Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Do You Hear What I Hear?

This week we’ve been asked to describe our best holiday memories.

by Dietrich

Like most of us, I have some great memories centered around the holidays, many of them going back to childhood: the tree, the lights, the presents, and loved ones gathering.

A visit to Santa way back when

Among those memories are the classic tales set around this time of the year, stories that I’ve read over and over since childhood, ones I’ve never grown tired of. And what a joy sharing them with my son when he was growing up, getting him started on some best-loved ones of his own. There was The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mausekönig) by E.T.A. Hoffmann; The Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum; The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg; How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss; The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore; A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; and The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry.

And no festivity was complete without the traditional music ringing through the house. Classics like Bing’s “White Christmas,” and “Mele Kalikimaka,” the one he did with the Andrews Sisters. And there was Johnny Mathis doing “Sleigh Ride,” and Nat King Cole singing about chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Brenda Lee rocking around the Christmas tree, and Elvis singing about a blue Christmas. I’m sure you’ve all got some favorites – maybe you’re humming one right now. 

Then there were the films that still remain perfect for this time of year: Classics like Miracle on 34th Street, The Shop Around the Corner, and It’s a Wonderful Life. One of my personal favorites is the stop-motion animation classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. For those who’d argue that it’s a Halloween movie, then let’s include The Muppet Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. And if classics and animation aren’t your thing, then how about Home Alone, or for some Christmas action there’s Die Hard, or if you want something darker, try Bad Santa

So, whether you’re planning this year’s Christmas dinner, or getting set to take the kids to see Santa at the mall, or digging through the closet for that ugly sweater, steaming the figgy pudding, or tuning in the Yule log on TV, I think we can agree that it’s the most wonderful time of the year, a time for great old memories, and a time for creating some new ones.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Holiday, Holidays


This week we’re posting our favorite holiday memory. Which led me to think about last year. My least favorite memory of the holidays. We had just moved into our third rental place in the LA area. My sweet dog had just died.
All of our stuff was in storage, so I had to make do with whatever was in the rental, plus what I picked up at garage sales to fill in the gaps. I missed my friends.
I desperately missed my house.

I missed my dog. And here’s the thing. I remember absolutely nothing about the holidays. I don’t remember Thanksgiving. I didn’t remember anything about Christmas until I talked to my son who reminded me that we opened gifts and watched a lot of football. After he reminded me, I vaguely remembered playing Trivial Pursuit and being the only person who enjoyed it because I’m the only one who likes games. 

 So remembering favorite holiday memories from the past is soothing. 

Every year we spent at least part of the holidays with grandparents. My mother’s folks had eight kids, and tons of grandkids, so I had barrels of fun with cousins. Mostly I recall us kids being told to GET OUTSIDE and/or STOP SQUALLING (unless there was copious amounts of blood, injuries were ignored). In our young years we were blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of hostility that ran through the festivities. We didn’t know that there were relatives who didn’t speak to each other for years on end. We didn’t know that Christmas gifts were judged harshly. Names were drawn, and you had to buy a gift for the name you drew. Much bitterness ensued. Who cared? We were kids!

 One year we kids put on a Christmas play and demanded that the adults watch. All I recall of it is that I was the boss (duh) and there was lots of eye-rolling among the adults, who no doubt had been at the eggnog since lunch. 

 Christmas celebration at grandparents on my daddy’s side is the source of one of my favorite memories. The ritual was that room containing the Christmas tree and gifts was closed off. Then, after lunch, the door was opened and we all crowded around the tree. That year my sister and I found two doll cradles under the tree, for us. If the scene were in a movie, the cradles would be surrounded by twinkling lights. Since I was the older of the two, I was told I could choose the one I wanted. There was one cradle that I HAD to have. BUT I had been raised to think of my sister’s wants as well. I was in agony. And then my mother, not known for her thoughtfulness, said to me, “Choose the one you really want.” Relieved, I chose the light wood one with curved lines and decals. My sister got the (to me) inferior one, with dark wood with straight lines. 

 UPDATE: A couple of years ago, my sister and I were reminiscing about Christmases past and I said something about that tough decisions. She burst out laughing and told me she remembered it well, because she remembered being terrified that I might choose the one she liked—the dark one! 

