Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sherlock Holmes on Mental Accoutrements

The great Holmes said, in "The Five Orange Pips," that thinking is sort of a matter of feng shui:

"I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it."

Interesting point, Holmes. And here's another fun Holmes tidbit: the man in the picture there will BE Sherlock Holmes at your next party or event; I discovered this while looking for pictures of Holmes online. To find out more about the Holmes impersonator, click here.

As to why Holmes, Conan-Doyle's Holmes, did what he did, he explained that quite clearly in "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans:"

"I play the game for the game's own sake."

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Karen Olson on the Joy of Good Pizza, the Realities of Adoption, and the Art of Writing Mysteries

Hi, Karen! Thanks for chatting with me.

You say that you grew up with “a love of books and great pizza.” I must say that I share your priorities—but is one love stronger than the other?
This is like comparing apples to oranges. Love a great book, love a good pizza. Love to eat pizza while reading a great book.

Although that would get grease on the pages--otherwise I'd do it all the time. :)

You adopted a little girl from China. My sister was also born there; my parents adopted her from a Hong Kong orphanage in the 1960s. The vast majority of children coming out of China for adoption are female. Does it amaze you that the Chinese don’t value these beautiful girls?

Wow. From pizza to this. Such a complicated issue. The one-child law as well as Asian culture that reveres boys as the ones who will carry on family names and care for elderly parents have both unfortunately contributed to many girls ending up in the country’s orphanages. But I don’t think the Chinese do not value or don’t care about the girls. In fact, when we were in China, most Chinese were thrilled that we were adopting and bringing our girls to the U.S., where they would have opportunities not available to them in China. The adoption process was so thorough, and I truly believe the Chinese government is very careful in placement of the children. We have been so blessed with our daughter, who is proud of being Chinese but is also so totally American. We are part of a national group called Families with Children from China, which is a great way to meet other families like ours. There are regional chapters all over the country.

That's good to hear.

Here is the power of connotation: ever since I read the title of your first book, Sacred Cows, years ago, I have connected your name with farms. Have you ever lived on a farm?

I lived next door to a horse farm and across the street from a dairy farm, but that had no affect on the title of Sacred Cows. The title has a double meaning: In the book, New Haven sponsors a CowParade, which features fiberglass cows painted by local artists and then put up for auction for charity. The second meaning is that to a newspaper, a “sacred cow” is something that unjustifiably cannot be criticized. In the book, it happens to be Yale University.

My second title started out as Birds of a Feather, because there are chickens, but because of Jacqueline Winspear’s book of the same title and my editor’s fear I would become the farm animal author, it was changed to Secondhand Smoke.

And not to give too much away, the third book has bees. I’ve abandoned the animal/insect theme, however, in the fourth book. But there is a male stripper named Jack Hammer in that one.

Hmmm! Sacred Cows is on my reading list for the summer; what’s it about? How did you come to write it?
In Sacred Cows, New Haven police reporter Annie Seymour investigates the death of a Yale student found in the road after plunging from a high-rise apartment building balcony. The girl, she finds out, had a secret life as an escort. The story was “ripped from the headlines,” a real-life crime story in New Haven in which a prostitute was found dead in much the same way. But the story was not considered priority because of who she was. I kept thinking: But what if she were a Yalie? Would the story have disappeared so quickly?

A great question. You started your writing career as a journalist. Do you still write for a newspaper?
I left the newspaper business last summer after a more than 20-year career for various reasons. I now edit a medical journal at Yale part-time, which gives me a lot more time to spend on my fiction writing and with my family.

Your second book, Secondhand Smoke, also features your reporter protagonist, Annie Seymour. Do you foresee many books in this series?
There will be at least two more books in the Annie Seymour mystery series, because that’s what I have a contract for. Dead of the Day will be out in November from NAL/Obsidian and Shot Girl will be released in 2008. Both of those books will be released as paperback originals. I’d like to see the series continue after that, but it’s up to the publishing gods and the buying public (and not in that order) whether it will. Because I’m a realist, I’m writing each book like it could be the last one.

What are you writing now?

I’ve just finished Shot Girl and am tweaking it before I send it to my editor. I’m also playing around with an idea for a standalone that would be part traditional mystery, part noir, and part thriller.

On your website Sacred Cows is described as “Anthony Award Nominated,” but under the Secondhand Smoke page it says that Sacred Cows was “award winning.” Does this mean you won the Anthony, or was it a different award?
Can you tell I hate for any mystery not to be resolved?

Sacred Cows was nominated for a Gumshoe Award, not an Anthony. It did win the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award for Best Debut Mystery from Mysterious Press. Unfortunately, there’s no mystery here!

I guess the real mystery is why I don't read more carefully, Karen!

Who are some of your favorite writers in the mystery genre?

My favorite mystery writers vary from day to day, depending on what I’m reading at the moment. I’m always uncomfortable naming “favorites,” because there are so many! I do lean toward darker books.

You have some amazing reviews on your website, from writers and publications alike. Did you ever get a bad review?
What you see on my Web site are the reviews I’ve gotten. The only criticism I’ve received, and it’s mostly from readers, is that Annie likes certain four-letter words and uses them liberally. It’s the way journalists talk. None of it is gratuitous. After 20 years in a newsroom, I’m not making that up.

And there are plenty of other occupations where those words are prevalent.

