THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # FIFTY-SEVEN -- l5 JUNE 2009

Of late the rustic life for us ink-stained wretches has not been as smooth as that Shakespeare claimed for monumental alabaster.

We've had to change servers.

This naturally involved moving the website, a stark horror even Lovecraft would have found difficult to describe in adequate terms, although exquisite morbidity and cacodaemoniacal ghastliness, applied to certain musical instruments in The Hound, suggests itself as a good beginning. For it was a dog of a job, now thankfully completed.

This means, however, while wrassling with the Internet was as rough as nutmeg graters this past week, it's now our subscribers' turn because we've somehow managed to get another issue of the Orphan Scrivener pinned together. Let us assure those reading this newsletter that what sounds like distant maddening piping on a loathsome flute is merely the plumbing playing up, so they should just read on.....


MARY'S BIT or BREAD AND CHEESE AND MONEY, OH MY

I've often thought it's a pity so many old customs are dying out, though my family are doing their bit to stem the tide by keeping up those common to our home area, including here in the New World.

The majority of customs world wide revolve around the major milestones of life, once described as hatching, matching, and despatching, all events accompanied by various superstitions and customs. Yet even in a country as small as the UK, they are not familiar to all counties.

Take weddings, for example. In Newcastle it was the custom to throw pennies from the taxi taking the wedding party to church. This was possibly the only time people in our street rode in a such a vehicle, except perhaps for a funeral. Scattering pennies was said to bring good luck. It certainly brought it to us guttersnipes, since we scoured nearby streets for wedding parties on Saturdays, the most popular day for nuptials, and often picked up as much as sixpence or so that way. Wedding parties could be spotted at fifty paces because the taxis, unlike those transporting a family to a funeral, inevitably had white ribbons stretched from the top corners of the windshield down to the centre of the bonnet. Yet when we moved south and my younger sister married, scattering pennies from the taxi was greeted with amazed stares.

Then there are the pranks played where families had access to the couple's flat or house. Newlyweds arriving at their future home could expect to find such harmless silliness as sugar in the salt cellar and vice versa, pennies fusing the lights, butter beans or similar bumpy objects scattered under the bottom sheet of the nuptial bed, usually also short sheeted, and so on, all to be met with good humour and a shrug of the shoulders.

Similarly various customs attend births. The first thing a new mother was expected to do after her baby was born, be it after returning from hospital, or in the case of a home birth leaving the house, was to be churched. It was considered to bring bad luck to any house visited by the new mother until this was done, and although there was something of the sense of the Victorian idea of cleansing after birth, it was also a thanksgiving for the child and for a safe birth. The service in the Anglican prayer book emphasises this aspect. I was once in conversation with an American Anglican vicar about this custom and he mentioned in all his years of ministry he had only been asked to conduct the service twice, and both requests were from working class mothers.

The first time we met a new baby, we did not look at it unless we had a silver coin to put in its grasping little fist for good luck -- a sixpence or for the better off a shilling served the purpose.

When the family set off to the christening, it was customary to present a bag containing bread and cheese and a coin to the first child met on the way to church. Nowadays this would be viewed with great suspicion and I have no doubt it is in the process of dying out, if it's not already dead. One layer of a tiered wedding cake was sometimes kept towards a possible christening, though I have no idea if it lasted well enough to be edible and although the same type of rich, dark fruitcake made for Christmas, in retrospect it seems a dangerous practice. On the other hand, after hearing jokes about the longevity of the American Christmas fruitcake....

Then there was the welcome accorded to a new year. Ships on the Tyne greeted the death of the old year with cacophonous hooting and peals of church bells were not uncommon, though I confess even so I was not prepared for the sound of gunfire at midnight on December 31st in this country! The celebration up north for most families featured the arrival of the first foot, meaning the first person across the threshold after midnight tolled. The first footer had to be a dark-haired man and so for years my brother did not see the new year in indoors, being thrust out into the night a few minutes to midnight to wait for the year to turn. As was traditional, he came back in carrying a small chunk of coal, a coin, and a piece of cake or bread, thus bringing with him the promise of warmth, food, and wealth for the household in the coming twelve months. Being dark-haired, Eric's resume now includes the job of first footer at Casa Maywrite.

A woman's foot first across the threshold was anathema and a red-haired man's was considered unlucky too. Indeed, families with no dark-haired man reportedly refused to open their doors after midnight to anyone but a dark-haired male in order to ensure the right sort of person crossed the threshold first. However, since many neighbourly visits back and forth took place on New Year's Day, such families would not be long without their first footer.

When a family member died, mirrors were often covered or turned to the wall, and before the funeral party departed from the home, the neighbours drew their curtains, generally explained to be as a mark of respect to the deceased. In tandem with mirror shrouding, though, it is certainly suggestive.

So, in the end of a life, this essay ends.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

A farrago of news items this time round, so let's get to it.

JOHN RETURNS or ETERNITY FOLLOWS

Despite our header John's not going to take the ferry with Charon in his next adventure, but rather its title is Eight For Eternity. Readers may recall we always said we would make up our own lines when the counting rhyme providing titles ran out, and since it ran out screaming at Seven For A Secret, we've boldly done just that. And yes, the reason for the title is given in the novel. Poisoned Pen Press will be publishing Eightfer in April next year and we'll say more about John's approaching outing as the time nears.

TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE or WRITING DUOS SPEAK

We had the honour of being quoted in a feature by Susan Higginbotham about historical fiction writing duos in the May 2009 issue of the Historical Novels Review, a print publication of the Historical Novel Society (http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/). We were in sterling company as other contributors to her article included Charles and Caroline Todd, the Clare sisters, and Judith Miller and Tracie Peterson. Our thanks to Susan (http://www.susanhigginbotham.com/), the author of Traitor's Wife: A Novel of the Reign of Edward II and Hugh and Bess, both set in fourteenth-century England.

SEEKING KNOWLEDGE or WHEN RESEARCH IS (K)NOBBLED

Gayle Trent's Virtual Writers' Conference http://virtualwritersconference.blogspot.com/ was held May 19th to 22nd. Authors, publishers, marketers, and publicists provided expert advice -- there were even two agents seeking submissions in attendance. Mary contributed thoughts on our search for info on Roman doorknobs http://virtualwritersconference.blogspot.com/2009/05/writing-historical-mysteries-by-mary.html) and if you don't fancy learning about ancient entrance hardware, you might enjoy her closing link to a contemporary carving of a dear little kitty peering out from a (knobless) Roman door. Gayle tells us she hopes to use the site to host another writers' conference in the future. Stay tuned!

MYSTERIOUS THOUGHTS or IF WE DID NOT WRITE

Jean Henry Mead is the author of the senior sleuth novels A Village Shattered and Diary of Murder. Currently in the middle of moving house, she is offering past interviews on her Mysterious People blog http://mysteriouspeople.blogspot.com Our January chat will be run on June 22nd and among other topics we talk about what we'd do if we were not writing and real people who appear in our works. It was more fun than a trunk full of monkeys! We'll also be serving as guest blog hosts the same day at http://advicefromeditors.blogspot.com/. Our thanks to Jean for our summer rerun!


ERIC'S BIT or BURN-OUT OF ANOTHER SORT

Thinking about some of the books I've read recently, I'm shocked -- shocked I tell you! -- by how badly so many of them are written. Talk about inept:

John O'Hara pretty much gives away the ending to Appointment in Samarra in the introductory matter, before he even gets to the first chapter.

Herman Melville keeps interrupting Captain Ahab's action-packed hunt for the great white whale with Moby Dick size info-dumps about whales and whaling.

In Silas Marner George Eliot blatantly relies on coincidences repeatedly, particularly having Marner just happen to leave the cottage door open at exactly the right time.

Albert Camus' The Stranger lacks sufficient motivation for his actions.

At no point in her rather slow moving To the Lighthouse does Virginia Woolf have a man enter with a gun.

Kafka's The Trial doesn't make a lick of sense.

These poor souls obviously paid no attention to the advice of editors, agents, and the legions of authors who endlessly explain how it has to be done. I guess they didn't care about being rejected by publishers.

Well, okay, maybe Virginia Woolf didn't have to care since she and her husband published To the Lighthouse through their own Hogarth Press. But you can tell the book was never professionally edited, the way she switches willy-nilly from one point of view to another.

Still, you have to admit, they all did pretty well for themselves. I'm sure I could think of a lot of other classic novels which violate all of today's requirements for publishable books. It could make a good parlor game.

In my opinion, today's writing "rules" probably result in more bad writing than good. Do we really need still more cookie-cutter books?

On the other hand, I am not one of those writers who is convinced that his creative muse is being smothered, kicked, drowned, beaten, etc. (poor thing!) by the publishing industry. I'm no literary genius -- even in my own mind -- who would awe the world if only he were allowed to do so.

That being the case, I am perfectly happy to have available a mystery genre framework, on whose sturdy artificial limbs I can hang what little oddments I keep on my skills shelf: slightly cracked insights, shabby descriptions, bright, twinkly little strings of ideas with half their bulbs burned out, and sparkling, paper-thin philosophy tinsel.

Of course the framework itself comes with some assembly required. But luckily Mary is able to insert Clue A into Red Herring B and so forth better than I can.

If I had to start from scratch and design and build my own framework -- not a mystery, or some other genre -- I'd be lost, just like so many wannabe genius writers who break all the rules. So I'm about as likely to write a non-genre novel as I am to construct a computer from assorted parts.

Still, even working within a genre, it is probably acceptable, and actually a good idea, to ignore the dictates of publishing professionals from time to time.

So how do we know when and whether we should break the rules? Alas, there's no rule about that.


AND FINALLY

Frank Lloyd Wright declared in favour of keeping dangerous weapons away from fools. At the time he was thinking about beginning with typewriters. Nowadays he would probably start with computer keyboards. And while Lord Byron had harsh words for monthly scribblers of low lampoons, he couldn't apply them to we Orphan Scriveners, given we only darken your inbox every two months. The next issue will therefore wing its way to you on August 15th.

See you then!

Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver, and our growing pages of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/


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