And a Full Scottish Breakfast

10 Nov

Now that The Gate House is to be re-released, I have been thinking about how that book came to be. I had always enjoyed writing, and had a few small things published, but didn’t take myself seriously as a writer. And like many people, I had it in the back of my mind that I would like to write a book.

I had created the character of Nara, along with her father, in another unfinished story. When my husband and I visited England in 2004, we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Spalding, Lincolnshire, called the Gate House, so named because historically it was a stopping point on the railroad. The house intrigued me, as well as the cathedral in the city of Lincoln nearby. I could imagine a story taking place involving those two locations. 

Spalding is a relatively small market town in Lincolnshire. Historically it has been a center of tulip growing and has close ties to Holland. Author Margaret Dickinson has written several novels set in the area, including The Tulip Girl. The river Welland runs through the town, creating a beautiful space for walking and biking. In my novel, Nara’s new romantic interest, Alex Collier, lives in a house facing the river, and the two met on the path that runs along the river and through the town. I also set some scenes in the book in the historic church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, built in the late thirteenth century. Since the story involves thefts of artifacts from historic places, this was a perfect setting for these nefarious activities. 

While staying at the Gate House, we were treated to a full Scottish breakfast. There is a slight difference from a full English breakfast, but the owner of the bed and breakfast was Scottish, so that was what he made for us. It consisted of eggs, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and black pudding. The black pudding, which is traditionally made with pork blood, is what makes it Scottish, or so our host told us. I didn’t eat any, no offense to my Scottish ancestors.

I visited Spalding again the following year on a research trip to the area as I was completing my book. I did not, unfortunately, stay at the Gate House again, as it was too far out of town and I didn’t have a car. But just being there gave me more opportunity to get a feel for the area, which is important to me in creating the setting of a story. 

The characters have become so real to me after three completed novels, and one more almost completed. I feel as if I could go to Spalding or Lincoln and meet one of them on the street. 

Full Scottish breakfast below.

Grocery Tourist

25 Sep

One of my favorite things to do when I am traveling is to visit grocery stores and food markets. I love looking at the different foods that are available, how they are displayed for purchase, the differences and similarities with foods I am used to at home. I notice differences in grocery stores even in different states within the US. Costco in Anchorage, Alaska is a world unto itself, with its “Alaska sized” coffee roaster. The selection of pastas, tomato sauces and other Italian foods in Philadelphia is huge compared to what we find in North Carolina. 

Since I am working on a book set in Spain right now, I found a photo I took on my last visit to Spain of the colorful spices for sale in the Santa Catarina Market in Barcelona. Santa Caterina Market was built in 1845 as a venue for the working people of the neighborhood. It was built on the former site of the Convent of Santa Caterina. During the period following the Spanish Civil War, when much of the country suffered from severe food shortages, Santa Caterina became the main food supplier to the towns on the outskirts of Barcelona, as people traveled into the city on the tram to buy food in this market.

Zoom in on the photo and enjoy the photos of the spices. The names are listed in English as well as Spanish and Catalan. 

Browsing in a Bookstore — Yes! Really!

8 Sep

Is there anything more pleasurable than browsing in a bookstore? I have always loved the feeling of turning my head sideways to look at the books on the shelf in a bookstore or library. And how about this? Half an hour with the bookstore to yourself to browse to your heart’s content, after you put on your mask and gloves of course. 

My favorite used bookstore, Golden Fig Books in Durham, North Carolina is doing just that. You can sign up for a half an hour time slot online. Members of one household are then welcome to browse in the store for thirty minutes.

My husband and I arrived promptly at the beginning of our allotted time, and after sanitizing our hands and donning the gloves they provided, we headed into the book selection. I wandered from popular fiction to mysteries to historical fiction to memoir, before finally settling to make a choice. We both ended up purchasing used books, so we didn’t spend much. Golden Fig also has a good selection of new arrivals available if you can’t wait for the latest books to appear on the used shelves.

I chose The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard, a novel about the young women employed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II at the pilot plutonium and uranium enrichment plant built as part of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic bombs.

The name of the store, Golden Fig, comes from the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. According to the store’s website, there is a point is the story “where the main character is comparing life to a fig tree. Every branch symbolizes a different path she can choose to take, and each fig represents a different career or destination.” I love the symbolism of the fig tree and the life choices it represents, and also the vast choices we face whenever we browse in a bookstore. I read The Bell Jar a few years ago when I realized that although I knew who Sylvia Plath was and had read a biography and some of her poetry, I had never read her most famous book. Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. It is a sad semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s slide in mental illness, but riveting and thought-provoking.

We celebrated our outing and our purchases by stopping next door at Guglhupf Bakery from some sweet treats to take home. Food and books make for such a great pairing!