You are a member of a group blog, or grog, with three other mystery writers, and it’s called “First Offenders.” Who came up with that fun title?

I’ve never heard the term “grog.” Anyway, we all came up with the name of the blog; it was pretty easy, since all of us were first-time authors at the time we decided to start it. We thought about becoming the Repeat Offenders after our second books came out, but it was too much trouble and we were already known as First Offenders.

Do you enjoy blogging? Have you met all of your fellow “offenders?”

Blogging is an interesting interaction with other writers and readers, and I like sharing the writing process and the occasional YouTube video. Alison Gaylin, Lori Armstrong, Jeff Shelby and I met at Bouchercon Chicago in 2005. We were on a panel for first-timers, and since we didn’t know many other people at the con, we hung out together all weekend. Jeff brought up the idea for the blog at about 2 a.m. on the last night in the bar. Since we’d had a few cocktails, it sounded like a great idea. And it was. About two weeks later, the blog was up and running. I consider Alison, Lori, and Jeff among my closest friends now, and even though we’re spread out all over the country, we’ve barely gone a few days without emailing each other since that first weekend we met.

The magic of the internet! On your website there’s a great picture of you standing in front of what seems to be a gorgeous brownstone. Do you live there?

That brownstone is actually where Annie lives in New Haven, in the city’s Wooster Square neighborhood, which is what visitors call our Little Italy.

You have a big appearance schedule on your website. Do you set up your own appearances, or do you have a publicist?
I have set up most of my own appearances, with some help from Susan Richman, my great publicist at Warner Books, which is now Grand Central Publishing. I’ve moved to NAL/Obsidian for the next two books and have yet to work with their publicist. But I expect it to be about the same as with Warner. Most authors have to do the brunt of their own promotion these days, whether published by a big house or not. I don’t mind, it’s part of the job, and it’s fun after spending months with characters in my head to get out and talk with actual real people, booksellers and librarians.

Since you are a pizza aficionado, I’ll ask this: assuming we could fly around on broomsticks like Harry Potter, and I happened to fly to your house, where would we go for pizza?
Sally’s Apizza on Wooster Street in New Haven, hands down. Thin crust, fabulous sauce.

Pardon my drool. How can readers find out more about Karen Olson?
Visit my Web site at www.kareneolson.com, which actually will be updated within the next month or so with my new author photos, links, and the inclusion of Dead of the Day. (It’s got a totally kick-ass cover that’s completely different from the others as a result of my move to NAL.) Readers can also visit the First Offenders blog.

Thanks again for talking with me, Karen.

Thanks so much for having me, Julia!

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Harry Potter Game

Part of the genius of JK Rowling is her creation of an imaginary world, and her selection of interesting names.

The boys and I thought it would be fun to make up our own Harry Potter-sounding names. Assuming Ms. Rowling were to ever write a book eight, she could select from some of these, which sound authentic to my ears. You be the judge.

Here are the ones we came up with:














What do you think? Do any of these work? Do you have a favorite? :)

Try the game--it's very fun.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Pain of Lost Things

Did you ever find a product that you really loved, that really worked for you, and then it was discontinued? My husband and I both have scents that were once our signature perfumes--his was a Crabtree and Evelyn Cologne that I bought him when we were married; mine was a Laura Ashley perfume that I simply loved. Both were aromatherapy of the highest order. Neither is now available, even on Ebay. I did find one tiny bottle of my husband's lost cologne somewhere in England--just a few ounces for two hundred and fifty dollars. Too much of an indulgence, I'm afraid, and yet I was tempted to claim that last bottle, as if it were the Holy Grail.

I'm not sure why lost things are so compelling, why I feel almost hurt by their unavailability. I suppose, as with a lot of things, that they are blended in with my nostalgia for times past. Jeff's cologne brings back images of our honeymoon; mine elicits memories of my early career.

They say that smell is the sense most connected to memory, and perhaps that's another reason why the loss of those aromas rankles.

Am I alone in this, or are there things you miss that you can no longer get?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Mystery of Change

On this day in 1978, The first baby conceived by in-vitro fertilization, Louise Brown, was born in Oldham, England. I still remember what a controversy this baby caused at the time (I was thirteen). People were somehow fearful that this would change the world, and not for the better.

Now Louise Brown (who also has a sister conceived by IVF) is a grown woman with a child of her own, and the world in general seems the same. Science, however, continues to expand its boundaries, and in vitro fertilization is no longer a shocking concept.

This raises an interesting question about change and the future. Louise was conceived almost thirty years ago; what will seem commonplace in another thirty years that is considered shocking today? Cloning? Robots? Choosing a baby's gender?

The only thing certain, as some famous person once said, is change. The mystery is why we fear it so much.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reading Can Save Your Life

According to this article in today's Science Daily, literacy has a direct link to health.

I had heard this before in a slightly different context, since I have a family member with Alzheimer's Disease, and we had read studies which indicated that complexity of thought (or, more specifically, a lack thereof) may be a factor in the onset of Alzheimer's.

What fine arguments, then, for a greater push to help those who are not fully literate.

Thank goodness for those special teachers who teach children not just to read, but to love reading.

And now back to my gigantic Harry Potter, in the hopes that it will keep me healthy. :)

Monday, July 23, 2007

New Interview

If you like interviews, you can check out my conversation with Marja McGraw at Poe's Deadly Daughters today.

