We also eat a lot of chocolate and drink a lot of wine to soothe us through those inevitable rejections and harsh reviews. The result? Spreading butts.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
We also eat a lot of chocolate and drink a lot of wine to soothe us through those inevitable rejections and harsh reviews. The result? Spreading butts.
Friday, December 30, 2011
As usual, I still haven't sent out my holiday cards. Note that I don't specify which holiday I mean. Maybe I'll try for St. Brigid's Day (Imbolc or Imbolg), or St Brigid’s Day, Irish Lá Fhéile Bríde,) an Irish festival, most commonly celebrated on 1 or 2 February. Brigid is the female equivalent of St. Patrick in Ireland. Her day celebrates the beginning of spring, when the ewes are about to give birth. (You may recognize St. Brigid's cross, which is placed at the entrance of a home to ward off evil.)
I can get these done in the next month, can't I? I like to send (real, physical) cards, complete with an annual newsletter, even though I know the latter is the butt of many jokes. "Yes, Jake is looking forward to his release from prison, while Janie has found a cure for cancer, which she has been testing on our (late) gerbils." I've been on the receiving end of my share.
But I think it's still a good thing to try to boil down what you think was important from the year that's ending. Admittedly that that may not be the same as what you believe other people (dear or distant) will want to know about you and your loved ones. Sure, we all try to clean up our image for the general public, but a lot of the people I still send cards to go back years, even decades (at least one high school pal, and several from college), and they've been through thick and thin with me. They deserve an honest summary.
So, 2011 … Well, I didn't see the broken ankle coming, and I might have chosen to skip that, except that in a true writerly manner I milked the experience for all I could, and, yes, there will be a broken bone in the Irish book that's a-coming in a year or so. I was also obscurely pleased to find that the hospital where I spent a few days is also the site of the Cork County morgue, which is where autopsies are performed. Useful to know.
Fractures aside, Ireland of course was lovely, as always. It's always a pleasure to see it free of tourists (hey, I'm not a tourist!), and people are happy to talk to you. We were there during the last Irish Parliamentary elections, and it was fascinating to see how different they were from the U.S. version (of those, the less said, the better). I even collected pictures of campaign posters in Dublin.
I was thrilled when my publisher renewed not one but both of my ongoing series (which surprised even my agent). I now have a schedule that extends out for years, assuming the publishing industry survives in some form. But I think it will, despite the upheavals and growing pains going on at the moment. People still want the words, whatever form they take. Let us all hope that authors gain a little more control over their own works, and publishers recognize the fairness of that.
We older folks (my husband and I) are more and more subject to the creeping ailments of ageing—aches and pains, petty afflictions that can drive you nuts, like dry eye and fungus in the ear (what, you haven't had that yet? Just wait!). I now understand what all those cheesy commercials are about (well, except for the ones with the two bathtubs...).
Our lovely daughter, with an honors degree from an excellent college, still doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, although she's pretty sure it doesn't involve retail sales. She's currently planning to take some time off and indulge in a Wanderjahr, visiting friends and seeing the sights. She's been good about saving money, so she can afford it. I have to admit I have no words of wisdom for what a bright young person should do in today's economy—it seems like all the rules we grew up with no longer apply. So I can't exactly disapprove of her taking off and having some fun, while she's still young and unencumbered. Go forth and build some happy memories!
I could write this holiday letter to include nothing but complaints, but I'm definitely a glass half-full type of person, so I celebrate the good parts—and channel the bad parts into my writing!
MAY THE NEW YEAR BRING YOU ALL THAT YOU DESIRE!
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
|"Will I have to testify?"|
We’ve all heard that every criminal leaves something at a crime scene and takes something away. While dog or cat hair alone won’t lead police to a previously unknown perpetrator, it can clinch the case against someone who is suspected of a crime and can’t explain why his pet’s hair is at a murder scene or hair from the victim’s pet is on his clothing. The Denver, Colorado, district attorney’s website has a list of major cases in which nonhuman DNA, most often that of pets, has played a decisive role.
In a few instances where people have appealed convictions for crimes committed before the widespread use of DNA testing, the move has backfired because prosecutors were able to use new technology on old evidence – animal hair found at the crime scenes – and match it to the defendants’ pets. When Wayne Williams, the Atlanta child killer, appealed his conviction, prosecutors ordered tests on hairs found on his victims, and the tests revealed that the hairs came from Williams’s dog. His appeal was denied.
Forensic evidence has also become important in fighting crimes against animals, and some experts specialize in this branch of science. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the University of Florida have created the first veterinary forensic sciences program at a major university to train crime scene investigators to gather and evaluate evidence in crimes against animals. The ASPCA has its own forensic veterinarians, who examine and testify about ballistic, toxicology, and blood spatter evidence in abuse cases. The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California at Davis has the largest database of domesticated animal DNA in the country, and each year its scientists examine evidence in up to 200 cases involving abuse of animals by humans, animal-on-animal attacks, animal attacks on humans, and other cases in which animal hair might yield clues.
In 2010, the ASPCA, in conjunction with several state SPCA organizations, broadened its campaign against illegal dogfighting by creating a national database of fighting dog DNA. Called Canine CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the database will be maintained at UC-Davis and will contain samples from animals rescued from fighting operations. By identifying links between dogs, owners, breeders, and fighting sites, Canine CODIS can help law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. clamp down on a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise that kills and maims thousands of animals every year. I mention the database briefly in my latest mystery, Under the Dog Star. You can read more about it here.
In short, the animals who share our lives now have their own branch of forensic science. Should we expect a new CSI television show focusing on animals? What do you think it might be called?
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Jumping from mythology to science, remember the consequence of Newton’s first law? An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an unbalanced force acts upon it. I don’t know about you, but I am at rest right now.
Not peaceful, serene, contemplative at rest. Too little sleep; too many shortbread cookies; too much schedule disruption; and too many dark, cold nights rest. In other words, exhausted, cranky, out of sorts, stopped cold, sunk in the slough of despair rest.
I hope I remembered to do all of those be-kind-to-myself banking the fires activities that I recommended in last week’s blog because I sure don’t have the energy to do them right now.
If you’ve ever stoked a banked fire, you know that you don’t simply set a huge log on the coals and walk away. You have to coax the fire out of hiding. You start by adding a few twigs and blowing on the coals. When the twigs catch, add some kindling. When the kindling catches, add small logs. Eventually you work up to a fire that’s big enough to warm the room and boil water for tea.
So here are some suggestions for stoking your banked artistic fire.
Between now and the full moon on January 9, plant something. Literally. The moon is waxing and the world is starting its tilt from solstice toward spring equinox. When the waxing moon and the waxing world coming together it’s a great time to push for a little more green in the world. Start an amaryllis bulb. Plant seeds. Repot and feed a tired plant that’s limping through the winter. I spent an hour Monday morning repotting and feeding all of the plants that I’m responsible for at work. Hey, I want good to win that good/evil battle. Every new growing thing is a vote for the good guys. If you think you have the world’s brownest thumb, ask a friend who gardens to foster a plant for you.
After all this dark and cold our bodies are so not ready to jump into that new year’s resolution of going to the gym every day. We have to start small. Stand up. Starting at your toes and working up the body, tighten all of your muscles. When you reach your shoulder muscles, raise your hands high above your head. Keep tightening muscles to your finger tips. Hold that arms up, every muscled tightened pose for five seconds. Beginning at your fingers relax. Keep relaxing the muscle groups all the way down to your toes. Take some deep breaths. Repeat this tense-relax-breath sequence at least 10 times a day. Park your car at the end of the parking lot and walk into the mall or your office. Get off the bus one stop early and walk a block. This is the pre-pre-warm up for cranking up the body again.
Find yourself a talisman, something that will focus all your good thoughts about your writing during the coming year. I was very fortunate to get one for Christmas. Here it is.
Monday, December 26, 2011
Christmas is a wonderful and a beautiful time, but the day after Christmas is a restful escape. No packages to wrap, no items to remember to pack into the car, no stressing over the present that didn't arrive in time.
Today is a matter of quiet sorting through the rubble, permeated by gratitude for the gifts found within it. It's a day of remembering all of the funny things people said yesterday at the big family gathering, but also a day of facing the scale and promising to be good from here on in.
It's a day for reading the books you received as gifts, or watching those DVDs that someone thoughtfully selected.
Here the weather is mild and sunny, and we have more sunshine in our house--gifts and food and good feelings--to last for quite a while.
The thank-you card writing has begun, and I instructed my younger son that he could not even start on his Medieval Village made of Legos (possibly an all-break project) until he thought about the people who gave him things and jotted down his thank-yous in cards. I hope this art of thankfulness will not leave them when they leave home--it's such an important thing.
I'm writing my cards, too, and realizing that even this is a pleasurable part of my break--because in reflecting on what I appreciate about people, I rediscover gifts I had taken for granted.
I hope you're all enjoying the 2nd day of Christmas in your own ways.
Happy Boxing Day to all!
Saturday, December 24, 2011
This holiday season I went in search of an English medieval minced pie recipe. It seems there is no definitive recipe for this. I imagine that with most recipes of this kind, it involved whatever the cook had on hand. But the original medieval recipes included meat--actual minced meat--in their recipes. Was this a main course or was it dessert--or both? Well, it's certainly hearty. I took a combination of recipes and ingredients from multiple sources. I hope you like the result. (This is my pie to the left)
Medieval Mince Pie
1 lb boiled beef, lean, and pulled apart into fine strings (I made the mistake of not boiling it long enough, so that my beef was chunky. This will take a few hours, or all day in a crock pot.)4 tart green apples, seeded and cut into bite-sized cubes (I'm not certain that original recipes contained apples, but apples go back a long way in minced pie recipes and it is likely so go ahead and add them.)
