Talks and more

One of the things I most enjoy doing as a writer is going out and talking to readers. I have audiences from a few people all the way up to more than 100. Some of them are wonderful and some challenge me and make me think on my feet, (One audience member accused me of helping teach people how to murder.)

After this busy summer, I have a few weeks off and then I have a talk coming up at the Elm Street Bookstore in New Canaan, Ct. After that, on September 23, I have a talk on Genres (from the librarian side of life) to the local chapter of the Sisters and Crime.

In October I will be at Bouchercon in Toronto, then, in quick succession, at the Bookloft Bookstore in Great Barrington, Mass and the following Friday, October 27, at the bookstore in Chappaqua.

The exciting life of a writer!

Christmas Customs 1790’s to Now


We take so many Christmas customs for granted that we almost assume that they have always been enjoyed. Not so. A visit to Colonial Williamsburg, for example, reveals a village decorated with candles and evergreen boughs. Where are the trees splendid with glittering ornaments? Where are the Christmas cards?

From its early days, Christians celebrated the Nativity. The giving of presents, the decoration of the houses with evergreens, the suspension of enmity and the proclamation of peace were all features of the festival right from the beginning. (That is, with some interruptions. The Puritans thought the celebrations took away from the worship of God and banned all jollity.) Some of the customs common during this period aren’t so familiar to us now. The Lord of Misrule? What does that even mean? ( The Lord of Misrule was usually a servant or a slave who presided over the Christmas revels. He had the power to make anyone do anything during the season.  )The switching of masters and servants ?

It is true some of our traditions have roots stretching back to antiquity. Caroling, for example, has been a feature of the season since the middle ages. Wreaths also have a long history. The Etruscans used wreaths, a tradition that continued into Ancient Greece and Rome. The different plants symbolized different virtues. Oak leaves meant wisdom. Laurel leaves were used to crown winners. Our evergreen wreaths are constructed of evergreens to represent everlasting life. The Advent wreath, with its white candles, was first used by Lutherans in Germany in the 16th century.

What about the hanging of stockings?

Well, this tradition has a long history. According to some historians, this is a custom that stretches all the way back to Odin. Children put out their boots filled with food for Odin’s horse to eat and Odin would reward them with gifts or candy. Like so many pagan customs, the practice was adopted and Christianized. Hanging stockings became connected with Saint Nicholas.

So, let’s talk about Old Saint Nick, known in the US as Santa Claus.

The modern Santa Claus grew out of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop, as well as the German Christkind and the Dutch Sinterklaus. Christmas had been personified -made into a person – as early as the fifteenth century but the modern Santa Claus in his red suit is a nineteenth century creation that has been added onto over the years. Now even several reindeer have names, courtesy of the poem “The Night Before Christmas” (originally titled “A visit from Saint Nicholas) by Clement Clarke Moore. The Santa Claus so beloved of today’s children had not been invented yet.

Other nineteenth century inventions include the Tree, the lights on the tree and Christmas cards, Although known in England before Queen Victoria married Prince Albert,  it did not achieve its popularity until the Queen adopted it. Like so many British customs, this one crossed the Atlantic. Our Christmas lights are descended from the candles used to decorate the tree in Christian homes in early modern Germany. And the first commercial Christmas cards were not created until 1843. And that was in England. Cards did not cross the Atlantic until 1874.

Nutcracker dolls were known as early as the seventeenth century but were not connected to Christmas until later.

So Will Rees and his family would not have been familiar with most of the customs we think of as essential to the Celebration of the holiday. And more customs continue to be created. In my family, the holiday is not complete without a showing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Cookery language in 1797

Cooking in 1797 was a much different affair than it became even a few years later. Benjamin Franklin had invented a stove but it was not yet commonly used, for cooking especially, so much cooking took place over an open fire. In a previous post I discussed leavening. Up to this point, yeast or beating to incorporate air were the methods to achieve lightness in baked goods. But sometimes in the 1790s an American cook discovered chemical leavening, i.e. pearlash. we now use baking powder, a combination of an acid (cream of tarter) and baking soda (a base) to make carbon dioxide and raise the dough. Failing baking powder, which had not been invented yet, cooks used buttermilk for the lactic acid.

