Thursday, August 17, 2017

My Day Off

I sometimes feel I need a day off, so I visit a few reliable places of interest. Recently I made my usual trek to Salem. But before I did that, I had lunch. We have several new restaurants in the small city where I live, and I’m beginning to feel quite sophisticated in this old industrial city. At Tartine Kitchen & Eatery I enjoyed a simple lunch before going on to a local museum.

Every summer the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, mounts what only could be called the Summer Show, something light for families, easy on the brain and the eyes. This year it’s Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style. I especially like the Art Deco period, which seemed to suit the idea of living at sea for five days just right.

My favorite spot in the museum is the Yin Yu Tang House, which the museum purchased from the family who had lived in the house for 200 years, in Southwestern China. There was some heated discussion later about whether or not China should have let one of its treasures leave the country, but at the time it was sold it wasn’t considered anything but an old house, one of many. You can take a video tour at Each family within the family lived in one room, looking out on the walkway/balcony and the courtyard below. This is where I finally understand the focus on the large bed with its elaborate decorations. This piece of furniture takes up most of the space, and is the largest and most important item in the room.

The view of the Chinese House from any angle is beautiful. I took this photo from the memorial park dedicated to the nineteen men and women convicted of witchcraft. You can’t see in this photograph the benches carved with the names and dates and manner of execution of the convicted individuals, but every day I’ve been there I’ve seen people walking through and studying the benches. The Witch Trials Memorial was dedicated in August 1992 by Novel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Many of us who have long family lines in this area discover relatives connected with the witch trials. My distant relation Sarah Warren died in prison before she could be tried and convicted. She refused to name others in order to free herself. That’s a heritage I’m glad to share.

I don’t think of these days out as a way to gather ideas for my writing, though of course that often happens. I think of them as a chance to think about other things, or nothing at all. A walking meditation, as it were. It’s all about balance, and letting the mind rest. I often take a book to read and find a quiet place to enjoy it. For me this is a perfect day.

To find my books, for a perfect day, go here:

Friday, August 11, 2017

Excess and Hyperbole

No one who reads or listens can have missed some of the changes in our language that have occurred over the last few months as well as years. The current POTUS isn’t one for moderate or measured speech, but he isn’t the only one for whom words of excess and extravagance are the first choice in a vocabulary. Alas, I too am guilty.

I have learned to ignore the blurbs on the back covers of books I’m considering reading because they are usually all praise and no insight. I learn nothing about the book that will tell me what it is about; instead I learn how much the writer of the blurb liked it. I’m glad she liked it, but that doesn’t mean I will. The same is true of much of what is written about movies and plays, bicycles and new cars, clothing and lawn equipment. Everything is great, excellent, the best, fabulous. Whatever happened to “good enough” or “it’ll do the job”? Is every event great? Or, the best ever? Are we really on an unbroken upward trajectory? I doubt it.

Some years ago I came across a vintage ad selling soap that was of three grades—good, better, best. Each grade has its specific use, and there was no shame in using the lowest grade for its appropriate purpose. I like that. Why buy the absolute best mustard when it’s buried under onions and smoked ham when the lesser kind will suffice? Why buy the most expensive cleanser when vinegar and water will do?

I miss the quiet voice of reason in ordinary conversation, especially now as political rhetoric heats up over events that should make rational men and women lower their voices and think harder, not less. It’s easy to be swept up in the “enthusiasm” of touting this or that, but it’s not more beneficial than choosing to be accurate in our evaluations. Here I was about to write “I might love a particular book” when I realized I was doing it too, falling into the bad habit that has spread insidiously in our speech and writing. As a Brazilian friend pointed out, Americans claim to “love” just about everything. So here is my correction: I might enjoy a particular novel, find scenes in it that seem especially perceptive or moving or startling, but I don’t really “love” the book. Once again, if I remove the hyperbole I can look more closely and describe more accurately the reading experience I did have.

Since I can only speak for myself, here is my pledge: to be more mindful of my language so that instead of hyperbole I present a more accurate depiction of the experience or object or idea. That sounds so simple.

And because this blog is about writing and my life as a writer (or something like that), I’m pleased to report that my next Anita Ray short story, “A Slight Deviation from the Mean,” will appear in the November/December 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

You can find more Anita Ray fiction here:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pet Peeves of Word Usage and Misusage

I keep a list of examples of less than perfect writing that I come across in my reading. Unlike many other readers, however, I don’t find a lot of the apparent errors annoying because I understand that language is fluid; it is always in the process of change and development. That said, a few things do stop me when I’m reading because I have to reconstruct the sentence in my head in order to capture the intended meaning.  When the list becomes unwieldy, I select a few to comment on. Here are a three of my favorites.

