Saturday, September 29, 2012

Do people change?

Elizabeth Zelvin

There are two kinds of people: those who believe that people never really change and those who believe they do. Fiction writers may fall into either category, and their fiction reflects their take on this crucial aspect of human nature.

Mystery and crime fiction has some beloved characters whose attraction is partly in their eternal sameness. Sherlock Holmes will always baffle Watson, smoke his pipe, and play his violin. Miss Marple will always knit and find an analogy to crime in village life. Stephanie Plum will always manage to blow up a car and never decide between her two boyfriends. Jack Reacher will always leave town once the crisis is past and never wash his underwear.

I’ve been rereading Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books, written between the 1930s and the 1950s. I have forty-two of them (not all Miss Silvers, but in the same universe), and they’ve been high on my list of comfort reads for many years. Miss Silver never changes. She dresses like an Edwardian or even Victorian governess, projects a powerful sense of security and understanding, and sees through people “as if the human race were glass-fronted.” In every book, she’s described in unvarying terms. It’s soothing, although no modern series author would dare do the same. Miss Silver’s world is unchanging too. Even after the War, girls are good or bad, sensible or silly. Upper class characters may be autocratic, villainous, or filled with integrity, but no housemaid ever turns out to be intelligent.

Novels allow plenty of room for the growth of their characters. In fact, whole bodies of literature—the quest novel, the coming of age novel—focus on the protagonist’s personal growth. The mystery series expands the potential for growth far beyond the range of a single novel. Most of my perennial favorites are about characters who change. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey evolves from a silly ass about town not very different from Bertie Wooster, except for his nose for crime, to a complex individual with remarkable intelligence, integrity, and sensitivity. In fact, I believe Sayers invented the three-dimensional, feeling mystery character—the very kind of character Lord Peter encourages Harriet Vane to write in Gaudy Night. It could be argued that the depth of Sayers’s writing, rather than Lord Peter himself, is what changed. But Harriet herself changes over the course of the series from a brittle, fearful woman who distrusts herself and men to a self-confident woman with no doubts about her abilities of mind or heart.

As a therapist as well as a writer, I’ve bet my career—both of them—on the belief that people can and do change. My series protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, begins to change—fundamentally, radically, and none too willingly—from the moment he gets sober. My deepest motive for writing Death Will Get You Sober was to translate the powerful, transformative process of recovery from real life, where I’d seen it many times, to fiction. At that level, I continued Bruce’s story as a series because for recovering alcoholics, not drinking is just the beginning.

Note: Poe's Deadly Daughters' collective face is red. We all missed the fact that there are five weekends in September 2012. Full disclosure: If you recognize this post, it appeared exactly one year ago on SleuthSayers.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Hobbit

by Sheila Connolly

If you haven't heard, today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien's book, The Hobbit.

At least, in the United Kingdom.  It took a while to make it to this country.  I still have my copy, a paperback from 1965.  I blush to admit I thought the whole premise sounded silly—short guys with hairy feet?—so I didn't read it until 1966.

The Ring Trilogy hit me like a bolt of lightning when I was an impressionable sixteen-year-old.  My best friend, who had discovered it first, gave me a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring as a birthday present in May, and I tore through it—and then ordered The Hobbit and the second and third books of the trilogy (hark back, o readers, to the day when there were no online bookstores, and physical bookstores were widely scattered and unavailable to someone not yet old enough to drive).  The books arrived on the last day of school that year, and I read them all in a mad rush.  I recall bursting into tears at three o'clock one morning when the corsairs of Umbair unfurled the flag of the king…  Okay, I was a nerd.

Maybe it's hard to remember the innocent days before Dungeons & Dragons, or the Harry Potter series or George Martin's series, but Tolkien gave birth to a genre that captured a generation.  A scholar of impressive credentials, he created multiple languages within the books, Elvish tongues based on his own academic field.  More important, he tapped into venerable literary traditions that embodied the eternal conflict of good versus evil, and made them sing again.

