MISS DEMEANORS

Substitution For Difficult Scenes

I write domestic suspense. The bad people in my books are philanderers and emotional abusers, financial manipulators, unreliable narrators with horrific back stories and, in general, people who play fast and loose with the rules. As a helicopter mom of two young kids, I’m kind of a stickler for rules. So how do I write these characters?  One way is through emotional substitution. I try to get into the feelings driving a character’s actions by thinking of a time that I have felt similarly, albeit not to the same degree. Though I can’t relate to the anger my character may be experiencing stalking her husband’s girlfriend, I have had times when I’ve felt betrayed and angry in my life. I overlay these experiences to write my character’s emotions in a believable way.  The danger of not using such substitution, I think, is that characters’ actions can read false. I end up writing a lot of   “he nodded” and “she grimaced” in scenes where the person would more likely be either standing dumbfounded or attempting a smile to cover her disgust. It’s too easy to forget how I and other people actually behave in difficult situations without connecting to how I have actually behaved in my own life when under stress.  So, while I don’t advocate going out and doing drugs in order to write a scene about a person out of control on drugs, I do recommend meditating about a time when life has felt out of control and then substituting in those very real actions and words when writing.   

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Method Writing: Getting Into Character

To play Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman in the The Pianist, actor Adrien Brody learned how to play piano, practicing for four hours a day. He also gave up his apartment, sold his car and drifted around Europe so that he could identify with Szpilman’s isolation.  To write a memorable character, I think authors have to be just as willing to lose themselves in their protagonists. A main character’s actions and words, the way he or she handles problems and the thoughts that run through his or her head, can’t be a thinly veiled version of the author’s own responses and musings. Authors must become “method” writers.  The Method was developed by famous acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski. It’s a way of getting into character that involves an actor doing things in his own life to allow greater identification with a part. Actors playing dancers learn to dance. Charlize Theron gained a bunch of weight and changed her appearance for Monster to get into the head of her hard living, serial killer character. Nicholas Cage walked around the street in facial bandages to understand how isolating those kind of wounds can be to get into his wounded veteran character in Birdy. I tried to employ the method with my first book, Dark Turns. My protagonist was an injured ballerina who takes a gig teaching at a ritzy private school in order to heal and get some distance from a bad breakup. Best laid plans blow up when she discovers a body on campus her first day. I took ballet for over a year to get into my character, Nia Washington’s, head. I had never danced–unless you counted calypso and grinding to reggae music at parties. To write her, I needed to do more than imagine myself as in my early twenties and feeling bummed from a breakup (that part didn’t require much research). I had to understand what it was like for a person to push themselves physically to the point of pain for a goal. How does doing that change who someone is and how they respond to things? How does a hyper-awareness of your own muscles alter how you respond to physical stimuli? Nia, as a result, is hypersensitive to body language. She picks up on things about relationships in the way people move, how close they stand to one another, whether their weight is inclined towards a person or moving away, that inform how she goes about solving the mystery. She also misses clues that I’d never miss as a much more cynical, thirty-something ex-journalist who spent most of her professional life examining the things people said and their motivations for doing so.  Obviously, in a year, I didn’t become a ballerina. Three classes a week and I was barely standing like a dancer by the end. But, I did get a taste of performing on stage and a small sense of Nia’s world: the nearly myopic focus she had to have for much of her life and the reactions she would have as a result.  For my second book, the protagonist, Ana, is a thirty-one-year-old mom facing extreme financial stress after her husband loses his job. The mom part wasn’t a stretch for me, but the financial pressures were more difficult to picture. While I could imagine how I’d feel if my house was underwater and there wasn’t enough income coming in for the mortgage, I’d never had the stress of being unable to pay a bill. (I’d worked since sophomore year of high school and had been afraid of debt) So, for a few weeks, I gave myself a taste of that stress. I stopped using my credit card and tried to live on twenty percent of my usual amount. I didn’t, I’ll admit, stop sending my kids to activities–mommy’s dedication shouldn’t impact their life like that. But I did change how I grocery shopped, stopped entertaining, and tried to go through multiple days without spending a dime. It was extremely difficult.  Some writers can get away with not using The Method because they have personally had a life that makes for good storytelling. My friend Brian Thiem is a 25-year-veteran of the Oakland Police Department who retired as commander of the homicide department. He writes about a homicide detective who confronts cases reminiscent of the worst ones he faced on the force. Brian’s background is interesting enough to serve as fodder for a compelling series character. He doesn’t have to get into the head of a homicide detective. That’s who he is.  For relatively boring me, though, I need the method to help create richer main characters. To create villains or unreliable narrators who may do worse things than I could ever try out with the method, I use another acting trick called substitution. But that’s for another post.   

