Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts

28 January 2024

The Road to Perdition


1913 New Year's resolution postcard

Everyone who made a New Year's resolution, singular or plural, raise your hand. Okay, you can put your hand down. 

A month has now passed since you vowed to make some sort of change to better your life. How many of you made a resolution which had to so with your writing?  Did that resolution have the goal of writing a set number of words within a fixed time period? Or maybe the goal of selling X number of stories per year?  How many of you are reaching or are on track to reach that goal? Show of hands.

You might want to know that a 2023 market data research report by Gitnux shows that 50% of people make a New Year's resolution, but only about 8% of those people keep it. Whoa! So much for good intentions. And, only 64.6% of those people keep their resolution past the first month, which means that more than one third of these resolutionists have dropped out of their own well-intended program. My friend, the odds are against you. You may already have both feet well on the road to perdition.

Now, we don't want you to end up being roasted in some writers' hell, or even temporarily delayed in a writers' purgatory, so listen up, here's what you're gonna do.

First, you should always choose a goal where you have control. If your stated goal was to sell more stories, then you are probably already in trouble. For instance, should the readers, and therefore the editors, agents and publishers, decide that your chosen genre is going out of fashion this year, that is something over which you have no control. Under those circumstances, your well-intended goal becomes more difficult, if not impossible to achieve. If you don't believe that can happen, then ask yourself where the westerns went.

You also have no control over a situation where the editor receives more than one story similar in plot, story arc, ending, setting, etc. and therefore your submission is rejected because he only has room for one of these similar stories. Or, if the editor suddenly decides to put a themed edition together for that month and your story, as great as it is, doesn't fit the theme. Or, my favorite, "Your submission doesn't fit our needs at this time." You, as the writer, have no control in these types of situation

The second way to help you not break your resolution(s) is to choose a reasonable goal to begin with. Can you really write a thousand new words a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year Sure, your favorite author may be able to accomplish that feat, but don't set yourself up for failure and disappointment because of a goal set too high. Remember, time must also be set aside for rewriting, editing, promoting, networking, conferences, meetings, family time and just plain living. You can always start out with a lesser goal and gradually raise the word count as time goes by and you become more proficient at your craft.

Okay now, everybody with a good idea on how to make a New Year's resolution and/or how not to break one…

RAISE YOUR HAND

26 December 2023

Boxing: Round One


    December 26th, as all British mystery fans know, is recognized as Boxing Day. The holiday never became established in the United States. Boxing Day rose to prominence in the Victorian Era. By then the United States had separated from the United Kingdom and were busily creating our own holidays. 

    Within the early Christian calendar, the day was, and for some remains, St. Stephen's Day. December 26th commemorates the early Christian deacon and First Century CE martyr. St. Stephen, by tradition, dedicated his life in service to the poor. 

    Celtic people began celebrating Wren Day on December 26th. A dead wren was mounted on a pole and paraded through the village streets. The wren boys knocked on doors asking for money. In exchange, they gave the household a tail feather. The plume is supposed to bring good luck (Unless of course, you're the wren). At least one legend binds these two tales together. St. Stephen, although he was just Mr. Stephen at the time, was hiding from his enemies behind a bush. A chattering wren revealed his location to his captors. Different versions are reported, but in each story, the wren is labeled as treacherous. 

    In the spirit of St. Stephen, the money collected was to be donated to worthy charities. 

    At least two different origin stories exist for Boxing Day. The predominant one holds that during Victorian England, wealthy landowners presented gifts to servants and the poor on the day after Christmas. The servants had to work Christmas Day preparing their employer's feast. The day after, they were allowed to celebrate the holiday with their families. The landowners ate informal meals consisting of leftovers. The servants were provided with boxes containing money, hand-me-down clothing, and other goods, as well as leftovers from the family meal. These Christmas boxes lend their name to the day. 

    The other common theory holds that on the day after Christmas, the church opened the alms boxes, and the parish distributed the proceeds to the needy. 

    Victorians also often spent December 26th outside. After Christmas Day, inside a house jammed with relatives, the urge to get into the open air, burn pent-up energy, and get space from the family proved overwhelming. The hunt became a popular Boxing Day activity. Presumably, if wrens were killed, they would be distributed to Irish friends and subsequently hung from poles. 

    A host of traditions have come together to make this day after Christmas a holiday for more than just post-yuletide retail therapy. 

    One December holiday tradition important to the SleuthSayers community is the announcement of the Black Orchid Novella Award winner. Since 2006, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe Literary Society, have been recognizing novellas. Robert Lopresti and Steve Liskow are past recipients of the award. Back in 2016, I submitted "A Meter of Murder" to the contest.  In "Meter," John Milton, the blind 17th-century author of Paradise Lost, served as the sleuth. The committee chose my story and inducted me into the community of published short story authors. I remain indebted to them.

    My congratulations, therefore, to Libby Cudmore for her winning story, "Alibi in Ice." We'll get to read her tale in the summer issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

  I'm circling back to a Milton story, sort of, in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In "The Devil in the Details," an English professor finds inspiration for his misdeeds in the words of Paradise Lost. As always, I'm honored to be included in the pages of the magazine, this time alongside fellow 'sleuthers, Robert Lopresti and Michael Bracken. Now here is a tradition I'd love to continue throughout 2024.

    Whatever your holiday traditions include, I hope that you enjoy them with family and friends either inside or outside. May all your books and stories sell. And if your holiday tradition involves wren slaughtering, may the SPCA never find your home address. 

    Nollaig Shona Dhuit. (Google tells me that's a holiday greeting in Irish.) 

    Until next year.

24 December 2023

Christmas Eve in 3D


Many years ago, SleuthSayers published a charming animated version of White Christmas as sung by the Drifters. This year I stumbled upon a 3D version. Given an excuse to compare and contrast whilst enjoying the Drifters, here are the two versions. Enjoy and a have a wonderful Christmas.

White Christmas, © 1942, composed by Irving Berlin, performed 1954 by the Drifters featuring Bill Pinkney (bass) and Clyde McPhatter (tenor).
 
   
  Original 2D animation by Joshua Held

 


 
   
  3D animation Dominique Gervais & Karen Dufour

 


Merry Christmas and happy New Year!

23 November 2023

Giving Thanks in 2023


 Holiday Greetings, SleuthSayers Faithful! Since my spot in the SleuthSayers rotation comes every other Thursday, it seems inevitable that every few years my spot will fall on this, in many ways the most American of holidays.



I'm speaking, of course, about Thanksgiving.

The last time I wrote a Thanksgiving post for Sleuthsayers was in 2020, when we as a planet found ourselves mired deep in the Time of COVID. If you'd like to compare, you can find that post here.

So here's my three-year update of what I'm thankful for:

My Family: most especially for my wife, Robyn, and my son, James. The two of them keep me honest and keep things around Casa Thornton fun. Also grateful for my parents, my brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, etc.

My Friends: What can I say? Friends old and more recent, they fill me up, and support me. And I do my damnedest to return the favor.



My Health: After some recent challenges to my health, things have been looking up for the lion's share of 2023, with only metaphorical blue skies in evidence for 2024.

My Writing: I dove into the deep end of the short story market this past twelve months, and it was nice to be able to not only find my groove again, but really work to up my game, write scenes I might not have considered, conceived or attempted earlier in my career. It's been, and continues to be, a wonderful ride!














My Day Gig:
 I love my job. Make this, jobs. Both of them. My writing career (see above) has been, and continues to be, a labor of love that has paid dividends since the jump. My day job is teaching history (currently, and for the past seventeen years, to eighth graders). With COVID, overcrowded classes, and wrestling with a district administration that frequently seems to fail to understand the importance of what I do for a living, it had admittedly been a struggle over the past years.

The kids, for the most part, have remained AWESOME. Absolutely the best portion of what I do. And this year, even more so.

This year, I'm teaching a new subject (Yay U.S. History! And I'll miss Ancient & Medieval, but this is still a welcome change.), working on updating curriculum across multiple fronts. And get this: one of the newest members of my school's history department is a former student of mine. Yes, I have indeed been around that long.

I've written before about "Kids These Days", and fresh on the heels of parent-teacher conferences held just last night, my thoughts turn yet again to this subject: these children and the families who love, support and raise them, are our collective future. And judging from the families I've gotten to know and their wondrous progeny, our future rests in good hands.

The Writing Community At Large: I mentioned "friends" above, and many of my friendships began as acquaintances in the writing community, so of course I have friendships which double dip in "both" my daily life and my peers among the Writing Community at large (thinking especially of my MWA-Northwest cronies here). But more than that, I continue to find writers in general interested in what other writers (myself among them) are up to, and more than willing to be of assistance if at all possible. Twenty or so years into the game, I cherish these associations, and this community, more than ever.

Where I Live: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I've lived a lot of places, but there really is no place like home. Still love the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, I know, I know. The rain. I've lived in the desert. Still enjoy visiting. Lived on the prairies. Magic there, too. LOVE going back.

Still, this is home.

The Seattle Mariners and Baseball in General: Yes, I know they missed the playoffs. Don't care. We'll get 'em next year. And it's only 80 days until "Pitchers and Catchers Report"!

SleuthSayers: This place helps keep me writing. Those twice-monthly deadlines are always there, looming. And as my wife (who ought to know best) is fond of saying of me, I do my best work on a deadline. And that thankfulness includes those of you dear readers who took the time to read this, and for all the folks who have stopped in to have a look at my work over the past decade and a bit.

And on that positive note I am off. Here's wishing us all a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!



13 May 2023

Mother's Day and Why I Crack Foxy


Perched atop my basement cabinet is a Maltese Falcon. 

Not the Maltese Falcon prop, understand, but it’s the same size as the movie dingus, the same regal pose, same black matte if less dramatically lit. I bought the thing off eBay complete with that needless sort of tack-on certificate that calls authenticity into question. The whole room is a nod to The Maltese Falcon, with replica period furniture and sidelight insets of Spade and Archer-style frosted glass. The reason behind the homage goes back long ago, to the woman who first encouraged me to dream.

My mom. She died in February.

Mom was always drawn to the creative, to art and architecture. She wrote histories of Louisville homes and reveled in garden design wherever she traveled—and over a lifetime she traveled her share. She loved plays, musicals, the orchestra, anything with a story. She read widely and constantly. Biographies were her staple, to feed her curiosity about what people did and what made them tick. Her tastes in fiction leaned toward literary--but only a lean. Mom could talk Poirot or Rumpole or Morse with anybody. Perry Mason was a favorite show, and maybe she had a little thing for Paul Drake.

One weekend, Mom and Dad bundled the whole family into the car and drove us to UofL’s Speed Art Museum. Young Me wasn’t exactly stoked over art museums. I was more of a dinosaur man then. Mom’s lure was that we would catch a movie. A black-and-white classic, she said, which did not boost Young Me’s excitement. Young Me wasn't getting a vote. There was a classic movie festival, and I was going.

To The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t know why Mom picked this particular festival that particular day. It occurs to me now that I never asked. That’s another thing about grief. You keep stumbling on so many half-stories and so many fuzzy memories you want to be remembered. There stays this shape of a loved one where they'd filled your life. I keep thinking it’s time to call her. And I can’t.

But I've long understood why Mom wanted her kids to see classic films. Because they were classics. Mom believed in a way of living. There was the world of family, of practical safeguarding and careful shepherding. Beyond that was the reason we're all here, a big world that we're to seek out. 

Life is a beautiful community, in her view, or at least it should be. People are meant to engage each other, to laugh and enjoy good company. To live well Mom’s way, you had to be up on events, on dance steps, on the classics. You had to be on the scene and conversation ready.

Plus, she liked Bogart. Of course, she did. Even the name is evocative a half-century later. Bogey made any story crackle. Young Me sure thought so watching him match wits with Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet. That noir patter was corny--in a great way. These people snapped off terrific line after terrific line like champs in pro banter. This was gold, this stuff about black birds and sending up gunsels and birds cracking foxy. And anything could happen in this black-and-white San Francisco. Anything, even a sea captain bursting into Sam's office.

