Monday, June 18, 2018

Virtual Vs Real Life

The topic of virtual vs. real life in historical mysteries is fun. Let’s start with the question often asked: do I change the facts of history? There are many answers, some of which are:

1.      Adding fictional characters is changing history;
2.      No matter how I may try to “think” 13th century, I was still born in the mid-20th  and cannot successfully escape this fact entirely;
3.      When it comes to human nature, there is nothing new under the sun;
4.      The survival of primary sources is accidental.     

That may suggest I play fast and loose with history. I do not. Why write historical fiction if the emphasis is on fiction? This is where I get to my definition of real vs. virtual reality.  

I don’t want to change dates and events because they must have an impact on my characters to give a sense of the era. That is the real life in my books. That I write about fictional characters is part of the virtual reality of the stories.

As for the way my characters behave or think, Answer # 3 is significant. This is not the 21th century speaking. Ecclesiastes, my favorite grump, said the same thing almost 3000 years ago. And so I let people do things many might think modern because there were medieval people who did or thought some surprising things. What I won’t ignore is that they will express themselves and rationalize their actions within the logic of their time just as people always have and always will. Neither we nor they invented hate, compassion, willful ignorance, analytical curiosity, acceptance of diversity or rejection of same. Each era may mix elements like these differently, but they are all to be found anywhere in human history. To me, this is as real as the date William the Bastard conquered England. How I portray it in books with my characters is the virtual part.

Documentation from older eras often lacks variety of opinion which leads reasonable people to say that it is proof certain attitudes could not have existed. In reply, I offer this observation. As a child I was told that “everyone did that (or thought that way) then”, when referring to the opinions like: African-Americans were inferior; it was reasonable to send Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during WW II; a woman must marry because she was incapable of protecting or adequately providing for herself. Even if many did have these points of view, we still live in a time when there is ample proof that many did not. But wars happen, natural catastrophes occur, evidence crumbles into dust. (See Answer #4) In some future time, many will again say: “there is no proof that people thought that way then.” Which viewpoint survives as predominant is up to chance.

So with care and a respectful bow to the preponderance of documentation, I choose to have my fictional characters exhibiting age-old human behavior. This may be virtual reality, but it has elements of the real as well. In showing the variance of opinion and experience in any era, we learn that history has more dimension and relevance to our problems today. It also gives less comfort to those who want justification for bigotry.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Writing Gay Characters

A gay character is, in western fiction, inevitably the “other”, the minority, and often the “outcast”.

Including this kind of character in mysteries is good because “the other” sees what the mainstream does not. Even in general fiction, “the other” provides insights and perspective that majority culture characters cannot because they are trained to see what they are expected to see. It requires “the other” to see the discrepancies.

Creating the gay character requires understanding the dominant culture in any era because the majority always defines society’s rules, expectations and practices.

As the outcast or minority, the gay character must learn to hide within those rules and practices to both survive and flourish. When they do not, they are viewed as criminals, either morally or legally. When they do, they become invisible or at least deceptively “untainted”.

When my character, Brother Thomas, told me he was a gay man in the 13th century, I knew I had a lot of research to do if I was not going to make him into the usual limp-wristed modern stereotype. In some respects, I had it easy.

Medieval England was a male-dominant, warrior culture. As such, male bonding was a useful practice, as the ancient Spartans (just one example) found out in battle. Medieval men hugged, kissed, and wept with abandon. They had rituals where unrelated men formed bonds of brotherhood. All this allowed men to show affection, emotion, and build long-term, committed relationships. In battle, a man fought harder with his “brother” by his side, and, if the pair was well-liked and good warriors, any sexual relationship was simply ignored. As has always been true, we see what we want to see in the way we find it most useful to see.

The danger was that these practical habits could lead to homosexual sex. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th century prior, dealt with this by allowing open affection amongst his monks with clear rules. One example was that elderly monks, impotent though they might be, could not sleep in the same bed. But until the 14th century, when sodomy became equated with heresy, the Church often viewed same gender sex as a forgivable sin. The greater sin was being the “passive” male because he was behaving like a woman and in opposition to his god-given gender. The lesser male sinner was the “active” partner. Same logic, and Ruth Karras has written some excellent books on the subject.

With this environment in mind, I have developed Brother Thomas as a man who can fit within his culture as long as he hides within common and acceptable practices. He suffers due to the tragedy of his past, but, as he grows, he learns how to survive positively and eventually I think he may well find some solace.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Technology in Stories

Did I really opt to talk about that? Was I crazy? Moi?

Well, part of my DNA is mechanically inclined. The Dutch part. If you have the chutzpah to push the North Sea back for a little extra farmland, you better be technologically astute lest you wake up some night, six feet under water. Maybe the spirit of my one great-grandfather, who was a stone mason, will help me with this subject? Nah, all that does is explain my fondness for rocks—especially those that sit, one on top of another and form something architectural.

OK. Let’s try this again.

I write about the medieval period, and, contrary to a few opinions, there really was technology. That trebuchet was pretty impressive. Having watched some TV program where moderns tried to recreate one and badly botched their shattering of a stone wall, I concluded that successful use of the weapon required more knowledge of math and science than most of us have. (For me, that would be near-zilch.) And, if you have watched any of the House of Windsor marriages, you saw some great views of Westminster Abbey. Now that place required some impressive technology. Yes, a medieval cathedral or two is sinking due to bad site positioning, but few of us can quarrel with the skill required in building gothic churches, many of which were capable of surviving longer than innumerable modern structures.

For those of us who write historicals, we often run up against the modern reader assumption that all the complex stuff was done by us while our distant ancestors were pretty much mud and wattle types. That allows writers the fun of putting a few technological surprises in our stories. Remember the pyramids or Stonehenge? We may have some theories about how those structures were built, but, for all our great knowledge, we are still terribly clueless. And one of my favorite stories is that of Filippo Brunelleschi who built the cathedral in Florence during the 15th century with no concrete and only three construction deaths in sixteen years. The recipe for making concrete, by the way, was lost after the fall of Rome for several centuries. How much more have we lost or forgotten in technology that might improve on what we have? Now that is a perspective just dying for a good story!

So have I included lots of fascinating technology in my mysteries?

Now is the time to quietly slink off and do some research…

Monday, May 7, 2018

Discarded Ideas

Think about your own work. How many times have you begun a book with A Great Idea, a plot filled with Great Characters, Wonderful Setting…and several months later, the only thing you have left is the title (maybe) and a couple of characters.

For the most part, I’ve been very lucky. Most of my titles have stuck as well as the basic premise of the books. From there, however, the finished product has always varied in several degrees from the original concept.

My favorite example was the plot for Forsaken Soul. This book was originally meant to be the introduction of Sir Hugh, Prioress Eleanor’s eldest brother, who had just returned from crusade with King Edward. In that same book, I also wanted to bring back Juliana, the somewhat crazy (or maybe too sane) friend of Prioress Eleanor, who begged entrance to the priory as an anchoress in Tyrant of the Mind.

Have you ever been at a gathering where there were two people of such strong personalities that conflict was bound to happen? Same thing can be the case with characters in a book. Hugh and Juliana warred with each other to the point that the book became less a story about (spoiler deletion) than about their dislike for each other. One had to go, along with his or her subplot. At the same time I was struggling with this, I also experienced six weeks of sciatica. That gave birth to a character and her back-story which hadn’t been part of the original plot at all. By the time I finished tossing Hugh, placating Juliana, giving depth to this new person, adding a new killer with a new motive, and reworking the first half of the story, I had a very different book.

None of this is a bad thing. In fact, if you aren’t under some hellacious deadline, it can be fun. Over time I have learned to listen to my characters. In Tyrant of the Mind, I could not get the story going until I put Brother Thomas in the first chapter instead of Prioress Eleanor, a change he was demanding. In Forsaken Soul I had to choose between characters (rest assured that Hugh got his book later) and let another one in.

While listening to what your characters are telling you, don’t discard your original ideas. Record them. Muses don’t toss ideas at us without at least expecting them to become mental compost. An idea, character, setting, or phrase can be helpful later. With Sir Hugh, I was able to expand on his character in A Killing Season because I had kept notes on him and mulled them over for a couple of years.  And don’t think discarding ideas, rewriting most of the book, or even changing the focus are indications of failure. Part of craft is experimentation and learning what works. That is also what helps us keep our creativity fresh.

Monday, April 23, 2018


What would we do without libraries?

I admit that I shunned them for decades, after being shooed out of the adult history section when I had escaped the children’s books in my quest for something interesting to read. But even I do not hold a grudge until death do us part. Not only have I returned to the fold, I’ve fallen in love with the institution.

Why?  Libraries are full of readers!

