Saturday, January 30, 2010

Historic Document Found

Remember my post ages ago on getting rid of clutter? This week I've been doing a major cleaning out and reorganization of my linen closet. The last time anyone completely cleaned out this closet was...well, here's a newspaper clipping I found in the back corner under old pillowcases marked "Holiday Inn."

(Clipped from the Montella Gossip, Ides of March issue, A.D. LXXVII)

By Marthus Stewartus

Most of us, when we think of towels at all, only curse our local Roman baths, where there never seem to be enough towels to go around. Yet, these small bits of cloth can be wonderfully versatile and stylish. Here are tips for all the hills of Rome:

1. A folded towel beneath your elbow as you recline for meals will protect you from the chill and hardness of the marble. Not to mention absorbing the wine that runs down your arm.

2. A towel makes a great toga accessory. Large beach towels with the likeness of Flavius Josephus are very popular right now.

3. Use towels to rally on your favorite gladiator or lion. (Never rally on Christians--it isn't done.)

4. If Vesuvius should blow its top again, a towel tied around your nose and mouth will keep out volcanic ash. Since you'll likely asphyxiate anyway, chose a warm red shade to bring out the fading color in your cheeks.

5. Towels are great for stopping up holes in your aquaduct.

6. When you've had a rough day lugging stone jars of olive oil and wine home from the market, and hubby's first words to you are, "Spaghetti? Again?", wet a towel, roll it diagonally, and whack him wherever it hurts most.

7. Use towels to pay taxes, especially if you stole yours from the Emperor's hotel chain. That way you're just giving to Caesar what's Caesar's.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Please Don't Kill Off Miss Maggie!

Last week, PBS's Independent Lens aired the documentary "Young @ Heart" about a chorus of seniors, average age about 81. The trailer for this film (link below) begins with a solo by a feisty 92 year-old woman. When I saw it I thought of Miss Maggie--that is, Magnolia Shelby, the 91 year-old sidekick character in my series.

My first novel, By Blood Possessed, was originally going to be a stand-alone, that is, I wasn't thinking of a continuing series when I wrote it. Still, when an editor says "We love your book. You're going to do it as a series, aren't you?" answering no isn't an option.

Putting a 91 year-old in a single book is no big deal, but a series is another matter. I considered taking a couple decades off of Miss Maggie before publication. Problem was, much of Pat's early motivation in the book comes from the fact that Miss Maggie is a nonagenarian. And frankly, much of Miss Maggie's character grows from the fact that she experienced so much of the 20th century. But I never dreamt that Magnolia would become such a popular character, and that more fan mail would mention her than Pat, often with the plea "Please don't ever kill off Miss Maggie!"

So I told myself, I'll just make the timeline of the series move rather slowly. That way Miss Maggie won't age quickly. At the same time, of course, I have to balance "Cabot Cove syndrome"--how many murders should one expect in a small village within one year? But hey, folks, this is fiction. If you want entertainment, you have to help the author out by playing along.

In her autobiography, Agatha Christie said that her biggest regret about Hercule Poirot was that she'd made him elderly to begin with. She didn't feel as strongly about Miss Marple, I guess because she was supposed to be old anyway. Think about it, Miss Marple is described as a white-haired woman wearing Victorian garb (black-lace mittens!) in 1925, yet she's still solving crimes nearly fifty years later.

The most difficult aspect I find of writing about the elderly is trying to remember how physically fragile they can be. A simple fall can end up being fatal. In Miss Maggie's own mind, she's still young. In fact, Pat often remarks that living with her is sometimes like minding a precocious tot. But Miss Maggie also takes stairs one tread at a time, her legs get stiff if she sits too long, she's supposed to stick to a heart-healthy diet, and she takes meds. I have to be careful to keep these physical limitations consistent. She obviously isn't going to go running after the bad guy. That's actually what makes her appealing to me. She has to solve problems with brains alone.

So take a look at the "Young@Heart" trailer. If I'm half that alive in 35+ years, I'll be happy.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Historical Soundbites

For Christmas, a good friend of mine gave me poster of quotations. I have a love-hate relationship with quotations.

On the hate side, I usually feel their wisdom is too glib. No situation in this complex, confusing world can be solved, or even made much better, with a few perfectly arranged words.

I also hate the lack of context. Regardless of the name under them, they all seem to exist only in the ether. But someone did say them, and that person had something definite on his or her mind at the time. For the same reason, I hate political soundbites, which are ripped from context and hurled at us during campaigns, in an effort to show the speaker in a negative light.
Probably my lifetime of being exposed to political ads is what has made me a bit suspicious of every quotation I meet.

Still, I said this was a love-hate relationship.

When I was doing Civil War research for my novel BY BLOOD POSSESSED, I read diaries and letters of the time. The historical voices of these documents gave life and authenticity to the voices I gave my characters. This helped me write period-sounding dialogue and narrative and, more importantly helped me fill the heads of my characters with period thoughts and motives.

Yet as I read, every once in a while, I was stuck by certain sentences or paragraphs that seemed to strike at the heart of the story I was writing. I began keeping a list of these quotes, at first only as a guide for myself, to keep me focused on the themes and mood of the novel.

As I got into the writing of the book and realized I'd need a way to separate the historic and present-day chapters, I hit on the idea of beginning each historic chapter with one of these quotes. I'd seen this done in other books--sometimes I had enjoyed reading quotes tacked onto chapters, sometimes I didn't. I now see that the quotes I enjoy are usually vitally linked to the story in some way, whereas the other quotes seem to be added as an afterthought--maybe simply to show off the research of the author.

I can look back now and understand what those quotes had in common. All expressed the horrors of the Civil War in a different way, many without intention. The blood-soaked violets from the battlefield that General McAllister sent home to his wife as a "relic to be prized," the picture and personal letter "out of a dead Yankees knapsack" that a Georgia soldier sent his sister as a "trophie"--these seem repulsive now (or they ought to), but at the time the writers of these words saw nothing wrong with war. They gloried in it, making it more horrible. On the other hand you had men like Lt. Colonel Horace Porter, who wrote,

"It seemed as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth."

In HANG MY HEAD AND CRY and POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I continued the practice of starting the historical chapters with quotes. A nice way to center myself, and to tie the books together.

Historical soundbites are very small windows--as if we're looking at the past through a funnel. Still, some can have a larger truth, beyond the context. All good quotations do. The wisdom of the words won't solve all life's problems, but they might make us think. And thinking is never a bad thing.

My favorite quote from my new poster?

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
--- Mother Teresa

And after that, I shouldn't even need to say


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Piecing Together Stories

Jigsaw puzzle season has begun.

Between New Year's Day and Easter each year, I clear off my dining room table and bring out my big jigsaw puzzles. Some will be new puzzles that I picked up at autumn church bazaars. Some will be old friends, like the one I'm working on now, showing a collection of interesting teapots. Most are 500 to 1000 pieces, some bigger. I work on them as I get time--an hour at night when there's nothing on TV, or on a snowy Sunday afternoon, or while I'm waiting for my own tea kettle to boil in the morning.

What's this have to do with writing? I've found that when I spend a little time working on a puzzle each day, I write more. I have more ideas. I see my way out of writer's block faster. I have less trouble seeing the "big picture." The writing is easier and more enjoyable.

Why? Because writing doesn't take place on paper or on a screen. Writing takes place in the mind.

Agatha Christie said in her autobiography that she got more writing done while washing dishes than anywhere else. While her hands did a familiar mundane task, her brain was working out story details. Margaret Maron plays solitaire--not on the computer but with real cards. She has a table near her desk and when she gets stuck on a story, she'll turn away from the screen, lay out a hand of solitaire, and play until her brain nudges all the kinks out of the problem.

In warmer weather, I work in my garden and go for walks. Quite a lot of my novel HANG MY HEAD AND CRY was worked out while taking walks. Physical activity is lovely for us writers. Gets more oxygen up to the brain. Gets us up off our butts. Human beings weren't meant to sit so long.

I've heard some writers say that they make themselves sit at their computers for a certain number of hours each day, whether or not they get much done. I have to wonder if they'd get more done if they got up and did something else for a half hour. Staring at a screen of words can only tell you where your story's been, not where it's going. I'm not saying that the words aren't important. They are. Words are the only thing that will transport the story from the writer's mind to the reader's. The communication must be clear.

But we aren't simple wordsmiths. We have to be storytellers first. Stories evolve in the mind, not on the PC.

Stop reading this and go take a walk. Or put together a puzzle.


Friday, January 8, 2010

World War II blog

Just a note to let readers of this blog know that I've also begun a blog in which I'll post entries from my uncle's WWII diary that he kept in 1945.

If you're interested, or know of any WWII buffs that might be, the address is

Monday, January 4, 2010

What You Will

"If music be the food of love, play on."
Opening line of
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

When I was in high school, we were extremely fortunate to have an English Department that sponsored an annual trip to the Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut. I feel sorry for people who claim they never got into Shakespeare. Chances are, they never saw one of his plays performed.

Of all the plays I saw on those trips, my favorite was Twelfth Night. Of course, it helped that I had a front row seat and that Sir Toby Belch was played by Fred Gwynne (aka Herman Munster--how cool is that?). Still, Twelfth Night was also one of Shakespeare's most complex and masterful comedies. The title puzzled me, though, seeming to have nothing to do with the play.

I've read since that scholars think the play was either written as an entertainment for a Twelfth Night celebration, or that its ongoing theme--that everything is upside down, everything the opposite of what it appears--is typical of Twelfth Night revelry.

So what is Twelfth Night? Depending on local customs, it's either the eve or the night of January 6th. According to the Christian calendar, this is Epiphany, the day churches tell of the journey of the Three Wise Men who followed a star in the east until they found Jesus. The gospel is the last reading of the year in which Christ is still a small child. January 6, or the Sunday after in some churches, is the liturgical end of the Christmas season.

Until very recently, when stores and advertisers began dictating our holiday calendars, most folks kept their trees and decorations up until Epiphany. I still do. Why would I want to shorten a season that encourages "peace on earth"?

Twelfth Night used to have customs of its own. Nowadays, June is the most popular wedding time, or Valentine's Day. As I stated in POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, in the 18th century, many couples were married on Twelfth Night. And wedding or no, the biggest parties of the year were more likely to be on Twelfth Night than New Year's Eve.

Writings of the period that mention well-heeled Twelfth Night festivities speak of "groaning boards"--that is huge food buffets, usually spread with desserts and a wassail bowl. A "Twelfth Night Cake" or "King Cake" (named for the Magi) would be prepared--a large, ornate, sometimes wreath-shaped confection in which were hidden two tokens. These could be as simple as a bean and a pea, or silver coins, or even a tiny cast or carved figure of Infant Jesus. Slices of the cake were passed around. The woman and man who received the tokens in their slices were crowned king and queen of the festivities. Sometimes these offices came with added responsibilities--the man was expected to host next year's party and the woman was expected to bake the cake for it.

Now, now, the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean is the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.
poem by Robert Herrick, 17th century

And of course, you'd have entertainment. Mummers plays were popular (especially those with mock sword fights), but so were jugglers, card playing, apple-bobbing, blindman's bluff, fiddlers and dancing.

Seems a shame we've let Twelfth Night revelry be forgotten. Not too late to throw a party this week, is it?

As for Shakespeare's title? Well, this might just be the writer in me, but I think the title he really wanted was probably rejected by his patron, so he slapped on the moniker: TWELFTH NIGHT, OR WHAT YOU WILL. Meaning, you don't like my title? Fine, if you think you know so much, come up with one of your own.

A great while ago the world begun,
With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
Closing song from Twelfth Night

Peace in the New Year,


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors