by Toni L.P. Kelner
by Toni L.P. Kelner
A friend and I were discussing Ted Kennedy's death not too long ago, and the Kennedy family history. I did a little online research and was reminded of a fact I'd forgotten.
"You know," I told my friend. "JFK was less than a year younger than Dad."
And that got to thinking about some key events in my family's history.
On December 6, 1941, my dad was a hard-working graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dust Bowl years had been hard on ranchers in western Kansas, where Dad grew up, and there wasn't much money for tuition. Dad did everything he could to support himself, including joining the campus Reserve Officer Training Corps.
So on December 7, 1941, Dad suddenly became a brand new lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
For many years, I didn't know much about Dad's military service. I knew he served in the Pacific—we had some photos from Hawaii. Most of what he told us made it sound more like McHale's Navy or Hogan's Heroes than Midway. Dad claimed that the only action he saw was when two sentries got drunk and shot each other. He once told a story about how his unit failed a training exercise—they were supposed to go down the coast in small boats and perform a mock attack on a fort, but instead went up the coast and were lost for days, horribly seasick, and eventually sent back for more months of training. He recalled being the clerk of a company composed almost entirely of Kentuckians who were awesome riflemen, but a little unsound on the concept of military discipline. Whenever something happened back home—a new baby, a sick relative, a farm shorthanded at harvest time—they would take off and eventually be reported AWOL. By the time Dad stopped their pay, they'd be in the stockade, requiring a change to half pay, and by the time he got that change put through they'd be back on active duty until the whole cycle started again. He even told a hilarious tale about the time he and the few non-Kentuckians were left to cover while the rest of the unit went home to watch the Kentucky Derby, their convoy of Army vehicles led by an officer from the Bluegrass State.
Truth or tall tales? I never knew. I never really wondered until one day, long after I became an adult, Dad revealed a little more about his military service.
He was on a troop ship in the South Pacific, part of a convoy delivering troops to the Phillippines. One night, his ship was hit by a kamikaze pilot. The ship did not sink, but was badly damaged. The rest of the convoy steamed ahead leaving Dad's ship to make its way as fast as it could. This was normal procedure—for the rest of the convoy to limp along at the speed of its slowest member would endanger even more lives.
As their ship crawled toward their destination, the surviving troops spent much of their time hauling the dead and wounded out of the wreckage below decks.
"I will never forget the smell of burning human flesh," Dad told Mom. "And I don't ever want to talk about it again. I'm telling you so you'll know, and can help me change the subject when people ask what I did in the war."
That was presumably in 1947 or 1948, shortly after they became engaged. In the years that followed Dad never did talk about it as far as she recalls. As World War II gradually faded from an almost current event into history, I suspect the need to change the subject arose less and less often. It was at least three decades before Dad shared his secret with my brother and me.
I say at least three decades because I no longer remember how long ago it happened. I remember being shocked, and not feeling able to interrogate him. I remember Mom filling in some of the details he'd told her. But unfortunately we never really talked about it again. And now Dad's gone, and with him the chance to know more about what happened on that fateful day in the 1940s.
After Dad died and Mom began thinking of moving to a retirement community, I started helping her clear out the papers and stuff that had accumulated in the house. And I began looking for more information on the story of Dad's war experiences.
I found a Bronze Star buried in his chest of drawers. We didn't even know about this. Months later, I found a copy of the citation, dated 5 August 1945, and issued from Headquarters, 38th Infantry Division:
That period roughly corresponds with what the history books call the Battle of Luzon, MacArthur's campaign to retake the largest island in the Phillippines. I suspect meritorious achievement during that period required a little more than keeping the company payroll in order.
But that's all I know for sure, so far. I sent in a request to the National Personnel Records Center for his military records, but apparently a fire in 1973 destroyed sixteen to eighteen million records, including 80% of the Army records from November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960. There's a process you can follow to request as much information as they can piece together from other sources, but it requires that you give them as much information as you can offer. I'm still hunting down information from the mass of papers Dad left behind. Eventually, when I've found as much information on my own as I can, I'll send in that form. But I have a suspicion they may not be able to tell me much.
While writing this blog, I once again looked up the 38th Infantry Division, and I find that it's headquartered in Indianapolis. Which seems like a happy omen. I'm going to Annapolis in October, to attend Bouchercon. So I've written a letter to the 38th Infantry asking if they have any resources that would help me learn a little more about Dad's wartime experiences. Tomorrow I'll call and find a name to address it to. And perhaps, if they have any kind of library, I can visit them in October.