1/4 lb or more suet (I just asked my butcher for 1/4 lb of beef fat, which he gave me for free. Cut it into small pieces and throw them in your food processor. Process to fine granules.)1 box seedless raisins
1 box of currants1-2 citrons or lemons, cut up into very small pieces
1/2 cup brown sugar1/4 cup molasses (not medieval either. Earliest mention of molasses was in 1592 in Nicholas Lichefield's translation of Lopez de Castanheda's First Booke of the Histoire of the Discoverie and Conquest of the East Indias. It was a later addition to mince pies, but I added it for a darker, burnt sugar sort of flavor. You could easily leave it out.)
1/2 cup ciderpinch of salt
black pepper1-2 Tb mace
1-2 Tb allspice1-2 Tb nutmeg
1-2 Tb cloves4 Tb cinnamon
1/2 cup Brandy (first appeared in the 12th century and became more common in the fourteenth century. Alcohol is a must as a preservative. Yeah, that's it. A preservative.)
In a big pot or Dutch oven, cook the beef fat until rendered. Mix all other ingredients together except for brandy and wine and pour into pot with crispy and rendered fat and cook down. After it's cooked down for a bit, let it cool and then add brandy and wine.In the meantime, prepare a good lard pastry dough (I put mine in a Wilton 10 x 3 pan). Place the dough in the bottom, pour in the cooled minced meat, and cover with more pastry. I folded the edges down till they were about halfway down in the pan, and crimped the edges. I cut some fancy swirls on top with a very sharp knife and gave it an egg and milk wash. Bake it at 350 for 45 minutes. After it cools for a bit on a rack, I was able to turn it out of the pan to put it on a presentation plate. Good cold or warm. Serves a small army.
Friday, December 23, 2011
I've always lived in the suburbs.
That sounds like the first line of a bad novel, doesn't it? But it's true—for most of my life I have lived somewhere on the outskirts of a city—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco. I sometimes joke that I can't sleep without the sound of a commuter train rumbling by, because there has been one close enough to hear as far back as I can remember.
One of Aesop's fables tells the tale of the City Mouse and his cousin the Country Mouse. City Mouse of course thinks his lifestyle is the better one, but Country Mouse disagrees (after being confronted by two large and angry dogs at City Mouse's residence) and goes home to his less opulent but more peaceful place.
But what do you do if both sides appeal to you? Every time I visit New York or Boston or Philadelphia, I remember the excitement of a city—the richness of the cultural assets available all the time (if you can afford them); the ease of getting around, whether you prefer broad sidewalks, buses, trains or even taxis; the wealth of restaurants; and even the interesting food from street vendors (roasting chestnuts in New York, hot pretzels with mustard in Philadelphia). There's an almost physical boost that you feel from all that energy around you.
But then, I love the country. I've never been sure why, since I had little experience with it in my early life. My mother spent her high school years on a farm in Maine and hated it, so much so that she never went back. We were once driving together somewhere—Massachusetts? New Jersey?—and I was admiring the landscape, and she said "I hate the country." But I was always in love with rolling hills and open fields and…maybe it was the absence of people. Being alone has never frightened me.
The first time I visited Ireland, it felt like coming home. I likened it to putting on an old shoe—it was familiar and comforting, and I just slid into it like I belonged. Is there such a thing as an inherited memory? I found myself standing on the land where my Connolly ancestors lived for centuries—which still looks much like it would have when they were there—and saying to myself, how could they have left? Okay, maybe they were too busy trying to eke a living out of raising sheep and cattle on too-small fields to admire the view, but it had to have been imprinted on them from birth.
So here I sit, on the outermost reaches of a Boston suburb, with a commuter line that runs at the top of my street. If I could go anywhere I wanted, where would it be? Luckily for me I do it in my head, because I'm writing three series. The Orchard Mysteries are set in one of my favorite areas of western Massachusetts (where I had many generations of ancestors), where streets still bear the names of the farmers who settled there first, where small towns cluster around a green where the settlers' livestock grazed, and later the militia mustered for the Revolution. And I write the Museum Mysteries, set in the heart of Philadelphia, where I can revisit any number of the interesting museums, both large and small, as well as historic sites such as Independence Hall. And I'm going to be writing a series set in Ireland, where the past and the present collide in interesting ways: people who live in a stone cottage built in the 18th century have a satellite dish on the roof. They may work in a high-tech industry, but they still know when your great-grandfather emigrated. I get to enjoy each vicariously (with a few real visits thrown in—research, you know).
So which do you prefer? City or country? And may you find yourself where you want to be this holiday season!
