The Lost Characters

By K.P. Gresham

This week I lost a very good friend and an incredible mentor. Anna Castle wrote historical mysteries including two internationally successful series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor and Mrs. Moriarity. Her books can be found on her website at https://www.annacastle.com/books/

Writing a series of any kind requires a great deal of research. Triple that for historical mysteries. The writer has to learn the dialects, the clothes, the food, the politics, the religions, the caste systems, the locations—the list goes on. It takes a special person to get all of that right, and for Anna to do it in two series is off the charts. And while getting all of the “facts” right, Anna also had the task of creating characters that needed to be loved, laughed at, hated, suspected, intriguing, whatever was needed to propel the plot forward. The character must be seen, understood, memorable—well, you get the drift.

And in reading a series, the characters must be people that intrigue the readers so much, they are not just willing to buy the next book in the series, but the writer must create a story where the readers will wait for that next book, hope for it, buy it in advance. The reader becomes bonded to the characters. I as a reader find myself worried about them, excited for them, scared for them, and yes, hate them and love them. To me, they were real people.

And now, Anna’s characters will never live again. The next book won’t happen. There will be no more intrigue for them, romance for them, fear for them. Life for them.

As I write this, I am devastated as I mourn Anna’s passing. No more lunches with her. No more emails. No more hugs. No more bragging or complaining or learning or all those things that dear, dear friends do together.

But also, I will deeply mourn the passage of the characters she put in my head and in my heart.

Thank you, Anna, for giving so much.

K.P. Gresham





Historical Fiction–Literary Time Travel

In 1986, Random House New York published Through A Glass Darkly, netting its first-time author, Karleen Koen, a hardcover rights record for a new author, $350,000.  Random House picked a winner when the paperback rights later netted an additional $755,000.  Not long after that, it was chosen by the Book of the Month Club (Los Angeles Times).  When asked about her book set in the 18th century, Koen remarked, “It was the age of Defoe, Pope, Swift and Addison,” she said, “and I lost myself in their time.”

Koen, a former magazine editor for Houston Home and Garden Magazine and housewife, created a novel that the Los Angeles Times felt was “. . . something like a bodice-ripper crossed with a text of the French Annales school, which finds history secreted in everyday life. . .”

Whatever may be said about Through A Glass Darkly, it was and remains a hugely popular historical fiction novel.  I recently re-read Koen’s book, then re-read her follow up, Now Face to Face, which was published in 1995, nine years after her debut.  Now Face to Face is as chockfull of historical information as its predecessor and enjoyed as much success.

Revisiting Koen’s writing came after a yearlong binge of reading historical fiction.  And reading back-to-back century-sweeping historical fiction created lots of questions.  Most could be answered by GOOGLE, then GOOLING more, and yet again.  But I still found, even after all that reading and GOOLING, there were unanswered basic questions about the writing guidelines and necessary steps to create successful historical fiction.

To me, historical fiction was a somewhat odd genre between unalterable truth and fictional twists.  Thoughts of just how much research was needed for a well-grounded novel was equal to going back to school for a specialist degree—I could easily see 4, 6, 10 years stretching out before writing the first line. All writing is a commitment, but writing about the ancient world, sl

slogging through translations of lost languages (if you can even find them), lost cultures, horrific wars, the peeling back layers of history and people– that takes commitment.

 Back to Basics–What is Historical Fiction.  

Jessica Dukes’ article “What is Historical Fiction?” offers an answer:

“The idea is to take readers out of the events of their lifetime. Most book lovers agree that Historical Fiction is the closest we’ll get to actual time travel.

 Historical Fiction is set in a real place, during a culturally recognizable time.

 The details . . . can be a mix of actual events and ones from the author’s imagination as they fill in the gaps. Characters can be pure fiction or based on real people . . . But everything about them —their attitudes and look, the way they speak, and problems they face — should match the era. . .” (Emphasis added)

 “How far back in time does an author have to go for their work to be considered Historical Fiction? A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 50 years.”

But . . . Just because a timeline is set back “50 years,” does not make it historical fiction.  Many other critical facets must be met and several hard and fast criteria.  To get there, we need to consider the history of the genre, what makes historical fiction what it is, and the elements that make it part of this popular genre.

Historical Fiction has been around a long, long time…

The father of the historical fiction novel is Sir Walter Scott, and Scottish history is the bedrock of his novels. Waverly, Scott’s first novel, was published in 1814; “over two dozen novels” followed, “noted for the characterizations of ordinary people and their regional Scottish dialect” (Britannica).

