Saturday, May 31, 2014

WNI Summer 2014 Writing Contest: The Six-Word Story

It’s time for another Writing North Idaho Writing Contest!

This summer’s challenge: to write a story or memoir using only six words.

Ernest Hemingway rose to this challenge when he wrote, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Dave Eggers wrote: “Fifteen years since last professional haircut.”

From Aimee Mann: “Couldn’t cope so I wrote songs.”

From Stephen Colbert: “Well I thought it was funny.”

(For further inspiration, check out Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser.)

Now it’s your turn! Tell us a story or memoir in exactly six words--no more, no less. Send your entry/ies (up to 3 entries per person), either in the body of an e-mail or as an attachment, to wnicontest (at) gmail (dot) com between June 1 and July 15.

For complete contest rules, visit our Contests page. Questions? Shoot an e-mail to wnicontest (at) gmail (dot) com.

Good luck!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Joyous Hearts and Minds

The move we undertook a year ago brought us down to the south end of Lake Coeur d' Alene.  We are much closer, happily so, to the Coeur D' Alene tribe. For centuries and centuries, veritable eons of time, the Sch'isu'umsh lived in a territory that stretched from the Canadian border in the north, to the plains of Montana, to Central Washington in the west, and down south to the lands of the Nez Perce. It was the French trappers who gave them the name Coeur d' Alene, heart of the awl, referring to the skill and tenacity of the traders.

David Matheson, a member of the tribe, set down his knowledge of tribal teachings, of the oral history passed down through the ages, and describes with remarkable skill and beauty the times lived before the coming of the white man. Red Thunder is an extraordinary book, one I would recommend to anyone. It thrilled me to imagine lives lived in harmony with nature. While we like to think we have improved our lives every step of the way, I found myself lost in thought about the old ways and the wisdom of the teachings.

Passions and struggles remain the same in spite of our advanced technology. All people pray for the well being of their loved ones, in every corner of the planet. Revering ancestors is common to all cultures. The Creator is defined by all people in a myriad of ways. It is the great universal themes that Matheson touches on so brilliantly.

As is common with many books that end up on my shelves, it begins with a recommendation. One of the byproducts of the writing life, is that people will often tell me of a book they think I should read. Often these titles are in notebooks, or scratched on something in my purse, or forgotten about until they re-surface again. Last summer, a new friend told me about Red Thunder while we were enjoying breakfast at the Circling Raven Golf Course. One year later, I had some time to kill before getting a pedicure of all things, and wandered into a gift shop in the lobby. My idea was to pick up a magazine and pass the time on one of the comfy leather couches. Informed that they did not carry such items, but had some books, I browsed through the selection and the title rang a bell. When the clerk told me it was written by the C.E.O. I decided to pick it up. Reading this wonderfully inspirational story has served to increase my gratitude for the years we have enjoyed and cherished on the beautiful lake we call home.

David Matheson has a M.B.A. from Eastern Washington University. He has served as the Deputy Commissioner for Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He has been an adviser for the President's Commission on Reservation Economies. In keeping with tradition, he has been a delegate to the People's Republic of China's Native American Trade Mission. More honors are listed. This is an impressive man by any measure. As with all writers who strive to bring the past back to life in writing historical fiction, he has met this challenge with extraordinary skill.

“Just to be in nature has medicinal power. It opens your heart and soul. As you turn your mind to nature, your soul is refreshed. When the soul is renewed, the heart and mind are joyous and the body is healed. Nature makes you turn to the Higher Power in thankfulness. Moreover, in your spiritual thanksgiving, the soul rejoices. The healing power of the natural world is magnificent” (page 74)

Reading Red Thunder allowed my soul to sing. It reminded me to give thanks, each and every day, to the Creator who bestowed us with the gift of life. I will be forever grateful that I had the good fortune to pick up this remarkable book.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cayenne, Turmeric and Ginger

Jhumpa Lahiri's, The Lowland is a complex and fascinating novel, set in a section of Calcutta called Tollygunde. The title refers to the geographical region where two brothers take up their rendezvous with destiny. Maureen Corrigan of N.P.R begins her review with this sentence: "Geography is destiny."

