Driving Miss Royal

The Cable Guy finished updating my website last week. (THANKS, CABLE GUY!) It now loads equally well on the biggest and the smallest devices you own.

Browsing around the site while he was working on it, I came across a “poem” I wrote a long time ago, in my punny phase. Here it is:

Typewriter, mid-20th century. (It's hard to rhyme with Underwood.)

Driving Miss Royal

There once was a writer named Royal,
To her keys and her carriage so loyal.
She knew how to white-out,
Wrote poems with the light out,
She really was quite a smart goyal.

Our Royal could type like a racer;
No one in sight could out pace her.
She typed with great speed
And never did need
Even a tiny eraser.

But poor Royal was out making copies
When they came with the wires and the floppies.
A computer they brought her
And said that she oughta
Start learning or go and plant poppies.

So Royal met up with a cursor
And her life just got worser and worser.
In spite of her wiles
She lost all her files
And spoke in words terser and terser.

Our writer friend couldn’t believe
That software could novels retrieve.
Her disks she would whack
With alas and alack
And for her lost typewriter grieve.

For many ’tis ever so tiring
To figure out manuals and wiring.
But our Royal’s a leader,
A mystery reader,
In days she was back in there firing.

Now Royal performs any feat
With options, escape, and delete.
She does her off-loading
With no more foreboding
And menus for her are a treat.

And now for the rest of the news:
Royal is off on a cruise.
From her PC
She gets efficiency.
There’s gold in them there CPU’s!

©Camille Minichino 1989

How embarrassed should I be?

I Left My Heart Far From San Francisco

West Roxbury, MA c. 2000

Advice to authors: Right up there with “write what you know” is “write what you like.”

I beg to differ. The long version follows.

Throughout this season of winter storms, I’m often asked (by those who apparently don’t know me very well), “Aren’t you glad you’re not still back there?”  Meaning, I suppose, in Boston, where I was born or in New York City, where I went to school.

So, I’m answering the question as publicly as I can. No, I’m not glad I’m where it can hit 80 degrees in February.

I don’t like the Bay Area. There, I’ve said it. I don’t hate it. I just don’t like it.

But it’s much more interesting for me as an author to write the opposite. When I set The Oxygen Murder in my favorite city, New York, I made sure that my protagonist, Gloria Lamerino, hated it. It was fun to try to get inside the head of someone who was bored by Broadway and counted the minutes till her friend would let her leave the Met—more fun than using tour book phrases to describe the “spectacular shows” or the “breathtaking exhibits.”

In my next release (April 2015), I send Gerry Porter (the Miniature Mysteries) to New York. She can’t wait to get home I also try to give my protagonists markedly different temperaments from mine, and different interests.

Gerry, for example, loves the Bay Area. Although she’s an east coaster like me, she’s come to love California life; she gardens and she eats outdoors—not me; my record is clean on both. Gerry knows the names of the trees that line her street (I have to do research among my friends to write these passages). Gerry lives in an Eichler neighborhood like one not far from me in Castro Valley, and she loves her atrium. Wheresaas, an atrium is one of my top three things to rule out when I’m house shopping. Excuse me? Voluntarily buying dirt and bug potential for inside my house? I don’t think so. Atriums are up there with koi ponds and mold in the walls.

To enjoy the San Francisco Bay Area, you have to be basically an outdoors person. You have to love the sun, walk on trails, and, usually, have a pet or two. Again, my record is clean on all three. I lived on Lake Chabot Road for three years before I realized there actually was a Lake Chabot on the road. It’s pretty big, too, they tell me, and there’s a park, but—in my defense—most of its shore (do lakes have shores?) is blocked by trees of some kind.

Gerry never rails against her town of Lincoln Point, a fictitious city perilously close to Mountain View, California—whereas I’m constantly yammering about the state of museums in the Bay Area, compared to the Smithsonian, the Whitney, and the Frick, and wishing I were back at the Met, where I’m a member. San Francisco museums are all about the buildings and the grounds; New York museums are about the exhibits inside, and you don’t need to stand in line for a special ticket so you can spend 20 minutes in a tiny, crowded gallery to see 18 Monets. New York insurance buildings have more than that in their lobbies.

See what I mean about yammering?

A Valentine Story

Now and then, I try my hand at writing romance. Here’s an early attempt.

Plenty of Fish in the Creek

I drove through the rain until I reached the creek that flowed along the edge of the park. My head seemed ready to explode.

“The creep,” I shouted out loud, “dumping me on Valentine’s Day.”

While I tried to gain control of my breathing, a park ranger, draped in plastic, appeared in the darkness. He tapped his club on my windshield, the glow from his flashlight the only break in the smooth black night.

I wiped my teary face on my sweatshirt and cracked the window.

“Good evening,” we said simultaneously, except that I’d read his badge and added, “Officer Hardy,” hoping to flatter the old man into leaving me alone.

“Everything okay?” He squinted at me behind his dripping glasses.

“I’m fine. Just doing a little thinking.”

I wasn’t about to tell him the gory details of my break-up with Derek.

“Man trouble?” he asked, grinning as if he’d been named Therapist of the Year.

“Guess it shows,” I said, still on my flattery track.

“Well that’s no way to spend Valentine’s night,” my new best friend said. “But don’t worry, there’s plenty of fish in the creek.” He made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the noisy rush of water about ten yards away and down as many feet.

“I know I’m not supposed to be here,” I said, waving my hand in the direction of the “no trespassing” sign. “But I need a little time alone.” I put a slight, hopeful emphasis on “alone.”

“Well, the park’s closed, but there’s no hurry. In fact, if you’ll invite me in, I’ll share my supper.”

I felt a twinge of panic and looked around my car. I sniffed the air for embarrassing odors and did a quick inspection for bits of decaying organic matter. Nothing so unhealthy that I can’t entertain an old man for a few minutes, I decided.

“That would be nice, Officer Hardy,” I told him. I hoped I’d set the right tone—formal, so he wouldn’t get the wrong idea of his chances with the attractive young woman that I was (Derek’s rejection notwithstanding), yet friendly, to preclude a ticket for loitering. I wondered exactly what authority park rangers had, and whether there was a weapon beneath his opaque plastic wrap.

Officer Hardy went to his county-owned Jeep and returned with a bright red metal lunch box, mercifully lacking cartoon characters. I was happy to hear him credit his wife for the treats within. No one mentions his little woman one minute, and then hits on a girl the next, I reasoned.

Mabel Hardy, he told me, prepares a meal for him every night. It’s usually gone by now but, lucky for me, he was distracted this evening by a raccoon fight.

As we sat in my car and drank tract-home coffee, I told him as little as possible about my falling out with Derek. We split a sugar cookie in the shape of a heart with red sprinkles over the top, and I let him think I was grateful for his unparalleled wisdom.

“Buck up and by next Valentine’s Day, you’ll have someone special,” he said, moving crumbs from his raincoat to his lunch box.

Another stroke of luck for me, I thought, I don’t have to take care of anyone’s lunch box.

“Guy that dumps you doesn’t deserve to be walking around,” Officer Hardy said as he repacked his thermos.

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

“Got to go,” he said at last, putting his hat back over his thin white hair. “You lock these doors, and take your time pulling yourself together.”

Just what I wanted to hear.

I waited until the sound of Hardy’s Jeep died away. Although the rain had stopped, the sky was still a mass of the darkest gray, without a trace of moonlight. I switched on my flashlight and walked to the back of my car, sinking into the mud.

I opened the trunk and pulled out Derek’s body. His ugly khaki windbreaker got caught in my bumper and slowed me down, but I managed to free him.

I rolled Derek’s lifeless weight to the edge of the cliff and pushed him over the side. For a moment I stood there, wondering if the fish in the creek were aware of their new companion.

On my way out of the park, I passed Officer Hardy in his Jeep. We tapped on our horns and waved at each other as I drove away.

<> the end <>

Turn on the TV!

Meme for the day: Reading is overrated.

I’m talking about reading for reading’s sake, turning the greatest number of pages, racking up the largest number of index cards with mini book reports on them. The latter is a common way of holding competitions in schools and libraries.

One local school recently had a bigger-than-life wooden thermometer on its front lawn. It was called a READING thermometer, with numbers representing books read by the students. Each class had a different color and charted the number of books read by the students in that class. And, you guessed it, the class that read the most books got a prize.

Yes, it was a competition—and, regardless of content, the number of books was all that mattered. “Every book read,” said one teacher in an interview, “is an hour away from TV.”

By this reasoning, a second grader reading a mindless book about, say, dancing dinos, was better off than one watching a TV special on the komodo dragon. And a child turning 600 pages of a fantasy novel is better off than one watching a 20-minute YouTube video on the formation of bubbles in a liquid. I don’t think so.

It’s a misconception to think of reading as “active” and TV as “passive.” What could be less active than sitting in a chair or on a rock, the only muscles moving being those of a finger turning a page (or sliding across a screen) or a jaw munching a pretzel? If what’s on the page isn’t truly engaging, it might as well be crepe paper.

I’m happy that many bookstores now have larger children’s sections than adult stacks, but I’d give anything to vet those books and toss the ones that would be better replaced by a video section or even crepe paper.

