Friday, April 21, 2017

Of Notebooks and Chocolate Bunnies

In the midst of my usual almost-end-of-semester chaos, I'm late to the discussion about how we keep track of ideas. But I did take a photo this morning. Here's my current notebook.  I've had this notebook for years. I bought it one Christmas as a stocking-stuffer for myself – intending to keep a journal when the new year began. I never got around to the journal. But I have enjoyed looking at the notebook's lovely pristine pages. A couple of months ago, I had an idea and no other paper handy. I grabbed the notebook and a red pen and wrote down my semi-brilliant idea before it could slip away. I am now using my notebook to record random thoughts.

This notebook is in addition to the five files I have on my computer with notes about potential books or short stories. I sometimes forget those files. But when I go back to them I'm always pleased that I have a plot factory quietly churning away. I'm also dismayed at how many ideas I have with limited time to develop them. But sometimes the ideas come together – as in the case of the short story set in 1948 that I have coming out in EQMM. Random thoughts became ideas that finally took shape and came together when I did some research.

That brings me to the chocolate bunnies in this post. Here is my cat Harry's plate. I took this photo this morning. His plate is one of the reasons I choked when I tried to eat the chocolate bunny that I bought during the Easter candy sale. I haven't had a bunny in years and I thought it would be a treat.

But as soon as I chopped the head off I remembered the headless corpse of one of the rabbits who was living in my yard. I came upon it one morning as I was walking to my car. The rabbit had apparently been the victim of one of the cats who pass through my yard. The memory of that headless rabbit – and that I could never eat rabbit stew (made by my mother when my father went hunting) when I was a child – gave me some clue about why I was having a hard time eating my chocolate bunny. Harry's plate this morning gave me the rest of the story. This is what he left after gobbling down his breakfast of rabbit and pumpkin. Harry has a finicky stomach so I didn't argue when his vet suggested I vary his canned prescription cat food, alternating between chicken and rabbit. I didn't argue but I did say, "Yuck!" Which suggested that I am much more squeamish about fluffy bunnies than about chickens. At any rate, watching Harry gobble his weekly canned rabbit reminded me once again that my sweet, gentle cat would hunt and kill his own bunny if he were allowed outside.

So because of a headless corpse, rabbit stew, and Harry's gourmet cat food, I choked on my chocolate. That got me thinking about characters and how something as simple as a chocolate bunny can be a way into understanding a character and revealing something about her or him to readers.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rough Justice


Aline’s entry, below, got us Type M-ers talking about how some of us keep notes, in one way or another, of stories we’ve heard or read about, that finally end up in our books. I am particularly guilty of doing that.

I’ve lived most of my life in the American West, which is a gold mine of eccentric behavior that is better than anything I could make up. My books and stories are full of tales that others have told me or snippets I have read in the paper, or events I was involved in when I was a slip of a lass—sometimes things that I have remembered for decades. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend who is very into research on her ancestry, and she told me a tale about a forebear of hers who pretended to commit suicide on the front porch of the lady who had rejected him. I immediately filed that tale away for use in a future Alafair Tucker mystery.

My own relatives have provided me with a wealth of material, though I have to admit that some ancestral events are too grim or shocking to use in the type of series I’m writing without being…let us say, cleaned up a bit. There is one family tale that I’ve used as inspiration for murder more than once, but never actually written about. One of my maternal grandfather’s sisters, whom I will call Violet, was married to a man who regularly abused her, but she kept it a secret from her family for years. Until her husband (let’s call him Perry) finally beat her so badly that she took the children and went home to her parents. Her face was so pulped that her father, my great-grandfather, grabbed a pistol and ran out of the house, intending to do justice right then and there.

My great-grandmother didn’t care about the abuser, but she did care about her husband and had no desire to see him hanged for murder, so she persuaded her sons (including my grandfather) wrestle their father to the ground and prevent him from leaving the house. I fear that eventually my great aunt went back to her abuser, who also was a womanizer and cheated on her regularly. But this was in the late 1910s in the wilds of Arkansas, and women had few other options back in the day. My great-grandfather was a Baptist circuit preacher, and I’m sure divorce was not an option.

The story has an interesting ending, however. Shortly thereafter, Perry was found dead by the road, a bullet in his head, apparently shot right off his horse. No one was ever charged with the crime. Was he killed by a cuckolded husband or the relative of a wronged woman? Or did one of Violet’s brothers, or even my preacher great-grandfather, decided to take matters into his own hands? However Perry met his end, he brought it on himself in those days of rough justice.

Violet didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy her freedom. She was killed in a car wreck in the 1920s, and her children were raised by Perry’s parents.

I love to learn the details of a life, and there is no one who has ever lived who doesn’t have a fascinating story, whether they share it with us or not, whether we ever know about it or not. It seems important to me that our tales by shared, because the joys and tragedies of every life are what binds us together as human beings.

p.s. Someday I’m going to ask permission from my living relatives to tell some of our more shocking family stories. I’ll bet that when they brought into the light of day, we will hear from many people who have shared our experiences and lived to tell about it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Politics and the Pen

Barbara here. It seems right now politics is foremost on everyone's mind. As the world teeters dangerously closer  to war, as leaders rattle sabres and trade threats, it's difficult to keep our gazes resolutely turned away, ignoring the rumblings and avoiding any kind of discussion on the subject. I suspect not too many Passover and Easter gatherings escaped without a single mention of missiles and egomaniacs, no matter what one's political stripe.

My favourite social media sites are full of it, with the resulting flame wars, outraged "unfriending", and accusations of stupidity and heartlessness. There are those who insist they will always stand up for truth, equity, and justice. There are others who are overwhelmed by helplessness and just want a respite from the fruitless anger and fear. They have withdrawn from social media altogether or choose nothing but flowers and cute puppy pics.

Social media, with their instant communication, relative anonymity, and impatience with subtlety or complexity (why use a paragraph to express your thoughts when you can use an emoji), fuel this polarized, oversimplified discourse. And sometimes we authors find ourselves caught in the thick of it.

By nature, we writers are thinkers and communicators. We reflect on the world and want to share our thoughts and observations. If we weren't, we'd fix cars instead; it pays better. Crime writers in particular are concerned with questions of moral and social justice, of right and wrong, of good and evil. We grapple with heroes and villains every day. So not only do politics seep into our writing, we usually don't try to avoid them. We want to talk about the ills of the world.

Most crime writers I know lean towards the progressive end of the political spectrum. I realize this is an oversimplification, because even the "spectrum" is multi-dimensional, but in general our exploration of interpersonal struggles and our quest for social justice in the stories we tell, together with the empathy we develop as we step into the shoes of many different characters, leads us to a nuanced and tolerant understanding. As many scholars have observed, the less a person knows about a subject, the more certain they are. Conversely, the more a person learns about a subject, the less they "know".

Many crime writers prefer to leave behind the simpler world of black and white in favour of the grey zones of human frailty, conflict, and failings. Politics can't help but sneak in, whether in overt themes such as poverty, racism, and exploitation or in more subtle, personal themes of greed, family dysfunction and unattainable dreams. It's part of who we are as writers, and to ask us to stop writing about the challenges of today's world and simply focus on telling a "good story", is like asking a bird to fly without wings.

Sometimes we're not even aware of the political biases in our books, and we're surprised when a reader expresses their disapproval. Some readers go so far as to say they will never read another book by us. No writer wants to lose readers, but after a brief period of soul-searching, most of us dust ourselves off, shrug, and carry on, muttering privately that the reader probably wouldn't enjoy our next book anyway.

Socia media are a different story. As the recent horrific murder illustrates, social media have a dark, unpredictable side. Writers often have an eclectic mix of friends from around the world, some of whom we've met only casually through conferences and book events. Often a joy of reading has brought us together. With all of them, we writers enjoy sharing book talk and other thoughts of the day, including political opinions, without expecting flame wars, name calling, or unfriending. We react like anyone else; sometimes we block, unfollow or unfriend, sometimes we just delete the comment, sometimes we engage the commenter in a discussion.

But sometimes we feel a twinge of alarm. Social media trolls can be more that just a nuisance; they can be threatening and dangerous. Public figures can be the targets of extraordinary, unfiltered hatred, so much so that some have shut down their accounts, changed addresses, and retreated from the public eye. The more public and outspoken we writers become, the more vulnerable we are to this fringe element. Not just ourselves, but our families. Most of the time, it's all sound and fury signifying nothing, but it only takes one person ...

This should not, and will not, shut us up, but it does give us pause. Who knows where I live? Who knows where my children go to school? What invisible bear might I poke simply by creating this story or posting this opinion? I'd love to hear what others' thoughts and experiences have been, and how they have handled it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

And now for something completely different…

by Rick Blechta

As I said in the comment section of Aline’s post from yesterday, her woeful story of loss brought back one of the really bad moments in my life to the point where I couldn’t get the memory of it out of my head all day, and it even carried over into my dreams last night.

Something wonderful and a little strange happens when the bond is forged between  serious musicians and their instruments. I often tell people it’s really falling in love with an inanimate object. The emotion is that strong. I’m speaking, of course, of musicians who are committed to playing well, not some youngster who’s taking piano lessons and really not all that into it. I never felt any kind of bond between myself and the piano banged away on for years in our house.

That all changed when I held my French horn for the first time in 1969. I’d played trombone in high school and in university switched to horn, basically because New York University’s School of Education was awash in great trombonists, untouchable in their excellence. Hornists were, however in short supply, so I contacted the school’s horn teacher, Harry Berv (who’d taught a very good friend all through high school) and asked if he’d take me on. I told him I’d bought a very good pro trombone just before school. Harry told me to bring the trombone to him, he’d sell it, and the following week at my first lesson, he’d have a horn for me. (I had to pony up an additional $225).

From the first time the horn’s mouthpiece touched my lips, I was in love. It just felt so right. I progressed very rapidly and was soon playing in the school’s senior band. I could not put that horn down and practised for hours, completely smitten.

Then disaster struck one Friday evening the next fall. After a very long week, I got my sorry butt onto the train at Grand Central Station, found a seat, and put my horn on the overhead luggage rack. During the 40-minute ride, I fell asleep over a book I needed to finish for a class.

Waking with a start as the train arrived at my station, I grabbed my briefcase, shoved the book into it and dashed for the door. Unfortunately due to my grogginess, I completely forgot about my horn on the rack above.

I discovered what I’d done almost immediately, but alas, it was too late. The train was already disappearing around the bend north of the station.

I ran home as fast as I could. My brother was home, and we jumped into his car and tore off up the Thruway, heading for Stamford, Connecticut where the train terminated. When we got there, the train had already been sent to the north yard for the weekend. I implored the man in the office to let me search the train. They sent someone instead who came back with the bad news: no French horn.

Most people face personal catastrophes during their lives. This was my first. I was completely beside myself, distraught, angry that I could have been so stupid, and sad beyond belief. We went home (my brother was actually nice to me during the drive). I wrote up a poster, offering a reward for any information on my lost “closest friend”, and took it up to the Stamford station — but not with much hope.

I spent the next two days sitting beside the phone. It didn’t ring. I have certainly never been so depressed.

Monday, I just couldn’t face going to school and stayed home. Around eleven o’clock, the phone rang. It was a conductor who’d been on the train. He’d found my horn at the end of the line. In a hurry, he’d jumped on a southbound train with my horn which he’d taken home for the weekend. When he’d seen my poster that morning and immediately called me. With unimaginable relief, I picked up my horn that evening and gladly gave the man $100 for his honesty (a lot of money for a student in those days).

A few weeks later, my brother presented me with a set of handcuffs for Christmas so I could be assured of never being separated from my beloved instrument again.

I still have that horn, and I still feel the same way about it. My wife understands. She feels the same way about her flute!

And now here’s a link to that Flanders and Swann version of the Rondo from Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto in Eb Major. It is very clever and has always been a favourite. If you’ve never heard it before, you’re in for a treat — and a good laugh.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Losing the Plot

I was so interested in Sybil's post about organising those invaluable random thoughts that occur to us and might even, one day, spark an idea for a whole book. I too have these scrappy bits of paper – ideas don't tend to come handily when you're sitting at your desk with a neat notebook or a computer file marked 'Inspiration' readily to hand.

My practice has been to chuck them into a box – a Tiffany's box, in fact, which I couldn't bear to throw away – and on one of those bleak days when no beautiful idea possesses me I tip the whole lot out on to my desk and sort through.  Surprisingly often, I find that there's been a subconscious theme to these bits and pieces and some of them hang together and point to a plot line that's worth pursuing.

When it comes to a WIP, I do try to be more systematic. For the series, I keep a file of names, dobs, physical characteristics and so on but for a long time there were piles, too, of plot development thoughts that occurred while I was writing and I scribbled down on a sheets of paper – recycled, naturally! – which then did their very best to get themselves lost among all the other things on my untidy desk.

This time, I vowed it would be different. Like Sybil, I got myself a book and put all the snatches of ideas, plot line, one or two pivotal scenes, details of characters and research background in it together. It's certainly a more efficient system.

But then I was inspired to tidy my desk. This doesn't often happen but just once in a while I realise I've forgotten what the surface looks like and think it might be nice to reacquaint myself with it. I had a proper clear out, and then we went away on holiday. When I came back, there was a beautiful tidy desk.

But when I sat down to work, I realised the book wasn't in its usual place. I ransacked my study. I ransacked my husband's study, darkly suspecting he might have picked it up by accident. I ransacked the house, looking in more and more improbable places. Twice.

It had gone, swept up with something else and put in the recycling bin that was emptied while we were away.   It was a bad blow, and I had no one to blame but myself. It should, of course, have made me vow to keep my desk tidy. In fact it's made me swear I'll never, ever, tidy it again. Well, probably I will sometime, but much more carefully.

But like Sybil having to find that one perfect sentence, there was quite a lot of original material in that book that I'd been pleased with, at least at the time, and that's getting in the way of the replicating I have to get down to now. I keep feeling that it just won't be as good as what I wrote before.

I may well be wrong about the lost material. There have been times when I've found something I'd misplaced after a long search and been quite disappointed with what I had thought was a sparkling piece of writing. So I just have to remind myself of that.

Sybil, I do hope you find your perfect sentence. But if you don't, I hope you can convince yourself that its replacement is even better.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Velvet Curse

I've had a lot of trouble writing this week.

Oh that's such a lie. I only have trouble writing when I'm actually doing it. The truth is that I've stopped about fifty pages into my next book. Not because I'm stymied but because I've sullied up and indulged in one time-wasting activity after another. True I can always find excuses. Allergy season, etcetera, etcetera. But they are fake. Truth is I can write almost anywhere, anytime. I don't have enough sense to be temperamental.

There's a subtle curse hanging over me this time. That of good fortune. My newest book, Fractured Families, has received a series of good reviews. This week I was dumbfounded when one of the largest papers in the San Francisco bay area, the Mercury News, reviewed it. In fact, Fractured was in the lead position.

So it seems like the best time possible to retire, or at least stop the series and write something else. I make no secret of my passion for historical novels. But the truth is I really want to write the new one, Silent Sacrifices. Nevertheless, it involves a lot of new territory from a technical standpoint and I worry that I'm not up the challenge.

One of the ideas I've inserted in my blogs time and again (with the fervor of an evangelist) is that writers have to toss people out of their writing room. Read head. Whether it be a husband, mother, priest, principal, next door neighbors, fellow writers, or literary critics. Whoever is peering over your shoulder standing in judgement of your morals or your abilities. Nattering, chatting among themselves about your ability to plot, characterize, turn a phrase. Raising doubts, jeering.

They must go. They all have a paralytic effect. Like the head of Medusa, they will turn you to stone if you allow them to peek at your manuscript.

One of my favorite images from Kansas's Garden of Eden (the first scene in Fractured Families) is that of Reaching Woman. This week it seems to portray my state of mind. Reaching, reaching, for a half-constructed plot misting away, reaching for wisps of characters and scenes that lack energy.

Monday morning, the end of Lent, I promise to end this self-imposed slumber and throw everyone out of my writing room once again.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Shaken Snow Globe

There are days when it hits the fan, when life leaves you feeling like your head is a shaken snow globe, and you want nothing more than a quiet corner and a blank computer screen.

These are the days when you know you’re a writer –– when at the end of a long day you don’t want a drink, you don’t want to exercise, or even to curl up with a good novel, but, rather, to fill a blank screen.

I had one of these days recently: a long meeting that ended at 8 p.m., followed by a debrief. I came home and watched the first episode of House of Cards with my wife Lisa. When she went to bed, I stayed up to write. Needed to do so. Just 45 minutes. Just needed to clear my head by filling it with the novel I’m working on. Then off to bed, and I slept like the dead.

All of this makes me think about what writing means to me. Billy Collins, in his poem “Driving Myself to a Poetry Reading,” writes, “There is a part of me that wants / to let go of the wheel, climb over the seat / and fall asleep curled in the back.” This makes me think of the complex relationship writers have with writing. The thought, for instance, of everything this new book (and its author) will endure on its way to publication –– feedback, revisions, submission, rejection, contract negotiations –– is like staring at Mt. Everest before attempting the climb. It makes no sense to do so. Later in the poem, Collins writes, “Another part of me wants to be up on the hood, / a chrome ornament in the shape of a bird / leaning aerodynamically into the wind.” There is a push-pull relationship with this craft that most writers experience. The personal insecurities (will people like this?) that we all have and the business frustrations (promotion, reviews, advances) are often at odds with the love we all have for the craft, the I-need-to-do-this aspect of writing. When the latter wins, you know you’re in this for the right reasons.

The physical, mental, and spiritual act of writing keeps me going. I don’t write full time. So it’s not and never has been a job. It’s what I do –– most days at 4 a.m. when I push the plot forward –– but also late at night on the heels of month-long days when I need to clear my head by filling it.