AND THE EYES HAVE IT!

BY

Francine Paino AKA  F. Della Notte

What exactly are these spherical bodies contained in the skull?  They appear as an orbit of different shapes, some round or oblong, curved, and dense, with a white membrane surrounding a circular colored portion called the iris.  The pupil centered in the iris is an opening through which light passes to the retina, making eyes the windows to the world. But they are so much more. As the saying goes, they are also the outside world’s windows to the soul. 

     There are over one hundred biblical references to the power of eyes. However, most in the Bible reflect the good and evil in the inner man/woman. In Matthew 5:28: But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Perhaps my favorite is Proverbs 21:4: Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin.  Moving from biblical times to today, eyes have not lost their power. 

Eyes are the most written about body parts as a symbolic expression and revelation of human emotions in songs. Body language too speaks, showing tension, joy, fear, mystery, but emotions pool in and project most powerfully from the eyes. The eyes are not limited in expression. Love, hate, justice, judgment, clairvoyance, even horror can be reflected in the eyes. 

As in biblical times, even in today’s world, these blinkers are often an extension of how the human soul projects itself. Some song titles express an individual quest. In The Eye of the Tiger, an athlete drives himself to reach the top of his game. In You Can’t Hide Your Lying Eyes, a woman cheating on her husband tries to tell him that she’s going to comfort a friend. Still, in her eyes, he sees the truth contradicting her words, and in Goodbye in her Eyes, a young man reads the end of a relationship in the eyes of the woman he loves.  

The range of emotions expressed in just one look runs the gamut from the depths of love to the depths of hate, and everything in between, including pain, jealousy, and mystery. Does anyone have difficulty understanding “his eyes blazed with fury,” or “her eyes softened with love when they placed the newborn baby in her arms?”  

On Goodreads, one finds a list of 278 books with body parts in the titles. But the eyes are used the most. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, who said that writers are painters with words, “Everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality and as much of the world as can be got into it.” One look can say more than a thousand words. Even closed eyes speak. Is the person avoiding something, someone, grieving, hiding?

Sometimes we even compare human eyes to animal’s. The fierceness of Tiger eyes as used in the above song title; the gentle loyalty of the dog gazing into his master’s eyes. Cats have fascinating eye language. Dilated pupils on a cat indicate excitement, while constricted pupils mean watch out!  This cat is angry and may be ready to attack. And, as all cat owners know, in those quiet moments, squinting eyes reveal a relaxed, happy feline, sometimes ready to fall asleep.  

As a writer, I’m very aware of the power of expression emanating from my human and feline characters.  In my Housekeeper Mystery Series, I can see their eyes and feel their emotions and the reaction those expressions generate in others. In the third book in the series, The Church Murders and the Cat’s Prey, one character has unusual amber-colored eyes with thick black lashes. Not only is the eye color striking, but one look from those eyes sends chills down our protagonist, Mrs. B.’s arms.  

There is no underestimating the importance of painting characters with words and showing the reader their body language, facial expressions, and most of all, the power of the messages cast from those orbits. Who doesn’t have warning bells go off when reading, “he smiled, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes,” or, “she said, ‘no harm done,’ but her eyes said there’d be hell to pay.”

There is even a blog about what the eye color tells you. Have some fun and try it at https://blog.freepeople.com/2013/09/eye-color-meaning/ 

Eyes can be so expressive, and in reality, words alone are not always necessary to have a conversation. 

Thus, the eyes do have it.

 

Two Roads Diverged…

by Helen Currie Foster, September 13, 2021

Have you noticed that the roads diverged in a yellow wood?

So Frost was thinking of fall, in “The Road Not Taken” (1916). Leaves turn yellow—and not just in New England. I admit Texas Hill Country fall colors are a little muted. Bluestem bunch grass makes silvery seed-heads.

big bluestem…

And our cedar elms turn yellow green, then yellow, and then madly fling golden confetti into the air.

Yellow leaves! When new roads appear and diverge, right? New fall clothes, perhaps (even with climate change) sweaters! New books, new subjects, new teachers, new classmates.

We awake with new ideas, new projects, new dreams. On weekends the parks fill up with soccer players. Football begins. 

All our years of fall classes leave many of us with a compelling interior calendar. In September, two roads—at least two roads!—diverge. We feel energetic, restless. Do we seek the old ways again or do new roads beckon? Do we join the Master Naturalists? Take a photography class? Go for a master’s degree? We feel September’s time pressure, expressed as a desire to learn new things, tread new paths, move further into the world, even with the stultifying blanket of the pandemic heavy on our shoulders.

As Yogi Berra famously advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Because—as Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson put it—

“It’s a long, long time from May to December,

But the days grow short when you reach September;

When the autumn weather turns leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.”

You can hear Willie sing it, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra, or others. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UslWN3LqPvYhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f88yoLs0yl0

No, when September hits, we haven’t got time for the waiting game. It’s the first day of nursery school…third grade…middle school…senior year. We can’t just stay home and watch the leaves turn to flame. 

