Thursday, February 23, 2017

Anita Ray's Future

I’ve posted before about the end of the Five Star Mystery Line, but it seems there’s more to say. When something comes to an end, I tend to say, “Okay, I’m done with that,” and move on. I often think I’ll have trouble letting go, but in the end I don’t. It’s something in my DNA. And yet I do have trouble thinking I’ll never write or publish another novel featuring Anita Ray. But that’s not the lingering question.

When I began writing the Anita Ray stories, I created a character who emerged in part in relation to her scatty Auntie Meena and the other denizens of Hotel Delite. The stories were about the world of this hotel as well as the main characters. Anita and her Auntie remained static in the sense that they didn’t really age. In each book, Anita might be a month older, or even younger. It didn’t matter. The only concrete comment about her age was that she was closer to thirty than twenty and she was still unmarried. Unmarried! At her age. A scandal. And a gnawing shame for Auntie Meena. That was the premise at the beginning. But now?
With the prospect of working on a series set adrift from any official publisher, I seem to find specific aspects of the set-up also drifting. I could continue the series by heading in a different direction. Anita could marry and move into the hillside. I fell in love with Munnar and tea plantations on an earlier visit, and I can easily imagine Anita living there. Or, she could return to the United States to visit her parents. (This is the opportunity that least appeals to me, but I mention it to be complete.) Or perhaps she opens a gallery in Trivandrum and lives there, away from Hotel Delite. But I’d miss Auntie Meena and Ravi and Moonu and all the others.

I’m thinking about this now because today I had lunch with four other women and we talked aboutIndia and our travels. One woman had lived in Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, parts of Africa, as well as the US. One grew up in Northern India. The lunch was special for another reason. One cooked an amazingly delicious lunch of Indian dishes, another brought copies of CDs of her son’s music (he plays the sitar), the hostess shared her home and a couple of books, another brought a book on knitting and a dessert of fresh fruit, and I brought the four Anita Ray books to give away.

I love writing the Anita Ray books, and I love exploring ideas for them even more. As I type this I can feel possible scenarios developing. I enjoy having her four novels out there in the world, and a few more short stories scheduled to appear soon. For now that will have to be enough. But I know I’ll figure out something and Anita Ray will continue to have adventures and solve crimes.

To find the Anita Ray mysteries, go here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Diversity among My Classmates

February is the time of year for invitations to college reunions. As I open and consider the invitations I’m reminded of the students during my elementary, high school and college years, and I realize now we were a diverse lot. You wouldn’t have known it then, but I can see it now. I grew up in a small town on the New England coast, where diversity rarely meant more than one’s religion (and all Judeo-Christian groups). And yet my former classmates and I took a number of very different paths.

Among those I went to school with (both high school and college), most have lived successful and mostly uneventful lives, raising families, building careers, and enjoying the pleasures of adulthood. As expected, most have married, a few divorced, and some remained single. A few made brief detours into drug addiction, but survived and recovered. 

Others went deep into the life of the 1960s—marching in the streets or trekking in Nepal. I went to live in India, and ended up writing about it in the Anita Ray novels. Several others were able to come out and live more authentic lives. Yes, they were gay, and though some of us suspected as much we never thought to comment on it. None of this is surprising.

But my peers also include at least one suicide, which still grieves me; at least two lost to Vietnam; at least one living with a crippling disease; one who narrowly avoided prison for attempted arson; one guilty of involuntary manslaughter; and one who was murdered, the crime still unsolved. Those are the life markers I never anticipated. Who expects to open the newspaper one morning and read about the violent death of a graduate student, and then recognize her name? And she was the most brilliant student in my class.

These men and women were part of my early life, and their faces are still sharp and clear to me. As we went our separate ways after graduation, most of us were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. We expected only the best. But over the subsequent decades our quirks came to take over our lives—the appetite for risk; the impulsivity that aborted projects before they could bear fruit; the doggedness that propelled the mediocre student onto the top rung at work; the unswerving determination to explore that led to something special in a life; and the surefootedness of the one who knew at the outset what he or she wanted to do.

