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.

Ancestor Trouble

Regular readers of this blog know one of my passions is genealogy. My latest adventure? Learning how to customize maps to show my ancestors’ travels across geography as well as time. Not everything I’ve learned about their migrations is happy news.

So I listened with interest to a recent presentation by the author of the just-published and much-anticipated memoir, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton, sponsored by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society.

I don’t write memoir, but from friends who do, I know that figuring out how to tell these stories and how much to tell is a big part of the challenge. Newton had wrestled with her family’s difficult past for a long time, and she’s used both genealogy and DNA research to try to sort out fact from fiction. For example, did her paternal grandfather really marry thirteen times? (Newton has found records of 10 of his marriages to nine different women.) Did he really murder a neighbor with a hay hook? (Yes, but it was self-defense, after her grandfather came to the aid of the neighbor’s step-daughter whom the man was assaulting.) And did he die in a mental institution? (Yes, and Newton has put a gravestone on his formerly unmarked grave. It’s inscribed “Not Forgotten.”)

Her family, including her mother, were great Texas storytellers, and Newton had decided that, given everything else she knew about the family and the mental illnesses that plagued many of them across generations, many of her family stories seemed improbable but not unlikely. On her mother’s side, the family was very poor, yet in the early 1800s, they did own slaves. Even a Massachusetts ancestor, who in the 1600s was tried twice for being a witch and exonerated both times, may have owned a slave, slavery being not as unknown in New England as generally believed.

The details and corroboration of these and many other stories were a lot for family members to bring on board. Not only was the research difficult, the bigger challenge was for the family to come to the reconciliation Newton alludes to in the book’s title. Unfortunately, some family members’ approach to the past is to “sweep it under the rug.” That’s a loss in a much greater sense, because, as Newton says, “without each of the people who came before, who contributed to the genes that ultimately contributed to ours, we wouldn’t exist as we do now.”

Exciting News for Readers and Writers

Frank Coffman, editor of the ambitious new publication JOURN-E (“The Journal of Imaginative Literature”), included my short story “The Old Man of the Mountain” in his inaugural issue, published on the vernal equinox. A call for submissions to the next issue (autumnal equinox) appears on the journal’s home page.

This innovative magazine includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and illustration, all geared around what Coffman calls “the genres of the high imagination”: Adventure; Detection and Mystery; Fantasy; Horror and the Supernatural; and Science Fiction. In its first issue, the balance among stories by genre is about even, with most sections checking in at around 50 pages.

My short stories mostly have “and it all worked out” endings—not necessarily happy, but some measure of situational control reestablished, and not leaving the reader in need of therapy, either. Except this one. I started working on it several years ago, and quite a few drafts were needed to get it into publishable shape.

The experiences in the story could apply to any tragic wartime situation and its lingering impact on those left behind, the so-called “survivors.” Although the enemy who wreaked havoc in my story is the long-gone “Nazis.” Now, perhaps, one could substitute “Putin.”

I also drew on a frightening experience from my college years, when I was working at a summer theater near Pittsburgh. The theater manager put her interns up in a bedroom in her basement. The other intern hadn’t arrived yet, and I slept down there alone. It was very dark. Very dark. And one night I felt like the dark was palpable, suffocating me. Of course, after a moment of frightened paralysis, I got up and turned on a light. Problem solved. But the feeling of oppressive blackness was something I resurrected for this tale.

I must mention Dominique Bibeau’s story, “Russian for Beginners” in the March/April Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (translated by @JoshPachter), which brought that frightening claustrophobia back once again.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: What Kind of Trip is It?

Tarifa, Spain

Authors are praised for strong, vivid writing that makes their settings seem “just like another character.” The Virginia countryside of SA Crosby, Val McDermid’s remote reaches of Scotland, a gritty part of Philadelphia in Liz Moore’s Long, Bright River, the barren Utah countryside in The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson.

Yet, our characters are not necessarily glued to one place. Many stories take them away from the familiar, detailed world that’s been established and put them on the road. There may be too little time/space to develop a complete, three-dimensional picture of these secondary settings. This is where you need a few telling details.

