The Texas Governor’s Mansion is the perfect setting for my next book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series. I’ve said it before, I LOVE doing research for my stories, and studying up on the Governor’s Mansion is a blast. Such rich history. So many anecdotes. I just had to share some of them with you.
First off, I am not a native Texan (though I’ve lived here for thirty-six years) so most of what I’ve learned is all new territory for me. To that end, I must credit The FRIENDS of the GOVERNOR’S MANSION who wrote The Governor’s Mansion of Texas, A Historic Tour, published in 1985, as well as the website https://gov.texas.gov/first-lady/history for most of this information.
The Mansion’s history began with a $14,500 appropriation from the legislature roughly a decade after Texas became a state in 1845. Austin master builder Abner Cook was awarded the construction contract. This beautiful home has served as the official residence of Texas governors and their families since 1856. (Governor Elisha M. Pease and his family were the mansion’s first occupants.) It is the fourth oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the country and the oldest governor’s mansion west of the Mississippi River.
The mansion stayed pretty much in its original condition until after the Civil War when Governor Edmund J. Davis started a line of renovations in 1879 with an indoor lavatory installation. By 1915, there was running water, a telephone, electricity and wallpaper and more living space. I could go on, with more renovations, security installations, historic donations, BUT!
What makes this Mansion beloved are the stories of the people who lived there.
One of my favorites was the tale of Governor James Hogg (the first native Texan to become governor) and his rambunctious four children. To this day, the stair railings are still scarred where Governor Hogg hammered nails to deter his children from sliding down the banister.
Another fave. Governor Joseph D. Sayers—the one who had electricity and wallpaper installed–owned a dog. Well, his dog must have appreciated all the modern improvements because when it was time for the Sayers family to move out of the house, the dog refused to leave. He stayed with the carriage driver the rest of his days—at the Mansion.
Then there was Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas. She vowed to return to the Mansion after her husband was impeached, (yes, James Ferguson had served as governor and gotten the boot). She was elected and arrived in the same Packard the family used to leave in 1917. An interesting aside: Mrs. Ferguson fought to end the Ku Klux Klan, passing an anti-mask law making it illegal to wear masks in public. Now isn’t that topical in this day and age?
So many stories, so little time. I haven’t even mentioned Queen Elizabeth’s visit, or the unsolved 2008 arsonist attack on the Mansion in 2008 or its more recent occupants. I mean to think about it. How could I describe Ann Richards in one blog?
To that end, I highly recommend the above mentioned book or a quick visit to the link I’ve shared above. Thank you to all who kept records of the history of the Mansion so folks like me can wonder and laugh and learn to appreciate just this one small piece of our Texas heritage. Think how much, much more there is to learn!
Like I said, I like doing research when I’m writing a book. And, I’ll even give you a hint about this, the fourth installment in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series.
I don’t kill the Governor–but everyone else is game!
Each Friday, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields invites readers to compose 100-word stories based on a photo prompt. Writers post stories on their own blogs and then link to an inLinkz list to share with other Fictioneers and with the public. It’s fun. Specific rules are found here.
Sammi Cox posts a weekend word prompt: The rules: “Write a piece of flash fiction, a poem, a chapter for your novel…anything you like. Or take the challenge below – there are no prizes – it’s not a competition but rather a fun writing exercise.” Participants are free to link their efforts in the comments.
TSRA also promotes—and thank goodness, considering how much writers need it—”FUN and an OASIS OF CALM and Font of useful Knowledge andTips for Indies (please do NOT feed my naughty chimps or they may follow you home) from the woes and stresses of the real world”—such as,
Kate was on a bit of a hiatus for a while but is back now with “Social Distancing for Dogs.” She’s posted a lot of dog stories—my favorites are about the dear (and sometimes smelly) Macaulay, the dog with the Neville Chamberlain mustache, including
Over the past weeks of being locked down, I’ve read many beautifully written high-minded prose on self-reflection, and assessments of personal, social, and political attitudes in these tumultuous times. My question, however, is simpler. Will we emerge as a new nation of truly liberal thinkers who can share ideas, even ones that are contrary to our mindsets? Truthfully, I don’t know the answer. But having survived disasters, losses, injuries, and illnesses, I refuse to be beaten down now. For me, it’s “one foot in front of the other,” and march on.
So, on the lighter side, how do I pull myself back to center and regain control? I walk on the treadmill (ugh!), clean, and organize what’s gotten out of control during life before COVID (double ugh!). I catch up on DVR programs and read a mountain of books. While all of these are helpful, the number one activity that I find satisfying, refreshing, and restores my sense of control is cooking.
My entire childhood and a good part of my adulthood were spent in Corona, NY (nothing to do with the virus), an immigrant community where Italian cooking, reigned supreme. I remember the lively discussions, sharing of methods, and debates between my grandmother, my mother, and other relatives and friends about the finer points of preparing foods, even something as seemingly simple as making a marinara sauce.
Even my grandfather had opinions about good cooking, and his pet peeve was potatoes. When not working 18-hour days in the business he built from scratch or tending his little farm, he took a hands-on approach, insisting that spuds be sliced precisely in the correct thickness and shape for each different recipe. Today’s cooks have the mandolin to help with that. The only mandolin he’d ever heard of was the kind that made music!
Then there’s Julia Child. “I don’t get the whole thing with Italian cooking,” she once said. “They put some herbs on things, they put them in the oven, and they take them out again.” To the revered American master of French cooking, Italian cooking was too easy.
Well, Ms. Child, I beg to differ, but first a little culinary history.
The development of French food reaches back to medieval times. During this era, according to the ECPI blog, “French cuisine was fundamentally the same as Moorish Cuisine,” and everything was served at the same time, serviceen confusion.
