Wednesday, January 23, 2019

People who hold the door open for you

Leye - Every other Wednesday

Here, I demonstrate 'the look.'

People walking steps ahead of you, who hold the door open for you thereby causing you to jog or walk faster. [Slow head shake.]

And that look. You know the one. That look they give you when they’re holding the door open and they turn to look at you. That look that says, ‘Well, where is my thank you? Won’t you say thank you? And what are you doing walking so slow? Come one and hurry up, will you. I’m being very good towards you here, the least you can do is to acknowledge my goodness with a thank you, or at least a thank you nod, and with quickened pace. I am being a good person. A good person indeed.’

But wait, who told you I wasn’t ok with my previous pace? Maybe I’ve worked out how long it’ll take me to get to where I’m going to and my current pace is the optimal speed for me. Maybe I just don’t feel like hurrying up today. Hey, you held the door open; I didn’t ask you to. It was all your choice, so don’t give me that look that says you expect me to run up to you to relieve your hand from holding the door open for me.

Sometimes, when there are people ahead of me and we’re coming up to a door, I actively slow down to increase the space between us in anticipation of them feeling obliged to hold the door open for me. I slow down and increase the space between us because I hope they can sense how far away I’ve dropped behind and that they thus conclude that they need not hold the door open for me (so that I do not have to hurry up to the door held open). But so far it hasn’t worked.

Surely there has to be a distance between two people that determines when it’s appropriate for the one ahead to hold the door open for the one coming up behind. What is it? Three paces? Four? Five? Surely, at a certain distance it should be blatantly obvious that by holding the door open for someone you are causing them to alter the pace of their walk in other not to look like an ingrate at your ‘kind’ deed.

Not even when I’ve stopped walking and pretended to be on a call. Some people just don’t know when to pass through a door and keep walking and leave the decision of when to reach the same door to the person walking up behind them.

 I’ve concluded that some people just like holding the damn door open once there is someone behind them. And it’s not an act of kindness; they just like to see people run. This is my conclusion. And because of this, I decided, along with other anti New Year Resolutions, that I would stop altering the pace of my walk because someone has held the door open for me. Not even when they give me ‘the look.’ And not even when the look goes from ‘hurry up, will you?’ to, ‘Are you having a laugh? Don’t you see me holding the door for you? Are you really just gonna keep walking at your normal pace?  What in God’s name is wrong with you????!!!!’

And purely based on principle, I won’t even say thank you. I did not ask them to hold the door for me, did I? No. So it’s not an act of kindness. No. It’s an imposition. It is selfish, self-serving, dangerous (I might trip and fall from hurrying up), not to talk of inconsiderate.

The one time it’s ok to hold the door is when it’s an elevator door. I’ll even run for that. But not a normal door that won’t leave its position no matter what time I get to it.

I made this resolution at the beginning of this year and so far I’ve not had the opportunity to put it into practice until this morning.

I caved. I hurried up and said thank you. I am not proud of myself.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Paris, c'est un village...even more so this week

A gas explosion in a boulangerie in central Paris last week took many lives. And the lives of two pompiers/firemen responding to the call to control the fire and help inhabitants out of the block of buildings it took.
It was reported 'At 8.37am the fire brigade was called to 6 Rue Trévise to investigate a gas leak. While they were there a dramatic explosion occurred,” a spokesman said. He praised the courage of the firefighters who risked their lives to save people. He said one firefighter had remained under the rubble for two and a half hours before being rescued by colleagues.

Fires in Paris - a densely populated place - demand immediate response. The fire station is smack dab near the explosion. In the center of the quartier's life; by a school, shops. There was a moving tribute to these two firefighters as the funeral march passed with their hearses along the street and a hundreds of fireman from all over Paris lined it and saluted. In silence. My friend saw so many fireman in the Metro she wondered where they were going.

