Sunday, August 29, 2010

Toe Tapping . . . by Molly MacRae

Every so often someone in an online group asks what kind of music other members listen to when they write. Instrumental? Classical? Jazz? Only vocals in languages you don't understand so you can't stop and sing along? And does your music choice influence the tenor of your writing - if Miles Davis is wailing in the background, do your characters spend the day frolicking at the beach or are they walking city streets alone after dark?

My answers to any of those questions vary according to the day and what I'm working on, though I rarely listen to vocals when I'm writing. I find that even if I don't know what the members of Runrig are singing in Gaelic, I'll make up my own words and sing anyway. It doesn't bother them, but it keeps me from getting much done. When I'm writing a short story I often listen continuously to the same piece of music or CD. Does that somehow help the story have a consistent voice? I don't know, but it hasn't seemed to hurt.

Another question I like is what do your characters listen to? In Lawn Order, Margaret Welsh has a shoebox full of CDs she plays for background music in her bookstore. One of the CDs is The Gaelic Collection by Runrig. She enjoys joining the band with her own words as much as I do. A CD Margaret only recently discovered is Yours Truly by Natalie MacMaster. (It came out in 2006 but Margaret isn't always on top of anything other than her book business.) Although it doesn't say so in the book, Margaret two-steps to "Volcanic Jig" from Yours Truly in the after hours dance scene on page 250.

I'm in the beginning chapters of a new project and don't know, yet, what kinds of music these new characters listen to. I get the feeling a few of them listen to stuff I ordinarily avoid. Such a shame, but it takes all kinds - of characters and music. It'll be fun sorting it all out along the way.

Friday, August 27, 2010

RESEARCH IS A TRIP by Sarah Wisseman

I’m taking a voyage—into the past. To Prohibition era central Illinois, when speakeasies and blind pigs flourished in my hometown of Champaign-Urbana and bootleggers were kings.  My fifth novel stars a physician who’s also an amateur archaeologist, his German wife, and a flapper daughter. The research is time-consuming but fun: I’ve taken historical tours of theaters and banks downtown, rummaged through archives on paper and online, and reread F. Scott Fitzgerald with a whole new slant.

I expected to write another archaeological novel, but instead I am embroiled in fascinating ways to make, dispense, and transport bootleg liquor. Pool halls that morph into bars with the touch of a lever, home parlors where hooch is poured down tubes by ten-year-old proprietors, and drinking joints disguised as laundries, bookstores, smithies, and lawyer’s offices. I’d be tempted to try some of the recipes, only that involves using lead-lined radiators, wood alcohol, embalming fluid, and all sorts of unregulated additives!

We used to live in Cincinnati, a fascinating town with a rich history. Recently I stumbled upon an online chapter of a book, Brother, Can You Spare a Drink? by Allen Singer:  Wonderful stuff! I especially like the booze tube covered with a throw rug and artistically strewn schoolbooks…Thank you, Allen.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Write What You Hear . . .by Molly MacRae

The characters wandering around in my head don't talk to me. Maybe they would if I approached them, but I prefer to eavesdrop. They chatter to each other and I have the enviable position of being the fly on the wall. Although, as this all happens inside my skull, maybe that image doesn't quite work. Anyway, they're alive and yakking around up there and that's fine by me.

Margaret, Bitsy, and Leona are especially entertaining as they snipe and maneuver around each other. They seem to have a fondness for interrupting while I'm cooking supper. Are they clamoring for my attention? I don't know, but as I always stop to transcribe their conversations, their gabbing often leads to setting dinner on the table later than I intended or to snatching a dish from the jaws of the oven in the split second before it's too late.

I don't know what part of my brain my characters inhabit, but they offer comfortable, witty, contemplative, sometimes confrontational, and always imaginative conversations. Distracting though they are, it's great fun listening to them and I hope they never move out.

(Illustration - copyright Hank Blaustein - from the short story "Missing Something" in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May 2000.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


My husband Charlie, a retired pathologist, is a ghoul. On an airplane from Luxor to Cairo, Egypt, I told him I had a new plot for an archaeological mystery, The House of the Sphinx. He listened to my ideas for skullduggery set in the Temple of Luxor and the fabulous site of Karnak. “Fine,” he said. “But what about adding a little bioterrorism?”

This sparked an interesting discussion about which diseases could be used as bioweapons.  Instead of reliving our wonderful visit to the Valley of the Kings, I grilled my husband on the symptoms and treatment for smallpox and how Europeans transmitted the disease to Native Americans using contaminated blankets.

Back home, I researched the terrifying saga of smallpox in books, articles, and on the Internet. Because it is a virus that is easy to transmit during the early and unrecognizable stages of the disease, smallpox is difficult to contain and treat. Over thirty percent of people who get sick die, and survivors are often blinded or otherwise disfigured. Officially, smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1979, but the virus stocks in select research facilities were never destroyed...

What if, I asked myself, my archaeologist heroine stumbled upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox? What if there really was a stash of smallpox virus somewhere that terrorists could obtain and weaponize? Not a new I idea, I discovered, as I read Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer. Although nonfiction, it read like a thriller, and scared me silly.  Preston’s descriptions of smallpox laboratories and frozen virus stashes in the former Soviet Union and Iraq provided me with plenty of fodder for further research, including how to manage a modern smallpox epidemic (I visited the website of the Centers for Disease Control).

Some research can make you paranoid. As I googled how to turn frozen smallpox virus into a stable, disease-transmitting powder, I wondered if other people were tracking my Internet use. Would someone show up on my doorstep to investigate me as a terrorist? Would being a mystery writer be a good enough excuse to get me off the hook? It didn’t happen, but I discovered my own ghoulish tendencies in my fascination with the history of one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

Many writers now say, “write want you want to know,” instead of “write what you know.” I say, use what you know as a jumping off point for new research, no matter how grisly. I’m an archaeologist, not a physician or medical historian, but being married to a doctor has taught me just enough about medicine to be dangerous, to want to learn more. And perhaps I was getting a little tired of killing my villains with priceless Greek vases and Roman statues—it was time for a change.


Lawn Order coming in December 2010! by Molly MacRae

Lawn Order, a tale of southern sisters and poisoned pigeons, is Margaret & Bitsy's debut novel. Margaret & Bitsy have been entertaining readers since 1990 in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.