Monday, March 31, 2008
The Torment of Trivial Pursuit
Last night my son asked if we could play Trivial Pursuit; this is ironic, since the last three times we played as a family we all ended up in bad moods, and last night was no exception.
My oldest son hates it when he doesn't know the answers; I think he got that from me. Generally, because the questions vary so wildly, I will get some sort of obscure query about the Bataan Death March and will fail to answer. Then my opponent will get a question like this (which is actually a question in one of the versions of Trivial Pursuit): "Which fictional mouse, created by Walt Disney, has become an American Icon?"
This will drive me crazy. I never get the mouse question. Last night, when I landed on "literature," I was thrilled to think I might actually earn a chip. My question, however, was about a comic strip--one I'd never heard of. Is this how we define literature, I wondered? Then I looked back at the box and saw that the brown, in its newest version, stands for "the printed word." I failed the comic book question, and then my nine-year-old got the question about Emily Dickinson, so we were both furious.
And yet in a few weeks, we will all want to play Trivial Pursuit again. Why? I've been thinking about this today, and I can only assume that it's about the mystery. That perfect question is out there, and I will know the answer next time! And so it lures me like the siren of board games, and I falter again and again. I did not know which eastern state has the largest display of collectible spoons. I was not aware that Pete Rose achieved his 4000th hit right before his 42nd birthday.
But I did get one terrific mystery lover's question: "What is the more politically correct title of Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS?" I answered, I was correct, and my family decided I had some value as a player.
So do you know? Or should I try the mouse question? :)
What's the most annoying question you ever got--assuming that you are trivial enough to play trivia games?
(fair disclosure: this was a blog I wrote about a year ago, but we DID play Trivial Pursuit again this week, because it was our spring break.)
Saturday, March 29, 2008
The Secret Weapon of the Undercover Cop: Attitude
When I look back at my police career, I dwell fondly on my time as an undercover police officer in the Bronx Narcotics unit. Many people commonly confuse undercover cops with plain clothes officers. Big difference. As a true undercover you revoke your identity and no one knows who you are.
People who have read Matthew Livingston and the Prison of Souls have told me they enjoyed the way the characters could be identified with.
When Matthew, Dennis, and Sandra have to confront their criminal in an abandoned church, they are not overly confident or sure of themselves. They are much the way I was the first time I “stepped out” with a body wire taped to my skin and carbon paper smeared into my hands and face to make me look “dingy.” They are scared!
Matthew, Dennis, and Sandra used the very tool we should all exercise, common sense guided by good judgment. I remember the first time I locked stares with a drug dealer; I didn’t have my legs underneath me. I had entered a small apartment building, stepping from the bright summer sun into the dark lobby inside. By the time my eyes adjusted I was faced with three nasty fellows who were quick to inform me, “We ain't never seen you before.”
While I stammered through a defense indicating that I had been there plenty of times, the next question was fired at me twice as fast. “If you were here before, what color did you buy?” Well, the intelligence I had received before I went to this location informed me that they sold vials of crack-cocaine. In this section of the Bronx, crack vials were identified by the color of the cap. I quickly looked at my surroundings to see how much room I had if I ended up in a fight.
When my eyes scanned the floor I saw empty vials and a few green caps. All I had to do now was sell my performance. I looked at the three of them, who were growing nastier by the second, and replied, “Come on, guys, I always buy green tops here.” After that they felt a bit more relaxed and proceeded to high five me and sell me three vials for $9. Five minutes later they were in the custody of my backup team, none the wiser.
When I look back at barely being 23, I see how my confidence grew daily with every undercover experience. I value those experiences and pass them along to my teen age sleuths. Somehow they are each a young version of myself. By the way, would you like to know what gets an undercover transaction completed successfully? You can take all the disguises, stories, and unique “non cop” looks and throw them out the window. The thing that gets you over is...attitude! And there is nothing the bad guys can do about it.
Marco Conelli is the author of the young adult mystery Matthew Livingston and the Prison of Souls. He is also an active Detective in the NYPD, in his 18th year of service to New York, or as he puts it, “this great city.” In addition, he’s a songwriter and musician with several CDs to his credit. However, he says, “You mystery folks are much more interesting than those hot headed musicians.”
Friday, March 28, 2008
Nouns? Becoming verbs? What is happening here?
Now then, folks, I can change a noun into a verb with the best of 'em, but I am NOT responsible for the latest trend . . . changing trademarked company names or products into everyday verb usage. So why am I posting this? Because someone called me on the cyber-carpet for doing just that on a discussion list awhile back and it's taken me until now to come up with a response . . . that I cared to print.
This morning I asked my friend, Debby, a question about airline flights, while we chatted on the phone. Her response? "Google it."
See, I told you it wasn't just me. So we Googled it. Googling it seems to be where it's at. And we got answers on Google. And in case you're interested, Debby no longer sweeps her kitchen floor. She "Swiffers" her kitchen floor. So do I, but don't tell anybody.
A couple of years ago I was doing a library talk/signing with author Melanie Lynn Hauser. She wrote CONFESSIONS OF A SUPER MOM and in the book she mentions "Swiffering." She told the audience her hubby wanted to know when Swiffer became a verb. Maybe SHE started the trend? Who knows?
All I know is that it IS a trend, I'm not responsible for it, but I'm just as capable of Googling or Swiffering as the rest of you.
Of course that brings up the point that authors are cautioned to avoid using "was" "has" and words ending in "ing" or "ly." Hmmm. So now we have a double no no. Or do we?
The rules for grammar and punctuation have changed drastically in the last decade or two. I remember a discussion not long ago, on a writer's group, about using contractions. Many were taught never to use them, BUT using full words often sounds awkward in dialogue. Picture this:
I was not going to tell you. (Oops, used the "was" word.)
I wasn't going to tell you.
In my experience, most people use the contraction for general speaking but use BOTH words if they want to emphasize the "not" part.
"Had" seems to be another no no for writers. Personally I like the word, but what do I know? So I cheat and use words like: I'd, she'd, and sneak it in that way. I never said I wasn't (was not?) sneaky.
Which of all of the above do you use in everyday conversation? Listening to people around me, I notice a lot of contractions. Nouns serving as verbs. Ly and ing words. And we do want our written dialogue to sound normal, not stilted. Yet we can't over do it.
I'm most certainly never going to win any awards for grammar, either in my writing or speech. (Speach? Sigh.) I've forgotten most of what I learned in school about it. Yes, it does grate on my nerves when I hear some younger folks who haven't been out of school as long as I have say things like: "I brung it." But some of the newer trends like contractions in speaking or writing or changing trademark words from nouns to verbs is probably here to stay, and we might as well learn to live with it
Alrighty then, anybody up for a bit of scrap booking? Thanks for reading our blog. Blogging is fun. Did I just do it again?
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Following the Maybes
I don’t write about writing as frequently as my blog sisters on Poe’s Deadly Daughters. Maybe that’s because my method doesn’t bear too much analysis. In the division between outliners and into-the-mist writers (or seat-of-the-pantsers, as some call them), I fall definitely—or mistily—into the category of those who don’t or can’t outline. Picking my way through a mist, with light shining only a little way ahead and no idea what lies beyond that bit of illumination, is an excellent description of how I write a novel. As I’ve said before, writing short—a poem, a story, a song, a blog post, or a letter to an online therapy client—is a whole lot easier than writing in the mist.
