Shoving Morsels into the Mouth

bagheria by le foto di GrimmoExcerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Friday, March 25, 1870

The meal continued despite Guido who ate without entering the conversation or looking at his dinner guests. Earlier, when introduced to Loffredo by the baron, he shook hands with him briefly, did not once engage Saintemarie or their other guests in conversation, other than to gaze once with his flat eyes at Serafina, looking through rather than at her. For the rest of the meal, he was preoccupied, keeping his head down for the duration, cutting his food into small pieces like a child and eating with the sensibility of an automaton. When Loffredo attempted to engage him in conversation about Paris, he said, “I’ve not been,” and went on, uninterrupted, shoving morsels into his mouth. The moment was an awkward one and Loffredo risked a look at Serafina. For his part, the baron, sitting at the opposite end of the table, took no notice of his son’s behavior.

Photo: Bagheria. Credit: le foto di Grimmo (Flickr), Creative Commons

Marveling at Echoes and Mists

Aqueduct in Palermo_by Notre Dame ArchitectureExcerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Thursday, March 24, 1870

On their way down from the roof, Serafina and Rosa took the main staircase, stopping on the second floor to admire the ballroom and its three crystal chandeliers suspended from a vaulted ceiling, the walls made of red marble with decorative inlay. Except for four small parlors off either end, the room, devoid of furniture, took up the whole floor.

“Look at those,” Rosa pointed to the corner blocks of the crown molding. Each one contained a cupid holding a torch. They laughed at the excess, then at the echoes of their laughter, listening until the last remnant rolled away. Serafina stood for a moment, marveling at echoes and mists and how truths that she’d initially felt with such force and clarity soon bounced off the walls of her mind, becoming vaporous, softening of sound and meaning before evaporating.

On the far wall, velvet drapes flanked French doors leading to balconies that overlooked the front of the house and the sea. Their footsteps reverberated on the parquet floor as they walked the width of the room and stepped outside. She and Rosa gazed at the baron’s ship, astonished at its swift progress, now little more than a speck in the vastness. Both stacks were blowing smoke and its sails were unfurled, catching the purple and red shadows from the setting sun. They watched for a moment longer until it faded into distance.

Photo: Aqueduct in Palermo, c1900. Credit: Notre Dame Architecture (Flickr), Creative Commons.

From God’s Lips to Your Keyboard

dislocation_Luce-Chiara #216 Ways to Stoke the Fires of a Creative Mind

There is no such thing as writer’s block, unless a whole bunch of authors happen to live on the same street in your town.

But there is fear and there are those, a ratty bunch, who write nasty stuff and use our fear for their own gain.

I’ve had such rattiness happen to me. I know you have.

I’ve been guilty of such rattiness, not too often, I like to think. Usually my rattiness takes a cowardly form—not reaching out, but moving on when I see the pain of others.

Back to fear. It never goes away. Pain doesn’t, either.

But these will help to tame it. They are best done before you begin to write your stuff or at a low point in your day.

  1. Take a twenty-minute nap.
  2. Talk to a friend.
  3. Say from God’s lips to my keyboard ten times.
  4. Take a warm bath or swim some place where you can float forever.
  5. Count the stars.
  6. Remember the times your writing has moved others.
  7. Remember the times your ability with words has surprised you.
  8. Remember the times you carved your words into exciting angles, fleshier characters.
  9. Take a long walk.
  10. Write in cursive. Put pen to paper and let your fingers work. Do not think of the words, just move the pen.
  11. First draft, forget punctuation just let the words flow frum your fingers not caring a tinker’s damn who thinks what so there
  12. Write down all the words you can think of beginning with a; the next day, b, etc. Write without stopping for spellcheck.
  13. Talk to your characters in the shower. Listen when they talk back to you.
  14. Write a summary of the current politics in your character’s voice.
  15. Read poetry.
  16. Write a poem.

Or forget all of the above, sit down at the keyboard and wrestle with your words. Struggle down old ghosts until you feel the power your gift gives you, a lemon balm.

Photo: Dislocation. Credit: Luce-Chiara #2 (Flickr), Creative Commons.

Sicily in 1866

Cupola in Sicily

Death of a Serpent is the first book in the Serafina Florio mystery series. Its story takes place in November 1866, six years after Garibaldi and his Thousand marched from Marsala to Messina and overthrew foreign rule once and for all.

The summer and early fall of 1866 saw uprisings in the villages surrounding Palermo. Rosa’s statue, the bust of Mary Magdalene, describes the times:

Now no more battles, no more Bourbons, but where’s the end to misery? Clowns rule. Cholera buries thousands in a blink. Bandits stream down from the Madonie and maul with homemade scythes. And something worse I cannot name: a monster, new and sinister and clothed in the costume of a cheap puttana, snakes its way into the highest seats of power.

“Too flowery by half,” Rosa says. “All the statue needs to say is, ‘The wheels are coming off.’”

Serafina’s note: For a history of Sicily, see Best of Sicily.

The Sentence Cop Is Dead

Aeolian Islands by giopuoA Writer’s Exercise

Long time ago I read that the Sentence Cop died. But don’t tell the lone star reviewers who ride the net, because that’ll give them one less thing to grouse about. Can’t you hear them?—and in the beginning of the book there weren’t even complete sentences, so I had to stop reading.

Sometimes I write in long descriptive sinewy kinds of lines that snake around the page, and into the reader’s head, I hope, having come out that way from the curlicues in my mind, the words made flesh. Then I chop in a short one. Or two.

