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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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Decline and Fall

I was thinking the other day about the dying institution of marriage. The mystery I’m writing involves an inheritance which, in turn, hangs on the outdated concept of legitimacy.

Mind you, I’m all for dropping any stigma (if any remains) on being born “out of wedlock.” But honestly, older people, if you had been asked in your youth what major changes might occur in your lifetime, would you have predicted indifference to the presence or absence of marriage vows? Of substituting “if it works out” for “till death do us part”?

Anyway, I sat down and tried to come up with other dying institutions that I had thought would live forever. Lo and behold, nearly every one that occurred to me involved reading and writing — one of the core complexes of life for likely readers of this blog.

I had occasion to write something down for one of my grandsons not long ago. He frowned at the note – I thought my handwriting was the problem. I got no farther than, “Oh, sorry, that word’s….,” when he rushed to reassure me. “Oh, it’s okay, Grandma. I can read cursive script.” He can’t write it, though. The schools now teach printing, not writing, because who writes anything longer than a grocery list anymore?

Letters (in the sense of correspondence) no longer exist. Their factual content is now transmitted through email. Their creative, imaginative, playful and literary qualities are just gone. (Worse: their playful qualities are have shrunk and hardened into emoticons created by some wretch chained in an office cubicle.) Email is to letter-writing as tweeting is to thinking.

Now that apps have homogenized all forms of information transfer, “writing down” is no longer a distinct activity with defined functions in society. Do our grandchildren get the point of “The Typewriter,” the famous piece of music that duplicates the rhythm of typewriter keys, the ding of the bell at the end of the carriage and the slam of the carriage return? This tune, without comment, once conveyed “composition” or “news reporting.” (Click the link to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play it, with percussionist Martin Breinschmid on the typewriter.)

Editors are as the dodo. I am still unpublished, but I hear by the grapevine that publishers no longer employ such people. Or if they do, the evidence has vanished from much of what is published. My blogging colleague Eleanor Ingbretson recently read a mystery involving that nasty marine animal, the leech. It was spelled “leach” throughout. WTH. You know what I meant. (That link will take you to the blog of the same name, where you will find fellow mourners of the craft of words.)

(Subcategory of the above: use of the subjunctive. And don’t get me started on “may” and “might.”)

Paper is gone, too, or at least unnecessary. I think text is made of electrons now, but I really haven’t the faintest idea. Vandals burned the monastery libraries of Europe; hackers may yet wipe out War and Peace.

We have lived in the age of the Antonines, and Commodus is upon us. (Don’t bother me with questions when I’m being crotchety. Google it.)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

October whispers in my ear

4ac78946-e2b4-46cd-9ffb-e3fe233ce013-004October is here and we in northern New Hampshire know what the forecast is. Changing seasons: shorter, cooler days. Turning leaves: tour buses, leaf peepers. Flipping the family photo calendar: grandchildren clad in Halloween costumes, my mother’s birthday. Swapping out my wardrobe: fleece, socks and sneakers. Fall cleaning: screens down, deck furniture in.

October whispers in my ear: I know you’re busy but don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is on its way. November first is less than thirty days away now. Don’t you always say you are going to start preparing for NaNoWriMo in October? Get your outline and character sketches done so that you can just start typing away on November 1 with your outline for reference? I bet you can exceed 50,000 words if you do that.

This year I have a response. Listen, October, stop bugging me. I am working on an outline for NaNoWriMo. I already have my characters’ names with personalities formed, allowing for more novels to follow. I’ve drawn a rough map of the town where the murder takes place. I’m reading Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” novels to make sure that I don’t end up copying her quaint, idyllic, deadly town.

It’s a real temptation, especially as this area of New Hampshire abounds with similar towns: a town common or green surrounded by old churches, old stately homes, old maples, old, white fence, old pines adorned with Christmas lights. Possibly a gazebo decked with red ribbons and sparkly snow. You get the drift….

My fictional town of Woodbury wears a blue-collar attitude. A diner instead of a bistro. An auto repair shop in place of a bookstore. A run-down motel instead of a B & B. The hub of the town? A Village Store where the locals go to catch up on all the gossip they missed at the diner. And let’s not forget the farms on the dirt roads spiking out of Woodbury. Beyond town lies another world, a lake populated with out-of-state visitors, some who visit for the summer, most just a week or two.

And there’s plenty more. I think I am in better shape than I have ever been for NaNoWriMo.

So take that, October.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

Building the Plot Machine

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When last heard from, I was moaning and complaining about my inability to focus in on the important things, in particular, my mystery novel’s plot problems. Since then, I have followed my own advice: “Apply rear end to chair. Write.” Danged if it isn’t working.

What is going down on paper – into electrons, I should say – is not fluent prose but brief sentences in an Excel worksheet. It’s my fourth attempt to organize this monster in Excel. Fourth time’s the charm.

My earlier worksheets were chimaeras. Along the horizontal axis were the four murders I had concocted. Each column was meant to state, in chronological order, “what happened.” The difficulty was that everybody’s “what happened” was different from everybody else’s.

I don’t mean just the characters, though each of them had his or her own body of knowledge about who was where, when and why, and above all, who hated whom. I also had to keep track of what happened as far as the reader knew. And of things that had happened all right, but that were supposed to make no sense until the big reveal at the end. And of the little event-clouds that shroud those baffling happenings in ordinariness for the time being.

Since my mystery is a cozy, my detective is an amateur. Her personal life impinges deeply on her need to solve the mystery. Her biggest personal problem (illness) needs to be consistent with the action. Even more, it needs to cast light on her actions, and outside events have to feed back into her situation. I added another column.

Her biggest challenge in outward life (a lawsuit) demanded a similar treatment. Add another column.

Then there were the police. They had to be hunting in all the wrong places. Their errors needed to ratchet up the dangers for the detective. Another column.

On top of that, mere order of events wasn’t enough. I needed specific dates for every event. Can’t have people building snowmen in May (actually, you can do that sometimes here in New Hampshire) or going on a shopping binge on Christmas Day.

You can imagine what a ragbag my worksheet became. Columns could be plot threads, themes, or characters. I found myself copying and pasting the contents of one box into three more, where they were just as relevant. Excel can be an excellent disordering technique.

Now I think I’ve got it. In the new worksheet, each column represents a single character and its contents are single-minded: what does this person want right now, and how does s/he go about getting it? No date column yet, but I think I’ll be able to stagger each character’s moves with the others – and possibly get them into a tighter, tenser order. That’s to say nothing of the way the author’s errors light up. I wasn’t half-way through entering my data before I found the murderer acting directly against his own interests. Duh.

I’ve been whining about all this in my writing group for so long that our moderator came up with an exercise for all of us to work on. He went to http://writingexercises.co.uk and used their “random plot generator.” Out popped the following:

Main Character: An optimistic 23-year-old woman

Secondary Character: A rebellious 60-year-old woman

Setting: The story begins on a cliff

Situation: A robbery goes badly wrong

Theme: It’s a story about risk-taking

Character action: Your character sets out on a rescue mission

Our assignment is not to write the story, but to come up with the outline of a coherent plot using these elements. I hope to make this a dry run in miniature of my big Excel project.

(By the way, writingexercises.co.uk also provides other sorts of prompts and helps you work on other tasks, e.g., “generate a fictitious ‘English-sounding’ town name.” Check it out.)

So what about it, campers? How do you keep your plot threads untangled? All tips welcome. Or try your hand at the exercise, and let us know how you did.

It Has to be Good, Not Perfect

The sun pours down on my life today. Actually, a thunderstorm is approaching, but to me, all is light and life. I gave a talk yesterday to a foreign affairs discussion group I belong to. Today, therefore, I no longer have to give a talk to the foreign affairs discussion group!

Speaking in public is not a problem for me. It’s the fear of making a mistake that wrecks my life. The search for correctness on every last tiny point ate up last week like the Tazmanian Devil pouncing on its prey. I had a good grasp on my material. But what if that date (2005) should actually be 2004? Google it. It was 2005. What if…? Google it. I spent more time in Google than in Word.

Because I spent the week obsessing, I printed my handouts at the last minute. My printer broke down. I switched to my husband’s printer, got one file completed, and the printer suddenly began taking its orders from Mars. Half a ream of paper was wasted before I finished the task. My office looked as if Dirty Harry had ransacked it.

No time for a shower before leaving. I plastered my hair down with a comb so severely that no one could doubt I intended it to look that way, for some unfathomable reason. Since I know where all the local speed traps are, I walked into the meeting room right on time, wearing an easy expression of ‘no sweat!’ Which made me think of the missed shower again.

And it all went fine. It almost always does. And so what if I had made a mistake or two? The world would not have ended. I would not have been damned for all eternity.

You wouldn’t think that writing fiction would be as susceptible to the search for perfect truth as reportage. You’re supposed to make fiction up. The writer is responsible for all the truth in the fiction. Unhappily, s/he gets none of the feedback offered by the real world when truths collide. In life, a brook simply will not run uphill. In your book, it can run one way in Chapter 3 and the other in Chapter 11. Until some kind or not-so-kind reader points that out.

The perfection trap doesn’t confine itself to fictional facts. When every flaw catches your eye equally, whether it’s a poor word choice or a gaping plot hole, progress can be agonizingly slow. I’ve managed to bring forth a first draft. I’ve rewritten, rewritten the rewrites and … you finish the sentence, assuming it ever ends. A draft that really needs only a clean-up is still miles over the horizon.

Perhaps it’s a trick of focal distance. The present plan is to focus on plot, plot, plot and never mind the rest. And we all know how to find out whether that’s a good idea. 1) Apply rear end to chair. 2) Write.

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