Friday, June 2, 2023

The Blood Of Crows

At some time during the Mesolithic period I wrote a book called the Blood of Crows. The crows in that sense related to a fragment of the Russian mafia and were generally quite unpleasant types. 

At that time I did quite a bit of research about crows and corvids in general and they are clever, clever little critters. They’re up there with chimpanzees and dolphins with their ability to problem solve. And like the other two species mentioned, they are hugely communicative with their own species. The murder of crows is there to protect the young and they have the ability to rally the troops to defend themselves. In simple terms, they can gang up on you and beat you up.

So two things are relevant to this story. If you go out our house and across the road you are in the Bluebell Woods. There are paths and it's quite civilised. After about 100m the trees are much older, the wood is denser. It's dark and spooky. No paths. And more than one murder from my knowledge.

This is the Ravenswood and it has been called that for hundreds of years. For an obvious  reason. 

The second thing of interest is the new roof we have put on the new house. By Scottish standards our house has a large foot plate and therefore has a large roof. Due to global warming or whatever, the roof and the gutters stopped being able to cope with the amount of rain we have. So with the new roof came new gutters and this provided a lot of wee nooks and crannies for the crows to build a nest. And I think you now know where this story is going.

It all gets a bit Hitchcock Du Maurier.

We’ve always taken the policy that if we feed the crows, they will leave the smaller song birds alone and we think that policy largely works. I consider two of the pigeons friends, collared doves are nervous birds anyway  and they stay clear but I thought the crows and I were on relatively good terms. 

How wrong I was. 

And it was totally accidental.


I was going out to water the tubs and the bold Mathilda followed me out. There’s often crows on the ground picking up the bits of food that have fallen from the feeders and I didn’t clock that one of them was a youngster. Googling it, corvid fledglings have a short period of time where they are on the ground. They have come out the nest and swooped down, not really having the ability yet to fly back up and that was exactly when I was hanging out the washing. Ie just when, as google said, crows are at their most dangerous.

Mathilda, being a rather sweet natured beastie, trotted over to the wee bird to make sure it was okay. Mrs Crow was on her quicker than a blow fly on a corpse. Mathilda was quite confused about this as generally her and the crows get on quite well. Staffies don’t take well to rejection, so while I was calling her back, I was being swooped upon, claws out beaks open. But the really amazing thing was that initial caw caw called in about 30 back up crows from the other side of the house/ across the road/ along the path/ into the deep woods. 


They came all that way with the sole purpose of attacking me. Mathilda and I hid indoors. And for the last few days that has been the way of it. There’s no way we can get in and out of the house via our normal route. Putting the bins out involves using an umbrella. We are under siege. Actually I’m writing this from a state of imprisonment.

I may have to set up a crowdfunding page if I run out of chocolate.

Some of the old whisky distilleries around here still use geese instead of guard dogs. I’m thinking of befriending the crows further, it could be cheaper than a house alarm



Thursday, June 1, 2023

Stumbling Across the Tightrope of Disbelief

Wendall -- every other Thursday

As I was proofreading my latest book, I fell into the habit of listening to stand-up comedy specials in the background. It made me consider the boundaries of comedy in the modern  landscape. So, I decided to revisit some thoughts I wrote several years ago about pushing the limits of believability, and screwball comedy, in a mystery. 


Comedy - gliding or colliding in Charlie Chaplin's 1916 film, The Rink.

Suspending our disbelief has become a national pastime. While it can be alarming in real life, Coleridge’s concept is usually something fiction readers embrace. But where’s the line between delight and cognitive dissonance, between a gasp and a guffaw, or in my case, a loud, sarcastic “Pleeeease,” or “You’ve got to be kidding,” snorted across the living room?

On the surface, fantasy and sci-fi may be in more obvious need of our psychic largesse, but mystery novels require their share, particularly if they involve weekly corpses in a sleepy seaside town, sleuthing kittens, coffee roasters who put the FBI to shame, or for that matter, justice.

Is the justice served out in traditional mysteries something that belongs in a fantasy novel?

Despite its body count, I believe our genre is a hopeful one. Crime novels are a place where wrongs are occasionally righted and characters—however flawed—can win, or at least have a shot at redemption. So it’s more important than ever not to betray our readers by pulling them out of the story. Where is that line we can’t cross? How much leeway do we have?

My conclusion, which is certainly up for debate, is a lot.

Successful writers across the genre push the bounds of believability all the time. Take Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Can he really keep a toothbrush in his pocket while obliterating eighteen bikers? Can he actually find clothes that fit perfectly in the middle of nowhere, every single time his are dirty/bloody, when I can barely do it with an entire mall and the internet at my disposal?

Of course he can, because Child made sure Reacher was larger than life from the start—in every novel he accomplishes things which would seem impossible for a normal person. And because his wardrobe, or lack thereof, brilliantly supports and illuminates his restlessness and the impermanence of his life, we don’t care that it’s unlikely every small town surplus store carries khakis for giants.

The immortal Rex.

Janet Evanovich offers us the world’s oldest hamster—Stephanie Plum’s Rex. What is he, thirty? Who cares? I hope he lives to be a hundred. Stephanie’s been through enough.

As a reader, I will put up with a certain amount of coincidence, a couple of “wait a minute, didn’t she’s?” and some leaps in logic, as long as I’m connected to the characters and the book feels emotionally truthful and consistent with the tone the writer established in the early pages.

As a writer, though, I’ve struggled to determine how much artistic license writing a “zany” mystery gives me, when it comes to the details of plot and character. I started out as a film writer, operating in a realm where nothing was expected to be realistic, but are the rules different for novelists? Do comedies get a pass hard-boiled books don’t? Or are the rules the same for any imaginary world?

In my particular case, my first novel, Lost Luggage, had an amateur sleuth in Cyd Redondo, but a zanier tone than most traditional or cozy mysteries. So I turned to my inspiration--screwball film comedies--for a working "logic threshold."

Is there a believable moment in this movie? Do we care?


How did the whole leopard thing really work in Bringing Up Baby? Did Katherine Hepburn’s Susan Vance have a leopard litter box the size of a bathtub, off screen? Would she really wear a floor-length chiffon peignoir with claws around? Did it matter? I embraced every silly moment of that film, because writers Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols set up Hepburn’s character to repel logic from her first line of dialogue. And because it’s the tension between what is happening on screen and what should reasonably be happening which makes the film a classic.

The Professors and the Showgirl. Ball of Fire (1941).


Would Garbo’s Russian bureaucrat in Ninotchka actually wear that ludicrous hat, or would eight bachelor scholars take in a gangster’s moll in Ball of Fire? If Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were writing it, absolutely, because they gave us a beautifully crafted “suspension bridge” from the first moment of both films, making their characters believable in all their glorious unreality.

When Preston Sturges opens his script for Easy Living with a Fifth Avenue millionaire’s mink coat landing on broke heroine Jean Arthur’s head, we have no problem believing she will unwittingly meet and fall in love with the millionaire’s son. We know right away we’re in a world where no coincidence or happy accident is too great.

One of Preston Sturges's early scripts.

Still, as I’ve struggled throughout my series to maintain the tone one reviewer kindly called “enchantingly ridiculous,” I'm always wary of the line which might push it into the merely “ridiculous.”

In the end, it came down to listening to my character’s internal logic to make sure all my comic set pieces unfolded in a way that was believable for her and for the tone of the series. I found it also helped to try to keep up a relentless pace. That’s the true genius of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s—their pace doesn’t leave the audience time to question or ponder. So that’s what I’ve tried to do in the series to date—write Cyd’s true, eccentric nature, as fast as I can.

Will readers believe Cyd, who can't swim, will survive this drop?

Whether readers buy her lowering herself on a rope—with her carry-ons—from a helicopter onto a cruise ship, preserving blood from a corpse in a travel nail polish bottle, rescuing endangered songbird eggs with her balconette bra, surviving a thirty foot drop from one infinity pool into another, or defeating the villain with her intimate knowledge of the way wheelchairs work, is always something I wonder, and worry, about.

