How creative are you?

 Most writers claim some modicum of creativity. Any writer of fiction does, after all, we are creating people, places (or at least the specific description of a real place), dialogue, sometimes even entire worlds.  But I believe extra credit should be given to those among us who create not only books, but words, and indeed, entire genres. Horace Walpole was such a man. What do I envy most about him? The creation of the word serendipity. Today it is defined as ‘luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.’ He first used the word in a letter, calling the word ‘very expressive’. It was not a word created out of thin air: Serendip was the old name for Sri Lanka. However, it was not the exotic geography that led to his word serendipity. There was a very early detective story titled ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ that told the story of three princes who track down a missing camel through luck and good fortune. Walpole was inspired by their tale and, voilà, serendipity was born. If that weren’t enough, Walpole created the Gothic genre with the novel The Castle of Otranto. Technically he probably deserves some credit for modern marketing since he pretended the novel was a sixteenth century manuscript discovered among the possessions of an ‘ancient Catholic family.’ It was published to great acclaim and popularity and it was only with subsequent printings that Walpole added a note to the effect that it was an original, modern work of fiction. Since I began my professional career as an architect I also have to admire the fact that Walpole created an architectural style. His London residence, Strawberry Hill House, pre-figured the nineteenth-century Gothic revival, lending its name to ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ architecture. Gloom was the watchword. I can’t help but wonder if he was the eighteenth century equivalent of JK Rowling. She elevated the stature of young adult books in the marketplace, creating a series that led to blockbuster movies and a theme park. Walpole created a genre and an architectural style. Not bad for a pair of storytellers. Dare I say aspirational? 

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The accoutrements of writing. Part 3. The Place.

 I agree with PD James that all she needed was a pad of paper and a chair in order to write. That said, I like variety. I’m a peripatetic writer. I move from the front porch (it’s an old Victorian house so the porch is 38 feet long, a marvel that should be enjoyed and appreciated!) to the studio (where I have a big monitor, all the better to read the manuscript in fine detail) to various chairs around the house (where I constantly whine that what I really need is a footstool). Stephen King has said that a writer should face a wall in order to focus. The length of my front lawn is a type of wall. It’s walnut and maple trees and grass, peaceful and not distracting. I don’t think much about what’s around me when I’m writing. Music helps me focus and I am well trained to keep my eyes on the screen. Steve Berry once placed a sign on his writing studio that read something along the lines of “Writer at work, please do not disturb.” He eventually realized that he wasn’t keeping his family out as much as he was trying to keep himself in. That’s the hard part. Where do you work so you won’t think that mowing the lawn or doing laundry is a better alternative? That’s the blank wall. The place where you don’t pick a usually avoided chore as a way to avoid the real problem: a blank page. To stay focused I’ve created a distraction that makes me get back to work. If I’m drifting and thinking that for once in my life I should do the dishes, I first visit the large piece of butcher paper taped in my upstairs corridor. It is lined with marks indicating ten page increments and I update where my story is. The story shifts down as detail is added and I reflect on the arc of the action. If I’m really thinking about doing the dishes I compare it to earlier story boards with other books outlined on them. Somewhere on this paper I find an entry to the story – maybe it’s not the next scene or chapter. Perhaps it is earlier and a detail that I recognize should be added. Maybe I jump beyond and write a scene I know will have to be written. The outline on paper reminds me of how much is left to be down and that I have done it before. Anyone done once can be done again. Right? Then it’s back to one of my places… it really doesn’t matter which one because in the end the only space I need is the one in my mind.  

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The accoutrements of writing. Part 2. Tools.

