Saturday, November 29, 2008
It ain’t easy being a writer. Name a stumbling block and every writer eventually encounters it. No matter how supportive our families, how great our friends, how detailed our long-range plan for success, some times we need to crawl out of our own lives and hear the music of the world turning.
Susan Wittig Albert recognized that in 1997, when she founded Story Circle Network. Yes, she’s the same S.W.A. who writes three wonderful mystery series—China Bayles, Robin Paige Victorian mysteries, and Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Story Circle Network is one of her many other hats.
SCN started small, with a story circle in Austin, Texas. A group of women got together to explore writing about their real lives. Pretty soon, even the state of Texas wasn’t big enough for them.
This weekend, rather than try to list how the Story Circle Network has grown in the past eleven years, we’re sending you into the Network itself. If you’re interested in writing about your own life, or you have a relative you want to encourage to write about her life, or you’d like to read about other women’s lives, or you’re looking for new books to read, or maybe for neat holiday gifts for writer friends, you’ll find it all at the SCN.
Interested in writing about your life? Want to read about other women’s lives? Want to learn more about writing from real life? How about a great gift for a writer? This address http://www.storycircle.org/index.html takes you to the index for the Story Circle Network site. Scroll down the menu bar at the left of the screen, or use the other addresses below to go to some of the more popular features that SCN offers.
Connect to a terrific blog about life writing. http://www.storycircle.typepad.com/
Find a treasure house of quotes by women, about women, life, and writing. http://www.storycircle.org/quotes/
Do you know a woman over 65, who has a life story to tell? Go to http://www.storycircle.org/owlcircle/ to find out how Story Circle can help her tell that story.
Looking for a good book? Try http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/ Their book review section includes mysteries, and they are always looking for new reviewers for both fiction and non-fiction.
Celebrate our lives a women and as writers. Write, read, quote, give one another gifts.
Writing quote for the week:
You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you.
~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author
Friday, November 28, 2008
The holidays have finally officially arrived at our house . . . well, after much hemming and hawing by yours truly. Drag out the household decorations/don't drag out the household decorations? Put up the tree/don't put up the tree? Have the party/don't have the party?
Why all the hem and haw? Our tree from the last several years was huge (over seven foot) and it rotated--don't ask me how. (Yes, I bought the rotating tree stand, but no I don't understand how it worked.) To add to the problem, some of the pre-lit (pre-installed?) lights died and had to be replaced, plus last year the tree got caught in the curtains by the window as it rotated and several ornaments went flying, breaking one of my faves, sigh. Okay, I realize that was probably too much information. But if you are thinking about buying a rotating tree, think again.
Anyhow, a friend has been after me to host my annual ladies' luncheon/ornament swap. The luncheon is usually potluck, usually fairly fattening, and usually relaxed and fun. The ornament swap usually dissolves into a cat fight over who gets to go home with the best ornament, and I usually lose. But my momma didn't raise any dummies, so if I don't get the ornament I want, I find out who brought it and where they got it, and off I go on an ornament hunt. Where was I? Decorating for Christmas.
So, up goes the tree, but what to put on it, given that I've been collecting ornaments for forty-five years or so? Ornaments made by my kids, made by me, given to me, and whatever I could manage to hang onto at the annual ornament swap. No way this new tree would hold all of them without toppling over. No way I could go through all of them and weed some out. Time for plan B. Meaning use ONLY the vintage glass ornament balls I've collected the last few years along with the new bubble lights hubby got me last year.
I have some of the "vintage" bubble lights, by the way, but anything that old would be risky to plug in. And I'm particularly aware of the danger of lighted Christmas decorations this year, as is everyone in or near Paducah, KY, thanks to a three story tall, lighted Christmas tree that set the local Michael's craft store on fire. Thankfully no one was hurt but the store is still in pretty bad shape. And I'm still in mourning until they reopen. Sniff.
With the tree decorated, sans the rotating stand, out came my collection of snowmen to decorate the house, but I did scale back in that area by leaving most of my Santas in storage. Maybe they'll get their chance next year?
Anyhow, the Christmas sugar cookies have been purchased (I gave up baking and icing hundreds of them at a whack when the last bird flew out of my nest) my cinnamon coffee is snuggled in the cabinet ready for use, and I have two new Christmas themed books to read. Not to mention watching my favorite Christmas movies. All of this frivolity after I visit the chiropractor, of course.
So, once the tree is up, the other decos are out, the storage boxes are once again hidden away, the coffee is hot and the cookies are on a plate, the muscle relaxer is near at hand, what is your favorite way to recover from all the reaching, lifting, shopping, wrapping, baking? Read a good book? Listen to Christmas music? Favorite Christmas movie? More Christmas shopping trip? Praying for snow? All of the above?
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Since I’m the Deadly Daughter who blogs on Thursdays, each year I have the delightful task of acknowledging Thanksgiving. Even in this terrible economy and the challenges of the times we live in, I have much to be thankful for this year. One of the nicest things about thankfulness is that it’s infinitely expandable. Rather than having to choose the one person, event, or object I’m happiest about, I can make a list.
Let’s start with the publication in 2008 of my first mystery (and first published novel), Death Will Get You Sober. My husband and I were looking at my high school yearbook the other night. There it was in black and white: in 1960, I already wanted to be a writer. “I am a writer, right?” I said. “Absolutely,” he said. I’ve been writing since I was seven, but a published novel is incontrovertible evidence that I still needed in spite of my two books of poetry, my professional writing on codependency and addictions and gender and online therapy. And this is the year it happened.
Of equal value or greater in my thankful heart: my two granddaughters. These two little girls are a miracle to me. The older one, who’s four, is a drama queen and a bit of a smartass, in the nicest possible way. Last time I saw them, they were on their way to the Bahamas for a vacation en famille. (My son and his wife, who are terrific parents, never get tired of their children, so I never get to babysit without supervision.) Katie asked if I’d like her to bring me something from the Bahamas. I didn’t want her to embarrass her mother with demands for, say, expensive jewelry for Grandma, so I said maybe she could bring me a seashell or something. Katie’s look made it clear I’d missed the point. “Do you want sand?” she asked, “or do you want water?” The little one, with her joyous grin, thinks that a camera or any other object held up to the eye is called, “Cheese!”
Back to books: I’m deeply thankful that St. Martin’s will publish the next in my mystery series, Death Will Help You Leave Him. I don’t have cover art yet, but having a series is even better than having a single mystery. I’m thrilled that I can go on hanging out with Bruce and Jimmy and Barbara as they tackle more murder and a number of addictive relationships. I’m thankful for the exponential growth in my ability to critique my work, see what’s wrong or too much, and kill my darlings when I have to. I’m thankful for the decrease in a lifelong shyness that enabled me to schmooze my way across the country on my book tour, enjoying every minute. I’m thankful for the Agatha nomination for my first short story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” and even more for my new and unexpected ability to write a short story now and then. It broadens my reach as a writer and provides, if not instant gratification, a respite from the prolonged agony of writing a novel.
The next item is one that’s so unprecedented that I couldn’t bear to omit it, with all due respect to any reader who may not feel the same: I am thankful for the result of the recent election. It’s been forty years since I’ve had any confidence in the American political process or hope that a candidate with integrity and intelligence would stand up and speak out without equivocation. I hope the world gets cleaner, kinder, more honest, and more peaceful in the next four years, and I’m grateful we have a shot at it.