I have been troubled for a bit, not just by the closing of bookstores, but by the reduced number of events and the trend toward charging fees to hear the writer talk. This might be fine for the known and big publisher authors, or those dealing with popular subjects, but it hurts the new or adventurous writer, the increasing number published by the smaller presses, the indie published, and those who go to e-reader format alone. As much as I sympathize with the plight of brick and mortars, I fear this approach only adds to the ominously increasing, homogeneous nature of the literature we are offered to read.  

So what is the “unconventional writer” supposed to do, besides leap into the Internet world? There are still readers out there who are eager for new ideas, want stunning craft and unusual subjects, or long for eras outside the popular ones. I know because I’m one of them.

The library is an excellent place to meet just those people. As writers, we need to take advantage of this free advertising, and, lest we forget, libraries also buy books.

Many libraries have book clubs and would love to have the author join them for discussion. Arrange some form of event at the local branch. Sometimes you can sell your books after a talk. If nothing else, you can donate a copy. If there is enough reader interest in your first, the library will often buy the next. The more reader enthusiasm, the more copies of the book the library will buy. That first “freebie” gift or talk can pay off. If a single author event doesn’t interest your local branch, go with a group. If the library doesn’t have a “mystery week/month”, ask how to organize one and offer speakers. Many organizations, like Sisters In Crime or Romance Writers of America, have speaker bureaus. Join and tell them you are eager to visit libraries. On rare occasions, you may get a small check for your efforts but just remember that this is advertising and you get face time with readers.

In this brave new world of cyber-space and shrinking access to traditional methods of catching the reader’s eye, it’s wonderful that one of our oldest democratic institutions, the public library, remains a harbor for exciting ideas and new fans. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Guest Post! Ann Parker of the Silver Rush Mysteries

Ann Parker is one of my favorite historical mystery authors. Her critically acclaimed and award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series is published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for “editor/writer”). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. 

Needless to say, I was thrilled when she said she would write a guest blog for me. 

Welcome, Ann!

Tell us about A Dying Note.

In this, the sixth book in the Silver Rush historical mystery series, my protagonist Inez Stannert and her 12-year-old ward Antonia have relocated to San Francisco. When the book opens, it is autumn of 1881, about one year after Inez and Antonia departed from Leadville, Colorado. Inez is now managing a music store and is focused on building a new life for herself and her ward. That life threatens to tumble about their ears when the badly beaten body of a young musician washes up on the filthy banks of San Francisco’s Mission Creek canal. Inez and Antonia become entangled in the mystery of his death when the musician turns out to have ties to Leadville, ties that threaten to expose Inez’s notorious past.

Why did you take Inez from Leadville to San Francisco?

It was a natural development for the series, although it took me by surprise. I can’t say I’d planned all along to bring Inez all the way to the West Coast. However, looking back, I realize I had been building toward that possibility from the very first book, Silver Lies.

In Silver Lies and in subsequent books, Inez muses upon how she, her husband, and their business partner ended up settling in Leadville, Colorado. The silver-rush boomtown of Leadville was only supposed to be a “quick stop” along the way to their ultimate destination: San Francisco. But, once Inez’s husband won the Silver Queen Saloon in a high-stakes poker game in Leadville, the three of them decided to stay a while and make money by “mining the miners.” Ensuing events conspired to make that “while” a semi-permanent situation. In What Gold Buys, the fifth of the series, Inez is finally free to do as she wishes. As I wrote the draft of that book, Inez made it very clear to me that she was going to complete that interrupted journey. (Those characters! Sometimes they just insist on going their own way, despite their creators!)

Was it difficult for Inez, or any independent woman, to run a business in San Francisco by herself?

I was surprised (and pleased) to discover in my research that entrepreneurial activity was alive and well amongst the “fairer sex” in historical San Francisco. I found two items of great help in my research into this topic: Edith Sparks’ book Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850-1920, and Mary Lou Locke’s PhD thesis ‘Like a Machine or an Animal’: Working Women of the Late Nineteenth Century Urban Far West, in San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles. (Ms. Locke also writes the Victorian San Francisco mystery series under the name M. Louisa Locke.) I discovered that San Francisco women took on the roles of hotel and boardinghouse keepers, laundresses, restaurant and saloon keepers, merchants, dealers, peddlers, dressmakers, milliners, seamstresses, bakers, and more.

