As the days get shorter, I feel the irresistible draw to everything cozy. Last year, book lists were dominated by anything about the Danish practice of hygge. Since I speak no Danish and have never lived in Denmark, I can, of course, speak with great authority on the topic because I read Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly. The take away, for those of you who haven’t read the book, is that because the Danes face long, dark and cold winters, they buy more candles than any other nationality on earth and they have raised the art of coziness to a high art form. As I write this in my little attic writing room in upstate New York, I am staring at trees that have mostly shed their leaves. It’s raining hard enough for me to hear the constant drumbeat of raindrops on the roof. The leaves on the ground are soggy. Drops of water cling to the window panes. In short, this is perfect weather to snuggle in soft, warm clothes and drink something warm. I’m already thinking of baking cookies this afternoon. I have never lived any place without seasons. I was born in Scotland, then moved to northern Utah. My family moved to France, just across the border from Geneva, then to Germany, just across the border from Luxembourg. then it was back to Utah. I went to college in Boston, spent a year studying in Leningrad/St. Petersburg and then headed to graduate and law school in Philadelphia. Almost twenty years ago, my husband and I settled in New York City. Of course, I see the appeal of constant sunshine. My brother and his family recently moved from Brooklyn to L.A. On one of our almost-daily calls he teased me about how that morning there were these strange white and gray masses in the sky, some of them even obscured the sun for a moment. I can’t quite imagine what it would be like to live somewhere with perpetual warm sunshine. I love to be outdoors, and I love the sun. I think it must be nice where it’s always sunny. I especially think that on those brutally cold March days in New York City when the snow has melted and refrozen into dirty, icy, gray hills on every street corner. At some point, inevitably, a car will drive into a puddle of slushy black water leaving you wet, shivering and drenched in who-knows-what. Charming, no? That does not happen to anyone in L.A. Not ever. But, in the spirit of believing there’s bright side to everything, do cookies baking in the oven smell as wonderful when it’s sunny and warm outside as they do when it’s sleeting and cold? Please let me know. Remember, I’ve never lived in a land of eternally good weather. I’m extremely curious what it’s like. In the meantime, I’ll have a warm chocolate chip cookie .Read more
The practice of wordsmithing is defined as making changes to a text to improve clarity and style, as opposed to content. A wordsmith is a person who works with words; especially a skillful writer. I’ve been thinking of word choice more than usual lately because my daughter is applying to college; and for those of you who do not know the joy of the common application, among other things, it requires each student to fill in a 650-word essay. Every word counts. Literally. Writers know that every word should always count, and yet I know I’ve been guilty of ignoring that wisdom on more than one occasion. Now that I spend a lot of my life thinking about words: how to order them, how many are necessary, which ones to choose and which ones not to, I have found myself entranced with those writers who do it well. For me, a wordsmith is like a magician: they leave me dazzled, but unable to quite figure how the trick was done. I want to be one of them; one of those magicians. At least once in a while. So, I’ve been watching for the sleight of hand, the well-timed distraction, the puff of smoke. Although I’m still far from having figured it all out, I think I’ve picked up a few tricks: (1) Read a lot and read a lot of different things. Reading quality work is inspiring, but I do think it’s worth reading books that aren’t necessarily top calibre. Martin Sheen said once that after spending a summer being a golf caddy at an exclusive country club, he learned what kind of man he did not want to be. I think the same can be said of writing. Reading things we don’t like can help us find what we aspire to write. (2) Pay attention to the unwritten word. I love music. A songwriter has very little time to convey a message, an emotion, a thought. It’s amazing how fresh and clever songwriters are. It inspires me. If you like poetry, rap or particularly well-spoken interviewing (think Terry Gross) and reporting, start listening carefully. You may pick up a trick or two. (3) Play games with words. A few years ago I signed up for–and completed–the Improv 101 class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Yes, it confirmed my longstanding belief that comedians are smarter than the rest of us, but it also taught me that those improv geniuses practice; they practice a lot. One week our teacher asked us to associate as many words and ideas as we could with an object every time we walked down the street. One morning my brain went: dog walker–fire hydrant–bladder–trying to find a bathroom–toilet paper–scented candles. You get the idea. (4) Take your craft seriously. I’m working my way through Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. You may not agree with everything he says. I don’t, but it’s beyond debate that the man is an expert at the craft of writing. If you want to become one of the magicians, you have to spend some time learning how hide the quarter. Force yourself to double check definitions, punctuation and grammar rules. It’s not hard, and it will improve your skill. (5) Try and fail; and don’t be afraid to fail spectacularly. I’m a terrible skier. Really. When I was ten, we lived in France; and in those days skiing was part of the winter physical education curriculum. Everyone but me was a good skier. I promise you, I was the only one who fell, and, boy, did I fall. I could fall with my skis pointing in directions one would think were physically impossible. After one particularly awe-inspiring fall, my teacher gracefully glided down to me, helped me to my feet and smiled. She told me that only someone who was really pushing herself to improve can fall like I did. Of course, I know she was trying to get me down the mountain, but she did teach me an important lesson. Playing it safe doesn’t teach you that much. (Please leave aside the fact that I’m still a terrible skier for the purpose of this story.) So, that’s it for me. What suggestions do you have for becoming a skilled wordsmith?Read more
