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

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

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 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.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Unexpected Visitors

Today is Labor Day, a holiday for almost everyone in the US, except for those who work in fast food places, corner stores, grocery stores, gas stations, tourist destinations--I could go on, but you get the point. Most of my writer friends have been working too, or at least visiting FB to talk about writing. Because this is only partly a holiday for the US, I am half taking the day off. Today I have a question, and I hope someone has an answer.

I reviewed the stats for this blog for the week ending today. To my surprise, I had the highest number of page views from Turkey, at 93, which was higher than the US, at 70. I had only 6 page views in Ukraine, even though my name is Ukrainian. I had a smattering of page views in various other countries--in Europe, eastern Europe, Africa, Scandinavia, and India.

The Internet has made all of us internationals whether we know it or not. We get Facebook Friend requests from all over the world, some even in coherent English. We certainly get plenty of ads and sales offers from other countries, more than the nearly ubiquitous offers to make us rich from generous souls in Ghana and other African countries. Occasionally we get an intelligent and interesting comment from someone in Europe who reads mysteries. But Turkey?

I can't imagine what I might have said that would be of interest to anyone in Turkey, let alone 93 people or so interesting as to prompt one person to visit 93 times. Perhaps this is a sign of an impending scam, and I have tripped over a warning. Perhaps there is an ex-pat community that surfs the net on Mondays. Or perhaps those poor souls in Turkey were looking for something else and were directed to my site by mistake. Whatever the reason, I may have to think more about what I send out into the world, knowing it could end up in Russia, no friend of Ukrainians right now, Turkey, where women have a more precarious status than in the West, or Scandinavia, which often finds the US intolerable and intolerant.

This Internet business is making life complicated. So, readers with blogs, where do your visitors come from? Do you keep track? Do you know anyone in Turkey?

Monday, August 25, 2014

August is the Sunday of Summer

August is the Sunday of summer. A friend quoted this to me this afternoon, when we were sitting outside, having lunch on a deck overlooking the inner harbor. We watched boats motoring in and out and a man floating in an inner tube. Even though I had my camera with me, I felt too laid back to pull it out and take a shot. We both knew it was a great shot, but I couldn't muster the energy to take it. Sunday. A day of rest, perhaps, but also a day of lazing away time.

I do not believe this is the end of summer. The weather has been too perfect to believe that it could come to an end. Even the brisk tang to the air that greets me on my walk in the morning at six o'clock disappears by the time I get back home, an hour later, when the sun is in my eyes and I feel warm from a robust stride through the neighborhood.

Today I had plans for things I would get done, and I did get through the first part of my list--I wrote my 1500 words on my current WIP, and thought about it throughout the day, coming up with a title that pleased me and recognizing what the next scene would be. But the rest of the day, from noon on, surprised me. Instead of the lunch planned with a friend, I moved from one unexpected event to the next. We went to lunch at a new place we wanted to try but the first restaurant was closed, so we moved on to another one, again not one of our usual places. We stopped to visit a gallery owner on our way to another gallery.

We detoured down a lane to a beach, and passed kayaks and rowboats, lined up along the path for
another day. We strolled the beach where the sun glistened on the water, reminding us of why Gloucester has long been known among artists for its amazing and captivating light. I took a few pictures, of the shore, of an old schooner out for a sail, of little boats cutting in among those moored. My friend collected shells, driftwood, and seaweed for crafts projects. A woman came in from a swim, and later another came with a dog for a short walk.

We walked on and stopped at a gallery that was unexpectedly closed, but we knew the people at the next gallery, and stopped there. My friend chatted, and I viewed three floors of contemporary art that made me want to stand and stare for hours on end. I discovered new
artists and thought about how much I like certain images--a woman reading a book or looking at a painting. And then the owners told us stories about the artists, wonderful tales that opened a window into who they were as people, the kind of work they did, and what Rocky Neck had been like in past years. I learned a bit about restoration, and the many steps involved in recovering a long neglected painting. It was hard to believe that the beautiful young woman reading her book inside a gold frame could have been covered in dust and grime for decades.

Throughout the afternoon my friend and I swapped stories, joked, and admitted how surprising retirement was turning out to be. The day was wonderful, liberating, and something we couldn't have done just a year ago.

Today was our Sunday. Thanks, Carol.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Middle (the part between Beginning and Ending)

Critics and writers talk often about the three-act play, or division of a story into beginning, middle and end. We recite this division as though all three parts were equal in length and purpose. But they are anything but.

The beginning must be intriguing and do its work in a matter of one or two sentences, and after that perhaps in a matter of paragraphs or a few pages. Writers learn to craft strong openings in order to get the reader into the story, and it is not unusual for the opening to be the most polished part of the book. Writers think hard about the perfect opening, the perfect first sentence, the perfect early revelation to capture the reader's imagination. First lines are studied and replicated, practiced and fretted over. No writer gets far with weak openings.

The writer often knows the ending before any other part of the book, except perhaps for who will be the protagonist. The ending has a promise and a shape that may be malleable, fluid, but it exists as a gravitational pull as soon as the writer has the idea for a story. The ending tells the writer where she is going and if she's on the right road, on a detour, stuck going round in a rotary, or going over the wrong bridge. The ending is the target, the reward, and the most fun to write. I sometimes find myself speeding up as I see it approaching because I'm excited to be there, to have the fun of finishing it off and letting all the secrets fall out. Of course, the ending may change as I slog my way through the writing, but it retains its promise of a safe harbor after a storm.

