Friday, December 30, 2016

Closing Out the Year 2016

At the end of every year I look forward to the opportunity to begin afresh. This is fairly typical of Americans, and probably of everyone. We like markers to tell us where something ends and something new begins. We like certainty. We like knowing. But the end of December is an arbitrary date, no matter how we justify it. Every culture finds significance in certain parts of the calendar, and we base our thinking on these artificial dates.

The people of Kerala have three New Years to celebrate and use as markers. Everyone in Kerala celebrates New Year's Eve on December 31. But Hindus also celebrate Vishu, which is the beginning of the harvest year and occurs in the month of Medam, which roughly corresponds with April. Everyone in Kerala celebrates Onam, which falls in the month of Chingam, which corresponds roughly with August/September. This lavish holiday celebrates the return of King Bali from the underworld, who visits to see that his people are happy.

I had expected to write a piece on setting and meeting expectations, and perhaps that is still a good idea. I began the year planning on finishing up certain manuscripts and publishing them, either with my regular publisher, Five Star/Gale, Cengage, or on my own. Some of my goals seemed perhaps too ambitious, but all of them were realistic in that I knew they were doable. I could write a certain number of words per day and complete the mss. But that, as it turns out, is not enough. My goals were tied to those of people I'd never heard of. 
I finished a Mellingham mystery, but on the day I sent it in to Five Star, word came down that Five Star was ending its mystery line. The publisher that had brought into the world two Mellingham mysteries and three Anita Ray mysteries, with another under contract, had decided to move on into another line. I wrote about that here, almost exactly a year ago, January 19, 2016.    
Let me say here and now firmly and clearly that I greatly admire and appreciate the decision by Five Star to honor their contracts. Days after I signed my first book contract, with G. K. Hall in 1985, the new owner, Macmillan, sent out notices to dozens (or more) authors that their contracts were being cancelled. And that practice is the norm. You can imagine the uproar. I'm grateful Five Star/Gale, Cengage didn't do the same. They published When Krishna Calls in August, as promised.

As a result of the change in direction at Five Star, two manuscripts sit almost finished (an Anita Ray mystery and an Anita Ray collection of stories). Why? Because there is little future for a series for which most of the rights are held by the author, who has already exercised them. In a few words, there's not much for someone else to buy. I will finish the mss, but there is no deadline to motivate me.

But there's another reason. I think we have to acknowledge when it's time to move on. I loved visiting Joe Silva and Mellingham, and I have always been passionate about India. The Anita Ray mysteries were a way for me to participate in a culture I have loved and studied throughout my life, but the opportunities for that have shrunk, and I am first and foremost a writer. It's time to move on and write something new. 

So why a photograph of a winter wonderland? As people in cold climates know, winter is a season when the earth prepares for spring. The trees may look dead, but they're not. The land may look desolate, but it's not. Beneath the gray and white are colors and new life waiting to burst forth. 

Over the last year and a half I've been working on a new idea. I don't write fast, certainly not like some of my colleagues, but I have committed myself to a new series that won't be a complete surprise to some who know me. (But it certainly will be to others.)

As we close out this year, which has had its share of surprises, ups and downs, and miseries for many, I hope we all find something better in 2017.

Watch this space. More to come in the New Year.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Useful Sites for Details of Setting

In an interview P.D. James once described consulting an accomplished climber on the details of scaling a particular cliff. She took careful notes, wrote up her description of the ascent, and showed it to her friend. He read it through carefully, nodding at each line, and then laughed out loud at the end. When she asked him what was so funny, he replied, “You’ve gotten all the details of the climb right but you let him make the climb in an hour or so. It’s an eight-hour climb!” Details matter.

Whenever I begin a new story I establish in my own mind, and often in my ongoing notes, the time of year, general weather considerations, and any other details I’m going to rely on to tell the story. This can be more complicated, or less so, depending on where the story is set.

When I’m writing about India, for example, I don’t worry about the length of day because my setting, in Kerala, is so close to the equator that the weather is hot or hotter, the sunrise and sunset are consistent throughout the year. Further, each one happens quickly. South India doesn’t have lingering, color exhilarating changes at twilight. South India does have, however, deciduous trees, and I have to make sure I refer to them dropping their leaves, for instance, at the appropriate time. For the most recent Anita Ray mystery, When Krishna Calls, all the trees mentioned are in full leaf if not in bloom.

When I’m writing about New England and other parts of the world, I like to have a reference for the relevant time changes. Several websites allow me to track sunrises, etc., for any part of the year. I use one that allows me to printout a calendar for a particular month that includes daily timings, such as sunrise, solar noon, moonrise, and length of day. I can choose to include other information if I want.

I also like to use a real sequence of days, in order to get the weather right but also to avoid using the same kind of weather day in and day out, unless it bears on the story. There are lots of weather sites that allow a user to type in a zip code to get the weather for that location over a period of days or longer.

In Come About for Murder and other Mellingham mysteries, the setting is sometimes established by noting what is in bloom. I want to avoid using the same plants again and again, so for this problem I consult one of the many online calendars for planting. I prefer the site for the National Gardening Association, which offers several useful pages of information.

Details matter in a mystery, and getting the setting right is just as important as getting right the effects of a particular poison or details of the uniform of a serviceman or woman.

For the Anita Ray mysteries and Mellingham mysteries, go here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Memorable Moments in Crime Bake 2016

Crime Bake 2016 is behind us now, but it was, as expected, a solid event for writers and readers, with several memorable moments. I'll focus on two today.

We were happy to see the new incarnation of the Level Best Books anthology, now in the hands of four new editors. Kimberly Gray, Verena Rose, Harriette Sackler, and Shawn Reilly Simmons have edited thirty-two stories, arranged by state and New England, as the seventh category. They have continued the tradition carried on by Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, and begun by Skye Alexander (and later by Ruth McCarty), Kate Flora, and myself in 2003.

It is very gratifying to see something that began as a single anthology live on its current form. The new editors, though not living in the area, came to Crime Bake and continued the tradition of holding a signing for all the writers whose work is included. Windward: Best New England Crime Stories offers familiar as well as new names in the crime-writing world. The anthology also continues the tradition of publishing the Al Blanchard story, won this year by P. Jo Anne Burgh for "Bagatelle."

The guest of honor this year was William Kent Krueger, whose Cork O'Connor series mixes the local lore of the First Peoples of Krueger's beloved Minnesota with complex stories and deft investigation. At Crime Bake and other conferences, the guest of honor is usually interviewed by another writer, but this year Kent broke with tradition. He gave a lunch-hour talk that had many of us ignoring our lunches to listen better. I jotted down a few notes, but mostly I listened.

Kent opened with one question. The DaVinci Code is the best selling American fiction. But what did it replace? The names tossed out by the audience were many and varied, and almost everyone reading this now will come up with the same titles. But the answer was a surprise. Brown's book replaced The Valley of the Dolls. No one named that one.

The two best-sellers will be forgotten in the near future, Kent pointed out, because they reflect a moment in time. They depend on plot. The books that most of us thought of and called out--Tom Sawyer, Gone with the Wind, and others--will be remembered and read well into the future because they depend on character.

Mysteries, he said, allow us to talk about important social issues. We can explore current events and timely questions, looking at them from the perspective of the overarching question of justice and fairness. Kent also made the point that we no longer have social novels. We don't have writers like Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn), or John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) writing fiction around certain issues. These novels have been replaced by mysteries.

Kent's talk was one of the most interesting and stimulating I've heard in a long time, and I know I'll be returning to my notes, perhaps for another post.