TV or Not TV?

DruAnn Love (in purple) moderates a panel on crafts and fiction

Back from Bouchercon, mytery conference in Long Beach. Estimated 1800 people attending, about 700 of them crime fiction authors. Panel after panel populated by writers (like the one above) and what was my favorite? A panel of TV people—the producer, actors, and writers of the TV show Major Crimes. The ballroom was filled with fans, like me, cheering when a small hint of a scoop was dropped (there might be a spin off with Provenza and Flynn). You’d think Provenza and Flynn were household names as applause erupted.

Can’t help it—stories that come to life on the television screen can grab me like no other.

A TV addict should never marry a television engineer. It’s like a giving an alcoholic a job as a bartender. OK, it worked for Sam Malone on Cheers, but that was fiction.

My name is Camille M., and I’m addicted to TV. Preparing this blog, I was shocked to learn just how serious my addiction is. Never mind that I pretend it’s research that every crime fiction writer needs to do; it’s embarrassing.

The Can’t Miss Shows, roughly in order:

1. “Homeland,” it’s like having “24″ back, with slightly less torture.

2. “Ray Donovan,” because who doesn’t love a Fixer with a Boston accent?

3. “Hawaii 5-0,” to pretend James Caan is back, and therefore, so is The Godfather.

4. “Revenge,” because I’m Italian and need a good laugh.

5. “Criminal Minds,” for the philosophical wisdom as they fly to the scene.

6. “Law & Order, SVU,” because it’s the only L&O left.

7. “The Good Wife,” because now and then I need a courtroom.

8. “Major Crimes,” because now I’ve met the writers.

9. “Blue Bloods,” in spite of Tom Selleck, who still SIGHs as if he’s Jesse Stone.

10. “Covert Affairs,” for Annie’s Manolo Blahniks.

11. “White Collar,” because it’s set in New York.

And let’s not forget

12. Reruns of “Flashpoint,” for Hugh Dillon.

13. “Blacklist,” for James Spader.

I’m lucky I don’t like comedies, even when crimes are involved (ix-nay on “Castle” and the like). Won’t watch talk shows; vampires; fantasies; reality shows; or any dancing or singing amateur talent. (I got that last category out of my system with Ted Mack.)

In case you’re wondering how I manage watching all these shows: my TV engineer husband’s latest achievement is providing the means (schematic on request) to record 16 different shows simultaneously. It’s a wonder we have room in the house for books.

BOUCHERCON 2014

At an hour when everyone should be sleeping, I’ll be heading for Long Beach and Bouchercon.

If you’re looking for me, here’s where I’ll be unless I’m in the book room:

1) On Friday, November 14, 10 – 11 AM: “Little Things Mean a Lot,” demonstration and Takeaway of simple minis that can be made for gifts

2) On Saturday, November 15, 8:30 – 9:30 AM: Panel “Add Spice to Your Crafts—Murder With Your Favorite Hobbies”

(with Moderator  Dru Ann Love, Barbara Graham, Sybil Johnson, Jennifer McAndrews, and Clare O’Donohue)

Above is what I’ll be transporting for the auction — lots of glue involved!

See you there!

The Death of Adulthood

OK, I'm done with kid stuff.

Here’s the article I’ve been waiting for. I’m hiding behind A. O. Scott, linking to his recent article in the NYTimes: The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.

I do this a lot (find someone smart, with creds, to hide behind), whenever I want to speak about an unpopular topic, or rather, a topic that will make me unpopular.

In case you’re pressed for time, here’s one of my favorite passages from Scott’s rather long article:

In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

Why do I think this is a topic that will make me unpopular? Because it has. Any time I’ve tried to express something related (such as my blatant reduction to: Why do kids rule?), I’ve had backlash, often from people close to me.

They rule, as Scott points out, by governing what passes for entertainment in books, movies, and on television. Adults insist that books and movies that are written for children have “so much to offer adults,” as if I’m missing something by not spending time with young boys who fly and lions that talk.

When did that happen? Do I want to go back to when children were “seen and not heard?” No, but isn’t there something between that and “children are the center of the world,” so that of 68 movie screens within a few miles of me there might be one adult movie?

Oops, I’m ranting. I’m beginning to regret writing this. I’ll stop before I delete it all. I want to be liked, after all.