The problem is the middle. The middle is the story. If the beginning is the promise, and the ending is the reward, the middle is the reality, the reason a reader picks up the book and sees it through to the end. The beginning has the pleasure of anticipation, the ending has the excitement of the reward, but the middle is work. The middle is also the biggest challenge to the writer.

I'm in the middle of my current work-in-progress, and at every scene I check myself to make sure I'm moving forward, that I'm playing out the threads introduced in the first few pages and chapters. I can introduce complications, new characters, deepen earlier discoveries with new interpretations, but I can't change direction without such a change being first promised in the beginning.

To make sure I keep moving forward in a manner true to the opening I keep a list of items that have been alluded to or referred to explicitly that the protagonist must deal with by the end. If she encounters a character who suggests that someone is not telling the truth, she must follow up on that, and determine which one is lying, or concealing something, and then why. If she thinks in the beginning that someone is hiding something from her, she has to spell that out and then follow up. What is being hidden? Where is it? Why is it being hidden? Who hid it?

The protagonist of my current WIP is Lissie, a nickname for Felicity, and the story opens with the observation that she has never known fear. I don't mean the fear of being late for a train or missing a flight, or the fear of being caught in a lie, but the bone-melting fear and terror that may come only once in a lifetime. There is a reason for this, and even Lissie doesn't know why this hasn't happened to her because it has happened to all the other women in her family, and it's one of the reasons they are able to do the kind of work they do. Intrigued? So am I.

Lissie has reached middle age without experiencing certain crucial passages that her female ancestors went through, and she knows it is preventing her from achieving something important. She is a healer, and her life is circumscribed by tradition, but she has long been committed to this life. When she discovers a dead body where she had gone to search for something else, she is pushed off the track of her life as a healer. This is the content of the middle of my WIP.

The middle plays out the promises of the beginning, and links those with the ending. Lissie finds a dead body instead of what she was searching for. She must first solve the murder before she can recover the real goal when she broke into an empty house to dig up a cellar in the middle of the night.

Her personal journey is tied to this discovery of a body and her search for a solution for the crime. When the crime is solved, she'll be that much closer to understanding her own journey. This is the middle, and this is the real work of the writer.

I've reached 39,000 words. Wish me luck for the rest of the journey.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Pruning and Editing

Yesterday, Sunday, was a good day for many reasons. I took a walk at 6:30 a.m. and had most of the area to myself. I read the Sunday paper, wrote 2500 words, made a delicious dinner with my husband, and together we weeded and pruned the neglected areas of the yard for two hours. I woke up this morning thinking about pruning. This is what I'm going to have to do with my current WIP when I have a complete first draft.

The azalea in the back garden has grown tall and thin, very unlike an azalea. Its yellow and white flowers were lovely this spring, but when we went out to look at it in the afternoon, we found no buds
Mock cherry & more
had set for next year. We also found a mock cherry had nearly strangled it--and done this in one or two months. We set about pruning the cherry, but even though we've cut it all down and now we can clearly see how tall and stringy our shrub is, we also can see that the roots of the cherry are intertwined with the azalea, and extracting them with be a challenge. I think we can do this without hurting the azalea, but it will require skill and care.

That mock cherry made me think of a character I introduced in the beginning of my WIP. She's threaded through the story, but as I now see the plot and the arc of the protagonist's story, I know that character has to be excised. I just hope I can do it without losing some good scenes that illustrate the protagonist's character, flaws and all.

Another challenge in the garden is the incredibly aggressive forsythia and its less likable companion oriental bittersweet, with its orange and yellow berries in the fall. This vine may
Bittersweet, Leslie J. Mehrhoff,
Universith of Connecticut,
turn into a bright and cheerful Halloween and Thanksgiving decoration, but for the rest of the year it's a nightmare. We pulled and snipped and piled it up, and there was plenty more waiting for us deeper in the shrubbery. This one I liken to a theme that once introduced pops up everywhere, even though it's a cliche, even tacky, and its removal would make the story much more interesting and original. But cliches are everywhere, and a writer must be diligent to get rid of them.

Another problem is blackberry canes. I love berries--blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, cherry, and blackberry. We've grown all of them in our yard at one time or another, and some are easier to deal with than others. The easiest are strawberries, providing I can keep the animals and birds away, and the hardest are cherries. Raspberries and blackberries grow themselves, like an invasive species, which some are. We found the blackberries sprouting up along the driveway, under a side porch, and in the rhododendron planting. The berries are delicious, and growing them takes no effort. But getting rid of the canes does. And I know that even though I cut them back, to the root, the vine will spread underground and pop up elsewhere.

Sometimes the berries make me think of a few stock characters I seem to have created for my own
mystery series. The three sisters or brothers, the quiet villager who knows enough to steer the protagonist in the right direction and then disappears, the slightly batty older relative and the shrewd one, are just some of them. These are typical of the figures all writers have used at one time or another. They're attractive, easy to work with, pop up whenever needed without much effort on my part, and add a certain sweetness to the story. But they also make the story too easy to write, offering a veneer of beauty and charm when as a writer I know I need to go deeper. I need to root them out just like blackberry canes.

I could go on, but you get the idea. New England, like the rest of the country, is being overrun by invasive species. If I could get rid of them all, I would, though I would miss the azaleas and rhodies and pears and the begonias, especially the pears and the begonias. But I can root out their cousins in my fiction. So, that's my job for the rest of the summer, rooting out characters and themes and clues that don't belong, and that only keep me from creating something better.