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Tag Archives: New York State

I Don’t Have an Alibi

I am spending the evening watching 20/20 on OWN, and apparently it is New York State Murder Day. First we saw an episode about Cal Harris, accused of killing his wife in Owego, NY, and now it is an episode about Nick Hilary, accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s son in Potsdam, NY. I lived in Owego as a very little girl, and I lived in Potsdam as an adult, so these episodes are of great interest to me.

I have seen other shows about both cases, but you never know when one of them will show something new. I don’t always remember everything anyways. Of course I share my opinions and questions with Steven as we go. “Why did that witness wait so long to come forward?” “What about those fingerprints?” and my usual, “He totally did it!”

Mostly, I am happy the episodes specify the towns involved. So often these true crime shows talk about “a small town in upstate New York,” as if there is New York City and the rest of the state.

So this is my Thursday blog post. If only I could think of a punchy but not quite related headline, I could bill this as a Non-Sequitur Thursday Post. Think, Cindy, think!

It’s FICTION for Heavens’ Sake!

Full disclosure: I am writing this post for myself. I may not publish it (thus rendering the disclosure unnecessary; the irony is not lost on me). I am pondering my novel and I feel the need to talk about it. Of course, this is dangerous. Sometimes when you talk too much about a thing you no longer need to write it. Well, I’m not going to disclose the story. But I think if I talk about some problems I’m having WITH the story, I can come to some conclusions and/or make decisions. Here goes.

The fact is, my novel has come to something of a standstill. I must work on the plot, obviously. But I have some other questions first.

Ooh, as soon as I wrote that, I could hear a snotty voice chime in with, “Maybe you need to work on your CHARACTERS and let the plot come from THEM!” Yes, there is always someone to tell you how to write. I was about to say, “Thank you for your (quite useless) input,” but, in fact, I am not the least bit grateful (and my characters are actually pretty good, if I do say so).

Enough of this digression. I want to talk about setting. I like a small town setting. A village, in fact, although “village” has such a Middle Age sound (as in the Middle Ages, 1400-1600, not middle-aged like me. Sheesh!). I think of villagers chasing the monster to the old windmill or warning foreigners not to visit the Count that lives in the castle on the hill. But again, I digress.

I am talking about villages like Herkimer, NY, where I live now, or Norwood, NY, where I used to live. Many of your well-loved novels have memorable settings: Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, St. Mary’s Mead in the Miss Marple tales. I think it is time upstate New York had a memorable setting in a book.

Upstate New York, for the uninitiated, includes any part of New York state that is not New York City. Have you ever looked at a map of New York State? It is not a small state. The true crime shows I so delight in will occasionally cover a case that takes place in “a small town in Upstate New York.” Steven and I yell, “Where? What town?” I wonder if residents of other states feel the same way. Still, I’ve never heard anyone say anything like, “a town in Louisiana other than New Orleans,” as if that were the only point of reference. Oh dear, another digression.

Indignation aside, I thought I would place my novel in a specific spot in the state and fill it with background, atmosphere and, you know, setting. For this novel, I chose the Mohawk Valley.

And I’m running into problems. First I made up a big old house (as in over a hundred years old, not as in “big ol’ house”) with a large yard, a summerhouse and a stream nearby. A murder took place in the summerhouse and I wanted the stream to help the murderer dispose of evidence. I thought I might throw in a thunderstorm with torrential rain for good measure. This is an atmospheric murder mystery, not a police procedural.

So far so good. I saw some other ways to use both the summerhouse and the stream to further the main plot and add a couple of subplots. I started making notes.

And immediately began to second guess myself. Would this novel actually take place in Herkimer? There is a stream in Herkimer and any number of large, historic-looking mansions. I don’t know of any that are in close proximity to each other, but does that matter? Couldn’t I just pick a spot on the stream and pretend the house is there? For that matter, couldn’t I pretend the right spot is there? In short, how much could I get away with?

According to some sources, not much. If you make a street run north/south when it really runs east/west, these sources say, your reader will lose all confidence in you, reject your entire novel and all your hard work will be for naught. I think for some readers this is quite true. If you are not meticulous in your research and correct in every small detail which can be verified as fact, they will point the finger of shame at you and refuse to believe any of your fiction.

I can understand that point of view. I know how it is when watching television or a movie and it’s something I happen to know about, and they completely screw it up. You know, like the school play where they’re still blocking at dress rehearsal? And you really don’t expect that sort of thing in a book. Personally I am completely disgusted with historical novelists who play fast and loose with the facts, unless that’s kind of the point. For example, many time travel stories have our heroes helping history along. Or the “it COULD have been like this” story such as Ken Follett’s excellent Eye of the Needle.

But that is not the sort of thing I’m talking about, and I’m no Ken Follett.

Another school of thought says to go ahead and make everything up: it’s FICTION, for heavens’ sake. If your characters and plot are compelling enough, your reader will go along for the ride, even down a street that could not possibly exist.

I wondered if I should completely make up a town. Then I could decide if a street ran east to west and where the mansion was. I had a couple of choices in this direction. There’s the “thinly disguised” option. I could take the name of a Revolutionary War general who didn’t have a town named after him. Or a Native American tribe. Or a European city. But it would “really” be Herkimer. Or Mohawk. Or Ilion. Only with the creek behaving as needed and the historic mansions where I wanted them.

The other way I thought of was to place a made-up town directly in between, say, Herkimer and Mohawk. Anyone familiar with the area would know there is no such place or even any room for one. It would be like another dimension. A wrinkle in space and time. Yes, one of those suspension of disbelief things.

Well, for heavens’ sake isn’t all fiction an exercise in the suspension of disbelief? Am I not making it all up anyways? I think I’m right back where I started.

What I did was I just started writing, figuring these decisions would work themselves out as I went. That has not happened yet and I feel increasingly unable to go on until I decide these things.

I think my best bet is to just decide. And I’m going to decide on the easiest course for me. I say the novel takes place in Herkimer, and I’m just going to move things around as I see fit. I’ll put a building here, a creek there, and my climactic scene… ah ha! You didn’t think I was actually going to give away a plot point, did you? This is not cheesy movie write-up with a spoiler alert! You’ll just have to read the book.

As soon as I finish writing it.

Is Help on the Way?

Flood recovery in the Mohawk Valley continues. This being a topic of surpassing local concern, I dare to write about it, even though I cannot call it “totally fun,” as my subhead promises.

FEMA has deemed individuals in Central New York unworthy of federal aid. They are helping municipalities, which is something (do I mean “municipalities”? “Towns, counties, villages and cities” seemed cumbersome) (I suppose parenthetical comments also become cumbersome, but I gotta be me). Gov. Cuomo has declared that the state will step in and help. Yesterday’s adventure involved the first step in Steven’s and my search for this help.

Actually, one could say we had already taken a first step, because we have gotten in touch with our insurance company to get a statement from them saying we’re not covered. I felt a little silly bothering them. It seems to me one could look at our policy and see there’s no flood coverage. I have also been told, by people with flood insurance, that it does not cover basements, where our damages took place. Still, “everybody” said you needed the official statement. So I bothered them.

I also called FEMA, because somebody on the local news seemed to think it was a good idea. I talked to a nice young lady who told me there really wasn’t anything she could do for me, because there had not been a declaration or delegation or something saying individuals would be helped.

So much for 800 numbers. The state sent people out to help flood victims apply for state aid. Last night (Tuesday), Steven and I went to apply.

The people were going to be at Herkimer County Community College (HCCC) Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. We went Tuesday after work. I had been going to just change my shoes and go in all my blue collar glory, but I felt grubby so decided to shower first.

Then I had to figure out what to wear, never an easy task. My green capris pants were clean and comfortable; I only needed a shirt big enough to cover my fat ass. Usually a Hawaiian shirt fit the bill, but I felt a little silly going out with my begging bowl dressed for a party. Steven was changing into more respectable-looking shorts himself. I finally settled on my t-shirt from Living History Weekend at the Fort Herkimer Church.

Some readers may think it silly that I take up a whole paragraph on wardrobe, but I like to think I was sneaking in a little fun after all.

Handy signs directed us where to go on the HCCC campus. We signed in and were given a form to fill out. Soon we were called in to talk to somebody. A nice young man went over the form with us, answered our questions and explained what would happen next. Then we had an exit interview where they asked us how it went and did we have any suggestions for improvement.

The entire process was actually fairly quick and painless. I must confess as I was debating what shirt to wear, I was fairly dreading the ordeal ahead. I thought the lines would be long, the form would be longer and I just didn’t want to mess with it. It was really not at all bad.

I asked the lady at the exit interview if they were volunteers or paid. She said she worked for the state but had volunteered to do this instead of her regular work. As it extended beyond the normal workday, she was volunteering the extra time. I thought that was pretty cool.

So did I get any help, you may ask. Well, I don’t know yet. This was only step one. But I’ll keep you posted.

Surrounded by History

The Herkimer County Historical Society held an Open House on Saturday in honor of Museum Day in New York State. I remember attending their open house last year (I believe I wrote a blog post about it). I was delighted at the chance to repeat the experience.

The museum is about a ten minute walk from my house, but my husband, Steven, was able to drop me off on North Main Street on his way back to work (he had an early lunch). When I walked in the front door a tour was in progress. I felt like wandering, so I sneaked upstairs.

I had seen the display of dollhouses before, but, goodness, that was a year ago. These things are often worth a second viewing. I also looked once again at the portraits on the wall, making special note of Margaret Tugor, a local educator of note. I would love to write a biography of Tugor, if only I had any idea how to research such a thing.

Back downstairs the tour had reached the Remington typewriter. I have a minor collection of typewriters myself, but nothing truly antique. I wandered over to the gift shop. I didn’t see any post cards I haven’t purchased previously, and I didn’t see anything good for a Father’s Day gift (for my father at least; I’m sure there were many things of interest to other fathers).

The third floor was open in honor of the day. This is where they house items not currently on display as well as archives. I walked along shelves of books and collections of papers. I felt surrounded by history. Some volunteers were around, but I did not have any questions.

I did chat up a volunteer and another patron about a bicycle on the second floor. It was one with the giant front wheel and tiny back wheel. A card said somebody local had ridden it all the way to the west coast. We marveled at the feat. Not only no chain and no gears on the bike. No highways. No Motel 6 or KOA Kampgrounds. What an adventure!

As always I enjoyed my visit to the museum. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always enjoyed checking out local history. I continued my Museum Day wanderings across the street (kitty corner, actually) at the 1834 Jail. That will form the topic of tomorrow’s post (barring accident). Stay tuned!