I wrapped my favorite gray cashmere scarf around my neck this week. Sure, the autumnal equinox may technically have occurred on September 21st, but depending on where you live, the seasons do (or do not) change in their own time. I live where sweaters replace light cotton tops. Robust Cabernet takes the place of crisp Sancerre. For me, there’s something about the seasons that makes a difference in my approach to work. Cool falls in New York and our (sometimes) frigid winters provide plenty of excuses to stay inside, curled up next to a roaring fire reading and writing. Cooler weather makes me want to spend more time dreaming up murders. I wonder, though, do others feel that same seasonal affective writing syndrome? So, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors whether changes in the seasons influence how and what they write. This is what they had to say: Paula: I’m not sure if what I’m writing changes with the seasons, but certainly my output changes with the seasons. I write best when it’s raining or snowing or otherwise inclement. I love winter. As long as I have heat and wifi and Earl Grey tea, I’m good. I’m off and writing until Spring! Robin: Definitely. I look forward to winters as a block of time to make serious headway on my writing projects because that time of year takes away the lure/distraction of playing outside during nice weather. Less daylight mean less temptation to hike or bike ride after dinner. Rainy weekends mean extra hours of writing time. Last winter was particularly wet and I hammered out a first draft in 6 weeks. I’m finishing up a new first draft right now so this winter I’ll be revising. I’m hoping for a decent rainy season. Cate: I do most of my writing in the fall and winter. The summer encourages me to get out and talk about the books, as well as do the things that I derive inspiration from. Susan: I get most of my work done during the summer. I don’t need to worry about teaching and a lot of the church stuff I do shuts down and so I can write and then walk in the woods and then write and then walk in the woods, etc. Tracee: The seasons definitely impact my work. Fall is productive for me, shorter days, more rain…. and as we head toward winter even worse weather! Yea! We tend to do most of our travel in the summer which is a great break, and provides inspiration and also gives me the ‘get back to work’ boost when the days shorten. Susan’s comment made me think about my tie to ‘institutions’. I spent a long time either in school or working for a university, and my husband is still on that calendar. I think this is one of the reasons I love working in the fall. There is a back to school, the whole year is in front of you, feeling to it. Fresh start and all things are possible! Michele: I used to prefer writing indoors in fall or winter, especially when it was raining or snowing or frigid outside. But when I began spending more time in warmer, sunnier climates I had to change that. I started writing outdoors in the shade, often on a beach under a tree. I almost felt like I was “cheating,” not really writing. Then I read some advice by our agent [Alison adds: the one, the only, the fabulous Paula Munier] in her book, “The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings” suggesting that bringing creative endeavors outside in nature boosts creativity. Now I write outdoors or on a porch all the time, with permission and pleasure. Alexia: My writing is season-free. Or is it season-less? Since I’m whatever the polar opposite of the outdoors type is, I do all my writing in climate-controlled, enclosed spaces. Pubs and hotel lobbies are open year-round.Read more
While there seems to be general consensus that the observance of Halloween dates back to Celtic harvest festivals, there is some debate about its exact origins. A quick glance at Wikipedia is enough to overwhelm all but the heartiest of researching souls. Since I’m neither a speaker of Gaelic nor a historian, I’ll leave the details to the experts. Instead, it seems fitting to mark the day with a discussion about what I love most about the holiday. As someone who writes about murder on an almost daily base, I’m embarrassed to admit that I avoid horror movies and books because they scare me too much. And, yet, every year on October 31st I’m drawn to the spookiest bits of the day. No cute or sexy costumes for me. I like it creepy. One year, when my kids were small, my husband literally blocked me from leaving the apartment to take our then second-grade daughter and pre-k son to the school Halloween party until I made my face less scary. He was afraid I would make the younger kids cry. (I was a ghost that year and had spent a good bit of time with makeup so that I looked like I’d been dead for a few decades). Another year I took my kids trick-or-treating; and we were all characters from Star Wars. I was the Emperor. Not only did I find a perfect ragged walking stick that allowed me to hobble hunched over, but I drew wrinkles and warts on my hands, and rubbed dirt under my nails so that every bit of me looked evil. There was not a dog we met that night that didn’t growl. I took those snarls as compliments. My daughter, now a senior in high school, informed me that my problem with Halloween is that if I dress up (which I don’t always do), I tend to be extra. I’m not entirely sure what that means, because I’m not a fluent speaker of teenagese, but I have a feeling it’s not good. I suspect my plans to be Count Dracula this year may be met with some eye-rolling by my family, who prefer a lower-key approach to the holiday. So, my fellow suspense readers and writers–my friends who like to read and write about death for fun–how do you like to celebrate this centuries-old holiday? Do you carve happy jack-o-lanterns and bob for apples? Or do you like the darker side? Or, maybe, something else in between? No matter how you celebrate: Happy Halloween!Read more
For those of you who get the Fresh Fiction Box every month, you’re already familiar with the Barnes and Noble best-selling author L.A. Chandlar (Laurie). Her first book in The Art Deco mystery series, The Silver Gun, was published this fall. The second in the series, The Gold Pawn, is scheduled to be released in September 2018. Laurie and I first met at an event for the New York Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Anyone who’s met Laurie can attest that her energy and love of life are infectious. She’s brought all that enthusiasm to her books and the business of writing. Between work, traveling for book signings and being a mom to two boys, Laurie has very little extra time. Luckily for me, we live in the same neighborhood and were able to meet up for a cocktail and a chat about writing. D.A. Bartley: For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, can you give us a synopsis of The Silver Gun?
