Friday, November 30, 2012

Putting a Historic Figure in the Novel

As near as I can determine, there are no pictures of Captain Benjamin Forsyth.

He was an American hero of the War of 1812, leader of Forsyth's Rifles, a dashing if rowdy and larcenous crew involved in many important battles on the Canadian-American border in the Thousand Islands area. He plays a part in the story of Bucker Dudley. When Bucko was imprisoned in Elizabethtown, Captain Forsyth and his Rifles crossed the frozen river, raided the town, and released all the prisoners. This was an actual raid, carried out by the actual historical personage, Captain Benjamin Forsyth. But what did he look like?

Sean Bean

I like to think of him as looking like Sean Bean when he played Richard Sharpe of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Rifles, a gorgeous hunk in a skin-tight uniform, broad-shouldered, maybe six and a half feet tall, his handsome brow creased with the consciousness of having killed many men and broken the hearts of many women.

But maybe he was short. It has been said that in the woodland skirmish where he lost his life Benjamin Forsyth climbed up on a stump to see what was happening, whereupon a British marksman picked him off. A tall man wouldn't have had to do this. And maybe his shoulders weren't broad at all. You can never tell about the people of that time, since broad shoulders were so unfashionable that even a man who had them would be painted as not having them, wearing those cramped, pinch-shouldered jackets that were in style in those days.

Portrait of General Hull

But who cares? I'm writing this story. I can make Captain Benjamin Forsyth as fine-looking as I like. It's called poetic license. My poetic license hangs over my desk. Take a look at it. The powers it gives me are sweeping.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Most Americans, when they hear that the Texans want to secede from the union, immediately think the case parallels the Civil War (aka the War Between the States). They do not think of the War of 1812, when the New Englanders nearly seceded. Yes, folks, in those days it was the Yankees who couldn't stand the bull from Washington anymore. They even went so far as to meet in Hartford to go forward with their plans for secession. Here's how it went down.

First of all the New England merchants and farmers were sore at President James Madison. They hadn't voted for him, but for DeWitt Clinton, the Federalist candidate. When he declared war on Great Britain they were filled with alarm and venom. The war quickly began to go badly. The British blockaded all trade. The merchants lost money. In spite of New England's refusal to support the war with money or men, the federal government continued to fight against the British.

After two years of things not going their way, the Yankees decided they weren't going to take it anymore. In December of 1814, with the war dragging on, delegates came to Hartford from all over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, as well as a few from New Hampshire and Vermont. Nobody knows how the treasonous meetings went, for they kept no minutes, possibly for fear of being hanged. In the end they backed down from outright secession and made a list of amendments they wanted made to the Constitution. They sent a delegation to Washington to put their list before the Republicans in charge of Congress, without hope of winning them over, but thinking to embarrass them.

The delegation arrived in Washington to make their constitutional demands about the same time that the news arrived that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, Jackson had whupped the British in New Orleans, and the war was over. How embarrassed they must have been. The New England Federalist cause was irrelevant now. As a result not only the New England secessionist movement but the entire Federalist party lost all influence in the country, and withered away completely.

The Texans might want to think about that.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Historic Storm

In the midst of all the current hysteria about Sandy the Frankenstorm I was moved to cast my mind back to the War of 1812 to see whether I could think of a big storm that left its mark on the history of that conflict. There was one that I know of. Not a hurricane, not even a nor'easter, the squall that struck Lake Ontario on the night of August 8, 1813, was evil enough to take the lives of many sailors.

Ned Myers was aboard the schooner Scourge, a merchant vessel commandeered by the American navy and fitted out – overbalanced, actually – with eight heavy guns on the deck. He told the story in his memoirs, Ned Meyers, A Life Before the Mast, dictated to James Fenimore Cooper.

The American fleet was pursuing the British over the lake that day, though the wind was almost still. The Hamilton and the Scourge, two schooners, rowing with all their might, fell behind the other vessels. Night fell. Captain Osgood expected to fight some more. After mess he told the exhausted sailors to sleep at their stations, leaving the sails up, waiting for a breath of wind.

The night grew chilly. some of the men went below where they could sleep in the warmth. On deck Ned Myers fancied a drink, and he was headed for the hatchway when he heard a strange rushing noise to windward. The sky turned black.

