Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Within This Wooden O: The Globe"

        On this date, June 29, the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613.  
        For years I taught high school students about the Globe Theatre, but I never had a chance to see London or the new replica of the theatre.  In March, 2011, through the auspices of my older son and daughter-in-law, I had the good fortune to visit London and the Globe. Because the trip was mainly to Italy, I had only a 24-hour layover in London, so I wanted to visit Westminster Abbey, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Globe, and any other sights we could manage in a short time.  The trip to Southwark to see the new Globe was worth it.
        A little background.  The Globe was constructed in 1599 by Cuthbert and Richard Burbage from the timbers of another building known as The Theatre.  The story goes that they took the timber across London Bridge in the dead of night to escape some legal complications. [Those theatre people were always in legal trouble, you know!] They built the Globe on Bankside on the south side of the Thames River in the suburb of Southwark--a dark, working class area even today.  Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed in this theatre.  A line from Henry V, "Within this Wooden O," caused historians to believe the building was circular or polygonal and the middle was open to the sky. 
        On June 29, 1613, it burned to the ground in less than two hours during Shakespeare's historical play, King Henry VIII.  A shot from a canon, probably to signal the king's entrance in Act I, caught the Globe's thatch roof on fire.  No one died in the blaze and all the spectators got out the two narrow doors to safety.  This, in itself, was an amazing feat, so I'd assume panic did not set in.
        A second theatre was built in the spring of 1614 with a roof of fire-resistant tiles [Who says insurance companies don't learn from their heavy losses?] It was used for 28 years until the Civil War and the Puritan Commonwealth deemed plays sinful and closed the theatres in 1642.  This led to the demolition of Globe II in 1644. (You can read further about its history with Shakespeare here.)
        I was fortunate to see the new Globe built by American actor, Sam Wanamaker, which was opened June 12, 1997, by Queen Elizabeth. (You can read about the twenty-year endeavor here.) It was a wet, gloomy, cold, March day and I could feel all the discomfort of the groundings in a wooden structure with no heat or electricity. The rain was pouring down during much of our tour, and the wooden benches were amazingly hard. I couldn't imagine sitting for three or four hours, watching a play, on these seats. [And these weren't the cheap seats.]On the tour I was gratified to discover that everything I had taught during all those high school years was accurate.  
        This year's visitors to the Olympics will be able to see part of the 2012 theatre season at The Globe.  It features such favorites as Henry V, Richard III, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet, among other plays.  What an amazing opportunity to view Shakespeare as it was presented over four hundred years ago. [Make sure you check for the "exit" signs just in case they shoot a canon.]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Humpty Dumpty Revisited With a New Ending

        It has been an interesting experience to have a bone-breaking accident during my senior citizen age of 65. My blog will be on "hold" for a few days while I have surgery to take out the metal that was originally put in to help my bones heal. I must say, however, that I have truly learned the meaning of the word "accident" after this little affair; I've had a first-hand experience with multiple health insurance companies; and I've been reminded of why I live in a small town of 10,000 in a part of America where people are genuine.

        Last August I took a nasty fall on a poorly maintained piece of sidewalk where I worked. I broke my left elbow, right wrist, and nose all in a few seconds. I was walking down the sidewalk to my car carrying several framed photographs in the crook of my left arm. My right arm swung at my side and my purse hung from my right shoulder. I glanced up briefly to see where I had parked my car and that's all she wrote. The toe of my foot caught in a spot where the slabs of concrete didn't quite meet. [At this point I will apologize to all who inquired about my poor balance. True, I fell, but it wasn't my balance that caused it. However, I didn't need to give you a prickly reply.]
        Fortunately, my cell phone fell out of my purse onto the sidewalk and, while I could see my wrist was ballooning up, I managed to dial 911.Two of my former students came with the fire engine and an ambulance [talk about embarrassing], and managed to cart me off to the hospital fifteen minutes away. Of course, the first problem was remembering which hospital my insurance would cover since the insurance had recently changed. That resolved, I got excellent care at the emergency room. Then the question arose about the only surgeon on call: would he be covered by my insurance? As it happened, he would be. [An aside about surgeons: I believe the more unique your problem--such as my elbow--the more intrigued your surgeon will be. I had multiple areas to work on. Fantastic!]
        Like an old used car, I had to wait three days in the hospital for parts before they could repair me. But after the surgery, as I healed, I had occupational therapy which helped me relearn how to feed myself, open door knobs, and put on my seat belt.
        In the meantime, the insurance company I had had was denying all claims, the insurance company I was now with was denying all claims, and eventually it was correctly deemed a worker's comp accident. I now have three huge files of correspondence from these people. Then when I added Medicare--two months after my fall--they sent me letters double checking that they hadn't paid anything for which they were not responsible. I often ask myself how folks older than I manage to keep all these inquiries straight.
        While I am the bionic woman at the moment, I soon will not be. The screws in my elbow are fully visible and my wrist could use more range of motion. So my bionic parts are now going to exit. They were only necessary to heal the bones and now their continued presence is uncomfortable.