Laser-sharp memories

The death this week of Charles Townes brought me back to my grad school days. It doesn’t take much, since my time in a basement lab at Fordham was one of the richest periods in my life. Gotta love those Jesuits—a mental challenge a minute!

Townes and Schawlow were household names at the time, and breakthroughs in lasers were important to those of us involved in spectroscopy.

The one I used in the early 1960s was a 200-cm tube filled with a mixture of helium and neon, with highly polished mirrors to sustain the laser action. Every morning we had to clean the mirrors to coax the long glass tube into action.

We lived for a while with only the He-Ne and the ruby laser—I know exactly where I was when news came in 1964 that an argon laser had come on line!

It was the people as much as the technology that marked my time at Fordham. I remember them all, keep in touch with many, and miss those who are gone.

The Edgars®

Due to a special announcement, Wednesday is the new Thursday for this week.

Today, the Mystery Writers of America announced the nominees for the Edgar®

Award. Congratulations to all!

Here they are:

Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce, as we celebrate the 206th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, the Nominees for the 2015 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2014. The Edgar® Awards will be presented to the winners at our 69th Gala Banquet, Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.

BEST NOVEL

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
Wolf by Mo Hayder (Grove/Atlantic – Atlantic Monthly Press)
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (Simon & Schuster – Scribner)
The Final Silence by Stuart Neville (Soho Press)
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown)
Coptown by Karin Slaughter (Penguin Randomhouse – Ballantine Books)

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR

Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman (W.W. Norton)
Invisible City by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books)
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie (Minotaur Books – A Thomas Dunne Book)
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh (Crown Publishers)
Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver (Minotaur Books – A Thomas Dunne Book)

BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL

The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Albani (Penguin Randomhouse – Penguin Books)
Stay With Me by Alison Gaylin (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
The Barkeep by William Lashner (Amazon Publishing – Thomas and Mercer)
The Day She Died by Catriona McPherson (Llewellyn Worldwide – Midnight Ink)
The Gone Dead Train by Lisa Turner (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books)

BEST FACT CRIME

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook (W.W. Norton)
The Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
The Other Side: A Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson (Tin House Books)
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William Mann (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper)
The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation by Harold Schechter (Amazon Publishing – New Harvest)

BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL

The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis by Charles Brownson (McFarland & Company)
James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Jim Mancall (McFarland & Company)
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands: Classic Film Noir by Robert Miklitsch (University of Illinois Press)
Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law: Exploring the Legal Dimensions of Fiction and Film by Francis M. Nevins (Perfect Crime Books)
Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe by J.W. Ocker (W.W. Norton – Countryman Press)

BEST SHORT STORY

“The Snow Angel” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Doug Allyn (Dell Magazines)
“200 Feet” – Strand Magazine by John Floyd (The Strand)
“What Do You Do?” – Rogues by Gillian Flynn (Penguin Randomhouse Publishing – Ballantine Books)
“Red Eye” – Faceoff by Dennis Lehane vs. Michael Connelly (Simon & Schuster)
“Teddy” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Brian Tobin (Dell Magazines)

BEST JUVENILE

Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Space Case by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Greenglass House by Kate Milford (Clarion Books – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)
Nick and Tesla’s Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove by “Science Bob” Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith  (Quirk Books)
Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)
Eddie Red, Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)

BEST YOUNG ADULT

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano (Penguin Young Readers Group – Kathy Dawson Books)
Fake ID by Lamar Giles (HarperCollins Children’s Books – Amistad)
The Art of Secrets by James Klise (Algonquin Young Readers)
The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY

“The Empty Hearse” – Sherlock, Teleplay by Mark Gatiss (Hartswood Films/Masterpiece)
“Unfinished Business” – Blue Bloods, Teleplay by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor (CBS)
“Episode 1” – Happy Valley, Teleplay by Sally Wainwright (Netflix)
“Dream Baby Dream” – The Killing, Teleplay by Sean Whitesell (Netflix)
“Episode 6” – The Game, Teleplay by Toby Whithouse (BBC America)

ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD

“Getaway Girl” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine By Zoë Z. Dean (Dell Magazines)

GRAND MASTER

Lois Duncan
James Ellroy

RAVEN AWARDS

Ruth & Jon Jordan, Crimespree Magazine
Kathryn Kennison, Magna Cum Murder

ELLERY QUEEN AWARD

STORY STRUCTURE

I have a new favorite bookmark:

I used to think I was cheating when I used movies and television shows to illustrate topics in my writing classes. Not any more. I’ve come to accept that I need all the help I can get for teaching and studying story structure in particular.

