Mardi Gras! The wild celebrations and not-so-good behaviors that have come to be associated with Fat Tuesday take place on the last day before the solemn period of Lent begins for Christians around the world.
In the fourth century, when Christianity became recognized in Rome, church leaders incorporated the ingrained pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia, an ancient festival held every year on February 15 to purify the city, promoting health and fertility. The church fathers thought it an easier task to incorporate it into the new faith –than to abolish it – giving rise to excess debauchery that remains a common prelude to Lent even today.
In medieval Europe, the traditions of Mardi Gras changed and spread worldwide over the centuries, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries in the House of the Bourbons. And it came to North America from France in 1699, landing either in New Orleans or, some say, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1703. But the rapid spread of the eat, drink, and be merry tradition had a practical side too.
Lenten restrictions were stringent, and Christians were required to abstain from all meats and other foods that came from animals, such as butter, cheese, eggs, and milk, but there was no way to keep such foods from spoiling; thus everything in the larder had to be eaten, or it would rot and be thrown away. Hence a final feast-like meal the night before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the forty days of fasting and penance until Easter Sunday, became ritualized, but the good intentions of Mardi Gras the tradition also had and still has, a dark side.
As Lenten restrictions loosened, the seedier side of the festivities became more popular and disorderly. Unfortunately, the more solemn and spiritual reasons associated with this day have been pushed into the background, despite the ashes distributed on Ash Wednesday in churches worldwide. Crosses of ash are traced on foreheads as the priest or minister intones the warning, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
French customs that traveled to the States were eating pancakes, waffles, beignets, and crepes, and throwing beads and flowers from parade floats to people in the streets, but over time, the parades and floats in New Orleans took on another life. Sumptuous and sexy costumes became the rule, with characters on the floats shouting to women in the street “show me what you’ve got,” encouraging girls to bare their breasts to get cheap, plastic beads.
The Mardi Gras tradition in Italy is called Carnevale (from the Latin, Carne–meat; vale-goodbye), harkens back to their original intent. In Venice, there are genuine Renaissance costumes worn by city workers who must remain silent and stay in character when circulating among the revelers. Food, family entertainment, face painting, games, and the famed Venetian masks are everywhere.
Never meant to be a celebration for its own purpose, Mardi Gras also projects an atmosphere of secrecy. People can hide behind their masks, be who they want and do things they usually wouldn’t consider. It is a fertile setting for destructive behaviors and crime and the backdrop for the first book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series.
Traveling from Venice, Italy, to Austin, Texas, where the Mardi Gras celebrations are more along the lines of the original intent of stuffing oneself with food and drink, it is the underlying sense of something evil lurking that opens the story on Fat Tuesday in I’m Going to Kill that Cat. The following morning, Ash Wednesday, before ashes can be distributed in the church, abody is found in the alley next to the rectory. And now, on the first day of Lent, Father Melvyn and Mrs. B. are pulled into a murder investigation, forcing them to confront shocking old scandals and vengeance.
This week out here on the creek I was iced in, with no power.
I was sitting by the fireplace wrapped in a blanket, when I came upon an unfamiliar word: HYPNOGAGIA. “Hypnagogia is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. During this state, it’s common to experience visual, audio, or other types of hallucinations. It’s also common to experience muscle jerks and sleep paralysis.” https://bit.ly/3YhrbZ6
Some people purposefully try to induce to hypnagogia to stimulate creativity. Id. According to Allison Eck, Harvard Gazette (Autumn 2022), hypnagogia is “widely thought of as a sweet spot for creativity.” https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/sleep/behind-veil-hypnagogic-sleep. Eck describes the experience of scientist August Kekulé in the mid 1800’s during his search for the structure of the compound benzene, as he dozed before his fireplace in Ghent. “[A]s he dozed, images hinting at its structure appeared in his mind’s eye. He later wrote that he saw dancing atoms beaded together along an invisible string, ‘twisting in snake-like motion.’ The atoms morphed into an ouroboros” (another new word for me: a snake eating its own tail). Kekulé realized benzene’s structure was a ring of carbon atoms, each attached to a hydrogen atom.
Scientists and innovators like Einstein and Edison, and writers like Vladimir Nabokov, “have transited this cerebral pathway in search of solutions to problems.” Id.
On each occasion I’ve gone to bed with my mind on a plot problem, or a scene that needs to take shape. Preliminary requirements appear to include being ensconced under the covers, on my left side, envisioning a possible scene as I slide into sleep—then watching the scene begin to unfold. I try to remind my brain to remember this solution. While most dreams fly away with sunrise, these solutions have come back in the morning. If I could make this happen whenever I want (so far, no dice), a book would get finished so much faster!
This occasional experience may be “lucid dreaming,” the state of being aware that you’re dreaming. “When you wake up from a lucid dream, you actually have a more positive mood in the morning,” writes researcher Michelle Carr, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester, in Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/in-sleep-the-body-is-a-channel-to-communicate-with-the-dreaming-mind. Carr describes herself as a dream scientist: “I want to uncover ways to repair nightmares and, in their place, engineer dreams for healing.”
