Celebrate the (Hand) Written Word

 Today, January 23, is National Handwriting Day. Created in 1977 by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers’ Association (WIMA) to coincide with John Hancock’s (the man whose name is synonymous with “signature”) birthday, National Handwriting Day celebrates the art of writing by hand.
Why celebrate something as archaic as handwriting in an era of ubiquitous keyboards? Everyone types these days, don’t they? Schools don’t even teach handwriting anymore. Why bother? Because the act of picking up a writing instrument, whether pen, pencil, marker, or crayon, and putting words on a surface (preferably, paper. Writing on walls is graffiti and may get you into trouble) creates a connection between mind, body, and world unmatched by computer keyboard or smartphone touchscreen. Writing by hand forces you to slow down—not a bad thing. When you slow down you have more time to notice things, more time to think. I write my first drafts, including of this blog post, and do my initial edits by hand. I get lost when I sit in front of a blank computer screen and type with no handwritten reference to refer to. I forget what I typed after it scrolls off the screen. Scrolling back through pages and pages of uniform font to find what I typed two thousand words ago makes my eyes water and my head hurt. In my handwritten drafts, on the other hand, my scribbles, cross-outs, circles, arrows, and marginalia serve as visual cues to help me locate information.
We celebrate handwriting for its individuality. Times New Roman is Times New Roman regardless of whose computer screen displays it. Handwriting expresses the writer’s personality the way typewriting can’t. Look at John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence. You can guess he was not a timid man. My handwriting is mine and mine alone. It reveals clues to my state of mind. It morphs to suit my mood and purpose. Slanted, cramped letters with write-overs instead of cross-outs mean I’m in a hurry. Wandering letters in a variety of sizes mean I’m tired. Rounded, upright letters mean I’m inspired. Big letters with bold strokes mean I’m ticked off and/or fired up. Neat, evenly-spaced letters mean I’m making an effort to improve readability because the writing is meant to be read by others.
We celebrate handwriting because it gives us an excuse to buy pens and paper. That was WIMA’s motivation behind the designation of the day. I love pens. I have dozens, ranging from high-end fountain pens to freebies I collected from hotel nightstands. If you add pencils and markers to the tally, the number is in the hundreds which doesn’t stop me from acquiring more in my quest to find the “perfect” writing instrument. I love paper, too. Bound, unbound, lined, blank, graphed, it doesn’t matter. I confess to an office supply fetish. The sensation of a pen gliding across a sheet of paper, the weight of the pen barrel in my hand, the smell of the ink—these things make me happy. 
“But writing by hand is hard,” I hear you say. It doesn’t have to be. Handwriting today is nothing compared to the formal penmanship of Hancock’s era. I bought a book called A Proper Hand: Writing in the Manner of the 18th Century during a recent trip to Colonial Williamsburg. The author spends thirty-two pages describing the equipment and preparations needed before he got to the actual writing. Nowadays, grab a Bic and a Post-It note and you’re good to go.
If your handwriting is bad, as mine often is when I’m in a hurry or I’ve spent a day signing medical forms (Bad Handwriting 101 is a required med school course.) you can improve it. You can take a calligraphy class if you want handwriting that would be at home at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence or you want to DIY your invitations. Or you can go to a site like WikiHow and find simple tips such as: move your whole arm when you write instead of just your fingers, angle your paper thirty to forty-five degrees from your body.
WikiHow also suggest some ways to celebrate National Handwriting Day. Write a journal entry. Write a letter to a friend, relative, or lover. (Texts and emails are not romantic.) Write a story. Write down your dreams and your goals. And don’t worry, you don’t have to go full Luddite. You can post to social media with #NationalHandwritingDay.
How will you celebrate?

Read more

Favorites?