I spent the next weeks letting my imagination revel in Bogey and this character-palooza. Mom could've shut me down, and no doubt wanted to a few times, but she did what she always did. She egged me on. She'd put books in our hands as soon as we could read. When she spotted my storyteller's instinct, she bought me a notebook and asked me to write. 

It's only fitting on Mother's Day to thank her for that and being right about a million other things. This world is huge. Fascinating, and it can even be beautiful on its best days, with the best stories and best teachers to help us through. 

Last night I re-watched The Maltese Falcon for the umpteenth time, this time in her honor. I still think about that darkened museum theater whenever Sam Spade lands a wisecrack or my maybe-authentic Maltese Falcon replica makes me smile. My dingus has a few chips in it, but don't we all? So, yes, I enjoy the classics. Yes, sometimes I listened to my mother. Admitting stuff like that puts you in solid with the boss.

14 February 2023

A Valentine List


St. Valentine is the patron saint of affianced couples, beekeepers, epilepsy, fainting,
greetings, happy marriages, lovers, plague, travelers, and young people. 

Since this blog appears on February 14th, let us focus on the part of that resume dealing with love and marriage. 

A bit of background. According to a medieval legend, a Roman priest named Valentinus was arrested during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus. Valentinus landed in the custody of Asterius, a nobleman. Valentinus used his time in this imperial hoosgow to preach about the salvation of pagans. Asterius, the legend says, challenged the priest. If Valentinus could heal Asterius's blind daughter, the nobleman would convert. 

The priest gently laid his hands on the girl's eyes. He began to pray and chant. When he drew back his hands, her sight returned. Asterius, true to his word, adopted Christianity for his entire household. The emperor, however, was not entertained by the story. He ordered everyone executed. Valentinus was beheaded on February 14th. 

Maybe he carried love letters between the cells. Maybe he married Roman soldiers to their girlfriends. No one is sure. History isn't clear that this is the right Valentine. 

A second possible Valentinus was the bishop of Terni in Umbria, Italy. He, too, sought a conversion, healed a child, and was beheaded by Gothicus for his troubles. 

There was a third possible Valentinus. He died in Africa, and next to nothing is known of him except his name and date of death, February 14th. 

The first Valentine's Day mystery. 

Little in the aforementioned has anything to do with romantic love. That association begins later, likely with Geoffrey Chaucer. But to be fair, there is little in the Valentinus story having to do with beekeepers. That also is an English addition associated with the promise of Spring. 

In German, the saint's name is pronounced Fallentin. The similarity to the word "fallen" likely links him to epilepsy and the plague. These diseases, incurable in the medieval period, both required saintly intervention. 

Crime fiction has its own fallen. And there is that element of mystery surrounding the saint's origin. These connections will serve as my jumping-off point. While many crime solvers involve romantic entanglements, let us narrow the field in honor of the holiday. Who makes the best crime-solving couples? Possible spoiler alerts run throughout the following list. 

    1. Sister Fidelma and Brother Eadulf (Peter Tremayne)

    "...[W]without your advice, your ability to analyse, I would not have succeeded in many of the investigations we have undertaken...you will forever be my soul-mate, my anam chara, and if you go my soul will die."

(Fidelma to Eadulf in The Chalice of Blood)

    These stories, set in the 7th Century, contain criminal investigation, analysis, Catholicism, soul mates, and drops of Irish. This couple seemed the perfect place to begin in honor of the religious roots behind St. Valentine's Day. Eadulf, from the Roman tradition of the early church, is matched with Fidelma, a dalaigh and nun from the Irish tradition. Their differing perspectives on religion, a central component of their shared lives, allows for debate. Their alternative viewpoints offer distinct ways to sort out possible bits of evidence. Both Fidelma and Eadulf aid in the solution of the crime. They are a pair. 

    2. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (Dorothy Sayers)

    "If anyone marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle." 

    (Vane to Wimsey in Strong Poison)

        Harriet Vane, a mystery writer, meets Lord Peter, a detective, when she is on trial for murdering her lover. The lover was poisoned, the same method Vane had been researching for her next book. Wimsey helps her get acquitted by proving who really committed the murder. The couple moves from courtship to marriage, solving murders along the way. 

    3. Albert Campion and Lady Amanda Fitton (Margery Allingham)

    Fitton: "So you've decided to come clean at last." 

    Campion: "Metaphorically speaking." 

    (Fitton to Campion in Sweet Danger)

    Red-haired Amanda brings passion and expertise to complement the character of Albert Campion. She provides mechanical skills as an aircraft engineer and a spark to Campion, a man other characters describe as "bland". Neither superhero nor purely rational thinking machine, Campion relies upon her technical abilities to aid in his work unraveling knots. 

    4. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes (Laurie King)

    "You cannot help being a female, and I should be something of a fool were I to discount your talents merely because of their housing." 

    (Holmes in The Beekeeper's Apprentice)

    Besides the beekeeping, which gives this book an extra check in the St. Valentine box, the first book paired a fifteen-year-old Mary Russell with a mid-fifties Sherlock Holmes. A mentor-to-mentee relationship deepens across subsequent books. Eventually, they marry. Her quirks and intellect proved Holmes equal. King's Mary Russell stories give Holmes a life-blooded passion. 

    5. Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett)

    "Listen, darling, tomorrow I'll buy you a whole lot of detective stories, but don't worry your pretty little head over mysteries tonight." 

    (Nick to Nora in The Thin Man

    I'll confess that I remember Nick and Nora far better from the Thin Man movies than the Dashiell Hammett story. My Nick is always William Powell thin and owns a wire-haired terrier. This couple is distinct from the others. While the previous pairs generally offered a partnership of relative equals, Nick does the detecting and is cheered on or pushed and prodded forward by his rich, thrill-seeking wife. Despite the detection imbalance, Nora regularly proves to have more brains and metal than haute couture appearances suggest.

    William Powell and Myrna Loy shaped the trope of the romantically involved, crime-detecting duo. Even if the couple isn't a traditional partnership, they must be on this list. To see the murder solved is not why we watch, but rather to enjoy the boozy, wise-cracking interplay between Nick and Nora. 

    Do you have other crime-solving Valentine's couples to propose? Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley? Or a more contemporary duo? I look forward to reading your thoughts. 

    Until next time. 




01 January 2023

№ 00419088


Lee Morris, Helen Louise Morris, Ryan Morris
Lee Morris, Helen Louise, Ryan

Louisiana Perish

Twenty seven years ago on another New Years Day in a small northern Louisiana town, the bodies of a moderately wealthy couple in their late sixties were found shot to death, Lee and Helen Louise Morris. Their visiting 9-year-old grandson, Ryan, was missing.

Near the end of the month, a teen found Ryan’s pajama-clad body. All three Morrises had  been shot in the head by the same .22 calibre pistol. Two months after the discovery, investigators arrested Mark Morris, son of Lee and Helen, father of Ryan, for first degree homicide.

The arrest surprised no one except the arrestee. He had been terribly careless in quotes and comments, raising suspicions since the beginning of the case. He was even picked up on a courthouse microphone admitting to his then-lawyer that he was guilty. The unusual aspect of this case was the motive– Louisiana’s Legislature had recently changed the law.

Untenable story, miniature of page 1

Fiction Becomes Factual

Several years ago, a Canadian publication serialized a locked-room mystery, one I’d written. Its title, ‘Untenable’, was a play on words. The motive in that homicide was a 2010 change in federal law.

It was a damned good locked room conundrum and I considered the motive unique. Then recently, I discovered a real murderer reacted to a change in state statutes.

For two centuries, a Louisiana doctrine called ‘forced heirship’ dictated that parents must divide their estate evenly amongst their progeny. No child could be disinherited without disinheriting all. The repeal abolished forced heirship and would take effect exactly midnight on New Year’ Day 1996.

Unhappy New Year

Helen Louise and Lee Morris visited their attorney and wrote a new will, leaving out their troublesome kid, Mark. They made the mistake of telling him.

Mark Morris allowed his parents to live into the waning hours of 1995 and then killed them for their nest egg. Grandson Ryan witnessed the killings and, in that parent’s depraved mind, he had to go.

With one exception, surprisingly little about the case appears on-line, mainly an AP news item and a find-a-grave squib. The one exception, however, is a well-written article explaining details. I recommend it.

As far as I can determine, Mark Morris resides in Angola Prison. He’ll die there whereupon his corpse will be interred in a grave with no marker revealing his name nor even his prisoner number, 00419088.


May you have a singularly wonderful — and safe — 2023.

02 January 2022

New Years - Past, Present, Future Done Lightly


New Years Past

A century ago, similar concerns.

cartoon © 1921 Buffalo Times (New York)
Normalcy © 1921 Buffalo Times (New York)

New Years Present

The light show, just because.


New Years Future

At heart, mystery writers are romantics searching for happy endings in our own little world.

Oh, c'mon, admit it– that's sweet.


Happy New Year!

19 December 2021

Elf's Lament


When folks think of a romantic Christmas, some think of Barenaked Ladies. And Sarah McLachlan.

Wait, we’re not talking bare, naked ladies, although I fondly recall a holiday season with Bubbles LaFerne… Well, never mind.

We’re discussing the Ontario retro pop rock band that isn’t bare, isn’t naked, and isn’t ladies. They’re also damn smart lyricists.

You probably know then from one or more hits such as ‘One Week’, which has a higher rapid-fire word count (600) than some short stories. Founders Ed Robertson and Steven Page also wrote ‘The History of Everything’, the theme song of The Big Bang Theory, and the Grinch theme.

Beyond clever, clever wordsmithing, the group likes to collaborate. In 2004, they released a Christmas album, Barenaked for the Holidays, which reminds me that Bubbles… Sorry, pay no attention. It’s been a long pandemic.

The collection includes Christmas and Chanukah songs, traditional and some newly written by BNL’s Page, Robertson, Kevin Hearn, and the Creeggan brothers. Here is a collaboration with Sarah McLachlan practicing ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ / ‘We Three Kings’.

Did I mention Barenaked Ladies wrote and performed ‘Green Christmas’, the 2000 soundtrack for How the Grinch Stole Christmas?

At the time, Michael BublĂ© was relatively unknown, but the crooner (pictured below) joined Barenaked to sing a Robertson/Page tune, ‘Elf’s Lament’.

Listen, class, for the third Christmas in a row, we’re living under threat of the COVID pandemic. As Eve Fisher and others have pointed out, people haven’t stopped dying, but we’ve grown weary… and careless.

Canadians have taken the coronavirus seriously, mourning a total of 30,000 deaths. In contrast, Florida with 5/9th the population of Canada, has more than doubled Canada’s total. America has surpassed 828 000 deaths out of 52-million known cases. Professionals believe the majority could have been saved with mandatory masks and vaccinations.

Like Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, it’s looking to be a forlorn Christmas, friends still in lockdown, no decorations… Wait… incoming text message… Bubbles LaFerne… Hey! Like Santa, she’s flying into town and she’s vaccinated! (Humming a brand new song, ‘Baby, it’s warm inside…’)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

08 November 2021

Halloween: The (Literary) Flip Side


 by Steve Liskow

As crime/mystery writers, we've all probably written our share of Halloween-themed stories. Even if they don't sell, they're a convenient writing prompt when the cuboard is otherwise bare. Halloween, a week before Guy Fawkes Day for the British and only another week to Veterans' Day. Halloween and Samhain have become the autumnal duet, the night before All Saints' Day.

But what about the B-side, exactly six months earlier? Many writers have used that one, too, even though we may not notice it as readily.