In a recent online discussion about how people write, I was interested to learn that for some writers, outlining means not a sheaf of pages that look like a Power Point presentation, but a collection of little notes. Using index cards or Post-its, they write signposts along the path of the story. For example: “The power fails, lights go out, covering up second murder.” “Journalist wrote a story about the developers.” “Protag and friends search boyfriend’s room for victim’s notebook.” “Roommate is bulimic, hears murderer while in bathroom throwing up.”
“Ohhh,” I said. “Is that outlining? I do that—or something very like it.” My examples are in fact notes from a manuscript later in my series. All of them were written during the writing of the first draft—not before, but during the process, as they occurred to me. Some of the events mentioned made it into the draft, others did not. The story took itself in different directions. But that’s exactly what these little-note outliners say happens to their stories. The outline is not inflexible, and it can’t be allowed to trammel the creative process. On the other hand, it is much harder to write not knowing what’s going to happen next, no less in the end, from moment to moment the whole length of 250 pages.
So what’s the difference between outlining and what I do? Is there a difference? For one thing, these notes by no means tell the story. They cover only those flashes in the midst that happen to catch my inner eye. When I think of a mist with headlights trying to break through and mysterious happenings hidden behind its veil, I think of a drive my husband and I once took along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a day so foggy that the Blue Ridge was invisible. It was very quiet, the damp air a heavy blanket muffling sound and movement. Once or twice we spotted a deer cropping grass by the roadside, undisturbed by the beam of our headlights glancing off it.
The note taking is like that. If the headlights fall to the left, I see a deer—make a note. There may be a bear to the right that I never see. Sometimes the note-thoughts come to me as I write, sometimes as I lie in bed thinking of yesterday’s writing and of today’s to come. Sometimes not just plot ideas but lines of dialogue and even occasional descriptive passages bubble up while I’m out running. That’s why I carry a lightweight digital recorder. I get it down before I can forget it and make the note when I get back to my pen and my Post-its.
But here’s the biggest difference. To me, “outline” means “commitment.” If I say I’m an outliner, I must have sticky notes, and each note must represent a bit of the story that I am committed to tell, even if the rule is that it’s okay to change my mind later. Every single one of my notes (including the true versions of the examples above) start with “Maybe.” “Maybe the power fails…” “Maybe the journalist wrote a story…” “Maybe the roommate is bulimic…” I’m not committed. But I don’t want to throw away what may turn out to be perfectly good plot points, certainly not just because of my lousy aging memory. Writing it down is like taking a quick photo of that deer at the edge of the mist. I’ve got it, and if I want to, I’ll use it later—maybe.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
An Interview with Angela Henry
Angela Henry is the author of The Company You Keep, Tangled Roots, and Diva’s Last Curtain Call, featuring African-American sleuth Kendra Clayton. She founded the award-winning MystNoir Website, which promotes African-American mystery writers, in May 2000. Born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, she now works as a reference librarian at an Ohio community college. Visit her web site at www.angelahenry.com.
Q. Tell us a bit about your heroine, Kendra Clayton, and how you created her.
A. Kendra is what I like to call the girl next door with an edge. She's smart, funny, gutsy, and fiercely loyal to her friends and family. But, on the flip side, she's nosy, sarcastic, hardheaded, and impulsive, which is what gets her into a lot of trouble. I created Kendra by using traits from many of my female friends and relatives. There is a little bit of everyone I love in Kendra.
Q. Librarians are smart, savvy people - did you ever consider making Kendra a librarian sleuth?
A. Actually, when I started writing the first book in the series, I was working for an adult literacy program much like the one Kendra works for. By the time I finished the book four years later, I was working in the library field. So, I let Kendra keep my old job.
Q. Will you write a fourth book about Kendra, or are you working on something new?
A. I am working on a Young Adult book apart from this series. But, book number four in the Kendra series is already written and should be in bookstores sometime in 2009. I'm contracted for two more, bringing the series to six. Beyond that I have no idea, though I'd like to keep writing the series for a long time.
Q. Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or did that urge come to you in adulthood?
A. I always knew I'd be a writer when I was younger. I'm an avid reader and always wanted to create stories and characters of my own. I started writing short stories in high school and got a lot of encouragement and positive feedback from my teachers.
Q. You've said that nine years passed from the time you started writing your first book to the time you were offered a publishing contract. Do you think publishers were reluctant to take on a mystery series with black characters? Or were you simply having the same run of bad luck that many beginners have? Or was it a combination of both factors?
A. Well, I'm more inclined to think it was bad luck and timing. A lot of the feedback I was getting for my first book was that editors loved my characters and they loved my "voice" but it wasn't suspenseful enough to compete in the tight mystery market. My agent never told me that any editors had rejected it based on the race of my characters. Also, I did have one publisher that was very interested but the editor that expressed interest left the publishing house and I was left in limbo. We could never get a yes or no answer and eventually gave up.
Q. Do you believe imprints dedicated to black fiction are helpful or harmful in the long run? Do they help writers find their most likely readers? At the same time, is it possible they prevent writers from breaking out to a larger audience?
A. I think black imprints can be a double-edged sword. For a lot of black authors, myself included, being published by a black imprint helped me get published and build a readership. I'm very grateful for that. But, books published by black imprints are usually only promoted to black readers, which makes it really hard for an author who wants to break out to a mainstream audience and make some of the big bestseller lists. It's not impossible. But it's very hard.
Q. You started out with BET Books, which was soon sold to Harlequin. Did the change of ownership affect you in any way?
A. Yes, it did. BET was a smaller publisher. Harlequin is bigger and has much better distribution, which is wonderful. You can find Harlequin books all over the world. However, I'm just beginning to see one of the not so wonderful things, and that's the bias some people have against books published by Harlequin. I experienced it first hand not long ago at a book fair I participated in. Another author asked me who my publisher was. When I said Harlequin, I got an earful about how all Harlequin books, no matter what the genre, were formulaic and all the same. Another Harlequin author said she's been dealing with that type of attitude towards Harlequin for years. I guess I was just naive. I knew people had biases against certain genres, and even genre fiction in general. I had no idea there was publisher bias going on too. As if authors don't have enough to deal with.
Q. Your books have been published in both trade and mass market paperback, haven't they? Do you think this strategy has helped you build an audience?
A. Yes. My books sell very well in mass market. My print runs in trade tend to be smaller. So, the mass market re-release really helps build my numbers. Now my books are also available in ebook format, which helps even more.
Q. Your latest mystery examines racism in the film business. Hollywood is a long way from Springfield. How did you do your research for the book?
A. Well, the character of Vivianne DeArmond, the actress Kendra's sister is accused of murdering, was loosely based on Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. I read a biography of her and her struggles in Hollywood as my research.
Q. If you had to compare the status of black actors in Hollywood and black writers in publishing, which group would you say has made more progress in recent years?
A. Hmm. That 's a hard one. But I'll go ahead and say authors just because I think it's easier to get published than it would be to be cast in a movie or a series, especially in a lead role. I think the opportunities for black actors in Hollywood are more limited than the opportunities for authors.
Q. Mystery writers in general love librarians because so many are fans of the genre. How have your fellow librarians reacted to your success as a mystery writer?
A. I've had so much positive feedback from other librarians. I'm so humbled by all the support. If you ask me what book events I enjoy doing the most, it would be library events hands down. Librarians rock!
Q. Reference librarians in particular are dear to the hearts of many writers, as well as students, because our work demands a lot of research. As a reference librarian yourself, have you seen a shift away from libraries and toward the internet? Do you use the internet for research?
