The world has been a crazy place since the emergence of Covid-19. Although it’s still out there, I’ve begun to venture forth into the world and attend author events. It feels wonderful to get back into the world of books and speaking with other writers! I think the last event I went to was the Bullet Books event in February of 2020 at the Bosslight Bookstore in Nacogdoches. (Fellow AMW writers Kathy Waller, Helen Currie Foster, and Laura Oles are also Bullet Books authors.)
My first foray back into the public realm was a Noir At The Bar event in Dallas back in June. Of course, it was outside and still blazing hot even though it started at 7. But I had such a great time listening to the other authors that it was worth it! Not a dud in the bunch. We laughed at some stories and were creeped out by others. I read a short piece that I wrote a few years ago, Tutusuana. (“Tutusuana” is a Comanche word that’s explained in the story.) It was nice to see old friends and finally meet online friends in person. Loved the experience. I highly recommend The Wild Detectives bookstore/bar. This is a jewel in the Bishop Arts district in Dallas.
Now we travel to Book People. Yesterday, August 21, I went to my first Book People event since pre-Covid. Mark Pryor has a new book Die Around Sundown. This is the first book in a new series so of course I had to be there to cheer him on! I’m excited to read this book. It’s an historical mystery set in Nazi-occupied France. I enjoyed the book talk and, again, seeing friends in person that I haven’t seen in a while.
This Wednesday I plan to go to an author event at my local library. I haven’t met Michael Miller but since I live in a small town, I want to attend events and provide support. He’s a long-time university professor, presently at Texas State. And he is also a Presbyterian minister, serving La Iglesia Presbiteriana Mexicana for the last ten years in San Marcos. His book is The Two Deaths of Father Romero: A Novel of the Borderlands. Sounds interesting!
Then the next day I’ll be back at Book People, if the roads aren’t flooded. (We’ve been in a severe drought this summer, as much of the world has been too. I’m looking forward to the rain, but I hope it’s a slow, soaking rain and not a deluge.)
Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.
Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.
Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:
“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”
What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”
So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.
Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.
Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all.
Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.
My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns?
Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.
Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.”
Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”
Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”
Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too.
Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.
“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”
Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”
But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://bit.ly/3JFFobV
Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.
But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://amzn.to/3PahvKz
Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.
Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.
Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://amzn.to/3ppQsAJ
The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”
Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!”
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…
This week I’ve been in the Land of Stuck. Walking in circles around the kitchen island struggling to come up with the missing scene. My next mystery’s nearly done, but… I’m stuck. Ever been there?
The poetry shelf offers a momentary escape. Billy Collins can always pull me into a poem. Often he’s going for a walk and I can’t help but feel invited. His “Aimless Love” begins:
He’s got me.
Or “The Trouble with Poetry,” which begins,
“This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.”
Well, of course there he’s got me. Then again:
“The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night––
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky––”
I feel that same cold Florida sand under my right arch, despite the Texas heat outside.
Another walking poet: Mary Oliver. In Blue Iris, She begins “White Pine” this way:
“The sun rises late in this southern county. And, since the first thing I do when I wake up is go out into the world, I walk here along a dark road.”
Huh. Walking as discipline? Every morning?
Walking’s not just for poets. St. Augustine is often credited with the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando––“it is solved by walking” (which may have originally been a response to the 5th C. B.C. philosopher Zeno’s concept that we can never actually arrive at a destination).
“Solvitur ambulando” was the official motto of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, formed in 1946 to help those in former occupied countries during WWII who risked their lives to help RAF crew members escape. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvitur ambulando (check out the terrific solvitur ambulando quotes in this article, from Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Sayers and others). I can’t imagine how high the blood pressure of those resistance heroes climbed during such episodes. Mine skyrocketed just reading A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell’s description of the amazing work of America’s Virginia Hall in France during the resistance. Talk about tense moments. So, did the RAF Escaping Society adopt this motto because of the therapeutic value of walking, or because walking can trigger ideas, or solutions? Or both?
Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines, 1986) claimed he learned the phrase from Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor himself was quite a walker. He set out, in 1933, at age 18, to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul and Greece. He tells the tale in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986.
I loved this book and Fermor is fascinating (check out his WWII heroics on Crete, including engineering and carrying out the kidnap of the Nazi commander).
