Author: Susan Breen

Writing during the holidays

Guess what? The holidays are a tricky time to keep writing. There are parties, families, family parties, work deadlines, crowds, presents. Snow. Holiday euphoria or holiday depression. School vacation days. And blog post deadlines (which I missed. Which is why this is a day late and in the wrong font and missing two Miss Demeanors.) So I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors how they kept their writing schedule going during the holidays. Did they put themselves on hiatus or did they keep going? This is what they said:    Michele:   One of the unfortunate things about practicing family law is dealing with how conflict within families escalates during the holidays. Who gets the kids for Christmas? How can I buy gifts if I’m not being paid support? It goes on and on, and frankly has dampened my holiday spirits over the years. One of the ways I have coped with this is to continue to write and crawl into the fictional world I control and that insulates me from the reality of human misery.    Sleep? I’ve been an insomniac since I was a child. Fortunately, some of my best ideas come in the middle of the night.    And that’s my Bah Humbug, […]

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Advice from Ursula Le Guin

Last night in my Gotham Writing class we discussed Ursula Le Guin’s writing advice, and, as you can imagine, she had a lot of good advice. One of the things she said that struck me was that the idea that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end is a typically European idea because it puts emphasis on the end–“on where the story goes, what you get to.”    She suggested that it might also be helpful to think of a story as a house to be explored.  “You want the entrance to be attractive, you want the front door to be invitingly open, showing a glimpse of what’s inside. Once you’re lured your reader inside, you may direct her in a definite route right through the house and the events happening in it to the back door. Or you may just provide the rooms and halls and staircases and events, and let the reader find her own way around–let her live there for a while. Or you may conduct her smllingly up to the attic and show her the yellow wallpaper and lock her in. Or you may show her views of undreamed of landscapes through the windows, charmed magic […]

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Novel Draft

This semester I’m teaching a brand-new class for Gotham Writers, titled Novel Draft 2. (As you might imagine, it follows Novel Draft 1.) This is a class designed for people who are embarking on the novel journey. Some have ideas, some have 200 pages of manuscript. Most are in that first-draft stage, which is to say they are feeling their way and are looking for inspiration and guidance. As opposed to my usual screaming and yelling. Not!  The syllabus of the class is especially fun because each week we examine a different writer and discuss excerpts from his or her book and then do writing exercises based on what we’ve discussed. So, for example, last week we studied Ernest J. Gaines and focused on his novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Gaines is a master of voice, so one of the exercises we did was to “write a brief passage from your novel from the first person point of view of a character whose point of view is never used.” I’m always floored by the things people come up with, myself include. There’s something so inspiring about sitting with a bunch of writers and writing. Which writers inspire you?

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Passion

Every morning I go out for a walk in the woods with my dogs. A couple of months ago, I began taking pictures of some of the things I saw in the woods and posting them on Facebook. One a day. I must have posted 20 pictures of fungi. But mainly I post pictures of trees. I had no particular reason for doing this, beyond the fact that I truly love looking at trees. What has surprised me though is how many people have responded to this passion of mine.    People I barely know will come up to me and say, “Oh I saw that tree picture of yours.” Strangers (and friends) send me pictures of trees, or poems about trees, or books about trees.  What has surprised me is that this passion of mine has found a home with so many other people. Turns out a lot of people love trees, but it’s something I wouldn’t have discovered if not exploring my own passion This is something I think about with writing. I do believe that when you put something you care about on the page, people respond to it. That’s what I want, anyway. To write something that connects with […]

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The Third Draft

I’ve been working on my third Maggie Dove book for more than a year. The first draft flowed out of me in a Nanowrimo eruption–more than 50,000 words in a month. The second draft took longer. I had to read through all those words and figure out what the plot was, which did not become clear to me until about word 17,000. Then I had to figure out who the characters were and what they wanted. You would think this would be a simple matter since my protagonist stays the same from book to book, but Maggie Dove is evolving (as am I) and I needed to think about how to reflect that. Then, of course, there are all the murder details, and those take a certain amount of cogitation. Drowning versus falling off a cliff versus getting hit on the head with an ax. I have to choose the right thing to go with the murderer, and oh, about halfway through I decided that the killer was going to be someone else entirely. I surprised myself, and hopefully will surprise the reader, but that meant I had to go back and think some more about what I’d plotted out. By the […]