Tollygunde fills up with water during the monsoon season and there it sits, home to water hyacinths giving it a striking green color, but robbing any passerby of firm footing. Some creatures lay eggs in the mud, and manage to survive by hiding in it until it is dry and firm enough for them to escape. The lives of the two brothers seem similarly perilous. Subbash, the elder, is responsible, studious and cautious. His younger brother Udayan is the polar opposite, finding adventure and risk in the burgeoning Naxalite movement of the sixties in India. There is high tension in the description of these times. As a decidedly western observer, it struck me as an impossible and thoroughly unlikely dream to bring  Maoist society, with all inherent rigidity, to the multitude of contrasts that make up the rich and complex social structure in India.  

While one son goes off to America to study Oceanography, the other ends up leaving a pregnant and lonely widow on the reluctant hands of his parents. Subbash offers to marry his brother's former wife and bring her to Rhode Island. Adapting to the new country, we see her become strangely distant. She eats an entire package of cream cheese, mistaking it for a candy bar. This image will remain with me forever.  Her interest in studying philosophy is thwarted by the demands of motherhood. It is not a tale of passions flaring, but one rather of quiet resolve on the part of a steadfast man to remain as such, alongside a woman who takes the only way out she can find at the time. As in so many novels depicting different cultures coming together, this is crafted brilliantly. Would someone from New England ever attempt to describe the region's fall colors in terms of “vivid hues of cayenne, turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning?”

Jhumpa Lahiri is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies. The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Here is a glimpse of her lovely prose:

“The city was called Kolkata now, the way Bengalis pronounced it. The taxi traveled along a peripheral artery that bypassed the northern portion of the city, the congested center. It was evening, the traffic dense but moving quickly. Flowers and trees were planted along the sides of the road. New flyovers, new sectors replacing what used to be farmland and swamp...
It was Durga Pujo, the city's most anticipated days. The stores, the sidewalks were overflowing. At the ends of certain alleys, or in gaps among the buildings, she saw the pandals. Durga armed with her weapons, flanked by her four children, depicted and worshiped in so many versions. Made of plaster, made of clay. She was resplendent, formidable. A lion helped to conquer a demon at her feet. Se was a daughter visiting her family, visiting the city, transforming it for a time.” page 315

In contrast, here is a description of life in Rhode Island:

"Both places were close to sea level, with estuaries where fresh and salt water combined. As Tollygunge, in a previous era, had been flooded by the sea, all of Rhode Island, he learned, had once been covered with sheets of ice. The advance and retreat of glaciers, spreading and melting over New England, had shifted with bedrock and soil, leaving great trails of debris. They had created marshes and the bay, dunes and moraines. They had shaped the current shore.

He found a room in a white wooden house, close to the main road of the village, with black shutters flanking the windows. The shutters were decorative, never opening or closing as they did throughout the day in Calcutta, to keep the rooms cool or dry, to block rain or let in a breeze or adjust the light." Page 35

If geography is destiny then it would be safe to say that Jhumpa Lahiri's path has been transcendent.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day-Book to help Veterans and Families Cope with Severe Stress.

Stress after trauma F-Cover

My book How to Cope with Post Trauma Stress: Especially for Veterans, their Families, and Friends is on Amazon both as a Kindle book and a paper book in time for Memorial Day. It includes a stress test, relevant information about post-trauma stress (PTS), twenty steps to recovery, and help for the veteran's families and friends.

But, you say, memorial day is to honor the soldiers who have died to protect our freedoms. Yes, you are right. However, I believe that in remembering with love and appreciation all our heroes who have given their lives, we must also equally remember all those who have served us and survived. We cannot separate Memorial Day from Veteran's Day. Except for "the luck of the draw" the people who died and those who lived are the same, not one more brave and deserving than the other.

