Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reading Historical Fiction

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I want a break from reading mysteries, I often turn to historical fiction, sometimes with an element of crime in it, but not necessarily. Evidently, I’m not the only one for whom the two genres are compatible.

Among my recent reads are two straight historical novels by very good mystery writers. One is The Course of Honor by Lindsey Davis, author of the delightful Marcus Didius Falco series, set in ancient Rome. In this novel, she tells the love story of the Emperor Vespasian and Caenis, a freedwoman who started out as a slave trained as a scribe.

The other is Kerry Greenwood’s Out of the Black Land. The Australian author writes two mystery series, the very popular Phryne Fisher books (themselves historicals with a Roaring Twenties setting) and the Corinna Chapman series, one of my favorites, set in a bakery in present-day Melbourne. Here, she turns to ancient Egypt: her protagonists, Nefertiti’s half-sister Mutnodjme and the Pharaoh Imhotep’s royal scribe, Ptah-hotep. All of these characters (except Vespasian, about whom more is known) are fictional imaginings of  real people, built from the faint partial prints they have left on the sands of time.

One of my all-time favorite fell-in-love-with-it-swept-me-away series is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, set in 18th-century Scotland and America: so far, from 1743, two years before the Battle of Culloden, to 1778, the middle of the American Revolutionary War—and since they’re time-travel novels, selected moments in more recent history from 1945, just after the end of World War II, to the mid-1970s. Gabaldon’s scope is enormous, and she has the knack of making every detail interesting.

Another brilliant series, also spiced up with some whopping mysteries and a little very subtle magic, was the late Dorothy Dunnett’s books about Francis Crawford of Lymond, a fictional Scottish nobleman, adventurer, and man of destiny. The series is set between 1547 and 1558, starting when Mary Stuart was a child queen in France and Henry VIII’s short-lived son Edward on the English throne. Dunnett’s detail is even richer than Gabaldon's. Her settings include not only the European countries most familiar to us but the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent and the Russia of Ivan the Terrible.

Dunnett wrote another massive series, the House of Niccolò books, set a century earlier and focusing on the rise of the great merchants and bankers rather than the rulers, soldiers, and statesmen of the time. That series was equally brilliant but not quite as compelling to me.

I’ve been learning the substantial amount of history I know primarily from novels my whole life. My first library book was about a little girl captured by Barbary pirates. I know a lot of American history from Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg books, about an extended family in America and England from before the Revolutionary War through World War II. I must have checked those books out of the library dozens of times.

Like many of my fellow genre fiction writers, I absorbed as much about Regency England from Georgette Heyer as from Jane Austen herself. I’ve read countless novels set in Plantagenet and Tudor times—the same period covered by Shakespeare. I adored Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece and finally “got” the Romans thanks to Colleen McCullough, as well as the mystery writers Steven Saylor, John Maddox Roberts, and, to come full circle, Lindsey Davis.

What are your favorite historical novels? And how much of your knowledge of history, like mine, comes from reading fiction?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Help! My website needs an update

by Sandra Parshall


My website has looked basically the same since its beginning in late 2005.

You may get the impression that I’m resistant to change. But it’s not so much change I resist as the nuisance work of trying to settle on a new look.

I love the header on my site. Love the colors, the font, the tree-and-moon photo (taken by and used with the permission of Charles Pfeil

I was startled recently when someone told me the moon and the font make my header look “cozy” and that it doesn’t reflect the more serious type of crime fiction I write. It doesn’t look the least bit cozy to me. And many people have told me that the site’s border color, which is deep blue, looks purple to them. Even those who see it as blue on their monitors tell me blue is a “cozy color” and I should use an “edgier” hue. I’m not sure what colors can be considered edgy – blood red? the mottled gray-green of decomposing skin? – but Robert Crais has a blue border on his website and I doubt anyone has ever confused his work with cozies.

The content box on my site (which has an off-white background, although some people swear it looks pink to them) has contained many different things over the years. Before everybody had a blog, authors wrote personal notes on their homepages and changed them frequently, so I did that at first. Now that I’ve scrapped the personal message, I have only my book covers up, with the latest title in the place of honor.

I want something different, but what? Looking at a zillion other authors’ websites increases my confusion. Some are plainer than mine, while others are such a jumble of graphics, animations, text, and zany colors that I hardly know where to look first.

I know what I don’t want. That jumble mentioned above is at the top of the don’t-want list. I don’t want video or slow-loading graphics. I don’t want a collection of little boxes full of small type. I don’t want a black background for the content. When I click into a website and see white text or, worse, red text on a black background, I click right back out again. It’s ugly, and it’s hard to read. I’m not going to subject my eyes to that for any length of time.

Sometimes a collection of small elements can be arranged in a pleasing way, as they are on Erin Hart’s site. 

I like the idea of a border with photos representing the mood or setting of my books. Choosing the photos is the hard part. Mountains, certainly. I’d like to continue using the tree-and-moon picture in some way. What else? Elements that I’ve used in my books? A spooky path into woods? (Broken Places) A deep snowfall? (Disturbing the Dead) A deserted farmhouse? (Bleeding Through) If I included mountain wildflowers, would people tell me flowers make the site look “cozy”? My protagonist, Rachel Goddard, is a veterinarian, but do I dare include animals in a website collage? One person told me that I shouldn’t even have pictures of my own cats on my bio page because pets are associated with cozies. (Yet I have seen many photos of male thriller writers with their pets.)

