Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Keep the Channel Open

Transition spaces and times fascinate me. They are a little of this, a little of that, and there is always a crucial pivot point where life might go one way or the other.

Here we are on transition day. Bye-bye, 2013. Hi there, 2014. I see you peeking around the door. Come on in, I’ve got the tea on. Here’s my wish for all of us as writers in the coming year.

Last quote of 2013
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.

The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
~ Martha Graham (1894 – 1991), American modern dancer and choreographer

Happy New Year from Poe's Daughters

Monday, December 30, 2013

Appreciating the Past

Hello, Faithful PDD Readers.

Today is my birthday; I always find, perhaps because of its proximity to the New Year, that my birthday brings all sorts of reflection and contemplation.

Sometimes that leads me to make resolutions early.  Sometimes those resolutions are realistic, and sometimes they are not (although they are always made with earnest intention).

So this year I decided to reflect instead on what was good about the year I have just completed.  Like all of you, I appreciate my family and friends; my warm house on this very cold day (it's about 5 degrees here in Chicago); my current job, which I have held for fifteen years and from which I have learned much; my pets, all five of them, who bring joy each day.

I'm also grateful for, in no particular order:

--puppies and kittens on YouTube
--the magical Internet
--books, print and electronic
--authors, living and dead
--my ancestors
--the homelands of my parents and grandparents
--fuzzy slippers
--my car
--music, all kinds
--my cd player (no, I have not yet graduated to an Ipod)
--exercise (even though I don't appreciate it ENOUGH, if you know what I mean)
--my new agent!
--the birds at my feeder (and the squirrels, the bunny, and the mouse)
--money--I don't have a lot, but I'm glad I have some
--babies (especially mine, but all babies)
--remembered birthdays past (48 of them)
--my parents
--my town
--snail mail
--good movies
--Cary Grant
--Hugh Grant

Happy New Year to you all!  May you pursue your wildest dreams.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


By Jeri Westerson

You know you’re old when you remember what it was like to type on a typewriter. Kids today. They just don’t know the trouble it was. Hammering away at those keys to ensure you’d made contact from ink ribbon to paper. Reaching the end of the line with a ting of the bell, and then flinging the carriage back for another go at the next line. Typing too far when you’ve really got going and the paper runs out only to end up typing on the roller. Changing ribbons. Using carbon paper. Do I miss it? Hell no. Typing a manuscript on a typewriter would never have been viable for me. I make too many mistakes. And it’s glorious to cut and paste without literally having to do it with scissors and Scotch tape.

But I do like the look of typewriters. I have a modest collection of them from the twenties, thirties, and forties. I look at typewriters like some collectors gravitate toward clocks. The mechanisms are far
more interesting than their actual purpose. The little bell signaling you’ve come to the end of the page. The way the ribbon moves. The keys themselves, like a tiny print shop at your finger tips. And remember, this is movable type at its best. Once you’ve typed onto paper, you can actually feel the impression of the letters because there were these little metal sculptures literally banged into the page. Altogether visceral. If you’d like to relive those wonderful days of yesteryear, you might want to pick up a copy of the book by Darren Wershler-Henry, “The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting.” He will tell you when typewriters were finally commercially developed (1830s seemed to be the time they were finally looking like a typewriter, though variations had been invented prior to that time.)

And did you know, for instance, that the only reason the keyboard is laid out as it is (even on our current PCs) was so that the most commonly used letters wouldn’t get the machine stuck (those of you old enough will remember having to reach into the open area in front of the paper and release the hopelessly tangled arms when we went too fast with too many fingers pushing too hard)?

And if collecting the whole typewriter isn’t your bag, you can always wear bits of it.

Today, typewriters remain an oddity of another era. A Forerunner of what we use all the time (as you are using now). Kids don't even take typing classes in school anymore. They simply learn by doing since grammar school. No more quick brown foxes jumping over lazy dogs. Type, delete, type again, and print. Thank God.

*The above photos are part of my own collection.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Poe in Boston

by Sheila Connolly

It was only this year that I learned that there is a public art project to honor Edgar Allan Poe in Boston.  What makes that funny is that he didn’t have very nice things to say about Boston.

As you’ve no doubt learned or seen over the years, Poe is commemorated in multiple cities. But he was born in Boston, to travelling actors.  No, the house isn’t there anymore—it was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by the state Transportation Building.  He lived in Richmond, VA, with foster parents after his own parents died.  There are Poe museums in Baltimore, the Bronx, and Philadelphia as well as Richmond; the room where Poe lived as a student at the University of Virginia are preserved in his honor.

All Poe has gotten from Boston until now is a small plaque on the wall of a luggage store. (Hmm, maybe there’s some irony there, because he certainly traveled around a lot.)

Why do we care?  What is it about dead writers that draws the average tourist accompanied by two point five whining children? Do they think some spirit of the author lingers in the stone and concrete?

It is interesting to note that the (much more successful) author Stephen King made a nice contribution earlier this year to the proposed monument.  It arrived at the Poe Foundation of Boston, which is managing the project, on April Fool’s Day, and was briefly thought to be a joke. You have to believe that King planned it that way, right?

Poe’s relationship with the city of his birth was a rocky one.  He sometimes denied having been born in Boston at all. He was contemptuous of the literary elite of Boston and the area, especially Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, saying they were “incapable of recognizing a decent poem if it fell onto their precious Common,” and frequently referring to Boston as “Frogpondium,” in reference to the frog pond at the Boston Common. In 1845 Poe gave a reading at the Boston Lyceum which bombed (he recycled an existing poem, one of his youthful efforts, rather than presenting something new) and the local papers slammed him.  In 1848 he tried to commit suicide in Boston but failed.

And still the city chooses to honor him, if belatedly.  They’ve commissioned a statue, to be erected in Edgar Allan Poe Square, a brick-paved plaza at the corner of Boylston and Charles streets.  The statue, to be executed by New York sculptor Stefanie Rocknak, features Poe with a humongous and rather terrifying raven swooping out of an open trunk, with a human heart (really? Yes, I know it’s a reference to The Telltale Heart, but still…) and loose papers fluttering behind him. Running after an elusive idea, or trying to flee a city he didn’t like?

How ambivalent we are about our writers! But maybe Longfellow had the last word when he said, “Fame comes only when deserved, and then is as inevitable as destiny, for it is destiny.”
Manor houses! Lost art works! A doomed romance!  All you could ask for in a mystery novel, coming February 2014


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Do Heroes Need to Fall in Love?

L.J. Sellers (Guest Blogger)

The winner of the drawing for L.J. Sellers's The Trigger is Thelma Straw.

Romantic suspense is a top-selling genre, combing two popular elements that attract readers. I’ve heard both writers and readers say all suspense, maybe all novels, should have a romantic relationship as part of the story—that it’s only a matter of degree and how integral it is to the plot.

The support for that notion is that all humans crave love and that we all want to find the right partner and fall in love. When I think about two of my favorite novels from a few years ago (The Lock Artist and Beat the Reaper)—they both had an intense love story as a critical, motivating component, even though they were crime fiction. So it’s hard to disagree with the idea that novels can benefit from a compelling relationship.

But what about detective series, where the relationship blossoms in the first or second book? After that, the protagonist’s love interest may only be a small part of the overall story, and the focus is certainly not on the main character falling in love. Readers enjoy those series, and they don’t expect a budding romance in every new book. So I have to conclude that not every thriller needs a romantic relationship either. Some that I enjoyed recently didn’t. (The Survivors Club and Before I Go to Sleep) Additionally, some thriller series are popular without having recurring partner-characters. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, for example, has intimate encounters, but they’re not essential to the plot and they don’t blossom into long-term affairs.

But can a thriller series with a female protagonist follow that mold? I’m hoping so. In Crimes of Memory (Detective Jackson #8), I introduced Agent Jamie Dallas, a young female FBI agent who specializes in undercover work. I had so much fun writing her character that I knew she needed her own series. Dallas is independent, restless, and loves to travel to take on undercover roles. The lifestyle doesn’t leave room for a committed relationship, and she likes it that way.

As I wrote the first book, I worried that some readers would want, even expect, the protagonist to fall in love and get together with another agent. Some early readers expressed hope that it might happen in the next book. But I’m going to resist that pull. It simply doesn’t feel true to the character. I can only think of a few females in crime fiction who remain emotionally detached: the character in The Informationist and Lisbeth Salander in GWTDT. But I’m sure there are more.

The Trigger, book one with Dallas as the protagonist, releases January 1, and I’m hoping readers will support my choice to let her be independent, sexually liberated, and not prone to falling in love. Call it an endearing character flaw.

What’s your opinion? Does every novel need a love story? Are series characters better with long-term partners? Do you read non-romantic suspense?

L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery series—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as standalone thrillers. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes. You can find her at LJSellers.com, Crime Fiction Collective, Facebook, and Twitter.

LJ is giving away a copy of The Trigger, print or e-book (winner's choice) in a drawing among visitors who post a comment on today's blog. The lucky winner will be announced on the blog tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Day Before

Sharon Wildwind

Today, none of us, including me, are interested in writing tips. I hope this day is full of friends, laughter, anticipation, and peace. I hope there are great smells coming from your kitchen. I'm making cornbread dressing and pecan cookies.
Find moments for yourself. Drink tea. Relax. See you on the flip side.

Hugs all around,

Monday, December 23, 2013

Help Me Find a Holiday Read

by Julia Buckley

I am on a brief break from work.  I had to bring some work home, and I have to use some of the time preparing and cleaning up after parties.  I'd like to watch some movies, and I'd like to go out for some meals (since my life is rather dull in this respect when I'm in the work-a-day world--daily turkey sandwiches, or example).

But I'm thinking that, even though a "long break" always proves to be an illusion and my alarm is ringing at 6 AM again all too soon, I MIGHT be able to sneak in a couple of holiday reads.

But, as you probably know, finding the right book takes time and research.  A couple of weeks ago I printed my criteria for a good book.  I wonder if I might call upon your expertise, readers of this blog, to suggest one of your own favorites that I might want to look up as a possible holiday read?  I promise to investigate them all before making my choice.  They don't have to be brand new or by a super popular author--I just want a great, enthralling read with which to curl up in my chair.  I want to feel, when I'm finished, that I had a little adventure and it was a pleasure from beginning to end.

Is that too much to ask of a book?  I doubt it, which is why I hope to get a variety of suggestions.

Meanwhile, I'm sharing some holiday images from my son's birthday party.  He is nineteen today.  Happy birthday, Ian!

  A dessert bar made of entirely of chocolate things.  It was popular.

This little Bavarian House candle holder was a gift from my parents.

Ian (holding the cookie) and his cousins.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What’s in Store at Malice Domestic 26?

By Barb Goffman
Malice Domestic programming chair

Two more days until Festivus, four more days until Christmas, five more days until Kwanzaa, and—here’s the biggie—ten more days before the price for Malice Domestic 26 (i.e., Malice 2014) goes up. Surely you don’t want to miss out on this rocking convention, so stop wrapping those gifts and register now at http://www.MaliceDomestic.org.

What’s that? You don’t know what Malice Domestic is? (Yes, I’m channeling the snowman narrator from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Why, Malice Domestic is one of the world’s largest mystery conventions. It’s held every spring in Bethesda, MD, right outside Washington, D.C. Hundreds of authors and fans converge to talk about mysteries, have books signed, and make merry in the hotel bar. This year will be Malice’s twenty-sixth convention, and our honorees are legendary:

·    Guest of Honor Kathy Lynn Emerson writes historical mysteries, contemporaries, non-fiction, short stories, children’s books, and romance! Is there anything she can’t do? I doubt it.

 ·    Toastmaster Earlene Fowler is the author of a fifteen-book (!) western-set mystery series as well as stand-alone mysteries. She’ll be on hand to keep things lively, and if we’re lucky, maybe she’ll wear her cowboy hat.



·    Lifetime Achievement Honorees Dorothy Cannell, Joan Hess, and Margaret Maron (yes, three this year!) hardly need an introduction. They’ve written more than eighty books between them and have earned a slew of awards.


·    Poirot Award winner Tom Schantz and fan guest of honor Audrey Reith also will be on hand, and we will officially be remembering the late Reginald Hill.

These folks alone should be enough to have you salivating on your bookmarks. So go register now at http://www.MaliceDomestic.org before the price goes up on January 1.

What’s that? You want to know what else will be new at Malice this year? Okay, I’ll spill. We have a few changes in the works.

·    In 2011 we began an Agatha Award category for Best Historical Novel, but we didn’t change the name for the Best Novel category. As a result, some people were confused. If a historical novel is outstanding, should it be nominated in the Best Historical category or does it qualify for the overall Best Novel category? This year, to clarify that we hold historical and contemporary novels at the same level of esteem, we’ve changed the Best Novel category to Best Contemporary Novel. As a result, we hope it will be clear that Agathas will be awarded to two overall best novels each year, one contemporary, one historical. (No changes have been made to the Agatha Award categories for Best Non-Fiction Book, Best Children’s/YA novel, Best First Novel, and Best Short Story.)

·    Speaking of the Agatha Awards, we’re moving up the nomination deadline. Everyone who registers for Malice by December 31 of any year is eligible to submit their choices for Agatha nomination in all the six categories. In past years, those nomination submissions were due in late January or early February. But this year, the deadline will be Friday, January 17. Since submissions can now be made via email, we’re not building in as much time as we used to for the workings of the U.S. mail. (Moving things up also is helpful for behind-the-scenes programming and publications activities.)

·    Beginning with this convention, authors nominated for the Agatha Award will be ineligible to participate in Malice-Go-Round, which is Malice’s version of speed-dating between authors and fans. (Malice-Go-Round, held on Friday morning, is so popular that we allot author spots by lottery each March, and each year a long wait list is created.) The Malice Board has made this change regarding eligibility to ensure that no Agatha nominee has a promotional opportunity during the convention that’s unavailable to the other nominees in that category. (P.S. If you’re an eligible author who wants to participate in Malice-Go-Round, I’ll send invitations in March. No need to reach out to me now.)

·    In past years, on Fridays we’ve had a single track of programming. It made things easy. No choices to be made. Just one interview or panel etc. to attend. Well, no more. Beginning this year, we’re forcing you to make choices—that’s right, on Friday afternoon, there will be two tracks of programming. The panel for Agatha nominees in the Best Contemporary Novel category will be at the same time as the panel for the Agatha nominees in the Best Historical Novel category. What other hard choices will you have to make? Wait and see. The program schedule should be posted in March.

·    The New Authors Breakfast, which highlights authors whose first mystery has been published since last year’s convention, will once again be held on Sunday morning. The buffet breakfast is open to all convention attendees.

I hope you’re as eager for the convention to arrive as I am. Only four more months! But remember the more important, imminent deadline: The registration price goes up on January 1, so head on over to www.MaliceDomestic.org and register now. 

We can’t wait to see you in the spring!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Peter O'Toole

by Sheila Connolly

Peter O’Toole, who died earlier this week, changed my life.

No, I never met the man or had any other form of contact with him, beyond what most people would:  his movies.  But in a way he was responsible for setting the course for a part of my life.

A friend (plus a parent who did the driving) took a small group to see Lawrence of Arabia for her birthday.  I think I was twelve, maybe thirteen—and it was the first movie I can remember understanding in an adult way.  I was literally stunned into speechlessness by it, for most of the ride home.  It was an unexpected turning point for me.

But it was two others movies that shaped several years
of my life:  Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968). In case you’ve forgotten, O’Toole played the Henry II (1133-1189), King of England, Count of Anjou, and lord of a string of other realms, including Ireland. He had inherited Anjou from his mother’s side of the family, and then he consolidated his hold on that part of France by marrying the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine (who was a memorable woman in her own right, having married both the King of France and the King of England (in sequence, not at the same time), and outlived them both).

Up until those two movies, most of what I knew about the Middle Ages came from watching episodes of Robin Hood, a television series from the 1950s. Twenty years later I was a medieval art historian; my doctoral thesis was about the sculpture which decorated a monastery in Angers, in  the heart of Anjou. I owe that in no small part to Peter O’Toole.

I’ve never been one to watch historical movies or read historical fiction. Mostly I pick holes in them, yelling at the screen or the page about what they got wrong—and, yes, I can do that for Becket (the fresco in the apse of what is supposed to be the church at Canterbury is the wrong era and style altogether). But Peter O’Toole’s two performances sold me on Henry.  Because of those I’ve visited Canterbury Cathedral; I dragged my mother and daughter to Sens Cathedral in France, where Becket spent his years in exile; I’ve visited Chinon (also in France), where Henry imprisoned Eleanor; and I’ve visited Fontevraud Abbey, to which the widowed Eleanor retired and lived out her days.  Eleanor, Henry, and Richard were buried there, and while their physical remains are gone now (since the French Revolution, one theory holds), the full-size stone sarcophagi are still on display.

The Plantagenet court, led by Henry and Eleanor, had a major impact on the arts of the day, in sculpture but more particularly in music and poetry. Years ago I studied styles of twelfth-century church carvings from England and France, trying to show that there was a connection fostered by the royal court (in the form of money from the wandering court). 

Henry and Eleanor were a power couple, if you will:  smart, shrewd, devious, hungry for power.  Too bad their children didn’t inherit the right genes.  Richard (you know, the Lion-Hearted) married but may never have consummated the union and produced no heirs, and preferred to go haring off on crusades, from which he had to be ransomed. (I’ve also visited his ruined castle in Les Andelys in France.)  Their youngest son John reigned from 1199 to 1216, but is perhaps best known for losing the Angevin empire for the English and caving to the English Barons and signing the Magna Carta (a purely formal gesture, since neither side followed it; I’ve seen two copies of that, too).  The sons could never quite live up to the standard set by their parents.

So, back to Peter O’Toole.  Maybe he’s my earliest imprint of an Irishman:  talented, quick to speak and to anger; his own worst enemy.  But no one could call the roles he took on dull or tame. He lit up the screen, and occasionally the stage; even when he was bad, he was larger than life. He will be missed. 
   Coming next month!


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Family Stories

Elizabeth Zelvin

As more and more people write their letters as emails or texts and store their photographs in the Cloud or send them to Facebook, the easy disposability of these communication and storage methods makes it more and more likely that records of our family history may not survive for future generations, at least in an accessible form. My own life so far has spanned the development of home photography from a few grainy black & white pictures to brilliant color displays of portraits or candid shots snapped every few minutes and videos taken on an iPhone or iPad and uploaded to YouTube for wide dissemination. My granddaughters have been smiling for the camera since infancy and are well accustomed to performing in eight-second bytes to a favorite song for a music video. When the older one posed in mini-bridal dress for her First Communion photo a year or so ago, I wondered if she experienced it as fundamentally different from dressing up as a Disney Cinderella in blue ball gown and glass slippers at the age of three.

I treasure the few photos I have of my grandparents and the single tattered portraits of their parents that they carried with them to the New World in the early years of the twentieth century. In those days, goodbye was goodbye: not only no Skype or email, but no phone or airmail to carry letters. Crossing the Atlantic to America was a one-time voyage for them and for my parents, both young children at the time. So my mom and dad grew up without grandparents and with only limited access to their family history.

I knew only two of my own grandparents, my mother's mother and my father's father. Here's what I remember or was told about their lives.

Gran came from a large family in a town called Pápa in Hungary. I know only two of her siblings' names: her favorite sister Paola and her brother Arnold, my Cousin Lisa's father, lost in the Holocaust. As a young woman, she worked as a governess and gave piano lessons. Her name was Helen, and they called her "la bella Helena," beautiful Helen. My grandfather saw her going back and forth past his window and fell in love, she said, with her erect carriage. In her nineties, she was still proud of her posture, which was not stooped like that of most old ladies. She was widowed young and gave piano lessons to earn a living for herself and her daughters. It was only a few years ago that I learned from a second cousin that his branch of the family considered her the world's worst piano teacher, though they all loyally went to her for lessons.

Grandpa came from a town called Ekaterinaslav (Dnieprpetrovsk during the Soviet regime). He went to school only till the age of nine, when he had to quit and work to help support the family. By trade, he was a tinsmith. He came to America to avoid both pogroms and the Czar's draft, which would have meant involuntary enlistment for thirty years. He had two brothers, both of whom also came to America, so their descendants, too, survived. Smoking was a habit he picked up in his early youth. He was a natural floater who would go into the ocean, raise his entire upper body out of the water, and float—wearing glasses, reading a newspaper, and smoking a cigar.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Books I Can't Forget

By Sandra Parshall

The latest Facebook meme has people listing books that have made the greatest and most lasting impression on them throughout their lives. Because I tend to hang out mostly with avid readers (many of them also writers), I’ve seen a lot of these personal lists and found them all interesting.

But one vital element is missing: the explanation, the answer to why particular books had such a profound impact.
I haven’t posted a list on Facebook because I would feel compelled to include the why and that isn’t part of the meme. But here I can explain what these books mean to me.

Considering the amount of reading I’ve done in my lifetime, the list is surprisingly short. I’ve finished a lot of books with the feeling that they would stay with me, only to realize a year or two later that I barely remember them. These are the books I’m sure I will never forget – the books I’ve read more than once and will probably read again in the future.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

For all the reasons that have made it the most memorable American novel of all time for many readers: unforgettable characters who touch us to the core, a nostalgic setting, and a story of human relationships and social injustice that is as relevant today as it was the year it was published. Lee’s only published novel, Mockingbird is still in print, still selling steadily all over the world, and has become a staple in U.S. classrooms. The movie is wonderful, but if you’ve never read the book, I urge you to find a copy and experience the full power of the writing.

Out of Africa
and Shadows on the Grass by Isak Dinesen

These stories of Karen Blixen’s life in British East Africa, written under a pseudonym after her return to Denmark in 1931, have an unbreakable hold on my imagination. Most younger people today know Out of Africa only as romantic movie, but the book is a loving and profoundly elegiac memoir of a time and a place that none of us will ever experience. The very thought of colonialism and the subjugation of native tribes is abhorrent, and Dinesen’s tales are certainly colored by the European views of the time and a sad longing for a perfect life that couldn’t be sustained under the pressure of change. But each word she wrote displays her deep love of the land and its wildlife, and her respect for the native people who were in every sense her friends. Dinesen introduced to me an idealized East Africa, and every time I reread the opening lines of Out of Africa I feel homesick for a place I’ve never been:

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

Everything ever published by Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers

These two Georgians were the writers who most influenced me when I was young because, unlike the classic authors I was reading for English class, O’Connor and McCullers wrote about people I recognized from my own life. O’Connor’s style was sharper, utterly lacking in sentimentality, but both wrote about the essential solitude of the human soul that separates us from each other. Although McCullers traveled and had an international set of friends while O’Connor lived on a small Georgia farm with her mother, their lives had much in common. Both showed their genius early; McCullers published her stunning first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, at 23, and O’Connor published the classic morality tale Wise Blood at 27. O’Connor died of lupus at 39, leaving behind two published novels and 32 short stories, some published in her lifetime and the rest collected after her death. McCullers suffered a series of strokes in her twenties that paralyzed her left side by the time she was 31, but she produced eight novels before a final brain hemorrhage killed her at age 50.

A Dark-Adapted Eye
by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

This is the book that made me understand how much it’s possible to do with a mystery. Although I never miss a Rendell novel, I still consider this densely layered story of lies, love, and cruelty within a seemingly ordinary family to be her masterpiece. I still have my1987 paperback copy, but it’s so fragile from handling that when my book group discussed it a few years ago I bought a later edition that I could mark up and dog-ear without regret. A British TV adaptation totally failed to capture the novel’s complexity and the insight gained through time shifts and memories. You have to read the novel to full appreciate Rendell’s achievement.

Mortal Memory by Thomas H. Cook

Cook’s haunting story, narrated by the sole survivor of a family massacre, has drawn me back many times to reread passages, chapters, the whole book. Cook’s prose is beautiful, a pleasure to read, and he uses it to create an atmosphere of quiet terror that is far more powerful than a graphic picture painted with hard-edged language and ugly words. Like A Dark-Adapted Eye, this is a many-layered story of family life gone desperately wrong.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Lehane’s great novel about a neighborhood torn apart – and brought together – by crimes both distant and recent encompasses such a broad range of emotions and relationships that it’s difficult to describe in a few words. With equal skill and insight, he zooms out to portray a community in turmoil and zooms in to explore a single man or woman’s inner torment or a couple’s marriage. Murder and detection are part of the story, but this is far more than a simple crime novel. Mystic River is great fiction on every level – and again, if you’ve only seen the film, you need to read the book.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Exit Rituals

Sharon Wildwind

We could start with A (aloe vera hand cream) and work to Z (Zentangle). No doubt, for each letter, there would be a writers’ rituals someone uses to cross into the zone, to make our transitions from not writing to writing. I’m a little uncertain about X, but perhaps some writer, somewhere, plays her xylophone before starting.

On the comfort/solace scale these rituals range from mildly comforting to approaching obsessive-compulsive. It took me a long time to believe that I could write a scene’s first draft any way other than in a black-cover HJ Permanent Sketch Book, using a Schaefer fountain pen with black ink.

What about the other end of the process, going from writing to not writing?

Does this sound familiar?

Standing at my computer, I keyboard furiously, gulp last swallows of cold tea, and calculate how many minutes late I can be for the next thing on my schedule. I type the final period, hit Save, grab my car keys and purse, and run out the door on my way to a meeting, grocery shopping, or chauffeuring a family member. Poof, instant transformation from writer to non writer. 

We're not doing ourselves or our writing a favor by ignoring exit rituals. Even Superman takes time to duck into a phone booth and change clothes before reappearing as Clark Kent.

What would happen if we allowed five to ten minutes at the end of writing to gradually bring ourselves back, starting by sitting or standing in silence with our eyes closed, breathing slowly in and out?

What else could we do in five to ten minutes?

A few stretches? A yoga pose or two? A couple of tai-chi movements? Even just tensing and relaxing all of our muscles from feet to head would be a benefit, especially if combined the physical activity with gratitude for what we’ve had the privilege of enjoying: the time, energy, and resources to write.

I imagine folding my writing, as if it were a clean piece of laundry, smoothing out wrinkles, and then putting it away in a mental cupboard or drawer, where I know it will remain undisturbed until I come back to it.

Perhaps a final tidying? Put our pens and pencils in their holder. Wipe dust and finger marks from our computer screen and mouse. Wash our tea cup.

Instead of filling our head with our upcoming meeting agenda, our grocery list, or did we remember to pay the phone bill, wouldn’t it be a lot nicer, a lot more respectful of our writing gift to end this exit transition by skipping ahead, previewing if we will, the next time we will return to write. All we need to end our transition is a simple promise to ourselves.

I’ll be back.
Quote for the week
Don’t expect to simply put your hands on the tools and be in the creative zone. Have a sacred space in your studio. Start each work session with a few minutes of meditation. Dance, exercise, physically flow into the work.
~ Flora Bowley, Artist, Author, Educator

Monday, December 16, 2013

Boys, Toys, and The Pressures of Christmas Shopping

My own little toy-loving boys in 2000.
by Julia Buckley

Though I've tried to avoid stores for this entire season (thank you, Internet), I did have to go to one in person on Saturday to pick up a few things. When I got there I realized that I was in a potential nightmare scenario: an aisle in Super Target a couple weeks before Christmas. Since I happened to be looking at board games, I was very near the toy aisle (in which I shopped not that many years ago). In the process of scanning the shelves, I heard no less than three mothers have almost identical conversations with tiny snowsuit-clad boys. Each mother said "Get away from that!  Stop touching that!" and one mother said under her breath to the friend who was shopping with her, "I'm going to kill him."

While I understand that little boys can be frustrating, I would ask parents to be realistic about what they are doing to those little boys. To take a small child, at Christmastime, to a huge department store, maneuver him to the TOY AISLE, and then tell him not to touch anything?  That is tantamount to torture.

The boys in those same dialogues had predictable responses to their mothers' demands: they grew deaf. This is a built-in defense mechanism that every child possesses so that he or she won't have to acknowledge a mandate with which they do not agree.  So the first little boy, after being told not to look, touch, or even move by his mother, continued to look, his mouth open, at the wealth of toys in front of him.

His mother finally learned her lesson and changed tactics, saying, "Come and hold your brother's hand." Then the little boy snapped out of it, because apparently he liked the idea of holding hands with his older brother. He toddled over and curled his little fingers around his brother's palm.

The second two mothers that I heard did not think of this, but continued to tell their children to "Stop it!  Get away from there!" for as long as I was there.  With a burst of sympathy for little children in stores everywhere, I made my way to the register.  My own former little boys were doing their own shopping in another part of the store, and the preferred department these days is electronics and media.

What I would say to parents who probably don't see the irony of what they're doing is this:  "YOU stop it!" If your child is too little to handle going to a toy store, then don't take him or her to one and put him through the agony of shopping.  Or if, like me, you sometimes have no choice but to bring your child along, then choose an aisle where it's okay for your child to touch things.  Let them explore the floor model of the musical piano or the LEGO castle, and discuss the interesting features of the toy with them.

I know that if someone took me to a bookstore but told me not to touch one of the books or show any interest in them, I would think that person was being ridiculous.  Even as adults, we all have our toys of choice, and we should consider how much more passionately children love toys than do we.

Finally, parents, when you get home from shopping and put away all your wares, read your child a book. Neither of you will ever regret that decision, and just as the toys at the store stimulate your child's wonder, the book will stimulate his or her imagination.  I once blogged here about my favorite Christmas books for children, and the link is here.

May all parents of little children have a wonderful holiday, and may you all appreciate the beautiful and temporary gift which is that little child.

