Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Anita Ray Short Stories

Some of the best fun I have as a writer is coming up with situations for an Anita Ray short story. These allow me to explore the culture of India as well as work out a crime and its solution. Modern India is a mix of traditional and rapidly modernizing features, with people who live as their ancestors did several hundred years ago and scientists who are the match for any in the United States today. Figuring out the interplay of these different worlds in one of my favorite challenges.

Dorothy L. Sayers talked about the tactile pleasure in plotting the mystery, planting clues and red herrings, and moving characters through the story. The Anita Ray stories have the added pleasure of giving me an opportunity to talk about a culture and a people that I have loved since I was a young girl.

At the beginning of the year I set myself a few goals, one of which was to blog each week. Mostly I’ve met that one, though every now and then I miss one or two weeks. One of my other goals was to self-publish the Anita Ray short stories published earlier in anthologies and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I may eventually gather these in one collection but right now I want to repost them as individual stories, available as eBooks for $0.99 each. I enjoy using my own photographs for the cover, and matching cover and story.

I posted “The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum” in January 2015. In this story, Anita is impressed with a young woman who has just opened her own shop despite her family’s opposition. Anita is excited for her, but when the shop suddenly closes, she is worried. She quickly learns that the new shop owner has died. She has no suspicions until she visits the family to offer her condolences and comes away feeling very uncomfortable as well as suspicious. The Pulluvans are a caste little known today outside of the world of anthropology but these small groups have ways of organizing their lives that can teach us about how much is possible in the way humans live. If you're interested in reading the rest of the story, go here:


I posted “The Silver House” just this month. Anita wants to know why a well-off man known for his generosity to local temples would fall into a canal and drown, especially when the path along the canal was very familiar to him. He walked it for most of his life. He had recently had made a special offering to a temple, a perfect replica in silver and gold of a miniature house, which the silversmith called the finest work he had ever completed. If you're interested in reading the rest of the story, go here:


There are a total of fourteen Anita Ray stories to date, and I will be posting them over the next year, at the hoped-for rate of one each month.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consistency in Characterization

One of my favorite stories as a child was about a large family living in an old Victorian mansion with pets, a dozen children, a cook, a maid, and a driver/caretaker. I've forgotten most of the book but remember it for its humor, including the moment when the father looks down at one of the boys rolling around on the rug and says, "Which one are you?"

I sometimes feel like that father. I'm deep into a scene with one character taking over and doing wonderful things to complicate the plot, and out of nowhere enters the protagonist's half-brother or long lost cousin or the neighbor who shows up at every barbecue without anything to contribute. I look at what I've typed and wonder, "Which one are you?"

In my current work-in-progress, Chief Joe Silva must deal with a death ruled a suicide in one of Mellingham's better neighborhoods (okay, I admit it, they're all better neighborhoods). The house sits near the inner harbor, which of course means lots of activity involving boats and sailing, and into this comes Joe's stepson, Philip. So far, so good. But I've forgotten what I knew about Philip. Who is he?

I keep three-by-five inch notecards on each character and certain aspects of Mellingham. All I have to do is pull Philip's card and note what I've written about him in previous books. Seems easy enough. He came into Joe's world in Family Album, as a nine-year-old boy, and stayed when Joe fell in love with the boy's mother, Gwen McDuffy. I read the notes I've made on Philip and once again see the young boy. But I know there's more, so I pull out the two previous books in which he has appeared and read every section, gleaning crucial details and nuances of expression that I should be mindful of as I write.

Philip is older, by two years, since his last foray into Joe's world of crime and misbehavior typical of a small town, but he's not an ordinary teenager. I have given him certain qualities and quirks, and I have to continue these. It wouldn't do to have him turn into an avid soccer player or a hard-core junkie when his character in A Murderous Innocence promised an entirely different future.

Any writer who has written at least two books in a series recognizes this problem. Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle was famous for changing a character's eye color halfway through a story, and lesser writers have changed a character's name and left the evidence on the occasional page (find/replace function notwithstanding). These superficial things bother me less than an unexpected change in character or unresolved plot threads.

My job as a writer is to tell a good story while being observant of the way people behave and expressing that honestly. I want readers to recognize in the teenage Philip the nine-year-old boy introduced in the third book in the Mellingham series.

I have learned that no matter how careful or detailed my notes are, nothing can convey the full sense of a character better than going back to the earlier passages and getting to know him or her all over again. I've been doing this with Philip, a teenage boy who discovers that he loves sailing, thanks to Joe deciding that anyone who lives on the water should know how to manage it. And fortunately for everyone, Philip manages very well.

