Friday, December 02, 2016

Rainy Days and Wednesdays

I love the rain. The rain when I lived in Seattle, rain in the morning, with Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier in the distance. The kind of rain that seems to be a part of the landscape.

Or, rain that comes in a sudden, cloud-burst in summer and sends people fleeing for shelter and laughing as they run. Or, rain on a Saturday afternoon that provides the perfect excuse for not going out to do those errands that aren’t that urgent anyway. A quiet time to make a mug of cocoa and curl up with a book.

And then there’s the kind of rain we’re having in Albany today. A Wednesday work-day rain that makes me want to pull the covers up over my head and spend the day in bed. Too much to do, gray and sad outside. A day when you wonder if anyone would notice if you didn't put in an appearance.

Wednesday. With no classes to teach today, I decided to spend the morning working at home. I had an article to revise. I intended to check the headlines in the news and then write.

The headlines were depressing. I clicked on an entertainment blog about Tuesday night’s episode of The Voice, when Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton performed “Jolene.” I had heard some of it from the kitchen during the show and rushed out to watch. I’m a Dolly Parton fan. I decided I had time to watch the video of the complete performance.

My cat, Harry, was hunkered down on top of my desk when I started my impromptu concert. By the time I had pulled up the YouTube video of Dolly performing “I Will Always Love You,” followed by Whitney Houston’s live performance of the same song, he had climbed down into my lap to have a nap. All sixteen pounds of him, stretched out and comfy.

But then I happened on the videos of Simon Cowell and his fellow judges on X Factor responding to a nine-year boy who was so stricken with stage-fright that he began to cry. His mother came out to comfort him, a judge rushed up on the stage to hug him. He tried again and sent his voice soaring, I wiped away a tear or two.

Then I noticed my YouTube search had brought up some Reba McEntire videos. Yes, I’m also a Reba fan. I grew up in the South with country music. By the time I’d gotten through her videos about heartbreak and triumph and grief and comfort, I was sobbing out loud.

Harry raised his head, opened his eyes, and gave me what I’ve come to recognize as the cat equivalent of a dog's empathy. The look that says, “Are you all right?” while you know your cat's also thinking, “Really? Are you really about to make me jump off your lap. I’ll give you five seconds to get it together.” I laughed and got it together and assured him that everything was okay. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep. And I realized it was okay. Instead of being sunk in gloom, I felt like putting on my royal blue sweater and a smile and heading out the door.

I need to remind myself from time to time of what music – from country to rap, from jazz and movie theme songs to classical – does for my soul. I am a visual person, and sometimes I forget to stop and listen. I forget that music can make things better.

This morning also gave me another way of thinking about my characters. What does my protagonist do when she wants to hide under the covers? What is her “go to” for coping with melancholy? Does she watch old movies (Lizzie, my crime historian) or go for a four-mile run (Hannah, my police detective). I’m not sure yet what Jo, a new character does. But it's something to think about.

What do your characters do?

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Ice Ages

Time passes so quickly that it alarms me sometimes. How did I get anything done at all in my former life when I worked for other people? The truth is that I didn’t, or at least I was only able to do whatever was absolutely necessary to live.

Now my work is writing, and work at it I do, and yet it still feels to me that I’m always short of time. Days bleed into one another, and weeks, and months, and a year passes without my quite being aware of how it happened. It seems that I’m constantly busy, and yet I feel like I make little progress.

Yet when I remember the monumental events in my past that changed my life forever, or set me on a new path, I realize that most of them happened quickly, sometimes in an instant. I think of that when I’m frustrated, when it comes to me that I have less and less time in front of me to fool around with and wonder if it’s just going to be like this for the rest of my life. In the words of that immortal philosopher, Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

I’m normally not much bothered by things, and I think I have a naturally sunny disposition. But every life goes through periods that must be endured, and the past few years have been my personal Ice Age. My husband’s health problems have been no secret. We have endured and he keeps coming through, and I’ve been able to return to my own pursuits. But it seems that something has changed. I go through the days with a sense of unreality. I want to hold myself at a distance. My mind wanders. I’ve frozen over.

