Meta Magic: (Listening to) Writers on Writing

As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads. 

It’s not just me, is it?  

As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break.  I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel. 

I enjoy listening to other creatives discuss their process.  I think, early on in my writing career, I hoped to glean that ONE RIGHT WAY to outline/plot/write a novel, but after so many years, I have come to learn that there is no single right way. And that each book may be different. A process that worked for one book no longer seems to bring results on the next project. Still, there’s something inspiring and interesting about listening to others talk about how they take their ideas and turn them into a story, how they wrestle with the demands of work/family/life obligations while working on a project. So, when I want to remain in the creative space but need a little distance from my own work, I turn to others to better understand how they manage their creative lives.  

Here are a few of my favorites:

(Night Vale Presents) Start With This (Podcast):  This podcast, from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, tackle all aspects of writing from dialogue and pacing to creative crises and dealing with feedback.  Each episode is in the half hour range, perfect for a listen as you walk your dog or work around the house. If you’re struggling with some aspect of your writing, take a break and tune in. It might be just what you need to get back on track.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Netflix):  Jerry Seinfeld is known for his intense discipline to the craft of writing, for the daily dedication he still has in improving his skill at one-man storytelling, even though his Seinfeld show fame means he would never need to work again. This passion for creating and writing is on full display as he interviews other comedians to discuss all aspects of storytelling, writing and entertaining an audience. It’s a quirky show that speaks to my quirky heart. And the episode with Mel Brooks is pure gold.

Ten Minute Writers Workshop (NPR Podcast): Although this podcast wrapped last year, there are sixty ten-minute episodes with writers such as Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Tana French, and Tom Perrotta. This remains one of my favorite podcasts because Virginia Prescott gives us a peak into the habits of some of today’s most talented writers, and her interview format is designed to help other writers in their own pursuits.

  Here’s the Thing (NPR Podcast):  Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills. This one surprised me in all the best ways. He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan. Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships. For those who want to listen to the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong.  

–Laura Oles

BOO! by Fran Paino

All Hallows Eve approaches, and it’s not just the children who love this holiday, with its ghost stories and the trick-or-treat traditions. According to the National Retail Federation, “more than 148 million U.S. adults plan to participate in Halloween-related activities,” [[i]] despite the restrictions of COVID-19! What is it that we love so much about Halloween? 

        According to a Purdue University professor, Halloween lets us experience a good scare without being in real danger. It is within human nature to seek out and suffer unpleasant feelings – but in small doses, allowing us to flirt with danger and experience the emotional rush— free of real consequences.[[ii]]   

        Historically, Halloween is believed to have originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. This ancient community, which lived 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year on November 1 and believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead collided. 

On October 31, the Celts believed the spirits of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble and damage their crops. They built huge sacred bonfires, where they burned crops and sacrificed animals to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. Before the festivities began, they extinguished their hearth fires at home. When the celebration was over, they re-lit them with flames from the sacred, ceremonial bonfire to help protect themselves during the coming winter.

        By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and blended Christian ceremonies with older pagan rites. In 1,000 A.D., the Catholic church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or All-hallows/All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day), absorbing the Celtic traditions of Samhain, with bonfires and masquerades. This became All-Hallows Eve, and the word eventually compressed into Halloween.[[iii]]During this time, new rituals sprang up and were theforerunners to trick-or-treat, a custom not loved universally by parents in today’s world.

        In Medieval England, on All Hallows Eve, poor people would visit the homes of wealthy families to receive soul cakes. The custom was called souling because “Little pastries were given in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the dead relatives.” [[iv]]  In Scotland and Ireland, young people disguised themselves by dressing in costume, and accepting offerings from households in return for singing, reciting poetry, telling jokes, or performing a trick before receiving their treat.[[v]]

        In the U.S., the custom of trick-or-treating became a staple of the American Halloween celebrations after WW II, when sugar rationing ended. In 1952, Walt Disney released the first Trick-or-Treat cartoon movie, starring Donald Duck, which helped solidify Halloween’s celebration in American culture.

        Whatever one feels about the practice of trick-or-treating, there is another tradition that almost everyone looks forward to. Halloween is a fine time to revisit our beloved and deliciously scary, creepy stories and find new ones. Who can resist the urge to vicariously experience, without consequence, the chills, thrills, and fright of ghost stories and strange happenings? 