The next day people in the quartier took their children to the station offering condolences to the fireman who had lost their colleagues, their friends. The video showed them thanking the pompiers for their service and giving applause for those people they'd saved in the fire. A mother was interviewed, very moved, and said the pompiers are part of our life here; they visit my children's school, during safety week they bring the school children to the station and let them spray the hoses and get on the truck, and on July 14th Bastille Day they throw the best fireman's ball in all of Paris. Not to mention they hawk their hunk calendar for charity!
They're part of our community, the mother said. That struck me. There's so much ugly news, so much about the unrest in France, the violent aspects of some of the gilet jaunes- the yellow vests who have been demonstrating every Saturday, that I wanted to show, yes, terrible things but that people band together to get through it. People who appreciate goodness and selfless service. Every day.
Their community is a village. The village they identify with. Paris originally came from a collection of small villages. And they're still there - as Parisians say 'Paris, c'est un village.'
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, January 21, 2019

Dinner with an Artist: Elsa Bagarolo

Annamaria on Monday

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of an invitation to dinner at the home of Elsa Bagarolo.  Elsa has been a friend for decades.  She knew me before the novelist in me came out.  I knew her before she found the consummate expression of her artistic soul, which had always been obvious in the way she looked at and arranged her world.  I have her permission to bring you inside her home.

The place itself is a work of her art.  Everywhere one looks there are beautiful and interesting things. 

At the entrance of the apartment

In the powder room

The floor

The ceiling
*(Please keep in mind that No-photographer-I took these photos with my phone, in the evening, with available light.  In no way do they do justice to the what I saw.)

Elsa found a "siamese twin" oyster shell on the beach
near her place in Sardinia.  I might have noticed it if I saw
it.  She took it home and did this with it!.  

The dinner table was also a work of art.

Detail of the dinner table: with Elsa's delightful flowers
made of tiny beads.

And then there was the dinner.  It began with fresh pasta alla cinghiale--wild boar.  I am afraid  that I cannot show you a picture of it.  As I served some into my pasta bowl, the delicious aroma overwhelmed me.  The next thing I knew I was reaching for my phone to take a picture of an empty plate.

The salad though was almost too pretty to eat.

One cranks this gizmo, drawing the knife blade over the
soft, delicious cheese.  It produces blossoms to be served
over the lettuce, dressed with wonderful olive oil and honey.

The dessert was an Italian version of bread pudding.  Elsa had taken a photo of it baking in the oven and was surprised to see the ghost of a cat in the image!

All of this with conversation about art, while surrounded by Elsa's...well tapestries is the best word I can come up with.  Elsa's artwork is entirely sui generis: a way of making beautiful images that she herself invented.

She almost always bases her art on the works of other artists, many of them famous images, which she reproduces and enhances.  She works with a needle and thread.

The backs of the images are near perfect mirrors of the fronts.

Here are the ones I photographed that evening. Some of them are as much as four feet on a side.  Others as little as ten inches on a side:

After Klimt: and about the same size as his painting

Detail of the above to show you the stitches.

Details of the Sistine Chapel and of a Chagall,
just hanging out together on shelves!

This large work is based on Bernini's Saint Theresa in Ecstasy

Detail of the above: an expression of ecstasy captured
with a needle and thread!  My response:
"E' una meraviglia!"

A smaller work, after Van Gogh.  Experts verify the authenticity of
Vincent's work by his brushwork.  Elsa invented a tapestry stitch
that captures the energy of a Van Gogh original.

A shelf in a hallway displays some of her international trophies in recognition of her genius.  Here are just two of many:

Along the way, I saw this image of Elsa as a young woman.


I can imagine a woman who looked like the young Elsa might think gorgeous was all she needed to be.  But she was and she is much more than glamour puss. She was possessed of an artist's soul.

She remains beautiful.  And goes on creating more beauty.

What a privilege to have such a friend!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

To Write or Not to Write, That is the Quest


There is so much earthshaking news coming at us every day in so many ways from so many places, that it might just be simpler to list the venues around the globe not rattling our already jaded sensibilities with new fresh hells. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m numbed by it all. So much so, that I can’t bring myself to pick and choose among the multitude of potential topics that I might have a go at today.

Instead, I thought I’d step back and muse about what I think keeps we writers coming back to the blank page, hammering away at creating what we hope others will read…and even appreciate.

But rather than simply rambling on with my musings, I thought it might be more interesting to borrow from the iconic template of literature’s best-known muser (is that a word, Zoë?). So, with apologizes to the Bard, here goes:

JEFFREY: To write, or not to write--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
In despair at writing’s outrageous fortune
Or to take pens against our shared troubles
And by exposing end them. To fly, to leap--
To soar—or do we creep away to end
The headache, and the thousand natural blocks
That publish is heir to. 'Tis a consternation
Devoutly to be wished on others.  Weep--
Perchance even scream: But at the very nub
Of a possible death to the dream of some
Is why we suffer at this mortal toil.
Let us pause. There's the respect
That is the balm to a long writing life.
For who would bear the ups and downs of time,
Th' reviewer's wrong and downright contumely,
The pangs of edited work, the pub delay,
The insolence of the press, and its spurns
Showing patient merit worthy of a saint,
When he or she might quiet exit take
To make a living?  Who would deadlines bear,
To grunt and sweat a solitary life,
But that the dread of giving no more breadth
To all those undiscovered thoughts that churn
Our traveling minds, and puzzle our will,
Would make us far more ill by half
Than denying readers what they know not of?
Dedication makes writers of us all,
And a simpler life of remuneration
Is sacrificed to one of words and thought.
Any enterprise giving pitch and moment
To our words, even if currently awry,
We can’t lose in the name of no action.  
So now fair Colleagues, aim for horizons,
With work to be remembered.


Friday, January 18, 2019

The Pitch Document

Here is a blog, interspersed with some photos of the Ben on the dog walk this morning.   I only had my basic lens with me so the pics aren’t very good. Neither is the blog. But think yourself lucky that I’m not blogging about the vote on Wednesday night. Or the one onTuesday night. As one famous MP said as he got in the lift afterwards ‘You’ve got to laugh.’


When I do my talks about novel writing, and plotting in particular, I use a template that I stole, with his permission, from the rather lovely screenplay writer Adrian Meade.   He devised it from various sources ( what ‘s that saying? Steal from one source is plagiarism, steal from many it’s research!) and he recommends that a young screenplay writer hones this document, keeps it in his/her head in case he/she gets stuck in a lift with Mr Spielberg.

I use it to clarify the thoughts of young or inexperienced writers and ask them to stick it somewhere within their vision when they are writing. Just to keep them on track and stop them falling foul of that nasty little devil, the wandering storyline minstrel.

Have I ever used it myself? No. But after my enthusiastic talk about it on Tuesday night, I so impressed myself that I will use it from now on.

But for a bit of fun, here’s a version with the first two categories empty.  You can guess the film? (It was a book, I’m waiting for the bloody musical though)


The log line; I’m not saying because if I told you, you know the film straight away

Title; Ditto ( no Jeff, the film wasn’t called Ditto…..)

Genre; thriller

Protagonist; An Ex NYPD police person

Goal; At the start- a nice slide into a peaceful, beachside retirement, on an island
          At the end- staying alive

Obstacles; he’s an outsider, he’s scared of water, he can’t swim, the council who want to protect the income from the holiday makers, his wife who fancies the other bloke, nobody listens to him…. And maybe, the big beastie under the waves,…..oh and he NEEDS A BIGGER BOAT and he doesn’t have one!

Theme…. Do dooo, do dooo, do do do do (yes you are humming it now,) well that is the theme tune, the novel itself is a quest novel.

Setting; Amity Island

In the end; He has redemption in the eyes of the community. He is alive. The big beastie is shark meat, but he is mourned. There is a sense they should have just closed the beach and killed the mayor instead.

Anyway, I guess you got what the film was.


Here’s the lecture as I witter it….



The log line         The natty little phrase you spout in the lift when you meet Spielberg.
Have it on the tip of your tongue so you don’t start ‘well It’s about a bloke who does this then that then something else and zzzzzzz

Title                      And put the letters W/T after it, to show it’s not a deal breaker.

Genre                   What shelf does it go on in the book shop?  And write that. A hard boiled Glasgow murder where the murderer escapes by running down a dark alley and climbing  on a turquoise glittery unicorn that then leaps over the moon and deposits him in a space ship crewed by Raquel Welch clones, might struggle on this one. (Those of you who have taken a writers group will know what I mean
Protagonist         the main bloke/blokess. If they aren’t mentioned for a few chapters, and another character is butting in, maybe you have the wrong protagonist. I’ve noticed a few newbie writers think they are writing about who the book is about rather than who is running around doing the action and moving the plot forward.

Goal                      What the main character wants to achieve.
                              What he needs to achieve is sometimes a more interesting story.
Obstacles            What is getting in his way, personally and professionally, and the Bruce Robinson thing of stick the hero up the tree and don’t let him come down. Every time he gets close to the ground send a Rottweiler after him…. Or a hippo in Stan’s case.

Theme                  There are only seven themes out there. There is nothing new. The writer has to give that theme a new life and a new meaning.

Setting                  Good if  we are in need of an unreliable mobile phone signal, some extreme weather, heat/ cold/ rain/. And where is a human more lonely? At the top of the Ben looking down at the loch, or in a bedsit in any inner city?

In the end…         and what did happen in the end… it might not be the right thing but it has to be the satisfactory thing. And in crime fiction, the baddie can get away but he’s not going to gain what he set out to gain…. Like the Italian Job.

I did get a laugh in the lecture when I was talking about pantsers and I showed a picture of Brexit. ‘This is what happens when you decide on an idea with no concept of what might be involved.’

 Caro Ramsay  18 01 2019

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Stream of subconsciousness

Michael - Thursday

I've wondered for many years just how creativity is generated. I imagined that experts know a lot about this topic and others connected with the purpose and MO of the subconscious, but it's not really the case. There is a lot of speculation and many experiments, but I don't think many experts would claim to understand what is really going on.

When - in another life - I did research in mathematics, I had several occasions when I woke in the morning with a new approach that I hadn't considered before. It would make a good story to say that these were always successful. They were not. But they were always new and reasonable. Sometimes they did work and sometimes they could be worked into something else that worked. On the other hand, sometimes I would wake in the middle of the night with a solution to a problem. I would hastily write it down before I went back to sleep, scared that in the morning it would be gone and my breakthrough would be lost forever. In the morning I would check the details and always find an error or a missing and unfillable gap. I believe these analyses were left overs of the thought processes from my conscious mind that had been reincarnated as dream-mathematics.

On the other hand, I once woke with the kernel of a short story in my head. It was definitely a dream and one that I remembered very vividly. During the next couple of days, I wrote the story the way my conscious mind structured it, Stan gave input, and it was eventually published in Crimespree magazine as Parlour Game. It's the only story that we've written that was not set in Africa.

Stan and I both believe in brainstorming and that, I guess, is one way one tries to get the conscious mind to be creative. Last week Stan wrote about our dilemma with Facets of Death. If a criminal is careful, savvy, and works through other people, then he's very difficult for the police to catch. (Most criminals are none of these three.) The police need to play more or less by the rules; the criminals do not. We attacked the problem two ways. We would "sleep on it", leaving our subconscious minds free to do whatever it is that they do. Then we would "brainstorm" it, throwing out ideas no matter how way out and seeing where they went. This seems to be rather like trying to make two conscious minds behave like one subconscious one.

In the case of our problem, the discussion on Saturday night went something like this:

'What about the...'
'Hmm. Interesting...'
'But he's dead!'
'But does the bad guy know that?'
'Maybe not. The police don't even know who the dead man is, do they?'
'Maybe he could pretend to have the diamonds. Could he persuade the bad guy to...'
'Remember your character? Kubu's friend?'
'Yes! He could do it! That would be good. He seemed important when we wrote him but then he didn't go anywhere...'

Stan woke on Sunday morning with a plan for how this idea could be implemented, and I wrote it. By Sunday night the book was finished. We'd tried lots of other ideas before that one, and while they might have worked, they lacked plausibility or coherence with the story up to that point. They weren't satisfying.

The question I'm puzzling about now, is that character - Kubu's acquaintance - who seemed important but didn't really go anywhere. Was he just a lucky coincidence? Was he really supposed to be part of another story? Or was Michael Stanley's "subconscious" already somehow thinking ahead?

I'd be really interested to hear of other writers experiences. Do they brainstorm by themselves? Do plotters resolve it all in a linear sequential away? Or is it all a mixture - a sort of alphabet soup of ideas that somehow crystallise into a good story?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Digital White-Out

Sujata Massey

When the snow fell last weekend, I welcomed it, not just for its beauty, but the way it stops time.

I grew up in Minnesota, where children are hardwired to appreciate the beauty of snow and also to expect it as a normal rhythm of the winter, rather than a natural disaster. As an adult I am able to admit that snow is not just fun and games. I can't decide what is more treacherous; the flat packed snow that forms a shiny, slick surface; the thick ice lurking under snow; or the thick salt crystals scattered over the sidewalks that sting my dogs’ paws.

Even though snow trips me up, I still love it.

Snow only falls a few times each winter in Maryland—but often it’s a storm, rather than a casual sprinkling. Supposedly it's because of the freezing air coming down from Antarctic meeting up with the warmer Atlantic. And when we have snowstorms in Baltimore, we never have  enough plows. In bad winters, the whole Eastern Seaboard runs out of salt and sand. In my city, the protocol is to concentrate on freeways and major roads while the storm is ongoing, and to address the rest of the city later. Or not. 

Last Sunday, when Baltimore was snowed in, a tremendous quiet descended over my world. I bundled up and went for a walk around nine in the morning with my husband. The streets and lanes had only a few car tracks. On my way back, I slipped on one of the slick snow patches on an unplowed street, but no lasting harm was done.

Unspoiled snow gives the feeling of open time. It is the opposite of an ordinary day dominated by rapid-fire texts and emails demanding answers. The snow seems to wipe all of that out.

This weekend’s snow came just before I started reading a book called Deep Work written by Georgetown professor Cal Newport. Dr. Newport examines what a lot of us already know: that toggling between different kinds of intellectual activities leads to a poorer quality of life and produced work. Using studies and examples of scientists, psychologists, tycoons--as well as his own hard-fought academic writing accomplishments--he talks about the need to limit shallow work that distracts from the deep snowbank of joyful, rewarding work.

I've become very interested and inspired by this theory of deep work, though I cannot of course end my daily life as a person raising children and dogs, helping with my husband's business, and keeping in touch with readers. But I know that I do many more distracting activities now than twenty years ago, when I was starting my fiction career. Now I understand why focusing was easier.

One of Dr. Newport's suggestions for managing smaller job-related responsibilities  is to address them in batches rather than every day. For instance, I could write a couple of Murder is Everywhere posts over one day or two days and then I'd be ready for the month. In that same week of managing small writing assignments, I could write my monthly author newsletter and cue up some Instagram posts. And in the other weeks of the month--at least three!--I could immerse myself in 1921 Bombay, the very un-snowy setting of my current novel. 

So I've got an idea. Regardless of what the weather predictions are, a metaphoric storm is headed to my house tomorrow morning.

It will be a white-out from the digital world. I aim to concentrate on my neglected next novel, which means I can answer email just thrice daily. And podcasts, radio and TV will have to wait two weeks as well. My mind doesn't need any more jumbling.

I intend to listen hard enough in the silence that I can hear snowflakes fall.

One of the last emails Sujata read before starting the Digital White-Out carried the good news she's been nominated for a Lefty award for Best Historical Mystery of 2018. The awards will be voted on at the Left Coast Crime Convention in Vancouver this March.