In Dark Mural Nicole says, "My office on the third floor of Arts Humanities had a window overlooking the downward slope of a wooded hillside. Sitting at my desk, I saw some pale yellow spots among the wave of green treetops, my first glimpse of autumn color."
This photo gives an example of the kind of scene she describes. The people seen as tiny figures on the sidewalk suggest the grand scale of such vistas on a campus in the Appalachian foothills.
Since this was taken in springtime, as shown by sparse foliage on the trees, it gives a better impression of what Nicole would see from her window in Dark Picasso, the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, which takes place in April. Dark Picasso will be published in January, 2019.
In fact, I took this picture on the campus of Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio (not to be confused with Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio), near the border with West Virginia. The fictional location of the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries is somewhere between Chillicothe and Athens, so the landscape would be similar.
We went down to Santa Barbara for a few days to visit friends and catch a concert with Pat Metheny (more on that later), and we stopped overnight in Morro Bay on our way back to San Francisco.
That big thing in the back is Morro Rock, a volcanic mountain (aka lava plug). From the motels near the edge of the bay, it's about a twenty-minute walk out to the base of it. Astonishing as it is, it is one of nine in the area. The road out to the town passes several of them.
The other fun thing to do in town is walk along the docks and visit those little dark things floating in the water. Here's a closer picture of one:
The California sea otter, once on the verge of extinction, has rebounded nicely along the central coast. Further north and further south, commercial fishing won't tolerate them, but people have found it in their hearts to allow these scrappy little mammals a little space in which to chow down on abalone.
FOR GUITAR GEEKS ONLY: Back to that Metheny concert. He opened the show playing solo on that 42-string harp guitar custom made for him by Linda Manzer. It's four instruments in one, and he makes good use of it. A real crowd pleaser.
He played most of the show on his Ibanez signature model, a real workhorse guitar.
He brought out the Roland synth guitar for one number. His solo sound like horns. That was pleasant.
For me the real treat of the evening was the nylon-string archtop he used for a soulful solo and a couple of numbers after. Nothing flashy. I think non-guitar players may not have been aware of the difference. But I heard a range of expression not available on the others.
SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss one aspect of this very suspenseful book, leaving out as much detail as possible.
Stephen King’s The Outsider starts out as a heck of a murder mystery. He convinces us the murder suspect and the man who arrests him are bitter enemies and makes us care about both. We find ourselves pulling for both sides in a struggle for justice. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
In doing so, it seems to me, King demonstrates the power of focusing on situation rather than plot. This is an approach he describes in On Writing: a memoir of the craft. Rather than outlining, he suggests the writer develop a detailed description of the situation the characters are in at the beginning of the book.
As an example, he shows how a news story about a man getting out of prison can be turned into something more intriguing. What if it’s a woman getting out of prison? What if she escapes? What if her husband doesn’t know she has escaped?
Once the enhanced situation is in hand, King suggests the writer begin with what the main character would do to get out of a painful situation and then imagine what new obstacle the character would face as a result. The writer then repeats the process until the main issue set up at the beginning has been resolved.
Working this way lets the writer discover possibilities that are not obvious when developing a simple cause-and-effect outline. That’s what King has done in The Outsider. It is nothing like a routine police procedural.
I don't know who Willie is, but he gave Dark Mural a four-star rating under the delightful and ironic title, "Welcome to College." Also, his one-line review contains a better advertising slogan than anything I've written: "a world where publish or perish has new meaning."
I've been delighted with the way my friends have responded to Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, the first two Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries. I've received many words of support and some rave reviews. A few friends even sent photos of the paperbacks and the envelope in which they arrived.
I'm now learning that hearing from strangers brings an extra thrill. As a professor, I experienced this when I published my research. Occasionally an article I wrote would turn up as a footnote to someone else's paper. But stories are more personal, and knowing they mean something to someone I've never met is a real kick.
So thanks, Willie, for the rating and the review. Next to word of mouth, customer reviews are the best way a writer has of finding new readers.
I previously wrote about Schlegel's Coffee in Chillicothe, Ohio, as a source for a coffee-house scene in Dark Exhibit, the second Nicole Tang Noonan mystery. I like it's historic vibe and the friendly reception I got from the proprietress.
But this place provided one detail of the place Nicole visits to meet a mysterious person: "The cafe occupied a corner storefront, which gave it abundant daylight from windows on two sides."
As you can see this coffee house has windows both on the street and around the corner on the alley. The extra exposure to passers-by made Nicole and her companion more vulnerable, which helped the nervous feeling of the scene.
