“In Palumbo’s riveting third Daniel Rinaldi mystery (after 2011’s FEVER DREAM), answers prove elusive as the murders begin to pile up. Palumbo ratchets up the stakes in this psychological thriller, but maintains the emotional complexity…” --- Publisher’s Weekly

More H-less Pittsburgh

Inside of the rotunda of Union Station in Pittsburgh showing the spelling as of 1900.

The T-206 Honus Wagner baseball card showing the spelling used in 1910.

An 1857 etching from Ballou's Pictorial in which the "Pittsburg" spelling is used

Writing From The Inside Out

As one of my writer clients expressed it, "I want to just shove all my anxieties, that pain and fear, all that crap out the door.  Then I could sit down and write."

Bu write about what? Those very feelings we yearn to dispel are the raw materials of our writing, the stuff from which everything we write - including even our desire to write - merges. Rather than shoving them out the door, like unwanted guests who are wrecking the party, I say invite them in. They are the party. Or, rather, there's no party without them.

H-less Pittsburgh

1888 Pittsburg Alleghenys

H-less Pittsburg on the nameplate of the Pittsburg Press dated Friday, June 7, 1889.

H-less Pittsburg on a city map from 1895.

Excerpt from upcoming Booklist Review!

"Palumbo, an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter turned psychotherapist, uses all his professional experience to craft short, action- and tension-filled chapters and insightful sketches of people traumatized by violence."

Pittsburgh is an adventure with Rick Sebak

'25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh' is the latest from the filmmaker who delivers fascinating stories about people and places, history and human nature

By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rick Sebak is on his way to lunch. In the roughly 10 minutes it takes to drive from WQED's Oakland studios to Tessaro's in Bloomfield, he will experience at least three elements from his latest local documentary, "25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh."

Note: the film, which debuted Nov. 29, isn't about the 25 "best" things, or even 25 things to do in Pittsburgh before you die (and really, who needs that kind of pressure?).

No, "25 Things" is even more of a "scrapbook" than Mr. Sebak's usual folksy scrapbook style of filmmaking. For example, the sheer joy of shortcuts made the list, and here he was, steering his gray Honda SUV down a bunch of side streets.
Clip from Rick Sebak's '25 Things I like About Pittsburgh'

This clip is from Rick Sebak's "25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh," which helped the documentarian celebrate his 25th anniversary with QED. (Video courtesy of QED; 12/9/2012)

He later pointed out another "Thing," a home's retaining wall. It's something he must find emblematic of our region: We are held up and together by many smaller parts working together.

As for the third "Thing," which is Tessaro's restaurant, well, it's just a really great place to eat.

WQED celebrated Mr. Sebak's 25th anniversary here with an episode of the series "Experience" about a week ago. Written and directed by Pierina Morelli, it helped kick off a monthlong recognition of his local and national specials, which began with his first, "Kennywood Memories" (1988).

Since then, topics have included ice cream, breakfast, Fred Rogers, seashore towns, "Things That Aren't There Anymore," hot dogs, sandwiches, cemeteries, unusual buildings, flea markets and, debuting on PBS Christmas Day, "Breakfast Special II: Revenge of the Omelets."

To know Mr. Sebak's work is to understand that a topic is sort of like the rug that pulls a room together. It's not all about the ice cream; what you'll actually get are fascinating stories about people and places, history and human nature.

"It's pretty rare to find somebody who has lived here all these years who does not know what they are, or hasn't heard of him," said Kevin Conrad, Mr. Sebak's longtime friend and editor.

The Buhl Foundation has been a longtime major sponsor of his work. When Frederick Thieman became president in 2008, he met with Mr. Sebak and discovered he very likely was the Sebak family's paperboy many years ago.

As Mr. Sebak could tell you, Pittsburgh's like that.

Born and raised in Bethel Park and now living in Regent Square, Mr. Sebak speaks without a Western Pennsylvania accent, but his voice does carry a distinctive sort of twang. He writes, produces, edits and narrates his "Pittsburgh History Series" films, where he is usually heard but not seen.

For "25 Things," he made an exception. Mr. Sebak, 59, is on camera several times, including his visit to a "porch party" in Friendship, where neighborhood strangers became acquainted, and WTAE's Sally Wiggin made a guest appearance.

Although he was a child of the suburbs, Mr. Sebak's fascination with the city began when he was a grade-schooler at St. Valentine's in Bethel Park.

"I think I was slightly notorious because I knew how to take the streetcar into town, get a transfer and take the bus into Oakland," he said.

He and one of his brothers were driven to Oakland every day one summer for a gifted program, and their mother, Peggy Kent Sebak, made the outings an adventure.

"We did something different every day. We'd have a picnic in Schenley Park, or we'd go to the library ..." he said.

A born traveler, Mr. Sebak was a high school foreign exchange student going to Rio de Janeiro. The two Brazilian students who later came to live with his family in turn helped spark his lifelong interest in becoming Pittsburgh's best tour guide.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mr. Sebak found work as a filmmaker for South Carolina Educational Television. Pittsburgher Josie Carey worked there in the 1970s with him on a show called "Wheee!" and his other formative assignments included a month in Australia covering the Spoleto arts festival and traveling the land.

The "Slightly Wacco Aussie Doco" was one of his first attempts at capturing the oddities and amusements of a region. He later created a doc called "Shag," which featured the state dance of South Carolina.

After 11 years, he was happily settled "and of course, that's when you get a new job," he said.

A friend told him WQED was looking for a producer, and the rest of the story reads like one of his documentaries.

His is a life cluttered with ideas, current projects, a mountain of messages from people who want to clue him in on this odd person in Wilkinsburg or the Elvis Presley fan club in Dormont. In one of the offices where he was still editing "25 Things" three days before broadcast, a bulletin board was dotted with colorful note cards.

Some mentioned people or places. But there, too, was this white card, scribbled in black capital letters: "I'm not sure how this all goes together (& it probably doesn't matter)."

"That's a title I thought I might use for one of those shows that's a hodgepodge," he said, before launching into a story about a man who used to take home movies of WWII soldiers in his neighborhood as they shipped out.

It's no surprise that Rick Sebak's stories always lead to other stories.

On editing bay monitors behind him was footage shot at Emil's in Rankin. The image of owner Kristine Kochis telling a story about go-go dancers there in the 1970s is frozen on the screens.

Seems a bit late to be finishing the documentary, but this is the Sebak working model.

"We're building the last story now; I'm notorious as a last-minute person," he said, laughing. "The morning of the show, we'll still be working on it."

Compared with what happened during the debut of "Pittsburgh A to Z" in 2001, there was plenty of time.

"It was a long show, a 90-minute show. It started at 8 o'clock. Master control was at that time right next door [to editing] and the door was open," Mr. Conrad said.

"I heard the show begin and I'm like, 'Oh my god I'm working on the end of the show and it's really starting.'

"And I have 84 minutes, which sounds like a lot of time, but it isn't."

Mr. Conrad finished the final credits with 15 minutes to spare: "It makes me nervous just thinking about it 10, 12 years later."

A Sebak documentary isn't built to make anyone nervous. Rather, it's meant to entertain, perhaps to explore. He takes his filmmaking -- but not apparently himself -- seriously. A peek inside his so-called office, which resembles a long, wide closet filled with a riot of books, boxes, keepsakes and one computer monitor on a desk, reveals decades of research for various shows.

Up on a high corner is a shelf holding papers, a model home and four regional Emmy awards, stuffed almost out of sight.

Like the white card on the wall, it's a hodgepodge. But it's Mr. Sebak's hodgepodge, so that's fine.

His films are even the subject of an academic dissertation. Indiana native Bryan James McGeary, a Bowling Green University major in American culture studies, watched so many of the Pittsburgh History Series films growing up, he decided to analyze their impact.

"Houses, Hot Dogs and 'Hoods: Place Branding and the Reconstruction of Identity in Rick Sebak's Documentaries" was part of his recent work toward a doctorate in philosophy.

"He makes it easier for people to connect; there is sort of that sense of authority in his films that doesn't come from experts," Mr. McGeary said, "just from the repetition of ideas from the regular people he interviews."

After so many years of upbeat filmmaking, Mr. Sebak said he has given thought to trying something more "serious." But not for long.

"I just think what we do is so unusual on television, whereas the other type is done by everybody else. I think I enjoy the celebration part of my shows enough that it sustains me. To do a muck-raking thing?"

He shook his head.

His longtime editor said that's just not Mr. Sebak's nature. "People I meet, they say 'What do you do?' I tell them I edit long-form documentary shows," Mr. Conrad said. "But then I tell them I work with Rick Sebak and they say 'Oh I love those shows. My kids know every word of 'Kennywood Memories.' "

"And I say, 'I know. So do I.' "

Originally posted on Post-Gazette.com December 9, 2012

Dennis Palumbo on his latest novel, “Night Terrors”

Third Daniel Rinaldi Mystery from Dennis Palumbo 

Due May 7

Screenwriter, psychotherapist, and oh yes, novelist Dennis Palumbo joins Larry and Dave once again to talk about his newest novel and share his perspectives about thriller writing.
From Amazon.com:
Night Terrors is the third in the critically-acclaimed mystery series featuring psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi. In this compelling new thriller, set against the backdrop of a brutal Pittsburgh winter, Daniel is asked to treat retired FBI profiler Lyle Barnes, whose terrifying nocturnal visions cause him to wake up screaming.

After twenty years spent inside the heads of the nation’s worst serial killers, Barnes is not only falling apart psychologically, but also finds himself the target of an unknown assassin, whose mounting list of victims paralyzes the city. Hidden for his own protection by his former colleagues in the Bureau, Barnes secretly escapes, drawing Daniel and a joint FBI-Pittsburgh PD Task Force into a desperate manhunt for the missing agent. Can they find him before the killer does?
Great conversation from a fascinating, multi-talented writer.

How Pittsburgh lost its 'H' and got it back a century ago

Pittsburgh - America's Most Misspelled City

By Patricia Lowry / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Richardson Clover had a problem, and a pretty good idea how to fix it.

