About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

Thanksgiving, 2020

turkey feather

Enjoy this special holiday (and the 4500 calories the average American reportedly consumes on Thanksgiving Day)! Stay safe now to make it  possible to be with your loved ones later.

Photo: Turkey feather, Josch13 for Pixabay.

Lighting and Sound: Theater Magic

Like everything else in theater, there’s much more to lighting and sound design than their obvious purpose of making on-stage action visible and audible. Through means bold and subtle, they enhance our experience and understanding.

Lighting Design

Lighting signals us where to look and who’s the current character of interest, not necessarily the speaker. The type of lighting used (harsh or flattering, bright or muted) further reveals something about the time and place where a scene occurs.

For the last class in my “how to watch a play course,” we watched Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau, as produced by the Lincoln Center Theater. The stage was bare, each scene defined by only a few pieces of furniture, and the lighting did much to reinforce each setting. In the high school scenes, cold, bright light mimicked fluorescents; in the teacher’s home, the light was warm, subdued, and her son’s white shirt glowed in the dimness. While we might not consciously notice this difference, we would definitely perceive it.

Lighting can create a mood and reinforce a production’s style. The fuchsia lighting of the dance scene in She Loves Me was not “realistic”—nor was the dance—but everything worked together to convey the sense of watching a confection.

Smaller effects are also important—the light through a window reflected on the wall, the change in daylight from morning to night, the use of “practical lights” like lamps, flashlights, or the light inside a refrigerator.

These days, the myriad light cues in a production are computerized and programmable. If a theater is outfitted with colored LED lights, even the desired color can be specified for the computer, though old-fashioned plastic “gels” are still in use.

Sound Design

Like lighting, sounds help establish time and place (crickets chirping, a clock chiming, sirens). They can be random or diegetic, if, in the world of the play, the actors know about and respond to them, like a ringing doorbell.

Sounds reinforce the reality of a scene, like a car door slamming or the splash of water from a faucet. Such sounds may be easily overlooked, if only because they fully meet our expectations of what a slamming car door or running water should sound like. Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., who led the course, said that, to create the multilayered sound we hear as “rain,” it takes a combination of at least three separate recordings.

Underscoring, or background music, playing softly under dialog, is not heard by the actors and contributes to mood. Sometimes incidental music ramps up between scenes, as it did in Pipeline, holding our attention while sets or costumes are changed.

Pipeline included some deceptively simple sounds. The teacher’s lounge scenes had a public address speaker, which produced the kind of slightly garbled, staticky announcements we remember from high school. The hospital scene also included public address announcements, but they obviously were the product of a high-end system. A tiny but telling detail and a deliberate choice.

World in Flames

wildfire, fire

Daniel Duane’s riveting article in the November issue of Wired, “The Fires Next Time,” should give the people who live in the American West, all of us who have family or friends who live there, and everyone who loves the area’s beauty yet another serious problem to worry about. A distraction from covid, maybe?

You might think my posts about impending disasters—cyberthreats, climate change, and others—suggest I’m teetering on some mental edge. Not so. For me, these “ripped from the headlines” topics open dramatic possibilities outside the overworked crime fiction obsession with serial killers, duplicitous spouses, and missing “girls.”

The wildfires article is laden with enough drama and information about Western wildfires to create some compelling fiction. Martin J. Smith used an advancing wildfire to great effect, ramping up the tension in his 2016 police procedural, Combustion. It can be done.

Duane points out that, though their number seems to be increasing, wildfires were even more frequent hundreds of years ago—before housing developments, ranches, and towns erupted in fire-prone areas. Fires were a natural part of the landscape. The frequency of these long-ago fires meant they stayed close to the ground, burning surface fuels, and the forest ecology evolved to handle such ground-fires of that type.

Even now that fire managers recognize the benefits of periodic burns, which get rid of that ground-level fuel, it’s had to make that case to private property owners in the path of a blaze. Thus, CalFire’s mandate continues to be to extinguish every one of them as fast as possible, Duane says.

His article begins with a deconstruction of the 2018 Carr fire in the northern Sacramento Valley and explains how in recent years, western wildfires have become much more dangerous. The models that let officials predict wildfire behavior, and therefore, how to fight a particular fire and when to evacuate residents, have become obsolete.

