Friday, November 27, 2015

Books for Christmas

by Jean Henry Mead

I’ll admit it. I’m a bibliophile.

I love books. Old books, new books, signed books and rare books. They're my most prized possessions. I literally have thousands of books and they’re in every room. We’ve run out of bookcases and many of the books that have already been read are stored in boxes, and I can’t bring myself to part with them. I’ve had some of them since I was a young child and can't toss the dog-eared copies of Little Women and The Jungle Books.

Another bibliophile, Anne Fadiman, wrote that people who revere first editions, books with lovely covers, and who worry about people defiling the books by writing in the margins, are what she calls “courtly lovers.” She also said that readers “who split open books as if they were ripe fruit," and use paperbacks as table mats, "are carnal lovers". Which of Fadiman’s categories do you fit into?

I‘ll find it difficult to leave my current home because it will take some time to pack all my books for shipment. And what a backbreaking job that will be although I'll probably stop to read them. I'm reminded of when I interviewed Louis L’Amour at his Bel Air, California, home. His huge office contained floor to ceiling hinged bookcases. Behind them were identical bookcases, filled with some 10,000 books. I was happy to find one of my own books hiding there in one of the lower shelves, next to a copy of Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage

I felt sorry for L’Amour’s housekeeper. Have you tried dusting 10,000 books? No wonder librarians are always sneezing. Even my dog sneezes when I take out my swivel duster. Not that I dust my books every day. Writers need time away from housework, but the temptation to caress my books while I take a break at my desk is irresistible. They’re stacked on both sides of my computer and all along the top in built-in bookcases, just sitting there waiting for me to take them down and open them. Or just run my fingers along their spines. Western writer Elmer Kelton once told me that his book collection seems to breed overnight. I'm sure he was also a bibliophile.

I knew something had to be done when I began tripping over stacks of books on the floor. The problem was somewhat solved when I sold the reprint rights for my historical novel, Escape, to an ebook publisher in 1998. It was  a blessing in disguise because I no longer had space to store new editions without building another room. Audio editions are even better because you can listen to them anywhere.  But I still prefer holding a print book.

Now that Christmas shopping is in full swing, what better presents to buy for everyone on your list than books? They last for decades and can be passed on to future generations. Young children love print books that take them away from mind numbing TV shows and video games. What better way to spend a cold winter's day (or night) than to curl up with a good book?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Thanksgiving Story and a Pecan Pie Recipe

In honor of Thanksgiving Day, I'm bypassing Murder and Mayhem and presenting a gentle story and sharing a pumpkin pie recipe. 

May everyone have a wonderful Thanksgiving with someone they love!

Thanksgiving is the perfect time for reminiscing, and for telling family stories around the table. These generational memories are often centered around cooking and good food, and these special tales of family history should be treasured and never forgotten.

 by Jacqueline King and Jennifer King Sohl
True Family Stories

This Thanksgiving story was included in DEVOTED TO COOKING, Inspiration for the Aspiring Chef in Everyone.  Written by Jacqueline King and Jennifer Sohl. Available in print or ebook download.

Memories of Papa Peeling Pecans for the Grandkids

“We called our grandfather, Papa,” June Butts, now a grandmother herself, said. “Back in those days different generations of the family lived in the same house, and it was wonderful to grow up with an older person who had the time to tell stories and to teach us kids about the generations past. I think maybe that’s one reason why families were closer back then.”

The comely woman smiled and the faraway look that came into her blue eyes told me she had transported herself back to South Texas and a simpler life sometime in the 1950’s.

“We had a pecan tree and Papa peeled pecans for the kids. We’d sit in a circle at his feet, listen to his tales, and eat the perfectly shelled and halved nuts as he passed them around.”

“Peeled pecans?” I asked, trying to imagine how such a feat might be possible. “How could he peel pecans?”

It was Thanksgiving Day and I had been invited to join June’s family for a traditional dinner of turkey, dressing and all of the trimmings. We were sitting around the table drinking coffee and savoring that mellow, sated satisfaction that fills a group of friends during happy times.

“With his pocket knife,” June said.

“His pocket knife?” I asked. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not!” June’s robust laugh was typical of a woman who was Texas born and bred. “He peeled those pecans just the same way you’d peel an orange. He’d slice off the top and the bottom, cut slits around the nuts and then just peel off the hulls. Those pecans came out in perfect halves and he’d hand them to us kids.”

“That must have been one sharp knife,” I said, wondering how he kept from cutting off his fingers.

“That it was,” June said. “And he could peel those nuts really fast. Sometimes he’d peel enough for Mama to make us some pies.” She sighed with remembered pleasure. “Mmm—mmm—mmm, those pies were good! We never had much money, but we had happy times, anyway. God was always good to my family.”

