Monday, November 23, 2015

Crime Close By

I read a newspaper every day, scanning the headlines and picking out the stories that interest me. I shake my head at the misery people inflict on each other, and then turn the page. I couldn't do that this week.

About five years ago, an old Victorian mansion, long chopped up into apartments, was sold to a developer, who tore it down and built five McMansions. Buyers of the properties were required to sign a covenant prohibiting certain behaviors, such as parking a boat in the driveway, designed to maintain the value of the new homes.

The new houses came with side effects. For the first time neighbors had water in their cellars after it rained, the result of all that paving for the new street and driveways in the small development. A few neighbors also grumbled that even though the street was private and residents were expected to bring their trash to the sidewalk, the trash collectors still drove down the short street, our tax dollars at work. Other neighbors lost their sunny back yards, which were now cast in shadow most of the day.

This development is barely three houses away from me, just across a small one-way street. I walk past this cluster of new homes almost every day, and my husband passes it three times a day when he's out walking the dog. The houses are occupied by families with children of all ages. The lawns are well kept. And yet . . . And yet . . .

On Monday a man walked into the Beverly Police Department and announced he had just killed his wife. The police apparently, according to one news story, asked a few questions before heading out to the house. There they found his wife's body with no pulse but still warm. The EMTs managed to revive her enough to get a pulse and took her to the hospital, less than two miles away. She never regained consciousness and died on Friday. She was the mother of two young boys.

The woman had quit her job two years ago to stay home and write. She and her husband separated a year ago but had tried to reconcile in September of this year. She completed her first novel, published it with Amazon, and started her second book.

The published novel is titled The Price of Fame. On the cover is the picture of a woman lying face down, apparently after an assault, with her clothes fallen away. If I were writing this in a novel, I couldn't describe a murder and include that scene without a reader complaining, considering it contrived or worse. Again according to one news report, the police did not find signs of a struggle.

Since retiring I have kept up with some of my former colleagues and volunteer activities, including work on a committee to end domestic violence. We talk about warning signs and appropriate responses that won't make the home situation worse, or put the woman in danger.

On the quiet lane three houses from where I live, no one heard the man strangling his wife. No one knew she was in danger.

Over the years I have refused to read mysteries in which one woman after another is murdered or debased in the opening pages (or even later). I consider such fiction exploitive and repulsive. But what is the difference between one murder and thirty?

I sometimes wonder if writing crime fiction is a sign of my own callousness. I think I'm addressing issues of justice and the way life takes strange and startling turns and challenges us to face an ugly reality or our own weaknesses. Before I knew the woman down the street had died, I printed out a next-to-final draft of a new mystery novel. Here it sits on my desk, almost three hundred pages waiting for a final read-through. I am uncomfortably aware that my next reading will be different from my previous one. Beyond that I'm not sure what I think.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Unpacking the Conference

My email box fills up every few months with announcements of posts about conferences I might have missed—notes on panel discussions, awards announcements, and interviews. Since I attend only one conference a year, one held in my home state as well, I’m always curious about what happens elsewhere. I scan the posts looking for a few interesting tidbits and ideas for whatever I’m working on.

The New England Crime Bake, a mystery conference held annually in Dedham, MA, ended Sunday, November 8, and I’m now at home “unpacking” my conference experience. I was thinking about posting a summary of some of the panels I attended, and then quickly dropped the idea. For me, unpacking a conference in the days right after I get home means following up on conversations held over three days and two nights. I have lots to do this week, most of it by email.

Conferences are about readers meeting writers, writers meeting readers, and writers selling books. Crime Bake gives short story writers the same opportunity as novelists. Level Best Books held its annual book signing, and I was one of the writers included in Red Dawn, the last anthology by this group of editors. We had a long line of writers signing piles of books for readers. I have a chance this week to get two more signatures of writers who didn’t attend the conference but live in my area. 

I owe a list of books to a good friend and colleague who recently moved to Pennsylvania. We share an interest in the history of the genre and where it’s going. We talked about two nonfiction books he wasn’t familiar with, and I’m sending pub info.

Two colleagues asked me to work with them to put together a writers’ group for established writers, and that means we have to think hard about how to go about this. We don’t live near each other, but we can and do drive. Lots of planning ahead.

An agent interested in a new project gave me several suggestions for the (now considered) unfinished ms, and the revisions will be my focus for the next few weeks. I’ve made notes on what I want to change and add, and promised her a revised version.

It wouldn’t be a conference without meeting several writers whose books are unknown to me. I have a list of titles whose authors I enjoyed meeting. The bar, for this writer, is not a place to drink. It’s a place to meet other writers, and share information. In exchange for a list of mysteries from one author, I suggested a nonfiction book that would help with the research for a paranormal mystery series. (Who knew I could be useful in such an area?)

A colleague mentioned his wife’s new position, which including scouting people for work in India. I just happen to know a scientist in India who is between jobs. We’ll see what happens.

In several panels experts in various fields talked about the technical errors writers make (this is hardly news to me, since I know how ignorant I am in police procedure and hence let all the police work happen off-stage). I know this offends readers with expertise, but this is not the point of reading a novel, in my view. The technical information adds authenticity but shouldn’t overshadow the characters.

In the discussion about how to manage specialized information I would like to hear at least one expert admit that the science of policing is not the point of the story. If you want to know the rights and wrongs of city policing, read a manual. In some novels the writer is so busy showing off his or her special knowledge of legal and policing information that such information becomes the story, and the ostensible mystery devolves into nothing more than a clever anecdote. I appreciate the research, but it is not the story.