The English provide walkers with such wonderful public walking paths. My husband and I recently walked the Thames Footpath for several miles along the Thames, over to Bray––yes! Home of the Vicar of Bray! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vicar_of_Bray
In this charming village you can taste amazing smoked salmon at The Hinds Head (where you can read how many times the Vicar changed his denomination to keep his job, back in the religious flip-flops of England’s sixteenth century) and also at The Crown, a pluperfect pub. The Thames Footpath takes you through leafy woods, with views of the rivers, the fields, and occasional historic and mysterious signs (“Battlemead”). It provides boats to watch, ranging from kayaks and paddleboards to elegant near-yachts, festooned with banners for Jubilee, and one incredible ancient polished Chris Craft, casually docked by the restaurant at the Boathouse at Boulter’s Lock by two grizzled old salts. We tried but failed to overhear their intense lunch conversation. Just trying to eavesdrop was imagination-stirring. Where did they come from? Where were they going?
The footpath also led us to the village of Cookham, home of another surprise: the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Spencer, a WWI veteran and Slade School graduate, produced remarkable paintings, sometimes mixing nominally biblical subjects with contemporary life—for example, a resurrection study of Cookham housewives in aprons, climbing out of their graves with surprised faces. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sir-stanley-spencer-1977.
I thought I remembered Spencer’s name from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and looked it up when we got home. She wrote on May 22, 1934, about Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell (Clive’s wife), Duncan Grant (Vanessa’s lover), and Quentin Bell (Vanessa’s son) “all talking at once about Spencer’s pictures.” In 1934 Spencer was showing six works in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition…about the time Patrick Leigh Fermor was off in the middle of his big walk.
Other poetic walkers? You’ve already thought of Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged…”) and Dante. Dante’s walks take the cake; I mean, the Inferno’s a hell of a walk.
So if walking calms the mind, allows creativity, reveals solutions, why am I revolving around the kitchen island?
Now that I think about it, some ideas have emerged. For instance, how much my extended family loves hiking in the Rockies, with (1) a destination; (2) a well-rounded lunch, including chocolate, in the pack; (3) plenty of water. How it feels to set off, hoping to see (1) moose, or (2) marmots, or (3) ptarmigan. How it feels to walk to the destination, grab a flat-topped boulder, warmed by sun, and have lunch, staring out at the view. Then to walk…downhill. No longer out of breath. Watching your fellow hikers dodging limbs, swinging around switchbacks. Triumphant walkers. And in the meantime, there have been discussions on the trail, conversations about this and that, switching from one companion to another. At the end of the trail, a sense of sleepy satisfaction.
So it’s time to get up early enough for a walk. Get up early enough to beat the Texas sun, and see if my neighbor’s front pasture includes a jackrabbit, or “jackbunny” as some call it. Cause a snort from the deer in the brush.
… Okay. Back from the walk. I think I’ve figured out that pesky bit about the last scene, except for a couple of details. So tomorrow, when the alarm rings—I’m going for a walk. Would you like to come too? I’d love it. We could talk.
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, closely supervised by three burros. She’s curious about human nature, human history and prehistory, and why the past keeps crashing the party. She’s currently finishing book 8 in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery novel series. Book 7, Ghost Daughter, was named Grand Prize Short List in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and Finalist for Mystery, 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. Her books are available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and at independent bookstores.She loves to talk with book groups.
On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!
We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”
Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.
For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.
Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…
At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.
We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!
The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, “Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent
Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”
Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.
Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)
Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.
Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.
Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M
The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.
Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016
You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.
So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.
Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.
I’ve been reading this summer and wanted to share some great books with you!
The Blessing Way is book #1 of the famous Leaphorn and Chee series by Tony Hillerman. This series has been in my TBR (To Be Read) pile for years and I’m happy to say that I finally got around to it! I knew that it would be good because everyone I’ve talked to has loved these books. Even knowing that, I was pleasantly surprised. Leaphorn is interesting and has an inherent understand about people and what makes them tick. His internal dialogue also teaches the reader about his heritage and culture. I honestly found that aspect of the story to be entertaining and enlightening. It was also full of suspenseful action. There’s a seen where a character is stalked by something or someone in the night. That scene was the best in the book! It was chilling and creepy. I loved it. *happy chills*
I’m currently reading book #2, Dance Hall of The Dead and it’s just as creepy and suspenseful.