You can think of such a destination as a bare-bones stage set, and the writer embellishes it selectively and, to some extent, quite naturally. If there’s danger, there might be the smell of garbage, trash in the streets, ominous sounds (or even more ominous quiet), streetlights blinking out. If there’s romance, there may be beaches and outdoor cafes and bright colors. Ideas about which aspects of a place to describe and how to describe them come from the place, from the character, and from the character’s purpose in being there. These descriptors need to be tightly connected to all three or they risk feeling arbitrary or superficial.

The protagonist, of my forthcoming novel, Manhattan architect Archer Landis, travels to Brussels for work and to Tarifa, Spain, for powerful personal reasons. In Brussels, he has to get a job done. He is organized, deliberate in the parts of the city he chooses to see. But in Spain, he can’t escape the emotional reasons motivating his trip, which calls for a different type of details. Food and street life and contemplation-inspiring vistas are emphasized, as opposed to the newspapers and briefcases and cabs of Brussels.

Even though I’ve been to Tarifa, the geo-linked photos that people post in Google maps were helpful reminders—whitewashed walls, narrow brick streets, flowering plants in clay pots, wrought iron balconies. These were among the features an architect like Archer Landis would notice. If he’d trained as a Navy Seal, there would have been a totally different significance to the claustrophobic streets, the balcony shutters standing ajar (a hidden watcher?), the low-rise, flat-roofed buildings, perfect for snipers.

In my story, these elements were easily worked into the action. For example, Landis naturally notices how the whitewashed buildings bring light into the narrow streets; when his trip is going badly, he hates the red geraniums’ aggressive cheerfulness. Looking across the patio of their penthouse suite, Landis notices the tightly packed buildings, and how hard it will be to find whom they’re looking for. By contrast, his friend and bodyguard Carlos notices how easy it would be to jump from one of these other roofs to theirs.

This is a reconsideration of this issue of setting, which I’ve gone back to now that the publication of Architect of Courage is scheduled for 4 June!

A Story too Tragic to Write?

How can a writer depict events based on real tragedies without becomng exploitative? A good example of a story that might be difficult to fictionalize is described in Oscar Schwartz’s story in the February issue of Wired. It recounts the sad case of Australian mother Kathleen Folbigg convicted in the crib deaths of her four children.

After a seven-week trial, she was found guilty of murdering Patrick (who died at eight months), Sarah (ten months), and Laura (nineteen months) and guilty of manslaughter in the death of Caleb (nineteen days). She was sentenced to forty years in prison, subsequently reduced to thirty years. Her time in prison is spent in protective custody, to avoid violence by other inmates.

From the beginning, Folbigg has maintained her innocence. Recent scientific advances support her “natural causes” defense, especially accumulating knowledge about how mutation in the CALM2 gene—a mutation Folbigg and her two daughters all carried—affects heart rhythm. Her sons also carried dangerous genetic mutations in the gene BSN and were known to have health problems. Autopsies revealed that none of the children showed any sign of being smothered.

In 2018, these advances in genetic understanding were presented to a New South Wales court, and the Wired article focuses on the sharp division within the scientific reviewers, one team based in Sydney and the other in Canberra. At the outset, Schwartz says, “the Sydney geneticists were looking for near certainty that a genetic flaw had killed the children, rather than merely reasonable doubt as to whether their mother was the culprit.” As evidence accumulated over time, the Sydney group didn’t budge. Eventually, the presiding judicial officer made his decision: “I prefer the expertise and evidence of [the Sydney team].” Prefer? That’s a strange way for a non-scientist to pick and choose among the facts presented.

The diaries Folbigg wrote when she was depressed and frantic about her children’s deaths didn’t help her, either. Though her entries were subject to many interpretations, again the prosecution had a “preferred” one. As of 2022, more than a hundred eminent scientists have signed onto a petition calling for Folbigg’s pardon, citing scientific and medical explanations for each of her children’s deaths.

