Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Next Big Thing

Today I'm participating in a blog tour called The Next Big Thing. The Internet is full of blog tours but this one looked like fun when I learned I could "tag" some of my friends and give them some well-deserved publicity--all three are terrific writers, and I've learned lots from all of them.  I've given their links below.

My thanks for inviting me to participate go to June Shaw, whose work you can find at Many people who read mysteries already know her blog, and for those who don't you'll be glad of the introduction.

The purpose behind this tour is to give writers a chance to talk about our  "Next Big Thing." And to keep us all on track, we have a list of questions to answer. (Some things in life really are easy and fun.)

What is your working title of your book?

My current book is the sixth book in the Chief Joe Silva/Mellingham series. I chose the title Last Call for Justice because Joe's father, now a very old man, he wants to settle a crime from almost forty years ago. Joe's father has little time left and is determined to see this through.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Some years ago at a conference a reader asked me about Joe's family. She was quite concerned that I never introduced his family in any of the Mellingham books. I hadn't thought about it because I wanted Joe to be the quintessential outsider in a small town, someone who could concentrate on the crime and the citizens; I didn't want the story to be about him. The reader said, "So what's the story about Joe's family." She was so certain there was a story that I started thinking about all the little things I'd said about Joe's family scattered throughout the books. The story grew gradually until the day came when I knew I had to write it.

What genre does your book fall under?

This is a traditional mystery. It's not really a cozy, though not far from it, because it's not as light as most cozies are.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That kind of question stumps me. Joe is tall and handsome--Portuguese with dark hair and dark eyes. Gwen is Irish American and looks it. She's not beautiful, but she's good looking and her character and personality shape people's reaction to her. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Joe's father brings together all his children in order to settle the question of an old crime only to find that a family reunion is fertile ground for a new crime.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I offered this book to Five Star just when I was starting the Anita Ray series, and the editor wanted me to focus on one series or the other. I held back the Mellingham book and focused on Anita's adventures. But the story about Joe's family kept coming back to me, so I decided to publish it myself--this is my first self-publishing effort.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A first draft usually takes me three to six months. I write about 1500 words a day but I then do a lot of editing before I feel I have anything that is strong enough to consider a "first draft." And then the real editing begins. I usually do at least 6 or 7 drafts after that.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My books are like some of the traditional British mysteries and perhaps some of Margaret Maron's work.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

In addition to the reader who was insistent on knowing about Joe's family, Joe himself pushed me to write this book. I wanted to know more about him and his family, about how he grew up and what his siblings were like. I kept notes on some of the comments I'd made about him and his family throughout the five other books, and there were enough loose ends there to suggest I had ideas I could easily develop. The inspiration, I think, really came from writing about Joe for so many years. (When I first wrote this last sentence, I wrote, "came from working with Joe." I guess that's how I feel about it. He's my co-writer in all of this.)

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

When ethnic groups come to the United States they are safe to be who they are, to preserve the parts of their culture that matter most to them. In some cases the traditional culture is better preserved in the United States than in the home countries. But when people within an ethnic group begin to move outside, their choices tend to be consistent across their own culture. That was something I wanted to explore. I also wanted to look at how different relatives handle the same loss over time.

One of the comments I made about Joe at a talk drew a very strong response from the audience, and if I'd had a thousand copies of the book I could have sold every one of them in a nanosecond. I described Joe as a chief of police and a very decent guy. When I began writing I didn't feel I had to make him the typical protagonist who is forever struggling with alcohol, depression, a conveniently flexible interpretation of the law, and the rest of the flaws writers have given their characters. I felt he could be a good cop and a good protagonist and a good man. Part of this was because I was bored with the predictable cops and detectives I came across in crime fiction, and I wanted something different. I wanted a sense of realism in my stories. And I do think Joe is realistic. In my other life working in a social service agency I have encountered several police chiefs and police officers who are like Joe--decent people doing a difficult job with kindness and firmness and without all the literary flaws.

The best part of doing something like this blog tour is the unexpected turns in the process. Until I came across the last question I'd forgotten about the way people responded to my casual remark that I wanted to write about a policeman who was a decent guy and not an alcoholic or anything else. It reminds me of how much I enjoyed writing about Joe even when I was struggling to get something in the story to work.

And the other best part is finding out how my fellow writers will answer the same questions. Next week you can follow Skye Alexander, Rae Francoeur, and Kathleen Valentine.

Skye Alexander is the author of more than thirty fiction and nonfiction books.

Rae Padilla Francoeur's memoir Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair was published by Seal Press in 2010. She's working on a new memoir, "Partial Recall," while operating her arts and nonprofit creative marketing business New Arts Collaborative and publishing weekly book reviews.

Kathleen Valentine is the author of over ten books including fiction, knitting, and a cookbook/memoir about growing up Pennsylvania Dutch. Her fiction has been number 1 in Amazon's Horror category.

