Monday, June 22, 2015

Tempa Pagel, December 13, 1949, to June 19, 2015

On Friday, June 19, in the early morning hours, Tempa Pagel, friend and colleague, died in her sleep. She had been admitted to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center earlier in the month, and faced a daunting diagnosis and care plan.

I first met Tempa at a workshop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She and two of her friends joined seven other women for a daylong program on writing crime fiction. I had published my first mystery novel the year before, Murder in Mellingham, featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, and was bubbling over with self-confidence, as first novelists often are. In writing exercises and critiques, however, I learned that most of these women were just as good as I was, and only timing and luck put them on one side of the microphone and me on the other.

A year later, in 1994, after my second mystery appeared, Double Take, I decided to start a writing group in my home. Tempa, Jan Soupcoff, and Mary McDonald signed up, and three months later Edith Maxwell joined. Other writers came and went. Margaret Ouzts joined in 1999, and Tempa, Jan, and Margaret remained the core group over the years. We have been together since 1994, and our most recent meeting was March 31, 2015, when Tempa was wondering about a medical problem that had come on suddenly.

A writing group of any size is an intimate, personal experience. We share pages we are passionate about, even when we are unsure they are ready to be read, and even more unsure we are ready to expose ourselves. Our raw words can be too revealing sometimes. But we come to trust each other, and our comments and suggestions are kindly meant.

Whenever someone leaves a writers' group, I wish them well and hope to see his or her name in print or other indicators of the hoped-for success. We miss those who have left us for whatever reason--one woman moved to the Northwest, another accomplished her goal of writing a certain story, others gave up writing for a while to deal with family or work issues.

Tempa stayed the course and published two mystery novels. The first, Here's the Church, Here's the Steeple (Five Star/Gale, Cengage, 2006), introduced her protagonist Andy Gammon, a young woman happily married with two children, a family suspiciously like Tempa's. Andy explores a link between a corpse found in a church steeple and the historic fire of Newburyport. Tempa's second book, They Danced by the Light of the Moon (Five Star, 2014), links a murder in a newly refurbished historic hotel and the restricted life of a young woman at the turn of the last century. Tempa was working on her third book when she died.

Not everyone is meant to write. But Tempa was. If she had wanted to, Tempa could have made a successful career as a writer. I don't know if the idea ever occurred to her, or if she would have cared. She certainly had a perfect name for a writer: Tempa Pagel. You couldn't make up a better one.

But Tempa had her feet on the ground too. She chose to balance her writing with her love of family,
her husband, Tom, and their two children, Maggie and Brody, and her teaching. Her children are grown, into fine adults, and Tom and Tempa were looking forward to the freedom Tempa's retirement would bring in a year or so. She had just completed twenty years in the Haverhill Public School system.

All of this is by way of saying, the writing community has lost a generous member who was also a fine writer. And we have lost a dear friend. Twenty years is a long time to look across the living room and know you can trust everything you see and hear. I will think of Tempa often. When I walk into the living room I will see her favorite spot. When I email the other writers in the group I will feel a jolt when I stop myself from typing in her address. When I recommend a new book to a friend I will mention her two titles. I feel like I will miss her forever. I'm grateful to have known her.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stages in a Writer's Career

The day that you sell your first story or novel is one that few writers ever forget. This is the "made it" moment that Jenny Milchman and others talk about so eloquently. This step easily eclipses all else in our difficult journey to publication. But after thirty years as a writer (and more if you include high school and college), I've whittled the career of a writer down to a few important stages.

1. At a writers' conference, with a panel of distinguished writers who have lifetimes of fascinating experiences to share, the first question comes from the back of the room, from a woman (or man, it doesn't matter). The question is, "How do you get an agent?" After the panelists fumble on that one, the questioner leaves the room and the panel continues.

2. The annual Fourth of July neighborhood potluck is guaranteed to bring together a variety of people, including guests from out of state, perhaps distant relatives or the new girlfriend of the neighbor's son or college roommates. In general conversation, the published writer standing by the barbecue will be identified, and moments later a young college student (either gender) will approach and ask, "Will you read my four-hundred page memoir about my life in the chemistry lab, which blows up accidentally uncovering a body hidden in the closet during the Vietnam Era? I have a copy in my car."

