Words empty as the wind are best unsaid. Homer You will never find me wailing Eliza Doolittle’s lament, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.” I love words, maybe too much. I’m one of those writers who has to reel herself in during the word selection process. Like a florist surrounded with so many wonderful blossoms to choose from, I sometimes want to use all of the words that pop into my head. One of my biggest challenges has been killing my darlings. By creating a clipboard where I save rather than discard them, I manage to move on. But it’s not just while writing that I can be distracted by words. I discovered I’m faintly word-obsessed during a conversation with my husband during which we were trying to figure out why my kindle didn’t hold a charge as long as his, the suggestion being that I was doing something technologically incorrect. Wrong. It turned out I am simply fixated by the feature that allows you to look up the meaning and roots of words as you are reading, causing a power drain. So much easier than in the days when I had to carry a notebook with me so I could look up words later rather than lug a dictionary around. I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth George, not simply because I admire her writing, adore being transplanted to England, and would run away with Thomas Lynley (let this be our secret), but because in every book she has ever written she has sent me on multiple side excursions to the dictionary. Good writers, like George, know how to use interesting words without distracting the reader from the story. Bad writers who are trying to impress with weighty words annoy and alienate their readers. I find words that fascinate me everywhere. I struggled for years to describe myself as a person who loves rain. I now know I am a pluviophile, a lover of rain; someone who finds joy and peace of mind during rainy days. I noticed when I typed pluviophile it was underlined in red, so I just looked it up in the “Word” dictionary and found it isn’t listed. More investigation on Google revealed it is “pending investigation.” Do you see what I mean? One word and I’m off like a detective on a noble search. I notice my writing friends are similarly afflicted. Blog mate, Susan Breen, last week posted on Facebook, “I used the word crenellated yesterday, and I think I used it properly. Though I’m not sure I should have.” Susan had me diving for the dictionary wondering if my guess about the meaning of the word was correct and feeling an odd combination of pride and relief when I was. I wanted to know why she wondered if she should have used the word. Just yesterday, Facebook friend and MWA New England colleague, Lee McIntyre posted, “My amygdala is exhausted.” A quick check told me Lee was referring to a part of the brain, which sounded vaguely familiar from my days as a student nurse. But of course I wanted to know which part of the brain and why Lee’s was exhausted. Amygdala is the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. Further scholarly research on Google showed Amygdala is associated mostly with fear. Maybe you can see why I stay away from crossword puzzles. I fear I would be lost forever under a mountain of words, trying to tunnel out, but distracted by each word I tried to burrow through. What do words mean in your reading or writing life? How do react to new words you encounter?Read more
I am running away from home. Or maybe I’m running away to home. Don’t worry. I’ve left a forwarding address. For as long as Louise Penny’s books last me, I’ve moved to Three Pines, the fictional pastoral village in her Inspector Gamache series. I promise I won’t go political on you, except to say it was politics that drove me to make the move. But any bout with darkness might drive an otherwise seemingly sane person in the same direction. When we are confronted with conflict, disappointment, sadness, betrayal, or any of the other black holes into which human beings occasionally plummet, we naturally seek order, peace, and calm. Calm for me was the operative word. In recent months, I’ve had the urge to withdraw. I want to scream, “Make it all go away” or just plain, “Go away.” My new overused word has become, “Seriously?” I’ve had the reoccurring image of myself as a toy figurine my kids used to play with, known as a Weeble. Every time you tried to knock it over, it managed to set itself straight. I have become a Weeble, exhausted from trying to find my footing after repeatedly being felled to the ground by news that makes fiction seem real. I needed a safe place to retreat. To be soothed. A place where I could restore my belief that people are inherently good and kind, even though they occasionally fall into darkness. Where I could find order triumphing after chaos. I needed to go to Three Pines. Three Pines for anyone who has not entered the bucolic village is a fictional town near the eastern townships of Quebec, not far from the northern Vermont border. I first visited Three Pines a few years ago when I read the then current Inspector Gamache adventure and was enchanted. I was also a little scared. I am an addictive reader and knew Penny had written a bunch of these novels. I