WHEN THE MUSE CALLS…

By

Fran Paino, AKA F. Della Notte

This was an odd morning. I got up, as usual at 4 a.m. (no kudos here – just my body clock), prepared to sit at the computer and work on my story. I walked into the kitchen. There,  perched on the corner of the table, with her cafe e latte in one hand, and waving a recipe for a Sicilian cake I’d printed out before Christmas in the other hand, was the muse. I took the paper and looked at the recipe again, captured by the bold, black font and pretty picture.

So, she commanded. Instead of worrying about plots, profiles, commas, apostrophes, nouns, and verbs, bake the cake

Immediately – after my first cup of coffee, I assembled the ingredients, including lemons, and squeezed out fresh juice, then shaved off the zest, as instructed. This particular recipe depends heavily on the bright yellow fruit, sometimes sweet, sometimes not, that often decorates my martini glass. Today, it would flavor and brighten the cake. The entire process of creating the batter was not difficult, and soon the cake was in the oven. But my muse was not content.  

Let’s talk about lemons, said she, a very Italian muse because we Italians, both human and spirit, do love our lemons, and off I went on a learning mission with the burning question at four a.m. Where in the world are the best lemons grown? 

 The answer varies depending on the website, but some of the best lemons are grown in Italy, on the Amalfi coast, just south of Naples. Beautiful varieties of lemons are also cultivated on the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily.

Its Ionian coast was traversed by Odysseus on his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan War. Here he found his way to Aeolus, the god of winds who lived in a castle protected by a solid bronze wall on the island of Lipari – where my husband’s ancestors lived – but I digress. Back to the worthy subject of lemons.

Italian lemons are not to be confused with the expensive, succulent Meyer Lemons. That hybrid citrus originated in China and is a cross between “citron and mandarin/pomelo hybrid.”

On the other hand, Italian lemons are as distinct as the areas where they grow. There are two types of Amalfi lemons grown on the Sorrento Peninsula — “the Sfusato Amalfitano and the Limone di Sorrento. Found in different parts of the coast, these are among the most highly prized lemons in the world. They are PGI-protected by the EU, which ensures they are produced only on the Amalfi Coast,” preventing substitutes or imitations.  The Amalfi coast provides fresh breezes off the ocean, which are trapped in the mountain valleys, creating the perfect ecosystem for the lemons to grow. They are protected from the northern winds to bask and mature in the coastal sunshine. Incidentally, the same is true for the oranges of this region. So special and fragrant are these fruits that Italians even reference their perfume in song.  

Traveling south to the island of Sicily, the Interdonato cultivar is a natural hybrid between lemon and citron grown along the Ionian Sea coast in Messina. Then there are the lemons grown along the volcanic coastal strip of Etna, in parts of Catania, differing in size, shape, and color. These are rich in essential oils and of high aromatic quality, which can be attributed to the fact that they are grown in an environment with specific volcanic soil and climate. 

Last but not least are the lemons from Siracusa (Syracuse), characterized by an intense fragrance and juiciness, which makes them particularly suitable for creating liqueurs, desserts, sorbets, and ice cream

         Which of these varieties did I use? Well, the only lemons available to me, and in my fridge, were from the good old U.S.A., most likely grown in Arizona or California, where 95% of our lemons come from. The other 5% are grown in Texas and Florida. 

         I’ve told you more than you ever wanted to know about lemons, while my cake cooled. One bite convinced me that it was well worth the detour inspired by my muse. So, when life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade or bake a Sicilian Olive Oil and Lemon cake. You’ll love it. I certainly do.

With my espresso, and a slice of the moist cake with its delicate lemony flavor, enhanced by the olive oil beside me, I return to my computer, content and ready to focus on writing, but remember, when the muse calls…pay attention.

### 

https://www.cnn.com/videos/travel/2022/10/07/sardinia-stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy-fregola-origseriesfilms.cnn/video/playlists/stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy/

https://www.italiarail.com/food/joys-amalfi-lemon

https://www.tasteatlas.com/most-popular-lemons-in-sicily

Too Many Books? Is That a Thing?

By Laura Oles

Karen Heller’s article, “We’re drowning in old books. But getting rid of them is heartbreaking.,” speaks to a key truth many book lovers face. 

She went for it right in the article title.

Included in the piece are several quotes from Fran Lebowitz, the fabulous humorist and social critic who graced us with this gem early in the article. “Constitutionally, I am unable to throw a book away. To me, it’s like seeing a baby thrown in a trash can.”  She continues, “I am a glutton for print. I love books in every way. I love them more than most human beings.” Lebowitz then explains how important her 12,000-book collection is to her and the hurdles she must clear to make sure her books are properly displayed each time she moves into a new apartment. 

I love you, Fran.

Great books can bring comfort, entertainment, education, and joy. They are more than simply stories and greater than the sum of their pages, their worth far exceeding the price spent.  For many, they are touchstones that represent key moments in time, relationships, experiences, and fond memories. 

They also, in physical form, take up a lot of space.

Marie Kondo of KonMari organizing fame, swept through our lives with her passionate clutter busting method, and I was with her right until she addressed the clutter of books. Books as clutter? Those are fighting words. When Kondo advised that we should own around 30 books, I realized it was at this point we would part ways. My wish list is larger than that.

Currently, my office bookshelves are filled, and it takes a great deal of discipline to not add more to the stacks (I cheat by stacking them in a separate pile on the counter).  When I travel, I have both a print book and my iPad in my bag. I feel exposed, somehow, without a book in tow.

While my collection of books is nowhere near the five-digit range, it’s enough that I try regularly to find homes for those I have read and think others will enjoy. Still, it’s a struggle to explain why I brought home four more books when my TBR is taller than I am.   Is this a problem?

No?

Oh, good.

For those who are seeking homes for collections that have outgrown the space their owners have, there are several ways to get the right books to the right people.  Here are a few ideas:

Local Library Book Sales:  Many libraries have sales one or more times per year as a fundraising effort. I have worked several of these events in my hometown (and must promise myself not to take books home), and they are a wonderful way to support a local institution while also getting loved books into new hands.  The books should be in good, readable shape, though.  Water damage and other injuries mean the book doesn’t meet the criteria. 

Free Little Library:  This is one of my favorite ways to donate books, and with a little searching, it’s easy to locate one or more in your area. I enjoyed setting up a free little library at my local gym and love watching other members drop off a book or take one home.  According to the Free Little Library website, there are currently over 150,000 libraries in over 110 countries (and the number is likely higher due to how many aren’t formally registered online). So, consider loading a box of books in your car and taking a quick tour of your city to find a FLL that would benefit from your contribution.