Now back to reading Harry Potter!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lurking in Literature

Not much to say today--I am far too busy enjoying the creative mind of this lovely woman. I'm reading Harry Potter 7 to my sons, as I did the previous six, and the oral recitation makes it a bit more of a slow-going process, but BOY is it exciting! What a wonderful tale, and how sorry I will be when it's over.

Harry's not officially a mystery, I suppose, and yet I've rarely encountered such beautifully crafted suspense. We mystery writers can all take a lesson from JKR: those delightful little details help to build the suspense.

Okay, back to it!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ambler on the Genre

Eric Ambler once wrote, "The thriller is an extension of the fairy tale. It is melodrama so embellished as to create the illusion that the story being told, however unlikely, could be true."

Ambler should know--he was awarded MWA Grand Master in 1975 and an Officer, Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in 1981, and his books, which he began publishing in 1936, spanned nearly sixty years.

(This fairy tale image is the castle of "Mad" Ludwig of Bavaria, whose sanity has always been a controversial subject. He is known not only as a king, but as a contributor to art and architecture, and Neuschwanstein is one of his most famous creations. Image: http://www.med.unc.edu/~hsiao/fairy.jpg)

Friday, July 20, 2007

My Crazy Writing Week

No, it wasn't just strange because kittens took over my in-box and made things hectic in the office.

My writing group was meeting soon, and it was my work they were planning to discuss. I realized suddenly that I needed to get copies of the manuscripts in question to their houses so that they'd have time to read them before our meeting.

When I tried to print the copies, however, my printer simply died. If it had possessed a tongue, it would have unfurled it in a last panting gasp, the way the horses do in westerns when they fall onto their sides and expire. Panicked, I ran out to Office Max and picked the cheapest printer they had; I brought it home and realized it had to be installed with a different cable than the one which had breathed life into the old printer. Of course. A trip to Radio Shack was in order.

When I got back,my husband kindly dealt with the installation software. Meanwhile I worried that the writers would grumble; when I finally sat down in front of the sleek new printer, I realized that--I kid you not--I was out of paper. I had only some really neon stuff and some Christmas stationary. So I printed out the chapters needed on neon pink, neon yellow, and Christmas tree. One lucky writer ended up with a page of manuscript printed on a big piece of cardboard that had been at the end of the Christmas paper pack. It had miraculously gone through the printer and been delivered with all of the other mismatched paper.

But wait, there's more. I had two different stories for them to read. My sons are my delivery boys, so we drove from house to house, and I said, "One of each to each address."

This worked fine at Elizabeth's house; my elder son marched the papers up to the door and slid them through her mailbox. At the next house my smaller son made the delivery. At the third house I said, "Okay, who's going in now?"

We all looked at each other blankly. The boys looked at their hands and at the seat between them. No manuscripts were left.

It turned out that Graham had delivered all of the remaining copies to the second house on our list; later we found that Ian had delivered the first ones to the wrong house, and the neighbor of Elizabeth had to approach her and say, "Are you in some kind of writing group?"

This unknown woman had been shocked to find odd Christmas-tree manuscripts in her box, especially because one was titled "Hate."

I'd like to say that normally my life is far better organized than this, and in many ways it is. But I also have to admit that goofy things like this just tend to happen to me.

The good news is that last night when the group finally met, they gave me high marks for the quality of the writing, despite its odd presentation.

But thank God next month it will be someone else's turn . . . .

Feline Reversal

The kitty in the picture below there is suddenly very ill. The vet thinks it's a reaction to the inoculations they both received today. He has to be in the animal emergency all night so they can monitor his symptoms. He only weighs three pounds, so this is more of a danger, I suppose, than in a full-grown cat.

Meanwhile I'll be chomping TUMS and worrying over his health (and my husband will be worrying over our pocketbook).

Sigh. Gilda Radner was right: it's always something.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Jon and Ruth Jordan Discuss How They Met, Why They Like Mysteries, and When They Created Crimespree Magazine

Jon and Ruth, thanks for talking with me.

You two met at Bouchercon in 1999. How did you meet? Were you attending the same panel?

Ruth: Panel? We were partying. Al Collins band: I ducked out at the same time as Jon and Ian Rankin and Sir Ian made the intros, brief and somewhat hazy. We spent the night being delighted fans and sharing conversation and booze with Ian, Val McDermid, Charles Todd. I still remember Gerry Ford spitting scotch out of his nose when I mentioned I had to leave before the banquet because I had a power lifting event the next day. Jon promised to e-mail the winners to me the next day and I didn’t hear from him for a month. Val, Charles and Ian all e-mailed right away . . . the die was tossed.

Jon: When we started emailing on a regular basis it became clear really quickly that we had a lot in common; aside from reading tastes, we also like a lot of the same music, television and movies, even [have] similar tastes in decorating, though I lean towards more is more and Ruth is a less is more person.

Was Crimespree born of that meeting, or does it pre-date your acquaintance?

Ruth: Crimespree came later. The Vegas B-Con. Jon’s book Interrogations was out. There was a group of us who’d been doing on-line reviews & articles without much control. Most of the people at that first meeting were friends from a former incarnation of RAM. Everyone was on board, although already becoming busy. We thought if we went print with our “on-line” state of mind, it would be something new and not just a retread of things that were already being done so well by so many others. Mary, Jeremy, Ali, Simon Kernick. I marvel at the folks who do both the print and internet magazines. The blend of people at that first meeting made for a strong beginning.