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Our first Agatha Christie

I have a very vivid memory of the first Agatha Christie I read, which was The A.B.C. Murders. At that time, I was in Mexico City, visiting my aunt. My aunt was a fabulous and yet somewhat disreputable person who was engaged in activities that bordered, or perhaps crossed, into the illegal. So when her young niece came to visit, she wanted to make sure I did not get into trouble, and so when she went out, she would lock me into her apartment. This may explain the anxiety in enclosed spaces I feel today, but anyway, she had a huge library of mysteries. Maigret. Dorothy Sayers. And Agatha Christie. So one day I picked up The A.B.C. Murders and was just blown away. Immediately I set about reading all of them and I have the fondest memories of sitting in an apartment in the middle of Mexico City and reading about these crimes in the British countryside.  So, with that in mind, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors if they could remember the first Agatha Christie they read, and this is what they said: Alexia: I know it was one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries but I don’t remember which one. […]

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In the woods with Agatha Christie

I spend a lot of time wandering around the woods in my backyard, so I was especially delighted to visit Agatha Christie’s woods, which are like something out of a fairy tale. The trees are dark and old and mysterious. But then you’ll turn a sudden bend and find yourself in a surprisingly lush and cozy spot. I was there in October so Hydrangea Walk and the Dahlia Border were not in bloom. But there was still so much to see, such as a flower called a “Red Hot Poker.”   Mainly the sense I got was of peacefulness. There were benches all over where you could sit and think. My husband and I climbed to the Top Garden, and there saw a view that I think must be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. There were cows in front of us, the Dart River stretched below, and everything smelled fresh.  Many of the trails were quite steep. And the other thing that struck me was how many determined people, some of them with canes, one with a wheelchair, were clambering around. Almost everyone there was smiling, I believe because Agatha Christie is so beloved. You had a real sense that people made […]

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Murder at Greenway House

To get to Greenway House,  my husband and I took a 3-hour train ride southwest from London, to Totnes. Then we took half hour taxi ride to Dartmouth, and then a half hour ferry boat ride to  Greenway House. It was not as arduous as it sounds, however, because the Devon countryside is lovely, and as soon as I set foot in Dartmouth I felt myself tingle with the sense that I’d been there with Agatha Christie. So many of her stories have been set in this part of England.  I have it in my mind that poor Gladys from A Pocketful of Rye was enticed to go to Torquay, though that may be wrong. But Agatha Christie herself grew up in Torquay, and this area of the country was clearly important to her. How many of her stories are set on the seaside, on coves and beaches, with pavilions.  Just to give a few examples, one of the bodies in the A.B.C. Murders shows up in Churston, which is only two miles from Greenway. In  Five Little Pigs, a murder occurs in a house overlooking the Dart River. And in Dead Man’s Folly, the very boat house at Greenway (pictured above) is described […]

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Dining with Agatha Christie

One of my favorite rooms at Greenway House was the dining room. Here was where Agatha Christie celebrated holidays with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, her daughter Rosalind and her grandson, Matthew.  You’ll note there’s a small pitcher in front of Agatha Christie’s seat, whereas the other settings have wine glasses.  That’s because Agatha Christie was a teetotaler. Rather than alcohol,  she preferred to drink Devonshire cream. (Just as a side note, I looked up the calorie count on  Devonshire cream and it’s 73 calories a tablespoon!) She also liked to drink a glass or two of Devonshire cream while she wrote. Perhaps this is a secret to a long career. At one end of the dining room was this intriguing little knick knack, that I assume is a raven. The whole house is awash with knick knacks and I was told that, when the National Trust was going through the house, they uncovered Agatha Christie’s Order of the British Empire medal under a pile of books. Incidentally, there is a person who has the job of being a Writer-in-Residence at Greenway House and she is leading a writing workshop in which writers will be prompted to use objects in Agatha Christie’s collection as a starting point for their […]

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Welcome to Agatha Christie week

 Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Greenway House, Agatha Christie’s summer home. For anyone who loves Agatha Christie (and I’m hoping there’s no one who doesn’t), it’s a treasure. What a treat to see the rooms where she wrote, to walk the woods where she hiked, and to visit the small villages on the Dart River that inspired some of her fiction. In fact, my husband and I stayed at a hotel that had been used in a 1984 version of Ordeal by Innocence. (I think. It also supposedly was slept in by Queen Mary II, though my husband’s convinced that’s impossible. But it was a fabulous hotel and why argue?) Anyway, if you look at the picture of the Dart River below, then look up and to the left, you’ll see Greenway tucked into the woods.  Below is a closer version of Greenway.House. It looks rather austere in this version, though in fact it’s surrounding by rolling hills and there are deck chairs out front where you can sit.  Once you go inside, you’re surrounded by coziness. This is a picture of the sitting room. To the left, which you can’t see, is a piano. (Agatha Christie […]

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