Thursday, December 20, 2012

Who's a Friend of the Big Bad Wolf?

What an interesting question.  I managed to avoid nearly an hour of horrible first draft production, staring out of the window, thinking about it.

And the answer is . . . well, sort of. 

I write seatopants-style so very often the one I thought dunnit turns out not to have in the end and I suppose you could say switching a character from "murderer" to "non-murderer" is a bit of a moral upgrade.

One time I really did turn someone from a moustache-twirling, cape-swirling baddy (bwah-hah-hah, all that) to a bunny-hugging (well, bunny-shooting since it was the 1920s and this person was a countrydweller but let's not quibble) poppet.  But I did it after the character was dead so there wasn't much in it for them.

Usually though, it's a question of ever-increasing complexity.  I can't decide whether it's a drawback or a side-benefit of writing a series that minor comic characters grow and deepen over the course of a few books so that you can't use them for cheap laughs any more.

Dandy Gilver's husband, Hugh, was pretty much a stuffed shirt in the first book or two, but as I've written about his childhood, his reaction to his wife being in danger, his fears for his teenage sons as the clouds of war begin to gather, I've grown fonder of him and developed a grudging respect.  In the last two books I've given him a moment of glory to off-set the fact that I still laugh at his fossilised take on the world.

And actually,as I write this I remember that a few years ago, in a different frame of mind, and under a pseudonym (although not very far under: it was Catriona McCloud) I wrote a slightly cross-genre, tricky to decribe and therefore tricky to keep in print, puzzle novel called Straight Up which had a massive shift along the scale of sympathy for one of the characters.

I'm being cryptic because tis is the season and so I've decided to give a couple of copies of Straight Up away (should anyone want one).  In short, if you'd care to read a crime/road/buddy caper about lies, fibs, whoppers, tall tales and total bull in which a depressed florist takes on Hollywood and wins (kind of), just comment and I'll draw names  at the end of today. (With regret, US only.)

Whatever you're reading on the days off next week, though, have a wonderful feast/rest/holiday, won't you.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Imaginary Friends

“How much do you know about a character’s back story before you write word one?  Or do you just wing it?”

Any question along the lines of “How much careful, painstaking, industrious _____ do you do or do you just _____?” is always going to go the same way with me.  “Just” is the operative word.
Some call it organic; some call it shambolic; I call it the Benny Hill method, as I’ve said before.  Brakes off at the top of the hill and go (bathtub optional).

And it’s so organic/shambolic, the bathtub goes whizzing down so fast, that very often I can’t answer questions about method at all.  I really don’t know. 
At the moment, however, it’s all quite fresh in my mind because I’m 1500 words into a new story, not part of my series.  So since a week past Monday I’ve invented three main characters and thirteen minor ones.

Here’s what I know about the big three, five pages in. 
I know their first and last names, no idea what middle names if any.  I know roughly how old they are but I’ll need a perpetual calendar of the 20th century at some point to work it out properly.   I know where one of them lives in precise detail, floor plan of her house, all that.  I know what city the other two live in and that one has a house and one a flat.  I’ll need to go out for a stroll with Google’s wee orange man later. 

I don’t know where any of them were born, but I know they crossed paths in their youth, so I’ll need to sort that out too.   I know the marital status of one, have got a bit of a clue (the name of an ex-girlfriend) about another, have got not the first clue about the third.   If his wife turns up while I’m writing, I’ll know then.   I do know what jobs they do; none of them is a cop, detective, sleuth or pathologist.

How did I find out?  By writing their evolving names over and over again on sheets of scrap paper and thinking about them.  I’m riffling through the heap of paper now and it really is just names.  This is the first time I’ve realised that.
One final thing: I know exactly what they look like (found out by repeatedly writing their names (does this sound as bonkers as it feels to me?)) and by about 30,000 words it’ll start to annoy me that I’ve never seen them.  Then I go looking for pictures of them.  Since this is a modern story I’ll trawl the internet, magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, anywhere I can think of, until I find them.  (When I’m writing Dandy Gilver, set in the 1920s, I have to use old photos. )

And I’ll know them when I see them.  I’ll recognise them.  Then I’ll photocopy or print out the pictures, staple them to pieces of card and prop them up on my desk while we all write the rest of the story together.  Writing isn’t lonely if you’re not actually alone. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"I've prepared and handled raw food?"

