Monday, April 30, 2012

Edgar Week & Malice Domestic

Dear Friends,

Having just returned from the above two events, I am in a state of collapse and ask for a one day reprieve before sending my next blog.


Robin Hathaway

Friday, April 27, 2012

Going to Malice

I'm off to Malice Domestic this morning. If I figure out how to co-ordinate my various technological devices sometime over the weekend I'll let you know how it's going. Otherwise I'll put up some pictures next Friday and let you know how it went. Many lovely people will be there. Maybe I'll get to say hello to them and even take their pictures.

Sunday morning I'm on a panel, something about the writers sharing their secrets, wherein we have all promised to spill our guts. We'll see how that goes. Stay tuned.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

WAR! Why?

Between 1864 and 1870, Paraguay fought the most devastating war any country has ever suffered.  Estimates of the number of dead differ widely, but it seems safe to say that 60% of the country’s total population was lost—proportionally the most destructive war of the last millennium.  In the end, some say 90% of the male population of Paraguay was killed.  The most meticulous study concludes that of the 150-160,000 Paraguayans left in 1870, only 28,000 were males: a ratio of 4 females to 1 male.  But in the worst-devastated areas, the ratio was more like 20 to 1.  Why would that tiny land-locked country pit itself against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay and then fight nearly to annihilation?  The answer you get depends on who you ask.

Carlos Antonio Lopez
Most historians agree that the politics of the La Plata region were a mess at the time.  After achieving independence from Spain, Paraguay enclosed itself in a shell and lived to serve and enrich its dictators—first José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and then Carlos Antonio López.  Argentina was mired in a persistent identity crisis, unable to make up its mind whether it wanted to grow up to be a republic or a unified country ruled from the large, liberal city on its coast.  The Argentinos fought one another brutally every once in a while but never managed to settle the question.  Brazil’s rivalry with Argentina caused it to rise up from time to time, flex its muscles, and try to prove it was the biggest kid on the block.  Poor little Uruguay, stuck between the two coastal would-be super powers, found itself a frequent battleground in proxy conflicts between the pro-Brazilian and pro-Argentine factions in its midst. 

Enter Francisco Solano López.  When he ascended to the “throne” of Paraguay on the death of his father, he immediately began to militarize.  He brought in 200 foreign technicians to build a railroad, a telegraph system, warships and weapons.  In 1850, the Ybycuí foundry began to turn out cannons, artillery, and bullets, using every bit of metal it could lay its hands on, including the bells in the church towers.  With all that political tumult and materiel at hand, there was bound to be a war.

The precipitating factors could have been any of several.  Many texts posit that Solano López coveted a port on the Atlantic and set out to conquer a swath of Brazil so he could have one.  The evidence in support of this is heavy: Lopez started it all by declaring war on Brazil on December 13, 1864.  Three months later, because Argentina refused to let him march his army through its territory to get to the battlegrounds, he declared war on Argentina.  Uruguay later joined in making it a Triple Alliance against Paraguay but it never had the resources to matter much in the fighting.

López’s apologists claim that he was not after territory but rather was defending the rights of the two small countries not to be meddled with by the two local heavy weights.  There is some supporting argument in favor of this, too.   Brazil had done some major mucking around in Uruguay for the previous fifteen years.  In October of 1864, it found a pretext to invade its little neighbor.  The Colorado faction in Uruguay appealed to Solano López for help.  One could make a case that López’s real motivation in starting the war was to show big-guy Brazil that the smaller countries would not stand for such a thing.  We must note, however, that López did not go in to fight with the Uruguayans.  Instead, he attacked the Mato Grosso province of Brazil, which would be his desired corridor to the sea.  Was he trying to kill two birds with one stone?  If so, he wound up killing his countrymen instead.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, revisionist historians floated a new theory, saying that real culprit was Great Britain, variously motivated by its need for a source of cotton (having lost its supply from the American South because of our Civil War) and better yet because it stood to make enormous amounts of money supplying armaments and engineers and importantly by lending the warring powers bags of cash at favorable—to Britain—interest rates.  Since Britain actually was the only entity to come out ahead in the awful struggle, you might want to believe it entrapped the warring parties to participate.   Profiting heavily from such a horror show does seem a nasty way for any country to make itself rich, but it is hard to imagine that Britain could have gotten the war started if the other participants had not been looking for a fight, as well as cruising for a bruising.

