Friday, January 31, 2014

Walking in the Footsteps of History

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: First order of business — hearty congratulations to dear Reds Rhys Bowen, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Julia Spencer-Fleming for being nominated for the Agatha Award, given by Malice Domestic. Kudos and huzzahs, ladies!

This week I'm living two novels at once. I'm doing the final copyedit of the page proofs of THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT, which has coincided with a trip to Arlington, Virginia and Washington, D.C., researching the next novel in the Maggie Hope series, THE FIRST LADY'S CONFIDANT.

Whenever it's at all possible, I love to travel to the places I write about, and walk the actual footsteps of the characters. Since THE FIRST LADY'S CONFIDANT takes place in D.C. and Virginia, during Winston Churchill's trip to North America just after Pearl Harbor, I'm visiting as many places as possible that he and his staff went.

One of those places is Christ Church in Arlington, Virginia, where Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt, and Mrs. Roosevelt all went to to commemorate World Day of Prayer for Peace on January 1, 1942.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day (although cold!). Christ Church is an Episcopalian Church and is also known as George Washington's church. It was finished in 1773 by James Wren in what's knows as the "Colonial style."

The door was open, and I was lucky enough to have the place to myself (along with the ghosts of history).

I sat for a long time in one of the pews, just taking everything in. The light was different from most of the churches I've been to in the UK — the glass is clear, not stained. The confederate graveyard behind the church was visible from the windows, and you could hear the rustling of dead leaves in the wind.

[Anyone looking at my photos would be perplexed, as I often take pictures of small details. I always take pictures of floors, imagining how shoes of the period would sound. (Those are my warm winter boots with rubber soles and wide treads, definitely not what Eleanor Roosevelt would have been wearing!) ]

The highlight of the visit was finding pew #59, George Washington's family pew, and also where the Prime Minister, President and First Lady sat. 

Like Goldilocks, I tried all three seats, each marked with a silver plaque.

And, of course, I had to sit in Mr. Churchill's seat. 

When I did, what a surprise! The poor P.M., although in one of the most respected seats in the church, had a view mostly blocked by one of the white columns.

I make no promises as to whether a scene in this church will actually be written, let alone make it into the book (although I'm thinking it will, along with Mr. Churchill complaining afterwards about the pillar). But I can promise you that it makes it all the more real to me — which I truly hope makes it all the more vivid to you, the reader.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Keep Calm and Read On

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: This photograph is of intrepid readers at a recently bombed Holland House, in Kensington, London, England, during World War II. It may or may not have been staged for British propaganda purposes, but the spirit of the British during the war — as well as the tenacity of readers even (perhaps especially) in hard times is unmistakable.

I love this photo, for so many reasons, but probably most because reading is what's helped me through so many challenging times. And books aren't illegal, immoral, or fattening! (Although often best enjoyed with a glass of wine or a cookie, in my opinion....)

For me, it's not just reading during these times, but rereading — comfort reading, in other words. Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, anything by Alice Hoffman, anything by Laurie Colwin, early Ken Follett.... And so-called children's books — by Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, Frances Hodgeson Burnett, and Louisa May Alcott — are standbys as well.

I'm assuming if you're reading this blog, books are important to you as well. What books to you turn to in times of crisis? What do you consider "comfort reading"? What books do you read again and again?

Please share in the comments section — we'd love to know!

Photograph reprinted with permission of English Heritage.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Can you pass up a free drink?

Congratulations to our very own:

  • Rhys Bowen, Heirs and Graces, nominated for The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award
  • Susan Elia MacNeal, His Majesty's Hope, ALSO nominated for The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan, The Wrong Girl, nominated for The Squid: Best mystery set within the United States 
And now, back to our regular program...
HALLIE EPHRON: So I am embarrassed to tell you this (but it's not going to stop me from telling). I ended up with a 'free drink' coupon on a recent flight. Airplane leaves at 10 AM, arrives at 2:30. I am so not interested in wine, beer, and certainly not a single of vodka with the nice corn beef sandwich I picked up at TFI Friday's in the airport. But I am constitutionally unable to turn down a free drink.
So I get a beer. "No glass please, and don't open it." And take it home with me.

