Tag: travel


Your most harrowing trip?

In honor of the fact that fellow Miss Demeanor Alexia spent a full 36 hours last week on airplanes and in airports traveling from American Samoa to Albuquerque, NM (factoring in a couple of 8+ hour layovers), the rest of us decided to chime in with some of our most harrowing travel stories. Here follows some nail-biters:

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Reading on a Jet Plane

Alexia Gordon I just had time to unpack from Crime Bake before I hit the road again, this time traveling for my day job. Between waiting to board the plane, waiting for the plane to take off (I think I spent more time taxiing on the runway than I spent airborne), and the actual flight (which I spent crammed into an “upgraded” seat so cramped if I’d puffed out my cheeks I’d have hit my seatmates) I had plenty of time to get some reading and writing done.
Pen and paper are my go-to travel writing tools—much easier than a laptop to whip out at a moment’s notice, no danger of equipment failure (I suppose my pen could run out of ink but I can fit a dozen pens into less space than a power cord), no need to search out a power outlet, and no need to stow for take-off and landing. My travel reading varies. It’s almost always paperback, lighter weight than hardback, and no need to power it on or plug it in or put it away when the flight attendant passes down the aisle checking seatbelts and seatback uprightness. Size matters—it has to fit in my personal item. This trip, I chose a mass-market (about 4” x 7”) paperback book because it fit into one of my tote bag’s slip pockets.
I prefer to bring a book with me from home but sometimes I take the chance of finding a good read in the airport bookstore. I found one of my favorite novels, Han Solo at Stars End, this way. These days, the airport booksellers offer as many hardcover bestsellers as the neighborhood bookstore. Once upon a time (within my lifetime—my age is showing), back in the day before airports did double duty as shopping malls, the choice was more limited. “Airport novels” were a thing. Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, defines an airport novel as, “a literary genre not so much defined by its plot…as by the social function it serves.” Hidden among questionable assertions about what makes a novel an airport novel (the Wikipedia article on the topic contains several assertions that sound more like pejorative opinion than objective statements and has been flagged as containing original research and needing more citations) is a workable definition: a mass market paperback of a length that will last for an entire journey, is fast-paced and entertaining, and that won’t require the reader to consult any reference material. Also referred to as beach reads, TV Tropes describes these books as “the junk food of the literature world”. I think the description is unfair—just because a novel doesn’t aim to win a Pulitzer doesn’t make it “junk food”. I will grant that airport novels tend to be “light” reading. After all, when you’re dealing with crowds, delays, surly staff, cramped conditions that would have animal rights activists protesting if animals were subjected to them, overpriced food and everything else that has turned modern travel into an ordeal to be endured instead of an adventure to be enjoyed, do you really want your reading material to remind you the world is rotten or require the same level of concentration it takes to navigate airport security?
Novels designed to meet the needs of travelers pre-dates air travel. The French coined the term romans de gare and the Dutch called them stationsroman when train travel was the primary mode of mass transit. What’s your favorite travel read? Do you think airport novels are the literary equivalent of junk food? Do you ever buy novels from airport booksellers? Or is your travel reading all electronic? Or are magazines and crossword puzzles more your idea of travel entertainment? Leave a comment on the blog or head over to  Missdemeanors ‘ Facebook page to join the discussion. 

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Have Laptop Will Travel

I have lived in the same two states my entire life: New Jersey and New York. More specifically, I have lived in Manhattan or within ten miles of it for my entire childhood and adult life (save for four years of college in Princeton, NJ, which wasn’t really that much farther).  I set many of my books in these two states because I’m most familiar with them. After a decade in the city, I feel like I have a handle on the culture of Manhattan and, even more so, its suburban environs where I live and grew up. As a writer and a person, I’m comfortable in my area.  But that very comfort is the reason why I must travel. I need to see other places to gain perspective on the location that most often serves as the backdrop to my stories. When I don’t visit other places for awhile, I can become so immersed in my home that I can’t recognize anymore what’s unique or strange or beautiful or nutty about it. Writers need the ability to see a place as both an outsider and an insider. We need to have the accuracy that comes from immersion but also the distance to point out what makes a place special.  Recently, I went to Chattanooga TN to see my mother-in-law compete in a half Iron Man.  (Side note: if the world ever devolves into a Walking Dead situation, I’m on her team). The place has all these incredible rock formations and a mountain cave system complete with an beautiful underground waterfall that really should be the setting for a dark thriller–albeit not one that I would write since it would probably devolve into a Raft of The Medusa situation and I don’t do that kind of gore. Still… The city is also incredibly active. Everywhere, people are biking, rock climbing, running, kayaking, and just, generally, hanging outside.  I don’t know if I’ll ever set a story in Chattanooga, but going there did help me see how sedentary life in my home state of New Jersey is, particularly when the weather gets colder. We drive to indoor places or stay in our houses. When we need to work out, we drive to the gym. Seeing it, reminded me of how any story that I set in New Jersey really needs to note the driving culture. If there’s a book set in NJ and someone is not running around in an SUV, then it’s not really set in NJ.  It also reminded me of how active I was living in the New York City. I walked everywhere. Ten blocks. Twenty Blocks. Fifty blocks, in nice weather. I would walk from Battery Park to the Upper East Side on a beautiful day. Why take a cab? I’d walk five blocks in rainy weather to duck into the subway (impossible to catch a cab).  If a story is in Manhattan and it involves someone driving anywhere save for outside of Manhattan, it’s not a story in Manhattan. *Unless that story is Taxi Driver.  What is something that you learned about your favorite setting about being away for awhile? What place have you travelled to that had helped enrich your perspective.      

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How I happened to go to India this past January is a long and convoluted story involving tragedy, triumph, stubbornness  and one very sweet young woman at an orphanage who I’ve been sponsoring for the last 3 years. Since I first began communicating with her, Rosey has been gently suggesting that I come for a visit, but getting to India is not an easy proposition. She lives in an orphanage 300 kilometers to the east of New Delhi, near the border with Nepal. To say that it is remote is putting it very mildly.   At first I planned to fly from Delhi to Pantnagar, which would have taken me somewhere close. But that plane only leaves 4 times a week. And it’s often canceled, which, in fact, it was. So then I decided to take the train. When you are going to India, many people have advice for you, most of it harrowing, so when I got to the train I didn’t know what to expect. (I should say that I had hired a guide to drive me to the station. He deposited me in my seat and said, “Don’t move.”) Fortunately, almost all the signs in India are in English. I knew that Haldwani, the stop I was getting off at, was second to last and that it was 5 hours away and that one of the men who runs the orphanage would be picking me up. With Rosey! Still, it is a little daunting to be a middle-class woman from Westchester, NY, with all that means, on a train going into the heart of India. The fabulous thing was that they kept serving food, and I kept eating it. There was cereal with warm milk. There was a very tasty vegetarian thing. Also very tasty desert, and tea. The Indian tea is the best tea I have ever had. Finally we got to Haldwani. It is not a metropolis. I stepped out and looked around and saw no one who looked like Clifton, from the orphanage, who I knew to be very tall, white and Australian. There was no one who looked like Rosey either, who I knew to be very small, beautiful and Indian. I felt a little like Cary Grant in that scene in North by Northwest when the cropduster is coming after him. I felt the teeniest surge of panic, except there was no way out. The next train back to Delhi would not leave for hours. So I followed the direction in which other people were walking and then I said a prayer and then lo and behold I heard a very tall Australian man saying, “Susan?” I had been found. And what an adventure I had. which I will relate tomorrow.

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Finding My (Foreign) Words

 By definition, writers love words. They are the building blocks for our tales. We obsess over them. We debate about their use and how they should be punctuated. We even become animated each year when several new words are entered, if not universally welcomed into the dictionary.            I love words. Any author that sends me to a dictionary has won a fan. I used to keep a notebook to list the words I didn’t know in a book so I could look them up. Now when reading on my Kindle I need only highlight and press.            I wouldn’t have thought I took words for granted, but now that I am traveling extensively, I must confess to exactly that.            In Greece, I was grateful to have a tour guide who saw her role more as a professor. She helped our group understand key words we needed to use. I was grateful that she was so generous, but frustrated that I couldn’t find my words on my own. I learned firsthand where the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me,” originated.            When I went to Italy for the third time, I decided it was time to take a course in advance of our trip. Just an adult ed. class, which was supposed to be fun. It turned out to be not what I expected, but I did learn enough Italian to order food and wine competently.              Provence during lavender season had been on my bucket list since before we talked about bucket lists. Since my Italian class had disappointed, I decided I would learn on my own through an audio book/course. I loved studying languages in high school. I took French, Spanish, and Latin. Why I remember the lyrics to “The Red Rubber Ball” better than any word I learned in those classes escapes me.              Still, I was enthusiastic as I sat in traffic repeating, “Il n’y pas de quoi,” like a fool. I learned how useless much of what I learned was when we had a suitcase stolen off the bus in Provence and ended up in the Aix police station.            Now I am in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for eight weeks, what locals are calling, “The Fun Side of the Wall”, a fairly long time to spend in a country whose language you don’t speak. While I am fortunate to have a dear friend, who is both a Mexican and U.S. citizen, spending the same time here, I am reminded about how important words are for even the most basic needs. Victor’s generosity in teaching the culture and language of this beautiful country inspire me to forge on and learn.            I thought I had bathrooms (“banos”) down, knowing “Damas” signaled the ladies room. But then I went somewhere that didn’t use it on either bathroom door. In the grocery store, the sugar and the salt looked the same, both packaged in plastic bags. “Sel” struck a bell with me, a small victory I carried over to buying butter (“mantequilla”) with (“con”) or without (“sin”) sel.            I am humbled by my ignorance, challenged to overcome it, because I know not only do I love my words, I need them. I want to embrace the cultures and stories of the places I visit from the tongues of the people who live there.            Victor promises me I will learn by listening and opening my heart to the experience available to me while I am in Mexico. I keep trying because now I know, words are not only the building blocks of stories, they are the nexus between one human being to another. I have mastered another sentence to that end. Me gustaria aprender un poco de su lengua (indigena). I’d like to learn some of your (indigenous) language. The sign over the door reads “Yo Los Contre,” “I found them.” I like to think it means I found my words.   

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And the Winner is…

 Welcome to awards season! The Golden Globes, the NAACP Image Awards, the BAFTA Awards, the SAG Awards, The Academy Awards… Rotten Tomatoes lists about forty-one awards shows between September 2017 and March 2018. All focused on film and TV. Books win awards, too. Everyone’s heard of the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award. These well-known literary prizes represent only a few of the accolades awarded to outstanding examples of writing. Many less well-known (although no less impressive) awards focus on particular genres. The Nebulas and Hugos honor achievements in science fiction in fantasy, The Edgars do the same for mysteries, and the RITA honors romance. As a mystery author, I pay the most attention to awards given to crime fiction: The Agatha, the Thriller, the Barry, the Lefty, the Dagger, the Anthony, the Nero, the Macavity…I’d be here until next award season if I listed them all. Crime fiction prizes are generally awarded at banquets, often in conjunction with conferences. The Agatha is presented as part of Malice Domestic, The Lefty is awarded at Left Coast Crime, the Anthony at Bouchercon, the Thriller at Thrillerfest. The conferences give readers a chance to meet authors, authors a chance to meet readers, authors and others in the publishing industry a chance to network (usually at a cocktail party or the hotel bar), and everyone a chance to attend panels, lectures, and workshops. Awards/conference season is a mixture of excited anticipation and crime (fiction)-filled fun. It presents a few challenges, however. Who to nominate for an award and who to vote for (for those awards where the nominees and winners are chosen by readers and/or conference attendees) and which conferences and banquets to go to. Which to attend is especially challenging. If you had the time to do nothing but travel and unlimited funds, you could be on the road constantly from March through July. You have to pick and choose. Do you plan your travel based on who’s up for an award, who’s speaking, location, timing, or a combination of factors? What conferences do you attend? How do you choose?

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What's on your bucket list?

 Do I have a bucket list? Not really. I’ve done many things in my life, lived in a number of wonderful places, traveled to amazing destinations. Of course, there are other thing I’d like to do, but the list is in flux and I don’t feel prevented from doing them, it’s more a decision about timing and life balance. That changed when a few weeks ago I realized that I have perhaps missed the underlying meaning of a bucket list. I do have things I’d like to do, but know I won’t. Is that what is on a bucket list? What’s holding me back? Me. (Technically I think I may like the IDEA of doing these things more than the actual experience. No…. as I type these words I think, that’s wrong. I would love them. Okay, one of them might turn out to be a REALLY bad idea. You decide. But the other would be amazing.) The first is to travel the Silk Road. There are probably several ways to do this, however, one is organized by a well-respected travel group as a 47 day journey from China through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey. I don’t need to explain why this would be amazing. Upon review of their material I know that I could handle the basic requirements: decent health and the ability to drive a Range Rover. They state very clearly that they provide clean water throughout the trip (a plus). I’ll skip the other details, which outline what would surely be the most incredible trip of a life time – of anyone’s lifetime really, including Marco Polo’s and he started the whole adventure. (Let’s exclude astronauts from the “anyone’s lifetime” list. They get their own category.) Why am I not signing up to travel the Silk Road? Fear. Geopolitics. When I fly OVER some of these places in a commercial airline I am relieved to note we’ve ascended to 42,000 feet (which I have been assured is above the range of certain missiles). If traveling ABOVE these countries is a questionable notion, then driving on the ground with my American passport, is probably not a good idea. I know that the people there are wonderful as individuals, but….. geopolitics intrude and this trip qualifies as don’t do anything that will get your picture on CNN. Call me chicken.  I have another trip I’d like to make. The Peking Paris Road Rally. Clued in by the old-fashioned name? The Rally is a 8,510 mile, 36 day trip (drive? journey? slog?) across 11 countries from Asia to Europe undertaken in a pre-1975 automobile. China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, and France. Think about it! Technically there are two divisions, pre-1975 and then pre-1945. Seriously? I would have to go pre-1945. Imagine cruising across Mongolia in a 1920s Silver Ghost!Here are the rules. Each team (duo) must carry its own weight, and the organizers mean that literally. Tents, sleeping bags, spares, and supplies must all be loaded onto the rally car itself. (Again, the Silver Ghost seems like an excellent choice. Roomy.) Period attire is encouraged and vehicle modifications are a no-no. As the organizer points out: “Cars must be prepared in a period-style. No alloy-boxes on the back, no modern-looking ski-boxes or roof-top boxes. Appearance matters. Ratchet straps come in black and are preferable to bright blue, but leather straps do the job just as well and are more in keeping with the spirit of the event…. Crews must remember! Prince Borghese is looking down!”Prince Borghese was winner of the inaugural 1907 Peking-to-Paris race—although it’s said his chauffeur did most of the driving. Cleary the man was a stickler for style and authenticity.What’s holding me back? A near total lack of knowledge about cars or engines. I would need to acquire an appropriate car and bring an experienced mechanic as my travel partner (don’t forget that some nights are spent sleeping in the car, or at best in the tent…..choose your partner wisely). On the other hand, maybe I’ll get lucky and someone will want a travel partner and pick me! They can provide their favorite vintage car, do the mechanical part and I will provide support and a willingness to chat, or be silent… or read aloud. I can already drive any vehicle with a clutch – no matter how tricky – and could fit in some pre-travel mechanic’s lessons. Plus, I’m fearless (forget everything I said about the Silk Road trip….it doesn’t apply here). Maybe I should convince the Mystery Writers of America to challenge the International Thriller Writers and sponsor a bunch of cars (with mechanics). Think of all the good stories…. What is on your bucket list? Join the MissDemeanors on Facebook and share!   What is on your bucket list?

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The Power of Positive Flying

 A day after returning from Bouchercon, I sit shoehorned into an economy seat for a four-and-a-half hour flight to the West Coast to make a site visit to one of our stations. I had fifteen hours to unpack, try to salvage waterlogged books and journals from the aftermath of the apparent flood that invaded my basement while I enjoyed Toronto, repack, eat (miniature Swiss chocolate bars, a Naked protein shake, and a Starbucks latte), catch up on some blogs (a Femmes Fatales post and two posts for my Lone Star Lit blog tour), nap, shower, dress, and catch a taxi back to the airport I’d just left. The shrieking (full-on, Banshee-worthy wails punctuated by sobs akin to chainsaws. Think of the fits thrown by Mary in the Secret Garden. Think of someone being tortured by Klingons.) temper tantrums of two of my coach-mates have turned the possibility of sleep on the plane into a hope as forlorn as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. So what to do in the face of hours of cramped elbows, sore knees, a weird numbness in my pinky, and an onslaught of relentless screaming?
Focus on the positive. I picked up a magazine called “Live Happy” (seriously, that’s the name) in the airport lounge. It’s filled with tips for better living through positive thinking. So, I’ll try it. I’ll think of the nice things about this flight. The flight attendant gave me two creamers and two sugars for my coffee without my having to ask. The young woman in the middle seat next to me moved to an empty row so now I have more room. The vapor trails of the jet that passed disturbingly close beneath us were beautiful. The woman in the aisle seat is not chatty; she’s absorbed in her book. And I ended up with enough material for a blog post. 

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Bite-sized Bouchercon

 I started this post a few days ago. Now I’m sitting in Toronto Pearson International Airport waiting to board my flight back to the U.S. I’m manning the International Thriller Writers’ table at my first Bouchercon, feeling…overwhelmed. This conference is huge. I ran into Hank Phillipi Ryan in the elevator and joked there were more people in the hotel than there were on the streets. 1700 registrants. Wow. 1700 authors, editors, agents, bloggers, reviewers, readers, all gathered to celebrate mystery. Double wow. No danger of not finding enough to do. The opposite. Activities run non-stop from 7:30 am until 11 pm, or later. Hard decisions must be made to choose what to do without overdoing it and making yourself crazy. Try to do everything and, in addition to discovering you’d need to clone yourself to be in multiple places at the same time, you’ll collapse from exhaustion. Here are a few suggestions, based on what worked for me. If you’re on a panel, it’s easy. Start with that. Block out your time slot so you don’t inadvertently schedule yourself to be someplace else while you’re supposed to be on the dias. Dont forget, a 30 minute booksigning follows your panel. Next, find your friends’ (and agent’s and editors) panels and mark those. We members of the mystery community are friends with each other. The only throats we cut are on the page. We support each other. But at Bouchercon, support has to be rationed. At least two of your friends will be on concurrent panels. Attend one friend’s panel and buy the other a drink later to make up for it. You could spend the entire conference going from panel to panel to panel but I advise you not to. Panel fatigue will set in quickly. Break up the routine by volunteering for a shift at a table promoting one of the many writers’ organizations and fan societies represented at Bouchercon: Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and several others. Or volunteer to help Bouchercon itself. The volunteer table lists opportunities to serve. Plus, depending on what you sign up to do, you get to sit for a while and let people come to you. Finally, leave some time for fun. Cocktail and dinner parties abound. Or get away from the conference completely and be a tourist. Experience what your host city has on offer. Fellow Missdemeanor, Susan Breen, and I went on a ghost walk (led by Ryan of The Haunted Walk Toronto) through the Distillery District. We learned a bit of Toronto’s distillery past, discovered that Canadian ghosts are more polite than their American counterparts, and had a free sample of beer at Mill Street Brewery. I became a Fluevog shoe convert and celebrated my shoe-shopping victory with a tasting at Spirit of York distillery (sadly, not available in the US. Yet.) and at Soma chocolate. I also squeezed in a visit to the Guillermo del Toro exhibit, At Home with Monsters, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I marveled at pieces from his apparently endless collection of books, movie memorabilia, paintings, photographs, and sculptures, all related to the people” places, and things that inspired him and accented by his quotations on creativity and belonging (or not). So, those were my tips for navigating Bouchercon. Pick and choose and break it into smaller pieces so it’s easier to wrap your hands, and your brain, around.

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La Valise Volee (The Stolen Suitcase)

   “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta When people ask me where do I get my ideas, one of my top answers is by traveling. Perhaps it’s my overactive imagination, but I see stories everywhere I go.          For instance, during a trip to Provence recently to fulfill an agenda item on my bucket list, which was to see fields of lavender in full bloom, one of my favorite suitcases was stolen off a bus. Fortunately it had my husband’s clothing in it, not mine, or you would be reading a story about an international incident in the New York Times. But the point is, once we recovered from the outrage and insult we suffered at the hands of a thief and then a very blasé bus company, I began to see the event as a story with all sorts of possibilities. Spending our first hour and a half in Aix en Provence sitting in the police station in ninety-degree weather without air conditioning was indeed inspiring. Not being able to speak much more than high school French, I found myself conjuring reasons why people were gathered in the dirty, antiquated lobby. I had seen people greet one another before with the French kiss-kiss, one on each cheek, but the sight of French cops bidding hello and farewell in that manner fascinated me. I couldn’t tell whether the expressionless silent people gathered around us were victims or perpetrators, so I made stories up. Before you knew it, I knew exactly what happened to la valise volee, what the demise of the culprit would be in the short story I would write, and where the ending would take place.              We had arrived that morning at the airport in Marseille after a short flight from Dublin, a city that I found equally as inspiring. We had chosen to stay in Dublin for four nights on an extended overlay so we could build value into our airfare, which I had been unable to reduce to what I think of as a palatable price. The Hop On, Hop Off bus offered us a great way to see the city as many times as we wanted. We kept going by a vacant over grown lot near the Houston train station where one bus driver told us no one ever got on or off in his twenty-two years of experience. Immediately I knew there was a dead body in the lot. At least that there was a dead body in the lot in my mind.            Later, during the trip home when I encountered a young pale-faced Irish woman traveling to Boston with her two little waifs, I knew they had to be part of that story, which was why they had to leave Dublin. Was the body the abusive husband she had done in? Or had he been murdered by someone looking for something of value they thought the husband had and now figured it was with the widow? Another short story idea was born, even though I am challenged to write short fiction. I’m much better at being long-winded. I blame it on the Irish in me.                So maybe these ideas will end up in books if I can’t manage to fit them into short stories. Or maybe they’ll end up in my pillow as dreams. But wherever they go, I never would have had them if I hadn’t traveled. Does travel inspire you. dear readers? How, and please share photos.     

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