This list could go on and on, but I’ll mention just one more composite item. I’m thankful for the many wonderful people in my life: family, friends, and fellow mystery lovers who have shared the 2008 leg of my journey. I’m thankful for the 60-odd people who showed up at my book launch in April; the 300 Guppies who shared the ups and downs of my journey to publication and beyond; the 20 or so members of my junior high school class with whom I’ve been having an extended and heartwarming reunion after 51 years. I’m thankful to and for everyone who bought my book and everyone who housed and fed me and transported me and came to my signings on my book tour. I’m thankful for Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime en masse, as well as everybody on DorothyL and CrimeSpace and Murder Must Advertise, all the mystery and indie booksellers and librarians I've met, the chain bookstore staff who made me welcome, and reviewers who enjoyed my book and said so, everybody at my publisher’s who’s helped make this dream come true, and my fantastic agent.
Sure, winning the lottery would be nice. So would having a bestseller or a movie option. But this year I already have everything of any importance that I could possibly be thankful for.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
I’ve spent most of my life as the person nobody remembers.
Forgettable face, painfully shy, too-soft voice, last name that a lot of people can’t even pronounce. (It’s Parshall-rhymes-with-Marshall, in case you’re interested. Not par-SHALL or Pershell or Purcell or Pars-hall.) I was used to not being remembered. In a way, that was a good thing, because I have the world’s worst memory for names and faces. If I couldn’t remember them, and they couldn’t remember me, we were always starting fresh on equal terms.
Then I published a mystery novel and started doing signings, library programs, conference panels, ABA and ALA conventions. Now a disturbing number of people do recognize me, but I still can’t remember them. Someone will come up to me and say, “I really enjoyed your talk at our library last year!” And I'll smile and say, “Oh, thank you! That’s nice to hear.” But silently, I’m frantically scouring my mental databank. Which library? Where? Is this the librarian – oh, heaven forbid I should ever offend a librarian! – or someone who attended and, bless her, bought a book? It helps enormously if we’re at an event where everyone wears a name tag. At least I’ve got the name and can fake the memory.
What’s really embarrassing is being on a panel with another writer, then not recognizing her later in the day. A close runnerup for most embarrassing is chatting with somebody for five minutes, only to have the person say, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Busted!
I don’t mean to imply that I’ve become a celebrity or anything close to one. I never have to fear being mobbed by admirers when I walk down the street. (How do movie stars and Stephen King live with that sort of thing?) No, my recognizability is limited to certain venues, and those are the places where it’s most important and gratifying. They’re also the settings in which my own lousy memory is most embarrassing.
I have to say, though, that I’ve been comforted by the knowledge that much better writers than I can’t recall faces and names either. Around Big Name writers, I’m still The Forgotten One. I can meet a well-known writer, have a conversation, even do an interview for this blog and exchange multiple e-mails, but the next time I stand in a line to have that writer sign a book, I can count on it: neither my face nor my name rings a bell. I’m just another anonymous fan.
Sometimes being forgotten is a good thing. There’s a certain writer whose work I admire so much that when I had a chance to talk one-on-one with him, I gushed and blushed and made a complete fool of myself. He was quite amused, I’m sure, and he was so kind that he kissed me on the cheek. When we attended the same conference recently, I wanted him to sign his latest book for me, but the whole time I was standing in line I was silently praying, “Please don’t remember me, please don’t remember me, please don’t remember me.” Guess what? He didn’t. For one cringe-inducing second he looked at me with what might have been recognition, but he apparently decided we hadn’t met before, and he signed the book without comment. I slunk away, enormously relieved.
Dear reader, if you and I have met before, and we meet in the future, I beg you to take my terrible memory for names and faces into account and try to be forgiving. Tell me who you are and where and when we met. It will be a pleasure to see you again.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
This past Sunday morning, I had the pleasure of watching a video feed of Dr. Gene Cohen, Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His talk was part of the cathedral’s Sunday Forum series. These talks are archived, so you’re interested learning more about Dr. Cohen or in seeing this feed yourself, given below are two links.
This link has more information about Dr. Cohen and some supplemental material on his work.
This is the actual video itself, which is about an hour in length.
Dr. Cohen is one of my heroes because he’s part of a movement that’s busy redefining aging in a positive light. Much of his talk on Sunday centered on four phases of aging. I had one of those wonderful ah-ha moments when the world suddenly made more sense.
Dr. Cohen proposes that, from about our forties to the end of our lives, four things happen to make us view the world differently.
The first phase is mid-life reevaluation, which starts in our forties and lasts, more or less until our mid-sixties. And boy, has this time of life gotten a bad rap, under the header mid-life crisis. Think of all the jokes about men with red sports cars and hair transplants, or women with plastic surgery and toy-boys. Sisters, that ain’t what it’s about at all.
As creative people, we’re familiar with the right-brain, left-brain idea, the notion that most of us have a dominant hemisphere. When younger people do activities that stimulate whichever side of their brain is dominant, they feel more in their comfort zone. But, according to recent neurological research, what begins in our forties is that both hemispheres begin to, literally, think together.
New brain cells are created. Existing brain cells develop more synapses—imagine all those people milling about independently in Times Square on New Years Eve suddenly holding hands. And those synapses, in large numbers, begin to connect the right and left sides of our brain. We are on our way to becoming whole-brain thinkers.
This is where I had my ah-ha moment.
How many times have you heard someone say, “The older I get, the more time it takes me to do something?” This statement, inevitably, has a negative connotation. Getting older. Slowing down. Decreasing mental and physical faculties. The inevitable winding down of the car engine or the clock, to use two physical objects used as metaphors for aging.
Yes, there is a physical component to aging and, as a society, we have thankfully crossed beyond that mental barrier that once said all older people will inevitably grow physically weaker until they can no longer manage even simple tasks. So we’re out there pounding the pavement, or taking aerobics classes, or doing Pilates and yoga, etc. And still it takes us longer to do things as we get older.
It takes us longer because, beginning in our forties and lasting the rest of our lives, our brains come to tasks working in a way that is more holistic, more whole-brain, more multi-focused. And, like baking multi-grain bread, that way is a lot healthier, it more artistic, it’s more satisfying, but it does take longer to accomplish. And, in a world where nano-seconds are considered a reasonable measure of time, taking longer has a bad, bad reputation.
The second phase that Dr. Cohen described was liberation. It begins in the mid-fifties and goes to somewhere in the mid-seventies, though for all of these phases, there is no hard and fast end point.
Liberation is a change in consciousness: “If not now, when?” “What can they do to me?” Raise your hands, all of you who—like me—took up serious writing sometime after you qualified for the “Over 55” menu at Denny’s.
The third phase is summing up, and it comes to the forefront in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. People become more interested in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in conflict resolution. This is the time many of us think about writing memoirs, or taking that special trip back to a place that marks a significant event in our lives.
The final phase is éncore, in the French sense, so let’s use the French spelling, as in pas éncore (not yet), or éncore un peu (just a little more, just a little longer), or quoi éncore? (What else?) It’s the grown-up equivalent of “Can’t I play just a few minutes more?”
Dr. Cohen finished by saying that for most of our lives, we are nudged along. Parents expect children to do better. Peers influence teen-agers in ways that parents and teachers can only dream of. We nag our spouses: “It’s for your own good, dear.”
But the older we get, the less people nudge us. Too old, they think. Slowing down. Takes them longer to do things. Not interested in new things. Not really keeping up. Living in a shrinking world.
So I think that you and I, as writers, as creative people, and as friends have this absolutely sacred task not only to develop our own creativity, but to continue to nudge one another along, in all of our creative efforts. Forever. Éncore un peu.
Writing quote for the week:
I attended a major retrospective exhibit of fifty years of folk art. Of the 20 artists featured in the catalogue, 12 of them, 60%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of sixty-five; and 6 of them, 30%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of eighty-five.
~Dr. Gene Cohen, gerontologist, teacher, author
Monday, November 24, 2008
by Julia Buckley
In honor of our blog's namesake, I wanted to share an Edgar Allan Poe anecdote that I read in Robert Hendrickson's American Literary Anecdotes. It seems that Poe created something that is now so rare it is a collector's dream:
"In 1827 the eighteen-year-old Poe published anonymously his first collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems, which consisted of poems written when he was twelve or thirteen. Brought out by Boston printer Calvin S.F. Thomas, the number of copies unknown, the forty-page paperbound book in tea-colored wrappers described its author only as "A Bostonian." For some unknown reason, the book was suppressed, and just a dozen copies have survived. The book is known as the "black tulip and Holy Grail of American book collecting." In 1988, a collector found a stained, frayed copy in a New Hampshire antique store; he bought it for 15 dollars, and it was expected to sell at auction for 300,000."
I can only imagine the chill in that collector's bones when he spotted his treasure. And while I'm on the subject of wonderful literature, I will rather clumsily segue into my other topic for the day. :)
I sometimes view books as I do flavors, and I crave various sorts at various times. Often I want a good old fashioned crime novel with a hard-boiled detective and lots of sassy dialogue. Other times I want a romantic suspense novel, and I curl in my chair with a tome and a cup of tea. Still others I long for something funny yet mysterious.
In the same way that I have book moods, THE BOOK QUIZ suggests that I have a book personality. I share it with you now so that you can determine which book most closely matches you (or at least your mood today). I've taken the quiz more than once, and I'm not always the same book--but usually they're books I've read, which I find interesting.
See for yourselves, and share your results!
Today I was HUCKLEBERRY FINN.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
I have two daughters, and I’ve often thought that writing is one of the best possible jobs for a parent. I work at home, the hours are flexible, and now that my girls are older, I can even work once they come back from school.
But lately, I’ve come to realize an even bigger benefit. Writing is the perfect job for bugging the heck out of my kids.
Let’s look at some of the parental pluses to the writer lifestyle, organized into a bulleted list:
• There’s an endless supply of puns and bad jokes. I mean, I get to say things like “bulleted list” and then add, “Har! Bullets! Isn’t that perfect for a mystery writer!” Remarks like this are almost guaranteed to get an eyeball roll, and in some cases, even a groan. I get extra points when I make this kind of remark in front of my kids’ friends.
• I get to groan about how hard my job is. So when my eighth-grader complains about having to write a five-page paper over the course of a semester, I can drop a manuscript in her lap and tell her what my deadline is. Ditto for when one of her teachers insists on extra drafts or corrections--I go through many more drafts than most students, and copy editors are far more annoying than teachers. So she gets no sympathy from me, even though she really hates to accept that somebody else has a rougher time than she does.
• Staying at home looks wonderful from the outside. No matter how hard I actually work, all my daughters see is me hanging around in my nightgown as I chase them out the door into the wet, cold, or even snowy weather. It’s even better when I grin while I wave good-bye, or mention that I’m going to crawl back into bed for another hour as soon as they’re gone.
• My kids freak a little over the violence in my books, and even more over the sex scenes. Admittedly, my books are hardly the most violent ones on the shelf, and I don’t let the girls read that kind of book anyway, even if it is one of mine. But they do hear me discussing creative methods of murder, how long rigor mortis lasts, and great places to hide a body. I get some strange looks during those conversations, let me tell you. As for the sex, my Laura Fleming books were pretty light on that, too, but the protagonist in my new series is a single woman with an active sex life. Again, I won’t let my kids read the book, but you should have seen them wince when I told them why I won’t let them read Ton. No kid wants to admit her mother even knows about sex, let alone writes about it!
• Going to the bookstore makes them crazy. Not that they don’t love going to bookstores, mind you. We’re all book lovers around here. The part that drives them insane is my pointing to books and saying, “I know Donna Andrews. I did a panel with J. A. Konrath. I don’t know Mary Higgins Clark, but I did a panel with her daughter Carol.” I can even get a rise out of them by pointing and saying, “I’ve never met John Grisham.” The corollary is pointing a Harlan Coben book and saying, “I know you don’t remember, but he hugged you when you were just a baby.”
Admittedly, there are some downsides, like when my older daughter started to read Down Home Murder, and then didn’t finish it. Did she hate it? Did she lose it? What’s the problem? And it can be embarrassing when the other didn’t get an A on her English paper, especially since I’d read it over for her.
But overall, a writing parent is a happy parent. After all, these are only the everyday joys. Just wait until career day....
Toni L.P. Kelner is the author of the "Where are They Now" mysteries and the Laura Fleming series. Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, the second anthology she's co-edited with Charlaine Harris, recently debuted on the New York Times best seller list.
Friday, November 21, 2008
What draws you into a friendship with someone else? Similar tastes? Similar interests? Similar opinions? Similar points of view? Similar needs?
We meet someone new, we share bits of ourselves, and, finding common ground, a new friendship begins.
Friends support each other, share good times and bad, teach each other, learn from each other, laugh together and cry together. Friends keep loneliness at bay. Friends bail us out when we need it, or better still, let us learn from our own mistakes when we need it. Friends tell us the truth when we need it . . . but in a loving way, so we can handle it.
I met my best female friend, Debby, when she moved to our town many years ago. Like Anne Shirley says in AVONLEA, we’re soul mates. We share many common interests, but more important, we’ve helped each other grow and learn. And we’ve supported each other in very difficult times.
My oldest friend, Francie, was born into the large family across the street from mine when I was eight months old. We now live many miles apart but stay in touch. Friendships are too important to let die. And I keep in touch with Sandy, my high school buddy who was with me the night I met my hubby.
My newest friend was a chance encounter with a woman at least twenty years my senior while on vacation at Gulf Shores, Alabama. I noticed her beautiful cameo pin and commented on it. She said it was her mother’s, which means it’s probably nearly a hundred years old. We kept chatting, sharing information about our families, etc. and when it came time for her to leave, she asked for my address so we could exchange cards when we got home. I’d been trying to figure out a polite way to ask for hers, being reluctant to part, knowing I’d likely never see her again, so her request warmed my heart. She’s a fascinating woman and I look forward to learning more about her and from her.
Friends come in all shapes and sizes. Take these two who met on the beach recently at Gulf Shores. Notice the bird patiently waiting while the boy, his new best friend, fishes in the gulf.
Each time the boy caught a small fish, the bird would move closer, trusting his new friend to do him good and not harm. And the bird was rewarded. (Sigh, yes, I DO know we aren’t supposed to feed wildlife. You really expected me to tell either of these two new friends that?) The boy was careful to throw the larger fish back into the gulf, knowing the bird’s narrow throat couldn’t handle them. The bird didn’t seem to mind as long as he got the small fish. And the boy was careful to toss the fish to the bird from a comfortable distance, not trying to hand feed the bird and risk a serious peck.
This particular friendship sprung up from the bird’s need to eat (and too lazy to find his own food when a freebie was so near) and the boy’s apparent need to help. When the boy goes back to school, he’ll miss the bird. And the bird will look for the boy until he realizes the boy isn’t coming back, then he’ll hunt his own food. But I don’t think they will forget each other.
Who is your best friend? What friend has made a big difference in your life? Taught you new things? Dared you to reach new levels? Supported you when you fell down and scraped your ego? So, when was the last time you let her/him know how important they are in your life?
Picture below is of my very best friend in the whole wide world. Sorry, ladies, he’s taken. You’ll have to excuse me now. It’s time to toss him another fish.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Every novelist hopes to begin his or her book with a memorable first line. Mystery writers trying to break into print today are encouraged to provide a hook for agents and editors by starting with some kind of zinger. I’ve heard (can’t remember the source), “Don’t give the weather report.” I’ve heard endless discussions of the pros and cons of prologues, one of the cons being that a prologue postpones the voice that’s going to sell the book (both to publishers and to readers).
