Monday, February 28, 2011

Why Do We Re-read?

Recently I was made acutely aware that some of my books must go. I was looking around my apartment for a space to stash my latest acquisitions and found, to my horror, there were none. The only space left was the bathtub and I’m not going down that road. I have friends who have resorted to this, but not me. I’m too lazy. I can’t imagine having to remove a bunch of books before every shower. So out they go.

But which ones? How do I choose? I decided my criteria should be one, simple question: “Will I read this book again?” If the answer is, “No.” out it goes.

This led me to a more philosophical question. What makes a book re-readable? Why do I read some books over and over, and never open others again, once I’ve closed their cover? I’m not talking about bad books here. Or boring books. I’m talking about tried and true classics. What is the magical quality that drives me back to Austen, Sayers, Tey, Chandler, Poe, Stevenson, Cather, Salinger and Fitzgerald? But never to Hardy, Eliot, Tolstoy, Scott, Dostoevski, and various contemporary authors who will remain nameless? Is it a simple matter of taste?

I have pondered this question often because I would really like people to reread my books. My greatest desire is to have people treat my books like old friends and revisit them — with pleasure. But how do I write such books?

Does anyone out there know the secret of Austen, Chandler or Sayers? Are their characters more human? Do you like to hang out with them more? That can’t be it. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Daisy and Tom, or most of Philip Marlow’s cronies. Is it the satisfaction that justice is done? Not really. Certainly not in The Great Gatsby or “The Black Cat.” Is it the writing itself — the flow, the imagery, the wit — or a combination of these? I don’t think so. I’ve read plenty of beautifully written books — only once.

The first book I reread was Little Women, the second — Pride and Prejudice, and the third — Gaudy Night. After that I lost count. It didn’t matter that I knew Jo wouldn’t marry Laurie, or that Elizabeth would marry Darcy, or who wrote the obscene notes on Oxford’s hallowed walls. I relished these stories just as much, maybe even more, when I knew the outcome.


If any of you know the answer, please let me know.

— Robin Hathaway

Friday, February 25, 2011

Who Are You?

My great-grandfather
with my mother in his arms
My notion of who my family is drives so many things I do and refuse to do that I can scarcely imagine what it might be like to find out, suddenly, that these are not my people. Maybe all bets would be off. As things stand now, I don't tell lies as a general rule, not only because it's wrong but because my 8x great-grandmother, Rebecca Nurse, went to the gallows before she would tell a lie. I don't steal things because my parents wouldn't steal things. My people were honest and hardworking with occasional whiffs of glamor. That my grandmother kept store for most of her adult life, that my other grandmother made it through nurse's training, that my mother was presented at court (she taught me the court bow, which I have never had occasion to employ), and all the other proud achievements and wacky deeds of a cloud of ancestors would become irrelevant. I would have to make myself up from scratch, possibly as a bad person.

This is how it is, though, for many adult adoptees. Impenetrable legal barriers exist between birth parents and their adopted children. Adult adoptees are never allowed to see their own original birth certificates, bearing the names of their birth parents. These are kept sealed. In the case of black-market adoptions, there may never have been any such documents to begin with. From 1927 to 1963 in Miami, Florida, a doctor named Katherine M. Cole housed desperate pregnant women and delivered and sold their babies to "good homes," like puppies, more than a thousand of them. She put the names of the adopting parents on the babies' birth certificates. Sometimes she lied to the birth mothers about the sex of their infants to further confuse the issue. There is no way for these people, all adults now, to know where they came from.

You're probably wondering why I'm talking about this at all. I wasn't adopted. (Yes, I'm absolutely certain.) Some of my friends were adopted, though, and the happiest ones reunited with their birth mothers after they grew up and had children of their own. They found whole constellations of welcoming siblings and relatives. People need that. I have two adopted sons, who are grown now, and who found their birth mothers. I'm writing a new story with a character who was adopted. I'm looking into the issues. The plight of the black-market babies seems dreadful to me, like that of the children in The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, who were cut off from their daemons.

So if you gave up a baby, decades ago, don't be afraid to go and find this person. If you gave up a baby to Dr. Cole, it's the only way you'll get together, by your coming forward. Your child wants to know you. You may have grandchildren who want to know you.

And that's all I have to say about that.

--Kate Gallison

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Music Hath

Rachel Portman
Robin's post about silence inspiring her has inspired me. Some writers work in quiet. I need music--not like it, need it: not only to write, but to cook, to pay the bills, to fold the laundry. Before beginning any task done alone, the first thing I do is turn on some appropriate music.

A shuffled playlist of jazz, classic rock, and opera, salted with Jerry Lee Lewis and Bonnie Rait will do for ordinary work, but for fiction writing the music has to be just right.

Glenn Gould
My standard fare is film scores, especially the brilliant Ennio Morricone's music for "Cinema Paradiso" and "The Mission" and Rachel Portman's witty setting of "Chocolat." I also like anything Glenn Gould, because genius fingers on his keyboard help keep hesitant fingers moving on mine.