Kathleen is also the designer of my cover for Last Call for Justice.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guest Post: Edith Maxwell, on Learning to Write

Today my guest is Edith Maxwell. I've known Edith the early 1990s when she joined a writers' group in my home. I loved learning about her varied interests, and now I get to read about some of them in her novels. Her first book appeared this year, and brings together several of her interests.


I’m so pleased to be a guest on Susan’s blog today.

I just spent three days alone on Cape Cod on a solo writing retreat, and am extremely happy to report that I cranked out more than 15,000 words on my work-in-progress, the second book in my Local Foods Mystery series. This is the fourth book of mystery fiction I have written. It’s getting easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. But I do like to think that my writing gets better with each book, and I wanted to share the story of when I started writing book-length fiction.

Almost twenty years ago my younger son went off to kindergarten. I was home with my boys at the time, running a small organic farm, teaching independent prepared childbirth classes, and doing some free-lance editing. For the first time since my older son was born, I had every morning to myself.

I loved reading traditional mysteries and spent many happy hours with Sue Grafton, Susan Wittig Albert, Katherine Hall Page, Sara Paretsky, and more. So I decided to see if I could write one myself. I knew the world of farming very well by then and created a geek -turned-organic farmer named Cameron Flaherty. She found a body in her hoophouse and we went from there.

Let me clarify right now that I had never studied creative writing. I’d been writing since I was a child but had NO formal instruction in writing fiction. I didn’t know anything about point of view, avoiding adverbs, writing suspense, bringing setting and environment in as an intimate part of the story. Nothing, even though I had a PhD in linguistics and had written news stories, academic articles, fun essays.

After a few months, my neighbor across the street, also a budding writer, suggested in casual conversation that I might benefit from attending a writing class that several of her friends were part of. This was the group that Susan still conducts in her home all these years later.

I contacted Susan and submitted a couple of creative non-fiction essays I had written for a local paper. I guess they were good enough for me to make the cut. I started riding down to Beverly with others in the group every Wednesday evening to read scenes to the class.

Man, did I learn fast how much I had to learn! I basically rewrote everything I had written up to that point, which was about 70 pages. And then I went from there. We followed each others’ progress and offered critiques. I learned not only how to write better, bit by bit, but also how to offer constructive criticism. And I especially looked forward to those moments when Susan would say, “Now that’s very nice.” Those comments weren’t thrown out with abandon—you had to earn them.

I didn’t quite finish the book before the farming season started up again. Since that time I have resumed a regular day job, gotten divorced, discovered Sisters in Crime, had several short stories published, and taken my share of writing workshops. I have one book out (Speaking of Murder, under the pen name Tace Baker) and a three-book contract for that very same organic farming story I started so long ago, although I rerewrote it all from scratch, retaining only the world I had created and adding a Locavore Club.

I owe so much to Susan and her expert and gentle teaching. I’m really pleased to see the success of her Anita Ray series as well as the publication of another Joe Silva book, a series I still think is one of the best I have read. Thanks, Susan!

Tace Baker, the pen name of author Edith Maxwell, is the author of Speaking of Murder (Barking Rain Press) featuring Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau. Edith holds a PhD in linguistics and is a member of Amesbury Monthly Meeting of Friends. 

Edith also writes the Local Foods Mysteries.  A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die introduces organic farmer Cam Flaherty and a Locavore Club (Kensington Publishing, May 2013). 

A mother and technical writer, Edith is a fourth-generation Californian but lives north of Boston in an antique house with her beau and three cats.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Quantum Leap

On Saturday afternoon, yesterday, I moderated a panel on self-publishing. This is no longer quite the novel topic it once was. About five or six years ago I moderated a panel on publishing that morphed into one about self-publishing because one of the writers had done both commercial and self-publishing. We had about ten people in the audience. Two and a half years ago we put together a panel on self-publishing and drew about fifteen people. Those in the audience asked a lot of questions and the discussion was mild and easy going. Fast forward to yesterday.

Yesterday six writers showed up for their panel, and we waited for everyone to get settled. By the time we began--I was moderating--over 40 people were in the audience. That number grew to over 60 people. What happened in the last two and a half years? The word  about self-publishing spread and people began to understand what was possible. So many companies have jumped into this world with various levels of service that it would be hard for anyone not to find a resource for publishing their own work--in paper, in audio, in eBook format.

The writers on the panel had a wide range of experiences and were willing to share generously. They talked about their first efforts, and the high costs of not knowing the "system," and then talked about their most recent efforts and the almost nonexistent costs after learning how to do much by themselves. Another talked about the doors that opened to advocate for important causes, and another talked about the opportunity to put a personal experience into print. One writer wowed the audience with her own success--30,000 copies of one title sold in the last year (and her new car, paid for with cash). Another talked about her several books that reflected a life of both tragedy and triumph in working for justice for others. The last panelist described a new profession that allows him to work at home on others' writing projects while creating his own books. The panelists were varied and interesting and enthusiastic and generous.

