When a Bookstore Dream Becomes Reality

By Laura Oles

Have you ever dreamed of leaving your current life behind, moving to a new city, and opening up a bookstore? 

I had the good fortune of meeting someone who did just that.  In a chance encounter while attending the Malice Domestic Agatha Tea and Closing Ceremonies, I ended up sitting next to Sam Droke-Dickinson (she/her), owner (with husband Todd Dickinson) of Aaron’s Books.  The store is named for their son, Aaron, who was two and a half years old when they opened their business. The bookstore’s tagline is Family Owned. Fiercely Independent. Community Minded. We had a wonderful conversation about her journey from working in Washington D.C. to moving to Lititz, Pennsylvania. I was so intrigued by her story that I asked her if she would share it with our readers.  

LO:  Tell me a bit about your previous life—the one before you chose to open a bookstore.

SDD: Our store is in a small town in Central PA, but we’re not from the area (more on that later).  Before opening the store, we lived and worked in the DC area. I was a middle school social studies teacher, and before that various arts administration jobs. My husband was a lobbyist and government programs analyst for several science and medical non-profits.  

LO: What was the catalyst in your decision to move and open a bookstore?

SDD: The commute and need to constantly be on the go in DC was not fun. Add into the mix a young child and we needed to find something else to be doing. At the time my husband was a stay-at-home dad and was really enjoying his time away from office politics and such. I was teaching and commuting early in the morning every day and staying up late planning and grading. We decided, with the house prices soaring, that was the time for us to make a move. So, we sold our house and moved up to Pennsylvania.  We picked it for several reasons, one being that it was exactly the half-way point between the grandparents.  Once we found a place here, we decided to be our own bosses and open a used bookstore. We both loved books, and I had an administration background, and he was a “people person”.  

LO: I would love to learn more about your town and your community.  How do they factor into your daily life as a small business owner?

SDD: Lititz is your quintessential small town. It really is the scene for so many cozy mysteries.  A main street with small shops, a town park, lots of festivals.  No murders though (phew!).  Our store is right in the middle of the downtown area, and we’ve lived a mile or less from the store for the last 15 years. At one point we lived in an apartment above the bakery next door. Our town has 73 indie businesses and only 1 chain (a Subway).  The town has worked hard to keep it that way, so the feeling of community is very important. We have always felt that we should be active and supportive participants of the community, as citizens and business owners.  We were part of the core group that started a “Second Friday”, which is one Friday a month all the shops stay open late and there is music and events around town.  About 12 years ago the town council tried to take away all the open flags so we worked to get them to allow a standard flag that all the businesses would fly and then I designed that flag.  My husband has served on the board of our local Main Street Program non-profit for 10 years. And last year I ran for school board (I didn’t win).  For us, community is not just living and working in the town but helping to make it better.  

LO: : So many people dream of opening a bookstore.  What was the process like for you?

SDD: We tell people not to do what we did.  We went in completely blind to any and everything. We just got books and put them on the shelves. It was about three months in that we started joining industry organizations and spent a good seven years learning from workshops and conferences.  We STILL are learning. The great thing about the indie bookstore world is that we help each other. We share things that work and don’t work. We have meetings and conferences every few months. And just last year the Professional Bookselling Certification Program was launched by our regional trade association (New Atlantic Booksellers Association).  My husband was president of the association when they first started planning the program. Right now, it is six modules from inventory management to event planning. It’s run like a real school with lectures, round table discussion and homework.  I’m finishing up the Store Operations module right now and have learned all sorts of things relating to personnel and financial management.  For anyone that is interested in the dream, I highly recommend they seek out their regional trade association. The resources there are bountiful.  And bookstore people really are the best people!

LO: What advice would you give to someone who is considering opening their own bookstore (or purchasing an existing one)?

SDD: The love of reading is great, but it’s not going to pay the bills.  Take some basic marketing and accounting classes. And realistically, kiss your free reading time goodbye.  People have this vision of opening a shop and then just sitting at the counter reading all day.  Those are the rare days… and you don’t want to have them because that means you don’t have any customers, and customers are what pay the bills.  That being said, after 17 years I can’t imagine doing anything else.  It took us time to grow, and there were a lot of pains. But it is so worth it when we see books and people connect.  In fact, a teen that used to shop in our store a decade ago, just opened her own shop in the next city.  It feels good to know that we’ve been around long enough to inspire the next generation of booksellers.

LO: What do you love the most about running your own bookstore? What are the challenges? Any misconceptions?

SDD: Is it cheesy to say the books?  Unpacking the boxes each day is like a birthday and Christmas rolled into one.  I have to tell myself that I can’t take every book home.  It’s a struggle.  I’m a Type-A personality so I just love the day-to-day operations of the shop. The administrative things, the planning, the handling of issues.  And the absolute best thing is when someone finds their “perfect” book on our shelves, especially the kids. Having a robust selection for young readers is core to our mission.  The challenges are the same as most businesses- the work/life balance and money.  No one has ever gotten rich owning a bookstore, but no one goes into bookselling for the money. It’s for the love of sharing books. At least I hope that is why we all got into this business.  The biggest misconception is that bookstores are dying.  That may have been true in the late 90’s early 2000’s, but right now there is a huge growth in indie bookstores.  New ones are opening every week.  Indie bookstores outnumber chain stores in this country.  Most offer online shopping, e-books, and audiobooks too.  So, the idea of the struggling little “shop around the corner” that can’t offer what the big guys do is very outdated. The other misconception, which is born out of a stereotype, is that indies don’t carry genre books.  So many of us do and are run by genre readers.  Lots of people think that indie bookstores are snobby… and there are some that are, but they are the rarity these days.  