        The bottom line of this whole ugly episode that I will soon put behind me, is that it has reminded me of what a blessing it is to live in a small town where word, especially bad news, travels fast. I have had no end of help from friends, acquaintances, and well-wishers. They fed me, stayed with me, drove me to doctor's appointments, and cheered me up.  I am truly blessed and that is one of the reasons I write about life in a small town in the middle of America. While this life may lack a bit in privacy, it sure makes up for that when you need friends.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Hook of a Book: It's a Mystery

Do you recognize these famous first lines from novels?
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
          "It was a pleasure to burn."
     "All children, except one, grow up."
         "Call me Ishmael."

        If you guessed Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, and Moby-Dick, then you are the fish that these authors hooked.  Sometimes the hardest part of writing a book is the first line. If you read books about the process of writing, you'll often discover that authors spend days, weeks, months, coming up with that perfect first line.

That hook must interest, thrill, foreshadow, intrigue, delight, and/or steal your mind completely, and all in a single line. Mystery Scene magazine devotes a page in each of their issues to announce some of the best first lines in new mysteries and thrillers.

        And why is that first line so difficult? It must promise an adventure that will keep the reader's attention past the first page.  Once promised, it must deliver.  In the first example, we are promised the adventure of the universal man/woman chase, exemplified by the Bennet daughters snaring husbands, and we also preview the character flaws that will separate Elizabeth and Darcy for a considerable clump of pages. The irony of the line in Bradbury's book is that the fireman first burns books and then discovers the power of their words.  In Peter Pan, the reader wonders, "Who is this child that never grows up?" "And why does he never grow up?"  And finally, we wonder about the identity of Ishmael and what story he has to tell.

        When I joined a writing group a few years ago, I discovered that often the first two or three pages of a manuscript are composed of "spinning your wheels." [Well, all right.  It might be the first fifteen or twenty pages.] If you cut out several paragraphs or pages, you may find a better place to start.  Your hook is often part way through the first chapter.  It might be a conversation between two characters where the reader comes in during the middle of the dialogue.  This creates a situation in which the reader is eavesdropping and trying to figure out what is going on.

        The hook could also foreshadow what is coming, begin the action immediately, or hint at a main character that piques our interest, especially if that character has a few flaws.

"I often wonder if my life would have turned out differently if I hadn't picked up the gun lying on the floor beside his body."

"Like a silk scarf--a filmy one--falling through the air in slow motion--gliding, twisting, turning--the whiff of smoke floated silently into her dream."

"Despite the fact that there was no body, she planned the funeral, distributed a few of his personal things to his family, and took off her wedding ring after months of agonizing.  Then, walking down Fifth Avenue on a miserably foggy, damp, morning, she saw him--her dead husband--walking toward her with another woman."  [Okay, so that was two lines.]

"On Thursday, right after celebrating my fiftieth birthday, blowing out the candles, and drinking a teensy bit more than I should have with friends, I got the worst phone call a sister could ever receive."

Each of these "hooks" could begin a mystery, and one of them is the current first line of my book in progress.  But I won't tell you which one.  It's a mystery.

Brief Notice

Just a brief post that I have, as you may have noticed, slowed down a bit on posting. I'm in the middle of writing a novel and this has slowed down my posts. However, I will try to put one up per week and I have a new one coming today or tomorrow. Thanks for your patience.

Friday, June 8, 2012

What Do I Know About Dead Bodies, Guns or Fires?