It’s amazing how special these little adventures are when we haven’t had the opportunity to go out much in the last few months. I am really pleased that places like Golden Fig are finding creative ways to open to customers.

Sirius Black thinks a book makes a great pillow.
Link

Chasing Art Thieves

25 Aug

All my novels in the Nara series, including the newest one, deal in some way with crimes involving art. Hotel Saint Clare refers to the art collection of the hotel owner for whom Nara works after leaving her teaching job. In The Gate House, centuries old pieces, including stained glass windows stolen from local churches, are hidden in the basement of the bed and breakfast where Nara lives with her family. In Lydia’s Story, we go back to World War II when Nara’s great-grandmother Lydia Roberts helped smuggle Jewish children across the border from France to safety in Spain. And pieces of art belonging to Jewish families, stolen by the Germans, are still being returned to their rightful owners.

In my newest novel, tentatively titled Sacrifice, Nara and Alex travel to Spain to bring back notebooks belonging to artist Felicia Browne, who died in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They also discover an art smuggling operation going on in the Spanish town where they visit.

I love reading about art crimes, whether they are true accounts or fictionalized. One of my favorite non-fiction books is I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger by Frank Wynne. This remarkable book tells the story of Han van Meegeren, a second rate Dutch painter who became a hero of the art world when he painted fake Vermeers which he then passed on to the Germans as the real thing. Ordinarily, the Dutch people would be horrified at someone created fake Vermeers, but when it was done to put one over on the Nazis, van Meegeren was sentenced to just a year in prison for forgery.

An excellent novel about art theft is Pictures at an Exhibition by Sarah Houghteling. This fascinating story, based on fact, is set in Paris during World War II, and tells the story of a son’s quest to recover his family’s treasures which were looted by the Nazis during the occupation. It also brings to light the story of Rose Valland, a French art historian and member of the French Resistance. She secretly recorded details of the Nazi thefts of national French and private Jewish-owned art from France, saving thousands of works of art. As she listed the paintings for the meticulous, record-keeping Nazis, she hid from them the fact that she understood German and kept copies of the lists for herself.

Another great non-fiction book about art crimes is Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John SchiffmanWittman is the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, and had an amazing career recovering millions of dollars’ worth of stolen art and artifacts from around the world. His recoveries run the gamut from Rembrandts to a lock of George Washington’s hair, stolen by a janitor who thought no one would miss it. 

While we are unable to visit art museums right now, although some in Europe have reopened with special tour protocols, reading about the art world can at least keep up our interest level and increase our knowledge. Art is a precious part of culture, from whatever part of the world it originates. It reflects our history, and how creative people of the past and present have seen our world.

 

 

A Bookstore a Month

10 Aug

 

I started out with a grand plan to visit a new bookstore or library each month of 2020. We all know how that worked out.

My bookstore for January was McIntyre’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a lovely independent bookstore with a huge mystery section. I was even able to participate in an author’s event and have some of my books for sale on the Sisters in Crime table. And I highly recommend the Belted Goat next door for a delightful, casual lunch, when we can go to restaurants again.

February was a bonus. I traveled to Los Angeles and stopped in at the public library in Hawthorne, California on a morning walk from my son and daughter-in-law’s house. Later our whole Los Angeles gang went to Skylight Books in the Los Feliz neighborhood. This relatively small store contains a wide selection of literary fiction, books on music, art, film and theatre. I loved browsing their shelves of Los Angeles regional culture and history.

We followed our visit to Skylight Books with a visit to Figaro Bistro down the street for afternoon pastries and ice cream.  And since we were on vacation, we meandered on down Vermont Avenue to the Yque Tshirt shop. Hey! That’s what you do on vacation!

Before returning home, we made a repeat visit to The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, one of my favorite bookstores. It is one of the largest independent bookstores in the world. This amazing store has everything, including nooks and crannies and a rabbit warren floor plan that just makes you want to get lost, or maybe spend the night. This gigantic store contains 250,000 new and used books on two floors, and includes an Arts & Rare Book Annex, thousands of vinyl records as well as graphic novels.

So, what makes a good bookstore? I love surprises. It might be the architecture and design. I love being able to wander from room to room, making discoveries as I go. This is also true of City Lights in San Francisco, another favorite of mine. Organization is important, but not too much. I like the categories to be clearly labelled so if I want to browse mysteries or cookbooks or books translated from Spanish, I can find them. Friendly, helpful staff definitely make for a good bookstore. But not too friendly and helpful. I need to spend time alone among the books.

I am dreaming of the day I can continue my exploration of bookstores in person. Maybe next year I will aim for two per month.

