Friday, August 23, 2019

Words We didn't know!

Writing about the past I have to continually remind myself that people had much bigger vocabularies. They spoke in long, full sentences. My great aunt would never have said “You know” or “like” or described something as “that thing”. They rarely used contractions. I will, not I’ll. I cannot, not I can’t. They read extensively and they used all those words when they spoke. I suppose they had more time. Their lives weren’t as rushed.
I have always considered that I am an educated person and I have a good vocabulary. However I’ve noticed it shrinking recently. Where did I put that thing? John asks. What thing? You know, that thing we brought back from thewhatsit store.  We’ll be down to caveman grunts soon!

So….I have recently subscribed to something called Word Genius. It gives me a new word of the day and I’m embarrassed to say that so far I have known none of them!
Here are some from the past few days:
Esurient.  Do you know what it means? Ten points if you do. It means hungry.
Lambent.   It means glowing softly.
Otiose.  It means useless, pointless.
Gibbous. It means convex, bulgy. A gibbous moon.
Sobriquet… this I was familiar with but don’t think I had ever used it in conversation. It means a familiar form of ones name or a nickname. Lady Georgiana’s sobriquet is Georgie and her brother’s is Binky.
(Actually after the first week I have known most of them so I'm not quite as hopeless as I thought)

I have been surprised throughout my life that I have come across new words to me and have had to add them to my vocabulary. I didn’t know what Nemesis was until I read Agatha Christie.
I knew about zenith but didn’t realize its opposite was a nadir.
Juggernaut was outside my vocabulary until large trucks in England were referred to by that name.
And an ombudsman? What the heck was that when I first read of it in the newspaper. But where on earth did it come from?
Then there are words that I’m always confused about because they sound like the opposite of what they really mean:
Bucolic.  Doesn’t that sound like something nasty? A disease? And yet it means an idyllic country setting, doesn’t it?
Sanguine: another word that sounds nasty. Something to do with a vampire!

So DEAR REDS  do you have large vocabularies? Are you often coming across words you don’t know? And did you know the meaning of those words I shared from Word Genius?

JENN McKINLAY: Well, I thought my vocabulary was pretty good. I knew lambent and sobriquet, but otiose? That's a new one and I love it. So thank you for sharing that, Rhys! I'll try not to wear it out. My mother was a librarian so we were a wordy house. You could never just get a definition out of the woman. It was always a big production to go to the dictionary and look stuff up. Small wonder I became a librarian, too. Back when the NYT Book Review was a weighty insert worth an entire Sunday afternoon, I used to write down any words used in the articles that I didn't know. By the end of the year, I had quite the vocab list. And now I must be off to go sign up for Word Genius!

LUCY BURDETTE: We have the same conversation over and over Rhys. Do you know where that thing is? one of us asks. Use your nouns, John will often say. (Can you see me sticking my tongue out?) My theory is that we have so much stuffed into our heads by now that it takes a while for the brain to grind through and find the right word. But even so I'm going to check out Word Genius too...

HALLIE EPHRON: I frequently trip over unknown words in The New Yorker and in The New York Times. The Times has printed lists of their most frequently looked-up words. One year, the #1 most looked up word: panegyric. #2: immiscible. I don't know what either one means. Most of the rest of the words on their list I know: churlish, risible, anathema...  The word I most often think means the opposite of what it does: nonplussed. Also ingenuous.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Agrarian sounds like it shouldn't mean that, right? I think it should mean angry all the time. Riparian, too. It should be someone in the Rotary Club. I knew most of those Rhys, but I don't use them. (Except for sanguine, which I use all the time, weirdly.) They're like, available words, but I hardly take them out of the cabinet. Knowing them and using them are so different! And when a word sticks out, is that ..a good thing?   Noisome is a frustrating one--and enervate. They should just change the meanings. I found an old notebook I had from collage and I had kept a vocabulary list for myself. One of the exotic words was "ecology." Ah, times do change.

