MISS DEMEANORS

Inspirations

When I was a young mother, it was out of the question for me to go to an MFA. program. First of all, I didn’t have the money.  Secondly, I had four young children. Those years were filled with hiking around and laundry and writing late at night. Though I did manage to persuade my kids, for quite a long time, that they should go to bed at 7:30. I remember my oldest son once saying to me that he was the only kid in 8th grade who had to go to bed so early, and I said he didn’t have to go to sleep at 7:30. He could read for as long as he wanted. He just needed to let me have time to write. Anyway, during that time, I had to invent my own personal MFA program, and the way I did that was by finding passages in short stories and novels that I liked. I would type up those passages, because it helps to have the words in your fingers. Then I would print them out and put them on my wall. I’d read them over and over again, trying to figure out what worked and why they moved me. One particular influence was V.S. Pritchett, who I became obsessed with. Another was Anne Tyler. At one point I think I covered my wall with paragraphs from Saint Maybe. I was thinking of that recently when I read a book by Neil Gaiman. I’d never read anything by him before, but a lot of people love him, and I’m always intrigued by writers who are loved. I came to this passage, which is describing a character with a hangover: His skin felt clammy, and his eyes felt like they had been pt in wrong, while his skull gave him the general impression that someone had removed it while he had slept, and swapped it for one two or three sizes too small. An Underground train went past a few feet from them; the wind of its passage whipped at the table. The noise of its passage went through Richard’s head like a hot knife through brains. Richard groaned. I love this for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s true. If you’ve had a hangover. Which I have, once or twice. It’s alive. It’s funny, but it’s real. It surprises me. It makes me see something familiar in a new way.  I’m going to type it up and put it on my wall. How about you? What passages inspire you?  

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The shapes I see in trees

Every day that I can, I like to go off into the woods, with my two little dogs, and admire the trees. (You might have deduced as much if you read Maggie Dove.) Of course I love the leaves, but what really intrigues me are the shapes. There is so much drama in a forest! So much emotion, especially in the trees knocked over by a storm. Few things are as sad as a tree tossed to its side with green leaves still growing. What I love is how the shapes change depending on the light. IOne of the things that’s been very useful to my writing self is that trees help me see how humans express emotion.So, here are a few of my favorites.  1. Anguished treeLook out how the feathered hands reach up to protect, and you can almost hear the howl coming out of this poor trunk.   2. Ghost coming out of a tree.    3. Sassy tree: Can’t you hear it swish?    I have many more tree pictures, but perhaps I’ll stop there. How about you? Do you have a favorite tree?  

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How long do you write?

I was on a panel not long ago, with several other mystery writers. Various people in the audience asked questions, and one wanted to know how many hours each of us spent writing every day. I answered, “six.” Whereupon one of the other panelists, (who happens to be a friend), barked out, “You’re lying.” (You might wonder what people who are not my friends say to me.) I pointed out that I wasn’t lying and that she was a bully and then she said… Well, never mind. Yesterday, though, when I did in fact spend 6 hours writing, I found myself thinking about the question and realized that when I say I’m writing, I don’t mean that I’m sitting at the keyboard typing for that six hours. I’m doing a bunch of things on top of that. 1. I’m thinking, which, to the naked eye might look like I’m looking out the window at the oak tree on my front lawn. But so much of writing is imagining, and so much of that is letting my mind wander. 2. I’m reading. Because the book I’m working on now involves a different historical period, I’m reading lots of books about how people in that time dressed and ate and talked. I’m also reading psychology manuals and trying to get a better understanding of why people do what they do. And sometimes I’m reading Agatha Christie or Louise Penny, just because I want to absorb their wisdom. 3. I’m outlining. I don’t write up a formal outline before I start a book, unless an editor wants me to, but I do like to jot down notes about what’s to come. Just in case I forget. Or I might jot down a bit of dialogue. 4. I’m drinking coffee. 5. And yes, I’m pounding on the keyboard. All of which takes six hours, or sometimes more, when everything is going well and I’m in that groove and I don’t even notice the time has gone by. How long can you write?  

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Dangerous Donuts, etc.