I will end with a short list of a few of my other favorites, just in case you want to check them out, or at least look at their websites.

The Strand, New York City

Title Wave Books, Anchorage, Alaska

Tattered Cover, Denver, Colorado

Golden Fig, Durham, North Carolina

Malaprop’s, Asheville, North Carolina

Foyle’s, London, UK

Is It Breakfast?

24 Jul

This is a “taste” of what’s to come in my next novel, tentatively titled Sacrifice.

In her first breakfast in Spain, Nara Blake enjoys a chocolate croissant and café con leche for breakfast. Maybe not what super health conscious people would consider a good breakfast, but she is on vacation. Sort of. That’s about the only time I eat chocolate croissants. And meals in Spain are very different from what we are accustomed to in the United States.

Breakfast, or “desayuno,” is usually just as I described, a pastry of some sort, and coffee.

Croissants, which originated in Austria but achieved huge popularity in France, are popular in Spain as well. They are made of a light, flaky dough into which butter has been folded, something like a puff pastry.

You wonder why I am telling you all this, when croissants are quite common in the United States. Even Burger King makes a croissant sandwich. At least I think so. I haven’t been to a Burger King in decades.

But croissants in Europe aren’t the same. European croissants are smaller. You know how we tend to want everything super-sized in the U.S. European croissants contain less sugar and more butter, making them lighter and flakier, and less sweet than those on this side of the Atlantic.

That being said, authentic croissants can be found in this country, if you visit an authentic French bakery. And sadly, many places in France have started using pre-made frozen croissants which they simply bake up in the morning. 

The chocolate ones are referred to as “pain au chocolate.” Literal translation – bread with chocolate.

But back to Spain. “Desayuno” is not meant to be a breakfast to get you through a day of physical labor. But not to worry. The Spanish traditionally have a break in late morning for “almuerzo.” In Latin America, “almuerzo” refers to lunch as we know it, but historically in Spain, this is a small meal before the major afternoon meal. Yes, you read that right, a meal before a meal. This can be a time for “tapas” or small plates, although tapas are also popular in the late afternoon. It could be a “tortilla,” which in Spain is like an omelet with potato and onion. 

So Nara and her husband Alex enjoyed their croissants for “desayuno,” before strolling around the village and then stopping for a little “almuerzo” before they go to meet the priest who will hand over the notebooks of a British artist who died in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

I am looking forward to the day I can travel to Spain again – more delicious food, more adventures, more ideas for fiction. Until then, back to the work of writing.

Loving Art Museums

27 Nov

In my newest novel featuring protagonists Nara Blake and Alex Collier, they work at the Tate Britain, one of the foremost art museums in London. This is a natural and fun setting for me, since I love visiting art museums. I overdid it a bit on my last trip to the Netherlands, and visited four art museums in six days — the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and two in the Hague, Mauritshaus and Gemeentemuseum. Whew!

I have visited a number of prominent art museums and galleries in Europe and the U.S., but have also found hidden gems in small towns and other out of the way places. I love the Museum of Costa Rican Art in San Jose with its exhibits of works by Latin American artists, and the Collection Museum in Lincoln, UK, formerly the Usher Gallery. I especially liked the depictions there of the “Lincoln imp,” the symbol of that city since the Middle Ages. Even my hometown of Newton, Illinois has a small museum attached to the public library.

In my newest novel, tentatively titled Sacrifice, Nara and Alex work as art historians at the Tate. They travel to Tardienta, Spain when the museum is contacted about a notebook belonging to artist and activist Felicia Browne, a British woman who was killed there during the Spanish Civil War.

During the next few months, I plan to blog about museums I visit, as well as bookstores and libraries, my other favorite places.

Below, viewing Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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With all the visits I have made to art museums, I have come up with a few tips for a more enjoyable visit.

  1. Take your time. You can’t see and appreciate everything, especially in a very large museum. Maybe set a time limit.
  2. When you walk into a room, stop and look around. What piece draws you? Why?
  3. If there is a piece that you particularly want to see, look at the map and determine which room it is in. If it is a very famous piece, like Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” in Amsterdam or Picasso’s “Guernica” in Madrid, the room will be crowded. Relax and take your time. You are in a room full of art lovers.
  4. Take a few photos if it is allowed. Often they are allowed as long as you don’t use flash. Photos will serve as good reminders of what you saw. But don’t let taking photos replace appreciating the art with your own eyes.
  5. If you are feeling overwhelmed, or just want more information, consider a guided tour. You sometimes have to pay a little bit; sometimes not. The guides are normally very knowledgeable and will point out details most of us would not have thought to look for.
  6. Lastly, have a snack, or lunch. Most larger art museums have wonderful restaurants, and it’s fun eating in the atmosphere of art. My best meals (that I can think of off the top of my head) were in the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Prado in Madrid. And in my own hometown, the Nasher Museum at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina has a wonderful Sunday brunch.

