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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Looking into the past...

I just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Yes, I know the book has been out for years but my TBR pile is so high I'm surprised I got to it at all.

It was not at all what I'd expected. I suppose I expected something funny, something scandalous... But instead, I found myself confronting memories of my past.

You see, in 1967 I moved with my family from New Jersey to the Mississippi Delta. My father was an FBI Agent and he was placed in charge of the Greenville, Mississippi office. The 1960's was a violent decade filled with images of the Vietnam War, draft dodgers, campus riots... And in the Mississippi Delta, it was also filled with cross burnings, molotov cocktails, beatings and lynchings.

I remember my mother marveling that "even the maids have maids" in Greenville. The neighbor children on either side of us, in fact, were being raised by maids who arrived every morning and departed just after suppertime. The buses ran in one direction in the morning - from the black homes to the white homes - and in the opposite direction in the evening, all to bring the maids to their employers.

It was a time when black people had to enter stores by a different door - and only those stores who wanted to accept their business. They were generally not served in the same restaurants but could sometimes buy food from the restaurant's back door. Water fountains were for white people only, and occasionally there would be another water fountain or perhaps a pipe for the black people. Rest rooms in public places were never shared under any circumstances. The white schools got the supplies they needed while the black schools made do.

Our family was appalled at the treatment of human beings of color and I watched my mother time and time again go out of her way to be nice to them. (We did not have a maid, by the way; my mother believed in raising her children herself.) My father's work involved breaking up the Ku Klux Klan, which the FBI did successfully, greatly reducing their ranks and bringing to justice many who had committed violent acts.

I couldn't wait to get out of the Delta and at my first opportunity - in 1976 - I did just that.

But in reading The Help, it also showed me just how far we've come.

Who would have thought in 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered for attempting to register black voters, that in less than 50 years we would have a black president in the White House?

Who would have believed that the days of segregation would become such a distant memory that our children and our children's children cannot even imagine it?

My favorite song of all time is Imagine by John Lennon. It was written in 1971 and released in 1975 (1980 in the UK) when America was still undergoing radical changes.

I like to think that we're moving toward a world in which we accept all human beings regardless of their race or color.

Friday, April 11, 2014

In search of other life...

Science has made quantum leaps over my lifetime, in particular with regard to exploring our universe.

One of Saturn's moons, Enceladus, is barely 300 miles in diameter which means if you could drive a car along its circumference it would take roughly six hours at 50 miles an hour to drive all the way around it. It is covered in ice that scientists believe is around 19 to 25 miles thick.

What is so interesting about Enceladus is the recent discovery of an ocean beneath that thick layer of ice. The ocean might be regional and so far scientists believe it is around 6 miles deep.

Why is this interesting?

When I was a little girl, my grandfather had a saying when something was deemed impossible: "You can no longer do that than place a man on the moon." Well, of course in my lifetime I've not only seen us place many men on the moon, but we've also launched satellites which are still in orbit, we've launched exploratory spacecraft both manned and unmanned, and we have the International Space Station where people live for months at a time.

So as we continue our exploration of our universe and those beyond it, it stands to reason that we'll need some pit stops along the way, especially when we begin sending men and women into the farthest reaches. Those pit stops should be able to sustain life, and the most fundamental ingredient is water. Enceladus, then, is getting scientists' attention because with water comes life forms. They might be in their infancy - microbes - or they may discover something more.

The spacecraft Cassini has, to date, flown past Endeladus 19 times. Each time it has measured the force of gravity on this moon, and  in its explorations it discovered water gushing out of its south pole. It has even determined that this water is salty - another ingredient for life.

The more that is discovered about our universe, the more fascinating it becomes.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How to kill someone you like...

I just finished reading a suspense novel with a time travel element. I've come to the conclusion that I enjoy books involving time travel because they take me back to various eras while I can continue looking at them through the lens of the present day.

In this latest novel, the woman who travels back in time meets a man who is purportedly her soul mate. She accompanies him on a history-altering battle in which he sees her about to be attacked and throws himself in front of her. Unlike books that have a happily-ever-after, her soul mate dies in defense of her - right there on the battlefield.

In the paragraphs that follow, it's about her preparing to return to her own time because her work there is finished. With her soul mate gone, there's no reason to hang around.

I had issues with that.

The way I saw it, the man would not have died if she had not traveled back in time and accompanied him to the battlefield. She'd done nothing on the battlefield to help his people; in fact, they lost. And while I didn't form a complete picture of this character in my mind's eye, he seemed like a good, decent person. So why kill him? For the convenience of sending her forward in time without regrets?

I think there's a way to kill a character that the reader has come to like. His death must stand for something; he has to alter history or at least a few people's fates to give meaning to his death. We've all read true stories or seen movies based on historical figures whose deaths changed history, often heralding in much-needed changes. Millions sat through The Passion of the Christ because they knew one man's crucifixion would change the course of human history. But what if nothing changed after his death? What then?

One could argue that fiction is... fictional. And of course the author can write whatever they wish, however they wish. But I think when we introduce a character that we want the reader to connect with, to like, and to recognize he or she is a good and decent person... We owe it to them to give their death meaning.

What do you think?

Friday, April 4, 2014

When that bright object in the night sky is NOT the moon...

If you've been paying attention to the night sky lately, you might have noticed something besides the moon rising into the night sky.

It's the planet Mars, converging close to Earth over the next month.

You can see Mars rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west. At midnight each night over the next few weeks, it will be almost directly overhead.

On April 8, it will be closer to the Earth than at any time in more than two years, and on that same date, the Earth, the Sun and in between, Mars - will all be lined up almost perfectly straight.

On April 14, Mars will come even closer. In fact, it will be so close that our astronauts would be able to reach it in just six months' time.

On April 14, we will also have a full lunar eclipse and our moon will turn as bright red as Mars itself.

Watch this video from NASA for more information:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Face it: the unknown is frightening...

Writing suspense/thrillers means becoming an expert on what frightens people. And let's face it: it's the unknown that scares us more than anything we can see with our own eyes.

It's the shadowy figure in Vicki's bathroom that moves in a disjointed, grotesque way... And isn't there when she turns on the light. (Vicki's Key)

It's not knowing when the bad guys are going to show up once the trap has been set - and not really knowing whether the trap will work. (Secrets of a Dangerous Woman)

It's riding on horseback into the mists of the bogs in Ireland as midnight approaches and not being able to see anything around you. (Dylan's Song)

Or finding out that the cameras installed in your home weren't put there by an alarm company - and not knowing what the viewers on the other end might have seen. (The Pendulum Files)

It could be arriving on deserted beaches in the dark of night after a hurricane devastated the island, knowing the killer is there, feeling his eyes on your back. (The Tempest Murders)

Or it could be something that seems to be completely innocent, like Detective Ryan O'Clery finding a pacifier on his office desk - and realizing the killer was in his little girl's room at home and also managed to get into his police department office. (The White Devil of Dublin, due out this fall)

What frightens you?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

When a good girl crosses the line...

I've often described Vicki Boyd, one of the main characters in the Black Swamp Mysteries series, as a good girl who stays between the lines.

Well, turns out, that's not really true.

Vicki wants to stay within the lines; she really does. But sometimes things happen beyond her control.

There was the little matter of a dead body in her bedroom in Vicki's Key. No, of course she didn't call the police. Instead, she helped hide the body... which meant feeding it to the alligators in the black water of the Lumber River...

In Secrets of a Dangerous Woman, when she discovered her sister, bad girl Brenda Carnegie, knocked unconscious by a bad guy, she dragged her sister into the coal cellar - but not before using some pretty vicious moves Dylan taught her to fend off attackers. Let's just say that guy won't be having children any time soon.

Then in Dylan's Song, she witnessed three men surrounding her lover - and well, she just couldn't let that happen. So off she went with a pistol in hand. Turned out, she really didn't know how to use it so when she attempted to fire a warning shot... well, it hit one of the men.

Her response? Oops.

Sometimes a good girl just can't help being bad.

And who would I want to play Vicki if the series was turned into film? Amy Adams, pictured here.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Exit 22 Gets a Makeover...

With the continued success of the Black Swamp Mysteries series, it was decided to give the first book, Exit 22, a makeover.

Here's the original cover:

And here's the new cover:

Which one pulls you in more, and why?