When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.
Memories interrupted my enjoyment of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert broadcast last night on PBS.
Unlike my Show Me protagonist, a CIA covert operative embedded in Vienna, I lived there only three years, but we shared a love of the city’s music. I went to the opera, an orchestra concert, chamber music, an operetta, or some other musical performance once or twice a week. Tickets were cheap, particularly if you were willing to sit in the balcony directly above a chamber orchestra using the instruments in vogue when the music was composed centuries ago.
You could usually get a late ticket to stand at the back of the Musikverein’s high-ceiling rectangular grand hall, and people were there at last night’s event. I could spot where I stood to hear Leonard Bernstein as a guest conductor.
Every venue has excellent acoustics, and every audience knows the music and expresses approval or disappointment through applause. The Viennese love traditional favorites, including such Strauss compositions as Tales of the Vienna Woods. Even so, the 2022 performance included something I don’t remember hearing before, the musicians augmenting their instruments with singing and whistling at one point. The audience approved.
As usual, the favorite final encore, “The Radetsky March,” elicited an enthusiastic audience response. Everyone clapped without missing a beat.
The music lovers wore masks and the walls gleamed with gold (lacquer?) last night, but the orchestra’s performance and the audience’s appreciation have not changed.
A North Carolina author, teacher, and activist, Judy Hogan has written everything from mysteries to poetry to memoir. (For more about her and her work, visit http://judyhogan.home.mindspring.com.) Even so, editing and annotating her grandparents’ diary evoked emotions her other books didn’t. She tells us why she worked so hard to pull together information on their life in China.
Probably the most important event of my life was going to Russia in 1990 as part of a Sister Cities of Durham Russia writer exchange program, and all the experiences that followed from it, with many visits and mutual publishing projects. The second most important event happened in April when my book of and about my grandmother’s diary was published. Here my learning experience was related to China, where my mother was born and her parents were missionaries 100 years ago.
Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16 arrived in my post office Saturday, April 15. We’re a village, and we chat in the post office. I was chatting with a friend I rarely see, and our postmaster, Robin, handed me a priority envelope from my publisher, Wipf and Stock of Eugene, Oregon. I tore it open, and there was a shrink-wrapped package, with a sheet of paper over the cover. “I need scissors,” I said.
Robin provided them, and I got the two paperback books free of the plastic. There it was. I let Robin hold one (she had already said she’d buy it), and a man named Mr. Moon asked if it had pictures in it. I showed him the pictures near the front and said, “That was in China in the early 1900s.” He said he wanted a book, too.
I’d been able to publish 14 books before Grace arrived. Why was it such a big deal? Here’s part of the answer, from the first chapter of Grace.
Finding Grace: By age six one of the most important people in my life was Grace, my maternal grandmother, who, with her husband Harvey Roys, had been a missionary in China. Closely tied to Grace was another Grace, her daughter, born September 1915, who died at age eight in 1924 from heart complications following scarlet fever. Early in 1944 my mother moved my sister and me from Cameron, a small town in West Virginia, where my father, William Robert Stevenson, had been the minister of the Presbyterian Church, and where I had felt loved and protected on all sides, to Norman, Oklahoma. My father had volunteered to go into the Navy as a chaplain and was stationed in McAlister, not far from Norman, where my grandfather and grandmother Roys lived. Grandpa taught physics at the University of Oklahoma there.
Living with my grandparents at that time was also their younger son, Harvey, who was in medical school. Mother had taken a job with the YWCA on the O.U. campus. There were two naval bases in Norman, and housing was hard to find, so we lived three months in a small house with my grandparents and my uncle.
For the first time in my life I wasn’t happy. My school teacher was harsh, threatening us all with being sent to the principal if we misbehaved. She was said to have a rubber hose with which she beat children. I was missing my father. Uncle Harvey, whom I at first had admired, had little sympathy for a six-year-old. My grandfather was impatient, too, when I complained about the long walk to school—about a mile. He said he’d walked farther than that when a child. Grandmother Grace startled and scared me when I encountered her as she was waking from a nap in the basement room. She told me she had dreamed she had gone to heaven to be with Gracie. She seemed sorry to have awakened.
Mother wasn’t happy either. Her new-doctor brother Harvey told her she should have the lump in her breast removed immediately. Then he heard me complaining about my long school walks and how my legs ached, and he urged Mother to take me to a doctor, as I might have rheumatic fever. The diagnosis was confirmed by the local doctor. Somehow during this time, I identified myself with my mother’s little sister, Gracie. The family myth about Gracie was that she had been angelic. By the time she died, she had found her lord and savior. Gracie went straight to heaven. No one else could compete with her goodness, especially after she died.
By the time Mother found us a very small house to rent in May, conveniently across the street from a different and kinder elementary school, I had been diagnosed with rheumatic fever, and bed rest was ordered. I lived in bed for a year. At first Mother arranged babysitters for me and my little sister, Margaret Elaine, so she could keep her new job, but she quit before long and stayed home with us. Gasoline was rationed, but every now and then Grace and Harvey drove across town to visit us. Grandmother gave us rabbits one Easter. For many mornings after that Mother had to chase them down, as they got out and into the neighbors’ gardens. Finally one died, and she encouraged a little boy who was visiting me to take the other one home. I learned much later she was afraid to get rid of the rabbits openly because they had been her mother’s gift to us. I didn’t know then that Grace had bi-polar disease. This might explain why Mother didn’t want to upset her mother.
