Thursday, January 31, 2008
A Taste for Killing
Books have always provided a way for both readers and writers to live vicariously. They sweep us off into another place and time, invite us inside the heads of people we’re unlikely ever to meet, and make our hearts ache and soar for strangers who exist only on the page. But only mystery writers routinely get to kill. A mostly law-abiding and compassionate bunch in RL, as Internet users call real life, we are not merely permitted but required by our trade to knock off at least one victim in every book. We even get to choose our murderees, so we can seize the occasion to get rid of those who displease us blamelessly and with great satisfaction.
In the first mystery I ever wrote (thirty years ago, unpublished and unpublishable today), I killed off the wife of a young man I knew, in fictional guise, of course. She was not a very nice person, and her existence was the reason that particular friendship never blossomed into romance. In the long run, I can say now with perfect hindsight, it was for the best, since we have remained friends all these years. He’s now married to someone much nicer—and so am I. But man, it felt good to let my murderer kill her. (Hmm, maybe I’m the one who’s not so nice. But mystery readers will surely understand.)
The victim in a mystery is not necessarily an unsympathetic character. Murdering a good person can elicit a strong desire for justice in both reader and protagonist. Or the victim may be deeply flawed but likable, so that the protagonist cares enough about his or her death to be driven to find out what happened.
The first draft of Death Will Get You Sober had only one victim. I didn’t start talking with other mystery writers about our craft and how it has changed in recent years until after I finished the manuscript. I learned that the leisurely build-up, letting the reader get thoroughly acquainted with the characters before anything happens, is passé. Editors and especially agents nowadays want to be gripped on the first page, preferably by a body. I also learned that many traditional mysteries solve the problem of “sagging middle” in a book-length story by killing off a second character—often the prime suspect, so that his or her death forces the investigation to take a new turn.
The basic premise and circumstances of the plot did not allow me to kill off my original victim any sooner. I brought the death as far forward as I could by eliminating a lot of backstory—another thing I learned from other writers. But to kick-start the action, literally, I had my protagonist stumble over a body at the end of what at that time was Chapter One. I then needed a reason for this new death. That led to other victims. At the same time, I added suspense to the ongoing investigation by killing off some of the suspects along the way. I found that murder was addictive. By the time I was through, my simple one-victim mystery had turned into one of which Edgar-winning author Julie Smith (who kindly gave me a great blurb) said that my characters “maneuver their way through a forest of bodies.”
A forest? How did that spring up? I only spat out a single murder seed….
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Love it? Don't read it again
One thing I’ve learned from moderating a mystery book discussion group for writers is that few crime novels stand up to close inspection or even a second reading for pleasure. More than once I’ve recommended a book to the group because I loved it and thought we could learn from it, only to discover during our detailed (and merciless) discussions that I don’t admire it that much after all.
You might think this happens because a mystery or suspense novel – any novel, actually – is an artificial construct, with the clear beginning, middle, and neat ending we seldom see in real life. The more closely we look at a novel, the more unreal it seems. That certainly has an effect, but it’s not the only reason why books we love can disappoint us on a second reading.
One explanation is that people change but books don’t. If you read a novel for the second time a month after the first, you will be a marginally different person and might see some flaws you missed initially. Wait five years and your interests and emotional life might be so different that you wonder how anything in that book could have pleased or moved you.
The books we never grow tired of, the ones we label “classics” – Jane Austin’s novels, for example, or the works of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens – stand up to repeated readings or viewings as movies or TV dramatizations because they tell universal stories that touch us regardless of where we are in our own lives.
To Kill a Mockingbird is widely regarded as the greatest American novel ever written, and it continues to sell many thousands of
copies every year. I have read it more than once and seen the movie more than once, and I doubt I’ll ever tire of it. But each time, I’ve seen it in a different light because I’m a different person. Sometimes I’ve identified with Scout, at other times with Atticus, and for a while, Boo Radley was the character I felt I had the most in common with. Mockingbird is a perfect novel – beautifully written, cleanly structured, with characters and a message that transcend time and place. The story makes sense, however many times you read it.
Few books have all of those virtues, and the mystery genre, like romance, is the home of many novels that are intended to entertain and quickly be forgotten. If you read them a second time, your emotions won’t be fully engaged again, and your mind will rebel against any clunky writing, questionable plot turns, shallow characters, and weak motivations you overlooked (or noticed but forgave) the first time around. Just as few novels have all the virtues, few have all the flaws, but most books have some of them.
In discussing crime novels, a major problem my group often sees is weak motivation. I’ve been surprised more than once, when re-reading a novel I enjoyed the first time, to discover the characters have little reason to behave the way they do. This flaw comes hand in hand with weak characterization. The character might be vividly depicted, we might be able to “see” him or her clearly, but if we don’t understand the person’s inner life, we can’t understand why an apparently sensible human being is doing dangerous or hurtful things. Without that understanding, the plot won’t make sense. Why didn’t I see the flaw on the first reading? Maybe I liked the writing style or the atmosphere or the suspense and let those elements blind me to the problems.
Some books, though, not only stand up to more than one reading but provide me with fresh insights each time. I’ve admired Thomas H. Cook’s Mortal Memory and Breakheart Hill more with each reading. Laura Lippman’s Every Secret Thing did not disappoint me the second time around (and it was a great book for discussion and dissection). I have a feeling that Laura's What the Dead Know will seem just as wonderful if I read it again. I’ve studied some of Tess Gerritsen’s and Lisa Gardner’s books in great detail in the hope of absorbing their suspense techniques. I’ve read parts of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River over and over. Reading crime fiction is probably the best way to learn how to write it, but you have to choose your study material carefully.
As for my own published books, in the course of rewriting, editing, and proofing, I've read both of them so many times that I'm thoroughly sick of them. I know what their flaws are. But if you read them only once, maybe you'll overlook the flaws -- or at least not mind them too much.
Have you ever read a book a second time and wondered why you liked it the first time? What is most likely to disappoint you if you look too closely – plot, character, writing style?
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Building a Career
If you came looking for Sharon Wildwind who's usually in this space on Tuesdays, check back on Saturday, Sharon will be here then, interviewing mystery writer, Lyn Hamilton.
Since we’re almost a month into the new year I thought this would be a good time to talk about building a writing career. Think of this as a list of things I’ve learned the hard way, things your mother would tell you, except she’s not a writer.
1. Writing for a living is not the same as getting published no matter what. The desire to have your book in print—to be able to wave it in the face of all those nay-sayers who’ve delighted in telling you it was never going to happen—can be enough to make otherwise intelligent people act as though their brains just fell out of their noses. If what you want is to make writing your career, stop pouncing on every gimmick and dubious opportunity that pops up. Set goals. Make a plan. If you don’t take your writing seriously neither will anyone else.
2. Writing is a profession. Behave professionally. Trashing your agent, your editor, your publishing house, or that writer you know who just signed a contract with a lot of zeros, in any public forum, will come back to bite you. With pointy teeth. In a place that hurts a lot. A conference is a public forum. So is a book signing, a workshop and a critique group. So is a blog. When that big vein in your forehead starts throbbing think twice about where you blow off steam.
3. Writing is a business. Educate yourself. Agents, publishers, genres, trends, marketing-- find out the basics about all of it. Read. Take workshops. Go to book signings. Make friends with librarians and booksellers and other writers. Ask questions. It takes years, a lot of studying, a lot of hands-on work, and more than a few shocks to become an electrician. Building a writing career isn’t a whole lot different.
4. Other writers are not the enemy. The publishing business is not like a cake. If Sandy and Liz and Julia and Sharon and Lonnie get to a cake first it’s likely there won’t be anything left by the time I show up—especially if it’s chocolate. But if Sandy and Liz and Julia and Sharon and Lonnie all get book contracts it doesn’t mean there’s no longer anyone who wants my book. I admit I’m not that highly evolved a person that I haven’t felt some twinges of jealousy, or eaten half a cake when a writer I know signs with the hotshot agent or gets a multi-book deal. But the feeling doesn’t last. And it gives me the push to get back at it, so that next time I’ll be the one with the good news.