When you’re a writer, nothing goes to waste. No insult, no embarrassment, no foolishness. If I lived it, I can write about it. This has certainly been the case with my Maggie Dove mysteries, in which I’ve drawn on my experiences as a Sunday School teacher to help Maggie solve murders. But I’ve had other career experiences that have also been useful.    1. I helped compile the Fortune 500. Yes, that one. It was my job as a young reporter at Fortune magazine to read through about 1,000 annual reports (I’m not exaggerating; it might have been more). My job was to figure out which U.S. companies had the highest revenues, and in which sectors of the economy. It took months. Never in my life did I make my grandfather so happy as when that list came out and my name was on it. There are no Fortune reporters appearing in Maggie Dove, yet. However there is an economist! 2. I worked as a docent at Sunnyside, which is where Washington Irving lived. You have to know what I look like to appreciate the humor in this. Sufficient to say that on a very good day, if the wind isn’t blowing hard, I’m about 5 feet. Dressed in 19th century clothes, with an apron, and a bonnet, I looked a bit like a dumpling. And yes, there is a docent in Maggie Dove, but she’s gorgeous. I figured, why not? 3. One of my first jobs was as an obituary writer, which is probably perfect training for a mystery writer. It wasn’t a job I excelled at because I didn’t like prying into people’s lives at a difficult time. And how do you feel now that your husband’s dead body has been laid out? But I suppose it did give me various ideas, and my mother was very proud. For years we had a framed picture of a fatal accident in our kitchen, with my byline underneath. 4. My most horrifying job was at a donut store. I had to get there at 4 a.m., and it was my job to pluck the glazed donuts out of the boiling oil with my finger. I’m sure in the decades since I worked there, some governmental agency has stepped in, but I was just a teenager and my boss said, put your finger in the boiling and I said, Sure. I don’t know what I learned from that except that it’s good to question authority. How about you? Any horrifying job experiences? 

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Writing, Blogging, Editing and Reading–All At Once

The first book was difficult because I didn’t have a publisher. I spent hours each day writing it without knowing whether anyone besides my mother and husband would ever read my work. Without a deadline, I had to apply pressure on myself to get it finished, making up deadlines as I went along and justifying to myself why I had to stay up late or wake up early in order to make them. After it was done, I had to hold my breath and pray that my agent would be able to sell it. The anxiety was horrible. The second book was difficult because I did have a publisher. I had to write it while also tearing up chapters in my first book that my editor found boring or distracting. I had to rejigger secondary plot lines and beef up character arcs in between penning chapters for the second book. Essentially, I wrote two books at the same time. When book one was with my editor, I went back to book number two. When my editor gave book one back to me, I put down book number two to rework another chapter or review another copy edit.  While doing this, I also had to read the books in my genre and do what I normally do each day as a stay at home mom of two children who, at the time, were both under five-years-old. I’m not alone in this. Most writers I know are juggling day jobs or full-time family responsibilities with writing multiple books at a time and publicizing previously published books.  Now, I’m on my third and fourth books. My third is in with my publisher and I am two-thirds of the way done with the first draft of my fourth. I am also in the midst of publicity for the second book which includes blogging and radio interviews and writing guest posts for other people’s publications.  I know that the edit for the third will come back soon and I’ll have to start the two book trade-off. I also have a list of must-read books (many by fellow authors on this blog) that I intend to finish before the year is out.  Writing is 10% inspiration, 60% perspiration and 30% time management.     

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Writer’s Thank You List

10. My Dog9. Spellcheck8. My Editor7. Fellow writers 6. My Agent5. Functioning Fingers4. Quiet Time3. My Laptop2. My Addled Mind1. Readers What are you thankful for?

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Getting In Touch With My Villains

