Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Under A Dark Sky

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Wow. I knew Lori Rader-Day was cool—brilliant and hilarious and skilled and talented and hilarious. (worth saying twice). You definitely want to sit by her at whatever event. She's such a terrific author, and her new book Under A Dark Sky will have you—well, keeping the lights on.

But even though we all have funny stories about weird relatives, Lori’s family story is nothing less than stellar.

Wait til you hear it.

Exploring the stars

One of the best things about being an author is that you get to meet other authors. Never has this perk been more enjoyable, though, than the time I participated in a book fair in Indianapolis—and was put into the lineup alongside my own cousin. The astronaut.

            Distant cousin. Didn’t-know-me-from-Eve cousin. But I recognized his name, of course. Out of human history, how many people have been to space? (Not that many, and even fewer of them have had dinner at my grandma’s house.)

            When I sat down by chance next to Jerry Ross at that book fair last year, I got stars in my eyes. I’m enthusiastic about meeting up with other authors most of the time, but especially so with Jerry, who was promoting Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer and the young reader’s version, Becoming a Spacewalker: My Journey to the Stars. (I bought my dad both of them, and had Jerry sign them to his cousin Mel. My dad is a big fan of having an astronaut in the family tree.)

            At the time I met Jerry at the book fair, I was still finishing up my next novel, “my star book.” Under a Dark Sky is set at a dark sky park, a place that controls light pollution so that visitors can see the stars the way nature intended. 

Over the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City, Michigan, where my book takes place.
Photo credit to @Scott Castelein 

A young widow keeps a reservation her husband made before his death, and then things really go wrong. To write that story, I studied up on constellations and their stories, on the moon and its two faces, on all things stars and space—and here’s an author who HAD BEEN TO SPACE.
It boggles the mind, when you really think about it. Jerry Ross has been 243 nautical miles away from our planet—straight up. He has spent a total of 58 days, 52 minutes in space. He’s done nine spacewalks, a total of 58 hours and 18 minutes outside, dangling in the void. (He probably wouldn’t use the word dangling. Dangling is probably a gravity thing.) He set the record for most flights in space by going up seven times, a record that has since been tied by fellow astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, but Jerry got there first. And—you’re not ready for this.
            I’ll wait.
            OK, here it is: Jerry Ross has orbited the Earth 914 times. 914!
            I had to talk with him about it.

Lori: At what point did you decide you wanted to go to space?
Jerry: I grew up at a time before any satellites or people had flown in space. The articles in newspapers and magazines captured and fueled my imagination. My mother helped me make scrapbooks and making those books helped to educate me as to the types of educations that people who were working in our earliest stages of our space program had and where they got them. I was in the fourth grade when the first satellites were launched into space. I decided then and there to go to Purdue University, become an engineer, and get involved in our space program. Wanting to become and astronaut came later once we started to fly humans in space and the original seven astronauts became my heroes! ...I was between my junior and senior at Purdue when the first lunar landing occurred.

Lori: What is it like to go to space? Besides the job, which probably takes up a lot of your time and thinking on a flight, what do you think about when you’re out there?
Jerry: Flying in space is an incredible experience. It is hard to believe that you are really there, going around the world every 90 minutes as you fly at five miles per second. Almost any free time (which was really limited, and was normally when we were scheduled to be sleeping) was spent looking out the windows at the Earth. What an incredible fragile looking and beautiful planet we live on! It also looks peaceful and you can't see any of the borders between the countries.
Lori: Would you go again if you had the chance? What do you miss about space? What don’t you miss?
Jerry: I would love to go again, but it is time for the next generations to have their fun. I miss floating in zero gravity, looking out the windows at the Earth floating by below, and going out on spacewalks. But the thing I miss the most is the people that I got to work with. They were the most talented and dedicated people I have ever known. Working with them on such challenging and rewarding ventures was invigorating and wonderful.

