Friday, July 30, 2021

Out of Season

 






I have this silly morning glory plant that thinks it's a perennial. It's not. It's an annual. It thinks it's purple, too, instead of the usual bright blue. But there it is. Against all reason and the laws of nature. I'm amazed and I love this tenacious little rebel.  

This glorious little flower and Barbara's post put in mind of writing out of season and under trying circumstances. I have no idea how I managed to write when I had little children and a truck-driving husband who was gone a lot. After Don bought the truckline, everything was easier. Our joke was that after we were married twenty years we decided to try living together. 

Becoming a writer requires a great deal of tenacity. I think that's why I developed a quota system: five pages a day, five days a week. As I grew more successful the challenges of raising kids were replaced by the reality of 21st century marketing demands. There is always something that threatens to sabotage my writing. Email is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. 

Looking back, I don't know how I survived without Google. It's a pleasure to find quick answers to research questions. I used to rely on interlibrary loan. It involved lengthy delays and when a precious book arrived I would get suckered in to reading the whole thing. I read a whole book on fitting horse collars just to get one paragraph right for Come Spring.  

My microfilm collection is extensive. I use it to write academic stuff. I even have my own microfilm reader. It's not a printer, so I have to take some reels to our university library to print out hard copy. 

One of the biggest traps of becoming serious about writing is insisting on writing under ideal conditions. It simply has never happened for me. I would love to say I always write in the same place, at the same time every day, but in fact the only thing that's stable is my output.

For me, the quota system works for first drafts. Barbara and I both do a first draft in longhand. When I transfer this to the computer, the requirements are different. I type in a chapter a day, try to incorporate my notes, and straighten out plot issues. 

I have a peculiar method of outlining after I've written a chapter in longhand. I type a summary of the chapter with the setting at the top, the page span, and most important, the chain of events.

Ah, that chain of events. If nothing is actually happening in this summary, nothing is happening in the novel. It's deadly dull.  

This outline is printed on pink paper. Pink for promise. I tack each chapter on a cork strip. The pages are then replaced with yellow ones, because the light is beginning to dawn and I try to fix the mess. When these pages are replaced with blue ones, it means I'm going after language. This manuscript is now true blue. As good as I can do. 

Like my little morning glory it's my own way of doing things. Despite all logic or reasoning. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Mystery Writers Who Host Podcasts

 

Back in April of last year I wrote about how I’d discovered podcasts. Since then, I swear the podcast world has exploded. Or maybe I’m just more aware of them. I listen to a number of them on a fairly regular basis. Today I’m going to talk about ones hosted by authors. This is, by no means, a complete list. These are the ones I’ve found over the last year, either because I was a guest on them, or I heard about through the grapevine.

Behind The Page: The Eli Marks Podcast – author John Gaspard, who writes the Eli Marks mysteries featuring a magician, hosts this one with Jim Cunningham. This season they’re focusing on “The Ambitious Card”, the first book in the series. Each episode consists of interviews with people involved in the world of magic followed by Jim reading a chapter of the book. Interviewees have included Dick Cavett, Suzanne the Magician, the Amazing Kreskin as well as lots of others. It’s an interesting podcast and, even though I’ve already read the book, I’ve enjoyed listening to it. Show notes for each episode include a lot of additional material like pointers to YouTube videos of magicians performing and other links related to the episode. It’s a great way to learn more about the magic world and sample the Eli Marks books, which are all great, by the way.

Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction – DP Lyle, MD, is a physician and an award winning author who writes the Jake Longly series as well as books on Forensics for fiction writers. From this podcast, I’ve learned about identifying skeletal remains, carbon monoxide poisoning, toxicology and a number of other interesting things.

The Cozy Corner with Alexia Gordon – In this podcast, Alexia, “a physician by day, crime novelist by night” interviews authors of cozy and traditional mysteries. She writes the Gethsemane Brown mysteries. She does a nice job interviewing people. I’ve appeared on the podcast and really enjoyed our conversation.

Cozy Ink Podcast – Leah Bailey hosts this one. She interviews cozy authors as well. Yes, I’ve appeared on this one, but I also enjoy listening to interviews with other authors. As with Alexia’s podcast, I’ve learned about a number of books that I didn’t know existed and have enjoyed reading. 

Destination Mystery – Host Laura Brennan interviews mystery authors of all kinds. Yes, I appeared on this one in 2018. The last episode I see was in March 2020 when she interviewed Jennifer J. Chow. All of the interviews are worth listening to.

