Category Archives: Karen Whalen
Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”
Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.
And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.
Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.
Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.
We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?
I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.
So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.
Over the past two days I have written the following: 1) a confession by a murderer; 2) an abduction; 3) a car crash; and 4) a suicide—all of which transpire in the matter of about an hour or less. This is all part of the transformation of my novel, Anne, from women’s fiction to a murder mystery. Though I know it won’t be long until I have to rework the parts of the novel I’ve written in the past, for now I am having fun adding new scenes.
Yikes. Did I just say that I am having fun writing about people committing murder? The “real” me, not the “writer” me, does not like to think about people (or pets) dying. Who does? So how am I able to kill off my characters without shedding a tear? Heartless, I suppose. But only when it comes to fictional characters. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some credit to my fellow bloggers on Thursday Night Writes who have paved the way with their own heartless stories of murder and mayhem.
There’s still one more death to go but that one was written a few years ago as part of Olivia. Though originally the result of an accident, the death could benefit from a few tweaks to make it more sinister, maybe a full-fledged murder!
I’m excited to be reworking what I now realize was a flat story about family relationships into an exciting murder mystery, albeit not your typical Tana French mystery with a plethora of suspects. At this point in the writing I do not have any suspects, other than the guilty party. Naturally I’m concerned that the “zero suspects” approach will be less than satisfactory to “my” readers. But I remind myself that it’s still early in the process—the chrysalis has a long way to go before the butterfly emerges.
A lack of suspects isn’t my only concern with “Anne.” I’m afraid that I’m front-loading the novel with the stuff that keeps readers of murder mysteries turning the pages.
Did I mention that I don’t have a sleuth? And many miles to go with Anne?
So that I wouldn’t end up boring our faithful readers with a regurgitation of a prior post, tonight I reread my recent blog posts. (Topics I was considering: genealogy, NO; my in-progress murder mysteries, NO; whining about my inability to finish any of my writing projects, NO. I wasn’t sure what was left to write about.) This followed my second shower of the day, a necessity after the excitement of finding two ticks crawling on my body, with no way to tell if there were any nestling in my hair.
Generally my husband handles all of the spiders and other unsavory creatures in the house. He was off grocery shopping. Lousy timing on his part.
My reaction to the discovery of the first nasty, vile, disgusting creature crawling on my upper arm was to flick it off with the tips of my fingers. He landed on our multi-colored granite counter and by the time I grabbed a paper towel and turned back to the counter, he was scampering away. I was faster and nabbed him with the paper towel (there is no way you can squish those buggers) then flushed him down the toilet.
I texted my daughter so that she would know that one of her ticks had traveled twenty-two miles home with me and she should check her children then settled on the couch to get caught up on the political news I missed today.
Just as I was about to take another bite of my peanut butter and jelly covered English muffin, I felt the telltale tickle on my leg of another tick. (Often those tickles are just phantom ticks–tricks of your mind.) I jumped up and flicked it onto the rug where it was extremely invisible. But I wasn’t. It found my bare foot. Flicked onto the rug again. Back onto my heel. (I may have screamed but since no one was here to hear it, we’ll never know for certain.) Flicked onto the hardwood floor where I could see it. I managed to capture him with a piece of notebook paper.
I flushed him as well. And watched him get sucked down the toilet into the pipes and out to the septic tank. That’s the plan, anyway. You can bet I won’t be using that toilet for a few days.
(Topics I wasn’t considering but wrote about anyway: ticks, YES!)
UPDATE: At exactly 4:52 a.m. I was startled awake by something crawling on my face. TICK!! I bolted out of bed, smashed at my face while frantically pounding the bed. I couldn’t see anything on the bed so I ran into the bathroom thinking it was still on my face. I flapped my bangs but didn’t see anything. I returned to bed and surprisingly fell back asleep. When I woke up a few hours later I found a dead spider on the bathroom sink. Not just dead but almost petrified.
Is it possible he fell from the skylight over my bed and landed on my face? If this were a novel I’d say of course it is, anything is possible.
Spoiler alert…I’m indulging in some writer whining. Again.
Tonight, a remake of a movie that holds a special place in my heart, “Dirty Dancing,” airs on ABC. Among many other negative reviews, TV Guide had this to say: “In an era where actual dirty dancing…has gone so mainstream that Katie Couric knows how to do it, this adaptation does not tango with the present…”
And yet, knowing that it will be a huge disappointment, I will watch it.
I’ve registered for the 2017 New England Crime Bake. Without allowing myself to consider what it would entail, I paid the extra $49 for the Agent and Editor Program, which includes critiques of a pitch and a query as well as the opportunity to pitch to an agent.
Initially I thought that I should pitch my current project, Gabby, at the conference. She’s nowhere near ready but if I focus on her I might be able to whip her into shape by November. What does pitching Gabby do to my plans for a trilogy that takes place in Woodbury, NH?
If I am committed to creating a trilogy, I am pretty certain it doesn’t make sense to pitch the novel that is chronologically the last one (Gabby). I am also pretty certain that it would be incredible if at the Crime Bake I could pitch a cohesive trilogy.
The truth is that in addition to Gabby, my other rough drafts are not ready to be pitched. Anne, Olivia, and Claire. Yes, that is four novels not three but Anne is begging to be joined with her daughter Olivia, and if I acquiesce, I will have a trilogy. But Anne has no murder. Or murderer. My list of characters reveals that I can change a death to a murder and provides a potential murderer. That was easier than I expected. Now for some suspects…
However, that is not the biggest issue with Anne and Olivia. It’s somewhat like Katie Couric and dirty dancing. The premise works for 1993, when it is set, but not so much in 2017. Will it be relevant to readers?
Claire is next. She has some flexibility as to when she takes place but as a senior citizen she is aging the longer she waits. Luckily, she is endowed with a murder, murderer and some suspects. And a man in the attic is timeless.
So now I’ve created a three-headed monster: Anne/Olivia, Claire, Gabby. Do I put Gabby aside and return to Anne/Olivia because she started all of this? Is what I’ve invested hours of time and brain cells into worth resuscitating? Or am I trying to breathe life into a bunch of Word files that I would be better off jettisoning into the Trash folder?
Funny how I can hear a little voice in my head, let’s call him John, giving me some advice—most likely because I have posed this same question to my writing group numerous times. Don’t worry about a trilogy, just focus on getting one novel in good shape so you can pitch it in November. Burn those early writings. They were just practice. And that’s just some of what I assume his advice would be.
But I love my ladies.
My road down the path to becoming a genealogy junkie started innocently enough, as I imagine it does for many addicts. (See my blog post of September 13, 2016, A Pilgrim in the Family.) My husband’s family is my drug of choice.
When my research revealed that Bailey Clough, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, of Lyman, NH, fathered Helen Luella Clough at the age of sixty-nine, I knew I had some digging to do. I located Historical Sketches of Lyman New Hampshire, written by E. B. Hoskins and published by Charles P. Hibbard in Lisbon, NH, in 1903.
If these sketches are brief and contain little of deep interest, it is because Lyman is a small farming town, and its history has been quiet and peaceful, with no events of a remarkable character.
I smiled when I read this. It is how I envision Woodbury, NH, home to Gabby, Anne, Olivia, Em, Lexi Rae, Claire, Louise. Nothing has happened here of a remarkable nature. Until now.
Finally, on page sixty, I found the Clough family: William Clough served in the French and Indian war three years, was captured by the foe and carried to France, where he was kept a year or more. He entered the Revolution without enlistment, and was at the battle of Bunker Hill. His children were, namely: Zacheus, Enoch, Bailey, Cyrus, Abner, Jeremiah, Elizabeth, and Dorcas.
Turn the page and there’s virile Bailey: Bailey Clough, son of William, married Susannah Smith, sister of Reuben Smith, Nov. 28, 1799. Their children were, namely: James, born in 1801; David, born in 1803; Darius, born in 1809; Benoni, born in 1812; Chester Hutchins, born in 1822; Susan; and Bailey.
Aha. Bailey had a son with the same name. And Helen isn’t listed among the offspring of Bailey Senior. The son must be the father. If the children are listed in order of birth date, which the author generally did, then Bailey would have been born after 1822. As Helen was born in 1838 or 1839 or even 1841 (I think she lied about her age so that she wouldn’t appear to be ten years older than her second husband), it’s hard to believe that her father was the younger Bailey.
I scanned all of the biographies in the history hoping to find something to link Bailey Clough, senior or junior, and the daughter, Helen, and the wife, Lydia. Nothing there, nothing in Ancestry.com, nothing in Find A Grave, nothing in Wikitree. I can’t believe I’ve reached a dead end in the nineteenth century.
I’m mentally exhausted. And ready for a trip to another cemetery!!
PS After writing this post I was itching to resolve the Bailey Senior/Junior mystery. I returned to Ancestry.com and looked at some other family histories (the least reliable source of information) that I had ignored earlier. Some more research and I am closer to saying that Junior was married to Lydia Stevens and was the father of not just Helen Luella but also Martha Ella. (And I get complaints about the names of my characters!) Bailey Junior was born in 1817, making him old enough to be Helen’s father. He died around the time that Martha was born so it is conceivable that Helen went to live with relatives, as the 1850 census shows her living with an eighty-year old Bailey Clough and possibly her aunt and uncle.
Mystery almost solved…now to get to work on my own mystery.
As an early Mother’s Day gift, my daughter, Jennifer, took me to the Sunday matinée of “An American in Paris.” The venue was the Gammage at ASU in Tempe, AZ. The musical, inspired by the Academy Award winning movie from 1951 starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, recently closed at the Palace Theater on Broadway.
Before the curtain went up we didn’t know we were going to see a musical ballet—we thought it was just a musical. We didn’t care–we loved the fact that we were actually at a live Broadway musical set in Paris transported to the desert of Arizona.
The main male characters in the musical are two American ex-GI’s: a composer/rehearsal pianist and a painter, and a French singer, with the latter two competing for the affections of a French ballerina/store clerk, Lise. I was quick to notice that there was nary an author to be seen yet I imagine that Paris had its share of American writers in 1951. Possibly a character with the intelligence of an author wasn’t a good fit for a musical ballet.
The choreography was amazing especially the final ballet sequence (seventeen minutes long in the movie—I didn’t time it in the musical performance but it was long). I kept waiting for someone to speak. Without dialogue, I couldn’t figure out what was happening any more than I can decipher a fantasy novel. Were we just being entertained by an elegant ballet? I suppose this was where my imagination was supposed to kick in….
Afterward, I couldn’t resist reading the reviews by New York theater-goers who saw the musical on Broadway. To my surprise, most of them were either totally or partially negative. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was reading a review of one of my unfinished novels: main male characters were boring, flat, lacking in emotion (but this is a musical ballet—they could sing and they could dance!); not enough character development; confusing, hard to follow, and flat plot; no conflict until two-thirds of the way through; predictable ending.
Thank you, Jennifer and family, for a fantastic Mother’s Day gift!
Leaving Arizona: With our impending return home to New Hampshire, I am starting to feel the same as when the end of August approaches. That’s why I wiled away the afternoon yesterday in the pool instead of checking things off my To Do List. As the thermometer inches closer to one hundred and above, it’s time to face the gray skies and cool temperatures of New Hampshire. And the budding crab apple and lilac trees, the perennials peeking out of the ground, and the acres of green grass awaiting the awakening of the John Deere mower from hibernation.
I read to fall asleep. If you also indulge in that pastime, you may be familiar with the situation when you just can’t put down the book so you read late into the night when you should be sleeping and then when you stop reading you cannot go to sleep. Insomnia is not the outcome I want when I read in bed.
A week ago Friday I started reading The Likeness by Tana French. As with any of her books, right from the first enticing chapter her characters looped their arms through mine and transported me into their world. Realizing I had reached my bedtime reading limit the next night when I almost dropped my iPhone several times after I dozed off, I closed the Kindle app ready for a good sleep. The reading potion had worked it’s intended magic.
Or so I thought. I tossed. Covers off. I turned. Covers back on. The last time I looked at the clock, it was 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning. I blamed my inability to sleep on the nine boys who were having a sleepover at my daughter’s house next door, celebrating my grandson’s thirteenth birthday. There wasn’t much sleeping accomplished that night by anyone in the house as the nine boys roamed outside in the yard and in the park across the street then retired to the room about three feet from our casita. By the sounds of it, a good time was had by all!
Sunday night we were all in bed early. I was close enough to the end of The Likeness that if I could stay awake long enough I’d be able to finish it. My favorite part of reading a mystery is when I hit my “sweet” spot–about 75% of the way through the book-which means all my questions will be answered by the time I fall asleep.
By midnight I had reached the end of the book. Exhausted from Saturday night’s abbreviated sleep, I should have easily snored my way into dreamland at that point.
The last time I looked at the clock was at 2:30 a.m.
I blame it all on Tana French (not on teenage boys or plain old insomnia). Her psychological twists and thriller turns must have made me too worked-up, or anxious, or over-stimulated, to fall asleep. With that in mind, on Monday evening I found an innocuous historical mystery with which to read my way to sleep. Worked like a charm. Guess I don’t need Tylenol PM just yet.
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon
Gabby has me diving into the freezing cold water of the North Atlantic, searching for the seven-eighths of my book that is underwater. Although just a meager portion of the seven-eighths, this is what I’ve uncovered:
- Subplot. I’ve fleshed out a murder subplot that wasn’t in the original NaNoWriMo novel. I wasn’t certain I even could use it when it appeared but I’ve grown to like it. I’ve been massaging it, expanding it, and I can see its potential as both a red herring and a means of inserting more of the backstory of some characters.
- Murderer. I’ve changed the murderer. This is big!! And it’s involved reworking not just the murder itself but also relationships among the characters. This change helped me flesh out the relationship between a mother and daughter, going back eighteen years to the daughter’s conception.
- Conflicts. You can never have too many of those, can you? Possibly in your real life but not in a book. My NaNoWriMo conflicts were superficial but now I’ve created some meaningful ones that will help Gabby develop into a well-rounded, mature woman.
- Family history. I’ve delved further into the history of the paternal side of the protagonist’s family, starting with the life of her great-grandfather. One of the perks of being an author is that you are in control of what happened generations ago that affects your living characters. It’s more fun, and easier, than using Ancestry.com.
- Whodunit? Most recently I have visited with each of my characters in order to discover who he or she thinks is the murderer. Through these conversations, I have learned more about my characters’ flaws, as well as gained some insight into where I need to place clues.
At this point, working with the separate parts of the structure of the novels means that I will have to fit all of this information together to form the novel. It is going to be like taking the pieces from numerous jigsaw puzzles and jamming the pieces together to create one much larger puzzle, all the while looking under the sofa and the coffee table for the missing pieces that make up the dreaded hollow places.
During all of this, I haven’t written one word that increases the word count of the novel. And that’s okay. For now.
In a show of solidarity with women in the United States and around the world who are observing International Women’s Day, I considered a boycott of my blog post for today.
However, as my writing is a hobby and nothing more–I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to– and not wanting to demean this cause, I am proceeding with my post. A radically different post than originally planned. (Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory can wait. Is there anyone who thinks Hemingway should be written about on International Women’s Day?)
Originally, I assumed– a gross mistake on my part–that this is a cause focused in the United States, where “A Day Without A Woman” is the rallying cry, urging women to strike by not working, whether paid or unpaid, or not shopping (except in small businesses or female-owned businesses). If you have to, or want to, work or shop, you can wear red to show your support.
A quick search on my phone left me in shock. And awe. And with the realization of how uninformed I am about women’s issues around the world even though I consider myself a feminist from way back. While we in the United States focus on the enormous contribution of women to the economy, women in other parts of the world are concentrating on more basic concerns.
Today’s “New York Times” mobile article International Women’s Day: Calls to Action, Words of Praise and Rallies describes how Iceland, Russia, Egypt, Georgia, South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Manila, Kenya, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Hong Kong, Turkey, among other countries, observed the day.
And then there is India. Where a hole in the ground constitutes a family’s toilet. Where three hundred million women defecate in the open. Where these very women are susceptible to sexual assault.
That’s when I started crying.
My economic contribution to this cause will be to donate money to an organization that helps women in India dig toilets for their families.
And my husband and I are wearing red today.