Being there

 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.     

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Learning From Imaginary People

At its best, a novel can be a masterclass on life. My favorite books have taught me about myself. More importantly, they’ve allowed me to see myself in others and recognize others in me. They’ve exposed my limited experience and asinine assumptions, and have challenged me to learn more, listen more, and become better.  Most writers I’ve met feel similarly. Often, such feelings are the source of our deep love for story telling. So, my question this week to the MissDemeanors is What Life Lessons Have You Learned From Fiction? Here are our answers.  Cate: At around age eight, Harriet The Spy helped clarify my then budding ambition to become a writer. I pretty much thought Harriet was me with a less well-guarded notebook. Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield reflected my own teenage angst and frustration with the adult world, and it made me realize that getting through life requires acceptance and change. You can’t fight everything without going nuts. Thanks J.D. Salinger. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon (all of which I read in high school) helped me develop a broader sense of empathy and gave me a sensitivity to other female experiences in America. This was particularly important for me at the time as I was developing my own cultural identity, trying to determine what it meant to be biracial in America and what experiences I could and could not connect with given that my black heritage is often belied by my appearance. Recently, Margaret Atwood’s fiction has served as an reminder to remain aware of the greater political landscape in which I live. Bouncing along in my self-absorbed bubble may be bliss, but it also makes finding myself in a dystopia a hell of a lot more likely. Paula: Emerson’s essays taught me to think, the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales taught me to dream, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn taught me to laugh no matter what. Shakespeare and Jane Austen taught me that people are funny and tragic and generous and terrible and evil and noble and true. Mysteries taught me plot and red herrings; romance taught me meet cutes and happy endings. But I learn just as much writing as I do reading, especially about myself. Tell a story well and you can’t help but reveal yourself, warts and all. I just got my notes back from my editor on my new novel and I was so worried about the plot, but he said the plot was fine, though the relationship between the heroine and the hero needed work. Now that really is the story of my life. Robin: Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen and Steve Martin taught me to embrace absurdity. Joan Didion’s Hot Flashes warned me about what laid in store (spoiler: she was right, “flash” is a misnomer). Dean Koontz taught me that humans can be the scariest monsters. James Herriot made me want to be a veterinarian when I was 10 yrs old, until the vet treating my family’s dog invited me watch a surgery and I fainted. I second Paula’s comment – I learn more about myself by writing fiction. What I’m willing to say and what I’m not, how much better my work is when the words make me uncomfortable. I’m writing a YA thriller at the moment and I cried after finishing the first draft of more than one scene. Tracee: Reading Tolstoy made me a lifelong Russophile, Dickens secured my love of history. Mysteries taught me plot and clues and red herrings (which also apply to real life) and thrillers made me realize that I am not a thrill seeker in any way. Anything I’ve ever read has taught me that there are many perspectives and situations that are not my own – some I wish were, and some I’m thankful are not. No lesson is perfect, but fiction taught me that sometimes you don’t get a second chance – but sometimes you do. Susan: Dickens taught me that life has insane highs and lows, and you’re always better off if you can try to find some humor in any given situation. I’m reading The Nightingale now and it’s teaching me so much about bravery and the importance of knowing your values and speaking up for them. Anne Tyler, Louise Penny and Richard Russo showed me the value of community. And Agatha Christie. I always wanted to live in St. Mary Mead, and I suspect I chose my village, and Maggie Dove, for that reason. Reading has also shown me that although it’s a big world, most people are motivated by similar concerns, and I try to keep that in mind when I meet new people. Michele: I read Elizabeth George Speare’s historical masterpiece, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, when I was nine and learned that even in the 1600’s people suffered from feeling different, an invaluable lesson for someone on the brink of adolescence. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened my eyes to a world where people lived very differently than in the world in which I was growing up. To Kill A Mockingbird inspired a sense of social justice in me and showed me how one good lawyer can make a difference. Jane Austen taught me that romantic comedy has been alive and well for centuries and how important it is to be able to laugh at yourself. Mark Twain’s lesson was that good humor serves you well in life. Louise Penny has recently touched me and made me appreciate how comforting and inspiring a good story filled with fallible humans can be. Alexia: Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Drew taught me that girls could have adventures, too. 

