Author Archives: Heidi Wilson

Show Your Shelf!

Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan’s Cité des dames (‘De Lof der Vrouwen’), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

 

Nowadays, even the Pope takes selfies. If you’re a committed writer and/or reader, though, you can get a better likeness than that. Share your shelfies, picture of your books. Give yourself a little leeway, and you can include your desk, your writing space and your reading corner. Why post a picture of your ugly mug? Show us your frontal cortex!

Here’s the most public of my shelfies, the bookcase beside my fireplace.  It displays the books most worth looking at as objects. Almost all of those on the top two shelves were my mother’s or my grandmother’s. They’re bound in leather, tooled in gold. (The books, not my progenitors, though they were pretty hidebound, too.)  The stretch of identical bindings is a set of officially worthy books, some of which are indispensable, like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, though I’d already read those in paperback before it occurred to me to look through the family holdings. On the other hand, Lord Charnwood’s biography of Abraham Lincoln will probably be up there, unmoved and undusted, when I die.

The tall books on the bottom shelves are mostly art and coffee table books. I have no memory at all of their provenance. I think people break in at night and drop them off to free up their own shelf space.

Below, in extreme contrast, is The Holy of Holies. Books have to be canonized to get here, and for this purpose, I am the Pope. Most are fiction; a few belong on the history or science shelves. Atwood and Byatt are there, as are Pogo, the best of Diana Wynne Jones, and Perfection Salad, a study on the sociology of home cooking around 1900 that transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen. The woman in the picture is my best friend. A librarian, naturally.

Next, my Purgatory. These, combined, constitute the To Be Read pile. I’ll spare you images of the Lowest Circle (books that have been sitting around so long I can’t remember what they’re about, let alone why I bought them) and the Middle Circle (books I still firmly intend to get to, only not just now, because the purchasing impulse did not convert quickly enough into the buckling down impulse. There’s a lot of nonfiction here.)

Finally, the TBR Upper Circle. These are probably going to make it into my brain within a year or so. I hardly had to rearrange the piles at all to display all my major interests (widdershins from top left): writing, the Israel/Palestine conflict, mysteries and Buddhism. The mix stays the same all the way down. There are also a few specialized books picked up for research, for instance, a detailed description of a classic Yankee-clipper-era mansion and an endless account of everything known about the Abenaki people of New England. But I guess those come in under “writing.”

How about you, readers? What do your bookshelves look like? Are your shelfies a better likeness of the real you than what you see in the mirror?

Later addendum: Actually, it’s not your frontal cortex (which should have been “frontal lobe” anyway.) You read with your posterior parietal lobe. But somehow, “show us your posterior!” even with “parietal lobe” added, seems to change the tone.

 

 

 

 

 

Other Kinds of Craftsmanship

I went down to D.C. two days early for this year’s Malice Domestic conference, because my husband had an event to attend beforehand. I was at loose ends while he expounded energy policy, so I wandered into the annual Smithsonian Craft Show. It’s a juried show that draws applicants from all over the country. More than 1,000 artists competed for 120 spots. Thirty-four states were represented.

You know how you can get really depressed when you read a good mystery, because you can’t imagine how you’ll ever write one that good? Well, here’s news: other crafts than writing can have the same effect. The sheer perfection of these objects left me wincing at my own feeble efforts to make a work of art out of words.

But I’m a brave little soldier. I walked around, took pictures, talked to artists and tried to learn. I’d planned to write you a profound meditation on creativity and craftsmanship. But what do I know? Below are eight of my favorite exhibits, followed by what the makers themselves have to say about the process of bringing them into being. Change a few terms here and there, and they’d apply just as well to the writing trade.

 

Ceramic vases by Hideaki Miyamura
miyamurastudio.com

My work began as a quest for iridescence…. I studied and apprenticed with a master potter for six years. At first, my studies focused on form. I made thousands of sake cups, then thousands of tea cups, then, eventually, vases and other forms, until my hands and body could create without the intervention of my conscious mind. I performed thousands of experiments….