Books for Development “addresses the book famine that prevents children and adults in many developing countries from learning to read. We do this by building library collections since we believe that the best contribution you can make to people’s development is to promote their literacy. As a non-profit, we take donated books, use volunteers to sort them and then ship them to poor countries to create libraries. We leverage our efforts–using free labor and donated books that might otherwise be dumped in a land fill.”https://www.booksfordevelopment.com

Better World Books: “Better World Books is a for-profit, socially conscious business and a global online bookseller that collects and sells new and used books online, matching each purchase with a book donation. Each sale generates funds for literacy and education initiatives in the U.S., the UK and around the world.  Since its launch in 2003, Better World Books has raised $33 million for libraries and literacy, donated over 32 million books and reused or recycled more than 397 million books.”  You can donate by checking their website to locate the nearest BWB drop box. https://www.betterworldbooks.com

Donation Town:  Donation Town is an “online directory of charities that offers donation pickup services. You can search the website for charities in your area that can pick up or accept your book donations.  http://donationtown.org

Goodwill:  Some Goodwill locations across the country have proven to have robust mini bookstores, and the company donates proceeds from sales to community outreach programs.  You can find a drop-off location here: https://www.amazinggoodwill.com/stores

Half Price Books: You can sell your books to HPB but don’t expect to get much for them (we know the value of the book can’t be measured by price anyway).  In some cases, it may be best to simply donate them. HBP will take those donations and then pay it forward to other community organizations.  https://www.hpb.com/home?&size=25&#product-panel-home

Side note:  If you haven’t seen Fran Lebowitz in Pretend It’s a City, I highly recommend it. You can find it here:  http://: https://www.netflix.com/title/81078137

If you’d like to read Karen Heller’s article in the Washington Post, you can find a gifted link here:  https://wapo.st/3jjhslB

Do you have a favorite place to rehome books? Post in the comments below!

The Power Of The Question Mark

By Helen Currie Foster

Why do we mystery readers read the next line? Turn to the next page?

Some writers have the knack of persuading us–for example, Tony Hillerman. His mysteries feature Navajo police Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. Never forget that Hillerman was a journalist before he wrote mysteries. I’m betting he excelled at attention-catching ledes that made you read his news articles. An early example of his getting us to turn to the next page occurs in The Dark Wind (1982), page 1:

“The Flute Clan boy was the first to see it. He stopped and stared. ‘Someone lost a boot,’ he said. Even from where he stood, at least fifteen yards farther down the trail, Albert Lomatewa could see that nobody had lost the boot. The boot had been placed, not dropped. It rested upright, squarely in the middle of the path, its pointed toe aimed toward them…”

Come on, you’ll turn the page, right?

For me, the same holds true for poetry. Untangling a new poem demands commitment. I confess the combination of the title and first lines can draw me right in. Masters of such trickery include Robert Frost and Billy Collins. Take for instance Frost’s “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston (1914): “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Well, I want to know what. Or “After Apple Picking”: “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree/ Toward heaven still…” I won’t leave that ladder quite yet.

Billy Collins simply uses a one-two punch: first his title, then the first lines, and you’re hooked. From Aimless Love (2013), titled “Hell”: “I have a feeling that it is much worse/ Than shopping for a mattress at a mall…”

When that combination–title plus opening lines–arouses my curiosity, it’s because I feel I’m experiencing along with the poet. Where’s the poet going? I’ll follow to find out (and Collins’s self-deprecating humor keeps me reading).

Okay, we’re curious animals. We’ve been asking “WHY?” at least since we were two. Theories abound. Is it because we’re responding to our outside world? Or is it innate–instinctual? Genetic? Do we get a dopamine rush from capturing new information? “Drive theory” calls curiosity a naturally-occurring urge we have to satisfy–a reason we read mysteries and work crossword puzzles. Alternatively, “incongruity theory” suggests we tend to see the world as orderly and predictable, but we become curious when an external event doesn’t fit our perceived order. Do mystery readers experience curiosity falling within each category? We want to find missing information (Clues!)–drive theory. And maybe we want a satisfying conclusion (justice served, the murderer punished, motives revealed) –incongruity theory.

Scientists are currently wildly curious (sorry) about human and animal curiosity.https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/curiosity.htm.

https://www.psypost.org/2022/o7/new-psychology-research-reveals-a-dark-side-of-curiosity-63583

I suspect readers are like Leonardo da Vinci. Mario Livio asks, in Why: What Makes Us Curious (2017), what distinguished Leonardo from his predecessor anatomists, hydraulicists, botanists? “Leonardo had an unquenchable curiosity which he attempted to satisfy directly through his own observations rather than by relying on statements by figures of authority.”

Just like mystery readers. We insist on discovering each clue for ourselves. Woe betide the writer who cheats us–hides a clue, or packs the last chapter with explanations we had no chance to discover directly through our own observations. Not only cheatsy, but contrary to a key provision in the original Detection Club rules. https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules. A violation of our beloved genre!

We need for the sleuth to ask the right questions. An Austin detective recently gave an absolutely riveting presentation to our Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime chapter, describing how to conduct an interview of a potential suspect (not under arrest) who’s been asked to talk to the police. He said the interviewer needs to be likable–should give the suspect no reason to dislike him. The initial greeting should create a sense of reciprocity but also mention the sleuth’s authority. The detective begins the interview in a calm, low voice, giving the suspect autonomy and building rapport: “Is it okay if I call you Alec?” “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” He elicits the suspect’s story, then goes over it, watching for nonverbal indications of uncomfortable areas (the suspect changes posture, etc.). He watches for signs of deception–easy to detect if the suspect lies, harder to detect if the suspect fails to answer the question completely or directly, or restates the question to avoid having to answer the actual query, During the interview, the sleuth must keep a neutral face even if the suspect confesses something disgusting or shocking: “The second the suspect senses judgment on your part, they won’t talk to you.”

The mystery sleuth–professional or amateur–must recognize key questions. Take Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders–a follow-on to his Magpie Murders, featuring a contemporary murder mystery again wrapped around an earlier mystery involving the fictional detective Atticus Pund. Protagonist Susan Ryeland asks: why did the waiter at the posh club drop the plates? And why did her boss’s assistant quit her job at the publishing company? I’ll leave you to find out. Ryeland’s dogged pursuit of the answers to these key questions nearly gets her killed. But she solves the murder.

For an entirely different creative use of the question mark, with a twist: study (or just enjoy) Richard Osman. His often comic Thursday Murder Club mysteries revolve around a group of retirees in a comfortable retirement village. The club’s purpose? Solving cold cases. The disparate characters contribute varied personalities and talents–a Zen-focused psychiatrist (Ibrahim), a vivacious widowed nurse (Joyce), a burly ex-union organizer (Ron), and the mysterious former spy (Elizabeth. 

Osman brings these characters to life not by a predictable prosy description, but by the questions they ask and answer. In the club meeting on page 1 of The Man Who Died Twice, Joyce asks, “Do you think a dog might be good company?…I thought I might either get a dog or join Instagram.” Ibrahim: “I would advise against it.” The day’s topic is murder; but with such a Q and A, we begin to grasp the nature of this somewhat wacky group. We’re allowed to read Joyce’s diary, in which she comes across as convivial, a bit ditsy, and quite shrewd.

Osman extends this technique to other characters. When drug dealer Connie introduces herself to Chris and Donna, police officers who hope to engage in a sting and arrest her, we get this:

“What’s your eye shadow?” Connie asks Donna.

“Pat McGrath, Gold Standard,” says Donna.

“It’s lush,” says Connie.

Connie’s a murderous drug dealer. But hey! She’s also into fashion. And Donna? Same. 

Osman also uses those hanging questions as hooks. At the end of chapter 17, we’re eavesdropping on Joyce’s diary. The daily entry ends, “I wonder if anyone else is awake?” Now turn the page to chapter 18: “Ryan Baird is awake. He is currently playing Call of Duty online. He is spraying machine gun fire at full volume while his neighbors bang on the walls.”

You’ll be glad to know Ryan will get his, but the clever Q and A hooks us into the next chapter and expands Ryan’s character.

Osman’s Q and A also deepens the relationship between two unlikely friends, Joyce and Elizabeth:

“What do you and I talk about, Joyce?” asks Elizabeth.

Joyce thinks. “It’s been mainly murder, hasn’t it? Since we met?”

Thank you, Richard Osman. This is fun.

Just in case you’re wondering whether you (or your friends and relatives) ask enough questions, or ask the right or wrong questions, or have no clue how to keep a conversation going, or (heaven help us) don’t know how to ask questions of a group, here are 450 suggestions. Unfortunately, this collection didn’t include a list of “ideal questions for solving a murder.” https://www.scienceofpeople.com/questionos-to-ask-people

But, like Leonardo, we readers will discover those questions “directly through [our] own observations.”

My next book in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted, will be out soon. Toward the end the protagonist, Alice, asks a key question. Watch for it! Happy Holidays!

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the Texas Hill Country. She lives north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, and the Hays County Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her most recent book, Ghost Daughter, was named Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List Finalist, as well as Finalist in the 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and Finalist in the 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

FLIGHTS OF FANCY AND IMAGINATION

BY

FRANCINE PAINO AKA F. Della Notte

Thanks to Hollywood and TV-land, most of us are tired of Christmas and we aren’t even in the official Advent season. The bombardment of mostly silly movies centered on Christmas themes that have little to do with this holy Christian holiday sucks the meaning out of Christmas and starts earlier every year.

Thus, it seems a good time to reprint Flights of Fancy and Imagination, reminding everyone that PBS television’s 2021 presentation of the musical production by Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written in 1816, is still available, and will be through December 13, 2024.

Mauceri conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Tony Award-winning Alan Cumming narrating this original tale in three parts..

The story, written by E.T.A. Hoffman, is about a young girl who saves a prince, contrary to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, where the prince rescues the girl. Perhaps Hoffman’s inspiration for this particular flight of fancy was the popularity of embellished nutcrackers, which appeared in Germany in the early 1800s.  

The Nutcracker’s story begins with a young boy who stays home alone daily while his parents go to work. The little boy was lonely and afraid, so his father carved a special toy, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier with big sharp teeth and fierce-looking eyes, and told him that this unique Nutcracker would protect him while his parents were gone. It did the trick. The boy loved and enjoyed that Nutcracker and felt secure by its presence, so his father continued to carve new ones for him. When the boy grew up, he married and had a son to whom he gave all the nutcrackers made by his father. 

Over time in early 19th century Germany, the lure of decorative nutcrackers grew, and so did a legend. They came to represent power, strength, and the protection of families from danger and evil spirits. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and keepsakes to bring good luck.  

E.T.A. Hoffman was a prolific writer of gothic tales, fantasy, and the supernatural – most of them dark, including segments of his Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Alexander Dumas, the 19th-century French author, translated Hoffman’s work in 1845, propelling it beyond the written word. Mauceri explains that Dumas, the grandson of the French aristocrat and African Haitian slave, was drawn to the story because Hoffman concluded the tale with the girl growing up to become the queen of a land of tolerance and imagination. It was the Dumas version that Peter Illich Tchaikovsky adopted in 1892 when he composed the score. 

While this production does not target children, it is appropriate for those youngsters who can sit still for a narrative without pictures or characters to hold their interest. Cumming reads the narrative with emotion and even injects moments of humor without straying from the story.

The orchestra gives a stirring performance. Bold and rousing where appropriate, mysterious, sensual, and nerve-wracking also when appropriate. In addition to the lush Tchaikovsky score, compositions from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and orchestral suites, are included.   

Mauceri’s reimagined Nutcracker and the Mouse King fill the mind’s eye with characters, places, and emotions generated by the performances of artists of the highest caliber. If you didn’t experience this fantastic flight of fancy and imagination last year, you might still enjoy it by accessing https://www.pbs.org/video/the-nutcracker-and-the-mouse-king-meabwt/.

Enjoy it for the first time, or once again, with friends, family, children, and grown-ups. And in the spirit of the upcoming season, I wish you all a truly thankful Thanksgiving, and in the true spirit of Christmas, I wish you all love, kindness, respect, and caring.

First published December, 2021

Do You NaNoWriMo? Ideas for When the Real World Intrudes on Your Word Count

By Laura Oles

It’s that time, people.

Writing communities are abuzz with NaNoWriMo preps, countdowns and first week updates. By my calculations, you should have 11.669 words down. How’s it going so far? Are you crushing your goals or is the weight of the word count catching up to you? Each year I struggle to decide if I’m going to try NaNoWriMo again for a new project. The organizer part of me wants to dive in with a plan, a schedule, and a competitive desire to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s a fun way to jump start a new project or to get into the habit of writing without worrying too much about arranging the right words in the right order, putting your inner editor on pause where she belongs.

It also doesn’t usually work for me. At least, not in the traditional structure.

In the past, I told myself that if I were more organized/committed/talented/all the things, I’d crush the 50k with extra words in my back pocket. Now at this stage in my writing career, I understand that not only is it okay for me not to put this kind of pressure on myself for a small block of time, it can actually backfire.