Thursday, December 22, 2011
In fact, I know I was a believer, because one of my earliest memories—at four? five? six?—is not of my father blowing the gaff, but of the moment just afterward: my mother saying, “Oh, Joe, don’t spoil her Santa Claus!” Anyway, we always had a Christmas tree, and I don’t think we started calling it a Chanukah bush until we were old enough to appreciate facetiousness.
Our tree was a classic 1950s tabletop aluminum tree, which we decorated with the kind of ornaments you’ll now find in fleamarkets and yard sales and also making a comeback as modern reproductions.
The trees themselves have become collectibles, which you can find on eBay and elsewhere if you google “vintage aluminum trees.” Here are a few, none exactly the squat, bushy model, excellent for hanging ornaments, that lives on in my memory.
We had stockings, big woolen ones otherwise used for ice skating, until I went off to college at the age of 16, as well as presents on December 25 in addition to Chanukah.
And so we do, along with lighting the candles, eating pot roast and latkes, singing carols (music is another area in which Christmas beats Chanukah hands down), and opening the presents under the tree. My granddaughters, Jewish on my son’s side but being raised Catholic like their mom, will do all those things this year—on Boxing Day. That’s December 26, a holiday we don’t celebrate in America, but it comes in handy when the kids have three sets of grandparents. And on Christmas Day, we’ll probably follow another New York secular Jewish tradition: Chinese food for Christmas.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
When I can look back over my list of books I’ve read or listened to since January and find more than a dozen that I loved and would recommend enthusiastically, I know it’s been an outstanding year for fiction.
As usual, most of the novels I’ve read have been crime fiction, but one unclassifiable book stands out as a gorgeous exercise of a writer’s extravagant imagination: The Night Circus. Erin Morgenstern’s first novel has its flaws like any book, but it’s worth reading for the imagery alone. The author proves what we sometimes tend to forget, that words alone can paint as powerful a picture as any film.
This year I also let down my guard against “supernatural mysteries” and fell in love with Michael
Koryta’s writing. I read So Cold the River, Koryta’s first paranormal novel, last year and loved the writing but wasn’t entirely persuaded that the story was my kind of thing. After reading Cypress House, a genuine thriller that happens to include talking corpses and glimpses of the future, I was a fan. I enjoyed The Ridge just as much. These are gritty, violent books, not for those with delicate sensibilities, but the writing is amazing and the supernatural elements add to rather than detract from the stories.
Two new writers joined my list of favorite, must-read authors: Chevy Stevens and S.J. Watson. Stevens’s first novel, Still Missing, is a woman’s gripping first-person account of her year as the captive of a lunatic and her eventual escape. Her second book, Never Knowing, is in many ways even more compelling, as it follows a young woman, adopted as a baby, through her discovery of her real parents’ identities and into a disastrously tangled relationship with the rapist who fathered her.
S.J. Watson’s debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, is stunning. I was riveted by this story of a woman who has suffered a head injury and now loses her memory every time she goes to sleep. Christine wakes each morning not knowing who or where she is, who the man in bed with her is, or what her life was up to that moment. Assisted by a doctor, finding ways to get around her recurrent memory loss, Christine secretly pieces together her identity and the horrifying truth behind her injury. This is an amazing and terrifying psychological suspense novel.
I loved the latest books by writers already firmly ensconced on my favorite authors list: Iron House by John Hart; Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson; The Accident by Linwood Barclay; The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld; The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen; Love You More by Lisa Gardiner.
My two favorite novels of the year, though, were Fallen by Karin Slaughter and End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina. Both feature strong female cops investigating crimes that strike close to home. Fallen brings together Will Trent, Sara Linton, and Faith Mitchell in a tumultuous story that begins when Faith’s mother, once a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent like Faith, is kidnapped. Slaughter’s characters are hauntingly real, and her writing thrums with energy.
Denise Mina’s End of the Wasp Season is set in Ireland and has Detective Alex Morrow, heavily pregnant and about to go on maternity leave, chasing down the brutal killers of a young woman who seemed to have no enemies. The reader knows from the beginning who committed the crime, and the knowledge heightens rather than dampens the suspense as Alex begins to circle them – and realizes that the crime touches her personally.
I read others that I enjoyed, but these were the standouts, the books I know I’ll remember a year from now. And I have a bunch of 2011 books yet to read -- Margaret Maron's Three-Day Town, for example -- that I know I will love.
Which books were your favorites this year?
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
I hope you’re not on some horrendous deadline at the moment, because this blog is about one word.
Whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa or some combination of those and other holidays, it’s time to rest. Right, along with last-minute shopping, a couple of holiday parties, defrosting a thirty-pound turkey, driving half-way across the state (if not the country) and putting up with an unconscionable number of relatives around the festive table.
