MISS DEMEANORS

Overwhelmed

  • November 11, 2016

This week’s been a rough one. I’ve got a deadline for edits on the manuscript for book two in the Gethsemane Brown series looming, I’ve had to write blog posts this week, I’m on temporary assignment for work, enrolled in a graduate level course where an entire semester’s worth of assignments are crammed into 28 days. Oh yeah, and I’m making a lightning quick weekend trip to Massachusetts to attend my first New England Crime Bake conference–with edits and homework stuffed in my carry-on. I had grand plans for NaNoWriMo but you know the old saying about mice. Add to all that the fear and anxiety I feel after recent events left me wondering if a significant portion of my fellow Americans declared open season on people who look like me and I’ve been fighting hard all week the urge to curl up in a ball in the back of the closet and cry. Then something happened to remind me good people still exist in this world, people who will offer you support without you even asking for it.My class was making plans for the weekend–lunch, museums, bowling, distillery tours. When I explained I wouldn’t be joining them because I’d be at New England Crime Bake and told them I’d recently published my first novel, they were happy and excited for me. Thirteen people who I didn’t know–never even seen–before we arrived on campus three weeks ago wished me well. They asked questions about the conference and my novel and at out being an author. Some even said they’d buy my book. They showed genuine interest in, and concern for, me. My spirits rose from somewhere around my big toe to the center of my chest. I still wanted to cry but for different reasons. Good reasons.Although I’m still stressed about my workload I no longer feel the world’s turned against me. I’ll finish my edits and my homework, sign up for Camp NaNo in the spring, and enjoy the conference. And when someone shares their news with me I’ll be happy for them and wish them well.

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Boo!

  • November 9, 2016

My research for Murder in G Major extended beyond the distillery. One of my main characters is a ghost so paranormal activity landed at the top of my research list. A lot of my research took the former of binge watching Ghost Adventures on Sling TV (true confession: Zak Bagan is my secret crush) and listening to Derek Jacobi narrate M. R. James’s ghost stories on Audible. Side note: if you’ve never heard James’s ghost stories read aloud you owe yourself a listen. He read the stories aloud to friends at Christmas. They were meant to be heard. Just leave the lights on.Of course, I read about the paranormal, too. I learned a spellbook is called a grimoire, defined by dictionary.com as “a manual of magic or witchcraft” and by Wikipedia as “a textbook of magic, typically including instructions.” I learned ghost orbs come in different colors and the different colors have different meanings. I also learned that Ireland ,  an island covering roughly 30,000 square miles, provides enough supernatural material to keep you busy researching for two lifetimes. Since my novel is set in Ireland, I dove in.One tale I came across is that of the Banshee or wailing woman. Her story gives us the phrase, “screaming like a Banshee.” Some versions portray her as a beautiful woman, some as a hideous hagen, but in all of the tales she lets out a blood-curdling cry that portends death.A lesser known tale is that of the black cat of Killakee. When Killakee House in Dublin underwent renovations in the 1960s a mysterious black cat repeatedly appeared in the house, often in areas he couldn’t possibly have gotten into. He would snarl at workmen and the property owners then vanish. An exorcism got rid of him but an ill-advised séance brought him back.These are only two of Ireland’s countless paranormal tales. I wouldn’t want to encounter either face to face but research let me experience a thrill from a safe distance.

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Research has its benefits

  • November 9, 2016

I enjoy doing research for my novels. Research provides opportunities to travel to new places and experience new things. It lends authenticity and depth to characters, plot, and setting. Beyond that, research sparks new interests. Through research for my novels I discovered things I wanted to learn more about outside the bounds of my novel.Take bourbon, for instance. Bourbon plays a big role in my novel, Murder in G Major. I didn’t know much about whiskey in general or bourbon in particular before writing my manuscript. I  recognized some of the bigger brand names and knew some bourbon was meant to be mixed into cocktails while some was meant to be enjoyed on its own  (and the types are not interchangeable) but that’s about it. Through research I learned “bourbon” is legally codified: it must be distilled in the US (in any state; sorry, Kentucky) from a grain mash containing at least 51% corn in new charred oak barrels at no more than 160 proof. It must be aged in the barrel at least two years to be called straight bourbon and must be bottled at no more than 125 proof. Which equals 62.5% alcohol–enough to get your attention. Bourbon can be bottled as at blend from several barrels or can be bottled from a single barrel. A good percent of each barrel’s contents is lost to evaporation–the angels’s share–and some soaks into the barrel’s wood–the devil’s cut. Such romantic names for lost product. Bourbon distillers can only use a barrel once. But instead of wasting a good barrel they sell them to distillers in Ireland and Scotland. Whiskey and whisky have no restrictions against used barrels (an eco-friendly aspect of distilling). So when you enjoy a dram of Scotch or Irish whiskey, you may be enjoying a hint of the good ol’ USA.Another fun fact I learned while researching? Distilleries give tours. I recently toured the bucolic Holladay Distillery in Weston, Missouri. 160 years old, the former McCormick Distillery  (renamed after original founder, Benjamin Holladay) is back in the business of distilling spirits. The tour wound past gorgeous scenery, warehouses dating from the early 1900s to the 1950s, the original limestone well and, to quote our enthusiastic tour guide, a bad*** still. We learned about each step in the bourbon making process from roasting locally sourced corn to loading 500-pound locally made barrels onto the racks where they’ll spend the next three years waiting for their unaged whiskey to mellow into fine bourbon. I’ve already got my barrel picked out. (Not really. But I did buy a bottle of unaged spirits. Cheers!)

