Monday, December 29, 2014

Bad Manners for Good Stories

Long before I was married my parents and I were having dinner in a cafe in Geneva. Across the room from us was a young couple. The husband had pushed his chair back from the table and held a newspaper opened in his lap. The woman with him gazed around the small room at the other diners. My mother leaned over to me and said, "They're married."

I supposed then she was commenting on how married people stop having a lot to say to each other over meals though they continue to love and support each other. But as I look back on that scene, still vivid, I wonder if the woman at the other table was a writer or an artist, someone who collected images for her artwork.

The advent of the cell phone and the consequent change in manners that allow people to stare at their phones while ignoring the person or persons sitting opposite them at a dining table has been a god-send for artists and writers, at least for this writer. Until recently it was considered rude to stare at strangers. It may still be considered rude, but the strangers don't know I'm staring at them because they're staring at their phones.

At a recent lunch in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, my husband contemplated his meal and his cell and I contemplated the other diners. Sometimes I go through the day collecting images of one item or another--rust spots on cards, trash blowing in a street, dog leashes, and the like. This time I collected images of men carrying trays. There are numerous ways to carry a tray--one-handed at an angle; two-handed at waist level; with arms extended and the tray at mid chest; two handed along the long side; two-handed almost at chin level, with the chin thrust forward; and tray held tight against the waist with the shoulders forward.

Equally interesting, to me, were three young women friends eating together. They might have been related because they had similar bone structures but I was caught by their hair. Some writers leave out physical description, or describe their characters in such similar, vague terms that no character is distinct from another. But these three women belonged in a story together. One had long, light brown wavy hair; the next had curly darker hair a little shorter; and the third had almost black hair with tight curls lying flat to her head. I could study each one because all three were staring at their cells.

Near me sat two women of a certain age with similar reddish hair but very different bone structures. One wore a great deal of makeup and the other wore none, and both women were doting on a little girl who must have been someone's granddaughter. A third woman, apparently the girl's mother, also had reddish hair but looked nothing like the other three. They all had cells.

Instead of bemoaning the creeping tendency of technology to disrupt personal interaction, I welcome cell phones in restaurants and other places for liberating me to stare at people to gather what I need for my characters and stories. I no longer have to stare surreptitiously, apologize, or pretend I didn't realize what I was doing. And on top of all that, I can write it down and no one notices.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A little nostalgia--very little

I buy a lot of books second hand, on the Internet or at yard sales or library sales. I don’t worry about the condition as long as all the pages are there. I was about to add “and as long as they are clean,” but that’s not entirely true.

Recently I was riveted by the entries in The Best American Crime Reporting 2007, edited by Linda Fairstein. After the first entry, by Tom Junod, about the deaths in nursing homes and hospitals after flooding from Hurricane Katrina, I told everyone about the injustice being done to the only two people indicted in the deaths of the elderly or disabled during the flood. As I read on, my respect and admiration grew. That’s when I noted that the dirt on the front cover probably could be washed off. I applied a warm sponge, and washed the cover. I did this a couple of times.

I’m not a clean freak, but I do love books. Once upon a time writing and reading meant not only holding an object in your hands but also caring for it. We taped a small tear in a dust jacket, glued in pages that had fallen out from repeated use, washed covers of paperbacks or hard covers of dictionaries. Now we just read a forever perfect copy on the computer.

For those of a certain age, learning how to iron the pages of your manuscript so you could send it out repeatedly without retyping it was an important step in your career. If a mss was typed perfectly, without a single typo, misaligned page, or missing header, you wanted to keep it and use it as many times as possible. Ironing pages was a necessary skill.

I once received in the mail the return of a mss I was confident would be accepted for publication. All the pages curled up in the lower right-hand corner, a sure sign that several people had read it. But the thumb prints left on the paper meant I couldn’t reuse the front page. No amount of ironing could save the mss unless I could erase the prints.

Yes, those days are gone, and I’m just as glad as anyone else. But I wonder if we have lost something in not having to exercise special care with a book or manuscript.

Monday, December 8, 2014

When a story comes alive

One of the favorite discussions among writers on a mystery panel is the question of how we write. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you work out the details of the story beforehand, sketching out the details scene by scene, or do you begin writing and discover the story as you go along? We compare notes, laugh at each other's stumbling ways, and talk about revising and editing. This question seems to get at the core of how writers view creativity but for me there is another question, one that is equally if not more important. When does the story feel alive?

I don't know how to explain this question, or even the answer. Some writers will not even recognize it as a relevant question because the story is alive to them when they begin writing. By this question, however, I don't mean the coherence, atmosphere, or flow of the story. These are merely qualities of the "aliveness," and can exist independently of it.