I offer some famous openings from general fiction and a semi-random selection of mysteries from the Golden Age to the present, with comments.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Everybody knows this one, which sets up both the theme and the ironic tone of Jane Austen’s masterpiece.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
This first line draws the reader in with a sentiment that everyone can relate to and gives us a lot of information about the protagonist. Without Alcott, would we know that in the 1860s a fifteen-year-old girl might lie on the rug and grumble? Part of Alcott’s genius is the freshness and immediacy of her language and characters, which continue to transcend their time 150 years later.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
This is a wonderful aphorism and a very famous line. As a 21st century psychotherapist who works with dysfunctional families, I disagree with the statement. In many years of practice, I’ve found that the similarities among unhappy families become the foundation for understanding, change, and healing. On the other hand, the details—the uniqueness of the unhappiness of an individual family—form the basis for literature.
I grabbed a couple of classic mysteries, both first published in 1936, to see if their openings socked the reader in the eye.
Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.
Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
No clue here that we’re about to read one of the greatest mysteries of all time, in which the characters and feminist issues are so well done that the reader doesn’t mind that there’s no murder in the book. The only reader excited by the first line is one who has read all the preceding Lord Peter Wimsey books and is already attached to Harriet Vane.
The story of the little man, sometimes a stockbroker, sometimes a tea merchant, but always something in the City, who walked out of his suburban house one sunny morning and vanished like a puff of grey smoke in a cloudless sky, can be recalled by nearly everyone who lived in Greater London in the first years of the century.
Margery Allingham, Flowers for the Judge
This once-upon-a-time opening presents a puzzle and sets up the expectation of a story in a distinctive voice—but not a voice that would appeal to most present-day readers. The cultural references—“little man,” “suburban”—are rooted in the London of their time.
And here are some mysteries from more recent times, all of which I’d characterize without hesitation as first-class reads.
Lock-Ober’s Restaurant is on Winter Place, which is an alley off Winter Street just down from the Common.
Robert B. Parker, Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)
It’s Spenser, but doesn’t even hint at the toughness, tenderness, and humor of Spenser’s voice.
When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.
Lindsey Davis, Silver Pigs (1986)
Finally, a tale that starts with action (first in the Falco series). The paragraph that follows sets the scene, but that first sentence has already introduced Falco’s irreverent voice and the premise that life in ancient Rome may in some respects have been not too different from life today.
Miller was wakened from his doze by a puff of hot air, redolent of freshly cut grass and newly disturbed dogshit.
Stuart Woods, Palindrome (1991)
One of Woods’s best books, from before he started writing down to the reader with his Stone Barrington series. By now, it’s okay to engage the reader with a shock-value image.
If she’d had a foot fetish Anna would have been an extremely happy woman.
Nevada Barr, Firestorm (1996)
At last! A first sentence that I think has it all. We’ve got voice, character, humor, and a set-up intriguing enough to pull the reader in. No action, which would be bad in a thriller but is fine in a character-driven mystery. Its language breaks the no-adverbs rule, but I think that rule needs to be broken now and then.
And let’s end with my own first line, which I wrote so long ago I can’t remember doing it, and which remained unchanged through many revisions all the way to the printed book. I’m still a little nervous about the shock-value element, which might alienate some gentle readers. But my protagonist Bruce enters speaking in his own authentic voice, and if I’ve got anything of value to offer the reader, it’s character and voice.
I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth.
Elizabeth Zelvin, Death Will Get You Sober (2008)
What’s your favorite first line?
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Earlier this month, an eight-year-old boy in St. Johns, Arizona, was charged as an adult with two counts of premeditated murder after telling police that he shot his father and a male lodger in the family home. He was taken to court in handcuffs for his initial appearance before a judge.
This rare case has attracted media coverage throughout the US, and in Canada and Europe. The brutal murder of a child is an unfortunately common occurrence, and although society is almost universally repelled by such an act -- even hardened prisoners look on child-killers with contempt -- no one is surprised that it happens. But a brutal murder supposedly committed by a child is unusual and shocking, something that simply doesn't happen in a normal world. Some people will tune it out, not wanting to discuss it or think about it. Others will gather as much information as they can, making a thoughtful effort to understand what happened and where blame, if any, should be placed. Still others will apply the same biases with which they view all offenders, refusing to admit any difference between a child and an adult.
The comment boards on internet news sites are filled with posts about the Arizona case from people who know next to nothing about the boy and his family. The judge wisely imposed a gag order on everyone involved, and the few bits of information that came out before the order provide little basis for an assumption of either guilt or innocence. Nevertheless, a lot of people have strong opinions and are eager to share them with the world.
On one site, an Ohio resident’s impassioned plea for help for “this confused and terrified 8-year-old child” is followed by a terse recommendation from a New Jerseyite: “Drop the kid in a Saddam hole. Seal it up. Walk away.”
Many people who have commented on the case are aghast that an eight-year-old knew how to use a gun. The two men were reportedly shot, multiple times each, with a .22 single-action rifle. The shooter had to chamber a round every time the gun was fired. The father was an avid hunter and had taught his small son to use a rifle, but the horrifying image of a little boy deliberately chambering and firing each round is too much for some people to accept. “There is more to this than meets the eye,” a Michigan woman wrote. “Someone else (an adult) had to have done this deed and pinned it on the 8-year-old.”
If the boy shot the men, as he told police he did during intense and aggressive questioning, what explains his behavior? Talk of abuse as a motive began immediately after the shootings. What else could drive a young child to such extreme action? If it turns out the boy was never abused, what are we to think then? Is this well-behaved boy who has never been in trouble before really a bad seed? If he is proved guilty, will we ever know for certain why he picked up a gun and shot his father and a family friend?
Arizona’s criminal laws allow a child this young to be charged and tried as an adult if the prosecutor can convince a judge the defendant is beyond rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system and is competent to understand the charges and assist in his defense. Currently the boy is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation to determine his competence. If he’s declared incompetent to assist in his defense, and the prosecutor still wants to try him as an adult, he can be placed in a psychiatric facility until he becomes competent.
Whatever happens to him, the future doesn’t look promising for the youngest murder defendant in the US. We can speculate about the cause of the murders, but until the whole story comes out we can’t draw any lessons from this tragedy. The aftermath – what happens once a child this young is arrested and charged with premeditated murder – is what we should be thinking about.
Where should he be held until trial? Should he be released in his mother's custody or kept in a cell? If he's convicted, what punishment is suitable for an eight-year-old double murderer? A man from Pennsylvania gave his answer on the internet: “They should seek the death penalty. If they don’t, life in prison, a dark cell, with no light. No human contact, silence.” For good measure, this gentleman added, “And castrate him too.” Others believe the boy needs treatment, not punishment.
What do you think should be done with a child who is charged with murder? Should he be tried an adult? If he’s convicted, where do we put him, and for how long? If he’s ever to be released and live in society again, what can be done to prepare him for that day?
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Yes, I have a great last name for a writer. Yes, it is my real, legal name. No, I do not come from a First Nations background. And, the question that irritates me the second-worse is, “What name do you write under?”
My own name, darn it! If I’m going to do all this work, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Wag the Dog, I want the credit!
But, computerized distribution systems are making me rethink my steadfast belief that I would always publish under one name, and one name only.
I don’t know how warehouses and wholesalers and book distributors used to do it. It being keep track of how many books were on their shelves, how many they shipped, how many were returned, and how many actually sold. I do know how they do it now: computers. From the moment one of my books—imbued with that wonderful new book smell—rolls off the printing press every aspect of my life in print is in someone’s computer. And that fact is giving me a minor identity crisis this week.
Here's the quote that started it all.
“Changing genres can hurt you because all major distributors now have computerized book sale tracking. If your first work in a new genre sells less than your last book in your previous genre, you are seen as an author in decline. If you want to change genres, write under a different name because, to the computerized book sale tracking systems, with every new name, you are a completely different person.”
