Distraction or Inspiration?

Years ago I met Dean Koontz at one of his book signings. He was and remains one of my literary heroes. As a fledgling thriller author I had a burning question for him. “Do you listen to music when you write?” He looked startled and fixed his darker-than-dark eyes on me. “Wow,” he said. “No one has ever asked me that.” The answer was yes. In fact, he chose a single album per manuscript and played it repeatedly as he wrote. It became the rhythm of the book. For example, when he wrote Sole Survivor, he told me, the accompanying soundtrack was Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” I listened to that album when I read Sole Survivor to see if I could match songs to passages. It doesn’t work that way, of course. Writing a book takes heck of lot longer than reading one. But I’ve listened to music while I write ever since. These days, it’s my iTunes library on shuffle unless I need an extra push to inspire a darker mood than my eclectic pop/jazz/dance/country/80’s/R&B/insert-genre-here tastes run. At such times, I listen to movie scores. Thrillers, of course.  So, my fellow Miss Demeanors, what do you listen to while you write? Cate: I try to listen to music the puts me in the mood of my characters at various points. For my third book, Lies She Told, this was my playlist: All That She Wants: Ace of BaseBack Door Man: The DoorsWhat Kind of Man: Florence and The MachineFire: Bruce SpringsteenEverybody’s Got The Right To Love: The SupremesWerewolf: Fiona AppleJanie’s Got A Gun: AerosmithYou Know I’m No Good: Amy WinehouseSamson: Regina SpektorI Told You I Was Mean: Elle KingFast as You Can: Fiona AppleYouth: DaughterStone Cold Crazy: QueenWith A Little Help From My Friends: Joe CockerPsycho Killer: Talking Heads Tracee: Great questions Robin! I definitely listen to music! I have a long playlist that is background music, often played so low it is barely audible. What I find interesting is that I usually don’t notice it, but if I accidentally hit shuffle and the songs are in the ‘wrong’ order then it’s a distraction. When I really need to focus I listen to the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. Otherwise, my playlist is eclectic: Mumford and Sons, U2, Imagine Dragons, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Carrie Underwood, Eagles, Adele, Coldplay, and much more… including a recent addition. k.d. lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. That one I still turn up and listen to full throttle. Paula: I have my playlists organized by genre/emotion/audience: romance, country, dance, creativity, meditation, happiness, poignancy, sweet dreams, etc., and for my bad days, f–k you. Note: For whatever reason, this f–k you playlist is the one my fellow writers most often request that I share with them. Go figure.I play whichever playlist suits the scene I’m writing–and if it’s something special, I just create a new playlist. When I’m stuck, I play my OM playlist, which is a combination of kirtan, gregorian chants, and classical music. That always gets me either to the computer or to the yoga mat…and then to the computer. Susan: I can’t listen to anything. I need complete (musical) silence to write. It doesn’t bother me if my neighbors’ are doing construction, but put on Sibelius and my mind goes dead. Alexia: I can’t listen to music while I write. I end up enjoying the music too much and paying more attention to it than to my writing. Mendelssohn is the one exception. I can write with Mendelssohn playing quietly. Usually, I either write in silence or with a quiet buzz of human voices running in the background like white noise. Michele: Put me under the column of writers who don’t/can’t listen to music while I write. I find I am so deeply and sometimes unconsciously influenced emotionally by music that it affects my writing in unintended ways. I like either total silence or the sounds of nature (birds, waves, wind, etc.). I’ve learned I love to write outdoors. It’s not that I don’t love music. Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli can make me weep, even though I can’t understand the lyrics. Dave Matthews gets me out of my seat. Simon and Garfunkel have been favorites since I was a kid and bring up lots of memories. I walked down the aisle to Scarborough Fair. I love Irish music. Harps kill me. Piano and violin move me. But all of these reactions to music tend to muddle what I’m writing. I must say I am fascinated by how my fellow Miss Demeanors intentionally use music to set their moods. I may try it.I am writing this while my daughter’s two kittens are practically sitting on my keyboard, purring like a feline orchestra. My mood is definitely influenced. I want to read a cozy. How about you, dear reader? Do you listen to music while you write?  

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Who are we?