LO: Anything else you’d like to add?

SDD: I encourage all authors to check out their local bookselling regional trade association. They usually offer author level memberships.  That is truly the best way to see what is going on in your area in bookselling and to make connections with booksellers and publishers.  Be active in the book community at all stages of your writing and publishing process.  

You can learn more about Aaron’s books here:https://www.aaronsbooks.com

When Words Balk-Take A Walk. Solvitur Ambulando!

by Helen Currie Foster

This week I’ve been in the Land of Stuck. Walking in circles around the kitchen island struggling to come up with the missing scene. My next mystery’s nearly done, but… I’m stuck. Ever been there?

The poetry shelf offers a momentary escape. Billy Collins can always pull me into a poem. Often he’s going for a walk and I can’t help but feel invited. His “Aimless Love” begins:

He’s got me. 

Or “The Trouble with Poetry,” which begins, 

“This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, 

I fell in love with a wren 

and later in the day with a mouse 

the cat had dropped under the dining room table.”

Well, of course there he’s got me. Then again:

“The trouble with poetry, I realized 

as I walked along a beach one night––

cold Florida sand under my bare feet, 

a show of stars in the sky––”

I feel that same cold Florida sand under my right arch, despite the Texas heat outside. 

Another walking poet: Mary Oliver. In Blue Iris, She begins “White Pine” this way:

“The sun rises late in this southern county. And, since the first thing I do when I wake up is go out into the world, I walk here along a dark road.”

Huh. Walking as discipline? Every morning?

Walking’s not just for poets. St. Augustine is often credited with the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando––“it is solved by walking” (which may have originally been a response to the 5th C. B.C. philosopher Zeno’s concept that we can never actually arrive at a destination). 

According to Ariana Huffington, a number of writers agree about the benefit of walking, including Hemingway, Nietzsche, and Thomas Jefferson. She quotes the latter: “The object of walking is to relax the mind…You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you”.https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/bs-xpm-2013-09-03-bal-solution-to-many-a-problem-take-a-walk-20130830-story.html  Which reminds me of Collins’s wren.

“Solvitur ambulando” was the official motto of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, formed in 1946 to help those in former occupied countries during WWII who risked their lives to help RAF crew members escape. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvitur ambulando (check out the terrific solvitur ambulando quotes in this article, from Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Sayers and others). I can’t imagine how high the blood pressure of those resistance heroes climbed during such episodes. Mine skyrocketed just reading A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell’s description of the amazing work of America’s Virginia Hall in France during the resistance. Talk about tense moments. So, did the RAF Escaping Society adopt this motto because of the therapeutic value of walking, or because walking can trigger ideas, or solutions? Or both?

Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines, 1986) claimed he learned the phrase from Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor himself was quite a walker. He set out, in 1933, at age 18, to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul and Greece. He tells the tale in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986. 

 I loved this book and Fermor is fascinating (check out his WWII heroics on Crete, including engineering and carrying out the kidnap of the Nazi commander). 

https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/jun/10/patrick-leigh-fermor-obituary

The English provide walkers with such wonderful public walking paths. My husband and I recently walked the Thames Footpath for several miles along the Thames, over to Bray––yes! Home of the Vicar of Bray! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vicar_of_Bray

In this charming village you can taste amazing smoked salmon at The Hinds Head (where you can read how many times the Vicar changed his denomination to keep his job, back in the religious flip-flops of England’s sixteenth century) and also at The Crown, a pluperfect pub. The Thames Footpath takes you through leafy woods, with views of the rivers, the fields, and occasional historic and mysterious signs (“Battlemead”). It provides boats to watch, ranging from kayaks and paddleboards to elegant near-yachts, festooned with banners for Jubilee, and one incredible ancient polished Chris Craft, casually docked by the restaurant at the Boathouse at Boulter’s Lock by two grizzled old salts. We tried but failed to overhear their intense lunch conversation. Just trying to eavesdrop was imagination-stirring. Where did they come from? Where were they going?

The footpath also led us to the village of Cookham, home of another surprise: the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Spencer, a WWI veteran and Slade School graduate, produced remarkable paintings, sometimes mixing nominally biblical subjects with contemporary life—for example, a resurrection study of Cookham housewives in aprons, climbing out of their graves with surprised faces. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sir-stanley-spencer-1977.

I thought I remembered Spencer’s name from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and looked it up when we got home. She wrote on May 22, 1934, about Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell (Clive’s wife), Duncan Grant (Vanessa’s lover), and Quentin Bell (Vanessa’s son) “all talking at once about Spencer’s pictures.” In 1934 Spencer was showing six works in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition…about the time Patrick Leigh Fermor was off in the middle of his big walk.

Other poetic walkers? You’ve already thought of Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged…”) and Dante. Dante’s walks take the cake; I mean, the Inferno’s a hell of a walk.