Sometimes I think where we end up in life is the result of chance, and then I decide it’s DNA, or perhaps it all depends on hard work, or perhaps we’re the produce of a series of helpers who see something in us that we miss. But in the end, as I look back on those whose lives I’ve followed, I see once again that there are no easy answers. Those who knew early on what they wanted to do and stayed with it are as much dependent on chance as those who came back alive from Vietnam only to die years later from an infected wound.

My former classmates are the kind of people who populate my and other writers' traditional mysteries—the men and women born to opportunity and advantages who lose their way and end up taking extraordinary risks, or those who watch their lives fall apart after missing a train or signing up for the wrong evening class. They watch as the consequences clog their paths to a better life. When they look back on what they have done, or what has happened to them, they too must wonder how it all came to be. Some things even a mystery novel can’t answer.

To read about a New England town or a village in India, go here

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

After Writing "The End"

On Sunday, just two days ago, I sent off to my agent the final revision of the first book in a new series. This mystery has undergone two major revisions, and now feels as sharp as a diamond (and I hope as sparkly wonderful). I know the book is finished because I’ve cleaned my desk, which has left me feeling adrift. Every morning when I sit down to work, my desk is cluttered and welcoming.

Today, after putting away my notes and printing out the final copy, which is now boxed and sitting on a shelf, my desk looks tidy—and very empty. The clean surface seems unnatural to me, so I’ll get to work on the next title in the series, which I have already sketched out in a draft. I also have an idea for another short story featuring Anita Ray, and I’ve begun putting together a collection of her stories. And then there’s my blog, which I neglect too often.

While I was working on the last revision I collected several images that sparked story ideas. Two young people, probably students from a nearby college, strolled by, each with a distinctive gait. The young man on the right lifts himself on the balls of his feet and dips down as he places his heel. His knees seem to get a double workout. The young woman on the left takes longer but also smoother strides. He’s wearing sneakers and she’s wearing black shoes.

The other recurring image is of a new shop. Beverly was a working-class town for most of its history, with a huge complex called, simply, The Shoe, a tool and die manufacturer. The Shoe is long gone, but the complex now houses numerous white-collar companies—medical, high tech, service-related, and more. It’s a city within a city. And its denizens have brought a new kind of shopper to the city, people who are willing to pay $15 for a bar of sandalwood soap and hemp towels. While I sat at a coffee shop on the opposite side of the street I calculated just how many bars of soap the new owner would have to sell to make the rent.

I have a few more images to work with, such as the man who tracks family reunions on FB and shows up to chat with strangers (and non-relations). I don’t know how any of these images will be used, but they tell me that a new story is growing.

To view my other finished (and published) works, go to:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Opening Lines (2)

I last wrote on opening lines two months ago, but I recently joined a FB group called First Line Monday, where we post the opening sentence or sentences of a book we’re reading or have read. (Or intend to read. No one checks.) This has proved to be more fun than I expected, and I spend a leisurely few minutes pulling books from shelves and rereading first lines. Over the few weeks I’ve been a participant, I’ve become pickier and pickier about what I’m willing to post. There’s a reason for this.

To my surprise, about four out of five books open with the weather, either by describing the season or the day or the promise of the week to come. At the end of this line is a shorter one about someone who’s cranky despite the sunny weather. The sentences are usually well crafted though not arresting in style or vocabulary, and they do promise the style of the story to come.

I’m self-conscious about opening lines right now because I’m trying to come up with a good opening for my current WIP. I have only 15,000 words left to write but I still have to go back and redo the opening. What I have doesn’t seem to work; at least it doesn’t feel right.

Generally, I think there are four broad choices for opening a story. The physical setting (weather, location, time), character description, character in action, and an incident (arrival of a letter, for example, or a looming danger). These are broad categories designed to help me focus on something other than weather, which I didn’t use but seems to pop up no matter when I’m writing a beginning.

