Monday, April 28, 2014

My Writing Process--A Blog Tour

Rae Francoeur invited me to join this blog tour. You can read her entry at where you’ll find links to other entries.

I’ve written about my writing process so often, in various interviews, that much of what I have to say feels rote: I sit in a chair and write. As I read through Rae’s post, however, I realized that I do have a process that I barely think about. I too write in complete sentences. If I’m struggling with one, I sometimes turn to a pad of paper beside my computer and try out different forms of the sentence using a pen. I scratch out what I don’t like, try something different, add a word or phrase, and keep working till I get something that works. Sometimes the sentence changes dramatically, and sometimes I end up changing only a single phrase or word. I type this in and keep going.

I also care about vocabulary. In the middle of a sentence I will stop and check the dictionary, looking for a better word or checking out the definition of a well-known term, looking for a particular nuance. Perhaps this is procrastination, but I love spending time with the dictionary. I write popular fiction but I see no reason not to write the best English that I can. I don’t write to impress but I do want to be precise. This becomes especially important for me when I write about locations outside the United States. My current book, due out in May, is set in South India, a gorgeous part of the world that I want to convey accurately for the reader.

I care about paragraphing also. One sentence is not a paragraph, and neither are two sentences. The paragraph exists to enable the writer to develop and discuss a specific point, and doing away with paragraphs creates shallow stories. This in turn leads to shallow-thinking. I don’t like it as a reader and I don’t like it as a writer. I take the time to develop paragraphs in order to deepen the story and the reader’s understanding.

There is a trend now to using many short chapters in mystery novels. In some cases this works, but not in all. Chapters shape a story, cover particular periods in the arc, and telegraph to the reader where they are in its development. Long chapters do not put me off, but dozens of short ones do. The make the book feel choppy and needlessly like bolting along a bumpy road.

The emphasis on short chapters, plot over all else, means that I as a reader often get to the end of the story swiftly but the villain’s motives equally often turn out to be stupid, ludicrous, impossible, or still unknown. As a writer, when I set out to tell a story I like to think through why someone would do something instead of charging ahead with a plot and coming up with something at the end, to cover the bizarre and deadly behavior of one or two characters.

With this larger context for my writing process, I offer answers to the four questions that go along with this blog tour.

1.     What am I working on?

I’ve been revising a mystery novel for several weeks, trying to tighten the writing and the story. This is a stand-alone about a woman recently released from prison whose husband dies while she is away. The cause of death was given as a drug overdose but she knows that her husband never used drugs. She knew he was worried about something when he visited her a few times in prison before his death, but he never mentioned anything for fear of worrying her. This story is a lot harder edged than what I usually write, and I’ve been enjoying working on it.

2.     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I write two mystery series. The first features Chief of Police Joe Silva in the Mellingham series. This series is a standard cozy, set in New England and exploring life in a small coastal community. The second series features Indian American photographer Anita Ray who lives in India at her aunt’s tourist hotel. This series gives me the opportunity to explore questions of tradition and modernity, what happens to people who have grown up in a traditional culture who are suddenly and relentlessly faced with a fast, confusing modern world.

I like to use the mystery novel also to raise questions about justice and our perception of justice, of criminal behavior and social issues. Crime fiction is more than plot. This genre is still a form of the novel with room to explore ideas, to investigate assumptions and challenges to our way of looking at life.

I also occasionally write short fiction outside the crime genre. These are stories that usually have been brewing for some time and allow me to explore the lives of other people, usually in rural communities. I recently completed three stories in a collection I think of as Backwoods Stories, and hope to write a few more before looking for a publisher for them.

3.     Why do I write what I do?
I write the stories that come to me. Once in a while I’ll get an idea for a short story featuring Chief Joe Silva, and these are usually quick and easy to write. Joe discovers a crime, investigates, and catches the guilty party. They’re fun to write and, I hope, fun to read.

I don’t sit down and invent the stories on a blank page. Ideas come to me all the time, and I pick one to focus on. I keep notes on the others and sometimes return to one of them later. Once I’ve chosen an idea to focus on, I let the story develop as I begin writing. I’m a pantser, so I never try to work things out before I start writing. That would take the life and joy out of the story for me. I like the process of discovery as I write.

4.     How does your writing process work?

I write every day. I am at my desk every weekday at nine o’clock, and later on the weekends. I write every day, review what I’ve written, edit if I’m not composing, and revise, revise, revise. In the afternoon I may do more revision, read, write a blog post, like this one, answer emails and FB, or do other things that are related to the writing business. But the key to the whole thing is writing every day.

 To learn more about my books click on any of the books in the column on the left.

Next up is Edith Maxwell. I first met Edith when she joined a writers’ group I held in my home. She was interested in setting a story on an organic farm. She eventually set the story aside to change her day job, and returned to it years later. It is now a successful first novel in a new series. Edith is the author of two series, and writes from her home in Amesbury, MA. You can learn more about Edith and her books at

Friday, April 18, 2014

This is about a toaster

I started writing this several days ago, when I was lying in bed wondering why I hadn’t fallen asleep. The opening sentences I imagined seemed to work, I was pleased, and I fell asleep. When I woke up at my usual time, I’d forgotten the opening. But it doesn’t matter. This is really about a toaster.

Our toaster died a few weeks ago. It wasn’t a special toaster, and it wasn’t expensive when it was new. The toaster was a simple two-slice, pop-up GE toaster, steel body, plastic sides and lever. My husband’s friends pooled their meager funds and purchased the toaster as a wedding gift—in 1967. Yes, the toaster lasted for 47 years.

This household appliance didn’t simply stop working. As will happen with most of us when the time comes, the toaster broke down piece by piece. Instead of popping up automatically when the toast was done, it continued toasting. We knew the toast was ready when streams of smoke undulated upward. Fortunately, the lever still worked manually, better than it ever had before. When we hit the lever, the toast popped up and went into orbit, flying over the counter and the stove and landing on the floor, almost in the front hall. Like the toaster, I suppose I’ll disintegrate one part at a time and land at the doorway of another world, barely functioning.

Forty-seven years is a long time for anything. No other appliance in our home has lasted as long, and neither has much else. During all those years, we have lived in seven apartments (in five cities) and one house (in a sixth). We have owned six cars and several bicycles. (The motorcycle I had before we married doesn’t count.) We’ve had two cats and two dogs.

Most marriages don’t fare as well as our old toaster. The median duration of first marriages that end in divorce is 7.8 years for men and 7.9 years for women. (And no, I don’t know why women get an extra month or so of marriage. Are we reluctant to let go, even after the divorce decree?) But we’re quicker on the second marriage. The median duration of second marriages that end in divorce is 7.3 years for men and 6.8 years for women. (The second time around it’s the men who can’t let go.)

It gets worse when we look at the statistics for people who have been married for more than ten years. The percentage of married people who reach their 25th, 35th, and 50th anniversaries is 33%, 20%, and 5%, respectively. I’m saddened just looking at the figures.

I’m beginning to get a glimmer of where the idea of planned obsolescence came from. Manufacturers were obviously onto something before the US Census Bureau caught up with them. The men and women who design and make toasters, stoves, sofas, and all the rest of the stuff we fit into our homes knew before anyone else that marriages were getting shorter, so why make products meant to last? Advertisers are now telling people they should be replacing their mattresses and furniture every seven years.

This marketing scheme makes me wonder if changing your home furnishings so completely undermines the marriage by taking away whatever was stable and familiar, and replacing it with something new and, truly, unnecessary. Perhaps it is this practice that nudges couples toward divorce. Perhaps those who keep the old stuff fare better. When I take my daily walk I pass the detritus of this thinking—sofas that barely lasted three years and one child or one dog, bookcases that collapsed under the weight of packed shelves, old televisions bought only three years ago, and all sorts of odds and ends no one wants anymore.

I’m going to miss my toaster. It was a constant in my life, but we knew it wouldn’t last forever. We purchased a backup some years ago, knowing what was coming. That one was white plastic and barely got the job done. So, when the end came, we decided to splurge and bought a two-slice toaster designed for long slices of bread. This one is sturdy but mostly plastic. I won’t be around for another 47 years, but I do hope this is the last toaster I ever have to buy. At this point in my life, I don’t want to be reminded how easy it is to throw out the old and buy everything new. I don’t like contemplating my own mortality. I’ll stick to toasters.