Visiting Norway, Mystery Author Style

Visiting Norway, Mystery Author Style

Can a mystery author who writes about sunny Mexico really love cold places?

Yep. Besides Mexico, where my mystery series is set, my favorite country (except for home) is Norway. Not only does the country have superb natural vistas of mountains and fjords, but Norway’s history is likewise fairly amazing, if little known. Yes, Virginia, there’s more to Norway than Vikings, Voss water, and fellow mystery author Jo Nesbo.

Spectacular moments and singular people

Amundsen with dogsled and flag

Picture of Roald Amundsen courtesy The Sunday Times, UK

  • Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to the South Pole, beating out British explorer Robert Scott
Nansen passport

Picture courtesy World Digital Library

  • Norwegian explorer and statesman Fritjof Nansen’s Nansen Passport enabled WWI refugees to remake their lives
Norwegian resistance fighters

Picture courtesy cryptomuseum.com

  • The Norwegian Resistance fought during WWII  with courage and distinction

Related post: Remembering Resistance 

  • The nation of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy looked eerily like Norway’s traditional architecture. Okay, so this is the fabled battle scene when the Rohirrim ride against the orcs, not anything architectural. But a great bit of film and you should watch it.

Museums

Stave Church

Stave Church

I’ve been lucky to visit Norway twice and fell in love with the cobalt blue sky, crystal clear water, excellent (albeit pricey) shopping, and terrific museums. The Fram Museum houses the specially built polar ship that carried Nansen north and Amundsen south. The Folk Museum, where the Stave Church is located–the interior of which was very dark and smelled like bacon–is an immense meadow outside of Oslo filled with period homes.

Related post: The Kitchen UN

It was at the Folk Museum that I learned the Norwegian words for King (Konge) and Queen (Dronning) when I bought a huge paper doll poster. Awkward to carry home, I had notions of framing it. I still do.

King, Queen, and costumes

If cut out, Konge and Dronning would be bigger than Barbie and Ken. Each doll has several different costumes, just like these smaller paper doll postcards of Norwegian folk costumes also purchased at the Folk Museum.Unni and Elin paper dollspaper doll from Norwaytraditional Norwegian paper dollsAllied costumes

The last paper doll postcard is the most interesting of all, as it looks like 1940’s fashions. Norway struggled under German occupation 1940-1945. When reading accounts of those days it doesn’t seem that many women were wearing ball gowns or fancy dresses.

Another mystery?

For a couple of years, I’ve been gathering notes for a thriller set in Oslo during WWII. It is loosely inspired by OSLO INTRIGUE, the real-life account of Helen Astrup, a British woman who worked for the Norwegian Resistance during the war.

I don’t know when I’ll write the thriller. Maybe after I finish the latest Detective Emilia Cruz.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

The Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past

What if you were truly haunted by the ghost of Christmas past?

Sometimes I think I might be.

That First Christmas

We spent our first Christmas as a married couple in a fairy tale setting. It was crisp and cold that year in Vienna, Austria. We strolled through the market in front of the Rathaus. Recalling my love of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic, I fell in love with the nutcrackers of every shape and size.

Christmas past in Vienna

Jumping into the local culture with the appetites of youth, we sampled gluhwein (hot spiced whte wine), ate wurst larded with cheese from sidewalk stands, and  found a charming pub-style restaurant at the end of the tram line that specialized in groestl, a hash made with potatoes and ham. When we had enough local food we visited the 2-story McDonald’s.

The trip was an introduction to eiderdown comforters. We snuggled in a double bed slightly larger than a twin, and watched German television piped in from Bonn. For some reason old American sci-fi movies dubbed in German were popular. The 50’s flicks were campy, with specific effects depending on aluminum foil and string. The spacecraft looked like flying yams.

The commercials were the best part, especially the English language ad touting Spandau Ballet, “the band that styled the 80’s.” We recognized the song “True,” which had gotten decent air time in the US, but fell over ourselves with laughter at the tag line. Even today, one of us will suddenly come out with it, and for some reason it is still as funny as it was then. I mean, come on.

The Band That Styled the 80’s.

You had to have been there, I think.

End of an Era

While we were in Vienna, the reign of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu came to a gruesome end in neighboring Romania. He was the last Communist leader in Eastern Europe to fall. I saved the edition of the International Herald Tribune with the story of the Christmas day execution of  Ceaușescu and his wife. You can read this Huffington Post article about it.

Suddenly, there was another tear in the Iron Curtain. Romanians came flooding across the border into Vienna, stuffed into tiny cars or by the busload to see what the free world looked like. They were slightly shell-shocked in their drab, poorly made clothes, as they took in Vienna’s magnificent architecture, restaurants, and pastry shops loaded with food. They gawked at the markets loaded with high quality Christmas decorations.Trams of Christmas past

A McDonald’s Moment

The McDonald’s was a magnet for the Romanians, although they couldn’t afford it. My husband and I were in the restaurant at one point, eating our way through a sizeable meal. A Romanian couple sat nearby, sharing a single Happy Meal. They ate slowly and with great wonder.

