Thursday, June 30, 2011
At Exeter, I’m off the grid—no TV, no Internet, just a stack of books. I’m devouring “In Cold Blood” and, having just completed a novel and sent it off to my agent, I’m trying to start a short story starring the protagonist featured in my novel.
It isn’t going well.
I think it’s a matter of trust. I have written only two stories and sold both to “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine” (the second happened just last week), but I just never feel as comfortable with the genre as I do in the novel form. I simply don’t see storylines in terms of short fiction. I tend to see storylines in larger, interwoven narratives spider-webbing into and out of each other.
My friend and former professor Rick DeMarinis, author of eight novels but considered a master of the contemporary short story (he’s a member of the American Academy of Letters and author of “The Art and Craft of Short Fiction”), once told me he believed some people are novelists, some are short story writers, and a few are both. Is he right? Is there such delineation?
I don’t know, but I will try my hand here at an exercise and see where it leads. The assignment is one I have done often with my students (and will again this summer). The goal is simple: write five to ten opening lines that force the reader (and writer) to ask a question. Simple, right? Just open with a question. So why is short fiction so damned hard?
1) She turned around at the sound of her name and instantly smelled her ex-husband’s cologne.
2) “Why didn’t you answer my call?” Peyton asked him.
3) U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote didn’t believe the man suffering from the ax wound was alive until he opened his eyes and said, “Want to join the party?”
4) How much pain must one nine-year-old endure? U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote wondered, as she walked the boy’s father, shackled, into the courthouse.
5) When the motion sensor was tripped near the Crystal View River, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote looked at the digital clock on the dashboard of her government-issued Chevy Tahoe, knew she had fifteen minutes left in her shift, and cursed the impending overtime, assuming another night-wandering deer triggered the sensor. Then she saw the blood on the white birch tree.
Okay, I cheated on No. 5; it’s two sentences, but the scene came into focus. No. 3 is a part of an actual line of dialogue from a true police story told to me by a state trooper at a cookout last summer. I’ll run with No. 5. There might be something percolating beneath the surface.
I will report back next week.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
To be honest, I initially regarded the program as yet another form of procrastination. I am not the kind of writer who is so excited to have a new contract that she (or he) can't wait to plunge in. No, I am the kind of writer who subconsciously knows exactly how long it takes me to write a book at-the-last minute-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. I'm told by my husband that my creative process is months of faffing about organizing things like spice racks, sorting out the linen cupboard in order of sheet size then color and of course, re-doing every photo album in my possession from 1973. This always culminates in the grim realization that with only four months to my deadline, I have to get up every morning at 4:20 AM to make it. During this time I write from terror and I'm horrible to live with.
Hopefully, all this is about to change.
Scrivener offers a variety of templates from screenwriting to poetry but, by far the biggest draw for me, is the ability to organize my research and photographs; create character lists (the templates are great) and hammer out an outline. All these features can be visible or invisible on the sidebar. There are little buttons for notes, comments and reminders all in one place. One of my biggest challenges has been keeping track of random scenes that suddenly came to me in the shower or little snippets and clues that I want to put in somewhere but don't know where to file it because I'll forget where I did file it!
I love the index card corkboard option which enables you to move chapters or scenes around and, with the click of a button, transform the cards into a continuous document. But by far ... my absolute favorite is the Word Count Target gadget. LOVE IT.
I don't think I'm alone in trying to trick myself into writing a certain number of words a day. I generally write against the clock with a timer but it's not very efficient. With the Scrivener word count I first set my "shitty first draft" of 50,000 words to be completed by August 31. I say 50,000 rather than the 75,000 or 80,000 because I know that the last third or so of the book generally writes itself. It's the first two-thirds that can be so painful. Scrivener suggests I write 870 words a day to meet that deadline. That doesn't sound so bad at all! And ... each time I hit my daily target, a little bubble pops up on my screen to congratulate me. I then turn off my computer and feel all tra-la-la. Of course, if I don't make it, Scrivener recalibrates the word count necessary.
