Saturday, July 04, 2015

The art of story weaving, by Peggy Blair

My guest this weekend is friend and fellow Ottawa author, Peggy Blair. Peggy is a former lawyer and author of three books in the award-winning Inspector Ramirez series. She lives in Ottawa where she works in real estate. Her latest, HUNGRY GHOSTS, has just been released by Simon & Schuster, and in this post, she talks about how that novel came together

Check out her blog at www.peggyblair.com.

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My third book in the Inspector Ramirez series, Hungry Ghosts, started with a kernel of an idea. I wanted to write about an art heist. The idea of someone breaking into a museum or gallery to steal art seemed kind of romantic and very few of those thieves are caught. An art heist in Cuba, with the difficulty getting stolen art out, would be a challenge for any thief. And I like creating characters who are smarter than I am.

So that's where I started. But I got stuck at around 25,000 words. It was an interesting work-in-progress, but I didn't have enough for a novel. I needed 80,000 to 100,000 words.

Since I wasn't making any progress on that front, I turned to writing an entirely different story involving my Aboriginal detective, Charlie Pike, who is introduced to Inspector Ramirez (and readers) in my second book, The Poisoned Pawn.

I've always thought Charlie Pike should have his own series and since the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is one I care about greatly (I was an Aboriginal lawyer for decades), I decided to write about him investigating a few of those cases. But once again, I got stuck at about 30,000 words and couldn't figure out where to take the plot.

Then my daughter Jade came home for a visit, and somewhere in our conversation, we began talking about entomology. I loved the idea of having a forensic entomologist who could help Hector Apiro, my Cuban pathologist, determine a time of death for murder victims by using blowflies recovered at the scene. When I looked up these remarkable insects, I discovered just how beautiful these shimmering iridescent insects are: they are absolutely gorgeous! (How macabre is that!?)

A little more research about these amazing creatures and I had a whole new character: a Chinese entomologist visiting Cuba who can tell when someone died almost to the second but who is also wildly eccentric. (She loves her bugs too.)

And then I realized I could put all of this together. There was no reason why Inspector Ramirez couldn't investigate an art heist and have a cold case involving a murdered woman at the same time. After all, cops usually have more than one investigation on the go and there's always the one that got away that haunts them. (In Ramirez's case, literally.)

Meanwhile, Charlie Pike could be involved in his own investigation into missing and murdered Aboriginal women up north. The reader would know that the cases were connected, but not the characters. And sure enough, it worked! Within a few weeks, I had finished a first draft that I was happy enough with to send to my agent. And now it's actually a book: pretty amazing, really, when I think about randomly the story line developed.

Hungry Ghosts is my favourite of the Inspector Ramirez series. It's complex and layered with lots of humour, just like life in Cuba and on First Nation reserves.



Friday, July 03, 2015

The Small Things

Last night I was watching an old episode of  "Shark Tank". If you don't know the show, contestants make presentations to the "sharks" (a panel of celebrity investors), hoping to convince one of them to invest in the contestant's new product.  On the episode I caught last night -- because I'm always fascinated by the presentations -- a young man had developed a product that he offered as the solution to "bed head".  Rising to find your hair standing on end or a matted mess, you would put on a plastic cap that would saturate your hair with moisture, take it off and style as usual. As the young entrepreneur demonstrated the cap could even be used after you were fully dressed -- no mess, no fuss. As one of the sharks pointed out the product looked a lot like a shower cap. No one invested in the product, and I have to admit I wasn't impressed either.

But my reason for being unimpressed was that the young entrepreneur had lost me when he began his presentation by explaining that he showered at night and hated waking up "clean" with "bed head". For those of us who shower in the morning, the problem is either having to use a real shower cap or hair dryer or go out on a winter morning with damp hair. That brought me to the great debate -- and, yes, I have heard people come to rhetorical blows over the issue of when one should bathe or shower -- before going to bed or upon rising. Do you go to bed grimy from your day or do you put on clean clothes in the morning without washing your body. Of course, there is a third group that insists showering or bathing twice a day is the obvious solution. And a group like me that favors the morning shower but compromises with a stop at the bathroom sink before going to bed.