It still won't make up for not talking to Dad while he was alive. If life gave me a do over or two, that's one thing I'd fix.
(What about you, O blog reader? Any do overs you'd like?)
by Hank Phillippi Ryan
I'm hijacking the blog today. Briefly. Mainly to say thank you.
When I got the email asking me to join the Femmes, gosh, about a year ago, I almost burst into tears. (You all know me now, and you know the kinds of things that make that happen for me. Friends, and generosity, and enthusiasm, and affection. And the Femmes had all that.) I thought--I'm such a newbie, but they think I'm a writer. And that was life-changing.
Now, so much has happened. Terrific things, and a few not so terrific. But by far, it's wonderful.
And now, today is the pub day for book three in the Charlotte McNally mysteries. And I'm hijacking the blog to tell you about AIR TIME. So thank you for bringing me here.
It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.
That's the first line of AIR TIME! And this newest adventure takes reporter Charlotte McNally undercover and carrying a hidden camera to investigate the high-stakes world of high fashion and counterfeit couture—and the secret back rooms of big-city airports. Someone is ripping off the valuable original designs of one of the industry's most prestigious lines and selling counterfeit merchandise as the real thing. Turns out "faking it" is the pathway to multi-million dollar profits. Charlie goes undercover to uncover who's trading secrets about trade secrets, and soon discovers when the purses are fake—the danger is real.
How does she tell the real thing?
Wait a minute, I hear you saying. You're a reporter, Hank. And you've gone undercover a million times. And you're probably carrying a hidden camera right now.
Fine. I admit it. It's been there, done that. After 30 years in TV—I've had some real life adventures of my own.
But as a mystery author, I'm always wondering—what if. And I began to imagine the fascinating possibilities in designer duplicates. One of the things I love to do in my novels is take something that's familiar and give it a twist or two that turns it into something unexpected and unpredictable.
And as for going undercover...well, I couldn't ask Charlie to do too much I wouldn't do. Or haven't already done. Charlie does infiltrate a suburban purse party--in disguise and toting a hidden camera in her purse. I can safely admit now, though I won't say the specific place it was held, I've done that several times.
And there was once we went undercover into a store selling knock-off purses. We knew the feds were on the trail of the same place, and I swear the only other people in the store when we got there were g-men, also undercover. (It was the haircuts and pressed khakis that gave them away.)
Charlie's adventures undercover take a different turn. And where she goes is strictly fom my imagination. But because I already knew the inside scoop—that helped me create a truly workable scheme for my fictional crooks. (I can tell you, when I revealed it to law enforcement sources, they sheepishly admitted my plan was completely plausible!).
The other part ofAIR TIME that's based on not quite fiction--the airlines lose Charlie's luggage. That's because I am a lost-luggage magnet. It's shocking. And beyond statistical explanation. It's so bad, I now pack half my stuff in Jonathan's suitcase, so when mine goes missing, at least I'll have t-shirts.
So in one airport, mid-rant, as I was wailing--"Where did my luggage GO?" I suddenly had an idea. What if...? Eventually, I not only got my suitcase back--I also got the idea for a mystery.
And finally--the dilemma is not just undercover, but under the covers. (Ahem.) In AIR TIME, Charlie's still married to her career. But in love as in life, how does she tell the real thing?
PS: Check out the cover of the new RT BookReviews. It is not available in Indianapolis, because my mother has purchased all of them.
Due to aging Oscar's bathroom misadventures, we decided a few months ago that all the dogs would begin spending the night together in our washroom, which has a tile floor. We put pillows in there, one larger than the other two. The larger one was designed for our bigger dog, Rocky, the smaller pillows for Oscar the dachsund and little Scrunch (origin unknown). The first night my husband herded them into the washroom, they were confused. The second night, less so. By the third night, they ran in without begin told. By the fourth night, Oscar had discovered that if he voluntarily went to bed before the other two, he got the big pillow.
I'd never thought of learning a life lesson from an old dachsund. But after watching him adapt and strategize, I realized I might take notes.
I can learn new routines. When I realized at the premiere of "True Blood" that I was expected to go through the press line instead of sneaking into the theater along with my family, I had a moment of sheer terror. This was so far outside my comfort zone it wasn't even in the same galaxy. But HBO had assigned a handler to me, and she explained the process to me so quickly and simply that I really felt comfortable about the whole thing . . . or at least I felt as though I could do it without hyperventilating. Now I know the procedure, and I can do it again; in fact I have, at ComicCon.
