This morning I woke up to this view. If it looks a little bit familiar, it may be because all of us who’ve read Pride and Prejudice have been nurtured by Austen’s descriptions of the beautiful landscape of the South Downs. Isn’t this glorious? If you go outside, and take a walk (which I did!) you come to a forest, or a weald. Strolling through, I could just imagine Mr. Darcy walking toward me. A few miles away, you come to a rambling old manor house. Near the manor house is a church similar to the one Jane Austen attended. Now I want to go back and read her books!Read more
Hello from England! For the past week I’ve been traveling around England. One of the many pleasures of my trip has been seeing and smelling and touching places that I’ve only just read about. As science fiction writers know, it is not actually necessary to go to a place to write about it, but it does open up amazing vistas when you can actually be there. Today we went to Eltham Palace, which was a significant place during the Tudor era. Here is where Henry VIII’s nursery was. Elizabeth I was a baby here as well, and her older half sister, Mary, was forced to help take care of her. Anne Boleyn spent her last Christmas here, and some of the crimes she was accused of committing were said to have taken place here. So it is resonant. And there I was in the Great Hall, looking up at the same incredible carved wood ceiling Anne Boleyn would have stared at. It’s a huge room. The Tudors were not into privacy. You can almost hear the commotion. Much of the building is gone, but you get a sense of the massiveness of it. Then I went out into the lawn and was wandering around and looked south and saw London. Of course, she probably would not have been able to see anything in the 1500s. No sky scrapers then. But it gave me a sense of the geography of her life. It helps me understand her better, and that’s the point.Read more
Publication day!!!! For my first book, it was the fulfillment of a dream, the culmination of years of work and the validation that I had not been crazy when I’d quit my journalism job to get “serious about writing fiction.” It was also terribly unnerving to know that my baby would now be out there, inviting judgment. I was uncharacteristically touchy the whole day, like a raw nerve. Today is fellow MissDemeanor Tracee de Hahn’s publication day for Swiss Vendetta, the first in her Detective Agnes Lüthi mystery series. Award-winning author Charles Todd called the mystery “a true page turner” and the novel has been hailed as “tense, atmospheric and richly detailed.” She answered a few questions about her writing process and feelings about her big day for today’s blog. Q. What was your inspiration for writing Swiss Vendetta? A. My husband is Swiss and we lived there for some years. It is a fascinating country. Incredibly beautiful and peaceful and orderly… until you notice the undercurrent of energy expended to keep it that way. The contradiction is fascinating and made me think of the elements of a mystery. There were a few other pieces that had to come together – the winter setting was inspired by the memory of a devastating ice storm some years ago in Geneva. The famous Château de Chillon on the shores of Lac Léman above Lausanne was the inspiration for my Château Vallotton (Lord Byron was also inspired by this location). After I had the location in mind, the plot and characters evolved. The crime at the center of the book came easily. Q. How do you come up with your characters? Are they modeled after people that you know? A. They certainly contain bits of people that I know, but the elements of the individuals are transformed into something wholly of my imagination. For example, one of my favorite characters in Swiss Vendetta is the aging Russian, Vladimir Arsov. His voice, his manner of speaking, and his confidence were all inspired by an Italian architecture professor I had the good fortune to know. Arsov’s life story was all my invention, but the reader will understand how the man’s presence – based on my friend’s – helped created the rest. Q. Do you picture the actress who would play your protagonist in a movie?A. I’ve thought about the cinematographic dimension of the book, but I haven’t thought about the actress who would play Agnes. Hopefully I’ll need to one day. Q. What was the most surprising thing about the book publishing process to you? A. The collegiality of the writing community, particularly those in the mystery and thriller genre. Writing is a solitary endeavor and they make it less so. I imagine that before the internet, authors wrote to one another. Now the immediately of the internet and the growing network of conferences mean that we can connect daily. There is much to be learned and this group is always willing to share. Q. Now that it’s launch day, are you happy, sad, relieved? All of the above? Why?… A. A combination of happy and relieved. I know myself too well, and while writing is solitary, a book is a shared experience. I wanted to be out and about at launch time. My publishers lined up a tour of several cities and I’ll be distracted for a few weeks. For the actual launch date, I am signing at one of my favorite book stores, in a city I love – Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, KY. If you want to join me on tour, the events are all up on my website at www.traceedehahn.com Q. What is next for you? A. Finalizing the second in the series and then starting the third! I think that the second is a psychological hurdle. I have a dozen ideas for the next one and hopefully the ones after that. Really, can’t wait to get started!Read more
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.”
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)
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.Read more
Clouds loomed over the ocean, a gathering black mass in the darkening evening that gradually assumed the shape of a ghostly pirate ship moored to the horizon. Light crackled in the dense fog like the flash of light before cannon fire. The expected blasts never sounded. The squall, visible as day over the dark, still water, was still too far away for thunder. Lightening can be seen for fifty miles or more, though. The storm was silent. But it was coming. If I were writing a new thriller, this is how I might describe the electrical storm my husband and I witnessed last night in the North Fork of Long Island. The tone is foreboding. The clouds are likened to a pirate ship; the lightening flashes to cannons. Pirates and war are never welcome. The POV character describing the storm is not an optimist. She or he is anticipating something bad happening. Perhaps there’s something in his or her past that explains this sense of dread. Perhaps he or she just senses something about to go awry in the future. Either way, the person seeing this storm is not in a romantic comedy. In real life, I’m in the midst of a family vacation. The worst I am expecting is a tantrum or two from my four-year-old. If I were to describe the storm as myself, I’d use very different language. Something more like this: Thick clouds settled in on the horizon, a blackout curtain hung low enough to allow the first stars to peak from above. I snuggled deeper into my husband’s side, placing my head on his pectoral rather than his sunburned shoulder. I remembered the opera. We went every year for my birthday. I loved the drama of it all. The heavy curtains. The ornate chandelier. The vocal acrobatics. This might be better. The clouds began flashing as though behind the curtain a thousand papparazos snapped the performers photos. Anticipation thrilled through me followed by a pang of motherly guilt. The kids would miss quite a show. Maybe I should wake them? Then again, they could spoil this. They were young enough to be scared by lightening, to fear the sudden thunder cracks or complain about the quickening wind, unable to fully understand that the steady brush against our skin was the only reason anyone could be outside at this feeding hour. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums rage against the dying light. Any other way, we’d be eaten alive. Not tonight. The lightening flashed. The sky whitened like daylight and then switched to black. God flicking the switch. Night. Morning. Night. Morning. Every strike was better than fireworks. Brighter without the battering of my ears. The storm was far away enough to enjoy. Close enough to smell. The air held the fresh scent of electrified oxygen. I inhaled the atmosphere and leaned deeper into my spouse’s side. It would be at least an hour before the rain. We would enjoy every minute of it.Read more