Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Ideas Are Everywhere

For the last several months, our city has been installing new sidewalks and water pipes. This has meant shutting down long sections of major streets and bringing in many pieces of big equipment while macadam is torn up, sewer drains are moved, and water pipes are replaced. We awake at seven in the morning to heavy drills and tin drums rolling around.

Because our section of the street is the widest, the construction crew has been storing dozens of granite curbs and other items in this section. Trucks travel back and forth tamping down temporary trenches, sending up swirls of dirt. Our sidewalks are torn up, plastic barrels narrow the street even more, and our driveways are shut off for days, even weeks, at a time. The lines for cable and the telephone are scattered across the dirt, and one neighbor, with two young school-age children, lost both for over a week. Apparently these lines going to be reinstalled about two inches below the surface, without the protection of plastic pipes or depth below the ground.

And through it all I have the same thought: if people really wonder where my ideas as a writer come from, they should look out my window. I have imagined hapless construction workers clearing the lawn to lay out the new sidewalk and digging up a body. I have turned carelessly buried plastic water bottles into bags of stolen gems haphazardly lost and now gone forever, or until . . . I have imagined neighbors arguing endlessly with City Hall about the path of the new sidewalk, all in a desperate attempt to prevent someone from digging up—what? The trash collector is required to come before seven in the morning, and at that early hour, before we have full light, is witness to more than he should know about.

If you want to know where I get my ideas, just look out my window. Or better yet, take a walk through the neighborhood. Ideas are everywhere.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Bouchercon 2016

Each one of us has our own Bouchercon, and after looking through my photographs I realized that mine apparently didn’t involve anything to do with writing. Hmm. I seem to have missed a lot of panels. Well, that’s understandable.

We opened with an evening of New Orleans culinary delights and a parade inside the banquet hall. Where else would all the important guests arrive in floats? I enjoyed the scene with Clea Simon, Sarah Smith, Laurie King, the Poison Lady, and her friend (sorry, I’ve got a brain cramp).

After that came a walk down Bourbon Street with Clea and Sarah and some others, and a visit to a jazz club.

And then, the next day, came more food and more walking around the French quarter, and another jazz club. I think somewhere in here I bought a few books, but I’m not sure.

After that came more traveling around the city. I took the trolley out to see the cemeteries. Doesn’t everyone? The weather accommodated with a cloudy, moody sky and drizzly rain. Perfect.

I met some wonderful street artists and performers, who were always gracious and allowed me to photograph them.

And then, of course, there was more food and more music and more walking around. After the conference officially ended, I walked through the Garden District with Tracee deHahn. We had the company of a lovely black and white cat, who trotted smartly across the street to join us.

And the big question is, what happened to all those panels I was going to attend? I know I went, but apparently I didn’t take any photos. I appeared on one panel, “Common People,” moderated by Clea Simon, who did a fabulous job bringing all of us together into one coherent whole—Suzanne Trauth, Marcia Talley, Tim O’Mara, Con Lehane, and me. I recall a panel with Dana Cameron, moderator, and Bruce Coffin, where I came across the writer (new to me) Kwei Quartey.

In addition, I got to spend several minutes (yes, minutes) with my terrific agent Paula Munier and much more time (with food) with her other clients, Tracee, Michele Dorsey, Roger Johns, Cate Holahan, and Brian Thiem. On the last morning I met R.T. Lawton and his wife (sorry, another brain cramp).

I've forgotten to mention a lot of terrific writers I met throughout the conference, and I hope they will forgive me. Bouchercon 2016 was a fabulous long weekend with friends old and new. I’m nearly overwhelmed with ideas for more novels and short stories. Time for a rest.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Old Books and a Role Model

Over the summer months I spent time sorting through books to give away, first to a library and then to a social service agency that helps teens by teaching them to run a book business. Inspired by the teens building a better future for themselves, I was curious about the books I'd read in my earliest years, before I reached teenage. I dug deeper into some old boxes, and was surprised at some of the finds.

In my early years, long before high school, I was completely entranced by Conrad Richter's saga of the settling of the wilderness in what we now call the Midwest. In a series of three books, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town, Richter traces the lives of a multi-generational family as they settle and expand. I have yet to meet anyone else who remembers these books but I loved them, and I can see their influence in a new series I'm working on. These books were published in 1940, 1945, and 1950, respectively, and I read them probably in the mid to late 1950s.