So if walking calms the mind, allows creativity, reveals solutions, why am I revolving around the kitchen island?

Now that I think about it, some ideas have emerged. For instance, how much my extended family loves hiking in the Rockies, with (1) a destination; (2) a well-rounded lunch, including chocolate, in the pack; (3) plenty of water. How it feels to set off, hoping to see (1) moose, or (2) marmots, or (3) ptarmigan. How it feels to walk to the destination, grab a flat-topped boulder, warmed by sun, and have lunch, staring out at the view. Then to walk…downhill. No longer out of breath. Watching your fellow hikers dodging limbs, swinging around switchbacks. Triumphant walkers. And in the meantime, there have been discussions on the trail, conversations about this and that, switching from one companion to another. At the end of the trail, a sense of sleepy satisfaction.

So it’s time to get up early enough for a walk. Get up early enough to beat the Texas sun, and see if my neighbor’s front pasture includes a jackrabbit, or “jackbunny” as some call it. Cause a snort from the deer in the brush.

… Okay. Back from the walk. I think I’ve figured out that pesky bit about the last scene, except for a couple of details. So tomorrow, when the alarm rings—I’m going for a walk. Would you like to come too? I’d love it. We could talk.

More…

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, closely supervised by three burros. She’s curious about human nature, human history and prehistory, and why the past keeps crashing the party. She’s currently finishing book 8 in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery novel series. Book 7, Ghost Daughter, was named Grand Prize Short List in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and Finalist for Mystery, 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. Her books are available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and at independent bookstores.She loves to talk with book groups.

Review: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (A Public Service Repost)

by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.

In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”

But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.

So there’s the background.

I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.

*********************************************

Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.

*

I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.

***

I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.

The 2022 Writers’ Police Academy

by K.P. Gresham

I’ve just returned from the Writers’ Police Academy in Appleton, WI. The brainchild of retired cop, Lee Lofland, The Writers’ Police Academy (WPA) is a rare opportunity for writers to participate in the same hands-on training as the law enforcement officers, investigators, EMS, and firefighters.  Attendees drive patrol cars on closed courses, conduct traffic stops, participate in explosive building entries, shoot firearms, and much more.

Lee Lofland is a veteran police investigator who began his law-enforcement career working as an officer in Virginia’s prison system. He later became a sheriff’s deputy, a patrol officer, and finally, he achieved the highly prized gold shield of detective. Along the way, Lofland gained a breadth of experience that’s unusual to find in the career of a single officer. Oh! And as part of the latest Writers Digest Books Howdunit series, he wrote Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers.

He’s a cop who wants writers to “get the cop thing” right—and he created this phenomenal conference to make that happen.

Highlights for me (this was my 3rd WPA) started right off the bat with the first morning session. A drunken driver accident was staged, and the ensuing response acted out. Cops were first on the scene, followed quickly by fire trucks and EMT’s. (Real ones. The only actors were the two people “injured” in the accident. Umm, the dead victim was a life-size practice dummy…I’m pretty sure…) Triage, jaws of life, on-scene field sobriety tests—all of it. Then came the Life Flight helicopter.  And an hour worth of Q & A with all the professionals. Awesome.

Next, I went to the Body Camera Session, which, if you pardon the pun, was an eye-opening experience. I learned that the body camera sees a whole lot more than the wearer can see. Two examples. The camera has a much larger field of vision than the human eye. Also, the camera has the ability to adjust its iris so that it can see in very dark conditions. Sometimes what we see on TV from the camera’s POV, the cop couldn’t see at all.

Other things I learned? The choreography used by SWAT teams to secure a room; that breed means everything in K9 dog selections; (from personal experience using virtual reality scenarios) that when threatened, a person’s stress reaction is to focus specifically on the threat. Sounds logical, but when my “gun” was pointed at the guy with a knife coming toward me, I never saw a different guy walking up to my side. I was completely focused on what I perceived was the immediate threat.

Boom. I’m dead.

Special shout out to Jason Weber, the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Public Safety Training Coordinator. He recruited all the instructors, police officers, county sheriff officers, chiefs of police, municipal judges, and fire science instructors to be our teachers, as well as coordinating all the physical needs for our instruction.

And then there’s the fellow writers who attend WPA. We eat, travel, and learn together. The ability to be in the company of folks who understand the importance of research, the plotting, the writing, the marketing, the self-doubt, the exhilaration of putting a good scene on paper is overwhelming. I treasure these people, and I feel treasured by them—we are kindred spirits.

The conference ended with the 2022 WPA Guest of Honor, Robert Dugoni, the critically acclaimed New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite police series. Dugoni spoke to us about why we write. In my heart I felt a re-awakening of the passion for what I do.  Thank you, Mr. Dugoni.

And thank you, Lee Lofland and all of your crew. I’ll be back next year at WPA to learn more!

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Four Reasons to Die

Old Haunts, New Troubles

You know those friends you haven’t seen in so long? The ones you really miss? And that feeling you get when you finally get to share company again?  That’s what I’m feeling right now. We’ve been through some things together, seen some stuff, pulled through some tough times.  

I should clarify that I’m talking about my imaginary friends.