3. A young woman who has recently sold her first story to a small literary magazine (payment in copies) begins to tell, in an offhand slightly humorous and self-deprecating manner, the story of getting published and manages to draw this out into a delightful, charming performance of twenty minutes, without once noticing that one of the men nodding and smiling and moving his old-fashioned glass from one hand to the other has been short-listed for the Pulitzer at least twice and is expected to win this year. His wife, who for some reason slipped away to the buffet table, is a successful novelist.

4. Through sheer perseverance, the heroine (or hero, it doesn't matter) of our tale attends the seventeenth conference of her career, where she spills wine on the woman sitting next to her at the dinner table, apologizes wearily because she is, after all, fed up with this business of conferencing, and then listens to the woman's complaints about having to spend a fortunate going to these things just to find decent mss, which almost never happens. She agrees to read our heroine's novel, by way of an apology for her whining (and wining).

5. Frustrated, exhausted, demoralized, and afraid she really can't write, which was her younger brother's litany through school and beyond, our heroine writes a message of complaint to a better published friend, who answers on Facebook. After a week, our heroine recovers from the embarrassment of being human, and apologizes for her semi-public meltdown.

6. At her twenty-fifth mystery conference, our heroine arrives at her panel with her new book, her very first, and finds her place on the panel, squashed in the center with three other writers on either side. She has to push aside at least five books on either side of her spot, so she can prop up her little paperback. She spends much of the time of the panel keeping the book from falling off the table.

7. At a library panel for local writers, our heroine arrives a few minutes early, takes her place at the end of a row of stools, and introduces herself to the other writers as they arrive. One is a poet with her first book coming out, another is a columnist for the local newspaper, and the third is a short story writer who has published three stories in local magazines. As they begin to talk, each competing with the other, our heroine leans back and watches, nodding with approval and understanding, and saying barely a word. Someone in the audience raises her hand and asks, "How do you get an agent?"

For a more serious look at the "made it" moment, you may want to visit Jenny Milchman's blog.

For help in getting through these stages, you may also want to check out the many truly worthwhile conferences available to mystery writers.

If you are fortunate enough to end up on a panel, be sure to follow general rules on panel etiquette. There are several sites that offer guidance, and here's one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Frugal New Englander Tackles Packages

When I was a little girl, my mother, who had grown up close to poverty and never forgot it, used to save old packages--envelopes, boxes, mailers. And, she reused them. Those days are gone, and for very good reasons. I speak from experience.

My least favorite package comes from the clothing company that sends a cotton shirt in a plastic bag inside a package whose interior sides are covered in sticky film treated so that it doesn't respond to the plastic bag. This would be fine except the entire parcel has to be torn open to get at the shirt inside, and there's no way to use the packaging to return said item in case it doesn't fit. And, of course, it doesn't fit.

Next comes the paper book package with the bubble-wrap lining. I dislike this one because I can't recycle it after I manage to tear it open. But this is still better than the spongy parcel stuffed with shredded paper, which spills all over the porch before I even get it inside the house and then leaves a trail to the kitchen. The parcel barely survived an unknown encounter and is bleeding all over the kitchen table. But it is fully recyclable.

Next up is the cardboard book package for a single book. This sounds ideal--hard to damage in transit, fully recyclable, reusable, solid protective cover. But it requires a wrestler to get it open. This I manage because I make bread the old fashioned way, with lots of kneading, so I have muscles still, and I use them on this package. The book arrives undamaged, not counting the flight across the kitchen and crash into the wall as it springs loose from its cardboard prison.

Of course, I appreciate the large cardboard boxes that arrive with no more than three books inside and enough bubble wrap for forty piled in on top, leaving the books free to slide around over thousands of miles until arriving on my porch. As a frugal New Englander, I waste several minutes trying to decide if I should save the bubble wrap for later use. I do not save it because it takes up too much room. My horror of clutter beats out my distaste of waste.

Least expected is the large manila envelope designed to hold up to ten pages of typed paper stuffed with at least two books. The four-inch tear in one side holds long enough for the parcel to make it to my front porch, where the postman slides it to the edge. I'm grateful it's not raining.

Mixed in among all these parcels arriving in various states of disintegration or protected against the most determined opener, I receive a large white envelope with a glassine window. Inside is a catalog for a company selling trinkets from whom I've never purchased a thing. The back page is torn and dirty, with a large boot print across it. Safely tucked into the envelope, the catalog arrives in my mailbox with a note of apology from the post office.