Good Reads description of The Blessing Way: Homicide is always an abomination, but there is something exceptionally disturbing about the victim discovered in a high lonely place, a corpse with a mouth full of sand, abandoned at a crime scene seemingly devoid of tracks or useful clues. Though it goes against his better judgment, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn cannot help but suspect the hand of a supernatural killer. There is palpable evil in the air, and Leaphorn’s pursuit of a Wolf-Witch is leading him where even the bravest men fear, on a chilling trail that winds perilously between mysticism and murder.
The second book that I recommend is The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott. It’s also the first in a series, the Chris Cherry series. While it also has a landscape that’s remote, isolated, and vast, this book is quite different. The story is told in alternating chapters from different characters. It took me a bit to get the characters straight, but once I did that, it took off. Scott does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the west Texas landscape and its people, especially bullies in small towns. As most good books, there’s a showdown of sorts and my nerves were raw, waiting to see what happens. It’s not a small book but you’ll be turning pages.
Good Reads description: Seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross is adrift in the wake of the sudden disappearance of his mother more than a year ago, and is struggling to find his way out of the small Texas border town of Murfee. Chris Cherry is a newly minted sheriff’s deputy, a high school football hero who has reluctantly returned to his hometown. When skeletal remains are discovered in the surrounding badlands, the two are inexorably drawn together as their efforts to uncover Murfee’s darkest secrets lead them to the same terrifying suspect: Caleb’s father and Chris’s boss, the charismatic and feared Sheriff Standford “Judge” Ross. Dark, elegiac, and violent, The Far Empty is a modern Western, a story of loss and escape set along the sharp edge of the Texas border. Told by a longtime federal agent who knows the region, it’s a debut novel you won’t soon forget.
Recommendation #3 is South California Purples by Baron R. Birtcher. It’s set in 1973 and starts out with an easy feel of a typical traditional Western. Then rancher Ty Dawson gets conscripted into helping the county’s law enforcement, who seems to have no interest in dealing with the growing problem. When time after time Dawson doesn’t get help from the local cops, Dawson decides to handle matters as he sees fit. If you’re looking for a mix of hard-boiled with a Western, this book fits the bill. Biker gangs vs. cowboys. You know it’s full of action. *trigger warning- it does deal with rape*
From Good Reads: Cattle rancher Ty Dawson, a complex man tormented by elements of his own past, is involuntarily conscripted to assist local law enforcement when a herd of wild mustangs is rounded up and corralled in anticipation of a government auction, igniting the passions of political activist Teresa Pineu, who threatens to fan the flames of an uprising that grows rapidly out of control.
As the past collides with the present, and hostility escalates into brutality and bloodshed, Ty is drawn into a complex web of predatory alliances and corruption where he must choose to stand and fight, or watch as the last remnants of the American West are consumed in a lawless conflagration of avarice and cruelty.
I hope this helps you find some new books. And remember, whenever possible, please try to purchase your books from local, independent bookstores. Thank you!
Driving into New Mexico with my husband (favorite long-time travel companion) I peer anxiously out the car window––I won’t be happy until I spot the first antelope, tiny, almost invisible, bounding across vast pale green ranch pastures below a string of distant mesas. First I look for a white splotch (tell-tale antelope rump), then suddenly spot an entire flock, spread out in the grass. Then, where I-25 crosses the south-running Pecos River, we see the sinuous length of Rowe Mesa, all red rock and green conifers, running for miles to the west. At Ribera we exit south on State Road 3, then climb an impressively steep gravel road to the adobe house of my cherished college classmate friend and her husband. Their house sits in the lap of Rowe Mesa, looking across the broad Pecos valley at its companion, Bernal Mesa. The old house is formal, plastered white inside, with a beautiful ceiling of beams (vigas) supporting the roof. Sticks, or latillas, lie in a formal herringbone pattern between the vigas.
Walking across the property in the cool morning we spot chips from arrowhead manufacture. Our friends have found a spot far above on the edge of the mesa littered with many such chips, where centuries ago an expert sat under a piñon in the shade, “knapping” (flaking) stones to make arrowheads and points. We saunter along, picking up turquoise-colored pebbles from the played-out turquoise mine, reveling in the view across the valley. We hear nothing but the wind in the junipers and piñons and the occasional faraway buzz of a small plane.
