Monday, August 31, 2015

Clutter and Joy

Ever since Thoreau said “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify” people have been trying to find a way to live with less stuff. My friend Amy is doing the 30 articles of clothing thing – paring down her wardrobe to only the 30 most essential, most often-worn items. Other friends are trying different kinds of minimalist lifestyles, inspired by blogs like Clear Space, Be More With Less, and The Path to Simple. The names differ, but they all encourage living with intention, doing with less, and most importantly, shedding stuff.

Shedding stuff can be hard, but there are many books that offer help in kicking the clutter habit. In the best-selling The Life Changing Power of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo encourages us to purge by category – clothing, household items, heirlooms – and to keep only those things that “spark joy.”  Kondo says it’s easy to discard things if we hold our soon-to-be-jettisoned objects in our hands and thank them for their service.

Using Kondo’s method, I’ve been sorting through and discarding things in preparation for a move. It’s hard work, but as sunlight spreads across empty expanses of countertop and magazine-free coffee table, the incredible lightness of tossing stuff fills me with joy.

So thank you green sweater that looked great in the store but in real-life turns me a truly undesirable shade of unripe banana. Thank you Smoothie Master Elite 2000. I hardly knew ye. Thank you fancy chicken bouillon cubes. You expired on January 28, 2013 and I totally forgot you, pushed back behind the cranberry sauce and Stove Top stuffing. Thank you for letting me pretend that I would cook more from scratch. It was a nice dream while it lasted.

But what about the stuff that I can’t get rid of? The things that I try to toss but never fail to return to the shelf? My ballet books, purchased with babysitting money decades ago. Photo albums, it goes without saying, will always be in the To Keep pile.

Using the Kondo method has helped me discover what things are truly essential. I’d give away everything in my house before I would part with two of my daughters’ craft projects: little flowers and hearts that I put on my refrigerator door so I can see them every day. There are certainly more valuable things in my house, but if there were a fire, these are the things I would save. These little construction paper flowers and hearts spark joy for me.

What sparks joy for you?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Shoot? Don’t Shoot?

Last week I attended Writers' Police Academy sponsored, in part, by the Sisters in Crime. This year it was at a wonderful facility outside Appleton, Wisconsin. That’s less than a four-hour drive for us (right around the block in Yooper terms), so Jan and I both attended.

I was lucky enough to sign up for several special small-group classes. Crime Scene photography was excellent; it helped me understand how those folks actually work a scene using digital photography. I won a lottery and participated in a “Simunitions” exercise in which three of us attempted to extract an armed person for whom we had a warrant from a house. We were not sure if other people, including a baby, might still be in the house.

The class I want to discuss today is called MILO, an extremely realistic interactive training program.

For fifteen minutes two of us worked with an instructor and the MILO simulator. The instructor first provided a refresher on the basics of handgun control (both of us had experience shooting handguns). Next we discussed when it is appropriate for a police officer to fire his/her weapon: the key being that an officer should not shoot until feeling endangered.

The two of us took turns with the simulations. The first simulation had an angry man brandishing a knife. In scenario one he was (I think) thirty-one feet away. Was I endangered? No. I had plenty of time to shoot before he could run at me with the knife. When he did finally run, I shot. Because he kept moving, I kept shooting until the guy went down.

Lesson one: keep shooting until danger is removed.

I repeated the knife-wielding man scenarios with the guy at twenty-one feet and eleven feet. At eleven feet there is very little time between the man making a threatening move and the necessity of shooting. Very little time.

I managed those three scenarios successfully. The other student waited too long in the eleven-foot scene and was “killed.”

A little cop humor
We did several other scenarios. In all cases I correctly chose when to shoot. However, I did die in one scenario. I responded to a bank robbery by an armed man. He exited the bank, money in one hand, gun in the other. I made the correct decision of when to shoot, but then I made a rookie error. I developed tunnel vision, focusing on the downed gunman because he might not be dead and he still had the gun in his hand.