immediately understood I could not read another in the series unless I went back to book one. At the time, I was downsizing my home and my life and didn’t have room for a new addiction. Besides, I knew there would come a day when I would want and need Inspector Gamache and Three Pines in my life. That day has arrived. Readers, writers, and reviewers have long wondered why people are drawn to reading mysteries. Why are intelligent, law-abiding citizens entertained by tales featuring murder? One theory, which I believe is true, is that people are drawn to stories where chaos and evil are resolved and order is restored. I know as I enter Three Pines that I can trust Armand Gamache to get answers to the puzzling questions about why seemingly good people can end up doing such awful things. Inspector Gamache shares my feelings about Three Pines. “Gamache had been to Three Pines on previous investigations and each time he’d had the feeling he belonged. It was a powerful feeling. After all, what else did people really want except to belong?” (The Cruelest Month) But it’s not only the place I am fleeing to. I want to hang out with the people. The regular supporting cast consists of gentle misfits gathered around a green where the absurd feels normal. “This place. How do you explain a village like Three Pines where poets take ducks for a walk and art seems to fall from the skies?” (The Cruelest Month) Where relationships are rich and repartee merciless and “here you old hag” and “you are queer” are statements of affection? I don’t question the genius of Louise Penny, creating a haven. I’m just grateful to have found it and that there are seven more books set in Three Pines for me to hide in. I promise an occasional postcard. And what about you? Where do you escape to as a reader? As a writer, do you intentionally try to create a place where your readers want to come and stay?Read more
A famous quote states a woman needs a room of her own if she’s to write fiction. But does she? Many authors have written in cafes, hotels, on buses, in cars, on trains and subways. My fellow Miss Demeanors and I share our writing places. Alexia: My favorite places to write are airplanes and hotel lobby lounges.Airplanes provide some background noise, which keeps my mind from wandering, but not so much noise that I can’t concentrate. The airplane seat provides a personal space, whose borders are defined by the armrests, that most people respect and don’t intrude upon. I occasionally encounter the overly-chatty seatmate who wants to be entertained or wants an audience for their monologue but I’ve gotten pretty good at mono-syllabic answers and body language that discourages unwanted conversation. And the flight’s duration provides a built-in time limit. I write from cruising altitude to preparation for landing.Hotel lobby lounges come with comfortable chairs, food service, and plenty of opportunities for people watching/gathering source material. Paula Munier: Oooh, I need to learn how to do that. I’m gonna try it, Alexia. Mostly I just sleep on planes and trains.As for the question: When I was a young reporter with small children at home, I could work in a crowded noisy news room or a crowded noisy kitchen, no problem.But now that my children are grown, and I work from home in an often empty house, I’ve grown spoiled. I like quiet, and require it, especially for my handwritten first drafts, which I find difficult in the best of times and places.In warm weather, what I need to wrestle with words is my lucky Waterman pen and my red leather-bound journal and a seat outside down by the lake.In the winter, I retreat to my sofa in front of the roaring fireplace and look out the windows to the now frozen lake for inspiration. Cate: With two young kids and a dog at home, I have learned to write amidst chaos. But I prefer quiet spaces. I like to write in my bedroom when the kids are in school, but have also found I can be pretty productive in the car while waiting to pick them up outside a dance or music class. I tend to edit on planes. Something about being thirty thousand feet in the air makes me ruthless. Any word or thought that doesn’t immediately interest me gets cut. Tracee: I’m with Paula…. I need a lesson in writing on airplanes. I can do it, but… I tend to binge read at 30,000 feet. in everyday life, I prefer writing in a quiet place, although I tend to move around. I like to work at a desk, in a favorite chair, or outdoors on a long table on our porch in the summer. I alternate between typing and writing, so that plays a role. Edits happen on an enormous screen (at a desk!) while the rest can occur anywhere. I do have a strange preference for working in hotels. A good hotel is peaceful, with many places to write – the room, quiet places in the lobby, a breakfast room, some still have writing rooms. Terraces, porches, by the pool… the list goes on. Susan: I love to work in my office, with my dogs snoring at my feet. When I’m feeling peaceful, my mind feels freer to wander around. But sometimes it’s fun to be in a more frenetic location. I like sitting at one of the tables at Bryant Park and feeling all the energy from the city and scribbling