Jon: We had been toying with thoughts of our own website. We figured with the sheer volume, even before blogs, we’d get lost on the web. A print magazine seemed like a good answer. Plus I love magazines, the feel of them, the portability and the look.

From reading your blog, I get the sense that when you aren’t writing about mysteries or producing a magazine about mysteries, you’re talking about mysteries (or reading them). Is this a fair assessment?

Ruth: No, not at all, we have day jobs; we never let the magazine interfere with those . . . right, honey? And we like to entertain. Oops, I’m thinking of whom most of our parties are geared for. I .. well . . . I went to a shower a couple of weeks ago and the first question I was asked was, “Have you met Nora Roberts yet?” (answer, yes). Mystery is what we do, but I like to think there’s more.

Jon: It does seem more and more that our world is influenced by the mystery community. A lot of our friends are a part of it, and older friends are now readers also. We do like to do other things, though. It is cool that my family lets me take a break at work when I need to do things for the magazine. One minute I’m welding a punch press frame and then I’m on the phone to an author in the UK--kind of surreal at times.
Ruth, you’re hosting the Alaska Bouchercon. What fun things are in store for people who trek to Anchorage?

Ruth: Actually I’m hosting Baltimore in 2008 (Charmedtodeath.com).

Oops, sorry. I am misinformed.

Ruth: In Baltimore we intend to have beaucoup the fun as well as intrigue and a bit of madness. Alaska will be a blast. People still talk about their Left Coast Crime. I think the distance and time commitments will make it an intimate Bouchercon. But they’ll have everything on the off and be fabulous hosts. I’m thrilled to be going.

Jon: When Ruth said she wanted to host a Bouchercon I thought she was drunk. However, she had not been drinking. After a psychiatrist declared her sane, I listened to her reasons and decided that she really is doing this as a thank you to all the previous conventions and to all the fans and authors who make up the community.

However, if it all goes to Hell, we’re blaming Ruth’s Aunt Marie for talking her into it.

Sounds fair. Crimespree is a great magazine; how do you do it month after month with a relatively small staff?

Ruth: Four words. The mystery community’s support. I can count on one hand the times we’ve gone to somebody with an idea and they’ve had to say no. Plus our regular contributors. Everything they come up with makes us seem like geniuses. We try to keep getting better because they do. And damn it, if the other prints are willing to keep slaving, so are we--we are, after all, the babies.

Jon: Part of what makes it work is delegating time. It’s still a learning process and we’ve gotten much better about it. Had I known how much is involved, I might not have wanted to do it. But we have layout down to a science now and can do it much quicker. Also having loud music helps.

What’s the best part of doing what you do?

Ruth: Seeing a favorite author in print. And the friendships . . . remarkable how people with the same passion open their hearts to one another.

Jon: I love seeing friends become successful. It thrills me that a guy named Joe who told us he had a book coming out is touring for the fourth and his first paperback is in a third printing. I really really love it when people thank us for recommending books. Helping people to discover the books we love is really great.

I don’t get the sense that you have much free time. When you do, how do you like to fill it?

Ruth: Laundry and vacuuming. Really, my first wedding gift was a vacuum. We see a lot of live music--Honey, did I tell you Alice Cooper tickets go on sale Saturday?

Jon: I read comics, watch movies and television on DVD,and we try to hang out with friends as much as we can.

The covers of Crimespree are always very cool. Who designs them?

Ruth: Mary Reagan did the cover for our latest issue, but Jon is the man when it comes to our covers. I’m very proud of my husband; they get better and better.
Jon: From the beginning we wanted to avoid using pictures that people have already seen. Mark Billingham didn’t even flinch when I asked him for photos of him leaning on things. I inserted him into his own books like a bookend. So now each issue I try to out do myself. I really like the Vicki Hendricks skydiving cover. The cartoon Michael Connelly and Kent Krueger was also very fun; Jim Barker did a great job on the art.

You won the Anthony Award for Best Magazine at Bouchercon 2006. That’s got to feel good after slaving over a magazine all year?

Ruth: I felt like Veronica Mars at her high school graduation--only Kent Krueger and Jim Huang were my principal, how cool is that?

Jon: I was so nervous; I was sure we wouldn’t be the ones to win. The coolest part was how happy everyone was for us. Joe Konrath picked Ruth of the ground and twirled her. I couldn’t stop smiling for a week.

Every one of your issues is packed with diverse and interesting material. How do you go about choosing your content?

Ruth: Sometimes you choose the content and sometimes it chooses you. You get a great article and you want it to stand out. Or you’re at a mystery event and you realize, “ From this our issue will come.”

Jon: Some issues kind of fall into place in a funny way; we’ve had some with a lot of interviews, and some with just one. What we really want is things that everyone will enjoy reading, no matter what their taste in fiction is.

It seems you’ve met almost everyone in the mystery world. Was there a meeting that just blew you away? Someone you’d always wanted to encounter but never thought you would?

Ruth: the internet is not big enough for my list, but Crumley, wow. And I met Pronzini and Mueller at the end of a long convention and was speechless, literally said something like, “I love your work I’m so sorry I can’t do more right now.” They both laughed. Ed Gorman. Bill Deeck was the best. And of course the Todds, Rankin, and McDermid, who encouraged our codependency almost from the start… The best thing about Crimespree is we get to have moments, unbelievable moments, all the time. With authors, yes, but with fellow fans, no matter what their background. It validates our craziness and makes it so worthwhile.

Jon: You would think that after a while it would become old hat. Not true. Every convention I still have a t least one fan boy moment. In Toronto it was meeting Michael Slade, in June it was meeting William Link.

What are you reading now?

Ruth:I’m reading the new (Oct.)Archor Mayor, CHAT. I grew up in Vermont & never miss a book. I just finished HEAD GAMES by Craig McDonald and SECOND SHOT by Zoë Sharp. I can recommend them both.

Jon: I just re-read THE WATCHMEN by Alan Moore--pure genius. I also just read Tom Shreck ON THE ROPES, a great debut novel. I’m in the middle of Mark Billingham’s DEATH MESSAGE and Mike Carey’s THE DEVIL YOU KNOW.

Is there any reality about publishing a magazine that might surprise the average person?

Ruth: Deadlines suck.

Jon: There are a lot of phone calls involved; I had no idea how much time I would spend on the phone.

What do the Jordans have planned for the coming year?

Ruth: Six more issues of Crimespree, a couple of conventions, our annual mystery event with the Muskego Public Library and all Bouchercon, all the time! Love really is an endless mystery--or in our case, perhaps mystery is an endless love.

Jon: We’re also working on a Crimespree Cookbook, and I really hope to find time to do a second book of author interviews. I would like to learn how to nap.

How can people find out more about, or subscribe to, Crimespree?
We’re also at:

Jon and Ruth, thanks again for chatting.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Mystery of Intentional Ignorance

I just watched An Inconvenient Truth; I know, I'm a bit behind the times. Mr. Gore both impressed and convinced me, but of course it isn't only his data that he's presenting in the movie; he compiled it with the help of scores of scientists worldwide.

This isn't a political blog, but it is a literary one. The movie struck me in its implicit commentary about humanity--commentary that was both positive and negative. Certainly, Gore tells his viewers at the end of the movie, there is hope. We may have created the problem, but we can fix it.

I was reminded of this wonderful poem by John Hall Wheelock, which seems a bit more prescient with each passing year:


by John Hall Wheelock

"A planet doesn't explode of itself," said drily
The Martian astronomer, gazing off into the air--
"That they were able to do it is proof that highly
Intelligent beings must have been living there."

(image: NASA "Images for the Classroom")

Rose and Mr. Mulliner

Okay, here's a better photo of the two new Buckley kittens. They are great companions, and so far they are unusually polite for tiny felines. My older dog and cat were initially disdainful, but even they are being won over by the inevitable cuteness of the new kits.

I'm wondering if sooner or later they'll nudge their way into something that I'm writing. Generally I write kitten-less fiction, but I guess there's a first time for everything. They say write what you know, and I'm coming to know some adorable things about small felines. :) In addition, they're both quite smitten with the computer desk and the glowing monitor. Here is photo evidence:
Anyway. I'll continue monitoring their behavior for a while, and then I'll post something that ISN'T about kittens. :)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Celebrate with Cats

The kitten my son wanted for his birthday somehow turned into two kittens; here is one of them, whose name is Mr. Mulliner. He's just a nine week ball of fluff right now, but he's already become quite bossy, considering he's smaller than the average shoe. More on these fellows later!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

What Does Your Personality Test Reveal?

I took the "three question personality test" and have been told that I am "rational." Well I should hope so. :) Try the link at the bottom to take it yourself.

Rational (NT)

The Three Question Personality Test

Thursday, July 12, 2007

How's This for a Mysterious Setting?

Talk about a great setting for a mystery! We recently visited the Graue Mill in Oakbrook, Illinois--a historic waterwheel grist mill and museum. My historical mystery writing friends would love this place; it's thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and there is a museum in the basement which is a tribute to the abolitionist movement. We got to see demonstrations of how flax and sheep's wool are spun into yarn (with old-fashioned spinning wheels); how yarn is woven on a loom; and how corn and other grist is made into meal.
The mill is located on Salt Creek in this idyllic setting; we were able to observe both the giant waterwheel and the water rushing over a nearby dam. But here's the potentially sinister part:
These ducks apparently thought that we had bread crumbs. They came boldly up to us, a gleam in their beady eyes. As luck would have it, we had brought a picnic, and a certain youngest son never finishes his food. However, the moment a crumb was produced, this happened:
Accomplices came marching over the hill in alarming numbers! I always knew those ducks worked in gangs. They chased the boys around a little after the crumbs were gone, but no actual crime was committed. THIS TIME.
Anyway, back to the mill. It was a lovely day: only in the seventies, which is where it should be, and feasts for the eyes wherever one looked. The mill itself would be worth the journey even if one never went inside. It's a noble old building, full of history, and a real pleasure to see.

But what about the mill as a setting for a crime? Any ideas? After Suzanne Adair's ghost story, I was looking over my shoulder during our whole visit, and Graham was sure he would fall through the creaky old floors, which he figured, after nearly 200 years, were just about ready to break. So perhaps we all felt it, that potential for mystery in this setting.

More later . . .