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Seeking Anne Boleyn

For the last few years I’ve been working on a book in which Anne Boleyn is a character. One of the thing that intrigues me, as a fiction writer, is that there are so few agreed upon facts about her. Even the year of her birth is up for debate. Some people say she was born in 1501, which would make her around 35 years old at the time of her death, a comparatively old woman in Tudor times. Others say she was born in 1507. The arguments on both sides are compelling (I think I lean toward 1507), but without knowing the precise details, we also don’t know precisely where she was born. We also don’t know if she was the oldest daughter or the youngest. So it’s fun to make up stories about her because you get to fill in all those gaps.   For the next two weeks, I’ll be traveling around England as part of a Tudor Tapestry tour led by Alison Weir, (who you may know because she’s written many wonderful books, among them Six Wives of Henry VIII, which was the book that sparked my interest in the whole subject. )I’ll be writing about my adventures for QueenAnneBoleyn.com, which is a fabulous site. You can also find them on Facebook. So prepare for Tudor Week on the Miss Demeanors!  

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I Can't Go For That, No, No Can Do…

   I read a blog post a few weeks ago about a novel that had celebrated—or notorious, depending on which side of the debate you fell on—twist ending. Comments on the blog lined up in one of two columns—loved it or hated it. The haters complained the book had run afoul of one of their pet peeves: cop-out/too-convenient endings, genre switching, unconvincing characters, etc. The reactions to that novel prompted me to ask my fellow Missdemeanors:  What do you hate most in fiction writing, mystery or otherwise? What’s your pet peeve? Alexia: I hate it when a mystery author conceals a fact from readers when that fact is critical to solving the puzzle, then has the sleuth produce the fact out of nowhere, leaving readers saying, “Where’d that come from?”. For example, Snuffy Smith’s long-lost identical twin is revealed as the murderer but his twin was never, even once, mentioned/hinted at/alluded to–not even the suggestion of the possibility Snuffy might have a twin–before the big reveal.  That’s cheating. To paraphrase the rules of the Detection Club, a detective can’t have out-of-the-blue hunches that turn out to be right, can’t withhold clues from the reader, the solution to the crime can’t be chalked up to “divine revelation, feminine intuition, mumbo jumbo, jiggery pokery, coincidence, or Act of God”.(I’ll make allowances for “Act of God” if it’s a paranormal mystery and God is the sleuth.) Michele: Since you asked, and since I recently ranted about this on Facebook… I hate it when an author pulls a cheap trick at the end of a book so that the reader is unfairly surprised. It’s a variation of what Alexia has said. Instead of spinning a plot that thrilled the reader, in a book I recently read, the author purposely deceives the reader about something not central to the plot and uses it as a cheap “thrill” at the end. If it weren’t on my Kindle, it would have been the third book I’ve thrown across the room in my entire life. The author used the deception as substitute for an exciting plot twist. Years ago, I read a book while sick with the flu that had fabulous writing, a good plot, likable characters. There was no hint that it was going paranormal until at the very end, a character walked through a door. I mean THROUGH A DOOR. And don’t get me started on the one Anita Shreve pulled. At a conference, she told livid readers that she still gets complaints on what she did in one of her books, years later. (No spoilers here). Come on, guys. Play fair! Cate: I hate it when the villain is just evil. Bad people typically have a way of justifying their actions or they weren’t fully in control when they did the bad thing and now feel remorse. I HATE the sociopathic gun-for-hire killers. Fine if the writer explains how the killer got that way—a lá Grosse Pointe Blank. But I refuse to accept the bad-just-because explanation. Robin: I have 2 pet peeves in all genres:1) “Was.” I stopped reading a best seller on page 2 after counting 26 instances of “was.” Used sparingly it can be appropriate but not 26x in the first 2 pages. Whenever I see “was,” I rewrite the sentence in my head to make it active rather than passive. Overuse just exhausts me and irritates my inner editor.2) “Fortunately” or “unfortunately.” This kind of echoes your sentiment, Alexia. These statements of coincidence dropped out of thin air with no prior context will make me stop reading. Show me the build-up as characters arrive at their opinions of good or bad circumstances, or lead me to draw my own conclusions as the story unfolds. The only time I kept reading past the repeated use of “unfortunately” was Gone Girl. It fit with the character’s voice (no spoilers so I’m not saying who said it). Susan: I hate it when I get to the end of a book and can’t remember who on earth the suspects are. You could insert any name and it wouldn’t matter. Then comes the big reveal and I think, Oh. Nice. Who? Paula: I’m not a big fan of ambiguous endings. Nor endings which play out the theme of “Life is shit.” I don’t mind “life is shit but it’s all we’ve got so enjoy what you can,” but the “life is shit, we may as well all slit our wrists now” endings I find intolerable. I don’t need a happy ending, but I at least want a hopeful one. Tracee: Can I simply agree with you all? My pet peeves are variations on your themes, although the ‘life is shit’ one is really a no-go for me. Purely evil character with no deeper meaning is probably second. Honestly, I’m so fixated on making Michele tell us which Anita Shreve pulled the ‘character out of the air’ trick that I can’t focus on anything else. I haven’t read all her books, so don’t think I simply don’t remember it. I’m going to take Michele out for drinks at Malice and force her to tell me. Then maybe that will be my top pet peeve.