I missed seeing a car parked at the curb with the getaway driver. The screen went red when that person got off several shots before I located the problem and fired back.

Our last scenario involved both students. We were in a two-person patrol car and had made a traffic stop of an erratically-driven car. Out pops a guy pointing a gun at his head, threatening to blow his head off if we come nearer. Then he starts taunting us to shoot him. This was possibly a suicide-by-cop situation. We’re yelling at the guy to drop his gun and stay by his car. Eventually, he started moving toward us, still waving the gun more or less at his head.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

He’s still coming toward us, waving the gun more or less at his head.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

The waving gun is now pointed less frequently directly at his head, the gestures become loopier.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

Crime scene photography
Both of us made the wrong decision. My partner never shot. Once the gunman reached the back bumper of his car (the line I had mentally drawn in the sand), I fired a shot into the dirt and when he kept coming, I shot his leg. According to the instructor, given the gunman was not following directions and was waving the gun around (and could easily change one of those loops into a shot at us), I had chosen the correct time to fire. However, I should have aimed for the center mass. Police officers do not shoot for extremities (or shoot the weapon out of the person’s hand). They are trained to focus on the chest through head area.

One thing the two of us didn’t do in that exercise, which many students do and which also happens a lot in real life is fire solely because the other person fires. It’s a tension-induced reflex. Combined with training to keep shooting until the opponent is no longer a threat, this reaction is often responsible for the massive number of bullets fired in some shootouts.

The exercise provided me with insight into police shootings I would never have gotten from television and printed news. Sometime it may even make it into a story.

~ Jim

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Keeping Your Passion High Through Your Project by Ronnie Allen

I write my novels out in public, by the pool at our country club, a good portion of the time. That's the way it’s been for the past four years. I can't count the number of times that people had come over to me to tell me they have an idea but don't know what to do with it. Or, they started a novel ten years ago and don't have the energy to complete it. Or, they have six unedited novels under their bed. Or they got three rejections and gave up. And the biggie is that they don't have time. Basically, what they're telling me is that they lost the passion for their work or their story. They hit a wall, also known as writer's block. That definitely can knock the spirit out of you.

I must tell you that in all my years of writing, from the late '70's to mid '90's in film and TV, and through 2010 when I wrote non-fiction articles in alternative healing and holistic health, to the present, now writing novels, I have never once hit writer's block. Why? I can honestly say it's because I had never lost the passion for the project on which I was working.

I've heard people say, “take a break,” “start something new.” To me that's not the answer. The longer the break, the more time away from the project, the less enthusiasm builds and the passion you once had, decreases. I'd advise writing in a different environment. If your creativity gets stumped cooped up in your office, breathing stale or recirculated air, go out into nature. Sit on your front porch. In the city, we'd call it a stoop. Remember those days? Go to the beach. I've written screenplays and TV scripts as well as non-fiction works sitting on the beach at Silver Gull Beach Club in Queens, New York. No beach? Write by a pool with the sun shining. Get out into the fresh air. Yes, even with the snow. Being in the open air is very cleansing on every level: spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional.

Why do I mention cleansing? Writer's block, losing passion for a project is an indication of blocked energy, a clogged system. When energy isn't flowing properly through our bodies we feel stuck. Stuck in moving forward. Stuck in tackling the day's chores. And stuck in writing. Our thoughts, feelings, and emotions that we want to get onto the paper are just not there. They can't come through to our consciousness. Picture a jeep getting stuck in mud and it can’t move unless pulled or pushed. Their wheels spin. Same thing with us, but it’s our brain that is stuck.

In my alternative healing practice, I teach people how to make the mind-body connection. So I'm going to ask you some questions so you can make your own connection. Focus on your breathing, inhaling and exhaling deeply as you sit comfortably in a chair and relax. What part of your body is feeling tight, in pain? Can you connect to what is causing you pain in your life? Practicing breathing techniques could be very cleansing. That's why we call it “cleansing breaths.”

