Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day

Annamaria on Monday

It is half an hour into the 29th of February 2016 as I sit down to write this--past my bedtime, but I just got in from Left Coast Crime in Phoenix.   Though I am pretty tired, I am soldiering on till I get this done.  You see it will be 2044 before February 29th again falls on a Monday, so I figure I better take this chance of writing my blog about the Leap Day.  It just might be my last opportunity.

I won’t explain in detail why we need a leap year or that all calendars have them.  I am sure you understand that this is how we compensate for the fact that our planet takes a tiny bit more than a year to circle the sun.

Many weird and lovely superstitions, traditions, and beliefs have grown up around this date.

The most common tradition is that that this is the day when a woman may propose to her man.  Supposedly this comes from an old Irish legend that St. Brigid struck a deal with St. Patrick to allow women to propose to men – and not just the other way around – every four years.  Modern mores and customs make this a moot point in many relationships.

In some places, Leap Day is called “Bachelors’ Day” for the same reason. In the Middle Ages, a man was expected to pay a penalty, such as a gown or money, if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on Leap Day.

On the other hand, Greeks consider it unlucky for couples to marry at all during a leap year, and especially on Leap Day.

In Scotland, it used to be considered unlucky for someone to be born on Leap Day.  In the US, people born on February 29 are all invited to join The Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies.  Some people born on February 29th celebrate their birthdays on February 28th in non-leap years, but many prefer March 1. The Henriksen family from Andenes, Norway currently holds the official Guinness Book record for the most number of children born in one family on leap day. Karin Henriksen gave birth to three children on February 29; her daughter Heidi in 1960 and her sons Olav and Leif-Martin in 1964 and 1968, respectively.  Giachino Rossini, Dinah Shore, and Al Rosen were all Leap Day babies.  

On the downside of ways to celebrate 29 February, in 1692 the first warrants in the Salem witchcraft trials in Massachusetts were issued on Leap Day.  Some of the people involved in that incident were spawn of the devil, but I don't think they were the women accused.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

How Many Words? How long should a novel be?

I find myself at the moment in the midst of writing the next novel in the Charlie Fox series. The action for this book starts directly where the last instalment – the novella ABSENCE OF LIGHT – left off. At the start of this next one, Charlie even still carries the injuries she sustained during the course of A.O.L.’s storyline.

The previous full-length novel – DIE EASY – was number 10 in the series. Now I’m faced with the question of do I call this latest book number 11 or 12?

ABSENCE OF LIGHT could rightfully be called book 11, although labelling it as a novella was a deliberate decision on my part. It finished up at almost 60,000 words, which would make it a novel to many. But, the other Charlie Fox books ranged between 92,000 and 128,000 and I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed to suddenly find this one shorter.

As far as I know, nobody’s complained that it’s longer than they expected.

I’m a great believer in writing to the end of the story, then making at least one pass through to see how many extraneous words I can cut out. I’ve usually aimed roughly for 100,000 +/-10%, but I know some crime authors who rarely write past 50,000, and others who do at least 130,000 every time.

Equally, I’ve come across readers who are put off by weighty tomes, and others who, if they’re stuck between a choice of two books for a holiday read, will measure the width of the spine and go for the thickest.

Personally, if I’m enjoying being immersed in the world the writer has created, the more of it the better. Especially now I tend to do a lot more reading in digital format. It’s easier on the hands and – if I’m reading last thing at night – I know if I nod off with the ebook in my hands the device will eventually just switch itself off. There are no end of times I’ve fallen asleep reading a paper book and lost my place as it’s slipped from my hands.

But, there are general guidelines on the length of various different types of fiction, and I suppose it’s as well to know what the rules are before you decide to break them.

Of course, when I say ‘general guidelines’ these do vary enormously. Some have the length of a novel starting from as little as 40,000 words. Others specify a mystery novel as 60,000-80,000, with thrillers up to 100,000.

Below a novel comes the novella at 17,500-40,000; the novelette at 7,500-17,500; and anything below 7,500 counting as a short story.