~Barbara Hambly; science fiction, mystery, fantasy writer; November 2008
It’s not like I have a whole slew of names waiting in the wings. I’ve played that game of combining your first pet’s name with the place you lived when you were seven to get a new name. Mine would be Blackie Fremont, which is, I suppose, better than being Fido Broadway, but who is this Blackie person?
Where did she grow up? What color is her hair? What parts of her body does she have pierced? Does she drink coffee or latte? Should I loan her my secret vice—as a teen-ager, I loved to watch Roller Derby—or do I have to create a different tawdry background for her?
Anyway, if I do decide to write under other names, I’ll probably blow the gaff the first time I do a book signing. I can just see myself starting the evening by saying, “Of course, my real name is . . .” and there we’d be. Perhaps the computers won’t be listening.
Which would be a good thing because I'd like to try writing fantasy or science fiction as well as mysteries. That’s two new names I’ll have to invent. Or, if I combine genres, like a fantasy-mystery or a science fiction-fantasy, does that mean I have to combine my pen name for each genre? How many combined genre-specific names will fit on a business card, anyway?
I’m even wondering if I could write a graphic novel. Considering the popularity of Japanese anime and manga, maybe I should aim for a Japanese name for that one. Once in a live role playing game I was Rebecca Ku. (Ku is Japanese for the number 9). Maybe Ms. 9 would like to write a graphic novel. Then again, maybe not.
I remain, respectfully yours, someone or other. Excuse me while I go check my driver’s license.
Oh, in case you’re interested, the question that irritates me the most isn’t really a question. It’s the statement, “You’re self-published, of course.”
Monday, November 17, 2008
This holiday season people are watching their pocketbooks; October was called a dismal retail month, and it doesn't seem that things will get much better. Many of us don't have much cash to spend this Christmas, but we still want to give something special to our loved ones. As ever, I'm contemplating the gift of books. When I sat down and tried to come up with five top titles that I thought would make great Christmas presents (and soothe the savage cash register), I came up with these.
First: NINE COACHES WAITING, by Mary Stewart. This is an ever-fave with me; I've purchased it for several family members and, whenever there's a new cover, for myself. It's a classic suspense tale in a 1960's setting--but Mary Stewart transcends the genre with her literary style and her intelligent heroines. In this adventure, a young English woman (whose mother was French) goes to France as a governess in a sort of JANE EYRE scenario--she is orphaned and without a job. In France she meets her diffident young charge, Phillipe, who is also an orphan and who seems unliked by his strange, strange family . . . . The book combines suspense with humor and enjoyable doses of romance.
Second: BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey. This book amazed me the first time I read it, and even upon re-reading I am impressed by the layering of Tey's plot and the cleverness of the resolution.
The Amazon review reads "Brat Farrar has been carefully coached to assume the identity of Patrick Ashby, heir to the Ashby fortune who disappeared when he was 13. Just when it seems that Brat will pull off the deception, he discovers the truth about Patrick's disappearance, a dark secret that threatens to tear apart the family and jeopardize Brat's carefully laid plans. Called "the best of its kind" by the New Yorker, Josephine Tey's classic is a tale of unrelenting suspense and tension." I agree with that, and I'd add that, while Tey gets her share of attention in the mystery world, she should be more often listed with the greats of the genre.
Third: REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier
This book, like NINE COACHES WAITING, continues the Gothic tradition while exploring the notion of class consciousness in an England where the wealthy set don't mix with the genteel poor, and the conflict created when a young, inexperienced girl marries the rich, widowed Maxim DeWinter is ratcheted higher and higher as the novel goes on. Rebecca, his former wife, hovers like a malignant ghost over the giant estate called Manderley.
REBECCA is a favorite among many mystery writers and readers, and a colleague of mine at the high school told me that it was this novel which made her want to be an English teacher. It continues to be a compelling tale and an example of one of DuMaurier's best.
Fourth: THE LONG GOODBYE, by Raymond Chandler. This novel is a classic of the hard-boiled tradition. It contains all of the great things about a Chandler novel: a tough, wise-cracking detective; a variety of beautiful, mysterious, and flawed women; and a "lost dog" of a main character who draws the compassion out of the supposedly hard-hearted Philip Marlowe. There are many scenes that are truly funny, but in many ways this novel can break your heart--and the mystery is labrynthine, so read carefully.
Fifth: HAVE HIS CARCASE is my favorite Dorothy Sayers mystery; in it, Peter Wimsey continues to pursue a rather distant Harriet Vane. What brings them together, of course, is murder.
Harriet, while escaping to the seaside, stumbles across the body of a young man on the shore, and the events that follow create one of the most satisfying puzzles that I have ever read, not to mention some of the best dialogue and some surprisingly sweet romance.
If any of these sound good, do buy them. Anyone would be happy to receive one of these great reads in her or his stocking.
And if you'd like to add to the list, tell us what we might want to buy in lieu of--or in addition to--these fine mysteries.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Do you have a military background?
No, but since I was a youngster I’ve had a great interest in military history and have been a voracious reader of books about war. I was a fairly indifferent student with regard to most subjects other than English and the History sections of Social Studies as it was called then in British Columbia. History, even when badly taught—which it generally was—intrigued me because it really comes down to being the stories of people and how they lived in a specific culture and time and how that place in time and that culture shaped their ideas and beliefs.
How did you choose what conflicts to write about?
In some ways the conflicts ended up choosing me. The first military history book I decided to write was Ortona, which chronicles the experiences of the Canadians in Italy and their battle for control of this Adriatic town. I had attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in my then hometown of Kelowna and, as we do in small Canadian towns, much of the crowd adjourned to the local legion where we drank some beer and ate bad stew. I ended up sitting next to three men who began talking about their time in the battle for Ortona and what a hellish engagement it was.
(For a larger view of any cover, click on the cover.)
Thinking I knew quite a bit about Canada's military history I was shocked to realize I knew little about this battle. When I sought to find a book on it, there was none to be found. This isn't right, I thought. Somebody needs to write about this. And why not me? It took some years to find a publisher, but eventually I did.
Working on that book, I realized the entire Canadian experience in the Italian Campaign had been woefully neglected and so decided to set that straight with the trilogy of books that now encompasses the campaign on mainland Italy. This season I've gone back and published a prequel to that series, Operation Husky, which looks at the Canadian role in the Sicily campaign. This is the 7th book on the Canadian army and World War II and we've rebranded the series as the Canadian Battle Series. Logically I will now follow the army through its remaining major battles and campaigns so the series provides a complete record.
Brave Battalion: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) in the First World War, out this fall from John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. also was initially proposed by an editor at that publisher. With the 90th Anniversary coming he thought a book that used one battalion as a lens through which to look at the experiences of Canadian soldiers through the course of the war would be good. I was utterly intrigued by the idea and so off we went. The editor gave me free rein to decide which battalion to write about.
My first thought was that it had to be a Highland Battalion because that would let me weave in all the Highland military traditions of the bagpipes and kilts and such. The Canadian Scottish ended up being perpetuated as a militia regiment here in Victoria after the war and all their archival records are stored up at the university, so that made the research a lot simpler. And the Can Scots were present for every major battle, four of their number won Victoria Crosses, and they saw some of the bitterest fighting of all Canadian units (and suffered one of the highest casualty rates).
How did you make a transition from writing history to writing your first mystery?
When I decided to make a living as a writer my intention was to do so by writing novels and those first novels—none of which published by the way—were grounded in the history of particular conflicts. In one case the novel took place in the Lebanese Civil War of the early 1970s with flashbacks by the main character to her experiences in Vietnam. The other followed a Canadian member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and a Spanish anarchist through the course of the Spanish Civil War.
