The theft of antiquarian books from libraries for black-market sale is a crime which prompted murder in my first two novels. The idea was launched by a few articles I had read about Marino Massimo De Caro, the former director of the Girolamini Library (Italy) who was accused of stealing thousands of rare books, including 15th and 16th century tomes penned by the founders of astronomy. Turns out that theft from libraries—a cultural heritage crime—is all too common.
A library’s rare books, illustrations, and maps are most often snatched for profit, feeding the growing black market for cultural relics. The greatest problem is that while most curated items are one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable historical gems, there are limited protections in place. Few libraries have funds for high-end security systems, relying instead upon manual checkouts, turnstiles, and—most recently—electronic tag detectors. How do you guard a collection that can be browsed by anybody? Once upon a time, books were chained to the wall. With the production of more books, chains became unmanageable. In the Middle Ages, the weapon of choice against potential book thieves was a curse. Such harm-filled magical spells included the threat of being struck by palsy, suffering eternal damnation, or—my favorite—having all your members blasted. Ouch!
Who are the most common library book thieves? Employees. Insider theft happens regularly because it takes little planning beyond the common sense of not taking what is highly popular. Unpopular items are rarely missed or reported. Janitors might tuck a book into their mop buckets, but only a librarian can remove the card catalog record, a trail documenting an item's existence. The whistle might still be blown, of course, if the item has been used by a researcher, creating another trail when used in citations. Honest book buyers and vested librarians often spot and report stolen items appearing at auction or in online sales. This is how De Caro was finally tripped up in Italy.
Punishment for the theft and sale of such cultural antiquities is a whole other issue. In 2013, Massimo De Caro was convicted and given a seven-year sentence for embezzlement. He was in prison for only six months and then allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence at his own home. Although his assets were seized and visitation heavily restricted, I’ve read that he dwells in “confined splendor,” awaiting subsequent trials and appeals for looting, conspiracy, and forgery while enjoying the view from his villa. It's no wonder cultural heritage crimes flourish in the modern era.
Craig Braitten? No. Craig Fletcher? No. Craig Merlo? Yes!
I seem to have fallen upon some already used names when creating a more recent character—the ginger-haired police constable in The Nighthawk’s Nemesis. I finally landed on Craig Merlo because I discovered that “Merlo” is an Italian/Spanish reference to “blackbird.” That feels all too appropriate, as this novel itself hovers around birds and birdwatchers.
Each new book tosses me into endless research. I love it, of course. All that fresh knowledge at my fingertips, widening my view of the world. Upon finishing The Nighthawk’s Nemesis, I wrapped up my studies of ornithology, taxidermy, oology, birder’s slang, and migration patterns along England’s coast. All of that invariably led to further research on the impacts of global warming upon birds, bugs, fish, and fishermen. It is a bleak picture, and no solution has been readily embraced by mankind. Yet people think blackbirds are foolish and gullible?
Unable to leave on a sad note, I remind you all that a group of owls is called a 'parliament', a group of larks is an 'exaltation', and a group of blackbirds…a 'murder'. Merlo. How terribly appropriate.
Did you know (Remy’s favorite phrase) that there are three kinds of twilight? Civil. Nautical. Astronomical. This kind of minutia drives some people insane, but if you are a writer it’s your passion. So much of what we write stems from solid research. Hours spent chasing after fine details; Alice diving down that grubby rabbit hole.
Details make or break the plot. Specific words paint the picture. In my first novel, I wrote, “Twilight plummeted into the yawning sea.” Was that civil twilight? Nautical twilight? No, it had to be astronomical twilight since we are using a telescope in that specific scene.
Do readers really care? Hell, yes! Heck, no! It depends on the reader. We can’t please everyone! Still, I find it all so very fascinating as I strive to get my scenes set perfectly in place.
For those who really must know: Civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight all refer to the number of degrees that the sun is below the horizon. Good old dusk occurs at the very end of astronomical twilight, but if you look closer, there is also a civil dusk, a nautical dusk, and an astronomical dusk. The same is true for our lovely dawn. Splitting hairs will drive readers up a wall, disrupt pacing, and bog down the storyline...so I’ll just stick with “Twilight plummeted into the yawning sea” until I get some formal complaints.
Oology. I love the sound of that word. It slides across my tongue like luscious, cool yogurt. Oology–the study of nests and eggs–also refers to the hobby of collecting wild bird eggs. That sounds like a bizarre hobby (right up there with 'beetle fighting'), but before powerful binoculars were developed, egg collecting was a significant source of scientific data.
In the U.K., collecting of this sort is now illegal, as the hobby has lead to the endangerment and extinction of certain bird species. If you want to keep a clutch of wild bird eggs, you better have proof that they were gathered before 1954 and never intend to sell your collection. Heck, even museums don’t want them! Oology activity is also restricted heavily Stateside–considered a criminal act, in some cases. We can only hope other nations follow suit.
I’ve landed in the midst of the taxidermy trade while working on my next manuscript, The Nighthawk’s Nemesis. I’ve never been comfortable with specimens that fill museum dioramas or trophies in hunters’ lodges. Those glass eyes follow me about with their haunting stare, and a loud part of my being simply wants to bury the dead.
When I researched taxidermy for this manuscript, it was an absolute eye-opener. The practice, which began in England in the early 19th century, is a scientific art that is still overseen by The Guild of Taxidermy. Like the Mason’s Guild, this peer group monitors and accredits professionals within the craft. Taxidermists take multiple courses, work apprenticeships, are heavily regulated by laws, study anatomy in depth, and receive credentials based upon mastery of taxidermy skills. Some raise the craft to a form of fine art that is now displayed in high-end galleries. While the number of licensed taxidermists is decreasing, its popularity as an art form and use as modern décor is increasing.
Check out Polly Morgan Taxidermy.
Intriguing, yet icky.
I walked away from this bit of research feeling enlightened, relieved to know that a vast majority of specimens are the end result of roadkill, flying into windows, or natural death; that British laws protect even dead wild creatures; that taxidermists file formal documents on all specimens with government agencies; and that a license is required to sell any taxidermized creature save game birds shot in season. I have a much clearer view of taxidermists (no, they are not ghoulish) and a profound appreciation for their artistry.
Still, I simply want to bury the dead.
Writing is both wondrously fulfilling and endlessly challenging. I am always trying to improve my craft. I find it all fascinating: character development, pacing, plot twists, grammar, dialog, and setting. Nothing, however, captures my attention more than similes (a metaphor that uses 'like' or 'as'). Perhaps it's because I adore the imagery they create, but I also find them so very hard to write! Spotting this weakness early on, I endeavor to write them into all of my novels simply to grow that skill. So, smile for awhile as I review some similes from the Barrington Bay series:
I have struggled with time throughout my life. I grew up with the analog clock and never figured out how to tell time. Imagine my relief when digital clocks arrived! As a teenager, I was ahead of my time—reading books as a freshman that weren’t offered until senior level English class. I was behind my time as an adult, not getting married or having children until long after my girlfriends took the plunge. I remained a step ahead or a step behind everyone else. Until now.
This blog is where I post my inspirations for each book in the Barrington Bay series as well as behind-the-scenes tips, pics, and other tidbits. Feel free to click 'Read More' for in-depth posts.