A gimmick? Possibly but who cares. It's my latest fad and frankly, with a vacation planned in September, I would be thrilled if this time I could actually go away and enjoy myself laptop free.
I'll keep you posted.
Monday, June 27, 2011
These are what I like to call serendipity friends. We went on holiday to China two years ago and in our group of eighteen we found a couple my husband at been at university with, and hadn't seen since. We got on well so arranged to visit after we got back, a little nervously, since holiday friendships are notorious for coming unstuck on home territory. To be honest, the first time was a little strange, but it went well enough for us to want to try again. We learned more about each other and started building up a sort of hinterland of shared experience, and now it's a good friendship we acquired quite by chance.
It struck me that this is a bit like the characters in a series. We talk about 'creating' characters, but really when I'm writing it seems more like discovering them. If the character won't 'talk' to me, I'll just be pulling the strings of a wooden puppet.
Having written stand-alones I was worried at first about having the same protagonist. Once I'd described Marjory Fleming's character in book one, how was I going to make repeating it interesting when I got to book six? To my surprise I found that, like a friend I was getting to know, I discovered things about her past that I hadn't realised before, and as the books went on her outlook and attitude changed with her experiences.
I'm always uncomfortable when I try to set down the way characters come to me. I'm aware it sounds a bit sort of cutesy, and I'm sure there are highly successful authors who are much more logical in their approach. But I'm also sure I'm not the only one who became a writing junkie because of the extraordinary sensation of writing faster and faster to discover what's going to happen, because you just don't know.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Thursday, June 23, 2011
I spent the past eight days in Louisville, KY. Louisville is a great city, and I had a wonderful time reading at Carmichael's Bookstore from THIS I BELIEVE: ON FATHERHOOD, which includes my essay "Hands at Rest." The reading was actually an afterthought. I was there to score Advanced Placement English essays, and I read nearly a 1,000 handwritten papers by students nationwide. Having taken part in this grading several times, I am always amazed by several things, the talent of many student writers among them. This year, in particular, I was also blown away by the pathos with which students wrote, and I left Louisville having gained great perspective.
A common topic on Type M is the recession and its impact on the fiction market and, in turn, on our respective writing careers. A shrinking marketplace means fewer major publishers buying novels, which has impacted midlist writers, of which I am one. Yet this week, I read hundreds of essays written by 16- and 17-year-old kids discussing their plights. Is a college education now the American Dream? When your father has been laid-off and your parents have told you the bank is taking your house, it probably is. I read many essays like that this last week. When I was 16—back in the 1980s—I didn’t face those problems. Similarly, now, at 41, my biggest headaches are wondering if my agent will be able to sell my latest novel. And my livelihood doesn’t depend on his being able to do that. Perspective is good for all of us mid-listers in this market. I’m thankful to have gained a little last week.
On a lighter note, I hope no one thinks I’m crazy, but one thing I love about traveling is spending time in airports. Two things appeal to me: No place can offer as much anonymity as a crowd. And I love to people-watch.
Saturday, I was stranded in the Louisville International Airport for nine hours. I had no distractions—only a view of a grey runway, in-coming and out-going air traffic, no Internet, and only one book to read. So I spent five hours rereading, tweaking, and finalizing my recently finished novel. (It went off to my agent Tuesday. Cross your fingers for me.) Then I watched a variety of stressed-out travelers, overhearing snippets of conversations, noting dialects, body language, and imagining people’s back-stories—all useful material for future characters.
Creepy? Hopefully not. After all, every character we create is a composite of its author and other people the author has met or observed.
One final aside: Carmichael’s Bookstore is in a unique situation. The Louisville Borders has closed, and this small independent store is reaping the benefits. I watched with interest before and after my reading at the constant line of people entering. I assume this is happening in many cities.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Barbara here. Rick has brought up the subject of traveling to research a new book, so I thought I’d continue this theme and provide some research tips of my own. He and his wife are currently in Italy, which brings me to my first tip. First, choose an exotic, faraway location for your next book. Second, set your book in the summertime, or at least not in the dead of January or February. Who wants to see the wonderful statues of Florence while shivering in a parka or under an umbrella? Third, make sure to sample the local cuisine and shops. You want your book to have realism, so readers can feel they are there on the streets. Take lots of photos, so that you’ll have those details to refer to during the later writing process. The grinning spouse in the foreground can be ignored.