Among thousands of spooky tales are Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories, ranging from the unnerving appearance of ghosts in All Souls’, who appear at Sara Clayburn’s house to wreak havoc for one night. There is a spirit in The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, leaving the reader to wonder if the bell rang to warn of something terrible happening, or was it the narrator’s imagination? 

 Then there’s the frightful notion of not recognizing a being from the afterlife in Afterwards when a husband disappears – and only at the end does the bereft wife understand that the ghost of someone dead had visited. 

Often, the tales of crime by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imply something supernatural, as in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, about a mysterious death and a young woman’s fear that her own was approaching. And, of course, his classic The Hound of the Baskervilles can be read repeatedly and still maintain its emotional impact. Just the thought of the hound braying on the moor raises goosebumps. 

There is hardly room to mention every author whose work has become a Halloween special. Among the scariest are Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which an occult scholar and his searchers seek evidence of hauntings and get more than they bargained for.

And the scariest, ever, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Again, the author creates a terrifying picture of two dead servants returning and possessing the bodies of two young children, a brother, and sister. Again, the author leaves the reader questioning whether or not the events and their interpretations are from the nanny’s imagination, or are they real? Only Henry James knew for sure—or did he?

So, on All Hallow’s Eve, when you’re done with your traditions, trick-or-treating – whether ringing doorbells or handing out safely wrapped candies set the mood. Darken the house, keep a reading lamp bright to illuminate the pages and curl up with a hot chocolate or something more robust and let yourself be immersed in the netherworld and allow yourself to be scared.

BOO!


                              [i] https://nrf.com/media-center/press-releases/consumers-anticipate-new-ways-to-celebrate-halloween-despite-covid-19  10/23/20

[ii] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3860638/The-science-Halloween-Researchers-reveal-safe-gross-appeal-spooky-celebration.html 10/22/20

[iii] https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween 10/21/20

[iv] Ibid

 [v] Ibid

ART:

Image OF HANDS ON GLASS  by Sergey Gricanov from Pixabay 

Image  SETTING THE MOOD by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay 

Image of GHOST WOMAN  by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay 

Image OF ESTATE FOR HOUND by Basil Smith from Pixabay 

PLAIN OR FANCY?

by Helen Currie Foster

Mystery readers are tetchy. We want an interesting plot with a fair shot at noting each clue—but don’t want to guess whodunnit too soon. We’re prepared to care about the protagonist, the sleuth, perhaps the victim. We hope some characters will intrigue us; others should do their part and get offstage.

Of course, setting is key. We may want a mystery set in our own state––or on the far side of the world. We demand accurate detail; we’re slow to forgive mistakes. We want to feel we’re actually in the setting: riding the Cornwall train with an exhausted Cormoran Strike, in the basement of the Russian Club with Peter Wimsey, escaping from a southside Chicago industrial complex with V.I. Warshawski.

So for setting, how much description is too much? Do you find yourself sometimes turning the page, skipping the paragraph describing the view from the ski-lift, the row of shops in the village, the squalor of the factory yard?

Recall Oliver Strunk’s Rule 6, Do Not Overwrite (Section V, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders”): “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

Oliver Strunk’s Elements of Style

The Wild Places: 9781783784493: Amazon.com: Books

Yes, but sometimes a writer stops us in our tracks with beauty. Take Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (my favorite, describing hikes in Britain), or The Old Ways, or Landmarks. Contrary to habit I scribbled many quotes in the back of my copy of The Wild Places. He describes moonlight on a freezing night atop a mountain: “trillions of lunar photons pelting on to my face and the snow about me, giving me an eyeful of silver…”

An eyeful of silver! He writes of hiking an eroded old seabed, “We moved through dozens of weathers.” Of a frozen waterfall: “A hard portcullis of ice, beautifully mottled by dark figures of thaw.” Can’t you see it? Feel it? He quotes Stephen Graham on the rare moment when we feel part of nature: “‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.’”

The great door, that does not look like a door!

Maybe our sleuth lacks the time, is in too much peril, to describe moonlight “giving me an eyeful of silver,” or the moment when she or he, lying beneath a tree, momentarily sensed “the great door, that does not look like a door…” Too contemplative, when the sleuth has no time to contemplate.

