Friday, May 30, 2014
Back in the second grade, just before Christmas break (as I recall), I explained to the teacher that I'd be finishing my first novel over the holidays. It was the story of two mice, as I remember—a city one and a country one—and I'm sure it wasn't at all like any of the books that I'd already read about city mice and country mice. I told her that she should look for it in bookstores sometime in the spring.
She was very kind to say she'd keep her eye out for it.
This week's question—"Do you have a novel in a drawer, a first novel (or a later one) that never saw the light of day?"—sent me rummaging through some old files on my computer, and while I no longer have anything left from that second-grade manuscript, I did find a lot of work languishing here and there on my hard drive. None of those more recent projects were about mice, but looking back over the manuscripts, I do see a trend: largely rural mysteries, vaguely coming-of-age in their approach, and each with some mildly experimental structure. It's perhaps merciful to all of us that none of these has seen the light of day, but I'm glad to share a little glimpse of them here.
Just after college (way back when), I completed a mystery novel called "Crosswords" that had a police detective matching wits with an aspiring writer who seemed to be the leading suspect in the murder of his girlfriend; the story included both journal entries from the dead woman and excerpts from the writer's novel-in-progress—all of which held clues to the truth.
Then there was "Lost in the Holy City" about a man whose son disappears—turns down a pathway in Charleston, SC, and literally vanishes—at the precise moment that the man's wife dies of a mysterious illness in a hospital around the corner. The novel switches back and forth between the husband and wife's courtship and the grief-stricken man's search for his lost child.
Then there was "First Loves, Second Thoughts," which shuttled between two interrelated tales: three boys and their new neighbor, a young girl, investigating a "crime" (a series of bones from a large animal that appear one at a time in various yards) and ultimately uncovering a scandal in their neighborhood, and then one of those boys years later, in college, mounting surveillance against his girlfriend, whom he suspects of cheating on him (and discovering some things about himself this time around).
And then there's the latest manuscript, about a former journalist investigating the murder of a junior at the local college—and uncovering her surprising double life. That one went by the riveting and original working title of "The Dead Girl."
....just in case you need a checklist of novels that you won't find at your local bookstore.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Do you have a novel in a drawer, a first novel (or a later one) that never saw the light of day?
You bet I do. Except it’s not in a drawer. It’s in an asbestos-lined Kevlar sleeve, in a six-inch-thick solid steel vault, buried ten feet underground in my backyard, where it’s no threat to the welfare of society.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. The walls of the steel vault are only five inches thick.
It’s the first novel I ever wrote, back when I didn’t know a dangling participle from a Flying Wallenda. I knew nothing about esoteric things like characterization and setting and plot and structure and dialogue. I did know a little bit about punctuation, but for some reason, I felt a very strong urge to use a preponderance of semi-colons (and I have a feeling I overused the word “preponderance” too).
I revised it a bit and truthfully, I liked the general story and (many of) the characters. But man, was that prose stilted and formal and phony. And some of the plot twists? Oh my! My, my, my. More than a few coincidences and, shall we say, a preponderance of character actions with questionable motivations.
You might be wondering: Why didn’t I stick with this first novel and keep revising it until it sang?
Not even the best voice teacher in the world could get that turnip to sing.
Wisely, I moved on to my next manuscript, which was clearly better written from the get-go (I guess I learned a lot from my practice manuscript). I know I’m a lot better writer now, but I don’t think I’ll be digging that first attempt up anytime soon to try to resuscitate it. And believe it or not, in some kind of weird time-warped irony, the working title of that first novel was…Unburied Secrets.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Monday, May 26, 2014
by Meredith Cole
Yes. Doesn't every writer? Perhaps there are a few very prolific writers, who never wrote on spec, who finished every single thing they started. And got it all published. But I imagine they are few and far between.
Writing and trying new, brave things is part of a writer's job. Stay too safe and predictable and your book will end up dull. But brave new things don't always work. Especially when you're a newbie.
There's a quote that quite a few graduation speakers have been bringing out a lot this month, but I think it also applies here:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
--Samuel BeckettThe real trick is to "fail better." To learn from every one of the novels that sits in a drawer (and perhaps should never see the light of day). And to write the next and the next. Bravely failing each time.
Friday, May 23, 2014
By Paul D. Marks
How important is research:
They say "write what you know," but we can't know everything we write about. Hemingway may have experienced bullfights and African safaris, but we often write about things that either we haven't experienced directly or, if we're writing sci-fi, things that might not even exist yet. Or we might be writing about the past – a past we never personally experienced.
I'm not 100% sure, but I doubt George Lucas has ever left this planet, and if he ever has, I again doubt that he went to a place called Tatooine. Still, he managed to come up with Star Wars and created a whole universe around it. How did he do that without ever leaving Earth?