Lori: How is looking at the stars from space different than looking at them from Earth?
Jerry: Not much different, they don’t twinkle because we are above the Earth’s atmosphere, which is what actually gives the appearance of the stars twinkling. We are only about 200 miles closer to the stars and since they are billions of miles away there is not much difference in their appearance. But we do get to see the stars that people living in the southern hemisphere get to see. [Lori: Both hemispheres within 90 minutes, so actually pretty different, Jerry.]
Lori: What do books/movies/the news always get wrong about space exploration?
Jerry: We know that flying in space can be dangerous. The books etc always try to emphasize that and to make everything exciting. We at NASA try to make everything as safe as possible. Frankly our flights sometimes appear somewhat boring—and that is the way we like them, to be safe and not overly exciting. There are no aliens and no UFOs!

LORI: If like me, you can’t get enough of space stories, Jerry recommends Apollo 13 as the “most accurate” film about space exploration (my fave, too! And also the highly inaccurate Space Camp) and Gene Cernan’s book The Last Man on the Moon for some good reading. But don’t forget Jerry’s Spacewalker. As a frequent flier outside our atmosphere, he’s uniquely qualified to tell us what it’s really like.

So the real question you have is...are we really cousins? Yes. Jerry is also the family genealogy expert, compiling the next generation’s updates into a collection for us, and there’s my branch, right down the family tree from—well, Jerry’s wife, Karen, actually. But that’s OK. Jerry and I are related in at least one other way. Give us the stars.

HANK: Love this! (And I love what Jerry said about not seeing any borders. I first learned that from Merlin.) 

Reds and readers, what’s your relationship to the night sky? Are you a stargazer? Or do you even notice? Have you ever been to a dark sky park? And hey, have you ever met an astronaut? Or wanted to be one?

Lori Rader-Day is a three-time Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, winning the award in 2016 for her second novel, Little Pretty Things. She is the author of Under a Dark Sky, and of The Black Hour, winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, The Day I Died, a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Thriller Award, Anthony Award, and Barry Award. She lives in Chicago, where she is active in Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and co-chairs the mystery conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Birth Order in Fiction and Real Life

LUCY BURDETTE: The other day on Facebook I stumbled across an article about the middle child syndrome, and also how middle children may become extinct as modern families are having one or two children only. I am the second of four, arriving only eleven months after my sister. (Can you imagine? What were they thinking?) Then a brother came two years after me and another sister after that. Actually I seem to have turned out more bossy and overachieving than my older sister, which doesn't fit the stereotype of the middle child as overlooked, under-appreciated, natural mediators. 

This made me think that even though I've had three main characters in my writing life so far, none have been the middle child in their families. Cassie the golfer had one older brother whom she adored but did not see that much. Rebecca Butterman, my psychologist character, had a younger sister whom she also adored though she found her to be un-psychologically-minded. Now Halyey Snow has no siblings at all except for Rory her stepbrother. I’m kind of sad about the lack of siblings in my series, as I had a rich sibling life, if not always perfectly smooth. Makes me wonder why? And ps, Middle Child Day is August 12 and I for one plan to celebrate!

My siblings and I by John Lloyd

HANK PHILIPPI RYAN: Well, hmm. I saw that! SO interesting. I don't notice it in other books, I guess. I do in mine--Charlie McNally is the older sister, (as I am) with the requisite bossy/ambitious/achiever/needy-of-praise-and-attention personality.  Jane Ryland is the younger sister, who feels a bit second-tier, and is envious and annoyed with her as-previously-described  older sister. And I definitely thought about birth order when I chose that!  And in TRUST ME, Mercer Hennessey is an only child--to enhance her aloneness.  

Lord Nelson and the Angels by pellethepoet

INGRID THOFT:  I’ve never thought about this, Lucy, but how interesting!  Fina is the youngest of four, but I have three older sisters, and she has three older brothers.  We are alike in that we are both problem-solvers and take issue with the stereotype that youngest children are spoiled and inept.  Birth order was important, but the most important part of Fina’s family make-up was that she was one of many kids.  Her siblings play a critical role in the series, and I really wanted to show the family dynamics that can emerge among siblings.  The characters in my WIP run the gamut from youngest of two, and eldest of three, to only child.  I wonder if I’ve written any of them to type?  I’ll have to take a closer look!

