Retro-dressing my characters

By Sally Carpenter

One of the challenges of writers of historical mysteries is clothing their characters. As fashions change continually, authors must carefully research their time period for accuracy.

My new cozy is set in 1967, a period that should be easy to clothe, right? When I was growing up in the ‘60s I wasn’t interested in fashion. My mother sewed all my clothes and I didn’t buy my own clothing until college. My memory of what people wore at the time is vague and limited.

So I consulted books and learned about Mary Quant and the groovy, hip styles. However, my book is set in the rural Midwest—similar to where I grew up—and the hot fashions of the New York runway never made it west. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone on the streets wearing love beads or Nehru jackets or batik prints or even miniskirts. The ordinary Jane Doe didn’t dress like Emma Peel.

What to do? I found a terrific book titled “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs mid 1960s.” That’s right, the book contains full-color illustrations of the merchandise sold in the mail-order catalogs. It’s a wealth of information of what the common person wore as they shopped at Sears, not high-end boutiques.

Women’s clothes of the ‘60s were less restrictive than the ‘50s. Gone were the girdles and mounds of petticoats holding up poodle skirts. Pantyhose replaced nylon stockings for a practical reason. Individual stockings required garter belts to hold them up, but the stocking clips could be seen under miniskirts. Pantyhose provided a seamless visual line as well as some modesty if the skirt flipped up.

But some ‘50s holdovers remained into the ‘60s. The catalogue book has several pages of women’s hats, and when ladies put on a hat, they wore gloves as well. Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat a must-have at the time. So I will occasionally put my 26-year-old heroine in a hat because it looks far out and while she’s tough, she isn’t a total tomboy.

The Sears book has no miniskirts! The dresses and skirts hit the knee or just below. A black “dance” dress is shorter, with the hem only about two inches above the knee “to allow movement.” Miniskirts were not practical for everyday women working in offices, stores or schoolrooms.

The book also has far more dresses than pants for women. Women in white- and pink-collar jobs generally wore dresses and seldom  pantsuits on a night out. I had to rethink my character’s wardrobe. I’m putting her in more dresses than I anticipated, but that’s OK. She looks groovy in skirts. And she’s in pants for the “action” scenes that require running and climbing.

I found no women’s jeans in the catalog book, although I did spot a denim jacket and skirt outfit. Women’s dungarees (jeans) had been around in the ‘50s, but only for casual wear or factory/farm work. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s jeans were associated with biker gangs, hoods and rowdy rock bands. Only by mid ‘60s did jeans gain popularity. In fact, faded and patched jeans were stylish.

The few shoes in the book are mostly flats, a surprise as I thought most women in dresses wore heels. Flat heels permit more movement and are less painful for the feet. However, the pencil skirts of the time prevented women from taking long strides and forced them to move their hips more when walking.

Watching TV shows and movies of the era is a another great way to do research. One can see not only what women wore but also how they moved in the slim skirts and short hems. One of my heroine’s dresses is based on an outfit Barbara Feldon wore in “Get Smart.”

In the ‘60s, not everyone jumped on the fashion bandwagon. The older generation, i.e., my parents, continued to wear older styles. Few women in my hometown wore pants in public. My mother only put on pants once in her adult life and I thought they looked weird on her.

I’m writing from my experience. No doubt many older women of the ‘60s embraced pants and other hip styles—just not in my neighborhood.

Of course my cozy has hippies. They dressed differently from the “square” townsfolk to express their individually and distain for the “establishment.” The Sears book didn’t have hippie clothes–no surprise there–but I found examples in other books. Surprisingly, hippies shopped at war surplus stores. This seems odd considering their opposition to the war, but perhaps the reason was that the merchandise sold cheap.

Men’s fashions haven’t changed much over the years. The suit-and-tie has remained standard wear forever, although the ‘70s put a spin on that with the huge lapels, wild pastel colors and paisley shirts. The men in my book mostly wear regular shirts and pants except for the occasional denim overalls (this is farm country after all) and suspenders. And maybe a couple of bellbottoms.

In looking through the Sears book, I was struck at the beauty of the clothes. The models look feminine but not girlish, pretty yet confident, stylish but not too dated. Modern women’s clothing has a drab “unisex” look that I dislike. I’d love to wear some of the fashions in the Sears book. Let’s go retro!




Cold War ethics

My WIP is a cold war cozy, a somewhat traditional cozy mystery with spies. The setting is 1967, the peak of the spy craze on TV and in the movies.

One of my favorite shows from this era is “Mission: Impossible.” I love the series for the top-notch writing, complex plots and logical structure. But on re-watching the show, I’m dismayed at some of the distressing ethical values.