Related post: What I Learned at McDonald’s and it isn’t about the food

That meal was a gift in many ways. It made me realize the joy there is in freedom and to never take it for granted. I recognized how lucky I was to be able to watch the awakening of a nation, yet not have to carry the burden of the past or the fear of change.

Ghost of Christmas Past

That couple in the McDonald’s in Vienna is my ghost. But in a good way. Rarely does a year go by that I don’t think of them. They were about our age, amazed at what the world outside Romania was like.

I hope things worked out for them and that they are prosperous now. Maybe getting ready to enjoy Christmas, laughing about how naive they were that first time out of Romania. Thinking about the American couple they saw in McDonald’s and how they looked like freedom.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

Are you travelling to Mexico but getting nervous when you read the headlines?

Yes, there are security issues in Mexico, many of which I write about in the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco, but more than likely you aren’t planning to travel to the real hotspots. Rest assured, safe travel in Mexico is possible. Mexico is a beautiful, intriguing, and expansive country with a rich culture to  enjoy. With dozens of fantastic destinations, from beach resorts to art hubs to big city museums, it is virtually impossible to be bored there.

The trick to enjoying Mexico is to be prepared with good security habits. As a mystery novel author whose main character is Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz, I spend a lot of time immersed in these security issues and know that a little common sense can go a long way.

Check out three tips for avoiding problems and having a great time in Mexico.

1. Passport to Paradise

Protect your passport; it’s your most valuable commodity. Don’t take it to the beach or the market. Keep a copy of the photo page of your passport with you. The original can stay in a room safe (along with copies of credit cards and contact numbers for the issuing companies.) Along with the copy of your passport, keep handy the phone number and business hours of your embassy in Mexico and the phone number and address of your hotel.

Related post: From Beach to Book: 3 Favorite Hotels in Mexico

2. No New Conversations

Getting into and out of a vehicle can be a particularly vulnerable time. A parking area is full of hiding places for would-be thieves and it is very easy to be distracted from your surroundings by the process of loading and unloading people, packages, strollers, etc. When we lived in Mexico our family rule was no new conversations getting in or out of the car. This meant fewer distractions for parents, faster loading/unloading, and zero scary incidents.

3. Expect the Unexpected

Once upon a time I was a student in Paris and travelling through Italy during Christmas break. While on a local train somewhere near Brindisi a group of boys got on shouting and throwing firecrackers, disorienting everybody in the carriage. The boys swarmed over our luggage, kept up the ruckus for the 10 minutes it took to get to the next town, and left, having taken everything out of my friend’s unattended purse.

Be prepared to encounter similar disruptions in Mexico. Getting accidentally squirted with water/mustard/liquid soap while strolling a market, being accosted by kids trying to give or sell you something, and other unexpected encounters can be a prelude to being pickpocketed or getting a purse stolen by those making the disruption or their accomplices.

Reduce your risk by being alert, not wearing ostentatious jewelry in obvious tourist areas, and keeping your bag closed, preferably with a zipper. Consider trading a backpack (worn on your back where you can’t see if someone is opening a pocket) for a messenger bag.

Related post: How to Find Love in Mexico City’s Markets

Was this helpful? Do you have a story about safe travel in Mexico?

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

Planning a trip to Mexico? Wondering where to stay?

Readers often ask if the Palacio Réal, the hotel in Acapulco that Kurt Rucker manages in the Emilia Cruz mystery novels, is real. The answer is well, sort of.sunglasses isolated on white

The luxurious Palacio Réal  is a composite of my three favorite hotels in Mexico.  Yes, I have stayed at all three and combined the best of each into the hotel in the books. This way, I get to re-enjoy my visits to each place with authentic descriptions each time the action in the books shifts to the hotel.

If you are planning a trip to Mexico, these hotels are worth checking out!

Related: 3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

Hacienda Los Laureles, Oaxaca

We stayed in this hotel several years ago when it was newly opened. It is an old Spanish hacienda two miles outside of Oaxaca proper, in a neighborhood called San Felipe del Aqua, that has been renovated with a sense of architectural history so none of the charm has been lost. The owners did everything they could to ensure we had a wonderful stay and fussed over our children with free desserts and appetizers. My daughter still recalls being called “la princesa” for a week.

After hard touristing at Monte Elban and other Oaxaca sites of wonder we’d spend late afternoons on the patio having bittersweet hot cocoa and soaking up the ambiance. We came loaded with restaurant recommendations for places in town but often ended up dining at the hotel. The food was amazing and the service warm and genuine.

Since that stay, the hotel has consolidated its reputation as the only 5-star AAA lodging in the Oaxaca area. It is a small gem off the beaten path.

Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel and Towers, Mexico City

This hotel has so much to commend it. The first thing is a central location near the El Angel monument, the Colonia Cuauhtémoc business district, the US embassy, and the western edge of the Zona Rosa. The second is the shops on the ground floor including a good restaurant with reasonably priced food, a newsstand and souvenir shop, a clothing boutique, the first Starbucks in Mexico City, and a jewelry shop where I got a box covered in silver milagros charms. You can walk to a Sanborns department store for books and magazines. The hotel is a good base to explore the Zone Rosa district, including the Insurgentes market, across the wide Paseo de la Reforma (cross at the crosswalks only!!)