But specific music that goes with the story must also be liberally mixed in. For City of Silver, I listened about a thousand times to a CD called "Nueva España" by The Boston Camerata, music of 16th and 17th century South America, like my 1650 story — sacred and profane.

My second in the South American series takes place in Paraguay in 1868. That called for mixing in lots of Spanish guitars: Tor, Aguado, and Torrega played by Andrés Segovia and Norbert Kraft. And Holst's "Mars," since the background of the story is a brutal war.

Ennio Morricone
Movie scores bring in dramatic moments, not always melodious, sometimes even grating. At Bouchercon in Indianapolis two years back I did the new author speed event with Allan Ansorge as my partner. When we met up again at Malice Domestic last year, we chatted with some other writers about writer's block. Allan said he had no difficulties. All he had to do was put on the music from “Cinema Paradiso” and he was off and running. What a coincidence that we relied on the same tunes. But he said he cut out the music for the movie’s fire scene, because it grated on him. I understood his point, but I actually go to that track on purpose and to other dark and dissonant pieces when working on threatening or scary scenes. Drafting or editing a chase scene calls for galloping music. It doesn't have to be the Overture to William Tell, it could be Verdi or Berlioz, but it has to move.

When I sit down to work each day, I choose the music for the moment. Once I’m into the work, it doesn't much matter if later the music veers off from the mood, but if distraction intrudes or the mind wanders, going back to the first song of the day gets things back on track.

The next book will take place in Buenos Aires. So—TANGO! I already owned a couple of CD's called The Tango Project, but this job also needed Carlos Gardel, the greatest of all tango singers. To go with the books and articles covering the period of the story, I went to the iTunes Store and downloaded his forty greatest hits. Now, whether at home and listening on the computer or in the library and using an iPod, all I have to do is get out my note books and research materials, click on Gardel's "La Cancion de Buenos Aires," and I am there.

What about you? Silence? Music? What charges your battery? What focuses your energy on your work?

--Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, February 21, 2011

On Blogging

The more I blog the better I like it. In fact, I’m thinking of giving up book writing altogether. Blogging is so much easier — and much more fun.

Look at the advantages:

1. Blogs don’t take as long to write as a book—one to two hours max.

2. They’re published much faster. Within a week, as opposed to a year (or more). Presto! Instant gratification.

3. You can say what’s on your mind—social, political, personal, in a timely way, or just entertain — make people laugh. What’s wrong with that?

4. You can even gussy-up your work with photos and/or drawings.

5. Also, you’re making a fine contribution to the literary world. You’re helping to revive a lost art form, i.e. the familiar essay, because that’s what a blog really is. I loved those old essayists — Charles Lamb, Christopher Morly, S.J. Perelman, Erma Bombeck . . .

6. And as for posterity (if you care about things like that) you can always have your blogs bound and send them to the Library of Congress to be copyrighted.

So, the heck with spending all that time and energy on book writing, and waiting a year (or more) to see your words in print— just blog!

— Robin Hathaway

P.S. Of course there is the small matter of remuneration . . .

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Moving to Albany: Leaving the Country

…So there we are living in Jackson Heights, in the Borough of Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the country, thinking about leaving New York City (like leaving the Country, to our minds).

You step out the door of our Pre-War red brick apartment building on 35th Avenue under its white stone canopy, walk left to the corner, then down 76th Street two blocks to the Casbah: a two-mile stretch of Roosevelt Avenue, teeming with aliens from every corner of the world, chattering away in 150 different languages as they shop, barter, harangue, laugh, generally enjoying their new lives while the elevated No. 7 train (the El) thunders overhead, making for the Queensboro Bridge (still called the 59th Street Bridge by natives); over and into ‘The City’, as Manhattan is known to the outliers living in the Bedroom Borough of Queens and in that Other World called Brooklyn.

Between Roosevelt and 35th Avenues, along 73rd and 74th Streets is Little India, the streets crowded with turbaned Sikhs, Hindus and Pakistanis flowing in and out of the Jackson Diner (the best Samosas outside the Indian sub-continent), the Pann shops (a psychedelic weed, the Indian equivalent of ‘chawin’ tobacco’), the Sari Emporiums, the Jewelry Exchanges hyping 20-carat gold. Back on Roosevelt Avenue, in a single block, you can sit down to a Mongolian repast, roasted Tibetan yak, savory Philippino rice dishes. The Korean bars on the Avenue all have front windows of impenetrable black—very effective in deterring nosey parkers. Go further east up Roosevelt Avenue and you enter Corona, Hispanic country: Mexicans, Dominicans, Columbians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Argentinians---vibrant people, old ladies in shawls selling their pastels from carts, Rice & Bean Palaces suffusing the streets with irresistible aromas. I remember one restaurant in particular advertises “International Cuisine—Bolivian or Argentinian!”. The other sign I won’t soon forget is in flashing neon on a Korean storefront church--“The Korean Church of Eternal Life in New York”. Who would have guessed?