There’s a growing incidence of plume-driven fires, in which wind and weather are redirected by the rising heat column to make the fire burn hotter and move faster. The result is a fire tornado. In the Carr file, it was “a whirling vortex of flame 17,000 feet tall and rotating 143 mph.” A fire tornado sucks up flaming debris (like the remains of people’s homes) and scatters it like firebombs, igniting new blazes.

Modern fires move fast. In some instances, Australia’s bushfires moved faster than people could flee them. The 2018 Camp Fire burned 70,000 acres in 24 hours. For a while, Duane says, it consumed “about a football field a second.” That was the fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and sent Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. In court proceedings earlier this year, the company said, “No apology, no plea, no sentencing can undo [the fire’s] damage, and no passage of time can lessen the anguish we heard expressed in court.”

Next Week: How World War II Strategies Exposed Some Fire Secrets

Photo: Amissphotos for Pixabay

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – Nov/Dec 2020

Santa Claus, reading

What fun to review this issue of “the world’s leading mystery magazine” and have the chance to reexamine its amazingly diverse stories, in numerous sub- and maybe even sub- sub- genres. In this issue there’s a nice mix of brand new and newish authors, as well as some of today’s best writers of crime and mystery fiction.

Picking favorites is hard, but these stories particularly struck me.

“Killer Instinct” by Doug Allyn—a perennial reader favorite. Not only is his story set in my home town, Detroit, his first sentence made me laugh out loud. It’s perfect for EQMM: “The traffic was murder.”

“My People” by Liza Cody – Her protagonist, an undercover London cop, is participating in a huge protest about climate change, sussing out the demonstrators’ intentions. They welcome her; her fellow police are dismissive. As a result, she engages in an entertaining mental back-and-forth about which group is “her people.”

“The Man from Scotland Yard Dances Salsa” by John Lantigua. His Miami-based Cuban private eye is always interesting. Once again, he cleverly negotiates that tropical world of people with lots of dough and the bad guys who want to grab some of it.

“The Cards You’re Dealt” by Michael Z. Lewin – satisfying comeuppance of a full-of-himself police lieutenant, aided by some smart detective work and a sharp boy and his bike.

“The Man at the Window” by Pat Black—an intriguing police procedural about a dead mom, suspiciously swinging neighbors, and a tidy three-year-old.

Photo: Creative Commons License

Covid in an Era of Cyber Insecurity

Since 2014, the United States has faced an increasing number of well-publicized cyber attacks. Although some have been severe, none have crossed the “traditional threshold of war,” as described by Garrett M. Graff in a November 2020 Wired article. To recap a few of these: In 2014, there was China’s theft of government personnel records and North Korea’s suspected hack of Sony; in 2016, Russia attempted to manipulate the presidential election; and more recently, we’ve seen numerous ransomware attacks on institutions and municipal governments, both large (Atlanta, Baltimore) and small.

In response to such threats, New York City created a citywide cyber command (the NYCCC) in July 2017. This centralized organization works across NYC agencies and offices “to prevent, detect, respond, and recover from cyber threats.” Geoff Brown, head of the NYCCC, described its challenges in a recent online briefing moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly. A consolidated approach certainly has face validity, compared to asking a hundred different entities with personnel of varying training, skill, and interest to cobble together their own separate, inevitably not interoperable security plans. As Brown said, “We can’t predict what’s coming around the curve, but if we build resilient systems overall, we can respond well.”

Over the last year, in the face of Covid, the NYCCC has used its technical environment to “defend the defenders.” When city agencies moved to remote operations, that process also was aided by the NYCCC’s work. Not surprisingly, cyber adversaries took advantage of concerns about Covid to expand their intrusion attempts, knowing people would more quickly respond to queries and data requests that appeared to be Covid-related and ignore potential red flags.

It was incredibly sobering, Brown said, to reflect on how, in the middle of a life-threatening crisis, the health network itself became so vulnerable. As a result, NYCCC has worked with both the public and the private hearth care sectors to increase awareness of cyber vulnerabilities and strengthen their defenses. Never forget, he warned, that without extreme vigilance, the consequences can be deadly. He cited how a ransomware attack led to the recent death of a German man.

Understandably, health care systems have a fundamental concern about patient privacy, although even that makes the system subject to attack. Clearly, such attacks are corrosive, with damage beyond their initial impact, by damaging citizens’ all-important trust in governmental, public health, and social institutions.