For analysis, nothing compares to a story presented visually. The stories are short (about two hours, in one sitting, instead of the many hours, spread over days, that it takes to read a book); plot points are often emphasized by music and crafty camera work; characters change visibly, before our eyes, not needing a thousand words. We may miss the leisurely enjoyment of language, but we feel the immediacy, being hit over the head with structure.

A movie I didn’t particularly like brought me my latest thrill in its use of a device to circle back, from the end to the beginning. The movie was THEORY OF EVERYTHING, with an amazing performance by Redmayne, but somehow the writers et al. missed the fact that Stephen Hawking is a physicist. I guess they thought that wasn’t an important enough part of his life and gave it only a “by the way” in the movie.

But here’s the good moment. It’s not a spoiler in the usual sense, but it does give away this wonderful device. The details may be off since I saw it some time ago, but the idea is in tact.

THEORY OF EVERYTHING – POSSIBLE SPOILER

Toward the beginning of the movie, when Hawking is not yet bowled over by his disease, a woman in a classroom drops a pen. Hawking bends over, picks it up, and hands it to her. No big deal.

Toward the end of the movie (he’s now famous, though you’d never guess why from the movie), a woman in a large audience drops a pen as she asks a big question, like what’s it all about, Stevie?

The camera goes to Hawking, who (with appropriate background music) straightens up in his wheelchair, stands, walks down the steps of the stage to where the pen is, picks up the pen, and hands it to the woman. He walks up the steps and returns to his chair to answer the question.

A great little package; an outstanding device, in a movie or in a novel.

Overlap

Sometimes we call them “repurposed” — the fact is, it’s a rerun.

I ended the old year and started the new with a medical setback, so I’m calling in my chips and RePosting a LadyKiller blog from last year/aka last week. Forgive me if you’re bored.

I’m a glass-half-empty-and-it’s-draining-fast kind of girl, so I can’t speak to making lemonade out of lemons. BUT I can tell you how one of my hobbies turns trash into art.

In the world of miniatures, there’s a spectrum of artists. On one end is Frances Lee, famous for her recreations of crime scenes, which she used to instruct police officers on procedure. Pick up The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death for a fascinating collection of her scenes, made from scratch, down to knitting tiny stockings for a clothes line.

On the other end is, well, me. My particular style of kludging scenes together is called “Found Objects” – taking the cap of a toothpaste tube and turning it into a lampshade, or using a toothpick for a log in a fireplace. Here’s a sample. The scene is a café, set up on a bookcase shelf. The white tables are  the inserts from PIZZA boxes to keep the cover from the food; the chairs are wire and soda bottle caps; the cases for pastry are small plastic boxes sold as organizers.

Bistro in Museum cafe

Each of my Miniature Mysteries (by Margaret Grace) contain tips at the end for found objects. Here are a couple of lemon-to-lemonade samples for your dollhouse or mini scene:

1) The lemon:  small springs found in a used up ballpoint pen.

The lemonade: Attach one to a screen door for a realistic look or place it on the floor of a child’s room as a “slinky.”

2) The lemon: a worn-out woolen winter glove.

The lemonade: a knit cap, made by cutting the tip from a finger of the glove.   Turn up the brim and toss on the floor!

You get the point!

If you think this is cheating, remember the wisdom of Carl Sagan:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

See? Why bother?

My first post of the new year  — I don’t know why I’m always amazed that new years, like new months, are usually the same as the old years, the old months, unless you actually do something about it.

I keep hoping that there’s some magic about that turning point at midnight, when it becomes 2015 or Thanksgiving or my birthday. There should at least be some help from the universe on those days, an extra push, so that, when you make a resolution, you get some free momentum. I’m not asking for another Big Bang, just a kick-start. Aren’t those trending now?

Instead, it turns out, it’s all up to me to make any changes in the new year.

Maybe my new calendars will help. I have three great new calendars: Mathematics, Ray Donovan, and New York, and a new geeky scarf.

What? It’s not looking good, you say?

Any secrets you can share?

A Piece of Peace

2014 was a year of jigsaw puzzles. The old-fashioned hard-copy kind brought together family and friends on many occasions. It’s almost impossible to overlook the metaphor for life. For our card this year we put together a 1000-piece puzzle of the scene at Rockefeller Center, taking a photo before and after. Then we undid it, and sent a piece with this card to everyone on our list. If you’d like a piece, email me with your address!

It might be too-John-Lennon a sentiment, but imagine if we could all get together with our pieces and put the world back together.

This year’s card from me (vague idea) and The Cable Guy (everything else to bring it to life).For God is not a God of confusion, but of Peace. 1 Corinthians 14:33

Wishing you all a happy holiday season.