Friday, July 10, 2020

Two Things I've Learned during the Pandemic

First, I need a plan. Not only a "big picture" plan but a plan for each day. On the days when I have only a vague intention to "get some work done," I don't accomplish a lot. One day this week, I took a break to order some groceries -- and discovered that in spite of all those images of paper towels on store websites, no local store seemed to have paper towels in stock. I finally ordered from Amazon and resigned myself to waiting until next week for delivery.

Now, I know that with the state of the world and people's lives in turmoil, my paper towels dilemma is unimportant. Who cares? But that's my point. When I have no plan, I obsess about small things. I waste large chunks of my day trying to do ordinary things that now require weighing pros and cons.   But when I am specific about what I want to do each day and prepare a road map for the day, I move through the day with much less stress. I don't become obsess because I do the important stuff first.

On Wednesday evening, I did three things I had been putting off forever because each involved tedious paperwork. That was when I discovered the second secret -- I work better with music playing in the background. But, it has to be a particular kind of music. I was on YouTube looking for an interview I wanted to link to in a syllabus I'm working on. I saw an official video for one of my favorite songs and clicked to listen. I went back to my syllabus, and YouTube began to run through a playlist. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and Pips -- songs that I knew the words to and didn't have to think about. For the next couple of hours, I sang along while I worked. And, contrary to what I usually find, I was not at all distracted by the music.

So what I've learned and intend to apply going forward is to have a plan and have the right music. And, I'm adding, set a timer to get in 5-minute exercise breaks.

I'm finding this article useful:

Of course, being a plotter, planning has the same appeal. Off to bed. I need to get an early start.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Good Advice on Writing, Or, Easier Said Than Done

I love the musical theme that has arisen over the past couple of entries here at Type M. On Tuesday Rick noted that “There is a well-regarded truism about learning to play an instrument: you must put in 10,000 hours of practice to master it. I suspect this might be true in writing as well. In order to become really good at it, you must put in the hours...” When I teach writing classes one of my favorite things to tell my students is that you may study violin theory until you have a Ph.D., but if you don't practice until your fingers bleed, you'll never learn to play the violin.

I also relate to John's Hemingway quote that as time goes on, one doesn't become a better writer, one becomes a better editor. A Very Famous Author once gave me the best piece of writing advice I’ve heard in a good long while, and one that I need to take to heart. The most important thing is to get those words onto the page. You can fix it later. You can have the most brilliant idea every conceived on God’s green earth but what separates the men from the boys is the ability to get it down on paper in an effective way. “Don’t think too much,” she said, “Just keep writing.”

I always intend to write from beginning to end without stopping. If I get stuck or can’t quite figure out what to do next, I just write something, a filler, or leave a blank and plow onwards. Get that first draft done. By the time you write the last word, the story may have taken quite a turn from the way you thought it would go when you were writing the beginning.

But now you have something to work with. You can go back, if you need to, and craft the beginning to fit the end. You can cut out all the blather and redundancies that you put in there on the fly. You can tighten up that saggy middle and add another clue that will make things clearer.

I know all this very well and this is what I tell anyone who aspires to write a book. Yet sometimes I’m not so successful in taking my own advice. I often have Aline's problem of not being able to let go. I’m working on a manuscript right now, and I keep obsessing over one particular scene. I sit down every day to go, go, go from beginning to end, but for the past several days I keep going back and messing with it. Big mistake, and I know it. If I get the whole story down, the dinner scene will resolve itself. So today my fervent resolution is to take advice and not think so much. To hell with the dinner scene. Onward to the end!

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

An answer to Aline’s “Fur Elise” problem

by Rick Blechta

Having made a life in music — as well as writing — I read Aline’s blog post yesterday with a lot of sadness.

I’ll say it right up front, Aline, you unfortunately suffered from a common malady, but not the one you might expect. Yes, you might have been a difficult student, but I feel you had two not-very-good teachers.

There are a lot of them out there, people who just don’t get how to teach — especially youngsters. Learning an instrument is difficult, even if one is a genius at a Mozart level. There’s no way around it, you have to put in the hours. Not only that, a lot of the things you’re asked to do can be pretty BORING. But if one perseveres, it’s possible to become a decent player.

Here’s the place where your teachers fell down on the job. They didn’t give you meaningful practising techniques. When I was teaching, I called it a student’s “toolbox”. These tools were helpful tips on why things are going wrong, and specific techniques to fix them. I also had to guide my students to be able to recognize the stumbling blocks. 