Story Endings – Part Two

ending, finish, party

Last week Washington Post book critic Ron Charles’s recent essay about book endings that disappoint was reviewed on this website. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued by this account. Says Post editor Stephanie Merry, his essay let loose a torrent of reader comments that aired “their personal grievances about the endings that still haunt them.” The result, she says, was a funny, eclectic, and, not surprisingly often contradictory view of how we want our books to conclude. She reports on that outpouring here.

According to Merry, there was “nearly universal agreement on a handful of books.” Perhaps readers were reminded of these loathed conclusions by Charles’s post, as the comments repeat many of the examples he highlighted. A “top contender for worst ending” was Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. After all the clever and powerful twisting back and forth between Nick and Amy, the consensus seems to be that it’s just too weak. Another popularly unpopular ending was that of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I think I read that years ago, but maybe I just remember Rene Zellweger.

In contrast to Gone Girl, in which the ending just flopped, the disappointment with Cold Mountain seems to be a case in which readers didn’t like the ending the writer chose (my problem with Tess of the D’Urbervilles). People have been saying the same about Romeo and Juliet, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina for generations It’s almost as if we readers are saying, don’t make us care about these characters so much unless you plan to keep them alive long enough for a sequel!

As one reader (Javachip) wrote more eloquently, “There’s a difference between endings that crush you with their sadness or horribleness but still work, and indeed you hate them because they work, (he cites examples), vs. endings that feel like a cheat.” (Emphasis added.) In that category he puts Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett—the first of hers I ever read, years ago—and I do not remember the ending at all. Must not have made much of an impression. At least it didn’t make me mad.

A surprising number of readers confess to reading the end first. “I always enjoy a journey more if I [don’t] have to worry about where I am going,” said Post reader Alison Cartwright. Something I would never do, would you?

And then there were the contrarian readers who suggested nominees for best ending, including The Great Gatsby and The Underground Railroad. Lopezgirl5 is a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s ending for Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” That might make a good first line for a certain kind of story, as well.

Photo: pixel2013 for Pixabay

Adding Some Theater Magic to Your Novel

Lady Macbeth

The set and costume choices used in theater are akin to how authors describe settings and the clothing their characters wear. Everything’s a choice—a tangible one or the words used to describe it. People (readers) evaluate our surroundings and what people wear all the time in everyday life, which puts a burden on writing about them. Are the details we choose meaningful? This is what set and costume designers understand to a fare-thee-well.

Where Are Your Characters? The Setting

Sets and costumes were the topic of my third “How to Watch a Play” class led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Theater J in Washington DC. Sets and costumes give a show its tone and style and help define where and when it takes place. Check Google images for different productions of the same play, and you’ll find “dramatically” different interpretations that serve different dramatic concepts. Authors can use their descriptions in the same way, in order to establish a vision of a person or place in the reader’s mind. Auntie Mame wearing “all her pearls” (tells you everything you need to know about her!) or the foggy treetop setting for Nick Petrie’s escaping hero in Burning Bright.

The big difference is, of course, the theater audience can take in the set and costumes in a glance, whereas a written text works best when it focuses on a few key aspects. Does it matter that the carpet is beige, or is it more important that all the tables and shelves are glass (later to be broken)? Does it matter that the protagonist’s shoes are black, or will it be consequential that those shoes are the aptly-named stilettos? As a reader, I don’t care that a woman’s suit is gray, I care that she hasn’t changed style or color in forty years.

Innumerable specific choices in the set design—the materials used, their color and texture, and whether they appear buoyant or heavy, for example—can be brought into the visual field or, in writing, into the text, to convey not just what a room looks like, but to suggest the kinds of things that have happened there and can happen again.

What Do Your Characters Wear?

To convey a sense of the status and personality of a tale’s characters, costume designers use line, color, fabric, accessories, makeup, and wigs/hair. One of my “unforgettable theater moments” was a costume moment during a Folger Theatre production of Richard III. The cast was dressed all in black, the simple set was heavy and dim. No color at all. As Act II (I think) began, Richard, wearing a black cape, trudged up a short stairway. At the top, he flung open the cape, revealing a spotlit scarlet lining. No question about his murderous intentions! Or think of a Walter Mosley character wearing a wife-beater.

Dressing a character in all black or all white also suggests something about them. White usually implies purity. A bit of counter-costuming often gives Lady Macbeth a long white gown. In one production I saw, she was on stage alone and turned her back to the audience to grip the iron bars of a gate in both hands (thereby breaking gel-packs of fake blood). She ran her hands up and down her torso and, when she turned to face us, the blood-stained white dress was a shocker and, of course, dramatically significant (the pictured costume accomplishes a similar message).

