Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shoes, Ships, Sealing Wax

I’ve been asking if anyone knows the effect of dry ice vapor on fabrics. I got my answer – and I don’t like it. Nothing happens, it doesn’t fade or damage fibers. But that sort of crushing answer to a hopeful inquiry happens now and then. If writing books was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Tuesday afternoon I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which has a very large Asian section. The curators I wanted to talk to were all out, I didn’t find exactly what I wanted among the exhibits, but their library was helpful. Did you know art museums have copies of old catalogs from art auctions on computer? You can ask, for example, for any auction anywhere, of thin-soled Victorian ballroom shoes. They also have the results of the auction of any particular item, so if you want to know the highest or the latest auction price, you can find it. Apparently no one has sold the item I was looking for, or else I didn’t describe it properly. I dropped by their bookstore/souvenir shop. Their I found a copy of a two-volume work on Chinese art – but the price was nearly two hundred dollars. Since all I wanted was to look at one little item, they let me do so without having to buy the whole book. I have often bought books that will help me in writing one particular mystery; for example, a book on mahogany power boats from the early 1900s, which helped me with Sins and Needles. But I’m afraid two hundred dollars is too much to pay for the one or two pages of print I could use and a single photograph (and it wasn’t even in color).

I got past a sticking point in Thai Die and suddenly the book is sailing ahead quite rapidly. That’s a huge relief, because the manuscript is due in December and I think I’m somewhere around the halfway point. I don’t plot the Betsy Devonshire novels in great detail, so I don’t know if I’m not yet halfway or more than halfway. It used to worry me, but after eleven novels in this series, I can pretty much turn my characters loose and follow wherever they go. I used to have to nudge them when they get too far off course, but at this point I can trust them to get to the solution in around 65,000 words. And without my resorting to a miracle or huge coincidence. I do allow one coincidence per novel, partly because coincidences happen more often than that in real life and partly because if I didn’t, my sleuth might never figure out who dunnit.

Tuesday evening is my night to drive for a wildlife rescue group, and last night I had to take a badly injured squirrel to an emergency animal clinic about twenty miles from the humane society. As I was going down the freeway it occurred to me that this was just a stupid squirrel, one among the thousands of squirrels in the Twin Cities, enough to be a nuisance. In fact, one or more of them is stealing my tomatoes. It is going to be time-consuming and expensive to save this dumb squirrel’s life – if we manage to save it at all. She has several bad injuries: someone had shot her with a BB pellet and broke her hind leg; and because she couldn’t do that great leaping run squirrels do, a dog got hold of her and tore a big hole in her face. The person who handed her over to me remarked that she was lactating – so somewhere last night, there were some very young and hungry squirrels facing temperatures in the upper thirties. And while she is just one of thousands, to her babies she is the important one. It is possible that, this late in the season, they are grown enough to manage. But I wish I could talk to that person with the pellet gun.


Camille Minichino said...

I'm very interested in your "coincidence rule." It's something we all have to deal with ... how do you choose what you will allow? Is it something like being in the right place at the right time, or ... ?

Are there coincidences that annoy you and that you will never use?

Anyone else have this problem? Thanks for bringing it up, Monica.

Monica Ferris said...

I don't think I am firm enough on using or not using coincidence to call it a "rule." I don't like it when a couple of coincidences happen in quick sequence to put the solution in my sleuth's hands. Right-place-right-time is okay, if it only happens once -- in, say, every four books. (Though I interviewed a cop who told me of another cop who was always driving by the store or bank where an armed robbery was going down, or driving up on a drug sale or assault. He himself was always at the other end of his patrol area when something happened. But you couldn't put that in a book, unless you set the guy up as psychic.) In the book I'm writing someone is fooling around with dry ice, making fog for a party and has an accident with it. The coincidence is that it's Goddy and he tells Betsy about it. Gosh, I'm giving away too much!

Linda O. Johnston said...

Of course it's important to save that squirrel! She deserves to live, notwithstanding the stupidity of the so-called human being who shot her. I just hope her babies make it, too, although we'll probably never know.

I sometimes use coincidences, too, in my Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries. In fact, Kendra remarks on them a lot. She doesn't want to believe in coincidences, yet they happen often in her life. And you're right--they really do occur. I keep running into them myself lately, mostly in situations where the six degrees of separation are squished into one or two.

Camille Minichino said...

Every four books ... I'm impressed. I'm also impressed, Monica, that you tie the solution into the theme. I'm not always able to do that and use the excuse that the theme is the setting really, and not necessarily the weapon or the clue. I do make a loose connection, but not like yours, which are always very satisfying.

Deb Baker said...

Once I tried to save a baby mouse by feeding it with a teeny bottle. My husband laughed because I think nothing of killing grown ones. I used to use live traps, but the mice came right back into the house. At least, I think they were the same ones.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


That's so nice to hear that you care about one squirrel. After all, we're members of one family, right? And for an animal to suffer is awful!


Monica Ferris said...

Camille, blame my editor even more than me for making sure the needlework theme is involved in the solution. In fact, that's one reason I had to start Thai Die over; it was wandering from the theme. I see now it was a wise decision, but I sure was angry at the time. But with that lesson learned, I'm making sure it's needlework that helps Betsy solve the crime in Blackwork.