Hypnogagia is a big topic these days. A team of engineers and scientists at the MIT Media Lab developed a glove-like tool to help decipher dreams. Researchers are testing whether the glove may allow people to manipulate their hypnagogic experiences, which could help sufferers from PTSD and nightmare disorders feel a stronger sense of control. Again, as Eck puts it, “…[A]t the very least, drawing attention to our hypnagogic personas may bring us newfound ideas that we can act on when we wake.” Id.
Could we term it “lucid dreaming” when Scrooge is shown visions—then decides to change the dreadful outcomes by his future actions? He begs the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life?” He promises, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future…” Then Scrooge sees the phantom’s hood and dress collapse into his bedpost, scrambles out of bed, repeating that last sentence––and heads out to buy the prize Christmas turkey for the Cratchits.
Vladimir Nabokov kept a dream diary, and in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, wrote about the procession of what he called “hypnagogic mirages,” images he would see ‘just before falling asleep,” often accompanied by “a neutral, detached, anonymous voice which I catch…”
We mystery writers can mine hypnagogic moments for ideas on character and scenes––but the genre suggests a limit.
A good mystery offers the reader the chance to solve a puzzle. As set forth in the original rules of London’s Detection Club, “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.” Nor can the detective solve by “an unaccountable intuition.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules
Meeting of the Detection Club in 1936.
Indeed, is there anything more irritating to a mystery reader than the tardy mention of a clue? No! Mystery readers are entitled to all clues, as soon as that clue is found, and clues are facts. The mystery writer offers a collaboration to the reader, in which the detective and reader are on the same page—fact-wise. We readers want evidence. A character’s dreams may offer insight into a character—but not evidence.
Besides—while most of us are at least mildly interested in our own dreams, unless we’re also therapists we’re not usually too interested in the dreams of others. Do you remember your interest level the last time someone began describing a dream to you? I confess my eyes can begin to glaze. Of course it’s hard to convey dreams with the color and speed and power the dreamer experienced. But in the world of mysteries, we are greedy for facts. In Martin Walker’s “Bruno, Chief of Police” series, set in a small town in the French Dordogne, Bruno’s activities are fascinating––his cooking, his love life, his detection––and while we know he had a difficult military service in Bosnia, the author doesn’t dwell on Bruno’s dreams about those days. Instead he provides us with what we want: Bruno’s memories. Those contain facts, at least Bruno’s versions of facts, for which the reader is grateful. http://www.brunochiefofpolice.com/
So I’m cautious. In my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, at least so far, Alice doesn’t share her dreams. For one thing, as observed in the New Yorker, “As for writing about them, even Henry James, who’s seldom accused of playing to the cheap seats, had a rule: ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader.’” Dan Piepenbring, “The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams” (February 8, 2018). https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-vladimir-nabokov-saw-in-his-dreams
The ice has melted! And Ghosted is out! Book 8 in the series is available now in paperback and also on Kindle via pre-order delivery on February 10, on Amazon. Also coming soon to Austin’s BookPeople!
I live north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. I’m deeply curious, more every day, about human history and prehistory and how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. I’ve loved the Texas Hill Country since my first sight of it as a teenager. Artesian springs, Cretaceous fossils, rocky landscapes hiding bluegreen water in the valleys. After law school (where I grew fascinated with water and dirt) I practiced environmental law and regulatory litigation for thirty years––then the character Alice suddenly appeared in my life. I’m active with Austin Shakespeare and Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. And I’m grateful to the readers who enjoy the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series!
[The blogger having been rendered incapable of typing with more than five fingers, she repeats a post that appeared on Austin Mystery Writers in 2015.]
. . . it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters . . . ~ Tracy Chevalier
When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.
I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.
But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”—was listening to students who believed their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.”
Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.
“Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that No, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing involves more than time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter.
Now, to my dismay, I often find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or a beta reader, or even a family member, and they find fault, or don’t even mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…
Each time it happens, I repeat to myself the old lecture about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.
And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.
Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The completed manuscript disappointed her.
When I reread the first draft, she says,I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.
She found the solution in another contemporary novel:
I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.
The revision was published as Falling Angels, an exquisite novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices.
I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and had become obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that.
Later, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:
I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.
That passage doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.
I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. But, on a more personal level, I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print—for reminding me that hard work isn’t synonymous with drudgery, for implying that it’s okay to cry over a bad draft and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing itself affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.
And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.
It’s the words on the page that matter.
Note: I really do love Chevalier’s novels. In fact, I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—just racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading, and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did. It was unprofessional. But patrons were understanding. And I finished the book.
This was an odd morning. I got up, as usual at 4 a.m. (no kudos here – just my body clock), prepared to sit at the computer and work on my story. I walked into the kitchen. There, perched on the corner of the table, with her cafe e latte in one hand, and waving a recipe for a Sicilian cake I’d printed out before Christmas in the other hand, was the muse. I took the paper and looked at the recipe again, captured by the bold, black font and pretty picture.
So, she commanded. Instead of worrying about plots, profiles, commas, apostrophes, nouns, and verbs,bake the cake.
Immediately – after my first cup of coffee, I assembled the ingredients, including lemons, and squeezed out fresh juice, then shaved off the zest, as instructed. This particular recipe depends heavily on the bright yellow fruit, sometimes sweet, sometimes not, that often decorates my martini glass. Today, it would flavor and brighten the cake. The entire process of creating the batter was not difficult, and soon the cake was in the oven. But my muse was not content.
Let’s talk about lemons, said she, a very Italian muse because we Italians, both human and spirit, do love our lemons, and off I went on a learning mission with the burning question at four a.m. Where in the world are the best lemons grown?
The answer varies depending on the website, but some of the best lemons are grown in Italy, on the Amalfi coast, just south of Naples. Beautiful varieties of lemons are also cultivated on the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily.
Its Ionian coast was traversed by Odysseus on his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan War. Here he found his way to Aeolus, the god of winds who lived in a castle protected by a solid bronze wall on the island of Lipari – where my husband’s ancestors lived – but I digress. Back to the worthy subject of lemons.
Italian lemons are not to be confused with the expensive, succulent Meyer Lemons. That hybrid citrus originated in China and is a cross between “citron and mandarin/pomelo hybrid.”
On the other hand, Italian lemons are as distinct as the areas where they grow. There are two types of Amalfi lemons grown on the Sorrento Peninsula — “the SfusatoAmalfitano and the Limone di Sorrento. Found in different parts of the coast, these are among the most highly prized lemons in the world. They are PGI-protected by the EU, which ensures they are produced only on the Amalfi Coast,” preventing substitutes or imitations. The Amalfi coast provides fresh breezes off the ocean, which are trapped in the mountain valleys, creating the perfect ecosystem for the lemons to grow. They are protected from the northern winds to bask and mature in the coastal sunshine. Incidentally, the same is true for the oranges of this region. So special and fragrant are these fruits that Italians even reference their perfume in song.
Traveling south to the island of Sicily, the Interdonato cultivar is a natural hybrid between lemon and citron grown along the Ionian Sea coast in Messina. Then there are the lemons grown along the volcanic coastal strip of Etna, in parts of Catania, differing in size, shape, and color. These are rich in essential oils and of high aromatic quality, which can be attributed to the fact that they are grown in an environment with specific volcanic soil and climate.
Last but not least are the lemons from Siracusa (Syracuse), characterized by an intense fragrance and juiciness, which makes them particularly suitable for creating liqueurs, desserts, sorbets, and ice cream
Which of these varieties did I use? Well, the only lemons available to me, and in my fridge, were from the good old U.S.A., most likely grown in Arizona or California, where 95% of our lemons come from. The other 5% are grown in Texas and Florida.
I’ve told you more than you ever wanted to know about lemons, while my cake cooled. One bite convinced me that it was well worth the detour inspired by my muse. So, when life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade or bake a Sicilian Olive Oil and Lemon cake. You’ll love it. I certainly do.
With my espresso, and a slice of the moist cake with its delicate lemony flavor, enhanced by the olive oil beside me, I return to my computer, content and ready to focus on writing, but remember, when the muse calls…pay attention.
Karen Heller’s article, “We’re drowning in old books. But getting rid of them is heartbreaking.,” speaks to a key truth many book lovers face.
She went for it right in the article title.
Included in the piece are several quotes from Fran Lebowitz, the fabulous humorist and social critic who graced us with this gem early in the article. “Constitutionally, I am unable to throw a book away. To me, it’s like seeing a baby thrown in a trash can.” She continues, “I am a glutton for print. I love books in every way. I love them more than most human beings.” Lebowitz then explains how important her 12,000-book collection is to her and the hurdles she must clear to make sure her books are properly displayed each time she moves into a new apartment.
I love you, Fran.
Great books can bring comfort, entertainment, education, and joy. They are more than simply stories and greater than the sum of their pages, their worth far exceeding the price spent. For many, they are touchstones that represent key moments in time, relationships, experiences, and fond memories.
They also, in physical form, take up a lot of space.
Marie Kondo of KonMari organizing fame, swept through our lives with her passionate clutter busting method, and I was with her right until she addressed the clutter of books. Books as clutter? Those are fighting words. When Kondo advised that we should own around 30 books, I realized it was at this point we would part ways. My wish list is larger than that.
Currently, my office bookshelves are filled, and it takes a great deal of discipline to not add more to the stacks (I cheat by stacking them in a separate pile on the counter). When I travel, I have both a print book and my iPad in my bag. I feel exposed, somehow, without a book in tow.