Some elements, such as a list of links to other writers’ websites, seem superfluous these days, and most writers have dropped them. I think I’ll drop my links page too, or put an information page in its place, guiding readers to organizations I support.

Sites created and maintained by publicists are easy to spot because they’re utterly impersonal and stick strictly to business: pushing the books. They don’t tell you much, if anything, about the authors. I’ve heard enough compliments on the extras my site includes – such as the cat pictures, interviews I've given, the interviews I’ve done with other writers, and articles I’ve written – to know that visitors are pleased to find those things. When I'm invited to speak to a group, the person introducing me often mentions something found on those pages. So they’ll stay, and I’ll add more recent material, something I haven’t done in too long. The cats' photos definitely need updating. Photography is my hobby, and I may share more of my pictures of wildlife and nature.

But I need to hear from readers.

Tell me what sort of content you want on an author’s website. Information about the books? Book discussion questions? Sample chapters? Background on the author? A glimpse into the author’s life?

What do you find appealing about a website’s appearance? What turns you off? What do you want to see on the homepage? Do you associate certain colors or typefaces with particular subgenres of crime fiction?

I’m still planning, so any input is welcome!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Want to improve your writing? Vocalize

Sharon Wildwind

This past weekend our local library had a workshop on mind, body, and spirit. One presenter was a sound therapist who uses singing bowls and vocalization to aid healing. Here’s some nifty things about sound I hadn’t known before, starting with the diatonic scale may have been a mistake.

For me, mainstream music remains a mostly-closed book. I flirted briefly with a musical instrument, learned to fake reading music, and have been told I can’t carry a tune, so don’t ask me for the particulars of diatonic scales. About as technical as I can get is eight repeating whole notes plus assorted flats and sharps. The earliest example is a Sumerian clay tablet, dated to about 2000 B.C.

The scale was useful for things like transporting music from one country to another and tuning musical instruments by ear. It did, however, put a damper on some nifty uses to which sound could be put. Namely, it conditioned us to believing that only real musicians could carry a tune, hit a note perfectly, and sing with piano accompaniment. In reality, sound is an unlimited continuum with individual bodies responding to their own frequencies.

Bodies are fluid sacs. Sound doesn’t stop when it hits a solid object. We hear sound more with our bodies than with our ears. Sound is a form of body massage, which reaches down into even bones. Here’s a little under a minute demonstration of a fountain bowl. Imagine that the water in the bowl are organs and cells in our bodies.

When that guy in the next apartment cranks his music up to heart-throbbing, ceiling-cracking level, he’s not just getting on our nerves. He may also be damaging our bones, internal organs, and immune system.

A healthy body resonates in harmony; an ill body doesn’t. Sound moves our cells. Healthy cells wiggle; unhealthy cells are rigid. Someone said, hmm, rigid things are more likely to break than flexible things. If unhealthy cells, such as cancer cells, are rigid, and rigid things tend to break, what effect would sound have on cancer cells? In preliminary research scientists played a number of instruments and observed, on instruments like MRIs, effects on cancer cells. The best instrument they found was a person singing to his or her own cells. Cancer cells burst in about four seconds.

We can tune our bodies with sounds. Meditation and relaxation changes our vibration patterns. So does toning, which is vocalizing, not singing. It is pure, simple sound. It’s the sound that singing bowls make.

Singing bowls are beautiful, expensive, hard to transport, and have a tendency to break. The human voice is portable, readily available, and works naturally with personal harmonics.

After you finish reading this paragraph, close your eyes. Relax. Take a deep breath. open your mouth Vocalize a sound like “ah,” allowing the sound to pass up and out with your breath. Repeat four times. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Now try it with the other vowels: eh-ih-oh-uh. You can also try the classic meditation “om,” or the sound of your choice.

That’s all there is to it. If you’re familiar with chakras, the body’s energy centres, you can also try visualizing different chakras in connection with sounds.

One of the really interesting things that happened in the library auditorium was that, every time we went though a vocalization exercise, on about the third breath, the energy in the room—settled is the only way I can describe it. Remember those iron-filing-and-magnet experiments in grade school where we put iron filings on top of paper and ran a red-and-silver horseshoe magnet under the paper. All the filings lined up in patterns. That’s what our voices did, strangers aligning their voices and their energies.

My husband and I have been experimenting with vocalizing. Even if the neighbors hear us, we're not likely to be damaging them, and they're not likely to call the police about the noise.

Here are some great times to vocalize 
  • Just before going to sleep
  • When you can’t sleep
  • As you wake up
  • In the shower
  • When your writing is stuck
  • When you feel angry, sad, or frustrated
  • When you’re stuck in traffic
  • When you’re lonely
  • When you want to celebrate
  • When you need a mini-vacation
Quote for the week

Instead of a written quote this week, here is master percussionist Emile de Leon playing a sound meditation on three singing bowls.