L.A. Chandlar: Sure! 1936, New York City, when Lane Sanders, aide to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, is threatened by an assailant tied to one of the most notorious gangsters in the city, even the mayor can’t promise her safety. Everything seems to hinge on an elusive childhood memory of a silver gun. With a mounting list of suspects, Lane must figure out how the secrets of her past are connected to the city’s underground crime network – before someone pulls the trigger on the most explosive revenge plot in New York history… D.A. Bartley: Mayor La Guardia is a central historical figure in your mystery, but you don’t focus on the shanty towns in Central Park, breadlines or soup kitchens. What guided you in your portrayal of New York City during the 1930s?
L.A. Chandlar: I moved to NYC just after 9/11, and I saw first-hand how a big city handles adversity: with a lot of compassion, humor, art, sacrifice, and cocktails. Around that time, I picked up a biography on Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City’s 99th mayor, and I was fascinated with him (he’s hilarious) and the time period. I found I had pigeon-holed the Thirties into ONLY the Depression. But there was so much more coming out of that time that just the Depression: the art and music was incredible, women were rising in the workforce, the wit and humor was fabulous, and of course the cocktails! I wanted to tell that part of the story. I love the tension of that time. It was the era of the soup lines at the same time is was the era of the cocktail. I think it’s a story that has something for us today. I love that the era was full of innovation and magnificent art that changed the world – despite adversity.
D.A. Bartley: Among your many talents, one thing that has impressed me about you, Laurie, is your originality with marketing. Even though I didn’t win any (hint, hint), I loved the chocolate sauce give away at your Barnes & Noble signing on 86th Street. Can you tell us what you’ve done to get your book noticed?
L.A. Chandlar: Well, I always figure it doesn’t cost anything to be creative. There are two points in marketing. One point, is to just get your book noticed. The second point is to make it memorable. Since this is my first book with a major publisher, I wanted to do things that made it (and me) stand out. I started thinking about anything that is visual about the series, and that might connect with other organizations. Visually, the protagonist loves her red Mary Jane shoes. So, I started the #RedShoeSquad. At signings and conferences, I gave away fun swag to anyone who wore red shoes. I found a great bottle opener that was literally a silver gun (like the title) and a cool red velvet choker / bracelet with a silver gun charm. The funny thing is, they were cheaper than the typical swag like pens and post-it notes. When I was at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, I wore my red shoes and I had several people stop me and tell me they’d seen my shoes on Twitter. I start a lot of videos with a shot of my red shoes as a visual cue. Another major marketing tool was from the fact that art is a major theme. I wanted to emphasize the potency of art in our own lives, and during the Art Deco period. So there is a piece of art that is highlighted and in the background of every novel, that comes alongside the main character –and sometimes a villain– as they navigate their story. The Silver Gun takes place in 1936, the year the Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia founded the first public arts high school, also known as the Fame School, from the TV show and movie in the Eighties. I organized a book fair with Barnes & Noble that benefitted the school. It was so fun! So it not only got my book noticed, but it was a great way for my work to “give back.” We even had several freshman parents contribute a large donation that enabled us to fulfill the entire Wish-List from the librarian.
The chocolate sauce you mentioned –I’ll bring you some– is actually mentioned a lot in the book. Sanders is an old candy company from Detroit and the protagonist was born there. So that was a natural choice for a fantastic gift. Again, it links in with the book, but also makes it stand out.
D.A. Bartley: Which of your marketing techniques have been the most successful? Have there been any surprises?
L.A. Chandlar: There are so many marketing things you could do, that it’s very daunting. If you’re not careful, you’ll spend all your time marketing and never writing. OR you can be paralyzed by all the things other people do. The key, I think, is finding what you do best, and what brings you life when you’re doing it. If you do things that suck the life out of you, you’ll kill yourself. It will all become a chore and it won’t come across as authentic. I like events and creative marketing. I love videos and those are big hits. I also love cocktails and since this era was the era of the cocktail, I give vintage cocktail recipes in my newsletters. The videos and the cocktail recipes get a LOT of hits. Those are the two most successful things. I think the biggest surprise to me, is that even with all the things I’ve done, I still get overwhelmed with the amount of marketing you have to do. I still wrestle with finding a balance. You have to continually kick yourself in the pants and remind yourself that there’s room for all of us, we each have a unique story that only we can tell, and just STOP COMPARING. Self-awareness is one thing, but when it turns to self-doubt, it’s never –ever– helpful.
D.A. Bartley: Will you give us a teaser for book number two?
L.A. Chandlar: Yes, it’s yummy. It’s a sequel, but it will be able to be read as a stand-alone, too.
A family friend of the mayor’s, a notable NYC banker, vanishes without a trace. Days later a bloody knife belonging to the beloved friend is found. In the back of a notorious criminal. As an old underground crime network seems to be rising again, Lane Sanders, aide to the mayor, decides to go back to her hometown of Detroit, Michigan to face the ghosts of her past, in hopes that she’ll find clues to unravel both the mystery of the missing banker and the newly resurrected crime syndicate that threatens the city. As Lane tries to discover the meaning of a gold pawn, the seeming lynch pin of the organization, she realizes the real question isn’t what is the gold pawn, but who?
D.A. Bartley: For all you L.A. Chandlar fans, Laurie is holding a Social Media Sweepstakes. You’ll be automatically entered for every social media post with a photo of you and The Silver Gun and for every review posted (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodReads, etc.) before November 10th. The Grand Prize is a great one: Laurie will name a character after you in her next book The Gold Pawn.
Michele: Some books have such unexpected endings that the reader reacts physically. I have thrown books twice in my life when I felt duped by the writer. Anita Shreve invoked the wrath of many fans with The Last Time They Met. I know readers have reacted hysterically when a favorite character is killed, particularly if he or she is part of series. Ask Elizabeth George. I’ve heard authors discuss invoking terror and distress in the hearts of their readers just to shake things up a bit and to challenge themselves. The question is what book(s) had an ending that inspired a dramatic reaction from you and why? What do you think about using this as a technique as a writer? Paula: There’s an old adage in publishing: The first page sells the book, the last page sellsthe next book. So writers should beware endings that infuriate or frustrate orperplex readers. For my part, I’m a typical reader: I don’t much like ambiguousendings, or endings in which the main action is not resolved, or endings whereeverybody dies. I remember the ending of My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoultwhich dismayed me. I saw it coming, and still it dismayed me. And I wasn’t alone.I saw Jodi Picoult at an event for the book, she wrote after that one, and she toldthe audience she had a feeling that many readers had not forgiven her for thatending quite yet. And the visceral response of the audience confirmed herfeeling. If that had been her first book, she may not be the bestselling authorshe is today. A cautionary tale I take very seriously as a writer, an editor, andan agent. Note: XXX below is to avoid a SPOILER Susan: I love Game of Thrones and I felt I took XXX’s death reasonably well. But after I saw the Red Wedding, I sat there with my mouth agape. (I read the book afterwards and it wasn’t as shocking by then.) I think XXX’s death actually changed my feeling about the book. I still enjoy it and am awed by Martin’s imagination and writing. But I will never trust him again and because of that I don’t think I ever loved the later characters as much as the early ones. But that might just be me being dramatic. Paula: I love Game of Thrones. George RR Martin is a hoot. He’ll kill off anybody. It takes a really skilled writer with a large cast of characters to pull that off and get away with it. Susan: I think I saw somewhere a query letter that he wrote before GOT was published, warning the publishers that no one would be safe. Clearly, it has worked for him! Tracee: I can’t think of an ending that angered me. Okay, when Tolstoy killed off Prince Andrei in War and Peace I didn’t forgive him, but that’s been a very, very long time ago and I’ve come to terms with it. Andrei did act like an arrogant heel and I suppose it had to end this way (maybe I do have some latent anger…..).ps I may have to go on Wikipedia and read the episode descriptions for Game of Thrones so I don’t get too attached to characters who have a short life span….. Cate: Shutter Island inspired a dramatic reaction from me along the lines of “Holy S—, how did I not see that coming?” Then I reread the book and realized I should have totally figured out that–spoiler alert–something was wrong with the main character. I think some of my favorite books have spurred that kind of “how was I duped” reaction. But I always re-read to see if the author was playing fair and, if I find that they weren’t (the amnesia was selective or they were consciously lying to the reader the whole time even when we were supposed to be hearing their unadulterated thoughts from a first person perspective, for example, then I get pretty upset). Susan: Disregard what I said, Tracee. No one dies. 