Also, Thanksgiving. Trying to stack an extra several hundred words daily to cover those days when I’m cooking and spending time with family just adds additional pressure during a time when 1) several things need to get done in addition to my current work and personal commitments and 2) I want to focus on the people around me and not the fact that I’m 432 words short for the day. 

Don’t get me wrong. If this is your jam and you find that the traditional NaNo structure of 50k in 30 days is for you, by all means, set that keyboard ablaze with your fast fingers and quick fire ideas. I’m here rooting for you. But for those of us who’d like to enjoy some of the energy created by the challenge while being flexible with our own goals and daily lives, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that may work as alternative challenges.

A Page a Day:  This is one of my favorite go-to strategies when my schedule has blown up shortly after getting out of bed. The best laid plans and all that. If I can just get one page a day down, it often leads to two, three or four pages. It’s usually the IDEA that I only need to write one page that helps push me out of that mental space of hitting a thousand or fifteen hundred words. Some days I write slowly and others I can hit two thousand. Some days I don’t write anything more than a grocery list. But, once I started shooting for a page a day, I find that I usually hit a higher count and I also write more consistently.  

Get Up Early (or Stay Up a Little Later):  I’m a morning person. I don’t mean that I jump out of bed with a smile on my face ready to take on the day. It’s more like I stumble out of bed and promise myself that a cup of coffee fixes all things (it fixes most things, right?). For those times when I have a deadline and a busy schedule, getting up early and going straight to my desk (yes to coffee but no to email and news) allows me to get a jump on the day and claim time before other responsibilities take over. A friend swears that after ten o’clock in the evening is the perfect time for her to write. She has always been a night owl and has structured her schedule to make this work for her. There is no right answer, only what works for you. 

Outline or Brainstorm Ideas: “You don’t have writer’s block, you have preparation deficiency.” This quote from Adam Sternbergh rings true for me. If I’m struggling with a scene or a particular plot point, it’s often because I haven’t done the necessary work to get the words on the page. This is a signal to step back and ask deeper questions, to better understand what is unfolding in the story—and why. The words usually follow once I have the puzzle pieces in the right places.

Give It a Shot Anyway: One of the benefits of trying NaNoWriMo is that it often allows us to draft what the incredible Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.”  In Bird by Bird, she writes, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” I keep Bird by Bird on my desk because I need to be reminded that, with every book or short story I write, it’s okay to start with a messy draft. Just get the words down. They don’t have to be perfect. Most likely they won’t be. Mine rarely are. But there will be something to work with, a draft to edit and polish, and that’s a fantastic start. Words on the page. The number doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the words exist.

I also realize that our ability to tackle NaNoWriMo can change from year to year, depending on our circumstances, our commitments, our goals and countless other factors. Some years it feels like a great idea and other years I’d rather have a full day of dental work.

What about you? Do you participate in NaNoWriMo or use it to launch or expand a writing project? Why or why not?

When First We Met…

By Helen Currie Foster

October 31, 2022

In an online ad for her Master Class, writer Margaret Atwood (oh, what a magnificent face she has! Sardonic, wise, all-seeing…) declares this rule for fiction: “Hold my attention!”

Like Margaret Atwood, mystery lovers demand of mystery writers, “Hold my attention!”

I get tired of defending our genre. Mystery writers absolutely cater to their readers. They don’t publish exercises in personal navel-gazing–they know their readers could care less about the author’s navel. They know readers won’t give them the time of day–no! Won’t read more than a few pages!–unless all three components–interesting protagonist, vivid setting, challenging puzzle–are present.

Curious, I decided to revisit some of our first introductions to famous mystery protagonists. For example, in 1964 John D. MacDonald introduced Travis McGee–a character lucky enough to live on a Florida houseboat named the Busted Flush–in The Deep Blue Good-By (yes, that’s how the title reads on the cover). https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+deep+blue+good-by+by+john+d+macdonald&crid=3B3DO804231N&sprefix=The+deep+blue+good-by%2Caps%2C153&ref=nb_sb_ss_pltr-ranker-10hours_2_21 As a teenager I was enthralled. Could you live on a houseboat? It seemed an impossible dream. In Chapter Uno, McGee studies tide maps while dancer Chookie McCall, metronome clicking, choreographs strenuous dance step, before persuading McGee to talk to one of her dancers who has mislaid a bunch of money and needs help getting it back. McGee describes his occupation as finding lost loot and keeping half as his fee. An amazing life. AND–on a boat! Plus, adding to his appeal, McGee shares his prejudices with readers. He’s wary of many aspects of contemporary culture, including “Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants…” So liberating, his list. MacDonald has McGee describe himself for the reader as “that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, …that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast…” He calls himself a “knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society.” Looking in the rear-view mirror at 1964, McGee’s iconoclasm distances him somewhat…but not enough…from the decade’s sexist aspects (think of early James Bond).

Perhaps McGee’s wide-ranging rejection of staid norms presaged the “drop-out” scene just three years later in The Graduate (1967)–Dustin Hoffman driving away from “plastics” and other norms in his red 2600 Duetto Alfa Romeo. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061722/

Fast forward to 1970 when we meet Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way. In contrast to Travis McGee’s extensive self-introduction, we don’t really see Leaphorn in action until chapter 4. If you only read chapter 1 you might assume the protagonist is a depressed cultural anthropologist, Bergen McKee, who feels inadequate both as an academic and in his love life. McKee hopes Leaphorn can jump-start his academic career by introducing him to Navajos who still believe in Navajo witches. He joins Leaphorn’s search for Luis Horseman, Navajo suspect in a knifing, who has fled into the Lukachukai mountains. Horseman’s relatives quietly recount sightings of a Navajo wolf, a big man with a dog skin around his neck, the skull atop his head–a witch.

Hillerman’s powerful setting introduces us to the dramatic weather of Navajo territory, stirring our senses: “McKee had been startled by the sudden brighter-than-day flash of the lightning bolt. The explosion of thunder had followed it almost instantly, setting off a racketing barrage of echoes cannonading from the canyon cliffs. The light breeze, shifting suddenly down canyon, carried the faintly acrid smell of ozone released by the electrical charge and th eperfume of dampened dust and rain-struck grass… Then a splatter of rain hit; big, cold, high-velocity drops sent him running to the tent…” Sound, sight, smell, temperature pull us directly into the scene. https://www.amazon.com/Blessing-Way-Leaphorn-Chee-Novel/dp/0062821660/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2M4FSEIW6DUXU&keywords=The+Blessing+Way&qid=1667252978&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIyLjAwIiwicXNhIjoiMS4zMCIsInFzcCI6IjEuMTMifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=the+blessing+way%2Caps%2C218&sr=8-1&asin=0062821660&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Leaphorn’s analytical solution to Horseman’s murder turns on the difference between Navajo and non-Navajo ways. We hear Hillerman’s Navajo characters softly sing their traditional morning song, or their chants against contamination by a dead body. Leaphorn feels there’s something “strangely un-Navajo” about Horseman’s death: “Navajos did not kill with cold-blooded premeditation. Nor did they kill for profit. To do so violated the scale of values of The People… Where, then, was the motive?” In this first mystery Hillerman gives us an unconventionally structured, but totally absorbing, introduction to the fascinating landscape and cultures of the Four Corners. I was, and remain, permanently hooked. 

Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone first appeared in A is for Alibi (1982). In contrast to Hillerman, Grafton introduces her sleuth on page one: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids.” We learn immediately that the day before yesterday, Kinsey killed someone, and “the fact weighs heavily” on her mind. We learn her housing and car preferences and that she has no house plants. Then she plunges into the tale. How can we not like that intro? https://www.amazon.com/Alibi-Kinsey-Millhone-Mystery-ebook/dp/B002HHPVBC/ref=sr_1_2?crid=AQ6U0I4W0F2P&keywords=Sue+Grafton+A+is+for+Alibi&qid=1667252584&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIyLjczIiwicXNhIjoiMi4xOCIsInFzcCI6IjIuMzYifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=sue+grafton+a+is+for+alib%2Caps%2C224&sr=8-2 Grafton died in 2017, ending her Alphabet Series at “Y.”

A big thank-you to Grafton who, along with Sara Paretzky (who also published in 1982 her first V.I. Warshawski Book 1, Indemnity Only). They helped found the national organization Sisters in Crime. https://www.sistersincrime.org/ Our own central Texas chapter, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, continues that work! https://www.sinc-heartoftexasaustin.com We’ll be signing books November 5 and 6 at our booth at the Texas Book Festival. Please stop by! https://www.texasbookfestival.org/

Donna Leon doesn’t let us meet Venetian police inspector Guido Brunetti until chapter 2 of Death at La Fenice (1992), Book 1 in her acclaimed series, when Brunetti leads a police team into the murder scene at the Venice opera house. We quickly find ourselves in Brunetti’s head: “It seemed, in this moment, that he had spent his entire life doing this to people, telling them that someone they loved was dead or, worse, had been killed.” And as he helps the victim’s wife away from the scene, “He was prepared for this, the sudden blow of reality that sets in after the first shock. It was this that knocked people down.” We learn Brunetti is humane, intelligent, and determined, from his scrupulous procedure, protection of clues, and humanity toward those bearing the sudden burden of a loved one’s murder. But he’s capable of wrath when death is not respected. When the bored ambulance attendants, overeager to move the body, cite union rules to Brunetti, he explodes: “You take him out of here before I tell you to, and you’ll be in jail the first time you spit on the sidewalk or swear in public…” In chapter 5 we meet his aristocratic bluestocking wife, Paola, in their fourth-floor Venetian apartment: “He opened the door, glad of the warmth and smell he associated with the apartment: lavender, wax, the scent of something cooking in the kitchen at the back…a mixture that represented…in a way he couldn’t explain, the existence of sanity in the daily madness that was his work.” Venice gives Leon a second weapon, a setting that–peopled by Brunetti and his family–is hard to resist. https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Mystery writers stand on the shoulders of giants, of course. One huge and hopeful lesson: writers can improve. Usually book 2 in any series is better than book 1. In 1945 American critic Edmund Wilson savaged Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries in The New Yorker: “Really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.” https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Huh! I’ll bet Dorothy Sayers would win the “who’s still read today” sweepstakes. And I reject Wilson’s description of mystery fiction as “mostly on a sub-literary level.” https://www.christopherfowler.co.uk/blog/2019/06/18/who-killed-the-classic-murder-mystery-pt-2/ Of course, the man also reportedly called J.R.R. Tolkien’s work “juvenile trash.” You might also be interested in T.S. Eliot’s views on detective fiction. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-makes-great-detective-fiction-according-to-t-s-eliot

But back to the question of improving. It’s true that Sayers’s first Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body (1923), includes rather twee dialogue between Wimsey and the poor architect who found in his bathtub a man’s dead body, nude save for his gold pince-nez. “I’m sure it must have been uncommonly distressin’,” says Wimsey, “especially comin’ like that before breakfast. Hate anything tiresome happenin’ before breakfast. Takes a man at such a confounded disadvantage, what?” https://www.amazon.com/Whose-Body-Dorothy-L-Sayers/dp/0486473627/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1YFL5UVDLR7FZ&keywords=Whose+Body&qid=1667252724&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIzLjc0IiwicXNhIjoiMy4yMyIsInFzcCI6IjMuNDgifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=whose+body%2Caps%2C195&sr=8-1&asin=0486473627&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Wimsey, along with his aristocratic bearing, still suffers PTSD from his own WWI service. In the second Wimsey mystery, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Sayers takes on the dreadful impacts of nerve gas, trench warfare and classism, and, in some painfully realistic scenes, the economic difficulties faced by veterans. Remember, she’s writing this in 1928. https://www.amazon.com/Unpleasantness-Bellona-Peter-Wimsey-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B008JVJHRY/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

These days Ghosted, Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer series set in little Coffee Creek, Texas, is nearing completion. As I finish each page I hear Margaret Atwood’s voice: “HOLD MY ATTENTION!”

Wait for it! Take that, Edmund Wilson!

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in Texas Hill Country north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock Mysteries: A “Genre-Bending” Series

by Kathy Waller

Texas mystery author Terry Shames’ latest book, Murder at the Jubilee Rallyhas been reviewed on ABC News.

To use a folksy phrase—Folks, that ain’t hay.

The ninth in Shames’ Samuel Craddock Mystery series, Murder at the Jubilee Rally focuses on conflicts residents of Jarrett Creek, Texas, experience when a motorcycle rally prepares to open outside of town—and the challenges Police Chief Samuel Craddock faces when murder follows.

Since you can read award-winning author Bruce DeSilva’s excellent review here, I won’t try to duplicate. Except to point out that—

DeSilva calls the Samuel Craddock series “genre-bending,” because the “author’s folksy prose and Jarrett Creek’s small-town ways . . . give the novel the feel of a cozy,” and yet the problems facing the town and Police Chief Craddock “give the novel the feel of a modern police procedural.”

With the term “genre-bending,” DeSilva hits upon one reason—perhaps the reason—for the series’ success. Shames joins elements of two very different genres—cozy mysteries and police procedurals—with skill and grace, into a seamless whole. That ain’t hay either.

As a reader, I enjoy Shames’ novels, but as a writer, I seethe with envy. If only I could do what she does . . .

Nevermind.

Now, for a broader view, I’ll turn from Shames’ ninth book to her first, A Killing at Cotton Hill, published in 2013.

At the bookstore, I fell in love with the cover. On page one, I fell in love with the book. Soon thereafter, I fell in love with a sentence. Here it is, underlined, in the paragraph quoted below—the words of narrator Samuel Craddock:

I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There’s not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.

That’s what author Ernest Hemingway would call one true sentence. Cows are curious. They’re nosy. They like to observe. I’ve seen cows hover. That’s exactly the kind of thing my father might have said about his damn cows.

Shames gets it right. Every word in that sentence, and throughout the book, is pitch-perfect.

The night I read about the hovering cows, I wrote Shames a fan email telling her I loved the sentence.

But when I completed the novel and tried to write a review for my personal blog, I got tangled up in words. It came out sounding like this:

I love this book. It’s just so…There’s this wonderful sentence on the second page about hovering cows…That’s exactly what cows do…I can just see those cows…The person who wrote that sentence knows cows…It’s just so…I just love it.

That’s what happens when a reviewer lacks detachment. Wordsworth said poetry begins with emotion “recollected in tranquility.” So do book reviews. There’s nothing tranquil about that tangle of words.

So, with no review, I compromised. I posted the paragraph containing the beloved sentence and added a picture of white-faced Herefords.

IMG_2814

Not long after, Shames spoke at the Heart of Texas (Austin) chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I told her how much I admired her work. A year later, in 2014, I heard her read from her second novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin. And I’ve read all the books she’s published since.

From 2013 to 2022, that’s nine Samuel Craddock mysteries, each a great read, each just as good as—or better than—the one before.

But regarding Shames’ sentences—

It is a truth universally acknowledged that her hovering cows will always be Number One.

_____

Notes

*Shames breaks the silly rule against “mixing” present and past tenses in narration. Samuel Craddock speaks the language spoken by men like him in real Jarrett Creeks all over Texas.

**The cow sentence isn’t really about cows. It’s about Samuel Craddock. But I am fond of white-faced Herefords, and the image Shames paints of them is so vivid that it obscures the man dragging himself toward his house. For me, at least.

***I took the photo of the cover of A Killing at Cotton Hill. The fur on the right side of the book doesn’t belong there, but it was easier to just take the picture than to move the cat.

***

Image of Murder at the Jubilee Rally cover from Amazon.com

Image of Hereford cow by Lou Pie from Pixabay

***

Kathy Waller has published short crime fiction as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. For more info, and/or to read her posts on topics ranging from to izzard, visit her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly (http://kathywaller1.com). She also cross-posts her Ink-Stained Wretches posts at Austin Mystery Writers.

JOURNEY INTO UNKNOWN WORLDS

Francine Paino  AKA F. Della Notte

Depth and realism. How do authors achieve it? Great writing, of course, but research into every aspect of character development, periods, and settings is essential. Readers often wonder how writers decide on the backdrop for their characters’ emotions and thoughts. Again, the answer is research. 

Writers are intrigued and inspired by innumerable universes around them. Even routine occupations require thought, knowledge, and understanding. In the unusual story of The Maid by Nita Prose, the protagonist is a hotel maid, and the author’s knowledge of the inner workings of a hotel lends an authenticity that draws the reader in. In Stamped Out, a successful cozy mystery series by Tonya Kappes, the author credits the USPS worker who guided her through the inner workings of the post office. An essential ingredient to her series.    

But there are the plots that require knowledge in areas not encountered routinely, or even known. In Kristen Hannah’s, The Winter Garden, a story of a mother and her daughters, she writes about the siege of Leningrad during World War II with such detail and realism a reader could believe someone who’d survived that nightmare wrote it instead of a person born in 1960.   

Settings, periods, environments, climates, geography, and the list goes on forever. Writers are told to “write what you know,” but what we know isn’t nearly enough, for there are little universes around us where twists and turns take on different flavors and colors dictated by what we don’t know without examination and study.  

A mystery or crime story involving police procedures written by someone who has never been a police officer requires learning the different rules, regulations, and methods that vary from one police department to another. Thus, the writer’s first determination is the city/state/town where the story takes place and how crimes are approached and solved. Even if the location is fiction, the writer will still need to communicate at least some recognized methods used to solve crimes unless they’re writing fantasy. 

In non-fiction, Memo Book, by Lt. Retired Dan D’Eugenio, is an excellent source to understand how the complex New York City Police Department operates from the street level to the hierarchy of officers. His writing is clear, concise, and colorful as he leads us through police work in New York City, both above and below ground. He pulls no punches, describing the smells of decomposing bodies and garbage or the unexpected experiences, like falling through the rotted floors in abandoned tenements, or the stop, search, and question methods.

One of the most fascinating worlds is the backstage universe of live theater. Much of the magic the audience experience is directly related to the dramas and sagas behind the curtain, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is an example.

The Metropolitan Opera has a cast of thousands responsible for the front of the house and care of everything from ushers to box office staff. The run crew backstage is responsible for the sets and set changes. There is a wig shop and, of course, a costume shop.

In an eye-opening interview on the Met Opera Channel, Suzi Gomez-Pizzo, describes the fast and furious pace of being the wardrobe supervisor for female leads. In a New York Times article, The Opera Wardrobe Diva, she conveys the challenges of being responsible for her singers, getting them into costume eight minutes before curtain—to avoid them sitting around in costume, and rapid costume changes between acts. She describes herself as the singers’ trusted constant. “They know that if they blow a note, the whole world hears it and that you’re the only constant they have.” And she reveals a Met quirks. Their costume shop never uses velcro. It might make those fast changes easier, but the Met costume shop is faithful to the operas’ original period and costume construction. In addition to her costume responsibilities, she feels a vital part of her job is to keep her singers happy and confident in her abilities to get them changed nack onstage in the allotted time.  In a YouTube interview with Isabel Leonard, the Mezzo-Soprano star of the opera Marnie, Gomez-Pizzo and Leonard are shown making 15 costume changes in a small ‘pit-stop’ curtained-off area in the wings while the opera is in progress. “Trust,” agrees Leonard and Gomez-Pizzo, are the essential ingredient that makes it work.

The drama of the costume shop and its staff is worthy of its own legend and is used in Adriana Trigiani’s heart-wrenching saga, The Shoemaker’s Wife. 

Trigiani’s heroine, Enza, is a young Italian immigrant in the 1920s living in New York. Her skills with needle and thread land her a job in the Met Costume Shop. As the tale of love, heartbreak, separation, and reunion of two Italian immigrants unfolds, the story also follows Enza’s climb from seamstress to a position of trust, fitting and caring for the costume needs of Enrico Caruso, one of opera’s greatest star.  

