Thursday, October 23, 2014

Recharging Book Settings

Since I don't live at the Jersey shore, I like to see the ocean from time to time to recharge my mental images. Luckily, I just spent several days near Jacksonville Beach, Florida with longtime friends. True, there are no palm trees or Spanish moss in New Jersey, but the surf and atmosphere are similar. 

The environment in a book is as important as the plot. I create a lot sitting at a table in Starbucks, but the setting is easier to imagine when I've recently seen sand dunes (as in the photo with the sawgrass) and surf. I certainly know what they look like. Maybe it's the smells I miss.

Fresh images can also move an idea forward. There was a building on pilings near the dunes that looked like a great place for a murder -- or at least a mugging. It sat along the walk that led to the beach. The walkway was elevated, as a New Jersey boardwalk would be. 

Then there was the lonely lifeguard chair sitting on a nearly vacant beach. To a  Midwesterner, it was a warm day (in the sixties), and I expected to see people on the beach. My friend reminded me that Floridians consider a temperature in the sixties to be chilly weather that requires a jacket. 
It was good to see an uncrowded beach. I deliberately set most of the Jolie Gentil series in the off-season--spring, fall or winter. It's easier for the characters to have normal lives when there aren't thousands of tourists to trip over. It's also possible for the bad guys to move around more easily. Fewer people to catch them in the act.

So, now I can finish the eighth book in the series with fresh visions of the ocean and a town geared to visitors--just like my Ocean Alley.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

You Know it Was a Good Book When...

Years later you still envision a setting or scene. There does not have to be an elaborate description, it's more what the author packs into a scene. There can be little action.

In War Day, by Strieber and Kutetka, two writers travel across America several years after a limited nuclear war. Some people think it's a book about the aftermath of war, but I mostly think of it as a book about how people treat one another in difficult times. That said, the scene that I most remember is a flight over a part of Texas that sustained a direct hit.

What remains closest to the impact location is simply black, the result of everything melting. As they (traveling by air, of course) move away, bent metal of skyscrapers appears. It's a long way before you get to the kind of damage you'd see after a World War II bombing. It's just all gone. Juxtaposed with the sterile environment is the character's memory of playing in sprinklers as a child.

Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott books wax descriptive, even more in later books. However, the sparser portrayal of the Knott 'home place' (her father's longtime tobacco farm and ponds, as noted in Bootlegger's Daughter) stick with me even more than longer accounts of the small house Deborah built years later.

Of course, Boo Radley's front porch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is indelibly inscribed in brain. Maybe it's because the kids were so afraid of it that their fear stays with me as Jeb creeps up to it

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows paints vivid pictures of the Isle of Guernsey during World War II. It's British territory, but so far from England that it can't be protected. Occupying Germans take much of the food stores, and of course there's no petrol to speak of long before the end of the war. Perhaps it's because everyone walked everywhere near the end that I see gardens and dirt roads so clearly. It's the overall struggles, even sending the children away, that probably make this book so memorable. I just reread it.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet brings World War II Seattle to life as Jamie Ford portrays two friends, a Japanese girl and Chinese boy, struggling with family relationships and the bigotry of the era. I can still see Seattle's Chinatown and the inside of young Henry Lee's family's apartment, as well as his friend Keiko's precise actions and artwork. And the contents of the Panama Hotel's basement in 1986, when the stored belongings of Japanese families are revealed so many decades later.

I decided to write this without developing a list of books or even studying my bookshelves. If the scenes come to mind so clearly, these really are the books I most remember.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Using Book Themes for Publicity

In the Jole Gentil cozy mystery series, most of the books include a fundraiser for the Harvest for All Food Pantry, which Jolie volunteers with. These events are essentially an opportunity for some comedic moments--with a bit of awareness of the needs of hungry people thrown in. Not too much of the latter, since people read fiction for fun.

Any Port in a Storm has Jolie, Scoobie, and friends preparing for a fundraiser based on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which is September 19th every year.

Say what? Yes, there is such a day, and 2014 marks its eleventh anniversary. Do an online search and you'll see there are events around the U.S. and a few elsewhere.  I stumbled on it a few years ago when I did a search for "silly ideas for a fundraiser."

In Jolie's world, a storm is brewing off the New Jersey coast, a not-uncommon occurrence from late August through October. Finding a body under the pirate ship was not part of the plan.

