Saturday, July 30, 2011
Thursday, July 28, 2011
This tiny brief appeared in the Bangor Daily News’ “Nation” section one Sunday back in 2006. I remember reading it while eating cereal and reaching immediately for the scissors. Like many writers, I keep a file of news clips such as this one, always looking for items that catch my attention. Usually, these are stories about the human condition, about people teetering on the edge. These stories make me wonder about the state of humanity and wonder what led these individuals to this point and where they will go from here.
I gave the clip above to my students this week as an illustration that there are story ideas everywhere, and how nothing is off limits—a writer just needs to make the material her own. By that, I’m not talking about stealing a storyline. I’m talking about finding something that intrigues you about the story, taking that nugget, and running with it—using the material of real life to generate the material of your fiction. Consider my questions regarding the story above.
1) What does the mother say to the boy the next time she sees him? Is she angry? Grateful? A story from her POV would be fascinating.
2) Where was the brother when this occurred? What was his relationship with the boyfriend?
3) Who is pushing to have the boy tried as an adult? The D.A.? Does that person have a child? Wouldn’t it be interesting if s/he did and their son or daughter was in the young killer’s class?
4) Where is this family in ten years?
My creative writing workshop students are working on this. Try your own hand at it. And feel free to forward any fascinating news briefs my way (email@example.com).
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Monday, July 25, 2011
Still, we were plucky about it. We had arrived with a box containing a preposterous number of books and with Scottish stoicism sat outside in our woollies to read them, while M Pogue the neighbouring farmer drove past on his tractor towing a thought bubble saying, 'Les fous Anglais!' Not unreasonably - suggest I should do it in similar temperatures at home and I'd laugh in your face.
The book box is the key component of the French holiday we take most years. We start compiling it in the dark days of January, dreaming of French sunshine (see above), and make judicious alterations as the summer approaches. It's a serious challenge to get it right. It must be assembled like a good menu:the amuse-bouche - elegant, neat, witty; the starter - light in nature, but opening up new ideas; the main course - weighty, serious; the dessert - a wicked temptation, deliciously frothy; coffee with brandy, a sophisticated meditation.
Among my highlights this year were our own Peter May's The Black House, a dark and atmospheric crime novel set in the remote Western Isles of Scotland, and Louise Penny's brilliant Bury Your Dead. The Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography of Katherine Graham of the Washington Post was a serious read, as was AS Byatt's The Children's Book, short-listed for a recent Man Booker. Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw was a thought-provoking starter and with Daisy Goodwin's My Last Duchess for dessert I was ready to end my literary meal with Margaret Attwood's The Door and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. A feast to match any with a Michelin star.
Another writer once said to me that she wished she could undo her head, to escape the maelstrom of ideas permanently whirling around inside. My weeks in France are my chance to do just that, when I have time to refresh my mind with other people's ideas, and to me it's vital. I come back with my head clear, ready to focus more objectively on my own work.
And maybe the weather was bad, but the food and wine were as wonderful as ever and my love affair with France, which started when I was ten years old, is undiminished. A la prochaine!
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
“Why not all fiction?” one student asked.
“Why not fiction, then poetry?” another asked.
The answer is simple: writing poetry always improves your fiction, so we not only make time for it; we begin with it.
At Bouchercon several years back, Dennis Lehane told an audience that he wrote poetry as writing practice, flexing his descriptive muscles. After all, the well-placed metaphor or unique description often serves as the proverbial picture that saves the writer a thousand words. Pick up anything by the late Ed McBain to see what I mean. (I often ask myself how he creates a complete character in 10 words, when the same sketch would take me 50.)
Three-time Shamus Award winner and author of the Moe Prager series (and one-time Sunday guest to this site), Reed Farrell Coleman studied poetry at Brooklyn College with David Lehman, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ashbery before discovering the detective fiction class. Coleman has claimed it was like thinking you’re decent “at basketball, then getting your ass kicked by Michael Jordan.” How can poetry improve your prose? Pick up one of Stephen Dobyns’s Saratoga mysteries featuring P.I. Charlie Bradshaw. Dobyns, far more well known for his award-winning poetry than his mysteries, is a fine prose stylist whose “The Church of Dead Girls” is listed as a must-read by Stephen King in “On Writing.”