Come About for Murder is Philip's book, despite all the other characters sailing through it. He's still a teenager, but a maturing one, and I love getting to know him again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Writer in the World

Anyone who writes knows a life of writing means long hours staring at a page or a computer screen, watching words take shape across the mass of white. But whenever I've been writing hard for several days, I'm reminded of a story I came across years ago. I wish I could remember the author because it is a parable worth remembering and giving credit for.

Two writers sat down to describe a county fair (or wedding or business meeting or whatever you want). One writer provided excellent detail and grounding in the event, but the other writer made you feel you were there. You forgot you were reading. The teacher who passed along this tale meant to impart one lesson. As much as we may love writing, we also have to live. The stories we discover as we explore and work through an idea come out of lived experience. The first writer made the story feel like a research project. But the second writer had been to the wedding and had a great time, and she conveyed that in her story.

As much as I love writing, I also love getting out in the world. On a recent visit to Salem and the Peabody Essex Museum, I passed an exhibit of sticks, yes, sticks. Let's face it, modern art is peculiar. But it is also fun.

"What the Birds Know," or Stickworks by Patrick Dougherty, is a cluster of half a dozen human sized
stick nests. You can walk into each of them and peer out through a window. They're illuminated so you can explore them at night or at least see them, and two or three people can crowd into each one. They sit behind the fence, on the lawn of a federalist house in downtown Salem, opposite the Hawthorne Hotel. They are right where we might think they don't belong.

The sculpture of huge nests is intentional art, and the brochure reports that it will be gone in a year, the result of natural forces and time. But what about the man who collects hubcaps and one day decides to nail them to the fence so he can admire his collection? He has scattered across his back yard, to the consternation of his neighbors, various parts of old cars and trucks and farm equipment. "They're so handy," he tells anyone who complains. "They're right there when I need them." And indeed the array of rusting artifacts has a certain beauty to it.

And then there's the man whose house sits on a hill looking down on the narrow street. He has positioned white buckets along the gravel path, to store extra gravel in case of icy weather. Clutter or art?

Whenever I see such things, I wonder about who these people are and how much I enjoy their way of living in the world. But I also think of the teacher/writer who reminded his/her students to get out in the world. It's full of interesting people doing interesting things with their lives and back yards.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Whose story is it?

My current project is rewriting a Mellingham mystery from Chief Joe Silva's point of view. I first wrote the novel as an extension of a short story centered around a day spent sailing along the coast. I liked the idea of the discovery of the attempted murder so much that I decided to turn the story into a novel, making the intended victim the sleuth. This went along well, I thought, until my editor rejected the novel. (Another editor is reading the short story.)

For several months I felt stuck with a novel whose basic story I loved but whose lead character didn't seem to rise to the necessary heights. Something was lacking. At the same time I came to be interested in writing more about Joe's family. Readers like hearing about Joe's birth family, and I thought it was time to write more about the blended family he created when he married Gwen, who came with two young children, Jennie and Philip. I'd already written about Jennie in Last Call for Justice, and I thought now it was time for Philip to make an appearance. I decided to rewrite the rejected novel with the focus on Joe with his family in a supportive role.

When I taught writing courses, years ago, I used a variety of exercises to make various points. One point I liked to get across is that each story depends on who is telling it, or, in my case, who is the protagonist leading the investigation, however informal or formal that may be. I assigned students the task of writing the first few paragraphs of a story from the point of view of each character in the story, to find out whose story it was. Students were almost always surprised to find that the story differed according to who became the main character. I'm learning this lesson again. The story of a woman who drowns while out sailing told from the point of view of the surviving sister is a very different story from the one told by Joe Silva in his role as chief of police of Mellingham.

As I recast each scene, expanding some and eliminating others, and add more, I can see where I went wrong with the creation of the protagonist in the first version. Annie Beckwith, given a name I thought would lead to a great career as an amateur sleuth, seemed stunted and edgy. Under the astute gaze of the chief of police, however, she is emerging as a woman grappling with the loss of a dearly loved sister and her sister's husband, and learning things about her sister's life that she'd never known and never would have guessed.

Here I imagine the reader is thinking, "Ah, dark secrets are uncovered." Well, the reader is partly correct. Not all secrets are dark. But any secret can change the one who discovers it, and faces the challenge of abandoning old assumptions for new truths.

When I began the rewrite, I wasn't sure it would be worth the effort, but I felt compelled to see it through. I love the Joe Silva/Mellingham series, and willingly block out stories to write when I have the time. But now that I'm deep into this story, I am once again hooked. I think about Joe and his little family, Gwen and Jennie and Philip, and the life they have created for themselves in the small town on the water. In this installment Joe teaches Philip to sail, and Philip turns out to be the son the townspeople of Mellingham might expect for their beloved Chief Silva. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Taking a Summer (or Fall or Winter or Spring) Course

For the last two weeks I have been logging onto my computer every morning to read my assignment for
the day. As if I don't have enough to do, I signed up for an online SinCNE (Sisters in Crime New England chapter) course taught by Ramona Defelice Long. This meant, of course, that I didn't turn to my current work in progress until later in the morning, but I thought it would be worth it to learn something new.

