Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween Customs Around the World

by Jean Henry Mead

Halloween isn't just an American holiday. It originated in Ireland, where it was originally known as Oiche Shamhna or Samhain Night. The end of summer's Agricultural Fire Festival was held for the deceased who were said to revisit the earth on that night. So the practice of building large community bonfires was enacted to ward off evil spirits. The name Hallowe’en evolved from All Hallow’s Eve, and the holiday was imported from Ireland during the 19th century. Halloween spread to other countries, including Puerto Rico, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well as the rest of the British Isles.

In 837, Pope Gregory decreed that All Hallows, or All Saints Day, previously known as Feast of Lemures, would be held every year on November 1, in the name of the Western Catholic Church. Previously celebrated on May 13 in other countries, it coincided with the Irish Samhain. During the 9th century, the two holidays were celebrated on the same day because the Church decided that the religious holiday would start at sunset the previous night, according to the Florentine calendar. All Saints Day was celebrated in northern European countries, and was a day of religious festivities. Until 1970, it was also a day of fasting.

The jack-o-lantern originated in Europe and was carved from turnips and rutabagas. Small candles were inserted in the hollow vegetables and they were used as lanterns. Because the human head was believed to contain the spirit, the Celts carved the vegetables to represent heads to ward off evil spirits. According to Irish legend, a hard-drinking farmer named Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree, where he was temporarily trapped. Farmer Jack then carved a cross in the tree, which condemned the devil to wander the earth at night with a candle inside a hollow turnip.

Carved pumpkins are a North American custom, originating with the fall harvest, and known to have preceded the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49. Carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns, were not associated with Halloween in this country until the mid 19th century.

In Scotland, the embers of huge bonfires built in the villages were taken home to form circles. A stone for each family member was then placed inside the circle. The Scots believed that if one of the stones was displaced or broken by the following morning, the person it represented was doomed to die within a year. Northern residents of Wales built bonfires called Coel Coeth in every village. Members of each household would throw white stones into the ashes bearing their names. If any stone was missing the following morning, that person was destined to die before the following Halloween.

The village of Fortingall in Perthshire held a festival of fire, or Samhnag. Every Halloweeen they danced around the fire in both directions. As the fire burned low, young boys grabbed embers from the flames and raced around the field, tossing them in the air and then dancing around them. Later, they would have a jumping contest over the collected embers. When finished, they returned home to bob for apples. They also practiced divination, the art of foretelling the future or interpreting omens.

Halloween wasn’t celebrated in Mexico until around 1960. Our southern neighbors have followed our customs of costuming their children and allowing them to visit neighborhood homes, seeking candy. When they knock or ring the bell, the children say, "¡Noche de Brujas, Halloween!" which means "Witches' Night, Halloween!" Young people have Halloween parties and the holiday lasts for three days prior to All Saint’s Day, which is also the start of the two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

In the Netherlands, Halloween has become popular since the early 1990s. Children dress up for parades and parties, but trick-or-treating is rare because the holiday is so close to St. Martin’s Day. St. Martin’s is the day when Dutch children ring doorbells and sing a song dedicated to the saint, in exchange for small treats.

Romanians, regardless of age, party and parade in costumes not unlike North Americans, but the holiday focuses on Dracula. In the town of Sighisoara, where countless witch trials were once held, parties are held in the spirit of Dracula. Actors also reenact the witch trails on Halloween.
Some South American countries, influenced by American pop culture, celebrate Halloween, which has caused consternation among a number of Christian groups, who deplore the lack of attention to the more spiritual aspects of All Hallows Eve. But businesses profit from the sales of costumes and candy, so the holiday has been allowed to remain a favorite of young people. The same is true in Japan, Spain and Germany, among other countries.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

My own Bermuda Triangle

The scene inside my blog
This particular blog is about a mystery – which I’ll share with you. A while back, I added a tracker to my own blog. It puts little red dots over the world map and shows how I’m progressively colonising North America, the UK, bits of Europe and tiny pockets of land in Asia and Australasia. But it also has a real-time option, which tells me more about my visitors, what drew them to me and how long they spent in my company. As most writers will tell you, they welcome anything which is merely a displacement activity but gives you the impression that it’s time well spent. And this is where the mystery lies.

Forgive me now giving you a list of places but it’s part of the enigma.  In the period I’m sampling for this posting, I had 2 visits from Scotland (Airdrie and Johnstone) and 12 from England (Manchester, Preston, Keighley, Kidlington (4 visits) and London (5)). The 12 English visits were balanced by 12 from the USA (Bronson (3) and the wonderfully named Nacogdoches (2) – both in Texas, Brooklyn (New York) Hayward and San Francisco (California), Missoula and Plains (Montana), Seattle and Tampa. There were 4 from Australia (Hunters Hill and Greenwich – both in New South Wales and 2 visits from Elwood, Victoria, which I mistook first of all for a name and wondered whether I’d ever met a Victoria Elwood. And last, but definitely not least, came people from Bombay (Maharashtra), Makati (Manila) and 4 visits from the truly exotic Minnertsga, Friesland.

OK, you say, so what? Well, to begin with, rather than being drawn there by my magnetic personality, infinite charm and quiet desperation, many came simply in search of an answer to the question ‘What makes a good novel?’ which was the title of one posting. But that’s merely an aside because it’s the 5 visitors I haven’t yet mentioned whose details hint at the central mystery.

The first came from Birmingham (UK) and stayed for a mere 26 seconds. The next was from the City of London and stayed slightly longer (42 seconds) and the third, from Riverton (Wyoming) was here for 51 seconds. If I ever meet the final two, I owe them a drink because they stayed long enough to read something. The one from Amsterdam, Noord-Holland lingered a whole 3 minutes 11 seconds but the champion came from Englewood, Colorado and wasted an enormous 6 minutes 37 seconds of his/her life in my company.

Again, so what? Well, this is where my crime writer’s curiosity comes into play.  I know the time and date the last 5 arrived, and when they left. But what about all the others? The ones in the first list? There’s no indication that any of them left.


But where? What are they doing? Some have been there for days. What are they eating? How are they surviving?  Are their bosses and families missing them? It’s a huge responsibility for me to know that my wit and wisdom have ensnared so many. I’ll have to start leaving plates of biscuits there and cans of some sort of beverage. And what if the influx continues? We’re all aware of the dangers of overpopulation. What if Oxfam and the Red Cross start sending food parcels and medical supplies? Can Médecins sans Frontières operate inside a blog?

Don’t get me wrong. My blog welcomes immigrants but, for their own safety they need to be led towards the more seemly locations – the jokey bits not the bits about existentialism. I don’t want them to be hi-jacked by some rogue philosopher who’s camped there and may force them to consider Aristotelian syllogisms day after day or read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

I must find them soon and see if they can’t be repatriated or transferred to a blog whose sanity is uncompromised, where laughter, poetry and common sense prevail. I wonder if there are any.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


And The Creation of a Mystery Series 

by Jackie King

Grace Cassidy was born fully clothed and in a peck of trouble. Hot and tired from a long walk, she was thoroughly ticked off with her philandering husband Charlie’s antics. But alas and alack, as soon as Grace walked into my head, things grew much worse for her.
Jackie King looking deviously sweet

Like Grace, I was staying in a B&B on the northern coast of California and had exhausted myself walking from the charming old mansion, once the property of a sea captain, to the beach. Once back to my room, I threw myself on the authentic wedding-ring quilt to rest.

When a writer’s body rests, her (or his) mind wanders. Almost without conscious thought, I began to play my favorite game: What if?

What if I walked into my room and found a corpse? And…what if he was naked and his clothes were nowhere to be found? And…what if I had no friends? No money? No credit cards? And worst of all, no job skills? Would determination, brains, and moxie be enough? Especially if life were complicated by a teenaged son and a cat?

These are the quandaries that morphed my character Grace Cassidy into life. Soon after, I began writing book one of a new Bed & Breakfast mystery series.

To make the series more fun for readers and more interesting to me, I decided that Grace would discover her true self and evolve into a stronger woman in each book.


In this beginning book, Grace learns that she is made of a tougher fiber than she thought. With the help of some zany strangers she hires on as the temporary inn sitter where she bakes, cleans, and entertains as she works her way through a maze of conflicting stories told by the eccentric guests. Her detecting doesn't go quite as she plans, but she muddles her way through and solves the crime.

Grace’s conclusion at the end of this book: I CAN survive without a husband or family money.

With one solved murder under her belt plus a glimpse at her true identity as a woman, Inn-Sitter Grace Cassidy sets her face to evolve from the lady-like people-pleaser she has always been. During this journey, life throws some dangerous road-blocks under her feet. Her son is accused of attempted murder and rape. Trouble, her cat, finds a dead body in the bathtub. And if that isn’t enough, her Ex-husband Charlie, returns and wants to reconcile.

Grace’s conclusion at the end of this book: I like this person I’m becoming, but I’m still scared of a committed relationship with a man. The trouble is, I may be falling in love with Sam Harper.


Grace's latest adventure includes danger and romance

Grace Cassidy comes back to her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. She needs to file for divorce and has an inn-sitting position—she thinks. Much to her dismay, she learns she’s smackdab in the middle of another murder mess. Grace’s son is in line to inherit 80 million dollars IF HE CAN STAY ALIVE. This in-the-making catastrophe started 50 years earlier, but is just now catching up with Grace. Her running buddy Theodora, has to explain what the word TONTINE means.

Thank goodness her almost-boyfriend Sam Harper shows up to give a hand.

To learn Grace’s conclusion at the end: You have to read the book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How shall I kill thee? Let me count the ways...

 by Carola

With 25 mysteries published (and another on the way), I'm constantly looking for new ways to do in my victims.  I've used guns, gas, sharp blades,...


... an explosion, strangling, carotid pressure, poisons, suffocation, drowning, falls...,

...being fallen upon (crushed by a stone angel monument), and common-or-garden blows to the head with a blunt instrument. I'm sure there are others I've forgotten.

I've never got around to electrocuting anyone, though electrical safeguards in the 1920s left something to be desired. And I've never used fire, simply because I find the idea altogether too gruesome.

Do the writers among those reading this have a favourite method of murder? Do you find yourselves trying to avoid a method you've used before? Is the method important to your story, or doesn't it matter much how your victim dies as long as he's good and dead? 

For me, it varies. The stone angel was hugely symbolic (Styx and Stones). In The Bloody Tower, I used the layout and history of the Tower of London to dictate the method.  In Fall of a Philanderer, it was alliteration as much as anything that made the Philanderer fall to his death!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Women Serial Killers

by Jean Henry Mead

I decided to return to our blog's original theme, murderous musings, because Halloween is fast approaching. And I've wondered whether serial killers use costumes or disguises to lure victims to their untimely deaths.

We rarely hear about women serial killers. They usually maintain a lower profile than their male counterparts, and they’re generally more efficient, according to Sean Mactire's book, Malicious Intent. They’re also just as lethal. Mactire lists them in four categories: black widows, nurses, terrorists and assassins.

Black widows murder their own husbands and children, as well as other relatives. They’ve also been known to kill their employees and tenants. Remember the Sacramento landlady who planted her boarders instead of flowers? And the film, "Arsenic and Old Lace"?

Nurses are the most prolific serial killers because of their unlimited opportunities to murder without detection. Many consider themselves angels of mercy. Terrorists, on the other hand, kill for political reasons while assassins murder for money. The latter categories have increased in numbers at an alarming rate.

Body counts average 8-14 victims, higher than the male serial killer’s tally of 8-11, and they’ve been known to kill for as long as 30 years. The average age of women killers is 32, and they’re intelligent. In fact, most are white, middle to upper-class women. Surprisingly, they’re not only nurses but debutantes, housewives, farmers, waitresses, college students, business owners, housekeepers and career criminals.

Women murderers have been recorded throughout history, but none more frequently than during the Roman era. Prior to the advent of Christianity, women held positions of near equality with men and, in matriarchal societies, even higher because their wisdom and skills were considered superior. When emerging western societies gradually eliminated women’s influence and power, the murder rate increased. During the ninth through eleventh centuries in Normandy, poison was known as the “widow maker” because it was frequently used by disgruntled wives, who preferred widowhood to divorce. Poisons still account for half the murders committed by women in this country today. We'll never know how many.

The primary reason female killers have escaped attention is that society’s perception of women is one of caretakers and nurturers. Many find it difficult to believe that women are capable of murder, other than an impromptu domestic killing. Known women serial killers are few because they’re almost impossible to detect. They murder quietly and usually don't take part in wild killing sprees unless they’re suffering from severe psychosis.

Serial killers, regardless of gender, prefer to prey on the weak and helpless: children, elderly women, and hospitalized patients, but they’ve also been known to kill politicians, policemen, hitchhikers and landlords. Many have killed husbands for their insurance payoffs. One black widow killed a number of her husbands with stewed prunes generously seasoned with rat poison. When she ran out of husbands, she poisoned her mother, sisters, grandson and nephew. By then she apparently ran out of prunes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Relaunch of Material Evidence – but why?

Let’s forget the embarrassing teenage poetry and set my early writing days at the time when I was a playwright. I wrote stories and articles but my main output was plays for BBC radio and for the stage. Then, one day (I think for submission to a competition), I started writing a novel and learned that one of the qualities a novelist needs is stamina. I wrote in longhand and, after a few days, had a significant little heap of paper on the desk. Once you get a measurable pile, you want to add to it; you want to see an actual physical body of work. So I persisted, and the result was the original Sparrow Conundrum which went through many revisions and titles before becoming the double award-winner that it now is.

Having proved to myself that I could complete a book, I wrote another one, again the first version of one that was going to win an award, The DarknessIt needed even more rewriting than Sparrow but eventually my agent started sending it off to publishers and Piatkus liked it but weren’t doing stand-alone thrillers. They did, however, ask if I’d written a police procedural because they’d like to publish it if I had. So I did. And they did. And it was Material Evidence The editor liked the first version but not the fact that, about halfway through, it changed from a police procedural to a courtroom drama. Perhaps that was my playwriting self taking over. Anyway, she wanted changes made, so I cut it by 70 pages.

It was my first crime novel, remember, and, as I was writing it, I was aware that fans of the genre had certain expectations. I assumed that one of them was that there’d be some gore and violence so I created one such scene near the end of the book. I didn’t much enjoy writing it but I thought it was necessary. Some reviewers liked it, others didn’t. One even went so far as to say it ‘creeped her out’ that its author also wrote children’s books, another ‘questioned the author’s psyche’. In the end, it wasn’t such comments (which demonstrate complete ignorance about what writing is and writers are) that persuaded me to change the scene and modify its violence by making it implicit rather than explicit.

But that wasn’t the only reason. To my surprise, I didn’t need to change anything of the plot. However, there were many things (not just the absence of mobile phones) that gave it a dated feel – a policeman singing the praises of some new software which nowadays is standard, the prices of shotguns, and details which might cause the reader to pause and question the narrative’s credibility.

Then there was the cover. My five Carston novels don’t obviously share an identity, so they needed branding and, since that meant new covers, it was worth revisiting them to make them more relevant to a new audience. Whether they reach that new audience depends on other things, such as my marketing skills.

Damn! I knew there was a catch.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

When Illness Interrups Your LIfe

By June Shaw

I haven't gotten much writing done on a novel and missed writing some posts because of illness. Not mine. My partner's. He's been in and out of the hospital, spending many days in it, with challenges to his heart and kidneys. During that time, he's grown weaker and stopped driving much.

I know many of you face health problems of your own from time to time, and some of you surely need to tend to family members. My good thoughts go out to all of you.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


By Jackie King

Halloween is coming and it's one of my favorite holidays. Often I dress up as a witch to hand out candy to the kiddies. This is one time of the year when I revert to my childhood.

Jackie King--Ready for Halloween

I was about four when my older cousins started scaring me with ghost stories. These were told in the bright sunshine, but at night I had to creep up creaking stairs to get to my bedroom at Grandma’s house. These monsters lurked along the way to terrify me. I can still remember the dread and the sick empty feeling in my belly.

The Good Old Days

Grandchildren weren’t pampered in those days, at least not by my grandma. She married at 14 so I doubt she ever had a childhood, at least not as we think of it these days. I realize now that she wasn’t a cruel woman, just one who had endured hardships, and in her declining years had received me on her doorstep while my mother trained to be a teacher. She did the best she could.

The Million Mile Stairs

There was no electricity to illuminate the steep stairs, so I was given a lighted candle and told to blow it out after I was in bed.

But what waited at the top?

Was it the murdered man looking for his golden arm? Would he chop off my head with his ax when he learned I didn’t have it, as he had with two dozen other children?

And the candle was sputtering.

Terrified of having no light, I’d put one foot in front of the other, knowing that I had no other choice. And finally I’d reach the landing. The soft glow of the candle lighted only a small circle, and each step into the blackness seemed almost certain death.

Finally, I reached my bed, set the candle on an orange-crate used for a bedside table and climbed in. It was summertime and hot, but I still pulled the dusty smelling bedspread over me. After a quick puff to blow out the candle the room was black as a witch’s hat. The counterpane (as Grandma called it) was the only protection between me and the evil ghost. I’d lie stiff as a board until I finally fell asleep.

The next morning when my cousins came to visit, I’d beg them for another ghost story.