You Can Quit Correcting Me Now, Mother

I teach writing at the Richmond Jail (volunteer job), and my inmates, like many other people, are surprised when I tell them that the rules of grammar aren’t written in stone. This coming Monday, at my next class, I’ll be showing them an example of that, now that rules have changed on an important point.

It’s official!! “Their” can be singular! 

I can’t wait to tell my mother that she can stop correcting me when I say things like, ‘Everybody has their own opinion.’ (I know the old rule: that a singular subject takes a singular pronoun–it should be ‘Everybody has his or her own opinion’ unless it’s clearly masculine or feminine, like ‘Every girl has her own opinion.’) But at a recent meeting of the American Copyeditors Society, experts okayed a change that the major styles (Chicago and AP) agree on: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and or gender neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.” THANK YOU!!! No more “Each child has his or her toy,” or pretending that “his” is neutral.

This is a day for celebration! Hooray!

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Published in: on April 9, 2017 at 2:10 pm  Comments (3)  

Identical twins made successful moonshiners

People often ask where writers get their ideas. The answer is “everywhere.” Here’s one specific example:

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I read this marvelous article in the Richmond newspaper about twin brothers who made moonshine in the 1950s and 60s when it was illegal in Virginia. Being identical twins helped when they reached a courtroom, because witnesses couldn’t identify the accused for certain. Which brother was it? They couldn’t say for sure. That gives me a good idea for a plot device: having identical twin bootleggers beat the rap because no one could tell them apart. Read the whole article here:

http://www.richmond.com/life/bill-lohmann/article_ab06ec1e-04a9-5914-8d81-82e6a71a9d64.html

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Published in: on January 28, 2017 at 1:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Challenging Game of ‘Name that Character’ Part I

Most_Popular_Male_NamesYou think it’s easy, naming characters? It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance at a party recently who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m playing a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.

First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.

One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Ethan, Mason, and Lucas; Emma, Olivia, Sophia, Ava, and Mia).a-web-boy-names-no-frame-2014-jan-otth

I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.

But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe; so many people in urban centers had surnames that were Italian, Jewish, or Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago or New York skewed toward Irish, so I’ll probably name my cop Mac or O’Toole. In fact, the cop in the book I’m currently writing is named Kevin O’Rourke. Servants in the early part of the twentieth century were often Irish immigrant or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen and the black cook is Bessie Jackson. (Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, blacks in the early 20th century chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.) Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of an earlier generation who are now prosperous enough to afford servants.

Madeleine.11In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. For her Italian immigrant husband, I chose Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!

Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the on-line random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at www.fakenamegenerator.com.

Some famous authors, like David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky. I guarantee the author worries about what the winning name will be! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.

I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery.

 

 

Published in: on August 28, 2016 at 8:46 am  Comments (2)  
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A Surprise Nomination

stolen-memories-ebook-coverI was so surprised when I got a phone call telling me STOLEN MEMORIES was a finalist for a prestigious Daphne award, I must have sounded like an idiot . . . I kept repeating, “What award? Are you sure?” The caller was sure. The book is one of five finalists in the category of Historical Mystery/Suspense. The winner will be announced on July 13-16 in San Diego at the Romance Writers of America conference. I don’t imagine my book will win–after all, it has only a 20% chance–but I’m thrilled it’s a finalist.

The award is named for the late Daphne du Maurier, one of my favorite authors (Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, The Birds, Jamaica Inn, etc.) Young_Daphne_du_Maurier

Published in: on June 11, 2016 at 7:48 am  Comments (10)  

New Cover Art for Next Book

My publisher, Severn House, just sent the cover art for my next book. I really love it! Renting Silence is the third in the Roaring Twenties series and I think this cover is the best yet. The girl looks just as I imagine Jessie to look: unruly bobbed hair, confident stare, pretty but not glamorous. I’ve completed the editing process and now have nothing more to do but wait until it debuts, supposedly on August 31 in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand; later in the USA.  

Renting Silence cover

Published in: on June 5, 2016 at 11:53 am  Comments (2)  
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The Parade’s Gone By: Book Review

5117G3D106L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is an old book (published in 1968) by a British film historian, but that makes it even better for someone like me. This history of the silent film era relied on many interviews with the people who made that history: actors, producers, directors, and others who were still living when Kevin Brownlow knew them. Living legends, I should say. And the illustrations are terrific too.

I particularly benefitted from reading about the industry’s early move from the east to Hollywood. The California locals looked down on these intruders and called them “movies.” Brownlow states that it was as hard for a “movie” to join a country club as it was for a Jew or a Negro. This is the sort of information I can integrate into my stories–and I do. Here’s another insight I’ve used: “Thousands of girls poured into the town, pathetically anxious to work in pictures. There were chances for less than one in a hundred. The unlucky girls faced poverty, starvation, and sometimes suicide. They arrived without money or contacts. Their first shock was the discovery that the studios they continually had to visit to seek work were scattered over a fifty-mile radius.”

There is so much information about the early actors that I feature or mention in my series (Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Myrna Loy, Rudolph Valentino, to name a few) but also information about how they made movies in those days: the lighting, cameramen, lab work, directing, and how to get 2000 extras costumed each morning. I learned about the number of cameras used to shoot a scene and why there were at least two, and how informal the job descriptions were. Everyone did whatever they were asked to do in those pre-union days. This helped me describe my main character, Jessie, who, as assistant script girl, often runs errands, works in the office, or fetches props.

For anyone interested in the silent movie era, this is the principle book to read. And a bonus–it’s well written and hard to put down! Used copies are available online and any library can order you one for free.

Published in: on May 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Great Houdini as an author

Coincidentally, the great magician, Harry Houdini, wrote a book that was published in 1924, the year that the mystery I am currently writing takes place. And it pertains directly to my topic: Spiritualism.

41WET3XBKHL._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_Houdini spent most of his adult like debunking Spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement that is based on communication with the dead through mediums. It is, of course, shot through with fakes, then and now. Houdini’s thirty-five-year mission was to “out” the fakes whenever he could. One of the ways he did this was by writing a book, A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS.

To my delight, Houdini also describes many of the tricks that he discovered mediums using. I’ve incorporated some of those in my novel, which concerns a young woman who works as a shill for a Spiritualist medium. 

MV5BYTIxY2M2YjgtNjQzOS00ZTI3LWFhYTMtNDAxMDU1MjZkN2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTU3NTAwNDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Again, coincidentally, there is a new series coming up this week on Fox about Houdini and his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the title is “Houdini & Doyle.” They solve mysteries together in England–Houdini being the pragmatist and Doyle being the ardent believer in Spiritualism, which he was. (Poor man, he was totally duped; he also believed the faked photographs of fairies were real.) The premise is accurate–they really were friends but were in complete disagreement about the authenticity of mediums. I can’t wait to see it! 

(And be sure to note what the REAL Houdini and Doyle looked like . . . )

Published in: on April 30, 2016 at 8:49 am  Comments (3)  
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How long did it take you to write that???

This is a question authors hear at almost every book signing or speaking engagement they attend. “How long did it take you to write that?”

Like most authors, I have trouble answering. The first problem is how to measure writing time. Few authors write on a 9 to 5 schedule, 5 days a week, which is sort of the standard American work week. Most authors have day jobs–they teach or work for a newspaper or manage an office or work in a hospital–so their writing occurs during lunch hour, in the evenings, or on weekends. I’ve never met a writer who tracks his or her hours! 

But the toughest issue is the definition of “writing.” Is going to the library for research considered “writing?” Is reading new publications by authors who write in the same genre considered “writing?” What about sending emails to an agent, spending two days at a writing conference, preparing a talk for an author dinner, or traveling to a book club meeting to discuss your latest publication? Is revising a manuscript to the editor’s requests considered “writing?” And does the time spent brainstorming over titles, choosing cover images, perusing the author’s Facebook page, interviewing sources, and packing books in padded envelopes and driving them to the post office count? Hardest to measure is the inevitable down time: waiting 6 months while your agent submits the manuscript to various publishers, waiting for next month’s critique group meeting to learn how your peers react to your latest chapter, or waiting a year for the book to actually appear on the shelves. And what about the many manuscripts that are partially completed and set aside for a month or a year or a decade, as the author tackles something else?

Over the years, I’ve concluded that this question is really, “How long ago did you start this book?” So that’s how I answer. “I started in the summer of 2009 and it was published in 2015.” I amend that by saying what I’ve learned from other authors: that one year is a fairly good estimate of how long it takes most writers to write most books. Sure, some churn our two or even three in a year, but they are balanced by the ones who take ten years to write a single one. 

Fifteen years after I began the first draft of my latest novel, it celebrated its official birth on Feb. 15, 2016. 

Stolen Memories Cover

I began writing this story back in 2001 and over the years, I revised and added to it too many times to count. It went through my two critique groups, my first agent, my second agent, and my editor before I felt it was something I could be proud of. During that time, I wrote and had published seven other books, but I never let go of this one. 

A brutal attack along the banks of the Seine in 1928 leaves a young Englishwoman close to death in a Paris hospital, without a memory in her head. She soon comes up against a vengeful husband who accuses her of the theft of priceless art, the French gendarmes who have linked her to a murder on the Riviera, and a scorned lover who is trying to kill her. The husband, believing his wife’s amnesia is faked, spirits her away to an ancient chateau in the French province of Champagne, where prehistoric dolmens and standing stones dot the fields and caves hewn out of limestone are used for more than storing wine. But who is trying to poison her and bury her in an avalanche of slate? Who is laying a trap for her deep within the wine caves of Champagne?

Published in: on March 19, 2016 at 7:55 am  Comments (2)  

Lecture at the Downton Abbey Exhibit

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 On Nov. 14, I gave this talk at the Virginia Historical Society as part of their Downton Abbey exhibit, “Dressing Downton.” My presentation was titled Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. The VHS always records its speakers, so if you’d like to hear/see it, just click on the title. It’s a light, but serious, lecture that lasts 40 minutes (plus a Q&A). In it, I share some of the surprising things I learned during my research for my Roaring Twenties mystery series, things I have incorporated into my novels. 

 

Little Annie Rooney Released

Little_Annie_Rooney_(1925)_Poster Mary Pickford’s Little Annie Rooney was release 90 years ago this month, in October of 1925. I am very familiar with this film because it was being filmed during the time my second and third mysteries, SILENT MURDERS and RENTING SILENCE, take place. One of the underlying themes–a young woman sacrificing herself for love–plays into the plot of my story, so the film was significant in several ways. 

It’s a classic Mary Pickford film that you can easily watch if you subscribe to Netflix. They have the best collection of silent films that I’ve found, so I go there often. As she often does, Miss Pickford plays a child, in this case, little Annie Rooney whose policeman father is killed in the line of duty. Here’s how I open the story in RENTING SILENCE (due for publication in 2016):

tumblr_le7yd87ONE1qzdvhio1_r6_1280Filming silent movies is noisy work—directors shouting instructions through megaphones, cameras grinding away like machine guns, studio musicians playing the mood from the corner—which is why I was perplexed when I walked onto the set of Little Annie Rooney that morning and found it frozen in silence. Actors, electricians, makeup artists, grips, carpenters, script girls, and cameramen stood motionless, as if drawing a deep breath would shatter a spell. Only one person gave life to the scene, and all eyes were on her. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart” and the star of the film, was slowly pacing the edge of the set, her head down in fearsome concentration.

I looked to Director William Beaudine who motioned for me to stay where I was. He waited until Miss Pickford faced away from him before gliding to my side, so his movement wouldn’t distract her.

“A note said Miss Pickford wanted to see me on the set,” I whispered. “Maybe I’d better come back later?”

Tall and stick thin, Beaudine had to bend to get close to my ear. “Hang on a minute, Jessie. This is the last take before we break.”

One glance at the chalkboard in a young assistant’s hand raised my eyebrows. Sixteen takes? That was a lot, even for a perfectionist like “Re-take Mary Pickford.”

littleAnnieRooney-terra“I could strangle Rudolph Valentino,” the director whispered, almost to himself. “He barged in here, broke her concentration. She hasn’t—”

Miss Pickford stopped and lifted her chin. “I’m ready.”

The scene lurched to life. “Hit ‘em once!” shouted Beaudine and the set was instantly flooded with silvery light from an array of Kleigs, baby spots, and barrel lights. “Camera!” Cameramen cranked up their Mitchells, and the four studio musicians in the corner began playing a gloomy number to set the mood. They were shooting the tearjerker part, where Little Annie learns her policeman father has been killed in the line of duty.

MAGIC_LATERN_SLIDE_-_LITTLE_ANNIE_ROONEY-492x478As I watched, thirty-three-year-old Mary Pickford, playing a twelve-year-old girl, scampered out from her hiding place under the table, ready to surprise her beloved father with his birthday cake, only to find herself face to face with a policeman sent to deliver the tragic news. Her expression started at mischievous and slid rapidly past puzzlement, confusion, disbelief, denial, futile hope, and horror, only to end with heart-rending tears. It was an astonishing display of acting skill. In all my years in vaudeville, I had never seen the equal. No wonder she was the most famous actress in the world! I hoped everyone in the audience would have hankies in hand—I was misty-eyed myself. The scene reminded me all too forcefully of having been orphaned myself at the same age.  

“Cut! Good work, good work, everyone,” called Beaudine. “No more shooting for now, boys and girls. We’ll break for lunch, and well deserved it is.”