One thing I hadn’t considered before looking into this book was the role of marital status. According to Sparks, “… for female business owners, the intangible rewards of small-business proprietorship [these rewards included independence and personal fulfillment] drew only certain kinds of women—those never-married women not legally bound to the care of home, husband, or children.” As long as a woman had drive and capital, she had a chance. So, yes, independent women did step out on their own into the business world. Granted, the numbers of women taking this step was not large in the population as a whole: in the 1890 census, only 6% of all single women in the city’s labor force were listed as business proprietors.

When A Dying Note opens, Inez is manager, not an owner, of the D & S House of Music and Curiosities. However, she is angling for a business partnership on equal terms with the owner, violinist Nico Donato, and even muses about perhaps eventually buying the business from him.

Why did you decide to make music such an element of this book?

Music has always been a running thread throughout the series. I love music, it speaks to me although I am no musician! Music runs through my family, though (both parents played piano, one brother is a professional woodwind musician, and another is an accomplished drummer). When I considered what Inez could do in San Francisco, work-wise, I thought about and discarded the idea of her buying/running a saloon—she pretty much fell into that line of work in Leadville, thanks to her husband and his business partner. Coming into a new city, an unknown, she would, I believe have had a rough go in that profession. Too, Inez now has Antonia to consider. Raising a young girl in such an environment would not be to Inez’s liking.

Given that I had made Inez a pianist from the very beginning (partially as a homage to my family roots, and partially so I could enjoy exploring that world through words), it seemed a natural to position her in the music world in some “steady” occupation. The idea of creating a plot focused on the music world arose from that. Also, I was interested in exploring the labor movement in San Francisco during this timeframe, so I wondered: What were the city’s musicians up to, in terms of labor activities and organization in the late 1870s and early 1880s? What I found out intrigued me, so I proceeded from there.

De Bruijn is a fascinating character. How did he approach you as a potential character and why did you agree?

De Bruijn was a surprise. He popped up in the previous book, What Gold Buys, at the end. Where he came from, I truly have no idea (from the subconscious somewhere), but I liked him and his straightforward and considered ways, so I let him “have his say.” He had such a different “voice” from Inez and from Antonia, I felt he was a good counterbalance to them. I’m always up for an experiment, so I decided to give him a prominent role in A Dying Note, and see how it worked out. I was pleased with the results, so he stays… for now! One can never say for certain what the future holds, but at this point I foresee a role for him in subsequent books.

What’s next?

Next, another book set in San Francisco. There’s much to explore! However, I assure Colorado and Leadville fans I have not abandoned them. I already have plans for a future book in which Inez will journey back to the city in the clouds.

How can readers contact you?

The best way is through my website (which has contact information here). You can also find me rattling around on Facebook and Pinterest, and scratching my head over the mysteries of Twitter.Visit for more information. For more about the books in general and A Dying Note in particular, please visit the Poisoned Pen Press website.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Read, Read, Read

For most of my life, I have been an undisciplined, purely impulsive reader. Back in the days of cheap paperbacks, I couldn’t be trusted in a bookstore because I inevitably emerged with a very large bag of “oh, now that looks interesting!” To be even more honest, I spent hours wandering the streets of San Francisco from City Lights Bookstore to Tro Harper to the basement of the City of Paris to a strange little store below the sidewalk on Geary. I should have been studying, but didn’t I choose to major in world literature at San Francisco State so I could read anything I wanted? As one of my later work managers once said to me in an early performance review: “some people major in something useful. Clearly not you.”

But he was wrong. My reading helped me understand some of the problems faced by people without papers proving birth or marriage who had managed to survive WWII because my job was to adjudicate their claims for earned benefits. It also taught me how to write so I could explain, in understandable language, the decisions made on them. It taught me to look beyond the bubble(s) in which I grew up and later lived. It taught me to question, to analyze, to appreciate the creativity of diversity and how it contributes to a more vital world. Do I still have my blind spots, ignorance, and preconceived notions about how the world could be more to my liking? Yes. What reading wantonly does not allow me to do, however, is accept my blind spots, my ignorance, or my preconceived notions as givens. Inevitably, a little voice whispers in my ear: “maybe, just maybe, you should look at that a little differently…”

In an authoritarian society, fact-based education, creative expression, and reading are dangerous things. The arts, in general, have always threatened the fearful, especially those in power. Look at Stalin’s era and Hitler’s regime. So I think I just might raise a glass to toast the ardent, impulsive, and undisciplined reader. They may be our best weapon, besides committed voters, in assuring the continuation of democracy.