A word about Mexicans, certainly the most populous Hispanic group in Queens and probably in all of New York City. Nobody’s more hard-working and deserving of a break from our hard-hearted government. (True, the Korean families who have replaced the native-born in the vegetable and flower markets and the Middle Easterners who have taken over the small newspaper stores are equally industrious, but seem not to have earned the eternal enmity of the Immigration police.) If they do manage to remove all the illegal Mexicans from their employ, all the restaurants in the City would shut down for lack of dishwashers, busboys and every other type of menial labor. But a word of caution:

Do not let yourself be found after midnight present at a Mexican celebration of a Birth or Confirmation at one of the many ‘Clubs’ (more like the Dance Halls of the Wild West) that occupy the upper reaches of Roosevelt Avenue not far from Shea Stadium. Because, sure as guns kill, someone will take the mike and do a shout-out for the neighborhood’s ‘Malos Ninos’, which invariably is met with gunfire by the members of MS-13.
(To Be Continued)

--Robert Knightly

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Lovely Works of Fermin Rocker

Robin Hathaway posted on Monday about getting back to her writing after the hectic holiday season. As I was formatting her post I thought it would be even nicer with an illustration of a woman writing. There was no dearth of images on the web, most of them free for the taking, being long out of copyright. They ranged from the famous image of the Pompeiian girl with her stylus to the genre paintings done by the old Dutch and Italian masters to pen-and-ink sketches by Charles Dana Gibson. How I found them was by doing a Google Image search on "woman writing."

All of the famous old images were charming, but there was one in the Google image display that I'd never seen before. It was an oil painting called "Woman Writing," done almost in the style of Edward Hopper, but with livelier colors. "That one," I said to myself. "It would be perfect." I went straight to the web page that displayed it.

It was every bit as handsome as the thumbnail on the Google display. I was about to snag it and run off with it when I saw the accompanying caption: "All pages and graphics on this website are the property of Anthea Rocker. Pages, code or other content may not be redistributed or reproduced in any way, shape or form without the written permission of Anthea Rocker. Failure to do so is a violation of copyright laws."

So, okay. The lady would be annoyed if I stole her image. I can dig it. My sister was annoyed when some German guy stole her images, blew them up, and tried to sell them on the internet. But maybe she wouldn't mind if I gave her a credit and a link, right? Struggling artists can always use a little publicity. There was an email address on the page, and I dashed off a gushing note begging her to let me use her image on our blog. That was a week ago last Thursday.

After I fired off the note, I went back to the page to admire the image again. "Home" was one of the options. I clicked on it, and found to my embarrassment that the painter was not Anthea but a man named Fermin Rocker, and he painted about when Hopper was painting. Anthea Rocker is a relative who has control of these gorgeous paintings. Fermin Rocker could be a wildly famous artist and I would never know about it, because art history is not my field. (Though I know what I like when I see it. Ahem.)

Still, if this guy isn't famous he ought to be. Check out his work: See if you agree with me about the Woman Writing: I can't in good conscience copy them and drop them into the blog for you to admire,having been expressly forbidden to do so, but you really do want to see them. They are ravishing.

I still haven't heard from Ms. Rocker. Either she was taken aback by my impertinence or she rarely looks at her mail.

--Kate Gallison

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Love Limericks

Here’s what I have written so far this week. It ain’t much, but as detailed in Robin’s post below, life intrudes.

Every year, for Valentine’s Day, my friends Rosemary and Alf invite three or four couples for a gorgeous dinner at their house. The people around the table are pretty much the same ones every year: husbands and wives who have been together for decades. There were four couples this year, and if we added up the years of our marriages, I’m sure the total would be over 150. It’s my favorite party of the year.

One of the things that make it so is that Rosemary asks us to bring things to read. This year, my assignment was to write two limericks: one about young love and one about old. She knows I love writing limericks. Harkening back to Kate’s remark last week about sonnets not stifling creativity, I find the limerick form inspiring. It’s not easy at all for me to be humorous in prose, but the limerick unleashes my inner imp.

True to the scatological heritage of the form, I chose to focus on physical love. But in contrast to the usual stereotyping of women found in many classic limericks, I tried to the shed my satiric light on young and old male love. Viz:

The sex drive makes a young man just silly.
One glance at a nubile young filly,
Watch his reason depart;
Not his brain, not his heart,
All thought takes place in his willy.

Young men see a beauty and pant.
They want her the more if they shan’t.
But when grappling with sin,
Old men merely grin.
The brain thinks, but the organ just can’t.

--Annamaria Alfieri 

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Three S’s

School children are required to learn their 3 R’s: Readin’, Ritin,’ and ‘Rithmetic. Why shouldn’t writers be required to learn their 3 S’s: Stillness, Silence and Solitude.

During the holidays, I ran around like crazy from one noisy place to another filled with crowds of people — shopping malls, supermarkets, the post office, parties. And when the New Year had come and gone, I was still running around like crazy, exchanging gifts, going to doctor’s appointments, mailing thank you notes, catching up on everything I had let slide during the Christmas rush. Somehow all the clamor, activities and social life had followed me through January, into February. And I wanted to get back to writing!