 

 

Now for Book 8. People ask about the “writing process.” It’s like standing at the crossroads in the yellow wood. Which path? But no time for the waiting game! 

Book 8 began to take shape with wakeful nights, with a couple of strong images, where Alice must identify a body in the Aberdeen mortuary. Then a new character barged in, demanding time onstage. I’m always amazed at how characters insist on doing what I hadn’t foreseen, taking their lives in their own hands. The plot arc is there but further decisions will be made. I’m sending chapters to the critique group, and the manuscript’s got at least a provisional name. The future murder victim in Coffee Creek hasn’t yet learned her fate (sorry, honey). So it’s still wakeful nights, then pacing around the kitchen island, then sitting and writing, then pacing again, then sitting and writing, then more pacing.

Just a moment ago it was summer. But as Frost also wrote, “Nothing gold can stay” (1923). The fall equinox approaches on September 22. Following Yogi Berra’s advice, faced with all the decisions ahead––who lives? Who dies, and how?––I’m heading down the road, yellow leaves and all.

AUTHOR Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three inquisitive burros. Find her books at BookPeople in Austin, and at IngramSparks and Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Currie-Foster/e/B00R1X9

You can follow Helen at

https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/

Please visit the website at https://www.helencurriefoster.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ink-Stained Wretches

 

 

Dreaming in Santa Fe

by Helen Currie Foster

Driving into New Mexico with my husband (favorite long-time travel companion) I peer anxiously out the car window—I won’t be happy until I spot the first antelope, tiny, almost invisible, bounding across vast pale green ranch pastures below a string of distant mesas. First I look for a white splotch (tell-tale antelope rump), then suddenly spot an entire flock, spread out in the grass. Then, where I-25 crosses the south-running Pecos River, we see the sinuous length of Rowe Mesa, all red rock and green conifers, running for miles to the west. At Ribera we exit south on State Road 3, then climb an impressively steep gravel road to the adobe house of my cherished college classmate friend and her husband. Their house sits in the lap of Rowe Mesa, looking across the broad Pecos valley at its companion, Bernal Mesa. The old house is formal, plastered white inside, with a beautiful ceiling of beams (vigas) supporting the roof. Sticks, or latillas, lie in a formal herringbone pattern between the vigas.

 

Walking across the property in the cool morning we spot chips from arrowhead manufacture. Our friends have found a spot far above on the edge of the mesa littered with many such chips, where centuries ago an expert sat under a piñon in the shade, “knapping” (flaking) stones to make arrowheads and points. We saunter along, picking up turquoise-colored pebbles from the played-out turquoise mine, reveling in the view across the valley. We hear nothing but the wind in the junipers and piñons and the occasional faraway buzz of a small plane.

My friend has taken us down along the Pecos to see the extensive adobe ruins of the Spanish customs office that once controlled the river crossing into Spanish New Mexico. Further down the river we see the irrigation ditches—acequias—feeding water into Pecos farm plots, before the Pecos narrows into a canyon.

We love this place. But Santa Fe is calling.

To celebrate the June 2021 publication of Ghost Daughter, we’re on Otero Street in Santa Fe, with beauty everywhere. Carved wooden beams over doorways. Intensely colored flower gardens in yards. Curved human-scale adobe houses. Blue sky above adobe walls.

Downtown, Santa Fe offers layers of history—Pueblo architecture, Territorial architecture. In 1920 City officials ordered that buildings in the city be built Pueblo-style. The warm tan of adobe and the cool greens and blue-greens of balconies and window-frames feel soothing, low-rise, solid. Art is in the air, in the gardens, in the architecture, in the shop windows. I double-dog-dare you not to take pictures. Plus there’s an appreciation of burros (which warms the hearts of my three burros).

Along Palace Avenue by the New Mexico Museum of Art, heavy bronze sidewalk plaques celebrate Santa Fe artists. Each plaque features a helmeted conquistador…which seems incongruous for celebrating, say, Georgia O’Keefe or my hero, Gustave Baumann, the German immigrant whose vivid woodcuts tantalize my protagonist Alice in Ghost Daughter. But maybe it’s not incongruous. Baumann says he was drawn by the powerful presence of intermixed layers of history when he jumped off the train in New Mexico in 1918. And the sheer beauty! Mountains and streams! Pueblos! Golden cottonwoods in fall! He left such contributions of art and joy to Santa Fe, with his spectacular prints and the beloved marionette shows in his living room.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i516sAlDgS0

In Ghost Daughter, Alice’s trips to Santa Fe were too fraught. Although she enjoyed El Rey Court, and a hurried lunch at Café Pasqual’s, she missed so much, including the room of Baumann prints in the Owings Gallery. So we go in her stead, riveted by Baumann’s precision and freedom, his intense colors so delicately layered. I want to see his old German printing press…but rats! It’s locked up and unavailable at the history museum.