Members of the IM Force, for unclear reasons, are not allowed to directly assassinate the villains (which would make for short and dull episodes). However, they can lie, cheat and steal as well as deceive, trick, con and manipulate other people into doing the killing for them. How is this better than simply doing the dirty deed themselves?

The end justifies the means. Trampling on emotions is acceptable as long as it brings about the desired results. In the first-season episode “The Short Tail Spy,” Cinnamon Carter carries on a lengthy romance with the mark, even spending the night with him. Does she really fall in love with him or is it all an act? We never really know how Cinnamon feels about the affair. But if she does have feelings for him, she never lets her emotions compromise the mission. Like an actress, she can conjure up fake emotions to serve her purpose.

In another episode, the IM Force is leaving the building at the end of the episode and they hear a gunshot. When someone asks who was killed, Jim Phelps replies rather coldly, “Does it matter?” A rather callous attitude, but necessary in this business.

Bruce Geller, the series creator, stated that he wanted the characters to be “ciphers,” completing the mission with no emotion or revealing their own personality. In a few episodes, we catch tantalizing glimpses of the team members joking and interacting with each other (in a seventh-season episode, Barney and Jim briefly enjoy a friendly game of tennis on a day off). But the agents, for the most part, remain pawns in the spy game. We see the agents portray every type of character expect themselves, yet sealing off their own emotions doesn’t appear to cause mental health issues.

And they are expendable. The government will deny their existence in the event the agents are caught or killed. So they are on their own. How can the agents remain loyal to a government that needs them but wants nothing to do with them?

The missions work because the villains have no ethics. The missions/cons work because the baddies are ruthless, greedy, egotistical. lusty and cruel. A con game only works on a mark that wants to be conned.

Yet “MI” has some positive aspects. Compared to most spy shows of the time, the body count is low. In the first season, the team members engaged in some gunplay, but soon that was phased out.

The team members had an extraordinarily high moral sense. They lied and conned only evil individuals and not for personal gain. They felt a need to rid the world of drugs, dictators, nuclear bombs in the wrong hands, corruption and brutality.

They never defected to the other side or were never tempted by the money or power. They never took bribes or betrayed another team member (unless it was part of the mission). If a team member was captured, the others made sure he/she was rescued.

They were willing to put their lives in danger for—what? Not for fame or fortune. They received no public recognition for their service. Due to secrecy they probably had few friends outside the agency. Their only reward was a personal satisfaction for bringing about justice in a wicked world.

My WIP looks at the ethical nature of the spy game. A spy agency recruits my heroine, a civilian, to help with a case. At one point, a spy tells the heroine she will have to kill the enemy. The heroine is shocked—murder goes against her beliefs and morality. In another situation, she must do something she feels isn’t right or else risk blowing her cover. This being a cozy, everything works out to a happy ending, but it’s interesting to explore how she reacts to these situations without compromising her own ethics.

Trixie Beldon and me

By Sally Carpenter

I don’t remember how old I was at the time, but one Christmas my parents gave me the first two Trixie Beldon books, “Secret of the Mansion” and “The Red Trailer Mystery.” Since then I’ve gone on the acquire the first 15 books of the series, all in the original (and cheaply made) Whitman hardcover editions.

I liked Trixie because, at the time, she was much like me. Thirteen-year-old Trixie lived on the family farm in Sleepyside-on-Hudson in upstate New York. My parents didn’t have a farm, but we lived in the country on a big plot of land, with fruit trees in the backyard and cows grazing in the field next door.

Trixie had two older brothers who teased her a lot; so did I. One of Trixie’s brothers was 11 months older; one of my brothers was a little more than a year older than me.

The Beldon family had a pet dog; I had a cat that we took in as a kitten from the barn cat of the neighbor across the road.

Trixie wasn’t good in math; arithmetic was never my strong subject either. Trix has to do household chores and help with the farm work, which she often grumbled about. I had to dry dishes and pick up the fallen fruit outside with the same enthusiasm. For a brief time I mowed the lawn but couldn’t push the X*%$#@ lawnmower up the hill.

Trixie’s best friend was Honey Wheeler, a rich girl who moved into the Manor House down the road from the Beldon farm. I didn’t have a best friend who lived nearby, but I pretended that Honey lived in the house atop the hill east of my home.

Trixie had short curly blonde hair. As a kid I had short curly brown hair, which has since grown out to long curly brown and gray hair.

Like my favorite sleuth, I didn’t think I was pretty. We share many of the same insecurities. I didn’t go sleuthing on mysteries, but I loved reading about Trixie’s travels and adventures.