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Ssh, It's a Secret

Blogging is challenging for me. Revealing myself three hundred to five hundred words at a time is not something that comes natural to me. If blogging wasn’t part of the territory of being a modern author (We can’t all be Elena Ferrante.) I probably wouldn’t be doing it. I’m a guarded, private person. I peg way out on the analytical and introverted extremes of any type preference scale you care to administer. I will never be a memoirist. My novels are not confessionals or autobiographies. I create fictional worlds in which I bring order to chaos, unravel puzzles, set wrongs to right, and make sure good triumphs in the end. I don’t get the urge to overshare that seems ubiquitous these days. I’m not the person in line at the grocery store telling the cashier (and everyone else within earshot) about my recent surgery/recent ex/recent fight with a co-worker while the cashier rings up my produce. I have no urge to exorcise my demons or air my laundry on social media. I’d rather post snarky memes and cute animal videos. I recently wrote a paper for a course I’m enrolled in. I received it back with a high mark but with a comment to the effect the instructor wished I had shared more about myself and been less “legalistic” in tone—first person instead of third. My (unspoken) response was I don’t know you, therefore, “me” is none of your business. If you believe in astrology, this is apparently a common stance among Scorpios. But in this modern, hyperconnected, global community we live in privacy is an increasingly rare commodity. Sharing oneself with others is increasingly the norm. So I’ll keep working on the blogging and working on being more open. I’m still going heavy on the animal videos on social media, though.

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Looking for a muse? Maybe you should stop.

A muse, that inspirational goddess of literature, science and the arts found in Greek mythology, is supposed to inspire an artist, writer or musician. But does she? Does anyone wait for the muse to walk into their mind and ignite that spark? I’m not saying that ideas don’t spring to mind fully formed as a random thought during the night, or while walking the dog. Those are the words and ideas that writers rush to put on paper. They may in fact be the kernel of the next great novel or short story. However, rather than putting my faith in the muse, I’m a believer in the creative process. I don’t think that relying on a Greek muse will get me anywhere in the long run. Perhaps it’s because I was trained as an architect, and architecture and writing both rely on a creative process. In architecture you may be designing a house or a library. In writing you are perhaps creating a novel or a short story. A mystery or a memoir. Know this and you’ve started. I’m currently working on a series, so I know the name of my main character, where she lives, who her family is and what motivates her. All I need to do is put her into the current story. In architecture this is the equivalent of picking a site. Now you know the house will face the ocean on a narrow plot of land. You have a start. I think that the most important part of the process is simply beginning. You need the first word on the page; the first line on the page. Once you’ve started, the process continues – this is where it feels like a toss between a miracle and torture. Another layer in the writing unrolls. Perhaps it’s the development of a character, the addition of characters, the development of setting, the addition of details. If you’re writing a mystery, clues are scattered. It’s healthy to look at the exact process other writers use. Do they outline, create detailed backstories for all of their characters, or are they ‘pantsers’ writing by the seat of their pants. But it is also healthy to remember that each person’s process is individual and each person’s mind works in a slightly different way. The most important part of the process, to me, is to keep moving forward. Will you take a left turn on the road to completion, or a right turn? Maybe even a u-turn. You will get there if you keep at it. Keep putting words on a page. Keep reaching for the end, and one day you will arrive.     