The least likely reason for this war,  actually stated as truth in books that call themselves nonfiction, is that the real culprit was—Can you believe it?—Eliza Lynch.
Yes, her, the Irish courtesan.

As has been mankind’s wont from the story of Adam and Eve onward, some men (and I am being gender-specific here) say it is evil woman who goads otherwise peaceful and honorable man into sin.  These are the types who say Lynch pushed Solano López into the war because she wanted to be an Empress like her friend Eugenie.  Her goal was that her lover would eventually conquer all of South America, which they would rule together.  The proponents of this theory either ignore or never noticed that Solano López opened an armaments factory four years before he ever met the lady.

This is not to say that La Lynch did not participate once the conflict was underway.  But that’s a story for another day.  Come back and read it next week.

Annamaria Alfieri   

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Perfect Day!

Last Friday I had what I consider a perfect day. In order to pull this off, you have to have balmy weather and a good friend who shares your love of books. Then you’re all set.

We started off at eleven a.m. after a leisurely breakfast over which we discussed the books we’d read since we’d last seen each other. As usual, our tastes agreed. We both love mysteries, from cozies to noir, as well as a vast variety of fiction and non-fiction – especially prime sources such as letters and diaries of our favorite authors. Some books we touched on were: The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett, Lives of the Novelists, by John Sutherland, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson and Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis.

Next, we headed out to Bookhaven, on Fairmount Ave., my idea of the perfect bookstore. When you open the door you’re assailed by the delicious scent of old books, a gray, striped cat is curled up on the counter, and the bookseller really knows her stock, from beginning to end. I asked for The Orations of Cicero, (for my husband), which she instantly produced, with the remark, “His letters are much livelier.” My friend and I moved on to the shelves that interested us. I came away with Short Stories by Wilkie Collins, Wartime Writings by Saint-Exupery, a Lescroart, The Second Chair, (and, of course, the Cicero).

For some reason, book browsing stimulates the appetite, so we found our way to a restaurant with outdoor tables. It was about 70 degrees with a light breeze. There, we had soup, salads, and a glass of white wine that we consumed amid more talk about books. From there we returned home to freshen up for the evening event – a celebration of David Goodis, local noir author extraordinaire. The program was held at the Free Library of Philadelphia. It began with a showing of “The Burglar,” starring Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield. This 1950 film was made from a Goodis novel by the same name. After the film, an editor from Library of America spoke about Goodis and read some passages from his novels. Lou Boxer, a director of Philadelphia’s NoirCon, did a power point presentation on Goodis’s life in Philadelphia and his career.

As we emerged from the Library to look for a cab, we realized that finding one at that hour and location was about as likely as a snow storm in July. As we prepared to spend the night curled up on the Library steps, we spied two friends — Deen Kogan and Greg Gillespie. Seeing our plight, they saved the day (rather — the night) by offering us a ride.

At home again, we broke out a chilled bottle of Chardonnay and — you guessed it — talked about books.

Don’t you agree this was a perfect day?

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Professional Redemption

I've been rooting for Tiger Woods to make a Wow-Them comeback.

No, I didn't approve of his womanizing game or the agony he caused his family... but after reading about his father's ways and the pressure he put on that little boy who was so gifted, I've hoped-hoped-hoped he'd rise back to the top.

So when I read of his "professional redemption" at the Arnold Palmer Invitational I beamed as big as if he was my kid!

I loved the words of the NYT writer Karen Crouse... "Woods kept his body language inscrutable."
That's a great phrase for us crime writers to use!!! Gets your little grey cells clicking for sure...

And Crouse's words – "the greens were as hard as week-old bagels." Can't you just sink your teeth into that and break a crown!

Crouse is a writer worth watching. She knows a thing or three about language:

"His aura of invincibility suffered a total eclipse."

"Poised to avenge the loss."

"The pin placements made putting diabolically difficult."

"He was not going to lie down and be the red carpet for Woods' latest coronation."

"Woods stood a few feet away, looking as cool as the shade."

Now if this writer would change her pen from golf to murder – I see an Edgar in her future!

Green jacket, Tiger. You're back!

T.J. Straw

P.S. Well, now, folks, my guy didn't make it. I'm sorry.

