The other day, I lost it on my daughter. She had taken out a school library book for the third time and, for the third time, she’d completely and utterly forgotten where she could have possibly put it. The first time my six-year-old lost a library book, I was a good mom. I explained to her the importance of taking responsibility for her things, particularly things on loan. I reminded her of the designated spot in her room where the library books lived when she wasn’t reading them (this spot is not on her bookcase mixed in with the hundred books or so that she and her sister own). I found the book, buried in a toy box, and told her that I would pay the fine but that she had to help me Swiffer the kitchen floor to earn back some of the $5 fee. The second time, I was calm—albeit a little less so. Again, I pointed out the spot where she should keep the book when she was done reading it. This time, rather than dole out a chore, I took away a toy that was the amount of the fee and, since I couldn’t find the book, bought back the book that she’d lost at a store and had her bring it in. The third time, I yelled and nagged. I slammed my hand down on the desk in her room where she was supposed to keep her library books and asked her why in the heck she couldn’t remember to put them there. I told her that money didn’t grow on trees (horrible both because it’s a cliché and because it means I’m turning into my own parents) and that we had paid thirty dollars in fines in the past three months, also known as the cost of takeout dinner for our family of four. I threatened to have her write a note to her teacher explaining that she was not allowed anymore library books because nothing her mommy did could help her remember to be responsible. On and on I went, until she cried. It was not a good day for either of us. Afterward, I felt very guilty. She’s six. She forgets things. It’s developmental. It’s also an accident. She’s not trying to get me to buy the book by hiding it. To be completely honest, if she left the book in the kitchen while I was cleaning, I might have tucked it away somewhere and forgotten about it. I also had learned something I can apply to my villains. Sometimes a villain doesn’t start out bad. They try to do the right thing and it doesn’t work. Then, they try again and it doesn’t work. Ultimately because of a lack of patience, inability to deal with frustration or some other moral flaw, they lose it and opt to do something negative in order to achieve a desired result. Yelling at my kid is bad. By the end of my tirade, I’m sure that she no more remembered where to put the book than she had the first time I’d shown her the special spot on her desk. All she was thinking about was that mommy had made her feel horrible. But, I was frustrated and annoyed that doing the patient parent thing wasn’t helping and I got angry. I became the villain. Clearly, I still feel guilty about my behavior because I’m blogging about it. But at least I can bring the insight to bear on my writing.Read more
A muse, that inspirational goddess of literature, science and the arts found in Greek mythology, is supposed to inspire an artist, writer or musician. But does she? Does anyone wait for the muse to walk into their mind and ignite that spark? I’m not saying that ideas don’t spring to mind fully formed as a random thought during the night, or while walking the dog. Those are the words and ideas that writers rush to put on paper. They may in fact be the kernel of the next great novel or short story. However, rather than putting my faith in the muse, I’m a believer in the creative process. I don’t think that relying on a Greek muse will get me anywhere in the long run. Perhaps it’s because I was trained as an architect, and architecture and writing both rely on a creative process. In architecture you may be designing a house or a library. In writing you are perhaps creating a novel or a short story. A mystery or a memoir. Know this and you’ve started. I’m currently working on a series, so I know the name of my main character, where she lives, who her family is and what motivates her. All I need to do is put her into the current story. In architecture this is the equivalent of picking a site. Now you know the house will face the ocean on a narrow plot of land. You have a start. I think that the most important part of the process is simply beginning. You need the first word on the page; the first line on the page. Once you’ve started, the process continues – this is where it feels like a toss between a miracle and torture. Another layer in the writing unrolls. Perhaps it’s the development of a character, the addition of characters, the development of setting, the addition of details. If you’re writing a mystery, clues are scattered. It’s healthy to look at the exact process other writers use. Do they outline, create detailed backstories for all of their characters, or are they ‘pantsers’ writing by the seat of their pants. But it is also healthy to remember that each person’s process is individual and each person’s mind works in a slightly different way. The most important part of the process, to me, is to keep moving forward. Will you take a left turn on the road to completion, or a right turn? Maybe even a u-turn. You will get there if you keep at it. Keep putting words on a page. Keep reaching for the end, and one day you will arrive.Read more
Recently I took a step back in time and read an article on the craft of writing printed in the Paris Review. It was dated Winter 1986, and recounted an interview with E.L. Doctorow on stage in New York City in front of an audience of 500, and I wish I had been there. Doctorow started by saying that he works through six or eight drafts to complete a manuscript. However, there was one time – a miracle time – when he wrote a book in about seven months. The book was World’s Fair and he credits it to God giving him a bonus book for paying his dues over many long years. How did he decide this was a bonus book? Well, according to Doctorow, Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks and Stendhal wrote Charterhouse of Parma in twelve days, and clearly God spoke to them because if it wasn’t God then it was crass exhibitionism. I’m certainly not at the point where I’m due a bonus book, but I like the idea that one day I might qualify. Thank you Doctorow. The entire interview is worth a read. It starts with a demonstration that fame and literal recognition aren’t necessarily hand in hand. The first questioner asks about a Vonnegut