5. Published writers don’t have some inside knowledge that gets them published and keeps you out. There’s no secret handshake or special code we add to our correspondence. We don’t say, “The scarecrow walks at midnight,” when we meet an agent or an editor so they’ll know we’re part of the club. We just write. We write the very best book we can. Then we send it out into the world and start writing another one.
6. Write the book. This one seems so simple but it’s also what messes up a lot of writers. You have to finish the book. And that won’t happen if you never get past chapter twelve. “But there’s this voice in my head that keeps telling me it’s all a pile of dreck,” I’ve heard more than one writer say. It’s your head. Ignore the voice. Kick it out. Tell it to go do something anatomically impossible.
And that’s it.
You want to be a writer? Go write.
That’s what it takes.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Navigating the Frozen Sea
When I'm crunching across the ice in January, I sometimes think of this quote by Franz Kafka, which is such a passionate understanding of the role of literature:
“ . . . the books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Of course this concept applies both to the writing and the reading.
Speaking of writing, I'm happy to say that I'll be meeting up with one of the Deadly Daughters--Lonnie Cruse--this Saturday at the Love is Murder Mystery Convention right here in Chicagoland. It will be interesting to hear all of the writing tips and techniques from mystery writers, most notably Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Barry Eisler, and William Kent Krueger--and to see if any of them bear witness to Kafka's words.
In any case, this will be the second year that I am lucky enough to see Lonnie and to chat with her in person. We'll be sure to take pictures and share them with PDD.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Using the Occult in Crime Fiction
I am not a woo woo kind of guy. I’ve made my living as a full-time lawyer or in legal-related employment since June of 1979. My wife and I are fortunate to own our home in a nice Maryland suburb. Our wonderful daughter is a sixth grader with braces. Despite these and other accoutrements of bourgeois normalcy, I have written a novel in which one of the main characters is a Voodoo Priestess. Library Journal’s reviewer wrote that I “turn[ed] the legal thriller genre upside down when what looks like a clear-cut case becomes a trip into the realm of voodoo[.]” In view of this, a reader might ask that most profound of all inquiries: What gives?
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the noun “occult” as something that includes “matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural or supernormal powers or some secret knowledge of them.” This definition is functional enough for discussion purposes, though not precise. Perhaps one of the issues with use of the occult is that we can’t precisely define it. Even so, I write about the occult. Moreover, I have plans for many, many future works that involve the occult. My reasons for this are briefly listed below.
As Part of a Story
What do people believe and what do people do based on what they believe? Truth is, people believe that their everyday lives are influenced by actions which originate in another world. Every day people pray and look for answers to prayer. For country people from Louisiana or natives in an African jungle, the prayer may be more demonstrative. It may involve a ritual with snapping beans, or markings with paint, or dancing with a just-beheaded chicken. Whatever the form, prayers appeal to forces in another world to alter outcomes in this world.
Belief in prayer leads to countless opportunities for good story telling. Consider, for example, a counterintuitive story possibility based in the west side of Columbus, Ohio. This section of Columbus has become an aging industrial center with generations of migrants from Appalachia and elsewhere. For years, I’ve heard stories about Appalachian migrants being bitten during religious services in which poisonous snakes are handled. Such an image belies images that many people might have of Columbus as a quiet middle-American city. The migrants are part of the texture of that city and could be part of a great story.
Many classic and contemporary works draw on the occult to give depth to the story. Zora Neale Hurston used black folklore, Caribbean mysticism, and African spirituality to illustrate the rich folklore of black culture in Johah’s Gourd Vine, which begins with the words “God was grumbling his thunder and playing the zig-zag lightning through his fingers.” Her travelogue Tell My Horse is a study of Haitian sorcery and Jamaican folklore. Trained under the famed Franz Boas, Hurston used her analytical acumen to research groups that practiced voodoo, then transmuted it into high art in her many fine novels. It is no wonder that her books are selling better now than they were at the time of her death. She demonstrated an understanding that was far more sophisticated than many contemporaries understood.
Other examples from contemporary crime writing are beyond counting, from those who use a Tarot card to mark a crime to those whose story is founded around an entire occult system. One of my favorites is Fallen Angel by William Hjortsberg, later made into the movie Angel Heart. I also find that James Lee Burke’s detective, Dave Robicheaux, takes me to the same place. As he tries to solve a 35 year-old homicide, Robicheaux has repeated sightings of confederate soldiers on patrol in the novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. It could be the booze-soaked brain, still sailing on the “S.S. Delirium Tremens” as he muses in another novel, Crusader’s Cross. But I see something deeper in Burke’s writing. Robicheaux is the archetypal fallen hero who takes us through the poetry of redemption in motion. This leads to the second reason that I find occult to be useful.
Use of Archetypal Images
In his work Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung wrote about pre-existing forms and motifs in the human mind which are universal symbols that all people carry around even though we have no particular knowledge that such forms exist. Depending on what one believes, these motifs may be one of three things. First, they may be based on stories that we have heard from childhood, story-forms that are deeply imbedded in our experience. Or they may be part of our genetic inheritance, instinctive and chemical as the urge to suck or the urge to protect one’s homeland. Or the archetype may be a real image of something magical, something from God.
Use of Jungian archetypes in the “myth of the hero” motif is beautifully described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The story of the hero and the arc of the hero’s journey is one that is repeated time and again in crime writing. I particularly applaud the recognition of the “hero’s journey” in a book titled Myth and Ritual in Women's Detective Fiction by Christine Jackson. In a way, her discussion shows that all people are confronted with the hero’s journey. Who is to say that a hair salon full of women chatting about their lives cannot be the center of a hero’s archetypal journey? Isn’t it prejudiced to assume otherwise?
The hard-boiled crime venue in which I have written uses the arraignment court as an archetypal place of reckoning. When a tired mother grabs my protagonist and tries to persuade him to smuggle a pack of Newport cigarettes to her imprisoned son, my protagonist sees the pain of the ages in her face. She is the archetype of the powerless parent, the mournful priest looking at the African sunrise in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. And felony presentment in my novel, The Only Pure Thing, is the repetition of a archetypal cycle of tragedy: “Row after row they came—mostly sullen young men with blank stares, pawns in a war against civilization, guilty or innocent, now bystanders to a debate on their own liberty.” (Quoting page 39.) I am talking about the presentment of the accused in D.C. Superior Court, but also about the motif of the cycle of tragedy, about the pain of slavery that still infects us, about Nietzsche’s “eternal return” that might enslave our souls.
One may think that the use of archetypes or motifs is an intellectual event that has nothing to do with the occult. I don’t agree. I believe that these images are imbedded in our experience and to my way of thinking in our psychic existence. I believe that we are part of a collective unconscious, an inherited psychic system of pre-existent forms. I believe that these forms have independent power and an independent existence. This is mostly the subject for another article! I’ll try and briefly explain a few aspects of this belief below.
Occult Phenomena in Everyday Life
Both of my parents were from Appalachian coal towns, Verda in Harlan County, Kentucky, on my father’s side and Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia, and various other small towns, on my mother’s side. For whatever reason, many of the hill folk in Appalachia seem to accept the presence of the occult in everyday life. Maybe it is because of all the Irish people who inhabited this area during the nineteenth century. Maybe it is because poor people the world over are more likely to believe in magic. Maybe it is because the hills have a mystical aura that soaks into the blood of its inhabitants. Whatever the reason, I grew up with a mother who implicitly believed in mystical phenomena and the occult in everyday life. To me, this was natural and believable. I believe to this day that sometimes our Western rationale minds are just too fouled up with false consciousness to accept simple truths.
One story from my childhood simply illustrates what I am discussing here. My mother woke up screaming at her parents’ house, then in southern Virginia, on Christmas Eve in 1944. She believed that her husband, my father, was in grave danger. Thousands of miles away, my father’s transport ship, the S.S. Leopoldville, had just been torpedoed by a German submarine and was sinking in the English Channel. By the end of the night, 763 of the 2,235 Americans aboard the ship had drowned. Fortunately, my father made it to the shores of France and lived for another 27 years.
I grew up hearing about the sinking of the Leopoldville and my mother’s awakening that night. The story was relayed several times by my father and my mother and her family. Maybe it happened the way they discussed it and maybe it didn’t, but I knew a lot of people who believed the version of events relayed above. And I’ve seen this type of thing happen again and again, to such an extent that I have decided it is a factor in everyday life that deserves to be written about.
There are things we know and we don’t know how we know them. They come from an invisible force that Carl Jung called “a-causal connective phenomena,” or “synchronicity.” This is part of what I want to write about. It is part of the rich tapestry that is life and is in my human experience.
The above discussion and three parts could be expanded, even made into a book. Probably I’m just preaching to the choir of those who believe and giving context and fodder for rebuttal for those who do not. No matter. My goal as a writer is to tell a story. I try to use occult phenomena in a way that a reader can notice it and appreciate it, or just get on with the story. Life is, after all, a multitude of layers, and a story can be told without reference to these matters. I’ll leave it to my colleagues and to the marketplace to decide whether the occult is worth writing about. I’ve made my choice.
Visit the author's web site at www.patrickhyde.com
Friday, January 25, 2008
Then and Now . . .
Every so often I read a book review about a mystery novel written many years ago. A book long out of print, available only on dusty antique store bookshelves or on the Internet, unless the author is popular enough to be reprinted in our time. Sometimes I'm curious enough (if the book is cheap enough) to buy a copy and read it. My, how things have changed, how writing is different now. Plots are different. Character development is different. Sometimes I'm disappointed because the mystery isn't as intricate as most mysteries today. But there are a lot of authors long gone whose work endures well beyond their passing. Authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many others whose books seem to be timeless.
Agatha Christie's modern day critics sometimes claim she didn't "flesh out" her characters enough, that her books are all about the plot. Hmmm. Maybe, but I've read most of them and I haven't had any trouble picturing her characters as real. Particularly Poirot with his egg shaped head and carefully groomed mustache. Have you? Or Miss Marple, knitting and solving crime? Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter, and his great love, Harriett, aren't hard for me to imagine as real. And it was actually Sayers who inspired this post after I watched GAUDY NIGHT on DVD. I loved all of her books.
Every writer I know would love to not only have readers here and now, but somehow know that our books would be read twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years from now and still be considered well written despite any change in styles. So how did these writers do it? How did they manage to write books that would be read and loved long after they died? I haven't a clue. It's like art, I suppose, I know it when I see it, or in this case when I read it, and I suspect you do as well.
One author in particular comes to mind, Shirley Jackson. Jackson died in the mid-sixties, yet her book, WE SHALL ALWAYS LIVE IN THE CASTLE is still widely read and talked about. I read it twice, something I rarely do because there are "so many books, so little time" as most book lovers complain. Jackson's short story, THE LOTTERY still shocks readers just as much as it did when it appeared in a major magazine decades ago. Back then, many of the magazine's readers loved it while as many others unsubscribed in protest. Wow! And today, THE LOTTERY is still used in many college classes as an example of great writing. THAT is longevity. Having read most of her works, I'd have to say Jackson accomplished timelessness by the way she always surprises the reader at the end. No matter how much I've read her work, I can never guess the ending. She always catches me off guard.
As for the others, like Christie or Sayers? How did they do it? I'd have to say by creating characters the reader cares about, no matter what time period they lived in or were created in. Characters that stick with us. And story or plot lines that while common to any age (after all, there's nothing new on the earth, according to Solomon, and he said that quite a while back) today they still sound new when we read them. And last but not least, creating a place and time that we'd all like to visit or live in, no matter how long ago the book was written.
There are writers today whose works will be read and loved a hundred years from now, and boy howdy would I like to be one of them. But I'll settle for readers today.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
The Flexibility of the English Language
Earlier this week, Poe’s Deadly Daughters celebrated the 199th birthday of the father of the detective story and the first anniversary of the blog itself. We particularly encouraged regular readers to post comments, and to our great pleasure, they complied. One topic that sprang up in the ensuing conversation was the use of verb forms of ordinary nouns, newly coined nouns, and brand names. Several people, both Daughters and our readers, expressed their distaste for such locutions as “to party,” “to blog,” “to Swiffer,” “to Netflix,” and “to Fandango.” I would assume they feel the same about “to google.” And there must be some folks out there, those who still say, “It is I,” perhaps, who have not relinquished their objection to “to contact.” I’m pretty sure that Nero Wolfe had something caustic to say about that one fifty years ago. What a tribute to the memorability of a mystery-fictional voice! But that’s perhaps a topic for another day.
To return to the issue of coining verbs: I dissent. Brand names are a separate issue: if you say that we “Fandango,” as my husband and I did last Saturday night when we selected a movie online and printed up our ticket from the computer before leaving home, you are merely demonstrating the success of a rather clever and charming advertising campaign. But when I blog or google, I am taking advantage of the great glory of the English language: its flexibility.
The French language is regulated by the Académie Française, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. Its first dictionary was published in 1694 and the most recent complete edition in 1935. (Yes, I googled it.) Instead of making this dictionary available to the public, the French make laws about complying with its dicta. Not surprisingly, these laws are increasingly unenforceable in a world that is changing so rapidly in our times that new vocabulary is constantly needed. Even back in the 1960s, when I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in French-speaking West Africa, I remember being exasperated by French people’s invariable response to creative attempts to make an adjective out of a verb, a verb out of a noun, or a non-sexist replacement for a noun that applied to both genders (dentiste or poète, for example) carrying a male article. Ça n’existe pas! they would insist.
Well, if French wouldn’t do it, English would. As a result, English has replaced French as the global lingua franca, to the great chagrin of the French. The greatest task of the Académie Française these days is trying to stem the tide of Anglicisms in today’s French: le weekend, le businessman, l’email. In 2003, they chose the Québécois word le courriel as the official term for email. According to Laura K. Lawless, About.com’s expert on the French language, the French Ministry of Culture formally “banned the word e-mail in any government-related documents.” I haven’t seen any French governmental communiqués, but I keep in touch with French-speaking friends all over the world (including Quebec) by email, and I have yet to encounter the word le courriel.
It’s not merely about language, in my opinion, but about creativity and individual freedom. Any writer abhors censorship. Grammar and punctuation are a different matter. I still believe they clarify meaning, as amply demonstrated in Lynn Truss’s delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But words themselves belong to us. So I not only will continue to blog and to google, but if I perceive an unmet need, I claim the right to coin a term of my own. Most recent example? The bane of my existence, cellphonistas, those narcissists who quack and gabble, mobile phone glued to ear, in crowded buses and on endless lines at the post office. So when the term "cellphonista" passes into general usage, remember you heard it here first.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Sarah Stewart Taylor and the Art of Death
Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of O’ Artful Death, Mansions of the Dead, Judgment of the Grave, and Still as Death, featuring art history professor Sweeney St. George. Sweeney’s specialty, funerary art, tends to lead her into the path of murder and mayhem. Sarah lives on a farm in Vermont with her husband and son, and when she isn’t writing she teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Q. How far back does your love of mysteries go? Did you always know you would write mysteries one day?
A. I loved mystery and adventure stories when I was a child -- Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Kidnapped, The Borrowers, all of those great books. Then I discovered Agatha Christie when I was about ten and fell in love. I read every single one at our public library and then moved on to Patricia Wentworth and Ngaio Marsh in my teens. I didn't read Dorothy Sayers until college somehow, but I was completely hooked. I studied creative writing in college and I never thought I would write mysteries, but everything I wrote seemed to have a body in it, so finally I let myself go in the direction in which I really wanted to go.
Q. Was your first published novel also the first you completed?
A. Sort of. I had a couple of unfinished books, but I guess O' Artful Death was the first book I actually finished and took through the revision process.
Q.Tell us about your path to publication. Was it easier than you expected, or did you hit some bumps along the way?
A. It took me a while to find an agent, largely because I started sending the book out way before it was really ready. I used the submission process, which took a couple of years, as a way to revise and improve the book. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this!
Q. How did you develop Sweeney, your memorable protagonist? Did you sit down and carefully work out her personality, psychology, and background, or did she take shape as you wrote the first book? Is there anything you wish you’d done, or not done, with Sweeney that it’s too late to change now?
A. I came up with Sweeney soon after I came up with her profession -- she's an art historian who specializes in funerary art. I wanted a young woman protagonist and I thought a lot about what kind of young woman would choose to study gravestones and mourning jewelry. A lot of Sweeney's personality traits come from that process. I'm pretty happy with her, though I'm struggling with her a little right now. She needs to stop drinking and I'm having trouble getting her to see this . . .
Q. What aspect of the writing craft have you worked hardest on? What have you learned about writing from reading your favorite authors?
A. Characterization. It all starts with character. That's where plot comes from, that's where theme comes from, that's where suspense comes from, everything. When I think about the books I love the most, they're the ones with those characters who won't let go of you after you close the book.
Q. How long does it take you to write a novel, while balancing the writing with book promotion, family and your day job?
A. Before I had my son, who's now two-and-a-half, I could write a book in nine months or so. Now, it's a bit longer than that . . . sometimes much longer. When he was a baby, I got a lot done. I perfected the art of typing-while-breastfeeding. But no one told me that two-year-olds want your attention all the time . . .
Q. Speaking of your day job, what is the Center for Cartoon Studies and what do you teach there?
A. It's this great college in White River Junction, VT for cartoonists and graphic novelists. I can't draw to save my life, but I teach fiction writing and literature there and I actually just wrote a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart that will be out next year. It's an MFA program and our students are so talented. I love working with them. You can see some of their work at www.cartoonstudies.org.
Q. Is your farm in Vermont a working farm? Shall we add farming to the list of demands on your time?
A. It's a working farm in the sense that we work really hard, but we don't make a living -- or even a profit, I'm afraid -- from it. We raise chickens -- meat birds and layers -- and lambs, mostly for our own consumption. I love it -- there's something so concrete about farm chores that's a great antidote to writing. I'm really into my hens -- I love going out in the morning and collecting eggs. Chickens are really charming and smart. I even have one who comes when I call her name.
Q. In your fourth book a piece of ancient Egyptian funerary art plays a role. In my opinion, nobody has ever done death quite as spectacularly as the ancient Egyptian royals. Have you studied their customs?
A. I loved doing the research for Still as Death. The inspiration for the book was the original King Tut exhibit. I was seven when my Mom went and brought me back the catalog. I loved looking at those pictures of the riches found in the tomb and the supposed curse.
Q. Is there any other culture you feel rivals that one for burial ceremony? Do you have a particular favorite?
A. I'm really interested in Victorian attitudes to death. They were pretty intense about it, those Victorians . . .
Q. I’m sure all your fans join me in hoping you’ll be around for a long time, but have you planned ahead? What kind of tombstone do you want on your grave?
A. I know this sounds strange, but I might not have one at all. A lot of my husband's family members' ashes are buried under a tree in our back yard and I might decide to just hang out with them . . .Either that or I would want something very simple. Although I just read that Merv Griffin's gravestone says, "I will not be back right after this message." Ha ha! I love that. Maybe I'll put a joke on mine.
Q. What’s next for you and Sweeney? Do you plan to continue the series, or do you have something different in mind? What do you want to be doing as a writer in 10 years?
A. I know what happens to Sweeney next and I'm working on her next adventure, but I'm also working on some other stuff. In ten years, I hope I'm still writing the kinds of stories that really interest me and that people will still want to read them.
Q. In parting, what advice can you give aspiring writers who are struggling to complete a book or find an agent and publisher?
A. Write, write, write. Read, read, read. Write some more. In my experience, most people put the cart before the horse and start thinking too much about publication before they've really perfected their craft. You may have to rewrite your first book 20 times before it's ready for submission. It may never be ready. You have to enjoy the whole process. Read good literature. That's the only way to really learn to write. See how the masters do it. And develop a thick skin. This biz is full of rejection, but it's a pretty great thing to be allowed to do for a living.
Visit the author's web site at www.sarahstewarttaylor.com
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I recently started making homemade yoghurt, a process that involves simple tools, including a small cooler. This quickly led to the need for a custom-made, quilted cooler cover.
Don’t try to follow the logic. If you’ve ever lived with someone who expressed themselves in fiber arts, you already understand. If you haven’t, no amount of explanation can connect yoghurt and custom-made, quilted cooler cover.
The cover will be a grand thing, a cloth symphony in five layers: two new-age fabrics—new-age refers to the recent arrival of the fabrics on the sewing scene, not on any religious or metaphysical beliefs the cloths might hold—a layer of pieced polar fleece, quilting batting, and fashion fabric.
These are the first three layers, topped by polar fleece. As you can tell, I put together scraps left over from other projects. Ugly as sin, but it works. I could stop here. This cover will do the job: keep the inside of the cooler at a steady temperature for the number of hours it takes to make yogurt.
But I’m not going to stop. Like most people, I have an innate desire to cover up ugliness, improve things, hide the bumps, odd seams, and ragged edges. So, just as soon as I can find a spare minute—goodness knows when that will be—I’m going to make a nifty quilted cover out of this fabric.
Which brings me to the subject of villains.
If we are to create believable villains, we first must create all manner of bumps, odd seams, and ragged edges in their lives. Then we’ll cover up those flaws, so they present a smooth and beautiful face to the reader. It’s not easy to create a good villain because as writers, and perhaps as humans, we’d rather focus on the good guys.
One of the very tough tasks is to create a villain with new motivation. It’s all been done before. The medieval church already had a good handle on motivation. They called it the seven deadly sins:
• Extravagance, which interestingly enough mutated into lust. Originally intended to reflect a over-desire for everything material, we now think of it as applying primarily to sexual appetite.
I want to talk about the middle-of-the-road villain. Not the extreme evil of a serial killer. If you’re writing that kind of book, there are plenty of references that will give you the basic profile. And not accidental killers of the, “He fell and hit his head on the radiator and I panicked” scenario.
I think villainy boils down to hunger and hopelessness. At some point, my villains realized they will never have enough—fill in the blank—money, power, prestige, love, control. They see the world as a zero-sum game: If you get, I lose, and vice versa.
Losing something provides more motivation than never having had it. If your protagonist only fantasizes about booking the most expensive cabin on a cruise ship, but is actually traveling in a tiny inside cabin without even a porthole, she might daydream about miles of glass windows, her own private balcony, and a jacuzzi. But if the man in the next cabin has actually cruised in such luxury, being forced by circumstances into the tiny cabin, offers the writer more opportunities for conflict.
Unless, of course, time is running out. If your lady in Cabin 24H has only a short time to live, and this is her absolutely last chance to experience the luxury suite, all bets are off. She might be desperate enough to kill.
So here is a quick list of questions that I start with when I develop a villain:
What was the first utterly defining moment in which my villain realized he would never get enough [fill in the blank]?
Can I find at least three other utterly defining moments which resulted in the villain learning to see the world as a zero-sum game? The last of these three moments needs to happen close to when the book opens or in the early part of the book. This last defining moment becomes the proverbial straw, the one, final detail that moves the villain to murder.
How has the villain built and maintained their lovely cover? What do they use to hide the bumps, odd seams, and ragged edges. Is the cover story holding, or is the underside beginning to peak out?
How am I going to avoid the trivialities of stereotypes? Villains abound who were abused as children, embarrassed at school, grew up in poverty or conversely grew up in extreme wealth, etc. What will set my villain apart?
How do I set the stakes high enough that the villain will be driven down an narrowing funnel until murder is the only option?
What does this story look like from my villain’s point of view?
Writing quote for the week:
I have to think about whether I want to spend a year thinking about this crime or this kind of person. ~Michael Connelly, mystery writer
Monday, January 21, 2008
Writing, Magic, and The Moment of Truth
I am in between writing projects; I am working now and then on a young adult thriller, but I was hoping as well that I'd be visited with a good idea for a new adult suspense novel. Unfortunately, those ideas come only intermittently, and then I desperately tap away, trying to get as much of it down as I can before I lose the inspiration.
I wonder if other writers are more orderly than I in their composition process. I get one seed of an idea and then sort of burst out of the gate like a bull at a rodeo, flailing around. At least that's how it seems to me. It's very obsessive--I have all of these disjointed ideas, images, dialogues, and I need to compress them into a form that might at some point be readable, even compelling.
I'd like to say I use an orderly process--index cards or legal pads or even a working outline--but it's far more vague than that. I think I'm actually waiting for magic, or maybe the Holy Spirit. :)
I read a terrific book once called MAGIC, RHETORIC, and LITERACY: AN ECCENTRIC HISTORY OF THE COMPOSING IMAGINATION, by William A. Covino. It's a complex book which traces the link between words, magic, and human thought throughout the ages. In the ancient world, thought itself was thought to be a magical process; Aristotle wrote that "phantasy is our only basis for speculative reasoning." Throughout the ancient world and into the Renaissance, in the writing of greats like Plato, Aristotle, Pico, Aquinas, Augustine--there is a suggestion that writing itself, and the ideas that seem to come from nowhere--are magical processes.
Even into the Romantic Period, Covino contends, there were writers who clung to the notion that the composing imagination was rooted in something magical:
"Romantic fascination with the magical imagination is explicit in Blake's visionary poetry, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's conjunction of the natural and the supernatural in the Lyrical Ballads, Percy Shelley's faith in the power of language and mind over cultural and political matter in Prometheus Unbound, The Witch of Atlas, and A Defense of Poetry, and Mary Shelley's portrayal of a magical world ravaged by a monster of science in Frankenstein.
English Romantics turned to magic in order to license the powers of the composing imagination, to find a discourse for intellectual and political revolution, and to define writing as a liberatory force that constructs realities."
I always remember this book when I begin to compose, because I often feel that I'm waiting for some exterior thing, some process that begins outside of myself. I'm curious to know what other writers would say about this. Feel free to leave your comments about the matter. Is your writing a magical process? Or do you plow through with sheer hard work and determination?
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Happy Birthday to Poe: Our First Anniversary
To celebrate, we're reprinting Carolyn Hart's piece on how come Poe is considered mystery's founding father, along with a few words from each of us on what it's meant to be one of Poe's Deadly Daughters.
From "The History of the Mystery"
by Carolyn Hart
(InSinC: The Sisters in Crime Newsletter, Vol. XIX, No. 4)
Elements of the mystery are present in much literature, both ancient and modern, but the world waited until Edgar Allan Poe for the first true mystery stories....Poe...create[d] the first amateur detective, Auguste Dupin....[T]he modern mystery traces its beginning to the publication in 1841 of The Murders in the Rue Morgue. All of the elements necessary for a mystery novel were first gathered together in fiction by Poe:
The amateur detective whose exploits were chronicled by an admiring friend
The locked room mystery
An innocent suspect in jeopardy
Careful detection through following clues fairly offered
A trap laid for the true villain
The solution through the efforts of the detective
The first series character
All of this was achieved by Poe in three stories, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter.
As the only then unpublished mystery writer in the group, I felt honored to be invited to join Poe's Deadly Daughters. Death Will Get You Sober had just been accepted by St. Martin's, and a year later, it's still creeping toward publication, though my short story, "Death Will Clean Your Closet," appeared in November in Murder New York Style with others by members of Sisters in Crime. I'd never been a blogger or a reader of blogs. So first, I had to figure out how to do it. I didn't know that my weekly blogging deadline would make me into something not far from a journalist: a writer who can turn out an appropriate 500 to 800 word piece on demand about just about anything. Nor did I dream I'd get to know so many luminaries in the field—writers I've admired for decades and rising stars—by interviewing them for Poe's Deadly Daughters: Nancy Pickard, Julie Smith, Carolyn Hart, Jeremiah Healy, Laurie King, Rhys Bowen, Alafair Burke, Sandra Scoppetone, and Lee Goldberg. But best of all: What a joy to have "blog sisters!"
What a hoot this first year has been, except maybe for the week where I forgot what day was Tuesday, and missed the blog all together. Writing for an audience has helped me clarify many things that I thought I knew, until I sat down to write about them. Then I had to really think. This whole year has been like a scrapbook of the mind, going all the way from my mother's cookbook to more information about bats than anyone should have. And the best thing was it all, somehow, related to mystery-writing.
The absolute highlight of the year was hearing from an old friend, who "googled" me, found the blog, and got in touch. So, B.L. (and your friend Matt D.) this one's for you. Hugs, Sharon
I've greatly enjoyed my year with the Deadly Daughters. I have found that, aside from being able to work with women who share my interest in mystery writing and reading, I am able to count on the daughters as a supportive network of friends. I don't know if I'm already having the "senior moments" my mother complains of, or if they are more like "harassed working mother moments," but I've done my fair share of forgetting and mistake-making, and in every case the daughters swooped in to my aid. Will there ever be a finer group of co-bloggers? Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.
As the newest Deadly Daughter I had the advantage of joining Sandy, Liz, Lonnie, Julia and Sharon after all the hard work was done. (And it was an honour to be invited to join them.) In the past year I've had one book published and another has sold. And with the encouragement of my fellow bloggers I've started working on that mystery I always said I was going to write. A couple of old college friends found me through this blog. I made one of my writing idols (Tess Gerrittsen) laugh when I shared my semi-deluded belief that we sort of look alike. I made new friends. I gained new readers. Thank you, everyone.
I'm the one who swore she would never blog -- and look at me now, a year into it and enjoying it more than I thought possible. 2007 was a head-spinning year for me, and one of the best things about it was working with this great group of women writers. I've also loved having the excuse -- er, opportunity -- to ask some wonderful writers a lot of nosy questions in interviews. I hope our loyal readers have enjoyed the past year as much as we have. Stick with us -- we have a lot more in store for you!
To our readers: The one mystery we've never been able to solve is how to get you all to leave more comments, even those of you who tell us privately that you visit regularly. So please help us celebrate our anniversary by checking in. Just click on the Comments link right below this blog, type in a greeting or what you like about Poe's Deadly Daughters or what you'd like to see more of from us, and click on Publish Your Comment. It's dead easy. ;)
Friday, January 18, 2008
Goo goo googly eyes???
Anyone old enough to remember that song about Barney Google? Let's see a show of hands. Okay, now that we know who's who, let's move on to my post of the day. And I'm afraid it's a bit of a serious nature, despite this lame joke.
We all get "those" emails. Emails from friends with jokes or warnings or whatever, forwarded across the entire universe. Emails that make us laugh or make us worry or my personal fave, those that come with a promise and a threat. Promising to make you rich, healthy, and loved if you forward it within 10 seconds to everyone you know, but you're dead by dark if you don't. Those kind make us want to delete the friend along with the email. But I got one over last weekend that was unsettling to me because it contains very real information about a search site, and I'm sharing with you because you might want to check it out as well.
A friend sent me an email claiming that the Google search engine website now includes a phone directory with a zillion real names and phone numbers. She swore it wasn't a fake and she's one of the most sensible people I know, so I went to Google and checked. I typed in my phone number (with area code) in the "search" box and up popped my darling hubby's name along with our home address and phone number. And, bless their little hearts, the thorough folks who compiled this directory included a map straight to my house! Um, no, thank you!
I clicked on our name, and when it came up on the screen there was a place to click to remove our name and records from the site. It takes forty-eight hours to remove it. And, I was to be aware that once my personal information was removed, it could not be put back. Well, DUH!
I often use Google to research subjects for my writing, like medical or forensic information, but I certainly don't want anyone Googling my private information to find out where I live. According to the disclaimer on this site, Google does NOT collect the names and phone numbers listed but a third party collects this information from phone directories and other public information available on the web. Well, let me just say once again, thank you very much, whoever you are. NOT!
The Internet is a wonderful way to "visit" the rest of the world if we can't afford to fly there. A place to order the varied and wonderful products we might not be able to buy in our own neighborhood. And it gives us opportunites to meet people from all over the world and get to know them. And to keep in touch daily with friends and family who live far away. Personally, I came to the Internet when my oldest sister, struggling with cancer that started in the roof of her mouth could no longer speak easily or be understood. Unable to communicate with her by phone (or in person, as we lived over 2,000 miles away from each other) I signed up for the Internet and a friend taught me how to email her. I will always be grateful for that.
But as we all know, the Internet can be a dangerous place too, so most of us go to great lengths to keep our important information private either by not listing it at all (phone number, home address, etc.) or at the very least, secure, by using secure sites when listing such information as bank account or credit card numbers.
Authors are generally very careful about our private information, using websites or discussion lists or email to interact with readers/fans. We can be contacted through those means, answer questions, chat, and/or sell autographed copies of our books (using a P. O. box rather than our home addy) and no problem. But remember, the term fan is derived from fanatic, and sometimes fans cross the line, and the author (or other public person) is suddenly scrambling to protect her/his privacy, not to mention safety. While I didn't mind having my information listed in our local phone directory (which obviously must now be removed as well) I was not thrilled to find my information listed on a public website that anyone in the world can access without my knowledge or permission. I have requested it be removed. You may (or may not) wish to do the same.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Pre-Published Writers and the Glass Slipper
Back at Halloween, I went to visit my granddaughters and found the 3 ½ year old decked out in full regalia as Cinderella. Young Cinderella reenacted the fairy tale over and over all afternoon, kicking off her transparent shoe (“Oh, no! I’ve lost my glass slipper!”) and trying it on again.
There wasn’t any prince in her version of the story, and she was in no hurry to get to the happy ending. Instead, before trying to fit the shoe on her foot, she would slip something into it, a pill bottle, a plastic fork, a finger puppet, leaving no room for her foot.“Oh, no!” she would moan. “I’m not Cinderella!"
Thinking about how good it feels not only to have a novel on the brink of publication but to be able to say I do, I’m reminded of how awful it sometimes felt to be a writer who had not succeeded in finding a publisher who found my manuscript a perfect fit. I’m not thinking so much of my recent quest of several years, when I’ve been surrounded by a huge network of other writers who know exactly how hard it is, and that talent gets most of us nowhere without incredible persistence and that bit of luck that can’t be willed or forced. Some published writers are kind enough to use the controversial term “pre-published” to help writers who so far have only the talent and persistence feel a little better about themselves.
Back in the 1970s, when I was writing and then trying to sell my first three mystery manuscripts (now hopelessly dated and unsalvageable), I remember being asked a cocktail party, “What do you do?” “I’m a writer,” I said. “What have you published?” my inquisitor asked. “Nothing yet,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.” The guy’s eyes glazed over and he drifted away.
Today, I’d have a lot to say to my younger self. “How far have you gotten?” I might ask. “Are you in a critique group?” “Do you have anything finished?” “Has anybody seen it?” “Have you taken any writing workshops?” “Have you sent it out?” If she had a completed and revised manuscript, I could offer helpful suggestions about how to seek an agent effectively. “Don’t let anybody call you a wannabe,” I would say. “You’re pre-published. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep sending out. Your mantra is “talent, persistence, and luck.”
For many years, I kept a Peanuts cartoon pinned up on my bulletin board. It showed Charlie Brown lying on his back on top of Snoopy’s doghouse, reading a rejection letter. “Your novel stinks,” it says. “I’ve never read such a terrible piece of writing. Stop trying to be an author.” In the last frame, Charlie Brown says, “It’s probably a form rejection letter.”
The trouble with writers is that we need the hide of an elephant, but many of us have the skin of a grape, and most of us lack Charlie Brown’s optimism. An agent or editor writes (as they do so frequently. “Not for me” or “I didn’t fall in love with this.” “Oh, no!” we moan, like Cinderella. “I’m not a writer!”
I admit freely that I’m a lot better writer than I was when I started sending the first version of my book to agents. I was impatient and had to learn from my mistakes. I’m also a much better writer than I was at the age of seven, when I first said, “I’m a writer.” Looking back, I can see it served me better to keep saying, “I’m a writer” and keep on writing than to get so discouraged I stop writing because any given agent or editor’s glass slipper doesn’t fit my manuscript. So here’s another mantra for those working hard to achieve first publication: “I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.”
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
I'm Lost, redux
I have to tell you about this.
Recently I blogged about my utter lack of a sense of direction and my tendency to get lost even in my own neighborhood. I mentioned studies showing most women navigate well only by using landmarks and context, while men use compass points and mental maps. Whether this is a learned, psychological difference between the sexes or an inborn difference couldn’t be determined by those behavioral studies. Some scientists, of course, have been happy to blame it all on hormones.
Since writing that blog, I have done a little detective work and uncovered information – okay, so I read it in the Washington Post last week – about neurological differences between men and women that affect their ability to find their way around.
It’s not our hormones. It’s our ears.
Luc Tremblay, researcher and assistant professor of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, explains it this way: The inner ear contains three semicircular canals that help track the body’s motion, speed, and direction. Those canals tend to be larger in men’s ears than in women’s, so men get stronger internal cues telling them where on earth they are. Women’s dainty little inner ear canals aren’t quite up to the job, so we depend more on external cues such as that church we just passed and the pet store up ahead.
Tremblay thinks women can correct errors more quickly than men, because they’re constantly cross-checking external information with internal cues. I’ll confess I don’t know what he’s talking about. When I’m lost, the only cross-checking I do is when I pull into a gas station and blurt, “Can you tell me where the heck I am?” If I’m getting internal cues from my ears or anywhere else, I am deaf to them.
Now that imaging devices are so plentiful, a lot of research can be done on the brain without cracking open the skull and taking a look, and some of that research deals with navigational skill. In 2005, Norwegian scientists discovered the brain’s grid cells, which help us create mental maps of the world around us. We face north and a certain cluster of neurons fires in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. Face south, east or west and different clusters fire. In June last year, according to the Post article, scientists at Washington University discovered we also have neurons – charmingly named the Purkinje cells – that interact with the inner ear canal “to help us adjust our positioning for gravity.”
Our bodies usually take care of all this without our conscious awareness, but the process doesn’t always work. Put a human in total darkness and he quickly becomes disoriented. Put a pilot in a heavy fog bank with zero visibility and he may end up crashing the plane. The firing of the correct neurons seems to depend on what the person believes. If he’s looking north but is sure he’s looking south, the neurons for south will fire. This may explain why some men can drive quite a distance in the wrong direction, convinced they’re going the right way, before they see their mistake.
The experts on such matters assure us that men and women, through conscious self-training, can develop the best navigational skills of the opposite sex, to add to their own. Women can teach ourselves to determine direction by watching the position of the sun in the daytime and the North Star at night. Men can learn to make note of landmarks. And we can all keep an eye out for the nearest service station so we can pull in and ask for directions.
Compass photo by Scott Rothstein
Monday, January 14, 2008
A New Book: Waterloo Sunset
After three Lake District mysteries, I’m going back to my first series, set in Liverpool, for my next novel. Waterloo Sunset features the return of lawyer Harry Devlin, who appeared in seven books in the 1990s. All the novels, like this one, take their titles from 1960s pop songs - and in case you’re wondering, Waterloo happens to be a waterfront suburb of Liverpool, which currently features the eerie and unforgettable Antony Gormley statues known as ‘Another Place’.
I’ve always had a lot of affection for the character of Harry Devlin, although his life (I too work by day as a lawyer in Liverpool) is very different from mine – thank goodness. His doggedness, integrity and passion for justice seem to me to be admirable qualities. They are certainly much needed in this latest book, which opens with his receipt of a mock-obituary recording his death on Midsummer’s Eve – which happens to be in seven days’ time. The story charts his attempt to discover the truth about his unknown enemy, as well as his unwitting involvement in a series of murders of women in the city.
Because several years have passed since the last Devlin book, I wanted to use the gap in time positively, to show how his life had moved on in the interim – and also how the city had developed. In 2008, Liverpool is European Capital of Culture – a fitting celebration of a place that is as charismatic and exciting as any I know. Liverpool was once the second city of the British Empire, but over the last fifty years (despite the Beatles and the great pop music era of the Mersey Sound in the 60s) its glories have faded. Now, however, it is enjoying a renaissance; the creation of a mini-Manhattan type skyline along the famous waterfront is only a part of the change that is taking place. I’m aiming to give people who don’t know the city an idea of its amazing character by including not only photos but possibly also some interesting video, on my website and my blog during the course of the year.
I wanted this latest story to play a key part in the series as a whole, charting the city’s fall and rise. This seems to me to be one of the great attractions of a series – over the years, the main characters change and grow, and so does the society in which they live and work. This is the first Devlin mystery to be published around the same time in the US as in the UK, and the Poisoned Pen Press edition is due out in April. The Devlin books did very well in Britain and (for reasons I’ve never quite figured out) in Italy, but so far, the Lake District Mysteries have tended to be more popular in the States. I’m hoping that the new book will interest more American readers in the character of Harry, and the city where, in Waterloo Sunset, he faces a fight for his very survival.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Stealing from the Headlines
Law and Order writers aren’t the only ones who can brag that they rip their stories straight from the headlines. I’ve been stealing plot twists from newspaper articles for years.
Truth, indeed, is stranger than fiction and with a few tweaks, truth, once properly twisted, can be even more intriguing in a murder mystery.
In my latest Kate Kennedy Senior Sleuth mystery, Death Rides the Surf, I used two real life newspaper stories to move the plot and muddy the clues.
One story, the disappearance of a pretty blonde co-ed in Aruba, was a sensational, extensively covered case, both in bold newspaper headlines and on MSNBC, Fox News, and the major TV networks for months – and ironically, once again, is back in the news.
The other was a quirky little tale about an entrepreneur and I might have missed it if I didn’t have a nose for odd human interest stories. The odder, the better.
Here’s how I twisted truth into fiction in Death Rides the Surf.
I’ll start with the elderly entrepreneur and her traveling psychic talking skull show. You can’t make this stuff up. That’s the beauty of stealing from the newspapers.
The woman’s photograph showed a well groomed, attractive grandmother from the southwest, which was exactly what she was. She’d become acquainted with a talking skull in the far reaches of Peru, paid $400 to the tribe’s medicine man, because she’d developed a relationship with the crystallized skull and had become dependent on his telepathic – and occasional verbal -- advice dispensed when the skull was rubbed. Then she’d taken the show on the road. Appointments for a private consultation could be arranged for $50 per half hour while the skull and his owner were appearing in the DC area. By the time I read the article, they’d moved on. I clipped and saved the story, sure that one day, I’d work that old lady and her talking skull into one of my books.
In Death Rides the Surf, set in the fictional town of Palmetto Beach, Kate Kennedy’s granddaughter, Katharine, becomes involved with a surfer who is part of unsavory group known as the Four Boardsmen of the Apocalypse. When the surfer is killed by a shark and later that death is deemed a homicide, Katharine becomes the prime suspect.
Kate questions the dead surfer’s grandmother, who runs the only Talking Skull and Tanning Salon operation in South Florida. Location is everything and, being in South Florida, it’s a very successful business. The attractive, shrewd old gal and her skull provide both real evidence and enough misinformation to keep the plot twists moving.
In the missing co-ed plot line, I set the surfers’ back story in Acapulco where Kate’s granddaughter, Katharine, on summer vacation, had met three of the surfers and a beautiful young blonde in a noisy, crowded Mexican bar. When the blonde had left with the surfers and then disappeared, they became prime suspects. With no real evidence to hold them, the Boardsmen had returned to Palmetto Beach. And Katharine had followed in their wake.
The missing girl’s mother turns up at Kate’s condo and, after providing more real clues and several red herrings, is murdered in her hotel room. Kate realizes the missing girl and the surfers were connected. And one or more of them might be responsible for her disappearance and maybe her death. But is covering up that secret the motive for the surfer’s murder?
Even when ripped from the headlines, in Death Rides the Surf, things are seldom as they seem.
Visit the author's web site at www.noreenwald.com
Friday, January 11, 2008
Interview with author Lori Devoti
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Learning to Fly
I am a great admirer of Sharon McCone, the intrepid PI created by Marcia Muller. Sharon has learned a lot of new skills over the years. None impresses me more than how she’s taken to flying a plane since she hooked up with Hy Ripinsky, her husband in the most recent book, who’s a skilled pilot. When I say that learning to fly is not easy, I speak from experience.
Back in the 1970s, I was married to a guy with a burning desire to get a pilot’s license. He was my future ex, but of course I didn’t know that then. I thought we’d stay married for the rest of my life. I envisioned his getting a license…buying a plane…taking me up in it…getting a heart attack—and how the hell was I going to get back down? My first thought was to take a couple of lessons, ie learn just enough to land the plane in an emergency. As I found out, landing is the hardest part of flying. No way could I do it first and skip the rest. Anyhow, from the first lesson in a little Cessna 150 from the Westhampton airport, not far from where we had our little weekend house, I was hooked—in a terrified kind of way.
I still dream about taking off, which was my favorite part of flying: pulling the stick back, keeping my feet steady on the pedals (which are for steering on the ground, not for braking or accelerating), moving faster and faster down the runway until I see the nose come up and realize we’re in the air. On the other hand, I still look out at the sky on a particularly clear blue winter day and get a shiver of apprehension. The Cessna was so light that if the winds were too high—wind blows harder aloft than on the ground—we couldn’t have our lesson. A part of my mind still wants to make that—didn’t have to have our lesson.
There were two flight instructors: Barry, who looked a bit like Robert Redford in The Great Waldo Pepper and knew it, and Karl, who had less ego and more tact. I cherish the memory of how he handled some of my dumber moments. One time I got all excited about spotting another aircraft. You couldn’t get lost flying on Eastern Long Island. It was literally all spread out beneath you like a map. But you literally had to look out for low-flying planes. I wasn’t very quick at visual comprehension, so I was proud that this particular time I saw one coming.
“Look, Karl!” I exclaimed. “Is that aircraft at the same altitude as us?”
Karl said, perfectly deadpan, “That’s a sailboat.” I was looking at Long Island Sound.
I logged about thirty hours with the instructors, but I never got to solo. I had almost reached that point when I had a setback. I sent the plane into a 2 g bounce on a touch and go in a crosswind, if you must know. As my jaw settled back into its socket, Karl said with his usual calm, “Check if the landing gear are still on the aircraft.”
“You mean are the wheels still on the plane?” That’s what he meant, all right, and it took all my nerve to look out the window. (They were, luckily for us.)
Soon afterward, we decided the lessons were too expensive ($33 an hour—eat your hearts out, 21st-century student pilots) and gave up the dream of becoming pilots. I confess to relief that I’d never have to solo or do another stall. That’s when you let up on the gas and raise the nose so high the engine cuts out—on purpose. I’ve forgotten all the aerodynamics I studied, and I think my ex got the textbook in the divorce. I’d have to do an awful lot of research to create a Sharon in my own mystery. But I’m not one bit sorry I got to do it. When I add up the riches of my life experience—my tradeoff for publishing the first novel at 64 instead of 24—I remember that once upon a time, I could fly.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
A New Voice: C.C. Harrison
C.C. Harrison’s first novel, The Charmstone, was published in 2007 to rave reviews. Set in the desert southwest, the book was praised by Tony Hillerman for its “insider’s view of the Navajo culture.” C.C. is the author of hundreds of articles and short stories but is now living her dream of being a published novelist. She makes her home in Arizona.
Q. Writers use pseudonyms for many reasons. Would you mind telling us why you chose not to use your real name for fiction writing?
A. I decided to use a pseudonym because I didn’t want my real name all over the Internet, and my reason for that would make a good plot for a suspense novel (which I will write some day). But it’s nearly impossible to remain anonymous in this day and age, and within a month of my book’s release, a writer friend mentioned me in her blog using my real name as well as my writing name. There were some consequences as a result of that which, so far, and happily, were minor and quickly resolved. But C. C. Harrison is a registered legal trade name and I think it looks great on a book cover.
The down side of using a pseudonym is that friends and family don’t know what to call you. My daughter now introduces me as C. C. Harrison.
Q. Romantic suspense is perennially popular, drawing readers of both mystery and romance. Did commercial prospects play a role in your choice to write in this subgenre, or are you simply writing what you love to read?
A. Basically, I’m writing what I love to read. When I was young, I loved the early romance novels full of mystery and intrigue by Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, Norah Lofts, Mary Stewart. By the time I began writing my first novel, that style of romance was long, long out of fashion. But I’m greatly influenced by them, and by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Today, the female leads in those books are seen as weepy, wimpy and naïve, but I saw them as courageous. Courage is being afraid but doing it anyway. In every story, the heroine was thrown into unfamiliar circumstances to face mysterious and unpredictable events that were out of her control, but she always found a way to survive. And isn’t that what romantic suspense is today? Despite Scarlett O’Hara’s flaws and weaknesses in some areas of her life, I thought she was a kick-butt, take-charge survivor.
Q. You teach a workshop titled “Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?” Which are you? How did The Charmstone develop?
A. Oh, I’m a plotter, compulsively so! I need to know where I’m going. I don’t even leave my house without a map, and if I’m going over 100 miles, I need a Triptik!
Seriously, I’ve always been interested in the process of writing a book, how novelists actually did it. I’d been widely published in nonfiction, but that was easy. I just took information someone gave me, did a little more research, and wrote an article. Fiction was something else. I truly thought there was only ONE way to write a novel, and I needed to find out what that one way was. I’m embarrassed to admit that misperception blocked me for a long time. At the time, I didn’t have any writer friends, didn’t belong to any writers groups, so had no one to ask. Joining an RWA chapter opened up a whole new world when I learned that every author had a different way of putting a book together, and that they pretty much made up their own process.
My workshop on Plotters or Pantsers is geared to beginning and early career writers who may be struggling with finding a process that works for them. I talk about the many different ways published authors actually put a book together. It’s about process, not technique.
The Charmstone developed out of my experiences living in Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation as a VISTA (now called AmeriCorps) volunteer. That was truly a life-changing experience for me, and the characters and plot just sort of came together. I knew a week after I arrived on the reservation that I was going to write a book set there and pretty much what the main plot points would be. I didn’t begin the actual writing until some time later, when my assignment was over. After I left the reservation, I worked on an archaeological dig at an ancient Anasazi site (which gave me more plot ideas), bought a house in the Four Corners area and lived there for a few years. During that time I drafted three novels, one of which was The Charmstone.
Q. Was The Charmstone the first novel you attempted? How long did it take you to write it, from idea to finished book? Would you tell us about your road to publication, once you had a completed manuscript?
A. The Charmstone was my first novel. (Okay, I’ll admit I do have one in the closet that hasn’t seen the light of day, but I plan to resurrect it at some point.) The road to publication for The Charmstone was quite circuitous involving multiple lost or misplaced submissions, a change of acquiring editors, you know, the usual. But it all worked out for the best in the end because I used the time when nothing seemed to be happening to tweak it into a better book, and outline or draft two others. Life is what you make of it and things always happen in their own time.
Q. Will you continue to use Navajo characters in your books? How have your Navajo friends reacted to your portrayal of reservation life in The Charmstone?
A. My second book, Running from Strangers, due out in September 2008 from Five Star, doesn’t have Navajo characters, but the story is set in Durango, Colorado which is in the Four Corners area just off The Rez. It’s the story of a child advocate who finds herself on a run for her life with a child in her care.
My work in progress, working title Navajo Girl Gone, takes the reader back to the Navajo Reservation with heroine Keegan Thomas as she searches for people in a fifty-year-old photograph, one of them a child who she’s told was kidnapped by missionaries and never returned. In the book, she meets a lot of resistance from the Navajos for poking around in the past. They tell her that people who dig up the past end up digging their own grave.
However, in reality, the Navajos are at heart very hospitable people. When I first went to the reservation as a VISTA volunteer, I think they were a bit leery of me, because historically, the intent of some of the white people who came to the reservation was to exploit the Indians despite their promises of help. In the end, I made some wonderful friendships that have survived over time, and I go back to Monument Valley often. And, yes, my book has been very well received there; at least I haven’t heard any complaints so I guess I got it right. My biggest fear was not getting the culture and history correct.
Q. What advice would you offer to other authors who want to write about cultures not their own?
A. I think it’s very difficult for authors to write about a culture not their own, and the only way they can do it and get it right is to live it. I could never have written about life on the Navajo Reservation if I hadn’t actually lived there and interacted with people on a daily basis. Even so, I have to spend a lot of time on research.
Q. Your second book was inspired by your experiences as a CASA (court-appointed special advocate) in the child welfare system. To an onlooker, this kind of work looks emotionally draining. Is it also rewarding? What have you learned from working with underprivileged and abused children? Have you seen many positive results of your work?
A. For me, being a child advocate was extremely emotionally draining. I had to limit the kinds of cases I worked on. I wouldn’t take any case that involved child sexual abuse of any kind. What did I learn by working in the child welfare system? Nothing good. It’s shocking and unbelievable what people do to their children. Looking back, I guess I could say there were a few moments of joy and reward, but only a few. Lack of money, staff, and effective management are huge problems in most child welfare systems.
Q. Has being a published novelist changed your life? Did you know what to expect, or have you had some surprises (good and bad) along the way?
A. No surprises, not really. It’s pretty much what I expected. The biggest change it’s made in my life is I can’t go to the supermarket in sweats and grubbies anymore. I have to dress halfway decent because people in my community now know who I am and recognize me from signings and seeing my picture in the paper. Basically, I’m living the kind of life I’d always hoped to live -- a published author, living alone, secluded, surrounded by my books and papers, writing more novels.
Q. Do you think you’ll write a series in the future, or do you have more fun with stand-alone novels?
A. Every book I write I think I want to be part of a series because I fall in love with all my characters and don’t want to let them go. So far, instead of writing a true series, I try to bring a few characters from previous books into my new books. In the book I’m working on now, I brought in at least one character from Running from Strangers. The next book after that will be set on the Navajo Reservation and I plan to bring in several characters from The Charmstone.
Q. Do you plan to attend any mystery conferences in 2008 where readers can meet you?
A. I don’t have as much time for conferences anymore, but I will be at the Desert Rose RWA Desert Dreams Conference in Phoenix on April 4-6, 2008, and also RWA National in July. So please, everyone, I’m very approachable. It’s okay to stop me to say hello. Also, check out my website at www.ccharrison-author.com and read my blog for news and updates.