Some years back the Mystery Writers of America had an open call for stories about odd partners. I came up[…]Read more
Recently I spent twelve days in the hospital. One thing I discovered is that there is actually a limit to the number of Law & Orders you can watch. But, when I turned off the TV, I discovered myself awash in some of the most profound and moving stories I’d ever heard.Read more
Michele My recent trip to Ireland taught me that what happened to my great-grandparents is far more relevant than I realized. It almost seems to me if there is a cumulative DNA factor that continues from generation to generation. (I’ve since learned from Alexia about “epigenetics.” It’s a good thing there’s a doctor in the Miss Demeanors’ house.)Read more
Anyone who follows me on social media could not possibly have escaped that I recently spent two weeks in Ireland. At the risk of making you all dive under the covers screaming, “Enough,” I plan to spend this week blogging about the stories stirring within us and their sources.
Writers are frequently asked where they get their stories. Author Hallie Ephron is particularly adept at pointing to the source of her latest book (Careful What You Wish For), which has to do with a couple on different sides of the Marie Kondo wave. Another came from a house where she went to a yard sale.
If you are a person who loves stories, which I am, going to an orphanage is like going to the mother-lode. Every child there has a story. They are sharing those stories all the time, whether you are wandering around a mustard field, or going shopping (where there was a cow in a store) or looking at mango trees and gravestones, or sitting around a fire. One of my favorite things to do was to sit at a bench and watch the kids play badminton, and invariably some cherub would wander over, sit next to me, and begin to tell me a story. One afternoon I went into the dormitory where Rosey and her friends live and they showed me their books of pictures. These kids don’t have many possessions in their lives, but they have pictures of people who mean something to them and every single child there has one of those albums. (When I went home, I sent them a box full of pictures, which said Fedex box is still stuck somewhere outside Delhi. That is another story.) Most of the stories are somewhat harrowing, as you might imagine, and sometimes the children are sad, but for the most part they are happy and energetic and vibrant and all good things. Partly, I suspect, this is because they are young and resilient. But I have to give a lot of credit to the people who run this orphanage. I’d been communicating with the people at the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission for more than 3 years, and reading their newsletters, and I felt I had a good sense of who they were. But I’m old enough (and have read enough Charles Dickens) to know that good people are not always good, and religious people do not always act the way they should. However, from the moment I arrived on the mission, I was struck by the love and kindness with which each child there was treated. There were more than 100 children, which makes for a large family, and yet it felt like a family. You could just see the trust in the children’s eyes. When I left the orphanage, to head back to Delhi and then to home, I had the true sense of having left a part of my heart there. But the stories will stay with me forever.Read more
Lately I’ve been thinking about the place and time where I grew up (inspired, in part, by Paula Munier’s fabulous book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings.) My home town was a large suburban community right next to Levittown, which came to be seen as the epicenter of the Baby Boom. I grew up among road after road of ranch houses. All the streets were named after builders’ daughters. (My street was Cynthia Drive.) The few trees were mimosas and they were stunted. There were no historical markers. Years later I found out that Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood home had been within walking distance of my own and there was no sign. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, and when I was 16 I went to college and never moved back. However, as I think about it now, I’m struck by how many fascinating things were going on in those quiet little houses. The place I thought of as bland and boring was actually a hotbed of drama. For one thing, almost all the men, and some of the women, had served in World War II. By the time my childhood rolled around, twenty years after the war, the repercussions of combat were starting to bubble up. There was pride in service, there was grief and occasionally violence. Memorial Day was an emotional time. The VFW hall was as solemn as a church. There were also a number of concentration camp survivors. It was not unusual to talk to a friend’s mother and notice she had a tattoo on her arm. I sensed a gratefulness to be in our country, along with a skittishness from having survived. It was absolutely forbidden to teach German in my school, and no one drove a Volkswagen. To do that would be considered a traitor. Then, of course, there were all the social changes bubbling underneath. One of my most vivid memories is of a neighbor playing baseball with his son. His son was gay, though we didn’t use that word then, but his father must have suspected his orientation and decided to try and change it by teaching his son to be a pitcher. For hours the two of them would be out on their yard, father and son getting more and more upset, because the son was not much of an athlete. That went on for a long time. And then, around the corner from me, lived a boy who went on to become the worst serial murderer in Long Island’s history. Though at the time my brother and I knew him, he was just a kid who was always trying to play basketball with my brother. So many stories! Seems like there would be something to write about!Read more
I tell long stories. Shortening them has always been a struggle. From the time I was a child, I’d go on and on with details, trying to give a sense of place and character, while my overworked parents begged for the bare facts. Later, I became a newspaper reporter and the scourge of copy editors. Daily, I’d beg for another inch of newsprint to include a detail that I felt crucial to my story as the higher ups dismissed my pleas as trying to include needless, scene-setting “color.” Things weren’t much better when I moved to writing for business magazines. Serious people, I was told, didn’t want to know that some tech giant had twenty kinds of cereal in their cupboards. Such “fascinating” details were superfluous. Eventually, I left daily journalism for fiction writing. Doing so felt like moving from a cramped New York city studio to a New Jersey McMansion. I was loaded with space. Finally, I would have eighty to a hundred thousand words to tell a story. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that nearly every long-form writer needs to pen a pitch. Pitches are the universe’s way of checking my ego. All the pride I feel after finishing a novel tends to dissipate when I’m forced to write the one page summary. In some ways, writing the pitch is worse than writing a short article. At least when I was a newspaper reporter I hadn’t already crafted my perfect story and then been told to write the Spark Notes version. Thankfully, my agent has given me some sage advice on writing pitches. She’s told me not to try to get in every character arc or plot point. Agents and editors want a sense of the protagonist and the main problem. Maybe they’ll read about a subplot if its truly germane to the main action. They want a taste of my writing style. The pitch itself should leave the person pitched wanting to read the book, not feeling as though they already have. Perhaps my favorite piece of pitch advice was to answer the questions: What If and So What. I used the technique to pitch my latest published book: The Widower’s Wife. WHAT IF a young New Jersey housewife fell overboard on a cruise ship with a large life insurance policy and an investigator must decide whether her death was an accident, suicide or murder. SO WHAT? And the life of her young daughter and others hang in the balance of his decision. Here’s how the pitch came out: Ana Bacon, a beautiful young housewife, tumbles off a cruise ship into dark and deadly waters, leaving behind a multi-million dollar life insurance policy for her small daughter. Investigator Ryan Monahan is a numbers man. So when his company sends him the Bacon case, he doubts that her death is the tragic accident that it seems. Initially, he assumes suicide. But the more Monahan uncovers about Ana’s life the more he realizes how many people would kill to keep her secrets hidden and that his ruling on the payout could leave a murder free to kill again. What do you think about pitches? What is your favorite method?Read more