It’s hard to go back to your early life and take on the ghosts that are still there, and try to put them to rest. Mother was my main source of information about Grace, her mother, who had been unreliable for her, beginning at age 12, when she had to be hospitalized. She described her mother as “brilliant, high-strung, highly sexed, artistic, and crazy,” and without her ever saying this aloud, my sister and I felt like we were being watched for the craziness to come out. We were talented, she in music, I in writing, and we had a normal interest in sexuality. We were smart, but probably not brilliant. I had a line in my head which I sometimes quoted in newspaper interviews: “If I didn’t write, I’d go crazy.” I eventually learned in therapy that I had unconsciously identified both with Grace and her daughter, Gracie.
Mother gave me a lot of family papers, including the diary that Grace and her husband Harvey had kept in the early years of their marriage, 1910-16, and in 2004 I decided to annotate it and try to publish it. I had friends make suggestions, and I researched China, even though I had taken a dislike to China in early childhood when Mother explained that the Chinese devalued girls and sometimes put them to death. Research isn’t my favorite writer thing to do. I like to write from my own experiences and imagination, but something urged me to understand Grace, even if it meant dealing with China. I had helpers all along the way, and gradually got past my negative feelings about China and came to love Grace.
Only toward the end did I stumble on the fact that Grace’s mental illness probably got worse because her first 32 years had been spent in China, with those wise, loving servants, and in the missionary community which was also loving and supportive, and in Oklahoma where they ended up, she had one college girl living in to help her, and she had three school-age children to cope with, and no supportive community. She spent most of the rest of her life in Oklahoma’s Central State Mental Hospital.
I think I was wanting to redeem her, be the artist she had failed to be. It hit me a few days ago that she was Henry James’s “failed artist,” the perfect character for a novel. The book is all true, but it has the story of Grace, mostly in her own words in the diary. In those years she was happy, loved her babies, was an important member of the Nanking missionary society, played organ and piano, led children in Christmas music, went on little jaunts with Harvey, as well as hunting and chasing wild pigs on horseback. So Grace is out there now, and people are buying it, more than I expected, and its being out there comforts me.
Here’s the key info: Grace Woodbridge Roys suffered from bi-polar disease before it was well understood. Her daughter feared that her children would also suffer mental illness. This annotation of Grace’s diary opens the early 1900s missionary world in China and the personality of Grace to the reader. In December 1910 Grace married Harvey Curtis Roys, who was teaching physics at Kiang Nan government school in Nanking, under the sponsorship of the YMCA. Grace had had a mental breakdown weeks earlier when her missionary father forbade the marriage.
The diary records their early married life, the births of their first two children, their social life with other missionaries in China, many of whom made major contributions to Nanking life and education: medical doctors and nurses; theology professors; agricultural innovators; founders of universities, hospitals, nursing schools, and schools for young Chinese women and men. Included is their experience evacuating during the Sun Yat-sen Revolution of 1911. Well-known missionaries of that time came to tea and taught at the Hillcrest School the mothers began for foreign children. The Nanyang Exposition took place in 1910, too, as China was in the throes of entering the modern era, with trains, electricity, telegraph, and a new interest in democracy.
Comments from Experts: “This thoroughly annotated five-year diary, including contemporary accounts of the retreat colony Kuling and schools in Nanking, provides rich and illuminating primary documentation toward understanding the daily personal, family, social and professional lives of American educators and missionaries in early 20th century China, the native culture in which they devoted themselves, and their influence on subsequent generations. A graceful window on the lives of Westerners and Chinese alike.” J. Samuel Hammond, Duke University.
“Grace, a rich portrait of missionary life in early 20th century China, is told through diary entries, photos, narratives, and an epilogue by Judy Hogan, editor and annotator of her grandmother’s diary. Most poignant for me, as a former missionary child, is Hogan’s appreciation of Grace’s difficult transition from the China where she spent her first 32 years to the United States where her mental illness took flight.”–Nancy Henderson-James, author of Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa
Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16, edited and annotated by Judy Hogan. Authors: Grace and Harvey Roys. Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon. ISBN: 978-1-5326-0939-8. Paperback: $26; Kindle, $9.99. Independent bookstores may order from Ingram or www.wipfandstock.com. For signed books, send order ($30 including tax and postage) to Judy Hogan, PO Box 253, Moncure, NC 27559.
Today my answers to Judy Hogan’s questions about my writing, particularly the Show Me series, appear at http://postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com.
She asked what prompted my switch from nonfiction to fiction, why I created the series, how the original idea fared over five books, and what prompted me to mix cynicism and compassion in Phoenix Smith.
And, of course, she wants to know more about Achilles.
Cave Hollow Press has completed the cover design, the penultimate step in publishing Show Me the Sinister Snowman. The fifth book in the series will go to press (and to digitalization) for release March 31.
