MISS DEMEANORS

WRITING MY WAY OUT OF A CARDBOARD BOX

 Let me be clear. This is not a criticism of or rant against technology. I am thrilled to be living in an age where there are computers, cellphones, the Internet, and Bluetooth. Admittedly, there is a learning curve for someone my age. I remember identifying with Dave Barry who wondered how they got the ink through the wires of a fax machine. But it has been worth every effort I have made to hang on, clinging to my devices by my fingernails declaring, “I will not be left behind.”            I am particularly smitten with Google. There is no place you cannot go with this wonder of wonders. Just within the past 48 hours, I have explored how to defer federal jury duty, how to fix a dropped stitch, what the weather will be in New Orleans and Italy this month, and who is the better candidate for state senate in my community. When the students I teach at a law school told me I should stop struggling with Westlaw, a complex legal software program, and just use Google, I was relieved to know I was actually in the know.            So when a number of my writing colleagues began to rave about how productive and organized they had become by using a writing software program that was becoming increasingly popular, I thought, why not? Combining my busy day job as a lawyer with a writing career made finding time to write challenging. I quickly purchased the Scrivener software, signed up for a training session, and purchased the Dummies manual. The program is not as easy as some say, but it is definitely doable and appeals to those of us steeped in traditional ways of organizing writing. A writing program that included use of virtual index cards appealed to my love of stationery supplies.            Off I went to St. John for a three-week writing vacation on the island where my mystery series is set. (And yes, three weeks of writing is a vacation when your other job involves divorces, custody battles, and disputes about who gets the Shih Tzu.) I set down at my table, cracked open Scrivener, and set off to write the second book in the Sabrina Salter series.            Much of the writing process for me takes place long before this moment when I sit down to actually write. I plot, ponder, ruminate, and even obsess in my head long before. Call it the gift of insomnia, but there is nothing like a couple of sleepless hours in the middle of the night to debug that plot glitch. Some writers will tell you that the time you spend in your head isn’t really writing, but to them I say B.S. When my fingers finally hit the keyboard, I may not have an outline like the plotters ( I am a pantser of sorts), but the story seems to flow from my brain to the keyboard as if I’ve opened a vent.            So that first morning when Sabrina and her cohort, Henry, didn’t show up for work, I was a little surprised. I thought they were just being a little shy, you know, with the new writing program. By the end of the first week, they had punched in but with little of the spit and spunk I have come to expect from them. As I was winding down my second week, I began to panic. What was wrong? I’d never had writer’s block before. I’d even heard it was just a myth. How could this be happening when I knew my story and who my characters were and where they were headed?            I felt as if I were stuffed into a cardboard box, you know the kind that kids make a fort out of when their parents get a huge shipment from Amazon. I was was suffocating. Writing felt as foreign to me as if someone had handed me sheet of music and told me to sing an aria. I stood up at the table and said to my husband I was done with it. “Writing?” he asked, looking very concerned. Everything I have done in recent years has been focused on creating more time and space for my passion: writing.            “No,” I said. “Writing programs. They are not for me. I know they are wonderful and have helped many writers, but I am not one of them.” I felt glorious, as if I had punched out the paper walls and pushed up the ceiling of my cardboard box to let the light and air in. I could breathe.            The next my morning, Sabrina and Henry arrived on time and ready to roll. I hit the keyboard and my fingers began to dance while the story that became the book, Permanent Sunset, emerged. I was happy. They were happy. I thought about that quote from another writer. “To thine own self be true.” Writing is an art. Pen, paper, keyboard, writing programs. They are all tools.  The artist gets to choose which tool to use. 

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CONFESSIONS OF A BOUCHERCON VIRGIN

  Note:  I wrote this post a year ago before I attended my first Bouchercon in Raleigh and thought it might be helpful to share with this year’s new batch of Bouchercon virgins.  I’ve been a mystery lover since I was a kid reading Nancy Drew.  I still love reading mysteries, have taken to writing them, and have always wanted to go to Bouchercon, which I picture as a long weekend party for mystery lovers. This year I am finally attending Bouchercon.  Here are ten reasons I have been longing to attend this fabulous conference:  1.         Bouchercon is a fan conference. Fan is spelled R-E-A-D-E-R! I love readers. I am a reader. A reader is the acorn from which the writer-tree grows. There is nothing more delightful than being in the company of fellow readers who understand and share their obsession with mysteries. While I love a conference where craft is the focus, I am looking forward to lots of discussions with and recommendations from my fellow book lovers. 2.         I am unabashed about being in awe of the authors who write the books I read and love. I look at the list of authors who will appear and see names like Lawrence Block, Meg Gardiner, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Karin Slaughter, Joseph Finder, Rhys Bowen, and I could go on and on.  These authors not only will be present, but also will appear on panels where I can hear them recount their stories about writing. 3.         Speaking of panels, where else would I ever be able to attend panels like, “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of the Working Cadaver Dog,” “Jewish Noir,” or “Criminally Young at Heart”? The biggest challenge is which ones to chose from a schedule twenty-four pages long.  It’s like being at a smorgasbord, trying to figure how high you can pile food on your plate.  4.         Books, lots of books. They sell books at Bouchercon! They have something called “The Book Room,” which I’m fairly certain will become very familiar to me. There are at least five bookstores selling mysteries.  Two are local, but the others come from quite far. Mystery Mike’s comes from Indiana. Ryan Books travels from New York City. And the winner for farthest distance is Scene of the Crime Books, which travels all the way from Ontario.  I have a feeling my “To Be Read” pile is about to get higher and my wallet thinner.  5.         Awards. The Anthonys are awarded by attendee vote at Bouchercon. There are a number of categories. The books written by nominees for Best Novel happen to sit on my bookshelf with only one left for me to read before the conference. Looking at the nominees and winners from Bouchercon over the years, I see the names of authors and books I have relished. I’m routing for hometown author, Hank Phillip Ryan, this year, not just because she’s from Boston. Truth Be Told was a fabulous book. But all of the nominees are terrific writers. 6.         Meeting social media friends in person. I admit that I love how Facebook and Twitter have managed to make the world smaller and easier for me to get to know so many writers and readers I otherwise would never get to know. But now that I have been introduced to so many new friends, I cannot wait to meet them in person. 7.         The “Goodies.” Okay, I admit being a tad jealous when one of my writing buddies shows off a clever key chain from an author and brags she “got it at Bouchercon.” It’s not the keychain; it’s the Bouchercon experience I want.  Well, maybe it’s the keychain a little. 8.         The food and drinks. Most of the tales about Bouchercon are prefaced with a setting, just like in the books we all love. The setting invariably includes scrumptious food and drinks, often associated with the location of the conference. 9.         Getting out of Dodge. Bouchercon always occurs in exciting cities, like San Francisco, Anchorage, Chicago, and next year, New Orleans. I’ve never been to Raleigh before other than for a flight stopover.  I‘m looking forward to stealing a few hours and exploring Raleigh. 10.       Time for my little confession. The part of me that is somewhat introverted has been a little intimidated by the vastness of Bouchercon. But I’m ready to dive in and enjoying the “Bouchercon experience,” and to no longer being a Bouchercon virgin.      

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WHEN DID EVERYONE GET SO MEAN?

  Sometimes being on social media makes me feel like I am back in high school. That is not good. I found high school to be like a four-year dental appointment. And I was considered “popular,” whatever that means. I can’t imagine the pain if you were a nerd.
    “Like” me is now the unembarrassed beg on Facebook. Was your post “shared”? How many “friends” do you have? Dear lord, not that again.
    But still, I engage. I’d love to blame it all on being a writer just following Jane Friedman’s latest advice (which is right on), but the truth is I get sucked into the vortex. I want to play with the big kids, be part of the fun, and sell a few books along the way. I’ve trying “getting in” with the other crowd, you know, those Twitter folks, but so far they’re not sure about me. I’ll keep trying, though.
    Okay, I’ll admit it. I can actually have fun on Facebook. It’s just short of miraculous to be reconnected with people I haven’t seen or heard from in years. I love seeing photos of new babies, weddings, and puppies. Celebrating new books is like an online party. Sharing joyful news is a huge draw to social media, but so is the ability to talk about sad events and loss. A new community has been born. How can that be bad?
    Enter the inevitable meanies. Remember the girl who was sitting at the popular table in the cafeteria, whispering into the ear of the prom queen while pointing at your knee socks and laughing? I’d love to hear what the guy-version of this is, because I’m sure it exists. Anyway, the meanies are back, alive, and have infiltrated social media.
    Witness one poor woman who made the mistake of warning her fellow town-folk on Facebook about the price of a fish platter at a local restaurant if you customize your combo order. She went from being anti-the-restaurant to anti-commerce to anti-American in twenty comments. The vitriol in the remarks was so over the top, I winced reading them. Her reaction was to recoil, explaining she was only trying to help people avoid the same experience.
    Don’t even start me on the nastiness about the political scene. I wish I could say it’s limited to my “friends” on the right, but some of the most condescending disdainful posts I read recently actually were delivered by those I consider political allies. Can’t we disagree without becoming mean and personal?
    As a lawyer, I have long mourned the loss of civility in my profession. We have lost the art of advocacy without evisceration. Social media is rapidly becoming no less contentious, I fear. One person “unfriended” me when she learned I was a divorce lawyer. For that reason only. Ouch.
    Come on! Why can’t we all just get along? I’ll defend your right to say what you want to the mat, but can’t you say it without trying to bully others into silence?
    I didn’t have the guts not to be mean in high school and for that, I am sorry. I’ll be damned if social media makes me repeat my mistake.
    
