It’s 90 degrees and 100% sunshine where I am in Arizona–and yet I’m sequestered inside, lounging on my bed as I try to conjure up a topic to blog about that simultaneously edifies and entertains our loyal readers.
In the Valley of the Sun there are no changing leaves to wax on about–no doubt you have had your fill of the foliage, whether as a leaf-peeper yourself or via all of the pictures posted on Facebook. There is no question that this was a stellar year for colorful foliage in New Hampshire and Vermont.
Green-thumbed residents in Arizona are planting their gardens, though the sun continues to blister the tender arugula and basil plants. Back home it is time to weed-whack the perennials or continue to cover them at night with sheets as we try to eek out a few more weeks of blossoms.
We have seen numerous vees of ducks and geese, presumably ones that have followed us here from brrrr chilly New Hampshire. Unfortunately, my husband (if I can drag him onto the plane) and I, unlike those real snowbirds, must return this week to furnaces and wood stoves, sweaters and gloves, delaying our true winter migration until after Christmas. In Arizona it is still shorts and sandals, air conditioning and ceiling fan weather.
Our grandchildren are out scorpion hunting–and killing–at night with black lights. The good news is after six days here we no longer check our bed at night for scorpions and we aren’t afraid to walk around indoors without our shoes on. Outdoors–that’s another story.
Our mode of transportation is an open air Jeep Wrangler. The other day I was caught without my sunscreen as the sun beat in through the open roof. (Luckily, I never leave home without my zippered, hooded sweatshirt in tow, just in case we venture into a store or restaurant with the a/c thermostat set at sixty or lower. I plan to launch a campaign to “encourage” businesses to raise their a/c thermostats. Sorry, I digress….) With what I considered a clever defensive move, I whipped on my sweatshirt backward with the hood covering my face. Instant protection. And immediate embarrassment to my husband as we stopped at a ubiquitous stoplight and the women in the car to our left and the man to our right gawked and laughed. At me. (This appears to be a case where ” you really had to be there” to appreciate the humor of the situation.)
With any luck I’ve entertained you. Or made you envious. The edification will have to wait. I’m still on vacation.
Another Columbus Day, another round of arguments at the intellectual level of 1066 and All That. Was Christopher Columbus a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?
It all depends on your POV. The meaning of the Columbus story, like any story, can be whatever you like. It’s more interesting if you let it tell itself to you from all possible points of view, and then thread your way through them. The greater the number of threads, the subtler the story.
A single POV might yield a genre pot-boiler. Conquering hero braves disaster, nearly dies, wins new continent, bestows Civilization on benighted heathen.
Alternatively, noble savages (variant: sophisticated though low-tech culture) welcome strangers; strangers turn out to be pox-ridden thugs; lovely hemisphere and its people ravaged; reparations now due.
Suppose we mix in a little more back story. Christopher knows the world is round. Educated Europeans did know that. Facing east, you go overland to India. Facing west, you cross the sea to India. Then it turns out that there is a whole New World in the way.
“New World” wasn’t a metaphor. It wasn’t a new planet, but it was so huge, so different, so strange and hence so dangerous that it might as well have been. Monsters and marvels that had floated in medieval minds for centuries instantly crystallized into stories about the New World.
There be blemmyes, headless men with their faces in their chests! There be monopods, single-legged men who lie on the ground in the shade of their enormous, single feet!
A writer could do better than sci-fi with that. Imagine exploring a place full of actual dangers – venomous snakes and fanged beasts whose habits you don’t know, a population rapidly learning that they might be better off without you – while behind every bush you know that an unhuman human might lurk. Imagine a stream of consciousness that holds both kinds of knowledge with absolutely equal certainty.
Or take the sci-fi angle from the other side. The Spanish chroniclers thought the welcome they received meant that the native population thought the conquistadors were gods. Maybe, maybe not. But what if they, or some of them, did think Quetzalcoatl had returned?
