Thursday, August 9, 2018

HIDDEN GEM #3

This is a neighborhood gem, hidden enough so that I lived a few blocks away for years before I got to know it. It's a park, not huge and famous like  nearby Prospect Park, but not a little sliver of green slipped between two buildings, either. It is a full city block, which is room for a lot of variety

The side along the main avenue is a lively and popular playground. It has a special place in our family lore: our oldest grandchild, having just mastered walking, one day decided the action on the sidewalk along the avenue was more exciting than the park. With the confidence of a linebacker she walked right through the gates and made her way up the street. (No worries. We were right behind.)



But wait!  What is this behind the playground? An old stone house with large red shutters and a charming garden? Could it be what it seems, an actual farmhouse from the days of the Dutch in New York? Or is it a Disney-like reproduction? The answer is yes. And yes.



In fact, it was built in 1699 and stayed in the hands of Dutch descendants for more than two centuries. By the early 20th century it was buried under 15'of landfill. Eventually a movement began to rebuild the house using stones retrieved from the original site. And it became part of Washington Park. Why? Partly because this was the site of part of the  Battle of Brooklyn. Yes, Washington was right here.  The end result of the Battle was the loss of New York to the British. Let the park tell you:




Now the Old Stone House, its official name, is a small Revolutionary War museum  and location for all kinds of cultural activities from cider tastings to theater to gardening for children.






Come on Sunday and you will find a small, friendly farmer's market. too.  I even wrote a mystery story set there, "The Greenmarket Violinist."  http://trissstein.com/greenmarket-violinist.php



Finally. This very spot was - maybe - the original home to what was a soon-to-be famous baseball team. While there is some disagreement about exactly which team was here, and exactly where their headquarters actually  stood, the story goes that a man names Ebbets was involved - yes that Ebbets- and they eventually became known as the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. Yes, those Dodgers.

That's a lot of history for just one square block in Brooklyn. If you are in the neighborhood - it's called Park Slope - come  sit in the shade, listen to the children's laughter, take a quick look around the museum, admire the garden. You might hear some music or - if it's Sunday - buy a pastry. And listen for a few ghosts.

Details:  Washington Park/ JJ Byrne Playground/   http://theoldstonehouse.org/

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Bright Light


I have been blogging about some fun, hidden gems of New York.  #3 will be here soon but today, this is on my mind.

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“What would you do if 6, 579 people landed at your doorstep?” That is part of a trailer for the musical, Come From Away, which I saw last week. 




It’s the true story – several true stories, woven together -  of what happened on Sept 11, 2001, in Gander, Newfoundland, population 11,678.  This is the easternmost  bit of Canada, poking out into the Atlantic. In the early days of flight travel, it was the refueling point before trans-Atlantic flights and that is why it has a large, unused airport. As the people of Gander say, everyone came there then. Movie stars. Frank Sinatra. The Queen.

On September 11, 2001, 38 US-bound planes were diverted there.

 And then the  people of Gander and surrounding towns made a miracle.

They found shelter, food, clean clothes, showers – and medicines and diapers and animal care- for the stranded crews and passengers. Striking school bus drivers suspended the strike to  transport the stranded travelers from the airport.  The supermarket  opened its doors and said “Take what you need.” Hockey was cancelled and the mayor declared the rink a gigantic walk-in refrigerator for the accumulating food supplies. The SPCA said there must be animals  - there were pets and two rare bonobos!- on the planes and set up a shelter overnight.

 Over several days, prayers are shared. Jokes are told. Whiskey is drunk.  Lifelong friendships are made.

 The writers of the show have woven together a tapestry of true stories developing over time. Music and dance bring it to life.  There is humor, sadness, fear, and tragedy. Lives are changed forever.

In that dark moment in history, we meet people at their best. I can’t stop thinking about the show and would like to see it again. See it if you can. Bring tissues.

When the grateful exiles are able to head home, and they say thanks and offer money, the people of Gander only say, “You would have done it for us.”  Would we? In this dark time, I have to wonder.

Monday, June 25, 2018

HIdden Gem #2



This is the second in a blog series about hidden (or sort of hidden) gems in New York’s crowded list of places to visit. All right, the New-York Historical  Society is not exactly hidden. It's pretty famous. However, in a city packed with even more famous museums, it’s easy to overlook. I am here to promise it is fascinating and it is fun.

A major renovation several years ago added exhibits that are a wonderful introduction to New York, and it starts with the statues greeting visitors at the two entrances. Who can resist taking a photo shaking hands or having a friendly chat with these two giants of history? 






As you come in, you find scattered around the lobby are small exhibits, each one telling something about what makes New York its own, unique self. Here are just a few. Some of these bits of history are still meaningful.





















But look down! They have cleverly inserted into the floor artifacts found -  down -  in the New York ground by archaeologists.  What a fun treasure hunt if you are visiting with children.  Actually it’s fun for adults too.  Don't tell!






There is a short free film bringing history to life. It changes from time to time:





Erica Donato, my historian protagonist , says, “History is happening every day.” And this museum is right on it, with exhibits of artifacts from current events.



















