I’m not really a grinch. My occasional forays into humbug-land notwithstanding, I love Christmas. The season creates in me both a sense of nostalgia and hope for the future. I look back on the past with a conveniently fuzzy memory and long for the way things “used to be” while looking forward to the coming year with hope for the way things might be. I also admit to indulging in my fair share of schmaltz and sentimentality. I’m streaming Christmas carols on Spotify as I type this. I break out the Lenox Christmas china and the Christmas-themed guest towels and ooh and aah over Facebook posts featuring puppies, kittens, and other small animals sporting bows and Santa hats. I also watch Christmas movies. At least, I used to. I’ve been disappointed recent holiday cinematic offerings. Too many “find a fiance by Christmas” flicks and too few “save the orphanage/feed the hungry, homeless man/save the neighborhood from a greedy developer/bring joy to my elderly, neglected neighbor” flicks. Of course, I can re-watch the classics. I own DVD copies of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But I wanted something I hadn’t seen before that didn’t involve Christmas kisses, dates, or weddings. Netflix let me down. Not being one to give up hope—it’s Christmas, after all—I decided to search for some classic (translation: written before the 21st century) Christmas stories to read. Here’s a sample of what I found. “The Little Match Girl.” Hans Christian Andersen’s story turns up on a lot of lists. (Yes, there are lists. I’m not the only one fallen victim to the nostalgia fairy.) I’ve read this one before and it’s a fine story but—spoiler alert—tragic tales of impoverished pre-teens who freeze to death alone at night out of doors are not quite what I had in mind for the festival season. “The Gift of the Magi.” O. Henry’s tale of love and sacrifice fits the bill of Christmas classic but I’ve read it (I had very good high school English classes) so the twist at the end isn’t so much of a twist anymore. “A Christmas Carol.” Read Dickens’ classic, too. I actually prefer to listen to Patrick Stewart narrate it, which I did the other day. “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” I’ve read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, too, but it was so long ago I forgot “who done it.” This one goes on the reading list. “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” One of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Lots of fairy tales, especially Andersen’s, show up on Christmas reading lists: “The Fir Tree,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” the aforementioned “Little Match Girl.” I love fairy tales, I grew up with them, even studied them in college. That’s when I realized how dark they are, especially the original, not-watered down versions. Better suited to Halloween reading lists. “At Christmas Time” by Anton Chekov and “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas” by Leo Tolstoy. I knew Chekov and Tolstoy wrote capital-I important, college reading list works. I didn’t know they wrote Christmas stories. On the list. “A Kidnapped Santa Claus.” Possibly dark. Santa’ kidnapped by demons. But I’m reading it because L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz books, wrote it. And because it sounds like it could be the plot of a Macauly Culkin movie. “The Holy Night.” Swedish author Selma Lagerlof was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Cold-hearted man meets mysterious beings and learns the true meaning of Christmas. Yeah, I know, sounds kind of like “A Christmas Carol.” But I like “A Christmas Carol.” But “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday classic for a reason—we all want to believe faith and some holiday magic can turn mean spirits into open hearts. Online Star Registry’s blog (https://osr.org/blog/tips-gifts/20-famous-christmas-stories/) and American Literature’s website (https://americanliterature.com/christmas) contain links to the stories I mentioned as well as several others. What are some new-to-you (or not-so-new but worth reading again) Christmas classics you want to try?Read more
Peace. Love. Joy. All words we associate with Christmas, a time of year when millions the world over celebrate the birth of Christ or the arrival of Santa. A time when people look forward to gathering with loved ones to share holiday cheer. But Christmas isn’t so merry for many. A lot of us suffer from the Christmas blues. I don’t mean clinical depression, a medical illness that demands professional medical attention, or the sadness and grief many feel during the holidays as they remember lost loved ones or deal with family estrangement or cope with being alone and lonely during a time of year second only to Valentine’s Day for its emphasis on being with “someone special.” I mean that blah feeling some of us suffer when all the holly-jolly becomes too much to bear. Joy overload. We hit a wall where we don’t want to hang one more ornament on the tree, put up one more string of lights, or stuff one more stocking. We crave home décor that’s not red, green, plaid, or emblazoned with whimsical woodland creatures. If you’ve ever envisioned hiding the Elf on the Shelf in the garbage disposal—head down—with the switch on—you know what I mean. We conceal these unseasonal