And the noun-loss disease? Seriously, I am so worried about it that I actively try to avoid it.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys! I am now hooked on Word Genius! I played Daily Word until I got to one that completely stumped me--Resfeber! I did guess the correct answer, but it was only through process of elimination. Resfeber is the feeling of excitement before a trip or journey. Who knew? It's a Swedish word, because there is no English word that quite encapsulates the feeling. (There, I used a big word without thinking!) Seriously, English is such a rich and complex language. But I fear our collective vocabulary is shrinking every day. But I don't want to lose mine, and am constantly looking up words when I'm reading books or the newspapers. Shamefully, however, I have to admit that I seldom use a paper dictionary these days--it's so much easier to just type a word into the online one.

HANK: Even easier..I just yelled: 'Hey Alexa, what does immiscible mean?" And she said: "immiscible means the incapability of two things being mixed together."  Whoa.

RHYS: Alexa knows everything! Scary.

So now it's your turn. Do you find your vocabulary is shrinking? Do you find some words that are confusingly different from their meanings?

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Lost Occupations of the 18th Century: a gust blog by Eleanor Kuhns

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Eleanor Kuhns and I have several things in common, which is always nice when you meet a new person. We're both winners of the the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Award. (That never gets any shorter when typing it out,) I've published eight books, and Eleanor has just released her seventh, SIMPLY DEAD. (Since her first book, A SIMPLE MURDER, only came out in 2011, we can see she's made of sterner stuff than I am.) I live in Maine and write about upstate New York, Eleanor lives in upstate New York and writes about Maine. And both our series frequently features weather that can kill you.

There, we part ways, because weather conditions - and illness, and accidents, and childbirth - are so much more dangerous in "the Maine" in the 1790's, where Eleanor's excellent series featuring Will Rees, an itinerant weaver, is set.  I adore historical mysteries, and remain in awe of writers who put in the research time such work requires. One such area of research, as Eleanor explains today, is occupation: what did people do in the late 18th century, and how can a skilled author use them when spinning her tale?

In the Will Rees mystery series, I regularly use several recurring elements. The Shakers, or The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, is one that I return to over and over. I also usually incorporate a disease; they were, of course, much more likely to be fatal in an era before antibiotics.

But the one feature I always include is an occupation from that time period, a different one for every book. People made things then; they had to. And while some of the professions are still around, (think bricklayer or blacksmith), many of the old trades have disappeared.

One of the trades I examine in Cradle to Grave, the third Will Rees mystery, is coopering. Coopering was truly a skilled craft and required a long apprenticeship. In the days before plastic or even metal bins, barrels carried everything. The staves were formed by hand tools and sweated together to make a water proof seal. Before iron bands were used, the hoops were made of wood. In Simply Dead I describe the tools and the process for hoop making.

In Death in Salem, where sailing (either on the merchant ships or on the whale ships) was the number one career, I devote a few paragraphs to rope making and sail making. To construct the thick ropes necessary for the sailing ships, for example, the strands of fiber – either cotton or hemp- were twisted together as the rope maker walked the length of the ropewalk. The building was at least 80 yards (240 feet) long but could be as long as 240 yards (720 feet). The rope maker or his apprentice walked this distance over and over, every day, to make the thick and heavy rope cables required by the ships. (They probably reached 10,000 steps in the first hour.) And the heavy canvas sails for these ships had to be hand sewn.

The kitchen crafts were no less complicated. Take butter. It seems simple enough. Most of us have an image in our minds of a butter churn. But this was not the end of the process. After the butter ‘came’, it was washed and a butter worker, a kind of wooden paddle, was rolled over and over the butter until all the buttermilk had been removed. If this step wasn’t done properly, the butter would quickly go rancid. The butter then had to be salted for storage and crammed into crocks. Besides the churn, at least five other pieces of equipment were required.

