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.

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

Order The Quarter Storm here from Amazon
Or here from an independent bookseller.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

Available from Amazon on preorder!

How a Book Is Made

Readers and writers alike may enjoy this interactive New York Times feature from a few months back, ICYMI, which shows step-by-step how a book is made. Elizabeth Harris and photographer Thomas Prior followed the progress of Marlon James’s book Moon Witch, Spider King, from its beginning as a Word document somewhere in the cloud to a finished hardcover book you can hold in your hand.

The first step (after Marlon finishes his cloud magic) is producing the brilliantly colored jacket, which is run on a six-color press, 8,000 sheets of paper in a batch. Next, the aptly-named press that prints the actual book pages. It weighs 200,000 pounds, and the rolls of specialty paper books require weigh 800 pounds each—no supply chain paper shortages here!

It’s probably a good idea that authors are nowhere near these presses. Watching the flying ribbon of paper is almost scary, as is wondering whether the pages will arrive at the bindery in the right order. (Eeek! The gathering machine! Trimming! Gluing!) It’s amazing how rarely these pieces of the process do mess up. As many books as I’ve read, handled, skimmed, etc., I’ve seen out-of-order pages or bad trimming once in a very blue moon.

The cardboard covers (call one a “case,” and you’ll pass for a printing insider) then go on. The striking jacket wrappers are folded onto the books. Boxes of finished books are wrapped, sealed, labeled, and ready to ship. Fini! This is a lot more than I knew about producing a book when I was 10, and my mom found me pecking on my sturdy Underwood. “Writing is so hard!” I complained. “It’s almost impossible to make the right side of the lines come out even!”

An Inside Look at Commercial Airline Flights

This week, we had a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional flight from Newark Airport to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Robert Zyriek, a former Air Force fighter pilot, now an experienced commercial pilot with more than 20,000 hours of flying time, made the presentation. I’d describe the process as an inevitably frustrating exercise in precise planning amidst a sea of unpredictable circumstances.

Flight 001 was scheduled to leave Newark at 7:30 am Eastern Time and arrive at DFW around 10:45 Central. Leaving, of course meant “doors closed, no latecomers allowed,” and arriving meant “doors open for deplaning,” not when the wheels touch the ground.

That’s a hard-and-fast rule. An excruciating TSA line in San Francisco prompted a couple of guys to prevail on me to let them go ahead, because they were about to miss their flight to Chicago. I of course said “sure,” and as a result, arrived at the gate for my Newark-bound flight just as the door closed. “But the plane is sitting right there.” “Yes, it is, and the door’s closed.” I’d run afoul of the stringent rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, which cover every aspect of your flight, as Zyriek explained.

Planning for a particular flight begins hours before you’re even headed to the airport. For our 7:30 departure, the dispatcher starts around 2 a.m., working up an overview of the flight, condition of the plane, the anticipated weight of the passengers and their luggage, and, most important, the amount of fuel needed.

As the dispatcher does the calculations, the captain, first officer, and flight attendants are still sleeping. The FAA even prescribes when they need to leave their hotel to begin being “on duty.” For a 7:30 a.m. flight, that’s probably about 6:15. We’ve all been on flights where a late inbound flight made the scheduled crew late for our outbound flight. If the combination of the delayed flight and the planned outbound flight will exceed their allowed hours on duty, there must be a new crew altogether.

It’s in implementing the flight plan that the captain contributes to the airline’s bottom line. Pilots can’t control the number of seats sold, but they have some control over the amount of fuel used. The plan covers the route, anticipated weather, whether an alternative landing airport is needed because of weather uncertainties, and the amount of fuel required. The FAA also requires a fuel reserve for 45 extra minutes of flying time, extra fuel for the backup landing airport and for anticipated on-ground delays, and so on. On a short flight, these extra fuel allotments may exceed the amount of fuel needed to reach the original destination.

When the crew arrives at the airport, each member has a job to do. The gate agent hands off the the dispatcher’s plan to the captain, tracks the number of passengers and any special requirements, like wheelchairs, whether there will be animals on board, and the like. The Captain is the nexus of information, and the First Officer (whom Zyriek called “the doer”) turns on the power, programs the navigation computer, and walks around the outside of the plane looking for problems. The flight attendants check their safety equipment, attempt to adjust the cabin temperature, make sure the seats and overhead compartments are working, and take on board food and beverages.

The first changes to our carefully worked out flight plan occur when the first officer’s walkaround reveals ice on the wings. While dispatch planned extra fuel for this, the captain is told the DFW weather forecast is tanking and may require landing at the backup airport (Tulsa), which requires additional fuel. This creates a delay, while fuel is added (time for the wings to ice up again), and dispatch creates a new timing, and a new fuel load calculation. This is why your mom has been waiting at the airport for two hours already by the time you arrive.