Before I made a commitment to this writing business, back when writing was a very serious hobby, the last two weeks of December were often the only time during the year when I could put serious time into writing. One of the advantages of being a professional writer is that having spent the other 50 weeks of the year worrying about the writing and the marketing, I feel justified in taking the last two weeks of December off.
If you’ve ever warmed yourself with a wood fire, or even a fireplace, you’ll know that if you don’t want to wake up freezing your tail off in the morning, the one essential task is to bank the fire the last thing at night. The same is true for writers. There is a good chance that it’s going to be as hard cranking up the writing machine come January 2nd or 3rd, as it’s going be actually going to the gym. (You did make that resolution to get healthier next year, didn’t you?)
So here are some things you need to do to bank that writers’ fire so it will burn brightly next month.
Check your stock of printer cartridges, computer paper, pens. While you’re out buying those last-minute stocking stuffers, stop by the office supply store and lay in a stock so you’ll have a drawer of fresh supplies waiting for you after the holidays.
Buy yourself a really nice card; making yourself one is even better. Sit down for thirty minutes and write yourself a love letter. Pat yourself on the back for all the wonderful writing you did in 2011 and encourage all the wonderful writing you are going to do in 2012. Mail it to yourself on Christmas Eve.
If you don’t have one already, put a notebook and pen beside your bed. Write “For Later” at the top of a clean page. If you get a wonderful idea over the holidays, jot it down. Get back to it after you’ve had a rest.
Make a writing date for January. Take a course or invite your writing buddies to lunch. There’s nothing like group energy to give you a push to get started again.
Finally, clean your desk. Yes, really. Neaten. Sort. Tidy. File. Dust. Maybe even get out some nice-smelling furniture polish and give it a once over. Sharpen your pencils. And then put a sheet over the whole thing, walk away, and turn out the desk light.
See you in a couple of weeks.
Quote for the week
Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering. ~Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne
Monday, December 19, 2011
It always starts to feel like holiday time a bit early in our house, because my son, born on December 23rd, starts off the round of partying with his birthday celebration. Inspired by Dylan Thomas' wonderful story "A Child's Christmas in Wales," I thought I would relate some of the highlights of the day that will at some point be merely part of a tapestry of memories in my son's mind, or as Thomas put it "the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep."
And so this day blends with all the other days in our memories, and as we drift off to sleep tonight in what Thomas called "a close and holy darkness," we will be glad for the chance to observe these rituals which remind us what family is for.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
PDD: What links Durrant Wallace, Cole Blackwater and Silas Pearson as characters?
Almost nothing, except all are men and, to some degree, misanthropes.
Silas has spent years crawling around the Utah desert in the hopes of finding his missing wife’s body. That’s not something he cares to share with a lot of other people. In a mystery series hunting for a body can only go on so long; eventually he has to find something. That’s why I’ve only plotted the first three Red Rock Canyon Mysteries. If an angry mob with pitch forks demands more, then I have plenty of other material to extend Silas’ journey.
Cole is a grumpy, anti-social drinker, but underneath is soft-hearted. His issues with anger and his family, and the questions that engage him, whether they be stopping a mining project in Alberta; threats to British Columbia wild salmon because of massive farming operations; or the plight of the homeless in downtown Vancouver are far reaching. I see his story arc as potentially open-ended. Sometimes too much potential can create more problems for a writer. I don’t want Cole to repeat himself, so in the third book, The Vanishing Track, some of Cole’s problems from the previous books are resolved, but he’s left with a whole new set of problems to deal with. The Vanishing Track will be published in the spring of 2012.
Durrant is also a misanthrope and anti-social, but for very different reasons than Cole. He was a young man when Confederation happened in 1867. He was part of the Northwest Mounted Police March West in the summer of 1874. Three years before The End of the Line, when the first book in the series starts, he was, in the slang of the times zinged, zipped, but not zeroed. Being shot in the line of duty, and severely disabled as a result, but not killed. It left him an outcast. I think Durrant would have rather been dead. He has a meaningless job, sorting the mail and taking the census in the newly minted Fort Calgary, but he wants more. And the society of the time has a hard time seeing that he has more to give.
The Durrant Wallace series has the incredible advantage of being set during the literal creation of Canada. In the fifty years between Confederation and World War I, Western Canada saw the Northwest Mounted Police sent to the west; the coming of the railroad; waves of immigration, each one different from the last; incorporation of cities all across the prairies; the formation of provinces and territories out of what was the North West Territories; the Second Riel Rebellion; the establishment of Banff National Park, the first national park in Canada; periodic man-made and natural disasters, including a terrible fire in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1886; the Yukon gold rush; and racial unrest. Canadian troops were sent to the Boer War. Bill Miner staged the first Canadian train robbery. The first Calgary Stampede was held and oil was discovered in Alberta.
For a historical mystery writer, that’s like a huge box of candy. It all looks so delicious, it’s hard to know where to start, and so I chose to start in 1884 when the railway was being built in Alberta.