Scott’s writing was unique and went on to influence, Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), George Eliot (Middlemarch), as well as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac and many others (The Victorian Web).  Scott died in 1832, at 61 years of age .

R. Haggis provides the extent of Scott’s influence:

“. . .The reading of Scott’s novels led historians to envisage their task in a new way; it encouraged dramatists and novelists to turn to national history for new sources of material; it gave a vast reading public an interest in, and a curiosity about, the past . . .

“. . .The greatness of Scott is now seen to lie in the insight and understanding he shows in the interpretation of historical conflicts, in his ability to penetrate to the human reality underlying those conflicts and the opposition of historical forces, and in the way he contrives to fuse, in the creation of his fictional characters, their personal characteristics with features and qualities that make them figures representative of their times.  All this is displayed more finely—through certainly not exclusively—in his novels dealing with Scotland . . .”

So . . .What Makes Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction?

The most important element is the setting.  The setting must be factual—a time and event certain in history.  It must include supportable facts related to any real-life participants mentioned, or who are part of the storyline. An author may add a “fictional” story, what they cannot do is to “invent history.” (Rutherfurd).

What Are the Necessary Elements of Historical Fiction?

According to Ohio State University, there are “Seven Elements of Historical Fiction.”

“. . .in general writers of fiction must address seven crucial elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. The characters could be based on real or imaginary individuals (Ohio State).

How To Create Believable and Successful Historical Fiction?

Research. Research. Research.

“. . .the key to an author getting all of this right is research.  Authors are always allowed artistic license, but the most satisfying works of Historical Fiction have been researched down to every scent, button, turn of phrase, and cloud in the sky.” (Dukes)

How Popular is Historical Fiction Today?

 If Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall, and C.J. Sanson’s highly successful Matthew Shardlake Series, are any indication, historical fiction is both popular and lucrative. Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, have evolved into popular television series.  Gabaldon’s ninth book of the series was released November 2021—it would seem there is no end in sight to the popularity of Scottish history.

Another successful current historical fiction novelist, Edward Rutherfurd, is known for his long and complex novels of diverse places that span thousands of years. Rutherfurd’s Sarum, his first novel, a family saga tracing five families across 1000 years, starting during the Ice Age and ending with the present. Set in Stonehenge and Salisbury, England, Sarum was eagerly received by the public and quickly became a best seller.

Rutherfurd followed Sarum with other successful sagas: Russka, 800 years of Russian history, London, 2000-year long history of London; The Forest—a sequel to Sarum, a history of the forest lying “south-east of Sarum on England’s southern coast” ranging “from the Norman Conquest to the present day.” The Princes of Ireland, 1100 years of Irish history, and The Rebels of Ireland, starting before Cromwell to the Easter Rising and into the Irish Free State. Followed by New York, Paris, and the 2021, China, (the shortest timeframe covered so far—a mere seventy-five years).

Rutherfurd has frequently been compared to the historical fiction author James A. Michener.  Michener’s popularity began in the late ’40s and his long sagas continue to draw readers even today—most are still available.

In 1948, Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, with his Tales of the South Pacific; in 1949, it was adapted into the Broadway musical, South Pacific.  Two movie versions were produced in, 1958 and in 2001.

During his long career, Michener authored more than 40 books, including Hawaii, Centennial, Poland, The Source (story of Israel), Caravans, and Texas, to name only a few.

Michener passed away in 1997 at 90 years of age.  His manuscripts and galleys for his book Texas were bequeathed to the University of Texas at Austin.

An Afterthought or Two. . .

When I began researching the nuts and bolts—the actual mechanics—behind writing historical fiction, I was quickly convinced that, even before writing the first sentence, writing historical fiction is a long-term commitment.  You need staying power to find historical truth, and that isn’t always an easy task.

The reality is . . . history changes every day.  Technology and advanced archeological techniques find new information hourly across the globe.  Yet, in the final analysis, and in spite of rapidly advancing changes within all fields, historical fiction is here to stay (Sparkpress).

Readers are drawn to history, particularly their own.  People are curious about their roots, their beginnings, their past, their culture; they want to get lost, be transported to another place and time, and what better way to do that than literary time travel?

Afterward EXTRA, or just another thing insightful and interesting . . .