As assistant hydrographer in the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Navigation in 1889, Lt. Clover was in charge of producing its maps. He'd noticed that many place names were spelled several different ways, especially in Alaska, where there were 20 indigenous languages.

He suggested to Thomas C. Mendenhall, superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, that the two offices work together on standardizing place names on government charts and other official publications.

Thus was born, in 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. One of its first acts, on June 2, 1891, was to take away Pittsburgh's "H." On Dec. 23, President Benjamin Harrison made it official. Merry Christmas, Pittsburg!

Nothing personal, mind you. The board ruled that all cities and towns with name endings pronounced "berg" should be spelled "burg."

In the case of Pittsburgh, this was not as capricious as it seems. Numerous 19th-century local history books omitted the H. Not even the city's newspapers, including the Pittsburg Telegraph, the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette and the Pittsburg Press, could agree on the spelling.

And although Pittsburgh's original city charter of 1816 spelled it with an H, the printed act omitted it due to a printer's error. The board believed the U.S. Post Office arbitrarily added the H at a later date.

So in the eyes of the federal government, Pittsburgh was Pittsburg for almost 20 years, until the board, prodded by two prominent Pittsburghers, reversed itself 100 years ago ...on July 19, 1911.

In fact, the H was there from the beginning, a reflection of the settlement's British, not German, roots. When Gen. John Forbes wrote in a letter to William Pitt the Elder, then leader of the House of Commons, that his troops had forced the French to abandon Fort Duquesne, he added, "I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Du Quesne." The letter was dated "Pittsbourgh. 27th November 1758."

Forbes would have pronounced it Pittsborough -- Pittsburra, actually, in his guid Scots tongue. Had Pittsburgh retained that pronunciation, the spelling still would have been changed in 1891. The board also decreed that all places ending in "borough" use the truncated, inelegant "boro."

Further, it eliminated hyphens, apostrophes and in at least one case, the space between two words: It declared all places named New Castle should be spelled Newcastle. Now that's capricious.

"The board consisted of 10 members," Sewickley-born George R. Stewart wrote in his 1945 book, "Names on the Land: a Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States."

"Most of them were scientifically trained, especially in geology and geography. They were government employees, practical men. Thus they were well fitted to deal with naming insofar as it was a practical problem. They were not well fitted to deal with its important phases which were illogical, traditional and sentimental. The original board rendered good service. It might have done better if its list had included a woman, a student of the English language, a journalist, a poet, and a hillbilly."
A common query

The case of the missing H is old news, of course, to 'Burghophiles. On Rick Sebak's 2001 "Pittsburgh A to Z" show, the letter H stood for Pittsburgh's H.

"The H question is probably our most frequently asked question," Steve Dell, then chief archivist for the Heinz History Center, told Mr. Sebak.

"Local libraries are familiar with it; the present writer has been besieged with it at his office and at dinner parties," architectural historian James D. Van Trump wrote in WQED's program guide, QED Renaissance, the forerunner of Pittsburgh Magazine. "The never-ceasing recurrence of the query has induced me to write an account in final answer, at least in the interest of sparing myself constant verbal repetition."

Mr. Van Trump wrote that he based his article partly on a 1971 one by Press writer George Swetnam.

"What is disturbing," Mr. Swetnam wrote, "is the form of the question: Nine times out of 10, it is: 'When did they put the "h" in Pittsburg?' There's even a legend it was done through some dark design of the old Flinn-Magee ring."

Ah, yes. When in doubt, blame a politician.
Are yinz from Pittsburg?

"There are Pittsburgs in California and Kansas, Illinois and Texas -- a tribute to the distances to which the Pennsylvania Pittsburghers have wandered," Mr. Van Trump wrote.

So it would seem, but in fact, Pittsburg, Texas, is named for William Harrison Pitts, who arrived from Georgia with his family in 1854 and donated the land on which this town of about 4,300 grew up.

Pittsburg, Kansas, which sits atop a coal field, was named for Pittsburgh by Canadian-born co-founder Franklin Playter, who hoped it would become an industrial city like the one at the forks of the Ohio. When it was established in 1876, it was called New Pittsburg because four years earlier, farmer William A. Pitt had named his Kansas town Pittsburg -- or Pittsburgh as it was spelled in the 1880 census. Playter bought the "naming rights," shall we say, from Pitt in 1881, the year old Pittsburg became Tipton and New Pittsburg became Pittsburg. Population today: about 20,000.

Pittsburg, Ill., is considerably smaller -- so small that no information about its founding is easily found online. But at the Pittsburg Public Library, "We just happen to have a book that someone local wrote," said Sue Clark over the phone. She manages the one-room library housed in the municipal building, a yellow metal structure on the edge of town.

Pittsburg was founded in 1906 when John Colp and Samuel T. Brush, both Illinois natives, opened an underground coal mine there.

"The mine owners agreed upon the name of Pittsburg in honor of the Keystone State," Ms. Clark read from Marlene Richey's 2003 book, "Nicknames and Other Things: Memoric History of Pittsburg, Ill."