I belonged to Girl Scouts, 4-H and the church youth group. Trixie made her own club, The Bob-Whites (they used the bob-white whistle to alert other club members), comprised of her brothers and friends. The BWs main purpose was to do good deeds for others and raise money for charitable causes.

The Beldons were comfortable but not rich. Trix had to earn her allowance. The Bob-Whites had to raise the monies they needed for their service projects and clubhouse repairs. My parents likewise watched their pennies.

Unfortunately, Trixie never achieved the fame of that other girl sleuth, oh, what’s her name. Trixie only last 39 books; no new stories are being written. Nancy Drew has gone on to well over twice that number as well as spin-offs and new variations of the character, with more new books each year.

I always wanted to see a Trixie Beldon movie, but one never came to pass. Just as well. If a studio tackled Trix today, they’d update her, give her a cell phone and MP3 player, have her talk about her personality issues with a school counselor, and make the Bob-Whites hang out at a mall instead of meeting in their homemade club house.

When I got older I read a number of Nancy Drews and, with apologizes to all of you Drew fans, the character never appealed to me in the same way as Trix.

I admire Nancy’s smarts, perseverance and bravery. But she never seemed real. In the early books Nancy was 16 years old but she didn’t attend school. Later she aged up to 18 and a high school graduate, but she never mentioned her school days. She didn’t attend college, hold a job (yet had unlimited funds to spend) or even help out around the house.

Nancy had no life outside of sleuthing. She didn’t belong to any clubs or sororities She had two best friends, Bess and George, but their personalities are not developed beyond “chubby” and “tomboy.” Nancy had a dad and a housekeeper, who mainly stay in the background.

The Drew books focused on solving the crime; the Beldon novels were more interested in the characters and their lives/interactions.

Trixie has a full range of friends, family and townspeople, all with distinct personalities. Her friends have interesting backgrounds. Naturally, school plays a big part in Trixie’s life, although in many of the books she’s either on a school vacation or traveling out of state.

Trixie’s biggest drawback is that she’s too young to drive. Her mobility is limited to where she can walk, ride a bike or ride a horse. She must rely on her oldest brother or another adult to drive her. So most of her sleuthing is limited to her town or family vacations. Nancy Drew has her own roadster and drives with abandon, seemingly without having ever put more gas in the car.

The Hardy Boys have them all beat. Frank and Joe not only drive but even ride motorcycles, pilot motorboats, and fly airplanes. No doubt they could man a space ship if the need arose.

Regardless of preference, all of these “juvenile” mysteries serve a good purpose: to encourage children to read and to present young characters that overcome obstacles, use their brains, and solve puzzles. Many fans of Trixie and Nancy grew up to pen mysteries of their own.

While I tip my hat to Nancy Drew, my heart belongs to the girl sleuth who struggles with her math homework.




Mystery of the Muppets

How the Muppets inspired my current work-in-progress.

Last year I checked out the DVDs of “The Muppet Show,” first season, from the library. I hadn’t paid much attention to the show when it first aired, but I had the urge to revisit it. The DVDs have a fun feature that the viewer can turn on to allow little pop-ups of trivia and fun facts about working the Muppets.

As I watched the show, I thought how my series character, Sandy Fairfax, would have made a terrific guest star. He can sing, dance, and act. He’s easy going and has a great sense of humor. He’d fit right into the wacky world of the Muppets.

This year my publisher put out a call for submissions for an anthology of short stories by the various Cozy Cat Press authors. That sounded like just the ticket for another Sandy mystery, this time as a guest start on a kids’ TV show with its own nutty set of possibly murderous puppeteers.

To research the art of puppetry, I drew on my own experience. In the early 1970s my school district built a brand new high school (which has seen been replaced by an even newer facility). This school had a working television studio. The senior TV production class, which I took, produced a program that was aired to the local elementary schools via closed circuit TV (which nowadays would probably be uploaded as streaming video).

At the time “Sesame Street” was still new and all the rage, so our studio had a small puppet stage that we used in our shows. The puppets resembled the basic Muppet form: a foam head with a cloth body and thin, flexible arms.

When operating the puppets, we wore white cloth gloves to product the puppet material from our skin oils and sweat. But in my research on how the Muppets are worked, I didn’t find any indication that the puppeteers wore gloves. My guess is that with the long hours of taping a TV show, the puppets were of and off their hands so often that dealing with gloves all day would be cumbersome.

Like “Sesame Street,” we had rod-arm puppets, so called because a long black plastic rod was attached to one arm. We put one hand inside the puppet’s head to work the mouth and use the other hand to manipulate the arm with the rod. That gave the puppet a more realistic look than to have both arms hang limp.