Unfortunately I’ve been able to do none of this for my latest book in progress. The next Inspector Green novel, now going by the title THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, is set in the spectacular world heritage site of Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada’s far north. The Nahanni is a world-class wilderness river, which Green’s free-spirited teen-aged daughter has decided to tackle in a canoe. When her group disappears, Green is forced out of his comfortable Ottawa office and out into the wilderness. Those familiar with Inspector Green know this is not an adventure for him, but more akin to a walk into Hell.
I have set the book in the summer, for obvious reasons. The Nahanni in the winter is a frozen wasteland in perpetual darkness. But because of the publishing schedule and my own time commitments this summer, I will not be able to go there personally before the completed manuscript deadline next April. The more research I do, the sadder I feel about this reality. Luckily, I have been on a wilderness rafting trip to another river up in the far north, and can draw on those experiences for some of the feelings, the sense of awe and the experience of wilderness camping. I have sat on a make-shift privy in the middle of an alpine meadow with my trusty turquoise bear horn at my feet, savouring the extraordinary beauty of the glacial mountains and alpine flowers while at the same time keeping a sharp eye open for grizzlies. Without those “gut-level” experiences, I don’t think I could bring the story to life.
Beyond that, I have relied on the amazing amount of information available on the web, in books and in photos, as well as detailed topographical maps from The World of Maps, my local map store. Nowadays, it seems everyone who has canoed the Nahanni has written a blog about their adventures and posted photos to their site. There are even YouTube videos of canoes running each of the many rapids, allowing me to see not only what the scenery looks like, but how the canoe travels in the water and what paddling moves the riders have to make. Extraordinary! Without the web, Google, and the generosity of other travelers, this book could never have been written.
Next time I will post about the numerous connections and contacts I have made since I began this odyssey. All of whom have had their experiences and knowledge to share.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
I don’t want to make anyone feel too envious, but I’m currently in Italy with my darling wife. Before you shake your heads and think, Lucky bugger, you have to realize that I’m working very, very hard, researching my next novel, working my little fingers to the bone, to be honest. Since I don’t know what I’m going to need for the storyline of the book, we have been forced to visit Rome (4 days), Florence (3 days), out and about in Tuscany (1 week), Verona (a night), then Venice (3 days). Anyway, we’re renting apartments and villas throughout, so that besides feeling as if we’re locals, we can do our own cooking using the fine local ingredients. And cook we will, believe me!
Which brings me to the reason for this post. When you’re tired at the end of a long day of sightseeing...err...researching, there’s nothing better for a terrific summer meal than something whipped up quickly and eaten al fresco. What more could you want than a nice plate of pesto? Never had it? It’s originated in Genoa and it’s absolutely fantastic. We’ve served this many times to “pesto virgins” and they’ve all wound up loving it. If you have a food processor or blender, it’s a snap to make. If you don’t, then you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way with a mortar and pestle. The recipe serves 4-5.
2 garlic cloves
2 cups basil leaves, washed, then dried thoroughly
½ cup pine nuts
¾ cup Parmesan cheese (or half Parmesan, half Romano)
²⁄₃ cup olive oil (good quality only!)
1.5 lb fresh pasta (linguine or fettuccine). Use a pound if you’re forced to use dried pasta
1. Put a large pot of water on to boil.
2. Pan toast the pine nuts over low heat until lightly browned. They burn easily. Keep stirring!
3. In a food processor, first chop garlic (you can cook it for a minute in the hot pasta water if you don’t like the raw garlic flavour), then add basil leaves a bit at a time. Scrape down the bowl.