After wallowing in the Baumanns, we console ourselves with ice cream, sitting in a shady corner by La Lecheria. It’s fun watching passersby. The solitary ones walking briskly by have unsmiling faces like eagles, alert eyes fixed straight ahead. What are they thinking about so intently? Where to lay the next brushstroke on a canvas? Memorizing lines for a play? Where are they going? Then the younger people swoop by with great style, dramatic clothes and makeup, hurrying to work. And of course tourists like us.

Santa Fe calls itself the “City Different.” I feel different here too. Somehow an invisible bubble over the city blocks my usual sharp-edged worries…children, work, the state of the world. At home, open-eyed at some awful hour, I sometimes find refuge in half-awake creativity, envisioning plot possibilities, imagining scenes, hearing characters say surprising things. I’m grateful for a midnight refuge which may (not infallibly, though) trigger ideas for the next day’s writing while distracting me from cares.

But  in Santa Fe, if I wake, I listen to the quiet, peer out at the moon and…go back to sleep. After days in Santa Fe, a place weighty with history, so vividly creative, so confident in mixing the very old and very new, the traditional and startling, I feel emboldened.

Thanks, Santa Fe! Like so many…I’ll be back.

***

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series and is active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas Chapter. Follow her at www.helencurriefoster.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/, and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=helen+currie+foster

The Nightingale—A Novel by Kristin Hannah—And . . . Admitting When You Are Wrong

The NightingaleA Novel by Kristin Hannah is a weighty 564 pages.  The cover has shades of blue and grey with the embossed golden image of a bird in a tree- delicate, feminine, appealing.  The story is not delicate; however, it is a dark surprise, and one worth reading, even re-reading.

A bit of personal honesty is in ordergoing in, I was prepared to dislike this book.  I do not read romantic based historical fiction. I told myself that Hannah was a romantic author, very popular, but still, romance. NOPE, nope, not for me.  Not my cup of tea.

Fate intervened.  My on-line book club chose Hannah for the Author of the Month selection.  Despite moaning and muttering, I bought the book, read the book, and here we are.

Let me get it out now, I was wrong about Hannah and wrong about The Nightingale.  This novel is much more than a delicate cover. 

The novel is set during the WWII Nazi occupation of France.  Hannah weaves her story while detailing the brutal German oppression and murder of the French people, the cruel dislocation of French Jews and other targeted groups, and the incredible bravery of the members of the French Resistance.

The writing is sparse; there are no literary flourishes — it fits the story.  The novel evolves around the lives of two sistersVianne (Rossignol) Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, at odds with one another since early childhood.  Interweaving the present with the past, and the past into the present, the sisters’ experiences become a single thread of unmet expectations and misunderstandings, that in the end, show an unrelenting depth of love and respect between them.

The reader learns that, when they were very young, their mother suddenly died.  Ignored by their grieving father, the girls raised themselves.  Years of parental indifference caused the girls to become emotionally distanced, then resentful towards each other.  The older sister, Vianne Rossignol (Mauriac), becomes pregnant, escaping Paris through marriage and moving to the French countryside and far away from her sister.

The younger daughter, Isabelle Rossignol, an unabashed rebel, continues acting out, and as she is dismissed from one convent school to the next, the sisters become even further estranged.  Vianne settles into motherhood and country life, while Isabelle continues her ever increasing wild behavior in Paris.

Hannah forces the reader to watch as the Nazis enter Paris and expel French Jews from their homes and herd them into railway boxcars.  The reader walks the French countryside alongside hundreds of French citizens while above, German pilots indiscriminately release bombs on the crowds below.  Just as suddenly, the reader stands by as messages are secreted to members of the French Resistance.  The reader watches as downed American and British pilots are guided in the freezing cold while attempting to avoid roving German patrols, through the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain.   

As the novel progresses, each sister, unknown to the other in their own way, secretly fights the Nazi occupation.  One sister becomes an undercover member of the French Resistance and the guide known as The Nightingale.  The Nightingale is the one who leads downed American and British pilots over the Pyrenees mountains to safety.  The sisters’ father makes a fateful and touching reappearance and with a surprising twist (no spoilers here).

Hannah’s research is faultless.  The Nightingale successfully mirrors the turbulence of war through the lens of a French family who deeply love France and one another.  The deprivations, hunger, fear, and reactions are visceral.  Hannah forces the reader to remember the atrocities of WWII, and cautions us to never forget this part of our history—we must all ensure that it can never happen again.  We cannot become complacent; we cannot take our freedoms for granted.

My mother once told me that a sign of maturity is admitting when you are wrong, and as much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong about this book.  Find a copy of The Nightingale, read it, and share it with other like-minded reading friends, and spread the message: we must never forget.