Our solar plexus, which is underneath our bra line and above the belly, is our emotions center. Very often our writing is very emotional. Not feeling the emotions? Try eating a healthier diet. Losing fat in that area allows energy to flow more freely.

You can also detox from debris that is surrounding you in your aura. When we have debris, new thoughts, creative thoughts can't penetrate our energy fields. You know the expression, “I walked into a room and you could cut the air with a knife.” Well that air can glue to you. I use aromatherapy to cleanse my aura. Gardenia is perfect. You can get it in a shower gel. In the shower, meditate to remove the debris from your aura. Gardenia removes the toxic energy around you so that you don't get sick from someone else's energy. Carnation oil has the same effect.

I also use crystals and gemstones to keep the thoughts for my writing, coming. No, it’s not cheating. Sodalite is also known as the students’ stone and is wonderful for writers. Keep it near you on your desk. If you want to know about healing stones, and how you can use them in your writer’s life, feel free to ask me questions in the comments.

Those are some of my recommendations to keep the passion high for your project. The key is to make the emotional connection. I hope you find them helpful.

How do you keep your passion high through your project and avoid writer’s


Ronnie Allen is a New York City native, born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, where she was a teacher in the New York City Department of Education for 33 years including the obtaining of a New York State license as School Psychologist. Her various roles included classroom teacher, staff developer, crisis intervention specialist, and mentor for teachers who were struggling. Always an advocate for the child, Allen carries this through as a theme in her novel Gemini, with the reader seeing the horrors of child abuse through the eyes of three characters.

In the early 1990s she began a journey into holistic healing and alternative therapies and completed her PhD in Parapsychic Sciences in 2001.

Along the way, Allen has picked up many certifications. She is a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner as well as a crystal therapist, Reiki practitioner, metaphysician, dream analyst, and Tarot Master Instructor. She has taught workshops in New York City and in Central Florida where she now lives.

Combining a love of the crime genre and her psychology background, with her alternative therapies experiences, writing psychological thrillers is the perfect venue for her.

Friday, August 28, 2015



On July 6th, 2015 Sarah Robinson was not arrested.  On that date she could have been.  After all, she was caught red-handed shoplifting. Roeland Park Police Officer, Mark Engravalle was called to the scene.  He discovered the theft was committed by a single mother of six children who was trying to provide diapers and wipes for her children. Instead of arresting her, the officer paid for diapers, wipes and shoes for the children. The story generated such interest and so many financial and product donations that the Robinson family can stop living in their car and start living in an apartment.   It’s a heart-warming story, but it is the story of only one family.  Sarah is not the only parent who can’t afford necessities. 

Food stamps can be used only for food.  It’s easy to understand the reasoning behind that restriction.  It’s also easy to see that food is not the only necessity.  Toilet paper, soap, feminine hygiene products toothbrushes and toothpaste are also needed.  Children who go to school smelling bad because their parents cannot buy soap are very likely to be picked on and bullied.

In the Kansas City area, Teresa Hamilton became aware of one family’s problems.  They got food stamps but they needed the sort of things noted above.  They felt embarrassed to ask for assistance.  They didn’t know where to go or who to ask.  Teresa and others pooled their resources to help them.  Teresa then concluded there had to be many more families with similar needs.  She founded Giving The Basics at

The purpose of the organization is become a central hub for individuals and businesses to donate products and financial resources for the purchase of “human dignity products,” which are them distributed effectively to families and individuals in need. 

Organizations such as churches, schools, businesses, health care agencies and community groups put on drives to collect human dignity products.  Volunteers sort, count and case the items for distribution.  Charities, food banks, women’s shelters, homeless shelters and churches give the donations to the people in need.

According to Michele Orpin, Director of Operations, the organization serves 10,000 people with the help of 150 volunteers and 25 donors a month.  Obviously, the organization is very well organized and efficient. When a church I belong to volunteered to help, Teresa and Michelle put twenty of us to work for two and a half hours.  There is a lot to do and they do it well.