Siblings by James Dennes

JENN McKINLAY: I'm the youngest of six, and I am the textbook youngest. I am loud, willful, impulsive, and essentially "want what I want when I want it". As for my characters, (let's just go with the heroines and leave the heroes out of it) I have Melanie the youngest of two, Angie the youngest of eight, hmm, Lindsey, the youngest of two, Scarlett, an only child, Mackenzie, an only child, uh oh, Annie, youngest of two with a lot of step siblings, Jessie, an only child, and (EUREKA!), Carly, the fourth of five girls. There's a middle child! And yet, not an oldest anywhere to be found. Huh. Very interesting, Lucy! Excuse me, while I go ponder this. 

Triple trouble by pellethepoet

RHYS BOWEN: I'm a typical eldest child: over-achiever, wants to please. Actually I'm more like an only child as my brother was seven years younger than me, so always a little brat rather than a rival or companion. We get along beautifully now! Molly Murphy has three younger brothers so had to raise when her mother died. They figure occasionally in the stories. Lady Georgie has an older half-brother, but I don't think she behaves like a second child, as he is much older. She is more like an only child. Constable Evans was an only child. What all of these have in common is that irrespective of birth order they are all on their own in the world without family support to rely on. It is only Pamela, one of the daughters in In Farleigh Field, who has the benefit of a family around her. And she is a middle child with two sisters above and two below. But it is the sister below her, Dido, who actually behaves like the middle child. Pamela is the sensible one!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I am an oldest child, was married to an oldest child, and have most of the typical traits associated with my spot in the family pantheon. My younger sister is the classic middle child (I sent her that article, Lucy!): always out there hustling. She is the communications hub of the family. Our brother Patrick is a true youngest child crossed with The Only Boy: a laid-back, easygoing, affectionate guy who basks in the knowledge that he's pretty much always adored.

My two main characters are oldest children, which I thought was a well-considered decision to make them the type of hyper-responsible people they are. However, seeing how closely many of our characters track our own birth order,  I'm starting to wonder! My secondary hero and heroine are different: always-eager-to-please Kevin Flynn is the smack-dab middle of five boys, while loner Hadley Knox is, you guessed it, an only child.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Lucy, I have thought about this a good bit. I am the youngest of two, but my brother was almost ten years older so I was in many ways an only child. Duncan is the older of two, and Gemma is the younger of two, both sisters. Did I always want a sister? Duncan has the assurance of an eldest child, while Gemma, growing up in the shadow of her critical, bossy sister, compensates by being very driven. Melody and Doug, their friends and sergeants, are both onlys. I do find I have trouble writing characters who come from really large families, partly because it's so outside my experience, and partly because it really complicates the plot! I LOVE reading about big families, however.

Lucy: Debs, yes I wondered about that--if my lower sibling count has to do with how difficult it would be to keep juggling all those people!

HALLIE EPHRON: I grew up, third of four sisters, with the bossiest, most overachieving oldest sister anyone could have. I've always admired LITTLE WOMEN, because Alcott managed to bring FOUR sisters to the pages of that novel and not confuse the reader, and because Jo is a middle child.

The relationship I most often mirror in my books are between a main character and her sister. YOU'LL NEVER KNOW, DEAR is all about an older sister who, in her forties, gets a chance to find the baby sister she lost when she was seven. Come to think of it, COME AND FIND ME is about a missing sister, too. Hmm.

Here's me (on the left). My sisters Delia and Amy are both focused on Nora (far right), and there's me at the other end, looking at the photographer.

LUCY: Reds, do your characters match your life? Readers, is birth order something you notice in a book?