But, as a famous gal said once, tomorrow's another day.

Good luck, Tiger, the trail ahead winds long and you may get that green jacket yet!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Old Silent Movies

The library in Sparta, New Jersey, had to cancel The Birth of the Movies, the show I was going to do there on Sunday afternoon, because not enough people signed up to go and see it. While I'm sorry I won't be seeing Sparta, and sad not to be meeting the librarian and the readers there and entertaining them with antique movies, I must confess that I wasn't looking forward to the two-hour drive.

It's been canceled a couple of other times because people didn't sign up to come. I don't do the show very often, mostly because people don't ask me to do it very often, and partly because it always seems like a drag to leave Lambertville. I don't even market it anymore. Still, it's fun. Every time I do it I see different things in the movies I show and their interrelationships, and I tinker with it between times. It starts out with Thomas Edison and his merry men, the film studio they called the Black Maria, and three of the films they made for the Kinetoscope peep-show machines, including the boxing cats and Eugen Sandow, that incredible hunk of beefcake, flexing his muscles in a state of near-nakedness.

After that, some of the movies they showed to audiences in the nickelodeons, including The Great Train Robbery and D. W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat. Finally I show them the last half of The Cheat, an early film of C. B. DeMille that still fascinates today. Since the last time I gave the show I've added a little movie directed by Alice Guy Blache, who became such a force in the movie industry in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Here it is, for your enjoyment. You will notice that it is full of French people, for when Madame Blache made this movie she was still in France.

Kate Gallison

Monday, April 16, 2012

Re-reading and Why We Do It

My friend, Stephanie Patterson, recently forwarded an article to me on re-reading, and the books that are most commonly re-read by authors (according to a survey). Can you guess which book came out on top? The Great Gatsby. More authors re-read that book once a year, than any other. It is also one of my favorites.

This article set me thinking about the books I return to on a regular basis, and to ask myself —why? Here are a few of my favorites. Short stories by J. D. Salinger, Willa Cather, and Hemingway (his early “Nick” stories). All the Peter Wimsey novels, Raymond Chandler novels, Josephine Tey’s, Margery Allingham’s and Agatha Christie’s. Pride & Prejudice and Emma. All of Barbara Pym. Well…on and on they go.

Now to the question—why? What draws me back to these books over and over again, and not to others? In the case of the mysteries, when I know the outcome, it certainly isn’t the plot that pulls me back. No. I’ve decided, it’s the people. I love being with Peter and Harriet Vane, and listening to their clever dialogue. I like to laugh at Philip Marlowe’s nasty, cutting remarks, and smile at the more subtle play of wit between Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Mr. Knightly. The fact that I’ve heard it all before, only enhances my enjoyment. These characters are like family, or very close, old, friends. You don’t mind hearing their stories, anecdotes, and witticisms, repeated. On the contrary, you look forward to them. For some reason, being able to anticipate them, makes them all the more enjoyable.

But what about those novels that don’t supply much humor, such as Rebecca, a book I re-read periodically. Is it just because it’s such a magnificent yarn? Or is it the exquisite rendering of evil that the author creates that fascinates me over and over again?

I know I haven’t begun to explain the magic potion that draws me back to these books repeatedly. If I could explain it, then I might be able to write such books myself. A futile dream that I know I will never fulfill. I wish you would share some of those books you return to again and again, and tell me why. Maybe it will help me find the answer to this nagging question.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, April 15, 2012

How I Manage My Time

I met Marilyn Meredith six or seven years ago in Vegas. Sounds like the opening line in a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback? She'd invited me to be on a short story panel at the PSWA (Public Service Writers Conference) held each year in the same Las Vegas hotel. The friendliest bunch of crime writers, and Marilyn – the Joyce Carol Oates of Police Procedurals – is the heart of the organization.

F. M. Meredith, also known as Marilyn Meredith, is the author of over thirty published novels — and a few that will never see print. Her latest in the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series, from Oak Tree Press, is
No Bells. Rocky Bluff P.D. is a fictional beach community between Ventura and Santa Barbara and F. M. once lived in a similar beach area.

F. M. (Marilyn) is a member of EPIC, four chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and serves as the program chair for the Public Safety Writers of America’s writing conference. She’s been an instructor at many writing conferences.

