A Mind Unhinged

Posted by Kathy Waller

So you start writing your post about the incomparable Josephine Tey’s mystery novels two weeks before it’s due but don’t finish, and then you forget, and a colleague reminds you, but the piece refuses to come together, and the day it’s due it’s still an embarrassment, and the next day it’s not much better, and you decide, Oh heck, at this point what’s one more day? and you go to bed,

and in the middle of the night you wake to find twenty pounds of cat using you as a mattress, and you know you might as well surrender, because getting him off is like moving Jello with your bare hands,

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Attribution: Ingrid Fisch at the German language Wikipedia.  GNU_Free_Documentation_License

so you lie there staring at what would be the ceiling if you could see it, and you think, Macbeth doth murder sleep…. Macbeth shall sleep no more,

and then you think about Louisa May Alcott writing, She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,

and you realize your own brain has not only turned, but has possibly come completely unhinged.

And you can’t get back to sleep, so you lie there thinking, Books, books, books. Strings and strings of words, words, words. Why do we write them, why do we read them? What are they all for?

And you remember when you were two years old, and you parroted,

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,

because happiness was rhythm and rime.

And when you were five and your playmate didn’t want to hear you read “Angus and the Cat,” and you made her sit still and listen anyway.

And when you were fourteen and so happy all you could think was, O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!, and you didn’t know who wrote it but you remembered the line from a Kathy Martin book you got for Christmas when you were ten.

And when you were tramping along down by the river and a narrow fellow in the grass slithered by too close, and you felt a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.

And when you woke early to a rosy-fingered dawn and thought

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via flickr

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,
A ribbon at a time,
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –

And when you saw cruelty and injustice, and you remembered, Perfect love casts out fear, and knew fear rather than hate is the source of inhumanity, and love, the cure.

And when your father died unexpectedly, and you foresaw new responsibilities, and you remembered,

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise.

And when your mother died, and you thought,

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

And at church the day after your father’s funeral, when your cousins, who were officially middle-aged and should have known how to behave, sat on the front row and dropped a hymnbook, and something stuck you in the side and you realized that when you mended a seam in your dress that morning you left the needle just hanging there and you were in danger of being punctured at every move, and somehow everything the minister said struck you as funny, and the whole family chose to displace stress by laughing throughout the service, and you were grateful for Mark Twain’s observations that

Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,

and that, 

Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And when you fell in love and married and said with the poet, My beloved is mine and I am his.

And when, before you walked down the aisle, you handed a bridesmaid a slip of paper on which you’d written, Fourscooooorrrrrrre…, so that while you said, “I do,” she would be thinking of Mayor Shinn’s repeated attempts to recite the Gettysburg Address at River City’s July 4th celebration, and would be trying so hard not to laugh that she would forget to cry.

And when your friend died before you were ready and left an unimaginable void, and life was unfair, and you remembered that nine-year-old Leslie fell and died trying to reach the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, and left Jess to grieve but to also to pass on the love she’d shown him.

And when the doctor said you have an illness and the outlook isn’t good, and you thought of Dr. Bernie Siegal’s writing, Do not accept that you must die in three weeks or six months because someone’s statistics say you will… Individuals are not statistics, but you also remembered what Hamlet says to Horatio just before his duel with Laertes,

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

And by the time you’ve thought all that, you’ve come back to what you knew all along, that books exist for pleasure, for joy, for consolation and comfort, for courage, for showing us that others have been here before, have seen what we see, felt what we feel, shared needs and wants and dreams we think belong only to us, that

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her t...

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her tutor Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

everything the earth is full of… everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.

And about the time you have settled the question to your satisfaction, the twenty pounds of Jello slides off, and you turn over, and he stretches out and leans so firmly against your back that you end up wedged between him and your husband, who is now clinging to the edge of  the bed, as sound asleep as the Jello is, and as you’re considering your options, you think,

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar…

and by the time the Pussycat and the Elegant Fowl have been married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and have eaten their wedding breakfast with a runcible spoon, and are dancing by the light of the moon, the moon, you’ve decided that a turned brain has its advantages, and that re-hinging will never be an option.