The sign hanging in front of this place says, "Paper City Coffee," a reference to the paper mill that has long been Chillicothe's economic life-blood. Because of the good jobs it provides most of the neighborhoods in town are looking all spruced up, as folks around here might say.
The U. S. Army built this powder magazine probably before America's Civil War. Because its purpose was to store gun powder, the walls are made of stone, three feet thick. If there were an accident, the roof would blow off, but the blast would not level neighboring buildings . . . and people.
Nowadays, it's a historic building in the Presidio of San Francisco, the only part of the National Park Service that is self-supporting. The Presidio Trust rents out the buildings left behind when the Army closed its base in 1996 to pay the costs of maintaining it for all to enjoy.
Inside the building is a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy called Tree Fall, one of four Goldsworthy sculptures in the park (See below). This one uses the windowless one-room building to create a mysterious atmosphere for a section of a eucalyptus tree, which seems to float overhead. The tree and the ceiling are coated in clay, making it seem we are underground.
I have the pleasure of welcoming visitors to Tree Fall and the park two or three days each month.
At a critical point in Dark Exhibit, the second Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, Nicole agrees to meet a mysterious figure at a coffee shop called Klein's in Chillicothe, which is a half-hour drive from her campus in southeastern Ohio.
As she describes it:
"On Thursday afternoon I found Klein's in a block of three-story, red-brick buildings that looked like they'd been around since the 1880s. The cafe occupied a corner storefront, which gave it abundant daylight from windows on two sides. I guessed it could seat fifty people, though there were less than a dozen customers on that afternoon. The space to walk between the tables and the groupings of couches and easy chairs was a luxury unknown back home in San Francisco where space is always at a premium."
I counted three coffee houses in Chillicothe, and I may have missed one or two. This description doesn't exactly match any of them. I assembled the parts that were most useful for the scene I wanted to write.
The coffee shop where I had breakfast was Schlegel's (see below). I asked the proprietress about the impressive storefront with the name in glass over the doorway. She said the place was originally a jewelry store that operated for many years in the town. When she leased the space, the obvious choice was to keep the historic storefront and call her new shop Schlegel's coffee.
This is as fine a piece of noir as you are likely to see. Four people check in at a motel in the mountains near Reno, Nevada. They and the desk clerk are the only people around, and none of them seems to have a good reason to be there.
From the start one asks, "What is going on here?" and throughout the movie the answer comes back, "Not what you think." I won't say anything else about what happens because I hope you will enjoy every revelation, large and small.
This movie fits Otto Penzler's definition of noir as well as anything I know: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
I've written several times in the "Reading" and "Writing" categories of this blog about Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson, giants of the noir tradition. Recently, I wrote about a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who, along with James M. Cain, invented American noir.
If you're not familiar with these earlier writers, you might know Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl exemplifies the tradition. As many have remarked, there's not a single likeable character in the book (or the movie version) .
It all sounds very grim, but for some reason I find this stuff entertaining, possibly because it is suspenseful and at its best includes humor. The Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries certainly are NOT noir. They have more in common with Agatha Christie. But I am working on a suspense novel that is noir. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
Those of you who have read about half-way through Dark Exhibit (and I know some of you have) know Nicole takes a weekend break by checking into a bed-and-breakfast in the Short North, a neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio.
I stayed in such a place when I visited Columbus for research on the series. Though none of the houses pictured above is the one I stayed in, it was a house very much like these on a street like this.
Front porches seem to have gone out of style, and that's a shame. Somewhere I read an architect's idea that porches facing the street create community. For one thing, they put lots of eyes on the street, so people behave themselves. Also, neighbors sitting out on their porches are available for passing conversations and casual visits.
Sadly, they don't build them like this any more.
,I knew it would be fun to see Tea with the Dames (British title: Nothing Like a Dame), but I didn't know how much it would mean to me.
In this documentary film, four great actresses spend an afternoon talking about their lives and careers. They are: Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.
It was fun because they and the actors, directors, and playwrights they worked with were the artists I learned about when I took courses in British drama in college and grad school. They were the artists we saw on stage when we visited London.
So it was wonderful to hear them swap backstage gossip and reflect upon the roles they played. It was intriguing to hear them talk about their friendships, rivalries, and husbands.
But the part that mean the most to me began when Eileen Atkins recalled riding to a theater for a performance and feeling so afraid she wanted to die in a crash rather than go on stage. In the conversation that followed, all the others spoke of feeling terrified every time they went on stage, or in front of a camera for a scene in a film or TV show.
