Friday, July 26, 2019

Bag Lady Syndrome: How "No Place Like Home" Helped Me Face My Fear

What’s Bag Lady Syndrome? According to financial columnist Jay McDonald, “Bag Lady Syndrome" is a fear many women share that their financial security could disappear in a heartbeat, leaving them homeless, penniless and destitute”

The Washington Times reported “90 percent of women say they feel financially insecure…and almost half are troubled by a ‘tremendous fear of becoming a bag lady’.”

Bag lady syndrome can be paralyzing, according to Olivia Mellan, a Washington, D.C. therapist who specializes in money psychology.

She says “Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine and Katie Couric all admit to having a bag lady in their anxiety closet.”

"It cuts across women of all social groups; it's not like wealthy women don't have it," says Mellan. "Heiresses, women who have inherited wealth, have big bag-lady nightmares because they really feel like the money came to them magically and can leave them just as magically."

When you quit your day job to write full time—especially if you’re single—those fears can escalate to nightmares, anxiety attacks and debilitating self-doubt. 

My Bag Lady Moment

For me, my anxieties hit a crescendo when my first publisher went out of business and I had to go back to square one, writing query letters to agents and editors again like a newbie.

My magazine writing gigs had dried up, too: either the journals had gone under or they were no longer paying. I’d been out of the workforce for years and the world was in the middle of a recession. My savings were dwindling fast.

I feared I’d made all the wrong financial choices and I’d soon be living under a bridge.

I started having a recurring nightmare about living in a rusted, wheel-less truck in some kind of dump full of rats. My skin was crawling with insects. Sometimes parts of my body would fall off. I’d wake up screaming.
My nightmare home

Even the Ultra-Rich Can Lose Everything

One morning I woke from one of those horrific dreams to an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition. (Yes, I have Public Radio on my clock radio: I guess that qualifies me as a super-nerd.) They were talking to a successful Manhattan magazine editor who had lost her life savings to Bernie Madoff.

Look: it can happen to anybody, I told myself—even people with a ton of savings who have done everything right.

I got up and read my local morning paper, which was full of letters to the editor complaining about how homeless camps and panhandling were ruining our town’s idyllic image as “the happiest town in America.”

I flashed on how that posh magazine editor I’d heard on NPR could be one of those scruffy people standing outside the San Luis Obispo Mission with a cardboard sign. She could be one of those despised people living in the “filthy” camps.

So could I. 

A Lot of People Are One Catastrophe from Homelessness

An awful lot of us are only one Bernie Madoff or catastrophic disease away from those camps.

After I heard that story, I took a day off querying and outlined a novel about a New York magazine editor who is not only conned by a Bernie Madoff type, but married to him.

She not only loses everything, but is accused of being complicit in his crimes. On the lam and destitute, she ends up living in a homeless camp in the idyllic wine country near where I live.

For me, picturing somebody like Martha Stewart living in a tent and cooking over a Sterno stove, worrying about where to go for showers and basic bodily functions—not knowing which homeless people she could trust—helped me to walk myself through my fears and see that it would be possible to survive. 

Thinking the Unthinkable
Edvard Munch's "Anxiety"

Thinking the “unthinkable” sometimes helps us to cope with fear. If we can visualize ourselves in a terrifying situation that has a positive outcome, it can help us overcome the terror.

That’s why fiction—reading or writing it—can help us treat our anxieties.

A columnist called "The Anxiety Doc" says “When it comes to treating anxiety, panic attacks and phobias, creative visualization techniques have proven very therapeutic for sufferers. In order for the visualization to be completely effective, the person must involve all their senses in the process. They need to see themselves performing the behavior, hear the sounds associated with it and feel any tactile sensations. In some cases, even the senses of taste and smell will be involved.”

That’s what a writer does! So when I visualized my character, Home decorating magazine editor Doria Windsor, in a homeless camp, I pictured her surviving each of my own fears: the lack of hygiene, the stink, the cold, hunger, loss of dignity, etc.

And if she could do it, so could I.

It also helped that I write romantic comedy. I had Doria—and my ever-unlucky sleuth Camilla—both find romance (and some perspective) as they face homelessness because of the Ponzi-scheming villain’s crimes. 

