THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # EIGHTY-SIX -- 15 APRIL 2014

Wordsworth described the wind as a sightless labourer whistling at his task, and indeed wind is whistling around the sinister towers of Casa Maywrite as we wordsmiths labour to complete this issue of Orphan Scrivener. Since it's said it's March that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb rather than April, it appears the clock of the year is running a bit slow. Fortunately we keep our newsletter well wound up and so, on time unless the wind brings down the power line again, here it is...did someone say read on? We'll second that!

ERIC'S BIT or THE SCHOOL OF HARD ROCKS

Returning from the post office yesterday morning I noticed the green shoots of day lilies jutting up through the brown leaves driven against the wall of the house by winter's winds. Aside from mowing around the ferns, allowing them to continue their steady advance from the woods, we don't do any gardening here, surrounded as we are by trees and perpetual shadow, with soil that's half rocks and half tree roots. The day lilies take care of themselves.

So although many people's fancies turn to gardening this time of year, ours do not. I've been to the school of hard rocks. I've learned through trial and tribulation and error galore that plants need sun on their leaves and water and soil under their roots. Two hours of filtered sunlight might look sufficient to a bipedal mammal but a tomato plant knows better. And so far as I'm aware they don't manufacture fertilizer that contains sunlight.

I grew up surrounded by green thumbs. My grandparents both came from farms and after moving to town they turned their big double lot into a farm in miniature with more vegetables than grass. My grandfather grew rutabagas so huge he needed a yard tractor to pull them out -- or so he told us kids. My father followed in the family tradition. He performed feats like starting an asparagus bed from scratch.

And me...I grew kale once. By the time I chose to harvest it, the leaves were so tough you could've made a poncho out of them and that was after they'd boiled in a pot for four hours.

I've spent my life in apartments and houses with yards inimical to plants. In one place I did my best to carve out a flowerbed in the tiny backyard which had its sustenance perpetually sucked out by my neighbor's massive oak tree. The soil was nothing but a spongy mesh of fine roots. No matter how frequently I dug, the insidious roots would slither back to strangle anything I planted.

In another place I gamely planted flowers and vegetables in the gravel at the end of an electrical contractor's parking lot. I reckoned enough sunlight would get in across the open parking lot of the car dealership across the alley. The portulaca liked it. One year. But plants need dirt, not gravel.

When I moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey I was thrilled to see dirt behind the house whose top half I was renting. True, the dirt was on the almost vertical slope at the top of the retaining wall above the garage, where a precipitous hill ran up to the backyards of the mansions on the street overlooking Manhattan. Still, it was dirt. Life-giving dirt. In Brooklyn, even the park across from the apartment had been paved.

I conceived an audacious engineering scheme. I would terrace the hill. It would be the Hanging Gardens of Weehawken. In the end, after countless blisters and buckets of soil I ended up with five punky radishes and two wretched tomato plants. Every morning I could see my elevated garden through the kitchen window -- those pathetic, fruitless tomatoes a daily, desiccated reproach to my youthful hubris.

So now I am done with trying to force vegetables and flowers to grow under inhospitable conditions. I am happy to watch the ferns creep ever nearer to the house and to see the moss supplant the grass. I am happy to let Nature have her own way and to take the day lilies she offers me.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

It's been a busy time since last we met, resulting in a longer than usual BSP section. Make yourself a sandwich and proceed on the journey!

THE VOYAGE BEGINS or TENFER IS LAUNCHED

Last month Ten For Dying, flags flying proudly, sailed off towards the horizon. Readers now have an opportunity to chime in with their thoughts. At this uncertain time we think of the unfortunate author whose book was described in a 1915 issue of Punch as "an unvarnished tale...fashioned according to the naive method of simple enumeration and bald assertion, with such subsidiary trifles as characterisation left to the discretion and imaginative capacity of the reader". Ow!

VIOLENT KITCHEN UTENSILS or OUR STRANGEST RESEARCH QUESTION

In a double interview we talked to Terry Odell about such diverse topics as what kitchen utensils we would be, the strangest thing we've done in the name of research, and what sits on our desks. Point your clicker to Terry's Place for the March 11th entry for the skinny at http://terryodell.com/terrysplace/?p=4601

A FIERY DEATH or TIPPLERS BEWARE!

On March 18th Mary contributed A Fiery Death: Spontaneous Combustion in Literature and Life to the Relevant History feature on Suzanne Adair's blog. Instances of this terrible death took place in Two For Joy -- not to mention Bleak House -- but did you know the phenomenon was presented as a defence in a 1847 murder trial? Info on this and other occurrences at http://www.suzanneadair.net/2014/03/18/fiery-death-spontaneous-combustion-in-literature-and-life/

HOW COLD WAS IT? or SOCKING IT TO WINTER

Longfellow thought snow was beautiful as it silently fell on the roofs of the living and the graves of the dead, but he wouldn't have been so quick to admire its artistic effect had he experienced this past winter's nose-bleeding cold weather carried on the polar vortex express straight from the innermost circle of Dante's hell. On 19th March over at Joanne Tropello's Mustard Seed blog Mary presented a new method of measuring cold: The Sock Index. Our highest index mark was the three-sock level. What about you? https://www.mustardseedmarketinggroup.com/4/post/2014/03/mary-reed-marymaywrite-is-a-guest-at-the-authorscornerblog.html

A DIALOGUE WITH DAMES or PSSST, WANT TO KNOW A STRANGE TIDBIT?