in my notebook… I guess I am the pack rat in this group. I write surrounded by treasured photos, treasured books, and post-its to remind me who I’m writing about. I’m sorry to say that my entire office looks like this, and there are two cockapoos lounging in a chair to the left of the photo Robin: Anywhere, any time. As an almost-debut author I’m hungry and motivated to write whenever I have stolen moments or can create big chunks of time. An example of a stolen moment is my day job commute. I take a train or subway a couple of times a week, which are great sources of inspiration for drawing characters based on what I see & hear. When I’m home, I alternate between my office and my kitchen. I move to the kitchen when I need to stretch my legs by standing at the counter. I’m standing there right now, in fact. One of these days I’ll invest in a pneumatic desk so I can raise and lower my home office workspace. Michele: For years, I wore so many hats, I had to squeeze writing in whenever I could find time. I wrote in courtrooms, on planes and trains, in classrooms, cars. and offices. Now that my primary focus is writing, I find I still write anywhere I can and choose. I’ve discovered I love writing outdoors (why not?) on a porch, a beach or at a picnic table. I have invested in a waterproof case for my laptop. While I love having a desk to organize me, I prefer to do the physical act of writing on my lap. Why I didn’t know until recently was that lovely lap top antique desks exist, I don’t know. But I’m sure I’m going to find one. Where do you write?Read more
Award season is upon us. The Golden Globes have been handed out, honoring Hollywood achievements, and the Oscar nominations have been announced. The nominees wait, breaths held and fingers crossed, hoping to hear their names called when the presenters open the envelope and read, “And the Oscar goes to…” The literary world awards its share of prizes, including the Pulitzer and Nobel. Some honor excellence in writing in general, some awards are genre specific. The Lefty, the Agatha, and the Edgar, three that honor excellence in crime writing, just released their nominee lists. The Lefty Awards are presented annually at the Left Coast Crime convention for the best humorous, historical, and debut mystery novels, as well as a prize for a mystery not in the above categories. Winners are selected by votes of registered convention attendees. This year’s nominees are:Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery NovelDonna Andrews, Die Like an Eagle (Minotaur Books)Ellen Byron, Body on the Bayou (Crooked Lane Books)Timothy Hallinan, Fields Where They Lay (Soho Crime)Heather Haven, The CEO Came DOA (Wives of Bath Press)Johnny Shaw, Floodgate (Thomas & Mercer)Diane Vallere, A Disguise To Die For (Berkley Prime Crime) Lefty for Best Historical Mystery Novel (Bruce Alexander Memorial) for books covering events before 1960Rhys Bowen, Crowned and Dangerous (Berkley Prime Crime)Susanna Calkins, A Death Along the River Fleet (Minotaur Books)Laurie R. King, The Murder of Mary Russell (Bantam Books)Catriona McPherson, The Reek of Red Herrings (Minotaur Books)Ann Parker, What Gold Buys (Poisoned Pen Press) Lefty for Best Debut Mystery NovelSarah M. Chen, Cleaning Up Finn (All Due Respect Books)Marla Cooper, Terror in Taffeta (Minotaur Books)Alexia Gordon, Murder in G Major (Henery Press)Nadine Nettmann, Decanting a Murder (Midnight Ink)Renee Patrick, Design for Dying (Forge) Lefty for Best Mystery Novel (not in other categories)Matt Coyle, Dark Fissures (Oceanview Publishing)Gigi Pandian, Michelangelo’s Ghost (Henery Press)Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning (Minotaur Books)Terry Shames, The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake (Seventh Street Books)James W. Ziskin, Heart of Stone (Seventh Street Books) The Agatha Awards honor works in the traditional (a.k.a. cozy or classic) mystery subgenre and are named for Agatha Christie. They’re presented at the annual Malice Domestic convention. Winners are determined by conventioneers’ ballots. This year’s nominees are:Best Contemporary NovelBody on the Bayou by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)Fogged Inn by Barbara Ross (Kensington)Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge Books) Best Historical NovelWhispers Beyond the Veil by Jessica Estevao (Berkley)Get Me to the Grave on Time by D.E. Ireland (Grainger Press)Delivering the Truth by Edith Maxwell (Midnight Ink)The Reek of Red Herrings by Catriona McPherson (Minotaur Books)Murder in Morningside Heights by Victoria Thompson (Berkley) Best First NovelTerror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (Minotaur)Murder in G Major by Alexia Gordon (Henery Press)The Semester of Our Discontent by Cynthia Kuhn (Henery Press)Decanting a Murder by Nadine Nettmann (Midnight Ink)Design for Dying by Renee Patrick (Forge Books) Best NonfictionMastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories that Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats by Jane K. Cleland (Writer’s Digest Books)A Good Man with a Dog: A Game Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods by Roger Guay with Kate