A. I use books and the internet for my research. I work in an academic library and even with all of the almost overwhelming amount of online resources and databases available, many students still gravitate toward books. Many don't like or feel comfortable with computers. That makes me confident that books and libraries are here to stay.
Q. What does the future hold for you as a writer? What would you like to be doing five or ten years from now?
A. I'd like to still be writing, hopefully full-time and in multiple genres.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Easter reminded me of sugar eggs, or as they were also called, panorama eggs. Feeling nostalgic, I swooped around the Internet to see if they still existed. They did, and they didn’t.
Panorama eggs have apparently enjoyed a resurgence. Williams-Sonoma, the California foodie company makes them, as does a number of high-end candy companies, and boutique speciality food shops. All of the sites were sold out for the Easter season, testifying to the egg’s continued popularity. But they just weren’t what I remembered.
In my day, panorama eggs came from Japan. They were made of a hard, often sparkly, sugar shell, decorated with equally-hard, mass-produced flowers and swirls of icing. They didn’t come with a warning, printed in several languages, but they came with something more succinct. A mother, who held you by the shoulders, looked you straight in the eye and said, “Don’t eat this!” You didn’t get one in your Easter basket until you were old enough to know that sugar eggs were for looking, not for licking.
There was a small hole in one end, covered by a piece of cellophane. You closed one eye and squinted into the hole with your other eye. Inside was the most marvelous scene. Miniscule bunnies romped through a meadow, or a hen and her dozen chicks arranged themselves among flowers and decorated eggs. In a well-made egg, the miniature panorama painted on the inside of the shell looked so real that it seemed to stretch forever.
In some decade between nostalgia and reality-TV, the U. S. government passed a federal law that says all parts of anything sold as candy must be edible. The eggs changed. For one thing, many of them are now done with a larger, vertical hole, instead of the miniature peep hole at one end. The bunnies or chickens are made of nougat or royal icing or marshmallow or something that looks cute and clunky at the same time. No more painted panoramas, no more sparkles. For all I know, those original sparkles were ground glass or mica chips, so maybe this is a good thing.
To make up for the blah inside, the outside now sports blowzy flowers, icing swirls, or pastel polka-dots and ribbons. Pleasing to look at, probably terrific to eat, but I doubt that these eggs, like those of my childhood, will sell on e-Bay for several hundred dollars in the year 2058.
What I objected to most about the new eggs was that a child today wasn’t going to have the benefit of my annual post-Easter ritual: deconstructing the egg. Okay, so, panorama eggs were probably costly, and maybe I should have treated them with more respect, but I had to get at that story of how they were put together.
Never soak a panorama egg in a pail of water. Just trust me on this, okay?
The best way to take them apart was a combination of archeology and forensic techniques. First, insert a cold chisel or screwdriver under the icing swirl that held them together and tap lightly with a hammer. Repeat at intervals all the way around. Once you’ve removed the decorative icing, you will be able to see where the two halves join. Do a test probe into your egg with the screwdriver edge. If you encounter cardboard, it means you’re going to need a sharp knife, maybe like your Girl Scout pocket knife, to slice the two halves of the egg open.
Once you’re inside, examine everything: how it was painted, the way the tiny rabbits were cut out, how they were fastened to the cardboard floor, how the floor fit into tiny grooves cut down the length of the egg. One of my most fascinating discoveries was the year I realized that both the floor and the small creatures had been painted over layers of recycled Japanese newspapers, stiffened with glue and shellac.
Unfortunately, by the time you’ve delved the mysteries of the egg, it’s pretty much a mass of sugar, cardboard, and ubiquitous sparkly stuff. Go wash your hands.
Fortunately, as writers, we can do the same kind of forensic analysis on written pieces without getting ground glass all over our hands. It’s called modeling, and it’s one of the best learn-to-write techniques going.
Pick writing you love, and writing you hate. Go for the real extremes here: the books you want to cradle and keep on your shelf forever; the ones you throw across the room while uttering undeleted expletives.
Start by writing out a passage in long-hand. Like not soaking sugar eggs in a pail of water, this is something you’re going to have to trust me on. There is something about writing in long-hand that gives a feel of the flow that a keyboard doesn’t, no matter how skilled a keyboarder you are.
Next, take each sentence individually, look at it, take it apart down to it’s component words and punctuation marks. Analyze it, make a pattern, and finally, model a sentence just like it. I don’t mean simple word substitution, though that is one way to do it, and I have done it to advantage. I mean write another sentence that reproduces the essence of the first sentence.
“I put our bedroom fan in the side window so it would draw air from the front of the house, but I would dream of turkey buzzards circling over a corrugated rice field, of sand-flecked winds blowing across the formless and decomposing shape of a large animal, of a woman’s hair and fingernails wedging against the sides of a metal box.” (James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, p 140—This is one of my love, cradle, and keep forever books.)
bedroom fan, side window, drawing air from the cooler front of the house—comfort, lots of nostalgia there, temperature change, sound
turkey buzzards and corrugated rice fields—conflicting images: buzzards are ugly; a corrugated rice field in Louisiana is a beautiful thing, but keep in mind that Dave Robicheaux is a Vietnam veteran. He’s got to be equivocal about rice fields.
formless and decomposing shape—more equivocal imagery—the Tibetian Book of the Dead treats decomposition with respect
of a woman’s hair and fingernails—nice images, flowing hair, well manicured nails
wedging against the sides of a metal box—one final turn.
Pattern: comforting image, full of nostalgia and sensual undertones; but; conflicting, equivocal image—once, twice, ending with a third turn toward something not at all comforting.
I slid the silk dress over my head listening to the rustle the fabric made against my hair, but the sound couldn’t shut out the way Mirna called to me as I’d walked away from her, down the corridor smelling of wilted flowers and overcooked eggs; the plea any mother might make. “Damn it, Jessie, find my son. Find him and kill him.”
Okay, so I’m no James Lee Burke, but that will give you an idea. Don’t be surprised if your modeling takes a wicked turn you never expect and that half-way through your construction you veer in a different direction from what you originally intended. That’s part of the beauty of the exercise. All sorts of side trips open up.
Now, go wash your hands. Happy spring.
Never tear down a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.
~G. K. Chesterton, mystery writer
Monday, March 24, 2008
Every spring my family and I take a little trip--just a quick getaway during our Easter break. Last year our retreat was buried deep in the Michigan woods--a lovely place that inspired peace and eventual inspiration (see photo above). By the very next DAY, however, we found ourselves under a winter storm watch (and it was April, mind you) and our retreat looked like this:
This year Easter came much earlier, as we all know, and so we may be facing even colder weather on our "spring retreat." Unfortunately, I made arrangements dreaming of warmer weather. Our hideaway is right on the river, with a little balcony from which we can watch the boats:
The weather forecast for Michigan tells me that the temps should be somewhere between 30 and 40; I'm not foreseeing too much balcony time, nor do I think too many people will want to take their boats out on the frigid water. But who knows? Maybe this weather and the quiet, off-season time in a resort town will be the very thing I need to inspire all sorts of writing.
So, as I pack and head off to our cold spring break, I ask you: what's your favorite writer's or reader's retreat?
Saturday, March 22, 2008
An Interview with Cait London
USA Today best selling author, Cait London, has seen more than 60 of her books published in her twenty-year writing career. She’s written romance, westerns, romantic suspense and now she has a new trilogy with a paranormal element. A Stranger’s Touch, the second book in the series will be released on March 25.