***

References

Hannah, Kristin. The Nightingale: A Novel. 1st ed., St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Photo of Novel courtesy of Amazon. Com

Photo of Eiffel Tower by Free Photos

Photo of Nazi in Paris. Wikimedia Commons : -(Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png  German Nazi officers parading in the deserted Foch avenue, Paris, France (1940). Screenshot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on, news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.)  (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png)

***

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

Judging a Book by Its Cover

By K.P. Gresham

“Good cover design is not only about beauty… it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.”
― Eeva Lancaster, Being Indie: A No Holds Barred, Self Publishing Guide for Indie Authors

Of course, the opposite is capsulized in a familiar quote, “Don’t buy the book by its cover.” BUT, if an author wants to sell their book, they’d better face some marketing facts.

A book cover sells the book. At least it’s the first thing to catch the readers’ gaze as they wander through the shelves of a bookstore, library or click through bookseller websites. Yes, of course the blurb on the back is incredibly important, but it’s the cover the buyer sees first. It’s the cover that makes that buyer turn the book over and read the blurb.

Think about it. If the cover grabs you, you’ll pick up (or click on) the book. If it’s blah, chances are you’re going to move on to the next book.

Now what exactly in the cover image grabs you?  Does the cover tell you the genre? What to expect? Look professional? I’m a mystery writer, so I’m looking for a cover that not only says it’s a mystery, but what kind of mystery it is. Here are some examples.

Cozy Mysteries—The readers are looking for lightheartedness, as well as any of the tropes associated with cozies: animals, home-town-feel, food, maybe even a graphic image (cartoon) suggesting any of the above. They do NOT want to see brutality.  For example, here’s the cover for Arsenic and Adobe by Mia Manansala. Note the cartoon-like quality, the dog, the happy homemaker and the bottle of poison. All of these elements tell the reader this book is a mystery, homey, and involves cooking. (And don’t forget the dachshund on the shoulder!) Cozy readers love these signals. Yes, they’re going to turn the book over to learn more about it.

Horror Mysteries–Here the prospective buyer is looking for dark, scary elements. The cover should promise there will be blood and violence in the book. Body parts are great. The titles alone should give the reader the chills. The Mosquito Man by Jeremy Bates is a perfect example. Yikes!!!

Suspense Mysteries–Again, we start with the fact the reader wants to KNOW this is mystery. Suspense is a tricky cover. How does one put the feeling of suspense on a cover?  In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or the solution to a puzzle, particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy. How do you put that in an image? There are different ways to achieve this in a cover. Location. Lighting. Showing action or giving a subtle clue; having the feel that there’s something risky going on. For this example, I’m going with Louise Penny’s, All The Devils Are Here. Here, the silhouetted building against a dark sky evokes mystery, and the Van Gogh-like swirls in the night sky suggest to the reader that there’s more to this book than simply being set in Paris. It suggests depth of plot.

These are only 3 basic categories of mysteries. Consider how the covers are created that show the true crime category? The thriller category? The paranormal mysteries category? Then study your own reaction when you’re checking out the mystery sections in your favorite bookstore or online. The only thing I can think of on a cover that would hook you more than the lay-out or artwork is the author’s name. If you have a favorite author (and yes, that for me is still J.D. Robb), I’ll buy the book without even looking at the cover. But like I said, that’s the only thing I can think of that would sway a buyer more than the visual impact of the cover.

So authors, beware! Readers are judging books by their covers! To our beloved readers, take your batch of three seconds, go book-shopping and buy some books!!!

   K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, is a preacher’s kid who likes to tell stories, kill people (on paper, of course!) and root for the Chicago Cubs. Born in Chicago and a graduate of Illinois State University, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 35+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where she is the president of the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and is active in the Writers League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers.

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

Coming in 2021

Four Reasons to Die

And Over. And Over. And . . .

by Kathy Waller

I’m thinking it over.

Jack Benny

A curse on this week’s post. I banged out nearly 2,000 words that should have been online yesterday, and the post just gets longer and longer, and there ain’t no way I’ll get it finished and revised and edited and polished today, or this week, or possibly by New Year’s Eve 2022. I know the problem. Too much thinking. But I can’t help that. So I’ve pulled up something I wrote for my personal blog in 2010. I’m reposting, with some changes. I’d like to say it’s outdated, but nothing much has changed. No matter what the last line says.

*

In one of my favorite scenes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, assistant TV news producer Mary Richards suggests that writing a news story isn’t all that difficult. News writer Murray Slaughter disagrees.

Then a wire comes in, something big. The story must be written and rushed to anchorman Ted Baxter, who is on the verge of uttering his sign-off:  “Good night, and good news.”

Murray, smiling, bows to Mary.

Mary rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter. She types several words. Then she stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops . . . Everyone in the newsroom stands around her desk, watching . . . waiting . . .

Finally, at the last minute, Murray loads his typewriter and, fingers flying, writes the story, rips the paper from the machine, and hands it to producer Lou Grant, who runs for the anchor desk.

That’s why didn’t go in for journalism. I’m not Murray.

I’m Mary.

That, and because I knew that if I were a journalist, I would have to talk to people: call them on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I had no intention of talking to people I didn’t know.