Another interview appeared on April 2nd on the Dames of Dialogue blog, wherein one of us revealed a strange tidbit about their life and the other declared an opinion on whether or not characters are in charge. There's more of course, so point your clicker at http://damesofdialogue.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/writing-duo-mary-reed-and-eric-mayer-answer-the-dames-dozen/

A TAXING TIME or GRINDING OUT A LIVING

We finally wrassled our tax returns to the floor on 6th April, the day after Lorie Ham of Kings River Life Magazine announced its reprint of Mary's essay concerning occupations that, like the Norwegian blue, are no more. You know, organ grinders and strolling sellers of bird cages, violets, household necessaries, and pornography, that sort of job. But have they really all gone? Maybe not. http://kingsriverlife.com/04/05/grinding-out-a-living/

MARY POSES A QUESTION or HISTORY, HERSTORY

Inspired by Edgar Wallace's declaration that the best stories he had heard were those related by ordinary people, Mary asked Did You Ever Hear That Story About...on Lelia Taylor's Creatures and Crooks blog on April 8th. We've all got one! Ours was when a gentleman unknown to us recognised a name in the acknowledgements for one of our novels and enquired at the press if he could be put in touch with the other party...the rest of the story at http://cncbooksblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/did-you-ever-hear-that-story-about/

YES, THERE'S MORE AHEAD or IT'S THE DRAG OUT YOUR CALENDAR AND JOT DOWN A REMINDER SECTION

A couple of blogs will appear between now and the next issue of Orphan Scrivener, and you wouldn't want to miss anything now would you?

A WHALE OF A TALE or WHEN WE PUT ON OUR INVENTING HATS

Do you find automatons as fascinating as we do? Several appear in Three For A Letter and they are the subject of Mary's April 18th contribution to the Type M For Murder blog. While most of the engineering marvels mentioned in Threefer are from the writings of Heron of Alexandria, the mechanical whale playing an important role in the plot was our own invention, formed from certain of Heron's instructions and our own fevered imaginations. Details at http://typem4murder.blogspot.com

MORE ON THE 18th or THE BUS MUST BE LATE

Mary will be occupying her usual April 18th slot over at the Poisoned Pen Press multi-author blog. Being as the Muse is apparently still waiting for the bus to Casa Maywrite, a topic has yet to occur so we can't tell subscribers what it will be, but even so, there's bound to be something of interest whatever day you decide to pop over there and browse around http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/category/news-and-blog/


MARY'S BIT or A CANINE PLAN

Secret messages and codes are fascinating and like many readers I always attempt to solve them in mysteries, although I have to confess I have yet to completely read through the inventive example utilised -- no spoilers here, move along now -- in Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors.

The Romans employed a number of methods to convey secret messages, and in his work Siege Defense Aeneas Tacticus outlines a number of ways to accomplish the task, including one or two examples used in real life.

I especially liked the suggestion of openly sending a man with an innocent message who, all unknowingly, carries a letter written on thin tin concealed in the sole of one of his sandals. While he sleeps, its stitching is undone, the letter removed, read, and a reply sent in the same hiding place, again with the messenger not aware of what he is carrying. Talk about the game's afoot!

If the recipient is known to be not too handy with the needle, the secret communication could be written on thin lead sheets, rolled up and worn as earrings by a lady messenger. A man with a message on leaves bound to his leg wound is mentioned -- I seem to recall something similar occurred in a James Bond novel -- and there's also an instance where the inventive correspondent scraped the wax off a tablet, wrote on the wood, and poured new wax on to conceal his words. Sent off with a harmless message inscribed on the new wax, a reply could be received by the same process.

A simple way of sending a message secretly involved sewing again. There must surely be a Roman proverb to the effect that a man who carries a needle needs a a sharp eye kept on him, and not meaning the sewing implement. In this instance the sender takes the dog owned by the recipient, sews a letter inside a strap round the dog's neck, then lets the animal out to return to its owner. To misquote the catchphrase of a certain character in the Blackadder series, it's certainly a canine plan.

A more complicated arrangement involved writing, using a mixture of glue and ink, on a deflated, dried bladder, inserting same into a flask and inflating it, cutting off the excess at the mouth of the container, and filling the flask with oil. The recipient removes the oil, and bladder, inflates the latter, reads the message, removes the writing with a sponge, and replies by the same method.

The work mentions a man who ordered a trusted slave's head shaved and tattooed with certain marks. After the hair had regrown, the slave was sent to the recipient with a request the latter shave his, the slave's, head and read it. A case of hair today, gone next month -- from which we must deduce this message was not urgent.

It was inevitable we would give John the task of untangling a secret message. In Two For Joy he translates a simple code, but first there was a greater problem to be resolved. Since he was not expecting any such communication, how could he know it was there to begin with? We solved that, and the matter of the code involved, with a nifty bit of footwork out in plain sight.

We're keeping the method secret here, given we wish to surprise readers...


AND FINALLY

Speaking of which, it's no secret Orphan Scrivener is issued every two months, so subscribers will not be surprised when the next issue sneaks into their in-boxes under cover of darkness on June 15th.

See you then!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit our 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, our bibliography, the Doom Cat interactive game written by Eric, and our growing libraries of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also the 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/ or visit our shadow identity M. E. Mayer's blog at http://memayer.blogspot.com/ And just for the heck of it, we'll also mention our noms des Twitter are @marymaywrite and @groggytales and our author page is at https://www.amazon.com/author/reedmayer Drop in some time!