I believe the school had one or two human hand puppets. These puppets had arms/hands that resembled sleeves and gloves. Puppeteers could put one hand inside a puppet arm and use their fingers to make the puppet pick up objects, write, and make more natural hand movements. Obviously these puppets are more difficult to operate.

Rowlf the dog and the Swedish Chef are human hand puppets. Jim Henson moves the mouth and provides the voice of both moppets and another puppeteer (Frank Oz for the chef) works the hands. This requires tremendous coordination between the two persons and the ability to work closely together.

How do the Muppeteers see what their puppets are doing when they’re standing behind a solid wall or cramped inside a sofa or box? Jim Henson developed a solution to this problem with tiny black-and-white TV monitors placed on the floor behind the stage. The puppeteers keep their eyes on the monitor, not the puppets. Thus they can watch their performance in real time, exactly how the home viewer would see them.

I learned a trick in working a puppet’s mouth. The natural tendency in making a puppet “talk” is to move the four fingers inside the head. But this makes the puppet’s head jerk back and appear to have whiplash. The correct method is to hold the fingers level and move only the thumb. This drops the jaw, the same way humans speak. You’ll see this jaw-only movement in the Muppets, except when Kermit gets agitated, in which case he flails his arms around and his mouth opens all the way, flinging his head back for comic effect.

What I remember most about the TV class is that it led to my first piece of published writing! The company that sold the puppets to the school put out a newsletter with scripts the customers could use. I wrote a short, silly sketch about puppets waiting for the school bus to arrive. My script was published and my “payment” was a free puppet. The school kept the puppet, but I picked it out—a bunny.

In writing my short story I read books about how “The Muppet Show” was made and a well-illustrated bio of Henson. Some of this information I incorporated into my story, although I should make a disclaimer that all of the Muppeteers are fantastic people and would never stoop to do the evil deeds committed by my characters. But my story wouldn’t be as fun if my characters were all as nice as Kermit the frog.



Just one more plot hole

by Sally Carpenter

Even the best writers don’t always get it right.

Last year I purchased the complete “Columbo” DVD set—every episode from the 1968 pilot through the final case in 2003.

The quality of the writing was superb, with its logical plots, clever clues and the wonderful interplay between the rumpled detective and the overconfident murderer.

But in re-watching the shows in order (just finished season three), I’ve seen a few lapses and continuity goofs. That’s understandable, as TV shows are rushed into production with tight deadlines.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

In “Any Port in a Storm,” Columbo says his wife is home with a sick child. During “Mind Over Mayhem” he makes a reference to their children. But in another episode (I’m not certain which one) he says he and the missus never had children.

In “Dead Weight,” the killer hides the body in a secret compartment behind the bar in his house. Why does his house have such a space? Most houses don’t come ready made with hidden rooms just the right size for corpses.

In “Lady in Waiting,” Columbo’s case rest on Peter Hamilton’s “photographic memory” and his statement, several days after the murder, that he heard the gunshots before the burglar alarm sounded. Yet immediately after the killing, Hamilton tells the police he heard the alarm first.

A bigger problem is with the killer, Beth Chadwick. She bumps off her brother because he runs her life and wants her to stop dating Hamlin. So why doesn’t she move in or elope with her lover, or at least get her own apartment? She isn’t a minor, so her brother can’t legally stop her from moving out of the house.

“The Most Crucial Game” is the weakest of the episodes. Very little makes sense. Paul Hanlon, general manger of a sports empire, detests the playboy business owner, Eric Wagner, but the show doesn’t give him a clear motive for killing him. Hanlon tells Wagner he needs his signature so he can purchase another team, and then murders him hours later. How does he plan to get the team without Wagner?

In the event of Wagner’s death, ownership of the company shifts to his wife. Yet nothing in the show indicates that the wife would let Hanlon take control of the operation. Why kill Wagner before gaining the wife’s support?

Columbo is puzzled by fresh water on the deck of the pool (Hanover washed away his footprints). But the fresh water could be from a gardener watering the greenery or someone cleaning the deck after the previous night’s party.

To establish an alibi, Hanlon disguises himself as an ice cream vendor, leaves his private suite at the top of the L.A. Coliseum, walks through the rows of seats full of fans, and exits the stadium while the National Anthem is played. Not one person sees him leave.

The script jumps the shark with a private investigator straight out of a 1940s B-serial who plants bugs in Wagner’s house with the help of a prostitute. Why is the PI using a hooker for his investigative work?

In the end, Columbo has no reason to suspect Hanlon, no motive, no weapon and only one clue that the manager was not in his suite during the killing—but Hanlon could have been in another part of the stadium at that time.