But mainly, editors would expect me to write without thinking.

I look back and wonder how I got to that point. Not the distaste for talking to people I didn’t know—I’ve always had that—but the difficulty with writing.

When did I start letting my editor get in the way of my scribe?

Once upon a time, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to my grandfather and great-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins. Once, I used a pencil with a point so soft, I doubt the recipients could read through the smears on the pages.

Another time, when I was on sick leave from school, enjoying the mumps, my mother let me use my father’s Schaeffer White Dot fountain pen, a source of even better smears.

The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe while my mother stayed in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained in Del Rio working, visited one weekend and brought me a present: a ream of legal-sized paper.

I don’t know what prompted the gift, and on a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve.

I wrote my own newspaper. Most articles covered weddings between various cats and dogs of my acquaintance. I discovered a talent for describing tuxedos and bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Miss Kitty and Pat Boone (my fox terrier). It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper.

But suddenly, it seemed, I did what my thesis adviser, years later, warned me not to do: I got tangled up in words. Writing was no longer fun. Confidentially, I think it had something to do with English class, essays, outlines, and needing to sound erudite. I hated it.

Why I thought should teach English, I do not know.

Well, I do. Professor Ken Macrorie said English majors think they’ll be paid to read books.

It was years before the English Teacher Establishment (Macrorie was part of the shift) said, “You can’t write an outline until you know what you’re going to say, and you can’t know what you’re going to say until you’ve written something.”

Novelist E. M. Forster had said it long before: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” But education always lags behind.

Anyway, the word to both students and conflicted teachers (aka me) was—Write it and then fix it. And lighten up.

When I write blog posts, I don’t think so much. I lighten up. Words flow.

Unless I’m trying to be serious and sincere and profound and erudite. I’m not a profound writer. I think profound, but I write shallow. It’s in my nature.

And I still can’t imagine squeezing myself into the little journalism box. That’s pressure. And talking to people I don’t know. I’d rather make up the facts myself. Can’t do that in journalism. Journalism matters.

I don’t like talking to journalists, either. I always tell them to be sure to make me sound intelligent. A reporter told me she didn’t have to fix anything in my interview because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was an accident.

Now. It’s way past my deadline for putting up this post.

But that is not of paramount concern. Because I’m not trying to say anything worthwhile.

I have lightened up.

*

“I’m thinking it over.” Forty seconds of perfection. (If the video doesn’t play, google “jack benny i’m thinking it over”. That should work.)

*

Image of Mary Tyler Moore cast via Wikipedia. Public domain.

*

Kathy Waller has published stories in anthologies Murder on Wheels: 11 Tales of Crime on the Move; Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime; and Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse; and online at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

She is still amazed at how long it takes to write a blog post, even when she isn’t thinking.

MEOW, WOOF AND TWEET

ANIMAL SIDEKICKS AND PETS IN FICTION

By Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” —Groucho Marx

Animals are near and dear. We often imagine them to be all that we are not. Thus it’s no great wonder that they show up and play important roles in our stories. There are hundreds of tales that sentimentally humanize animals, but even in the ones that don’t, animals are essential to the  completeness of many characters’ lives and the mysteries of humans.  

But why are ‘grown-up’ books featuring animals as sidekicks or just plain ole-pets so successful? First of all, any pet owner—myself included—will object to the term, plain ole. No such thing. Every pet has its own personality, likes, dislikes, habits, and quirks, just like us. On top of that, we often imbue them with human behaviors and sentiments—in some cases, that is realistic and in others not, but the question remains, why do we love these stories? What is it about animal sidekicks or companions that attract many readers?

There are as many opinions as animal sidekicks; among them is the theory that authors are free to attribute emotions to animals that might be construed as too sappy in a human. Then, of course, animals don’t usually warrant life stories of their own, although I’d bet any author writing a pet sidekick or companion in fiction could give one. Animals can display levels of loyalty to its human that does not read the same person to person. Can you imagine a human sitting beside another human, panting for their attentions, hanging on every word, listening to their thoughts, insecurities, and foolish notions, without sitting up and saying, “Hey, pal? Get over yourself,” or “Get off your duff and take care of business?” Not likely. So, where do we find these lovable, funny, sometimes sad creatures in literature?

In most genres, we find unforgettable, heart-warming, emotional, and spirited animals like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. Then there is Charlotte, in Charlotte’s Web, and not to be ignored, Hedwig, Harry Potter’s owl, but some of the most heart-wrenching are the animals that are written into sagas, such as Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 War Horse. 

The book, the movie, or the play are all tearjerkers, but not with the epic scope of the true account of the horse it’s based on: Warrior. This amazing story of a real warhorse published 1934, was based on My Horse, Warrior by General Jack Seely. It documents the hell that horses endured during the Great War. You won’t get through this one without a box of tissues.