A mystery setting has additional jobs besides painting the landscape. Ideally it draws us straight into the plot, shaping our view of the characters. Here’s the beginning of Sayer’s Strong Poison:

Mystery Monday: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers | Ms M's Bookshelf

“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no signs of fatigue.

He did not look at the prisoner as he gathered his notes into a neat sheaf and turned to address the jury, but the prisoner looked at him. Her eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows, seemed equally without fear and without hope. They waited.”

Already we’re caught, sensing the prisoner’s peril. Immediately we must turn to the next page.

            Or Tony Hillerman’s first paragraphs in The Ghostway:

The Ghostway (Leaphorn & Chee, #6) by Tony Hillerman

“Hosteen Joseph Joe remembered it like this.

He’d noticed the green car just as he came out of the Shiprock Economy Wash-O-Mat. The red light of sundown reflected from its windshield. Above the line of yellow cottonwoods along the San Juan River the shape of Shiprock was blue-black and ragged against the glow. The car looked brand new and it was rolling slowly across the gravel, the driver leaning out the window just a little. The driver had yelled at Joseph Joe.

“Hey!” he’d yelled. “Come here a minute.”

Joseph Joe remembered that very clearly. The driver looked like a Navajo, but yelling at him like that was not a Navajo thing to do because Joseph Joe was eighty-one years old, and the people around Shiprock and up in the Chuska Moutains called him Hosteen, which means “old man” and is a term of great respect.”

Hillerman has us. Shiprock silhouetted against a sunset, the Chuska Mountains, Navajo tradition being violated––we’re hooked by this authoritative voice placing us where we wanted to be, in Navajo country.

            Strunk has other words for us writers as well. His Rule 14, Avoid Fancy Words: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” I checked: “word” itself is Anglo-Saxon. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=word

This instruction helps mystery writers follow several other rules, such as not overwriting, and choosing powerful verbs and specific nouns. See page two of Hillerman’s The Dark Wind:

Amazon.com: The Dark Wind (9780062018021): Tony Hillerman: Books

Lomatewa glanced past the rabbit brush at the second boot. It matched. Beyond the second boot, the path curved sharply around a weathered granite boulder. Lomatewa sucked in his breath. Jutting from behind the boulder he could see the bottom of a foot. The foot was bare and even from where Lomatewa stood he could see there was something terribly wrong with it.”

Here he uses mainly (not all) Anglo-Saxon words, though some traveled from Latin through old French.

When I’m writing I’m always aware of Strunk’s strictures (uh-oh, late Latin). Indeed, I should probably reread him every week. But in working on this seventh mystery I also hope to discover “an eyeful of silver”, or “the smell of charred stone”, or move through “dozens of weathers,” or more.

You can find more information about Helen Currie Foster at helencurriefoster.com

M.E. Browning Discusses SHADOW RIDGE, New Beginnings and What’s Next for Detective Jo Wyatt

When it comes to writing riveting police procedurals, M.E. Browning has all the credentials.  As a retired police captain and an award-winning author, she follows her Agatha-nominated series featuring amateur sleuth Mer Cavallo with Colorado police detective Jo Wyatt in her latest novel, SHADOW RIDGE.  Readers and reviewers alike have praised Browning’s meticulous plotting and storytelling prowess as she brings us into the Colorado town of Echo Valley and the case that plunges Detective Jo Wyatt into the dangerous underworld of online gaming. Browning shares how SHADOW RIDGE came to be and what’s next for both her and Jo Wyatt.

SHADOW RIDGE was just released this week. Congratulations!  What would you like readers to know about your latest novel? 

SHADOW RIDGE, A Jo Wyatt Mystery

I think every author has a story that they are afraid to write–not because the content is necessarily frightening, but because it means so much to the author. For me, that book was Shadow Ridge. When I first started writing, I knew I hadn’t yet developed the skill to write this story—at least not the way I wanted. I’d tried. Despite being my third published book, Shadow Ridge is my first police procedural. It’s also my first novel to earn a starred review. In hindsight, I think it’s good to be a little scared of your story. It kept me digging until I found the emotional core of each character. 

What drew you to writing SHADOW RIDGE?  How did the story idea come about?