Pretend I simply gave you a link to A. O. Scott and respond to him.

Spooky Dessert

Halloween, and everything is spooky.

As a matter of fact, for mystery readers and writers, every day has potential for being spooky and it’s hard to be MORE spooky on Halloween.

How about these eerie looking cookies for generating frightful eeeuwws from your guests?

eeuuw!

The Recipe

I cheated (which I usually do at cooking) and started with a roll of cookie dough that’s in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. I chose peanut butter because it seemed closest to “skin” color.

Step 1. Instead of cutting the dough as directed, lop off pieces and shape into a long skinny “fingers.” The first time I tried this I made the shape too wide and got very, very fat fingers. [You'd think I'd know about thermal expansion.] A roll about the diameter of a pencil works well.

Step 2. Place the fingers on an ungreased cookie sheet. Stick a slivered almond slice into one end of the finger—lo, a fingernail!

Step 3. Squeeze red frosting (another cheat, using a readymade tube) on the opposite end from the nail. If you lay the fingers out facing the same way, you can just run a line of frosting down the sheet, capturing all the fingers with one swoop.

Step 4. Bake according to package directions and SERVE.

“It’s a Puzzlement,” Yul Brynner, c. 1956

Friends getting together over a puzzle

I’ve been a puzzler (some say, I’ve been “puzzling,” and that may also be true) all my life. It started with math, where every day’s homework was a puzzle. For algebra: If one train leaves a station in Chicago going 30 miles an hour . . . For geometry: Given two sides of a triangle …

I loved those problems, which to me were just games and puzzles.

The Cable Guy has his own puzzle blog that features some of the challenges we’ve taken on recently. Check out the latest entry .

We often hear that mysteries are like jigsaw puzzles, that writers and readers enjoy putting the pieces together, ending up with a satisfying solution, much like turning 1500 jagged pieces into a reproduction of Monet’s Water Lilies.

In a way. But mysteries have to be like challenging puzzles, not the easy kind where all the pieces are piled before us with one brisk dump from the box, and what’s required is simply to sort them by color or shape and fit them together to match the picture on the cover of the box.

In a good “whodunit” mystery, there are many sets of clues that unfold: some are hidden in plain sight, some are subtly presented, some not; some are within the character profiles and arcs, the setting, or the plot. These mysteries are solved not by simply putting a given number of known pieces together, but by first sorting out the pieces that matter from the ones that don’t. Maybe there are a couple of red herrings; maybe there are no herrings of any color.

I’ve seen jigsaw puzzles where the manufacturer has deliberately included extra pieces that don’t belong in the scene. Similarly, there are the crossword puzzles that are diagramless. No black squares give us the word length; we have to figure that out ourselves.

Those puzzles are more like the great mysteries, where the clue is that the dog did not bark or the answer has been in the letter on the mantel all along.

Sometimes I worry that I’m wasting time with the morning acrostic, or the Sunday NY Times crossword, or the countless word games I find in print and online.

Is it enriching my life that I’ve learned a new word (predacious: predatory, plundering) or factoid (molasses is an ingredient of rum)?

I take my response from no less a puzzle figure than Erno Rubik (b. 1944), sculptor, architect, and inventor of the Rubik’s cube (patent, 1975). He has this to say: “The problems of puzzles are very near the problems of life, our whole life is solving puzzles.”

Some of us get more practice than others.

Beyond the Silk Mills, Part 2

Debut novelist Leslie Rupley is back with more on the evolution of Beyond the Silk Mills

Recap, Part I: Last month I described how I became addicted to the research for my historical novel, Beyond the Silk Mills.

Part II:  In Which Camille Minichino Ends my Research Addiction

Finally the little voice in the far back of my brain whispered, “All right already! Enough is enough!” Why hadn’t I put fingers to the keyboard?

Perhaps I was unwittingly insecure about my ability. Okay, I was insecure. After all, my very first novel was different from ghost writing my clients’ memoirs, and I wanted to be prepared. My dear friends enabled my delay tactic beautifully. While browsing through a Berkeley used bookstore with our husbands, Barbara encouraged me to buy that book about the 1918 flu epidemic. My knitting books were beginning to feel the competition. The shelves bowed under the strain of my research. I retired some of the older knitting volumes. Salvation Army loved them.