Visit her at and her blog at

– Robert Knightly

I had a difficult time figuring out what to write for Robert’s blog. His mysteries are wonderful police procedurals, gritty and realistic. My Rocky Bluff P.D. mysteries are a form of police procedurals but I tend to focus more on the characters and what’s going on in their private lives, and they aren’t particularly gritty, and I suppose to be honest, they border on cozies — though no one knits or runs a bookstore. Another big difference between Robert’s mysteries and mine are his are centered around the NYPD and New York, mine are focused on a small police department located in the fictional town of Rocky Bluff on the California Coast.

By the way, I love Robert’s books.

So, I’ve updated my list of what I do to manage my time as a writer, beginning with what I don’t do.
  • Stay up late and stay in bed late.
  • Sit around in my p.j.'s all day.
  • Watch TV in the day time with one exception.
  • Visit on the telephone.
  • Have people over for coffee--or go to others’ homes for coffee, except on rare occasions.
  • Work on Sundays.
  • Do my own housework, except for my bedroom and bath.
  • Belong to any social clubs.
  • Play Facebook games.
  • Do craft projects, paint, knit, or sew.  I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I ought to concentrate on writing.

(Sounds boring, but it works for me)

What I do:

I read at spare moments and in bed. I also check my email in bed at night.

I do watch DVD movies in the early evening because my brains turns to mush after putting in a certain number of hours writing and/or editing.

I go to bed early.

I get up between 4:30 a.m. and 5 and shower and dress--then I'm ready for whatever might happen during the day. (This is an old habit from when we owned and lived in a residential care home and we got surprise visits from licensing and the placement agency at any time.)

I start my day with whatever Bible study I happen to be doing, or just reading a chapter in the Bible.

I make a list of what I hope to accomplish.

I check my email and take care of it and do a quick peek at Facebook and tell the world what my plan for the day is because then I feel obligated to do what I wrote. Fix my Chai latte to drink while I'm working. When I get hungry I fix my breakfast. Once in awhile hubby fixes a big breakfast for both of us.

Sometime I glance through the paper while I'm eating, other times I'll read a book.

I write, either before breakfast or after, starting wherever I left off the night before. (A trick I learned long ago was to quit in the middle of a scene then it's easy to begin again the next day.) Fortunately, I can be interrupted and go right back to whatever I was doing. (That's from raising five kids and always having a houseful of my own and everyone else's.)

When I've written as much as I feel like for the day – or that time period – I'll move on to other things that need to be done, like writing blog posts, book reviews, some editing, whatever happens to be on my list.

I eat lunch and take care of other little jobs – or maybe big ones, depending upon what has popped up.

My daytime TV watching exception is General Hospital, sometimes I sleep through it, sometimes I fold clothes; in any case, it's a nice break. (It’s fun to see the outlandish plots they think up.)

Then I'll finish up whatever and move onto cooking dinner. Cooking is something I enjoy most of the time.

And that more or less brings me full circle.

When I was younger I had my finger in more pies than I do now. The hours and the days seem to have gotten shorter and I can't accomplish as much as I used to. Sometimes during the week, hubby and I will take time off and go out to lunch and to see a movie.

We also go to writers and mystery cons together. He doesn't write, but he enjoys the traveling and meeting new people.

I do belong to writing related organizations like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Epic authors, and the Public Safety Writers Association.

This is what works for me. It might not for you, but if you really want to be a writer, you should be writing on a regular basis.

No Bells – Officer Gordon Butler has finally found  the love he’s been seeking for a long time,  but there’s one big problem:  she’s the major suspect in a murder case.

CONTEST: The person who comments on the most blogs on my tour will win three books in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series: No Sanctuary, An Axe to Grind, and Angel Lost. Be sure and leave your email too, so I can contact you if you win.

Marilyn Meredith

Friday, April 13, 2012

Killer Opening Paragraphs

My first book, Unbalanced Accounts, opened with so much style that the publisher, Little, Brown, put the first paragraph on the back cover, and respected critic John Leonard quoted the first sentence in his New York Times review:

In March a damp wind blows in Trenton, and it smells of cats.

I've been trying to live up to that first sentence ever since, and failing, although the eight or ten books that followed Unbalanced Accounts were all quite entertaining once you got past their rather ordinary first sentences. A great first paragraph is not an easy thing to write.

