Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Hyenas of Harar

Michael - Thursday

I thought I knew quite a bit about hyenas. I’ve always liked them, feeling that they get a bum rap as cowardly, slinking scavengers. Scavengers they certainly are. They are happy to eat anything that is, or once was, flesh and bone. Especially bone. Their jaws can crunch them to powder, and their stomachs can digest and dissolve the calcium in strong acids. It's easy to recognize their feces as they appear white or grey from the calcium.

However, the Spotted Hyena is primarily a predator.

All the better to eat you with!
I’ve spent a night in the Kalahari following a group of seven of them. They seem to tirelessly cover the veld just loping along until one catches a scent, and then they suddenly all turn and race off in the same direction. During that night they had a go at an eland—that proved too much for them, chased a lioness up an acacia and circled the base with their tails up like dogs around a treed cat, and eventually pulled down a wildebeest.

Taking on a Gemsbok at night
And a lioness
In Botswana, Stan and I witnessed a much larger pack pull down a wildebeest and completely consume it over a period of a few hours. Everything is eaten except the horns and hooves. Watching that was what sparked the idea of destroying a body that way for the perfect murder, and eventually led to our first novel, A Carrion Death.

Surprisingly, Spotted Hyenas have a reputation for making good pets. They socialize easily with people, but while they are easy to house train, they have a strong scent which they use to mark their territories. Not ideal. At Ingwelala Game Reserve (where Stan has a bungalow), they used to come all through the camp at night and often chose to lie near the camp fire and watch the cooking like dogs. They would patrol the camp all night looking for scraps and company. Since giving them the former was strictly forbidden, they eventually became less keen on the latter.

What I didn’t know until I picked up an article from Reuters this week was that there is a city where they have become welcome nightly visitors. Although they are totally wild—in the sense that they live outside in the surrounding bush and come and go exactly as they please, they come through the city to clean up, accept offerings, be admired by tourists, and socialize with their favorite people—the ones who feed them (who are designated by the city).

Harar with the surrounding wall

The ancient city wall
Shewaber gate
The city itself is interesting. Situated in eastern Ethiopia near Somalia and the horn of Africa, it was established as a walled city in 1551 and is one of the earliest Muslim centers of importance, supposedly fourth after Mecca. Now about a quarter of a million people live in the city and surrounds. And beyond that, the hyenas live.

It’s worth reading the full piece from Reuters HERE, but here’s a taste (so to speak) of the hyenas and their friends.
'Hyena man' with a friend
Don't try this at home...
Sharing is caring.
So now I know something else about hyenas...

Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, launched June 6.


              My next Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga, releases on July 11 from Seventh Street Books. 

          The next Detective Kubu mystery, Dying to Live, releases in the UK on July 12 from Orenda books.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Mint-Flavored Novel

Sujata Massey

Sujata, Jeffery Deaver, and Mid-Atlantic MWA chapter prez Donna Andrews

A week ago Sunday, I sat in a crowded conference room in Bethesda and listened to a few comparison of novels to toothpaste. When you go looking for toothpaste at the drugstore, what would you think if your favorite one was missing--because Proctor&Gamble hadn’t felt inspired to make any toothpaste that month?

And if you were planning to launch a toothpaste for humans, would you flavor it with liver because it was your great original idea, or would you choose mint?

These were some of the provocative questions posed by Jeffery Deaver, the current president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and the bestselling author of 35 thrillers, most recently The Burial Hour. Mr. Deaver had kindly come to Bethesda, MD to teach a writing craft workshop, "Taking It To The Next Level" for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of MW). Not all of he had to say was new to me, but honestly, we writers forget what we should be doing. The care and revision taken with a first novel can easily fall by the wayside once a writer's on a yearly publishing schedule. Listening to Mr. Deaver's multi-page presentation (he gave us all typed notes on clipboards!) was like imbibing a very healthy smoothie after years of too much coffee.

Our guru started our morning by explaining the toothpaste metaphor: “You write for people, you don’t write for yourself. You are a professional running a business. And with the regard to the flavor of your book—think if it has an audience. You need to ask is this concept, “mint”? Is the plotting “mint”, are the character names “mint”?

This advice doesn’t exactly line up with the “write the book you want to read that doesn’t yet exist” tip that explains how I’ve come up with my concepts for two mystery series. I believe his concept of “mint”, though, doesn’t mean writing something that’s already out there. It refers to creating a book that’s easy for readers to fall in love with, that tastes good from the very first page.

He spent gobs of time talking about how to plan a book--because that's how he spends eight months every year, doing research (always saved in his own words) and a plot outline that’s usually 150 pages long. He likens the craft of building a book by following directions, just as aviation engineers put together an airplane. Would the engineers stick a wing or a tail in a random place just because they felt like it?  No! They always follow directions.

Mr. Deaver points out the time that will be saved if you plan rather than experiment. I too am an outliner, but the longest outline I've written was just shy of thirty pages. And I've never solved every nuance of the mystery in my outlines, which he says is  the lynchpin to writing a satisfying mystery or thriller.

He acknowledged writers can go forward without having plotted everything, but they will spend much more time thinking of what to write than actually writing. 