The first book, Show Me the Murder, takes place in May. Former CIA covert operative Phoenix Smith returns to her Missouri hometown to recover from being shot. Phoenix works with an old friend, Acting Sheriff Annalynn Carr Keyser, to learn the truth about her late husband’s violent death. Phoenix rescues a wounded witness, a Belgian Malinois named Achilles. A K-9 dropout, he becomes her valued sidekick. To Phoenix’s annoyance, struggling singer Connie Diamante insists on taking part in this and subsequent investigations: in June, Show Me the Deadly Deer; in August, Show Me the Gold; in September, Show Me the Ashes.
In book 5, it’s the week before Thanksgiving. Annalynn has completed her term as sheriff and is campaigning to replace a congressman who died in an “accident.” Phoenix, a certified capitalist, is stuck running the foundation she established to give Annalynn a job. The ex-spy is bored until a woman hiding from an abusive husband begs the foundation to protect her.
Phoenix and friends accompany Annalynn to a political gathering in an isolated antebellum mansion. A blizzard traps them there with a machete-wielding man lurking outside and an unidentified killer inside.
Today’s presidential inauguration reminded me of the good and bad in taking part in the inaugural parade 24 years ago.
As the 1992 presidential campaign wound down, the Washington, D.C., chapter of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers asked if members would like to march in the inaugural parade.
Like most locals, I avoided going near the Mall when the crowds came to town, but I couldn’t resist the chance to take part in this national event. Neither could Joyce Campbell, another RPCV from the 275-strong Ethiopia I group. We signed on.
We waited weeks to hear whether an RPCV with political connections could convince the parade organizers to allow us to publicize the Peace Corps. Twenty-two years after its founding, some 150,000 had served, but many people had forgotten about this one-to-one foreign aid program. (Today more than 7,000 PCVS are serving, and 225,000 RPCVs have served in 141 countries.)
The parade was to begin at 2 p.m. At 8:30 a.m., Joyce and I met to ride the Metro from Silver Spring, Maryland, through D.C. into Arlington, Virginia. We met our group—about 100 RPCVs who had served in 50 or so countries—in the enormous Pentagon parking lot.
After learning our assigned positions, we boarded buses and rode to our waiting spot on the Mall near the Museum of American History (at least a half mile from the Capitol). The buses dropped us off around 10:30, leaving us to mill around with no place to sit.
The temperature was near freezing, and the sun shone halfheartedly. Having worn a heavy sweater beneath a super-warm coat and warm hiking socks under snow boots, I stayed warm as long as I kept moving.
At noon, speakers broadcast the inauguration ceremony and, memorably, Maya Angelou reading her poem. Then the new president and Congress had lunch in the Capitol. We ate box lunches in the cold.
We didn’t line up with our flags until well after 2, and we didn’t move for another hour. Instead of going all the way to the Capitol, we cut left to Pennsylvania Avenue around 4th Street. The crowd had thinned out by then (coming up on 4 p.m.).
Joyce, a later Ethiopia RPCV, and I took turns carrying the heavy, long-poled Ethiopian flag. A nearby band gave a beat to march to as, adrenalin flowing, we moved at an irregular pace up Pennsylvania toward the White House.
With the sun dimming, we turned onto the last block and saw nearly empty bleachers across from the president’s viewing stand. He’d delegated greeting the marchers to the vice president. Al Gore, the only one in the viewing stand focused on the parade, gave us a big thumbs up.
Our group broke up right after we passed Blair House. We turned in the flag at the waiting bus and headed for the nearest Metro stop.
Like the Peace Corps, the inaugural parade had been tiring and taxing, but being part of the Peace Corps for two years and of a historic transition for one day had been well worth it.
What are your favorite mystery series and why?
I posed that question on Facebook and a Sisters in Crime list to confirm my own observations and help me prepare a session on writing a mystery series. Eighteen mystery lovers responded, most women and most naming two or three favorite writers or series. Few of them said why.
One who did was author Eleanor Cawood Jones. She wrote, “I look for in-depth characters and amazing settings. Carolyn Hart’s Henrie O, Blaize Clements’ catsitter mysteries, Mary Daheim’s Alpine, Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. The lead characters in each of those have a past and a story to tell. Maybe even a dark story.”
Author Grace Topping also stressed the importance of character, saying, “My favorites are Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series and Anne Perry’s William Monk series. I particularly like these two series because of the depth of the characters and the wisdom that each of the authors imparts.”
Beth Schmelzer reads for various qualities. She likes the humor in books by Marcia Talley and Elaine Viets, the fast-paced plots and fascinating dialogue in both of Hank Ryan’s series, the relationships and frightening plots in Julie Spenser-Flemings’ books, and “the twists of a dog narrating” in Spenser Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series. Beth also named a series I want to explore: “Arianna Franklin’s unique protagonist who solves crimes in Great Britain with the knowledge of forensics in the time of the Crusades when women weren’t allowed to be doctors, nor did they receive respect.”
One of the most frequently mentioned characters, of course, was Sherlock Holmes. Author KB Inglee spoke for many: “I discovered Sherlock Holmes when I was in High School, and can’t get enough. I watch every remake and take off I can find.”
