Author Archives: Eleanor Ingbretson
AN APPROPRIATE TIME
1 To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.
2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
In Ecclesiastes we read that there is a time for this and a time for that. In the twentieth century Pete Seeger, The Byrds, and Simon and Garfunkel revisited these verses through their music. Writers constantly revisit the question: where and when (how, why, who, and by whom) should a murder be committed.
An agent I spoke with during a pitch session was adamant about when murders occur. She said, “One in the beginning (first page) one in the middle and one at the end. There had to be at least three”. I didn’t comment, after all, I was pitching, she was catching. But I disagreed. I have always disagreed with that formula.
Heidi, a fellow writer at Thursday Night Writes, agrees with me. This is what she wrote to me this morning:
“I just reached the first murder in my current reread of Ngaio Marsh: on page 111 of a 247-page book. So let’s have none of their nonsense about a murder on the first page.”
Exactly. With a first page murder where is the time for loving and hating, a build up to WHY.
Where is the time for being born, so we know WHO?
Where is the time to gather stones together so we can figure out BY WHOM?
And what about a time to plant in order to know WHERE or HOW.
Moby Dick didn’t kill Ahab till the very end of a very long book. And maybe Moby Dick isn’t the best example since it’s so long and drawn out, but in the course of the story the intentions of the two protagonists (Yes, two. I have always sided with the whale) are revealed to the reader. At the end of the book it was definitely time for Ahab to be plucked up. Definitely.
In a cozy we want to dwell on our characters and their emotions. By having a murder on the first page we lose a lot of opportunities for them, and especially for our protagonist, to weep and laugh and mourn and dance; to build them up and flesh them out. Flash forwards are the answer you say. Flashbacks. Sure, they can work, but I say there nothing like a straightforward build up of actions leading to straightforward consequences.
There’s a time for everything and everything in its time.
MAH JONGG FOR WRITERS
I play Mah Jongg with a group of equally disturbed women. I seldom win my fair share of the games yet I’m compelled to play. We all are. We develop severe tics if we can’t play. None of these women write, and only one of my fellow Thursday Night Writers knows the game. Too bad. By observing friends (and others) on a regular basis much grist can be found for those new characters who clamor for creation.
My bedside table is loaded with reading material I’m either starting or in the middle of, and some that are galloping toward completion. There are books stacked up and waiting, and more that are going nowhere. Not bad books, mind you, just ones that didn’t hold my interest. One of the books in progress, and one that is steadily trotting along, is Marilynne Robinson’s ‘When I Was a Child I Read Books’. When she tells about her own writing in these essays she really grabs me by the throat. Here is what she says about characters in her essay on ‘Imagination and Community’:
“I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of – who knows it better than I – people who do not exist.”
You have to love people who don’t exist, especially your own.
So, it has occurred to me, when I play Mah Jongg with this particular group, that certain idiosyncracies have developed week after week and year after year during the crush of the game. Quirks have become part and parcel of personalities and exist only in the process of playing. Mah Jongg has brought out certain traits not seen in any other of their walks in life. Characteristics, if I may say, very suitable for transposing into people who DO NOT EXIST. Into people of the page. When we leave for the day I think some part of our psyches detach from the whole that goes home to cook, or walk or write or read and stays behind to sort out tactical dilemmas and to greet us when we return.
These ladies are terrific and I thank them for their individual personas and those detachable psyches perfect for reassignment.
Marilynne Robinson says, a few pages further into the book, same essay:
“Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life.”
It is odd, but just think of some of the other ways people choose to spend their lives.
Creating people who hadn’t existed until after we imagined them into being, building and forming them with fabric lifted from those we know and observe and love, has to be a grand way to spend a life.
And besides, imitation is the finest form of flattery. We all know that.
I just returned from Iceland, the land of ice and fire, back to snow covered New Hampshire. I’d gone north to get warm.
Actually, though they are warmer than we are throughout winter, the week I was there the temperature in Reykjavik was about the same as Pike, New Hampshire; in the thirties. But, wait for it, their crocuses were in bloom. And that’s saying something. We have another month to go before we see any spring flowers.