thoughts lest friends, family, and co-workers label us socially unacceptable. But sometimes, when we’re all alone and no one, not even the rotund man-child who hangs out in the Arctic playing with elves, is watching we give vent to our inner grinch. Books often provide an escape from the all-consuming merry brightness of the holiday season. Google “Christmas murder mystery novels” and you’ll find enough tales of holiday homicide to keep you going until Easter. Even icons from the golden age of mystery, like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, weren’t above killing off a few revelers during fatal festivities. I just listened to Hugh Fraser narrate Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. This was right after I’d listened to Patrick Stewart narrate Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, which, except for the bit at the end, is actually a very dark story. Now that I’ve quieted my bah humbug I can sing along with Christmas carols on the car radio, cry during heartfelt holiday movies, and celebrate the joy of the season that prompts us to be a little bit more generous toward our fellow human beings than we are the other eleven months of the year. And if you really were imagining a certain elfin spy stuffed into an In-sink-erator you’re not alone. “Ways to destroy Elf on the Shelf” generated more than four million results on Google, including a You Tube video and a NSFW Pinterest page.Read more
Blogging is challenging for me. Revealing myself three hundred to five hundred words at a time is not something that comes natural to me. If blogging wasn’t part of the territory of being a modern author (We can’t all be Elena Ferrante.) I probably wouldn’t be doing it. I’m a guarded, private person. I peg way out on the analytical and introverted extremes of any type preference scale you care to administer. I will never be a memoirist. My novels are not confessionals or autobiographies. I create fictional worlds in which I bring order to chaos, unravel puzzles, set wrongs to right, and make sure good triumphs in the end. I don’t get the urge to overshare that seems ubiquitous these days. I’m not the person in line at the grocery store telling the cashier (and everyone else within earshot) about my recent surgery/recent ex/recent fight with a co-worker while the cashier rings up my produce. I have no urge to exorcise my demons or air my laundry on social media. I’d rather post snarky memes and cute animal videos. I recently wrote a paper for a course I’m enrolled in. I received it back with a high mark but with a comment to the effect the instructor wished I had shared more about myself and been less “legalistic” in tone—first person instead of third. My (unspoken) response was I don’t know you, therefore, “me” is none of your business. If you believe in astrology, this is apparently a common stance among Scorpios. But in this modern, hyperconnected, global community we live in privacy is an increasingly rare commodity. Sharing oneself with others is increasingly the norm. So I’ll keep working on the blogging and working on being more open. I’m still going heavy on the animal videos on social media, though.Read more
I’m fighting the battle of the middle arm rest. The man next to me, a very big man who doesn’t quite fit in his economy class airplane seat, is spilling over into my space. We’re shoulder to shoulder, actually touching, but I refuse to yield. I won’t sit folded up like a pretzel for three and a half hours. Air travel fascinates me. A group of people who don’t know each other are crammed (for those of us denied the luxuries of first or business class) together in a box suspended 38,000 feet in the air and forced to get along with each other for hours. You sort of have privacy. You stake out your territory with your invisible walls, your bag under your half of the under seat space, your laptop or e-reader or book (yes, people still take these on planes) in front of you like armor. You may wear headphones or earbuds to signal you want to tune out everything around you and be left alone. Some people sleep (or try to in those horrid little coach seats). Some jerks use their electronic devices to listen to music without using headphones. (Yes, you are a jerk if you do this. The entire plane does not want to hear your tunes. Use headphones or earbuds.) Some people chat with their traveling companions. Some people chat, or try to, with the stranger sitting next to them, even when it’s obvious (or should be from the book/headphones/lack of eye contact/snoring) the stranger next to them isn’t feeling talkative. I write. (True confession, tonight I slept. It was 11 pm, I’d been up since 5 am, and I had to be back at work the next morning at 6:30 am.) I get a lot of writing done on airplanes. I have an uninterrupted block of time. Excluding mister music-with-no-headphones, there are few distractions. Just enough going on around me to act as white noise. I’m surrounded by inspiration if I’m stuck for a character: her nose, his ear, his hair, her outfit. Maybe even my next literary murder victim. Hint, hint, Mr. Music. And, yes, I won the armrest battle. What do you do on airplanes?Read more
“Give someone a book and they’ll read for a day. Teach someone to write a book and they’ll experience a lifetime of paralyzing self-doubt.”