PDD: In researching Durrant’s series, what did you learn about railroad building across the Canadian prairies in the 1880s?
Three words: individual bloody toil. While there were a few steam-powered machines, and there certainly were explosives, the majority of the railroad was built by men using their muscles.
Many people assume that Chinese laborers built the Canadian railroad. That was true on the Western side of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia on what was called the Onderdonk section, named for the man in charge Andrew Onderdonk. But on the Eastern side the laborers were mainly Americans and Europeans.
These men lived in box cars or in tent shanties, with planks for beds and a leaky wood stoves for heat. They did hard physical labor in all kinds of weather and rarely had a day off. Because explosives contracts were written so that the contractor was paid by the volume of material blasted, companies looked for the longest routes possible in order to make the most money, putting the workers lives on the line.
The workers’ only recreation was what they provided themselves: gambling and drinking. The Canadian Pacific Railway prohibited making or selling whiskey within 10 miles of CPR property, so the whiskey trade moved to 10 miles and 1 foot outside the temperance zone. There was a lot of illegal whiskey made in the CPR camps, and often men walked 10 miles through dangerous mountains to have a drink. Some never returned.
Many Canadians have this idea that settling the country north of the 49th parallel was a lot more civilized than in the American wild west. It was and it wasn’t. There were ten or twelve thousand men living in shanty towns along the CPR right-of-way. Those towns were often lawless; there were only a handful of Mounties patrolling a vast area. In my research I found first hand accounts of murders happening with no investigations, and very little fuss.
I lived in one of those towns, Lake Louise, in the early 1990’s when I worked for Parks Canada. In the winter of 1884, when The End of the Line is set, there were five hundred men left behind after the construction season, in what was then called Holt City. Four months at temperatures below minus thirty, with thirty feet of snow on the ground: it was a recipe for murder if there ever was one.
PDD: You bring in Sam Steele as something of a mentor to Durrant. What are the challenges of including a real historical figure in a work of fiction?
To quote Mark Twain, “First know your facts, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” With Sam Steele, the facts jump out at you: the March West, Sitting Bull, the North-West Rebellion, Fort Steele, the Yukon gold rush, the Boer War, and World War I. Sam was there for all of them. Now that we know these facts, I plan to have a great time distorting them for Durrant’s benefit.
Durrant’s story is about redemption. What he desperately wants, and what I plan to give him, is a second chance at life. But not without a great deal of physical and emotional turmoil first. In order to have that second chance he needs a powerful mentor. Sam Steele embodied the quintessential Western Canadian attitude of ‘try diplomacy before you resort to force’, and that’s the kind of mentor Durrant will need if he’s going to reclaim his life.
Stephen’s books are published by TouchWood Editions.
Please visit Stephen online at or follow him on Twitter at @stephenlegault.
Win a copy of the End of the Line. Leave a comment below to have a chance to win! A name will be drawn at random on Monday morning.
Friday, December 16, 2011
It's been a while since my daughter was young enough to require entertainment during school breaks, but this time of year always reminds me of the Good Old Days when my sister and I were young.
One of the treats of those golden years (well, I am talking about the 1950s, when apparently—or so say today's pundits—everything was better, except for all the smoking) was going to the theater. Since my grandmother lived in New York, that meant Broadway.
I cut my teeth on Broadway musicals. My parents both loved them, and saw them regularly. They religiously brought home the original cast albums, which we played frequently, despite the fact that my father wouldn't let my sister and me go near the "record player." But once a careful adult put a record on, my sister and I would do something resembling a polka up and down the hallway. As a result, the lyrics of many of the musicals of the '50s are forever imprinted on my brain.
Since I was older than my sister, I had the chance to see several of the classics with my mother, or my mother and grandmother. Always matinees, of course, and child-appropriate. My mother set me off on the right foot with Peter Pan—yes, the original version with Mary Martin, which to my surprise had a very short run, which seems unusual for what became an enduring staple. It was first produced in 1954, and I must have seen it that year, because I remember being much shorter than the bar in the lobby, where my mother bought me a soda at intermission. I gather that it was televised as early as the year after that, and all my friends and I knew the lyrics. Want me to sing "I Won't Grow Up" for you?
I saw My Fair Lady early on, not first run but in its second 1958 run. I saw Camelot when it was new (Julie Andrews in both, and Robert Goulet when he was hot), and even now the music reduces me to tears. (On a literary note, I read the source book, T. H. White's The Once and Future King, when I was eleven, when it made little sense to me, but I loved the first part, with young Wat and all the animals.) It should be no surprise that I still have those well-played vinyl albums.