The Mellingham mysteries featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva are traditional stories of small-town crime and detection. The first novel took several chapters and rewrites to cohere, but the third mystery came alive before I even started writing. I could barely keep up with it.

It took me several tries of mysteries set in India, and half a short story, before Anita Ray came alive to me. And since that short story she has been unfailingly consistent as a character, as has her Auntie Meena and their environment.

At present I'm working on a mystery about a woman living in a farm community. She is something of a mystic though she would never call herself that. The world she lives in, a rural backwater populated by people whose incomes are dependent on two or three jobs and small farms passed down through generations, is familiar to me. As I wrote, the story moved along as I wanted it to. But halfway through the first major revision, I found something more happening, and the story was alive. Felicity Obrien is real, and her world is real. In ways I don't quite understand this changes how the novel will develop. Felicity has taken over, and now I have to follow her.

This is an exciting moment for a writer. The development of the story seems less mechanical, the characters less created and more discovered. I've read and enjoyed plenty of stories that are competent, clever, and satisfying, but I also recognize that they are throughout only stories. And then there are those in which something more is happening. That's what I hope to achieve in my stories. Sometimes I think I do achieve it, and others I know I don't. Nevertheless, this quality of aliveness remains a clear if elusive goal for all of us who write, and a remarkable feeling when it is met.

 The setting of the mystery is a town I've called West Woodbury, where I set another, non-criminous story. "Love Takes a Detour" tells the story of a woman named Zellie who lives on a remote farm, an isolated life that satisfies her until an unexpected event reminds her of the world she left behind. Zellie is a swamp Yankee, a character that has all but faded from New England and current life. This story was alive and vivid from the moment I conceived it. As I write now about Felicity Obrien I feel the same quality of the richness of a real life, and I hope I will capture all of that for readers to enjoy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Why I Will Never Be a Food Writer

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to Madhur Jaffrey speak. Jaffrey is the well-known writer of Indian cookbooks, and her first, from 1973, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, is considered a classic among those of us who love Indian food. She had recently published her memoir, Climbing the
Mango Trees, and I was eager to hear her speak. Her talk covered stories from her book but one thing stood out. When she described her first taste of something, I could taste it too. Her descriptions of meals in her childhood home covered every aspect, from the smallest arrangement of eggs on a plate to the proper presentation of salt and jams. After reading her memoir I scurried to the kitchen to make one of her recipes. She is popular as a cookbook author partly because she understands how a western kitchen works, and what constitutes a meal in the West.

In my most recent Anita Ray mystery novel I thought about including a description of a favorite taste, or an experience of discovering a delicious food, but when I began to write I knew I would never be a food writer or critic. When I was a teenager I took a tour to Europe and one day, famished from walking all over Copenhagen alone and impatient for a dinner that was yet several hours away, I stopped at a small cafe and ordered a cup of tea and read the menu. The waiter brought bread and butter, and I took a piece, something akin to a baguette, and slathered on the butter. I had homemade butter as a child on a farm but this taste was entirely new. I can't describe it but I can describe the amusement the waiter exhibited when I showed up the next day, with a friend, and we ordered bread and butter. The taste has faded but the scene is vivid.

A few years ago I traveled to Kanya Kumari, at the southern tip of India, to be blessed by water where three oceans meet. This is a tourist site of long standing, with little glamour to be found anywhere. My two friends, both elderly Indian women who spoke little or no English, and I stopped at a cafe for lunch. Without them I wouldn't have dared eat anything prepared there, but Lakshmee insisted and we sat down. The waiter ignored me, gave menus to my friends, and proceeded to ask them for their order. Lakshmee was furious at my being ignored but I understood this was the silent protest of the Tamil sick of foreigners invading his land. He brought our dosas and chutney and to this day that is the best coconut chutney I have ever had. No other version has ever come close. The memory is almost--almost--overwhelmed by the story of the waiter.

As a writer I'm alert to the world around me, always ready to see an image that will enrich a story setting, or a line of dialogue that will nail a character perfectly. Fragrances capture me easily and immediately, but I cannot write of any of these without also telling the story of how they came to me. In her memoir, it's clear that the experience of the meals and food is the story of Madhur Jaffrey's life, as it can never be of mine. I will never be a food writer or critic but I will certainly have experiences around food that will enrich my fiction.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Perseverance, with an Example

Every writer, myself included, has given others some of the standard advice. Write what you know (or some version of that statement), and never give up. Keep going no matter the obstacles. Persevere, persevere, persevere. And every writer who has ever published anything will nod her head knowingly. On this wet and windy Monday morning I offer an example of that advice.

