Reading Habits

A frequent question at panel discussions and bookstore events is What one book would you take to a deserted island?

I heard Margaret Atwood answer the question during an interview a few years ago: “Only one book? I’d take the biggest book I could find,” she said.

Same here!

But apart from that unrealistic “what if,” I’m what you might call a heavy reader—3 book clubs, hardbacks and paperbacks everywhere, and always a full e-reader. But for some reason, none of my four main protagonists are readers.

I’m not sure why no one in my gallery of characters is even a light reader. They confine themselves to literature that’s pertinent to their jobs or interests, almost never including fiction or reading for relaxation. Nor do they ever discuss books, a favorite pastime of mine.

Here’s the lineup and their reading habits:

• Dr. Gloria Lamerino, retired physicist, reads Physics Today, Scientific American, assorted technical papers, and The New Yorker cartoons. That’s it.

• Geraldine Porter, retired English teacher and miniaturist, often quotes Shakespeare, but not once in nine books has she picked up a volume and had a quiet read. She does occasionally leaf through a miniatures or crafts magazine.

• Professor Sophie Knowles, college math teacher, reads and contributes to mathematics journals and puzzle magazines. No fiction.

Finally, with my 4th series, I might have a reader.

• Cassie Miller (ADDRESSED TO KILL, July 2017), postmaster in a small Massachusetts town, reads crime fiction. Though I don’t give specific titles, I do have Cassie commenting on certain plot devices, and actually trying to read crime novels before bedtime. Granted she’s quickly distracted and turns to focusing on “the case” at hand.

One reason my amateur sleuths don’t read: they’re very busy people! In general, they solve a murder case in a week or so, sometimes sooner. That’s pretty quick, considering real cops sometimes take months, often years. I think this is typical of amateur sleuths—they crowd more into one day than the clichéd one-armed paper hanger, maintaining jobs, snooping around crime scenes and suspects’ desks, and sometimes juggling children on their hips.

Also, reading is very passive, as opposed to, say, a car chase, a shoot-out, or even a quiet stalking scene. It’s hard to make a reading scene exciting.

She stretched out on the couch, put on her reading glasses, picked up a book, found the bookmark, opened the book,  . . .

See what I mean?

Star of a TV movie!

Here’s a twist on this topic. A few years ago, a book by Bay Area screenwriter and true crime writer, James Dalessandro, was made into a movie for TV. In one scene, Jane’s Aunt Gertrude is pictured sitting comfortably, reading. Her book of choice: my first release, a hardback copy of The Hydrogen Murder. She holds it up, the turquoise cover visible, plain as day.

Suddenly an intruder breaks in and murders her!

The book falls out of her hands and onto the floor, cover side up, immortalized as part of the crime scene. Later in the show, crime scene photos show the book as it lay on the floor near Aunt Gertrude’s feet.

So, although my characters aren’t reading, someone is reading my characters!

A Day in the Life

Thanks to Dru Ann Love for inspiring this blog. Dru is known for her blogging and extreme fandom, so much so that she won the Raven Award this year:

Here’s my latest post on Dru’s blog last week.

Third P0stmistress Mystery

A Day in the Life of Cassie Miller, Postmistress

By Jean Flowers

I’m beginning to think I’ve brought a curse on my hometown.

Before I returned to North Ashcot, Massachusetts as its postmistress, the town was relatively crime free. A few B&Es and a carjacking or two per year, some shoplifting and teen vandalism, all quickly solved. While I’d been building my post office career in Boston, my hometown rolled along peacefully, the loudest noises coming from the soccer field. No screams in the night, no gun shots.

Since I came back, however, the crime rate has soared. I heard someone in line at the post office joke that in our zip code, COD is beginning to mean Cause of Death. Really! I’d deny it, but just a few minutes ago, I heard about a third murder among my friends. Dennis Somerville, physics professor at the local community college and guitarist for The Ashcots, our neighborhood band, has been shot in his home. The artificially pretty lady on the TV news has called it a robbery-gone-bad, but I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that there’s more to it.

For one thing, Dennis stormed up to my counter yesterday, demanding that I investigate threatening letters he’d received. How I wish I’d paid attention. Instead, I’d invoked the postal service’s official investigative body. As if that were a paragon of speedy justice. For another thing, lately, when I was involved in any way, a crime was never as simple as surprising a thief.

Right after the news, my phone rang and it was my BFF Sunni on the line, Police Chief Sunni Smargon, to most citizens. Another feeling washed over me—that she was about to give me orders to stay out of the Somerville murder case. I was not a sworn police officer, did not have a badge, blah, blah, blah.

I was lucky that the retired postmaster, Ben Gentry, was pining for his old job and only too happy to fill in for me. Which left me free to walk around Dennis’s campus and also casually interview his fellow musicians. I was also lucky that my boyfriend, Quinn Martindale, was a great cook and loved to take over my kitchen, thus freeing me to snoop around and trail suspects, should I be so inclined.