Writing my second novel is, apart from going to medical school, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My first novel was challenging. I had to learn the art of story craft, of how to create characters readers want to stick with for almost three hundred pages, of writing scenes that turned pages. But my first novel came with lower expectations. There was no precedent to live up to. These were brand new characters having new adventures. They carried no baggage.
Book two is different. The characters already exist. They have a history. They behave in certain ways. I find myself saying, “Gethsemane wouldn’t do that” or “O’Reilly would never say such a thing.” The characters have taken on lives of their own and I’m afraid to write more about them because I might mess up, get it wrong. They’ve become canonized (at least in my head) and woe be to she who violates canon.
Luckily, I have an editor who is patient and holds my hand through my meltdowns. She reassures me I haven’t lost my mind, other writers struggle with the same things, and at the end of the day the characters are mine. I can make them do what I need them to do for the story. I just need to get out of my own way and write. Has anything you created ever taken on a life of its own?
My love of reading books came from my parents, especially my mother. My parents’ house is filled with bookshelves crammed with books, some two layers deep, some stacked on top of each other. Mom is never without a book. She joked she got a job volunteering at the library so she’d have a chance to check out the new releases before anyone else. When I was growing up she and Dad worked in the same place. Dad did the driving to and from work and Mom either worked on her needlepoint or read. Now she checks out books on tape so she can listen to books while she sews. My parents let me have an unrestricted library card as soon as I was old enough to have a library card which allowed me to check out books from both the children’s and the adult sections. I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Edgar Allan Poe right alongside Lucy Maud Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lewis Carroll. My parents never told me no in a bookstore and a box filled with the latest Nancy Drews always appeared under the Christmas tree.
I’ve been writing for almost as long as I can remember, at least since the first or second grade. I’m an introvert and I’ve always found expressing myself in writing easier than expressing myself orally. One of my earliest elementary school class projects was bookmaking—writing and illustrating the story, making the covers, assembling the books. When we finished our books the school librarian added them to the library shelves. I won my first (and, so far, only) writing prize in the sixth grade for a (rather dreadful when I re-read it as an adult) poetic saga about a superhero named XY. I still have the prize—a copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. In high school I was on the staff of the yearbook and the literary magazine (lots of bad poems about talking cows). As an undergraduate at Vassar College I enrolled in every creative writing class I could find. I even passed up spending junior year abroad so I could take playwriting and screenwriting with Professor James Steerman. I also had the good luck and the pleasure to study children’s literature with Newberry Medal winner, Nancy Willard. Writing took a backseat to medicine while I finished medical school and my family medicine residency (although some of my patient histories did take on a storyteller-like flare as I wrote my chart notes). Once I started working as a full-fledged physician I enrolled in writing classes and workshops whenever I could. Creative writing helped refill my spiritual and mental wells as I dealt with illness, trauma, and drama day in and day out. Eventually, work led to Dallas, Texas where I found SMU’s creative writing program, The Writer’s Path. That program led to a finished manuscript which led me to where I am now, a debut author with a published mystery, Murder in G Major.
