Monday, October 23, 2017

The Mystery of History

My most recent novel is set during the American Civil War. The idea sprang from a visit we made to Virginia for a family wedding and I had the opportunity to visit some of the many Civil War battlefields and to hear some of the stories of the valiant men and women who lost their homes and their lives in this tragic period in our history.

Though my ancestral family is almost entirely Northern, my extended family includes members with historical links to the South. I doubt there are many families whose ancestral links go back to the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States that don't have close family members somewhere along the line who took a different side in the conflict that has so deeply defined our national character.

One of my sisters married a charming young man from Oklahoma. As soon as he joined our clan, he was subjected to hateful abuse from another sister's Yankee husband. Seeing this, more than 150 years after the end of the conflict, made clear to me how deep the scars have been embedded in our collective psyche. Although my Southern brother-in-law had taken no part in that war, my Northern brother-in-law took great offense at the welcome extended to him, as if the Oklahoman carried the guilt of his ancestors by virtue of his place of birth. 

Seeing for myself how deeply hatred had infected one brother-in-law actually opened my heart and mind to discovering more about the history of my own country, from both points of view. Not long ago, I was confronted by a colleague who informed me that I "must" take the correct side if I was going to write about the Civil War. 

Is there any such thing? Aren't there always, at least, two sides to any story? Yes, there were terrible atrocities committed against other human beings but, as in all wars, the truth is somewhere between the two sides of the conflict. We demonize whichever side is opposed to our worldview but are we right to do so?

When I undertook to write Pavane for Miss Marcher, I thought long and hard about 

  • the ancestors of my own family who fought on both sides; 
  • the teenage cadets of the Virginia Military Institute who gave their lives to protect their homes; 
  • the freed and runaway slaves who fought for their freedom putting their families at risk; 
  • the enslaved men, women and children who never escaped;
  • all the kind and generous people I've known of all races whose roots are in the South; 
  • the black Americans I know who have served in the military; 
  • my father as the training officer of young men about to go into war; 
  • the heroes of the American Revolution who were considered traitors when they opted to fight for the Constitutional  Rights of States; 
  • the citizens of California who are considered courageous for considering secession when their fellow citizens were called traitors for taking the same action 150+ years ago;
  • the 600,000 Americans killed in the Civil War on both sides who all believed they were doing the right thing.
After all these many years, can we accept that, because we are all human, we are flawed? That our thinking processes are tainted; that we inhabit an imperfect world which we strive, as a nation and as one people, to make "more perfect"? And, isn't writing with an open heart and mind critical to writing truthfully?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Eliminating “Stuff”

My husband and I still occupy the house where we raised our children. It’s rather larger than we need these days but the location is ideal and we renovated it a few years ago to suit our needs as we grow older. The two bedrooms upstairs can be shut off and not heated or cooled when not in use, but they’re handy to have when the kids and grandkids visit.

It’s also far too handy to use those two rooms to store extra things. I hate clutter but I do have pack-rat tendencies, so I need a place to store all that extra stuff, out of sight, but handy should I find a use for the stored items.

I’m getting older and eventually I’ll have to down-size. I’m also aware of feeling burdened by maintaining everything. I hate to think that I’ll be leaving my kids a huge mess of stuff to deal with when I’m gone. It’s time to clean out pretty drastically. I have too much “stuff.” Way too much. Much more than I need, so a lot of things need to go.

I’m trying to start with books. I’ve got a library in those two upstairs room, and the truth is I’ll never read most of them again. Heck, I don’t even read paper books much at all anymore because my eyesight is poor. My Kindle lets me turn any book into a large-print edition, making it much easier to read. So why is it so darn hard to part with all those books, the fruit of some forty years of collecting them?

Then there are all those dishes, glasses, and serving pieces. Many of them belonged to my grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law. I’m hoping to pass them onto my own two daughters and daughter-in-law some day.  But will they even want them? They have a lot of things of their own already.

Clothing is another thing I struggle to cut back on. I have so many things that I’ve worn only a few times. I keep a lot of them mostly because I’m insecure about my fashion sense and I’m sure that as soon as I get rid of something it will turn out to be the perfect thing to wear to some special event.