In the original trial, the prosecution echoed the logic of the discredited statistical argument of pediatrician Roy Meadow, which long held sway in British courts, that “One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, and three is murder, until proven otherwise.”

The use of faulty statistics in cases of multiple crib deaths was dealt with quite handily in Michael Carter’s The Mathematical Murder of Innocence. In that novel, a statistics-savvy juror eviscerates the prosecution’s case against a mother who lost two infant children. That book was based on the real-life cases of British women later deemed to have been wrongfully convicted. Sally Clark, the most famous of these mothers, never recovered from the psychological trauma of losing her children, followed by her unjust conviction, and died of acute alcohol poisoning four years after her release from prison.

Perhaps Carter made a good choice in putting the narrative burden on an outsider (the juror), rather than one of the more immediate participants. The mother’s point of view would be too heart-rending, and the lawyers might come across as biased, one way or the other. In the Folbigg case, even the scientists ended up taking sides. The problem with sides is that a story risks becoming too polemical, focused on constructing arguments, rather than understanding hearts. These are compelling stories, but difficult to handle well.

Where Do Writers’ Ideas Come From? Why an Architect – Take 2

The protagonist of my novel, Architect of Courage (AofC), scheduled for publication June 4, has lived in my head so long, it’s hard to remember when he wasn’t with me. Or, for that matter, where he came from. I wrote a version of this post 18 months ago, but now that the book’s publication date is nearing, it’s time for an update.

One aspect of the choice, is that I didn’t want the story to be about a cop or a p.i., or a former CIA officer–I wanted an everyman. The kind of “ordinary” person who lands in extraordinary circumstances. How such a person deals with trauma and fear is and carries on despite them is of great interest to me. A person whose world is literally “upside down.”

n AofC, Archer Landis recalls a childhood doing a lot of what I had to do, tromping around housing developments, being disappointed in what was on offer. So he created his own design for “the perfect house,” which his parents had built and lived in the rest of their lives. He has this sketch framed in his office, and as the story proceeds, his feelings about it and what it represents change markedly.

In college I lurked around the studios in the architecture school, fascinated by the students’ model buildings and the smell of sharpened pencils, rubber cement, clay. A scene in the novel has Landis ruminating on that kind of by-hand work versus today’s 3-D printing. Decades later, I’m still a rubber cement kind of gal.

Landis is confronted with people who are his symbolic opposite. He wants to build; they want to destroy. Their destructiveness affects him directly, personally and professionally, and threatens his family, his business, his life.

To write about Landis, I had to try to see the world through his eyes, an architect’s eyes—the things he notices, how he approaches relationships, the way he circles back to the touchstone of his calling. Straightedges and French curves and stone samples. Also, quite a lot of the story takes place at his office—interactions with staff, police visits, coping. While I tried hard, I had to make sure the world I’d created rang true, and I asked a prominent architect to read an advance copy. Ralph Hawkins, FAIA, Chairman Emeritus of HKS, Inc., one of the nation’s largest architectural firms read it and, thankfully, not only survived the experience without tearing out his hair, but gave it a nice blurb too!

Photo: Elmgreen & Dragset, The Hive, 2020, stainless steel, aluminum, polycarbonate, LED lights, and lacquer, commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall, Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, NY. See it!

We Begin at the End

The annual lists of crime, mystery, and thriller award winners and nominees always reveal gems I’ve missed, like Chris Whitaker’s much-lauded We Begin at the End. The audio version is narrated by George Newbern with absolute fidelity to the different characters and where their heads are in the moment.

One of the protagonists is Chief Walker, whom everyone calls Walk, the long-time police chief of Cape Haven, a small town on the California coast. Walk, in his mid-forties, tries hard to keep his community from changing. In fact, he’d much prefer to go back in time about thirty years to before the hit-and-run in which his best friend Vincent King killed seven-year-old Sissy Radley.

Vincent received a ten-year sentence at an adult prison, with twenty more tacked on when he killed another inmate in a fight. The novel starts just before Vincent is released from prison and Walk is bringing him home to what promises to be a chilly welcome.