Another writer, Nancy Eady, said, “Sherlock Holmes runs neck and neck with P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh novels. P.D. James has a lot more substance and depth in her novels but Sherlock simply rocks!” Nancy’s all-time favorite, however, is Nero Wolfe.
Writer Carrie Koepke reported that her teenage daughter loves Sherlock, but Carrie said, “I get lost in Ruth Rendell—the way she tackles the mental side of her stories is fascinating.”
Among the other series mentioned were Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, Elizabeth Peters’ Jacquelyn Kirby, Margaret Maron’s Bootlegger’s Daughter, Dick Frances’ horse racing, Dorothy Gilliam’s Mrs. Pollifax, Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who, Anne George’s Southern Sisters, Ann B. Ross’ Miss Julia, and Laura Joh Rowland’s samurai-era Japan.
Other authors included Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Sarah Caudwell, Dennis Lehane, Janet Evanovich, Dorothy Cannell, Dianna Mott Davidson, and Deborah Crombie. Oddly enough, no one brought up Agatha Christie.
This short list undoubtedly includes and excludes authors that would appear on a scientifically balanced survey—and on my own list. High on it are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, J. A. Vance’s Joanna Brady, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo series, Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand, Joan Hess’s Maggody and Claire Malloy, William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor, and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. These present great characters, fascinating settings, and good writing.
You’re welcome to chime in with your own favorites and reasons for liking them.
I’ll talk about five reasons readers like mystery series in my presentation September 23, but the most important one is compelling characters, ones we want to visit again much as we do good friends.
Fifty years ago this week I began my writing career as an editorial assistant for the NEA Journal, then one of the country’s best education magazines. I just signed a contract for my eleventh book, Thunder Beneath My Feet, a middle grade/young adult novel set during the powerful New Madrid earthquakes in late 1811 and early 1812.
Those eleven books represent a relatively small part of my output. For twenty years I worked mostly on magazines, including as the editor of Industrial Research & Development News. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria, published this international technical quarterly.
I didn’t enjoy editing technical articles from experts who spoke English as their second (or third or fourth) language and left in fear the bureaucratic writing style would damage my writing. On the plus side, I formed close friendships with wonderful people from different cultures, and the interactions of colleagues from some fifty countries fascinated me.
My Favorite Job
The job I held the longest (almost five years) and liked the most was as editor of Synergist, a magazine published by the National Center for Service-Learning, iWashington, D.C., for leaders of secondary and postsecondary student volunteer programs. Over those years, service-learning blossomed and moved into the elementary schools.
Much of my time went to locating model programs and soliciting (and editing heavily) articles from the outstanding educators who ran them. I also traveled around the country to write and photograph inspiring programs. I resigned to become a freelancer when I thought I had taken the publication as far as it could go under the politicians who then determined what we could publish.
Computers began to replace electric typewriters while I edited Synergist, and editors and designers struggled to stay close to the “bleeding edge” as publications moved into desktop publishing. Such programs as PageMaker enabled quick, relatively inexpensive turnaround and prompted the golden age of the newsletter.
Over the next twenty-plus years, writing and editing monthly newsletters paid my mortgage and covered most of my basic expenses. Relying on my journalistic skills, I took on many topics, including career tips for dental hygienists, innovative programs for chambers of commerce, and issues affecting sales of oil production equipment.
My major steady client over those years was Communications Concepts, a small company that produced a series of monthly subscription how-to newsletters for corporate communicators. I did most of the planning and wrote most of the articles. For each issue, I interviewed four to six people from around the United States and Canada, reviewed a book or two, and edited a contributor’s article.
The publisher gave me considerable autonomy, and the articles kept me up to date on the field. The newsletters also gave me credibility with other clients and led me to a sideline of teaching graduate-level continuing ed writing and editing courses and giving workshops for writers’ groups.
Other freelance assignments included subbing for an ailing magazine editor, writing a calendar for the National Portrait Gallery, writing the proceedings for a Library of Congress conference, writing and editing textbook material, and covering an International Red Cross meeting in Geneva. For several years I financed much of my travel in the United States and abroad by writing and photographing travel articles.
Most of the magazines and newsletters, and several of the newspapers, that I wrote for died years ago.
The Nonfiction Books
I wrote my nonfiction books between 1984 and 1994. My first two (and most profitable), Guide to Student Fundraising and Financial Fitness for Teens, were works for hire. I had a lot of fun but earned few dollars writing (with Betty C. Ford) Adventure Vacations in Five Mid-Atlantic States. Living in the D.C. area, I earned more respect than income from writing a young adult political biography, Elizabeth Dole, Public Servant.
My hair grayed at the same time the opportunities for lucrative, interesting assignments diminished. Both employees and freelancers felt the effects of the changes technology brought to communications programs and of employers’ increased tendency to equate the ability to type and use a spell-checker with the ability to write and edit.
The Transition to Fiction
Now what? I decided to go back to my original goal of writing novels. I hadn’t been a mystery fan until such excellent writers as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Margaret Maron showed women could carry a mystery as the main character rather than sidle on the page as a male protagonist’s damsel in distress or lust interest. I enrolled in a class for beginning mystery writers taught by author Noreen Wald and began a long transition from nonfiction to fiction.