In time, presentation became very important, and great value was placed on rich and beautiful displays, utilizing consumable items such as egg yolks saffron, spinach, and sunflower for color. “One of the most elaborate dinners was a peacock or roast swan, which was sewn back into its skin and quills to look intact. The feet and nose were plated with gold to finish the exhibition.”
It was in the 16th century that French cooking received an infusion of new ideas. While the Renaissance flourished in Italy, the powerful Florentine Medici family married off their 15-year-old princess, Catherine, to Henri, Duc d’ Orleans. Off to France, the princess went, taking with her the chefs in her service and their advanced cooking skills. They were already creating dishes such as lasagna, and manicotti, which are still staples of Italian cooking today, as they experimented with truffles and mushrooms.
Even though these two culinary schools’ took distinctive and separate paths, the French owe much of their gastronomic advancements to the Italians, thanks to Catherine de Medici.
Over time, French cooking became revered for its Haute Cuisine, developed to entertain French royalty. Steeped in butter, fats, fancy crusts, and all sorts of disguises, still, one must guess or be told what they are eating, delicious though it is.
We Italians, on the other hand, don’t really like our foods disguised. We like to know what we are eating as soon as it’s on the plate – or at least as soon as we’ve taken the first bite.
Italian cooking has grown from centuries of learning how a few simple ingredients enhance each other. What evolved into today’s Italian cuisine began during the Roman Empire. Of course, then, as now, the wealthy could afford to buy and try the exotic and foreign. Thus, the most affluent Romans had cooks experimenting with foods from the lands they’d conquered: Spices from the Middle East, fish from the Mediterranean, and cereals from the North African plains. The majority of folk, however, relied on the “Mediterranean Triad: vine, grain, and olive,” and two thousand years later, pure Italian olive oil is still a universal leader, for its purity of taste and clarity.
Most Italian cooking is, on the surface, simple – needing few ingredients, but the knowledge of how to use them is what makes the dishes shine. For example, the American habit of overwhelming pasta with sauce is un-Italian. Properly prepared, Italian sauces are intensely flavorful and should only coat the pasta, not drown it.
Contrary to Ms. Child’s belief, however, there are some very complicated Italian dishes for which one needs patience, time, and the willingness to try, fail, throw it away, and try again.
Homemade lasagna and manicotti, originating during the Renaissance, continue to be a labor of love. The Bolognese Sauce that is misrepresented in America as just a simple meat sauce takes hours to prepare. There are other delicacies such as the Pizza Grana, a traditional Neapolitan Easter pie. Years ago, my grandmother, my mother, and I made these every Easter. It was indeed a labor of love. There is a link below for the industrious who want a challenge. A word of warning, though. Do NOT use any prepared pie crusts. Part of the lusciousness of the recipe is the sweet crust (pasta frolla). If you read the recipe, you’ll understand why it’s limited to an annual preparation.
Then there is my favorite. Homemade pancetta and black pepper bread. I don’t bake it too often because my husband and I eat too much of it.
Vegetables are fundamental to the Italian diet, and here a word on olive oil is essential. Olive oils range from cooking quality to the more expensive finishing quality. They vary in flavor and weight from region to region, and those differences are especially significant for vegetables because heat alters the flavonoids that give the oil its flavor. Thus, I often use a less expensive oil to sauté broccoli, aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil), which can be served as a side dish (contorno), or as part of a first course, (prima piatta). Pour it over Orrechietti pasta, add a little grated cheese, and serve with a mixed salad. You have a meal.
String beans are one of my family’s favorite vegetables. Blanched for no more than one minute to retain vitamins, then cooled, and sprinkled with salt and high quality, cold-pressed, pure Italian Olive Oil, my grandchildren can and do eat green beans prepared this way by the pound.
As you can imagine, the volumes written about all cooking, including Italian cuisine, can fill bookstores. Cooking can be creative and imaginative. Take a basic recipe as I did with the pancetta and black pepper and add or change ingredients and invent something new. So, instead of allowing this upside-down, dangerous world to rob me of my peace and inspiration, I go to the kitchen where I feel free, refreshed, in control, and creative.
But it’s time to end my musings on the benefits of cooking. My grandchildren await me at the kitchen table, staring at the mountain of green beans, asking for, “more olive oil, please?”
As my favorite Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, says, “tutti in cucina a cucinare.”
When I was four years old, I took a pair of scissors and a roll of red, gooey adhesive tape and wrote my name on the inside of the kitchen door. It didn’t occurred to me I shouldn’t, and my parents never said a word. I’m sure they discussed it, but I wasn’t privy to that conversation. The crooked red letters stayed on the door for years. When they were finally removed, a heavy red stain remained.
When I was eight, my father gave me a ream of legal-sized paper. I produced a newspaper, one copy per issue, focusing on the social activities of dogs, cats, and horses in the neighborhood. I reported on the wedding of Mr. Pat Boone, my rat terrier, and Miss Bootsie, my grandfather’s evil gray-and-white cat. Miss Bootsie was really Mr. Bootsie, but even then I knew the value of poetic license. Mr. Tommy, my cousin’s orange tabby, married someone, too, but I don’t remember whom or what gender. Or what genus and species for that matter.
For years, I loved writing—the paper, the pencils and pens, the ink, the facts, the improved facts, and the outright fiction.
The feeling lasted until high school, when I began taking courses labeled English. Writing became torture. What will I write about, how many words does it have to be, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t have anything to say. Through high school and two college degrees–in English–I produced the required papers but agonized over every word.
There were bright spots: writing the junior class prophecy, which made even the teachers laugh when I read it at the junior-senior banquet; composing a satire on life in the teachers’ lounge I hid in when I was a teacher, issued serially on an irregular basis whenever the Muse moved me.