But I digress. Besides the new foods with their own (usually American Indian names such as squash), some of the names for tools and methods are not familiar today.   I’ve already mentioned Hannah Hill, the name for sea bass. And pearlash. What is that? Also called potash, it is potassium carbonate (lye) and is the result of soaking wood ashes in water. It is bitter beyond belief!

Other terms:

amber gun, probably ambergris, from the sperm whale. It is now used in perfumery but once was used as a cooking ingredient.

Bladder and leather – the items used to tie over jars of jelly. (Give me paraffin wax any day!)

calavance – an early variety of bean

calapash – the part of the turtle adjoining the upper shell

emptins – semi prepared liquid yeast.

gallipot – a small earthen pot

jump in the pan – a characteristic action of eels when cooked in a pan.

What it tells me is how difficult  time travel would be, even a few hundred years in the past. Not just the clothing is different but even simple homey actions like cooking.

Goodreads Giveaway

The Giveaway ends tomorrow at midnight; two days left to add your name for the Giveaway.

Will and Lydia travel to New York just outside of Albany after a frantic plea for help from Shaker friend Mouse. There they find Mouse had been accused of kidnapping – and she admits it. Shortly after, the mother of the children is found dead and Mouse is the the primary suspect.

Bouchercon 2015

B-Con is over for this year. I have already registered for next year. Why do I go to Bouchercon?

Well, I have always been a reader and I love the opportunity to find new writers. I use the little book that lists the panels as a reading list. (I admit, I am having some trouble keeping up with all the authors but what a good problem to have!)

I also find the panels interesting. Some are fun and some are perfect for writers. I attended one this time on pacing. Sounds boring? For me, it wasn’t. Other panels talk about diversity, characters and humor.

I like to serve on panels also. It gives me a chance to meet and talk to other authors. I have made friends this way.

All in all, a win in every way.

On to next year!

Devil’s Cold Dish

I am happy and so excited to announce that I have received the cover for the new Will Rees mystery – A Devil’s Cold Dish. The graphics arts department at Minotaur is so good. In my opinion, they have scored with every single cover.

devils cold dish








Will and Lydia Rees return to Dugard after their adventures in Salem and find themselves in new trouble. Not only is Will accused of murder but Lydia finds her own life in danger.

Coming June, 2016

The Orkneys

Our final stop, before sailing to London and flying out to home, was Kirkwall. It is in the Orkneys. We were told that the Orkneys do not want to separate from Great Britain but remain. That, of course, is not the common view in Scotland. The National Party just had a vote to leave and enter the EU as a separate country. The vote failed but who knows what will happen next time?

Anyway, ruins here make even the Iron Age farm seem relatively recent. There are standing stones, similar to Stonehenge.

standing stones

Like Stonehenge, they line up to the solar equinox. There are a lot of speculations about the purpose of the stones but no one really knows.

We also saw ruins that date to 3000 BC. (Is the US a young country or what?) Trash was used in the walls to insulate inside. Plus, just like the ruins in Crete, there were indoor toilets. What happened that this little luxury went extinct and had to be reinvented in modern times?

neolithic ruins


neo ruins two

It is thought that the sea was further away then; again no one is sure. But the water is coming in now and threatening the excavation. The people who lived here ate fish and other things from the sea. No one is sure what happened to these people although there is another settlement nearby and one of the theories is that they moved.

The land upon which these ruins were found has belonged to the same family for generations. Incredible.

It was very cold and windy. We did not hit warm weather until we reached London. And, as with the other places we visited, there were a lot of sheep.



orkney library two

For all my fellow librarians, here is the Orkney Library. I was told this is the oldest Carnegie in the world. Something that amazed me. I thought all the Carnegies were in the U. S. The Orkney Library looks like it has been added to several times.

orkney library

Next time: some random thoughts.