I promised fun. An exhibit on fashionable shoes? Well, why not? New York is a world fashion center, built to a degree on the fashion business.




A large collection of toy trains is displayed in style at holidays.  The museum has all 435 original Audubon bird watercolors, and a whole gallery of dazzling Tiffany lamps. Stunning! A renowned library for avid historians.  A children’s museum.  A women’s history center.

And always, a few great changing exhibits that are worth a couple of hours. Last time I was there: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the history of the posters and the historic period beautifully explained. 
 

 



 

If I am in Manhattan with some extra time, I just drop in. There is always something special to see. And by the way? It is across Central Park West from that park, and across 77th St from the (very, very) renowned Museum of Natural History. So it’s easy to find. 


Next time, a gem from right down my street in Brooklyn.

 

 





Thursday, June 7, 2018

HIdden Gem #1


I live in New York. Everyone knows about the world famous landmarks like the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway, so I thought it would be fun to write and post  a few blogs about some more hidden yet fascinating places.   I am starting at the subway stop called “81st St- Museum of Natural History.”

 “What? Come on!" You are saying that, aren't you?  Anyone who has ever visited New York or even thought of visiting knows about the museum. Who can resist the dinosaurs? Or the great blue whale? Who hasn’t seen Night at the Museum? Or Splash?




Ah, but we are not visiting the museum here. We are visiting the subway station.

You emerge from your train and are greeted by huge and dazzling wall mosaics  of wild animals.  That’s suitable for this stop, of course, a bow to its main attraction.




Look again. Behind each one, there is another, shadowy, gray, and you soon realize it is a prehistoric ancestor. An inspired combination of art and science is at work here.  Have fun identifying  the living species and its forebear.




Look up and you may discover tree dwellers


Look down and you will discover ocean dwellers.   Keep your eyes open for insects too.




And if you go down a level, perhaps to catch a train going back to where you started, you will be greeted by a look at whole other world.



Welcome to my favorite subway station.  And look here in a two weeks for Hidden Gem #2.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

RESEARCH STORIES


  Last week,I was at Malice Domestic, the large and lively annual fan convention devoted to the traditional mystery. I was on a panel about research. It was great fun, moderated by the always intelligent and good-natured Cathy Pickens. We didn’t come close to discussing all the astute questions she had sent us beforehand but they have kept me thinking.  So here are a few more stories from the mystery writing trenches.

Do you have an example of how research informed or altered the course of your story?  Why, yes, as it happens I do. Brooklyn Secrets is about Brownsville, one of the lowest income and highest crime-rate neighborhoods in New York. It is about hard times growing up there now, in the days of gangs and drugs, and hard times growing up in the 1920/30s when it was famously the home of the brutal mob enforcers nicknamed Murder Inc. As I was reading up on the bad old days, I stumbled across an article by the grandson of Meyer Lansky, one of the founders and bosses of the whole organized crime system. The author maintained his grandad was a fine gentlemen who admired Lincoln and Gandhi, quoted his take on various actors who had portrayed him, and called his gangster colleagues "the boys.” It would have been funny if it had not been so bizarre. A new fictional character, somewhat comical and definitely strange, became part of my story.







Has anyone ever called you on an error? Yes,embarrassingly. I wrote a description of what my heroine sees as she is driving across of the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. It is a breathtaking sight: skyscrapers, boats, other bridges, the whole harbor all the way to the ocean.  




 Only someone wrote to tell me you can’t see the ocean from that bridge! I checked. I had combined that view with the one from the Verrazano Bridge somewhat to the south. There you see the Atlantic spread out in all its majesty

 Have you ever encountered a fact that you knew you couldn’t use because it sounded too unbelievable? Why? Well, I haven’t found a way to use it yet. Mystery Writers of America local chapter arranged a private tour of Woodlawn, a beautiful historic cemetery in the Bronx. Having recently published Brooklyn Graves, partly about Green-Wood, a similar landmark in Brooklyn, naturally I went along. Do you think cremation ashes are always kept in a dignified urn or scattered at a scenic spot special to the deceased?



 We learned that they can also be incorporated into jewelry that a mourner can wear (Keeping the loved one close?) and into bullets. Yes. Bullets. Seriously. There has to be a way to get that into a story, right?

I have also encountered facts that were fascinating but would not fit into the book I was then writing. (I tried) Yet they were too good to ignore: did you know selling the Brooklyn Bridge actually happened? Many times? So they became short stories. You can find “Legends of Brooklyn” in the anthology Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder NY Style #4,  and “Girls With Tools” in the Stories tab of my webpage or the anthology Bound by Mystery. And I’m holding onto a few more good ones. For someday. 










Friday, April 6, 2018

MYSTERY CONVENTION TIPS




Malice Domestic, a popular mystery convention, is just a few weeks away, and the MWA Edgar Week Symposium, which is like  a one day mini-conference, is even sooner. They are followed by several other mystery conventions, including Bouchercon, the biggest. This is not about which event to attend –contact me if you’d like advice on that- but the really practical tidbits.


