Nothing in Life is Sure But Death and Taxes

death and taxes image with coins

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been on a death kick lately. And given that this is tax season, it seemed a natural segue. As I—and many others—have often said, everything is fodder for writers.
The thing about life is that one day you'll be dead by David Shields
The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead by David Shields
Of course there is the obvious: the frustration of the forms, last minute scramble, missing documents, taxes due and no money to pay them, filing for extensions, and so forth. Being obvious doesn’t preclude rich story possibilities.

Then there are variations of the theme: your character finally wedged a CPA appointment into a jammed schedule only to discover that said CPA has moved, s/he can’t find the office, misses the appointment, etc.
taxes topic index
Taxes topic index
But dig deeper. Virtually every item on the topic index is rife with writing possibilities. These may or may not  be directly related to the taxes due, but dealing with them at tax time could well trigger the strong emotions that fuel great stories. Here is a select list:
  • alimony paid or received (or not)—and associated hostility
  • business use of home—and the strain it puts on family
  • casualty or theft loss—and the aftermath of being a victim of crime
  • child and dependent care expenses—meeting them, but also finding such services in the first place
  • contributions—a willing tithe to church, or possibly being pressured to support your alma mater
  • education expenses—and doubts about whether the degree is worth it
  • foreign assets, expenses, taxes, and income—and what to do about off-shore accounts and tax shelters
  • gambling winnings (or losses)—and whether to join Gamblers Anonymous
  • gifts—and why they were given
  • medical and dental expenses—and the trauma of diagnosis, surgery, recovery (or not)
  • miscellaneous income and adjustments (They really expect people to report illegal income??)
  • mortgage or education loan interest paid—and the continuing burden from years ago
  • moving expenses—whether the move was up or down, willing or forced
  • sale of home, stock, or other capital assets—and why the sale? Was the market down at the time or up?
  • unemployment compensation—whether it was enough, whether it ended too soon, whether filing for it was humiliating


As you do your taxes this year, consider the good and the bad—and then think how you could make it even better or worse in fiction!

Finding the Fun in Funerals

writing 101: Finding the Fun in Funerals

Or if not fun, at least rich material for writers.

My most recent blog, Embracing Death, touched on this topic tangentially, but really, given all they can do for a story, funerals need their own focus. So, how can writers use funerals?

Burial rituals reflect culture, socio-economic class, and time period—without having to specify such things in the narrative.


Within those broad parameters, many decisions need to be made. What if the relevant relatives disagree on things? Music, prayers, cost of the casket, who speaks at the service, what happens at the graveside. . . What if there is no grave? (The same could apply to memorial services.) Where will the body be buried or the ashes scattered? And so we have the possibilities of coalitions forming. Maybe these reflect already existing ties or loyalties.

What if the deceased person’s wishes to donate organs—or the whole body to a medical school—horrify the survivors? Who will have the final word? Will s/he just announce, or work for cooperation and consensus? And will that succeed?

Often a funeral will bring together people who haven’t seen and/or talked to each other in years. This makes possible happy reunions, but also the resurgence of past rivalries, jealousies, and grievances.

Heirs may start squabbling over their inheritances before the funeral even happens! And it doesn’t have to be millions at stake. In my novel Nettie’s Books (forthcoming), the hostilities erupt over quilts, stoneware pitchers, and a cake plate!

I often find the fun in funerals. My story “The Red Glove” features a drive-through funeral home in Maine. “Wanted” also features a father lying in state at Herschel Southern Drive-Thru Mortuary, resting peacefully behind plate glass.

What about you? If you’re a writer, have you looked on the light side of funerals, or do you write about their inherent tensions?


As with other aspects of good writing, the stakes need to be high. What’s to be won or lost? And after you write the scene, ramp it up, push it to the extreme.
Aircraft to Drop Flowers on Graves, May 29, 1941
“Aircraft to Drop Flowers on Graves”

Embracing Death

embracing death
People have practiced death rituals as long as they have been people—and perhaps longer. Animals from elephants to crows observe the death of a comrade in particular ways, so why not pre-humans? Death is as important as birth—perhaps more so for writers!
embracing death: Bible, Shakespeare, Sophocles


Writing death is a fine old tradition, from the ancient Greeks (think Medea killing her children) to the Bible (e.g., Cane and Abel) to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