These are the greatest British actresses of their generation, trained in some of the greatest theater schools in the world. If they could feel insecure about their work, I thought, no wonder I've been skittish about putting my first two books out for the world to see.
By the way, it helped that we could see the film in the Clay Theater (1910), a lovely old neighborhood movie house.
In Dark Mural, Nicole and Lionel visit the Columbus Museum of Art. Here's how she describes her visit:
"Lunch at the museum cafe overlooking the sculpture garden was like breathing pure oxygen. After lunch, we walked through the permanent collection, and I made mental notes to return. I liked the way they hung the work of local artists alongside that of recognized masters to invite comparison. The collection was especially rich in the works of George Bellows, who is both a native of Columbus and widely recognized."
My visit to this museum was similar. It's not as grand as the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Cincinnati Art Museum, but they do smart, innovative things. I enjoyed seeing paintings by widely recognized masters such as Edward Hopper hung alongside similar paintings by local and regional artists such as Emerson C. Burkhart.
A few years back I went on a binge reading Cornell Woolrich. I can't remember exactly what got me started. Maybe it was noticing Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Rear Window (1954), was based on a story by him.
I focused on reading his novels and was disappointed. For instance The Bride Wore Black is written in four parts, each part a complete story. The stories are linked (the bride goes from one adventure to the next), but I wasn't learning much about the structure of a novel.
Recently at the library I ran across a nice old collection of short stories entitled Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, edited by Ellery Queen (1965), and decided to give them a try. I've really enjoyed them and have learned a lot about what Woolrich is most famous for, suspense.
More than any writing I can think of, these stories make me want to know what happens next. They do it by saying, in effect, "He set out to do this. Then this happened." So now what will he do? And as soon as he works around the problem, something else happens or someone else shows up.
In some instances, a story almost becomes a technical exercise in multiplying twists and turns while remaining credible. "Steps Going Up" is one such, in my opinion. But mostly the stories also make us care about the protagonist, by making him an underdog, or by making her a righteous avenger. "The Man Upstairs," I think, is especially good in this regard.
Woolrich is also famous for inventing and adopting motifs that made him "the Poe of the twentieth century" according to his biographer, Francis M. Nevins: "the noir cop story, the clock race story, the waking nightmare, the oscillation thriller, the headlong through the night story, the annihilation story, the last hours story,"
So I have to conclude that, like Flannery O'Connor, his genius was for the short story. He was lucky to live through a time when that's where the money was.
Readers of the first two Nicole Tang Noonan Mysteries will notice she visits a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, called The Short North. She goes there to take a break from the rural campus where she lives and teaches. Unlike her campus, it's a real place.
Along High Street, she finds art galleries and restaurants, just as I did when I visited there. Brew pubs are also well-represented, which is trendy but also traditional for this heavily German part of Ohio. There is another neighborhood on the south side called Brewerytown.
These three-story brick buildings are about 100 years old, with retail space on the street level and two floors of apartments above. Very civilized. The adjacent neighborhood is built almost entirely of red brick, but on this commercial street the builders went for orange and tan and made bold patterns.
I was fortunate to visit on a mild spring evening, and enjoy my dinner al fresco (see below).
This place cracks me up. The words over the door say, "The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute." It is a serious institution in that field. But then there are those oval windows above the entrance.
I've wondered if the institute just happened to buy or lease a building with that eccentric, but strangely appropriate, feature. Or whether they had this one built and went along with a whimsical gesture by the architect.
The history on their website refers generally to raising funds for buildings since its founding in 1959, but makes no mention of this particular building. However, they do use an image of the windows in the background of their header.
Accidental or deliberate, this is another of those instances in which reality is not believable. If any novelist set a scene at an eye research facility and described it as having a pair of oval windows, most readers would say, "Do you expect me to believe that?"
SPOILER ALERT: this blog post gives a general indication of how the film ends.
I loved this movie, and I'm afraid it will be misunderstood.
It's a suspense flick with a story Alfred Hitchcock might have admired. A normal guy--actually gal, played by Anna Kendrick--crosses paths with the wrong person and gets in over her head. She has to investigate and ultimately do some double-crossing of her own to undo the villain and return to her good life.
We could be talking about Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest, only funnier.
It might be misunderstood because some critics are describing it as neo-noir, and it is not noir. It may have some things in common with classic noir novels and films, including a life-insurance scam. But the main character is not a loser ultimately done in by her own greed and stupidity.
So go and see it, and enjoy the chemistry between Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, and Henry Golding.
And don't confuse it with another movie that has a similar title, A Simple Plan. That one really is noir.