. . . as Goldie Hawn says in bewildered tones, in Overboard, that towering piece of cinematic majesty.

Dandy Gilver would be much the same.   Cook, to Dandy is a noun.  Cook, is Mrs Tilling, and you can find some of her recipes below stairs on the Dandy Gilver website.

As for giving thanks?  “My dear, I don’t think so, do you?  One shouldn’t gush with emotion in public.”
Not me.  I love Thanksgiving.  I don’t really get it, but I love it.  It’s a four-day weekend and there’s lots of food.  (For a hilarious take on this holiday from a UK point of view, see Simon Wood, who blogged about it yesterday.)

This is my third since moving here.  First time out I was on Martinelli’s duty.  Impossible to get wrong.  Last year I served my apprenticeship on appetisers.  Possible to get wrong, but no one cares because Thanksgiving dinner is all about the main course and the truckload of sweet things to follow.
But this year?  Oh-ho, this year I have been promoted to – drum roll – green bean casserole.

I’m making two.

One with fresh beans, crimini mushrooms, sour cream, onions that I’ll caramelise in my cast-iron frying pan for two hours with nutmeg and garlic, and chicken stock that I made with three chicken carcasses and handfuls of herbs and which is in my freezer in small batches against just this eventuality.

And the other one.  You know the one I mean.
Now, I feel very affectionate towards the idea of mixing together products and calling it cooking – what a friend on Facebook this week called “the Midwestern Lutheran church-basement pot-luck tradition”.  Some of my happiest evenings in Scotland ended with an after-dinner game using the Amish Barn Cookbook I brought home from a winter in Ohio.

No one ever guessed the seven ingredients in Amish waldorf salad.  Foodie friends would say – very airily – “Well, celery, apples and walnuts.  Let’s get them out of the way.”  And I’d say, “Nope.”  Endless fun.
That Thanksgiving in Ohio was also the time Neil and I wondered if the stores were open the day after the holiday and drove out to a mall to see.  It seemed quite busy.  We laugh about it now.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What, no sex?

“How much of your character's political and religious belief do you put in a book or do you shy away from those topics?” was the question and it’s a good one.  What’s amazing is how quickly that question – whenever it’s asked – becomes “How much of your political ideology and religious fervour should you cram down a reader’s throat like a shift-worker on a foie-gras-goose farm?” 

As I pointed out, commenting on Reece’s posting on Monday (before I realised I should keep my mouth shut so’s I’d have something to say on Thursday), no one ever thinks having a character kill their entire family with a nutmeg grater is a suggestion for how readers should live their real lives.

Well, anyway, I've got it easy. Dandy Gilver’s political beliefs – the unthinking Toryism of the Brtish upper class in the 1920s – and her religious beliefs – the unthinking  high-church Christianity of the British upper class in the 1920s – are not mine to cram.

Not everyone gets that, mind you.  In pre-facebook days, once or twice a reading group or lunch club invited that delightful Dandy Gilver’s fragrant creator to speak and were horrified to have the likes of me roll up.

And once I was accused of being an apologist for social stratification because I write about “toffs coming along and solving the problems of the plebs.”  Needless to say my accuser hadn’t read any of my books.

To tell the truth, drip-drip-drip bias in fiction bothers me as much as it did that angry if uninformed class-warrior.  Three examples:

In Enid Blyton, the rich kids were always taller, stronger and braver than Edgar the cook’s son, who always snivelled and went to pieces at the first whiff of danger.  Also they were clean-limbed.  What does that even mean?  What would someone look like who was dirty-limbed?

I had to stop reading Jonathon Kellerman’s The Butcher’s Theatre because all the Israelis were tall, strong and brave (and probably clean-limbed too) and all the Palestinians were low-down cheating scalliwags.   Who smelled bad – yes, really. 

Every week when the X-Files was on I’d think: “Come on.  Just once.  Let the scientific explanation be right.  Just one week and then back to all the spookety-woo next time.”  Not one single time did Scully ever carry the day for reason, though.  In this case, I watched every episode in every season, just to make sure.