Sometimes, authors need a villain, and according to Disney, “from time to time we like to shine a light on the work of villains and their sidekicks,” which brings us to the feathered friends or not-friends of Iago, Jafar’s parrot sidekick in Aladdin. Who can be more deliciously evil than Maleficent with her Raven? There’s Mockingjay from the contemporary Hunger Games, and perhaps the nicest in a novel and outside the cartoon world is Harry Potter’s Snowy Owl, Hedwig, loyal, intelligent, and affectionate. 

Photo from Pixabay

Cats and dogs are also a staple in Romance writing . They provide the author with a character who can be the subject of a tug-of-war in the humans’ breakups. They can reveal the softer side of a character portrayed otherwise as cold or emotionally distant. Still, perhaps their presence is felt most in the mystery categories, beginning with its subgenre of cozies. 

  For those who aren’t exactly sure of what defines a cozy, neither am I, but the definitions I find basically explain that the cozy mysteries have specific characteristics in common: these are “gentle crime books.” No graphic violence, no profanity, and no explicit sex. Most often, the crime takes place “off stage,” and death is usually swift. The characters must be likable, most often not professional crimes solvers – amateurs and primarily women. Into this fray enters the pet sidekick.

There are shelves of cozy dog mysteries—in fact, too many to list, beginning with Michael Bond’s Pomme Frites (French Fries) and Dashiel Hammet’s Thin Man Mysteries with Nick and Nora Charles, and their female Schnauzer, Asta.

Among the most popular cozies are cat-detective mysteries, a universe of its own. In the realm of regal cats, there are also too many to name, but among the most famous are Lillian Jackson Braun’s cats, Koko and Yum Yum, in The Cat Who… series.

Given the characteristics that we love in animals, it’s no wonder that literature, particularly the mystery genres, is full of them. If you’re in the market for some plucky animal characters, real and imagined, there links on the internet that will fulfill your curiosity. All you need do is google Animals as Pets and Sidekicks in Fiction. Perhaps your pets will be interested in hearing these opinions.  

Miss Millie

Pictured here: Miss Millie, my boss, whose characteristics can be found in the cats of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, LaLa, Ziggy, and Sasha.

Weaving Complexity into Story

by Renee Kimball

It has been a year of extremes—Covid, freezing weather, and higher than average temperatures forecast for the summer ahead. 

During Covid quarantine, I read many, many books of all kinds.  I forgot some of those within an hour of finishing, but others, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.  

The stories that remained with me included specific historical, geographical, even philosophical backstories, that despite of a kind of literary density, held my attention.  Each author had conducted meticulous research, and their obvious investment of time, effort, along with many complex details, was an achievement.  Each story was the kind the reader falls into and stays to the end.

Similarities between them were clear; all were written by female authors; all contained resourceful, intelligent female protagonists; and each flawlessly merged a complex backstory within the main theme.  What could have been unintelligible and unenjoyable was successful, even riveting.  These stories were not mired in dry, mind-numbing facts, and the characters were believable, even likeable; what more could a reader ask?

In the first novel, The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, we meet the protagonist, Alma Whittaker.  Whittaker’s character is loosely based on the historical women explorers of the Victorian age.  Alma’s story is engaging, and she not only became an explorer, but a respected scientist through her groundbreaking global research in Bryology, the study of mosses, a branch of Botany.

Alma, an unattractive baby, then a precocious child, develops into a brilliant multi-talented adult.  Alma’s insatiable need to know everything, to her credit, gives her an unstoppable confidence that keeps her strong and saves her in the later decades of life.  Her greatest disappointment is her failed marriage, the husband unable or unwilling to give Alma the love that she desperately wants, eventually leaving her unhappy and alone. 

Gilbert’s rigorous research details the severity of the life of a Victorian woman.  Blocked from entering or studying within male dominated scientific fields, any findings women might make were dismissed or stolen by men who took credit for the original work, or disregarded completely.  In spite of this overall disregard, many women persevered, becoming explorers or scholars in their own right, and laid the groundwork of the first inklings of female equality.

The second novel, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, introduces a dual timeline and two female protagonists: the present-day London historian, Helen Watt, who discovers an ancient cache of valuable correspondence, and Ester Velasquez, a Jewish female scribe, who was the actual author of the historical letters.  Two stories run side by side, back and forth, jumping from present day London to the Jewish community of 1660s plague-ridden London. 

Intrigue and tension rise as a present-day scholarly battle throws university professors and researchers in a race to establish control over the translation of the letters, while, in tandem, Ester’s life-story is picked apart as the letters are slowly translated, revealing her character and brilliant inquisitive intellect.

Ester, an orphaned Jewish adolescent, is sent to London along with her brother, from Amsterdam, when their family home burns, killing both parents.  The children become wards of the venerated but blind Rabbi Moseh Ha Coen Mendes.  Ester’s brother, slated to become a scribe for the Rabbi, refuses, runs away, and dies shortly after. 