In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, Any Port in a Storm will be free from September 18-20th this year. Don't believe me? Well, shiver me timbers. Grab your sword and pirate hat and dive into the book.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reflecting After Thirteen Years

Thirteen years ago, I was working in a cubby-hole office at a DC firm when a colleague came in and said, "Something's happened in New York."

As memories of that day go, mine do not merit a sub footnote. But they are mine.

We could look out one window and see smoke from the Pentagon crash site, though that lasted only briefly. Since we were about four blocks from the White House, many of us wondered if more planes were coming and whether they would strike near us. That fear was allayed relatively soon, as all flights were required to land at their nearest airport.

Was it safer to stay at work or leave? My sister insisted I not take the Metro, so my choice was made for the time being.  My car was about eight miles away in a suburban Metro parking lot. A car would have been useless for the first couple of hours, as streets visible from our eighth-floor office window were their own parking lots.

About fifteen of us watched the office television. I was the only one who cried as the towers came down. I never understood that.

It was impossible to get on the Internet, so there was no way to view news there and we could not send or receive emails from family. I volunteered to staff the phones so the support staff could leave, but I didn't know how to transfer calls. When a call came in for someone still in the suite, I used the PA to tell them. That was eerie. The grandmother of one staffer kept calling, and I kept repeating that her granddaughter left safely ages ago.

The rumors stick with me. There was a bomb in a car on Capitol Hill and another at the State Department. The latter was 'verified' information. When I looked in the paper the next day, there was a one-sentence reference to the State Department one having been untrue. No others were mentioned specifically. I suppose that was the one most-often stated as true.

The mental picture I retain most vividly is that of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helping carry wounded at the Pentagon. Perhaps it's because I was close, perhaps because he will (hopefully) be the only Defense Department secretary to have to do that. I see the expression on his face as clearly as if he were standing in front of me.

I did eventually get to my sister's house in Kensington. A colleague who lived a few miles from her took me there. My sister had earlier rushed to her daughter's middle school. It was a short distance from the Navy Medical Center, a tall building amid short ones that she thought could be an easy target for another plane.

My sister drove me to my car, and I went to visit my two brothers and their families that evening. Our third brother was in New Jersey. He was stuck in traffic on a parkway not far from the Twin Towers, and saw the smoke for much of the day.

On September twelfth I went to the scheduled meeting of a Social Equity Panel. We briefly discussed canceling it, but decided it would be letting the terrorists win, somehow.

It was Saturday before I drove to an area near the Pentagon. I took a single carnation and drove along the perimeter at the back of of Arlington National Cemetery. Eventually I reached a patch of lawn where people had left flowers and other items.

The photo is of a sign on the cemetery fence. It reads, "Dear, Police, Firefighters, and the Red Cross. Thank you for helping the people at the Pentagon. You are great people for saving others. We know that your job is hard and dangerous. Thank you for protecting us." The poster is signed by 2nd graders at Drew Model School in Arlington.

I left my carnation beneath it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Simon Brothers Baseball Team

As it gets closer to baseball playoffs in the U.S., it's time to remember the most unique team  in history -- the Simon Brothers Baseball Team.

Simon Brothers with uniforms donated by Senator Capper.
When John M. Simon and his wife Minnie (Hagerty) Simon had their first son in 1893, they had no idea that their farm in Olsburg, Kansas would one day host a baseball diamond or that the team that played there would be comprised of their ten sons. Oldest son John A. Simon (born in 1893) had clear memories of his father's dream and how the older boys would work with the younger ones to teach them how to play the game.

In the 1920s, baseball became synonymous with Babe Ruth and towns throughout the country formed teams that played teams from neighboring towns.  Though many took the sport seriously, these were largely groups of amateurs who played on weekends and the games were a town event. Cars were still a luxury for most families, so local teams rarely traveled far.

By the mid-1920s the Simon Brothers Baseball Team played in several towns in Pottawatomie County, Kansas in Northeast Kansas. The teams they played would often be from Manhattan or Westmoreland, the county seat. Though the brothers enjoyed playing, it was hard work.  The older ones farmed or had other jobs, and practice was in the evenings with most games on Sundays.

In the late 1920s the family team was "discovered" by Kansas Senator Arthur Capper, who was well known as the founder of Capper's Weekly, a popular weekly tabloid that published from 1913-86.  He bought the brothers their first set of professional uniforms and paved the way for the team to play an exhibition game at the 1930 World's Fair in New York.  Twenty years later John (Jack) Simon was still describing the awe the brothers felt after traveling from the Kansas prairie to the big city.

