Shattering a Vase

by Kathy Waller

[The blogger having been rendered incapable of typing with more than five fingers, she repeats a post that appeared on Austin Mystery Writers in 2015.]

*****

. . . it was like taking a vase and setting it down
so hard it shatters . . .

~  Tracy Chevalier

When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.

I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who believed their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.” 

Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.

“Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that No, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing involves more than time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter.

Now, to my dismay, I often find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or a beta reader, or even a family member, and they find fault, or don’t even mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…

Each time it happens, I repeat to myself the old lecture about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.

And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The completed manuscript disappointed her.

When I reread the first draft, she says,  I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.

She found the solution in another contemporary novel:

I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.

The revision was published as Falling Angels, an exquisite novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices.

I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and had become obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that. 

Later, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:

I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.

That passage doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.

I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. But, on a more personal level, I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print—for reminding me that hard work isn’t synonymous with drudgery, for implying that it’s okay to cry over a bad draft and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing itself affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.

And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.

It’s the words on the page that matter.

*****

Note: I really do love Chevalier’s novels. In fact, I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—just racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading, and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did. It was unprofessional. But patrons were understanding. And I finished the book.

*****

Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.

*****

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly, and with Austin Mystery Writers. Her stories have been anthologized in Murder on Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Day of the Dark, and online in Mysterical-E.

David Rosenfelt: Storyteller Extraordinaire

By K.P. Gresham

So there I was, getting ready to go on our Christmas cruise with my better half, Kevin, and our daughter, Bethany, and realizing that I didn’t have enough books for our vacation. My goal is to enjoy reading three books each cruise—I never have this luxury of time anywhere else. Most of the books I “read” now are on audio, which I listen to on my 3 mile walk with my Chihuahua, Tipper. But this was the night before our departure and I suddenly realized I only had two hard copy books: the latest J.D. Robb book and the eighth in the Sci-Fi Opera series, The Expanse by James S.A. Corey.

Off I went to the bookstore. Both already chosen books were kinda heavy (literally and physically), so I thought I’d look for something a little lighter. I saw a fun little Christmas book—had snow and a golden retriever puppy on the cover and I thought I’d read this little cozy looking book titled Best in Snow by David Rosenfelt.

This book was everything I love about reading. Yes, it had a golden retriever in the story, but this was not just a cozy. In fact, finding a category in which to fit this book is beyond my capabilities. It is a legal procedural, a comedy, suspenseful, and had a serious plot with more twists in it than a country road. The hero of the story, Andy Carpenter, has a self-deprecating humor that makes you want to have a beer with him, he loves sports, and he hangs out with a phenomenal group of characters. It had every element of a book that just makes me happy.

The craft that went into writing this book was top-notch. There was not one page written that didn’t make you want to turn the page. Every single word in the book was necessary; Rosenfelt’s writing was smooth, fast, and to-the-point.

As soon as I got off the cruise ship, I headed for my favorite audio book vendor. It turns out that Best in Snow was the 24th book in the “The Andy Carpenter Mystery Series.” I enjoy reading series in order, so I decided to go back to book #1, Open and Shut. It is now January 18th, and I just finished listening to book #7, New Tricks. And each one was better than the last.

So, here’s the skinny on this delightful author. David Rosenfelt graduated from New York University and then decided to work in the movie business. After being interviewed by his uncle, who was the President of United Artists, he was hired and worked his way up the corporate ladder. Rosenfelt eventually became the marketing president for Tri-Star Pictures.

Rosenfelt left the corporate treadmill and turned to writing novels. He has now authored over thirty-three books which include a different series and several stand-alones. In 1995, he and his wife started the “Tara Foundation” which has saved almost 4,000 dogs. He is a dog lover and supports more than two dozen dogs.

Hopefully this blog serves as bait for you to discover this author. If you like dogs, humor, nail-biting drama and a darned good story, a book by David Rosenfelt should be your next read.

K.P. Gresham, Author

Professional Character Assassin

K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels.  Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as the Mystery Writers of America.

Click here to receive K.P.’s newsletter and a get a free short story!

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Four Reasons to Die

WHEN THE MUSE CALLS…

By

Fran Paino, AKA F. Della Notte

This was an odd morning. I got up, as usual at 4 a.m. (no kudos here – just my body clock), prepared to sit at the computer and work on my story. I walked into the kitchen. There,  perched on the corner of the table, with her cafe e latte in one hand, and waving a recipe for a Sicilian cake I’d printed out before Christmas in the other hand, was the muse. I took the paper and looked at the recipe again, captured by the bold, black font and pretty picture.