I also end up with free snacks (Jet Blue) lining my purse because I take one even when I don't feel like eating it.

This seems crazy, like I'm turning into my aunt who used to clean out the bread basket after a restaurant meal. She'd carried a little plastic bag in her purse and dump the remaining bread into it (while I hid under the table). Her excuse was that she grew up in the Depression. So what's mine??

Can you pass up a freebie?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, my gosh .We are the same person. EXACTLY what I would have done. And I take the free nuts on JetBlue "for later." Here's my rationale. I mean--it's ours. So why should they tell us when to  have it?

Yeah, and that's why they've kind of stopped the "All you can eat" salad bars and dinner bars. Because people would feel compelled to take SO MUCH FOOD since it was free-ish. So now they call them--have you noticed this?--"all you care to eat."

I also take the tea bags out of my hotel room every day so they will leave me new ones. I can't believe I'm confessing this. (I do not take the coffee or little packs of Sweet and Low, however.") I don't take the soap anymore. at least. Unless it's really good soap.

HALLIE: Laughing, Hank! I'm trying to get my husband to STOP taking the soaps and shampoos. Running upstairs right now to show you why...

RHYS BOWEN: I confess to taking the soaps and shampoos (when they are good, as in Marriott) because I've paid for them and I put them in my guest basket at home. But I don't do the free drink coupons on planes, even though Southwest gave me a whole bunch once, but I always seem to be flying early morning and I don't want to arrive not at my scintillating best.

I was brought up in those lean post war years and we simply didn't waste food, so I hate going to restaurants and having to leave half the portion on my plate. But I can't take it with me when I'm on the road. So I usually end up just having the appetizer these days. But at home I'm not too proud to ask for a doggy bag, even at the fanciest restaurants.  Of course the fancier the restaurant, the tinier the portion...

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I stopped taking the free shampoos for the guest bathroom because I got tired of cleaning them out of the storage basket a year later and throwing them away...

Hallie, giggling at you.  I can't take a free drink home with me from the plane because I don't drink beer, and I think on the mixed drinks they just pour you something. I will take food home in a "doggie" box if it's something that will reheat, because I can almost never eat a whole portion. Like Rhys, I often just get an appetizer when traveling.

And Hank, I do the same thing with the hotel tea bags!LUCY BURDETTE: Tee hee, no beer, no tea bags, no hotel shampoos. I guess I'm the spendthrift in the bunch! I will take doggie bags though, definitely. Then we fight over who gets the good stuff for lunch.

: I can't believe I've fallen in with other women who take the tea bags in order to get more. Also, the little Sweet-n-low packs, because they never have enough in those in the hotel coffee machine tray.

I have stopped taking the little shampoos and soaps, in part for Debs' reason - they really build up fast!- and in part because I'm always carrying my luggage aboard and bagging the wee liquids for the TSA check is a PITA.

However! For those of you who can't pass them up, I have a great way to get them out of your bathroom: homeless shelters, women's shelters and food banks can all use them for their clients.
As for the general concept of passing up a freebie... I'm getting a lot better at just saying no. Do I need it? Do I want it? Will I use it? If I can't answer yes to all three, then I'll leave the freebie on the table.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Free shampoo? Yes, because we give it to a local women's shelter. Doggie bags? Yes, isn't it always better the next day? Tea bags? No. But I was raised by depression-era parents, so even if that's not my generation per se, I'm very careful with things. I darn socks!

HALLIE: Susan, you DARN SOCKS?! I find this more impressive than writing a novel.

So here's our Jungle Red Cheapskate's Challenge...

Do you 

__ Take home leftovers?
__ Take hotel shampoos?
__ Take hotel teabags?
__ Take Sweet 'n' Lo packets?
__ Darn socks?
And finally, do you find you are
__ Unable to pass up a free drink or bag of Terra Blues?