Edward Rutherfurd provided an opinion piece on his website detailing his “seven guidelines” for writing historical fiction. If you are the curious type, you can access the opinion there under the website menu bar, “Opinion,” then,  Ethics: Rules for Writing Historical Novels .

***

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.

Koen, Karleen. Through A Glass Darkly. Random House. (1986).

Koen, Karleen. Now Face to Face. Random House. (1995).

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.

Image of Sir Walter Scott by Charles Herbert Sylvester, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Other images courtesy of Pixabay.

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice, and is currently dedicated to retirement.  Among her interests are reading, writing, research, and animal advocacy.  She fosters both dogs and cats and works with various rescue groups to find them homes.

Book Review: FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

“From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive.  It gets in your face.  Sometimes it shouts in your face.  I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers.  Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King.  Literary elitists have shown distain towards King for years, dismissing his writing as story-telling for the masses.  This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre.  This is a brief review and discussion of two of four novellas found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King.  King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year-long career.  He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars.

Full Dark contains a common theme within each novella, a theme exploring the darker side of the human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice.  Redemption is not a theme, but revengeful retribution is revealed in each.  Even evil has the opportunity towards a twisted kind of justice—a black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.

The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska.  The story involves a barely working family farm, constant work, brutally harsh, and unrelenting.  The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who harps without end her wish to sell the 100-acre farm that she inherited from her father.  Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and move to the progressive city of Omaha.

The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” dominated and hen-pecked, is a browbeaten, beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on the land.  Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of his mother’s, Arlette’s, plan.  Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder his mother.  Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives  close by, ever again.  Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help murder his mother.

When Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry determine they must go through with the murder.  It is a clumsy and brutal murder; both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards.   Arlette’s murder acts as a horrific prelude to a story which evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference.

The vicious murder results in the destruction of both father and son.  The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows.

(Spoiler:  If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale).

A GOOD MARRIAGE:  A Good Marriage is both thought provoking and highly believable.  The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left home to start their lives.  Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, for over 25 years.  She believes she is living the American dream, or a semblance of it – not perfect, but predictable, comfortable.  It is by sheer accident that she trips over a misaligned carton residing in the garage.  Darcy opens the carton and realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, not only has a double life, but is a serial killer.

Once Darcy confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years.  She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain.  Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life when he realizes that the garage carton has been moved.  Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens next; his life and their life together, as well as their children’s, hang on her decision.  Bob assures her that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges; he promises her won’t kill again, but she must make her decision to stay and keep their secret.

Bob explains to Darcy the reason he took a break from killing was because of her, that being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his urge to kill.  But if she breaks her word, the killing will start up again, and Darcy will suffer the consequences, will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Bob and Darcy’s lives resume; he goes back to work, Darcy takes up her house-wifely duties, and they ignore their shared secret and there are no killings.  But Darcy, never feels at ease; she is ashamed and feels responsible.

After years of silence, Darcy stages an accident and succeeds in killing Bob.  After an evening celebration with family and friends, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs, and he falls to his death.  Although Darcy is cleared of any foul play, she knows someone will come knocking on the door sooner or later.  And the day does come, and that someone comes knocking, but it isn’t who she expects.

Retribution comes in the end, along with a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book to find out.

You will enjoy this collection.  Both 1922 and A Good Marriage have been made into movies.  The book will make you think, and may even surprise you.

After all, no one knows what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

*

From the Afterword:
“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone” . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010.

***

References

King, Stephen.  FULL DARK, NO STARS. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Kirkus Review.  “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .”   Nov. 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. 

Photos: Courtesy of Pixabay

Book Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

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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.

Writing Humor in Mysteries

by K.P. Gresham

I recently appeared on a “Writing Humor in Mysteries” panel at the Pflugerville, Texas, Library along with fellow authors Kelly Cochran and Nancy West.  My first reaction was the old adage, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Unless you’re talking about the Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau, one doesn’t usually think that humor and death work well as a pair.

Although the mysteries I write are serious, I find that interjecting comedy into the either the character or plot (or both) really moves the action along. It picks up the pacing, gives more depth to characters, and sometimes you just have to lighten the moment for the reader as the plot turns darker and darker.

I once read a blog by Zia Westfield (www.ziawestfield.com) and she outlined five elements that often appear in comedic mysteries.

