Category Archives: Heidi Wilson
Margaret Atwood Teaches Me to Write
After a month of life chaos, I just opened the best Christmas present ever. I was finally able to start an online master class in writing taught by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is one of the very few authors whose books I do not keep on my fiction bookshelves in alphabetical order. She lives on the special shelves where I keep the books I would like to be buried with.
Each lesson is a video of Atwood, introduced by screen shots of what I take to be her working journals. They don’t show text. Primitive doodles express her wonderfully strange mind. The bottom half of a large bird dangles a small child from its talons. A woman, shaped like a Moomin without the nose, hugs an armless man. Three figures are shown from the waist down: left: a skirt with stick legs; right, trousered legs; center, a naked female. A scrap of writing reads, “the day her mother said to her – etc.”
Atwood lectures from her own working space. “Space” may be the wrong word. There is hardly an open inch. Bookshelves line the walls, of course, with bags and boxes of books piled in front of them. The desk is a rolltop with full pigeonholes and clutter all over its surface, including several journals. The walls are solid with pictures. Best of all, every flat space is covered with objects. There are dolls, some of which seem to cry out for a voodoo hat pin. A large silver crab is in mid-scuttle across a table. The lamp is skirted in long crystal beads. Little boxes, toys, sculpture abound.
Atwood grew up deep in the Canadian wilderness in a cabin without electricity or running water, but with plenty of books. She saw town only in the winter when the family retreated there to wait for spring. “Other children might be afraid of being lost in the woods,” she says. “I was afraid of flush toilets. What was going on there? Why did things just – vanish?”
In high school, she set up a business doing puppet shows at birthday parties for five-year-olds. The plots were taken from fairy tales: The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel. Atwood’s take on her business success: the stories were “about those things that are dear to the hearts of five-year-olds, namely, cannibalism.”
Atwood’s method is to write by hand, then transcribe while she continues writing. She calls herself a “downhill skier,” trying to write quickly and then go back and “re-vision.” She complains that literature classes imply “a container, the work of art, and inside it are these ‘ideas,’ like prizes in a Cracker Jack box.” This is not, she says, how writers write. Some of her books have begun not even from an imagined character or scene, but simply from an object.
I’ve viewed only three of the 23 lessons so far, but I knew Atwood and I were on the same page when she advised reading all the myths, folktales and fairy tales you can lay hands on – then subvert them all. She cites the Disney movie Maleficent, where Sleeping Beauty’s prince proves a “dud,” and the villain is redeemed, and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, where Chekov’s gun meets existential frustration.
The course workbook is chock full of exercises, web sites and sources of writing prompts. I’ve barely started on them, but the exercise that Atwood explains in the first video is worth the price of admission. If you are having trouble getting started, she says, you are afraid of something. Pick up a pen and write down your fears. Her examples of possible fears and their solutions:
You’re afraid your work will be lousy? The wastepaper basket is your friend. Write till it’s better.
You’re afraid your mother will find out? That’s what pen names are for.
You’re afraid people will laugh at you? You don’t have to show anyone anything until you want to.
To fight one’s fears, Atwood suggests coming up with an imaginary mentor, 100% on your side, to stand by you with help and encouragement. A writer you admire, perhaps. Who would you like for your imaginary mentor?
Duh! How about Margaret Atwood?
The Christmas Book Haul
So, what do a bunch of writers want for Christmas? Books, of course. But a survey of the Thursday Night Writers suggests that Santa’s gift-giving expertise is decidedly wobbly. Either that, or certain persons indulged in some lump-of-coal-type behavior in 2018.
I made out pretty well myself, but not because Santa (or his elves who happen to be related to me) got it right on their own. Brazen beggar that I am, I keep a public wish list on the Amazon web site. During the year, I use it to store the long, long list of books I’ve seen reviewed that I really, really want to read, if only I manage to live to be 175. Come the first snowflakes, I nip in and start moving titles around, shoving to the top the ones I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.
So my haul this year included Wish List #1, Tana French’s The Witch Elm. French is one of the only authors I buy in hard cover. (I’ve been mind-boggled by a recent thread on the DorothyL listserv, in which mystery fans explain why they can’t read her books. Their explanations convince me that they are reading the books of some other Tana French. A sobering thought for us writers who think that our readers read exactly what we hear in our heads when we write.)
Wish List #2 turned up, too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes. The subtitle is An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. Maybe it’s because I turned 70 last year, but I find myself getting crankier and crankier about Upbeatness on the subject of old age. It stinks. End of discussion.