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Resources for writers. Oh, how times have changed.

This blog was recently spotlighted in Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 best for writers. (And it was one of only three named specifically for the mystery genre.) It was a thrill for our group – our Andy Warholian fifteen minutes of fame!  That said, don’t worry if you didn’t see the list, or if you read over www.MissDemeanors.com if you did. There’s a lot of information out there these days. Part of me embraces the connectivity. That’s certainly why I blog with these wonderful fellow writers. Writing can be an isolating experience and staying in touch via electronic media helps. Fifty – even twenty – years ago we would have written letters. More personal? Perhaps. But also limiting. I doubt the MissDemeanors would have all participated in a weekly round robin letter. While I appreciate, and value, all of the on-line resources available today, I can’t help but also give a shout out to the old-fashioned kind. Strunk and White anyone? I still have two copies on my shelf near to hand. And the newer and hipper Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss? I keep it on my nightstand – it is truly urbane, witty and very English as the book jacket proclaims. A chance to be entertained and learn a thing or two. My point? How do you wade through “what’s out there” without merely marking everything under the sun as informative and to be read later? In my case, I stick with a few resources. Writer’s Digest being one of them. I also try to follow Jane Friedman as much as possible. After that, I attempt to keep in the loop about conferences both local and national, big and small since they are wonderful face-to-face opportunities to connect with both writers and readers. And I confess to loving Twitter – in small doses. It’s like taking the pulse of the world. And I keep my old stand bys – the Strunk and Whites of the world – at hand. When the internet crashes, I’ll be thankful they’re here. What do you do?

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How do you know when you're done?

This is a question I’m asked frequently by my students, and I wish I had a clear-cut answer. Having an agent is a huge help in this respect because I’m done when Paula says I’m done. But how do I know I’m done enough to send it to Paula?  I have two indicators: When I reach a point when I can read through the manuscript and have nothing else to add. When I begin daydreaming about a different story. That’s usually a sign that my mind has moved on. For further insights, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors for their thoughts and this is how they replied: Tracee: I’m done when the deadline hits (well, really once the final round of edits are finished, but those have a deadline as well…. ). That’s when the manuscript gets pulled from my fingers. Of course that kind of deadline is for work that will be published – it’s due! I’ve written many full length manuscripts that I’ve never submitted for publication. Those were also ‘completed’ but it is trickier because you can keep on and on and on editing. I’ve always stopped when I felt it was good enough for a professional to view (although that would probably mean an agent which would likely mean a few more edits before submission.). I’ve always liked to ‘finish’ things. It will never be perfect but more time won’t necessarily make it so. And that applies to most anything. Paula:Ha! With my deadline looming on April 1, I’ll be done when it’s April 1. Until I get notes from my editor. In truth, the work is never really done.  Robin: I know I’m done when Paula says I’m done 🙂 My non-fiction and journalism work has all been under deadline so the date played a major part but I stopped tinkering when beta readers previously unfamiliar with the subject matter understood the points I endeavored to make and found the message delivery entertaining. I’m looking forward to fiction deadlines when I can say the same. Michele: The same way I know when I’m done with a recipe, or a garden. When one more ingredient, plant, or word would detract from the work done. Knowing what’s enough doesn’t come easy. Alexia: I’m done at some obscene hour of the morning on the date of the deadline for the final round of edits. Even then, in my head I’m not really done. The nagging thought, “Oh, I should have…,” is ever present, circling like a hungry wolf. Or laughing hyena.
 Cate: Since I write standalone novels, I know it’s done when my protagonist’s arc feels complete. She or he has solved the mystery and the character has grown in some way. Then, I give it a few weeks and read it with fresh eyes, and if it still feels done, it’s done…. At least until my editor tells me I have to change it up. 🙂 