While my collection of books is nowhere near the five-digit range, it’s enough that I try regularly to find homes for those I have read and think others will enjoy. Still, it’s a struggle to explain why I brought home four more books when my TBR is taller than I am. Is this a problem?
For those who are seeking homes for collections that have outgrown the space their owners have, there are several ways to get the right books to the right people. Here are a few ideas:
Local Library Book Sales: Many libraries have sales one or more times per year as a fundraising effort. I have worked several of these events in my hometown (and must promise myself not to take books home), and they are a wonderful way to support a local institution while also getting loved books into new hands. The books should be in good, readable shape, though. Water damage and other injuries mean the book doesn’t meet the criteria.
Free Little Library: This is one of my favorite ways to donate books, and with a little searching, it’s easy to locate one or more in your area. I enjoyed setting up a free little library at my local gym and love watching other members drop off a book or take one home. According to the Free Little Library website, there are currently over 150,000 libraries in over 110 countries (and the number is likely higher due to how many aren’t formally registered online). So, consider loading a box of books in your car and taking a quick tour of your city to find a FLL that would benefit from your contribution.
Books for Development “addresses the book famine that prevents children and adults in many developing countries from learning to read. We do this by building library collections since we believe that the best contribution you can make to people’s development is to promote their literacy. As a non-profit, we take donated books, use volunteers to sort them and then ship them to poor countries to create libraries. We leverage our efforts–using free labor and donated books that might otherwise be dumped in a land fill.”https://www.booksfordevelopment.com
Better World Books: “Better World Books is a for-profit, socially conscious business and a global online bookseller that collects and sells new and used books online, matching each purchase with a book donation. Each sale generates funds for literacy and education initiatives in the U.S., the UK and around the world. Since its launch in 2003, Better World Books has raised $33 million for libraries and literacy, donated over 32 million books and reused or recycled more than 397 million books.” You can donate by checking their website to locate the nearest BWB drop box. https://www.betterworldbooks.com
Donation Town: Donation Town is an “online directory of charities that offers donation pickup services. You can search the website for charities in your area that can pick up or accept your book donations. http://donationtown.org
Goodwill: Some Goodwill locations across the country have proven to have robust mini bookstores, and the company donates proceeds from sales to community outreach programs. You can find a drop-off location here: https://www.amazinggoodwill.com/stores
Half Price Books: You can sell your books to HPB but don’t expect to get much for them (we know the value of the book can’t be measured by price anyway). In some cases, it may be best to simply donate them. HBP will take those donations and then pay it forward to other community organizations. https://www.hpb.com/home?&size=25&#product-panel-home
Why do we mystery readers read the next line? Turn to the next page?
Some writers have the knack of persuading us–for example, Tony Hillerman. His mysteries feature Navajo police Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. Never forget that Hillerman was a journalist before he wrote mysteries. I’m betting he excelled at attention-catching ledes that made you read his news articles. An early example of his getting us to turn to the next page occurs in The Dark Wind (1982), page 1:
“The Flute Clan boy was the first to see it. He stopped and stared. ‘Someone lost a boot,’ he said. Even from where he stood, at least fifteen yards farther down the trail, Albert Lomatewa could see that nobody had lost the boot. The boot had been placed, not dropped. It rested upright, squarely in the middle of the path, its pointed toe aimed toward them…”
Come on, you’ll turn the page, right?
For me, the same holds true for poetry. Untangling a new poem demands commitment. I confess the combination of the title and first lines can draw me right in. Masters of such trickery include Robert Frost and Billy Collins. Take for instance Frost’s “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston (1914): “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Well, I want to know what. Or “After Apple Picking”: “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree/ Toward heaven still…” I won’t leave that ladder quite yet.
Billy Collins simply uses a one-two punch: first his title, then the first lines, and you’re hooked. From Aimless Love (2013), titled “Hell”: “I have a feeling that it is much worse/ Than shopping for a mattress at a mall…”
When that combination–title plus opening lines–arouses my curiosity, it’s because I feel I’m experiencing along with the poet. Where’s the poet going? I’ll follow to find out (and Collins’s self-deprecating humor keeps me reading).
Okay, we’re curious animals. We’ve been asking “WHY?” at least since we were two. Theories abound. Is it because we’re responding to our outside world? Or is it innate–instinctual? Genetic? Do we get a dopamine rush from capturing new information? “Drive theory” calls curiosity a naturally-occurring urge we have to satisfy–a reason we read mysteries and work crossword puzzles. Alternatively, “incongruity theory” suggests we tend to see the world as orderly and predictable, but we become curious when an external event doesn’t fit our perceived order. Do mystery readers experience curiosity falling within each category? We want to find missing information (Clues!)–drive theory. And maybe we want a satisfying conclusion (justice served, the murderer punished, motives revealed) –incongruity theory.
I suspect readers are like Leonardo da Vinci. Mario Livio asks, in Why: What Makes Us Curious (2017), what distinguished Leonardo from his predecessor anatomists, hydraulicists, botanists? “Leonardo had an unquenchable curiosity which he attempted to satisfy directly through his own observations rather than by relying on statements by figures of authority.”