How do you “cheat” logic or push believability in your novels and, as a reader, where do you draw the line? 



Wednesday, May 31, 2023

A Breath of Fresh Air

 Sujata Massey

I didn't get away to anywhere fabulous this past Memorial Day weekend. I wish I could have. As the summer of 2023 starts, I'm busy writing a book and gardening, and I'll share what I posted about visiting Lewes, Delaware during the summer of 2021. I highly recommend visiting Lewes, the quiet half-sister to exuberant Rehoboth Beach. 

What is it about wind at the shore? It's the most soothing caress. When you add in the eternal sound of crashing waves, and an endless blue expanse of sea and me, that's a perfect moment.



I drove a few hours with my family to Lewes, Delaware for a whole week in mid-July. We are not "downy ayshun" people, as many Marylanders are. When our children were young, we never had the funds to travel to Maine or the Eastern Shore or the myriad other places Baltimoreans visit to escape humid temperatures over 90 degrees in July and August. We were OK with it. But I always had a dream...what would it be like to spend some days in a beach town?

I came to appreciate Lewes (pronounced Lewis) when I was invited to participate in the History Book Festival held annually by the Lewes Public Library. There was the odd coincidence of my having named a British male character as Simon Lewes in my 2013 historical novel, The Sleeping Dictionary. At that point, I only knew that Lewes is a town in Sussex, the area of Britain where I was born. It struck me as particularly pleasant-looking name, and that's all I can say for my subconscious.

As I said, a couple of visits to Lewes, thanks to the library, made me start to feel a kinship for this charming town. Since its beginnings with a failed Dutch settlement in 1631, Lewes grew into a busy 19th century fishing town. Because of the odor coming from fish canneries, it escaped tourism until the latter half of the twentieth century. This was the canneries closed, and people from neighboring states realized the Lewes cottages were as adorable as those in Annapolis and Georgetown--and a lot less expensive, both for summering and for year-round retirement.

Through VRBO, we found a 19th century cottage painted a happy yellow on a quiet street a couple of miles from the beach.There was a mix of longtime residents and newer people on the street, and there was zero party scene. We couldn't have better weather--hot, but not unbearable. A couple of evening storms along the cape kept the humidity low and temperatures in the 80s. 

My favorite ritual was coffee in the garden, followed by an hour's walk along the Lewes-Georgetown biking and walking trail, which was built on the path of a former railway line. Later in the daytime, I'd go with family and friends for short trips to both Lewes’s small public swimming beach, and the wilder, less crowded beach within Cape Henlopen Park. I had overpacked the fridge with food brought from home and made one visit to the Wednesday morning farmer's market for tomatoes, peaches, and eggs. Never had to set foot in a grocery store. A few friends came to stay for one night, and after they'd gone, one of my sisters arrived from Minnesota to occupy the spare bedroom across the hall.


Perhaps the most magical spot in Lewes is the wildest: its cape. Cape Henlopen State Park encompasses the meeting point of the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Formerly military land, this 5,193 acre expanse was turned over to the Delaware park system, who have done a splendid job preserving habitat. An elevated trail that allows visitors to walk or ride over uninterrupted, wild habitat. Gazing down from the elevated trail near Gordon's Pond, I was impressed by a group of large spiders with eye catching gilded backs. I learned they were belong to the species known as Argiope Aurantia, a much lovelier name than what most people call them: Black and Yellow Garden Spiders.

At Cape Henlopen, I saw faraway dolphins jumping out of the waves. Elsewhere in Lewes, black vultures swooped down from the sky to keep watch on garden activities . Cawing seagulls reminded us of the ocean, wherever we went. We looked up at the sky, with hats on our heads, but no masks. 


Many times that week, I thought of my deceased daughter Pia. I imagined her body surfing in the ocean,  lazing in the hammock, and yelling at me to come look at the dolphins. She was beside me when I lifted from the oven her favorite summer dessert, peach cobbler. I envisioned her and her brother strolling down the boardwalk at nearby Rehoboth Beach, searching for French fries,and throwing the leftovers for the gulls. But I was also in the moment during the majority of the week at Lewes. I loved roaming the town and trails with my sister and having coffee with my husband at six in the morning in the garden. I was delighted by my son’s surprise reunion with his friend who sprang from the sand to give him a hug. Strolling by myself, I spent hours pondering the intricate color combinations on the cottages, and when I was tired, I lounged on the picture-perfect porch of our rental reading escapist novels. 


I didn't look at the news all week. Upon returning to Baltimore, it all came crowing in. I learned the Delta variant of the Covid virus was surging everywhere in the United States--even Maryland, where I live, and we have a 70 percent full vaccination rate. Even a few vaccinated friends had caught the variant. It seemed like the summer idyll was a brief respite that would be replaced with a return to social distancing.


This means, for me, it’s time for a sea change. I decided against attending the BoucherCon mystery convention in New Orleans this August. I started masking again when I visit stores and the gym. 

I'm glad I went to Lewes when I did. And I can console myself that I can still have some of the rituals that became precious there, starting with coffee on the porch at six o'clock, most mornings now through Labor Day.



Monday, May 29, 2023

How to Write a Cable TV Miniseries

 Annamaria on Monday

It's a beautiful spring day, the Sunday of a holiday weekend.  I have two choices: to take a ride in my adorable red roadster and visit The Cloisters Museum with a friend. Or stay inside and write a blog. What would you do?

In lieu of new material, I offer a satiric post from eight years ago.  This post has gotten more than 1500 hits.  It appears in a google search when people look for real instruction.  Though I was poking fun, given the current state of the "art,"  I fear people may be using it as an actual template.  What do you think?  PK

The following instructions are based on a study of these successful series: Rome, The Tudors, The Borgias, The Game of Thrones.

First, choose your setting
Historical settings work well, especially if they involve costumes of opulent fabrics, stately architecture and colorful interior decoration, and if they take place at a time when the countryside is open and beautiful and entirely free of suburban sprawl.  Mythical places are also acceptable even if they mean drab costumes and plain buildings, in which case the use of magic is recommended.

The most important aspect of the setting is that the story absolutely MUST take place at a time where position in society has more to do with birthright or fabulous wealth than with morals or intellect and where combat—both between individuals and armies—involves hacking or automatic weapons.  This last point is essential.  The weapons of combat MUST not only draw blood, but easily remove digits, hands, feet, arms, legs, heads, and by the end of Episode One of Season Two, the splitting of at least one body at the waist.

Two powerful factions:  One is led by an older man (Mr. BIG) who is in danger of losing his position.  The other is led by a person of almost equal power (Mr. Just-Shy-of Big) or by the person whom Mr. BIG deposed in the not too distant past (Mr. Used-to-be Big). There need not be an ultimate prize for which the factions are competing, except for dominance over one another.  There must be no obvious good guys and bad guys.  The series will end, if it ends, when one of the leaders dies. Alternatively, there can be one dominant faction led by an aging but still virile king/chief/Caesar/capo (Mr. BIG) and two or three contending factions—led by younger men (Messers Wanna-be BIG 1, 2, etc.) whose strength is on the rise, but who must also compete with one another in their pursuit of the throne of Mr. BIG.

From time to time, as the story and/or the ratings threaten to lag, one of the characters who seems essential and/or who is actually attractive to the audience will suffer a seemingly life-threatening injury or illness.  Scenes in this regard can be slotted in wherever necessary.

Each faction is led by a powerful, charismatic leader, consumed with greed for dominance, entirely devoid of conscience, and possessing an insatiable sexual appetite (regardless of his age).  His weakness: he has a child on whom he dotes—if a son, the young man is weak of will, if a daughter, she beautiful and scheming, not to be trusted.  These can be identical for both factions, or Mr. Just-Shy-of BIG might have a scheming son and a weak willed daughter.  Her weakness must then be for hunky men who are not loyal to her father.

The main warriors are all hunky men capable of hacking all day and ravishing women all night.  Rarely, one of them may, however flawed he is, be capable of truly heroic deeds and posses a humane sense of honor.  At least one successful series (Rome) has had such a character (Titus Pullo), played by a hunk who can also act.  In such cases, he will become beloved by at least one female fan (Me).

The young women are all beautiful and hardly short of nymphomanaical.  Unless they are frigid.  Those past their childbearing years are either faded beauties (Lady Sexual Predator) or evil to the core (Duchess Wrinkled-Mother-of-Mr. Wanna-be BIG).

Children younger than ten are there to be used as props—to create tension if they are in physical danger or audience responses of shame/titillation/anxiety if they are witnesses to illicit sex.

The Script
Season One – Episode One
Scene One-Mr. BIG discusses the precarious nature of his grip on the throne with his trusted advisors, including an incredibly sexy clergyman or woman who has taken a vow of celibacy. (This is true even if the oversexed Mr. BIG is himself a clergyman who has taken a vow of celibacy.)   The scheming and immoral nature of BIG’s rise to power is made evident.  One of his trusted advisors comes across as less than trustworthy.  His son’s weakness is revealed.

Scene Two – Mr. Dodgy Trusted Advisor has sex with BIG’s wife/daughter/sister.  Close-up of female waist-up nudity.

Scene Three – this takes place in a sunny bucolic setting, next to a glistening stream in springtime.  Hand-to-hand combat between the son/step-son/nephew of BIG and a kinsman of Mr. Just-Shy-of BIG’s family. Blood is shed.  No body parts are removed.  Mr. JSB’s family member makes it back to his own camp before he dies.

Scene Four – Dodgy Trusted Advisor informs BIG of the fight and the death of the enemy chief’s kinsman, which leads to a shouting match between BIG and the son/step-son/nephew who had jeopardized the uneasy peace between the factions.  The young relative leaves the room.  BIG and the others see that they must gird themselves for war.

Scene Five – BIG’s offending young relative goes for solace to his mother/aunt/sister/female first cousin.  She is extremely sympathetic.  In words, the two are straightforward, but in attitude, they are quite seductive toward each other.  No actual sex incestual sex takes place.  A small child enters just as the scene ends.

Scene Six – JSB’s camp is in an uproar over the death of their precious kinsman.  Various strategies are suggested for dealing with this affront.  Many hotheads call for blood.  A supposedly celibate clergyman in JSB’s court advises a more moderate response but is loudly rebuffed.  JSB questions the clergyman’s loyalty, and the priest is driven from the room in shame.

Scene Seven – The possibly disloyal clergyman brings his hurt ego to JSB’s wife/sister/daughter.  Soft core porn scene ensues, involving views of female full frontal nudity and the clergyman’s very attractive naked butt.

Just before the roll credits….
Warriors in both camps sharpen their hacking tools.  A rider receives a message from the hands of JSB and speeds through the night toward BIG’s castle/fortress.

Season One – Episode Two
Scene One – WAR!!  Hacking left and right.  Many spear carriers and archers die while loosing limbs.  One horse is killed with an arrow in his eye.   An essential warrior in BIG’s army is very badly wounded.  JSB’s General looses an arm.  No decapitations, however.  JSB’s army comes out ahead.  Nothing is really decided.

Scene Two – BIG, who is roaring drunk and fully clothed, debauches his wife’s blond lady-in-waiting.  The scene ends with her stealing down a dim corridor, her dress in tatters, her beautiful bare chest heaving.  She meets a child in the hallway.

And so it goes…  You should be able to take it from here by using the following guidelines.

Plot-Thickening Scenes: three in each episode, two from one side, one from the other.  Choose from the following:
Small group discussions by sub-factions plotting against their lord or against someone he loves but who is disloyal.
Large group arguments where many advisors try to sway BIG or JSB.  In such a scene, it is impossible to tell for sure who is sincerely for or against their lord.  Ambiguity leads to a longer rather than shorter run in any series.
One-to-one meetings conspirators in dark corridors or stables where plots are hatched between traitors.
The mysterious death—NOT by hacking—of a character the audience might have actually liked.