Overall, however, my relationship with writing remained conflicted. I pretended it didn’t. After all, I taught English.
Things began to change when I told a therapist about my early love affair with words. He responded, “I think you’d better start writing.” He suggested I join the Austin Writers’ League.
The next day, I joined. James Michener didn’t object. I took informal classes at universities. An instructor invited me to a Saturday-morning writing practice group. The next weekend, I drove fifty miles, parked in front of the café where it met, watched people carry notebooks inside, backed my car out, and drove home. It took another week to build the courage to pick up my notebook to join them and become a regular.
The result? Once again, I fell in love with writing. I also fell in love with a member of the writing practice group and, after a decent interval, married him.
And I published some short stores in anthologies and online, and one novella.
But my romance with writing hasn’t ended happily ever after. I don’t have a long list of appealing topics. I don’t have a file of perfect first sentences. I still have to write to find out what I know and what I think. I always wonder what happens next (and understand why Hemingway, Faulker, and Fitgerald drank to excess). I’m still driven by deadlines—my brain doesn’t turn on till one is upon me—and I write furiously up until the deadline (or, as now, after it).
Starting any piece is difficult. But once I (finally) begin, the words flow.
I wouldn’t exchange that feeling for anything.
In fifteen years, I’ve come from I can’t join the Austin Writers’ League to I’m working on a novel, attending Austin Mystery Writers critique group, writing for publication, blogging, writing every day.
And, contrary to the moans I make when asked how the writing is going, I love every second of it. Mostly.
The therapist actually said, “If you don’t start writing, you’re going to explode.” Since I took his suggestion, more things have changed. The Austin Writers’ League has morphed into the Writers’ League of Texas. The writing practice group that met at the cafe dissolved, and I joined another, Writing from the Heart, which met at BookPeople Bookstore; later it moved to various branches of the Austin Public Library. Now as 15 Minutes of Fame (More or Less), it meets online.
Invitation: 15 Minutes of Fame is free and all are invited to attend—no fees, no dues, no membership registration, no RSVP, no critique, no need write and spell as if your English teacher will scribble on your paper. No need to be a published author or to write “well.” Just have pen and paper or computer ready and show up. We do timed writings—choose a time, write, read aloud what we’ve written (IF we want to read; reading isn’t required), then do it all again. We meet from 10:00 a.m. to noon, on Saturdays; the schedule has been irregular recently but we’re in the process of getting back on track. When it’s stable, we’ll update the website, http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com If you’re interesting in writing with us, email kathywaller1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
Bootsie had long gray hair and green eyes, was beautiful, and slashed both a little girl who tried to pet him every time she saw him, and her owner, my grandfather, who thought he was peachy keen. Pat Boone was mine, and one of the dearest dogs who ever lived.
This post first appeared, with modifications, on Telling the Truth, Mainly.
May 8 was VE Day. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in Europe. Three-quarters of a century ago, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, also known as the Nazis hid in their bunkers, committed suicide or melted into the general population and escaped justice.
Thanks to Hitler’s diabolical determination to have Germany rule the world, over 100 countries were dragged into the conflagration, defined by two major groups. Germany, Japan, and Italy, the major powers of the Axis Alliance, and the major powers of the Allied forces, led by Great Britain, the United States, the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), and to a lesser extent, China. The remainder of the world lined up with one side or the other, with some exceptions, most notably Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal, and they too had to arm and defend their borders. Some of these impartial countries ended up occupied regardless of the “neutrality,” but no matter which side any nation fought on from 1939-1945, now, 75 years later, the world remembers once again and all are glad for its end.
This year’s tributes are, however, quiet, lonely affairs, as the world battles another monster: COVID-19, which is preventing large public ceremonies from marking the end of a war that cost 40 – 50 million lives worldwide, both military and civilian. Lest we forget when we speak and write of the human cost so long ago as numbers and statistics, these were people. They were sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and children, which gives us one inescapable truth. War is hell!
Great Britain lost 450,700 souls. They scaled back their big, planned celebrations: no mass gatherings, no hugging, and kissing. Tragically, many of the remaining veterans who fought in that war are living and dying sad and lonely deaths in nursing homes in Great Britain and throughout the world.
The United States gave up 418,500+ lives. Of these, 2,000 were civilians. The rest died in uniform.
France – Despite their initial collapse and surrender to Hitler, both in their home nation and Indochina, gave 567,600 souls to the war.
After 75 years, Germany must live with the fact that it all began with them. Hidden behind an effort to reestablish the German peoples’ right to live and thrive, was an evil intent that would poison the nation and take upwards of 8,000,000 German lives.
The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic, then in the hands of Josef Stalin, another up and coming devil in history, lost 24,000,000
In Italy, official tributes began on April 25, Liberation Day, marking the date when Allied forces and Italian partisans drove the German occupation army out of the country. Italian losses stacked up at 457,000, including deaths from the civil war that took place simultaneously with the world conflict. For Italy, the war did not end on April 25 or May 8. Italians suffered through three distinctive battles between 1943-1945: Liberation against the Germans, the fight against fascism, the class war that underpinned both, and the struggle to reorganize a nation. On April 25, Italians came out on their balconies and sang Bella Ciao, the Italian protest song. It rang out across the nation.
Often in wars, fight songs are inspired, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, written in 1814, during the War of 1812, and The Marseilles, in 1792, when France declared war against Austria. Bella Caio, the Italian protest song against oppression, originated with the protests of the Mondina women who worked the northern rice paddy fields in the late 19th century. It reemerged during WW II, and has since been translated into 30 languages and has become an international anthem of resistance.