The third thing to commend this hotel is that the rooms are large, clean and everything you’d expect for an upscale hotel in a big city. The executive floors are worth the small extra amount, given that they come with butler service, a fantastic breakfast buffet in the executive lounge (you can watch the news in either English or Spanish depending where you sit) and an evening cocktail hour in the same place. You can get a reliable taxi out front. A much-vaunted St. Regis opened up a few blocks away but the Sheraton, in my view, is a much better location and value.

Related post: How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Camino Réal, Acapulco

If the fictional Palacio Réal reminds readers of any specific hotel, it is probably the Camino Réal. This luxe hotel is located on the eastern side of Acapulco bay, in an area called Puerto Marqués, not too far from the better-known Las Brisas resort. We stayed there twice, enjoying the secluded location, huge rooms, and terrific food. The hotel is a multi-level marvel built against the cliffside that its website describes as an architectural “cascade.” The way it is built allows for pools on multiple levels, excellent views, and a lot of quiet corners so it is easy to spend a lot of time there without running into many other guests.

Eating there is half the fun. Room service was wheeled in on a large round table draped with a floor-length tablecloth while the flagship restaurant cantilevered over the water made dinner a special occasion.

The out-of-the-way location keeps you out of the thick of the tourist activity in Acapulco, but the hotel has its own tour office and we were able to set up tours right there. Downtown Acapulco can feel similar to any busy beachfront town—albeit with better views—so staying at this hotel lets you have the experience that Acapulco was meant to be—a majestic sweep of ocean and the amenities to enjoy it.

Thinking of taking a break and heading someplace warm? My friend Dana at PositiveHealthWellness.com is extremely convincing with 8 Reasons Why Travelling is Good for You.  

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Celebrate Water Day 2014 with 5 Great Reads

Celebrate Water Day 2014 with 5 Great Reads

It’s the holiday you and I have probably never experienced. Tomorrow is Water Day.

Celebrating a Life Event

Brought to us by Water.org, Water Day celebrates the day someone gets access to safe water. It’s the day the well or water pump starts working close enough to home that no one risks life and limb to get to it. Getting access to safe water is an event people never forget. Water.org honors those life-changing events by celebrating Water Day 2014.

Writing for Water

In 2014, I’m donating a dollar from every Kindle book sold to water.org, because in this day and age, no one should have to live without access to clean water and decent sanitation. This month, authors Sharon Lee Johnson, Norm Hamilton, and Jerold last have joined the Writing for Water team with pledges to water.org. With their help, and other authors throughout the year, I hope to be able to provide 25 people with clean water for life this year.

If you’d like to celebrate Water Day and help us out at the same time, please buy one of the books listed here. You’ll be helping an author, plus helping support Water.org at the same time.

As an added incentive, many of our books are discounted this month. HAT DANCE, the second Emilia Cruz mystery is on sale this weekend. It’s a dance with the devil and Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz can’t afford the music . . .

Reading about Water

Water is something most of us take for granted. Turn on the faucet, there it is. Go to the store and find shelves of bottles of designer water. But some folks are doing serious thinking about water and the future. Here are 5 books to put on your reading list:

1. SILENT SPRING by Rachel Carson

Originally published as a 3 part series in the New Yorker in 1962, the book was the first call to action for the environmental movement. A classic.

2. FROM THINE OWN WELL by Norm Hamilton

In this novel of a futuristic Canada, the country’s water supply has been destroyed by fracking–and greed. Scarily plausible.

3. MEET THE FRACKERS: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Energy Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman

An award-winning Wall Street Journal reporter tells the story of the tycoons who have made a fortune through fracking–hydraulic drilling through extremely dense shale made controversial because of the link to contaminated water.

4. WINE TO WATER: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World by Doc Hendley

The true story of how Hendley, a twentysomething bartender, found himself in Darfur, Sudan, countering the tribal warfare that used contaminated water as a weapon of mass destruction by drilling wells.

5. THE BIG THIRST: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman

Fishman explains that we have more than enough water to avoid a water crisis but we have to change our approach to how we use–or save–our water. Inconvenient truths, but solutions, too.

Thanks for reading and taking a minute to think about the importance of access to safe and clean water. Happy Water Day.

All the best, Carmen

P.S. Come along on this writing journey with me and get a free short story. THE BEAST, the first Emilia Cruz story is free when you sign up for monthly updates including exclusive excerpts, book release news, and progress toward giving 25 people access to clean water for life. Your email will never be shared.

35 Ways to be the Worst Traveller in the World

35 Ways to be the Worst Traveller in the World

I travel internationally about every 4 months or so. This means I get to watch fellow travelers, many of whom unsuspectingly offer colorful characteristics and situations ripe for my next mystery novel.

Yes, I admit it. I travel with a notebook and all too frequently jot down crazy things I see other passengers do. Especially when entering a new country–and culture–few of us seem to anticipate what they will find upon arrival.

So if you want to travel internationally, here’s how to do it badly.