Many soldiers in the last two wars have survived because of modern medicine. Many, many veterans are coming home physically and emotionally injured. They are the ones who in the past were the ones who died. As you  have no doubt heard recently, one of the problems we are now facing, is that the country is not prepared to receive and help this many suffering veterans. There are long waiting periods in VA hospitals and doctor's offices. In the meantime veterans feel hopeless, deserted, and they are dying because of lack of care here at home instead of in a war zone overseas. They feel as though nobody cares. And to some extent they are right.

Because we now have a volunteer army, many people at home are no longer personally or meaningfully invested in what happens in the war. They are told to "go out and shop." The news rarely covers what is happening out on the battlefield, and we don't even see the coffins or wounded men come home. We forget they exist, or that we are at war. Of course, since Vietnam, ordinary citizens have learned a lesson they have not forgotten and that is to thank the veteran's for their service instead of calling them names.

That's great, but do people really see the veterans and their loved ones as human beings like they are? Can you personally step into a veteran's shoes and put yourself in her/his place? Or are the veterans merely "out there," distant from you? Do you know really what they are going through or would you rather inadvertently close your eyes to their needs and their suffering? Did you personally know what was going on in the VA? Did you care when you found out?

So what is the solution? How can we help our veteran's reintegrate when they come home? Ed Tick in his book  War and the Veteran's Soul: Healing our Nation's Veterans from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, calls war a soul pain, a spiritual, and moral injury. Tick gives a powerful example in his book of how things could be different. He tells the story of how the Native American's once sent their warriors off to fight for them and how they reintegrated them.

When the veteran's returned, the entire community would sit in a circle and gather around them. They would allow their warriors to truthfully tell their stories of both the "good and bad things" that happened in battle. The community did not shame or judge them for what the warriors had done. Instead they shared the warrior's joy, their guilt, and their grief. After all, the tribe had, as a whole, sent the warriors to fight to protect them. The entire tribe listened, they held the returning warriors, and loved and supported them through their time of reintegration (sometimes for months) until they could stand alone again.

What would happen if we helped our warriors reintegrate in this way? It is time for everyone, individually, to take responsibility for our wars and our veterans. We, as a nation (yes, that means all of us personally) have sent the men and women to war and everyone of us must take responsibility to reintegrate them into our society, and not just with money. It means a personal investment in a veteran or veterans that you can help, love, and support physically and/or emotionally.

This book is my contribution to hurting veterans. If you know a veteran or family member who could use the help given in this book, please let them know about How to Cope with Stress after Trauma: Especially for Veterans, their Families and Friends.

Think about what you personally can do to help our veterans reintegrate and share it with the rest of us this Memorial Day.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shibboleths---what are they and how to use them in writing

Jennifer Rova

If you write spy novels, fiction set during any war, or want your novel to reflect a certain group or area of the country, you may want to read the following about sibboleths. It could give your writing just the right touch of authenticity that appeals to readers. I found the various definitions quite confusing but I am mainly referring to a shibboleth as a pass word.  Today it is often used as a way to determine who is in the "in" group and who is "out" via the use of certain terms.* 

A shibboleth* for this post is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group. The group making the identification has some kind of social power to set the standards for who belongs to their group: who is "in" and who is "out." In my case, saying the shibboleth “Uff da mya” is from my Norwegian heritage. It can be used as an expression of surprise, astonishment, exhaustion, relief and sometimes dismay. “Uff da maya what a day I had!”

In New York, you stand “on line,” while everywhere else in the English-speaking world, people stand “in line.”
The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary. A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. This phenomenon is part of the universal use of language for distinguishing social groups. It is also one example of a general phenomenon of observing a superficial characteristic of members of a group, such as a way of speaking, and judging that characteristic as good or bad, depending on how much the observers like the people who have that characteristic. One common example is use of the “N” word by some African Americans which is acceptable within their certain social groups but totally unacceptable when used by anybody else.
The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet. The modern usage derives from an account in the Torah, was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked an SH sound from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme (any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another). The groups were fighting each other. If a soldier could not pronounce “shibboleth” correctly, it indicated he was the Ephraimite was slain immediately by the Gileadites.