Clark Flora (Skyhorse Publishing)Sara Paretsky: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Margaret Kinsman (McFarland Books) Best Short Story”Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story” by Gretchen Archer (Henery Press)”The Best-Laid Plans” by Barb Goffman in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (Wildside Press)”The Mayor and the Midwife” by Edith Maxwell in Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out Books)”The Last Blue Glass” by B.K. Stevens in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine”Parallel Play” by Art Taylor in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (Wildside Press) Best Children/Young AdultTrapped: A Mei-hua Adventure by P.A. DeVoe (Drum Tower Press)Spy Ski School by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster)Tag, You’re Dead by J C Lane (Poisoned Pen Press)The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos (Balzer & Bray)The Secret of the Puzzle Box: The Code Busters Club by Penny Warner (Darby Creek) The Edgar Awards, named for Edgar Allan Poe, are given by the Mystery Writers of America to honor the best in crime writing and television. An MWA volunteer committee selects the winners in numerous categories as well as a Grand Master. Awards are also given to honor someone outside of creative writing who has worked to promote the mystery field and for excellence in mystery publishing. This year’s nominees are:BEST NOVELThe Ex by Alafair Burke (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper)Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (Hachette Book Group – Grand Central Publishing) BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHORUnder the Harrow by Flynn Berry (Penguin Random House – Penguin Books)Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown Publishing Group)IQ by Joe Ide (Little, Brown & Company – Mulholland Books)The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)The Lost Girls by Heather Young (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow) BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINALShot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott (Polis Books)Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books) BEST FACT CRIMEMorgue: A Life in Death by Dr. Vincent DiMaio & Ron Franscell (St. Martin’s Press)The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan by Laurence Leamer (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder That Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy (Pegasus Books) While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness by Eli Sanders (Penguin Random House – Viking Books)The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale (Penguin Random House – Penguin Press) BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICALAlfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd (Penguin Random House – Nan A. Talese)Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime: Works and Authors of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden Since 1967 by Mitzi M. Brunsdale (McFarland & Company)Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (W.W. Norton – Liveright)Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula by David J. Skal (W.W. Norton – Liveright) BEST SHORT STORY”Oxford Girl” – Mississippi Noir by Megan Abbott (Akashic Books)”A Paler Shade of Death” – St. Louis Noir by Laura Benedict (Akashic Books)”Autumn at the Automat” – In Sunlight or in Shadow by Lawrence Block (Pegasus Books)”The Music Room” – In Sunlight or in Shadow by Stephen King (Pegasus Books)”The Crawl Space” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Joyce Carol Oates (Dell Magazines) BEST JUVENILESummerlost by Ally Condie (Penguin Young Readers Group – Dutton BFYR)OCDaniel by Wesley King (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)The Bad Kid by Sarah Lariviere by (Simon & Schuster – Simon & Schuster BFYR)Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (Simon & Schuster – Simon & Schuster BFYR)Framed! by James Ponti (Simon & Schuster – Aladdin)Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry by Susan Vaught (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books) BEST YOUNG ADULTThree Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger (Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry (Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group – Henry Holt BFYR)Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown BFYR)My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier (Soho Press – Soho Teen)Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor (Penguin Random House – Penguin Young Readers – Dial Books) BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY”Episode 1 – From the Ashes of Tragedy” – The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Teleplay by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (FX Network)”The Abominable Bride” – Sherlock, Teleplay by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat (Hartswood Films/Masterpiece)”Episode 1 – Dark Road” – Vera, Teleplay by Martha Hillier (Acorn TV)”A Blade of Grass” – Penny Dreadful, Teleplay by John Logan (Showtime) “Return 0″ – Person of