And whoever you are, whatever age you may be, may you always take great pleasure in your toys.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Inventing a religion... or not

by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Authors of the John the Lord Chamberlain Mysteries 

Writers create worlds, people them with their characters -- and sometimes invent religions.

We must plead guilty to having done so. A major part of the plot of Two For Joy, the second adventure of our protagonist John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, involves a religious movement known as the Michaelites.

Named after its leader, the core Michaelite belief is the Quadrinity, explained in a kitchen conversation between John's servant Peter and Hypatia, an Egyptian then employed as a gardener in the imperial gardens:

"I know you worship the gods of Egypt, Hypatia, and so perhaps the finer points of theology do not intrude upon your reflections," he began, quickly adding "and I see you are valiantly trying to conceal your amusement at an old man's words. However, the beliefs of these Michaelites are rather unsettling, to say the least. Their deity, it would seem, is comprised of four parts, one entirely human. It's not so long since that they would have been immediately executed for daring to even breathe such a thought." His voice trembled slightly at the very thought.

Two For Joy begins with the spontaneous combustion deaths of a trio of Constantinople stylites, those holy men who spend their lives atop pillars. Michael, camped out with a number of followers at a shrine some distance from the city, then demands an audience with Justinian before further fires occur.

The topic of the proposed audience, he is asked?

"Concerning my ascending to the patriarchy and, of course, to co-equal rulership with Justinian." Michael replied calmly.

Michael later gives an address expounding on the theology of the Quadrinity and in it predicts that holy fire will be visited again upon the city.

As indeed happens when the sea subsequently catches fire. And yes, we do provide explanations for these events in keeping with the era.

Some time after the novel was completed, to our surprise we discovered that in fact a Quadrinity, though of a different nature to Michaelism, was known at the time. We can do no better than quote an extract from the essay devoted to Pythagoras in The Hundred Greatest Men: Portraits of the One Hundred Greatest Men of History Reproduced From Fine and Rare Steel Engravings, edited by Wallace Wood and published in 1885:

The leading principles of Pythagorean philosophy are as follows: Number is the foundation of all knowledge...God is also called the quadrinity (Tetractys), which contains within itself the four elements of space, matter, time, and destiny.

Michael's destiny is not the usual one for a religious prophet, but you'll have to read the novel to find out what it is.

As in other religions, the Byzantines revered sacred relics, in some cases going to the extent of forging them. John's latest adventure, Ten For Dying (March 2014) -- by coincidence, in the essay mentioned above Pythagorean theory is noted as representing divine life -- involves the theft of one of Constantinople's most holy relics: a piece of the shroud of the Virgin Mary. Here's a brief description:

On a hot summer night in 6th century Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Egyptian magician tries to raise Empress Theodora from the dead and demons vanish into the darkness with one of the city’s holiest relics, a fragment of the shroud of the Virgin. As if Felix, Captain of the Palace Guard, didn’t have enough problems already between his gambling debts, political maneuverings, and an ambitious new mistress, Emperor Justinian orders him to find the missing relic.

But before he can begin investigating the theft, he becomes suspected of murder thanks to an anonymous corpse left at his house.

A former madam turned leader of a religious refuge, a wealthy and famous charioteer, a general’s scheming wife, and a superstitious man who wears so many protective charms that he jingles when he walks, all play their parts in misdirection and murder. It seems as if half the city has reason to wish to possess the relic, see Felix dead, or both.

If only Felix’s friend John were still in the city and could assist him.

Unfortunately, the former Lord Chamberlain is being sent into exile, sailing away the morning after the theft. It isn’t easy solving a mystery in Constantinople while aboard a ship on its way to Greece.

Felix is left to fight for survival in a situation where he can’t be sure who his enemies are, or even whether they are all human.

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several John the Lord Chamberlain short stories in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to the appearance of their acclaimed first full length novel, One For Sorrow, in 1999. John's adventures continued in Two For Joy (2000), Three For A Letter (2001), Four For A Boy (2003), Five For Silver (2004), Six For Gold (2005), Seven For A Secret (2008), Eight For Eternity (2010), and Nine for the Devil (2012). Ten For Dying will appear in March 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press. Head of Zeus publishes the series in the UK and Europe. Books in the series have won the Glyph Award and received nominations the IPPY Best Mystery Award and the Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award. In June 2003 the American Library Association's Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series.

Visit the authors’ website at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/.