 Click below on the video link to learn more!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Help for Addicts

Trumbull County Ohio Courthouse
Heroin and other narcotic addiction are on the rise in our country. Here in Trumbull County, Ohio, where I live, the felony drug cases out of all cases bound over for consideration by a Trumbull County Common Pleas Court grand jury has been steadily climbing from 32.7% in 2012, to 37% in 2013, 39.6% in 2014 to so far this year to 52%. In 2012, there were 36 accidental drug overdose deaths in Trumbull County, 39 in 2013, and 54 in 2014 and so far in this year only a little over half way through there have been 35 confirmed drug deaths with 16 pending. So far this year, 34 out of 35 overdose deaths have had heroin present. As high as it is in our county and the counties surrounding us, I’m sure it’s as high or even higher in other areas, although Trumbull County ranks sixth in the state for unintentional overdose deaths.

Some CDC facts: (1) From  2000 to 2013, the national rate for drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin nearly quadrupled from 0.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2000 to 2.7 deaths per100,000. Most of those after 2010.  (2) Drug overdose is the number one cause of injury-related death in the U.S. with 43,082 deaths in 2013. (3) The strongest risk factor for heroin use disorder is a prescription opioid use disorder. (4) Significant increases in heroin use have been tracked to people with private insurance and higher income.
Fifteen years ago, our county’s Common Pleas Drug Court, started a treatment -program-in -lieu-of-incarceration. It’s a legal process where individuals who have been arrested for a fourth or fifth degree drug-related felony may choose Drug Court treatment instead of various other legal consequences. Pleading guilty in the Drug Court and waiving certain rights is required.

Those individuals who are eligible must not have violent backgrounds or charges, including sex-related offenses and weapon charges, past or present. They also can’t be charged with a drug trafficking offense. They must be willing to admit they have a drug problem as well as willing to do something about that problem.

If they meet the eligibility, they are placed in treatment at the level of care they need, and where they have the opportunity for full recovery from the disease of chemical dependency. Also, if they successfully complete the program, the felony charges are dismissed.

To complete the program they must (a) agree not to use any mood alteration chemicals during their participation in treatment and the Drug Court. (b) Be willing to submit to weekly random drug screens. (c) Agree to attend all counseling sessions and complete assignments. (d) Agree to appear in court weekly to have your performance made known to the Court. (e) Agree to attend AA/NA/CA as scheduled. (f) Follow all the rules of the treatment center that they are involved in. (g) avoid criminal activity, and finally (h) agree not to associate with drug using people. Six people this month graduated from this program. Right now there are 100 people active in the program with 15 to 18 on the waiting list.
David 4th from left and his wife Paula next to him

I first became aware of this when I found out David Kapp, the son of my cousin, and his partner had opened up a facility called First Step Recovery in Warren, Ohio this year on May 5th. Less than a week later at my family reunion at my house, I had a chance to talk to David and his wife, who helps out in the facility, about their program. He and his partner are currently constructing another building because they have a list of close to 100 people waiting to get in for treatment, not only of drug, but also alcohol addiction. Not all on this waiting list have been ordered here by the drug court. Some come voluntarily because they realize they have a problem and want help for detoxification. The minimum number of days in treatment is 5 to 7, and the minimum cost for this is $2,700. David said Medicaid will only pay for 16 beds. A lot of people who come are poor so it’s another reason why the waiting list is so long. They have to wait for an available bed.
The facility of First Step Recovery
Talk about serendipity – the day after the reunion and my visit with David, there was a big write up in our Sunday paper about the Drug Court and First Step Recovery. He never once mentioned he and his business would be in the newspaper.