What would you add??

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I hear Music but there's..

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Okay, am I old? I mean, I'm not old. I worked for Rolling Stone Magazine in the 70's, and yes it was the political unit, not the music unit, but hey, I knew ALL about music. At that time, I swore I would always stay current with the latest "hits" (are they still called that?) But alas, that did not happen.

We just got a new car, and the salesperson said--let me pre-set your radio stations. What stations do you listen to?  I said, uh, well, NPR, whatever that is. And uh, um, well. (Jonathan and don't really listen to the radio, we talk to each other. When I'm driving by myself, I look at it as a time to think in silence. I didn't tell the salesperson that.).

 No problem, she said. Here's your satellite radio. What music programs do you want? Um, I said. Is there a Paul Simon Station?

Then she said--there's a wonderful station with music from the forties.

Ah. Oh dear.

So the other night we were watching the Grammys. Some of it was terrific, even though I'd never heard a lot of the songs before--are they still called songs? Talent is talent, and there was a lot of that there.

Questions I have: Was Pink actually singing while she was doing that act? Was Beyonce actually singing while she was doing that act? Taylor Swift's dress was fabulous, but can she sing without doing that with her hair? How come the men all had on lots of clothes, but the women didn't?

I confess we turned it off to watch Downton Abbey, then turned back at 11 (in time to see the robots and the guy in the hat) because we knew we'd fall asleep in Sherlock and will watch that today.

::Shaking head.::  Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear...  (Please tell me you get that allusion.)

How about you, Reds? Music? Grammys? Radio?

HALLIE EPHRON: Oh, Hank, I am so happy to hear you say this. Pink??? I do know who Beyonce is. Ditto Taylor Swift. But that's how big they have to be to penetrate my consciousness.

Our radio is tuned to 3 NPR stations -- 2 that are mostly talk and news and wonderful weekend game shows (Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!) and the other one is classical music. That is IT. When, in desperation and I need something to listen to, I find a country and western station or even folk. I never know who I'm listening to but I love bopping around in the driver's seat.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Am I the only Red who listens to Pandora radio? That's how I discover great new stuff. And you can choose any "station" -- so it's Pink for the gym, Tom Waits for brooding, Cole Porter for cooking dinner....

What's great about Pandora is they use an algorithm from songs you like/don't like to play songs from new artists or artists you might not otherwise know. That's how I first heard my current musical obsession, Sara Bariles -- who was at this year's Grammy Awards.

Highly recommend, and if you pay a small fee, you can rid yourself of the commercials.

HANK: Oh, Susan, we have Pandora in the house! We love it. We have Paul Simon station, and Judy Collins station, and Cole Porter station, and one I named Lido Shuffle. And lots more. That'd be good for the car!  Wonder how we could make a "stuff I should know about" station?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I do Spotify when I listen on my computer. My thirteen-year-old recommended it, so either I'm even hipper than you Pandora folks, or I'm hopelessly mired in something only middle-schoolers use. Don't tell anyone, but my playlist is 90% Kings College Choir. 

Our car radio is a real amalgam of stations and styles: NPR, of course, and Ross's sports-talk station ("The Big JAB!") and Youngest's two pop and hip-hop stations. Also WBACH, for my classical music, one country and one oldies. Ross and I don't have Sirius - like you, Hank, we generally prefer to talk to each other or, when I'm alone, to have silence - but we've enjoyed having it in rental cars over the years.

 One trip that stands out in family lore was the time we got upgraded to a very posh SUV (we have to fit five, remember) that not only had some sort of super-Sirius system, it was VOICE ACTIVATED.  Once the teens discovered that, it was all over. One would ask for "urban hip-hip" only to be immediately overruled by another shouting "modern jazz!" Evidently, too many voice commands confused the machine, because when Ross finally got them quieted down and asked Sirius for "Local sports" the machine responded, "Seeking...Detroit Metal Crunk." Then blasting the most godawful stuff you could imagine. We went back to poking its buttons after that.