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WHEN READING REQUIRES MATH

 I love conversations with readers and writers. There is nothing like a discussion about books and words with your people. There are endless subjects, boring to most people, that can go on forever, some surprisingly inflammatory. A topic like punctuation may be a little like talking about religion for others. Let’s just not talk about the Oxford comma.             Only book lovers understand how serious a question about reading habits can be. Do you read more than one book at a time? Does it matter if they are fiction or non-fiction? Do you ever read a book twice? More than twice? And now for the question only asked in a whisper. Do you ever not finish a book?           Not finish a book? Isn’t that blasphemy? For some it is. Many books, particularly those written long ago have a classic was of starting slow and working up into a sizzle. I’m a huge Jane Austen fan. Ever since my English teacher, Danny Dwyer, forced me to read Pride and Prejudice in the last semester of my senior year when it was almost impossible to make me do anything, I have been a rabid fan of Jane and eternally grateful to Mr. Dwyer, who died tragically two years later at the age of 34. For years, I reread Pride and Prejudice as a rite of spring.         Had I not been forced to suffer the first half of the book, I’m not sure I would ever have finished or known the joy of Jane Austen’s other books. Jane is a slow simmer, for sure. But once she gets you, you can’t put the books down. At least, I can’t.        Yet, others disagree about Jane and I respect and understand that. After adoring Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series and another stand-alone, I was so excited to have Life After Life delivered to my Kindle. But when the protagonist died over and over again, I gave up, not willing to read 512 pages just so I could say I endured the latest literary gimmick. It became the first and only book I have returned from my Kindle and I have no regret about it.       I’ve read too many books where I hung in there, certain the author wouldn’t betray my trust and would deliver in the end, not that it had to be a happy ending. But after being entertained by a Barbara Michaels novel while combating the flu, I found myself flinging the book, fortunately a paperback, across the room when the resolution involved someone walking through a door. A closed door. No book has infuriated me more for “hanging in there” with the author than Anita’s Schreve’s “The Last Time They Met.” It would be a spoiler if I told you what caused my wrath, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to read the book, but was I angry? Enough to toss this one through the room and it was a hardcover. A few years later, I heard Anita Shreve tell a crowded room that my reaction wasn’t exactly unusual and I had a chance to tell her how I “handled” the situation. She was very gracious and even seemed to enjoy that her readers were reacting with gusto, and even more so when I told her the book had been given to me by her high school English teacher.     But had I known either book was going to take me where it did, I would have stopped reading long before I hit the end. While I am a writer and a reader and lacking in anything beyond basic math skills, I do know this. There are more books I want to read than time left in which to read them. So without apology, I now say what I hesitated to declare before I was fifty. Too many books, not enough time.     Will I risk not knowing the next Jane Austen because I don’t read to the end? I don’t think so. I trust I’ve learned how to distinguish a deliciously slow start from a book headed nowhere. Do you ever stop reading a book before the end or do you hang in there till the finish?  

