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.

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.

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.

Writing “Reaching for the Moon” for Crimeucopia: Say What Now?

by N. M. Cedeño

Although I may veer off into other areas, my reading pile usually comprises two main categories of books: mysteries and histories. Sometimes when I’m writing, those two categories collide, and I write historical mysteries. Two of my historical mystery short stories will be published in March and April 2022.

Available March 2022 from Murderous Ink Press

The first story, “Reaching for the Moon,” is part of an anthology edited by John Connor entitled Crimeucopia: Say What Now? from Murderous Ink Press. The second story, entitled “Nice Girls Don’t,”  will be published by Down & Out Books in Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties edited by Michael Bracken. 

I wrote about the inspiration for “Nice Girls Don’t” in my last post. Today, I’ll review what inspired “Reaching for the Moon.”

Moon landing, NASA photo, from Pixabay.

I’m a fan of the history of space exploration. From Hidden Figures to Apollo 13, I’ve always been fascinated by the massive effort behind sending the first people into space and bringing them home safely. The space program’s tragedies – from Apollo 1 to Challenger and Columbia – and triumphs – from the Mercury Program to the International Space Station – are the stuff of legends.

Anyone who has read anything about the first US astronauts knows that the test pilot / astronaut lifestyle took a toll on marriages. Marital infidelity was common among the astronaut corps who were frequently away from home for training. Consequently, the divorce rate after leaving NASA was very high. But, NASA wanted to present a wholesome, clean-cut image of their astronauts that didn’t include divorce or infidelity. Life Magazine did full spreads on each of the first astronauts that presented the men as squeaky-clean Boy Scouts with perfect home-lives. This discrepancy between the public persona and private reality of the astronauts inspired ideas about the possibility of blackmail.

Because I live in Texas, I’ve toured the Apollo mission control center at Johnson Space Center in far south Houston several times. Anyone who has visited Space Center Houston knows that a mere thirty or so miles farther south down Interstate 45 is Galveston Island on the Gulf of Mexico.

Walking on a granite jetty, Galveston Island, Cedeño family photo 2021

Galveston Island has its own remarkable history. The barrier island was used as a pirate base before it became a major port city in the 1800s. Then, the 1900 Hurricane nearly obliterated the city, forcing port activity to move inland to Houston. The island became a vacation and pleasure spot infamous for ignoring the laws against drinking and gambling during the Prohibition era. Galveston enjoyed a lawless, mafia-run heyday between 1920 and 1950. Much of the illegal activity centered on the Balinese Room, a Maceo Family owned gambling joint and restaurant that perched on a pier over the Gulf and drew top talent from Hollywood, including Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, to provide entertainment for guests.

The space center’s proximity to Galveston made me wonder: what if a 1960s astronaut wandered south to Galveston Island to see the places once made famous by Hollywood stars and mobsters and got himself into trouble? What if he had to seek the aid of a private detective to resolve the issue? And so, with a few name changes here and there to protect the innocent or the guilty, as the case may be, my story “Reaching for the Moon” was born.

I’m thrilled to have my story published with so many other great stories in Crimeucopia: Say What Now?, the 10th anthology in the Crimeucopia series from Murderous Ink Press and editor John Connor.

****

For additional historical reading, I recommend Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, Moon Shot by Barbree, Slayton, and Shepard, Failure Is Not an Option by Gene Kranz, Light this Candle: the Life and Times of Alan Shepard by Neal Thompson, and Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson.

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.

Writing “Nice Girls Don’t” for Groovy Gumshoes

So what if I wasn’t born in the 1960s? I can do research!

In 2020, I came across a call for submissions for mystery short stories to be included in an anthology. The anthology was to be called Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties. The editor, Michael Bracken, wanted stories set in the 1960s featuring private detectives, with bonus points given if the story included a major historical event.

The call caught my attention, but not having been born in the 1960s, I searched my brain for any specific event that I might use as starting point for a story. Two events for which I had a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips came to mind. One was the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When you grow up in Dallas, this one comes to mind quickly. But I thought that event, given its extreme historical prominence, might be covered by too many other authors submitting stories.

So I selected the second event: the UT Tower Shooting.

The University of Texas Tower Shooting on August 1, 1966, is a dark shadow on Austin’s history. It was a mass shooting at a school that happened decades before such events became regular occurrences. The Tower Shooting, like the JFK assassination, is reviewed regularly by the local media on anniversaries of the event. And I am intimately familiar with the locale where the shooting occurred since I attended the University of Texas at Austin and walked in the shadow of the Tower daily for four years. Additionally, the shooting is well-documented. Video taken that day is even available online. I knew that finding background details for a short story set around the time of the shooting wouldn’t be hard.

However, none of that is why the Tower Shooting came immediately to mind.

