Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On the Road Again

            It seems appropriate to pay homage to country music legend Willie Nelson when I’ve just spent the major portion of the past week at a mystery writers conference in the country music capital.
            Killer Nashville provided lots of opportunities for me to grow as a writer with interesting panels, presentations, and workshops. And, there was ample opportunity to network with other writers from throughout the U.S.
            Dr. Bill Bass, a pioneer in forensic pathology, delivered the keynote address. Dr. Bass created The Body Farm in east Tennessee, the first laboratory for studying the decomposition of  human remains, and an early CSI training ground. He entertained us with amusing stories about crime, something that may only interest mystery writers. At one point, he demonstrated the trajectory of two bullets used to shoot a man in the head. For the first bullet he had a little stick with a flag on the end; for the other he used his wife’s knitting needle. Despite the seriousness of his topic, he was witty and informative.
            A second interesting element of the conference was the Crime Scene. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Mike Breedlove and his team recreated the scene of an actual crime in the hotel’s parking lot.  They laid down cigarette butts, a damaged cell phone, a pillow with loose feathers, and ski mask. There was a dummy representing the body, blood stains, bullet casings and tire tracks. We were given basic information about the principles in the crime and invited to solve it.
            There were a couple of presentations based on real crimes that provided lots of information for the crime writer. In one, no body of the victim was ever found.  Nashville homicide detective Sgt. Pat Postiglione showed us how the police were able to build a case against the victim’s husband. In another, former IRS Criminal Investigation Division agent Lee Williams outlined a complicated Chicago crime involving drugs, police corruption and murder that served as the basis for his novel, In His Blood.
            On a lighter note, we played a mystery trivia game based on the television show Jeopardy. I captained the red team, made up of a group of writers with a broad knowledge base ranging from hard boiled to police procedure to history of the genre. We won!

NOTE: Next week I’ll be back in Rome and Intrigues from Italy will return.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On the Road

Chris Roerden, Sarah Glenn, Heidi Saunders, Karen Pullen, Patricia Winton

This has been a heady week.

Last Thursday morning I stepped onto a plane. Twelve hours later I stepped into a whirlwind. So far, I've driven 1200 miles (almost 2000 kilometers), and I have miles to go before I sleep in my own bed again.

Two days with my fellow Fish Tales authors Karen Pullen, Heidi Saunders and Sarah Glenn were a joy. Writing is a lonely profession, and it's odd to have your work in an anthology because yous share pages with strangers. This is my second one, and I don't think I ever met any of the writers from the first.

We four bonded on several levels: they critiqued the synopsis for my work-in-progress; we taught Heidi how to keep the seat belt from cutting into her neck. Karen hosted us in her remarkable Bed & Breakfast, Rosemary House, in Pittsboro, NC. (I can recommend this without reservations as a splendid holiday destination.) During down time, Sarah, Heidi and I gathered in the common room with our laptops, doing our own work and sharing tips on how to work easier with Twitter or how to avoid creeps on Facebook.

On the way to our first signing at McIntyre's, we were almost in an accident. The driver ahead was distracted and her car began drifting to left. We watched in horror as the car struck a bridge abutment. The collision startled the driver who jerked the wheel to the right, causing her car to strike the other side of the bridge, sending it into a spin. Very scary.

Chris Roerden,who wrote the Fish Tales introduction, joined us for the first reading. At both McIntyre's and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, we had audiences of true mystery fans who asked intelligent questions and displayed enthusiasm for the genre. We came away on a high. At Quail Ridge, they asked us to sign our photographs, which they will hang in their bathroom, a gallery with photos of Alexander Call Smith, Madeleine Albright, and other writers of greater or lesser renown. We are honored to be in that company on a bathroom wall.

The following day, Chris, Karen and I joined fifty other writers in Charlotte for a meet and greet and eat event. I got to see old friends, meet face-to-face people I've known via the internet for years, meet writers whose work I've long admired, and make contact with other people who will be at Killer Nashville this weekend.