Homeless People are Survivors

To give the homeless people in Doria’s camp personalities and backstories, I talked to the homeless people who panhandle in front of some of my favorite stores in Morro Bay. One woman was remarkably plucky and full of humor. She became the model for my character of Lucky.

I decided not to make my homeless characters objects of pity, but strong-minded survivors who help solve the mystery of a homeless man’s murder. In a way, they’re the real heroes of my story. 

I used metaphors from The Wizard of Oz to show the journey Doria takes and the helpful friends she finds along the way.

Not long after I started the book, I got an offer from the editor of an independent press to publish my backlist. Then another offered to look at the new stuff. Between September 2011 and December 2012, we published 7 of my books, followed by  
No Place Like Home the following year.

I now have 13 published titles, several of which have become bestsellers.

Things are looking up. I think making my characters face the “unthinkable” helped me to think it through for myself. I hope it will help my readers, too.

I’m not saying that I’m entirely over my bag lady fears. Some of us never will be. But I don’t have those nightmares anymore and the panic isn’t lurking under the surface every time I lie down to sleep.

What about you? Do you have "bag lady syndrome" or a fear of homelessness? Do you know anybody who does?

NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Camilla Mystery #4  

Comedy with a conscience. Doria Windsor, the uber-rich editor of Home decorating magazine loses everything, including her Ponzi-schemer husband, when their luxury wine-country home mysteriously goes up in flames. Homeless, destitute, presumed dead and branded a criminal, 59-yr-old Doria has a crash course in reality…and a second chance at love.

Meanwhile, reluctant sleuth Camilla Randall is facing homelessness too, as Doria's husband's schemes unravel and take down innocent bystanders along the way. When the mysterious—and dangerously attractive—Mr. X. turns up at Camilla's bookstore looking for clues to the death of a missing homeless man, Camilla joins in the search.

With the help of brave trio of homeless people and a little dog named Toto, Doria, Camilla and Mr. X journey to unmask the real killer and reveal the dark secrets of Doria's "financial wizard" husband.

Anne. R. Allen weaves her usual blend of archetypal images (this time from The Wizard of Oz) with unique and wacky characters, hilarious situations, and laugh-out-loud one-liners that all somehow come together and make perfect sense at the end.

No Place Like Home is the fourth of the Camilla Randall Mysteries, but can be read as a stand-alone novel.

No Place Like Home is available at all the AmazonsNOOK, and iBooks, It's also available in paperback from Amazon USAmazon UK, and Barnes and Noble, in regular and LARGE PRINT. LARGE PRINT is also available at Barnes and Noble.

It's also available in an audiobook, narrated by Anne and award-winning narrator, C.S. Perryess. You can find it at Audible and iTunes UK. It's also available at iTunes US

Another version of this piece first appeared in the anthology "Indiestructable" published by Vine Leaves Press

Sunday, June 30, 2019

What is it REALLY Like to be a Full Time Author?

Oh, the glamorous life of an author! Meeting with the intellectual and artistic elite in the cafés of Paris, dining with the rich and famous, the vacations on the Riviera, the wild champagne-fueled parties… and of course, running around solving murders like Richard Castle and Jessica Fletcher…

Not exactly.

I don’t know how those famous writers had time to get up to all those antics in the past (or even in fiction.)

But most writers today have no time to do any of that stuff.

Well, okay, my friend Catherine Ryan Hyde did fly off to Lapland a couple of years ago to have an adventure driving a dogsled and seeing the northern lights. But that was just for a week. Mostly she works a lot of hours and has her adventures on paper.

Just like me.

It's amazing how many people think authors have a lot of free time. Well, if they'd watched Castle or Murder She Wrote, they could be excused for thinking that. 

But the truth is my life is all about butt-in-chair in my office at 8 AM every morning (after stretching and eating a sensible breakfast.) I break for lunch and exercise at noon and work again from 2-5 and if I’m working on a deadline, probably back to work from 7-9. I try not to work past nine, or my brain is still generating ideas when I’m trying to sleep…not a good plan.