Hiding behind a fictious “male” persona, Ester becomes the Rabbi’s scribe.  A scribe was traditionally a male only position, but the Rabbi silently allows Ester to hide behind a false identity and to transcribe his weighty correspondence.  It does not take long for Ester’s razor-sharp intellect to rise to the surface when unbeknownst to the Rabbi, Ester modifies the Rabbi’s responses with her own commentary and questions.  This correspondence is composed in reply to some of the greatest thinkers of the day, a list that includes the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, among others.

Kadish presents an intellectually strong and resourceful woman trapped by gender, religion, tradition, and social constraints in the frantic environment of plague-ridden London.  Ester’s character refuses to be cowed and questions centuries of Rabbinical teaching and beliefs, even questioning Spinoza’s philosophies. 

Kadish’s language flows, integrating the complex philosophical theories of Judaism and those of Spinoza through Ester, and again through Helen Watt, a specialist in Judaic history who demands Ester’s letters be given the prominence and respect they deserve.  With Kadish, the reader becomes nothing less than a captive to the story—Kadish has created an historical page-turner.

The The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1 by N.K. Jemisin, unlike the first two novels, is pure science fiction in imaginary time.  The novel takes place on an Earth-like planet of broken islands, what Jemisin’s calls the “Stillness.” The ever-changing geological landscape breaks, fuses, rises and sinks, entire enclaves disappear, only to rise again elsewhere.  Time runs in Seasons that begin and end with land-mass upheaval while creating a daily apocalypse for its inhabitants.  

Essun, the protagonist, a middle-aged woman-healer, lives in the ever-changing Stillness, confronting numerous small enclaves of hostile caste-ridden survivors with bizarre magical abilities.

When her own toddler son displays telekinesis, he is murdered by her husband.  Essun had hidden the child’s gift from her husband to protect the child, and although Essun has these same gifts she keeps them hidden because she too would be killed.  After murdering the son, the husband takes their remaining daughter and flees.  The novel is based on Essun’s search for her husband and daughter within the ever-shifting geological nightmare landscape.

All three novels are a testament to the authors’ exacting research and story-telling abilities.  

Gilbert became an expert in Victorian mores, women explorers, and scientific standards of Botany and Bryology during the 1800s. 

Kadish grounded her story in Judaism, Spinoza’s complex philosophies, the history of Amsterdam and the London plague.  She successfully tackled the difficult job of two protagonists with parallel timelines, one present day, one historical, with finesse and without alienating the reader or breaking the thread of the story.  

Although science fiction, Jemisin incorporated ever-changing geological manifestations—shifting tectonic plates, volcanic fissures, and violent changes resulting from those stresses.  Notably, Jemisin’s characters are believable despite the imaginary violent landscape of the Stillness.  Jemisin’s story is a woman’s fight for survival.

Countless other authors have successfully incorporated complex concepts into successful fiction novels. For me, Gilbert, Kadish, and Jemisin, prove that although the backstory may be scientifically and philosophically dense, it is possible to create stories both engaging and understandable to the reader  

Their skill to weave complexity into writing is something to be admired, even envied.

***

References

Image Extreme Weather courtesy of Pixabay

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon

Heller, Jason. ‘Fifth Season’ Embraces The Scale And Complexity Of Fantasy. August 4, 201510:03 AM ET

Jason Heller. https://www.npr.org/2015/08/04/427825372/fifth-season-embraces-the-scale-and-complexity-of-fantasy

***

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

THE PLOT THICKENS! Or, Your Suspicions May Be True

by Helen Currie Foster

Okay—Mom Genes is such a great title, it couldn’t not be used. But Abigail Tucker’s new book of that title doesn’t focus just on moms. Tucker, a New York Times best-selling science writer, dives deep into the burgeoning science examining parental behavior—genetic? hormonal? learned?

And you writers may find it a rich source for potential plots.

Moms will recognize Tucker’s description of the weird sensation of being kidnapped, of feeling like victims of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Not feeling quite yourself? In the first of a series of jaw-dropping recent research findings, Tucker reports, “Our children colonize our lungs, spleens, kidneys, thyroids, skin”—and brains. Far from being that familiar image of the one-way street, with mother’s blood, nutrients and even cells flowing into the fetus, the fetus also sends its own fetal cells into the mother. It’s “fetal microchimerism.” No wonder a burgeoning mom feels…she’s changed.

Tucker doesn’t dodge painful issues of maternal and paternal favoritism. “Some 80 percent of us allegedly … prefer one of our children to the others, and more than half of parents demonstrate so-called differential treatment toward various progeny.” The most striking predictor? “Moms appear to dote on their cutest kids.” Apparently “the components of infant attractiveness…are rigid and globally constant,” including big eyes, large forehead, small chin, and chubby cheeks. Tucker says this preference extends to nearly all baby mammals.

But dads apparently outperform moms on “child facial resemblance determination” – i.e., dads are more skilled at noticing whether a child looks like them. Indeed, one Senegal study found “kids grow up bigger and are better fed if they look and in fact smell more like their dads.” A different kind of favoritism…favoring the child which dad feels sure is his.