( picture by https://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/deveer.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) I love traveling. By car, train, airplane, it doesn’t matter as long as it gets me from home to someplace else. Sadly, actual travel isn’t always possible. I have a job and I’m expected to show up more often than not. And I’m not on anybody’s richest people list. But I’m determined not to let the practicalities of real life hold me back. I can always travel in my imagination.
Between books, movies, television, and the internet I can virtually visit any place in the world. France, Spain, Iceland, Croatia, Fiji, Antarctica, anywhere. All I have to do is turn a page, click a mouse, or change a channel and I’m there. Given the choice, I’ll take an actual trip over a virtual one but sometimes I have to make do.
Virtual travel does have one advantage (besides no lines at airport security) over actual travel, an insurmountable advantage. You can’t actually travel to a place that doesn’t actually exist. No trains stop in Wonderland. No buses run to Oz. You can’t buy a ticket on Southwest to Tatooine, even on sale. And no roads lead to Hogwarts. (You can drive to Universal to ride the Harry Potter ride but that’s not the same thing.) However, through a page or a screen you can visit any place not of this world as well as every place in it. Far off planets, underground kingdoms, fairy realms, undersea metropolises are yours for the adventure and you don’t need a passport.
If you prefer your fictional road trips closer to home, pack up your invisible Woodie and turn on your imaginary GPS. Visit an idealized town, a Norman Rockwell painting, a place that didn’t exist but should have. Go to Pleasantville or Lake Wobegon. Stop in Hill Valley, California on the way. Fictional road trips don’t have to make geographical sense. Drive to Shermer, Illinois and indulge in a little suburban angst then head down south and stop a spell in Yoknapatawpha or Maycomb County. If you seek small town charm with an edge, detour to Cabot Cove, Maine or to Midsomer County where villages are replete with murderers, blackmailers, and other deviants. And don’t forget to add Castle Rock; Twin Peaks; Eerie, Indiana; Sunnydale, California; and Cicely, Alaska to your itinerary. Not everyone’s into small towns, not even the fictional kind. If that describes you, head for the big city. The bright lights and dark corners of Basin City, Metropolis, Dark City, and Gotham await your arrival. Fiction is a travelogue who’s “only boundaries are those of imagination.” Where do your fictional travels take you?
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I can’t comment on Virginia Woolf’s first ingredient for a successful literary career. Having money certainly helps. I’m fortunate to have a daytime situation, to borrow a phrase, that pays my bills. The security of knowing a roof over my head doesn’t depend on the number of sellable words I produce makes it easier to me to pursue a career in fiction. I imagine being penniless and worried about basic survival would make writing difficult but I don’t know about impossible.
As far as Ms. Woolf’s second ingredient? Her essay was written before Starbucks and co-working. Nowadays it’s possible to borrow or rent space in someone else’s room to write. I often do. I find it hard to work at home. Home signals my brain it’s time to unwind and recuperate from the day’s stress. Home is my hermit cave. My place to retreat and recharge. (Yes, I’m an introvert.)
Writing fiction isn’t stressful. I love writing. But it is work, at least when you get to the point you’re writing on deadline for a publisher. Since my mind equates home with anything but work I struggle to focus on the business of writing when I’m there. Plus, my day job starts early. Getting up at oh-dark-thirty to get ready and get there makes staying awake past eight pm difficult.)
Writing away from home boosts my productivity. The fiction flows easier when I’m not surrounded by things my brain associates with downtime. I write first drafts in long hand so even without nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi and 4G and a computer small enough to slip into a large purse, I can work almost any place. But I have preferences. I choose public places so I’m not tempted to nap. I’d rather nap than eat so I write in public places where sleep is out of the question. I need some background noise. Not enough to distract me but enough to act as white noise which keeps me from paying attention to the silence. I’ve never lived way out in the country. I’m used to the buzz of the urban environment’s hustle and bustle. Table space is preferred but I can do without. I’ve worked crouched in a corner of an airport waiting area. Electrical outlets are a plus. I do, eventually, have to type what I wrote and a laptop’s battery never lasts as long as you need it to. Access to coffee is a bonus. Not mandatory but awfully nice.