It’s a game I play in the morning when my fingers fly and it’s too early for the other voices in my head to be awake and snarking about. An exercise with words, not weights. Like the play of light on water.

Photo: Aeolian Islands, Sicily. Credit: giopuo (Flickr), Creative commons

Naming The Goat

Agrigento_by archer10“Naming the Goat,” a Serafina Florio short story

Sicily, September 1866

It took us weeks to name the goat. First we argued about whether she needed a name. Couldn’t we just call out to her, “Here, goat!” or, “Here, goaty-goat!” someone asked. No one answered until Vicenzu, the son with all the numbers in his head, settled it by saying, “Bad for the soul, not to name the animals. That’s what Father would have said.”

“Sylvia,” someone suggested. A few of us liked the sound of Sylvia, but I know a Sylvia.

“How about Crocifisa?” Renata asked. I shook my head. Who ever heard of a Crocifisa Goat? Concetta? No. Betta? Never! And so on. We argued until we got fed up with arguing. Then Renata wanted to go to Sabatini’s for honey and a boy came to say his mother needed me—which meant Graziella was about to deliver—so no name for the goat that day.

One morning soon after, Carlo came running into the garden followed by the caretaker limping and fanning himself with his hat. “An uprising in town,” he said, coughing. The iron gates clanged shut.

“Too early to close the gates,” I told him. “They stay open until dusk.”

The gardener looked at the ground. He told us of the disgruntled who had gathered that morning in the piazza next to the statue of St. Benedict, the one with the sunken eyes. These men smelled of sweat and sheep and resin from their shops. They railed against crippling taxes, against conscription, against the high price of bread, against you name it.

We closed the gates.

When Vicenzu came home that afternoon, he told us how the mob had marched to the Municipal Building, grabbed the two guards on duty, shoved them down the stairs where more angry clods waited with sharpened blades. When they were through, Vicenzu said their knives dripped with blood. Then they roped the two men to an unsuspecting mule, dragged what was left of them through the town, and dumped their bodies in the public gardens while onlookers stood silent, chewing on straws.

That night I dreamt of stuffing clothes into a basket. The more I stuffed, the more the garments multiplied, ballooned, spilled over the sides onto the floor, dripping red.

Days grew shorter. Life became almost normal again when suddenly Carlo said, “Octavia!”

We stopped, considered. “Perfect,” I said. We clapped. A clean accomplishment, it felt like lemon balm.

But after her christening, Octavia’s milk soured. Carlo led her into the barn. She lay down on the packed earth in a dark corner and wouldn’t come out.

Carlo said it was naming her after Nero’s wife that turned Octavia’s milk. But I say it was the dust caused by the uprising and the stuffing of clothes into a basket.

“Read to her,” I said.

So Renata began A Tale of Two Cities, declaiming in the garden near the entrance to the stable, her finger moving slowly underneath the words.

Soon the goat appeared at the door, her sack swollen with sweet milk.

Serafina’s note. In 1866, the wheat crop failed. Mandatory conscription and high taxes roiled a hungry mob. That fall, there were uprisings all over the northern coast of Sicily.  Cholera claimed hundreds a day. Life limped on.

Photo: Agrigento. Credit: archer10 (Flickr), Creative Commons.

Tilting toward the Sea

Sea and Sky_by sicilian mamaExcerpt from NO MORE BROTHERS

Monday, February 11, 1867

Perched near the water’s edge, the gunnysack tilted toward the sea. Fingers curled out of a hole near the top. Serafina Florio picked her way over stones still wet from the tide to take a closer look. Bloated eyes gaped back at her. “Poor man,” she muttered.

Something moved behind her? She shivered, turned this way and that. No one. She looked up at the sky. It was grey, decidedly so, like the color of stale body parts strewn over fields during Garibaldi’s campaign and mixed into the soil these past seven years. Were the crops better for the mulching?

Life was full of death in Sicily. Last year, a wave of cholera created a sea of makeshift coffins. They lined the piazza like battered ships. But that wasn’t all. In the fall, peasants stormed the city’s gates, scything humans and animals alike. The streets were slicked with blood. Artisans joined in the uprising, railing against taxes, conscription, the price of bread. Serafina was grateful that Giorgio hadn’t lived to see it.

This chaos must have been the reason that the commissioner summoned her to his office last week. He stood before her in sash and frock coat. “Dear lady, you caught the Ambrosi murderer before he could slash more women. You stunned us with the cleverness of your plan, the deftness of its execution.” His arms flailed like broken windmills. “We teeter on the edge of anarchy. Police and soldiers fill the streets, yet no one quells the riots. A pity, but we need your detecting skills. Say yes, you must. We’ll double your stipend.”

About time, too. The government paid her a pittance for all her backbreaking midwifery. And with Carlo in medical school and customers using wheat instead of coins to pay for their medicinals, Serafina needed the extra money her sleuthing would fetch. Besides, someone had to stop this butchery. Who better than she?

Someone hiding behind the prickly pear? She bit her lip, forcing herself to remain calm. Something familiar about the corpse—his flat face—but she couldn’t quite recall where she’d seen the man. Staring out to sea, she let its vastness mesmerize her, and in the letting go, remembered his name. She felt a surge of pity as she recalled his friendly presence in the piazza. A coincidence, she was just talking about him the other day with Loffredo. What had he said? Something about shady dealings. Serafina wrestled with herself until she was interrupted by the sound of retching.

Photo: Sea and Sky. Credit: sicilian mama (Flickr), Creative Commons.