So, in conclusion, politics and relgious belief are just another part of a character’s make-up to me and if they’re key they need to be depicted with the same reckless devotion to the demands of the story as everything else.  But when an author builds a world, you don’t half get a good look at the builder too.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


And when it's time to ring them down.

When I got a publication deal for the first book in a detective series - or rather when I got a publication deal for a detective novel and was asked whether it was a series (see below) - my agent told me loud and clear that I had to write at least six. 

(Below.  When an interested publisher asks you if you see it becoming a series, it's the crimewriter equivalent of a Hollywood casting director asking if you can ride horses.  You say yes without missing a beat and work out how later.)

Why six?  Because, my agent told me, that's how many episodes there are in a serving of BBC Sunday night telly.  (Do US agents tell new American writers to shoot for twenty two?)

It was a bit of a joke to my friends and family, but then fan me flat if, just after No. 6 came out, the BBC didn't go and option it.  I'd mess that neat bit of plotting up with a problem or two if I was in charge.  I'm glad I'm not.

So the first half of my answer to the question of when to retire a series character is not until you've written six (if it's British and/or has any kind of bonnets or shawls about it anyway.)

How about the other end?  How long can you rumble on? 

I wouldn't want to end up like Agatha Christie.  In Dead Man's Folly (1956), thirty six years after she introduced her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, she introduced the character of Ariadne Oliver, a writer of detective stories, who is pig sick of her Finnish detective, Sven Hjerson and wishes he was dead or at least not Finnish anyway.

I started Dandy Gilver off in 1922 and I'm just editing the 1930 story now.  I've got a great idea for 1936, which looked a hilarious distance off when I started and now seems like it might be just round the corner.  I've got a cracker for 1972 too.  Dandy would be eighty six.  Just a spring chicken compared to Poirot.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Dandelion by one particular other name . . .

. . . is "pee-the-bed".  Something that didn't occur to me until after I'd called my new series detective Dandelion (aka Dandy) Gilver, because her parents were devotees of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the type who'd think a wildflower was a wonderful thing.

Gilver, Dandy's name since she married Hugh Murdoch Cathellen Gilver, is believably Scottish (I know McGilvers and Gilverys) but not actionable, since I made it up out of GIL (Scots for servant) and VER (Latin for truth).  So she's a dandy servant of truth i.e. good detective.

Be assured I don't go into that much depth and cunning for everyone.  Ordinarily, I love naming characters precisely because flashy results for little effort are the best bit of writing.

So for the first names - what Dandy in Scotland in the 1920s would call Christian names - I use Naming Baby by Eugene Stone, a fine little volume inherited from my grandmother after she used it (presumably) to come up with James,Walter, Peter, Annie and Minnie.

For what I call second names, US speakers call last names and Dandy would call surnames, I used to flip through the weekly Galloway News.  There was much fun to be had with McSporrans and McHaggises, McGurks and McGoggs and McGilihooleys.  I couldn't use them all, obviously; that many micks and macks would send readers cross-eyed, so the second names in the books are never an accurate reflection of what a batch of Scottish names would actually be.  (Think California towns starting with San or Santa and you'll get the idea). 

A related - if irrelevant - problem is that if I buy an address book outside Scotland it never has enough space under the Ms and I have to steal some of the N pages to cram in clan McPherson, clan-in-law McRoberts and all my McKenzie, McKie, McLean, MacDougall, MacKay and McKinnon pals.  It must be the same in Ireland with Os.

These days I do it online.  There are no fewer daft Scottish names but there is always the danger of finding yourself, two hours later, deep in the bowels of Youtube, watching a cat stuck in an urn.

The most fun I ever had naming characters was in a circus setting for The Winter Ground: Topsy Turvey the acrobat, Tiny Truman the dwarf clown and the flying Prebrezhenskys, a Risley act. 
Tiny Truman was named after what was called, at the head of a paragraph on the Finger Lakes in the Rough Guide to New York State, Tiny Trumansburg.  I know the town was named after the president and the guide was commenting on its size, but I loved the idea of a big town named after someone called Tiny.