 All writers are asked: What’s your favorite book? I dread this question because I know that my answer won’t be entirely truthful. I’ll either dive into my store of childhood favorites, or pick the one I’ve read recently. There are books I cherish for the memories they evoke, ones I think of as favorites because they were the first of a kind to me (first mystery, first nineteenth century novel). There are books I wish I’d written, books I wish I could read again for the first time (War and Peace – I wouldn’t know that Prince Andrei dies). MissDemeanors, what’s your favorite book?  Cate:My favorite book depends on when I am asked. At the moment, I would say The Catcher In The Rye because I read it when I was coming of age and I am currently feeling nostalgic. But the correct answer is it depends.  Susan:That is a little like asking me which is my favorite child. If I were stuck on an island with one book, I’d probably pick Jane Eyre, which has always so inspiring to me, even though I think she should have just moved in with Mr. Rochester. But when I think of the book I’ve probably read the most over the course of my life, it would probably be Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced.   Paula Munier (we’re delighted to have you here this week!):There are so many ways to define “favorite” books. If you mean my favorite books as a child, I’d say the Bobbsey Twins.  If you mean the books that rocked my world as a young woman, then I’d say The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris and The Diary of Anne Frank and Emerson’s essays and Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. If you mean the books I read over and over again, then I’d say  those by Alice Hoffman and Elizabeth Berg and Jane Austen and Louise Penny and Shakespeare and all my favorite poets (this is a long list, topped by Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda and Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver and on and on). If you mean the books that inspire me as an artist, then I’d say those written by Anne Lamott and Mark Nepo and Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. if you mean my favorite books that I’m reading right now, then I’d say Louise Penny’s The Great Reckoning and Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds and Mary Oliver’s Upstream. If you’re asking me my favorite book as an agent, then it’s the one I just sold.  But if you’re asking me my favorite book as a writer, then it’s  the one I’m writing. At least when the writing is going well.  Robin:That’s a tough one! Flowers For Algernon is a book I’ve read so many times that my first copy literally fell apart. I held it together with a rubber band until I started losing pages and finally bought a new copy. The the intimacy of the journal format with the use of character voice to heighten the tension just kills me every time. Murder On The Orient Express made me want to write mysteries. It’s the book that really drove home the lesson that characters drive the story, and that particular cast is so vividly drawn. It also showed me that an author can have fun with a theoretically gruesome subject. The first time I read it was right after I read The Exorcist so I responded to the light-hearted change of pace. If you can call murder light-hearted.
 Alexia:My favorite book is still Alice in Wonderland. Alice was the first independent female protagonist I encountered. She had adventures, she solved her own problems, she had smarts and wasn’t afraid to use them. She didn’t sit around like a helpless ninny waiting for some prince to come rescue her. Michele:If I have to choose one book, it would be Pride and Prejudice, which I resisted as a high school senior and felt hopelessly in love with. For years, I read it every spring in honor of Danny Dwyer, the teacher who insisted we read it and died tragically before the age of thirty in an auto accident not long after. I consider it a brilliant romantic comedy and Jane Austen most definitely a woman before her time, who also had to struggle with the woes of publishing.  What about the rest of you? Favorite books? Or too many to name? 

Read more

The power of the pen

 I write mysteries; not political or social essays. On the other hand, the written word is mighty in any format. And I’m part of a powerful genre. Millions of people read mysteries every day. They read for entertainment, of course, but ‘simply entertainment’ isn’t an accurate descriptor of any activity. There is a consequence – the reader is more relaxed, or open to new ideas, or agitated, or looking at the world in a different manner (even if it’s a paranoia about why their neighbor’s curtains are closed). Recently, Writers Resist held over 90 events across the country (and world) to remind us of the ideals of democracy and free expression. Held in conjunction with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the events focused on readings, music, and performances celebrating these values. Anyone living in America must recognize that freedom of expression is a core value. It is the most fundamental aspect of society that is missed in, for example, North Korea. it is freedom to write at all, regardless of what you project onto the page. It is the right of people of all religions, races, genders, and social and political beliefs to express themselves. At a certain moment, it is about my right to pen mysteries. To protect themselves from the viewpoints of their political opponents, authoritarian societies take away the ability of all people to present their views (after all, plot points and clues could contain secret subversive symbols). With this in mind, I will say that all of us, any of us, as we express our views, as we write our mysteries and thrillers, are actively participating in the freedom of expression that makes democracy great. That said, I’ll go back to plotting my next mystery….

Read more

What's in a title?

 A title is critical to convey the content of a novel. For me, this can be the hardest part of the process. I suppose there are ah ha moments when the perfect title jumps to the forefront of your mind. Often, it’s a matter of thinking of the themes or phrases in the book and elevating them to ‘title’ status. Since the title is the first thing someone will read it is critical. Some strategies to use in creating your title: – is the setting of the novel critical (my first mystery is titled Swiss Vendetta because of the location) -can you use the name of a character? (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Jane Eyre) -a catchy word or phrase (that’s where Gone with the Wind and Game of Thrones both got their titles) -a clever way to connect a series (Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich did this with letters and numbers) Titles aren’t copyrighted so it’s possible that there are multiples, check and see if there are others with the same name. Pick something memorable. One word can do the trick but a good phrase is equally suggestive (To Kill a Mockingbird). Remember is that a title should represent the book at a glance. It is a headline; the first call for attention. Make it memorable, but also make it honest. 