So, she commanded. Instead of worrying about plots, profiles, commas, apostrophes, nouns, and verbs, bake the cake

Immediately – after my first cup of coffee, I assembled the ingredients, including lemons, and squeezed out fresh juice, then shaved off the zest, as instructed. This particular recipe depends heavily on the bright yellow fruit, sometimes sweet, sometimes not, that often decorates my martini glass. Today, it would flavor and brighten the cake. The entire process of creating the batter was not difficult, and soon the cake was in the oven. But my muse was not content.  

Let’s talk about lemons, said she, a very Italian muse because we Italians, both human and spirit, do love our lemons, and off I went on a learning mission with the burning question at four a.m. Where in the world are the best lemons grown? 

 The answer varies depending on the website, but some of the best lemons are grown in Italy, on the Amalfi coast, just south of Naples. Beautiful varieties of lemons are also cultivated on the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily.

Its Ionian coast was traversed by Odysseus on his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan War. Here he found his way to Aeolus, the god of winds who lived in a castle protected by a solid bronze wall on the island of Lipari – where my husband’s ancestors lived – but I digress. Back to the worthy subject of lemons.

Italian lemons are not to be confused with the expensive, succulent Meyer Lemons. That hybrid citrus originated in China and is a cross between “citron and mandarin/pomelo hybrid.”  

On the other hand, Italian lemons are as distinct as the areas where they grow. There are two types of Amalfi lemons grown on the Sorrento Peninsula — “the Sfusato Amalfitano and the Limone di Sorrento. Found in different parts of the coast, these are among the most highly prized lemons in the world. They are PGI-protected by the EU, which ensures they are produced only on the Amalfi Coast,” preventing substitutes or imitations.  The Amalfi coast provides fresh breezes off the ocean, which are trapped in the mountain valleys, creating the perfect ecosystem for the lemons to grow. They are protected from the northern winds to bask and mature in the coastal sunshine. Incidentally, the same is true for the oranges of this region. So special and fragrant are these fruits that Italians even reference their perfume in song.  

Traveling south to the island of Sicily, the Interdonato cultivar is a natural hybrid between lemon and citron grown along the Ionian Sea coast in Messina. Then there are the lemons grown along the volcanic coastal strip of Etna, in parts of Catania, differing in size, shape, and color. These are rich in essential oils and of high aromatic quality, which can be attributed to the fact that they are grown in an environment with specific volcanic soil and climate. 

Last but not least are the lemons from Siracusa (Syracuse), characterized by an intense fragrance and juiciness, which makes them particularly suitable for creating liqueurs, desserts, sorbets, and ice cream

         Which of these varieties did I use? Well, the only lemons available to me, and in my fridge, were from the good old U.S.A., most likely grown in Arizona or California, where 95% of our lemons come from. The other 5% are grown in Texas and Florida. 

         I’ve told you more than you ever wanted to know about lemons, while my cake cooled. One bite convinced me that it was well worth the detour inspired by my muse. So, when life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade or bake a Sicilian Olive Oil and Lemon cake. You’ll love it. I certainly do.

With my espresso, and a slice of the moist cake with its delicate lemony flavor, enhanced by the olive oil beside me, I return to my computer, content and ready to focus on writing, but remember, when the muse calls…pay attention. 

###

https://www.cnn.com/videos/travel/2022/10/07/sardinia-stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy-fregola-origseriesfilms.cnn/video/playlists/stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy/

https://www.italiarail.com/food/joys-amalfi-lemon

https://www.tasteatlas.com/most-popular-lemons-in-sicily

FLIGHTS OF FANCY AND IMAGINATION

FRANCINE PAINO AKA F. Della Notte

Thanks to Hollywood and TV-land, most of us are tired of Christmas and we aren’t even in the official Advent season. The bombardment of mostly silly movies centered on Christmas themes that have little to do with this holy Christian holiday sucks the meaning out of Christmas and starts earlier every year.

Thus, it seems a good time to reprint Flights of Fancy and Imagination, reminding everyone that PBS television’s 2021 presentation of the musical production by Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written in 1816, is still available, and will be through December 13, 2024.

Mauceri conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Tony Award-winning Alan Cumming narrating this original tale in three parts..

The story, written by E.T.A. Hoffman, is about a young girl who saves a prince, contrary to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, where the prince rescues the girl. Perhaps Hoffman’s inspiration for this particular flight of fancy was the popularity of embellished nutcrackers, which appeared in Germany in the early 1800s.  

The Nutcracker’s story begins with a young boy who stays home alone daily while his parents go to work. The little boy was lonely and afraid, so his father carved a special toy, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier with big sharp teeth and fierce-looking eyes, and told him that this unique Nutcracker would protect him while his parents were gone. It did the trick. The boy loved and enjoyed that Nutcracker and felt secure by its presence, so his father continued to carve new ones for him. When the boy grew up, he married and had a son to whom he gave all the nutcrackers made by his father. 

Over time in early 19th century Germany, the lure of decorative nutcrackers grew, and so did a legend. They came to represent power, strength, and the protection of families from danger and evil spirits. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and keepsakes to bring good luck.  

E.T.A. Hoffman was a prolific writer of gothic tales, fantasy, and the supernatural – most of them dark, including segments of his Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Alexander Dumas, the 19th-century French author, translated Hoffman’s work in 1845, propelling it beyond the written word. Mauceri explains that Dumas, the grandson of the French aristocrat and African Haitian slave, was drawn to the story because Hoffman concluded the tale with the girl growing up to become the queen of a land of tolerance and imagination. It was the Dumas version that Peter Illich Tchaikovsky adopted in 1892 when he composed the score. 

While this production does not target children, it is appropriate for those youngsters who can sit still for a narrative without pictures or characters to hold their interest. Cumming reads the narrative with emotion and even injects moments of humor without straying from the story.

The orchestra gives a stirring performance. Bold and rousing where appropriate, mysterious, sensual, and nerve-wracking also when appropriate. In addition to the lush Tchaikovsky score, compositions from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and orchestral suites, are included.   

Mauceri’s reimagined Nutcracker and the Mouse King fill the mind’s eye with characters, places, and emotions generated by the performances of artists of the highest caliber. If you didn’t experience this fantastic flight of fancy and imagination last year, you might still enjoy it by accessing https://www.pbs.org/video/the-nutcracker-and-the-mouse-king-meabwt/.

Enjoy it for the first time, or once again, with friends, family, children, and grown-ups. And in the spirit of the upcoming season, I wish you all a truly thankful Thanksgiving, and in the true spirit of Christmas, I wish you all love, kindness, respect, and caring.

First published December, 2021

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock Mysteries: A “Genre-Bending” Series and One True Sentence

Texas mystery author Terry Shames’ latest book, Murder at the Jubilee Rally, has been reviewed on ABC News.

To use a folksy phrase—Folks, that ain’t hay.

The ninth in Shames’ Samuel Craddock Mystery series, Murder at the Jubilee Rally focuses on conflicts residents of Jarrett Creek, Texas, experience when a motorcycle rally prepares to open outside of town—and the challenges Police Chief Samuel Craddock faces when murder follows.

Since you can read award-winning author Bruce DeSilva’s excellent review here, I won’t try to duplicate. Except to point out that—

DeSilva calls the Samuel Craddock series “genre-bending,” because the “author’s folksy prose and Jarrett Creek’s small-town ways . . . give the novel the feel of a cozy,” and yet the problems facing the town and Police Chief Craddock “give the novel the feel of a modern police procedural.”

With the term “genre-bending,” DeSilva hits upon one reason—perhaps the reason—for the series’ success. Shames joins elements of two very different genres—cozy mysteries and police procedurals—with skill and grace, into a seamless whole. That ain’t hay either.

As a reader, I enjoy Shames’ novels, but as a writer, I seethe with envy. If only I could do what she does . . .

Nevermind.

Now, for a broader view, I’ll turn from Shames’ ninth book to her first, A Killing at Cotton Hill, published in 2013.

At the bookstore, I fell in love with the cover. On page one, I fell in love with the book. Soon thereafter, I fell in love with a sentence. Here it is, underlined, in the paragraph quoted below—the words of narrator Samuel Craddock:

I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There’s not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.

That’s what author Ernest Hemingway would call one true sentence. Cows are curious. They’re nosy. They like to observe. I’ve seen cows hover. That’s exactly the kind of thing my father might have said about his damn cows.

Shames gets it right. Every word in that sentence, and throughout the book, is pitch-perfect.

The night I read about the hovering cows, I wrote Shames a fan email telling her I loved the sentence.

But when I completed the novel and tried to write a review for my personal blog, I got tangled up in words. It came out sounding like this:

I love this book. It’s just so…There’s this wonderful sentence on the second page about hovering cows…That’s exactly what cows do…I can just see those cows…The person who wrote that sentence knows cows…It’s just so…I just love it.

That’s what happens when a reviewer lacks detachment. Wordsworth said poetry begins with emotion “recollected in tranquility.” So do book reviews. There’s nothing tranquil about that tangle of words.

So, with no review, I compromised. I posted the paragraph containing the beloved sentence and added a picture of white-faced Herefords.

IMG_2814

Not long after, Shames spoke at the Heart of Texas (Austin) chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I told her how much I admired her work. A year later, in 2014, I heard her read from her second novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin. And I’ve read all the books she’s published since.

From 2013 to 2022, that’s nine Samuel Craddock mysteries, each a great read, each just as good as—or better than—the one before.

But regarding Shames’ sentences—

It is a truth universally acknowledged that her hovering cows will always be Number One.

_____

Notes

*Shames breaks the silly rule against “mixing” present and past tenses in narration. Samuel Craddock speaks the language spoken by men like him in real Jarrett Creeks all over Texas.

**The cow sentence isn’t really about cows. It’s about Samuel Craddock. But I am fond of white-faced Herefords, and the image Shames paints of them is so vivid that it obscures the man dragging himself toward his house. For me, at least.

***I took the photo of the cover of A Killing at Cotton Hill. The fur on the right side of the book doesn’t belong there, but it was easier to just take the picture than to move the cat.

***

Image of Murder at the Jubilee Rally cover from Amazon.com

Image of Hereford cow by Lou Pie from Pixabay

***

Kathy Waller has published short crime fiction as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. For more info, and/or to read her posts on topics ranging from A to izzard, visit her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly (http://kathywaller1.com). She also cross-posts her Ink-Stained Wretches posts at Austin Mystery Writers.

50,000 Words in One Month? Are You Crazy??

By K.P. Gresham

Yep, it’s that time of year again for NaNoWriMo. (Short for “National Novel Writing Month.) And yes, the challenge is to write 50,000 words in the month of November.

Although this event is nation-wide and writers of all genres participate, Sisters in Crime is a major sponsor of the event. All members of Sisters in Crime are able to take advantage of twice a day write-ins, zoom social events, and helpful hints on how to keep that creativity going.

Sisters in Crime provides an entire tool kit on how to make this challenge doable. To give you just one example, I’m going to paraphrase five things SinC has put together to champion NaNoWriMo.

  1. Track your progress every day. I’m talking word count. It’s amazing how motivational this alone can be. After three or four days, you may be astounded by how much you have done.
  2. Find writing friends with whom you will share your results. This communication will keep all of you accountable to each other.  It’s not exactly peer pressure, but you sure don’t want to be the one dragging up the rear.
  3. Set a schedule to get together in person with these writing friends throughout the month. Once a week? Twice? Every ten days? Whatever schedule works for your group, this is a wonderful reminder that you’re all in this together. Writing can be such a solitary experience, but when you look across the table and see someone else typing away to get their story on the page, you know you’re not alone.
  4. Make a schedule for writing when you’re not with the group. This schedule might include the time of day you will write, or what days your will write. Promise yourself you’re going to keep to that schedule. Don’t be intimidated by a blank page, just write!
  5. Eliminate distractions. Don’t check your email. Don’t do research—but, of course, make a note of the research that needs to be done when you’re not in your scheduled writing time.

Sisters in Crime has many, many more tips, but this gives you an idea of the practical advice the organization provides to SinC members for a successful NaNoWriMo.

For more information on joining Sisters in Crime, please go to their website at https://www.sistersincrime.org/

And exercise those digits. Your fingers are going to be very busy in November!

K.P. Gresham, Author

Professional Character Assassin

K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels.  Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as the Mystery Writers of America.

Click here to receive K.P.’s newsletter and a get a free short story!

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Four Reasons to Die

Journey into Unknown Worlds

by Francine Paino  AKA F. Della Notte  

Depth and realism. How do authors achieve it? Great writing, of course, but research into every aspect of character development, periods, and settings is essential. Readers often wonder how writers decide on the backdrop for their characters’ emotions and thoughts. Again, the answer is research. 

Writers are intrigued and inspired by innumerable universes around them. Even routine occupations require thought, knowledge, and understanding. In the unusual story of The Maid by Nita Prose, the protagonist is a hotel maid, and the author’s knowledge of the inner workings of a hotel lends an authenticity that draws the reader in. In Stamped Out, a successful cozy mystery series by Tonya Kappes, the author credits the USPS worker who guided her through the inner workings of the post office. An essential ingredient to her series.    

But there are the plots that require knowledge in areas not encountered routinely, or even known. In Kristen Hannah’s, The Winter Garden, a story of a mother and her daughters, she writes about the siege of Leningrad during World War II with such detail and realism a reader could believe someone who’d survived that nightmare wrote it instead of a person born in 1960.   

Settings, periods, environments, climates, geography, and the list goes on forever. Writers are told to “write what you know,” but what we know isn’t nearly enough, for there are little universes around us where twists and turns take on different flavors and colors dictated by what we don’t know without examination and study.  

A mystery or crime story involving police procedures written by someone who has never been a police officer requires learning the different rules, regulations, and methods that vary from one police department to another. Thus, the writer’s first determination is the city/state/town where the story takes place and how crimes are approached and solved. Even if the location is fiction, the writer will still need to communicate at least some recognized methods used to solve crimes unless they’re writing fantasy. 

In non-fiction, Memo Book, by Lt. Retired Dan D’Eugenio, is an excellent source to understand how the complex New York City Police Department operates from the street level to the hierarchy of officers. His writing is clear, concise, and colorful as he leads us through police work in New York City, both above and below ground. He pulls no punches, describing the smells of decomposing bodies and garbage or the unexpected experiences, like falling through the rotted floors in abandoned tenements, or the stop, search, and question methods.

One of the most fascinating worlds is the backstage universe of live theater. Much of the magic the audience experience is directly related to the dramas and sagas behind the curtain, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is an example.

The Metropolitan Opera has a cast of thousands responsible for the front of the house and care of everything from ushers to box office staff. The run crew backstage is responsible for the sets and set changes. There is a wig shop and, of course, a costume shop.

In an eye-opening interview on the Met Opera Channel, Suzi Gomez-Pizzo, describes the fast and furious pace of being the wardrobe supervisor for female leads. In a New York Times article, The Opera Wardrobe Diva, she conveys the challenges of being responsible for her singers, getting them into costume eight minutes before curtain—to avoid them sitting around in costume, and rapid costume changes between acts. She describes herself as the singers’ trusted constant. “They know that if they blow a note, the whole world hears it and that you’re the only constant they have.” And she reveals a Met quirks. Their costume shop never uses velcro. It might make those fast changes easier, but the Met costume shop is faithful to the operas’ original period and costume construction. In addition to her costume responsibilities, she feels a vital part of her job is to keep her singers happy and confident in her abilities to get them changed nack onstage in the allotted time.  In a YouTube interview with Isabel Leonard, the Mezzo-Soprano star of the opera Marnie, Gomez-Pizzo and Leonard are shown making 15 costume changes in a small ‘pit-stop’ curtained-off area in the wings while the opera is in progress. “Trust,” agrees Leonard and Gomez-Pizzo, are the essential ingredient that makes it work.

The drama of the costume shop and its staff is worthy of its own legend and is used in Adriana Trigiani’s heart-wrenching saga, The Shoemaker’s Wife. 

Trigiani’s heroine, Enza, is a young Italian immigrant in the 1920s living in New York. Her skills with needle and thread land her a job in the Met Costume Shop. As the tale of love, heartbreak, separation, and reunion of two Italian immigrants unfolds, the story also follows Enza’s climb from seamstress to a position of trust, fitting and caring for the costume needs of Enrico Caruso, one of opera’s greatest star.  

Months of research were required to acquire the historical information that enabled Trigiani to give depth and realism to her story’s settings in Greenwich Village, NY, the Iron Range of Minnesota, and the Met Costume Shop. She is rightfully lavish in her thanks to those who assisted her researching Met Opera history, life in Italy, New York’s Little Italy community, and Minnesota.

In the second book of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’Histoire Theatre, is set in modern day Austin, Texas. Father Melvyn and Mrs. B. become involved in a theater murder when her son’s ballet company goes into rehearsal for Macbeth. 

Extensive research into stagecraft, constructionand lighting was vital to developing the actions and dramas taking place in the theater.  Additional knowledge about the history of prohibition, crime, and bootlegging in Texas was crucial, as it provided the backdrop for an old crime that comes to light in current times. None of this would have been possible without access to historical materials and the expertise of theater personnel.

Research opens the doors, turns on the lights, and cannot be overrated for the journey into unknown worlds.   

Who Gets What? And Why? And Who Said?

by Kathy Waller

My mother used to tell me I should become a lawyer. “You’re analytical,” she said.

I think she meant I was argumentative, but that’s a different story.

I would like to be analytical in the way lawyers are, but I’m not. And I don’t think on my feet. If I were practicing criminal defense, my clients would be halfway to prison before I realized I should have said, “Objection!”

Nonetheless, though not a lawyer type, I decided back in Aught Three that I might make a fair-to-middlin’ paralegal after I retired from library work. So I registered for an eleven-month course in paralegal studies. And found myself back in the world of Saturday classes and papers and exams and quizzes and perpetual studying.

And perpetual remembering. Cases, statutes, ordinances. Codes, Codes, Codes. I’d been out of school for twelve years. I wasn’t accustomed to stuffing my head with–stuff–and spilling it back onto exams.

I’ve read that if you know 80% of the course material, you’ll be able to pass the tests. That may work for other students.

But I believe–I’m sure–that if I know 80% of the material, the exams will cover the other 20%. Consequently, the only thing to do is learn 100%.

And it’s such dry material. Drier than the Dewey Decimal System. No surprise, of course, but I longed for literature, novels just crying out to be torn apart, rummaged through, distilled to their very essence . . .

My memory needed story.

So, preparing for the probate exam, I wrote one–in the form of a mnemonic. It explained intestate succession–who gets what when a Texan dies without leaving a valid will–as laid out by the Texas Probate Code in force as of November 2003. One of our instructors had warned the class that students usually considered probate the most difficult section of the course.

Composing the memory aid took the better part of an afternoon. It required that I not only observe restrictions imposed by rime and meter, but that I strictly adhere to the provisions of the Code. There was no wiggle room. It had to be correct.

At the end of the day, I was pleased. Aside from a couple of rhythmic aberrations, all the lines scanned, the rime scheme was satisfactory, and the targeted provisions of the Code  were covered.

It was a pretty good song.

As a mnemonic, however, it lacked a lot. It was long and complicated. I could have completed an entire exam in the time it took me to sing (silently) down to the second chorus.

It was easier to just learn the Code.

Still, I was proud of my effort, so I posted the little flash of creativity on the class’s online bulletin board. My old biology classmates would have read it and applauded. My paralegal classmates looked at me funny.

Well, an instructor had also told us that paralegals aren’t supposed to display a sense of humor.

But funny looks don’t bother me. I spent years in education. I’m used to them.

At the risk of getting several more, I present a bit of law in verse.

DISCLAIMER

The content of the following composition was accurate as of November 1, 2003. The song does not reflect changes in the law since that date. Neither does it represent a legal opinion, nor is it intended to offer counsel or advice. Its appearance on this blog does not constitute practicing law without a license.

More specifically,

*The substance of the Texas Probate Code was codified in the Estates Code by the 81st and 82nd Legislatures, and for that reason, the Texas Legislative Council is not publishing it. If you would like more information, please contact the Texas Legislative Council.

In other words, the Texas Probate Code was swallowed up by the Estates Code, and “John Brown’s Intestacy” is no longer accurate. The author doesn’t intend to make it accurate. And she is still not attempting to practice law without a license.

********************

JOHN BROWN’S INTESTACY

By Kathy Waller

(To be sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body, 
aka The Battle Hymn of the Republic).

I.

John Brown died and went to heaven but forgot to make a will.
His intestate succession now the Probate Code will tell.
Was he married, was he single, do his kids sit ‘round the ingle?
Had he common prop. or sep.?

Glory, glory, Texas Probate!
Separate property Section 38!
Common property Section 45!
Make a will while you’re alive!

II.

If John’s married and he leaves a wife, no kids, or kids they share,
Then 45(a)1 leaves wife all common prop. that’s there.
But if he has an extra kid, wife ends up with just half
And the kids share all the rest.

Glory, glory 45(b)!
Don’t omit Section 43!
By the cap or by the stirpes,
Wife shares it with the kids!

III.

For separate prop., if he’s no wife, it goes to kids or grands.
If none of those, John’s parents halve the personal and lands.
If only mom or pop lives, the surviving one takes half.
John’s siblings share the rest.

Glory! Both John’s folks are deceased–
All his sibs will share the increase,
And if no siblings, 38(a)4 means
They’ll need a family tree.

IV.

If John has separate prop. and leaves a wife and kids or grands,
38(b)1 gives wife one-third of personal prop. at hand,
And a one-third interest just for life in houses and in lands.
Descendants take the rest.

Glory, glory 38(b)1!
It’s one-third/two-thirds division!
But if John leaves a wife but no kids,
Section 38(b)2 applies!

V. – VII.

John’s wife gets all his personal prop. and half the real estate.
The other half of real estate goes back to 38—
38(a), to be exact, and up the family tree,
Unless his gene pool’s defunct.

For if John Brown was an only child with parents absentee,
No brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, or cousins on the tree,
No grandparents or great-grandparents to grab a moiety,
His wife will get it all.

BUT if John Brown leaves this life with naught a soul to say, “Amen,”
The Probate Code’s escheat will neatly tie up all the ends:
The Lone Star State will step right up to be John’s kith and kin,
And Texas takes it all!

Glory, glory Texas Probate!
Slicing up poor John Brown’s estate!
Avoid the Legislature’s dictate:
Make a will while you’re alive!

*****

Image of statue by Gerhard from Pixabay

Image of woman studying by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

*****

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her short stories appear in several anthologies and online. She lives in Austin with one cream tabby and one husband. She’s still working on that mystery novel.

She did work as a paralegal for 2.5 years. She found the work interesting and loved the job (mostly). When she resigned, her attorney said, “I think you’re quitting because you need to do something more creative. So much of the law is just drudgery.” She agreed with him.

Moonshine is Mighty Fine and ILLEGAL!

By K.P. Gresham

Still on the research kick, I’m in the process of learning all about moonshine. No, not how to drink it. How to make it. While plotting out my next book, Death Takes the Fifth, I realized moonshine (and by extension, moonshiners) would play an integral role in the story. Let’s be clear—making moonshine is a against the law in 48 states unless you’ve got a distributor’s license, so DO NOT make this stuff. And, for the record, the moonshiners in my book get in a lot of trouble for what they’re doing.