These last two aren’t podcasts hosted by authors, but authors appear on them reading their short stories. I’m talking about Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Fiction Podcast and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s Podcast.

I’m sure there are a lot of other podcasts out there hosted by mystery authors. Please, tell me about them. I’ll add them to my listening list.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

A public service announcement!

by Rick Blechta 

I will be on vacation this week and next.

See everyone on July 10th -- with holiday photos!

Stay well.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Believable Behavior




 If you’re going to be a writer, I believe you need to be a keen observer of your surroundings.  I’m not just talking about places and things and the appearance of people (who eventually become characters in your stories), but human behavior. 

Like when you give a book talk, you read the room.  Last Thursday night, I gave a talk to one of our many regional Rotary Clubs. This one was small in number, about twenty, the majority the audience being senior citizens.  

Most of the time, I lead with a joke that, if you haven’t heard it before, rocks the room.  Studying the faces last night, I knew that joke would fall flat on its backside. Instead, I launched with a self-depreciating description on my agonizingly long journey to being published.  

They thought that was pretty funny.   Okay, with this crowd, my pain was their comedy.

As I was speaking, I watched their faces to see if they were remaining engaged or if I was boring them into catatonia.  I’m pretty certain I did well because when I finished, they hit me with a flurry of excellent questions. 

One of them was the question I get most often, Is it hard to write in the first-person as a woman?” 

Yes it is.  I never planned to write more than one book that featured Geneva Chase.  It involves a ton of research, most of it online, of course.  When you’re writing mysteries, you look up everything from poisons to guns to escort services to muscle cars.

When writing about Geneva Chase, I also look up hairstyles and cosmetics, as well as women’s shoes and clothing.

You know how once you’ve looked something up online you receive an onslaught of related ads?  When I do my research, my computer screen is festival of weirdness. 

But I also listen to the way women talk and walk and how they act.  It’s a fine line between being observant and being creepy. 

So, let’s pivot for a moment, and talk about irrational behaviors.  When I’m writing, I try to describe behavior that’s believable.  The last thing you want is your readers to shake their heads and say, “That would never happen.”

And yet, we see irrational behavior all the time.  Most recently, people who refuse to get the Covid vaccine. Full disclosure, my wife and I jumped all over it when we had a chance to get the shot.  I was certain that everyone else would as well.  I was so certain, that I have my hotel booked and my airline ticket purchased to head to New Orleans for Bouchercon in late August.

Now, because there’s still a fairly high percentage of people refusing to be vaccinated, I’m having second thoughts.  The folks from Bouchercon sent an email to all participants that to be safe, the Mayor of New Orleans is asking people to mask up when they’re inside because of the increase in cases of variant infections, a danger in particular to those who are unvaccinated. 

The most basic human behavior is self-preservation and the safekeeping of those most close to you.  

I guess you could call this kind of irrational behavior a plot twist, but its one that strains believability. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Mama Was Right

Like my blogmates and all of you, I've been trying to carry on in this new pandemic world. Yesterday I finally admitted something that even adults hate to admit -- "Mama was right."

 Okay, there it is. I said it. She was right when she said, "There will be days like this one." Meaning some days -- even some months and some years -- are going to suck big time. You gotta expect that, and when it happens you gotta find a way through it. Okay, the past 18 months have proven her right about that. Most of the time I resisted curling up under the covers and whimpering. 

Mama was right about getting something I had to do and doing it. Keeping the puppy I decided to get from destroying the house helped to focus my attention elsewhere. Mama was also right when she said I should eat healthy food, get outside and get some fresh air, and not sit there at my desk all day. She was even right when she said I should go to bed and get some sleep instead of staying up reading or watching old movies half the night.

 I've always complained about getting up early. I've done that since the first day of first grade, and I've designed my adult life so that I've been able to avoid getting up early most days. One of the perks of teaching at a university is that eventually, as you move up the academic ladder, you gain some control over when you teach your classes. Mine are in the afternoon. So, prior to the pandemic, I was staying up late because (a) I thought I was a "night person"; (b) I've always gone to bed late because I thought I couldn't sleep if I went to bed early; and (c) I had planned my life so that I was doing my writing in the evening and after midnight. But it turns out that I may be more my mama's daughter than I thought. 

