Friends Don’t Let Friends Hire Author Solutions

David Gaughran has marshalled the facts, lined them up, and had them open fire on the Author Solutions scam, and its enablers Penguin Random House, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Reader’s Digest and other publications, book festivals, and organizations, such as the AARP (which, you would think, would be reluctant to expose its membership to scammers).

Author Solutions' International Sales Staff, Christmas Party, 2013.
Author Solutions’ International Sales Staff, Christmas Party, 2013.
In short, Author Solutions makes its money off selling services to you. It has no stake in how many books you sell, it does not care about the quality of the work it gives you, since few authors ever use them twice.

It’s a long, detailed post. David and his allies have culled the testimony from the various class action suits and detailed how Author Solutions scams its customers, using high-pressure sales tactics, and at the same time underserving authors by not delivering what was promised, delivering shoddy products, delivering incomplete and inaccurate royalty reports, and reselling services at enormous markups from their partners.

For example, the cost of their “web optimized” press releases is $1,299. Do you know how much it costs to send a release through services such as PRWeb? FREE. At their high end, their premium service, will set you back only $369.

Author Solutions uses hundreds of “consultants” (read salespeople), most of them in the Philippines, who have to meet insane monthly quotas, from $20,000 a month if they’re working for AS’s “core imprints” to $60,000 and $75,000 if they’re selling on behalf of the partner imprints (those are the New York publishers).

Yes, Penguin Random House is scamming authors. So are Simon & Schuster, Lulu, Hay House, Barnes & Noble, HarperCollins, and Random House’s MeGusaLibros imprint.

Companies such as Writer’s Digest, Harlequin and Crossbooks terminated their partnerships in 2014.

authors solutions scam
Credit: John Allison’s excellent Scary Go Round comics.
Imagine a job where you’d have to sell crap like book review packages from Kirkus for $6,000, Publishers Weekly ad packages for $10,000, and Hollywood pitching services for $17,999. (If you want to see what you get, one of AS’s “core imprints” Trafford Publishing, lists four services: Hollywood Gatekeeper ($859), Hollywood Audition ($2,149), Hollywood Storyteller ($3,749), and Hollywood Topliner ($16,299, but you must buy the Storyteller package, so the cost is $20,048). What they don’t list is a single sale from anyone using these services.

That alone tells you how worthless Author Solutions’ “Hollywood” package is, because if someone had spent $20,000 to get a movie/TV deal, you’d bet they’d be crowing about it (yes, I Googled this first).

So, if you’re considering dealing with Author Solutions, its core imprints (iUniverse, Trafford, Palibrio, AuthorHouse, BookTango, WordClay, and Xlibris), or if you’re talking to a major publisher and they offer to sell you “services,” my advice is to take your money and run. There are plenty of resources out there, plenty of nice people and websites (such as The Passive Voice) to ask about how to get your book edited, how to write a cover letter, how to deal with agents. There are writers’ groups and organizations such as Pennwriters (I’m a member), who are happy to help. Heck, get in touch with me and I’ll try to help.

Anyone, in fact, but Author Solutions.

Sherlock Holmes review: ‘Dreaming Spies’ by Laurie R. King

Dreaming Spies. By Laurie R. King.

Laurie R. King has published “Dreaming Spies,” another Mary Russell book. Fans of her can commence buying it.

Are they gone? Good. They got the news they needed, so now we can have a little chat.

Laurie R. King Sherlock Holmes Review
Laurie R. King
Years ago, when my beard was not nearly as white and I had more time on my hands, I reviewed Laurie R. King’s “The Moor.” It was melancholy, historically accurate, and modestly paced, and I was probably not kind to it as a result.

Since I renewed my interest in Sherlock Holmes, I had decided to review her latest, “Dreaming Spies,” to see what would happen.

In brief, in this world Sherlock exists, but most people believe that he is a fictional character. It is 1924; he has long since retired from Baker Street, and settled down with Mary as “Robert Russell.” This time, Mary Russell and Robert are taking a slow boat to Japan. In India, the ship picks up Lord Darby, his new wife and his son. Darby has a reputation as a blackmailer, and Sherlock has decided to study him to see if there is a way of bringing him down.

In the meantime, Mary befriends Haruki Sato, a young Japanese woman, and convinces her to pass the days teaching them the language and customs of her country. Although she tells them that descended from a family of acrobatics, it becomes apparent that she has been trained in far more skillful arts.

This revelation occupies the first third of the book and involves many mini-lectures about how to speak Japanese, how to serve tea, the basic principles of Buddhism, even a discussion of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” In fact, much of “Dreaming Spies” is a leisurely journey into the heart of Japanese culture and thinking, as Sato is on a quest that involves Lord Darby and a dangerous gift to King George.

To say more would spoil the story. The title is a reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem about the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, which is where all the ribbons are tied up, for what it’s worth. The novel’s pleasures come not from the plot, but Mary and Sherlock’s journey. Their time in Japan is a fascinating exploration of a communal culture. Watching them dealing with money, train tickets and mixed-sex bathing — far more capably than I would — was the most involving part of the book.

And that’s what you must know about the series. This is not the Sherlock Holmes you would expect. In fact, I would not say that he’s Holmes at all. This is not meant as criticism but an observation. King has taken the character and made it her own, and if you want to enjoy her books, you have to keep that in mind (or else swear off them completely).