That’s seven days a week. Yes, I do take off time on weekends to be with other humans and sometimes go out and play. Catherine and I meet for Thai food at regular intervals and I get together with other writers in the local Sisters in Crime chapter and our local Nightwriters Club.
Jessica Fletcher only typed during the opening credits
Of course there are always the medical appointments and investment decisions and cleaning and cooking and shopping and other things that people do to keep ourselves alive in this increasingly complex world.

But mostly I work. A lot of that work is marketing: social media, answering emails (endless emails: when you have a popular blog, everybody on the planet wants something from you.) Then there’s writing posts for my two blogs, answering comments, and composing guest blogposts.

And some authors put out newsletters too. I draw the line there. I hate getting newsletters, so I don’t inflict them on my readers. It’s just as easy to subscribe to a blog, and a blog draws new readers, too.

And don’t forget personal appearances. And bookstore events and other local sales opportunities. Plus presentations at writers’ conferences and other workshops, which require a lot of preparation.

Then there’s the desperate slog of trying to get reviews…no, I don’t even want to go there. I’ve recently seen the statistic that most writers get one review for every 1500 sales. Sounds about right. Ack!

And then, of course we’re pressured to put out at least two books a year. I know some writers who put out six or seven.

But when I sit down to write, and characters and stories start to flow onto the page and the magic happens…then I realize it’s all worth it. It’s still one of the best jobs in the world.

Even without the Paris cafés.

What about you? Are you a full time writer? Do you hope to be one someday? 

Okay, I didn't tell the truth entirely. I did have some sort of exciting adventures as a writer. When I went to England to promote my book with my first publisher. Pretty wacky. I used the experience as fodder for the second Camilla book, Sherwood, Ltd


SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2

Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her. When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky. Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.

Sherwood, Ltd. is available in ebook from all the Amazons and SmashwordsAnd in paper from Amazon and Barnes and Noble
Sample Reviews:

"A wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills" David Keith on Smashwords

"Smartly written and nearly impossible to put down, I found myself counting the hours until I could leave work and get back to reading! Well done!" T.L. Ingham on Smashwords

I've just finished Sherwood Ltd and I loved every scabrous word. It's an hilarious lampoon of crime fiction, publishing and the British in general. Anne Allen gets our Brit idioms and absurdities dead to rights. Whether you enjoy crime suspense, comedy or satire - or all of them together - you'll have enormous fun with this cleverly structured romp. Highly recommended!...Dr. John Yeoman

This piece, in slightly different form, first appeared on the blog of South African author Ronel Vanse Van Vuuren in April 2018.

Friday, May 24, 2019

How to Tell a Story: Follow the Rule of Three

Storytelling is an ancient art that takes lots of practice

Recently I’ve attended some local storytelling events—mostly ones that mimic the NPR “Moth” Radio Hour stories. People gather around to tell true stories about events they’ve experienced. Alcohol or caffeine may be involved. 

I say they “mimic” the Moth Radio Hour to be polite. It’s amazing how many people have no clue what storytelling is. They don’t know there's a world of difference between telling an entertaining story and blathering on about that time back in 1972 when you and your buddies dropped acid on that fishing trip and there was a bear…except it was a raccoon...and Fred thought it was a hat...and Kevin started singing the Davy Crockett song...and you got in a fight over whether Davy "kilt him a bear" or "built him a bar" when he was only three...

And eventually the bored crowd semi-politely claps you off the stage.

After a particularly excruciating night of “Old Men Falling off a Train of Thought” at a local coffee house, I sat down to write this handy guide.

I never found a way to present this diplomatically and the gatherings stopped soon after. But if you have any friends who love to talk, but need some help in shaping that talk into an actual story people want to hear, maybe you can point them in this direction.

It also helps newish writers make sure their WIP doesn’t get derailed following that fascinating character who just showed up and you've followed him down a rabbit hole and you have no clue where any of it is going…

To Tell a Story, Follow the Rule of Three

The backbone of any story, whether it's an anecdote, play, or novel is the three-act structure.

There's an old saw in the theater that describes it this way, "Act I—Get your character up a tree; Act II—throw rocks at him; Act III—get him down again."

And it still works.

Act I:  Get Your Character up a Tree

Get your protagonist up a tree

This is the set-up: a.k.a. the inciting incident or "call to adventure." 