“I’ll bet you learned to cook from your own mother,” I said.

“Sure did. Mama and Daddy had eleven kids, and I was helping stir up dinner as soon as I could hold a spoon and stand on a stool to reach the table.”

It happened that we were drinking Texas Pecan flavored coffee. I took a sip of the hot brew and savored the rich flavor. Pecans, family and holidays equal pure pleasure, I thought. Everyone sitting at the table owned their own cell phones and computers, but some things never change. The memory of “peeled pecans,” outranked any of the electronic pleasures available to the diners.

Only the delicious food that we shared stayed the same.

Loretta Carson’s Pecan Pie
1 Scant cup sugar
1 cup dark Karo Syrup
3 eggs
3 Tablespoons melted butter or margarine
Pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup pecans

Beat eggs and sugar until blended. Add Karo syrup and mix well, then add melted butter, salt, vanilla and pecans. Mix well and pour into 9 inch unbaked pie crust. Bake at 400 degrees for 8 minutes. Turn heat down to 325 degrees and bake for 35 minutes. (Center will be set.)

Happy Thanksgiving to All,

Jackie King

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Stuck in the genre with you

I know this blog’s called Murderous Musings and I’m also aware that sometimes my own musings here aren’t very murderous. But that’s because (like many of my colleagues, I suspect), the genre thing sometimes feels restrictive. At the same time, I know full well that publishers (and probably readers) prefer us to stay within the genre they associate with us.

When my historical novel, The Figurehead, was published, it was well received but, as well as being crime-based, it flirted with the romance genre, and some readers and reviewers commented on the fact. In a different way, The Sparrow Conundrum was also a departure, being a satirical novel on the spy genre which was all black humour and near-farcical situations. It’s crime-related but my main aim in writing it was to make readers laugh.

I’ve been told I should think of using a pseudonym but if that’s the case there’d be three of me already – the police procedural guy, the historical guy, and the funny man.

On the other hand, if a reader spends $X or £X on a book of mine because he/she enjoyed a previous one, I’ll be disappointing them if it’s totally different. But on the other other hand, should writers be condemned to keep on producing the same book over and over?

My plan is to write just one more in my procedural series, featuring Jack Carston. So far there are five books and he’s been changing through them. I anticipate that the final one will actually end with him leaving the police force. I had no overall plan when I wrote the first, but as the books appeared, I began to sense the bleakness accumulating underneath the killings and suspected that an empathetic person (such as Carston) might be seriously affected by having to deal with constant examples of man’s inhumanity to man (and especially woman). Carston’s at the stage where the satisfactions of solving mysteries are being outweighed by the cruelties he’s witnessed.

I’m not suggesting that I’ll stop writing crime altogether. The sequel to The Figurehead is well advanced, and the romance element is even stronger, but it’s still about a crime. And I’ve already sketched out some scenes for the sequel to The Sparrow Conundrum because that’ll be great fun to write.

And this posting sums up two opposing functions of blogging. Here, I’ve expressed my misgivings about being stuck in a genre but I’ve also warned readers what to expect by spelling out what each new title will deliver. At the same time I’ve, perhaps foolishly, articulated in public my plans for future books. Whenever that happens, the written word becomes a fixed, irretrievable truth. Which means I seem to have committed myself to writing the damn things.

On the other hand (again), I could have a Damascene moment and leap to an entirely different genre – something like ‘The Wordless Novel’. I could manage that.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


by Jackie King

“Should cozy mysteries deal with serious themes?”

This question recently appeared on a LISTSERV for writers and readers. The answers received were of great interest to me, because my character Grace Cassidy, often finds herself dealing with this sort of dilemma.

Most of those who responded to this query advocated that with the rapid changes happening in our world, problems faced by cozy characters will naturally turn grittier. 

For years we've dealt with murder, and that's pretty darned serious. The trick is to keep graphic blood, gore and blatant sex off the page. Everything else, even dark subjects, is now happening to our readers and need to be discussed.

The writing style, however, must still stay upbeat. Accomplishing this challenges a writer's skill. I think cozy writers are up to this task. I certainly intend to try. 

One technique to keep our books cozy, is to include humor. I'm not talking about slapstick or gallows humor. At least not usually. I'm talking about the kind of humor that gets the ordinary person through life with some kind of sanity intact.  Myself, I prefer the tongue-in-cheek kind.

My Bed and Breakfast cozy mystery series features Grace Cassidy, an inn-sitter, and is written with a touch. My character has been involved in divorce, neglected children,   teen pregnancy and more. Learning to live through life-changing experiences in the cyber age, and still keep a positive attitude, describes my heroine's life.
Book 3
THE CORPSE AND THE GEEZER BRIGADE, book three, introduces Slick Webster, a handsome biracial man approaching his 21st birthday. His past memories involve seeing his mother die from a drug overdose and his early struggles in foster care.