Monday, February 25, 2013

February Intentions

I'm in a bit of a quandary, because I only found out yesterday that February, aside from being African-American history month (which I hope I acknowledge significantly both as a teacher and as a mother), has been proclaimed the month for all of these things:

Boost Your Self-Esteem Month 

International Friendship Month 

Library Lovers' Month

Now it's February 25, and I've lost a multitude of opportunities to feel better about myself, pay homage to my friends, and more passionately love my libraries. :)

Still, the month isn't over. Here are some of the ways I'll try to honor all of the things this month represents.

As a library lover, I must confess that I don't visit my local libraries (there are three, all beautiful) as often as I once did. I will also confess that I am pretty much tied to my computer--a victim of the age of technology. However, through some energetic networking, I managed to find my eighteen-year-old son a job at one of our local libraries last summer, and he has worked there every weekday since.

This is a boon to both my son and the library, since he is learning much about library science and about having a regular job (and getting his first paychecks to boot), and his employers are very happy with him and have declared that he enhances their work experience. These are brand new reasons to love the library, aside from the one obvious reason that all people should love libraries--THEY LEND OUT BOOKS FOR FREE! All hail libraries!

I've also donated several bags of books to the library this year; hopefully in winnowing out my own collection, I have allowed a library patron or two to discover new authors.

In regard to international friendship day--which I assume celebrates friendship worldwide, rather than just celebrating our overseas friends--this is an appropriate reminder that I shouldn't take my friends for granted, which, of course, I do. But I can certainly try to acknowledge them in this last week of February. Perhaps a burst of e-mails to some of them, and real snail-mail letters to others. Or maybe just a quick "hello" on Facebook to people I haven't seen in a while.

At work, of course, I can send bright smiles and how-are-yous that are more than polite, rote responses. A note in the box of my friendly neighbors might be nice, as well. Trained by my polite mother, I've always believed in the power of a well-written card, and I think it could do a lot of good in acknowledging the friends in my life. If I do so, it might go a long way toward boosting my self-esteem, the other thing I'm supposed to do this month.

I'm curious about the origin of this particular topic. Did it originate in the mental health industry? Are we a nation of depressed Americans who feel bad about ourselves? Recently I had to visit the emergency room for a minor ailment because my doctor's office was closed. When I was called to a room, the first things the nurse asked me were "Have you been feeling depressed?" and "Do you feel safe at home?" I suppose she was legally obligated to ask both questions, but they made me sad. How many people per day, I wondered, answered yes to the first and no to the second?

But of course self-esteem is a separate matter from biological depression, and it's not something one can obtain by simply wanting it. I think one's only recourse is to define what a good life is, and then to try and live it.

Whether or not you acknowledge monthly labels, perhaps you can share the ways that you acknowledge your friends, your libraries, or yourselves?

(Photo: from a moment of spring break peace: South Haven, Michigan, 2010).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Movie vs History

In this Oscar weekend, and with two historical movies and one contemporary "factual" movie up for Best Oscar, I thought we'd look at historical movies and ask the question: Why is it that screenwriters and producers feel that a movie “based on actual incidents” or calling itself “historical” is allowed to play fast and loose with the facts?

I can tell you straight out that any book that purports to be based on “actual events” or any other historical novel for that matter, can’t get away with a cavalier attitude about throwing facts around. Our readers expect adherence to what actually happened, using real people of the past as accurately as we can. It’s our contract with the reader. Oh I know that I must get some things wrong. It’s the littlest things that usually trip up an author. But the brushstrokes of historical detail, the events, the people, the culture, the mores, are all as accurate and authentic as I can get it.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that books made into films have to go through significant changes to get them to the screen. After all, you only have about two hours to present the story. Sometimes characters have to be combined, time-shortened, events left out. It’s understandable when you are a talking about two distinct formats of storytelling.  But what I’m talking about is a complete retelling of historical facts, twisting it all to conform to a set idea about a script, rather than manipulating plot to suit history.

So let’s take a couple of examples of movies from the past that have tried to depict real people and events. Let’s begin with The Wind and the Lion, starring one of my favorite actors, Sean Connery as a Berber bandit, and Candace Bergan as his hapless but not helpless kidnap victim. It’s a sweeping romantic saga in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling or any Warner Bros. classic with Errol Flynn. It’s based on the Perdicaris Incident from 1904 when an American citizen was abducted in Tangier by the Berber bandit Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli or Raisuni. A true international incident, getting President Teddy Roosevelt involved by sending seven warships to the region, with all the adventure and tense international politics one can think of.

Except that the real Perdicaris wasn’t a woman at all, but a man, Ion Perdicaris. And he had renounced his American citizenship years earlier for that of Greek citizenship. Perdicaris began to sympathize with his kidnapper, just as Candace Bergan’s character does in the film, only you get a sense of romantic interest with the fictional Eden Perdicaris rather than the male camaraderie Ion Perdicaris had for Raisuli. This is taking a giant leap from fact to fiction. Why not just change the names, then? Change all of it that might relate to the real incident? I suppose it's to sell tickets. The producers get that added value by being able to say that it was based on real incidents, though now the public is duped into thinking that this really happened as shown in the film.

Another fatally flawed film is Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Surely created with good intentions, it tells the story of the heroic William Wallace who seemed to come from humble roots and fighting against the seemingly insurmountable English forces for freedom for his Scottish countrymen. A stirring tale, full of battles with knights, in-fighting with the Scottish lairds, amid the background of the ruthless King Edward I’s court. And it is a good story. The real story is good. But what they did in Braveheart was tell their story the way they wanted to.