When I was a child, I used to wake up even earlier than I needed to because my parents were up and chatting cheerfully as they made breakfast and got ready to leave for work. Who could possibly be cheerful when it was still dark outside in winter and barely dawn even in summer? It turns out, there's a lot to be said for waking up at dawn and getting up and getting the day started.

I only discovered this when I finally admitted that if I was going to completely housebreak my 8 month-old puppy (who was still having "accidents"), we both needed to be on a schedule. It wasn't his fault, it was mine. So, on this new schedule, he has to go out last thing at night and first thing when he wakes up. At night, I have to take him out before he tucks himself into his bed or try to get him up to go out when all he wants to do is sleep. To make this schedule easier on both of us, I've started going to bed when he is ready. 

In fact, it's becoming the new norm for our little pack -- including the cat who naps most of the day except when she is following me around -- to be in bed, lights out, before midnight. And awake at dawn and up and moving.

So mama get's another "I told you so".  On the days when I've had a good night's sleep and gotten outside at dawn and taken the dog for a walk in the evening after his day at doggie daycare, I feel better. I feel even healthier when I take my vitamins and eat my veggies and some protein. I'm not as grouchy, and I remember to smile and make friendly conversation.

And this has to do with writing because on days when I not tired and hungry and disgruntled, I'm actually getting a lot more done. When I get to bed early and sleep well, I actually dream again -- not pandemic nightmares, but instead the kinds of dreams I used to have, related to the books I'm working on.

 Last Saturday, up early, I put the dog in the car and we drove out to a suburban park to have a walk along one of the rambling paths. As we walked, I had an opportunity to observe the responses he elicited when he greeted the people we met as if each were a long, lost relative. Happy leap toward them, tail wagging, up on back paws if they reached down to pet him. Those animal-human interactions illustrated a social science concept I had been reading about -- and my well-rested brain went "click" and I finally had the last chapter of the book I've been working on about dress and appearance. I did a mental happy dance. Puppy and I trotted over to the farmer's market and bought blueberries and healthy dog treats. I also bought a mini coconut butter rum cake. But when we got home, I had only one slice before texting to offer the other half to a friend. I put the rest of my half into a freezer bag, and it is still there in the refrigerator, waiting for another occasion to celebrate. Mama would approve.

 And she would nod when I admitted that my healthy life hacks -- including mopping the kitchen floor more often -- are making me a better and more productive writer.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

How I've Learned That Newton's Three Laws of Motion Perfectly Apply to Writing a Book During a Pandemic

 I (Donis)  actually went out to lunch with a friend last week (!) and we spent a great deal of time discussing how this pandemic has simply screwed up EVERYTHING. And I do mean everything. One of my husband’s doctors ordered a lithotripsy, a minor medical procedure, for him a couple of months ago, and husband dutifully got all the clearances from his primary doctor and his cardiologist, all the blood tests and x-rays ... forty days ago! We have not heard anything about when the procedure is supposed to happen. He called the doctor’s office a dozen times (I swear I am not making this up) and they never called back until he threatened to come down there and sit in the office until he got some answers. Which he did - and of course while he was gone, the nurse finally called our home number and I talked to her. Turns out the doctor is having trouble getting an OR scheduled for lithotripsy at any of the hospitals where he has privileges. Seems non-emergency procedures are so backed up at local hospitals because of the pandemic that it’s taking weeks and weeks to get anything scheduled. They could have at least kept us informed about what’s going on (grumble grumble). 

As for my pandemic-era writing, don’t even ask. There are days that I spend an hour starting at the screen and produce nothing. When that happens, it causes me great agony and despair that I can’t whip up the wherewithal to do what needs to be done. On such days I sit at my desk for an hour staring at a pad of paper, or at the computer with my fingers poised over the keyboard, and … nothing. It’s not even that I can’t think of anything to write. I am always writing in my head, and have done for as far back as I can remember.

I have author friends who have full time jobs and small children and broken arms and still manage to pound out two books a year. And one of the main tenets of writing that I propound when I teach a class is that it doesn’t matter whether you feel like it or not, you just do it. 

My writing regimen has become a perfect illustration of Newton’s three laws of motion.

Inertia: An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force. i.e. if you write every day, your momentum will keep you writing. If something happens to make you stop and you miss a day, or two, or however many, you tend to remain at rest and its very hard to get started again.

