March 25, 2018 will be the 107th anniversary of the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC history prior to 9-11: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. So why was the Triangle different?
One reason was a woman named Clara Lemlich. In my novel, The Triangle Murders, she appears as a feisty young woman who wanted to better the plight of the garment workers. Indeed, she was. In my novel she is beaten by a gang of thugs and rescued by Cormac Mead. Indeed, she was. (In truth, she was beaten but not rescued by Cormac or any other policeman.)
Clara Lemlich, a skilled draper and member of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25, encouraged interested shirtwaist makers to meet secretly with the union and the Women’s Trade Union League to discuss workers’ needs and the union’s goals. Despite the risks, many went on strike in September, 1909. In an attempt to satisfy some workers, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the “Triangle Employees Benevolent Association” a company union, and installed relatives as officers. They also announced that any employee who supported ‘another union’ would be fired. Photographer: unknown, 1909 Photo courtesy the Kheel Center, Cornell University:
Clara worked as a draper at Leiserson’s waist factory. She told stories of how workers were followed to the restroom and hustled back to work, lest they steal precious fabrics. She relayed how workers were persistently shortchanged on their pay and sometimes even charged for the use of materials, such as thread. And, at the day’s end, they lined up a single unlocked door to be searched before they exited.
She had had enough. In 1906, along with several other women, Clara joined the ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Together they formed Local 25, to serve female waist makers and dressmakers. (A shirtwaist, by the way, is a blouse – See Clara wearing one in photo.) In many ways, they had to fend for themselves, for men in the unions did not take them seriously.
Clara was instrumental in organizing the female workers from shop to shop to strike for better working conditions. She made a difference. Now 107 years later, women like Clara can still make a difference in reforming injustices.
I just read a terrific article in the Spring 2018 issue of CNET magazine by writer Marguerite Reardon, that is ideal for mystery writers. It describes how our digital devices can testify against us in a court of law. And, it is something writers need to consider when developing plot lines.
You are thinking, ahh, GPS. They can track a perp’s whereabouts. Or, smartphones. They can trace a suspect’s calls. True. But this about technology you wouldn’t even think about. Here are a few examples.
It was a case of arson and the suspect told police he was asleep when his home caught fire. He had time to pack suitcases with his clothes, grab his computer, and some medical supplies and escape by breaking a window and rushing outdoors. What he didn’t consider was his pacemaker.
The police were suspicious. They obtained the data from his pacemaker and a cardiologist testified that it was highly improbably that the suspect was able to pack quickly and under duress and escape out of a window with heavy items in his medical condition.
Based on the pacemaker’s data and the cardiologist’s interpretation, the suspect was charged with arson and insurance fraud.
Another bit of technology that was responsible for a murder arrest was a Fitbit. Data on a dead woman’s Fitbit contradicted her husband’s story about how his wife died.
Police are examining other devices to corroborate . . . or not, homicide alibis. Data from smart utility meters can determine time of excessive water usage (think: clean-up of crime scene.)
The “always-listening” Echo, which streams to the cloud, as a voice calls “Alexa,” can, likewise, provide information to a police investigation.
Can this “technology” evidence hold up in court? Constitutional scholars debate this as I write. But, you must admit, the implications for mystery and crime fiction are intriguing.
One of the major characters in my book, TIME EXPOSURE, is Alexander Gardner, a famous, and real, Civil War photographer. Gardner hailed from Paisley, Scotland and arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1856 with a thick Scottish accent. How was I to handle dialogue? I wanted to make sure that the reader knew Gardner was from Scotland. So, I added a bit of dialect. Check this out:
“I must speak to ye, Joseph.” Gardener took a deep breath. “I’ve had a special offer I must consider. Mind ye now, it doesna preclude my maintaining an association with Brady. But, I want ye to be part of me decision.”
I also sprinkled in lots of dinnas, shouldnas, couldnas, ayes, me for my, etc. Ugh. The reader couldn’t possibly forget that Gardner was from Scotland. Or care. He’d already given up on the book.
Thanks to my critique group my eyes were open to this dialect dilemma. I began to notice it in other novels. Too much of an accent: “How vould you vant me to wote?”
Or overuse of slang: “He needs to mellow out, he’s bonkers and that’s too dicey for this girl.”
Or clichéd idiomatic expressions : “Once in a blue moon, we see eye to eye, but you’re usually on the fence, which only adds insult to injury.”
Eeek. The use of “casual” spelling such as lemme, or gimme, can be used . . . sparingly. Dropping “g” for a word ending in “ing” gets tiresome too if used every other sentence. We have to give the reader credit and assume that by dropping a slang word, accent or expression in, they’ll get the point and as they continue to read that character’s dialogue, they’ll naturally hear the dialect.
Some of the worst examples of overusing dialect can be seen when characters have southern or New York accents. Like the use of “Ah” for “I” or “y’all for, well, you know. Then there’s the exaggerated Brooklynese – “toidy-toid and toid street” or “poils for the goils.” (These may actually need translation!) I grew up in Brooklyn and, frankly, you do hear this. It’s one thing, however, to add it to a movie, where you can hear the character say it. It’s another to read it in a book ad nauseum.