Before he can reclaim his friend, Walk is approached by two children—Duchess Radley, 13, and her brother Robin, five. Their mother has overdosed again, and Walk helps them get her to the hospital. Star Radley has been going off the deep end with increasing frequency. When they were all teenagers, Star and Vincent were a couple, part of a foursome that included Walk and Martha May, and it’s obvious that Walk remains deeply loyal to all of them.

The other main character is Star’s daughter, Duchess, who styles herself an outlaw and goes about proving it. Foul-mouthed and take-no-guff, Duchess has an uncritical eye only for her little brother. He has a lioness defending him.

Tragedy strikes, and Vincent King is once more accused of murder. Despite Walk’s pleading, Vincent won’t say a word in his defense, except that he wants Walk’s former girlfriend, Martha May, to defend him. She’s a family lawyer, and approaching her about Vincent’s case is a difficult journey into the past for them both.

Duchess and Robin are sent to live in Montana with a grandfather they’ve never met, and Duchess is determined not to like him or the ranch or Montana or her new school or anything else. You ache to see her fighting the relationships that would be good for her. You’ve probably known teenagers like this; perhaps you were one yourself.

The story includes many strong secondary characters, some of whom are quite admirable. Even those who do bad things are fully developed and drawn with compassion. Not a roller-coaster of a thriller, this book is more like a slow train through a darkening woods. The journey includes plenty of hazards, both physical and emotional, as it steadily, inexorably, carries you forward. If you take that train ride, you’ll find it’s both moving and memorable. There’s a small, but telling reveal near the end that stopped me, even though it had been in front of me all the time. And if you can do the audio version—do it! Newbern’s narration is flawless.

Order from Amazon here. Or here from your local Indie bookstore.

Hitchcock: Howdunit

If you’re like me, it was years after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho before you could take a shower without thinking of That Scene. I have a walk-in shower now, and I can always see who’s coming!

Film historian Max Alvarez in conjunction with New Plaza Cinema presented a Zoom program on Hitchcock last week that toured his audience through memorable moments from many of the director’s 57 feature films. We knew whodunit—Hitchcock—this was a howdunit.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, Americans tend to pick films based on the actors. Hitchcock was one of the rare directors in Hollywood history who was himself a draw, like the Coen Brothers or Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino today.

Hitch’s fame did constrain the types of movies he could make without violating public expectation, however. His films tended toward the charismatic villain, the woman in peril, and a big conspiracy. The scripts came from his (sometimes brief) collaborations with some of the leading writers of the day: Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), and many others.

Even though he made so many memorable movies, what catapulted him into prominence in the 1950s was the popularity of his television programs. And he was shameless about using them to promote his films.

Hitchcock’s steps in making the memorable movie Vertigo started with the “treatment,” eight to ten typed pages, resembling a short story, which described what happens in detail, beginning to end. After showing us the initial page, Alvarez showed the beginning of the shooting script. Hitchcock liked to have every camera angle and shot planned out in advance—close-up, medium shot, panorama, whatever. Next Alvarez showed the storyboards that a graphic artist created from the shooting script. They were a sort of (wordless) comic book version, showing the action in every shot. Finally, he showed the way the same scene looked in the final film, which in the theater looked so natural (of course he’d hang onto the gutter that way), but replicated the previous, meticulously planned steps almost exactly.

But even the best laid plans can fall prey to reality, and Hitch would change scenes and shots that didn’t turn out well or as expected. Occasionally, he’d fly by the seat of his pants—like the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Also, he loved in-camera special effect. An example is the famous “purple dress” scene from Topaz, in which unseen stage hands pulled strings so that the character’s dress fanned out around her as she fell.

Alvarez attributes Hitch’s visual mastery to the large body of work he did in the silent film industry, taking on all kinds of jobs, up to the point when, in his 20s, he was allowed to direct. For him, the visuals told the story, and he always made sure there was a story to tell.

By the way, Hitch’s own favorite film was 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt.

Watch Shadow of a Doubt.

Read one great director interviewing another in the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut from Amazon.

