Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Archive for the ‘WRITING’ Category

WHAT DO THE BAADER-MEINHOF EFFECT AND MYSTERY WRITING HAVE IN COMMON?

WHAT DO THE BAADER-MEINHOF EFFECT AND MYSTERY WRITING HAVE IN COMMON

Coincidence. 

The Baader–Meinhof effect, aka “frequency illusion,” is the name for the phenomenon in which you hear about something for the first time ever or the first time in a long while and suddenly the term seems to pop up everywhere you look. What has happened is that your brain is more aware of the specific subject and so you pay more attention to mentions of it.

According to Wikipedia (and dozens of other sources, but it’s the discusson that showed up first on Google and is the most succinct and non-jargon laden), “the name ‘Baader–Meinhof phenomenon’ was derived from a particular instance of frequency illusion in which the Baader–Meinhof Group was mentioned. In this instance, it was noticed by a man named Terry Mullen, who in 1994 wrote a letter to a newspaper column in which he mentioned that he had first heard of the Baader–Meinhof Group, and shortly thereafter coincidentally came across the term from another source. After the story was published, various readers submitted letters detailing their own experiences of similar events, and the name ‘Baader–Meinhof phenomenon’ was coined as a result.

Note: “coincidentally came across the term from another source.” It happens all the time. It just happened to me the other day.

First, to understand how gobsmacked (great Britishism) I was, some background on my Work-in-Progress, Killah Megillah (and my continuing appreciation to Ellen Byron for coming up with the title). At the beginning of the book, my protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, receives a call from the overseer of a demolition project. In order to make room for more mini-mansions in a fairly rural area, they are taking down an abandoned building that decades earlier had been a synagogue. He was informed there was a trunk full of old, worn out Jewish books in the attic that needed to be removed and buried in a Jewish cemetery. Could Aviva stop by and authenticate the findings? While doing so, she finds a bag full of human bones in the trunk and the plot takes off from there. The trunk and books are the MacGuffin that sets the events in motion.

The synagogue building is situated on a fictional street called Walford-Southampton Road in a neighborhood once known decades earlier as “Jew Town,” but it is based on a real building on Hartford Road, in Mount Laurel, NJ, only a few miles from my house, in an area that decades ago was known as … Jew Town. It was a summer enclave for Jews from Philadelphia to get away from the heat.

I am taking a lot of liberties with my descriptions and history, but want to be as authentic as I can. So I’ve done a lot of research, found some information, but most of it scanty. Be patient – Baader-Meinhof is about to take effect (so to speak).

Last week, I paid a visit to one of my favorite sources for herb plants and native perennials, the Springville Herbary (springvilleherbary.com) on Hartford Road close to the old synagogue building, razed a few years ago for, yup, mini-mansions. I was chatting with Andy, a former farmer and Gloria’s husband, when, knowing I’m a rabbi, he said, “Did you know this area (long called Springville) used to be called ‘Jew Town’?” I assured him I did. “And,” he continued, “did you know that our land here was once a Jewish summer day camp?” No, I didn’t. I knew about the bungalows that had lined Hartford Road, most of which are gone, I knew that there had been a small number of Jews who lived in the area year ‘round, but that was all I knew.

Baader-Meinhof. I had been researching, writing, weaving history with fiction, and suddenly, out of nowhere, serendipitously, the topic not only came up in casual conversation, but added a slew of new information and sources for me to check out. Unfortunately, the camp director’s grandchildren had contacted Gloria to find out what she knew, as they don’t know anything about the camp, so they’re a dead end. But Gloria has a brochure from the camp and will send me a copy.

So what does this all have to do with writing? One of the most frequent negative comments made about mystery novels is “too many coincidences,” or “the author relies on coincidence to find out information.” I recently read a book by a well-regarded mystery writer in which the police detective’s best friend told him the killer confessed all to him in a drunken state before committing suicide. If it hadn’t been on Kindle, I might have thrown the book across the room.