Tell us who your protagonist is and what s/he wants. (And yes, you need a protagonist. One.) A story needs less exposition than you think. We don't need anybody's life story—just tell us the stuff about the characters that's relevant to getting them up and down that tree.

When you're telling a story live, it helps to have the first line prepared, so you don't waste time throat-clearing. Consider some classic first lines:

  • "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills." (Out of Africa)
  • ''In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.'' (A River Runs Through It)
  • "Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed." (The Beverly Hillbillies)
So you've got their attention. Now there's something your character wants that gets him up that tree. Figure out what it is, and that's your inciting incident.

Act II: Throw Rocks at Him

Gather a lot of rocks if you want a long story

This is where you build tension.  

As  your hero tries to get what he wants, introduce one obstacle after another. 
  • S/he may meet mentors/helpers who offer aid and or complications. But don't let them hijack the story.
  • Each incident should be more intense than the one before. Bigger and bigger rocks! 
  • Don't take any detours away from the tree unless they're relevant to the goal or the outcome.

Yes, I know you're entranced by that rabbit and you're dying to follow him down that intriguing hole. But don't do it unless the rabbit will bring you back to the hero in his tree. Stick a pin in those ideas for a later story. 

Your hero will thank you for it. And so will your audience.

Act III: Get Him Down

People love a Happy Ever After ending

Build to a climax. Then end it.

This is where you reach a scene (or sequence of scenes) where the tension of the story gets to its most intense point.

So maybe the hero is hanging from one wimpy branch, about to fall from the tree into the mouth of the fire-breathing dragon.

Suddenly, princess Dragonia emerges from the sky on her own pet dragon and whisks him from the tree to her own kingdom where they have a fabulous destination wedding.

So the problem is resolved, hopefully leaving the characters with new insight and understanding.

Once you've done this, your story is over, so take a bow and don't step on your own applause.

You might want to prepare a final line that emphasizes the insight, especially if your story is based on a particular theme. Here are some famous last lines:

  • "It was beauty that killed the beast." (King Kong)
  • "There's no place like home." (The Wizard of Oz)
  • "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (The Great Gatsby)

 See it's that easy. I know. Laugh here. Good storytelling is one of the toughest things there is. But if you keep the rule of three in mind, it helps enormously.

What about you? Do you follow rabbits instead of focusing on the tree when you're telling a story? Can you manage to take the story back to the hero's story in the end

Camilla Randall Mystery #6
(But it can be read as a stand-alone)

Why does everyone think Camilla has the lost Portuguese crown jewels? And what has turned polite little Buckingham into an attack cat? Can Camilla keep her boyfriend Ronzo safe? Or will the murderous Mack Rattlebag find out Ronzo faked his own death?

It's one surprise after another in this warp-speed comedy-mystery where a too-perfect doctor may or may not be in cahoots with a bunch of homicidal New-Agers. Will Camilla and Ronzo, and the tarot cards, solve the mystery?

"I really enjoyed the book from start to finish. Wonderful characters and a ripping story which never lets up right up to that fabulous showdown !"...award-winning Irish humorist Tara Sparling

Ebook is available all the Amazon stores
Also Barnes and NoblePlayster, 24 SymbolsKobo, iTunes, and Scribd

And in paperback at Barnes and Noble and Amazon

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Why We Read Mysteries

People who don’t read mysteries tend to say things to me like. 
Voted the Greatest Crime Novel of All Time
“Why do you want to write about murder? That seems like such a downer. Why don’t you write about something more comforting and uplifting?”

But here’s the thing: mysteries do give us comfort. And they can be uplifting. That’s because they make order out of chaos.  We are taken to the brink of disaster, then brought back to safety by the use of logic, human ingenuity and the “little grey cells.”

They also offer a puzzle to be solved, which exercises the brain. Humans generally feel better about ourselves when we’re actively engaging our brains in something rather than passively observing.

It’s not a coincidence that a lot of mystery readers are also fans of crossword puzzles.

