Friday, September 21, 2018

Going on Location

This week I went out to do location scouting for my 1939 book in progress. I went to Nantucket -- a fast turnaround of two nights and a day. I had a credit at an inn from last year when the ferry wasn't running because of a hurricane. I needed to come back quickly because of an event my students and I will be attending on campus this afternoon. Since I really needed to get to the library on Nantucket, I decided the quick trip for a first look would be worth it.

If you live in the Northeast or have been watching the weather report, you know that the remnants of Florence have been bringing us rain. Nothing like the devastation in North Carolina and hardly worth complaining about -- just enough to produce flash flooding and to make the drive to Nantucket on Tuesday an exercise in peering at other people's brake lights and on-coming headlights through downpours. I stopped at one point to remove a temporary registration renewal from from my dashboard because the white paper was being reflected on the windshield and I couldn't see through it. That was the weirdest effect I'd ever seen, and I have to remember it for future use (somewhere, somehow).

But getting back to my soggy drive from Albany to Hyannis -- I ended up stopping and calling to change my ferry reservation. Lucky I did because even with the change in time, I barely made the next ferry. And had a hard time getting a taxi in the rain once I arrived in Nantucket. But finally made it to the lovely bed and breakfast where I was staying. The rain continued, and I ordered a pizza, had a hot shower, and settled down to make some notes about the book.

The next day was much better. After enjoying breakfast with the other guests, I walked over to the Nantucket Atheneum, the public library. One of the reference librarians told me that I would be able to access the digital collection of the Nantucket newspaper. That freed up the time I thought I would need to spend reading in the library. Then he showed me the Nantucket section (local histories, fiction, cookbooks, picture books, everything Nantucket). I settled down at the table and knew I was about to have a wonderful afternoon.

Any Moby-Dick fans here? I admit it. I've struggled since high school to read that novel. I love the opening lines, the first few pages, but I never gotten beyond that either in print or audible. I am now ready to try again. Now I know that at one point Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. I know that Melville's novel was inspired by the true story of the sinking of the Essex. I've read sections of the account written years later by one of the survivors, who was a fourteen year old cabin boy on the ship. I started to read the nonfiction book based on that account and other research. Now, I'm ready to tackle Moby-Dick again -- an unexpected bonus of my research.

But the real find was the prairie dogs. In the 1890s, for unknown reason, prairie dogs were brought to the island. The population quickly got out of hand. One of the problems was that the prairie dogs dug holes. Horses could break legs if they stepped in those holes. The town where most of the prairie dogs were found decided to eradicate the prairie dogs. This happened in 1900, long before the beginning of my novel. But the mention of horses breaking their legs reminded me of the real-life story from 1939 involving the death of a horse during the filming of a movie. One of my POV characters loves horses. I thought this would be an interesting minor detail. Two characters mention this in passing when she is out riding. But since she is the character who will go to Nantucket, followed by my bad guy (who is trying to court her), the prairie dog/horse story has caught my attention. In fact, it has sent me off in a new direction as I imagine an argument she might have with my bad guy and re-think what she does for a living. All that from one brief entry in a book about Nantucket history. More than worth the trip.

But that wasn't all. There were other bits and pieces that I can weave into my plot -- like the Fourth of July celebration that summer in 1939.  Now, I know what my female character would have done that week in Nantucket. I have photographs and descriptions.

In my room that evening, I also had time to think about the relationship between two other characters. To think and realize that I could eliminate a minor character by making one character do the work of two.

Anyone else love getting out and doing location research after days and days at your desk? Wonderful how being there can open a story up and make it work.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pay Attention!


Donis here. Is it my turn again? Time certainly flies, especially when you have a jillion things on your mind and you barely know what day it is. Husband and I spent several hours today at the Sprint store upgrading our phones. I was hoping that we could take advantage of some deals and end up paying less per month than we do now. Instead we both have nifty new phones and are paying an extra $60 U.S. per month. Dang things better be worth it.

Today was also cast-changing day. If you’ll remember, Dear Reader, my husband broke his arm a couple of months ago and has a clamshell cast on his arm which needs to be removed and cleaned once a week. Gone are the days of plaster casts, thank god. This should be the last cast-changing I have to do. He’s due to have it off permanently this Friday (tomorrow). Hallelujah!

