Thursday, October 24, 2013

Do my stories ever come true?

Oh my God, no!  And I'm so glad about that.  The body count  - even at my end of the cupcake/chainsaw continuum - is a lot higher than I would want in reality.

In fact, the first time I can ever remember being frightened by a book - properly frightened; with sweaty palms and a cold lump in the pit of my stomach - was when I read a children's story about a little girl, ill in bed, who amused herself making a book that came true in her dreams. Gaaaah!  She drew a stick-figure child in a house and then, in her dreams, the stick-figure child was trapped in there because the door she'd drawn didn't have a handle.  Gaaaaah!  At one point, the little girl woke up and, trying to stop the horror, scribbled over the illustration, then fell asleep again and saw that the house was bound in thick black cords and the stick-figure child couldn't see out anymore.  Gaaaaaah!

It was second only to the famous Singing Ringing Tree on telly for childhood trauma.

The Singing Ringing Tree - and I apologise to any forty-something Brits who're now headed back to therapy because I've reminded them - was a 1950s east-German fairytale, bought by the BBC and broadcast on children's television without any executive actually ever watching it.  Of this I am quite sure.  I imagine a scheduler looking the bright colours and reading the synopsis (a princess, a prince and an evil dwarf) and thinking airily "Oh, it's just Rumpelstiltskin, basically."

Well.  They put it out in black and white, with a hypnotic English voice-over and the unnerving original German sync-sound fading in and out in the background.  David Lynch would have been proud. 

It was shown over and over again between the mid-sixties and 1980 and none of us will ever recover.  Such was the mark it made that when, well into the new millennium, a national poll of scary telly was taken, The Singing Ringing Tree made it into the top twenty.

If I thought it could come true, even in my dreams, I'd be laying in a lot of dried protein and heading for the hills.

So, in conclusion, my answer is no.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Beware What you Wish For

This week's Q: If you write it, will it come? Have you ever noticed your real life taking a turn that's uncannily like something you've just written about?

For me, the more likely scenario is that something that’s already happened in my life gets turned sideways and winds up in the book. Nothing uncanny about it, merely a writer’s desperate means of sucking up every available experience to see what can be repurposed for the next book. It’s never a quick turnaround, or a complete one, or one that’s entirely planned.  Jokingly, I told my S.O. about ten years ago that I’d have to kill someone who was bugging him. It took seven years, a totally invented plot, and an unkind character twist (after all the real person didn’t have a homicidal bent) but in 2010, I made good on my promise.

As I think about the two published books in my Dani O’Rourke series, plus the one currently in production and the stand-alone I’m working on right now, what might I wish would leap off the page and into my life? Would I want to start dating a homicide cop? Not really. Dani can’t seem to get through a dinner in North Beach without his cell phone interrupting and the evening being short-circuited by duty calling. Her ex-husband might seem like a good catch. After all, he has two Porsches, a Paris pied a terre, and four hundred and fifty million dollars. But life with Dickie comes at a price and if I’m half as smart as the protagonist I created, I would know better than to think I could change him.

How would I feel if I were being stalked some day while I was walking on a secluded trail? Not so good, thanks. Found out my best friend had been in a terrible accident? Stumbled over the body of a trophy wife tucked under the office furniture? Maybe I’m just not writing about the right things.

There’s a good idea: Write a scene in which my protagonist wins the lottery, buys a first class ticket to Hong Kong or Paris, and finds the perfect Chanel traveling outfit. What the heck. I’ll do it right and write in a Fendi bag and a suite at the Peninsula or the George V. Then, I’ll buy a lottery ticket and while I’m waiting for my actual life to follow my fictional lead, I’ll write a scene in which Dani is kidnapped…no, wait.

- Susan

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bringing in A Ringer

As some might know, Catriona's beloved sister Sheila died unexpectedly last week and she is in Edinburgh with her family.  So, with apologies, we are re-running a Femmes Fatales blogpost that Neil (aka Mr. Catriona) wrote in the spring.

Readers of this blog are used to a literary feast.  This week: hotdish surprise.

Catriona has stepped aside for a one week (not-so-) special and allowed me, Neil, her husband, to give an up close and personal view of what it's like to be hitched to one of these writer types. 


But why  have you got me this week,and not her indoors?  Catriona is working like a demon, editing and drafting a Dandy Gilver novel, which will appear at some point in the future. She mentioned that she was a touch on the busy side what with the manuscript, guest-blogs and group-blogs looming. I, jokingly, offered to write the blog with the most pressing deadline and much to my horror she said "Go on then." 

You'd think the man who once ended up doing an exhibition Cha-Cha-Cha as part of a talent show at a literary festival, because of a mistaken belief that offering to help wouldn't lead anywhere awkward, would have known better.  You'd be mistaken.  I am that dumb. 