Another fond memory happened on Christmas eve when I was may eleven years old. During dinner, the doorbell rang. My mother went to answer it and we could her exclaiming that she “couldn’t believe it!” We thought maybe friends or relatives had shown up, which made no sense on Christmas eve. But no, my mother had won a train set. She said she had always wanted a train, but as a girl, she never got one, and since she had two daughters she thought that wasn’t the right gift. But some weeks before, she had put her name in a jar for a drawing for a train set, and then forgot about it. She won! Instead of wrapping gifts and getting ready for Christmas with relatives, we spent hours that night playing with the train. I still remember exactly where it was set up and what it looked like. 

 And finally, one of my favorite memories is the first Christmas I spent away from home. I had just taken a job in Langley, Virginia, and had no money to fly home. A few weeks before Christmas, a friend asked me if I’d like to go to New York with her. Having grown up in a small town in Texas, for me New York City might as well have been on the moon. I said I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t even have a credit card! She said it wouldn’t cost much, that her dad “worked at a hotel in Chicago” and could get us a good rate. I cautiously agreed. We took the train. 

 I was shocked to find that the "hotel" was The New York Hilton. Our room was a beautiful suite, overlooking the ice-skating rink. There was a huge fruit basket with a fruit cake and wine. I remind you, I was from small-town Texas. I had never been in a hotel, except when I worked at one during college in the summer. I had only stayed in motels; cheap ones. I didn’t know there was such a thing as fruit baskets in hotel suites. I didn’t even know there were suites! I could imagine the cost mounting by the second. And then we were told our room had been “comped.” I had no idea what that meant. My friend explained that her dad who “worked at a hotel” was actually the manager of the Chicago Hilton and that “comped” meant the room was compliments of the New York Hilton manager. 

The two-day adventure was a dream. We were all grown up and in New York City. At Christmas. And it snowed. 

 I hope everyone has a few good memories of holidays—and that we all get to have many more.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

O' Christmas Tree!

Describe your best holiday memory.

Brenda starting off the week.

I've got so many lovely memories linked to Christmas that it's difficult to pick just one. However, some of my favourite recollections have to do with the Christmas tree.

I grew up in Terrace Bay, a small Northwestern Ontario town -- 2000 people -- nine miles from the next town to the west and 60 miles to the next town in the east. We were surrounded by woods and water, the town built on a glacial terrace a distance above the shores of Lake Superior. 

A few weeks before Christmas every year, we'd set out, often in caravan-formation with another family in their own car, and drive aways down the highway until somebody decided to pull over. We'd all then begin combing through the woods, looking for the perfect tree. This could take hours and I remember being very cold on occasion. Dad would also pick out three trees for the front yard (he called the three wise guys), and these would be lit up with multicolour outdoor lights. I should add that there was nowhere to buy a tree and nobody, but nobody, had an artificial one. 

Dad dragging the tree to the car after we pose for a photo

Me (age 13) with our new puppy in front of the 'Three wise guys'

Jump ahead to my married life in Ottawa. When our two girls were younger, we would pile into my husband's truck and drive out of the city to a tree farm where Ted and I would troop through the 'woods' to find the perfect tree. We'd bring along some magic carpets or a toboggan for the girls to slide down the slope nearer to the entrance while we carried on our search. Not nearly as wild as going into the deep woods of my childhood, but these aren't available in the populated south. On the way home, we'd stop in one of the villages to have hot chocolate at the Bide A Wee restaurant. We looked forward to this outing every year, and it really was a highlight of the season.

Now, Ted drives to a local farmers' market and buys a tree that I decorate with ornaments that we've collected over our lifetimes. I have a few from my own childhood and ones that our daughters made. Many come from friends whom I think of each time I pull an ornament out of its box. We place the same angel on top even though she's lost her halo, and every year I suggest buying a star topper, and every year Ted vetoes the idea. We string only blue lights on the tree, a nod to my indoor childhood Christmas trees.

We've periodically talked about getting an artificial tree, but so far, neither of us has had the heart to forego on the real deal. The smell of the conifer tree filling our house brings back so many memories, and we're loathe to give this up. I should add that we recycle the tree at the end of the season, something that doesn't happen when an artificial one gets tossed. So, this year, again, our real-tree tradition will continue ...

Last year's tree


Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, November 25, 2022

Ziggy Played Guitar - By Josh Stallings

Q: Fads come and go, as do waves of nostalgia. At the moment, the Aughts (years from 2000 to 2010) are trending. Is there a decade that makes you nostalgic, and why?

A: 1970’s. David Bowie. Disco. Quaaludes. Sexual innocence. Criminal innocence. Taxi Driver. Hunter S. Thompson. And that’s just off the top of my head. 

Casual. The 1970’s were casual and adrenaline soaked. Yin and yang 24/7.

I’m sixteen sitting in the backseat of my brother’s ’67 Firebird watching as he talks to some hard men. I have a .38 in my hand, hammer cocked. If they jump him I’m ready to start shooting. They don’t. We get drunk on 151 laughing about shit that wasn’t funny.

I’m in The City disco, Octavia tells me not to use the men’s bathroom, the women’s is safer. The dance floor stinks of poppers and sex. We all dance our hearts out to Donna Summer. I’m way underage but no one checks. We drink rum and take vitamin Q. 

I wrote Young Americans to pay homage to all that was wild and wonderful in those days. I also wrote it because I missed my friends and running mates, I missed who I was back then - foolish and clumsy and passionate. Writing about it gave me the chance to spend a year playing in those days. 

EQUALLY TRUE FACTS, (or as true as any forty plus year old memories can be) : There were hard brutal days, hangovers painted with regrets. Some friends died from over doses, car crashes, sickness. Some went to jail, some to U.C. Berkeley, I went to LA which felt like a bit of both.

Teenage years, a time where many of us struggled to see where we fit in. To discover our people. Some found an easy circle, play baseball you have an instant team. Theater kids hung. At least that's the John Hughes version of high school. Closer to real life is a venn diagram that our deep friends collide in. That juncture of theater freaks, readers, writers, creatives, stoners, and glitter fans is where I found my people.

I have always fought to be honest about those times. The good the bad and the brilliant. If you’ve ever seen two stoned kids covered in spandex and sparkles turning slowly in the light of a mirror ball, the memory will make your heart soar at the romantic sweet beauty of it. And it will break when you realize that life will never be as magical as it was that one Saturday night.

I don’t always write about other times for nostalgic reasons. The book we’re shopping now is about 1980s LAPD. Not a time I look back on with cultural fondness. But everything in my research pointed to that decade as the epicenter of the militarization of modern police forces. They were dark days for many Angelenos. And when I hear the political rhetoric returning to “hard on crime,” and “war on drugs,” it is important to remind each other how badly that worked out in the past. Three strikes and mandatory sentencing laws destroyed so many lives and made prison construction firms rich. 

See, not nostalgic, but worth typing.

I planned to end this on an upbeat note… oh well… let’s just go back to those kids dancing in the mirrorball’s light and do a slow fade out.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Happy Thanksgiving or Random Thursday (depending), by Catriona

It just so happens that my new book - out next week, details here - is set at this time of year. It opens on Thanksgiving morning in the owners' flat at the Last Ditch Motel, where fish-out-of-water Scot, Lexy Campbell has just committed the sin of suggesting she cut up some fruit in case anyone feels like something fresh for dessert . . .

"Purely because, on the many surfaces around the kitchen there were: a vat of Mexican wedding soup big enough to drown the entire bridal party except that it was so thick everyone could walk across it to the edge of the pot even in stilettoes; two commercial (surely) bakers’ trays of rolls that smelled like cakes and definitely had sugar on the top: three washing-up-basin-sized bowls of alleged mashed potato which were actually cream and melted butter held together with just enough potato starch to mean you’d need a spoon to serve them rather than a jug with a spout; three similarly-sized bowls of mashed yams reeking of what I hoped was nutmeg but feared was cinnamon and topped with full-sized burnt marshmallows i.e. not the dinky ones from cups of cocoa but ones you’d have to bite in half or risk needing a Heimlich if you tried to breathe while chewing; a casserole dish (apparently – my first guess had been paddling pool) of stuffing (apparently – my first guess, having seen the cranberries, walnuts, and orange peel, had been cake-mix); a wheelbarrow without its wheels (Noleen called it a bowl, but seriously) of pure, cheese-topped, butter-slicked extra-thick cream which allegedly had vegetables in it (onions and green beans if you were gullible enough to believe that); five shoe-box-sized tureens full of jam I was supposed to call sauce; and of course a mysterious object roughly the size of a suitcase you'd never be allowed to carry on, which was probably a turkey but couldn’t be identified since every square inch of it was wrapped in bacon and smelled only of maple syrup from the cake crumbs (supposedly breadcrumbs, but I’ve watched every episode of bread week in that tent and this was cake) bursting out of it at both ends like a baking soda volcano.