Everyone gets to go through these periods, if they live long enough, and this is not my first rodeo, as we say in Oklahoma. It’s the universal life experience, to lose loved ones, to go through extended times of stress and fear. In the past, no matter how unendurable a situation seemed at the time, I lived through it whether I felt like it or not, and the fog eventually lifted. I expect that will happen again. You just have to hunker down and wait for spring.

With that in mind, I’ve finally begun working on the tenth Alafair Tucker novel, though at this point the manuscript consists of several pages that meander about like the mighty Ganges. But I keep plugging along. I need a few more good weeks of writing to make significant progress, yet next month is shaping up to be very busy with the launch of book nine, The Return of the Raven Mocker. So I’m working hard to get as much done as I can before things get crazy. It’s interesting to see how a new book shapes up. No matter what you plan, things show up in your writing that never occurred to you when you started out. Funny. You dig deep for your characters, and bring up a lot of stuff that was way down inside yourself.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The lure of maps

Barbara here. Every since I was a little kid doing treasure hunts at birthday parties, maps – and especially hand drawn maps – have always given me a little thrill. Nothing like holding a puzzle in your hands, with directions to decipher, clues to follow, and a big X at the end to mark the treasure. It didn't matter what the treasure was (it could be a simple chocolate bar), because it was the challenge that mattered, not the prize. Had there been no treasure, of course, or worse a little note saying nyah, nyah, we would have called foul, but otherwise the fun was in the hunt.

In a sense, the hand drawn treasure map is a metaphor for the crime novel. The reader is invited to embark on a quest, with the thrill of following the clues and uncovering the solution at the end. Some readers are only interested in the characters or setting, or simply enjoy being along for the ride, but most commit themselves actively to this quest. For this reason, perhaps of all types of fiction, the crime novel engages the reader most. A good argument for reading crime novels to keep the mind alert throughout life!

Some crime novels go even farther. Not only do they present a metaphorical map for invite the readers into the story, but they also place a real one at the beginning of the book. These maps are usually simple and hand drawn, reminiscent of the treasure maps of childhood. They are like a little lure dangled before the reader, inviting them to turn the page.

My latest novel, FIRE IN THE STARS, is set in Newfoundland, in an area unfamiliar to most readers, and the reader is invited to follow my protagonist Amanda Doucette on her own wilderness quest to find her missing friend and solve a murder or two. I wrote this book with a multitude of topographical maps spread out on my dining room table so that I could get the geography right.

A number of readers have told me that they read the book with the atlas open beside them and would have liked a map at the beginning of the book. This idea had never occurred to me, but it shows how powerfully the readers were engaged in the quest.

The Amanda Doucette books are each set in different iconic locations across Canada, most of which will be unfamiliar to readers, and the setting will be an vivid part of the stories. As a result of these readers' comments, I am considering the idea of including little maps at the beginning of each book to show the major landmarks that appear in the story. There will not be an X to mark the solution, of course, for that will be included in the pages of the story, but it should be an interesting and helpful aid to those who like treasure hunts.

Drawing a map is proving more difficult that I imagined because of my limited software and design expertise, but I hope between myself and my publisher we will get a reasonable approximation  that readers can follow. Here is what I have so far for the next book in the series, THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY.

What do you think? Do you ignore maps at the beginning of books or are they helpful. Do they add an extra enticement? Or do they seem like a gimmick, rather like the cast of characters at the beginning of a book?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Little free libraries

by Rick Blechta

To the right you can see what looks at first glance like a large birdhouse. It’s not. This is a “little free library” and here in Toronto — and I expect many other places as well — they’re sprouting up on people’s front lawns like mushrooms after a fall rain. Intrigued, I recently stopped to look at a few.

