Monday, December 8, 2014

When a story comes alive

One of the favorite discussions among writers on a mystery panel is the question of how we write. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you work out the details of the story beforehand, sketching out the details scene by scene, or do you begin writing and discover the story as you go along? We compare notes, laugh at each other's stumbling ways, and talk about revising and editing. This question seems to get at the core of how writers view creativity but for me there is another question, one that is equally if not more important. When does the story feel alive?

I don't know how to explain this question, or even the answer. Some writers will not even recognize it as a relevant question because the story is alive to them when they begin writing. By this question, however, I don't mean the coherence, atmosphere, or flow of the story. These are merely qualities of the "aliveness," and can exist independently of it.

The Mellingham mysteries featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva are traditional stories of small-town crime and detection. The first novel took several chapters and rewrites to cohere, but the third mystery came alive before I even started writing. I could barely keep up with it.

It took me several tries of mysteries set in India, and half a short story, before Anita Ray came alive to me. And since that short story she has been unfailingly consistent as a character, as has her Auntie Meena and their environment.

At present I'm working on a mystery about a woman living in a farm community. She is something of a mystic though she would never call herself that. The world she lives in, a rural backwater populated by people whose incomes are dependent on two or three jobs and small farms passed down through generations, is familiar to me. As I wrote, the story moved along as I wanted it to. But halfway through the first major revision, I found something more happening, and the story was alive. Felicity Obrien is real, and her world is real. In ways I don't quite understand this changes how the novel will develop. Felicity has taken over, and now I have to follow her.

This is an exciting moment for a writer. The development of the story seems less mechanical, the characters less created and more discovered. I've read and enjoyed plenty of stories that are competent, clever, and satisfying, but I also recognize that they are throughout only stories. And then there are those in which something more is happening. That's what I hope to achieve in my stories. Sometimes I think I do achieve it, and others I know I don't. Nevertheless, this quality of aliveness remains a clear if elusive goal for all of us who write, and a remarkable feeling when it is met.

 The setting of the mystery is a town I've called West Woodbury, where I set another, non-criminous story. "Love Takes a Detour" tells the story of a woman named Zellie who lives on a remote farm, an isolated life that satisfies her until an unexpected event reminds her of the world she left behind. Zellie is a swamp Yankee, a character that has all but faded from New England and current life. This story was alive and vivid from the moment I conceived it. As I write now about Felicity Obrien I feel the same quality of the richness of a real life, and I hope I will capture all of that for readers to enjoy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Why I Will Never Be a Food Writer

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to Madhur Jaffrey speak. Jaffrey is the well-known writer of Indian cookbooks, and her first, from 1973, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, is considered a classic among those of us who love Indian food. She had recently published her memoir, Climbing the
Mango Trees, and I was eager to hear her speak. Her talk covered stories from her book but one thing stood out. When she described her first taste of something, I could taste it too. Her descriptions of meals in her childhood home covered every aspect, from the smallest arrangement of eggs on a plate to the proper presentation of salt and jams. After reading her memoir I scurried to the kitchen to make one of her recipes. She is popular as a cookbook author partly because she understands how a western kitchen works, and what constitutes a meal in the West.

In my most recent Anita Ray mystery novel I thought about including a description of a favorite taste, or an experience of discovering a delicious food, but when I began to write I knew I would never be a food writer or critic. When I was a teenager I took a tour to Europe and one day, famished from walking all over Copenhagen alone and impatient for a dinner that was yet several hours away, I stopped at a small cafe and ordered a cup of tea and read the menu. The waiter brought bread and butter, and I took a piece, something akin to a baguette, and slathered on the butter. I had homemade butter as a child on a farm but this taste was entirely new. I can't describe it but I can describe the amusement the waiter exhibited when I showed up the next day, with a friend, and we ordered bread and butter. The taste has faded but the scene is vivid.

A few years ago I traveled to Kanya Kumari, at the southern tip of India, to be blessed by water where three oceans meet. This is a tourist site of long standing, with little glamour to be found anywhere. My two friends, both elderly Indian women who spoke little or no English, and I stopped at a cafe for lunch. Without them I wouldn't have dared eat anything prepared there, but Lakshmee insisted and we sat down. The waiter ignored me, gave menus to my friends, and proceeded to ask them for their order. Lakshmee was furious at my being ignored but I understood this was the silent protest of the Tamil sick of foreigners invading his land. He brought our dosas and chutney and to this day that is the best coconut chutney I have ever had. No other version has ever come close. The memory is almost--almost--overwhelmed by the story of the waiter.

As a writer I'm alert to the world around me, always ready to see an image that will enrich a story setting, or a line of dialogue that will nail a character perfectly. Fragrances capture me easily and immediately, but I cannot write of any of these without also telling the story of how they came to me. In her memoir, it's clear that the experience of the meals and food is the story of Madhur Jaffrey's life, as it can never be of mine. I will never be a food writer or critic but I will certainly have experiences around food that will enrich my fiction.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Perseverance, with an Example

Every writer, myself included, has given others some of the standard advice. Write what you know (or some version of that statement), and never give up. Keep going no matter the obstacles. Persevere, persevere, persevere. And every writer who has ever published anything will nod her head knowingly. On this wet and windy Monday morning I offer an example of that advice.

