Tag: Linda Castillo

Linda Castillo

Better Writing? Embrace Resistance

Last week, as I sat in the darkness of an indoor cycling class—happy up-tempo music blaring from invisible speakers—our cheerful and impossibly fit instructor told us, “Turn up the resistance! If it’s not hard, you’re not getting stronger.”

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The meaning of everyday things

 A bottle of beer is just a bottle of beer . . . except when it’s not. Sharing a drink with a friend is usually unremarkable, but if the last time you saw that friend, he was going on his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that bottle in his hand is a statement. If you’re one of his family and friends who take the sacrament at church every Sunday, the beer means one thing. If you’re the friend who’s holding your own bottle, it means something else. In a world where we can get almost anything from anywhere, items themselves have become less tethered to place. I order my Ritter Sport chocolate from Amazon, but I remember the days when it was hard to find outside of Germany. For writers, that means it takes a little more effort to convey the meaning of things without over explaining. When you’re introducing readers to a new place, those things matter, but having a light touch is hard (at least for me!). As a reader I love it when an author introduces me to something new about a culture I didn’t know without making too big a deal of it. Linda Castillo did a lovely job of this in Among the Wicked with her all-women quilting sessions. Without saying too much, Castillo made it clear that these gatherings were a little less guarded than they would have been with men present. A quilt was more than just a quilt. The same can be said of Jack Reacher’s famous toothbrush, although in that case the thing conveys the lack of connection to place. Any favorite examples of everyday things that take on special meaning in novels you’re writing or reading? Is the thing connected to place or not?     

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Writing about Cultural Setting

 Utahns are friendly and stubbornly optimistic. There’s an open warmth wherever you go in the state. I’d argue that some of that, at least, stems from growing up hearing stories of overcoming unbelievable hardship as a community. The lyrics to the Mormon pioneer song advises that we “put our shoulder to the wheel.” Every person helped out on the trek from the east coast to the Salt Lake Valley—pulling a handcart, or, if you were lucky, riding in a covered wagon—through snow and mud, despite disease and famine, toward an unknown destination. Politeness and friendliness are to Utah what competence and efficiency are to Manhattan, but that’s a superficial description. Cultural setting needs to scrape beneath the surface. Just as some of the nicest most generous people I know are New Yorkers by birth or adoption (meaning you’ve lived in the city long enough to have survived at least one business cycle), there are plenty of Utahns who don’t conform to the branded image of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. It’s the below-the-veneer characters who make a story interesting: the people who don’t fit in; people who see the world in a different way from the majority; the ones who’ve been knocked around a bit in life. Then there are the people who keep secrets, who lie and cheat. The ones who sometimes make the wrong choice and feel bad about it . . . or don’t. All of them keep a story moving. Some of the scenes I like best are where my characters confront challenging decisions head on. I start writing and I don’t know where the characters will lead me. Will there be a heartfelt apology or a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing? Will she choose kindness or cruelty? Honesty or deceit? Love, loss, greed, and generosity are part of being human wherever you live on the globe, but different cultures translate that humanity in different ways. Linda Castillo lets us peak into what it means to be Amish; Dana Stabenow gives us a flavor of indigenous life in Alaska. Then, of course, there is Ann Cleeves, Henning Mankell, James Lee Burke, Hans Rosenfeldt and so many others who set their novels in worlds where we get to learn something about the culture where murder happens. I’m always looking to add to my TBR list. Any suggestions for authors who excel at introducing new cultures?     

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