It came to mind because I knew someone I could question about life in the 1960s in Austin, Texas, and about the Tower shooting in particular: my father.

My father, whose grandparents were all Czech immigrants who arrived in Texas after the Civil War, graduated from tiny Rogers High School in rural central Texas and set out be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. He worked his way up: first attending a junior college, then transferring to a small private college, then transferring, finally, to the University of Texas at Austin. On the fateful morning of August 1, 1966, my father turned in the final paper for the final class he needed to graduate. He arrived on campus early in the morning and left to report to his job at an Austin grocery store.

My father- Dec. 1966

He had a lot on his mind that day. With his upcoming graduation at the end of the summer term, my father should have been considering his improved employment prospects. But he wasn’t looking for jobs. He knew that his draft number was coming up in October. He had to make a decision: volunteer for the draft or wait to be drafted into the military in the midst of the Vietnam War. He volunteered for the draft in September 1966.

Twenty-seven years later, on my first day living in the dorms at UT, my father showed me where people had died near the balustrade on the South Mall. He pointed out the bullet holes marking the stone. He recounted his memory of leaving campus and listening to the shooting on the radio while at work. His story of that day, woven into the story of his life, became a piece of family lore, embedded in my memory.

And so, after picking my father’s brain and doing a ton of research, my short story “Nice Girls Don’t” came into being. The story features a private detective hired in September 1966 to investigate the death of a young woman, a UT student who died the day of the Tower Shooting. The girl’s parents believe their daughter’s case was ignored because the police were too busy dealing with the Tower Shooting to give her death the attention it deserved. The parents want the detective to find out what really happened.

After completing my story, I submitted it to the editor, hoping it might be selected for inclusion in the anthology… And the editor, Michael Bracken, chose my story to be included in Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, coming from Down & Out Books in April 2022!

~~~~~~

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: Benjamin Capps’ The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock

by Kathy Waller

George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”

It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”

“Where is she?” 

“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . . 

“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . .  Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”

“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”

According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.

The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock  isn’t classed as a mystery.  It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved  in  bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.

Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.

But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)

George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.

At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:

“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”

Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s  where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose.  . . .  She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”

The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered  bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.

At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.

Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.

So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.

Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.

Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.

Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.

During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.

Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.

We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man  with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.

He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?

Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?

What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.

There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.

As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.

***

A word about the author:

Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.

At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.

In “Benjamin Capps Papers: A Guide,” (University of Texas Arlington Special Collections), it notes that,

According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier. 

Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.

Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).

But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”

James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)

He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”

***

Kathy Waller has published short stories and one novella, Stabbed, written with Manning Wolfe. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

*

Sources:

Benjamin Capps. The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock. Lubbock: TCU Press, 1989.

Spur Award for the Best Western Novel

Texas Archival Resources Online

Encyclopedia.com

Texas Escapes

Within Hours

Book flap and blurbs

Master’s class, “Literature and Lore of the Southwest,” Southwest Texas State University, taught by Dr. Dickie Heaberlin, 1984. Memory and informed opinions of Kathy Waller, student.

Cover image: Amazon.com

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.

***

Creating Multiple Identities: the Research Rabbit Hole

by N.M. Cedeño

Setting a story in the past requires the author to do research to make sure the details of the story are correct. For me, researching topics means risking falling down the research rabbit hole and discovering way more information than I need. This week’s research topic: how a character could create fake identities during the 1960s and 1970s.

My current work-in-progress, a short story, involves a character with a penchant for using fake identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I wanted to know how hard it would be for my character to have multiple bank accounts and jobs under different identities during that time period. This necessitated research into social security numbers (SSNs) and how they were issued in the past.

Creating a fake identity prior to 1974 took very little effort because laws regarding obtaining SSNs and starting bank accounts were lax. For instance, for my character to open bank accounts under different names was fairly easy. Social security numbers were not required for starting financial accounts at banks or other institutions until 1983. However, even if the banks had required SSNs, my character could have easily provided multiple SSNs for multiple fake identities.

Before April 1974, anyone could request a social security number by completing an application without providing evidence of their age, identity, or citizenship status. Electronic tracking of social security numbers, using a punch card computer system didn’t start until 1979. This ease in obtaining SSNs led to all kinds of irregularities and problems in the system that lasted for decades. As late as 2007, the Social Security Administration identified 4.7 million people who had more than one SSN. Most of those people had requested numbers before 1974 when the requirements for providing evidence of identity and age went into effect.

Why did so many people have more than one social security number? Was identity fraud rampant?  

No. Most of those people weren’t trying to commit any crime. After SSNs were introduced in 1936, not everyone understood how they worked. Some people thought they needed a new number every time they started a new job. If workers lost the card with their number on it, they simply applied for a new number. Other people applied for a social security number when the cards were first introduced. Then, when they started working a new job, they filled out paperwork provided by their employer to get another one as employers tried to make sure their employees had SSNs.

It wasn’t even unusual for more than one person to use the same SSN.

For example, in 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York sold wallets in stores with a sample social security card inside to show the buyer how the card would fit in the wallet. That sample social security card had a number on it which many buyers of the wallet then adopted as their own. By 1943, at least 5,755 were using the sample SSN that came with the wallet. As late as 1977, twelve people were still using that same number.

Prior to the late 1980s, most people didn’t have to get a social security number until they got a job and had to pay taxes. A pilot program to get children SSNs at birth started in 1987. Before 1986, most kids didn’t need SSNs since they could be listed as dependents on tax forms without one. From the time the SSN was introduced in 1936 until the late 1980s, most people only applied for social security numbers when they reached a point in life where they needed one. Therefore, it was common for adults to apply for cards.

All of this means that the character in my story could easily have created multiple fake identities before 1974 by filling out applications for multiple SSNs. He could hold jobs under different SSNs and keep many unconnected bank accounts. But now, all of this research will be filed away, because I can’t use it in my story. I only needed to know that my character could indeed obtain documentation for multiple fake identities without getting caught immediately.