book, confusing the two authors. Awkward if you are anyone but Doctorow. As I work on my own manuscript I was particularly drawn to Doctorow’s description of his process. He types single spaced and tries to get as many words on a page as possible. To view the entire landscape, he explains. Small margins get him near 600 words and one page a day is good. Two is worrisome since it might leave him with nothing for the following day. Sage words of advice. Throughout the discussions of what he reads and what he draws experience from the thread of the joy of writing is constant. Writing is all that matters. Experience doesn’t matter. Technique, education, nothing matters except the writing. Also sage advice. Read the complete interview and the others that the Paris Review will publish on the craft of writing. That is, unless you are contemplating a graduate degree in writing. You may want to skip Doctorow’s opinion on that subject. His full interview may be found here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2718/the-art-of-fiction-no-94-e-l-doctorowRead more
How’s your balance? Recently I went to Paris for a week. It was an unplanned trip. Very last minute and I was thrilled to return to a city I love and where I lived years ago. I declined at first, citing work load. I’m working through my draft and want to keep momentum. I was lured by a free ticket and the offer of a friend’s empty apartment. Who could turn that down? It should be noted that when I said yes, I also said, Thanks, I’ll work five or six hours a day and use the rest of the time to re-visit the city. Here’s what really happened. I spent every hour of every day (and night) visiting the city. I went to the Louvre three times, and about 12 other museums, including an unfortunate venture to the Musée des Égouts de Paris (the Museum of the Sewers). With my husband I strolled the streets, visited the stores, gazed at the Seine and enjoyed many fine restaurants. What I didn’t do is take a look at my manuscript. Not once. Not even a glimpse (I was beyond lying to myself). However, and this is a big however, two things did happen. One, I got some distance from it and now that I’m home and working again I have a fresh perspective. Second, and most important, I came up with the theme and plot for my next book! It was liberating to be in a place where I had no other obligations and think, really think, about what comes next. Clearly the next in the series will now be partly set in France, specifically in Paris, and I spent several days following up on ideas and wandering to the appropriate places, and talking to people. I think it can be hard to balance life and work. It can also be hard to justify taking a real break. Now that it’s over, I’m glad I took that break. A break that is far from the routine of daily life is a wondrous thing. Anybody else thinking about a break? My advice, take it.Read more
I write domestic suspense. The bad people in my books are philanderers and emotional abusers, financial manipulators, unreliable narrators with horrific back stories and, in general, people who play fast and loose with the rules. As a helicopter mom of two young kids, I’m kind of a stickler for rules. So how do I write these characters? One way is through emotional substitution. I try to get into the feelings driving a character’s actions by thinking of a time that I have felt similarly, albeit not to the same degree. Though I can’t relate to the anger my character may be experiencing stalking her husband’s girlfriend, I have had times when I’ve felt betrayed and angry in my life. I overlay these experiences to write my character’s emotions in a believable way. The danger of not using such substitution, I think, is that characters’ actions can read false. I end up writing a lot of “he nodded” and “she grimaced” in scenes where the person would more likely be either standing dumbfounded or attempting a smile to cover her disgust. It’s too easy to forget how I and other people actually behave in difficult situations without connecting to how I have actually behaved in my own life when under stress. So, while I don’t advocate going out and doing drugs in order to write a scene about a person out of control on drugs, I do recommend meditating about a time when life has felt out of control and then substituting in those very real actions and words when writing.Read more
To play Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman in the The Pianist, actor Adrien Brody learned how to play piano, practicing for four hours a day. He also gave up his apartment, sold his car and drifted around Europe so that he could identify with Szpilman’s isolation. To write a memorable character, I think authors have to be just as willing to lose themselves in their protagonists. A main character’s actions and words, the way he or she handles problems and the thoughts that run through his or her head, can’t be a thinly veiled version of the author’s own responses and musings. Authors must become “method” writers. The Method was developed by famous acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski. It’s a way of getting into character that involves an actor doing things in his own life to allow greater identification with a part. Actors playing dancers learn to dance. Charlize Theron gained a bunch of weight and changed her appearance for Monster to get into the head of her hard living, serial killer character. Nicholas Cage walked around the street in facial bandages to understand how isolating those kind of wounds can be to get into his wounded veteran character in Birdy. I tried to employ the method with my first book, Dark Turns. My protagonist was an injured ballerina who takes a gig teaching at a ritzy private school in order to heal and get some distance from a bad breakup. Best laid plans blow up when she discovers a body on campus her first day. I took ballet for over a year to get into my character, Nia Washington’s, head. I had never danced–unless you counted calypso and grinding to reggae music at parties. To write her, I needed to do more than imagine myself as in my early twenties and feeling bummed from a breakup (that part didn’t require much research). I had to understand what it was like for a person to push themselves physically to the point of pain for a goal. How does doing that change who someone is and how they respond to things? How does a hyper-awareness of your own muscles alter how you respond to physical stimuli? Nia, as a result, is hypersensitive to body language. She picks up