My friend has taken us down along the Pecos to see the extensive adobe ruins of the Spanish customs office that once controlled the river crossing into Spanish New Mexico. Further down the river we see the irrigation ditches––acequias––feeding water into Pecos farm plots, before the Pecos narrows into a canyon.
We love this place. But Santa Fe is calling.
To celebrate the June 2021 publication of Ghost Daughter, we’re on Otero Street in Santa Fe, with beauty everywhere. Carved wooden beams over doorways. Intensely colored flower gardens in yards. Curved human-scale adobe houses. Blue sky above adobe walls.
Downtown, Santa Fe offers layers of history––Pueblo architecture, Territorial architecture. In 1920 City officials ordered that buildings in the city be built Pueblo-style. The warm tan of adobe and the cool greens and blue-greens of balconies and window-frames feel soothing, low-rise, solid. Art is in the air, in the gardens, in the architecture, in the shop windows. I double-dog-dare you not to take pictures. Plus there’s an appreciation of burros (which warms the hearts of my three burros).
Along Palace Avenue by the New Mexico Museum of Art, heavy bronze sidewalk plaques celebrate Santa Fe artists. Each plaque features a helmeted conquistador…which seems incongruous for celebrating, say, Georgia O’Keefe or my hero, Gustave Baumann, the German immigrant whose vivid woodcuts tantalize my protagonist Alice in Ghost Daughter. But maybe it’s not incongruous. Baumann says he was drawn by the powerful presence of intermixed layers of history when he jumped off the train in New Mexico in 1918. And the sheer beauty! Mountains and streams! Pueblos! Golden cottonwoods in fall! He left such contributions of art and joy to Santa Fe, with his spectacular prints and the beloved marionette shows in his living room. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i516sAlDgS0
In Ghost Daughter, Alice’s trips to Santa Fe were too fraught. Although she enjoyed El Rey Court, and a hurried lunch at Café Pasqual’s, she missed so much, including the room of Baumann prints in the Owings Gallery. So we go in her stead, riveted by Baumann’s precision and freedom, his intense colors so delicately layered. I want to see his old German printing press…but rats! It’s locked up and unavailable at the history museum.
After wallowing in the Baumanns, we console ourselves with ice cream, sitting in a shady corner by La Lecheria. It’s fun watching passersby. The solitary ones walking briskly by have unsmiling faces like eagles, alert eyes fixed straight ahead. What are they thinking about so intently? Where to lay the next brushstroke on a canvas? Memorizing lines for a play? Where are they going? Then the younger people swoop by with great style, dramatic clothes and makeup, hurrying to work. And of course tourists like us.
Santa Fe calls itself the “City Different.” I feel different here too. Somehow an invisible bubble over the city blocks my usual sharp-edged worries…children, work, the state of the world. At home, open-eyed at some awful hour, I sometimes find refuge in half-awake creativity, envisioning plot possibilities, imagining scenes, hearing characters say surprising things. I’m grateful for a midnight refuge which may (not infallibly, though) trigger ideas for the next day’s writing while distracting me from cares.
But in Santa Fe, if I wake, I listen to the quiet, peer out at the moon and…go back to sleep. After days in Santa Fe, a place weighty with history, so vividly creative, so confident in mixing the very old and very new, the traditional and startling, I feel emboldened.
A curse on this week’s post. I banged out nearly 2,000 words that should have been online yesterday, and the post just gets longer and longer, and there ain’t no way I’ll get it finished and revised and edited and polished today, or this week, or possibly by New Year’s Eve 2022. I know the problem. Too much thinking. But I can’t help that. So I’ve pulled up something I wrote for my personal blog in 2010. I’m reposting, with some changes. I’d like to say it’s outdated, but nothing much has changed. No matter what the last line says.
In one of my favorite scenes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, assistant TV news producer Mary Richards suggests that writing a news story isn’t all that difficult. News writer Murray Slaughter disagrees.
Then a wire comes in, something big. The story must be written and rushed to anchorman Ted Baxter, who is on the verge of uttering his sign-off: “Good night, and good news.”
Murray, smiling, bows to Mary.
Mary rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter. She types several words. Then she stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops . . . Everyone in the newsroom stands around her desk, watching . . . waiting . . .
Finally, at the last minute, Murray loads his typewriter and, fingers flying, writes the story, rips the paper from the machine, and hands it to producer Lou Grant, who runs for the anchor desk.
That’s why didn’t go in for journalism. I’m not Murray.