Hacking Scenes: War in ever third episode.  One or two other hacking scenes in every episode in which there is not a war.  Chose from:

Large group melees
One-to-one duels, ending in the death of one participant, or both
Stabbings in the back
Hacking rules:
At least two decapitations by the end of Episode Four
Women may be killed, but they are not hacked apart if they are blond and/or blue-eyed

Sex Scenes: At least one long one or two short ones in each episode, given in the following order.  The amount of nudity and the time the camera lingers on the body parts increases over the life of the series:
Illicit sex involving betrayal of BIG or JSB
Illicit sex viewed accidently by a member of the clergy
A man ravaging a woman dear to this wife
Sex between a clergyman and a person married to someone else.
A man raping his wife
Illicit sex viewed accidently by a child who is likely to report it.
Seduction of a virgin by a member of the clergy
Sodomy.  The sex of the participants is irrelevant.
            Multigenerational group sex

Okay, folks, there you have it.   If you use this and become rich and/or famous, you must share with me 15% of your earnings and invite me as your date for the both the Emmy and the Golden Globe Awards.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

A Susan Spann Classic: Female Samurai Warriors

[We miss Susan, but she's left us a treasure trove of blog posts that we'll draw upon from time to time for no other reason than they're just so terrific!--Jeff]


When I say "samurai warrior," most people conjure an image of a man in lacquered armor wielding a pair of wicked swords.

Something like this:

Look! A samurai!
Or possibly this:

Yep, that's a samurai.

Far fewer people realize that, on occasion, samurai warriors also looked like this:

Onna-bugeisha, the female Japanese warrior

During (and since) the medieval era, the Japanese term for these female samurai warriors is onna-bugeisha (女武芸者). It translates roughly to "woman warrior."

The term "female samurai" isn't exactly correct, because all women born to samurai families were considered samurai--whether or not they wore swords and rode into battle like a man. Women in samurai households were usually literate and received at least minimal training in hand to hand combat, often with the naginata, a type of Japanese halberd. 

(Unlike European halberds, which were normally used by men, the naginata was normally considered most suitable for use by women and monks.)

Samurai women were expected to watch over the family income, accounts, and household when their fathers or husbands went to war, duties which often included managing ledgers and--when necessary--defending the home against thieves or invaders. These were NOT the "shrinking violets" many people imagine when they consider medieval Japanese wives!

Most onna-bugeisha lived as women--wearing women's clothes and acting as wives, daughters, and sisters except when danger required them to take up arms to defend their homes and families. 

Tomoe Gozen on horseback
However, if a samurai warrior had no son (and occasionally, even if he did) he could raise a daughter as a full-time onna-bugeisha. In rare cases, these women even adopted male dress and hairstyles, wore two swords, and served full-time in the army of the daimyo to whom they pledged their service.

Tomoe Gozen, center, fighting in the Genpei War
One famous onna-bugeisha, Tomoe Gozen, allegedly fought in the Genpei War (1180-1185) and served as a role model to generations of Japanese women. Although some historians argue about whether or not Tomoe Gozen truly lived, other famous onna-bugeisha like Hojo Masako and Nakano Takeko are well-documented historical figures.

Portrait of Nakano Takeko

My fondness for onna-bugeisha carries over into my fiction. The first Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, featured a female samurai warrior named Akechi Yoshiko, who lives (and acts) more like a samurai man than a woman. Yoshiko makes a return appearance in my upcoming release, Flask of the Drunken Master (Minotaur, July 2015)--and I promise, she hasn't abandoned her warrior's ways.

One reason I set my books in Japan is the host of intriguing, surprising--and realistic--characters who populated that medieval world. I love exploring their stories, and sharing them with readers who might or might not realize that such people--though fictionalized in my stories--also existed in medieval Japan. 

The onna-bugeisha was only one...I'll share some others in weeks to come....

--Susan (who wishes she could walk around wearing swords).