Category Archives: Heidi Wilson

Show Your Shelf!

Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan’s Cité des dames (‘De Lof der Vrouwen’), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

 

Nowadays, even the Pope takes selfies. If you’re a committed writer and/or reader, though, you can get a better likeness than that. Share your shelfies, picture of your books. Give yourself a little leeway, and you can include your desk, your writing space and your reading corner. Why post a picture of your ugly mug? Show us your frontal cortex!

Here’s the most public of my shelfies, the bookcase beside my fireplace.  It displays the books most worth looking at as objects. Almost all of those on the top two shelves were my mother’s or my grandmother’s. They’re bound in leather, tooled in gold. (The books, not my progenitors, though they were pretty hidebound, too.)  The stretch of identical bindings is a set of officially worthy books, some of which are indispensable, like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, though I’d already read those in paperback before it occurred to me to look through the family holdings. On the other hand, Lord Charnwood’s biography of Abraham Lincoln will probably be up there, unmoved and undusted, when I die.

The tall books on the bottom shelves are mostly art and coffee table books. I have no memory at all of their provenance. I think people break in at night and drop them off to free up their own shelf space.

Below, in extreme contrast, is The Holy of Holies. Books have to be canonized to get here, and for this purpose, I am the Pope. Most are fiction; a few belong on the history or science shelves. Atwood and Byatt are there, as are Pogo, the best of Diana Wynne Jones, and Perfection Salad, a study on the sociology of home cooking around 1900 that transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen. The woman in the picture is my best friend. A librarian, naturally.

Next, my Purgatory. These, combined, constitute the To Be Read pile. I’ll spare you images of the Lowest Circle (books that have been sitting around so long I can’t remember what they’re about, let alone why I bought them) and the Middle Circle (books I still firmly intend to get to, only not just now, because the purchasing impulse did not convert quickly enough into the buckling down impulse. There’s a lot of nonfiction here.)

Finally, the TBR Upper Circle. These are probably going to make it into my brain within a year or so. I hardly had to rearrange the piles at all to display all my major interests (widdershins from top left): writing, the Israel/Palestine conflict, mysteries and Buddhism. The mix stays the same all the way down. There are also a few specialized books picked up for research, for instance, a detailed description of a classic Yankee-clipper-era mansion and an endless account of everything known about the Abenaki people of New England. But I guess those come in under “writing.”

How about you, readers? What do your bookshelves look like? Are your shelfies a better likeness of the real you than what you see in the mirror?

Later addendum: Actually, it’s not your frontal cortex (which should have been “frontal lobe” anyway.) You read with your posterior parietal lobe. But somehow, “show us your posterior!” even with “parietal lobe” added, seems to change the tone.

 

 

 

 

 

Other Kinds of Craftsmanship

I went down to D.C. two days early for this year’s Malice Domestic conference, because my husband had an event to attend beforehand. I was at loose ends while he expounded energy policy, so I wandered into the annual Smithsonian Craft Show. It’s a juried show that draws applicants from all over the country. More than 1,000 artists competed for 120 spots. Thirty-four states were represented.

You know how you can get really depressed when you read a good mystery, because you can’t imagine how you’ll ever write one that good? Well, here’s news: other crafts than writing can have the same effect. The sheer perfection of these objects left me wincing at my own feeble efforts to make a work of art out of words.

But I’m a brave little soldier. I walked around, took pictures, talked to artists and tried to learn. I’d planned to write you a profound meditation on creativity and craftsmanship. But what do I know? Below are eight of my favorite exhibits, followed by what the makers themselves have to say about the process of bringing them into being. Change a few terms here and there, and they’d apply just as well to the writing trade.

 

Ceramic vases by Hideaki Miyamura
miyamurastudio.com

My work began as a quest for iridescence…. I studied and apprenticed with a master potter for six years. At first, my studies focused on form. I made thousands of sake cups, then thousands of tea cups, then, eventually, vases and other forms, until my hands and body could create without the intervention of my conscious mind. I performed thousands of experiments….

 

Poppies on Silk by Deborah Falls
deborahfalls.com

I was drawn to working with silk and dyes because of the vibrant colors of the dyes and the wonderful texture of the silk. Since I am self-taught in this medium, I had no idea of traditional silk painting and developed my own way of applying and managing the unmanageable dyes. I did, however, have a sense of the imagery that I wanted, and was able, after many trials and much patience, to adapt a process that achieves my goals.

