Too Cute to Live

Sewing scene; marker for scale

Here’s a new scene in one of my miniatures corners, inspired by a friend who gave me carpet that she made from cotton thread, and another who gave me sewing equipment. I’m trying to decide whether to turn it into a (mini, of course) crime scene. It’s a thing with me.

One time I found a lovely Vermont country house in half-inch-scale in a local miniatures store. It was so cute—freshly painted, beautifully finished wood floors, a charming porch—I almost didn’t buy it. Too pretty. What could I do with it except place equally adorable tiny furniture in the rooms?

“How come it’s on sale?” I asked the clerk.

“There’s a defect,” she admitted, pointing to a window on the first floor. Sure enough, one pane in a multi-pane window, made of plastic, was split open.

My spirits lifted. “Great,” I said. “That’s where they broke in.”

The clerk gave me a sideways look, but I was happy. I had my crime scene.

In my mind I was already placing small pieces of glass (plastic) on the floor under the window, tipping over the darling living room chairs, smashing the dainty lamp, breaking one leg of the miniature coffee table.

It’s not just miniatures. There’s something about crafts and murder that have a natural connection. Whether it’s knitting needles or utility knives, scissors or toxic paints and resins, our crafts tables are a storehouse of offensive and defensive weapons.

Although most miniaturists I know have elegantly furnished Victorian or Tudor dollhouses or Cape Cod cottages, they sometimes stray from The Cute with risqué scenes. In fact, every miniature show I’ve been to has a few brothels, strategically mounted higher than kids’ eye level. But other than the fascinating CSI thread a few years ago, there aren’t enough miniature crime scenes to enjoy.

One of my heroines in this regard is Frances Glessner Lee, the Chicago heiress who built meticulous miniature crime scenes (even knitting tiny stockings for the background) and used them to teach criminal investigation procedure to cops. It’s worth a look at her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

My most elaborate dollhouse is a mortuary, fashioned after the building where my Periodic Table Series protagonist lives. Gloria tiptoes past mourners on her way to her kitchen and trips over a trocar when she goes down to do her laundry next to the embalming room in the basement. It wasn’t easy to fashion an embalming table out of foil, but I had to DIY, since no miniatures stores seemed to have any in stock.

A Tip for the Miniaturists Among Us

Just to prove I’m not always turning cute into deadly, here’s a bloodless tip to accent your dollhouse or roombox kitchen or living room: lay bell pepper seeds, enough to cover a quarter, on a paper towel and let them dry. Then place the seeds in an old contact lens/bowl, or a similar “found object,” and you have chips ready for munching (by a very small person).

It’s a project fit for family viewing. No crime scene tape needed.

High on Public Speaking

Here’s another LadyKiller topic of a couple of weeks ago: Public Speaking. Apparently there are some people, some writers even, who fear it. Or hate it.

Not me.

My first public speaking gig was to my high school classmates, very few of whom I’d ever spoken to privately, and their families.

I was that quiet kid in the corner, the youngest in my class, with so many insecurities drummed into me by an overbearing mother that I should have turned into a serial killer.  By some quirk of fate, I was valedictorian that year — more exactly, I was one of the few kids who did homework, unwittingly fooling my teachers into thinking I was “smart,” and giving me A’s.

That’s me in the middle, looking confused. I blame the drug.

On graduation morning, I was sick with fear and told my mother I couldn’t do it — stand on the stage at the local theater and talk to hundreds of people. She was not about to let me off the hook. She herself had been pulled out of school at age 12 or 13, when her mother died. This was her moment and my life was on the line.

“I’ll fix you,” she said, and rubbed paregoric on my gums. In case you don’t know what paregoric is: briefly, an opiate, since then regulated as a controlled substance. I gave my speech, on the role of women in the future (I think my Italian teacher, an early feminist, wrote it). I remember the event as one of the most thrilling in my life. All those people listening to me (so what if they were a captive audience). Also, I was probably high.

Now, without the help of drugs, I still get the same high. I love public speaking in its many forms. Need a last-minute teacher or speaker for a class or an audience of 3 or 300? Give me a minute to prep, and I’m there.

Thanks, Ma.

Busy, busy

Do you know any busy people? Are you one of them?

Here’s my pet peeve (and by now you know it has nothing to do with physical pets): people who are busier than you, no matter what. They’re the people who can force you into exaggerating your own busyness just not to lose the busy battle. Or maybe I’m the only one who responds that way when someone tries to convince me that he’s the busiest person in the world (BPIW).

My father used to say: he’s the kind of guy, if you’ve got a bottle, he’s got a case.

I think that translates nicely into what I mean.

You can have 5 classes to teach, 4 deadlines to meet, and a marathon to run, but BIPW will best you every time. “I’m doing all that, AND I’m expected in New Zealand any minute,” he’ll say. To which I’m tempted to respond, “I just got back from there and I’m packing for Greenland.”

