Monday, November 23, 2015

Crime Close By

I read a newspaper every day, scanning the headlines and picking out the stories that interest me. I shake my head at the misery people inflict on each other, and then turn the page. I couldn't do that this week.

About five years ago, an old Victorian mansion, long chopped up into apartments, was sold to a developer, who tore it down and built five McMansions. Buyers of the properties were required to sign a covenant prohibiting certain behaviors, such as parking a boat in the driveway, designed to maintain the value of the new homes.

The new houses came with side effects. For the first time neighbors had water in their cellars after it rained, the result of all that paving for the new street and driveways in the small development. A few neighbors also grumbled that even though the street was private and residents were expected to bring their trash to the sidewalk, the trash collectors still drove down the short street, our tax dollars at work. Other neighbors lost their sunny back yards, which were now cast in shadow most of the day.

This development is barely three houses away from me, just across a small one-way street. I walk past this cluster of new homes almost every day, and my husband passes it three times a day when he's out walking the dog. The houses are occupied by families with children of all ages. The lawns are well kept. And yet . . . And yet . . .

On Monday a man walked into the Beverly Police Department and announced he had just killed his wife. The police apparently, according to one news story, asked a few questions before heading out to the house. There they found his wife's body with no pulse but still warm. The EMTs managed to revive her enough to get a pulse and took her to the hospital, less than two miles away. She never regained consciousness and died on Friday. She was the mother of two young boys.

The woman had quit her job two years ago to stay home and write. She and her husband separated a year ago but had tried to reconcile in September of this year. She completed her first novel, published it with Amazon, and started her second book.

The published novel is titled The Price of Fame. On the cover is the picture of a woman lying face down, apparently after an assault, with her clothes fallen away. If I were writing this in a novel, I couldn't describe a murder and include that scene without a reader complaining, considering it contrived or worse. Again according to one news report, the police did not find signs of a struggle.

Since retiring I have kept up with some of my former colleagues and volunteer activities, including work on a committee to end domestic violence. We talk about warning signs and appropriate responses that won't make the home situation worse, or put the woman in danger.

On the quiet lane three houses from where I live, no one heard the man strangling his wife. No one knew she was in danger.

Over the years I have refused to read mysteries in which one woman after another is murdered or debased in the opening pages (or even later). I consider such fiction exploitive and repulsive. But what is the difference between one murder and thirty?

I sometimes wonder if writing crime fiction is a sign of my own callousness. I think I'm addressing issues of justice and the way life takes strange and startling turns and challenges us to face an ugly reality or our own weaknesses. Before I knew the woman down the street had died, I printed out a next-to-final draft of a new mystery novel. Here it sits on my desk, almost three hundred pages waiting for a final read-through. I am uncomfortably aware that my next reading will be different from my previous one. Beyond that I'm not sure what I think.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Unpacking the Conference

My email box fills up every few months with announcements of posts about conferences I might have missed—notes on panel discussions, awards announcements, and interviews. Since I attend only one conference a year, one held in my home state as well, I’m always curious about what happens elsewhere. I scan the posts looking for a few interesting tidbits and ideas for whatever I’m working on.

The New England Crime Bake, a mystery conference held annually in Dedham, MA, ended Sunday, November 8, and I’m now at home “unpacking” my conference experience. I was thinking about posting a summary of some of the panels I attended, and then quickly dropped the idea. For me, unpacking a conference in the days right after I get home means following up on conversations held over three days and two nights. I have lots to do this week, most of it by email.

Conferences are about readers meeting writers, writers meeting readers, and writers selling books. Crime Bake gives short story writers the same opportunity as novelists. Level Best Books held its annual book signing, and I was one of the writers included in Red Dawn, the last anthology by this group of editors. We had a long line of writers signing piles of books for readers. I have a chance this week to get two more signatures of writers who didn’t attend the conference but live in my area. 

I owe a list of books to a good friend and colleague who recently moved to Pennsylvania. We share an interest in the history of the genre and where it’s going. We talked about two nonfiction books he wasn’t familiar with, and I’m sending pub info.

Two colleagues asked me to work with them to put together a writers’ group for established writers, and that means we have to think hard about how to go about this. We don’t live near each other, but we can and do drive. Lots of planning ahead.

An agent interested in a new project gave me several suggestions for the (now considered) unfinished ms, and the revisions will be my focus for the next few weeks. I’ve made notes on what I want to change and add, and promised her a revised version.

It wouldn’t be a conference without meeting several writers whose books are unknown to me. I have a list of titles whose authors I enjoyed meeting. The bar, for this writer, is not a place to drink. It’s a place to meet other writers, and share information. In exchange for a list of mysteries from one author, I suggested a nonfiction book that would help with the research for a paranormal mystery series. (Who knew I could be useful in such an area?)

A colleague mentioned his wife’s new position, which including scouting people for work in India. I just happen to know a scientist in India who is between jobs. We’ll see what happens.

In several panels experts in various fields talked about the technical errors writers make (this is hardly news to me, since I know how ignorant I am in police procedure and hence let all the police work happen off-stage). I know this offends readers with expertise, but this is not the point of reading a novel, in my view. The technical information adds authenticity but shouldn’t overshadow the characters.

In the discussion about how to manage specialized information I would like to hear at least one expert admit that the science of policing is not the point of the story. If you want to know the rights and wrongs of city policing, read a manual. In some novels the writer is so busy showing off his or her special knowledge of legal and policing information that such information becomes the story, and the ostensible mystery devolves into nothing more than a clever anecdote. I appreciate the research, but it is not the story.

There is one experience from this conference that was totally unexpected. I met a journalist whose husband has studied Sanskrit. For the first time in my mystery writing career I didn’t feel like an oddball. Thank you, Debra.

Finally, a good conference gives participants things to think about for months to come. I keep a small notebook with me all the time and use it for anything that happens during the year, including conferences, so I can locate and revisit ideas easily. This conference almost filled my little notebook.

Crime Bake is a popular conference. The organizers made a decision early on to keep it small, and as a result registration fills up fast. If you’re thinking about joining next year, get on the mailing list and sign up early—while you can.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Re: Level Best Books and New Beginnings

I goofed when I originally send out the BSP on Level Best Books, so I've posted the correct link here.

This weekend is the annual Crime Bake conference in Dedham, MA. It's also a time of transition for the Level Best Books anthology. If you want to learn more about the changes, please visit the Five Star Authors Blog.