A sudden bolt of lightning. A crash of thunder. More lightning and a violent wind that rolled the vessel over to larboard, sending the guns, the shot boxes everything heavy and unsecured careening across the deck, the sailors along with it. Injured men cried out. Ned Myers sprang to throw loose the jib-sheet, shouting to the man at the wheel to put the helm hard down. Ned and another man succeeded in letting fly the lee topsail sheet, but as Ned got hold of the clew line he realized the vessel was going over. The water was up to his breast.

All the men below were lost, including Captain Osgood, and most of those on deck as well. Myers escaped by jumping off just as the ship went down. By chance he swam to a leaky rowboat that had been towed behind the Scourge, and rescued some of his fellows. What happened next – how he was rescued by the British, sent barefoot to prison in Halifax, and managed a daring jailbreak – can be found in his book, widely available online. The Scourge itself rests on the bottom of Lake Ontario together with the Hamilton, sunk in the same storm, preserved as an archaeological site.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Always to be Calling it, Please, Research

Tom Lehrer fans will recognize this line from his immortal hit, "Plagiarize." When I set out to write BUCKER DUDLEY it was not my intention to rip off other people's work, but to write something fresh and original about a very old idea: the sailor girl who went to sea dressed as a boy.

And I wanted to write about the War of 1812.

I didn't know a whole lot about the War of 1812 before I started reading. Americans don't. It's a big deal in Canada, because they figure they won it, which they did, sort of, and yet not. The idea of a shooting war between Canadians and Americans intrigued and horrified me. My father was American, my mother Canadian. They grew up thirty miles from each other.

What most Americans know about the war is the part where the British burned Washington, and then were repelled from Baltimore, where our flag still flew from Fort McHenry in the dawn's early light, after which they sailed off to New Orleans and got soundly whupped by Andrew Jackson's troops.

There was a lot more to it than that. First off the Americans declared war on Great Britain, the most powerful naval force on earth, without having an effective army or navy. It was not a popular war. President Madison sent raw troops to Canada under incompetent officers in the mistaken belief that their invasion would be welcomed. The troops were terrified of Indians, who wouldn't fight by the rules. The New Englanders were so distressed by the whole mess that they started making plans to secede from the Union.

Showing the craziness through the eyes of an adolescent girl who found herself in the middle of it became the task of writing the novel. Bucko does fine. Good health, a cheerful outlook, and remarkable athletic ability see her through most of her trials. The first draft of BUCKER DUDLEY showcased many fascinating characters that I came upon in my reading, but the multiple point of view necessary to feature them pulled focus from Bucko's struggles.

John Norton, the half-Scot, half-Cherokee Mohawk war chief, was too good to cut out of the book in the second draft: handsome, fascinating, bloodthirsty, irresistible to women, ultimately a tragic figure. So he is Bucko's cousin, on the Scottish side, her last remaining relative. She must go into the woods to find him after her ship is destroyed.

In the coming weeks I'll blog about the characters I had to cut. I already told you about Duncan McColl, the soldier minister who was a force for peace on the Maine-New Brunswick border, and Alexander Contee Hanson, the newspaper publisher who detonated the Baltimore riots, and my beloved Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy (Nelson's Hardy), whose aristocratic young wife never appreciated him. There are many others of interest, both noble and debased. Check back here from time to time to find out all about them.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Blackmail Yourself (or let us do it for you)

I saw on MediaBistro yesterday that a new free service called Aherk is offering to blackmail you into finishing your novel, or painting your dining room, or whatever. All you do is state your goal and its deadline and send them a compromising picture of yourself. If your Facebook friends (you see, Facebook has to be involved here) all agree that you have achieved your goal by the deadline, then Aherk won't post the picture on Facebook. Otherwise your reputation is toast.

The concept raises a few questions.

First: Free? What are you getting out of it, Aherk? Oh, yes, my blackmail pictures. After I achieve my goal, perhaps I'll get monthly emails from you demanding fifty dollars.

Second: What sort of pictures do we consider compromising in 2012? In my case, something would have to be Photoshopped. Me wearing Republican campaign materials on my head. Me in bed with the paperboy. (Actually we have no paperboy.) Me using the wrong fork. In point of fact, I haven't done anything in years that couldn't be shown on Facebook with perfect aplomb. At least, I don't think I have. It's true that my memory isn't what it was.

