I’m currently polishing up my latest novel. Last weekend, I cried after finishing a particular scene. It’s not because of relief (although there is that) but because it was an emotionally stressful moment for my protagonist. I discovered – by accident – that emotionally inhabiting my characters improves my writing. The accident happened a few years ago. While workshopping a project that will likely never see the light of day, all readers mentioned one chapter as a standout. Some readers cried, others were moved to anger. Everyone used the same phrase as they described, that they “felt blah blah blah.” I stopped listening after the word, “felt.” Something about that one chapter made a strong connection. It had been inspired by a real event that occurred when I was a child. When I wrote the chapter, it was the first time I tapped into my own visceral memories to describe and embellish the event (we’re talking fiction, after all) to experience it through the characters. We’ve all heard everything said or done around an author is pretty much fair game for us. There’s that quote by Anne Lamott, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This isn’t about that, although I do subscribe to that theory, too. Long-time readers of this blog know that I often take note of overheard conversations and interactions I witness. But what I’m talking about is less about what I see and hear and more about what I feel as I write. It’s akin to “method acting,” where I tap into my own experiences of fear, humor, sadness, happiness, whatever, to feel what my characters feel in order to describe their reactions to situations. It’s exhausting but it’s also exhilarating. Hearing from readers that I make them feel something is itself a powerful feeling.Read more
I’m thrilled to announce my first publishing credit in crime fiction! It’s sort of a double debut – my local chapter of Sisters In Crime is publishing their first-ever anthology, Fault Lines: Stories by Northern California Crime Writers. The anthology will be out in time for the Left Coast Crime Conference in March 2019.I wrote the short story, “SegFault,” (geek shorthand for “segmentation fault,” a computer error condition) to see how far I could make it in a blind submission process alongside the award winners and best sellers in the NorCal SinC chapter. It also gave me a fun way to challenge myself to write a cyber crime-themed short story. The word count boundary tested my ability to translate technical concepts into plain English while spinning a compelling yarn. As the release date gets closer, I’ll share details on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, we all have our reasons for writing the things we do – what are some of yours?Read more
I have a very vivid memory of the first Agatha Christie I read, which was The A.B.C. Murders. At that time, I was in Mexico City, visiting my aunt. My aunt was a fabulous and yet somewhat disreputable person who was engaged in activities that bordered, or perhaps crossed, into the illegal. So when her young niece came to visit, she wanted to make sure I did not get into trouble, and so when she went out, she would lock me into her apartment. This may explain the anxiety in enclosed spaces I feel today, but anyway, she had a huge library of mysteries. Maigret. Dorothy Sayers. And Agatha Christie. So one day I picked up The A.B.C. Murders and was just blown away. Immediately I set about reading all of them and I have the fondest memories of sitting in an apartment in the middle of Mexico City and reading about these crimes in the British countryside. So, with that in mind, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors if they could remember the first Agatha Christie they read, and this is what they said: Alexia: I know it was one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries but I don’t remember which one. I was in 7th or 8th grade when I read it. Paula: Honestly I don’t know. I feel like I’ve always known all the stories. My mother read mysteries, so they were always around the house, especially when my father was overseas. So I probably got started in the third grade when Dad was in Korea, and finished up when he was in Vietnam. By then I just read whatever she read: Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason, etc. I loved them all.I do remember finding The Sensuous Woman by J under her pillow back when I was in high school and sneaking it out to read it…but that’s another story. Robin: My parents used to go on shopping sprees at our local library’s annual fundraising book sales to get collections by particular authors. Agatha Christie was one of them and I suspect it was because of me. We saw the 1974 version of the film adaptation of “Murder on The Orient Express” and I loved it, even though I was too young to understand the historical context. Although it did spark my interest in learning about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and reading true crime stories. I’d read 3 or 4 of the Poirot books when my parents took me to see the movie “Murder By Death.” Is it sacrilege to say the Agatha Christie-inspired spoof is still one of my all-time favorite mystery movies? Alison: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. I then went on to read almost all the rest, but remember having trouble finishing Nemesis. One weekend when my husband (then fiancé) was in graduate school, and I was still in college, he was supposed to come visit me, but contracted a terrible cold and couldn’t get out of bed. I took the night train from Boston to Philadelphia and read Agatha Christie to him for almost two days straight. When I headed back to school, he was feeling better. I credit his recovery to the healing powers of a good mystery. I’ve attached a picture of what is left of my collection. For some reason, Agatha Christie books tend to disappear. Tracee: Sleeping Murder. Cate: : …And then there were none. Tracee: Now I’m second guessing myself. Perhaps Death on the Nile! Michele: Murder on the Orient Express. So there you have it! Thanks for coming on my journey this week. Do you remember the first Agatha Christie you read?Read more