There’s no denying that I love Iceland. Just as I love Jasper Fforde and cats and chocolate. Maybe not in that order, but you catch my drift.
An idea for a story came to me while I was standing in the snowfields north of Reykjavik watching the Northern Lights play across the sky. Just before the Lights did their thing we’d watched starlings do their thing as they murmurated above the horizon. That was pretty glorious too. But back to the story.
Supposing a murder had occurred as the whole group from the tour van had their eyes fixed on the sky. Out there, in the dark, an isolated group of aurora borealis afficionadoes oohed and aahed away like five year olds at a fireworks display. Attention fixed on the display above, not one person glanced around at their neighbors. It was almost a locked room scenario. Then, just suppose that the perpetrator was confined to a wheelchair. One of our group was. Suppose he/she was not quite the invalid we all thought.
It’s the supposing that gets a story budding. I’m reading C.S. Lewis’ essays on stories right now. He apparently got his Narnia stories from pictures he saw in his mind. One picture he admitted carrying around for twenty-five years or more before he put it to good use.
I can see a picture right now, but don’t know how it will all turn out. C.S Lewis said the same thing. He played with his pictures, moved them around till they meant something to him. Then he connected the dots, and the story bloomed.
My picture, because it seems so locked room, has sent me back to re-reading Agatha Christie. I finished the ‘Crooked House’ and have started ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’. Christie is technically not ‘locked room’ but she dealt with isolated scenarios, limited suspects, and clueless people. I researched her top ten stories and am picking and choosing from them while I begin to get my act together on paper. That’s the hard part. Definitely.
On a different note, a member of our writing group, Mike H., definitely has gotten his act together with his newly published short story. We are extremely proud of him, he makes us look good. You can find his story, ‘Next to the Fridge‘, online at Cold Creek Review.
Way to go, Mike.
Writing is hard because you try to be better with each word you put down, or don’t put down, on a piece of paper. You can only be better than you’ve been. You can’t be better than say, Hemingway, who hardly put any unnecessary words in his stories. He was a master of succinctness. I am trying to be better in that category, in fact I must, if I want to write short stories.
Last posting I mentioned that I was in the doldrums. February does that to me. But look, there are still two days left in February and I’ve been working on a short story for over a week now. Amazing. I think it was listening to some rousing classical music that started the imagination process, and then a wonderful couple of articles in Writers Digest about short, short-short and flash fiction.
So I buckled down to writing a story called WAGON RIDES TO NIGHT. A homemade sign with those words intrigued me and wouldn’t let me go. I’ve gotten as far as determining that the wagon is a ’57 Chevy station wagon, turquoise and blue, with a driver who specializes in returning to the scenes of crimes committed against the young and innocent. I’m not done yet, but I try to push a little further each time I sit down to write. Some of the story is autobiographical and that makes it more difficult for me as I want nothing more than to forget my past.
Now comes the tricky part. Well, besides actually finishing, that is. I need to reduce my word count. I need to go back to the beginning and make every word count as two, and if it doesn’t then it needs to be ripped out. No darlings in a short story. Show no mercy to those words that, like phatic utterances, only take up space and time.
My story may never amount to much, it may not even reach the place I was hoping to take it. But, it will be a story, and I’ll try to make it as good as I can. Maybe it will need time to sit and rest, like bread dough, before it grows into what it’s meant to be. That’s the beauty of short stories, they are more malleable than novels.
The Writers Digest issue I referred to above (March/April 2017), mentioned an online short story challenge called StoryADay in which participants write a short piece every day for the month of May. I think I’m going to take that challenge this year. Interested?
. . . in the doldrums (overseas stocks are in the doldrums): inactive, quiet, slow, slack, sluggish, stagnant.
Is being in the doldrums an act of will, like a temper tantrum gone on too long? Is it an ‘I will not write, you can’t make me’, sort of thing? Or is it something beyond control, like overseas stocks.
I don’t know anything about stocks, overseas or not, I do know that February brings on the doldrums in me. ‘Fantods’ was how David Foster Wallace referred to the feeling, though he usually placed, before fantods, an adjective which escapes me now.
nounN. Amer. informal
a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness: the mumbo-jumbo gave me the fantods.
Maybe the word was galloping, like in consumption. I know it wasn’t, but it sounds good.
February gives me the galloping fantodish doldrums.
I have ideas for stories the plots of which are not to be found. I have characters for which no story is available. I have plots that have no arc, arcs that sag, lines with no one to speak them, premises with no promise, settings with no descriptors and worst of all , an inclination to recline with a glass of wine and forget that I ever took up the silly business of writing.
If this condition is willful, or even an unwilling one, but one that is only a passing phase , I will be very thankful when it’s over. February’s galloping fantods and doldrums have always passed in the past, I’m sure they will pass now and in the future, but at present they are unreasonable and slow down progress. I want to write the story of a wagon ride to night, the story of how gravity really works, this story and that one, but must wait until March. And that is truly annoying.
“A compliment for every pallet”.
Those words were beautifully painted (and are there, still) on the wall above the beer section of a grocery in town. They have tormented me for twenty-five years, ever since I moved to this area from Boston. This area being about three-quarters of the way up the beautiful state of New Hampshire, on the Connecticut River, and a half mile north of Dartmouth College. Plus, only about an hour south of the Canadian border depending on how fast you drive. It’s a place of beauty, and a joy to live here, as you will discover when you read further and learn of my previous domiciles.
Spelling, and word choices aren’t any better in Boston where the English language is spelled the way it’s pronounced. For instance, in the lobby of the building I lived in there was once a sign;
“4 Sale, Green Paka, Hadly Wan”.
What really made me laugh was the fact that the local Bostonians had trouble with my N.Y.C. English!
- Lyric interlude —There is standing joke about shopping in Boston, and a classic at the grocery stores. If a customer waited in the express lane, with at least fifty items in his cart, it was said that he’d either gone to M.I.T and couldn’t read, or he’d gone to Hahvad and couldn’t count. It showed humor. (I refer to the customer as a ‘he’ in this interlude because ‘he’s’ don’t notice signs. Usually.)
But back to New Hampshire.
Complimenting a pallet stuck in my gorge. when I first noticed the sign I approached the store manager with their little problem. He, the manager, insisted that all the words were spelled correctly. I had to agree with him there, which didn’t help my argument. He said he’d check with the regional manager, he couldn’t do anything about it. I explained what the signage really meant, but his eyes glazed over and he looked ready to push a panic button. I backed off.
A few years later I approached the new store manager about the problem, and again the new one after that, to no avail. I dropped my case. The sign is still there if you’d like to see it. Maybe take a photo. Get a chuckle. I wasn’t writing then, but there are still possibilities in a sign like that.
Now, I have to tell you about a new sign in town. It’s hand painted on a piece of wood, stuck haphazardly in the snow by the side of a well traveled road, and reads:
“WAGON RIdES TO NIGHT”.
Now that’s a sign you could really dig your teeth into, and I plan on doing just that. Throw in a little paranormal, a bit of a thrill, a little dark humor and there’s no telling where something like that will lead you when you imagine to what the ‘NIGHT’ in that sign could refer.
Think about it.
If you look at the word above, see it surrounded top, bottom and both sides with white space, or imagine it reduced to eight point type and in lower case like this:
what an unhappy feeling you’d get. It would make you feel like you’re alone in the world, shunned by all, dismissed, unacceptable, lacking in some vital quality that all possess except you.
ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin reject- ‘thrown back,’ from the verb reicere, from re- ‘back’ + jacere ‘to throw.’
Thrown back! Like a fish! Too small, wrong type, inadequate. Stinky! I could go on and on but for what purpose?
I actually got the world’s best rejection email. Yes it hurt, but mostly the hurt was a sudden attack of anxiety that hit right in the solar plexus, which is: a complex of ganglia and radiating nerves of the sympathetic system at the pit of the stomach. I was sympathetic all right, and all my sympathy lay with myself. I felt sorry for myself, and the sorry was compounded with a serious ‘what do I do now?’ but not long lasting, anxiety attack. I’d put my cozy egg in this one basket and the basket dumped it.
But back to the rejection email itself. It was beautiful, not a form letter at all, but a wish that my story had been right for her, the agent, who I will love forever as being the quintessential agent of all time. She went on to say that cozies were not for her. Her tastes ran to the emotionally tormented end of the scale. And she loved my voice and setting.
I picked up the latest issue of Writer’s Digest (February 2017) which had come in the mail that day. There was an uplifting article by Stephanie Faris entitled ‘The Rejection Game’, in which rejectees, like myself, were encouraged to get back into the game. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, submit like crazy, have a list of other agents on hand to submit to, agents who wanted cozies, who weren’t into horror, SF, drama, police procedurals, etc. Keep a log on paper, or if you are inclined that way, a spreadsheet on the computer, to keep track of your submissions and subsequent follow-ups.
I already had the names of a few other agents from my afternoon at the 2016 Crime Bake’s pitch session. I researched them, emailed them to see if they accepted simultaneous submissions, and will send out my cozy to each of them. So what if my cozy was dumped from one basket. It wasn’t broken, and I have healed and am moving on.
This is something I wrote maybe five years ago when I was young and foolish and my back didn’t go out with every heft of the snow shovel.
I look out at the pristine snow that fell yesterday and last night in heavy wet flakes to drown everything in white. It’s not the snow I care to shovel.
AT HOME IN WINTER
Like a bone to a dog, like catnip to a cat, like chocolate to a dieting woman I embraced my sequestering at home. But not the idleness.
Idleness came on me by degrees. First was the loan of my car to my daughter. Second was the shriveling up of my internet service. Then the snows came.
I’m not a snow person, but I looked on the bright side; I didn’t like driving in it and I was now absolved of that. And the precipitation wouldn’t have allowed me to get internet reception even if my neighbor hadn’t secured his service.
So, I did what recluses everywhere do when they have time on their hands. I created an activity for myself. I became like Edmund Dantes and shoveled. I became obsessed with the snow in my front door yard, shoveling it and maintaining it as a thing of beauty. It was something I’d never done before, since I was always too busy.
I shoveled and groomed the yard with the precision of a fastidious hairdresser, the result I endeavored to achieve would be a yard with nary a snowflake out of place. The pristine white snow was scraped to an average depth of 3/8 of an inch, more or less. That depended on the undulations of the underlying gravel of course. I shoveled patterns into the fresh snow, becoming annoyed when someone parked on my creations. Especially when the parker never even noticed my handiwork. Yesterday I scraped an overall scallop pattern onto my shoveled snow. I dreamt of a bargello pattern with the next light snowfall, perhaps with a Greek key design on the five foot high wall of snow that I’d thrown up like bulwarks around my proscribed area.
These walls of snow are tended with the care of a plasterer; careful use of the shovel on the downward thrust through built up snow banks yields a smooth, marbleized, vertical surface ready for the application of carved reliefs or even frescos, if one desires. Color might be needed to break up the monotony of all white. Spray paint? A dog?
However, all this shall pass. Spring will come again and I will need to get away from all this foolishness and embrace more permanent things. I have been promised internet service, though the date varies with time. I’ll get my car back, though that date is indefinite also. But in the meantime I have the snow to warm the cockles of my creative heart and hand.
That was then, this is today. I’ll probably go out at some point and shovel because I’m crazy.
I never got my car back; my trusty yellow VW bug. My daughter drove it till it had 250,000 miles on it and then passed it on to a restorer. I got a new yellow bug. Then I switched from #%&*@#%$%&%$# to Charter for my internet service and have miles to go on that each day before I sleep. Just like good old Robt. Frost. Or was that Jack Frost?
The snow will eventually disappear and the sound of turtledoves will return.
Life is good.
I’m at loose ends now that I’ve submitted my cozy manuscript to an agent. After a marathon three week effort to edit, edit and edit at a speed that would knock your socks off, my thumbs, now the devil’s workshop, have been twiddled to the nubs. My head swam night and day with characters, plot, flow, timing, pacing, description, historicity, relationships and don’t forget the bane of my existence; punctuation, in order to send the MS out in a timely manner. Now it’s as empty as a vacated egg shell.
It’s the usual thing, I understand, to wait after sending out a story. To wait for someone to read it hopefully in a favorable light because this is my baby we’re talking about here. Did I send my baby out into the world before it was ready, or unsuitably clothed, or ill favored? I dread to think it will be sent back to me with those comments.
On the other hand, and bearing in mind that my thumbs can’t take much more twiddling, should I start on another ‘baby’? Should I prematurely begin work on the sibling before I know what the agent has to say about the older child? Or work on a different family altogether. Isn’t there any rest for the weary mother between babies?
The process of bringing a story to birth was painful, but also very rewarding. And interesting. It kept me off the streets and out of trouble. I’m hesitant to start something new and I believe I’ve forgotten how to start something new. What process should I use? I’ve always been a pantser but would consider the advantages of plotting. Maybe a loose outline that’s consumed ultimately and utterly by pantsing is the best approach. I don’t feel comfortable starting with an outline. It seems so cut and dry, not organic at all. I feel like Charlie Brown as he agonizingly procrastinated over a book review due, yikes, tomorrow. He thought of more and more reasons not to begin at all.
In December, two weeks before Christmas, I can also justify not beginning something new. But I also feel that without a story running through my brain I’m not justified. Silly, isn’t it. My raison d’etre has flown the coop with my mojo on the wings of my twiddled thumbs.
I discussed all this with my writing group last evening. They were all very kind and helpful. Our camaraderie, grown story by story through the years held fast in sympathy. Heidi, for instance, has two stories she’s labored over lovingly and Karen has, I think, three and just had another through NaNoWriMo last month. We know each other’s pain. We’re very understanding. But when the dust settled I was on my own.
“Tomorrow is another day,” Margaret Mitchell said in Gone with the Wind. “Manana,” that’s another overused procrastinatory crutch. “I’ll wait till I feel rested,” that’s Charlie Brown. On the other end of the spectrum we have: “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today”. I don’t know who said that but I certainly take my hat off to the originator of that quote. With truths like that (and possibly another looming deadline) I think I can get another story up and running.
SLEEP THAT KNITS UP THE RAVELED SLEAVE OF CARE
No, that’s not a misspelling, that’s Shakespeare in one of his many insightful perceptions into the human dilemma. I’ll give you a bit more. It’s from Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 2:
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
I was inspired to write about one of my sore labors, sleeplessness, after reading the Maine Crime Writers blog yesterday. Kathy Lee Emerson was reporting and I read, under the heading ‘Sleep, Glorious Sleep,’ about her trials and tribulations with her insomnia. She wrote humorously of her trips to a medical center to be hooked up to a thousand wires and monitored for sleep apnea (a pet theory among doctors, but really, there’s so much more that can cause insomnia). But at the end of her long night’s journey into thrashing around on a very narrow bed and at the end of her rope and of all those wires and things, poor Kathy still didn’t know if she had sleep apnea.
I don’t have apnea, asleep or awake, but I am a chronic insomniac, or, as a friend calls it, sonic inchromniac. That’s sort of like that old nut; “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”. Some days I wish I had both, but wine keeps me awake. So does chocolate, my favorite food group.
Oh, you say, think of all the stuff you can get done while you’re awake. Not so. Chronic insomnia is like having perpetual jet lag. Try doing something, anything, after flying for 24, 48, or 72 hours straight. Impossible. I’d write if I could, but even thinking about what I’m in the middle of while I toss and turn actually keeps me awake. My writing is that exciting.
On the labels of over-the-counter sleep aids you will find this disclaimer: if sleeplessness continues for longer than ten days stop taking this product, there may be a serious underlying cause. Please see your doctor. I’ve had this for twenty-five years! How serious could it be? Hasn’t killed me yet.
Kathy, I hope to meet you at the Crime Bake next weekend. We can compare notes, because if there’s one thing we both know it’s that time waits for no man. We have to keep cranking out words even if our heads are muddled and our vision blurred. We have to be inventive and funny and clever. And we have to be better than the day before. We can’t wait for sleep to catch up, or to catch up on sleep. We have to carpe those diems as they come.
Good luck in figuring out what causes your insomnia. And let me know!