Tuesday, July 15, 2008


You may be surprised to learn that I led another life before I started writing the Sarah Woolson historical mystery series. In fact, the first thing I ever wrote was a newspaper column titled, PENNY PINCHERS (inspired by my efforts to feed my growing family on a budget that was looking more anemic by the week). The articles were never intended to be any big deal, just one mom sharing household hints with equally frustrated friends and neighbors, all of us doing our best to get by despite ever rising inflation. When my husband Bob dared me to submit the first few columns I’d scribbled to a local newspaper, I laughingly took him up on it. No one was more surprised than I was when the editor called up to tell me I was hired!

My astonishment continued to grow when the column was picked up by a dozen San Francisco Bay Area newspapers! Suddenly I found myself half buried beneath stacks of reader letters, asking me everything from how to slow-cook a turkey, to what to pack in their kids’ lunch boxes. Since I suspected this unforeseen popularity wasn’t due to my great writing skills, there could be only one answer: I obviously wasn’t the only mother in Bay Area having trouble making ends meet. Somehow I had inadvertently stumbled upon thousands of kindred spirits!

PENNY PINCHERS ran successfully for more than three years. During that time, I have to admit that I learned every bit as much from my readers as they learned from me. Since I felt obliged to try out every recipe I received in the mail (checking nutrition as well as cost), my family enjoyed a far more varied menu than they ever would have if I’d been left to my own devices. Not only that, but our budget finally became more manageable, which was what had started this whole thing in the first place!

When recent visitors to my website began asking me to feature some of the PENNY PINCHER columns, I initially hesitated. After all, they’d been written more than fifteen years ago. But as I played around with the idea, I realized the articles were just as applicable today as when they were first written. So, why not? I asked myself. Maybe there were still mothers and fathers out there struggling to make ends meet.

It seems as if I was right. In spades! Apparently things haven’t changed all that much as far as family budgeting is concerned. We all still want to feed our kids nutritious meals (without taking all day to do it), and we still have to somehow make our paychecks stretch. And how about those gas prices? Yikes!

All in all, it looks as if PENNY PINCHERS may be around for a long time to come!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


I promised my husband Bob that I’d finally clean my office. Normally, I would consider his distinctly unkind comments about my overflowing bookshelves and cluttered floor space as nobody’s business but my own. However, since he’s set up a card table in one corner of my library/office (I have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves completely covering three of my walls), I had to agree that perhaps he had a point, especially after the last – but unfortunately not the first – time he tripped while attempting to navigate a safe path to his working area.

When Bob suggested moving from the San Francisco Bay Area some years ago, I threatened not to budge from our native California unless he promised to hire someone to build the above mentioned bookshelves so I could finally have the library of my dreams. (Hey, I’m not above using a little friendly intimidation if that’s what it takes). When the friendly, but slightly bemused carpenter, completed the job, I looked around at the mostly vacant shelves and sheepishly admitted that maybe I’d gotten a little carried away. “I’ll never be able to fill all these empty spaces,” I groaned. (Mind you, this had not been an inexpensive undertaking!) Bob didn’t reply, but just gave me a strangely enigmatic look that expressed better than words that he wasn’t about to underestimate my penchant for collecting books. Sure enough, ten years later I had filled every square inch of available shelf space, and books had begun to spill over onto the floor.

Now that I’d promised Bob to box up some of the books, though, I found myself eager to finally achieve a nice, neat office – you know, the kind you see featured in home-design magazines? Determinedly, I bent to my task. Yet after several hours of packing books into boxes – only to take them out again minutes later – I sat back off my sore knees and re-considered the situation. Performing a desultory count, I was dismayed to find only a dozen books had made it into the box and managed to remain there. Sadly, the path to Bob’s card table/desk remained as precarious as ever. I had never considered myself overly sentimental, yet I was finding it really hard to part with my old and treasured friends.

I’d like to say that in the end practicality triumphed over sentimentality, but it wouldn’t be true. Oh, I boxed up a bunch of books, all right. But if Bob ever takes a notion to explore the back area of our attic, he’s going to receive one very big surprise: six crammed boxes of books stored behind a collection of Christmas wrapping paper and ribbon.

I figure that if I can manage to survive the next few years without feeling a compulsion to dig out one of my old friends, I’ll finally be ready to haul them on over to the Goodwill.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How I Research My Books

So many readers write to ask me how I research the books I write set in 1880s San Francisco. While it’s true that researching can take up a lot of time and energy, I have to admit that it’s one of the things I most enjoy about writing the Sarah Woolson mystery series. In fact, I’m sure I probably collect far more information about nineteenth-century San Francisco than I will ever possibly be able to use.

A lot of people I meet at book signings, readings and talks, seem to think that I do most of my fact-finding online, which, I admit, is frequently the case. But the astonishing breath and scope of the Internet notwithstanding, nothing beats the fun and adventure of browsing for hidden gems in second-hand bookstores! And although I’ve found wonderful old books up and down the west coast, the best place to search for them is in all the intriguing bookstores to be found in the city by the Bay itself.

Walk down just about any street, and sooner or later you’ll come across a small, narrow, frequently cluttered little bookstore, where poking about for treasures is a grimy, but ever so rewarding adventure. If you don’t mind a bit of sneezing, and are willing to risk coating yourself with a fine layer of dust, you can spend hours happily browsing through row after row of books looking for just the right volume to add to your library. And what a thrill it is to happen across a tome that delivers exactly the information you need for a new book. After years of visiting every second-hand bookstore I could find, I’m happy to boast that I now own one of the best collections of old San Francisco books outside the San Francisco Library. A few of them are well over a hundred years old.

I don’t see how I could get by without my computer – and I love surfing the Internet – but give me a nice tricky research project, an old second-hand bookstore, and I’m happy as a clam and set for a fun day of treasure hunting!