Why wasn’t I writing? What was stopping me?

Answer: All of the above.

One day this week, by sheer chance, I found myself sitting still, in my silent apartment — alone. I began to think about my book. I got up and went in search of my manuscript. No easy job, as I had stashed it somewhere to make room for the wrapping paper, greeting cards, presents, etc. Finally I found it tucked in the back of a desk drawer. I took it out and began to read. Miraculously the phone didn’t ring, the doorbell didn’t buzz, no one even slipped a menu under my door. If I listened, I could hear the refrigerator humming, the clock ticking, and the resident mouse pitter-patting from the cupboard to the stove.

Slowly the ideas began to flow. Gradually I stepped into that other world, the world that my characters inhabit, the setting that I had created out of whole cloth, the story I had imagined with no basis in fact. When I finished reading, I began to write…

When my husband called, many hours later, he said, “You’ve been writing.”

“How can you tell?”

“Your voice sounds far away, as if you were in another world.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I was.”

— Robin Hathaway

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Moving to Albany

“Albany!!! You’re kidding, right???”

That’s what friends would say to me (and, if I’m to be a reliable narrator, even strangers) when I’d casually remark that I was moving to Albany. This was then followed by the perceptive, incredulous: “ You mean you’re leaving New York???” Having been born in New York City—and never having resided anywhere else during the past sixty-plus years (except for two years in Puerto Rico, courtesy of the Draft)—I had not realized that such a move might be fraught with peril, like being excommunicated by The Church or Shunned within the community. This was brought home to me on a more intimate level on a sweltering August afternoon three years ago as I sat with a writer- friend on a pier in Greenpoint, Brooklyn-- our feet dangling over the East River, the Isle of Manhattan just across the water, shimmering in the heated air like a chimera: the Holy Grail, the Temple Mount, the Fountain of Youth. My friend—let’s call him ‘S’—who was then living in Stuyvesant Town, a complex of 12-story apartment buildings lining the shore on the Manhattan side, turned a furrowed brow to me at his side, and said: “”Why??. You can’t be serious? Albany??”

In response, I muttered the usual clichés: the streets, the trains too crowded (although I drove everywhere); everything’s too expensive (although I had a decent pension as a retiree from the NYPD, and made good money as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society); and old people (except the rich) are prey on the streets of the City. Some truth to that last one (although the only time I was mugged was in Night Court while standing in front of a Criminal Court Judge when my client clocked me). And I must admit that residing in the co-op apartment Rose and I owned in a nice pre-War Art-Deco building in toney Jackson Heights, Queens, had some drawbacks. It wasn’t like being a renter, which is what me and mine had been all our lives. There were eighty other apartments in that building, all occupied, most by owners with whom my financial future was entangled—that is, if any defaulted on their mortgage or stopped paying their ‘maintenance’ assessment (as high as $1,100 monthly in desirable Jackson Heights), we would all be up shit’s creek, on the hook for the shortfall in the form of ‘special assessments’. Noisy, party-giving, musical instrument-playing neighbors could be a curse, but we were fortunate. A young couple with a baby and a big, gentle Siamese pussycat lived to our right (more about Sammy the Cat later); to our left, an elderly Chinese couple who spoke no English but whose undying gratitude we earned when I climbed agilely out my window onto their fire-escape and through their window to let them in when they’d locked themselves out. They periodically visited China, and always brought back a box of special pastries for us (execrable stuff, but I consumed them, as I remember).

I remember the old man vividly. He’d been stricken with ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’ (ALS), which progressed rapidly. Day after day I’d see him walking around the block, and as the disease spread he would fall, topple like a felled tree to the sidewalk. He’d accept help getting to his feet, then shrug off the helping hands with a wordless, fixed smile, and continue his journey. After awhile, he did his laps on the vast, marble-floored lobby of our building on the arm of his wife, she nodding with equally fixed smile to the neighbors they encountered. Then one day they were gone, gone back to China we heard.

(Next, Inside the Mind of an Ex-Pat)...

—Robert Knightly

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Board (From SAVE THE CAT)

One of the things that happens to writers when they surf the 'net while putting off writing is that they come across helpful advice from other writers. In a comment on one of the blog posts I was reading a few weeks ago a writer mentioned a book called Save the Cat as being a great help in plotting.

Plotting! This is generally my weak point. Any help I can get, I will take, and you must admit that Save the Cat is an irresistible title. Besides, it has a cute cover. The book is available on Kindle, for which I have an application on my Ipad, so I downloaded it eagerly. It did not disappoint.

Save the Cat is actually a book on writing screenplays by a screenwriter named Blake Snyder. Clearly I'm coming pretty late to this party, since the Save the Cat movement is all over the 'net, and Blake Snyder himself has been dead since 2009. (What!? Nooo-) You want this book, by the way. It's breezy, charming, and extremely practical. Besides recommending that you have a killer title before you even start writing, Snyder says you must have a good log line.