###

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

###

http://nfs.sparknotes.com/macbeth/page_58.html
https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1315.Louisa_May_Alcott
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941
http://www.vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com/2009/06/angus-and-cat.html
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182477
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epithets_in_Homer
http://biblehub.com/1_john/4-18.htm
http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2002/10/15
http://www.twainquotes.com/Laughter.html
http://biblehub.com/songs/2-16.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Man_(1962_film)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_to_Terabithia_(novel)
http://www.shareguide.com/Siegel.html
http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_320.html
http://www.shorewood.k12.wi.us/page.cfm?p=3642

***

“A Mind Unhinged” appeared on Austin Mystery Writers on February 25, 2016.

*

Kathy Waller writes crime fiction, literary fiction, humor, memoir, and whatever else comes to mind. Her short stories appear in the Silver Falchion Award winner Murder on Wheels, Austin Mystery Writers’ first crime fiction anthology, and in their second, Lone Star Lawless, as well as in other print publications and online. Her novella STABBED, co-authored with Manning Wolfe, was released in October 2019. She blogs at Telling the Truth–Mainly.

Memories of growing up in a small town on the San Marcos River in Central Texas, and life in a large extended family, inspire much of her work. She now lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.

THE ARTS AND OUR SOCIETY

by Francine Paino

 Day after day, whether we want to or not, we hear nothing but murder, mayhem, the politics of personal destruction, and a new insistence on rigid lines of political correctness. Somehow we put one foot in front of the other and march on – sometimes wondering to what end. On November 16, I had an experience that washed all of that away, even if just for a little while.

I attended a special concert by the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Lake Travis Performing Arts Center. As expected, Maestro Peter Bay and his orchestra were superb in their renditions of Holst, Mozart, and Musorgsky. But Mr. Bay went beyond. To provide another level of inspiration to young musicians in training, he reached out and arranged for sixteen music students from Lake Travis High School to join the orchestra, some even given the honor of sitting in the first chairs.     

For this brief moment, all the tensions of daily life melted away, and I felt a surge of renewed hope for the future, for in the arts lies the unity of humankind. At the concert, I cannot tell you if I saw people of color, blonds, brunettes, or greying heads on the stage.

I only saw musicians making sounds that swelled my soul and transcended the noise of our daily lives. 

Artists in all disciplines must reach for more, whether conceiving an architectural masterpiece, a painting, an opera, a ballet, or a symphony. In their quest for excellence, their creations help erase the boundaries that separate us as people. Those who create must look beyond the narrow limits of mob-think; they must see in vivid colors, hear in vivid sounds, and often take the roads less traveled. They may be reclusive in the process of creating, but they do not function in isolation. Individuals who dedicate themselves to artistic development have a strong sense of self, driven to self-actualization. Their visions give to society while they draw from their cultures and many academic disciplines. 

Painters see in colors, form, and proportions. Composers and musicians operate within mathematical formulas: divisions of time; use of fractions to indicate the length of notes. Dancers operate within the structures of Physical Science and the theories of motion and gravity. Actors must empty themselves to absorb the characters they play on stage – This requires looking beyond their own perceptions and truths.

 The arts are vital to humanity. They give flight to imagination and creativity and should be an essential part of academic education. Albert Einstein, perhaps one of the most highly self-actualized human beings, once said, “Creativity is intelligence at play.”

The Austin Symphony Orchestra and Lake Travis High School showed us a model for Einstein’s playful quote. We watched and listened to the young, who are still fresh and full of hope, join the seasoned professionals, and reach for excellence. They expanded their horizons and brought a diverse audience together in admiration. 

You may be thinking, lovely sentiment, but how do we do it? 

Many believe that the government should become the primary support for everything – including the arts. That road too quickly leads to a government having the power to define and control creativity. Study the long list of artists who defected from socialist/oppressive nations where the State defines what art is and how it’s to be expressed. The government can, however, have a constructive place in nurturing our children’s individual creative development.

Block grants to school districts, earmarked explicitly for promoting artistic growth, might be of great value in helping our young reach for their stars, and in the process, build bridges between people and help elevate humanity to higher levels of well-being. That requires recognition and respect for the fact that people are different, and the differences go deeper than  color or ethnicity.   

The arts ensure that diverse identities and cultures are recognized and given a voice in the world. The arts of every culture reach back in time, relying on those who came before. Present-day artists build on the past and expand their disciplines, reflecting today’s world. Our art not only leaves a record of who we are, but also the growth we’ve contributed to the future.

Characters We’re Drawn To

by Helen Currie Foster

Originally posted on Ink-Stained Wretches

Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.

At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.

Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.

George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in
that scene?

George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.

In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?

Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.

We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.

What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.

Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!

Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.

My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.

Bouchercon 2019

There are few things I enjoy more than spending several days with other crime writers.  Writing is often a solitary experience, so the opportunity to connect with friends to debate all aspects of the craft and business of crime fiction is something I look forward to.  Discussing the issues of plot structure, character arcs, how to poison imaginary people….

I was thrilled that my short story titled, “The Deed,” was chosen for this year’s Bouchercon anthology.  We had a fantastic turnout of readers, and I learned that many readers collect every edition of the anthology.  My good fortune included sitting next to John Floyd, whose talent is  outshone only by his generous nature.  This year’s lineup of short stories includes a bevy of accomplished authors, and I can’t wait to steal an evening so I can read every single story.  All proceeds benefit Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT), so if you didn’t pick up a copy at the convention, you can order it from BookPeople or online.  

The challenge of Bouchercon is that there are so many events happening that you simply can’t do them all. There were several panel options in every time slot for the entire four days of the show, and I realized that many of the panels I wanted to attend were scheduled at the same time of my own panels or other events.  You have to sit with the program and prioritize where you want to be.  And make time for the bar.  Some of the best conversations I had took place in the bar. 

One of my favorite panels was given by Luci Zahray, affectionately called The Poison Lady, and she will scare the hell out of you and make you laugh all at the same time. She generously gives her time and expertise to crime writers across the country, and her presentations are always packed with information. If she’s on the schedule, I make sure to attend.

More Real Than the Housewives Panel

Another panel that I add to my favorites was “More Real Than the Housewives: Unlikeable Women. Moderated by Katrina Niidas Holm, the panelists were Megan Abbott, Jennifer Hillier, Angie Kim, Laura Lippman, and J.M. Redmann. The conversation around the issues pertaining to how female characters must/should act in fiction in order to be accepted/rooted for by the reader/etc. was fascinating. There were too many relevant points to list here, but I agree with the panelist who said that she preferred that a character be interesting above all else.

That’s What She Said: Snappy Dialogue

I served on two panels, the first titled “That’s What She Said: Snappy Dialogue,” and the experience was fantastic.  We had a wonderful crowd.  Donna Andrews was a thoughtful moderator and my fellow panelists—Hillary Davidson, Dana Haynes, Matt Iden and Lynette Eason—made the hour fly with their wit and clever banter. My stomach hurt from laughing when it was over.  

Bullet Books signing at Mystery Mike’s

My second panel, Co-Authoring, moderated by Manning Wolfe, focused on the process of co-authoring a book project. Her Bullet Books project,  which includes my novella titled LAST CALL, offers readers a way of enjoying a shorter story while traveling on a plane, train, or bus. Reading while driving is probably not a good idea.  We had several authors serve as panelists, including Jay Brandon, Billy Kring, Bill Rodgers, Kay Kendall, V.P. Chandler and Scott Montgomery. Co-authoring a book is a different experience than writing solo, so we wanted to explore the topic in the hopes of helping our audience decide if this was something they might want to try in the future.  

How did I miss the class on lock-picking?  I’m still bummed about that one. 

The Sisters in Crime breakfast starts SO EARLY but is well worth the lost sleep. It’s another opportunity to catch up with friends, hear the latest updates from the Board, and hear how certain projects such as We Love Libraries, We Love Bookstores and others have progressed throughout the year. I also love the webinars and classes that are offered, and I enjoyed talking with other members to learn which aspects of SINC they enjoy the most. Oh—and the pancakes were SO GOOD.  I’ll get out of bed early for pancakes.

The most important part of this year’s conference, though, was the time I spent with friends. Truly, it’s the people who make this community so special, and I’m grateful to be part of it.

Laura Oles

Bullet Books Launch at the Texas Book Festival

No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.

Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: Today, the Texas Book Festival  opened on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.  Exhibitor tents and food trucks line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— are speaking, signing books, and appearing on panels. There are books for display and  for sale.

And in Exhibitor Tent #4, a new mystery series is being launched: BULLET BOOKS SPEED READS.

BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.

Twelve Bullet Books are being introduced. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies. There’s something for mystery lover.

A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:

Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.