Perhaps the need to lure experienced miners to the town from other states also had something to do with it. Although the mines have closed, street names still carry out the namesake theme: Keystone, Lehigh Valley, Hocking Valley, Pennsylvania and Scranton. Pittsburg's flat grid of streets -- about 35 blocks -- is sparsely built; the upside is its small houses have big lots with lots of trees. Population: about 600.

Pittsburg, Calif., a port city first settled in 1839 as New York Landing, changed its name to Pittsburg on Feb. 11, 1911, to honor the California city's steel-building industry. The largest of the namesake places, it's home to about 64,000 Pittsburgers today.

There is a Pittsburg whose name is attributed to a far-flung Pennsylvanian. Pittsburg, Ore., was founded by former Lycoming Co. resident Peter Brous, who arrived in 1879 with his wife and seven children. He built a sawmill and gristmill and named the settlement Pittsburgh; the H was lost after the great H removal of 1891.

Pittsburg, N.H., "the snowmobiling capital of New England," is both a small string town and the largest township in the lower 48 states. The town straddles the Daniel Webster Highway, which follows the narrow Cedar Stream. The township, bordering Quebec, was incorporated in 1840 and named for William Pitt himself, not for his first and largest namesake city.

But Pittsburgs in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah were named for the industrial heritage of Pittsburgh.

If any of these Pittsburgs had H's to begin with, they don't seem to have stirred up much of a fuss to get them back.
H makes a comeback

In Pittsburgh, though, locals lobbied for the H's restoration. In fact, the city and state never removed it from official documents even as federal maps, agencies and the Post Office continued to do business without it.

As for the general public, "certainly large numbers did comply," said David Grinnell, chief archivist for the Heinz History Center today. "In hand-addressed stuff, the H is just gone" in letters and post cards in the center's collection.

Local businesses adopted the H-less name, too. The history center's "Pittsburgh A to Z" exhibit of 2001, prepared in conjunction with Mr. Sebak's documentary, included as evidence advertising materials, a commemorative plate from the city's 1900 exposition and a child's coat from the "Pittsburg" department store, Kaufmann's.

When William Hamilton Davis became Pittsburgh postmaster in 1906, he made restoring the H a special cause. The son of a South Side rolling mill worker, Mr. Davis began his career as a newspaper reporter at the Commercial Gazette, where he later was city editor. As early as 1880, at 23, he was the head of his family, living with several of his siblings, also unmarried, on the South Side and in Shadyside for what appears to be the rest of his life.

He took time out to serve in the Spanish-American War, where he attained the rank of major, and later was a leader in National Guard affairs. In 1908, he was chair of the military and parade committee for the city's sesquicentennial.

"The idea was to have a beautiful and instructive parade, not too large, which should illustrate the growth of the city from the beginning in all lines. In this complete success was achieved" on Greater Pittsburgh Day on Oct. 1, wrote Sidney King in a contemporary report on the event.

For Mr. Davis, who became city treasurer in 1916, restoring Pittsburgh's H was a matter of civic and family pride.

"My father and my grandfather added the "h' to the city's name, and when I was appointed to my first term, in 1906, the post office custom was to eliminate it, although personally I used it," he told the Pittsburgh Gazette Times in August 1911.

Mr. Davis's efforts were bolstered by those of the Chamber of Commerce and George Tener Oliver, U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, who also was publisher of the Gazette Times. Sen. Oliver persuaded the board to hold a special meeting on the matter on July 19, 1911, at which evidence in support of the H was presented.

It was enough to convince the board to reverse its position, outlined in a letter sent to Sen. Oliver and printed in the July 22 Gazette Times:

Hon. George T. Oliver

United States Senate


At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board held on July 19, 1911 the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without the final H was reconsidered and the form below was adopted:

Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).

Very respectfully,

G.S. Sloan, Secretary

Case closed? Not quite.

It took The Pittsburg Press, then the city's largest paper, another 10 years to finally and unceremoniously include the H, without comment, on its masthead and in all references to the city beginning Aug. 1, 1921.

There is at least one remaining legacy of the board's decisions, another Pittsburgh top ranking: Today it's America's most misspelled city.

...Raise a glass to Pittsburgh's silent H, a heck of a good letter with a lot of hidden history.

Patricia Lowry is a Post-Gazette staff writer plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.
First Published July 17, 2011 12:00 am

Is Your Psycho Killer Just...Psycho?

As some of you may know, I'm a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. But I also write mystery fiction, both short stories and novels. Which means I also read a lot of mystery fiction, and have for many, many years.

And since I believe good crime fiction holds a mirror up to society -- exposing both its flaws and triumphs, dangerous excesses and moral ambiguity -- it doesn't surprise me that many contemporary mysteries and thrillers feature ever-more-violent criminals, ever-more-psychotic murderers, ever-more-deranged serial killers. As our world threatens to tilt into chaos -- social, economic, and political -- our crime fiction seems to traffic more and more in the realm of the psychologically-disturbed culprit, the villain whose heinous crimes appear totally random, totally senseless.