~~~~~

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Note: All pictures by Pixabay.

Tipper: My Manager Extraordinaire

by K .P. Gresham

I suspect most of us have our secrets about how we survived the Pandemic of ’20-’21. Video games, binge-watching movies, reading like a fiend–you get the idea.

My secret was my dog, Tipper. Or should I say my manager. Tip’s a fifteen-pound rescue dog of the Chihuahua meets Terrier variety. Nobody wanted to adopt him because he has bad knees. Really? I’ve had two knee replacements and nobody ever threw me out on the street. Tipper came home to live with me and my better half, Kevin, that very day. 

Now, eight years later, it is my dog who has rescued me. Or should I say bosses me around. Thanks to him, I have the next installment of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, Four Reasons to Die, later this summer. 

This is the schedule Tip put me on from the pandemic’s git-go. First, he begins his slow process of waking–this entails laying beneath the bed covers for at least a half hour after Kevin and I are already up, then he slowly rises like a ghost from the grave because the sheets trail after him as he fights his way out of bed, and finally, he spends another half hour under the bed to avoid the rising sun. His last half hour of officially waking iup is spent in my lap while I finish my morning pot of coffee.

And then he jumps down from my lap, game face on. Enough lolly-gagging on my part. Time to get to work.

We start our day with a three-mile walk. Tip has decided this is the amount of time it takes for me to chew through the scene I have to write that day. When we come home, he demands breakfast, then shoos me upstairs to my office to get to work. No shower. No breakfast. It’s work time. To make sure I stay at it, he takes up residence on the small couch in my office and does not leave it until he hears my husband (who during Covid works in his office downstairs) making lunch. Then Tipper jumps down from the couch and scratches at my leg to tell me to take a break. But does he come downstairs with me? Oh, no.  He goes back to his couch where he waits for fifteen minutes while I make my lunch and put some tidbits in his bowl. THEN, he comes down.

I finally get my shower after lunch–remember, he doesn’t let me take it before since he’s sure I will forget what I’ve decided to write during our walk. Only then does he allow me to return to my office to get back to work.

At 4:00, Tipper believes our work for the day is done. This is the time when, pre-pandemic, my neighbors and I used to get together to watch Jeopardy. We couldn’t, of course, during the Pandemic, but Tipper never got the memo. At 4:00, we’re supposed to close up shop. I oftentimes decide to keep on working until Kevin was done with his day, and Tipper thinks this is sacrilege. He leaves his couch to sit by my feet and growls as I type away. He believes its against his contract to work such long hours and has threatened several times to call Animal Rescue to arrest me.

I didn’t understand how serious he was about his managerial duties until he started wearing a tie to work. And proofing everything I write. And working on his own stories.

Lord help me, they’ll probably be better than mine…

Thank goodness for my little Tipper. I wouldn’t have made it through the Pandemic without him.

Coming Soon (Thanks to Tipper)!

Four Reasons to Die

The 4th Book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

 When Pastor Matt Hayden steps up to give the Texas Inaugural Ceremony’s benediction after the scheduled minister, Reverend Duff, disappears, he finds himself embroiled in a religious war, a political power-grab, and murder.

 The missing Duff, a progressive leftist, is locked in a bitter, public battle with the ultra-conservative Reverend Meade. Duff has also taken on U.S. Senator Womack, a far-right Presidential hopeful whose only love is himself.

 Matt joins the search for the missing pastor, but is he prepared to discover the true evil that threatens his family, including the new governor…and his beloved Angie?

***

Where to Find Me

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

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

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

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

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

Books by K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try