I’ve tried several tricks to make myself get rid of things. I’ve used that system where I ask myself about how much joy an object gives me. Unfortunately I can find the joy in way too many things. I tried the clothing thing where you turn the hangers around and get rid of anything you haven’t turned around in the season. The only things I didn’t turn around were a couple of shirts I’m sure I’ll need at some time in the future.

A few things have helped. I’ve started a routine of making myself get rid of one piece of clothing for each new one I get so at least I don’t increase the problem. I’m also in the habit of getting rid of one thing a day. Obviously that’s the slow way to eliminate stuff, so I’m still working on how to beat my inner packrat and clear out bunches of stuff.

Another technique I can sometimes make work is to take a class of items – say a shelf of books or a stack of pads and notebooks – and tell myself I have to get rid of at least of half of this batch. Sometimes that works. Sometimes not so much.

I’m open to listening to any and all ideas for eliminating stuff - especially when you’re someone with packrat instincts.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Children and Reading

by Fran McNabb 

On a visit with our son’s family in Louisiana last month, I was able to read to my grandson’s first grade class. I was the “Mystery Reader,” someone who volunteers to come in to read for about fifteen minutes. 
I loved reading to these children. At one time in my life I was a senior English teacher. I’ve missed the classroom and the interaction with the students, but today I saw another side of education. These students weren’t seventeen-and-eighteen-year-old young adults. These were six-and-seven-year olds. What fun and how totally different.
Senior English consisted of analytical writing and British literature from the classics through the present day. Did these seniors get excited over what I was teaching? Maybe secretly some of them truly loved writing and reading the great authors, but mostly these students just wanted to get through the class so they could graduate.
 In this first grade class the children were excited from the moment I opened the book. I read from a Splat the Cat Halloween book. Most of them had read other Splat the Cat books so they knew what
to expect. Some of the children wanted to interject their own Halloween stories so we allowed them to share at the end of the session. Most told about what they'd be at Halloween.

 I loved, loved, loved seeing the excitement in these children’s eyes. It’s sad to think that with each year, most of them will lose their excitement of reading and learning. What happens in those years? As a realist I know as the children grow, their interests will change. Facing the future takes over the excitement of what to wear for Halloween.
Yes, I’m a realist, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting children and adults to love the idea of getting lost in a book and letting their imagination run wild. If they keep this love  and excitement of reading, they'll always be able to learn about the world around them. When a reader opens a book or turns on an e-reader, he or she will usually be exposed to something new. Even in the sweet romances I write, I hope my readers will learn something new—maybe they’ll learn about a new area of the world, maybe a new way of handling an emotion, or maybe realize there are other people in the world who face the same problems they do.
I hope these bright-eyed children who sat on the floor in their classroom  and listened to me read will hang onto that excitement for as long as possible. I know my son and his wife read to my grandson just about every night. The last time I was visiting he wanted to read to me. What a wonderful gift he is receiving, a gift that will travel with him throughout his life.

FRAN MCNABB is a retired English and journalism teacher who now spends her time writing, reading, painting, and spending time with her two grandsons. She writes sweet romances set on her beloved Gulf Coast and many times has included children in her books. Check her out at or at

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Cozy is What???

By Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

What’s a cozy mystery? Well, it depends on when – and who – you’re asking.

A cozy mystery used to mean a mystery without overt, on-screen violence, sex or gore. Since murder (which the vast majority of mysteries are) is inherently violent, a cozy had to soft-pedal the explicitness so prevalent in the noir or hard-boiled ‘traditional’ mystery. Instead of a lengthy and loving description of the knife point parting the yielding flesh or the fountain of spatter as the bullet tears through the body, there is just a scant mention of a lip of blood seeping out from under a covering sheet or the sight of a crushed and mangled body – nothing more. Sex (if any) is treated the same way – a glance, occasionally a quick kiss, but the focus is nearly always just about the puzzle and nothing else. Oh, one of the main hallmarks of the true cozy is that the sleuth who always triumphs in the end is without exception an amateur.

That’s pretty much still true for many today, but in the last few years there has been a revolution within the cozy genre itself. If possible, it has gotten ‘cozier’ if not downright cloying.