 

Poppies on Silk by Deborah Falls
deborahfalls.com

I was drawn to working with silk and dyes because of the vibrant colors of the dyes and the wonderful texture of the silk. Since I am self-taught in this medium, I had no idea of traditional silk painting and developed my own way of applying and managing the unmanageable dyes. I did, however, have a sense of the imagery that I wanted, and was able, after many trials and much patience, to adapt a process that achieves my goals.

It was not until I started planting my own gardens about ten years ago that my imagery changed from abstract to realistic in the form of botanicals. I was so excited every time something emerged or bloomed that I felt compelled to capture this beautiful and amazing natural structure.

 

Beaded lop-eared rabbit by Tom and Kathy Wegman
tomandkathywegman.com

Tom and Kathy Wegman’s beaded art lives when they began collecting Native American beaded objects. After a while, they began making their own art, inspired by the beads themselves — bright, shiny things with the power to transform a mundane object into a thing of wonder.

Using over 450 different colors of seed beads to transform everyday objects into works of art. They glue individual strings of beads to other people’s discarded objects — roller skates from the Salvation Army, a lunchbox from the local secondhand store. Their general policy is “the brighter, the better.”

 

Bird’s-eye maple cabinet by Nojo Design
nojodesign.com

I take my cues from everyday objects, nature, the world around me, something as basic as a leaf – simplicity and elegance on the surface, but with an amazing underlying complexity.

 

Wood sculptures by Christopher Wagner (and Christopher Wagner)
christopherbwagner.com

The reclaimed lumber he predominantly sculpts in provides a sense of history much greater than anything he could hope to achieve through artificial means. Elements of the wood’s own history, such as, nail holes, checking, and insect burrowing go into forming what he creates.

 

Retablo of the Garden of Eden by Nicario Jiminez
retablosnicario.com

Retablos are sophisticated folk art in the form of portable boxes filled with brightly colored figurines arranged into intricate narrative scenes.  From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Retablos were carried through the mountains by Spanish priests as portable religious shrines for Catholic saints.  Later, they were adapted by indigenous people to include their own deities and mythologies.

 

Glass vases by Fred Kaemmer
fredsglass.com

These pieces arose from a desire to create something interesting with clear glass.  I enjoy working in this style because of the balance between control and serendipity each represents.  Maintaining the shape of each vessel while allowing the glass canes to create a chaotic and beautiful fused nest within the piece is an exciting balance to execute.  As a result, no two are alike.

 

Lid of ceramic vase by ?

I lost my note of the artist’s name and contact information for this one. I’m still searching. For now, I’ll leave the nature of its inspiration to the reader as an exercise. Anybody care to ghost-write the artistic statement of this dragon’s maker?

“Ceci n’est pas un dessus-de-lit”

You have a perfect right to get mad at inanimate objects. This is especially true of the ones you own, like your computer. The object has done something that is the proximate cause of your inconvenience or even your pain. You already know that hitting it won’t do you any good, so I won’t remind you.

But what about objects whose mere existence is an annoyance? We all know the list of big things that we wish didn’t exist, like terrorism and Congress. It’s the little ones that get up my nose.

The thing that hotels now lay across the bottom of your bed.

You’ve seen them: oblong strips of fabric, color-coordinated with the room, that stretch from side to side of the bottom quarter of the mattress. For something that lacks a name* itself, this is a truly speaking object. It says:

This is not a bedspread. We know it is not a bedspread. We are not giving you a bedspread, because you would just throw it on the floor at the foot of the bed and walk on it. This is here to show you that we know what a bedspread is, and we are the kind of people who give their guests bedspreads, but only if they deserve them.

Can someone come up with a word for this object? Can it be published on a family blog? (How about on a writer’s blog?)

The goodie bags handed out by airlines on overseas flights.

Inside, you will find many pointless objects. There is a small plastic bottle with a spray top, containing special water to spritz your face with, on account of the dryness of the air in a plane. Who thought of this? Have you ever seen someone on a plane squirt themselves in the face? How did her seatmate look?