The course is called Necessary Parts, and covers the four texts that writers dread--the log line (for the subject line on an email), a query paragraph (and letter), a one-page summary, and a two to three page synopsis (the worst of all). I have yet to meet a writer who likes writing a synopsis, and it's easy to understand why.

The first question anyone who knows me might ask is this: "Susan, why are you taking this course? You've published ten novels and two nonfiction books with four publishers." And indeed, one of the other participants commented on how surprised she was to see my name on the list of students. But, to everyone's surprise, except Ramona's, I've never had to submit a synopsis to sell a book.

When I submitted my first mystery novel to Scribner's in 1992, my agent sent in the entire ms, and we waited. When I switched to Five Star, a division then of Thorndike Press, again I sent in the entire ms. For my first book, a bibliography for G.K. Hall, in Boston, I wrote a proposal, which was accepted. Twelve books and not a single synopsis. It was time to face the nightmare and learn how to write one.

When I finished graduate school and took my degree, I was glad to be done. But I have always loved workshops, taking courses on a variety of subjects, exploring new ideas, and learning to see things from a different perspective. Even as the executive director of a small nonprofit, I knew there was plenty to learn and signed up for all sorts of special trainings.

No matter how many books I've written, or anyone else has for that matter, I believe there is always
something more to learn. And of all the workshops, courses, lectures, and trainings I've attended over the last several years, Ramona's online course Necessary Parts has been the best. If you have a chance to take this, I highly recommend it. There's nothing like finding out that the great fear (of writing a synopsis or anything else) is nothing but a matter of arranging words on a page. Thanks, Ramona.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tomatoes and the Writer

I think of myself as a writer, not a gardener, but sometimes the two overlap. When this happens, as it did for me this month, I'm in trouble. The same question posed to the gardener and the writer can elicit very different responses. The cause of this problem is tomatoes.

We have six quite large tomato plants, and we have waited impatiently for a couple of months for the first fruits. The green ones have grown and turned pinkish and now red. The plants are happily prolific, but unfortunately, that means they're producing a lot more tomatoes than we can eat. As my Indian maidservant used to say, Very great problem, Memsahib.

And that it is. Those of us with vegetable gardens face the question of what to do with too many summer squash or tomatoes or beans. Later it will be too many apples, but I digress. My first thought is to give the produce away, but that is where I run into problems, the result strictly of being a writer.

My first thought is to give a few or several to my neighbors. Most of them have children of various sizes, and they tend to eat a lot. But what if my neighbors misconstrue this as the beginning of an unwanted obligation to give something in return? What if they see these large (and I do mean large) ripe, nearly perfect specimens and expect to be charged? Or, suppose they're allergic to tomatoes. I've never heard of anyone being allergic to this fruit (despite what the Supreme Court calls it), but it's possible. Okay, we'll skip the neighbors with children.

What about the neighbors with no children? Will they too suspect the tomatoes carry an implicit obligation to be collected on in future? And if they're not growing their own though they have time and space, do they dislike them? If they do, then the tomatoes will be wasted, or foisted onto someone else.

I could give them to vendors I deal with regularly. My favorite dry cleaning establishment has changed hands a few times, changed the name twice, and changed locations at least once. The women on the counter change every other year. I could give the dry cleaning cashier tomatoes. Is it safe from unexpected consequences?

Some cultures have a longstanding custom of giving a gift in return for anything received. It doesn't have to be of equal value or special or even something purchased. This year I have visions of leaving the dry cleaners with a stack of wire hangers in exchange for my tomatoes.

The corner store is now owned by a very nice couple from Korea, and the wife is an excellent gardener from the looks of her window boxes. If I gave her tomatoes, would she think they were an implicit criticism of the tomatoes in the deli section and take offense? Would I have to explain that I wouldn't be offended if they used them in their sandwiches and sold them, slice by slice?

Suppose I give all my tomatoes away and learn--too late, of course--that I've forgotten someone, a neighbor or friend who has been waiting, hopefully, for fresh, home-grown tomatoes. Would this non-recipient be angry, or hurt, or resentful? How would I find out? I shiver at the thought.

When I was still working I used to take the extra produce into the office. I lined up my tomatoes next to another staff member's cucumbers, someone else's squash, and, of course, a bowl of green beans.

I could become the stealth tomato bomber, leaving them in the dark of night on people's doorsteps. I could set out at midnight, when some people walk their dogs, and deposit one or two on every porch, a gesture of good will and neighborliness. Of course, if the police or anyone else saw me, I could be arrested for vandalism. You see my dilemma?

