Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts

21 September 2020

TV Series I Don't Get Tired Of


Like favorite books, there are some tv series that I can watch over and over for the pleasure of hearing the familiar stories retold and revisiting beloved characters. Some of them are crime shows, all are genre fiction and its TV equivalent. Most of my favorite genres and subgenres in reading and viewing overlap.

British police procedurals
Books, a few author examples out of many: Reginald Hill, Deborah Crombie, Jane Casey
TV favorites: Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis

American political drama
Books: American political novels tend to be thrillers, not my favorite genre, but I do love character-driven traditional mysteries that explore social issues and may have a law enforcement or related protagonist, such as a judge, journalist, clergyperson, or social service worker.
Author examples: Margaret Maron, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Nevada Barr, and Dana Stabenow fall into this category
TV favorites: The West Wing, Madam Secretary

Historical and cross-genre with crime and fantasy fiction
Books, author examples: Diana Gabaldon, Laurie King, Jane Austen, Dorothy Dunnette
TV favorite: Outlander

Science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and cross-genre with crime fiction
Books, author examples: Charlaine Harris, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, Naomi Novik
TV favorite: Star Trek Voyager

And what do I write myself? The same or similar categories, for the most part.

Character-driven traditional mysteries that touch on social issues (the Bruce Kohler Mysteries)
Historical literary, mystery, and crime fiction (the Mendoza Family Saga)
Urban fantasy with crime fiction (the Emerald Love series)
And a variety of all of those, including a few police procedurals, in my standalone short stories.
I also read, write, and watch some suspense, which probably covers whatever doesn't fit elsewhere. It's limited by the fact, quite awkward in a crime writer, that I don't like being scared.

What do I like about the TV shows I've mentioned? And what do I learn that helps me as a writer?

Inspector Morse
My appreciation of John Thaw as Morse and the way the TV show tells the stories are untainted by knowledge of the books, which I've never read. As a reader and thus as a writer, I demand at least one endearing character. In Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis we have two, both fully developed and engaged in a relationship that grows and changes over time. They complement each other as detectives and as personalities, both kindred spirits and polar opposites. We don't need violence or extreme language to become and remain absorbed in the action. The sparkling dialogue, the vivid minor characters, the use of setting as character, the twists and turns of each plot—this is how it's done.

I'm not usually tolerant of fictional chronic alcoholics who don't get sober—and come to appreciate sobriety, like my Bruce Kohler. Inspector Morse is the exception. Why do I give him a free pass? I suppose it's a testament to his charm, his intellect, and what I call in Bruce an "ill-concealed heart of gold." In Morse's case, he always falls unerringly for the wrong woman, and it's a much more endearing flaw than if his mistakes were a result of his drinking.

The other outstanding aspect of the series is the all-encompassing presence of Oxford as a character. On TV, much of the impact is visual, and its impressive architectural beauty is brilliantly photographed. But it's far more than that. The crimes are Oxford crimes. They involve intellect; the sense of entitlement, tradition, and hierarchy; and the peculiar insularity of the university as well as the rivalry and mistrust between town and gown. All this makes for a multilayered episode every time.

Inspector Lewis I've come to like the Lewis series, starring Kevin Whately, even better than Morse. Inspector Lewis is an engaging character whose defining characteristic is not a flaw but what Louise Penny would call his goodness. Like his former mentor Moss, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he reserves his rare moment of irascibility for hidebound colleagues and the occasional arrogant aristocrat.

Lewis's sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, is the perfect foil. He's a Cambridge man and an ex-seminarian, ie the brainy one. Lewis's apprenticeship with Morse has left him with enough knowledge of Wagner, Latin, and bits of poetry to keep up. They're both terrific detectives who drive their boss, Superintendent Innocent, crazy with their irreverence toward Oxford and its shibboleths and gods. She accuses them of "chippy copper antics" at one point when they've been rocking the boat of some socially prominent crooks. Their delicious dialogue as they work a case is a model of clever buddy banter. Watching again recently, I wasn't sure if I heard Innocent call them a "dynamic duo" or "demonic duo."

And Oxford is still an essential and fascinating character. Far more than mere scenery or dreaming-spires ambiance, it has unique mores and a varied population that lends itself to crimes that could only happen in Oxford. I'd like to think my New York in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries has a hint of that quality.

It's hard to talk about The West Wing or Madam Secretary without getting political, since they're both fictional demonstrations of how to govern the United States with intelligence and integrity in an increasingly challenging global environment—and what a very complicated job it is. But the lesson for the storyteller's art, I think, is how brilliantly each of these shows deals with huge themes while engaging the viewer with the emotional life and dilemmas of very real individual people.

These shows are also great examples of "show, don't tell" intelligent characters. They absorb and share on demand vast quantities of crucial information on science, politics, economics, world cultures, and a host of other topics. They think on their feet to maintain collaborative strategies with colleagues, political opponents, and foreign ambassadors and heads of state; and to keep adversarial situations from getting out of hand, since "out of hand" could mean anything from a single death to World War III. And they don't do it by having the protagonist shoot the bad guy in the gun hand. Or via insipid dialogue and telling the viewer the characters all went to Harvard. They do it by being a very, very smart team created by a very smart writer.

Outlander is in a class of its own as a historical series that's true to the series of books it's based on while condensing the complicated story lines for relative brevity, clarity, and drama. It's also a case of perfect casting (Sam Heughan as Jamie and Catriona Balfe as Claire), especially impressive because Jamie Fraser is one of those characters about whom many, many readers have fantasies.
I don't think a writer can apply craft to produce that kind of memorability in a character, at least not to guarantee it. When I first read Outlander, the first book in the series, I was swept away to the 18th century and didn't come back till six hundred pages later. The TV show provides a similar immersion in the historical time in which it takes place. To say, "It's a time travel romance" is so misleading, because a book or TV series so described could so easily be shallow, cheesy, anachronistic in all its elements—the romance, the time travel, and the history. Outlander sets a tremendously high standard, and I think that's what it has to teach the writer. Do your research. Love your characters. Take your time. And keep it moving.

Star Trek Voyager is "my" Star Trek, the one with the woman captain—Kate Mulgrew as the redoubtable Captain Janeway—and I watch it not for the proto-iPads and phony science but for the people and their relationships. Talk about a locked room! a handful of people on a starship thrust suddenly into the Delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home. The lesson for me is that if you're most interested in the people, it doesn't matter what the backdrop is; you can always weave it in and make it serve the story. And remember that the story is always about people (of whatever species, not just about technology, however important a role technology plays.) Since I read much more urban fantasy than science fiction and don't write true SF at all, I'd have liked to include a Charlaine Harris screen adaptation on this list. I enjoyed True Blood, especially the first few seasons. But I'm unlikely to watch it all the way through again. Like the science in Star Trek, the gore and biting are incidental to the personalities and relationships of the humans, vampires, and shapeshifters, ie the people, for me. My very favorite Harris books, the Harper Connelly series, haven't made it to the screen. Harper's the one who can find the dead and tell you how they died. I haven't gotten tired of rereading those yet.

24 August 2020

The Joys of Writing Alone


Some writers do their best work on their laptops in busy coffee shops. You can see them keyboarding away, latte, chai, or simple tea or coffee forgotten at their elbow as they take dictation from those voices in their heads that we all love to hear.

I am not one of them. I need silence and better than silence. I need solitude, and the more absolute the solitude is, the more easily I write.