Jane Austen knew this. You remember that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents in Pride and Prejudice, have different favorites? Mrs. Bennet favors beautiful Jane; Mr. Bennet favors sensible Lizzy (Elizabeth). Mrs. Bennet scolds her husband: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

Humans share mothering tendencies across species. Will you recognize yourself if I mention “left-handed cradling bias”? In a “near-universal” mothering behavior, “Something like 80 percent of right-handed women and, remarkably, almost as many left-handed women hold their babies automatically on the left.” Check out many paintings of the Madonna, suggests Tucker. This “lefty” preference extends to other mammals. Why? It may allow the infant to “view the more expressive left side of the maternal face.”

Tucker points out it’s not all about genes. Life experience also affects maternal behavior. She describes studies of new monkey mothers showing that, of those roughly treated by their mothers, “more than half of the maltreated monkeys became abusive mothers. All the well-tended infants matured as competent mothers.” But when the scientists swapped some babies, so the abusive monkey moms took charge of the offspring of outstanding monkey moms, “the monkeys grew up to match the behaviors of their adoptive mothers, not their biological mothers.”

Here’s another potential genetic component. Canadian scientist Frances Champagne wondered why mother lab rats from the same genetic strain, living under identical conditions, engaged in different “licking/grooming” of their babies. When Champagne swapped the rat babies, so high-licking moms raised the babies of low-licking moms, the babies of below-average lickers followed in their adoptive mom’s footsteps. Then other scientists found they could program a baby rat’s future licking behavior by stroking it with a tiny paintbrush. “The physicality of getting licked somehow shaped the females’ instincts and behavior.” According to Champagne, “I wanted to show that the care you receive leads to epigenetic changes in infancy, and that this could replicate.” Epigenetics focuses on whether and how bits of genetic code may be “expressed.” Champagne found well-licked baby rats “were more likely to express their genes for certain estrogen receptors…” which made them more likely to express genes for oxytocin receptors and to grow more oxytocin neurons in their brains.

Fascinating research discusses how different bits of our genes “express” themselves, particularly in response to hormones. For instance, various sorts of stress can result in hormonal effects on gene expression: “Physiological changes that affect mRNA stability occur during development, nutritional stress, hypoxia, inflammation, cancer, and aging.”

The notion that our genes are static? Maybe not!

So…parental behavior factors include genes plus life experience with hormones kicking into action to affect gene expression.

Back to favoritism! Harry Potter? Reluctant adoptive parent Mrs. Dursley can’t abide her own sister’s son. The internet is full of books and studies on why parents have favorites and how favorites impact families, including impact on sibling rivalry.

Being a favorite can be dangerous, as Joseph learned. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him….” (Genesis 37.)

And I haven’t touched on what Tucker calls the “murderous tendencies of mothers,” citing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s theories on infanticide in Mother Nature.

Tucker’s final chapters look at the impact of our own stressful society on parents. “Social-support deficits and perinatal depression are intimately linked.” Tucker reports that compared to Dutch mothers, American mothers appeared comparatively quite miserable, with high levels of unhappiness and worry, because they don’t get enough support in their health care or workplace. To transform this problem “would involve taking on some of the most grinding and deadlocked political issues of our day: not only income inequality, but also health care, education, and other topics that have consistently stumped our government,” including racism (citing pregnant Black women’s higher blood pressure and elevated risks of prenatal diabetes, preterm delivery and death).

Tucker visited Erin Kinnally, a scientist at the UC Davis California National Primate Research Center. “Kinnally rattles off the factors that can shape primate moms…age, number of births, genetics, her own mother’s rearing history, the baby’s sex and other characteristics, access to food and shelter and sundry other environmental factors.” But the most potent force is “social chemistry.” The low-ranking macaque moms at the primate center “have weaker immune system and other distinct traits…the lowest ranking moms had four times the amount of stress hormones in their blood.” “Low-ranking [macaque] moms grasp that they have to be vigilant at all times. Fascinating studies have shown that these moms are much more likely to try to shush their infants’ cries when higher-ranked animals are around, for fear that the fussing will draw unwanted attention and attacks.”

Hormonal impact? Stress can mean a baby gets more cortisol in breast milk. In monkeys, “these high-cortisol babies grow unusually quickly, ‘prioritizing’ growth instead of social exploration…”

Tucker, like Bill Bryson in The Body, respects her readers enough to include a serious index. Hers is excellent: for her assertions in each chapter, she includes detailed links to the research studies involved.

We’re all from families; we’re all affected by our genes and our experiences, by how we were parented (and, indeed, how those who parented us were parented, and so on back up the long chain of humanity). Mom Genes confirms what writers already suspect: plots abound!

***

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. Ghost Daughter, Book 7 of the series, was published June 15, 2021. Helen’s active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas chapter. Find out more at www.helencurriefoster.com.

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