It gives our stories verisimilitude, a sense of time, place and character that rings true.
Even though I lived through the "Rodney King" riots I couldn't see everything, be everywhere, experience every experience, nor was I a cop or rioter. So in writing my novel White Heat I turned to newspapers, magazines and the net, and since people are still alive who were there in the thick of it, I talked to them too, cops, and others.
I have a new novel I'm shopping now, a World War II homefront mystery set in L.A., based on a character that's been in three published stories. But that era is before my time, before any personal memories of mine. Still, I think I captured it pretty well because of all the research I did. On the internet, via old magazines, articles, movies, music, and maps. Maps are a great research tool and can be used in a lot of ways. But I also turned to first person resources. People who were there. My family goes back in Los Angeles well before the war, so I talked to relatives and friends of theirs. Plus I do have memories from after the war when things hadn't changed all that much, unlike today, so I could draw on them too.
Has an error ever made it into print:
There's always errors that make it into print. Some are innocuous, like typos or an out of place comma, some are big and make you feel stupid, especially when they're things you know but just got away from you. And then someone reads it and points it out and you feel like an idiot and think they think you're an idiot and will share your idiocy with the world. Makes you want to duck and cover.
But sometimes you might make a calculated choice to put something in that isn't quite right because it works dramatically – poetic license. For example, I might fudge it with a song that came out a year after an event took place, but that just works so well for a scene. But then there's always that know-it-all who sat in the front of the class and knows that that song came out three days after the date of your scene. So sometimes you just have to throw a slapstick pie in their face and fudge things a little.
So research is extremely important to just about anything we write. But it does have one major drawback: it's just too much fun. Especially in the internet age when you can just bounce from hyperlink to hyperlink and spend all day researching instead of writing. In the ye olde olden days you had to go to libraries or have tons of research books, which are fine, but today it's so much easier. And it's not only educational and important for your story, but it's the best procrastination tool ever invented because you can pretend to be doing work while you're really just having fun.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
... not in August of 1923 she wasn't. These are two mistakes that made it into the published version of my second book, THE BURRY MAN'S DAY. One of them is really bad: I had the characters listening to dance music on the Light Programme from the BBC months before it broadcast for the first time. There's no getting away from that.
The other mistake is one I can talk my way out of, if I have to. BMD is set two years before the Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of the expression "cocktail dress" in print. But it's highly unlikely that a phrase is used in print before or even soon after it's first used in speech and so there's nothing to say that Buttercup de Cassilis couldn't have used it that day, the second Thursday in August in 1923.
Except that BMD is set in Queensferry, the village where I was born (in fact the jacket image is the view from the room I was born in)
and I know from my schooldays that no one in Queensferry beat anyone to a fashion coup by two years. We didn't get punk until 1998. Okay, slight exaggeration but it's not Soho.
The question of first citations is one that I think about a lot, given my background as a linguist. It's easy enough to avoid out-and-out anachronisms - they do clang so in the middle of a historical story - but there are some words and phrases, perfectly contemporary for the time, with a dated entry in the OED to back them up, that nevertheless seem too modern. I've cut "death-ray", "cash and carry" and "homo-erotic" (not from the same sentence - although what a sentence it would be) because, although they are all fine, they have to strike the reader as fine and my copy-editor reckoned none of these would.
So much for dictionary work. When it comes to general physical research, probably some of the above tells you how important it is to me. On the one hand, I didn't check the radio history but on the other hand I know exactly what date the book is set and I know that I've got the moon in the right quarter and the tide doing what it would have done on that day.
Buttercup's house - Cassilis Castle - is another mixture of accuracy and fantasy. It's a real castle - this one:
with a roof on and glass in the windows, admittedly, but the rooms, doors, fireplaces, arrowslits, murder hole and oubliette are all accurately placed inside it. The only tiny little bit of license I took was to drag it a hundred miles north from where the real Cardoness Castle can be found, just outside Gatehouse, to where I wanted Buttercup and Cadwallader de Cassilis to live, just out side the 'Ferry.
I always put a Facts and Fictions page at the back to let people know what I've made up, but one reader who was intrigued by the thought of the castle and lived nearby (she thought) spent quite a long afternoon tramping around looking for it. She was only halfway through reading the book though and hadn't seen the Facts and Fictions page. And it was high summer and therefore raining. She got in touch, quite politely considering.
Like I said:
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
getting it right - ishby Clare O'Donohue
"How important is research in your stories, and has an error ever made it into print?"
