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.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Finding Our Stories

If you set a story in an exotic place, someone invariably will ask you why you chose it. I set a mystery series in South India, and I have lots of reasons to do so. There are the obvious ones and the not so obvious ones. I love India and have lived and traveled there. I know the country and some of the people, and I can work out a story in that setting. India is an exotic setting that attracts some readers who otherwise wouldn't read a mystery. Like me, they want to read about India from different perspectives, and a mystery novel is one of them. So, those are the general ones.

Lakshmee at her temple.
A very real and not so obvious reason is that I want to write about women, and in Kerala I meet a lot of women who tell me their stories. The women of Kerala continue a long and illustrious tradition of operatic tales of woe that have changed little over the centuries. They are found in the old literature as well as at today's kitchen table.

During my first visit, in 1976, I learned enough of the local language to be able to carry on simple conversations with most people. I certainly couldn't dissect a novel, but I could read and discuss the main newspaper articles, get around on buses without English language signs, and listen to tales of woe. If I sat down to have a bowl of fruit with a vendor at the beach, I heard all about her life. Each encounter like this can be considered nothing more than a pleasant interlude for a foreigner, or each one can be recast as the door into a story.

The first story came from Lakshmee, our maidservant, who told us tales about her family and everyone else's. These stories were never malicious or unkind, but often involved the final years of the British in India, the odd and hilarious ways Indians in other parts of India behaved (South Indian women are very liberated, and North Indian women must cover their faces if the father-in-law enters the room). Story: A devout worshiper of Shiva who performs puja twice a day continues to see the world through the perspective of the matrilineal system she has grown up with long after Western ways have been adopted.

Lakshmee & cousin at Kanya Kumari
I met her cousin, who was Catholic. The conversion of one branch of Lakshmee's family to Catholicism three generations earlier had opened an unbridgeable gap, but Lakshmee and her cousin found common ground in their declining years. Both women traveled with me to Kanya Kumari, where the confluence of three bodies of water is considered holy for Hindus. Both women sought to bathe in it, or at least sprinkle themselves with the water. Story: After three generations, two cousins of different faiths, one Hindu and the other Catholic, come together.

Muslim village woman
Kerala is home to every great world religion, including Islam. When I traveled into the hills one Sunday afternoon, I met two women out walking. One asked me to take her photograph. This angered her younger companion, who walked on, leaving her friend behind. The older woman talked to me at length about her family, not all of which I understood. Both the photograph and the conversation were unusual because she was Muslim, and Muslims are forbidden to have representational images. (Flora and script are acceptable.) Story: A woman who lives in a small, conservative village breaks the rules to talk to a stranger passing through.

Fisherwoman in the city
Because I often stay in a hotel on the beach, I meet a lot of fisherwomen. We see them in the city selling fish house to house, in the markets, and along the city and outer roads. If they have time, they will tell me their problems, ask me about mine (I try to offer something worth listening to), and sometimes ask for a photograph, though they don't seem to want a copy. 

The exception is a woman I met in a narrow lane in Trivandrum, who stopped me, posed for a photo, and then gave me her address. Story: A woman of strong will who has no time for the foolishness of foreign tourists goes out of her way to have her photo taken and to ensure she will get a copy.

Despite the differences in culture and history, women throughout the world are not themselves different. We live very similar lives, face the same challenges, and dream about the same things--a better life for ourselves and our families. In Kerala I listen to stories, offer what sympathy I can, and imagine plots rolling out for another book.