Interest, Teleplay by Jonathan Nolan & Denise The (CBS/Warner Brothers)“The Bicameral Mind” – Westworld, Teleplay by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy (HBO/Warner Bros. Television) ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD”The Truth of the Moment” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by E. Gabriel Flores (Dell Magazines) GRAND MASTERMax Allan CollinsEllen Hart RAVEN AWARDDru Ann Love ELLERY QUEEN AWARDNeil Nyren THE SIMON & SCHUSTER – MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARDThe Other Sister by Dianne Dixon (Sourcebooks – Sourcebooks Landmark)Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Llewellyn Worldwide – Midnight Ink)Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Tor/Forge Books – Forge Books)Blue Moon by Wendy Corsi Staub (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow) Congratulations and good luck to all the nominees.Read more
How many of you have already given up on your New Year’s resolutions? I have. I won’t even tell you what they were. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to keep a resolution past January.I’m trying something different this year—challenges. Not the one-off kind that go viral on the Internet like eating cinnamon, mimicking a mannequin, or pouring ice water over your head. I signed up for challenges that involve a year-long commitment. Challenges are more specific task oriented than resolutions and I’m a task-oriented person. If you accept the challenge, you agree to do something—read, cook, sew, draw—every day or week or month for a year. You keep track of your progress on your calendar or with a checklist or with social media posts. I signed up for a daily challenge, 1 Year of Stitches. You embroider one or more stitches and post a picture to Instagram or Twitter every day for a year. I’ve kept up pretty well, so far. I missed a couple of days but I doubled up the day after and I’m still on track. One stitch doesn’t take much time. I also signed up for two reading challenges. I pledged to read thirteen books this year for the Goodreads challenge. I set the bar low—one book a month plus one—but I don’t read as fast as I used to and challenges are more fun if you have a real hope of completing them. And if I read more than thirteen I get bonus bragging rights. I decided to push myself by signing up for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. Book Riot goes beyond challenging you to read a certain number of books by year’s end. They select categories and you read a book that fits into each. You win a thirty percent discount at the Book Riot store if you succeed. All of the categories are creative, some are tricky—read a book set within one hundred miles of your location, read a book about books, read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. One book can satisfy multiple categories, though. A book published between 1900 and 1950 about a war set more than 5000 miles from your location would fulfill three. If I complete the Book Riot challenge, I also complete the Goodreads challenge so I can achieve two goals at once. I probably (definitely) could have found enough books in my TBR pile for both reading challenges. But, to up the excitement and to discover some books I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for myself, I subscribed to two book-a-month programs. One, run by Bas Bleu Booksellers, offered me a choice of mysteries, general fiction, or biographies and memoirs. I chose mysteries. The other, run by Heywood Hill bookstore, in London, offered nearly a dozen options. I went with the 12-month paperback subscription. I have no idea what genres my books will be in, only that they were selected by my personal bookseller (seriously, she even sent me her card) based on what she thought I’d like after I had a reading consultation (by email since we’re on different continents). I received my first book, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a couple of days ago, adorably wrapped in brown paper and ribbon. My goal for participating in reading challenges and book subscriptions this year is to stretch my reading horizons and, by doing so, become a better writer.Have you accepted any challenges for 2017? How do you plan to expand your creative horizons this year?Read more
Escapist fiction is defined by Wikipedia as “fiction which provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader in exotic situations or activities.” The term is often wielded like a derogatory club against works deemed unworthy by fanatical devotees of “literary fiction,” works that, according to Wikipedia, have “merit…involve social commentary or political criticism or focus on the human condition…and is often more focused on themes than on plot…” Literary fiction boasts of “analyzing reality” while escapist fiction, also known as popular or genre fiction, aims to escape reality. I love escapist fiction without apology. I’m not embarrassed to be seen reading a book that will never be nominated for a Pulitzer or a Nobel or a Man Booker prize. I’ve nothing against prize-winning works of great lit-tra-chure, except the prodigious heft of some of the hardback editions. I even