    So it seemed to me that, if we were going to start with sliceable soup and carry on to whole cakes, crumbled cakes, cheese, butter, cream, marshmallows, jam and maple syrup with some meat and veg thrown on as a kind of garnish, maybe we needed to finish with an alternative to the five pies that were perched all around: on the breakfast bar; on both bar stools; in a trio on the windowsill, on the- Hang on, that’s six. Wait. Pumpkin pie on the breakfast bar, two pecan pies on the stools, a cherry lattice, a chocolate cream and a key lime on the windowsill. Yes, six. No - plus an apple cobbler on top of the microwave. As I was saying, it seemed to me that maybe we needed a lighter alternative to seve- Eight! There was a cheesecake in the dishrack – alternative to eight – Nine! I had just spotted a peach flan by the coffeemaker – alternative to nine pies for pudding."

US pals: I channeled my first impressions from way back in 2010 for this jaded view of tonight's dinner; I'm acclimatised to it now. International pals: I'm not even kidding.

Happy Day, whatever day it is where you are,


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

UPDATED FULL POST - with apologies for the glitch: Checking the Scoreboard with Frank Zafiro

Apologies from Cathy: I managed to cut off a HUGE chunk of Frank's post when I set it up, so here it is its entirety. 

Please find the FULL POST (with Frank's critical LESSONS) below. Cathy (blushing)

In March 2022, I left the coveted position of being a panelist at Criminal Minds. This was part of a larger strategy to carve out more time for new writing. For instance, I resigned from several other groups and even put my podcast on indefinite hiatus.

As part of my departure, I made a bold announcement:  in 2022, I planned to publish 11 novels7 novellasfour short storiesan anthology of short crime fiction, edit the anthology series A Grifter's Song, and put out five box sets.

So, how'd I do? And, more interestingly, did I learn anything along the way?

Let's start with the scorecard (I'm counting scheduled November/December releases, btw).

Eleven novels? Well, I managed to release eight. One was a re-issue, and one was a planned novella that grew to a short novel. For those keeping track, the eight were:

  • The Trade Off (major revision, incorporating it into River City)
  • All the Pieces Fall (SpoCompton #3)
  • The Ride-Along (Charlie-316 #5)
  • All That This Life Requires (Jack MacCrae #2)
  • A Baker's Divorce (as Frank Scalise)
  • The Worst Kind of Truth (River City #11)
  • Live and Die This Way (SpoCompton #4)
  • Double Shifting (Sam the Hockey Player #3, as Frank Scalise)

So, eight isn't eleven, but it is still a pretty good number. I pushed the remaining titles into 2023 and 2024. For instance, my first 2023 release will be on February 14 (Hope Dies Last, a Stefan Kopriva Mystery #4).

All right, how about those seven novellas? Wellllll.... I did mention one became a novel, right? I'm hoping for extra credit there, because I published only two. One was the re-issue of Hallmarks of the Job (a Stanley Melvin PI Story — check out the awesome cover by Zach McCain!), and the other was my literary release A Village of Strangers (as Frank Scalise).

So, two. What about the others? I pushed all of them into 2023. They include two more Stanley Melvin PI Stories, a hockey story, a family generational saga (in short form), and the final episode of A Grifter's Song. My guess? They'll all get done in 2023, unless I push one of the of the Stanleys into 2024.

Four short stories? I actually had five published in 2022. They were:

  • "The Last Cop" (To Serve, Protect, and Write)
  • "The Escape of Jimmy the Saint" (Backroad Bobby and His Friends)
  • "Finding Hiawatha" (A Word Before Dying)
  • "A Hazy Shade of Winter" (Paranoia Blues: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Paul Simon)
  • "One Fine Day" (The Tattered Blue Line: Short Stories of Contemporary Policing)

The last story, "One Fine Day" was part of an anthology that I also edited and published. Anyone who has ever edited an anthology would surely agree there's gotta be some bonus points there, no?  

A Grifter's Song, a novella serial anthology series that I created and edit, did in fact feature seven new stories in 2022 (for season four). I did not write any of them, but I edited all seven. It was a great lineup, too — David Housewright, Gabriel Valjan, Trey R. Barker, Vincent Zandri, Kat Richardson, Paul Garth, and Hilary Davidson. These talented authors put together some incredible episodes. You should give them a read!

Box sets are a bit easier, as they are merely a formatting and publishing venture — the writing work is already finished. I projected that I'd release five. And I released... drum roll, please... three.

This was simply a result of not finishing some of the novels or novellas mentioned above. I group the sets in threes, so until I complete the entry in the series that is number three (or six, nine, etc.), I can't put out the box set. These will come when the corresponding titles are finished.

So, the official scorecard reads: 

  • 8/11 novels
  • 2/7 novellas
  • 5/4 stories
  • 7/7 edited episodes of A Grifter's Song
  • 3/5 box sets
  • Also, 1/1 anthologies edited and published. 
  • Oh, along the way, I managed to get eleven of my audiobooks transferred from Audible exclusive to wide distribution and produce three new ones.

Now, for the important part... did I learn anything?

Boy, did I.

One positive thing I discovered was that working at the pace doesn't mean sacrificing quality. One of my novellas and one of my stories won conference awards in 2022. The majority of the titles released are above four stars on Amazon. Those few that are below are still in the high three-star range, and only have a few reviews (which skews the ratings).

More importantly, I am proud of the work I published. I know I gave every title my best.

But that wasn't the biggest lesson. You see, from March to November, I ran myself ragged. I'm talking standing over myself with a whip, driving myself onward. I wrote in the morning hours. In the afternoon and evening, I edited, marketed, formatted and published, and did all the administrative work that comes with being an independent author.

What happened? Well, you saw the scorecard above, so that's one thing. But something else happened along the way.

I got tired.

Yeah, most of you reading this could have probably told me that was going to happen. And I should've predicted it, too. But sometimes I'm still twenty at heart and overestimate what this fifty-four year-old body can do.

Being tired isn't the only thing that happened, though. Something else did, too.


Well, not nothing. But for all the work I did (and I left out the fact that I had multiple major marketing efforts throughout the past two years), the needle didn't really move this year. At least, not comparatively speaking. The first year of being fully independent resulted in a big jump, but in 2022, my sales plateaued. That's in spite of the additional titles and the sustained marketing.

That frustrated me. 

And a combination of frustration and weariness led me to recalibrate.

Why? Simple—after eight months of hard driving (and seeing sales remain static), I could sense the joy of writing being sapped away. I was too focused on the business, and losing the wonder that comes with this crazy thing we do. 

I did not want that to happen. 

So what does that recalibration look like? It's simple. I decided to ratchet back on my release schedule and just enjoy each new story or book as I worked on it. Revel in the joy of creation rather than fretting about whether I was going to make my self-imposed deadline. And stop worrying about what other people's sales might look like, too.

I learned the timeless lesson that many smarter people before me have learned -- that art is joyous and beautiful, and the business of art sucks.

So, my recalibration is to focus more on the art. I won't abandon the business--that would be more of a heel-turn than a recalibration--but I'm going to put the whip away and just write. I'm going to give myself more lead time on releases so that things aren't as high-pressured. And you know what? I'm going to take some days off here and there.

Of course, I learned some other things, too. Marketing lessons. Reality checks. Things like that. But that's for another post, if ever. Today, let me leave you with the biggest thought in my writing world right now.

It's okay to be prolific. It's okay to write a lot, and publish a lot. But only if you enjoy the pace.

I feel like that guy who decided to run a marathon and tried to sprint the first mile. As I write this, I'm at the end of that exhausting mile. I'm not quitting. But now that I've found a more sustainable pace, I can get back to the marathon.

And enjoy it.

If you're still reading this, thanks for coming along for this part of the journey. I hope to see you further on up the road... where I won't be so out of breath.


Frank Zafiro


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

From Almonds to Cyanide by Gabriel Valjan

Q: Fads come and go, as do waves of nostalgia. At the moment, the Aughts (years from 2000 to 2010) are trending. Is there a decade that makes you nostalgic, and why? 

I can recall phone numbers from decades ago, and recite the schedule and stations for TV shows. I was an Oakland Raiders fan. I remember Jordache, Sassoon, and Vanderbilt jeans. The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first MTV video.


Oh, the minutiae. Oh, the fads caught in the lint trap of memory.