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Suzanne Adair on Revolutionary Times, Courageous Women, and Victorian Ghosts

Hi, Suzanne! Thanks for chatting with me.
Thanks for interviewing me on your blog, Julia.

Your first novel, Paper Woman, is a historical mystery. This is a very popular genre. Why did you choose it?
I sorta fell into it. I enjoy reading suspense and mysteries, and I've always been interested in the Revolutionary War. Unable to find much historical fiction set during the Southern theater of the war, I wrote to fill that gap. While I swashbuckled away on the first draft, it became obvious to me that murderers, spies, narcissists, schizophrenics, and sociopaths went with the territory of rebels and redcoats. What fun!

That does sound pretty fun. The novel’s premise is that in 1780, “as the American Revolution batters the Carolinas, thirty-three-year-old widow Sophie Barton leaves her home in Georgia to investigate her father's murder and plunges into a hornet's nest of espionage, terror, treachery, and more murder.” That sounds exciting! Is Sophie Barton an ancestor of Clara Barton?
Sophie is not related to Clara Barton at all. She's a fictitious character who's a blend of women I read about from the Revolutionary War. These ordinary women, faced with extreme circumstances, demonstrated the ability to react appropriately in the presence of fear. In other words, they were courageous.

What makes the 1700s an interesting era to you?

Several things. By the latter half of the 1700s, many people questioned the ability of religious institutions and governments to provide adequately for humankind. That sparked scientific, political, sociological, and philosophical debate and the genesis of reform. Also, cultures throughout history have placed varying levels of restraint upon women's behavior. In British North America during the late 18th century, many of those strictures relaxed due to a number of influences, allowing women more freedom than what they had in the adjacent centuries. I find all that fascinating, a seminal setting for a series.

Most history-lovers I know are fascinated by the people of the past, and often, therefore, ghosts. Do you believe in ghosts?
Gotta admit that I was skeptical about ghosts until I stayed at Kinard House, a lovely Victorian-era B&B on West Main Street in Ninety Six, South Carolina. The owner, Karen Breasbois, never hinted of the presence of a ghost during my first two visits. Perhaps she didn't wish to scare off her clientele. I encountered the spectral Henry Kinard, a former owner of the house, during my third visit, and fortunately he was a pleasant host. The details of my experience tallied with the personal experiences of Karen and her family members, so I'm no longer a Doubting Thomas where ghosts are concerned.

Wow--that freaks me out a little bit. :)

You grew up in Florida, but now live in North Carolina. How do these places compare?

There are the obvious comparisons of seasons and terrain. Anyone who has spent time in South Florida, where I was born and raised, might joke that it has two seasons: hot and not-so-hot. In contrast, North Carolina offers four distinct seasons. Florida ranges from flatlands to low hills; North Carolina ranges from flatlands to mountains. Culturally, the farther south you go in Florida, the more Northern it gets — hence my Yankee accent. But you won't find a New York Minute anywhere in North Carolina.

Interesting distinctions! You lived in England for a time. Did you do some historical research there? Were there interesting historical sites in the area where you lived?
I lived in Norwich, England before I began writing any historical fiction related to the British Isles. While I didn't do any conscious research there, I absorbed the culture during my day-to-day activities. In other words, I was living life in another country and adding tremendously to my repository of experience. Although there were some castles and old churches nearby, what interested me more were the ancient roots of British culture. I purchased a copy of Jacquetta Hawkes's A Guide to the Prehistoric and Roman Monuments in England and Wales and traveled all over England and Wales ogling megalithic tombs, Roman forts and roads, stone circles, menhirs, and barrows. Learned a lot about ancient ceremonies such as fertility rites and solstice celebrations. It's the kind of stuff that leaves a very big imprint.

It does sound fascinating. What sorts of things have you done to promote Paper Woman?
From Florida to New York, I've done booksignings, panel presentations, workshops, and solo presentations at bookstores, libraries, reenactment events, meetings of target market groups, and conferences. About half of my author appearances are in authentic 18th-century clothing. My family members, also in period clothing, come with me on occasion. I've discovered that a bayonet fixed on the business end of a musket is quite a conversation piece, especially when brandished by a redcoat.

I've done interviews and been featured and reviewed online and in print at the regional and national level. I'm a member of organizations such as Sisters in Crime and participate in discussion lists. I discuss writing and report on author appearances on my blog, where I'll soon add reviews of historical fiction and non-fiction and interviews with subject matter experts.

And I take part in contests and promotions in which my books are donated for prizes or to financially help an organization. The Carolina Conspiracy, of which I'm a member, raffled off a gift basket of members' books at Malice Domestic earlier this year, a copy of Paper Woman among the books in the basket. I'm also working with two other women authors of Revolutionary War fiction to organize a gift basket for the annual reenactment at Historic Camden the first weekend of November. Proceeds from the raffle will be donated to Historic Camden. In addition to copies of authors' books, the basket will contain homemade donated items with a Revolutionary War theme, such as pottery, jelly, candy, fabric, candles, and soap.

On your website, it says this: “About one weekend a month, I drive to a remote site in the Southeast United States, don a petticoat and mobcap, live out of a canvas army tent of 18th-century design, cook meals over an open fire, forgo showers, and brave the elements. All weekend long, I have the gracious company of several hundred other reenactors, many who drive in excess of six hours one-way to step back in time and portray 18th-century soldiers and civilians, merchants and Indians, gentry, artisans, and musicians.”