    
    
    

   

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Were Rules Really Made to be Broken?

Rule breakers make me crazy. Oh, not the ones who do something so blatantlyagainst the norm, there’s a number for it in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for those of you who have managed to escape this psychiatrictome). Perhaps there will someday be a diagnosis for writers who gomad deciding whether to follow “The Rules” or to break them. I imagine I willqualify. It’s not that I don’t know the rules. I have bookshelves filled with writingbooks containing them according to various authors. The first problem is thatthere are lots of rules, many of which contradict one other. Words like, “never,”“always,” “do,” and “don’t,” remind me of being in parochial school where therules were easy. Someone else told you what to do and if you did it, you’d stayout of trouble. Of course, you’d never have an original thought, but that’s a topicfor another day. Elmore Leonard shared ten great rules for writing in a often- quoted NewYork Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and EspeciallyHooptedoodle.” It’s hard to argue with a writer as terrific and prolific as Leonard,especially when his tenth rule is to leave out the part that writers tend to skip. Buthis admonitions to “avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and not to “go intogreat detail describing places and things” are easily argued against when yourecall books where doing both of those things resulted in great pleasure anderudition for the reader. If I didn’t describe the natural beauty and cultural charmof St. John in my books, I think I would be cheating my readers. Stephen King’s memoir On Writing is one of my favorite writing books.King has listed twenty rules for writing. All of them make sense to me. Who canargue with Stephen King? Then there are those authors who say there are no rules in writing. Myfavorite gem is from Ernest Hemingway. “There is no rule on how to write.Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and thenblasting it out with charges.” I like the notion I can be liberated from rules, until Ifind myself in a tough spot where I don’t what to do and resist taking chances.Maybe that comes from years, more than a decade really, of trying to getpublished. I heard more advice from agents, editors, and published authors aboutwhat I needed to do to get published than could fit in one book on writing, if Iwere ever inclined to write one. Now that I am published, I still struggle with the question about whether tofollow the rules, especially when authors manage to leap to the top of the bestsellers’ lists by breaking rules. Gillian Flynn (You’ve heard of Gone Girl?) andWilliam Landay (Defending Jacob) both created unreliable narrators and flew offthe charts. Now, use of an unreliable narrator is not only acceptable, it hasbecome a norm if you look at what books are selling big and being made intomovies. The Girl on the Train is the best example. I recently read The Widow by Fiona Barton (not to be confused with TheWidower’s Wife by our own Miss Demeanor, Cate Holahan), a very clever debutthat made the New York Times bestseller list and earned a blurb from StephenKing. Barton wrote from the point of view of four characters (the widow, thedetective, the reporter and the husband), which is not uncommon, but two of thecharacters were in first person and the other two in the third. I can see editorsshaking their heads. What Barton did next would give an editor a neck rotationout of the Exorcist. She jumped back and forth from 2006 to 2010, chapter tochapter, challenging her readers’ concentration at the very least, but risking thecriticism of writing authorities everywhere. As I read the book, I was reminded of the time my first agent “suggested” Irewrite the protagonist’s story in the third person rather than the first person. Shegave her reasons, including citing some “rules.” I complied, wanting desperatelyfor my story to be published, gritting my teeth as I became distanced from acharacter I had previously felt close to. The book never sold, and although I cannever be sure why, I do wonder if it became a different book when I acquiescedto a recommendation so intrinsic. To break the rules or not? How many writers have their books sitting inslush piles because they ignored the rules? I think it may come down to knowingthe rules and being able to recognize when the risk presents a genuineopportunity to be creative, rather than a gimmick. Gimmicks don’t last. Goodwriting does.              