The Miss Demeanors have a new look on our web site.  I love it. It seems mysterious, glamorous and maybe a little dangerous. Sort of like Myrna Loy. None of those words actually describe me, but a person can dream! Anyway, thinking about that made me wonder how my fellow Miss Dismeanors would describe themselves and our group. We’re all mystery writers. We’re all represented by the fabulous Paula Munier. But we’re all quite different too. We write different types of mysteries, for example. We’re living different sorts of lives. So what one word describes us?Here are the answers I received: Alexia: Cool. Women writing crime. What’s cooler than that? Cate:Brave. There is an honesty in fiction, a need for the writer to lay bare her true impressions and observations about human nature from beneath the thin veil of character. Putting yourself out there demands a certain amount of chutzpah. Michele:Dynamic. I am amazed at how much living my fellow Miss Demeanors crowd into life. They are either scooting off to Switzerland, Ireland, or New Orleans, or they are launching new books, even while they raise kids, work as physicians, writing teachers, etc. There is an energy beaming within and radiating from my blog mates. I admit when I’m feeling a tad depleted, I’ll go back to some earlier posts to borrow a little of their energy.  Paula:Persistent. Not a very glamorous trait, but one of the most important if you want to succeed as a writer, or as anything else. Publishing can be a tough business, and the bar is high, and the road to success can be long, but all of us have endured. We’ve learned that the “write, revise, repeat” mantra is the only one that really works. We keep on writing and revising and repeating. We persist. And so we publish.  Robin:Paula beat me to the first word that came to mind. The hazard of being in the latest time zone of the team 🙂 So I’ll say diverse. While we’re all women who write crime fiction, each of us incorporate our unique views and life experiences across multiple subgenres in fun and different ways.  Tracee:Engaged. With everything… their writing, families, blog colleagues, and other members of the writing community. And they still have time for friends, church, teaching, politics….oh, and yes, day jobs. What I admire is how each part of their lives gets the full focus when on deck.  I’ll round if off by saying “friends,” because I think that’s what we’ve become along this journey.How about you? What word one describes yourself?       

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Medieval dogs

 While doing research on my new mystery, I came across a completely irrelevant bit of information that I found charming. It was in a lecture by historian Toni Mount on medieval nuns. The lecture started off interesting, and then she began talking about wayward nuns. Immediately I was more interested. Then she started talking about wayward nuns and their dogs. I was hooked. Nuns were allowed to keep cats, evidently, because they took care of the mice. But they were not supposed to have dogs, because they served no purpose!!! Of course these medieval nuns led a very difficult life. They prayed and worked constantly, and with little human affection, and so it’s not surprising that they became passionately attached to little dogs, so much so that they would sneak them into church. At one point a bishop had to pass an injunction against bringing dogs and puppies into the choir, Mount points out. For those who were caught, in one particular parish, there was a punishment: the nun had to fast on bread and water on one Saturday. (A small price to pay, I suspect.)  I spend a fair amount of time holed up with my dogs. Being a 21st century writer is not quite like being a medieval  nun, but there is a fair amount of solitary work, and I am up early, and I felt like learning about their dogs gave me a richer understanding of who they were. On such small details are stories built! (If the course sounds interesting, you can find it at www.medeivalcourses.com.)

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Acceptance

Every New Year’s I make a resolution to improve myself in some way or another. I will be more productive, more focused, more ambitious and so on. But this year, I concluded that if I haven’t changed by now, I’m probably not going to. And all I’m going to succeed in doing is make myself feel guilty, which I already do enough. So this year I decided to accept what I am. And what I am is a slob.    My desk is cluttered with papers, books, pictures of dogs, notes from people I love, notes from my agent with advice, tissues, water bottles, an icon my son brought me from Russia, dog treats, post-it notes, and books. I’d like to say there’s order to this madness, but having just spent half an hour looking for an important bit of information that I found under a chair, I doubt it.  What there is, though, is energy. My office feels alive to me. When I walk in, I feel like I’m jumping into a stream of running water.  Periodically I do clean it, and then I feel very virtuous, and then I sit down and write and darned if I know how it happens, but by the time I stand back up, it’s a mess again. But you know what? It works. How about you? Is there anything you’ve come to accept about yourself this New Year?

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How long do you write?

I was on a panel not long ago, with several other mystery writers. Various people in the audience asked questions, and one wanted to know how many hours each of us spent writing every day. I answered, “six.” Whereupon one of the other panelists, (who happens to be a friend), barked out, “You’re lying.” (You might wonder what people who are not my friends say to me.) I pointed out that I wasn’t lying and that she was a bully and then she said… Well, never mind. Yesterday, though, when I did in fact spend 6 hours writing, I found myself thinking about the question and realized that when I say I’m writing, I don’t mean that I’m sitting at the keyboard typing for that six hours. I’m doing a bunch of things on top of that. 1. I’m thinking, which, to the naked eye might look like I’m looking out the window at the oak tree on my front lawn. But so much of writing is imagining, and so much of that is letting my mind wander. 2. I’m reading. Because the book I’m working on now involves a different historical period, I’m reading lots of books about how people in that time dressed and ate and talked. I’m also reading psychology manuals and trying to get a better understanding of why people do what they do. And sometimes I’m reading Agatha Christie or Louise Penny, just because I want to absorb their wisdom. 3. I’m outlining. I don’t write up a formal outline before I start a book, unless an editor wants me to, but I do like to jot down notes about what’s to come. Just in case I forget. Or I might jot down a bit of dialogue. 4. I’m drinking coffee. 5. And yes, I’m pounding on the keyboard. All of which takes six hours, or sometimes more, when everything is going well and I’m in that groove and I don’t even notice the time has gone by. How long can you write?  

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What's in a name?