I know I’m lucky in that I have ample access to privacy for writing. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own,” but in some ways it’s even better. It’s been twenty years since my last day job, and my other career is online and intermittent in nature. My husband still goes off to work every weekday, or did till the pandemic. And when he’s home, he’s usually at the computer in his room of his own with his headphones on. The rest of the apartment is mine.

In the summer months, I have the country house. The whole house, because my husband hates the country. It’s a tiny house, eight hundred square feet total. But it’s all mine.

As for children, that perennial drain on women’s writing time especially, my little boy is fifty with a family of his own. So when other women writers yearn for writing retreats and time alone, rejoice in a week or even a weekend away from the everyday lives that make writing such a challenge, I know how lucky I am.

Am I complaining anyway? Not exactly. I’m blogging. Complaining entertainingly is one of the basic categories of blogging. To complain entertainingly about one’s spouse (in case you’ve never heard this priceless writing tip) is to mine a particularly rich vein.

My husband and I have been together for almost forty-five years. He knows that interruption breaks my concentration. He’s been told that once a train of thought has been broken, that particular thought, that exquisite turn of phrase, that connection—especially crucial in plotting a mystery or building an emotional scene—may be lost forever.

And yet he interrupts. He asks me if I have clothes for the laundry. He’s a good man. He doesn’t ask me to do the laundry. He asks me what I want for dinner. Again, good writer’s husband that he is, he doesn’t ask me to make dinner. He knows I’m writing. But he’s still interrupting. Sometimes, what he interrupts to tell me isn’t practical at all. It’s something he’s brimming over with that he simply has to share. He’s so filled with the fascination of it that he forgets I’m writing and mustn’t be interrupted.

“Do you know that Frederick the Great called Maria Theresa the only mensch in Austria?”

Yes, dear, you’ve mentioned it before. You’re an original, and it's lovable, but I need you to control it when I’m in the midst of transferring a brilliant thought that no one’s ever had before and that I’ll never have again from my brain to the computer.

He’s gotten better at not talking to me when I’m writing. Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough. He tiptoes past. Tiptoeing is still interrupting. Sometimes he stops halfway through the room. He breathes. Doesn’t he know how disruptive breathing is? I’ll throw out a hand and bark, “WRITING!” My fragile and irreplaceable thought is already at risk. But if he’ll just go away, maybe I can retrieve it. No way. He says, “Sorry!” In other words, he finds a way to exacerbate the interruption.

When he’s out of the house, I can get some serious writing done. But the hours are limited by his schedule. First, I have to wait for him to get up. My creative thinking time in bed used to be nil because he thought 9 am was “the crack of dawn.” He’s had a major lifestyle change, so he now gets up at 5 am and goes for a power walk in the park. This helps. But I still have to wait till nine or later for him to leave for work before I can focus on my writing. And once he comes home, that’s it. There’s the key in the lock. The big sigh. And my Woolfian “apartment of my own” is gone for the day.

I know it makes a difference because the 24/7 solitude I get when I’m alone in the country has an entirely different rhythm. If I wake up at 4 am and find I’m still awake at 4:15 with Bruce or Rachel talking in my head, I turn on the light and find my slippers and go turn on the laptop and and let them take over. No one interrupts the flow by saying, “What time is it?” or “Are you okay?” Sometimes having an idea at four in the morning is like carrying a basket of eggs. You don’t want anyone to jostle your elbow until you’ve had a chance to set it down.

It’s the same for the rest of the day. I’m not talking about the time I’ve already set aside to write. But if I think I’m done, and then Bruce or Rachel starts talking again, I can reorder my priorities and go back to the computer without consulting anyone. If it’s 6 pm and I’m about to put dinner in the preheated oven, I can turn off the oven. No one says, “What about dinner?” If I’m still going strong at 11 pm, no one says, “Come to bed.”

I don’t need this unlimited freedom all the time, especially since I’m writing short stories rather than a novel these days. But it’s heavenly to have it for three months. And it’s wonderful—I do know this!—to have a husband whose wife the writer drives him crazy—the secret of a successful marriage is knowing that it's a trip for two, not one, to the loony bin—but who also understands.

27 July 2020

Adverbs: A Legitimate Aspect of Voice


A couple of months ago, I participated in a lively discussion over at the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list on the role of adverbs in good writing. The highly respected Stephen King's most pithy writing advice is, "Read read read. Write write write. And lose the adverbs." A 2014 New Yorker article reports on an app called Hemingway that analyzes text and promises “[to make] your writing bold and clear.” Among other things, "the program calls out adverbs ('newly,' 'famously,' 'seemingly')." Most of the Short Mystery folks said that an occasional adverb might pass muster, but that the great majority, like Gilbert & Sullivan's "society offenders," never would be missed. One group member took what I consider an easy out, saying:

 The perfectly correct subject-verb-adverb construction strikes me as generally clunky and prone to increase clutter. 

"He walked quickly" could be "He hurried." 
"He talked quickly" could be "He yammered."  
"She ate quickly" could be "She wolfed."   
As above, adverbs tend to be less descriptive—added to modify verbs in a more abstract, conceptual way—than choosing more descriptive verbs. 

This argument stacks the deck against adverbs by using as an example "quickly," a verb as dull and overused as similar manner verbs—"suddenly," for example—and degree verbs such as "very," "almost," "quite," and "totally."

That's not the kind of adverb I'm talking about. In the hands of a writer who happens to have an adverbial narrative voice, adverbs can be as lively and evocative as verbs like "yammered" and "wolfed" and a lot more fun to read than "hurried." Eschewing adverbs is a fashion, albeit one that has lasted a considerable amount of time—almost a century, if you want to count from Hemingway's first two novels, both published in 1926.

My very favorite adverbial voice is that of L.M. Montgomery, author of the beloved children's classic Anne of Green Gables. I’m fond of Anne, but my favorite is Emily of New Moon, first published in 1923. Like Anne, Emily is a little orphan girl transplanted to Prince Edward Island. She’s also an aspiring writer.

Here are some delicious examples of adverbial writing in context that have stuck in my mind for almost seventy years. Not only do they add color to the narrative voice. They build character just as well as the other parts of speech in the passages in which they appear.

“It was one of your mother’s aprons when she was a little girl, Emily,” said Aunt Laura comfortingly, and rather sentimentally. 
“Then,” said Emily, uncomforted and unsentimental, “I don’t wonder she ran away with Father when she grew up.” 

Emily gasped. It seemed very dreadful to be called a little cuss. But Ilse had said it quite admiringly. 
“Well, where are you going now?” asked Ilse. “There’s a thunderstorm coming up.” 
So there was. Emily did not like thunderstorms. And her conscience smote her. 
“Oh,” she said, “do you suppose God is bringing up that storm to punish me because I’ve run away?” “No,” said Ilse scornfully. “If there is any God, he wouldn’t make such a fuss over nothing.”
 
“My epic,” said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, “is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her real parents when she was a baby and brought up in a woodcutter’s hut.” “One av the seven original plots in the world,” murmured Father Cassidy. 

  If Montgomery had written, “said Emily earnestly,” the adverb could have been deleted with my blessing. But “diligently devouring plum cake”—how can the reader fail to be enchanted? This passage, by the way, was my introduction to the concept of the seven original plots. Writers may disagree on the list, but we all suspect it exists.