      1. The Screwball Heroine (think “I Love Lucy”)
      2. The Wacky Secondary Character (obviously Ethel Mertz comes to mind)
      3. The Snowball Effect (Events become more and more out of control)
      4. Whatever Can Go Wrong, Make it a Hundred Times Worse (back to Lucille Ball)
      5. Snappy Dialogue and Word Choice (Here pacing is everything)

In more serious murder mysteries, however, to me it’s all about the characters. For example, it’s possible to have a series of homicides and a very serious detective, but a side character can provide the comedic relief. In The Preacher’s First Murder, an elderly woman has gone missing and is considered to be in danger. Very scary stuff for the family. Enter an idiot rookie “hunter” who didn’t know a rifle from a shotgun. His exploits provided the needed chuckle to break up the intense drama.

I’ve also found that putting my hero in a foreign place presents lots of opportunity for the hero’s inner dialogue to ponder this “new world.” Again, in The Preacher’s First Murder, the hero, originally from Miami, has moved to small town Texas. The first time someone says, “She makes a hornet look cuddly,” he realizes he’s not in…well, you know.

For me, the easiest way to write humor is in first person, and I’ve found it to be a lot of fun. Most stories come from experiences I’ve had, a belly laugh all over. “Write What You Know,” as they say. Perhaps it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway. It really helps to write humorous mysteries if you have a sense of humor yourself. Odds are that what makes you laugh will make others laugh too.

Anyway, feel free to check out the writing comedic mysteries at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ur2gyXHEvM&feature=youtu.be

***

Special thanks to Margaret Miller for the invitation to participate and awesome kudos to my fellow panelists Kelly Cochran and Nancy West!

***

Image by Joe Alfaraby from Pixabay

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Check out more about K.P. Gresham at her website, http://www.kpgresham.com

Her books in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series include

THE PREACHER’S FIRST MURDER
MURDER IN THE SECOND PEW
MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY

Book Review: Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do; Edited by Meredith Maran

by Renee Kimball

Meredith Maran decided to write a book about writing to show her “gratitude to writers everywhere.”  To do that, however, she needed information from at least twenty best-selling authors.  Their responses would form basis for the book and a portion of the final profits would be donated to the 826 National literacy outreach centers promoting reading and writing in underprivileged areas.  She hoped this extra incentive would entice the “twenty” to respond.

While Maran’s greatest worry was whether the popular selling authors would even acknowledge or ignore her plea, she found her worries groundless—every author she contacted fully participated.  The responses were beyond Maran’s wildest expectations.

Along with their replies, the authors also included a bit of personal information and a plethora of sage advice for new writers.  The result of Maran’s inquiries became,  Why We Write 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do.

While you will need to read the book to enjoy of the wealth of information, below a few of the authors’ replies are highlighted.

 Isabel Allende

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession.  Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story?  I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later.” (p. 4).

“It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling of describe a situation. When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—then you know the book is going somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word into this world . . . (p.11-12).

David Baldacci

“If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison.  I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.” (p. 16).

“When the sentences and the story are flowing, writing is better than any drug.  It doesn’t just make you feel good about yourself.  It makes you feel good about everything.” (p. 16).

“It can go the other way too. . . But actually, sitting there and conceiving story ideas and plotting—it’s the coolest profession in the world.  I’m paid to daydream.” (p. 16).

“Whether you’re writing a novel or a cover letter. . . shorter is always better.” (p. 23).

“The upside of the current state of publishing:  it’s a lot easier to self-publish than it ever was.  Publish on the Internet, or on demand, or self-publish in print—but whatever you do, if you want to share your story, publish it” (p. 23).

“Writing for your readers” is a euphemism for “writing what you think people will buy.” Don’t fall for it! Write for the person you know best: yourself.”  (p. 23).

Sue Grafton

“I write because in 1962 I put in my application for a job working in the children’s department at Sears, and they never called me back.  Seriously, I write because it’s all I know how to do.  Writing is my anchor and my purpose.” (p. 52).

“My best time as a writer is any day, or any moment, when the work’s going well and I’m completely absorbed in the task at hand.  The hardest time is when it’s not, and I’m not.  The latter tend to outnumber the former.  But I’m a persistent little cuss.  And I soldier on.” (p. 52).

“Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.  I’m always convinced that my last book was my last book, that my career is at an end, that I’ll never be able to pull off another novel, that my success was a fleeting illusion, and my hopes for the future are already dead.  Dang!  All this drama and it’s not even nine a.m.” (p. 53).

“Mystery writers are the neurosurgeons of literature.  Or maybe magicians.  We work by slight of hand.” (p. 57).

“There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts.  As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.” (p. 60).

Ann Patchett

“I write because I swear to God, I don’t know how to do anything else.  From the time I was a little child, I knew that writing was going to be my life. . . I put all my eggs in one basket, which has resulted in a great number of eggs.” (p. 185).

“Don’t be afraid to make money writing the kinds of things you’d never write for the fun of it. There’s no shame in earing a living, whatever your write, even catalog copy or fluffy magazine articles, makes you a better writer.” (p. 192).

 Jane Smiley

“I write to investigate things I’m curious about.” (p. 206).

“A novelist’s job is to integrate information with the feelings and the stories of her characters, because a novel is about the alternation of the inner world and the outer world, what happens and what the characters fell about it.  There’s no reason to write a novel unless you’re going to talk about the inner lives of your characters.  Without that, the material is dry.  But without events and information, the novel seems subjective and pointless.” (p. 206).

“When I am writing, more than any other emotion, I feel excited.” (p. 209).

“Don’t write the book you think a publisher will want to publish.  Write the book you want to research and the book you want to read.” (p.215).

Maran’s small book is well worth reading and you just might find a kindred spirit within its pages.

Allende—obsession
Baldacci—compulsion
Grafton—writing is my anchor and my purpose
Patchett—can’t do anything else
Smiley—to investigate things

***

*826 National is a nonprofit organization that provides strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of its network of seven—soon to be eight—writing and tutoring centers.

Photos courtesy of Amazon

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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.

More Than There Was Before

When you reread a classic
you do not see more in the book than you did before;
you see more in you than was there before.  ~ Clifton Fadiman

*

The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars—but the cruel world conspires to bring them down.

The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds, but get to that church on Thursday and marry Paris or he’ll drag her thither on a hurdle—what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen.

The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.

When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner.

She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and that’s right after he’s told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind her who’s boss here?

If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred.

In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way—and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.

When I hit forty, however, I developed the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent. He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology.

Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to her father and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair.

The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt—the end is the same. With role models like him, are we surprised that children run amok?

Soon after the last epiphany, I ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d continued to study Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?

How much more would I have discovered in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my students?

Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?

How much more would I have given my students?

How much more would I have seen in myself?

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her latest publication is STABBED, written with Manning Wolfe. She lives in Austin and is working on a novel.

Learning from Memoir–Surviving Catastrophe and Loss

by  Renee Kimball

Memoir – noun:  a narrative composed from personal experience  – Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Every memoir reminds us of the faraway and long ago, of loss and change, of persons and places beyond recall  –  Abigail McCarthy

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. –  Viktor E. Frankl

Thirty-five miles south of Austin Texas, is the small rural town where I have lived for over twenty years.  I am still considered an outsider—I was not born here, nor were my “people.”  In mid-January, local social community media posts were largely dismissive of the potential disaster headed our way.

The media had announced the first confirmed case of Covid-19 on January 19, 2020, in Snohomish County, Washington.  Central Texas was slow to acknowledge what was coming. *  Mid-February, stronger warnings in the air; March gusted full of tangy-tangible fear, and hoarding toilet paper became a joke-du-jour.

Then Central Texas’ Covid-19 cases mounted; Stay-At-Home orders followed.  The only entity that was prepared for the looming crisis was the Texas grocery chain H.E.B., and for that, all Texans must remain eternally grateful. ** One day it was garage-sale-car-wash-fund raising small-town normal, then just like that, the world melted.

Now mid-June, many seek an end to quarantine because we must save the economy, we are impatient, we are bored, the pandemic is a hoax, our liberties are being abridged, we are out of money, we can’t go on like this, this isn’t living, they say, people will die either way, a 1%-2% death rate is acceptable, or is it?

In the Southern states, the pandemic is not abating; the news says cases are rising.

People keep saying these are extraordinary times, we must be flexible and compromise, we must continue to stay home, the recovery will be slow, maybe after the summer.  Will schools be open in the fall?  No one knows for certain and people continue to sicken, and many, to die.