Where to begin? First, small things. “Braveheart” actually refers to Robert the Bruce, who became King of Scots, not William Wallace. Second, there were no kilts and no belted plaid. Five hundred years too early for that. Blue woad on the face? Striking imagery, but about 1,000 years too late for that. The Jus Primae Noctis that King Edward supposedly invoked, meaning that the English knights could sleep with Scottish women the night of their wedding thus impregnating Scottish women with Englishmen, is pure myth. It never happened. And finally, probably the most obnoxious fantasy of all, Princess Isabella married to King Edward’s son--the eventual King Edward II--is depicted in the film as having an affair with William Wallace. She intimates to the dying King Edward that she is pregnant with Wallace’s child and he will eventually sit on the throne, so there! Except that at the time, Isabella was still a child of about six and living in France. By the time her son (the eventual Edward III) was born, Wallace had been dead seven years.      

Even recent films like Lincoln and Argo have their historical flaws. In Lincoln, for instance, a film that Mr. Speilberg said could be used for teaching in the schools, plays the fast and loose card. In the scene where the states are voting on the amendment to end slavery, they depict Connecticut as having two delegates vote against, when they all voted for. A seemingly small thing, but not to those in Connecticut and Connecticut schools. In Argo, the Canadians get short shrift when it was really them spearheading the deception that gets the Americans out of Tehran. The English are depicted as wanting nothing to do with it, when they indeed had a lot to do with helping the Americans. No car chases at the end, but plenty of real drama to choose from. Recent history obscured by Hollywood splash. Even Zero Dark Thirty, the Get Bin Laden film suffers from over dramatizing events that didn't happen, the controversial scene about CIA using torture to get their information on where Bin Laden was. Still producers feel a little twisting of history serves the plot. But what about history? Directors are fond of saying that they must embellish to make it exciting. I say, they ain't trying hard enough with the real facts.

Why am I complaining? I mean, I've enjoyed lots of movies that aren't accurate. Just sit back, munch the popcorn, and don't complain, right?

It wouldn’t be so bad if people didn’t get their history from movies. But I hate to think that there are people walking around believing that Edward III was fathered by William Wallace, or that the Raisuli gave a female Perdecaris the eye when such things are not history. School kids are already bombarded with strange “truths” from school districts trying to inflict “Creation Science” into their classrooms, as if there is a choice about scientific fact. Let's not give history the heave ho, too. After all, philosopher and poet George Santayana warned us that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Doesn’t it seem that we should concentrate a little more on history to avoid the pitfalls?

Ah well. Just sit back, enjoy the movie. But please. Don’t believe everything you see.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Jersey Shore

by Sheila Connolly

I will shamelessly piggyback on Sharon's lovely post from earlier this week, about family photos.  I am thanking my lucky stars that no one in my family was quite so obsessive about cataloguing our family on either side, because we fall far short of her tens of thousands of images.  Of course, that's a mixed blessing, because there isn't much for me to look at going back.

My engineer father was the primary photographer in my family (my mother professed an aversion to all things mechanical).  That does not mean my father was particularly good at taking pictures.  He wasn't documenting anything.  He often preferred artsy scenes of sunrise to family groups.  And when he did take pictures with people in them, he had a persistent habit of focusing on their faces, which means that people's feet are often cut off, and we get a great view of the ceiling in a lot of places.  I do understand—I have to fight the same tendency myself, because it seems almost rude not to "look" people in the eye when you're taking their picture.

Recently I was asked to submit a short essay for an anthology whose proceeds (if it's published) will go toward rebuilding the Jersey Shore, hard hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Since a lot of my happiest early memories go back to Long Beach Island, I was glad to participate.  Of course the first thing I did was to go searching for the photographs from that era, which proved to be challenging. We had 8-mm movies (I have those, and the projector and screen to show them, not that I ever do) and snapshots, and by our last years there I had a camera too, and took my own clutch of bad pictures. 

The pictures were scattered among those my grandmother had saved, those in albums my mother had assembled (giving up when I was younger than ten), and those I had taken.  They were oddly faded and curled, and even the negatives weren't much use, since modern negative scanners favor the 35mm format, not the old square negatives.

But I wasn't making a picture book; I was looking for images to trigger my own memories.  There weren't many photos, but there were enough.  I was pleased that the pictures corroborated what I recalled:  those were happy days.  No television allowed at the Shore, so I read—that's when I got into Nancy Drew.  Nobody back then worried about skin cancer, so we spent long hours on the beach, coming back bright red.  I spent a lot of quality time with my father, and he taught me how to body-surf.  I can't catch a wave now without thinking of him.  

We drank brightly-colored nameless sodas and we ate a lot of lobster.  I collected shells, and once I found the carcass of a horseshoe crab (which my mother wouldn't let me keep). One time after an overnight storm I railed against the trash that had washed up on the beach (luckily in those days we didn't even know about medical waste), and marveled that by the next day it had disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Nobody labeled the pictures, so I had to do some guessing about when they were taken.  Luckily back in those days Kodak printed the date on the processed photos, so that helped a little.  We didn't entertain a lot, so there aren't many mystery faces to puzzle over.