This week I'm going to learn a new set of skills. I'm going to do pitch meetings in Hollywood. Probably for nothing; that's how most such attempts work out. But it'll be something else I know how to do, and if I have to do it again, I won't be scared.
Writing every book is a new experience, too, and I think most writers would agree. Even for writers who have to fulfill house requirements, there's great leeway; and since there's no right or wrong way to write a book, there's always room for improvement. Writers who stop learning are like sharks that stop swimming.
That's a lot to learn from a dachsund.
A few weeks ago, Red Room asked all of its published authors to post a short blog about a mistake they made when they were first published, so aspiring writers could learn from them. My reaction was: Where to begin? Would they regard a few hundred pages of mistakes as “short”?
I finally decided to limit it to the mistake that stuck most firmly into my craw, whatever part of my body that might be: That I didn’t object to the cover my former publisher designed for my first book, Revenge of the Gypsy Queen.
That book did okay despite the cover. It was nominated for three major mystery awards and won a smaller award. And while I loved the book, and most aspects of the new-author experience, I disliked the cover. I also dreaded the questions I got about it from booksellers and readers. The cover art my publisher chose was of a theatrical curtain opening. The rationale explained to me was that the curtain was opening on a new author. I thought the cover was supposed to reflect the action depicted in the story, not the author. So why didn’t I say that?
It wasn't even that easy to identify for what it was. One bookseller asked, “What's with these bars on the cover?” Well, I guess the folds of the curtain did look something like bars. As much as anything else.
That publisher did a good job overall with the layout and other production values. And they even sprang for embossed lettering, for which I’ll always be grateful. But the sight of that curtain made me cringe. I wish I'd had the nerve to speak up. But as a new author, I didn't think I had that right.
I must confess, however, that I probably could not have designed a better cover myself. Though I have some design abilities, that I bring to websites, I don’t have a good illustrator-type mind when it comes to cover art. Despite having been a lifelong voracious reader, a published author for a number of years, and a bookseller for a while now, I know a great cover when I see one and I know a bad cover, but I usually couldn’t come up with alternatives for those bad covers.
I even understand why a particular cover sometimes doesn’t work for a particular book, but might for another. For example, we have a personal growth book at our store called Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps: How We're Different and What to Do About It. A customer special ordered it from me after giving his copy away. Since he raved about it, I ordered a copy for the store as well. I’ve come to share his good opinion about this book. It deals with the natures of the male and female brains, and how that affects our behaviors, as well as how we can better understand and communicate with each other.
It has surprised me that the book doesn’t sell well for us. When I hand-sell it to a particular customer, they always thank me afterwards and share my opinion. But not many customers pick it up without a recommendation. The issue might be that so many people have already read it — it has been a bestseller in the past. My apologies to its authors and publisher, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this book suffers from publishing schizophrenia. It treats a serious subject in an intelligent way. Yet its cartoonish cover suggests a less-than-sensitive approach. The wrong cover — even if it’s not an outright bad one — sends the wrong message. How does this cover strike you? Would you pick it up?
I lucked out with my current publishers, Cherokee McGhee Publishing and Red Coyote Press. They both sent my blatherings about my books onto their designers, and they captured the essences of my books. Here’s the new cover for Revenge of the Gypsy Queen. Quite a change from the “bars,” huh? Cherokee McGhee has designed equally great covers for the other books in the Tracy Eaton mystery series, Dem Bones’ Revenge and the forthcoming Revenge for Old Times’ Sake, capturing both the action of those mysteries, as well as the whimsy. You can take a gander at both of those covers by following those links to my website.
And here’s the cover for the first book in my new supernatural mystery-urban fantasy series, High Crimes on the Magical Plane. If I tried to design it, I hope I’d have captured an image of Samantha Brennan, my plump, fake psychic protagonist in some of her ditzy finery, but I doubt that I would have thought to couple her image with that of the fires that overtake Los Angeles at the peak of an inexplicable crime wave that brings the City of Angels to its knees. But I’m grateful that the designer portrayed those elements.
Published authors, how do you feel about your covers? Have you ever objected to one? Was it changed?
For those of you still awaiting publication, have you started thinking about your covers yet? Would you do a better job of visualizing yours?