Here’s how it works. You put one of these up in your front yard, fill it with books you no longer want or have space for. Neighbours or random people passing stop, find something that intrigues them, and take it away with them. If they happen to have a book they no longer want, they can leave it, thus paying it forward, as the trendy saying goes.

It seems like a quaint and friendly idea. You can even register your little free library for a small fee which will include it on a searchable map. Little Free Library, the organization of which I’m speaking, says it has over 50,000 registered worldwide.

In consulting their map for my area, however, it seems that there are also a lot of unregistered little free libraries. I have no idea whether they’re dangerous or not. Personally, I usually stay away from unregistered entities. I mean, you wouldn’t go to an unregistered dentist, would you?

Seriously, though, it sounds like a good way to share books you’ve enjoyed. Problem is, of the half-dozen front yard libraries I’ve browsed, I haven’t found much beyond paperback bestselling thrillers, self-help diet books, and other things I’m not really interested in reading. Only one had what I would consider a “literary classic” (read it in Grade 8). I definitely got the feeling the owners of these libraries were simply clearing bookshelf space, or had chucked a forgotten carton of books from their basement or attic, the flotsam of a long ago move. Or perhaps all the good offerings had been snapped up before I got there.

Another thing that is really rather sweet is that every one of the libraries I’ve seen are completely different. One matched the person’s home in colour, shutters, etc., even down to the shake shingle roof. The scope to express yourself in your library’s design is limitless. A good woodworker could keep him/herself happily engaged for hours designing something really special. Of course, you’d then have to worry about graffiti artists defacing your little architectural marvel.

Now that I’ve begun exploring this free library movement, I think I’m going to fetishize stopping at every single one I pass to see what I can turn up in the way of unexpected reading material.

I may even put one on my front lawn. Heaven knows I have books I can pass on.

Or — wait for this — I’ll go around and place my own works of deathless prose in carefully chosen neighbourhoods so that my literary gifts may be presented to all and sundry in a non-confrontational way! I mean, who enjoys being bombarded by a desperate author with a new novel when they’re going into an Indigo store simply to pick up a throw pillow for their Great Aunt Margaret’s Christmas present? Isn’t some guerilla book placement a much more elegant way to cultivate new readers?

Have you seen these little free libraries? Have you stopped at one to browse or even drop off a well-loved tome? The last place I stopped this morning had a rather nice book on perennial gardening which I borrowed. I fully intend to take it back when I’m through, and maybe leave something of my own.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Thief of Time

Recently my daughter gave me a present of procrastinating pencils. They came in a little pack and each of them bears a suggestion.
  • You probably need another coffee.
  • Go on, take me for a doodle.
  • Mmm, what's for lunch?
  • A to-do list, you need a to-do list.
  • You can't possibly work in an untidy room.
  • Just chew on me and look thoughtful for a bit.
There may be some writers who sit down at their desks at the determined hour and get to work straight away without allowing any form of distraction, but I haven't met any of them.  They are probably the same people who only ever have one slim file lying on the otherwise empty desk, who have the whole book planned out with spreadsheets before they type 'Chapter One' , who always meet their deadlines without any sort of unseemly scramble at the end and who always have a spare ink cartridge in reserve for the next time it runs out - so we don't like them, do we, boys and girls?

For the imperfect mortals among us, there is a bizarre resistance that often has to be overcome before we open the file that contains our work in progress and get on with it.  If you haven't got a big excuse, a little one will do : 'If anyone comes in and sees the kitchen floor looking like that, I'll be mortified...'

It's completely irrational. I know that writing is what I like to do more than anything else - whereas I hate having to wash the kitchen floor. Once I sit down and get absorbed, the time simply flies and I'm surprised when I find it's lunch time. I can look at what I've done with a glow of satisfaction that carries me on through the rest of the day.

I can remember in the long-ago days when I was a teacher pupils who had upcoming exams would tell me they 'just couldn't make themselves' get down to revising. An excuse, I thought at the time and was fairly crisp about this kind of problem. But now I wonder, is there something deeper at work than just being easily distracted?