In flight, the Captain is anticipating the next moves and monitoring some sensors, but most of the monitoring duties fall to the First Officer. Generally, they take turns “flying” the plane and working the radio. While they might use autopilot during some portion of the flight, Zyriek maintains that autopilot is only as good  as the information it’s given. That’s up to the crew. Over Kentucky the plane encounters a patch of turbulence. Ordinarily, the captain would increase the altitude to avoid it, but the added fuel make the plane too heavy to do that.

During our flight, the cockpit receives reports of worsening conditions at DFW, and Tulsa looks to be in our future, but at almost the last possible moment, the weather moves out, and we land around noon. Whew!

Cover Story

Like a clever jigsaw puzzle, Susan Rigetti’s new novel, Cover Story, about a world-class con artist gives you a lot of pieces. It takes a while for them to start fitting together, allowing the picture to emerge, and it doesn’t snap completely into focus until the end.

The story is told mainly through the diary entries of New York University drop-out Lora Ricci as she embarks on one of her life goals—becoming the editor of an important fashion magazine. Her other goal is to be a famous writer, and she plans to work hard at both. She’s taking the first step, having secured a summer internship at the fashionista watering-hole, Elle. Lora’s diary entries are written in the sort of breathless, pep-talky style totally appropriate to who she is, enthusiastic but inexperienced.

The book leads off not with the diary, but with a short memorandum to the file from Agent Jenée Parker in the FBI’s New York field office. It was written in response to a tip from an editor at Elle suggesting that one of the magazine’s employees isn’t who she claims to be. Cat Wolff makes an instant impression on everyone, especially Lora.

Why does someone with Cat’s connections and sophistication—even criminal tendencies—need to cultivate an unsophisticated, if well-meaning, young woman like Lora? There’s no question that Cat has some scheme in mind in which Lora will get the short end of the stick, but what is it? And how badly will she be hurt?

You’re also privy to Cat’s multiple exchanges with credit card companies, banks where she’s seeking loans, and venture capitalists she’s trying to entice to fund a fashion project. Most immediately pesky are the hand-written notes from the Plaza’s front desk—at first nicely, then firmly— requesting payment of her massive bill. You worry that Lora may somehow be stuck with that bill. Cat may look as serene as a duck floating on a pond, but all the while, her feet are paddling furiously out of sight, as the FBI closes in.

It’s certainly something of a relief when Lora finally starts waking up and realizes Cat may not be quite what Lora thinks she is. And that she may not have Lora’s best interests at heart.

This is a quick read and highly entertaining, and I suspect the scope of Cat’s scam will take your breath away. It sure did mine!

California-based author Susan (Fowler) Rigetti was the technology op-ed editor at The New York Times, and worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley—good background for Cat, who boldly harnesses the deceptive potential of the Internet. She came to whistleblower fame (Person of the Year for TIME and the Financial Times; numerous magazine covers) writing about her experience as a Uber software engineer. The unaddressed sexual harassment, along with management’s chaos-inducing sexism and political oneupsmanship became notorious, leading to serious reexamination of tech industry culture and practices.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Who’s Number Two?

A fine line exists between making secondary characters memorable and turning them into caricatures, distinctive, but not clichés. Even though the trope of the comical sidekick is common, in skilled hands it still works.

The main character, beset by story problems, may need to retain some seriousness. Even so, sometimes a little lightening of the mood is needed. Strong, funny number twos who retain their individuality include Lewis in Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash books and Juanell Dodson in Joe Ide’s I.Q. stories. I start chuckling the minute they appear.

As protagonists, investigators—law enforcement or p.i.’s—have more freedom for snark and gallows humor than crime victims do, being one step removed from the tragedy. I’ve laughed out loud at John Sandford’s jokes and Tami Hoag’s squadroom putdowns. Knowing how to keep a balance is key. I recall a police procedural where every bit of dialog generated a snarky response from a secondary character. That became annoying. It was too transparently a device.

In a short story, an author may have two or three additional characters to sketch out, and in a novel, quite a few. Giving them distinct characteristics keeps readers from becoming confused. Like the terra cotta warriors, each should be different. Compared to the main character, there’s probably less detail about secondary players, and finding the right broad strokes to convey them is an art. It’s iffy whether to term rough-around-the-edges Nina Borisovna Markova a secondary character, as she’s the third point-of-view character in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Quinn has thoroughly worked out who Nina is and how she got that way. Nina’s behavior, which breezes past “distinctive” into outrageous territory, is nevertheless consistent and believable. And, of course, she’s a perfect contrast with the main character, a sophisticated, erudite Englishman (and Nazi-hunter).