Just like mystery readers. We insist on discovering each clue for ourselves. Woe betide the writer who cheats us–hides a clue, or packs the last chapter with explanations we had no chance to discover directly through our own observations. Not only cheatsy, but contrary to a key provision in the original Detection Club rules. https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules. A violation of our beloved genre!
We need for the sleuth to ask the right questions. An Austin detective recently gave an absolutely riveting presentation to our Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime chapter, describing how to conduct an interview of a potential suspect (not under arrest) who’s been asked to talk to the police. He said the interviewer needs to be likable–should give the suspect no reason to dislike him. The initial greeting should create a sense of reciprocity but also mention the sleuth’s authority. The detective begins the interview in a calm, low voice, giving the suspect autonomy and building rapport: “Is it okay if I call you Alec?” “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” He elicits the suspect’s story, then goes over it, watching for nonverbal indications of uncomfortable areas (the suspect changes posture, etc.). He watches for signs of deception–easy to detect if the suspect lies, harder to detect if the suspect fails to answer the question completely or directly, or restates the question to avoid having to answer the actual query, During the interview, the sleuth must keep a neutral face even if the suspect confesses something disgusting or shocking: “The second the suspect senses judgment on your part, they won’t talk to you.”
The mystery sleuth–professional or amateur–must recognize key questions. Take Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders–a follow-on to his Magpie Murders, featuring a contemporary murder mystery again wrapped around an earlier mystery involving the fictional detective Atticus Pund. Protagonist Susan Ryeland asks: why did the waiter at the posh club drop the plates? And why did her boss’s assistant quit her job at the publishing company? I’ll leave you to find out. Ryeland’s dogged pursuit of the answers to these key questions nearly gets her killed. But she solves the murder.
For an entirely different creative use of the question mark, with a twist: study (or just enjoy) Richard Osman. His often comic Thursday Murder Club mysteries revolve around a group of retirees in a comfortable retirement village. The club’s purpose? Solving cold cases. The disparate characters contribute varied personalities and talents–a Zen-focused psychiatrist (Ibrahim), a vivacious widowed nurse (Joyce), a burly ex-union organizer (Ron), and the mysterious former spy (Elizabeth.
Osman brings these characters to life not by a predictable prosy description, but by the questions they ask and answer. In the club meeting on page 1 of The Man Who Died Twice, Joyce asks, “Do you think a dog might be good company?…I thought I might either get a dog or join Instagram.” Ibrahim: “I would advise against it.” The day’s topic is murder; but with such a Q and A, we begin to grasp the nature of this somewhat wacky group. We’re allowed to read Joyce’s diary, in which she comes across as convivial, a bit ditsy, and quite shrewd.
Osman extends this technique to other characters. When drug dealer Connie introduces herself to Chris and Donna, police officers who hope to engage in a sting and arrest her, we get this:
“What’s your eye shadow?” Connie asks Donna.
“Pat McGrath, Gold Standard,” says Donna.
“It’s lush,” says Connie.
Connie’s a murderous drug dealer. But hey! She’s also into fashion. And Donna? Same.
Osman also uses those hanging questions as hooks. At the end of chapter 17, we’re eavesdropping on Joyce’s diary. The daily entry ends, “I wonder if anyone else is awake?” Now turn the page to chapter 18: “Ryan Baird is awake. He is currently playing Call of Duty online. He is spraying machine gun fire at full volume while his neighbors bang on the walls.”
You’ll be glad to know Ryan will get his, but the clever Q and A hooks us into the next chapter and expands Ryan’s character.
Osman’s Q and A also deepens the relationship between two unlikely friends, Joyce and Elizabeth:
“What do you and I talk about, Joyce?” asks Elizabeth.
Joyce thinks. “It’s been mainly murder, hasn’t it? Since we met?”
Thank you, Richard Osman. This is fun.
Just in case you’re wondering whether you (or your friends and relatives) ask enough questions, or ask the right or wrong questions, or have no clue how to keep a conversation going, or (heaven help us) don’t know how to ask questions of a group, here are 450 suggestions. Unfortunately, this collection didn’t include a list of “ideal questions for solving a murder.” https://www.scienceofpeople.com/questionos-to-ask-people
But, like Leonardo, we readers will discover those questions “directly through [our] own observations.”
My next book in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted, will be out soon. Toward the end the protagonist, Alice, asks a key question. Watch for it! Happy Holidays!
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the Texas Hill Country. She lives north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, and the Hays County Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her most recent book, Ghost Daughter, was named Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List Finalist, as well as Finalist in the 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and Finalist in the 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.
Thanks to Hollywood and TV-land, most of us are tired of Christmas and we aren’t even in the official Advent season. The bombardment of mostly silly movies centered on Christmas themes that have little to do with this holy Christian holiday sucks the meaning out of Christmas and starts earlier every year.
Thus, it seems a good time to reprint Flights of Fancy and Imagination, reminding everyone that PBS television’s 2021 presentation of the musical production by Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written in 1816, is still available, and will be through December 13, 2024.
Mauceri conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Tony Award-winning Alan Cumming narrating this original tale in three parts..
The story, written by E.T.A. Hoffman, is about a young girl who saves a prince, contrary to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, where the prince rescues the girl. Perhaps Hoffman’s inspiration for this particular flight of fancy was the popularity of embellished nutcrackers, which appeared in Germany in the early 1800s.
The Nutcracker’s story begins with a young boy who stays home alone daily while his parents go to work. The little boy was lonely and afraid, so his father carved a special toy, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier with big sharp teeth and fierce-looking eyes, and told him that this unique Nutcracker would protect him while his parents were gone. It did the trick. The boy loved and enjoyed that Nutcracker and felt secure by its presence, so his father continued to carve new ones for him. When the boy grew up, he married and had a son to whom he gave all the nutcrackers made by his father.
Over time in early 19th century Germany, the lure of decorative nutcrackers grew, and so did a legend. They came to represent power, strength, and the protection of families from danger and evil spirits. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and keepsakes to bring good luck.
E.T.A. Hoffman was a prolific writer of gothic tales, fantasy, and the supernatural – most of them dark, including segments of his Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Alexander Dumas, the 19th-century French author, translated Hoffman’s work in 1845, propelling it beyond the written word. Mauceri explains that Dumas, the grandson of the French aristocrat and African Haitian slave, was drawn to the story because Hoffman concluded the tale with the girl growing up to become the queen of a land of tolerance and imagination. It was the Dumas version that Peter Illich Tchaikovsky adopted in 1892 when he composed the score.
While this production does not target children, it is appropriate for those youngsters who can sit still for a narrative without pictures or characters to hold their interest. Cumming reads the narrative with emotion and even injects moments of humor without straying from the story.
The orchestra gives a stirring performance. Bold and rousing where appropriate, mysterious, sensual, and nerve-wracking also when appropriate. In addition to the lush Tchaikovsky score, compositions from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and orchestral suites, are included.
Mauceri’s reimagined Nutcracker and the Mouse King fill the mind’s eye with characters, places, and emotions generated by the performances of artists of the highest caliber. If you didn’t experience this fantastic flight of fancy and imagination last year, you might still enjoy it by accessing https://www.pbs.org/video/the-nutcracker-and-the-mouse-king-meabwt/.
Enjoy it for the first time, or once again, with friends, family, children, and grown-ups. And in the spirit of the upcoming season, I wish you all a truly thankful Thanksgiving, and in the true spirit of Christmas, I wish you all love, kindness, respect, and caring.
Writing communities are abuzz with NaNoWriMo preps, countdowns and first week updates. By my calculations, you should have 11.669 words down. How’s it going so far? Are you crushing your goals or is the weight of the word count catching up to you? Each year I struggle to decide if I’m going to try NaNoWriMo again for a new project. The organizer part of me wants to dive in with a plan, a schedule, and a competitive desire to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s a fun way to jump start a new project or to get into the habit of writing without worrying too much about arranging the right words in the right order, putting your inner editor on pause where she belongs.
It also doesn’t usually work for me. At least, not in the traditional structure.
In the past, I told myself that if I were more organized/committed/talented/all the things, I’d crush the 50k with extra words in my back pocket. Now at this stage in my writing career, I understand that not only is it okay for me not to put this kind of pressure on myself for a small block of time, it can actually backfire.
Also, Thanksgiving. Trying to stack an extra several hundred words daily to cover those days when I’m cooking and spending time with family just adds additional pressure during a time when 1) several things need to get done in addition to my current work and personal commitments and 2) I want to focus on the people around me and not the fact that I’m 432 words short for the day.
Don’t get me wrong. If this is your jam and you find that the traditional NaNo structure of 50k in 30 days is for you, by all means, set that keyboard ablaze with your fast fingers and quick fire ideas. I’m here rooting for you. But for those of us who’d like to enjoy some of the energy created by the challenge while being flexible with our own goals and daily lives, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that may work as alternative challenges.
A Page a Day: This is one of my favorite go-to strategies when my schedule has blown up shortly after getting out of bed. The best laid plans and all that. If I can just get one page a day down, it often leads to two, three or four pages. It’s usually the IDEA that I only need to write one page that helps push me out of that mental space of hitting a thousand or fifteen hundred words. Some days I write slowly and others I can hit two thousand. Some days I don’t write anything more than a grocery list. But, once I started shooting for a page a day, I find that I usually hit a higher count and I also write more consistently.
Get Up Early (or Stay Up a Little Later): I’m a morning person. I don’t mean that I jump out of bed with a smile on my face ready to take on the day. It’s more like I stumble out of bed and promise myself that a cup of coffee fixes all things (it fixes most things, right?). For those times when I have a deadline and a busy schedule, getting up early and going straight to my desk (yes to coffee but no to email and news) allows me to get a jump on the day and claim time before other responsibilities take over. A friend swears that after ten o’clock in the evening is the perfect time for her to write. She has always been a night owl and has structured her schedule to make this work for her. There is no right answer, only what works for you.