Which means, for today's mystery writer, I believe it's also a time to step back and reflect on how truthfully -- both in terms of believable narrative and real life itself -- a crime story villain is portrayed. In other words, is your psycho killer just ... psycho? Does your villain display the verisimilitude that all good fictional characters require -- or is he or she just crazy? Mindlessly, conveniently crazy?

Ray Bradbury once said, "There is only one type of story in the world -- your story." In other words, all writing is autobiographical. No matter how seemingly removed in time and space from the reality of your own life, you're writing about yourself. Even your impulse to tell a particular story arises from an aspect of your interior world.

Case in point: My series of mystery thrillers (Mirror Image, the debut novel, and Fever Dream, its sequel) feature a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh police. This character, Daniel Rinaldi, is Italian-American, was born and raised in the Steel City, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. As did I.

Of course, my crime novels are works of fiction, so there are definitely points at which Rinaldi and I part company. For one thing, he was an amateur boxer in his youth. The other, even more obvious difference, is that Daniel Rinaldi is a lot braver and more resourceful than I am. Most of the dangerous situations he finds himself in would have me running for the hills!

So Daniel Rinaldi both is and isn't me. As therapists, he and I are similar in our theoretical orientations and manner of doing therapy. His best friend, a paranoid schizophrenic, is even based on a patient at a private clinic with whom I was especially close. But, though we share these and other personal similarities, as a character Rinaldi clearly represents a fantasized version of me.

As do, I believe, all characters brought to life by their literary creators -- even those that seem totally removed from who we think we are. I'm speaking here about the writing of villains. Particularly those that are portrayed as crazy, psychopathic, criminally disturbed.

I can't tell you how often I've read thrillers in which the author's depiction of a "psycho" killer is pure boiler-plate: unconvincing, unmotivated, without psychological depth or realism. Why is this? Especially when the writer's other characters seem more rounded, realistic, subject to the usual panoply of feelings and motives?

In my view, it's because these writers are denying Bradbury's tenet about writing, which is that -- however disguised -- it is inevitably autobiographical. By that I mean, crime writers often see their monstrous, unstoppable killer as being "out there" somewhere, beyond the realm of normal human behavior. A caricature of evil out of a child's nightmare.

Or, even worse, they often conjure a conveniently "crazy" killer who commits the crime merely because he's crazy. Merely to horrify the reader. Merely as an excuse for gratuitous and graphic depictions of unspeakable acts. Merely as a bad guy heinous enough to have us rooting for the hero to finally stop him. In other words, the boogie-man.

I've often had writing patients, working on a violent crime thriller, complain that they just can't get inside the head of their villain "because I'm not like that."

Do you feel that way? Do you believe that because you're a nice, kind, truthful person, you can't really create a lying, vicious killer? A ruthless blackmailer? A greedy kidnapper?

Well, if so, I beg to differ.

For one thing, as a psychotherapist for more than 25 years, I've come to realize that people --common, everyday people -- have operatic passions. That stoic guy bagging groceries at your local supermarket, that helpful lady at the pharmacy, the janitor at your kid's school -- all of them, if given the opportunity to relate their life stories, would stun you with the personal dramas each has endured. The heartbreaks and triumphs, the yearnings and dashed hopes. The hurts and shame and missed opportunities they've obsessed about since high school. The deaths and financial losses and mental illnesses with which their families have struggled.

As I say, operatic passions. Great loves and hates. Maybe buried now beneath years of quiet, conventional living. Beneath years of daily toil, paying the bills, driving the kids to school. But those passions are there, trust me. Otherwise soap operas wouldn't be a staple of broadcasting in every corner of the world, in every culture. Otherwise viewers wouldn't be transfixed (often as a guilty secret) with reality TV, with true crime series on cable networks, with gossip in all its forms.

Which brings me back to the crime writer, and what he or she is willing to acknowledge and explore. And, make no mistake, there's a bottomless well, a fathomless sea, a boundless horizon available, if you just have the courage to accept all that it contains.

Deep within each mystery writer lies the seeds of every kind of human. From a nun to a serial killer, a corporate tycoon to a migrant worker, a life-giver to a life-taker. If you can feel, you can imagine. And if you can imagine, then the possibilities -- for good or evil -- inherent in that which you've imagined are available to you.

Here's an example, crude but illustrative. Let's say you've always had a secret yearning to be respected. Perhaps this yearning began in childhood, when your siblings got all the glory in school or on the athletic field, and you felt ignored. Discounted. Invisible.

Imagine, then, that your villain -- a terrifying serial killer, a sociopath who murders without remorse -- has felt similarly discounted and invisible all his life. Rejected. Ignored.

Well, if you're this guy, one thing that definitely gets you some attention is leaving a swath of mutilated bodies in your wake. And if you're clever enough to continually elude the police, you probably feel a sense of pride. Of gratification. Of vindication. Now the world's respecting you, even if it's a respect based on fear. You're certainly not invisible anymore. At long last, you're getting the attention you deserve.

Luckily, regardless of how we were treated in childhood, most of us still grow up to be sane, rational citizens. Maybe our feelings are easily hurt, or we succumb too easily to envy or jealousy, but we're probably not going to do much about it. Certainly nothing criminal.