There were so many questions from the audience that I, as moderator, could not keep up. Every time one question was answered, another ten hands went up. We could have stayed there for another four hours answering questions. People came with lists of questions about the process in general and their own works in particular; some came with their own self-published books and suggestions about what companies to work with. Most people were clear about learning quickly from any missteps and moving on to the next project.

When asked about the advantages, every writer--on the panel or in the audience--echoed the idea of control and time. Writers wanted to control their own work and they didn't want to wait months and years to see a book make it into print.

No one said he or she wouldn't do it again, and no one discouraged anyone else from giving it a try. We talked about the challenges in publishing something without assistance such as proofreading, publishing color drawings with text, copyright, business choices such as iUniverse or CreateSpace, POD and eBook formats. It was one of the most stimulating and hands-on panels I have ever participated in.

The big question for some of us was, how did so many people who were interested in this new world of publishing find out about the panel? The panelists did their job before Saturday. Every one of them posted the announcement somewhere--Facebook, a local website (Good Morning Gloucester), blogs; and it was twice in our local newspaper.

Yes, it is indeed a new world. And, to my surprise, I'm not the last one to enter it. Last month (which was only last week) I posted my new Mellinghan/Joe Silva mystery for Kindle. Last Call for Justice is on sale now.

The panelists are a group of Cape Ann writers and I hope you'll take the time to look at their work. You have lots of good reading ahead of you if you do.

Margery Leach
E.J. Lefavour
Thomas Hauck
David Simmons
Kathleen Valentine
Susan Wadia-Ellis

Thursday, November 29, 2012

At the Crossroads

Anyone who has been published by a traditional publishing house may feel ambivalent about leaving that world and moving into the self-publishing world. We think we're giving up a lot of commercial support, along with the prestige of having a publisher invest their money in our work. But the world of the writer is pretty confused right now, and it's hard to see the future.

I've had six novels and one nonfiction book published by traditional publishers as well as numerous articles and short stories, but I've also written some books that no one is interested in despite agents' best efforts. So what do I do with them? In past decades the writer would have put them back on the shelf (and it was indeed a shelf, long before computers) and moved on to the next writing project. But today we can do something about all those manuscripts languishing unread. We can send them out into the world on our own. We can be our own publishers. We don't have to get permission or approval from anyone else. This may not be a good thing (every writer has been spared embarrassment by a careful editor) but it is now the reality.

On Saturday afternoon, December 1, I'm going to facilitate an afternoon discussion about self-publishing with six writers, some of whom have been wildly successful. Many writers are happy with the attention of a small publisher who promises to sell two thousand copies. How would you feel about a writer who sells that many books in a month on her own? I'm going to find out on Saturday.

This is also an unplanned opportunity for me to announce that I too have taken the plunge. On this past weekend I posted my sixth Joe Silva as an eBook, a book that I never expected to do anything with when I began writing a mystery series set in India. I've published two books featuring Anita Ray, but I haven't forgotten Joe.

The sixth Joe Silva was hard to put aside because I finally take Joe (and Gwen) to visit his family. During a family reunion his ailing and aged father has put together, Joe comes face to face with an unrecognized crime from his younger days, and a new crime triggered by that confrontation.

I've learned how to post the mss, how to get a good cover (buy it from a good designer), and now I'm going to learn how to promote and sell the book.

And yes, I'm planning on taking notes and will share them.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Holiday Rest

This is the time of year when all of us are supposed to be stretched to the max, worn to a frazzle, fried, tired to a farethewell. You can add your favorite cliche here because being tired out during the holiday season is itself a cliche. As a writer I work hard to avoid cliches, and I'm working hard to avoid this one.

I sent off a mss to an editor a couple of weeks ago, and now all I can do is wait. All writers go through this, and hard as it is, it is also a great opportunity. This is the time when we are free to daydream all the time, when we begin work on our next project, long or short, fiction or nonfiction. For me that project is another novel but I'm also using the rest period to participate in a holiday art exhibit with the Rocky Neck Art Colony. This is such a great change of pace for me that I have come to treasure the time when I can look at the topics that interest me--India, people, streetscapes--with an entirely different perspective.

The Winter Show 2012 will also include a number of opportunities for artists and others to get together and talk about their work, among many topics, and enjoy the season. The show is being held at the Cultural Center on Wonson Street, Gloucester. If you're in the area, drop by and let all those cliches about the holiday season fade away.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why I Love September

A friend of mine has been teaching at various colleges ever since she received her graduate degree. When we talk about other careers we might have tried instead of teaching (for her) and freelance writing and editing (for me), she invariably remarks that she would find it hard to give up her summer months for a twelve-month-a-year job. I understand but I never think about those summer months. Still, I realized recently (actually Labor Day weekend), that I still think the year begins with the day after Labor Day. That was when school started (back in the dark ages), and the two or three weeks just preceding Labor Day included a lot of preparation for the change in activity.