 Not the grammar and vocabulary. Not those tools. The other ones. Are you a typewriter person (still) or a pen and paper person? Most of us are keyboarding. I am on a keyboard for a few reasons, including the obvious ones: ease of correction and the need to have a digital manuscript at some point. However, I have a collection of typewriters ranging from Underwood to IBM and a serious obstacle to using many of them is how hard it is to punch those keys. The newer electric ones are even a bit of a pound compared to the lightest of touches required on my Mac. I want to see the hands of the newspapermen and women who pounded out story after story on these marvels of iron. The oldest in my collection is the Underwood and the keyboard is at such a steep angle and the keys are so stiff it is no wonder the hunt and peck method was used. It takes all the force of my hand directed at one finger to make that key strike hard enough. Bruised fingertips anyone? The ink pen hits a similar roadblock. The first thing to consider is the type of pen. As much as I hate to admit it, the modern roller ball is a marvel of invention. It is light weight and the ink flows. If you take this for granted – after all, why shouldn’t ink simply flow – then you haven’t had the pleasure of using a fine fountain pen much less an old quill. I love my Mont Blanc, it is a thing of beauty and elegance but it’s not exactly light weight and… well, the ink. Once you open that cap you had better write and keep writing otherwise the nib goes dry. On the other end you need to allow enough time for the ink to dry on the page. Generations of fountain pen writers must have had a cadence to their work that reflected this. Slow and steady to keep the ink flowing and at the same allow time for the ink to dry. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one reason penmanship was so elegant. You needed to allow time and that allowed for the perfect construction of letters. My handwriting is a mere scribble – it looks like I took the medical school class where doctors learn to write unintelligibly – and can be useless even to me. What was that word? That note? It needs to come with a translation dictionary. I also have a collection of inkwells. They run the gambit from heavy bronze to cut glass and silver to a hollowed out seashell. Their forms are endlessly creative. They are formal and playful. They are crafted in the shape of wild animals and solemn squares. I won’t bother to detail the problems with a quill pen (I use the word pen loosely here). Scratch scratch sums it up. Think inks blots. Dry ink. Spilled ink. It’s enough to make you dash off a quick email to the folks who created the modern keyboard and the delete button and undo and save and save as and so many other conveniences that we take for granted. While I celebrate – and use – the most modern of writing tools I realize that they aren’t necessary. That’s part of the beauty of writing. Scratch words in the dirt, use the end of a borrowed broken pencil on a paper napkin. The meaning of the words is what matters. That is the constant that connects all writers from the first moment someone wrote the story of Ulysses’ journey until today and this very moment. So pick a writing tool and just get on with it. 

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The accoutrements of writing. Part 1. The music.

There’s a bit of debate among writers: which is better, the sound of silence or a perfect play list? I vote playlist. Perhaps because silence is too distracting. After all, there is always some noise and while writing I don’t want to think about anything other than what is going on in my mind. This is not a time to admire the twittering of birds, or the thump of a hammer as the house renovation continues across the street. It is certainly not a time to wonder how the walnuts got to be so big this year. (Even the thought of this is distracting. There must be an answer. These nuts are – and I am serous – louder than any other walnuts, ever. It is possible that the clever squirrels have filled them with lead. We live in a late Victorian house and the sound of the crash of the nuts on the metal roofs of the porches is enough to make you think an army is walking around up there.) You get the point. I want to control the environment. Because of this I have several playlists, each for a different situation. The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos are my ‘silence’ track. The songs flow seamlessly one to the next, the voices are instruments, subtle and harmonious. Why play them at all if they are ‘silence’ or background? They set a pace…. Steady, measured, and consistent. They are my concentrate and write partners. They mask the background of my neighborhood and help me focus. A notch up from this is any Indian music I can stream. (Thank you YouTube.) It likely helps that I don’t understand Hindi, so the words are music without the distraction of a story line. The rhythm varies between brisk, romantic and adventurous.  It is evocative without being overpowering. And it is enough to keep my mind off the walnuts. Sometimes I need a little more pep – they say Stephen King writes to mind blowing loud rock music (he lives in Maine… is it possible that he needs to drown out even louder falling walnuts?). For my level of pep I have a playlist of – even to me –  random songs. The range includes Carrie Underwood, U2, The Eagles, Adele, One Republic, and Coldplay among many others. It bounces all over the place and quite frankly some of the songs are loud and in-your-face. How does this help keep me in my mental zone? No shuffling, that’s the rule. It is amazing how the mind filters when it knows what to expect. I can listen to this list and when it stops after an hour and fifty five minutes it’s time for a break. Have I ‘heard’ any of the songs? Not really. It is possible that I don’t even like some of them, but they keep me motivated in some inexplicable way. They pass in one ear and out the other, literally. Hit shuffle and my subconscious knows something is off. With each new song there is a tiny pause to acknowledge it. Not good. I’m curious to know what others do. Silence? Music? I’ve just checked and I’ve played my ‘pep’ list 183 times. There must be something about it that I like. I just paused for a listen and the Charlie Daniels Band was playing the Devil Goes Down to Georgia. It was a surprise, even to me.