So (getting back on track) what's it like being married to one of these writer types? It's brilliant. Of course I had to say that. If for no other reason than because Catriona spends a lot of time imagining how to murder people, we live in a fairly isolated house, and even the distant neighbours we do have are used to the sound of power tools. I might not be the brightest button in the box but I know how to butter-up with the best (Boy, B got a bit of an outing there). 

So, it's brilliant, but it's not what I thought it would be. Back in the grim, dark days of the late 1990s when Catriona was contemplating leaving academia behind to give writing a go, I thought... I thought... Well, the truth is I thought there'd be more wafting, more staring into space, more sentences that trailed off half-finished (no such luck. Joking, hon.)

And I expected that I'd have to make way for a new house guest called The Muse. I thought I might have to push The Muse to one side on the couch (ever so gently, of course) if I wanted to sit beside my wife in the evening.  But it turns out that Catriona's Muse likes a well organized environment, has a work ethic that makes me ashamed any time I complain of the long hours involved in being a professor, and keeps her at her desk eight hours a day when literally outside the door is all that California has to offer. 

What I've come to realize is that this discipline provides the anchor point that allows a writer's imagination to float free and become completely immersed in the world being created. It's quite something to be around while it's happening. 
Which is not to say that all is calm during the creative process. At some point in the birth of every story there comes "the big early wobble", or BEW. Now, I've spoken to the partners of other writers (there are a fair few around the Davis area) and they all knew what "the big early wobble" was without me having to explain. As the name implies it usually happens near the start of a new book.
Catriona is a beginning-to-end kinda writer so the BEW usually sets in around chapter 3 or 4 and it goes something like this: 
C: This is terrible.
N: Oh?  What is? {Uh-oh, looks like the BEW}
C: This story. It's rubbish. Dandy's not Dandy, it has no colour, no life. It's thin.  I don't know where it's going, and it's just awful.
N: Hmmm, that *does* sound bad. Are you sure? {Yup , it's the BEW.}
C: Yes. Certain. It's never been this dreadful before. Never.
N: Not even the last time, when you said exactly the same thing? {I wonder if I can jog her memory?}
C: I've never said this before, because it's never happened before.
N: {Nope} OK. Well we better get our thinking heads on and come up with a solution. How about you read me what you've got so far and I'll tell you whether it's any good? {What a brilliant idea! And without precedent, apparently}
C: OK, but it's really rubbish [starts reading and begins to get a sense of deja vu...] 

And so the BEW comes on, shakes things up a bit, and passes off without breaking anything, leaving no trace of having ever been there. Again.

Eight Dandy Gilver novels have been through the BEW so far.  AS SHE LEFT IT went through one that registered on the Richter scale and caused new legislation in California's central valley.  All writers have to have quake-straps on their laptops now.  She did that.

But the book's the thing and the book survived.

As She Left It

Monday, October 7, 2013

Difficult? Just Ask My Cats

Moi? Difficult to live with? Certainly not.

A list of virtues:

1.     I’m a good cook when I get around to cooking, which isn’t as often as it was when I was in charge of growing boys; but, still, I make a mean minestrone soup.

2.     I hate okra (thanks, Sue Ann, for reminding me) and will never slip it into anything that winds up on a plate or in a bowl in my house.

3.     I put my clothes and shoes away at the end of the day. “Away” is a relative term, but I do not leave them on the chair, the floor, or slung over the door. There is, however, a reason the closet door locks from the outside.

4.     My cats rule. They would not consider this a particular virtue, merely the way things are and will always be, the right order of the universe.

And now, in the nature of full disclosure, a couple of things that not everyone might love:

1.     Any piece of paper that I touch magically becomes two pieces of paper, and those pieces build into dangerously unbalanced stacks on every horizontal surface. I can’t throw them away because it’s entirely possible I might want the 10% Off coupon for the plumber’s services or the printout of last week’s movie schedule or the latest reminder from the Southern Poverty Law Center that my membership renewal is overdue.

2.     I sniff a lot – allergies, probably – and keep boxes of tissues in every room, which in itself isn’t so bad except that I carry tissues with me and leave them in every room, little crumpled white mementos of my passing. My S.O. once told me I would be buried with them just in case.

3.     I write books. In order to understand the market, and because I love them, I read books too. Real ones, you know, with paper and cardboard? I’ve stopped counting but when I moved, I had a carpenter circle an entire room with bookshelves and I still have piles of crime fiction books on the floor.  (Thank you Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Malice Domestic.)

4.     My cats rule. It’s a good idea to keep one eye on the floor when you come to visit – and I hope you will – to avoid felt balls, foam balls, furry critters on strings, furry critters stuffed with catnip, balls with little bells inside, and two medium size, definitely orange girls who will want to flirt with you and make you their subjects.