As for the vivid and visceralthe streets scenes in Three Days of the Condor was the New York I knew. Dirty, the city bankrupt and corrupt, the garbage was piled up in the streets for weeks on end. Drugs and sex were negotiated in plain sight in Times Square. The Summer of Sam was as heavy as the humidity. Etan Patz disappeared, while “Reunited” by Peaches and Herb hit #1.


I missed most of the Eighties because I was deep into my studies. I’ve never seen the movie ET. I never saw an episode of Miami Vice until the Aughts. Popular music provided the soundtrack to those years. I can tell you where I was when I heard John Lennon was murdered, when Reagan was almost assassinated, when the Challenger Space Shutter exploded, when the Berlin Wall came down, and when I learned of friends who died at Lockerbie and on 9-11.


I wouldn’t call any of this nostalgia. I’m wary of nostalgia because nostalgia seems like (for most people) a feel-good moment, like some endless loop from Groundhog Day. Emotional warm spots were rare for me because my earlier years were not pleasant. We don’t choose our families, where we were born, or the mindset that accompanies time and place. Through no fault of our own, we are ignorant as children, accepting the environment around us until we either experience something that pierces the veil, or we step away from the known into the unknown. Nostalgia, for me, is about loss. I miss my grandparents because they were only the people I felt safe with as a kid. I associate Sunday mornings and Abbott & Costello on Channel 11 with my grandmother.  


When people talk about the ‘good old days,’ it reminds me of the late Andy Rooney from Sixty Minutes. Life, according to him, was easier ‘back in the day.’ No, it wasn’t. My Shane Cleary Mystery series illustrates just how bad it was for the poor, people of color, women, and LGBT folks. Andy would have you believe his generation sucked it up, stoic as Marcus Aurelius, while they walked all five miles to school, in the snow, uphill and barefoot. The rest of us were whiners.


I live in the present and I look ahead. If and when I look over my shoulder, it is to see the distance I’ve covered. I try not to impose a narrative to make sense of events, especially emotions. The person I was then is not the person I’m now, though the journey was my own and it has made me the person I am today. If there’s a tear, there’s also a smile because I’m grateful for what I had. It’s easy to get stuck in the moment, but I choose not to live there. Nostalgia is sweet as the scent of almonds, seductive, but don’t forget cyanide is fatal.


Live in the Present, grateful.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Be My, Be My Little Baby...

 Q: Fads come and go, as do waves of nostalgia. At the moment, the Aughts (years from 2000 to 2010) are trending. Is there a decade that makes you nostalgic, and why?


-from Susan


Okay, I’ll try to stop laughing. The Aughts were yesterday! How do you become nostalgic for clothing that‘s still in the “new” part of the closet and movies that haven’t even moved to the top of your chronological “must-see” list? I can see bell bottom pants as a nostalgia item, but, please, that was the 1970s. I know. I was there. 


I hate to admit it in writing, but my nostalgia is for the Ronettes and the Wall of Sound, for the Four Tops and Chubby Checkers and Fats Domino and late Everly Brothers early Beach Boys. If those names are an unknown language for you, I pity you. (This is what everyone says about their decade, right?) The songs from that era were core to my intensely felt (if not lived) teen years and I know every lyric and opening chord. It’s amazing that all of that is engraved in my brain somewhere, but not the trigonometry class material from the same time. 


When I was young and impressionable, fashion sucked me in. Short skirts, high white boots, long hair, knee socks, strapless prom dresses – every couple of years, the fashionistas demanded a total new look. At some point it left me behind with a closet full of stuff I didn’t dare wear.


Seriously, I know there are fads even though I’m not on Tic-Toc and so am clueless except for those moments when a Kardashian headline forces itself on me. Let’s face it – I’m so far removed from what catches the attention of those young enough to even follow fads that all I can do is say, “Whatever,” and go back to reading a good book.  Speaking of books, there are definitely fads I’ve noticed in books. Remember the crime fiction books with “Girl” in the title. Yeah, that was a fad. “Memoirs” by under-30s celebrities whose only claim to fame is pushing themselves forward as celebrities. Yeah, that’s a fad. 


Diets are a perennial source of fads. Eat only sardines. Eat only fruit. Never eat fruit. Eat only beef and raw grains. Eat only once a day. Eat five times a day…Screaming headlines that this and only this diet will help you live like an Amazon until you’re 125 years old!