I teach novel-writing for Gotham Writers in New York City. My classroom is in an office building that looks right out on to Times Square. So from my window, I see something like this picture. Even when my class gets out, at 10 pm, it still looks like that.  Sometimes it’s a little scary. The other night I left work and walked by two people, arms folded across their chests, sleeping in a box shaped to look like a coffin. But for the most part working in Times Square is exhilarating, and I feel like I’m tapping into the energy that makes New York City so vital. My classes tend to reflect that vitality. My students come from all over the world–from Haiti and Dubai and London and Pakistan and of course, from the United States too. Their names are often unfamiliar to me. I grew up in a suburban part of Long Island, in a time and place where most of my friends were named Betty or Marcy or Patty. So it’s always a worry for me that I am either going to forget or mispronounce one of my student’s names. So I’ve hit on this writing exercise I do at the start of each class, in which I have each student write about how she came to have her name. The stories are always fascinating. Some students are named after a relative. A surprising number are named after characters in TV shows. Others have names that are completely made up, which is fun too. For example, one of my students has a name that has a syllable from each of her mother’s best friends. When I hear the stories behind the names, it becomes much easier for me to remember who the people are. I spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the characters in my mysteries. Usually I have a pretty good idea, but one character gave me a really hard time in my new book, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency. She’s the person who comes to hire Maggie. She’s rich, proud, a bit distant, of French descent. She’s also a devoted caretaker to her mother. She’s essentially a good person in a prickly package. Originally I was going to call her Augusta, and have people in the village call her Gussie. But the more I wrote the name Gussie, the less it felt like her. I spent hours going through directories of French names. Jacqueline? Too fancy. Claudette? Too sexy. On and on, until finally I found the name Racine. Not a name that has a nickname. Just a slicing sort of name. It fit perfectly, and that’s how Racine Stern came to be in my book. Where does your name come from?      

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WRITING MY WAY OUT OF A CARDBOARD BOX

 Let me be clear. This is not a criticism of or rant against technology. I am thrilled to be living in an age where there are computers, cellphones, the Internet, and Bluetooth. Admittedly, there is a learning curve for someone my age. I remember identifying with Dave Barry who wondered how they got the ink through the wires of a fax machine. But it has been worth every effort I have made to hang on, clinging to my devices by my fingernails declaring, “I will not be left behind.”            I am particularly smitten with Google. There is no place you cannot go with this wonder of wonders. Just within the past 48 hours, I have explored how to defer federal jury duty, how to fix a dropped stitch, what the weather will be in New Orleans and Italy this month, and who is the better candidate for state senate in my community. When the students I teach at a law school told me I should stop struggling with Westlaw, a complex legal software program, and just use Google, I was relieved to know I was actually in the know.            So when a number of my writing colleagues began to rave about how productive and organized they had become by using a writing software program that was becoming increasingly popular, I thought, why not? Combining my busy day job as a lawyer with a writing career made finding time to write challenging. I quickly purchased the Scrivener software, signed up for a training session, and purchased the Dummies manual. The program is not as easy as some say, but it is definitely doable and appeals to those of us steeped in traditional ways of organizing writing. A writing program that included use of virtual index cards appealed to my love of stationery supplies.            Off I went to St. John for a three-week writing vacation on the island where my mystery series is set. (And yes, three weeks of writing is a vacation when your other job involves divorces, custody battles, and disputes about who gets the Shih Tzu.) I set down at my table, cracked open Scrivener, and set off to write the second book in the Sabrina Salter series.            Much of the writing process for me takes place long before this moment when I sit down to actually write. I plot, ponder, ruminate, and even obsess in my head long before. Call it the gift of insomnia, but there is nothing like a couple of sleepless hours in the middle of the night to debug that plot glitch. Some writers will tell you that the time you spend in your head isn’t really writing, but to them I say B.S. When my fingers finally hit the keyboard, I may not have an outline like the plotters ( I am a pantser of sorts), but the story seems to flow from my brain to the keyboard as if I’ve opened a vent.            So that first morning when Sabrina and her cohort, Henry, didn’t show up for work, I was a little surprised. I thought they were just being a little shy, you know, with the new writing program. By the end of the first week, they had punched in but with little of the spit and spunk I have come to expect from them. As I was winding down my second week, I began to panic. What was wrong? I’d never had writer’s block before. I’d even heard it was just a myth. How could this be happening when I knew my story and who my characters were and where they were headed?            I felt as if I were stuffed into a cardboard box, you know the kind that kids make a fort out of when their parents get a huge shipment from Amazon. I was was suffocating. Writing felt as foreign to me as if someone had handed me sheet of music and told me to sing an aria. I stood up at the table and said to my husband I was done with it. “Writing?” he asked, looking very concerned. Everything I have done in recent years has been focused on creating more time and space for my passion: writing.            “No,” I said. “Writing programs. They are not for me. I know they are wonderful and have helped many writers, but I am not one of them.” I felt glorious, as if I had punched out the paper walls and pushed up the ceiling of my cardboard box to let the light and air in. I could breathe.            The next my morning, Sabrina and Henry arrived on time and ready to roll. I hit the keyboard and my fingers began to dance while the story that became the book, Permanent Sunset, emerged. I was happy. They were happy. I thought about that quote from another writer. “To thine own self be true.” Writing is an art. Pen, paper, keyboard, writing programs. They are all tools.  The artist gets to choose which tool to use. 

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