So how do you get the character’s geographical location, or educational background across? The best way is through the rhythm of the dialogue and the words you choose. One “aye” from my Scotsman and the reader hears his accent through the rest of the dialogue. To portray a well-educated German you might avoid contractions and use the full words to make the speech more formal sounding: “I should not bother with that if I were you. Do you not think so?”
In the end, you need to do your homework. Learn the true dialect, accent, slang expressions of the region your characters come from, both geographically and historically. Depending upon the time period, speech was often more formal than we’re used to today.
Practice on yourself. Once you know how the dialect really sounds have your character try it out in dialogue in a scene. Read it aloud. Very important, to really hear the effect, you must read it out loud. You’ll find you will most likely want to eliminate all but a smidgen of the dialect. What will be left is the essence of your character.
Once again, The Washington Post has published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternative meanings for common words. You will love the winners!
- Coffee (N.), the person upon whom one coughs.
- Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
- Abdicate (V.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
- Esplanade (V.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.
- Willy-nilly (Adj.), impotent.
- Negligent (Adj.), describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.
- Lymph (V.), to walk with a lisp.
- Gargoyle (N.), olive-flavored mouthwash.
- Flatulence (N.) emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.
- Balderdash (N.), a rapidly receding hairline.
- Testicle (N.), a humorous question on an exam.
- Rectitude (N.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
- Pokemon (N), a Rastafarian proctologist.
- Oyster (N.), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.
- Frisbeetarianism (N.), (back by popular demand): The belief that, when you die, your Soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.
- Circumvent (N.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.
The Washington Post’s Style Invitational also asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are this year’s winners:
- Bozone (N.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
- Foreploy (V): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.
- Cashtration (N.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.
- Giraffiti (N): Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
- Sarchasm (N): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.
- Inoculatte (V): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
- Hipatitis (N): Terminal coolness.
- Osteopornosis (N): A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
- Karmageddon (N): It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.
- Decafalon (N.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.
- Glibido (V): All talk and no action.
- Dopeler effect (N): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
- Arachnoleptic fit (N.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.
- Beelzebug (N.): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.
- Caterpallor (N.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the fruit you’re eating.
And the pick of the literature:
- Ignoranus (N): A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.
As a writer, being observant of your surroundings is paramount in creating an authentic environment. I wanted to share one of my travel experiences with you to illustrate what I mean.
Several years ago, I spent two weeks traveling in the Pacific Northwest. Starting in Canada and ending in the U.S., I found myself anxious to start scribbling ideas for a future book. The settings were amazing, from large, modern cities, to small, more manageable ones. From dense rain forests to rocky coastlines. From museums, to sky towers, to suspension bridges and ziplines, the backdrops are there for a new book.
But just as important as settings, were the people. We’re all familiar with the concept, true or not, that often people resemble their dogs (or vice versa.) Well, I can testify to the fact that people “resemble” the place they live in.
In cities like Vancouver, BC, I noticed that people were more formally dressed (at least the working locals.) They had sharp edges to their clothes, suits, shoes, just like the tall, glass, high-rises of the downtown. They didn’t meet your eye as they brushed past you in the street (much like NYC, where I grew up.)
Victoria, BC, was quite a bit different. Without the tall skyscrapers, people seemed more intent on immediate surroundings, including nodding at passersby. The buildings were shorter and stouter and had a very British feel. So did the locals. You can take that to mean whatever you like.
From Canada we ferried across to Washington and then drove to Olympic National Park. Amazing crystal clear lakes, thick and tall evergreen forests that blocked out the sun, and myriad green colors that could shame Scotland. Most folks were travelers like us so we couldn’t discern any particular likeness to the environment. Oddly, the few natives seemed to not know much about other parts of the Park. So they worked and played in one area only. I guess, like the grand old trees, they are rooted to one spot.
From the wilderness we ferried back to big city: this time Seattle. Much bigger and more built up than I remembered from visits twenty years ago. Almost overpowering in downtown now, with giant skyscrapers of glass and stone. Still, there was the old, more comfortable feel of its former, smaller self. Seattle has so many attractions, it’s hard to pick and choose. The Pacific Science Center was a dear old friend from my museum days, but we didn’t visit this time. Instead we went to the Chihuly Glass Museum and Garden. OMG. Words can barely describe the beauty.
Again, it was hard to gauge the people since many were from other places. But I think it’s safe to say that Seatte-ites are a bit cool, aloof, and keep to themselves, what with huddling under umbrellas and all. Many carry a Starbucks coffee cup, however, which is no surprise.
And finally, we took Amtrak to Portland, Oregon. Portland was a cozy, warm and friendly town, with lots of environmentally friendly businesses and people. And then there’s Powell’s Bookstore, of course. The most amazing place to spend some hours (days, even.) They were nice enough to set out my bookmarks!
Portlanders like to chat. They like to smile, despite the often gloomy weather. And they have the greatest ice cream shop in the world. “Salt and Straw,” where you can get a cone of salty, caramel ribbon ice cream. My kind of people, indeed.
The next time you travel, study the setting, study the history and architecture, wildlife, museums, galleries, and gardens. And study the people. They could be the inspiration for your next characters.