My main character Grace continues standing strong while learning hurtful things about her parent's past without blinking. She vows to never again turn a blind eye to the elephant in the living room. No more sweeping family secrets under the rug.

Through all of these problems,  Grace and her quirky sidekick Theodora Westmacott, take joy in decorating a new Bed and Breakfast using someone else's money, driving around in a Rolls Royce, and witty conversation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thin slicing our characters

by Bill Kirton

Your first glimpse conditions
your opinion of her...
I’ve just read an article about ‘thin-slicing’. Apparently that’s what we do nearly all the time. We base our judgements and decisions on split second observations of thin slices of behaviour. And, surprisingly perhaps, we’re usually right. The easy examples are of sportspeople behaving almost instinctively as they pass the ball, shoot for the hoop or whatever. But the most interesting for writers is that we apparently form an impression of people we meet within the first few seconds and then just notice things which confirm that impression.

So the laborious presentations that people have prepared for situations such as interviews or wanting to impress the future in-laws seem to be a waste of time. The first handshake, eye contact, hairstyle choice, colour of jacket or God knows what else has already made up the mind of the person you’re meeting.

I wonder whether we also ‘thin-slice’ the characters we ‘meet’ in books. Is the initial impression so crucial? Or does the leisurely process of an unfolding narrative change the nature of our perceptions? We don’t, after all, have the direct, instinctive signals of body language to help us and anyway we know we’re collaborating in a fiction. Then again, if we’re assessing a real person in the real world, then just looking for evidence to prove we’re right, aren’t we just moulding reality to our own ongoing fiction?

And, from the writer’s point of view, does it
... then she starts on the vodka.
mean that we should make sure that the way we choose to introduce a character puts his/her essence right up front and leaves little room for misinterpretation? If that’s the case, it seems to me that the best way to achieve it is through letting the character speak for him/herself. The moment we start describing their hair, eyes, clothes, bulk, etc. we’re offering archetypes. However much we then refine them to the specifics of that individual, the risk is that the reader’s already decided that he’s seeing a fat slob or a peacock. Let them speak for themselves, condemn or ingratiate themselves out of their own mouths.

Whatever the truth of it all, it just adds to the fascinating complexity of the reading (and writing) experience.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween Customs Around the World

by Jean Henry Mead

Halloween isn't just an American holiday. It originated in Ireland, where it was originally known as Oiche Shamhna or Samhain Night. The end of summer's Agricultural Fire Festival was held for the deceased who were said to revisit the earth on that night. So the practice of building large community bonfires was enacted to ward off evil spirits. The name Hallowe’en evolved from All Hallow’s Eve, and the holiday was imported from Ireland during the 19th century. Halloween spread to other countries, including Puerto Rico, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well as the rest of the British Isles.

In 837, Pope Gregory decreed that All Hallows, or All Saints Day, previously known as Feast of Lemures, would be held every year on November 1, in the name of the Western Catholic Church. Previously celebrated on May 13 in other countries, it coincided with the Irish Samhain. During the 9th century, the two holidays were celebrated on the same day because the Church decided that the religious holiday would start at sunset the previous night, according to the Florentine calendar. All Saints Day was celebrated in northern European countries, and was a day of religious festivities. Until 1970, it was also a day of fasting.

The jack-o-lantern originated in Europe and was carved from turnips and rutabagas. Small candles were inserted in the hollow vegetables and they were used as lanterns. Because the human head was believed to contain the spirit, the Celts carved the vegetables to represent heads to ward off evil spirits. According to Irish legend, a hard-drinking farmer named Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree, where he was temporarily trapped. Farmer Jack then carved a cross in the tree, which condemned the devil to wander the earth at night with a candle inside a hollow turnip.

Carved pumpkins are a North American custom, originating with the fall harvest, and known to have preceded the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49. Carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns, were not associated with Halloween in this country until the mid 19th century.

In Scotland, the embers of huge bonfires built in the villages were taken home to form circles. A stone for each family member was then placed inside the circle. The Scots believed that if one of the stones was displaced or broken by the following morning, the person it represented was doomed to die within a year. Northern residents of Wales built bonfires called Coel Coeth in every village. Members of each household would throw white stones into the ashes bearing their names. If any stone was missing the following morning, that person was destined to die before the following Halloween.

The village of Fortingall in Perthshire held a festival of fire, or Samhnag. Every Halloweeen they danced around the fire in both directions. As the fire burned low, young boys grabbed embers from the flames and raced around the field, tossing them in the air and then dancing around them. Later, they would have a jumping contest over the collected embers. When finished, they returned home to bob for apples. They also practiced divination, the art of foretelling the future or interpreting omens.