Once, many years ago in France, I spent an afternoon sitting on a family's shaded lawn, and the entertainment consisted of pulling out boxes of family photographs and postcards, handing them around, and commenting on them.  I wasn't related to that family in any way, but they assumed I would be want to be included, and in a way I was.  People should do more of that.  We should share pictures not merely to identify who the smiling faces are, but to recall the events they depict and the memories they evoke.  That's how we keep our families alive.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Maturity and Chutzpah

Elizabeth Zelvin

As part of my ongoing promotion of my CD of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman, I was lucky enough to land a gig at the 92nd Street Y, one of New York City’s most renowned bastions of culture. The program I proposed was originally entitled “How To Be An Outrageous Older Woman.” When I was told the audience of seniors would consist of both men and women, the gender-free title I came up with was “Maturity and Chutzpah.” I performed the combination of talk (therapist and writer hats) and music (singer-writer hat) late in January, and I’m glad to say it went well. Before I take the outline off the neck of my guitar (hands-free notes), I’d like to share my thoughts about these qualities, which I believe are essential to empowerment and wisdom in later life.

I started by singing my song, “Outrageous Older Woman,” the title track on my album, and asking the audience for their definitions of chutzpah. Several of them gave variants of the dictionary definition.

chutzpah (ch pronounced with a gargle, not as in “choo-choo”) 1. unmitigated effrontery or impudence; gall. 2. audacity; nerve.

For me, chutzpah starts with calling myself an Outrageous Older Woman. I have the T shirt, which inspired the song. I’ll wear it when I go running in Central Park—and forget I have it on until I notice that women of a certain age are all smiling at me. Chutzpah includes taking risks and not caring what people think, or at least not being deterred from taking risks or being outrageous by fear of what people will think. Above all, chutzpah is the willingness to embarrass your children. It’s never too late for that!

Through my professional work as a therapist and many years of life experience, I’ve seen plenty of people avoiding maturity as well as many people working on it. It’s a lifelong process that takes a lifetime of experience to develop. I’ve boiled it down to three essential qualities: self-knowledge, persistence, and resilience.

Here are some questions you can use as a do-it-yourself assessment of your own maturity.

Self-Knowledge How do I define myself? What are my roots, and to what extent am I connected with them? What have I done that I am proud of? What limitations do I acknowledge? What have I learned from my mistakes? What do I regret doing? What do I regret not doing? Is it really too late? Is it ever too late?

Persistence When is my persistence a strength (perseverance)? When does my persistence become excessive (stubbornness)? What lessons learned from being persistent? What lessons have I learned from letting go?

Resilience What experiences and losses have I bounced back from? How many times have I reinvented myself? What (or who) keeps me going when times get tough?

There’s only one trick question in the bunch: “Is it ever too late?” I strongly recommend that you answer “No” and act accordingly. My first novel was published on my sixty-fourth birthday, the CD a month before I turned sixty-eight. My mother was older than that when she got a doctorate and became a college professor. I know a woman who got a tattoo as her eighty-eighth birthday present to herself. (The tattoo was a ball of yarn and knitting needles.) My aunt fell in love at ninety-two and still plays tennis at going on 101. So what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a... drone?

by Sandra Parshall

If you’ve ever received a speeding ticket in the mail, accompanied by a picture of your vehicle, you know you’re being watched. But most of us have accepted the ubiquitous traffic cams and security cams because we see their value every time one of them is instrumental in the identification and arrest of a criminal.

But surveillance drones? These things are freaking out people from coast to coast. 

Undoubtedly the outcry is caused partly by bad associations: we hear the word drone and immediately picture a sinister, unpiloted aircraft that can be used for spying or for dropping bombs. The kind of drones U.S. police departments want to use are small, don’t fly very high, and are not armed. But they are made for watching people. Police want to use them for surveillance. Alarmed citizens imagine little machines hovering outside their windows, aiming a video camera inside the house.

All across the U.S., state and local governments are scrambling to answer these fears. At least a dozen states so far have either banned or restricted the use of drones by police or other government agencies.

The Seattle Police Department purchased two drones last fall, but widespread publicity about them brought a storm of public protest, and last week Mayor Michael McGinn ordered the police not to use the machines. The drones, which had never been deployed, are going back to the manufacturer.

One of Seattle's ill-fated drones
In spring of 2012, Virginia’s Republican governor said he thought police use of drones for surveillance would be a “great” thing. Now, less than a year later, the Republican-controlled state legislature has enacted a two-year moratorium on the use of the technology by law enforcement and government agencies in Virginia. The moratorium was supported (prepare to be astonished) by both the ACLU and the Tea Party.

The Charlottesville, VA, city council felt local restrictions were needed, although the city’s police don’t even have a drone and haven’t requested one. The city council has spelled out how the technology may and may not be used. If the police ever obtain a drone, it may be used for search and rescue, but not for surveillance of citizens. No evidence collected by a drone can be used in a criminal case in city courts.

Last year, Congress enacted a federal law making it easier for local law enforcement to purchase drones for domestic surveillance, and grants to cover the cost became available through the Department of Homeland Security. Now some members of Congress are trying to rein in their use because it may violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

When introducing the Preserving American Privacy Act, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said, “According to the FAA, by 2015, it will allow the use of drones nationwide, and by 2030, 30,000 drones will be cruising American skies – looking, observing, filming, and hovering over America. They will come whether we like it or not. We will not know where they are or what they’re looking at or what their purpose is, whether it’s permitted or not permitted, whether it’s lawful or unlawful, and we really won’t know who is flying those drones.”