It was not until I started planting my own gardens about ten years ago that my imagery changed from abstract to realistic in the form of botanicals. I was so excited every time something emerged or bloomed that I felt compelled to capture this beautiful and amazing natural structure.

 

Beaded lop-eared rabbit by Tom and Kathy Wegman
tomandkathywegman.com

Tom and Kathy Wegman’s beaded art lives when they began collecting Native American beaded objects. After a while, they began making their own art, inspired by the beads themselves — bright, shiny things with the power to transform a mundane object into a thing of wonder.

Using over 450 different colors of seed beads to transform everyday objects into works of art. They glue individual strings of beads to other people’s discarded objects — roller skates from the Salvation Army, a lunchbox from the local secondhand store. Their general policy is “the brighter, the better.”

 

Bird’s-eye maple cabinet by Nojo Design
nojodesign.com

I take my cues from everyday objects, nature, the world around me, something as basic as a leaf – simplicity and elegance on the surface, but with an amazing underlying complexity.

 

Wood sculptures by Christopher Wagner (and Christopher Wagner)
christopherbwagner.com

The reclaimed lumber he predominantly sculpts in provides a sense of history much greater than anything he could hope to achieve through artificial means. Elements of the wood’s own history, such as, nail holes, checking, and insect burrowing go into forming what he creates.

 

Retablo of the Garden of Eden by Nicario Jiminez
retablosnicario.com

Retablos are sophisticated folk art in the form of portable boxes filled with brightly colored figurines arranged into intricate narrative scenes.  From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Retablos were carried through the mountains by Spanish priests as portable religious shrines for Catholic saints.  Later, they were adapted by indigenous people to include their own deities and mythologies.

 

Glass vases by Fred Kaemmer
fredsglass.com

These pieces arose from a desire to create something interesting with clear glass.  I enjoy working in this style because of the balance between control and serendipity each represents.  Maintaining the shape of each vessel while allowing the glass canes to create a chaotic and beautiful fused nest within the piece is an exciting balance to execute.  As a result, no two are alike.

 

Lid of ceramic vase by ?

I lost my note of the artist’s name and contact information for this one. I’m still searching. For now, I’ll leave the nature of its inspiration to the reader as an exercise. Anybody care to ghost-write the artistic statement of this dragon’s maker?

“Ceci n’est pas un dessus-de-lit”

You have a perfect right to get mad at inanimate objects. This is especially true of the ones you own, like your computer. The object has done something that is the proximate cause of your inconvenience or even your pain. You already know that hitting it won’t do you any good, so I won’t remind you.

But what about objects whose mere existence is an annoyance? We all know the list of big things that we wish didn’t exist, like terrorism and Congress. It’s the little ones that get up my nose.

The thing that hotels now lay across the bottom of your bed.

You’ve seen them: oblong strips of fabric, color-coordinated with the room, that stretch from side to side of the bottom quarter of the mattress. For something that lacks a name* itself, this is a truly speaking object. It says:

This is not a bedspread. We know it is not a bedspread. We are not giving you a bedspread, because you would just throw it on the floor at the foot of the bed and walk on it. This is here to show you that we know what a bedspread is, and we are the kind of people who give their guests bedspreads, but only if they deserve them.

Can someone come up with a word for this object? Can it be published on a family blog? (How about on a writer’s blog?)

The goodie bags handed out by airlines on overseas flights.

Inside, you will find many pointless objects. There is a small plastic bottle with a spray top, containing special water to spritz your face with, on account of the dryness of the air in a plane. Who thought of this? Have you ever seen someone on a plane squirt themselves in the face? How did her seatmate look?

Then there are the socks with the consistency of cheesecloth in case your feet get cold. Despite the fact that you are already wearing socks. And you have shoes. And if you take the shoes off, you have a blanket.

(I actually kept one such pair of socks. Some marketing genius had required the Asian wage slaves who made the socks to sew little felt eyes over the toes and a tiny red tag that protruded like a snake’s tongue from the seam below. That’s good marketing. The fact that this was done on only one of the socks showed real Style.)