The brothers were:
John Alma (Jack) Simon (1893-1954)
Jacob (Jake) William Simon (1895-1964)
Floyd Walter Simon (1898-1982)
Glenn E. Simon (1901-1974)
Roy Raymond Simon (1903-1983)
Clyde E. Simon (1906-1978)
Bert Simon (1907-1993)
Nile (Cricket) Simon (1909-1987)
Herman (Ted) Simon (1909-1987)
Ernest Edward (Ed) Simon (1913-2010)

Jack Simon is on L. Order of others unknown.
While some brothers left the state for military service, they generally stayed in Kansas.  Only Floyd died outside the state, in California.  John (Jack) and Jake were barbers. Floyd and Glenn farmed in Pottawatomie County in 1930.  Ed was living on the family's farm when he became the last surviving brother in 1993.  He lived to be 97. 
Rosa McBride Simon & husband Jack Simon
Jack Simon and prized dogs
Oldest brother Jack Simon married Rosa McBride of Seneca and Topeka, Kansas. They lived in Topeka, where she had her beauty salon and he worked as a barber. Jack had prize hunting dogs. They were a handsome couple.
                                                   *       *       *
Rosa McBride was first cousin to my mother, H. Rita Rooney. Their moms were, respectively, Annie and Nellie Teehan of Lillis, Kansas. Rosa's husband, Jack Simon, died when I was three, but the stories about him did not. A version of this article (for which I maintained ownership) was on Yahoo Voices for a time.

Friday, August 8, 2014

My Family's History Across North America

As historian of the Orr Reunion Association of Mount Vernon, Missouri, each year I do a short talk on some aspect of our family's 180-year history on this continent. There is a lot of grist for the mill, so to speak, and last year I talked about the many families that had operated grain mills.

This year I looked at our immigration patterns, which were quite varied. The first two families came from Aghadowey Parish in Londonderry (in Northern Ireland, or Ulster if you live there) in the very early 1830s, and came as complete family groups. These were the two oldest sons, and they had enough money to pay for their passage, though not much when they arrived. However, relatively inexpensive land was being offered for sale in several new states, and hard work let them save money for farms (William and Jenny Orr in Missouri and James and Jane Orr in Indiana).

Both of these families landed "at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River," so their first, brief, taste of North America was in Canada. People often ask me if they came through Ellis Island, but it wasn't established until 1892 and America didn't limit immigration when most of our families came. As far as I know, the only records of our ancestors’ arrivals are ship passenger lists. I have not found all of them.

Other families came decades later – from the 1860s to the early 1890s. Without exception, they went where earlier families had settled. The third family (George and Elizabeth Orr) came in 1860, just six months before the Civil War started. They were said to have arrived at the Port of New Orleans and traveled to Missouri. They arrived in Mount Vernon with modest personal wealth and quickly bought land. George had taught school for 30 years, and had tired of working in Ireland's schools. To be fair to the school system there, he was considered very hard to get along with. In any event, his family quickly scattered, with three adult sons going to Colorado. Only two daughters, who married into Mount Vernon families, stayed near the other Orr families.

These first three families came for opportunity and religious freedom. Presbyterians in Northern Ireland were sometimes locked out of their churches for years and forced to worship in the Church of Ireland (Anglican).  The fourth family (Isabelle Orr Campbell and husband Ephraim) likely came for those reasons as well. Ephraim, who died en route and was buried at sea, was a blacksmith. The Campbells brought a bag of money with them, but it was apparently stolen when they were on the ship. 

Mother and children were impoverished on arrival at Castle Gardens in New York City in 1863, and went to the home of her brother George in Mount Vernon. Isabelle died within weeks. This group of six immigrant children were lucky to have made it to an area with relatives before they were orphaned. They took good care of each other.

The next two families came in very small groups, and they sent teenage children before the parents came. Immigration was an economic necessity for them.

The family of Ann Orr Shirley and husband Valentine Shirley arrived over a thirty-five year period.  They had worked in the linen industry, and steam-powered looms made home looms obsolete. For a time Ann and her daughters supported the family with needlework, but Valentine and his sons needed other jobs, and rural Ireland had few.

Daughter Isabella Shirley must have been a very brave woman, for in 1857 (at age 17) she became the first of the Shirley family to sail to the U.S. She went to the Philadelphia area, where she had Shirley cousins, and worked as a servant. Her sister Jane came in 1859 at age twenty-eight. Valentine and Ann did not come until 1870, and their daughter Sarah Shirley Forsythe and husband John did not come until 1895. While the children of Sarah’s siblings were all born in the U.S., all of Sarah’s were born in Ireland, and several of them came before their parents. The Shirley family stayed on the east coast, largely in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Early on, many men worked in coal mines and steel mills.
Lizzie Knox in America

Martha was a sister of William, James, George, Ann, and Isabelle, but she never came. Instead, two of her grandchildren (Sam and Lizzie Knox) wrote to Uncle George to ask for financial assistance to come. Sam and Lizzie were born long after William and James left Ireland (in fact, soon after George and family left), and the Knox family had fallen on very hard times. The Knox siblings came in 1883 and worked hard, Sam in the fields and at the Adams Mill in Jasper County, which was owned by Campbell descendants. Lizzie worked as a servant for a farm family in Lawrence County. Eventually they were able to pay back great Uncle George and send for siblings and their widowed mother, who came in 1887. This is especially impressive when you think that that Sam and Lizzie left Ireland at about age seventeen.

It is interesting that George had a reputation for being ill-tempered, yet he lent money to a number of the Knox children and sent money monthly to a cousin in Aghadowey. That’s where Sam and Lizzie got his address.

Education levels varied widely among the Orr families. The two brothers who came in the 1830s raised their children in a newly settled Indiana or Missouri, and there were not well developed schools. Much is made of the fact that William sent one son for higher education—and only one. George taught school, so his children were schooled in Ireland.

The Campbell family came when their children were young, but by that time there were well established schools in Lawrence and Jasper Counties.  Many members of succeeding generations (even women in the 1930s!) went to college. William’s college-educated son (John Adams Orr) was very close to his Campbell cousins.

Did the Orr family work hard when they got to America?  They did.  But they also had some luck. They were able to come without question, and a young country welcomed them. I often wonder what would happen if we tried to come today. The welcome mat would likely be smaller, and even our small numbers of the nineteenth century would far exceed the immigration quotas of the 21st century. Would we try to sneak in, or be content with the lack of jobs in Ireland today?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Food in Fiction

As a child, I remember bringing a book home from the library, finding an apple, and sitting sideways in the living room chair to read. When I could get away with it, I had a couple of potato chips. Or cookie dough. Raw cookie dough was a no-no, so I had to sneak it when my mom left the mixing bowl alone for a minute.

As an adult who writes, I think a lot about food in my own books as well as those I read. Sue Grafton has Kinsey Milhone eat hot hard boiled egg sandwiches with mayo.  I thought it was gross until I made one. Mostly, Kinsey eats fast food and the
Sweets at my family reunion. No wonder I like food.
bread her landlord makes, and she eats regularly.  Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum stop often for donuts and chicken, the latter at Cluck in a Bucket. We won't talk about what Lula eats.

Lots of cozy mysteries feature food. There is a group of cozy writers who have a blog about food and mysteries -- This isn't a passing thing, July 2014 is their fifth anniversary. Though my protagonist is a lousy cook, Aunt Madge makes muffins in my Jolie Gentil series.

Meals are not regular components of all fiction. You don't see Jason Bourne remembering to grab a sandwich when he stays a step ahead of assassins. For that matter, he doesn't remember who he is, so why remember to eat? Yes, he eats, but it's hardly on a schedule.  Nor would it make sense if he did.

The ones I don't get are the characters who forget to eat. Who does that? I'm listening to 14 by Peter Clines, which is described as an apocalyptic mystery.  (Who knew?) I get that when there is a lot going on food is not first in one's mind. But at the end of a bad day the lead character, Nate, is climbing into bed and remembers he hasn't eaten since breakfast. And he still goes to bed.  I'd be up all night thinking I'm hungry. On the other hand, when the apocalypse is on the doorstep they do inventory their food.

I am not big on description other than venue and weather, and even then I'm sparse. I've finally added food to a list of things to check as I edit a first draft. I seem to remember breakfast and coffee, not so much lunch. However, readers have said my books make them hungry because Jolie and friends are always eating. They seem to have adopted my snacking habit.

Food is fun, when you have enough of it. Since some people don't, Jolie chairs a food pantry committee at a local church. A book can't lecture readers, they put it down. Jolie and friends stage inane fundraisers. Mostly people don't get murdered at them.

As I work on the eighth book in the series, I'm debating whether to kill someone in a coffee shop. Jolie and friends hang out there a lot, so that probably would not be good for business.  I'll have to noodle it.