Friday, October 31, 2014

Why Sports?

 Why Sports?

Watching the baseball league championship games, I am reminded of some of the functions sports play in our society.  I am wearing my lucky Royals cap.  It became my lucky hat this year when the team improved enough to get into the playoffs.  Last year and in the years before that it was apparently not lucky enough.

In social situations people have commented on my cap.  Last year few, if any, people talked to me about it.  Having a team in the playoffs, allows strangers to talk to me about the team.   We share a common interest.  In a small way it is like a family with an infant eating in a restaurant, the presence of the baby encourages others to stop by their table ask questions and make supportive remarks. 

I know from my work as a psychologist that people who feel isolated can chat with others about sports and get a degree of acceptance ordinarily not easily found. 

Having a winning team elates the spirits of those who live in the area the team is associated with.  Many people have played sports in the past or they still play.  We identify with sports figures who strive without knowing whether or not they will succeed. 
We admire people who can accomplish difficult tasks, especially if they do things with skill and élan. 

Sports allow the expression of aggression, within relatively safe settings.  Sports figures are sometimes mythologized as heroes and treated in ways that used to be reserved for warriors.  We assume they have characteristics we value in other spheres of life.  Expectations can be unrealistic. Being an athlete does not excuse bad behavior and we do the athlete no good by making excuses for him or her.

Sports allow socially approved expression of emotion. Men, by tradition, have limited acceptable opportunities to let their feeling out. An increasing number of women are involved in amateur and professional sports.   I think this is expanding what is considered socially appropriate for women.  

I’m not at all sure playing sports develops character.  I believe it is one setting where character may, or may not develop while dealing with success and failure.  I think there are many others.  I definitely believe that character is revealed by sports.

In our society Sports provide an opportunity for dissimilar people to communicate.  For example in the movie City Slickers one of the characters commented that during extended conflict with his father about the war in Viet Nam sports were the only thing they could discuss without arguing.

Talking about sports is infinitely better than not talking at all.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Finishing a Book and Starting Another

A reenactment taking place at Hale Farm in N.E. Ohio
After almost a year I’ve finished the fourth book in my Catherine Jewell mystery series – The Body in the Goldenrod. Now I’m only waiting for my granddaughter to finish with the covers for both the Create Space version and the e-book version. She’s told me she’s working on it. For this one, I’ll also be publishing it on my own without any help from the kid I had put up the last ones. I’m sure I can do it okay even though it may take me a little longer.

A re-enactor faking death
This book is slightly longer than my other three and has two plots going through it. The major plot takes place with a Civil War Reenactment going on in Elmwood Gardens in which one of the reenactors is murdered during one of the battles. The victim in this case is someone everyone hates so it’s no surprise he’s murdered, but it’s a hard murder to solve since there are so many people who wanted him dead. 

The other plot has Martha MacDougal, the police chief’s mother, telling Catherine Jewell about the back packing trip she took at the end of book two with that hunk of an environmentalist who came to stay at her bed and breakfast. She tells about a murder they were involved with when someone was murdered in the group of birders they joined on the trail.  Of course, I always have to add new characters, and in this case in addition to the victim and a few others, I’ve added a whole family that I spent some time developing. So much so in fact, that they will be in future books, too, because I like them so much.

So now what’s next? I have a short story I’m working on for the Writers Who Kill holiday season when we take a break from blogging. I’ve also been working on the plot for my next book, tentatively called The Murder in the Corn Maze. I haven’t written anything yet, but I know who the victim is and the how, where, and who murders the victim. Where the murder takes place, you know from the title. 
Which way should I go???
I grew up next to my grandparents’ farm where every year there were large fields of corn we played in while being careful not to break down any stalks. So I could imagine the scene except I’d never visited a corn maze. It seemed this would be the perfect time to do a little research since corn mazes are popular in October when the next book takes place. This past Saturday, Laura, who is both my beta reader and my friend from my writers group, and I went to visit a corn maze at Ridgeview Farm in Middlefield, Ohio, after first eating a tasty lunch at an Amish restaurant to build our stamina. The corn maze was fun, but we didn’t cover the whole eight acres of the maze. Laura grew tired, and I figured the twenty to thirty minutes we spent in there gave me enough of an idea to plot my own corn maze for the future murder. 
We enjoyed browsing through their little farmer’s market at the entrance, and although we weren’t in the market for pumpkins, it was fun watching kids and their parents picking out pumpkins for their Halloween Jack O’ Lanterns.

Another thing we had fun watching were the pig races with pigs approximately four or five months old, I’m guessing since I’ve never raised a pig. Three pigs were released at a time with funny names like Elvis Pigley, Sir Oinks-a-lot, and Dill Piggles. Each pig had a child volunteer cheering their pig on.
You can't imagine how fast these pigs can run.
It was a pleasant day. The weather was beautiful with blue skies and a few white clouds, and the trees still colorful in their autumn regalia. Because my normal road to Middlefield was closed, I took back roads traveling on country roads with Amish farms on both sides of the road while sharing the road with the Amish horse and buggies we passed. We saw children in a pony cart, and an Amish woman hanging out a lot of clothes on the line for what must have been a large family. There were some Amish boys mowing the yard with non-motorized push mowers. Because the terrain was slightly hilly, we often had incredible views over the countryside.

When we left Ridgeview Farm, I took Laura to The End of the Commons in Mesopotamia. It was another place she’d never been, and she loved the very large general store with so many unique and interesting things and everything the local Amish, as well as the tourists who make regular stops there, could want. We settled for single scoops of ice cream – which were huge scoops – in a cup as our late afternoon treat and sat at a table covered in Plexiglas with historical pictures. Some tables had a picture frame type of table top with artifacts from the past in there, instead. It was the perfect end to our day.

The End of the Commons

What is the best research you’ve done or would like to do?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Author Marilyn Levinson

Marilyn Levinson continues her new Golden-Age of Mystery series with Murder the Tey Way. Josephine Tey’s novels become the focus of main character Lexie Driscoll’s book club. We learn more about Lexie when her sister arrives on her doorstep in need of help. Both sisters face changes in their lives and choices they must make. But change also occurs to another set of sisters who live next door to Lexie. When a body is found in Lexie’s backyard moving may be her only remedy!   

Please welcome Marilyn Levinson back to WWK.                                                           E. B. Davis

Give our readers a plot synopsis of Murder the Tey Way, if you would.

Lexie Driscoll is now living in Ryesdale, Long Island, in a home owned by her boyfriend, architect Allistair West, who is currently in London on a work-related project. At a Golden Age of Mystery book club meeting, Lexie learns that some of the members’ homes have been burgled. During a discussion of Josephine Tey’s books, Lexie’s sister Gayle arrives, terrified because she’s witnessed her boyfriend’s murder. She knows the murderer, a dirty cop, is sending someone after her. The following morning, a local handyman is found dead in Lexie’s backyard, and Lexie fears her sister may have murdered him, thinking he’s been sent to kill her. Still, Lexie’s certain her sister could never murder anyone, and so she sets out to find the murderer as she does her best to keep any mention of  her sister from homicide Detective, Brian Donovan. As Lexie and Brian grow closer, Lexie is determined to tell Allistair of the new state of affairs, but each time she’s daunted by the physical distance between them. A book club member is murdered. Lexie peels away layer after layer of secrecy and criminal behavior of the various members until her final encounter with the murderer.

This Golden-Age of Mystery book club contains diverse members; school teachers, a school guidance counselor, a lawyer, a former FBI agent, a banker, a clerk, and retired dairy farmers. How did you decide on the professions of each character, some of whom became suspects?

I didn’t consciously decide on the book club members’ professions until I began to write. I taught high school Spanish many years ago, and so I found it natural to include teachers and a guidance counselor in the club. And I know several lawyers. On one of my trips abroad, I’d met a married couple who’d been dairy farmers in the Midwest. Somehow they wormed their way into my book. And I thought a former FBI agent who was currently a soccer mom would be a fun addition.

Deceiving appearances is one theme that reoccurs in your book. What the truth is can be surprising, maddening, happy, or deceitful. You chose many outcomes, why?

My characters often have secrets. Secrets add a dimension because they refer back to a character’s history, background, or a hidden vice or personality flaw. In Murder the Tey Way, one secret involves a change of identity. Though we usually take people on face value, rarely is someone what he or she seems. And sometimes innocent people, like my character Evan Billings, find themselves entrapped in a bad situation through no fault of their own.

Joy was a great addition to this book and a wonderful secondary character. How did Lexie and Joy get to be good friends?
Joy and Lexie bonded immediately when Joy joined the Golden Age of Mystery book club. They both have a spirit of adventure. Lexie lives two houses away from Joy. Joy finds Lexie’s company a wonderful reprieve from the never-ending demands of motherhood.

Is Ryesdale a real Long Island town?

No, it isn’t, but I know just where it would be on the map – a middle-class town in central Nassau County.

I was surprised by Lexie’s sister, Gayle. Except for both having had disastrous romantic relationships, Gayle is nothing like Lexie is she?

They are as different as any two sisters can be. Gayle is kind of a lost soul. She drifts from one situation to another and lacks Lexie’s ability to focus and achieve long-term goals. Gayle admits she’s always been jealous of Lexie. Lexie proves her love and support by doing everything she can to protect Gayle from her boyfriend’s murderer. Brian Donovan helps Gayle confront him. The experience brings the two sisters closer than they ever were.

Lexie is at a crossroad in her romantic relationship. What brought her to that point?

Lexie doesn’t trust her judgment, when it comes to men. Her two marriages have been disasters. She likes Allistair West and knows he’s a great catch, but that special spark is lacking. She shares this spark with Detective Brian Donovan, but wonders if he’s going to be reliable and the right man for her because of his demanding job.

I was surprised by the biographical information you gave on Josephine Tey. Did her stories contain physical action that harnessed her physical education teaching? Tell our readers about Tey, if you would.

Lexie’s book club members read the book Miss Pym Disposes, which takes place in a phys ed training school similar to the one where Josephine Tey taught. She taught a few years, then returned home to care for her ailing father. Her real name is Elizabeth Mackintosh, and she was born in Inverness. She wrote most of her mysteries using the name Josephine Tey. She also wrote plays under the name of Gordon Daviot. The most famous of them was Richard of Bordeaux. John Gielgud played the leading role. Though her output of mysteries is small compared to Agatha Christie’s, Tey’s books are so outstanding they ensure her a lofty position as a Golden Age of Mystery author.

What of Josephine Tey’s writing helped Lexie solve the mystery in Murder the Tey Way?

The study of analyzing faces is something Tey believed in. This is the premise of The Daughter of Time, and what inspires Tey’s detective Alan Grant to prove that Richard the Third did not kill his nephews. Lexie studies the face of Johnny Scarvino to determine if he’s as evil as Felicity claims he is. She also studies the photo of Corinne strangling Felicity’s ferret to analyze Corinne’s expression.

There is a cross study of sisters in your novel. The relationships are very different. Is it better to know too much or too little in sibling relationships?

There are two sets of sisters in this novel. One is Lexie and her younger sister Gayle. They are very different, but care for one another. The events that take place in Murder the Tey Way bring them closer. The other set of sisters is Felicity and Corinne Roberts. Corinne, an accomplished banker, controls Felicity’s life. Felicity is fragile and needs sisterly attention, but not to the extent that Corinne takes things. Felicity tries to break free of her sister’s control. In the end, the relationship proves to be symbiotic.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I plot my outline, but make several changes as I write.

What classic mystery writer will Lexie’s group read next?

I’m not sure. Perhaps Nero Wolfe. Or Ngaio Marsh.

Beach chair or mountain bike, Marilyn?

Perhaps beach chair at this point in my life. <g>

Monday, October 27, 2014

Carve Out Time to Read: Best Halloween Books for Kids

Celebrate Halloween! If the kids are on a post-trick or treating sugar high, lure them into a bedtime read along with one of these spooky favorite stories.

Small shivers (Age Pre K – 6)

 Plumply Dumply Pumpkin by Mary Serfozo
This rhyming charmer casts a spell of fun as Peter the cat carves a winning jack of lantern.

Go Away, Big Green Monster! By Ed Emberley
Emberley’s colorful die cut masterpiece will elicit giggles as kids help “make” the monster with every turn of the page, then make the monster disappear by turning pages to remove his “big yellow eyes” and “purple scraggly hair.” At the end, kids will be empowered and tickled as they tell the Big Green Monster “Go away. And don’t come back! Until I say so.”

The Hallo-wiener by Dav Pilkey

Oscar the “wiener dog” gets no respect. The loveable dachshund longs to be something scary for Halloween, but he returns home from obedience school to find that his mother has already bought his costume – a giant hot dog bun topped with mustard. The neighborhood kids make fun of him, and his costume slows him down so much there’s no candy left by the time he gets to trick or treat. But when the kids are terrorized by a monster, Oscar saves the day. Hilarious puns and sly nods to adults (Oscar’s teacher is reading a book called Dogs Who Hate Fleas and the Fleas that Love Them) make this sheer Halloween fun.

Books for midsize monsters (Age 7-10)

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe
A vampire bunny? The Monroe family finds a tiny bunny at a screening of the movie Dracula and takes him home. But the family’s other pets, Chester the cat and Harold the dog, think there’s something odd about the bunny. His pointy fangs. His spots, which make a cape pattern. The white tomato they find – sucked dry of all its juices. Is Bunnicula a vegetarian vampire? Scaredy dog Harold sums up their worries: “Today vegetables. Tomorrow, the world!” This popular series spawned many sequels including the brilliantly titled Howliday Inn and The Celery Stalks at Midnight.

Wiley and Grampa #1: Grampa Vs. Dracula at the Monster Truck 

Spectacular by Joe Scroggs
Hilarious deadpan humor shines in this, the first of the Wiley and Grampa Creature Features series.
Grampa promises to take Wiley to the Monster Truck Spectacular. Of course it’s on Halloween. Of course an F5 tornado is bearing down. Of course Grandma doesn’t want them to go until their chores are finished.  And of course the Mudsucker Monster Truck turns out to be a real live vampire vehicle. Unstoppable Grandpa must battle Dracula (who is dressed as what can only be described as a Transylvanian Elvis) while Wiley takes on the terrifying truck. Southern fried wisecracks and puns galore make this a must read.

Yuyi Morales’ charming Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book is a year round treat. Gullible skeleton Senor Calaveras is tricked into bringing Grandma Beetle not just one gift, but one for every letter of the alphabet. Kids will laugh seeing Zelmiro the ghost fool the not-so-scary skeleton, who is rendered in Morales’ award winning illustrations as a dead but dapper man-about-town.

Spine chillers (Age 10-adult)

The Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac
Beware! Bruchac’s take on this traditional tale is a slow burn scarefest.
When Molly’s parents go missing, Social Services places her with a great-uncle she never knew she had. His bizarre behavior – he locks her in room every night – and appearance remind her of the legend her Native American parents told her of the Skeleton Man, a cannibal spirit who traps humans and fattens them up before he eats them. The adults at Molly’s school think she’s overly imaginative. Can gutsy Molly save herself from the Skeleton Man? This book should come with a warning label: Unputdownable! It’s a bit too gruesome for younger children, and the suspense will keep every reader up well past bedtime.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
This Newbery Award winner starts with a truly terrifying scene. A family is murdered by an assassin called “a man named Jack” – everyone except the baby of the family, who has toddled out the front door and into a nearby cemetery. The inhabitants of the cemetery raise the boy they call Bod, for Nobody Owens, and become his family and protectors. But Bod must eventually rejoin the living, and his path inevitably will cross with Jack’s. Magical, heartwarming, and often downright frightening, The Graveyard Book is a modern classic.

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex

They may be monsters, but they’ve got their problems, too. Rex’s clever and occasionally gross poetic take on monsters from Dracula (who doesn’t know he’s been walking around with spinach in his fangs all night) to the Mummy (who won’t go to his eternal rest without some milk and cookies) will brighten Halloween spirits. A highlight of the book is the poor Phantom of the Opera, who can’t compose any more because he can’t get the world’s most frightening song out of his head:

It’s a small world after all
Angry cursing fills the hall
Now he’s crawling up the wall.
It’s a small, small world.

Do you have a favorite scary book?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Sweet Spot by Kait Carson

I drive back and forth between Miami and my home in Southwest Florida on a regular basis. The Eagles are one of my favorite travel bands. No matter how bad the traffic, or how long the drive, be-bopping along with Glen Frey and friends passes the time. And it keeps me awake. Never a bad thing when your route takes you through sod farms and sugar cane fields, and sod farms and sugar cane fields, broken only by the vintage roadside attraction.

I was passing the remains of the Finest Collection of Everglades Animals attraction when River of Dreams rotated into the play list. The line about packing the Camaro and chasing the sun struck home. The visual was amazing. The flat scenery faded into the background and I was in a red Camaro heading for points unknown. The draw was irresistible. Pack it up, take it on the road, never look back and live simply in the mountains in a home you build yourself. Yep, Little House on the Prairie meets rock and roll. Pa Ingles stuffing his family into the ox cart. Follow your dream. Do what you always wanted to do, but never did. Live the life you should be living, chuck the make-do life you have now. Took me a good ten miles and an alligator crossing the road chasing a gopher tortoise to break the spell and see the cane fields again.

Writing that pulls you that deeply into the story world is good writing. It’s not limited to lyrics, but having the complete experience does seem more common when listening than reading. Maybe it’s more an aural event than a visual one. On the other hand, maybe it’s just me. It often happens to me when I listen to an audio book. It’s also happened when I listen to replays of old radio shows. No matter how you experience it, it’s an amazing feeling when it happens. A sweet spot, a tipping point you can’t predict, only experience. You enter the story and it happens to you, not around you. Magic.

Unfortunately, no writing school teaches the technique. And it’s different for every reader because the real secret is a connection that the reader has with the story at that particular moment. I’ve heard River of Dreams a thousand times. I never wanted to pack up my Camaro before, but right at that moment, the lyrics fit my desires. It’s happened with books too. James Clavell’s Taipan and Nobel House send me to Hong Kong and have me living in Happy Valley. Somewhere I’ve never been. Recently Krista Davis’s The Diva Wraps It Up had me standing on the streets of Old Town in a snowfall. It was refreshing. Especially because it was ninety-five degrees in my real world. There is a fullness to these stories and scenes that completely encompasses me. I want to live in those moments in those books.

What about you? Do you have books that you slip into like a second skin? Are they books you read repeatedly, or are they books that hold an appeal for a certain aspect and time of your life?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Where Do Stories Come From? Urban Legends, the Bunny Man, and Disco Donna

Many thanks to E. B. Davis for inviting me to talk about the genesis of my short story, “Disco Donna,” published this month in the Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays anthology.

So, where did Disco Donna come from?

Urban legends fascinate me. Not so much the ones about albino alligators in the sewers of New York City as much as tales of vanishing hitchhikers or haunted Lovers Lanes. These stories often reflect the preoccupations and fears of those living where the events reportedly took place.

One aspect of urban legends that especially intrigues is the associated phenomena of legend tripping. Did your teenage self – on a dare – ever go to a supposedly haunted house or cave where doomed lovers died, or an unholy rite occurred, or a monster lurked? If you did, you, my friend, legend tripped.

Teens in my area go to the Bunny Man Bridge, site of the urban legend of Fairfax County, Virginia, the Bunny Man. Years ago – no one is exactly sure when – an escapee from an asylum (naturally), wearing a bunny suit, menaced parking kids with a machete on the isolated, lonely roads near an abandoned railroad bridge. The usual stew of insanity, fear, death, sex, and a machete for good measure make this an enduring tale, and teens still dare each other to visit the creepy bridge.

At the same time I was mulling over story ideas, some friends and I were talking about reputations. Do teens worry about their reputation anymore? I flashed back to long ago high school days when many girls (sign of the times – it was usually only girls) had a “bad reputation” due to their dating history.

That’s when beautiful, wild Disco Donna Demonte danced—to a Bee Gees tune—onto the page. Fictional Donna is a high school student in the seventies, bad rep, too hot to care, discovered murdered in her bed the morning after Halloween. She had been strangled and is clutching a single, red rose. Rumors swirl about the killer: Could it have been the high school football captain? Devil worshippers? The ever reliable escapee from an insane asylum? As years pass and her murderer is never found, kids from the town dare each other to visit the abandoned house where Disco Donna was murdered.

Flash forward to the present day, to some high school girls in a vintage clothing store trying to decide what to be for Halloween. One girl decides to dress as the town’s most famous citizen—Disco Donna. That innocent decision sets in motion events that finally unmask Disco Donna’s killer.

Hope you enjoy the story. Just remember to put some Donna Summer on the stereo, lock the door, and read with the lights on.

I am grateful to the wonderful editors of the anthology: Barb Goffman, Donna Andrews (not a model for Disco Donna!) and Marcia Talley. These brilliant criminal minds were there when I needed them to fill plot holes, polish prose, and vanquish tense shifts. A million thanks, ladies.

Do you have a favorite urban legend? Did you ever legend trip?

Friday, October 24, 2014

When a School Tries to act like a School

When a School Tries to act like a school

When I submitted my last blog When a School acts like a School to my fellow bloggers for review one person commented, “I wonder how long they’ll be able to do that.”

This month’s Carolina Alumni Review shows how prophetic the comment was.  Following elections that resulted in a Republican majority in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly, the membership of the Board of Governors for state universities changed from 19 Republicans, 12 Democrats and 2 unaffiliated members to 29 Republicans, 2 Democrats, 2 unaffiliated members and 2 members whose political affiliation could not be determined.

One issue important to the new board was concern that full-paying families are helping to carry the load for those who qualify for financial aid.  Constituents apparently thought that was a bad idea.  I am reminded of a family member and devout Christian who commented on extending health care to those who could not afford it, “I’ve got mine.  Why should I care about them?”  Although I am not a biblical scholar, I am unable to come up with a quote from Jesus about getting your needs met and not bothering with the needs of others. 

The board set a limit of 15% on how much tuition revenue could be spent on need-based student financial aid.

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and four other campuses are already above the limit so the revenue they spend on aid is frozen until tuition hikes rise high enough that the funds allocated fall within 15% of tuition.  For every student who qualifies for the Carolina Covenant (family of origin income at of less than 200% of federal poverty guidelines) and who could expect to graduate debt-free, there are currently almost three students who receive some financial assistance.  All students receiving aid will be affected.

43% of students qualify for and receive financial aid.  The average debt accrued to graduating seniors is $17,000, well below the national average.  However, with aid capped, students will have to borrow money so their indebtedness will increase. 

Academic quality of students could change.  Acceptance to UNC is made without reference to family income, if students qualifying for need-based aid were excluded from school average SAT scores would drop from 1308 to 1278, percentage of students who were in the top 10% of their class would drop from 77% to 62%, percentage of students who were valedictorians or salutatorians would drop from 14% to 9%, and percentage of students who were the first in their families to go to college would drop from 19% to 9%. 

Also, underrepresented minority students would drop from 18% to 9%.  Of course it is too early to know what exactly will happen but according to Shirley Ort, director of scholarships and student aid, it is likely the university will be less available for students for families with limited financial resources. Officials hope fund-raising campaigns seeking private donations for student aid are planned.

Chancellor Carol L Folt said, “…affordability and accessibility are central to our mission.”

I hope that mission will continue.