Seriously. If you are or have been religious, what would you do if you met your god, embodied, right here and now? How would you imagine the likely future? How would you imagine it if your god were Quetzalcoatl?
Two points of view. You could have a collision of disillusionments. You could have a folie á deux. You could have one disillusionment confronting a persistent monomania. (No, please, do not make one side a languorous beauty and the other Bruce Willis. I don’t care how big the royalties would be.)
And why confine yourself to the humans? What stirred in the mind of the Spanish horse who first saw the Argentine pampas? Europeans introduced the domestic cat to the New World. What delicious new prey for the jaguar! What an Armageddon for the voles!
It must have been like two galaxies colliding. Slowly, over the centuries, they interpenetrate. Columbus Day focuses on the explosions. A better story might explore all the gravitational pulls. Then – if you tell it all carefully enough and honestly enough – like any story, its meaning can be whatever you have learned.
A BED OF STONES
I regarded the weather from two different angles: from the aspect of being, as they say, under-the-weather, and from the window of our car as we drove around the north country yesterday enjoying the clear cloudless day, warm temperature and glorious foliage.
At a picnic area by one of the Connecticut Lakes, which are almost as far north as you can get in New Hampshire, I saw near naked people sun bathing in their lawn chairs, so unseasonably warm was the weather. I, trying to recuperate from some strange ailment, went down to the shingle beach and lay there fully clothed in the sun, listening to the lap, slap, lapping of the water on the shore only inches from my feet. It was very relaxing, to say the least, and I didn’t have to worry about the tide coming in. My husband opted to nap in the car; he was doing the driving, and it is quite a distance to the Connecticut Lakes from our comparatively urban home in Haverhill, NH. He suggested nap time.
I did look up shingle beaches in the encyclopedia to see if I would be correct in using that term for those delightful, flattened shale stones that covered the shore to a possible depth of glacial scouring, and I think I am. The term usually refers to pebbly beaches, such as are found on the Riviera. Those shingle beaches are bumpy and impossible to walk on with bare feet, much less to lie on comfortably. The stones I lay upon lay so flat, being only a fraction of an inch thick, and each about the size of a quarter or half-dollar though not all round, some were oblong. They overlapped and underlapped each other in such a way that by only a minimum of vigorous and judicious squirming one could create a cozy nest for oneself.
I looked around to make sure no one was observing me, and did just that. In a few seconds I was firmly and comfortably supported by a smooth bed of millions of thin flat stones. I used my jacket for a pillow and hoped no one would wander by, especially with dogs, which are, as you know, prone to slobber on pronate and easy to reach victims. But I rested there, unmolested, for a good half hour. It was wonderful. Only the sun on its westward downward slope made me rise.
(It’s possible that these stones could be marketed as a sleep-aid and mattressed up for sale by some doughty entrepreneur, but think of the shipping cost.)
Leaving my bed of stones (those lucky Neanderthals), we then proceeded to Colebrook and to a boulangerie called Le Rendezvous. That was a delicious find. We bought fresh baked bread and a whole grain baguette. Some chocolate of course, it was French, after all. The owners of this boulangerie have an interesting story. Let’s see if I can remember to recount it for you in my next installment.
October is here and we in northern New Hampshire know what the forecast is. Changing seasons: shorter, cooler days. Turning leaves: tour buses, leaf peepers. Flipping the family photo calendar: grandchildren clad in Halloween costumes, my mother’s birthday. Swapping out my wardrobe: fleece, socks and sneakers. Fall cleaning: screens down, deck furniture in.
October whispers in my ear: I know you’re busy but don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is on its way. November first is less than thirty days away now. Don’t you always say you are going to start preparing for NaNoWriMo in October? Get your outline and character sketches done so that you can just start typing away on November 1 with your outline for reference? I bet you can exceed 50,000 words if you do that.
This year I have a response. Listen, October, stop bugging me. I am working on an outline for NaNoWriMo. I already have my characters’ names with personalities formed, allowing for more novels to follow. I’ve drawn a rough map of the town where the murder takes place. I’m reading Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” novels to make sure that I don’t end up copying her quaint, idyllic, deadly town.