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Queen Victoria and I explore Nice

RHYS BOWEN: Yesterday I talked about research for The Tuscan Child and today I'm going to share my initial research for a book I want to write next year that has to do with Queen Victoria and her time in Nice. Most people don't realize that, in her latter years, Queen Victoria spent her winters on the French Riviera. She tried several places: Cannes, Menton, Grasse, but finally settled on Nice.

The local inhabitants so appreciated the stature she brought to their town that they built an enormous new hotel for her. The Regina Excelsior. it stands on a hill, overlooking the town and the bay. The queen came here for four years in a row, bringing a retinue of 100, including Highland pipers, her bedroom furniture and a pony and trap and took over an entire wing of this hotel, including her own kitchen staff to cook for her.

It seemed too good not to write a story around this. I'm not going to tell you what the story is but I do want to share how I filled in the pieces for this story:

First I visited the area with the hotel, now luxury flats:

Then I browsed local used bookstores for books and photographs of the era. I found several brilliant books: one on the history of Cimiez (where she stayed), another on the British on the Riviera, one on the villas of Nice and their history. I found plenty of old postcards showing me the city in 1890 as well as the Carnival procession, the parade of flowers, which are destined to play a part in my story. The queen loved to throw flowers at handsome young men! I have so many good tidbits for my book already!

In the central library I found a really helpful librarian who hunted diligently and finally struck gold: The brochure published when the Regina Excelsior was opened. It had images of all the public rooms, the floor plans, the list of servants that the queen brought with her.. in fact everything I needed. Hooray for librarians (but it is lucky that I have a degree in French).

I rode a bus up to the waterfall which she loved to visit. So now I know the layout of the place where I want to set the story. All I have to do is to write it... but that has to wait until next year.

So dear Reds and Readers, how do you set about researching a setting for your books? Do you feel it's necessary that you have to visit the place in person?

And the winner of Dianne Freeman's book is RAMONA. Ramona, please email me at authorrhysbowen@gmail.com and I'll put you in touch with her.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Living The Tuscan Child

RHYS BOWEN: Every time I give a talk I am asked about my research. How do I research long ago and faraway places? Well, during the next two days I'll show you some of my research from this year's book and next year's upcoming book.

Whenever I can I try to go to the physical place. I can read every book on Tuscany, visit museums, look at photographs but nothing give me the real essence of the place like walking down a narrow cobbled street, listening to raised voices, a radio, a baby crying.. with the smell of garlic and baking bread and the sound of pigeons cooing under the tiles of the roof. And when I'm in a place I'm always finding things that surprise me, small things that will play a big part in my book.

So I'm sharing with you some of my photos that became parts of The Tuscan Child.
This is the hill town of Castellina in Chianti, where I have taught my writer's workshop twice now. I wanted to set The Tuscan Child here but I found out that the allies had recaptured this part of Tuscany in the month I wanted to set the story. So I had to move it further north and find a setting that exactly mirrored it. Not an easy task and several days of staring at Google Earth!

But here is my inspiration for San Salvatore in my book:

And this is the town square where Joanna is invited to join a group of men for a drink when she arrives in the area:
And is directed to Paola's farmhouse through a rather spooky tunnel cut in the side of the hill (old defenses. 

And ahead of her she catches a glimpse of Paola's farm:

And arrives at the farmhouse: (which now just happened to be our hotel, nicely modernized inside)

So you can see how a story took shape just from wandering around a small town and seeing what it had to offer and where it spoke to me. And of course I had to learn about the food as well....

So Reds, how do you form your stories from your research?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Reds on Themes

RHYS BOWEN: I have been doing a lot of interviews and podcasts recently. Most of the time it's the same questions... what made you choose World War II? Why did you leave your series? Will you go back to Molly etc etc.
But recently one interviewer asked, "Why do you keep burning your characters' clothes?"
This completely threw me.
"I don't think that I..." I started to say, then I thought a little more and added, "You're right. I do. I've burned Molly Murphy's clothes twice now. Once when a bomb was thrown at her house and once during the San Francisco earthquake. And I've burned Lady Georgie's clothes too, at a Hollywood mansion.

