Monday, September 24, 2018

The Book I Want To Write

The book I really want to write is the next one.

An odd choice? Well, I could hope for one to be a NYT best seller (not without a movie deal, which ranks up there with hen’s teeth) or to become a classic (hen’s teeth with diamonds). All quite reasonable “wants” for any author. So why….

Easy peasy.

The next book is always perfect, a shining light, the ultimate dream. It is, in short, Author’s Fantasy Work. It has not yet been shoved in front of the reviewing wolves to be torn apart, revealing all the faults and glitches. It has not yet garnered reviews from readers who say they did not finish because it was boring or so disgusting it ought to be burned. Or worse, it has not generated a note from someone who says, “On page X, you said Y, and you are wrong because…” (signed: Revered Expert in All Things Mentioned on Page X).

So what’s an author to do? Write it? Bronze it? Dream on?

Write the book. It will be wonderful in places (yay), not so hot in others (live with it), contain groaners (groan) and garner both praise and blame. The main thing is that, like babies, some progeny will be wonderful, others not so much, but they are all our books and we love them. If we could stop writing, we would. There are less angst-filled jobs after all—telemarketing comes to mind. Instead of changing professions, we learn to live with imperfection.

And, in the meantime, the book I really want to write is the one just after…

Monday, September 10, 2018

Blending Genres

Blending genres? Why not? You’re asking that question of one who cut her college teeth on genre smashing things like Nouveau Roman, Gertrude Stein, Happenings, and foreign films at the Surf Theater in San Francisco.

My brain awakened in the 60s, but my feet were also firmly planted in the immediate post-WW II era, a time when any belief in reason, justice, or humanity was blasted into micro-bits of dust. Neat, logical boxes were bad jokes at best, obscenities at worst. The world had to be reformed out of chaos, and many believed that was no longer possible.

Of course, the world has been reformed in ways or we wouldn’t even be having this discussion of blending genres. And, being a person owning many decades beyond my college years, I have some thoughts, pro and con.

The concept of “genre” has merit. Cutting up bookstore stock into divisions of form, style and subject matter is good business. Since I don’t understand most poetry, I rarely read it. Much modern American “literary fiction” doesn’t grab me for a variety of reasons so I skip past that segment. But label a section “biography”, “plays”, or “mysteries” and I come running.

Besides, who has time to wander along the walls of an unlabelled bookstore, picking up books because something just draws you? Yet I remember when it was fun. I even picked up some poetry that way as I browsed through the City of Paris basement (when I could still read French) and those rickety-staired or below-the-sidewalk bookstores I haunted in my youth.

So, from a business perspective, keeping to the defined genre is good. From an artistic or intellectual point of view, it is deadly. So what’s a curious soul to do in an era when business loves boxes, but brains don’t?

Take the mystery. Make it a puzzle, as in the Golden Age, and it is the literary form of the New York Times crossword, a challenge and a delight. Turn it into a novel, like P.D. James, and you are reminded that murder is brutal, ugly, and terrifying. Add the concise word choice and poetic lilt of language, in the manner of Ken Bruen, and you face the insanity of violent death and smell the foulness with the intensity of walking into the face of an ice storm.

In short, the mystery is rarely just one genre. As a blend of story, poetry, theater, and puzzle, it makes us think about justice, society (ours and others), the lessons to be learned in history, and, like biography, what forms one person into the creature they become. This blending has captured me because it shakes up my preconceptions and makes me ponder stuff I might not otherwise question. It is why I have learned to love mysteries best.

Monday, August 27, 2018


Let’s talk character evolution.

Part of the fun of a series is how events change a character. As a reader, I want to settle in with my favorite fictionals, find out what life flings at them, and learn how they handle it all. I care—passionately. That is one reason I love long series, each book being just a chapter in a very big novel. Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks is a good example. Each book is a small step in Banks’ evolution. We see the break-up of his marriage, the growing up of his kids, the various love affairs and how he handles the relationships afterward. There are lots of secondary characters we care about. How will they change and will he ever get back together with… Well, that’s a spoiler. And we care about the small stuff. I got upset when Banks gave up (with good reason!) his favored whiskey, and, from the way Robinson has handled that detail, I wasn’t the only one.

Sometimes a writer makes a mistake with a character, giving them some quirk or past that doesn’t really work long-term. Even the best do this. When I suspect this has happened, I want to see how the author gets around it and applaud clever handling. Ian Rankin first drew Rebus as a detective with a Bible always close to hand. For some reason this very Scottish Protestant detail never rang true to me with the rest of Rebus. I don’t know if Rankin began to think the same, but the book disappeared early on. This was linked to Rebus’ growing disillusionment with the world, and that worked for me.