In short, if you can’t be with the Holmes you love, try loving the Holmes you’re with.

Grocery Shopping and Cooking (part 2)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction
The second part of better grocery shopping is deciding what you need to buy to make meals for the family. If most of the meals you eat are prepared by someone else (restaurants and take out), then buying brand-name frozen dinners, salad-in-a-bag, and a Sara Lee cheesecake will probably cost you less on a per-meal basis. Your time counts here, too, as it takes less time to put a frozen dinner in the microwave than it does to drive to Wendy’s and back.

grocery shopping and cooking
Plus, dessert is always ready.

So if you’re paying big bucks to let someone else do most of the cooking, then it’s time to learn some basic cooking skills. Almost without exception, anything you cook at home will cost less than the comparable item you buy from someone else. It is easy to fall into the trap that take-out food and restaurant dollars don’t count in your food budget. They do. If you are eating it, then it counts as part of your food budget.

While I’m talking about restaurant meals, here’s another bit of advice: if you have food left on your plate, take it home and eat it for lunch the next day! Anyone who works in a restaurant would agree. They see huge quantities of partially eaten meals are thrown out every day. You wanted this meal enough to go out of your home, order and pay for it. It isn’t shameful or poor to take home leftovers. And the waitstaff are happy to help you take food that they don’t have to throw away. So ask, and save a little money to pay off a little more debt and build up your emergency fund.

When learning to cook at home, the best advice is to start simple. Take for example Hamburger Helper and its vast array of minimal-cooking-skill cousins and salad-in-a-bag or a frozen vegetable. Follow the directions on the box and get familiar with a pan, the stove, and a knife and cutting board. As you get better at it, you can try enhancing it with onions and peppers, more spices, more whatever you think it needs. This is not a bad way to begin.

Grocery shopping simple cooking
Learn to cook with a mind open to possibilities.
Learn to cook with a mind open to possibilities. Cooking is always mucky work. It is going to involve some messiness so don’t be shy or dainty. What you see in restaurants and on TV shows have very little to do with putting food on the table, day after day after day. You will be your own prep cook and your own cleaning staff, topics that cookbooks rarely address and cooking shows never talk about at all.

If you want formal training in cooking, then ask a family member who cooks regularly for lessons or look into one of the many books on “how to cook.” Your library has dozens of titles available. A very good, older book is “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” by Muriel and Cortland Fitzsimmons. This is a Dover Publications reprint of a 1946 title. It is extremely basic, detailed, and doesn’t assume you want to do anything fancy.

Look at cookbooks aimed at kids as well. They are very basic and simple recipes. Or try the Betty Crocker beginner cookbooks, too. Use your library and try the books out before you buy them for your home library.

It is absolutely worth learning basic cooking skills as you will never be able to minimize your food budget if you don’t cook. Look at potatoes as an example. Regular, whole potatoes on sale in the produce department can cost as little as 40 cents a pound, sometimes much less. If you crave microwave-ready baking potatoes that someone else washed and wrapped in plastic wrap you’ll pay triple the price. Instead, scrub a potato, prick the skin with a fork and microwave it for five minutes. If it isn’t done to your liking, nuke it a few minutes more. There. You just saved money.

Cheaper and Better

The difference in price can get even more extreme, and you can avoid paying it with minimal cooking skills. Take Betty Crocker’s boxed Scalloped Potatoes. It isn’t that difficult to peel and slice raw potatoes and layer them in a dish with cream, butter, and seasonings and bake until done. Your version will not only be cheaper, it will taste better. You have no way of knowing how old those dried potato slices are that Betty uses. You also avoid the amazing list of chemicals that Betty adds to make her product shelf-stable.

Frozen potato products leap upward in price per pound as well. Ore-Ida might like you to think so, but it isn’t that hard to peel and cut up potatoes, season them well, and roast them in the oven. Is it worth paying $2 a pound for TaterTots versus 40 cents a pound for regular potatoes and doing the work yourself? If you want to save some money, the choice is obvious.

There is one tradeoff you’ll make when home cooking, and that is it takes more time to cook from scratch. When I’m fainting with fatigue and out of time, I turn to our version of fast food: canned soup and buttered crackers. But still, plain unfancy cooking can take less time than going out through the drive-through and coming back home. You have a much better idea of what you are eating and how much salt and grease is in your food when you make it yourself.

Over time, your cooking skills will improve, you will learn to cook a wider variety of things and you will get faster at it. Unless you go to the CIA — I mean the Culinary Institute of America — you will probably never get as fast as a professional chef, but you will get better with practice. The better you can cook, the more you can get out of what is hanging around in your kitchen waiting to be used. This saves you money, using what you already paid for. More skill means you can take better advantage of the sales at the grocery store. You can use what is the best price versus what is the only thing you know how to cook.

Basic Shopping Skills

Whether you do most of your own cooking or not, you can still save significant money at the grocery store over what you are spending now. It all comes down to awareness and paying attention. Grocery stores are in business to make money, and they depend on you not paying attention, shopping with your stomach, and shopping on autopilot, except when you see something shiny and new.

