow jabs with some roller derby queens.
  2. She drives a Mustang, and she calls it “Black Beauty.”
  3. My private investigator graduated from VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) with a degree in business.
  4. She lives in a Sears catalog home from 1939. Back then, people ordered kits from the catalog, and all the pieces arrived by rail, ready to assemble. Hers is the Yates model. Many of the boards in her bungalow still have the Sears catalog number stamped on them.
  5. One of Delanie’s guilty pleasures is her junk food habit. She also orders a lot of take-out from the nearby restaurants. Her favorite drink is iced coffee, and her go-to treat is always chocolate.
  6. When she’s not sleuthing or trailing a suspect, she likes to stay home in her comfy jammies and watch reality TV.
  1. Though she prefers the comfort of jeans and T-shirts, Delanie has a wardrobe full of outfits and shoes to create just the right look when she’s sleuthing.
  2. Delanie has two older brothers. Steve is a Chesterfield County police lieutenant, and Robbie is a bouncer at a club in downtown Richmond.
  3. She used her share of the money from her father’s estate to open Falcon Investigations. Delanie chose the name for her company in honor of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.
  4. Her two best friends are Paisley Ford, a hair stylist, and Robin Kirby, the owner of Butterfly Blue, a store that showcases her refurbished and upcycled furniture.

Duncan Reynolds, Private Investigator and Computer Hacker

  1. Duncan Reynolds is a computer guru (and hacker). He also does web design and computer work on the side when he’s not investigating with Delanie.
  2. Duncan is shy around strangers, but he’s a whiz at making computers cough up information.
  3. Duncan’s sidekick is English bulldog, Margaret.
  4. He and Delanie have been friends since college.
  5. He drives a Tweety bird yellow Camaro.
  6. Duncan has regular standing video game nights, and he doesn’t like being interrupted.
  7. Duncan is a good cook, and he is amazed that Delanie’s refrigerator is always sparsely filled.
  8. He loves comicons and other pop culture conventions.
  9. He meets Evie Hachey at RVACon, and they continue to date in The Tulip Shirt Murders.
  10. He prefers jeans and t-shirts and shuns events and occasions that call for fancier clothes.

 Margaret the English Bulldog

  1. Margaret is a brown and white English bulldog who is a “log with legs.”
  2. She’s fiercely loyal to her guy, Duncan.
  3. Margaret goes almost everywhere with Duncan.
  4. She’s also known as the “slobber queen.”
  5. She likes junk food too, and her favorites are cheeseburgers, soft tacos, and pizza bones (crusts).
  6. She loves warm blankets and soft beds.
  7. The most energy she expends is scarfing treats and following Duncan around.
  8. Margaret likes to conserve energy. She’ll nap just about anywhere. But she does get involved in a chase scene at a flea market in The Tulip Shirt Murders.
  9. She loves to ride shot-gun in Duncan’s Camaro.
  10. Margaret is queen of the office.

 Chaz Smith

  1. Charles Wellington Smith, III, (Chaz) is a local strip club owner who hires Delanie’s firm to find some dirt on the mayor in Secret Lives and Private Eyes.
  2. He is the only child of a well-to-do banker.
  3. Chaz owns the Treasure Chest, a strip club, in downtown Richmond.
  4. He fancies himself part of the hipster generation, even though he’s aged out of that demographic.
  5. Despite his sleazy behavior and bad table manners, he always pays in cash, and he’s one of Delanie’s best customers.
  6. He drives a Hummer around Richmond with advertising on it for his gentleman’s club.
  7. Chaz has a posh townhouse in the Church Hill neighborhood with a perfect view of the James River.
  8. He catsits for his elderly neighbor.
  9. His right-hand-man is Marco, who serves as head of security and a bouncer for the Treasure Chest.
  10. The Treasure Chest is located in a part of downtown where Edgar Allan Poe used to work.

Book Synopses

Secret Lives and Private Eyes – Business has been slow for Private Investigator Delanie secret lives private eyes cover - webFitzgerald, but her luck seems to change when a tell-all author hires her to find rock star Johnny Velvet. Could the singer—whose career purportedly ended in a fiery crash almost thirty years ago—still be alive?

As if sifting through dead ends in a cold case isn’t bad enough, Delanie is hired by loud-mouth strip club owner Chaz Wellington Smith, III, to uncover information about the mayor’s secret life. When the mayor is murdered, Chaz becomes the key suspect, and Delanie must clear his name. She also has to figure out why a landscaper keeps popping up in her other investigation. Can the private investigator find the connection between the two cases before another murder—possibly her own—takes place?