A doctor and other health professionals who work there

The newspaper featured a story about Danielle Burk, 29, the third person to enter treatment at First Step Recovery. She said she started abusing substances at fourteen. Alcohol was her first substance. She didn’t like it at first, and then found it was the only way to find happiness. In high school she was involved in volley ball, cheerleading and went to church. When her family discovered her problem, they tried to help by putting her in programs, and she faked being better as she hid her addiction. She dropped out of school and the alcohol addiction got worse. She started dating a heroin addict and felt at least she wasn’t that kind of addict. Then he died of an overdose. She was depressed and felt guilty. She started dating another heroin addict and started using that. As an alcoholic she’d worked three jobs, but heroin took that away. She’d tried rehab twice before she went to First Step Recovery. This time it worked. She said, “If you really want recovery, you will find it.”

Last fall, I blogged about a body I found in my woods. He was a suicide unsuccessfully trying to break a heroin addiction. The coroner told the son of the man I found that after an addict is free from heroin a month is when they crash. Heroin or opiate addiction was something I’d read about, knew existed, but had little personal connections with it. One other person I did know was a young neighbor girl; a great kid who played on the softball team of our local high school that won the state championship several years. She suffered a drug overdose because the pain medication for a back she’d injured at work wasn’t renewed. A friend started her on heroin, and she OD’d. That was some years ago.  In fact, I’ve read and heard a lot of addicts only start because of a discontinuance of their pain meds.  I personally know no one with the addiction, at least not that I’m aware of. However, from what I’ve read and heard addicts are pretty good at hiding their problem until it gets so bad they no longer can.

Have you had someone close to you become addicted to heroin or other substance abuse?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

An Interview with Maria Hudgins

Death in an Ivory Tower

It's a scholarly conference at Oxford and the subject is "The Lingering Effects of the King Arthur Tales on Life in Elizabethan England," but two participants don't fit in. Dotsy Lamb, PhD candidate from Virginia, has inadvertently invited a couple of New Agers from Glastonbury. Their agenda is to prove to these arrogant academics that King Arthur and Guinevere were real people. As a big surprise, Bram Fitzwaring plans to produce their royal bones.

But Fitzwaring doesn’t show up for his mind-blowing speech to the conference because he’s in his room—dead. An insulin-dependent diabetic, Fitzwaring appears to have died from hypoglycemia. But Dotsy, also diabetic, says his symptoms prior to his demise do not spell hypoglycemia. They spell murder.


If you are an armchair traveler, and even if you aren’t, you’ll love Maria Hudgins’ Dotsy Lamb Travel Mystery series and her Lacy Glass Archaeology Mystery series. In her books, Maria takes readers to far-flung locations such as Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Scotland, and Italy. I recently read Death in an Ivory Tower, which transported me to Oxford, England. It made me want to travel more with Dotsy and Lacy.                          
                         Grace Topping

Welcome, Maria, to Writers Who Kill.

In Death in an Ivory Tower, Dotsy Lamb found herself in the midst of heated arguments about whether King Arthur really existed and whether Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him—issues so contentious they drove someone to murder. Where does Dotsy stand on these issues? Did anyone convince her that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote Macbeth and not Shakespeare?

Maria Hudgins

Dotsy believes in keeping an open mind. On the subject of King Arthur, she recognizes that the evidence for his ever having existed is thin, but a part of her hopes the future will bring new evidence—that he did live and that he was, if not a king, a hero to his people. Of course, there’s no chance at all that he lived as the fables tell, because those stories are medieval and Arthur would have been ancient history to medieval Englishmen.

As for anyone other than William Shakespeare having written Macbeth, Dotsy gets angry at the suggestion, because it’s invariably based on the idea that the son of a common glove maker could not possibly be that intelligent. Dotsy has some choice words for those elite snobs.

I, personally, do not doubt that Dotsy is right.

The victim’s diabetes provides Dotsy with a vital clue in solving the murder. She recognizes the clue because she herself has diabetes. Is this new to the series, or has Dotsy’s condition and the challenges of traveling with diabetes been featured in the other books in this series?

Dotsy has been diabetic throughout the series. In Death of an Obnoxious Tourist, the first book in the series, she passes out on the roof of a hotel due to low blood sugar. In each of the succeeding books, her diabetes plays some role, but not always a big one. Since that first book came out, there have been several medical advances in the management of diabetes. These are making it easier for Dotsy to travel with little worry.

