Sunday, April 4, 2021

And now for this...

This has been an unsettling few weeks. My aunt, my namesake, died. She was ninety-five, and was in congestive heart failure and, boy, was she ready. Imagine trying to breathe night and day. Just breathing was exhausting. So while her death is sad, I'm glad she's at rest.

My aunt was a force of nature. And if I'm accused of refusing to suffer fools gladly, that woman put a patent on it. She was a woman born before her time. Had she been born a couple of generations later, she's have been the CEO of apple. But history isn't very kind to woman like that, trapped in their history because of their DNA. Conversely, I could see her being a chatelain of a castle, managing all and sundry with a deft hand while her lord was off trying to conquer the French. Believe me, that castle would have run like clockwork.

Both my mother and my aunt emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. Both were educated by the British government for free because they needed nurses. I've known scores of Irish women their age who became nurses under this program and who fled Ireland or Britain for the warmer climes of California. I will say that although my mother had lived here for sixty years, Ireland was still "home" on her lips. I would venture that my aunt was the same.

I know my aunt's kitchen as well as my own. That's how close the families were. There were some rocky years when the sisters didn't speak--and I will say that my mother was completely justified in cutting off my aunt--but they reconciled for several years before my mother died, and I'm glad they did. I think it must have been very lonely for my aunt (who was older than my mother) when my mother died a couple of years ago, and not for the reasons you may think. My aunt had two children and a gaggle of grandchildren and an ever-increasing brood of great-grands. I just mean that her history couldn't be shared anymore with someone who'd been there. Who could finish her sentences when she said, "Marth, do you remember..." And my mother would finish her sentences for her. 

And because of their relationship and our proximity to her house (I can only think of once when we didn't live within twenty minutes of my aunt's house) and just all that history, in some ways it's like reliving my mother's death again. Because I could say to my aunt, "Remember when Mom..." And now there's one less person I can revisit to bring my mother alive for just a few seconds.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

And a Little Controversy, Please

 So, I am slightly drunk but that only makes me much braver and possibly unwise in what I’m going to type.

I believe Dylan Farrow. I believed her when she was seven years old. I believed her in 2014 when her op-ed was posted in the New York Times, and I believe her in the recent documentary that just aired on HBO. I have been on Team Dylan from the very beginning.

Clearly , this is more than just he said, she said, but the larger meta (and I’m always about the larger meta) is how do you separate art from the artist? I find I can't.

I have endured scorn from my own family members and friends about my vocal condemnation of people like Polanski and Allen. I did have a private moment of gratification when my son, who initially thought I was being hysterical about these sexual abusers early on in the PR game, had the stones to say to me at some point when MeToo was at its height, Yeah, Mom, you nailed it. Yeah, I did. 

I cannot disenfranchise the artists from the art. I can’t. Plain and simple. You watch a veritable bouquet of Woody Allen films and a theme emerges: the nebbish nerd as the object of desire by a young woman. Not all his films, but enough to give you a sense that this is a troubled individual. I remember seeing Husband’s and Wives and remarking to my husband, Wow, he must hate Mia Farrow. Did you see how he filmed her? 

Anyway, I cannot distinguish an artist and their art. I was never a Picasso fan, so his legendary behavior as a beater of women didn’t cause much cause and effect with me. Yes, I have seen Guernica, and it’s a masterpiece. Do I see the bruised faces of the women he routinely beat? You’re damn straight I do. Same with Roman Polanski, He’s a rapist. People who have defended him, yes, Johnny Depp, I’m looking at you, asshole, are now part of my list. I adored Johnny Depp for many years,  Now? Persona non grata. And all those actresses gushing about Allen as they waved their Oscars in the air. Say good bye to any money from me.

I won’t die if I never see another Woody Allen film in my life. Or a Polanski film. Or a Depp film. I won’t. It’s a line that I have drawn for myself. If your line is different, well, it’s different. But don’t try to change my mind or defend them, because I will rip you to effing shreds.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Mystery Writing Tip #6

 This brings us to—insert organ music of doom—The Stakes. Every book must have stakes. Something to gain and something to lose. Something to prove, something to disprove. Rehabilitation at the cost of humiliation. Donald Maas, the guru of books about the craft of writing, stresses this over and over again. I would strongly recommend checking out his books. What are “stakes?” These can be large stakes on a national level, like a Senate majority leader being a total hypocrite in terms of rushing through a judicial appointment that only four years earlier he repudiated on record because he’s a lying dirtbag, but he is desperate to get a conservative on the Supreme Court. Said Senate Majority Leader is willing to sacrifice his integrity for that judicial appointment. Or stakes on a very personal level, where the abused wife who turned her husband into the police is abandoned by her children because her husband is now serving his sentence on Death Row. Make sure that the outcome matters to someone important in the book. I firmly believe that there is no free lunch. Like the woman who lost her children because she fingered her husband. Morals are emotionally expensive. They are hard. That is why the struggle to do the right thing is so fraught with tension. Or it should be.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Mystery Writing Tip Number 5

 If you find your novel bogging down, make them move. I am serious. Make them walk, run, vacuum the house, or climb a tree to look into a window. In the movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotapes, the protagonist discovers her husband is have an affair with her sister when she vacuums up an earring. That’s some VERY angry vacuuming. These mundane tasks that affect a story’s trajectory are simple events that can have a profound effect on the storyline and yet one that we can all relate to. Most of us own vacuums. Can you relate to the anger in finding evidence of your husband’s affair in YOUR bedroom with your SISTER as YOU vacuum? I sure can.