That, and because I knew that if I were a journalist, I would have to talk to people: call them on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I had no intention of talking to people I didn’t know.
But mainly, editors would expect me to write without thinking.
I look back and wonder how I got to that point. Not the distaste for talking to people I didn’t know—I’ve always had that—but the difficulty with writing.
When did I start letting my editor get in the way of my scribe?
Once upon a time, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to my grandfather and great-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins. Once, I used a pencil with a point so soft, I doubt the recipients could read through the smears on the pages.
Another time, when I was on sick leave from school, enjoying the mumps, my mother let me use my father’s Schaeffer White Dot fountain pen, a source of even better smears.
The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe while my mother stayed in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained in Del Rio working, visited one weekend and brought me a present: a ream of legal-sized paper.
I don’t know what prompted the gift, and on a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve.
I wrote my own newspaper. Most articles covered weddings between various cats and dogs of my acquaintance. I discovered a talent for describing tuxedos and bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Miss Kitty and Pat Boone (my fox terrier). It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper.
But suddenly, it seemed, I did what my thesis adviser, years later, warned me not to do: I got tangled up in words. Writing was no longer fun. Confidentially, I think it had something to do with English class, essays, outlines, and needing to sound erudite. I hated it.
Why I thought should teach English, I do not know.
It was years before the English Teacher Establishment (Macrorie was part of the shift) said, “You can’t write an outline until you know what you’re going to say, and you can’t know what you’re going to say until you’ve written something.”
Novelist E. M. Forster had said it long before: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” But education always lags behind.
Anyway, the word to both students and conflicted teachers (aka me) was—Write it and then fix it. And lighten up.
When I write blog posts, I don’t think so much. I lighten up. Words flow.
Unless I’m trying to be serious and sincere and profound and erudite. I’m not a profound writer. I think profound, but I write shallow. It’s in my nature.
And I still can’t imagine squeezing myself into the little journalism box. That’s pressure. And talking to people I don’t know. I’d rather make up the facts myself. Can’t do that in journalism. Journalism matters.
I don’t like talking to journalists, either. I always tell them to be sure to make me sound intelligent. A reporter told me she didn’t have to fix anything in my interview because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was an accident.
Now. It’s way past my deadline for putting up this post.
But that is not of paramount concern. Because I’m not trying to say anything worthwhile.
I have lightened up.
“I’m thinking it over.” Forty seconds of perfection. (If the video doesn’t play, google “jack benny i’m thinking it over”. That should work.)
Image of Mary Tyler Moore cast via Wikipedia. Public domain.
When I was four years old, I took a pair of scissors and a roll of red, gooey adhesive tape and wrote my name on the inside of the kitchen door. It didn’t occurred to me I shouldn’t, and my parents never said a word. I’m sure they discussed it, but I wasn’t privy to that conversation. The crooked red letters stayed on the door for years. When they were finally removed, a heavy red stain remained.
When I was eight, my father gave me a ream of legal-sized paper. I produced a newspaper, one copy per issue, focusing on the social activities of dogs, cats, and horses in the neighborhood. I reported on the wedding of Mr. Pat Boone, my rat terrier, and Miss Bootsie, my grandfather’s evil gray-and-white cat. Miss Bootsie was really Mr. Bootsie, but even then I knew the value of poetic license. Mr. Tommy, my cousin’s orange tabby, married someone, too, but I don’t remember whom or what gender. Or what genus and species for that matter.
For years, I loved writing—the paper, the pencils and pens, the ink, the facts, the improved facts, and the outright fiction.
The feeling lasted until high school, when I began taking courses labeled English. Writing became torture. What will I write about, how many words does it have to be, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t have anything to say. Through high school and two college degrees–in English–I produced the required papers but agonized over every word.
There were bright spots: writing the junior class prophecy, which made even the teachers laugh when I read it at the junior-senior banquet; composing a satire on life in the teachers’ lounge I hid in when I was a teacher, issued serially on an irregular basis whenever the Muse moved me.
Overall, however, my relationship with writing remained conflicted. I pretended it didn’t. After all, I taught English.
Things began to change when I told a therapist about my early love affair with words. He responded, “I think you’d better start writing.” He suggested I join the Austin Writers’ League.
