Crime Fiction and Romance

As I researched my first novel, NO BRAKES: ON THE WING, it became clear I needed to include some romantic scenes. Did you know that Romance is the most popular novel genre? Even crime fiction writers are spicing up their stories with romantic elements. Money talks and book readers buy Romance.

So I wrote some romantic scenes, hoping it would help the sale of my debut novel. Reluctantly, I might add. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family where romantic displays between my parents were kept to hugs and pecks. Surprise! Surprise! I discovered that writing romantic scenes was fun. I’ve toyed with writing a romance novel and decided to start with a short story. It’s titled, “The Hot Dog,” and is 800 words. Tell me what you think.


I first noticed him at a college football game. He was playing Frisbee in a grassy area adjacent to the bleachers. He had glossy, black hair that shined in the sunlight. After entertaining the crowd with athletic catches, he relaxed with a group of doting college girls. I wanted to meet him. My introverted nature began to harp its usual caution.

Nothing unnerves me more than trying to make small talk. After a few words, I go mute. People don’t appreciate good listeners – they want to be entertained by charming, effervescent people. That’s not me. My shy personality hinders me from going after what my heart wants.

Not this time, I vowed.  Today I was going to plow through my fears and approach this handsome stranger. How could I lure his attention from the throng of female admirers? I spotted the concession stand. Hot dogs! I purchased two. I maneuvered through the crowd.

A pretty co-ed blocked my path. “Is he yours?”

“Of course,” I said, shrugging her off.

When I sat beside him, I warmed to his soft, chestnut eyes.

“I have an extra hot dog,” I said. “Want it?”

He ate it in nothing flat. I laughed from my belly. He didn’t mind when I nicknamed him “Oscar.”

I began talking. For once in my life, the words rolled from my tongue. Oscar listened to every word. Before long, I was touching him while I spoke. He seemed comfortable with the intimacy I had never risked before. When the football game ended, Oscar walked me home. He stayed.

For the next two months, Oscar spoiled me. I no longer had to be the listener – I could gab all I wanted.  He paid close attention while I read him my English literature essays and practiced my Power Point presentations. Oscar never criticized or laughed at my mistakes. When I returned from a day of classes, he was thrilled to see me.

Meals were my favorite part of the day. Oscar relished every morsel I prepared. After dinner we’d cuddle on the sofa and watch television. I’d think about how lucky I was that he’d picked me. I grew to love him with all my heart. I knew he loved me. He told me so with his kisses.

No matter what the weather, we took nightly walks in the neighborhood surrounding the campus. Rain, snow, sleet – it didn’t matter. It was fun being together. Except once. He’d left my side to go exploring. Suddenly, two men materialized in front of me. One displayed a knife while the other ordered me silent. My mouth went dry, I couldn’t scream. My legs froze, I couldn’t run.  I knotted my fists to fight back.



Oscar appeared. I’d never seen that look in his eyes or heard that tone in his voice. Dangerous. Fierce. Menacing.  I knew he would kill the men to protect me. They knew it, too, and bolted. Afterwards, I fell to my knees. Oscar comforted me while I sobbed out my terror.

Two weeks passed. There was a knock on my door. The day I had been dreading had arrived – Oscar was going to leave. I opened the door with tears in my eyes.

“I’m Steve,” said a man with glossy, black hair. “Are you Sara?”

“Yes. Please come – ”

Oscar flew through the living room and leaped at Steve, knocking him onto the front stoop. Steve put his arms around Oscar. They rolled around on the stoop while I stared speechless.

“I missed you, buddy,” Steve said between Oscar’s licks and kisses. Oscar’s tail thumped against the railing. Eventually, Oscar allowed Steve to get to his feet and come inside.

Steve shook my hand. “I don’t know how to thank you. Somehow he got out of my backyard. I’ve been looking all over for him. Then I saw your ad in the paper.”

I swallowed my sorrow. Sometimes doing the right thing is too darned hard.

“What’s his name?” I said, half-choking on the tears caught in my throat

“Lucky.” Steve wiped his eyes. “You know, he really is a lucky dog. He found you.”

I had to get away. I didn’t want to start bawling. “I’ll go get his things.”

Lucky trailed me into the kitchen. After I gathered his food, toys, and leash, I knelt in front of him and stroked his face.

“I love you,” I whispered. I ended my good-bye with a kiss on Lucky’s forehead. When I stood, I discovered that Steve was behind me.

“Sara…um…sorry, I’m not very good at this.” Steve’s face turned a slight shade of pink. “Will you have dinner with me?”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

“Great!” he said. His soft, chestnut eyes were dancing. “What kind of food do you like?”