What does this have to do with writing? I cannot imagine anyone, someone I know or don't know, receiving a bag of large, ripe, luscious tomatoes without having some feeling about it, and those feelings are the stuff of character. And character is story.

I imagine the characters behind the outstretched welcoming hands, or the early morning door opening onto the red surprise sitting next to the morning newspaper, and it's all I can do to stick to the question at hand--disposing of more tomatoes than we can use in a month.

It is a cliche to say that the problems of this world stem not from a lack of material goods but from poor distribution. I would add to that timing. If only tomatoes could grow throughout the year, I would be a happy part-time gardener.

But now, as it is, I have dozens of tomatoes and a new story to write, stocked with characters pondering fruit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Writer's Life . . . Now and Then

A recent discussion on the Five Star chat list and on Maine Crime Writers (http://mainecrimewriters.com) tapped into a general frustration with how hard it is to make a living as a writer these days. We have all had these moments of doubt and frustration, and I agree with everything that's been said, and I thank both Brenda Hill and Kate Flora for taking on the task of opening the discussions to others. These discussions are part of an important conversation about our expectations and roles as writers. It took me a few years before I realized that my expectations were based on the realities of the 1950s.

The path for an aspiring writer up to the 1950s and 1960s was clearly marked. Get an education, possibly an MFA in creative writing though not required, write short fiction and submit it to literary journals, publish a few stories, and work on a novel. In the summer, attend a few writers' workshops, such as the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (the original one), and meet a few editors and agents. The point was to keep writing until someone liked what you did or you gave up and got a full-time job. No one admits to giving up but there are far more first novels published than second novels.

Since all the mainstream magazines carried short stories every month in those years, a beginning or established writer could make a living selling stories while finishing a novel. Redbook, for example, paid $5,000 for a short story, and often published two a month into the 1980s. In the mid 1960s $5,000 was the starting salary for a social worker and a number of other positions. Well, those days are gone.

If you were lucky enough to sell your novel, you received an advance against royalties. You set about writing your second book while your publisher announced your first book to booksellers, conducted modest promotion, and forwarded reviews by mail. If your book was doing well, you might get a telephone call from your editor. If your sales were reasonable, which you knew from quarterly royalty reports, you had a chance to sell your second novel, assuming you could find something to write about. And yes, those days are gone.

Even in 1993, when I published my first mystery with Scribner, the drill for the beginning writer was the same--get a newspaper and radio interview, set up a few signings wherever you could, and send out a lot of flyers, newsletters, or postcards, anything to introduce your book to readers. In 1993 I sent a postcard to every library in Massachusetts, with a handwritten note on each. I sent another thousand postcards to a select group of libraries throughout the country. Those days are gone too.

Today, writers are expected to have begun promotional efforts even before the book appears. And this
is possible today only because of the Internet and the mind-numbing array of sites where writers and readers can discover each other and books. It is tempting to think that online activity is the way to sell books because that means I can sit at my desk and wear my gardening or painting clothes (which should not be seen in public) and never think about putting on stockings or high heels or do anything else that makes me miserable. But that isn't the case.

The real complaint isn't about how little we make or how much marketing we have to do as writers today but about how little original creative work is valued. Our expectations are based on another time when it seemed such work was appreciated and its producers admired. But our expectations as writers are based on life thirty or forty or more years ago, and the expectations of readers are based on life today. And life today is different. We have reduced the world to the cheapest, the fastest, the easiest. That might be all right for hamburgers but it's not all right for books.

Every one of us knows that it takes time to think through an idea, to understand human behavior and appreciate the myriad ways a single event can be interpreted. We took history in college to help with this sort of problem. But we live in a world when no one wants to take the time to explore facets of an experience, world-changing ideas must be reduced to sound bites or be ignored, and our politicians are an embarrassment to anyone with any self-respect.

When I pull back from my frustration with the low pay, the shrinking advances, the neglect of readers to try a different kind of story, I have only my own reasons for writing left to consider. I did not give up writing when I had a chance to spend all of my waking hours on a better paid job, and I did not take up writing the kinds of books that would ensure a devoted if non-thinking audience. If these things are true, then I am writing for reasons other than money and prestige.

I could end here with a sly comment--"And when I find out what those reasons are I'll let you know"--but I have come this far and will see the idea to the end.

I write because it is something in me that demands to be done. I write because I see characters and hear their voices and I want to tell their stories, to myself as well as others. Some stories feel like a physical mass inside me pushing to get out. I write because I get an idea about a character or incident and I think it's something other people should know about. I write fiction because I think it is one of the best ways to draw people into a larger world where they can learn and grow without the pain that would come from the same experiences in real life. We read to get outside of ourselves and be part of something bigger than ourselves. I write to be part of that.