I’d read an article that detailed the misogyny that female gamers faced online. Sadly, when it comes to online abuse, women are overwhelmingly the target. In the gaming industry, that abuse flared into coordinated mob attacks. Typically, online abuse manifests in three ways: trolling, doxxing, or SWATting. We’ve all probably experienced a troll—someone who hijacks a thread and makes racist or abusive comments. In some cases, trolls escalate their behavior into doxxing, which occurs when they post a victim’s personal information online. Armed with doxxed information, a harasser can morph from an online threat into a physical one and confront the woman personally or report a phony emergency that requires a SWAT response. Obviously, when a tactical team surrounds a house because someone inside reportedly has a gun and is threatening to kill another occupant, tensions are high and the danger is real—even if the emergency isn’t.  

From a law enforcement perspective, cybercrimes are difficult to investigate. Harassers hide behind firewalls and phony accounts, and while they may be as close as your neighbor, they could also live on the other side of the globe. Many smaller jurisdictions don’t have the training or resources to investigate the crime and end up referring the case to a state agency. 

From a story perspective, I saw an opportunity to bring these two worlds together. The game designer runs afoul of online abuse which brings her in contact with Detective Jo Wyatt and parallels issues Jo’s’s facing within the department. And as authors like to say in an effort to avoid spoilers, shenanigans ensued.

Tell us about Jo Wyatt and her life in Echo Valley.

Jo is a second-generation cop in a small southwestern Colorado city. She’s been on the force for a dozen years, and the last two have been as a detective. I had a NetGalley reviewer describe Jo as “Smart enough to know her limitations, confident enough to trust her gut, and determined enough to unravel the threads in any case.” I almost wept reading that description because that was exactly the character I wanted to portray.

Echo Valley is urban enough to have a craft brewery, but rural enough that the bears still rummage through the trash at night. Working in a small community has its pros and cons. Jo frequently knows the people she deals with, but they often expect her to let them get away with murder. 

Your past career in law enforcement has been highlighted in early reviews, with readers praising your experience coming through in a way that is masterful without being dominant.  How did you decide how much of that expertise to use in SHADOW RIDGE?

The short answer is trial and error. 

My earlier unpublished manuscripts proved that writing what you know isn’t always the best approach to a compelling story if you include too much extraneous detail. Instead, I discovered I needed to learn how to let law enforcement informa story. So instead of a law enforcement professional, an amateur sleuth stars in my first two books. With each novel, my understanding of the value of specific details increased. It was also important to me to portray Jo as human. She makes mistakes, but she owns them. It was a lot of fun for me to bring her to life through the other two point-of-view characters.

This is the first in the Jo Wyatt series, correct? Can you give us any insight on what is coming next for you? And for Jo?

That is correct. I’m currently working on the second Jo Wyatt Mystery. In it, Jo investigates a missing child, but as she digs into their fractured family life, she unearths a trove of secrets and half-lies that paint a different picture of the two parents she’s known since high school.  

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Part of the joy I discover when reading a book is what lies hidden between the lines—and everyone’s experiences determine how they will interpret the same event. In Shadow Ridge, I explore the complexity of family, the meaning of promises, and the danger of secrets. But in the end, when the last word is read and the book is closed, I hope readers believe that Jo is exactly the cop they’d want to respond if they ever need to call for help.

M.E Browning

M.E. BROWNING served twenty-two years in law enforcement and retired as a captain before turning to a life of crime fiction. Writing as Micki Browning, she penned the Agatha-nominated and award-winning Mer Cavallo mysteries, and her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in anthologies, mystery and diving magazines, and textbooks. As M.E. Browning, she recently began a new series of Jo Wyatt mysteries with Shadow Ridge.

Micki is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime—where she served as a former president of the Guppy Chapter. A professional divemaster, she resides in Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research.” Visit mebrowning.comto learn more.

You can find SHADOW RIDGE at your favorite bookstore or online here.

Nancy Drew and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

kp gresham

By K.P. Gresham

Ninety years ago the first Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published. Since then, over 70 million copies of that series have been sold. The fictional female teenage sleuth was originally conceived by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, whose other brainstorms included The Hardy Boys, and my personal favorite as a five-year-old, The Bobbsey Twins. (Okay, I’m old. Get over it.)

Believe it or not, Stratemeyer firmly believed in traditional roles for women, but his mostly female ghostwriters under the shared pseudonym of Caroline Keene, had different plans. Mildred Wirt, who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books, turned Nancy into a fierce, fearless, feminist heroine that inspired young girls to be the same ever since the books hit the shelves. Many prominent and glass-ceiling-shattering women count Nancy Drew as an inspiration in their youth including First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush and Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor and the recently departed and dearly loved Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Oddly enough, critics panned the series when it first came out. Nancy broke too many stereotypes, being frequently outspoken and authoritative. Librarians, educators and parents also considered the books too “formulaic” and feared they would negatively impact young readers and their future book choices.

