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.

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.

Writing “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm”

By N.M. Cedeño

People like to ask writers, do you ever use details from your life in your writing? Answer: Sometimes. It depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing science fiction or noir, nothing in the story may be evocative of my life. Other times, details from my life do creep into my stories. “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm” is one of those stories that has a bit of my life in it.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine #12

Written originally in 2010 or 2011, the manuscript sat forgotten in a file for seven or eight years before I decided to revise and submit it for publication. The story is available in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #12, the special cozies edition, edited by Michael Bracken.

Without further ado, here are some things from my life that influenced my writing of the story “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm.”

  • The story is set in Dallas during a Christmas Eve ice storm that traps a party of houseguests together overnight. Trouble ensues when one guest accuses the others of stealing her bracelet. I grew up in Dallas County where ice storms hit the city every few years. The city doesn’t get frozen precipitation often enough for anyone to have to drive on it with any regularity. When an ice storm hits and coats everything with an inch of ice, the city shuts down and everyone stays home for a day or two until it melts. Historical note: the first draft of the story was written about ten years before the 2021 catastrophic ice storm that hit Texas. Texans are used to ice storms hitting sections of the state. Ice storms big enough to coat the entire state in frozen precipitation for a week, as happened in 2021, are a whole other matter.
Things I’ve baked and decorated.
N.M. Cedeño
  • The main character in the story, Eleanor, spent the day baking and preparing for a Christmas Eve family gathering. I enjoy baking. A lot. Cookies, cakes, brownies, muffins, quick breads, scones, and scratch-made baking powder biscuits are the favorites in my house. Pies and fudge appear seasonally. As much as I enjoy baking, there have been times, usually after prepping for an event, where I have been utterly tired of baking, a feeling shared by my main character.
  • Eleanor’s husband Joe has three siblings with whom he is close in age. I come from a large family and grew up with two brothers and two sisters for a total of five of us, plus two parents, plus assorted dogs. Between friends and relatives our house was frequently packed. Holidays in my family have always involved a lot of people, and, thus, family dynamics. However, none of the characters in the story are like my siblings or my husband’s siblings.  
Nativity scene from Pixabay
  • As with Joe’s family in the story, my husband’s family has a Christmas tradition involving setting up a prominently-displayed, elaborate Nativity scene in their home in which the infant Jesus in the display remains covered from head-to-toe in a cloth until December 25th.
  • According to the character Luke, Die Hard is a classic Christmas movie. Most of my family would agree with this statement.
  • Like Becky in the story, two of my siblings and my eldest son attended UT Dallas.
  • Among my more than a dozen nieces and nephews you will find an Eleanor, a Joseph, a Luke, a Rebecca (not called Becky), and a (middle name) Helen (not Helene). However, two of them were born AFTER the characters in this story were named and, in truth, all of the names are coincidental. I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular when I named the characters. This isn’t the first time I have used a family member’s first name for a character. If the first name fits, I use it.

The above are all details to the story. The plot about the disappearance of an expensive bracelet during a Christmas Eve party is entirely fictional.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com

Book Review:  David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants

by Renee Kimball

“Giants are not as powerful as they seem
and sometimes the shepherd has a sling in his pocket.”

— Malcom Gladwell

David with the head of Goliath. Caravaggio. Public domain. Wikipedia.

Malcom Gladwell is not a “new author.”  He has been writing for the New York Times since 1996, and is the best-selling author of many books. But more than that, Gladwell is a one-of-a-kind writer–there is no one else like him.   “. . . Gladwell’s true genius lies here, in identifying common assumptions that lie just beneath the surface—beliefs that are so widely accepted, so taken for granted, that we don’t even know we believe in them.” (Adam Grant). 

Gladwell’s strength is taking the ordinary and making it interesting. (Adam Grant)

In his book David and Goliath -Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell tests our presumptions by asking us to consider two questions:  When does an advantage (strong) become a disadvantage (weak)?  At what point does a disadvantage (weak) become an advantage (strong)?  

Gladwell shows why finding the answers is not as easy as it appears.  By the end of this book, the reader finds that their once comfortable presumptions have been turned on their heads. 

There is no better introduction for Gladwell’s, David and Goliath, than the story of David and Goliath – the most well-known underdog vs. giant story of all time.  It is much more than we thought– David was a lucky young man who delivered a one-in-a-million shot instantly slaying the giant.  David did do those things, but thanks to Gladwell, we now know there were other reasons that played a very large part in David’s victory.  

No one disputes the fact that Goliath was a giant of a man for his day.  He was a scary guy– overwhelmingly huge compared to others.  What was not known is that Goliath suffered from a debilitating growth condition, now known as “acromegaly, a benign tumor of the pituitary gland” (Gladwell).  Acromegaly caused Goliath’s unchecked growth and also impacted his eyesight–Goliath could not see well.  And because of his size, Goliath’s responses were delayed, and because of his disease, he was not only slow, he could not see clearly.   For this famous battle at least, these two facts substantially reduced Goliath’s chances of victory.

While Goliath was already a proven warrior, he was primarily successful engaged within hand-to-hand combat — traditional warfare.  Traditional hand combat mandated certain behaviors and dress. Combatants wore a heavily armored breast plate, needed the ability to carry and wield a large and heavy sword with alacrity, must have the ability to target and throw a javelin, and all this, while wearing a heavy metal helmet.

The fully dressed combatant was restricted both in movement and sheer weight.  Moreover, to be effective wielding the sword, the warrior must be very close to their opponent—face-to-face.  In this story, David was at the bottom of a ravine, while Goliath was standing at the top of a slope bellowing demands while walking in a downward direction towards David.  Unbeknownst to Goliath, the fight with David would not follow the familiar traditional rules of either dress, weapon, or combat, and there would be no face-to-face contact.  

Unlike Goliath, the young shepherd David had never worn armor, fought hand to hand combat, or a major battle.  David was small, lithe, unencumbered, and his only weapon a sling – and in that –slinging– he was an expert.  David refused an offer of armor because he knew it would weigh him down.  David approached the fight with excellent eyesight, a honed skill, unburdened by armor and no predisposed concepts of traditional warfare.  David would not be close enough for hand-to-hand combat, and he carried no sword.

“So here we have a big, lumbering guy weighed down with armor, who can’t see much more than a few feet in front of his face, up against a kid running at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun. That’s not a story of an underdog and a favorite. David has a ton of advantages in that battle, they’re just not obvious. That’s what gets the book rolling is this notion that we need to do a better job of looking at what an advantage is.”  Malcom Gladwell (Interview, Inc.com)

We know the end of this story, and the underdog (weak) (disadvantaged) proves to be no underdog at all, and becomes in this situation the winner, (strong) (advantaged).  This type of scrutiny is where Gladwell shines, taking a subject, stripping away assumptions, turning it on its head–making the story something else entirely.

Gladwell’s precise and skillful analysis continues on throughout the book’s nine sections, all equally thought-provoking, and all dealing with preconceived assumptions of weak and strong, advantages or disadvantages.  In one of his more bewildering propositions, Gladwell questions the impact of certain types of disability and asks:  Can disability ever be desirable? (Gladwell).   A premise that at first blush, appears both jarring and indistinctly hopeful.  We answer we cannot imagine that there is an appropriate answer.

To structure his premise, Gladwell reviews the impact of living with dyslexia – “a learning disability that makes it difficult to read, write, and spell, no matter how hard the person tries or how intelligent he or she is” (LDOnline). The root cause for dyslexia is still being studied, however, so far what we do know is that the brain’s mechanical functions are unable to link the vital connection of essential neuron transmitters that allow an individual to learn, to read, to speak, and to write. 

Dyslexic individuals struggle every day, normal activities take a very long time and exhaustive concentration.  Gladwell suggests that for dyslexics, the harder it is to learn, the more they excel in adulthood. The premise —they excel because they have worked so very hard from the very beginning to cope, to fit in, to make it through daily life.  

This may seem improbable, but it has been found that “a high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic” (Gladwell).  Within one entrepreneurial group studied, it was found that approximately one-third of those participating had some type of learning disability.   Which begs the question, would you want your child to have a disability?  It is a tough question and a harder one to answer (Gladwell).

*

I sat down with countless numbers of people who have been very successful in their fields who have dyslexia to ask them, ‘Did you succeed in spite of your disability or because of it,’ and every one of them said because of the disability. (emphasis added)

In other words, these were people who, because they could not read easily were forced to develop other skills and try other strategies that proved to be more advantageous in terms of their careers.”  Malcolm Gladwell, Air Talk.

*

The success stories of affected individuals winning over dyslexia exist because they were forced to compensate from a very early age and developed skills to overcome learning roadblocks—they were and are, flexible and adaptive and found a way to exist in a very cloudy and disorganized world.   Dyslexia forced them to learn to listen acutely, memorize large amounts of information, and develop a razor-sharp ability to read people, retain complex nuances and facts, not on paper, but in their minds.  So, under Gladwell’s premise, there are benefits to a disability – which may not be easily understood.   (Photo: Pixabay)

While there is much, much more within Gladwell’s stories, in the end, the reader must decide which speaks to them. Which story is the most relatable, plausible?   Gladwell writes simply; his premises, rebuttal, and results are presented in an easy to read format while challenging the reader to think deeply. 

And if you stay the course to the end of the book, you will be given a glimmer of hope, because that is what Gladwell gives – hope.  Hope that despite incredible odds, things are not as they seem –there is always more.  Gladwell’s gift is to leave the reader questioning everything – and that is what Gladwell does better than anyone.  

***

References

Gladwell, Malcolm.  David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Underdogs, Misfits & the Art of Battling Giants. You Tube Online.  Microsoft Research. Published on Sep 9, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RGB78oREhM .

Air Talk. http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2013/10/09/34085/malcolm-gladwell-cheers-on-the-underdog-in-david-a/  AirTalk® | October 9, 2013.

Maslin, Janet. “Finding Talking Points Among the Underdogs In ‘David and Goliath,’ Gladwell Explores Two Ideas.” Books of The Times https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/books/david-and-goliath-by-malcolm-gladwell.html.  October 2, 2013.

Grant, Adam.  Linked In. Online. What Makes Malcolm Gladwell Fascinating. Published on October 7, 2013. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20131007120010-69244073-what-makes-malcolm-gladwell-fascinating

Dyslexia: What Brain Research Reveals About Reading. By: Society for Neuroscience. LDOnline.  http://www.ldonline.org/article/10784/.

Photo, Photo Credit: Caravaggio.  David with the head of Goliath. Creative Commons: Public Domain

Photo, Illustration, David and Goliath. By Majumwo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45245327

Photo, Dyslexia Puzzle. Author Gerd Altmann. https://pixabay.com/en/dyslexia-learning-disorder-puzzle-3014152/

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

The Flavor of the Place

by Helen Currie Foster

August 8, 2022

Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.

Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.

Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:

“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.” 

What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”

So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.

Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.

Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all. 

As Proust famously pointed out, smells can stimulate memories. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/07/more-than-cake-unravelling-the-mysteries-of-proust-s-madeleine Smells can also trigger emotional reactions: “Your olfactory bulb runs from your nose to the base of your brain and has direct connections to your amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for processing emotion) and to your hippocampus (an area linked to memory and cognition). Neuroscientists have suggested that this close physical connection between the regions of the brain linked to memory, emotion, and our sense of smell may explain why our brain learns to associate smells with certain emotional memories.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-smells-trigger-memories1/

Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.

My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns? 

Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.

Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.” 

Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”

Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”

Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too. 

Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.

https://qbi.uq.edu.au/blog/2018/11/how-do-we-smell-things#:~:text=Whenever%20we%20smell%20something%2C%20our,easier%20to%20smell%20a%20smell. Per Rodrigo Suarez at the Queensland Brain Institute: 

“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”

Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”

But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://www.wired.com/2014/11/whats-up-with-that-smells-language/#:~:text=come%20up%20short.-,That’s%20because%20smells%20(which%20contribute%20heavily%20to%20what%20we%20commonly,brain’s%20olfactory%20and%20language%20systems.Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.

But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://www.amazon.com/Red-Nero-Wolfe-Mystery-Book-ebook/dp/B004SOQ076/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2KTCNYSRFE27K&keywords=the+red+box&qid=1659993772&sprefix=the+red+box%2Caps%2C208&sr=8-1

Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.

Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.

Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Lions-Slough-House-Book-ebook/dp/B008ADFIKQ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2OWSNB20HLYMN&keywords=dead+lions&qid=1659990272&sprefix=dead+lion%2Caps%2C169&sr=8-1

The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”

Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!” 

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…

Facing a Writing Challenge

by N. M. Cedeño

Many writers find motivation in challenging themselves in various ways. Some attempt to write a novel length manuscript each November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Some writers set daily, weekly, or monthly word count targets as challenges to meet. Most do this because they know that when they challenge themselves, they find out what they are capable of accomplishing and learn to push themselves to accomplish more.

Sometimes we writers set these goals for ourselves, other times someone, like an editor in need of a story, provides the challenge for us.

Opportunity Knocks:

In the last week of May 2022, I received an unexpected writing challenge. It arrived in the form of an email from an editor, inviting me to submit a short crime fiction story for an anthology. The catch was that the original deadline, which the editor was willing to extend for me, was only about a week away.

I read the submission criteria, considered my options, and reviewed what was already on my schedule. Then I asked for a month, June, to submit the story, not knowing if that would work for the editor’s timeline.

Could I have said no? Sure. But I recognized that the challenge was also an opportunity to show myself and the editor what I was capable of doing. I was afraid the editor might need the story sooner than my suggested deadline and that he might say no.

The editor replied to my email, agreeing to give me until the end of June to submit the story.

Hooray! And Yikes! I had a deadline to meet.

Meeting the Deadline:

The short story had to fit the specifications for the anthology in question which meant that it had to be set during a particular time period and incorporate some historical event. The time in question happens to be the decade in which I was born, so I have no personal memories of historical events from then. I had to do research. Normally, I research until I get a good grasp for an era before writing. I’ve been known to fall down research rabbit holes and find far more material than I need. My research process had to be curtailed to cover only what was essential: the time and place where I was going to set the story.

Next, I selected a previously created character to make a second appearance in my new story. That character, a private detective named Jerry Milam, appeared in a story called “Nice Girls Don’t” which I wrote for the anthology Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties. Already having a protagonist saved me from having to create a main character from scratch.

After researching the decade and selecting a protagonist, writing the first draft took about three days, resulting in a manuscript that was missing some details. Then, I left on a previously scheduled, nine-day, family vacation, taking my laptop, but knowing I wouldn’t have time to do much work. As it turned out, I only opened the laptop twice during my trip, both times late in the evening.

Once I returned home, I went to work in earnest adding the details I knew were missing. The middle of the story felt muddled, so I reworked it in another draft the following day. Satisfied that the manuscript was complete, I emailed the story to two of the world’s best beta readers, two analytical and detail-oriented people who know that I WANT them to point out every possible error. They know I can take criticism. (I’d rather hear about errors from them than have the story rejected for those same errors!) Both returned notes on the story within a few days, for which I am extremely grateful. (Thanks, Mike and Deb!) After reviewing what errors my beta readers noticed, I corrected and completed the final draft of the story.

In the next few days, I reviewed word choices and line edited the entire document. I made MSWord read the story to me, so I could proofread by listening for errors. Finally, I submitted the story to the editor on June 18, almost exactly four weeks after I received the initial invitation to submit.

Did I hesitate before hitting “send” to submit the manuscript, wondering if I needed to review it one more time?

Yes.

Did I send it anyway?

Yes.

Results:

A week later, I heard back from the editor. The story was accepted for the anthology. I’ll provide more details on the story closer to publication.

I met the challenge and learned something. I could have done it in even less time. I’m glad that when an opportunity dropped in my lap, I was able to rise to the occasion. I’m grateful that the editor gave me the opportunity to meet this challenge.

Leave me a comment on writing challenges you’ve met!

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

WHEN WORDS BALK–TAKE A WALK. SOLVITUR AMBULANDO!

by Helen Currie Foster

This week I’ve been in the Land of Stuck. Walking in circles around the kitchen island struggling to come up with the missing scene. My next mystery’s nearly done, but… I’m stuck. Ever been there?

The poetry shelf offers a momentary escape. Billy Collins can always pull me into a poem. Often he’s going for a walk and I can’t help but feel invited. His “Aimless Love” begins:

He’s got me. 

Or “The Trouble with Poetry,” which begins, 

“This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, 

I fell in love with a wren 

and later in the day with a mouse 

the cat had dropped under the dining room table.”

Well, of course there he’s got me. Then again:

“The trouble with poetry, I realized 

as I walked along a beach one night––

cold Florida sand under my bare feet, 

a show of stars in the sky––”

I feel that same cold Florida sand under my right arch, despite the Texas heat outside. 

Another walking poet: Mary Oliver. In Blue Iris, She begins “White Pine” this way:

“The sun rises late in this southern county. And, since the first thing I do when I wake up is go out into the world, I walk here along a dark road.”

Huh. Walking as discipline? Every morning?

Walking’s not just for poets. St. Augustine is often credited with the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando––“it is solved by walking” (which may have originally been a response to the 5th C. B.C. philosopher Zeno’s concept that we can never actually arrive at a destination). 

According to Ariana Huffington, a number of writers agree about the benefit of walking, including Hemingway, Nietzsche, and Thomas Jefferson. She quotes the latter: “The object of walking is to relax the mind…You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you”.https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/bs-xpm-2013-09-03-bal-solution-to-many-a-problem-take-a-walk-20130830-story.html  Which reminds me of Collins’s wren.

“Solvitur ambulando” was the official mottol of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, formed in 1946 to help those in former occupied countries during WWII who risked their lives to help RAF crew members escape. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvitur_ambulando (check out the terrific solvitur ambulando quotes in this article, from Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Sayers and others). I can’t imagine how high the blood pressure of those resistance heroes climbed during such episodes. Mine skyrocketed just reading A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell’s description of the amazing work of America’s Virginia Hall in France during the resistance. Talk about tense moments. So, did the RAF Escaping Society adopt this motto because of the therapeutic value of walking, or because walking can trigger ideas, or solutions? Or both?

Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines, 1986) claimed he learned the phrase from Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor himself was quite a walker. He set out, in 1933, at age 18, to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul and Greece. He tells the tale in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986. https://www.amazon.com/Between-Woods-Water-Constantinople-Classics/dp/1590171667/ref=asc_df_1590171667/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312149984830&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=16660568066646091577&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9028233&hvtargid=pla-567490155062&psc=1

 I loved this book and Fermor is fascinating (check out his WWII heroics on Crete, including engineering and carrying out the kidnap of the Nazi commander). https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/jun/10/patrick-leigh-fermor-obituary

The English provide walkers with such wonderful public walking paths. My husband and I recently walked the Thames Footpath for several miles along the Thames, over to Bray––yes! Home of the Vicar of Bray! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vicar_of_Bray

In this charming village you can taste amazing smoked salmon at The Hinds Head (where you can read how many times the Vicar changed his denomination to keep his job, back in the religious flip-flops of England’s sixteenth century) and also at The Crown, a pluperfect pub. The Thames Footpath takes you through leafy woods, with views of the rivers, the fields, and occasional historic and mysterious signs (“Battlemead”). It provides boats to watch, ranging from kayaks and paddleboards to elegant near-yachts, festooned with banners for Jubilee, and one incredible ancient polished Chris Craft, casually docked by the restaurant at the Boathouse at Boulter’s Lock by two grizzled old salts. We tried but failed to overhear their intense lunch conversation. Just trying to eavesdrop was imagination-stirring. Where did they come from? Where were they going?

The footpath also led us to the village of Cookham, home of another surprise: the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Spencer, a WWI veteran and Slade School graduate, produced remarkable paintings, sometimes mixing nominally biblical subjects with contemporary life—for example, a resurrection study of Cookham housewives in aprons, climbing out of their graves with surprised faces. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sir-stanley-spencer-1977.

I thought I remembered Spencer’s name from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and looked it up when we got home. She wrote on May 22, 1934, about Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell (Clive’s wife), Duncan Grant (Vanessa’s lover), and Quentin Bell (Vanessa’s son) “all talking at once about Spencer’s pictures.” In 1934 Spencer was showing six works in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition…about the time Patrick Leigh Fermor was off in the middle of his big walk.

Other poetic walkers? You’ve already thought of Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged…”) and Dante. Dante’s walks take the cake; I mean, the Inferno’s a hell of a walk.

So if walking calms the mind, allows creativity, reveals solutions, why am I revolving around the kitchen island?

Now that I think about it, some ideas have emerged. For instance, how much my extended family loves hiking in the Rockies, with (1) a destination; (2) a well-rounded lunch, including chocolate, in the pack; (3) plenty of water. How it feels to set off, hoping to see (1) moose, or (2) marmots, or (3) ptarmigan. How it feels to walk to the destination, grab a flat-topped boulder, warmed by sun, and have lunch, staring out at the view. Then to walk…downhill. No longer out of breath. Watching your fellow hikers dodging limbs, swinging around switchbacks. Triumphant walkers. And in the meantime, there have been discussions on the trail, conversations about this and that, switching from one companion to another. At the end of the trail, a sense of sleepy satisfaction.

So it’s time to get up early enough for a walk. Get up early enough to beat the Texas sun, and see if my neighbor’s front pasture includes a jackrabbit, or “jackbunny” as some call it. Cause a snort from the deer in the brush.

… Okay. Back from the walk. I think I’ve figured out that pesky bit about the last scene, except for a couple of details. So tomorrow, when the alarm rings—I’m going for a walk. Would you like to come too? I’d love it. We could talk.

More…

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, closely supervised by three burros. She’s curious about human nature, human history and prehistory, and why the past keeps crashing the party. She’s currently finishing book 8 in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery novel series. Book 7, Ghost Daughter, was named Grand Prize Short List in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and Finalist for Mystery, 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. Her books are available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and at independent bookstores.She loves to talk with book groups.

Review: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (A Public Service Repost)

by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.

In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”

But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.

So there’s the background.

I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.

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

Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.

*

I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.

***

I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.

Colleen McCullough and the Roman Empire

by Renee Kimball

Reading is like swimming.  Sometimes a novel is like a wading pool, low-level, light, humorous.  Then there are others thattake you to the big pool but keep you in the shallow end–sitting on a cement step, water to your waist, but not really in the pool.  However, when a story takes you to the deep end and the water covers your head, and you tread water because your toes cannot touch the bottom, then that is when you sink or swim –it is either give up or keep going.   .

I found McCullough’s Masters of Rome series searching for information about the Roman Empire.  The series was highly reviewed, and although it was a commitment of several months to read the massive seven-book series, it was well worth the effort.  When I finished, was in awe of McCullough and wanted to know more about her and her work. 

McCullough was born in 1935, in Sydney, Australia.  She went on to become a neuropathologist establishing the department of neurophysiology at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.  She left after many years to become a researcher and teacher at Yale Medical School where she stayed for ten years.  McCullough left Yale, and moved to Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific, where she lived and wrote until her death in 1977 (Amazon). 

McCullough released her first novel, Tim, in 1974.  It was well received, but it paled in comparison to the response to the publication of her second novel, The Thorn Birds, in 1977.  McCullough became an overnight sensation. 

The Thorn Birds is an Australian romance novel.  The riveting characters, a young Australian woman and a Catholic priest, are caught between an illicit passion for one another and the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.  The book eventually was turned into a miniseries, and McCullough’s path was clear; great things were expected of her for the future—and she delivered. 

McCullough is a versatile writer comfortable writing across multiple genres: contemporary novels, mystery series, and historical fiction.   It took ten years for McCullough to research and write the Masters of Rome series beginning in 1997 through 2007. 

Writing historical fiction requires accuracy, particularly when real-life characters and events are incorporated within the overall story.  McCullough’s scientific training as a neuropathologist is evident as shown by her meticulous detail of both historical events and characters drawn from ancient sources.  She brings her characters to life, people become real, not wooden historical abstractions. 

The timeframe of the Masters of Rome series begins in 110 BC with the rise of Gaius Marius as temporary dictator, the rise of Sulla his protégé/ dictator, and before the birth of Julius Caesar; the seven-book series ends with Caesar’s heir, Octavian, defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII Philopator at the Battle of Actium 31 BC.  Octavian seizes power and is declared Augustus.  (Photo Wikipedia Commons).

McCullough’s series also includes her own hand drawn detailed maps of the Empire showing territories, various campaigns, as well as, multiple portraits drawn from actual classical statuary, and included within each volume a glossary of Latin terms. 

While McCullough published the last book in the Masters series in 2007, she went on to write a variety of detective/mystery and standalone novels till 2013.  McCullough passed away in 2015.   While she is primarily remembered for The Thorn Birds, I would argue, McCullough’s greatest achievement is found within The Masters of Rome novels. She is greatly missed.  

***

References:

COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH BOOKS IN ORDER.  https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/colleen-mccullough/

Colleen McCullough. https://www.harperreach.com/authors/colleen-mccullough/

The Battle of Actium. HISTORY.  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-battle-of-actium

Temple of Saturn, Rome – Views with other buildings. By Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Image of swimmer via Pixabay.

Book 1, The First Man in Rome, photos courtesy of Amazon

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Publication Order of Masters of Rome Books

The First Man in Rome (1990)

The Grass Crown         (1991)

Fortune’s Favorites     (1993)

Caesar’s Women         (1996)

Caesar (1997)

The October Horse (2002)

Antony and Cleopatra (2007)

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, writing, and animal advocacy [RK1] .  She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.


 

Layers and Layers

by Helen Currie Foster – May 16, 2022

Cast your mind on the perfect croissant.