I never like myself when I get into that mode of claiming to be a BPIW. It makes me tense about my life and my projects. I’d rather take it easy and think how lucky I am to have many things to do, instead of trying to impress people with my to-do list. That’s what happened last week when a friend came for lunch and announced, “I can’t stay very long. I’m very busy.” No, I didn’t say, “Sorry to keep you from your busyness,” or whip out my own to-do list. But I wanted to.

I had a colleague once who was a BPIW and also a BMIW (busiest mother in the world.) If I came into the office with a new jacket, she’d moan about how she’d love a new jacket, but she had to feed her children. If I went to a movie, she’d complain that she hasn’t had time for a movie since her twins were born. The only way I got her to stop was to confront her with, “Gee, BMIW, you make me very happy I never had children. I’m so sorry you weren’t so lucky.”

Here’s a paraphrase of one of my favorite cartoons: God is on a cell phone, saying “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to be everywhere.”

Now, that’s busy.

Top Scenic Views

Recently, on TheLadyKillers, we were asked to post about SCENIC VIEWS.

No problem for me. I know that some people love mountains for themselves, but I think of them as raw material for buildings.

What is scenic for me has to involve human creativity — using the stuff of the universe to create something beautiful. A few examples:

The New York Public Library, home to 53.1 million items.

Grand Central Terminal.

From a room with a view: 42nd St.

As you see, like Woody Allen, I am 2 with nature.

A Special Architecture

A few weeks ago, I got a query from a blogger for the Eichler Network. (Yes, Eichler owners are networked.) He’d heard that the protagonist in my Miniature Mysteries, Gerry Porter, lived in an Eichler, and would I be willing to do an interview on how, why, etc. Eichler? Of course I would.

Briefly: When I planned the series based on a miniaturist who builds dollhouses, I thought she should have an architect for a husband, and she should live in a special kind of house. My good friend, author Margaret Hamilton, had just moved into an Eichler home a couple of miles from me. Perfect!

If you’ve never seen an Eichler, you’re in for a treat. The floor plan is built around this model, with variations, but the main feature is an atrium with plants of your choice and a skylight that can be rolled back to the open sky.

The phone interview with blogger David Weinstein resulted in this fun blog, complete with photos, where all questions are answered.

Doing a Nickel

Where nickels and dimes are spent.

It’s nothing new, but here I am again, confessing that in the ’70s, I did a nickel at a women’s prison in Massachusetts. (If you’re not a TV crime drama junkie like me, you may not know that “a nickel” means a 5-year sentence.)

I did the whole nickel, no parole. My accomplices served with me.

For 5 years, two other Sisters and I traveled from Boston to the outskirts of Massachusetts once a week, to bring college to selected inmates. Our crime, you might say, was the desire to teach—anyone, anywhere, anything.

Sister AC, a crackerjack English professor worked with the women to produce a newsletter. Sister JM, an art teacher, lugged supplies through the gray halls and led a drawing workshop. I taught math for GED prep.

Our students were mostly young women and mostly serving time for  prostitution and/or drugs. They were in a medium-security prison, usually with sentences of a dime or less. Their stories are for another time. This is about their jailers.

Some days were scarier than others—not because of the inmates, but because of the administrators. I can still picture the female warden who ran the place. Her wardrobe was less colorful than the prisoners’ uniforms; her manner more dour. She did everything she could to discourage us and to let us know we were Nothing But a Nuisance to her and her guards. They had to bother inspecting our bags, unlocking the gates, unlocking the classroom, ushering the students to the room. And then reverse the process 3 hours later.

I remember one day, let’s say it was a Tuesday. We arrived as usual, after about an hour’s drive, ready to be searched, growled at, grudgingly admitted.

“Nuh-uh,” the guard said. “No classes today.”

“Why not?”

He gave us a duh gesture. “Today’s a holiday. It’s the 4th of July.”

Of course we knew that, but figured our students probably wouldn’t be with the free people, sitting by the Charles River watching fireworks while the Boston Pops belted out the 1812 Overture.

“The students are here, right?” Sister AC, the senior member asked.

“Yeah, they’re here.”

“And it’s Tuesday,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Class day,” Sister JM said, hoisting her art supplies onto the inspection table.

“You people are a nuisance,” the guard said.

We smiled and went to work.

We learned a lot during our nickel. Enough to convince us to go straight.

Who doesn’t love a Yogi quote?

I love to celebrate birthdays, even when I’ve never met the person.

YOGI BERRA’S birthday is this week (May 12, 1925- September 22, 2015). I’m not a baseball fan, but I used to be. In case I haven’t mentioned it often enough: one of my first publications was in a baseball magazine, the story of my devastation when the Braves left Boston in the early 1950’s, the first major league team to leave its hometown.

I have a soft spot in my heart for all the old Braves — remember “Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain” — but also for the Yankees, just because they’re New York. And who has more brilliant quotes than that famous Yankee, Yogi Berra:

• You can observe a lot just by watching.

• When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

• You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.

• It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.

• A nickel isn’t worth a dime today.

• Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.

• Do you mean now? (When asked for the time.)

• You give 100 % in the first half of the game, and if that isn’t enough, in the second half you give what’s left.

• I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.”

• If the fans don’t come out to the ball park, you can’t stop them.

I know I should have shortened this list, but, to quote Yogi:

I didn’t really say everything I said.

Cinco de Mayo

Tomorrow, May 5, is Cinco de Mayo. I realize all I’ve done here is translate the date into Spanish, but the date has a special place in my writing heart.

In my first book, The Hydrogen Murder (1997), I have my protagonist say the following:

Besides the changing seasons, another thing about the east coast that I’d missed were holidays like Patriot’s Day on April 19 and Bunker Hill Day on June 17. Berkeley parking meters called October 12 ‘Indigenous Peoples Day,’ and California residents in general emphasized a different set of holidays, like Mexican Independence Day on May 5, and Admission Day on September 9.

It’s changed in later editions – how many of you know why?

DUH. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day is on September 16. I found this out the hard way – from a professor at a college in Mexico City. The woman was not too pleasant about it, and who could blame her? Just like a gringa, she wrote in an email, and I could almost hear the disgust in her voice.

I wonder what the parallel would be for the United States. Calling the  Battle of Gettysburg (1863) “American Independence Day?”

I learned my lesson and have never made the “Mexican Independence Day” error again, even though I don’t know anyone who celebrates on September 16.

If you don’t know, Cinco de Mayo is observed to commemorate the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

So much harder to write on a cake; no wonder I made a mistake.

Travels with Camille

Revere Beach, where it all began

If scheduling works out, I’ll be in Bethesda, MD when you’re reading this. Maryland is on my short list of places I’m willing to travel to.

I’ve never been a traveler. I was nearly 40 years old when I first traveled west of the Hudson River. I’ve never wanted to go somewhere just to go there, or just to see something different. I’m one of those Yankees who believes everything anyone needs by way of art, science, and culture is on the Eastern seaboard, in the triumvirate of Boston-NYC-Washington DC. Maybe a little side trip to Philadelphia. That’s enough concentrated diversity, not to mention weather, to satisfy me.

But eventually work and other issues sent me traveling around the country.

And who doesn’t have this kind of travel story: sleeping on the linoleum at Chicago’s O’Hare in the middle of a blizzard; being stuck in the smoking section (years ago) as if there really is a difference between yes- and no- when you’re all in a cabin 30000+ feet up; inspecting a nuclear power plant in a town where “good restaurant” means a choice of vending machines in the lobby of a motel with a number in its name, the kind of establishment where you sleep with your clothes on and your purse under your pillow.

Luggage lost, luggage stolen. (Picture hand across brow here): I’ve seen it all.

I wonder why I’ve never given any of my characters a bad travel experience—except for one fender bender in New York City. Maybe because I think every reader would be able to say: I’ve been there, and I can top that.

In fact, my characters have hardly traveled at all—another one of the ways authors insert themselves into characters without being aware of it.

It took four books to get Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table series out of Revere, Massachusetts. It took eight books for Geraldine Porter of the Miniature Mysteries to leave fictional Lincoln Point, California. Sophie Knowles of the Professor Sophie Knowles mysteries stayed put in Massachusetts through all four books, as does Cassie Miller of the Postmistress series. (Jaunts to New Hampshire hardly count as travel.)

In theory, it would be very interesting to put a character in a different locale from their original setting. We’d get a chance to see what happens to her in a new environment, how she reacts to things she’s not used to: unfamiliar weather and culture, the idiosyncrasies of regional language.

Come to think of it, I’d love to see how the coastal Gloria would fare in Montana, how Geraldine would do in Nebraska, how Sophie would adapt to Texas, how Cassie might enjoy the US Postal Museum in Washington DC.

I’m talking myself into a whirlwind tour with my protagonists. What kind of luggage will they have, how will they dress?

It will work, as long as I don’t have to go with them.

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

A favorite piece of costume jewelry

Yes, another puzzle blog. This time with droodles.

Here are a couple of my favorites, so you may have seen them on my other blogs.

An easy one: ORSEMAN

And a little more tricky one: GESG, GSEG, GGES

And really tricky: O ER T O

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, and another train . . . For geometry or trig: Given two sides of a triangle …

I loved those problems, which to me were just games and puzzles. And I wrote a series in which the protagonist creates puzzles for a magazine.

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 more challenging than that. It’s too easy when all the pieces are piled up with one brisk dump from the box, and what’s required is simply to sort them 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.

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.

All this talk about puzzles. Let’s do one more. A cryptoquote:

B SZ MYU MA CVMFU EVM CVBYW JBWU YMNUJ, CVSC VRZSYBCL EBJJ HXSE ZMXU TMMH CVSY UOBJ AXMZ YUE HBFPMOUXBUF. – ZSXBU PRXBU

Of course, there will be a drawing. Send answer to camille.minichino@gmail.com