Outline or Brainstorm Ideas: “You don’t have writer’s block, you have preparation deficiency.” This quote from Adam Sternbergh rings true for me. If I’m struggling with a scene or a particular plot point, it’s often because I haven’t done the necessary work to get the words on the page. This is a signal to step back and ask deeper questions, to better understand what is unfolding in the story—and why. The words usually follow once I have the puzzle pieces in the right places.
Give It a Shot Anyway: One of the benefits of trying NaNoWriMo is that it often allows us to draft what the incredible Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” In Bird by Bird, she writes, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” I keep Bird by Bird on my desk because I need to be reminded that, with every book or short story I write, it’s okay to start with a messy draft. Just get the words down. They don’t have to be perfect. Most likely they won’t be. Mine rarely are. But there will be something to work with, a draft to edit and polish, and that’s a fantastic start. Words on the page. The number doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the words exist.
I also realize that our ability to tackle NaNoWriMo can change from year to year, depending on our circumstances, our commitments, our goals and countless other factors. Some years it feels like a great idea and other years I’d rather have a full day of dental work.
What about you? Do you participate in NaNoWriMo or use it to launch or expand a writing project? Why or why not?
In an online ad for her Master Class, writer Margaret Atwood (oh, what a magnificent face she has! Sardonic, wise, all-seeing…) declares this rule for fiction: “Hold my attention!”
Like Margaret Atwood, mystery lovers demand of mystery writers, “Hold my attention!”
I get tired of defending our genre. Mystery writers absolutely cater to their readers. They don’t publish exercises in personal navel-gazing–they know their readers could care less about the author’s navel. They know readers won’t give them the time of day–no! Won’t read more than a few pages!–unless all three components–interesting protagonist, vivid setting, challenging puzzle–are present.
Curious, I decided to revisit some of our first introductions to famous mystery protagonists. For example, in 1964 John D. MacDonald introduced Travis McGee–a character lucky enough to live on a Florida houseboat named the Busted Flush–in The Deep Blue Good-By (yes, that’s how the title reads on the cover). https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+deep+blue+good-by+by+john+d+macdonald&crid=3B3DO804231N&sprefix=The+deep+blue+good-by%2Caps%2C153&ref=nb_sb_ss_pltr-ranker-10hours_2_21 As a teenager I was enthralled. Could you live on a houseboat? It seemed an impossible dream. In Chapter Uno, McGee studies tide maps while dancer Chookie McCall, metronome clicking, choreographs strenuous dance step, before persuading McGee to talk to one of her dancers who has mislaid a bunch of money and needs help getting it back. McGee describes his occupation as finding lost loot and keeping half as his fee. An amazing life. AND–on a boat! Plus, adding to his appeal, McGee shares his prejudices with readers. He’s wary of many aspects of contemporary culture, including “Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants…” So liberating, his list. MacDonald has McGee describe himself for the reader as “that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, …that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast…” He calls himself a “knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society.” Looking in the rear-view mirror at 1964, McGee’s iconoclasm distances him somewhat…but not enough…from the decade’s sexist aspects (think of early James Bond).
Perhaps McGee’s wide-ranging rejection of staid norms presaged the “drop-out” scene just three years later in The Graduate (1967)–Dustin Hoffman driving away from “plastics” and other norms in his red 2600 Duetto Alfa Romeo. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061722/
Fast forward to 1970 when we meet Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way. In contrast to Travis McGee’s extensive self-introduction, we don’t really see Leaphorn in action until chapter 4. If you only read chapter 1 you might assume the protagonist is a depressed cultural anthropologist, Bergen McKee, who feels inadequate both as an academic and in his love life. McKee hopes Leaphorn can jump-start his academic career by introducing him to Navajos who still believe in Navajo witches. He joins Leaphorn’s search for Luis Horseman, Navajo suspect in a knifing, who has fled into the Lukachukai mountains. Horseman’s relatives quietly recount sightings of a Navajo wolf, a big man with a dog skin around his neck, the skull atop his head–a witch.
Leaphorn’s analytical solution to Horseman’s murder turns on the difference between Navajo and non-Navajo ways. We hear Hillerman’s Navajo characters softly sing their traditional morning song, or their chants against contamination by a dead body. Leaphorn feels there’s something “strangely un-Navajo” about Horseman’s death: “Navajos did not kill with cold-blooded premeditation. Nor did they kill for profit. To do so violated the scale of values of The People… Where, then, was the motive?” In this first mystery Hillerman gives us an unconventionally structured, but totally absorbing, introduction to the fascinating landscape and cultures of the Four Corners. I was, and remain, permanently hooked.