 The other day, I lost it on my daughter. She had taken out a school library book for the third time and, for the third time, she’d completely and utterly forgotten where she could have possibly put it. The first time my six-year-old lost a library book, I was a good mom. I explained to her the importance of taking responsibility for her things, particularly things on loan. I reminded her of the designated spot in her room where the library books lived when she wasn’t reading them (this spot is not on her bookcase mixed in with the hundred books or so that she and her sister own). I found the book, buried in a toy box, and told her that I would pay the fine but that she had to help me Swiffer the kitchen floor to earn back some of the $5 fee. The second time, I was calm—albeit a little less so. Again, I pointed out the spot where she should keep the book when she was done reading it. This time, rather than dole out a chore, I took away a toy that was the amount of the fee and, since I couldn’t find the book, bought back the book that she’d lost at a store and had her bring it in. The third time, I yelled and nagged. I slammed my hand down on the desk in her room where she was supposed to keep her library books and asked her why in the heck she couldn’t remember to put them there. I told her that money didn’t grow on trees (horrible both because it’s a cliché and because it means I’m turning into my own parents) and that we had paid thirty dollars in fines in the past three months, also known as the cost of takeout dinner for our family of four. I threatened to have her write a note to her teacher explaining that she was not allowed anymore library books because nothing her mommy did could help her remember to be responsible. On and on I went, until she cried. It was not a good day for either of us. Afterward, I felt very guilty. She’s six. She forgets things. It’s developmental. It’s also an accident. She’s not trying to get me to buy the book by hiding it. To be completely honest, if she left the book in the kitchen while I was cleaning, I might have tucked it away somewhere and forgotten about it. I also had learned something I can apply to my villains. Sometimes a villain doesn’t start out bad. They try to do the right thing and it doesn’t work. Then, they try again and it doesn’t work. Ultimately because of a lack of patience, inability to deal with frustration or some other moral flaw, they lose it and opt to do something negative in order to achieve a desired result.  Yelling at my kid is bad. By the end of my tirade, I’m sure that she no more remembered where to put the book than she had the first time I’d shown her the special spot on her desk. All she was thinking about was that mommy had made her feel horrible. But, I was frustrated and annoyed that doing the patient parent thing wasn’t helping and I got angry. I became the villain. Clearly, I still feel guilty about my behavior because I’m blogging about it. But at least I can bring the insight to bear on my writing.

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Thriller Writers And The Artist's Burden

 As America struggles to reconcile herself with the results of the recent election and a divided populace, I’ve been thinking about what role artists and, specifically, genre writers have to play in the process. We in the mystery community are more apt to call ourselves craftsmen than artists. Unlike poets and literature authors who proudly wield their MFA degrees and discuss the power of words to change the world, mystery and suspense novelists are a more quiet bunch. In the privacy of our own homes, we plot out winding roads to our conclusions. We don’t claim to be moralists, though our murder detectives, CIA-agents, journalists, amateur sleuths and other protagonists are often endowed with heroic human qualities. We don’t claim to be ethicists, yet our books—arguably more than those of any other genre—are charged with having good win our over evil in the end. Regardless of what we claim, however, I believe all thriller writers must accept that part of our job is to hold up a mirror to some of the worst aspects of the human heart and our societies. At our best, we should also prescribe solutions to these failings through our narrative resolutions. I tried to live up to this responsibility in my first two books. In Dark Turns, I wanted to say something about how success in young people is measured in America and how these yard sticks can encourage education to emphasize academic achievement over the development of required human virtues. The primary antagonist in Dark Turns, Aubrey, is a beautiful young woman who is a gifted dancer and excels academically, but has little empathy for others. Without involved parents, Aubrey relies on her teachers to provide her moral guidance. They fail her. Her scholarly achievements and the resulting accolades they bestow on her school encourages the administration to overlook her apparent haughtiness and cruel behaviors to others. In the end, I make sure that the school is punished for its role in churning out high achieving people who are encouraged to be more competitive than kind. In The Widower’s Wife, I created characters who, because of their financial success, lose sight of what is important to their family–indeed, to all families. And they pay for it. A lot. I was inspired, in part, by the 2008 financial crisis which showed how greed on both large and small scales tanked the American economy and frayed the fabric of our communities.  In my next book, I tackle the importance of being true to oneself and how societal structures that encourage conformity to certain ideals can end up corrupting people. In writing that suspense authors should reflect society and prescribe solutions to its ills, I don’t mean that we must be blunt instruments. We should tell good stories. We should have unexpected twists. We should be, above all, entertaining. But we can do all these things and still shoulder the artist’s calling: laying bare the dark side of humanity and showing, by the example of our characters, how we must all appeal to our better angels.    

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YOUR Day on St. John: Come Away With Me