Not long ago I was talking with an industry professional and he mentioned that I should try my hand at writing a cozy mystery. Since he was familiar with my work I was startled, as my mysteries have always been considered cozy – amateur sleuth, no overt anything, focus on the puzzle. Not any more, he said. You are now writing a traditional mystery; now a cozy is much fluffier – an amateur female sleuth, who usually owns a bakery/café/needlework shop/bookstore or works in some other traditionally feminine field of endeavor, who occasionally has an incredibly intelligent pet (some of whom talk and even detect by themselves), who has both a steadfast but quirky family/best friend and who always has a hunky policeman or detective friend about whom she inwardly obsesses standing around waiting to help her. Oh, and if food is involved, there must be recipe(s) at the end. Today, the industry professional added, it’s becoming almost de rigeur for the heroine/sleuth to be young, gorgeous, witty and usually adorably clumsy, especially around the hero – and sometimes so stupid it makes my teeth ache. Most recently it seems she has to have some sort of superpower, too. Psychic abilities. Be a witch. Or, if she is ‘normal’, have a ghostly companion whom only she can see.

That, he said, is today’s cozy mystery.

My response was nothing I want put out on the internet.

Now don’t get me wrong – I read stories with varying degrees of the above elements. Some I have enjoyed, some not – just like with any genre. What alarms me is that there is such a tsunami of them. I’m waiting with fatalistic patience for a story about a psychic witch who can fly (with or without broom), can shapeshift or turn herself invisible (maybe both), and has a ghostly companion who runs her bakery/café when she’s zipping around searching for clues with a saturnine detective who doesn’t believe in paranormal phenomena. It’s inevitable.

I guess I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t see what’s wrong with a perfectly normal human sleuth who follows the clues and solves the puzzle with nothing but her (or his) brainpower, tenacity and curiosity. However, everyone has different tastes, and that’s fine.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Facebook and Recipes

Anyone who is Facebook friends with me knows I post a lot of recipes.
One reason is that I like to entertain and am always imagining my next dinner party and wondering what to serve. But recipes were also my entrée into cooking. It’s only through recipes and cookbooks that I ever learned to cook.
            Back in my twenties, when I was single and living in Manhattan, I didn’t have a clue.  My mother cooked, but I wasn’t particularly close to her.  I never watched what she did, and I was so immature that I would not give her the satisfaction of asking her any questions about what she made.  I figured she didn’t know what she was doing and assumed if I wanted to know how to cook I’d have to figure it out myself.  To that end I bought I Hate to Cook by Peg Bracken.  In fact, I still have it in all it’s broken binding and torn cover glory, along with dozens of other cookbooks that I’ve acquired since.  But I Hate to Cook holds a special place in my heart and when Peg died last year, I felt as if I lost a close friend. 
This little paperback was the perfect introduction to cooking.  The recipes were simple, her instructions thorough, and her commentary funny and irreverent.  Most significantly though, her book made cooking seem easy.  Thanks to her I didn’t hesitate hosting my first dinner party in my sixth floor walk up railroad flat on the upper eastside.  I don’t remember the party except that I made Peg’s lasagna but I’m guessing it was a success because I’ve been hosting dinner parties ever since.
            From Peg Bracken I discovered Marcella Hazen, whose death last year I also mourned, and then onto Julia Child and Gourmet Magazine.  I learned about fine cooking and how to make the perfect beef bourguignon, leg of lamb, coq au vin and scads of other recipes.  But it was Peg who launched me and it was Peg’s recipes that I used during law school when I’d host a crowd in my Brooklyn Heights studio.  It was Peg who made me fearless, reminding me that as long as you provide your guests with something to drink and good company, the party will be a success.
            So it’s Peg that started me collecting recipes, always imagining the next dinner party, thinking of who to mix with whom, and what would be easy to serve so I could enjoy my guests instead of toiling away in the kitchen.  Her advice was invaluable and, at least for me, has made entertaining something that I enjoy doing instead of thinking of it as daunting or an obligation.

            Thanks to her I discovered that cooking is just the first step to sitting down to a meal with family and friends and one of life’s great pleasures. It’s not the actual eating or even the food that’s primary, but the conversations and interactions that take place while eating.  This is true at any meal, but more so at dinner parties. And it’s possible that sharing recipes on Facebook is my homage to Peg Bracken and will inspire another novice cook to host their first dinner party.