Over the decades, they’ve developed ways to separate you from as much of your money as possible. Retail experts design and lay out supermarkets, and every choice they make is to encourage you to spend more than you want. This is why you have to walk to the back of the store to get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk; the more food you pass by, the greater the chance you’ll pick up something on impulse. This is why the floral department (pretty and colorful!), the bakery (smells so good!), and the produce department (nutritious and colorful!) are usually located near the front doors, forcing you to walk through them on your way to other stuff. They prime you to want to spend money. This is why the checkout lanes are narrow and lined with the most expensive-per-item stuff in the store: it is the last chance the grocer has to siphon out more money while you wait for the shopper in front of you to finish up. Mmm, celebrity magazines and candy bars.

So grocery shopping is a skill, pitting you against a mighty industrial behemoth. If you are a poor shopper you may be able to cut your grocery bill in half! If you are better than average, you’ll still spend way less. Cutting your grocery cost is tax-free, too. You already paid your taxes on your income and spending less at the supermarket doesn’t increase your tax bill. It is pure profit for your wallet.

So how do you hone your skills?

grocery shopping and cooking impulse control
Learn to curb impulse shopping.
First, learn to curb impulse shopping. Don’t walk through a grocery store and throw random things into your cart. Oh, that looks good. That might be fun to try. I’ll bet everyone will eat that. This method can also encourage food waste, if you buy products that don’t get used up and they rot or that no one will eat so it gets thrown out. Throwing food out is the same as throwing money out. If you compost your food waste or feed it to animals it isn’t as much of a waste, but still, why put expensive fancy produce in then compost bin when it is just as happy with carrot peelings?

You start with a list. What items do you need and what have you run out of? What do you regularly use and what do you cook on a routine basis? Even if you never do another thing, making a shopping list that reflects what you really cook with and what you have used up. Sticking to the list will save you some money.

It may help to keep a running list on the refrigerator so as things run out; they can be added to the list. You may be able to train family members to do this; I never could, but some people, I am told, have been able to do so. Having a list means that you don’t go to the supermarket on a daily basis. Unless you are extremely disciplined, daily exposure to all the come-ons in the grocery store is just asking to have your wallet vacuumed clean of cash.

So the list leads us directly to making fewer trips to the store. Damn few of us don’t have enough storage space in our kitchens for a week or two of food. I shop twice a week. I do my big shopping trip on Tuesday, followed by a run on Saturday for milk and half & half and fruit for Sunday breakfast. The second trip is because my family drinks a lot of milk and I can’t store enough gallons for the week. The list for second trip is kept as small as possible. If I could dispense with this second visit I would, as even with all my practice it is darn difficult to avoid spending extra bucks over what I budgeted. Those supermarket lures are really effective.

If I needed too, I could train the family to drink reconstituted dry milk instead of fresh and use more dry milk in our coffee instead of half & half. Then I could store a year’s worth of dry milk and never run out. There are people who do this quite successfully and they save money, too. We aren’t that dedicated now, but I do know that we could do this if we had too.

So tune in next week, and we’ll talk more about grocery shopping.

Agatha Christie a fictional character in ’20s-set Thriller

With talk about a screenwriter creating a TV series with Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, I shouldn’t be surprised that someone thought about turning making Agatha Christie a fictional character as well.

Agatha Christie fictional character“Silence and Circumstance,” by Roy Dimond, could be the meta-mashup of the year. According to a Florida newspaper, Dimond has stuffed this thriller with every boldfaced name of the 1920s:

The witty Dorothy Parker from America joins Sayers, Sir Arthur, a young John Steinbeck and baseball player Mo Berg in puzzling the clues left by Christie as to the whereabouts of her diary. The trail leads them to Berlin where Adolf Hitler is already stirring up hate. Sir Arthur and a young Ian Fleming (prior to his fame as the James Bond novelist) travel on the Orient Express together, stopping in Monaco to meet Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

The story is set in 1926, the day that Agatha’s first husband, Archie, announced that he wanted a divorce. In real-life, while Archie left to spend the weekend with his mistress (and future wife), Agatha drove off into the night. Her abandoned car was found the next day, launching an 11-days wonder as everyone asked: Where Was Agatha?

The answer was that she was hiding in a hotel in the north of England, but Dimond decided to send her on a more thrilling adventure.

The book was published by Untreed Reads, a small press. I’m not sure about the quality of the book, but reading the first chapter using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature showed me that it wasn’t bad. The story is told from the viewpoint of Carlotta, Christie’s assistant, and it moved along smartly and there was nothing that made me wince except for the occasional typo. I wish they had found a better title, however, but that’s just me.

I suspect that how much you’ll enjoy this book depends on how you feel about seeing famous artists and writers placed in entirely different roles and situations. Give Dimond credit: It’s a high-concept “what if” that I’ve never seen before.

Literary Puns Too Painful for Words

Researching the Sherlockian parodies and pastiches for the next volume in the 223B Casebook project should be a sedate, calm affair. Not as upsetting as, say, debating the Hugo nominations or going on Twitter.

And it hadn’t been, until I got to the Catesby’s Cork Lino ad. I’ve read a lot of parodies (and published some of them on this site), but none like this landmine of humor.

Running in The Strand magazine in 1904, it’s your typical Sherlock ad, in which the great detective appears to solve the case while at the same time praising the advertiser’s product. Here it is:

Catesby's Cork lino ad with bad literary puns
Click to enlarge, but be wary of the landmine.

Here’s the sentences that, until I did my research, set me off:

“I called on Herlock to get his opinion about the colour of some Catesbys’ Cork Lino I had chosen for my floors. The extraordinary man was breakfasting, and his fare was, you will hardly believe me, a Plato’ Lamb and Bacon.”

Searching “a Plato’ Lamb and Bacon” led me to “The Comic Song Book,” edited by J.E. Carpenter and published in the 1860s. The line comes from the clumsily titled “Household Words” — “All the Year Round” — a reference to the two magazines edited by Charles Dickens.

Sung to the tune of “Oh, Susanna,” it tells the story of a happily married man and his literary wife. She’s a “Cyclopaedia on two legs” and “a fount of wisdom” but she keeps him up all night.

At first, the jokes are innocuous: “I’m sure she’s quite the sage, and I am quite the goose! (Yes, of course they dig you in the ribs with the italics.) “And if she’s not ‘a learned pig” she is a learned bore.” (Ouch).

Then I came across this verse, which left me shattered. Take it a line at a time, perhaps one a day, and stop if you feel dizzy or are operating heavy machinery:

When I sit down to take a meal all learnedly she’ll jaw, sir;
For all the time she sees me chaw, her conversation’s Chaucer;
And when she feeds herself, she reads, and never seems mistaken—
“At dinner, I admire,” says she, “my Plato, Lamb, and Bacon.”

I thought about typing the lyrics in, but I don’t think I can take that right now. When I come out of the hospital, perhaps I may. In the meantime, here are the screenshots.

And please, don’t share this. Think of the children.




Grocery Shopping (part 1)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introductionI am a firm believer in shopping locally as much as possible. So as a dedicated energy saver, conservationist, and locavore, I source all our food from with a 10-radius. I shop at the local supermarket (Giant) which is 1.5 miles away from my house. I know this because I measured the distance on my car’s odometer to check AND I used maps of the local area to draw out 1/2 mile, 1 mile, and 1 & 1/2 mile radii circles centered on my house. This exercise showed me how many businesses there are within walking distance of my house, should I be so inclined to drag groceries or other items home in a wagon versus using a car. When I can, I walk to my local bank, drug store, office supply store, the post office, etc. It saves me money, it gets me out and about in my community, and I need (I always need!) the exercise.

Now there are people who will claim that you can’t be a locavore — a person who gets all their food from within a 100-mile radius — if you are buying from a supermarket. To meet the standard (this is yet another purity test and way of showing your status to lesser mortals) you should grow your own food and/or get everything from properly documented sources via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the local farmer’s market.

If you are serious about being a true locavore, you better start food gardening right now. You should also join that CSA; there are thousands across the country. Ask at the farmer’s market or look online for one in your area. A big part of eating locally and seasonally is eating locally and seasonally. In January, you eat stuff you preserved back in August; you eat from your root cellar rutabagas, potatoes, and turnips; cabbages that have been fermented into kimchi and sauerkraut; dried beans, winter squashes, and whatever leafy greens you can coax out of your cold frame.

In the winter, chickens don’t lay as much, so you can’t depend on quantities of eggs you got used to over the summer.

Early spring is known in many cultures as the starving time, the thin time. This is true for wildlife as well as people. There isn’t much left to eat by late March. You already ate it all or it is going bad so eating those moldy apples might be risky. There are ways around this involving more cold frames, hot caps, and using food-storage techniques to use up food in order of rottenness, and good planning in the previous summer of what you grow, preserve and how much.

Prior to the industrial revolution (1840s-1870s), everybody used to live this way. You had to be rich to not be hungry in late winter. Everybody used to eat within a 100-mile radius because transportation cost so much and food rotted before it got anywhere. Traditionally, the foods that got transported long distances were unlikely to decay and had high value such as tea leaves, spices, and coffee beans, or were unlikely to decay and there were huge quantities making it cost-effective to move them such as grains and dried legumes. You notice that there are no strawberries in January on this list.

This is a limited diet and by the time spring rolled around, the typical peasant was desperate for greens to keep their teeth in. Hence the popularity of traditional spring tonics made up of dandelion leaves. This would give you much-needed vitamin C, and ward off scurvy for another year.

grocery shopping kings
In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did.

We don’t have this problem anymore. In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did. Strawberries in January! Raspberries in February! Delicate spring greens in August! Apples in May! Today’s supermarkets are divorced from the seasons for growing fresh produce, and raising livestock for meat, dairy, and eggs. Animals had seasons, too. They were born in the spring and slaughtered in the fall so you had a) meat all winter when the cold helped preserve it and b) you didn’t have to feed those animals and try to keep them alive all winter. Eggs started showing up again in the spring. You preserved your milk by making it into hard cheese.

This is all a lot of work and I am so happy that I can choose to do only what I want to do: growing some supplemental vegetables and fruit, and buying and cooking with the seasons. I love having a refrigerator and a freezer. I don’t have to worry about spoilage. I love having a fully stocked pantry without having to prepare it all myself and spend hours canning, drying, fermenting and pickling so I can feed my family in the winter. These are great privileges and I enjoy them. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t utilize the wonderful resource of an American grocery store better.