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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

No, I didn’t have too much to drink at the Labor Day barbecue, thank you. I’m just celebrating what I believe Labor Day really is to me, and to many, if not most other people.  It is the beginning of a new year.            I am not trying to diminish the significance of Labor Day, which according to Wikipedia “honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of the country.”  Nor, will I start a conversation about what’s happening today to workers in our country, although that’s a topic worthy of discussion.            I’m simply acknowledging that for most of us, the end of the summer and the beginning of a new school year marks what most of us consider a new year. Ingrained in us since we were students, reinforced when we send our own children to school, that back-to-school fever is more about new beginnings, fresh slates, and starting over than the 31st of December ever was. Kissing goodbye the celebration of summer and all the gifts it brings is not without sadness. Who won’t miss fresh blueberries, carnivals and county fairs, beaches, lakes, and pools? But admit it. If you pause and peek inside, there’s a little excitement that comes with a new year.            What do you plan to do during the seasons to come? Will you look for that new job? Finally take the art class you’ve wanted to take? Go back to the gym? Maybe put those words that have been swirling around your head and filling your heart to paper? Will you give yourself permission to take a break from shopping for school supplies, stocking up on peanut butter and snacks, and put down the catalogues telling what you must wear this season? Will you let the new year be one when you embrace the passage of the luxurious laziness of summer and open your heart and life to all that is yours if you only let it be?            My Happy New Year includes a few resolutions, of course. I will defend the time I set aside to write against all distractions, external and internal. I will honor the gift that has been given to me and find joy in doing it. I know I will still complain about deadlines, edits, and what point of view I should write in, but I am determined to focus on having gratitude for what I have and not whine about what I don’t have. I am excited to meet September and the months that follow with a renewed commitment to a new life I have chosen. (More on that later this week.)            How about you? What do you plan to do with your new year? You don’t have to be a writer or an artist to jump in. All you have to do is begin.               

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Take a little trip

( picture by http://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?
 

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Someone else's room

 “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.
 

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Strangeness of Place

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.”
 

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Writing Place

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)
 

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PD James and Setting

 Occasionally I browse through books on writing, not exactly looking for inspiration or rules but reminding myself that every writer faces similar struggles in the act of creation. Recently I reread parts of P.D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction. It is an amazing book, mainly for her vast knowledge of the history of the genre; however, this time I focused mainly on the chapter titled Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People. Setting is important in my books, mainly because they are set in a place perhaps not familiar to an English speaking (or reading) audience. Namely, Switzerland. James points out that most readers relate to the characters. It is true that today many mysteries are character driven, not plot driven. Where does this leave the setting? Of primary importance she says, noting that the setting is “where these people live, move and have their being.” She reminds the writer that they have a duty to breathe the character’s air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms furnished for them. Beyond the need of a setting to create a place for the character to spring to life, setting can inspire the story itself. This is true with my first Agnes Lüthi book, where an ice storm traps the characters in a château on the shore of Lac Léman. In Swiss Vendetta, the château returns to its medieval origin with the power out and modern conveniences made irrelevant. This informed the plot and the characters throughout the book. What does isolation and discomfort do to the psyche? It changes people. James’ uses Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example. Would The Hound of Wimbledon Common have evoked the same sense of apprehension? Probably not. Superficially Switzerland is perfect. Literally picture postcard perfect. Every view can evoke an exclamation of delight. Look at the château, the pastoral landscape, the milk cows on parade with their flowered headdresses, the historic cities, the rivers, the lakes, the mountain, the Glacier Express…. The list is endless. To me Switzerland is the St Mary’s Meade of Agatha Christie. St Mary’s Meade was charming, yet bad things happened there (really so many people died under the nose of Miss Marple that it should be quite disturbing, but it isn’t). For the setting of my next Agnes Lüthi book I’ve chosen a boarding school as the center piece of the story. A charming, rural, idyllic setting where, yes, bad things will happen. To my mind, the setting isn’t only a place but it is an active participant. Certain events take place because of the setting. It can inspire a plot and also determine the course of the action. P.D. James called to mind the words of John Bunyan when she set one of her detective stories in a beautiful setting. He said: “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.” I’ll keep this in mind as a cast my mind to the beauty of the landscape that is my chosen setting. Inspiration indeed. 

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