I got the idea from watching the TV show, “Moonshiners”, on Discovery TV. Yep, I’ve followed the cast through quite a few of their antics, whether it be finding a still site, constructing a still, what kind of water makes the best hooch, recipes for anything from whiskey to gin to absinthe, and how to escape the law (well, moonshiners try, anyway). I even bought a jar of (legal) moonshine marketed at a nearby liquor store to see how it tastes. I’m pretty sure the storebought version is lower in alcohol content and therefore has less of a bite than the real stuff, but I still saw a few fumes behind my eyeballs.

After recovering from that bit of research, I started jotting down some of the facts I needed to make sure the moonshiners were correctly depicted in my book.

The most important ingredient in moonshine is the water. From what I understand, spring water loaded with limestone makes the best liquor. We have a lot of limestone in Texas. Heck, the exterior of my house is limestone. And there are plenty of springs around Austin for this to be a viable process. Once you have your water, it’s time to make the mash.

Oh. The mash. That’s the combination of grains (corn or barley or wheat, etc.), sugar (which brings up the alcohol level–can be anything from refined sugar to sugar beets), water, and aromatics (can be fruit or spices or herbs depending on what type of moonshine you want to make) and yeast.  For example, if you want to make a gin moonshine, you must have juniper berries–which can taste pretty strong. The moonshiner might counter that with ingredients like cardamon pods, peppercorns, anise, lemon/orange peels, cinnamon—you get the drift. The mash is then sealed in a big tub (whiskey-aged barrels give it a real nice quality, I understand) and allowed to sit for seven to ten days for all of it to ferment.

By now, it’s time to find the location where you’re actually going to make the moonshine. Near a limestone spring is optimal. It’s also important that the site be away from hikers, hunters, and passers-by. You do not want anyone stumbling on to your still site and either stealing your stuff or calling the police. Again, it is ILLEGAL to make moonshine without the proper permits. Also, moonshiners like to find a spot where they can make a quick get-away if the revenuers come a-calling.

While the mash is doing its chemical thing, its time to construct the still. The folks on The “Moonshiners” tend to favor copper stills, but I’ve seen them make it out of empty beer kegs, old barrels, etc. I’ve inserted a diagram below describing the design of a rather simplistic still. Everything is welded together.

The mechanism on the far left is where the now fermented mash is poured and heated (to somewhere starting at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.) The steam put off by the mash is the alcohol. The steam goes through the cap arm into the thumper keg where it mixes with cold water, thus increasing the alcohol level. After going through the thumper, the now liquid alcohol goes into the warm box and spirals down to the spout. When the liquor’s ready, it comes out the tap or spout. To make sure the liquor doesn’t go everywhere, the moonshiner puts a (pardon the language) coon dick in the spout so the liquor pours straight into whatever container you’re putting the moonshine in. I’ve seen The Moonshiners use gallon glass jugs, plastic milk jugs, mason jars, etc.

About the coon dick. Yes, it really is a raccoon’s…umm…tally whacker. And yes, the aforementioned tally whacker on a raccoon has a bone in it that is perfect for keeping a steady stream of moonshine heading right into the waiting container. (I’m not making this stuff up.)

Now it’s time to see if the moonshine is any good. First off, the moonshine product should be clear. Next, the moonshiner usually uses a mason jar to test the alcohol level of the product. They fill the jar halfway, put the lid on tight, turn it on its side and shake the jar. The bubbles will tell the story.  If the bubbles are large and pop pretty quickly, the alcohol level in the jar is high. If the bubbles are small and stay around a while, the alcohol level is low. And, of course, there’s the taste test.

I’ve had a blast learning about all of this, but then again, I love to do research. Between the TV show and the internet, I hope I’ve created some plot twists and characters that you will enjoy as much as I do.

Cheers, everyone!

K.P. Gresham, Author

Professional Character Assassin

K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels.  Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as the Mystery Writers of America.

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Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

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Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Four Reasons to Die

MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS, AND SISTERS IN LOVE AND WAR

Francine Paino, AKA F. Della Notte

Relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters, as they relate to one another as individuals and as a family unit, are complex. Now wrap them in the horrors, deprivations, losses, and dangers of World War II in Russia and France, and you have the foundations of two exceptional novels of mothers, daughters, and sisters in love and war. 

Authors Kristin Hannah and Karen Robards place their readers in the middle of two families of women with fractured relationships. For one family, the war is over and it’s the traumatizing memories that cause the drama. For the other, the family’s story takes place in the midst of World War II.      

In Kristin Hannah’s sweeping saga, The Winter Garden, World War II, specifically the siege of Leningrad, is the historical backdrop for the damaged Whitson family. The destructive tentacles of the past hold the emotionally scarred Anya Whitson in a stranglehold, impacting her relationship with her two daughters, Meredith and Nina, who were kept emotionally distant throughout their childhoods by their mother. Anya often expressed anger or indifference toward them, despite all attempts to please her. Sadly, the sisters believed their mother was a cold woman who did not love them. They had no idea of the past tragedies and secrets that had damaged Anya and created what seemed to be an impenetrable shell around her heart.  Over time,  a wall of pain and resentment developed between the sisters and lasted for decades, adding to the misunderstandings with their mother.  

As an adult, Meredith, the more traditional of the two, stays close to home, marries, and helps run the apple orchard. She raises two children but keeps her husband at arm’s length. The other daughter, Nina, is a world-traveling photojournalist, and she stays away from the family as much as possible until their father’s failing health forces her to return.  

On his deathbed, Evan Whitson demands a promise from his daughters. They are to get their mother to tell the entire fairy tale she’d partially told them as children, but after his death, Anya’s behavior becomes unbalanced. Again, they listen to the fairy tale about a prince and a peasant girl and remain confused, still unaware of the story’s significance.

One day, Meredith finds old papers with a letter from a Russian professor in Alaska addressed to Anya, stating that while he understood her refusal to tell her story, it would have been an excellent learning experience for others. Inspired by the professor’s words, the sisters take their mother on an Alaska trip, where they learn what had happened to her in Russia, the brutality of the German invasion, followed by the horror of life under Stalin. 

Anya’s story weaves through an unimaginable nightmare as she tells her daughters the truth about living through the almost 900-day siege of Leningrad. Things begin to make sense about their mother’s bizarre behaviors. In Anya’s deliriums, she’d envisioned herself back in Leningrad during the siege and tried to strip and boil wallpaper to make soup, as the starving populace did because wallpaper pastes were made from potato starches. They also learned the tragic reason for her emotional connection to the winter garden outside her house, and why she seemed detached from her girls. 

World War II is a past we only see through Anya’s tortured memories, but we suffer with her for what she’d endured, and we feel the pain of a mother and her daughters as they learn the truth and try to find forgiveness and love.  

In The Black Swan of Paris, Karen Robards drops us into occupied Paris in 1944, in a historical thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats with unrelenting tensions and fears – as life must have been for the resistance fighters of France.

The main character, Genevieve Dumont, a celebrity singer, is adored by the Nazis. Her manager, Max Bonet, is Captain Max Ryan, British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Max recruits her after helping her through a deadly incident in Morocco, and she becomes a reluctant front for the British spying and intelligence gathering network, living in constant fear for her life. 

The French resistance cells are autonomous, keeping identities secret to increase their chances of survival. Thus, other cells don’t know of Genevieve’s double life and view her as a Nazi collaborator, but that cover is what gives her and her manager Max entry into the world of the Nazi hierarchy. But the Black Swan of Paris has deadly secrets of her own.  

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, including Max, Genevieve was born Genevre de Rochford, the daughter of Baron and Baroness de Rochford, whom she’d disowned, along with her sister, Emmy, years earlier. Genevieve has no feelings for her parents or Emmy, or anyone else until she inadvertently hears that the Baroness de Rochford, now a member of the French resistance, has been captured by the Nazis. She learns that Max has been ordered to rescue the Baroness or kill her before the Nazis can torture information from her regarding the planned Allied invasion. This information shocks Genevieve and the familial bonds she thought dead surge to the surface. She doesn’t know what to do, but her sister Emmy, serving in another resistance cell, has kept track of Genevieve’s public career and finds her. Together, they put aside all past differences because somehow they must rescue their mother—but they need help from Max, the operative ordered to kill her.   

Both stories are rich with details that bring readers into the world of these characters, showing the importance of extensive research. World War II, the siege of Leningrad, life under Stalin, the occupation of France, and the French resistance, come alive through superb storytelling.  

One understands Anya’s behaviors through her tragic memories and feels the sense of powerlessness, the pain of losing loved ones, the physical pain of starvation, and the fear of what was to come by those who endured and survived the siege of Leningrad.  

In Paris, 1944, the French resistance waits for Operation Overlord while Genevieve Dumont walks her tightrope, which could snap and plunge her and her network into the hell of Nazi hands and possibly undo the planned Allied invasion. The reader experiences the pressure of the tremendous weight on so few shoulders and the unrelenting fear of being captured.

The depth of knowledge of those historical events, whether told in the sweeping family saga of The Winter Garden or in the historical suspense thriller The Black Swan of Paris, is used deftly and add details and layers to the stories, enhancing each novel’s authenticity.