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Creating Space to Write

 If you think I am going to tell you how to take a room in your home and make it your writing sanctuary, you’re reading the wrong blog. Or at least this blog on the wrong day. Soon I will share the details about how much fun I had turning a eight by ten foot shed into the sacred spot where I spill my words, but not now.            Today I’m talking about space in a more global sense. Many of us are so accustomed to multi-tasking, multi-careers, multi-homes, cars, pets, and multi-everything else, that we have become overwhelmed with the details of daily living. What to take out of the freezer for dinner, which bill is due online, where to be in the morning and how to get from there to the place you have to be in the afternoon, leaving food and water out for the pets, getting the car inspected let alone putting gas in the sucker, who picks up the kid at soccer, is it my day to do the car pool. It’s exhausting. If you’re like me, you make lists everyday and at the end of the week, you highlight what you didn’t cross off, so you can start the list for the next week. I once threw out about fifty notebooks filled with just lists but only after perusing them and realizing my entire life could be chronicled in a compilation of lists.            When do I write, where do I write, what do I write are questions often left to fill in the spaces between what is sometimes referred to as “The Activities of Daily Living” or “ADL.” The stories about writers trying to create space during “down time” when they aren’t consumed by the ADL’s that gobble up your life are legendary. John Grisham wrote on the train while commuting to work. Claire Cook of “Must Love Dogs” fame wrote her first books in her minivan while waiting for her kids at activities. I remember hearing an author at Book Passage (a fabulous book conference at the bookstore in Corte Madeira, California with the same name) recount how she would hide in her laundry room where she was sure her husband and kids would never venture just to secure alone-time when she could write to the humming of the washer and dryer. The struggle to find time and space to write is nothing new and is suffered by New York Times bestsellers (well maybe less once they’ve made the list), mid-list authors, and those praying to be published.             As if the quest to find time and space isn’t enough, add the booming voice inside reminding us, “You must write every day.” I have heard this so often, I am certain there must be a tablet on a mountain somewhere with this inscription. The older I get, the more I hate rules, especially when I realize that the people who break through and succeed have almost all broken the rules. So write every day. If you can. But if you can’t, then write whenever you can and don’t beat yourself up. I couldn’t write every day and still managed to write six full-length novels, two of which have been published.            The constant struggle about time and writing raised different questions for me as I grew older. How did I want to spend the time I have left on the planet?  Was it working as a lawyer twelve hours a day to live a lifestyle where I had to squeeze in time for writing when writing was what gave me the most pleasure? I was living in a ten-room house with a husband, a dog and a cat. The 2015 winter from hell in New England underscored that we basically only lived in three of those rooms. We sat in the living room in front of our fireplace, cooked in the kitchen and slept in our bedroom. Why were we perpetuating an existence that required efforts that no longer rewarded us? For seven vacant rooms and a soul that was beginning to feel withered?            I decided I wanted time and space to write. I downsized my law practice. My husband, already retired, applauded and was thrilled we would have more time together. We began the excavation of our life, emptying and selling our home of thirty-three years. With every item I tossed or donated, I could feel space within me opening up. The dumpsters we filled were replaced by a sense of freedom and lightness. We now live little and light and divide our time between two locations near the ocean, which we both love. I know that for many people with families, jobs, and lists of what they have to do each day, it may seem impossible to discard the things that will create space in your life to write. But if you look over the tasks on your “to-do” lists, ask if they make your life better. Maybe treat yourself to a dumpster and experience what getting rid of stuff does for your soul and your writing.

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A Different Kind of Launch Party