As long as we are writing our book in our head, it is going to be the very best thing we have ever done — probably the best thing anyone has ever done. But whenever something is set down on paper it becomes limited, and however good the writing may be it never quite takes flight with the glorious freedom it had before.

So is procrastination, after all, not just a funny little lazy quirk but a dark, deep-seated fear of failure?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Readers versus Writers

Jess Walter and Dana Spiotta will be speaking next Saturday at Inside the Writer's Studio presented by Lighthouse Writers Workshop. In anticipation of their visit, I attended Lighthouse's Writer's Studio Book Club where we discussed Walter's Beautiful Ruins and Spiotta's Innocents and Others. We talked mostly about narrative structure, but at times the conversation got heated when we debated who wrote the better book. Having read all of Walter's novels and even taught a seminar from his Beautiful Ruins, I was definitely his champion. However, Spiotta had her fans. Not everybody involved in the back-and-forth was a writer; some were there because they are readers and wanted to share their opinions. The episode got me thinking about the conceit we writers can have about the writing process. Since we're intimately involved with the mechanics of putting words on paper and trying to have the effort make sense, we assume we have a better understanding of what makes for a good story. Just because we're more familiar with the ingredients, we think we can whip up a better meal. Conversely--and to build on that food metaphor--I may not be a chef, but I know a good dinner when I taste it.

Blog Bonus!

I wrote a piece of short fiction for the world in Aaron Michael Ritchey's steampunk opus, The Juniper Wars. In Book One, Dandelion Iron, a trio of gunslinging sisters brave a post-apocalyptic wilderness to save their family ranch. My story, "Ezekiel 37:38," let me tap into my evangelical roots as I explored the early days following nuclear disaster. It's a tough place to be. Check it out here.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The First Thanksgiving

We had a great Thanksgiving yesterday. It was the first time I hosted a large family event in my home since moving to Fort Collins. I was amazed at how my house accommodated the group. The too small kitchen seemed to swell to include all the women who had their fingers in various pies. There was even room for the essential pitch table in the living room.

I have a large leather sectional that is just right for viewing movies. A large arched three-shaded lamp provides plenty of light for those who want to knit or do needlework.

We have a lot to be thankful for this year. This autumn has been one of the most spectacular I've seen. The weather has been gorgeous and the country is slowly emerging from the wounds afflicted during the recent election.

Thanksgiving is the source of one my happiest memories. I was introduced to reading through a little book about Thanksgiving. The title was Hoot Owl.

I wanted to learn to read more than anything in the world. We were in a tiny school where three grades were together in one room. No pre-school or kindergarten. No TV, Sesame Street, or clever toys. My mother read stories sometimes out of the old Book of Knowledge. We were simply jump-started into first grade.

I thought reading was a trick or a revelation. I emulated a third grade boy I especially admired. I sat exactly as he did, held my head at the same angle, frowned like he did. But I couldn't read. Then one day the teacher told us about the alphabet and that the alphabet formed words and the words then became sentences and sentences were the basis of stories. I was swept with a wave of white-hot fury that it was that simple and everyone had withheld it from me.

The alphabet and everything connected with it became an obsession. And then came one of the most joyful days of my life. After the class had endured yet another fumble-through with Dick, Jane, Spot, and that damned ball and I was out of anything to do, the teacher told me I could choose a book to read.

And I could! I could actually read. And these books all had plots.

 The first book I ever read on my own was Hoot Owl. It was about a little pioneer boy who got lost in the woods. Just when everything seemed the darkest and he despaired of ever making it back to his colony he was befriended by a little Indian boy, Hoot Owl, who took him to his stern, but kindly Chief. A group of Indians guided Hoot Owl back to his anxious parents who, along with other welcoming colonists, were preparing a Thanksgiving feast. Naturally, the grateful colonists invited the Indians to share their meal. It was the first Thanksgiving and everyone lived happily ever after.

There now. Wasn't that wonderful? The shelves were full of similar books and I was off and running.