Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Birthday of the Rock (& starting my new mystery snail style)

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

Yes, it's still Chinese New Year. The whole festival lasts 15 days and today (Jan 31st) is the 10th day or the Birthday of the Rock.

That probably came about because the Chinese words for '10' and 'stone' share the homonym 'shí'.

As kids we were told that if we could carry a small stone around all day without losing it, we would have a fruitful year (ie good results in our exams). I know some girls were given a piece of jade or a tiger eye stone on a chain to wear, but most of us just had a smooth pebble in our pocket.

The Rock's Birthday was also a day when the stone pestle and mortar (like this one below) couldn't be used in the kitchen,

and when snails shouldn't be crushed. Maybe because of the shape of their shells? We also had a few stone snails in my grandfather's garden.

I don't kill snails at all if I can help it, I'm very fond of snails. They're small, have pretty poor eyesight but are sensitive to their surroundings, and protect themselves from the outside world with hard (but fragile) shells. 

Which is kind of how I feel when I'm starting on a new book, like now.

It's a terrifying time with so many ideas and options and possibilities that I could go on forever trying to decide. But snail style, I just start where I am. 

My next book will be another history mystery, set here in Singapore after the Japanese Occupation.

But in what kind of surroundings? Snail style, my characters will need somewhere to eat--the kopitiam or sidewalk coffee shop (precursors of the one I lunched at today) were just appearing then--

 --and they haven't changed all that much!

It's nice to be around friendly people who aren't friends, who'll nod and say 'hello' but won't start a conversation so you can study them and decide which of them you want to add to your collection. 

Like people, snails are very sociable creatures. Patricia Highsmith (who wrote “Man has no more soul than a garden snail. The point is, the garden snail has a soul, too.”) is said to started collecting snails after seeing two of them being companionable in a pet shop window.

I imagine they were like a couple I saw at the kopitiam today, in office wear. The man looked in his forties and was focused on his curry rice and hardly said a word. The woman, who looked much younger, talked non-stop. She had a bowl of seafood noodles in front of her but hardly swallowed more than a few mouthfuls of soup. 

I wonder if the two are colleagues or relatives or some permutation of friends. And if I were to write them in, would I kill him off and point suspicion to her or vice versa? Or would the spectator (poor me in this case) be unceremoniously bumped off for seeing them together?

Here are a couple of snails being companionable. It's easier for snails. because their close encounters with other snails generally lead to either sex or cannibalism. But when it comes to people there's such a wealth of other options... though sex and cannibalism remain interesting options!

I want to look more into the habitat too. Nowadays food supplies are transported in from centralised distributors, but back in the post war days the coffee shop owners would wok-roast their own coffee beans with sugar and butter and sometimes sweet corn stalks and pineapple skins to the requisite dark brown colour and fragrance. 

A kopitiam's reputation was based as much on the strength of its kopi (coffee) and sweetness of its homemade kaya (coconut jam) as the rice and noodle dishes it might serve.

Which opens up possibilities of pointing out the last meal a victim ate contained kaya or kopi was Not prepared in the kopitiam (s)he was found dead in, or that the stone mortar used to bash someone's head in couldn't have been wielded by a superstitious person... unless he or she's the one now making panicky offerings to the Rock to atone...

I won't share any of the photos I took (without permission while pretending to be taking selfies) of all the people in the koptiam. I know the stories I make up about their lives and how/ why they chose what they're wearing/ eating/ carrying/ complaining about/ watching/ texting comes more from me than from them, but until I've settled on the general outline of my next book I'm 'auditioning' characters for major and minor roles and this is probably the second most exciting part of the writing process. 

And it's a lot more pleasant and less painful than the actual writing! 

But I'll leave you with one more snail picture:

I like this one because you can see the snail eyes on stalks that extend and turn to take in everything around it. 

Happy Rock Birthday, everyone! (And please tell me, would you read a book with snails in it? Or would you find them taboo as clues?)



  1. I love the snail idea, Ovidia. We also have interesting land snails in South Africa. I'm sorry I didn't think of the idea first!

  2. what’s really interesting is, we call some of our most common snails here 'African snails' so we might be talking about the same snails!

  3. Great post, Ovidia, fun, fun, fun. :-)

  4. Inspiring post, Ovidia. On dry and sunny Mykonos it does not rain cats and dogs, it rains snails. I suspect that's true in any arid clime hosting snails. As soon as the rain passes, snails emerge in droves from their moisture-preserving hideaways to face a garlic-laced fate at the hands of hungry Mykonian epicureans. Perhaps there's a plot line in there somewhere for your new book.:)

    1. Ooh yes... but now it's also opening up sci-fi snail domination options...

  5. I think snails are cute! In tropical countries they magically appear after a heavy downpour.

    1. Yay! I think so too, Kwei! I'm very fond of snails!

  6. Love snails! Always have a great desire to protect them and keep them out of harm's way.

  7. I would read a book with snails in it if you wrote it. I have French friends who keep snails in their garden. I won’t talk about what they do with them. AA

  8. Well, shoot! I wish I'd known about the rock birthday on January 31st. I'm starting a new book and submitting two others.This post was so interesting about the snails, although how sad that close encounters can only mean sex or death. On another note, I enjoyed learning about the history of kopitiams and how the coffee is made. Best of luck on peopling your new book.