Now, however, I have an opening paragraph that pleases me immoderately. I feel that I must share it with you. It's from the young adult novel I'm working on, called Broken Sister, a sort of psychological thriller. I'm kind of foggy about what young adults like, but I like this one, and if the young adults don't like it they can write their own books. Exactly half finished, the new book opens like this:

Carina Nebula crossed her ankles, placed her hands on her thighs, lifted her rib cage, and focused on her breath. In, out. Random emotions passed across her consciousness – self-hatred, wild elation, an impulse to cut herself, the desire to find her brother and choke him until his eyes popped out – but she observed these feelings as from a far distance, and one by one they passed away. She was at peace. Not even the sound of the helicopters could disturb her tranquility of mind. Not if they couldn't see her from the air.

What's your favorite opening paragraph? It's okay to include one you wrote yourself.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How Did Paraguay Get So Rich?

Getting back to Paraguay and López and Lynch…

In the Nineteenth Century, Paraguay was extremely wealthy. It had the first railroad and the first telegraph in South America. It had an armaments factory designed and run by English engineers. Its neighbors feared its strength and envied the powerhouse of its monopoly on a substance that was in enormous demand, the sale of which poured wealth into the country. Not gold mines, nor silver, nor precious gems. Paraguay’s wealth derived from a tea—yerba mate.

Until the War of the Triple Alliance or the Paraguayan War, 1865-1870—López and Lynch’s time, Paraguay was the only
place where Ilex paraguareiensis grew. The shrub or small tree bears leaves that once dried and steeped in hot water produces an elixir that was drunk by Paraguay’s indigenous Guaraní people before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. By the mid-17th century, its popularity had spread to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. And to Europe and the Middle East. There may have been an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but its citizens drank more yerba mate. It was at that point that the Jesuits domesticated the plant and began to grow it on their Indian reductions.

[Interruption for a commercial: If you haven’t seen the movie The Mission, I urge you to—it is gorgeous, with great performances by Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro and splendid music by Ennio Morricone. And now back to our story.]

Yerba mate contains caffeine and other mild stimulants. It is traditionally drunk from a gourd through a silver straw called a bombilla. South Americans often get together with friends to drink a mate, which they pass around among them always clockwise. The tea is believed to have healthful and medicinal properties. Researchers are currently looking into its use as a cancer-fighting agent, particularly against colon cancer.

At the beginning of the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay had a monopoly on the product. More than defeating Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay devastated the country. And then to keep it down for a hundred years, they took away most of its yerba mate producing territory. Now Paraguay is last among the countries that produce the product that made it rich 150 years ago.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, April 9, 2012

Answers to First Lines That Grab You!

Click here to see the questions.
  1. “Where is Papa going with that ax?” / Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
  2. “Tom!” / The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
  3. The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist… / Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
  4. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” / Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  5. The Mole had been working all morning spring-cleaning his little home. / The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
  6. On Friday, June 12th I woke up at six o’clock and no wonder; it was my birthday.  / The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank
  7. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. / Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  8. “That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.  / The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers
  9. Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.  / Ulysses, by James Joyce
  10. It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. / Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Counted Blessings

"On this most holy day of days
To God your hearts and voices raise,
In laud and jubilee and praise."
— Jean Tisserand, 15th cent.

To lots of folks on this blessed planet, Easter is a yearly celebration of an event they believe happened many years ago. It is usually observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

In addition to the religious symbols, many celebrate it with Easter eggs, white-flowered lilies and exchanged gifts.

I'd like to share with you a few blessings stored in sacred memories.

Each springtime I treasure that decade before I migrated to Gotham's asphalt jungle.

Miles of dogwood, lilacs, wild flowers, magnolias, red buds with unbelievably gorgeous blooms, each more brilliant than its neighbor.

The animals on the land - the mares, their colts, at the pasture behind my little cottage, the happy, carefree dogs, the platoon of barn cats, scurrying in and out of the old barn, multiplying like joyful weeds.

Sewanee, Tennessee, on the top of a magic mountain, was a magical place. From the simple Covites in the valley below to the high-ranking academic and ecclesiastical scholars who governed the University of the South (often called The Princeton of the South).

The local village church, Otey parish, the three prep schools that stood both apart yet joined as one triumvirate.