In many cases, “who is flying those drones” will be individuals who bought them – starting at around $300 each – at Radio Shack or some other electronics retailer. Amazon has six pages of drones and drone accessories. You can control your personal drone with your iPhone or iPad or iPod. (I guess they have an app for that.) They come with interchangeable hulls for indoor as well as outdoor use and cameras that stream live video. They come in various sizes, but most personal drones are much smaller than those made for police and weigh less than five pounds.
The Parrot drone

I can see the usefulness of drones in search and rescue operations. In wilderness areas they could save the lives of lost hikers or children by locating them more quickly than search parties on foot ever could. In autumn of 2011, anti-government protestors in Poland used a drone to track the movements of Warsaw police and military troops. 

But I’m not sure why police in the U.S. are so eager to acquire them for “surveillance” of citizens. A drone can’t be sent out on its own to follow somebody around wherever he goes. The machine has to be monitored and controlled remotely by a human. How high in the air would it be? Would it be visible from the ground? What’s to stop somebody from shooting it down? How easy would it be to maneuver in an area with power and utility lines, cell phone towers, tall buildings, and mature trees? 

The Dragonfly drone
It’s the use of drones by private citizens that’s going to cause trouble, though. Do you feel queasy at the thought of your neighbors – or someone who has a grudge against you – spying on you with a drone? How would you feel if video of a private moment in your life, recorded by a drone, showed up on YouTube? 

Aside from privacy issues, the use of this technology raises legal questions that will have to be answered. Private detectives gathering evidence for divorce or insurance fraud cases risk arrest for trespassing if they go on someone’s property without permission. Should they be allowed to use drones to peek through windows and take photos or record videos? If you saw a drone hovering above your property and you knocked it down – or shot it down – and destroyed it, would you be liable for the damage?

How much privacy are we entitled to in our daily lives? What kind of restrictions would you like to see on the use of personal drones?

While we’re on the subject of privacy, how do you feel about Google putting photos of your house on the internet? Here’s the Parshall Manse from the street and the air. 


I don’t care if the whole world knows what my house looks like, but seeing it on the internet is a little weird. Nobody trespassed onto our property to take these pictures (maybe the aerial shot was taken by a drone?), so is Google violating our right to privacy?

Where does the individual’s right to privacy end these days?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Let the Good Times Roll … and Bring a Camera

Sharon Wildwind

Our family’s unofficial photographer died recently. Since his death, I’ve become the family photo repository because I love photos and I’m the only one still alive who has a hope of figuring out if the young woman in a white dress and floppy hat—penciled lightly on the back of the print is “Summer 1902”—is my Great-Aunt Myrtle, Great-Aunt Marie, Tauntee, or my grandmother. I may be the only one left who actually met all four sisters.

Family members have been very generous, sending me CDs and prints they’ve had hanging around a long time and were never sure what to do with. I’m saving the photos and CDs for later this year because a much bigger project comes first.

A relative sent me two thumb drives, in total 65 gigabytes of photographs, from the unofficial family photographer's computer. The only problem was that, while I had a working, every-day ability to deal with my photo program, I’d never tried to use it for a project of this magnitude. Just before Christmas last year downloaded all those photo to put them in order and make DVDs for the family.

Life lesson: it takes a long time to transfer 65 gigabytes from thumb drives to my computer’s hard drive. The best course would have been to busy myself elsewhere while the transfer happened, but I didn’t do that. Since nothing seemed to be happening, I pressed the “copy” button a couple of extra times to see if it was working. Fortunately I figured out how to stop the multiple downloads, but not before I ended up with approximately 25,000 photographs to cull. Thank goodness I’d had the good sense (and the technical ability) to download them into one album.

Yesterday was a Monday holiday, Family Day. What better time to spent a lot of time with my family, even if they are in digital format? I discovered a lot of things about a man I hadn’t gotten to know as well as I would have liked.

Probably the most important thing I discovered were five photographs of a grave marker. Almost everyone in the previous generation was buried in the same cemetery, but one person died and was buried some distance away. Family lore said there were never photos of his grave, but there are. I don't know why he kept quiet about having them, but he did.

We have the same eye for light, shadow, and form, and we both love to photograph odd places like parking garages.

He thought dogs more photogenic than cats,
 but his absolute favorite creatures were bright tropical birds.
He loved tacky places.
He went to Las Vegas, the Kentucky Derby,
 the Grand Ole Opry, State Fairs, and Mardi Gras.

He loved parties, especially theme parties around holidays.
There were dozens of photos of him and his friends at New Years bashes, pink-and-red Valentine’s Day extravaganzas, 4th of July fire works, Labor Day pool parties, Halloween parties with cupcakes shaped like eyeballs, and big Thanksgiving meals.

Easter and Christmas were for family. I suspect, particularly at Christmas, he may have been a pain. He took delight in photographing every single gift opening. Our combined families rack up a huge pile of gifts.

