An Interview with Crime Writer Alexandra Burt

by Laura Oles

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. 

I Won’t Kill the Governor!

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

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!

***

Image of Governor’s Mansion by skeeze from Pixabay

***

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

Reverted to Type

 

 

by Kathy Waller

(Originally posted on Ink-Stained Wretches)

When I opened my personal blog, back in the Dark Ages, I titled it To Write Is to Write Is to Write. I intended to tell everything I know about writing.

Everything I knew filled roughly 2.5 posts.

Now I write about what I don’t know about writing and leave giving advice to those who know what they’re doing.

Reverting to my old librarian persona, I also write about blogs by writers who aren’t anywhere near running out of material. Here’s a short list.

Friday Fictioneers

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

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.

Chris the Story Reading Ape

TSRA introduces readers to authors, gives authors a platform, and provides information for writers aspiring to be published.

—from Uninspired Writers“Writer’s Block? Relax! Do Something Else”

—from Jami Gold: “Tips for Creating the Right Impression of Our Characters”

—from Lucy Mitchell: “Why Some Stories Are Like Bridges to Other Stories” 

—from Anne R. Allen’s Blog  . . . with Ruth Harris: “Freewrite: How to Write About Traumatic Events Without Adding More Trauma” by Marlene Cullen

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,

“LOLs Courtesy of BlueBird.”

Kate Shrewsday

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

“The Miasmatron: Or Never Feed Steak to a Dog”

“The Terrier’s Apprentice”

“The Day the Dog Did What He Was Told” [with video]

Rummage through her blog. You’ll find many more gems on many more subjects.

Hugh’s News and Views

Hugh posts about “this, that, and everything else,” but my favorite posts are the Blogging Tips, such as,

“7 Things To Lookout For Before Following A Blog”

“How to Use Excerpts to Get More Visitors to Read Your Blog”

and one treasure for WordPress users:

“How to Backup Your WordPress Blog to Prevent Losing All Its Contents”

A Pondering Mind

A Pondering Mind posts words of wisdom,

Old wisdom:

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” ~ Rene Descartes

New wisdom:

“We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” ~ Stephen Hawking

And—again, thank goodness—amusing wisdom:

“Do you know how helpless you feel if you have a full cup of coffee in your hand and you start to sneeze?” ~ Jean Kerr

***

I could go on—my first draft is twice as long as this one—but the deadline loomed hours ago. I hope you’ll check out some of these blogs. And I hope you enjoy them and return for more.

And—do you have any blogs you’d like to share? Including your own. Record them in a comment.

***

Image  of New York City Public Library lion by Chinem McCollum from Pixabay

Image of apes and books by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Image of cowboy reading by mosla99 from Pixabay

***

Kathy renamed her personal blog Telling the Truth, Mainly, and, in her posts, tells the truth, mainly. Her guests tell the truth, mainly, too.

The original title, To Write Is to Write Is to Write, is a fragment of a quotation from Gertrude Stein, who knew how to write and who told Ernest Hemingway how to write.

The current title comes from the first chapter of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain knew everything about writing. Ernest Hemingway said so.

MORE OLIVE OIL, PLEASE? Francine Paino

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, service en 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.”

Everyone in the kitchen, to cook!

For detailed information on the evolution of French cooking, see the Brief History of French Cuisine: https://www.ecpi.edu/blog/a-brief-history-of-french-cuisine

The history of Italian food: https://www.lifeinitaly.com/food/history-of-food/the-history-of-italian-cuisine-i/

Pizza Grana Recipe http://blogs.poughkeepsiejournal.com/dishnthat/2009/04/13/pizza-grana-is-a-rich-easter-tradition/

 

PANCETTA AND BLACK PEPPER BREAD

Begin with a basic artisan bread https://www.thecomfortofcooking.com/2013/04/no-knead-crusty-artisan-bread.html

 

To make this into a pancetta and black pepper bread, before beginning the dough, sautee ½ – 1 lb chopped pancetta (I recommend Primo, Italian style diced) DO NOT COOK THROUGH. Allow it to cool.

