Mum Lives Under an Alias. Or Two.

A friend just asked me my mother’s name, and I thought well, that’s a more complicated question than it seems.

You may not have noticed, but the Irish, or those with recent Irish antecedents often have an alias. Or two. Maybe it has something to do with hiding their children from the Black and Tans or something. My Uncle Tom’s name was actually John Terrence, to give just one example among many.

My Mum’s given name is a family one. She, her mother, an aunt, a cousin, a great aunt and others going back into the mists of time were all Mary Jane. However, none of her family ever called her either Mary Jane, Mary or Jane. They all (and we have a very large family) call her Cis, or Auntie Cis. True, some of the younger family members think this is spelled “Sis,” because she was the eldest sister of a bunch of younger brothers and sisters, which makes sense. But no, “Cis” is an Irish diminutive for Mary (go figure), and Cis was also my grandfather’s beloved older sister, who died in childbirth the way so many women once did.

The Scottish side of our extended family however call her Jean. This is because Jean, or Jeannie, is the Scottish version of Jane. Her mother and her cousin were both called Jeannie, which is pronounced “Ginny,” to further confuse the authorities. I’m not sure how the Scots justify ignoring the “Mary” part of my Mum’s name, but Scots don’t have to explain anything because they carry dirks and claymores and such and are inclined to resent being questioned. My dad always called her Jean and, until she retired, that’s the name she used in business, and the name most of their friends called her.

When she retired, she took nurse’s training (yeah, see what I have to contend with?) because she’d always wanted to be a nurse and WWII robbed her of the chance. Nearly everyone from her nursing days calls her Mary because–well, I think she used her official name, Mary Jane, on all the forms she needed for her classes and license, and everyone just picked up on the first half of her name and she decided to keep it simple and go with the flow. But, just to be absolutely clear, her name isn’t Mary you guys;  it’s Mary Jane.

So, Liz, to answer your question, my Mum’s name is Mary Jane, Cis, Jean, and/or Mary. Or Mum, except I’m now the only one who gets to call her that. Or Miss Mary, which is the the name she was given by her next door neighbor’s children when they were children and which somehow spread through the neighborhood where she’s lived for forty-five years.

BTW, because my dad called her Jean, and she loved him, and she always had the option of correcting it and never did, I think that’s the way to go.


Thanksgiving with Strangers

EACH YEAR in November I’m reminded of the strangers who have included me in their family Thanksgivings because I was apart from my own kin. All it took the first time was a wistful, “No, no real plans,” when someone asked if I would be with my family for Thanksgiving. I was scooped up, plunked into a chair at their table and stuffed with turkey and pumpkin pie before I could take a breath.

My immediate family is small (living 5,000 miles away from the old homestead will do that) and on occasion we were ALL scooped up, fussed over, feted and fed.

I don’t want to give the impression that I never celebrated Thanksgiving with loving friends or family. I often did that. But there were also those times when someone I barely knew looked at me with horror when I said I’d be alone for the day. “Come to us!” they’d cry. “We’re having 12/23/40 people; one more won’t make any difference and we’d love to have you.”

The first time was in New York (“unfriendly” New York), where I was sent by the editor for whom I was freelancing, on the day before the holiday. This meant I found myself on Thanksgiving morning in a Manhattan hotel room a thousand miles from home with nothing to do because everything was shut up tight for the holiday.

Strangers #1 and 2: The invitation came from the wife of the photographer I’d met the day before on our assignment. “Don’t be alone on Thanksgiving. We invite everyone who’s in town,” she said, “we’d love to have you.”

Stranger #3: The cabbie who drove me (without complaint) out to Brooklyn said he’d wait until my friends opened their door because we were in a very unfriendly part of the city. This is a New York cabbie. Working on a holiday. When the door opened, he tooted his horn, and headed back to Manhattan and–I sincerely hope–a festive meal with friends and family.