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Where do characters come from?

 Since I’m writing fiction, they are invented. Let’s make that clear. On the other hand: what does invented mean? I was trying to explain this to friends over the weekend and they had the inevitable questions about names and physical descriptions and other particulars that define a character. The easy answer is that my characters are amalgamations of people I’ve known. Someone’s eyes are mixed with another mouth and yet a third’s hair color. Voila, a fictional character. After all, I need my characters to do what I need them to do. We can skip the whole ‘my characters led me….’ discussion here. Yes, characters develop their ‘own’ personality and there are moments when you realize that what you’ve written doesn’t sound like them. But, trust me, I’m ultimately in control. They do not seize the keyboard (although if they would, that would be lovely. Ah to wake up and find that next scene written!). Back to the point… and the question posed over the weekend. A friend suggested I include one of our mutual friends in my next book. It was meant as a nod to someone we both admire, something he would think was fun and flattering. But wait. Does that mean I use his name and he’s a one-line character, a waiter in a passing scene, for example. My friend is most definitely not a waiter so it would be a fictional part, but he would read the name and know that I’d included him. Later, I jokingly asked if he would want to be the killer or the victim. He picked victim, specifically requesting a glamorous demise to start the book off in style. Now I have to draw the line. You see, I might not be able to separate the character from the person. I would want the real person to identify with ‘their’ character and, guess what, that would mean I’m no longer in control. I could drop the name of a contest winner in with no problem. I create the character and then assign the name. Both are ‘fictional’ to me. But to blend the fiction with the reality could be tricky. Anyone ever named their victim after a good friend? How’d that turn out?  

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Words of advice from Agatha Christie

 The other day I wrote about being a cozy author, and there is no author cozier than Agatha Christie. She invented the genre, and sometimes I like to look through her quotes for inspiration. Here are some of my favorites. 1. “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. ”  2. “Do you know my friend that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desire and aptitudes?” ― Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies 3. “The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.” ― Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 4. “Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend.” ― Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles 5. “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.” ― Agatha Christie 6. “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.” ― Agatha Christie, An Autobiography 7. “It is completely unimportant. That is why it is so interesting.” ― Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 8. “What good is money if it can’t buy happiness?” ― Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit 9. “There is too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will. I must concede you the Devil. God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so busy punishing ourselves.” ― Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger 10. “There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.” ― Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicarage

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Embracing failure

The other day I saw a wonderful clip of J.K. Rowling on Facebook. She was talking about how she struggled with failure for a long time, but in the end concluded that it stripped away the inessential and gave her the freedom to write Harry Potter. Something she said stuck with me: “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.” I suspect every writer in the world knows just what she’s talking about. Listening to her speak reminded me of my first novel, which was a fairly epic failure. I’m not referring here to The Fiction Class, which was published by Penguin in 2008. I like to think of that as a success. But I’m thinking of the first novel I wrote, titled PITCH. I started writing it in the mid-1990s, having spent many years writing and publishing short stories. I figured I knew what I was doing in that area, and so how difficult would it be to switch over. The novel is about a woman who trained to be a concert pianist, but suffered from stage-fright, and so was happy to walk away from that career when she became a wife and mother. She thought she was happy, anyway, until one day her old lover showed up on her doorstep. He was a great pianist, but he was fascinated by the music of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and he was convinced that he’d become possessed by an evil spirit after having performed one of Scriabin’s sonatas that was said to call up the devil. (In fact, some pianists have died after performing it.) He needed her help, but that involved her betraying her husband and coming to terms with choices she had made. I spent seven years on that novel. The first chapter was fabulous and won a best novel prize at a big conference. Publishers were interested. One young editor read it and wanted it, but when she gave it to her senior editor, she said, “I just don’t know what this about.” I revised it. I resubmit. I learned how to play the piano. I was awful. My mother used to make fun of me. I revised it. I got wonderful rejections, but everyone said it was just a little odd. Or else they’d say if I’d written it ten years earlier, it would have been published in a minute. I changed the point of view. I changed the ending. I changed the middle, and finally I changed the beginning, which was the one part I knew really worked. Finally, after seven years of this, I put it aside. I then spent four years working on a novel titled COURTING DISASTER, about a woman who gets engaged 17 times, and then finally falls in love. That didn’t sell either, though I think it had a better narrative arc and best of all, there was a character in it, Chuck Jones, who I loved, and who became an important character in THE FICTION CLASS. I wish both those novels had sold, but they didn’t, and yet I learned so much from them. I consider them my very long M.F.A. degrees. Or perhaps Ph.Ds. I never would have chosen to work for so long on something that didn’t work, but I don’t regret what I did. I gave it my heart. The other day, I was thinking about a scene I might like to write in a new MAGGIE DOVE. There’s a piano teacher in the series, Arthur Cavanaugh, who doesn’t have a big role, but he could. In fact, it’s possible an old lover of his will show up, and will be concerned that she’s possessed by Scriabin’s ghost. I don’t know. Just a thought.