But in our fiction, we get to act out these feelings. As writers, we get to create villainous characters who do all sorts of bad things -- and, I submit, the more relatable their motives, the more terrifying they are to the reader.

The cold fact is, even a psychopath has his or her reasons. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, believed his neighbor was a demon, ordering him to kill through communicating via his pet dog. Mary Martin Speck, a nurse who killed 23 patients, claimed to be doing the Lord's work. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, felt a need to prove his superiority over those lesser beings trying to catch him.

As I say, the reasons may be irrational, based on delusional beliefs or unfounded grandiosity, but they're reasons nonetheless. At least in the killer's mind.

Which means the brave writer has to visit that mind occasionally. Has to figure out some way to relate to that mind's desires, fears, beliefs, pain, ego.

I recall a group therapy session years ago, when I was an intern in clinical training, in which one of the members got furious at another. Over some real or imagined slight. Regardless, she got to her feet and verbally attacked this second person.

After 10 minutes of vituperative rage and name-calling, the woman finally calmed herself. Then, turning to the therapist who was running the group, she said, sheepishly, "Wow, all that anger and rage ... all that ugly hate ... I'm so sorry. That wasn't me."

To which the therapist responded, "Yes it was. It isn't the sole truth of who you are, of course, but those dark feelings are in there. They're in everybody. They're as real in you as are your other feelings -- your compassion, your generosity, your joy."

As John Fowles once wrote, in his novel Daniel Martin, "Whole sight ... or all the rest is desolation." By which he meant that the totality of the human condition, the entire truth of our experience as people, has to be acknowledged if we're to live authentically. Just as, I believe, the totality of the human condition has to be explored and utilized by the writer seeking to create vivid, compelling, seriously terrifying villains.

So the next time you begin conceptualizing your crime story's villain, don't be afraid to mine your own feelings. Down deep, below the surface. It's where the motherlode of characterization, and all the narrative gold that results, lies hidden.

Just waiting for you, the writer, to bring it into the light.


(This essay first appeared, in slightly revised form, on the "Sirens of Suspense" website.)

Notable Authors, both past and present, who have called the Pittsburgh area home: Rachel Carson

“Silent Spring” – Rachel Carson

Essential reading for any Pittsburgher and nature lover, Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was the first book of its kind – a scathing review of the bad things humans do to their environment for the sake of convenience. Exposing the public to the drawbacks to the indiscriminate use of DDT and other pesticides was Carson’s goal, and 50 years later, readers can still learn something from her book. Available through Barnes and Noble in a special 40th anniversary edition republished in 2002, “Silent Spring” belongs on your must-read or must-reread list. Carson’s work is credited for launching the environmental movement. Even if you don’t fancy yourself an environmentalist, Carson’s descriptions of nature in western Pennsylvania make the book worth a look. Head to the Barnes and Noble in Homestead so you can make Rachel proud by taking a nature walk on the nearby Great Allegheny Passage trail after your purchase.

The world's most famous hamburger was 'invented' near Pittsburgh ...

A Meal Disguised as a Sandwich: The Big Mac
Sign of Uniontown as the home of the Big Mac
Uniontown is proclaimed the home town of the Big Mac in this exhibit at the Big Mac Museum.

A Big Mac in its box

A hamburger built of two 1.6oz beef patties, special “Mac” sauce (akin to Thousand Island dressing), iceberg lettuce, American cheese, pickles, and onions, all served on a three-part sesame seed bun, sounds more like a day’s worth of food than a single sandwich. From modest beginnings as an early McDonald’s franchise owner in the 1960s, Jim Delligatti used persistence and innovation to develop the Big Mac, which first sold for 45 cents. The sandwich was originally test-run in a dozen Delligatti McDonald’s stores around Pittsburgh before being added to the national McDonald’s menu in 1968. The Big Mac is now sold internationally and is one of the company’s signature products.

Michael James Delligatti was born in Uniontown, Fayette County in 1918. Delligatti’s father’s job forced the family to move frequently. He never went to college and started his career working for Isaly’s Dairy, a chain of family-owned dairies and restaurants, in the 1950s. By the mid-50s, Delligatti wanted to open his own restaurant and decided to attend a restaurant show in Chicago in 1956. At the show, a McDonald’s booth caught Delligatti’s attention and led to an invitation to a McDonald’s that had just opened in Illinois. Delligatti discovered if he went with McDonald’s, the money he’d save on paper goods purchased through the company would pay for his franchise fee. 

Photo of Jim Delligatti
Jim Delligatti with a Big Mac as seen in a picture at the Big Mac Museum.  Alan Jalowitz

In 1957, Jim Delligatti opened his first McDonald’s on McKnight Road in the North Hills area of Pittsburgh. He was one of McDonald’s earliest franchise owners; by the 1960s, he was operating a dozen stores in the Pittsburgh area. Delligatti had an exclusive territorial franchise for metropolitan Pittsburgh but was struggling with sub-par store volumes. He decided that the only way to broaden his customer base and increase sales was to add to the McDonald’s menu.