Anyhoo... I almost forgot that Thursday is my blog day for Type M. I live in fear that some day I'm going to turn up at some bookstore to speak when I should be at the library giving a workshop. I often have dreams that I suddenly realize I'm supposed to be at some event in Texas, or Colorado, or I forgot that I'm supposed to be at a conference in fifteen minutes. Not that I'm in such demand, God knows. It's just that I'm not always aware of the passage of time like I ought to be, since I spend so much of it in my own head rather than in the world.

Which reminds me of a story, as most things do. I've always been interested in the writings of J. Krishnamurti for their absolutely no nonsense to-the-pointness. For those of you who don't know, in the late 1910s, when he was just a small child, Krishnamurti was declared by the Theosophical Society to be the final reincarnation of the Buddha, who when he grew up was supposed to take over the Society (and the world, presumably) and usher in a new age of enlightenment. So, in 1927, after being raised and educated in England by this group, the young man Krishnamurti called the devotees to a gigantic gathering, promising to finally impart to them the great wisdom and enlightment they had been waiting for. And it was this:

"You've said for years that I was born to tell you the truth and you would do what I say, so here it is. Why are you people looking to me to enlighten you? You have to do it yourself. I can't save you, and neither can this group. Therefore, this group is dissolved. Everybody go home."

And all the thousands of people looked at each other and said, "Well, this guy can't be the Buddha." The Theosophical Society continues on to this day, and Krishnamurti went on his merry way.

The gist of his teaching was that you have to pay attention. You can't figure things out with your brain, you have to be conscious. Many years after the above event, he told a tale of being picked up at the airport in India by two young men who were supposed to take him to a friend's house in the country. As they were driving along with Krishnamurti in the back seat, the two young men were so absorbed in a discussion about consciousness that they ran over a goat and never even knew it.

So, whenever I do some idiot thing because I wasn't paying attention, I say I "ran over the goat."

Which leads me to make this disclaimer: When I write my historical novels, I do all kinds of research to make sure my facts are straight. When I sit down to write my blogs - not so much. So don't take my blog tales to the bank.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A day in a writer's life

It's that time in a writer's life– at least in my writerly life– when I am trying to inhabit two worlds. I have been researching THE ANCIENT DEAD, the fourth book in the Amanda Doucette series, for a few months now, and am at the stage where I have written the first three tentative scenes as well as created a vague outline of a few more to follow. And this morning, I am embarking on a two-week location scouting trip to the badlands and prairies of Alberta, where the book is set.

I've often said there is no substitute for standing in the spot where the characters stand, breathing in the scents, listening to the sounds, and seeing how the sun plays across the land. As well, by talking to locals and visiting museums and towns, you uncover all sorts of tantalizing ideas and details that can take the plot in unpredictable directions. It's one reason why I need to go now, while the story is still in its infancy and essentially unformed. (The other reason is called winter). I am really looking forward to figuring out what this book is going to be about at its core! I have the setting, some conflicts, and a buried body waiting to be discovered, but not the mystery behind it all.

But for the past month I have also been trying to line up fall promotional plans for PRISONERS OF HOPE, the third Amanda Doucette novel, due out in three weeks. I've been on the phone to potential launch and book signing venues and emailing back and forth to my publicist about posters, etc. And today the whole enterprise felt much more real when the UPS driver delivered my box of author copies to the door. Yay! The book is in one piece and they spelled my name right!

Switching gears between creative writing and promotional planning is a challenge. Therefore, as much as possible, I try to split up my day. The mornings, when the brain is hopefully fresher, I devote a few hours to writing. I write longhand, and make a right mess while doing it, but it's the most powerful way I know to call up my muse. Curling up in a chair with a cup of coffee at my side, pen in hand and pad of paper in my lap, seems to connect me to my familiar writer self who's been doing this for over sixty years, long before word processors and computers came on the scene.

I usually try to complete at least one scene every morning, so that I can fully engage in the scene and imagine it from beginning to end. Often by the end of that scene I have a good idea of what scene will come next. But I put the writing on the shelf and leave that for the next day.

Instead I celebrate that accomplishment by taking a break. I eat lunch, walk the dogs, swim, or whatever, before settling down in the afternoon to deal with social media, emails, phone calls, and PR writing. This can often take several hours. Then it's unwind and glass of wine time! Of course, there are often other obligations, family and friends, or commitments, but on a day without outside commitments, that's what I aim for. While I am on my research trip, this schedule will blown apart and I'll be lucky to get any scene writing done. But my mind will be churning and storing things up. All to the good.

