Friday, March 23, 2018

Not There Research . . . and a Question

I've been following the discussion about research and setting, and it reminded me once again of the dilemma I've created for myself. I use real places, but because of my slowly-developing series arcs and my reluctance to write in a "present" that can change in a moment, I can't physically be in the places I write about at the time of the story.

When I write about Gallagher, Virginia, my fictional stand-in for my hometown, Danville, Virginia, I can go home to Danville and walk through history. As in this photo of the courthouse. The statue is of Mayor Harry Wooding, who was a young officer in the Civil War and served as mayor for over 40 years.

But then there's the matter of  Danville/Gallagher in 2004. I have no memories of the city or the state during that era because I lived in Albany, New York. I made occasional visits home, but I don't have the same sensory memories that I have of the years when I lived in Virginia. When I write a Lizzie Stuart book, I need to rely on newspaper accounts of the city to provide the chronicle of changes and fill in the empty spaces based on what I know and remember.

The books set in Albany in the near-future are a different matter. I can see what exists now, and I need to walk into an imagined future. I imagined what Central Avenue would look like if the traffic pattern changed. I imagined a building downtown with a vertical garden and an attached restaurant.
Now, I'm imagining what urban explorers would find inside a deserted building. Sometimes, I'm ahead of the curve. I gave Albany a convention center because it was being discussed. Now, there is one. Not my convention center because my Albany exists in a fictional, parallel universe. But it's a little creepy -- if I conjure it, will it come?

I have another unrelated question. Tomorrow, the Mavens of Mayhem (our Sisters in Crime chapter) will host our first, "annual" Murderous March afternoon event at a public library (East Greenbush). I think we know why writers attend such events even if they aren't on panels. I've been thinking about readers. What brings readers in, even when the weather outside has a hint of spring, and there are other competing events?  Thoughts?

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Making A Real World

Great-grandfather's farm

After I read Vicki’s entry about location research, below, I commented that I’ve researched a lot of places using Google and imagination. But upon reflection, I have to admit that is not really true. I think that it’s incredibly helpful to experience a place before writing about it. My series is set in a place that I know down to my bones, because I was raised there. However, the place I write about and the place I was raised no longer exist, so I actually rely on memory—and use imagination to fill in the gaps.

Where I live now

But it’s true that there is no substitute for actually experiencing a place. I’ve been to Britain several times, and every time I'm reminded that we may speak a common language (kind of), but we are not the same. I get the same impression when I travel to different part of the United States. I moved  to Arizona thirty-four years ago and was quite surprised to find out that it's very different from Oklahoma. I did not recognize one native plant, tree, grass, bug, bird, or lizard. Who would have thought it? Both states are located in the American Southwest. You'd think the cultures and the landscape would be basically the same. But in my experience, keeping in mind that I am not an Arizona native and live in a giant metro area, Arizona is culturally like back door Los Angeles, but more conservative in attitude. Oklahoma, at least when I lived there and knew it best, is easily as conservative as Arizona, but the culture is like nowhere else I've ever been. Put Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Kansas in a blender and mix it well, and you may get an idea. I am quite politically and socially liberal, but I can't deny that I am marked by the values of the place I grew up. And it shows in the characters and themes I write about.

Tulsa, OK, along the Arkansas River

I was born and raised in Tulsa, a rich oil town located in the hilly bend of the Arkansas River. I came up among people in three piece suits, cowboy boots and stetsons. My father owned a construction business and raised quarter horses on the side. My mother ran his office. I rode horses every weekend. The picture at the top is my great grandfather's farm in eastern Oklahoma, where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid. I played in blackjack woods draped with wild grapevines, hot and sweaty and covered in cockleburs and chiggers. I picked up wild pecans off the ground by the bucketsful in the fall. At the time, I'd have rather stayed at home and read a book. I was not a lover of the outdoors. Now I look back on it through a golden haze of nostalgia. In fact, I write about it.

The author creates a universe with her choices and invites a reader in. If the writer is really good, the reader is enveloped in the story and moves through it without being quite aware that he’s in a made-up world. The writing is all-enveloping, but unseen.

I’ve quoted this before, but it is to the point. The very best writing reminds me of one of my favorite Zen sayings: The fish is not aware of the water it swims in.

That’s what we writers are shooting for.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A tale of two stories

Vicki's post about the importance of getting the setting correct got me thinking. I have always been a big believer in walking in the footsteps of my characters, so I could infuse the story with the real-life and often unexpected sights, smells, and sounds that they would experience. As Vicki says, not only does it add realism to the story but it helps to draw the reader into the magic. My Inspector Green novels are set in Ottawa, a city I know well after nearly fifty years here, and yet I always visit the specific locations I put in the novels to make sure I'd captured all the detail. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), this usually entailed a half-hour car ride.