I never forgot the books.  Once a nerd, always a nerd?   I reread the trilogy every summer for at least a decade; I nearly wept when one volume was left out in the rain (and I rushed to replace it). Even now I find myself referring to various elements from the stories.  For example,"mathoms." I live in a house filled with them.  In case you've forgotten, a mathom is a hobbit birthday present.  To quote from the Fellowship of the Ring, "Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthdays.  Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly… it was not a bad system.  Actually…every day in the year was somebody's birthday, so that every hobbit…had a fair chance of at least one present at least once a week.  But they never got tired of them." Doesn't that sound like a lovely system? (I have a sneaking suspicion that they "regifted.")

Whenever I've traveled any significant distance, I find myself repeating:

        The Road goes ever on and on
        Down from the door where it began.

And then there is "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger,” which for some reason I find a very useful phrase. It's a much more polite way of saying "butt out."

In many ways the books have informed my own writing.  I always felt that Sam was the true hero of the Trilogy, and Frodo was kind of a prig.  That taught me the importance of the sidekick, because no hero can succeed without help: wizards are handy, as are kings and princes, but it's the good friend who saves the day. 

If there's a downside to Tolkien's writing, it's that his female characters are less memorable.  He celebrates the heroic quest, but it's mainly the male characters who take the lead.

But the flaws don't matter, because the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. So let us celebrate the anniversary that marks the beginning of something wonderful. Who would have thought that a race of short creatures with hairy feet would travel so far?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Brooklyn Book Festival

Elizabeth Zelvin

The weather was perfect. The readers were buying. And book lovers were out in force at the Brooklyn Book Festival in Borough Hall Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, right across the river from lower Manhattan. This was my third year participating—selling and signing books at the Sisters in Crime’s and Mystery Writers of America’s New York chapter booths—but never on such a sparkling day (it poured buckets a couple of years ago, very disappointing for visitors and discouraging for vendors). Nor do I remember ever before making enough money to feel more than compensated for lugging many pounds of hardcover books up and down subway stairs—and going home at the end of the day with a delightfully lightweight roller bag.

My first stint, at the Sisters in Crime booth, was at 11 am, but I arrived in time to stroll around the plaza, getting the lay of the land, seeing who-all was there, and getting myself a few books. The National Book Foundation, which gives out the ultra-prestigious National Book Awards, had a bulletin board and blocks of Post-its, inviting passersby to tell the world what we’re reading. The items submitted so far ran heavily to classics and literary fiction—Moby Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, if I remember correctly—and I wasn’t sure I believed them, but I redressed the balance by putting up a sticky citing my own Death Will Get You Sober. I really am rereading it—checking for typos in anticipation of a new e-edition soon. And just to show I can match weight with the literati, I put up a second sticky for the last literary novel I read, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (sequel to the Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall), which I really loved. The Foundation was also giving away copies of National Book Award finalists. I got to take home Paolo Bacigalupi’s Young Adult novel, Ship Breaker, “a top-notch dystopian thriller,” according to one of the blurbs, that I’m looking forward to reading.

Shopping for the grandkids is one of my greatest pleasures these days, and now that both of them are reading, the pleasure is doubled. Knowledgeable booksellers helped me choose The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente for the 8-year-old and What is Dreaming? by Etan Boritzer for the 5-year-old. I had time to say hello to fellow mystery writer Grace F. Edwards, who was signing at the Harlem Writers Guild table, and buy a copy of her Do or Die.

At the Sisters in Crime booth, our latest anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices was selling like, well, fresh slices, which I hope you denizens of the wild lands beyond the Hudson River understand means pizza. Some passersby were attracted not to my three mysteries or my album of original songs but to the Outrageous Older Woman button I was giving away with the CD of the same name. (At least three people told me I should tell customers that the button cost $10 and the CD came with it for free.)

Our booth wasn’t far from a stage where poets were reading from their work—pleasantly, but not obtrusively. When my stint was over, I joined the audience at the Youth Stage and had lunch sitting in the sun and listening to a panel of middle grade authors tell how they weave their own childhood memories, experience, and traumas into their work.

In the afternoon, I joined a lively crowd at the MWA booth that included Annamaria Alfieri, Reed Farrel Coleman, Laura Joh Rowland, Katia Lief, Andy Siegel, Al Ashforth, and Lyndsay Faye
(with me in photo, shot, er, taken, er, snapped by Andy Siegel), who was selling the UK paperback edition of her hot new thriller, The Gods of Gotham, for practically nothing, another irresistible buy that I can’t wait to read.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

That looks...sounds..familiar

by Sandra Parshall

After seeing three current suspense novels with covers featuring what appears to be the same woman – wearing a red coat and boots, running away, dark hair flying – I began thinking about how hard it is to come up with original covers and, even more so, titles.