One of the great things that came from that class was a critique group of novice mystery writers, all of them now published. We met weekly, with two or three always presenting chapters for review. My first draft took a long time, and so did sales for most of us.
Finally a Novelist
At one low point, I debated whether to continue trying to sell a mystery. I pulled out the manuscript of a children’s book I had written years before and asked the group to critique it as I revised. In 2007, that manuscript, The Feedsack Dress, became my first published novel.
At another low point, I again questioned whether to give up on writing mysteries. While mulling that over, I greatly enjoyed researching the devastating but little remembered New Madrid earthquakes featured in Thunder Beneath My Feet. My initial marketing experience was frustrating, so I put that manuscript aside when I sold my first mystery, Show Me the Murder, in 2011 (published February 2013).
Midway through writing the fifth of the award-winning Show Me series, I returned to Thunder, doing a light revision and then searching for a publisher. I found one on my fiftieth anniversary as a professional writer.
Now I have to finish book five and decide what to write next.
To learn more about the earthquakes and read an excerpt from Thunder Beneath My Feet, go to the navigation bar and click on Other Writings/Works in Progress/Thunder Beneath My Feet.
I came back to my desk on March 8, 1969, and found a chocolate and a postcard wishing me a Happy International Women’s Day. A Russian colleague had left those for me and every other woman in my section of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.
Even though the first National Women’s Day originated in the United States in 1909, I’d never heard of International Women’s Day. It has received better publicity in the United States since the United Nations began celebrating it in 1975.
In honor of the day, I offer a short quiz, part of one written originally for the Columbia, Missouri, branch of the American Association of University Women.
Who do you know?
Match the following former or present heads of state to their countries. Why did all of these countries elect a woman before we did?
1. Angela Merkel a. Chile
2. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf b. Ireland
3. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner c. South Korea
4. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga d. Germany
5. Michelle Bachelet e. Liberia
6. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir f. Brazil
7. Violeta Chamorro g. Nicaragua
8. Mary Robinson h. Argentina
9. Chandrika Kumaratunga i. Lithuania
10. Dalia Grybauskaitė j. Iceland
11. Dilma Rousseff k. Sri Lanka
12. Park Geun-hye l. Latvia
When did women get the vote?
Match each country with the year women got the vote. Hint: The United States wasn’t the first or the last.
1. New Zealand a. 1971
2. Switzerland b. 1955
3. Mexico c. 1947
4. Ethiopia d. 1920
5. United States e. 1893
Here are the answers. Who: 1. d, 2. e, 3. h, 4. a, 5. j, 6. g, 7. b, 8. k, 9. l, 10. i, 11. f, 12. c When: 1. e, 2. a, 3. c, 4. b, 5. d
For decades I traveled Peace Corps style: riding buses and trains, staying at B&Bs and austere hotels, and buying most of my food in markets and small restaurants. Traveling on a low budget took extra time, planning, and effort, but it enabled me to experience life in unfamiliar countries somewhat as the natives did.
Gone are the days. I’ve reconciled myself to touring with a group of curious, well-traveled retirees on two-week trips planned and directed by people who make sure hotels and restaurants meet high standards and know where to find a bathroom every two hours.
In November I took such a tour of Chile and Argentina, two countries I’d avoided in my do-it-yourself days because their governments made lots of people disappear. Comfort, congenial companions, and the organizers’ good mix of places and personal encounters made the trip enjoyable and stimulating.
What we saw and heard aroused my journalistic curiosity. I can’t satisfy that, but here are some glimpses of things in Chile that intrigued me.
Protests in Santiago
Although we saw the shacks that trumpet poverty on the way from the airport, most of Santiago looked like a pleasant modern city. Jacaranda bloomed in parks. Well-dressed people (almost all white) rode a clean, quiet subway. Restaurants (seafood is huge) and ice cream places abound. We had some really good ice cream in unfamiliar flavors, and lots of young (and not so young) people were eating cones in the street.
We saw many new high-rise apartment buildings, some near blocks of old mansions that had been turned to other uses—businesses, apartments, schools. Despite a high literacy rate, quality education is more goal than reality, we heard, with the public schools bad and the private ones expensive.
The most surprising, and encouraging, thing to me was the number of protests. For years after the 1973 CIA-assisted coup that ended with leftist president Salvador Allende’s death, protestors tended to vanish. Thousands of others fled the country, with some returning after the repressed but more prosperous citizenry astonished General Augusto Pinochet by voting him out of office in 1988. (The United States gets some credit for helping Chile improve its economy.)
When we went for a walk in the central area, unionized government workers were gathering with signs to push the legislators to put a pay raise in the new budget. Stilt-walkers and drummers added a festive air. We saw small groups of protestors marching in the street several times. Police were plentiful but not obtrusive. They didn’t wear riot gear or carry military arms.
My cynical reportorial self wondered—but couldn’t investigate—who really staged these peaceful scenes.