Two of my granddaughters gave me Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. I am holding it in reserve until a current flurry of life demands calms down. Cats must be contemplated in calm and with dignity. And judging from my Japanese acquaintances, a Japanese cat will be Cat Squared.
Santa clearly approves of another TNWer, a fantasy/mystery author who received Agents and Spies, Thrilling Tales, a Gothic Fantasy anthology from Flame Tree Press. Flame Tree is a new publisher specializing in “excellent writing in horror and the supernatural, crime and mystery thrillers, and science fiction and fantasy.” The anthology combines classic stories with original ones from new authors. Imagine being paired in an anthology with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle or Rudyard Kipling!
Another TNWer, one-half of a pair of love birds married, lo, these many decades, received from his spouse a book of essays on the meaning of it all by one of their favorite columnists. He, in turn, had bought her a compilation of articles on the life of their favorite evangelist. No prior consultations. It’s like O. Henry’s “The Gifts of the Magi”, without the bitter overtone.
Alas, two of us received no books. One, our most prolific writer, is the duck in the hen house: the reading passion is the thing she doesn’t have in common with her family. The other non-recipient is a lesson to us all. Our most voracious reader, she roars through piles of books weekly – on her Kindle. Knowing that her first, second, third, etc. choices are already streaming to her at the speed of light, her family rebel at the thought of offering #17, and give her sweaters. When Amazon offers all the books there are by One-Click, and Google digitizes the world library and Project Gutenberg actually gives books away free… can we possibly have lost something?
Here’s hoping you all found just what you wanted under the tree, books or no books.
“You Want Me To Explain?”
“You want me to explain?”
So begins Chapter 22 of Peril at End House, Agatha Christie’s 1931 mystery. The suspects are gathered at End House, frightened and baffled all. Hercule Poirot, master detective and proprietor of the most efficient little gray cells on the planet, proffers a complete explanation of the mystery, pulls one final ace from his sleeve, and Inspector Japp pounces upon the murderer.
I’m thinking about endings at the moment, because I’ve just read Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin, originally published in 1948 and recently revived in e-book form. Happily nestled in a cozy setting (a mildly parodic English public school), the reader encounters a murder scene fairly littered with incomprehensible clues, a rather affected amateur detective – Oxford don Gervase Fen, who drives a very fast car – intrepid schoolgirls and a long-lost Shakespeare manuscript.
Unhappily – it made me unhappy, anyway – Fen refuses to discuss his observations or deductions except to suggest that the police and presumably the reader should have made them already. It’s description, dialogue and car chases all the way down.
At least, it is until the 85% mark on my handy smartphone e-reader. At that point, the unrecognizable body of the villain has been hauled from his wrecked car, detective and headmaster are back at the school, and Fen proceeds to explain exactly what we should have noticed and deduced. He does this for a very long time.
That last 15% was where, as a writer, I learned something. I could see Crispin’s method of creating his book as clearly as if he had personally explained it to me. Fen lays out the course of events, everyone’s actions, motives and even thoughts. Here and there, alternative explanations that might occur to the reader are explained away or dismissed as unnecessary to the main line of deduction. I’m morally certain that Crispin has simply placed his original outline, complete with his second thoughts and his solutions to them, in his detective’s mouth.
Once he had the outline, Crispin (IMHO) plucked out his list of clues, clothed them in pieces of necessary action that made striking scenes and trotted Fen through them. The occasional ‘but surely you have already realized…?’ reminds us that Fen is solving the crime – entirely out of the reader’s sight.
It didn’t make a satisfactory mystery novel. That is what sent me to Agatha Christie, who regularly wound up her books with concluding explanations by the detective. They are shorter than Crispin’s (and crisper), though Poirot does break the Detective Club rule that the reader must have all the clues in his hand before the revelation.
So, by way of contrast, let us consider the ideal, the perfection of the form: the solution of the murder of Philip Boyes, lover of the accused murderer, Harriet Vane, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison.
As the book opens, Harriet’s trial has ended in a hung jury. Lord Peter, suddenly in love, has only 30 days to find the real murderer before her retrial. For the first two-thirds of the book, we follow him down blind alleys and through unproductive interviews, unearthing suspects and clues aplenty in vivid, entertaining venues, but no proof. The last of these chapters ends with the collapse of the most promising theory.
Then, in a refreshing change of scene and pace, informants whom Lord Peter has planted among the suspects reward his foresight. Miss Katharine Alexandra Climpson – surely Sayers’ most delightful secondary character – unearths the motive. Miss Murchison, who has infiltrated the murderer’s office, finds the means. And rather than instantly deducing the opportunity from these facts, Lord Peter spends a sleepless night struggling to imagine how the crime was committed.
Sayers does withhold his reasoning on this one point from the reader, but only for a few pages. For the rabid mystery fan, she even drops three hints: Lord Peter found the answer after consulting these books: “The Trial of Florence Maybrick; Dixon Mann’s Forensic Medicine and Toxicology; … and A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.” The clues are in the reader’s hands. Using them, Lord Peter proceeds to trap the villain.
So. I think I can see how Crispin produced a passable mystery. It sounds like an exercise worth doing as a start. Now all I need is the wit and the stamina to take the result of that exercise and turn it into the next Strong Poison.
To end on a happy note for less-than-Sayers-level writers: Love Lies Bleeding is a “best seller” on Amazon – in the category of “Kindle kidnapping crime fiction” By some measurement or other, fame awaits us all.
The trouble with plotting a novel in which your protagonist encounters challenge and change is that you have to experience her losses with her. Eliza Harris, protagonist of my long-labored mystery novel, is going to end up moving into a “senior community” of highly eccentric academics. When I thought this up, it seemed full of promise. That was before I invented Fallowfields, the house she is going to leave.
Near my own real home (I am, unfortunately, a real person) is a short stretch of country road where, around 1800, six New Hampshire tycoons built their mansions, one right next to the other. Remember the old ads for Dewar’s Scotch that had a rich guy trotting across the yard to his neighbor’s palatial home from his own, to borrow a cup of Dewar’s? It’s like that. Without realizing I was doing it, I created Fallowfields from bits and pieces of the three houses I’ve visited.
Externally, Fallowfields is unlike the Ridge houses. It’s a Victorian brick monstrosity, rather like the house of the Addams family. Inside, though, it’s a dream. In fact, imagined houses are like dreams. Bits and pieces of places we’ve known are plugged in or detached as needed, logic not included. As in Terry Pratchett’s Empirical Crescent (built, you will recall, by Bloody Stupid Johnson), the door of Number 3 can open into the back bedroom of Number 14, entirely without consequence.
Once you import these mysteriously significant spaces into a story, though, the pieces need to fit. The staircase and the fireplace in Fallowfields’ living room have changed places three times. In the end, the fireplace settled on an outside wall – less likely than a central position in a house of its vintage, but I needed a staircase open to the living room, so one character can overhear a remark not meant for her ears. Of course, she could simply have been walking in from another room on the same floor. But by that time, I had the stage set in my mind, and her descent from above pleased the director in me.
The layout of Fallowfields has reached the point of proprioception for me. I can feel the living room on my right as I stand in the dining room looking down the corridor to the front door. This south side of the house has been grafted onto the layout of the local mansions – it is an apartment that my mother lived in for only one year while I was mostly away at college. So although Fallowfields is a very large house, with big rooms, when my mind is absorbed in the action of the story, the walls shrink in around me. When space is needed for, say, a large party or for a character to be far enough away from another for a whisper not to be heard, the walls ease out again. These contortions warn me to be careful; they’ll be fertile breeding ground for howlers in the logistics of the story.
The furnishings are much to my taste. Eliza’s desk is huge and heavy, made of the same mahogany as the pieces brought into our household by my English great-grandmother. It sits beside a tall window with six-over-six panes of glass. Outside is an ancient maple, huge and close enough for Eliza to watch lines of snow fall from individual twigs on a sunny February day. There is a liquor cabinet well-stocked with Scotch, bourbon and, at the back, an old bottle of rye that comes in handy for a rough-and-tumble visitor. The kitchen has a soapstone sink, hewn from the (perfectly real) soapstone quarry near my home on the side of Cottonstone Mountain.
Fallowfields has outbuildings linked together in the big-house-little-house-back-house-barn configuration of early New England farms. These, unmagicked, are cobbled together from the back house and barn of the original farmhouse on our property plus my grandmother’s chicken house in Peacham, Vermont.
My mystery plot requires that the back house have a loft, the barn’s tack room be turned into a laboratory and its hay loft into an apartment. They lost none of their reality in these renovations. The horse stalls in the far end of Eliza’s barn still bear the faded names of Shetland ponies who lived, long ago, in ours: Jennifer, Princess, Duchess.
So it will be very hard for me to force Eliza out of Fallowfields. I console myself with the thought that it will remain enshrined in the story, holding in place a lifetime of memories.
What about you, readers and fellow writers? As a story streams through your brain, what parts of your world does it clothe itself in?
Plot Blindness 2
Two months ago, I started work on a short story. Being, as I thought, hopeless at making up plots, I decided to call in a specialist. I hauled down my old copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale, wound my way through his detailed analysis of 600 Russian fairy tales, and plucked out the elements of a plot. Then I set to work to fill in the outline with a story of my own, about a carnival beset with supernatural difficulties.
The process may be working.
My original two pages of single-spaced blather was what you would get if shooting a writer in the head caused her ideas rather than her brain to splatter over the computer screen. (You can tell I come to this from the mystery genre.) As I said in a blog post at the time, the minute I set pen to paper, marvelous images and ideas proliferated out of all proportion to their usefulness. Booths selling deep-fried Twinkies jostled elderly elephants and juggling dwarfs for the spotlight. My characters wrangled over money, power, the uses of magic and dietary insufficiency.
By the grace of some Muse, I had the idea of searching the jumble for objects and events that would make striking scenes, regardless of logic. The jumble began to separate. In brief summaries, every scene made sense within itself. Some of them actually had an arc to them.
Once I had seven or eight scenes, stretching from start to resolution, I was sorely tempted to start writing. I held off, though. I tinkered. The carnival got realer and realer, but the plot got more tangled. As the scenes grew elaborate, contradictions between them multiplied.
Somehow, having each contradictory element trapped in its own scene made the process manageable. One by one, scrolling up and down, I made the changes needed to untangle them. By the time I had a complete set of scenes, I also had a workable plot.
Better still, as I worked, characters changed their motivations, their functions, their importance. The villain and a minor character swapped places. They all started talking to each other, and I eavesdropped on some quite good dialogue.
At last I started writing, and learned that writing as a plotter feels different from writing as a pantser. Same feeling of flow – complete absorption in the task – but it feels like working with a smaller brush. With a clear picture of what needs to be written right here and now, I find I’m working simultaneously on narrative, images and wording. I can reword a sentence three times in the course of writing one paragraph, without losing focus on the story. It feels tighter, but just as satisfying.
There are still glitches. Seeing each scene in great detail lets details creep in for their own sake. I need to give more thought to the order in which the reader learns things vs. the chronological order of events. Revisions will be needed, but as a plotter, I’m less afraid that they will simply blow the whole thing up.
Rx for Plot-Blindness
Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale.
Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.
Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”
Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?
The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:
INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.
VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.
VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.
HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.
COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN
VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.
VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.
HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.
Now, about those details….
Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.
The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.
Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.
So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?
I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”
I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.
Breaking the Mystery Rules
I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.
The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.
…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.
I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”
Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.
(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)
The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.
In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)
We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.
From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.
Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:
My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.
So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.
Why Book Hoarding is Different
The To Be Read pile is an ambiguous object.
On the one hand, there’s a genuine guilt factor: “I really shouldn’t spend any more on books till I’ve read these. Or at least till the pile is smaller.”
On the other hand, there’s the built-in humblebrag: “You should see my TBR pile! The floor joists are starting to creak!” (“Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!“)
Neither argument is relevant for a book hoarder deciding to buy a new book. Books aren’t substitutable. This is something that non-bibliophiles find hard to understand. Raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, “Don’t you have enough books already?”
The fact that David Mitchell’s sixfold fantasy Cloud Atlas, acquired a month ago at the Five Colleges Book Sale, is waiting on my TBR pile does not mean that I can pass up The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy, a novel based on Ireland’s Celtic Tiger property boom.
But is it fair to call this book accumulation hoarding? The book hoarder – or let’s just say ‘owner’ – fully intends to read the books. True, all those people living between stacks of decades-old newspapers also defend their possessions fiercely, claiming that they will, or may, or might read them someday. The social worker brought in by the family claims to know better.
Let us try for objective truth here. The Literary Hub website provides a scientific calculation of the number of books you can read before you die. Plug in your age and your own estimate of your reading speed (“average,” “voracious” or “super”) and they will tell you how many books you’ve got to go.
Getting the number is like hearing the first Bong! of the church bell for your own funeral. My number is 875. Only three digits. On the bright side, my TBR pile is much smaller than that. Even if I count all the TBRs that have moved over the years from the Pile to my shelves, unread, because a higher pile threatened an industrial accident, I can probably buy a few hundred books and still die absolved. Only a few hundred.
Suppose your number is smaller than your TBR pile, honestly counted. Is it hoarding then? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, the criteria for hoarding concern an inability to discard hoarded items. Nothing about how much you acquire. (Note that the APA is vaguely aware of a definitional difficulty here: they are currently debating whether to say “regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions” or “regardless of their actual value.”)
No problem there. I just donated seven cartons of books to the above-mentioned book sale. I now have exactly enough room for my TBR books on my shelves. The only remaining problem is where to put the next 875.
However, the DSM also stipulates that “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).”
Again, we have a definitional problem. Distress or impairment to whom? I don’t mind the occasional spilled coffee when I miss the one remaining mug-shaped space on the table with my current reads because my eyes are fixed on the text. Is the pained expression on my husband’s face “clinically significant”? If so, he must need a psychiatrist.
Fiction Finds Its Fact
I had already invented a historic house for my murder. It dated to pre-Revolutionary times. I knew how it had begun –smallish, built by a hard-working tiller of the stony New Hampshire soil – and how it had grown as the family prospered. The foursquare, four-room shelter expanded, front, back and sides, as the nineteenth century progressed. The second story lost its sloping bedrooms and acquired an attic. Greek Revival doohickeys appeared. Even the sheds and barn grew neat.
This week, I got a chance to visit the kernel of my mysterious house. A kindly neighbor is selling his 1775 farmhouse, and he gave me a royal tour. I found myself regretting that I had allowed my fictional Stark House to be tinkered with by a bunch of equally fictional ancestors.
We stepped from the narrow front porch into a graceful swirl of centuries. A narrow wooden staircase on the left of the hall was painted in a deep, vivid blue, like the rich colors that once graced Mount Vernon. The paper on the walls reminded me of the papers Americans imported in the eighteen hundreds, when they established themselves among the nations — as consumers with the best of them.
To either side of the hall were parlors, each with its fireplace, rooms deliberately kept small to conserve heat and prevent drafts. There were signs of new prosperity here, too: the wood-paneled walls may have been the work of a carpenter known to have come through town in the 1830s. He dressed up a number of the local houses – no one wanted to be left behind the fashion. My neighbor had stripped off the centuries of paint that disguised it; you can now stroke the original wood of this 19th-century upgrade.
Behind the smaller parlor was the “warming room.” It shared a chimney with the large kitchen behind the company rooms. Here babies came into the world and the old left it, tended by the women of the family as they kept the kitchen fire going and the stew on the simmer. Our woods here in the Upper Valley still grow good lumber, but the trees that provided its wide floor boards and the original rafters above the kitchen are no more.
The old kitchen has become a living area, its original rafters once again visible, and the extension of the house to the back now houses a modern kitchen. One thing hasn’t changed: my host had a stew in progress that any Puritan goodwife would have envied (or at least asked for the recipe.)
When we made our way down to the basement, I knew that I had missed a great opportunity for my fictional Stark House. Its walls were made of fieldstone, like the walls that run through all our woods and pastures here, but with a big difference. These had been matched and placed with such care and skill that the corners were militarily precise. Just over our heads – we’re both about middle height – huge wooden beams lowered over us. Many had been replaced over the years, but some were still unsquared trunks from those ancestral forests. Think what crimes I could have committed – and concealed! — in such a basement. Just a little monkeying with the light fixtures….
Outside, under the lawn, there are signs of another foundation, probably the barn. I ached to know whether it had once been connected to the house by sheds and work buildings in the style known as Big-House-Little-House-Back-House-Barn. Those convoluted connections figure largely in my murders.
I can see that I’ll have to write a sequel, if only to add the counterpart of this lovely place to my fictional Oxbow, New Hampshire.
You know how the writing mavens warn you against letting yourself get carried away by your research? Against noodling around in depth upon depth of interesting stuff instead of turning out text? Today we consider how much fun you can have if you ignore them.
At present, I’m plotting a mystery that will involve a rare books library and its collection of illuminated manuscripts. My first and most valuable co-conspirator is that deeply respectable institution, the British Library. Their daily Medieval Manuscripts blog greets my every morning with some new twist on their very old theme. The BL is digitizing its collection, so you can burrow down to find what interests you or browse just for fun.
This phoenix was on display at the BL’s recent exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which brought together texts and museum objects that Harry himself might have used to pursue a wizardly education. It comes from a bestiary that might have been the text for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class. (The exhibition sold out long in advance for every single day, a first for the Library.)
For facts and figures, and above all to avoid howlers, I’m studying Christopher de Hamel’s 2017 blockbuster, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. (Okay, it may not have been on the bestseller lists. But it’s 632 pages long and weighs three pounds.) De Hamel is the former librarian of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, a treasure house of manuscripts.
De Hamel travelled the world to research this book, visiting twelve of the most important and most beautiful manuscripts in existence. The earliest dates to the late 500s, the latest to about 1515. Each essay combines his travels, accounts of each rare book library and its denizens, his musings on the manuscripts – including some new observations and deductions on the making and history of each – with multiple images of the illuminations, of their present homes and of the men and women who bought, sold and preserved them.
Chapter One concerns the Gospels of St. Augustine, owned by Corpus Christi itself. It is the oldest surviving Latin gospel book anywhere in the world. The saint in question is not the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo but the missionary who brought Roman Catholicism to England. The book’s readings of the text and its imagery served as exemplars for later and more elaborate gospel books down the centuries.
Its predecessors may be even more interesting: scholars suggest links between the style of its art and Ethiopia, a home of early Christian monasticism. That style of Ethiopian religious painting persists today.
De Hamel’s anecdotes are even more enticing than his scholarship. Here we see him in his librarian persona, dressed in full academic regalia, presenting the Gospels of St. Augustine for Pope Benedict’s veneration when he visited England. That’s Rowan Williams, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, on the left.
The Gospels of St. Augustine are also used during the enthronements of Archbishops of Canterbury, and at the last two such ceremonies, de Hamel again presented the book. He reports that in 2003, at the enthronement of Rowan Williams, at the first vibrating notes of the opening hymn, the parchment pages of the book rose and fluttered. He adds that the same did not occur for the current incumbent.
In the succeeding chapters, we meet, among others, the Book of Kells, the Copenhagen Psalter and the Visconti Semideus. Here are a few tidbits that may find their way, suitably transmuted, into my mystery:
De Hamel says he is often asked if the Book of Kells is like a Book of Hours. And if so, his questioners want to know, what is a kell? Such innocent ignorance pales beside the vandalism of one George Mullen, who “restored” the Book of Kells in the 1820s and saw fit to touch up the decorations with white paint, to “improve the definition.”
The Copenhagen Psalter, we learn, was probably created as a first reading book for a young prince. This purpose is demonstrated by a large, carefully drawn alphabet and a table of punctuation and abbreviations. Its illuminations are certainly royal. If manuscripts, de Hamel says, were accompanied by music, the Copenhagen Psalter would require trumpets and a church organ.
More endearing, though, are the marginalia, calculated to appeal to a child. One of them shows a cat playing a rebec, a sort of early fiddle. This image occurs in many illuminated manuscripts and harks back, de Hamel believes, to whatever tale or folk belief gave us “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.” He adds that when a dinner guest of his own, a master of medieval music, arrived with a rebec, an experiment became possible. The musician played, and de Hamel’s cat “rushed in as if drawn by a magnet, rolling on the floor in ecstasy, as punch drunk as a dervish.”
The Semideus is a manual on warfare, presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in 1438. The violent subject matter was appropriate to the recipient, a warlord whose emblem was a blue viper devouring a child. Yet the pictures of tactical devastation are charming, washed with soft pastel colors and full of tiny, perfect detail. This battle scene is viewed from the opposing page by the Madonna and Child, beaming down on the carnage from the center of a sunburst (another Visconti emblem.)
The St. Petersburg National Library is the current home of the Semideus. When de Hamel arrived, he went through a near-Soviet experience of rigid and inexplicable bureaucracy interspersed with casual Russian friendliness. At last he settled down to inspect the precious manuscript. He was so immersed in his work that it was well past lunch time when he looked up. The Russian invigilator keeping watch over the reading room realized he had missed the meal – so she brought him a handful of whiskey-flavored chocolates to eat while he continued to handle the manuscript.
Could I put together my mystery plot with less information than this? Logic says yes. I say no. These winding little back alleys of fact are putting flesh on the bones of my story and slowly filling the memories (and the unconscious) of several of my characters. At any rate, the mavens can’t prove that I don’t need to do this. Until they can, I plan to enjoy myself.