Fiction writers can enhance their work by practicing poetry. The form forces one to embrace brevity, clarity, and the artful use of imagery. If you’d like to try your hand at practicing all three, the activity below is useful:
Read “Mirror” by Silvia Plath, then try your hand at a personification poem. Choose an object from this list or come up with one on your own—cell phone, car, a favorite book, computer, lipstick, writing desk, lamp, TV, coffee mug—and write the poem in the first person from the object’s point of view. What would the object say to you? How would the object characterize itself? Your goal: drop the title, then read the poem to someone. Can they guess the object?
Remember to be brief. Good luck.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Barbara here. In these hazy, hot days of summer, the work ethic often takes a back seat to crisp white wine spritzers and languid patio chats, but while most of the world snoozes, the Ladies Killing Circle has been hard at work on a new project. First a brief historical note. The Ladies Killing Circle began twenty years ago as a group of six aspiring Ottawa writers looking for a critiquing group. After a few years of critiquing each other’s stories, they decided to put together an anthology of crime short stories by local women writers and pitched it to an area publisher. The inaugural LADIES’ KILLING CIRCLE was published in 1995, and was so successful that six other anthologies followed over the next 13 years. Besides garnering numerous nominations and wins for Best Canadian Short Story at the annual Arthur Ellis Awards from Crime Writers of Canada, the anthologies helped launch the solo writing careers of some of Canada’s most successful female crime writers, including the six members of LKC itself – Mary Jane Maffini, Joan Boswell, Sue Pike, Vicki Cameron, Linda Wiken and myself.
The last anthology, appropriately titled GOING OUT WITH A BANG, was published in 2007, and since then we've resisted all pleas to make another. Time constraints, other writing commitments, and new challenges are all factors. But we’ve watched the rise of the ebook with interest, particularly the ease with which unusual formats like novellas and single short stories can be made available on the web for minimal fees, opening up new ways to make old stories accessible again.
A few months ago, we idly mused about the possibility of packaging our stories from the original anthology into a mini ebook. A sort of ebooklet. The anthology is now out of print and its wonderful stories are lost to new readers. In addition to containing the very first story most of us had ever published, it contained a story from Mary Jane Maffini that won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Short Story that year.
The idea caught fire, and before the month was out, the stories had been selected, a cover had been designed, and we had found someone with the expertise to convert our files into the required formats and upload them onto the ebook sites. The result is LITTLE TREASURES, a collection of seven short stories, one by each of us as well as the title story by Audrey Jessup, an original LKC member who sadly passed away in 2003.
The process was not without challenges, the first being to find the original digital files of the stories. All of us had gone through several computers between 1994 and 2011, and some of the stories were lost in the moves or stored on unreadable floppy disks. Several were in archaic software like Word Perfect 5.1. Fortunately, I still use Word Perfect, albeit the X3 version which can convert back and forth to Word. Also fortunately, Linda Wiken had an old computer lurking in her basement that had a floppy disk drive. Between us, some of the stories were salvaged, but others had to be scanned and still others re-typed. An interesting lesson on the vulnerability of our technology.
A second challenge was the pricing of the ebook. The print anthologies ranged between $14.95 and $18.95, as do our individual novels. Since this is not a full-length book, we planned to price it much lower, perhaps around $3.00 to encourage new readers to take a risk. We quickly discovered two things about the ebook marketplace. First, there are billions of short stories, novels, novellas, and collections on the web. Billions. The chances of getting noticed, indeed of even getting found, in this cluttered marketplace are next to nil. Second, in their attempt to get noticed, writers have lowered their prices so much that full novels are being offered for 99 cents. 99 cents! For a work that would have taken at least a year to write. Even if one were to sell 50,000 copies of that ebook – improbable at best - one wouldn’t make a living wage.
The only ones likely to profit from this bizarre marketplace, where supply so far outstrips demand that hard work is valued at next to nothing, are the few big name authors, and the platforms themselves like Amazon and Apple. Hopefully a new equilibrium will sort itself out and new channels will be developed like online review sites, which help interested readers wade through the flood of offerings. Meanwhile, there is a lot of very good material available for pennies on the internet.
Including, very shortly, LITTLE TREASURES by The Ladies Killing Circle. So watch for it. It’s a bargain.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Of course, cutting taxes or eliminating them while at the same time promising not to reduce services is something that just can’t be done. Mayor Ford’s strong suit has never been mathematics and finance. He proved that as a long-time councillor before he got himself elected to the “big chair” at city council.
One of his first orders of business was to bring in an outside company do a complete review of every city department to find the gravy that could be sopped up. He also eliminated an unpopular vehicle tax, froze property taxes for a year and wiped out the city’s contingency funds while doing this in order to balance his first budget.
Now, the chickens have come home to roost. There is a budget deficit of nearly $800 million for next year. Very little gravy was found, surprise, surprise (we’ve had several other gravy expeditions over the years in Toronto).
What to do? And more importantly, why is Blechta telling me this on a writers’ blog?
Simple. One of the city’s operations that was looked at is the Toronto Public Library. Here’s some history you should know before we go further: it is the most utilized library system in North America. It is the envy of a lot of other big city library systems on the planet. They know what they’re doing and usage increases every year. The city is getting a huge bang for their tax buck here.
So what do the politicos propose doing? Why cutting the library’s budget, of course, something that’s been done a many times in the past. Everybody has to take their lumps, don’t they? Why should a library be different? They’re also proposing closing some branches. How many and where? They won’t tell us that (they probably don’t know). But here’s the real kicker: the company doing the review (KPMG) has also proposed hiring a company to run the library. It’s not clear whether the library would be sold or a company brought in to run it. Either way, the proposal is to privatize.
Huh? There are companies prepared to run libraries? Here’s something else you should know: the library’s board ran afoul of our good mayor almost immediately when the first budget consultations were ongoing early this year. Rob Ford doesn’t forget people who cross him. Here’s a quote from a recent radio interview: “I have more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons (a Canadian coffee and doughnut chain).” Boy, there’s a good reason to do a hatchet job on a public institution if I’ve ever heard one!
So here’s what I think is really going on. By privatizing the operation of the library, Ford gets to punish the board, drop a lot of cost and force a lot of employees out of a job. The first thing you’ll see with an outside operator are much smaller, unprotected jobs and all kinds of fees. Want a book? You pay a fee. Want to use a computer to research something? You’ll pay a fee. Want to use a room for a meeting of your literary club? Fee.
Another thing: what will be the rules of operation? How many new books will the operator be forced to purchase? The purchasing budget has been dropping steadily over the past few years. It will get worse. They won’t purchase my novels (or as many copies as they have in the past) and the same thing will happen to the rest of us. I’ll bet library use will drop – and this is at a time when school boards in Ontario (our province) are closing their libraries at alarming rates. When only a library will do, where will those students go?
This promises to be an ugly fight. I’m sure our mayor hasn’t read a book in years. He’ll tell you he doesn’t have time, but we can guess the truth: he’s never been a reader. If that is indeed the case, he’ll never see the value of having a world-class library system. "I don’t use it, so why should my tax dollars support it?"
Now here’s the real reason I’m telling you all this: be prepared for it to happen in your community. Be ready and be willing to get active. If you live in Toronto, there’s a petition you can sign: ourpubliclibrary.to. Do it today.
Your children and grandchildren will thank you.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Friday, July 15, 2011
I fear I may have given my child (uh, book) a rocky start by creating confusion about when it was available. Anyone who contacted the publisher has been able to order it (as I explained on my website), but it has been invisible. The book by the way is titled Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave. And I hope I can keep my poor child from drowning. You see aside from its awkward debut, I set my book in a real place -- the Eastern Shore of Virginia -- and then instead of using the setting only as backdrop, I really used the Eastern Shore in the book.
The story happens in 2004, and an early scene was inspired by a newspaper article that I read when I was doing research. The article was about hit-and-run automobile accidents involving migrant laborers happening then on the Eastern Shore. The book has a subplot running through it about migrant labor on the Eastern Shore. My protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, has lunch with someone who works with migrant laborers. And the subject creates some tension during the weekend gathering because the friends that Lizzie and her fiancé, John Quinn, are visiting own a large farm and have next door neighbors who are a struggling farm family. Did I mention the next door neighbors are African American (inspired by an exhibit I saw in Baltimore about the disappearing black family farm and a class action lawsuit and the fact my family once owned a small farm).
And then there's the issue of "Big Chicken" and environmental pollution from chicken processing plants on the Eastern Shore. But these social issues come up in the context of a "Big Chill"- type gathering of Quinn's old West Point buddies to celebrate a birthday. So there's also a lot of talk about their lives. The group even spend a pleasant day (although a hurricane is on its way up the coast) visiting Chincoteague and Assateague Island (home of the wild ponies), And Lizzie enjoys her visit to the Barrier Islands Center. Of course, she does make some observations along the way about things like tombstones in a soybean field and that becomes a part of another historical subplot about a murder that I made up. . . but, hey, it's a mystery. Question is, how the folks on the Eastern Shore are going to react to the fact that I didn't just use my setting as a lovely backdrop.
The Eastern Shore isn't the only watery location in the book. Chapter One opens with a murder in Newport, Rhode Island. And another character claims to have spent time on Vinalhaven, Maine, prompting Lizzie to look up the island and comment on what she reads. I spent two weeks in November on Vinalhaven, and it was perfect for what I needed in the book. For the record, no murders happen on Vinalhaven. Lizzie even comments that she would like to go there to visit.
I also spent two weeks on the Eastern Shore doing research. I had a great time there -- charming small towns, delicious seafood, and I stayed at a wonderful, pop culture-inspired bed and breakfast during my second visit. But I kill some people on the Eastern Shore and not all of them are visitors. And I fear I may have made life difficult for my child (uh, book) about to go out into the world by not describing my setting in glowing terms that would have gotten me invited to speak up and down the peninsula and gotten the book into every bookstore and shop on the Eastern Shore and in nearby Richmond, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach as a "fun read" for visitors to the Shore.
In my last book, You Should Have Died on Monday, I also used real places -- Chicago, Wilmington, North Carolina, pre-Katrina New Orleans -- but what I forgot is that in Chicago and New Orleans, you expect noir and murder and nothing bad happened in Wilmington.
Anyway, the end of the month is coming. I've sent out copies of Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave to bookstores, shops, and the library on the Eastern Shore where I did some research. Soon I'll know if my child is going to get a friendly reception in its birthplace. This weekend, I'm going to get an essay about the locations in the book and some photographs up on my website. For the record, I highly recommend a trip to the Eastern Shore. I'm a native Virginian, and the Shore is one of Virginia's treasures (the reason I wanted to set a book there).
Just make sure you aren't going there for a birthday gathering of your fiance's old West Point Army buddies. Did I mention, I also get into the impact of war on warriors? But there is a lighter soap opera thread . . . except the character who is a former soap opera star was once kidnapped by an obsessed fan and . . . Oh, my poor child. What did I do to you?
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Two weeks ago, I posted regarding short story writing and openings in particular. I have been working sporadically on this untitled story, and the opening has undergone two rewrites.
This was what we started with:
When the motion sensor was tripped near the Crystal View River, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote looked at the digital clock 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 while birch tree.
Re-reading it now, two weeks later, I don't much like it--it's slow, the details I have offered (the truck brand, for example) offer very little and could have been learned by looking at Google Images. The other thing is that my goal was to pose a question. It takes a long time to get to it. The opening sentence is 42 words, after all.
Here's the the next version:
When the motion sensor tripped, Peyton Cote cursed. The U.S. Border Patrol Agent had fifteen minutes left in a miserable nightshift. Her uniform shirt was sweat-soaked, her lip was split, and this call would definitely lead to unwanted overtime above and beyond the mandatory ten hours she had already logged.
"Got that?" a voice barked over the radio.
She got it. Knew the location well. Had been there twice this month already.
Another Goddamned deer or kids smoking dope. The fact that the call had come over the radio at 10:45 P.M. bugged her. For more serious matters, the call would come via cell phone, eliminating listeners--those recreational ambulance chasers as well as the more sinister, those who owned radios for more lucrative reasons. This was Northern Maine, after all, and the prescription-drug trafficking had not relented.
But this call was over the radio. The tripped sensor was a deer, no doubt. Except it would still take an hour and a half to prove the damned assumption right.
You can tell that the scene is coming into focus a little for me. For starters, the opening line offers more immediacy (and hopefully more tension). In subsequent lines, I tried to add clarity--not all but some of those pesky who, what, when, where, and why details (I began literary life as a newspaper scribe and still teach composition classes, after all)--as well as sensory detail (the sweat) in an effort to let readers feel what Peyton does (old-fashioned "showing"). The ten-hour shift information is also an attempt to paint detail but also establish this story as a procedural, too, and to do that early. After the first paragraph, dialogue ensued, but I never ever felt engaged with the story. For example, the cell-phone-vs-radio information was relevant but killed the flow.
This the third (and most recent) version is as follows:
The 9mm rounds, fired through a silencer, sounded like quarters dropping to the snow around her.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote rolled to her left, felt her shoulder strike the base of the pine, and moved like a turtle on its shell, burrowing through the snow, until her back was pressed firmly against the base of the thick trunk.
A slug hit the trunk above her, and the tree shook, light snow falling to the ground around her.
How the hell had it come to this? May I see your license and registration? The stupid bastard had even given it to her, watched as she took it to her Chevy Tahoe, and then fired a round through her windshield.
A chunk of the tree, maybe four inches from her skull, leapt into the air, tumbling end over end, landing softly in the snow.
There were three of them. That much she knew. She also knew she had to keep the off her--maintain at least thirty yards.
She leaned out and fired once, twice, and pull back behind the tree.
"Marty. Jesus, look at the blood. Marty say something. Oh, Jesus, Tommy, look at the blood. I think she...what about our mother? Marty, no. What about Mom?"
"We can't leave her out there," a different voice shouted. "She knows. This ends now. It has to."
The gunfire had died out. She knew they were approaching. Afternoon sun was fading. (It got dark before four this far north.) She leaned to her right again, spotted a short squat leather jacket struggled through the three-foot-deep snow. Could hear him wheezing. "Stupid bitch. I'll finish her for you, Marty."
He was weaving and muttering as if delirious. Stoned? Drunk?
Again, she wondered about the overreaction. A shootout? For a traffic stop?
She leaned put, settled the site on his left kneecap and squeezed.
His left leg went back as if if kicked by a horse. He did a 360, landed on his back in the snow, and screamed.
She couldn't see the third man and instinctively pulled back in behind the tree, hunched low, and heard her own breath rasping in and out. Where was he? Her head swiveled, both hand on the 9mm, gun held chest high, barrel pointing up straight out in front of her--not textbook technique, but right not she didn't care. What she cared about was making it home to her son, Tommy. A single mother to a nine-year-old, her priorities were ironclad.
I think this one is much stronger. I don't know the antagonists (and I think it reads this way, too, right now). By the time I finish it, though, I'll know the plot and will go back and flesh those characters out. But I like the progression of Peyton here. The monologue and questions are establishing her voice, conveying back-story, and (again, hopefully--you're the real judge) additional tension. And there are two conflicts at play in this version: the shoot-out (external) and her internal struggle as a single mother (internal). Hopefully, readers also find tension in Peyton's internal battle. After all, she shouldn't be thinking about anything but defending herself at this time. Yet as a single mother, there is always an additional responsibility that her male counterparts don't have--and many don't comprehend.
That's where I'm at. Love to hear what my Type M colleagues and readers think.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Anyway, the other evening, thoughts of being somewhere cool for a few hours led my wife and I to take in a movie. Only one thing really caught our eye: The Lincoln Lawyer which is based on the very fine novel of the same name by Michael Connelly.
Books brought to the screen don’t generally cover themselves with glory. Remember that horrible attempt to bring Sara Paretsky’s iconic V. I. Warshawski to the silver screen back in the early ’90s? I’ve tried to erase that from my memory. Kathleen Turner was a good choice as the title character, but what the hell were they thinking when they wrote that script? How did Paretsky deal with the embarrassment of what they did to her creation?
Don’t get me wrong. Adapting books to the screen can be done with excellent results. The problem seems to be that screenwriters, directors and producers think that they can just add and subtract whatever they want. It’s as if they feel that since they bought the rights, everything now belongs to them to do with as they please.
There are certainly things to consider and problems to solve when adapting a novel. It has to be streamlined, most subplots thrown away and often large portions of the work left out. The problem is that the adaptor has to understand the basic idea of the novel, or you’re going to get something that might have some of the same names and maybe bits of the plot, but the end result isn’t going to resemble anything like what you started with. Fans of a book who go to see the movie will be very disappointed, and if the movie they’ve “made up” from the story isn’t good cinema, it will have a very short run.
I’m here to tell you that The Lincoln Lawyer does not fall down on these points. It is a good film (if you’ve never read the novel), and if you have read it, the screenplay captures a lot of what Connelly wrote. (Surprisingly, he had nothing to do with the script.) Yes, they had to cut out a lot, but what remained held together well. The title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, is excellent and the supporting cast well-chosen, and they ultimately make the movie what it is: a very enjoyable way to spend an evening – and stay cool at the same time.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Book titles – yes, it's that time again, when I start sweating blood over what I'm going to call my next book. I know there are other authors seem to find titles the way you find the candy in the tray when you've put the money in the slot machine, but I'm not one of them. Just mention the word 'title' and my mind goes blank.
I could ask my husband. The only trouble is that he doesn't read my work until it's a proper book, and he doesn't want me to ruin the suspense so I can only tell him the barest minimum about it. Even so, he came up with my favourite title, Lying Dead – my third book. I told him it was about a woman who had led a deceitful double life, and was found dead in a forest, and there it was, just like the slot-machine candy. The only thing was that it led to a most macabre experience: a neighbour who was found lying dead with one of my books at their bedside…. Yes, it was. I'm a bit nervous about asking him again.
And titles are so important nowadays. I've come up with titles I've liked, but it's the marketing department making the decisions these days. They know, they tell us, what title will immediately make readers want to buy the book. Not that they can find it for us, of course: we have to go on guessing what sort of title it might be, until we find the right one. Or collapse into a whimpering heap, whichever comes first.
The only thing is, I'm just not absolutely sure that the title is as vital as they say. (Please don't tell my editor I said this; I think they have punishment cells for heretical authors.) If I ask my husband to bring the book I'm reading downstairs, and he asks what it's called, I never know. 'It's by so-and so,' I say, or sometimes, if I haven't been much impressed, 'It's the one by my bed.'
Still, it's got to be called something. So if any of you out there have a really sexy idea about a title for a book about revenge, don't feel shy about sharing it. It could save me some sleepless nights.
Saturday, July 09, 2011
Wednesday, July 06, 2011
Barbara here. There are times in a writer’s life when events conspire to defeat us. It could be job commitments, or visiting relatives, or that summer dinner party that seems to be days in the planning. When writing that all-consuming first draft, momentum and continuity are important. I am currently writing the first draft of the ninth Inspector Green novel, entitled THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, and it is proving especially difficult because there is so much I don’t’ know. So the momentum itself is constantly being interrupted as I flip through reference books or run endless Google searches, particularly for pictures of the things I am trying to describe. Unfortunately my old stand-bys – Google street view and satellite view – don’t work in the far north where much of the story is set. So in order to maintain my momentum, I leave blanks or make things up, to be verified later once the first draft is done.
This past week, however, lots of things have happened to take me from my writing. Most of them have been wonderful, like cottage visits with my children and my 92 year-old mother. Whenever I found myself stressing over the neglected first draft, I asked myself – isn’t a writer entitled to a holiday too? What is life worth, if there is not time for those distractions?
Some distractions, like the dog with the ball in my picture, or the call of a loon on the lake, are fleeting and fun, meant to bring a smile and a sense of calm and balance to the creative process.
Some distractions, however, I can do without. This morning I nearly set the cottage on fire trying to cook some bacon in the broiler, and it took much of the day to clean up the aftermath. Those chemical fire extinguishers make an awful mess! On the plus side, no one was injured and the only casualty was an aging stove in that “almond white” colour popular in the early 1970s, which was well past its due date and had no self-cleaning capabilities. It will not be mourned.
But my writing day was shot. That scene I’ve been working on in fits and starts for a week, will have to wait another day. This blog too has suffered. It’s being written at the eleventh hour, after two soothing glasses of wine, and it is likely barely coherent. But at least it’s getting written, because unlike my wretched novel, its deadline is tonight at midnight. And it’s a lot easier to spin out a 500-word blog during the lazy, wine-soaked days of summer, than it is to write an intense and riveting scene for a novel.
I could say that even though I haven’t put pen to paper on the novel, I have been working on it in my head. That is often half the work – figuring out next steps, untangling plot problems or fleshing out characters while taking the dogs for walks, emptying the dishwasher, or twiddling my thumbs in rush hour traffic. But the truth is, that takes mental focus, something in short supply when a dinner party needs planning or the cottage is burning down. No, for today I had just better give up the hope of a coherent string of thoughts.
Tuesday, July 05, 2011
So you probably want to know how the trip was. In a word, it was fantastic. My wife, whom I have taken to calling my “linguini” (a pun on "linguist") learned to speak Italian and served as my able translator. Actually, that’s giving her short shrift. In nine short months, she became fluent in Italian, and was pretty darned impressive throughout the trip.
My job was “logistics”. I read a ton of books about the cities and areas we visited and suggested what we might want to see based in the time we had available. I also had another reason for handling this facet of the trip: research.
I’m currently playing around with a novel that will be a sequel to next May’s The Fallen One, a book whose main character is an opera singer. This is the book I went to Paris to do research on late in 2008. As I completed TFO, I realized that my character’s story wasn’t yet completely told, hence this new novel. Where better than to send an operatic crime fiction novel than Italy, the birthplace of the art form?
The already completed part of the story has a few passages set in Rome, about which I was purposefully vague, having never been near the place before. As we made our way around the Eternal City, I had my writer’s hat firmly on, soaking up the ambiance, the feel of the places I am going to use. Armed with a good camera, I also took a lot of reference photos of appropriate buildings where my characters might live and visit, restaurants where they might eat, etc. And then there’s Rome’s opera house (a ho-hum structure on the outside which is all we saw) which got the full photo treatment.
A later part in the story will take place in Venice. I won’t bore you with comments about what a magical place this city is, but it has several features that I am dying to take advantage of when I come to write that part of my novel. My concern is to do it justice. So many writers have blazed the same literary trail down which I’ll be travelling. I know I won’t do it better, but will I at least be able to do something that’s true to life and captures even a little bit of the ambiance of this singular place on our planet?
I only have about 800 photos and even some video. I won’t bore you with that, but I am attaching two of Venice as a sort of teaser about what is going to happen there.
This is a place we’re already dreaming about visiting again.
I posted our favourite pesto recipe while we were gone (my one blog posting). For those who are interested, I clarified some of the instructions so that it makes things a bit more straightforward and understandable. Once you’ve made pesto a time or two, you can literally whip it together in the time it takes to bring the pasta water to a boil. By the way, we usually use linguine or fettuccine, but any pasta works. Click HERE to go to the recipe.
Saturday, July 02, 2011
Friday, July 01, 2011
But then come my "summer blues". Aside from the heat when I try to snuggle under the covers, there are birds chirping and dogs barking and neighbors mowing . . . you get the picture. But last night I was really exhausted. I'd spent 5 days in New Orleans with the Sisters in Crime team attending the American Library Association conference (more about that soon). When I got home, my sleep pattern was even more out of whack. So I was delighted to finally get eight hours sleep.
Well, not really eight hours. Towards the end, I had slipped into that half sleep that some of you may have experienced. Mind ticking along, working on writing ideas, trying to solve a problem. That, alternating with dreams that you're directing. But still close enough to sleep that you don't want to let go. I think of it as a part of the writing process. The reason writers keep note pads on their night tables and jump up in the middle of the night to rush to their computers.
This morning I was so intrigued by the subject of writers and sleep that I did some research to see what articles might pop up. I found a fascinating one titled "On the Edge of an Abyss: The Writer as Insomniac" (by G. Johnson, Virginia Quarterly Review, 66 (4), 1990, 643-655, for those of you who feel the urge to read it). According to the author, insomnia has been a common affliction of many well-known writers. Real insomnia -- not my seasonal disorder. D. H. Lawrence wrote in a poem, "nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep." His fellow insomniacs include Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickson, Charlotte and Emily Bronte (who walked around and around the dining room table until they were tired enough to sleep), Joseph Conrad, and Joyce Carol Oates. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a 1934 essay, "Sleeping and Waking," detailing his trouble with sleeping. Ernest Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald about his problems sleeping after the critics panned his Green Hills of Africa in 1935. But Virginia Woolf, who also had trouble sleeping, thought that she was more productive when she was wakeful.
The author of this article looks at the research on insomnia and concludes that what these writers and other writer-insomniacs may have in common are some personality characteristics which include both anxiety and a need for control. Some of the writers seem to have developed bad sleep habits over time. Some of them did attempt to self-medicate (with alcohol and drugs) to get a good night's sleep.
Given what we know now about the psychology of sleep and how much the body needs sleep to prevent all kinds of maladies from high blood pressure and diabetes to deterioration of eyesight, I have to say I'm willing to trade some writing time for a really good night's sleep. I think I get much more done when I "work" with my eyes closed and then jump out of bed and head to my computer. How about you?