A few years ago, two books appeared simultaneously with identical covers, except for the titles and author names, of course. How does that happen? 

Lines like Obsidian and Berkley Prime Crime cozies have custom-painted covers, but they all have a similar style so they look very much alike. That’s deliberate branding of an entire line, rather than individual authors.
Many other publishers have covers built around images licensed from stock photo services. While the aim is originality, the probability is high that more than one designer will eventually use the same image. I suppose they’re more likely to do so simultaneously if the picture is new and striking.  Still, it’s not common for the covers to be identical in every respect, because designers combine images, imbedding one picture in another to get the desired effect. The covers with the running woman in the red coat all place her in different backgrounds.

Duplicate titles, on the other hand, are plentiful. The title Gone is a good example. A few years ago, Lisa Gardner and Jonathan Kellerman both had novels titled Gone on the bestseller lists at the same time. This year alone we’ve seen books called Gone by Mo Hayder, Cathi Hanauer, Randy Wayne White, and Jennifer Mills, along with books whose titles include the word: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Gone Missing by Linda Castillo, Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child, Long Gone by Alastair Burke, Miss Me When I’m Gone by Emily Arsenault, Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz, Little Girl Gone by Drusilla Campbell, Gone West by Carola Dunn, Tuesday’s Gone by Nicci French, and no doubt others I haven’t seen.

You might conclude, correctly, that Gone is a favorite of authors and publishers. But a handful of other words also appear over and over in mystery/thriller/suspense titles. Search Amazon for titles containing murder, dead, deadly, death, kill, secret/secrets, hidden, dangerous/danger, and you’ll get thousands of results in the crime fiction category alone. Murder is the most commonly used, but death and dead are included in a multitude of titles. 

We choose these words, of course, to clue in readers: This book is a crime novel. But is it any wonder that they have trouble recalling titles of specific books? I have this problem myself, and it’s not always during a senior moment. I can recall the plot and author, but the title may be so generic that it doesn’t stick in my mind. When I look at my notebook of books I’ve read (or listened to), I frequently can’t connect those similar-sounding titles to the stories they represent.
When I come up with what I believe is a great title, I don’t broadcast it until I’m getting close to actual production of the book. I don’t want to see it on another published book before I’ve had a chance to use it. The Heat of the Moon hasn’t been duplicated on a crime novel as far as I know, probably because it wouldn’t fit many books. I was amazed when I checked on Disturbing the Dead and discovered it hadn’t been used on a mystery before. Broken Places and variations on it have been used, though, and the same year my book was published Karin Slaughter published her international bestseller Broken. Although I didn’t like the title Under the Dog Star much (and still don’t), and it had appeared on a couple of other books some time ago, it was unique as a mystery title and I couldn’t come up with anything I liked better. Bleeding Through is similarly uncommon (although I keep getting Google alerts about a rock band with that name). The title of the book I’m writing now? I’m not telling, not yet.

I’m curious about how others view titles and cover design. Will you take a minute to answer a short poll?

Does the duplication of titles annoy you, or do you feel it doesn’t matter?

Are you attracted to books with words like dead, deadly, gone, secret, dangerous, etc., in the titles?

Are you attracted to crime novels with “literary” titles that don't sound like mysteries?

Are you attracted to novels with place names as titles?

Further reading: In this 2011 blog, six writers talk about covers they’ve loved and hated.
A quote from Kate Christensen: “The cover for the hardback of Trouble made me unhappy, but no one would budge on it, so there it stayed. My mother thought it was a picture of me; I thought it was flat-out weird. I still dislike it.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Care to Tweet?

Sharon Wildwind

I came, I saw, I tweeted, though to be absolutely correct for me it should read, I came, I saw, I will tweet (conditional tense) if I ever figure out how Twitter works, which would be Veni, vidi, ego Tweet si unquam instar sicco quomodo Twitter operatur. That’s probably a little long for a T-shirt.

I am on a quest to understand and use Twitter as a business tool. Yes, we can do tons of non-business stuff on Twitter, but for now I’m sticking to business. Literally. In a nutshell, this is what I’ve learned so far about doing business on Twitter.

Twitter is all about playing it forward. Hashtags are far more important than followers. Lists are so, so helpful. Post 1 to 4 times a day. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the high traffic days for Twitter. It’s not only okay, it’s recommended to repost Tweets. Reposting is not the same thing as retweeting. Retweeting is not the same thing as going via. It’s a good idea to leave about 15 characters for retweeting. Shortening on-line addresses is essential. So is adding your opinion.

Playing it forward. I’m going to use a lot of party examples today, so imagine you attended a terrific party. You tell your significant other, “It was a great party. Someone recommended a book that sounds fascinating. There was a lively discussion about preserving old buildings in Calgary, and an artist I know is having an exhibit in two weeks.”

Twitter is basically a big party, happening 140 characters at a time. I want to meet as many people as I can at the party, so that means I need hundreds of followers, right? Actually, it’s the opposite. I want to follow a maximum of 40 to 50 individuals or groups because I’ve read it’s almost impossible to give real attention to more than that. How can I meet a lot of people if I’m only following 50?

This is a hashtag: #, and it’s far more useful that a follower. If I tweet, I reach my 50 followers. If I tweet the same message and add a hashtag such as #books or #amwriting on the end, I reach my 50 followers plus the hundreds/thousands of people who follow the hashtag.

Even with 50 guests, it’s a crowded party. People have gathered in small groups to talk politics, art, cats, new diets, and the pros and cons of spending the winter in Arizona. Tonight I want to talk art, so I cruise the room, looking for the art conversation.

I can do the same thing on Twitter by using lists. Messages on my home screen are stacked in the order they arrive. That's confusing, so I’ve organized people I follow into three lists that I’ve chosen to call Writing, Art, and Social Media.

If I want art today, I go to my Art list. Maybe later I’ll check the other two lists, maybe not. I don’t have to visit every list every day to stay current.

Ever been at a party with a conversation hog? Whatever the conversation, she’s interested in talking about two things. Herself and her opinions. Gets boring after a while, doesn’t it? This is one area where there are two schools of thought. Some Tweeters want to broadcast their every activity from brushing their teeth, to what they are having for breakfast, to finding a piece of gum on the sidewalk in the shape of a beer bottle.

Basically, I don’t care. It goes back to that business thing. I want people to know my name. I want them to know I am connected to mystery writing and art. That creativity and saging, particularly as they relate to older people, interests me. That I read. That some people and things inspire me. That inspiration should be shared. I can do all of that in 4 tweets or less a day.

Notice anything missing? I haven't said a word about wanting to publish and sell books, which is my ultimate goal, as well as have people pay me to do things like editing, contributing to books, and perhaps hire me as a speaker. What I listed in the previous paragraph is about engagement. Engagement sells, but selling doesn't engage.

Social media permits engagement twenty-four hours a day. It’s always someone’s day even if it’s my night. If I Tweet at 2:00 AM, someone will be awake to read it. However, since the average life span of a Tweet is 5 minutes, I’m not going to reach people who are asleep. So later in the day, I’ll send out the same message again. Or maybe I have an upcoming event, and I’ll send out a notice about that event every few days until the big day arrives. That’s called reposting.

Frequently people and things that inspire me come from Tweets other people have sent me, and I want to play those messages forward. Plus I always, always want to add my opinion about what I send on. Simply retweeting without comment is lazy and doesn’t let me play a part in the discussion.

I have to decide if I’m going to retweet or go via. Here's what those choices mean.

Hopefully, the original sender has done two things: left me some of the 140 characters to play with, and used a service like bitly to shorten all URLs in the message. If they have, I can probably use retweeting.

If not, or if I want to make a long comment, I have to shorten the original message, which is called going via.

Here’s an example of how they both work.

Original message
Commuting By Taking The Bus vs Compared To Driving A Car - Cost and Effects On Pollution,

This is 133 characters, which doesn’t leave me room to retweet and make a comment. Etiquette says always give credit for the original link, so even though I’d like to shorten the link, best not to unless I get in touch with the original poster and ask if it’s okay.

Here's my retweeted message.
RT@original poster Commuting By Taking The Bus vs Compared To Driving A Car - Cost and Effects On Pollution,

The original poster hasn’t given me permission to use her name, but ordinarily you’d find her Twitter name where I put “original poster.”

I could send the message on like this, but there's no room for my comment, and I don't like that.

I contact the poster and she says, sure, shorten the link all you want. I pass through bitly and get bitly/QQXTsh. How did bitly do that? I don’t know. Magic? It works and that’s all I care about.

Here's my rewrite, including credit to the original poster, a shortened URL, and a comment to show I support the material in the article.

Commuting? Bus wins over car: carbon footprint, mental health, exercise, safety. Go Bus! bitly/QQXTsh (via @ original poster @sharww)

This is the same number of characters as the original message, but I’ve personalized it before going via with it. @sharww, incidentally, is my Twitter name. Blogger may have a way to make Twitter names clickable, but I haven't discovered it yet. You're going to have to type it in if you want to find me. Sorry for the bother.
Quote for the week
Twitter = Where I’m honest with strangers.
~ Poster not identified; Twitter quote

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Panther Update

by Julia Buckley

In summer I did a blog about a kitten we adopted and named Panther. I thought I'd update you about the little fellow's progress, since I was worried that our other veteran cats might intimidate him or that he would be lonely in a strange place.

My worry was utterly unnecessary. Panther is not only the dominant cat in the house--often pouncing on even the eldest patriarch without fear of reprisal--he is fearless.  He steals food from other cats and they slink away.  I think they're intimidated by his littleness and energy.  But they play together; at least I think they're playing when Panther chases them all over the house.

If I had concerns that my family would resent my adoption of Panther, our fourth cat, those worries have flown. Panther is the sweetest, friendliest, purriest cat we've ever had. While our previous three spend the day ignoring us and mostly out of sight, Panther stays with us throughout the day, playing or sleeping on our laps. If he thinks my sons aren't playing with him enough, he climbs all over them until they relent and get out his toys.  If they are sleeping and Panther wants them awake, he tries to pull their eyelids open. Like a baby, he enjoys playing with his own feet, and for some reason he likes clasping his head, as if he has a tiny cat headache.

He's pressed against me as I write this, tucked into the chair next to me where he tends to spend each evening.  But he's not just a sleeper. He's always hungry and growing rapidly--we're wondering just how large he'll get.  His sleek blackness allows him to blend into the shadows at night, and sometimes we don't even know he's there until we see his large yellow eyes glowing at us.

I'm looking forward to posing him with a pumpkin in the near future, since he looks like such a Halloween kitty.

In the meantime, I'm feeling that my urge to adopt a kitten from the Animal Care League window was something approaching destiny.  I asked my husband, hypothetically, if we had to give up one of our cats, which it would be.  He said, "Well, it wouldn't be Panther."  :)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Knights With PTSD?

With our young soldiers marching off to war all around us and returning home with not only visible injuries, but the many you can’t see, I began to consider Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, as it was viewed in the past. And it became a pivotal plot point in my upcoming book BLOOD LANCE, my medieval mystery with protagonist Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective in fourteenth century London. A knight from Crispin’s chivalric past, Sir Thomas Saunfayl, pulls Crispin into his difficulties that are quickly spiraling out of control. Sir Thomas is accused of desertion and must fight for his life in a judicial joust. Desperate to ensure his victory, he has paid a fortune to lay his hands on the Spear of Longinus, a religious relic he believes will give him invincibility on the lists, and he hires Crispin to find it.

The idea of knights possibly suffering from PTSD fascinated me. I wondered if throughout history, in the days before modern artillery, combatants suffered from it. After all, it is a malady that manifests once a soldier returns home to “normal” life, and many soldiers and knights were away from home for years and years. Even though there is little in the way of discussion about it in old documents because of the cultural and sociological differences between then and now, I didn’t suppose it was a modern phenomenon, though we have given it fancy modern names.

In World War I, they talked of being “shell shocked” from the nature of the new style of warfare where soldiers huddled in trenches while being barraged by exploding shells. By World War II it was called “battle fatigue.” General Patton famously slapped a soldier suffering from this. “Battlefield stress” is yet another term.

Battle of Courtrai
But in the Middle Ages it could only be recognized as a failure on the part of the soldier and labeled as cowardice. Interestingly enough, some parchment was given to the problem of cowardice. The idea--then as now--was to train the soldier so thoroughly that the “flight” part of the natural “fight or flight” response would be eliminated. Drill, discipline, and group bonding went a long way toward shaping the mind (though the medieval foot soldier wasn’t drilled in the sense of practicing formations, not like their ancient ancestors in Greece or Rome. It was an impracticality. They had to rely on the discipline of the knights, those in the front lines, to form strategies for the foot soldiers to follow. However, infantry was able to save the day over the mounted knight many a time, including in the battle of Courtrai in 1302 and Bannockburn in 1314).

Instilling a greater fear in one’s commander than in the enemy also proved optimal. In ancient China, for example, generals would maneuver their armies in such a way as to make retreat impossible thus forcing the advance as the only option. Religious fervor, too, offered a standard under which one could fight while also offering ultimate rewards if death should strike.

There was a reason for rallying the troops before a battle with a stirring speech. From ancient Greece and probably before, generals and kings gave battle orations meant to bond, to encourage, and to remind the men of their reasons for fighting and for their ultimate rewards if they succeeded. Think of the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V. I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to take up arms!

Combined, this is what made up the “band of brothers,” where even the general or, in some instances, the castellan of a fortress, feels close to his men in a way that defies the social classes.

Still, even with all this training and discipline, with the subsequent shame in society associated with cowardice, there were certainly soldiers and knights who succumbed to the rigors of war. A knight on a horse could flee a lot easier than a man on the ground, and there were instances where generals insisted the knights dismount in order to make fleeing more difficult. Early flight of the knights lost many a battle, including King Stephen’s battle at Lincoln and Robert Curthose’s battle at Tinchebrai. Are these instances of cowardice as we might understand it, or of a man cutting his losses and getting the heck out of there?

Battle stress manifests itself in running away in the face of battle, sleeplessness, irritability, irrational anger, mood swings, and thoughts of suicide. Sir Thomas in this piece suffers from these symptoms and can’t understand why. All his training and discipline failed him in the face of the constant barrage of the battle royale. What’s a knight to do? As he said, they can’t all be Crispin Guests.
My new medieval mystery BLOOD LANCE will be released Oct 16 in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook. See a series book trailer and discussion guides for all my books at 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Triple Play

by Sheila Connolly

It's finally happened.  I'm finishing the first draft of one book, due October 1st.  My editor sent copyedits for another book in a different series, edits due October 2nd.  And she's promised that she'll send first-round edits for the next book of the Museum series to me before the end of this month. Oh, and this is the same week as Bouchercon, a major mystery conference, when I'm supposed to be reading at least a sampling of the books of my fellow panelists.  Cue hysterical laughter.  I may have to skip sleeping for a week.

I could say it's a trifecta, a triad, a threesome, a trinity, a triumverate or a triptych.  But no matter how I label it, it's three books in process, all at the same time, demanding my attention.  Well, I asked for it.

Back when I first started writing (more than a decade ago), I was boiling over with ideas and characters and plots.  It was a very heady feeling, and I loved it.  I started from a point of pure ignorance—how long is a book?  What do you mean, there's supposed to be a structure?  What's a hook?  I have to have a body when?  But my ignorance did not stop me, and I just took the ball and ran with it.

The "on the shelf" shelves (not including
electronic versions)
Predictably my early efforts were awful.  For my third (I think) effort, I used three POVs.  When that received some negative criticisms, rather than streamlining it I added two more POVs.  Didn't help—it was all over the place.  It's on a shelf, as is Book #1 (I won't even talk about that one, except to say that I finished it).  Book #2 is sitting next to it, but I have mined that for some bits and pieces for later books (recycling!).

In the early years I regularly found myself writing more than one book at a time—for a while, it was three, sometimes even in the same day.  When I ran out of ideas or inspiration for one, I could simply shift to another one, with a fresh eye.  It worked well—for a while.

I sold a series.  Then I sold another series.  The first series went three-and-out, but rather than wallow in self-pity, I proposed yet another series, which my publisher bought, and another, and then a third series.  There are fellow writers who think I'm nuts (and no, I'm not partaking of any artificial stimulants to do this, legal or otherwise, unless you count lots of coffee).

But a decade after I started, I find it's not as easy to hop around between books.  I'd like to think that's a good thing, because it means that I'm more invested in both my characters in each series, and my plots.  I don't know if the plots have become more intricate, but I do hope my characters have grown in depth and complexity.  Now it's almost a physical effort to climb back into the head of one of my protagonists, to slip into a different persona. Maybe some of that is due to my age, but by now there are a lot of (fictional) people roaming around inside my head, and I want to make sure they remain distinct individuals, not generic space-fillers—you know, the Protagonist, the Sidekick, the Love Interest, the array of Villains, to be knocked out of the box one at a time until I arrive at the True Villain.  All of these appear in all of my stories, but they have to be clearly differentiated individuals.

So, now I'm back to three at once again, through no fault of my own, wrestling with an array of characters who have different voices, different viewpoints, different histories.  Sure, we're old friends by now, but how do I keep each of them distinct on the page?  Keep them fresh and interesting?  Allow them to grow, slowly revealing more aspects of their character?  How do I allow them to fall in love, without sounding repetitive from one book to another? I'm still working on it. 

Do you ever feel that established authors are producing cookie-cutter characters, without changing more than the name and the hair color? And would that make you stop reading that author's works, or do you find that character appealing?



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rereading Critically: A Meditation on Georgette Heyer

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve been giving myself an intellectual rest by rereading Georgette Heyer. The mother of the Regency romance as well as a dozen Golden Age mysteries is still popular with mystery lovers (exemplified by members of DorothyL). I inherited most of her works in paperback from my Aunt Anna, who died at 96 leaving an apartment full of Harlequins and other light reading. I’d been dipping into the Heyers on her shelves whenever I visited since I was a kid. Printed in the Fifties, some of them are literally crumbling into dust, but I’ve been able to replace those with cheap Kindle editions that I can take along when I travel and gulp down one after another like M&Ms. I still enjoy them, but part of me steps back and wonders why.

Heyer has been credited with making the Regency period her own and reinventing the colloquialisms of the times, including slang and thieves’ cant as well as the idiom of polite society. I suspect most genre writers have read her at some time, because I’ve spotted some of her typical expressions—for example, “added to his consequence” and “how to go on”—in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. The romance plots slip down easily, the resolution satisfies (I’ve always been a sucker for a happy ending), and much of the humor holds up. One of Heyer’s strengths is that her heroes and heroines share intelligence and a sense of the ridiculous. Earnestness, foolishness, and stupidity as well as greed and vanity are reserved for characters who serve as foils for her protagonists. All of the above contribute to my enjoyment of these books even now.

But as I reread them today, in the post-feminist era and in light of a lifetime’s knowledge of who I am, I notice elements of the book that make me marvel why I never objected to them. For example, there are the detailed descriptions of Regency fashions, still an essential feature of historical romance novels as well as certain contemporary cozies. I don’t give a hoot what people wear. (I was once asked in an interview on the mystery blog Jungle Red, “Crocs or Jimmy Choos?” My answer: “Crocs all the way.”) Then there’s the class snobbery and the physical attractiveness standard. Yes, yes, it’s all appropriate to the period and class she’s writing about. But how did I ever suspend my disbelief long enough to identify with the characters?

A young woman who is “base-born,” ie illegitimate, or has thick ankles is ineligible to be cast as a heroine. Hey, you can’t help the ankles you were born with—or the circumstances of your birth. Nor can she be “vulgar” or “bourgeois.” The upper class values ascribed to Heyer protagonists include contempt for anyone who works for a living, a lifestyle that for women consists mainly of parties and shopping, and for men, sport and gambling, with the occasional supervision of their inherited property. “Debts of honor,” ie paying up on gambling losses, are a must, but it’s simply not done to settle up with tradesmen, ie pay the bills that result from all that shopping.

Then there’s the dynamics of the hero’s relationship with the heroine. I don’t mind the heroines so much. Historically, they have to be concerned with marrying well, and there are a few governesses and at least one writer among them. But the heroes tend toward being domineering or patronizing, and while in the typical character arc, boy and girl detest one another on sight, in the end, girl is delighted to be overcome, overruled, and ruthlessly swept up in boy’s (or, more likely, older man’s) arms. If I were the girl, would I like that? Indeed, it would be no such thing!