Add the cooled pancetta in the first step of making the bread, along with 1-2 TBSPN coarse black pepper.

Be sure to have a cooking thermometer that goes up to 250 degrees. Generally, bread is cooked through at 200 – 210.

 

FOR A CRASH COURSE ON OLIVE OILS

https://www.wnyc.org/story/last-chance-foods-how-pick-best-italian-olive-oil/

JuliaChild:

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/magazine/remembering-marcella.html#:~:text=In%20a%20conversation%20shortly%20before,them%20out%20again.%E2%80%9D%20Exactly.

 

ILLUSTRATION AND PICTURE ATTRIBUTIONS:

Peacock: S T R A V A G A N Z A: WHAT WAS THE BEST MEAL IN HISTORY?

PizzaGrana: http://blogs.poughkeepsiejournal.com/dishnthat/2009/04/13/pizza-grana-is-a-rich-easter-tradition/

Italian bread – Francine Paino

Woman in kitchen: Pixabay

 

 

 

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor

VP Chandler

by V.P. Chandler

 

As you may know from past blog posts, I’m often late to the game when it comes to reading a new book.  Although I have purchased several of the Hugo Marsten books, written by Mark Pryor, I finally got around to reading the first one, The Bookseller (2012)

(It was my turn to recommend a book for my book club so I was happy to recommend it. Two birds, once stone, and all of that. 😉 )

*WARNING, if you read this book, you will be craving French coffee and pastries!*

It starts with Hugo Marsten, head of security at the U.S. embassy, looking for a book at his favorite bouquiniste’s (bookseller’s) stall. These stalls are set up for tourists along the Seine. Pryor does a great job of explaining what these look like and describing the history of the bouquinistes without bogging the narrative down in details. As with many things in the book, I was interested in learning more. The bouquinistes have been in Paris for centuries. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouquinistes

While Marsten is browsing and chatting with his friend, a nefarious-looking character approaches and Max, the bookseller, is kidnapped at gunpoint. The next day Marsten goes to the bookstall, hoping to see his friend, but a strange ferret-faced man is in his place. The man says he doesn’t know anything. Thus, starts the hunt to find Max. Marsten enlists the help of an old friend, semi-retired CIA agent, Tom Green and they uncover a myriad of dark secrets.

While searching for Max, they learn that Max was a survivor of the Holocaust and had been a Nazi hunter. Is his disappearance related to that? Soon other booksellers start to disappear and their bodies are found floating in the Seine. There is also a turf war in Paris among drug gangs who could be involved. And Marsten discovers that his new girlfriend has her own share of secrets. AND THEN, “…as he himself becomes a target, Hugo uncovers a conspiracy from Paris’s recent past that leads him deep into the enemy’s lair.” (description from markpryorbooks.com)
So there’s a lot going on in the novel, but Pryor is masterful at juggling all the pieces.

And I’m happy to report that my choice was a hit among my friends. We were all impressed that this was Pryor’s first novel! There are a few of us in the bunch who are fans of Sherlock Holmes and we liked the Holmesian touches that were peppered into the story. By the time we met, via Zoom, some had already read the second in the series. So two thumbs up for The Bookseller!

You can find more about the series on Mark Pryor’s website.

www.markpryorbooks.com/hugo-marston-series

And there he has an update on the series!

  • The Hugo Marston series has now been optioned for television / film by Ivan Schwarz at Like Entertainment, Inc.!
  • The ninth Hugo Marston novel, which is titled, THE FRENCH WIDOW, will be released on September 15, 2020.

Congratulations to Mark Pryor!

*I’d also like to add a reminder to please consider buying books from independent booksellers. The Bookseller, and other books, are available at  IndieBound, a great resource for finding independent bookstores.

 

 

 

 

Please Take (a) Note!

 

by Helen Currie Foster

Lately I’ve been thinking about remarkable people who never got to see the significance of their work, regardless of its brilliance. People whose minds moved so fast their words didn’t compute, for most listeners. People whose contributions went unrecognized for many years. And if they hadn’t written down their ideas? Maybe eventually someone would have made the same discoveries, but when?

Here are just three.

I’d never heard of Simon Stevin until I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World (2014), on how modernity reached the shores of the North Sea. Stevin, born illegitimate in Bruges in 1548, worked as a book-keeper in Antwerp, and then enlisted at the liberal new Leiden University. He produced a book on double-entry book-keeping and another on figuring the interest on borrowed money, when publishing such hard-won information was a subversive revolutionary act. This “engineer, book-keeper, king of numbers,” per Pye, wanted to make math work in the everyday world. 

Stevin tutored his student friend Prince Maurits in math, beginning a lifelong association. He made the prince a sailing chariot for the beach, with two sails, four great wheels, and flags flying. Stevin informed the prince the earth went around the sun. When Maurits became king, Stevin became an army engineer, devising, pumps, dredgers, windmills. He produced an influential treatise on fortifications and another on how to calculate longitude at sea. He wrote a book asking Dutch cities to adopt uniform money measures, suggested a decimal system, founded a mathematics curriculum at Leiden. And he wrote down these ideas! Stevin’s dream, that explaining practical mathematics would help his country thrive, eventually came true––though not necessarily in his lifetime.

You already know about the world’s first computer programmer? Another who did not live to see her work recognized is Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter. At seventeen she began helping mathematician Charles Babbage with his “difference machine” for math calculations. In 1843 she published an article in an English science journal describing processes we now call computer programs, including how to create codes using letters and symbols as well as numbers. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, at 37. Her work came to public attention in 1953 when B.V. Bowden republished her notes in Faster than Thought: A Symposum on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada.”

“We’re still catching up with one of the greatest minds of the last century.” That’s Anthony Gottlieb, “The New Yorker,” May 4, 2020, on Frank P. Ramsey. Ramsey––a Cambridge (UK) scholar whose genial brilliance intimidated his professors when he appeared on campus at 18––died at only 26, in 1930. Economists, philosophers and mathematicians are still exploring the “Ramsey effect” on their disciplines. He was immediately taken up by Maynard Keynes, and refuted Keynes’s fuzzy notions of probability. He was tapped to translate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” from Germanas the only German speaker available who could not only understand what Wittgenstein was trying to say, but say it more clearly (he reportedly dictated his translation).In one paper he created two math theorems which, decades after his death, became part of the “Ramsey theory” analyzing order and disorder. (See video of a student working a Ramsey probability problem). Ramsey’s modesty about his astounding abilities made him appear almost offhand about his accomplishments.

As a student of Virginia Woolf, I blinked twice to find Ramsey appearing in her diary (February 1923).

Yes!–– at dinner with Maynard Keynes. “Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” Keynes at least tangentially belonged, with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to the Bloomsbury group, which included several members of the select Cambridge “Apostles” club (including Leonard Woolf). In 1927, Woolf published To the Lighthouse about a family she called the Ramsays, where Mr. Ramsay, a professor, fears that though he has reached Q, he lacks genius and will never be able to think his way past Q, that he’ll never reach R: “How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?” If Woolf had known then what we know now she’d have known Frank Ramsey could easily have reached R and zoomed on past Z. 

Okay, I admit I took the Special Math Course for English Majors to get my math graduation credit. Yes, I did. Nevertheless I’m doggedly staggering through the first full biography of Ramsey, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford Press 2020), fascinated by his mind and especially his lightly worn “sheer excess of powers.” I might, even, try to find his 1926 paper about truth and subjective probability, where he said we should take account of people’s judgment of probability.” 

Now there’s a pungent topic for mystery writers. At every turn, our characters use subjective probability to make decisions. “Can I kill without being caught?” “Can I catch this villain without being killed?” “Have I examined all the what-if’s here?” “What are the chances anyone will recognize me?” Suspense lies in decisions made on subjective probability.