You also get a tiny tube of the lowest-possible-quality toothpaste and a fairy-sized brush. Brushing your teeth with this kit would take about as long as it takes a single Egyptian plover to clean out the mouth of a jumbo crocodile. Besides, have you ever seen any passenger, once on the ground, peel out of the mad dash for the luggage to go and brush her teeth?

The famous Masco debacle.

Granted, the maker of these objects sincerely intended them to be useful, unlike those mentioned above. And okay, maybe it’s only famous to someone (me) who was researching the Masco Corporation for an investment firm when it happened. But draw your chair up to the edge of the precipice, and I’ll tell you the story.

Masco made faucets, mostly, so it knew how to manipulate metal and plastic. Some clever employee realized that one of their plastics could easily be molded into cups and dishes that would be remarkably cheap – a few times the price of disposable plates – but would last much, much longer. And they could come in all kinds of eye-catching colors. So these were made and marketed.

The product crashed like a pumpkin dropped from a plane. Great initial sales, then…nothing. When I next called on the company, the treasurer bet me I couldn’t guess what their marketers had learned about the reason for the failure.

He shouldn’t have challenged a Yankee homemaker. Obviously, I said, the minute the first signs of wear showed up, the magic was over. The owner had a set of slightly dulled, slightly scratched plastic tableware that was still much too good to throw away! My only wonder was that some frugal buyer, infuriated at the waste of his cupboard space, had not assassinated the company president.

We need a new noun for “object offered in the full knowledge that the recipient would be better off without it.” This word will be useful when your parents downsize their home and you have to get rid of the results (including their Masco dishware.) Any suggestions?

 

*When I started this post, I thought this object had no name. Of course it has. How could the makers sell them by the gross to hotels without a name to order them by? It is called a bed scarf or bed runner.** That makes it no better.

**And if you care, in French it is a jeté-de-lit.

The Fifth Season

It’s still winter in Orford, New Hampshire    — if you don’t look down

I started out with the idea of a novel set in rural New Hampshire. There’s no such thing as a novel set in New Hampshire that excludes the weather. I decided to spread the plot out over a year – up here, you can’t leave out a single month and still cover the territory.

Fate gave me a freebie: the full-year idea fit well with a problem my protagonist faces. She’s stuck at home, probably for good, after years of regular escapes to Kenya.

Today’s weather reminds me of why I changed my plan.

Last fall was lovely. Dampish now and then, but the beeches, oaks and maples all came through with October fireworks in yellow, red and russet. Winter sidled in with a little snow but then appeared to give up. Open ground could be seen in January and February. We had a storm or two, sure, storms that people in D.C. would call blizzards. But nothing you’d mention. Nothing we would, anyway.

Snow gone at the end of February. Temperatures scaling toward 60 every now and then. And then… BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA!

And from the back door….

Arrives the blizzard that breaks the records. With nine days to go till spring, parts of New Hampshire got more snow in a single day than at any time since Cain discovered writing. (He wrote crime fiction.)

Now we’re back up to March’s ordinary 40-degree highs, on one day out of two anyway. And today is the kind of day I’ll end my novel on. I could stretch it all the way around the calendar, ending on a June day of glorious sun, leaving out the black flies. Or I could end on a July day of glorious sun, leaving out the deer flies and the humidity. But no. My heroine will triumph on the first day of Mud Season.

My fairy footprints

The frost goes deep here. Even calling it “frost” is misleading. It’s a rock-hard layer of frozen earth that can go down five feet. We like it. Foresters can work in the woods all winter with heavy, heavy equipment.

But when the warmth creeps back, the ground unfreezes from the top first. The layers farther down don’t feel a thing. They don’t absorb moisture, either. So for weeks, meltwater mixes with topsoil and sloshes around — and slides and squishes and slops — on that impervious surface. This is Mud Season.

I took the dog out this morning. Winter is still mounded to either side of our forest road. You can’t walk over the plow piles because you’ll go straight down in and never get out again. The road, though, is all spring, from the surface to about two inches down. This new-born world is gluey, gritty, rich and brown. Runnels of melt water dig channels on the slightest slope. A blazing sun picks out sparkly grains of marble in the 3-inch gravel that is trying to hold the our forest roads in place against strong odds.

Dog prints, coming soon to a clean floor near me.