What compels you to be a reenactor? Do you feel it’s the next best thing to traveling in time?

Early into my research of Paper Woman, I recognized that no matter how many books I read on the 18th century or how many subject matter experts I interviewed, my 21st-century perspective hampered me from capturing the full flavor of the 18th century in my prose. I wanted to experience the conditions under which people 225 years ago lived. How did their clothing feel, especially in adverse weather? How did they move in their clothing? What did a fired musket sound and feel like? How did people load and fire muskets? What did they eat? How did food taste? What did army camps look, sound, and smell like? What was involved in starting a fire from flint and steel? There's a huge difference between reading about it and doing it.

Since we cannot travel back in time to experience all of that accurately, a good compromise is reenacting. During a weekend event, most reenactors dispense with the technology of the 21st century to more accurately portray their 18th-century counterparts. Gives you quite a sense of appreciation for refrigerators, air conditioners (or heaters), showers, and even ballpoint pens.

So reenacting provides me with sensory experience to better portray the 18th century in my writing. Plus it's fun for the family. Entire families are a common sight among reenactors. Both my sons have grown up as reenactors. The weekend events provide them with hands-on history lessons and make the Revolutionary War come alive for them: an unforeseen benefit, because history as taught in public school can be very dry and boring. When my older son first marched on the battlefield with our unit and spotted the opposing army across the field, he got butterflies in his stomach — not out of delight, but out of fear. Of course reenactors don't use live ammunition, but that battlefield moment gave him a good idea of the jitters that soldiers felt back then. You cannot get that from a book.

If you could travel in time, Suzanne, where (and when) would you go?
Plenty of places, as long as I could scram when I felt like it. The Big Bang, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event c. 65.5 million years ago, or Pompeii 79 A.D., for example. :-) Also Palestine 7000 B.C.; Sumer or Crete 3000 B.C.; China 2600 B.C.; Chichen Itza 1100 A.D.; Cuba 1350 A.D.; the Creek Confederacy 1650 A.D.; multiple locations during the American War of Independence; France 1880 A.D.

It's really very fun to contemplate, isn't it?

What are you writing now?

I'm editing the second draft of book three in my series, Camp Follower, due out September 2008, and I'm researching background for book four.

Do you read historical mysteries? If so, which ones are the best?
Historical mystery series that I've enjoyed include those by Ashley Gardner (Gabriel Lacey), Rhys Bowen (Molly Murphy), and Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael). Lately I've had time to sample only the first volume of a number of new historical mysteries. Those I found particularly engaging include Thirteenth Night (Alan Gordon) and Silver Lies (Ann Parker). For me, good historical mysteries don't load the pages with historical detail — in other words, they feed detail in as it's needed — and have a riveting plot and compelling characters.

Those sound great! I interviewed Ann Parker here a while back, and like you, she gave some terrific responses!

Do you have a new book coming out?

Yes. The second book in my series, The Blacksmith's Daughter, will be released in September 2007.

How can readers find out more about you and your mysteries?

Please visit my web site or blog (www.suzanneadair.typepad.com).

Thanks for chatting with me, Suzanne!
You're welcome, and again, I appreciate this opportunity, Julia.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Gauging My Lexical Budget

A recent study of the conversational habits of men and women (my source here is Science Daily), suggests that women have been maligned in the past by researchers who purported that they, women, talk significantly more than men.
The new research, done over several years and tracking some 400 college students, asserts that men and women are nearly equal in their amount of chatter. I quote the article, which references the scientist leading the study:

"Mehl confessed to a concern about the homogeneity of the sample - only college students - but said that the study showed no support for the idea that women have larger lexical budgets than men, any more than it did that gender differences in daily word use have a basis in evolution."

Hmmm. I'd never given much thought to my lexical budget, but this certainly is food for thought, and addresses one aspect of a boundless mystery--the distinctions between genders.

I'm sure we can all name taciturn women and loquacious men, but this study gives some validity to the notion that we cannot make assumptions based on gender stereotypes. The mysteries of gender, I'd like to think, are more complex and meaningful.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Why I Got Booted From the Superhero Club

We went to see Transformers today: my husband, my two boys, and me. Normally this would be a testosterone-only sort of event, but Mom had no other plans, and frankly I thought the movie looked fun. It was. I really enjoyed it, which must have won me some points with the guys.

However, on the way home things took a surprising turn. We were chatting about the Transformers and how indestructible they were. My son Ian asked, "What if the Terminator had to fight a Transformer?"

"Oh, the Transformer would win," I said. The men nodded their agreement. This was a given. We had all seen, hadn't we, how the Transformers could take on the U.S. Military and make it look like a bunch of boys with toy guns.

Then we said the same thing about the Transformers versus various powerful icons. My husband then posed a philosophical problem. "What I'm wondering," he said thoughtfully, "is how the Transformers would fare in a battle with the Hulk."

I laughed, remembering the might of the Transformer named Optimus Prime. "Well, duh. The Transformer would win," I said.

There was an eerie silence as three disillusioned males looked at me. My estrogen was showing. "Are you crazy?" asked my spouse.

I stuttered. "Well--uh--I mean--the Hulk isn't made of metal or anything. The Transformers are ten times his size and they have all those guns and knives and things."