Yes, I am about to make a writing-related point. As I was thinking about the morning versus evening debate, it occurred to me that I was missing something when it comes to character creation. In my last post, I wrote about the challenge of creating a cast of characters for my historical thriller. As I mentioned, I've been consulting the writing books on my shelf. As a result, I'm been doing character bios and family trees and looking at dreams, fears, goals, and assorted motives. I've been asking myself questions such as, "What would  your character never do?" What I haven't asked myself -- and will now -- is how my characters do the things they do. When I'm reading a book, I love the dramatic moments. But when I'm getting to know a character, I look for and attend to the small things.

Actually, in real life, isn't it the small things that define who we are?  The way we do the things we do that the other people in our lives find irritating, bizarre, lovable, fascinating, or all of the above. Think of those 4th of July exchanges at the picnic table:
"Did you really just put mayonnaise on your hot dog? Yuck!"
"You do realize that cole slaw has mayo in it, right?"
"That doesn't count. Mustard. That's what you put on a hot dog."
"Thanks for telling me."

Think of the woman at work who uses her own silver teaspoon to stir organic honey (a jar brought from home) into her herbal tea. And across from her, the guy who is gulping strong black coffee while wolfing down a chocolate glazed something or other. He smirks at her, she gives him an icy stare.

So what occurred to me last night during the "bed head" discussion was that I need to flesh out my characters -- make them human -- by giving them preferences. Before I plunge them into the midst of my thriller, I need to follow each of my characters through an ordinary day and observe his or her choices. Some of these preferences could end up being moments of conflict in the book. Does Character X remain silent about Character Y's choice of mayo on his hot dog or feel compelled to voice an objection? Does Character Y smile, shrug, or ignore Character X's comment? How does Character X respond if he is ignored?

And that's why I'm going to make a chart displaying each character's personal habits and preferences. Somewhere in that chart will be gold.

P.S. I should add that the young entrepreneur with the "bed head" cap has since gone on to successfully market his product.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Thistledown Time

Don Koozer, age 2, Enid, Oklahoma (click to make larger)

Happy Canada Day yesterday to all my beloved Canadian friends, and happy Independence Day this weekend to my compatriots. I hope all the celebrations go off without a hitch. The world has been a sad and scary place lately, as my blogmates have noted over the past weeks. Sometimes it feels like everyone on earth has lost his mind and we wonder what awful thing could possibly happen next. Of course the world has always been a scary place, and humanity as a whole has never been particularly sane. But that fact doesn't make it feel any better when the next insane event occurs. So for the summer holidays, allow me to take you back to what seemed like a more innocent time. Though the truth is maybe we were just more innocent.

The following is a poem by Donald Koozer, who happens to be my husband. This work first appeared in his book of collected poetry entitled The Road, from Bellowing Ark Press. This particular poem is a celebration of Americana and a remembrance of an American boyhood. Enjoy the holiday, and have some watermelon and corn on the cob.

THE PLAINS

It was a thistledown time for a boy,
A time of white frame houses
With porch swings,
And bells ringing out
From steepled churches;
A strawberry and shortcake time,
A time of watermelons
Cooling in tubs of water,
Of buttered corn on the cob,
Of eggs fresh from the chicken nest
And milk bottles waiting on the porch;
Of the silence of mornings
Broken by daybreak and the rooster's crow,
Of family gathered around the dinner table,
Of short pants and stubbed toes,
Of fishing poles and bobbing corks
On quiet lakes,
Of fried okra, corn bread, and butter beans,
Of mute imposing oaks
Climbed by chattering squirrels;
Of dandelions, four leaf clovers,
Grasshoppers, and hound dogs;
Gardens of tall corn stalks,
Climbing pea plants, pumpkins,
Hollyhocks, morning glories,
Petunias, and honeysuckle.
And the plains,
Beyond, like the great soul
Of earth and sky,
Was always the plains.

The land was a sacred realm--
Grasslands reaching beyond the horizon,
Towering cottonwood trees
Lining banks of winding creeks,
Red dirt country roads
And windmills beside tanks of cool water,
Skies filled with
Ten thousand stars,
Moonlight shining off
Fields of green wheat,
The spirit possessed
Howl of coyotes,
Catfish and cooing doves,
Soaring hawks and hooting owls.
The quiet days seemed endless,
And the nights,
A bewildering star-filled mystery
That filled the heart.

In the evenings my mother
Would call me from the fields
Where I played
To the brightly lighted house.
There was always food
And family and safety
In the aura of the glowing chandelier.
But I knew that a part
Of myself was elsewhere,
Beyond the circle of light
From shaded lamps,
And the boundary of homes
With neatly mowed yards.

For a few hours I belonged
To the sphere of light and family,
To the ticking clock
And singing radio.
But later, lying alone,
Beneath the blankets
In the unlighted bedroom,
I felt the sacred darkness
In my heart and all around
For a thousand miles.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Happy Birthday, Canada!

Barbara here. Today is a day for unabashed, unapologetic sap. For today is July 1st, the day set aside to celebrate the creation of my country one hundred and forty-eight years ago. Canada Day is marked across the country by fireworks, parties, and musical extravaganzas big and small. In Ottawa, there is a day-long concert of music representing the many strands that make up the cultural mosaic of the country, crowned by a gorgeous display of fireworks against the backdrop of the spires of Parliament Hill. It is a truly fabulous spectacle. When my children were young, I made a point of bringing them to see the fireworks and share with the throngs who crammed the green lawns in front of Parliament.

When I was a child, in the long-dissipated mists of time, the day was called Dominion Day, and my parents used to bring my sister, brother, and me to a much more modest display of fireworks in our own town hall square in Town of Mount Royal, in Montreal. I recall sitting on the grass being alternately awe-struck and terrified by the noisy cannon-blasts.

Tonight, I will be sharing Canada Day in yet another venue- the concert and fireworks display put on by the village of Sharbot Lake, where I have a cottage. Instead of battling the throngs to get even a glimpse of the fireworks on Parliament Hill and contending with impossibly crowded buses afterwards as everyone tries to leave at once, I will bring my blanket and sit on the public beach overlooking the lake, and watch the fireworks being set off by local volunteers on the helicopter pad next to the medical centre. The beautiful displays will burst into colour right overhead and shower reds and blues and greens down over the lake, drawing oohs and ahs from all of us on the beach. The bay will sparkle with the red and white lights of boats that have come from all over the lake to park offshore for the best view.

It's a day to put writing and business aside and celebrate the extraordinary privilege of calling this country home. In so many parts of the world, writers live in peril, driven underground or into exile if they dare to criticize the society in which they live. I grew up in the time of the Iron Curtain, when some of Eastern Europe's best writers were either in the gulag, in hiding... or dead. This is still the case in many parts of the world. In the book I am currently writing, I have one of my characters, a journalist who has covered global conflicts, say "God, I love Canada. It feels great to be able to piss off the police and not get my head chopped off."

It's that elemental. Today I acknowledge the freedom I have to write what I want and not fear the knock on the door. Yes, there may be an internet outcry or even a tense visit from the RCMP, but we have laws and rights and due process standing between us and the guillotine. Let us cherish that, and guard it fiercely, lest by our blindness and apathy, we let it slip away.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A change of scene

Well, I’m finally in the home stretch of completing the new novella, basically in the someone-needs-to-pry-this-from-his-fingers stage. It’s been a tough slog even though the number of words used are pretty small. It’s tough when you have two other jobs that require your full-time attention, but that’s not a complaint — just a statement of reality.

Today we have to travel to the eastern end of our province for a memorial service for a very dear friend whose 75th birthday would have been today. I’m going to use the car trip to take one last, long gulp at my ms before sending it off to my editor late tomorrow. I want it on her desk first thing Wednesday morning.

I’m hoping the change of scene from my cramped studio will help me see my prose with refreshed eyes. I’ve often had great success doing my last look this way.

The drive is only 4+ hours. I’m lucky this is a novella. Otherwise, I’d probably have to force my wife to drive to California while I work!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why?

I have been reading with huge sympathy the soul-searching posts about the massacre in the Charleston Church. This weekend in Britain we are all reeling after the dreadful carnage on the Tunisian beach, the innocent holidaymakers gunned down on their beach loungers. The newspapers are full of their heart-rending stories – the pretty hairdresser who had blogged so excitedly about the holiday she was packing for, the three generations of the same family who were wiped out.

Most dreadful of all was the plight of the families at home who are waiting with waning hope for news of relatives who haven't been in contact since the shootings but haven't been identified as victims. Because, of course, you don't carry ID in your swimwear.

A bunch of flowers left at the massacre beach had a note that read in bold letters simply, 'WHY?'

I am deeply grateful that I have done a lot of travelling because the world is shutting down around us. I sailed down the Nile and saw the temples at Karnak and stood in Tutankhamen's tomb – an unforgettable experience – but I wouldn't go there now. I saw the amazing ruins at Carthage but the cruise ships won't be keen to stop in Tunisia any more. I had wanted to visit Palmyra and the other wonderful archaeological sites in Syria, but I can't imagine that being safe again in my lifetime – or even be sure that anything will be left to see after ISIS has finished with it.  Seeing Petra – Ruskin's 'rose-red city half as old as time' – is something I've always wanted to do and was even thinking about until this year, but now Jordan too is involved with the war against ISIS I don't think I'm brave enough to do it.

How much are the white supremacists like Roof in the US and Anders Breivik in Norway inspired to do these hideous things by the daily diet we are fed in the media of the horrors inflicted by Islamic terrorists? Revenge can seem a noble motive to their warped minds, even if they're really just inadequates with a desperate desire to make the world sit up and take notice of them.

Seeing themselves as headline news, if they survive long enough to see it, is probably reward enough. A British teenager, who was arrested recently after his horrified parents found evidence that he was getting together material to make a bomb, had no cultural or political grievances, just a desire to become famous. [In parenthesis, I have to point out that if he'd had ready access to a machine gun, no one would have found out in time. Even if there is a 'right to bear arms' who could possibly need a machine gun for peaceful purposes?] I wonder, too, if the dramatic beheadings of hostages that the jihadist delight in would take place quite so often if the news agencies didn't oblige them with worldwide coverage.

The frightening thing about ISIS is that a huge number of them aren't devout Muslims anyway; they drink and smoke and use their religion as an excuse to apply restrictions that amount to bullying and oppression. There is a very unholy pleasure in imposing your will on another human being.

Of course, there is the occasional female jihadist too. But we have to face up to it: vigorous, combative young males enjoy violence. Watch a group of schoolboys interacting: sooner or later someone will jostle someone, or push someone else, and it will end in a wrestling match. It's done in a spirit of friendship, but it's definitely physical.

The healthiest outlet is contact sport; less healthily, they support a football team by attacking supporters of another football team or join a gang. We civilians tend to think that while being in the Army would be all right in peacetime, it would be dreadful when there was a war on, yet that's when recruitment of volunteers surges. So is the surge of violence and horror that is gripping the world feeding a characteristic lurking in the 'lizard brain'?

But then, crime fiction has became increasingly popular in recent years. Should we be uneasy that perhaps we, too, are in some sense playing to that instinct?  

 


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Real Murder

Our name is Type M for Murder and so I decided to tackle murder for real. This last week, the U.S. had another mass-murder, nine shot dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. As a gun owner, on hearing the tragic news, I hung my head, both in condolences for the dead and their survivors, and to tell myself, here we go again. The American gun-control shouting match immediately heated to white-hot rhetoric before veering into an argument about racism and the Confederate battle flag.

Though many claim gun ownership in the U.S. is defined by political lines, it's not. I've got strong leftist sentiments and own guns, and I know plenty of liberals who stock quite an arsenal. And I know conservatives who have never fired a gun and don't care to. When I'm among gun aficionados, politics is rarely discussed.

The numbers I'm offering below are drawn from the most verifiable statistics available to me such as the FBI crime tables, GunPolicy.org, and others. The comparisons won't be exact but hopefully will paint an accurate enough picture. And any numbers I use will certainly incite trolls of all political stripes.

There's no doubt the U.S. is seen as a violent country. In 2014 we had 12,253 murders, of which 8,454 were committed with firearms. If we take the difference, 3,799, that homicide total still places us at the top of the murder list of Western-developed countries. But not so fast...if we include violent crime that didn't end up with bodies Dead Right There, then England and France are more dangerous than the U.S. What complicates any fact checking is that countries have different definitions of "violent" crime.

To the anti-gun crowd, the answer is quite obvious. Ban all guns, and gun-related crimes (and deaths) will go away. But it's not so simple. First of all, the U.S. is the only country where private ownership of guns is specified by law: the Second Amendment. And, almost all countries do allow private gun ownership in some degree (even Australia, which is often mistakenly touted as gun-free). Two countries that don't allow any private gun ownership are China and North Korea, and I don't think we want them as our model for civil rights.

The U.S. leads the world both in rate of gun ownership and numbers of guns. We have about one gun per person, and so the guns number about 300 million. At number two in rate of private gun ownership is Switzerland at 45.7 per 100 people. Number 3? Finland, 45.3 per 100. Who is second in number of guns? India! With 40 million in private hands.

So if lots of guns equals lots of gun deaths, then Switzerland, Finland, and India should be awash in bullet-riddled bodies, but they're not. Based on that, the argument can be made that strict licensing is what reins in gun-related deaths. However you have the example of Brazil, with 8.6 guns per 100, which translates to about 17 million guns (lots of people in Brazil). Owning a gun and ammunition in Brazil requires a license, with a criminal, mental, and employment background check, and that license must be renewed every three years. But given these controls, the Brazilian homicide rate, to include gun-related, dwarfs that of the U.S. Brazil in 2010 (most recent numbers): 43,272 total homicide; 36,153 gun-related. U.S. in 2010: 16, 259 total; 11,078 gun-related. Plus, in the U.S. as the number of guns is going up, both the numbers and rate of homicide is on the decline. So something else is prompting murder besides the availability of guns. Like poverty. Income disparities. Lack of opportunities.

But if we move to episodes of mass-murder, then what's at work is something more problematic than what motivates other violent crime. It's a failure of the spirit, it's a surrender to nihilism, it's dissociation from society. It's what drives some people to suicide and on that subject is where we can find tools to help address these problems. The recent mass-murders occurred in circumstances similar to what Viktor Frankl discussed in his monumental book, Man's Search for Meaning. He pointed out the irony of an increase in suicide in developed countries despite greater prosperity and material comfort. Killers driven to mass-murder clearly have mental/emotional issues, and here the failure lies with family and acquaintances who didn't step in. Easier said than done. In our family we had a murder-suicide, and the tragedy blindsided us. What could we have done to prevent this heartache and bloodshed? In hindsight, plenty. But looking forward, nothing suspicious or dangerous presented itself.

To stop these mass-murders, we have the responsibility of educating ourselves, of looking out for one another, of reaching out. Of asking questions, showing concern, and acting.