I’ve written in libraries, airports, on airplanes (a great technique for avoiding being turned into a captive audience for an overly-chatty seatmate. Just don’t make eye contact.), in bookstores, in coffee shops, on trains, in restaurants, in hotel lobbies, even in concert halls during intermission. My two favorite writing places are in Dallas, Texas. How I miss them now I no longer live in the Big D. One is the communal table in the Joule hotel’s lobby. Handcrafted from reclaimed wood, it’s a work of art surrounded by the Joule’s other contemporary art works—paintings, sculptures, video installations. Writing at the communal table is like writing in an art gallery (which I’ve done). With built-in electrical outlets, a staff who doesn’t mind if you squat, and a coffee shop a few steps away finding a seat at the table on a weekday can be a challenge. Many downtown Dallas denizens find the communal table inspiring. But on weekend mornings and late evenings the table often sits deserted, waiting for someone to use it as a creative space.
Fort Work Co-Working shares the title of favorite. I considered renting an office to write but I didn’t need an entire office to myself and it would sit empty for most of the day while I worked at my full-time job. I only needed desk space. Behold, co-working. A monthly fee purchases access to desk space whenever it’s needed, which for me meant evenings and weekends. I’d grab a space at a desk near a window (Fort Work’s desks are communal tables like at the Joule but with a more streamlined appearance. No reclaimed wood. Plenty of outlets, though.) and write, surrounded by tech startups and entrepreneurs and with easy access to coffee and energy bars.
I will continue to struggle to work at home. Going someplace else to write isn’t always practical. But whenever possible I will search out space to borrow (or rent) in someone else’s room. Especially if that room comes with coffee.
People often ask me why I set my novel, Murder in G Major, in Ireland. I usually come up with a story about how Ireland is a locale where a ghost wouldn’t seem out of place but my protagonist would (I love a good fish-out-of-water story) but the true reason is as ethereal as my story’s specter. The setting just came to me.
The nidus of my paranormal murder mystery rests in a daydream I had. (Yes, I daydream movies in my head. It’s a great way to pass the time when you can’t decide on a book from your TBR pile and nothing in your Netflix queue appeals to you.) I imagined an African American classical violinist stranded in an Irish village with only the clothes on her back and her violin. And sometimes a harmonica. I imagined she won a prize for fiddling in a pub’s open mic contest and she used the money to rent a room above the pub. I remembered this daydream when a writing instructor asked “What’s your story about?” and it eventually became the backstory for my novel’s amateur sleuth.
But why Ireland? My fascination with Ireland defies logical explanation. I love Irish music, especially pub songs, Irish pubs, Irish whiskey, Irish festivals, Irish accents, Irish epithets Irish names, even Irish wolfhounds. (Although I have absolutely no space to keep one of these magnificent beasts.) I don’t know where I get it from. My surname is Scottish, of the great clan that spawned the legendary Gordon Highlanders. I didn’t grow up in Ireland nor in an Irish neighborhood. I didn’t know anyone Irish. My mother’s an Anglophile, not a Hibernophile. No one talked about visiting Ireland. My parents and I traveled a lot when I was a kid but Ireland never made the itinerary. If I, as a young adult, hadn’t planned a trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (with stops in London and Scotland at Dad’s request) my parents never would have set foot on emerald shores.
Where does my Irish-love come from? For the longest, I assumed it was “just one of those things.” Some people love France, some love Italy, some New York, some California. Me, I love Ireland. Just one of those things. So I thought. Until I discovered genealogical DNA testing.