I still think that way. This is fitting. September is, after all, National Preparedness Month. (I'll bet you didn't know that.) While others may start thinking about their New Year's Resolutions right after Christmas, I am blessedly free of that impulse.

September is when I consider what I want to accomplish during the coming months and get my plan under way. I clean out closets, go through stacks of book, find more things to set aside for the local charity thrift shop, and in general act like a big change is coming.

This year, in addition to tidying up the closets, I have tidied up my blog, attaching it more or less tightly to my web page. My web maven, a wonderful writer as well as the only woman I know who understands my computer blind spots, Kathleen Valentine, did the job, and I now feel very organized. It won't last but for the moment it feels good.

I've made a list of stories to finish and novel ideas I want to flesh out; I hope to begin one of them soon, when I get my current project into the mail.  Part of this planning comes out of my love of lists--things to do, books to read, little tasks to complete. Crossing things off those lists makes me feel enormously satisfied. And since these lists only contain things I want to do, I never experience wholesale failure, which is usually the case with New Year's Eve resolutions. For me, September is definitely a time of new beginnings.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Never Too Old for Surprises

Saturday, September 15, 2012

By the time you reach your fifties and sixties you think you know yourself pretty well. You've been through the crises of growing up, starting a life, managing a career, getting along with friends and family and co-workers. You've survived a few tragedies and disappointments, and learned to live life day by day. You think you know how you'll react when the end point comes. I cared for my mother and younger brother. I thought I knew how to listen to the patient, and how I felt about end of life care. I was wrong.

Two or three months ago our dog, a shelter Lab mix, started losing weight. He'd been my mother's dog, and we brought him home to live with us after she died. The cat refused to have anything to do with him, but he settled in. He never had any medical issues until this spring and summer, when he started losing weight and developed diarrhea.

Right now I have a kitchen table cluttered with pill vials--red, blue, green plastic bottles, a plastic bag with packets of powders, and a box of capsules (this doesn't include the other pills we returned for a different dose), and cans of special diet food--none of which we could get down him for more than a few days at a time. He's had an ultrasound, an internal exam, an x-ray, and numerous visits to the vet. He would have started on homeopathic treatments this week if his body hadn't made it clear that no more effort should be made. He can't get to his feet on his own, can't eat, and can barely drink water. His body has stopped shedding--gone are the clumps of black hair I find whenever I vacuum. He also smells different.

As I look back I'm surprised how many times I was willing to try just one more visit, one more possible treatment, one more test. The ultrasound terrified Rob, and why not? He was held down on a table while a stranger shaved part of his body and then ran a cold piece of metal and plastic over his bare skin. He had an x-ray. Both tests showed exactly nothing. He had no tumors, no noticeable cancer, no unexpected growths or decay. He had arthritis in his spine and hips, but we already knew that.

Rob is going to the vet's this afternoon for the last time. And I am going to spend the rest of the weekend (and longer) wondering what is it about a pet that pushed me to try three doctors and scads of medicine when it was obvious where the dog was headed. I wonder if it's because he can't speak. He can't tell me where he thinks he's going (and sometimes as I watch him standing on the sidewalk, I'm not sure he has any idea where he's going or wants to go). I wonder if it's because he seems so helpless that I'm driven to help more. We had no diagnosis because we didn't know what was happening to him; the various tests turned up nothing. The observation that he's old (13) and his body has decided it's time to quit is too simple and too non-medical. What was the trigger that told his body to quit?

Two or three weeks ago I sat on the floor beside him and was surprised to find myself starting to cry. Even if I couldn't admit it to myself, I knew.

It rained this morning when we got him outside for a short walk, but that didn't seem to bother him. Usually he dislikes the rain. He also dislikes the ocean, which is odd for a water dog. He wandered along his usual route, seemed to forget where he was going, turned around, wandered some more, which is when we brought him home. He's ready, and he's probably been ready for weeks.

Pets teach us many things--unconditional love is the one people usually cite. But Rob taught me something about myself. He didn't want treatment, and I had trouble catching on to that. He only wanted to lie on the grass in the backyard and watch the squirrels and rabbits and birds pass by. That's another lesson to remember.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Naming Your Characters

Starting out on a new novel or short story is exciting for me, with that sense of promise of interesting events and discoveries about characters. The first character, usually the mover of the story, appears well developed and named. I may not know this character well, but I can already see a form and personality. And, most important for this discussion, I don't have to work at choosing a name. Finding names for other characters is much harder.

Characters are not all the same, and their names shouldn't be either. I keep a list of characters as they appear and are named, to avoid basic pitfalls. First, I don't want all or many of the names beginning with the same letter. I did this in one mss and it lent a certain poetic quality to the story--that annoying dum de dum de dum de dum. Keeping a list of names prevent me from ending up with a list of characters like this: Paul, Pam, Priscilla, Peter. Second, the names shouldn't be too similar. It's confusing, for example, to read about Sandy talking to Randy about Mandy.

Third, the names of characters should reflect the culture of the story as well as the real world. If the story I'm working on, for instance, is set in South Philadelphia, or Boston's North End, the reader should encounter a lot of Italian names at least for the background characters, such as the man running the corner convenience store or bakery. If the story is set in parts of central Canada, the reader will expect one or more eastern European surnames.

Historical novels pose other challenges. During the 1940s girls were given what we now regard as common names--Ann, Carol, Catherine, Deborah, Linda. Today the names are more exotic--Olivia, Ryan, Shayla, Taylor. If your story is set in the 1700s, many of the names will be biblical--Ezekial, Jeremiah, Sarah (also a perennial favorite, along with Elizabeth).

Fourth, if you have inadvertently chosen the surname of a famous historical person, change it. If you have not inadvertently chosen that name, take a look at the character and ask yourself if your character reflects that person in a responsible way. Books live on after us, and whatever we think we're experimenting with can turn out to be the joke that falls flat at the dinner party. If you want to offer a commentary on a particular public figure, write an essay.

I once used the name Muir for a character intentionally because I have met a number of people named Muir and I felt the character was the kind of person who could have followed in the extended family lines of John Muir. I reread each passage in which the character appeared in order to be certain I had not insulted anyone with that name. In the end I kept the character's name. I also once inadvertently named a character after a famous baseball manager and when I realized that, I changed it. (This is what comes from not following sports closely, but hearing it only as background noise.) The character could perform his role in the story with any number of surnames.

Fifth, no matter what name I choose, if it looks at all familiar, and sometimes even if it doesn't, I check it in a phone book or on line. I also check the names with a google search. Someone somewhere is liable to have a name some writer invented for a novel, and I recognize that I can't guard against every eventuality, but it is important to make a sincere effort to avoid using the name of a real person.

Last, once you have settled on a character's name, live with it. You cannot change this in the middle of the story, or when you're revising for the last time. That is not the time to decide you've always liked the name Marylynne better than Eloise. Writers choose names because each one seems to fit the character, and to change the name means changing the personality of that character after it's already established. If you really want to do that, it's time to start writing another story, with a different character carrying your new favorite name.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Storytelling in an Age of Information

Some years ago my father told me a story. I asked him why someone didn't cry at a funeral we had attended. He replied with this story. A farm woman living out in the west came back from a trip to town to find her family dead--her children in the house, her husband outside. She could do nothing but bury them, and she did so, working all day. When she went into the barn she found the cow dead. At the sight of the poor dumb animal, she broke down and cried and cried. He ended this story with the explanation that "sometimes it's easier to cry over something small than something big."

Someone else might interpret this story differently. Perhaps the woman just needed that one more little push to break open her stoicism. Or perhaps she saw her last chance of survival dead on the barn floor. Or perhaps she was physically exhausted and tears were the result. One interpretation isn't right and the others wrong. The point of the story isn't my father's explanation or anyone else's. The point of the story is the way it stimulates each listener to think about why a farm woman would react as she did. The story pushes us to grow by thinking and considering the life of another.

I began to think about this recently while reading an essay by Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov" (1933) in which the author laments the decline in the art of story telling. Our world is awash in information, he points out, which is distinct from and, perhaps, antithetical to storytelling. The essay is thoughtful and provocative.

But the most intriguing part for me is a story he relates from Herodotus's Histories. Herodotus tells the story of the Egyptian king Psammenitus, who was defeated by the Persian king Cambyses, who wanted to humiliate his rival. He forced Psammenitus to watch as his son and daughter were paraded among the prisoners on their way to be executed or enslaved. Psammenitus stood stoically by, showing no emotion. When he saw an old man who had been one of his servants paraded by, the defeated king broke into loud mourning. Readers over the centuries have offered a variety of explanations for the king's behavior.

I don't think my father knew his story went all the way back to the Greeks. I certainly didn't. He had always been one to tell stories--sitting around the dinner table in the evening, among friends, or to his children when the time seemed right. I used to think the greatest compliment he ever paid me was right after I had told the family a story. I thought he would comment on how curious the behavior was of the people in the story, but instead he said, "That's a good story."

In some cultures people don't confront each other when something has gone wrong between them--they tell a story. And they do this for a very good reason. In India, life is crowded. No one can afford to be in conflict with others all the time, but each one needs a way to assert himself or herself. A story opens the heart and the mind, and nudges the listener to reconsider behavior.

My father belonged to a generation long before television, and even regular radio nights. His family sat around telling stories and jokes in the evening. His greatest gift was teaching me to tell stories, passing on a tradition that gave people pleasure but also gave them something more--a chance to learn and to glean wisdom from hearing about others and their circumstances.

When writers talk about trying to tell a good story, this is partly what they mean. There is no one interpretation, only an experience captured that is true to life and to human feeling. We are awash in information, as Benjamin so unhappily declares, and most of it forgettable the minute we hear it. What we really need is to be enveloped in stories, overheard experiences that can make us larger than we are and more able to live in the world.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Working Vacation

I'm getting ready to go on vacation next week, to visit friends in Seattle. This brings me face to face with the usual dilemma of the traveler--what to take? But I'm not talking about clothes; I'm talking about mss to work on and books to read. I'm taking my computer and my camera. The camera won't be a problem, but the computer will call to me all day long and into the night if I don't put something on it. The question is what?

My choices are simple--a short story that is just in the idea stage, and a mystery novel that is more than three-quarters finished. I have a nice neat copy just waiting to be covered with ink, making deletions and adding new dialogue and descriptions, filling all the white space not already covered with type. 

And then there's the question of just how much time a guest can spend on her own work when she's supposed to be visiting with her hosts. My friends have a house in the Okanogan Valley, and "the ranch" as some of us call it always seems to need a bit of work, putting up blinds, putting in plants, fixing other odds and ends. Fortunately, they don't seem to need me for that, though I'm pretty good at pulling up weeds. My friends don't ask and they don't seem to notice how much time I spend staring at my computer, or working on hard copy. No one asks what I'm doing, or tries to read over my shoulder. (We have such good manners.) Am I being a bad guest?

I'm taking a few books with me, of course, and I never worry about that. My friends are great readers and I can count on time every evening to sit down with a book and read. The high country has deep quiet, a wonderful silence that is hard to find where I live, on a somewhat busy street, and I love to sit and read with only the sound of the river nearby or a light breeze passing among the tree branches. That's a real vacation.

How much work do you take with you on a vacation? Do you apologize for drifting off to work? Do your friends expect it?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Revising Old Work

This essay was first posted on Author Expressions, the blog for Five Star authors, on May 4. Some of the comments I've received from fellow writers have prompted me to reprint it here. 

Every once in a while I find myself with enough time to work on something, before I start the next novel in one of my series. This is when I usually pull out an unfinished manuscript from the lower desk drawer and try to revise. Sometimes this is successful, but I’ve learned a few lessons about how to do this. Right now I’m working on a Joe Silva mystery that I set aside some years ago, and I’m keeping those lessons in mind.

First, the person you are now is not the person you were then. You were a different person when you wrote the story the first time. If you don’t like the story, put it back in the drawer, or close out the file, and just leave it. This is not the kind of project you can bring “up to date.” If you feel so different from the work, don’t revise it; start over on something entirely new.

Second, if you read carefully you will find what made you put the work aside in the first place, and if that’s something you can fix, work on that. Did one of the characters fall flat on the page? Did the plot feel like a piece of swiss cheese? Some problems might be too big to fix but discovering them will help you in your current work. This is an opportunity to see how you’ve grown or changed as a writer.

Third, notice the language. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised at the little verbal tics that managed to survive through all that earlier editing—a love of certain phrases such as examples always coming in units of three, longer sentences when the story is getting excited in stead of shorter ones to indicate rising tension, characters’ names all beginning with the same letter, weather patterns that don’t fit the story. Sometimes the problem is what one writer calls echoes—words repeated two or three times in a paragraph while the unconscious tries to figure out where it best suits the writing. These are the things will simply don’t see while writing and even while editing. But reading after time has passed shows us all the warts.

Fourth, if you find yourself disliking almost everything, then pull out that pen (I still edit on paper, though I compose on the computer) and draw a line through everything you dislike. You may have boxes taking out whole paragraphs, and lines crossing out entire pages. But look at what you have left. Do you have a perfect opening line buried deep within the third page? Do you have three paragraphs that on their own suggest an entirely new story, or a glimmer of what your old story might have been? Don’t be in a rush. Let the surviving sentences or paragraph cohere for a while, and then sit down with them and let your imagination give you a new story.

Right now I’m taking my own advice. I knew something wasn’t quite right about the Joe Silva book, and after thinking about a lot of other things for a few years it occurred to me what I could do about it. I’m rereading the novel to think about it with the slight changes in mind, to see if it will work, and then I’ll write. I’m not finding a lot of echoes (but a few) or any pages I’d like to excise, but I do find the occasional typo (to/two/too). And, to my relief, I find that I really like some of the characters, just as I did when I was writing the story the first time.