I think even I felt the change in the nature of Broadway shows in the 1960s. We saw a couple of shows that sank like a stone in collective memory. Our family efforts were waning when we saw Mr. President (1962-63), a somewhat odd vehicle for stars Nanette Fabray and Robert Ryan, about which I remember next to nothing except the First Lady's overacting. I think our last effort took in Canterbury Tales, probably in 1964 (I could find all the playbills, but they're in the attic and it's cold up there), from which I recall only one song: "I Have a Noble Cock."
I'm grateful that I had the chance to see all of these. I can't say I've been a consistent theater-goer ever since, and as an adult my selections have run more to non-musical productions. But attending a live performance is not like watching a movie, either in a theater or on a smaller screen. Live, there is always the chance of a poor performance, if one of the stars is having a bad day; but if a production comes together just right, it's magic, especially when you're sharing it with a full audience. Maybe it's like Tinkerbell: you have to believe to make it happen.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Back when my first mystery was about to come out, a lot of people heard the story of the head shot that not only appeared on the book jacket, but became my “brand” image: on my website, all my bookmarks, eventually my Blogger profile, my Facebook page, and everywhere else a photo was needed to depict Elizabeth Zelvin, author.
Since then, my life in the mystery world has generated a lot of candid shots at conventions and book launches, not all of them looking so terrible. Photography technology has progressed to the point where I was able to take my own passport photo recently, holding my little digital camera away from my face to snap it. Now, that was a terrible picture. But no one expects better on a passport, and as long as I don’t leave the country, no one will see it.
I’ve been working for the past year or so on a recording of original songs I’ve been writing and performing for the past fifty years, and the time has come to think about packaging a CD for Liz Zelvin, Outrageous Older Woman. I know this Liz is different from Elizabeth Zelvin, author.
Nancy lives and works in a wonderful old apartment near Central Park with two parrots (the elder, age 37, is a music lover whose repertoire includes both “Cancan” and “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”) and a cat whose dander had me croaking when I tried to sing during my first visit to give her an idea of what would lie behind the album cover.
Makeup has never been my friend. I could probably use that passport and take a trip around the world with the money I’ve saved over a lifetime (not to mention the time) not using cosmetics. My line has always been, “My father never used makeup, and he had skin like a baby till the day he died at 91.” But for this photo shoot, it was not optional.
“I’ll tell you exactly what to buy,” she said. “You know what foundation is, right? Concealer?” Not really. I’ve walked right past all that stuff in CVS thousands of times. I finally convinced her that we’d be better off if she made me up in situ. (And I wasn’t kidding when I said I needed Cosmetics for Dummies. I volunteered to buy a couple of lipsticks and came back with lip gloss instead.) “But I don’t do eyelashes,” she said. “You need them, the more over-the-top the better, and you’ll have to put them on yourself.”
“You don’t understand,” I whined. My last encounter with false eyelashes was in 2002, when for my son’s wedding I tried valiantly to create a dramatic look that would come across well in the photos and ended up throwing the damn lashes across the room. But I did want to cooperate, really. And my own eyelashes could not possibly be called outrageous.
The result—well, Nancy took one look at me and started laughing. In the end, she pasted the second pair (forget about “self-adhesive” and “reusable”) on my lids in the right place. She stroked and patted makeup of various kinds all over my face. Like any other artist, she kept stepping back to see her work and muttering, “Damn, I’m good!” In the end, I looked fabulous. If I had a handmaiden to put my face on, I could look glamorous every day. Since I don’t, I’m thrilled to have these fantastic photos.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Airports make me feel rushed and anxious and crabby. I’m always in a better mood on return flights, when I know I’ll be home again soon, but I’m still not a happy traveler, and that’s probably obvious to everyone around me. I’ll have to improve my attitude, though, if a proposed new security system called FAST becomes reality, or I’ll be in big trouble.
I’m okay with current airport security, although it’s a bloody nuisance. Where my right knee once was, I have a big chunk of surgical steel and space age plastic, and I’ve accepted that I will always be pulled aside for a full-body pat-down. The female security inspectors who do this are briskly impersonal, yet courteous and considerate, and I appreciate their professionalism. The baggage scans and searches – all necessary.
But FAST worries me.
The acronym stands for Future Attribute Screening Technique. Think about that for a minute. Especially the word Future. FAST is designed to identify people who haven’t actually done anything but might be on the verge of wreaking havoc. It works not by detecting weapons but by measuring changes in passengers’ heart and breathing rates, skin temperature, eye and body movements. If I ever walk through a FAST sensor array after a tardy shuttle driver has nearly made me miss a flight, I’m a goner.
FAST is a $20 million dollar federal project currently being tested by the Department of Homeland Security. We already have human evil intentions detectors in our airports: 3,000 DHS officers spend their work hours walking around terminals watching passengers’ behavior, searching for suspicious movements and facial expressions. This program is called SPOT – Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques. FAST is designed to pick up changes that can’t be seen by the naked eye.