A Mystery Story Restores Order to the Universe

Academics love mysteries. I once spent a semester at the American
Reading a classic mystery is like listening to Mozart
Academy in Rome and it had one of the best libraries of mystery novels I’d ever seen. That’s where I discovered John Dixon Carr and Ngiao Marsh

One of the visiting professors there compared reading the classic mystery to listening to Mozart. The form is stylized, but there’s lots of room for creative flights of fancy, and in the end, everything is resolved.

It’s our yearning for resolution—that orderly conclusion—that keeps us turning back to classic mysteries.

Reading a mystery is like going on a roller coaster ride when you’re a kid. You're there to get a thrill, but you know it’s essentially safe. And everything will be okay in the end.

Edmund Wilson on Why People Read Detective Stories

In a 1944 article in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson wrote a piece called, “Why People Read Detective Stories.” He said:

Literary Critic Edmund Wilson
“Everybody is suspected in turn, and the streets are full of lurking agents whose allegiances we cannot know. Nobody seems guiltless, nobody seems safe; and then, suddenly, the murderer is spotted, and—relief!—he is not, after all, a person like you or me. He is a villain.”

Of course he’s talking about the classic mystery, the mysteries of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers—from the golden age of the English mystery.

Amateur Detective—Oldest Type of Mystery Story

Edgar Allan Poe is usually credited with writing the first detective fiction with Murders on the Rue Morgue in 1841. The unnamed
The First Mystery Novel
narrator is an amateur detective who’s way smarter than the police and uses superpower observation skills to solve a mystery which baffles the poor plodding policemen.

But Rue Morgue is a short story. The first mystery novel didn’t come for about 30 years. That was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868. It went on to define the genre. It does feature a celebrated detective, but he’s not an amateur. He’s a police sergeant, Sergeant Cuff. But Cuff doesn’t solve the mystery. One of the suspects does.

Amateur detective novels blossomed in the 1920s and 30s, with Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Albert Campion. They often take place in English country houses or American ones happen in isolated hotels like Earl Derr Biggers' 7 Keys to Baldpate, which became a famous play written by George M. Cohan. I have to admit I haven’t read the book, but I have acted in the play.

Crime Fiction is the Most Popular Genre in the UK

Today, we have a lot more subgenres of crime fiction to choose from. The mystery umbrella covers a huge percentage of the novel
One of the most popular crime novels of the decade
 market. In fact—the largest in the UK.

At the London Book fair this year, Nielson Bookscan reported that crime fiction sales are up 19% since 2015 and it is now the best-selling genre in the UK.

I can imagine that as the UK reels from the ever-escalating dramas of Brexit, readers crave that sense of order that reading a mystery can bring.

Sales of mysteries are way up in the US too.  As the world continues to destabilize politically and violence returns to areas have been at peace for the last couple of decades, like Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, we may see all kinds of crime fiction sales increase.

Mysteries give us at least the illusion that reason and law and order can prevail.

What about you, readers? Are you a mystery fan? Do you find the genre calming and uplifting? Who is your favorite mystery novelist? 

Central Coasters! Let's Talk! An Afternoon with Central Coast Mystery Authors

Three Central Coast mystery authors, Anne R. Allen, Sue McGinty, and Victoria Heckman—with the help of Audible book narrator CS Perryess—will present an afternoon of reader’s theater for mystery lovers. 

We’ll be featuring scenes from our novels, which are mostly set on the Central Coast.  I'll also lead a discussion of the perennial appeal of the mystery story and talk about its origins and ever-expanding subgenres.​

Friday, April 26th at 1:00 PM at the Cayucos Public Library. 

My Central Coast Mystery NO PLACE LIKE HOME is on sale for 99c

No Place Like Home: Camilla Randall Comedy-Mystery #4
(But it can be read as a stand-alone)
Until May 1st, 2019
Wealthy Doria Windsor is suddenly homeless and accused of a murder she didn't commit. But Camilla, with the help of a brave trio of homeless people, the adorable Mr. X, and a little dog named Toto, is determined to unmask the real killer and discover the dark secrets of Doria’s deceased “financial wizard” husband before Doria is killed herself.