Now for a little bit of BSP at the end of this blog - part of my PR activities. Here are the dates of the two launch parties I have set up for PRISONERS OF HOPE:

Ottawa launch: The Clocktower Brew Pub in Westbooro, October 16 at 7 - 9 pm, shared with Vicki Delany, who's launching THE CAT OF THE BASKERVILLES

Toronto launch: Sleuth of Baker Street, November 3 at 2:30-4 pm

Those of you within driving distance of either place, come on down to the celebration, and bring a friend! It's free and fun.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Is it getting harder to write contemporary crime fiction?

by Rick Blechta

An early mobile phone
I recently read — if you’ve been paying attention — a few Nero Wolfe novels. The Wolfe series began back in the ’30s, so they’re pretty elderly. The world they portrayed at that time has long since ceased to exist and to be honest they seem rather “creaky” in spots, in that regard. I suspect I’m not uncommon in still wanting to read about Wolfe and Archie because of nostalgia for the time in which the stories were set, but some of the writing, perfectly acceptable then is very jarring now.

Fast forward to a more recent series, the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly. The Black Echo first appeared in 1992. That’s over 25 years ago now, and thumbing through that while contemplating this post, I’m again struck by how out of date it is. While the years have been pretty kind to it, our contemporary world is far different than what Connelly describes in his novel in many important ways. The main thing separating 1992 Bosch with Bosch in 2018 would have to be technology. Like everything else, computers have swept over policing like a tidal wave. Harry is an old-style gumshoe even by 1992 standards, being all about pounding the street for clues, as an example, so the anachronisms are not all that important. But even skimming the book, I can see how his having a mobile phone would knock out quite a few scenes in the plot that were handled using 1992 technology.

It is with great trepidation, therefore, that a wise writer approaches technology as a main driving force in a novel. The shelf-life of current technology is very, very short and there lies the danger. In just one publishing cycle (the time it takes a book to go from concept to publication) so many things can change completely.

I’m feeling more and more as if I need the skills of a good futurist to make sure my current work-in-progress doesn’t wind up being anachronistic even before I finish writing it, since the plot relies heavily on current technology and its effects on contemporary living. Case in point: I’ve already had to change one plot point because it could no longer happen the way I initially described it. Technology caught up with me.

It now feels as if I have to finish this novel at lightning speed so other plot points don’t go the way of the dodo.

Is anyone else out there feeling this squeeze? And to the readers in the audience, does it bug you when something is obviously out of date?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Responding to Change

I read Sybil's blog about the changes to the bail system and the knock-on effect on crime writers with great interest since a few years ago there was a major change to the police force in Scotland that horrified writers of police procedurals up and down the country.

Until then, Scotland, like England, had been divided into constabularies, geographical areas each organised  under their own chief constable with a lot of autonomy.  As writers we tended to have our own pet stamping grounds, if not real then at least plausible - my DI Fleming belonged to the Galloway Constabulary instead of the genuine Dumfries and Galloway one.  It was all very straightforward.

A lot of us felt positively dispossessed when the Scottish government decided on a radical change.  The constabularies were all swept away and it became a unitary force, Police Scotland, with only one Chief Constable instead of a dozen.  This in itself was a loss to writers; the Chief Constable could appear in the books with whatever character you wanted him or her to have.  Now there was only one, it was harder to create, say, a villainous CC without seeming to libel the present incumbent.

Officers now didn't just sign on to the nearest force; they could be sent at any time to any part of the country and a lot of solid local knowledge was lost. The organisation wasn't set in place before the change took place with the result that the new force has limped along from one problem to another, pilloried by the press and losing one Chief Constable recently to allegations of bullying.

I could, of course, have just gone on in my make-believe world pretending it hadn't happened. However realistic we might try to make it sound I don't think we kid ourselves that we are actually giving a representation of genuine police work, which would be monumentally boring.   But it's important to give a nod to reality when the situation changes so radically and we all had, reluctantly, to move our feet.

Apparently it isn't true that the Chinese character for 'crisis' combines the two notions of danger and opportunity, but while I was fretting over the problem it suggested the scenario for a new series, featuring DI Kelso Strang. 

The motive behind the change was to save money.  In fact, as far as one can tell, the crisis in police funding is now worse than it ever was and thinking about that led me to the idea of the Serious Rural Crime Squad - a task force that could be sent immediately if there was major crime in one of the rural districts where very little crime of any sort takes place, saving money by running down the local CID. 

I rather fell in love with the idea.  So far, I haven't been approached by the authorities for advice about how it should be set up, but you never know.  For the purposes of fiction it has a lot of attraction - a new background for every novel, instead of having them all based in the same area.  For Human Face, that was Skye; the new book which comes out in November, is set in Caithness, the northernmost coast of Scotland.

Oddly enough, under the latest Chief Constable, there seems to be a move  back to more local policing once again, with District Commanders taking on something like the role of the previous Chief Constables.    Maybe, with a few minor tweaks, we can repossess our own favourite spots after all and DI Fleming can return to running investigations in something very like the Galloway of old.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Event Surprise

Once in a while I agree to a presentation or an event that is dramatically different than what I'm expecting. Last week I spoke to the Sertoma Club in Lakewood, CO. The group was small, but what a powerful mission!

Sertoma is a service organization that raises funds to assist children with hearing issues. I was impressed with the energy and dedication of the members. They had ingenious projects to raise money to provide hearing health for children. 

The Annual Fund supports Sertoma’s hearing health mission and heritage. Each year, Sertoma Clubs and individual members raise funds from coast to coast to continue the mission of improving the quality of life today for those at risk or impacted by hearing loss through education and support. The Jeffco club mentioned selling poinsettias, peaches, May flowers, and other seasonal offerings.

My talk was more of a discussion than a lecture. I talked while they ate lunch and as usual the conversation drifted to my life as a native Kansan.

I'm always surprised at how little I know about the state. I've lived there all my life, and all my books are about Kansas, but one of the members added to my knowledge considerably. 

I talked about each of my mysteries and Hidden Heritage is about the cattle industry. One of the more intriguing details she supplied was that branding cattle is not mandatory in Kansas. It's on a voluntary basis. For that reason the state has a high rate of cattle rustling. You certainly can register brands but it's not mandatory as it is in Colorado. 

Since my husband was a bull hauler and involved with the cattle industry both as a driver and as the owner of a livestock hauling truck line, I was surprised that I didn't know that. 

She also told me that Kansas was one of the few states that had different regulations regarding open records. Since I'm not certain about the stipulations, I'll leave that for another time. 

When I was a 4-H community leader, the members had to give a fact about Kansas during their model meeting. One of my favorites is that we are one of the eight states that never ratified the 21st amendment repealing prohibition. Kansas is technically a dry state. 

One of my daughters argued that it could not be true. But it is. The state has local option. Local option is that the smallest voting entity had mandate rules for their area. That's why one part of a county can be dry and another wet. Sorting this out can be a challenge. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Slow days

Growing up, I remember autumn being the “slow season,” the time of fresh starts and of new beginnings. Spring may universally be considered the season of renewal, but for me –– as I begin my 26th year of high school –– fall annually launches a new school year.

In my writing life, fall is a time to rev up and start again, the time I slowly descend the stairway into a new project. Nine months is typically the time it takes me to write a book, so accompanying the school year with a new writing project makes sense. This is where I am this year: I just finished a novel, and as my agent prepares her pitch, I’m back to work on a new project, a screenplay based on said book.

I say “based on” because the script will be different from the original text, a concept that in itself fascinates me and makes the writing of it worth my time. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating, taking notes, and evaluating the plot. Compression is the key. What goes? What stays? What’s important? What’s really important? Tough choices.

And there’s no way around it. The story will indeed change. Several secondary characters in the book have larger roles in the script. One consideration in this decision is the audience. Right or wrong, I feel like the audience for the film will relate to the cast of teenagers in the book more than the reader will, so those characters will have larger roles when I condense the storyline. I see the film viewers as younger than the novel readers. Right? Wrong? I don’t know. But I teach and live with teenagers, and I know they experience narrative differently than I did at that age. Binge watching a show (catching up on Stranger Things, say, by watching a season in a weekend) is their reality. Sadly, I don’t see teens carrying books, but they are always plugged in, viewing a show or listening to something. The original storyline in my novel features teenagers, through the eyes of a 40-something, first-person narrator. But in the script, there is no narrator, so I’ll let the teens tell their own story.

I’m also enjoying reading scripts as I embark on this project. American Beauty and Devil in a Blue Dress are the first two I’ve read. I will read more. But there’s no need to rush. The journey is just beginning. After all, it’s only autumn.