“Double Exposure” is a terrific script that Stephen Cannell wrote on spec during a writers’ strike. But the elephant in the script is that the murder occurs inside a secure building. All cars entering the institute must drive past a security guard. Kepple tries to frame the victim’s wife, but if she had done it, the gate guard would have seen her drive in, which she didn’t.

Security cameras are set up inside the building. Although the killer disables the camera monitor aimed at the scene of the crime, the other cameras would have picked up strangers entering or leaving the facility.

This same flub appears in “Sex and the Married Detective.” The manager of a sex clinic lures the victim into her offices after hours to shoot him. She locks the office door on her way out. So the killer could only be someone who could lock up, which limited the suspects to those who had keys to the clinic.

In “Mind Over Mayhem,” a vital clue is that the victim smokes a pipe. But when we see him with the pipe in his mouth, the pipe is not lit.

The goal of mystery writers is to tie up lose ends and make sure all plot points and clues are reasonable and believable. Keeping track of continuity is important. Something out of whack can kick a reader out of the story.

One more thing . . . in “A Friend in Deed,” a character gives the address of the crime scene as 1278 Fairfax Drive. Later when Colombo is standing in front of the house, the (real life) house number painted on the curb is 400. I guess the camera crew couldn’t shoot in the 1200 block that day.



When a book festival isn’t so festive

The fact that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is America’s largest literary event doesn’t necessarily make it the best.

Each year my Sisters in Crime chapter rents a festival booth where members can sell their books. I hadn’t gone in past years because I don’t drive in L.A.’s notorious bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic, but this year the Friends of the Moorpark Library chartered a bus for anyone wanted to ride to the event. Since I could travel stress-free to the USC campus, the site of the event, I signed up.

The bus dropped us off at the festival entrance, thus sparing us a long hike from the distant (and pricey) parking garages. The “booths” were white tents with the vendor’s name and the booth number professionally printed on the tent flap, making identification easy. Most of the booths were set up along a walkway running the length of the campus from north to south. Other booths branched off along east and west walkways, some easier to find than others. Since the campus lacked a large central grassy area for staging such events, the booths were spread out so much that one needed to walk a lot.

And walk I did, in 90-plus-degree temps and bright, blinding sunlight. My bus arrived at 10 a.m. and by noon I was sweaty and tired and I’d only seen half of the booths. Had the festival been set indoors in air-conditioned comfort, I would have fared better; I don’t function well in heat.

The vendor selection was disappointing. Most of the booths contained self-pub authors with works of dubious quality, gritty/underground niche publishers or local indie bookstores. Other vendors hawked publishing (vanity presses) or editorial services.

Some of the better companies specialized in comics or children’s books—I got a kick out of the reissues of the Little Golden Books for kids. Besides Sisters in Crime, several other organizations were present for horror, romance and mystery writers as well as small presses.

Several booths promoted Islam; New Age groups and Atheists United were present. But in the second largest city in American, not one booth represented Jewish or Christian publishers or bookstores. Go figure.

I wanted to check out the old and antiquarian books, but to do so I had to enter a stifling hot booth and move along aisles only wide enough for one person. Since I was toting a heavy shoulder bag (I didn’t know what I’d need, so I packed everything), squeezing through narrow aisles and dodging other people didn’t seem doable.

At least the Vromans (a large indie bookstore in Pasadena) booth had a fan, which made browsing enjoyable. Barnes & Noble was not present.

Due to the size of the tents, inventory was limited and I found little of interest.

A number of booths had pushy vendors who unloaded a sales pitch on any passer-by. I stopped making eye contact with dealers and avoided getting close to the booths.

The L.A. Times booth had some nice umbrellas that would have been helpful on the hot day. As I approached a woman staffer asked if I had a subscription the Times. When I said I subscribed to the L.A. Daily News, she spouted off on a loud, angry rampage. I walked away without an umbrella or a subscription.

One bright spot was the free health screenings offered by the USC School of Pharmacy. The young students were professional, competent and friendly, with no wait time for services.

My book signing lasted one hour and was uneventful (euphemism for no sales). L.A. is not a cozy mystery town. Many strolled by, but only a handful stopped by the booth and most of those people were friends of the other authors present.

When my time was up, I took my unsold books with me. My suitcase had wheels but it was still heavy and a bother to lug around, especially since I was trying to worm my way through the crowd. Now I know how a salmon feels swimming upstream.

Finding a place for lunch was challenging. I avoided the high-priced campus restaurant with a 30- to 40-minute wait time. After hoofing to the edge of the campus, I found a tiny coffee shop with no salads left and only two choices of sandwiches. Lunch was an $8 turkey pesto pre-made sandwich wrapped in cellophane. At least the building was air conditioned. 