Dorothy Stephens is a freelance writer who published her first novel, for the YA audience, at the age of ninety. Someone who knows her has to tell you she's ninety because otherwise you wouldn't believe it. That aside, her novel, A Door Just Opened, is set in rural America in 1910. The story takes us into the life of thirteen-year-old Anna, who longs to escape the world of the farm and attend high school. But there is no money to send her to school, her mother needs her on the farm, and soon her older sister, Mary Ellen, brings a complication that threatens to sink the family. Based on a family story, the book was published by Fire and Ice, a young adult imprint of Melange Books, LLC.

I first met Dorothy through a friend, another writer, who steered me to Dorothy's memoir, Kwa Heri Means Goodbye: Memories of Kenya 1957-1959. The memoir was a finalist for the 1996 Bakeless Prize in Nonfiction, 1993, given by Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Dorothy's memoir is a reminder of how much the world has changed as well as how free we Americans once were when traveling abroad.

I'm writing about this here, today, not only because I admire Dorothy and enjoy her work but also as a reminder to me to look beyond immediate circumstances.

Over the last several weeks I have been dealing with a family illness, and as focused as I have been on this my mind has occasionally wandered into more selfish terrain, where I have the shocking, nearly debilitating thought that I will never write again, that I've lost my place in the pantheon of midlist writers, and, yes, that I'm drowning in melodrama.

I'm not terribly good at selfless acts, and I never fully ascribed to the idea that you "go where life takes you," as though I were in a canoe without a paddle--and without hands. But those moments pass, and at the end of it all, as things start to improve, I forget the selfish thoughts, congratulate the patient on such a strong recovery, and sit down at my desk, once again trying to figure out how to solve a murder I set up before I had a solution. Very short sighted of me, I know, but apparently typical.

Dorothy Stephens is a delightful person and an accomplished writer, and, at the very least, a sobering reminder of the importance of taking the long view and persevering all the way.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Resting" as Part of Writing and Editing

Writers share lots of practices and habits without thinking they have anything in common with each other. As practitioners of a solitary profession, we tend to think we’re entirely on our own. But we do share practices that help us develop and complete our work.

I’m a strong advocate of writing a fairly complete rough draft, working on that until it is nearly polished, and then setting it aside for one to three months, depending on the length of the work (a short story or novel, for example). I leave myself enough time to become “unfamiliar” with the work so that when I return to it I will read something with a fresh perspective, discover ideas I didn’t know I was including and characters who surprised me, and I will notice where the writing gets mushy and the story line is rushed. I will see the flaws, and I hope the occasional successful passage.

But what will I do during this waiting period? Sometimes I like to alternate between an Anita Ray story and a Joe Silva mystery. I could start another writing project, perhaps another novel, but that might interfere with my ability to return to the original mss, the one that is settling and aging nicely on the corner of my desk. I could work on book reviews or short blog posts, but I do that anyway throughout the week. I could begin another short story, something that won’t take the entire waiting time but enough of it. Or I could resurrect an earlier story started and abandoned. 

This time around I’m resurrecting a forgotten Anita Ray short story, one that I abandoned and forgot about. As I read it over I can see where I went wrong—three terrific murder suspects but no murder. Instead I originally wanted to concentrate on a different sort of crime, something akin to espionage, but that meant the story would meander for a while and lose its coherence. Perhaps the idea is better suited to a novel or novella rather than a short story. But now I want to use the setting and characters and set-up for a story, so I have begun reworking it. As I trim dialogue, insert a murder scene, and recast one or two characters, I find I have a much better, tighter story.

The story has been sitting forgotten for over two years, but the lovely thing about computers is that it’s still there, easily accessible and readable. I’ve been working on this story for a week now, rethinking and rewriting. Meanwhile, my unconscious has been sending me snippets of dialogue to incorporate into the “resting” novel when I return to it, and problems I had left unsolved or solved awkwardly now seem to have ready and elegant solutions.

The period of “resting” a story or novel is also a different way of working on them. By the end of the month I’ll have a reworked and nearly finished Anita Ray short story and be several steps ahead in completing the novel I set aside a few weeks ago.

John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction and other books on writing as well as several novels, once commented that novelists can be slow thinkers, slow to come to solutions, by which he meant writers should be willing to wait for the right solution to come along rather than jumping at the first idea they have. Don’t grab the first idea, the first twist. Let the story rest and see what rises to the surface over time. After a period of time away from the work, I find it easier to see what needs to be reworked and where I can strengthen the story.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Knowing Your Characters

A new story or novel usually begins for me when I see characters moving around, engaged in a specific activity. Once I know these visual images will be part of the story, I begin looking more closely at the protagonist.

Developing a character in fiction often seems to be an exercise in choosing hair and eye color, height, and physical build. The man, of course, is always handsome and strong and drop-dead attractive in most novels. And the woman is equally gorgeous, at least to him. These are the details we learn first. But I want to know much more about my characters before I begin writing, alert to the fact that I will discover more as I work.