My son shook his head. "Mom, you just don't understand the Hulk. I mean, anything the Transformers did would just make him angrier." The men all muttered their approval of this argument.

"But he has no weapons, and anger can inhibit judgment," I offered.

They shook their heads some more. They were exchanging "do you believe this?" looks among themselves. Finally my husband summed it up for the boys. "Mom would have to know more about the Hulk to make this decision, guys."

And with that final assessment, I knew I was out of the club. Sure, I could pretend to have opinions now and then, but my superhero knowledge has become suspect, and I have made the grave error of underestimating The Incredible Hulk, which simply isn't done in Superhero Circles. So I've learned my lesson.

Meanwhile, I'll be hunting for a club with less stringent membership rules.

Looking for a Little Summer Fun

Summer is speeding right along and I am searching for ways to make it memorable for my boys. We've seen a few of the blockbuster movies (Ratatouillie was wonderful!) but of course I want to do more than that. I would love to take them traveling, but budgeting and scheduling don't permit much of that. Today we're going to tour the only running water mill in the U.S. That sounds interesting, but . . . .

If anyone has a good summer fun suggestion, be sure to let me know. We've got nothing but time for a few weeks, and then suddenly we'll have no time at all. Ah, summer. Thank goodness for it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Fourth

A happy Fourth of July to all!

Here's my annual reflection:

"You see, my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing; it is the thing to watch over and care for and be loyal to; institutions extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags--that is a loyalty of unreason ...."

--Mark Twain

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

How Boys Think

 I got a new ottoman which allows storage of little things like remote controls, books, etc. I thought it would be a space saver. I came into the room today to find my son using it like this. The lid has not remained on the thing since we got it. Boys cannot bear to know that things open and then not open them.
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The Jekyll and Hyde in Us All

My sons recently watched and enjoyed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a flight of fancy in which several famous fictional characters team up to fight fictional evil. The group includes Dr. Jekyll, Tom Sawyer, Dorian Gray, The Invisible Man, Alan Quartermaine (not the one from General Hospital) and a woman vampire whose name I have forgotten. I was not able to suspend my disbelief, but the boys loved it, especially the character of Hyde, who, subject to modern special effects, is quite huge, like a pro wrestler who has eaten several other pro wrestlers.

I decided that I needed to read them Robert Louis Stevenson's original novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although I fear that its more subtle horror will leave them disappointed. This is a book oft interpreted, but the interpretations are rarely true to the spirit of the story.

For me, the horror is in the metaphor that we all have the potential to be Hyde; that it doesn't require a potion, sometimes, for us to go mad, to lose control, to shock others with our altered personalities. And yet, like Jekyll, we must take responsibility for those altered states.

And while I'm on the subject of altered states, I must mention that today is the birthday of the great Franz Kafka, who famously wrote of Gregor Samsa and his Metamorphosis into a cockroach. (You can download the e-book for free).

Given the choice between the existential horror and the real horror, I think I would rather be Hyde. :)

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Mystery of Age

I painted my garage this weekend. It took about four hours on Saturday and another two on Sunday. I figured I could knock it out in a weekend no problem, and I had a tiny bit of help from my husband and children, the former of whom had to work on Saturday.

What was unexpected was how much work it was, how much squatting and lifting of heavy paint cans I had to do, and how SORE I am today. Not just sore in the arms or legs--I'm sore EVERYWHERE. I am walking like Frankenstein and saying "Ow, ow, ow," with every footfall.

I can't help but feel that if I were twenty it wouldn't have been so bad. Am I fooling myself? True, I haven't painted a garage in years (and I still have plans to paint my house, a thought which horrifies me now), but I thought it should feel easier than this, less dramatic and uber painful than it does.

Still, I assume the muscle cramps will fade, and when they do I will have my newly minted garage, painted in storybook colors and looking crisp and clean.

But I am concerned about the muscles . . . I'm wondering if an all day warm bath is out of the question?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Happy Birthday to the Great Jean Marsh

I just loved the show Upstairs, Downstairs. Richard Marson, in his book about the show, called it "one of the most famous television series ever made." It was created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins; Marsh also had a starring role as Rose Buck, one of the maids in the Bellamy household who was relegated to "downstairs." The Bellamys were a wealthy English family around the turn of the century.

The division between the "upstairs" elite and the "downstairs" servants was where the show derived its wonderful tension--from the notion that two classes could be divided in one household in such a regimented and traditional way. It was notable that the downstairs people, despite their frugal way of life and their lack of future possibilites, were generally happier than the upstairs people, which I suppose was meant to be an irony of the show.

Rose in particular was a wonderful character, and Jean Marsh invested her with quiet dignity. She was a role model for the younger, lowlier maids, and she had great admiration for the house butler, Mr. Hudson, who was a sort of father figure to all of the downstairs people. Mr. Hudson was strict, moral, judgmental, and entirely class conscious, as was Mrs. Bridges, the cook.

If you haven't seen Upstairs, Downstairs, I highly recommend that you check it out; there are box sets available and I'm sure it can be ordered on Netflix. Once you start, you won't want to stop.

I know that Jean Marsh has played other memorable roles, but I will always think of her as Rose, the plucky maid in the Bellamy household who won our hearts with both her vulnerability and her strength.