As you may recall, they said the same thing about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.

The Secret of the Old Clock is the mystery that began it all for America’s controversial female teenage sleuth. In this story, sixteen-year-old Nancy wishes to help the Turners, who are struggling relatives of the recently deceased Josiah Crowley, find the missing will would give them claim to the Crowely’s estate. She becomes interested in the case because she disliked Crowley’s snobbish nouveau-riche social-climbing heirs.

Justice for the downtrodden? Fighting for the underdog? Outspoken? Authoritative?

Sounds familiar. Rest in Peace, RGB.

K.P. Gresham is the author of the Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days At Wrigley Field.

You Dreamt You Went Where? Again?

 

by Kathy Waller

***

Last night I dreamt I went to Mandereley again.

The first line of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

Perfectly poetic, iambic hexameter: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Says Sarah Perry in the Irish Times, “Every novelist since has ground their teeth in envy: here is all the enchantment of a child’s story, with an irresistible melancholy hung about it.”

The rest of the novel isn’t bad either.

But so much depends on that first line.

Can you identify the books that begin with the lines below? And the authors who composed them?

Show what you know in a comment. (Searching the Internet is acceptable.)

Some may be a snap. Others, not so much. But each comes from a book by a major mystery author.

All will be revealed in a later post. Or, as they used to say, stay tuned.

*

  1.  On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.
  2. In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.
  3. Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
  4. When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
  5. My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
  6. The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
  7. There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.
  8. It was as black in the closet as old blood.
  9. My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.
  10. It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.
  11. I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.
  12.  I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.
  13. Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around.
  14. There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.
  15. It was a mob, but not yet a full-fledged riot. Over a dozen retirees, dressed in housecoats and robes, had taken to the streets, demanding action at eight in the morning.
  16. There hadn’t been a god for many years.

***

Image of book cover via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Ahhh, The Days of Lipstick, Make-up and Clothes

I took my grandson to Barnes and Noble yesterday. When we got there, I realized I’d forgotten to take his mask.

“Uh, oh,” he said, looking forlorn. “Do we have to go back, YaYa?”

I reached into the bottomless pit, called my purse, and pulled out the extra mask I always carry. “No problem, darling. I always have extra.” But it was precisely the same as the one I wear. Hmmm. What to do? I smoothed the masks out on my lap.

“See that little mark?” I asked, pointing to one.

“Yes. Is that one for me?” he asked, hopefully.

“No, my dear. That mark is from my lipstick. You’ll wear the other.”

So, into B & N we went. He had a great time looking through toys (educational only—YaYa’s policy) and books for Kindergarteners.

I, on the other hand, puffed into my mask, fogged my glasses, and whenever I felt no one could see me, I cheated. I lifted the thing off my face for a couple of breaths of fresh air! After all, I’d rather not be treated worse than a murderer or rapist because I need some oxygen along with the C02 I’m breathing by wearing the mask.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the reason and basically agree that wearing masks is at least some help against ALL viruses, not just COVID. It’s not a bad policy if uncomfortable and lipstick-smearing. I learned during the great toilet-paper chase, not to wear lipstick under the mask.

Early on, I was also using disposable masks. I knew that paper made incinerated garbage burn hotter, and I wondered how all this extra fabric and paper would impact the environment. It didn’t take long to find an answer about the potential problems for the environment at https://www.energylivenews.com/2020/03/17/coronavirus-face-masks-could-have-a-devastating-effect-on-the-environment/

While I am not an environmental warrior, I was the first in my family to question the wisdom of the public using disposables. Those should be reserved for our courageous nurses, doctors, and workers who actually need them to preserve their own health while on the job. Thus, by the end of March, everyone in my family, kids, kids-by-marriage, and grandkids have switched to washable masks. We disinfect and launder them at the end of each day. Kudos to me!!! LOL

Of course, I can’t take much credit, since I have also developed some bad habits in this new masked and locked down society. As an example, here I am, today, awake, writing, and taking care of business since four a.m.—no praise here – just my body clock- I haven’t yet bothered to comb my hair, wash my face, or get into street clothes. Sitting in front of a computer screen absolves me of the responsibility to present a decent face to the world – or does it? Or should it? I say no, but do it anyway, except for Zoom meetings, when I’m forced to at least wear some makeup.

So, as my grandson browsed, I looked around at all the masked people. Some wore ear-loop face masks, others wore the type with elastic bands that wrap around the head, while others wore the pull-up masks.

How different from our pre-COVID lives. We would have reacted quite differently to anyone walking into high-value targets for robbery like banks, restaurants, jewelry stores, and movie theaters with face coverings. Also in our pre-COVID life, we were encouraged to be environmentally responsible and bring our own reusable bags to stores and supermarkets. Now, if we do, the cashiers tell us before beginning to scan that we must pack the bags ourselves. This suits me anyway. I prefer doing it myself. I want ‘like items’ bagged together, which makes unpacking faster and more efficient.

And now, the social distancing. No more hugs for friends and relatives. That stinks, and I refuse not to hug and kiss my grandchildren, but I have learned to kiss their heads on top, not their faces. Can’t live without my hugs, but we hug with our faces turned away from one another—well, it’s better than nothing!

So, while I complain, grouse, have hissy fits over the whole thing, I remember how fortunate we are as history repeats itself. One-hundred-and-two years ago, the world suffered a pandemic called the “Spanish Flu, or the Spanish Lady,” even though it did not originate in Spain. 500-million people worldwide fell ill with this early variety of H1N1 and Avian Flu combined (as per CDC). In the U.S., 675,000 died, including those who are always most susceptible: young children and the elderly. The surprise in that pandemic was men and women in their primes became ill and died at alarming rates. At least we can be grateful that the young children and young adults seem to weather this COVID thing much better.

A-hundred years ago, there were no antibiotics, no pharmaceuticals to treat the virus, and they knew less about better hygiene. Although state and federal governments did close some schools and some businesses, most people had to leave their homes to earn a living or leave their family’s to starve.

So what have I learned from all of this? First off, back to good hygiene, people. For years domestic chores like house cleaning weren’t high on the intellectual list of essential tasks. How much better might people have fared in 1918 if they’d had the cleaning products we have today? Perhaps we should resurrect the saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

And of course, masks. They are not foolproof, but they are valuable tools and if wearing them was good enough for my great-grandparents, I guess it’s more than good enough for me.

As for my bad habits, when COVID-19 ends, I will once again learn to groom early, get my face on, and leave sufficient travel time for appointments. Meanwhile, I can jump on to virtual meetings without contending with traffic, or worrying about what I’m wearing. While all of this lasts, I’ll spend less on lipsticks and face powder, less on clothes, but have more to spend on books, and I’ll also pay attention to many of the unique ways we’ve learned to cope with this stinking virus. Stay safe, and stay masked!

Barbeculinary Thoughts

by Helen Currie Foster

I know, you’re asking yourself what barbecue has to do with mystery writing, my other beloved topic. Barbecuing, like writing (see K.P. Gresham’s wonderful recent blog), is a solitary pursuit.

And a mystery. And we barbecuers want it that way. We have our little ways. We know exactly how those baby-back ribs should go limp when done, go kind of boneless, as did Trixie, the little girl in Knuffle Bunnywhen her dad left her beloved bunny in the laundromat dryer.

We know precisely the color of mahogany-ebony-mesquite the brisket will achieve the moment we decide it’s time to begin applying the mop. Also, of course, we know the color of the mop, its ingredients, its smell, its virtue. We know precisely the heft and flexibility that a brisket should demonstrate when we pick it up in our silicone-gloved hands to test its doneness.

We know, and we’re not telling.

Like writing, barbecuing is a solitary calling. Sure, people will wander out, ask if they can help. But these terrace tourists don’t want smoke in their eyes, their hair, their clothes. Besides, the Barbecuer doesn’t want them. Doesn’t want suggestions, doesn’t want comparisons, doesn’t want recipes. So if you wander out to the Barbecuer’s sacred precincts, your only job is to ask if the Barbecuer would like something to drink.

The Barbecuer, alone on the captain’s deck, seeks perfection. [Yes, I’m rereading my favorite Patrick O’Brians.] Perfection requires concentration. Because the Barbecuer is engaged in a sacred ritual: preparing the offering for the people.