1.  Wear a strapless dress while trying to lift a heavy carry-on into the overhead bin. Laugh nervously while doing so.

2.  Don’t change your home currency into the local currency. Doesn’t everyone use dollars/pounds/euros?

3.  Walk into the restroom, ignoring the attendant and the sign that says the cost to use the facilities is 2 pesos/kroner/zlotys (toilet paper included.)

4.  Travel without tissues (see #3 above.)

5.  Don’t carry a pen on international flights. Instead, pester strangers for a writing implement so you can fill out your immigration form. Do so while they are filling out theirs.

6.  Wear flip-flops to walk through A. the butcher section of a mercado  B. a hiking trail  C. European cobblestone streets or  D. any formal restaurant.

7.  Speak loudly in a language the listener does not understand no matter what your volume.

8.  Tourist loudly through a house of worship while a religious service is in progress.

9.  Walk around with your purse open or unzipped or stuff hanging out of your pocket.

10.  Wear short-shorts in conservative countries where the locals don’t wear anything shorter than capri pants.

11.  Jump into a taxi without knowing the local norms—are there meters, are fares negotiated beforehand, which are the unlicensed taxis and are they safe? Also–you took a taxi there. How are you getting back?

12.  Don’t have any idea how to read a map. Be unable to figure out where you are in any given city.

13.  Talk back to the guard at the museum who reminds you that flash photography is not permitted.

14.  When at a tourist attraction, talk loudly to your companions when all are wearing headphones. Double negative points if headphones are attached to museums gizmos that describe the exhibits.

15.  Don’t check local weather before arriving. Who needs a coat in Helsinki in March?

16.  Don’t travel with Pepto Bismol.

17.  Ignore instructions to put airline seat in the upright position during takeoff or landing. This way, you can get to know the people ahead or in back of you when thrust forcefully against them during takeoff/landing. Oh hi!

18.  Get drunk during a flight and offer your drink to the possibly underage person next to you.

19.  Pack porn for a trip to the Middle East.

20.  Try to dance through the metal detector at the airport.

21.  The sausages in Austria were supposed to be great but there is just wurst on the menu. Seriously, wouldn’t you think they’d serve their best?

22.  Don’t set your watch and/or travel clock to the local time zone.

23.  Call room service and ask the hotel to provide American TV channels.

24.  Although you don’t understand the difference between football/fútbol/soccer/rugby/Aussie rules, talk a lot as if you do.

25.  While in China, ask people if they realize that ping-pong is not a sport.

26.  Eat partially cooked eggs. Add points by combining with #16, above.

27.  Drink tap water when everyone else is drinking bottled water. Again, see #16, above.

28.  Use a shopping bag or other open bag as a carry-on so you can share everything in it with the rest of the plane passengers during landing.

29.  Don’t use sunscreen. More negative points if you then get on an airplane where the air is really really dry . . .

30.  Damn. “Wet season” actually means rain.

31.  Spoiler alert:  Turkish coffee, Turkish delight, and Turkish toilets are not all equally nice.

32. Call the hotel concierge, TSA agent, or tour guide “dude.”

33.  Let your screaming children be the center of everyone’s attention in the hotel restaurant/breakfast buffet/line at Disneyworld attraction/butterbeer stand at Hogsmeade.

34.  What, they don’t speak Latin in Latin America?

35.  Try to score drugs in a foreign country. Dude, seriously.

But be a great traveler with ideas from these travel websites!

www.afar.com  the online portal for AFAR, the unique travel magazine

www.smartertravel.com a safe travel guide as well as a place to find deals and advice

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Why Navigation With a Map Still Matters

Why Navigation With a Map Still Matters

Love your GPS? Love how easy it makes getting from Point A to Point B? If you’re like me, your GPS saves travel time, keeps you from getting lost, and provides an Australian or British voice so you can get directions from Ned Kelly or James Bond, depending on your mood.

But while GPS is a great tool, I think we’re losing the skill of navigation. And basic navigation is one of those skills we need to possess in order to be confident that we can find our way, no matter where we happen to be. Navigating with a real map means–

  • You’re self-reliant. Not wholly dependent on electricity, satellites or the phone company.
  • You’re in control over where you are going and willing to learn new skills along the way.
  • Personal achievement! Another deposit into the emotional bank account!

Plus you get a really cool souvenir.

Related Post: The Art of Travel Without a Camera

In the Ice Age, before internet and GPS, I traveled with (gasp) paper maps! Newer maps, like the laminated Streetwise series by streetwisemaps.com are compact accordions that fold to the size of a business envelope. The older maps are Technicolor murals that led me across Europe, the South Pacific and Down Under.

Revelation time

I recently sifted through the box where I keep those old paper maps and had a revelation:

I probably wouldn’t be writing books or this blog if I hadn’t had those formative experiences, if I had never learned that I could do things and go places on my own with just the help of a map.

Where I’ve been

map of Florence, italy

 Tourist map of Florence, Italy, circa 1981. A friend studied there during my year in Paris.  We met up several times in Florence and made the rounds of the museums. I learned about male anatomy staring at Michelangelo’s David

Venice

Map of Venice, circa 1981. The paper is stiff. the muted colors are those of the sea beyond San Marco’s square. Of all my maps, this one is the closest to artwork.

