Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Feasting for Malice

Cooking up an auction dinner for Malice Domestic. The island  is neat at this point!

I'm a regular participant at the friendly Malice Domestic convention held annually in Bethesda to celebrate traditional mysteries. Last year, at convention auction, I decided to give more than a signed book. Having found that readers of diverse books are usually enthusiastic foodies, I offered to cook up a gourmet, multi-course Indian dinner for ten. It would be work, but going to a good cause: KEEN, Kids Enjoying Exercise Everywhere, a program offering movement opportunities for children with disabilities in the DC-MD-VA area.

Longtime convention friends Alan and Cheryl Leathers paid in the "high three figures” for the meal, even though they lived outside my delivery zone. The couple lives in Colorado. I’d said I could serve a dinner in a home in the Baltimore-Washington DC—Northern Virginia area. I was shocked they'd bought a gift they could not eat.
Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me 

But the Leathers had a secret plan. They gifted the dinner to the Malice Board, a group of volunteers who do everything for the convention from literary programming to participant registration and meal planning.  

Joni and Don Langevoort kindly hosted the meal in their spacious Vienna, Va. home that included a large dream kitchen with high quality cookware. I could prepare the meal at my home 60 miles away,and drive it in, doing the final touches there.

Beautiful table

I had five months to plan the dinner, so it should have been a snap, right? I love making Indian food. The problem was, which of my 25 Indian cookbooks to use for the meal. Should I use home recipes? The Internet? Should there be a regional theme, and how much spice did I dare use for ten people with varying tastes, including one who’d never eaten Indian food before?

I went on a book research trip to India four weeks before the dinner, and eating there helped me put together a plan. I’d start with sev puri, a vegetarian chaat dish ( snack) that looks really pretty on a plate. The rest of the menu would be South Indian, which is not widely available at Indian restaurants and therefore could be interesting for my diners.

I decided to choose most dishes from Kerala, the fantastic state at India’s tip that is known for its religious diversity and a cuisine that includes meat, fish, and vegetables for most. My favorite Kerala dishes are seafood ones, so I chose to make a shrimp curry with coconut milk from Maya Kaimal’s  1997 cookbook, Curried Favors. I found one internet recipe for Tomato Pappu, a South Indian-style dal, and used my own non-recipe for the rice.

For a Saturday night dinner, I grocery shopped on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. While I maintain that Indian cooking is easy, making one’s own –coconut cilantro chutney and scratch masalas (spice mixtures) for multiple dishes takes time. I clocked my cooking hours at about fifteen, and I wouldn’t have made it the last day without the reassuring sound of an audiobook playing in the kitchen.

Here’s what I cooked:

Sev Puri. an appetizer with a crisp puri topped with spicy veggies, chutneys and chickpea crisps

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Green bean thorn

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

We also ate fried paratha breads with the meal and dipped into lime and mango pickles and cucumber raita.Rasmalai was the only dish that broke the South Indian theme, It's a sweet, milk-based dessert that is eaten all over India. I should have included a picture, but we ate it all up before I thought.
For beverages, I brought sparkling white wines and also a sparkling Shiraz that unfortunately exploded all the way up to the hosts’ ceiling! Nix on sparkling reds from this point forward.

We had a great time at the dinner, with the special excitement of a board member’s adorable 12-week-old daughter, and the Langevoorts' dog and four cats. All in all, it was a feast to remember. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Happy Birthday Picasso

This is Dora Maar another of his lovers. Pablo Picasso was born this day, 25 October in 1881. A Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer who spent most of his adult life in France. A turbulent life with many women and children. As one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century, he is widely known for co-founding the Cubist movement, the invention of constructed sculpture, the co-invention of collage, and for the wide variety of styles that he helped develop and explore. Among his most famous works are the proto-Cubist Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and Guernica (1937), a portrayal of the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. In this image: Pablo Picasso watches the filming of his life story in Nice, France, on July 26, 1955. Henri Georges Clouzot, seated, is producing the picture. Picasso's daughter Maya is at left.
Kind of fascinating Cara - Tuesday

Monday, October 24, 2016

Panster vs Plotter: the Definitive Answer

Annamaria on Monday

“No one can write a book without an outline,” the New York Times #1 Bestselling author said to the assembled audience of mystery/thriller novelists, aspiring writers, and fans.  There was not the slightest provisional hint in his tone.  He was speaking ex cathedra.  This was the first line of his papal encyclical on how to write a novel.

The interviewer tended to agree with him.   Said that one could never get anywhere unless he (sic) knew his destination. 

“And had a map to get there,” Mr. Smug Bestseller added.


I have seventeen years of Catholic school education and an upbringing of excellent lessons in politeness from my parents and grandparents.  I flew in the face of it all.  I could not stay in my seat.  From the last row in the auditorium, I stood, looking as good natured as ever, and striking a jocular, arms-akimbo pose,  I called out the names E. L. Doctorow and John Fowles. And retook my seat.

That little red gizmo says "John Fowles."