First is your choice of grocery store. I make a joke of shopping at the Giant as a locavore choice but in a way, it is. There are two Giants within a five-mile radius of my home. The larger, newer, fancier one is further away. It also has the gas pumps there that allow me to purchase discounted gas.

I only go to the fancy Giant when I need to buy gas and redeem my gas points. That extra 3.5 miles one way translates into 7 extra miles per trip plus the additional time. On a single-trip basis that isn’t very much at all. But over the course of a year, two trips per week, that is 728 miles that I don’t put on my car and 728 miles worth of gasoline I don’t burn to avoid going to the slightly older, slightly less fancy supermarket. Remember to add in the extra bit of time per trip that I don’t spend driving: hours of my life energy that I put to other uses.

There are several grocery stores within five miles of my house. I like the Giant for its prices, selection, convenience, and the gas points. If I wanted to splurge, I could go across the Susquehanna to the Wegmans. This is a really fancy, high-end grocery store and when they opened, several of my neighbors regularly made the 20-mile pilgrimage to shop there. When the Wegmans opened, I wasn’t nearly as enlightened (and cheap) as I am now, and I made the trip once too. It was a very nice supermarket but the prices seemed a little higher, and it was certainly farther away. A lot farther. I never returned as it was not worth my effort. If the Wegmans has some magical product that no one else in the area carries, then I live without it. This is made easier by not knowing what that magical product is so I won’t want it anyway.

We have a Sam’s Club within seven miles plus the Wal-Mart. I used to have a Sam’s Club card but over time, I found that careful shopping and the pantry principle (more on that later) worked just as well and meant that I spent less money, less gas, and less time. Sam’s Club lures you into spending far more money than you planned on. Yes, it can have wonderful deals, but if you spend more money than you budgeted and you purchase wonderful items not on your list, you still lose. There is a Costco but it is much farther away (20 mile radius) so it is even less worth my time or gas money.

A save money grocery book that I read almost twenty years ago had the best story. I don’t remember the title or author but I sure remember her anecdote. The author broke her leg. She had to order her groceries from the most expensive grocer in town, the only one that delivered. It was the type of store that wrapped each piece of fruit in tissue paper. Despite the higher prices, she discovered that, after a few weeks, she spent less money than she did at the cheaper supermarket. How could this be? The fancy grocer only sent what she ordered. The fancy grocer did not add onto her purchase all those wonderful, must-have deals that called to her as she cruised the aisles.

This is the experience I have in Sam’s Club and any other fancier grocery store. I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

grocery shopping warehouse stores
I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

I do not buy groceries at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart can be cheaper than Giant to pay for the extra gas and time. I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local communities, I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local businesses, I don’t like how Wal-Mart treats its employees, and I don’t like how they handle perishable foods. Since I have better options, I always choose not to give my money to Wal-Mart whenever I have a choice. You may not have this option. If Wal-Mart is your only choice, you can still maximize your food dollar with careful shopping, price books and the pantry principle.

If I had to routinely walk to buy groceries, I would probably use the Karns or Pronios as they are closer, within a mile or less radius. That extra half-mile (one way) to the Giant can add up when you are pulling a wagon full of groceries in August. Both stores are smaller than Giant. Pronios is a standalone store, locally owned and operated. Karns is a small local chain in midstate PA. Giant is a regional chain, headquartered within 20 miles of my house so for a midsize chain, it is sort of locally owned and operated.

The deciding issue for which grocery store to choose, IF I HAD TO WALK EACH TIME, would be the gas points. You can’t grow gasoline and biofuel has its own sets of problems and learning curve. If we HAD to have the gas for a regular commute, then Giant would win for the gas points and I would make the hike pulling a wagon or shop almost daily using a bike with panniers. If we were car-free, then I would probably shop Karns or Pronios because of the distance and occasionally cherry-pick at the Giant for things I couldn’t get otherwise.

There is also a Weis grocery store within the 1-mile radius. It doesn’t strike me as being kept clean or well-maintained and that makes me suspicious of their handling of perishable items. Every time I go there, I see that the floor needs to be mopped and the shelves need to be straightened. This is not to say that Weis couldn’t be a good choice; only that the local Weis isn’t the choice for me. The store manager makes an enormous difference in how individual stores are maintained. If the manager is an annoying martinet who insists that the floors get cleaned, the shelves get straightened and restocked, the windows washed and does some of this work himself, being constantly visible and available to the customers, then the store overall will be cleaner and better run. The employees may be worked like borrowed mules to maintain higher standards but the customers are the better for it.

So this is the first part of better grocery shopping. Decide on the store that most meets your daily needs AND is the closest to you to cut down on gas and time expenditures.

Next time, we’ll talk about deciding what you need to buy to make your family meals.

The Return of Lisa Scottoline

Well, at least her return on my radar, at least. I’m sure Lisa Scottoline never went away, but I remember reading a few of her books back in the day, so I was happy to see her pop up on Caroline Leavitt’s website with a new book “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

Lisa Scottoline Every Fifteen Minutes interview
Lisa Scottoline

Authors promoting their novels are encouraged to find an angle that makes for a compelling interview. In her case, it’s easy to assume that she wouldn’t have chosen the one where she grew close to a man she suspects was a sociopath.