Force: The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied. i.e. the bigger your manuscript grows, the easier it is to write on it, at least for me. It’s like a snowball gaining speed as it goes downhill.

Action and Reaction: Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first. i.e. the harder you work on the MS, the faster it speeds toward completion, like firing up a jet engine to make the plane take off.

Right now I’m slowly gaining speed (Law 2) However, half an hour ago we found out that the lithotripsy is scheduled for Monday, and considering the state of my pandemic-era will power, I fear I’m about to be acted upon by an unbalanced force and fall back into a state of inertia.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Summertime non-post

This is going to be one short post, because I have no time to think of anything intelligent to say about writing life. It's July, it's hot out, and Covid restrictions have recently been lifted in Ontario, allowing us all to finally bust out of our prison cells and go to stores, restaurant patios and family gatherings. Since my last post, I have acquired a new car, tried to ready my old one for sale, and spent ten days at my cottage with two of my children and their families, each family with a toddler. Does anyone get any writing, or indeed much coherent thinking, done with a two year old and three year old (who has given up her nap) to play with? In between shopping, cooking, eating, and washing up, we have had lots of fun, but there's been little spare time to check emails, let alone get any writing done for this blog or my current novel. 

My spiffy new car

Not that I'd have it any other way.

My current novel is in shambles. I am writing in fits and starts, with so many gaps between sessions that I can't remember where I am, what's happened earlier, and where I might be going. I write my first drafts longhand, and I have not had time to type out and print out what I've written, so I have nothing but scribbled pages to refer to. At the moment I am stealing moments of writing time during the children's nap (when they nap) and I am reminded that this is how I wrote much of my doctoral dissertation decades ago. Much of the rest of that was written once I had put my children to bed. Nowadays, however, I can barely type a whole sentence by that hour of the night. No wonder I can't seem to get any momentum going!

My favourite writing spot

But I know there will be time for writing, when they are all gone home, the cottage is quiet again, and I sink back into my familiar, mundane routine. 

But for now, I'm going to bed, because the house will be alive and hopping in a little more than six hours. 


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Three things that bug me

By Rick Blechta

I guess that I’ve just been in a grumpy mood lately, but there are a lot of little things that I am finding irritating. I’m going to deal today with a few that involve words so I’m at least doing something that fulfills the mandate of Type M.

Maybe it’s just around Toronto, but I strongly suspect this is happening everywhere. Real estate is now sold by “teams.”

We drove north of Toronto for a brain-clearing walk in the woods yesterday. On the way we passed through an area that is rapidly being developed. All over the place were “for sale” signs and billboards that was being represented by teams. There is a lead name and then the t-word, as in “The Joe Blow Team.” I guess the reasoning is, that since Joe is very successful and well known for his real estate-selling skills, but they want to let you know that you may not be dealing with him, but one of his team members which is laudable. However, it strikes me as being overly precious.

While we’re on that subject, people who work in stores are now “team members” too. Either that or they’re “sales associates.” Want to work for any chain store or restaurant? You now are applying to become a team member. I guess being a team member or a sales associate is to make bottom-level employees feel more important, empowered, and valued — even if they’re still only being paid minimum wage. It’s all window dressing. Some bright boy or girl came up with this idea and every business has now jumped on the band wagon. Nothing has changed, of course, except the employees’ designation. Is anyone being fooled?

My last focus of complaint today is the one that really drives me nuts. Ever noticed how everything is now “curated?” The worst example I’ve seen of this was on a downtown Toronto convenience store that’s part of a chi-chi boutique hotel. They had a sign in the window trumpeting the fact that sold “a beautifully curated selection of convenience items.” I always thought that museums had the corner on curation. Now the guy who orders chips and pop in your local corner store has become a “curator.” It’s probably the most precious new phrase that’s crept into our vocabulary.

Do you have any current phrases that are bugging you? Let us all know. Come on, don’t hold back. We want to know!

Monday, July 19, 2021

Matching the music to the mood

(Image courtesy of Pixabay)


I was at a loss over what to write this week but then, while staring at that little cursor winking as if daring me to come ahead and try my best, my playlist switched to one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful pieces of music ever created for celluloid.

For some reason, Michael Kamen's theme to the TV mini series 'Band of Brothers' affects me deeply. In fact, there is a track on the album in which the voices of his daughter Zoe and singer Maire Brennan accompany the main theme and...well...I'm not saying I was moved to tears, I am from Glasgow, but there was definitely something in my eye.

Some authors don't like music as they write, some can't listen to anything with lyrics but I am one of those scribblers who uses it to assist in the writing process. I will even go to the length of selecting exactly what type of music depending on what I am writing.

Band of Brothers has been on the playlist while putting some finishing touches to an historical thriller I am writing on spec (publishers - please contact my agent!)

Unlike the series, the book is not set during World War 2 but the tone of Kamen's music is just right for the events in my story.

I also listened to the music of Fernando Velasquez, particularly his score for A Monster Calls, and Roque Banos' Alatriste.

You may have guessed that it is predominantly film and tv music I use because that is my preferred genre and I can become very evangelistic about it. I have been listening to it since I was no higher than the on/off switch on the record player but, more importantly, it covers such a wide variety of styles and approaches that I can find any mood accompaniement I want. I insist the people working in the field are among the most talented composers today because they can turn their hand to virtually anything.

I find that selecting the correct sound, or even composer if they have a distinctive style (John Barry springs to mind here), helps me hit the right tone or pace for whatever I'm writing.

Thunder Bay, my first Rebecca Connolly book, was written to John Williams' scores for The Fury and Jane Eyre as well as - poseur alert! - Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, which was kind of on the nose given the subject matter but its sense of dark mystery was just right.

The next two in the series, The Blood is Still and A Rattle of Bones, were predominantly soundtracked by Bear McCreary's work for the TV series Outlander. The storylines of both books hark back to events surrounding the 1745 Rising in Scotland so it seemed apposite.

Debbie Wiseman and Rachel Portman were my go to composers for the fourth book, Where Demons Hide, due out in the UK next year. The tone of this one is somewhat lighter and they had just the right touch, tinged with a bit of darkness, that I needed. I also used The Dead Zone - Michael Kamen again - and The Changeling by Ken Wannberg, Howard Blake and Rick Wilkins.

My favourite composer is Jerry Goldsmith and every one of the titles above was written to something from his extensive backlist. Whatever I need - fast-paced, exciting, moving, eerie, romantic - I'll find something that fits the bill. (And as if on cue, one of his tracks - The Edge - began playing as I wrote this paragraph. Movie moment right there).

It has to be admitted that people do tend to zone out when I bang on about the subject. In fact, there will be people who perhaps have clicked away before now. I get that, I totally do. I'm like that when people talk about sport (any sport). Not sport movies, of course, because I love them. I know - go figure.

I told you I was evangelistic on the subject, even to the extent of doing a weekly radio show for a hospital radio station in Glasgow (Radio schedulers, please note - I am available to do it professionally!)

If you are interested, it's on Southern Sound every Saturday at 4pm UK time. 



Thursday, July 15, 2021

Community

I’m always amazed at the sense of community I feel when I engage with other mystery writers (or writers from other genres, for that matter). This week is no exception.

I’m launching a young writers program, a summer institute for teens. Getting this program off the ground and airborne during a global pandemic hasn’t been easy, and I have lots of people to thank, among them –– my Type M colleagues.

When I put out the call for guest speakers, Rick, Frankie, Tom, and Barbara (and others) immediately offered to help out and support young writers. I wish to thank them all publicly, but also to continue a thought shared by my agent, Julia Lord, who led off the speaker series. When asked what she enjoys about her job, she immediately spoke of this sense of community, telling our young writers how she took a risk by leaving film to enter the literary field in 1985 and finding help in so many unexpected places. Hers was a story of fellowship.



I like uplifting stories, especially when I’m hoping to get young writers to pursue the literary arts. I know –– anyone reading this post knows –– the publishing business is fickle, bottom-dollar-driven and requires relentless tenacity. But within it, there are great stories to read and tell, and even better people.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

In A Relationship With My Air Conditioner

 

You may have noticed, at least I hope you did, that I missed my post two weeks ago. I was out of town for the first time in a year and a half. For my first trip outside of Los Angeles County where did I choose to go? Seattle, which experienced record high temperatures while I was there. On the hottest day it was 110-115 degrees F depending on where you were in the area. That is not, let me repeat NOT, normal for the area at any time of year. A couple lanes of I-5 had to be shut down because the pavement buckled. It took a few hours to straighten that out. 

Mt. Rainier


It was incredibly hot in my mother’s house. We played games like taking an indoor thermometer around various parts of the house and seeing which room was the hottest. One of the upstairs rooms won at 105 degrees F. That wasn’t even on the hottest day. We pretty much didn’t want to know what it was on that day. We also visited various stores, noting which ones had the best air conditioning. Big Lots and JoAnn were the clear winners here.

I was going to put candy outside and see how long it took to melt, but I was just too hot to care. Besides, the local news did a number of experiments for us. They noted how long it took shredded cheese, an ice cream sandwich and various other things like that to melt. I believe it was 90 minutes, longer than I expected. They also tried baking chocolate chip cookies on a tray on the dashboard of a car. That was a several hour project, but was reasonably successful.

Fans and portable air conditioners were pretty much nowhere to be found. Luckily, my mother had one of those units you put in a window so that kept one room of the house down to a mere 80 degrees during the day. Needless, to say, we didn’t do much outside except in the early morning. One of the items we saw on Facebook was someone from the area declaring they were in a relationship with their air conditioner. Hence, the title of this post.

I’m still glad I made the trip. We were there for my mom’s 99th birthday and had a very nice visit. Just wish it hadn’t been quite so hot. The mountain was out for almost the entire week we were there. That’s Mt. Rainier for those who don’t know what that phrase means. It’s 66 miles from Kent, where I was, but is visible from there something like 90 days a year. Couldn’t find the statistic, but that’s in the ball park.

We flew from LAX to Sea-Tac, which was an interesting experience. I was a little nervous about getting on a plane. Didn’t need to show proof of vaccination or get a COVID test. Every seat was taken and everyone had to wear a mask for the entire trip as well as in the airport. That turned out to be not as bad as I expected. It was a pleasant flight both ways. On the trip back to LAX, Los Angeles required that we fill out an online form basically acknowledging L.A.’s rules once we got home. When they first started that, it was to make sure that people knew there was a 14-day self-quarantine period. But, when we flew, that quarantine period had gone away and we just acknowledged that, since we were both fully vaccinated, that we would monitor ourselves for symptoms.

California had fully opened when we left, which meant that all restaurants could be at full capacity and vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks inside or outside except on public transportation. Washington state didn’t fully open until the day we left there, but they were pretty open when we were there. I admit it felt a little odd not wearing a mask in a store, but somehow not as odd as if I’d been in my home state.

All in all, it was a great trip. I’m glad we went, but I’m very glad to get back to more reasonable temperatures. 

 


In other news, for those of you who are attending More Than Malice, I’ll be participating in the author speed-dating event on Thursday, July 15, 4 pm Pacific/7pm Eastern. The event lasts an hour. I don’t know exactly where I’ll be in the lineup, but I’ll have 1 minute to tell everyone about my books. I’ve done this in person, which is incredibly tiring because you’re basically doing your spiel in a noisy, crowded room 20 times. This seems easier. Just hoping the internet gods smile kindly on my connection.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

More on creativity

by Rick Blechta


Just under this post is one by Tom Kies, and I strongly suggest you read it. Not only is it excellent, but my post this week is riffing off it.


For longer than I can remember I’ve had people telling me how creative I am. 


I find it sort of embarrassing, actually, since I was brought up not to be conceited and being singled out for praise makes me feel as if I am being conceited if I acknowledge it.


Identifying first as a musician — since I’ve been at it by far the longest — a certain amount of creativity has to be acknowledged, otherwise you wouldn’t be much of a musician. Every musical phrase, every note to be honest, has to be created which is a thoughtful process if you wish to do it well.


But too much music can become a problem. It did for me.


When I was 38, after doing music seemingly 24/7 for 20 years, I burnt out. At that point, I was still teaching full-time in schools as well as conducting a high-end ensemble at the Royal Conservatory on Saturdays, but it began taking a toll on me psychologically. My wife, also a musician, suggested I find something else to do in my spare time. She knew I couldn’t walk away from my two jobs, but she also guessed that I needed some form of hobby or interest that had no musical component.


Easier said than done. I spent several months trying to figure out what that might be. Eventually I came to writing, something at which I’d always been pretty good. I wrote three interconnected baseball-themed short stories that I’ve thankfully lost track of. The characters were interesting as were the plots, but the writing itself was, shall I say, underdeveloped.


After reading a few books on how to write and pulling out the notes from a university creative writing course I took, I sort of got better at it.


I decided to write a mystery short story. Six months later, I realized I was no good at this mainly because my short story was 315 pages. I got up the nerve to show my novel to a few people, got some positive feedback, then found an editor to help me.


But midway through this process, I realized how happy and content I now was. My daily musical jobs didn’t bother me as much. I was no longer feeling burnt out. In fact, every night I couldn’t wait until the boys were in bed so I could get down to my created world.


And that, my friends, wraps around to what Tom said at the end of his post. Feeling creative and indulging it — no matter what it might involve — does something good deep inside us. In fact I can’t think of a single friend who has some sort of passion in life that isn’t also pretty darn happy.


Tom is so right.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Creativity


 There’s a theory that everyone is born with in innate sense of creativity.  As babies grow into toddlers, and toddlers grow into school age children, they have within them a sense of adventure and curiosity.  As they discover and learn, they take great joy in creating, whether it’s coloring, drawing, painting, singing, dancing, or making castles out of Legos. 

That same theory posits that as we grow into adulthood, we’re often urged to forget our creative side and conform.  Buckle down, do what’s necessary, make money.  

But that creative spark, though dampened, lives on in all of us.  It may come back out in the form of a hobby, tending a garden, making a special dinner, or redecorating a room.

This weekend my wife and I had an outstanding dinner at the house of two friends of ours.  In addition to a delightful meal, the conversation was thought provoking.  We talked about food (of course), home remodeling, a smattering of politics, watching your adult children evolve, and ghosts.  Yes, ghosts.

We also had a very interesting discussion about creativity.

We can save our discussion on ghosts for another blog.

Being of a certain age, we all had former lives and are all redefining ourselves.  One of us was a concert pianist who performed all over the world.  Her husband was a noteworthy magazine publisher.  Now they own a boutique hotel here on the coast, in a historic little town right on the waterfront.  They’ve redecorated, upgraded, installed a 21st Century computer and reservation system, and began a marketing program that includes sophisticated usage of social media. 

Additionally, they buy fixer-upper homes, make them look pretty, and sell them, moving on to the next project.  

They’ve traded one set of creative skills for another.  

My wife was at one time a very successful market research analysist who had done work for major corporations all over the world.  She’s retired now, and during our discussion, wondered what her creative superpower might be. 

During our earlier discussion, we talked about her enjoyment of genealogy and how it led to her discovery of a brother she never knew she had.  It’s an amazing story that I may share on another occasion.  But the conclusion we reached was Cindy’s creative superpower was in her curiosity.  She’s a discoverer—an explorer. 

Mine is that I’m a crime novelist and I make stuff up.  Being a novelist has always been a dream of mine.

I read where the definition of creativity is: Transforming your ideas, dreams, and imagination into reality. 

An article from Huffington Post cited a recent New Zealand study which says that “engaging in creative activities contributes to an “upward spiral” of positive emotions, psychological well-being, and feelings of “flourishing” in life.”

The Pacific Standard Magazine cited another study conducted at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro on college students that says that “those who reported feeling happy and active were more likely to be doing something creative at the time.”

When I think about it, the happiest people I know are the ones who are creating and/or exploring—trying new things. 

So, what do you do to get your creative spark fired up?

I take a walk around our neighborhood or up to the beach.  I find that by the time I get back, I have a fresh perspective on what I’m currently working on.

Here are some other suggestions I found on the web:

Keep a journal and jot down ideas as they occur to you.

Exercise.

Take a media break.

Read a book.

Don’t be afraid to play.  Thomas Edison’s notebooks and Alexander Graham Bell’s prototypes suggest that they played while working. 

Take a break from your daily routine.

Try to think about things and look at the world around you in a different way. 

And finally—I like this one the best—dare to dream!

Friday, July 09, 2021

Watching The Sopranos

Frankie here. When I was thinking about my "brand" as a writer, I came up with the tagline that appears on my website -- "Every Crime Deserves Context."  I used that on the colorful "mystery writer" business cards that I ordered online a few years ago and intended to pass out at crime fiction conferences and other events where I was "wearing my fiction writer hat." 

I still have a large box of those business cards that I ended up not using. The problem was every time I started to exchange one with another writer or to give one to a reader with whom I was chatting, I found myself also reaching for the dull black and white business card provided by my university that identified me as a criminal justice professor and included my faculty contact information. The mystery writer business card seemed to provide only half of the information about who I am.

That brings me to The Sopranos. "How?" you ask. Well, let me explain. I may have mentioned -- I'm pretty sure I have -- that I'm working on a genre reference book that I was invited to write. I'm looking at nine gangster movies and The Sopranos, the "acclaimed" HBO drama. During June, I binge-watched the first five seasons of the show about New Jersey organized crime boss, Tony Soprano. I'm now watching the episodes from the sixth and last season. This has been a revelation for me because when the show was on in prime time, I didn't have HBO. Although one of my areas of research is crime and mass media/popular culture, I wasn't making enough money to be able to justify subscribing to a premium network. I caught episodes of The Sopranos only when I was staying in a hotel at a conference or visiting someone who had the cable network.

I bring The Sopranos up because watching the show reminds me that sometimes it feels like my tagline should be "A Lot of What I Know about Writing I Learned from TV." 

Yes, I read books. I have spent many of my happiest hours in libraries and in bookstores. The several times I have moved in my lifetime, the books filled many boxes. When I bought my small house I asked my contractor to build a room divider to separate living room from dining room and to provide floor-to-ceiling book shelves. I read every day of my life. But I've learned a heck of a lot about writing from television writers and the actors who can make binge-watching multiple episodes of a series a tutorial on character development and dramatic tension.

During my month of binge watching The Sopranos, I've been monitoring my reactions to the characters. The late James Gandolfini was a brilliant actor, and Tony Soprano's violent outbursts always leave me torn because I care about him. In Season 6, after almost dying, he is less volatile -- more thoughtful about ordering a hit on one of his own men who has violated the code that he is expected to live by. But that character may be killed in the next episode or two and his death will make melancholy. I know this because I was upset when another secondary character made his exit. He had a wife and children, and he wanted to move his family to Florida. He and his wife were in contact with a real estate agent, and like a couple on an episode of HGTV, they explained what they wanted and needed in their new home. This mob soldier had a strategy in mind. He would explain to Tony that he wanted to be allowed (breaking his vow of loyalty) to resign. Then he would wait and give Tony to think about it. So, he asked and he waited and he carried out the hit that Tony assigned him. But Tony -- after thinking about it -- still said it was "a no" on Florida. 

Now, this is the thing. I was ready for this to go badly. Ready for Tony to decide this soldier had to be taken out because he was no longer committed to his crime family. I was ready for Christopher or one of Tony's other trusted assassins to whack this character. Instead, the character sit in a hotel room looking at a photo of his children -- and then he took out his own gun and shot himself. Shortly after that, Tony went to visit his ailing Uncle Junior. He was out in the kitchen getting his uncle something eat, when Junior appeared in the doorway and shot Tony.

Now, it's true that Tony and his uncle had a complicated past. But I didn't see that one coming. Neither did Tony Soprano. And when he came out of his coma, he spent some time trying to dodge Dr. Melfi's questions about how he felt about being shot by his uncle. Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is Tony Soprano's therapist. She has her own therapist, with whom she shares her complicated feelings about helping a mobster given to panic attacks understand his emotions and function better. Her advice that he "act as if" when he confessed he was feeling more vulnerable after coming out of his coma and feared losing his men's respect led him to beat up his own young strapping bodyguard in front of his crew to make it clear that he was still tough enough to lead them. 

There is another secondary character that I've come to care about -- Vito, a captain in Tony's mob family who has been outed as gay by two mob soldiers who saw him when they were collecting their protection money in a New York City club. Vito was dressed in black leather and dancing with a man. They didn't believe his excuse that it was "a joke." Tony's daughter's boyfriend also had some information that he finally shared. Now, Vito has fled and is in New Hampshire. Tony is still resisting the pressure from his crew to respond to Vito's betrayal of their code of masculinity. But the situation is embarrassing and may have a negative impact on business. He may yet send soldiers to track Vito down and whack him. And I care. I want Vito to get away.

The question is how I can feel so much ambivalence about these characters and still care about their fates. Even though I find Tony's violence off-putting, I felt bad for him when his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco) put him out. Even though he had cheated on her, I believed he loved her. I wanted him back home with Carmela and Meadow, his daughter, and AJ, his son. I wanted them to be a happy family.

I'm going to miss these characters when the series ends for me with the last 10 episodes. I'm going to think about them. And I'm going to spend some time thinking about how the characters evolved and how I can use that in my own writing. 

Next up, binge watching The Wire.