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Monday, March 9, 2015

Analysis is a Skill Well-Learned by Dane McCaslin

Dane McCaslin, author of Murder at the Miramar and Becklaw's Murder Mystery Tour, joins us today to discuss the importance of analytical skills in life and mystery writing.  We're so pleased to share an excerpt from her newest book, A Bird in the Hand.  

Analysis is a Skill Well-Learned
by Dane McCaslin

Monday through Friday, 180 days a year, from 7:10  to 2:20, I hang out with kids who are almost four decades younger than I.  And I do it voluntarily.  Yes, there is the paycheck, but I could do other things with my degrees.  Instead, I choose to teach.

Before you begin oohing and aahing and telling me that I'm a hero (although I suppose I might be, academic-wise), know that I learn as much - if not more - from my students.  Their perspectives range from naive to informed to jaded, and I'm always amazed at the ferocity they display in defending their points of view.  It's my challenge to help them learn how to channel this intellectual energy into something productive and useful for society.  After all, they will be voting and defending this country in just two short years, and I want them to know WHY they do what they do and make an informed choice.  Analysis is not something we're born with.  It's a skill we need to learn, much as sharing our toys and respecting those around us needs to be learned. 

Hercule Poirot, one of the classic literary detectives and he of the ’little grey cells’, showed me how analysis, rather than brute force, was the way to solve a problem. Because I adore all things Agatha Christie, it should be no surprise that my own books take several analytical twists before the final reveal of the villain. And it should be no surprise that my own protagonist, Caro Layton-Browning, is herself a British expat and writer; her impact on the fairly sedate township of Seneca Meadows, New York is as forceful as it is comedic. Here is an excerpt from A Bird in the Hand, Book One of the Proverbial Crime Mysteries.

CHAPTER FOUR

I sat and observed Ms. Wentworth with concern, although I myself have been guilty of the same response. When I am misunderstood, I can howl with the best of them. However, Ms. Wentworth's tears, which were threatening to undo the little makeup she was wearing, did not seem to fall in that category. I believed that the woman genuinely loved the mayor's daughter, although in what capacity precisely I could not say. Still, she was asking for my help, at least tacitly, and who was I to refuse?
I replaced my notebook into my bag and left it sitting next to the chair as I walked across to Ms. Wentworth's desk. I believe in inspiration of the moment, going with the flow, as they say. I placed a hand gently on her shoulder and felt a renewed burst of sobbing. Fabulous. Now what was I to do?
I cast about the room for any sign of tissue, finally spotting a box tucked onto an alcove shelf near the door. I strode across to it, seized it quickly, and fairly skipped back to the weeping woman. I extracted several tissues and gently placed them in the vicinity of Ms. Wentworth's hands. Thankfully, she took said tissues and lifted them in a clenched fist to pat at her eyes. I stepped back around the desk and stood in the middle of the office, waiting for the waterworks to subside.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Browning." She was putting the tissues to good use, rolling the soggy ball around her face and ultimately smearing her mascara into thick black streaks. "I have no idea why I did that." She finished dismantling her makeup and tossed the used tissues into a trashcan that sat next to her desk.
I can recall a dinner that I attended shortly after the publication of my first book. I was nervous amid the company of other authors and publishers, and I was tickled pink to find myself sharing a table with one of my favorite writers. Unfortunately, I spent most of the evening trying not to stare at the glob of pesto sauce trapped in his rather generous moustaches, and I admit that I've not been able to read one of his books since without recalling that night. Not to mention that I've permanently been put off of anything slightly resembling pesto since then.
I looked back at Ms. Wentworth, determined to keep my eyes fixed on hers and not on the abstract art she now sported on her face. Drawing in a deep breath, I said, "It is perfectly fine, Ms. Wentworth. Crying can make us feel better, as odd as that sounds. At least it does me," I added hastily. Lord knows I didn't want to come across as patronizing. I figured if I sounded like I was part of a sisterhood of sobbing, I'd be able to get an explanation out of her.
"I do appreciate your sentiments, I really do, but there is nothing in this world that will help me to feel better." And with that, Ms. Wentworth broke into tears again.
I retraced my steps back over to the tissues, this time grabbing the entire box and plopping it down on the desk next to Ms. Wentworth. She blindly reached out for a tissue and managed to knock the box onto the floor. I bent over to pick it up just as she leaned over, and the resulting cracking of heads made me see stars, another clichΓ© that I'd just proven to be true. Between fainting at the park, falling flat on my back, and now risking brain damage, I'd have to make an appointment to see my doctor ASAP.
"Oh, my goodness! Are you okay, Mrs. Browning? Oh, I am so, so sorry," Ms. Wentworth babbled, thrusting one hand out to steady me as I attempted to gain my feet—and managed to whack me across the nose. I felt, rather than saw, the blood spurt, and that was the last thing I can remember before my knees crumpled, and I once again hit the deck.
At least this time I was closer to the ground and didn't have as far to fall.
For the second time that day, I came to with Gregory's face bobbing above mine. Instead of Trixie's incessant yipping this time around, it was Ms. Wentworth's voice that I heard as she squeaked out an apology to my husband. As I gained consciousness, it occurred to me that I was the one who should be apologized to, but that thought was quickly replaced by the concern that my poor nose was possibly broken. I moved a shaky hand towards my schnozz but was stopped by Greg's firm hand.
"Leave it alone, Caro. You'll only make it bleed again." His voice seemed to come from the far end of a long pipe, echoing around my still swimming head. I forced my eyes fully open, trying to focus on his face. Ms. Wentworth's anxious eyes appeared behind Gregory's head, creating the appearance of a two-headed monster staring down at me. I quickly closed my eyes, willing the sudden nausea to go away. All I needed was to vomit while in my prone position. With my current streak of luck, I'd probably choke to death.
I had a sudden clear thought. How in the world had my industrious spouse known where to find me? This train of thought spurred me to sit up, which wasn't such a great idea. I was still quite woozy, and I had to lean into Greg's side as another bout of dizziness hit me.
"I still think I need to call the paramedics," Ms. Wentworth said, her voice strung tightly, now soprano rather than the rich contralto I had heard earlier.
"No, I'm fine," I managed to mumble, but Greg's voice overrode mine.
"I'm taking her to the emergency room. This is the second time today she's fainted, and she needs to have her head examined." I could hear an undertone of amusement in his voice and wanted nothing more at that moment than to place a swift kick where it would hurt. Head examined, indeed!
I wish I could say that I enjoyed the attention I received at the local emergency room, with a very cute resident flicking a penlight off and on in my eyes and an equally darling doctor watching from the foot of the bed. I tried, for the first few minutes at least, to join in the conversation, but a strange hollow feeling in my ears precluded me from actually hearing what was being said. From the various looks I was getting, I could tell that I was not making any sense, so I very wisely decided to stay quiet.
"…blood work. I'll get the orders written." I caught the tail end of the doctor's comments and nearly came unglued.
"Absolutely not!" I said firmly, causing Gregory to jump at least two feet into the air and the resident to put a hand to his heart as if I'd just given him the first stirrings of a heart attack. Maybe I did speak a bit loudly, I'll give them that, but enough with the theatrics! I simply did not want to see another drop of blood again.
"Caro," began my longsuffering spouse, leaning over the safety rail that presumably was keeping me in place. "The doctor wants to check a few things, and the only way to do that is to take some of your blood." He backed away from me slightly upon uttering those last two words.
I glared up at him. If that was so important, I wanted to ask, why in the world couldn't they just scrape the blood from my face? Instead, I settled for closing my eyes, much as my youngest nephew would do whenever he wanted me to believe that he had disappeared. Maybe if I clicked my heels together as well, I would wake up in my own house, in my own bed.
Two hours later, with a diagnosis of slight concussion—no broken nose, thank goodness—and a prescription for some of the largest sleeping pills I had ever seen, we turned into our driveway. My car was still parked at His Highness's office, but I was too groggy to consider how I would get it home.
At least my trip to the ER had resurrected Gregory's manners. He solicitously opened my door and held my elbow as we walked up to the house, although now that I think about it, it was most likely just a preemptive strike against another fainting spell. Whatever the reason, he did help me into my jammies, put my bloodstained blouse to soak in cold water, and brought me a cup of tea. I was determined to enjoy this treatment for as long as I could milk it.
I had a decent night's sleep, thanks to the shot of Demerol that I'd gotten for the pain in my nose, and I awakened feeling fairly human. Gregory was still slumbering, lying on his back, one hand thrown up behind him as if warding off Trixie, who lay curled between us and snoring to beat the band. Come to think of it, my dear husband was snoring as well, the two of them joined in a duet of nasal intonations. I smiled at my two bedmates and then grimaced. My face was sore, and I felt as though I'd gone a round or two in the ring with a champion prizefighter.
Sliding one leg at a time from under the covers so as not to wake either of the sleeping beauties, I managed to slip from the bed and stand upright, gripping the nightstand momentarily to stabilize myself. When I was sure I could move without listing to one side, I tiptoed to the bathroom and nearly fainted again, this time from shock.
Not only did I feel like I'd been worked over by a prizefighter, I looked the part as well. My nose, swollen to nearly twice its size, was centered between two very black eyes. Good lord, I thought as I surveyed the damage, I'd have to wear a sandwich board with the explanation written all over it, otherwise my friends might think that Gregory…I paused mid-thought. No, better to remain silent about the whole thing and let the world think what it would, I thought a bit self-righteously. After all, who was I to tell folks what to think?
And with cheery thought, I started off down the hall to make coffee.
I generally love the early morning hours. I tend to have the most energy then, and for me it is not an age thing. I have always preferred the day to the night, except for a brief time during my late teens. The men in my life, both husband and friends alike, accuse me of operating only during daylight hours. Once the sun goes down, I follow suit. It's really not that drastic, but close enough to gain the reputation of being a sunup to sundown type of gal.
I dragged my single cup coffee maker to the edge of the granite counter, the better to insert a tiny container of Nantucket blend coffee. I nearly knocked an African violet to the floor as I turned to grab a mug from the open shelf near the stove. It is one of the few potted plants that refuses to succumb to my obvious indifference.
Eventually, mug of coffee in hand, I sank into one of the kitchen chairs and stared unseeing out our window. My mind felt as though cotton had been tucked around all the edges, which could probably be blamed on the drugs, but it wasn't an unpleasant feeling. Quite the opposite, in fact. I hadn't sat down and truly relaxed in a great while.
A slight movement brought my mind to bear once more, and I leaned forward to get a better glimpse of whatever it was skulking—yes, I did say skulking—behind the Cat Lady's house. Either one of her precious felines had learned to walk upright, or else there was someone who was up to no good.
I got to my feet as swiftly as my battered body would allow and retrieved my birding binoculars from my office. Training them on the window, I adjusted the eyepieces and nearly dropped them in the process. A man, all in dark clothing and working what looked like a metal bar, was attempting to pry open my neighbor's back door.
I hesitated, chewing on my lip as I sorted out a few things, such as, would Gregory still feel inclined to chivalry this morning? Or perhaps I should be the one to call in the cavalry. At least I wouldn't get mad at myself for waking me up, since I was already up and…I stopped. I was arguing with myself while whoever it was—and maybe it was just an HOA board member, fed up with all the complaints—let himself into the neighbor's home.
I looked back at the window, squinting just right to see what the perp was doing. Wait—he'd moved to another window, and this time I could tell that he wasn't trying to open anything but was instead squirting a substance along each window frame as well as the foundation. I gaped, wondering if this was some joke.
Just as I stretched out my hand to grab the house phone, Cat Lady herself emerged from the back door. I watched, fascinated, as the burglar pulled the hood off of his head and accepted the mug that she handed him. Good grief, I thought, eyeing the tableau with amazement. Was it now considered proper form to hand out refreshments to criminals?
I saw the man take a few sips and then set the mug down on the back steps, ostensibly listening as my neighbor bent his ear about something. Probably raving on about her wonderful cats, I thought sourly, and then my attention was once again riveted to the scene before me.
A second dark-clothed figure had joined them, apparently coming from the front of the house. He held a long wand-like apparatus in one hand and a large container of something in the other. It hit me then like the proverbial brick, something my poor head did not need. They were animal control technicians, there to remove every one of those mangy animals from the house. I almost laughed aloud in relief, and might have done so if it hadn't been for my slumbering bedmates just down the hall. I'm careful to guard my alone time in the morning and had no desire to share it with a bumbling, stubble-ridden spouse—even if he had saved me twice yesterday—and a demanding dog.
I had just decided to find a comfy spot in which to read the morning paper when another movement caught my attention, and this time I had no doubt about what I was seeing. Mrs. Grayson was now struggling with the coffee-drinking technician—or burglar, or whatever he was—as he forced her through her back door, a cloth held to her nose, followed by the second man, who glanced over his shoulder before he followed his buddy and my neighbor into the house.
Now what? Did our local animal control offer other services of which I was not aware? Or had I just witnessed a crime in the making? Mind made up, I bolted from the kitchen and galloped down the hall, almost colliding with a yawning Gregory.
"Quick!" I gasped out, "Call the police! The Cat Lady's being…" Here I broke off. She was being what? Burgled? No, that only happened when the owner was not present. Robbed? Perhaps, although who'd want to abscond with a houseful of cats I had no idea.
"Don't just stand there!" I shrieked. "The HOA has taken the Cat Lady hostage!"

About the Author


Dane McCaslin, author of the new Proverbial Crime mystery series, resides in the state of Arizona with her very patient husband. She has been writing all of her life: poetry, short stories, journals, letters (yes, those old-fashioned epistles that require pen and paper), and now she brings her talents to the cozy mystery genre. 


In addition to being an author, Dane McCaslin is an educator. She currently teaches advanced language arts classes for grade 11; additionally, she teaches beginning writing classes at the local university. Being an educator is an important part of her life, and passing on her passion for reading and writing is one of her great joys.

23 comments:

  1. Fab post, Dane and MRMs! Thanks so much for sharing :) xx

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  2. Looks like a great series! Looking forward to checking it out.

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    1. The excerpt is terrific, and I love anything where the analytical is paramount!

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    2. I thank you, Lance! Caro is a force of nature, that's for sure. She single-handedly drove the plot- and I loved every minute.

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  3. As a kid, I started with the Hardy Boys, but then graduated to Agatha Christie and had devoured all of her books by the time I was 16.

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  4. Great post! Can't wait to read this. :)

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    1. Thanks! I had a blast writing this one...and 'When the Cat's Away', book 2, is well underway.

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  5. It looks like a wonderful series! Will definitely check it out.

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  6. Thanks, Christine! It's available March 16...just one week to go! πŸŽ‰

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  7. We will be sure to mention this blog post again on the 16th!

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  8. It's great to have you stopping by, Ritter. 😊

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  9. An interesting take on learned analysis vs. flying by the seat of your pants. Nice one, Dane and MRM. Best of luck with Bird in the Hand, a fast-paced mystery with married protagonists whose easy chemistry sets a fun and casual tone.

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    1. It's not that I plan things to the needy deal, Sally. In fact, I want to go one way and the characters take me another, and they are the analytical minds in this game.

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  10. It sounds great! Thanks for sharing.

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