Pfeffernuss the dog is a 90-pound black Lab with feet almost as webbed as a duck’s. They sprea-a-ad out under her weight and then snap back into place like little backhoes, storing up hours-worth of pawprints for my floor tiles.

My knee-high muck boots go so deep you’d think “muck” is what they’re made of, not what they cope with. The sound they make on the upstroke is indelicate, nay, carnal.

This is what resurrection looks like in New Hampshire. The delicate blossoms and tender grasses come later, as an afterthought. When Mud Season arrives, you know you have come through the dark night of the New Hampshire soul and back out into the light.

 

 

The Ick Factor

The Thursday Night Writers had another set-to this week over my exploding canary. Only four of us were present this time, but the controversy has raged through the whole group since I submitted the first draft of chapter 36 – longer ago than I care to admit.

Here’s the passage:

For my part, I kept the Stark file spread out all over my desk, like one of those impossible variations on solitaire. I inspected every line of every document, straining for some way in which it might imply a deadly secret. I marked Jeremiah’s house purchase with a Post-it memo to trace the sellers. Somehow, the sale wasn’t legitimate? Or Jeremiah’s check bounced? Or maybe way earlier, somebody with the same name had just pretended to be a descendant of Enoch Stark when they bought the house? Pretty thin, Eliza. But it got another yellow sticky note. In the end, the solitaire game looked like an explosion in a canary.

Disregard the plot conundrum. It can’t be quickly explained, and the only problem, as far as the TNWs were concerned, was the canary.

One member is admittedly squeamish. She loves cozies because of their basic rule: no explicit sex or gratuitous violence. Simile or not, she does not want a piecemeal canary obtruded into her consciousness. In a later chapter, a mere reference to “my canary” in the context of the annotated documents was enough to set her off. (Granted, she had been recently lacerated by an episode involving a frog in William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. It wasn’t a good week to reprise the canary.)

The others, it seemed to me, were going deeper into the image than … I was going to say “a normal person,” but perhaps I should just say “the reader” is likely to. There was speculation as to the appearance of a real exploded canary. A consensus emerged that the resulting color would not be yellow. I believe someone brought up the probable radius of the debris. And there was me, just visualizing little Tweety-colored feathers floating down.

The title of this post comes from a critique I received from Mary Carroll Moore, with whom I’ve taken two live workshops and one online class. She used it when she advised me to abandon the opening sentence of my novel and, indeed, to remove all technical or at least all vivid medical details from the scene, which takes place in a doctor’s office. Here’s the paragraph:

I don’t deny that I was riddled with parasites. I always was when I got back from a field trip. But I saw no reason for Brad to take that tone with a woman twice his age. His father never had a problem with my parasites.

I submitted that paragraph, as part of my first two pages, to a panel at the New Hampshire Writers Day last year. The panel consisted of well-known NH writers – all genres, not just mysteries. Each submission was read aloud by the moderator. The panelists were instructed to raise their hands at the first word, phrase or other issue that “stopped” them.

When my first sentence was read, three out of four of them jumped, but no hand went up. Which means…? You tell me. Please.

(We got well down the second page before I got a hand. Several at once, in fact. But that’s another story.)

So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m made of grosser clay than the average cozy fan. Or maybe I just make my friends and seek advice from lovely people who are more-than-average refined. The one thing I’m sure of is that neither the canary idea nor the existence of parasites would boggle the mind of my protagonist. So maybe I’ll keep them both.

***

The Ick Factor may be on my mind at the moment because of the winning response to the challenge I posed in my last blog: to use in mystery plot the following two words:

Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe

Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.

And the winner is….

Judy W.! She commented:

Your current words call to mind a Dick Francis-like mystery set in a racing stable. “The feaguing of the poor horse set loose an explosive diarrhea in the stall that splattered the walls like ylem after the Big Bang. Underneath the residue lay the missing gambler.” Ugh. Sorry, but you did issue a challenge.

Congratulations, Judy! After that, an exploding canary is nothing. It wouldn’t even cover up a dead gambler.

A good book makes you think

I know I’m taking a chance when I download “bargain” books from BookBub, Choosy Bookworm, and Amazon, or pick up used books at my favorite Arizona bookstore, Changing Hands. I may end up with a book that doesn’t appeal to me, to put it nicely. Looking on the bright side, it can be motivating to realize that if that book can get published, surely I will have no problem getting my novel into print.

That was not the case with the used book on writing I recently bought, “The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing” by David Morrell. I am only 36 pages into the book and I have already gotten my $8.50 worth. (The other used book on writing included in that same purchase, for just $6.50 and to remain unnamed, was barely worth that amount. Even so I read the entire book.)

On page four of “The Successful Novelist,” Morrell states that the correct, and only, answer to his question, “Why do you want to be a writer?” is “Because you need to be.” “Writers write.” A real writer would squeeze writing into any time available, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day.

The sign of a good book is that it makes you think. (I made that up. I think.) Reflecting back over my younger writing years, this is what I think my writing life should have been. When I was young and energetic, busy with my family, work, and volunteer activities, I should have found a way to say “no” to just one thing. And then locked myself in the closet. (That’s correct. When I wrote in 1987 my very first draft of the book, “Anne,” from which my other books have spawned, I put a desk in my clothes closet. In our open concept house, this was the only place I could escape from the activity and noise. The bathroom was my second choice.)  If I’d been smart enough to lock the closet door and write for fifteen minutes each day, by now I actually might have a book completed and, dare I say, published. Thirty years later.

As I ruminated over how quickly those thirty years have passed with so little writing to show for them, the accountant in me picked up my phone, clicked on the calculator app, and started punching in numbers. If I had spent just a half-hour every day writing, 365 days a year, for thirty years, I would have racked up 5,475 hours writing.

I tried to relate that number to something tangible, such as how many books 5,475 hours of writing equates to. Due to the fact that I don’t have any completed, full-length novels to my credit, I can only draw a parallel to my NaNoWriMo experiences. In the month of November I can write 50,000+ words, without writing every day. I estimate that I spend three hours a day on average writing like crazy during the month, which totals ninety hours. For a first draft of 100,000 words, I quadrupled those hours, 360 hours total. In half-hour increments, that equals 720 writing sessions of a half hour each, or pretty darn close to two full years.

Back to the 5,475 hours that I could have spent writing in the past thirty years. If I divide those hours by the 360 hours to produce a rough draft, I could have easily whipped out fifteen rough drafts. Instead of the four unfinished drafts I have, I could have fifteen. Unfinished. Rough. Drafts. Sounds about right.

P.S. Please go back and read Heidi Wilson’s latest blog post. She issued a challenge. Read the comment section for a hilarious response from Judy.

 

 

Words You Need to Know

For some reason, when your friends know you are a writer, they become obsessed with sending you words. They may feel you are a connoisseur. They may feel that your vocabulary is inadequate.

Several of my friends have recently been hit with the word-sending bug. While they all said that their lists comprised merely “weird” or “interesting” words, a high percentage of the entries had intriguing connections with the mystery genre. I here offer the best of them to you, conveniently arranged in categories useful to those who murder on paper.

 

Characters

Apple-knocker: an ignorant or unsophisticated person (I was raised to call such persons oyster-shuckers.)

Badmash: Indian, a hooligan

Shot-clog: An unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the ‘shot’ (i.e., the bill) for his companions (Note: as this word is attested only in the works of Ben Jonson, perhaps it should appear below, under Historical Fiction.)

Snollygoster: An unprincipled, shrewd person guided by personal advantage, not respectable principles

Suedehead: a youth like a skinhead but with slightly longer hair and smarter clothes

Wittol: a man who knows of and tolerates his wife’s infidelity

 

Plot elements

Absquatulate: to leave somewhere abruptly

Cacoethes: an urge to do something inadvisable

Eucatastrophe: a happy ending to a story

Exequies: funeral rites

Flews: the thick pendulous lips of a bloodhound or similar dog

Sprunt: To chase girls around a haystack after dark

 

Murder weapons

Brannock device: the thing they use to measure your feet at the shoe store.

Peen: the side opposite the hammer’s striking side

Probang: a strip of flexible material with a sponge or tuft at the end, used to remove a foreign body from the throat or to apply medication to it

 

Atmosphere

Bruxism: involuntary and habitual grinding of the teeth

Carphology: convulsive or involuntary movements made by delirious patients, such a plucking at the bed clothes

Uhtceare: Anxiety experienced just before dawn when you cannot get back to sleep for worry about the day ahead

 

Historical fiction

Resurrection man: a person who, in past times, illicitly exhumed corpses from burial grounds and sold them to anatomists for dissection

Skimmington: a kind of procession once undertaken to make an example of a nagging wife or an unfaithful husband

 

Technique

Amphibology: a phrase or sentence that is grammatically ambiguous, such as She sees more of her children than her husband.

Interrobang: what it’s called when you combine a question mark with an exclamation point like this: ?!

 

Finally, I offer a small prize (a shout-out in my next blog) to the reader who can suggest the best way of incorporating the words below in a (single) mystery.

Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe

Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.

We all have secrets–don’t we?

I noticed a couple of links to blog posts on Facebook today. Possibly there were more but it was hard to pick out what was a blog post, what was a news (real or fake) article, and what was a personal post. Any post that wasn’t about Elizabeth Warren, Betsy DeVos, or the New England Patriots didn’t have much of a chance of getting noticed today.

One of the links was to a blog about benches. Yup, those uncomfortable wooden couches you sit on in the park. I read the tantalizing first line of the post and continued scrolling. But it did make me think, always a risky proposition.

When Heidi, Eleanor or I write a new blog post, the link gets posted on our personal Facebook pages so that our friends can get to it with just a click. I’m wondering how many of our friends “Like” our blog posts without reading them then quickly proceed to the more appealing posts of puppies, babies, donkeys, and a moose standing on top of a car.

Hey, I’m OK with that. If you aren’t interested in reading about writers, writing, books, and authors, you shouldn’t waste your time reading our blog. BUT if we were to make our blog more personal, a little sexier, might we make loyal readers out of you?  Keep in mind, we are three gray-haired ladies in our sixties so you might want to temper your expectations .

While I wait for the green light from Eleanor and Heidi to spice up our content, I have some updates for you.

“NCIS New Orleans” tonight on the leak of sex tapes: we all have secrets. I believe that is true, whether the secrets are current or just partitioned off in our memories. (Feel free to reveal yours in the comment section.) I’m developing secrets for all the potential suspects in my novel, Gabby. I think you’ll like them–my suspects as well as their secrets.

Speaking of Gabby, I’m making progress but I haven’t added a word to my NaNoWriMo novel. How is that progress, you ask? I’m working on what I call the infrastructure of the novel. I’ve summarized the novel into a fourteen page timeframe, which helped me find errors in the timing of plot events. The timeframe summary is also useful for inserting and moving scenes instead of fumbling with 154 pages. At Eleanor’s suggestion, I set up an Excel spreadsheet with the dates and times of day on the left side and my characters across the top. Each cell contains a summary of where each main character is during that time period and what he or she is doing. It makes babysitting all of my characters easier. Still a long ways to go before I am ready to rewrite my first draft.

Arizona is heating up…slowly. We are looking at two days of eighty-plus degree weather then a cool down and some rain. Looking forward to when the temperature stays above seventy-five. I love walking out the door at night or in the morning and not getting hit with a blast of cold air. And when the sun is shining, which it does a lot more than back in New Hampshire, it always feels warmer than the thermometer says. I’ll admit, the cooler weather has kept me in the casita chained to the bed. Writing.

 

 

 

The Plot Acrostic

Aspiring writers, rejoice! There really is a point when the plot tangle breaks.

I was sitting on a logjam the other day when it suddenly broke up beneath me. No, I wasn’t swept downriver to my doom. The logjam was the one that had been afflicting my plot almost since it became complex enough to constitute the skeleton of a book.

Every new idea for a plot development took the story forward, but almost every idea also implied a situation rendered impossible by what had come before. One character, for instance, was intended to instigate a lawsuit against a certain building project. His personality was unpleasant: in fact, he was intended to be the first murder victim. Idea! What if he was, in fact, the murderer? I found him a victim. Two victims.

But wait! To commit the first murder, he had to be in town. Unfortunately, at the intended time of death, he was elsewhere. (In prison, as it happens.) Well, that could be changed.

But wait! If he murdered for the reason I had come up with, he wouldn’t have taken the stand he did on the building project…. You see the problem.

For what seemed like aeons, I shifted and chopped and changed. The longer the manuscript grew, the more changes every new development required. I persevered.

And then, one day, the logjam broke

As it happened, I had been amusing myself with a book of acrostics the night before. When the logjam broke, I recognized what was happening, because it had just begun to happen in my acrostics.

(If you don’t do acrostics, they work this way: as in a crossword, you are given a definition and must come up with the word intended. Each letter in that word is assigned a number, which you then enter in a numbered space in a linear form. When all the correct letters are entered, they make up a quotation.)

I had reached the middle of the puzzle book, where the “medium difficulty” acrostics take on a new character. The definitions become vaguer, more allusive, slangy or punning. The quotations include longer and rarer words, names and complicated clauses.

At this point, the game shifts. Your ability to see the shape of the quotation’s prose, the rhythm of its clauses, its repetitions, lets you fill in words before you have guessed many definitions. The meaning of the quotation leads you to the detail of the words, not the other way around. And the puzzle goes much faster while also being much more fun.

Here is the beginning of the quotation I was working on when the game shifted. Have a go.

_ _L   _Y   L_V_    _Y   P__N   M_   P _SS_ _N

Just like that, as I drew near the end of the umpteenth draft of my mystery, the feeling of the changes changed. My solution worked, if only… and I clicked in my Scrivener binder to an earlier scene, altered three words, and all was well. Onward. The solution continued to work, if only…. Back up in the binder, cut a paragraph, and all was well.

I now have only two or three scenes to rewrite (plus a couple of new ones to tie up a subplot), and I will have, not a draft, but a book. Still deeply in need of editing, but a book.

Here’s the whole acrostic:

plot-acrostic

 

Even Later Than That

Grandma Moses at Work

Grandma Moses at Work

I wish that nice people would stop being quite so scrupulous about “age-ism.” Their dire attempts to convince everyone that they hold no stereotypes about people like me have done much to embitter my life.

I only learned about age-ism when it became politically incorrect. As a child (in the 1950s, thank you for asking), I assumed that you just grew up and stayed that way, with nothing significant about you changing except that one day you dropped dead. Wrinkles and rheumatism occurred, of course, but why niggle over the tiny differences between a thirty-year-old grown-up and a seventy-year-old grown-up?

Adolescence and the first gray hair were horrors, naturally, but until the nice people took over, none of it was linked in my mind with personal competence. I didn’t get around to trying to write a book until I was over sixty. Then, still mired in the depths of that project, I encountered the following headline on an arts web site:

14 Brilliant Authors Who Didn’t Succeed Until Way After 30

If you haven’t sold your book yet, the author assured me, not to worry:

After all, dozens of famous writers didn’t “make it” until their 30s, 40s, 50s and, in some cases, even later than that.

One of these dogged late-bloomers was actually 34 before his first novel was published! Probably had dentures. Three of the others were 39. One of them, granted, was 90, but he’d been publishing screenplays for over half a century. If you, Older Unpublished Writer, find this at all encouraging, you can read the article here.

imgresI tried to find encouragement in the memory of Helen Hooven Santmyer, whose novel And Ladies of the Club was published when she was 88 years old. Its 1176 pages weigh in at 3.1 pounds. The story goes that she had been working on it for 50 years. I hope I can work on my writing for 50 years; that would mean I’ll live to 114. I’d like to be published before then, though.

Unhappily, I pursued my interest in Ms. Santmyer, and discovered that she had already published two novels before Ladies – the first when she was 30 and while she was holding down a full time job.

(I still love Helen. When the college she worked at was purchased by a fundamentalist denomination, she quit, because they demanded that she adhere to biblical literalism and stop drinking and smoking. I’m sure it wasn’t the literalism that made up her mind for her.)

I thought maybe I’d found my tribe when I came across a web site called Persimmon Tree. It bills itself as “a showcase for the creativity and talent of women over sixty.” But then its ‘about’ section goes on:

Too often older women’s artistic work is ignored or disregarded, and only those few who are already established receive the attention they deserve. Yet many women are at the height of their creative abilities in their later decades and have a great deal to contribute. Persimmon Tree is committed to bringing this wealth of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art to a broader audience, for the benefit of all.

I’m not cheering, people. You mean somebody gets to say when I’m at the height of my creative powers? Even I don’t know. I’ll bet I won’t know when that is, or was, not even in the minute before I finally do drop dead. Do the twenty-somethings get to cry Ageism! when they read that?

I say we drop the whole issue. Go sit down and write.

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