There’s no question that getting the first line right is important and can be the hardest part of the novel to write. But a good opening becomes a classic. The American Book Review lists the hundred best opening lines, including the opening of Moby-Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, The Color Purple, and Paradise. To read the whole list, go here.

Reading these opening lines helps me move past orienting the reader in physical space, and closer to locating the reader in the psychological space of the novel. I want her to feel like she has walked up to a friend or acquaintance and sees what she’s doing, and wonders why. I want the reader to be in the story, not sitting in a seat in a noisy theater waiting for the curtain to rise.

Once I have located my character in her life, I’m reading for inviting the reader in. There are plenty of ways to do this. On her website Bryn Donovan lists, not first lines, but ways to begin a novel. One suggestion is the arrival of a letter. Another is a courtroom scene, which is used in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Donovan lists thirty openings, and gives examples for most of them. You can find her website here.

In the seventh Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder, I open with a funeral. “In his last will and testament, Commodore Charles Jeremiah Winslow, one of the greatest yachting enthusiasts in the history of Mellingham Yacht Club, asked to be wrapped in a mainsail and cremated, with his ashes left to sink into Mellingham Bay. His family argued for six days and six nights over whether or not to comply with his wishes, but when they understood how much money was riding on this, they agreed to do as he wanted.”

This is a story about sailing, and the people who live to be out on the water. And they also clearly have the money to spend as much time as they want sailing along the east coast. To read more, go here.

Crafting a strong opening for a novel is perhaps the hardest writing but also the best. A good opening sets the stage for the story and draws in the reader. We all have our favorite opening lines, and I find myself returning to them when I’m working on my own.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Daily Word Count

I’m almost exactly in the middle of my current WIP, and I know my subconscious has figured out the ending by the change in my daily word count. There are lots of signs that a manuscript is going well, but my changing daily tally seems to be one of the most reliable.

Like most other writers, I set myself a daily goal, usually fifteen hundred words. If I don’t meet this figure, I feel like I’ve been slacking off. But this is a guide, not a requirement. On some days my word count is as low as five hundred, and on other days the number can run up to six thousand.

Any figure over two thousand makes me uncomfortable because I question how good the scenes can be if I’m pushing out such a high word count. I once listened to a writer talk about his daily goal of fourteen thousand words. I wasn’t the only one in the audience who gasped. Was he really this good? Was he really that brave? He went on to explain that he felt he had to get the outlines of the story on paper. He had to see the skeleton lying on the sidewalk, in order to feel he had some control over the plot line. After he got through his first draft, which took him barely a week or two, he went back and worked through each sentence. His process sounded a lot like automatic writing. He just let the words pour out without any thought as to how good they were or whether they made any sense. This is a writer who truly had learned to shut off his inner critic.

I would never attempt to write at such a rate. But when I write only five hundred words in a day I look for a reason. There are several. First, I begin my work for the day by going back over what I’ve written the day before. I’m likely to cut lines, perhaps even an entire scene, or rewrite a crucial passage that I pondered all night. If I cut eight hundred words and add in nine hundred, my net gain is only about a hundred words. And then I write five hundred more. I guess I can say that I’ve met my quota for the day. A second reason is that I come to a passage that requires more research, so I stop to work on that. This may take all morning, leaving me less time to meet my quota, but it may also give me material that will ensure I don’t have to rewrite the passage later. A third reason is that I’m stuck. I don’t know what’s happening in the story and I have to stop and think it through. Frustrating but necessary.

In Come About forMurder, I spent a lot of time reworking the final scenes on the water. On those days my word counts were pretty low, but in the end I was satisfied. I did a lot of rewriting of the short story “Variable Winds,” in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (October 2016), to make sure the technical information was correct and clear in very limited space. Some things just take more time.

I keep a running list of my daily word count, as well as what has happened in each scene, and both tell me if I’m on track. There are times when the daily tally doesn’t matter, but in general this is one simple guide that lets me know if I’m on track, or need to rethink the direction of my WIP.

For this and other work in the Mellingham series and the Anita Ray series, go here.