All right, Susan, that’s enough curmudgeonly prose for today. Truth is, fads bore me, but there’s always something wonderful about every decade that makes me grateful. Like this:







Thursday, November 17, 2022

In the Footsteps of Giants

By Abir


From Hemingway’s home in Key West to the train platform at King’s Cross Station, readers love to visit the haunts of their favourite writers and the key scenes from their favourite books. What literary pilgrimage have you made (or would like to make)?



Well what a question this is! Ten out of ten for originality. In the several hundred years that I’ve been a member of this august panel, I can’t remember a question even vaguely like this…which is my way of saying thanks a lot, question setter, for making me have to think.


Where to start?


The first thing to say is I’ve never purposely set out to see some literary site or other. That’s not to say I haven’t seen any. On the contrary, I’ve seen too bloody many.


There are the obvious places – Ann Hathaway’s cottage in Shakespeare country and the Globe theatre in London – not so much a pilgrimage but the sort of thing you’re really forced to do when you live in Britain and foreign friends come to visit. Personally I’m not really one for thatched roofs, squint windows, stairs that look like they might collapse at any minute and an upper storey with such low ceilings that you have to constantly be bent over like that guy from Notre Dame (the cathedral – not the college), but foreigners seem to love all that Merry Olde England crap and frankly who am I to take the bread out of the mouths of the British tourist industry?


Then there are the places one passes pretty much every other week because one lives in a city with a rich literary heritage. I spent two decades living in London, which meant regular trips on the top deck of the bus along Baker Street, past the crowds on the pavement outside the fictional premises of 221B.


There was also the time I considered telling my son that if he ran really really fast at the pillar between platforms 9 and 10 at Kings Cross station that he too would find himself on the fabled platform 9 and three quarters, but my wife decided that was not the act of a caring father. It would have been funny though. 


There are also the places one visits just because one finds oneself in close proximity to them. There was the time I found myself in Philadelphia and of course I, like every other person who’s ever visited, had to run up those steps belting out the Rocky theme. To be fair, the theme had pretty much gone as I wheezed my way up the final few stairs.


Closer to home there’s the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh, where Ian Rankin’s world famous detective John Rebus hangs out. The bar is also where a lot of Mr Rankin’s fan mail gets delivered.


There are probably a dozen or more others that I could come up with if I put my mind to it, but as you’ll have surmised by now, I’m not exactly one to tax the little grey cells when it comes to writing these posts, so let’s just all agree to move on to the next bit.

‘what literary pilgrimage I would like to make’,

And here we come back to more little grey cells – this time those of the most famous fictional detective of all time, Monsieur Hercule Poirot (how’s that for a segue?!) If I were to make a pilgrimage, it would have to be upon the Orient Express, starting in Istanbul and travelling across the old continent in style: first class, all polished walnut and gleaming silver. Now that would be a proper homage, in the style that the little Belgian would have approved of. I suppose if I was very lucky, there’d be a murder on board – something to Ratchett up the tension – and of course, the proprietors of the company, not wishing to draw attention to the death, would ask world famous crime fiction writer extraordinaire (me – I’m talking about me) to solve the crime. An. unlike Poirot, I’d damn well solve it, I wouldn’t cop out and blame everyone and no one, because that’s just cheating. 

But I guess you’re asking, ‘Abir,what if, by some ridiculous twist of fate, you couldn’t solve it? How would you live with the shame?’ Well it’s a fair question, and my answer is I would just have to disappear. I’d wait till we reached Kings Cross station in London, jump off the train and sprint full pelt at the pillar between platforms 9 and 10, because that mythical platform to Hogwarts really is there. You just need to run at that pillar very very fast.



Literary Tourism from James W. Ziskin

From Hemingway’s home in Key West to the train platform at King’s Cross Station, readers love to visit the haunts of their favorite writers and the key scenes from their favorite books. What literary pilgrimage have you made (or would like to make)?

This week’s question is a fun one. Unfortunately, I had a little trouble coming up with a good answer. You see, in general, I’m not much of a fan. I mean that I don’t obsess over actors, singers, or athletes, even if I enjoy movies, music, and sports. Too many famous people have let us down, so I have little interest in worshiping them or their work. Maybe that’s why I’ve never much wanted to visit the places writers frequented or put into their books. Of course if the authors in question are already dead, they can no longer disappoint me. So here we go!