All I can say is that I really do believe that I was very close with a sociopath. This was not a murderous person, but rather a person who just merely used people, without any personal feelings for them. Like everybody else, I look back on my life and think about the mistakes I’ve made and why I made them, and my relationship with this unnamed person gave me the idea for “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

It’s a powerful concept for Scottoline to explore. Sociopaths can be very good at keeping secrets from those close to them. You only have to ask Elizabeth Kendall, who was the girlfriend of (unknowingly to her) a serial killer, and later wrote a book about him called “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.” The book’s out of print and the few copies available will set you back about $150, but someone posted pages from it on Facebook.

I guess I better set aside my copy for my heirs to sell of.

Mining Story Ideas from Humans of New York

This is a fun thing to do if you feel creatively empty: Visit the Humans of New York website to remind yourself of the boundless variety of human experiences.

Even if you don’t believe these people, even if you think the idea is too far-fetched, it can provide a starting point for a memorable character or story.

These two caught my eye the other day. I’ll print the first line; you’ll have to click on the photo to see the rest story.

humans of new york story ideas finding god in banking
“Believe it or not, I actually found God through becoming an investment banker.”
Humans of New York story ideas cocaine '80s
“I used to transport coke between Miami and Cuba back in the 80’s.”

They’re like the first line of a short story; how can you not want to find out what happened next?

Creating Your Dream House (part 7)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction

[This 7-part series on buying a home begins here; or, go to the table of contents page. This is also cross-posted on Wattpad.]

Home renovation isn’t for sissies but it can really pay off. You can pay other people to do the renovations for you, but it has been worth it to us to do as much as we can ourselves. This saves us huge amounts of money and vastly improves our skill sets. It does still take plenty of time and life energy and some money. But not as much money as we would have laid out to Jake the Contractor. This is a choice only you, the potential homeowner can make. Only you know your tolerance for sanding walls and laying in fiberglass batts in the attic.

There are a lot of kinds of home renovation. The very best kind come with the houses that are disguised as handyman specials but are really cleaning lady specials. That is, the house is so messy that it LOOKS like it needs major repairs, but when you remove the junk, clutter, grime, and filth, you discover a nice house underneath. Houses of this type are hard to find and you have to have a good eye to see under the built-up layers of crud to see the good bones underneath.

dream house
Closet-Maid accessories lets you double the number of shirts you can store.
There are the home renovations where all you really need to do is repaint the walls, add Closet-Maid to the closets, upgrade the storage space in the kitchen, pantry, and bathrooms, add ceiling fans, and put in book cases. Add shelves, add hooks, add pull out slides for knives and upright storage for cookie sheets. Houses like these are also hard to find.

We’ve done all of those things and each one made the house a better performer.

Probably the easiest job with the greatest payback involves insulation. We knew, going into the Hershey house, that it had little insulation in the attic or under the floors. Bill insulated, insulated, insulated, and insulated some more. He installed reflective foil in the attic to keep out the heat. Younger son covered the fiberglass batts in the basement with white panels. This has a) improved the insulating qualities, b) improved the lighting by making the ceiling more reflective, and c) kept the cats from eating the insulation.

Insulating the house, a job which we did entirely by ourselves, paid for itself long ago. Now, each winter we spend far less money to heat the house than we otherwise would have. This awful, dirty job made us more financially independent.

Then there are the true handyman specials. The roof is damaged. The windows need to be replaced. The carpeting needs to be ripped out and the solid oak floors beneath to be sanded, stained, and polyurethaned. The wiring needs to be brought up to code. These jobs don’t change the layout of the house and very handy people can do much of this work.

dream house
A home renovation project with Closet-Maid can turn this basement with four long pantry shelves ….

dream house pantry shelves
…. into storage space for much more.
Bigger home renovations involve kitchens that have to be gutted and rebuilt, bathrooms that are filled with mold and leaks, cracked foundations, terrible layouts where walls have to be rearranged, and wet basements. These are all far more costly and far more aggravating to fix.

Still bigger home renovations can mean adding a second floor to the existing house or a new wing. If the house is bought and paid for and it is in an area you love, where you plan to live forever, this may be a better choice than selling and moving. Contractors for this level of work should be carefully selected and not just because the contractor and his crew will see you every morning in your bathrobe at 7 a.m. You will be living with the work crew in your house for weeks or months on end.

So when you evaluate houses, besides the location, the price, and the extra space, decide if you want to do the work of upgrading a house to make it reach its full potential. Almost any house can be improved if you spend the time and money. The improvements will make the house more useful to you, but consider the cost before you start. A house I remember quite well was the gorgeous Victorian castle in Steelton, built by a Bethlehem steel executive. The house was just unbelievable. Solid mahogany everywhere, a slate roof, huge and varied rooms with ten foot ceilings and eight foot windows, a full basement with nine foot ceilings. It was less than a $100,000 dollars! It needed, just from the walkthrough I did, another half million dollars in renovation and repairs starting with repointing all four stories of brick walls and a new slate roof. This was a project that would take decades of time to go along with the truckloads of money. The end result would have been a stunning castle for our heirs, unfortunately located in the dying town of Steelton. We did not, of course, buy this challenge.