For the next few years, Jim Delligatti spent time and energy to create a new product for the McDonald’s menu. Delligatti used every opportunity to partner with other multi-store franchise owners and McDonald’s top managers and discuss the need to improve the menu to gain sales through a new target market. Delligatti’s eventual idea was to combine two-all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun. The special sauce recipe remains a secret, but it is recognized as a variant of Thousand Island dressing. Original names for the burger included “Aristocrat” and “Blue Ribbon Burger.” The name “Big Mac” was created by Esther Glickstein Rose, a 21-year-old Advertising Secretary who worked at McDonald’s Corporate office in Chicago.

Delligatti’s sandwich idea was not wholly his own, however. Bob Wian, the founder of the Big Boy drive-in chain, virtually built his entire franchise around a double-decker sandwich. Delligatti was introduced to this type of sandwich when he managed a Big Boy drive-in in the early 1950s in southern California. When Delligatti started looking for new menu items Wian’s Big Boy sandwich quickly came to mind. Delligatti said that inventing the Big Mac “wasn’t like discovering the light bulb. The bulb was already there. All I did was screw it in the socket.”

One of Delligatti’s obstacles in getting the Big Mac approved for sale was its proposed price of 45 cents—twice that of a regular cheeseburger. It took the support of Ralph Lanphar, a regional manager in Columbus, to obtain corporate permission to test the Big Mac. This permission was limited—Delligatti could only test the sandwich at his Uniontown store, and he was told he had to use the standard McDonald’s bun. When this bun proved far too small for all the contents of the Big Mac, Delligatti ignored management’s requests and ordered a larger, three-piece bun. Within a few months, the new Big Mac was increasing the Uniontown store’s sales by better than 12 percent. The sandwich was a hit.

Due to the success in the Uniontown store, the Big Mac was soon sold in all of Delligatti’s stores. When each of these stores showed significant gains, McDonald’s managers and franchise owners elsewhere looked to Delligatti and his stores for information on his new sandwich. The McDonald’s chain added the Big Mac to other test markets, and when all of them scored 10 percent or better in sales gains, the new product was finally put into nationwide distribution in 1968. It had taken Delligatti nearly two years to the sell the company on the idea.

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Ann Holt of Book Keeping Reviews Night Terrors

Night Terrors: A Daniel Rinaldi Mystery Night Terrors: A Daniel Rinaldi Mystery by Dennis Palumbo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Psychologist Daniel Rinaldi is once again drawn into dangerous situations where his skill working with victims of traumatic crimes is needed. Set in a wintery Pittsburgh, this roller coaster ride of a thriller is a worthy third entry into the series.

Bottom Line: Dennis Palumbo's mysteries are page turners and highly readable. It's not necessary, but I would still recommend reading the other two books first.

A recently retired criminal profiler is suffering from 'night terrors'. Before Dr. Rinaldi can
begin to work with him, it is discovered that the ex-FBI agent is on a list of people being hunted down and killed by another serial killer. A second case concerning a mother, who believes her son is innocent even though he has confessed, seems unrelated but things may not be what they seem.

Preparing to write something about Night Terrors, I went back and read my comments on the other two books in the series and discovered that what I wrote then is still true.

Dennis Palumbo knows how to write and he knows how to tell a really exciting story without sharing more than the reader's mind can absorb. In other words violence but not too much violence; sex but not too much sex.

His characters are memorable, quirky, and fun.

It isn't necessary to be familiar with Pittsburgh; but if you are, it adds to mood to recognize the locations the author describes.

If you read and enjoy thrillers, add Dennis Palumbo to your list of authors to follow. You won't be disappointed!


The Three Cosmic Rules of Writing

As a veteran writer and a licensed psychotherapist specializing in writers' issues, I know enough to know there aren't any rules when it comes to writing.

Except for the following, which I modestly call the Three Cosmic Rules of Writing. I'm serious. Learn these simple rules, then burn them into your hearts and minds. It couldn't hurt.

The First Cosmic Rule: 'You Are Enough'

It's a growth industry: there are dozens of seminars, how-to books and audio tapes promising to teach you to write better, faster, more commercially. And there's nothing wrong with most of these. I know; I teach some myself.

Because, frankly, there ARE things a writer needs to learn about craft, the traditions of storytelling and the reality of the marketplace. But for the writer just starting out, there's a hidden danger: namely, the belief that if you just take the right seminars, read the right books or pick the right guru, then you'll be successful. That the person you are right now just isn't enough.

It's a classic belief system...writers who feel they have to be something more to succeed -- smarter, better educated, funnier -- with more interesting lives, more unique experiences. More.something.

As a therapist who works with writers, I see this everyday. Writers who feel they're somehow not enough. Who believe all the OTHER writers are more talented, more confident, less burdened by doubt.

It puts me in mind of that famous opening sequence of Woody Allen's 'Stardust Memories.' A glum Woody sits in a dark, dingy train car, with other lost souls. Looking out the window, he sees another train car -- shining, brightly lit. Inside, beautiful men and women laugh and drink champagne, a festive vision of wit and privilege out of a Noel Coward play. Woody despairs. Why isn't he in the sparkling car, with the sparkling people?