RHYS: I'm a Pandora fan too--often it's the SPA selection and therefore relaxing when I'm rushing around. But here in Phoenix there is a great radio station called KAHM (as in calm) and they play all soothing background music.  So it's either that or NPR.
On long trips I play selections from my iPhone... Mama Mia or the Beatles when I need to stay awake and can sing along, comedy to make me laugh, or even audio books.

I'm sounding like an old fuddy duddy but pop music for the past ten years or more has left me cold. It's boring, repetitive and I hate the screeching that is now applauded as singing.

HANK: Yeah, and I often agree, Rhys, but what worries me is that's what my mother used to say about the Beatles. Just saying.

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  I put Downton and Sherlock on record and watch the entire Grammy show, which I thought was fabulous. (Although I do agree I'm getting tired of female singers as pole-dancers costumes.  And the Beyonce and Jay-Z opening number was definitely not my fave.  So funny--Rick didn't bat an eye at Beyonce in her skimpy-dominatrix outfit, but later on, when she was wearing the white sort of see-through dress, he kept saying, "Wow, she looks great." Sometimes less is not more, girls.

Because for the last couple of years I've been writing about a character (Andy Monahan) who is a rock guitarist, and is now in a duo with a female singer, I do try to keep up with the music scene.  And although I am not a big fan of hip-hop or heavy metal, there is a lot that I LOVE.  I do like Daft Punk (the robots) by the way--they crack me up.  And I think Lorde is very weird and interesting. And Pharrell Williams, in spite of the weird Lone Ranger hat, is really talented.

At least one of my favorite performances from the Grammys was Miranda Lambert and Billy Joe Armstrong's tribute to the Everly Brothers. Here's the link:

(In case you don't have any idea who they are, Miranda Lambert is a huge country star and is married to Blake Shelton, and Billy Joe Armstrong is the lead singer for Greenday.)

I do listen to Pandora, but also lots of my own CDs or downloads.  Funnily enough, I don't usually listen to music when I drive, because I find it too distracting in our heavy Dallas traffic.

But for those of you who think music has gone to the dogs since 1965, you might want to expand your horizons:-)

HANK: Debs, whoa. You are so hip! Maybe you can do a blog on what we should hear? Our own personal Pandora!  And yeah, I agree The Everly Brothers tribute was not the best--so sad, because they had some amazing songs.

LUCY BURDETTE: Yeah, not only is Debs hip, she's scolding us old farts LOL. I'm with the Paul Simon and NPR fans, plus I love the music on the TV show Nashville. Have bought all the CD's. We listen to that and music by Teddy Thompson and Alison Kraus on the way down to Florida. It's funny, I don't like to listen to the radio much when riding with John, but I like the company when alone.

HANK: Wait, wait, don’t tell me. Reds readers, can you be our Pandoras? (In a radio way, not a “letting all the bad stuff out” way.) What should we be listening to? 

(And because we're all about audio--I'll give the fabulous Macmillan audio version (on CD) of THE WRONG GIRL to one lucky commenter!)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Where Y'all From? Wanta Soda?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  When I first moved to Boston, thirty years ago, yikes, I remember hearing someone in a coffee shop ordering a "coffee regular." Silly me, I assumed that person must be such a constant customer at that coffee shop (which I later learned was called Dunkin's, DeeDee's, or Dunkies) that the clerk knew what he meant by "coffee regular."

I soon learned it was not about the customer, it's that in Bay State parlance, "coffee regular" is coffee with cream and sugar.  And  though I call every carbonated beverage a "coke"--as in, "let’s go get a coke" even though you could order ginger ale or root beer,  here they call them all "soda." When everyone knows a soda is ice cream and syrup and fizzy water.

And when someone suggested we go down the street to a packie, I had no idea. Turned out, a "packie" is the local term for package store. By that, they meant --as we say back home in  Indiana--a liquor store.

Recently everyone 's been taking a fascinating test that purports to be able to pinpoint, based on your jargon, idioms and colloquialisms, exactly what part of  the country you are from.

