On the “lighter” side of writing, I thought I’d share this humorous story about how words (and letters) can lead us astray.
“The Wayside Chapel”
An English lady, while living in Switzerland was looking for a room and asked The Schoolmaster if he could recommend any. He took her to several rooms and, when everything was arranged, the lady returned to her home to prepare for the move. When she arrived home, the thought suddenly dawned that she had seen no WC (water closet or toilet) around the place, so she immediately wrote to The Schoolmaster asking him where the WC was.
The Schoolmaster was a very poor master of English so he asked the Parish Priest if he could help in the matter. Together they attempted to discover what the letters WC meant. The only solution they could find was the local “Wayside Chapel.” The Schoolmaster then wrote the following note to the lady seeking a WC with her room.
I take great comfort in informing you that WC is located nine miles from the house, in the center of a beautiful grove of trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 200 people and is open on Sundays and Thursdays only. As there are a great many people expected in the summer months, I would suggest that you come early, although there is usually plenty of standing room. This is an unfortunate situation, particularly if you are in the habit of going regularly. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number bring their lunch and make a day of it, while others who can afford it go on Thursday when there is organ accompaniment. The acoustics are excellent and the most delicate sound can be heard anywhere. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the WC, for it was there she first met her husband. I can remember the rush for seats. And there were 10 people to a seat usually occupied by one. It was a wonderful sight to behold. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all, since the people feel it is too long a wait.
I shall be delighted to save the best seat for you, if you wish, where you will be seen by all.
Hoping to have been of service, I remain,
I admit it. I’m an animal person. I love them all but am partial to dogs and have had many and still do. I’ve read many “animal” books and find them endearing. Today’s blog, though, is not about writing animal stories, but about integrating animals into your novels to give your humans depth, compassion and vulnerability.Comic relief is one reason writers insert animals into their stories.
I recently watched (again) the old series Lonesome Dove and laughed (again) at the scenes of the two pigs following the wagon out of Lonesome Dove to embark on a journey north. The journey would be fraught with drama and trauma, and the pigs added a light aspect to ease the tension. But they actually did more than that. These two sweet little pink creatures gave us insight into one of the main characters of Lonesome Dove, Augustus McCrae. Sure, he hollered at them, kicked dirt at them, spit at them, but he also smiled at them, enjoyed their antics and encouraged them to join the entourage to Montana. What did that say about Gus, a former Texas Ranger who would hang an old friend for breaking the law? He had a definite soft side.
Characters that have a seriously dark job, like a cop or detective, need to have a way to show their human side. Relationships with the opposite sex, kids and family, even friends and colleagues can work. But so can animals. Take my NYC homicide detective, Frank Mead, in The Triangle Murders. In a dialogue, with his sergeant, Mead explains how he came to own a blue and gold, extremely noisy killer macaw named Dexter.
“What’s with the bird?” Jefferies said.
“Dumb move.” Frank sighed.
“Brought my car into a garage out in Canarsie. The bird was in the back of the shop squawking up a storm. Real nasty place, they didn’t give a shit about him. He was covered in grease. So I took him. Fifty bucks. They sold him just like that. I figured I’d clean him up and give him away, to some good home or something.” His face reddened.
“Kinda got used to the company. He’s incredibly smart, talks and, well, never mind. Stupid ass bird.”
Mead, a hard-boiled homicide cop, has a gruesome murder to solve, a dead wife always on his mind, an estranged daughter he feels guilty about. And yet he saves this kooky parrot. Would you have expected that of him? Or are you surprised?
Animals have played similar roles in mysteries for decades. Think Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. I can never forget the first movie and my introduction to Myrna Loy as the character, Nora Charles. Picture the scene: Nick Charles is in a nightclub bar being asked by a young woman to take a case, when Nora bursts in carrying Christmas packages and trying to hold onto Asta, her mischievous terrier, by the lead. Asta barrels into the room and Nora winds up face down on the floor, packages strewn everywhere. Unfazed, she gets up, brushes herself off and carries on.
Her dog was the perfect device to show us Nora’s personality. And it was dead-on. Nora is generally unfazed by embarrassing moments like these. But how would you know that without tedious narrative? By using Asta.
Other well-known authors use animals in similar ways. In Robert Parker’s Spenser books, you meet his dog, Pearl, and can picture her lying on the floor on her back with four feet in the air. How many of us are familiar with that pose? She’s entirely comfortable, not fearful or concerned in this position about any danger. What does that say about Spenser and his relationship with Pearl and the environment he provides for her? Safe, sheltered and most probably well-loved.
Elizabeth George, another dog person, has inserted a Longhaired Dachshund, Peach, into her stories. How does she integrate Peach with her characters to give them depth and breadth of human qualities. Yes, this is a quiz.
I know I will personally continue to use animals in my books. I encourage you to consider doing the same. They can add a sympathetic, sensitive and loving element to your humans . . . in ways other humans simply can’t.
As part of the research for my next mystery, The Final Note, I visited Regensberg, Germany, a medieval town in the heart of Bavaria. Like my book, Deadly Provenance, about a Nazi-confiscated Van Gogh painting, the backdrop of this book is once again Nazi Germany, but instead of art theft, the theme is music. To set the stage, the following excerpt from The Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem, “Here Their Stories Will be Told . . .” gives you an overview of the Jewish situation beginning in 1933 in Regensberg. What is significant is the reference to The Cultural Federation of German Jews, musicians, in this case, who feature prominently in The Final Note.
The images I included were taken by me in Regensberg just last week. They depict the first new synagogue in 80 years, which just opened, a plaque placed in a wall stolen from the Jewish cemetery, and “stumbling” stones embedded in cobblestones – a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Here is the grim history.
“In 1933, there were 427 Jews in Regensburg, out of a total population of 81,106. Branches of many Jewish organizations were active in the community: the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Central Verein), Jewish Assistance (Jüdischen Hilfsverein), the Reich Federation of Jewish Front Soldiers (Reichsbund Jüdischer Frontsoldaten), the Jewish History and Literature Association and many Zionist organizations. The Cultural Federation of German Jews (Jüdischer Kulturbund), which had some 200 members, organized performances and concerts featuring Jewish artists invited to the city. The Jewish youth had the choice of the Ultra-orthodox Ezra movement, the Association of Jewish Youth (Jüdischer Jugendverein) and the Maccabi Zionist sports association.
The community maintained a synagogue, several other religious institutions, a school that was operative until 1937 and a public library. A number of charitable, welfare and cultural organizations were active in the community, including an organization supporting the school, an organization for the development of social and cultural life in the community and a loan fund that also maintained activity until 1937. There was a hevra kaddisha (burial society) – the first for the general public, the second for women only, the later was also responsible for arranging the hospitalization of poor children and assistance for impoverished Jews recovering from illness. A charitable fund helped provide heating for poor families, and another fund helped new brides. Some of the children were taught religious studies by the community rabbi Magnus Weinberg. He retired in 1935 and was succeeded by Rabbi Dr. Felix Salomon.
Antisemitic incitement against the city’s Jews began when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1934 a Jewish trader was arrested on suspicion of murdering a Christian boy; the Nazi press in Regensburg accused the Jews of murder, but the trader was released when the perpetrators were discovered to be Christian. An economic boycott was also imposed on the Jews. Jews in the marketplace – traders and suppliers – were attacked and their wares were destroyed. In 1934, the Jewish pupils were evicted from the city high schools. After the publication of the Nuremberg Laws, the Jews’ financial situation declined. The Nazis ordered hotel and restaurant owners not to serve Jews.In response to this antisemitic pressure, many Jews joined the local Zionist movement, and the community began to help traders who had been affected by the economic boycott as well as who wished to emigrate. This assistance included loans, foreign language courses and professional training courses. The local branch of the Histadrut Hatzionit ran Hebrew language classes. In 1936, with the consent of the Gestapo, a Beit Halutz (pioneer club) was opened in Regensburg to prepare the youth for immigration to Eretz Israel, but in December 1938, the Gestapo shut it down.
By 1938, 268 Jews had left Regensburg, more than half of them fleeing Germany entirely. As a result of this emigration, many senior citizens were left without support; the community initiated a “Winter Assistance” campaign (Winterhilfe) with the help of the Association of Jewish Women in Bavaria, and in the same year a senior citizens’ home was opened. In 1938, before Kristallnacht, a Jew was imprisoned on the charge of “racial desecration,” and the glass storefronts of Jewish shops were smashed. Thirteen Jews from Regensburg were deported in the Zbaszyn deportation of October 1938, but in January 1939 an agreement was reached between Poland and Germany, and the deportees from Regensburg were permitted to return home.
During the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, local Nazis destroyed the property in the Synagogue and the community center and burned them down. Jewish homes and stores were destroyed, as well as their belongings and wares. Some 220 Jews, including women and children, were arrested and held at the local police station. Dozens were publicly humiliated and some were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Members of the Nazi party broke into and looted their apartments. Rabbi Salomon and his wife were forced out of their apartment and ordered to stand outside in their nightwear while their home was being demolished by Nazi thugs. A 66-year-old Jewish trader was beaten to death on arrest.
The Jews being held were released after agreeing to leave Germany. Rabbi Salomon immigrated to England in July 1939 but was killed about a year later in the Blitz.By 1939, all the traders’ and businessmen’s property had been transferred to Christians as part of the “Aryanization” process. Persecution and imprisonment of Jews continued after Kristallnacht.”
Sadly, you know the rest.
One hundred and fifty six years ago this July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.
I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure. I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top. The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene. But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.
I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly. All other characters and events are real history. This letter might well have been written at the time.
July 3, 1863
My Dearest Sara,
I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed. I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended. But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.
Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured. The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated. Finally, victory, and an important one.
It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes. There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.
I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm. But don’t worry. The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain. Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.
I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields. The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet. I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.
The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace. I rely on my apprentice more. I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people. Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains. I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.
Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days. I look forward to working with them.
Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera. Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived. Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves. Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only: “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.” It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.
On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric. There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end. But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle. Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded. I doubt this town will ever be the same.
Tomorrow is July 4. I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.
I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.
Yours ever truly,
While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive. Also, please note, the gentleman with the camera above is Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady, not Joseph Thornhill.
Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times. The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.
The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past. The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it. Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception? A vile and sinful imposture? Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme? Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”
When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time. For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:
“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”
Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.
In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use. For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport. However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time. Interesting, eh? It actually came into use around 1852. The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.
The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems. Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.
Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.
Writers, I welcome your thoughts.