Okay, so Ramsey died without knowing that ninety years later University of Georgia students in hoodies, poised at the whiteboard, would be filming explanations of “Ramsey Theory.” Ada Lovelace died without knowing the Defense Department would name a computer language for her.  If asked, would she have preferred Countess? Would she be fascinated by the world of hacking? Simon Stevin would drive our city streets, ready to opine on public transportation–would he recommend air-conditioned tubes, with moving sidewalks, to move people east and west across Austin? Or possibly a sailboat with wheels?

Now we come to you. Yes, you. How will we know what you thought?

Stevin, Lovelace and Ramsey at least published some of their work. You can go farther. You own your copyright as soon as your work is “fixed.” You can also provide notice of copyright by using the symbol or the word “Copyright” and your name and the year of first publication, and registering your copyright by paying the required fee and depositing required copy(ies) of your work, thereby creating a public record of your copyright claim. (See details and requirements here.) 

That’s at least a start. As for Aeschylus, only seven of his seventy to ninety tragedies remain intact. Sophocles? Only seven of over a hundred remain. Euripides? Eighteen of over ninety-five remain. Sappho? We have only two complete poems out of her nine books of verse, from the woman the ancients called “the tenth Muse.”

Will depositing your work at the Library of Congress––oh yes, you must––give us some assurance we can know your ideas, your writings, a century hence? The Alexandrian Library didn’t fare so well. Nor did the Dresden Sächsische Landesbibliothek which lost perhaps 200,000 volumes in the Allied bombing of the Dresden historic center. The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library burned 400,000 books.

No guarantees, but it’s a start. At least try to leave the world a copy. Even if you leave us too soon, even if fame has not yet arrived…you never know. A century from now, maybe…?

Beware, Sherlock Holmes!

By K.P. Gresham

The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.

READING!

And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?

I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.

My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas.  As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.

Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!

Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.

Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.

Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil RathboneJeremy BrettRobert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.

So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.

Alas.

If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!

James Michener Didn’t Care

by Kathy Waller

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.

Pat Boone - PixWhen 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.

“I can’t,” I said. “James Michener belongs to the Austin Writers’ League. I can’t belong to anything James Michener belongs to.”

James Michener

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.
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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.
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This post first appeared, with modifications, on Telling the Truth, Mainly.

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Image of terrier by kteri3565 from Pixabay
Image of cat by Lenka Novotná from Pixabay
Image of James Michener by Robert Wilson, public domain, from Wikipedia
Image of critics examining ratty drafts by me

WW II: PAYING TRIBUTE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 NEVER FORGET

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.

ww 2 75 anniversary GB

The United States gave up 418,500+ lives. Of these, 2,000 were civilians. The rest died in uniform. ww 2 75 anniversary U S

France – Despite their initial collapse and surrender to Hitler, both in their home nation and Indochina, gave 567,600 souls to the war.WW 2 75 anniversary Fr

 

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.

ww 2 75 anniversary ger

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

ww2 75th anniversary russia

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.WW 2 75 anniversary Italy

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.

Francine Paino

True Crime Podcasts Worthy of Binge-Listening

by V.P. Chandler

VP Chandler

 

 

 

 

Several years ago AMW member Laura Oles suggested that I might like listening to true crime podcasts. She kept talking about one titled, Serial.

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t really do the podcast thing.”

Then our family was scheduled to take a trip to West Texas. It’s not exactly a short drive to get there, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to try it out. I downloaded the whole first season onto my iPad and we were off. And ever since then, I’ve been hooked.

Serial’s description of season 1 (2014) from their website,

“A high-school senior named Hae Min Lee disappeared one day after school in 1999, in Baltimore County, Maryland. A month later, her body was found in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.”

And let me tell you, Serial has won many awards and they are well-deserved.

As we left the rolling hills for flat roads flanked by mesas, we were pulled into the story. After each episode, we’d dissect the new evidence and theories. We felt like detectives. Are the witnesses telling the truth? Who is lying and why? Is there other evidence? Why would they make such bad decisions? Hearing the voices of the real people involved made it even more real. Sometimes we’d be certain that someone was going to lie, but after their interview, we were sure that they were telling the truth. *conundrum* It’s not easy being a detective.