Someone doing a PhD thesis on my writing in the distant future will see this as a Leitmotif--a theme that runs through my work. I can see it now: PhD thesis on the motif of burned clothes in the writings of Rhys Bowen.

So this made me wonder why I burn my character's clothes. I think the answer in both series is that my heroines started out with nothing. They had to battle poverty and being alone in the world. So when they reach a level of prosperity and stability I have to take it away from them. Which makes me go on to think "Is this a reflection of how I see my own life?"  Do I worry that as I reach prosperity and stability it will be taken away from me?

I used to be quite afraid of fire. When I lived in a third floor London flat I used to lie in bed and worry about what things to save if the building caught on fire. Now I'm actually more relaxed about material things. I have most of my photos on the cloud, ditto my writing. I'd save a few items of jewelry and my iPad and computer and phone but not worry about the rest. Perhaps I have reached a level of stability when I don't worry about things being taken taken away from me.

And this also has me wondering about themes in my work. I didn't believe until recently that I've ever started out with a theme and built a story around it. I think The Tuscan Child is the only book I've consciously developed around a theme... which is healing through food. Mostly I just want to tell a good story. I want my readers to live vicariously in the past... in the 1930s or in old New York City, or among the aristocrats in WWII. But now I'm thinking ahead to my next stand alone novel that comes out in February. It's called The Victory Garden and again it's a story about healing oneself through healing others. OMG... I'm becoming a serious novelist with themes!

So now I want to know from my sister Reds: do you ever begin a book with a theme in mind? Have you ever had an underlying Leitmotif? If anyone writes a PhD thesis on your work, what will it be?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that my heroine, Clare Fergusson, has had at least three or four cars destroyed in the course of eight novels (so far.) I can perhaps attribute this to the fact that Ross always got the new car, and I always drove the older/used/clunker set of wheels. When I hear something scraping or rattling under my chassis, my mind goes to a bad place.

I actually often start with a theme in mind: HID FROM OUR EYES, for instance, is about the mentor/student relationships men have that substitute for father/son relationships. Then I have to figure out how to slip a murder or three in. There are also books where I'm quite deliberate about the imagery-in OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY, many of the metaphors, similes and descriptions evoke water.

But the themes that my writing reveals about myself? That I don't know. I think there's a reason why literary analysis is a different job than authorship. Can the creator of the work every see past his or her own assumptions? After all, near the end of his life, Ray Bradbury insisted FARENHEIT 451 wasn't about censorship...

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I once interviewed the brilliant David McCullough, and asked him "Do you have a theme when you write your books?" And he answered: "Yes, I do. And I write the books to find out what it is." So I am totally in that camp. Usually. But TRUST ME started out to be about truth. And how we decide what's true. And what "true" even means--is it true because we believe it? Can we have our own truth? Can there be two true versions of the  same story? There can, right? And even scarier--what happens when there's no way to know?   I am so pleased with how it came out. 
And, as it turns out, thats what I always write about. Not surprising, I suppose, since I'm a reporter. I think about it every day.

LUCY BURDETTE: I always have themes in the back of my mind. For the new book, one of them has to do with immigration. And there is a constant thread about the meaning of food and cooking. And family--who is your family and what does that mean?

The strangest moment was a question I had from a very good and insightful interviewer about two years ago. She said, "I've noticed that all three of your protagonists have fathers who are missing either physically or emotionally, or both. I wonder if that comes from your life? My answer was an unqualified NO. My dad was so sweet and warm and funny and supportive...he did not fit that mold. So why did I make my poor characters suffer?? Conflict, I suppose, right?