Christianity has borrowed (Okay, stolen) from other religions since the beginning. Christmas and the Winter Solstice have merged. The vernal equinox, the myth of Mithras, Beltane, and various fertility rites have become Easter. But the writer's favorite may be Walpurgisnacht, April 30. Walpurga (various spellings) was a Polish priest canonized by the Catholic church centuries ago. Tradition asserts that the supernatural forces roam free on that night, and celebrants in parts of Europe light bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay. And many writers have mixed the elements into stories we all know.

In the early English calendar, "Midsummer," which we'd expect to be in early August, was actually May first, a fertility rite (As in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"), with the Maypole that Nathaniel Hawthorne erected in Merrymount for one of his short stories.


Midsummer day followed Walpurgisnacht (April 30, remember?) and A Midsummer Night's Dream chronicles the night on which Shakespeare's young lovers get lost in the woods outside Athens so Oberon, Titania and Puck can cast spells upon them and the rude mechanicals. It all leads to a happy ending, though. Theseus marries Hippolyta, Lysander marries Hermia, and Demetrius marries Helena, all on May 1, presumably fruitful unions. I directed  the play in 1993 and played Wall in another production in 2001.

Sometime between those two productions, I worked with a director and a co-producer to wrestle Goethe's Faust, the two-part epic, down to a manageable length for a one-night presentation. The work is over 11,000 lines, nearly three times as long as Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play, and we managed to cut over half of it and remain coherent. Goethe names a scene in Part I  "Walpurgisnacht," and a scene in Part II "Classical Walpurgisnacht." It was appropriate for our production, a summer show in a non-air-conditioned factory. With the stage lights, it was hot as hell. 

That same Walpurgisnacht is the day Bram Stoker sends the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula's castle. Several beautiful women approach him with bad intentions, but the Count stops him before they can enjoy the fresh young blood he wants for himself.

More recently, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has three acts, and Albee called the second one "Walpurgisnacht." It follows "Fun and Games," in which Geroge and Martha welcome the unsuspecting Nick and Honey into their home. It's where the brutal psychological battle takes place, leading to "The Exorcism," in which George finally gets the upper hand on Martha and demolishes their own life of lies and delusions. The first act has lots of humor, but people tend to forget that when the demons come out to dance later on. I directed the play in 1996, one of my favorite projects. 


Last, and probably least, a case I only discovered last week when I was researching this post, Black Sabbath's perennial FM hit "War Pigs" was originally titled "Walpurgisnacht." I'm guessing they changed it because Ozzy Osbourne couldn't pronounce it.

Have you ever tried a Walpurgisnacht story? What other tales have I missed?

27 December 2020

A Weird Christmas Tale for Writers


Terry Pratchett gave us the character of Hogfather to replace Santa Claus in his best-selling fantasy series. And, since it is only fair that Hogfather, like Santa, should have his own minions, I give you Blind Pig as a potential candidate for one of his elves.

Having worked the motorcycle gangs for several years, it did not take long to find a real-life representative for the character of Blind Pig, a hulk of a free-thinking biker who sees the world around him through a different filter. But, he does love his customized Harley.

So, here's your Christmas gift from me for this year.

A Weird Christmas Tale for Writers
Having been severely encouraged by his new old lady Patricia to acquire a modicum of culture and perhaps broaden his literary interests at the same time, the Pig made the momentous decision to write his memoirs and give them to Patricia as a Christmas present. He perceived himself as the only proper expert for this endeavor, seeing as how he was the sole person that truly understood himself.
Patricia for her part, was suitably impressed that the Pig was going to write anything, much less his autobiography.


Having now heard the term autobiography banded about for the first time, the Pig was stymied for a minute or two. He had been so caught up in the idea of drafting his memoirs that he hadn't even considered the words auto and biography in the same sentence. Ambling off to the kitchen for another beer, he contemplated the two words and decided they wouldn't do at all for his project. In the first place, the Pig refused to ride in one of them steel cages known as an auto, that was for civilians in the straight life. And in the second place, he decided that most auto biographies must have been written by race car drivers, which obviously left him out. Therefore, being a motorcycle enthusiast, he decided to refer to his memoirs as a motor-cy-ography.

Thus having rendered that turning-point decision, he proceeded to gather up his writing materials. Lacking the immediate possession of either a computer or an old-fashioned typewriter, the Pig adjusted his mind to write in longhand. He promptly located the stub of a carpenter pencil and an almost dried-up ballpoint pen bearing the logo of his local bail bond agent. Finding no clean paper to write upon, Pig then moved on to cut up a stash of old brown-paper grocery bags that he'd forgotten to throw in the trash over the last several years. As he labored, Pig thought he had now acquired a glimpse into the demise of the modern writer, seeing as to how most grocery bags had gone from paper to plastic, thus depriving the writer of a convenient source of free paper material.

All set to begin with carpenter pencil in hand, the Pig suddenly found himself plagued by Writer's Block, which pleased him immensely because he now knew that he was on the road to being a real writer, otherwise he wouldn't be blocked. In order to break through this barrier, the Pig thought about what other writers talked of at times like these and knew immediately what he needed to do. Turning to the Z's in the Yellow Pages, he punched a phone number into his cell and waited for someone to answer.
  "Hello. This is the zoo. How may I help you?"
  "Do you have one of those Bullwinkle things?"
  "Excuse me."
  "You know, one of those big brown, grass eating things from the north woods."
  "Oh, you mean a moose?"
  "Yeah, can I borrow one for a while?"
  "I'm sorry, sir. We only loan our animals out to other zoos, not private individuals."
  "Just for a couple of weeks. I'll take good care of him."
The line went dead.
Incensed at his first rejection as an author, Pig retired to the bedroom and commenced rooting through the closet. In quick order, he extracted his black, ninja, steal-at-night clothes, a red Santa hat trimmed in white rabbit fur, several lengths of rope and two pair of old sweat socks from the laundry hamper. As the sun went down, he loaded all his gear into an old pickup he had borrowed from an unsuspecting neighbor. He also threw in a case of Jamaican Red Stripe beer, ten peanut and jelly sandwiches and three Moon Pies, just in case he got hungry during the coming escapade.
#
Early the next morning, as a heavy metal version of Jingle Bells played on the truck's radio, Pig returned to the house where his new old lady Patricia was waiting on the front porch. In the back of the pickup, Pig had one dazed, bound, gagged and blindfolded moose. With an apparent perception of the problem, Patricia then proceeded to explain to Blind Pig the difference between the large, antlered herbivore he had kidnapped from the zoo, ie. a moose, as opposed to the spiritual inspiration for a writer, ie. a muse.