Writers can’t achieve the same visual shock on the page but can always rope in a gobsmacked observer. Next time you go to the theater or watch a well-designed tv show, notice how the choices about sets and costumes shed light on the story and characters. Those skills are there for adaptation in writing. Choices (good, bad, or indifferent) have been made.

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Deep in the Mosquitia region of Honduras—an area of steep mountains and impenetrable jungle—is some of earth’s most remote and still-unexplored mysteries. Yet within this forbidding area, according to legend, lay the abandoned White City, The Lost City of the Monkey God.

Act 1

Over decades, various expeditions had tried to find the city, mostly using the rivers and their many tributaries, without notable success. In 2012, aircraft equipped with laser-guided Light Detection and Ranging technology (LIDAR) become available. LIDAR could penetrate the jungle canopy for the first time and its images revealed a city’s-worth of  plazas and structures. At ground level, these were invisible, fully camouflaged by dense overgrowth. Finally, an expedition could be mounted whose destination was more than guesswork.

Thriller writers will recognize the author of this true-life adventure, Douglas Preston, as the author with Lincoln Child of the Prendergast and Gideon series of suspense novels, as well as a number of stand-alones. His first love was science, and as a journalist, he’s covered archaeology, paleontology, and other -ologies. The first work of his I read was The Monster of Florence, the true crime story of a serial killer and the case’s botched prosecution. Its invaluable insights about the Italian legal system informed my thriller set in Rome.

A long-time acquaintance, the filmmaker and adventurer Steve Elkins, invited Preston to participate in the Honduran exploration team. Due to limits on the availability of helicopters to transport the team and their supplies in and out, they had only a very few days on site. Although they managed to clear away no more than a small portion of the dense jungle, the LIDAR findings were validated.

With the full backing of and (one hopes) ongoing site security from the Honduran government, discoveries are still there to be made. The book conveys the team’s profound thrill of discovery as they faced drenching rains, freeze-dried meals, jaguars prowling outside their tents at night, and an encounter with a six-foot fer-de-lance, the most deadly snake in the Americas.

Act 2

Unbeknownst to several members of the team, once they scattered to their home communities, they were on the cusp of a new and undesirable adventure. One by one, they began to suffer mysterious physical symptoms. In Preston’s case, it was a bug bite that wouldn’t heal. It was painless, so he ignored it until he learned others were having problems too. U.S. doctors rarely see tropical diseases, so it took some time for diagnoses to coalesce around leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease acquired from the bite of an infected sandfly. The way the disease manifests in different individuals—and their responses to the available treatments, such as they are—vary widely. They may never be free of it.

This part of the experience allowed Preston to explore the significance of infectious diseases in human society and the inevitability (this was written in 2017) of pandemics, past and future. It wasn’t a prediction about our present situation, but a useful reminder. Because of global warming, the natural range of vectors like sandflies is expanding steadily northward. Scattered cases of leishmaniasis are now being found in Texas and Oklahoma, and these are not associated with travel to endemic areas.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is about exciting discoveries in a region whose perils were more numerous than expected. An engrossing and worthwhile read, it was widely regarded as one of the best books of 2017.

Photo: StanVPeterson for Pixabay

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Theme

There’s a place in the world for books whose sole aim is to entertain, but these books often don’t have staying power. Shakespeare, Dickens (the inspiration for the names of our kittens, Will and Charles), Twain—wrote stories that were popular and, because they explore universal themes, have continued relevance to readers today. Modern authors tackle difficult themes too: Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison. As do mystery/thriller writers: Steph Cha, Walter Mosley, Don Winslow.

Author Philip Pullman’s Insight

In a recent Guardian essay, author Philip Pullman discussed how he arrives at a theme. His works have themes, in retrospect, but “that aim or purpose, or theme, wasn’t where I started. It’s far too abstract.” He allows as how some successful writers can start with a theme and develop a novel to illustrate it. Not him. “I don’t start with a theme in mind at all,” he says, “but with characters in particular situations. If I’m lucky a theme becomes visible to me before I reach the end of the story, so I can go back and cut, or shape, or move, or amplify, or reduce various parts of the text in order to clarify the theme I’m beginning to see.”