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On being cozy

 I’m proud to say I’m a cozy mystery author, though I didn’t actually intend to be one. I started off writing a novel about a woman who taught a mystery writing class, who turned into Maggie Dove, who turned into a Sunday School teacher, who turned into a private detective, who turned into the protagonist of a cozy mystery series. So something I’ve been thinking about a lot is, What does it mean to write cozies? What are the rules? What are the limitations? And I a chance to explore all those questions when I was on a panel at Bouchercon last weekend.  Here are some of the questions I was asked (I think. I was in such a daze, I’m not sure.) And here are some of the answers I meant to give, and possibly did. The questions came from Cathy Pickens, our fabulous moderator. What does “cozy” mean to you? As distinguished from what other kinds of mysteries or crime stories? For me, cozy means intimacy. Your protagonist is not a professional who’s paid to solve a crime. She’s someone who gets drawn into solving a mystery because it touches her in a personal way. For example, the protagonist of my mystery, Maggie Dove, is a woman who has spent 20 years mourning the loss of her daughter. She’s locked into a sort of paralysis, until her miserable neighbor is murdered and she finds his body on her front lawn. And, the primary suspect is her late daughter’s fiance. Maggie will do anything to protect that man, even if it means coming out of her isolation and reentering the world. The other thing that characterizes cozies, for me, is that although there’s bloodshed, it takes place off scene. Recently I was reading Stephen King’s wonderful Mr. Mercedes. He has a character die in a very visceral way by strychnine poisoning and I thought, Nope. That would not happen in a Maggie Dove mystery.  How important is setting in your books? What role does it play in choosing what to write? Setting is probably what drew me to write the story in the first place. I live in a beautiful little village about 35 miles north of New York City. There are about 6,000 residents. Because I’ve lived here for more than 30 years, I can feel confident that when I walk down Main Street, I’m going to run into someone I know. We have Halloween parades and Fourth of July fireworks and when people get sick, the owner of the deli will often send them food. At the same time, living so close to Manhattan, we have a number of high-powered sorts moving in. That creates an interesting tension, which gives a person such as myself a lot to write about. For Maggie Dove, an additional problem was that she realized the murderer came from her village, and if that was the case, it meant it was someone she knew. And probably loved. You all write about ordinary people in unusual situations. Do you ever have trouble writing about death and difficulty while keeping it light and cozy? One of the ways I believe I deviate from the cozy norm is that I don’t think it has to be light and frothy. Certainly there’s humor. I think there’s a lot of joy and laughing in Maggie Dove. But she is grappling with death and grieving and I think many people, particularly after a certain age, are dealing with such things. I wanted to be able to write about hard topics, but hopefully in a comforting way. Do you kill off more men or more women? So far, I have been completely even-handed!      

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The 10 Best Things About Bouchercon