The first tool was always “play only as fast as you can handle what you’re practising. Slow and steady will win this race every time. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, that’s not particularly fun. A good teacher will explain that, show the student how well it works to go slowly and give them longer range hope for seeing success at the end of what might be a long road.

I suspect my second tool would have really helped you, Aline. That’s the one where you learn that when you make a mistake, it is a total waste of your practicing effort to go back to the beginning of the piece — especially when the same mistake keeps happening in the same place.

Everyone, but especially children, needs to see success in order to want to do something. Dealing with the stumbling block (more tools!) will get rid of it so the result will be quickly obvious and self-reinforcing. There's no better feeling that being able to play through a piece, no matter how slowly, and get to the end successfully. It certainly make me want to play more!

How does all this fit into writing (since this is a blog dedicated to writing)? 

Learning to play an instrument, like writing a novel, is a marathon, not a sprint. Patience here is a very great virtue. You need to have a long-range vision and realize you need to take steps every day towards your goal. This is going to sound simplistically obvious but “you can’t get there until you get there.” The critical thing is to keep working, stay within your story. Same thing with practising: you’ve got to do it every day. I used to tell my school students: “If you have to average 20 minutes of practice every day, it won’t do you any good to do 140 minutes one day each week. Nothing good will happen and you know how much I hate to see you waste your time. Practise a little every day and you’ll get great results in less time.”

All writers — if they have any chance of success — realize this pretty quickly. It’s exceptionally difficult to write like crazy one day a week and keep things in order in your brain. My feeling is it will take you longer to complete the project since you constantly have to “reload” the story into your brain each time you work. That means a lot of time wasting “wheel spinning” each time you sit down to work.

I could go on and on about the similarities between mastering an instrument and completing a novel.

There is a well-regarded truism about learning to play an instrument: you must put in 10,000 hours of practise to master it. I suspect this might be true in writing as well. In order to become really good at it, you must put in the hours, do the self-examination, and get help where you need it in order to master this craft.

I sure hope that it doesn’t mean writing 10,000 pages! On second thought, if that’s what it is, maybe I just have to be more patient and keep plodding along. It’s not as if I haven’t done that before.
And if you want a good chuckle, look closely at the above photo of someone named Boris showing off his prowess on guitar. I don’t believe he’s put in his requisite 10,000 hours to master it…

Monday, July 06, 2020

My “Fur Elise” Problem.

I was never any good at playing the piano. You'd have to say my parents did everything to encourage me – nice piano, music lessons, constant demands to know whether I'd done my practising – but somehow it never took. It might have had something to do with the fact that the piano was in the unheated drawing room, or that my first teacher was a small stout man who called me 'wee girlie' (twee not sinister, I hasten to add) and the second was a tall, thin, acidulated woman who would sing, 'One-and-inna-two-and-inna' to keep me in time as I played. (Her name was Templeton, and it's amazing that I agreed to marry my husband. No relation, fortunately.)

It might also have had something to do with my discovering that if I made my fingers go like sticks it got everyone very satisfyingly cross. (I was a very annoying child.) But above all, it had to do with never learning to keep going and ignore mistakes. I had to stop and put it right, which, since I wasn't very good, meant constantly and it's amazing how long it can take to get to the end of “Fur Elise”.

It must be something that goes deep in my psyche and it's carried on into my writing career. Perhaps it's a perfectionist thing, though I'm certainly not famous for that in any other direction – look at my knicker drawer, or rather, don't, please!

I know many, possibly even most, people do a first draft, then a second and on and on until it's right, but I simply don't understand how it's done. OK, I write the first chapter, edit it, and move on. Then I write the second chapter, and something happens that doesn't square with what I said in the first one.  If I reckon this is just the first draft, presumably I just set that to one side and move on, planning to sort it out later in draft 2.

But I'd have a constant itch at the back of my mind if I didn't go back and change the first chapter so it squares with the second, and then when the third chapter introduces something that needs revision for chapter one and two, I go back to do that as well. It's a constant to-and-fro process, and I suspect that people who just go hell for leather and write on regardless will get a much faster paced story.

I'd love to be able to persuade myself to do that, though I think there'd be a blood, sweat and tears spell later sorting out continuity. I have to say, too, I do like it that when I get to the end of telling the story, I only have to do tidying up rather than embarking on a rewrite. So I just have to accept it – you can't change human nature.