Third: What happens if your Facebook friends all want to see your embarrassing picture so badly that they are willing to lie to Aherk about your achievements? We all know about Facebook friends. Some of them are actual friends, but some of them are just these people who once asked you to friend them, and when you couldn't remember whether you'd ever met them or who they were you said, fine, we're friends. Maybe yes, maybe no.

And finally: What sort of moron gives blackmail pictures to perfect strangers? What sort of society are we living in where people would even expect each other to do that? Who are all these vultures hanging around waiting for me to embarrass myself? Why is the twenty-first century such a total cesspit? (snort… drool…)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Minimalism vs. Abundance

The brilliant small life. Elegance, which is to say the state of having made choices, and having discarded the unworthy and kept only the best. This is what most of us want, except for the pathologically greedy, the disgustingly rich, and the hoarders. We don't want to be those people. Right? We want to lead lives of diamond-like brilliance.

Good luck with that. I've been working on it for more years than I care to remember, and it's one step forward and two steps back. Still, the struggle is worth pursuing.

I was going through a copy of Eating Light this morning, looking for enticing recipes, when I realized something about my kitchen. I don't have half the stuff it takes to make these gourmet dishes. I don't mean the big, perishable things, zucchini, cauliflower, meat, but the spices, specialty oils, gourmet vinegars, and ethnic sauces and condiments that make a dish stand out, not even getting into the cooking utensils required to prepare some ethnic dishes. Quite frankly, I can't give all that stuff house room. Nor can I use the spices and condiments up before they go bad. And then it struck me: one's kitchen is like one's closet.

Yes, standing in the kitchen moaning that there's nothing to eat is not very different from standing in front of the closet moaning that there's nothing to wear. And the things the experts tell you about your closet are also true of your kitchen.

For example:

Minimalism. There is a school of thought that says you should have no more than ten items of clothing for a season, excluding shoes, socks, underwear, scarves, gym clothes and evening wear. It's very French. In order to pull it off you must buy tops and bottoms in a single main colorway, with everything co-ordinating so well that you can dress in the dark. (If you're in New York it has to be black.) In the kitchen, you can apply this philosophy as well, paring down your need for many jars of spices by sticking to a single cuisine. (If you're in New Jersey it has to be Italian.) I wanted to cook a Swedish dish the other night only to find that it required cardamom, which as luck would have it costs fifteen dollars a jar at the local supermarket. Back to chicken cacciatore for me.

When Julia Child first came on the scene I was a young housewife. I learned a lot of what I know about cooking from watching her show. I don't recall that she used a food processor; her tools of choice were a big sharp chef knife, a balloon whisk, an assortment of pots and pans and a few bowls. As time goes by, though, and one loses the snap in one's wrist, a food processor can be a very nice thing to have. Likewise the bread machine, the ice cream maker – Still, I know how to keep a minimalist French kitchen. If I wanted to do that. (You see how easy it is to stray from the ideal.)

Suitability. Your closet and your kitchen should both be in harmony with your lifestyle. Your ten items of clothing will be different if you stay home and raise children from what you would wear to go to business, different also according to your age and degree of physical fitness. Likewise the things in your kitchen. If you have only twenty minutes at a time to cook, you shouldn't be investing in stockpots. If you have children to feed, maybe not so many spices and strange sauces.

Cost per use. A pricey classic can be a bargain if it will be worn or used often. You want to pay big bucks for your winter coat, which you will wear every day for four or five months out of the year, depending on where you live. Ditto your saute pan, good for making chili, frying pork chops, stir-frying, almost anything you might want to cook. I could never understand the impulse that makes women pay thousands and thousands of dollars for a wedding dress that they will wear only once. I know you want to look presentable, but really.

So there you go. These are my thoughts for today on how to be elegant and lead an elegant life. I'm going down to the kitchen now and chase the meal moths out of the cupboards, maybe pare down the spices, throw out the cinnamon I bought at the Acme thirty years ago. Tomorrow, the closet.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sliding Doors (the movie)

Note to self: When network TV fails to amuse, go watch a Gwyneth Paltrow movie.

Sliding Doors is a great one. I never heard of it before last night, when I was looking for something to "watch instantly" on Netflix. Maybe you never did either, since it came out in the same year (1998) as Shakespeare in Love. But you should see it. It's two stories, really, taking place with the same characters in parallel universes, one where Helen misses her tube train on the way home from being fired from her job, and one where she catches it, meets the attractive James on the train, and arrives home in time to find her parasitic failed novelist lover in bed with his old girlfriend.