        What do I know about dead bodies, guns, or fires? I've been a high school English teacher most of my life. Since I'm working on a novel that has all three, I decided I needed to do some sleuthing and find out as much as I could. I interviewed several local people to get information that would make my novel more realistic, especially since it is set in the fictional small town of Endurance, Illinois.
        The first interview for my book in progress, A Silent Place to Die, was with Bill Underwood, county coroner for Warren County, Illinois. During my interview I was struck by three things: how knowledgeable he was, how compassionate he was toward the victims and their families, and how up to date he was on the changes in his field. He is definitely a professional in every way.
        I was looking for answers to questions about the deaths of my characters. When researching a book, authors learn far more than they can ever use, but sometimes those journeys off the beaten path result in ideas the author hadn't considered before. So all research is ultimately important.
        I was particularly interested in shootings, stabbings, and fire deaths. And no, my interest has no connection whatsoever with the students I taught over the past forty-four years. Not even subconsciously.
        I asked Bill for his qualifications for the coroner's job since I know he isn't a doctor. He studied mortuary science so he is eminently qualified to deal with death and dead bodies. It became apparent, as I questioned him, that he has seen some amazing circumstances during his time on the job.
        In our county, Underwood is the gateway for laying people to rest. Usually he has 140 cases a year and 250 deaths. He signs both death and cremation certificates and both are filed electronically. No one can be buried or cremated without a signed certificate, so if there is a question, the certificate is held up until the death is investigated. The coroner can also order an autopsy even if the family does not agree. Whenever there is any suspicion about a death, the coroner has checks that can keep a body from being disposed of until the suspicion is put to rest.
        The coroner orders tests when there is an autopsy. Usually he does toxicology tests and tissue blocks, and he always keeps sample tissues. The best test, especially for DUI, is from the vitreous fluid in the eye. [I don't even want to think about that one.] The medical authorities also save samples of tissue from brain, liver, lungs and other organs.
        Bill is called out to home deaths, ER deaths, hospital deaths less than 24 hours old, suicides, homicides, and sometimes hospice deaths.
        When he is called to a death scene, Bill takes photos or has the Illinois State Police take photos, say, in a gunshot death. He talks to authorities and witnesses at the scene and, in the case of a fire, waits for the fire marshal. The coroner has two jobs at the scene: (1) get the body removed once photos and an exam are done; and (2) notify the family. The latter is very important and, unfortunately, because private citizens can now buy scanners and hear the names, notification sometimes becomes a nightmare.
        Several examinations determine cause and manner of death. At the scene the coroner checks for the time of death which might be determined by rigor mortis and/or lividity. Rigor mortis is the stiffening and contraction of the muscles due to chemical reactions that take place within the muscle cells after death. Lividity is the discoloration of portions of the body due to gravity which causes stagnant blood to settle into lower areas of the body [D.P. Lyle, Forensics: A Guide for Writers.]Sometimes the coroner takes the body temperature. In adults the core temperature goes down one degree per hour and in children two degrees per hour after death.
        If the death is suspicious, Underwood accompanies the body to an autopsy or one of his deputies does. He has four deputies scattered through local funeral homes. It is important to keep the "chain of evidence" intact. Bill signs a card saying he has checked the body at the scene and accompanied it, or caused it to be accompanied by qualified personnel.
        I asked Underwood about inquests because I remember reading about them in newspapers. In fact, in Galesburg I read a newspaper account of an inquest concerning a fire that happened years ago, resulting in a fatality. Inquests were public meetings that always used to be held because of the law. But recently the law was changed to say an inquest "may" be held. So rarely are they held now except in the case of a suspicious death. The coroner can call the inquest with a jury pool of six people. He brings in witnesses and uses depositions to indicate the cause of death and how it will be labeled. There are five causes of death: homicide, suicide, natural, undetermined, and accidental.
        Funny, but in my book no one dies naturally. I believe it has several homicides. Who says a retired English teacher's life is dull?


Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Silent Place to Die (Introducing TJ Sweeney)

     In a previous post I introduced Grace Kimball, the main character in my book in progress, A Silent Place to Die.  Grace is helped in her amateur sleuthing by a female detective on the Endurance police force named TJ Sweeney, a native of Endurance who grew up with her mama and brother, Tyrone.  Their dad left long ago for another woman, but TJ's mom never divorced him.  "Marriage is forever," she used to say.
     Here is how Grace and TJ's paths crossed in the small town of Endurance.
     When Teresa Johanna (TJ) signed up for high school, she was placed in Ms. Grace Kimball's advanced English class, much against her will.  The first couple of weeks she looked around her at all the white faces and decided she would opt out.  This class wasn't for her.
     To her astonishment, Ms. Kimball showed up at her house one day after school and talked to her and her mother.  They sat down with fresh lemonade and cookies.  When her mama explained that Teresa was unhappy in the class, Grace assured her that TJ should be there.  "And what do you want with a skinny-ass black girl in this white bread class?" TJ asked with appropriate sarcasm.
     That was when Grace made them both a promise.  "Your daughter has great potential.  She's smart and reads and writes beautifully.  If she works hard, takes college prep classes, and does well on her college entrance tests, she can write her own ticket to college."
     "And who's gonna pay for this ticket?" Mama asked.
     "She'll get scholarships."
     "We don't accept no charity," Mama mumbled.
     "This wouldn't be charity.  It would be recognition that she has great promise and our world can use her talents.  It would be a chance for her to find out what she can do."
     "We've done been promised before."
     "This time will be different.  Intelligence, hard work, perseverance;  they will pay off.  Let her try it just one year and see what happens."
     So Mama said "yes" and the sulky TJ was captured in Grace Kimball's net.
     After that the world opened.  TJ read Richard Wright's Native Son and Black Boy and intriguing books about other worlds like those of Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet.  She read books by and about strong women.  After high school she won a scholarship to the state university where she began by majoring in English, but then she fell in love with law enforcement and decided she had found her niche.  After college she took the police exam for Endurance and came home to keep an eye on her mama.
     By the time A Silent Place to Die opens, TJ has advanced up the ranks to police detective.  She and Grace have a tight friendship as adults, and she has moved into Grace's circle of friends.  
     In the opening chapter of the novel, TJ helps their friends celebrate Grace's retirement.  Little do they know that in the coming weeks Grace will start down a path that will put her in a great deal of danger.  A murder will cause the town to be stirred up and fearful and Grace will end up in the middle of it all.  The retired teacher doesn't realize that folks she sees every day in Endurance have dark secrets to hide, secrets for which they will kill.  TJ knows the darker side of the small town, but will she be able to keep Grace safe?