Biarritz

 Map of Biarritz in the south of France where I lived for a month, taking and failing an intensive French course prior to the school year in Paris.

Related post: Girl Meets Paris

Amsterdam mapMap of Amsterdam by streetwisemaps.com. Amsterdam is not big but it is incredibly picturesque and very walkable. The Anne Frank House was more than moving; it was a powerful lesson in history. And humanity instead of hate.

BrusselsBrussels is a lovely blend of big metropolitan city and old Europe. French fries are served with mayonnaise. Still getting over that.

Oslo city

 Oslo is one of my favorite places. The sky is bluer in Oslo than anywhere else on earth. The seafaring tradition + Scandinavian design + the legacy and legends of polar exploration make it a fascinating place to visit. Travel by ferry to the Fram and Kon-Tiki Museums was a highlight.

Pot MoresbyThe map of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, is a huge affair from the country’s National Mapping Bureau. The thick paper is only printed on one side.

Related post: Land of the Unexpected

map of PompeiiI walked around Pompeii in August and the temperature was around 100 F. I felt like I was inside a volcano not viewing the ruins of one. Sweaty hands nearly turned the map (came with admission) to mush. This is the eastern side of the site.

Rome italy subwayRome, Italy is noisy, chaotic, crazy, amazing. Every street is full of clothes I want to buy, food I want to eat, and books, art, & pharmacies with unique lotions and potions. The city is compact enough to walk nearly everywhere but Streetwise’s metro map was very handy.

Mexico City street mapMexico City is so big you need a whole book, called the Guia Roji, to navigate. My copy was falling apart after three years there! This page is the Lomas de Chapultepec area where THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY is set.

Sydney, AustraliaIf you ever get a chance to visit Sydney, Australia, take it! Sydney is a beautiful city with lots of things to do and friendly people. This map helped me navigate to the first Virgin Records store I’d ever seen, where I bought Midnight Oil LPs for a friend and Man of Colors by Icehouse (“Had a little accident, nothing too serious“) for myself.

Fremantle, AustraliaThis map of Fremantle, Australia, on the country’s west coast, was created by the Western Australian Tourism Commission. Below the seal it says William C. Brown, Government Printer, Western Australia. The map itself is about six square inches; the rest of the big foldout (both sides) lists things to do such as the America’s Cup Museum or the Royal Australian Navy Corvettes Association Memorial Monument Hill.

As a final inducement to brush up on your navigation skills, here’s what author and Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings had to say in his great book, MAPHEADS:

“Almost every map, whether of a shopping mall, a city, or a continent, will show us two kinds of places: places where we’ve been and places we’ve never been . . . We can understand, at a glance, our place in the universe, our potential to go and see new things, and the way to get back home afterward.”

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Three Lessons from Mrs. Grackle

Can an obscure Nicaraguan bird teach us problem solving skills? Yes, but it depends on how hungry you are.

full profile of grackle as it prepares of flightI have the good fortune to live where it is sunny and warm most of the year. Most days start with a workout in the pool. A swimmer is an object to curiosity to the birds in the backyard, most of which are doves with blue-edged wings and yellow-breasted kiskadees. Or grackles.

Related post: The Evil Eye Twice in One Day

Grackles are the local thugs. The Central American version of Poe’s raven. The males are a glossy greenish-black and the females are darkest brown tinged with black. Both have glittering yellow eyes and bad tempers.

Unfriendly Neighbors

They frequently let me know I’m trespassing on their territory. One morning as I swam to the deep end, a male grackle flew to the shallow end and alighted on the top step. When I changed direction he flew to the deep end and regarded me malevolently from the lip of the pool. I changed direction again and he flew above my head to the opposite side. And so the next five laps wore on.

This particular morning, as I hit the deep end, a female grackle flew to the top step at the shallow end. She had a big yellow seed in her mouth which she let fall into the water just rimming the step. As I watched, she periodically picked up the same seed, worried at it a little, then dropped it back in the water. Mrs. Grackle did this three times until she finally picked up the seed and broke it apart in her beak. She gobbled up several of the pieces, then flew away with the leftovers. Two minutes later she was back with another seed. Again she went through the same drop, wait, check, drop, wait, check routine.

Solutions Come from the Strangest Places

Have you figured it out? She was soaking the seed until it became soft enough to crack and eat.

It was as if she’d just written three simple problem-solving tips:

  • Break a hard task into smaller bites.
  • Look around to see what resources you can leverage that might be hiding in plain sight.
  • Be patient—the success of your plan might take time to develop. Lack of instant gratification does not mean the plan isn’t sound.

Applying the Lesson

I was struggling with a rewrite of my third novel at the time. Plot elements I’d loved when  I originally wrote the book over a year ago now seemed trite and predictable, two characteristics one should seek to avoid in a mystery. The revised outline looked big and daunting.

Related post: The Girl on the Cutting Room Floor

book outlineSo following Mrs. Grackle’s lead I revised the outline yet again and made it into an easy to follow poster. Each scene became a color coded little “bite.” Doing that allowed me to jettison the heavy parts weighing down the action and add plot twists to heighten the suspense. Suddenly I had a roadmap to the novel’s end.