The faithless lover, played by John Lynch, is so slimy you have to laugh, and his paramour, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, is so nasty you want to hiss at her. James (John Hannah) is nice, but the villains get all the great scenes. You should see it if you're at all inclined to romantic movies. Or Gwyneth Paltrow movies.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Back to the Fifties?

Republican voters are flocking to Rick Santorum (or so he says) because he is leading the charge back to the mid-twentieth century. Actually, I can sympathize with their desire for a return to what we believed was a simpler time. Eisenhower was president! As long as there was a light on in the White House we knew he was taking care of us, even after he had his stroke and started talking funny. It's true that Rick Santorum is no Dwight Eisenhower. I don't think anyone would argue with that. But what if he could really bring back the fifties? Wouldn't that be nice?

Of course that depends on how nice the fifties were for you. If you were a Black person, maybe the fifties weren't so hot, what with sitting in the back of the bus, getting turned away from the lunch counter, and being treated with disrespect generally. If you were a girl having a baby out of wedlock, maybe not so nice either. You would have to give up your sweet little baby to be raised by strangers so that he could have a name and a legitimate place in society. But, say, if you were white and never had sex for pleasure, or outside of marriage, great times.

Especially for white boys. Oh, wait, there was the draft. If you weren't of a military turn of mind you had to have a really good story for your draft board, sole support of your widowed mother, tear stains on the application for exemption, and even then they might take you. Elvis himself, in mid-career, was sent to Germany wearing Modern Army Green.

But we were safe in the fifties, as long as we didn't get so far out of line that we attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Maybe not in our cars. There weren't any seat belts. Maybe not in our houses, what with one thing and another. In our schools, certainly. All of us knew to get under our desks when the Russians dropped The Bomb on us.  Those crazy Russians. They hated us so much for being free.

As much as I loathe the twenty-first century, global warming, Islamist terrorism, uncomfortable air travel, bad manners, Chinese poison in the cat food, beach-front high-rise condos, the plague of plastic bags, I'm not sure I would want to go back to the nineteen-fifties, even if Santorum really had it in his power to take me there. And, you know what? he doesn't. None of them do. We're going to have to sort this mess out ourselves.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Naked Came the Creole Gumbo

She came tearing through the Lafayette cemetery, stark naked, covered in diamonds and blood, running for her very life, stumbling into a marble mausoleum, tripping over a tree root, falling, getting up, running on. He was behind her, gaining. She reached the unlocked cemetery gate, ran across the street in the darkness, ducked through the back door of the most notorious bawdy house in the city of New Orleans, and bumped into a large, well-dressed man.
"Hello, sugar," the man said. "You busy right now?"
It was Huey Long.

Thus began the infamous bodice-ripper I tried to write a few years ago with two other women I had met at a week-long workshop. What did we really call it? I've forgotten now.

It seemed like a wonderful idea when we started. I had credentials, having written eight published books. Rae had singular gifts, honed at one of those famous MFA programs in Iowa or wherever. Carol had actually completed a formal course on how to write erotica. How could we fail?

Rae had the idea to set the book in depression-era New Orleans to take people's minds off their present-day economic woes. That sounded good. And of course there must be sex scenes. The younger women were more than willing to write the sex scenes, since I was way too prudish, and I could provide the Crescent City ambiance, being the only one among us who had ever been within a thousand miles of New Orleans. And so we began as we meant to go on, with gusto. Or gumbo. The first chapter was a killer, as you can see from the above, which pretty much summarizes it. Once inside the house, of course, Magnolia or whatever it was we called her had to become one of the working girls, or risk being thrown to the mercy of Beauregarde, her murderous husband.

After setting up the situation we had to introduce a bunch of colorful characters, put them in scenes, and slide in some juicy back-story about Beauregarde, who murdered Magnolia's innocent maid (the sister of the blind whorehouse piano player) and maybe some political stuff about the run-up to Huey Long's assassination. I was very uneasy with the sex scenes. While Rae wanted to go upstairs and get handy professional tips from the other whores, I found myself wandering into the kitchen and pestering the kindly black cook for gumbo recipes. Carol tinkered with our dialogue and dressed the madam in inappropriate outfits.