 No you didn’t miss the evite. And yes, thank you for asking about whether there would be a launch party for Permanent Sunset, the second book in the Sabrina Salter series published today by Crooked Lane Books. More than anything, my gratitude to readers’ who bought and enjoyed No Virgin Island and eagerly anticipated and pre-ordered Permanent Sunset. I had no idea how gratifying it would be to hear from people who read and supported my first book. I hope Permanent Sunset brings you even more pleasure.            So it would seem logical perhaps to celebrate the second in the series with another launch party. After all, the first was a great party held at the James Library in Norwell, Massachusetts, which was attended by more than 100 people, including friends, relatives, clients, fellow-writers, and former classmates. The very generous, effervescent, and talented Hank Phillippi Ryan interviewed me with her usual charm and wit. Later, she wrote, “Now that was a launch party.” As I looked out at the crowd of people who had so kindly supported me, I thought, this is like being at your own wake. The final honor came when relatives of a murder victim in St. John whom I had mentioned in the acknowledgements of No Virgin Island came to honor me and to buy my books.            But somehow, a second launch was feeling a little off to me, or as in the wisdom of the great Barbara Ross, kind of like a baby shower for a second baby. It isn’t that we don’t love and welcome that second baby as much as the first. It’s more that the joy is more subtle and relished. A little less like, “Whew, you finally published one of those suckers,” and more like, “Good for you, daring to put yourself and your creation out there again.” And then there is geography. With readers from all over the country and especially those in the Virgin Islands and Caribbean, an inclusive launch would have to be online. Unfortunately, a glass of virtual prosecco falls a little flat.            Still, I wanted to honor those who have supported me, propping me up when the doubt and dismay weigh me down. The people who have generously shared with me the joy my writing has brought them. And especially those who have made me laugh when I was taking this writing gig way too seriously.            When Hurricane Matthew fell upon Haiti last week, I finally figured how I could do this. In a time when we are divided politically, few can argue that lightning has indeed struck twice on this tiny Caribbean nation where children have suffered unimaginably and cholera is a way of life.            So today, I have created a fundraising page (https://www.classy.org/fundraiser/794775) on Sow A Seed, an organization, whose mission is to bring hope, reduce hardship and promote sustainable change in the lives of impoverished children, placing a special focus on orphans in the Caribbean. And yes I sent the prosecco and appetizer money to them (it won’t show for a bit) in honor of you and with the hope there will be a new sunrise for the children of Haiti.                            Save

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The Ultimate Artist's Date

 Anyone who has ever read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way knows that she is a strong proponent of certain tools to nurture the artist’s spirit. I’d love to write about her first tool, Morning Pages, but will wait for another time because I’ve just returned from the Ultimate Artist’s Date, a two-week trip to Italy.            An Artist’s Date is an excursion, preferably solo, to a destination intended to expand your creative resources. They are intentional and sometimes self-indulgent, but never to be suffered with guilt. You might meander through a yarn shop, even if you have never picked up a knitting needle in your life, just to ingest the colors and textures around you. Or you could visit an old church you’ve always been curious about and sit in the quiet letting the atmosphere surround you, perhaps bringing you to a different time.Playing with finger paints was one of my first artist dates. I was able to return to my childhood and recall the feel of the cool paint on my fingers traveling across the smooth paper. A stationery store near me is the perfect spot for an occasional artist’s date. I can pick up journals of all sizes and styles, feeling the difference in the paper, contemplating whether it is better to write on lines or without them.My trip to Italy was one artist date after another. Certainly, seeing Michelangelo’s David in Florence made for a spectacular one. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pompeii, the Sistine Chapel, and the Coliseum all were occasions where I was not only enchanted by art and history, but also able to fill my artist’s well (another Julia term).            Yet, it wasn’t just the extraordinary sites that filled my creative pores. I found the chanting in Assisi soulfully quieting, making me think of how many centuries human ears have been soothed by those same sounds.In Venice, I found myself looking up into open windows where curtains fluttered in the breeze over canals wondering who exactly lived there and what was their story.            On the rides from one location to another, I would observe the laundry hung out on clotheslines and try to figure out how the people whose clothes I was watching lived. I was surrounded by scents and smells from garlic cooking to sophisticated cologne to rosemary the size of hedges to exhaust from too many cars in Rome.            So many stories rose within me during my two-week Artist Date. My senses were continuously pampered and spoiled. I was reminded that good writing comes from indulging the senses and filling the soul with images, sounds, and tastes.            It may be a while before I am able to experience another Ultimate Artist’s Date, but I will not forget that once a week, even a scaled down one fills the artist’s well and soothes the writer’s sorry soul.            Have you been on an Artist’s Date lately, dear reader?