Tributes to the final battles of WW II are not over on May 8. Although the war with Japan ended on August 14, the official surrender date was September 2, 1945. At the war’s end, Japan lost upwards of 3,100,000. September 2, will officially mark the end of WW II, 75 years ago and this commemoration will also be muted by COVID-19, but not ignored.
If we are fortunate enough to have our health and our jobs, we are grateful but still struggling to create a new normal for ourselves and our families. So many of us now have kids finishing their semesters through online school while we’re working full time. Many of our touchstones and daily routines have been upended. We are doing our best each day, although the definition of ‘our best’ also changes on the daily.
Andy Boyle is here to help.
You see, his book, BIG PROBLEMS, was released by Penguin on March 31st. He is one of many authors who has found himself promoting a new book in the middle of this pandemic. Today, Andy shares what he learned while writing BIG PROBLEMS and offers advice on how to keep moving towards our goals—and why taking a break is not only fine, but necessary.
LO: First off, congratulations on your new book! Can you share a bit about the life experiences that culminated in your writing BIG PROBLEMS?
AB: Thank you so much! I’ve been a journalist for about 15 years, and it’s impossible for me to look through things without that lens. So after my first book, Adulthood for Beginners, came out, I was trying to find a meaty subject to sick my teeth into, something that would allow me to use myself as the storytelling and thematic vehicle to explain a big topic. But also, in the end, hopefully help people, which is one of the reasons I became a journalist in the first place.
And the topic I chose is, well, at its heart a mystery. How come a person like me—allegedly well-educated—managed to get so fat, just like millions of others? And then, to add another mystery, how come I was able to lose so much weight (and keep it off), unlike most people?
That led to the pitch for BIG PROBLEMS: A Former Fat Guy’s Look At Why We’re Getting Fatter And What You Can Do To Fix It. My agent liked it, my publisher liked it, and voila. I would research the macro and micro levels that led to myself—and others—getting fat, told through that journalistic lens, while also including quite a bit of levity and humor throughout.
I rewrote the book multiple times to get it right. At one point, I went back and redid about 50,000 words, replacing entire portions of the book, adding in more research, doing more journalism. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of running and weight-lifting and sweating.
But, in the end, I’m quite proud of the end result. I even narrated the audiobook! And I even had a director for that. The entire time I kept complaining about how “the guy who wrote this should’ve done a better job with these sentences.” The joke never got old.
LO: Do you find the habits you learned are harder/easier to stick to in this particular time of being in a pandemic?
AB: I think everything is harder for everyone right now, and folks who are saying it isn’t are, uh, perhaps misstating the facts a little. So, everyone needs to first cut themselves an incredible amount of slack.
But for me, the same habits that led to me losing weight, staying productive, and pushing myself toward healthier decisions, are the same habits I’m using now, which were all focused on certain goals. (For me, objective goals work best. Write 1,000 words a day, eat 200 grams of protein a day, read 90 minutes a day, that sort of thing.)
The only difference is, with everything going on, I’ve changed my goals substantially. Before my book came out, my goal was to be able to bench press a certain amount (225 pounds) for 5 sets of 5 reps, and deadlift 405 pounds for 5 reps. That was what kept me going to the gym regularly, following my strength program, eating properly, everything. When the gym practically disappeared from my life (when I was 10 and 30 pounds from my two goals, respectively), I decided my goals needed to change. With nothing heavy to regularly lift up and down, how could I have that kind of objective goal?
Now it’s much more simple: Workout four days a week (that’s mostly consisted of running 3-5 miles, with the occasional body weight/cables-attached-to-my-door strength training), hit a certain caloric and protein goal and get a good amount of sleep.
I’ve got a full-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times, plus I’ve been promoting a book, plus trying to plot out a novel. So my artistic goals have changed quite substantially, too. I just try and set aside 30 minutes a day now for my non-work projects. That could be spending 30 minutes learning a card trick. Or 30 minutes outlining my novel. Or 30 minutes writing up a character sketch. For me, 30 minutes is quite achievable after my normal work day, and it often ends up being longer than that. If I were a full-time writer, I would definitely have bigger goals. (For instance, when I was drafting my book, my goal was 1,500 words a day, which usually involved the research/interviews/etc., which wasn’t exactly easy when I had a full-time job. But hey, I did it. Somehow.)
Another important point: I don’t beat myself up if I don’t hit my goals. The idea is to try to hit them. If I only exercise three days a week, I still exercised. If I only write 500 words a day, I still wrote. Having goals helps you push yourself toward whatever you’re trying to get done. (Making daily lists of TO DOs helps with this immensely, especially for my day job. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment after I check each one off, even if it’s as simple as “Answer Laura’s wonderful questions she emailed you.”)
LO: Many writers consider themselves introverts, so working in isolation may not be a huge adjustment, but what advice do you have for the more extroverted among us? How are you adapting?
AB: I can walk between both worlds, but if I had my choice, I would be a hermit who lived on a plot of land in my home state of Nebraska with beautiful prairie vistas. I value my private time, especially when I am being creative. But I am also quite adept at putting on “The Andy Show,” to quote a former girlfriend, when I am around other people, AKA being entertaining and fun and Mr. Life of The Party. So, my Nebraska home would need to be like a five-minute drive from a hangout spot at the very least.
As a writer, being around people is great because you sometimes hear random idioms and turns of phrases, which you can then squirrel away into your phone in the NOTE you have titled “COOL DIALOGUE.” It’s also great to be around others because it reminds you how people react to one another, how people dress, how they smile, how they laugh, how they move their hands when they’re nervous, so many things. Just like reading helps to make you a better writer, being around humans helps to make you understand humans better—and as writers, we mostly deal with humans. Win-win.