Physical action will immediately pick up the pace. Different scenario. What about the physically abused wife who runs around the block because the thought that her husband might be a murderer is creating such mental chaos, she needs to outrun those thoughts. Or our protagonist nearly falls out of a tree because he’s spying on his neighbor who he thinks killed his wife, and, bob’s your uncle, tension on a platter. Of course, this movement should pertain to either the plot or character development; see earring above. Remember our star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet? Shakespeare throws in some awesome sword fights, and the death of Mercutio at sword-point seals our lovers’ fates. The tragedy of that play hinges on a sword fight. Another example is the Harry Potter series. Every book in the series spans a school year. The strength of this series is in the world-building. We don’t really have a ton of plot movement over the breadth of the series—Voldemort is trying to kill Harry—and yet we have those AWESOME Quidditch matches where several supporting plot points to the main plot arc are introduced.

Brooms flying through the air!!! Is there anything more exciting?

Monday, February 22, 2021

Mystery Writing Tip Number 4

So, we fell off the wagon here for a bit. Husband got COVID. He's fine, although he has some residual crap that keeps holding on. Naps nearly every day, taste bugs shot all to hell. But we are grateful. We have been so good in terms of isolation, mask wearing, sanitizing hands, etc. And I didn't get it. Go figure. Anyway, onward, or is that onword?

What’s the problem needing to be solved? There should be two problems. The problem of the whodunnit and the internal demon facing your protagonist. Demon might be too strong a word for, say, a cozy mystery, but your protagonist should have an internal life that either hinders or helps him/her solve the mystery.

In Miss Marple’s case, she is an elderly woman whose biggest physical feat of the day is planting primroses, even though gardening is allegedly prohibited by her doctor due to her many mysterious illnesses. This is an example of a character issue that plays into the Christie plots. To get around this impediment, Miss Marple has minions to move the story forward even though she’s the one who always solves the mystery. Christie’s a plot-based writer (her characters tend to be moribund but she fools us by having ingenious plots), while I’m a character-driven writer (whose plots are ho-hum but I fool you with character studies and a judicious helping of tension).

The best writers are those who have a seamless interface between these two elements. Use your plot mercilessly to move your character development forward. It can be something as simple as your character being afraid of spiders and then having to go into a spider-infested attic to find a clue. Think of Indiana Jones and his thing about snakes. Or a woman in an abusive marriage who is completely downtrodden but does incredibly brave things to prove her fist-wielding husband is guilty of murdering his mistress. Use your plot to make your character face their demons. Remember our Dave Robicheaux? His internal demon is that he’s an alcoholic. Robicheaux’s alcoholism is a major character in all of Burke’s novel.

In cozy mysteries, the demon aspect can be replaced by how the reader relates to your protagonist. Like they’re afraid of the dentist. Or they have a stupid case of eczema on their forehead that no amount of steroids will address so that it looks like you’re walking around with an ever-present case of forehead leprosy. These are issues I face, and if I saw these in a mystery novel, I would identify with the protagonist right off the bat. You should create vulnerability in your villains as well, otherwise they become cliché and cardboard. Vulnerability, relatability, or demons, your characters need depth.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Mystery Writing Tips Number 3

Do you want to write a series, i.e., several books that span time with the same protagonists? A perfect example is the Dorothy L. Sayers mystery series feature Lord Peter Whimsey or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. A standalone is a single story that is complete, say, Gone Girl. Although I would put that book more in the thriller category, it’s an example of a book whose story does not move forward beyond one book. I would start off small with a standalone that could be extended into a series. If you’re thinking of writing a series, note that there is a continuity issue with writing a series that you need to consider. Don’t write out a character you may need in book three. Choose your dead bodies carefully.

I'm adding to the original post with a tip that if you are seriously considering self-publishing, that you write a series. This is an excellent way to get into the marketplace fast. I would, in fact, write three books. And by that I mean you write three really good books that have been polished and edited, with a good cover that reflects the overall theme of your book--don't write a cozy and then have a man with a knife on the cover or a thriller with a woman wearing an oven mitt standing in front of a stove. Then you enter the market by releasing a book every four months. This will wet the marketplace's appetite for your books. Then use that year to write another three books. I couldn't do this, frankly, but then I'm still working. This juggernaut approach will create a fanbase for you that can only build with each successive book. I think you'd have to be a frigging genius to write three standalone books, but you CAN do this with a series that builds off of each successive book. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Mystery Writing Tips Number 2

Think about what you want to say. Pick an idea, a theme, something that has brought you joy or has enraged you. One of my favorite mystery writers is James Lee Burke. He has two main themes that carry through all his Dave Robicheaux books. The corruption endemic in Louisiana and the legacy of the Civil War. Another author worth checking out is Michael Connolly. He writes the ultimate police procedural. The Harry Bosch books are about a man for whom justice is all, mostly because he’s seen little justice in his own life. Pick something that means something to you, because the page written with enthusiasm will carry you a lot farther than the page written to satisfy what you think the market wants. Also, and this part gets lost in the shuffle, writing is supposed to be fun.