You may be thinking wrongly of the word “barbecue” as did famed food-writer Michael Pollan who admits, “[A]s a Northerner, I’d already spent more than half of my life as a serial abuser of that peculiar word, which is to say, as a backyard blackener of steaks and chops over too-hot fires—over flames!—with a pitiable dependence on sauce.” Cooked, p. 45. That was before he saw the light on the road to whole-hog barbecue.

Barbecue is not the mere flipping of burgers or sizzle of a steak or blackening of hot dogs over a too-hot fire. Barbecue, while a gift, traditionally, to the gods, is a ritual offering to the gathered cohort. See the Iliad.

It is a ritual to be communally observed (not kibitzed at).

Think of the best barbecues in which you’ve participated. The Barbecuer completes preparation of the ritual gift and serves it forth. On a large and venerable cutting board, in sight of the waiting crowd, the Barbecuer slices the brisket, offers the pulled pork, displays the properly limp yet crispy-crusted ribs. This offering is accompanied by the ritual sighs and groans of the rapt crowd, holding plates and awaiting their turn.

Sure, it’s competitive. I mean, Achilles way outshines Agamemnon when it comes to barbecue, and that’s strategic. Achilles and his team nail it when Odysseus comes calling to beg (unsuccessfully) Achilles to make up his quarrel with that tyrant Agamemnon:

…Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
Who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
And across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s
And the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
While lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
Cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
And Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down|
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
And stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
Raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.|
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
In ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.

Il. 9:246-259 (Robert Fagles’ translation).

See? “Lordly Achilles.” No way will Achilles lose that argument with Odysseus, despite the latter’s eloquence. I’ve always said that peace in the middle east could be achieved if both sides ––all sides––sat down to share really excellent barbecue, but that approach didn’t work for Agamemnon and Achilles.

Given the stellar role of the Barbecuer, alone there in the spotlight, one would think the Barbecuer would figure strongly in our literature. Here, Readers, I seek help. I’ve searched vainly for roles for the Barbecuer equal in stature to the best barbecue. (Though apparently—I can’t find where—Chaucer at least wrote “Woe to the cook whose sauce has no sting.” Readers?)

Some mysteries do involve barbecue, or use barbecue in the setting. My Ghost Next Door features murder of a food writer during (key word) the first annual Coffee Creek Brisket Competition. One contestant is even a suspect. But not a serious one, because…what self-respecting Barbecuer would leave the side of his or her barbecue, even if presented with a great opportunity for a secret silent murder? Can you imagine a Barbecuer taking the risk that the ribs would burn? The brisket dry out? The pork shoulder shrivel? Certainly not.

Thus in my view the role of murderer is contraindicated for a Barbecuer. Perhaps the writer could assign the deed to a mere Assistant, who might go AWOL and stab the buddy who forgot the beer, the aunt who forgot the devilled eggs, the guest who always volunteers to make coleslaw but chops the cabbage too big and uses way-old ranch dressing instead of Real Mayonnaise. The Assistant could even create an alibi—leave to buy more beer, to get more salt and ice for a guest making homemade peach ice cream, to help carry in the giant blackberry cobbler, to husk the corn.

But writer, you would sacrifice realism if you excused the Barbecuer from tending the ritual offering merely to move the plot forward. Even if the Barbecuer has the best thermometer, the most accurate timer…could slip out for a moment of mayhem…the responsibility’s too great.

Of course barbecue itself is a mystery. Here I reveal my own prejudices. Standing in my back yard north of Dripping Springs is a venerable Weber kettle. Like Knuffle Bunny it has lost some of its elegance, some of its youthful gloss (and a few knobs and vents). Relatives have Tragers they like. Green Eggs have appeared. But I love the old Weber the same way I love, say, the old Kitchenaid stand mixer in the kitchen. Both are old-fashioned, made of steel, curvy and solid. The old kettle adds greatly to barbecue mystery—no, there’s no automatic temperature sensor, indeed, no electronics whatsoever. It’s acoustic. Acoustic Barbecue. Just the meat, the coals, the mop—and time. Time to gaze solemnly at the developing crust, time to add just a few more coals to the “parsimonious little fire” on one side of the kettle, time to poke the meat to gauge whether it’s almost ready for the mop…

Still ahead lies the moment on the cutting board, the presentation of the ritual offering. Much like a book launch. But in the meantime, there’s the solitary work, the focused attention, the lone responsibility on the shoulders, of the Barbecuer.