In numerous cases of conflict between groups speaking different languages or dialects, one side used shibboleths in a way similar to the above-mentioned Biblical use, i.e., to discover hiding members of the opposing group. In October 1937 the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, was used as a password to identify Haitian immigrants living along the border in the Dominican Republic. The president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the execution of these people. It is alleged that between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals were murdered within a few days in the Parsley Massacre although more recent scholarship and the lack of evidence mass graves puts the actual total as low as 1000.

OREGON  Many non-locals pronounce the last syllable, "gone."  Residents of the state pronounce it like the second syllable of "begun." Some also turn the middle syllable into a long e ("ORE-ee-gon") or drop the middle syllable altogether (making it sound like "organ" or "argon").

During World War II, some American soldiers in the Pacific theater used the word "lollapalooza" as a shibboleth to challenge unidentified persons, on the premise that Japanese people frequently had difficulty pronouncing “L” saying an “R” instead. A watchword such as "lollapalooza" would be used by the sentry, who, if the first two syllables come back as rorra, would open fire without waiting to hear anything else or ask to see any identification.

English-speaking Allied personnel in Europe, during the same war, made use of passwords
in which w-sounds were prominent, as the letter w is normally pronounced "v" by native speaking Germans. The challenge “War Weapons Week” and the countersign “Welmouth” often revealed an enemy. British forces are reported to have also used the word "squirrel", as Germans would frequently pronounce it sqvirrel. In the North African campaign, Allied forces used the password "Whoa Mahomet", which Germans could never pronounce. Following the D-Day (1944) invasion in Normandy, US forces used the challenge-response "Flash" – "Thunder" – "Welcome”. German  infiltrators in U.S. uniforms sometimes gave away their identity  during the Battle of The Bulge (1944–45) by using elements of British English vocabulary, such as "lorry" versus truck and "petrol" instead of gasoline thereby showing a lack of awareness of US vs. British shibboleths.

During the Somali Islamic terrorist group al-Shababb's 2013 hostage and terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya the attackers asked for Islamic prophet Muhammad's  mother Aminah hint Wahb's name and the shahada as religious shibboleths to determine Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims were freed, while non-Muslims were targeted. An Indian man who could not name Aminah was shot dead.

A good shibboleth is in the pronunciation of the word "been" which the English invariably make to rhyme with "green," and Americans say "ben".

Today, in American English, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any "in-group" word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group. The word is less well recognized in British English. It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.
English shibboleths for native speakers of American English:
nuclear/nucular: The word "nuclear" is sometimes pronounced "nook-leer" in parts of the United States. This is considered incorrect or a metathesis by many authorities, although a common alternative pronunciation, is used by Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. Bush and other politicians. This is common in some Midwestern states, particularly those in the southern part of the region.

"BART": Bay Area Rapid Transit, which connects San Francisco with the East and South Bay, is pronounced without the article the by locals, but with it by outsiders. A local would say, "I am going to ride BART," whereas a visitor typically says, "Let's ride the BART."

Similarly, the names of local interstate highways in Minnesota are pronounced without the article "the" by locals. A local would drive on "494" not "the 494."

When referring to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the location of most of the city's major monuments, natives usually say that a given landmark is "on the mall." Tourists will sometimes say "in the mall."

Pronunciation of letters of the alphabet:
H: in Northern Ireland pronounced 'aitch' by Protestants, 'haitch' by Catholics, per Hiberno-English. Also often pronounced 'haitch' in dialects of English spoken in the ethnically non-Anglo-Saxon English colonies of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Z: pronounced zee in the United States; typically zed in the rest of the world. Known in American history and popular culture for distinguishing American males who fled to Canada from the US to escape the military draft in the 1960s.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Natives of this city usually pronounce the word 'water' ‘wuter.’A similar phenomenon is found in the closely related Baltimore (Balt-more) dialect.