It’s a real temptation, especially as this area of New Hampshire abounds with similar towns: a town common or green surrounded by old churches, old stately homes, old maples, old, white fence, old pines adorned with Christmas lights. Possibly a gazebo decked with red ribbons and sparkly snow. You get the drift….
My fictional town of Woodbury wears a blue-collar attitude. A diner instead of a bistro. An auto repair shop in place of a bookstore. A run-down motel instead of a B & B. The hub of the town? A Village Store where the locals go to catch up on all the gossip they missed at the diner. And let’s not forget the farms on the dirt roads spiking out of Woodbury. Beyond town lies another world, a lake populated with out-of-state visitors, some who visit for the summer, most just a week or two.
And there’s plenty more. I think I am in better shape than I have ever been for NaNoWriMo.
So take that, October.
I write to dig my fingers into the mulch of my life. I’m talking physical objects here, not narratives, far less theories. I know what calls to me in life, but if I’m going to find out why it calls me, I need to roll in it.
So I start with the most basic principle of (dis)order: the Pile.
Think dragon’s hoard. Yes, dragons take only jewels and precious metals, but within those limits, anything goes. If the plundered castle contains a diamond-studded chamber pot – and any castle of mine would have one – into the hoard with it!
My childhood was filled with piles of treasure, or at least, the piles are what I recall most clearly. Take the old Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which I visited weekly, alone, for hours. The Peabody hoarded curios of the Yankee clipper trade: Samoan canoes, Chinese porcelain, Indian bronzes. It also welcomed spears, pots, moccasins, anything looted from the local Native Americans, as well as booty from the tribes of the west.
Nothing changed at the Peabody from year to year, but I never came to the end of it. The “displays” were crammed, glass-fronted enclosures that did no more than corral the stuff. The glass kept kids like me from fingering the bead work and pulling the trigger of the flintlock, so I had to do the fingering in my head. The exercise shaped me for life.
(The museum has been modernized now. One or two objects are presented in a case, hedged about with respectful placards that nail down their meaning for you. This is held to be educational.)
You do grow up eventually. You become one of the people with the keys to the display case, and – alas – it is up to you to create some kind of order. This is where lists come in.
At their best, lists come close to letting you finger the beadwork. Your shopping list for Christmas presents, say. You may cross things off, but I’ll bet you don’t scribble them into illegibility. Possessing your list, you possess Santa’s sack.
In your fiction, lists drop the reader in at the deep end. Enter a room, be submerged in the agglomeration of a character’s possessions. If you avoid clichés like garish sofa pillows or boring nineteenth-century paintings, your reader can meet an original character even before she walks onto the stage. (Avoid reverse clichés as well, e.g., you enter a room starved of eccentricity, geometric, neat, and suspicion dawns. You cannot trust the owner. He is either hiding something or deeply neurotic.)
Chris Holm, who won this year’s Anthony Best Novel award for his thriller The Killing Kind, says that lists are where he hides his clues. The villain, ransacking his pockets for his Porsche keys, might turn out used Kleenex, coins, a rubber band, half a paper clip, crumpled receipts, cookie crumbs, laundry lint. While the reader tenses over the frustrated get-away, that lint actually means….
Once you have spread your hoard out before you and made your list, you have a basis for elaboration. My hoard for one book includes a painting titled “Mom and Dad at the Gates of Hell,” a rhododendron bush heavy with rain in a square in Dublin, a wooden shack over a spring, papered with appeals to St. Bridget, a silver rack of hot toast, two vodka gimlets…. I have little idea where I’m going with this. I shuffle and rearrange the list to own my great delight; sometimes I push some items to the left of the page, to become categories, or to the right, to dwindle into mere fragments of scenes. I’m sure there’s a cosmogony in there somewhere.
Pile-to-list requires a critical mass. Two items, for instance will not do. Your middle-school English teacher’s quiz instruction, “Compare and contrast” misses the mark entirely, as so many of her instructions did. But if you sort and imagine, shift and juggle, keep the right things and toss the wrong ones, there will be a story.
Of course, you might make it on structure alone. You could outline your story first, sub-outline your outline, sit down, type it over with “the” and “is” inserted where necessary. No one could argue that you haven’t written a book. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code reads like a series of index cards, ordered plot points fleshed out with an albino monk here and there. He made $250 million. But I bet I’m having more fun.
THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
I’m done, I’m through, I’m exhausted and happy.
Just a few minutes ago I put the last period on the last line of the last sentence of my cozy. It’s not really finished. Nothing is really ever finished until you can’t change one jot or tittle of it. With a book that means after it’s printed. I’m only done with this revision, and boy, was it ever a lulu.
Tomorrow, after I make sure that all the ducks on my thumb drive are in order, I’m taking it off to Staples and having MY NOVEL printed on paper from the first word to the last. For me that is the achievement of a lifetime and I’m going to milk this happy glow for all it’s worth.
After that it’s more revision. But I want you know how much I’m going to enjoy this one.
- it will be on paper. That means I can flop anywhere and read it, mark it up, scratch out whole sections and put others in.
- it has been written from front to back. It’s a whole story and I can read it like one and make sense of it.
- The pages can be flipped back and forth, I can see things more clearly, see where a sentence could be to better advantage if I placed it just so, where a scene might need more something.
Oh, you can do all that on your computer using state-of-the-art programs and what-not? Well I can’t. And I’ve heard the moaning and groaning that accompanies learning how to manipulate these programs. I am barely computer literate. Jane Austen did just fine without a computer program, but, unfortunately, I somehow sense that given one, and the computer to go with it, she would be able to make better use of it than I can.
But, nevertheless, I have reached a jumping off point in the revision process. I’m one step closer to being able to submit my cozy somewhere. I had set a goal to finish this revision by September, and I’m only a little late. I’ll have to work harder on paper.
I will be pitching this in November (beginning of!) to an agent (as yet unknown) at the annual New England Crime Bake in Massachusetts. It is organized by the New England Chapters of Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America. Sounds good, no? Heidi and Karen, fellow bloggers here, will be going also. The line-up of classes is very impressive and we’re looking forward to going. So, the next sound that you hear will be that of a whip cracking. Maybe several whips, if H and K are pitching also.
The life of a writer is a hectic one. If I’d started sooner I might have had several books under my belt by now, but I’ve always been a late bloomer, and life is as it is. So, hecticity stalks me, and I embrace it. What else can you do with a socially accepted addiction.
I think I’m addicted to genealogy, specifically that of my family and now my husband’s family. I started researching my father’s family history in order to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). I already knew I had a Revolutionary War Minuteman for a fourth great-grandfather from a family history, which made completing the application for DAR membership less daunting than I anticipated. That done, I wanted to learn about his parents beyond their names and dates of death–were they born in Maine (which is where they lived when two of their sons ventured to Groton, VT)?; where are they buried?; where did their parents come from?;–the usual sort of questions you want answers to. But there isn’t much information on Ancestry.com, my main research site.
Not making much progress there, I moved on to the German side of my family. When I realized that I would need my German-speaking mother’s undivided attention for about six weeks to make any headway in that arena, I decided that my husband’s family might be easier to research. We already knew about the Civil War soldier who died at Andersonville Prison but we weren’t aware of the two Revolutionary War soldiers I unearthed.
Then–JACKPOT!! I am 99% certain that my husband is a lineal descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony who arrived in New England on the Mayflower. With a Pilgrim in the family, Thanksgiving will never be the same.
My own research brought me to this conclusion and when I ventured out to Wiki Tree, a free genealogy website, there it was, printed boldly on the bottom of my mother-in-law’s record: “Mayflower Descendant (Gov. William Bradford). I immediately sent a text to my three daughters: “SOMEBODY CALL ME! I am hyperventilating.” Soon I was talking to one daughter on my cell phone (left ear) with another daughter on the home phone (right ear). I’d say they were excited as well–but not as much as their mother was. And it’s not even my own family.
One of my granddaughters was not impressed by the Mayflower connection. Her comment: “I don’t care. I just want to know if I’m a princess.” Hmmm…I think we would know if that were the case but just for fun I went looking for a royal connection. I’m certain I violated all rules of genealogy research when I just clicked away on every link to every father of the next male in the line until I reached a dead end. It just happened to be on Sir Edward Rogers, born in 1498, who served as a courtier to Henry VIII. Yes, that Henry VIII. Sir Edward may not have been a prince but he did hang out with a king! What remains to be determined is if he is a relative.
Real genealogists take their research seriously. Which is what I should be doing with my writing. Is this new hobby of mine just another means of avoiding writing? (That’s a rhetorical and, by now, annoying question. So don’t answer it.) I’m stuck in the saggy middle of my murder mystery–the saggy middle of my outline of the novel, not the actual writing of it. My latest goal is to generate the same enthusiasm for writing this mystery that I have for researching dead ancestors. Wish me luck!
“Stories about women’s enlightenment often feature damage to domestic equipment.”
I found this parenthetic remark by a modern Buddhist teacher in his commentary on the koan called A True Person of No Rank. The domestic equipment in question was a doughnut pan, whatever that is. Its newly enlightened owner rushed off to her Zen teacher to present her enlightenment, and later became a “famous teacher” herself.
I don’t know if writing is equivalent to enlightenment, but it seems to have the same effect on household efficiency. Most of the women writers I know, or whose blogs I read, complain about the pile-up of housework that occurs when they take large chunks of time to write. I notice that the more successful ones usually report ignoring the pile to do the writing. We amateurs use it as an excuse for why we didn’t write.
Both ways of dealing with dirty dishes exist, of course, but I think they miss the deeper relationship between scutwork of all kinds and writing. Scutwork is, by definition, menial and repetitive. Dish after dish into the dishwasher. Or in the office, memo after memo into the files. Sweep the floor again, just before they track more mud in.
In other words, it’s the maintenance of order. A lot of us are willing to admit doing trivial tasks to avoid facing the blank page in the typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) But why are those tasks preferable? Because doing them, we accomplish what, at the moment, we can’t accomplish with our writing. Mostly it isn’t the blank page that scares us off. It’s the roily-boily mess on the dozens or hundreds of already-filled pages that were supposed to be a book but look like a dog’s lunch. Rather than plunge into that abyss and be lost forever, we put a load of wash through.
So, the washing machine is churning. What now? Like the psychiatrist dealing with a phobia, we may inch just a little closer to the neurotic fear. The desk is in a state of chaos. Chapter outlines have fluttered to the floor, and sticky notes encroach on the keyboard. The character list has become a bookmark on which coffee-mug rings make the Olympic symbol. We straighten up the desk. In doing so, we will have to read at least some of each slip of paper, to find out which pile it belongs in. The names of characters and places fill our minds with detailed images and inch us toward our fictional world.
The next step may be the most dangerous. A lot of that paper should not have been put in the piles or the files; it should have gone into the wastebasket. The abortive outlines and mad, scribbled notes on every possible plot twist or additional detail that might conceivably, someday, end up in the final draft need to be out of your sight, if not burned to ashes. You are where you are. By all means, reread a little of the last chapter to get a good run-up to the current one. Just don’t start over. Planning and outlining were all very well in their time. Re-planning and re-re-planning are avoidance.
Your washing (or your doughnut pan) have done the trick, no smashing required. At this point, you scroll down to the blank space below your last word – and write. Feel free to make some doughnuts later.
IS YOUR PLOT LINE SCREWED?
I just finished reading Richard Russo’s, Everybody’s Fool, which takes place in the present in a forty-eight hour time period. There are 447 pages in the book. That indicates a lot of detail crammed into those two days. My assignment was to unfold the the un-tangential secrets of his plot line.
I thought of a screw. Of course, why not.
Screws come in different sizes and types. Their job is to hold things together. A story is like a screw in that it has to hold itself together.
Screws are usually classified as Type A or Type B. A’s are coarse threaded screws; they have fewer threads per inch for holding together lighter materials. B’s are finer threaded screws with more threads per inch. They can hold together more and heavier materials.
Stand a screw on its head and imagine that the threads are the actual storytelling of a book which ascends in an orderly circular fashion along the core (or plot) of the screw (or story). You can tell at a glance if there will be a lot of description, or a little, if it’s coarse threaded or fine, if it is holding together a light weight book or a heavier tome.
Light writing, heavier writing; both are fine. They just need the right screws. They need to hold together and not have tangents that fly off the page.
Russo did a lot of plotting. Every character, even the dog, had his or her own plot line. The town and the physical terrain had plot lines. Maybe there was an instance or two of too much plot and the story line escaped and flew off the handle.You could feel it as you read. There the description, an added character, or a sub-plot line were impediments to the smooth turning of the screw. They were not firmly attached to the main core, they did not ascend in that even circular movement, with the rest of Russo’s neatly constructed plot lines, all the way to the denouement. They were irritating flanges on the threads that needed to be filed off. They were gluts of cream that escaped a centrifuge and slopped out of the book. A darling perhaps?
Everybody’s Fool is an example of a long screw with very fine threads; a tightly wound screw. I only used his, maybe only one, instance of unnecessary flange-ness, to point out that no book is perfect. For the most part Russo kept his character descriptions and plot and sub-plot lines in an orderly fashion, but not so orderly that it was boring, as they rounded and tightened the story. His writing drew the reader in, instead of flinging her out. The facets of the story were firmly attached to the core and to all the other characters even as they moved along and around each other and the story line.
I should be so meticulously careful in my writing!
I could add that all of Russo’s characters were screwed from the beginning, even the dog, as was the landscape, but for the main characters the ending was as redeeming as an ending should be.
I had forty-five minutes of free time Friday morning and thought that would make a nice block of time to focus on writing my blog post. There wasn’t anything else I could do. Except breathe. I even had ear plugs and headphones on. My eyes were shut and I had strict instructions to not move. What was left to do but think?
So think I did. But not about my writing. I thought about the three inches between my face and the “ceiling”. About holding my breath for what seemed like forever. About the noise coming out of the “casket” I was lying in. About the ball in my hand that I could squeeze and immediately would be rescued. From my MRI.
The diagnosis? I am suffering from Too Cranky To Write (TCTW) syndrome. The cure for this? I thought it was hot fudge sundaes and espresso coffee bean ice cream but alas that hasn’t worked.
On Saturday, just when I’d given up hope of ever writing again due to the TCTW delivering a fatal blow to my creative juices, we drove by the abandoned house where I’ve staged a murder in one of my abandoned novels. My mind rewound to this novel and almost instantly I conjured a new murderer and a new plot twist. (Now I want to abandon my current project and return to the old novel. I hate when that happens.)
I’ve driven by this house hundreds of times, taken photos of it for inspiration for the setting. Then how, after all these years of staring at the house, did I miss the red fire hydrant on the front lawn? Or even worse, the damn fire station right next door? I can’t have that. It would be hard to explain the house burning down with the fire department as a neighbor.
As best as I can figure, I’ve been so fixated on the house that I’ve not even noticed its surroundings. That happens in my writing as well. I become hyperfocused on one aspect of the plot and fail to see what else should be happening. Or what my characters who are waiting in the wings for their cues are doing.
What I find of interest is how this relates to Heidi’s most recent blog. The house is an actual character in the novel with a crucial role to play. Unfortunately, as occasionally happens to human characters, it has to be sacrificed for the benefit of another character.
And just like that, I’ve banished my TCTW syndrome. All it took was a moment with a mystery that’s been on the back burner (or in the wood stove pile) and I’m writing again. But I’m still a wee bit cranky….