Would there be no end to my delving? Apparently not. It went on for almost two years with cross-country visits to New York and New Jersey, the setting of my would-be novel. I was an isolated dilettante. How could I have known that too much research is a common stumbling block for new writers? After I had filled two shelves on my bookcase and visited the east coast three times, something told me to Get On With It.

“Get On With It,” I told myself. After two years of productive procrastination, I knew I needed help to get off the research binge and start writing. Is there an AA group for over-researchers? Who would give me the needed kick in the pants?

I kicked myself into action and wrote a prolonged beginning scene wherein my protagonist sat at the kitchen table and reflected on her past life. It was a proudly academic piece, but lacking in everything but an interior monologue.  My husband, kind and uncritical as he is, thought it was a bit much on the past life. He mentioned something about drawing on the five senses.

”Great,” my scared self said. Now you can read about how to write. Take a class. Go to a workshop. The second pitfall.

Fortunately, selective reading got fingers to keyboard faster than the background research had done. I chose 10 Steps to Creating Memorable Characters to learn about creating robust characters, and it got me into the real work of writing. While I made numerous character charts with headings Appearance, Mannerisms, Traits, Purpose, Endure, and Enjoy, I was also able to begin my first scene anew.

I continued to fill it with newspaper-like information about the backstory, but with more detail and descriptive phrases including the ‘five senses’. It was a dense, tell-it-all summary of everything I had read about the Jewish ghetto (Shtetl) outside of Lodz proper. I was proud. I filled pages with my knowledge. Mine was going to be some novel!

At some point I thought I was ready to bring my opus to a critical group, and I chose the Tin House summer workshop in Oregon. Oh dear. Was I damaged for life? Perhaps.

“Show, don’t tell,” they told me.

“Do you really think that your character would sit still at her breakfast table for that long inner dialog about her past?”

“Would she break it up with some action?” one person suggested.

“Try to get that backstory woven in,” another advised.

I took my dispirited self to the large sessions and panel discussions. Others seemed revitalized, excited, encouraged. They mingled. They laughed. They went to the evening soirees, while I huddled like a wallflower.

I knew that I would go home and forget this sorry effort, which is what I did, at least until I roused myself with the help of my friend Alaine who had gone to the workshop with me. Unlike me, self-flagellating, she was energized by the critique.

We read our work to each other on a regular basis, and she gave me all of the positive reinforcement I needed to move forward. Sorry to say, I didn’t really know enough to help her very much.

I decided to take a writing class (novel idea, huh?) and it was the beginning of a long-term process that kept my writing moving forward. For this I thank Camille Minichino, mentor and mystery writer extraordinaire. With her guidance, I revised and went forward with a bit more smarts and self-confidence to bring to the keyboard.

Next time I post, I’ll be able to offer a bit more about how I go about my writing these days after completing my first novel.

Aha! It’s Just Business

This week’s topic on the LadyKillers blog had me dragging out an old piece, published years ago in a baseball magazine.

So, here I am again, talking about an AHA moment in my life. A tough lesson learned early.

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You know me—I’m the one who protests against organized sports. In my Utopia, science teachers are revered more than (name an athlete, any athlete) and no one is actually paid to play a game.

I’m hardly recognizable as the same woman who nearly let the tides of professional baseball determine her choice of college. But following the Boston Braves out west was my only positive thought on the gray day when the headlines announced that my team was leaving Boston and heading to Milwaukee, a city I’d never heard of.

Let me point out that all my school books were covered in newspaper photos of the Braves. Tommy Holmes, Earl Torgeson, Walker Cooper, Sam Jethroe, Bob Elliot. And don’t forget the starting pitchers, all 2 of them: Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain.

My bedroom walls were covered with baseball–the official chart of National League logos, autographed programs, and laminated ticket stubs. My father, an unskilled laborer, had lost a thumb to an electric saw one day, and filled the lost time in construction by working the concessions at Braves Field and Fenway Park. I got to see both the ‘46 and ‘48 World Series!

Until the Braves left, no team had moved from one city to another, at least not in my teen lifetime. For several months, between the announcement and the actual move, I was in denial. So what if Lou Perini was losing money and Tom Yawkey (the stinkin’ Red Sox owner) wouldn’t share Fenway Park. Baseball is a sport, a game; no one has to make money on it, I cried.

Okay, I can hear your LOLs, but I was a kid, and not nearly as in-the-know as kids are today.