Pasadena, California: Lower and middle-class natives usually pronounce the word 'milk' [mɛɫk] instead of [mɪɫk], in contrast to their neighbors in Los Angeles. However, this trait is shared with many speakers of American English to which the city has historical ties Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are named for their creator, Harry Reese. In broadcast advertisements the name of the company and the product—Reese's—is consistently pronounced "Reese-iz"—being the possessive form of "Reese." But in several areas of the U.S. it is common for the candy to be called "Ree-see Cups" or "Ree-seez Cups." (In addition to altering the pronunciation of Reese's, the phrase "peanut butter" is often omitted.) Similarly, "Reese's Pieces" might be pronounced "Ree-see Pee-sees," the rhyme being preserved by incorrectly altering the pronunciation of both words.

Americans trying to sound Canadian say for “about” "a boot"; Canadians actually pronounce the word sounding more like "a boat". This phenomenon is known in linguistics as Canadian raising and is not restricted to just Canada, as many Northern U.S. dialects have clear Canadian Raising as well. “Shedule” is pronounced “shed yule” by many Canadians. Americans regard eh as characteristic of Canadian English. Like Canadian raising, eh is used by some Canadian citizens. A usual greeting may be “How’s it goin’, eh?” “eh” is pronounced like a long “a” as is “ache.”

Smorgasboard, a Scandinavian word, is often said, “schmorgusbord” by some Americans in the Midwest. In Lousiana many people from that state will tell you is “Lose-ee-anna." Louiseville, KY is prounced without the “s” and Pierre, SD is definitely “Pier, SD” when voiced. Lima, ID is also Leema to those who live there. Of course, Illinois is pronounced “Ill-i-noy.”

To confuse us all, here are some other definitions I found for "shibboleth":
*SHIBBOLETH “an attention-getting word or phrase used to publicize something (as a campaign or product) <we knew that their claim of giving the best deal in town was just a shibboleth>
Related Words expression, idiom; catchword, cliché (also cliche); maxim, motto; battle cry
war cry

2. an idea or expression that has been used by many people <there's a lot of truth in the shibboleth that if you give some people an inch, they'll take a mile.

[Miriam Webster Dictionary, 2011.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Writing The Italian Way?

Writing North Idaho is sad to announce that Kathy Cooney Dobbs is retiring her position as a permanent contributor to this blog. Kathy is a woman of not only many writing talents, but also a woman whose interests keep her days jam packed with fun activities. She has a list of "BFFs" that would circle the world. With a keen, critical eye, records Kathy's many adventures via her camera, and her writing, including many nature pictures from around northern Idaho. We wish Kathy the best in her adventures. Please follow Kathy at her blog: Kathy always closes as shall we, "Toodle loo for now."

Lucca, Italy beginning of tour of Tuscany


My husband and I travel a lot both in the United States and abroad. I began traveling as a child on family vacations that took us all over the Western, Midwest and many Eastern states. Bob and I continued the tradition by taking driving vacations with our children each year. At this time I have logged all fifty states and 32 foreign countries. This is not meant to be bragging but a set up for the paragraphs to follow.

People who know I am a writer think I have vaults of travel diaries, journals, stories based on actual experiences or fictionalized accounts of events that took place on any one of these trips. They think I have summarized salient points of traveling and have handouts ready to give people who want to know hiking trails in the highlands of Scotland, what to do in Vienna, how to avoid long lines at the Louvre or how to make lefsa the true Norwegian way.

I have none of these, unfortunately, but for plausible reasons. I never have been a diary person. I do not like to put down my personal thoughts about my life for others read 10 years or a century later. I remember what I want to remember and that is good enough. I travel to see landscapes with views different from Hayden Lake outside my door with the Bitterroot section of the Rocky Mountains in the background.

 I travel to smell different things like lavender growing in the fields of Provence, France. I want to observe people and how they go about their every day business of life and what clothes they wear when they work and play. Are they the same as what I would see in the United States? Standing where Michelangelo stood in Carrara, Italy selecting the marble for his statue of David, looking at the Avon River near Shakespeare’s home or standing where the Bastille ended Marie Antoinette’s life brings a thrill to me. I am actually standing in front of the cathedral Monet painted dozens of times and where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Walking the battlefield of Custer's Last Stand helps me picture what happened that day. I walk in history’s footsteps and thus understand it better!