I have most definitely missed my occasional coffee get-togethers with my writer friends. I’ve been hopping on video chats with people, reaching out more via text. My writing group had a video get-together to critique a draft of a novel of mine, which was lovely. I also held a Zoom “book launch” event the day my book came out, and about 25 people came. It was lovely.
However folks are getting through right now, though, is the “right way” to get through it all, introverted or extroverted. But one thing I’ve learned in my life is, if you’re ever in doubt of whether or not you should email an old friend or text someone to just say hello, just do it. Those connections are important, especially as you get older.
LO: How do you get your mind into a creative space right now? Or is that an unrealistic expectation during this time?
AB: I do it by making the time for it. That sounds like such a cliched thing, but I’ve never been a person who writes because the muse has spoken to my soul. Or because I have been struck with fantastic inspiration and have the entire writing project fully realized in my head.
No, I write because I’ve made a goal of writing XXX words a day, or for XX minutes, or whatever. And then I will usually schedule the writing time in my calendar, and then I get the message that says “10 minutes until WRITE 1,500 WORDS appointment,” which is enough time to go oh shit oh shit I am hungry I need to clean my entire home oh my cat needs new toys oh I should text my girlfriend oh shit oh shit AND NOW I am writing.
It’s work. And just like you gotta show up to your job to do your job (or at least now, log into your computer while wearing sweatpants at home), you gotta show up to do your creative work. And you make time for the work and make an appointment with yourself that you’ll do the work.
I used to be (still am?) a musician. Went to music school for my first two years of college. Studied vocal music performance. (Maybe 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to make such decisions.) What that taught me about creativity is you gotta make time to sit down, practice scales, try work that stretches your brain and skills (also known as: is hard), and just do the work. You make time for it. Over time, you get better. But it’s still work, and it sometimes still sucks and you can’t tell that you’ve gotten any better.
Mozart and Beethoven didn’t just go “Huzzah, I am going to write a piece of music that shall change the world!” (Which probably would’ve been in German.) No, they created a habit: They will try and write something during certain periods of time, probably while cursing in German. (Das ist Scheiße!). Sometimes the work sucked. Sometimes it was Beethoven’s Ninth. Regardless, they followed their process and the work followed.
I’m currently outlining a novel, a method I’ve never really had much success with before. (And you may be wondering, Andy, how much success have you had with previous novels? As I’ve only gotten non-fiction published, that should tell you a lot about my fiction success.) But I sit there for an extended period of time, legal pad in hand, and I just jot down ideas. I make little timelines and draw when events could occur, which lead to some of those ideas I jotted down.
I have to show up by putting my butt in a chair. The creativity happens somewhere while you’re doing the work. And, when you’re actively working on a project, you’ll be out on a run or sitting watching TV and you’ll get a great idea—WHAT IF THE LOVE INTEREST FROM HIS PAST KILLED HIM???—and then you jot it down into your phone’s NOTES tab under COOL IDEAS.
But that’s for me. I always am in need of a project. If you’re juggling 900 things and just trying to keep your head above water right now, you may not have the mental bandwidth for any sort of creative outlet. And that is completely fine. Anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan trying to sell you something or make themselves seem amazing in comparison. Which means they suck.
Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is let your mind get bored through the drudgery of everyday existence.
Q: What is it like, having a book come out in the midst of a pandemic?
It is a weird time to be promoting a book, especially when folks can’t walk into bookstores, check out the “New Releases” table, pick things up, be sold because of the back cover copy or the front cover artwork. It seems like now, more than ever, word of mouth is one of the best ways to promote books.
That means you should be regularly telling your friends books that you’ve loved, in the hope that they will buy them. And then you should also give links to your friends of the independent bookstores they can order the books from.
And this is me, your new internet friend, telling you to pick up my book. And then to tell everyone about it. And then also get Laura’s book. And tell everyone about it. And then tell everyone about another book you’ve loved that they should read.
Andy Boyle is the author of Adulthood for Beginners and an award-winning journalist and technologist. His work has previously been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, Axios, Esquire, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and on NBC News. His work was cited in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. He was also the runner-up in the 2019 Hugh Holton Award through the Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter. A native of Nebraska, he lives in Chicago.
Laura Oles’ debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice nominee. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her most recent short story, “The Deed” was included DENIM, DIAMONDS AND DEATH: Bouchercon Anthology 2019.
Before turning to crime fiction, Laura spent two decades as a photo industry journalist covering technology trends for a variety of consumer and industry magazines. You can find her at https://lauraoles.com
Writers love to dream. We dream when we’re awake and when we’re asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference. Here’s an example.
I woke to the sound of the TV news coming from the other room. This was no surprise as my husband always turned on the telly when he had his morning coffee. What I heard coming from the TV, however, stunned me.
“My fellow Americans,” the President was saying. “I know these next few weeks and months will be very dark indeed. Thousands will die from Covid-19. Many more thousands will become sick. But remember this. We are Americans. Just as our forefathers fought side by side with people they’d never met, races they’d never before even knew existed, followers of different religions, they came together to create The United States of America. Their goal? To form a more perfect union.”
I swung my legs out of bed and joined my husband in the front room, where he sat mesmerized, staring at the TV.
I saw the President was standing alone behind a podium in the White House Rose Garden. “Today it is in that unity that we must come together to help each other through this trying time. It’s amazing what a smile and a wave to a stranger while social distancing can do not only for that stranger, but for you as well. Giving joy brings joy. Sending an encouraging email tells us we can be a source of comfort. Passing on a Facebook joke brings a smile to our face as well as those we’ve friended.”
Entranced, I sat down beside my husband on the couch.