The human fascination with death, dying, death rituals and what happens after death is well documented. I advise writers to steep themselves in death to have the material at hand when it is needed. To that end, I recommend any or all of the following books.
Death: A History of Man's Obsessions and Fears
Death: A History of Man’s Obsessions and Fears
In this book, Wilkins vividly documents our worst fears: premature burial, posthumous indignity, bodily disintegration, being forgotten. The fear of being buried alive led to a proliferation of waiting mortuaries. Bodies presumed dead rested on zinc trenches filled with antiseptics and camouflaged by flowers. A complex system of cords and pulleys attached to fingers rang a bell in the porter’s lodge if the presumed corpse moved. Could a person be buried alive today?
The History of Death
Kerrigan starts with ideas of an afterlife. He addresses the issue of the demanding dead, ancient funerary rites, death rituals, and death present and future. The least demand the dead make is dealing with the body, which may be left for animals to scavenge. But gifts ranging to flowers for the burial to daily feeding of the spirit of the departed are common around the world. The ultimate is a demand for a sacrifice, ranging from a goat in Benin to the Indian custom of the widow throwing herself on the funeral pyre. Consider the demands inherent in Memorial Day ceremonies. How might your character feel about the demands of the dead?
Earthly Remains
Earthly Remains
Chamberlain and Pearson tour preservation and decay: bog bodies, mummified bodies, frozen bodies and more. Wonderful pictures throughout add richness to the written word. What would a person do, suddenly confronted with one of these bodies?
When We Die
When We Die
Cedric Mims presents a broad view of the topic, and might be the single best resource. He covers everything from the definitions of death—and yes, I meant that to be plural—to causes of death, including suicide, euthanasia, and murder. Being stung to death by a scorpion happens about 1000 times a year, whereas more than 4 million a year die of accidents and violence. I especially like the section on the use and abuse of corpses. Writers can effectively exploit either the rare or the common. 
The Oxford Book of Death
The Oxford Book of Death
In addition to the more common discussions of definitions, attitudes, graveyards, and funerals, there is a section on revenants—i.e., whether the spirit of the dead can appear to the living, and if so why. Also, there is a section on epitaphs, requiems, and last words, for example, “Poorly lived, And poorly died, Poorly buried, And no one cried.” That alone could lead to a heart-wrenching story!
Remember Me
Remember Me
Last but not least, Remember Me is a fascinating display of modern variations on death and burial. She has a chapter on funeral mishaps, including the case of the tragic dove release. She talks about “green” burials to make bodies biodegradable, about turning ashes to diamonds, and being buried at sea. People have been buried in caskets shaped like boats, tomatoes, airplanes, and snakes—and there’s a whole subdivision on cars. If you prefer death lite, this book is for you!


With death, the first thought is likely to be emotional—sorrow, grief, mourning—or possibly glee, relief, or just acceptance. But as you consider death, remember the other aspects: the potential social, political, financial, or historical impact. And as Cullen says, “Death is a disruptive event; it interrupts planned road trips and imperils baby-sitting.” So don’t forget the inconvenience and irritation side effects. Be sure you are writing a well-rounded death.

Catrina 3
By Paolaricaurte (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

science fiction vs. fantasy
I read somewhere—perhaps in an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin—that science fiction has both feet planted solidly in the science of today, that the fictional parts are pushing beyond those roots in a way that is both logical and plausible.


So when I read a blurb for CREATION: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford, I immediately thought science fiction. According to Rutherford, we are radically exceeding the boundaries of evolution and engineering entirely novel creatures—from goats that produce spider silk in their milk to bacteria that excrete diesel to genetic circuits that identify and destroy cancer cells. Imagine what stories might be told in a world where such creatures are commonplace, where such engineering is taken for granted. Imagine the products, and the governmental involvement.
Creation by Adam Rutherford
Creation by Adam Rutherford

Fantasy, on the other hand, is making it up out of whole cloth. Even so, it could draw on science for an idea. For example, another book I came across recently has such possibilities: TEMPERATURE-DEPENDENT SEX DETERMINATION IN VERTEBRATES edited by N. Valenzueta & B. Lance. It contains articles by leading scholars in the field and reveals how the sex of reptiles and many fish is determined not by the chromosomes they inherit but by the temperature at which incubation takes place. Fantasy would be a story in which human sex is determined by ambient temperature. And perhaps it can vary as the temperature varies. And so forth.

science fiction vs. fantasy, fish in water


Now, if you wrote a story about a world over-run by snakes and fish because of global warming, you would be back to science fiction. Ditto for a world in which the biological engineering described in CREATION results in changing many species to be temperature-reactive and put that in the context of global warming.



Check out the latest in science and then let your imagination run wild!

Research Roundup

research: library

Love Your Research 

I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well. I share a few of my favorite resources.

Writers on Writingwriting 101: love your research

There are lots of ways to get inside writers’ heads.

