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.



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Enduring the Life of the Writer

I recently came across a quote by Kurt Vonnegut that had me nodding my head in agreement. But as I did so, I wondered how many people really understood what Vonnegut was getting at. The quote is this.

 “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of the writer.”

Plenty of people say they want to write, but what they really want is the prestige of having written. They want to stand around at a potluck dinner and casually mention they've just finished their novel, or they want to sit on a panel at a conference and talk about how hard it is to understand this character and his motivation. They want, in essence, to be seen as a writer. Few really want to live the life of a writer. And that is probably because few understand what that life is like, and when they do get an inkling of it, they find something else to do.

Writing is a desk job and, even worse, a seven-day-a-week desk job. Writing requires the discipline to
claim a seat every day at the same time for hours at a time, to work on projects that may become tedious, disappointing, frustrating, confusing, threatening or worse, and keep at it until you either finish it or abandon it, wasting valuable time and inner resources. And you do it alone.

For many years I was a free-lance editor and ghost writer. I reached my desk every morning, five days a week, at nine o'clock. I took a break for lunch and worked till at least five o'clock. I tracked all my time, for billing reasons, even stopping the clock to take a phone call. I kept a careful record of hours for my final invoice, in case anyone cared to challenge it. If you are a ghost writer, you may negotiate lots of specific terms but you can never know until you begin how you're going to feel writing this particular project. You may find that you despise this book after the third chapter, but you also may be very reluctant to quit the job at hand because that's your paycheck. If you've taken an advance on the job, you're going to have to give money back.

If you are going to write for a living, you are going to be tied to deadlines. Once you agree to a project, for example, editing a six-hundred-page book on labor relations in Egypt, you're accepting the publisher's schedule, and the vicissitudes of your life matter little or not at all. If the author is late responding to your queries, you may still not be able to renegotiate your deadlines.

And you have no one to complain to about the injustice of it all except your partner. Spouses of writers are known to be extremely generous and tolerant, if they last, out of necessity.

Once I started focusing on writing fiction during the day, instead of late at night or on weekends, life did not change. I still had deadlines for book reviews, articles and essays, and manuscript evaluations.

And whenever I went to a potluck dinner, the last thing I wanted to talk about was my "work." I can't talk about a story I'm working on, and god knows I don't want to talk about the writing life. It's a job. Do you expect a plumber to talk about the sink he put in earlier that afternoon?

Some years ago I dropped into the Boston office for a nonprofit that provided pro-bono legal referrals for artists. The room was small, with a window looking out over a busy downtown street. The walls were covered with bookshelves packed with legal tomes. The desk was a chaotic mess. The young woman who worked there was the sole employee. She had no other co-workers in that old office building, and saw no one during the day unless she went out for coffee or lunch. Depending on your attitude, she had the best or the worst job in the city.

The life of the writer means that you spend most of every day alone. You have no one to bounce ideas off of, except for the weekly or monthly writers' group.  The rise of social media has changed things a bit for writers. Now we can check in online with a host of strangers doing just what we're doing--trying to stay focused on a story that refuses to cooperate. But we're still alone with our problems.

If you're a writer, no one cares if you're tired or depressed or have allergies. Your editor only cares if you turn in your work on time and in publishable condition. You can send your mss out to beta readers, but in the end you're the only one who can fix things in the story. And when your story does get published, you may have to tolerate interpretations that make you think your story was published in a foreign language on another planet. And then there are the well-meaning friends and relatives who think you should talk to their Auntie Gertrude who once wrote a really good poem and met an editor, though, of course he'd be 120 by now if still alive, but he did have a son in the business too.

Vonnegut was certainly right about the rigors of the life of the writer. But those of us who do endure it know that it's the only way to live. It's merely a bonus that it's also the best way to escape the inanities of this world, and perhaps save some of our own sanity in the process. If you don't love to write, to choose automatically to spend most of every day with yourself alone and naturally lean toward facing frustrations and problems alone with no help from anyone else, then writing is probably not for you.

I found Vonnegut's quote at a site that offered 20 quotes on writing by any number of writers--Vonnegut, Rowling, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and many more.


http://www.azevedosreviews.com/2013/06/03/kurt-vonneguts-20-quotes-on-writing/

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sisters in Crime Blog Hop

Today I'm joining the Sisters in Crime Blog-Up. This is a very loose round robin of writers talking about books and reading and writing. You don't have to be a member of SinC to participate, and I've tagged at the end of my piece another writer who is not a member. If you want to participate, or learn more go to http://www.sistersincrime.org/BlogHop

SinC has offered several questions for bloggers to choose from and I've picked three. The first is one that comes up in different forms.

If someone said, "Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men," how would you respond?

The problem with this statement about preferences is that it suggests it is acceptable to draw an arbitrary line between books according to gender. The line could just as easily be drawn according to date of publication, birthplace of the author, time of story, setting, number of pages, type of book binding, or any other category and all would be equally irrelevant and invalid. A devoted reader looks for any of a number of qualities in a book but gender of the author isn't one of them. I look for a good story, well written, with intelligent insights and interesting characters. The idea of dismissing large numbers of books because the author doesn't fit into a certain category means only that I'm missing a large number of books I might enjoy. The arbitrary line makes me narrow, not a person of discerning taste.

My second response is specific to mystery writing and crime fiction. It is not possible to read the best in this genre without reading books by women. Women have been major figures in this genre since the beginning. Seeley Regester, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, Craig Rice, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron, and hundreds more have explored and developed the crime novel since Edgar Allan Poe.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I'm reading three books at the moment. I'm reading PASSAGE TO JUNEAU by Jonathan Raban, a nonfiction book about sailing from Seattle to Alaska, and one of the most fascinating books I've yet encountered about the ocean, Indians, sailing, and history. I'm alternating this with one of my regular efforts to get through a classic, which today is SWANN'S WAY by Proust. I'm hoping I won't peter out this time. And third is a mystery for which I'm a beta reader, the fourth in a series set on Beacon Hill. I've loved the first three, so I'm confident I'll love this one too, but I'm reading it to find flaws or weaknesses, which is different from reading for pleasure. The mss is by Kathleen Valentine, whose blog link is given below.

If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

This kind of question usually elicits standard responses--persevere no matter what, write what you know (or what you love), focus on craft, and the like. All of these are worthwhile, but anyone can give this advice. I have mentored several writers over the years. In my view, mentoring means more than having a casual conversation about writing, and there is no one word of advice I would tell every beginning writer. But each writer comes to a point where she or he isn't sure about how to move ahead. I don't have the answer either, but I have a better sense of how to find it. I know what questions to ask.

To answer in a way that is useful for readers of this blog, I think I would tell a beginning writer to write what you want to write, and when you are uncertain how to move forward, look at other writers you admire, talk to the ones you know or meet at events. Don't be afraid to ask for advice and support. Writers, especially mystery writers, will stop and spare you a few minutes of their time and more of their experience and wisdom.

As instructed, I'm tagging Kathleen Valentine at www.kathleenvalentineblog.com

So that participants' posts can be publicized through social media channels, SinC asks that we tweet our link using the hashtag #SinC-up or #SinCBlogHop and include @SINCnational (if you are on Twitter), or email webmaven@sistersincrime.org directly (if not on Twitter).


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What does it mean to write what you know?

Several years ago I attended a Memorial Day neighborhood picnic, and met several newcomers to the area. One woman scowled at me when she heard I was a writer. She said, "I suppose you look around at us for characters and use what we say in your books." I've remembered her comment for its naked suspicion and hostility, as though every writer were out to exploit the people we meet. Perhaps some writers do, but for the most part writers don't misuse real people. So, what does it mean when we tell beginning writers to write what you know?

During a recent talk I tried to explain how writers use their own lives to give depth and authenticity to a
story. In the Mellingham series, Chief of Police Joe Silva is the middle of seven children. I'm only the third of four, so I don't know what such a large family feels like. But my father was the middle of nine children, and he often told stories about growing up in a large family living in a small house. He lived in a household with his parents and six sisters, two brothers, and one bathroom. The dining table couldn't seat everyone, and his father was a great reader, with a special chair in the living room by the front window. This is all I needed to imagine Joe's birth family.

Anita Ray lives in Hotel Delite, a tourist hotel in a resort in South India. I once stayed at a hotel on the beach that had been a private home. The layout ensured that all rooms viewed the sea, and when it was converted to a hotel the small size made it easy to manage. In other parts of India I encountered hotels named Delite, which I found charming, so I borrowed the name. The original home/hotel has since been greatly enlarged, the restaurant enlarged, the kitchen moved, and the dining room moved. The hotel I write about is long gone, but the atmosphere lives on.

As a photographer, I enjoy working ideas about this art, or craft, into the story, as well as pointing out how it affects the way Anita looks at things. But I have to work to learn more about photography, to keep up with Anita, who is far more expert than I am. I learn from other photographers, and include some of their insights and discoveries and practices.

Every writer overhears a conversation that is tantalizing, but as Henry James warned, we don't want to hear too much. We want just enough to spark the imaginative journey; otherwise it's just unpleasant gossip. In any city or town, we see people pass by and barely notice them. But if we did, we'd find our visual vocabulary strikingly enriched. A father and his son, the boy a perfect miniature of the man with red curly hair, slight body, pigeon-toed walk, and tipping shoulders, stroll a beach. A teenage girl wearing a black slip as a dress under a red denim jacket, purple hair and dangly earrings recites what she told her boyfriend the night before, insisting that he should behave better and act like an adult, an admonition that might have come out of her grandmother's mouth. There are no secrets here, no confidences violated and no intent to mock or demean.

Neighbors and others have every reason to feel vulnerable around their writer friends, because writers have an outlet and an audience denied to most. But responsible writers, and most are, don't use that their position to balance a perceived injustice, or exploit someone's powerlessness. The small details we pull out of real life are shimmering proof of authenticity of feeling and experience, not of one particular person's life.

Writers can protect against using anything real that might injure another. I take great care in inventing names that cannot be traced to any real person in my area. I ask friends if I can use the layout of their house or apartment for a character. I sometimes even ask if I can use a special phrase a friend uses because I suspect she'll recognize it if she reads the final book. I invent towns, street names, shops, and businesses because the point is to tell a good story, not delve into someone else's private life.


The advice to write what you know might be emended, following Hemingway, to "write what you know is true," true to life, true to your own experience, true to your perceptions of the world and its people. Anything else is false to your calling as a writer.