Minor characters are very important in this process as well, not only in their relationship to the main guys but just for themselves. When I started my own series, I peopled it with ongoing fictionals and some that show up occasionally. As a reader, I often wonder whatever happened to “X”. Sometimes it is good to let the reader fill in the blanks. Sometimes it is fun to bring the character back. I have an anchoress who was introduced in the second book, shows up again in the fifth, and may well drift through again.

Secondary characters take the heat off the main ones, and good writers know how to do this. Other than Sherlock Holmes, most primary characters welcome it when the spotlight shifts a bit to another intriguing storyline. Pointing to Rebus again, he has no problem with his former sergeant, now outranking him as an inspector, Siobhan Clarke taking front stage from time to time.

I’m always disappointed when the author rushes character development. Maybe that is why writers should plan a series arc. Even though I love long ones, I am satisfied with a three or six book series if the character has evolved fully. Sadly, series are so often dropped after just a few books that authors are almost driven to trying too much in too short a time.

Finally, there is an equal problem when character evolution stalls but the series goes on. That is a subject I want to tackle but will put off to another blog.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Writing Routine

OK, now I’m embarrassed. Just how many of us want to admit that we (male or female) write in our nightgowns (loose waist = creative freedom) or have a wee quart, near to hand, of a libation with an alcohol content banned during Prohibition? Do we become the Mr. Hyde of Creativity, snarling at loved ones and demanding trays at our locked door, which are often ignored because we are chained to the Muse? Or must we confess that… Oh, you mean “how do you schedule your day”?


With a few books now under my preferably very loose belt, I have developed a comfortable routine. I must know location, theme, and a first scene plus last scene as well as whodunit/whydunit before starting any new book. A quote to give the story focus and a title come next. Then I scrape parchment, sharpen quill, and spend one to two months scratching out a chapter-by-chapter synopsis without regard to logic, grammar, or even any changes of names in minor characters. In short, if I die during this process, even the computer on which the thing has been composed must be burned.

I own some pride.

This mess does have value. The chapter-by-chapter synopsis is an outline of the book for both me and my editor. (Her idea. A bow of gratitude.) Before sending it off, I move chapters around, add chapters to fill plot holes or adjust tension, fire pointless characters, correct names, and otherwise strengthen the story bones. Once the synopsis returns, I make my editor’s suggested changes in the synopsis itself. Thus I end up with an outline from which a mystery can be crafted.

The remaining process takes six to eight months. I am an excruciatingly slow writer, sweating blood to reach the 65,000 word publisher minimum while knowing I must still cut. If interrupted in mid-scratch, I must restart two or three chapters back because I have lost the flow of the story. Unfortunately for the family member who cooks, I work in the kitchen with a view of the untamed backyard. Unfortunately for my waist, I work near the refrigerator, requiring that need for little binding about the middle. Part of my routine is to diet after a book is done and ban Mr. Hyde style howling except during football.

Much has been made of a daily routine. In principle, I agree. In practice, I’m flexible. I write between lunch and dinner or four to six hours. There are days I write myself into corners or toss dreck into the computer. Conventional wisdom says to write through this. I opt for lunch in the wine country. There is merit in shutting off the louder brain and delegating work to the sub-conscious, a function often ignored in a 24/7 world. Some of my best solutions have come when I was falling asleep.

Bottom line: find a routine that works for you, keeps you creative, and keep to it. As for other quirks we have, I suggest you always thank the loved one who leaves that tray by your door…

Monday, July 30, 2018


I’ve never liked the term “good vs. evil”. Not that I don’t want justice to be rendered, the world freed from violence, or wish I didn’t have to lock my door at night. But I worry that “good vs. evil” is misleading, luring us into believing that “evil” is easily recognizable and that the child-abuser or murderer couldn’t possibly be a pillar of his church or that lovely lady who bakes cookies for the neighborhood. And, of course, the person I see in the mirror every morning would never commit a violent act…

I wish violence and villainy were that simple, but, if the reasons for violence were clear, why would we write books that ask why murder happens? Now that I have perhaps presented myself as a (name your coffee store) card carrying, latte liberal (actually prefer mochas, full-fat, with whipped), let me also say that I do not think murderers just need a group hug to resolve their issues.

But despite our rather odd legal definition of sanity, I think any act of violence is a moment of insanity, whether the pressure has been mounting for decades or the impetus occurred five seconds ago. Villains run a range of types including the ethically challenged (OK so gang-bangers have a code but let’s leave that to another time), the emotionally disturbed, and the nice guy/gal suffering unendurable stress. In short, they are complicated people, not just mustachioed fellows who tie Pauline to the railroad tracks and sneak off, saying hee hee. That doesn’t excuse them from punishment, although some violence may qualify as self-defense, but it does suggest that we cannot be simplistic in how easily it is recognized or defined.

But enough rant—hope this elicits some good debate!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Dark Ages

We moderns often think we know it all, that the past was benighted, and we have progressed so far.