🙂 Robin: Stephen King is notorious for killing off sympathetic characters. It was hard to take at first but now I’m used to it. When I read new King books I try to guess who’s he building up to kill off. Usually I’m right but Mr. Mercedes set up two characters for sacrifice. I had a 50/50 chance and guessed wrong. There’s a certain pattern to the sympathetic death in his recent work and I’d hoped the setup was because he would break it. He didn’t. I won’t elaborate because it would be a spoiler to at least 3 books I can name off the top of my head.The twists in Gone Girl made me reread previous chapters to see if there were clues I missed. In that case I wasn’t angry, I was impressed. Except for the ending. It was unexpected because the rest of the book was so tightly wound, the ending seemed banal by contrast.An older book I really struggled with was Bless The Beasts And Children. It angered me for lots of reasons and I do recall throwing it across the room when I finished. I expected redemption. The rest of the book was horrendous and I held out hope for some sort of a happy ending. It packed such an emotional punch that I still remember scenes vividly and I was in middle school when I read it. On the off chance it’s on someone’s “to be read” list I don’t want to reveal much. Let’s just say I’m really happy about certain taboos now so I don’t have to go through chapter after chapter of unpleasant surprises. Alexia: I can’t think of any book that made me mad enough to throw it. I don’t mind if sympathetic characters are killed off if their death serves some purpose. (Yes, I’m a Hero’s Journey believer.) My favorite characters often don’t survive for the sequel because I’m drawn to the character most in need of redemption (you know, the “bad guy” who, like Han Solo, is really a good guy underneath the selfish exterior) and finding redemption seems to make characters number one with a bullet. They’re redeemed by sacrificing themselves for the good of others. I’m okay with tragic endings. I find “happy ever after” cloying if it’s just done to “disney-fy” the story and didn’t follow from events. I can think of several short stories and books that disappointed me. Some were about rotten characters doing rotten things to other rotten characters because the author saw one too many 3rd-rate, neo-noir movies and thought they should write that way because that’s all there is to noir fiction. Some failed to live up to their super-hype. Their twists weren’t half as clever as the author thought they were and/or the main characters were too stupid to live past chapter three. Some were obvious rip offs of better books or they were so “trendy” they were nauseating. Or they were as pretentious as their authors–ten pages in and you knew the author was convinced they were writing an “Important Book”. My reaction to these is usually just to close the book and put it in the Donate to Charity pile (or return it unfinished to the library). The only type of books I genuinely dislike, as a class, are those where someone takes an iconic series character created by a now-deceased author and tries to continue the series but can’t resist adding their own spin. (“Reinterprets the character for a modern audience.” No. Just don’t.) I don’t care much for re-tellings of iconic stories for the same reason. The only books that have really pissed me off fell into this category. I swore at them but didn’t throw them. Alison: Hmmm. I had to think about this question because my threshold for throwing a book across the room is too low to wait until the end. I’ll close a book never to open it again for a number of reasons, mostly dealing with sloppy research, writing or underestimating the reader’s intelligence. My persnickety list of my pet peeves includes: not getting historical details right, making a main character an expert in an area and then misspelling a word in said area of expertise, not playing fair (although I love to watch Sherlock and Elementary, I do not read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he pulls rabbits out of his hat), being able to guess whodunit as easily as figuring out romantic entanglements in the first five minutes of the Love Boat, and anachronistic dialogue. As I write this, I have now doomed myself to make all of these errors. I will conclude with this: please forgive me. Your turn, dear readers. And like our not-so-dainty Miss Demeanors, don’t hold back/Read more
Yes, I am one of those blasted morning people. I confess I wake up at the ungodly hour of 5:00 a.m. or earlier, usually ready to leap out of bed and embrace a new day. Energy surges through me as my feet hit the floor. I just can’t wait to begin the day. I know, you hate me, unless you are part of the “Morning Club.” We awaken cheerful even before coffee, optimistic, thrilled at the prospect of a new day. We whistle or hum waiting for the coffee to brew while watching to see what kind of sunrise will arrive. Will there be dramatic swirls of pink and purple that morph into golden yellow or will it be the dainty variety of pink and blue worthy of a newborn’s nursery? We ponder what we have to do during the day ahead and wonder how much of it we will accomplish, confident that success lies ahead. And then we dig in. For me, that means I begin to write so I can tap into my natural clock. Ideas abound, words flow, as I click away on the keyboard. I have to be judicious and not allow distractions like social media tap into my energy and suck the creative wind out of me. Often that’s easier said than done. But if I