I’d used the Braves to direct the rest of my life, too. I was too shy to talk much in school, but I had all the confidence in the world opening with, “Did you see that third inning catch last night?” or “Who does that umpire think he is, calling a walk?” In other words: Don’t think I expect you to notice me or acknowledge me. I’m just here as a messenger for the Braves. How could I face life without the Braves? Without a way to talk to other kids?

“I guess now you’ll have to be a Red Sox fan.” This from classmates who didn’t understand that existence is not like a baserunner, sprinting from one anchored sack to the next, around to home; it’s like a whisper of wind under a fastball, waiting to be named by the umpire.

“They ain’t nothing ’til I calls them,” says the umpire.

The only remnants of Pre-Aha days: a signed photo of Warren Spahn and a Braves cap.

Eventually, I let the Braves go west. I did even more than that—I let all of baseball go west and never followed it again.

From time to time through the years, I’ve watched baseball games out of the corner of my eye and sometimes allowed the cheers of the crowd and the crack of the bat to carry me back to the old Philco. When friends hear the story of “my life as a Braves fan” they mistakenly think it would take little to turn me into a twenty-first century fan.

But you can never undo an AHA moment: Baseball is a business, not a sport. It’s for themselves—the owners, the managers, the players—it’s their business. It’s not for me.

Besides, I found I can speak for myself now.

Beyond the Silk Mills

With great pleasure, I welcome my friend and new novelist, Leslie Rupley to share her journey to publication.

This blog is in honor of Camille Minichino who kicked me out of Research Addiction and started me on the path to publication on October 1, 2014 of my debut novel, Beyond the Silk Mills, a historical saga of family discord, obsessive ambition, and regret. Trade Paperback and eBook are available on Amazon. Kobo and Nook carry the eBook. Libraries and Indie Book Stores may order from Ingram.

How Not to Write Historical Fiction, Part I

“Great news!” I told my husband. “I have the makings of my first novel. I’m going to write about an immigrant wife’s aspirations for wealth and power and about her husband who doesn’t care about having money.”

The historian in him jumped to attention. He was full of questions. When? What was life like for immigrants?

“I have the story outlined. Emma starts…”

“Yes, but what was going on in the country when Emma tried her hand at money-making?” My helpful husband guided me to his office ‘library’ stocked on all sides with floor to ceiling bookshelves, including all manner of history books. Aside from math, history is his love. He pulled out a stack of books from his history section about societal issues in the early twentieth century.”

Whose book is this? His or mine? I felt heat rising to my cheeks, and as usual when faced with conflict or a daunting project, I started to sweat.

Oblivious to my stress, and with that well-known greedy-for-books look on his wild-eyed face, he made his way to the computer said, “Let’s get on line and find some more books.”

The first book that came up was New York Year by Year. Before I could react, he had clicked the Amazon ‘Buy Now with One Click’ order button.

I retreated to my own office with its meager bookcase of knitting and travel books. I picked up my needles and began to knit-purl at a rapid pace. Click, click. The needles worked out my anxiety, and I picked up the top book on the pile that he had so graciously plopped on my desk, A History of the Jews in America.

After flipping through it, I called up the stairs, “Can I write notes in your book margins?”

“No!”

I got my sticky pad and pen and went to work notating pages of interest that I might include in my opus. At dinnertime I was stunned to see Bill at my office door. “You’ve been reading for almost three hours. Are you planning any food?”

I shook myself out of the past and thought about the mundane.

Seeing my expression, he said, “Let’s go out to eat.”

A week later I had been reading and note-taking non-stop when he approached me with a new source he had read about. This time I followed him without hesitation to the computer where he pulled up the book called The Brothers Ashkenazi, copyright 1936.  It was an out-of-print novel about the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and the collectible copy cost $112.

“Go ahead. Spend the money,” he said. Once again his over-active thumb pressed ‘Buy Now with One Click.’  This is how I became addicted to research. Stay tuned….

Fermi Problems

I think of September as Enrico Fermi’s month. His birthday is 9/29/1901. It’s a little early to sing, but I thought I’d introduce my own favorite aspect of Fermi’s contribution to science—his problem solving technique.

The problem:

How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

This is the legendary problem presented to his classes by the Nobel Prize winning Italian-American physicist. It’s the original of a category of problems called “Fermi problems,” meant to be solved by putting together reasonable estimates for each step of the solution.