There are too many names to mention, but I want to single out one: Ellis Vidler. We took an on-line course together a couple of years ago. She was very hard on me, demanding that I be a better writer. Then she became the first follower of ItalianIntrigues—before it was up on the web. I still don't know how she did that. It was nice to see her smiling face in person. And to talk.

I'm off to Killer Nashville on Thursday. I'll report in again as I continue this journey.

Pete Mock, Mystery Guru at McIntyre's

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Runny Roman Noses

What has a big hooked shape and runs all the time? You see one wherever you look all over Rome. Yep, the nasone, big nose, it is. But not that kind of nose.
The nasone is a type of fountain that delivers water all over the city. This utilitarian beast was first introduced in 1871 by the city’s first mayor following Italy’s unification. The metal cylinder stands a bit more than three feet tall, and the distinctive hook that gives it its name extends from one side. I read somewhere that the law creating these fountains required them to be placed every sixty meters. I haven’t been able to confirm that, but there are more than 2,500 throughout the city.
And the water flows all the time. It’s good, sweet water brought in by the aqueducts. Some guide books advise tourists to carry a plastic cup, but the cognoscenti don’t need plastic. If you place your finger under the spout to stop the flow, the water is diverted through an ingenious hole and spurts up in an arc like a drinking fountain from my school days. It takes a little practice to keep your feet dry, but it’s well worth the effort.
This free-flowing, and free, water supply is an integral part of Roman life. So much so, in fact, that during recent construction to rebuild part of a street and the adjacent sidewalk, the workers diverted the water with a hose and set up a temporary fountain for the few weeks that the nasone was inside the construction site.
One enterprising flower seller is not so generous. He has built an apparatus that completely covers the nasone beside his stand. It includes a vat that is always full of clean water; he uses it to dampen his plants and wash his pots.
Cooks or waiters in small restaurants often carry out tubs of salad greens to wash them under a nasone. I frequently see people exiting the market with their bags of produce stop by the fountains outside to wash an apple, munching on the fresh fruit as they walk along. And dogs adore them. And dogs tug on their leashes, dragging their owners to the flowing water for a drink.
My municipio—local government office—sets up an ice rink in a nearby piazza during the winter. It’s a popular after school or work pastime. I see staff getting ready for business in the afternoon as the sun begins to sink. They pipe water over from the nasone and smooth out the ice before opening up to the public.
The nasone provides homeless people a place to bathe. I even saw a pair of homeless men doing their laundry under one. They had a bucket for agitating the wash and rinsing. When the clothes were clean, they each took an end of things, including a large blanket, and twisted to wring out the water.
Many people in my family have the proboscis type of Roman nose. I’ve always attributed that to the time Julius Caesar and his men spent on the British Isles. It makes me laugh to think of that other kind of Roman nose when I walk past a nasone.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lost in Translation

My British friends and I talk about the common language that divides us. We consult each other for translations when we read. For example, when I read Joanna Harris’s Gentlemen and Players, I called up my friend Glenys. “What’s a conker?” I asked. Later when she was reading To Kill a Mockingbird, she had to know, “What are druthers?”
My first encounter with the disparity came many years ago during an early trip to England. I was staying with some people in Sussex and we were having a domestic discussion of some kind. The woman spoke about a paraffin heater. I was quite alarmed. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I said. She replied that it was normal. I persisted in voicing my concern until someone else explained to both of us that paraffin in the U.S. is wax while paraffin in Britain is kerosene.
I’ve been enjoying this diversity ever since. In teaching English as a second language, I often have to do three-way translations. Again, I first encountered this anomaly some years ago while teaching a class in Washington, D.C. At that school, American English ruled. A European student was shocked at a sentence in the lesson. “Isn’t it a ten dollar note?”  “No, dear. It’s a ten pound note, but it’s a ten dollar bill.”
Now, all my students are European, but many want to visit the U.S. The textbooks I use are British, so when the word queue comes up and someone asks what it means, I translate into Italian, but explain that it means line in America. I try to limit myself to practical words that may cause trouble for the tourist, like elevator vs. lift and such like. Even this gets confusing. Italians use the word lifting to mean face lift, or general firming up of the body. It can be a bit complicated to get into how that all fits together.
To me the most shocking discovery has been that publishers translate from English to English on either side of the Atlantic. I first learned this while doing a lesson with a thirteen-year-old Italian girl. She loved Harry Potter. We each had a copy of HP and the Philosopher’s Stone, my copy published in the U.S., hers in Britain. In the scene where we first meet Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, he offers her something. My young student read lemon sherbet and I stopped her. “That’s lemon drop.” We compared texts. Lemon sherbet in the U.S. is not a hard lemon sweet, er, candy.
 And while I can understand the need to do this kind of translations for books marketed to children, I don’t think it’s necessary for adults. I’m not especially happy to see Faulkner’s practice changed to practise, but I can accept it since editors usually seek consistency. But it’s egregious when translation weakens the prose. 

