Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Writer's Repertory

I recently came across a quote by Gore Vidal that caught my attention and sparked my thinking about major and minor characters. Anyone who writes a mystery series will develop a number of minor characters in order to tell a fully fleshed-out story. I have several in the Anita Ray series, not all of them recurring, but Vidal's comment made me take a second look at them.

The quote is taken from an interview with Vidal in Conversations with American Writers edited by Charles Ruas.

"I heard somewhere the idea that every writer has a given theatre in his head, a repertory company. Shakespeare has fifty characters, I have ten, Tennessee [Williams] has five, [Ernest] Hemingway has one, [Samuel] Beckett is busy trying to have none. You are stuck with your repertory company and you can only put on plays with its characters." (quoted in Authors Guild Bulletin, Summer 2014, p. 34)

Normally I would keep reading after Vidal self-servingly claims to have ten characters while other writers, Williams and Hemingway, have far fewer. But his comment on Beckett, which made me laugh, was smarter than I gave him credit for being, and his final comment was worth thinking about.

I don't know how many characters the average writer has. But I do think all writers are in danger of repeating ourselves. If we have one successful book, we are tempted to look for the magic in it, and try to capture and repeat it, for future success. If we don't do that overtly, we may still begin a second story and soon find ourselves repeating scenes that reveal patterns. This is the territory of academics, who look for themes and underlying issues in a writer's body of work.

Anyone who writes a series in any genre faces the problem of avoiding repetition, and we work hard to make our characters and stories original in each installment. It goes without saying that we develop a main character that can carry a number of stories. We then surround our series character with a family, of sorts, of supporting characters who have the potential to grow and surprise us. We give each character a past or history, clear physical description, and specific attitudes and quirks. We strive to know them deeply, their emotional content, as well as their ordinary behavior.

In the Anita Ray series, Anita lives with her Auntie Meena at Hotel Delite. The cast of characters includes Moonu, the main waiter, Ravi, the desk clerk, and various other staff. Anita encounters murder among hotel guests and at her relatives' homes. If Anita travels, she usually does so with her Auntie Meena and Joseph, the hotel driver. This core cast was introduced in the first Anita Ray mystery, Under the Eye of Kali.

After characters, we turn our focus to creating unusual situations to test the sleuth and explore other types of character. In the second Anita Ray mystery, The Wrath of Shiva, Anita discovers the theft of ancient images from her extended family's estate. Smuggling of holy images in India is a special problem because of the sacredness and unique standing of these icons. We learn more about Anita's physical courage in this story.

We may change setting, introduce problems among the "family" members, or put the sleuth in danger. But the goal has to continue to be to make the characters seem as real as possible. Whether we like them or not, the individual who crosses the stage must feel real to engage the reader.

I don't know how many characters I have in my repertory, but I work hard to develop minor characters so that they carry much of the story and are themselves worth reading about. I want what happens to them to be interesting and their circumstances compelling. In the third Anita Ray mystery, For the Love of Parvati, Anita shares part of center stage with Parvati, a maidservant with a secret and a fear. As an undocumented worker from Sri Lanka, she has fled the now-ended civil war but fears that others hold her to an old code of honor.


Anita travels easily through the layers of society that is modern India, from life with foreigners at her hotel to traditional homes and ways of life. In a short story, "The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum," Anita meets another young woman trying to
traverse the same boundary, between the traditional and the modern.

I don't think I could write a story without a character, in imitation of Samuel Beckett, but if you're wondering how he does it, look at a few of his shorter works. For a play without a character, I nominate Quad, one of my favorite Beckett "performances,"available on youtube.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPJBIvv13Bc




Monday, February 16, 2015

Story Structure and Story Telling

Writers talk about laying out clues, spacing revelations about character or events, or pacing surprises. All these discussions are different ways of talking about structure, the underlying skeleton of a story or novel. Arguments over when or how something should be done are really disagreements in vocabulary. Almost no one disputes the basic organization of fiction because this is the form that is instinctively satisfying for the audience.

Teachers of writing have described the format in different ways, and I, like many other writers, enjoy
reading about these and picking up small details that will help me in my own work. But almost all work through the basic three-act structure, with an inciting action, two plot points, and a climax. I have seen discussions based on a nine-act structure, but this is not significantly different from a three-act structure.

I have never slavishly followed one of these outlines because I rely almost entirely on instinct. Most readers know the feeling of reading along and wondering what's going to happen next. They know something is going to happen because they can sense it, perhaps in the foreshadowing or in the rising tension or in hints coming from certain characters. The same feeling arises while writing. I often find myself following a character along in a scene and realizing something terrible has to happen in about two pages. And something does because it's my job as a writer to make it happen.

The purpose of exploring and learning from discussions of structure is in part to reinforce the writer's instinct that certain things should happen to meet the expectations of the reader, and to guide the writer on the path of the story set in motion. Any one of us can wander off track, following an especially interesting character determined to have his or her own story. If we have a basic story line and its structure in mind we are less likely to end up with an unwieldy story and undisciplined characters.

In addition to the graphics for story structures, some writers prefer to use a worksheet. A useful one allows the writer to keep track of the basic story progress, and to remind the writer where she is in the plot. If you know a certain key moment is approaching, you write to that point, bringing a tighter focus on the action of the story.

All of these materials or aids are only that. They are developed to help the writer tell a story, not to replace the work of identifying what is most compelling in the telling of the story.

The shape of the story is inherent in the characters and what they face and learn along the way. Bringing out their own stories and inner challenges will drive the discoveries and life-change events, and keep the reader turning pages to discover what happens next. 



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The shape of a story

Most of New England is recovering from our most recent storm, a record-setting few days that has left us with 70 inches of snow, bitter cold, dangerous and slippery streets, and parking bans. My husband and I have done our twice daily shoveling and snow-blowing, and I took the obligatory photo of the garage and its shapely snowdrift. This is where I should begin talking about cabin fever and other ailments of a finger-numbing and toe-freezing, heart-attack-shoveling winter. But that's not what I saw when I admired the snowdrift.

The shape of the lovely wind-driven pile of snow against our old garage, 1930s vintage, reminded me of the shape of the mystery novel that is my current work in progress. The base of the snowdrift is broad and flat and deep along the garden, which is now completely buried.

The snowdrift rises in smooth narrowing lines, reaching to a final point. And this is how my story develops. Anita Ray and her Auntie Meena welcome eleven guests to Hotel Delite, five of whom are members of one tour. This is the sprawling base along the shores of the Arabian Sea in subtropical India. But as the story progresses, some characters become more important than others. The base begins to narrow. That ragged line near the base of the drift could be considered the murder. After this the snow, still smooth and white, narrows even more.

The series of pummeling storms left us a blanket that is smooth and white, but beneath that, as everyone who has been out shoveling knows, is a crust of ice, as each layer has solidified and settled. The light fluffy stuff on top, like makeup and a new hairdo, is misleading, deceptive. A man with wavy black hair and olive skin in the sun is not as beautiful beneath the tan.

As hotel guests are found to be genuine tourists, more interested in an exciting elephant ride or a boat trip along a canal followed by a meal at a local restaurant, Anita's attentions focus on fewer foreigners, but her gaze grows more intense. Just as the snowdrift rises sharply to a peak at the roofline, so Anita squeezes the main suspect, certain now that she knows exactly who did what and why and how. She doesn't avoid a confrontation and she doesn't blunt her accusations. She carries the reader, like the wind, to the peak of the investigation, the top of the snowdrift.

But what about the garden beneath the snowdrift?  That's gone till spring. Not all mysteries can be explained.


Fanciful? Certainly not. A writer welcomes advice no matter where it comes from.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

When the weather outside is . . .

As a writer I think a lot about setting. This includes more than location. It includes weather and anything else that can affect how the sleuth and other characters go about their day. The sleuth is investigating and the suspects are eluding. A writer might use rain to compound the sleuth's misery, or a heat wave to complicate the collection and care of evidence. But the blizzards we have endured in the Northeast this past week has reminded me that there are some weather events that I have avoided as a writer.

A blizzard is used to good effect in Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. In a less well known mystery, P.M. Hubbard turns a river in the countryside into a formidable character, in The Quiet River. In both stories the weather has to be acknowledged and dealt with. 

In For the Love of Parvati, the third Anita Ray mystery, Anita and her Auntie Meena are isolated in a rural estate during the monsoon. Anita is greatly relieved when the rain stops and she can get out for a walk.

The problem with real wintry weather, as opposed to a heat wave or monsoon, is that it brings the usual daily life to a halt. At midnight in our area neighbors are out shoveling or snow-blowing, the light from street lamps amplified by the white snowfall. In the morning, neighbors fill side streets shoveling and cleaning up, stopping to chat with folks they rarely have time to visit with.

Throughout this time, we have no sidewalks, no parking, and struggling public transportation. Fortunately, we didn't lose power in our area. This is the perfect setting for a country house murder, but nearly impossible for the kind of investigation that requires the sleuth to be out and about, visiting offices to gather information, contriving to run into people in a bar or at a party, or following a suspect to work or lunch. In extreme weather, surveillance can be impossible, and most sleuths take the day off, along with their creators.

As I look out the window at the snowdrifts rising to the windowsill I turn my thoughts to the Anita Ray mystery I'm composing. I've written eight thousands words this week, an average amount, and have said little about the weather. But that will change. It's time to feel the heat.



Friday, January 30, 2015

Finding Your Next Story

My part of the world, eastern Massachusetts, is in the midst of a rough winter, with snow banks six feet high and more storms on the way. But life doesn’t come to a halt, not if you have a dog. While I was out walking our lab during the worst of the storm an idea for a story took shape. Those high snow banks along the street or in the yard by the garage are the perfect spot to hide a body. And no one thinks anything of a homeowner out snow-blowing in the middle of the night. The streetlights reflect off the new white snow, but not too much, and windows are shut tight against the cold and any noise.

This is how my stories usually begin, with a sudden awareness of how dangerous the mundane can really be. During my regular visits to South India, I always noted how things were changing and what remained the same. There were always new shops, and that got me thinking. In a story originally published in a Level Best Books anthology, a young woman opens a shop, earning her own money and new independence. This doesn’t sit well with some members of her family, and she soon ends up dead, in “The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum.”

The first book in the Anita Ray series grew out of my first breakfast in a new hotel/guesthouse. I was still exhausted from my trip to India (twenty-plus hours on a plane) and too tired and jet-lagged to make small talk. I listened half-awake to the other guests at the family-style dining table, and was struck by how casual comments could be and yet carry threads of danger. How could it be that so many of the guests were from the same part of the United States but didn’t know each other? And why was one so hostile to one stranger but not another? This is the opening of Under the Eye of Kali, the first Anita Ray mystery novel.

During the summer months I waste a lot of time trying to rid my garden of invasive species, especially Lily of the Valley. I once stood in front of a large side garden taken over by the poisonous flower, and marveled that something so dangerous could be such an ordinary fact of life. That became a key feature in a short story featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva and posted on Wattpad as “Bad News with a Touch of Class.”

It’s a truism that the world is a dangerous place, but for a writer, it’s a reminder of the truth that opportunity is everywhere. Good stories come out of turning the mundane on its head, seeing past the surface, and asking, What if?


For these and other works by Susan Oleksiw, go to