A lot like writing.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. The latest in the series is GHOST CAT, available at Austin’s BookPeople and other independent bookstores as well as Amazon and Kindle.

Using a Planner When the Entire Year Has Been Canceled

Does this sound like an exercise in futility?

I still use a paper planner.

Even in 2020.

Go ahead and laugh. Get it out. 

It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Using a planner when so many of our plans, events, schedules, travel and conferences have been completely upended or downright cancelled?  Have you lost your mind?

Maybe.  

Six months in quarantine can do things to a person, which is why writing in a planner has proven to be more valuable than ever before. With so much out of my control, the daily practice of putting things down on paper, from tiny tasks to long term projects, has been an important grounding habit that has helped me through the last several months of uncertainty.

A few friends enjoy teasing me about my affinity for the printed agenda (winking at Valerie), but I love a good planner. There’s something alluring about a small, portable book that promises to bring order to schedules, ideas, and projects, especially now. While I depend on Microsoft Outlook for work-related meetings, deadlines and reminders, for me, nothing replaces putting pen to paper and visually seeing my week. Even if my weeks now look completely different than they had at the beginning of the year. Writing things down brings a clarity that I just don’t get from tech.

Bulletjournal.com

I did change planners.  Gone is the rigid and elaborate full year calendar. After hearing so much about the Bullet Journal, I have moved to that format and have found that this open design is much more flexible in handling a year that makes you doubt writing anything in ink. All I need is a dotted journal (I love the Leuchtturm 1917 A5), a ruler, and a pen.  I can create my own layout for the week (this takes 5 minutes), and create sections for projects, notes and research.  It’s more forgiving for those times when I start out with a weekly plan that dissolves by hump day.  And no more blank abandoned pages with days that have gone off the rails.

Photo by Boho Berry

When so much is out of our influence—when and if our kids will go back to school (I have twin seniors who will be doing online classes this fall), job requirements (if we’re lucky enough to keep our jobs), and all the small ways we could once connect as a community being put on hold—writing things down helps me focus on what I can control and gives me space to explore how I can be of service to others in my community now and in the future. 

So, I’ll keep writing and planning, even if it feels as though I’m drawing in the sand and waiting for the tide to come in.  Each day is a new opportunity to listen, learn and put my energy towards my priorities.  

Maybe I should write that down…

–Laura Oles

https://bulletjournal.com

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/a25940356/what-is-a-bullet-journal/

Take Control of Your Life! Write!

kp gresham

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

This pandemic thing is getting really old. (A quote from Captain Obvious, obviously) But we writers have one thing in our arsenal that others don’t. We can create a world where we want to be.

Lori Rader-Day

Lori  Rader-Day, National Sisters in Crime President and award-winning mystery author, spoke to our Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter last Sunday. Besides promoting her new book, The Lucky One (which is an incredible must-read psychological suspense mystery), she also talked about how the pandemic is influencing her writing.

Authors, in our stories we get to create whole worlds that we can completely control. Our characters must acquiesce to our every whim. The settings can be places we want to hang, RESTAURANTS we want to eat at, crowded parks where we can watch fireworks with friends and family, churches where we can go to worship. As Ray Bradbury said, “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to get up for in the morning.”

This is a time where we can escape into our stories. Want to say something pithy in the real world? Act it out in your characters. Want to kill somebody? Do it on the page. (I can speak to this. It’s very cathartic.) The empowerment that comes by sitting down to the computer and writing just 250 words can produce those happy endorphins that’ll spark you right up. At least William Faulkner thought so. He said, “The right word in the right place at the right time can soothe, calm and heal.”

Full disclosure now. For the first two months of the pandemic I wrote absolutely nothing. Maybe I was too rattled, or just waiting for this pandemonium to pass, or in denial–bottom line I didn’t write one word.  Then I got mad. I wanted to scream at the TV. I wanted to rant on Facebook, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” After a few more weeks, I finally realized that this angst had to be released or I’d go crazy. And then I remembered how I had released that angst at different low points in my past.

Oh, yeah. That’s right. I wrote.

So I offer that you give it a try. Sit down, create the world that you CAN control and say what you have to say. As Walt Disney wrote, “That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

Take control of your world! Write!

***

K.P. Gresham authors the Pastor Matt Hayden mystery series. Her latest is MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.