“What do you think of us?” demanded Aunt Nancy. “Come now, what do you think of us?” 
“That isn’t a fair question,” cried Emily. 
“You think,” said Aunt Nancy, grinning, “that I’m a hideous old hag and that Caroline isn’t quite human. She isn’t. She never was—but you should have seen me seventy years ago. The men were mad about me. The women hated me, of course--all but Caroline here. You worshipped me, didn’t you, Caroline? Caroline, I wish you didn’t have a wart on your nose.” 
“I wish you had one on your tongue,” said Caroline waspishly. 

 I’ve cut some of the passages for the sake of brevity but not a single adverb.

Note also that Montgomery’s adverbs are not Tom Swifties:

“Get into the refrigerator,” he said coldly, “or I’ll shoot.
“Do you think you’re going to walk across this desert,” he said drily, “without your boots?”

It's easy to make fun of something, in this case adverbs and adverbial writing, that it’s trendy not to respect. But as writers, we owe it to ourselves not to dismiss them without investigating what they’re like when they’re done well by a master writer whose work has sold in the tens of millions and survived for more than a hundred years.

29 June 2020

"Can you help me?"


I always marvel when I read the dedication or acknowledgments pages of authors whose devoted partners read the first and subsequent drafts, make brilliant suggestions for revisions, stay up long into the night making meticulous copy edits, and wait with bated breath to read the finished product, although they've already discussed every nuance of the story with the hyperventilating author.

Not Himself. (I don't call him that, but in the mists of Irish history, his forebears probably did. Great-great-Granny and Great-great-Grandpa back in County Cavan probably never used each other's names. I bet they addressed each other exclusively in the third person as Himself and She. But I digress. Like my character Barbara in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, I always do. Revenons à nos moutons.

My husband has read all my published work. But like pulling the proverbial teeth, it's been an arduous task getting him to do it. Before publication, we've agreed there's no point in showing a manuscript to him and trying to discuss it, much less make it better. He himself (completely different usage) said thirty-eight years ago at our wedding, before our assembled friends and families, that he was marrying me for my ability to spell. Ah, the blarney in 'im! He got a big laugh. So it was a good day for him, our wedding day.

But I digress again, and if I don't stop myself firmly, I'll tell you next about how for both of us, getting our actual teeth pulled gave us a whole new perspective of that simile, the same way having a giant cockroach in my bedroom increased my appreciation of Kafka's story, "Metamorphosis," exponentially. The point is that he's promised he'll read every novel and story on publication, and he does—but never without significant nagging. And his comment is more likely to be about whether he guessed whodunit than about the literary merits of the work.

So now that I've paid hommage to literature and writers, let me tell you what I really want to talk about: the marital language of helping, which can be as hard to decode as the Enigma that led to the Allied victory in World War II, until long experience clues you in to the fact that your partner's not really saying what they're saying, but something else entirely. It took us most of those years together to get it and the rest of them, by dint of much hard work and the fact that we do love each other deeply—even though, as we frequently shake our heads and say, we're completely incompatible—to learn how not to react to them. Thank goodness we got to the finish line on handling these moments well right before the pandemic hit the world, because we'd never have survived the Pause in New York so far without these advanced relationship skills.

Here's a brief glossary, in case your partner speaks this language, and you haven't figured out the translation yet.

Can you help me reach...
I'm not risking myself on that rickety ladder; I'm standing by, ready to scream if you fall.

Can you help me decide...
Of course I'm not going to take your advice; I just want to clarify what I want to do.

Can you help me go through...
These things of yours need to be thrown out, and don't you dare touch my stuff.

Can you help me open...

I need you to open the jar, and no, you can't have any.

Can you help me move...
You're going to the heavy lifting; I'm going to supervise.

Can you find...
When I put something away, it's still there twenty years later. You must have moved it, dammit.

Can you fix...
It must have been you. I never break things. And you're the glue expert. Feminist schmeminist.

Can you remember...
I told you to remind me. Yes, I do store my memory in your head.

In our house, it's Himself who stores his memory in my head. He's lucky I've got a lot of storage space up there. It wasn't mentioned at the wedding, but it's in the unspoken vows. But it's usually I who ask and he who's required to comply. I do sympathize with his frustration. And I ask very nicely.

Me: You're not alone, honey. If you talked to other husbands, you'd find some of them have the same experience.

Himself: It's a very big club.

Alas, as we get older, the inevitable happens even to the brainiest of us. The ultimate question came up for us the other day. It was I who said:

Can you remember what I told you I needed to remember?
If you snap at me when I forget something, we're going to have a miserable old age together.

The gloss is not the clue to the enigma. The secret is in not taking it out on each other, especially while we're all sequestered with our partners thanks to COVID-19. We've found the magic formula when our partner's requests-with-subtext irritate us. Instead of overreacting, he tells himself, "That's just Liz being Liz." I tell myself, "That's just Himself being Himself." It works like a charm.

Liz Zelvin is a once and now forever SleuthSayer, author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga and editor of the anthologies Me Too Short Stories and Where Crime Never Sleeps. She is also a therapist who has been practicing online for 20 of her 35 years helping clients on her website at LZcybershrink.com. She's available for chat, text, email, phone, and Zoom sessions, especially people who don't live in spitting distance of hundreds of therapists, as she does in New York.

01 June 2020

Where Does It Come From?


Most writers regard "Where do you get your ideas?" as the wrong question to ask a writer or at least not the most interesting question, as they get it far too often—and too often, the honest answer is a less than scintillating, "It depends." But I know the answer can be interesting when applied to a single story. I've seen John Floyd do it more than once right here on SleuthSayers. So I'm going to give it a shot— a double shot, because I keep confusing two standalones, both written in 2018 and published a year or two later in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: "A Work in Progress" and "Reunion."

My series stories are inevitably based on characters first. When a new Bruce Kohler Mystery bubbles up, it starts with Bruce and Barbara and Jimmy wisecracking in my head. If I hear Diego and Rachel or any of their kin or descendants, I know another entry in the Mendoza Family Saga is on the way.

My standalone short stories are another matter. In them, character grows organically from the ineffable yet essential quality we call voice and from ideas for plot elements and situations. The two, plot and situation, are not exactly the same thing, although situation fuels plot.

My series stories are both told largely in the first person from the point of view of a male protagonist. Bruce and Diego have strong voices that are entirely different from each other's and also entirely different from mine—one of the great advantages of writing in a gender not one's own. Bruce might say, "Jimmy thinks I'm leading with my dick again." Diego might say, "I talked seriously to Rachel about the possibility of rape, because if she were taken by soldiers, I did not want her to be taken unawares." Anyone still not understand what "voice" is?

When I wrote "A Work in Progress," I started out by setting my scene in Florida, which was the theme of the anthology I planned to submit the story to. I wrote:

Giant fans rustled all around me: high overhead, the vast leaves of the palm trees, and on either side of the creaking wooden walkway under my pounding feet, saw palmettos in constant motion as armadillos threaded their stealthy way beneath them. The only other sounds were the jingling of crickets and the occasional cry of an unseen bird.

Very pretty. Evocative. The only trouble was that it wasn't my voice. There was an "I" with "pounding feet" hiding in there among the palms and palmettos. But I knew at once that I couldn't write a whole story in that voice. I wrote:

I had to admit the little literette could write. She had certainly captured the ambience of the terrain around the North Florida center for the arts where we had both been awarded coveted associate residencies for three weeks, with the proverbial room of our own and daily workshops with an acclaimed Master Artist. Calendula Faulk was one of that rare breed, a crime novelist whom the literati took seriously. Along with her Edgars and Daggers, she'd been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The eight associate artists she'd hand picked came from all over the country. We ranged in age from twenty-two—the precocious Miss Muppet—to sixty-two. That would be me, currently refusing to divorce the man who'd left me for this clever little tart.

And so Hester the rejected wife, in whose tart (sorry!) voice I certainly could write a story, because it resembles my own narrative voice, was born.

What's any Bruce Kohler mystery about? A recovering alcoholic with a smart mouth and a heart of gold in New York. A Mendoza Family Saga book or story? A Jewish brother and sister who were kicked out of Spain in 1492, sail with Columbus, and end up in Istanbul where Rachel gets a job in the Sultan's harem—not that job. In my standalones, no matter how strong the protagonist's voice is—or the narrative voice, if the story is in the third person—that's not what animates the story.

"A Work in Progress" is about a love triangle that erupts during a writers' workshop at an arts center in North Florida. "Reunion" is about how the past strikes a woman who encounters two old friends at a college reunion. See? The characters are important. But the story is about the situation—inevitably, one with potential for conflict—on which a plot will be built as the author writes the story.

I'm going to list a series of statements from elements of the two stories that came from life—or from my head as I write. True or false? Answers will not be provided below.
I've attended several college reunions.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Florida.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Georgia.
I've been the master artist at a writing workshop.
I've had a man I loved stolen by another woman.
I've had a friend sleep with a man I was seeing after I asked her not to.
I've been rejected by a man I was in love with.
I've been rejected by every man I was in love with.
I've been widowed.
I got pregnant in college.
I had a close friend who got pregnant in college.
I've had an abortion.
I had a baby and gave it away.
I had a close friend who had a baby and gave it away.
I've had a baby by a married man.
Someone I know refused to give her husband a divorce.
Someone I know refused to give his wife a divorce.
I've had a major car accident.
I've tried to commit suicide.
I was an English major.
I wasn't an English major.
I have a graduate degree in English.
I've never taken the Graduate Record Exams.
I quit school to support a husband who later divorced me.
I've swum with sharks.
I've swum with dolphins.
I've been in a love triangle that included three-way sex.
I've been in a love triangle in which everyone got hurt.
I've been in a love triangle in which I got hurt the most.
I've never been in a love triangle.
That's thirty, and I could go on till the cows come home. Where do my ideas come from? They just keep pouring out of me.

04 May 2020

Crime Writers, Give Me Magic—And Don't Explain It Away


When I shared the good news of the acceptance of a hard-to-place cross-genre short story on the Short Mystery e-list, I said: "I didn't even consider some of the usual mystery markets. When I write—or read—magic, I don't want it to be explained away at the end." I was thinking, for example, of Black Cat Mystery Magazine's submission guidelines, which stipulate: "We do not want stories that feature supernatural elements...unless thoroughly debunked by story’s end." My comment intrigued SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti, who wrote to invite me to write a piece in defense of magic in crime fiction.

The short story in question, "Roxelana's Ring," just out in the current issue of The J.J. Outré Review, is part of my Jewish historical Mendoza Family Saga. It involves jewel theft and a visit to my longtime protagonist Rachel Mendoza by one of her present-day descendants. Readers of the series first met Rachel as a 13 year old in hiding in 1493 after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Two stories about an older Rachel solving mysteries in 1520s Istanbul had already appeared in Black Cat. (Two more are currently in press, one with BCMM, the other in Jewish Noir 2.) But for this particular tale, I had to send the 21st-century Rachel back in time, and I couldn't explain it any other way than magic.

Some novel readers complain that stories are too short to satisfy them. They say a story doesn't give them time to engage fully with the characters or that it ends just as the reader is getting to know them. I try to write each story to refute such charges. For me, stories are like little novels. Complete in themselves, they must be rich in language, plot, and especially character. My novels contain more elaboration and complexity of plot and structure. But all my characters are as whole, as lifelike, as moving, as eloquent, and as much fun as I can make them, whether I'm presenting them in five thousand words or seventy-five thousand. The key to satisfaction, for me, is my commitment to character-driven fiction, both short and long—and as both writer and reader.

So to create plausible magic or supernatural beings that don't need to be debunked or treated differently from any other element in fiction, make them character driven. Charlaine Harris does this superbly. Her characters are as real as bread, so what does it matter if they're falling in love with vampires or hearing the dead speak under their feet? To me, those traits are more probable than their hitting their mark with every shot or disarming bombs at the last moment like the heroes of plot-driven novels. What I love about the best character-driven urban fantasy, SF, crime fiction, and cross-genre work mixing any and all of these is that it is first and foremost about the people and their story, their relationships, and that spark that makes us care about them, call it soul or heart or moral center or what you will. If the characters have that, neither the genre nor the length of the manuscript matter as much as we think they do.

I feel the same way about murder methods as I do about magic. Like most crime fiction authors, I enjoy discussing clever ways to kill people a bit too loudly in restaurants. But when I'm writing, I tend to keep it simple: a cord around the neck, a pillow over the face, a bang on the head with the proverbial blunt instrument. Let's do it fast and get on with the story.

In "Roxelana's Ring," the modern Rachel is holding a necklace that once belonged to her progenitrix, the first Rachel Mendoza, when she is unexpectedly whisked back to the 1520s. How? I have no idea, and I don't care. I'm much more interested in the fact that she comes to in the midst of a wriggling, giggling pile of Suleiman the Magnificent's concubines, "dressed," as she puts it, "not unlike sorority sisters at a come-as-your-dream-self slumber party." Aren't you?

06 April 2020

The Older I Get, The More I Like Passover


The eight days of Passover begin at sundown on Wednesday, during the same week as Easter this year and four weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) pronounced the coronavirus crisis a pandemic.

Passover is one of the few rituals my New York secular Jewish family observed. As I've aged, more and more layers have accreted to my understanding of the holiday and its observance.

When I was a kid, Passover was all about family. My father read the Haggadah in Hebrew at the Seder, the feast celebrating the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and knew all the traditional songs. My mother made the pot roast. I still use her recipe and the thick Wagner Ware pot that by divine alchemy produces gravy without any water at all. (The secret is in the onions, but you need the magic pot.) All the aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides gathered at my parents' table.

My 1978 poem, "Passover," describes a Seder that took place at my parents' house when I was in my thirties but is imbued with nostalgia for those childhood Seders.
my father revels in his role of patriarch
in velvet skullcap and white turtleneck
he looks, by some irony, like the Pope:
He works for one of our boys, says my father

this is his night in this house of women
who snub patriarchy on all occasions
whose strength overflows the crucible
of faith and family
it is his night to make it sing
we break unleavened bread together
without politics

he is telling it for all of us
the only grandchild
Do I have to listen to the boring part?
my mother, the proud Hungarian
with her doctorate and law degree
for whom even the prayer over the candles
—women’s work—remains a mystery
for me, who never went to synagogue
who never suffered as a Jew
for my Irish lover, here for the first time
to whom I am serving up my childhood
on the Pesach plates
for Aunt Hilda, who married out
and Uncle Bud, who was my friend who isn’t Jewish
thirty years ago

at 79 my father has forgotten stories
muffs the accent, sometimes the punchline
no longer knows the name of every lawyer in New York
but tonight he is clear as wine, fresh as a photograph
confident and plump as the turkey itself
awaiting its turn in the kitchen
tonight he is the raconteur I remember
as cherished and familiar as the books, the cloth, the china
the Hebrew words I cannot understand
the melody I miss at anybody else’s Seder
that my father and Aunt Anna with her trained soprano
learned in Hebrew school as children
all I have traveled back, back to see and hear

measuring his audience
expanding in the warm room like love
my father pours the wine
skips the prosy rabbis arguing
and tells instead the illustrated Bible story:
Moses in the bulrushes, cruel Pharaoh, the Red Sea parting
Let my people go
or I’ll give you what for
says my father
"Passover" first appeared in Elizabeth Zelvin, I Am the Daughter (1981) New Rivers

When it fell to me to keep the tradition going, progressive secular Jews were rewriting the Haggadah to suit the changing times and current political and cultural ideas. For a number of years, we read a passage from something called the Egalitarian Haggadah that couched the story in the language of labor and liberation movements. To tell the truth, I thought it was hilarious.
"Pharaoh was... unwilling to give up his power over the slaves. ... It was not enough to present reasonable demands. ... The oppressor had to be brought to his knees. ...[But Pharaoh finally] told the Jews to leave. Our ancestors ...collected back wages in goods from the Egyptians for 400 years of unpaid labor. Then they mobilized according to plan and marched out."
An Egalitarian Hagada, © Aviva Cantor 1982
A couple of decades later, a lot of Jewish women started putting an orange on the Seder plate along with the traditional ritual lamb shank, roasted egg, bitter herbs, spring greens, and charoseth. The orange represents marginalized Jews, rejecting sexism and homophobia in Jewish tradition. I put an orange on my Seder plate every year. And we discuss it, so my granddaughters will understand.

Now my family is a multicultural family. It includes my Irish husband (forty-plus years since the poem), my Filipino daughter-in-law, my gorgeous granddaughters (half Jewish, raised Catholic), my cousin the son of Aunt Hilda and Uncle Bud, and said cousin's two kids (25% Jewish). My son and I have the only 100% Jewish DNA at the table. When friends are invited to join us, their origins tend to be an ethnic, religious, and national potpourri.

When the girls were very little, with the attention span of fleas, I wrote a very short Haggadah they could relate to.
"Once upon a time in Egypt, there was a king called Pharaoh who was very mean to the Jews... The princess found the baby in the basket and decided to adopt him. But Moses's mother got a job in the palace as a nanny, so she got to take care of her baby Moses too."
On one level, the story of Moses is a classic folk tale.
"Moses kept trying to get Pharaoh to let the Jews go home. He kept saying, 'Let my people go!' But Pharaoh kept saying, 'No!' Bad things happened to the Egyptians, like thousands of frogs that suddenly appeared and hopped around all over them. And Moses said, 'Now will you let my people go?' And Pharaoh said, 'No!'"
This year, we're having a virtual Seder via Zoom. I've written an entirely different flash Seder for my granddaughters, now 16 and 13.
"This year we are experiencing a plague of our own, the coronavirus. Like the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians, it came without warning, it has spread rapidly, and it has fallen on many innocent people. It has affected not just one group or nation, but the whole world. We don't believe that the coronavirus is a punishment from God. But there are certainly selfish and greedy people in power who have made it harder to deal with this plague and heal the world."
We'll get back to that "healing the world."

In our house, the four sons in the traditional Haggadah have long since become four children. Traditionally, one child is wise, one rude, one "simple," and one doesn't even know to ask a question.
"We don't have any children who are rude or not very smart or no good at asking questions, so let's take a couple of minutes to ask our wise children what they think about three things: (1) God visiting plagues on the Egyptians so the Jews could get away; (2) the connection, if there is one, between the coronavirus and the kind of leadership we have right now in America; and (3) if your personal experience of living with our own "plague" has made you think or feel differently about the story of the Exodus."
My Jewish historical series, the Mendoza Family Saga, started with the Jews' expulsion from Spain on the day Columbus set sail. But until I started doing research, I had never heard of the lost children of São Tomé, two thousand Jewish children who were abducted by the King of Portugal in 1493 and sent into slavery on a pestilential island off the coast of West Africa. Their story became a major plot line in my novel Journey of Strangers. In general, the research I've done for the Mendoza books and stories has heightened my awareness of why and what we remember every year and can't afford to forget.

The concept of tikkun olam, repairing or healing the world, is fundamental to Jewish ethics. We are obligated to have a social conscience. The Seder ritual of dipping a finger in a cup of wine as we recite the plagues, one drop for each plague, symbolizes that our cup of happiness can never be completely full as long as one person still suffers, even our worst enemy.

So it's not surprising, perhaps, that the traditional ending of the Seder bothered me. After the meal, after the songs, after the final glass of wine and the final blessing, everyone is supposed to shout joyously, "Next year in Jerusalem!" L'shana haba'ah b'Yerushalayim.

In terms of modern global politics, I found this embarrassing. To the ancient Hebrews, Jerusalem was the Promised Land, the homeland that God had set aside for them. After leaving Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years until they were deemed worthy of it. Then they had no problem moving in. But—a big "but," in my opinion—another tribe, the Canaanites, already lived there. Oops.

So here it is, thousands of years later, and everyone still wants Jerusalem. And what a lot of trouble it still causes the world! I didn't think I had the right to throw out the punch line of the whole Haggadah. But I wanted to make "Next year in Jerusalem" mean something more inclusive than, "Let's throw the other fellows out."

So I wrote this song, with which my family now ends the Seder every year.


Prayer (Next Year in Jerusalem)
From album Outrageous Older Woman 2012 ℗ & © Liz Zelvin
Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga and editor of the anthologies Me Too Short Stories and Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her story "Reunion" will appear in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and a story in Jewish Noir 2 in September. Three of Liz's stories have just been accepted for future issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.

09 March 2020

I See Clearly Now


I can't find a childhood picture of myself in glasses, although I wore them full time from the age of eight. I learned at my mother's knee that when the cameras came out, the glasses came off. That's because girls and women who wore glasses were considered hideously ugly. A much used Hollywood trope was the young woman, a secretary or some other kind of subordinate, who was invisible to the hero until she took off her glasses and was transformed like Cinderella. I remember the day I first got my glasses. I hated them. I hid in the bushes in front of my house, afraid a passing neighbor might lay eyes on my spectacled ugliness.

Nonetheless, I needed my glasses. Remember that giant E on the eye chart? I couldn't see it. I saw white with a slight gray smudge. Here's a rare sighting: Liz (standing, left) in seventh grade with girlfriends.
Glasses have changed, and so have attitudes toward women as well as our perception of ourselves. I get constant compliments on my current specs. More important, I think I look adorable in them. Anyhow, I've worn glasses more or less all my life. Every year I've dutifully visited the eye doctor and gotten my prescription changed.

A year or two ago, my glasses stopped working. I had to peer at the computer screen to distinguish an 8 from a 6. But changing the prescription didn't help. No matter how the ophthalmologist flipped the lenses in the refractor as I stared and even squinted at the chart, the numbers kept dancing around. What was wrong?

I had cataracts.

Fact: 100 percent of people get cataracts. Once I decided to have the surgery, I discovered that everyone I know from junior high and high school had either had it last year or were about to have it. It's one of those age-appropriate things we all have in common, like memory lapses and hearing loss.

Once I started asking questions, I learned that there are choices involved. There are lenses the insurance pays for vs those they don't. You can end up not needing glasses in general but be unable to read without reading glasses. Or you can go on wearing glasses, but you'll still be able to read when you take them off. Or if you survive the Apocalypse but there are no glasses in the dystopian future. The surgeon can use a laser instead of a knife, but it costs extra.

Does it hurt? Not at all. The eye is numbed with dozens of drops so there's no sensation of invasion. Is the patient awake and aware? It depends. The anesthesiologist explained that I'd be sedated, but not too much, since the surgeon might need my cooperation. Yes, yes, I knew what "disinhibition" meant.

The first time, I did experience time passing. It took half an hour for the surgeon to remove the cataract and the natural lens and install the implant that replaced it.

At one point, when all I could see was gray, I said, "I don't have vision right now, do I?"

The doc seemed disconcerted. Maybe I should have explained writers always want to know every detail. We never know when it might come in handy.

Other eye, two weeks later. I asked to be sedated a tad more heavily. I didn't sleep through it, but before I knew it had begun, I'd already forgotten it. Just like a colonoscopy, another age-appropriate...but I digress.

Next came a regime of eye drops: four weeks daily in each eye. The drops contained tiny quantities of several heavy-duty meds, including the steroid prednisone. I was prescribed some of that for an ear infection once and was manic for two weeks. I wrote two brilliant short stories in ten days, though. But I digress. Again.

While I was taking the drops, my eyes were healing and the implants settling into place. I had to wait six weeks for glasses for my new eyes. But even with my distance vision too blurred to drive, I saw better than I had since I was eight years old—maybe ever. Throughout the recovery period, I could read, watch videos, and use the computer.
And now I can see everything, from the fine print on a label to a street sign a block away. I love my new eyes.

My grandmother, who was born in 1878, was blind in one eye. It was just a cataract. In spite of everything that's wrong with the world right now, in some ways I feel very, very lucky to live in the twenty-first century.

03 January 2020

What I Really Think About Sensitivity Reading


I've been a mental health professional and psychotherapist for 35 years, a published writer of novels and short stories for 13. I live in New York with its kaleidoscopic population. For almost 20 years, I've conducted my therapy practice in cyberspace, ie all over the world. Either personally or in one role or another, I've known a vast variety of people intimately. I've heard the secrets and the candid thoughts and feelings of people of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, from homeless to celebrity, from nun to murderer, from serving military to self-proclaimed anarchist, from survivor of child molestation to convicted pedophile. I've worked with prostitutes and flashers and gamblers as well as the whole spectrum of sex and gender. I've heard from dozens of cops how 911 really felt to them. I've helped hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts get clean and sober.

Empathy and imagination are the tools of my trade-—or let's call them my superpowers. My body of work attests to my high degree of competence at my trade, indeed, both my trades. If I were a surgeon setting your broken leg, would you insist I couldn't do it without instruction from you because I'd never had a broken leg myself? If you don't like that analogy, consider this: I've spent my whole personal and professional life living with, interacting with, working with, treating, writing about, loving, and in one case raising successfully the ultimate aliens: men. And male writers have been doing the same with women, with varying success. [Pause while I resist the temptation to name names.]

How those who haven't walked the walk, especially of the marginalized, can possibly write authentically about such characters has become one of the burning questions of our time. I don't think censorship by the thought police, aka sensitivity reading, is the answer. Redaction in the name of reverence is the enemy of creativity and pure poison to art itself.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I worked as a clinical social worker in and later directed alcoholism treatment programs in New York, many staff were recovering alcoholics who used their own experience as an integral part of their treatment technique, much like sponsorship in AA. Credentialing for counselors was in its youth. Many clients in treatment also went to AA, where they were told that "only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic." (At the time of AA's founding, no effective treatment for alcoholism existed.)

I made a conscious decision not to "confirm or deny" when asked if I was an alcoholic myself. Rather than using that stuffy expression, I told them they would have to find another way to decide whether or not to trust me. My professional experience taught me that some clients wanted to hear I was just like them, but others wanted to be assured I wasn't as damaged as they were. Some of my clients were the deeply hurt or angry partners and family members of alcoholics, who wanted to hear I was not another alcoholic. And how about the bipolar clients, the ex-prostitutes, the survivors of child abuse and sexual trauma I treated? Did every one of them need to hear I was like them-—or not like them? Once I lost control of disclosure about myself, it would be gone forever. The only solution was not to disclose anything about my personal experience.

When my first novel about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler was published, I knew that I'd be asked the same question: "Are you an alcoholic?" I made the same decision again. By then, 2008, readers were looking authors up on the Internet and so were potential clients for the online therapy practice I was now engaged in. One mention on Facebook of what I was or wasn't, and once again, I'd lose control over who knew what about me. And it would unquestionably affect people's judgment about whether I was qualified to write what I wrote, treat whom I treated, or know what I knew I knew. As I've learned over and over, people believe what they want to believe. So I had and have no intention of making myself vulnerable to their judgment.

It's not only online that people continually try to break the boundaries I've set for myself. I wish they wouldn't, although I'm no longer amazed at the way people think they have a right to personal information about someone they don't know. Unfortunately, one of the "family rules" of our society is that it's okay. I've had AA members who've read and enjoyed my book tell me so on the street, which is lovely, and then ask if I'm in the program myself-—demonstrating their imperfect grasp of the concept of anonymity. I've given a reading from my story in Me Too Short Stories and had someone come up, tell me it was wonderful and they're going to buy the anthology, then say, "Was it based on personal experience?"-—oblivious to the fact that they've just asked a perfect stranger in a crowded public place, "Were you molested as a child?"

I'm no longer flustered by such questions. I have a standard way of dealing with them firmly but kindly. I say, "I don't disclose that information." If more is needed, I say it's a policy that I apply to everyone. I may even explain it as a matter of my being a mental health professional. But it's really about my right to myself as my own intellectual property, which is akin to my integrity as a therapist and my creative material as a writer. Only I control what anyone knows about my personal experience. Anonymity means that a person in 12-step recovery has the sole right to share that information outside a meeting room. Confidentiality means that only the client has the right to decide who knows what he or she tells a therapist. And intellectual freedom mean that only I as a writer have the right to decide what I write. Short of hate speech, anything else would be kowtowing to the thought police. I'd give up writing rather than settle for appeasement to such an Orwellian distortion of the concept of freedom of speech and creativity.

Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, the Mendoza Family Saga, and three dozen short stories. Most recently, she edited the anthology Me Too Short Stories. Liz's stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha Awards and appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In 2020 so far, her stories will be published in AHMM and Jewish Noir 2.

26 September 2019

"Miss Evelyn Nesbit Testifies 'Me Too'"


I'm happy to introduce Ana Brazil as our guest blogger for the day.  Ana and I are both appearing in Me Too Short Stories:  An Anthology (edited by our own Liz Zelvin). Ana is the author of the historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB AND THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER (published by Sand Hill Review Press) and the winner of the Independent Book Publishers Association 2018 Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal for Historical Fiction.  Take it away Ana!  Ana's story in the anthology is "Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents", and if you haven't heard of Miss Nesbit - well, she was the nexus of one of the trials of the century - the very early 20th century.  Take it away, Ana! -Eve Fisher

by Ana Brazil

It might seem like a no-brainer.

When I—an author of American historical crime fiction—wanted to write a Me Too-themed short story, a story about crimes against women, retribution, and even, possibly, healing, Miss Evelyn Nesbit was the obvious choice.

You probably know something about Evelyn. Artist Charles Dana Gibson used young Evelyn as the model for one of his most-famous Gibson Girl illustrations. She was the star defense witness in the 1907 “Trial of the Century”, where her exploitation as “the girl on the red velvet swing” was publicly revealed. You might also remember Evelyn from her saucy escapades in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime or the movie or Broadway musical based on his novel.

But although Evelyn was clearly a victim of sexual and emotional abuse by multiple wealthy and powerful men, she wasn’t my first choice for a historical Me Too-themed short story.

My first choice was Mr. H. H. Holmes.

You probably know something about H. H. Holmes also. During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he owned the “Murder Castle” hotel where women and men could check in, but—as the newspapers reported—they could never leave.

I wanted to explore how Holmes preyed upon his female victims and then I wanted to show how one of those exploited women got the better of him. In the final paragraph, she would heroically clamber out of the “Murder Castle” hotel. But characters, crimes, and motivations just didn’t click in my head, and I couldn’t make that story work.

When I finally put H. H. Holmes aside, I returned to Miss Evelyn Nesbit. And she did not disappoint me.

I knew the bones of Evelyn’s story—she worked as a teenage model and chorus girl to support her mother and younger brother, she was raped by New York architect Stanford White, she married the brutal and off-balanced millionaire Harry K. Thaw, and she witnessed the crime that launched the “Trial of the Century”—on June 25, 1906, her husband shot her rapist to death on the rooftop of New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

I went to Wikipedia for details about Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and Harry K. Thaw. Amongst the sensuous photos of Evelyn, the "masterful" and “burly yet boyish” description of White, and the revelation of mentally instable Thaw’s interest in “the cult of virgin martyrdom”, I found this information about Evelyn’s trial testimony:

her examination on the witness stand was an emotionally tortuous ordeal. In open court, she was forced to expose her relationship with White, and to describe the intimate details of the night she was raped by Stanford White.
It wasn’t hard to imagine Evelyn sitting stiffly on the witness stand, answering questions about the night in her teens when (as she wrote in her 1934 autobiography) she "entered that room a virgin, but did not come out as one”.

My heart broke a little, imagining how painful her testimony must have been. Her rape had been her private pain—until the murder, known only by White and Thaw—and within minutes, it became known to every newspaper reporter sitting in court. Which meant that it was headline news around the country.

In that sorrowful moment of my imagination, I embraced Miss Evelyn Nesbit as my Me Too short story protagonist. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to shield and defend her. I wanted to escort her out of court, into a waiting motorcar, and drive her as far away as I possibly could.


In my short story “Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents” (included in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology) I transport Evelyn all the way to 1914. I invite her into New York City’s posh Hotel Astor where, in a very private dining room, I leave her to lunch with the very unscrupulous moving picture producer H. H. Samson. (Yes, I did get an “H. H.” into my story!)

What’s the worst that could happen?

During their luncheon Evelyn desperately fights to reframe her “girl on the red velvet swing” past and reclaim her future. Will she be successful? Or will she once again fall victim to a man’s manipulation and power? Or will she find that retribution can be just as sweet as revenge?

As Miss Evelyn Nesbit presents her final demands to H. H. Samson, the results seem like a no-brainer to me.

***

Many thanks to fellow Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology contributor and SleuthSayer Eve Fisher for inviting me to guest post. Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  (Link Here)

My other stories of historic heroines include “Kate Chopin Tussles with a Novel Ending” in Fault Lines (Sisters in Crime Northern California) and my debut novel—set in 1889 New Orleans—FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER.   (Link Here)

www.anabrazil.com

25 June 2017

Where'd We Bury That Guy?


Dominican Republic
attribution: alexrk2
Okay, so it's 1492 and some Italian guy named Cristoforo Colombo (Cristobal Colon in Spanish) has received the blessing of the King and Queen of Spain to sail across the Atlantic in search of a route to India. He missed it by several thousand miles, but did discover a bunch of islands in the Caribbean Sea. Of course, the Taino and Caribe people had already been living on these islands for a very long time and had no idea they were in need of being discovered. In any case, the arrivals of these alleged discoverers turned out to be disastrous for the native landholders. Thus, whether you perceive ol' Chris as a famous explorer who had the courage to cross a vast expanse of water in not much more than three over-sized rowboats with sails, or as an infamous destroyer of native culture in a brave new world, is a choice for you to make.

To continue with the Who's in the Grave search, it was on December 6, 1492 that Chris found a chunk of land in the Caribbean and dubbed the island as Hispaniola. To us modern folk, we know it as an island composed of two countries; the west one-third being Haiti and the eastern two-thirds being the Dominican Republic. Actually, Chris landed on the Haiti side, but to him, it was just one island. At the time, he had no idea of the wars, civil wars and division that was to come.

The Spanish used Hispaniola for their first seat of colonial rule in the New World. Because of wars in Europe among various countries, the ownership of islands in the Caribbean often changed hands. During a war when the French got involved, Spain ceded the western portion of Hispaniola to France. This part then became known as Haiti. Revolutions and civil wars finally decided languages, borders and governments for both new countries. On at least two occasions, the U.S. later stepped in to quiet things down.

The catafalque in Seville Cathedral
Back to Chris. In 1504, after his fourth voyage to the Caribbean, Columbus returned to Spain an ill and infirm man. He died in 1506 and was buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid. Dissatisfied with the burial site, his son Diego had Chris' remains dug up and transferred to a monastery in Seville where he rested until 1542 (or 1537, depending upon who you believe). The remains were then disinterred along with son Diego's bones and both put on a ship to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). The new Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor was to be his final resting place, but after a quarter of a century of peace, ol' Chris was destined to take up travel again.

In 1795, France took Hispaniola from Spain, so Chris' remains were removed to Havana, Cuba. Then during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Chris once again took ship. He landed in Andalusia and was interred in a tomb at Seville Cathedral.

And just when everyone thought the matter was settled, we have to back up to 1877 when a worker in the Cathedral de Santa Maria la Menor discovered a lead box of bones. The box was inscribed "The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea." So, it's possible that some industrious Dominican had swapped in a different set of bones and the Spanish unknowingly took the wrong ones to Cuba in 1795. After all, Chris had stated before his death that he wanted to be interred in Hispaniola. One small problem with the inscription on the lead box, his son Diego was also known as Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Today, two countries claim to have the burial site of Christopher Columbus. In 2003, to prove up their claim, Spain had the bones in their catafalque tested. The DNA results published in 2006 confirmed a close match to Chris' brother Diego. (Both son and brother had the same first name of Diego.) To bolster their side of the argument, the Spanish also had well documented travels of the remains, although some scientists did not think these bones were those of a man who had suffered from severe arthritis as Columbus was known to have endured in later life.

As for the Dominicans, citing respect for the dead, they declined to have their bones in the lead box which was held in their newly built Columbus Lighthouse disinterred for DNA analysis. That leaves the world to wonder if the bones in the Dominican Republic are those of a stranger, those of his son Diego, or if some of Chris got left behind way back in the 1795 Cuba trip, meaning at least part of him got his wish to be interred in his old Hispaniola.

That's me on the right
Regardless where Chris ended up, the guy sure got a lot of frequent cruise miles.

As for my experience in the Dominican Republic, our snorkel excursion was cancelled due to rough seas, so we did our own brave new world exploring and went zip lining for our first time ever.

It was exhilarating.

07 May 2017

Meet the Mendozas: A Family of Cultural Relativists in An Age of Absolutism


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the ninth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Elizabeth Zelvin

Diego Mendoza, a nice Jewish boy from Seville, was born knocking on the inside of my head one night, demanding that I tell his story: he sailed with Columbus on the voyage of discovery on the very day in 1492 that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Why did Columbus take him on? (I have my reasons for not believing the theory that Columbus himself was Jewish.) Diego's dad was shipwrecked with Columbus off the coast of Portugal in their youth (the shipwreck is historical fact), and he'd remained a friend of the family. Young Columbus also had a crush on Diego's mother, though that didn't come out till Journey of Strangers, the second novel, as a piece of ancient family history.

So Diego had a father, did he? Diego escaped to what turned out to be "the Indies." Where did the rest of the family go? In "The Green Cross," the first of two Diego stories about the first voyage that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, I sent Diego's "parents and sisters" to Italy, where many Spanish Jews fled at the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora. Diego sprang to such vivid life that I decided he deserved a novel, which presented new challenges.

I needed women characters, so I created Diego's sister Rachel, a spirited and endearing girl of 13 who had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona for safety's sake and left behind due to the ruthless speed of the expulsion. Her only protector was an aunt, Doña Marina Mendes y Torres, a true converso rather than a marrano who secretly practiced Judaism. I intended Doña Marina to be stern and forbidding, but the lady surprised me, eventually becoming a staunch protector to her niece and nephew and putting up with a fair amount of discomfort and shenanigans. The first half of Voyage of Strangers takes place in Spain, where Columbus is received at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and charged with outfitting a fleet for the second voyage. Rachel is burning to go along, and in the end, Diego and Columbus combined fail to stop her.

In the second half of Voyage of Strangers, Diego and Rachel meet and fall in love with the gentle, generous Taino, the indigenous population of Quisqueya (Hispaniola) and are powerless to prevent its destruction by the Spaniards. We get to know more about their parents and their upbringing via the principles instilled in them, which allow them to embrace a culture very different from their own. As Jews, they have always been outsiders in the Christian mainstream culture of Europe. This has made cultural relativism their natural point of view. For example, the Taino teach Diego and Rachel batey, a game not unlike soccer.
We both became skilled at batey. In such perilous times, one might think that sport would be abandoned. But batey was a religious observance, the game a ceremony like the Christian Mass or, in Judaism, carrying the Torah. In troubled times, spiritual practice is a necessity. My father had told me so, and the Taino understood this as well.
Both Papa and Mama Mendoza are revealed as counselors whose wisdom their children cling to in difficult situations, since they are far from home and have no one to rely on but each other. In one historically accurate scene, Diego and Rachel are forced to listen to the sounds of a young Taino girl being beaten and raped by a childhood friend of Columbus. The man himself wrote an account of it when he returned to Europe. The story survived because historians quoted it as a comical anecdote as late as 1942. That's right: Samuel Eliot Morison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Columbus, thought the rape of an Indian maiden, with a beating to make her compliant, was funny.
“Diego!” Rachel cried. “What is he doing to her?”

I took her hand and pulled her down beside me on a coil of rope.

“Do you know what is meant to happen between a man and a woman?”

“Yes,” she said. “Elvira told me.”

“What did she tell you?” I asked. Our eldest sister loved to hoard information and spring it on us at the moment when it would most devastate or embarrass us, and she did not always pause to verify her facts.

“She said a man and a woman do the same as when a bull is set to a cow, so she will bear a calf and furnish milk. And that is how human folk make a baby.”

“And what do you think of that?” I asked. I expected her to say that she found it hard to believe of our parents, who both had a full measure of dignity.

“I know it is true,” she said, “for I asked Mama. She said there is pleasure in it too, when it is done correctly.”

Papa had said the same. I would not admit to Rachel that I had had no opportunity yet to investigate the matter for myself. So I simply nodded, hoping my little sister thought me wiser than I was.

“Mama told me about rape too,” Rachel said. “That is what Cuneo is doing, is it not?”

“Yes, but—Mama told you?”

“She knew it was a danger, sending me to Barcelona when things were getting worse,” Rachel said, “and none knew what the King and Queen would do about the Jews. She said I must have this knowledge so that if I were taken, at least I would not be taken by surprise.”
For Journey of Strangers, I had to do some serious research on the Sephardic diaspora so I could address the issue of what had become of the rest of the Mendoza family. I quickly found out that the Mendoza family could not have stayed in Firenze (Florence), where I had so blithely put them, under the protection of Lorenzo di Medici. First, Lorenzo died in January 1492. Second, his successor, along with the Jews who had sought refuge there, fled the city in November 1494, when King Charles VIII conquered it. Many of them ended up in Istanbul, where Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them, although the famous one-liner, still quoted– "You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" –was made up by a writer, who else, in 1523. So the Mendozas settled in Istanbul, and I got to develop the characters of Papa and Mama, along with older sisters Elvira and Susanna and their fianćes, later husbands, and in-laws.

The complex rules governing the lives of Jews in Istanbul in the late 1490s; the trauma of their travels; the pressure on the Jewish community to marry their children young and have them reproduce as many Jews as possible--very much like the situation of Jews after the Holocaust--all of these challenge Papa and Mama Mendoza to show what stuff they're made of. Into this situation come their long-lost children, who have befriended naked Taino and helped Moorish slaves escape. Their best friend is Hutia, a lone Taino survivor, and Rachel is determined to marry him. They've been running around the Caribbean half-naked and fighting their way through Europe living by their wits. How are you going to box them into a nice Jewish marriage and a job in Papa's business?

Rachel, with Mama's help, finds herself a job as a personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. Diego goes into partnership with a Muslim ship's captain and former pirate. The plot thickens as Hutia must decide whether conversion to Judaism or to Islam is more likely to win him Rachel's hand in marriage. No spoilers. Read the books! Both are available as trade paperbacks and e-books. Instead, I'll give you the final lines of the homecoming scene (the end of Chapter 23 in Journey of Strangers, when Diego, Rachel, and Hutia finally arrive in Istanbul). I confess that I cried not only the first three times I read it over, but also while I was writing it.
Someone must be coming to the door. It swung open. A young man I did not recognize, wearing a tallit, peered out at us, squinting as if nearsighted.

“Yes?”

Then I heard my sister Elvira’s voice call out, “Akiva? Who is it?”

A girl with a mop of hair as unruly as Rachel’s came flying out of an inner room, shrieking, “It’s them! It’s them!”

My sister Susanna flung herself upon me, arms tight around my neck and legs clinging to my waist.

“Mama! Papa! Come quickly! Diego and Rachel have come home!”

And then Rachel was sobbing in Mama’s arms, and Papa was lifting Susanna down so he could hug me himself, his beard wet with tears as it brushed against my cheek, or maybe the tears were mine.

“My boy, my boy!” Papa said. “Baruch Ha’shem! Thank God you’re home!”
After I'd finished writing Journey, I realized that not only did Papa and Mama Mendoza represent an idealized version of my own parents and a blueprint for the aspects of family that I would have liked and hadn't had, but they also reminded me of the March parents in Little Women, who in turn were Louisa May Alcott's idealized portrait of her own parents, the high-minded but impractical philosopher Bronson Alcott and her beloved mother, immortalized as the March sisters' Marmee. Wise, kind, ethical, loving, principled without being the slightest bit dogmatic, fiercely loyal to family, flexible, open-minded on a deeply intelligent level, and utterly reliable. Cultural relativists. Who wouldn't want such parents? My own being long gone, I'd go home with them in a flash.

Elizabeth Zelvin, a once and forever SleuthSayer, is the author of the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, the Bruce Kohler mystery series beginning with Death Will Get You Sober, and numerous short stories. Her stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer Award and three times for the Agatha Award.

Liz is currently editing the fourth Murder New York Style anthology for the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find her on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin page, on her website at elizabethzelvin.com, and on Facebook as Elizabeth Zelvin.