Cheese making was an even more demanding job. The milk is heated and when it has reached exactly the right temperature rennet is added. (Rennet is from a cow’s stomach.) Once the milk curdles, the curds are cut into cubes. When they reach the right level of acidity, the whey is poured off. Besides feeding the pigs, whey was used for paint and washing floors.

Every bowl, every strainer, every vat had to be scrupulously clean. To be considered an expert at butter or cheese making, as Rees’s wife is, would be high praise.

Rees himself has a career that was already disappearing. He is a traveling weaver. With the opening up of China and India, and the imported fabrics from the latter especially, women were abandoning spinning and weaving for purchased cloth. The opening of the textile factories in Lowell, Mass in 1816 sounded the death knell for weavers and spinners. Oh, in some parts of the country, particularly the south, hand weaving and spinning hung on. Although there are still weavers and spinners now, it is a hobby instead of a livelihood.

So far, all of the above professions are somewhat familiar to the modern person, even if individually we no longer practice them. But what about those occupations that are no longer practiced or even remembered? What is coppicing? (Answer: A method of woodland management that takes advantage of the tendency of a tree that, when cut, will send out new growth. Once allowed to grow to maturity, these new trunks are cut, and the process begins again.) Or a bodger? (Answer: A chair bodger would purchase a stand of trees, fell just the right ones, and use the wood for chair legs or braces.) Other recognized jobs involved making ladders, rakes, brooms. The Shakers are credited with inventing the modern flat broom, the sales of which became a major source of income because it was so much more effective than the round one.

The inclusion of these past occupations add color to the setting. But the most important reason I include them is to honor these craftspeople who built the world with their hands.

JULIA: Dear readers, what are the occupations long gone that fascinate you?  Would you be a carder, or a bookbinder, or a chandler? A coachman or a mantuamaker? And what do you think are the jobs of today that will disappear into the mists of time?

About SIMPLY DEAD: 1790s, Maine. In the depths of winter Hortense, a midwife, disappears after attending a birth in the woodlands. During the search Will Rees finds her struggling through the snow and woods without shoes or a coat. 

After two young men begin stalking the community in search of her – including targeting Rees’s own family – she is questioned further and claims she was kidnapped . . . but Rees and his wife Lydia are suspicious. It is agreed Hortense’s presence is endangering everyone’s safety and she needs to leave. As the arrangements are made she is hidden in Zion, the local Shaker community, only while there a Shaker Sister is murdered. Witnesses describe a man fitting Josiah Wooten’s description, a ferocious man living in the woods with two young sons.
What is the truth behind Hortense's disappearance, and who is responsible for the death of the Shaker Sister?

You can find out more about Eleanor Kuhns at her website, and read excerpts from the Will Rees series at Macmillan. You can friend Eleanor on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @EleanorKuhns.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Ghosts in the Layers?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It's tempting, isn't it? To think of who has been the same places you've been, in the past, and waaaaay in the past? It crosses my mind whenever I walk on Boston Common, or go to Lexington and Concord,  or stroll down the street in Salem. You cannot tell me the present is all that's--present.

Our dear friend of the Reds Jeannette DeBeauvoir has been thinking just the same thing. 

The Ghosts in the Layers
By Jeannette deBeauvoir

I walk down Commercial Street—which here in Provincetown is our Main Street—and I think about what I’m seeing. I pass Lewis Brothers’ Ice Cream, and smile at the memory of my stepdaughter working there when she still lived with me. 

I stop in to East End Books for a lively conversation with my friend Jeff. I might go to the Portuguese Bakery for a decadent pastry—bittersweet memories, those, of breakfasts with my ex-husband. I have to go see Chomo at her Himalayan shop and find out what’s on sale. I’ll check out what Nan or Deborah put in the window at the venerable Provincetown Bookshop. If it’s a nice day, I might treat myself to a Bulgarian salad that I’ll take out on the pier and eat while watching the harbor. I’ll end up at the post office and have at least two conversations and three dog-petting sessions there. As I walk, I say hello to a lot of people; those of us who live year-round in this tourist destination pretty much know each other, at least by sight. 