I spend a lot of time wandering around the woods in my backyard, so I was especially delighted to visit Agatha Christie’s woods, which are like something out of a fairy tale. The trees are dark and old and mysterious. But then you’ll turn a sudden bend and find yourself in a surprisingly lush and cozy spot. I was there in October so Hydrangea Walk and the Dahlia Border were not in bloom. But there was still so much to see, such as a flower called a “Red Hot Poker.” Mainly the sense I got was of peacefulness. There were benches all over where you could sit and think. My husband and I climbed to the Top Garden, and there saw a view that I think must be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. There were cows in front of us, the Dart River stretched below, and everything smelled fresh. Many of the trails were quite steep. And the other thing that struck me was how many determined people, some of them with canes, one with a wheelchair, were clambering around. Almost everyone there was smiling, I believe because Agatha Christie is so beloved. You had a real sense that people made an effort to be there and were enjoying being in her presence. That led me to think, for my own writing, about what it means to be beloved. There are (possibly) better writers than Agatha Christie, and yet very few writers inspire that sort of love. Inspiring. Tomorrow my fellow Miss Demeanors will discuss the first Agatha Christie book we read.Read more
To get to Greenway House, my husband and I took a 3-hour train ride southwest from London, to Totnes. Then we took half hour taxi ride to Dartmouth, and then a half hour ferry boat ride to Greenway House. It was not as arduous as it sounds, however, because the Devon countryside is lovely, and as soon as I set foot in Dartmouth I felt myself tingle with the sense that I’d been there with Agatha Christie. So many of her stories have been set in this part of England. I have it in my mind that poor Gladys from A Pocketful of Rye was enticed to go to Torquay, though that may be wrong. But Agatha Christie herself grew up in Torquay, and this area of the country was clearly important to her. How many of her stories are set on the seaside, on coves and beaches, with pavilions. Just to give a few examples, one of the bodies in the A.B.C. Murders shows up in Churston, which is only two miles from Greenway. In Five Little Pigs, a murder occurs in a house overlooking the Dart River. And in Dead Man’s Folly, the very boat house at Greenway (pictured above) is described as the place where the first victim is discovered. (I don’t know who that man is, but he was quite pleasant.) It was so much fun to see the world that I’ve pictured in my imagination, and tomorrow I’ll discuss the woods!Read more
One of my favorite rooms at Greenway House was the dining room. Here was where Agatha Christie celebrated holidays with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, her daughter Rosalind and her grandson, Matthew. You’ll note there’s a small pitcher in front of Agatha Christie’s seat, whereas the other settings have wine glasses. That’s because Agatha Christie was a teetotaler. Rather than alcohol, she preferred to drink Devonshire cream. (Just as a side note, I looked up the calorie count on Devonshire cream and it’s 73 calories a tablespoon!) She also liked to drink a glass or two of Devonshire cream while she wrote. Perhaps this is a secret to a long career. At one end of the dining room was this intriguing little knick knack, that I assume is a raven. The whole house is awash with knick knacks and I was told that, when the National Trust was going through the house, they uncovered Agatha Christie’s Order of the British Empire medal under a pile of books. Incidentally, there is a person who has the job of being a Writer-in-Residence at Greenway House and she is leading a writing workshop in which writers will be prompted to use objects in Agatha Christie’s collection as a starting point for their stories. How fabulous is that? Another lovely room was upstairs, where there is a collection of Agatha Christie’s first editions. I tried to find her typewriter, but the guide told me that she preferred to speak into a Dictaphone. Greenway House was where she went to relax after writing books. So not a lot of writing took place there. There’s also a closet full of her dresses and hats. Tomorrow I’ll discuss where murder took place at Greenway!Read more
Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Greenway House, Agatha Christie’s summer home. For anyone who loves Agatha Christie (and I’m hoping there’s no one who doesn’t), it’s a treasure. What a treat to see the rooms where she wrote, to walk the woods where she hiked, and to visit the small villages on the Dart River that inspired some of her fiction. In fact, my husband and I stayed at a hotel that had been used in a 1984 version of Ordeal by Innocence. (I think. It also supposedly was slept in by Queen Mary II, though my husband’s convinced that’s impossible. But it was a fabulous hotel and why argue?) Anyway, if you look at the picture of the Dart River below, then look up and to the left, you’ll see Greenway tucked into the woods. Below is a closer version of Greenway.House. It looks rather austere in this version, though in fact it’s surrounding by rolling hills and there are deck chairs out front where you can sit. Once you go inside, you’re surrounded by coziness. This is a picture of the sitting room. To the left, which you can’t see, is a piano. (Agatha Christie was an accomplished pianist, but too shy to play in public.) Visitors are allowed to play on her piano as long as you don’t play Chopsticks. All around the room, in fact all around the house, are all sorts of knick knacks. Don’t you want to sit in this room for a spell? One of my favorite rooms was the dining room, but I’ll get to that tomorrow.Read more
E.B. White’s observation can’t be bettered: “There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. … Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion. ” My husband and I moved to Manhattan in August of 1998. I have lived here longer than I have any other place on the planet. I feel very at home, but, as E.B. White would point out, I am a settler. My children are natives, and I am not. This whole city–in all its wonderful madness–is normal to them. To me, it is amazing. It’s amazing that I have a favorite bakery for sour dough (Orwashers) and a different one for focaccia (Agata). I love that the brother-sister team who run my favorite handbag store, which has been in their family for generations, ask about my kids (Suarez), and the amazing gentleman who owns my favorite shoe store has let me peak inside his suitcases full of shoe-related accessories when he returns from his regular trips to Milan (Diane B). I love the energy, the museums, the libraries, the parks, the way people dress, the individuality, and the diversity. I love that New Yorkers expect everyone to have a different opinion, but they also expect you to be able to discuss said opinion with intelligence and an openness to, perhaps, changing your mind. New Yorkers do not, on the whole, suffer fools gladly. This is not a city for intellectual laziness. Your cab driver will cite corroborating sources for his point of view. Speaking of having different opinions, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors what they think of my adopted home. They did not disappoint. While I think E.B. White is pretty much on the mark, I will suggest that maybe there is a Fourth New York: The New York of the visitor. The New York of the person who visits once in a lifetime, or, possibly, makes regular pilgrimages. Susan, Alexia, Tracee, Michele, Paula, Cate, and Robin offer up this Fourth New York. Susan: It’s so interesting that you ask that because I just returned to New York City today after being away in England. Our plane landed at Kennedy Airport and I walked into Immigration Hall and there was this huge and vibrant mural (by Deborah Masters) of NYC scenes. (I’ve attached a photo.) Everyone around me was speaking a different language. Many of the immigration officers were speaking different languages. I just felt absorbed into the vitality of New York City, and I felt very at home. Alexia: I’ve never lived in NYC and have only visited it a few times so I can’t say I love anything thing in particular about it. I love cities in general. They have a fabulous energy and you can be alone in a crowd. NYC has gorgeous architecture. I love art deco flourishes on the windows and doorways of many of the buildings. I do love the New York accent (and the Brooklyn and Bronx and Long Island accents). I read somewhere the New York accent is dying out. I hope not. And I like New Yorkers. The stories I heard about them being cold and unhelpful aren’t true. The one time a New Yorker, a bus driver, was rude to me, as soon as he realized I was visiting from out of town, he changed his tone and became super helpful. New Yorkers seem to want to be ambassadors for their city. Tracee: I’ve never lived in NYC, but I have spent a good deal of time there starting with my first ever visitwhen I was sixteen. It was a week long stop over before a longer trip to Europe, definitely my first time in a truly large city, and I was thrilled. What I most remember was how kind everyone was to the kids from out of town. To me, all cities are a dose of culture writ large. I love the museums and art galleries, hotels, street culture, outdoor specialty markets, Grand Central Terminal and the Botanical Garden train display in the holiday season, and so much more. My favorite memory is, and will likely remain, a trip to see the re-lighting of the Statue of Liberty. Visiting with a friend, we watched from Battery Park…. by far the best fireworks I’d ever seen! Ironically the man I would eventually marry was watching them from an apartment overlooking Battery Park….. a shared memory before we even met! That’s New York magic. Michele: I hesitate to say this, but I used to hate New York. The few times I ventured to the city when I lived in Connecticut, I felt overwhelmed and suffocated. I was sure the towering concrete and brick buildings were going to collapse on me. I wondered where was the sky, the birds (pigeons don’t count), the trees. Clearly, I hadn’t gotten to Central Park! Then I spent a week in New York when I took Robert McKee’s Story seminar, which was held at the Screen Actors Guild. I stayed in a tiny hotel and explored what would be my neighborhood for the week. By the third day, my barista at Starbucks already knew my order, I had found restaurants where I didn’t mind eating alone because I was eating with other solitary diners, and I had explored my turf. I found my way to Central Park, discovered food I’d never tried before, and before you knew it I was chanting I love New York. The key for me was appreciating that it is a city of many neighborhoods filled with people, sounds, and scents, not a colossal granite kingdom where I was lost. And I learned how friendly New Yorkers are. Paula: I first visited New York in the late Seventies as a teenager in love with a New Yorker, and I saw New York through his eyes. New York was a far more dangerous city then, but he didn’t let it scare him and I didn’t let it scare me. I fell in love with the energy of the city and the way her people celebrate the arts. I spend a week a month there these days—the perfect antidote to my village life in New England. I never fail to leave restored, refreshed, and re-invigorated. Not to mention saddled with lots of shopping bags. Cate: I love New York City. I grew up in Teaneck NJ, 12 miles outside, and it always seemed like a place where life would be more exciting and cultured and grown up—where I could be more exciting and cultured and grown up. After college, I lived there for about a decade. I love that NYC is constantly changing. I remember being in a band and playing a club called Le Bar Bat, which was a deconsecrated church that had been turned into a recording studio that had then become a night club. Now, I think, it’s a restaurant. New York is a place of reinvention. People come there from elsewhere to be different from where they came from, and I think New Yorkers celebrate that—not just tolerate it. Robin: I’ve never lived in NYC but I’m a frequent visitor. It’s always been a magical place to me, from my first trip with my parents when I was a teenager. I was a theater kid and remain a huge fan of stage and screen so Broadway, of course, is a huge draw. I’ve been known to make the cross-country trip to see a particular cast or a particular show that I knew wouldn’t travel. I’ve also gone to see particular musicians because they’re playing in a small venue. Of course, I go for writer’s events. And I sometimes go just because I miss it. Like San Francisco, it’s constantly changing while holding onto its history. What’s most striking to me, though, is the people. The population is 10x that of San Francisco yet people are friendly and get along. There’s a ballet in the foot traffic on the crowded sidewalks, which is my preferred mode of transportation so I can take it all in.Read more
Alison: First of all, congratulations on winning the Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice Award and being a Silver Falchion Award Finalist for 2018! Unholy City is the third in your Detective Claire Codella mysteries. Like the first book Silent City and then Forgotten City, your books are set in New York. What about the city do you find makes for a compelling background? Carrie: There are endless hidden pockets of the city to explore, and an abundance of characters to cast. Nowhere else, at least in this country, do you find so much diversity—socio-economic, ethnic, religious, gender—and I have always been compelled to explore the interactions among characters with different passions, perspectives, beliefs, and motivations. Alison: For those who don’t already know Detective Claire Codella, can you introduce us? Carrie: Claire Codella is a tough, tenacious NYPD detective who earned her spot on a central homicide squad after solving a series of high-profile cold case homicides. Shortly after her promotion, she was diagnosed with lymphoma and spent ten months fighting for her own life. When readers meet her in SILENT CITY (the first novel in the series), it is her first day back on the job after cancer. She’s under pressure to prove that she still has what it takes to do the job, and she is well aware that her angry, misogynistic lieutenant would prefer that she had succumbed to her disease. Alison: Is there a fourth book in the works? Anything you can share? Carrie: I finished my fourth crime novel last month, but it’s not a Claire Codella mystery (I’m just taking a break). This one’s a thriller that follows a fiery young immigration attorney and her client, a hotel worker framed for theft and facing a terrible choice between deportation and sexual servitude. Alison: I mentioned to you, I’m dedicating this week to writers in New York. So, I’m going to get personal. You were born and brought up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. Do you consider yourself a New Yorker? If so, why? Carrie: Absolutely, I consider myself a New Yorker, although even after all these years people still hear the inflections of the Midwest in my voice. I’ve lived in the city since 1982, spending a decade in Park Slope, Brooklyn, before moving to the Upper West Side. And while I will never be able to claim “native New Yorker” status, my New Yorker resume does include raising two now-twenty-year-old native New Yorkers here. Alison: How has the city changed since you moved here? Carrie: When I moved to New York City in 1982, Ed Koch was mayor. The city was still recovering from a financial crisis. The crack epidemic was raging. City streets were dirty. The subways were graffiti’d. The AIDS crisis had begun. It was by far a grittier place than it is today. I’ve watched the skyline change, Broadway become a giant outdoor mall, and entire neighborhoods be gentrified (for better or worse). Alison: What New York writers do you love? Carrie: Edgar Allan Poe has to sit at the top of my list, since I live on Edgar Allan Poe Street (West 84th Street) in a building that stands on the location where he is said to have written The Raven. In Cold Blood is, in my mind, the ultimate true-crime book, so I’ll include Truman Capote as well.And I have to include award-winning author SJ Rozan, whose Lidia Chin and Bill Smith mysteries vividly portray New York’s neighborhoods, especially Chinatown. Patricia Highsmith wasn’t born here, but she lived here for many years, and I love her work, so I’ll include her, too.
Alison: What about New York could you not live without? Carrie: Broadway theater, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Riverside Park, the footpath around the reservoir in Central Park where I do most of my plot thinking, bread from Zabar’s, fish from Citarella, organic produce from Fairway. I’m sure I’m forgetting something… Alison: Thank you, Carrie! Next time I’m at Fairway standing in line (or “standing on line,” for those of you who really want New York), I’ll think of you.
Alison: Congratulations on the release of The Gold Pawn! In your first book in this series, The Silver Gun, I feel you portray New York City almost as a character as much as a setting. How does the city feature in this second book? Laurie: Thank you! In The Gold Pawn, the main mystery takes place in New York City, but Lane Sanders, aide to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, must also face the ghosts of her past as she discovers a disturbing link between her family’s secrets and the current mystery she’s embroiled in. Lane continues to soak up life in NYC, and she witnesses the unique and magical things that the city spontaneously provides. So YES, New York is a major character! But you also have Detroit and Rochester, Michigan added to the story this time. The history in both the small town of Rochester and the industrious Detroit of the 1930s is delicious. There are some fun cameos and real history with the restaurants, vintage cars, and other establishments that gave the cities their special personality. Alison: For those who don’t already know Lane Sanders, can you introduce us? Laurie: Lane Sanders is the twenty-four-year-old vivacious, clever aide to one of America’s greatest mayors, Fiorello La Guardia. She not only helps him administratively, but her intuitive observations lend him critical help in the nuance that his boisterous and take-charge demeanor sometimes misses. She sees herself as an amateur investigative reporter and finds herself in the crosshairs as the controversial mayor is often threatened by the gangsters he’s ousted just as much as her own family history compels her involvement. Alison: I heard it from a little bird that there’s a third book in the series. Anything you can share? Laurie: Yes! The Pearl Dagger releases next year this time, where Lane and her love interest Finn take a voyage to London in early 1937 to not only discover if a crime network is starting up all over again, but to find out if Finn can face the ghosts of his own past and his dark secrets that have been held over him for many years. Again, the main mystery takes place in NYC, but my crew gets to take a trip on the Queen Mary and returns on the Normandie. Expect some fabulous cameos and history – I adore illuminating historical points of interest that may have been lost over the years. And of course, Lane lends her own special spark to any and all intrigues. Alison: I mentioned to you I’m dedicating this week to writers in New York. So, I’m going to get personal. Do you consider yourself a New Yorker? If so, why? Laurie: YES! Not only have I lived here over 17 years now, I feel like NYC is in my blood. Right when I moved here, I had this crazy sensation that I’d been looking for the city my whole life and just didn’t know it.
Alison: How has the city changed since you moved here? Laurie: The city has definitely gone through some shifts in the almost two decades I’ve lived here. First of all, I moved here two weeks after 9/11 which was a rare and strange time to move to the city. The people of the neighborhood we moved in to were warm, welcoming, and shocked that we still moved in! I have adored the city, and there is a strange quality that Lane notices, too. That the more the city changes, the more it stays the same. There is a lot of history here and I think it’s the spirit that is the thing that remains, whether there are newer and taller buildings, faster cars, new fashion…
Alison: What New York writers do you love? Laurie: Besides D.A. Bartley? Hmmm… (Yes, Laurie is that funny and sweet in person) Of COURSE Caleb Carr and The Alienist. I have a penchant for historical mystery, so Victoria Thompson and the Gaslight Mysteries, R.J. Koreto and his Alice Roosevelt series (Teddy’s wild daughter whom I love), and I continually have little remnants of Pete Hammill’s book, Forever, floating around my mind.
Alison: What about New York could you not live without? Laurie: The energy of learning. I love the idea that you don’t have to plan for adventure here. Just walking around, you come upon magnificent, idea-challenging, sparks of interest. From arriving early at a meeting only to pop out of the cab on a fall day in front of St. John the Divine cathedral and its artistic garden. To waiting for a subway in December only to have 102 giddy Santa Clauses flood out of the single car. To walking into a cold, wet subway station in February and suddenly hearing the strands of “The Bittersweet Symphony” come across from a violin trio. That surprising aspect never gets old. Thank you, Laurie!