“When Pearl Harbor was attacked, thus bringing the United States into World War II,” the President continued, “the Japanese admiral who lead the attack said, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.’ His fear came to pass.” The President’s smile was victorious. “The entire U.S. population roared to the support of our common cause. We signed up for the Armed Forces, turned our manufacturers into war machine producers, started food banks, sold and bought war bonds. Normal citizens turned into parachute seamsters, hospital workers, night raid wardens and troops on the front line.”
My husband put his hand around my shoulder. I felt him sending me confidence through that hug.
“In the midst of this war on Covid-19–and it is a war–we as a united people under one flag, must now understand that we, too, can be part of the solution. Put on your armor, your face masks, your gloves, etc., arm yourself with sanitizer. Take orders from your generals, or in our case, the medical experts who tell you to wash your hands, stay at home, and when you do have to go out, wear a mask and stay at least six feet away from every person you see.
“Now is the time for the United States to no longer be that sleeping giant, uninvolved and inactive. Let us roar into action, together, united, knowing our attitude will be the difference between the life and death for millions of our fellow citizens. Be positive! Know you ARE the solution! Only together can we defeat this enemy.”
Yes! I thought. I can be part of the solution!
“As your President,” he continued, “I call all Americans to arms. I call the businesses of this country to retool and make the equipment our soldiers on the front lines, the first responders, need to succeed. I call on the wealthy to have a care for our service workers on whom they depend for their comfort. Remember that bartender who knows exactly how dry you like your martini. Remember that masseuse who is the only one who can get that kink out of your neck. I suspect strongly that the wealthier you are the more workers and businesses you will have on your list. I call on every person to be the support each other needs. A smile. An attitude of ‘We’re in this together and, by God (literally), we will get through this.’
“To my fellow politicians I say this.” He gazed straight into the camera. “Right now is NOT the time for assessing blame, dire predictions, threats to our medical experts, or refusing to follow the restrictions deemed best for our country. Time for all of those arguments, judgements, recriminations belongs to a history yet to be written. Right now we’re fighting a war, and as leader of this country, I say we all, including the government, will fight this war as one.”
My chest swelled with pride. We are the United States of America!
“In conclusion,” he said. “I thank all of the first responders, all of the medical experts, all of the businesses and individuals who are rising up to defeat this disease. We are a mighty country. God bless the United States of America.”
I was invigorated. Hopeful. Determined.
And apparently I was asleep.
Suddenly my alarm screamed into my hopefulness, jerking me awake. What the hell?
Then I realized it had all been a dream. Damn. My sense of empowerment and determination seeped away as I became more and more ensconced in wakefulness.
Time to get back to reality. But wouldn’t it be nice if that dream would someday come true?
Feeling confined? Suffering from a bit of cabin fever? Getting Stir Crazy? While we shelter in place, we have an excellent opportunity to find new OR reconnect with outstanding, thought-provoking, uplifting, and entertaining old books and movies.
Yesterday, I was channel surfing, searching for something that would keep my on the treadmill, and I ran across that marvelous old movie, Dragonwyck. Many years ago, I’d read the book written by Anya Seton in 1941, and made into a film in 1946. The movie starred Vincent Price and Gene Tierney (gosh, she was so-o-o beautiful).
This is a deliciously gothic tale of life in 1844, on the upstate New York estate of Nicholas VanRyn, a fictitious member of the very real “Upper Ten” New Yorkers, as described by a leading journalist of the time, Thomas N. Baker, professor of history at SUNY Potsdam.[i]
The story begins at the home of independent farmers, Ephraim and Abigail Wells, and their children in Greenwich, Connecticut. A letter arrives from Abigail’s rich and powerful cousin, Nicholas VanRyn, who admits that he has looked into her background and decided that she and her husband are worthy and of good character, even if only farmers. He invites Abigail to send one of her daughters to him to be a companion and governess to his eight-year-old daughter, assuring her that the girl will receive every advantage that his wealth and position can provide.
The Wells must decide whether or not to send either Tabitha, who has no desire to leave the farm, or Miranda, who spends her time daydreaming of a different life. Miranda, of course, very much wants to go. Ephraim relents despite his misgivings, and Miranda is allowed to go the VanRyn home, where she becomes enchanted by Nicholas and his wealth.
Miranda realizes that something is amiss in Nicholas’s relationship with his wife Joanna, and both are both distant from their daughter, Katrine. From the servants, Miranda hears that the VanRyn bloodline is cursed. It’s rumored that the VanRyns hear the harpsichord played by the ghost of Nicholas’s great-grandmother Azilde whenever misfortune befalls the family. These stories, however, do not dampen Miranda’s obsession with Nicholas and his wealth.
Soon after her arrival, Joanna dies and Nicholas quickly marries Miranda. It is only after marriage that she begins to see the strange, dark side of his character. Now begins the big reveal of murder, madness, and the road to the final tragedy.
In the movie, the pretty pictures in Miranda’s head begin to fracture when Nicholas objects to the woman she’d hired as a personal maid because she limped, but when Miranda tells Nicholas that she is pregnant, he gives in. After the birth of their baby boy, Miranda demands that her son be baptized immediately because of his defective heart. Nicholas objects but in the end allow it, and just in time. The baby is christened and dies in his mother’s arms, and Nicholas’s personality becomes more sullen. Life at Dragonwyck becomes stranger, and more threatening.
Anya Seton’s inspiration for the story was the historical framework of the “manor system,” the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre, and the steamboat races on the river, that often resulted in crashes and deaths. It was all part of life on the Hudson, with its brand of Yankee gothic and ghosts, and where there existed houses and mansions “not unlike” Seton’s Drangonwyck.