I do not travel to shop. I do not need to say, “Oh, this old thing? Why I bought this wool, hand made, embroidered Hungarian jacket on one our trips to Budapest. By they way, darhling, that’s pronounced Buda Pesht.” I don’t travel to race through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in order to find a bar and have several drinks with my newest friends. I want to walk slowly in the Montmartre section of Paris where Van Gogh, Manet and Lautrec walked and talked together. I revel in seeing the room where the Continental Congress formed our United States of America.
San Gimignano, Italy (Tuscany region)
We travel to see people, places and things and learn from them. We go hard all day long, eat dinner and collapse in bed early at night, exhausted but eager for tomorrow’s sights and learning situations.

THE tower in Pisa
HOWEVER, saying all this, yes, I wish I had kept some personal notes about many of the cities and regions I have seen. It would make for great reference for writing today. I could fictionalize a story based on learning about farming the steep hillsides overlooking fjords in Norway, what kept George Washington “down on the farm after he’d seen Paree” so to speak. I wished I had paid more attention when learning about the cultures of Maori and aboriginals of New Zealand and Australia so I could write my own Rabbit Fence.

Travel writing does not have to be a daily diary of what you saw and ate. It needn’t be adventure turned moralistic stories like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It could be explorative adventure, writing about nature, outdoor sports (what a soccer stadium in Liverpool feels, smells and sounds like, or a story on how difficult is it to blow a vuvuzela, that annoyingly loud horn heard at African soccer games, or an Australian didgeridoo). It could take form from a picture of my ancestors’ stave house of worship near Lillehammer, Norway, or how the state park in South Dakota has changed over the years from my childhood in the 50’s to the modern buildings but both with the same views of Mt. Rushmore and its four presidents.

On the schedule for later in the year is a trip through the hillside towns and city streets, museums and cathedrals of Tuscany. The last time I gazed at the statue of David in Florence was 45 years ago. I do not think he has changed or bought clothes since then but this time I will try to capture the awe of others viewing this magnificent marble monolith. While sipping a glass of red Chianti vino at a village center café in Siena, I will make use of a mini tape recorder to later be able to bring back the sounds of the Italians in every day life.

Thinking about how I could enrich any of my writing has led me to purchase a medium sized, easy to carry journal for this trip. It will be interesting to find out what a difference memories written down will tender to my future attempts at writing of any kind.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Making the Most of a Research Trip

by Jennifer Lamont Leo

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, chances are you will benefit from an in-person research trip at some point. Recently I found myself in Chicago with a day dedicated to research on my current novel-in-progress. My primary goals were to find out:

*What was it like to work in a certain factory during World War II? One of my characters has a defense job in a certain factory that no longer exists, but I found out where the archives are kept and made an appointment to see them. That visit yielded such fabulous finds as employee manuals, newspaper articles, and company literature from the years my character worked there. Along the way, I was able to see what the surrounding neighborhood was like, although it took some imagination to picture it the way it looked seventy years ago. A side trip to the local public library helped in that regard.

*What exactly happened when the Eastland sank? Another of my characters experiences the sinking of the Eastland excursion boat in the Chicago River. I was able to visit an exhibit of Eastland artifacts and interview an expert who is writing a nonfiction book about the disaster.

I came home from my trip with stacks of information, some to incorporate into my novel and some to file for future reference.

Here are some tips on how to make the most of a research trip:

(1) Know what you're looking for. The amount and type of research you're able to do on a research trip will vary, depending on where you are in the project. At the beginning of a project, you may be looking for general story or character ideas, or just getting a feel for the place and time period. If you're well into the writing, as I am, you may have some very specific questions that need answering. Before your trip, think through what you want to learn and set some research goals, right down to a list of questions to jog your memory. Be as well-prepared as possible, but also expect to be enticed down a few "rabbit trails" you didn't anticipate ahead of time. That's part of the fun of on-site research!