While at Oxford University, Dotsy does research in the Bodleian Library, where I understand they filmed some of the Harry Potter films. Did you gain admittance to the library and browse the collection? Was it like being in a scene from Harry Potter?

I did, indeed. The main ground floor room of the Divinity School (in the same complex) was used as the Hogwarts Hospital. Accessing the book collection is not allowed unless you are cleared for research and that is complicated. Harry Potter filming sites are all over Oxford. I love the grand staircase in Christ Church College that, I believe, twisted and reconnected in the movie. The Christ Church dining hall is used as well. Remember the flying candles?

In their travels around the world, Dotsy and her friend Lettie find themselves involved in a murder investigation wherever they go. What kind of challenges do you face making this plausible?

It is implausible but so far no one has complained. Readers don’t mind suspending their disbelief if it’s a good story. I sometimes make references to Dotsy’s previous exploits but not too often because the reader might decide that this woman is bad luck!

I understand that you visit the places you set your books to do research—a rather enviable task. Do you find yourself traveling to write or writing to travel?

I travel because I want to, but when I’m in a foreign spot, my eyes are open for good places to kill somebody. My ears and nose are open for the smells and sounds that make the place come alive. I take lots of notes in my trip journal.

Which location did you enjoy the most?

It’s hard to pick one, so I’ll pick two. I love Oxford, England so much I’ve visited 8 or 9 times. I’ve stayed in St. Hilda’s College and in Jesus College. Jesus is the prototype for St. Ormond’s College in Death in an Ivory Tower.

My other choice would have to be Egypt. I wrote an archaeology mystery called Scorpion House, available on Kindle, based on my first trip there and the historical thriller I’m working on now is set in Upper Egypt, near Aswan. I hear Egypt calling me so I may have to go back soon.

Does setting your mysteries in different locations present any difficulties in sustaining a series with the same characters?

I can’t exactly have a whole village full of characters the readers know, can I? My continuing characters—Dotsy Lamb and Lettie Osgood—are sometimes joined by Marco Quattrocchi, Ollie Osgood, Chet Lamb, or one of Dotsy’s or Lettie’s children. There’s no need to read the stories in order, because a brief introduction is all these characters need.

Both your series feature gutsy women: Dotsy Lamb, an educator, and Lacy Glass, a young archeologist (featured in The Man on the Istanbul Train). Which of the two do you identify with most, discounting age?

Both women are similar to me in some ways: Dotsy is tenacious and I am, too. She’s somewhat a product of her rural, mid-20th century upbringing, and I am, too. Lacy Glass is headstrong and accident-prone, like me. She loves science, especially the physics and chemistry of color. My master’s thesis was on a bluish plant pigment you’ve never heard of.

Where will Dotsy’s travels take her (and you) next?

She’s going to Istanbul. I’ve visited this exciting city twice. The book, At the Spoonmaker’s Hotel, is slated to come out in 2017 or 2018 because my publisher, Five Star/Cengage, is scheduling that far ahead. After that, she will return to Italy for some life-changing events. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

Was there anything in your background as an oceanographer and earth science teacher that helped prepare you to write about murder and mayhem?

There is always science in what I write. I can’t help it. If you don’t like science you can skip those parts. I do think that a bit of explanation about shellfish contamination or ocean currents make a story more real.

Do you have a favorite place to write?

I write in my den where my dogs keep me company and I can take my laptop from the desk to the sofa to the recliner to keep from sitting in one place too long. Sometimes I take my laptop (MacBook Air) to my new sunroom where I have a chaise to recline on. The dogs, birds, and squirrels entertain me.

Thank you, Maria.

In her bio, Maria said: "I’m the luckiest of all possible people. To be able to write what I want to write, spend time with my friends when I want, and with the friends in my stories when I want. All this without having to starve in a garret." Read more about Maria and her travel adventures at