A British tourist told me he saw a different scene from his hotel window early one morning. Police used water cannon against a group of young protestors, targeting one man in particular. A Chilean said he was probably an anarchist making trouble. A defensive excuse? Probably, but anarchists (like looters) do mix with protestors.
Put the protests in Santiago in context. International television news was showing report after report of looters and arson in Ferguson, Missouri. For months the area police had shown they didn’t know how to handle demonstrations. When I lived in D.C., people were brandishing signs whenever I passed the White House.
Lakes and Volcanoes
One reason for the trip was to see Andean scenery. The warm-up was Chile’s low-lying agricultural heartland, where grapevines, fruit trees, and corn often line the highway. The first two provide major exports. I can testify that the fruit was excellent. My companions enjoyed the wines. As to the corn, it forms a major part of the local diet, turning up in casseroles, stews, and salads.
The most scenic area was to the cooler south around the pretty Patagonian resort town of Puerto Varas. Here our hotel looked across the huge Lake Llanquihue to the snow-topped, cone-shaped Osorno and the long, irregular Calbuco volcanoes. A few years ago an eruption spewed masses of sand-colored ash, most of which drifted east into Argentina. A ten-inch layer of ash drove nearby residents away and killed forests, crops, and the tourist trade. People have returned to the towns, and their beautiful gardens attest to the ash’s nutritional properties.
We made several interesting side trips.
• A horse-breeding ranch where huasos, a father and son, showed how they compete in rodeos quite different from ours. No roping, no bull riding, no bucking broncs. Competitors receive points for maneuvering a steer cuddled between their sidestepping Andalusian horses in prescribed patterns without harming it. Dressed in traditional garb that includes a flat-brimmed hat and a heavy, hand-woven poncho in the ranch’s colors, the horsemen eschewed lassos, and their large, round-tipped spurs didn’t harm the horses. A kinder and gentler rodeo tradition.
• A Saturday market in Puerto Montt where shoppers found a variety of fresh seafood, large vegetables, and such other items as cheese. One of our most intriguing finds was a picoroco, a barnacle. The gray, tulip-shaped shell contained a white mass that shoppers took home or ate at the vendor’s stand with lemon juice. I preferred one of Chile’s favorite staples, empanadas. Turnover-sized and shaped, the empanadas held ground meat and potatoes, seafood, or cheese. In the market we saw some Native American faces.
• Petrohue Falls, a national park where green water from a lake rushes through lava formations. The low falls don’t equal the Great Falls of the Potomac near D.C., but the view of snow-capped volcanoes in the distance adds beauty.
In Puerto Varas, we were near the last-held ground of the Mapuche. The Spanish conquistadors and their descendants (plus some other Europeans) pushed the indigenous peoples who survived attacks and diseases toward the colder, less hospitable south just as we forced native tribes west. Today the Mapuche make up approximately four percent of Chile’s population, and they’re still struggling for their rights.
A Mapuche activist and culture preservationist talked to us about the Mapuche philosophy of life, government persecution for such acts as displaying their flag, and the ongoing fight to regain the land the Pinochet government took from them and awarded to his friends. The preservationist also noted that the Mapuche, by choice, have no written language. His grandparents say the words lose their true meaning on paper.
Our program director told us that eighty-five percent of Chile’s people have mestizo (mixed) blood, and that most of them deny it.
Like most other countries, Chile has a ways to go to build a true democracy. From my limited reading and observation, class constitutes a bigger problem than race, and economic and educational inequality presents one of the country’s greatest challenges. We face the same challenge.
I filtered my observations of Chile through others’ opinions and my experiences in other countries. The friendliness of the people made me root for them. The tour didn’t give me any expert knowledge, but those few days will help me understand what I read in their history and literature and what I see on the news.
Judy Hogan has led the writing life for fifty years. In October 2013 one publisher released her second mystery, Farm Fresh and Fatal, and another her fifth book of poetry, Beaver Soul. She also has written two nonfiction books, founded and served as editor of Carolina Wren Press (1976-1991), and continues to teach courses in writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (e.g., diary/memoir).Her mystery series reflects her deep roots in social activism and in North Carolina. The first book, Killer Frost (Mainly Murder Press, 2012), involves educational and financial fraud on a historically black college campus, a setting she knows well. Farm Fresh and Fatal focuses on another familiar place, a farmers’ market, with vendors holding different views on sustainable agriculture and genetically modified produce.
I interviewed Judy about why and how she writes mysteries.
Q: You’ve written poetry and prose, nonfiction and fiction. Why did you choose to write traditional mysteries?
I started reading mysteries in 1981, when I was forty-four. My eldest child had gone off to college, and I had a little more time in the evening when I was too tired to work. I began with Golden Age authors my father recommended. He’d been reading them all his adult life, and I’d never understood why. He was a minister who escaped by reading mysteries? A puzzle I now understand. I read Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, P.D. James.
In 1990, I was having a writing vacation (to write poetry) on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, and instead of ranging around the cliffs, I was housebound with a sprained ankle. My landlady in the B&B, who could never get me to watch the telly because I wanted to read mysteries, said, “Judy, why don’t you write a murder?” I began to plot one set in a B&B, with my landlady as a character.