Bill Rogers – KILLER SET DROP THE MIC
Billy Kring – IRON 13
Helen Currie Foster – BLOODY BEAD
Mark Pryor – THE HOT SEAT
Kathy Waller – STABBED
Jay Brandon – MAN IN THE CLIENT CHAIR
Kay Kendall – ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME
Suzanne Waltz – DANGEROUS PRACTICE
Scott Montgomery – TWO BODIES, ONE GRAVE
Laura Oles – LAST CALL
V.P. Chandler – THE LAST STRAW
Elizabeth Garcia – THE NEON PALM

The first twelve Bullet Books are available from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats.  Another thirteen volumes will be released in 2020.

Authors will sign their books at the Starpath Books booth, # 405 in exhibitor tent #4, this Saturday and Sunday, October 26-27.

By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe  will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.

Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m

If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.

THE GHOSTS OF HISTORY WHAT THEY CAN TELL US

Francine PainoBy Francine Paino

The late president, Harry S. Truman said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”

People make history. What were the lives of those who came before really like? Men and women who lived without the conveniences, comforts, and communications we enjoy today.

Most adults throughout history couldn’t read or write. They depended on oral historians and they certainly didn’t have 24-hour news cycles to keep them informed.

How and why did they prosper or fail? Who were the great leaders of these populations? How was the common person’s life impacted by discoveries, wars, and political decisions? Were their lives improved or worsened?

What provocative question would you ask that cannot be learned from the histories you do know? The ghosts of artists, performers, and sports figures, political and military leaders might offer corrections or additions to our knowledge.

Starting with the first humans to stand upright, there are questions. Archeologists still ponder the evidence of humans using and controlling fire a million years ago. While spontaneous fires happened and probably frightened those first men and women. What accident caused the spark that showed these primitives that they could create fire? Perhaps it was a woman trying to crush the head of a fish and accidentally struck another rock that caused that first human made spark. Wouldn’t I love to know?

Think of the great warrior women in history. Would you call up the spirit of one of the biblical women like Deborah, Judith or Jael? What secrets could they tell of their lives? When thinking of great warrior women and leaders in ancient times one cannot ignore Cleopatra or Boudica.

I always wonder which Roman leader and general Cleopatra truly loved, if she loved either. Was it Caesar or Marc Antony? Did she seduce and use Marc Antony only to protect her’s and Caesar’s son, Caesarian’s birthright?

In A.D. 60-61, Queen Boudica, of the Iceni tribe was a remarkable pagan leader who refused to bow to Rome. Her courageous leadership inspired her tribe to fight against the might of the Roman war machine. Defeated in the end, Boudica and her daughters took poison rather than face capture.

Everything known about Boudica, the Iceni and the battles with Rome was written and recorded by Roman scholars. What corrections might her ghost give us, if summoned?

Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and other great scientists have advanced the sciences in all areas. Is there anything they might add to the histories we know? Are there unrevealed truths, known only to them?

In sports, maybe you’d like to know about Babe Ruth, beyond the opinions and movies. Already considered one of the best ballplayers, after leading the Boston Red Sox to three world series, how did the Sultan of Swat, otherwise known as the Bambino, really feel when club owner Harry Frazee sold him to the New York Yankees?

For me, there are too many ghosts to name, but if I could summon only one, it would be the 17th President of the United States.

Democrat Andrew Johnson was elected vice-president when Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency. In the early 19th century, presidents and vice-presidents did not run as a team from the same party. These two men served during one of the most devastating times in U.S. history.

After the destructive Civil War, that ended slavery, but killed 600,000 men, an exhausted nation then faced the shocking assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on April 14, 1865. Democrat vice-president Andrew Johnson, under the U.S. Constitution, took the oath of office and became the 17th president, even as the hunt for the conspirators continued.

Those involved in Lincoln’s assassination were speedily caught. The planner and triggerman, John Wilkes Booth resisted capture and was shot to death outside the barn on Garrets Farm, in Virginia. Another conspirator, John Surratt, Mary’s son escaped to Canada.

In early May 1865, the remaining eight faced a military tribunal. All were found guilty. Four, Arnold, Mudd, and O’Laughlen, were sentenced to life in prison, and Spangler received a six-year sentence. Their part in the conspiracy to kidnap the president was well established, but not their involvement in the assassination.

The four collaborators found guilty and sentenced to death were Herold, Powell, Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt.

After the trial, five of the nine military commissioners who found Mary Surratt guilty petitioned President Johnson. They recommended that her sentence be changed to life in prison. Instead, Johnson, who never directly replied to the request, ordered the executions to take place as soon as possible.

Thus, on July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was the first woman ever executed by the United States.

My burning question to the ghost of Andrew Johnson, would be,  After the recommendation for leniency from  five battle-hardened generals who’d found her guilty, why sir, could you not have shown mercy? There is much speculation and obfuscation, but I’ll never know that answer in this lifetime.

History is the study and accounting of past events, especially the development of human knowledge, understanding and growth, and the social interactions between peoples. It is through these affairs that we filter our attitudes and beliefs in today’s world. Not knowing history is imprudent and dangerous.

Real history is bloodier than the bloodiest fiction, more heart wrenching than the best novels of love and loss, and more beautiful and inspiring than anything an author can invent; and all created in real time by real men and women.

It makes one wonder what history books will say about us and what our ghosts may be able to reveal to the future generations.

Further Thoughts on Smell in Literature, or The Dog as Watson

 

 

By Helen Currie Foster

An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or misunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.

The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.

You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)

Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.

 

Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:

“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.”

        

 

Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Barkness:

“Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.

At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.

No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.”

Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.

Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.

My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:

     “When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around. Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.”

Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.

Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.

Bouchercon Lifts Up Community Through Silent Auction

One of the most wonderful things about being in the mystery writing community is how often authors and organizations dedicate themselves to raising money for causes that support literacy, libraries and youth reading programs. This year, Bouchercon2019 is sponsoring a fantastic silent auction in order to benefit Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT ).

According to Texas LEARNS, there are 3.8 million adults in Texas without a high school diploma. The importance of literacy to individuals as well as our community can’t be overstated. The ability to effectively read and write has a significant impact on job opportunities, upward mobility, community connectedness and social inclusion. 

Literacy is an important first rung on the ladder that can lead a person out of poverty and open doors for increased earning opportunities. Literacy can also improve a family’s options through future generations. When parents are able to model a love for reading and learning in the home, this impacts not only the children but also others who spend time in the home. For young women, the stakes are significant. Literacy empowers young girls and women and encourages them to become economically self-sufficient and independent. 

For these reasons and many others, we are proud to support LIFT this year in their efforts to increase literacy in Texas. We are excited to host a silent auction supporting this organization and are also asking for your support as well.

We welcome your donations for the silent auction at this year’s Bouchercon conference. To learn more about LIFT, click here: https://lift-texas.org. To learn more about how to donate to this year’s Bouchercon silent auction, click here:  https://www.bouchercon2019.com/silent-auction

You can also send an email to:  bouchercon2019silentauction@gmail.com

For ideas on creating your donation basket or offering, follow the Bouchercon2019 Silent Auction Highlights Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/Bouchercon2019SilentAuction/

–Laura Oles

Book Clubs for Authors: A Doggone Good Time!

by K.P. Gresham

I’m a fiction writer, and my world pretty much revolves around my profession. My friends, my colleagues, my editors, my publicists are comprised mostly of people in the writing business. To make that world even smaller, I write mysteries, and I love to read mysteries. Noir, suspense, thriller, cozies, you name it, I’m in. Sisters in Crime, I love you! Writers League of Texas? You’re the best! Austin Mystery Writers? Your support and critiques are off the charts.

I existed in a happy, but small little world of people who get together to figure out how best to kill other people. (Fictionally, of course.)

Until…

Marni, a good friend of mine from water aerobics, invited me to join her book club. I asked what do you read? She gave me the list for that year’s selection.

I knew one or two of the novels by name recognition. The rest? Not so much. Surprised that I was so poorly read across the genres, I joined Marni’s book club. I also quickly learned that not only was I not well-read, I’d lost touch with folks in the real world as well.

It’s been seven years since I joined that club, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.

Interested in a narrative about the rise of communism in Russia? Check out The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles. World War II stories from Italy? Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Okay, you’re more into the French point of view? Check out Wolves at the Door: America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson. Okay, the last two were historical narrative fiction, but I learned so much from reading them.

I’m figuring with seven years at one book a month, that puts 84 books in my head that I probably would have never read. 84 books which used styles I’d never heard of before. 84 books of history, biographies, tragedies, comedies, science, science fiction–one of our group’s main goals is to read across the genres and experience new writers and subjects. I’ve read first person, second person, and third person POVs. Books that have been written in present and past tense, as well as time travels. This experience has been a microcosm of study on subjects I knew about, but had never really studied.