Private investigator Jamie Rush, and her partner, Cookie Hinojosa, are back in Port Alene with a new case, and I’m thrilled to be back in their world. Deuce the wonder bulldog is still charming people wherever he goes (usually at the pub, pier, or beach), and Marty is keeping the drinks flowing at Hemingway’s.  Erin’s booking business is hopping, and her clients are saltier than the Gulf Coast.

This new case, though? It’s going to change things in Port Alene forever.

It all started simply enough.  

A small request from a family friend.

Two Sisters.

One Deadly Secret.

No Time to Lose.

PI Jamie Rush has her hands full with small-time skip-tracing and surveillance jobs in Port Alene, Texas. The work is steady, though she still struggles to make ends meet. But when her partner, Cookie, brings in a low-paying and potentially time-consuming case, Jamie takes it on out of loyalty.

Cookie’s childhood friend, Renata, needs to find her younger sister, Leah. As Jamie digs into Leah’s past, it becomes clear that the missing woman’s life was shrouded in secrets, the kind that could jeopardize those involved in the case.

To complicate matters, PI Alastair Finn has returned, and he’s willing to reclaim his town by any means necessary. Jamie has never been one to retreat, and Alastair enjoys a good fight. Sparks will fly.

A missing woman. Felonies. Finn’s return. Every twist reminds Jamie that she’s still an outsider in this town. Jamie must prove herself all over again, and the stakes have never been higher.

Pub Day for DEPTHS OF DECEIT is May 31,2022. 

If you’d like to spend time with Jamie’s crew, you can pick up a copy for a special pre-order price here:https://amzn.to/3KvSUO

Layers And Layers

by Helen Currie Foster – May 16, 2022

Cast your mind on the perfect croissant.

A perfect croissant may have hundreds of layers of dough + butter + dough + butter, made of a packet of dough enclosing a layer of butter, rolled out in a precise rectangle, folded, chilled, rolled, chilled (repeat until you have maybe 600 layers), rolled, then cut into squares which are rolled diagonally and baked in a perfectly hot oven until perfectly brown and the magic has happened. As the butter melts between the many layers, it creates steam which inflates the layers, creating not a single “loaf” of baked dough with a brown crust, but a perfect combination of crunch and tenderness: layers of crunchy brown butteriness, then the airy middle, still wafting yeasty buttery smells toward you. Bite. Let joy be unconfined. What’s your approach? Bite the end off? Peel off the outer layers, flake by triangular flake? Either way, you lay open the mystery of layers. https://www.mic.com/articles/180451/the-science-backed-reasons-why-croissants-always-taste-better-in-paris#:~:text=When%20it%20bakes%2C%20the%20butter,delicious%20flavor%20of%20the%20croissant.

When you bite into a croissant, crisp little layers flying everywhere, with the tastes of yeast, butter, magic, sorting themselves out on your tongue, do you too think of murder mysteries?

It’s the layers. Got to be. Oh, not just croissants. Think of mille feuilles… seven layer dip… your family’s best lasagna…baklava… chocolate mousse layer cake finished with butter cream frosting. Or, at the individual level, consider a perfect taco, precisely the way you like it, the perfect proportion of tortilla to filling to guacamole to sour cream to salsa to [supply your favorite ingredient here].

Layers take work. Think of seven-layer cake. Split the original cake layers, evenly, without bumps and tears. Apply filling. Stack without a disaster (such as uneven layers, sliding in wrong directions). Repeat, repeat, repeat. Carefully ice your beautiful cake. Let no one approach, much less jiggle or wiggle, your cake. Serve with care.

But layers, in the right proportions, create both variety and synthesis. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Back to your own favorite taco, a compilation of layers. When you decorate your taco to your own satisfaction, you bite into a creation that’s more delicious than any of its components. 

More is more. 

Back to murder mysteries. We readers prowl the pages, eyes narrowed, alert for each and every clue, determined not to miss a single one. By the end we’ve amassed layers of clues. Alert readers don’t forget the odd incident of the insecticide package in Reginald Hill’s Deadheads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/671925.Deadheads And a good thing they didn’t. Wait for it, wait for it––! Did you see Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile? No spoilers, but watch carefully for—oh, wait. Did you see it?https://www.google.com/search?q=branagh+death+on+the+nile&oq=branagh+death+on+the+nile&aqs=chrome..69i57j46i19j0i19l3j0i19i22i30l5.9073j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

A mystery requires characters, setting, plot. Each component requires detail. Characters, for instance: we want to know how the main characters look, some of what they think, whom they love. Maybe just a brushstroke to add what music they prefer, or hobbies, or food. Special tics that make them memorable? Of course. Give us what we need to remember each character. And writers are cagey. The cautious reader will wonder: is this new character critical to the plot, or just part of the setting? Is the kindly cashier at the village grocery just there to make the village feel safe and homey, or is he/she a witness to crime? The next victim? Or the criminal? But when a character demands too much page time, sometimes we readers hit the wall. We don’t need to know what the clerk at the village store is wearing. Stop it, we think. Get on with the story! Give us enough to fire our imaginations—we readers can and will supply more detail! 