(2) Plan ahead. When you have some idea of what you want to learn, do an Internet search to discover the places most likely to have the information you want. For my Chicago-based research, my options included the Chicago History Museum, the Chicago Public Library, the Newberry Library, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute, and scads of smaller museums, historical societies, libraries, and special collections. It was, of course, impossible to visit them all on a single trip, so I used the Internet to prioritize and zero in on my top destinations.

Once I'd decided where to go, I looked up practical details like maps, directions, train schedules, parking availability, etc., and roughed out a schedule, saving myself a lot of time and headaches later. Also make sure you have all the supplies and equipment you'll need, from a simple notebook and pen to a voice recorder, laptop, camera, or handheld scanner. For me, simpler is better when it comes to equipment, but think through what you need to do your best work and make sure it's charged up and ready to go.

(3) Make appointments. When your time in a given locale is limited, don't leave arrangements to chance. By making an appointment you're more likely to get the staff's focused, undivided attention during your visit. Archives, libraries, and museums may be open irregular hours, especially smaller ones run by a volunteer staff. Or if you learn that three busloads of field-tripping second-graders are scheduled to descend on the gallery on the morning of your visit, you may choose to reschedule at a quieter time.

(4) Observe the rules. Some museums, libraries, and archives forbid the taking of photographs or scans, or request you wear gloves while handling old documents, or insist on bringing specific materials to you instead of allowing you to roam the stacks at will. Be a gracious guest and observe the rules. In my experience, when you treat research staff with respect and courtesy, they are more likely to go the extra mile to help you, or to bend a rule or two to accommodate you.

(5) Roll with the punches. When I went to visit the spot where the Eastland turned over in the Chicago River, I found the entire area fenced off and under construction while the city builds a new pedestrian walkway along the wharf. While disappointed to not have access to the exact spot I wanted to see, I can look forward to seeing it from an attractive walking path on a future trip.

(6) Have fun! While it can seem like a lot of work, doing on-site research is like a treasure hunt. Who knows what gems you'll come across in your travels? A bit of preparation can make the whole trip even more rewarding and worthwhile than you'd anticipated.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How to Write a Murder Mystery Game, Part II

by Jennifer Lamont Leo

This is Part II in a series about how to write and host a murder mystery party. Lest this post seems like a mystery, please read Part I first.

If you've been trying your hand at writing a murder mystery for an event or party after my earlier post, you should now have your setting (locale and time period), the basic plot (the victim and circumstances of the murder), and characters (including several suspects and their motives) well in hand.

6) CLUES: The next thing you need to do is to concoct plenty of genuine clues, red herrings (false clues), and rabbit trails to confound your amateur detectives as they try to guess who the murderer is. Make sure that you have real clues that lead to the real answer--the game is rigged if you don't--but sift in plenty of false clues, too, to keep people guessing and send them on a wild goose chase or two. Remember, you don't want the puzzle to be too easily solved, but it must be solvable.

7) HOW CLUES ARE SHARED: Clues are shared by conversations between guests ("Did you hear that So-and-So was Mr. Victim's ex-spouse?"), arguments and accusations that take place in front of the guests ("I saw you polishing knives in the kitchen on the day of the murder!" "You always hated Ms. Victim for firing you from that job!"), or telltale objects left lying around ("Wasn't this your scarf that was found on the victim's dresser?") along with vehement denials and counter-accusations. Clues should be spoken loudly and clearly for as many guests to hear as possible.

Whoever the murderer turns out to be, he or she must have a clear motive and means, such as access to the weapon or an opportunity to be alone with the victim. In the end, everything must make sense, and all the relevant clues must have been shared with all or most of the guests throughout the course of the party. No fair introducing fresh information at the end that the crowd was not given earlier. Give everyone a fair chance to solve the murder.

8) ENDING THE GAME: At the end of the event, give each guest the opportunity offer his or her opinion of who the murderer is. This can be done aloud, or alternatively by paper ballot. The winner may be the first person to correctly identify the murderer, or you might consider declaring all the correct answers to be winners, or drawing a winner at random from among the correct answers.