All right. Not every book was great. But as a writer I learned a great deal from those selections as well. Too many characters? After a while I didn’t care about any of them. Switching point of view from sentence to sentence? What a pain in the neck for the reader. No description of setting? Little to no sense of character development? A cop out ending? Yeah. They drove me nuts. BUT that also provided me with a cautionary tale to avoid those pitfalls.

What’s the book club’s biggest pay-off? The friendships I’ve had the privilege to develop with these well-educated, well-traveled, successful women. (Men aren’t banned. They just don’t ever come.) And we have a great time. Wine and snacks are involved. We always discuss the authors and their backgrounds, oftentimes showing You Tube author interviews. Some of us are very opinionated (me!), but the atmosphere is never hostile or uncomfortable. We genuinely want to hear each other’s opinions and personal experiences that relate to the book, all the while trying to figure out what we’ll recommend when the time comes for the next selections.

So authors, consider joining a book club that takes you out of your genre. Besides expanding your writing skills, you’ll have a doggone good time!

***

K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

Sharks: Who, Where, and How to Get Rid of Them

by Kathy Waller

This is a shark:

This shark does not live in the ocean. It lurks in bookstores, coffee shops, libraries:

Disguised as an aspiring writer, it invades critique groups and, fueled by ego, envy, jealousy, and just plain mean-spiritedness, can do untold harm.

Writer, instructor, and “genre-hopper” Maralys Wills describes its pernicious effect:

“Nothing will stifle creativity faster than the critiquer who’s ‘out to get’ other writers. Subtly, or not so subtly, a shark is so impossible to please that other authors become frustrated, then discouraged, and finally defeated.”

Wills speaks from experience. She was once in a critique group with a writer who wrote “golden prose” that Wills could only praise. But she was the only one who saw flawless writing.

“Sure enough, each week,  the others ripped and tore and nit-picked to death the work I found so perfect. . .  and all the time I was thinking, You guys must be desperate to flaunt your hatchets. None of you are as good as she is.”

Wills has a rule covering toxic critique groups: “Any group dominated by a shark should be disbanded. Preferably, you should kill the shark on your way out.”

In critique groups, intentions matter. Relationships matter.

In the most productive groups, members behave like professionals. They look for the positive and address the negative in language designed to help their colleagues improve. In the best groups, they behave like friends. Sometimes, members even morph from friends into buddies. And in a buddy-style relationship, anything can happen.

For example, in a chapter I submitted to a short-lived two-person group—we called ourselves the Just for the Hell of It Critique Group, for a reason I won’t go into here—a  contentious old lady says to another character, “And you and that Claudia person can just go right back where you came from.”

Gale, my partner, objected to the word person; she said the old woman knew Claudia and so would say, “You and Claudia can just go right back where you came from.” I didn’t argue (a rule: no arguing),  but I knew the character, and I could hear her say, “that Claudia person.” Because writers are free to reject advice if they wish, I left the word where it was.

Some time later, commenting on  a revision of that page, Gale again said I should remove person. But I still liked person—it was one of my darlings—so I quietly declined to do so.

By the third go-around, Gale had  had enough: “That Claudia person thing is driving me crazy.”

She wouldn’t have said that to just anyone. We’d worked together and learned to trust each other. We spoke the same language. We were buddies.

She knew I would laugh. I laughed. She laughed. I removed the offending person.

So here is my love song, not fancy or fine, but most sincere, to the Austin Mystery Writers, the Just for the Hell of It Writers, and all those groups that give aspiring writers the knowledge, support, and  courage to keep aspiring, to publication and beyond.

By the way, the toxic critique group Maralys Wills wrote about—she and the writer of “golden prose” left the group. I don’t know what happened to the sharks. Wills and the other writer might have killed them on the way out. Or they might still be out there, destroying other writers’ creativity.

Maralys Wills, however, became an award-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction.

And the writer of “golden prose” that the sharks trashed at every meeting? She became the author of the best-selling Inspector Lynley mysteries—Elizabeth George.

***

These are not sharks:

For your reading pleasure, I recommend Maralys Wills’ Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead: The Bumpy Road to Getting Published. 

***

Kathy Waller’s stories appear in the Austin Mystery Writers crime fiction anthologies, Murder on Wheels (Wildside, 2015) and Lone Star Lawless (Wildside, 2017), and at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly and has a novella coming out this fall.  She lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.