There are other reasons to contemplate home renovations. If you want something out of the ordinary you will have to install it yourself. Home renovations of this type also mean that you aren’t planning on moving anytime soon.

If you want to store a year’s supply of food and a few thousand gallons of water, then you will have to build the storage; very few houses come with this kind of setup. Apace is needed for serious food gardeners as well. A productive vegetable garden gives you heaps and heaps of carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, whatever you grew. Good food storage means you can preserve that harvest and eat it all winter long.

Are you a serious gun collector? Then you need a place to put your arsenal; a place that is secure and dry.

Do you collect art? You need miles of blank walls for display and plenty of space for storage.

If you want to collect and harvest rainwater on a casual summertime water-the-garden basis, you need gutters and places to place your rain barrels. If you really need to collect every drop of rainwater to provide for every household need for a year, then you need to install a 10,000-gallon cistern and a hand pump.

If you want to reuse every drop of your water, then you need to install a gray water reclamation system. Very, very few homes have this kind of setup already in place so expect to install it yourself.

Do you want to generate your own power? More homes come with solar panels and battery storage space but still not very many. Is the roof big enough? Is it oriented correctly? Is there space for the battery banks? Can you go passive solar with hot water heating, trombe walls, and stone floors that act as heat sinks? You won’t find many houses with these things. You will have to install your own wind turbines as well. Good luck finding a house with one already on the property.

If your home business is car repair or fine woodworking, then you need way more extra space than a writer does. A writer can manage with a flat space to set a typewriter on. A woodshop needs hundreds of square feet of well lit space and miles of work benches.

If you need space for your 10,000-book library, then you need to evaluate the amount of blank walls you have. Should they all be lined with bookshelves or would it be better to turn a spare room into a dedicated library with stacks?

If you want your house to light itself, then you paint every ceiling white, every wall with pastel high-gloss paint, you clean every window, you install new windows, you mount mirrors opposite every window, and you install solar tubes and skylights. You will still need paid lighting at night, but you don’t have to turn on the lights during the day anymore to read, to cook, to work.

Are you serious about bicycling everywhere? If so, then where do the bikes live so they are easily accessed when needed? Where do you put their spare parts? Our bikes currently live on our Florida Room, where they take up precious living space. Better than the living room, I suppose, but still. The long range plan is to build a dedicated bike storage shed just inside the yard where the bikes are contained within the fence, hidden by the hedge, protected from the weather, out of the way, and yet in easy reach for use.

Are you a serious ballroom dancer? Then you need to add a 2,000-square-foot addition with a hardwood floor that is kept completely empty so you have plenty of space for your routine. My sister did this with her house in Florida. She absolutely loves the space and she would certainly never have found a house with this kind of renovation already in place.

There are probably dozens of specialty uses that houses can do, with the proper renovations. Art studios, yoga studios, dance studios, sewing workrooms, taxidermy, alpenhorn rooms (I read about this but have never seen one). What do you want or need? If it is an out of the ordinary requirement, you should evaluate houses with this renovation in mind.

So these are my thoughts on getting housing that will help you and your family to be more resilient, more sustainable, and get closer to the goal of Financial Independence.

There are so many things to be considered when you buy a house. What do you want your house to do for you? How much do you want to pay for your house in terms of cash, time, and life energy? Is the location good for the long term? Are you close to family, friends, work, and a supportive community? Are you subject to natural hazards that you know will happen like floods, landslides, forest fires, and tornadoes? Are there things you want to avoid?

A carefully chosen house can help you reach your goals. A poorly chosen house may cost you dearly. Houses and spouses, spouses and houses. Choose wisely and you will always be grateful. Choose badly and you will never stop paying.

Finding Your Dream Home (part 6)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introductionNow that we have considered how much yard we want, and whether we want the privacy of living deep in bear country versus the shorter commute and more access to services from living in town, we come back to the house. How much house do you want? How much house do you need? They aren’t the same thing.

To talk about this, we’ll have to talk about our experiences in our two homes, the one in South Carolina that we started our married life in, and our current home. We hope that you can learn something from our experiences, even if it’s only “I don’t want to go through all that.”

A lot of us lower- to middle-class people grew up in 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch houses. Bill and I grew up in one, and that’s what we lived in down in South Carolina. Three bedrooms (parents, boys, girls), one lone bathroom, kitchen, small dining area, living room, laundry corner, furnace and hot water heater tucked in somewhere. No basement and not much usable attic space. A carport. No pantry. Tiny closets. Very little storage space and most of that was in the barely accessible, non-climate-controlled attic.

There are plenty of these houses available in much of the country. Ones built prior to 1960 tend to have under the awful carpeting hardwood floors. Behind the plaster or drywall, there was two-by-four framing. In the attic and under the floors, large heavy joists of a kind you don’t see anymore. Pre-1960 ranch houses also tend to have windows arranged to maximize cooling from breezes during the summer. Since they are small, they usually cost less to buy, less to insure, have lower taxes, and their utilities can cost less. Are they worth a look? If the location and price are excellent, then certainly.

As noted earlier, it is impossible to fix the location of a house. But you can fix the house. In the small 1959-vintage ranch house I grew up in, my dad remade the carport into a family room, insulating it well, and installing a pot belly stove for supplemental heat. He built shelves wherever he could. Redid the bathroom. Fixed things. Insulated wherever he could. Made the house more functional in every way.