Read more

Manuscript submittal aka euphoria

 Twenty four hours of joy. That’s what happens when you turn your manuscript in to your editor. Or at least that’s what I experienced. It is possible that the joy is actually fatigue. I know for certain that for these few hours I am no longer worrying about it, wondering if I should have added/cut/modified/reworked or any of the other things that went through my head this past week. I expect this fragile euphoria will last about a day (during this day I have so many other things to catch up on that I won’t have time to worry, but that’s another story). Then what? Revisions!!! Even as I think about it, I’m a little bit gleeful. The as yet untitled ‘baby’ will have been out there in the big world and there will be a response. Reworking, refining, polishing (completely restructuring – slight shudder here)…. These are exciting times. Because next comes publication. I’m sure that over the course of today I will slump and start to question every bit of the manuscript from plot to characters to the font style (even though it’s the standard Times New Roman). The only thing that will keep me going is the fact that soon, hopefully very soon, I’ll get that much sought after feedback and can get back to work. How did you feel after you hit ‘send/submit’?

Read more

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.)

Read more

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?

Read more

The Real Detectives

For the sake of argument, I’ll say that mystery writers usually learn a little bit about policing. They interview detectives, visit labs, read about process and cases. They try to soak in what is necessary to help bring their story to life. I’ve the good fortune to know several writers who were also detectives. I’ve often wondered if that makes their job as mystery/crime writers easier or more difficult. Sure, they have the knowledge at their fingertips, but it must be difficult to distill this into what goes into the actual book. Writers of fiction aren’t recounting ‘fact’, we are creating it, and are allowed to bend the facts to suit the story (truthfully, expected to!). For a former detective that might be hard. I was reminded of these complexities today when reading my friend and fellow author, Brian Thiem’s, essay about returning from retirement to testify in a case that had been cold for 25 years. Brian talks about his time on the stand and dealing with the emotions of wondering if they could have done more all those years ago. In this case, there is one less killer walking the streets and that is success. He says that is what he will try to remember. For me, as I work on fine-tuning the emotions and actions of my own fictional detective inspector, Brian’s essay was a reminder that as writers we solve the crime neatly in 300 pages. (Our characters’ psyches should thank us for giving them these victories.) And I wonder…. What parts of the ‘old job’ play into the writing at the ‘new job’? Is there a part of policing that as a writer, a former detective says yep, that part of the reality gets left out? Or, I don’t worry about the process as much as the characters? I’d say there are as many response to this as there are writers, but I’m still curious…..    (To read more from the perspective of ‘real detectives’ writing about crime check out Murder-books.com. These guys are the real deal! And they write great mysteries.)

Read more

What place makes for the best writing?

I’m peripatetic, finding many places in the house, on the porch, and occasionally in a library to sit and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t re-think this. What did the greats do? P.D. James worked anywhere she could rest her notepad. Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickenson composed poetry in their heads while at work and doing chores respectively and wrote them down at night. (I know I can’t manage that.) Henrik Ibsen sat at his desk facing a portrait of August Strindberg, so that his countryman and “mortal enemy” could “hang there and watch” while he wrote. It’s tempting to come up with a mortal enemy, but likely not worth the effort. What if they didn’t inspire me? What if they intimidated me? Although if you have a mortal enemy who inspires your creativity, I’d suggest investing in a good portrait right away. There are a few examples that I think might be workable… or at least aspirational. Edith Wharton wrote in bed, tossing the pages on the floor for her secretary to pick up. In a nice parallel, Victor Hugo often wrote naked, after telling his valet to not bring clothes until his writing was complete. The problem with these examples is that I lack the household staff to fill all the roles. I’m better off sticking to the example of John Keats who rose early, dressed as if going out, and sat down to write. Simple, diligent and clearly effective. Actually, not so different from what I do. Perhaps I’ve found my inspiration. What works for you? 

Read more

“How do you get the work to hold the resonance of its history?” Claudia Rankine

 This quote is from an interview in the Paris Review with author Claudia Rankine. The entire interview, conducted by David Ulin and published in Winter 2016, is worth reading. Rankine’s poetry focuses on social issues ranging from micro aggression, to racism to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To her, words matter. She recounts listening to the recording of the shooting of Philando Castile and hearing the words of the little girl in the backseat of the car say, “It’s okay, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” She talks about the ability of the words to transport her to the point where she is literally experiencing the child and her words. Rankine is a poet who writes across many formats. She is a writer for social justice. How does that compare with writing mysteries? Should it compare? I’d like to think that it can. Not every page of a 300 page novel will stand up to the scrutiny of a poem. Not every word will achieve a lyrical meaning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to this. Words matter has resonated across the country this year for many reasons. Whether high oratory, poetry, or a hastily written note in a lunch box, words matter. As I work on final revisions, where it sometimes feels like there are too many words to care about, I’ll keep this as an aspirational goal even if only means I get it about one third right. To read the full Rankine interview visit: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6905/claudia-rankine-the-art-of-poetry-no-102-claudia-rankine

Read more