Not so my Amanda Doucette books, all of which are set in different locales far from my home. Newfoundland, Quebec's Laurentians, and Georgian Bay. At least these could be reached by car, so I could throw my bags, my notepads, and my dogs into the car and set off to follow my imagination. The Newfoundland drive took three days, but it was entertaining.

But the next two in the series are planned even farther from home, necessitating a plane ride, a car rental, and a kennel for my poor pups. I can only afford to make one trip there, so I have to make the most of it. Ideally I would like to visit while I'm still at the "glimmer of an idea" stage, knowing the place itself will give me unexpected and unique fodder for my imagination and for the story I create. But if that trip gives me the idea, I won't know all the details I don't know I need until I am deep in the writing of the story. Normally that's when I would make another trip, but this time I will have to rely on books, the internet, and helpful friends and contacts. It's not the same as walking in the footsteps of the characters, but it will have to do.

Visiting the location gives you so much more than the smells, sounds, and sights of the place. It gives you the culture, the people, and the way they see the world. It gives you a glimpse of what moves them, angers, excites, and saddens them. It give you an idea what they celebrate. All this molds that "glimmer of an idea" into a story and enriches its development.

I am currently working on the third in my Rapid Reads Cedric O'Toole series for emerging, reluctant, or just plain busy readers. It's in an imaginary village, its setting left deliberately vague in the books. There is a wonderful freedom to writing about an imaginary place. I don't have to check police procedure or Tim Hortons locations. I can rearrange geography without anyone calling me out. I put farms and roads and lakes wherever I want.

Despite this, the setting is very clear in my mind, because I use the area of Eastern Ontario where my summer cottage is located. All the sights, smells, and sounds are vivid to me, as are the culture, the people, and the issues they care about. I think this is the key to inventing a place; use a real-life place (or two) as your blueprint, and the vivid detail will help to draw your readers in. And then put the churches and lakes and bars wherever you want. Just remember where you put them, for the next book.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Rewriting history

by Rick Blechta

In reading Aline’s post yesterday, she made a comment (the second in a week on Type M) about reading one’s earlier books. I’d like to take that one up. You see I have recently re-read The Lark Ascending, one of my earliest novels.

Now I’m not one of those glasses half-empty sort of chaps, but it was a pretty sobering experience. It’s not a bad book, but it certainly isn’t something of which I can be overly proud at this point in time.

The writing is okay, not horrible, but not all that memorable, either. Plot wise, I made a number of poor choices. Seen through the lens of an additional nine books, I would certainly not make some of the choices I did.

That’s the bad part.

The good part is that the characters are very acceptable and the basic premise of the story really stands up. My two protagonists were well-thought out (and turned out to be good enough to use in a additional novel, Cemetery of the Nameless). I was not embarrassed by what I did in this regard.

The really good part is that the novel was self-published so I own all the rights. Copies are very scarce since only 5000 were printed (my first sell out). Now I’m beginning to think it may be worthwhile re-releasing my “second literary child,” probably as an e-book. Thing is, though, I would definitely want to rewrite the entire book to bring it up to a standard of which I can be proud. Not many authors take up that particular task — even if they can. If they don’t own the rights, tough luck unless they can talk the publisher into it, which is doubtful.

So the question is: should I do it? I would not re-release this novel without considering fixing anything I don’t like — some of them pretty major — and that’s not normally done when book’s are occasionally rewritten. Sure, fix the wonky writing, make it stronger. Maybe remove a scene or two that don’t really add anything to the story. But to actually change the plot? Hmmm…

I don’t expect the second coming of The Lark Ascending would be greeted with record sales and a Hollywood film offer, but it is a worthy enough story to be retold and shared with more readers. I own the rights and the only investment would be my time.

So what are your thoughts, Type M readers? Should I rewrite a bit of my authorial history?

Monday, March 19, 2018

End Result

I've just reached the end of my new book. I make a distinction between 'reaching the end' and 'finishing'; for me they are two very different things.

The great thing about reaching the end is that I know the story works. I've now got past the terrifying stage where the plot gets more and more complicated and shows no sign of ever stopping and it now has a beginning, a middle and – hurrah! – an end. But there's a lot of hard work ahead.

I don't describe this as a first draft. I'm constitutionally unable to go on writing when I know that something I've already written is inconsistent with what I'm writing now; I have to go back and change it. Not doing that would feel to me like going on building a house when you knew the foundations were faulty and it could collapse at any time.

Continuity has to be maintained too. I have previous on making mistakes with that – like a car that went on fire in chapter two and was being driven around a few chapters later – and if I don't keep a time continuum mistakes get embedded and trying to spot them first of all, and then dig them out is a complicated business.

So the job I'm starting on next week isn't exactly a rewrite. I come to it with a list of editing points that have accumulated, where I know something ought to be emphasized or clarified. It's an evaluation of what's there and how it can be improved and polished and initially it's quite an appealing prospect – at least on the first run-through.

But the nearer the time gets for letting it out of my hands, the more the worry creeps back. I start seeing all its faults and get savage with it – hacking back verbiage, deriding implausibilities, slashing wordy dialogue, trying to see it with the eye of a critical stranger rather than that of a fond parent. By this stage I have convinced myself it's rubbish and can't bear to let it out of my hands.

There was a mention last week of re-reading one's earlier books. I can't, particularly at this stage. They were published, so an editor liked them and readers have enjoyed them; my poor, pathetic infant of a new book has no such imprimatur as yet. I look at it with pity and fear.

And then the time comes when I have to let it go out into the big cruel world. I read it through one final time and it's only then I find myself thinking, 'Well, perhaps it isn't so bad after all.' I press 'Send.'

That's when it's finished. It's still a long way ahead but at least I can celebrate making it to the end.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

On Location

Here I am!

By Vicki Delany

Right now, I’m working on the fifth Sherlock Holmes Bookshop book, in which I’m taking Gemma, Jayne, and the gang to England for a Sherlock Holmes conference.
Sir Arthur Drank Here

At the end of November I went to London for five days to do location research for the book.  I had a great time and saw lots of interesting things to put in the book.  We stayed in South Kensington, close to where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hung out during his time as president of the College of Psychic Studies, and had a couple of drinks in a pub where he was a regular. My books are not about Sherlock Holmes, so I didn’t spend much time at Sherlockian sites, I was there more to walk the streets my characters would walk, look at houses they would visit, travel the tube where they would go, visit museums they, as tourists, would visit, and drink at pubs they would frequent. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.

I came home with plenty of ideas and lots of pictures.

In-depth research
More In-depth research

But what about all the things I might have not known I’d want to see when I was there? Such as the inside of a Georgian row house in Kensington or a high end flat in Canary Wharf, or the exact route one would take to get from point A to Point Z with all the points in between.

For that I have the Internet. All that, and so much more, at my fingertips.

Which started me wondering how writers of old (meaning more than ten or fifteen years ago) managed. Sure they had maps and reference books at home or at the library they could refer to, but 

I’m thinking of the small details, the things that add colour and verisimilitude to a book. How much would a row house in Kensington cost? (Answer: twenty to twenty-five million pounds). What’s the view from the fifteenth floor of a flat in Canary Wharf? (Pretty nice).  Where do I transfer if I’m travelling from Harrods to the Tate Modern?

I suspect the writers of old simply didn’t put in as much description and minor fact as we do today. Sir Author Conan Doyle wrote a book set in Canada, and he’d never been here.  

After all, I could always say, this house is worth a lot, rather than specifying the amount, or say they travelled across town rather than giving the names of the stations.

Does it matter? Why am I going to all this trouble (and the expense of a trip) for details that don’t affect the plot or the characterization of my novel?

Gemma's parents live here
Because I think today it does matter. Readers are used to books full of color and background and minor details, they love the sense of ‘being there’ and if they have ‘been there’ they demand that the author get it right. They’ve come to expect it.  Get it wrong about the tube stations and I’ll hear about it, whereas Sir Arthur probably didn’t get letters pointing out the error of his ways.

All of which just makes writing a novel in the 21st century, so much more complex, interesting and, yes, fun.

The Cat of the Baskervilles, the third Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mystery, is now available. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Return of Good and Evil

Wonder Woman (2017 film).jpg

It's back! The concept of absolute good and evil. It came roaring in with a bang and a whistle thousands of miles per hour.

This summer I saw Wonder Woman and last week I saw Black Panther. Both movies reminded me of old westerns in that there was little doubt as to who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Or gals, in the case of Wonder Woman. The movies had staggering box office receipts.

Both were based on the eternal struggle of good and evil.

It's high time. Frankly, I'm  just fed up all the leaders who turn out to have feet of clay. Hardly a day goes by without having someone I've admired turn out to be crook or a deviant. I welcome the return of persons with a strong moral compass, a sure sense of right and wrong. Treks to the silver screen are once again providing a glimpse of a world (or worlds) where black and white is stark and heroes are sure-footed.

I understand that what is depicted is not real. And my favorite shows will always be complicated dramas that delve into the human condition. The real world is painful and some have extremely hard lives. But still, I can't imagine being a child today and being inundated with persons with no moral code.

There was a lot to said for the old westerns. I'm referring to the really old westerns when gun play was kept to a minimum, and the villains were likely to be yodeled to death.

Recently I wrote about my dislike of fuzzy endings. I don't like fuzzy heroes either.