Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Variable Winds," in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

Yesterday, the mailman brought me my contributor’s copies of the October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I’d already had an email from AHMM telling me my entry would be the cover story, but I didn’t realize how great that would feel until I opened the package and saw the cover. “Variable Winds” draws on some of my experiences as a sailor years and years ago.

I rarely mine my early years for fiction, or so I like to think, so when I set out to write this story, I was surprised at how much I remembered. (The idea for the story came from a particular experience, which I recount in Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.) The memory is a tricky creature, serving up tantalizing tidbits that any sane person would ignore but every writer is more likely to think would be just the thing. I could feel the smooth wood of the tiller in my hands, the winding threads of the metal stays, the resistance as I pulled on the downhaul, and the sudden snap and tug on the sheets for the genoa. I could hear the sound of the mainsail luffing, and the click of the winch as I brought in the sheet. I could smell the water, the marsh at low tide, and the change in the direction of the wind. And I will always remember how the boat shuddered when the bow crashed into a trough as a wave traveled beneath us.

We used to take our dog on some outings and he sat upright on the deck. I always wondered why he didn’t slide off into the water, but the pads of his feet seemed to have the same qualities as the suction cups of lizards. He tilted as the boat listed, his nose into the wind. He had to return to the cockpit when we came about or raised the jib, his one concession to gravity.

I thought I’d put sailing off the coast of Massachusetts behind me, but a few memories seem to have stuck. When I shared the story with a colleague, she launched into tales of her own years on the water, sailing off New Jersey. We learned in different boats and had different experiences, but shared the same sense of what it meant to be on the water.

The boats I sailed in are long gone, but the memories seem to have lingered. Writing the story got me hooked, and I began to explore my earliest lessons, and that became the subject of the newest Mellingham mystery. In Come About for Murder, Chief Joe Silva teaches his stepson, Philip, to sail. It turns out Philip is a natural, which is a good thing because he’s sailing for his life before the story ends. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A New Anita Ray: When Krishna Calls

In her fourth outing, WhenKrishna Calls, Anita Ray, an Indian-American photographer, is faced with the loss of her beloved Hotel Delite and the ruin of her dear Auntie Meena. Her aunt may be something of a ditz, but she has a huge heart of caring and compassion, and Anita adores her.

The God Krishna, the handsome deity who plays the flute and draws his devotees to him in love and adoration, watches over this story of the extremes we will go to protect our family and those we love.

When Anita discovers the young daughter of a part-time employee hiding in the hotel compound, she knows something has gone wrong in Nisha’s life. Then the police arrive intending to question her in the violent death of her husband. Add to this Auntie Meena’s bizarre reactions and Anita knows something more is going on here.

Anita faces another challenge at the same time. The owner of a prestigious art gallery has offered her the chance for a rare, one-woman exhibit of her photographs, and Anita knows that this could make or break her career. It’s one thing to sell photographs to tourists in a small shop on the beach and quite another to present them to the glitterati who know and buy art. The city of Trivandrum is no longer the quiet backwater it was thirty years ago. It has grown into an important destination for Indians and foreigners alike. This is the audience Anita can now reach—if she can just get her work done on time and into the owner’s hands. It seems that every time she heads to the gallery she is tripped up by circumstances.

Nothing is going right, and when she learns what Auntie Meena has been up to, Anita is brought almost to the point of despair. Almost.

If you enjoy this visit with Anita and Auntie Meena, take a look at the three earlier mysteries.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Separating Fact and Fiction

Keeping real life out of my fiction is an ongoing challenge. A story without some authentic detail will feel thin and hollow, but a story with too much could offend readers who think they recognize themselves. I have a number of ways of coping with this problem.

In the Anita Ray series, I set much of the action in the resort Kovalam because it resembles a small town, with dozens of shops and lanes and visitors. The sheer size seems to neutralize curiosity. When I take the reader outside the tourist area, I make up villages and towns. In When Krishna Calls, I take the reader into a remote valley.

I recently created a small town for a new collection of short stories I've been writing. I did this so no one would be able to assume they knew where the town was located. To make the town distinctive, I created a map with streets and store locations, and described a topography that I hope is sufficiently different from any real place.

My characters have to live in apartments and houses, or at least somewhere, and if I come across a real place that I think will work well for a particular character I usually ask the owner if I can use it. Before Chief Joe Silva moved in with Gwen McDuffy, he lived in the downstairs apartment based on that of a friend of mine. His landlady lived upstairs. For the condo he and Gwen occupied, I used my grandmother's apartment, located in another state.

I exercise the same caution when creating characters. When I teach I often use this exercise: describe three people, one you know well, one you've seen but don't know, and one you make up entirely. The descriptions will be different, and will resonate on different levels with the reader, depending on the writer's intimacy with the individual described. Over the years I've found that the second character is usually the strongest, best imagined, because it includes both details to anchor the character and room for the writer's imagination.