 Although they offer different topics  (some focus on writing business, others fan interests) and programs, and some are in one place (Malice in DC) and some offer a chance to travel ( Bouchercon in Toronto last year, St. Petersburg this year, Dallas in 2019) they all have a few things in common. 

 
 Here are my tips for making the most of the event, learned over many Malices, several Bouchercons, and one Left Coast Crime. 




Packing:            

           Dress for comfort. You will have long, busy days.
           A sweater, a warm stole or both – the hotel meeting rooms are often freezing.
Shoes for comfort, not style– you will walk miles, even if you never leave the hotel
            Banquet clothes – if there is a formal banquet, don’t stress over what to wear. (Ok, maybe if you are an award nominee, you can stress) If you want to Dress to Kill, the Edgar banquet slogan, fine. However, office suitable attire will do. Mystery writers  and fans are informal folks. (At romance  events, you might see prom dresses, though. And definitely costumes at science-fiction cons) And, I've never been in a banquet room that wasn’t freezing!


Scheduling:
         You are spending money and time to be there so you must attend an event every single moment, right? Wrong.  It took me awhile to learn that I don’t need to run around madly trying to squeeze in an activity for every time slot. Some of the best experiences I’ve ever had were in the hospitality suites, just seeing who came by and making some friends. The bars are always lively spots, too.     

            You will hit a moment or two when the crowds, the rushing around, the constant socializing, the hotel size all be come too much. It is ok to chill in your room! Nap, read, work, order room service. If you need it, do it.




Socializing:
            Definitely, definitely do it.  Writers are there to hang out with their tribe and meet readers. And there aren’t many writers- maybe none - who don’t enjoy hearing “I love your books.” Even famous ones.


            Talk to everyone. Fans are there to talk about their favorite books. They will talk to you!  You may make a new friend. Remember, you have something in common with every single person there.
            Of course use common sense. If you see a writer you idolize and he or she is deep in conversation, it’s rude to interrupt. Following someone into the rest room?  Bad idea!  (Yes, it’s happened). And yes, it is true that even among mystery writers, a notably friendly bunch, there are some famous ones who really only want to hang out with other famous ones, and no one else. But not as many as you might fear.

Have fun!  That is the first rule. And always remember the hotel will ship home the excess books you buy


   



Sunday, March 18, 2018

WRITING WHAT SCARES US




Writing fiction doesn’t look scary to anyone else.  Perhaps writing an autobiographical novel with recognizable characters is as  scary as it gets. In that case you might want to decide how much you want to antagonize your family and friends.

I don't do that. I write mysteries. There are recognizable places, bits from my own life no one seems to  spot, puzzles and social issues. Nothing is very violent or very gruesome. I don’t intend to scare my readers, but I do sometimes scare myself. 




A scary thought for the writer is the possibility that the skills are not up to the subject. That is much scarier than any suspenseful scene you could write.  If you don’t challenge yourself then you are writing the same book over and over.  True, there could be a reason for that. It could be laziness but it is likely to be an editor or agent you says, “Give the reader what worked before. Why mess with success?”

For many writers, though, taking a leap in a new book is the way to stay interested.  Stretching those writing muscles is as important as stretching the physical ones.  (Maybe more important) It’s scary. That is good.

For me, just getting the first few books in the Brooklyn series written was enough of a challenge.  My books are about neighborhoods and the people who live there, the history, issues and changes unique to each place. The first, Brooklyn Bones, was about my own neighborhood.  I had it covered. The second, Brooklyn Graves, was about a famous place, not far, and easily researched.  I had that covered too. For Brooklyn Secrets, the third? Ah. Another situation entirely.  I wanted to write about a neighborhood where I used to work. It has a surprising history and I soon realized I could not write it without also writing about the neighborhood in the present. But could I do it?

My time working there was decades ago.  The library where I worked was then closed for renovation, so a visit was not possible. It is, and was, a tough, poor neighborhood, a culture not my own, and not easy to research. Newspaper stories told me it had not changed much from when I worked there, but nothing told me how it felt. I didn’t know if I could do it and it wasn’t worth doing if I could not do it well.  Could I portray a more complex world than outsiders usually see? I grew anxious each time I drove near it on the way to other places. There were some sleepless nights.  I was scared the whole time I was writing it. 



The next book, Brooklyn Wars, was about a famous place, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it was scary for a different reason. There was so much to tell, the history was so rich, could I select the right pieces to both tell a compelling mystery story and also convey some of the flavor of the place and some of the stories of the people who worked there?  It was a challenge every writing day.

Now I am immersed in a neighborhood with even more history, and it is even harder to line it up into a story.  I know this one, I even lived there many years ago, but there is a religious element added to the usual political issues and it can’t  be ignored. Or at least I can’t ignore it. Can I write it fairly? Honestly? With some complexity?

Doing what scares us is how we get better at this writing game. I will be reminding myself every day until the first draft is done.