am disciplined, I will do a very quick check of email and social media to see if there are any infernos to douse. Little fires can wait. I don’t turn on the television but I do check the headlines of the Boston Globe and New York Times to see if I should be evacuating. If all is well, I begin to write, while the birds sing, school buses swallow children from corners, and commuters vacate the neighborhood. I enter a world that belongs only to me, where I am safe and in command. By noon, I’m far less brilliant than I was just hours earlier. A dullness has set in, so I move on to other tasks that require less energy. I can edit what I’ve written, but only as a first sweep. I can turn to social media, where people are tolerant of insipidness. I pay bills, start dinner, and go for a walk. By 4:00 p.m., I am the most uninteresting person on the block. By 6:00, I’ve pretty much lost the ability to converse, other than to throw epithets at the newscasters I’ve finally let into my living room. I become lost in the absurdities that surround me. Why can’t Mike shut up about his pillows? Do you have to have the shoulder length “beach waves” look and be under 35 to get a job as a female television reporter? Why would you take a prescription drug that has 37 side effects, including possible loss of vision or life? Then I get really cranky, especially when I witness neighbors walking their dogs without poopy bags and consider starting a neighborhood patrol. I worry about the weather the next day, what that nut in Korea will do next, and if we have enough coffee for the morning. Nothing seems to go right. Everything has become bleak. It’s time for me to go to bed, to recharge my depleted battery and let you night owls take care of the world. I’ve posted a few photos of what you’re missing. Are you a night owl or an early bird? How’s it working for you?Read more
I come from a long line of list-makers. My mother had beautiful penmanship. She wrote lists each morning on the backs of used envelopes. Mostly they were grocery lists. She liked to do her “marketing” every day so she’d be sure to get out of the house. My maternal grandmother also wrote lists every morning in small dainty writing. She would sip coffee and chew on toast at the breakfast table each morning cataloguing what she had to do or buy that day. Her “to do” lists were also most often scripted on the back of an envelope. Both my mother and grandmother tossed their lists into the trash after they were completed. This is when I should have realized I was meant to be a writer, because when I began making lists, I couldn’t bear the thought of discarding them. Nor could I consider writing them on the backs of used envelopes. For one thing, I started making lists long before I began receiving mail. I fell in love with notebooks at an early age, particularly spiral ones that I could open and close many times without damaging the binding. They were a perfect place for my own daily lists. Before long, I had dedicated a separate spiral notebook for my daily lists. At the beginning of the notebook I would enter a start date and when it was full, I would return to the first page to enter the end date. Every day had its own page dated at the top, sometimes with a notion about why that day was special. “March 14, XXXX HBD Uncle Buddy.” I tried to prioritize what needed to be accomplished during the day. As I completed each task, I took my favorite pen de jour (that’s another topic for another day) and crossed off the item with delight and sometimes, relief. “Sit for bar exam” or later in life “colonoscopy prep” were crossed off with an added notation. “Whew!” “Yay!” Usually my list was filled with more mundane chores. Pay bills, email or call so-and-so, buy paper towels. When I didn’t complete a task, I would circle it and sometimes scold myself. “Bad girl.” Then the item would go on the next day’s list. I saved all of these notebooks until a few years ago after viewing the mountain of spiral binders and wondering why. Why save notebooks with daily “to do” lists, especially when I also journal? I found a place to perch next to the piles and began perusing them. In short time, I realized these lists chronicled my life better than any journal I had filled. “Buy food for post-funeral party.” (You might have to be Irish to understand why it’s a party.) “Lose weight for wedding.” “Take daughter for G.I. test.” “Ballet recital.” “Finish taxes.” Many “to do’s” were personal, but most were the meat and potatoes of the daily life I have led. “Grocery shop.” “Prep for class.” “Yoga” I tossed the notebooks and almost immediately regretted it. When my daughter asked about a family event, I could no longer play family historian and reach for the list that recorded it. I realized I should have chucked my journals, which are filled with my interpretation of what is contained in the list notebooks. But the notebooks are a form of history. I’ve resumed the practice of keeping my “to do” lists, but now I am more conscious of what I write. I’ve decided that by writing what I want to do and what I need to do, elevates my commitment to what is important to me. I write each list with intention. Writing is always at the top of my list, but buying tissues and toilet paper also has its rightful place. And I’m planning a big bonfire for those journals. How about you? Do you write lists? What do they tell you about your life?Read more
Steve appreciated art, but was never a collector, certainly not an art connoisseur. But when he looked online at items listed for the silent auction at the Annual 31st Gifft Hill School Auction on St. John where we spend winters, he was captivated and rushed to show me. The portrait of who we guessed was a young adolescent West Indian girl was small yet compelling. Her eyes were turned to her right where she stared with pursed lips and slightly flared nares. She held her head high. I saw vigilance in her gaze. I wanted to protect her. The painting was titled, “Seeing Clearly.” Steve returned to the portrait several times before the auction, which was to benefit a private school on St. John we had witnessed during the past thirty years grow from tiny seeds to a full campus for children of all ages on island. The school and its students are as generous to the community as the community is to it. A real love story about children, community, learning, and a tiny island. The painting was the work of Kimberly Boulon, who donated it and several other larger paintings. “Kim” is an impressive artist whose own love for St. John can be seen in the strokes and light in her work. All of the proceeds, not just a percentage, which is fairly common practice, from Kim’s works were to go to Gifft Hill School. More love. We arrived at the auction, greeting the Digiacomos, who had generously included us at their table with other island friends. Steve and I rushed to the Silent Auction and found “Seeing Clearly,” who was more captivating in person. Those eyes. What was she looking at? What had she seen? Why was she so alert? What had happened in her young life? We made a small bid and tried to leave “Seeing Clearly” behind, but we could not abandon her. We were both drawn to this picture, which had now touched us like no other piece of art. We began our own vigil, stalking with our eyes the few other bidders who seemed to want what we were now calling, “our girl.” In a last minute stealth maneuver, I dashed from the dinner table where we were now seated and returned to the silent auction room. I concealed myself behind a nearby pillar and when the last main competitor finished her final offer, I darted to the painting and upped the bid by twenty-five dollars just before the announcement that the silent auction had ended. At home in our tiny cottage, we giggled about where we should hang our new fine “aht,” inserting our Boston accents into the silliness, the magic of the night. After several attempts, we found a spot for our girl, where she could be seen easily. I can’t ever remember a painting drawing my eyes to it so often before. We were clearly smitten with the addition to our family. When it came time to return home to Cape Cod, we agonized. Should we leave her behind where life was familiar? Or did we bring her home with us to spend the summer on the Cape? How would she fare on the flight? Would she be okay alone while we were gone? Steve decided she belonged on St. John and could watch over our home until we returned in November, a plan that made sense to me. Until an unthinkable category five hurricane named Irma terrorized our island, only to be followed closely by another category five hurricane called Maria, Coral Bay, our island village, had felt the brunt of the storms. Once we were assured neighbors and friends were safe, we wondered how was our girl? Why had we left her behind? In the weeks that followed, we learned the island had been splintered and looked as if a bomb had exploded. Shock, sadness, and a little self-pity set in. Why when we had just figured out how to spend the final chapter of our lives had this happened? And why, oh why, did we leave our girl behind? An email string connected me to Kathy, a neighbor, who had moved into the cottage above us after we had left for the summer. She offered to have her husband, who had stayed on island through it all, check our cottage. I told her there was only one thing we really cared about and that was our girl and that Kathy was the best neighbor I had never met. I had been having nightmares about St. John in which “Seeing Clearly” was floating upside down in a few feet of filthy water. When the photo of her sitting on our table looking in decent shape arrived by email, I choked up. When I learned Mike Lachance was coming up to see his wife, Kathy, in New Hampshire for a week and was bringing our girl with him, I cried. When we met Kathy and Mike last week, Steve and I felt like we were being reunited with family. Because we were. St. John is affectionately known as “Love City.” An island where a community of people have chosen to live together in isolation and harmony where differences are embraced and where “One Love” is more than a song. Where “Love Thy Neighbor” is a practice, not a slogan. Where generosity is inherent. The Gifft Hill School, where we first found our girl, opened its doors to all island children just days after the storm when it was evident the public schools were damaged. A real circle of love.Love. That’s the thing about St. John that is difficult to convey in words. But maybe you can in a painting. Has a piece of art ever touched your life and become a part of your story?Read more
‘Tis the season for ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties. In the spirit of Halloween, I asked my fellow Missdemeanors to talk about the spookiest place they’ve ever been. Me, the spookiest place I’ve ever been was the Market Square Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Thomas Jefferson rented a room in the tavern while he studied law with George Wythe. The building’s been restored since then and it operates as a hotel. Rumor has it, Jefferson’s ghost haunts the halls. I didn’t see the late President when I stayed there several years ago but I did have an odd experience. There’s a small front room with chairs and tables and bookcases; a place to gather for conversation with your fellow travelers or to relax with a book. My second night at the tavern, I decided to explore. I headed for the front room but stopped in the hallway just outside, overwhelmed by the sensation that something was in there. No other hotel guests were around and I couldn’t see or hear anyone. I just knew something was in there and that I didn’t want to meet whatever it was. I prefer my spirits in a glass and ghosts on the page, not up close. I hesitated in the hall, telling myself I was being silly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. In fact, it grew stronger. I turned around and rushed back to my room, glancing behind me to make sure nothing followed me. I locked my door and stayed in for the rest of the night. I went back in the morning but the weird sensation was gone. The front room was just a room. Alison: Oh, good question, Alexia! The first time I remember having actual chills was in a torture chamber in the bowels of some castle in Luxembourg. I was probably about twelve. I’d been to other torture chambers before and hadn’t been particularly moved. What made this chamber different was that someone had painted pictures of both the victim and the torturer along side each device. The torturers all had twinkles in their eyes. I don’t know if they were actually smiling, but it was clear to me they were enjoying themselves. The idea that someone could torture another human being and enjoy it haunted me then and still does today. Cate: I avoid spooky places because I believe in all that stuff. The scariest place that I’ve ever been was in a park near Amish country, Pennsylvania. My friend and I got lost in the woods. After hiking for five hours and getting more and more lost, we ended up on the highway in bathing suits, at twilight, encircled by a biker gang that didn’t realize we were both twelve years old. We made it back though, thanks to some sheepishly provided directions after we tearfully explained to said biker gang that we were lost kids that just wanted their moms. My parents had thought we were still at the park watering hole while they packed up with the younger siblings. They didn’t realize that we’d tried to come back six hours earlier. Ahhh… the old days of parenting pre cell phones. My kids have GPS-enabled watches that make calls and can be tracked by my phone. I’m KITT to their Michael. #knightrider. #helicoptermom #technologyrocks Tracee: Like Cate, I avoid scary places so I don’t have a long list to cull through to find the scariest one. (I absolutely avoid any Haunted House or similarly ‘fake’ scary place!) The scariest experience by far in my life wasn’t about the place per se but what happened. I (still to this day) swear I saw the devil in my childhood bedroom. I was college age at the time and despite my mature viewpoint (ha!) it took me a long time to recover, if that is what you could call it. I won’t bore everyone with the details but it was genuinely terrorizing and I remember each detail with absolute clarity these many decades later. In terms of a scary place… nothing has come close although I have visited quite a few dungeons. There was one in Germany (can’t remember where) that was particularly frightening. They must have had an excellent display of torture equipment! VERY realistic. Robin: I’d say the spookiest place I’ve been was multiple places visited during a “Sinister London” tour I took, led by a drama student. He took us driving and walking through neighborhoods and locations of some seriously creepy historical relevance. One of the spookiest spots was a cell beneath a pub used as a “pauper’s prison.” Between the actor’s dramatic telling of what happened in there, the chill of the night air from a grate in the ceiling that opened to the sidewalk, and an unexplained moaning sound in an empty corner of the cell that the tour leader insisted had nothing to do with him or the tour, our group of 9 quickly diminished as 4 people bailed, too scared to go on. By the time the tour completed it was down to me, my partner and the tour leader. Susan: Generally I try to avoid spooky places, unless I’m on a ghost tour with my fellow Miss Demeanor. But I remember some years ago wandering around the Antietam Battlefield and walking through a creek among the cornfields, if I’m remembering right, and I could almost feel the presence of all the soldiers who’d died there that day. It was a very heavy feeling. Paula: Like Susan, I avoid spooky places, having once been carried screaming out of a haunted house when I was small, and again in my 40s. I kid you not. I was raised in a military family and we moved all the time. There were several times when I walked into a house for the first time and felt as if I’d lived there before. Or could feel the presence of other spirits. Mostly they were friendly, and didn’t bother me. It was like a sort of déjà vu homecoming. The only place that’s really ever haunted me is Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. We visited that sacred space when I was 10 years old, and I never forgot it. Thinking about it now I still get goosebumps. And say a prayer. Michele: The spookiest place I have ever been is alone in a ten by ten room with no windows in a maximum security reception and diagnostic center, otherwise known as a prison for very bad boys, interviewing a man accused of killing his wife with a shotgun while his toddler watched. I had been appointed by the court to investigate, represent, and make recommendations regarding the best interests of this child. Because I had been a pediatric nurse, I often was appointed in cases regarding children, but this one stands out in my memory, not because of the tragic circumstances. Unfortunately, there are too many cases where children are the secondary victims of their parents’ crimes and misconduct. And I had been around plenty of men and women who had “gone wrong.” But this man made my skin crawl as he laughed at the ridiculous thought he would ever kill his wife, especially when his kid would have full view. I could smell evil and knew he had done just that, and had enjoyed it. Think Clarice interviewing Hannibal Lector. I would rather sleep deep in a dark remote forest alone than be in a room with that man again, even with armed guards two feet away. What’s the spookiest place you’ve ever been?Read more