4. Add toasted pine nuts, then cheese and finally dribble in the olive oil. Process only until well blended. Set aside.
5. When the water boils, salt it and add the pasta, cooking it until just al dente. You don’t want your pasta to be flabby!
6. As the pasta is cooking, take out a tablespoon or two of water, add it into the pesto and stir briskly. This will freshen it and add to its “mixability”.
7. Drain the pasta lightly and put it the back in the pot. Add the pesto to the pasta, mix well and serve on heated plates.
Hint: If you have any pesto sauce left over, pour a thin layer of olive on it, then cover tightly. It will keep for 10 days and you can even freeze it.
We serve pesto with tomatoes fresh from the garden, sliced thinly, with a bit of grated black pepper and a pinch of salt. A nicely chilled Soave or Pinot Grigio is perfect with it. For dessert? How about some gelato or tiramisu?
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Friday, June 17, 2011
I thought about the advice above, and it seems sound. But then I thought about my own reading experiences before and after becoming a writer, and it's good advice that I haven't always followed. My reading has been unbalanced and sporadic and led by whimsy. As soon as I had my own library card, I began wandering through the stacks picking up anything that had an interesting title or cover illustration. I checked out and read Proust . . .but passed on War and Peace. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway because I was fascinated by that era. I managed to buy a copy of Cleland's Fanny Hill in a bookstore with no one objecting. But I never got beyond the wonderful opening lines of Moby Dick, although I certainly read Dracula and Austen. I read Jack London and Mark Twain and -- being a Southerner -- Faulkner. In school, famous speeches and Shakespeare. But there are all those other books on the reading lists -- Camus, for example -- that I still haven't read.
I have read haphazardly. I have fallen in love with books and fixated on them. For example, The Day Must Dawn by an author named Agnes Sligh Turnbull. I read it in high school, checked it out from the library at least half a dozen times. A big thick novel, set on the western frontier during the Revolutionary War era, a book with a marvelous sense of place. I can still remember curling up with that book and starlight mints on a Saturday evening. That was my favorite way to read books. I zipped through Gone With the Wind in a weekend -- completely oblivious to the social issues that I should have been concerned about. I read it as historical romance. Now, I suspect I wouldn't be able to get past that slavery thing.
Which brings me to my meandering point or my question about what to say about reading to my class of non-traditional writers in the making. As I have admitted, there are many books that I "should" have read when I was younger, and still haven't. I have more time for reading in summer. But my problem -- and this will make me feel like a hypocrite when I stand before my writing class -- is that right now I'm suffering from nostalgia. I have a pile of new books that I had intended to read this summer. But they aren't what I want to read. I've been reading for research (academic and mystery), and when I settle down with my starlight mints what I want to do is revisit my past. I want to find those books that I loved as a teenager and read them again. This may mean that I'm seeking comfort during a period when the world is too much with me. Or it could mean that I'm seeking clues about what I would really love to write. Or it may mean I don't want to be influenced by other modern writers while writing. Or maybe I'm experiencing aging baby-boomer syndrome. Whatever it means, the pull of nostalgia is deeper than my commitment to read widely and with curiosity.
What I would like to say to my students is that when it comes to reading a writer should follow his or her instincts. But I am not sure this is the best advice to give would-be writers who may not have been exposed to those reading lists and who have never experienced wandering through the stacks. What if they are only reading poorly written books and trying to "write like that"? I'm torn, and your thoughts and advice would be appreciated.
Meanwhile I'm going to track down some of those books from my past. Maybe I'll fall in love again . . .or maybe I won't. Maybe I've outgrown those books. But I'm going to see what happens. I have the winter to catch up on the New York Times bestsellers and give Moby Dick one more try.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I'm going to gloss over the actual move from Chailey Green, England to the "slums" of Beverly Hills because that's a story for another time (preferably one accompanied by copious amounts of wine) but my friend was right. Within 3 months of working as a lowly receptionist for New Line Cinema, I was moved into the international sales and marketing department. There, I read at least two hundred scripts per year and eventually became a freelance story analyst for several major studios. Although the experience didn't turn me into an A-list screenwriter, it did give me quite an impressive Rolodex—but very few friends.
When I transitioned into writing long-form narrative, I discovered that networking primarily for career gain shifted into something far more meaningful. The lunches I enjoyed with Hollywood movers and shakers changed from "what will we both get out of this meeting" to shared war stories from the trenches, moral support and genuine friendships.
This past weekend saw the second California Crime Writers Conference in Pasadena. Jointly organized by the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime Los Angeles, it was fun, informative and jam-packed with terrific panels. We were treated to fabulous keynote speakers, T Jefferson Parker and SJ Rozan who, along with inspirational advice, shared tales of woe and endless struggles that always seem hilarious in hindsight.
These conferences are often costly and it's easy to question the value of splashing out hundreds of dollars on registration, hotel rooms and often, air travel. But I think I have the answer.
As the registration coordinator I did a lot of people watching. I witnessed cyber friends meet in the flesh for the first time and new friendships forged over a breakfast muffin, at the bar and in the book room.
This past year I had been begging a family member to take the plunge and just come and see what the mystery world was all about. For decades he believed he was the only aspiring writer on the planet who had a half-finished novel in his bottom drawer. Imagine my delight when I saw said relative laugh and chat with fellow writers and then tell me that he was determined to keep on writing now he realized his angst and fears were completely "normal." He'd discovered a whole new world. The mystery community is one of the most generous and selfless groups of people I know.
Sometimes networking isn't about working the room (Hollywood-speak) for professional gain, but about something far more meaningful. That discovery that we are not alone!
Monday, June 13, 2011
It was the first time I'd sung the work, and wow! It was fun. Terrific, dramatic fortissimos, dropping without warning to ppp; explosive chromatic scales leading into romantic lyricism – the musical effects of a whole Italian opera fitted into a requiem.
Brilliant fun, yes. But as a mass for the dead? The first time I listened to it, I was seized with a longing to get hold of the composer and say, 'Now, Signor Verdi, that's all very well. But why don't you sit down, read the words, think about them very carefully and then write it again.'
I was talking to an aspiring writer the other day about criticism she'd been given about her manuscript. She was a bit indignant. 'All right, it's sort of a cosy, but I wanted to have something really dramatic at the end. They said the problem was that it wasn't appropriate.' She described the scene, which wouldn't have been out of place in one of the gorier Patricia Cornwell novels.
It clashed with her story, the way I feel Verdi's music clashes with the words. Consistency isn't always easy and it's hard, too, to be objective about your own writing. But if what you end up with is a schlock ending which readers who enjoy hard-boiled will never reach because they don't read cosies, while fans who thought they were reading a cosy are vowing never to read another of your books because they're horrified, it won't do anything for your sales figures.
On the other hand, it didn't do Signor Verdi, a lot of harm, did it?
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Thursday, June 09, 2011
I am (fingers crossed) 50 or fewer pages from the end, and, as I have said previously, I don’t like knowing the endings of my books before I reach it. (I’m a no-surprise-for-the-writer, no-surprise-for-the-reader guy.) So, when asked for a synopsis and the first 100 pages of a novel I am currently rewriting, I went back to work, reading synopses online and e-mailing fellow writers for insights and examples. “Keep it short,” wrote one fellow writer. “I shoot for three to five pages. There’s less to criticize before reading the novel that way.”
After writing two synopses, I have learned they pose several challenges: you want to create the same level of tension a strong jacket description offers (often, they are written in present tense); you want to clearly illustrate the protagonist’s conflict(s); you want to share a little of the novel’s voice (via dialogue, if possible); you want to illustrate that you can and will resolve the central conflict in the end, yet at the same time, you do not want to give away the book’s ending.
The synopsis I completed is roughly three pages. It took nearly nine what-to-leave-in-what-to-leave-out hours. But…
Again, it was a good exercise on many levels. I teach thesis writing during the school year. “What is your paper about?” I routinely ask students. “Tell me in two sentences or less.” Likewise, writers are often asked to describe their novels by would-be readers and/or reviewers. You have to be able to encapsulate your book orally in two or three sentences. Readers aren’t looking for long-winded rambles. Your oral pitch better not present one. Condensing a 400-page story into three pages is good practice. Additionally, I didn’t offer a conclusion to the novel in my synopsis. I led the reader to the final scene(s), leaving plenty of room for me to maneuver and be the first reader to discover how the book will end.
Overall, writing the synopsis got my synapses firing. Now, it’s on to the climactic scene.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Barbara here. Having spent the last ten days traversing the continent – Halifax last weekend and Victoria this weekend – I’m still spinning. What time is it? What day? And where am I? That’s why I find myself at 12:45 a.m. trying to write a blog. I suddenly realized it’s Wednesday, and my turn. Luckily my body still thinks it’s in Victoria, hovering around 9:45.
From all the blogs and Facebook posts, you’d think every mystery author in Canada was at Bloody Words, and there’s some truth to that. I love Bloody Words. Not only does it shine a rare spotlight on our own Canadian clan, but it’s small and intimate, and over the years it has helped to fashion us into a close-knit friendship circle. Every year I reconnect with fellow writers, readers and mystery lovers, and every year I meet new ones. This year in particular, because it was held on the west coast, many eastern writers and readers could not attend, and I missed them. But I got a chance to meet some west coasters who had never been able to attend before. Writers I had read or met on Facebook, people who felt like friends but only cyberly. I hope they felt that same sense of being among friends, of finally being part of the clan.
This fostering of community is the great beauty of Bloody Words. Over twelve years it has been building and strengthening our connectedness, and I think it’s one of the reasons why Canadian crime writing has flourished. Without this network of friendship, inspiration and mentoring, I suspect few of us would have persevered and been successful.
All of us owe a huge vote of thanks to the vision and bloody-minded persistence of Caro Soles and her Bloody Gang, and to all the Bloody Gangs who have taken up the torch over the years, in Toronto, Ottawa and Victoria. It’s extremely hard work to organize a conference, with the only payment being the pride of a job worth doing and the gratitude of the mystery community. I hope there will always be Bloody gangs willing to step forward, in Halifax, in Calgary, in Winnipeg and Montreal, so that authors and mystery lovers from all corners of the country can share in the community.
Because it’s a damn big country.
Tuesday, June 07, 2011
I’m sure most of the Type M readers have attended mystery-related conferences, too, and I’d like everyone’s opinion on what constitutes a good panel at one of these things and some ideas for a panel that you’d really want to attend.
So, okay folks, dish!
Sunday, June 05, 2011
Miss me? I wasn’t away for long, now was I?
When Rick asked me if I’d be the guest blogger this week here at Type M, I was happy to oblige. Nice to see that the blog hasn’t fallen into disrepair since my departure.
I’m writing this in lovely Victoria, British Columbia where I am for Bloody Words, the Canadian mystery convention.
When I heard that Bloody Words was to be held in Victoria, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to pay a visit to Nelson, B.C., the inspiration for the fictional town of Trafalgar, B.C. in the Constable Molly Smith novels.
On May 10th, I set off from Ottawa, Ontario. The trip began on a low note when I found the side window of my car smashed and th GPS stolen. However, the window was soon repaired and a new GPS installed.
Since then I have battled floods in Manitoba:
isolation in Saskatchewan:
dinosaurs in Alberta,
tricky mountain roads in British Columbia,
To finally arrive in Trafalgar.. uh Nelson.
Here's a picture of the big black bridge Molly Smith and John Winters are always driving across:
Front Street, the patrol of which on a Saturday afternoon, Smith thinks must be the most boring job in the world:
The patio at Big Eddie's Coffee Emporium:
and the view from Smith's apartment on a rainy day.
Finally, the view from my hotel balcony in Victoria.
Vicki Delany's newest novel is Among the Departed, fifth in the Constable Molly Smith Series from Poisoned Pen Press. She is also the author of the Klondike Gold Rush series and standalone novels of suspense. Visit vickidelany.com, She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave and can be found on Facebook (www.facebook.com/vicki.delany) and twitter @vickidelany
Saturday, June 04, 2011
I've just started a new Alafair book and I am desperately trying to get the first 100 pages in order for my editor by the middle of June. I have 122 pages written, but only about the first 50 are in shape. The rest need a lot of filling out, tying together, and rearranging. You know how it is.
When friends and family hear that a new book is underway, one of the first questions I get is, "What's the title?" Most of the time I don't know, at least not until the book is nearly done. I have a working title that invariably changes as I go along, often several times. Commonly authors don't get the final say on what the title of their novel will be. The publisher makes that call. Publishers have the idea that they know what will sell a lot better than some introverted, socially inept author does. Maybe they do. Being introverted and socially inept, I wouldn't know.
My publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has the same power to change titles as any other publisher, but thus far I've been lucky and they have used my titles for all five of my books. I started my series with an eye-catching title, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, which I have to tell you I never in a million years expected they'd actually use. I just wanted to give the editor pause and make her look at it. She did, and much to my surprise kept the title. It's done me well, too. The only problem is that I've been trying to live up to it, title-wise, ever since.
All my titles are taken from expressions indigenous to Appalachia and the American Southwest in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Fortunately for me, I grew up hearing them used in common speech all the time, so I've got a million of 'em. Sometimes I'm proud of myself for coming up with interesting, colorful, yet obscure regionalisms, like The Drop Edge of Yonder. Then about two months before the book came out, I discovered that another writer, Rudy Wurlitzer, was using the exact same title on his upcoming book! I'm sure he was as amazed as I was. I discovered later that Rudy grew up in Texas. Quelle suprise.
All this is by way of saying that all kinds of things that you never anticipated can pop up when you choose a title. Not long ago I was out with friends, including Nan Beams, who is in charge of actual book production for my publisher, when someone asked me what I'm going to call the new novel.
"At the moment," I say, "I'm thinking The Wrong Hill to Die On," (for which idea I have to thank Indiana author Denisa Hanania). General approval ensues as well as the usual blank stares from those who don't speak Ozark, so I'm feeling pretty good until I see the look of dismay on Nan's face. "Don't you like it?" I ask.
"I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to fit that on the spine of the book," she says.
Now, there's something I never considered. I never knew I was torturing the jacket designer with my long titles. After some teasing, Nan told me it's no problem, because what else is she going to say? "Just write a real fat book so it'll have a wide spine," she suggested.
Later that night as I lay in bed, I'm thinking that at least all the words in my proposed title are short. It's not like I called it Madame Anastasia Behrendorff Closely Apprehends the Situation. Just as I'm drifting off to sleep, it occurs to me that that is a great title. A series featuring Madame Anastasia Behrendorff, the Vocabulary Queen. She Always Knows the Right Thing to Say.
It'll have to be a real fat book.
On a more serious note, one of my sisters lives in Joplin, MO. She and her family escaped destruction, but they are all very much involved with post-storm service work. The Joplin schools have lost all their books and are soliciting K-12 and teacher resource books. The high school is completely destroyed. They're looking for fiction or non-fiction, and any they can't use they plan to give to their local National Guard unit. If you have books they could use, new or used, or know anyone who might be interested in sending books, you can send them by Media Mail to: Deb Marshall, 1203 Spartina Drive, Florissant, MO 63031. I'm doing my best to get the word out.
Friday, June 03, 2011
But what I wanted to talk about today is characters and clothing. Do clothes make the man or the woman? I’m working on an academic project about clothing and crime in American culture -- which brings me quite naturally to crime fiction. I’ve been re-watching classic crime films and flipping through the mystery novels on my bookshelves to see what characters are wearing before settling down to do all this properly with coding sheets in hand.
Certainly, clothing choices in crime fiction are influenced by genre (e.g., noir tough guys in trenchcoats and femme fatales in high heels). But then it becomes a matter of individualizing the character, defining his or her personality. Remember the Columbo episode when his wife replaced his battered, wrinkled raincoat with a new one? I haven’t tracked it down yet, but as I recall the lieutenant looked buttoned-up and uncomfortable. He kept forgetting the new raincoat whenever he took it off. His brilliant mind – or at least his concentration – was affected by this major change in his wardrobe.
That brings me to what happens when a writer dresses his or her character. Of course, the writer needs to take into account basics such as sex and age. The writer also may think – as he ponders the character’s lifestyle – that class, race/ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation are relevant. Then there is the matter of the character’s eccentricities, superstitions, and aspirations. Add to that occupational dress codes, the region of the country, the season of the year, and the day of the week (casual Friday at the office or church on Sunday?). And then there’s the matter of whether the character is a slob, obsessively neat, absent-minded (forgot to pick up his cleaning), has children (too busy getting them dressed to worry about what she’s going to wear), color-blind (always wears black and white to avoid mistakes), frugal (shops at consignment stores or Goodwill or sews leather patches over the elbows of his jacket), overweight (clothes never fit over belly), allergic (always wears natural fibers or itching because her husband did the laundry with the wrong detergent)..
Once I started thinking about this, I wondered how I or any other writer manages to get our characters dressed – or undressed. What does the character wear to bed? Nothing? One of her husband’s shirts? A couple who wear matching pajamas? A woman who wears a black silk negligee even when she’s alone?
What occurred to me is that if I spend more time looking in my characters’ closets and thinking about their clothing, I probably will find all kinds of interesting backstories. For example, in real life, I have a rabbit fur jacket that my mother (now deceased) gave me because she bought it and then never wore it. I’ve had that rabbit fur jacket for years. I’ve packed it for three different moves. It’s hanging in my closet right now. I can’t wear it (for both ethical and aesthetic reasons), but I also can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Do my characters have stories like that about the clothing, shoes, jewelry in their closets? I suspect they do.
What about your characters? What’s in their wardrobes? Does he need to shop for socks? Wear boxers or briefs? Does she have a bathing suit that she’d need to lose 30 pounds to ever fit into again?
And by the way if you have recommendations of books and movies in which writers make particularly effective use of clothing, please send them along.
Wednesday, June 01, 2011
This year, actor Brian Dennehy gave the commencement address at my school. I have sat through many. Few are memorable. This one was. His message was direct, brief, rich with metaphor, and clear. He told the class of 2011 to do three things: think; get off your duff and do something; and then give what you’ve learned away.
The speech reminded me an awful lot of the writing community. In fact, based on the crime writers I have known, Dennahy’s suggestions could serve as a mantra.
In graduate school, I had a professor once tell me you could take one of his mainstream novels and put the chapters in just about any order you want and come out with nearly the same result. A crime novel is not like that. “That’s why most crime writers are pretty manic,” he told me. Would my wife agree? Surely she would, but that’s an aside. Mystery novels force writers and readers alike to think. Never has the statement “I write 24 hours a day. I spend two at my desk” been more true than in the crime-fiction realm.
Dennehy spoke about men and women who chose to “do something, for free, anything” during the depression. He praised those people like my grandfather who “got off their duffs and did something when no jobs were available.” I have far too much respect for my late grandfather (one of 17 children who came to Maine from Quebec in search of mill work; worked in a mill from age 12 to 65; volunteered for WWII because “of all this country gave me”) to compare his plights to anything we writers suffer. Most of us have day jobs we enjoy and find writing rewarding in a plethora of ways, but in fact few of us do it for the money, of which Dennehy and my late grandfather would certainly approve.
And finally, when Dennehy mentioned one should feel obligated to give away what one has learned, to offer it for free, I couldn’t help but think of my mystery-writing brethren. How often have I reached out to fellow writers for advice, answers to research questions, or just discussion of books (or sports teams)?
This is a tight-knit community, and I think I heard its mantra from an unexpected source last Sunday.