It was starting to look as if it might not hang together. Our styles were too different. I seemed to be trying to turn it into a murder mystery, if not a cookbook. Then Rae wrote the sex scene.

It was too much for me. Not that it wasn't brilliantly written. It was. The situation was that Magnolia was forced by the madam to put out for one of her less attractive customers or leave the house. The encounter was not like yummy fantasy sex but like real sex one might have with a mildly unpleasant stranger, an encounter that leaves one feeling embarrassed, inadequate and judged. I know this is Art, I said to myself, but I can't stand it.

So Rae and I sort of let it lapse. I threw away the scene I had written of the voodoo orgy in Congo Square and the one where they killed the Huey Long character. Some months later Carol sent us a wistful email. What were we doing with the book? We said we had both become involved with other projects. Which was actually true. Rae is a hotshot on the internet now and I turned myself into Irene Fleming for a bit. I don't know what Carol is up to. It was fun working with them, but I won't be collaborating with another writer any time soon. It doesn't work for me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Yesterday I Googled Myself

Not, you understand, because I'm a self-absorbed narcissist, although I can't persuasively deny it, but because writers who are trying to get themselves into the public eye are supposed to check from time to time to see whether their names are appearing online a lot. In order to do this we enter our names in a Google search, in quotes, and see what comes up.

So what did I find? 8400 hits. 100 pages of hits. I've been at this for quite a while, it seems.

Strange things appeared. And normal things as well. First of all I found stuff I put out there on purpose, like this blog, and The Crime Writers' Chronicle (my group blog), and my web site ( Then there were guest blog posts I'd done. An occasional interview. And a few reviews of my books, most of them kind. Many, many offers to sell books of mine, from Amazon and other online bookstores, from Ebay, and from Belgrave House, who reprinted the Mother Grey backlist for readers of ebooks. Google books. Somehow a number of my books got put up on Google Books.

One site claimed that I was 25 years old. That was piquant. Another claimed that I was 79 and my name was Galloway. That, too, was sort of intriguing, but once again false. One site offered a download of my first book, Unbalanced Accounts. Since they had no right to do this I was quite annoyed. There was no contact information on the site or I would have fired off a blistering letter. I put the case in the hands of the Authors Guild. If you want to read Unbalanced Accounts you can find it on Amazon Kindle, and I think you can 'borrow' it from Amazon for free. I, for one, never steal stuff if I can obtain it any other way.

But the things I brooded over longest were the reviews on Goodreads. Now, the Goodreads folks are generally lukewarm about my work. Why that should be, I'm not sure; probably their tastes don't run in the direction of the sort of stuff I write, light comedies of manners with dead bodies showing up from time to time. Perhaps they like stories of earth-shaking conflict with everyone's emotions endlessly described. I don't know, because I don't read anything that they read. Quite likely that's one of my problems.

I got a few complaints on Goodreads that I can sort of understand, for example that there isn't enough sex and violence in The Edge of Ruin for it to be considered a real murder mystery. Or car chases. No car chases. Of course, in 1909, you could outrun most of the existing cars on foot. Maybe they're right about there not being enough sex. I did have two of the movie actors getting it on in the hotel linen closet, but it happened off the page. I guess I should have been more explicit about that encounter. (The maid uttered a piercing shriek and dropped her armful of towels at the sight of Mr. Chalmers' wrinkled, heaving buttocks. Faye Winningly, moaning softly, was still wearing both her shoes. There was a hole in the sole of the left one.)

Perhaps, for the modern taste, I should have been more explicit about everything, not just the sex. Subtlety doesn't fly these days. To get subtlety you need an active imagination. To get subtlety you have to have a common culture with the person who is being subtle, so that when I raise one eyebrow you understand at once what I mean by that. We don't have that commonality anymore. Cultural diversity has its drawbacks.

I'm still trying to figure out what the fellow on Goodreads meant who accused my work of being amateurish. How could that be? Ten of my mystery novels have seen publication. For fifteen years I made excellent money writing software manuals, good ones, too, user documentation that you could actually follow. I know how to say exactly what I mean, and clearly. If I'm not a professional writer I'd like to know who is.

But enough of this, at least for another year. I promise I'll stop whining about my Goodreads reviews. In fact I promise never to go on their site again. The next time I post I'll tell you the story of how two other women and I tried to write a steamy bodice-ripper together. It's a very funny story.