Then there are the socks with the consistency of cheesecloth in case your feet get cold. Despite the fact that you are already wearing socks. And you have shoes. And if you take the shoes off, you have a blanket.

(I actually kept one such pair of socks. Some marketing genius had required the Asian wage slaves who made the socks to sew little felt eyes over the toes and a tiny red tag that protruded like a snake’s tongue from the seam below. That’s good marketing. The fact that this was done on only one of the socks showed real Style.)

You also get a tiny tube of the lowest-possible-quality toothpaste and a fairy-sized brush. Brushing your teeth with this kit would take about as long as it takes a single Egyptian plover to clean out the mouth of a jumbo crocodile. Besides, have you ever seen any passenger, once on the ground, peel out of the mad dash for the luggage to go and brush her teeth?

The famous Masco debacle.

Granted, the maker of these objects sincerely intended them to be useful, unlike those mentioned above. And okay, maybe it’s only famous to someone (me) who was researching the Masco Corporation for an investment firm when it happened. But draw your chair up to the edge of the precipice, and I’ll tell you the story.

Masco made faucets, mostly, so it knew how to manipulate metal and plastic. Some clever employee realized that one of their plastics could easily be molded into cups and dishes that would be remarkably cheap – a few times the price of disposable plates – but would last much, much longer. And they could come in all kinds of eye-catching colors. So these were made and marketed.

The product crashed like a pumpkin dropped from a plane. Great initial sales, then…nothing. When I next called on the company, the treasurer bet me I couldn’t guess what their marketers had learned about the reason for the failure.

He shouldn’t have challenged a Yankee homemaker. Obviously, I said, the minute the first signs of wear showed up, the magic was over. The owner had a set of slightly dulled, slightly scratched plastic tableware that was still much too good to throw away! My only wonder was that some frugal buyer, infuriated at the waste of his cupboard space, had not assassinated the company president.

We need a new noun for “object offered in the full knowledge that the recipient would be better off without it.” This word will be useful when your parents downsize their home and you have to get rid of the results (including their Masco dishware.) Any suggestions?

 

*When I started this post, I thought this object had no name. Of course it has. How could the makers sell them by the gross to hotels without a name to order them by? It is called a bed scarf or bed runner.** That makes it no better.

**And if you care, in French it is a jeté-de-lit.

The Fifth Season

It’s still winter in Orford, New Hampshire    — if you don’t look down

I started out with the idea of a novel set in rural New Hampshire. There’s no such thing as a novel set in New Hampshire that excludes the weather. I decided to spread the plot out over a year – up here, you can’t leave out a single month and still cover the territory.

Fate gave me a freebie: the full-year idea fit well with a problem my protagonist faces. She’s stuck at home, probably for good, after years of regular escapes to Kenya.

Today’s weather reminds me of why I changed my plan.

Last fall was lovely. Dampish now and then, but the beeches, oaks and maples all came through with October fireworks in yellow, red and russet. Winter sidled in with a little snow but then appeared to give up. Open ground could be seen in January and February. We had a storm or two, sure, storms that people in D.C. would call blizzards. But nothing you’d mention. Nothing we would, anyway.

Snow gone at the end of February. Temperatures scaling toward 60 every now and then. And then… BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA!

And from the back door….

Arrives the blizzard that breaks the records. With nine days to go till spring, parts of New Hampshire got more snow in a single day than at any time since Cain discovered writing. (He wrote crime fiction.)

Now we’re back up to March’s ordinary 40-degree highs, on one day out of two anyway. And today is the kind of day I’ll end my novel on. I could stretch it all the way around the calendar, ending on a June day of glorious sun, leaving out the black flies. Or I could end on a July day of glorious sun, leaving out the deer flies and the humidity. But no. My heroine will triumph on the first day of Mud Season.

My fairy footprints

The frost goes deep here. Even calling it “frost” is misleading. It’s a rock-hard layer of frozen earth that can go down five feet. We like it. Foresters can work in the woods all winter with heavy, heavy equipment.

But when the warmth creeps back, the ground unfreezes from the top first. The layers farther down don’t feel a thing. They don’t absorb moisture, either. So for weeks, meltwater mixes with topsoil and sloshes around — and slides and squishes and slops — on that impervious surface. This is Mud Season.

I took the dog out this morning. Winter is still mounded to either side of our forest road. You can’t walk over the plow piles because you’ll go straight down in and never get out again. The road, though, is all spring, from the surface to about two inches down. This new-born world is gluey, gritty, rich and brown. Runnels of melt water dig channels on the slightest slope. A blazing sun picks out sparkly grains of marble in the 3-inch gravel that is trying to hold the our forest roads in place against strong odds.

Dog prints, coming soon to a clean floor near me.

Pfeffernuss the dog is a 90-pound black Lab with feet almost as webbed as a duck’s. They sprea-a-ad out under her weight and then snap back into place like little backhoes, storing up hours-worth of pawprints for my floor tiles.

My knee-high muck boots go so deep you’d think “muck” is what they’re made of, not what they cope with. The sound they make on the upstroke is indelicate, nay, carnal.

This is what resurrection looks like in New Hampshire. The delicate blossoms and tender grasses come later, as an afterthought. When Mud Season arrives, you know you have come through the dark night of the New Hampshire soul and back out into the light.

 

 

The Ick Factor

The Thursday Night Writers had another set-to this week over my exploding canary. Only four of us were present this time, but the controversy has raged through the whole group since I submitted the first draft of chapter 36 – longer ago than I care to admit.

Here’s the passage:

For my part, I kept the Stark file spread out all over my desk, like one of those impossible variations on solitaire. I inspected every line of every document, straining for some way in which it might imply a deadly secret. I marked Jeremiah’s house purchase with a Post-it memo to trace the sellers. Somehow, the sale wasn’t legitimate? Or Jeremiah’s check bounced? Or maybe way earlier, somebody with the same name had just pretended to be a descendant of Enoch Stark when they bought the house? Pretty thin, Eliza. But it got another yellow sticky note. In the end, the solitaire game looked like an explosion in a canary.

Disregard the plot conundrum. It can’t be quickly explained, and the only problem, as far as the TNWs were concerned, was the canary.

One member is admittedly squeamish. She loves cozies because of their basic rule: no explicit sex or gratuitous violence. Simile or not, she does not want a piecemeal canary obtruded into her consciousness. In a later chapter, a mere reference to “my canary” in the context of the annotated documents was enough to set her off. (Granted, she had been recently lacerated by an episode involving a frog in William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. It wasn’t a good week to reprise the canary.)

The others, it seemed to me, were going deeper into the image than … I was going to say “a normal person,” but perhaps I should just say “the reader” is likely to. There was speculation as to the appearance of a real exploded canary. A consensus emerged that the resulting color would not be yellow. I believe someone brought up the probable radius of the debris. And there was me, just visualizing little Tweety-colored feathers floating down.

The title of this post comes from a critique I received from Mary Carroll Moore, with whom I’ve taken two live workshops and one online class. She used it when she advised me to abandon the opening sentence of my novel and, indeed, to remove all technical or at least all vivid medical details from the scene, which takes place in a doctor’s office. Here’s the paragraph:

I don’t deny that I was riddled with parasites. I always was when I got back from a field trip. But I saw no reason for Brad to take that tone with a woman twice his age. His father never had a problem with my parasites.

I submitted that paragraph, as part of my first two pages, to a panel at the New Hampshire Writers Day last year. The panel consisted of well-known NH writers – all genres, not just mysteries. Each submission was read aloud by the moderator. The panelists were instructed to raise their hands at the first word, phrase or other issue that “stopped” them.

When my first sentence was read, three out of four of them jumped, but no hand went up. Which means…? You tell me. Please.

(We got well down the second page before I got a hand. Several at once, in fact. But that’s another story.)

So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m made of grosser clay than the average cozy fan. Or maybe I just make my friends and seek advice from lovely people who are more-than-average refined. The one thing I’m sure of is that neither the canary idea nor the existence of parasites would boggle the mind of my protagonist. So maybe I’ll keep them both.

***

The Ick Factor may be on my mind at the moment because of the winning response to the challenge I posed in my last blog: to use in mystery plot the following two words:

Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe

Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.

And the winner is….

Judy W.! She commented:

Your current words call to mind a Dick Francis-like mystery set in a racing stable. “The feaguing of the poor horse set loose an explosive diarrhea in the stall that splattered the walls like ylem after the Big Bang. Underneath the residue lay the missing gambler.” Ugh. Sorry, but you did issue a challenge.

Congratulations, Judy! After that, an exploding canary is nothing. It wouldn’t even cover up a dead gambler.

Words You Need to Know

For some reason, when your friends know you are a writer, they become obsessed with sending you words. They may feel you are a connoisseur. They may feel that your vocabulary is inadequate.

Several of my friends have recently been hit with the word-sending bug. While they all said that their lists comprised merely “weird” or “interesting” words, a high percentage of the entries had intriguing connections with the mystery genre. I here offer the best of them to you, conveniently arranged in categories useful to those who murder on paper.

 

Characters

Apple-knocker: an ignorant or unsophisticated person (I was raised to call such persons oyster-shuckers.)

Badmash: Indian, a hooligan

Shot-clog: An unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the ‘shot’ (i.e., the bill) for his companions (Note: as this word is attested only in the works of Ben Jonson, perhaps it should appear below, under Historical Fiction.)

Snollygoster: An unprincipled, shrewd person guided by personal advantage, not respectable principles

Suedehead: a youth like a skinhead but with slightly longer hair and smarter clothes

Wittol: a man who knows of and tolerates his wife’s infidelity

 

Plot elements

Absquatulate: to leave somewhere abruptly

Cacoethes: an urge to do something inadvisable

Eucatastrophe: a happy ending to a story

Exequies: funeral rites

Flews: the thick pendulous lips of a bloodhound or similar dog

Sprunt: To chase girls around a haystack after dark

 

Murder weapons

Brannock device: the thing they use to measure your feet at the shoe store.

Peen: the side opposite the hammer’s striking side

Probang: a strip of flexible material with a sponge or tuft at the end, used to remove a foreign body from the throat or to apply medication to it

 

Atmosphere

Bruxism: involuntary and habitual grinding of the teeth

Carphology: convulsive or involuntary movements made by delirious patients, such a plucking at the bed clothes

Uhtceare: Anxiety experienced just before dawn when you cannot get back to sleep for worry about the day ahead

 

Historical fiction

Resurrection man: a person who, in past times, illicitly exhumed corpses from burial grounds and sold them to anatomists for dissection

Skimmington: a kind of procession once undertaken to make an example of a nagging wife or an unfaithful husband

 

Technique

Amphibology: a phrase or sentence that is grammatically ambiguous, such as She sees more of her children than her husband.

Interrobang: what it’s called when you combine a question mark with an exclamation point like this: ?!

 

Finally, I offer a small prize (a shout-out in my next blog) to the reader who can suggest the best way of incorporating the words below in a (single) mystery.

Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe

Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.

The Plot Acrostic

Aspiring writers, rejoice! There really is a point when the plot tangle breaks.

I was sitting on a logjam the other day when it suddenly broke up beneath me. No, I wasn’t swept downriver to my doom. The logjam was the one that had been afflicting my plot almost since it became complex enough to constitute the skeleton of a book.

Every new idea for a plot development took the story forward, but almost every idea also implied a situation rendered impossible by what had come before. One character, for instance, was intended to instigate a lawsuit against a certain building project. His personality was unpleasant: in fact, he was intended to be the first murder victim. Idea! What if he was, in fact, the murderer? I found him a victim. Two victims.

But wait! To commit the first murder, he had to be in town. Unfortunately, at the intended time of death, he was elsewhere. (In prison, as it happens.) Well, that could be changed.

But wait! If he murdered for the reason I had come up with, he wouldn’t have taken the stand he did on the building project…. You see the problem.

For what seemed like aeons, I shifted and chopped and changed. The longer the manuscript grew, the more changes every new development required. I persevered.