 

 

 

My Life as a Reader

31 Jan

I remember my mother telling me when I was about seven, “You can read any book in this house.”

The books in our house were my dad’s history and science related books from Book of the Month Club, and my mom’s books about having and raising children and lives of saints and other holy people.

I read them all. I remember reading in one of the child related books about missing periods when a woman was pregnant, and wondering what the heck that meant, but I didn’t ask. On my dad’s side, I read Kon-Tiki and studied the descriptions of plants and animals in a nature encyclopedia.

An incident in second grade illustrates my devotion to reading. There was a small library in the back of the classroom. I had found a book that contained a story of a trio of girls who had a treehouse. I loved the story so much, I continued to read it during music class, holding the book beneath my desk. And of course my teacher, Sister Mary Siena, caught me and took the book away. Busted. In front of the entire class. But I wanted to read the book! A treehouse! Think about it! At the end of the school day, I took the book from the shelf again and brazenly approached the teacher. “May I check this book out and take it home to read?” She replied, “Do you think I should let you?” The book! The book! “Yes,” I answered. I checked it out. It was all worth it. I still love treehouses. And books.

Fast forward many years later, as a parent and a teacher. “Read what you want to read. Just read. Think.”

It’s all worth it.

Newest generation picking out a book.

Browsing for a good book.

 

Reading about the Hard Things When You are Young

11 Jan

 

I just finished reading Ashes to AshevilleAshes to Asheville by Sarah Dooley. It is a Young Adult novel dealing with the “hard things.” It is told from the point of view of Fella, a twelve year old girl whose mother has recently died of cancer. That is, one of her mothers. Mama Lacy and Mama Shannon were a couple, and mothers to Fella and her sister Zany, although they were not able to marry legally in West Virginia when the story took place. So Fella is not only dealing with the death of her mother, but has been sent by the court to live with her biological grandmother, Mrs. Madison.

Fella misses both her mothers and her sister, and Mrs. Madison is a more formal, worrisome lady who loves Fella, but doesn’t show it in the way the girl is accustomed to.

When Zany shows up at Mrs. Madison’s house late at night, she only means to take the urn of Mama Lacy’s ashes and take them to Asheville, the home they loved, and scatter them. But Fella wakes up, and she and the dog Haberdashery end up with Zany on a wild ride from West Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina. Along the way, they meet Adam, who is trying to get to the hospital where his father is near death.

This may seem to be a lot of death to deal with for a young reader, but I came away with the feeling that the story was less about death, and more about love. Isn’t it every child’s greatest fear that a parent will die? (I almost used the euphemism “something will happen,” but opted for honesty.)

At twelve years old, Fella has survived six months without one mother, and sees the other only occasionally. The wild ride to Asheville, and the panic it causes when Mrs. Madison and Mama Shannon report them missing, shows Fella who and what are most important in her life, and gives her the courage to speak up.

So the story is about love and courage, valuable characteristics for a young reader to develop. Even children much younger than twelve know that bad things happen. It is not our job as adults to protect them so much as teach them — teach them courage, give them love. Be with them in honesty.

Fella is part of a non-traditional family dealing with hard things. But she is a role model for any child because she is real.

Get a copy of Ashes to Asheville and read it, no matter how old you are. I would love to hear what other people think.

30 Minutes of Quiet

4 Jun

Often the most difficult part of writing is allowing myself to slow down and listen for the ideas. Although writing ideas can come from news items, conversations, and experiences, a story still requires some quiet contemplation to develop. At least for me it does.

I’ve been trying a new technique recently that I call “sprint thinking.” (The name comes from “spring writing” that I sometimes do with friends.) For sprint thinking I take half an hour, set the timer on my phone, then put the ringer on silent and turn it face down. I have my paper journal notebook and a pen in hand, and that’s it. I sit, look at the trees out my window, watch the birds. No turning over the phone to see how much time has elapsed. If an idea or thought comes to me that is worth writing down, I write it down, but I don’t force it.

Thirty minutes of quiet passes more quickly than you might think. But you have to allow yourself to slow down, and let your imagination take over. Maybe not a bad idea for non-writers as well. We could all use some slowing down.

A few more basic rules for spring thinking: something hot or cold to drink and a snack are allowed; if the phone buzzes, you may check to see who called or texted, but don’t answer unless it’s urgent. And think carefully about what “urgent” really means.

Sprint think. Try it. I would love to hear how it works for you. Below is a photo of the view from my deck, where I do a lot of sprint thinking.

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