Months of research were required to acquire the historical information that enabled Trigiani to give depth and realism to her story’s settings in Greenwich Village, NY, the Iron Range of Minnesota, and the Met Costume Shop. She is rightfully lavish in her thanks to those who assisted her researching Met Opera history, life in Italy, New York’s Little Italy community, and Minnesota.

In the second book of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’Histoire Theatre, is set in modern day Austin, Texas. Father Melvyn and Mrs. B. become involved in a theater murder when her son’s ballet company goes into rehearsal for Macbeth. 

Extensive research into stagecraft, constructionand lighting was vital to developing the actions and dramas taking place in the theater.  Additional knowledge about the history of prohibition, crime, and bootlegging in Texas was crucial, as it provided the backdrop for an old crime that comes to light in current times. None of this would have been possible without access to historical materials and the expertise of theater personnel.

Research opens the doors, turns on the lights, and cannot be overrated for the journey into unknown worlds.   

 

Food And A Gathering Place


by Helen Currie Foster

A critical tool for mystery writers is creation of a gathering place. We watch desperate clients rush straight to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street lodgings––often the first place where we meet his client, learn what the client hopes Holmes will do, and encounter Watson, Lestrade, and various witnesses. A gathering place gives us––and the sleuth, whether amateur or professional––a place to meet characters, assess the social structure, and see investigation  in action. Sometimes it’s the crime scene itself.

A gathering place can provide the writer an opportunity to comply with one of the key rules (or guidelines) of the original 1930 Detection Club: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules We may not always meet or learn of the criminal at a gathering place, but it can provide a useful location for the author to make that first mention.

And we’re humans, so we appreciate gathering places that involve food and drink! We learn so much there, about our protagonist and key characters.

When we first meet Bruno, chief of police in a small town in the French Dordogne, the author immediately shows us the contents of Bruno’s police van, including: “one basket containing newly laid eggs from his own hens, and another with his garden’s first spring peas…Tucked neatly to one side were a first-aid kit, a small tool chest, a blanket, and a picnic hamper with plates and glasses, salt and pepper, a head of garlic and a Laguiole pocketknife with a horn handle and a corkscrew. Tucked under the front seat was a bottle of not-quite-legal eau-de-vie from a friendly farmer. He would use this to make his private stock of vin de noix when the green walnuts were ready…” Martin Walker, Bruno, Chief of Police (Book 1 of the series). Hmm: a resourceful and picnic-prepared detective.

Bruno routinely uses a couple of gathering places involving food, first and foremost his own farm above the Vézère River, in country humans have cherished for over 30,000 years. We learn of Bruno’s garden, his hunting, and the dishes he makes for guests. In the latest book, To Kill a Troubadour, Bruno demonstrates his omelet techniques and also carries six jars of his venison pâté to a village feast. (Martin Walker now has a cookbook.) But Bruno visits other gathering places, including his favorite bakery (Fauquet’s) where he buys his morning croissants—one of which he always feeds his puppy. The garden, the venison, the eggs, the wine opener, the bakery, the puppy, the croissants—they’re part of Bruno, and key to the setting.

Inspector Jules Maigret? His setting is typically Paris, where the Brasserie Dauphine delivers late-night sandwiches and beer to his office at the Quai des Orfèvres when he interviews a defendant. He and his colleagues must eat during investigations, of course—at the office and elsewhere. In Maigret Bides His Time he dines at the Clou Doré, a luxurious restaurant owned by a man Maigret suspects of jewel thefts. The waiter: “I recommend the paella this evening… To go with it, a dry Tavel, unless you prefer a Pouilly Fumé.” During the meal, Maigret “seemed to be concerned only with the food and the deliciously fruity wine.” But we readers know otherwise: he’s absorbing atmosphere, clues, little “tells.” In each book, Maigret finds a bar, a brasserie, a restaurant, which can serve as the gathering place where he assembles information that ultimately leads to a solution. Food and drink help create this distinctively French setting.

I do feel it’s unlikely that Four Corners policewoman Bernadette Manuelito would try Bruno’s venison pâté, and I’m not sure her husband, Jim Chee, would either. So far as I recall neither has visited France. They live and work in Navajo and Hopi land, in the series begun by Tony Hillerman and continued by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. In The Wailing Wind, Jim Chee and his former boss, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, “got a table at the Navajo Inn, ordered coffee. Chee would eat a hamburger with fries as always.” Leaphorn says, “I always have an enchilada.” In Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings, “Bernie asked Chee to order her usual, a hamburger and a Coke.” She can tolerate pepperoni pizza, but abjures salad. https://www.amazon.com/Rock-Wings-Leaphorn-Manuelito-Novel/dp/0062821733/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1663609808&sr=8-2

The Hillerman setting is not the Navajo Inn, not a particular bar, not a particular bakery. It’s the entire Four Corners, a vast arena of mountains and mesas sacred to Navajo and Hopi memory, with enormous views and laconic characters, careful in their speech, who drive miles to find gas or food. A garden of tender green peas? No. When he hikes into the mountains on a case, Jim Chee packs a bologna sandwich—not venison pâté. Food is essential, food is basic, and eating is often a solitary experience, while Bernadette Manuelito or Jim Chee are out in an arroyo, tracking a killer. The landscape feels too large for a single gathering place—although Jim Chee’s trailer, Captain Largo’s or Leaphead’s offices, or Bernadette’s mother’s house see occasional gatherings.

Coke and hamburger versus venison pâté or paella (French version) and Tavel? Famous cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “Cooking is a language… through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” Also known—by mystery readers–as setting.

For her Richard Jury series Martha Grimes takes us to various venues in London and elsewhere, such as Brown’s Hotel (The Dirty Duck), and the Members Room at Borings (the club to which Jury’s friend Melrose Plant belongs) (The Old Wine Shades). She uses pub names as her titles, and the pub can serve as a gathering place, as it does in The Old Wine Shades. Another repeat gathering place is Melrose’s stately country home, Ardry End, which is subject to invasion by Agatha, his aunt-by-marriage, who greedily demolishes all the “fairy cakes” made by Melrose’s excellent cook, Martha. https://www.christinascucina.com/butterfly-cupcakes-british-butterfly-cakes/

Martha knows that when he breakfasts at Ardry End, Richard Jury lusts after her mushrooms: “Jury spooned eggs and a small pile of mushrooms onto his plate, then forked up sausages (a largish number), speared a tomato and sat down.” Shortly thereafter Martha reappears with “a steaming silver dish… ‘Mushrooms! I knew you’d be wanting more o’ my mushrooms!’” And he did. There’s something intimate about watching favorite characters have breakfast—possibly the most individually designed meal we eat. Right?