And while we were caught up in the drama and intrigue, there were also somber reminders that these were real people who have been caught up in horror and heartache. When you hear how much they hurt, that they just want answers, it pulls at you. How can detectives and reports handle talking to them? I don’t think that just anyone could put together one of these investigative reports. It takes months and even years to follow leads. And it also takes a special talent to walk that thin line of pushing to get answers, and yet remaining sensitive to the feelings of friends and family. The reporters often say to the listeners that they purposefully hold back in order not to re-traumatize people. I think that’s extremely important to mention. And all of the podcasts that I mention follow that rule of conduct. I’m constantly amazed at the editing skills of these shows. Their sense of story is strong. They know how to piece it together while still uncovering new evidence.

Here are other podcasts that I’ve enjoyed. They are fascinating.

 

S-Town

“John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”

It doesn’t go like you think it will. But it’s a peek into a fascinating man’s life and the people that know him.

Missing and Murdered

 

 

 

 

I thought that this show was called “Finding Cleo” and I was confused that the first season was about a woman named Alberta Williams. So don’t let that confuse you.

Season 1  “Sparked by a chilling tip, Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? is an eight-part podcast investigation that unearths new information and potential suspects in the cold case of a young Indigenous woman murdered in British Columbia in 1989.”

The second season is about finding out what happened to a girl named, Cleo. “Like many Indigenous children, Cleo’s brothers and sisters were taken from their community, displayed in advertisements, and sent to live with white adoptive families across North America, through a controversial program called “Adopt Indian and Metis.” They’ve reconnected as adults and are determined to find their missing sister and penetrate the secrets shrouding the truth about Cleo. CBC’s Connie Walker joins in their search, uncovering disturbing new details about how and why Cleo was taken, where she wound up, and how she died.”

Both of these stories are about indigenous families in Canada and the suffering that that communities still experience. I knew that there is an epidemic of women being killed and their plight is just now getting media attention. But I hadn’t known about the Highway of Tears. It’s a highway in British Columbia where many indigenous women have either been killed or dumped. The reporter, Connie Walker, is Cree, so she brings an extra knowledge and sensitivity to her work.

Your Own Backyard

“A documentary podcast series investigating the 1996 disappearance of Cal Poly student, Kristin Smart.” It’s Only 7 episodes long, so it goes fast. Trust me, you’ll end up binge-listening to it.

 

Someone Knows Something

This series has 5 seasons. I’ve listened to the first two seasons.

Season 1
“In 1972, five-year-old Adrien McNaughton vanished while on a family fishing trip in Eastern Ontario. Despite an intensive search and investigation, no sign of Adrien was found, no clue as to where he might be. The case has hung over the area like a dark mass ever since, especially in the small town of Arnprior, where the McNaughton family lived.”

It was sad and fascinating. I learned a lot about cadaver dogs. (It’s not as gruesome as it sounds.)

Season 2

“On December 31, 1997, at a New Year’s Eve party broadcast on live TV, Sheryl Sheppard accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, Michael Lavoie. Two days later, she disappeared. In Season 2 of SKS, David Ridgen joins Sheppard’s mother Odette on her search for answers.”

I’m very impressed with his laidback technique for speaking with people. He’s a good reporter.

The next one I’ll be listening to is

Uncover

(I’m interested in season 6, Satanic Panic, but I’m sure I’ll start with season 1. I always have to start with the first one.)

So there you have a list of very good true crime podcasts that will keep you busy. I’ve found that they make a long drive or doing housework more enjoyable. *Forewarning, not all mysteries are solvable. Unlike fiction, they can’t be solved and wrapped up in a bow. I think that adds to the tension and desire for a conclusion. But it also gives the listener a sense of what families and police face in trying to find the truth.

Do you have a favorite? Please, let me know. I’d like to add it to my library.