The hardest thing for me is looking at an elaborate sequence of linked events that lead to a startling conclusion that makes complete sense. I freeze when it comes to writing twisty plots—but when Mr. Deaver was talking about it, I suddenly realized that it might be fun to try--and I could keep track of each idea by putting it on a Post-It note.

So, the day after the workshop, I tried. Not only with the plot of my next book, but with a family tree for my characters. With deep outlining, I could track my backstory of the mystery as well as the chief adventure. However, I was doing this outlining at the midpoint of writing book 2, not before the whole shebang. But that was fine. I was seeing new opportunities for using my characters since I'd been working with them a few months already. 

 Back to "Taking It To The Next Level." I perked up after a coffee break, when the topic turned to writing stories that hook readers emotionally. Mr. Deaver had plenty to say--more than I can reprise here (he will teach this course again). I appreciated his point about the writer frequently raising questions that have important consequences. This means lots of cliffhangers and "wow moments"—rather than just one big climax, as is the structure in a lot of mysteries. “Promise and don’t deliver!” he said, reminding me of someone in Washington, DC. He meant raising questions in the reader’s mind and delaying answering them for as long as possible.

And then there's the issue of making good on all the suspicious aspects you've raised. Don't leave the red herrings uncooked!   Jeffery Deaver strives to resolve every conflict, character, clue and subplot by the end. He will go through a manuscript 30 to 40 times to make sure this happens, and that the language sounds utterly natural. By the time such a book is finished, it is a "mint" example of quality mystery.

In the last minutes of the class Mr. Deaver warned us to never allow our characters to get in jeopardy because of a stupid act like allowing a phone to go dead. And conversely, I'm relieved that not one of the writers' mobile phones rang during the workshop.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Swimming in the canal - not with the fishes or Speedos...or Inspector Maigret

Special Paris swimming pools opened today and the waiting crowds, including lots of kids, couldn't wait to take a dip on the opening day of the outdoor swimming pool in the Paris canal. The plan to introduce free swimming at the Bassin de la Villette finally happened.  The Bassin de la Villette was inaugurated in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte and was a former port area during the industrialisation of rivers. Now excited Parisians escaped the hot sun by making their inaugural dips into the three brand new swimming pools. These structures have been built into the Bassin, along the south side of the Quai de la Loire in the 19th arrondissement -  which connects to the Canal de l'Ourcq with the Canal Saint-Martin.
Ah, the Canal Saint Martin which reminded me of George Simenon's Inspector Maigret. Maigret had a case in the Canal and it wasn't pretty. Strike you as morbid that came to mind? Alors, we're crime writers and readers here, non?
The title translates to Maigret and the Corpse without a Head. In this story, a man’s dismembered body is found in Canal Saint Martin. Close to the scene, Maigret meets the taciturn owner of a cafe,
Aline Calas, and wonders if the body in the canal was that of her husband. As usual, Maigret’s instincts are correct.
Compelled to run the investigation further but with time on his hands as he’s already solved the case, Maigret starts digging into the past of everyone who is concerned. Unlike most detective fiction where finding the solution is central to the story, his novel explores the different motives that can lead to committing a crime.
Here lies a rationale of self-hatred behind the actions whereby you can hurt and mortify those who are closest to you. Simenon, through Maigret, attempts to figure out real meanings and ambitions, believing that understanding can lead to forgiveness and forgiveness will reduce the drive to commit a crime.

But getting back to the swimming pools - was the canal water that feeds them clean enough for the kids and swimmers?  Lina, aged 11 said, "I'm not worried. I've seen the signs saying they have checked the water is clean off so I am confident." Lina's mother said: "If the Town Hall says the water is OK then I am OK with that. It's hot outside and we need to keep cool, especially the children."
The temporary structure includes a very shallow paddling pool for young children, a second shallow pool and a large pool for adults. On top of that, the tight Speedos, required for most public Parisian pools, aren't required.
"It's a natural swimming experience, without chemical or biological treatment," the Town Hall promises. The pools are filled with "water from the canal itself", said Jean-François Martins who works on the team responsible for the city's facilities.
A filter has also been put in place to stop any pesky leaves, rubbish and fish from entering the canal.
And corpses?
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, July 17, 2017

More About Making Up History

Annamaria on Monday

Michael Cooper’s guest blog last week got me to thinking about that tenuous relationship between fact and fiction.   Mike pointed out how historical novelists play with and fill in the “little pools” of missing or ambiguous information in the historical record.  Then, a couple a days ago, Jeff reported that, once again, his fiction had predicted future facts.

From time to time, I have experienced something strangely between these two sensations.  I have invented an aspect of my story’s historical setting and only later found out that what I had fabricated was actually the truth.

Here is an example:

The Internet was not even a figment of Cerf and Kahn’s imaginations when I began researching City of Silver, some time around 1992 (the historical record is sketchy about this).  At that point in time, I had no choice but to learn my setting, Potosi’s history the old fashioned way, by digging around for dusty volumes.  Mostly, that meant starting my search in the card catalogue of the New York Public Library.  Selections from it blessedly often led me to the bibliographies of historian authors, which led me to other source materials.

