Tales of a Tindominium

  How I downsized my dwelling and grew my life. We all talk about it. We are the Baby Boomers. Watergate. Vietnam. Birth Control. Marijuana, Zero Population Growth, Organic. Lots more.            Here we are, children of the sixties, entering our final chapters on the planet. Who knew the day would ever come? And for so many, it passed prematurely.            For those of us still here, forging ahead as some of us like to think toward new adventures, we got to thinking, why do we have all of that stuff? What were we thinking? Where did it come from and more importantly, how can I get rid of it.            The winter of 2015 was the winter from hell. Steve and I had lived in Scituate, Massachusetts, since 1983. I had summered there my whole life. My great grandmother, Catherine, had purchased land on Kenneth Road when her daughter, my grandmother, gave birth to a premature infant who did not have the benefit of an incubator and suffered brain damage.  Catherine built a summer cottage on it, thinking the salt air would be good for her grandbaby. Nanna died in that house at the age of 106 and her baby lived in it until he was 85.            Steve and I had decided Scituate was a good place to raise kids, and it was. We purchased a house two doors down from Nanna. My parents had retired to a cottage in the middle. Our home was less than 200 feet from an ocean that could be gentle or insanely aggressive. The weather was savagely unpredictable. The satellite trucks from local media outlets often parked at the foot of our street poised for the latest coastal shots. We were fortunate never to be directly hit by waves, but we had a clear view of waves splashing over the seawall like geysers. We had quite an adventure and loved almost all of it, but we knew the ride was over.            That snowy frigid winter of 2015 found us huddled in front of the fireplace on our couch in the living room, stirring soup or chili in our kitchen, or buried under feather comforters in our bed. When we opened the front door, often there was an imprint of its panels embedded on four feet of snow. Our 14 year-old outdoor cat had to use a litter box because the snow was too deep to let her do her business. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.            We had been going to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands for nearly thirty years and you can be sure we didn’t skip 2015. Over the years, we had dreamed of retiring there. We had even put a deposit on a lot in 1987. Unfortunately it was a week before Black Monday.            But our conversations were a little more concrete this trip. No Virgin Island, my first mystery, was being published in August. Set in St. John, I had a contract to write a second. Our connection to St. John felt a little more permanent.            Using three rooms in a ten-room house began to feel ludicrous and wasteful. The gardens we had grown as a younger Steve and Michele now were becoming more of a burden than a joy, and anyone who has known the delight of a garden understands how disheartening that discovery might be. Property taxes were rising. Worse, FEMA threatened to make owning even modest coastal property financially inconceivable with new flood insurance rates.            The good news is that none of this made us feel old or finished. We just weren’t sure if we owned our house or our house owned us. And we wanted to sprout wings. To feel light and unencumbered. To try a new lifestyle. To simplify. To have new adventures. To explore.            We came home from St. John in May after a three-week visit to our favorite rental home where No Virgin Island had been conceived and set and committed to a radical change in our lives. We were giddy with excitement, not having a clue about what the future held.            We went from living in a ten-room Cape Cod by the sea to splitting out time between a cottage on St. John and a tindominium in Wellfleet. What’s a tindominium, you ask?            I’ll share more about that tomorrow.

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A Ghostly Christmas Tradition

 I found myself without power the other day, thanks to a winter windstorm with sixty-five miles per hour gusts. No power meant no Netflix, no Internet, and no way to recharge my laptop. Quel horreur. Then I reminded myself people managed without these things for centuries. So, I gathered my car keys, car charger, and phone and grabbed a book from my TBR pile. I headed for my car in the driveway. I plugged my phone into the car charger, turned on the heater, and streamed Christmas music on satellite radio. Settled in, I opened my book, a compendium of one hundred-one of the “greatest” ghost stories. I love ghost stories and read them year-round. But a comment in the preface gave me pause. The editor mentioned the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. I knew of ghost stories set at Christmas. A Christmas Carol has four. And I knew the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, regaled friends and students at Christmas with tales of the supernatural. I thought that was just him. But, apparently, back in the day it was “a thing.” Everybody did it. After the power returned, I plugged in my energy-depleted laptop and googled “Christmas ghosts.” Sure enough, I found articles on the Victorian tradition of “meeting round a fire of Christmas Eve” to “tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” “Nothing satisfied” more, according to Jerome K. Jerome (really his name) in his 1891 ghost story anthology, Told After Supper. A 2010 Deseret News article (the source of the Jerome quotes) points out a reference to the tradition in a modern Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, the lyric, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” (You’re singing that in your head now, aren’t you?) But why ghost stories at Christmas? Because, according to pagan tradition Yule boasts as many ghosts as Samhain. Yule is celebrated at the Winter Solstice, the longest day of the year and a symbol of death and rebirth. On this day spirits of the dead rise and gather with the living around the fireplace and Yule tree. The early Christian church chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25 to coincide with the pagan Yule festival. The Victorians borrowed from the pagans for their Christmas traditions—holly, mistletoe, Yule logs, and ghosts. So, if you’ve had your fill of reindeer and elves, round up some friends, find a hearth, serve up some egg nog, and scare each other with a ghost story or two. It’s tradition. This article from The Paris Review offers five ghost stories to get you started. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/19/ghosts-on-the-nog/

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You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry…Krampus is Coming to Town

 While surfing the interweb—I mean, researching Christmas traditions—I stumbled onto some customs that are anything but merry. The anti-Christmas movement skews angry. Think t-shirts emblazoned with “F*** Christmas” and Facebook posts calling for the burning of Christmas trees. (PSA: Don’t do this. Christmas tree fires are fast and deadly. Videos by the National Fire Protection Association and Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Fire Engineering Program show Christmas tree fires progressing from a few smoldering branches to raging infernos in under a minute. In one WPI video, flashover occurred in 63 seconds. And the NFPA says Christmas tree fires have higher fatality rates than other house fires.) A variety of Christmas-themed slasher flicks pop up in my Netflix recommended movies feed. (Blame the algorithm.) Some of the anti-Christmas customs protest the commercialization and excessive consumerism of Christmas but others are mean-spirited to the point of hatefulness. They possess none of the charm of How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol which are, after all, about finding Christmas. However, one custom that forgoes charm for terror and at first seems to be the epitome of anti-Christmas turns out to be a Christmas tradition with ancient origins—Krampus celebrations.  Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon creature, makes Bad Santa seem like your favorite uncle. Krampus travels with Saint Nicholas on the night of December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day. Children leave shoes on the doorstep and Saint Nicholas fills them with candy if they’ve been good. If the children have been bad, the saint will leave them coal or sticks. If the children have been “wicked,” Krampus will beat them with birch switches or kidnap them away to be tortured. No word on how bad you’d have to be to make it from Saint Nick’s naughty list to Krampus’s hit list.  Krampus originated centuries ago in the pagan religion of the area that’s now Austria and southern Germany. His name comes from the German word meaning “claw.” He’s believed to be the son of Hel, the goddess of the Norse underworld (He’d make a great villain in a Thor movie.) and to represent the frightening aspects of dark winters in pre-industrial, heavily wooded Alpine Europe. The Catholic Church banned his celebrations in the 12th century. In the 19th century, people sent Krampus cards. Yes, they’re as creepy as you imagine. (http://mentalfloss.com/article/88891/17-devilishly-awesome-vintage-krampus-cards). The Fascists banned him again in 1934 but later in the 20th century he staged a comeback. Now he’s jumped across the pond from Europe to the US where Krampus parties and parades take place coast to coast. The celebrations generally involve adults donning scary goat demon costumes, getting drunk, and behaving in an un-Christmaslike fashion so it’s probably best to leave the wee ones at home. They certainly won’t want to sit on Krampus’s knee.

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All I Want for Christmas–Is Something to Read

 I’m not really a grinch. My occasional forays into humbug-land notwithstanding, I love Christmas. The season creates in me both a sense of nostalgia and hope for the future. I look back on the past with a conveniently fuzzy memory and long for the way things “used to be” while looking forward to the coming year with hope for the way things might  be. I also admit to indulging in my fair share of schmaltz and sentimentality. I’m streaming Christmas carols on Spotify as I type this. I break out the Lenox Christmas china and the Christmas-themed guest towels and ooh and aah over Facebook posts featuring puppies, kittens, and other small animals sporting bows and Santa hats. I also watch Christmas movies. At least, I used to. I’ve been disappointed recent holiday cinematic offerings. Too many “find a fiance by Christmas” flicks and too few “save the orphanage/feed the hungry, homeless man/save the neighborhood from a greedy developer/bring joy to my elderly, neglected neighbor” flicks. Of course, I can re-watch the classics. I own DVD copies of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But I wanted something I hadn’t seen before that didn’t involve Christmas kisses, dates, or weddings. Netflix let me down. Not being one to give up hope—it’s Christmas, after all—I decided to search for some classic (translation: written before the 21st century) Christmas stories to read. Here’s a sample of what I found.  “The Little Match Girl.” Hans Christian Andersen’s story turns up on a lot of lists. (Yes, there are lists. I’m not the only one fallen victim to the nostalgia fairy.) I’ve read this one before and it’s a fine story but—spoiler alert—tragic tales of impoverished pre-teens who freeze to death alone at night out of doors are not quite what I had in mind for the festival season.  “The Gift of the Magi.” O. Henry’s tale of love and sacrifice fits the bill of Christmas classic but I’ve read it (I had very good high school English classes) so the twist at the end isn’t so much of a twist anymore. “A Christmas Carol.” Read Dickens’ classic, too. I actually prefer to listen to Patrick Stewart narrate it, which I did the other day.  “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” I’ve read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, too, but it was so long ago I forgot “who done it.” This one goes on the reading list.  “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” One of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Lots of fairy tales, especially Andersen’s, show up on Christmas reading lists: “The Fir Tree,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” the aforementioned “Little Match Girl.” I love fairy tales, I grew up with them, even studied them in college. That’s when I realized how dark they are, especially the original, not-watered down versions. Better suited to Halloween reading lists.  “At Christmas Time” by Anton Chekov and “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas” by Leo Tolstoy. I knew Chekov and Tolstoy wrote capital-I important, college reading list works. I didn’t know they wrote Christmas stories. On the list.  “A Kidnapped Santa Claus.” Possibly dark. Santa’ kidnapped by demons. But I’m reading it because L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz books, wrote it. And because it sounds like it could be the plot of a Macauly Culkin movie.  “The Holy Night.” Swedish author Selma Lagerlof was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Cold-hearted man meets mysterious beings and learns the true meaning of Christmas. Yeah, I know, sounds kind of like “A Christmas Carol.” But I like “A Christmas Carol.” But “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday classic for a reason—we all want to believe faith and some holiday magic can turn mean spirits into open hearts.  Online Star Registry’s blog (https://osr.org/blog/tips-gifts/20-famous-christmas-stories/) and American Literature’s website (https://americanliterature.com/christmas) contain links to the stories I mentioned as well as several others. What are some new-to-you (or not-so-new but worth reading again) Christmas classics you want to try? 

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Give in to the humbug–once in a while

 Peace. Love. Joy. All words we associate with Christmas, a time of year when millions the world over celebrate the birth of Christ or the arrival of Santa. A time when people look forward to gathering with loved ones to share holiday cheer.  But Christmas isn’t so merry for many. A lot of us suffer from the Christmas blues. I don’t mean clinical depression, a medical illness that demands professional medical attention, or the sadness and grief many feel during the holidays as they remember lost loved ones or deal with family estrangement or cope with being alone and lonely during a time of year second only to Valentine’s Day for its emphasis on being with “someone special.” I mean that blah feeling some of us suffer when all the holly-jolly becomes too much to bear. Joy overload. We hit a wall where we don’t want to hang one more ornament on the tree, put up one more string of lights, or stuff one more stocking. We crave home décor that’s not red, green, plaid, or emblazoned with whimsical woodland creatures. If you’ve ever envisioned hiding the Elf on the Shelf in the garbage disposal—head down—with the switch on—you know what I mean. We conceal these unseasonal thoughts lest friends, family, and co-workers label us socially unacceptable. But sometimes, when we’re all alone and no one, not even the rotund man-child who hangs out in the Arctic playing with elves, is watching we give vent to our inner grinch.  Books often provide an escape from the all-consuming merry brightness of the holiday season. Google “Christmas murder mystery novels” and you’ll find enough tales of holiday homicide to keep you going until Easter. Even icons from the golden age of mystery, like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, weren’t above killing off a few revelers during fatal festivities. I just listened to Hugh Fraser narrate Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. This was right after I’d listened to Patrick Stewart narrate Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, which, except for the bit at the end, is actually a very dark story. Now that I’ve quieted my bah humbug I can sing along with Christmas carols on the car radio, cry during heartfelt holiday movies, and celebrate the joy of the season that prompts us to be a little bit more generous toward our fellow human beings than we are the other eleven months of the year. And if you really were imagining a certain elfin spy stuffed into an In-sink-erator you’re not alone. “Ways to destroy Elf on the Shelf” generated more than four million results on Google, including a You Tube video and a NSFW Pinterest page. 

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Editing, or the pretense that it will ever be perfect.

 Every writer has different editing moments. There are the early edits, adding plot points or taking out backstory to keep things moving. Later in the process we continue to check the plot points but start to fine tune the dialogue, the action, the beginning and end of chapters, the punctuation. Then, finally, and for a moment it feels like a reward, the editing of the complete manuscript to turn in to the publisher. This is where what felt like victory turns to ‘I need a drink’. At least for me. Because it feels final (actually, it is final) I begin to re-question everything. Usually my Beta readers haul me back from the edge and I get back to the real work at hand. The final edits. Overwhelming in some ways. Check everything. That’s all. I think every writer has a list of what to do as part of the hedge against insanity. Plus, checking things off a list is universally satisfying. My list is along these lines: character arc (names consistent and are their emotions developing in a consistent path)chapter breaks/lengthfine tune the dialoguecheck description (accuracy, consistency, and things like time of day/length of day)eliminate my personal writing ticks (most writers have specific words they overuse and word search is helpful here)read the entire manuscript aloud in as close to one go as possible. The number of typos, trip-ups in dialogue and other problems uncovered by reading aloud is astounding.  Right now I’m getting close to this point. Actually I am already working through parts of this list, and it is exciting. I’m curious about other final edit check lists. What gets you across the finish line?  

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The Real Detectives

For the sake of argument, I’ll say that mystery writers usually learn a little bit about policing. They interview detectives, visit labs, read about process and cases. They try to soak in what is necessary to help bring their story to life. I’ve the good fortune to know several writers who were also detectives. I’ve often wondered if that makes their job as mystery/crime writers easier or more difficult. Sure, they have the knowledge at their fingertips, but it must be difficult to distill this into what goes into the actual book. Writers of fiction aren’t recounting ‘fact’, we are creating it, and are allowed to bend the facts to suit the story (truthfully, expected to!). For a former detective that might be hard. I was reminded of these complexities today when reading my friend and fellow author, Brian Thiem’s, essay about returning from retirement to testify in a case that had been cold for 25 years. Brian talks about his time on the stand and dealing with the emotions of wondering if they could have done more all those years ago. In this case, there is one less killer walking the streets and that is success. He says that is what he will try to remember. For me, as I work on fine-tuning the emotions and actions of my own fictional detective inspector, Brian’s essay was a reminder that as writers we solve the crime neatly in 300 pages. (Our characters’ psyches should thank us for giving them these victories.) And I wonder…. What parts of the ‘old job’ play into the writing at the ‘new job’? Is there a part of policing that as a writer, a former detective says yep, that part of the reality gets left out? Or, I don’t worry about the process as much as the characters? I’d say there are as many response to this as there are writers, but I’m still curious…..    (To read more from the perspective of ‘real detectives’ writing about crime check out Murder-books.com. These guys are the real deal! And they write great mysteries.)

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What place makes for the best writing?

I’m peripatetic, finding many places in the house, on the porch, and occasionally in a library to sit and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t re-think this. What did the greats do? P.D. James worked anywhere she could rest her notepad. Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickenson composed poetry in their heads while at work and doing chores respectively and wrote them down at night. (I know I can’t manage that.) Henrik Ibsen sat at his desk facing a portrait of August Strindberg, so that his countryman and “mortal enemy” could “hang there and watch” while he wrote. It’s tempting to come up with a mortal enemy, but likely not worth the effort. What if they didn’t inspire me? What if they intimidated me? Although if you have a mortal enemy who inspires your creativity, I’d suggest investing in a good portrait right away. There are a few examples that I think might be workable… or at least aspirational. Edith Wharton wrote in bed, tossing the pages on the floor for her secretary to pick up. In a nice parallel, Victor Hugo often wrote naked, after telling his valet to not bring clothes until his writing was complete. The problem with these examples is that I lack the household staff to fill all the roles. I’m better off sticking to the example of John Keats who rose early, dressed as if going out, and sat down to write. Simple, diligent and clearly effective. Actually, not so different from what I do. Perhaps I’ve found my inspiration. What works for you? 

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“How do you get the work to hold the resonance of its history?” Claudia Rankine

 This quote is from an interview in the Paris Review with author Claudia Rankine. The entire interview, conducted by David Ulin and published in Winter 2016, is worth reading. Rankine’s poetry focuses on social issues ranging from micro aggression, to racism to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To her, words matter. She recounts listening to the recording of the shooting of Philando Castile and hearing the words of the little girl in the backseat of the car say, “It’s okay, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” She talks about the ability of the words to transport her to the point where she is literally experiencing the child and her words. Rankine is a poet who writes across many formats. She is a writer for social justice. How does that compare with writing mysteries? Should it compare? I’d like to think that it can. Not every page of a 300 page novel will stand up to the scrutiny of a poem. Not every word will achieve a lyrical meaning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to this. Words matter has resonated across the country this year for many reasons. Whether high oratory, poetry, or a hastily written note in a lunch box, words matter. As I work on final revisions, where it sometimes feels like there are too many words to care about, I’ll keep this as an aspirational goal even if only means I get it about one third right. To read the full Rankine interview visit: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6905/claudia-rankine-the-art-of-poetry-no-102-claudia-rankine

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The Betas

My Beta readers are the unsung heroes of the writing process. Every author has them, a fixed group or changeable one, dependable or sporadic, they are the kind souls who are willing to read a draft and speak honestly about it. I have a crew and what a group they are. Scattered around the globe I usually send the chapters to them all at the same time. Then I keep working on something else and wait. Not patiently. After all, shouldn’t they drop everything they are doing – work, family, vacation, other books and read what I have suggested? In all fairness, they are unfailingly excited to receive their email with attachment. And they do read quickly (anything outside of a 24 hour turn around for me feels like a nail biting trip to Mars and back. I have actually Tweeted a Beta reader that she needed to start reading faster. Did that smack of desperation?!). Some readers are naturals – they read carefully, thoughtfully and don’t hesitate to make ‘suggestions’. Others must be trained. Yes, you really do want their opinion. You may not take all their suggestions, but each and every idea is welcome and plays a part in strengthening the final book. My Betas fall into two broad types. Some are the nit-picky comma and word choice gurus. Amazing! (I’m always surprised how many typos go undiscovered. Did logic REALLY look like topic each and every one of the 10 times I read it? Yes, it must have.). The other readers are big picture. Their emails critiques start off “some typos and weird punctuation to fix but what really concerns me is….” Honestly, I couldn’t live without either group. Each word and comma is important and needs a second set of eyes. At the same time the words and commas won’t matter if the plot point fails, or if the chapters drag on too long or (there are many ‘ors’ here). People are busy, your Beta readers are friends, they’re not doing this for a pay check and yet they read something that isn’t as polished as it will eventually be, and then they agree to read it again (hopefully more polished). And, bless them, they read the final version to see how you’ve changed it (even after I assure them that they read was the final version with the exception of a few very minor word changes). More shocking is what they notice. They have read and absorbed and remembered more than I did. Writers are used to reading drafts. Most readers aren’t. Those who take this on willingly should be saluted. It’s a beautiful thing. What kind of a Beta reader are you? 

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