There was an element of a mystery in this last one and I was increasingly intrigued by the workings of the mystery genre, so when I turned to what I imagined would be my next novel to not publish I decided it would be a mystery. This was partly because in the meantime I had written my first actual historical book, which was about the British Remittance Men who came to Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Upon finishing this book, I realized I wasn't really ready to be done with these—to me anyway—fascinating characters.
What is a Remittance Man?
A left-over son. In England, the oldest son inherited the land and the title. Other sons traditionally went to the church and the military. In a big family there were often surplus sons, who had no prospects or, occasionally, a son hadn’t turned out quite as well as the family expected him to. These left-overs always went to the far end of civilization in search of adventure, supported by a generous remittance from a source of family wealth back in Britain.
How did you turn a Remittance Man into an amateur sleuth?
I started playing with the idea of what would it be like if you had a modern day Remittance Man. Where would he live? The far end of civilization. The end of the road in Canada is Tofino, British Columbia, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Rugged countryside, small town filled with eccentrics, and an openness to people living however they wish. So I had the perfect setting in place. What would my Remittance Man do? Well, nothing actually because he had that money from his family.
In my days as a newspaper reporter I had covered many a coroner's inquest and knew that in a quirk of British Columbian law that most small communities have their own community coroner. And this coroner is only required under the Coroner's Act to be “a member in good standing in the community.” Well, my character Elias McCann only barely qualified as being of “good standing,” but it was the perfect role for him to play in the community of Tofino.
Rather reluctantly he would agree to serve as the coroner, and this opened the door for him to be involved in various investigations of sudden deaths. I have always had a bit of difficulty with the amateur sleuth mysteries that operate as a series because it becomes increasingly implausible that the character could have this many dead people falling down around him. But if you are an amateur coroner, as Elias is, it's entirely plausible because death is your business.
Have you found any similarities in writing history and writing mysteries?
There are more similarities in the way I write non-fiction and fiction than might first be expected. The major difference is that in the novels I can resort to invention whereas in the non-fiction I have to stick to the facts. But with both forms what I aim to do is create images in the reader's mind so they are no longer aware of just reading words on a page. That's a natural in fiction, or at least it should be (some so called literary novels come to mind as contradictions to this thesis).
In a lot of non-fiction, however, this doesn't happen because there is no use of narrative techniques, such as characterization, dialogue, scene setting, and dramatization of action sequences. When I'm writing about a particular moment of combat, for example, I have to research it deeply enough so that I can place that moment inside a scene. So I need to know whether it was raining or sunny that day. What was the terrain like? What plants grow there? I also need a soldier, or several soldiers—depending on the numbers involved-—through whose eyes I can depict the action. That's why I gather in so many veteran accounts of the battles I write about. They are my cast of characters and I shift between them as needed to relate the story.
I am always stuck in a Cecil B. De Mille moment with a large cast in my non-fiction because it takes dozens, even hundreds, of soldier viewpoints to cover all the territory of a large battle or campaign. In my novels, the only viewpoint is that of Elias, so it's a lot simpler in terms of managing the cast. But then, of course, there's the problem that the reader can only see, hear, and know what Elias is witness to or thinks about. So each form has its unique challenges.
You may have positioned yourself in a hard-to-win situation: more women read amateur detectives; more men read military fiction. Do you think that having a military topic turns some readers off?
I think I have two distinctly different audiences, although there is some overlap. The military non-fiction draws one readership, which actually includes an increasing number of women. This, I think, because many women are trying to find out more about their families and if you had a grandfather or father in either war the best way to learn about their experiences is to read my books because they offer that over-the-shoulder viewpoint. So that works for me. With the mysteries, although Elias did serve in the army—and is haunted by some of his experiences as a peacekeeper in Cyprus—there is little in the way of a military thread in the books. Mostly his past service as a soldier just gives him an ability to handle firearms well and think in tactical ways that sometimes helps solve the mystery. His lover, Vhanna Chan, has a link to war as well for she is a survivor of the genocide inflicted on Cambodia by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
We’ve just come through the Remembrance Day that marks the 90th Anniversary of the end of World War I. Any thoughts on that special day?
I believe Remembrance Day is an essential annual event for Canadians because we should remember the many thousands who have given their lives for this country in wars past and present. I wish more Canadians would make the effort to gather at the cenotaph in their community and participate in the ceremony, particularly those with children so that those children can gain some understanding of the sacrifice of past generations of Canadians and of the ongoing sacrifice being made by the young soldiers we have asked to go overseas and risk their lives yet again.
For more information about Mark and his books, visit his web site http://www.zuehlke.ca
Friday, November 14, 2008
A friend of mine is suggesting that several of us attend a performance of Menopause, The Musical which is scheduled nearby in Paducah at the lovely new Carson center. After we all pulled our jaws up off the floor, we laughed. Hysterically.
Turn night sweats into a song? Hot flushes that turn our faces bright red in front of the entire world? Dancing around the stage with one of those cheap cardboard fans that quickly become a permanent part of our free hands? Sleepless nights followed by days of functioning at below sub-level? New wrinkles every day? Grey hair that is MUCH harder to cover with color than before? And don't even get me started on the empty nest. Sigh.
And yet, I can see women making a musical out of some of the most difficult years of our lives. Dancing and singing about it because it's better than crying. And because we who have passed through this trial by fire, this valley of tears, and survived know that there IS life after sixty. (Unless, of course, you are still going through, yick, menopause.)
Life after menopause usually means fewer people living in your home to (a) cook for (b) wash clothing for (c) pick up after (d) walk the floor over late at night (d) all the other hard work. Yeah, it's more lonesome. I'm dealing.
Life after menopause means retirement from work, more time to travel or do the things we've always wanted to do. Take classes. Learn new skills. Reconnect with friends. Time to actually grow the flowers instead of just smelling them. Time to live.
So, yes, I can see Menopause as a musical. Women singing, dancing, laughing. Because it's what we do. It's how we survive.
So where are you? Spring of life, newly married, maybe some small children requiring full time care? Summer of life, kids growing quickly, busy, busy, busy, life rushing by? Fall, kids leaving home, you and hubby looking at each other across the breakfast table, wondering what's next? Or winter, looking back, remembering fondly, but enjoying the now? Whatever stage you are in, I hope you are taking time to enjoy it. REALLY live it. And, hey, maybe you should write a musical about it. Or a mystery?
Thursday, November 13, 2008
What is a legacy? In its most common usage, a legacy is money and goods that we leave behind us when we die. Unless the current economy shifts radically, many of my generation (a year or two pre-boomer) may end up spending our assets to survive old age rather than passing them on to our children and grandchildren. But that’s not all the word “legacy” means. It’s also a matter of leaving something behind us, making our mark on the world, finding a way to contribute and be remembered.
For most people, it takes time, age, and experience to do something worth remembering, although that’s not necessarily true. Keats died at 24, Mozart at 35, leaving an enduring legacy of poetry and music respectively. In the popular culture, James Dean, for example, made his mark in his short life. What was James Dean’s legacy exactly? Ask a random group, and they may give multiple answers, but most or all will know who he was.
A dictum of uncertain origin (googling yielded such diverse sources as the Talmud and Jose Marti) states that if you want to leave your mark on the world, have a child, write a book, plant a tree. My son is grown and has produced his own legacy in the form of my two gorgeous granddaughters. My most successful tree “from scratch” (not counting transplants) is a beautiful 17-year-old pink dogwood in my back yard that I brought home from the nursery as a twig in a four-inch pot.
So how about that book? To get a book out in the world where it can carry us into the future, we have not only to write it, but to get it published. Then we have to decide whether to be a one-book author or add to our legacy by writing more. Does stopping at one book invalidate the author’s legacy? It depends on the book. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird gets my vote as Great American Novel of the 20th century, not because it’s my favorite (I liked it, but it’s not) but because I’ve heard it consistently cited, not only by avid readers but also by people who don’t ordinarily read fiction at all. (Do a search for it on MySpace if you don’t believe me.) Harper Lee, by the way, is said to have explained her decision to stop by asking why try to do it again when you’ve gotten it so right the first time.
Some authors are criticized for writing the same book over and over. So writers, if they care about such criticism, are under pressure to build diversity into their voice, their plots, their themes, and their characters. In some cases, it’s a matter of getting stuck at or going beyond the autobiographical novel. For example, I’d say Thomas Wolfe wrote the same novel four times over. Are his books still read? Not much, though everybody remembers that one of the all-time great editors, Maxwell Perkins, created bestsellers in their time by taking a figurative axe to Wolfe’s hundreds of pages of sloppy manuscript.
But what about books—such as mystery series—that are expected to replicate a formula from book to book? It depends. Robert B. Parker, for example, has never varied his voice: to my ear, his more recent series protagonists sound just like Spenser. And you know what will happen in a Spenser book: Spenser and Hawk will trade quips, Spenser and Susan Silverman will joke about sex, and Spenser will kill one or more bad guys without getting into any trouble with the law. Yet Parker’s books are widely read, beloved, and perennially in print. Furthermore, I think their popularity will live after him, as have the Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe books.
Authors who pass the diversity test do so in different ways. Subgenre, setting, and theme are all powerful ways to write a different book each time. Betty Webb’s hardhitting Lena Jones series has taken on enormous social issues and actually influenced legislation on present-day polygamy; her new series is lighthearted and set in a zoo. Nevada Barr sets each of her books in a different national park, but what she does with the setting goes far beyond backdrop. Blind Descent, about caving, makes claustrophobic readers cringe. Firestorm is a terrifying read for those who fear fire. And if your worst nightmare is drowning in icy water, try A Superior Death.
How do my own books measure up? My first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, is not autobiographical, thanks to the fact that I’d been writing—and living—for many decades before it got published. The main characters will reappear in the second, Death Will Help You Leave Him. But I am determined not to write about the early stages of recovery from alcoholism over and over. Bruce hit bottom, admitted he was an alcoholic, and now he’s moving on. The second book is about a related but independent theme: addictive relationships. In the age of the Internet and disposable information, I’m not sure my books will last long enough to be a legacy. But I’m doing what I can to make my mark.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The saga of the Whiskers family on Meerkat Manor – by turns exhilarating, engrossing, hilarious, terrifying, heartbreaking, infuriating and, yes, boring – has taught me a lot about storytelling.
Like many a mystery series, Meerkat Manor started strong and drew legions of devoted fans. Front and center, always, was Flower (right), the desert dominatrix with a radio collar, absolute ruler of the Whiskers mob. (“Mob” happens to be what a meerkat family is called, and if you watch them for a while, you’ll agree that it fits.) Flower was courageous, decisive, and quick to take action. She fiercely protected her family members – unless they were disloyal. Then they were toast.
Lesson #1: Your protagonist must be the centerpiece, the heart and soul of your tales. Do not let any other character overshadow the protagonist. Your leading man or lady must have the inner strength to survive adversity and the cleverness to escape danger and ultimately solve the crime.
Flower wasn’t perfect. See the toast reference above. Female meerkats will sometimes kill each other’s pups, so a dominant female, when pregnant, will get rid of any perceived threat before her pups are born. In standard meerkat fashion, Flower evicted her own adult daughters from the family if they dared to turn up pregnant (only the dominant female is allowed to breed), or if Flower simply suspected that they might be capable of disloyalty. The first time this happened to the beloved Mozart (right), I was aghast. Mozart was darling and adorable! Mozart was a great babysitter! Mozart stayed faithfully by her brother Shakespeare’s side after he was bitten by a snake. No meerkat can survive in the desert for long without a family’s support, so I was relieved when Flower allowed Mozart to return home. I forgave Flower. When this sort of thing kept happening, though, and Tosca perished after Flower banished her, my affection for the Whiskers’ matriarch began to curdle. By the second season, I couldn’t stand the little bitch.
Lesson #2: Give your protagonist faults, sure, but don’t go overboard. Occasional meanness, followed by guilt and reparations, may be endearing, but relentless, unrepentant cruelty is more likely to turn readers off.
Despite my growing dislike of Flower, I was still hooked on the Whiskers and wanted to know what would happen next. Unfortunately, what happened next began to look an awful lot like what happened before. Beautiful morning, the family foraging peacefully, a sudden alarm call: here comes the enemy! I absolutely love the meerkat war dance, that stiff-legged bounce that looks hilarious when 30 tiny meerkats are charging forth in full attack mode. But even a sight so adorable can lose some of its attraction when it happens every week, often more than once. Danger – a bird of prey, a snake – can also become routine, even if you know that one time out of twenty, something bad will actually happen.
Meerkats forage for disgusting things to munch on. They mate and raise pups. They take cover from predators. They attack enemies. They defend their territory. They wage furious battles, run the enemy off, go back to the burrow and either lick each other’s wounds or engage in exultant grooming. This is pretty much the life of a meerkat family. Lots of dramatic highs, to be sure, and some lovely downtime for the clan, but we’ve seen it all before.
Lesson #3: Keep the drama surprising. Keep it original. Don’t let the reader guess the shape and size of the threat before it arrives. Don’t always let things work out in the obvious way.
Although I came to dislike Flower, she won back a bit of my heart when she accepted little Axel (right), a pup from another mob whom Flower’s son Mitch mistakenly “rescued” during a battle. By instinct, Flower should have killed Axel when she realized he wasn’t a Whisker, but she took him into the clan, and I began to grow fond of her again. Then she died. All of Meerkat Manor fandom went berserk. Message boards on the Animal Planet web site overflowed with angry, heartrending cries of grief. Shakespeare’s unexplained disappearance was bad enough, but this was Flower! How could the camera crew stand by and let her die? Every newspaper and TV station in the known world ran obits and speculated over whether fans would boycott future shows.
Lesson #4: Be careful who you kill off. Ask Elizabeth George, Dana Stabenow, and Karin Slaughter how fans feel about the death of a beloved character. Few writers would be foolish enough to kill a protagonist, though, and what happened on Meerkat Manor after Flower’s death shows why this would be an extremely bad idea.
Suddenly the Whiskers had no leader. Two of her daughters, Maybelline and Rocket Dog, jostled for the role of dominant female. The thoroughly unlikable Rocket Dog (left) emerged victorious, but she was a weak leader at best, and the family began to fall apart. Zaphod, Flower’s widower, no longer had a place in the clan, and he went roving in search of an unrelated female. Maybelline (right) formed her own mob. Poor sweet Mozart was on her own again. Every program jumped around from the remnants of the Whiskers to the Commandos to the Aztecs to the Zappa. I could hardly keep the meerkats straight, much less develop a fondess for any of them. I still loved Mitch, Axel, Daisy, Mozart, but I saw too little of them. When Mozart died, alone in the cold desert night, my heart shattered.
Lesson #5: Maintain your focus. Too many characters and too many storylines will dilute the impact of the narrative and prevent the reader from forming a strong emotional connection. Decide who you want readers to care about, and who will provide the most drama, and tell the story from the viewpoints of those characters.
I don’t know whether we’ll see any more seasons of Meerkat Manor. I suspect the ratings dropped so much after Flower’s death that the series may fade away. If it returns, will I watch it again? Probably, because our cat Gabriel is crazy about it and I wouldn’t want to deprive him. One bad season soured me on it, but I will fondly remember the compelling episodes with Flower as the driving force, and I appreciate the storytelling lessons.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Remembrance Day is a big deal at our house. This year, it’s an even bigger deal.