read, and enjoy, literary novels. Several claim spots in my (out of control) TBR pile. But when I do read literary novels, I choose them based on the story they tell, not because of some important message the critics ensure me is waiting to be discovered in the 982 pages. I don’t need, nor do I especially want, my fiction to mirror or analyze society. That’s what non-fiction is for. I read the news to find out what’s going in the world. (Granted, it’s become difficult to distinguish between news and fiction these days. Thanks, Interweb.) If I want more depth or detail than a newspaper article can provide I turn to the non-fiction section of the bookstore. Non-fiction has come a long way since the days when it all tended to read like dust-dry textbooks. It’s become “creative” and often reads like a novel. I read fiction for entertainment. There, I said it. I feel no shame. Entertainment is not bad. Humans have always sought entertainment. True, we’ve created some sick forms of entertainment over the centuries but we’ve come up with some good stuff, too. Like fiction. I’m not hiding my head in the sand when I seek entertainment in fiction. I’m not trying to pretend what’s happening in the world isn’t happening. I know what’s going on. You can’t turn on a TV or open a social media feed or, depending on where you live/who you work for/what you look like/where you worship/who you love, step outside your door without getting a wallop of reality right upside your head. Sometimes I get so much reality my head hurts. I want to scream. I often cuss. Worse, I start to think things that make me worry I’m turning into a person I wouldn’t like very much. I need to get away from reality to save my sanity. I need to be entertained. I need to lose myself. I need to escape on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo or down a rabbit hole with Alice. I need to bring murderers to justice with Marple and Poirot. I need to poke a finger in bureaucracy’s eye while saving the universe with Jame Retief. Of course, genre fiction can have “literary merit”. Many literary novelists have jumped the pop fiction fence and created “cross-genre” or “genre blurring” works that leave bookstores scratching their heads about where to shelve them and prize committees fielding complaints about prizes being awarded to books that are “too popular.” A popular book can make a profound statement about our society and the human condition. Science fiction has a tradition of skewering societal norms and trends. Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Laumer’s Retief series are just a few sci-fi novels that do this in entertaining (and in Laumer’s case, hysterical) ways. It’s possible to be capital-m-Meaningful and entertaining at the same time. For example, a fictional detective can solve a fictional crime while saying something about the society in which a particular victim succumbs to that particular crime. Plot doesn’t have to be sacrificed at the altar of significance. So, genre fiction, more power to you. Keep teaching us while you entertain. But, mostly, entertain. Tell me a good story. As Sana Hussain said in her essay, “Literary or Not: The Reality of Escapist Fiction,” let me “doff the burden of [my] problems and inhabit a world…that makes up for the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the real world by offering rationality and resolution.” Bring order to chaos. Strike a blow for truth and justice. Let the good guy win. Remind me life isn’t always as twisted and ugly and painful as it seems. Entertain me. My overwhelmed brain and bruised soul thank you. Do you think the escapist vs literary debate is artificial? Is escapist a bad word? Why do you read escapist fiction?Read more
Today, January 23, is National Handwriting Day. Created in 1977 by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers’ Association (WIMA) to coincide with John Hancock’s (the man whose name is synonymous with “signature”) birthday, National Handwriting Day celebrates the art of writing by hand.
Why celebrate something as archaic as handwriting in an era of ubiquitous keyboards? Everyone types these days, don’t they? Schools don’t even teach handwriting anymore. Why bother? Because the act of picking up a writing instrument, whether pen, pencil, marker, or crayon, and putting words on a surface (preferably, paper. Writing on walls is graffiti and may get you into trouble) creates a connection between mind, body, and world unmatched by computer keyboard or smartphone touchscreen. Writing by hand forces you to slow down—not a bad thing. When you slow down you have more time to notice things, more time to think. I write my first drafts, including of this blog post, and do my initial edits by hand. I get lost when I sit in front of a blank computer screen and type with no handwritten reference to refer to. I forget what I typed after it scrolls off the screen. Scrolling back through pages and pages of uniform font to find what I typed two thousand words ago makes my eyes water and my head hurt. In my handwritten drafts, on the other hand, my scribbles, cross-outs, circles, arrows, and marginalia serve as visual cues to help me locate information.
We celebrate handwriting for its individuality. Times New Roman is Times New Roman regardless of whose computer screen displays it. Handwriting expresses the writer’s personality the way typewriting can’t. Look at John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence. You can guess he was not a timid man. My handwriting is mine and mine alone. It reveals clues to my state of mind. It morphs to suit my mood and purpose. Slanted, cramped letters with write-overs instead of cross-outs mean I’m in a hurry. Wandering letters in a variety of sizes mean I’m tired. Rounded, upright letters mean I’m inspired. Big letters with bold strokes mean I’m ticked off and/or fired up. Neat, evenly-spaced letters mean I’m making an effort to improve readability because the writing is meant to be read by others.
We celebrate handwriting because it gives us an excuse to buy pens and paper. That was WIMA’s motivation behind the designation of the day. I love pens. I have dozens, ranging from high-end fountain pens to freebies I collected from hotel nightstands. If you add pencils and markers to the tally, the number is in the hundreds which doesn’t stop me from acquiring more in my quest to find the “perfect” writing instrument. I love paper, too. Bound, unbound, lined, blank, graphed, it doesn’t matter. I confess to an office supply fetish. The sensation of a pen gliding across a sheet of paper, the weight of the pen barrel in my hand, the smell of the ink—these things make me happy.
“But writing by hand is hard,” I hear you say. It doesn’t have to be. Handwriting today is nothing compared to the formal penmanship of Hancock’s era. I bought a book called A Proper Hand: Writing in the Manner of the 18th Century during a recent trip to Colonial Williamsburg. The author spends thirty-two pages describing the equipment and preparations needed before he got to the actual writing. Nowadays, grab a Bic and a Post-It note and you’re good to go.
If your handwriting is bad, as mine often is when I’m in a hurry or I’ve spent a day signing medical forms (Bad Handwriting 101 is a required med school course.) you can improve it. You can take a calligraphy class if you want handwriting that would be at home at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence or you want to DIY your invitations. Or you can go to a site like WikiHow and find simple tips such as: move your whole arm when you write instead of just your fingers, angle your paper thirty to forty-five degrees from your body.
WikiHow also suggest some ways to celebrate National Handwriting Day. Write a journal entry. Write a letter to a friend, relative, or lover. (Texts and emails are not romantic.) Write a story. Write down your dreams and your goals. And don’t worry, you don’t have to go full Luddite. You can post to social media with #NationalHandwritingDay.
How will you celebrate?
All writers are asked: What’s your favorite book? I dread this question because I know that my answer won’t be entirely truthful. I’ll either dive into my store of childhood favorites, or pick the one I’ve read recently. There are books I cherish for the memories they evoke, ones I think of as favorites because they were the first of a kind to me (first mystery, first nineteenth century novel). There are books I wish I’d written, books I wish I could read again for the first time (War and Peace – I wouldn’t know that Prince Andrei dies). MissDemeanors, what’s your favorite book? Cate:My favorite book depends on when I am asked. At the moment, I would say The Catcher In The Rye because I read it when I was coming of age and I am currently feeling nostalgic. But the correct answer is it depends. Susan:That is a little like asking me which is my favorite child. If I were stuck on an island with one book, I’d probably pick Jane Eyre, which has always so inspiring to me, even though I think she should have just moved in with Mr. Rochester. But when I think of the book I’ve probably read the most over the course of my life, it would probably be Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced. Paula Munier (we’re delighted to have you here this week!):There are so many ways to define “favorite” books. If you mean my favorite books as a child, I’d say the Bobbsey Twins. If you mean the books that rocked my world as a young woman, then I’d say The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris and The Diary of Anne Frank and Emerson’s essays and Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. If you mean the books I read over and over again, then I’d say those by Alice Hoffman and Elizabeth Berg and Jane Austen and Louise Penny and Shakespeare and all my favorite poets (this is a long list, topped by Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda and Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver and on and on). If you mean the books that inspire me as an artist, then I’d say those written by Anne Lamott and Mark Nepo and Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. if you mean my favorite books that I’m reading right now, then I’d say Louise Penny’s The Great Reckoning and Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds and Mary Oliver’s Upstream. If you’re asking me my favorite book as an agent, then it’s the one I just sold. But if you’re asking me my favorite book as a writer, then it’s the one I’m writing. At least when the writing is going well. Robin:That’s a tough one! Flowers For Algernon is a book I’ve read so many times that my first copy literally fell apart. I held it together with a rubber band until I started losing pages and finally bought a new copy. The the intimacy of the journal format with the use of character voice to heighten the tension just kills me every time. Murder On The Orient Express made me want to write mysteries. It’s the book that really drove home the lesson that characters drive the story, and that particular cast is so vividly drawn. It also showed me that an author can have fun with a theoretically gruesome subject. The first time I read it was right after I read The Exorcist so I responded to the light-hearted change of pace. If you can call murder light-hearted.
Alexia:My favorite book is still Alice in Wonderland. Alice was the first independent female protagonist I encountered. She had adventures, she solved her own problems, she had smarts and wasn’t afraid to use them. She didn’t sit around like a helpless ninny waiting for some prince to come rescue her. Michele:If I have to choose one book, it would be Pride and Prejudice, which I resisted as a high school senior and felt hopelessly in love with. For years, I read it every spring in honor of Danny Dwyer, the teacher who insisted we read it and died tragically before the age of thirty in an auto accident not long after. I consider it a brilliant romantic comedy and Jane Austen most definitely a woman before her time, who also had to struggle with the woes of publishing. What about the rest of you? Favorite books? Or too many to name?
I write mysteries; not political or social essays. On the other hand, the written word is mighty in any format. And I’m part of a powerful genre. Millions of people read mysteries every day. They read for entertainment, of course, but ‘simply entertainment’ isn’t an accurate descriptor of any activity. There is a consequence – the reader is more relaxed, or open to new ideas, or agitated, or looking at the world in a different manner (even if it’s a paranoia about why their neighbor’s curtains are closed). Recently, Writers Resist held over 90 events across the country (and world) to remind us of the ideals of democracy and free expression. Held in conjunction with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the events focused on readings, music, and performances celebrating these values. Anyone living in America must recognize that freedom of expression is a core value. It is the most fundamental aspect of society that is missed in, for example, North Korea. it is freedom to write at all, regardless of what you project onto the page. It is the right of people of all religions, races, genders, and social and political beliefs to express themselves. At a certain moment, it is about my right to pen mysteries. To protect themselves from the viewpoints of their political opponents, authoritarian societies take away the ability of all people to present their views (after all, plot points and clues could contain secret subversive symbols). With this in mind, I will say that all of us, any of us, as we express our views, as we write our mysteries and thrillers, are actively participating in the freedom of expression that makes democracy great. That said, I’ll go back to plotting my next mystery….Read more
Emotional reactions are at the heart of crime fiction. Why do people – myself included – love to read mysteries? I believe it is because the books often deal with the ultimate human experience. Death. They allow the reader to react to death. Reading is a way of processing, understanding and, perhaps in a tiny way, preparing. We want to read about the policeman or physician who deals with death daily and understand how their public and private reactions might differ. We want to experience – albeit vicariously – these moments from a variety of perspectives, including one that might be our own. In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as the stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying. Growing up, my father spoke about these stages in conjunction with his practice. He was an emergency room physician, and I remember him saying that no one should rush into a waiting room and be told that their loved one died in the car crash. There were important intermediate stages – a nurse or staff member telling the family that it was serious, perhaps the move to a private portion of the waiting room, medical personnel speaking to the family and explaining the critical situation, perhaps asking if they want a member of the clergy to join them, then, ultimately the final news. My father acknowledged that in the emergency room these stages might occur within a few minutes, but he felt that people needed at least a chance to touch upon the stages of grief before the jolt of finality. Contemporary mystery novels usually involve death and I try to think about these stages of grief when writing. The stages might move swiftly, or takes years (or forever) to achieve, but they do provide an emotional path. The emotional path can be in response to the action of the book, or can trigger the crime at the heart of the novel. Of course, the stages are not necessarily linear or universally experienced, but for a writer – or anyone – they provide a framework for understanding.Read more