Dear Readers, You have had a rough couple of weeks. The election, the loss of DST, the dreariness of November. Please allow me to transport you for a day to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands where I set my books, No Virgin Island and Permanent Sunset. I wrote this originally for someone who was too ill to travel but was able to visualize a day in paradise. You awaken in a bed not your own but as comfortable. You stretch, feeling tropical breezes brushing your body. There are no aches, no pains, just anticipation of another day in paradise. The smell of coffee brewing lures you from your bedroom into the kitchen where you grab a mug and pick a croissant or scone and some strawberry jam and head out to the back deck.     The sun is rising over Ram Head spilling light onto the lush mountains and vast ocean. The colors grow so brilliant your eyes wonder can those verdant greens and cool azure blues be real.     You realize you have decisions to make. What will you have for dinner that evening? Lime tarragon swordfish on the grill? Chicken piccata with capers and lemon? Or maybe shrimp scampi? And you need to choose which beach you will go to today. Will you settle in at Francis Bay, where there is sun and shade to pick from and simple but sweet snorkeling? Perhaps a day at Trunk where the sand is so perfectly fine you don’t care how many tourists are sharing it with you. Or will you go to Gibney down that long driveway onto a beach under a glorious canopy of palm trees so quiet, you are sure it must be private?Next, you must decide what book you will bring? Should you crawl into a good Louise Perry or has Lee Child written a new one just for you?     You realize you cannot possibly make these decisions without first taking a dip in the pool. You slid out of your sarong and pause at the edge of the pool, feeling the warmth of the tropical sun slide down the back of your body, filling your spine with a growing glow that spreads throughout every cell. You look up at the cloudless cornflower blue sky and dunk into the warm water, moving slowly with ease.     Now you are ready to make those decisions and go. Soon you are at the beach of your choice, with your book open on your lap as you sit in the world’s most comfortable beach chair, occasionally running the sugar-fine white sand through your toes. You dip into the silky turquoise water at your will, floating in the warmth of water so clean you can see your toes and the little fish that want to swim with you.     By the end of the day, you’re ready to toast the setting sun on the back deck overlooking St. Thomas with its lights twinkling like a Christmas tree and Puerto Rico in the distance. Your raspberry Stoli lemonade slides down your throat while you munch on stuffed mushrooms and ciabetta dipped in aoli.     Dinner over candlelight is divine. Good company, the glow of a little sunburn with a touch of red wine makes the food even better.     You watch a little silly local television while you nibble at a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Bourbon Browned Butter ice cream and yawn. You grab that book you are so into and return to your fluffy bed with pillows just like the ones at home. You crawl in, listening to the tree frogs lullaby you. You need to get some sleep.     You get to do this all over again tomorrow.   

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TOOLS OF THE TRADE

 I have a confession to make. I love school/office supplies. While other women flock to Sephora enraptured by the latest eyeliner from Bobbi Brown, I am pacing up and down the aisles of Staples checking out the latest notebooks and highlighters. I ponder whether my post-its should be lined or not in the same fashion other people decide what kind of car to buy.            What’s with that, you might ask. Indeed, I have asked that same question many times. I connect it to my love of writing. These are the tools of the trade. And for me, the ultimate tool is the fountain pen.            When I attended a Catholic grammar school, the nuns would not let us write with anything but a fountain pen. Ballpoint pens were considered suspect and vulgar.  Blue ink was a must, although secretly I would purchase a bottle of peacock blue ink, which was the color of the Caribbean. I would use it covertly to write notes to my classmates, hoping traces of it would not be visible when I switched to traditional blue.         We practiced the Palmer method daily until the muscles in our forearms pleaded for mercy. Often my clothes became stained with ink because it was more common then to fill your fountain pen from a bottle of ink. Modern day cartridges were regarded with disdain.        Over the years, I moved on to other kinds of pens. In law school, I became partial to the Papermate “Jotter” ballpoint pen. It wrote smoothly and fit nicely into my hand. I protected it zealously, carrying a cheap Bic pen in case anyone wanted to borrow a pen. No one was going to get his or her hands on my Jotter.       Sometimes I missed my fountain pen, but I thought using one would only complicate my busy life as a lawyer. When I discovered the Uniball Gel Impact  Roller with its bold 1mm line, I was in heaven. This baby writes as smooth as jelly sliding over peanut butter. Clients would admire the Uniball while signing documents. I gave a fair number away.       But I still missed the fountain pens from youth. There is something elegant about writing with a fountain pen. It says “I want my words to be worthy of this noble instrument.” A few years ago while attending a writing seminar in Boston, I strolled into a Levenger store (sadly no longer there) during the lunch break. There it was. A fountain pen with my name on it. I bought it, returning to the workshop, poised to write notes with my long lost friend.        The feel of this pen in my hand, the sensation of the ink flowing across the page, is soothing to me. It makes writing as much as a physical act as a cerebral one. While not practical for drafting lengthy manuscripts,  at least not for me, note taking and journaling with my trusty fountain pen bring me great pleasure, I’m almost embarrassed to admit. But for me, it’s about revering an object that connects what’s in my head to the page.Do you connect your passion for something to an object or supplies that make it happen? Is anyone else out there finding more bliss in Staples than Sephora?

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