The atmosphere in the book is set immediately with Edgar Alan Poe’s poem Alone. From childhood hair, I have not been as others were—I have not seen as others see—I could not bring my passions from a common spring. The opening lines describe both Nicholas and Miranda. He for his hedonist/atheist dark madness, and she for her discontent with the life to which she was born.
Seton uses some of the major conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century in her story. In both the movie and the book, Nicholas’s tenant farmers are ready to rebel against his feudal control; their discontent is woven throughout the book. Nicholas, however, insists that he would never relinquish the lands that had been in his family since they arrived in America.
In the Hudson Valley Magazine, David Levine explains. “Feudalism was declared illegal in New York State in 1782, but the practice continued. After the War for Independence, many farmers found themselves still beholden to these old aristocracies. The farmer paid all taxes, while the landowners paid nothing. The farmer had no right to buy the land, even though, in many cases, the landlords did not have legal title to the land they were renting out. They could be evicted for failure to pay the rent even if they had enough personal property to cover the debt.” Farmers began to question why, after their ancestors had fought for freedom 50 years earlier, were they still held under the yoke of another European master.” [ii]
Seton also uses The Astor Place Massacre of 1849 as a major turning point in Miranda’s and Nicholas’s story. By May, 1849, Miranda is in a constant state of anxiety trying to please Nicholas. While in New York City, they go to the theater with friends on May 10. The great actor William Charles Macready is starring in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When they arrive a mob has already formed in front of the theater. At the end of the play, the theater manager tells the audience to exit through the back doors and they would be led to safety. Nicholas refuses and seems frighteningly elated by the prospect of bloodshed. He insists on exiting through the front doors, “the same way they came in.”
Nicholas involves himself in the fight and is wounded. After the incident, he and Miranda return to Dragonwyck, where he becomes more morose and distant, spending most of his time in his tower room. Nicholas’s and Miranda’s marriage and their lives together disintegrate, and the story climaxes, as it must, in an attempted murder and death.
Although the movie takes certain liberties with the story because it cannot delve deeply into all of the author’s characterizations and historical events, it hits the major points well, and Vincent Price as Nicholas is the outstanding performer. Both the movie and the book are well worth becoming (re)acquainted with while confined to home.
In addition to Dragonwyck, if anyone is interested in the Astor Place Massacre, I highly recommend Nigel Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots, which I intend to re-read while sheltered in place.
Stay well, and stay safe!
Reading a novel by Alexandra Burt means you must be prepared to ignore everything else because her stories will keep you captive until you reach the last page. Skilled in short stories, true crime and crime fiction, Burt delivers two fantastic reads this year. I asked Alexandra to share her thoughts on world building , true life haunts, and how she approaches the craft of writing suspense.
It looks like 2020 is a big year for you. You have a new novel and a true crime story coming out this year. Let’s start with your contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories. What can you share about your story?
My contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns is a cold case that happened in my hometown in 1983. It was the height of the Cold War and at its core it is about the threats I faced, literally and figuratively. My hometown, Fulda, is a baroque town in central Germany located between the Rhön and Vogelsberg mountains. Seemingly plucked from Grimm’s fairytales, but Fulda has a dark history. Nothing about the rolling hills and farms dotting the landscape hints at Fulda as the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen. Fulda Gap, two lowland corridors, two obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany from Eastern Europe were the likely invasion route of Russia, the spot where U.S. and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. The threats were ever-present. When I hiked in the marshes by the border, East German look-out towers with guards and spotlights stared back at me in the distance.
In 1983, I happened to be close to the scene of a crime, a quarter of a mile, the way the crow flies. A child died and the killer remains at large, the case was never solved, the killer never apprehended. There’s the story of a life cut short, and then there’s my story. Thirty-seven years have passed and the Cold War summer of 1983 still clings to me like a second skin. I have raised a daughter and I write crime fiction but I have never forgotten the girl that lost her life before her life even began. I have made a life for myself in the Hill Country of Central Texas, in the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau that is not unlike the Hesse highlands of my childhood. But I never learned to trust the world with my daughter’s life. I’ve learned that a watchful eye is not enough, that a simple moment of inattention, a minute of carelessness, can turn into something that cannot be undone. And little girls don’t always make it home alive. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world, and so I write about them.
Shadow Garden is your latest crime novel. Tell us a bit about what inspired this story?
My previous book The Good Daughter was released days after the election in 2016 and during that time I felt as if the majority of the country fell into a dark hole. Including myself. I had the urge to examine if the same was as stake for all of us, if people of wealth, power, and affluence deploy a different set of principles when confronted with crime. It started out as a moral thought experiment, wondering about all the complicated ways money messes with morals. We know wealth impacts our sense of morality, our relationships with others, and our mental health. Is it true that the more you have to lose, the harder you fight to keep it, whatever ‘it’ may be? Money, a reputation, a standing in the community? Is being rich inherently immoral and if so, but what are the consequences? I imagined Donna Pryor, a woman of humble beginnings, who has everything but the truth of what happened to her family. From there I allowed the story to unfold organically and I sat by and watched them get to the truth of who The Pryors really are. Shadow Garden’s initial title was “The Many Incarnations of Donna Pryor” and I mention it because the book had quite a few incarnations itself. It started out as detective novel, purely comprised of interviews, then it turned into a family saga spanning decades before and after a crime occurred, just to arrive at Shadow Garden, an estate at the end of a rural road and a life of privilege that begins to crumble and somewhere in the ruins is the truth.
Many who read your work comment on your ability to combine heightened suspense with fully drawn characters in a compelling setting. Is there a certain aspect of word building that comes more easily to you? Is there a part that’s more challenging?
