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).