The next day, I joined. James Michener didn’t object. I took informal classes at universities. An instructor invited me to a Saturday-morning writing practice group. The next weekend, I drove fifty miles, parked in front of the café where it met, watched people carry notebooks inside, backed my car out, and drove home. It took another week to build the courage to pick up my notebook to join them and become a regular.
The result? Once again, I fell in love with writing. I also fell in love with a member of the writing practice group and, after a decent interval, married him.
And I published some short stores in anthologies and online, and one novella.
But my romance with writing hasn’t ended happily ever after. I don’t have a long list of appealing topics. I don’t have a file of perfect first sentences. I still have to write to find out what I know and what I think. I always wonder what happens next (and understand why Hemingway, Faulker, and Fitgerald drank to excess). I’m still driven by deadlines—my brain doesn’t turn on till one is upon me—and I write furiously up until the deadline (or, as now, after it).
Starting any piece is difficult. But once I (finally) begin, the words flow.
I wouldn’t exchange that feeling for anything.
In fifteen years, I’ve come from I can’t join the Austin Writers’ League to I’m working on a novel, attending Austin Mystery Writers critique group, writing for publication, blogging, writing every day.
And, contrary to the moans I make when asked how the writing is going, I love every second of it. Mostly.
The therapist actually said, “If you don’t start writing, you’re going to explode.” Since I took his suggestion, more things have changed. The Austin Writers’ League has morphed into the Writers’ League of Texas. The writing practice group that met at the cafe dissolved, and I joined another, Writing from the Heart, which met at BookPeople Bookstore; later it moved to various branches of the Austin Public Library. Now as 15 Minutes of Fame (More or Less), it meets online.
Invitation: 15 Minutes of Fame is free and all are invited to attend—no fees, no dues, no membership registration, no RSVP, no critique, no need write and spell as if your English teacher will scribble on your paper. No need to be a published author or to write “well.” Just have pen and paper or computer ready and show up. We do timed writings—choose a time, write, read aloud what we’ve written (IF we want to read; reading isn’t required), then do it all again. We meet from 10:00 a.m. to noon, on Saturdays; the schedule has been irregular recently but we’re in the process of getting back on track. When it’s stable, we’ll update the website, http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com If you’re interesting in writing with us, email kathywaller1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
Bootsie had long gray hair and green eyes, was beautiful, and slashed both a little girl who tried to pet him every time she saw him, and her owner, my grandfather, who thought he was peachy keen. Pat Boone was mine, and one of the dearest dogs who ever lived.
This post first appeared, with modifications, on Telling the Truth, Mainly.
Writers love to dream. We dream when we’re awake and when we’re asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference. Here’s an example.
I woke to the sound of the TV news coming from the other room. This was no surprise as my husband always turned on the telly when he had his morning coffee. What I heard coming from the TV, however, stunned me.
“My fellow Americans,” the President was saying. “I know these next few weeks and months will be very dark indeed. Thousands will die from Covid-19. Many more thousands will become sick. But remember this. We are Americans. Just as our forefathers fought side by side with people they’d never met, races they’d never before even knew existed, followers of different religions, they came together to create The United States of America. Their goal? To form a more perfect union.”
I swung my legs out of bed and joined my husband in the front room, where he sat mesmerized, staring at the TV.
I saw the President was standing alone behind a podium in the White House Rose Garden. “Today it is in that unity that we must come together to help each other through this trying time. It’s amazing what a smile and a wave to a stranger while social distancing can do not only for that stranger, but for you as well. Giving joy brings joy. Sending an encouraging email tells us we can be a source of comfort. Passing on a Facebook joke brings a smile to our face as well as those we’ve friended.”
Entranced, I sat down beside my husband on the couch.
“When Pearl Harbor was attacked, thus bringing the United States into World War II,” the President continued, “the Japanese admiral who lead the attack said, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.’ His fear came to pass.” The President’s smile was victorious. “The entire U.S. population roared to the support of our common cause. We signed up for the Armed Forces, turned our manufacturers into war machine producers, started food banks, sold and bought war bonds. Normal citizens turned into parachute seamsters, hospital workers, night raid wardens and troops on the front line.”
My husband put his hand around my shoulder. I felt him sending me confidence through that hug.
“In the midst of this war on Covid-19–and it is a war–we as a united people under one flag, must now understand that we, too, can be part of the solution. Put on your armor, your face masks, your gloves, etc., arm yourself with sanitizer. Take orders from your generals, or in our case, the medical experts who tell you to wash your hands, stay at home, and when you do have to go out, wear a mask and stay at least six feet away from every person you see.