I reread Capote’s In Cold Blood a couple of years ago. When I got to page 87 of the British-printed edition I was reading, I stopped cold. In the passage describing how neighbors and the hired man cleaned up after the murders, I read:
They unloaded the truck and made a pyramid of Nancy’s pillows, the bedclothes, the mattresses, the playroom couch; Stoeklein sprinkled it with paraffin and struck a match.
I didn’t need to check the text to know that that last phrase should have read kerosene. The poetry of Capote’s prose with that interplay of s’s and k’s had been destroyed by a sloppy editor who, exactly 100 pages later, left in the phrase “scalding water and kerosene lamps.”
 Would a British reader have been confused? Maybe. Maybe not. But a careful reader who takes joy in words would have delighted in the poetry and looked up the meaning.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Italy Is Closed for August

I noticed the change on Saturday, a full forty-eight hours before it began. As I went on my morning walk with a prescription in my hand, each of the half dozen pharmacies I passed displayed a “closed” sign. On Monday, two vacant parking places waited directly in front of my building’s front door. Another one invited a car to enter just two spaces down. Usually people circle for some time before they find a spot.

And then I remembered; it was August 1; Italy had closed for the month.

Americans find it difficult to understand that businesses close their doors for vacation. But here, most people prefer to spend their free time in the summer when the weather is warm. Some businesses  require their employees to take the time off even if they would prefer another time. So in August, most people flee to the beaches or the mountains, both abundant in Italy, or even to some exotic location like the Red Sea or the Seychelles or Las Vegas.

Over the weekend, and even Monday morning, I noticed police cars parked all along the Tuscolana, the major thoroughfare near my home. They were keeping traffic moving, sending double parkers scurrying to get out of the way of the hoards of cars on their ways out of town.

It’s like that everywhere. At the local market, where there are approximately sixty stalls, about two-thirds have closed, many for the entire month. Those that aren’t taking all of August are taking time to include August 15—ferragosto, arguably Italy’s favorite holiday.

People begin saying Buone Vacanze by the end of May to make sure that they wish you well before you depart. You have about a month of small talk because people talk about where they’re going beforehand and what they did afterwards.

The pharmacies have posted notices for all the stores in the area. Their closures are timed to make sure that some are always open. The shoe shop, the jewelry store, the computer repair shop, even the realtor. All have signs up warning you not to expect to find them there during le vacanze.

My friendly neighborhood drycleaner (pictured below) has had her sign up for a couple of weeks. She’s closing shop on Friday. But now, she’s working overtime and has enlisted the help of her daughter to make sure all her customers have their clothes ready for vacation.
And I must admit that I’m getting into the spirit by squeezing in a two-week visit to the U.S. between ferragosto and Labor Day. I’m going to do some book signings, meet with other mystery writers, visit my mother, attend a mystery writers conference, and spend a couple of days in the mountains. When I get back, I’ll need a vacation.