Grimes invents the Jack and Hammer Pub as the gathering place where Melrose meets his eclectic (nutty) village friends. At the Jack and Hammer we meet the cast of characters Grimes rotates through this series, and watch the friends (and Melrose) try to puzzle out the solution to the murder Richard Jury must solve. We learn the talents and deficits of these friends, their secret loves, and what they order from the bar.

Reading what characters eat and drink enriches our feeling of presence in a book. It pulls our own senses and memories into what we’re reading. We can taste the paella, taste the hamburger, remember our favorite burger joint, our favorite restaurant. We begin to participate in the mystery’s setting. Bernie bites her hamburger; Maigret takes a sip; so do we.

Our reactions to food live in our memory, linked to our senses of smell—and taste. “Smell and taste are closely linked. The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, which integrates the information so that flavors can be recognized and appreciated. Some tastes—such as salty, bitter, sweet, and sour—can be recognized without the sense of smell. However, more complex flavors (such as raspberry) require both taste and smell sensations to be recognized.” https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-nose-and-throat-disorders/overview-of-smell-and-taste-disorders#:~:text=The%20taste%20buds%20of%20the,without%20the%20sense%20of%20smell.

Proust was right about food and memory: “Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.” https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/how-scent-emotion-and-memory-are-intertwined-and-exploited/#:~:text=Smells%20are%20handled%20by%20the,related%20to%20emotion%20and%20memory

And why shouldn’t this be so? At least partly, cooking defines us as human. Humans apparently mastered fire and began cooking at least 500,000 years ago; possibly our human ancestors began cooking as much as 1.8 million years ago. No wonder food and memory are entwined in our brains. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/food-for-thought-was-cooking-a-pivotal-step-in-human-evolution/;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/#:~:text=Our%20human%20ancestors%20who%20began,more%20fuel%20for%20our%20brains;

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/121026-human-cooking-evolution-raw-food-health-science

On that note, I’ve just finished the draft of Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted. The central gathering place? The Beer Barn, an iconic Texas Hill Country dancehall and roadhouse. Food? Critical. Luis’s enchiladas and Conroy’s barbecue? They call!

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country, north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, as well as Hill Country Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the Series, was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

Moonshine is Mighty Fine and ILLEGAL!

kp gresham

By K.P. Gresham

Still on the research kick, I’m in the process of learning all about moonshine. No, not how to drink it. How to make it. While plotting out my next book, Death Takes the Fifth, I realized moonshine (and by extension, moonshiners) would play an integral role in the story. Let’s be clear—making moonshine is a against the law in 48 states unless you’ve got a distributor’s license, so DO NOT make this stuff. And, for the record, the moonshiners in my book get in a lot of trouble for what they’re doing.

I got the idea from watching the TV show, “Moonshiners”, on Discovery TV. Yep, I’ve followed the cast through quite a few of their antics, whether it be finding a still site, constructing a still, what kind of water makes the best hooch, recipes for anything from whiskey to gin to absinthe, and how to escape the law (well, moonshiners try, anyway). I even bought a jar of (legal) moonshine marketed at a nearby liquor store to see how it tastes. I’m pretty sure the storebought version is lower in alcohol content and therefore has less of a bite than the real stuff, but I still saw a few fumes behind my eyeballs.

After recovering from that bit of research, I started jotting down some of the facts I needed to make sure the moonshiners were correctly depicted in my book.

The most important ingredient in moonshine is the water. From what I understand, spring water loaded with limestone makes the best liquor. We have a lot of limestone in Texas. Heck, the exterior of my house is limestone. And there are plenty of springs around Austin for this to be a viable process. Once you have your water, it’s time to make the mash.

Oh. The mash. That’s the combination of grains (corn or barley or wheat, etc.), sugar (which brings up the alcohol level–can be anything from refined sugar to sugar beets), water, and aromatics (can be fruit or spices or herbs depending on what type of moonshine you want to make) and yeast.  For example, if you want to make a gin moonshine, you must have juniper berries–which can taste pretty strong. The moonshiner might counter that with ingredients like cardamon pods, peppercorns, anise, lemon/orange peels, cinnamon—you get the drift. The mash is then sealed in a big tub (whiskey-aged barrels give it a real nice quality, I understand) and allowed to sit for seven to ten days for all of it to ferment.

By now, it’s time to find the location where you’re actually going to make the moonshine. Near a limestone spring is optimal. It’s also important that the site be away from hikers, hunters, and passers-by. You do not want anyone stumbling on to your still site and either stealing your stuff or calling the police. Again, it is ILLEGAL to make moonshine without the proper permits. Also, moonshiners like to find a spot where they can make a quick get-away if the revenuers come a-calling.

While the mash is doing its chemical thing, its time to construct the still. The folks on The “Moonshiners” tend to favor copper stills, but I’ve seen them make it out of empty beer kegs, old barrels, etc. I’ve inserted a diagram below describing the design of a rather simplistic still. Everything is welded together.

The mechanism on the far left is where the now fermented mash is poured and heated (to somewhere starting at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.) The steam put off by the mash is the alcohol. The steam goes through the cap arm into the thumper keg where it mixes with cold water, thus increasing the alcohol level. After going through the thumper, the now liquid alcohol goes into the warm box and spirals down to the spout. When the liquor’s ready, it comes out the tap or spout. To make sure the liquor doesn’t go everywhere, the moonshiner puts a (pardon the language) coon dick in the spout so the liquor pours straight into whatever container you’re putting the moonshine in. I’ve seen The Moonshiners use gallon glass jugs, plastic milk jugs, mason jars, etc.

About the coon dick. Yes, it really is a raccoon’s…umm…tally whacker. And yes, the aforementioned tally whacker on a raccoon has a bone in it that is perfect for keeping a steady stream of moonshine heading right into the waiting container. (I’m not making this stuff up.)

Now it’s time to see if the moonshine is any good. First off, the moonshine product should be clear. Next, the moonshiner usually uses a mason jar to test the alcohol level of the product. They fill the jar halfway, put the lid on tight, turn it on its side and shake the jar. The bubbles will tell the story.  If the bubbles are large and pop pretty quickly, the alcohol level in the jar is high. If the bubbles are small and stay around a while, the alcohol level is low. And, of course, there’s the taste test.

I’ve had a blast learning about all of this, but then again, I love to do research. Between the TV show and the internet, I hope I’ve created some plot twists and characters that you will enjoy as much as I do.

Cheers, everyone!