Once, when a writer client of mine made reference to this scene to explain his feelings, what emerged was not only his sense of himself as inadequate, but something else, more insidious and undermining. Namely, the idea that he'd been dealt a bad hand -- 'I'm in the wrong car' -- because of intrinsic defects in himself. If he were a better writer -- smarter, more talented, whatever -- he'd be in the right car. Those happy, glittering people were in the shining train car because they DESERVED to be there while he did not.

Thereafter, in our work together, his self-sabotaging behaviors could be understood as a natural result of his belief in himself as basically defective. When this painful self-concept was successfully illuminated and challenged, things began to shift in his view of himself.

What this anecdote illustrates is the real danger to your writing in seeing yourself as less than, not enough. Admittedly, a very common, self-limiting belief. To which I offer this thought, which will save you thousands of dollars in therapy bills and trim years off your spiritual journey: everybody thinks the party's happening somewhere else.

But it isn't. It's happening right here, right now. With you.

You -- with all your doubts and fears, joys and sorrows -- are enough. You -- the one reading these words at this very moment -- have everything you need to become the writer you want to be.

'Me?' you may be asking. 'Just as I am?'

Yes, you, who may, at this moment, be feeling scared, frustrated, blocked, discouraged. If so, join the club. Because so does every other writer in the world, even the most successful ones, who, after all, were once struggling writers themselves.

And now that they're successful, guess what? They still struggle. They have the same doubts, fears, longings, worries. They just don't give these feelings the same negative meanings you do. Smart writers recognize their feelings as important information about their inner lives, as the raw material of their writing craft. Just grist for the mill.

Which brings me to the Second Cosmic Rule of Writing: 'Work With What You're Given'

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons by George Booth depicts a tormented, obviously 'blocked' writer sitting at his typewriter, crumpled paper strewn about, surrounded by literally dozens of dogs -- napping, barking, hanging from the window sills, etc. The writer's wife stands in the doorway, glaring at him in weary disdain. 'Write about dogs,' she says.

Aside from its dark humor, the cartoon's truth is that the frustrated writer often doesn't see that a subject for his writing is right in front of him -- the dogs; i.e., the obvious elements that actually inhabit his life.

In other words, work with what you're given. Writers have to practice SEEING, really seeing the world around them. As a writer, your job is to do this consciously and artfully, using craft and imagination as well as memory and reflection. You have to pay attention.

Tolstoy said, 'Love those whom God has put before You'; the Tao says, 'Love the Ten Thousand Things.' In short, love, that is -- see -- everything.

What do I mean by this? To 'love' the totality of what we experience is to accept all our responses to it, to be enlivened by the variety of ways we experience events, good or bad, painful or joyful. The artist's task is to see every moment -- and our reaction to it -- as potentially interesting, challenging and worthy of our creative participation.

Viewed from this perspective, a writer is never bored, never longs for things in his or her life to be more exciting, more interesting, more something else than they actually are. Except, of course, when you DO feel that way, in which case you should write about that boredom or that longing. That's your grist for that particular day. It's working with what you're given.

Which brings me to the Third (and, thankfully, last) Cosmic Rule of Writing...namely, 'Writing Begets Writing.'

If you're stuck on a difficult scene, write it anyway.

Write it badly. Write it in verse. Write it as a journal entry, a Dennis Miller rant. If you're frustrated at being stuck, write about that. I don't care. But write.


If you have angry, self-critical feelings, give them to a character in your story. If there isn't a likely candidate, invent one. There IS one, anyway: you. Your anguish, doubt, fears and frustrations are as vital and elemental to what you're writing as any character or plot point. Might as well make use of this fact.

Writing begets writing. Just as worrying begets worrying. Obsessing begets more obsessing. Pacing back and forth begets -- well, you get the idea.

When you risk writing from where you're at, you set in motion a whole set of internal processes. The first rotten sentence you write has a life you can inhabit, evaluate, cross out. This first attempt can be replaced by a second, hopefully less rotten sentence -- maybe a good piece of description or a sharp line of dialogue.

Then again, maybe not. But it doesn't matter. Just keep going. As William Goldman reminds us, some scenes you write are just going to be sludge, but they're important connective tissue. They keep things moving; they're links in a chain. Weak links, perhaps, but you can always go back and strengthen them later.

With what? The knowledge that you've written, for one thing, because writing doesn't just beget writing, it also begets -- and reinforces -- the reality that you can write; that pages will accumulate.

Look at it this way: Every hour you spend writing is an hour NOT spent fretting about your writing. Every day you produce pages is a day you DIDN'T spend sitting at a coffee shop, bitching about not producing any pages.

Writing begets writing. Not writing begets...well...not writing. You do the math.

There you have it: the Three Cosmic Rules of Writing.

1) 'You Are Enough.'
2) 'Work With What You're Given.'
3) 'Writing Begets Writing.'

Which all point to one rule, really. Write now. Don't wait. Write now. And keep writing.

Pass it on.