Susan Oleksiw is the author of the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva. Her Mellingham work in progress is about murder in Joe’s family. The second mystery in the Anita Ray series will be published in June. The Wrath of Shiva: An Anita Ray Mystery (Five Star/Gale/Cengage, June 2012).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Building a Narrative with Photos

Once in a while I come across an idea that I think would make a good photo exhibit, something that lets me add a brief narrative. Right now I’m working on an exhibit about Pongala, an annual festival held in South India, honoring Bhagavati, and drawing three million women to the city of Trivandrum, in Kerala, to make their offerings to the deity. This may not seem like it has much to do with writing, other than a few captions, but at the end of every exhibit, I realize that I’ve worked on the same challenges I face as a writer.

The most obvious challenge is to select from the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs to tell the story of Pongala. This should be easy—picking the ones that seem the best, whatever that is. At least that’s what I think when I start out. Am I looking for texture, design, drama? Or the ones I like the best? When I find myself with four photographs of the same scene, taken from different angles, I know it’s time to start over. And the first question is, what’s the point of the exhibit?

The point of the exhibit is to tell the story of Pongala and the women who participate in it. After that is settled in my mind, the rest of the task is easier. I look for photographs that each tell a part of the festival, the ninth day when Pongala itself is offered to Bhagavati and how this happens. I begin with the signs of the festival approaching, when piles and piles of clay pots appear on the city streets, waiting for buyers, along with the stacks of bricks and firewood the city puts out, at no charge, for the devotees.

The women arrive in droves on special buses and trains on the eighth day, and take over the city for the night. Most don’t stay in hotel rooms. They doss down on the sidewalk where they’ve set up their bricks and pot, or on the bare ground of a courtyard where a family has opened its gates to the visitors. For twenty-four hours, there are women everywhere.

On the morning of the ninth day, women are provided a free breakfast and later a midday meal of rice and vegetables, but the morning is taken over with cooking the offering. A lot more goes into this than I can say here, but the process of thinking about the Pongala as a narrative guides me in pulling out photographs that will tell a part of the story.

Building a novel is similar. The main question—what is the point?—has to be asked and answered. What is the main idea behind the story? What are the characters really up to in their lives? And then I choose the scenes, the select few that will carry the reader through these strangers’ lives. Some scenes might be wonderful to write, lots of fun to read, but not helpful in telling the larger story; I have to omit them. Just like a striking photograph that doesn’t elucidate Pongala and so is omitted, a scene must contribute to the story being told. No digressions allowed.

I’ve used the Pongala photo exhibit as a metaphor for constructing a novel, but perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps if I were less of a mystery writer I would see the exhibit differently. But I prefer narrative. I have a passion for seeing things move forward, take shape, and deliver a discovery—whether it’s a photo exhibit, a novel, a song. I like to begin in one place and end up in another.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tricking the Universe: Writers and Their Superstitions

A professor once told me, People with a lot of rituals in their lives get more out of life. I didn’t agree with him then because I was young, a graduate student, and longing for spontaneity. But I’m older now (much older) and I’m more receptive to his comment.

Writers have lots of rituals. We tend to be a superstitious bunch and we call our superstitions rituals or ways of organizing time, but, really, these are superstitions. Most writers know about the rabbit’s foot Hemingway carried in his pocket, or John Cheever’s daily ritual of dressing in a suit and going to the office with the other businessmen. But I only recently learned that Jack Kerouac lit a candle every day. A.S. Byatt writes surrounded by her special collections of paper weights, snail shells, and other things; and Isabel Allende begins each book on the same day, January 8, because that’s when she began her incredibly successful first novel The House of Spirits. Edith Sitwell began her writing day by lying in a coffin, and Carson McCullers donned her lucky sweater whenever she wrote. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer. Alexander Dumas pere used different colored paper depending on the genre—blue for fiction, pink for nonfiction, and yellow for poetry. (I don’t know about the yellow, but I think he’s right about the colors for fiction and nonfiction, and I know there’s scientific backup for this—somewhere.)

I am not immune to this need to trick the Universe into being the wind at my back. I like to clear my desk before I begin a new work of fiction or nonfiction—tidy things up, file papers, finish lingering correspondence, pay all the bills I can find. I rearrange (by half an inch or so) the artifacts from India I keep on shelves nearby.

Part of this is procrastination, part is liking to see a clear path ahead for at least a few days, and part is trying to convince the universe that I’m here and I’m ready. At the end of a project I like to do a general cleaning of desk and drawers and files, even if they have nothing to do with the writing project. (You’d think my little home would be tidy and excessively neat, but you’d be wrong.) I think this is a way of getting rid of those dark spirits that hang around a story just waiting to see it go off a cliff. Add to this the need to write with only certain kinds of pens, the need to use only certain notebooks when I’m traveling and taking notes, and the need to structure time for other tasks in certain ways and you begin to wonder how I or any other writer can ever get anything done.