There is one experience from this conference that was totally unexpected. I met a journalist whose husband has studied Sanskrit. For the first time in my mystery writing career I didn’t feel like an oddball. Thank you, Debra.

Finally, a good conference gives participants things to think about for months to come. I keep a small notebook with me all the time and use it for anything that happens during the year, including conferences, so I can locate and revisit ideas easily. This conference almost filled my little notebook.

Crime Bake is a popular conference. The organizers made a decision early on to keep it small, and as a result registration fills up fast. If you’re thinking about joining next year, get on the mailing list and sign up early—while you can.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Re: Level Best Books and New Beginnings

I goofed when I originally send out the BSP on Level Best Books, so I've posted the correct link here.

This weekend is the annual Crime Bake conference in Dedham, MA. It's also a time of transition for the Level Best Books anthology. If you want to learn more about the changes, please visit the Five Star Authors Blog.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Memorable Titles

Writers are bedeviled by different aspects of the writing biz. For some, it's developing a gripping plot; for others it's creating sympathetic characters. And for still others, it's the title. Most of us have working titles on our computers, but the day always comes when we have to come up with something memorable, catchy and relevant. Hemingway, no slouch in this department, thought Fitzgerald the best at creating these short verbal tags.

When I began writing the Anita Ray series, I decided to use a consistent format for the title. I would use the name of a deity that reflected some of the issues in the story, and in a prepositional phrase if possible. Coming up with a tag for the first book, Under the Eye of Kali, gave me the idea, and I've enjoyed playing around with deities and phrases since then.

The idea for this post came from a series of messages on DorothyL. A number of posters mentioned titles that led them to purchase the book. That got me thinking about memorable titles--the ones I actually remember as humorous, intriguing, or well crafted. This is a sample of those as well as the ones mentioned on DorothyL. I don't dissect them here because that seems too much like analyzing a joke. Instead I offer a little humor on what has turned into a delightful and warm and sunny Thursday.

If you have a favorite title, I hope you'll add it in the comments.

Below are some fun titles, and below that is a link for more on titles.

The Case of the Blood-stained Egg Cosy, by James Anderson

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Let the Dog Drive, by David Bowman

Cast, in Order of Disappearance, by Simon Brett

Killer Hair, by Ellen Byerrum

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesteron

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard, by E.X. Ferrars

Smallbone Deceased, by Michael Gilbert

The Man with a Load of Mischief, by Martha Grimes

Death and the Pregnant Virgin, by S.T. Haymon

Carrying Albert Home: The Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator, by Homer Hickam.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carre

If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him, by Sharyn McCrumb

Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

I Still Miss My Man (But My Aim Is Getting Better), by Sarah Shankman

Leave a comment with a memorable title. And my thanks to DorothyL.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Free-associating a Plot

Once when I was struggling with the editing of a manuscript by a well-established scholar who tended to wander and leap through her discussions of art, a colleague said to me, We learn a lot through free associating. I thought about that today because I have been free-associating my way through several thoughts, watching a story develop.

A sculptor in India who is also a friend named her current exhibit in Mumbai “Where the Green Grass Grows,” an allusion to Walt Whitman’s long poem Leaves of Grass (1855). I rummaged through my own library, which includes a small collection of poetry, and did not find a copy of the poem. I found an anthology in the public library and began to dip into it, stopping at a poem by Wallace Stevens, who died in 1955, regarded as one of the most difficult poets of the last century. When I approached his work in college, I agreed. He baffled me. But I turned the page to “Sunday Morning, I.” The first two lines read “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair[.]”

Any mention of oranges caught by sunshine puts me in mind of an incident many years ago when I took a lunch with me during a daylong stretch of work in the Boston Public Library. I don’t remember every item, but I do remember putting things together early in the morning, a few crackers, slices of cheese, some celery and carrot sticks, and an orange. I grabbed it at the last minute, not sure if I would eat it or not. In the library, after a long morning of work, I arrayed my meal on the paper bag and ate.

After a few minutes I noticed a man watching me. When I looked up at him, he smiled and moved away. I finished my lunch, all except the orange, which I slipped back into the bag. At the end of the week I opened the Boston Globe to an article about the simple ways people manage their diet. He described my lunch, listing each item and its nutritional value. At the end, he added, “and the orange for color.” I don’t know if the man I caught watching me was the writer or not, but I blushed as I thought of myself being caught out. I did indeed take the orange with me for its color.

Being observed and observing in turn brings to mind another incident. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts holds an excellent collection of paintings by Winslow Homer. One in particular, “The Fog Warning,” always draws a crowd. A group of about a dozen people standing in front of the artwork thinned out until only one man was left. With his dark beard and cap, he peered at the image of the seaman in the dory, who was looking over his shoulder at the mother ship as he rowed against the oncoming storm. Two young women drew opposite the museum visitor, leaning close to each other as they whispered and pointed from the bearded viewer to the bearded seaman. The similarity between the two men and their postures was unmistakable. It looked as though the seaman’s brother had come to take a last look. No one noticed me, as far as I know, standing a few steps away and taking note of the triangle of art and admirer and witnesses.

These three pieces seem to want to be linked together into a story, and it would be easy to do so. Is the villain the watcher in the library, and is he the man being watched in the museum? Is the woman eating lunch in the library one of the two young women in the museum tracking the watcher from the library? Is there some clue to be found in a book of poetry? Once a decision is made, the writer, like a prosecutor, returns to the individual scenes and shapes the narrative to lead the reader to the predetermined conclusion.

Fiction is everywhere.