Which I was. And which got me into a bit of trouble, and—maybe—danger. The result was—well, never mind. It’s all written down if you care to read it.

The good news is that I’m fine and back at my job, so I don’t see what all the fuss was about my health and safety in the first place. Will I follow orders the next time? We’ll just have to see.

Q/A Week

Now and then, I allow some time to de-clutter my files. I found this interview, the questions from a high school boy doing an assignment. I thought I’d share today

• What is the first book you remember reading?

There were no readers in my family, and no “children’s sections” in bookstores (actually, no bookstores in my hometown!). So the first book I read that wasn’t for homework was when I was in college. I wandered into the science library and found a biography of Marie Curie – the scientist who won 2 Nobel prizes for her work with radioactivity. I remember thinking, maybe all these other books are just as fascinating. And I began my reading life.

• What or who inspired you to begin writing?

My high school teachers inspired me to keep learning. My Italian teacher told us that she took classes every summer in something she knew nothing about, so she’d understand what her freshmen were going through. So, once I learned all the math and science I could, I took writing classes, and when I was 60, I thought it was time to start a new career.

• If you could have lunch with 3 authors (past and present) who would they be and what do you think you would all talk about during lunch?

First, Dante Alighieri, who wrote La Commedia, later called The Divine Comedy, which I read in Italian in high school and in English later; Second, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Third, Stephen King, contemporary author of many stories. They all write about themes that I love: good and evil; mathematics and logic; and the mysterious ways that people behave. We’d have a great lunch!

• How do you avoid or defeat writers block?

UH-OH (Photo credit: Author Jo Mele)

By not believing in it! I tell myself that if I were a cab driver, I’d have to go to work every day even if I didn’t feel like it, even if yesterday was disastrous. I’m a writer – I write even when I don’t feel like it, or even if yesterday’s output was a car wreck.

• How do you define success as an author?

I’m the kind of author who requires readers! When even one person tells me she enjoyed one of my books, or learned something from it, I consider myself successful.

Any questions from The Real Me readers?

Not Again!

But it has been at least 6 weeks since I’ve posted NYC photos!

This time it’s legit — a trip report, you might say. I’ve just returned from ThrillerFest, an annual conference in Manhattan.

In between panels, I managed a trip or two to museums. Here are just two of the old favorites I visited at MOMA on 53rd between 5th and 6th.

1. A Monet that got me through grad school at Fordham. I could always find a seat in front of this mural, captured here only in part.

2. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. This one moves around the museum. Last week I found it right outside the Terrace Cafe. In case you’re curious, here are 11 things you might not know about the painting.

View from an asylum

Finally, something completely different. The restroom signs. I hope you can read the newest footnote: SELF-IDENTIFIED. New York never disappoints.

On the wall, outside the restroom; similar sign outside Men's

Addicted to DIY

Make a soda fountain chair from a champagne cage. Instructions obvious?

This blog is about three months late — I should have written it for April 1. Because the follow up to “Managing a DIY Addiction” is: You can’t! April fool!

I can blame my DIY addiction on many things, starting with the lack of toys available when I was a kid. The proliferation of toys now is exponential; they’re found in just about every retail outlet from bookstores to produce stores and even at the dry cleaners. (We wouldn’t want the sweet little tots to be bored while the nanny picks up Mom’s business suits.)

Not that our family could have afforded toys anyway, but I consider myself lucky in both regards – few toys available and little money to buy what there was. I, and my friends, were left to our own imaginations.

My father built me a crude dollhouse and that’s all I needed. I’ve written elsewhere (ad nauseum, you might be thinking) about furnishing that house and probably hundreds more scenes, roomboxes, and houses in the intervening years. Thank goodness for the countless charity auctions that are willing to take the finished products off my hands, or I’d have to have a separate dwelling for my crafts.

DIYing my dollhouse carried over to other areas. Not, I’m sad to say, into major work like painting a life-size house or fixing the plumbing, but to many other crafts. From my earliest days, I would look at something in a store—a greeting card, say, or a skirt, a bookmark, a scarf, a calendar, a paperweight, an ornament—and think, I can make that.

Of course, sometimes the attempts were colossal failures, but enough projects succeeded that I kept on going. From friends and relatives, I learned sewing, knitting, crocheting, drawing . . . whatever it took to make that thing that was in the stores.

One time I took a cartooning class so I could make a comic strip for our Christmas card. The instructor was about 17, and worked on Toy Story! Fun, but that was my last try at that.

Dick (note the pocket protector): How do you like our tree this year? Camille (remember this was 20 years ago): It's our best ever! (And you see the "tree" is really a tv image.)

Crafting as therapy. There's nothing like it. It's impossible to stay stressed and unfocused while trying to glue tiny pieces together.

More miniature scenes are on display in the gallery on my website.

How to Turn Your Day Job into a Mystery Series

www.storiesofyou.org

Reprinted from STORIES OF INSPIRATION, ED. SUZANNE FOX

Lucky me—I’ve managed to turn every aspect of my life into a mystery series. It started with Camille the Scientist and the Periodic Table Mysteries.

I’d had the idea for years, ever since Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi hit the stores in the early eighties. I realized that a guaranteed 26 books was nothing compared to the 100+ possibilities I had at my fingertips as a scientist. The alphabet? A piddling list. The periodic table was where it was at, and it was still growing.

For the next 10 years or so, I told everyone within earshot about my great plan—to write a mystery series based on the Periodic Table: The Hydrogen Murder, The Helium Murder, and so on, up to the last atomic number recorded. I talked about my series as if I’d already written it.

I see this now as a common phenomenon—like Dorothy Parker’s “I love having written.”

Eventually I stopped using my computer for endless games of yahtzee and solitaire and started my first novel. There was no question about who would be my protagonist, what her background would be, what career she’d have. No question either about the setting.

Enter Gloria Lamerino, Italian-American physicist from Revere Beach, Massachusetts. In other words, me, except for the part about being smart and brave enough to take on a murder case. Gloria needed a connection to a cop, who’d look like a cross between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, with the heft of Paul Sorvino. And she’d need an interesting place to live—how about the abode of one of my first boyfriends, a mortuary intern whose apartment was above a funeral parlor? Imagine the fun of following Gloria as she creeps down to the laundry area, on the same floor as the embalming room.

This was my math: A Periodic Table Mystery Series was a perfect opportunity to present my view of females in STEM; my knowledge of Italian scientists and Italian-American culture; and my love of the town I grew up in, the site of the country’s first “theme park” and the first public beach in the United States. Uberambitious! And a poor example for my current writing students when I warn them not to cram too many themes and “messages” into one book.

But I was young, barely 60 years old.

The first eight books of the series wrote themselves. Each element of the table is fascinating, with great potential for good or evil. Lithium, for example,  can be used in manufacturing and in medicine; it also reacts violently with water, forming a highly flammable gas and corrosive fumes. In The Lithium Murder, a janitor at a lab overhears secrets concerning the dangers of lithium waste disposal and is murdered when he tries to blackmail the researchers.

My sorry job was to explore the possibilities of crime and criminals surrounding each element. The worst part was sometimes turning scientists into killers. Otherwise, after a few books, readers would realize, “Well, we know it’s not the physicist.” I managed to spread the wealth of criminal pathology around characters with various occupations.

By the time I reached The Oxygen Murder, my agent asked, “Do you have any other ideas?” I quickly learned that this question was code for Enough of the elements; give us something more popular.

I had to acknowledge that not everyone was addicted to the splendor of the periodic table and mined the rest of my life for ideas and potential series. My life long hobby as a miniaturist gave birth to Gerry Porter and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, in the Miniature Mysteries (writing as Margaret Grace). When the “code” came up again, I tapped into my tenure as a college professor with the Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries (writing as Ada Madison). And most recently, my brief stint as a postal worker led me to Postmaster Cassie Miller (writing as Jean Flowers).

All four series are ongoing in one form or another, either as novels or short stories. And, since I did a stint as a “Kelly Girl,” I still have jobs to tap into—paralegal anyone? How about German translator? As long as I can keep thinking up pen names, I should be okay.

Nature — at Arm’s Length

Here are two of my favorite paintings, from the permanent collection of the Met in NYC. I could sit in front of them for hours, and I have come close to doing that. They’re representative of countless other landscape paintings that I love, like those of Millet, Corot, Church, and Pissarro.

What’s so strange about that? Most of us relish the moments of meditation and pleasure we get from works of art. What I can’t figure out is this — if I were actually standing in one of these landscapes, I’d be freaking out. So why do I love them?

In Cezanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley” there’s grass everywhere, plants all around. I’m allergic to grass and I don’t like plants. Though I can’t see them, I’ll bet there are bugs everywhere, too. I doubt that there’s a coffee shop or a bookstore, or even a gas station within cell phone range. I doubt that AAA would be able to find me in case of a problem, and the nearest hospital — who knows how far away that is? I’d be hyperventilating after one minute.

Bierstadt’s “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak” is even worse. The sun is strong. I don’t like sun, in general. And there are animals. Eeek! I’m afraid of one half of the animal kingdom and allergic to the other half. Besides, they tend to add organic matter and odors to an open area like this meadow (valley? grassy knoll?), both of which I would find unpleasant if I were to stand at the focal point of this painting. I’m cringing at the thought of what would be on the soles of my shoes. And still no Starbucks or even a family-owned bistro. Nor a convenience store to buy bathroom tissue — oh, right, there’s no bathroom.

My idea of roughing it on vacation: a couple of galleries at MOMA are closed, my theater seats are in the balcony, and late night room service takes more than fifteen minutes.

Thinking about this phenomenon — why I love paintings that depict scenes I’d go out of my way to avoid — it’s a lot like my relationship with fiction.

I love reading and watching movies about crime — the ensemble heist, the perfect murder, the “lovable” serial killer, like Dexter — but I don’t want it to touch me in real life.

There must be a name for this syndrome?

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.