As time went on, life became difficult, and the photos changed. There were fewer parties and less photos at Easter and Christmas. He did a retrospective tour, courtesy of Google Earth, revisiting all the the houses he'd lived in, and, with the street view feature, he was able to photograph all but one of those houses. He spent a lot of time playing with photo manipulation. One of the last photographs he created was a welcome-home card for an anticipated new arrival. Perhaps he guessed that he wouldn't be around to welcome her himself.
Oh, that photograph of the woman in the summer dress? I’m going for Great-Aunt Marie who married a man in the oil business and moved to east Texas.
Quote for the week:
Laissez les bons temps rouler: Cajun French for let the good times roll.
(And be sure to bring a camera.)

Monday, February 18, 2013


Congratulations to Ellie, who won the drawing for a free copy of BROOKLYN BONES by Triss Stein.

A Ghostly Legend and a Frightened Me

by Julia Buckley

Do you believe in ghosts? Most of the time, I don't.  I've met people who say they've seen one; I have students and colleagues who say they live with one (old Chicago houses are legendary for their ghosts). But, like any skeptic, I always figure that if they existed, we would all see them, and frequently.

So in general I tend to take ghost stories with a grain of salt.

HOWEVER, I work in a school that is supposedly haunted by at least one ghost.  It's a private school, and it once housed a convent, before renovations located the sisters to another building. The old convent was on the fourth floor, which has now been converted into rarely-visited classrooms; but at least two of my co-workers claim to have seen the ghost of a nun walking toward that no-longer-extant living area.

The first, a janitor, told me that he was here very late one night--close to midnight--working with a companion on a burst water pipe. He looked up to see the figure of a nun, clad in the full habit with a long rosary at her side, walking toward the stairs.  He even commented to his colleague, asking what a nun was doing walking around the building at this time of night.  The other man had not seen her.

One of our school counselors also says that she saw the ghost.  She too was working late, preparing a standardized test. She was in the counseling office, which sits directly below the old convent, and she looked out the glass doors to see a nun walking toward the stairs; she opened the stairway door and disappeared (apparently headed for her old living quarters).

Despite the testament of two of my colleages, I still have trouble believing in the ghost (or ghosts). HOWEVER, there is always that little bit of room for belief, especially on days like today.  As I type this, I am in the school alone.

If you think strange houses are spooky at night, try hanging out in a giant, deserted school for any length of time.  It can be downright horrifying. And even though, on a rational level, I don't believe I will see a ghost, I have pointedly avoided the counseling area, the stairway, and, of course, the fourth floor.  I also avoid going into the bathroom, because I wouldn't want to be cornered in there.  So I guess I hold out a small percentage of possibility that ghosts do exist.

Why am I here alone?  Well, teachers often have to come to an empty school, either because we forgot something crucial or because we have to get some work done on the school computer.  In my case, I planned to meet with a group of students, but they agreed on one time, and I showed up at another (much earlier) time.  Hence my blogging in a dark and silent school.

In order to type this, I am putting my back to the entrance door of the library, where I am, and which is directly across from the counseling area.  Am I letting my imagination intimidate me?  Yes.  Am I feeling nervous every time I hear a weird sound?  Yes.  Sure, it could be the building "settling," or the ticking of a clock, or a furnace going on in its loud, banging way.  But it's scary, and it's almost the equivalent to staying in a house that is said to be haunted. It is also freezing in here, because it's about ten degrees outside, and the heat is set lower on the weekends.  :)

My school is not the only one in the area with a legendary ghost.  Two noted universities in our area have their own ghost legends; one is haunted by a monk.

If you're a ghost-hunter at heart, come and visit me in Chicago.  You can go to the city and take the Chicago ghost tour.  Then I'll take you to a dark, silent school where people say they've seen a strange figure walking the halls.

But if you want to go to the fourth floor, you're on your own.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Urban cozy? Soft-boiled?

by Triss Stein 

Everyone who leaves a comment this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Brooklyn Bones.

What is an urban cozy?  Does it sound like an oxymoron , like “giant shrimp”?  Walking down the mean streets…of St. Mary Mead?

I thought something was missing in the mystery universe. Stereotyping a bit here, but in general, there are cozies, which take place in villages or suburbs, often with amateur sleuths and a background of ordinary life, the direct descendants of Agatha  Christie. They might be humorous, they might be serious. Then there are hard-boiled mysteries, which take place in gritty urban settings and are the direct descendents of the above quoted Chandler. That landscape does not have a home for characters (or readers!) who live in a big city but are not Philip Marlowe. Or Harry Bosch. Or Matt Scudder. Who do not even know anyone like Matt Scudder. 

That would be me, and my friends and millions  of other readers who live rather ordinary lives but do it in a big (bad?)  city like New York. In fact, I live in Brooklyn, which could be a city all by itself, and would the  4th largest in the US. The life I live and see around me is mostly about work and family and home, local politics, neighborhood issues. School when my children were younger. Health. Doesn’t that sound a lot like small town life or suburban life? And anyone who believes there is not enough drama there to sustain a mystery series is not paying attention.

Personally, I like all kinds  of books. I admire a well-written dark urban crime story, and sometimes I want to read something that is mostly froth, However, what I admire most is in between: a  cozy-style set-up that has some resemblance to real life, real emotions, real conflicts in real settings, however peaceful those settings look from the outside.