Clinical psychologist Daniel Martin developed the theory behind FAST: a person who is about to commit a crime will exhibit certain physiological changes, and the intensity of those changes will vary with the seriousness of the planned crime. (Somebody who’s planning to blow up a plane full of people will sweat more, breathe harder, etc., than somebody who’s trying to smuggle marijuana through security.) In studies of more than 2,000 subjects, FAST had a 78% success rate at detecting those who had been instructed to do something “bad” at mock events. After receiving their instructions, the subjects passed through sensors capable of registering physical reactions from as far away as 20 feet.
The problem with this kind of trial study, of course, is that a test subject who has been instructed to go into a room and steal some small item is hardly the same as a terrorist who’s planning to commandeer an airliner and crash it into a skyscraper. No accurate way exists to test the technology. If it’s approved, real passengers in real airports will ultimately be the test subjects. Mistakes will be made. Harried travelers will find themselves in a lot of trouble because they were frowning and their hearts were racing, while coolly determined terrorists will sail through without arousing any suspicion.
Many experts in various scientific and technological fields are questioning the value of FAST. Data from test studies have been shown to some scientists but have not been released to and reviewed by the general scientific community. It won’t come to an airport near you anytime soon; years of further development and testing lie ahead. But DHS has invested so much money and time in it already that we can probably count on seeing some version of it in airports eventually.
When that day arrives, I might decide I’d prefer to take the train. What do you think?
If you want to read more about FAST, see the December issue of Discover magazine.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
I wonder if stories have a best before date? Hollywood certainly doesn’t think so. Trying the search term “The Return Of . . .” on the Internet Movie Data Base got so many hits that they couldn’t be displayed. And that search wouldn’t capture the metamorphosis of television shows like Mission: Impossible and The A-Team into full-length movies or the multiple-movies series like Harry Potter and Rocky.
I spent some time this past week taming data bases that had, like Topsy, just growed. I read a lot of mysteries. Big surprise, eh? Because I write, blog, and speak about the world of mysteries, it’s helpful if I can remember at least the basics of what I’ve read like name of author, name of book, or name of main character. Over the years I created several simple data bases to keep track of that minimal information. As I upgraded my computer system and found new programs, I try new formats.
Bottom line was that I’d ended up with five different data base formats that weren’t compatible or usable. So I spent a grey cold winter day doing a lot of copying and pasting, turning disparate formats into a consolidated whole.
Mostly what I read are samples, a book here, a book there in a series to get an idea of a wide range of writers, but each year I pick a couple of writers that I really like and read their entire series, in order. The size of some of those series stunned me: 11 books, 12, 17, 18, 32, and a whopping 47 in one case.
Here’s my confession. As a reader, I am a writer’s worst nightmare. I want my old favorites to be the same for each book. And I want each book to be different. Both. At the same time.
Remember the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced "push-me—pull-you"), the gazelle-unicorn cross in the Dr. Doolittle books? Writers are the pull quality. Writers go farther, go deeper, go boldly (and try not to split infinitives as they go). If there are a limited number of plots, then the writer’s job is to make the old new and fresh.
The bottom line people are the push quality. Do what you’ve done before. Do what sells. Do what your readers expect. Do it just like you did before—or just like that other top-of-the-charts bestselling author did—only make it different.
As writers, we often have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. The contract demands it, at least for a certain number of books. But don’t let anyone talk you into the idea that what you are doing now is the only thing you should be doing forever. Contracts expire, the world changes, our own skills grow and mature. It always pays to have something different waiting in the wings.
I’m not talking about our occasional one-night stands, like writing haikus for amusement or helping Aunt Sophie whip the family history into shape. Those are fine things for a writer to do, but they don’t stretch you as a writer? A writer need at least two secret passions, projects that she works on every so often, projects that one day she just might bring to the foreground and work on seriously.
My two? The first is memories. I do a lot of journaling. I read a lot of women’s recollections of their lives. I believe that it is indescribably important that we, as women, document the everyday moments of our lives.
I also have a background in technical writing. I’ve been told I write good instructions. Once in a while I take a crack at trying to explain complicated things in a simple manner, just to see if I can still do it, just because one day it’s a skill that I might need again.
What are the two other kinds of writing that you have waiting in the wings?
Quote for the week:
Always keep some of your creative energy for play. Today’s playground could well turn into future sales. ~Barbara Hambly, science fiction, mystery, fantasy writer, November 2008
Monday, December 12, 2011
after an ice storm, are a stark reminder of the cold that is coming. It reminds me of Robert Frost's famous poem "Fire and Ice," in which the speaker surmises that either theory of destruction, an ice age or a heat wave, is an equally potent agent for destroying the world. But if we were to express what these photographs show us in poetic form, I think that the spare lines of a haiku might best capture this stark, frigid landscape.
Sends silver, wintry greeting
In layers of ice.
Share your harbingers of winter with the compressed language of this Japanese poetic style.