To round off the story of my career as a pianist, I gave it up for some time. Then I was lucky enough to find a truly wonderful teacher who brought me on by leaps and bounds so that sometimes I did have a piece or two I could play through without a mistake, but it was a brief purple patch and I don't play now, having skipped the basic slog that would have kept me going through the years.

When I was protesting about practising my mother used to say, 'You'll regret this when you're older.'

And she was right, as she always was.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Happy Fourth of July

See the source image

I've had a hard time getting this image to cooperate with my copy. I'm late writing this as my daughter from North Carolina is visiting and we've had a lot of catching up to do.

For the first time since February I went to a real restaurant and had a real dine-in meal. It was an absolute treat to just sit and enjoy food. I'm thankful that Colorado has had a fairly successful and cautious reopening.

Tomorrow my little community will have an informal come and go musical concert on our lovely commons area. Properly social distanced, of course. Our ground rules are to bring your own chair, your own bottle, your own food, and do not share.

These are indeed interesting times.

Stay safe and happy during this holiday.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Knowing yourself

Rick’s post and Thomas’s post each got me thinking about the nitty-gritty, the hows and whys, of writing.

Hemingway said somewhere that one doesn’t become a better writer, only a better editor. Like most of what Hemingway said on the topic, I agree. For me, improvement has always been tied to knowing myself –– knowing my strengths and weaknesses and using that knowledge and self-awareness to evolve.

Character and dialogue are things I do best. Those aspects of writing fiction have always come easily. Plot, not so much. Plot I have to work at. I write in a Google document, and the margins are filled with notes and comments –– reminders about who knows what, who said what, who did what, and what needs to happen in the course of the story or book. Keeping track of the threads of the spider web has never been as easy.

And, as Rick mentioned, over-writing is always an issue. I think this is a common problem most of us battle. How much is too much? Is the line of dialogue clear? Do I need one more brushstroke here? I talk about this with my students often, telling them, Overwriting happens when you’re not confident in what you’ve conveyed. And I am quick to admit (to them and to you) that I’m as guilty as anyone.

All of which points us to the importance of revision and, as Hemingway would say, always working to become your own best editor.


As an aside, summer is off to a nice start. My reading list consists of Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up, William Kent Krueger’s A Tender Place, and I need to reread Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to teach it in the fall. My oldest, Delaney, graduated from college (we held our own ceremony), and is moving to New York City to start her first job. She recruited a cheap painter...

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

July 4th in the time of COVID-19

The 4th of July holiday is coming up here in the United States. It’s usually celebrated with fireworks, backyard bbqs, 5k runs, parades, concerts in the park... But not this year – at least not here in Los Angeles County where I live.

The beaches and bike paths that had only recently reopened will be closed this weekend. Fireworks have been cancelled as well as a 5K race in Redondo Beach that’s usually held every year. Really, all events that might result in large gatherings have been called off. I can’t say that this is a bad idea, especially since we’ve had quite a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the county.

Still, if you’d told me in March when we were told we were “safer at home” that this would have lasted this long, I would have been skeptical. At that time I was cautiously optimistic.

Cities around here are coming up with other ways to celebrate the holiday. One of them, in lieu of all of the usual events, is placing 1,800 American flags of various sizes around the city.

Redondo Beach is hosting a virtual 5K race to replace the usual one. The virtual event won’t be a competition as in previous years. Those who want to participate sign up online and pay a fee, which helps benefit the Redondo Beach Educational Foundation. They also receive a swag bag of a T-shirt and patriotic items. Participants start the race at 8 a.m. on July 4th, running from their home. Each person sets up their own 5K run. All timing and recording is done by the individual runners. People post their times and photos online. It’s an interesting way to keep the event alive. Not sure how many will participate. Will have to wait for the report in the local paper.

I’ve never really been someone who did much on July 4th, anyway. I have seen some fireworks over the years, but I much prefer to hang out at home. Still, it’s sad to see so many events cancelled.

For those of you who celebrate the 4th, what’s going on in your part of the world?

In other news, Christina Freeburn and I are working on Christmas in July posts on our Facebook author pages. We’re starting off next Tuesday with a Facebook party celebrating the release of book 3 in Christina’s A Merry & Bright Handcrafted series, Dash Away All. See this event page for more details:

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

It’s so easy to over-describe

by Rick Blechta

This post is sort of a riff off Tom’s post from yesterday.

We all have to learn to write. I don’t mean putting words together to form sentences — although many haven’t mastered that skill if you look at social media for more than two minutes; I’m talking about writing shapely fiction, stuff that someone might actually want to read.

There certainly is a talent factor. A lucky few are born writers, great right out of the box, some just need to be guided along a bit, but most of us need to be taken by the hand and helped…a lot.

However, in the end, every writer has to lock themselves away and wrestle their prose into submission, no matter how many creative writing classes they’ve taken, how many writers (editors, publishers, agents) have looked at their work and commented. Like any creative act writing is a learned thing. We each have to discover the right road — or try to.

Fortunately, writers can and should keep progressing, honing skills to tell better stories in better ways.

The reason I’m writing about this comes about from watching the Mantalbano TV series from Italy. I read all the books before I began delving into the show — which is quite good by the way — and I am amazed at how accurately I’d imagined what Sicily looks like only from reading Camillieri’s novels and short stories. I’ve never been to Sicilia and never been farther south in Italy than Rome, so I had very little to go on other than what the author put in.

After watching two episodes of Mantalbano, I went back to look over the first novel in the series (The Shape of Water). It was quite amazing to see how few words Camillieri spends on description. I mean, there’s almost nothing when you consider how unique this island is. But each word, each phrase expended in description is just enough, no more, no less.

This morning, looking over something I wrote on the weekend, I’m, well, mortified how much verbiage I waste in unneeded description — and I’ve self-congratulated myself on making my prose more economical, more sparse, lean and mean, if you will.

Seems I’ve got more work to do. The road to (writers’) hell is indeed paved with adverbs — and nouns and adjectives and subordinate clauses and digressions and… 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Creative Writing 101

A week ago, I started teaching Creative Writing again at our community college.  We’re all wearing face masks, are seated at least six feet apart, and are using copious amounts of hand sanitizer.
It’s the first time I’ve done any public speaking in a face mask. It’s a little like trying to talk while underwater.

My first class is a bit of getting to know everyone.  What do they read? Who are their favorite authors? What genre interests you the most?

Next week, they’ll start reading their own work out loud. The rules of engagement for that are once the student has finished reading, scary enough, we will all applaud. Then we’ll talk about the work’s strengths.

Then, we’ll talk about ways we might make the work stronger.

But the first week, I talked about some Creative Writing 101 tips. Most of them come from Stephen King.

Tips like stop watching television. Instead, read as much as possible. I might add my own bit of advice, don’t slide down the internet rabbit hole. It’s too easy to move from the New York Times website to YouTube and watching puppy videos. King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Another one of his tips: don’t be pretentious. It took me a long time to learn that one. King said, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”

Avoid adverbs and long paragraphs.  My editor has been ruthless about teaching me this. King said, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

This is a tip that I really take to heart. Understand that writing is a form of telepathy. King makes the claim that an important element of writing is transference. Your job isn’t to write words on the page, but rather to transfer the ideas inside your head into the heads of your readers. He said, “Words are just the medium through which the transfer happens.”

It excites me to no end when a reader tells me how much they enjoyed a book I’ve written and how they loved Geneva Chase, the lead character in my mysteries.  In their minds, she’s a real person.

Write every single day. King said, “If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind…I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.” Amen to that.

When you’re finished writing, take a long step back. “When you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” He advises that take six weeks recuperation time after you’ve finished writing so you can have a clear mind to spot any glaring holes in the plot or character development.

I’ve found that to be immensely helpful.I’ve come back after I’ve left the manuscript in the drawer for a while and then look at with a fresh set of eyes.

The final bit of advice is to stay married, be healthy, and live a good life.

I like that very much.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Back to the 70s

A few years back, I was at a board meeting of the Mystery Writers of America. After the big dinner (with an open bar), several of us had gone to Times Square to continue the festivities. At about two in the morning we piled into a taxi for the ride back to the Roosevelt Hotel. Along the way we spotted a single young woman strolling along 47th Street. She going somewhere that was none of our business but her relaxed attitude and that she was alone astounded us. We were a bunch of old timers who remembered New York City from the 70s and 80s, the Death Wish years. Back in the day, as young men, we would not have ventured going out even as a group at this time of night without risking injury or death. This woman's blasé manner showed how much the city had changed, for the better.

More recently, my sister took a job in Manhattan and during a visit to see her, I noted how much things had improved since I was first there. When I told her about the crime, the graffiti, the squalor, the decay, the homeless and prostitutes, that you could stand on any street corner and within ten minutes, witness a theft or mugging, she looked at me like I was talking about Bigfoot or UFOs. She pointed to a spray painted mural. "You mean graffiti like that?" Not even close.

I was convinced that the Big Apple would inevitably collapse like a rotting piece of fruit. But New Yorkers loved their city too much to let it deteriorate into complete ruin and through decades of hard work and persistence, swept away the crime and cleaned the place up. No small feat as with over two thousand murders per year, New York City had the reputation of being the most dangerous city in America. At times, its streets tallied a higher body count than Beirut, which was in the middle of a civil war!

By 2018, New York City was deemed the safest big city in America. True, Manhattan resembled a theme park for the rich but you could've trekked out at any hour and not feel like you should've prepared a toe tag in advance.

Now within days, New York City, like a lot of other urban centers, Denver included, seemed to have been flipped upside down. Riots. Vandalism. Mob rule. A rash of violent crime. Homeless camps that stretch for blocks. Boarded up windows where vibrant stores used to be. Decades of progress, BAM! wiped out. And a pandemic on top of all that. It looks like we're back to where we were forty years ago and everyone's forgotten the tough lessons that made our cities worth living in.

Friday, June 26, 2020

How to Begin

Well, this day has gotten away from me. I remembered as I was heading off to bed that today was my day to post. But between an unexpected service call and an equally unexpected invitation to contribute an anthology, I forgot that it's Friday.
Rather than try to write about something, I'm going to ask for some thoughts about when and where to begin a story. My historical thriller is incubating as I work on other projects. But I need to get it done in the next few months. Current events are overlapping with my story -- case in point, HBO's decision to take down Gone With the Wind temporarily. It now has an introduction by Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar. I haven't watched that yet because I'm torn. My thriller ends at the four-day premier of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta. I've done lots of research and gone to a museum in Marietta, Georgia. I'm going to watch the movie again, but I'm trying to maintain a delicate balance between what I know now and what my characters knew them. Stewart's introduction may be too much information.
 That brings me to a larger question. I could open the book on February 1939 with the Nazi rally in New York City, or April 1939 at Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday performance. In the first case, I start with the female protagonist; in the second, with my sleeping car porter, male protagonist. His story is the driving force in the thriller, but her story is going to be crucial to what happens in Atlanta.
Here are the two opening scenes in the rough first draft. Chapter 1 would begin the book with Ophelia's departure from Gallagher and arrival in NYC as the rally is taking place at Madison Square Garden.She accepts a ride from a couple who she doesn't quit trust. Jacob's first appearance is in Chapter 2. He goes to Anderson's concert, see Cullen, his foe, in the crowd and wonders why he is there. I could begin with Jacob, but then Ophelia's arrival in NYC would be dropped from the story. The reader wouldn't meet her until Jacob goes to Harlem. As is, the end of Chapter 1 would leave readers wondering what happened. 
Gallagher, Virginia
Monday, Feb. 20, 1939 
Ophelia                                                                                                                                                                                                           "All aboard!"    
Wheezing, trying to catch my breath, I stopped there inside the door of the colored car and looked to see where I should sit. A few people looked in my direction with blurry eyes. The others were asleep or trying to be. A man near the front coughed. A baby whimpered and began to cry. I started down the aisle, clutching the musty carpetbag I had stolen from the attic of the house I was escaping.
Washington, D.C.
Sunday, Apr. 1939
        Some lies are easy to believe, especially when people need to believe them. I thought about that later.
        But that Sunday afternoon all I had on my mind was getting my work done.
      As soon as I had finished my count of the sheets and blankets and my paperwork, I spoke to the conductor. Then I changed out of my uniform and almost ran out of the station.
      I was hoping to get there in time to get a place up front. The best I could do was half-way. But I was s close enough to see. I tugged up the collar of my coat against the brisk wind coming off the river and looked around.      


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Writing Historical Novels in a Turbulent Time

I, Donis, write historical novels set in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. This has always been a little bit problematic since the type of novels I write are a bit of a fantasy about what life was really like at that time in that place. I have tried to avoid getting too deeply into the ugly parts, though I've always made at least some reference to reality in every book. That's all very well and good, but the world has exploded and suddenly I feel that writing a historical novel is like tiptoeing through a mine field. I've dealt with this problem before. Below is an updated version of an entry I wrote for this blog in 2011, but it seems particularly appropriate now.

Photo from the Dallas Morning News.

I’m sure every author and avid reader has more or less the same attitude toward censorship, that being that it’s a bad, bad thing, and that the antidote to unsavory ideas is not less talking, but more talking.

But here is an interesting question for an author - how much do you censor yourself, and why? Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true. My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about. In 1910s Oklahoma and 1920s Hollywood, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century find unsavory in the extreme - casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children. Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store? In 1915, it would be expected. Language, too. Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye. And I don’t mean just racial epithets, either. My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them. Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place? Very, very carefully, let me tell you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Cops in crime fiction

Last week my daughter told me that TV shows and stories about cops are out. The recent protests about police brutality have cast police in a very different light; not as heroes pursuing justice and saving lives, as portrayed on TV and in novels, but as brutal thugs supporting a corrupt and discriminatory way of life. Even in Canada a harsh light has been cast in the dark corners of police interaction with the Black and Indigenous community.

Since I am currently writing my eleventh Inspector Green novel, my daughter's pronouncement gave me pause. My fictional police officers are flawed but, at their core, mostly good guys. I do not write about police corruption, discrimination, or the morally murky world where organized crime and police enforcement meet. My stories are about ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary crisis, and Inspector Green himself, as the son of Holocaust survivors, is passionate about bringing bad guys to account, pursuing justice for victims and supporting the marginalized in society.

Like most of my fellow writers of police procedural novels, I've never pretended my stories were about how policing operates in the real world, not because I want to whitewash the flaws and portray a fantasy ideal, but because most real-life murders and the minutiae of police investigations don't make good storytelling. And that's what mysteries are all about. It's not about the police per se, but about the struggles of people facing their darkest hour, the choices they make, and the fallout from those.

In most mysteries, the murder is merely a dramatic device around which the story revolves. Whether the writer splatters blood all over the page or hides it discreetly offstage, the resulting story is about the interactions, relationships, and conflicts of the characters, both within themselves and between each other. It's about the unravelling of those relationships and the quest for justice for those involved. The protagonist, whether it's an amateur sleuth, an investigating journalist, or a professional police officer, is just the agent in that search, and not the main focus of the story. I think readers love mysteries because of that fundamental theme of searching for justice and righting a wrong.

That said, there is certainly room to inject some reality into this idealized fictional scenario. The atmosphere in the police squad room, the inclusiveness, and the biases can and should be addressed. When I wrote my very first Inspector Green novel, back in the mists of time, I included no female police officers (because that was the reality of the day), but I have slowly been adding them and addressing their unique struggles in later books. Still later I began to think about racial inclusiveness, and in this latest book I have tried to take this one step further.

There has been much written recently about how white the crime fiction world is, both in terms of who is writing it and who is reading it. There has been talk about how to increase diversity and inclusion. I won't go into that further here, but I think all of us writers should be taking a look at the stories we tell and the characters we create. We are always looking for new, compelling themes to wrap a good story around, and the insights emerging from the recent soul-searching on racism can only enrich them as well as making them more relevant to more people's lives. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Small stories

by Rick Blechta

This week’s post concerns tiny ideas. These can be mere snippets of prose, maybe a little story told by a painting or drawing, or just a story title. The thing I’m getting at is that, skillfully done,  this bit of information can tell you a lot more than you expect it might.

Here’s a very good example of what I’m talking about. 

The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine of prominence in the 20th Century featured covers that told stories. Many, many of them were painted by the incomparable Norman Rockwell — but I’m not going to show you one of his. 

The artist of this cover was Dick Sargent and his painting tells a clever, humorous little story. Sargent did many Post covers starting in 1951 and into the ’60s when the magazine switched to much less expensive photographs for their covers. Since The Post published every week, there was a lot of work for illustrators. You couldn’t expect Rockwell to turn one out every week, could you? So other clever artists were hired and Sargent was among the best of them.

And now the inside story. My dad started out as a commercial artist, and one of his colleagues was Dick Sargent. The Sargents also lived near us in Westchester County (north of NYC). My dad was no longer doing commercial art by that time (he owned a photoengraving business), but my parents remained good friends with the Sargents.

My mom had a Cub Scout den (since I was a Cub Scout) and when Dick came up with the idea for this cover, he asked my mom if he could photograph the bunch of us in uniform as models. So we all went to his house, crowded inside of four sticks (standing in as the phone booth) and looking like, well, 10-year-old kids out for what should have been a fun hike. A few months later, the issue with us on the cover was on newsstands right across America. Were we proud!

In case you want to know, I’m the one on the far right (click on the image to make it larger if you want to see my 10-year-old-ness better). Dick didn’t ask me to make any particular expression other than, “Look sort of sad, Ricky.” It wasn’t a stretch for me since Stan Hedeen got to wear my brother’s hatchet on his belt — and I didn’t!