The whole raison d'etre, the development and nurturing of young men and women. Students training to lead the future, of their own towns, their nation, their world. . .

A leisurely pace of life mingled with the serene purple mists. Incredible views as you stood on the edge of the mystical mountain and looked down at the quiet valleys.

Bells tolling from the university chapel, the bells of St. Andrew's, St. Mary's and Sewanee Military Academy.

Music from the great organ at the university, the smaller chapel at St. Mary's, out on the edge of the mountain, notes gliding through the clouds and trees in brilliant sunlight.

Dawns and sunsets remembered, peace, security, joy, a constant reminder of new life, new blooms, new animals, new children, learning to find their own beacons, to follow their own special stars.

Happy hours with celebrated colleagues at the spacious log cabin of Andrew Lytle, the Editor of the Sewanee Review. Mellow bourbon served in silver goblets and old linen napkins. Brilliant snatches of erudite conversation, drifting from his porch out into the twilight mists.

The rhythms of academia whistling through tree branches. English, philosophy, Russian lit, math, physics, all promoting the life-giving esprit de corps.

We adults were all ages - 21 to 90 - all of us young at heart and growing together. It was a given that to be a good teacher or professor you were constantly seeking wider horizons, always expanding the mind.

From my safe cocoon I took side trips - Harvard, Oxford - always returning with a knapsack of riches to share with my students and colleagues.

Most of us gave our all, on that sacred mountain, and received much in return.

Today I walk softly on city sidewalks, remembering, counting the blessings of that sacred piece of America.

Thelma Straw

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bad Day in the Neighborhood

Can't think about anything I want to write about today. It's not that nothing is happening here in Bugtown. The trees and flowers are all in bloom, and the birds are singing songs I've never heard before. Brand new songs. Probably there's something sinister in that; probably the birds are species that have moved farther north to escape or take advantage of global warming. Tropical birds. Next there will be palm trees.

No, there's plenty happening. Yesterday I attended the funeral of one of the best men I ever knew. His friends told hilarious fishing stories, so we laughed as much as we cried, but his death from an obscure inoperable cancer at the age of 66 still seems monstrous. We're all going to miss him so much. I don't want to write about that.

Nor do I want to write about my friend at the bank, one of the tellers, a woman I like a lot, with whom I have much in common; she came here from Trenton; she has a grown son. Shortly after we noticed that she hadn't been at work for a couple of days the word got out that she had been arrested for embezzling the bank's money. I'm hoping it was a bum rap, that two other people did it somehow. But I don't want to write about it.

You see, for a person who calls herself a crime writer, I really hate crime. And death. These things are abhorrent to me. I do like jelly beans, though, and I like to laugh. So I'm going to abandon this effort to write a blog post and eat a handful of jelly beans while I work on my latest book, which is turning out to be really funny.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eliza Lynch: The Would-Be Empress of South America

People often ask me why I write about South America. My standard answer is that its history intrigues me. One reason for its pull: it is replete with enigmas. What could be a better background for a mystery novel? The continent is beautiful; its vibe is magical.
And almost anywhere you look in its tumultuous past you find events and especially people that inspire wildly diverging accounts and opinions. Eliza Lynch is one of those conundrums.
Biographies and a couple of biographical novels characterize her in wildly different ways
. Was she an overly ambitious adventuress who goaded the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López into the bloodiest war in South American history? Or a gorgeous plaything who bore López seven children and loved him so much that she stuck with him to the bitter end and buried him with her own hands? Somewhere in the mists of myth lies the real Eliza.

We know this: She was born on the third of June 1835 in County Cork in Ireland to a physician, John Lynch and his wife Adelaide Schnock. And she was beautiful. But very likely quite poor.
Her early years are forgotten and confused by lies she later told to make her family seem prominent and important than it was. When Eliza was twelve years old, her oldest sister Corinne was living in France. The family followed to Paris, where, on her fifteenth birthday, Eliza married a French military surgeon Jean Louis Armand De Quatrefages. The couple moved to Algiers but were divorced after only three years. In 1853, Eliza was back in Paris living the life of a demimonde courtesan. There is talk of a lover who was Russian nobleman. Then she met Francisco Solano López.