“Hot dogs.”


Photos by Geoff Scott (football), ED (street) and Eiliv Sonas Aceron (hotdog stand) on Unsplash.


Hiking Backbone Mountain

At long last, I’ve been able to cross off an item on my bucket list–hiking the trail leading to the summit of Backbone Mountain in Garrett County, Maryland. I described Backbone Mountain in my newest book, PLOWED OVER. I’ve driven down the mountain and across its long ridge, but I have never climbed it.

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, the dreary weather cleared from Western Maryland. The sun was bright, the clouds were sparse, the temperature was cool–the perfect combo for some much-needed outdoor exercise.

I got a lot more exercise than I bargained for.

The trail begins close to Silver Lake in West Virginia. My husband (Ron) and I drove forty-five minutes from our home in Swanton, found the trailhead off of Route 219-S, and embarked on the one-mile trail to Hoyes Crest, the highest point in Maryland. The trail is aptly-named Maryland High Point Trail.

Trailhead Sign on Route 219-S, West Virginia


The trail was dry and not nearly as steep as I expected. I can do this, no problem! Right?

The beginning of the trail. I’m feeling quite optimistic and perky.

The trail, which is an old logging road, soon became wet and sloppy The torrents of rain from the last week drained down the trail. The trail got rocky and steep.

Ron leads the way up the messy trail.


Ron and I carried on. We were soon huffing and puffing and taking short breaks. Ron asked if I wanted to turn around. No way! I took a break at the first directional sign. We passed two women descending the mountain. They were properly dressed and equipped for hiking–walking sticks, hiking boots, hats, and backpacks.

“Are we close to the top?” I asked.

They smiled and answered “Ish.”

The second directional marker. I’m losing my perk, but still optimistic after my conversation with the college-age hikers.

We got to another directional marker and soon encountered a group of college students, also descending the mountain.

“Are we getting close?” I asked, thinking about how much my glutes were killing me.

“Five minutes,” one of them said.

I was temporarily heartened, forgetting that the answer had come from a man in his twenties. I am Medicare-aged.

Twenty minutes later we reached the summit. The hike was so worth it. We were treated to beautiful views of both Maryland and West Virginia.

View of Maryland from Hoyes Crest


View of West Virginia from Hoyes Crest

There is a picnic area at the summit. The next time I make this climb, I’ll be sure to bring a picnic chest. Just kidding. We opened a mailbox and found a book inviting us to sign in. There are pages and pages of signatures.

The mailbox and elevation


The book of hikers’ signatures, including our own. 


Ron and I had ineptly taken selfies during the hike. The result was a lot of laughs and ridiculous  photographs. Two hikers joined us at the summit. One kindly took our picture. Note the man-made stone cairn standing next to us. I gingerly added my little rock, half-expecting the cairn to collapse like Jenga structure.


Ta-Da!! We did it!

As we descended Backbone Mountain, we took a short side-trip to visit the Maryland/West Virginia state boundary marker. We had to climb over some boulders to do so. My glutes reminded me to take some Advil as soon as I got home.

The Maryland/West Virginia state boundary marker

We descended the mountain without mishap. On the way home, Ron and I stopped at a small ice cream store on Route 219-N. We celebrated our accomplishment with a hot-fudge sundae. That sundae worked better than any Advil I’ve ever taken.

I revised my bucket list to add another hike up Backbone Mountain to view the glorious fall colors of Garrett County. I might add joining the High Pointers Club to the list.

Check out the information provided by Garrett Trails about the High Point Trail.—maryland-high-point-trail.html

Here’s another link that explains the details of the trail in more detail.

The Garrett County Autumn Glory Festival will take place October 10-14, 2018. It would be a fine time to visit beautiful Garrett County and to climb Backbone Mountain.










Oh, Those Darn Speed Bumps!

Don’t you hate speed bumps? I do–especially when they slow me down from getting where I need to go.

I live on a gravel road with a straightaway. Speeders love the straightaway. They fly down the road, throwing gravel, kicking up dust, and sending pedestrians scurrying for safety. The miscreant drivers are usually visitors to the area, but some culprits live in the neighborhood.

The property owners association spent years trying to slow down the speeders. The community residents resisted speed bumps for the usual reasons: they’re inconvenient, they’re ugly, and they detract from the bucolic nature of the neighborhood. The POA decided to experiment with other traffic-calming strategies.

First came the speed limit signs. They were ignored.

Next came the radar speed sign to make drivers aware of their excessive speed. The result? Drivers used the sign to race against their previous speed records. Who could resist that kind of challenge?

Eventually, the residents resigned themselves to getting speed bumps. They worked!IMG_2763At first, residents grumbled about them.  But now the road keeps its gravel longer, the potholes are fewer, and the dust is less. Pedestrians can enjoy peaceful strolls. It took some time, but we became accustomed to the slower pace.

It’s all good.

Why am I writing about this? For a few years, I’ve been blogging on Tumblr. I have a steep learning curve when it comes to computer technology. Ask my ever-patient children. They know well the pitiful look I give them from my writing perch whenever I get stuck.

Tumblr was fairly easy for me to learn, but it had its downsides. My fellow writers recommended I switch to WordPress. I resisted. No, it’s too hard to learn. I’m too busy. My garden’s calling me. I need a cookie.

My lovely daughter gave me a pep talk. Funny thing, it was the same one I’d given her a couple of hundred times. Yes, it’s hard to learn new things, but you’re smart. You can figure it out. C’mon, you can do it!

I’m back on the learning curve. There are lots of speed bumps. I’m crawling over them. I’ll get used to the WordPress speed bump. Eventually, it will all be good. That’s what I keep telling myself.

In the meantime, please be patient when I accidentally publish a post before its ready, or the photograph I refer to isn’t there, or a blog post shows up in italics for some mysterious reason.

Thanks for reading.

Pep-talk comments welcome!

Best, Ellen

The Inspiration of Flight 93


Last winter I took a two-hour road
trip from my home in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland to Somerset, Pennsylvania.  My purpose was to gather research for a chapter in my book-in-progress.

I took Route 219 north, crossed the
state line into Pennsylvania, and discovered the road had been named “Flight 93
Memorial Highway.” My travel path took me near the exit for Shanksville. On
September 11, 2001, a pastoral field near this small town became the crash site
of a plane hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists. United Flight 93 had departed from Newark, New
Jersey bound for San Francisco, California. It was one of four planes hijacked
on a day so horrific that the wounds to the American psyche have not yet healed.
I promised myself I would return to visit the Flight 93 Memorial. 

Time slipped by. The U.S. election
campaign raged for months. I found the rhetoric nearly unbearable. It exposed
an ugly underbelly of America I knew existed, but avoided as best I could: racist,
misogynistic, xenophobic, and intolerant. I shielded myself from the news. Some Facebook friends got hidden. My conversations about the election became circumspect. I naively hoped the hate speech
and resulting violence would end after the election. I was wrong.  My spirit was disheartened. 

My husband suggested we visit the
Flight 93 Memorial. We hopped in the car. The weather was much the same as it
was on September 11, 2001—azure blue sky, cloudless, and bright. We arrived at
the memorial an hour and a half later. 

The Visitor Center is set on a
hillside. We walked along a dark, granite walkway toward an overlook. We later learned
the walkway tracks the fatal flight path of Flight 93. The overlook is bounded
by a glass wall, inscribed with the words, 

“A common field one day. A field of honor forever.”

From the overlook, we could see a golden field partially bordered
by hemlock trees. Its beauty tempers the horror of viewing the debris field. 


We entered the Visitor Center building
and found a series of four walls, each double-sided. The panels displayed the
chronology of the terrorists’ attacks and the fatal struggle that took place
inside Flight 93.

The passengers and crew learned
through telephone calls that three other planes had been hijacked and used as bombs.
After a vote, the forty brave souls banded together to resist the
terrorists. They fought to save themselves, each other, and the U.S.
Capitol—the probable target of Flight 93 and the symbol of Democracy. 

From the Visitor’s Center, there is
a walking path (and a narrow road for cars) down the hill to the Memorial Plaza.
A walkway separates the plaza from the debris field.  At the end of the walkway is the Wall of Names.
Each panel of the marble wall is engraved with a name of a passenger or crew
member. There are forty panels. The wall aligns with the flight path. There is a clear view of the large boulder marking the site of impact. 


The crew and passengers of Flight
93 were ordinary people with extraordinary courage. Men and women, black and
white, old and young, straight and gay, Americans and international visitors, white
and blue collar workers, and retirees. Do you think these differences provoked an invective word between them? Of course not. They worked together, lost their lives,
and saved countless others. Their courage is historic. 

Right now, we Americans must
exercise the courage to resist hatred and fear in all of its forms.  We can look to the heroic souls of Flight 93
for inspiration.  


The Question Is

I have a nightly
date with my husband, Ron, to play along with Jeopardy!. Frankly, we’re terrible players—either because we don’t
know the answers or because the answers are secured in our brain lock box and we can’t find the keys fast enough. We do a little better with the
final Jeopardy! question—we have a bit more time to hack the lock. When the game
is over, we take our dog, Davy, for a walk. Davy reminds us of his walk by
barking, spinning, and running around when he hears the music accompanying the final Jeopardy! question.