I hardly know what to make of this reverence for a store catalog as I sweep up the stuffing from yet another damaged parcel. After some thought, I wonder if the man at the post office is related to my mother. Probably not. But perhaps he's a New Englander? Yes, for sure.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Balance in the Writing Life

In the middle of my years in graduate school I found myself drowning in research. I loved what I was doing, studying several aspects of India, but I was definitely doing too much of it. I sat up at my desk in the library one afternoon thinking, I need to do something different.

I have often attended concerts when I needed to relax, after giving up playing a musical instrument for many years. But wanting to do something different isn't exactly the same as needing a vacation, though I probably needed one of those too. What I was sensing was the need for variety. Like many other writers, I can write twelve to eighteen hours a day for a few days in order to meet a deadline, but then I need to do something different. I need balance. I need a counterweight to writing, something to balance the activities of my life.

A good writer friend manages to write at least one book a year along with short stories and run a professional design business. But she also knits--a lot. She produces beautiful work for adults and children, and gives the creations away to members of her large extended family. Another writer friend gardens as well as any professional. Other writer friends are master chefs, painters, finished carpenters, and singers. It seems that the professional writers I know are also fully competent in other creative areas. For me it's photography.

My interest in photography is one of the reasons I made my series character Anita Ray a photographer. But writing about photography in a mystery novel is still writing. I need to step outside of the writing part of my life, and I do this by focusing on my work with a camera or someone else's. 

This month, my colleagues and I on the Matz Gallery Committee for our local library hung a juried exhibit of 23 three photographs by 21 artists. Arranging the photos on the gallery walls had a similar feel to arranging the narrative in a novel or short story. Some things worked together in a scene and others did not. We arranged, and rearranged, the photographs, until we had three walls of artwork we were happy with.

Finding this kind of balance between areas of creativity helps me replenish what I need for writing. I have just sent in the final, edited copy of the fourth Anita Ray novel. When Krishna Calls will be out in 2016, and I already have ideas for the fifth in the series. But between finishing one book and starting another, I need a break that is both creative and restful. I find that in working with photography, either as the artist or, in this case, as  a member of a team of curators.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Writing every day . . . including holidays

For the last year or so I've been doing library and other events, talking about my two mystery series and the life of a writer. I expect and get the usual questions. How do you write? With a computer or a typewriter or pen and paper? Do you write every day? Even on holidays? Where do you get your ideas? Do you have an agent? These and other questions come so often and so predictably that I barely think about the answers, but this weekend I found myself thinking about one in particular. Do you write every day? What exactly does that mean, to write every day? And what does it mean to the non-writer in the audience asking the question? Does it mean the same thing?

This is Memorial Day and a holiday on Monday for those with jobs that require someone to show up at
an office or worksite. But I'm a writer, and I work at home. I have a ten-second commute from the kitchen to my desk in the next room. Do I have to show up?

Every year, on the day before Memorial Day and Fourth of July, I pull out my great-grandmother's flag and promise myself I will hang it up on the porch in honor of those who fought to defend our country. Sometimes I forget and the flag sits on the chair in my bedroom until late at night, when I put it away, gnashing my teeth. But today, in 2015, I remembered, and got the flag up there soon after nine o'clock. The flag has 39 stars, and my mother recalled watching my great-grandmother sew on the last star when she was a little girl, before World War I. The flag is fragile, so I don't put it out on windy or stormy days.

Getting the flag up this year bodes well for my working memory because it's the first on my list of things to do today. Writing this blog is the second.

This blog fulfills the requirement of writing every day, but what about the days when I never write a word, in a blog or story or novel? What else counts as "writing every day"?

At the beginning of a new work I make a list of the main characters I think will appear in the novel, usually about four or five, not including the series and support characters. When I have my list, I think about names and pull out naming books as well as lists of names I've developed over the years. The characters start to take shape in my imagination and I jot down physical or psychological characteristics that intrigue me. Is this writing?

When I was first starting out, years ago, I was well aware of my weaknesses. I could capture the emotional content of a character, and depict the behavior of children, but I doubted my abilities in writing dialogue. With that in mind, I read writers who could carry an entire story in dialogue, and read them to see how they did it? Is that writing?

I have published thirteen short stories featuring Anita Ray, the Indian-American photographer sleuth in my India series. After a particularly successful panel, a member of the audience will ask where they can buy a copy of the stories. All the stories were published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or Level Best Books anthologies, so I have the rights to them if I want to compile them for a book of my own. I've looked at the stories and considered possible arrangements, and searched among my own photographs for a cover image. Is that writing?

The fourth book in the Anita Ray series will be coming out in spring 2016. I've just finished reviewing the copy-edited manuscript, accepting the corrections of my editor and adding a few things here and there. Is that writing?

One of my longstanding habits is to clean off the top of my desk after I finish a story or novel. This means going through all the papers and books and notes that accumulate while I'm composing, keeping some, returning the borrowed items, and filing the rest. If I didn't do this, I'd have my own stand-up desk, situating my computer atop stacks of paper two-feet thick. Is this writing?

When I was in graduate school, working on my dissertation, a colleague used to call all this "other"
work "fussing." He likened it to a dog circling a spot on the floor before it falls down in a heap to sleep. Perhaps. But whatever it is I'm doing when I'm not composing on my computer, it feels necessary in order to get the project finished and out the door (or into cyberspace) to my editor. All the activities I engage in may not be what someone else would consider writing, but I wouldn't be able to finish a project without them.

So, on this glorious Memorial Day, I will be writing in some way. And I hope you will also be doing something you love.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Posterity or . . .

In an earlier post I talked about clearing out old mss that I was pretty sure wouldn't be published. I asked readers to let me know what they did with their mss that were moldering in a drawer or on a disk. One replied that she was saving them for posterity. This was one comment I hadn't thought of.

Like any other writer, I love opening the box from the publisher that contains the first copies of my new
book. The books sit there, pristine, perfect, and full of promise. Surely this book is the one that others will find special, brilliant, ground-breaking--if you're a writer, you recognize the fantasy. Each step in the writing/publishing process triggers the standard dreams. After my heart settles down and my feet touch the ground again, I'm just happy to know that libraries will be buying my book and standing them up on a shelf, for readers to find and, I hope, enjoy. That's the only posterity I've thought about. After that, I assume it's over for me, and I take my place in the graveyard. I even find it hard to continue after the last sentence, but I'll keep at it.

When the Houghton Library of Harvard University announced that it was acquiring John Updike's papers soon after his death, I thought, of course. He's a famous writer, perhaps the most important American writer of his generation, and a graduate of Harvard University (Class of 54). Learning how he composed and shaped his fiction and nonfiction would certainly be interesting to young writers and literary scholars. But my papers? Would a library actually want them? I don't think so, but I'm beginning to wonder if my perspective is the exception.

Over the years I have read the juvenilia of writers I have admired, but you only have to do this once, with one writer, to glean the important lesson. The early writings will show both promise and ineptness, and often throw the reader back in her chair as she marvels at how far the writer had to travel to reach his or her current heights. My reactions to early, youthful writings of later prominent voices are similar to my feelings about first novels. I might enjoy them, but I privately hope that the writer improves with experience. I have a number of favorite mystery writers who did just that.

Perhaps my lack of interest in leaving work behind for others to study and evaluate comes from an innate desire to be known for the best I can do, and not for my failures. Is it ego or vanity? Possibly one or the other, or both. Is it fear of having my old notes and unpublished mss leading to eternal humiliation? Probably. Is it laziness in not wanting to spend time organizing this old, rejected pile of material in some system that can facilitate the transfer of ownership to someone else? Definitely. Laziness for sure plays a role.

Perhaps the lack of interest in posterity has to do with a lack of ambition. I don't want to be famous. I don't want to give up privacy and freedom to move through my life, in and out of stores or restaurants, without being noticed. I don't want strangers becoming my "best new friend." One of the staff at the post office (yes, the one I wrote about recently) stood at the counter when John Updike walked in to mail something. She had waited on him before, but this time she was so flustered that she forgot several steps in the process and had to redo everything after he left. Embarrassing. For her, of course. And for a shy man, like John Updike, even more so.

I will never face these problems, and I don't want to. I have what I regard as a perfect life, and after I'm gone, my departure will make room for someone else. If anyone wants to know something about me after I'm gone, read the books.