 Later I discovered the campus also had a food court and some food trucks for the day. Where were they? I couldn’t find them on the map or by sight.

As for the restrooms: I could have used the restrooms inside the buildings, if I didn’t mind standing in line for 20 minutes. I settled on the Porta Potties with no wait time. In a pinch I can rough it.

I didn’t go to the panel discussions since I didn’t know the writers and from the titles of the talks, most of the panels seemed to have far-left bias.

 I saw few people carrying or buying books. Apparently most people came to the festival because admission was free and it was a “big event” and “something to do” on a sunny weekend. Or maybe they just came to listen to the outdoor band concerts or shop at the campus store. I didn’t feel much of a literary vibe or maybe I was just too hot and tired to notice.

 Will I go to the LATFOB next year? Probably not. But I did meet some nice people on the bus, and I got a nifty orange festival tote bag for free.


Thou Shall Not Kill

By Sally Carpenter

Looking for a different way to bump off the victim in a mystery? I found some effective methods in the Bible. Yes, the good book describes humans with all their warts and foibles in brutal honesty.

Later this month I’ll be giving a talk titled “Thou Shall Not Kill: A Mystery Writer Looks at Sin and Redemption” at my home church as part of the annual University Series, a Lenten program of adult education classes presented in 12 county-wide parishes. I’ll be discussing sin, the devil, the psychological and biblical basis of evil, the “shadow side” of Nancy Drew (she isn’t all niceness) and the world view expressed in the various mystery subgenres.

In my research I found a number of murders in the Bible. The point of this blog is not to generate a theological discussion or negative comments about religion, but that a mystery writer can find inspiration anywhere.

*Ehud, a southpaw, set out to kill the fat and wicked Eglon, king of Moab. Ehud strapped a dagger to his right thigh. He got the king alone and reached for his knife. The king saw nothing suspicious, since a right-handed person would have a dagger on the left thigh. Ehud plunged the knife so deep into Eglon’s belly that the fat covered it (Judges 3:15-25).

*General Sisera of the Canaanite army, foes of the Israelites, fled from the battlefield and found refuge in the tent of Jael. She gave him milk to drink, invited him to rest, and covered him. As he slept on the ground, she took a mallet and pounded an iron tent peg through his skull (Judges 4:17-22).

*Women rock! This time the Assyrians laid siege to Israel. Judith, a widow, dressed up and met the leader of the Assyrian army, Holofernes, in his camp. She let him woo and dine her. After four days he got roaring drunk at dinner and attempted to seduce her in his tent, but fell asleep instead. Judith took Holofernes’ sword, cut off his head in two whacks, put the head in a bag, and returned to the Israelites to rally them to victory (Judith 13:1-10).

*A case of murder/suicide. Strong man Samson was weakened and captured by the Philistines, who blinded him and set him to work pulling a grindstone. Some time later, hundreds of Philistines gathered inside and atop a building for a party. They brought in Samson to amuse them. During his time in prison his hair had grown back and his strength returned. Samson put his hands on the building’s supporting pillars, pushed, and the roof collapsed, killing everyone.

*Evil Queen Jezebel put on her cosmetics and looked out her upper-story window to lure Jehu, Israel’s head of state. He ordered her eunuchs to throw her out the window, which they did. The Bible even describes the blood spatter (Judges 9:33). Then dogs ate the body, leaving only the skull, feet and hands (Judges 9:30-37).

*St. Stephen was stoned, a gruesome method in which the victim sometimes took hours to die (Acts 7:58-59). The victim was thrown into a pit with rocks on the bottom, and more rocks were piled on.

*But the classic story is one of adultery and murder. King David was walking atop his palace and spied on the rooftops below. He saw beautiful Bathsheba bathing and had her brought to the palace. Before long she became pregnant, which proved awkward, as her husband, Uriah, was off fighting in David’s army. David sent a letter to the army commander to place Uriah in the heaviest part of the battle and pull back the reinforcements. The enemy quickly killed Uriah, and David married Bathsheba. The baby died, but their next child was the great king Solomon.




The mystery of the Peanuts’ parents

By Sally Carpenter

I grew up reading the “Peanuts” comic strip in the newspaper, but I never thought much about the characters until I recently watched “The Peanuts Movie” and something struck me.

Where are the parents?

In the nearly 50 years the strip ran, we never saw the faces of the characters’ parents or even knew their names or anything about them. Charlie Brown’s father was a barber (as was Charles Schulz’s dad) and Peppermint Pattie’s parents were divorced. Outside of that, the parents were a complete mystery.

Cartoonist Schulz made a deliberate decision in drawing the strip not to show adults. In an interview, he said he didn’t find adults interesting. (He also couldn’t draw them. In a rare early Sunday strip that showed the kids standing among a crowd of grown-ups, Charlie Brown appears to be only as tall as a woman’s knee!).

In the earliest strips, the parents at least seemed present. The kids frequently say, “your mother’s calling.” In Lucy’s earliest appearances in 1951, she’s a toddler calling for her dad from her crib—but she never cries out for her mother. Is dad the more comforting parent? Or was this the cartoonist’s personal experience?

The following year, Lucy is seen talking with her mother several times. That is, the reader sees mom’s dialogue balloon but not the person. Then mom vanished until decades later when Lucy’s second kid brother, Rerun, was born. Lucy is so upset that not getting a sister that she kicks Linus out of the house! Isn’t dad at home keeping order? Rerun is seen riding on the back of mom’ bicycle, but we still never catch a glimpse of the parent.

As the kids began attending school, teachers were involved in their lives, but these adults were likewise invisible and mute on paper. In the TV specials and movies, one hears a trumpet “wah-wah” sound whenever the grownups talked. Even on the screen we never see or hear an adult.

In one early strip, Charlie Brown calls the telephone operator and says, “I’m lonely. Can you read me a story?” The thought makes us laugh, but why doesn’t he ask a parent for this favor? Why does he turn to a stranger for nurturing?

This is no “Lord of the Flies” existence in which the kids fend for themselves. All of them live in nice (although not extravagant) and neat homes. They never go hungry and always have spending money for toys and candy. Their clothes are washed and mended, although the fashions never change. Someone organizes the school dances and drives the buses.

Yet the kids must handle their own problems. They have no parental help with homework. No adult tucks them into bed at night. Charlie Brown receives no comfort when he loses another baseball game. No one punishes Lucy when she slugs her kid brother. No adult provides emotional support.

What about Pigpen? Why don’t his parents make him bathe? Are they as dirty as he is? Is his house filthy and untidy? In today’s world, social services probably pull him out of his home and label his parents as inept caretakers.

If Schroeder lived in Los Angeles, his parents would drive him to a private piano teacher and enter him in prestigious music competitions. Lucy would be a precocious child actor with a controlling stage mom. Charlie Brown’s parents would haul him off to a licensed marriage-family therapist to deal with his neuroses.

But the kids seem fairly well adjusted. Yes, they bully, tease, insult, hit, snub and are mean to each other. That’s true of any child. Except for Charlie Brown’s bouts of depression, they seem optimist, happy and content. No gang members, Goth kids or punk rockers in this bunch. Rerun is a bit of a rebel, but nothing drastic.

Obviously the presence of adults would ruin the comic. Modern “helicopter parents” would constantly call and text to check up on their brood. Today’s adults would manage every aspect of their children’s lives. The parents would enroll their kids in every type of organized sport and club and not allow them the time or freedom to play, imagine, dream and, well, just be kids.

In Schulz’s world, the kids build up confidence and resiliency on their own. They fight their own battles. They stand up for what they think is right (The Great Pumpkin) and learn how to bounce back after failure. They negotiate, handle taunts and deal with problems—character traits that adults need as well.

One wonders what the Peanuts kids would be like had Schulz allowed them to grow up. Would they follow the same “absent parenting” style? Would they fade away as their own children began to talk?

The purpose of the comic is to entertain, not to present a manual on child rearing. But it’s interesting to note that as far as I know, “Peanuts” is the only comic with children and no adults. All the modern family comics I know of include both parents and kids. Nobody else has dared to recreate Schulz’s formula—yet.

Schulz would probably say I’m reading too much into his characters. But as fiction writers, we give our character more depth than a security blanket or a pet dog. Novelists need to create total personalities that keep the reader riveted for hundreds of pages. Building a family background into a character will enrich the story.

In my Sandy Fairfax series, Sandy’s parents only appear in two of the four books, but he often makes references to his overbearing father. In the first three books, Sandy makes snide cracks about his brother, Warren, whom we never met until book four. Even when we don’t see the family dynamics behind Sandy, they have formed the person he is.

And one wonders what kind of family setting made Lucy into a crab and Linus into a philosopher.

Cleaning out the cobwebs

By Sally Carpenter

One of my at-home projects for long holiday weekends is to sweep and mop the floors. This may not sound like much, but to me it’s an ordeal. It involves chasing the cats outside and then picking everything off the floor and stacking them on either the bed or sofa, leaving me no place to sit down until the floors dry.