I was so happy to read this, because I’d been feeling rather dim that I didn’t recognize sooner the theme of the novel I’ve been working on. I thought of it as a simple crime novel, in which a man fails to do something important and fears he’ll be found out. He torments himself about this, but before he can substantively confront his failing, a great many more bad things happen, to him and to those he loves. Not until I was writing query letters (better late than never) did I realize the story is about a man trying to regain self-respect. (You’ll have to read the book to find out whether he succeeds.) In other words, a theme can reveal itself organically out of the work.

Surprise!

This recognition was a surprise. I hadn’t counted on being skilled enough to create something around a Theme. Even the idea sounds like a prescription for deadly prose. However, I shouldn’t have been wary. As Donald Maass, in his excellent advice to writers suggests, no matter what the specific content (time, place, characters, plot) of a novel is, these specifics need to connect to something larger, to the universal. That’s what creates the emotional connection for the reader.

We may not have the experience of being stranded on Mars, but we know what it is to feel abandoned, to keep our spirits up by busily plugging away at tasks that are manageable. We may not have the experience of living in Margaret Atwood’s Gideon, but many women (at least) know what it is to play eternal second-fiddle to another group of people, to be systematically devalued. We may not have the experience of my character, architect Archer Landis, who discovers a murder and doesn’t report it, but we know what it is to feel shame.

For the past few Thursdays, my posts have examined influences in my crime novel, tentatively titled Four Proofs of Courage. I’m delighted to report that it is under contract with Black Opal Books, and when I have the schedule, I’ll share it. I appreciate the readers who have told me they like these posts. I hope you do too and would love to hear from you. Previous posts in “Where Writers’ Ideas Come From”:
Why an Architect?
Who Are These Women?
Seeing the World Through a Character’s Eyes
What Kind of Trip Is It?
Slivers of Backstory

Photo: pasja1000 for Pixabay

Coming to a Bad End

End, Finish

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles recently wrote about his reluctance to spoil the endings of the books he reviews, yet worried about “the propriety of burying my appraisal of a book’s conclusion.” It’s a conundrum for him, because endings are so critical to what readers come away with. I know many many fellow readers who adored Where the Crawdads Sing all the way up to the last pages, because they believe the ending (whatever it is; my lips are sealed) wasn’t true to the character. Put me in that camp too.

There’s lots of reasons not to like an ending, and a disconnect with the rest of the book is a good one. Critics and critical readers didn’t like the ending to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, because it felt too manipulative and artificially tidy. One of my favorite classics is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I hate the ending—not because it betrays the character, not because it doesn’t ring true, but simply because I don’t want it to end that way. No surprise, then, that in all my many repeat viewings of West Side Story, I’ve sat through the last half-hour in a state of increasing anxiety, hoping against hope that Chino won’t step out and shoot Tony at the end (Oops! Spoiler alert).

Wishing the ending the author chose were something different isn’t exactly the same as disliking the ending that was chosen. In the first case, the problem is internal to the reader and, in the second, it may be with the author.

Charles reports on an analysis by online retailer OnBuy.com of GoodReads reviews to identify the “Books with the Most Disappointing Endings.” Their methodology, he says, “feels a bit dubious,” but, nevertheless, here are the top five: Romeo and Juliet (you want it to end differently), Atonement (too neat), Requiem by Lauren Oliver (don’t know it), and The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray (don’t know it either). Two Harry Potter books are on the list: “Deathly Hallows” at spot 9 and “Half-Blood Prince” at spot 11. Weaknesses, if there be them, haven’t hurt sales, though. “Half-Blood Prince” sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours and “Deathly Hallows” 8.3 million—before most readers got to their questionable endings, I’d wager

Here are the contradictory assessments readers provide about the endings they hate: they’re too rushed (that deadline is looming; wrap this baby up!) or too drawn out (enough already; The Goldfinch is a prime offender here); they’re too surprising (surprising? If no groundwork is laid, sure, but if it is . . . don’t we like plots with a twist?) or too predictable (thrillers, especially, have developed a too well-worn plot groove). And here, Charles notes, other readers bedsides me lament the fate of poor Tess.

Charles’s article prompted hundreds of WashPo readers to comment, “and the result was a funny, eclectic and often contradictory look at how we want our books to conclude,” wrote editor Stephanie Merry. More on that next week.

Photo: Alexas_Fotos for Pixabay.