To digress: maybe this is imaginative work the reader does (without the author’s permission) is why it’s jarring when a favorite mystery we’ve read appears on television. If we’ve already imagined favorite characters, and the television versions don’t resemble what we now think of as their true selves, we’re faced with a difficult choice. Watch? or retain the original versions in our heads, rejecting the televised version? (This happened to me, but maybe not you, with the televised versions of Cormoran Strike and Robin. Thoughts?)

On the other hand, the WWI flashback at the beginning of the recent Death on the Nile (which is not in Agatha Christie’s original) adds to the character of detective Hercule Poirot—adds a new layer which enriches our understanding of not only his observational acuity, but his apparent emotional detachment. I now think of Agatha Christie’s creation in a more kindly light. Actually, I’ve become attached to Branagh’s version, whereas before I found him a little…tiresome.

Back to the question of how much detail is enough: the same warning holds for setting. Just right, please. English village? New York bar? Hill country town? We appreciate memorable details, but not a travelogue. We want enough detail, but not overkill, on characters and settings. 

But then comes plot. Mystery readers are puzzle-solvers, clue-collectors, memory banks. They anticipate that—like the detective—they may traipse down the wrong path. Of course that means there’s more’s to learn, that they aren’t yet in possession of all the facts. More clues to come.

How to tell clues from red herrings?

In The Five Red Herrings, master writer Dorothy Sayers places the ever-curious Lord Peter Wimsey in a Scottish fishing village popular as an artists’ venue. https://smile.amazon.com/Five-Herrings-Peter-Wimsey-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B008JVJHYM/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5R36N0IMZPY4&keywords=Five+Red+Herrings&qid=1652710332&sprefix=five+red+herring%2Caps%2C132&sr=8-1

One of the artists dies on the Minnick, a scenic Scottish stream much favored as a landscape subject, that lies below a menacing precipice. https://www.mindat.org/feature-2642439.html

No one likes the dead artist. Wimsey can count six suspects––hence, five red herrings. Wimsey must winkle out the true killer. But oh, the alibis. Train schedules! Missing sailors! A stolen bicycle! The famous artist who’s gone missing, face wrapped in gauze, leaving a tight-lipped butler and a baffled maid who saw—well, no spoilers here either. 

While clues point to the killer, red herrings baffle and divert the detective. But they can add layers of richness to a plot. Five Red Herrings would be less than a novella, only a short story, without the layers of red herrings which paint (excuse me) a vivid picture of this art colony—tension, distraction, jealousy, romance, hatred. Certainly the story would lack the puzzles demanded by mystery readers. Furthermore, red herrings affect our emotions. For example, we sympathize with Hugh Farren, the artist who, frustrated by his ever-so-prissy wife, hares off into the countryside, making a living by re-painting pub signs. We hope he’s not the killer, this man who sets up his easel outside a pub and explains to open-mouthed watching children how he’s making the pub sign funny on one side, scary on the other. It’s a great scene. Another layer to the mystery. And let’s face it, to persuade her readers to struggle with those complicated train schedules, Sayers has to keep us caring which artist is the killer.

The WWI flashback in Death on the Nile is neither a clue, nor a red herring. Instead, it offers us a layer of Poirot’s character that doesn’t solve the mystery, doesn’t identify the killer, but adds to our understanding of Poirot’s emotions, deepening, in a way, the impact of his solution of the mystery. 

Today I’m in Paris, Croissantland, I stopped in an old church where the Greek Orthodox service was being sung. It reminded me of the character Niccolo in Dorothy Dunnett’s eight-volume historical series (yes, it is really a murder mystery). https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/HON/house-of-niccolo-series

Niccolo’s mathematical and musical gifts, including his memory for Greek liturgy, came back to me as I listened to the sung service. Literature can bestow a gift that keeps on giving, a writer’s description of an event, a scene, that returns to the reader the smell of incense, the sound of voices, and the intensity of a moment imagined by the writer, but which becomes part of the reader’s own imagination. Dunnett’s scene isn’t integral to the plot, to the ultimate discovery at the end of the series of the murderer’s identity, but is a layer that adds to the protagonist’s character and the intensity of his psyche.

Such layers can make a story come alive.

Back to setting for a moment. Are you a Slough House addict? I am. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=sloughhouse&crid=39CYYBHI8G99A&sprefix=sloughhouse%2Caps%2C131&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

I just finished Book 8 of Mick Herron’s unputdownable series and am pawing the earth for the next. But I mention it because Slough House (the name of the building where those who flunk out of MI-5 headquarters wind up), though technically Herron’s setting, functions almost as a character. And my fussing about “not too much detail” above? Inapplicable. Herron embarks on oratorios of detail about Slough House, and because its decrepitude, its slovenliness, its lonesomeness, its outdatedness, so reflect (and infect) the struggles of the changing spies in the building, that I say, bring it on! Herron also does star turns with London weather and landscapes. His treatment of setting is masterful––creating layers of texture, smell, sight, emotion, that become integral to the story.

I’m working on Book 8 of my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, so the “perfect croissant” of plot, setting and character occupies my waking moments. Alice, if you’ve met her, is a lawyer who by training and inclination wants every single fact. She hopes never to be blind-sided. She must decide whether fact A helps her defend her client, and whether her client needs a defense to fact B. She knows the compulsive joy of a new case—a new legal pad of notes, a new box of messy documents. She wants to plunge in, deciding what’s a clue, what’s a red herring. She knows that somewhere in the mess is a key fact, the fact that she knows instinctively will win the case for her client. She’s rooting through the layers, reminding many of us of a favorite poem. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers Or a croissant.

Sounds like a murder mystery, right? Stay tuned.

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by human history and by how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing our parties. Her books are available in Kindle, paperback and on Audible, from Amazon, Ingram Spark, and at various independent bookstores. The latest, Ghost Daughter, has been named First Runnerup for Mystery in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=ghost+daughter&crid=VHN5P2IYJCLZ&sprefix=ghost+daughte%2Caps%2C151&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

DON’T WALK UNDER A LADDER – BAD LUCK!

BY

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Lucky Ladybug. Lucky penny. Lucky horseshoe. Friday the 13th. Knock on wood. Hundreds of superstitions and rituals flow through our lives, although we smile at the mention of such things, like throwing a pinch of spilled salt over the left shoulder. For an Italian, never put only two coffee beans in a snifter of Sambucca—bad luck. 

Superstitions have been around since man stood up on two legs. Often they have been absorbed through family beliefs, traditions, and cultures. Some even began with common sense. I won’t walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house, but athletic and artistic pursuits are riddled with ritual and superstition.

Athletes and artists are more disposed to rely on them because the common ground they share is the pressure of constant uncertainty. Despite the advances in education, communication, and science, even without outside forces promoting superstition or rigid ritualistic preparations, one incident, one supposed object of good fortune, can immediately create a sense of security. Many psychologists believe that the dependency on ritualistic practices and superstitions, when observed devoutly, actually helps the individual feel more confident that they’ve done everything to keep the fates on their side.

No athlete, regardless of how gifted or trained, can be sure of the outcome of a contest. No artist, regardless of talent, training, and rehearsal if a performer, can know whether or not a show will be good or well-received. And worse, despite the athletes’ and artists’ best efforts, they have no long–term assurances. Will they be injured? Will they be picked up again after a contract expires? Will they be re-hired for another show or dance company? And added to these stresses is the pressure of the ticking clock. Most athletes and artists have a limited shelf life.

Baseball’s Wade Boggs had a five-hour pregame ritual of obsessive detail and ate nothing but chicken for twenty years. He even wrote Fowl Tips, a book on his favorite chicken recipes. And long ago, baseball legend Babe Ruth always stepped on second base on his way in from the outfield. 

Tennis superstar Bjorn Borg’s entire family maintained a complicated routine of pregame habits, and Borg never shaved once a tournament began. During tennis tournaments, one might notice that some players will wear the same outfit every day, especially if they’re winning. 

Then there are the superstitions that weave through the arts. 

In music, there is the Curse of the Ninth. For a long time, a rumor circulated that any composer who wrote a ninth symphony would die soon after, if not while actually creating a ninth symphonic masterpiece. The suspicion of a curse began with Ludvig Von Beethoven. After completing his ninth, he died at age 56, on March 26, 1827, of post-hepatic cirrhosis of the liver. Antonin Dvorak died not long after finishing his ninth, which he named and gave a different number, but the fates were not fooled. Dvorak died of a stroke at age 62, on May 1, 1904, after completing his New World Symphony, which was, in fact, his ninth. Perhaps the man who thrust this particular superstition into the public eye was Gustav Mahler.

It was well-known amongst Mahler’s colleagues that he was obsessed and paranoid about the issue of death after composing the ninth symphony. He did all he could to circumvent the curse by calling his ninth “Das Lied von der Erde – Song of the Earth, and almost immediately after its completion, he settled into writing his tenth but escaping the curse was not to be. Gustav Mahler died on May 18, 1911. He was 50 years young.

Of course, other composers wrote more than nine and survived. Mozart wrote 48, and he died in 1791. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote 101 and died in 1804, but they lived and composed before Beethoven’s fame.  

In the world of opera, while Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is the earliest to have earned a reputation for trouble, it is Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino that had the most fatalities. The most dramatic of these is the tragic death of Leonard Warren. 

On stage at the Metropolitan Opera on March 4, 1960, in the middle of Solenne in quest ora, (Solemn in this hour), Warren collapsed onstage and died in the wings. More than any other opera, La Forza del Destino fills opera singers with superstitious fears. The late, great Luciano Pavarotti, who sang every other opera in the Italian repertoire, refused to sing Forza. 

The ballet world has its own list of rituals and superstitions. Never allow another dancer to put their feet in your pointe shoes. Dancers have an assortment of lucky charms and objects ranging from lucky dolls to stuffed animals. Rituals include lining up makeup and hairpins precisely, preparing for a show. And to wish good luck to a ballet dancer, there is only one acceptable word: Merde!  

The French word, literally meaning feces, began for practical reasons. Many centuries ago, horses were used backstage to help move sets and backdrops, and of course, the animals had droppings of their own. Dancers would whisper, merde, and point at the steaming lumps to help each other avoid stepping in the mounds. In time, the use of the word expanded because the horse-drawn carriages pulling up in front of the theatres also left calling cards – and the more calling cards, the better, since that meant they’d have a full house.  

In modern times, designer Coco Chanel was supposedly informed by a fortune-teller that her lucky number was 5. Hence, Chanel # 5 – her famed fragrance. She also liked to present her new collections on May 5 for good luck. 

Before every fashion show, Diane Von Furstenberg taped a gold twenty-dollar piece given to her by her father during WW II in her shoe. 

Artist Pablo Picasso kept his hair trimmings and fingernail clippings for fear that he’d be throwing away part of “his essence” if he discarded them. At the same time, Salvatore Dali carried around a little piece of Spanish driftwood to help “ward off evil spirits.” 

Charles Dickens always slept facing north and carried a navigational compass with him at all times to ensure his position, while Dr. Seuss kept a collection of hundreds of hats in his secret closet. When he had writer’s block, he’d go to his closet and choose a hat to wear until he felt inspired. 

Yoko Ono lit matches and watched the flame extinguish in a dark room to relieve the stress of sound and light. Later this private ritual became public with her performance called Lighting Piece.

In theaters throughout the world, many well-known superstitions reign supreme even today. Here are a few that have retained their power through the years. A bad dress rehearsal means the show will be a hitBlue should not be worn on stageThe ghost light must always be on when the stage is empty; Mirrors on stage are bad luck; Never whistle backstage; Say break a leg, not good luck; AND NEVER EVER say Macbeth in the theater unless it’s part of the script.

From this intriguing confluence of reason and ritual, science and superstition, come opportunities for creating more drama.

    In Book Two of my Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’Histoire Theatre, reason challenges superstition, curses, and rituals. When Mrs. B.’s son moves to Austin and becomes a partner in the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company and Rue de l” Histoire Theatre, strange things happen. When the ballet company prepares for its world premiere of Macbeth,   Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn find themselves entangled in Shakespearean superstition and death. 

First, the stage manager disappears. Then his dead body falls from a light bridge. A prop breaks free of its wire during a rehearsal, nearly killing Mrs. B.’s daughter-in-law and injuring a young dancer, and the theater is temporarily shut down for a safety inspection. Still, the dancers and stagehands worry, wondering if it’s the Macbeth curse at work.   

As fears, and superstitions grow, can Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn use their powers of reason and deduction in time to unravel the mystery before anyone else dies and the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company is ruined? Or perhaps there are other factors at work beyond human control.

###

RESOURCES:

Huggett Richard. Supernatural on Stage, Taplinger Publishing Company, New York, NY. 1975

Crawley, Peter. Break a leg Macbeth: why are actors so superstitious?

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/break-a-leg-macbeth-why-are-actors-so-superstitious 1.2280338

Han, Isaac. Why Did Composers Write Only Nine Symphonies? Curse or Superstition?

https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/arts_culture/2019/03/curse-or-superstition-that-is-the-question.html

Roberts, Maddy Shaw – What is the Curse of the Ninth – and does it really exist?

https://classicfm.com/discover-music/curse-of-the-ninth

Robinson, Mark. 13 Theater Superstitions.

https://broadwaydirect.com/13-theater-superstitions-halloween/

Weinsten, Ellen. The superstitious Rituals of Highly Creative People, from Salvatore Dali to Yoko Ono.

https://www.artsy.net/aqrticle/artsy-editorial-superstitious-rituals-highly-creative-people-salvatore-dali-yoko-ono

Music to Our Ears!

by Helen Currie Foster

On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!

We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”

Dixie and Helen

Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.

For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.

Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…

At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.

We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!

The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent

Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”

https://www.nytimes.com/svc/oembed/html/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2021%2F10%2F21%2Farts%2Fmusic%2Fvinyl-records-delays.html

Moreover, it’s not retirees pushing this trend: “And while you might think it’s nostalgic Boomers or Gen Xers behind the renaissance of records, in fact surveys show it’s millennial consumers driving the rising trend in vinyl sales.” https://www.themanual.com/culture/why-vinyl-is-coming-back/

Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.

Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)

Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.

Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.

Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M

The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.

Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016

And it may be for that reason that music stays in our brains longer than many other memories. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2017.00005#:~:text=Our%20brains%20possess%20a%20remarkable,might%20know%20it%20by%20heart.

You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.

So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…

https://www.samstownpointatx.com/

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.

Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.

blog reference

Why I Go to Critique Group

by Kathy Waller

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.

She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

*****

Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .

Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.

And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.

But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .

Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.

We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.

Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.

Then we say, “Thank you.”

Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.

We encourage one another.

We also laugh a lot.

Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.

Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.

 

I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).

I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.

Because it’s important.

***

Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,

***

Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the works pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last, co-written with Manning Wolfe, by Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, SHERLOCK HOLMES, and DR. WATSON  

By

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 mystery stories featuring the man who quickly became the favorite fictional super-detective of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sherlock Holmes, but in his years as a medical student, Doyle’s first efforts were short stories. 

The Mystery of Sasassa Valley was an adventure of two young men and a reported ghost that scares off the natives in South Africa.

In The American’s Tale, A quarrel between an Englishman, and a ‘Yankee’ in a bar, results in Jefferson Adams, an American in England, telling a strange story set in Montana involving Joe “Alabama” Hawkins, who’d “been captured and killed by a giant Venus flytrap in the gulch.” One might view these as early prequels to the mysteries fomenting in Doyle’s mind. 