First, the word unique does not take a modifier. This word refers to something that is one of a kind, in a category all its own, without any other item of the same sort to which it could be compared. It cannot be more or less unique than something else; nor can it be very or somewhat or a little unique. It is either one of a kind or it isn’t. The word means “single, sole . . . having no like or equal; unparalleled.” Some dictionaries now include the increasingly common understanding of the word to mean “highly unusual, extraordinary, rare,” with the caveat “a common usage still objected to by some.” And yes, that would be me. I object—strenuously.

Second, I feel jolted when I read a sentence like this: “George shouldn’t be upset at Ellen’s tepid response; he’d long known of her disinterest in baseball.” The word disinterest does not mean “lack of interest.” Disinterest means “lack of personal or selfish interest,” but here again disinterest has absorbed the meaning of uninterested, or “lack of interest or concern; indifference.” Two distinct views of the quality of a person’s attention to something have been conflated so that now one word is used for both, leaving the reader combing through the sentence for a context to clarify the intended meaning. With greater care, the writer could avoid frustrating the reader and have a richer vocabulary. Consider this example: “George, the defendant, hoped the judge would prove to be disinterested, and also hoped the jury wouldn’t be so uninterested as to fall asleep.”

Third, a perennial favorite, is the distinction between that and which. That is used, among other reasons, to introduce a restrictive clause. Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause. Consider this example: Ellen rummaged in the trunk of her car for the knife that had blood on it. (She seems to have lots of knives in the back of her car but only wants one in particular.) Or this example: After dinner, Ellen washed the bloody knife, which she left in the dish drainer. (Where Ellen left the knife doesn't matter; she could have dried it and put it away in a drawer.)

No writer is going to know every rule of English (or whatever is the native tongue), but I admire writers who are precise in their use of language while also telling a good story vividly, or explaining a scientific breakthrough in accessible language.

All definitions quoted above can be found in Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.

And now a moment of silence for George, wherever he may be, and all the words in English that have strayed from their original meaning.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Grandfather's Photographs

After months of tripping over boxes of photographs, moving them from one closet to another—despite the warning, “moving them is not de-cluttering”—I have at last managed to get most of my grandfather’s photographs digitized. Because my grandparents divorced in the 1920s, when my mother was still a teenager, I hardly knew my grandfather. Now I feel I’m getting to know him for the first time, through his photographs. He lived in Washington, DC, and enjoyed showing visitors the sights when he wasn’t working. His dramatic shots of a monument are among his best, each one hinting at a story and reflecting the Art Deco style he loved.

He came of age at the beginning of the twentieth century, served in World War I, and built a career in the 1930s, working in various aspects of the dairy industry, such as “electro freezer” sales and management. He rarely photographed the typical farm, preferring instead the industrial end of the business, such as large-scale kitchens. (Who wears a fedora in a kitchen? A salesman?)

 The new automobile landscape offered many opportunities, and he left a record of the popular signs outside highway restaurants. From the looks of his collection, he did a lot of driving. I’ve never heard of some of these roadside food joints, but the names fit the post World War II mindset.

 He had a sense of humor as well. He took photos of the pets in the apartment buildings where he lived, as well as portraits of a number of neighbors and friends as well as relatives. He loved the ducks on a nearby pond and also, apparently, the neighboring deer.

I’m working on his film library for two reasons. I’m curious about what kind of photographer he was, and I’m drawn to photography in my own life. He liked to explore camera techniques, and tried various composite images, including one of himself in a striped shirt arguing with his twin over a set of cameras. I haven’t found the negative for that one yet. (Yes, the photo below is of a hand holding a wrecked car.)

But I learned something else from exploring his work. His best images are modern but also hint at a story. Even the photo of an empty room in the evening, with a book lying on a footstool and a newspaper mounding on the floor, hints at more than is captured in that one image. Along with the images, I now carry the suggested story ideas.

I have used photography as a catalyst in at least one mystery. In When Krishna Calls, Anita Ray is drawn into the disappearance of a hotel employee and the death of her husband when she discovers a message wrapped around the battery in her camera. She discovers another clue on the memory card. In other Anita Ray mysteries, she filters information from the tourists who visit her photo gallery in the resort.

There are a number of ways to use a camera and photography in crime fiction. Thanks to my grandfather’s collection (and my own and those of other relatives), I have a wealth of material to work with.

To find the Anita Ray and Mellingham novels go to: