I was fortunate to be on two panels last week to talk about writing. The first was sponsored by the Worcester Women’s History Project, a wonderful group that provides great programs to teach us about the history of women in and around Worcester in all facets of life. Check out their web site for some of the intriguing lectures, films, gatherings, etc. that they hold. My panel was called Women in Print, and I was on the bill with Thea Aschkenase, and Stacy Amaral. Thea spoke on her memoir as a survivor of Nazi persecutions and life in a concentration camp, while Stacy shared with us on the rich blend voices singing from various immigrant ethnic communities in her book of interviews with Worcester citizens. I’m afraid, I was a bit humbled by their inspiring topics, but I think I could speak to the inspiration of earlier generations, on film and in real life, for people to open their minds and hearts. I was happy to pay special tribute to my parents, who taught me not only responsibility and respect for others, but to follow my dreams. And, yes, Yang did make the dress I’m wearing!
On Sunday, we took a lovely drive up to Arlington Vermont for me to join the Sisters in Crime New England panel, “The Modern Heroine.” The Martha Canfield Library is a lovely, cozy place, nestled in a valley and surrounded by beautiful Vermont mountains struggling toward green as the weather warms. As you can see, we still had some snow! The people at the library welcomed us and even provided a lovely cake to celebrate 30 years of Sisters in Crime. I joined forces with Ellen Berkeley Perry and Coralie Jensen. We had a wonderful group of people, of almost twenty, I think. They asked intelligent questions about writing and developing characters. Though my novel, set in the 1940s, might not have a, technically, modern heroine, I couldn’t help pointing out that the modern qualities of intelligence, wit, independence, determination, courage, and responsibility were strong, not only in the films of Joan Bennett, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and others but in the real, rather than reel, lives of women who worked in factories and offices, raised children, nursed on the battlefield, or ferried planes. It was a fun experience – and I even sold some books!
Every October, I like to have some bedtime reading that suits the season. I just finished two new books: Midnight Fires and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The first is a mystery by Nancy Means Wright that features Mary Wollstonecraft as its intrepid detective. Wollstonecraft is a great choice for the role, as anyone who has read her Vindications would agree that she has all the nerve, smarts, and wit to boldly ask the questions and dig the dirt necessary for an investigator. Her being cast in this role makes perfect sense. The novel is set during Wollstonecraft’s tenure as governess to the aristocratic Kingsborough family in Ireland and does a neat job of characterizing “the troubles.” We also get good views of the workings of the Kingsborough family, as well as how contemporary views of women have stunted and warped them – right in line with MW’s own writings. The descriptions of the landscapes are a pleasure to read as well. Not least of all, the mystery has some neat twists and turns.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was a pleasantly amusing visit with the supernatural – a low key, smile-inducing progress of Lucy/Lucia Muir’s liberation from oppressive Edwardian propriety to become a mischievous, independent woman – with a little help from a frank and fiery sea captain’s ghost – though she was already well on her way to freedom before they met at Gull Cottage. There are some significant changes from book to film, but both work equally well. I do think that Gene Tierney gives Lucia Muir a bit more power than the character in the book.
There are four books that I usually return to once I finish any new prizes for the month: The Uninvited (Dorothy Mcardle), The Sign of the Ram (Margaret Ferguson), The Undying Monster (Jessie Douglas Kerriush), and Redeeming Time (me, unpublished – yet!). What I admire in the first three (and try to emulate in the fourth), is the depth of characterization, the creation of a powerful mystical/eerie atmosphere, the vividness of the landscapes, and the intelligence of the storylines. What makes them such a pleasure to read is their authors’ deftness with language: there’s enough detail to savor and shape your imagination but no excess or filler. Right now, I’m working on The Uninvited. I review it and The Sign of the Ram on this web site, under Golden Age Mysteries. The Undying Monster is part of the psychic detective genre, with a woman psychic brought in to help a scientist uncover the nature of the beast that has ravaged an ancient British family for centuries and now threatens to destroy his two close friends. The novel deftly captures the post WWI fascination with psychic phenomenon and leads characters and readers into the dark depths of ancient ruins, crypts, and family history to reach a final, mystical resolution – and it’s a fun ride!
What’s Redeeming Time about? Think H. P. Lovecraft meets film noir meets Indiana Jones meets Val Lewton.
Image of Gene Tierney from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir copyright 1946, 20th-Century Fox (http://classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com/2010/08/just-thought.html)
By J.L. Salter
Let’s talk characters.
As writers, sometimes we’ll see a person or hear a conversation which triggers an entire scene in our manuscript. Join me in this [real life] grocery experience from a few years ago:
Selected the slow line, as usual. The transacting party bought 31 cans of baby formula … had to send someone ‘to the back’ to get a case. In the meantime, the young clerk waved one can by the scanner 31 times.
The woman in front of me was very obviously irritated. [I’d seen her in the cheese section earlier … and she was equally annoyed with dairy products.] Her phone rang twice while we waited and she was rather terse with both callers. The terse woman had a medium sized cucumber among many other items. I noticed only because it had no sticker and ‘our’ clerk had to ask a…
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One of my favorite places on our trip to China in November ’14 was the Beijing Arboretum next to Xiang Shan (Fragrant Hill, 香山). We arrived there after a long, traffic-packed drive from the city and got a second dose of autumn colors.
There were plenty of paths to hike amongst the trees and plenty of critters and birds about, including the ever-present magpies and azure winged magpies. There were also many Great Tits (like our Chickadees) and sparrows – is there ANY place that isn’t over-run with sparrows? Unfortunately, they were all too quick to allow any picture taking. However, here’s a picture of Yang, who as just as charming to behold as any of our feathered friends.
The trails wended through wonderful pine and willow forests and up slopes of jagged rocks, at times past pavilions and monuments to students who had camped out and trained here to prepare to fight the Japanese during WWII. Yang and I weren’t quite so tough. Here, I’m giving my knee a rest (gardening injury), well-pleased with the scenery and the hiking. Aren’t the seats made from old red wood trees interesting?
There was also some unexpected forms of “wild life” in the park. We came across well-fed dogs and cats, just chilling in the forest, part of the families of people who worked and lived at the park. Here is a cat with a surprising resemblance to Winston Churchill. He even miaowed gruffly! Dig that expression. Could it be a reincarnation?
A young Chinese girl and I had a laugh over how unique he appeared, and how nonchalant, in a gruff way, he was with humans. When she said in English to me, “It’s a cat!” I meant to say “Dui” In Chinese, but my default mode slipped and I concurred, “Oui!” We both had a chuckle. I actually managed to converse a little with her in Chinese, saying that I liked cats and we had two at home. That was as far as I could go in Chinese at that point, so we switched to English. She and her boyfriend were a cute couple, so we took a picture of them with their camera and they took a picture of us with ours!
Surprisingly, though there was lots of traffic coming out here, most people were visiting the nearby Xiang Shan parks.
This little guy is called a Little Grebe (if you click on the picture, you can see him much better).
Here’s one more neat shot of the wonderful fall colors. I understand that when there hasn’t been a drought, the colors are really gorgeous.
Finally, I have to insert a picture of a creature we saw which really knocked Yang and I for a loop. Like dopes, we didn’t take the camera out until he had scampered away. So, this creature climbed out of the tangle of a twisted pine. At first, I thought I was seeing a big black crow. Then he settled on the ground and sat up. I was flabbergasted! It took a moment to figure out we were seeing a squirrel. He poked around, looking for food, then sat eating for a bit, and finally scampered away by the time I realized we had a camera. When we got back to the hotel, we checked him out on line. I knew I’d seen pictures of this critter before, and discovered he was a Eurasian Red Squirrel – except he’s black. Go figure. Interestingly enough, I read that the black variety of squirrel thrives in pine forests better than its red brethren. There’s plenty of pine in this place! Also, in China, the name for this type of guy is “Satan’s Squirrel.” He is rather demonic looking, isn’t he? Apparently, they are also bred commercially and sold as pets.
Getting home was almost as much of an adventure as the hike, what with overpacked buses – when they finally came. What the heck! When you have great company and beautiful weather and everyone’s in the same boat, er, bus, who cares!
No copyright infringement intended, noncommercial use of photosTree Squirrel Photo 1: http://cutterlight.com/tag/hiking-near-ulaanbaatar/