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What drives me crazy

I need to vent. Somebody just said something that almost pushed me over the edge. It was a gentleman looking for some help with his writing, and he asked me to read something for him, and I asked him what sorts of things he likes to read and he said, “Oh I don’t read. I don’t have time for it.”  You might just as well hit me with a stick. First of all, if you don’t read, but you’re writing, that means you are expecting other people to do the exact thing you don’t have time to do. Or to put it another way, You expect me to read your book, but you will not read mine. Why? That’s just me being petty, of course. The deeper reason is that we learn so much from reading. Every time you read a book, you are absorbing structure. You may not be conscious of it at the time, but it’s happening. Your mind is storing away all these templates and so when you start to lay out your story, your mind will automatically help you do what you need to do.  Alternatively, if you do not read, you do not absorb that structure and very bad things happen. I promise. I teach a novel-writing class (and they are very good writers!) and there is nothing so fun as when we all begin discussing the books we’ve been reading. Novelists have a passion for books. This is how it should be. We know we’re part of a wide community of people and we respect that community. Or, as the great Stephen King writes, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Amen! How about you? What issues push your buttons?

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Why does it take so long?

I’ve been working on my current novel for five years. Thinking about it for ten, or even more. I remember that when the idea first hit me,  I was out to dinner with my husband and we had to go home because we had a babysitter. My daughter is now planning her wedding. So that gives me some orientation.  Of course, I haven’t been working on it non-stop for all these years. During the time I’ve been working on this one, I wrote another book, about India, and then my two Maggie Dove books. Still, the story for this one has been running like an undercurrent through everything I’ve done, and when I run into old friends they always ask, How’s that book? I know I’m not alone. Several of the students in my novel writing class have been working on the same manuscript for years. They’re working hard, thinking, revising. It’s great to be with them because we’re a sort of support group for each other.  But why is it taking so long? Partly because I chose a subject that I didn’t know much about, but wanted to, and in order to feel qualified to write about it I had to study and learn. Partly because the characters were complicated to me and I had to spend a lot of time trying to understand them. Partly because it took me forever to figure out the right point of view, but once I did, everything fell into place. Also, it took me a very long time to understand how the crime could be committed.  But now that I’m almost done (I think) I’m really pleased. I’ve given it my best shot. I think it warrants all the time I’ve spent on it. Or I hope so. How about you? What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on something?   

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Rosie

Some years ago I was working on a novel and needed to set a scene in an Indian orphanage. It wasn’t a big scene, but I wanted details to bring it alive. So one afternoon I went scrolling around Indian orphanage sites and one thing led to another and I wound up sponsoring a young woman named Rosie.  Rosie lives in a small village on the very northernmost part of India, close to Nepal. So she is physically about as far from me as it’s possible to be. And yet one thing I’ve discovered, as we’ve exchanged letters every month or so, is that we have so much to talk about.(Her English is excellent. Far better than my Hindi. I was taking Hindi classes for a while, and she was so supportive of me. Praying for my success, though those particular prayers were vain.) She is fascinated by the arrangements for my daughter’s wedding. She loves all the details about the dresses and the food. She’s also very well-read. What I find surprising is that so many of the books she reads are the same as the ones American girls her age are reading, such as Hunger Games. She is in some ways so similar to the girls I know and in some ways so different. She works on a farm. She had a terribly difficult beginning to her life. She’s had experiences I will never understand. But somehow this beautiful shining spirit comes through. For years, in almost every letter Rosie has sent, she’s asked when I will be coming to visit, and I always say I’d love to come, but it’s just so difficult. But this year, for my birthday, my oldest son said that if I wanted to go to India, he’d go with me. Joy! So, it’s going to take a lot of planning, but in a year or so you will be getting a picture of me on a farm, hugging my dear young friend. How about you? Where do you dream of going? (Note: If you’re interested in where Rosie lives, you can check out the site at www.indianorphanage.com)

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Paper Pleasures

 I finished a notebook today. I used the last page to write this blog post. Time for a new one. Another ninety-six pages representing unlimited potential. I have a thing for notebooks. Blank books, journals, notepads. The name doesn’t matter. If blank paper is bound between covers, I’m a fan. I write longhand so paper matters. It has to be smooth enough for my pen to glide across it without skipping but have enough tooth to hold the ink without smudging. It has to be thick enough to keep ink from bleeding through to the other side. It has to be small enough to be easily portable for writing on-the-go but large enough to record my thoughts without constantly flipping pages. Notebook covers speak to my imagination. I’m drawn to displays of colorful notebooks in bookstores and office supply stores as if by magnets. Soft covers, hard covers, made of leather book cloth, metal, wood and decorated with paint, embroidery, embossing, printing forming an endless variety of both representational figures and abstract patterns. As an author, I have the best excuse for adding to my collection. The more notebooks I have to write in, the more I write. Are you a notebook fan? How do you use blank books and journals?

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