A few weeks ago, I
learned that Jeopardy! was taping shows in
Washington, DC. Tickets were free, so I grabbed two. On April 13, 2016, Ron and I attended
the “Jeopardy! Teen Tournament” at
DAR Constitution Hall.  We watched three shows over the course of two hours. The episodes will be broadcast this fall, date

Alex Trebek is as
charming and gracious as he appears on TV. And funny, too! Several times during
each game, the taping paused to allow for insertion of commercials. Alex used the
opportunity to answer audience questions. Based on those exchanges, I’ve
drafted some clues in the category “Alex Trebek.” Can you answer in the form of a question? The answers appear at the end of this post.

a.      46

b.      55

c.       Ford’s

d.      Haworth,

e.      The

Before the show
started, the audience was entertained by full-screen montage of Jeopardy! moments in movies and
television. It’s amazing how embedded Jeopardy! is in our pop culture.

We were introduced to the Clue Crew: Jimmy, Sara, and Kelly.  Afterward, dance music sounded throughout the
concert hall. The Jeopardy! staff
surrounded the anxious teens and danced, encouraging the teens to join them. Alex
entered the stage and greeted the players and the audience.


By the time the game
started, the contestants were relaxed and ready to play. And play they
did—without exception, they were poised, smart, and funny. The audience was fully
engaged. We groaned when a player risked it all, and whooped when the risk paid off.  My hands hurt from clapping.

One high school
freshman was obviously disappointed by his performance against two seniors.  After the game, Alex told the audience about
his conversation with the player. He’d told the student that he’d played well against
the seniors and predicted, when he was a senior, he would be amazed at how much more he’d learned. I was touched by Alex’s kindness.

The voice-overs
surprised me. Sometimes Alex would misspeak a word, jumble a sentence, or puff
the letter “P” a little too forcefully. After the game, he would return to the
podium and repeat the question, later to be dubbed into the broadcasted
version. The TV audience wouldn’t notice—during the questions, the television
screen shows only the question, not Alex reading from a card.

At the end of each game, Ron and I had the
same reaction as the music played during the final Jeopardy! question: why wasn’t Davy barking? I could hear him yapping in my head, but not in my ears. A reverse Pavlovian conditional training,

As promised, here
are the questions to the above answers:

a.       How
many days is Jeopardy! taped each
year? Answer: 46. Jeopardy! tapes five episodes a day for 46 days. The show is
broadcast for 46 weeks.

b.      How
many suits does Alex Trebek own? Answer: 55

c.       What
is Alex’s favorite place to visit while in Washington, DC? Answer: Ford’s Theatre. He finds the theatre and museum
filled with emotion.

d.      What
is Alex’s favorite vacation spot? Answer: Haworth, England, the home of the Bronte

e.       What
job would Alex like if he weren’t the host of Jeopardy!? Answer: the Pope’s. I told you he was funny.

Tonight was a good night–I got the final Jeopardy! question: What is Idaho?


How Writing a Novel is Like Trying a Lawsuit

I’m a big fan of the television
show Dancing with the Stars. This
past season, singer Andy Grammer was one of the celebrity dancers. After Andy
unsuccessfully attempted the fast Jive, co-host Erin Andrews asked him what
went wrong. Andy answered, “Dancing is hard!” My immediate thought was, “So is

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out
something as basic as the plot. At what point does your story start? How does it end?  Hmmm…should the word be laying or lying? What
about that comma? Whenever I get into a tangled knot, I slip into what I call my “trying
a lawsuit” mode. There are a lot of similarities between writing a novel and
trying a lawsuit. Maybe that’s why so many lawyers, like me, become writers.


For starters, novels are based on
conflict. Who wants to read a book where there are no problems to solve, no
arguments to settle, and everyone is happy? Like the novel, a lawsuit’s essence
is conflict. Without a conflict between the plaintiff and the defendant, there’s no
reason to file the lawsuit. Sane people don’t suffer through the emotional and
financial expense of filing a lawsuit just to tell everyone their life is grand.  