These are the rudiments of planning a murder mystery party. Since my own "history mystery" is still a work in progress, in Part III of this series I'll report back how the actual event played out, what went right and what we would do differently next time. In the meantime, if you write a murder mystery game of your own, let us know how it goes!

Have you participated in a murder mystery party? If so, what did you like about it? Any suggestions for improvement?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

How to Write a Murder Mystery Party Game, Part I

by Jennifer Lamont Leo

Have you ever attended a murder mystery party? If you ever get a chance to, they are great fun! (Well, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. Think of it as a large-scale game of "let's pretend!")

In brief, a murder mystery party assigns each of the party guests a role to play. In the story, a murder has occurred (or sometimes occurs during the course of the event), and several or all of the guests have some motive for wanting to kill the victim. If you think of the game of Clue, or of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, you've got the idea: one victim, one crime, several suspects with motives. Guests act out their roles and, throughout the party, drop preassigned hints and clues concerning their portion of the story, until someone finally figures out "whodunnit."

I've participated in four murder mysteries over the years, with varying degrees of success. Now I've been given a unique opportunity. The local history museum where I volunteer is planning to host a homegrown murder mystery in the fall as a fundraiser, and I've been asked to help write it. So I've decided to take you along for the ride, in case you ever want to do such a thing yourself.

Here are the first steps in planning a murder mystery party:

1) SETTING/TIME PERIOD: Choose a theme/era/locale. Mysteries I've participated in have been set in a modern-day ski lodge, a ranch, and an ancient palace. You might choose a particular era, such as the Roaring Twenties or Victorian era. Does venue of your party suggest a theme, such as a historic home, school, or a mid-century-modern 1950s suburban home? Like most parties, your theme not only determines your story, but also things like the decorations, food, and invitations. (Hint: If you're the writer of the mystery, ask someone else to take on these other tasks. You already have enough on your plate!)

2) GUEST LIST: Once your theme is chosen, consider your guests. The responsibilities of the guests are to pretend to be the character they've been assigned (costume, mannerisms, accent, or whatever) and to circulate and drop the clues they've been assigned to drop. They will NOT have to learn a script, but should be comfortable at ad-libbing and making things up on the spot. Think through which of your guests are likely to get into the spirit of the game and assign them larger roles. Smaller parts or "spectator" roles can be assigned to shyer or more reluctant guests. When you know who is likely to participate, start planning your mystery.

3) CHARACTERS: You will not be writing an actual script, but scenarios for your characters to follow. Each guest will be given a synopsis of the character they will play, the reason their character is present at the party, and their relationship to the murder victim and other guests. For example, when I was invited to the ski lodge mystery, all the characters were at the lodge for a skiing vacation. I was assigned the role of a single woman who had a troubled romantic history with the deceased. I was given a paragraph or two of information about clues I needed to drop during the evening that would help solve the crime, but otherwise I was on my own to play my character however I saw fit. For our local-history mystery (hey, that rhymes!), the setting will be a house party in the 1920s, and each of the fund-raiser guests is a guests or host of the house party. You'll probably need to adjust your cast of characters as you go along (and find out who is available to attend), but at least sketch out a rough plan.

4) CRIME: Decide on the circumstances of your crime. Who is the victim? What is the murder weapon? For our history mystery, although most of the characters are actual historical figures, we decided we did not want to use a real-life crime or real-life person as either the victim or the murderer, so we fictionalized those roles. Also, in our story we chose to have the murder take place before our party begins, although sometimes the victim dies during the event, by being poisoned at dinner or whatever. (This scenario has the disadvantage of the victim needing to disappear for the rest of the evening and miss some of the fun.)

5) MOTIVES: Now think through each of your suspect characters and give each of them a motive for killing the victim--a broken romance, a business deal gone bad, a deep-seated resentment of some sort--to keep everyone guessing about whom the murderer might be.

At this point you should have the basics covered: your setting/time period, your crime, and your suspects and their motives. I'll continue with the plan in my next post. Meanwhile, feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Do you have any ideas about a murder mystery you'd like to write? Any questions about the process so far?