Or does it?

The digital publishing revolution has caused a mix-up. When Kindle introduced their Kindle Single, they specified a work of fiction with a word count between 5,000 and 30,000, straddling short story/novelette/novella territory.

New writers who go straight into the indie market tend to want to build up their bookshelf space as quickly as possible, and there can be a tendency to put out several novelettes or novellas rather than a full-length novel. One just has to be aware of the old ‘quality before quantity’ maxim, but I can well understand the pressure to be more successful simply by publishing more work.

If a new writer is going down the traditional route into publishing, many agents and publishers prefer that their work falls into generally accepted word counts for the market they wish to enter. There’s nothing to say a debut crime novel of 150,000 words will fail to find a publisher purely because of its length, but busy editors do look for the obvious ways first to trim down their reading list, and cutting out a submission simply because it is too big is a danger, no matter how brilliant it might be.

So, I find myself left with more questions than answers. Does the length of a book have any effect on your reading choices? Are you reading longer or shorter books than you used to, or has there been no change?

Has the way you read changed the length of books you go for? Do you tend to read longer books in digital format because they’re lighter and easier to carry around with you for that spare five minutes in the dentist’s waiting room?

Do you read more short stories than you used to, purely because they’re now available more widely on line rather than in anthologies? Do you yearn for a return to more regulated sizes of novel, or do the new freedoms inspire you to try new works of varying lengths by your favourite authors?

This week’s Word of the Week is prolegomenon, meaning a preface to a longer work, usually a formal essay or critical discussion. The plural is prolegomena. It comes from the Greek verb prolegein, meaning ‘to say beforehand’.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Greek Lesson For the USA


It’s Wednesday and I’m on a plane headed to Phoenix for Left Coast Crime 2016, aka Cactus Caper.  I thought I’d write about the first thing that came to mind for my Saturday post because I won’t likely have time after we land.  I’ve events and panels to attend from practically the time I touch down through Sunday…plus Annamaria and Susan to pester. 

I found my inspiration while passing through Queens on the Van Wyck Expressway to JFK, just past the Jamaica Hospital. Two names emblazoned atop separate buildings stood staring at each other across a busy highway. One bore the name Lincoln, the other the name of a Queens Borough native who’s running for the nomination of the party of Lincoln for President of the United States.

About the only enjoyable thing I’m getting out of this year’s Presidential race is how every talking head continues to be so very wrong while desperately attempting to convince the public that he (or she) actually understands—let alone knows—what’s happening.  Then again, it’s hard to understand something when you’re so heavily contributing to the problem. 

Which raises two questions. What is the problem? And what (or who) is the solution?

Sure wish I could help you out with simple answers, but your guesses are likely as good as mine.  About all I can say with an assured sense of all-knowing certainty (think theatrical style over factual substance) is that we are living in a time of massive global uncertainty on a scale not experienced since the run-up to World War II.  Folks are anxious and unsure of where things are headed, making them susceptible to fear-mongering, offered-up scapegoats, and promises of ready cures.

None of that is a new routine, been around since Biblical times, with religion often called out both as savior and villain.

How will it all play out?  People are funny.  They naturally want to blame others for their predicament—and “shake things up” is a powerful motivator for the frustrated. Trouble is, when you’re sailing stormy seas upon a shared ship of state, you better be very careful who you pick to do the shaking, or you just might find yourself tossed overboard.

It’s happened before.  And in fact, been discussed here before…albeit in the context of Greece. Nearly four years ago (May 26, 2012) a post of mine on a visit to Munich prompted a brisk exchange of views among commentators on the seriousness of Greek elections for both Greeks and the world. Here is an excerpt from a post-election comment by N&C (relayed in my July 14, 2012 post) to a comment posted by another.  I’ve substituted “the United States” for “Greece.”

If history is any guide, an electorate willing to grasp for any solution that makes them feel better in the short term; will in my view, only lead to far larger and protracted problems in the future. I truly feel sorry for the despair and hopelessness that I see among many of my friends of all ages in [the United States]….

Let’s hope that for the first time, an elected coalition government in [the United States] can effectively work together and stop putting their personal and party interests ahead of those of you and your fellow citizens and your country at large.

While I too respect your opinion, I would suggest to you that the answer to [the United States’] problems today does not lie in substituting capitalism with something else - nor electing extremists from both sides of the political spectrum to govern your country - but for people to play by the rules as they have long been established, and get back to the work of demonstrating to the rest of the world that [the United States] can indeed become the great, proud democracy that it once was, where prosperity and a decent quality of life is shared by all…

Once again, we can learn from the Greeks.


Friday, February 26, 2016

The creativity of neurosis...

A wise friend once gave me some  advice; always have a worrier with OCD as your PA as they will double check everything and never get anything wrong. Unfortunately I didn’t follow that advice. Instead I have Liz who is known as the FPA (faithful PA).  She can type very accurately indeed, makes a good cup of tea and considers herself as having no specific job description i.e. her job description is to do anything Caro says. Quickly. 

Some of you might remember me borrowing her children/slaves to drag suitcases of wine through central Glasgow. On more than one occasion she has posed with blood make up on her throat as if she has just been butchered by a serial killer. Or she has hidden in a ditch to prove an effective body deposition site, with various writers saying ‘Oh  for God’s sake Liz keep still!!’ She says that when she meets her friends for coffee they are quite intrigued by a working life that includes going to airports at three in the morning,  Staffie tummy rubbing duties and pretending to be dead.


It has to be said that both my PA and my business partner have absolutely no imagination. I  have far too much.  This means that when things go badly wrong I can stomp off in the style of Bette Davis and say that as a creative genius, I can’t be bothered with all this tedium  and minutiae and I need my headspace to create. This is usually countered by something sweary and uncouth. Although when a problem crops up I can see the way through it easier than they can. Because as I had no plan to start with, it is easier to change it!
They are organised.
 I am flexible.


I was interested to read a report by Doctor Adam Perkins of Kings College London who has actually made the link between neuroticism and being a creative genius.  It is not a new belief that people with neurotic thoughts are more creative than their calmer friends but now we have an explanation.
This explanation, should by definition make us less neurotic.


MRI studies in the past have shown that those who have that key marker of neuroticism ie the spontaneous negative thought, have an increased activity in a part of the brain called the medial pre frontal cortex.  This part of the brain is associated with threat perception – and that might also be the part of the brain responsible for the ability to pass or fail the lie detector test. When these spontaneous negative thoughts occur the amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional centre (the bit that psychopaths often have underdeveloped) goes into panic mode.  That combination of high activity and the internal neuro transmission means that neurotics are very adept at imagining threats when there are none present.  Indeed making up threats when none are present are stock in trade for a crime writer I would say.  So there seems to be a dynamic link between perceived threat and a highly active imagination.  
Dr Perkins makes an interesting point that for most people a life of neurotic thought is unpleasant, it can become a condition which adversely affects every life experience and the fear born of that neurosis can lead to a life never fulfilling its full potential. So while the fearful neurotic and the creative neurotic will both lie awake at three o’clock in the morning fretting over a problem, tumbling it around in their head there is a great difference in what happens next. Does one write it down on a piece of paper and go back to sleep whilst the other continues to fret? Or does the creative one have the ability to channel it into an endorphin gaining experience and imagine the ex-husband/bank manager/editor crushed under the wheels of a snow plough/forced to listen to Justin Beiber/handcuffed with a ferret down their trousers... or any fifty variations on that theme. Indeed looking back at all those people that I admire for their creative genius, their neurosis has always pushed them to the edge of their sanity.  I am sure every one of us has looked at Munch’s Scream and thought I know exactly how the old dear feels.

Certainly I yearn to put my hands over my ears whenever the Kardashian Klan roll into town. Now, where did that ferret go?

And what was it my  old psychology professor used to say. A psychotic believes that 2 and 2 equals 5 and will not be persuaded otherwise. A neurotic knows that 2 and 2 equals four but cannot accept it. maybe we should add,  they might not accept it but they can write an entire plotline based on the struggle.

Caro Ramsay  26/02/2016

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Aotearoa - land of the long white cloud

Stan - Thursday

Last month, I was fortunate to visit Aotearoa -as the indigenous Mãoris call it - or New Zealand, as we know it.  

It is a beautiful country, comprising two main islands and many small ones.  It lies about 1,500 kms east of Australia and is 1,600 kms long and a maximum of 400 kms wide.  It sits near the meeting of two tectonic plates - the Indo-Australian and Pacific - which makes it part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.  It is dotted with volcanos and subject to severe earthquakes (for example, the 2011 Christchurch quake that killed over 60 people).

Mt. Taranaki

Mt. Ruapehu eruption

Christchurch earthquake
The population is small - about 4.7 million, mainly of European and Mãori descent - and boasts over 30 million sheep.  It has a market economy with major exports being dairy and wine, and has a thriving tourist industry.

Sheep everywhere
Chard Farms vineyard

The cave at Wild Earth winery
I have visited New Zealand several times and always leave with the impression that it is a few decades behind everywhere else - which is often a very good thing.  The one area in which it is completely up to date is in sport - the New Zealand All Blacks are the current world rugby champions, and the Black Cap cricket team is one of the best in the world.

Lots of older cars on the roads

As is so often the case, the European settlement of New Zealand resulted in many problems - the introduction of diseases, the introduction of animals, such as possums, rats, and stoats that resulted in the extinction of many bird species, deforestation, and broken treaties with the Mãoris.  

Keas flock onto cars and try to strip the rubber around windows and doors
I think Mette was happy that moas are extinct.
The elusive, furtive kiwi - heard but not seen

Today, it appears to me, that the country is working hard to acknowledge and celebrate the differences in culture.  Even so the economic conditions of the Maoris is still not as good as that of the European descendants.  What has also changed since my first visit many years ago is the presence of many immigrants from Asian countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, and China.

Perhaps the most visible integration of Mãori culture into New Zealand society is through the haka - a traditional Mãori war dance.  The All Black rugby team uses the haka at the start of every international game to intimidate its opponents and fir up its players.

Click here for the haka from the final of the 2015 World Cup.

As a tourist, it is often difficult to read the Mãori place names because they can often be quite long.  Some examples: Awapikopiko, Makakahikatoa, Waiharakeke (Blenheim), Te Whanga-nui-a tara (Wellington), Heretaunga (Hastings), and, of course, the famous 


which is the longest place name in the world.  It is located in Porangahau, Central Hawke's Bay. It is the name given by the local Mãori people, Ngati Kere, to a hill to celebrate the eponymous ancestor Tamatea Pokai Whenua.

New Zealand is also famous for being the filming location of J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  And I spent four days hiking through the forests around Lake Waikaremoana on the north island looking for Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey.  I thought I had glimpses of them, but no confirmed sighting.

On the south island, we visited Queenstown (preferred destination of the extreme sport crowd) and enjoyed sublime (but expensive) Pinot Noirs at various Otago vineyards and took a boat trip along the spectacular Milford Sound (surprisingly in bright sunshine, because the area is one of the ten wettest places on earth, with an annual rainfall of about 250 inches).

Here are some photos from the trip.

Lake Waikaremoana

On the tramp around Lake Waikaremoana

On the tramp around Lake Waikaremoana

The forest around Lake Waikaremoana

The forest around Lake Waikaremoana

What a pleasant surprise to find a tramper in the forest reading A Death in the Family
There are hundreds of fern species

Ferns everywhere

More ferns
New Zealand has thousand of kilometres of beaches

Milford Sound

Small and large waterfalls everywhere

New Zealand seals

More water

An unbelievable amount of water came over this waterfall
No trip to New Zealand is complete without a feast of green-lipped mussels
and a glass of fine red wine.