Do you have tools that seem to make your work flow better? Are there rituals or practices you rely on to get your words on paper? Let me know and I’ll add them to my growing list of what writers need to do their work.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Getting to Know Your Characters

Robert Frost wrote in the introduction to his Collected Poems (1939), “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” This doesn’t mean writers should be producing tear-jerkers. I take it to mean that the writer must know her characters, and this is the hardest part of writing for many.

Some writers rely on the standard character’s biography, creating an entire back story of education, family structure, coming of age experiences, and more. Some of this is very useful, but for me this kind of writing doesn’t get at who this character really is.

One of the most successful approaches for me is asking the character how he or she feels about a current social situation or crisis. How does she feel about it, and why? This is where I just start writing and wait to see what comes out. If I’m trying to discover a character who completed school some years ago, I might find myself writing about where she chose to sit in the classroom and why. Was she a good student but shy, so she stayed away from the front row, or was he someone who’d had a run-in with the professor and felt an ethical revulsion for him, so sat in the back of the room. Letting the character ruminate on these experiences tells me far more than a biography, no matter how long.

I also like to know why my characters do things. If one character has a hobby and practices it regularly, I want to know why. What is the character thinking while working on knitting or cooking or gardening or anything else? We are drawn to different things, and I like to hear the reasons for our passions. If someone is willing to spend hours every week on something for which he or she may or may not be paid, I want to know why. Our reasons run deeper than many of us realize, and this is where a character ruminating can generate fascinating revelations that deepen a story and even shape it.

In the quote above, Robert Frost was talking about the essential point. We care about those we know and understand. And that means more than height, marital status, number of siblings, the way we drink our coffee. It means all those things we know about our oldest and dearest friends from listening and sharing over the years. Only for writers, we have to get to all that listening and sharing in a matter of weeks. We have to let our characters talk, and then we and the readers will know them and care what happens in their stories.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Closing the Circle

(This post was originally published on Author Expressions on February 3, but I felt it was important enough for what I have been writing lately to reprint it here with a couple of photos taken in 1976. In the photo on the left, Lakshmee has set up her images in her family temple in her compound; she gave me the larger oil lamp and the water pot, both older pieces. In the photo at right, Lakshmee stands in front of her front door.)

Three weeks in India is barely enough time for me to get settled, unpack and get in touch with friends, but that was all I had. It was easy for me to do nothing but read, write, visit with friends, and think about where to have lunch or dinner. But I had one other task to attend to.

For over thirty-years I had the friendship of a woman who worked for me and my husband when we first lived there, and in her later years we became her main support, since she was by now a widow as well as childless. Being old and poor in India is not a good prospect, and although Lakshmee worked into her eighties in various capacities (selling wood which she stored in her house), she clearly was in decline. She died in September after an operation for a badly broken leg.

I knew this through emails, and sent money when asked and followed her medical care as well as one can from the other side of the world. When I arrived in India, I went to see one of her former employers who had been helping in her care and passing along information to me. To my surprise, Lakshmee had left something for me with one of her doctors.

The Triveni Nursing Home is an ayurvedic hospital where Lakshmee often went when she felt unwell, or, in my view, lonely and sad, and they always took her in, even if she showed no signs of having any money. I had told them I would cover her costs and they never seemed to worry about it. When I went to visit them in January, Lakshmee’s doctor informed me that she had left her puja items for me. I promised to return to pick them up the following week because the doctor’s maidservant was cleaning them (those wails of pain you hear are antiques dealers groaning across the country).

When I first met Lakshmee she was a complete surprise—someone who opened up doors to another world, a world that a colleague once told me was often unavailable to others. And at the end she was a surprise too. The puja items weren’t the usual ones I had seen her use—the steel water pots, the little lamps, the wooden incense holders. These were heavy bronze pieces that must have belonged to her parents—a heavy oil lamp and a water pot, and a small incense holder and oil votive lamp. A friend looked them over and told me which ones were the oldest and how I could tell.

I brought them back and they now sit in my library. I don’t recall ever seeing Lakshmee use them, and it may be that at one point she realized they were too valuable to have around for anyone to see; she had only a padlock on her front door, and had been robbed at least once. She was cautious with things that mattered to her, and she put away her puja items. And now I have them, an unexpected gift from someone who gave me so many over the years.

Lakshmee was, in the slang of the moment, the real deal, a traditional Nayar lady for whom the traditional culture was still more real that the modern world, and certainly made more sense. She had a clear and strong personality, and not surprisingly she shows up in some of my favorite and most vivid characters in the Anita Ray series. You’ll meet her in the next Anita Ray, coming in June 2012. If you want to know what Lakshmee was like, look for Gauri in The Wrath of Shiva. She turns the plot upside down, and then rescues it.