For some during times of stress, books offer comfort, friendship, and escape-they are a testament to survival.  Personal memoirs show how inner strength and perseverance can sustain the survivor.  Despite heartbreaking cruelty and immense loss for some, memoirs show that on the other side of great trauma, the sufferer can rise to thrive again.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1956).  Elie Wiesel was an adolescent when his Jewish family was forced by the Nazis to take their fatal trip to the death camps.  Wiesel’s mother, father, and sister all died there.  Elie survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  Night is the first of several books by Wiesel about the Holocaust, known as the Jewish Shoah.

In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his life’s work.  After living a full life of grace, love, and generosity, Wiesel passed away at the age of 87.  He is still quoted and revered today for his singular, razor-sharp intellect and life-long activism on behalf of Jews, Israel, and the oppressed everywhere.

“. . . Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. . .I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. . . Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney; these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else.” (Night, p. viii)

“. . . I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago.  A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.  I remember his bewilderment; I remember his anguish.  It all happened so fast. . . The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.” (Night, p. 118)

“. . .And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” And I tell him I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” (Night, p. 118).

“. . .And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must take sides. . .” (Night, p. 118).

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1985).  Unlike Wiesel, Victor E. Frankl was an adult with a medical degree when he was sent to the camps.  From his experience, Frankl derived his psychiatric theory of Logotheraphy, its foundational premise–man’s search for the meaning of life.

“. . . I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions even the most miserable ones.” (Frankl, p. 12).

“. . .This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs. . .nor well-known prisoners. . .Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. . .” (Frankl, p. 17).

“   In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain . . .but the damage to their inner selves was less. . .” (Frankl, p. 47).

“. . .In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was not the result of camp influences alone.  Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. . .” (Frankl, p. 75).

Childhood by Jona Oberski (1978).  Oberski’s story is fictional, but drawn from his real-life Holocaust experience.  The narrator of Childhood is a four-year-old Jewish boy who lives in a concentration camp with his mother.  In life, Oberski was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at four years of age and released at age seven.  Both of Oberski’s parents died in the camps.  After liberation, a friend of his mother’s took Oberski to Amsterdam, where he was adopted.  The success of Childhood is the narrative’s sparseness, the childlike focus and intensity of his experience.

. . .His mother’s voice, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here.” (Oberski, p. 1).

“. . .My father took me with him to his office.  My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, “Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy. . .” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . . A man was shouting, I woke up.  The door of my room was pulled open.  Somebody stomped in. . . . “Hurry, hurry, “the man yelled. “We’ve got to go; I have my orders.” He slung his gun over his shoulder and left the room. The gun banged against the door.” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . .Then we had to go outside.  All along the street there were people in black coats.  We had to follow them.  And behind us there were still more people. . .We go into the train. . .” (Oberski, p. 19).

“. . .Now listen carefully,” my mother said. I’m going to show you something without using my finger.  And you mustn’t point either.  And you mustn’t look that way too long.  Just do exactly as I say.  Look over my shoulder.  Do you see the watchtower?
“. . . That hut is the watchtower.  There’s a watchtower on every side of the camp. Didn’t you know that? (Oberski, p. 41).

Survival in Auschwitz The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi (1947).

Levi was 25 years old, a trained chemist, and a member of the Italian Resistance when taken prisoner by the German Reich.  Transferred numerous times, he landed in Auschwitz, staying there almost a full year before liberation.

Levi writes that his account was not to be used to add to the list of Nazi atrocities already reported, but as a study in human nature.  His story starkly reveals how effective the Nazi methods were in the systematic dehumanization of prisoners.

After the war, Levi returned to Turin, Italy, resumed his post as a chemist, moved into management.  In 1977, Levi retired to devote full-time to writing poetry and novels, and became a well-respected author.  Levi passed away in 1987; his writings remain influential even today.

“. . .As an account of atrocities, therefore, this book of mine adds nothing to what is already known to readers throughout the world on the disturbing question of the death camps. . . it should be able, rather to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.  (Levi, p. 9).

“Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’.  For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.  But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. . .” (Levi, p. 9).

“. . .I have never seen old men naked. . . shaved and sheared. What comic faces we have without hair! . . .Finally, another door is opened: here we are, locked in, naked sheared and standing, with our feet in water—it is a shower room. . .” (Levi, ps. 22-23).

“. . .Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.  In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom.  It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so.  Nothing belongs to us any more. . .” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . .They have even taken away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . . The days all seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.  For days now, we have formed teams of two, from the railway to the store-a hundred yards over thawing ground. . .” (Levi, p. 42).

Endings and Beginnings

America is not the first country, nor this generation the first, to face a catastrophe of momentous proportions–weighty words.  Like Levi’s days, the Covid-19 days “seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.”

When this is over, and we look back to the time of Covid-19, will we be like Wiesel, Frankl, and Levi, finding our language incapable of describing what we saw, what we did, the horror, the shock of what we experienced?  In the future, when we speak of quarantine, masks, hand-sanitizer, ventilators or  Personal Protection Equipment, will our voices catch?

What can we learn from what is happening to our country, the world, and everyone around us?  What are our responsibilities now and going forward?  Will we rally for change in healthcare? Will we face our responsibilities to ensure that this doesn’t happen again or will we forget?  What is our duty to ourselves our country?  Do we know?  We do know that Covid-19 does not discriminate, everyone equally vulnerable, a potential victim.

Like Wiesel, we must speak out against injustice where we can, and when able, to help one another in whatever capacity we can.  There are many hurting now; there will be many after.  We have to find a way to ensure the greater good of all before anything else–somewhere that lesson has been lost to us as a nation.  If we are to save ourselves, we must earnestly help everyone else, even those who would fight against our helping others.

And as Frankl clearly explains, any time, but particularly now, is the time for self-reflection, a time when “. . . any man can, . . . decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.” It is our time to build a rich inner life; if we are able, and are lucky enough, to shelter in place, or not, now is the time to look inward.  Ultimately, how we react, how we go forward, is up to each of us individually.

Lastly during this time of Covid-19, I give to each of you Levi’s words, if I know you or if I do not. . . To all of you the humble wish, That autumn will be long and mild.” (Levi, To My Friends).

(Italian) Benedizioni a te e alla tua famiglia  – Blessings to you and your family.

(Romanian) Binecuvântări pentru tine și familia ta. – Blessings to you and your family.

(German) Segen für Sie und Ihre Familie – Blessings to you and your family.

*

To My Friends 

Dear friends, and here I say friends
the broad sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
|To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.

– Primo Levi

***

References

Images “Toilet Paper Basket” and “Corona Virus” via Pixabay
Images of book covers via Amazon.com

“Our New COVID-19 Vocabulary—What Does It All Mean?”

*First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States

**“Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic” 

Logotherapy is a term derived from “logos,” a Greek word that translates as “meaning,” and therapy, which is defined as treatment of a condition, illness, or maladjustment. Developed by Viktor Frankl, . . logotherapy is the pursuit of that meaning for one’s life.

“Conavirus live updates”: Trump announces federal ‘blueprint’ for testing”

***

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 and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them

Characters We’re Drawn To

By Helen Currie Foster

Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.

At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.

Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.

George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in
that scene?

George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.

In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?

Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.

We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.

What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.

Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!

Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.

My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

New Mystery Series: Bullet Books Speed Reads at Texas Book Festival

No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.

Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: This morning, the Texas Book Festival  opens on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.  Exhibitor tents and food trucks will line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— will speak and sign books, and appear on panels. There will be books for display and for sale.

And in Exhibitor Tent #4, a new mystery series will be launched: BULLET BOOKS SPEED READS.

BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.

Twelve Bullet Books will be introduced today. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies.

A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:

Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.

Bill Rogers – KILLER SET DROP THE MIC
Billy Kring – IRON 13
Helen Currie Foster – BLOODY BEAD
Mark Pryor – THE HOT SEAT
Kathy Waller – STABBED
Jay Brandon – MAN IN THE CLIENT CHAIR
Kay Kendall – ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME
Suzanne Waltz – DANGEROUS PRACTICE
Scott Montgomery – TWO BODIES, ONE GRAVE
Laura Oles – LAST CALL
V.P. Chandler – THE LAST STRAW
Elizabeth Garcia – THE NEON PALM

The first twelve Bullet Books are available from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats.  Another thirteen volumes will be released in 2020.

Authors will sign their books at the Starpath Books booth 405 in exhibitor tent #4, this Saturday and Sunday, October 26-27.

By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe  will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.

Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m.

If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.

Further Thoughts on Smell in Literature, or The Dog as Watson

by Helen Currie Foster

An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or smellmisunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.

The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.

You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)

Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.

Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:

“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.

Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Darkness:

Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.

At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.

No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.

Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.

Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.

My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:

When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around.

Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.

Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.

Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.

***

Image of dog by CT70 via Pixabay
Image of man by StockSnap via Pixabay
Image of mink stole, public domain, via Wikipedia

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.