I keep a set of questions to answer as I begin working with a new protagonist or important character. These questions are equally important for the main characters in subsequent Mellingham books. I may not use all this information in the story, but if I begin writing without knowing the answers to these questions, the character will come across as flat and undeveloped. This is the process I went through to develop Chief of Police Joe Silva, who appears first in Murder in Mellingham

Here is the basic list I work with. You may have other questions important to you and your stories or settings.

Where did she go to school, or college?
How did she pay for it?
Did she graduate?
What is her economic or social class background?
Does she own a set of formal attire? How does she look in formal clothes?
Does she have a distinctive walk or mannerism?
Is she left-handed?
Where is she in the birth order in her family?
Were her parents young or old when she was born?
Are her parents still alive, still married?
Does she maintain close relations with her family?
Is she athletic? What are her pastimes?
Is she a regular voter? Is she politically savvy?
Does she have pets? 
Does she know her neighbors?
Does she have a lot of friends, or a few very good ones?
What kind of car does she drive?
How old was she when she learned to drive?
Does she need to be able to drive for where she lives?
What is her first reaction to someone threatening her?

The last question may seem to be the whole point of a story, for example, but is in fact how the story grows. In some parts of the country a man or woman is expected to respond to a phsical threat with enough force to make the other person back down. But in other parts of the country, the first choice of reaction is humor, to defuse the situation among other things.
The question of education is equally important. A working class man or woman who went to college in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps as the first in the family to do so, would appear on campus for the first day of class well dressed, perhaps in a blazer or formal sweater. A young man or woman who attended prep school would dress differently.

Someone who is very conscious of social class and maintaining status would choose a car carefully. Someone who grew up with money and didn't care about it could be just as happy driving a junker, but he would have the car serviced regularly by a very good mechanic. In Love Takes a Detour, the people of West Woodbury village are dependent on their cars. The rural area has no public transportation, and the outlying farms are too far away from town for walking. Keeping a car on the road means women as well as men are ready to do quick repairs.

Chief Joe Silva is typical of the man who grew up in a working class family, broke the tradition of generations and went to college. He paid his way through by working part time, and, typical of that era, left school with no student loans. He remains close to his large extended Portuguese family, and takes people as they are. As the chief of police in Mellingham, he encounters men and women of all classes, and he judges them only on their behavior. He doesn't like ostentation, and he admires those who are good parents. The sixth book in the Mellingham series, Last Call for Justice, focuses on Joe's family and background.

Just as our close relatives can surprise us with a quirk or personal taste they never revealed before, so too our characters can startle us as we write. This is the best part of discovery, when the character comes alive and leaves the author's control, and I always look forward to those moments of going deeper into a character I thought I knew.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Finding the Ending

Every part of a story poses its own problems and challenges. I often find multiple solutions but one usually jumps out as the best. Writers spend hours crafting the perfect opening sentence and then the opening paragraphs, thinking this is the most important part of the book. If the opening doesn't grab the reader, the following pages will remain unread. I don't know if the opening is the most important or not, but certainly I spend a fair amount of time on it.

The middle, after the crime has been committed and the sleuth is drawn into the investigation, has the challenge of keeping the reader engaged, maintaining the desired pacing, laying out clues to keep the reader intrigued, and developing characters to make the reader care as much about them as about the solution to the crime. The middle often threatens to sag, and one solution is to introduce another crime, another murder. This is the land of complications, and the more the better.

The ending would seem to be the easiest part to write. The sleuth pulls together all the clues, applies brilliant deduction or magical intuition, or whatever her particular skill is, and the villain is caught. The ending, however, is more than the climax, more than the capture of the bad guy. The ending is, in one measure, the definition of the story the reader has been following. If the sleuth has been working with or intermittently encountering one who could be a romantic interest, the ending could focus on that, and that by itself redefines the story. Or, if the sleuth has been struggling with a particular burden and overcomes that at the end, either through confronting the villain or discovering something in the process, the story shifts from romance to personal journey. Or, suppose the sleuth has learned something important about family, her own or another's, that changes the tone of the story yet again.

I am grappling with these choices now as I come to the end of a story about a young woman who was born into a family of healers. Through a deathbed confession, she learns about a theft from her home before she was born. When she attempts to reclaim the stolen articles, she uncovers a body. This is a story of family, a marriage that never happened and one that did, the sacrifices made by another to preserve her marriage, and learning to care for a dwindling parent. I have written all but the last one or two scenes, and in choosing the final ones I will be choosing how readers will look back on the entire story. Through the frame I construct, will they see a romance, a definition of the role of the paranormal in ordinary life, a story of families undermined by years of lies, or families preserved at all cost?

I have read several books lately that have powerful stories but weak or extremely unsatisfactory endings, as though the story is enough for the reader and when it's time to end, the writer just stops writing, plugging in any scene that will serve to end the story. In my view the ending is much more organic than that. This week I'm finding the ending for the story of Felicity, a young healer living in a farm community who discovers truths about herself, her family, and the world she lives in. And I have to decide on which one to explore in the final scene.