In my real life, my first professional job was with the public library system in Brooklyn, They liked to move us around and not being a native New Yorker, I came to each new neighborhood with a clean mental slate. I observed, and what I observed was that they were a lot like small towns.  Each neighborhood had its own atmosphere, history, quirks, and fears.

My question became, could I use that to write mysteries set in city neighborhoods, and half-way between too cozy and too hard-boiled?  A domestic style background that includes real emotions and real conflicts? Why not try? 

And why not start with my own neighborhood, Park Slope, Brooklyn, which has gone through a long cycle of change in the time I have been here?

Meet Erica Donato. She came from the Brooklyn world where people see no reason to go as far as Manhattan more than once a year. Now she lives in a different world,  the gritty end of a gentrified Brooklyn of brownstones and  yuppies. She  is part way to a Ph.D in urban history She is the young single mother of a teen–age daughter whose childhood is much different from Erica’s own. Having made a journey that is short in miles but long in life changes, Erica is a bundle of contradictions.

In Brooklyn Bones, history comes barging into her modern life, when her daughter, helping a contractor in their house, finds a body hidden behind a fireplace. 

Mother and daughter are both haunted by the fact that it was an unknown teen-age girl. Soon, their questions lead back to the ungentrified days, when the neighborhood was in the throes of change and the fabled age of Aquarius was turning very dark. They find interesting characters who hold pieces of that story, and dangerous ones who plan to keep it buried forever.

The next book includes Tiffany windows stolen from a historic  cemetery and all of them will include some historical mysteries mixed up with modern ones. There is no end to Brooklyn’s stories. I even have a section of my web page called Brooklyn Fun Facts.

Maybe I can make this urban cozy idea work. 

Leave a comment this weekend and you'll be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Brooklyn Bones. 

Writing is Brooklyn resident Triss Stein’s third career. The first was the job that inspired her new series: children’s librarian in a dozen sharply different Brooklyn communities. The second was in business research, in settings from a major global consulting firm to DC Comics. The author of two previous mystery novels, Triss has also published a number of short stories.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reading in the Dark

by Sheila Connolly

This past weekend my community lay smack in the path of the Blizzard of 2013. I wasn't worried about the house:  it has weathered plenty of storms before (including the disastrous Hurricane of 1938), and we'd just had a new roof installed and any hanging tree limbs removed, to make our insurance company happy.  What I wasn't prepared for was living without the benefits of power for a couple of days.

Most middle-class citizens in the United States are used to their electric-powered creature comforts, like lights and television and dishwashers.  Of course we can survive without them (as long as we're not stupid enough to burn down the house or collapse from carbon monoxide poisoning from unventilated generators or gas stoves), but we've lost the knack of managing things like light and heat.

When my house was built, around 1870, it had a coal furnace and gas lighting.  Any time we renovate, we find the gas pipes (no longer connected, I assure you) behind walls and running between floor joists.  The heating was passive:  you stoked up the furnace and let the hot air rise, without benefit of fans or pumps—and you fed the furnace by hand from the bin in the basement.  Temperature regulation consisted of opening or closing a vent using a simple chain and pulley system which ran from the living areas through the floor to the basement. 

Municipal electric power didn't arrive in my town until the 1890s. This house was close enough to the center of town that electrical connections probably came early, but electricity initially was used sparingly within the house.  We still have a fuse board in the basement (no, not connected to anything) with a handful of circuits, one of which was devoted solely to the toaster (the label is still there).  Rooms had one or two outlets at most. I'm still amused by one in the dining/sitting room, where the plug is smack in the middle of the floor, presumably for a table lamp.

But what coping with a storm drives home to a writer is how hard it would have been to read before electric power.  Assuming, of course, that you wanted to read, but the dim light would have made it equally difficult to do anything useful like mending clothes or darning socks.  Admittedly I'm talking about urban or suburban dwellers—there are good reasons for farmers to retire when the sun goes down.  Farming is hard work.

But, gentle readers, imagine reading a book by the light of a flickering fire or an oil lamp or candle.  Try it yourself:  it's not easy.  The problem is compounded because the print in books and newspapers back in the day was ridiculously small, made worse by the fact that corrective lenses were not necessarily available or accurate, even with Ben Franklin's invention of bifocals in 1784.  It goes a long way to explain why people read out loud: one person, perhaps the one with the best eyesight or the best spectacles, claimed the seat closest to the light source and read for the benefit of the gathered family.  The added benefit was that everyone remained in a single room for this pastime, which meant you could get away with heating only that room.  It was kind of efficient, if you think about it.

One small loss associated with the decline of this mode of entertainment:  ladies' poetry.  There was a time when newspapers or magazines needed content, and many a gentlewoman could pen a pretty piece that would be printed.  No doubt there were strict conventions (not unlike contemporary genre fiction):  limitations in subject matter, language, length, and so on. Sad subjects were allowed so long as they were uplifting.  Humor was permitted, as well as some elements that we would consider politically incorrect these days, like ethnic caricatures. But I would venture to guess that most pieces were constructed so that a family could share an edifying moment together by the warm fireside and retire happily.

I was very happy when our power returned!

And one very happy announcement:  my newest release, Buried in a Bog, is #14 on the New York Times Mass Market Bestseller list!