November 10, 2009

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DO BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN? Posted by Sheila Connolly At Boucheron recently I was hanging out with a terrific group of women who all write in the same genre, traditional mysteries. (You know who you are!) In fact, many of us write for the same publisher. All are talented, interesting people. And I realized that most of them are blonde. When you know people primarily on-line, through their blogs or through writers lists, you don't think much about appearance. We do share a lot of personal information: I could probably tell you which ones are married, which have children, which are still working at day jobs. I could even tell you how many pets they have and what kind(s), or their favorite foods. But until you meet them at a conference, you have no idea what they look like. Well, this batch was blonde. Guess what: I'm not blonde. I felt like a goose in a swan convention. A "herd" of swans? (Hey, it sounds wrong, but I looked it up.) There are probably pictures to prove it. Why did I notice this? A few million years ago, when I was an art history major in college, I wrote a senior thesis about Victorian Genre Painting. In case you're unfamiliar with that (believe me, most people are), it was a style of painting that became popular when the middle classes in the later nineteenth century found they had some disposable income and started buying art, mainly as wall decoration. Quite a few of these pictures included the very people who were buying them: the English bourgeoisie. (Gee, kinda like cozies, eh?) The characters depicted were affluent members of the class, often seen in comfortable home environments. At the same time there was a "story-telling" element, and quite often a moral message. My particular focus in the thesis was how Victorian painters depicted women in that era (I wrote this during the height of the feminist wave). The overall theme was "home=good". Women were represented as the keepers of the hearth, helpmeets, and mothers. And to emphasize this, there was the antithesis of this image: the fallen woman. The picture that best sums this up was painted by one Arthur D. Lemon, titled "Pure Innocence/Pure in No Sense." It was a dual picture. On one side was a charming child at play; on the other, a prostitute. And both were blonde. (I'd love to show it to you, but it's so obscure that it doesn't appear anywhere on-line.) Blonde or fair hair is often associated with childhood. In addition, it is (if I recall my college biology classes correctly) also the result of recessive genes, so a "true" blonde is a relatively rare phenomenon, unless you happen to find yourself in Scandinavia. So if a woman chooses to lighten her hair color, she is doing it (a) to invoke in others pleasant associations with early childhood, or (b) to stand out in a crowd (think Marilyn Monroe). According to my in-depth research (i.e., I googled it), commercial hair bleach first emerged in a major way in the 1880s-90s, which corresponds to the period of Lemon's picture. I would guess his lady of the evening wanted to be noticed. Of course, hair color today runs the gamut from natural shades to neon, so a blonde hue is pretty mainstream. And then there's the age factor: many of us are "of a certain age," as the French would say. (TheFreeDictionary tells me that means a woman who "is no longer young but is not yet old." Unfortunately, with ageing comes grey hair. We live in a youth-oriented culture, and nobody wants to be branded as "old," even if they're only forty. Take a poll among any group of women: how many are sporting their own natural hair color? Not many, I'd bet. I plead guilty, and my grandmother went to her grave at 94 with dyed hair. My mother dyed her hair; my sister dyes hers. I resisted for as long as I could and finally gave in when I felt like I was fading into the wallpaper. But I didn't go blonde, because it would look entirely fake on me. Instead I opted for a tribute to my Irish forbears and chose a warm brown with reddish highlights (let's ignore the fact that the only Irish family members I knew had dark or sandy hair–not a redhead in the batch). At least I don't look blah and washed-out. So to come back to my original question: why are so many cozy writers blonde? We want to look younger than our chronological age? I don't think that applies. For one thing, many of us think that we're better writers now than we would have been twenty years ago, so we don't need to go back. Besides, our readers don't look at author photos when they buy our books. Is it because we want to stand out from the crowd? I'm happier with that idea. Maybe the blondes are saying, look at me! I'm smart, I'm articulate, and I like what I'm doing. It's a great group to hang out with–even if you're not blonde.
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Welcoming New Baby With Joy and Concern Posted by Kate Flora Quarry, the seventh anthology in our yearly collection of crime stories by New England writers, arrived on my front porch last week, box after box of strong, beautiful, new-born books. Although it is the seventh book in the collection, the process never gets old. I'm as excited about the arrival of this new book as I was so many Novembers ago, awaiting the arrival of Undertow, our first anthology. I'm curious to see how the stories will strike me on a third or fourth reading. How well they'll work together. Whether we've successfully put them into the right order, into a balance which will please and intrigue the readers who pick it up and send them forward, curious, to read the next story. The invitation to participate in this project as an editor came from Susan Oleksiw, a writer whose work, vision, and drive I greatly esteem, eight years ago. Would I like to participate as an editor in assembling a collection of crime stories that would take a snapshot of the New England writer's mind? It was an intriguing idea--to sit on the editorial side--and I accepted the invitation. We thought it was a one-time project, but our delight in the book, and our pleasure had getting to introduce readers to fine stories, and in discovering talented unpublished writers, made us want to do it again. And again. Along the way, our third editor, Skye Alexander, left the region for Texas, and was replaced by a fine local writer, Ruth McCarty, who had been one of our own early discoveries. They have been a rich and wonderful eight years. I couldn't imagine, on that cold winter day when we sat and looked at our first set of submissions, what a joy it would be nine months later to watch a signing line of our authors--several of them first timers--holding the physical book that had their work in print. It was that pleasure and excitement--theirs at being published, mine at getting to share their work with readers--that has led to six more collections. I've just come from a launch event at River Run books in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the newest collection. Three of our authors read from their stories, and each one had such distinct voice, such an inviting sense of mystery, and each was different. It's always fun to watch an audience being read to. People love to hear writers read their stories. I can see it in their faces and in the sighs of pleasure when the author finishes. Tonight it was Norma Burrow's "Confessions of a Telemarketer," which begins: "No one in their right mind would give a postal worker a hard time. Their tendency to go "postal" is well documented. However, it is socially acceptable to harass and be rude to telemarketers over the phone. I am here as a telemarketer to ask you, Do you have a death wish?" With a start like that, who wouldn't need to finish the story? Norma will be reading again next week at Water Street in Exeter, New Hampshire. Our authors even get creative about marketing the book. Vincent O'Neil, a Malice Domestic award-winning author who has a delightful caper story in the collection, even sent us prospective posters. Up in Farmington, Maine, attorney Woody Hanstein, who has had stories in most of our collections, is putting out the word about the collection in his homegrown internet newspaper, the Daily Bulldog. Maine Librarian John Clark is spreading the word in the library community. Next week, John and Woody will be talking about Quarry at the Farmington Library. And there are more events in the works. So, with the excitement of a new book and all this lively activity, why am I concerned? Because it has been a hard year for booksellers and for publishers. I'm a natural born worrier, and I'm worried that despite a big push and a wonderful product, I may not be able to sell enough books. And if I can't sell the book--good as it is--then next November, the happy little Level Best Family won't be welcoming another new baby. Sure, seven children is enough. They're beautiful, talented, entertaining, thoughtful, inspiring, and unique. But there is a whole world of stories out there, established writers to celebrate and new writers to discover. Life won't be the same if I--and my partners Ruth and Susan--aren't spending many hours reading them and shaping another rich collection. And, by the way, you can order your copy of Quarry here.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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