Mr. Bestseller looked confused.  Mr. Interviewer offered that E. L. Doctorow had said something about writing being like driving at night.   I held my tongue while they continued to insist that no one could write a novel without a very detailed outline.  They both accused “pantsers” of secretly writing outlines and just not admitting it. 

That’s what inspired my crusading blog today.  How dare they accuse us pantsers of being either incapable or lying about not using outlines?

For those of you who don’t know the terms:  In mystery writing circles, a plotter is an author who writes an outline of the story before beginning to draft the scenes of the book.  A pantser starts with a few ideas or characters and jumps right into telling the story without knowing exactly what is going to happen.

Outliners, not always with the above self-satisfied attitude, often say that their way is the right way.  I have never heard a pantser say such a thing.  At that conference, I did not shout out more than the two author names above.  But I have been ruminating about this off and on ever since.  Here is what I would have said had I been in a position to do so.

Okay, Mr. Interviewer and Mr. Smug Bestseller.  You plotters need a map.  We pantsers are the explorers, the mapmakers.  We journey forth and draw the map as we go along.  We trust that some of those dark alleys we wind up in have the potential of leading us to the most creative ideas we ever have.


Here is how I think we can put this subject to rest forever.  The overriding most basic fact: Unless an author is telling the same old story, all novelists are pantsers when they start a book.  How else could the plotters write an outline, except by pantsing their way to the end of the story?  Answer me that!    Plotters begin by writing down, in shorthand, the story they are pantsing.  When they are done, they use the result of their pantsing as an outline for fleshing out the story and making it into a book.  Pansters do the same thing, except that we write in longhand from the beginning, so that when we are done, so is the book.  One way is NOT better than the other.  All writers have to find their own way to a process that yields a good book.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Protecting What’s Yours – How Far Should You Go?

A couple of days ago I came across a news item in The Guardian for a security feature intended to protect bikes – both pedal and motor – from potential thieves. Called the SkunkLock, it initially looks like a standard carbon steel lock, but it’s filled with a chemical, which – if anyone cuts about a third of the way through the metal outer casing – is released. The manufacturers claim that although this chemical is entirely legal, it will induce vomiting in 99% of people.

The idea came from San Francisco, where bicycle thefts are legion, and is being Crowdfunded as we speak. One of the inventors, Daniel Idzkowski, came up with the idea after a friend’s expensive electric bicycle was stolen while they were at lunch, despite having two $120 mechanical locks attached to it.

Of course, there are ways around the SkunkLock. The would-be thief could simply pick the lock, or wait until the gas supply is exhausted and then go back to finish the job. But as with most security measures, they’re intended for deterrent rather than outright prevention.

This ‘Room 101’-style “Don’t do it to me – do it to her!” attitude somewhat reminds me of the story of the two guys out hiking who encounter a bear. One puts on his running shoes, to be told by his companion, “You can’t hope to outrun the bear.” The first man replies, “Who said anything about the bear? I just have to outrun you.”

The SkunkLock is currently being tested and undergoing risk assessment with the company’s legal team. Because, of course, we mustn’t cause lasting damage to someone who’s breaking the law attempting to steal from us …

In similar vein, I recall an anti car-theft device from a few years ago called the Auto Taser. It resembles a standard steering-wheel club lock, with one notable exception. Normally, these clubs are simply used by wannabe thieves for leverage to break the steering lock before they’re picked. But, if you tried to grab the Auto Taser it hit you with a high volt/low amp electric shock, very similar to the usual Taser stun guns that have become regular issue for police forces in the UK.

Of course, if you’re a civilian, I think I’m correct in saying you’re not allowed to use a Taser over here. Employing the Auto Taser meant having clear warning signs on the exterior of your vehicle, at which point it came under the same legislation that covers electric fences for cattle.

Not hurting the perpetrator seems to be a priority. As someone who’s been the victim of theft, my instinct says that when someone chooses to break the law, all bets are off, I can see where this might ultimately lead. It’s our job as writers, after all, to push any idea to its logical, sometimes extreme conclusion, just to explore the effect that might have.

The opening line of William Gaddis’ 1994 novel A FROLIC OF HIS OWN reads: ‘Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.’

What’s your feeling on this? Should criminals ‘get what’s coming to them’ in real life as well as fiction? And have you come across any similar weird and wonderful devices you’d like to share?

I leave you with an advert run by Oregon-based company, The Suburban Auto Group, for Trunk Monkey – the ultimate anti-theft device:

And a thank you to Dea Parkin and the Chorley & District Writers’ Circle for their invite to me to speak at yesterday’s Write Now Festival.

Not only was it a fascinating event, with insight into the world of publishing from Katherine Armstrong of Bonnier Zaffre and myself, children’s books from Jake Hope, and the nuts and bolts of writing from AJ Wright, but the Vintage Tea Rooms nearby does a Fabulous hot chocolate that even has candy floss on it!

