Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Scorpion House is up on Kindle!

Serendipity: The art of finding something good when you're not looking for it. (my definition) If you read Scorpion House you'll find a bit about ancient Egyptian herbal medicine woven into the story. It's all, as far as I can determine,  accurate. But how I came by this information was pure serendipity.

Strychnine tree on Kitchener's Island,
 near Aswan, Egpyt. Misclassified, but
who cares?
First off, my MS degree is in Botany with a major in Plant Physiology. My research was primarily on an obscure compound called phytochrome, a blue pigment present in some plants but in such tiny amounts you'll never actually see any. When I went to Egypt, I already had the characters of Dr. Lacy Glass and her soon-to-be-friend, Dr. Paul Hannah in my mind. If Lacy's area of expertise was to be plant pigments (chosen, I'll admit, for convenience since I already knew something about it) how was I to work that into a story about archaeology, ancient Egypt, and exploration? Pigment. Color. Paint. Dye. Paint on walls of tombs. Dye on fabric. Linen fabric also found in tombs. Got it.

I needed to know more about all the ways the ancient Egyptians used plants. They ate them, of course, they used herbs in making medicines, and vegetable dyes on fabrics. But which ones, specifically? What plants grew along the Nile around 1500 B.C. and what did the people know about how to use them? As I made my way down river from Aswan to Luxor and finally to Cairo, I asked every guide, scoured every bookstore, and learned exactly nothing. Plants? Medicines? Recipes? Why are you asking? Strange woman.

Ricinus communis, near Aswan, Egypt.
Ricin is the most toxic compound known.
 A ricin pellet in the tip of an umbrella killed Georgi Markov.
On my very last day, our group was in Cairo with a morning scheduled for the Egyptian museum. I needed a lot more time than that but, omigod, our guide got the time mixed up and made us leave an hour early. I had barely gotten started when I had to leave through a veil of tears.

There's a book shop on the right as you leave the museum and I glanced at the display prominent at its entrance. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal by Lise Manniche, an Egyptologist and a true expert in the very things I needed to know. That book, now falling apart, and my email contacts with Dr. Manniche, have helped me no end in writing this story.

Is everything in the book 100% accurate? Of course not. It's fiction.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dark and Stormy Nights

My neighborhood is socked in by fog this morning. Driving to an early appointment, I became acutely aware of how slowly one must go in a fog to allow for the unexpected like the dog dashing out or the trashcan blown into the middle of the street. Allow for the unexpected. But you can't, can you? How do you allow for the car lurking, lights off, motor running. Waiting for YOU. If you're on foot, how, in a dense fog, do you allow for the assailant behind the tree? That's why so many mysteries, thrillers, and scary movies use fogs. Imagine Jack the Ripper's London with no fog. How about a bright sunny day? Loses something, doesn't it?

The setting is so very important in a story. In spite of the cliche, a mystery is more so when lit sporadically by a flash of lightning. I think all writers use it, albeit unconsciously sometimes.

I like to think of weather as a handy tool to use whenever the story needs it. In Death of a Second Wife (coming out in June) I use a late snow in the Alps to cover footprints and to hide a clue until I'm ready to let the snow melt and reveal it. In Scorpion House, set on the west bank of the Nile where it hardly ever rains, I needed an emergency at one point to throw the characters into fast gear. How about a flash flood? Great. One thing about an arid region. When it does rain, the water can't sink in so it runs off. I recalled a film loop I used to show when I taught earth science, in which a flash flood in the desert comes barreling down a dry river bed like the wrath of God. The topography of my setting, just east of the Valley of the Kings, was perfect for the flash flood from hell. So I made it rain.