Along with the physical description of a character comes the name. It is far too easy to pick one that sounds good, and later learn that it belongs to a real person (I made that mistake once). My main concern is to match the name to the personality, which means sometimes I use old biblical names (Ezekial) or something invented to signal that this character has a history (Pattern, as a first name). I have a few books I rely on, including Clues to our Family Names, by Lou Stein, and From Aaron to Zoe, by Daniel Avram Richman, which includes meanings as well as origins. I also use The Book of Indian Names, edited by Raja Ram Mehrotra. After I've made a choice, I check it with several local telephone books.

One of the best ways to get inside a character and create something rich and compelling is by describing that person traveling. How do they travel? By foot, bike, motorcycle, car, van, bus, train? What is the first choice? And what is the destination? In the new Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder, everyone seems to travel by boat if they can.

Like many other writers, I also note down unusual lines of dialogue or figures of speech. I once made a doctor wait while I finished writing down a conversation I'd overheard earlier in the day, when I didn't have paper and pen with me. If I can capture a particular manner of speech, I have the personality. But here again, I review it to make sure it's not something that will identify a particular person. Many people lisp, but fewer lisp, limp, and swear softly under their breath while stacking oranges in the grocery store.

Even when I make every effort to keep anyone I know out of my fiction, I still encounter the curious reader. I live near an art school, which I've visited several times for talks and exhibits. I even know a few of the teachers. I thought it would make an interesting setting, and set my second Mellingham mystery there. Double Take concerns the death of an older art student. To my surprise, one of the teachers, whom I knew slightly, mentioned at a party that she and her colleagues were trying to figure out who was who in the novel. I quickly reassured her that no one from the school was actually in the book.

When readers pick up one of my stories or novels, I want them to enjoy the story and not wonder who is real and who is fictional.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Don't assume you know what I'm writing . . .

A friend recently gave me a copy of an essay she’d come across about the all-too-common situation of a writer meeting someone for the first time who seems to know everything there is to know about her. This, the writer said, is the danger of being honest on paper (or in cyberspace). Everyone seems to think they know you.

Long before I published my first novel, Murder in Mellingham (1993), I listened to a woman at a cocktail party (if she hadn’t had already two drinks the conversation might have been different) vent over the use of her surname by our local famous writer, John Updike. She felt violated. Unfortunately, her last name was fairly common because the family had been around for quite a while. But I got her point.

No one wants to pick up a book and read what seems to be her life story, or an excerpt from it, in someone else’s novel or essay. We feel that our lives are our own property, and that means keeping them to ourselves when we’re not sharing the tantalizing details with our friends old and new. It’s one thing to share a tale of woe with the new family on the block at a buffet welcoming them, but it’s entirely different to read about it in an essay on line—when you learn too late that the new woman writes for a regional newspaper.

Equally discomfiting is taking questions after a book talk and having one woman in the audience ask if the character in chapter 7 is your mother. I got this question from a woman of the same age as my mother, and I assured her the character wasn’t my mother. Years later I went back to that chapter and reread it, and then I understood why she asked.

I’ve had similar questions about other characters, locations, and murder victims. One woman sidled up to me after a talk and said, “That’s so-and-so who gets killed, isn’t it?” She simply wouldn’t believe me when I said no. Another reader informed me she knew exactly where I set a certain novel because she lived just down the street from where the victim died. I had to tell her she was nowhere near close, but she insisted she was, and then said, “I understand why you don’t want anyone to know where you set the story. It wouldn’t look good. Better not to say.” One acquaintance came right out and told me, “Never tell anyone where this is set.” I have no idea why.

There is no doubt that sometimes a detail from someone else’s life is tossed into the mix of a character or scene, but it’s only one part of the whole. In a short story soon to be published by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, “Variable Winds,” a young woman sets sail on what is meant to be her very last trip. I based the story on my own experiences sailing with my family when I was growing up. Everything in that story happened, but not all at once and not all to me alone in that boat.

The story led to a novel. In Come About for Murder, Chief Joe Silva teaches his stepson, Philip, to sail. The plot involves a lot of detail about the harbor and bay. I know someone is going to come up to me and tell me they remember taking that sail with me, or that a new house has been built and removed the dock. They’ll share their sailing stories, including the disasters, and then say, “You can use that if you want.”

Readers often hear writers talk about the isolation of this line of work. But the flip side is the unexpected and presumed intimacy that develops between reader and writer. When the writer puts feeling on the page, the reader enters into another world. When she closes the book, she takes a new familiarity with her. But as real as the created world is to both individuals, it isn’t reality. When you meet a writer, that is the time to listen and discover who is that person who created another world so vivid and lifelike. That is the time to understand how different book and creator can be.

For the original article, “Pretend You Don’t Know Me,” by Dani Shapiro go to  http://preview.tinyurl.com/zv9sl7y