Also in the box was the first novel by John Leggett, a writer beloved of people north of Boston because he was one of our own. Wilder Stone launched his career, but his local fan club grew with the publication of his next book, The Gloucester Branch, which was set in my hometown and gave all of us something to talk about on rainy evenings. The first book came out in 1960, and I probably read it that year, and the second novel came out in 1964, and I know I read it within weeks of publication. These books are barely remembered now.

The third book brought back memories that have remained and taken on different shadings depending on the political climate. The Mind Alive by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet came out in 1954. The subtitle is "How to Keep Our Mental and Emotional Level High: How to Live so That Life Has Meaning." These two authors received blurbs for their other books from writers like Rollo May and Clifton Fadiman, which indicate their general rank in the world of books at that time. And yet what I remember best about that book is the inclusion of passages arguing against the Community party. They seemed irrelevant then and sad now.

I was a child during the McCarthy hearings, but I remember bits and pieces from that time. My uncle, a successful actor, went from Eugene O'Neill plays on Broadway to monster movies. When I asked my mother about it, she took a while to answer, but I got the idea. During the McCarthy era, it was very easy for people in the arts to be accused and found guilty without ever knowing what was happening. (Note the omission of a formal or specific accusation, which was common at the time.) My uncle found himself making Grade Z movies for a few years while he tried to undo the damage of a nameless accuser.

There's a story in this for sure. But mostly this foray into old boxes gives me a sense of history and how our thinking changes over time, something I hope to convey in my own stories. Learning to write honestly and without fear is always a challenge in any age, but it is salutary to sometimes look back and think about what our ancestors (or near relatives) had to cope with. I don't remember my uncle ever complaining, and he did recover his career after a while. I suppose the key is that he didn't give up, didn't cave, didn't take his eye off his goal--to have a long and successful career in the theater. 

When I began this piece, I thought I'd end up talking about the influence of these early books on my thinking and writing, but instead I've ended up with a role model. I always loved my uncle, but I didn't think how hard some of his years must have been, and how proud I am to have known him.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Variable Winds," in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

Yesterday, the mailman brought me my contributor’s copies of the October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I’d already had an email from AHMM telling me my entry would be the cover story, but I didn’t realize how great that would feel until I opened the package and saw the cover. “Variable Winds” draws on some of my experiences as a sailor years and years ago.

I rarely mine my early years for fiction, or so I like to think, so when I set out to write this story, I was surprised at how much I remembered. (The idea for the story came from a particular experience, which I recount in Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.) The memory is a tricky creature, serving up tantalizing tidbits that any sane person would ignore but every writer is more likely to think would be just the thing. I could feel the smooth wood of the tiller in my hands, the winding threads of the metal stays, the resistance as I pulled on the downhaul, and the sudden snap and tug on the sheets for the genoa. I could hear the sound of the mainsail luffing, and the click of the winch as I brought in the sheet. I could smell the water, the marsh at low tide, and the change in the direction of the wind. And I will always remember how the boat shuddered when the bow crashed into a trough as a wave traveled beneath us.

We used to take our dog on some outings and he sat upright on the deck. I always wondered why he didn’t slide off into the water, but the pads of his feet seemed to have the same qualities as the suction cups of lizards. He tilted as the boat listed, his nose into the wind. He had to return to the cockpit when we came about or raised the jib, his one concession to gravity.

I thought I’d put sailing off the coast of Massachusetts behind me, but a few memories seem to have stuck. When I shared the story with a colleague, she launched into tales of her own years on the water, sailing off New Jersey. We learned in different boats and had different experiences, but shared the same sense of what it meant to be on the water.

The boats I sailed in are long gone, but the memories seem to have lingered. Writing the story got me hooked, and I began to explore my earliest lessons, and that became the subject of the newest Mellingham mystery. In Come About for Murder, Chief Joe Silva teaches his stepson, Philip, to sail. It turns out Philip is a natural, which is a good thing because he’s sailing for his life before the story ends. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A New Anita Ray: When Krishna Calls

In her fourth outing, WhenKrishna Calls, Anita Ray, an Indian-American photographer, is faced with the loss of her beloved Hotel Delite and the ruin of her dear Auntie Meena. Her aunt may be something of a ditz, but she has a huge heart of caring and compassion, and Anita adores her.