And as I do all this, I realize that what I’m seeing is just a small slice of this street. I’m seeing what’s relevant to my life.

Which means I’m missing rather a lot.

I’ve talked a lot about the importance, to me, of using place when writing fiction, of populating one’s books with real shops and restaurants and streets and people. But it’s only recently that I’ve begun to think about the layers that exist everywhere, layers certain people see and others don’t. 

Commercial Street also has smoke shops, leather shops, bars, clothing stores, sex shops, antiques and home d├ęcor… I know they’re there, but they don’t really register. I don’t have a reason to go in, or a memory to attach to them. And what that means is readers of my Provincetown mystery series aren’t really experiencing Provincetown, are they? They’re experiencing my experience of Provincetown, and everybody’s mileage varies.

When I start thinking like that, I feel my head might explode.

To complicate things even more, there are ghosts that live in those layers, faces and voices and memories of people and things that are no more. I already mentioned two of my own: the ghost of my former marriage, the ghost of my stepdaughter handing out ice cream cones. There’s the memory of the old gatehouse at the Murchison estate, now replaced by something modern and forgettable; the real soda/malt shop with a long shiny counter that used to be part of Adams’ Drugstore; the horse farm over on Nelson that’s now condos.

Provincetown has more than its share of real ghosts, too, as we remember a time when men came here to die of an alienating plague; back then, there was a new funeral every week. Or we can listen to the wind that whispers over the dunes, reminding us of all the shipwrecked victims who died on our shores when the Cape was still the Atlantic’s favorite graveyard. 

Marc Cohn might have seen the ghost of Elvis when he was walking in Memphis; I strive to see the ghosts of my literary predecessors here, of Edna St. Vincent Millay scratching away in a cold attic room, of Eugene O’Neill staging plays on Lewis Wharf, Tennessee Williams at the Little Bar of the Atlantic House, Norman Mailer roaringly drunk and brawling with fishermen, John Dos Passos decrying war in three volumes of work. I don’t even expect most people are looking for the same ghosts as I am!

These thoughts could rapidly become paralyzing, as you can well imagine.

Of course, realistically, my perspective is valid. It’s the perspective I’ve given to my protagonist, Sydney Riley, who is actually quite a lot like me in ways both comfortable and distressing. But I also wonder if I have a responsibility toward those other layers, those other ghosts. Am I being honest in not including them? Yet how can I access things I don’t know about?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. Do you?

The one thing I know I can do is keep some of it alive. Honor some of the people who lived and died here and whose lives were so meaningful to the town. Ellie, the transgender woman who used to—at age 78—belt out Frank Sinatra in front of town hall.

 Richard Olson, the historian, who for decades sat at the bar at Napi’s and dispensed amazing wisdom. Tim McCarthy, activist, who was never without his video camera, documenting life. Names that in another ten years will have disappeared from memory, because they weren’t famous anywhere but here. But they were part of here, and so in my latest mystery, A Killer Carnival, Ellie is remembered; it’ll be Richard’s turn for my November release, The Christmas Corpses. And perhaps someone will pick up the book and muse, “yeah, right, I remember Richard! Gosh, I’d forgotten all about him.”

And maybe somewhere Richard will be smiling.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I'm sure that's true! And lovely to think about. And yes, we can honor them through our writing ,and our reading, as well. 

I know we've talked about "ghosts" before. But even if you haven't encountered them personally, where are places you've gone where you think they might still be?

Jeannette de Beauvoir writes mysteries and historical fiction, sometimes intersecting the two. A Killer Carnival, Book Four of the Sydney Riley Provincetown mystery series, is just out, as Ptown’s Carnival parade starts with a bang—literally. More about her at

(PS from Jeannette: Just as a postscript, as I was writing this article, Atlas Obscura popped up in my inbox inviting readers to share a real place they’d discovered through a work of fiction. Timing is everything! You can see them all here.)