on things about relationships in the way people move, how close they stand to one another, whether their weight is inclined towards a person or moving away, that inform how she goes about solving the mystery. She also misses clues that I’d never miss as a much more cynical, thirty-something ex-journalist who spent most of her professional life examining the things people said and their motivations for doing so. Obviously, in a year, I didn’t become a ballerina. Three classes a week and I was barely standing like a dancer by the end. But, I did get a taste of performing on stage and a small sense of Nia’s world: the nearly myopic focus she had to have for much of her life and the reactions she would have as a result. For my second book, the protagonist, Ana, is a thirty-one-year-old mom facing extreme financial stress after her husband loses his job. The mom part wasn’t a stretch for me, but the financial pressures were more difficult to picture. While I could imagine how I’d feel if my house was underwater and there wasn’t enough income coming in for the mortgage, I’d never had the stress of being unable to pay a bill. (I’d worked since sophomore year of high school and had been afraid of debt) So, for a few weeks, I gave myself a taste of that stress. I stopped using my credit card and tried to live on twenty percent of my usual amount. I didn’t, I’ll admit, stop sending my kids to activities–mommy’s dedication shouldn’t impact their life like that. But I did change how I grocery shopped, stopped entertaining, and tried to go through multiple days without spending a dime. It was extremely difficult. Some writers can get away with not using The Method because they have personally had a life that makes for good storytelling. My friend Brian Thiem is a 25-year-veteran of the Oakland Police Department who retired as commander of the homicide department. He writes about a homicide detective who confronts cases reminiscent of the worst ones he faced on the force. Brian’s background is interesting enough to serve as fodder for a compelling series character. He doesn’t have to get into the head of a homicide detective. That’s who he is. For relatively boring me, though, I need the method to help create richer main characters. To create villains or unreliable narrators who may do worse things than I could ever try out with the method, I use another acting trick called substitution. But that’s for another post.Read more
Bouchercon, the largest gathering of mystery and thriller writers in the United States, can be an overwhelming experience. Every hour, there are panels filled with successful, interesting and respected writers. There’s the bar where most folks hang out until the wee hours of the morning. There are lunches with publishers, meetings with editors, and drinks with agents. What do you go to? How to spend the time? Obviously, any meeting with a writer’s agent or publisher is a must. After that, I prioritize lunches and dinners with fellow authors, ideally ones that either write similar stories (domestic suspense, for me), have experiences with similar people (same publisher or editor, for example) or have advanced from where I am and can offer sage advice. As much as Bouchercon is a place to promote my work, it’s also a place to get out of the writing cocoon and meet people who can relate to the process of crafting a novel, working with a publisher, and promoting a book. These people have invaluable insights into the business. They can let me know whether my experience with a publisher is par for the course, exceptional, or worse than anticipated by relating their own experiences. They can provide insight into what I may have to contend with five, ten or fifteen years into my career. Most importantly, writers can help other writers feel less insecure. Everybody needs coworkers–particularly people who work alone.Read more
When I’m working on a novel, I write everyday. When I am promoting a book, it feels as though I’m writing every minute. Why am I spending more time tapping away on a keyboard after finishing my latest novel than I did when I was working on it? In two words…guest blogging. For a debut or little-known author, guest blogging is a key tool in getting the name of your book out there. Sure, we mystery writers are all hoping that stellar reviews will sell our work (and they do). But unless you’re fortunate enough to have landed national press through your publisher, few people will visit your Amazon page to read any of that glowing critical praise. Folks need to either hear about your novel from a friend or read about it on a site that they regularly visit. In the month since The Widower’s Wife came out I’ve written: 2 posts for Booktrib.com (One story has yet to be published. Here’s the story that ran:How I Made Two Cinematic Book Trailers Each For Less Than $500) 1 post for Jungle Red Writers on why a horrible cruise inspired me to write my last novel. It’s scheduled to run on September 21. 1 post on How I Got My Agent for Writer’s Digest. 1 Q&A for Bookhounds. There are pictures of my dog in this one. 1 Q&A for MRS. MOMMY BOOKNERDS 1 article for Medium.com completely unrelated to my latest novel but, hopefully, enjoyable enough that people who like my writing style will consider visiting Amazon. 6 Pitches for articles in newspapers and blogs that would include my bio with a link to my book. 10 Letters to local libraries suggesting that they carry my book and volunteering to come speak. Dozens of book-related Facebook posts and tweets. All this writing is in addition to what I normally do here blogging with my fellow MissDemeanors and working on my next novel. Does all this blogging pay off? Well, I can’t know for certain. But I do know that I didn’t write nearly as much when my debut novel, Dark Turns, came out and I didn’t make any lists, despite pretty good reviews. I didn’t realize that I was supposed to write about writing or that there are so many books out there that writers have to assume much of the promotion themselves. The Widower’s Wife, as of this writing, is ranked in Amazon’s top 100 for all Mystery, Thriller and Suspense books. So I’m guessing that the blogging is having an impact. At the very least, all this writing lets my publisher know that I’m willing to do the hard work of promotion. And if they know I’m working, maybe they’ll work a bit harder getting the attention of other people who will write about my book.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
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)