"A warp-speed, lighthearted comedy-mystery"...Abigail Padgett
"A fun, charming novel about the rich and less so" ...Karen Doering
"A cross of dry British humor and American wackiness, and it all adds up to a fun read." ...Deborah Bayles.
"It's comedy about a dark topic – homelessness – and it succeeds without ever descending into tasteless insensitivity, or tipping over into sentimentality."...Lucinda Elliot
Available at all the Amazons and NOOK,  Page Foundry, Kobo and iTunes It's also available in paperback from Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Barnes and Noble, in regular and LARGE PRINT. LARGE PRINT is also available at Barnes and Noble.
Narrated by award-winner C. S. Perryess and Anne R. Allen (as Camilla)
Nearly 8 hours of hilarious entertainment!Only $1.99 if you buy the Kindle ebook

Friday, March 29, 2019

Lily of the Valley—Poisoning People For Fun and Profit #40

No series on poisons would be complete without a mention of lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), which featured prominently in the TV series Breaking Bad.

In the fourth season of the series, Walter White does away with a drug kingpin by poisoning him with berries from the pretty little potted plant on his patio: lily of the valley.

So is that possible?

You betcha. Lily of the valley contains the same kind of poison found in foxglove (digitalis) and oleander. All parts of the plant are deadly.

Yes. Those pretty little spring flowers, also known as May Bells, May Lily, or Mary’s Tears—which are related to one of my favorite vegetables, asparagus—can be lethal to humans and pets.

Lily of the Valley in Folklore

Traditionally, the tiny white flowers have been considered a symbol of rebirth, and were sacred to Maia, the goddess of spring. Christians consider it a symbol of Christ's resurrection.
Lily of the Valley is sacred to Maia

The flowers also have a long history of symbolizing tears. They’re mentioned in the Bible many times, especially in the song of Solomon. They are said to represent the tears of Eve after the banishment from Eden, of Jacob for Rachel and Joseph, and of Mary at the cross.

Other stories connect the flowers with fairies and woodland nymphs. (Fairies find them handy as drinking vessels.) One legend says they protect a garden from evil and the spells of bad witches.

And there’s an English folktale that tells how they sprang up from the blood of a dragon slain by St. Leonard of Sussex.

German and Scandinavian tradition sees them as bringers of good luck. 

Muguet de Bois

Convallaria majalis is highly prized in perfume-making, where it’s often referred to by its French name, Muguet de Bois.

It was Christian Dior’s favorite flower and his signature perfume Diorissimo strongly features the scent of muguet.

It’s also prized by florists. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge had a bouquet of lily of the valley at her wedding to Prince William. 

Lily of the Valley Grows in Rainy, Cool Climates

The plant is native to Northern Europe and Eastern Asia. It grows all over northeastern North America, too, although whether it’s native is a subject of debate.

Walter White found it growing in a New Mexico patio garden, where an attentive gardener would have had to keep it in the shade and monitor its watering carefully. It likes well drained, but
Kate Middleton's bridal bouquet
constantly moist soil and can only tolerate partial sunlight.

I understand why someone would want to grow lily of the valley, even in the desert. The scent is delightful and the tiny flowers are adorable. I loved the carpet of lily of the valley that bloomed under the maple tree in our New England garden when I was as a child. I don’t remember anybody’s parents telling us not to eat it, and luckily none of us tried. 

Keep Those Pretty Flowers Away From Children and Pets

Our parents didn’t know any better, but now poison experts recommend that parents and pet owners keep lily of the valley out of their gardens. 

The plant is classified as a “1” on the poison scale, which means it’s so toxic it can kill. It is also classified as a “3” because it can cause really nasty rashes.

As little as two leaves can kill a small pet or young child, and more can kill an adult or large animal. Anyone who has swallowed any part of the plant needs to get to a hospital immediately.

Even the water in a vase containing lily of the valley flowers can contain a lethal dose of poison.

The main toxins in Convallaria majalis are convallatoxin, convallamarin, and lokunjoside. 
All are cardiac glycosides. They also contain saponins, which have been used for millennia as fish poisons, although their effect on humans isn't as powerful. 


The berries Walter White used

The symptoms are pretty nasty: diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, headache, drooling, rash, heart arrhythmia and then death.

It may be a pretty plant, but it's not going to make a pretty corpse. 

What to Do

As I said, if a pet or human eats any part of the plant, you want to get them medical attention ASAP. They’ll need activated charcoal and intravenous fluids and perhaps a breathing aid. They may be given an electrocardiogram to see if they need a temporary pacemaker.

Lily of the Valley in Traditional Medicine

Like most of the toxic plants I’ve listed in this series, lily of the valley is also used in traditional medicine.

The convallaria chemicals, known as cardiac glycosides, can help the heart if administered very carefully. Like digitalis, it has been used for centuries in European herbal medicine to treat heart conditions like mild heart failure. It improves the efficiency of the heart muscles and takes some of the workload off the heart. In the UK, a tincture of convallaria is legal to buy as a “scheduled” herb

Lily of the Valley in Crime

Faberge egg with pearl lilies of the valley

Lily of the Valley is a popular murder weapon for authors of crime fiction. I think the fact it’s a symbol of purity and such a pretty little flower offers some appealing irony. Obviously the Breaking Bad writers found it a handy weapon for Walter White. And Anne Perry uses it in one of her William Monk novels, Weighed in the Balance.

I’ve read comments by several indie authors recently who planned to use lily of the valley in their WIP.

But I have not been able to find any real-life reports of lily of the valley murders. It probably isn’t a reliable form of poison because the level of toxicity can vary so widely depending on soil and other conditions of the plant’s environment.

Plus the plant almost immediately induces vomiting, so the victim may expel it before the poison starts to work. It also doesn’t accumulate in the body the way heavy metal poisons do, and it has a short ‘half-life’ so the power of the toxins fades fast.

Also, it is detectable with modern scientific methods, so it’s probably more fool-proof in historical mysteries than contemporary ones.

Have you read any mysteries that featured lily of the valley poisoning? Have you heard of any real-life murders using the plant? 

I'm wrapping up my poison series. It will be available soon in a handy ebook. Keep tuned for an exciting new series coming in the next couple of months. 

Poison Series

Friday, February 22, 2019

Did Burt Reynolds Murder David Whiting? New Interest in the Hollywood Mystery that inspired “The Gatsby Game”

I had a series of weird coincidences happen last Saturday.

I went to a get-together with neighbors where we tried on Gatsby-era costumes for a party we’re planning. (I live in a great neighborhood.)

When I got home, I found a manuscript in my mailbox from the biographer Jonathan Agronsky, who had contacted me a couple of years ago about my book The Gatsby Game, a novel inspired by one of my college boyfriends, a Gatsby-obsessed Haverford student named David Whiting.

One of the 10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History

David died under mysterious circumstances during the filming of the Burt Reynolds movie, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, in Gila Bend, AZ in 1973.

David’s body was found in the motel room of the film’s leading lady, Sarah Miles, which caused what has been called one of the “10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History.” It destroyed Miles’ marriage and seriously damaged her career.

Rumors that swirled around the news stories of David’s death have refused to die. Although the coroner ruled his death an accidental drug overdose, stories that David was murdered, or committed suicide, or have never gone away.  (The “Notorious Sex Scandals” article says he committed suicide, although that is the least likely of the rumors, IMO.)   

This article about that night from AZCentral  has more accurate details. 

The Gatsby Game

David Whiting was an odd duck. He was charming and funny in a
way that always seemed touched with tragic undertones. Which appealed to my 19-year-old self. He could be hilarious. And wildly entertaining. He lived his life as if he were a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Every date with him was a kind of performance art. He dressed in three piece bespoke suits in the era of tie dye and love beads.

He was constantly quoting Fitzgerald and singing Cole Porter songs. He also told me he identified with Jay Gatsby, because he too was a loner standing on the outside looking into the world of the careless ultra-rich.

Like Jay Gatsby, David created a fantasy world around himself that helped him climb social ladders, but never got him close enough to the top to satisfy him. He once referred to his own social climbing as “playing the Gatsby Game.”

When I decided to write a novel based on David and his mysterious death, I had to call it The Gatsby Game.

The David Whiting Story 

I was eager to read Agronsky’s manuscript as soon as I found it in my mailbox, but since I’d been gone all afternoon, I had to check my messages first.