Dorothy Stephens is a freelance writer who published her first novel, for the YA audience, at the age of ninety. Someone who knows her has to tell you she's ninety because otherwise you wouldn't believe it. That aside, her novel, A Door Just Opened, is set in rural America in 1910. The story takes us into the life of thirteen-year-old Anna, who longs to escape the world of the farm and attend high school. But there is no money to send her to school, her mother needs her on the farm, and soon her older sister, Mary Ellen, brings a complication that threatens to sink the family. Based on a family story, the book was published by Fire and Ice, a young adult imprint of Melange Books, LLC.

I first met Dorothy through a friend, another writer, who steered me to Dorothy's memoir, Kwa Heri Means Goodbye: Memories of Kenya 1957-1959. The memoir was a finalist for the 1996 Bakeless Prize in Nonfiction, 1993, given by Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Dorothy's memoir is a reminder of how much the world has changed as well as how free we Americans once were when traveling abroad.

I'm writing about this here, today, not only because I admire Dorothy and enjoy her work but also as a reminder to me to look beyond immediate circumstances.

Over the last several weeks I have been dealing with a family illness, and as focused as I have been on this my mind has occasionally wandered into more selfish terrain, where I have the shocking, nearly debilitating thought that I will never write again, that I've lost my place in the pantheon of midlist writers, and, yes, that I'm drowning in melodrama.

I'm not terribly good at selfless acts, and I never fully ascribed to the idea that you "go where life takes you," as though I were in a canoe without a paddle--and without hands. But those moments pass, and at the end of it all, as things start to improve, I forget the selfish thoughts, congratulate the patient on such a strong recovery, and sit down at my desk, once again trying to figure out how to solve a murder I set up before I had a solution. Very short sighted of me, I know, but apparently typical.

Dorothy Stephens is a delightful person and an accomplished writer, and, at the very least, a sobering reminder of the importance of taking the long view and persevering all the way.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Resting" as Part of Writing and Editing

Writers share lots of practices and habits without thinking they have anything in common with each other. As practitioners of a solitary profession, we tend to think we’re entirely on our own. But we do share practices that help us develop and complete our work.

I’m a strong advocate of writing a fairly complete rough draft, working on that until it is nearly polished, and then setting it aside for one to three months, depending on the length of the work (a short story or novel, for example). I leave myself enough time to become “unfamiliar” with the work so that when I return to it I will read something with a fresh perspective, discover ideas I didn’t know I was including and characters who surprised me, and I will notice where the writing gets mushy and the story line is rushed. I will see the flaws, and I hope the occasional successful passage.

But what will I do during this waiting period? Sometimes I like to alternate between an Anita Ray story and a Joe Silva mystery. I could start another writing project, perhaps another novel, but that might interfere with my ability to return to the original mss, the one that is settling and aging nicely on the corner of my desk. I could work on book reviews or short blog posts, but I do that anyway throughout the week. I could begin another short story, something that won’t take the entire waiting time but enough of it. Or I could resurrect an earlier story started and abandoned. 

This time around I’m resurrecting a forgotten Anita Ray short story, one that I abandoned and forgot about. As I read it over I can see where I went wrong—three terrific murder suspects but no murder. Instead I originally wanted to concentrate on a different sort of crime, something akin to espionage, but that meant the story would meander for a while and lose its coherence. Perhaps the idea is better suited to a novel or novella rather than a short story. But now I want to use the setting and characters and set-up for a story, so I have begun reworking it. As I trim dialogue, insert a murder scene, and recast one or two characters, I find I have a much better, tighter story.

The story has been sitting forgotten for over two years, but the lovely thing about computers is that it’s still there, easily accessible and readable. I’ve been working on this story for a week now, rethinking and rewriting. Meanwhile, my unconscious has been sending me snippets of dialogue to incorporate into the “resting” novel when I return to it, and problems I had left unsolved or solved awkwardly now seem to have ready and elegant solutions.

The period of “resting” a story or novel is also a different way of working on them. By the end of the month I’ll have a reworked and nearly finished Anita Ray short story and be several steps ahead in completing the novel I set aside a few weeks ago.

John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction and other books on writing as well as several novels, once commented that novelists can be slow thinkers, slow to come to solutions, by which he meant writers should be willing to wait for the right solution to come along rather than jumping at the first idea they have. Don’t grab the first idea, the first twist. Let the story rest and see what rises to the surface over time. After a period of time away from the work, I find it easier to see what needs to be reworked and where I can strengthen the story.