In our 1954-vintage ranch in South Carolina, we ripped out the carpet revealing the red oak floors, added a closet in a bedroom, and converted a previously enclosed sunroom into a home office, a half bath, and a pantry. We rebuilt the kitchen, added ceiling fans throughout, put in shelves everywhere, and insulated the attic and crawlspace. If we hadn’t moved up here to Hershey, the next step would have been to turn the carport into a family room.

Our current, 1955-vintage ranch reveals what can be done over and above staying in the footprint of the house. It has, unlike the other two, a full basement, with 3/5ths of it turned into living space with a small bathroom. They also added a Florida Room to the back of the house that provides seasonal living space, and built up by adding a partial second floor. The second floor gives us a fourth bedroom with its own, large walk-in closet and private bathroom. There is still plenty of attic space left over for storage.

We have repainted, added shelves, rebuilt the pantry to triple its usable space, insulated, insulated, insulated, added solar tubes for free lighting, built in a home office, rebuilt the closets, and in general added storage organizers of every kind to every possible corner. This doesn’t include any of the extensive work we did in the yard, starting with the 4-foot chain-link fence and the hedges.

Did this house have some issues? Of course. But we could afford it, its daily maintenance, and its renovations while still paying extra to the mortgage. We are in town in a great school district, Bill did not have a bad commute, we don’t live in an HOA, and we can walk to all kinds of things. We also have a world-class (they tell us this regularly so it must be true, da?) hospital two miles away in the Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center and in the other direction, we have Hershey Amusement Park.

When Bill spent six months house-hunting up here in central PA, he worked from a list of things we wanted:

* A home with enough space for all five of us and all our animals.

* A home with space for storage, our library, our home office, my sewing area.

* A home with a basement.

* A yard for kids, dog, and vegetable garden.

* The best school district we could afford.

* A home in town to be closer to a range of services.

* A home within 20 miles of Bill’s job. We lucked out there, finding a place 10 miles away from the Patriot-News. When they moved its offices to the West Shore, the commute doubled, but was still within the magic 20-mile radius.

Bill was renting an apartment up here, while I, three kids, four cats, and a big dog stayed behind in South Carolina doing the “Dress Your House For Success” program trying to sell our house. Not easy but we did it. And it was worth it. Bill got us a house that worked for us that we could afford. And we got, six months after the sale, a lovely piece of validation for all the work we put into the house in South Carolina. The new home owner sent us a thank you note saying how much she loved the house because it “made her organized”. Wow.

So take your time and look over the houses you see. Look at location and price first. Then evaluate how much of your money and life energy it will take to turn the house into what you really want. Some extra space is absolutely worth paying for, but be realistic about how much that extra 2,000 square feet will cost you in life energy.

A basement is very nice. We use most of ours as finished living space, including my sewing area and our home office. There is a finished bathroom with a shower stall so we have some overflow space. We rebuilt the existing shoddy pantry shelving into a finished space that was double in volume compared to what we started with. The unfinished portion of the basement serves to hold the washer and dryer, a work shop, the mechanicals, and plenty of dedicated storage space. A crawl space could not have been rebuilt like this. I suppose you could dig out a crawl space into a basement, but really, it would be easier to buy a house with a basement. A slab foundation wouldn’t even give you that option.

A carport or garage is very nice. My dad, as mentioned above, turned our carport into finished living space, all by himself. He even built in a desk for a home office. If we had stayed in South Carolina, we would have enclosed the carport in much the same way. A garage might be even easier to finish as it already has walls.

An attic that you can stand up in is very nice. These can be finished off as well, either into living space or dedicated storage space. The hard part is arranging for a permanent staircase rather than one of those awkward pull-down ones, or worse, a hatch accessible only with a ladder. In my parents house (bought in 1972 and long since paid off), my dad took advantage of the two parallel hallways on the second floor. He removed both pull-down staircases (the house was weird in many ways) and turned one hallway into a permanent staircase with a closet built underneath it. You can’t refinish an attic that is full of trusses into any kind of storage space without putting on a whole new second floor. That is a huge job and will need a contractor, but it can be done.

Porches can be very nice. My house in Norfolk had, at one time, a porch that was enclosed by the house on two sides and had the house roof as it’s roof. Someone, years ago, enclosed the porch, turning it into heated living space. I used that space as a sewing room. Our house in South Carolina had the same thing. Someone, years ago, enclosed it and tied it into the heating system. We finished the job, installing a home office, a much needed half bath (a second toilet! what luxury!), and a big, walk-in pantry.

An extra room can be very nice. This can become a home office, a sewing studio, a guest bedroom, or dedicated to storage.

Some space for a dedicated workshop is very nice. You should have at least some place to put the tools, the screws, the paint cans and their brushes. A built-in workshop area means you can do simple home repairs more easily as you have space to do them in and a space to store all the tools. A bigger workshop can lead to bigger projects, like library-style shelving and upgraded pantries. Because these projects kick up a lot of dust, opt for a separate room, or at least an area curtained off from the rest of the basement. Dust will fly!

Next week, in the final chapter (at last!), we’ll move from the general to the even more specific, with ideas about how you can renovate your house into the home you want.

dream home
Some houses have more potential than others, however.

Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries