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

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.

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

Submitting Short Stories: It’s Like Baseball

By N. M. Cedeño

Many of the stories I write aren’t accepted the first time I submit them for publication. The majority have to be submitted over and over again to find a publication home. The process made me think of a batter stepping up to the plate in baseball because I may strike out repeatedly before scoring a run.

Most of the time, I write stories with no specific publisher in mind. I write the story because I want to or because the only way to get it out of my head- and make it stop bothering me- is to put it down on paper. Then, after the story is written, I begin the process of looking for a place to submit it. “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm” is one of these stories. I wrote it for myself because I like light-hearted mysteries stories set at Christmas.

I first submitted this Christmas story for publication in mid-2018. It was rejected, struck out, eventually a total of eight times. I put it through workouts, strengthening it several times between ‘at bats’. Then, I saw a call for submissions that I thought it might fit, a call for cozy mysteries. On my ninth submission, the story was accepted. It will appear in Black Cat Mystery Magazine in a couple months.

from Murderous Ink Press, 2022

Sometimes, I’ll write a story based on requirements for a specific call for submissions, and it’s not accepted. I strike out. If the call was general enough, I can turn around and resubmit the story elsewhere with no changes. It’s ready for its next ‘at bat.’ That was the case for my story, “Reaching for the Moon.” After being initially rejected, and then rejected again, I submitted it to Murderous Ink Press, where editor John Connor accepted it for inclusion in the Crimeucopia: Say What Now? Anthology.

In other cases, the call for submissions may be in such a specific niche that I need to change the story in order to submit it elsewhere. Continuing the baseball analogy, I prepped the story to face a specific pitcher and have to make changes to face a new pitcher for the next ‘at bat.’

For example, my story “Serenity, Courage, Wisdom” was written for a very specific call for submissions for stories inspired by the music of a particular group and was rejected. In order to resubmit it elsewhere, I changed the title, which was originally a song title, and stripped out the details related to the song. Stripping those details left a hole, so instead of referencing a song, I settled on referencing a prayer that hung in my parents’ kitchen my entire childhood and that I have a copy of in my own kitchen.

After making these changes, I submitted the story to Black Cat Weekly, where the editor said the story needed a little work before he’d publish it and gave me some suggestions. In this case, I made a base hit, which requires more work on my part to make it to home plate. To get to home plate, I have to listen to the coach, aka the editor. I have to review the editor’s suggestions and work on the story with those suggestions in mind. If I don’t do the work, I get left on base and never make it home. If I do the work and send the story back to the editor, and he’s pleased and accepts the story, then I’ve rounded the bases to home plate and scored a run.

In this case, I did the work to earn the run. “Serenity, Courage, Wisdom” will be published in Black Cat Weekly #37 coming out in May 2022.

from Down & Out Books, 2022

Only one of my stories so far has been accepted on its first submission, which is the equivalent of hitting a home run. That story, “Nice Girls Don’t,” was written specifically for the anthology, Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties edited by Michael Bracken. I saw the call for submissions months ahead of the deadline and went to work researching material and writing the story. The anthology was published last week, debuting on April 11, 2022.

I have yet to retire any stories from the line-up. Eventually, I may have to set one aside, waiting to come out for the right call for submissions.

A Note: I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on mysteries, talking about my short mysteries, on Friday, May 13, at Hearth & Soul in Austin. Check the “Gather” tab on their website for time and location. Additional information will be posted soon.

****

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.

Music to Our Ears!

by Helen Currie Foster

On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!

We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”

Dixie and Helen

Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.

For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.

Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…

At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.

We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!

The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent

Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”

Moreover, it’s not retirees pushing this trend: “And while you might think it’s nostalgic Boomers or Gen Xers behind the renaissance of records, in fact surveys show it’s millennial consumers driving the rising trend in vinyl sales.” https://www.themanual.com/culture/why-vinyl-is-coming-back/

Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.

Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)

Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.

Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.

Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M

The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.

Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016

And it may be for that reason that music stays in our brains longer than many other memories. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2017.00005#:~:text=Our%20brains%20possess%20a%20remarkable,might%20know%20it%20by%20heart.

You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.

So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…

https://www.samstownpointatx.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-cExlWpQTc

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.

Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.

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Why I Go to Critique Group

by Kathy Waller

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.

She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

*****

Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .

Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.

And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.

But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .

Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.

We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.

Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.

Then we say, “Thank you.”

Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.

We encourage one another.

We also laugh a lot.

Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.

Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.

I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).

I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.

Because it’s important.

***

Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,

***

Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the anthologies pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last a novel co-written with Manning Wolfe, with Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.

Sisters in Crime, Thank You!!!

By K.P. Gresham

First off, the best job I ever had (short of writing mysteries) was teaching. And yes, I taught Middle Schoolers, which most people think is the worst possible teaching job you can have. Not me. I loved the students, and I loved my fellow teachers and staff. The kids were sponges. As long as you weren’t a jerk to them, they weren’t a jerk to you. And when they succeeded, both teacher and student won. The same could be said for all of us school employees who came to work every day to help those students become educated, excellent citizens.

What does that have to do with Sisters in Crime? Well, this time I’M the student, and my fellow chapter members and I are the sponges, learning as much as we possibly can to be better writers, readers and business people.

Sisters in Crime (SinC), both on the national level and the chapter levels, provides the teaching. The organization is based solely on helping readers and writers, women and men to learn their craft and sell their books.

SinC is the premier crime writing association focused on equity and inclusion in our community and in publishing. The association, founded in 1986, has 4500+ members who enjoy access to tools to help them learn, grow, improve, thrive, reinvent if necessary, and to share the lessons they’ve learned during their mystery writing experience.

4500+ members? That’s a whole lot of folks to learn from!

SinC National offers many resources to mystery readers and writers. They support a large international network of local chapter with grants, webinars, a central bank of crime-writing research, etc. They support local libraries and independent bookstores. National also provides a monthly newsletter called inSinC which is sent to every member. 

Local chapters are where the meatiest teaching takes place. In the last year, our Heart of Texas Chapter centered in Austin, Texas, hosted a plethora of programs spanning the mystery writing need-to-know list. NY Times Bestselling author L.R. Ryan shared her secrets to plotting the blockbuster novel. Cathy DeYoung, a former LAPD CSI fingerprint analyst (and the inspiration for the character of Abby on the TV show, NCIS) walked us through the steps of exploring a crime scene. Mike Kowis, a mild-mannered tax attorney for a Fortune 500 company AND a fellow author, taught us the ins and out of the tax code for authors and other legal matters.  Oh, and we were graced with a frank Q & A with the U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Honestly. Why would a writer not want to learn from these experts??  And these incredible lessons all were brought together through the Sisters in Crime organizations.

Once you get past the realization that we kill people for a living (on the page, of course), crime writers and readers are a very supportive, very giving group of people. And Sisters in Crime is the best way to get to know them.

***

A Little Hitchcock, Two Stories, Plus Spoilers

by Kathy Waller

The summer  I was six, my cousin of the same age was visiting our spinster great-aunt and bachelor uncle who lived up the street. Uncle called one evening. Cousin was being a major pain. It was a weeknight, and the only amusement our miniscule town afforded, a roller skating rink, was open only on weekends. Great-aunt and uncle weren’t accustomed to dealing with children of the painful variety, so he did what he often did when desperate. He appealed to my mother: You’ve got to do something.

A veteran of dealing with a juvenile pain, she proposed the perfect solution. They loaded both of us into the car and took us fifteen miles to the drive-in movie.

An excellent plan: Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, trailers of coming attractions, and the feature film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

A synopsis of the novel from which the movie was adapted appears on Wikipedia:

A prosperous shipbuilder hires a former detective who suffers from vertigo to tail his wife Madeleine who is acting strangely. The detective falls in love with the shipbuilder’s wife but is unable to stop her committing suicide by jumping from a tower. Haunted by her death, he sees a woman who bears a strong resemblance to the dead woman, however, his attempts to get closer to this doppelgänger ultimately result in tragedy.

In these enlightened times, many, if not most, parents would be horrified at anyone’s allowing a first-grader to see such a nightmare-inducing movie. I, however, spent every afternoon glued to the Afternoon Movie. I guess my mother assumed that if I could handle Don Ameche trying to get rid of his wife, Claudette Colbert, by drugging her hot chocolate and then piping in repeated suggestions that she jump off her bedroom balcony, Hitchcock wouldn’t upset me.

And I’ve always been grateful to her, because that night at the drive-in, I fell in love. I watched Hitchcock’s television programs and all the movies I could manage. They were wonderful, and if they starred Cary Grant–Francine Paino wrote about one of those, North by Northwest, last week–that was icing on the cake.

Now Netflix, Prime, Roku, and other streaming services have allowed me to watch many of them again.

But this post isn’t a celebration of Hitchcock. It’s about two stories adapted for his television show. Watching them as an adult, I saw something I hadn’t seen years (and years) ago. I enjoyed both, but one had something extra.

The first is “The Second Wife,” in which a mail-order bride comes to believe that her husband plans to kill her. At the outset, he seems insensitive, unconcerned about her needs; when she says the laundry room in the basement is uncomfortably cold, he complains about the cost of installing a heater. She also hears stories: he took his first wife to visit her people at Christmas and she died and was buried there–or that’s what he claims.

Gossip fuels the second wife’s fears, and when the husband announces plans to take her home for Christmas, she acquires a gun. Before they leave, however, he insists she go down to the basement. She takes the gun and descends the stairs. He’ll follow in a moment.

The viewer feels her fear: The husband will kill the second wife, as he killed the first.

But there’s a literary catch. In a letter, Anton Chekhov stated one of his principles for writing fiction: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

The wife has a gun. And this is Hitchcock; he keeps his promises.

The wife shoots and kills her husband, then realizes he’d only wanted to show her her Christmas present–the heating system he’d had installed in the laundry room.

A tragic ending, but satisfying in its irony.

The second story, “Night of the Owl,” however, has something extra, something unexpected.

A couple have reared an adopted daughter, now a teenager, a bright student, a well-adjusted, happy girl. But the parents have carefully guarded a secret: the girl’s father murdered her mother, then killed himself in prison. When a prison chaplain and his accomplice appear and blackmail the couple, then come back for more, the father considers his options: murder the blackmailer, or tell his daughter about her past. Both are unthinkable. Then one of the blackmailers is murdered. Evidence points to the father.

How can the plot be resolved? Did the father commit murder? He escapes being charged but can’t escape telling his daughter about her birth parents.

In “The Second Wife,” the resolution is either/or, and the viewer can almost certainly predict which it will be.

But the ending of “The Night of the Owl” isn’t predictable. Will the girl become hysterical? Fall into depression? Reject her adoptive parents? Run away? Harm herself?

Told the truth about the murder/suicide in her background, she expresses empathy. How unhappy her parents must have been, she says–what sad lives they must have lived.

I didn’t see that coming. A Hitchcock program with a happy ending. And an exceptional character.

Critics (professional and amateur) point to problems with both  programs. Fair enough. I didn’t watch for flaws. In fact, I didn’t watch for anything but the pleasure of seeing programs I’d first watched as a child. I just happened to see something more.

And to quote Osgood Fielding III, “Nobody’s perfect.”

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“Night of the Owl” is available on Youtube.

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Robert Bloch wrote the teleplay of “The Second Wife” based on a story by Richard Deming. It aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on October 4, 1962.

Richard Fielder wrote the teleplay of “The Night of the Owl” based on a novel by Paul Winterton. It aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on April 26, 1965.

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Joe E. Brown appears as Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot. He has the best line in one of the best, and funniest, movies ever made.

Research turned up this biographical item: “An ardent opponent of the Nazi regime, in 1939 Brown testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of a bill that would allow 20,000 German-Jewish refugee children into the United States. He would later adopt two German-Jewish refugee girls himself, naming them Mary Katherine Ann (born 1930) and Kathryn Francis (born 1934).”

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Images are taken from Wikipedia. Both are in the public domain.

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Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.