An esteemed colleague, who taught
seminars on trial practice, described a trial as “simply telling your client’s
story.” The lawyer presents the client’s story to the finder of fact (a judge
or a jury) with testimony and exhibits. Ethics and rules of evidence control
how the story is told. Novels have their own rules—the most important are those pertaining to structure and
genre. Mysteries, thrillers, suspense, and romance each have specific requirements for their genre. For example, a romance must end with a HEA
(happily ever after); otherwise, it’s not a romance, no matter how romantic the

The witnesses in a lawsuit are like
the characters in a novel. They move the story forward.  Their words must be credible, but natural. One
of the arts of trial work is preparing a witness to testify. Not too much, not
too little, but just right. The
witnesses must express themselves truthfully and authentically. Otherwise, the
witness sounds rehearsed and like a mouthpiece for the attorney. Juries can
spot unnatural testimony as easily as novel readers can spot stilted dialogue.

In my novel, No Brakes: On the Wing, I had to make sure the uneducated bicycle
messenger didn’t speak like the prosecutor, and the prosecutor didn’t speak
like the gang member, and none of them spoke like me.  As I wrote, sometimes a character would whisper
into my ear, “I would never talk like
that!” It was downright spooky.

Lawsuits require research—the law,
the procedure, and the subject matter of the lawsuit. Why did the light fall from the ceiling of the bus and conk the plaintiff on the head? Who’s at
fault? How do I prove it? While I wrote my novel, I learned the fundamentals of
fiction-writing. I also learned about bicycle messengers, autopsies, gangs,
handguns, and flashbang bra holsters. So much fun!

A novel’s opening chapter has several
functions—it introduces the plot, the setting, the characters, the tone, and
the conflict. Lawyers do the same in their opening statements.  

Trials have the judges or juries who
render the verdict after hearing the case. Novels have readers who render their
verdicts after finishing (or not!) the novel. Without exception, lawyers and
writers want favorable verdicts.  

Whenever I’m stuck while writing, I
ask myself, “What would I do if this were a lawsuit?” The answer is usually,
“Do some research.” 

Today  I am learning about snowplows, lividity, and  hypothermia.

This is me when I finally untangle a novel knot. 

Life is grand!  

Kids in Court

During my days of practicing law, I
proudly introduced myself to other lawyers as an adoption attorney. Inevitably,
the response was “Lucky you! You practice ‘Happy Law!’”

It was happy law, except for the  times it wasn’t. I had my share of failed
adoptions. An adoption fall-through breaks everyone’s heart, including the
attorneys who represent the parents and the prospective adoptive parents.  

Thankfully, the great majority of
adoption plans succeed. I always looked forward to the final adoption hearing. By
then, all the paperwork was finished, the T’s crossed, and the I’s dotted. Each county in Maryland handles its adoptions a bit differently,
but there is one commonality: the absolute joy that comes from the legal recognition
of a new family. Tears of happiness flow. Family and friends gather, clap, and
cheer. It’s happy law at its finest.

The children were the best part of
the hearings—you just never knew what they were going to do. For me, the sheer
unpredictability of children’s behavior was what made adoption hearings fun. There
was the fussy two-month old whose discontent mystified his prospective adoptive
parents. The answer came shortly after the case was called. As I introduced the
family to the judge, the baby threw up on counsel’s chair. Baby felt much
better! I give much credit to the judge. He still wanted to hold the baby for

There was the brave couple whose
birth child was a toddler, and they were in court to adopt twin toddlers.  During the hearing, the trio of rambunctious toddlers
kept themselves busy by spinning the jury chairs. I’ve never seen such laid
back parents.

A teething child gnawed on the
edges of the paper cups stacked by the water pitcher on counsel’s table. After
the hearing, the parents re-stacked the slobbered-up cups and returned them to
their place by the pitcher. From then on, I always brought bottled water into a

I wasn’t a part of this adoption, but
heard the story from a favorite judge. The judge was in the middle of the hearing
when the young child ran from the courtroom, turned off the lights on the way out the door, and left stunned adults sitting in the dark.  

Picture-taking usually follows the
hearing. Many judges invite the child to sit in the judge’s chair and bang the
gavel. Children love it. Finally, they have permission to bang a piece of
furniture with something like a hammer. And bang away, they did. So much

Sometimes a child showed remarkable
poise. A ten-year old girl invited her entire fifth grade class to her adoption
hearing, plus her extended family. The judge surprised her by asking her to
introduce everyone. Without missing a beat, she introduced every single
celebrant to the judge. I expect she will one day be a network news anchor, a celebrity spokesperson, or the
President of the United States. 

My favorite was the red-haired, four-year-old
firecracker who bolted from his parents, ripped the paper out of the reporter’s
stenotype machine, and ran, holding the end of the paper over his head. Who
knew there were so many fun contraptions in a courtroom?

Do I miss practicing adoption law? Parts of it,
for sure. I miss my noble and courageous clients, my colleagues, the judges,
and the other adoption professionals with whom I worked toward forming families.

But most of all, I miss the