I work in what is called "unscripted television", which is pretty much everything but news, sports, comedy and drama. It runs the gamut in quality and integrity from The Bachelor all the way to Nova. It should surprise no one that a) it is entirely scripted and b) depending on the show, is often filled with errors, though the errors are on purpose and theoretically, make the show more dramatic and fun to watch.
However, when I'm writing novels, I prefer to get my drama from characters and skip (as Stephen Colbert would say) "truthiness" in favor of the truth.
Which means I do research. I'm betting that most writers are like me, in that research is really half the fun. Writers, it turns out, do not just write what we know... we use writing as an excuse to learn about things we've always wanted to know.
Want to take an art class? Write a character who enrolls in art school and take a class as research.
Want to travel to Spain? Set a book there.
Want to spend all day at a museum and call it work? Use some information you get there as a plot twist.
Anything you want to do, any place you want to go, any book you want to read... research. You don't have to worry about making a fool of yourself on the dance floor or bowling alley - it doesn't matter how well you do, you're doing research!
It's the ultimate writer get-out-of-jail free card (though don't try it to literally get out of jail - as in "I only robbed the bank as research for my next book." I don't think this will fly with a judge.)
Which is to say, research is very important to me. Mainly because I like it. (Does that make sense?)
Having said that, have there been mistakes? Probably. I try very hard to get it right, and yet things do slip through. I'm okay with that.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
- emailed a Manhattan restaurant to ask what kind of linens they use
- phoned the River Rock Casino to ask what kind of coffee makers they use in their hotel rooms
- walked the streets in Paris, New York, and Toronto using Google street view
- studied floor plans of University of Toronto buildings online, so when a character walks around inside, the bathroom is in the right place
- driven to Whistler to suss out where a character should build his backwoods mountain cabin
- listened to podcasts where poker players dish about strategy, gambling pitfalls, and their social lives on the tournament scene
- gone to an extreme snowboarding weekend (as in, everyone was a million times more advanced and adventurous than me) to learn about young mountain culture
- taken advice from some cool dudes in Fernie about how snowboarders talk to each other
- lucked out with an editor and two pre-readers who live in the States, so they can correct any Canadianisms in the US parts of my novels (Like there's no such thing as Smarties south of the border. Who knew?)
Monday, May 19, 2014
Friday, May 16, 2014
One of my favorite mystery writers—and one of my first and still best friends in the mystery writing world—is Margaret Maron, a brilliant author whose honors and distinctions have reached the highest peaks in the last few years. She earned the North Carolina Award (the state's highest civilian honor) in 2008; was named a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America at last year's Edgar Awards; and earlier this month joined Dorothy Cannell and Joan Hess in accepting Lifetime Achievement Awards from Malice Domestic. Over the last couple of decades, I've interviewed Margaret, written features on her work, and reviewed individual books for various magazines and journals, including The Armchair Detective, North Carolina Literary Review, and Mystery Scene, which recently had me pen a tribute celebrating her career. There's been interest as well in having me write a book-length critical study of her work, which I'd very much love to do—more on that another time.
In the meantime, however, I've been tasked with answering this week's question: Is there a well-known mystery in which you would have changed the ending/murderer? And while I understand why several of the folks on our virtual panel here have declined to name names or book titles, I hope I'm safe to pick a specific book by one of my very favorite writers without giving any offense. Home Fires by Margaret Maron was the first book which jumped to mind this week, in part because of how much I remembered focusing on this exact question when I reviewed the novel for Spectator Magazine (now defunct) back in 1998. My review then sparked some small dissent from local readers (Spectator was based in North Carolina's Triangle region); in fact, I recall a note from Sally Buckner, also a good friend and a renowned poet, taking me to task about my comments on the ending. Critics and readers beyond the state's borders also championed the book: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it "One of the year's finest mysteries," and Home Fires ultimately earned both Agatha and Macavity nominations.
As you'll see from my review—pasted below in its entirety—I didn't disagree with the overall assessment of the book; I found it challenging and provocative and insightful and named it myself among Maron's best at that point. But as for the ending.... Well, I'd urge you to check out Home Fires to see for yourself.
And really, if you haven't already experienced Maron's books—both the Deborah Knott series and the Sigrid Harald books and the stellar stand-alone novels Bloody Kin and Last Lessons of Summer—you need to. She's truly among the best in the business.
Margaret Maron’s Home Fires successfully explores the hot topic of race relations in the South but ultimately gets burned by its own devices
"Most popular mysteries are devoted to solving rather than examining a problem. Their reasonings put reason to sleep, abolish darkness by elucidation, and bury the corpse for good.... They are exorcisms, stories with happy endings that could be classified with comedy because they settle the unsettling....” — Geoffrey Hartman, “Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story,” New York Review of Books, May 18, 1972
Margaret Maron’s Home Fires is the best Deborah Knott mystery since series opener Bootlegger’s Daughter (Maron’s finest novel and a near-seminal work in modern detective fiction). Graced with Maron’s compassionate insight into characters both black and white, this ambitious new book offers a clear-eyed and often provocative view of race relations in the south, brought into focus by the burning of three African-American churches in the fictional Colleton County, N.C.