At first glance, Fermi problems seem to be impossible to solve without research. The technique is to break them down into manageable parts, and answer each part with logic and common sense, rather than reference books or, these days, the Internet. By doing this systematically, we arrive at an answer that comes remarkably close to the exact answer. By the end of this calculation, we also see what advantages it has over looking up the answer on Google.

Here’s the way Fermi taught his students to solve the piano tuner problem:

1) Assume that Chicago doesn’t have more piano tuners than it can keep busy tuning pianos.

2) Estimate the total population of Chicago.

At that time, there were about 3,000,000 people in Chicago.

3) Estimate how many families that population represents.

The average family consisted of four members, so the number of families was approximately 750,000.

4) Assume that about one third of all families owns a piano.

That gives us 250,000 pianos in Chicago.

5) Assume that each piano should be tuned about every 10 years.

That gives us about 25,000 tunings per year in the city.

6) Assume that each piano tuner can service four pianos per day, and works about 250 days a year.

Each piano tuner would perform 1,000 tunings per year.

Summary: In any given year, pianos in Chicago need 25,000 tunings; each tuner can do 1,000 tunings, therefore we need 25 piano tuners.

The answer was within a few of being the number in the yellow pages of the time.

Why not just count the listings in the yellow pages in the first place? A good idea, until we remember that “solving a problem” is an exciting, challenging word to people like Fermi and to scientists in general. Difficult problems are even better opportunities to test their minds and their ability to calculate.

Another of Fermi’s motivations in giving this problem was to illustrate properties of statistics and the law of probabilities. He used the lesson to teach something about errors made in estimating, and how they tend to cancel each other out.

If you assumed that pianos are tuned every five years, for example, you might also have assumed that every sixth family owns a piano instead of every third. Your errors would then balance and cancel each other out. It’s statistically improbable that all your errors would be in the same direction (either all overestimates or all underestimates), so the final results will always lean towards the right number.

Fermi, present at the time, was able to get a preliminary estimate of the amount of energy released by the atomic bomb—he sprinkled small pieces of paper in the air and observed what happened when the shock wave reached them.

A whole cult has been built up around “Fermi questions:”

• how much popcorn would it take to fill your family room?

• how many pencils would you use up if you drew a line around the earth at the equator?

• how many rejection letters would it take to wallpaper a writer’s office? (oops, too personal?)

For Fermi, there was great reward in independent discoveries and inventions.

Many contemporary scientists and engineers respond the same way. Looking up an answer or letting someone else find it impoverishes them, robbing them of a creative experience that boosts self-confidence and enhances their mental life.

Could this also be why they don’t ask for directions when they’re lost?

The SinC Blog Hop

With this blog, I’m happy to join the Sisters in Crime September Blog hop!

Among the suggested topics: Which authors have inspired you?

My answer: Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and Eve Curie (1904-2007), two authors who may seem to have nothing in common, but have inspired me in ways none have since.

Louisa May Alcott

Little Women was the first and only book I read that wasn’t a schoolbook, until I was in college. Reading was discouraged in my home environment unless it was to ensure a good grade. I’m not even sure how I happened upon a copy.

Whatever critics or scholars have said is the theme/message/quest of Little Women, Alcott taught me that words and stories could move the reader to emotion as surely as a real-life drama.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first to dissolve into tears at Beth’s death, or to root for Jo as if she were my real-life friend. It’s strange to me now that I didn’t learn from that experience, that other books might be similarly rewarding.

Eve Curie's bio of Marie, open to a random page

Several years later, I was in college and came across a biography of Marie Curie in the science library. It was written by her younger daughter, Eve (the daughter who was not a radiation scientist, and lived to 103!). Eve’s book became the second book I read that wasn’t a schoolbook.

In Madame Curie, Eve Curie gave us her mother’s story, in words, without equations, and I found it fascinating. So what if she included only the most flattering, romantic picture of her parents and their life in the laboratory. There would be many other biographies to give a more complete picture.

This second “unrequired reading” set me on the path, finally, to seek other stories.

Louisa May Alcott and Eve Curie taught me that books could provide information, interesting stories, and valuable emotional connections.

Only a few decades later, I decided to try writing my own.

Tagging: Ann Parker to join the hop!