Dad and I are genealogy buffs. We’ve managed to trace our family through censuses and social security death indexes and marriage certificates and draft cards along the paper breadcrumb trail from Oklahoma to Alabama and Virginia to the Carolinas. We made it as far back as the mid-1800s where we, like many African American family history researchers, hit a wall. Then Dr. Henry Louis Gates, host of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” started talking about DNA. I knew about DNA, of course. I’m a physician. DNA determined your eye color, your risk for certain diseases, and whether or not you were a crime suspect. And at big research institutions like National Geographic DNA helped sort out where humans originated millions of years ago. But Dr. Gates explained DNA could also help you figure out where your family came from a thousand years ago. Or five hundred years ago. Or a couple of hundred years ago. DNA testing had become simple and affordable and was now being used by family history researchers in a new (to me) field called genetic genealogy. I went online and Mom and Dad and I all got DNA testing kits for Christmas.
Guess what? I’m Irish. Fourteen percent, anyway. (Thirty-two percent Benin/Togo and twenty-four percent Cameroon/Congo, thanks for asking.) Slap my face and call me Shirley. Maybe my Hibernophilia isn’t so out-of-the-blue after all. Maybe it’s some sort of epigenetic love call, some trace memory of a long-forgotten ancestor. Or maybe not. Maybe it is just a thing. A thing I make no apologies or excuses for. A thing I enjoy. I’ll go on daydreaming about red-headed men with sexy brogues, drinking Irish whiskey while listening to the Dubliners, enjoying the craic at pubs and festivals, and setting stories in the land of storytellers. And when March seventeenth rolls around I’ll smile as I repeat the phrase, “Everybody’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.”
An author speaking at a writing seminar I attended commented it surprised him whenever someone complimented him on how well he’d described such-and-such a place, the geographic location in which he’d set his novel. His secret—he hadn’t really described the place. He included a few key details, aspects of the environment important to his point of view character, and left the rest to the readers’ imagination. He didn’t believe in complex descriptions of place.
I’m the opposite. I love stories that describe place so vividly I’m transported to the location and feel as if I’m walking the streets and eating in the restaurants and shopping in the stores alongside the characters. When Poe’s narrator approaches the House of Usher on the “dull, dark, and soundless day,” with “clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” and sees the “bleak walls,” “vacant, eye-like windows,” and “rank sedges,” I’m right there with him and share his “sense of insufferable gloom.” The place becomes a character. New York City is as much a character in “Law and Order” as the detectives who investigate its crimes. Nero Wolfe’s brownstone is a character in Stout’s series just as much as Wolfe and Archie. Mitchell’s Slade House and Carroll’s Wonderland are the stars of their stories.
Some argue detailed place descriptions aren’t needed in the modern era when traveling halfway around the world is as uncomplicated as pulling up an airline’s app on your smartphone. Back in the day, authors had to describe their novels’ settings in detail because a reader in rural Pennsylvania was probably never going to travel to downtown Paris. Nowadays, even if that Pennsylvanian can’t swing airfare to the City of Light, she can visit virtually. Google Earth will let her zoom in until she can almost read the menu at a restaurant along the Seine.
So what’s a modern writer who loves rich descriptions of place to do? Invent one. World-building isn’t restricted to fantasy and science fiction. If you imagine a village, as I did in my novel, Murder in G Major, you have some license to describe what you’ve created. Readers can’t find satellite images of a fictional locale so you have to tell them where the pub is and whether the church is next to the post office or the school. When I write, I visualize my characters interacting with their setting, like watching a movie in my head, and put on paper what I see in my mind. I have difficulty writing without a sense of place.
One caveat. Internal consistency matters. Just because a place is fictional doesn’t mean the bus station can be on Tenth Street in chapter one but move to Fourth Avenue in chapter twelve. Unless, of course, you’re writing speculative fiction where moving bus stations is a plot element. I sketch maps to help me keep track of what’s located where.
Do you believe less is more when it comes to describing places or that less is less? Do you prefer locations real or imaginary? Or either so long as the writer transports you? (This blog post originally appeared on Club Hen House)