I didn’t know I was writing a traditional mystery. It was later in a workshop with Margaret Maron that I learned that. I did try to publish The Sands of Gower. I even had a nice rejection letter from Ruth Cavin, the legendary editor at St. Martin’s. I had always thought that writing poetry was my best genre, and maybe that’s true, but I found mysteries fun to write, and in them I was able to do some things that I couldn’t do in my nonfiction writing. I could invent characters and put them together and see what they would do, and in this way learn things I didn’t know I knew about myself and other people. That’s the magic of fiction for me. I also like happy endings. Some books have tragedy, but there’s still a sense of completion and a transformation.
Q: How did your experience writing essays, memoir, and poetry help you in writing your mysteries?
I think all writing you do helps other writing. I keep a diary, write in it every morning, and that has proved a good way to clear out my mind of trivia. Then I write a poem, an essay, or get ready to write fiction. I had learned in those other forms that I wrote better and more effectively, in a way to touch other people more, if I went deeper, and the part of me that I call the Muse, or the true creativity, came into play. So I came closer to my writing goals. I don’t usually have characters wake me up, but they definitely come alive in my mind. Over the years I had already developed a good relationship with my Muse, and pen to paper had become natural, comfortable.
Q: You present issues important to you in your mysteries. Those issues help propel the plot, motivate the characters, and establish the setting. Even so, the mystery dominates the message, and your endings surprise readers. What techniques did you use in conceiving and writing Farm Fresh and Fatal to assure storytelling didn’t cross over into preaching?
The thing about fiction and mysteries in particular is that you have a moral universe. I have a heroine and various admirable characters, and then I have a killer and some characters who are annoying in one way or another. My killers aren’t usually purely evil, but they have become desperate or in some way, lost their perspective or become obsessed. So the basic plot of the mystery serves me to highlight problems in the community that in some way “spawn” a killer.
Once I have my idea of the problem I want to focus on (and I’ve worked on all the ones I take up with the activist side of my personality) and set up the good and bad characters, the murderer and the suspects, the plot tends to highlight the situation in the community that worries me. I like speaking this way about issues, and after being involved in local politics, this suits me better. I often upset people in a grassroots effort because I tend to be blunt, and even the good guys sometimes become pompous and don’t like to hear someone speak the truth. I can speak all the truth I want in my books and make fun of people who annoy me, even kill them off!
Q: You introduce a lot of characters in the early chapters but manage to make each one distinctive. How do you go about choosing and creating characters?
I have an ongoing heroine/sleuth, Penny Weaver, loosely based on me, my age, a poet, with many of my interests, but her voice is a little more satirical than mine. Her lover/husband Kenneth was her first sidekick, and then a character I wholly invented, Sammie Hargrave, an African American, came to life, and I liked her so much that I found her an ideal sidekick, more even than Kenneth, who tends to worry about Penny’s always seeming to end up face to face with the murderer. Sammie also balances Penny’s usually good behavior. Sammie will deceive, take on criminals with karate moves, and is generally ready for anything.
I use Elizabeth George’s Write Away strategies for character and plot development. I write down all the characters I need. After this many books, I already have a lot to choose from, since an interracial group of activists works on issues in my fictional Riverdell.
Actual people sometimes get me going. People are each so different when you get to know them, and their quirks help me make them unique and provide humor, hopefully. My goal is that each one lives individually for the reader. I still work at that, but they come alive better if I know how they talk, behave, what their background is, what their “core need” is and what they do when they can’t have what they believe they need. The Muse helps. I often ask her questions re characters and plot, and she makes suggestions, which I almost always follow. Knowing the characters well helps me plot.
Q: One of your ongoing themes is rocky relationships between mothers and their adult daughters. Are you taking a personal risk here? What do your daughters think of the scenes between Penny, the main character, and her somewhat unstable daughter Sarah?
Oh, my. I’ve given my books to my two daughters, and I don’t think either one has read them, and perhaps they won’t recognize themselves, though they have both, and my son, too, given me pause over the years. In the end my life is richer because my kids gave me a hard time, even to our needing some therapy as a divorced family, to get them raised. Those conflicts are still vivid to me. It’s easy for me to write scenes between adult children and their parents. My oldest is fifty-one, and my youngest is forty-one, and I hope they don’t take offense if/when they read the books. I’m taking the risk.
Q: What are you writing now? What’s next?
Saturday, December 7, I wrote the last words of the first draft of Pernicious Poll. It’s about North Carolina’s new harsh voting law, which in its effects is quite discriminatory against African Americans and the poor.
I hope to get the very first mystery I wrote out next. I’ve revised The Sands of Gower, and I think readers will like to go back to when Penny met Kenneth. Tormentil Hall, which comes after Farm Fresh, also takes place on Gower in Wales, and I think the readers need the first novel to enjoy fully the eighth. My publishing sequence is going to be mixed up, but that’s already true.
Q: Many people look forward to leaving their day job and writing mysteries as a second (or even primary) career. What’s the single most important advice you give the person who wants to become a mystery writer?