The table was plywood on sawhorses covered in bedsheets and it was laden with platters of food for the thirty or so guests, most of whom were strangers to each other, if not to our hosts. Multiple turkeys, a bathtub’s worth of stuffing, vast green bean casseroles, mountains of mashed potatoes with buckets of gravy, half the cranberry crop of Massachusetts, and pumpkin, apple, and sweet potato pies, served with whipped cream or ice cream.

Strangers #4-23: It wasn’t possible to meet everyone but, since nearly all were working journalists, there was no shortage of conversation. One interesting non-journalist was a former SDS member, now a preacher, who clearly had found the light.

Strangers #24 and 25: The dinner guests who insisted on driving me back to Manhattan even though they lived in another Borough. It added half an hour to their late night trip home.

Thanksgiving, sure enough, is a holiday for family and friends, a time for a traditional meal, maybe a walk in the fresh air, maybe a football game, maybe a nap.

It is also a holiday when I have sometimes relied on, and been rewarded by, the kindness of strangers.

The Minotaur and Me

Did you ever get a telephone call so surprising that your mind went blank? I mean really blank; so shocked that you’re not even sure the person who called you is speaking English?

Before I come back to that, it’s worth a reminder that writers face a labyrinth trying to get published. Writing is difficult, but it pales when compared to the the dead ends, the wrong turns, the retracing of steps taken earlier, the lost sense of direction and general feelings of discouragement that follow. It’s a long journey; you must first write the book, then find an agent who believes in your work, which if you are lucky will result in a sale to the right publisher, followed by the terrifying and possibly mortifying editing process.

But there are occasional shortcuts, springboards which help you leap to the center of the labyrinth (or the Exit sign–depends which way you want to go). Probably the best for those of us in the mystery field is the annual First Crime Novel contest co-sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books (the mystery imprint of St. Martin’s Press). Several hundred crime novels of every sub-genre are submitted. MWA  judges read, evaluate and choose the finalists, which are sent on to the editorial staff at Minotaur Books for the final decision.

And yes, I won it.

And no, I didn’t have even the slightest expectation that I would–hence the blankness and the Lithuanian dialect that seemed to come from my ‘phone on the day I received the call from Minotaur’s Editorial Director, Kelley Ragland. Honestly I entered the contest last fall as a way of keeping my spirits up and giving me something author-ish to do. No novel was chosen in 2013, but in a more typical year the winner is contacted in March. When March 31st arrived, I shrugged and thought better luck next year, which was just about the time my phone rang.

The win comes with a St. Martin’s Minotaur publishing contract and a trip to New York to attend the MWA Edgar Awards Dinner, which happened a week ago.  I was asked to keep the secret for nearly a month, until the announcement could be made at the Edgars Dinner.  I tried. I really did.  But within hours I had sworn all my family and friends to secrecy and before long I was blurting it out to waiters and people who telephoned to sell me vinyl siding. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter. The announcement was made by Minotaur publisher Andrew Martin. I stepped on the stage to good-hearted applause from the hundreds of mystery writers, publishers, agents, editors and other guests present, and took possession of the most attractive chunk of acrylic I have ever seen.

So doors have been opened. I’m speaking to agents. I’m anticipating receiving editorial notes from my editor. And in a little more than a year, I will be able to hold my published book in my hand.

The moral of the tale?                                             

Enter the contest.

You might win.



Life-Long Friends

Recently it occurred to me that it’s too late for me to make any life-long friends. I’m not sure why that seems significant, but it does. I was reading an article about George Clooney (of all people) and Cindy Crawford (ditto) who are, apparently, life-long friends. I thought how nice that was and how I didn’t have any of those and well, it’s too late now.

Part of this can be laid at the door of my parents (like so much, poor things). We moved often, and I went to a bunch of different schools, not because bill collectors were after us or anything, but because mum and dad genuinely seemed to like being in new places. And when I say “moved” I mean serious mileage, not just to the next town.

Max was my very first friend. He had white-blonde hair and for some reason we spent a lot of time pouring water from one container to another and getting soaked and loving it. We moved away from the small village where my family and Max’s family lived when I was about five years old.

My second friend was Linda Evans and, like us, she lived in London. We left London when I was about nine, leaving Linda behind. And even in this day of searching the net for old friends, a name like that is going to bring up hundreds of thousands of people, and of course she could be using a completely different name by now.

One sort of life-long friend I still keep in touch with is Miriam Squires. We met when I was about nine years old and went to the same school for a couple of years. We both enjoyed writing and receiving letters and our friendship was maintained very long distance. She sort of counts as a life-long friend even though we haven’t been in each other’s lives in any direct or significant way. We’re Face Book friends now.

Other friends from that same time were David Marner, Colin Reevie and Michael Dove. (I had a ten-year-old girl crush on Michael.) They might have been life-long friends if we’d kept in touch.

Kathy, my best friend in high school, you’d expect to be a candidate for almost-life-long friend, but somehow we didn’t stay in touch after graduation, possibly because I went away to college and then my family moved (I kidded them about moving away in the dead of night to avoid me) and when I finished college I went to live with them rather than near our last home where Kathy still lived, 1,000 miles away.

Is there anything arbitrary about the life-long friend designation, do you think? Is a life-long friend like a car, which officially becomes a classic after twenty years?  Or is it based on an important milestone: is a life-long friend someone who knew you when you learned to read, finished eighth grade, graduated from college, had your first job or got married?

I have to admit, although I’m not sure what I mean by it, a life-long friend seems a lovely and desirable thing.

Tick Tock

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...

I’ve come across a wonderful contradiction built into technology, which sends us back unexpectedly to a much earlier time.

I recently had a conversation with a friend. He’s 22 and when I told him I’d just received a wrist watch as a gift he looked at me blankly, so I raised my wrist to show him.

“Oh,” he said, “I’ve never owned one.” He waggled his iPhone at me. “My friends and I all use this.” He tapped the front of his phone and the time popped up.

“What, all of you?”

“Yeah,” he said, “none of us have watches.”

I found this so startling I couldn’t drop it. “But you have to take it out of your pocket and hold it in your hand to check the time. Isn’t that inconvenient?”

He grinned and shrugged. Clearly it didn’t matter. Or the phone never left his hand. Or it hadn’t occurred to him because he’d never done it any other way.

Doesn’t that seem like a giant step backwards in time (no pun intended)?

Pocket watches required a hand to operate, too. You’d take the watch and chain out of your pocket, or lift it from where it dangled on your vest or blouse to check the time, which removed that hand from effective use for anything else. In fact, early wrist watches were popularized in the 1920s by a French sportsman who needed both hands free to operate (I kid you not) his hot air balloon.

Wrist watches  mark a significant milestone like high school graduation or bar mitzvah, not simply because they mark time–which is the essence of accomplishment–but because their daily usefulness and long life are continual reminders of the occasion. They’re built for permanence, symbolic of the giver’s lasting affection.

I still have the gold wristwatch my parents bought me when I passed a sort of pre-college examination called the Eleven-Plus. I’ve taken care of it over the years, have replaced the band and the crystal after a mishap and still wear it occasionally. Every time I see it I’m reminded that my mom and dad presented me with the watch the night before the exam results were posted, touching evidence of their faith in me.

Smart phones don’t have that kind of permanence built into them; in fact their 18-month replacement cycle is the price we pay for having the latest and best technology available. I guess you could frame one and hang it on the wall as a souvenir of the giver and the occasion, but a reminder of useless and superannuated technology doesn’t have the same emotional resonance or symbolic meaning somehow.

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

I wonder if we’re about to see the re-emergence of street clocks? You still see them occasionally in older downtowns. Back in the day (and I mean really back), large up-market stores and banks erected big clocks on the front of their buildings or on the sidewalk outside so people who had their hands full of purchases or briefcase and such could see the time without having to dig in their pockets for their watches.

Maybe watch chains will make a come-back, too. Pocket watches used to be attached to gold or silver chains which were then attached via a toggle to the owner’s clothing. They saved the watch from hitting the floor if it was dropped, prevented a pick-pocket from stealing it and—through pretty fobs and charms—acted as jewelry.  Given that an iPhone is also threatened with all these things, maybe we’ll soon be seeing the re-emergence of gold chains for them, too.

I love my new wristwatch because it looks sleek and it tells the time and it is a reminder of someone I love.

And smart phones are great, too. Setting aside the problem of what to buy your graduate, I’m now completely enamored of a piece of 21st century technology that throws us back in time to the 19th century.

Note to self:  Remember to make sure Millennial characters are wristwatch free.

Sugar Pie Honey Bunch

This is my second day without bread or sugar.  Except for those four cookies yesterday. But other than that, I’m good.  I’ve come to believe that refined sugar is a poison, which sounds extreme, but I think it may really be killing us. And my bread eating habit, amounting to six or seven slices on any given day, is out of control. So I’m trying to live without bread (which is really just sugar in sheep’s clothing) and without sugary foods like cookies and any kind of dessert worth eating.  

Today instead of my customary sandwich for lunch I had two hard boiled eggs, a couple of those cute triangular cheeses and an apple.  It was good actually.  I went out into the back yard, sat in the sunshine and ate my lunch with organic Italian grapefruit soda instead of lemonade in my Arnold Palmer.  Although, come to think of it, there is probably sugar in the soda.  Rats. Okay, I’m new to this; it may take me a day or two to get the hang of it.

So while I was in a sugar-free mood, I thought it would be fun to purge my writing of sugar-related descriptions and phrases along with my diet.  Not for any particular reason, and not permanently, but just for the exercise. And here’s my list; see what you can add to it:

Sweetie Pie, Honey, Sugar, Cupcake, Sweetness, Sweetpea (at a pinch), Sweet as honey, Sweet on someone, Sweet tooth, Revenge is sweet, Short and sweet, Sweet nothings, Sweet talking, a Sweet deal, Sweet FA, Sweet nothings, Sweet talk, the Sweet smell of success, Take your own sweet time, Sweet sixteen, Home sweet home, Sweeten the pot,  Sweetness and light, Sweet Caroline, Sweet Adeline, Sweet Jesus, Sweet home Alabama, Sweet rolls, Bittersweet, Sweetener, Say sweetly.  

Then there’s the honey trap:  Sweet as honey, Land of milk and honey, Honey roasted, Honey I’m home, Honeybun, Honeymoon, Honeyed words.

Hotcakes, Take the cake, Cake (meaning money), Have your cake and eat it, Icing on the cake, Caked with mud, Piece of cake.

And of course, Mary Poppins’ immortal Spoonful of sugar.




Original Sin

It’s difficult  to come up with a completely original idea. I have some faint recollection of Aristotle and Jasper Fforde saying much the same thing, in their different ways and in different millennia, which may prove the point.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and, time and again, I’ll be reading some other writer’s book and come across a twist or bit of business that I’ve recently put into one of my stories. It’s been happening so often that I’m starting to worry about mind melds and ESP.

Sometimes it’s something small, like someone crying by a fountain when I’ve written my heroine crying by a fountain.  No big deal; I can just move her, although I’ve done some nice work describing the way her dress was getting wet which I’ll have to cut if I move her across the street. Oh, the heck with it, there are a lot of fountains in the world, I’ll just assume my girl is standing next to a different fountain and leave it at that. After all, she has to be standing next to something, and it might as well be a fountain as not. And in any case I need the sound of the water to cover the sound of her sobs and I like the metaphor of the falling water as her tears. Okay, the fountain stays.

At other times it’s a more significant duplication, like a book’s heroine who does the same work as my girl at the same kind of work place when I was hoping to give my reader an unusual experience.  Once it was a character who is not only similar in appearance to one of mine but shares the idiosyncrasies of his speech patterns, too.

Do I have to give serious thought to changing these things or will a reader forgive the occasional commonplace if  the rest of my story, its characters and the action is engaging?

The truth is, whether I change them or not, some of my pleasure in being their creator has dimmed because someone else thought of them first.

In a way it’s akin to wearing hand-me-down clothes or buying a chair at Goodwill. Shopping at Goodwill because I can’t afford Macy’s is different than shopping at Goodwill (and wearing hand-me-down clothes) because I love vintage things.

There are two ways to go here: I can think of the parallels as commonplace ideas that a reader will find boring because they have come across them before. Or I can choose to think of these serendipitous parallels as ideas so good they bear repeating.

Case by case?

Works for me.

“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgement.” — Josh Billings


Me and Edgar Livin’ the Dream

I’ve known all my life about authors who were inspired by alcohol or a drug-induced stupor or a dream:  Samuel Coleridge (Kubla Kahn), Edgar Allen Poe (just about everything), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Hunter S. Thompson (just about everything), to name just a famous few.

And of course, we members of the rock ‘n roll generation are all-too-familiar with the concept of drugs and alcohol as fuel for creativity, since too many of our heroes have died as a result of overindulging in one while trying to capture the other.

I think the idea is that a second layer of creative consciousness is released during times when the brain is active, but not really alert and bothering itself about its immediate, high-level daily tasks, like keeping us from stepping into traffic or remembering to eat our spinach.

I don’t think I really believed it until I had the experience myself last week.

Before you decide that an intervention may be needed, let me assure you that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. But I did wake up in the middle of the night with the idea for a character, a McGuffin and the opening paragraph of a new novel. I don’t remember actually dreaming about it, but it was very much on my mind as I opened my eyes. In the first few minutes of wakefulness, before I was completely awake, I fiddled a little with the details and by the time I was truly awake I had something rather interesting.

Now I’m an Olympic-level heavy sleeper, so it’s unusual for me even to wake in the night, let alone feel inspired to leave my bed. But I’ve learned never to spurn inspiration whenever, and in whatever form, it may strike, so I tottered out of bed to write it down. And damn if it wasn’t pretty good. It was so good that I decided to concentrate on the resulting story for a while to see where it took me.

I’ve been trying to write a humorous novel for some time; it’s actually difficult to write humorously without working really hard and the hard work seems to stifle the humor—just one of the many apparent contradictions we writers face. But over the next few days, while I was writing my dream-inspired book, I found myself chuckling as I wrote, and in a few places actually laughing aloud. I’m not certain the book is actually funny, or if I’m just so delighted at how easily the book is flowing that I’m chortling with glee at how clever I am.

Either way, I’m pleased with it, I’m happy to know that the dreaming thing works, and I’ll keep you posted.

Luddite Rant

I TRY NOT TO BE a Luddite, I really do.  I have a laptop and use it daily to write my mystery novels. I have a cell phone and even take occasional photos with it, although that still seems wrong somehow. I communicate with friends via Face Book.  I own a Kindle and download books. I use Wikipedia. And hey, look—I write a blog.

And yet, all of my electronic marvels are like the bastard child of Marvin and Arthur Dent in the Hitchiker’s Guide–they only use about 5% of their brain capacity because I’d really rather be making a cup of tea.

It’s not that I despise or fear technology (although, truly, SkyNet and the Clone Wars seem only moments away most days) I’m just frustrated by the necessity of learning about all this crap, then re-learning it when the newest iteration is “released,” and then listening to people talk about it constantly. Seriously–when did “app” become a word? Worse–when did we all learn what it meant? Even worse–when did we start hearing people talk about the latest ones? Did you know you can “download” an app that allows you to pretend to pop the bubbles on bubble wrap?  I kid you not.

If the internet is the 21st century equivalent of the telephone—meaning that it changed the way we wish each other Merry Christmas, learn about revolutions and the latest fashions, research our term papers and contact each other from vacations in Australia and Bora Bora—then why is so dam’ difficult to use?  Every new tool to access it seems to require a skill set tantamount to running a nuclear power plant (and don’t get me started on actual nuclear power plants).  If telephones had been this complicated in the beginning, we’d still be using semaphore flags. Or maybe telegraphs—which was another simple-to-use technology that changed the world.  Tap a button, send a message. What could be easier?

You know what I miss?

I miss picking my photos up from the drug store and then sticking them in actual albums. And then turning the pages of the albums and enjoying the photos.

I miss people dropping in.  Remember that?  Until about ten years ago (not that long ago really) people used to visit their friends because they hadn’t been in touch for a while.

I miss calling people on the ‘phone and actually reaching them and talking to them. And then picturing them in their living room or bedroom or kitchen and not interrupt them hanging from the side of a cliff somewhere or worse. When did “How are you?” get replaced with “Where are you?”

I miss handwriting.  It’s been a long time since I received any kind of hand written note or letter or card. Hell, it’s been a long time since I sent any.

I miss feeling smart because I know the difference between pica and elite.

Yeah, yeah, it’s all great.  GNP is up; information has largely replaced extractive and industrial production; standards of living have risen all over the place; no parent ever needs to lose a kid because they can “track” them with their iPhones; lovers can break-up without having to meet face-to-face (ye gods); plagiarists have an easier time of it (ye gods again).

We’re all in touch constantly and seem more detached from each other than ever, mostly because we’re so busy trying to figure out the latest version of whatever amazing thingy we’re using to keep us in touch.

I’m never out of touch, and yet sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I was. Maybe I’d feel more connected.

Alternate Realities and MapQuest

I had an epiphany this week as I was struggling with one of my novels.

I often stop writing for a while—for an hour, a day, anything up to a week or more—when I’ve reached some sort of impasse. In the past I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t know what to write next, that I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, so I don’t know what should happen. But now I think it’s something different: I stop because I don’t know how to move my characters away from the scene they currently inhabit, even when it’s clearly necessary.

I’ve already admitted that I polish my prose too much in the early stages of the game. It can feel productive, when I don’t have anything original to write, to smooth over the rough spots in the bits I’ve already written. This has another downside in addition to postponing the moment when I get on with the new writing: By the time I’ve read and re-read, and polished and refined a scene it becomes more and more imbedded in the “reality” of the novel and thus much harder to change.

If, until the 20th reading, Miss So-and-So and Mr. Whatzit have arrived at the baker’s, chatted with the baker and picked out some pink-topped cupcakes, it is really, really hard to have them by-pass the baker and walk into the hardware store instead. For one thing, all the conversation they had with the baker about sprinkles and chocolate ganache doesn’t translate well to the hardware store clerk, and instead of cupcakes they would need to buy wrenches or something instead. And that feels “wrong,” because I’m so emotionally invested in them having that conversation with the baker and buying those dam’ cupcakes.

In a way, by trying to change the scene I’m changing a reality that’s become as real to me as the real world. (Do I get points added or taken away for using change, changing, real and reality so often in the same sentence?) I’ve come to believe in the world the characters inhabit just a little too much.

All right, that’s one manifestation of the problem, and I should be able to take it in hand by not re-reading and revising my early drafts so much. I’m working on that although, truth to tell, I’m not getting very far. Sometimes my re-reading is almost a compulsion. It starts as a way to remind myself of what led me to where I’m about to pick up the story, but then it becomes an end in itself (Hey, this is pretty good; I’m liking what I did there, what if I change the order of these two sentences . . .) and a substitute for writing, and that can’t be good.

Note to self: Don’t begin your writing day by reading.

The other manifestation is a tradecraft issue: the inability to envision how the characters get from here—the corner of Ninth and Main, to there—a penthouse apartment on Parkside. Do they walk? Take a cab? Fly through the air on gossamer wings? And whichever way they travel, does the reader need to take the trip with them or can the next scene open with them sitting comfortably on a sofa in the penthouse, sipping martinis?

Experienced novelists solve this problem all the time and for us readers, its seamless. But the ragged seams showed plenty while it was being written, believe me.

Most often I manage to open the next scene with my characters already relaxing in the penthouse. But every now and again I get tangled up in what I call the MapQuest version: They strolled down Ninth Avenue, turned right and crossed the street at Pelican, stopping for the light at Parkside before . . . etc.

Note to self: Forget MapQuest; go straight for the martinis.