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It’s not always what you think

Recently I took my mother to the local hospital’s Emergency Department for evaluation for a possible heart attack. We remained briefly in a packed waiting room where we overheard a mumbling man grumbling because they wouldn’t let him into the treatment area. Something was going on in there and they were keeping him from it.

As soon as a nurse escorted us through the closed door into the treatment area, I sensed a tension in the air, as before a hurricane hits. The hysterical wales and shrieks of a female that erupted throughout the ED indicated it had hit.

Someone had died. Right then and there. I just knew it.

Certainly she would be escorted out of the curtained area of the ED and into a private area where she could grieve. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being alone.  Maybe the man in the waiting room was a relative. Why wouldn’t they let him in?

The nurse guided us into a private room at the far end of the ED and a team of medical professionals swooped in and drew blood, hooked up monitors, inserted an IV, and wheeled in a portable x-ray machine. Suddenly it was just my mother and me. Bloody gauze littered the floor. The monitor blazed green, yellow and blue squiggles, its beeps a reassurance that life went on.

A methodic pounding now accompanied the howling. Even my hard of hearing mother heard it. We looked at each other and started laughing.

I stood near the open door of my mother’s room, hoping to glimpse a clue as to the tragedy that had struck. A male voice—the man from the waiting room, perhaps—loud, firm, annoyed. “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to lay down the law.”

For just a moment my mother and I relaxed into the quiet. When the howling started again a nurse closed our door, the noise muffled but not stopped.

We never learned what had happened to the young lady, we knew only what our minds could conjure, though I’m pretty sure no one had died.

It’s not always what you think, is it? Not so different from what happens with a murder mystery. As an author, I insert clues to mislead my fictional characters as well as my readers, who make assumptions based on the meager information I’ve doled out to them. The all-powerful author controls what the reader learns and when she learns it. The reader controls what assumptions and conclusions she makes. In the end, the author has the last word when she ends the suspense and reveals the murderer. What author doesn’t revel in that power?

Prayers for those impacted by Hurricane Irma.

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A long way to go before the butterfly emerges

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?

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.

 

 

 

Confession: I murdered someone

I have to confess–I did it. I murdered someone. It was a first time for me but probably not the last. I’ve been advised to say no more.

My sister-in-law (also an aspiring writer yet definitely not someone you associate with murder) here visiting from Florida by way of Pennsylvania was a most eager accomplice. While snapping green beans and sipping wine, we planned the murder. Over dinner, she would interrupt the flow of conversation with “what if…”. Certainly not appropriate conversation for a dinner party but totally acceptable among family members.

You’ve no doubt figured out that I am writing a murder mystery and the person I killed is a fictional character in the novel, whose identity I am not at liberty to reveal.

The outline for this murder mystery is supposed to be my submission for this week’s writing group. I’ve been working on it what feels like every free minute I have (which haven’t been many lately).  The outline has been inching and crawling toward the murder; at times I have felt as though I am writing away from the murder instead of toward it.

Thus the decision to jump right to the outline of the murder and skip the remainder of the forty-nine unwritten pages leading up to it. (Murders should happen by page fifty, I am told.) I am certain John, our fearless leader, has instructed me or someone else in the group (we all start to blend together after nearly seven years) to do just that. I am beginning to see the logic in it. Now that I have the murder, or at least the first version of the murder, committed to paper, I can return to the beginning and force the actions of the characters to keep the reader guessing who the murderer is. Reminds me of solving quadratic equations. Creatively.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nobody Reading Your Blog? What You Need Is a Monkey-centaur.

It’s hard enough to claw back time from the demands of life and fiction writing to write a blog post. Why, then, double the time with a search through Google images to illustrate my points? Because that’s where so much of the fun lies. Visual puns, quirky interpretations or just the weirdities that pop up on the web can add a zing that keeps the casual reader going. So today, in fraternal and sororal solidarity, I offer up one of my best sources of free images.

The British Library’s Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog reproduces illuminations from the manuscripts in their collection. When I contacted them, they said I might reproduce the images in my blog as long as I credited the Library and gave their citation to the manuscript. Hence this monkey-centaur, with which I illustrated the concept of an evil deed.

Monkey sawing books (Courtesy British Library, Add. 49622, f.146)

Monkey sawing books
(Courtesy British Library, Add. 49622, f.146)

What could be worse than sawing a book in half? Who but a monster would do it?

The blog itself is a welcome break from the slog through my inbox. Every few days one of the BL’s experts discourses on a gorgeously illustrated manuscript, on several manuscripts on a single theme, on a type of illustration (the marginalia are the

Detail of a marginal scene of a fox seizing a duck, with 'sound effects' added in a later hand, reading ‘queck’. Courtesy British Library, Add MS 49622, f. 190v

Detail of a marginal scene of a fox seizing a duck, with ‘sound effects’ added in a later hand, reading ‘queck’. (Courtesy British Library, Add MS 49622, f. 190v)

most fun) or on whatever else strikes their fancy. The Library is digitizing its collections as fast as ever it can, and newly digitized manuscripts are frequent subjects of the blog. An international cadre of enthusiasts seem to spend their time crawling through the collection online, and sometimes they find delights that the staff haven’t had time to appreciate. This hapless duck was tweeted out by one Erik Kwakkel of Leiden, who got credit in the BL’s caption. He must have been researching his genealogy.

Medieval monks laboring in the scriptorium frequently found their minds directed to the world, the flesh and the devil. Sometimes these showed up in decorous and improving forms. Sometimes not.

Cerberus (strangely human) feasts on the gluttons condemned to Hell (Courtesy British Library MS Egerton 943, f. 12r)

Cerberus (strangely human) feasts on the gluttons condemned to Hell (Courtesy British Library MS Egerton 943, f. 12r)

Here we have the punishment of gluttony from a manuscript of Dante’s Inferno. In classical mythology Cerberus was a three-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hades; here he is a three-headed devil who eats those who eat too much. Be warned.

Nun rebuking a lecherous grotesque. Courtesy British Library Add. ms 49672 f098v

Nun rebuking a lecherous grotesque. (Courtesy British Library Add. ms 49672 f098v)

Progress has made prudes of us. Here we have a nun wagging a monitory finger at a grotesque who is clearly attacking her. According to the BL manuscripts blog, later owners of such manuscripts often defaced scandalous images in the margins as disrespectful to the pious subject matter.

And here is the editorial comment of some envious monastic on the lovers in the main image:

A monk's envy expresses itself.

A monk’s envy expresses itself. The BL bloggers passed this on from the Morgan Library’s collection, MS G 24, f. 25v.

Readers of the blog get to play with the toys, too. Contests are held for the best caption for various images. The one just above was submitted in a contest to find images illustrating the names of London subway stops. That one was for “Arsenal.”

If you’d like some sympathy in your writing woes, check out The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts.

Every April 1, a spoof post appears. In one, the digital whizzes at the British Library had introduced flying saucers into the illuminations. Another announced the discovery of an ancient cookbook with recipes for unicorn.

I know you get too much email already, but I really recommend following this blog. You’ll find images you can use, and you’ll enjoy yourself, too.

Gonna have a Happy 4th of July

As I reported in my previous post, while visiting my mother in the hospital we watched the HGTV channel. On mute. Closed caption. For days on end. That’s when I realized that hardly anyone says “going to” anymore. Nope. It’s morphed into gonna. “You’re gonna love it.” “I’m gonna do my best to get you to stay.”

Reading “gonna…gonna…gonna” on the television screen grated on my nerves, especially as it was predominantly said by the hosts of the program and not the regular Jane and Joe Schmoe’s (like me) who were having their homes redecorated (unlike me). Possibly the hosts should be required to take diction lessons.

This is an example of “pronunciation spelling,” defined in the dictionary app on my phone as: a spelling intended to match a certain pronunciation more closely than the traditional spelling does, as gonna for going to, kinda for kind of (meaning “rather”), git for get, or lite for light. (Do not confuse this with “spelling pronunciation,” in which, according to Wikipedia, a word is pronounced “according to its spelling, at odds with standard or traditional pronunciation.”)

And then there is “eye dialect,” the definition taken again from my phone app: the literary use of misspellings that are intended to convey a speaker’s lack of education or use of humorously dialectal pronunciations but that are actually no more than respellings of standard pronunciations, as wimmin for “women,” wuz for “was,” and peepul for people.

As a writer, when writing dialogue I’ve faced the dilemma of writing it as the character would say it (New England Yankee, for example) or as they should say it. As a reader, I find it annoying to read a constant stream of dialect. (I won’t bore you with the definition of dialect.) I am satisfied if it is used sparingly as a reminder that the character is Southern, for instance, or if it is used consistently when the character is introduced and then switched to normal speech. In that instance, I will remember that the character has a specific speech pattern.

This is not to say that my speech is perfect. Far from it. When I travel abroad this summer I wonder if my own use of “gonna” and “kinda” and the absence of a “g” on the end of my gerunds and present participles will cause confusion on the part of the Europeans who have been educated in proper English–and probably use it.

Reading and writing as a hospital visitor

My mother has been in the ICU for eleven days now following heart surgery. I’ve visited her every day; sitting in a hospital room watching a muted television stuck on the HGTV channel has not inspired me to write fiction. Reading–I have done a fair amount of that. Of squiggly lines and numbers, not words, a constant stream of changing numbers that I struggle to interpret.

The writing I’ve produced has been non-fiction, texts updating my family on my mother’s condition and progress, answering questions, explaining things that I don’t understand in a reassuring way that won’t set off any alarms. I try to wring the emotion out of my electronic updates using simple words and, often, emoji. (A picture is worth a thousand words, and I love my emoji.)

I don’t report when my mother moans, talks in her sleep, or the look on her face when she is awake and uncomfortable, tired, depressed, discouraged. A moan from my mother is more revealing than when she verbalizes that she is uncomfortable. A moan is just one sound yet I know immediately that there’s a problem. I don’t include that in my family updates, other than to report the extent of her pain, but as a fiction writer the opposite is true. I must convey pain through “showing not telling”.

I would like to work on that in my fiction writing: increase showing and decrease telling. Instead of saying “I’m tired of the drive to the hospital,” I could say “I feel like putting my head down on the steering wheel and going to sleep.” (If my daughters read that, I imagine I will generate a flurry of texts among them concerned about my well-being.) My intent is to convey weariness not tiredness. As a writer, my job is to insure that my writing is interpreted correctly—whether by my daughters or my readers.

I aim for clarity and brevity in my writing. Yet fiction writing is improved through the use of metaphors, similes, analogies, and emotion. In the above example, I would use “weary” in my family text, if at all, but in my fiction writing I would incorporate the steering wheel.

Writers glean writing material from every experience, whether through an overheard conversation between two nurses in the ICU or observing a frustrated woman help her elderly mother navigate the security line at an airport. Most of us can’t resist recording these tidbits so we can refer to them when needed. Some writers carry tiny notebooks. I prefer to record them in my phone. It’s always with me and less conspicuous. Who knows? I could be typing a text response to my daughters: “No, I am not suicidal.”

 

When you know you’ve made it as a writer

You know you’ve made it as a writer when your career is the subject of one of the questions on the Buzztime Trivia game at Buffalo Wild Wings. We were “dining out” with our oldest grandson at B-Wild at Chandler Fashion Center when I glanced up at the huge screen on the wall connected to the tablet at our table and read a question I could actually answer. In other words, it wasn’t sports related.

The question was, per my recollection, “who writes about the nightmarish side of society?” I’m unsure who the other choices were but I knew immediately that Joyce Carol Oates was the answer. She may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I happen to love her books, as depressing as they tend to be. Wonder what that says about my psychological makeup?

I was fortunate to hear Oates read from her novel “The Accursed” at the Canaan, NH, Meetinghouse Readings on July 11, 2013. (Was it really almost three years ago?)Front Cover

Anyone living within an hour’s drive, or more, of Canaan, NH, please plan to attend the readings at least once. The Meetinghouse, built in 1793, is worth the trip alone. I don’t know how the moderator convinces such acclaimed authors to make the trek to Canaan but you are certain to find at least one each summer that has you sitting on the edge of your bench, pinching yourself to check that you haven’t ventured into an alternate universe.

If I had to choose between being a question on the Buzztime Trivia game and reading from one of my novels at The Meetinghouse, without a doubt I would choose the latter. On second thought, I’d prefer to follow in Oates’ footsteps and do both.

 

 

 

Why don’t I write?

Today’s post on the Maine Crime Writers blog by Bruce Robert Coffin about why he writes resonated with me, as do many of their posts. Beyond the writing connection, it may be because I spent my “formative” years (ages 4 to 14) living in Bangor.

Funny how my reasons for not writing when I should be writing mirror Coffin’s reasons for writing…

He writes to quiet those voices he hears in the middle of the night. When I can’t sleep, I think about my characters and what they are up to and–just as when I was hypnotized on a stage in front of hundreds of people–before I know it I’m sound asleep. No need to keep pen and paper on my nightstand. (I do but, as you may recall, I can’t read what I’ve written so I use it for grocery lists.)

Coffin apparently has some demanding, strong-willed characters in his stories who have no qualms about disagreeing with his plans for them. My characters, on the other hand, hang around as they lean against the walls, hands in their pockets, and wait for direction from me. Don’t they realize how much work they make for me with their lack of gumption and rebelliousness? Give me a protagonist who has a mind of her own and flaunts (my) authority and I’ll step back and let her take charge.

I don’t know where he gets some of his characters, either. Apparently his Sergeant Byron takes Coffin for rides in his car on his way to catch the bad guy. Instead of the other way around. As none of my characters have drivers’ licenses they expect me to drive them wherever they need to go. I just don’t have time for that. Maybe carpooling is the answer?

One thing we do have in common is that he doesn’t appear to prepare in-depth outlines. (And why should he? His characters run the show.) I’m a proud pantser and I surmise that Coffin is as well, based upon his comment that the enjoyment he derives from writing is not knowing what is going to happen in his stories.

Unfortunately for me, a newbie cozy/murder mystery writer, demands are being made of me that I may not be able to meet. After submitting my rough plot summary and character description for a new cozy to my writing group last night I’ve been asked to write the murder scene. Before I write anything else. The audacity! That I should know “who done it” before, well, before I know anything else. Apparently the writer, unlike the reader, should know this prior to investing time and energy into writing the actual book. Sigh. Big sigh. How do I reconcile this with my badge of honor as a pantser? I suppose it could be to ensure that the reader will want to invest time and energy into reading my book…

More than one

Taunted by the books

Taunted by the books

The royal blue three-ring binder taunts me from its secure spot on the bookshelf. Eighty-one completed pages of “Anne” with additional pages of notes, outlines, and prose tucked here and there. Hidden underneath are two manila folders. One holds “It Takes A Village Store,” 50,065 words of my 2014 NaNoWriMo submission. “Full Circle,” my 2015 submission, 50,212 words total, is ensconced in the other. The main characters of each novel are strong women from the same family, a mother, daughter, and niece/cousin. The setting is the same town for all three novels.

Originally I intended to have the novels comprise a trilogy but now I am reconsidering that. I feel that it makes more sense to combine them into one novel. How did I reach that conclusion? Good question. One issue is that none of the three are long enough in their current state to be a complete novel. Another problem is that they are extensions of each other, their plots and characters interwoven as only a family can be. I could solve the problems by expanding each of them, differentiating the plots so that they stand alone yet remain connected. Or I could stick with my decision to produce a single novel. Flip a coin?

BooksI have looked for novels with more than one main character, and diverse points of view (obviously), for inspiration. I am surprised that the last three random books I’ve read meet those criteria. (“The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan; “the speed of light” by Elizabeth Rosner; “Life After Life” by Jill McCorkle.) Each one has taken a different approach, probably none of which will work for me.

A long time ago I heard that first-time authors should stick to a straightforward, one main character, one point of view, story. I can see the wisdom in that advice. Yet I’m in a situation where that won’t work. Unless I write three separate novels. Can you hear my teeth gnashing?

No wonder the binder and the two folders that took up valuable space in my suitcase—at least two pairs of shorts worth–have sat untouched on the bookshelf for two months. (Of course, they also are on my laptop but a hard copy is easier to edit. You’ve got to pick it up to do that.)

My only writing goal for this winter in Arizona was to work on this project. Instead, I have devoted my writing time to my short story, “He’s All She Has” (originally titled “The Intruder”). The last revision of this story garnered the suggestion from John, our facilitator, that I put it aside and move onto something else. And I thought it was one revision away from being completed…I’ll try to put a positive spin on it–guess I’ll have time to work on my novel(s)!

 

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