The Aisling triplets, Tempest, Leona and Claire have each inherited psychic talents. Descendants of a Celtic seer and a Viking Chieftain, the three contemporary women are connected by their senses, so intimately they can’t live together. First-born, Leona, is a powerful precognitive. Tempest can soak up the history of an object held in her bare hands. And last-born, Claire, is an empath, able to read others feelings.
Q: Your new series is part suspense, part paranormal. How did the idea for the series evolve?
Cait: The idea for this trilogy evolved several years ago. It was quite challenging because there is a story arc with multiple threads flowing through each book until the last. Yet each book has its own independent plot and subplot, the threads weaving along the story. To actually begin writing the different dimensions was thrilling. I have three daughters, so the relationship between the siblings and between them and the mother came easily. Writers have much research built into them, ready to be tapped and you’ll find much of me in my books. I’m basically an artist, so I understood much of what Claire (At The Edge; Claire for clairvoyant) would feel about texture and color when creating her handbags. Tempest (A Stranger’s Touch; Tempest for her fast-moving personality) is a sculptor, and I understood the visualization there. Also, I’ve read Viking history for years, and my sister and I like to think we have some psychic abilities. I’d
met a couple of psychics, who were extremely interesting, and one had worked with police. The pieces of the fabric were there, just waiting to be brought to life. BTW, I interviewed a tremendous amount of resource people while creating this trilogy.
Q: Could you explain the basic set-up for this trilogy?
Cait: The story arc begins with the first book, develops through the following stories, and ends in the last book. While each book has an individual story, the threads that flow through all books will end in the third book. For writers, an arc could be dangerous: If the first book does not launch well, that could be detrimental to sales of the succeeding books. I knew I wanted to write the stories. But I also knew the dangers. Thinking back, this trilogy may have evolved naturally from the eerie suspense of Flashback and Silence the Whispers two of my favorite books. Quite a lot of work went into this set-up, including a very careful chart of all the names and their meanings. Not only story threads, but important items particular to this family are highlighted. The same newspaper article flows through all three books and is critical in explaining the actions of the triplets. BTW, the name Aisling dates back to that Celtic seer and it is a professional name assumed by the triplets’ mother, a professional psychic. These books are NOT paranormal in the sense of shape-shifters, vampires, etc., rather the stories involve telepathy between the siblings, etc.
Q: At the Edge is the first book in the series. Claire is the last born of the triplets and she’s an empath. How does that affect her life and the story?
Cait: As the youngest, Claire is more sensitive and protected by her older siblings. She’s very delicate and must live an isolated existence, away from too much contact with others. She lives in rural Montana—one of my favorite places to visit, and her life gets exciting and complicated when Neil Olafson (Viking name) moves in next door. An extrovert, Neil is an intrusion into her quiet, secluded, creative world. The conflict of the personalities, her need to help Neil seek his abducted son, causes Claire to venture out of her safety zone. The story thread in this set-up book begins when Claire is attacked. Throughout the story she becomes stronger, and faces her own past. At the Edge is the launch book and introduces the family.
Q: A Stranger’s Touch, the second book in the series will be out the first of the week. This is Tempest’s story. What are her abilities?
Cait: Tempest’s gift (or curse) lies in her naked hands. When the “middle-born” holds an object in her naked hands, she understands its history: who held it, what they were thinking, and a little of their history. Therefore, Tempest must always wear gloves. She’s a metal sculptor and exceptionally curious. She’s also very physically active, on the go, and one who lives on challenges. Tempest is able to flow between all the strong personalities in her family, because she is not that sensitive—unless she takes off her gloves. A Stranger’s Touch has several mysteries, plus that ongoing thread, and Tempest is set to discover all of them as she seeks to unwrap a cold-case murder. Tempest is a hunter, in danger from her past, the present, and the thread circling her family. Set near
Q: The final book is the trilogy will feature first-born Leona. Can you give us a preview?
Cait: For Her Eyes Only (10/08) is based on Leona’s resentment of her inherited abilities. She is determined not to be like her professional psychic mother, or her grandmother. She refuses to live her life in fear of the dangerous threads that have wrapped around her family. Not until her family is endangered does Leona come into her namesake’s protective mode. Since childhood, Leona has been labeled as the potentially strongest of the clairvoyants. And she comes into her own in For Her Eyes Only. Leona, the lioness, will have to enter abilities she’s denied all of her life to save herself and her loved ones. This is set in
Q: Do you consider settings to be characters?
Cait: Yes, definitely. I chose each one of these settings very carefully. One of the threads has to do with water/fog and/or the lack of it. Settings are very important to me and I’ve actually visited all of them, or fictionalized where I’ve been on site.
Q: Is there the possibility of more books about these characters?
Cait: Readers have already asked that I continue this series, using the mother, Greer, the psychic who often works with police. At this time, I have no plans for a prequel.
Q: You’ve been writing romantic suspense for several years now. Do you plan to continue?
Cait: I always love stories that have many layers and a little bit of the psychological. Romantic suspense is the perfect place for that. My books aren’t for everyone. Romantic Suspense can be defined as anything, and there are many tiers. My writing leans more to emotional conflict and play between the characters, rather than forensic and police involvement. I write to my personal preferences as a reader: less graphic, less detective/police/military. As a writer, I’m highly involved with my career and have changed sub-genres several times.
Q: What is it about suspense that appeals to you as a writer? Is it the struggle between good and evil? The opportunity to write in depth about people facing life changing events? Or just the chance to make sure the good guys win in the end?
Cait: I love unwrapping the story, the causes, the journey and the end. I love writing about people who are not always perfect and who do make wrong decisions. Perhaps the flawed interest me more. The writing challenge comes from creating a balance between the protagonists and the worthy antagonist. I love exploring the characters’ doubts and how they make their life-decisions. What happens next, dropping twists/dead bodies, red herrings, I love them all. I suppose exploring the motivations of characters interests me the most. I’m prone to write about small town secrets.
Q: You’ve written romance, westerns, romantic suspense and now paranormal suspense—more than 60 novels by my count—is there a genre you haven’t tried that you’d like to tackle?
Cait: I’m working on that one . (Smiles.)
Q: Before you became a writer you were an artist. What skills as an artist do you feel you bring to your writing?
Cait: Callouses. When I started writing to sell, I understood that not everyone is going to be happy with my story ideas. I’ve come to believe that writing to sell is very different from the love of writing alone. Writing to sell can mean a lot of compromises within the storyline, these requested by the buying editor. Basically, when painting a canvas, or writing a story, you’ve invested a tremendous amount of time and creative energy into the piece. When trying for publication, you’re sending your child out into the cold cruel world. You may get back that arrow through the heart, or interest. But writing is like painting in that there are different POVs, and perhaps another critic will like your work. It’s a matter of luck, of endurance, of regimen, and realizing that not everyone will love your baby. Or perhaps your baby is flawed J. After a certain amount of publication, you gather more balance between what story you want and what the editor may want to change. Writing and painting are the same in that there is a background fabric and highlights brought forward. The background emphasizes and textures the foreground, which would be the main story line.
Q: What’s your writing routine like?
Cait: I write rough draft very early in the morning. It’s like my nest is uncluttered, no phone calls, etc. Take a break, answer e-mail, business stuff, etc., and pretty much editor or do business the rest of the day. I ran a straw poll some time ago and questioned professionals how much time they spent in writing, and how much on the business end. The average was about 75% on business, which included promotion, networking, groups, etc. So that 25% writing time is very dear. When I am on deadline, I can write throughout the day. I am more regimented and work on a writing schedule, but there are always life-interuptus situations or galleys or copyedits, etc. I do my own website and blog and ad layouts and bookmarks, mailing addresses, etc., so that all takes a tremendous amount of time and breaks in my schedule. A story usually begins to really palpitate at the end and then I edit constantly to streamline.
Q: How have you managed to be so prolific? Do you have any writing advice to share?
Cait: I’m just full of it. Of stories, I mean. I’ve studied plotting and conflict and keep a ready supply of words that incite stories. I also keep story ideas in my toybox, called Nuggets. I’m big on lists and databases, so there is always something simmering, so far as story ideas. I can get them from anywhere, i.e. a windmill missing a paddle in KS, an Amish girl riding a paint pony alongside the road, my own background, items around the house, and I keep a lot of visuals around.
And I have lots of advice you can find at my website, http://caitlondon.com or my blog, http://caitlondon.blogspot.com. Here’re some basics:
- When considering an offer, never answer immediately. Brand this into your brain: “Can I get back to you? I’d like to think about it.”
- You get out of writing, what you invest into it. Energy spent equals proportional results.
- Write every day. Write something. When I started, I sent out queries or thank-you notes (for rejections), or a reader letter every Monday.
- About thank-you notes and courtesies: Always thank editors for their time, even if you aren’t exactly happy with them. Stay pleasant. The professional writing community is actually very small and networks.
- When receiving criticism, do not chop up your story right away. Stand back, let your ideas cool and then come back to the piece.
- Accept that all writers have different levels of talent. Spark and Talent play huge parts in career professionals. Therefore, do not compare someone who has had years of publishing behind them, several editors and tons of experience to your own work. This can be defeating. Do not defeat yourself by reading an acclaimed author amid your own creative struggles.
- Write the piece straight through. Then edit. But push the story out with all of its vibrancy, before editing. When editing, balance the weight of the characters. Very important.
- I have never been involved in critique groups. I think they work for some writers, but not for others. It’s a different strokes thingie. But remember that publication moves really quickly, and you may be contacted by an editor for an overnight rewrite. You should have some confidence in yourself alone, without consulting with a group. Your group may not always be available within a night or a day, so be prepared to write on your own.
- If you don’t know how to write clear, effective business letters, practice. Work on business language, and use business language in e-mail when addressing an editor. This seems basic, but unfortunately, many writers do not possess good business language/writing.
- Address Revenge, Possession, and Escape. I got those fine items from Jayne Ann Krentz. Add Needs. Who has it? Who wants it? Why? What?
Friday, March 21, 2008
Coke floats and lovely librarians, ahhhhhh . . .
I must take time to brag on the librarians at the Metropolis Public Library. Always supportive of my books, they went above and beyond for me this time with cookies and cupcakes AND dressing in Fifties garb! Thankfully they requested not to be included in the contest because no way could I choose between Mary Pansing's jean pedal pushers and white bobby socks, Karen Laird's red poodle skirt and black poodle shirt, Cheryl McQueen's black checkered skirt and poodle shirt, or Beverly Adams' pink skirt and bobby socks. Way to celebrate the 50's, ladies! My own outfit was jeans, blue jean heels (which I rarely wear, can't stand up in 'em) and a pink tee covered by a longsleeved shirt, both decorated with 50's items, including the obligatory poodle, and with the collar turned up.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
What's shocking? entertaining? political? art?
When I started sending out my mystery about recovery from alcoholism to agents and editors several years ago, I quickly discovered that the topic of alcoholism served as a kind of litmus test, sometimes telling me more about the reader’s psyche than about the quality of my writing. Some said outright that they found the subject depressing—though my protagonist succeeds in turning his life around, the story ends in a burst of hope, and I hope I don’t sound too humorless if I say I think the book is funny. One editor, I remember, said that readers are looking for escape, and my irreverent but affectionate depiction of life in the 12-step programs was too much of a dose of reality. I find this puzzling in the current state of our culture, which embraces reality TV shows on the one hand, and on the other, mysteries and thrillers that focus on gory forensics and/or the psyches of serial killers. How come we find sociopaths and torture entertaining but people giving up their cynicism and despair along with the booze depressing?
This paradox occurred to me a few weeks ago when my husband, who surfs the online news daily, called my attention to an article about the resignation of the president of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. We were interested because we’ve been to Williamsburg and have an ongoing general interest in history. I’ll be visiting Virginia on my book tour later this spring. And I happened to have had a lunch date the day before with a friend who lives in the state.
What had caused the furor in America’s oldest institution of higher learning? Two issues, it seems, had offended the powers that be: a controversial art exhibit on campus—the Sex Workers Art Show—and the president’s decision to take down a monument known as the Wren Cross—designed by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren and, according to one’s perspective, a symbol of sectarian religion or a work of art.
If indeed I understood the facts correctly—not always easy in the online news—I had mixed feelings about the package as presented. Censorship of art? Thumbs down! As in the Mapplethorpe brouhaha a few years back, I don’t believe that work conceived as creative art should be judged by conservative moral standards. Sex work as the politically correct conceptualization of prostitution? I don’t buy it, and I’ve been concerned for quite some time by the increasing tyranny of “political correctness”—a term handed down to us from Stalinism, as many people nowadays never knew or don’t remember. I’m not sure I don’t smell thought police on both sides of this particular controversy.
As for the Wren Cross, hmm. As an American Jew, I am horrified that some of our leaders seem to think America is “a Christian country.” I’ve always assumed it was a secular state all of whose citizens were free to choose our beliefs. On the other hand, Christianity has been the major inspiration for art in Western civilization for many centuries. Forbidding the display of art using its symbols is yet another kind of artistic censorship. How different is it from banning, say, the Easter bunny? Or should we ban the Easter bunny? How many people know it’s a pagan symbol, not a Christian one? The rabbit goddess Estre, an avatar of Ishtar, was said to lay multicolored eggs.
I don’t have answers. And I hope nobody gets too mad at me for asking questions. But let me offer one more anecdote to meditate on. A university that I’ve promised not to name has forbidden its theater department to produce and perform Eve Ensler’s feminist masterwork, The Vagina Monologues—the play that put the V word into our everyday vocabulary, and high time, in my opinion. The ongoing ban is moot, because every year, a new group of students organizes the play and one feminist department head or another helps enough with funding to make it happen. This pleases me, as a member of the half of the human race that’s got them. How about you?
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
The Invisible Villain
“I knew who the killer was the first time I saw him.”
That’s probably the most common complaint I hear about crime fiction, and it’s often followed by either “It ruined the story for me” or, even more alarming to a writer, “As soon as I knew whodunnit, I stopped reading. What was the point of going on?”
I don’t fully understand this attitude. I figure out who the villain is fairly early in at least 75% of the crime novels I read, and it never ruins the story or makes me stop. I read for a lot of reasons, and the puzzle factor is last on the list. “Why?” intrigues me much more than the simple “Who?” ever will. Twisted reasoning, long-buried secrets, hidden rage that’s simmered for decades before boiling over – that’s the stuff I love, and even after I’ve figured out “who” I will stick around to learn the whole story behind the killer’s actions. Meanwhile, I enjoy knowing that the hero or heroine is misjudging this person. I like seeing the villain wiggle out of potentially disastrous situations, all the way up to the ultimate unveiling. Knowing who the killer is adds another, almost always enjoyable, dimension to the book for me.
Still, I realize most mystery readers want to be surprised, and I’m sure most writers fully intend to keep the villain’s identity under wraps until the end. So why do they often fail? The most likely answer is that writers are too close to their stories to see the flaws. An author thinks the villain is cleverly concealed and can’t see the obvious give-aways. (We might ask why an editor doesn’t spot the problem, but we’re not likely to get an answer.) Whatever the reason, authors make the same mistakes again and again.
Ask any mystery reader about the “new boyfriend” cliche and you’ll get a groan and a roll of the eyes. If the crime-solving heroine has a new love, and the guy does nothing but stand around being supportive or getting in the way, you can bet he’s the killer. (Linda Fairstein did a nice, wry twist on this theme in one of her books, but I won’t give the title and spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the novel yet.) The same goes for any other character – if this person has no real reason to be in the story, just hovers around the edges or tries to insinuate himself into the investigation, he or she probably did it.
Many writing teachers advise authors to cast suspicion on the killer early on, then clear him or her in a convincing way so the reader will rule out that person as the villain. But today’s mystery readers, with their devious minds, have little trouble spotting this ploy. A guy’s been cleared before the story is one-third over? He must be guilty, and at some point his alibi will turn to dust and blow away.
Steering clear of PPS (Purposeless Character Syndrome) is the easiest way for a writer to avoid painting “I did it!” on the killer’s forehead. The villain who is hard to spot has a job in the story from the beginning. He’s can be touched personally by the crime or play a role in the crime-solving – but he’s not on the murder scene before anyone else shows up and doesn’t find supposedly valuable evidence, he’s not the one and only person who receives phone calls from the killer, he’s not obviously trying to misdirect the investigation. When the camera shifts to him, there’s a good reason and it seems to move the story forward.
But there aren’t any hard and fast rules. Concealing the villain’s identity until the end is tricky, no doubt about it, and what works on one reader may point a neon arrow at the killer in another’s mind. One story that had me fooled all the way through is P.J. Tracy’s Monkeewrench, and I thought the authors (a mother-daughter team) did a great job of misdirection. Usually, though, I don’t care if I guess the killer early. I can enjoy the book anyway.
Is this an important issue for you? If you guess the killer’s identity, do you feel deflated and enjoy the book less after that point? If any books have kept you baffled until the end, I’d love to know the titles. I’m always looking for something good enough to satisfy the merciless, bloodthirsty bunch in my mystery discussion group. Hasn’t happened yet, but there’s always a first time.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Appropriation of Voice
About a month ago, I discovered a magazine called Cloth, Paper, Scissors, which focuses on collage and mixed-media art as a means of artistic discovery. In the very first issue (Winter, 2004, pages 40-45), was an article by the writer Jenny Cruise about how she makes a 3-dimensional collage of a book before she begins writing it.
Here’s what she said about one collage, “Determined to find pearls for my nicho [Latin American display niche or box] that wouldn’t break the bank, I went to the local Goodwill and not only found three necklaces for $2.75, but also a broken pocket watch that looked exactly like my book, even though there was no pocket watch in the story.”
The writer in me groaned. I knew exactly what she meant. I envied her pocket watch find. What a gift to caress in your hand a tangible object that encapsulates your story.
What I’ve tried to encapsulate lately—cultural voice—is far less substantial than a pocket watch. It slips, twists, and falls out of my grasp. In my work in progress, I need characters from two different cultures: Greek and Vietnamese.
I had a fleeting experience, thirty years ago, with a few Vietnamese people, but not with their culture. In the year I spent in Viet Nam I was never inside a Vietnamese house; never ate, as the Army called it “on the economy,” meaning to eat Vietnamese food; learned only three or four useful Vietnamese words; and came home with no appreciation of Vietnamese culture, art, history, or values. My loss.
My Greek experience consists of attending one rather lengthy Orthodox Greek church service, and watching My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.
At least, thanks to the opportunity to take cross-cultural classes from a brilliant and talented anthropologist, I know how much I don’t know. I’m better off than the woman I met recently at a writers’ event. She was struggling with the same problem of including characters of a different cultural background in her book, and I asked her how she’d approached it.
She admitted that she knew nothing about the other culture, but had attended one of their holiday celebrations and took lots of photographs of the costumes, and she figured she could wing it from there because, “underneath, we’re all alike, aren’t we?”
No, we aren’t.
The best way to write characters from other cultures is to grow up in the culture, like Jane Haddem in an Armenian culture, or spend decades in close association with it, like Amy and David Thurlo living in the Four Corners area of the American southwest.
Not having those options, the next-best choice would be to interview as many people Vietnamese and Greek people as I can, preferably people who are the same age and had the same experiences as my characters will have.
Except that I don’t have the time, money, or contacts to do that. And, in one case—Vietnamese who lived through the fall of Saigon in 1975— I can’t, at this point, risk contamination. Even if I could get up the courage to ask my two Vietnamese co-workers what their experiences were in March and April 1975, their answers would inevitably be colored by the thirty-three years that have passed since then. What I need is raw data, to live in 1975, not 2008.
So after much struggle, here’s what I’ve come up with on how I’m going to attempt to write characters from other backgrounds without, I hope, appropriating their voice. I don’t know if it will work or not, but at least I’m making some headway in developing characters.
1. I admit that I don’t know enough about the other cultures to write a main character. I could never write Father Tibor to the same degree Jane Haddam can or develop the same intricacies of the Clah family like the Thurlo have done. So, my Greek and Vietnamese characters will weave through the story like ribbons, but I wouldn’t dare try to write the story from their point of view.
2. I’ve acculturated two of the characters to American culture, and I make the other characters’ response to that acculturation part of the story. One of the most culturally-jarring experiences I ever had was to be introduced to an Australian aborigine, who spoke in what I had pigeon-holed in my head as the accent assigned to a bulky, red-faced, British-heritage Australian. The combination of face and voice didn’t match my pre-conceived ideas, and I know I can use that kind of tension to advantage in the story.
3. My protagonist will hit a wall each time she comes up against cultural differences in one of these characters. I intend to write her as the outsider, always looking in with respect, but not having an innate understanding of what she’s looking at.
4. Sound and pictures help. I’ve spent far too much time lately looking at the fall of Saigon on YouTube. I’m watching the body language and the facial expressions. It also has helped to play Greek and Vietnamese music as background. Fortunately, my library has a large collection of audio-books in other languages. I’ve listened to some of those books, not having a clue what the words say, but just absorbing the rhythms, the rise and fall of how the language is spoken.
Writing quote for the week:
There are nine-and-sixty ways of composing tribal lays—and every single one of them is right!
~Rudyard Kipling, British writer
Monday, March 17, 2008
Exciting News for Mary Stewart Fans
Chicago Review Press has reissued two classic Stewart suspense novels: The Ivy Tree and Nine Coaches Waiting, with moody new covers and trade paperback formats.
While I wouldn't re-read most books simply because I saw them with different covers, Stewart's books are an exception. The cool new covers are just an excuse to read her books again.
I'm also glad to see Stewart in the trade size, since the old books I have, which may well be relics from the 60s or 70s, are hard to read in mass market size with the extremely tiny print that many books had back then.
Nine Coaches Waiting is a book with a Gothic feel, and this new cover captures that with its mysterious dark look and red lettering. Kudos to whomever decided to re-imagine the cover for this classic tale.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Canada Calling: Nate Hendley
What makes “the bad guys” fascinating? Why do people love to read about bank robbers, family massacrers, and American gangsters?
I can think of two different reasons. On one hand, people can sort of live vicariously through the action of bad men. Anyone who’s ever fantasized about robbing a bank would find a certain delight in the actions of say, Jesse James or John Dillinger. Bad men live outside the law, outside morality. Some people find that fascinating.
At the same time, I think people are intrigued by the efforts by law enforcement officials to capture and/or kill various bad guys. There is a sense that “justice will prevail” and it’s extremely gratifying when you hear about some low-life who has been captured, cornered or killed. My Bonnie and Clyde book, if I may be so bold, is a good example of this. You might root and cheer for Bonnie and Clyde in the early chapters, but once "the good guys" have been introduced, in the form of the Texas Rangers and Frank Hamer, the story turns into a question of ‘how far will they go before the Rangers nail them?’
The killings of the Donnelly family and of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were horrific. Should there be a line that a true-crime writer won't cross, or is anything, no matter how gruesome, fodder for the writer?
Yes. There is actually a recent example in Canada of this in Canada. Back in the early 1990s, there was this horrid couple in St. Catharines Ontario named Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. They kidnapped, raped and murdered at least two teenage girls, possibly more. Paul was also a serial rapist on the side. For whatever reason, Paul and Karla videotaped their little sex torture/murder sessions. Anyway, when Paul came up for trial (he was arrested after a long investigation that saw Karla more or less cooperate with authorities for a reduced sentence), the judge imposed a publication ban on evidence. The end-result was that only the judge, jury and lawyers could actually view the sex-murder tapes in the trial. It was verboten to broadcast them on TV or even watch them (unless you were a judge, juror, lawyer or Paul Bernardo).
A crime reporter named Stephen Williams put together a book called Invisible Darkness: The Horrifying Case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The book contained descriptions of the taped torture sessions. Authorities somehow concluded that Williams had actually viewed these tapes, something Williams denied. He was actually criminally charged with two counts of disobeying a court order.
The charges put the crime writer community in a bit of quandary. On one hand, people naturally sympathized with a fellow writer being put upon by the forces of law and order. On the other hand, there was a sense that the Bernardo case was so slimy that it was immoral to probe too deeply into it, for the sake of a book.
I think timing is a big issue. Williams’ fault might have been that he wrote his book too soon after the killings took place. The case was still very raw for a lot of people and they were offended at the notion of “making a buck” by writing about it. Once a few decades have past, it’s generally a lot easier to write about touchy, controversial topics. Williams, by the way, did manage to beat the rap in the end and didn't go to jail.
Last year you published a book on motivation for non-fiction writers. Do non-fiction writers have to psych themselves up in a different way than fiction writers?
Yes. As a fiction writer, you can let your imagination go wild. There are workshops, for example, to promote creativity in artists—a category that certainly covers fiction writers. Non-fiction writers, however, have less to go on. It’s hard to do a creativity exercise to generate enthusiasm about a 1000 word piece on Computer Numerical Controlled lathe machines. Non-fiction writers generally write on command, at least when they’re starting out. You have very specific parameters in which to write—strict word count, deadline, and everything has to be factual and verifiable. This tends to instil a sense of pragmatism among non-fiction scribes. I psych myself up by thinking about the financial ruin that might befall me if I don’t get an assignment done in time
You're also a professional proof-reader and copy editor. What is the biggest problem you see in submitted manuscripts? What do writers need to learn to do better?
The biggest problem I can see in most manuscripts is over-writing. This is particularly the case for beginning writers, who feel they have to make every last word golden. I have found this to be the case in both fiction and non-fiction writers. The more confident you get about your abilities, generally the fewer words you need to put on page to convey a story.
Next month Canada Calling visits Linda Hall, a mystery writer fascinated with how mysterious water can be.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Riepe Ridge looks like a war zone . . .
"Riepe Ridge looks like a war zone." That was the latest word from a customer at Humma's Drug Store when I stopped by to pick up my prescription recently. News that was not terribly surprising. Much of this area in southern Illinois and western Kentucky now looks like a war zone. Tree limbs and branches down everywhere, far too many to count, and the trees they were ripped off are reduced to half their original size with twisted pieces of limbs left dangling. Many large trees were completely felled to the ground as well, roots now laying bare, having been ripped out of the ground as the trees toppled over. One of the largest trees in the woods that borders our back yard just missed hitting our well house and the gazebo when it came down in seconds. It will take days to cut up and burn or haul off.
So what caused this disaster? Tornado? High winds? Lightning strikes? Run amok chain saws? Nope.
Thin, transparent, lightweight in appearance, certainly lighter than the trees, the ice fell like a soft rain, enveloped all the trees for miles, and within a few hours made this area look WORSE than when the killer tornado ripped through here several years ago. Falling limbs and trees blocked roads, damaged buildings, and took out electrical power in almost the entire area, leaving us all in the dark and many with no heat or water for anywhere from several days to a week or more. Local power crews were kept hopping, without sleep and barely time to eat. Crews from other states came in to help. Many residents were forced to move to local hotels or in with family or friends who were, lucky for them, on the edge of the devastation. Another lucky few had or bought generators. Or like us, had a ventless gas fire place to heat the house and a stray cup of tea now and then. Incidentally, oil lamps are handy, but they're not real easy to read the latest mystery by.
The icy covering on the trees was so beautiful and so very deadly to them. Spring is nearly here and I'm afraid to think of what the Dogwood and Azalea Festival will be like this year. So many trees with no branches to hold the blooms. This huge devastation all caused from something that seemed so thin, so see-through at the time started me thinking. Life is like that too. Things happen to us that seem small or unimportant on the outside, or maybe to an outsider, but those things can bring us down to the ground . . . if we let them. Or at the very least, damage us to the point of being unable to function properly for a period of time.
Thoughtless words. Criticism. Disloyalty. Jealousy. Hate. Anger. Foolish joking. Gossip. Whatever. These things can quickly and silently destroy us . . . if we let them.
The trees that actually fell were most likely too old and either weak or diseased to withstand the coat of ice, and they quickly toppled, pulling their very roots out of the ground. No chance for survival or regrowth there. The very strongest survived without nary a branch breaking off. The rest survived with damage but will likely bud out, and in a few years the eye won't be able to tell any difference. Humans are like that too.
How strong are you? Can you withstand some damage? Survive without toppling over and pulling your very roots out of the ground? Just some thoughts for the day.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Interview with Betty Webb
Zelvin: Let’s jump right in with a question about the obvious passion for social justice that makes your Lena Jones PI series a standout. Were you brought up not only to care but to do something about the suffering of others? Or did you have a sudden awakening—in the Sixties we called it “getting radicalized”—because of an experience of your own or something you happened to hear or read about regarding, for example, the underage polygamous wives in Desert Wives?
Webb: I had an unusual childhood in that my father’s family was from the Deep South (Alabama) and my mother’s family was from the North (they arrived in America in 1635).
When the Civil Rights Movement came along, there was a lot of heated discussion about the issues involved, and it got very, very personal. After seeing firsthand what any form of blind prejudice could do to a community’s soul, I took part in my first lunch counter sit-in at the age of 13 and never looked back. During the anti-war Vietnam years, however, I noticed that many so-called “social reformers,” while decrying the fate of African-Americans and the Vietnamese, never gave a thought to the many unjustices towards women, so I wound up rebelling against the rebels. It’s always been amazing to me how so many Human Rights movements leave women out of the equation, almost as if women aren’t really human. Same for children.
When I moved to Arizona in 1982, I encountered the same environment. Lots of concern for the rights of various minorities – as long as they weren’t women or children. Men raping little girls in the polygamy compound was considered an expression of religious freedom.
Zelvin: I’ve heard that Desert Wives actually helped bring about legislation that addressed the plight of women like those you wrote about. Can you tell us about that?
Webb: When I wrote Desert Wives, there was no Arizona statute against polygamy. Again, the so-called religious freedom aspect got in the way. But when Desert Wives revealed the tax and welfare fraud the polygamists were engaging in, and a Arizona representative senator got his hands on the book, he took a couple of cartons of it down to the Arizona House and Senate. A state senator took up the cause, and soon the Arizona legislature finally passed an anti-polygamy statute. But I’d like to point out that the statute was passed not because the government was worried about what was happening to the women and children, but because the government was miffed about the financial fraud.
Zelvin: Your new Lena Jones book, Desert Cut, focuses on a different kind of abuse.
I’ve noticed that the specifics don’t appear in descriptions of the book. I haven’t read it yet—I’m looking forward to that pleasure—but I’m sure I know what kind of abuse you’ve tackled this time, partly because I lived in West Africa many years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer and remain aware of cultural issues there. Are you leaving it unstated to avoid what mystery readers call a “spoiler”—giving away the plot instead of letting it unfold—or for some other reason?
Webb: I’m leaving it unstated (except for 1/3 way through the book) because I don’t want the plot spoiled. But it’s not just happening in West Africa. The practice is prevalent all through sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East – and now in America. The only reason there hasn’t been an outcry is because it happens in secrecy, and its victims are women and children. Again, it’s almost as if the worst outrages against women and children are considered not to be part of the Human Rights equation.
Zelvin: Your new series, set in a zoo, will be very different from the Desert books. How do you feel about writing in a more lighthearted vein? Do you plan to pursue both series as long as possible, and if so, on what kind of schedule? And why the zoo? Have you had to research the topic, or did you have a preexisting relationship with zoos and zoo animals?
Webb: Oddly enough, The Anteater of Death and the rest of the zoo mysteries (there will be at least five) came about because I was dealing in so many heavy subjects, especially during the writing and research for Desert Cut. I needed a laugh, and since my volunteer work at Monkey Village in the Phoenix Zoo had me laughing all the time, I thought... why not? I'm crazy about animals. My current menagerie includes 4 cats and two dogs, but in the past I’ve owned horses, goats, chickens, hamsters, parakeets... the list goes on. Animals are so straightforward. Well, except for the monkeys, who lie and sneak around a lot. As to Teddy, my zookeeper sleuth, she harkens back to my younger days in California, and to the time I briefly lived on a boat. Ah, those were happy, goofy days.
I'll continue the Lena Jones Desert series, too, but every other book will be a zoo mystery.
Zelvin: In general, how much research do you do for your books, and how do you go about it? What is your writing process, both on a daily basis and in the course of producing a new manuscript? What part do you enjoy most? What do you enjoy the least?
Webb: The research for Desert Wives took around three years; the same for Desert Cut. I am fortunate in that as a journalist, I had access to not only my own stories and research, but stories written by other journalists, as well as their research (I still have friends in the business). I was able to interview the victims of these practices, as well as the doctors who eventually treated them. I research not only before, but also during the writing – it’s a never-ending process. I still keep an updated file on polygamy and the practice in Desert Cut, because I care about the causes, not just the books.
My writing starts around 4 a.m. every day and continues to around noon. Then I take a walk, read, watch a little TV (Twilight Zone reruns, Jerry Springer, etc.), and – when my brain has returned to more-or-less normal – go back to work. What part of the process do I enjoy most? The research and dreaming up the plots and characters. What do I enjoy least? Writing the first draft. Second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts are fun, but first drafts terrify me. I’ve tried writing first drafts both with and without outlines, but no matter how I approach those devils, my first drafts leave blood tracks on the keyboard. If I could figure out a way to write a book without doing a first draft, I’d be the happiest woman on earth.
Zelvin: You were a reviewer for many years as well as a writer. To what extent did that affect you as a reader? as a writer? as a writer among your fellow writers? Do you still do any reviewing? What kinds of mysteries do you read for pleasure? What else do you read?
Webb: Being a reviewer for 20 years – I’m still doing it, now for Mystery Scene magazine – has had a lot to do with my own writing. I’ve been able to see where books can go wrong, when they go right, what kinds of characters hold my interest, and what tone and style work best for what plot. By the way, I use this knowledge in my Creative Writing class I teach at Phoenix College.
Since reviewers get books several months before they’re published, I’m able to see trends in the making. One time, though, I received a nasty shock from an ARC (advance review copy). As I was reading a new P.D. James novel for review, I discovered that she not only had the same plot I was working on for Desert Shadows, but actually used the same last line I did! So I had to re-plot and re-structure my own book in three months (I’d promised delivery on a certain date). It just about killed me.
What kinds of mysteries do I read for pleasure? To no one’s great surprise, I like the dark plots, haunted main characters, and lots of atmosphere. However, I still enjoy a well-crafted cozy (or I wouldn’t have bothered to write one, myself!), just as long as the character and plot don't tip over into goofy. I also read a lot of what has been termed “literary fiction.” Carol Shields is my god – or should I say goddess? I think her Unless is one of the finest, most compassionate books ever written. And Larry’s Party is stunning. Another favorite is Frederick Buechner, a minister who writes brilliant, non-self-righteous fiction. His Lion Country, about a shifty diploma-by-mail preacher, is an out-and-out miracle.
Zelvin: The bio on your website suggests a very interesting life, listing such varied occupations as folksinger, artist, chicken farmer, and go-go dancer as well as journalist and writer. Has it always been fun? What are the high points for you? Are there any dark passages in your life that you’re willing to talk about? And how has your own experience affected the way you write and what you choose to write about?
Webb: I’m one of those people who, when looking for a job, always asked myself: which would be the most fun? And I always went for the fun job, even when it paid less. Oddly enough, being a folksinger turned out to be boring for me, because I had to keep singing the same songs – rehearse them, even! Booooring. Chicken farmer was fun because chickens are crazy. But being a journalist was the most fun I’ve ever had, because I got to interview so many of my heroes – Buzz Aldrin, my beloved Carol Shields, Jimmy Carter... the list is a long one. The excitement of a news room is like nothing else; there are moments when I miss it so much I can hardly stand it.
Dark passages in my life? Ha! As the old joke goes, if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Let’s just say this: there’s a reason I murder people in my books.
Zelvin: In literature and in life, what remains on your to-do list? What are your dreams and goals?
Webb: I want each of my books to be better than the last. I believe that self-satisfaction is the enemy of progress, so I take heart in knowing that I have room for improvement. As for the other items on my to-do list, at this weird stage of my life, I’ve decided I want to make a CD of my own songs. Problem is, I’ve forgotten how to play decent guitar, and my voice is now a croak when it used to be a pretty soprano. But as soon as I’m finished with Desert Sins, the sequel to Desert Wives, I’m going to drag that old guitar out and croak my way through 12 tracks.
Betty Webb is a journalist-turned-mystery author who has interviewed everyone from U.S. presidents to the homeless. Her best-selling Lena Jones detective series, published by Poisoned Pen Press, has garnered rave reviews from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and other prestigious national publications. Desert Wives, a mystery set in one of Arizona’s notorious polygamy compounds, is in development to become a Lifetime-TV movie and series.