Donna Leon doesn’t let us meet Venetian police inspector Guido Brunetti until chapter 2 of Death at La Fenice (1992), Book 1 in her acclaimed series, when Brunetti leads a police team into the murder scene at the Venice opera house. We quickly find ourselves in Brunetti’s head: “It seemed, in this moment, that he had spent his entire life doing this to people, telling them that someone they loved was dead or, worse, had been killed.” And as he helps the victim’s wife away from the scene, “He was prepared for this, the sudden blow of reality that sets in after the first shock. It was this that knocked people down.” We learn Brunetti is humane, intelligent, and determined, from his scrupulous procedure, protection of clues, and humanity toward those bearing the sudden burden of a loved one’s murder. But he’s capable of wrath when death is not respected. When the bored ambulance attendants, overeager to move the body, cite union rules to Brunetti, he explodes: “You take him out of here before I tell you to, and you’ll be in jail the first time you spit on the sidewalk or swear in public…” In chapter 5 we meet his aristocratic bluestocking wife, Paola, in their fourth-floor Venetian apartment: “He opened the door, glad of the warmth and smell he associated with the apartment: lavender, wax, the scent of something cooking in the kitchen at the back…a mixture that represented…in a way he couldn’t explain, the existence of sanity in the daily madness that was his work.” Venice gives Leon a second weapon, a setting that–peopled by Brunetti and his family–is hard to resist. https://www.amazon.com/Death-Fenice-Commissario-Brunetti-Mystery/dp/006074068X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667252657&sr=8-1&asin=006074068X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
These days Ghosted, Book 8 in my Alice MacDonald Greer series set in little Coffee Creek, Texas, is nearing completion. As I finish each page I hear Margaret Atwood’s voice: “HOLD MY ATTENTION!”
Wait for it! Take that, Edmund Wilson!
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes in Texas Hill Country north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime. Her Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, was named 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize Short List, as well as Finalist, 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.
Since you can read award-winning author Bruce DeSilva’s excellent review here, I won’t try to duplicate. Except to point out that—
DeSilva calls the Samuel Craddock series “genre-bending,” because the “author’s folksy prose and Jarrett Creek’s small-town ways . . . give the novel the feel of a cozy,” and yet the problems facing the town and Police Chief Craddock “give the novel the feel of a modern police procedural.”
With the term “genre-bending,” DeSilva hits upon one reason—perhaps the reason—for the series’ success. Shames joins elements of two very different genres—cozy mysteries and police procedurals—with skill and grace, into a seamless whole. That ain’t hay either.
As a reader, I enjoy Shames’ novels, but as a writer, I seethe with envy. If only I could do what she does . . .
At the bookstore, I fell in love with the cover. On page one, I fell in love with the book. Soon thereafter, I fell in love with a sentence. Here it is, underlined, in the paragraph quoted below—the words of narrator Samuel Craddock:
I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There’s not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.
That’s what author Ernest Hemingway would callone true sentence. Cows are curious. They’re nosy. They like to observe. I’ve seen cows hover. That’s exactly the kind of thing my father might have said about his damn cows.
Shames gets it right. Every word in that sentence, and throughout the book, is pitch-perfect.
The night I read about the hovering cows, I wrote Shames a fan email telling her I loved the sentence.
But when I completed the novel and tried to write a review for my personal blog, I got tangled up in words. It came out sounding like this:
I love this book. It’s just so…There’s this wonderful sentence on the second page about hovering cows…That’s exactly what cows do…I can just see those cows…The person who wrote that sentence knows cows…It’s just so…I just love it.
That’s what happens when a reviewer lacks detachment. Wordsworth said poetry begins with emotion “recollected in tranquility.”So do book reviews. There’s nothing tranquil about that tangle of words.
So, with no review, I compromised. I posted the paragraph containing the beloved sentence and added a picture of white-faced Herefords.
Not long after, Shames spoke at the Heart of Texas (Austin) chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I told her how much I admired her work. A year later, in 2014, I heard her read from her second novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin. And I’ve read all the books she’s published since.
From 2013 to 2022, that’s nine Samuel Craddock mysteries, each a great read, each just as good as—or better than—the one before.
But regarding Shames’ sentences—
It is a truth universally acknowledged that her hovering cows will always be Number One.
*Shames breaks the silly rule against “mixing” present and past tenses in narration. Samuel Craddock speaks the language spoken by men like him in real Jarrett Creeks all over Texas.
**The cow sentence isn’t really about cows. It’s about Samuel Craddock. But I am fond of white-faced Herefords, and the image Shames paints of them is so vivid that it obscures the man dragging himself toward his house. For me, at least.
***I took the photo of the cover of A Killing at Cotton Hill. The fur on the right side of the book doesn’t belong there, but it was easier to just take the picture than to move the cat.
Kathy Waller has published short crime fiction as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. For more info, and/or to read her posts on topics ranging from A to izzard, visit her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly (http://kathywaller1.com). She also cross-posts her Ink-Stained Wretches posts at Austin Mystery Writers.