Undaunted by this minor mistake, Pig asked if he could keep the moose in the backyard at least until after the Christmas holidays were over.
The moose, still gagged by the two pair of old sweat socks, had no say in the matter.
- not the end -

PS~ there is a Part Two, but we'll save it for maybe another time. In the meantime, keep on writin'.

Merry Christmas to all !!!
or if you are a Pratchett fan, then
Merry Hogwatch Night to you !!!

25 September 2020

Wooden-legged Playboy Bequeaths America a Cherished Ideal


Hey, did you all have a rockin’ Constitution Day last Thursday? A great American day off, complete with outdoor grilling, parades, flags, and late-night fireworks? Yeah, me neither. And not because of the pandemic.

Constitution Day (Sept. 17th) is the federal holiday Americans don’t know. Two hundred thirty-three years ago, 74 men were invited to Philadelphia to consider replacing the weak Articles of Confederation that was proving disastrous for the new American states. The nation was bankrupt and had no treasury or military to speak of. Despite this, citizens were deeply suspicious of a plan to hammer out a new system of government. Only 55 men answered the call. After nearly four months of debate, only 40 (39 representatives and the convention’s president George Washington) signed the resulting document on September 17, 1787, and embarked on a campaign for ratification.

It’s sort of like the story of the Declaration of Independence, only more forgettable. The Fourth of July has everything going for it. A rag-tag band of rebels overthrew a king! In contrast, the Seventeenth of September presages an ugly, querulous slog to durable nationhood. Americans argued about the Constitution in 1787. And they argue about it today.

Jefferson fatuously declared that the men of the Constitutional Convention were “an assembly of demigods.” Yeah—they weren’t. But sometimes imperfect people can conceive a more perfect union. Let’s take, for example, my favorite Constitution signer, Gouverneur Morris.

Gouverneur Morris
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

He hailed from a rich New York family whose family seat was located at Morrisania in the Bronx. Six feet tall, Morris was witty, fit, and imposing, and once served as a body double as the French sculptor Houdon shaped marble into the form of George Washington. There’s just one limb Houdon had to dream up out of his own imagination: Washington’s left leg.

You see, in his twenties Gouverneur Morris lost his left leg in a carriage accident. He wore a wooden prosthesis for the rest of his life. (The New-York Historical Society preserves the pegleg in a glass case next to FDR’s leg brace.) A rumor at the time held that Morris had really lost his leg while leaping out of a window to escape an angry husband.

Morris’s bedroom exploits are legendary. In his diaries, Morris recounted steamy encounters with numerous women in passageways, carriages, even a Parisian convent. He did not discriminate. He dallied with young and old, married or single. He once hooked up with a pair of sisters. He did it in the Louvre, which then served as an apartment complex for nobles. The author of the best Morris biography, Richard Brookhiser, reveals that the language in Morris’s diaries are loaded with euphemisms.
“They performed ‘the rites’; he conferred ‘the joy’; they did ‘the needful.’ They ‘sacrificed to the Cyprian Queen [Venus]’; they ‘performed the first commandment given to Adam, [i.e., be fruitful and multiply] or at least we used the means.’ Over and over, Morris boasted, like a teenager (or at least, like a teenager who knows Latin), that he was suaviter in modo, fortiter in re—gentle in manner, resolute in the deed.”
At one point Morris exclaims of a woman: “What fine materials for seduction!” In another passage, he writes that he and his partner “brightened the chain together.” (Brookhiser explains that one brightens a chain by, ahem, rubbing it.) After spying Dolley Madison in a low-cut dress, Morris wonders if she is “amenable to seduction.” Yes, Dolley was happily married, but Morris dismissed fellow signer James Madison, architect of the U.S.’s three branches of government, as “shriveled.”

So that’s the hormonal side of the man. Like a peripatetic Zelig, he also popped up at key moments in history and used his brains to set things to rights. During the American Revolution, he traveled to Valley Forge to check on Washington’s troops, was gob-smacked at what he found, and lost no time describing to Congress the “naked, starving condition” of their army. He developed the U.S.’s decimal-based monetary system, employing the word “cent” to replace the British “penny.” Living abroad after the war, he bore witness to the horrors of the French Revolution and lent money without expectation of repayment to nobles fleeing their homeland. He was at Alexander Hamilton’s bedside when the man died of the bullet lodged near his spine, and later delivered Hamilton’s eulogy. Pressed into service for his hometown, Morris laid out a scrupulously logical street plan for New York City, which satisfied his apparent love of precision and mathematical order, and playfully mocked the European design of Washington, DC.

When in his teens, Morris knocked over a kettle of boiling water and scalded off most of the flesh from his right arm. The nerves were most likely damaged, and the limb remained scarred and impaired for the rest of his life. Considering his double blow—the loss of a leg and the disfiguring of his arm—one would expect Morris to be a bitter man. On the contrary, he was generally happy and took pains to write letters consoling friends and acquaintances in their times of need. And while his father, mother and family all owned slaves, he held no enslaved persons of his own, and in one of the 173 speeches he made at the Constitutional Convention (the most of any signer) he railed against the institution, calling it a “curse of heaven.” Late in life, the old bachelor shocked his family by marrying a woman twenty-two years his junior who had been implicated in the murder of her illegitimate child by another man, her adulterous brother-in-law.

Morris was indeed colorful, but why bore you with his exploits? History is filled with the deeds of dead white men. We certainly don’t need more of them, even if they are accomplished, wooden-legged scoundrels.

If you must know, my thoughts fly to Morris because of one paragraph he wrote. One single graf. He’s remembered as the “penman” of the Constitution, and for translating passages in the founding document from dreadful legalese to normal English. In a famous example, he cut 61 words down to 36. The original preamble read, We the people of the states of … and proceeded to name each of the states in attendance at the Constitutional Convention. Morris retooled the first paragraph, throwing in a few of his own masterful touches:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
His stylistic choices are significant. During the debates, Morris had insisted that the president should be chosen not by Congress but by the citizenry. (The Electoral College is the vestigial compromise the framers made on that point.) Nevertheless, Morris arguably exacted his revenge. In one stroke, he wrenched the power of government from the states and bestowed it upon the people.

When the document flew to those states for ratification, the Virginian Patrick Henry—who declined to attend the Constitutional Convention, famously saying that he smelled a rat—pounced on the three words Brookhiser dubs Gouverneur Morris’s “greatest legacy.”

“What right had they to say ‘We, the People’?” Patrick Henry demanded.

Sigh. Nothing changes.

* * *


See you all in three weeks! If you can forgive a little BSP, I hope you’ll check out the trailer my wife created for our own book about the Constitution signers. I append the video here more for its cheerful animation and comedy than anything else. We were just learning how to use the software back then, and wanted it to sound like a modern-day political ad.

And yes, while I am the perpetrator of two books on the signers of two U.S. founding documents, I’d be the first to admit that they are works of political humor and wiseassery. For a serious look at Morris’s life, see historian Richard Brookhiser’s Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (Free Press, 2003).

07 November 2017

Great Gifts for Readers and Writers


This is my last column before the madness that is the Christmas (and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and any other holiday I'm leaving out) shopping season begins on the day after we eat the bird. Yes, some of you may start your shopping on the very day we eat the bird, but I'm a traditionalist. No holiday shopping until the day after Thanksgiving--unless we're talking about books. Then you can shop any time. In bed. While you're at Grandma's. Take a quick run to Barnes and Noble while you're supposed to be grocery shopping. There's always room for more books. And more and more. Not that I have a problem or anything. Nope. Not me.
So, given that I don't have a problem, I thought this would be the perfect time to suggest gifts for readers and writers. You know, people like me (and you, I bet) who don't have a problem with coveting books or writing them, no matter how much they try to quit--wait. What? Quit? Who would want to quit? But I digress. These suggestions are not going to be books themselves. No, that would be silly. Of course the readers in your life want books. And the writers in your life want to write and sell them. You know that. But what you don't know is there are things that go along with books, things the readers and writers on your shopping list secretly want.

What are these wondrous items? Come on. I'll show you.

First we'll start with gifts for readers

Love Beacon

You think this is a book bag, right? It is, but it's so much more.

We'll start with its function as a bag. Every reader needs a book bag. Something to take with her to the library or when she's out and about. It shouldn't be too small because she might finish the book she's reading and need another one. She shouldn't be caught without options. So she'll need to carry several books with her wherever she goes. So make that bag sturdy.

But sturdiness is only one important quality of the bag. It should say something. Does your reader love sci fi? Make sure your bag shows it. Or does your reader coo at cozy mysteries? Let the bag share that with the world. Or, if your reader has eclectic taste, you can simply use the bag to proclaim that its owner loves books. But the bag should make a statement because a book bag can do more than carry books. A book bag can help readers find each other. So keep that in mind when shopping. With a book bag, you're not just giving a tote, you're giving a love beacon--a signal someone can send to the world that she is a reader. And maybe, just maybe, another reader will see the beacon and respond. What better thing to bond over than books?

Book Light

You might have bought a book light decades ago and realized they weren't made well. You might have even had a store clerk at a Waldenbooks discourage you from buying a book light back in the eighties because of their poor quality. (Nope. That wasn't me. No siree.) But today's book lights have come of age. Not only do they work well, but they're lightweight and pretty. Oh so pretty. Doesn't the reader on your list deserve a sturdy way to read in bed without the lamp on. (And to that point, doesn't the reader's mate deserve a way for the reader to read in bed without the lamp on?) So buy a book light. It's a gift for two, all in one.

Go for the Gold

Book bags and book lights are nice, you're thinking. But you want to show the reader in your life just how much you love her. Isn't there something nicer (read: pricier) you can buy? But of course. First, there's an e-reader. Yes, most people who would like a e-reader already have them, but I'd be remiss without mentioning them. When wrists get weak, e-readers can be easier to hold than books. And when eyes get tired, e-readers let you increase the type size, which can be nice too. And if you want a book and have an e-reader, you can click and have that book at your disposal in mere seconds, which is a pretty nifty thing indeed.

But, Barb, you're saying. I don't want to give an e-reader. I want to truly show the love of my life that I get her, right down to her introverted little toes. What can I buy that will show her I understand her completely? (Besides, of course, a vacation for her alone with her books.)

Well, okay. Get out your wallet. Besides a gift card for books, the best thing you can buy a reader is a ... bookshelf. Or two. Or two dozen. More and more and more. There are small bookshelves to go into niches in your bedroom. There are large bookshelves to cover walls in your study. And then, there's the granddaddy gift of them all.

Built-ins.

Nothing says love like a built-in bookshelf. Be still my page-turning heart.


 Gifts for Writers

 The Anti-Welcome Mat

We all know the standard ways people indicate they don't want others knocking on their doors. The Beware Dog sign. The doormat beseeching you to Go Away. The sock on the handle of a dorm room door, indicating that ... well, you know.

Writers need something like this too. All too often, a person toiling at home (especially someone who spends his days making up conversations for imaginary people) is viewed as interruptible.

"Mom, where are the cookies?"

"Have you checked the jar?"  Grumble, grumble.

"Dad, can you drive me to my friend's house?"

"What, your legs don't work?" Even more grumbling.

"Honey, the house is on fire."

"I swear, if I get interrupted one more time I--oh, wait. That's an interruption I'm okay with."

Let's hope that house fires are few and far between. For those other times, your writer needs a way to nicely tell the member of his family to Go Away. So here we have it, a simple sign the writer can hang on his office door. Interrupt thereafter at your peril.

Page Holder

Until you've tried to type in edits, hunching forward to look down at a page on your desk then looking back up to your screen, then hunching forward again to find your place, then straightening up to type the next edits in before hunching once more, over and over and over, you haven't typed in edits first done on paper. Yes, some authors might do all their editing on the computer, but many people edit and proofread the old-fashioned way. I'm one of them. Reading off screen enables me to spot errors I believe I'd otherwise miss. And that's great, until it's time to type in the changes.

That's where a Page Holder comes in. It allows you to have your pages standing upright, so you can sit in the same position, with your eyes on the pages and your fingers on the keys, typing away. And when you need to look to the screen, it's so much easier moments later to simply scan to the left to find your place again on the paper page. This may seem like something silly or unnecessary, but oh my goodness, the writer in your life needs it. Since I got mine a few months ago, typing in edits goes So Much Faster. And, even more exciting, I don't have to worry any more about actually becoming a hunchback, which might be good for fiction set at Notre Dame, but in real life, not so much.

An editor

Every writer needs an editor. You never know when you might be telling too much instead of showing, or writing stilted dialogue, or not recognizing a plot hole so big Big Foot could fit through it. That's why it's always good to get a second pair of eyes, especially someone who specializes in this type of work.

Some authors rely on critique groups, and they can be great. But sometimes an author needs a professional. A freelance editor. This can be especially true for authors trying to sell a first manuscript and authors planning to self-publish. But freelance editors can be pricey, so if you love an author, perhaps the best present you can give is the gift of an editor's time.
I know all about this--it's how I make my living. I can't tell you how rewarding it is to help an author reach his potential, to see a writer sell the story she toiled over, to witness a smile when an author's book lands on a bookstore shelf. So if you have a writer in the family, consider helping him or her splurge on an editor. But be sure to do it after you eat the bird. Holiday shopping can wait. We do have traditions to follow, after all.

So, do you have a great gift you can recommend for the reader or writer in your life? Please share in the comments. And happy early Thanksgiving!

15 September 2015

Nothing Like Holidays to Prompt Joy ... and Murder


Today is the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  (Happy new year to my Jewish readers!) So it seems a perfect day to consider how often crime stories are set during holidays.
82 days until Hanukkah begins!
Crime on holidays? Particularly religious holidays? How blasphemous, some of you may be thinking. But the rest of you, admit it, you're thinking that holidays involve family, and family members not only know each other's buttons, but they love to push them. Of course there's crime during the holidays.

But how much crime? If you follow Janet Rudolph's Mystery Fanfare blog, www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com, you'll have an inkling. Janet loves holidays, and on every one, she posts a list of mystery books/stories she knows about that are set on that day. But reading these  lists piecemeal won't give you the full picture. That's why I've reviewed all her lists from the past year (you're welcome!) and learned that the most dangerous holiday is ...

Drum roll ...
Christmas! Yes, the culmination of the season of joy is the most crime-ridden day of the year, at least according to mystery-fiction writers. Last year Janet listed nearly 600 novels with Christmas crime. That's enough to make Santa go on strike.

What was the next most-dangerous holiday? Take a guess. It's kind of tricky. Ha! It's ... Halloween. The holiday of ghosts and goblins and children begging for candy is perfect for moody, scary stories. Janet's list last year had nearly 200 Halloween mysteries.
Far fewer mysteries have been set on today's holiday, Rosh Hashanah, but there are some. My Macavity Award-winning story "The Lord is my Shamus" references both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), thought it's not set on either of these holidays. Last year Janet's blog listed eight novels and two short-story anthologies set during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between (the Days of Awe). I'll be heading over to her blog today to see if she's added any new books or stories to the list this year.

I've always been a fan of holidays myself. It's fun to dress up in costumes or to torture my dogs by dressing them up. (Check out the photos on the side.) I've written a number of short stories set during holidays, too, with Thanksgiving and Christmas being used most often (four stories each). (My website, www.barbgoffman.com, has a complete list of my published stories.) It's really a no-brainer: family in close quarters with lots of food and drink? Call the cops, baby, 'cause you know what's coming.

Indeed, knowing how ripe holidays can be for inducing murderous thoughts, a few years ago, authors Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I decided that it would be fun to make holidays the theme for the seventh volume of the Chesapeake Crimes series (which we edit). We envisioned an anthology with short stories set on the standard big holidays, but we also hoped for stories set ones used less often in crime fiction. Our authors came through. The resulting book, Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, has stories set on Groundhog Day (my story), Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween, Christmas, and (out of chronological order), Talk Like a Pirate Day. Arrr. Author Cathy Wiley gets mad props for coming up with a story set on this fabulous holiday, which occurs annually on September 19th. That's this Saturday, folks.

And in honor of this holiday, on this Saturday afternoon, five authors with stories in Homicidal Holidays--Donna Andrews, Clyde Linsley, Shari Randall, Cathy Wiley, and I--are scheduled to appear on a panel at Kingstowne Library in Alexandria, Virginia, to talk about using holidays in crime stories. The free event is open to the public. If you're in the Washington, DC, area, we hope you'll attend. You can get more details and register here: http://tinyurl.com/oh2h2kv. (The link will take you to the Fairfax County library website. The link was super long, so I shortened it.)

Cathy Wiley at our launch party.
We've had good luck with this book. My Groundhog Day story, "The Shadow Knows," is a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity awards, and it was a finalist for the Agatha Award in the spring. (You can read it here: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html). Our own Art Taylor also has an Agatha Award-nominated story in the book ("Premonition," a Halloween story), and Cathy Wiley's pirate story ("Dead Men Tell No Tales") was up for a Derringer Award last spring.

So if you like holidays--and who doesn't?--I hope you'll attend this Saturday's panel to learn about using holidays in mysteries. It will be fun for readers and writers. And word has it that Cathy Wiley will be dressed as a pirate. Shiver me timbers, you can't get more fun than that.

Do you like reading mysteries set on holidays? If so, which is your favorite and why?