First of all, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. The beginning of a novel is a very long period of imagining the setting and the people and I don’t take notes nor do I examine plot but I create the characters’ world. There is nothing else for a while, the characters really live at my house and eat at my table and not until the first draft is complete are they allowed to huddle and regroup. I don’t struggle with world building since it is ground zero at the beginning of a new project and anything is possible. There’s huge freedom in the vast scope of a new project. I am always very sure of the setting but the plot changes endlessly and often and the characters usually end up needing work. It’s a matter of having a great editor, which I have, and revising draft after draft, after draft.
When I was younger I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school but then abandoned that path. There is still a lot of visual artist left in me. It’s the first thing I imagine in any project, novel or short story—what is the essence of it; a still-life in oil or a landscape in watercolor—and the setting becomes a place and then it becomes a world and a clock ticks in the background to give it pace and there is structure and meaning which turns into a theme. Long story short: once I commit, I’m all in for however long it takes to make that world come alive the best way I know how.
Readers are often curious about their favorite authors’ habits. What is your daily or weekly schedule like? Do you ever get stuck? If so, how do you find your way out?
Unfortunately I’m still struggling to keep a schedule and all writers are powerless to real life happening as they work. I take it day by day, keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. It’s a best-laid plans kind of thing; most days writing doesn’t turn out as well as one hopes. One should not expect for things to always turn out to plan. My daily schedule looks something like this: after a workout (more often than not a workout competes with falling into a two-hour social media hole), I sit at my desk and pick up where I left off the previous day. Sometimes there’s an abundance of oxygen for that task and I just kind of go with it, other days it’s just not flowing. Be that as it may, there are deadlines and word goals and I swear by something I have discovered a few months ago: focus music. It promises laser productivity and a boost in focus. Simply put, it is music void of both ultra-low and overly loud bass and high pitch sounds that tend to become annoying over time. There are no ruptures, no pauses, no breaks or major volume deviations. The type and number of instruments remains constant through hours of play and the music follows a particular pattern mimicking the brain waves present in a focused state and eventually the brain waves mimic the music. It’s my secret weapon. I will write and look up and realize three hours have passed. It may not be a way ‘out’ but it’s a way to remain ‘in’, if that makes sense?
I do get stuck at times and I wish I knew of a magic potion but I kind of obsess about it and just keep my fingers crossed and hope to spot the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all you can do is chip away at a problem and hope for the best and so far it’s served me well. Still wouldn’t mind some sort of a potion though.
— Alexandra Burt was born in a baroque German town in the East Hesse Highlands. She moved to Texas and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, she decided to tell her own stories. She currently resides in Central Texas. Remember Mia (2015) is her first novel. The Good Daughter was published in February 2017. Her third novel, Shadow Garden, is forthcoming in July, 2020. She is working on her fourth novel. She has contributed to Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime, and The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns. Her short stories have appeared in publications and literary reviews.
My hubby and I make it our mission to see all of the films nominated for the Academy Awards’ most coveted prize—the Oscar for Best Picture. This year was no exception. We saw Ford V Ferrari, The Irishman, JoJo Rabbit, well, let’s just we say all of them. So on February 9 of 2020, we sat down with friends, champagne glasses in hand, and watched the Academy Awards show. I agreed with most of the winners. Renee Zellweger knocked it out of the park as Judy Garland. Brad Pitt was awesome in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For damn sure, 1917 deserved the award for Best Cinematography. But when Parasite was announced as 2019’s best film, I didn’t get it. Then again, I didn’t get the movie either. The poor living off the rich. The rich living off the poor. Who was the bad guy? Which was the parasite?
So, I got out my cell phone, went to Dictionary.Com, and looked up the word. The first definition that came up was the one that stuck with me. It read, “an organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment.” I thought of the mosquito who bites humans and sucks their blood. They feel no remorse, no guilt. It’s what they do to survive. How exactly did this definition apply to the movie Parasite?
Then my book club (Remember them? I bragged on them several blogs ago.) had as its monthly selection Hyeonseo Lee’s book titled The Girl With Seven Names. It was the author’s true story of escaping from North Korea, via China, and finally arriving in South Korea. As she made this dangerous journey, she used seven different names to remain off the authorities’ radar.
Lee’s descriptions of growing up in North Korea were very unsettling. There are over fifty layers of societal classes in the country, each with their own set of privileges and restrictions. The only constant among all of these “castes” is that the supreme ruler (first Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un) is to be worshipped and glorified. (It is believed that Kim Jong-un was born in a lowly stable and that a bright, huge star announced his birth. Seriously?) As for the other laws, not so much. The main rule is Kim Jong-un first, and, as long as you’re not stupid, you are allowed to do pretty much whatever you have to do to survive. Bribery of officials to look the other way is the norm. (Hey, they have to make a living too.) This is how people learn to deal with famine, pestilence, and unemployment. There is no guilt in doing what one must do to survive.
Further, the society has no guilt in doing what it must do to survive. Bingo. I finally figured out what the movie Parasite was all about. A different culture. A different value system. A guilt-less survival instinct.
Books teach us things. Oh, yes, books entertain, but they also take us into worlds beyond our own experiences, histories we never learned, and points of view we never considered. Had I not read Hyeonseo Lee’s book, I would not have understood the movie, or the culture. More to the point, I understand that America’s culture has different norms, different thought processes, and a different hierarchy of what’s acceptable. We may think that the characters in Parasite and Lee’s book should feel remorse for how they live. But for them, it’s what they must do. And if their culture is all in on this “no guilt” survival, doesn’t that reveal something of their leadership?
For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a real eye opener. Books teach us about folks who are not of our national or personal culture. We can learn why they live how they live. Maybe, even, we can learn how to live with them.