“Now is the time for the United States to no longer be that sleeping giant, uninvolved and inactive. Let us roar into action, together, united, knowing our attitude will be the difference between the life and death for millions of our fellow citizens. Be positive! Know you ARE the solution! Only together can we defeat this enemy.”
Yes! I thought. I can be part of the solution!
“As your President,” he continued, “I call all Americans to arms. I call the businesses of this country to retool and make the equipment our soldiers on the front lines, the first responders, need to succeed. I call on the wealthy to have a care for our service workers on whom they depend for their comfort. Remember that bartender who knows exactly how dry you like your martini. Remember that masseuse who is the only one who can get that kink out of your neck. I suspect strongly that the wealthier you are the more workers and businesses you will have on your list. I call on every person to be the support each other needs. A smile. An attitude of ‘We’re in this together and, by God (literally), we will get through this.’
“To my fellow politicians I say this.” He gazed straight into the camera. “Right now is NOT the time for assessing blame, dire predictions, threats to our medical experts, or refusing to follow the restrictions deemed best for our country. Time for all of those arguments, judgements, recriminations belongs to a history yet to be written. Right now we’re fighting a war, and as leader of this country, I say we all, including the government, will fight this war as one.”
My chest swelled with pride. We are the United States of America!
“In conclusion,” he said. “I thank all of the first responders, all of the medical experts, all of the businesses and individuals who are rising up to defeat this disease. We are a mighty country. God bless the United States of America.”
I was invigorated. Hopeful. Determined.
And apparently I was asleep.
Suddenly my alarm screamed into my hopefulness, jerking me awake. What the hell?
Then I realized it had all been a dream. Damn. My sense of empowerment and determination seeped away as I became more and more ensconced in wakefulness.
Time to get back to reality. But wouldn’t it be nice if that dream would someday come true?
The first Anna Pigeon book that I read by Nevada Barr was Blind Descent, book 6 of the series, back in 1998. And I’ve read most of her books since then. I’m hooked!
Since the main character in the books is a park ranger, each story is set in a national park. I’ve learned so much about nature, each park, and its landscape and history. I particularly liked the history in Flashback, book 11. It was set in Dry Tortugas National Park. I didn’t know that that is where those who had been accused of Lincoln’s assassination were imprisoned back in 1865!
Here is the complete list of her books and where they are set.
As you’d expect, Anna has to solve mysteries and face all sorts of dangers in each book like mountain lions, bears, natural disasters, forest fires, and of course the most dangerous of all, people.
Boar Island starts away from the park with a case of cyber-bullying. You know what? Here’s the description from Barr’s website:
Anna Pigeon, in her career as a National Park Service Ranger, has had to deal with all manner of crimes and misdemeanors, but cyber-bullying and stalking is a new one. The target is Elizabeth, the adopted teenage daughter of her friend Heath Jarrod. Elizabeth is driven to despair by the disgusting rumors spreading online and bullying texts. Until, one day, Heath finds her daughter Elizabeth in the midst of an unsuccessful suicide attempt. She calls in the cavalry—her aunt Gwen and her friend Anna Pigeon.
While they try to deal with the fragile state of affairs—and find the person behind the harassment—the three adults decide the best thing to do is to remove Elizabeth from the situation. Since Anna is about to start her new post as Acting Chief Ranger at Acadia National Park in Maine, the three will join her and stay at a house on the cliff of a small island near the park, Boar Island.
But the move east doesn’t solve the problem. The stalker has followed them east. And Heath (a paraplegic) and Elizabeth aren’t alone on the otherwise deserted island. At the same time, Anna has barely arrived at Acadia when a brutal murder is committed.
While this does describe the setup, it doesn’t come close to describing the action and complex story that weaves together. Poor Anna! By the end I think she could totally commiserate with John McClane of Die Hard. She’s a physically fit character, but the injuries that she’s had in past stories still plague her at times. As they should! And the choices that she’s made, good and bad, also haunt her. She’s a life-like character that you can relate to.
Boar Island is a good book that will keep you turning pages. I sped right through it. Cyber-bullying, obsession, murder, feuds, high tech, and a harsh environment in a remote location, it’s got it all!