The most frustrating bit of naming characters is that, in being realistic, you have to ignore endless real-life examples just too outlandish to appear in fiction: I used to have a colleague called Zip Dominion; a mature student whose parents, in the 1950s, saw no reason not to call her Gay Cocks (but get these feminist credentials - she didn't change it when she married!); the local indie bookshop in Davis is run by the magnificently monikered Alzeda Knickerbocker; or what about Madison Bumgarner of the Giants?  (I'll tell you what about him - Go, As!)  And I'll never forget the day I learned of Diana Ross's decision to grace her beautiful little girl with the fragrant . . . Chudney.  Oy.

Let's finish off back in fiction; Chudney couldn't happen there.

My favourite fictional name of recent times is the hero of Daniel Friedman's stellar debut Don't Ever Get Old.  He's a curmudgeonly octogenerian Memphis Jewish ex-detective and his name is Buck Shatz, which makes me laugh every time I see it.  I'm just sophisticated that way.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Broth by more than one cook?

by Catriona.

Hello, everyone.  I'm delighted to be here and honoured to have been asked and since I'm oh so very much not one of the mehegamoths (how I wish that was actually a word) who can employ minions to "co-author" their books, I'm going take a bit of this first post to introduce myself.

But to stay on-topic for a wee while . . . I love some co-authored (with no scare quotes) books: PJ Tracey, the mother and daughter team behind the MONKEEWRENCH series; PJ Parrish, the sisters who gave us LOUIS KINCAID and JOE FRYE, and Nicci French, the husband and wife team (how will they manange to co-author after the inevitable divorce, is what I wonder) responsible for a slew of creepy stand-alones including the fabulous KILLING ME SOFTLY.

But as far as I know I've never read any "co-authored" by mehegamoth and minion books - although Joyce Carol Oates is pretty prolific and she's got that sinewy look of someone who could kill you with her pinkie - so you never know.

Would I do it?  An ever-expanding universe of no.  I write with my office door shut, locked and duct-taped round the edges.  Never been in a critique group, never shown my first draft to anyone, never told anyone, including my agent and editor, what it's about until it's finished. Control freak?  Until the first draft is chipped out of the ground, as his Kingness puts it, freakishly and controllingly so.

With one exception.  Years ago my father told me he had an idea for a children's picture book, but thought I'd make a better job of writing it up than him so he was going to hand it over to me.  I thought for a minute about employing the standard response I give my mother when she asks me for something:  "What have you ever done for me?"

But, A. who could say no to either of these two and (ii) I'd never written a picture book and how hard could it be?

Quite hard.  Mark Haddon, author of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME once said, in one of those endless snarkfests about whether writing for children is easier than writing for adults (nearly as bad as the one about whether genre fiction is as good as literary fiction) that only an idiot would say there's no skill difference between Ulysses and Here Comes Spot.  But I found telling a story in thirty-two pages with no more than twenty words on each page a lot harder than knocking out a chapter of prose.

Maybe I shouldn't have had a societal breakdown arc, a heart-warming buddy arc and a climactic fire scene all in a seven-hundred-word story about talking buckets.  You tell me.

It's as yet unpublished, after going into development at Usborne and never coming out again.  It joins a radio sitcom that went into develpoment at the Comedy Store in the UK, and is still in there as far I know, and a monograph of my PhD that went into development at Routledge, painted itself the same colour as the wall behind it and stood very still for ten years until everyone had forgotten and stopped looking.

Development is a bad place for me.

But if mehegamothdom ever comes a-calling, and I turn into one of those lucky sods with publishers begging for their shopping lists to bring out as a Little Book of Groceries for the holiday season, I won't need minions to help me cash in.  I've got four picture books all hot to trot and three sitcoms with treatments for the first season and scripts for episode one, as well as that page-turning PhD.

But I was supposed to be introducing myself.  Recovering academic, born blonde (but a lot has happened since then), co-owner of the ugliest ranch-house ever built and twenty scruffy acres in northern California (people from home say: "Oooh, California!" with shining eyes, and I say: "Did you see Erin Brockovich?  That was California.") cat-lover, Project Runway enthusiast, dumpster-divin' fool,  novice cake-maker, master cake-eater.  What else?  Trek, Beatles, Spike (as opposed to Wars, Stones, Angel) and not even as high-brow as all that sounds, I'm sad to say.

Pleased to meet you.