A perfect croissant may have hundreds of layers of dough + butter + dough + butter, made of a packet of dough enclosing a layer of butter, rolled out in a precise rectangle, folded, chilled, rolled, chilled (repeat until you have maybe 600 layers), rolled, then cut into squares which are rolled diagonally and baked in a perfectly hot oven until perfectly brown and the magic has happened. As the butter melts between the many layers, it creates steam which inflates the layers, creating not a single “loaf” of baked dough with a brown crust, but a perfect combination of crunch and tenderness: layers of crunchy brown butteriness, then the airy middle, still wafting yeasty buttery smells toward you. Bite. Let joy be unconfined. What’s your approach? Bite the end off? Peel off the outer layers, flake by triangular flake? Either way, you lay open the mystery of layers. https://www.mic.com/articles/180451/the-science-backed-reasons-why-croissants-always-taste-better-in-paris#:~:text=When%20it%20bakes%2C%20the%20butter,delicious%20flavor%20of%20the%20croissant.

When you bite into a croissant, crisp little layers flying everywhere, with the tastes of yeast, butter, magic, sorting themselves out on your tongue, do you too think of murder mysteries?

It’s the layers. Got to be. Oh, not just croissants. Think of mille feuilles… seven layer dip… your family’s best lasagna…baklava… chocolate mousse layer cake finished with butter cream frosting. Or, at the individual level, consider a perfect taco, precisely the way you like it, the perfect proportion of tortilla to filling to guacamole to sour cream to salsa to [supply your favorite ingredient here].

Layers take work. Think of seven-layer cake. Split the original cake layers, evenly, without bumps and tears. Apply filling. Stack without a disaster (such as uneven layers, sliding in wrong directions). Repeat, repeat, repeat. Carefully ice your beautiful cake. Let no one approach, much less jiggle or wiggle, your cake. Serve with care.

But layers, in the right proportions, create both variety and synthesis. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Back to your own favorite taco, a compilation of layers. When you decorate your taco to your own satisfaction, you bite into a creation that’s more delicious than any of its components. 

More is more. 

Back to murder mysteries. We readers prowl the pages, eyes narrowed, alert for each and every clue, determined not to miss a single one. By the end we’ve amassed layers of clues. Alert readers don’t forget the odd incident of the insecticide package in Reginald Hill’s Deadheads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/671925.Deadheads And a good thing they didn’t. Wait for it, wait for it––! Did you see Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile? No spoilers, but watch carefully for—oh, wait. Did you see it?https://www.google.com/search?q=branagh+death+on+the+nile&oq=branagh+death+on+the+nile&aqs=chrome..69i57j46i19j0i19l3j0i19i22i30l5.9073j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

A mystery requires characters, setting, plot. Each component requires detail. Characters, for instance: we want to know how the main characters look, some of what they think, whom they love. Maybe just a brushstroke to add what music they prefer, or hobbies, or food. Special tics that make them memorable? Of course. Give us what we need to remember each character. And writers are cagey. The cautious reader will wonder: is this new character critical to the plot, or just part of the setting? Is the kindly cashier at the village grocery just there to make the village feel safe and homey, or is he/she a witness to crime? The next victim? Or the criminal? But when a character demands too much page time, sometimes we readers hit the wall. We don’t need to know what the clerk at the village store is wearing. Stop it, we think. Get on with the story! Give us enough to fire our imaginations—we readers can and will supply more detail! 

To digress: maybe this imaginative work the reader does (without the author’s permission) is why it’s jarring when a favorite mystery we’ve read appears on television. If we’ve already imagined favorite characters, and the television versions don’t resemble what we now think of as their true selves, we’re faced with a difficult choice. Watch? or retain the original versions in our heads, rejecting the televised version? (This happened to me, but maybe not you, with the televised versions of Cormoran Strike and Robin. Thoughts?)

On the other hand, the WWI flashback at the beginning of the recent Death on the Nile (which is not in Agatha Christie’s original) adds to the character of detective Hercule Poirot—adds a new layer which enriches our understanding of not only his observational acuity, but his apparent emotional detachment. I now think of Agatha Christie’s creation in a more kindly light. Actually, I’ve become attached to Branagh’s version, whereas before I found him a little…tiresome.

Back to the question of how much detail is enough: the same warning holds for setting. Just right, please. English village? New York bar? Hill country town? We appreciate memorable details, but not a travelogue. We want enough detail, but not overkill, on characters and settings. 

But then comes plot. Mystery readers are puzzle-solvers, clue-collectors, memory banks. They anticipate that—like the detective—they may traipse down the wrong path. Of course that means there’s more’s to learn, that they aren’t yet in possession of all the facts. More clues to come.

How to tell clues from red herrings?

In The Five Red Herrings, master writer Dorothy Sayers places the ever-curious Lord Peter Wimsey in a Scottish fishing village popular as an artists’ venue. https://smile.amazon.com/Five-Herrings-Peter-Wimsey-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B008JVJHYM/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5R36N0IMZPY4&keywords=Five+Red+Herrings&qid=1652710332&sprefix=five+red+herring%2Caps%2C132&sr=8-1

One of the artists dies on the Minnick, a scenic Scottish stream much favored as a landscape subject, that lies below a menacing precipice. https://www.mindat.org/feature-2642439.html

No one likes the dead artist. Wimsey can count six suspects––hence, five red herrings. Wimsey must winkle out the true killer. But oh, the alibis. Train schedules! Missing sailors! A stolen bicycle! The famous artist who’s gone missing, face wrapped in gauze, leaving a tight-lipped butler and a baffled maid who saw—well, no spoilers here either. 

While clues point to the killer, red herrings baffle and divert the detective. But they can add layers of richness to a plot. Five Red Herrings would be less than a novella, only a short story, without the layers of red herrings which paint (excuse me) a vivid picture of this art colony—tension, distraction, jealousy, romance, hatred. Certainly the story would lack the puzzles demanded by mystery readers. Furthermore, red herrings affect our emotions. For example, we sympathize with Hugh Farren, the artist who, frustrated by his ever-so-prissy wife, hares off into the countryside, making a living by re-painting pub signs. We hope he’s not the killer, this man who sets up his easel outside a pub and explains to open-mouthed watching children how he’s making the pub sign funny on one side, scary on the other. It’s a great scene. Another layer to the mystery. And let’s face it, to persuade her readers to struggle with those complicated train schedules, Sayers has to keep us caring which artist is the killer.

The WWI flashback in Death on the Nile is neither a clue, nor a red herring. Instead, it offers us a layer of Poirot’s character that doesn’t solve the mystery, doesn’t identify the killer, but adds to our understanding of Poirot’s emotions, deepening, in a way, the impact of his solution of the mystery. 

Today I’m in Paris, Croissantland, I stopped in an old church where the Greek Orthodox service was being sung. It reminded me of the character Niccolo in Dorothy Dunnett’s eight-volume historical series (yes, it is really a murder mystery). https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/HON/house-of-niccolo-series

Niccolo’s mathematical and musical gifts, including his memory for Greek liturgy, came back to me as I listened to the sung service. Literature can bestow a gift that keeps on giving, a writer’s description of an event, a scene, that returns to the reader the smell of incense, the sound of voices, and the intensity of a moment imagined by the writer, but which becomes part of the reader’s own imagination. Dunnett’s scene isn’t integral to the plot, to the ultimate discovery at the end of the series of the murderer’s identity, but is a layer that adds to the protagonist’s character and the intensity of his psyche.

Such layers can make a story come alive.

Back to setting for a moment. Are you a Slough House addict? I am. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=sloughhouse&crid=39CYYBHI8G99A&sprefix=sloughhouse%2Caps%2C131&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

I just finished Book 8 of Mick Herron’s unputdownable series and am pawing the earth for the next. But I mention it because Slough House (the name of the building where those who flunk out of MI-5 headquarters wind up), though technically Herron’s setting, functions almost as a character. And my fussing about “not too much detail” above? Inapplicable. Herron embarks on oratorios of detail about Slough House, and because its decrepitude, its slovenliness, its lonesomeness, its outdatedness, so reflect (and infect) the struggles of the changing spies in the building, that I say, bring it on! Herron also does star turns with London weather and landscapes. His treatment of setting is masterful––creating layers of texture, smell, sight, emotion, that become integral to the story.

I’m working on Book 8 of my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, so the “perfect croissant” of plot, setting and character occupies my waking moments. Alice, if you’ve met her, is a lawyer who by training and inclination wants every single fact. She hopes never to be blind-sided. She must decide whether fact A helps her defend her client, and whether her client needs a defense to fact B. She knows the compulsive joy of a new case—a new legal pad of notes, a new box of messy documents. She wants to plunge in, deciding what’s a clue, what’s a red herring. She knows that somewhere in the mess is a key fact, the fact that she knows instinctively will win the case for her client. She’s rooting through the layers, reminding many of us of a favorite poem. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers Or a croissant.

Sounds like a murder mystery, right? Stay tuned.

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by human history and by how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing our parties. Her books are available in Kindle, paperback and on Audible, from Amazon, Ingram Spark, and at various independent bookstores. The latest, Ghost Daughter, has been named First Runnerup for Mystery in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=ghost+daughter&crid=VHN5P2IYJCLZ&sprefix=ghost+daughte%2Caps%2C151&ref=nb_sb_noss_2