Bicycle History to Celebrate UCI Road World Championships 

When my interest is piqued, of course I turn to research.

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen 

Deborah Tannen has published numerous books that might be of interest to writers.

On Writing by Stephen King book cover
Stephen King’s On Writing

Dictionary of American Regional English 

Somewhere in my public life, I mentioned that I collect dictionaries. I have whole shelves of them, everything from slang to carnival jargon to common usage during the Civil War to books of insults and dirty words. I ordered all six volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English—and then thanked my husband for his birthday present to me.

Wonderful Words 

I was much taken with Ammon Shea’s book, Reading the OED, a memoir of the year he spent reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary.

Beware Beautiful Words Beware Beautiful Words

Writers are readers, by and large, and also word collectors. We tend to fall in love with words. Some writers make a career of writing about words as well as with them.


Writing From Your Experiences

writing from your experiences; man standing by waterfall
As a writer, some of your best material comes from your body. Using all of your senses, every day will infuse your writing with rich details and believable depictions of events and emotions.


I’ll give you a concrete example. I love getting massages. In my story “Beautiful Bones,” published in the Connecticut Review, I conglomerated various massage experiences and settings to provide a detailed and sensuous description of a massage to accompany the recipients thoughts and anxieties before turning to magical realism at the end. I call this a case of direct application, in which a character is having the experience I drew upon to describe it.
writing from experience; leg massage


But consider the use of indirect application: you could just as easily incorporate many massage moves into the description of a sex scene. Or consider the case of a waitress whose partner offers a foot rub after a long day at work.

For any experience, try to note as many of your senses as possible.

What happens when you are angry? What happens to your heart rate, breathing, stomach? Do you blush? Go white around the lips? Does your body tense? Which part(s)? What happens to you voice—everything from pitch to loudness to speed of speaking. Now consider someone you know well: how do you know when s/he is angry? What are the visual and auditory cues?


Food and drink are more than taste!

In fact, eighty percent of taste is actually smell. When olfactory cues are absent, people can’t tell the difference between bits of apple and bits of onion. And then there are the issues of temperature, texture, and spiciness. How complex is the experience?


For writers, everything is material.

Whether it’s a walk in the woods, giving blood, taking a taxi from the airport to a hotel, the frustration of tax time, or just being bored out of your skull, pay attention and use your experience.

How has an experience shaped your writing? 

A Murder of Crows

A murder of crows
Crows and ravens have been popular in myth and literature for centuries–Odin’s Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory or Mind) to Poe’s “Raven”–often with menacing depictions. Perhaps it’s because ‘murder’ has been the collective noun for a group of crows since the Middle Ages.

But I like crows! Every year they star in my autumn table.
a murder of crows in an autumn centerpiece
Indeed, I like the entire corvid family of birds—crows, ravens, jackdaws, and rooks. I once took a two-week float and paddle trip through the Grand Canyon, and every campsite came equipped with a pair of ravens. Our guides warned us about their tricks. Even so, we were taken unaware when a raven landed a few feet away and started performing—hopping about, dragging first one wing and then the other in a beautiful raven dance. In the meantime, its partner was unzipping fanny packs and making off with bits of food and anything shiny!
Raven overlooking Grand Canyon
Photo by Matteo Paganelli
The only one that seems to hang out near where I live is the American Crow, featured in the March-April, 2016 issue of Audubon, along with articles about Common Ravens and a corvid cousin the Eurasian Jay.
Audubon magazine featuring "Crows' Feats"
The articles provide fascinating glimpses of these bird brainiacs and the research that delineates their amazing abilities. Corvids are among the smartest animals on earth. They can make and use tools, play tricks, teach each other new things, and hold “funerals” for their dead. With only one exposure, they can form memories of human faces to be trusted and faces to be feared. Not only do these memories last for years, the fear response is taught to others born after the original exposure, and long after the exposed birds have died.


Birds are in the reptilian line of the animal kingdom (who knew?) but relative to their body size, corvid brains are comparable to primates. They appear to have cognitive abilities comparable to a four- or five-year-old child.


"Crows" by Candace Savage
Crows are survivalists and exploiters who thrive in urban and suburban environments. According to the Audubon article, “The crows in your neighborhood know your block better than you do. They know the garbage truck routes. They know which kids drop animal crackers and which ones throw rocks. They know the pet dogs, and they might even play with the friendly ones. If you feed them, they probably not only recognize you but your car as well, and they might just leave trinkets in return.”


They’ve been observed putting hard nuts in the street to be run over by cars and then collecting the cracked nutmeats after. They cache food, hide their caches, and steal from each other.


A murder of crows may not sound as appealing as an exaltation of larks, but I find them more interesting!



Why use tired images of crows in a cornfield or birds on a wire? When a mention of birds fits your story, infuse your writing with much more interesting bird behaviors!
So, given how smart crows are, how long will it be before these learn that I only want to take pictures? I’m waiting for the day they let me come close!

Virginia is for Mysteries Events

The Virginia is for Mysteries: Volume II book tour is here. I’ll be speaking at events in bold.


March 12, 2016Virginia is for Mysteries: Volume II Book Tour

Slover Library

235 East Plume Street

Norfolk, VA 23510

1 – 4 pm


March 15, 2016

Virginia Museum of Contemporary Arts

2200 Parks Avenue

Virginia Beach, VA 23451

5 – 9 pm


March 19, 2016

Coastal Crime Fest

Russell Memorial Library

2808 Taylor Road

Chesapeake, VA 23321

10 am – 4 pm


March 19, 2016

Virginia Festival of the Book

Sisters in Crime Table

Omni Hotel Atrium

212 Ridge McIntire Road

Charlottesville, VA 22903


April 2, 2016

Barnes and Noble

Libbie Place Shopping Center

5515 West Broad Street

Richmond, VA 23230

12:00 noon – 2 pm


April 9, 2016

Fountain Bookstore

1312 East Cary Street

Richmond, VA 23219


June 25, 2016

Churchland Public Library

4934 High St W

Portsmouth, VA 23703

10 am – 5 pm

Consider Cross-Over Fiction

I once took a class titled “Writing Fiction Based on Works of Art,” taught by Susan Hankla at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Studio School. I cannot share with you the great assignments from that class (those being the intellectual property of Susan Hankla) but I can discuss the concept.
Poets, musicians, painters, novelists, playwrights, sculptors—all sorts of artists—have a long history of drawing inspiration from something created in another medium. As a writer, think paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, and nature.


Several of my publications grew out Susan’s class assignments, what I am calling cross-over fiction. “The Naked Truth” started with a painting of a nude (not this one)


body image: self-portrait in bright colors


“Buddha Remote” started with a video display and “Not Mechanically Inclined,” a sculpture (also not pictured here).
Buddha Victoria & Albert
By Michel wal (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
 Woman Against the Wind sculpture
Three images of Elvis inspired “Love Me Tender.”


Not this photo of Elvis, 1954. Photographer unknown (commercial work-for-hire) derivative work: Dockino (PresleyPromo1954.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Writing cross-over fiction is a challenge and I urge you to accept it. Get thee to the VMFA, to other museums, to galleries and art shows, parks and the great outdoors. At the very least, find books of provocative images to stimulate and inspire your creativity!


Virginia Is For Mysteries, Volume II Launch: A Good Time Was Had By All!

Libbie Mill Library hosted the Virginia is for Mysteries launch
On Saturday, February 27, Libbie Mill Library hosted the launch of Virginia Is For Mysteries, Volume II. We were the first author event at the new library!


The launch included a panel presentation on Pathways to Publication, moderated beautifully by Mary Burton. Panelists included both traditionally published and independently published writers of short stories and novels. I served on the panel along with Meriah Lysistrata Crawford, Kristin Kisska, Adele Gardner, and Teresa Inge. We represented a wide range of genres: romance, fantasy and horror, historical fiction, memoir—and of course, mystery!
Vivian Lawry at Virginia is For Mysteries launch
Besides those on the program, a number of Sisters in Crime contributors attended, along with more than seventy others.
Sisters in Crime Central Virginia at Virginia is for Mysteries launch party
L-R: standing, Yvonne Saxon, Meriah Lysistrata Crawford, Kristin Kisska, me, Ken Wingate, Heather Weidner, Rosemary Shomaker; seated Teresa Inge, Adele Gardner, Maggie King, and Lee Wells
Virginia is For Mysteries: Volume II launch (Photo from Sisters in Crime--Central Virginia
Virginia is For Mysteries: Volume II launch (Photo from Sisters in Crime–Central Virginia)
The audience was thoroughly engaged and asked lots of good questions—before buying books and devouring the cake!
Virginia is For Mysteries book launch cake
All the authors present signed books on request.
Vivian Lawry signing her book at Virginia is For Mysteries book launch
We were especially pleased that Sherlock showed up—and tolerated being womanhandled with great stoicism.
Virginia is For Mysteries book launch with Vivian Lawry, Kristin Kisska, and Sherlock
Visit the SinC-CVA website and the individual authors’ websites to see more photos and read more about the event.


Do join us for all the fun at the next event!