This week’s Word of the Week is thanatology, meaning the scientific study of death, including not only the forensic aspects, but also the wider psychological and social effects. It comes from the Greek Thanatos, death, and the suffic –ology, again from the Greek, -logia, speaking.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Flouting My Flute

I’m not going to write about the US Presidential election—I don’t even want to think about it. I’m not going to write about my book tour—except to say I’m still sailing along.  I’m not even going to write about my grandchildren—though I did dedicate Santorini Caesars to them. And most certainly, I’m not going to dare even thinking about mentioning [fill in the blank].

Instead, I’m going to write about flutes.  Well, a certain kind, indeed a specific brand of flutes and their impact on my life…as well as on anyone within hearing distance of my playing.  But first, a bit of background:  Last 4th of July weekend Barbara and I journeyed from Greece to join my family in Whitefish, Montana (over by Glacier National Park) to celebrate the wedding of my oldest nephew.  While there I went to a local fair and stumbled (almost literally due to an unmarked guy wire) over a stall selling Native American flutes in an array of woods, keys, and sizes. 

Long before the dawn of man I’d tinkered briefly with playing the clarinet and side-blown metal flute, and even today often travel with a blues harp (aka harmonica).  That background, and an eye-catching display, made playing one irresistible. Ten minutes later I was the proud owner of a High Spirits, red-tailed hawk flute in the key of G made out of aromatic cedar.

And thus began the end of world peace as we know it.

I brought it with me back to Mykonos, and spent many afternoons sitting on my balcony staring at the Aegean and playing…think tinkering…figuring my way through the next twist of my new novel. Luckily for Barbara, she’d stayed behind in New York City during those early days of my competing with mating cats for harmonic tones.  

The flute came with written directions and an instructional CD.  The creator of the brand also posted a series of videos on the High Spirits website detailing every element of how to play.  Wisely (as a marketer) he also had clips demonstrating how each of their many flutes sounded.   And yes, he knew how to play, so the cats had no fear of competition.

Subtle forces were at work, creeping in upon my unconscious like kudzu of the mind.  It began with a simple sense of practical responsibility to my flute.  How could I entrust it to the rigors of travel?  It needed a case.  Though I’d bought a black, hard plastic one used for architectural drawings back in New York—cheap, simple, and effective—it struck me as unquestionably inconsistent with the inherent spiritual nature of my precious new friend.  

So, I convinced a bag maker on Mykonos to create an appropriate case out of leather, and all felt right again with the world.  Actually suede, not felt

We made it safely back to NYC, and though flutey didn’t come along with me to Bouchercon, it’s made many trips to the farm, where we’ve spent hours together keeping black bears at bay.

Remember the kudzu reference?  As some may know, in the right circumstances that poison ivy resembling plant can grow a foot a day—almost as fast as an obsession.

I think you’re getting the point. 

The more I played, the more I clicked back onto the High Spirits website, and the more my obsession grew. I began envisioning acquiring another flute, and searched the Internet for places where I might be able to find one while on book tour in Missouri, Arizona, and Colorado, all likely places for finding Native American flutes.  I sought out several shops, but found nothing to my liking. Then it dawned on me to call the flute manufacturer.

Foolish move.  The lovely young woman who answered the phone at High Spirits told me of places in Phoenix where I might find what I wanted, and when I said I would be in Tucson, too, she said, “We’re located only an hour south of Tucson in Patagonia and it’s a beautiful drive, so why don’t you come down and visit our showroom?”  She even recommended a place to stay in town.

The drive to Patagonia, Arizona along a two-lane highway winding through the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains toward Mexico is transfixing, reminiscent of a desert version of the part of Montana where I met flutey.

Patagonia proper, with a population of approximately 900, is actually more like a hamlet than a town.  It came into being at the turn of the twentieth century, and its history is inexorably tied to once thriving nearby mining operations (currently attempting a resurrection). Today, though, it is a paradise for birders, insect collectors, butterfly watchers, artists, hikers, hunters, and flutists. 

I stayed at the Stage Stop Inn, and ate a delightful meal across from the town hall (a converted railroad station) at The Velvet Elvis Pizza Company located just a few doors down from PIGS—Politically Incorrect Gas Station.  All that, plus the “super moon” lighting up the Arizona sky that night, had me perfectly teed up for my first-thing-in-the-morning trip out to High Spirits—and the following high-tailing, three-hour drive back to Phoenix to catch a plane to Denver.

The narrow road leading the mile out of town to High Spirits had me thinking of any number of Bates Motel-like settings, and when I turned left at a faint sign marked “High Spirits” onto a dirt road wandering left and right back toward who knew where, another Bates came to mind…this one playing her part in Misery.  Thank you Mr. King for the flash back moment.

But, all turned out perfectly wonderful. 

The place turned out to be just as I imagined, with flutes and kind folk set off against a natural backdrop reflecting the historical spirit of what they represent. I felt as if I were meeting flutey’s family for the first time. Which I guess I was. 

And being the kind-hearted soul that I am, I arranged for some of the cousins (the long, thin woody ones) to come live with us back east. Just how many I shall not say, because they’re in transit as I write this, and I’ve not yet told Barbara the number of new places to set at the table. But I’m sure everything will work out fine, because at heart she’s a tinkerer, too.  And her sister plays the bagpipes.

‘Nuf said.