Of course the day after the mopping, rain came and my cats trod over the clean floor with little wet paws. All the work for nothing!

But this attitude toward mopping doesn’t mean I’m a slob. I’m actually a neatnick. Every object has its place and must be put there. My writing space is not strewn with papers or books. Papers are filed away and books are in neat piles or on shelves. When I need something, I know exactly where to find it.

 The down side is that I get cranky if things are misplaced. I love Christmas decorations, but I’m not happy until every item is hung or put out and the packing bins are put away.

My desk at the office is the same way; clear save for some framed cat photos and mementos. Papers are in the hanging folders in the drawer. Even the items on my bulletin board are hung in a methodical fashion.

What has this to do with writing? Some say house cleaning is a procrastination to keep from writing, but for me, I can’t concentrate when my house—or life—is a mess. Sometimes I’ll even stop working just to take care of the stack of dirty dishes in the sink.

I need a clear space so I can think clearly. If I’m distracted by financial or personal issues, I can’t be creative.

Two years I cut down on my writing obligations because I was getting distracted. My mind was in a jumble, hopping from one thing to do to the next and as a result accomplishing little—certainly not as far as writing the next book.

 Also, my mysteries are crafted in an orderly manner. The structure is solid and builds to a logical conclusion. My tidy house reflects my state of mind.

If I’m facing writer’s block or can’t get motivated to write, it’s often a sign that I need to slow down, rest and get focused. I need to put aside the other “to dos,” stop playing computer solitaire (the writer’s bane), sit down with my pen and clipboard, and start writing. That’s how this post was written.

And hanging up the colorful Christmas decorations helps as well.

What do you do to clear out the mental cobwebs?


Time enough for a good story

By Sally Carpenter

Some time ago I re-watched the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy, of the intrepid Marty McFly journeys in the past and future to correct certain “mistakes” in the time line. The films are highly entertaining and great food for thought. What if time travel was possible? How would humans use—or misuse—that power?

Time travel has long been a subject for the science fiction genre but not so much for mysteries. After all, if the hero could go back in time and actually witness the crime, we’d have swift justice but a very short story.

Just what is “time,” anyway? Is it a man-made construct? Watches, clocks and calendars only measure time but do not create it. And time is not universal. With the various time zones, we are not all “in” the same minute.

Calendar use is not consistent. While most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, the Orthodox Church still goes by the Julian calendar. In the Jewish calendar, this is year 5777. The traditional Chinese calendar has a leap month rather than a leap day.

If humans achieve space travel, how will they age in space, since time is different on planets with a longer or shorter orbit around the sun than Earth? Are human biological clocks so ingrained that the astronauts will continue to function on a 24-hour rhythm, or will they adapt to their new surroundings?

 Back here on Earth, what would be the practical uses of time travel? Humans could go back in time to correct certain “wrongs”: stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; prevent the birth of Adolph Hitler, save communities from natural disasters.

 But if John Wilkes Booth were stopped, would another man have killed Lincoln at a later time? If Hitler was never born, would a man even worse would rise to power, since at that time Germany needed a strong leader to pull the country out of an economic shambles.

 If the good guys had access to time travel, that means the bad guys could use it too. What if a Neo-Nazi prevented Oskar Shindler and many others from rescuing Jews during the Holocaust? What if a criminal made sure John Hinkley or Mehmet Ali Agca succeeded in their assassination attempts (President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, respectively)?

 Since time travel would be horribly expensive and not all “wrongs” can be righted, who would decide which historical events to change? The government? The millionaires who could afford the equipment? The poor? Victims of violence? Historians?

 What of the ramifications? If John F. Kennedy had not died in Dallas, how much history after that event would change?

Or would time travelers simply go to observe if certain events actually occurred, such as stories in the Bible? What kind of proof could they bring back? Would modern-day cameras and recording devices work in past times? How could one make selfies in first century without anyone noticing?

While this is gist for speculative fiction, it’s doubtful that time travel is possible. Events happen and disappear. While past events are recorded in memories and photographs, one can’t make history happen again. One can’t return 1500 France because 2016 France is occupying that ground. The World Wars are not still being replayed in an alternative universe; at least I hope not.

Attempts to recapture the past usually fail. Promoters tried to recreate the original Woodstock feel-good festival with Woodstock ’94 and ‘99. The first attempt suffered from security breakdown, and ’99 was marred by high vendor prices, violence, rape and fires. The love and goodwill of the original concert got lost in translation.

What your thoughts on time travel? Should humans attempt to change the past or let bygones be bygones? Are there events or choices in your life you’d like to go back and change?