This past weekend I went to New Orleans to take part in the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, which consists of hordes of writers and readers coming together to talk about mysteries. This was my first time at Bouchercon and my first time in New Orleans and I am bubbling over with all the wonderful experiences I had. Here, in no particular order, are 10 of the best. 1. Drinking a Bulleit Old-Fashioned. It was pink and frothy and I won’t say it was strong, but I didn’t have anything else to drink for the next three days and I was perfectly happy. (Here’s a recipe, if you want to make one: https://www.bulleit.com/whiskey-drinks/frontier-old-fashioned/)   2. Seeing the Mississippi River. I’m sure I have seen it before over the long course of my life (perhaps when I was on the Lewis and Clark expedition). But I haven’t seen it lately, and when you look at it it’s hard not to be moved by the important role it’s played in our country’s history. 3. Talking to private detective and author Ben Keller, who gave me many fabulous suggestions for how to make Maggie Dove a better detective. I won’t share them now. You’ll have to read the book! 4. Being on a panel. My panel was titled, Endless Harmony, and it took place at 9:00 on Saturday morning. Of course I spent all Friday night agonizing, but when I actually got there, it was so much fun. Cathy Pickens was the moderator, and fellow cozy writers Kathi Daley, Sherry Harris, Sara Rosett and Julie Anne Lindsey were on the panel. Dru Ann Love was our time-keeper. Afterwards someone told me it looked like we were all great friends, and it felt that way too. 5. Walking around the French Quarter, which is just as beautiful as in the movies. 6. Going to the Sisters-in-Crime breakfast and hearing about all the wonderful things they have planned. They are a great resource for all mystery writers. 7. Going to the book bazaar. This was a huge room filled with books and everyone who attended Bouchercon got tickets that allowed them to pick out 6 or 8 (I forget) free books. I’m happy to report that there were bound copies of Maggie Dove there and they were all taken (and not just by me!) 8. Eating. So much good food. Praline bread pudding and beignets covered in confectioner’s sugar. And that was just breakfast. 9. Attending a dinner for Random House authors at Brennan’s restaurant. That had to be a career high, especially when I walked into the room and saw Lee Child and shook his hand. 10. Meeting the Miss Demeanors in person. (Okay, I saved the best for last). What a joy it was to meet everyone. (Or almost everyone, because Alexia is in Ireland, doing research.) We had great meals, we talked, we planned, we chatted with our fabulous agent, Paula Munier, who worked the whole time lining up opportunities for us. It was magical. So that was Bouchercon, or some of it. Next year, Toronto!  

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What's your name?

I teach creative writing for Gotham Writers in Manhattan. The hardest part of my job is not the critiquing, or the lecturing, or the reading–though that’s certainly work. But the hardest thing to do is make sure that everyone likes each other. Or at least respects each other, and after years of working on this, I’ve discovered that the best predictor of whether a class is going to go well is whether people refer to each other by their names. Now you may think that sounds easy. All you have to do is introduce people and they’ll know each other’s names. But you’d be wrong. Most of us, especially when we’re nervous, which people usually are when they’re in a writing class, are not paying attention to extraneous information, such as the name of that guy sitting in the corner. So he might tell you his name is Joseph Conrad, but if you’re like me, it goes right out of your head. What you do not want is a group of people saying, “Yes, I agree with that lady in the blue shirt.” You want people connecting, and so my job is to harangue my students into remembering names (in a polite way). The difficulty is compounded by the fact that I teach in Times Square and my students come from all over the world. I grew up with people named Susan and Robert and very occasionally Priscilla. But in my classes I am presented with a true cornucopia of names, which is fabulous, but hard to get straight. So one of the things I do is write people’s name down using my own phonetic system and then I keep saying those names over and over again. Zagreb, would you hand Sushma a piece of paper? Alice, will you help Rothschild lower the window? And so on.  Sometimes, if even my best efforts don’t work, I do one of my favorite writing exercises, which is to have people write about how they got their name. Everyone has a story about her name. One of my favorites (I won’t use her name), was a woman whose parents had agreed on the name they were going to give her. But when her mother went into labor, her father left the hospital and went to a bar. Where he stayed for 36 hours. The mother was so angry that she decided to name her daughter after a television character in a TV series she knew he didn’t like. So every time that man said his daughter’s name, it was a rebuke. My own name comes as a result of a compromise between my parents. My father was Jewish, born in the Bronx, and my mother was Christian, born in Queens. My father was truly the best-natured person in the world, and he almost never said no to my mother, but when they were talking about baby names for me, my mother said she wanted to name me Christina. My father said, “Absolutely not! No Jew from the Bronx can have a daughter named Christina.” So they settled on Susan, which is an old Hebrew and Biblical name. All of this is a long way of saying that I have been thinking about community a lot, having just returned from my first trip to Bouchercon, which is a huge gathering of mystery writers and readers that takes place once a year, this year in New Orleans. One of the most fun parts was getting to meet people whose names I knew from Facebook or Twitter. In a reverse of the usual situation, I knew the name but not the person. But more about that on my blog tomorrow. How about you? Where does your name come from?    

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