Read Richard Brody’s “The Greatness of ‘Psycho’” in The New Yorker, covering the films about Hitchcock.

Fireworks from Ellery Queen

The July-August 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” is once again filled with dazzling stories, 19 of them. Here are just a few of the standouts:

Elvie Simons’s “Not So Fast, Dr. Quick,” shows how a tidbit of arcane knowledge can grow into a full-fledged plot. Engaging characters too.

Richard Helms’s “Sweeps Week” provides strong characterizations, then rewards with some old-fashioned retribution.

Jon L. Breen’s “The Body in the Bee Library,” wryly humorous, provides satisfying comeuppance.

Dave Zeltserman always makes me smile, even before I start reading. His characters Julius Katz and his cyber-assistant Archie delight once again in “Julius Katz and the Two Cousins.”

Barbara Allan’s “What’s Wrong with Harley Quinn?” takes you to San Diego Comic-Con, and you can witness the attendees’ shenanigans without donning your Spiderman costume.

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Bone Marrow Donor” is only three pages long, but to me was the darkest story of the lot. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nonfiction piece she has written about her own husband’s last day in our local hospital and imagining how that colored this story, even subconsciously. As I remember what she wrote, she received an urgent call to come to the hospital, and, of course, she drove there pell-mell, pulled to the curb on one of the nearby residential streets, and rushed inside. The staff had been right. The end was very near. When she’d signed all the paperwork, she walked to her car in a daze and found this awkwardly spelled note on her windshield: “Learn to park, bich.”

A Galway Epiphany

By Ken Bruen, narrated by Gerry O’Brien–A Galway Epiphany is the latest in award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen’s long-running series involving former (and disgraced) Garda detective Jack Taylor. He’s now a private investigator with a haphazard career since being thrown off the force for excessive drinking and associated poor judgment. At last he’s found some solace, a result of long stays at the farm of his friend, Keefer, once a roadie for the Rolling Stones, and their falcon, Maeve.

Bruen begins with musings on the seven epiphanies identified by a mid-eighteenth century monk who called them ‘blends of blessed curses and cursed blessings.’ Such a pregnant statement was sure to cast its spell over the ensuing story, and indeed it does.

A pair of children from a Galway refugee encampment is seen near Galway’s Irish Famine Memorial. They light a candle, and the girl whispers, “Here’s a trick I learned in Guatemala.” She causes a blue light to shimmer over their heads, and that’s all the public needs to start a frenzy of religious fervor.

Soon thereafter, Jack is in town on business and is hit by a truck. A big one. He’s in a coma for some weeks, but, inexplicably, otherwise unscathed. The children from the blue light were seen bending over him, and his lack of injuries is interpreted as their first miracle.

Various characters wander into the story to complicate Jack’s life. They include: his long-time acquaintance, Father Malachy, vainly hoping for a bishopric. Failing that, and suffering a debilitating illness, he wants Jack to kill him. There’s a spiffily dressed oddball whose calling card is a long matchstick; a California woman starting her own religious sisterhood, a scam for certain. They all want to get their hands on the miracle children. And they want Jack’s help. But are the children innocents or exploiters themselves?

Jack is irreligious in the best of times—hostile would be pretty much on the mark—and is disgusted by the machinations of the miracle-seekers and quashers alike. He just wants to go back to the farm. His drinking is out of control, and he’s not as much help to anyone as he really needs to be.

Bruen is a master of the apt witticism and nicely placed literary quote. Because the story is told by Jack in first person, his prejudices and cynicism and erudition have full rein. Despite the abundant humor, a pall hangs over the tale, like the smoke from one of the match-toting arsonist’s fires, and you may sense events will end badly.

This impression is aided by the sadly ironic reading by superb audiobook narrator Gerry O’Brien, who wrings every drop of Jamieson-soaked humor and regret out of Jack’s thoughts. An audiobook with a skilled narrator is a thing of joy, and O’Brien makes you believe for a few hours, that you too are in Galway, sitting on a barstool next to Jack, puzzling out the Fates.

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