While most readers have read at least one or two of Doyle’s creations, it is in the first two that we get a real sense of both Holmes and Watson, beginning with  A Study in Scarlet. Written in 1887, Doyle was a practicing doctor and botanist, which provided him with in-depth knowledge of plant poisons, anatomy, and physiology.  

The story begins with the narrator, Dr. John Watson, an ex-military man returning to London from the British war in Afghanistan, suffering from war wounds and in ill health. Unable to afford the hotel rates, he expresses his hope of finding rooms at a reasonable rate to a casual acquaintance known to the reader as Stanford. The latter then introduces him to Holmes, but first warns Watson that this gentleman, Holmes, also seeking a roommate to share expenses, is somewhat difficult.  

The reader meets Holmes for the first time along with Watson, and appropriately, in a laboratory.  The two men hit it off immediately and become roommates at  221B Baker Street, where they must accommodate one another’s needs, quirks, and habits. 

Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s idiosyncrasies.  As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s appalled at Holmes’s ignorance of so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Watson is shocked by Holmes’s rationale for why it wasn’t essential. Further, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre.  Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s characteristics. As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s shocked at Holmes’s ignorance in so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Furthermore, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre.

The good doctor is frustrated by what he thinks must be trickery for Holmes’s uncanny ability to guess so accurately. It is when Holmes is asked by detectives Lestrade and Gregson to help with a mysterious case, and Watson is invited to go along, that the doctor’s opinions change.

In the Lauriston Garden  Mystery, a man is found dead in an empty house. The deceased has no wounds, yet there is a message in blood scrawled on the wall.  In time, Holmes dubs this case A Study in Scarlet, reflecting “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life…”  Holmes unravels the case, and with each deduction, Watson develops a grudging admiration that evolves into genuine esteem and respect for the detective’s extraordinary powers of observation.

At the end of part one, the murder is solved, but the tale isn’t over. Doyle takes the reader to The United States for the backstory, explaining the details of the case, and why it ends in London.  

In the second novel, The Sign of Four, Holmes and his sidekick, Watson, who has become Holmes’s internal voice to the reader, are drawn into a new mystery.

Miss Mary Morstan arrives at Baker Street to ask for Holmes’s help in solving the mystery of her missing father and a mysterious annual and anonymous gift of pearls.  But now, she has received a letter asking to meet an unknown person that evening and is afraid to go alone. Holmes, of course, takes the case, and the adventure is on.

In The Sign of Four, the reader can discern many of Doyle’s personal experiences in the military as told through Watson’s narrative, as the detective tracks a hidden treasure and a murderer. In this story, the reader understands John Watson’s life and desires, and Holmes’s drug use is addressed directly. 

Doyle wrote two volumes worth of stories about Holmes and Watson, and it’s interesting to know that he often felt he was slogging through the work of continuing the character he’d created. In 1891, he threatened to kill off the now-famous Sherlock Holmes, but his mother, the woman who inspired his imagination, was furious. And, of course, Conan Doyle did no such thing. Instead, he pressed the financial success of his books, urging publishers to pay more for his Holmes stories, which they did. 

In his biography, Doyle admits the influence of his mother in his early childhood, “as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.” And the facts were not happy ones.

Though well respected in the art world, Doyle’s father was an alcoholic with little impact on his son. At the age of nine, Arthur was shipped off to boarding school in England to Hodder Place, then Stonyhurst, a Jesuit prep school, where he was bullied and ridiculed by his peers and feared ruthless corporal punishment by the Jesuits. It was his ability to hide in his fantasies that got him through.  

After graduating from Stonyhurst College in 1876, Doyle pursued a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. There, he met his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, whose very keen powers of observation inspired the Holmes character. 

While struggling to make his name as a writer, he married Louisa Hawkins, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1893, Louisa was diagnosed with TB, and after her death, Doyle married Jean Leckie, with whom he had two more sons and another daughter.

In addition to his medical practice, which he gave up when the writing became successful, Conan Doyle took it upon himself to visit South Africa after the Boar war to investigate and defend his nation against charges of war crimes. He wrote a “pamphlet” of 60,000 words entitled The War in South Africa, Its Causes and Conduct, which the Crown found enlightening. In 1902 and 1903, Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted—twice for his service to the Crown. 

However, through his adult years, there was the thread of spiritualism, and he believed it was “the most important thing in the world.” Later in his life, he was diagnosed with a heart condition, but that didn’t stop him from making a spiritualism tour through the Netherlands. When he returned home, his chest pains were so severe that he was almost completely bedridden until he died in 1930. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collapsed and died in his garden, clutching his heart with one hand and holding a flower in the other. Although his life ended on that July day, his stories have survived and continue to thrill readers with adventures in the world of criminology and crime-solving. Reading his beliefs, remarkable life, and brilliant writings, it is easy to conclude that Doyle, Holmes, and Watson were three dimensions of the same man. 

Resources:

The Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

BIOGRAPHY: Arthur Conan Doyle, https://www.biography.com/writer/arthur-conan-doyle 3.10.22

THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO READING THE SHERLOCK HOLMES BOOKS

http://reedsy-com/discovery/blog/sherlock-holmes-books 3.10.22

WHERE TO START WITH SHERLOCK HOLMES

http://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/september/wehre-to-start-with-sherlock-holmes.html  

CONAN DOYLE INFO

https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Honours_And_Awards