The God Krishna, the handsome deity who plays the flute and draws his devotees to him in love and adoration, watches over this story of the extremes we will go to protect our family and those we love.

When Anita discovers the young daughter of a part-time employee hiding in the hotel compound, she knows something has gone wrong in Nisha’s life. Then the police arrive intending to question her in the violent death of her husband. Add to this Auntie Meena’s bizarre reactions and Anita knows something more is going on here.

Anita faces another challenge at the same time. The owner of a prestigious art gallery has offered her the chance for a rare, one-woman exhibit of her photographs, and Anita knows that this could make or break her career. It’s one thing to sell photographs to tourists in a small shop on the beach and quite another to present them to the glitterati who know and buy art. The city of Trivandrum is no longer the quiet backwater it was thirty years ago. It has grown into an important destination for Indians and foreigners alike. This is the audience Anita can now reach—if she can just get her work done on time and into the owner’s hands. It seems that every time she heads to the gallery she is tripped up by circumstances.

Nothing is going right, and when she learns what Auntie Meena has been up to, Anita is brought almost to the point of despair. Almost.

If you enjoy this visit with Anita and Auntie Meena, take a look at the three earlier mysteries.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Separating Fact and Fiction

Keeping real life out of my fiction is an ongoing challenge. A story without some authentic detail will feel thin and hollow, but a story with too much could offend readers who think they recognize themselves. I have a number of ways of coping with this problem.

In the Anita Ray series, I set much of the action in the resort Kovalam because it resembles a small town, with dozens of shops and lanes and visitors. The sheer size seems to neutralize curiosity. When I take the reader outside the tourist area, I make up villages and towns. In When Krishna Calls, I take the reader into a remote valley.

I recently created a small town for a new collection of short stories I've been writing. I did this so no one would be able to assume they knew where the town was located. To make the town distinctive, I created a map with streets and store locations, and described a topography that I hope is sufficiently different from any real place.

My characters have to live in apartments and houses, or at least somewhere, and if I come across a real place that I think will work well for a particular character I usually ask the owner if I can use it. Before Chief Joe Silva moved in with Gwen McDuffy, he lived in the downstairs apartment based on that of a friend of mine. His landlady lived upstairs. For the condo he and Gwen occupied, I used my grandmother's apartment, located in another state.

I exercise the same caution when creating characters. When I teach I often use this exercise: describe three people, one you know well, one you've seen but don't know, and one you make up entirely. The descriptions will be different, and will resonate on different levels with the reader, depending on the writer's intimacy with the individual described. Over the years I've found that the second character is usually the strongest, best imagined, because it includes both details to anchor the character and room for the writer's imagination.

Along with the physical description of a character comes the name. It is far too easy to pick one that sounds good, and later learn that it belongs to a real person (I made that mistake once). My main concern is to match the name to the personality, which means sometimes I use old biblical names (Ezekial) or something invented to signal that this character has a history (Pattern, as a first name). I have a few books I rely on, including Clues to our Family Names, by Lou Stein, and From Aaron to Zoe, by Daniel Avram Richman, which includes meanings as well as origins. I also use The Book of Indian Names, edited by Raja Ram Mehrotra. After I've made a choice, I check it with several local telephone books.

One of the best ways to get inside a character and create something rich and compelling is by describing that person traveling. How do they travel? By foot, bike, motorcycle, car, van, bus, train? What is the first choice? And what is the destination? In the new Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder, everyone seems to travel by boat if they can.

Like many other writers, I also note down unusual lines of dialogue or figures of speech. I once made a doctor wait while I finished writing down a conversation I'd overheard earlier in the day, when I didn't have paper and pen with me. If I can capture a particular manner of speech, I have the personality. But here again, I review it to make sure it's not something that will identify a particular person. Many people lisp, but fewer lisp, limp, and swear softly under their breath while stacking oranges in the grocery store.

Even when I make every effort to keep anyone I know out of my fiction, I still encounter the curious reader. I live near an art school, which I've visited several times for talks and exhibits. I even know a few of the teachers. I thought it would make an interesting setting, and set my second Mellingham mystery there. Double Take concerns the death of an older art student. To my surprise, one of the teachers, whom I knew slightly, mentioned at a party that she and her colleagues were trying to figure out who was who in the novel. I quickly reassured her that no one from the school was actually in the book.

When readers pick up one of my stories or novels, I want them to enjoy the story and not wonder who is real and who is fictional.