Have you ever seen Body Heat with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner? Brilliant movie, and the way they used the sweltering, sticky, Florida Gulf Coast summer, the lazy saxophone . . . makes me hot just thinking about it. I've heard it said that setting is like a character in the story. Personally, I think it's more important than that.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rutgers dorm case

I'm concerned about yesterday's decision in the Rutgers dorm case. Having just read several articles on the trial, it seems to me there was plenty of evidence of cyberbullying on phones, Twitter and Facebook. As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that I've seen bullying and it makes my blood boil. Kids can be cruel, but kids should be taught that it's wrong. To feel what another is feeling is called empathy and it should start to develop in children by about age two or three. Why it doesn't sometimes, why it may be missing when the child reaches his teens, I don't know. I suspect there's more than one reason. But it's still wrong. That's not what's bothering me.

What's bothering me is that the main issue both inside and outside the courtroom became, what Mr. Ravi and Mr. Clementi were thinking. Why does that matter? This is beginning to sound scarily like the "thoughtcrimes" in Orwell's 1984. Or am I so behind the times I don't realize we've passed that year and moved on into the Brave New World where you can go to jail for what you're thinking.

Brain scans can now reveal whether you are thinking or not, but they still can't reveal what you're thinking. If we still have freedom of speech, am I wrong to assume we also have freedom of thought? That our thoughts are our own and no one else has the right to intrude on them or tell us what they should consist of?

That being said, it does seem as if Rutgers could have moved these two young men to different rooms.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Where are you going this year?

I'm tired of talking about where I'm going. I want to hear where you're going. Why are you going there? Who's going with you? You don't have to actually give me their names. I'm interested in the reasons and places you go because I want to send Dotsy, Lettie, or Lacy there and make it the setting for a book. What's on your bucket list? I'll tell you a few that are on mine. I want to go to India. I want to go to China. Tierra del Fuego. Huh? That's at the very southern-most tip of South America and I understand the suicide rate there is the highest in the world. So it's bound to be gloomy and depressing. Great grist for the mill of a mystery writer. I'm one of the dozen or so people in the U.S. who has never been to Disneyworld. I might like to go there sometime but only after I've done all the ones listed above. Okay. Your turn. Maria

Saturday, March 10, 2012

History's Mysteries

Why do we feel as if we have to attribute histories greatest mysteries to aliens?  How did the ancient Egyptians, who had yet to realize how useful a wheel could be, build the pyramids? They didn't; aliens did. Why did the ancient Peruvians draw the Nazca Lines so large? So aliens could see them better. What's the purpose of the standing stones arranged in lines and circles all over Europe? To attract aliens. Who first used fire and how did they start it? Early men, but they didn't start it. Aliens landed and taught them how to rub sticks together.

And then you have Atlantis--great civilization, much greater than ours, but it sank somewhere and now we can't find it. King Arthur definitely lived, was a great king, and his court (sometime in the 4th to 5th century) lived and dressed in the style of the Tudors (their juniors by more than a millenium.) Need we talk about secrets of the Knights Templar? Those poor guys who got burned at the stake because they made too much money? (Watch out Wall St. fat cats!)

We have only two real answers to these mysteries:  "I don't know," and "There's no way to find out." Sorry, but that's it. The human mind rebels. Nature abhors a vacuum and humans abhor a puzzle they can't solve.  Not surprisingly, a number of entrepreneurs have proposed the alien theory and others to sell books and  TV documentaries. I don't knock it. Just wish I'd thought of it myself.

I do still have hopes for vibrations locked in ancient pottery.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John Buchan is best known for The 39 Steps, made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. This is the story Hitchcock wanted to do but Buchan wanted too much money. Like 39 Steps, this is a man-on-the-run thriller starring Richard Hannay, who nevertheless hardly ever goes by this name in the story.

Set in Europe and Asia Minor in 1914. Hannay and 3 compatriots are assigned the task of discovering the meaning of a cryptic message that seems to have grave implications for the Allies in the inevitable war to come. Buchan gives the reader a vivid picture of what it's like mentally and physically to be a spy. I was looking forward to the part of the story that took place in Istanbul, but that turned out to be the least interesting part. The ending was weird. I don't have it figured out yet.