And then, one day, the logjam broke

As it happened, I had been amusing myself with a book of acrostics the night before. When the logjam broke, I recognized what was happening, because it had just begun to happen in my acrostics.

(If you don’t do acrostics, they work this way: as in a crossword, you are given a definition and must come up with the word intended. Each letter in that word is assigned a number, which you then enter in a numbered space in a linear form. When all the correct letters are entered, they make up a quotation.)

I had reached the middle of the puzzle book, where the “medium difficulty” acrostics take on a new character. The definitions become vaguer, more allusive, slangy or punning. The quotations include longer and rarer words, names and complicated clauses.

At this point, the game shifts. Your ability to see the shape of the quotation’s prose, the rhythm of its clauses, its repetitions, lets you fill in words before you have guessed many definitions. The meaning of the quotation leads you to the detail of the words, not the other way around. And the puzzle goes much faster while also being much more fun.

Here is the beginning of the quotation I was working on when the game shifted. Have a go.

_ _L   _Y   L_V_    _Y   P__N   M_   P _SS_ _N

Just like that, as I drew near the end of the umpteenth draft of my mystery, the feeling of the changes changed. My solution worked, if only… and I clicked in my Scrivener binder to an earlier scene, altered three words, and all was well. Onward. The solution continued to work, if only…. Back up in the binder, cut a paragraph, and all was well.

I now have only two or three scenes to rewrite (plus a couple of new ones to tie up a subplot), and I will have, not a draft, but a book. Still deeply in need of editing, but a book.

Here’s the whole acrostic:

plot-acrostic

 

Even Later Than That

Grandma Moses at Work

Grandma Moses at Work

I wish that nice people would stop being quite so scrupulous about “age-ism.” Their dire attempts to convince everyone that they hold no stereotypes about people like me have done much to embitter my life.

I only learned about age-ism when it became politically incorrect. As a child (in the 1950s, thank you for asking), I assumed that you just grew up and stayed that way, with nothing significant about you changing except that one day you dropped dead. Wrinkles and rheumatism occurred, of course, but why niggle over the tiny differences between a thirty-year-old grown-up and a seventy-year-old grown-up?

Adolescence and the first gray hair were horrors, naturally, but until the nice people took over, none of it was linked in my mind with personal competence. I didn’t get around to trying to write a book until I was over sixty. Then, still mired in the depths of that project, I encountered the following headline on an arts web site:

14 Brilliant Authors Who Didn’t Succeed Until Way After 30

If you haven’t sold your book yet, the author assured me, not to worry:

After all, dozens of famous writers didn’t “make it” until their 30s, 40s, 50s and, in some cases, even later than that.

One of these dogged late-bloomers was actually 34 before his first novel was published! Probably had dentures. Three of the others were 39. One of them, granted, was 90, but he’d been publishing screenplays for over half a century. If you, Older Unpublished Writer, find this at all encouraging, you can read the article here.

imgresI tried to find encouragement in the memory of Helen Hooven Santmyer, whose novel And Ladies of the Club was published when she was 88 years old. Its 1176 pages weigh in at 3.1 pounds. The story goes that she had been working on it for 50 years. I hope I can work on my writing for 50 years; that would mean I’ll live to 114. I’d like to be published before then, though.

Unhappily, I pursued my interest in Ms. Santmyer, and discovered that she had already published two novels before Ladies – the first when she was 30 and while she was holding down a full time job.

(I still love Helen. When the college she worked at was purchased by a fundamentalist denomination, she quit, because they demanded that she adhere to biblical literalism and stop drinking and smoking. I’m sure it wasn’t the literalism that made up her mind for her.)

I thought maybe I’d found my tribe when I came across a web site called Persimmon Tree. It bills itself as “a showcase for the creativity and talent of women over sixty.” But then its ‘about’ section goes on:

Too often older women’s artistic work is ignored or disregarded, and only those few who are already established receive the attention they deserve. Yet many women are at the height of their creative abilities in their later decades and have a great deal to contribute. Persimmon Tree is committed to bringing this wealth of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art to a broader audience, for the benefit of all.

I’m not cheering, people. You mean somebody gets to say when I’m at the height of my creative powers? Even I don’t know. I’ll bet I won’t know when that is, or was, not even in the minute before I finally do drop dead. Do the twenty-somethings get to cry Ageism! when they read that?

I say we drop the whole issue. Go sit down and write.

Descriptions are for Feeling

I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.

Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.

Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.

At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:

V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.

G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.

At a writing conference:

Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.

A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.

In the room where I write:

A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.

Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.

A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.

In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:

A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.

The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.

Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.

Off the Hook for Christmas

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No matter how much you love Christmas, the presents thing can be a drag. Especially your presents for those kind and valued neighbors who stop by with gorgeously decorated cookies or homemade stollen that you couldn’t match in a million years. So here is my present to you for this and all following years: three little recipes calling for no expertise whatever and very little time. Give the neighbors a little jar of each with maybe pretty scraps of fabric held over the tops with rubber bands, and you are home free. Best of all, the contents are so irresistible that you can give them the same thing every year, and their thanks will be totally sincere.

I found the first recipe in an out-of-print Maida Heater cookbook almost forty years ago. She called it “the world’s best hot fudge sauce.” She’s still right. If you can keep yourself from eating it from the jar with a spoon, you have a nobler character than mine.

½ C. heavy cream

3 T. sweet butter, cut up

1/3 C. granulated sugar

1/3 C. dark brown sugar, firmly packed

pinch of salt

½ C. strained Dutch-process cocoa powder

Melt butter and cream together in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Stir until butter is melted and cream at a low boil. Add both sugars and stir to dissolve.

Reduce heat. Add salt and cocoa and whisk until smooth. Remove from heat.

Serve at once or refrigerate. Sauce will solidify when cooled. Reheat in double boiler. If needed, thin with a very little hot water.

I have no idea where the next two recipes came from. They are on cards in my recipe file, in my handwriting from my pre-arthritis years, alongside cards now almost a hundred years old. Those are either in my grandmother’s handwriting or my grandfather’s elegant draftsman’s lettering. Grandma at least labeled hers: “Ruth Edgett’s Seafood Newburg.” “Dee’s Special Chinese Sauce.” I hope these will migrate to my grandchildren’s recipe boxes. Or at least make it onto their iPads.

The marmalade recipe takes days to make, but all you have to do is show up. It soaks and simmers without attention beyond an occasional stir, except for the last hour. If you buy big fruit, one batch will satisfy many neighborly obligations of the season.

1 grapefruit, 1 orange, 1 lemon

Water

6 C. sugar

Wipe fruit and slice very thin, rejecting only the seeds and core of grapefruit. Measure amount of fruit, add 3 times that amount of water. Let stand overnight. Next day, boil 10 minutes and let stand overnight again. Boil about two hours, until reduced to about 6 cups. Can add water if it falls short. Boil one more hour, stirring enough to prevent sticking. (A Crueset casserole or a Dutch oven helps with this.) Pour into jelly jars and seal. Makes 6 half-pint jars.

The cranberry sauce is quick once you’ve toasted the chopped nuts. The recipe calls for celery, so I put it in below for accuracy. I don’t put it in the sauce. Dicing it takes time, and I resent vegetable additives in my sweets. I don’t put olives in my martinis, either.

2 C. dried tart cherries (go light)

1 C. fresh cranberries (go heavy)

1 C. raisins

1 C. sugar

½ C. apple cider vinegar

½ C. finely chopped celery

6 T. apple juice + more for cooking

½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 T. chopped lemon zest

1 C. coarsely chopped, toasted hazelnuts

Combine all ingredients in a 2 qt. Saucepan over medium heat. Cook 20 minutes, stirring well. Add apple juice as you go to keep consistency slightly liquid. Cool to room temperature. Fill jars and cap. The recipe says to refrigerate and count on a 2-week keeping period. Once the lids seal, I keep them on my pantry shelves as long as necessary, and I’m still alive.

Merry Christmas to all our readers, and I hope to see you, wearing a couple more pounds on your hips, in the New Year.

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