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The computer meltdown

Yesterday my computer ‘glitched’. I’ve had a computer crash before. Twice actually. Both times the machine simply stopped working. It wouldn’t turn on. Game over. One time a technician replaced the mother board, the other time I bought a new one. Both times I accessed my documents from a backup drive and quick as a wink I was back in business. Yesterday was worse. Worse than a complete shutdown. It was heart palpitation bad. Every time I opened a document the content was that of the file opened immediately preceding it. Think about this. Pick a recent file and open it, and while the file name remains correct, the content is from the preceding one. I tried changing the file names, copying the document…. At this point I felt a cold dark panic. I pulled a document from my backup drive…. Same thing happened. I restarted the computer a few times, nothing changed. Imagine: You cannot keep content in a document. It felt like a ghost was in the machine. Watch The Shining, it was that frightening. End result, I turned my computer off and left it. Much, much later I restarted it a final time (okay, I waited until the next morning, today) and miraculously everything is fine. If I didn’t have a witness I wouldn’t believe it myself. (Their response to the problem was maybe you’ll have to retype the document from your hard copy….. ah, but that was the problem. Once the newly typed text is a new document, the next time you open it the content will be from an older document. ARGH!) All we can figure out is that something happened when the power went off yesterday. I think that the files were in the middle of backing up to Dropbox and something got ‘off’ (that’s a technical term). Anyway, back to normal today. What’s your worst computer failure?  

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Just off a reading jag and Lee Child owes me a few hours

I took a well-deserved break the other evening and went to a movie. I picked Jack Reacher, Never Go Back as my two hours of entertainment. The problem, and one I should have anticipated, was that once I’d seen the movie I needed to read the book. How did it compare, what changes were made (other than the obvious ones…. how tall is Reacher?). Fortunately (deep irony here), when I went to my book shelf there it was – Lee Child’s Never Go Back in hardcover splendor. I have a lot of books that I’ve bought and not had a chance to read, so there is no shame in an unbroken spine. I thought I’d take a peek at the first chapter or so and get a sense of the difference between movie and manuscript, then get back to work on my own manuscript. It takes me around a minute to read one page of a novel. That’s over four hours to read Never Go Back. In one big chunk of time. I’ll skip the obvious, clearly I enjoyed it. What struck me is how much of Reacher is internal. Jack Reacher the quintessential action hero is actually the quintessential cerebral action hero. How does that translate on screen? How do you show Reacher weighing all of his options and trying to get the bad guy to back down unharmed? Reacher is a loner and loners aren’t the most loquacious people. How do you translate that into film without it becoming a silent picture? Anytime I read I feel like I’m taking a personal master class in writing. With Lee Child it is a master class in picking the exact level of detail to incorporate. In an interview he once said that he skips research. He wants to write what will feel familiar to the reader. If the reader expects the gun to be heavy why interrupt their immersion in the story to explain that ‘technically the xyz revolver is lighter than most in the same category.’ Who cares! At that point in the story, with the gun pointed, all the reader should care about it What Happens Next. Child knows this. Maybe a little of his talent and skill will rub off on me as I re-read my own draft, trying to gauge the details needed for my reader to feel the place. Really feel it. I undergo serial reading more often that I’d like to admit. (A real confession here…. a bit embarrassing… I was on a long flight last week and read three Jack Reacher novels in a row. Yep. In a row. It was like eating a whole bag of candy at Halloween. I blame this on e-books which allow instant gratification. I also blame this on the airline. There was not one single good movie to watch.) Back to the point. Reading a clump of books by one author is instructive. If they have a continuing character you see very clearly how they capture that introduction each time. How much description and backstory is enough? How much does it vary? You judge what the author keeps as part of their style and what is unique to the story being told in that particular book. How do these authors keep us coming back? We want familiarity, but not imitation. In Lee Child’s Never Go Back the story was comfortingly expected, yet fresh. Of course, in the end, I have to remember that I read that last Reacher novel when I should have been writing. Maybe Lee Child will offer a few hours of his time to make up for my writing jag? Writing for me, of course. Or maybe I should count the debt paid, since I certainly learned enough from my read to justify those few hours immersed in someone else’s world. Thank you, Mr. Child. 

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The bonus book

Recently I took a step back in time and read an article on the craft of writing printed in the Paris Review. It was dated Winter 1986, and recounted an interview with E.L. Doctorow on stage in New York City in front of an audience of 500, and I wish I had been there. Doctorow started by saying that he works through six or eight drafts to complete a manuscript. However, there was one time – a miracle time – when he wrote a book in about seven months. The book was World’s Fair and he credits it to God giving him a bonus book for paying his dues over many long years. How did he decide this was a bonus book? Well, according to Doctorow, Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks and Stendhal wrote Charterhouse of Parma in twelve days, and clearly God spoke to them because if it wasn’t God then it was crass exhibitionism. I’m certainly not at the point where I’m due a bonus book, but I like the idea that one day I might qualify. Thank you Doctorow. The entire interview is worth a read. It starts with a demonstration that fame and literal recognition aren’t necessarily hand in hand. The first questioner asks about a Vonnegut book, confusing the two authors. Awkward if you are anyone but Doctorow. As I work on my own manuscript I was particularly drawn to Doctorow’s description of his process. He types single spaced and tries to get as many words on a page as possible. To view the entire landscape, he explains. Small margins get him near 600 words and one page a day is good. Two is worrisome since it might leave him with nothing for the following day. Sage words of advice. Throughout the discussions of what he reads and what he draws experience from the thread of the joy of writing is constant. Writing is all that matters. Experience doesn’t matter. Technique, education, nothing matters except the writing. Also sage advice. Read the complete interview and the others that the Paris Review will publish on the craft of writing. That is, unless you are contemplating a graduate degree in writing. You may want to skip Doctorow’s opinion on that subject. His full interview may be found here: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2718/the-art-of-fiction-no-94-e-l-doctorow

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A week in Paris

How’s your balance? Recently I went to Paris for a week. It was an unplanned trip. Very last minute and I was thrilled to return to a city I love and where I lived years ago. I declined at first, citing work load. I’m working through my draft and want to keep momentum. I was lured by a free ticket and the offer of a friend’s empty apartment. Who could turn that down? It should be noted that when I said yes, I also said, Thanks, I’ll work five or six hours a day and use the rest of the time to re-visit the city. Here’s what really happened. I spent every hour of every day (and night) visiting the city. I went to the Louvre three times, and about 12 other museums, including an unfortunate venture to the Musée des Égouts de Paris (the Museum of the Sewers). With my husband I strolled the streets, visited the stores, gazed at the Seine and enjoyed many fine restaurants. What I didn’t do is take a look at my manuscript. Not once. Not even a glimpse (I was beyond lying to myself). However, and this is a big however, two things did happen. One, I got some distance from it and now that I’m home and working again I have a fresh perspective. Second, and most important, I came up with the theme and plot for my next book! It was liberating to be in a place where I had no other obligations and think, really think, about what comes next. Clearly the next in the series will now be partly set in France, specifically in Paris, and I spent several days following up on ideas and wandering to the appropriate places, and talking to people. I think it can be hard to balance life and work. It can also be hard to justify taking a real break. Now that it’s over, I’m glad I took that break. A break that is far from the routine of daily life is a wondrous thing. Anybody else thinking about a break? My advice, take it.

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Nanowrimo

I first heard about nanowrimo some years ago when one of my students kept submitting manuscripts without contractions. Take it from me, that if you read twenty pages and there is not one contraction, you notice pretty quickly. The writing seems formal and stiff. Anyway, one night I asked why she was doing this and she said it was because she was participating in nanowrimo and needed to write 50,000 words in a month, and if she didn’t use contractions, her word count would go up. So from that I deduced that nanowrimo was for people writing awful manuscripts.    However, time went on and more and more of my students began talking about it and I noticed everyone spoke about it with enthusiasm. No one had a bad thing to say about nanowrimo, and in fact, everyone seemed energized by the whole process. So I began to think about it more seriously, but I wasn’t tempted to do it because the fact is, I write a lot anyway, so I didn’t think I needed an inducement. Last year, I had an outline due on December 15 (for Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency.) I hate writing outlines. I once spent two years writing an outline and it was the only time in my life I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block. So I approached the whole thing with some trepidation and then I thought, ha! Why not write the novel, and then, when I have the novel, I can outline it. So, I signed up for nanowrimo and it worked. I wrote 50,000 words of MDDA, and I’m not going to say they were fabulous, (I probably wound up using only 15% of them) but I knew enough of the story by the end that I could write an outline. Then, once that was done, I could go back and write the book more thoughtfully.  This year I wasn’t sure if I would sign up again, but as luck would have it, once again I’m working on an manuscript. I don’t need an outline, but I would like to bulk it up, quickly, and I believe this will be a great way to boost my mind into thinking of all sorts of fun plot points. So yesterday I signed up to take part in Nanowrimo 2016. I’m a veteran!

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