DO you call it a lightning bug, or a firefly? A garage sale, a yard sale, a tag sale, a rummage sale? A sub a grinder or a hoagie or a poor boy or a spuckie?

 What do you call the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road?  (I have no special word for that I realize...)  What do you call it when it's sunny and raining at the same time? I have no word for that, either. Do you?

Did you take the test? It was really interesting, but sadly, got me all wrong, It pegged me as being from Lexington or Louisville Kentucky (!) or Mobile Alabama. (double!).  It said my speech patterns were LEAST like Jersey City. 

I'll put the link at  the bottom of  the blog so you can take it yourself--and report!

How about you, Reds?   Tractor-trailer, semi-, or eighteen wheeler? Sneakers, tennis shoes, Keds, running shoes?

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Um, it's pop, not soda, at least where I'm from...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  When I took the quiz, my "you are most like" shading darkened as it went across New York and into New England, and was deep red (aka "you speak most like the inhabitants here") in Maine. After almost twenty-seven years living here, I say "Italian" for sub and "turnpike" for the highway, However, I also have deep linguistic roots in upstate New York and in Alabama, and, like Debs, I shift into appropriate usage wherever I am. If I planned to go into Syracuse when visiting my parents', I would say "I'm going downcity" while anywhere within thirty miles of Portland, Maine, I'd go "intown." 

In Maine, I'll order an Italian with soda, in New York, it's a sub or hero, also with soda, and in Tuscaloosa, I'd ask for a po'boy, a co'cola, and tell the cashier "Roll Tide" at the conclusion of the transaction!

HANK: Well, Roll Tide, of course.  But I say highway, whether you have to pay or not. And in Massachusetts, if you're in Boston, and headed to Sandwich, which is southeast, you're still going "down the Cape." Awesome.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh fun, I went over and took the quiz. They got me just right, as far as growing up in New Jersey anyway...I was most similar to Yonkers, Newark, and Philadelphia, which pretty much triangulates my home town! I have spent a lot of time in the South though, too. The most different dialect was East Tennessee y'all...

HANK: I just re-took it, because I realized I say Pa-JAH-ma not Pa-JAM-a, and I call  them "trucks" not semis.  Now it pegged as New York and Philadelphia too--but definitely not Oklahoma City.

Do you say crans? Or cray-ons?   Ant or Auhnt? What do you call a traffic jam caused by people slowing down to look at an accident? A rubberneck? Curiosity factor? Do you have a word for it.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I took the quiz, and I tried really hard to think "TEXAS" and not England, because I am always so culturally and linguistically confused.  I say "truck" and "18 wheeler" and "lorry." I say "roundabout", but I put "traffic circle" because that's what you say in Dallas, although I actually grew up saying "glorietta" because my family spent so much time in Mexico.  On two things I was definite--in England I would say "fizzy drink" and in Texas I would say "coke" or "soft drink" but never, never "pop." 

So how did I come out?  Deep South.  Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and Jackson, Mississippi.  Go figure.

RHYS BOWEN: There is no sense in my taking this test because I'm a hopeless case. I've only just learned to say 'truck' instead of 'lorry', trunk instead of boot, and tomayto instead of tomato.

HANK: Rhys, I want to hear you say to-MAY-to. I don’t believe it.

RHYS: Well, it takes a long time to adjust to the jargon of a new country. When I was teaching a drama class years ago I told my actors to come onstage carrying torches. They looked bewildered and asked how they were going to light them and wasn't that dangerous. I had meant flashlights, of course.

But I've lived on the West Coast for many years and we don't drink soda or pop. In Marin County we drink natural spring water and eat organic kale! (just kidding) But we do like our sourdough bread.

HANK:Kale! As you Reds know, I have no word for that.

So Reds, here’s the quiz—let us know if it surprises you!  Did it get you right?

(And the winner of NORTH OF BOSTON by Elizabeth Elo is Kathy Reel. Kathy, when you get a chance, send me your address at hryan at whdh dot com)