Posted on December 30, 2015 - by

Advice Can Be Deadly


I’m so pleased because the third book in my advice column mystery series (written as Roberta Isleib) is finally out as an ebook! Dr. Butterman (AKA Dr. Aster), the main character in this series, including ASKING FOR MURDER, is an advice columnist. Even though I’m a psychologist and an advice column junkie, I found that writing her columns was not so easy. After cranking out three of her books, I figured out how she would describe her approach: “Most people have a pretty good idea of where they’re already headed when they ask for advice. A wise friend simply shines a flashlight on the path.”

But it didn’t come naturally to me, and I realize that other advice-giving professionals struggle too.

Dr. Phil, for example, is not one to stand by on the sidelines holding a flashlight. In 2006 while visiting Los Angeles for the “Sisters in Crime Goes to Hollywood” conference, I attended the filming of one of the shows in the doctor’s live studio audience. A pair of sisters who’d been estranged by boyfriend/husband issues fought like cats and dogs for the better part of their fifteen-minute segment. Even Dr. Phil, an expert on handling catfights, looked defeated by the end of the show. These women had come to Dr. Phil for help as a last resort, but darned if they were going to let him get a word in edgewise. After several attempts to expose the bones of the problem and redirect the sisters, he slumped on his barstool, chin in hand, and rolled his eyes at the audience—as if asking the question “where did I go wrong?”
And Dr. Butterman (aka Dr. Aster) has a very young editor who always wants the columns a little more chipper than feels right to Rebecca. Here’s a little excerpt from ASKING FOR MURDER, showing how she sometimes struggled to hit the right note too:

I used the remaining minutes of my aborted lunch hour to choose a question for my advice column and rough out an answer. I’m a clinical psychologist by day, but in the off hours, I whisk on my advice columnist cloak and write the Ask Dr. Aster column for Bloom! ezine. Sometimes the column feels downright silly; other times, profound. I love it most when it evolves into a Greek chorus of my life, that I didn’t consciously intend. 

This month, my twelve-year-old (a slight exaggeration) editor, Jillian, had asked for columns that fit the category “Bloom! In spring!” In other words, no downers, no freaking stages of grief, no miserable housewives in housecoats abandoned by their freshly-vital, chemically-driven husbands. The advice should be uplifting, encouraging, bursting with new life and new possibilities. Sigh again.

“Happy people don’t ask for advice,” I told her.


“You’ll come up with something!” she chirped back. “I’ll check in with you later in the week.” (Scroll all the way to the bottom to read the column she came up with.)

LUCY AGAIN: I read every advice column I come across, but my favorite is Philip Galanes, who writes “Social Q’s” for the New York Times Style section every Sunday. He’s funny and sensible and pulls no punches. Dr. Aster could definitely learn from him!

ASKING FOR MURDER is now available for Kindle. You can download it right here.

PS My favorite advice column fangirl moment? Our friend Pat Kennedy introduced me to Margo Howard, Ann Landers’s daughter, and a stellar columnist herself. She kept writing as she was reading DEADLY ADVICE, wondering if she’d sussed out the murderer: “I think it’s XXX. No it must be YYY.” And so on. And here was her blurb:

A really plummy mystery, flawlessly plotted, that I especially loved because the heroine is an advice columnist – and a good one! Margo Howard
“Dear Margo” on Yahoo! News and in 200 newspapers.
(Formerly “Dear Prudence”)

Dear Dr. Aster:

I volunteer at a local charity that fights mental illness.  I got involved because I believe in the cause, but I also hoped it might be a way to meet a nice guy with similar interests. (Isn’t that what you always recommend to your readers?)  The people on my committee are smart, caring, dedicated–and all married, except for one widower who’s slightly older than me though smart and attractive. Lately the married folks take every opportunity to push us together.  There’s a lot of winking and elbowing going on, and it’s very embarrassing.  He’s a nice guy, but there’s no chemistry between us—certainly not on my side!  What can I do to stop the matchmaking?  I’d hate to ditch the committee to escape the man.
Yenta’s Volunteer Victim in Vermont

Dear Yenta’s Victim:

Gold stars are in order—I do recommend exactly the path you’ve taken. But oh dear, I had not anticipated this particular roadblock. One question: does Mr. Wonderful seem to feel the same lack of chemistry that you do? If so, it might be easy enough to enlist his help in shrugging off the well-meaning nudges. However, if he appears to have feelings for you, you’ll need another tactic. How about dropping a few not-so-subtle hints about the recent social whirl your new BOYFRIEND has swept you up in?
And here’s one more thought: Since you signed your letter “Volunteer Victim,” don’t overlook your possible contribution to the drama that’s unfolded. Your fellow workers might be reacting to your subtly-sawing violin strings. Check to be sure you haven’t been moaning about your single status without being aware of it! If that’s the case, dost thou protest too much?
Keep up the good works and Happy Spring!

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