INGRID THOFT: I always have a theme in mind, which is reflected in the title of the book, but the theme can evolve and show up in unexpected ways when I’m writing.  I like questions and intersections:  To whom do you give your LOYALTY?  To your family or your own values?  What is the true essence of your IDENTITY?  Nature or nature?  What is the price of BRUTALITY?  Millions of dollars or a healthy brain?  And are you guilty of DUPLICITY?  Do you profess one value, but practice another?  My WIP is also centered around a theme, but I’m not quite ready to divulge it!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hmmm, this is such a good question, Rhys. Although I often have topics I want to explore in a novel, I'm not usually deliberately trying to express a theme. But I think what does underlie all of the Duncan and Gemma books is an emphasis on the importance of family--families that are made by choice even more than the family one is born into--and the strength of community.

JENN McKINLAY: Do shenanigans count as a theme? Cause I'm all about the shenanigans. I don't believe I have a deliberate theme in any of my books, but I'm sure there is a commonality in all of my titles that includes humor as a coping mechanism for life's hard knocks, the power of friendship, and the strength of character required to do the right thing which is usually the harder thing to do.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Lure of Mysterious Objects.

TI've always found it amazing that writers see each other as stable-mates and not rivals. Barbara O'Neal and I share the same agent and the same Publisher (Lake Union) and she writes the kind of book I adore..clues from the present unlocking mysteries from the past. And she has a fascinating personal story to tell. So I'm handing over to her right now:

The Lure of Mysterious Objects
​by Barbara O'Neal

Inheritance is an odd thing, isn’t it? 

When my British partner’s mother died, we headed back to the small Kentish village where she lived to sort out the estate. It was the muddiest January in decades, giving us ample time to go through the toys left over from childhood and all the dishes. The usual things.

Until we got to a little writing desk packed with all kinds of things left over from the time my partner’s father spent in Ceylon, before it was Sri Lanka. Dad was born and raised there, even married his first wife before the British were ousted and returned to a land where none of them had ever lived.  

I knew this backstory, of course. The wife died and then Christopher Robin’s father remarried and he was born of the second marriage. But I only have bare bones, no matter how many times I delicately came at the subject. They’re all British and well-mannered so no one was ever interested in sitting down and pouring out the whole story to me. Most of them don't know it, but those who do are not interested in telling it. 

Which only makes it more mysterious, right?  Also, I am a writer and a former reporter. It's my job to get the story.  

When we opened that desk and found all those artifacts, I almost literally swooned. The little key opened a tiny door where I found a set of carved elephants, enough for a necklace and a pair of earrings. Who wore them, I wonder?  

No one seems to know.

A drawer contained a fantastic mirrored tablecloth, intricately embroidered and so well kept the the reds are very bright still, all these years later.  I found a box of tiny elephants, one dressed with a silver harness and maybe an aquamarine jewel. 

Who loved these things? What was life like, back in Ceylon, on the tea plantation? What did they do? How did they live?  It always seemed to me that no matter how right the revolutions in India and Ceylon that ended British rule (and of course it was), it must have been so very strange to go back to a cold, northern land when you’d spent your life in the tropics. They must have missed it. Wouldn’t you?  

No one else wanted all those things or the desk, so I brought them home (shipped them via slow boat from England to Colorado), and here they stay. The carved trays are polished and hung on my walls. The elephants are lined up with little pools of water made of quarters by my granddaughter.  

All of their mysteries remain entirely mute. I've never been able to find out anything more about them, but I do love to think about the former owners of these beautiful things.   

 A couple of years later, I fell into some BBC reality shows about the country estates that are falling into ruin because they’re so expensive to keep up. Which mixed and brewed with all my questions about Ceylon, and a book was born.

In The Art of Inheriting Secrets
​, ​
Olivia Shaw is a sophisticated food editor who discovers after the death of her mother that she is heir to a crumbling estate in a village in England.  She travels back to see if she can discover the reasons her mother lied to her all those years, and unravel the story of the house.  I fell madly in love with Rosemere Priory and the small village of St. John’s Cross, and the Anglo-British family whose story is irretrievably tangled with her own.  I hope you might enjoy it, too.  

RHYS: Barbara's book is published this week. I am certainly dying for my copy to arrive! And Barbara has offered to give a signed copy to one lucky commenter today.