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Life in the cheap seats

 I’m fighting the battle of the middle arm rest. The man next to me, a very big man who doesn’t quite fit in his economy class airplane seat, is spilling over into my space. We’re shoulder to shoulder, actually touching, but I refuse to yield. I won’t sit folded up like a pretzel for three and a half hours.  Air travel fascinates me. A group of people who don’t know each other are crammed (for those of us denied the luxuries of first or business class) together in a box  suspended 38,000 feet in the air and forced to get along with each other for hours. You sort of have privacy. You stake out your territory with your invisible walls, your bag under your half of the under seat space, your laptop or e-reader or book (yes, people still take these on planes) in front of you like armor. You may wear headphones or earbuds to signal you want to tune out everything around you and be left alone. Some people sleep (or try to in those horrid little coach seats). Some jerks use their electronic devices to listen to music without using headphones. (Yes, you are a jerk if you do this. The entire plane does not want to hear your tunes. Use headphones or earbuds.) Some people chat with their traveling companions. Some people chat, or try to, with the stranger sitting next to them, even when it’s obvious (or should be from the book/headphones/lack of eye contact/snoring) the stranger next to them isn’t feeling talkative. I write. (True confession, tonight I slept. It was 11 pm, I’d been up since 5 am, and I had to be back at work the next morning at 6:30 am.) I get a lot of writing done on airplanes. I have an uninterrupted block of time. Excluding mister music-with-no-headphones, there are few distractions. Just enough going on around me to act as white noise. I’m surrounded by inspiration if I’m stuck for a character: her nose, his ear, his hair, her outfit. Maybe even my next literary murder victim. Hint, hint, Mr. Music. And, yes, I won the armrest battle. What do you do on airplanes?

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The Sophomore Slump: the Fear is Real

“Give someone a book and they’ll read for a day. Teach someone to write a book and they’ll experience a lifetime of paralyzing self-doubt.”
Writing my second novel is, apart from going to medical school, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My first novel was challenging. I had to learn the art of story craft, of how to create characters readers want to stick with for almost three hundred pages, of writing scenes that turned pages. But my first novel came with lower expectations. There was no precedent to live up to. These were brand new characters having new adventures. They carried no baggage.
Book two is different. The characters already exist. They have a history. They behave in certain ways. I find myself saying, “Gethsemane wouldn’t do that” or “O’Reilly would never say such a thing.” The characters have taken on lives of their own and I’m afraid to write more about them because I might mess up, get it wrong. They’ve become canonized  (at least in my head) and woe be to she who violates canon.
Luckily, I have an editor who is patient and holds my hand through my meltdowns. She reassures me I haven’t lost my mind, other writers struggle with the same things, and at the end of the day the characters are mine. I can make them do what I need them to do for the story. I just need to get out of my own way and write.  Has anything you created ever taken on a life of its own?
 

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Where it all comes from

    My love of reading books came from my parents, especially my mother. My parents’ house is filled with bookshelves crammed with books, some two layers deep, some stacked on top of each other. Mom is never without a book. She joked she got a job volunteering at the library so she’d have a chance to check out the new releases before anyone else. When I was growing up she and Dad worked in the same place. Dad did the driving to and from work and Mom either worked on her needlepoint or read. Now she checks out books on tape so she can listen to books while she sews. My parents let me have an unrestricted library card as soon as I was old enough to have a library card which allowed me to check out books from both the children’s and the adult sections. I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Edgar Allan Poe right alongside Lucy Maud Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lewis Carroll. My parents never told me no in a bookstore and a box filled with the latest Nancy Drews always appeared under the Christmas tree.
     I’ve been writing for almost as long as I can remember, at least since the first or second grade. I’m an introvert and I’ve always found expressing myself in writing easier than expressing myself orally. One of my earliest elementary school class projects was bookmaking—writing and illustrating the story, making the covers, assembling the books. When we finished our books the school librarian added them to the library shelves. I won my first (and, so far, only) writing prize in the sixth grade for a (rather dreadful when I re-read it as an adult) poetic saga about a superhero named XY. I still have the prize—a copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. In high school I was on the staff of the yearbook and the literary magazine (lots of bad poems about talking cows). As an undergraduate at Vassar College I enrolled in every creative writing class I could find. I even passed up spending junior year abroad so I could take playwriting and screenwriting with Professor James Steerman. I also had the good luck and the pleasure to study children’s literature with Newberry Medal winner, Nancy Willard. Writing took a backseat to medicine while I finished medical school and my family medicine residency (although some of my patient histories did take on a storyteller-like flare as I wrote my chart notes). Once I started working as a full-fledged physician I enrolled in writing classes and workshops whenever I could. Creative writing helped refill my spiritual and mental wells as I dealt with illness, trauma, and drama day in and day out. Eventually, work led to Dallas, Texas where I found SMU’s creative writing program, The Writer’s Path. That program led to a finished manuscript which led me to where I am now, a debut author with a published mystery, Murder in G Major.
 

