Yo Ho Ho

There was one and only one fun thing about the holiday season in my house as a kid. It wasn’t Santa Claus (never heard of him/it until I was too old to believe in one). It wasn’t the decorated tree that I wasn’t allowed to touch, or the overall Italian version of Scrooge-mood that prevailed in the house.

Before I could take it in my own hands, the best thing about Christmas was my cousin, Yolanda.

She died a couple of years ago, and I’m left with wonderful memories of the cousin who made my Christmas merry.

Yolanda was an artist. Wow! Fifteen years older than me, Yolanda flew around the town with the flair of an independent young woman that I could only marvel at. I didn’t realize how unusual that was for a single woman in the fifties.

She worked in Boston, the big city, for Fredericks of Hollywood, arranging their window displays. She’d also do sketches of models wearing clothes and furs from other stores, and a few days later we’d see them in the newspaper.

Could any job be more glamorous?

This was her Christmas present to us every year: at some undetermined hour during the first two weeks in December, Yolanda would visit the homes of all her aunts, uncles, and cousins. We never knew when she’d come, but we’d each wake up one morning during that time to find our storm doors painted in holiday décor. Snowflakes, silver ornaments, red and green bells, golden candles, candy canes, wreaths and stockings—all had been carefully drawn all over the panes of glass.

We knew Yo had been there!

We figured she came in the middle of the night, but, after all, we were in bed by 8, so she might have come at 8:10!

I have many more memories of Yolanda. Her belly-laugh-funny quirk of putting things back into the boxes they came in after each use. Soap, for example! Toothpaste! Glue!

Yolanda married in her thirties (late for those days) and outlived her husband, a Boy Scouts of America exec, working well into her eighties.

That she was able to support herself as an artist was in itself a feat.

She had many accomplishments, like being the artist of record in towns in New York and Florida. This article appeared in the Finger Lakes Times when her work was put on permanent display in the Geneva, New York, City Hall.

http://www.fltimes.com/news/article_b3ea0dd7-96e1-50b8-8148-5e327c8d3e59.html

But what I cherish most is that Yolanda gave me the gift of Christmas. I knew that she loved me enough to share her art and her delightful laugh at a time when laughs were hard to come by.

Many people will miss the artist Yolanda Fiorentino Schofield; I miss Yo.

Ho Ho Hole

December 11—time to drag out the old physics-of-Christmas stories.

My favorite explains how it’s impossible for Santa to get his job done:

There are about 2 billion children in the world and even at one toy each, we have something like 400,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second to get around world in one night.

A simple calculation shows that Santa has 1/1000th of a second to pull up on a roof, park his sleigh, hop out, climb down the chimney, figure out who’s naughty and nice, distribute the presents, eat a snack, and say Ho, Ho, Ho, all without waking the household. Then he goes back up the chimney, gets back into the sleigh, dusts off his suit, and moves on to the next house.

Even though there’s not a lot of sleigh traffic up there, it’s not a feasible trip. Not just exhausting, but physically impossible.

But wait!

The naysayers are way behind the times. Have they never heard of worm holes? Wormholes are features of space-time that allow a shortcut through the universe.

Imagine you’re standing in a long line at the post office. You’re at one end of the room and the clerk is at the other. Now imagine a piece of paper with a stick figure representing you at one corner, and a figure at the diagonally opposite corner to represent the clerk. Fold the paper so that your stick figure is on top of the clerk’s.

See? You’ve just taken a shortcut to the head of the line.

In another version of worm hole demonstration, dots are placed at opposite corners of a piece of paper, the paper is folded, having the dots touch, and the same effect is seen.

That’s what Santa does. With a little math and a dash of relativity theory we can show that, in fact, with every stop, Santa can come out of the chimney before he gets in!

No problem making all those stops.

So, yes, Virginia, relatively speaking, Santa can do it!

Now if only I could find the right wormhole to get me through Bay Area freeways.

A Theory of Movies

For a variety of reasons, I don’t review books. The biggest is that I might run into the author in a dark alley or at a conference.

But I have no such restriction on movie reviews. Hence my review of A THEORY OF EVERYTHING. In a nutshell:

1. Amazing performances by all the principals. In case you’re wondering if Emily Watson is old enough to be the mother of Felicity Jones—she is, barely, older by 16 years.

2. Great cinematography, if that’s the word for beautiful views of Cambridge.

So far so good, but WHERE’S THE BEEF? SCIENCE?

I know the movie is being billed as the story of the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane, but couldn’t there be SOME science? Maybe 10 minutes worth instead of the 4 we were treated to? One potato-and-pea analogy does not science make.

I can’t help thinking that if we were watching the story of a “brilliant” athlete, we’d be treated to scene after scene of tackles, hoops, swings, twirls, and goals.

Maybe quantum mechanics doesn’t lend itself to such action shots, but how about head shots for a change? Maybe someone can figure out how to show multicolored brain activity while explaining worm holes and general relativity?

I’m going to try THE IMITATION GAME next. It’s billed as English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Let’s see how much mathematics and logic have been allowed to seep in.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, c. 1951

Wishing all who read this and celebrate Thanksgiving a very happy day.

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.