Resources to help were hiding in plain sight—my writing buddy, a timer to keep to my writing schedule, my love of being able to cross things off a checklist, or in this case, an entry on the poster. The new style outline didn’t mean instant success; there was still hard work ahead but I could be patient, knowing the plan was sound.

These days, the grackles and I still eye each other with suspicion. But it is tinged with mutual respect for problem solving skills.

Or will be, just as soon as I wash the bird crap off my car.

“A page-turner with political intrigue, double crossing corrupt officials and real heroes and heroines.”

The Hidden Light of Mexico CityGet it on amazon today!

$3.99 Kindle $13.99 paperback

About the time I went to Fiji

About the time I went to Fiji

Arriving in Fiji alone at 1:00 am after a 12-hour flight was unnerving but that’s the way the flights went so there I was, in the middle of the Pacific, with a heavy suitcase, an even heavier bag of scuba gear, and reservations for a hotel that was 20 miles away. I’d never been in Fiji before.

The Fiji You Don’t Know

A nation of islands, Fiji was a former British colony. When the Brits found out that it was the ideal climate for sugar cane, Indian workers from the subcontinent were brought in the raise the crop. Sugar cane passport and shellsbecame Fiji’s main export, sweetening British candy and giving rise to local rum production as well. But land in Fiji–and accompanying political power–is reserved for native-born Fijians, disenfranchising the Indian population. As the Indian population grew to rival that of native-born Fijians, the unequal status was more apparent. The Indian population’s economic and political power grew with the population, until an Indian was elected prime minister. A racially-motivated coup by a native Fijian army officer was swift and bloodless. It returned the former native Fijian prime minister to an interim status but a second coup occurred when the army ringleader took power himself.

The second coup had occurred two weeks before my arrival.

The Taxi Driver I Didn’t Know

I was wary but determined as I hauled my heavy bags outside the terminal to be directed into a taxi driven by a turbaned Indian gentleman. We headed off in the pitch-black Pacific night for Suva, the capital. The taxi was tooling along nicely until we came to an army roadblock. A single Fijian soldier stood guard, wearing a military uniform shirt tucked into a traditional Fijian sulu, or kilt, and sandals. He had an assault rifle, a flashlight, and a long wooden barrier.

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The Soldier I Wish I Knew

Let me digress here and say that Fijian men are the most handsome men on earth. Apologies to singer Ricky Martin; Karl Urban–the New Zealander who played Eomer in the Lord of the Rings movies; and my husband (whom I hadn’t yet met.) Fijian men are Pacific gods. All are about seven feet tall, muscular to the point of sculpture, and have deliciously dark hair and eyes.

So back to the car. The driver stopped the vehicle in front of the barrier. From my vantage point in the back seat I saw him sweat and shake as the soldier and his nice gun approached. The driver stared ahead, steering wheel locked in a death grip, and didn’t acknowledge the soldier.

For whatever reason I rolled down my window, smiled shakily, and held out my American passport.

The soldier bent down to peer at me through the open window. Up close he was gorgeous; dark mustache  lose-yourself-in-them brown eyes, perfect teeth. “Hello,” he said, making it sound as if I was the woman he’d been waiting for all his life.

“Hello,” I replied, now confused as well as nervous.

He stepped away from the car and studied my passport in the beam of his flashlight. There were no streetlights, no other cars, the airport far behind, the empty road unspooling in front of us only to disappear into the darkness. The taxi driver continued to shake like soupy gelatin.

The soldier came back to the car and leaned down to look at me again through the window. He handed back the passport. “Goodbye,” he said, infusing his voice with Casablanca-like drama.

“Goodbye,” I said, matching his emotional tone.

He moved the barrier, the taxi driver gave a little sob, and we sped off, leaving Sergeant Fiji by the side of the road.

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In Retrospect

I was reminded of this episode  when I recently unpacked a box of souvenirs. I’d made the first move in a tense situation by offering my passport to the soldier. He was alone in the dark and probably as nervous as that taxi driver. Would things have gone differently if I’d waited for the taxi driver to do something or for the soldier to demand some identification or payment?

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Friday Fiesta: Love, Murder, African Design and the Final Frontier

dog reading paperAs the author of a mystery series I love to weave unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Join the movement and share your stories on Twitter with hashtag #FridayFiesta.

A love list by President Harry Truman

He’s better known for “the buck stops here” than for romance but the Smithsonian recently gave us a fascinating list that President Harry Truman wrote capturing his life with Bess, his wife of 53 years. He made a brief notation beside the date of their anniversary each year. Many entries evoke the time period the Trumans were living through. A really interesting way to capture our milestones. Some examples:

  • June 28, 1922 Broke and in a bad way
  • June 28, 1927 Presiding Judge – eating again
  • June 28, 1944 Talk of V.P. Bad business
  • June 28, 1947 Marshall Plan + Greece + Turkey

Murder in the Library

The British Library has a new exhibit featuring the sound and text of British crime fiction writers. Murder in the Library: An A to Z of Crime Fiction is the British Library’s current free exhibition in the Folio Society Gallery in the Entrance Hall. As reported in the Library’s English and Drama Curators’ blog, the exhibit includes recordings including Edgar Wallace reading his short story ‘The Man in the Ditch’, from a 1928 commercial disc; Arthur Conan Doyle speaking in 1930 about his most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes; Agatha Christie in 1955 explaining how she began her career; Raymond Chandler in conversation with Ian Fleming in 1958; and an extract from a 1943 radio version of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Maybe I find this fascinating because I write a mystery series, love museums, and appreciate the innovation that goes into a non-standard exhibit, but the British Library has created an intriguing display, especially if visited on a dark and stormy night . . .

House of Kenya

Art and design is taking off in Kenya, according to the ever-fresh thecultureist.com online magazine.  Both London and Los Angeles will host an Africa Fashion Week this year and Berlin’s Fashion Week will include an Africa Fashion Day. A few of the names that are behind this recognition by the tough-nut-to-crack fashion world are Kenyan designer Anna Trzebinski who will open her first U.S. boutique in New York in late 2013 or early 2014, Nigerian-born Adèle Dejak whose workshop in Nairobi focuses on using sustainable materials for her accessories line, and Penny Winter who sells fashion accessories in Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, as well in Browns in London. Watch out Dior and Chanel—Kenya’s cultural fashions are creative, colorful, and wearable.

The Final Frontier

The cleverness of some folks! Reddit.com “redditor” boredboarder8 superimposed a map of the continental United States on a comparatively-sized image of the moon. The result? The US covers nearly half of the moon. As Robert Gonzalez, writing for website io9.com, said: “A rough estimate, but it’s certainly good enough for government work when it comes to illustrating the Moon’s relative dinkiness. (Or America’s hulking hugeness, depending on how patriotic you’re feeling.)” Take an eye-opening look at America’s final frontier here.

Historic Preservation That Scares Us and Why That’s a Good Thing

Elsewhere in this blog I’ve talked about historic preservation as a means of taking the temperature of a culture. A healthy culture chooses to preserve both its good and bad: we celebrate the good and learn from the bad. The bad is often scary and it might be preferable not to remember these things but they carry unforgettable universal lessons.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

photo courtesy wikipedia commons

Background: The beautiful Gothic cathedral in the center of Vienna is home to the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Vienna. It anchors the main Stephensplatz with fantastic architecture, stained glass windows, and graceful spires (445 high at its tallest point.) Dedicated to St. Stephen in 1147, the church underwent the usual Middle Ages rebuilding and fires.  After WWII much of it was rebuilt and the cathedral reopened in 1952.

Preservation: Human remains lie under the church in its catacombs. You can tour the catacombs, passing through a narrow passage to see neatly stacked skulls in one huge chamber, femurs in another and so on. The bones are the remains of the eight cemeteries that used to exist around the church. The cemeteries were closed in 1735 due to bubonic plague and the dead were taken from the cemeteries and stored under the church in what must have been a space-saving and gruesome manner. Bodies were buried in the catacombs until 1783, when most burials within Vienna were outlawed. According to Wikipedia, the catacombs hold over 11,000 remains.

Lesson: The power of disease cannot be forgotten. Those bones symbolize the destructive power of disease and the ignorance of how to cure it. This is why today we have the Center for Disease Control.

Dachau concentration camp, outside Munich, Germany

Dauchau memorial

“Never Again” memorial, Dachau. Photo courtesy wikipedia commons

Background: Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp established in Germany, described as a camp for political prisoners. It opened in 1933, 51 days after Hitler came to power. It was in operation for 12 years and recorded 206,206 prisoners and 31,951 deaths–like all the numbers associated with Nazi death camps take these with a grain of salt.  The American forces that liberated the camp were so shocked at what they found–and by local residents’ claim that they knew nothing about the camp—that they made the residents clean it up.

Preservation: A walk through the preserved site is like walking through a cemetery while the spirits call out to you. There is a memorial and a museum. The foundation of the barracks are left. A short walk from the barracks and the parade ground is the crematorium. One oven was sized for children and is a sight I’ll never forget.

Lesson: Man’s inhumanity to man is a sledgehammer blow of a lesson when you see Dachau. Everyone who walks through here understands it at a visceral level. But genocide endures nonetheless.

Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo, Norway

Kon tiki museum photo

The Kon-Tiki raft. Photo courtesy the Kon-Tiki Museum

Background: In 1947, a young Norwegian anthropologist named Thor Heyderdahl set out to prove his theory that ancient pre-Columbian peoples traveled across the Pacific from South America to the Polynesian islands. Using only the materials that would have been available to those ancients, he constructed a balsa raft called the Kon-Tiki. Together with 5 others, he sailed it for 101 days across 4300 miles from Peru to the remote Tuamotu islands, proving his theory that such travel voyages showed that “early man had mastered sailing before the saddle and wheel were invented.”

Preservation: The Kon-Tiki raft is now in a fantastic museum in Oslo, Norway, together with another Heyderdahl raft called Ra. His archives at the Kon-Tiki Museum are part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World registery.