Saturday, August 1, was the final day that Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts was officially open. It was a combination packing-up party and sale and it was a chance for some of us to say goodbye to a place that had been a home to the New England mystery community for decades. I went in, as many authors did, to help out for a bit. It was hot, dusty, and emotional, and like other events at Kate's, it was a time to see friends, catch up, talk books and buy books. I took some pictures, and they look like this, where you can see me in a loud aloha shirt and just behind, Lynne Heitman, but I think I'd rather remember Kate's bookstore with these other pictures.
Like this one, at one of Kate's mob-scene holiday parties, where you can see me yacking on the left, then Fellow Femme Toni Kelner, Sarah Stewart Taylor behind her, and in the great holiday sweater, Karen Olsen. Writers would come in shifts, stay long, and sign books. Readers would come in to meet their favorite writers and discover new ones. Everyone would eat and shop for presents. Moving around wasn't easy, but these parties marked one end of the year for New England mystery writers.
Then there were the anniversary parties. This was from the twenty-fifth anniversary of the store, and Kate herself (left) is talking with Linda Barnes.
There were meetings of local mystery groups and signings by authors from near and far (here's one, below, with Fellow Femme Donna, me, and Cynthia Riggs). It was a place to find new friends and new books.
If you are a reader or a writer who made Kate's a home-away-from-home or a pilgrimage destination, please join me in thanking Kate for having had her bookstore. Kate assures us she'll still be on the mystery scene in Cambridge and Boston, but it's sad to see the store itself closing.
Y'all are getting a break today. I have a new book out--Swan for the Money, latest in the Meg Langslow series, in which Meg copes with competitive rose growing, combative black swans, and belted Tennessee fainting goats. So I was going to devote my blog today to heavy BSP, with a side (buy my book) of subliminal (buy my book!) suggestions (you really need to buy this book!)
But I got the news from the folks at Minotaur, my publishers, that Swans will debut at #34 on the New York Times extended bestseller list, so apparently I need to thank a whole lot of readers who already bought the book! And in celebration, I'm going to skip the heavy BSP and tell you about something cool I saw on the day of my launch party: Oxford picket fences.
Mystery Loves Company, the bookstore that hosted my launch party, is located on the Eastern shore in the town of Oxford, Maryland. I was about to say picturesque--it is--but I wonder if the people of Oxford get a little tired of picturesque, along with quaint and scenic. Oxford is all that, and I was looking forward to having a few hours before my signing to stroll around Oxford and take some pictures. (At right: a typical stretch of Oxford picket fence).
Kathy handed me a little map and suggested that while I was in town, I might want to take a look at the town's newest sight: the Oxford picket fence project. Visitors to many cities around the world have seen the public art projects that were part of or modeled after the Cow Parade, in which local artists and other residents decorate life-sized fiberglass cows that are then displayed throughout the city as public art and, later, auctioned off to benefit various charities. Some cities have adapted the project with a local twist--Washington, D.C. had painted donkeys and elephants, and Baltimore went with crabs.
The Oxford Business Association decided to hold a similar fundraising project, but on a smaller scale—after all, it's a peaceful town with a few hundred people. And the life-sized fiberglass cows are pretty pricy for a small town. So after casting about for a local alternative, someone came up with the idea of using one of Oxford's unique architectural details: the Oxford picket fence. Which looks rather like an ordinary picket fence with the addition on top of each picket of an onion dome with a hole through the center.
No one knows when these charming fences first appeared in Oxford. Some local historians speculate that the first fences were created by seagoing carpenters who saw the onion dome shape during their travels to Russian, India, or the middle east. The earliest known photos of the town, from the mid 1800s, show them already in place, so they've graced the streets of Oxford for at least a century and a half.
The Oxford Business Association recruited a local woodworker to create a number of small stretches of fences, local artists and residents signed up to paint them each with a different locally inspired theme, and if you walk through the streets of Oxford this summer, you can inspect the results. Many of the local businesses can give you a small map showing where the fences are. And on October 10, the association will hold auction off the fences at an event to be held at the Oxford Community Center.
I'm not sure I found all the Oxford picket fences on display, and they might be adding more before October. If you're looking for a great way to spend an afternoon, you could do worse than to head down to Oxford . . . stroll around town seeing the sights, including the fences . . . eat at one of the waterfront restuarants . . . and maybe drop by Mystery Loves Company for a good book.
And in case you can't get to Oxford, the bookstore does mail order, and here's a gallery of my Oxford fence photos.