Halloween wasn’t celebrated in Mexico until around 1960. Our southern neighbors have followed our customs of costuming their children and allowing them to visit neighborhood homes, seeking candy. When they knock or ring the bell, the children say, "¡Noche de Brujas, Halloween!" which means "Witches' Night, Halloween!" Young people have Halloween parties and the holiday lasts for three days prior to All Saint’s Day, which is also the start of the two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

In the Netherlands, Halloween has become popular since the early 1990s. Children dress up for parades and parties, but trick-or-treating is rare because the holiday is so close to St. Martin’s Day. St. Martin’s is the day when Dutch children ring doorbells and sing a song dedicated to the saint, in exchange for small treats.

Romanians, regardless of age, party and parade in costumes not unlike North Americans, but the holiday focuses on Dracula. In the town of Sighisoara, where countless witch trials were once held, parties are held in the spirit of Dracula. Actors also reenact the witch trails on Halloween.
Some South American countries, influenced by American pop culture, celebrate Halloween, which has caused consternation among a number of Christian groups, who deplore the lack of attention to the more spiritual aspects of All Hallows Eve. But businesses profit from the sales of costumes and candy, so the holiday has been allowed to remain a favorite of young people. The same is true in Japan, Spain and Germany, among other countries.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

My own Bermuda Triangle

The scene inside my blog
This particular blog is about a mystery – which I’ll share with you. A while back, I added a tracker to my own blog. It puts little red dots over the world map and shows how I’m progressively colonising North America, the UK, bits of Europe and tiny pockets of land in Asia and Australasia. But it also has a real-time option, which tells me more about my visitors, what drew them to me and how long they spent in my company. As most writers will tell you, they welcome anything which is merely a displacement activity but gives you the impression that it’s time well spent. And this is where the mystery lies.

Forgive me now giving you a list of places but it’s part of the enigma.  In the period I’m sampling for this posting, I had 2 visits from Scotland (Airdrie and Johnstone) and 12 from England (Manchester, Preston, Keighley, Kidlington (4 visits) and London (5)). The 12 English visits were balanced by 12 from the USA (Bronson (3) and the wonderfully named Nacogdoches (2) – both in Texas, Brooklyn (New York) Hayward and San Francisco (California), Missoula and Plains (Montana), Seattle and Tampa. There were 4 from Australia (Hunters Hill and Greenwich – both in New South Wales and 2 visits from Elwood, Victoria, which I mistook first of all for a name and wondered whether I’d ever met a Victoria Elwood. And last, but definitely not least, came people from Bombay (Maharashtra), Makati (Manila) and 4 visits from the truly exotic Minnertsga, Friesland.

OK, you say, so what? Well, to begin with, rather than being drawn there by my magnetic personality, infinite charm and quiet desperation, many came simply in search of an answer to the question ‘What makes a good novel?’ which was the title of one posting. But that’s merely an aside because it’s the 5 visitors I haven’t yet mentioned whose details hint at the central mystery.

The first came from Birmingham (UK) and stayed for a mere 26 seconds. The next was from the City of London and stayed slightly longer (42 seconds) and the third, from Riverton (Wyoming) was here for 51 seconds. If I ever meet the final two, I owe them a drink because they stayed long enough to read something. The one from Amsterdam, Noord-Holland lingered a whole 3 minutes 11 seconds but the champion came from Englewood, Colorado and wasted an enormous 6 minutes 37 seconds of his/her life in my company.

Again, so what? Well, this is where my crime writer’s curiosity comes into play.  I know the time and date the last 5 arrived, and when they left. But what about all the others? The ones in the first list? There’s no indication that any of them left.


But where? What are they doing? Some have been there for days. What are they eating? How are they surviving?  Are their bosses and families missing them? It’s a huge responsibility for me to know that my wit and wisdom have ensnared so many. I’ll have to start leaving plates of biscuits there and cans of some sort of beverage. And what if the influx continues? We’re all aware of the dangers of overpopulation. What if Oxfam and the Red Cross start sending food parcels and medical supplies? Can Médecins sans Frontières operate inside a blog?

Don’t get me wrong. My blog welcomes immigrants but, for their own safety they need to be led towards the more seemly locations – the jokey bits not the bits about existentialism. I don’t want them to be hi-jacked by some rogue philosopher who’s camped there and may force them to consider Aristotelian syllogisms day after day or read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

I must find them soon and see if they can’t be repatriated or transferred to a blog whose sanity is uncompromised, where laughter, poetry and common sense prevail. I wonder if there are any.