Some chroniclers call their meeting love at first sight. I believe it. López was the son of Carlos
Antonio López, the dictator of Paraguay. He was in Paris, again for questionable reasons: perhaps as a trade envoy looking for ways to spend the country’s fabulous wealth on armaments and modern improvements to its infrastructure. Or perhaps because his licentious behavior was causing social havoc in the capital—Asunción. Whichever it was, or both, we can imagine that he immediately saw in Eliza great beauty, sophistication, elegance the likes of which no one in insolated and primitive Paraguay had ever seen. She saw in the squat and boorish López, a level of wealth the likes of which few in Europe but emperors possessed. They remained together for the rest of his life. By the time she arrived with him in Paraguay, she was already pregnant with the first of their seven children.
Did they start a war to make themselves the Emperor and Empress of the continent? Or was she an innocent by-stander to his megalomaniacal ambitions? We will take up the next phase of their story next week.

Monday, April 2, 2012

First Lines That Grab You!

I’ve been told that it’s important to start your book with an exciting, or at least intriguing, first line. For fun, here is a list of a few first lines. See if you can name the books they came from and their author. (My next blog will have the answers.)

  1. “Where is Papa going with that ax?”
  2. “Tom!”
  3. The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist…
  4. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”
  5. The Mole had been working all morning spring-cleaning his little home.
  6. On Friday, June 12th I woke up at six o’clock and no wonder; it was my birthday.
  7. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
  8. “That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
  9. Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
  10. It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, April 1, 2012

City of Troy: Memoirs Central

Troy’s a real city here in Upstate New York. (By ‘real’, I mean it can compare with my hometown, NYC.) As far as I know, unless you head West in a wagon train, the only other one is Albany, where I’m living now these past four years, having spent sixty-plus years in New York City. Burdened by ordinary old age, I fled my birthplace and its ever-increasing multitudes as developers threw up glass-and-faux-brick ‘Town Houses’ on every empty lot bigger than a Bocce Ball Court (60 feet by 12 ft.), in Jackson Heights, Queens. I had taken refuge there in a Pre-War Co-op a decade ago. Remember the old SciFi movie, ‘Soylent Green’ (Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson)? In the year 2022, people are living on the staircases in apartment buildings! Yes, I yearn for the City I remember, not this crass successor.

Troy speaks to me. In the early 1900’s, it was among the wealthiest of American cities. It was the Collar City when the Arrow Shirt Company detachable-collars-and-cuffs factories and the Iron Works were going full-blast on the banks of the Hudson. But no more. The crumbling red brick commercial buildings stand empty, although the stately Victorian townhouses that predominate in Downtown are fully occupied. The City has ‘good bones’ architecturally throughout its principal neighborhoods — Downtown, the South End, Lansingburg and North Central — and its population is staying put. The new Troy is a home to small business, in its Antiques Quarter, Little Italy, and ethnic restaurants. The State government agencies and the schools — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the Sage Colleges — provide a stable economic base, as in Albany.

But ask me, and I say: rename the Collar City, Memoir City. It’s the hottest game in Troy.

The other night I read a piece of my memoir to an audience in the theatre at the Troy Arts Center on River Street. Ten of us read for ‘Bookmarks, the Memoir Project Reading Series’, moderated by its creators, authors Donna Miller and Marion Roach Smith. We read 1,000-word pieces about “Circling the Dark; Choosing Light: Moments of Transformation,” the theme of the evening. Experienced and first-time authors, we read about the death of a child; the loss of a spouse; the revival of long-dead emotions; the comforts of cooking, the peace of gardening, a friend’s betrayal. “Life stories that mine the personal to express the universal,” as the moderators put it.

The Arts Center is a unique, vibrant non-profit home to practicing arts in the crafts, cooking, dance, writing, et al., in a big space off Monument Square in Downtown Troy. Marion Roach Smith is the founder and heart of its Memoir Project. In fifteen years of facilitating life-writing in its various forms — “Writing What You Know” – she’s guided 1,000-plus students to find their truth. I know because she got me started, too. She’s a former NY Times staffer, author of four published works — the most intriguing to me, “The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair” (she has), and her latest, “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text on Writing and Life.” To me, she’ll always be the Queen of Memoir.

Afterward, don’t fail to eat at the Illium Café in Monument Square: home cooking with a big dollup of NYC class.

Robert Knightly