TheTulipShirtMurdersFinalThe Tulip Shirt Murders – Private investigator Delanie Fitzgerald, and her computer hacker partner, Duncan Reynolds, are back for more sleuthing in The Tulip Shirt Murders. When a local music producer hires the duo to find out who is bootlegging his artists’ CDs, Delanie uncovers more than just copyright thieves. And if chasing bootleggers isn’t bad enough, local strip club owner and resident sleaze, Chaz Smith, pops back into Delanie’s life with more requests. The police have their man in a gruesome murder, but the loud-mouthed strip club owner thinks there is more to the open and shut case. Delanie and Duncan link a series of killings with no common threads. And they must put the rest of the missing pieces together before someone else is murdered.

Author Biography

Heather Weidner’s short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series and 50 Shades of Cabernet. She is a member of Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia, Guppies, Lethal Ladies Write, and James River Writers. The Tulip Shirt Murders is her second novel in her Delanie Fitzgerald series.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.

Heather earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan College and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. Through the years, she has been a technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. She blogs regularly with the Lethal Ladies and Pens, Paws, and Claws.

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Thanks, Heather, for stopping by and introducing readers of Birth of a Novel to your characters. They sound like a fascinating bunch. I look forward to getting to know them.




Introducing Janis Wilson

October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween – or, if you prefer, Scary Halloween. As a special treat, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Janis Wilson. Not that Janis is a scary person. Just look at that face. Have you ever seen a sweeter smile? She really is as nice as she looks. I have to tell you, though, she knows some pretty scary stuff. Read on.

Janis Wilson is a retired trial lawyer and expert in Jack the Ripper.  She was a delegate to the 2013 Jack the Ripper conference in Whitechapel, London.  Last year, she was a co-organizer of the American Ripper and true crime conference, RipperCon.  She will be a featured speaker at next year’s RipperCon.  Information is available at  Janis used her expertise to teach a course on the famous serial killer at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Her first novel, “Goulston Street,” answers many questions about this famous 130-year-old unsolved case.  Her protagonist, Lady Sarah Cartwright, will undertake another investigation in her work in progress.  Janis lives without incident in Baltimore with her husband and two rescue cats, who are her muses.  You may contact her at  

And now, from Janis:

A Marriage of Inconvenience 

We’ve all heard about what the daily routine of a working writer entails.  But have you ever considered the daily routine of the long-suffering spouse? Take the case of my poor husband.

What I do for a living follows him everywhere.  He was introduced to a woman the other day and they were making small talk.  She said, “What are you wife’s interests?”  Without hesitating, he fixed his gaze on her and said, “murder.”  The woman took a step back and asked, probably with a quivering voice, “what do you mean?”  “Murder,” he said.  “She writes about it. She lectures on it.  She watches it on TV.”  The woman either understood or pretended to, for she did not run away screaming for help.  Perhaps she is one of us who watch Investigation Discovery, on which I sometimes appear as a true crime commentator.

That wasn’t the only time my job has made my husband ill at ease.  I told him about a woman who, with murder on her mind, had ordered a book on how to make a silencer.  I thought that was a silly waste of money.  “All she had to do was tape a plastic bottle to the end of the gun to make a silencer.  Everybody knows that.”  My husband calmly drew in breath, exhaled, and said, as calmly as he could manage, “Honey, not everybody knows that.”  He relayed this exchange to a friend, who advised, “you’d better sleep with one eye open.”

Then there was the time he picked up the phone and spoke with a world-renowned pathologist, who gave his name and asked for me.  When my bewildered spouse gave me the message, he said, “you know, other husbands might find it alarming if their wives got a phone call from a pathologist.  But not me.  Not anymore.”

Not him, indeed.  And it extends beyond our day-to-day lives, too.  Because I write Victorian-era mysteries, I told him we needed to go to England on vacation.  My protagonist is an aristocrat, so we had to stay, not at a hotel, but at a castle.  It wasn’t just a working vacation for me, but for hubby, too.  I made him measure the length and width of every room in the castle so I could describe them credibly and cogently in my next novel.  He also was tasked with videotaping me walking from the castle to the nearby village while I gave running commentary I could later use in a book.  He was a model of sangfroid.

To his credit, he has not objected to these little intrusions. Rather, he has become an enabler. Maybe that is why he did not complain when we were walking with a young couple to a local restaurant.  The woman was a physician, so I took advantage of the opportunity to ask a question essential to my work in progress.  “I have a character who eviscerates women,” I said.  I asked her to describe what she would feel in a woman’s interior and whether she could describe the uterus for me in terms of size and feel.  My beloved sped up to walk with her husband and said, “I think we need to talk about sports.” “Yes, we really do,” the chap agreed. With a look of relief on his face. When my husband said later that this was not ordinary table conversation, I insisted anyone in my place would have done the same.