Lesson: This raft and its journey hardly seem to be an example of scary historic preservation until you consider the implications of Heyderdahl’s theory. Ancients travelling the globe in pre-Columbian times, settling and spreading their seeds in far-flung places means that we could all be a lot more related than we think. And that is a scary thought to many.

Arizona Battleship Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor memorial

Arizona Memorial. Photo courtesy wikipedia commons

Background: On 7 December 1941, the day that will live in infamy, Japanese imperial forces attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Waves of aircraft bombed battleships sitting at anchor, destroying much of the US’s naval power. On the USS Arizona alone, 1,177 crew members died, making it the greatest loss of life on any U.S. warship in American history.

Preservation: In 1961, a floating monument was erected over the sunken USS Arizona. Visitors can peer through the glass floor and see the mid-portion of the sunken battleship. I remember being embarrassed that I’d worn high heels; it seemed indecent that my feet should click against the watery graves of so many men. The 184-foot long Memorial also has an area called the shrine room, where the names of those killed on the Arizona are engraved on the marble wall.

Lesson: The Memorial is a powerful reminder of the havoc wreaked by war. It cautions us not to forget those who sacrifice.

Pompeii, near Naples, Italy

Pompeii in sun

Ruins at Pompeii. Photo courtesy wikipedia commons

Background: In 79 AD, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed and buried under 13-20 feet of ash and lava when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted. It is hard to know how many people died that day but Pompeii was thought to have been a large and thriving agricultural town. The eruption, which lasted 12 hours, ironically occurred the day after the feast day of the Roman god of volcanoes.

Preservation: The ruins of Pompeii were discovered in 1748. One of the archaeologists supervising the ash removal devised a way to inject plaster into the bodies found, preserving their death agonies as they were incinerated or died from smoke inhalation. As I walked around the large site in Italy’s August heat, marveling at the amphitheaters and well-constructed homes, it was easy to think of hot ash raining down and to realize how much had been lost.

Lesson: Nature does what it will and we must respect and adapt to it. As the climate change debate goes on and we deal with unexpected droughts, tornados or snow in places that ordinarily don’t see these weather phenomena, perhaps it is a good time to consider that the people of Pompeii probably though they had the god of volcanoes well in hand.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Friday Fiesta: Saving the Food Chain, A Language, Literary Thought and Your Self-Esteem

dog with sifesaver

As the author of a mystery series I love to weave unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Join the movement and share your stories on Twitter with hashtag #FridayFiesta.

The Fish at the Bottom of Your Food Chain

The Peruvian anchovy, known as anchoveta, lives at the bottom of a global food chain you probably have never thought about. According to AP, the little silver fish “thrives in the cold, plankton-saturated Humboldt Current along the coast of Peru and Chile and accounts for about a third of the global fishmeal industry used to fatten farmed seafood and livestock, from salmon in Norway to pigs in China.” But due to overfishing, the anchoveta population is about half what it was 10 years ago. That’s a serious concern for people who know what a food chain is and Peru is taking action by setting quotas, levying fines for illegal harvesting, and making the fish more accessible to its own population to combat childhood malnutrition. Paul Phumpiu, Peru’s vice minister of fisheries, framed the situation: “It’s a paradox, having a resource so rich that it feeds other parts of the planet but barely reaches Peruvians.” A little fish with a big job, it seems.

Saving the Language of Jesus

Writer Ariel Sabar recently followed scholar Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge through Chicago in his quest to find speakers of pure Aramaic, the 3,000-year-old language of Jesus. Aramaic, the language in which Jesus uttered his last words, is down to its last generation or two of speakers. Khan looks for “elderly folk who had lived the better part of their lives in mountain enclaves in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Turkey” and records those whose language skills have not been diluted by slang or dialects. His work is “an act of cultural preservation and an investigation into how ancient languages shift and splinter over time.” This terrific article, published in The Smithsonian, is beautifully researched and written.  I loved this line: “the sounds of a language in twilight.

Be Proud, Get a Badge

Lifescouts.org is an online social community of people who share life experiences and get real badges for those experiences. You can join the social community and store the story about how you earned a certain badge like Sky Diving, Haunted House, Swimming With Dolphins, etc. More are added every month. Each Lifescouts badge costs 3.00 BPS and comes as a round enamel pin. I love Lifescouts for two reasons: 1. Find other folks who have similar experiences and 2. My daughter realized that she’s accomplished more than she sometimes gives herself credit for. A couple of little pins is a terrific reminder of our Small Victories. And some big ones, too.

A Literary Festival in Myanmar. Really

Myanmar recently held its first literary festival, the Irrawaddy Literary Festival. As reported by Publishing Perspectives, it drew “thousands of attendees attracted by the opportunity to hear speakers ranging from Vikram Seth, Timothy Garton Ash, William Dalyrmple, to the festival’s patron, Nobel Peace Prize winner and worldwide icon for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi.” It was organized by the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar, Jane Heyn who saw opportunity in the country’s recent loosening of censorship. Two years ago, such an event—attended by previously jailed writers and others who once had to hand out their works in secret–would not have been possible. While creatives still must tread carefully in Myanmar, the literary festival was “a platform to exchange ideas,” according to Heyn. That can only be a good sign.

 

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