While I filled my notebooks with what I was learning, I began thinking over a vague notion of a plot.  The inspiration for the murder mystery was a question my husband had asked me when we were visiting a cloistered convent for Spanish noblewomen in Potosi: “Why would a noblewoman want to lock herself away in a place like this?”  I, his convent-school-educated wife came up with five reasons.  Over the next few days, my imagination turned those reasons into five women.  When I needed a plot for my novel, those women showed up again, and they had a problem with a locked-room murder.

David's photograph of the convent's cloister

A gratuitous photo of one of Potosi'd beautiful churches,
included to show you why I fell in love with the place.

But the research was frustrating.  Most of what I wanted to read was available only in Spanish.  Well may you wonder why a person who cannot read Spanish wanted to write a historical novel about a Spanish-speaking city.  You’d be right if you suspected that she might be a bit daft.

What I needed to read was the Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosi by Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela.  There was a copy of that rare and splendid chronicle just uptown at the Columbia University library.  But I didn’t know how to read it.   The Library of Congress offered pay-dirt in the form of a book with translations of many of Arzans’ juiciest tidbits: Tales of Potosi, edited, with an introduction by R. C Padden.  I went to Washington to read it.

Once there was an Internet, I was able to find and buy my own copy.

Meanwhile, my sub-plot—which now revolved around a true counterfeiting scandal—was stalled because I had no sources in English to explain it to me.  There was nothing else for it.  I found a Spanish-speaking doctoral candidate at Columbia and engaged her to translate eight chapters of Arzans.  While she was at that task, I went ahead writing the mystery plot, which now involved the most powerful man in the city, based the real guy—Alcalde Francisco Gomez de la Rocha.  I knew very little about the historical Potosino mayor at that point, but I decided my fictional character would be a villain and that he would use poison to get rid of his enemy.  The imaginary man really began to take shape in my mind after I made that choice.


Eventually, about a month later, my translator delivered fifty-four pages of Arzans in English.  And there on page 29 was this sentence.  “In September 1651, Rocha decided to kill the President with venomous powders.”

The model for my villain actually was a poisoner.   

Just a coincidence for sure.   But still, it gave me gooseflesh.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Clay pigeon (skeet) shooting: giving it a go

Many moons ago, I used to enjoy target shooting, mainly with long guns, but occasionally with handguns as well. Now, sadly, after the banning of most types of firearm in the UK following various shooting incidents, I have to settle for getting a bit of practice every now and again on trips to the States.

One type of firearm that is still legal in the UK is a shotgun, despite it being so beloved of bank robbers of yore, when the barrel or barrels would be sawn off for ease of concealment.

Doing this does have a number of drawbacks, such as decreasing the velocity and accuracy of the projectile, and wildly increasing both the spread of the shot and the recoil. There’s even a scene in a 2012 Brad Pitt movie, Killing Them Softly, where a shotgun used in a robbery has been sawn off so short you can see the ends of the cartridges protruding from what little there is left of the barrels.

Back when I was target shooting with rifle, I was advised not to fire shotguns, as this would alter my technique. Shooting a rifle is much more about stillness, about taking up a position that allows you to relax and still be aiming correctly at the target. Using a shotgun is all about trying to hit a moving target, so you’re anticipating where the target is going to be, rather than where it is now. 

But, as I haven’t done any competition shooting for many years, there was no excuse not to finally give shotgun a try. For this I went to Cloudside Shooting Grounds near Congleton in Cheshire for a taster session.

Photo: Cloudside

The club has a fantastic setting overlooking the rolling countryside, although my eye was more on the flying orange and black discs than it was on the view. After a bacon butty in the temporary clubhouse marquee – apparently they had a chimney fire in the clubhouse proper – I was handed a box of 20 gauge shotgun shells and led to the first of the stands to give it a whirl.

Photo: Cloudside

The different stands had controllers for the various traps, involving the clays either going directly away from the shooting position, directly towards, or off at angles. The final one was a long left-to-right trajectory that apparently classes as ‘difficult’.

What surprised me was the almost total lack of recoil from the 20 gauge shotgun. I’d been half expecting a bruised shoulder, but there was nothing to cause it. And as long as you keep your cheek resting lightly on the comb of the stock rather than pressed hard against it, nothing to worry your face, either.

Photo: Cloudside

Getting my head round the slow velocity of the shot took a bit of doing, but tracking ahead of the clay and waiting for it to fall into my sight picture was not as difficult as I’d been expecting.

As for how many did I hit? Enough for a decent-sized clay pigeon pie, let me put it that way!

And will I be giving clay shooting another try? Very probably …

This week’s Word of the Week is skeet, which is the US name for clay pigeon, but which also has a number of slang definitions, such as something that’s generally displeasing, or displeasing due to being insufficient. It’s a type of poker hand as well, also known as a freak or nonstandard hand, which is generally considered an unpaired hand with three cards including the 2, 7, and 9, and three cards in between. And finally, it’s the slang term for a method of birth control. I’ll leave the mechanics of that to your imaginations!