I am not certain, but I believe that soft sound that followed was his helpless weeping.

Thanks, Janis, for visiting Birth of a Novel and sharing something of your writing life with us.

Meet Donna Galanti

October 27, 2017


Donna Galanti is the author of the paranormal suspense Element Trilogy and the children’s fantasy adventure Joshua and The Lightning Road series. She is a contributing editor for International Thriller Writers the Big Thrill magazine and blogs with other middle grade authors at Project Middle Grade Mayhem. She’s lived from England as a child, to Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer. Donna enjoys teaching at conferences on the writing craft and marketing and also presenting as a guest author at elementary and middle schools. Visit her at and She also loves building writer community. See how at

Element Triliogy twitter3

Mind Control: Would You If You Could?
by Donna Galanti
In my paranormal suspense novel, A Hidden Element, mind control is used by the Elyon cult community to get what they want – and its power can be taken away through punishment.

Yet, even while the Elyon community uses mind control to commit theft and murder they have strict rules about it being used on their own people. They know that uncontrolled use of it will lead to the very destruction of their community and the breakdown of rules.

The mission of a small “elite” group to control the masses is nothing new, in fiction or real life.

Dean Koontz uses mind control in his book Night Chills. By using a single phrase the antagonist can force innocent people into a hypnotic state to do whatever he wants. Even scarier is that this technique was created through an experimental government program.

And the very real CIA’s MK-Ultra mind control program from 1953 to 1964 was a government program that conducted a series of covert experiments carried out on unwitting subjects with the aim of producing mind-control techniques. In 1973 the then director of the CIA destroyed nearly all of the MK-Ultra’s records. Perhaps most disturbing of all was the fact that the extent of experimentation on human subjects was unknown.

What if this happened to you, an “unwitting subject”?  Would you just wake up missing time with no recollection of what you did during that missing time? Have you ever had missing time that you couldn’t account for? I have. Once I lost two hours of time. I was in my car to go shopping and when I looked two hours had passed and I had missed an appointment. I often wonder where did that time go? Did aliens kidnap me for an experiment? Was a government experiment conducted on me without my consent? Silly to think, but is it really?

In 1978 I was just nine years old and simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the story of Jim Jones in the news that shocked the world. Jones was best known for the mass suicide over 900 of his cult’s members in Jonestown, Guyana, by cyanide poisoning and the murder of five individuals at a nearby airstrip, including Congressman Leo Ryan.

As a child and now as an adult, I still can’t comprehend how so many could follow one man to their death. Yet, none of us are immune to mind control techniques. Peer pressure, hypnosis, sleep deprivation, fear, financial commitment, guilt, and isolation are just some ways we can be controlled to become people we never thought we might be. Here’s a post on mind control basics that details just how easy it can be.

Sadly, I know there will be more Jim Jones stories to come along. For as long as humans pursue power over the masses, mind control will be conducted by those who study human behavior in order to bend large populations to the will of a small “elite” group.

In writing about mind control in A Hidden Element, I tried to find my own way to explain how this could lead someone to do the unthinkable when presented with the choices before them.

Do you believe in mind control? And would you control others if you could do it?

P.S. I’m also giving away a $25 Amazon gift card below!

 About A Human Element:
One by one, Laura Armstrong’s friends and adoptive family members are being murdered, and despite her unique healing powers, she can do nothing to stop it. The savage killer haunts her dreams, tormenting her with the promise that she is next. Determined to find the killer, she follows her visions to the site of a crashed meteorite–her hometown. There, she meets Ben Fieldstone, who seeks answers about his parents’ death the night the meteorite struck. In a race to stop a mad man, they unravel a frightening secret that binds them together. But the killer’s desire to destroy Laura face-to-face leads to a showdown that puts Laura and Ben’s emotional relationship and Laura’s pure spirit to the test. With the killer closing in, Laura discovers her destiny is linked to his and she has two choices–redeem him or kill him.

Praise for A Human Element:
“A Human Element is an elegant and haunting first novel. Unrelenting, devious but full of heart.  Highly recommended.” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times best-selling author

Praise for A Hidden Element:
“Fascinating…a haunting story about just how far parents will go to protect, or destroy, their children in the name of love.”—Rebecca Cantrell, New York Times best-selling author

Purchase A Human Element here: On sale for just $0.99 10/27 – 11/2!

Purchase A Hidden Element here: On sale for FREE 10/27 – 10/31!

Connect with Donna:

Check out the Rafflecopter Giveaway here and enter to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card!