Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day—the day for lovers—and the least popular day of the year for single folks whose lack of a partner becomes acutely apparent.
For a mystery writer, the day offers all sorts of inspiration. Love or lost love is, after all, one of the prime motivators for murder-most-foul. What mystery writer hasn’t used it a time or two—at least as a red herring?
But even more interesting to this mystery writer is the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. While it is ostensibly the feast day for a Roman Catholic saint named Valentine who died on February 14th, the record is not so clear on exactly who, why, or even when a man named Valentine became the patron saint of love, young people, and happy marriages.
Legend holds that St. Valentine died around 269 CE. This was well before the Edict of Milan legalized the Christian church in 313, so records from that time are spotty at best. The Christian church was still being persecuted by Rome and much of what we know of its early history comes from oral tradition rather than contemporaneous records. So, in mystery writers’ terms, we don’t really know for sure whodunnit!
According to history.com, there are at least two viable candidates for the honor of being the mortal who became St. Valentine. They lived around the same time—the reign of Emperor Claudius II of Rome (214-270 CE). One was a simple priest. The other was the Bishop of Terni, Narnia, and Amelia. Even the church isn’t 100% sure which it was.
Stories abound about the saint and are accepted as truth—or truth adjacent—for the purposes of celebrating the feast day.
The official St. Valentine, according to the Vatican (catholic.org), died in 269 CE. He was an Italian priest (or bishop?) who, according to legend, proved the power of Christ by restoring the sight of the blind daughter of a judge (or jailer?) who had imprisoned him. As a result, Valentine was awarded his freedom. But it wasn’t long before Valentine was again arrested. His crime? Converting people, marrying couples (starting to see the connection to love and happy marriages?), and assisting Christians being persecuted by Rome. His motive for marrying couples might have been less about romance and more about pragmatism. Apparently, once married, men were excused from going to war. That’s a pretty big incentive.
He went too far when he tried to convert Emperor Claudius II, who ordered Valentine to renounce his faith or be put to death. He chose the latter and the death sentence was carried out in 269 CE (or perhaps 270, or 273, or 280 . . .) He is believed to have been buried on the Via Flaminia north of Rome, perhaps leaving a note behind for the girl whose blindness he cured, signed “Your Valentine.” Hmmm. Sound familiar?
Both the bishop and the priest are said to have performed similar miracles, met similar fates, died at a similar time, and buried at a similar place. No wonder we’re confused. Some speculate that the priest and the bishop were, in fact, one and the same.
But wait. Wikipedia tells us that there is at least one more candidate—another martyr who died on the same day in Africa. Not much else is known about this Valentine, but since they all are recorded as dying on February 14, who’s to say which is the St. Valentine?
But if we can’t be certain of which Valentine it was, or what year he died, how can we know that he died on February 14th?
As with other Christian holidays, St. Valentine’s day might have been placed in mid-February to help ease pagans’ transition to Christianity, supplanting the Roman Festival of Lupercalia which, according to thoughtco, was celebrated on February 13-15, and was said to purify the City of Rome and usher in a time of health and fertility.
Another theory is that since birds mate in mid-February, the patron saint of lovers feast day was placed then. Tennyson said it best in “Locksley Hall”: In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
The truth about Valentine will never be settled. When, in 496 CE, Pope Gelasius I first included Valentine’s name among those of other saints, he admitted the list was of people whose acts (miracles? good works? martyrdom?) were “known only to God.” No new evidence has turned up since to settle the question.
In 1969, the Roman Catholic church, perhaps due to this ambiguity, ceased requiring celebration of Valentine’s feast day, but it still counts him among the saints.
Whoever he was in life, St. Valentine is known, not only as the patron saint of love, happy marriages, and young people, but also of engaged couples, beekeepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, travelers, and plague (yikes!). Only a few of these mesh with our current, secular view of Valentine’s Day, but with selective editing, florists, card companies, and chocolatiers have ample excuse to make the most of this bright spot in the winter calendar.
So, who will be your Valentine? Let’s hope they are not shrouded in as much mystery as St. Valentine!
I’ve been thinking a lot about redundancy in the last week because I am editing a book that has been a long time in coming. I want the fans that have been waiting for this book to be pleased, as much as I want new readers to be impressed. I was able to recapture the series character voices, the plot was solid, but something was amiss with the writing.
While I was redlining the phrase ‘she turned her head’ for the twenty-fifth time, I realized that much of my description was redundant. I’ve suffered through this before, but this time instead of instead of soldering on I set aside my work and went for the dictionary. The definition of the word redundant was richer and more nuanced than I realized and each definition could be applied to my work.
Redundancy, as I understand it, is characterized as a similarity or repetitiveness. This made sense in terms of the edit I made to delete a recurring phrase. The dictionary further defined the word as describing something exceeding the normal, superfluous, and containing excess. Finally, redundant may be used to describe the profuse or lavish. These definitions were inspiring when applied to the craft of writing. In fact, I realized my WIP suffered greatly from redundancy.
Always chasing a higher word count, I was excessive in my use of conjunctions, verbs and adverbs. My style was buried under unnecessary words and phrases. Each passage became overly formal, lacking grace and fluidity. I had a tendency to say the same things in different ways as if my reader wouldn’t get the point the first time. My love of alliterations, similies, idioms and hyperbole were profuse and lavish to the point of distraction.
The bottom line is this: by attempting to create a memorable work I had, instead, created a book that would be unnecessarily difficult to read. The red pen had already been put to good use, but now I am making the next pass with all the definitions of redundancy top of mind. Already my writing is more precise, the characters are freed from the weight of unnecessary dialogue, and the descriptions of time and place are clearer.
It’s true that you learn something new everyday, and that’s one redundancy I can live with.
Christopher D. Ochs is this month featured author. Christopher D. Ochs‘ foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland: The Five Artifacts, recommended by US Review of Books. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. His latest work is a collection of mirthful macabre short stories, If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep.
His current literary projects include: short stories in Firebringer Press’ next entry in their Eternity anthology series, an e-book prequel novella for Pindlebryth of Lenland, a YA speculative fiction novel My Friend Jackson, and of course, the second novel of the Pindlebryth saga.
Chris has too many interests outside of writing for his own good. With previous careers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and software, and his incessant dabblings as a CGI animator, classical organist, voice talent on radio, DVD and anime conventions, it’s a wonder he can remember to pay the dog and feed his bills. Wait, what?
The Joy of Research – “Research?” The very word sends some people diving for the nearest foxhole, or leaves them with an expression akin to that of having swallowed castor oil.
Not me – I’ve always enjoyed learning new topics. It’s even better as an author, because my research is focused on that which I’m already interested. (An unfortunate side-effect is that my mind is filled with decades of clutter and trivia that cries for attention at inopportune moments!)
Method – For better or worse, here’s my approach to the task of research.
I begin my journey with that miasma of questionable reliability – the internet. Its convenience outweighs its pitfalls, so long as one uses it solely to gain general knowledge and build a list of potential authoritative sources. My usual go-to stepping-stones are Wikipedia followed by Google. At the risk of repeating myself, I only use them to suss out general information and pointers to refine the scope of my search.
My second level involves confirming any suspect information against a trustworthy online encyclopedia (e.g. Britannica) or reliable fact-checking sites (e.g. Snopes, Factcheck, Politifact, etc.)
Once I have a clear vision of topics on which to focus, I head to the library. Yes, Dear Reader, in this electronic world, there is still no substitute for paper. That’s just the Facts of Life. Not everything is available on-line, and that often includes the book you need.
Examples – Over the past two years, I’ve published nineteen short stories in various venues. While most were “speculative fiction,” they nonetheless covered a broad range of topics, characters and backgrounds, locales and eras. As an author, I have a responsibility to inject a reasonable level of verisimilitude into my Tales of the Weird – otherwise the story fails miserably. When said story leads me into an area where I have little experience, I hit the books – with relish!
Allow me to relay two recent experiences that demonstrate my own “joy of research.”
While searching for a description of the environment of a tuberculosis sanitorium, I selected Betty MacDonald’s memoir “The Plague and I.” To get the lowdown on girl bullying, a librarian friend recommended “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman.
In both instances, deadlines and other pressures force me to approach the research in a rush. My original intention was to hastily skim one or two chapters and glean the absolute minimum for a believable story. However, in both instances I ended up devouring the books cover to cover. The narrative of MacDonald’s battle with tuberculosis was so compelling, and the content of Wiseman’s research into the dynamics and psychology of teenage girl bullies was so captivating, that I couldn’t put either of the books down.
I believe my stories were the better for it – if I had hurried through the work, I would have missed much of the minutiae needed to flesh out my own characters, and imbue them with realistic motivations and reactions.
Caution – With all that being said, writers should not use research as an excuse to avoid writing.
During my time in the world of engineering, I often encountered the phrase “the paralysis of analysis.” The same is true in the writing world. An author must resist the temptation to dive down the endless rabbit hole of related topics and “what-if’s.” Otherwise, the writing is never started.
Do your initial block of research, enough to get the draft done. Then polish the draft with refined research, tracking down only those “what-if’s” that the story and characters dictate.
Now get thee to a library!
Sometimes what you think is going to be a great idea for a novel turns out to be a whole lot of work! That’s what happens when you realize the idea you are now in the middle of isn’t going to work the way you thought it would.
In THE CONSPIRACY, I got the idea for a book that started in Texas, moved to the Caribbean, and ended up in Venezuela. With all the trouble country is having, I thought it would be a great setting for a Romantic Thriller.
Unfortunately, after I was well into the book and started doing the necessary research for that segment of the story, I realized the geography I needed, and the rural setting didn’t exist in Venezuela.
I spent days digging around in South America, looking for a rainforest that could be reasonably reached from the Caribbean island of Aruba. Nothing worked.
Finally, I realized there actually was spot that exactly fit the image in my head. (This happens to writers all the time. No one knows why.) The spot was in Colombia, a place I had no desire to write about, but fit the story exactly.
So I went to work researching a remote area of Columbia accessible from Aruba.
Chase Garrett, the hero of THE CONSPIRACY, with the help of Harper Winston, the woman who hires him to find her missing brother, wind up in extreme danger in the Columbian tropical forest. It’s a very unusual place that required hours of research, but in the end, it was worth it.
I had my work cut out for me, finding which animals, reptiles, and birds lived in the area. Reading about the customs of the indigenous tribes, and the politic. Rebel armies inhabit the forest, and they don’t like intruders.
The research made THE CONSPIRACY one of the most challenging books I’ve written, but hopefully it’s one of my most interesting. I hope you’ll look for THE CONPIRACY, the first of my Maximum Security series, and that you enjoy. Until next time, very best wishes and happy reading,
New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara where she majored in Anthropology and also studied History. Currently residing in Missoula, Montana with her Western-author husband, L. J. Martin, Kat has written sixty-five Historical and Contemporary Romantic Suspense novels. More than sixteen million copies of her books are in print and she has been published in twenty foreign countries. Her last novel, BEYOND CONTROL, hit both big lists … NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST as well as the USA TODAY BEST-SELLING BOOKS LIST. Kat is currently at work on her next Romantic Suspense.
My husband, Will Zeilinger and I co-write the Skylar Drake Murder Mysteries. A hardboilded detective series that takes the reader to 1950s Los Angeles and other areas of the west. Our next book, GAME TOWN, will be available Spring 2019. Needless to say, at this time we are in the throes of writing and researching!
Someone said, “You can’t write about old Hollywood unless you experience it.” This is so true! Neither my husband nor I are from LA and didn’t experience gang infested 1950s LA. So we take field trips, such as the Raymond Chandler’s L.A. Tour. We research the clubs and hangouts of the time then visit the nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants (Turns out to be loads of fun).
To begin our journey for this series, (even before we started writing), we took a trip to San Diego and the Sheriff’s Museum. We called ahead and scheduled interviews with several retired policemen, including one that worked the L.A. beat in the late 1950s. This gentleman was a wealth of information on police activity in Hollywood and the surrounding area. Our first novel in the series, SLIVERS OF GLASS, takes place in spring, 1955 in Santa Rosa.
Research for STRANGE MARKINGS was mostly gathered on our trip to Molokai, Hawaii. Natives we interviewed told us about the many legends and what it was like living in the area in summer, 1955. As each person talked about their experiences, plots and subplots emerged for us.
We found people living in the areas at the time each book took place and interviewed them. Since DESERT ICE takes place in Las Vegas, Fall, 1955. We interviewed a dancer who worked on the, then new, strip. Will also had a college buddy who lived in Boyle Heights in the 50s, so we interviewed him and his sister for the same book where the first murder takes place.
SLICK DEAL takes place in Winter of 1955, is base on interviews with local people in Signal Hill, and Avalon, on Catalina Island all in southern California. After lengthy interviews my husband and I commented how the spoken word conjures up images and ideas so easily.
GAME TOWN, our fifth book in the series due for release in April 2019, takes place in spring, 1956. We decided to keep it in Hollywood for the first time. We recently took an afternoon and drove around old Hollywood looking for body dumps that would have been in existence in 1956. We stumbled upon a lovely apartment building, El Royale, circa 1929. We weren’t allowed in the building without permission from a resident, so we drove around and looked it up on the internet when we got home. What an amazing place for several scenes!
Whether writing about faraway places, or in a different era, visiting locations or places that imitate the area helps us develop plots. Interviews with those familiar with the time or location add “flavor” to our story. So if you are writing about a famous lodge in Switzerland, take a trip to a Ski Lodge close to you when it snows.
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