But sometimes, coincidences are needed. And, in small communities, where many cozy mysteries take place, they are often unavoidable. I try to limit my use of them or at least make them seem like logical extensions of other events, but … it’s hard.

As I’ve learned in the past week, though, they do exist. Now I have to figure out how Aviva can learn the information without its seeming like a farfetched coincidence. To be honest, I’m having trouble accepting it, and it happened to me.

PURIM AND KILLAH MEGILLAH EXCERPT

I stared at my still mostly blank monitor, the “Notes for Purim Talk” header still mocking me. I finally started to add a series of bullet points, beginning with the question of how many in attendance had read Megillat Esther and what they remembered of the story of Esther and Mordecai and Haman and Ahasuerus. I would then ask for a volunteer to recount the story, after which I would correct any misperceptions. If it were a Jewish audience, I’d ask them to find the passage saying that Vashti, the king’s disobedient and defiant queen and chief wife, was beheaded. But I wasn’t sure if a group of Christian clergy, who had probably read the story way back in their seminary days, had heard that bubbe meiseh, a cautionary tale for nice Jewish wives to obey their husbands or else. Athough, I would point out, in those days, a member of the king’s harem who was banished may as well have been sentenced to death, as she would become a non-person with no privileges or allies.

After my feminist screed, I would ask why a book that never mentions the name of God would become part of the canon, which would lead into a description of the popularity of Marduk and Ishtar and spring holidays celebrating rebirth, while skirting parallels with Easter, which falls only a month later.

Okay, this should be fun. I love tiptoeing through theological mine fields.

I added reminders to discuss Purim shpiels, satirical and irreverent skits; the commandment to become so drunk as not to know the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman;” and the irony of blotting out Haman’s name by reciting it. I figured I had enough to wing it, and closed down my laptop after sending the document to the printer. I hoisted myself off the couch and went out to Liz’s office to make sure the printer had worked. It had. She was looking over my notes and frowning. “Are you sure about all of this?” she asked. “Do you think they’ll be ready to hear about how Mordecai pimped out his niece or cousin or whatever relationship Esther was to him? Or that the vindictive Jews rioted and despoiled their neighbors’ homes? Hanged Haman’s sons? How unholy a book of the Holy Bible Esther is?” She softened her criticism with a grin and a wink. “I wish I could be there.”

MOVIE THEATERS – RIP?

This year is the 80th anniversary of the movie The Maltese Falcon. Pre-pandemic I would be immersed in the machinations of Bogie et al. while I was sitting in a comfy recliner, in the center of the 4th row, huge tub of overpriced buttered popcorn on my lap, a cup of overpriced soda in the cup holder, a smuggled in candy in my pocket.

But not this year.

The nature of movie going has changed this past year. It thrived as an escape from the Great Depression, from wars, from heat waves (there were air-cooled theaters before home a/c). It was only way to see a spectacle before huge TV screens. It was a temporary reprieve from heartbreak and/or loneliness, with the darkness giving a sense of both privacy and community. Movie theaters survived threats of demise even after Saturday Night at the Movies came to our TV screens, dedicated movie channels flooded the cable services, online streaming services offered films 24/7 at our own convenience.

But no longer.

Theaters in my area are open. Tickets are available to see the 80th anniversary airing of The Maltese Falcon. But I’m not ready to return. I’ll watch the movie – complete with recliner and popcorn and soda and candy – on DVD or computer from the house.

I’ll enjoy the movie as much as always, but it won’t be the same.

SENIOR CITIZENS CAN USE COMPUTERS

As the years go by, I’m becoming more insulted and annoyed by jokes assuming anyone over the age of 50 must be computer illiterate. I’m a couple of decades older than that now, and we got our 1st home computer, an Apple //c with no hard drive (saved files directly into 5.25” floppies), about 37 years ago. I was active online beginning about 34 years ago – anyone recall Compuserve when they charged 10¢/minute? I played Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with no graphics. I even had a RadioShack TR 80 model 100 laptop that I took to the library – no online databases or Google yet – so I could type notes and bibliographic info for my doctoral dissertation research onto it and transfer the data to my Apple //c via 2 phone lines. And I have kept up with new devices and operating systems. Okay, I may not be able to program a computer or really understand the technical details of how they work, but I can use the technology. Oh, and my 1st intro to computers was in the mid ‘60s (decade, not age) when my father hired me for the summer and taught me keypunching to update the inventory for the picture frame manufacturer he worked for. There were 3 huge machines – keypuncher, sorter, and printer – in a separate climate controlled room.

WRITING GOALS

I’m having my car serviced today, and I’m going to wait there for it to be done. I’m taking my laptop so I can work on Killah Megillah, book 4 of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries. And it’s not for Nanowrimo.

I have decided not to sign up for National Novel Writing Month for a few reasons. For one, you have to be starting a new manuscript from the beginning, not continuing a work-in-progress. I am not about to discard all the pages I have already written.

Related to that reason is the goal of Nanowrimo and my goal are different. Nanowrimo’s purpose is to encourage participants to produce a 50,000 word rough draft. My goal, OTOH, is to complete a polished 90,000 word manuscript to send my publisher.

Here’s my plan:
Step 1: Stop procrastinating.
Step 2: Reread what I’ve already written and edit it.
Step 3: WRITE.
Step 4: Repeat.

Will I finish the book in 30 days? Unlikely. But by the beginning of 2021? Possible.

How can you help? Ask how I’m progressing, not constantly, but enough to remind me “my posse” is waiting. The fear of public humiliation is a great motivator.

U.S. VS. U.K. ENGLISH

I’m a cultural Anglophile. If it a cast member of a movie or TV show has a British accent or a book is set in the UK, it must be high culture.

There are a lot of differences between American English vs. British English: some I’ve known for years: e.g., pissed (drunk); flat (apartment), boot (car trunk), bonnet (car hood), lift (elevator). With the help of Chef Google, I have even figured out foods, like saveloy (a spicy sausage) and bubble and squeak (a cabbage dish). I can sometimes manage to decode Cockney rhyming slang (trouble and strife = wife).

But there are two Britishisms which are either new or I’ve only recently become aware of.

One is a strange grammatical usage, saying “I was sat” instead of “I was sitting.” Example: “He was sat in the chair reading a book.” It just sounds “wrong” to me. It wasn’t as if an usher had come in and sat the person in the chair.

The other is more humorous. I became aware of it when a character on a show mentioned buying a pot plant as a gift. My first thought was, “How interesting. They sell marijuana as house plants in London.” Then I realized it wasn’t a pot plant but a potted plant (and not in the sense of drunk).

Anyone have other examples that have puzzled you?

To NANOWRIMO OR NOT TO NANOWRIMO?

National Novel Writing Month begins, as it has since 1999, on Nov. 1. I have always resisted joining, not that the resistance was so difficult, as I really dislike giving in to peer pressure, nor do I enjoy being told to write a certain number of words or else. The “or else” in this case is potential peer embarrassment.

So, what has changed, besides everything else, in 2020? You can see how well self-motivation has worked for me this year, during which I have added exactly zero words to my work-in-progress. I need external motivation, namely, a deadline. I have always found that when I have a deadline, I can get the work done early. No deadline gives me permission to procrastinate. And feel guilty about procrastinating, which leads to even more procrastination, in an endless loop. The ouroboros theory of writing is a lesson in futility.

As we say in Yiddish, I need a potsch in den tuchus in order to get my tuchus auf den tisch – a kick in the ass to get my ass off the table. IOW, it’s time to shit or get off the pot. And I’m not referring to cannabis.

So, who of you out there reading this blog have participated in Nanowrimo?What were your experiences? Did it give you that potsch in der tuchus that you needed to get moving?

“NEW NORMAL” FOR CLIMATE?

I believe we are witnessing climate change. Yes, it is true that weather fluctuates and even climate has changed over the eons. But weather refers to short term conditions; climate to long term ones. And those long term ones become the norm over the course of millennia, not in the 150 years or so since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Extremes of high and lows temperatures have increased and so have the frequency and severity of “weather events,” such as hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and floods.

I am a birder and a gardener and have empirically observed (is that a tautology?) changes because of climate change. For example, 25 years ago, it used to be a big deal to see a Black Vulture here in So. Jersey; now I see them frequently all year. And I put up my hummingbird feeders earlier in the spring and remove them later in the fall. (“Hope is the thing with fathers.” – Emily Dickinson.) Plus, our frost-free date is earlier and first frost date later. I have roses still blooming, milkweed seeds germinating, and hibiscus and goldenrod blooming simultaneously.

The “new normal” is in constant flux.

WHAT MAKES A JEWISH BOOK JEWISH?

I’m happy to announce my essay for a symposium on Jewish writing has been published in the summer issue of the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Am I a Jewish writer? Are my books Jewish books?

And what determines a Jewish book anyway?

I am a rabbi. My protagonist is a rabbi. My Rabbi Aviva Cohen mysteries are Chanukah Guilt, Unleavened Dead, and Yom Killer. My work-in-progress is Killah Megillah. One of my nonfiction books is Talking Dirty — in Yiddish?

When I first was trying to find an agent for Chanukah Guilt, an interested agent, Jewish, told me I had to change the title, that no one outside of the two coasts would get the pun. A friend of mine, then an aspiring novelist, was advised by another agent to make her novels “less Jewish,” to take out the Yiddish words and make the characters more, for lack of better word, pareve. I think those two agents underestimated the extent of cultural literacy in the U.S. I have yet to meet anyone who has not understood the pun in the title. I also doubt anyone told Michael Chabon to change the title or tone down the characters in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

But what makes a book a Jewish book? Is any book by a Jewish writer, no matter the level of his or her commitment or observance, automatically a Jewish book? Faye Kellerman’s mysteries have Jewish protagonists, but those written by her husband and son do not. Are her books Jewish, but theirs are not? Is a book with a Jewish theme or protagonist or setting automatically a Jewish book even if the author is not a Member of the Tribe? Is Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers a Jewish book because it is essentially a midrash on the stories in Bereshit?

When we think about Jewish books, we think about “literary fiction” — Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Eli Wiesel, Primo Levi. We think of ponderous, serious books with philosophic themes that make us reflect. We do not think of a humorous cozy mystery featuring a woman rabbi with a sideline as an amateur sleuth in a small, fictional town on the edge of the South Jersey Pine Barrens.

I sometimes wonder if the plots of my books could still be written in the same way if Rabbi Aviva Cohen were Father Sean Donohue or a college professor or a supermarket cashier, if the setting were a Puritan town in Vermont or in the Midwest. It might be difficult — after all, people don’t confide in a supermarket cashier the way they do in a rabbi — but, yes, with modifications, the basic plots could be the same even if there were no Jews among the characters.

So what makes my books Jewish? It is the ambience, the gestalt: the settings, the activities the characters engage in, the words they use, the cadence of their dialogues. There is a certain ta’am, a kind of Jewish aesthetic that marks the books as Jewish, even if it is just the titles, the names, the synagogue, the Jewish rituals described. While it could be possible to use the same suspicious deaths at the heart of the books, the same motives, the same solutions, the books would not be the same without the details that make them uniquely Jewish.

SHORT STORY LINKS

“Miami Snow,” winner of Public Safety Writers Association best published short story of 2012, originally published in Mysterical-E, Fall, 2013: https://tinyurl.com/y6coqkev [republished in Kings River Life: https://tinyurl.com/y3quvuuf ]

“Peanut Butter and Glitter,” originally published in Suspense Magazine, October, 2015: https://tinyurl.com/yxpenz7e [republished in Kings River Life: https://tinyurl.com/yy797agj]

“Perfect,” PSWA winner for best published flash fiction, 2013, and among top ten entries in Lee Loftland’s Golden Donut Entries, 2013, posted at: https://rabbiauthor.com/2013/09/11/

“We Were Slaves,” originally published in Kings River Life, Dec. 29, 2018: https://tinyurl.com/y3l794cd