I don't have a good title for the first book in my new series. Hush! No Screaming in the Library doesn't cut it. I do, however, have a log line that I like:

A small-town librarian discovers a crazy homeless woman living in her library, whose secrets soon bind them together and put both their lives in danger.

Snyder says there must be a save-the-cat scene early on, where the protagonist does some act of good will and courage that will cause the audience to root for this person. I'm having my protagonist, whose name I have not yet discovered, save an actual cat, a stray cat who was a member of our household until he succumbed to kidney disease, possibly brought on by eating Chinese melamine. But I digress.

Having a general idea what your book/screenplay is about, you then begin to make notes on cards of scenes you want in it. You then arrange the cards on a storyboard, divided in four segments, with certain plot turns occurring on certain pages of your script. Things take a 180 at the midpoint, for instance. This sounds to me like something Chris Grabenstein told us at a Mystery Writers of America meeting, how there are tent poles holding up the plot. You know, I've been doing this professionally for twenty years or so. Any day now I'm going to get a handle on it.

So I took Blake Snyder's screenplay page numbers, where he indicated that certain twists must happen, and using eighth grade algebra converted them to page numbers in a 300 page manuscript. Now, don't tell me the book will be worthless because it's built on a formula. You might just as well say a sonnet is worthless. Then I put a board together over my computer, stuck all sorts of cards up on it, and sat back to view the results.

Blake Snyder would not advise me to start writing at this point, because the storyboard clearly isn't finished. Yes, I have drama, and a beginning, and an end. Sort of. But it's chaotic, as you can see. I don't care, I have to get busy and write my story. The board as it stands is a good enough guide for me.

Or possibly it's the map of a deranged mind. At any rate I'm writing.

--Kate Gallison

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Catholic School Kids

Responses to my blog about the rules at my convent school came, not in the form of comments posted here, but in emails from friends to whom I sent a link—dear people who were at college with me or who were in similar schools at the same time. I say of my contemporary graduates of other Catholic schools, that we went to different schools together. Robert Knightly, who also blogs here, is one of my school-mates of the soul, so to speak.

The responses to last week’s blog taught me that, contrary to my assumption, the rules were just as restrictive at the men’s colleges. Here are my friends’ experiences, in their own words:

From Tom, who went to Fordham:

These aren't laughable; they are simply the social and behavioral norms of that era. God, we sure had class then. And when I say "We" I really mean "we." The Catholic men's school I went to had rules at the time that were much like these in many respects --- except we didn't have to wear a hat and gloves to board the train (LOL)!

We did have to wear a coat and tie on campus on all class days. If you showed up at class without a coat and tie you were recorded absent! Seniors wore a "short" (about thigh length) academic robe to class, believe it or not.

BTW, we did NOT have the privilege of unlimited lights. We had a definite lights-out time!

I notice your dress rules do NOT say anything about hemline length. Very interesting omission.

One interesting thing we had rules on was alcohol. Since we were located in a state with age 18 drinking at the time, some controls were necessary. Yes, you were allowed to have alcohol on campus and expected to handle it responsibly.

From Kate, who went to St. E’s with me:

It was like being in prison or an orphanage in Victorian England.

I don't remember having worn a hat when leaving the campus. I too got a weekend in prison there. I was chatting with Rosemary Rush and didn't realize that the lights had gone out. When I left her room, the halls were in darkness and I ran into that (expletive deleted) Sister ________. That did it.

From Abigail, another classmate:

I think I had 21 meals twice. Can't remember the first infraction but the second was watching TV alone 2nd semester senior year. Making absolutely no attempt to hide, I was caught, and punishment was meted out. At age 21 I was infuriated and told Sr.______ so and said I was leaving the school. After much drama including a visit from my very reluctant mother!!!! the punishment was lifted and I stayed to finish. This was probably April of 1963. Can you imagine!

What’s interesting here, referring to Tom’s comment about alcohol, is that in New Jersey, we could drink at age 21. Our rule book reminded us of the law but did not further restrict drinking. So, presumably, at 21 Abigail was old enough to order a Singapore sling at Rod’s Ranch House but not to watch television after 8PM!

From Mike, who went to St. Bonaventure:

Having somewhat similar experiences at St. Bonaventure, I could readily identify with your situation. We too had a handbook of "Rules" (the ONLY thing on the desks in our rooms when we checked in). They also spelled out the "demerits" for each violation as well as other disciplinary actions that would apply at the various thresholds (e.g., simple disciplinary probation, strict disciplinary probation, appearance before the disciplinary board, potential expulsion, immediate expulsion, etc.). When I first read it I was almost afraid to leave my room lest I unwittingly violate some unspecified tenet covered by the "summary clause" (i.e., "or any other action considered detrimental to the orderly functioning of this institution").