Love doing it, do it because it makes you happy, whether you sell it or not. Write what you wish to write–the advice of Virginia Woolf, Louise Penny, Carolyn Hart, Elizabeth George. Go for broke, and then get good feedback you trust. It might be a group, or one person. I didn’t find that critique groups worked for me, but I now have two readers. Both love to read mysteries, both are honest but essentially like what I do. That is helping tremendously. They find the things I miss or didn’t make clear. Of course, read good books. The best models make the best writers.
Q: What have been the most satisfying comments on Farm Fresh and Fatal?
I was fortunate to have a blurb from Carolyn Hart: “Farm Fresh and Fatal features an appealing protagonist, an intriguing background, and well-realized characters. Readers will enjoy these characters and empathize with their successes and failures. In the tradition of Margaret Maron.”
A writer friend of mine, Sharon Ewing, wrote one. Your close friends sometimes aren’t that impressed with your writing, but Sharon reviewed the book, quite thoughtfully and appreciatively, on Amazon. She said, “The first sentence of the book plunges into the action that will carry the reader to the fast-paced turns and twists of the final chapter.”
Then recently, November 30, Ruth Moose reviewed it in a little paper in Southern Pines, The Pilot. She wrote, “Hogan writes with passion and knowledge about genetically modified foods that can produce ‘tomatoes that bounce like ping pong balls,’ and the community of those who know and love the earth.” She made my day. Newspaper reviews are hard to get in these times. You can read the full review at http://www.thepilot.com/search/?t=article&s=start_time&sd=desc&d1=5+years+ago&q=Book+Review%3A+Farm+Fresh+and+Fatal.
Judy, thanks you for sharing your expertise.
For information on ordering autographed copies of her mysteries and poetry, email judyhogan at mindspring.com or visit her website (http://judyhogan.home.mindspring.com) or blog (http://postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com).
Copies of her mysteries (in paper and e-book format) are available from major online bookstores and mainlymurderpress.com
Copies of Beaver Soul may be ordered from Amazon (search Finishing Line Press chapbooks) and Finishing Line Press.
At local meetings and on national listservs, writers often ask for advice about which conferences to attend. Having attended many, I can only say that the best conference depends as much on what the writer seeks as what the conference offers.
This spring, with promoting Show Me the Murder my top priority, I chose three annual conferences serving different audiences:
- Missouri Writers’ Guild conference for writers with varied interests,
- Malice Domestic 25 national convention for mystery fans,
- Marshall (MO) Writers’ Guild workshop for their members.
Here, in Part 1, is what the state conference offered.
This estimable annual three-day conference (http://www.missouriwritersguild.org) features solid how-to presentations on topics appealing to beginners and professionals but focusing on writers hovering between those levels. Attendees are serious writers eager to establish careers.
From my conversations and observations, more than half have finished at least one unpublished manuscript (usually a novel) but don’t know much about the route to publication. The self-publishing and social media sessions here (like everywhere else apparently) drew a big crowd.
Many come to the conference hoping to hook an agent or a publisher. Quite a few skipped the how-to seminars to concentrate on pitching to the half dozen East and West Coach agents and regional publishers in scheduled five-minute sessions and in informal conversations. One of the advantages of a relatively small (around 200) conference is that you can sit next to an agent at a meal or corner her (usually not him) in the bar or hall. The toilets are off limits.
Agents who fly from either coast to the heartland usually agree to look at anything that might possibly interest them. And almost every year at least one writer signs with an agent or sells a manuscript to a publisher. Even those who don’t sell get valuable feedback.
This friendly conference also gives writers a chance to socialize, exchange information, and feel part of a community. Writing may be a solitary activity, but networking never hurts.
As for carrying out my special agenda, I handed out bookmarks and a fast pitch for my new mystery series to dozens of writers/readers from around the state.
Anyone who has taught a basic English or creative writing course will recognize some of the characters and situations in Killer Frost, a debut mystery by Judy Hogan.
Most of the book takes place at a financially and academically distressed historically black college in North Carolina. An idealistic untenured professor wars against the administration to bring ill-prepared but determined students up to standard and to give gifted ones a chance to soar. He brings in Penny Weaver, a dedicated white writer/teacher, to take over both the remedial and the creative writing classes.
Hogan obviously knows both groups of students well, and some of her best scenes involve teaching rather than detecting. Finding the killer takes second place to rescuing the students from poor teaching, bad conditions, and the burnt-out and corrupt staff. The victims’ behavior had given faculty and students reasons to want to murder them.
The major subplot revolves around Penny’s disconcerting attraction to the professor who hired her (both are happily married). A more effective subplot involves her difficult relationship with her single-mother daughter.
Some of the numerous characters in Killer Frost live on the page. Unfortunately some students get lost in the classroom, and neighbors overpopulate Penny’s diverse community. Most talk too much and act too little—until the fast-paced climactic scene, which ends with a satisfying twist.
Killer Frost, by Judy Hogan, Mainly Murder Press, 2012, 244 pp., $15.95 in paperback and $2.99 in e-book; ISBN: 978-0-9836823-8-7. For more information about the writer, her work, and where to buy the book, go to http://judyhogan.home.mindspring.com.