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ALONE TOGETHER

 Today’s guest post is courtesy of Roger Johns, the author of DARK RIVER RISING, a crime thriller forthcoming from Minotaur Books-St. Martin’s Press in August 2017. Thanks, Roger!Reach Roger atRoger.johns@rogerjohnsbooks.comeWww.rogerjohnsbooks.comeRogerjohns.wordpress.com
            One of the most delightful discoveries I’ve made since taking up the writing life is that while writing is a solitary endeavor, it need not be a solitary life. During the last few years, as I’ve traveled the road from aspiring writer to soon-to-be published writer, I’ve spent quite a bit of time at book signings and launch parties, the New York Pitch Fest, several iterations of the Atlanta Writers Conference, a few book festivals, many meetings of writers’ associations such as the Atlanta Writers Club and the Georgia Romance Writers, and many, many meetings with critique groups and critique partners. And, a few weeks ago, I attended my first Bouchercon–a nationwide convention devoted to writers and readers of mysteries and thrillers.
                Every one of these events serves a very specific and valuable function, in terms of building a writing career–agents and editors are met, ideas are pitched, one’s skin is thickened to the professional grade of toughness required to survive in the book business, the craft of writing is learned and learned and learned some more, and at some point, if the stars line up just right, all of this going and doing creates a bridge you can cross into the realm of the published author. All of these things are good and necessary and, without a doubt, some of the finest moments one can experience along the trail. But, wait, wait, there’s more . . .
                That ‘more’ is the opportunity to make so many wonderful personal connections along the way. One can never have too many real friends and, as I’ve discovered, the writing world is a fruitful place to find them. Everyone in the writing community is struggling toward the same goals, running into the same challenges, suffering the same worries, and riding high on the same joys. Plus, we’re all motivated and captivated by the same obsession–the desire to read and write good stories.
                Maybe it’s just me, but of all the hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve met through my involvement in the writing community, the iconic solitary, curmudgeonly writer has rarely been one of them. In fact, as I sit here, writing this, I can’t think of a single one. The open-arms welcome seems to be standard operating procedure.
                As one of the big-name writers on the program at Bouchercon explained to an auditorium packed to the walls with readers and writers that success in the writing business is not a zero-sum game–in fact, it’s just the opposite. When the number of good mysteries and thrillers increases, the number of opportunities for people to become readers of such books increases, and the number of readers and fellow authors to connect with grows, as well. Amen, to that. And it was impossible not to notice that the writers who sat together on the panel presentations frequently seemed to be long-time friends with each other. During the book-signings and the meet-and-greet sessions that followed the panels, it was evident that there were a great many writer-reader friendships on display, as well.
                So, while for some, the solitary act of writing may lead down that shadowy corridor into a cloistered life, I’ll take a pass on that. Yes, I do like long, uninterrupted stretches of time to get the writing done, but I also like long, uninterrupted stretches of time with the people that make the writing so worthwhile to begin with. And what a great bunch of folks, it is. As if the chance to tell stories for a living weren’t an attractive enough proposition already.

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