Assigned study hours, chow hall discipline, lights out, signing in and out for the library, etc., like St. E's, were all there. At Bona's, being then an all male campus, they were not as big on dress codes, they were very BIG on 6th and 9th commandment violations!! I ended up being put on simple disciplinary probation for having a picture of the Purdue University "Golden Girl", from Sports Illustrated magazine no less (head band majorette with a gold lame one piece bathing suit), posted on the outside of my closet door (I should have been smarter and put it on the inside!). The prefect on the floor (every floor had a live-in Franciscan monk) came in for late bed check and saw it and woke me up and told me to take it down because it was "scurrilous literature.” When I said, "It's what"? He replied, "Look it up." When I did so I saw it meant, "Given to the use of vulgar or low abusive language". There was no language, only the picture. But since they say a picture is worth a 1000 words, I knew I wasn't going to get too far arguing the point.

In any event, I had to meet with the Dean of Discipline (which is another whole story) and was campused for a month. What I didn't know was that a letter had been sent to my parents informing them I'd been placed on simple disciplinary probation (this little tidbit was NOT mentioned in the "Rules"!). The letter opened with the sentence, "This is to inform you that your son has been placed on simple disciplinary probation and that, without corrective action, his tenure at this institution is in jeopardy". I found out about the letter when my father called ME, the first and only time he did so. My frail attempt to point out that it was "simple" disciplinary probation only served, as you might guess, to raise his level of ire. I felt fortunate to be 400 miles away rather than within arm’s reach!

So as Bob Hope says, "Thanks for the memories"!

From Ann Marie, a classmate at St. John’s High School:

What an evolution!

Jimmy Breslin
In 1976-77, a serial killer who called himself Son of Sam terrorized New York City. (This is the “Crime” part of this post!) The murderer took to writing to the journalist Jimmy Breslin. Based on the style of those letters, Breslin, himself a Catholic School Old Boy, theorized that Son of Sam also went to Catholic school. “He understands the use of the semi-colon,” was, according to Breslin, evidence that he had been carefully taught grammar, not a subject similarly drilled into students in New York City public schools. Breslin turned out to be wrong about the Son of Sam’s early training. But he was right about the care with which the nuns and brothers taught us to express our thoughts in writing. As evidence of that, I give you the stories above, written casually in emails to an old friend, but lively, cogent, clear, and concise and spelled correctly. Silly rules about hats, high heels, and baton twirlers in gold lame to the contrary notwithstanding, our teachers gave us skills that have stayed with us and helped us in our careers. In my case, they became the tools of my trade.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, February 7, 2011

Outside (and Inside) Influences

Some years ago I discovered that you can’t be too careful what you read while writing. For example, one day I was writing some dialogue for Dr. Fenimore, my old-fashioned, house call-making, cardiologist-sleuth from Philadelphia, and he sounded like a tough PI from San Francisco. Instead of welcoming his patient with a courteous, “How can I help you today, Mrs. Jones?”, I had written, “Spill it, Sister.”

What was wrong?

Then my gaze wandered to my bedside table and the book I had been reading the night before: THE MALTESE FALCON. Without my realizing it, Dr. Fenimore had morphed into Sam Spade overnight! I hastily switched my reading matter to an Agatha Christie and stuck with her until I’d finished writing my cozy.

I’m also subject to inside influences. Especially when it comes to food and drink. If I’m reading about a gourmet meal, I’m often driven to the fridge to see what’s available. Usually nothing comparable. Once I was reading a short story by Colette in which the characters sat down to a feast of glistening grapes and freshly perked coffee. I had to stop and quench my appetite and thirst. Then there is that scene in THE LONG GOODBYE in which Raymond Chandler describes the opening of a cocktail lounge at dusk and the meticulous preparations of a perfect dry martini. Guess where I headed after reading that?

The moral of this story is: beware of what you read while writing, and when reading--keep your fridge and liquor cabinet well-stocked.

--Robin Hathaway

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Strange Interlude

It’s eerie. Robin Hathaway’s column two Mondays ago discussed her irresistible compulsion to enter second-hand bookstores wherever their paths crossed. I’m similarly afflicted but do not limit my horizons to the second-hand-used. This past Monday, Robin analyzed the highs of a random encounter with her first-published novel, The Doctor Digs A Grave, in the hands of a flesh-and-blood person apparently reading it, presumably for pleasure. That very thing happened to me in January, 2008.

Rose and I were on a well-deserved vacation at Velas Vallarta, a lush Old World resort on the beach at Banderas Bay in Puerto Vallarta, in the State of Jalisco, Mexico.

There we were poolside, me sipping a Virgin Narranja in a lounge chair, when I slyly look to my right (on an unfathomable premonition) and I see — one Sarah Grace Partridge I am later to learn — her nose deep in a trade paperback that is strangely, vaguely familiar. Suddenly, I know: she is reading Queens Noir, MY Queens Noir. A collection of original crime fiction (19 stories by 19 authors chosen by me, set in as many neighborhoods in the great Borough of Queens, NYC, the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S., and our home at the time) — which was then on the stands but two months, from my Brooklyn publisher, Akashic Books. I am THE EDITOR, this is MINE, I remember. Thunderstruck, I drop my Virgin Narranja.

“What!!??” Rose says. I explain. “Get over there and introduce yourself,” she says. I cower in my lounge chair. Then I siddle over to the young woman sitting with a middle-aged man (reading his book) and a woman sketching on an artist’s pad (her parents, I am to learn). I intend nonchalance but when I get within finger-wagging distance, I wag, blurting out: “That’s my book! I’m the Editor!!”

Sarah Grace is suitably awe-struck while I am suavely self-deprecating. She is a medical investigator at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, and has read all the titles in the "Noir" series (18 to date, mine being the latest). Jack Partridge, the father, is reading the manuscript of HIS OWN book, Straight Pool, the second in a mystery series set in his home town of Providence, Rhode Island, where he is a senior partner in a venerable law firm. The lady sketching is Sarah’s mom, a well-regarded Providence painter. So we all palled around the rest of the week, taking in the fleshpots of Puerto Vallarta (the restaurants known for good Mexican cuisine, that is).

The next time I ran into the Partridges was at the Edgar Awards Dinner of the Mystery Writers of America in May, 2009, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan. Hung from the ceiling in the Hyatt ballroom were twelve-foot-high TV screens at both ends of the room, streaming the front covers of the books nominated for Best Mystery of 2008, etc., including Anthologies containing short stories nominated as the Best of the Year. To my astonishment and intense delight, the front cover of Queens Noir continually flashed from the screens in sight of the assembled throngs to honor the story, "Buckner’s Error" by Joseph Guglielmelli, the winner of the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award as The Best First Story of 2008. Especially sweet since Joe, along with his perceptive wife Bonnie, were the proprietors of the Best Mystery Book Store in New York, till they had to fold their tent in 2009.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. And let’s not forget: What Goes Around Comes Around.

Robert Knightly

Friday, February 4, 2011

February 2011

I came to the laptop this afternoon with no idea of what to write for tomorrow's blog post. Perhaps, I thought, it would be good to become centered in the moment and talk about the beauty of the now. It's the end of a sunny day. The sun is setting, casting a pale orange glow on the white house across the way behind the dark green hemlocks. Harold is on his computer messing with his music files. He has called up a lovely violin concerto.

The rummaging sound on our porch is not Eric, the UPS guy, delivering yet another expensive, ill-fitting garment that I ordered in a moment of weakness, nor yet the home invader with the tattoo on his neck who attacked a woman on Ferry Street last week, but rather our next-door neighbor cleaning the snow off his boots. The cat has come downstairs. She butts her head against my legs companionably. I'll go and feed her. Presently I'll start our dinner, a quick-cooking meal tonight of tuna steaks and rice.

What could be nicer? A life of peace and quiet. I open the laptop and boot the browser, displaying a picture on the New York Times website. Egyptians are beating on each other.

February is always a strange month. It arrives, and we say, what happened to January? I haven't taken the Christmas decorations down yet. This year, February seems to have a particularly crispy, fragile quality, from the snow piled five feet high on the corners of the intersections, to the desperate unemployed guy who stopped Harold on the street with a plan to do unauthorized masonry work on the historically preserved library, to the strange news from Egypt. People are unhappy in Egypt! Who knew?

Something bad is bound to come of all of this. The snow will melt upriver all at once. We will have the Delaware in our cellars again, some of us in our living rooms as well. The unemployed will--what? Starve? Riot? Knock on our doors, beat us unconscious, and take our jewelry and cell phones? The Egyptians will create a giant cosmic hole and the rest of the Middle East will be sucked into it. More war will come. Congress will bring back the draft.

But that will happen later. Right now it's a crispy February day and things are still good here. Live in the moment. You can never go back, and you probably don't want to go forward.

--Kate Gallison

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I write historical mysteries. It tickles me to delve into the exotic past, especially if it gives the reader a glimpse of quaint and outmoded customs of distant times and remote places. So today I take you to the College of Saint Elizabeth in Convent, New Jersey in 1959. That this is my own past makes it no less strange and unbelievable in my eyes. Here are excerpts from actual instructions distributed to my Freshman class. Bracketed comments in italics are mine:


During this week you will be hearing a variety of instructions from a variety of sources. It has been suggested* that a listing of the more important regulations might prove beneficial. You are requested to read over the following items and ask for an explanation of any points which may not be clear. Keep this copy convenient for future reference.

{*The author of these rules, identity unknown, was certainly NOT associated with the English Department, where my mentor, Sister Mary Catharine O’Connor (who possessed two PhD's from Columbia University) ruled with an iron mind. She would never have tolerated the use of the passive voice throughout the document.}


Students may patronize all those luncheonettes, tea rooms, coffee shops, and drugstores which maintain proper standards. They may, however, patronize only those restaurants which are on the approved list. Violation of this rule is subject to judicial action by the Student Executive Board.


You are to preserve a neat appearance at all times and to observe the following specific instructions:

1. Either stockings or socks must be worn at all times.

2. Sneakers and sweatshirts are part of the gym uniform and are to be worn ONLY for gym activities. THEY ARE TO BE WORN AT NO OTHER TIME.

3. Slacks, dungarees, and shorts are forbidden as campus attire.


Students are expected to be courteous and respectful at all times. They will show this respect by rising immediately when a faculty member or other older person enters the room. It is taken for granted that students will greet members of the faculty when they meet. Exceptional courtesy is to be shown to visiting lecturers and to anyone who may at any time address you.


1. When a student arrives at a dance, she presents herself and her escort to the chaperones; when leaving she bids them good night.

2. Students do not leave the building in which the dance is held while the dance is in progress. This applies to escorts as well.

3. Students remain at the dance until it is over. All return promptly and directly to the residence hall at the same time.


1. The snack bar is not a place for study or wasting valuable time. For this reason no books are to be taken there, and you are to leave promptly after being served.

2. Playing cards is forbidden during class hours.


1. Students have the privilege of unlimited lights. Freshman, however, may visit other students between check-in and ten o'clock only with the permission of the proctor and between ten and eleven only with the permission of the sister on the floor. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO VISITING AFTER ELEVEN O'CLOCK ON ANY NIGHT PRECEDING A CLASS DAY.

The penalty for a violation of the above regulation is a one-week campus including signing in for twenty-one meals, and supervised study from 8:00 until 10:30 each night during the week in a place designated by the sister in charge of the residence hall.**

{**I myself was given "twenty-one meals" for getting caught visiting my friend Fran Maraziti and her roommates after lights out. It was worth it. She is still my dear friend, and I delight in her company whenever we are together. It was she who preserved the handout I excerpt here and sent it to me a few months ago.}

2. On Sundays and holydays students are to wear afternoon dresses or suits, stockings, and dress shoes. Sweaters and skirts, class jackets, socks, and "loafers” are not to be worn. This regulation is also to be followed on certain designated nights for supper.

3. When leaving campus by the train for the weekend, stockings, dress shoes, gloves and a hat are to be worn.***

{***It never occurred to me then, but now I look at this rule and picture droves of young women boarding the 5:26 to Hoboken wearing the required items, and nothing else.}

--Annamaria Alfieri

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Relevance of History

Kelli Stanley is an award-winning author of crime fiction (novels and short stories). She makes her home in Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco, a city she loves to write about. She is the author of two crime fiction series, one set in 1940 San Francisco (featuring hardboiled female PI, Miranda Corbie), the other in first century Roman Britain.

Her novels include City of Dragons, Nox Dormienda, The Curse-Maker, and City of Secrets (September, 2011). "Children's Day", a prequel to City of Dragons, was published in the International Thriller Writers anthology First Thrills: High Octane Stories From the Hottest Thriller Authors. Kelli earned a Master's Degree in Classics, loves jazz, old movies, battered fedoras, Art Deco and speakeasies. You can learn more about her and the worlds she creates at

First, let me thank Kate for inviting me to write for the Crime Writers' Chronicle — I'm happy to be here! Particularly because today — February 1st, 2011 — marks a significant occasion for me. The Curse-Maker — a "reboot" of my "Roman noir" series, and sequel to my out-of-print debut novel, Nox Dormienda — is officially released into the wild, left to forage what it can on its own in a hardscrabble world.

The Curse-Maker is my third published book and the second that I wrote. The setting is first century Roman Britain, and thus millennia apart from City of Dragons and the Miranda Corbie series set in 1940 San Francisco. (For the record, City of Dragons was the third book I wrote and the second to be published. City of Secrets is the fourth book I wrote and will be the fourth to be published when it launches in September.)

What do they have in common? A love of the noir style, used and tweaked and pulled and tucked in very different ways. And, of course, history.

I'm sometimes asked why I write historical mysteries, and the question always surprises me. Maybe I spent too long in the classroom — I earned two Bachelor degrees in Art History and Classics, and a Master's in Classics — but it's hard for me to look at history as something apart from everyday life.

History is a record of the human condition. It's yesterday and all our yesterdays, whether lighted by fools or hallowed by angels. We need to glance at the past occasionally, focus on it, study it, and recognize the forces — and the fools — that shaped it, not hold it at arm's length and memorize dates and names. It can help guide us past contemporary mine fields, help solve the problems of a more complex world ... because no matter how complex the world is, human beings are roughly the same as they've always been, good, bad, indifferent, trying to survive.

For me, history is as much a part of life as breathing. Think of human life as a number line ... we learned about negative numbers at a young age, and moved up and down the number line, tracing integers with a child's finger. Why can't we do the same with time? If we can't literally travel backwards — yet — surely we can do so in our minds.

So I write historical mysteries. And I write them, actually, for the readers who don't normally read them. I try to breathe sensuality and life into the time and place, to transport the reader so that she becomes a part of the action, not a spectator watching a travelogue. I write to overcome the impression of boredom and narrow-minded and immutable opinion that characterizes so many people's experience of history class. I write to overcome the idea that it is a preoccupation of intellectuals and art-lovers and aesthetes, something alien to be roped off and gawked at, spectacle now, forgotten tomorrow.

I want to write other things, of course. A graphic novel. Contemporary crime fiction, too. I struggle against the ghetto of category, and resist type-casting. After all, today is as important to me as ... yesterday.

Kelli Stanley