I don’t know how Quinn developed Nina’s character, but I can imagine her starting with the Englishman and constructing a new character who is the total opposite of him in important ways. Then, perhaps, she constructed the kind of background story for Nina that would produce such an unusual person.

My novel, Architect of Courage (available 6/4) has a number of secondary characters that were fun to work out. Colm O’Hanlon is the attorney for the architecture firm Landis + Porter and for Landis himself. He’s a genial guy and affects Irishisms for his own amusement, but he never takes his eyes off the ball—that is, whatever is needed to protect his clients.

Landis’s two principal assistants, Charleston Lee and Ty Geller are very different personalities, alike in that they’re both harboring secrets. Charleston is polite and deferential, a child of the South. He’s steady, deliberate. Ty has a short fuse and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Charleston has to learn to take more risks, and Ty has to learn how to manage people.

Unlike a novel set in an investigative agency, Landis doesn’t have all the skills he needs for what he hopes to do. He’s backstopped by the introduction of Carlos Salvadore, an investigator in the criminal law department of O’Hanlon’s law firm, whose job description involves “heavy lifting.” Carlos goes about his business with quiet efficiency, solving problems Landis doesn’t even know he has. Good or bad, strong or weak, all these characters serve the story. You’ve probably heard authors say that sometimes, a character intended to have a walk-on part take over, and I can imagine that happening! Sometimes it leads to a new series, too.

Where in the World?

Dozens of maps help illustrate the family history I’m working on, and I’ve learned a lot from exploring them. Let me share a few of the more interesting ones. Apologies for my rather inartful use of the highlighter to indicate where relatives lived.

General Reference Maps

These three maps (Dorchester County, Maryland; Bastrop County, Texas; and Limestone County, Alabama) provide the general lay of the land in these areas. Bastrop County is where a lot of movies are filmed; Smithville is named for my great-great grandfather. I selected maps with an old-fashioned look about them, but most of their information is probably still correct.

Topographical Maps

You’re looking at the hilly, creek-ridden countryside of Virginia’s Franklin County, slightly southeast of Roanoke. The vertical notation “Standiford’s Creek” along the bottom, shows where my ancestors lived. This area is now underwater due to the construction of the Smith Mountain Dam.

Historical Maps

Historical maps show where things “used to be.” On the cattle trails map at left, the farthest west vertical trail was the Goodnight-Loving trail, named for Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, models for the characters in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. In colonial days, “hundreds” were administrative divisions of the land and population containing about 100 households. My family lived in Ceil County, Maryland’s Octorara Hundred. The detailed 1561 London map on the right is a real find. It’s interactive, so you can select what you want to see. The Great Fire of London began in a bakery on Pudding Lane, just north of the church (in purple).

Thematic Maps

These fascinating examples show the ethnicities of people living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the original extent of Indian lands in the southern United States, and key locations in Salem, Mass., linked to the 1692 witch trials.

Cadastral Maps

When you find your ancestor on one of these, you’ve struck gold. My family members appear on these maps of New Haven, Conn. (1641), Barbados (late 1600s), and southwest Virginia (both Howe and Hoge, 1777).

Further Research

If you’re interested in finding maps like these—either for a project or just for general interest—the Library of Congress’s online collection is a helpful place to start.

More Short and Sweet: Tips on Effective Prose in Short Stories

Last week Sisters in Crime sponsored another of its “Short and Sweet” webinars about short-story writing. Talented author Art Taylor again hosted, along with award-nominated Ed Aymar, to talk about constructing a text. There’s a great satisfaction in doing it well. As Brendan DuBois said in the current issue of The3rdDegree, there’s a “satisfaction in seeing how an author can tell a gripping story in the confines of a relatively small playground.”

The prose—that is, the words on the page—are not just a delivery vehicle for character and plot, Taylor said. How a story is told is its own experience. If it’s told in a style that makes you think of floating down a lazy river on a summer day with the insects buzzing and the green smells rising, that’s a different experience than a style like a machine gun’s rat-a-tat-tat.

Of course, you can have both. If you lull the reader with a warm, sleepy meandering text until unexpected events cut it off with the rat-a-tat-tat of hard consonants and short sentences, that wakes the reader up. In my writing, I default to long sentences, chains of clauses linked by commas and conjunctions. I have to remind myself not to write a fight scene that way! Make it punchy.

I’m sure I was nodding when Taylor said, “Let the reader do some of the work.” Over-explaining is annoying. Trust that your reader is following along and understands some things without explanation. “She started making dinner, so they would have something to eat that night.” Clearly, everything after the comma should go. If you can envision your readers saying, “I get it, I get it!” then cut.

Short stories, especially, benefit from pruning everything unnecessary. Taylor called this “economy, efficiency, and an unrelenting focus.” Nothing should be in the story that doesn’t serve its purposes. Taking this a step further, he suggested that each line of a story ideally should accomplish several things.

A recent short story described a journalist and his investigations of hazardous jobsites. He takes a woman to dinner and, in the middle of their evening, a terrorist appears and shoots a dozen people. It was like walking into another story. Perhaps the author used the crusading journalist trope to make readers sympathetic to the murdered man, but weren’t there more integrated ways to accomplish this? It’s as if the story wore a plaid skirt, a striped blouse and a polka-dot vest, when what it needed was a dress. Fancy, sure, but One Thing.

I was relieved to hear from Ed Aymar that he writes lots of drafts. Me, too. And he endorsed the idea of reading work out loud, especially dialog. It’s one of the quickest ways to spot where the text isn’t working. Another of his good ideas is to rewrite your text a bit when using it for a reading. The pacing and emphases may need to be adjusted.

Sisters in Crime has archived the video of Taylor and Aymar’s presentation for its members. “Crafting Prose in a Short Story” is full of additional writing tips, too. Join?

Photo: the 3D printed dress at Selfridges Department Store, London, was photographed by Bradley Harper.

Detroit in Fiction

Cars, Motown, the long destructive tail of the 1967 riots. The Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, the Redwings. These pretty much sum up my home town of Detroit for many people. Well, maybe not the Lions. But the city is a lot more complex—and interesting—than these. When I was growing up, Detroit was the country’s fourth-largest city; now it’s the 27th. That massive change—due to white flight, the auto industry’s shift to the nonunionized South, and other difficulties—was accompanied by a lot of pain. The semblance of optimism in the past few years follows an excruciating and stuttering journey. Fiction tells the story of that journey and the families affected by it.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner family of thirteen children has to decide what to do with the house they grew up in on Detroit’s east side. The relationships among the siblings are complicated, and the city itself is like a character restricting their choices. Their parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II to escape the Jim Crow South, and while they faced prejudice and changing economic circumstances, their children are now almost all firmly middle class. When they come together to celebrate their widowed mother’s birthday—possibly her last—you see family relationships in action, the accommodations, the cheer, the old wounds, and the shared expectations. A lovely book.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Some intersections carry their own weight of associations—Hollywood and Vine or Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division—and in this book, Messer delves into the months leading up to the 1967 riots/rebellion and their aftermath. The violence lasted five days, and the city has needed almost fifty years to recover, the entire lifetimes of a great many of its poorest, most affected, residents. Messer’s story shows the ways lives intersected—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, old and young. At a time when tensions and the possibility of danger were rising, tough decisions were needed.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Many readers assume that Detroit is the unnamed rust-belt city that occupies the first half of Morrison’s classic, which helped gain Morrison her Nobel Prize in literature. A complex coming-of-age story, rich in cultural and folkloric references.

Elmore Leonard’s Detroit Crime Novels

From the age of nine, Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Detroit. Called “the Dickens of Detroit”  Leonard set many of his crime novels there, including City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, 52 Pickup, and The Switch.

Image: Peter Mol for Pixabay.

Where Story Ideas Come From: How Story Flows into Daily Challenges, A Core Story Question

Simmering in the background in the architectural world for some time has been the issue of security in building design. Yes, there are guidances (we non-architects might call them “standards”) for security, just as there are for accessibility and, increasingly, sustainability.

But these are often considered a ceiling, not a floor.

When the authorities confront the protagonist of my forthcoming novel, architect Archer Landis, with information that his murdered associate (and lover) was affiliated with the Arab American community, they jump to the conclusion, terrorism. Was she trying to ferret out details on the vulnerabilities of key buildings his firm has designed? Was she going to turn sensitive information over to the bad guys? They say yes, but he’s sure they’re wrong.

As a conscientious businessman, he has to do more than bluster about this. He is angry, but how can he turn the situation around? For many buildings—especially ones like embassies and government structures, military facilities, transportation hubs, stadiums and other places where many people congregate—a balance is needed between security and openness. Countries don’t want their embassies looking like fortresses, littered with clunky bollards. A new building’s design has to include features that not only help thwart any attack, but also make the structure a less attractive target in the first place. There’s psychology involved.

Without inserting an essay on this balancing act into the novel, I had to find ways to talk about these real-world concerns in what I hope is an interesting way. Certainly, they are uppermost in Landis’s mind once the attacks on him, his family, and his business begin. All this is part of making him seem to readers like a real person, with real-world concerns.Architect of Courage is coming from Black Opal Books on June 4.