Yes, I’ve had my share of drinks at The White Horse Tavern in the West Village, but not because Dylan Thomas had been a regular there. Rather, it was because I lived only a couple of blocks away on Perry Street and West 4th. (And because they served alcohol...)


I lived and worked in Paris a long, long time ago. One of the greatest tourist visits I ever made during that time was to the Père Lachaise cemetery, located in the twentieth arrondissement. The place is a Mecca for tourists wanting to see the final resting place of so many famous writers, artists, composers, and actors. Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Colette, and Edith Piaf are just a few of the luminaries pushing up the daisies inside the walls of the Père Lachaise. Jim Morrison is buried there, too. It’s moving and humbling to stand above the mortal remains of such legendary talents. Spiritual, too. And I confess it’s also inspirational. The experience made me want to create.


I’ve visited Florence more times than I can remember. From my undergraduate and graduate days, to my time as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana, to the years I worked for a subtitling company with offices there, I’ve had the chance to retrace the footsteps of many famous authors and artists. Dante springs to mind first, of course. His house is in the center of Florence, not far from the Piazza della Signoria, as is the little church where he supposedly worshiped Beatrice from afar. Thanks to my time at NYU, I also spent a summer working at Villa La Pietra, home to the late Sir Harold Acton, who was said to have been the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte. But you don’t need Waugh to inspire you when you’re strolling past the cypress trees and relaxing in the gardens of a fifteenth century villa. The warm summer breezes on your face and the hum of cicadas in your ears will fuel your imagination, filling you with ideas, until—with a perfect Tuscan meal, washed down with a fiasco of Chianti under your belt—you sit down with pen and paper later that evening to write.  

I made great use of my long Florentine experience when writing Turn to Stone, the seventh Ellie Stone book, which came out in 2020. Turn to Stone is set in Florence and Fiesole in September 1963. A rubella scare has left ten friends and colleagues quarantined in a villa high above the city. Trapped with nothing to do but eat, drink, and tell stories, Ellie must decide which of her comrades might be capable of murder.


Yes, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, too. For nearly twenty years. (If you’re counting, these are the cities I’ve resided in for at least a year since leaving home for university at eighteen: Philadelphia, Paris, Grenoble, New York, Los Angeles, Pune (India), Seattle, and Boston.) in L.A. I lived in Hollywood and got to know some of the landmarks in Raymond Chandler’s books, especially those in The Big Sleep. For several years I lived on N. Alexandria Avenue, around the corner from Philip Marlowe’s place in the Hobart Arms on Franklin near N. Kenmore. And I’ve eaten many times at Musso and Frank, which appears in The Long Goodbye, just steps from Marlowe’s nameless office building (said to be the Cahuenga Building) on Hollywood Boulevard.

I wrote many scenes in Cast the First Stone (Ellie Stone 5) with Chandler’s Hollywood Hills in mind. Of course I lived there as well and added my own locations.


Now allow me to indulge myself with two locations in my own books: the fictionalized town of New Holland, NY. I suppose that means I consider myself one of my favorite writers… Never mind that.

New Holland is where Ellie Stone works as a reporter for a daily newspaper, The New Holland Republic. The place is a fictionalized version of my hometown, Amsterdam, NY. I changed the name so I could be spared the chore of getting every minute detail right about the city. But New Holland does sit in the exact same geographical spot as Amsterdam. And many places and names are similar.

Fiorello’s is the ice cream parlor/little store run by Ellie’s best friend, Fadge. It’s based on a real place that served the community for ninety years, Fariello’s, sometimes called Sammy’s. I actually worked there as a soda jerk during my junior and senior high school days. Here’s a photo of Fariello’s, which—alas—has closed.

Then there’s the fictional Tempesta Farm in A Stone’s Throw (Ellie Stone #6). It was based on a historic stud farm called Hurricana, which was located in Amsterdam. But I chose to place Tempesta halfway between New Holland (Amsterdam) and Saratoga Springs due to a plot point. There’s a farm on Route 67 that looked about the right size, so I stuck Tempesta there in my book. My brother and sister-in-law point it out each time we drive past the gently rolling land. “There’s Tempesta Farm!”

This is the site of the fictional Tempesta Farm.

Those are some of my literary pilgrimages. Tell me about some of your own below in the comments.