You may already know that the Canadian actor, writer, and director, Paul Gross, has just released a movie about the battle of Passchendaele. http://www.passchendaelethemovie.com/
Critical response has been mixed, based on whether or not the critic liked the story line choices that Gross decided to feature in the movie. My husband decided he would see the movie in a theatre; I decided I’d wait until it’s on DVD and I can watch it, by myself, in small doses, preferably late one night. There are some memories I choose to honor in private.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I, or as it’s more commonly known in Commonwealth countries, The Great War. Veterans Affairs Canada /Anciens Combattants Canada has organized a 1914 to 1918 Vigil to commemorate this. From sunset November 4th through to sunrise this morning, November 11th, the names of the 68,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who lost their lives in WWI were projected, one at a time, onto the National War Memorial in Ottawa, buildings in other regions of Canada and onto the side of Canada House in Trafalgar Square in London, England.
For more information on this project and other links to Great War historical documents, go to http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=feature/fww
The verse below will be recited at Remembrance Day services today in many Commonwealth countries. It is from a poem “For the Fallen,” by an English poet, Lawrence Binyon. Too old for military service in the Great War, Binyon volunteered for the Red Cross and, each year of the war, spent much of his annual leave from the British Museum working as a medical orderly in France.
“They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Monday, November 10, 2008
I agreed to bring my dog, Simon, because he didn’t have any other plans, and because my friend, whose wife is a filmmaker, asked if Simon would take part in a “mockumentary” that they were going to make about the event. So my sons and I ventured out with our Beagle on a leash. We had to park blocks away because apparently the participants were coming from many lands, and traffic was gridlocked for several blocks. I saw a Great Dane in a tux sitting in the passenger seat of a minivan and realized that we might be in for quite a show.
From the moment we emerged from the car, our dog seemed to feel that something was wrong. He struggled and whined on his leash. When we reached the area that was the equivalent of a dog city hall, Simon tugged in earnest–not trying to reach his brethren, but to flee from them. He’s never been a fan of other canines. He tugged away, making choking and belching sounds, as we pulled him closer to his little intended, a mini Doberman named Bina, whose poise and sweetness were at odds with Simon’s panting, trembling, and–to judge from the sounds he was making–vomiting.
I joked to my friend John that Simon reminded me of my husband on our wedding day. John looked at me a little differently after that. When the dogs processed down the red carpet, many of them in elaborate finery and at least two sets in specially made carriages, Simon was the only one who seemed convinced that it would end in beheading, and at one point he was actually walking backwards.
At the end of the long aisle he was so nervous I had to pick him up, which is no easy feat. Bina was looking at him with something like disgust, and she seems, in this photo, to be calling him an unsavory name; Simon in turn is showing the whites of his eyes like a spooked racehorse.
Meanwhile, somewhere, I’m sure someone is planning another event for which people will have to put human clothes on dogs in a tribute to the human obsession with anthropomorphism.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Ann Littlewood's first mystery, NIGHT KILL, comes out soon from Poisoned Pen Press. Ann herself is an experienced Zoo Keeper, and she has remarked that few mysteries are set in zoos--until now, that is.
I am (possibly) uniquely qualified to clarify the difference between zookeepers and mystery authors, who are so easily confused (with each other). Sample dialogue when they meet at parties: “So, do you work with an Apple or road apples?” “Do you shovel the shit with a PC or a spade?” I may be the only person on Planet Earth who is simultaneously a member of Mystery Writers of America and the American Association of Zookeepers. So let me clear up this troubling matter once and for all:
Zookeepers wear boots and a uniform and have wet feet most of the time.
Mystery authors wear gray sweats or pajamas and (dry) bunny slippers except when they are out selling books. Then they wear either tweedy things or ridiculous costumes.
Zookeepers expect minor injuries every day—bruises and scratches and tweaky backs.
Mystery authors suffer emotional traumas every day over recalcitrant plots, bad reviews, or typos that escaped into the wild.
Zookeepers answer dumb questions about animals from the public—“Aren’t lions and tigers natural enemies?”
Mystery authors answer dumb questions about writing from the public—“Where do you get your ideas?”
Zookeepers smell funny.
Mystery authors—not so much.
Zookeepers are publicity-shy because they know they will be misquoted and look like idiots to their co-workers.
Mystery authors, even shy ones, try hard to love publicity because then people will know about their books and buy their books, and the publisher will take the next one.
Zookeepers come home from work very tired and dirty and hungry.
Mystery authors often don’t leave home for days, but they, too, get tired and hungry.
Both are cranky until fed.
Zookeepers know a lot about shit.
Mystery authors know a lot about blood.
Zookeepers love baby animals. So do mystery authors.
Zookeepers have gruesome stories about accidental deaths and maiming. So do mystery authors.
Zookeepers are wonderful parents for grade school show and tell.
Mystery authors are pretty good parents for high school class guests.
Zookeepers want to win a free trip to Tanzania.
Mystery writers want a free trip to Bouchercon.
Zookeepers love to talk about enriching animal’s lives and breeding programs.
Mystery authors love to talk about ballistics, strangulation, and blood spatters.
There. That was simple, right? Keep these field marks in mind so you don’t make a tragic social error the next time you attend a reading for a zoo mystery.
Friday, November 7, 2008
Or is it "Penny wise, pound foolish?" Maybe both?
One of the best doughnut shops anywhere in the world is Southpaws in Metropolis, Illinois. If you're ever in our area, be sure to drop by. I love everything they make, hence the pound foolish part.
As to "In for a penny," it's a most interesting story. Southpaw's owner Glenna Brown and her business partner started saving pennies more than ten years ago to see how many they could acquire toward paying off their loan. Customers noticed the various popcorn canisters of pennies and started dropping in extra pennies. Time passed, the amount of the owners' business loan dropped as the amount of pennies rose until the two met somewhere in the middle. After calling to warn the local bank she was coming, Brown arrived pushing a wheel barrow containing 39,535 pennies to pay off her final payment of $395.35. It took over ten years, and unfortunately her business partner didn't live to see the big day. If you'd like to see a picture, click here:
Some friends and I were having a discussion recently about the economy, and someone asked how we each thought we'd survive if another great depression hit. Our discussion didn't sink into who is to blame for our country's current financial crisis or how to fix it, nor do I intend to do that here. Instead, we each listed ways we could cut our spending, if forced to do so to survive. Quite fascinating.
In most cases, the first budget item to go was, sigh, our various ways of connecting to the Internet. Imagine not being able to read email, check blogs, send jokes (okay, I could easily live without that one) or surf the net. Not to mentioning ordering stuff you can't find in your home area.
Next to go was cable or satellite television. Argh. I love all the choices even if maybe 100 of the 200 plus channels are pure fluff or fillers, if you will. Surely the jewelry auction channels will suffer if we all cut back? But without that little dish, hubby and I would be reduced to a grand total of four channels and two of them are barely viewable.
After that came land lines for phones, since most people now have cell phones and their total monthly cell phone bill is usually cheaper than a land line with long distance. That cut I could live with and would have already done IF we didn't get such poor cell phone reception where we live. Still, it may come to that.
The amount of meals eaten out took a huge cut in our discussion. Eeek. And frankly, many restaurants are already struggling in our area. (Ahem, I must confess, we were on our way to eat out when this discussion took place.)
Most of us agreed that gas bills would be hard to cut to a great degree with people having to drive to and from work, (plus possibly any driving done while there, if the job requires it.) Economists frequently urge us to lump errand running together and not make extra trips. Most women I know have been doing that since they learned to drive.
One of the contributors to this discussion builds houses as well as doing remodels, and according to him new home building in our area is waaaaay down but remodels are still flourishing. Hmmm. New stove, anyone? I'm just praying my noisy washer doesn't turn up its toes.
So, what could you live without if you had to that you can't seem to live without now? Doesn't hurt to give it some thought. Just in case. And don't forget to save those pennies. 39,535 pennies might come in handy some day.