Friday, February 12, 2016

How Much of an Escape

Last year in Albany, New York, we had days when there was nothing to do – nothing one could have been expected to do – but stay inside and look out. Last year, we stocked up on cocoa, made huge pots of soup, and anticipated our TV or movie-watching binges, and the books we would read when even adults had "snow days". This year, we have so little snow that I'm embarrassed to mention it when I talk to my relatives in Virginia.

Snow seen through screened window
this morning.

Harry's bored reaction to weather
in Albany this February.

Believe me, I complained along with almost everyone else in the Northeast when we had major snowstorms in mind-boggling succession last year. When I was reduced to tunneling a narrow path from front door to steps out onto the street, I would have been happy to see all the snow disappear. But this year, this lack of snow is spooking me. I know it has gone some place else, but that doesn't make me feel better. This is February in upstate New York. We should have snow – measurable, boots required, weather alert, go-home-before-it-starts snow. I should be complaining about the hard, icy chunks shoved across my driveway by the snowplow clearing my street.

I shouldn't be thinking about my Hannah McCabe books because it hasn't snowed. McCabe, a homicide detective, inhabits an Albany in the near future. I set The Red Queen Dies in 2019 with temperatures in the 90s in late October. A few months later, in What the Fly Saw, a massive January blizzard is headed up the East Coast toward Albany. The murderer strikes during this storm. The weather in McCabe's world is erratic and troubling. Now, the weather in my world is, too.

The thing about writing is that sometimes what one writes as fiction becomes reality. Or, at least close enough to reality to be reason for concern. My two McCabe police procedurals take place as a presidential election is looming. McCabe's father is a retired journalist/newspaper editor. They have several occasion to discuss the candidacy of a third party candidate named Howard Miller who is appealing to people's fears because his campaign begins to intrude into their lives.

Yes, freakish weather has happened in the past. Yes, politicians have often used fear- and anger-laden messages to ride into office. But having spent some time thinking about the future, it feels as if it is coming faster than I expected. My fiction may soon reflect reality.

Not that my fictional world is a dystopia nightmare. I'm not writing science fiction. But I thought by moving a few years ahead and creating an alternate universe Albany, I would be setting my stories in a world that was different from our own.

The lack of February snow in Albany and the 2016 presidential race have gotten me thinking about what I do as a writer. Or, I should say, thinking more deeply about what I do. I am at that point when I need to update my bio, take new author photos, and do some work on my website. I also should have a look at my neglected Facebook page. I know I should send out a newsletter, do the blogs I was going to do on my website about my research, and send out related tweets. I've been thinking about how to present a consistent image as a writer – not just because I read a book about how this is a useful marketing strategy. I have reached a point in my career when having a clear perception of who I am as writer will make my choices easier. I have a list of writing projects that I would love to do – ideas for books and short stories with my current protagonists, a proposal out there for a new series, a historical thriller in progress. And, of course, there is my nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice. And a couple of other nonfiction books ideas that I've thought of while writing that one. I have enough potential projects to keep me busy for years. So the question of what to do next – decided in part by discussions with my agent and my editor.

Actually, the larger question is how to write. What do I want to put out there in the world? Do I want my books and short stories to be an escape for readers? Of course, I do. That is why I began reading as a child and one of the reasons I love curling up with a book as an adult. I went through a period as a teenager when I gobbled up romance novels. I still enjoy a good romance. I belong to Romance Writers of America. In my Lizzie Stuart series, there is an overarching love story. But the few times I've thought of writing a romance, the plot morphed into a hybrid romance/mystery. I'm a criminal justice professor. That is reflected in what I write.

I provide escape and entertainment. But I also need – want – to deal with social issues. I provide historical context. My books offer fictional springboards for discussions. That's what I do best.

But if I could write books with happy endings, I might be less concerned when there is so little snow this Albany winter and a presidential campaign season that would make Howard Miller smile.

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