The truth is that history is not about forward progress at all. It is about the swings from enlightened eras to dark ages and back. In ways, that is discouraging. In ways, it offers hope. If you think what is happening today is bad, or even good, wait a bit and it will change—much like the weather in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the swing from light to dark is often insidious, almost invisible, until the family next door is taken away in the middle of the night, you see armed guards with dogs at a railway station, or your child is murdered for pointing a finger at someone holding a gun. The return to enlightenment, however, all too often seems to require a catastrophe of such magnitude that there is no doubt that the dark path was the wrong one. Germany of today has come a long way from Hitler, but the cause was the Holocaust, a slaughter so horrible that words remain inadequate. The US finally abolished slavery after the fracture of the Union and approximately 620,000 war deaths, not counting the mutilations and psychological damage.

I wish we learned better from history. Demagogues and dictators frequently do not fare well. Mussolini was hanged upside down like a piece of meat after being shot. Joseph McCarthy died at age 48 from the effects of alcoholism. Yet aspiring demagogues and dictators never seem to learn. They keep popping up. The only thing we can hope is that we see through their paper-thin promises and ploys and cast them aside before they take us to the brink of destruction.

So was the distant past the Dark Ages compared to us? Sometimes, other times not. We certainly know more about science than the medievals did. Yet we lost the recipe for concrete for centuries and still don’t really know how the builders of Stonehenge could be so precise or get those rocks in place. When we walk city streets today, the poor areas are little better (other than better sewage disposal) than in past eras while the folks of greater means get the garage hauled faster and more efficiently. And the best medical advice from medieval doctors sounds all too similar today: everything in moderation and get more exercise.

Of course, we have made improvements, but we should be very cautious about assuming the past doesn’t hold valuable secrets that have been lost. What we arrogantly assume were dark ages compared to modern times might surprise us. Most of all, perhaps, we should never forget the greatest lesson history has to teach us: dark ages will follow brighter ones, just as brighter times will eventually overcome the shadows.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Arthur, the Cat

           I often say that I can’t write real people so anyone, who might have offended me in the last seventy years, should feel perfectly safe. Authorial vengeance is not my style.
            For every rule, however, there is an exception. Arthur, Prioress Eleanor’s cat, is based on a couple of real, adored felines who used to rule in this household.
           Contrary to common assumptions, medievals did have pets. Aelred of Rievaulx warned anchoresses that, although pets were not appropriate to their stern vocation, a cat was acceptable. He was probably being practical, but I also suspect he had his own soft spot for the creatures. A delightful book, Medieval Pets by Meikle-Walker, details the extent to which favored animals were spoiled, adored, and, yes, virtually worshipped. Of course, dogs hunted, and cats were the ultimate mouse/ rat deterrents, but people have always had a weakness for animals. As much as I am not a reptile fan, I do wonder if Eve rather fancied snakes…
           In most literature, primary source or fictional, women who headed religious houses tended to fancy little dogs. Although I like dogs, I decided that my prioress wasn’t a lap dog sort. She has a stern element to her. She insists on a strict Benedictine diet with no red meat and runs her priory with a rational but firm rule.
So why a pet at all? Leadership is a lonely thing, and my prioress isn’t heartless. Besides, red tabbies are irresistible. Tell me: I have had two of them. She also needed someone to talk to when she mused, someone who wouldn’t argue or distract her from the decisions she had to make. In short, someone who would simply cuddle up in a warm ball and purr encouragement.
Nonetheless, Arthur is no spoiled fellow. Oh, he gets treats enough and has a bit of old wool he sleeps on, which rests on Prioress Eleanor’s narrow bed, but he has a job. Every morning, he leaves his residence, heads to the kitchen, and rids the place of rodents. His other function, although it might be one that wouldn’t immediately come to mind, is to provide the priory with generations of equally fine hunters. Cats were not neutered in medieval times, although stallions and bulls were, so, in this house vowed to celibacy, Arthur is anything but… He is so active in this responsibility that it is hard not to trip over his progeny. And medieval monastics were not prim and proper Victorians. Most would have been amused.
As you likely know, I don’t like to change history to suit some whim, but I realized a book or so ago that I had a real problem. Veterinary care in the Middle Ages was not as advanced as it is today. The lifespan of dogs and cats wasn’t long. No shots or tooth cleaning. Must I write of Arthur’s death? The thought horrified me. It was like breaking the rule that one never kills an animal in a mystery. What was I to do?

Cowardly, I punted. Now on my 15th book, Arthur is 12ish. There is no reason I cannot make him the Methuselah of cats. Some must have been. People were known to live long lives even for modern times. But one of these days, I will be forced to make a decision. To be honest, I’m not sure I can write that awful scene and break Prioress Eleanor’s heart…