Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Have You Ever Heard Of Artist Trading Cards

I never had. But that was before I met Mark Hague, a writer from Long Beach, California. Mark was in the audience for my recent talk on A Perilous Conception at Book'Em Mysteries in Pasadena. He told me he was working on a cozy mystery, and when I asked about the background of the story, he said, "ATCs. Artist Trading Cards. Do you know about them?"

When I told him no, I'd never heard of ATCs, he reached under his chair, brought out a three-ring binder, laid it in my lap, opened the cover - and I was looking at nine beautiful works of miniature art in a plastic display sleeve. The theme of the group was Hallowe'en and autumn, and all sorts of materials had gone into the construction: ink, paint, string, fabric, metal, dried leaves. Many cards opened to show a message inside. Turning the sleeves, I saw Christmas cards, cards with sly humor, cards with friendly messages, even a few mildly-naughty cards. The range was endless, the work uniformly impressive. Some of the cards in the binder had been made by Mark, some by other artists.

Mark explained that ATCs were originated fifteen years ago by M. Vanci Stirneman, a Swiss artist and bookstore owner who wanted to establish an artistic parallel to sports trading cards. ATCs are the same size as the familiar baseball cards, and they are exchanged between artists around the world, whether by mail or at swap meets. Selling ATCs is verboten; they may only be exchanged. So far, Mark has made thousands of the little treasures, and completes 123 projects per year. He participates in eight swap meets a month.

I asked Mark the title of his cozy. He smiled, and said, "Death by Paper Cut." If I were a publisher (which, all praise be given, I'm not, but just to make a point), I'd bring out that book based solely on the title and the enthusiasm of the author. I'd even put a little money on this guy's ability to weave a darn good story. Hope to see it soon, whether bound between hard or soft covers.

If you'd like to know more about ATCs, Mark can be reached at

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lovely Voices From The Past

On my recent tour of indie mystery bookstores, several readers asked whether I missed practicing medicine. My answer was to the effect that my head has always known that trying to help people with medical problems is more important than putting words up on a computer screen, but my heart and gut just don't get it. I'm now into my eighteenth year of full-time writing, and have never looked back with regret.

Still, during the tour, I had a couple of poignant reminders that my time in medicine did have rewards beyond providing background material for murder mysteries.

 For the past twenty-seven years, I've scrupulously avoided releasing the name of my patient who delivered the Pacific Northwest's first in vitro fertilization baby - but there she was at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop Debut Signing, dispensing hugs to all of us who'd participated in her success, and saying "I was Number One!" to anybody who didn't already know. Well, okay. Her prerogative.

Another customer at SMB was a patient who'd suffered several mid-trimester pregnancy losses, but was finally able to carry a baby to term after a surgical procedure to strengthen her cervix. More hugs, more happy exclamations.

Then, at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, who should come by but a couple who had just retired to Arizona. Thirty-four years ago, the husband's brother, a medical colleague, had asked me to keep a lookout for a newborn that his brother and sister-in-law might adopt. I told him I thought the odds were mighty low, so of course, the very next week, I got word that a single teenager on the Family Practice Service had given birth, and wanted to put her baby up for adoption. I called the prospective adopters, and they contacted a lawyer, who had some concerns regarding the birth mother's mental capacities. He worried that the baby might be similarly affected. "What you're seeing is depression," I told him. "If you were 16 years old, single, and had just had a baby you were giving up for adoption, you'd be a little depressed yourself." He agreed, and the adoption went ahead. The baby now has a family of her own, and holds a job that requires pretty high-level brainwork.

My patients' outcomes were not always good. But some of the victories were spectacular, and even after all these years, they make me feel that those days, nights, and weekends on call just might've been worthwhile. But when someone at one of the bookstores asked whether I might ever go back to medical work, the head went with the heart and the gut. My headshake was prompt and firm.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Accidental Mystery Novelist

I've been visiting independent mystery bookstores to talk about A Perilous Conception. When someone in an audience asked what made me want to write mysteries, all I could do was laugh and say I didn't know.

When I left medical work, I set out to write a mainstream novel whose protagonist was to be Harry Hardwick, a wealthy businessman who lived in New York, and was a fanatical collector of antique music boxes. But as I moved along through Chapter One, someone - I didn't know who - stopped by Harry's house during the night, shot him dead, and stole his most spectacular music box. Over several months, I worked at sneaking Harry past his killer. No luck.

Finally, a writer-friend pointed out to me that I seemed to be trying to write a murder mystery, so why didn't I just let it happen? The result was The Music Box Murders, my first mystery novel. I enjoyed the process, working to create rounded, complex characters with unusual interests who needed to use their specialized skills to work their way through often-ambiguous moral/ethical situations, both to solve a crime and to answer significant questions about themselves and others.

So the decision to write mysteries was not a conscious one, I told my questioner. I just wrote myself into a coroner.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pass It Along

The last Christmas my grandfather was with us, he made certain there was a brightly-decorated tree in our house. Then he gave me a little plush Santa Claus, which became a family treasure. That was seven decades ago. I was two.

Through the years, Little Santa came out every Christmastime to sit through the season on the mantel, or on a music box, or on the player piano. At one point I had to fight off a kidnap attempt by my sister, who was under the impression that Santa was actually hers. But possession being nine points and all that, I prevailed. She finally accepted my version of how he came to our house.

This past month, my grandson fell in love with The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. He'd request four, five, six consecutive readings, then walk through the house, reciting such lines as "My friend told me I wouldn't hear the bells. But I knew better."

I thought I might be able to find a sleigh bell, wrap it, and slip it underneath the pile of gifts on Christmas morning. But as I walked past Little Santa, I noticed that atop his hat was a small bell, a perfect miniature of the one Santa cut off the reins for the boy in The Polar Express. And then it occurred to me: my grandson is two years old.

Some of us write made-up stories, but we all write the stories of our lives. I put together a note to my grandson, telling him the history of Little Santa, folded the note into a box with Santa, wrapped it, and pasted on a tag that said, "Shipped via The Polar Express." My grandson smiled when he opened the box and saw Little Santa, though of course, he didn't come close to understanding the story. But his mother and father did, and in time, he will too.