Home Fires opens with the burning of Balm of Gilead Church, then flashes back to events leading up to the crime, especially the conviction of three local teens—including district court judge Deborah Knott’s nephew, A.K.—for desecrating a cemetery. As the ashes fall from that first fire, suspicions about the youths’ involvement immediately spring to mind and draw amateur sleuth Deborah into the “case.” Adding to the plot’s intricacy and to the rich texture of its themes are Cyl DeGraffenried, an aggressive young African-American Assistant District Attorney who seems especially tough on the black teens she prosecutes; a 1970s black activist named Wallace Adderly who has—inexplicably, it seems—provoked the ire of DeGraffenried; and a trio of preachers who’ve seen their churches go up into flames. Many of these characters have stories to be told—and, in some cases, secrets to be revealed—and Maron deftly explores these personal histories, personal psychologies, to illuminate not only the plight of individual characters but also the tensions of the transcendent story of contemporary prejudice.
Maron is thorough in her presentation of different aspects of this topic. For example, Deborah comments that “There are very few of us who don’t have bits and pieces of cover racism embedded in our psyches.” Later, when Cyl DeGraffenried accuses Deborah of holding young white criminals to a higher standard and being softer in judgments handed against young black criminals, Deborah counters than Cyl herself asks for harsher punishments for her fellow African Americans than for convicted whites—perhaps to punish them for failing to be a credit to their race? Elsewhere, Maron poignantly underscores the fact that prejudice is not a one-way street when the seven-year-old daughter of one of the black preachers comments, “Mommy’s wrong, Daddy. These white people are nice.”
Maron’s treatment of such scenes is graceful instead of heavy-handed, telling without being preachy, and provocative enough that some readers may occasionally feel uncomfortable, questioning their own complicity in the “race problem.” To her credit, Maron doesn’t offer pat explanations, easy answers or a pacifying hopefulness. When Deborah looks out onto a playground of black, white and Asian children playing, she thinks, “Surely it was going to be different for them?” Maron’s choice of a question mark for that sentence says volumes.
Unfortunately, Maron displaces the central, critical importance of her themes when she forces the novel’s attention back to the world of clues and criminals—and especially because her choice of that criminal seems anticlimactic, if not at odds with her thematic concerns. I won’t unmask here either the party responsible for setting those fires or the petty motives behind the crimes, but suffice it to say that the ending reduces the provocative racial themes to the level of the red herring.
Throughout the Deborah Knott series, Maron has balanced—in various measures—her attentions to character and theme with her adherence to the requirements of the mystery genre. In Bootlegger’s Daughter, she melded the generic elements with the thematic ones to brilliantly devastating effect. In Home Fires, she undermines her own ambitions with a denouement which seems unworthy of the novel’s otherwise provocative excellence. As the mystery is explained, the mysteries with which the book struggles are also, to too great a degree, explained away.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Is there a well-known mystery in which you would have changed the ending/murderer?
[Note: In this blog post, no book/author names will be used to protect the not-so-innocent.]
About ten years ago, I picked up a book with a great premise. I read about 200 pages, then decided that it just wasn’t “working” for me. But I wanted to know what happened. So I finished the book. And it didn’t end any better than it started. I guess you could say it was underwhelming (or hokey, contrived, ridiculous, unbelievable—pick one or pick all).
Fast forward five years. I picked up a book with a great premise. I read about 200 pages, then decided that it just wasn’t “working” for me. But I wanted to know what happened. So I finished the book. And it didn’t end any better than it started. I guess you could say it was underwhelming (or hokey, contrived, ridiculous, unbelievable—pick one or pick all).
To prevent me from torturing myself a third time, I actually threw the book in the trash (the only time I’ve ever done that, with the exception of a college text, Elements of Vibration Analysis, which is another story altogether).
I suppose it goes without saying that I would definitely change the ending of this book. Along with the beginning. And the middle. (The title was fine.)
[By the way, as I was writing this blog post, I looked up the book on Amazon. Judging from some of the reader reviews, I was not alone in my opinion! One representative review header sums it up: “Man, this is a BAAAAD book.”]
As you can tell, my memory about books I’ve read can be spotty (to say the least), so I really can’t remember any other specific books in which I’d change the ending.
But I’m sure they’re out there!
Does anyone else have trouble remembering books they’ve read?