And there I found a note from Walter Reuben, the filmmaker whose movie “The David Whiting Story” won the LA Film Critics prize in 2014.

Walter’s film isn’t so much about David as it is about the frailty of human memory. There was an excellent article about it in the Haverford Alumni magazine in 2015.

And here's Walter Reuben's inspiring interview for this blog from the same year. 

But I thought was odd that I heard from Walter within minutes of getting the Agronsky manuscript. Walter wanted to tell me that a tabloid was running a series accusing Burt Reynolds of David Whiting’s murder.

And other gossip sites had picked up on the story. 

David Whiting’s story was hot again.   

The Tabloid Accusations Against Burt Reynolds.

The rumor that Burt Reynolds killed David Whiting has refused to die over the past 46 years. Burt Reynolds was a tough guy. He got his start in Hollywood as a stuntman and was known to have a hair-trigger temper. After I published The Gatsby Game, a number of people contacted me to say they were sure Reynolds killed him.

And I suppose that now Mr. Reynolds is no longer with us, the temptation to run the story would have been too much for a tabloid. It is a juicy story. The recent article accuses Reynolds of killing David in a fight over Sarah Miles. There were several reports at the time about some sort of fist fight breaking out between them on the night David died.

The police didn’t pay much attention to that fight in their inquiries. And it’s not impossible that David was injured in an altercation with Reynolds (who was more fit and an experienced fighter.) David might later have died of his injuries.

But I know the situation was a great deal more complicated than the tabloid’s lurid premise that, “RAGING monster Burt Reynolds brutally beat love rival David Whiting to death with his bare hands in a jealous brawl.”

Dying for Love: The Short Unhappy Life of David Andrew Whiting

But I don’t think Burt Reynolds killed David. Neither does Jonathan Agronsky. His book, Dying for Love, doesn’t have a publication date yet, but keep an eye out for it. I found it unputdownable, even though I don’t agree with all of his conclusions.

Agronsky talks about those reports from some of the local law enforcement people in Gila Bend who thought that Sarah Miles’ nanny Jane Evans—who was also David’s girlfriend—had killed David. Or at least that she was the one who inflicted the wound that may have resulted in his death.

But if that were true, Agronsky shows the nanny would not have hit David to punish him for dallying with Sarah Miles, but to protect Sarah from David’s violent outbursts.

Agronsky’s book has a lot more information about David’s violent side than I was aware of. The David I knew only vented his aggression passively. He was always Gaslighting me, moving things around while I was gone, so I’d think I was going crazy. But I didn’t take it as aggression at the time. I thought it was more of his performance art—a little obnoxious, but not meant to be unkind.

Later, I realized there was always an undercurrent of belligerence in David's bizarre persona. Reading Agronsky’s book, I understood that better, and saw how that belligerence might indeed have exploded into violence.

But Agronsky finally leans toward the drug overdose theory, and in the end, leaves the conclusion up to the reader. 

Did the Nanny Do it?

The premise of The Gatsby Game is that the nanny was not involved in the death of the David Whiting character (whom I call Alistair Milbourne), although she did seem the most obvious suspect.

I'm grateful that there's new interest in David's story, and that this complex, brilliant and troubled young man won't be forgotten. 

What about you? Do you think Burt Reynolds killed David? Have you heard about this Hollywood mystery? 

You can see if you agree with my conclusions if you read The Gatsby Game, only $2.99 for the ebook and $10.99 in paper.

The Gatsby Game

"In The Gatsby Game, Anne R. Allen blends a perfect combination of witty, sharp narration, a plot that won't let the reader go, and nuanced characters that evoke our caring. A genre novel that artfully transcends its genre.”- Catherine Ryan Hyde, NYT and Amazon #1 best-selling author

THE GATSBY GAME (Romantic Comedy-Mystery) When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star’s motel room—igniting a world-wide scandal—the small-town police can’t decide if it’s an accident, suicide, or foul play. 

As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect. She’s the only one who knows what happened. But she also knows nobody will ever believe her. 

The Gatsby Game is available in ebook at all the Amazons, and also at the regular price at Barnes and Noble for NOOK. It's available at Scribd.

And available in paper on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble