Showing posts with label Jane Austen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jane Austen. Show all posts

16 March 2017

A House is Always Interesting

by Eve Fisher

For a variety of reasons (AVP, amenities, doctors, and the fact that we go down twice a week minimum) my husband and I are moving from our small town to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 50 miles down the road.

Sioux Falls, photo courtesy Wikipedia
Sioux Falls is growing by leaps and bounds.  There are whole villages of suburbs stretching south and west (mainly because our airport is in the northeast, btw).  Condos have grown up around the interstates.  However, we don't like suburbs much, and all the condos we saw were too small, and we wanted to live central Sioux Falls, which is a hot, hot, hot! market.  There were at least 3 houses that we wanted to see but couldn't even get in to view - they were no sooner on the market than bought. We put in offers on three, yes, three different places:  the first one turned our bid down, and upon reconsidering, we didn't rebid.  The second one failed inspection (huge foundation problems).  But the third, hopefully, is the charm!  I am working on the mortgage papers (everything's on-line these days, dammit!) probably as you read this.

House shopping is interesting and exhausting.  I remember back when we first house-shopped in 1991 (we'd rented the place we were living over the phone), and it was an educational experience. One memorable house had a room with bright orange and green plaid vinyl wallpaper, with orange shag carpet, and, in the kitchen, vintage orange appliances.  No, we did not buy it. Another place was beautifully done, until you opened the basement door and the reek of mold and mildew was enough to knock you down.  Another place was obviously the future home of someone who would formally entertain at the drop of a hat.  (We're the pot-luck or pizza types.)

Old houses are fun.  The history, the charm, the leftover stuff.  In our last house, we found an old-fashioned cream-skimmer that dropped behind the kitchen sink in the summer kitchen out back, decades ago.  I remember once I visited a friend in Chicago, who was remodeling an old house into apartments, and found 4 old books tucked away in the attic, including a first edition Harriet Beecher Stowe's "The Mayflower".  He was going to throw them away, so I leaped up and claimed them. They've had a good home ever since. And I remember living in an urban neighborhood in Atlanta, decades ago, with a bunch of roommates (starving artists all), and visiting with the little old lady who lived in the bungalow next door - turned out she'd been born in that house, and had never moved in all her 81 years.  I remember being gob-smacked by that.  I couldn't imagine staying anywhere 81 years.  I still can't.

Roderick Usher,
by Aubrey Beardsley
(note - not creepy enough)
Old houses can also be creepy.  I know of two houses in our small town that have had suicides, and at least one with a murder.  One of the original morticians' houses was bought and transformed into a family dwelling, and the owners put their master bedroom where the viewing room used to be.  There are also a couple of houses that just look WEIRD:  you know, the kind where you get the feeling that Roderick Usher uses it as his summer home.   I remember one house we looked at in Tennessee:  we walked into the back room, I turned to Allan and said, "Redrum", and we walked out. Quickly.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers have been written about what happens after the house is bought and/or inherited.  One of the great disappointments of such novels is Agatha Christie's "Postern of Fate", which is - well, the only way I can put it is that it's a real mess.  The Beresfords are too old, as was, sadly, Ms. Christie.  On the other hand, I love Christie's "Sleeping Murder" - which is NOT Miss Marple's last case by a long shot. The slow reveal of the fact that Gwenda Halliday Reed actually lived, as a child, in the house she bought in case of love at first sight still makes the hair stand up on the back of my head. Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" has the house itself as a central character, and God help all who stay in it.  And, speaking of Roderick Usher, the House of Usher went down with a pretty spectacular crash, didn't it?

"Northanger Abbey" -
1986 BBC production 
But that's often the point.  Gothic fiction, whether classics from the 18th century, like "The Mysteries of Udolpho", "Otranto", "The Monk", etc., all the way down to modern Gothic romances, all revolve around mysterious old houses.  Some are spookier than others:  the whole point of Catherine Morland's joy in being invited to the eponymous "Northanger Abbey" is that, to her eyes, it looked likely to have had a murder or two done in it, and she could hardly wait to find the body.  God knows her reading literature had taught her that if you can't find a dead body, or a hidden tunnel with an instrument of torture or two, or the remains of the missing first wife in an old ruin, where can you find one? Instead, being Jane Austen's creation, she found a husband, and the main mystery turns out to be the laundry bills left behind by Eleanor Tilney's secret love.


In true Gothic fiction there are always dark castles, dungeons, tunnels, empty graves, full graves, murders, rumors of murders, supernatural events, monsters, and sometimes all of the above.  ("Dark Shadows" captured all of these in one magnificently campy afternoon soap opera from my early teen years:  click on the picture above to see Barnabas Collins finally set free from his coffin...)

There is always a young, virginal heroine (even in modern Gothic romances) with a mysterious past, who is often revealed to have been born noble.  The hero is always courageous, although he is often a suspect (at least for a while) in the shenanigans going on around the place.  The villain of the piece is a control freak tyrant who will have things his own way no matter what (calling Mrs. Danvers...).  If the villain is married, his wife is completely under his thumb (Countess Fosco in "The Woman in White").  There is often a crazy relative, usually locked up. There is always a mystery.  And the heroine always feels that there's something seriously wrong, then that something's wrong with her, then that she's under threat, and, at various stages, worries about her own mental health...

How the heroine gets to her location varies.  Sometimes the heroine is a relative (Maud is practically willed by her father to Uncle Silas), sometimes she's the governess ("Jane Eyre", "Nine Coaches Waiting"), sometimes she's an invited guest (Catherine Morland).  But I believe - although I could be wrong - that "Rebecca" is the only one where the heroine marries the owner BEFORE she arrives at the house.  

But it's always about the house.  As Jo Walton says, "The essential moment every gothic must contain is the young protagonist standing alone in a strange house. The gothic is at heart a romance between a girl and a house."

So, the next time you go house-hunting, consider...  you might be looking at your next mystery, your next ghost story, or your next romance.

Will keep you posted on our move.







12 November 2016

Camouflaging Clues

by B.K. Stevens

"The grandest game in the world"--that's how Edward D. Hoch describes the duel between mystery writer and mystery reader. In an essay called "The Pleasure of the Short Story," Hoch explains why he prefers mysteries "in which the reader is given a clue or hint well in advance of the ending. As a reader myself I find the greatest satisfaction in spotting the clue and anticipating the author. If I overlook it, I don't feel cheated--I admire the author's skill!"*

And it takes a lot of skill. In any mystery where this "grandest game" is played, the delightful challenge offered to readers poses daunting challenges for writers. We have to provide readers with clues "well in advance of the ending," as Hoch says. In my opinion (and I bet Hoch would agree), we should provide plenty of clues, and they should start as soon as possible. As a reader, I feel a tad frustrated by mysteries that hinge on a single clue--if we don't pick up on a quick reference indicating the killer was wearing gloves on a warm day, we have no chance of figuring things out. I also don't much enjoy mysteries that look like whodunits but are really just histories of investigations.
The detective questions A, who provides a scrap of information pointing to B, who suggests talking to C. Finally, somewhere around F, the detective happens upon the only truly relevant clue, which leads straight to a solution that's obvious now but would have been impossible to guess even three minutes sooner. That's not much fun.


But working in lots of clues throughout the mystery isn't easy. Hoch identifies "the great clue bugaboo" that plagues many detective stories: "Clues are inserted with such a heavy hand that they almost scream their presence at the reader." Especially in short stories, Hoch says, avoiding that bugaboo requires "a great deal of finesse." I think that's true not only in whodunits but also in mysteries that build suspense by hinting at endings alert readers have a fair chance of predicting before they reach the last page. Luckily, there are ways of camouflaging clues, of hiding them in plain sight so most readers will overlook them.

Here are five camouflage techniques--you've probably used some or all of them yourself. Since it wouldn't be polite to reveal other writers' clues, I'll illustrate the descriptions with examples from my own stories.That way, if I give away too much and spoil the stories, the only person who can get mad at me is me. (By some strange coincidence, all the stories I'll mention happen to be in my recent collection from Wildside Press, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime.)


Sneak clues in before readers expect them: Readers expect the beginning of a mystery to intrigue them and provide crucial back story--or, perhaps, to plunge them into the middle of action. They don't necessarily expect to be slapped in the face with clues right away. So if we slide a clue into our opening sentences, it might go unnoticed. That's what I tried to do in "Aunt Jessica's Party," which first appeared in Woman's World in 1993. It's not a whodunit, but the protagonist's carrying out a scheme, and readers can spot it if they pay attention. Here's how the story begins:
     Carefully, Jessica polished her favorite sherry glass and placed it on the silver tray. Soon, her nephew would arrive. He was to be the only guest at her little party, and everything had to be perfect.
     Five minutes until six--time to call Grace. She went to the phone near the kitchen window, kept her eyes on the driveway, and dialed.
     "Hello, Grace?" she said. "Jessica. How are you? Oh, I'm fine--never better. Did I tell you William's coming today? Yes, it is an accomplishment to get him here. But it's his birthday, and I promised him a special present. He even agreed to pick up some sherry for me. Oh, there he is, pulling into the driveway." She paused. "Goodbye, Grace. You're a dear."
I count at least six facts relevant to the story's solution in these paragraphs; even Jessica's pause is significant. And there's one solid clue, an oddity that should make readers wonder. Jessica's planned the timing of this call ("time to call Grace"), but why call only five minutes before her nephew's scheduled to arrive? She can't be calling to chat--what other purpose might the call serve? I'm hoping that readers won't notice the strange timing, that they'll focus instead on hints about Jessica's relationship with her nephew and the "special present" she's giving him. I've played fair by providing a major clue. If readers aren't ready for it, it's not my fault.

Hide a clue in a series of insignificant details: If a detective searches a crime scene and finds an important clue--an oil-stained rag, say--we're obliged to tell readers. But if we don't want to call too much attention to the clue, we can hide it in a list of other things the detective finds, making sure some sound as intriguing as an oil-stained rag. I used this technique in "Death in Rehab," a whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2011. When temporary secretary Leah Abrams accepts a job at a rehab center, her husband, Sam, doesn't like the idea that she'll be "surrounded by addicts." Leah counters that being around recovering addicts will be inspirational, not dangerous, but Sam's not convinced:
"They're still addicts, and addicts do dangerous things. Did you read the local news this morning?" He found the right page and pointed to a headline. "'Gambling Addict Embezzles Millions, Disappears'--probably in Vegas by now, the paper says. Or this story--`Small-time Drug Dealer Killed Execution Style'--probably because he stole from his bosses, the paper says. Or this one--`Shooter Flies into Drunken Rage, Wounds Two'--the police haven't caught that one, either."
Savvy mystery readers may suspect one of these news stories will be relevant to the mystery, but they can't yet know which one (this is another early-in-the-story clue). In fact, I've tried to make the two irrelevant headlines sound more promising than the one that actually matters--and if you decide to read the story, that's a big extra hint for you. About halfway through the story, Sam mentions the three news stories again. By now, readers who have paid attention to all the clues provided during Leah's first day at work should have a good sense of which story is relevant. But I don't think most readers will figure out murderer and motive yet--and if they do, I don't much care. I've packed this story so full of clues that I doubt many readers will spot all of them. Even readers who realize whodunit should find some surprises at the end.

Separate clues from context: We're obliged to provide the reader with clues and also, I think, to provide the context needed to interpret them. But I don't think we're obliged to provide both at the same time. By putting a careful distance between clue and context, we can play fair and still keep the reader guessing. In "The Shopper," a whodunit first published in a 2014 convention anthology, a young librarian's house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. That's unsettling enough, but her real worries begin when the burglar--a pro the police have nicknamed The Shopper--starts sending her notes and returning some things he stole. He seems obsessed with her. Also, two men she's never seen before--one blond, one dark--start showing up at the library every day. She suspects one of them might be The Shopper, but which one? (And who says you can't have a puzzling whodunit with only two suspects?) Then things get worse:
    
She didn't really feel like going out that night, but she and Lori had a long-standing date for dinner and a movie. It'd be embarrassing to admit she was scared to go out, and the company would do her good. But when she got to the restaurant, she spotted the blond man sitting in a booth, eating a slab of pie. He has a right to eat wherever he wants, she thought; but the minute Lori arrived, Diane grabbed her hand, pulled her to a table at the other end of the restaurant, and sighed with relief when the blond man left after a second cup of coffee.
     The relief didn't last long. As she and Lori walked out, she saw the dark man sitting at the counter, picking at a salad. He must have come in after she had--had he followed her? She couldn't stand it any more.
I'd say there are five major clues in this story. Two are contained--or, in one case, reinforced--in these paragraphs. A reader keeping careful track of all the evidence could identify The Shopper right now, without reading the remaining seven pages. But since these clues are revealing only in the context of information provided five pages earlier, I'm betting most readers won't make the connection. The Shopper's secrets are still safe with me.

Use the protagonist's point of view to mislead readers: This technique isn't reserved for mystery writers. In "Emma Considered as Detective Fiction," P.D. James comments on Jane Austen's skillful manipulation of point of view to conceal the mysteries at the heart of her novel. Emma constantly misinterprets what people do and say, and because we readers see things from Emma's perspective, we're equally oblivious to what's really going on. In our own mysteries, unless our protagonist is a genius who instantly understands everything, we can use the same technique: If our protagonist overlooks clues, chances are readers will overlook them, too. In "A Joy Forever" (AHMM, 2015), photographer Chris is visiting Uncle Mike and his second wife, Gwen. Uncle Mike is a tyrant who's reduced Gwen to the status of domestic slave--he orders her around, never helps her, casually insults her. Gwen takes it all without a murmur. After a dinner during which Uncle Mike behaves even more boorishly than usual, Chris follows Gwen to the kitchen to help with the dishes:
     As I watched her standing at the sink, sympathy overpowered me again. She was barely fifty but looked like an old woman--bent, scrawny, exhausted, her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. And her drab, shapeless dress had to be at least a decade old.
     "You spend so much on Uncle Mike," I chided. "The golf cart, all that food and liquor. Spend something on yourself. Go to a beauty parlor and have your hair cut and styled. Buy yourself some new clothes."
     She laughed softly. "Oh, Mike really needs what I buy for him--he really, really does. And I don't care how my hair looks, and I don't need new clothes." Her smile hardened. "Not yet."
     I felt so moved, and so sorry, that I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "You're too good to him."
Chris sees Gwen as a victim, as a woman whose spirit has been utterly crushed by an oppressor. Readers who don't see beyond Chris's perspective have some surprises coming. But in this story, by this point, I think most readers will see more than Chris does. They'll pick up on clues such as Gwen's hard smile, her quiet "not yet." I had fun playing with point of view in this story, with giving alert readers plenty of opportunities to stay one step ahead of the narrator. It's another variation on Hoch's "grandest game."


Distract readers with action or humor: If readers get caught up in an action scene, they may forget they're supposed to be watching for clues; if they're chuckling at a character's dilemma, they may not notice puzzle pieces slipping by. In "Table for None" (AHMM, 2008), apprentice private detective Harriet Russo is having a rough night. She's on a dark, isolated street, staking out a suspect. But he spots her, threatens her, and stalks off. Moments later, her client, Little Dave, pops up unexpectedly and proposes searching the suspect's car. Harriet says it's too dangerous, but Little Dave won't listen:
 
He raced off. For a moment, I stood frozen. Call Miss Woodhouse and tell her how I'd botched things--let Little Dave get himself killed and feel guilty for the rest of my life--follow him into the parking lot and risk getting killed myself. On the whole, the last option seemed most attractive. I raced after Little Dave.
     He stood next to the dirty white car, hissing into his cell phone. "Damn it, Terry," he whispered harshly, "I told you not to call me. No, I won't tell you where I am. Just go home. I'll see ya when I see ya." He snapped his phone shut and yanked on a back door of the car. It didn't budge. He looked straight at me, grinning sheepishly.
     That's pretty much the last thing I remember. I have some vague impression of something crashing down against me, of sharp pain and sudden darkness. But my next definite memory is of fading slowly back into consciousness--of hearing sirens blare, of feeling the cement against my back, of seeing Little Dave sprawled a few feet away from me, of spotting a small iron figurine next to him, of falling into darkness again.
I hope readers will focus on the conflict and confusion in this scene, and on the unseen attack that leaves Harriet in bad shape and Little Dave in worse shape. I hope they won't pause to take careful note of exactly what Little Dave says in his phone conversation, to test it against the way he's behaved earlier and the things people say later. If readers are too focused on the action to pick up on inconsistencies, they'll miss evidence that could help them identify the murderer.

We can also distract readers with clever dialogue, with fascinating characters, with penetrating social satire, with absorbing themes, with keen insights into human nature. In the end, excellent writing is the best way to keep readers from focusing only on the clues we parade past them. Of course, that's not our main reason for trying to make our writing excellent. To use Hoch's phrase again, mysteries invite writers and readers to participate in "the grandest game," but that doesn't mean mysteries are no more than a game. I think mysteries can be as compelling and significant as other kinds of fiction. The grandest game doesn't impose limits on what our stories and novels can achieve. It simply adds another element that I and millions of other readers happen to enjoy.

Do you have favorite ways of camouflaging clues? I'd love to see some examples from your own mysteries. (*Hoch's essay, by the way, is in the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat, published in 1976, revised and reprinted several times since then. Used copies are available through Amazon.)


17 October 2016

The Big Shift

by Janice Law

I recently finished reading Jo Baker’s excellent Longbourn, a novel that focuses on the downstairs folk of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the Baker novel, the great events of Pride and Prejudice, a crucial ball, the arrival of the oh-so-eligible Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins’ visit, and Lydia’s elopement are but incidentals to the unseen workers of the Austen novel.

The Hills, Sarah and Polly and the soon-to-be added footman, James, have their own dramas and their own concerns, not to mention an enormous amount of work – pumping and carrying water, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, building fires, making bread and soap, not to mention preparing and serving the daily meals and generally waiting attendance on their “betters”.

This is a novel long overdue and really enjoyable. Very nice, you say, but what does that have to do with mysteries? On reflection, a fair bit, because published exactly 200 years apart (1813, 2013) the novels neatly illustrate the evolution of story telling from a moral to a psychological focus, as well as a shift in focus from the gentry class to the world’s workers.

The downstairs characters in Longbourn are fully drawn in the modern sense with an emphasis on their psychological states and on their responses to a rigid social system. We get glimpses of their youth and childhood, and instances when sick or injured, their minds reach altered states. There is nothing comparable in Pride and Prejudice, where many of the same human passions are filtered through the author’s rational and satiric mind and served up in the most elegant terms for the dual purpose of comic effect and moral lesson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Longbourn which does a fine job with the workers of the household, is much less successful with their employers. Mrs. Bennet is probably the most convincing. Her backstory of painful pregnancies and deliveries fits better with the grueling realities of domestic service before mod cons. Elizabeth Bennet, by contrast, is almost unrecognizable, most of her rebellion and spark having been gifted to the novel’s heroine, the overworked but indomitable Sarah.

Given the difficulties of merging the two worlds, Austen may have been clever to leave the domestics of the Bennet household well off stage. Events that could be treated as comedy– or retrieved with a good deal of money like Lydia’s elopement – would certainly end in tragedy down in the kitchen.
After many semesters of teaching Austen, much of this did not surprise me. What I did find unexpected was, that despite the modern style of Longbourn, the characters of the newer novel were ultimately no more complex than Austen’s. Yes, we get more of their emotions, we get their sexual lives, and a broader canvas altogether, but they are not necessarily more complete and multisided for all that.

This is particularly true of the male characters. James and Tol, Sarah’s two suitors, are both too good to be true, while Wickham, charming but dishonest and corrupt in Pride and Prejudice, is a potential child molester in Longbourn. The greater depth of characterization in this case has led to characters who are less morally complicated.

Characters, it turns out, can be complex and fascinating in ways quite different from our current style, and there is no better example than that the chief of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, who is much closer to an Austen character than to a modern detective. He has a brother with whom he is not close. He is prone to depression and overly fond of the 7% solution of cocaine. He is rude to everyone but not without sympathies up and down the social scale, and he is obsessive about all manner of abstruse topics.

What he dreams, fears, desires, remembers – these are absent, along with any personal entanglements such as bedevil every proper modern sleuth. And yet, he is by far the most famous of fictional detectives, cited and quoted and imitated and parodied. One of his cases gave a title to the best selling – and theatrically successful, The Incident of the Dog in the Night, and one of his comments heads a chapter in The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer of all things. He shows no signs of going away, nor do Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, who share some of his characteristics.

Will any of our many fine detective and mystery protagonists rise to a similar iconic status? Are there simply too many of them? Or is psychological completeness and complicated personal life somehow against them? Perhaps Sherlock was successful because he was like a great theatrical role, waiting to be inhabited by our imaginations, a child not of psychology and melodrama, but like the best of Austen’s young women, of the robust rationality of the Enlightenment.

10 October 2015

Write What You Know?

by B.K. Stevens

On a rainy night in late September (and this year, in Virginia, on just about every night in late September, it rained plenty), I had the pleasure of participating in a Mystery Writers of America panel at George Mason University's Fall for the Book festival. The moderator, fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, opened things up by asking us to respond to a time-honored piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." To what extent, Art asked, did we draw on our own experiences when we created our characters and stories? How much did we push beyond the limits of those experiences?

The question came exactly one week before the release of my young adult mystery, Fighting Chance (The Poisoned Pencil/Poisoned Pen Press). My protagonist is a seventeen-year-old male athlete growing up in a small town in Virginia. I'm a woman, I'm decades past seventeen, I was never an athlete at any age, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. If it's smart to write what we know, I'm in trouble.

The situation made me think back to a guest blog I wrote several years ago for Sleuths' Ink, a writers' group in Springfield, Missouri. In that blog, I compared the views of several classic authors who express opinions about whether writers should stick to writing about what they know. I decided to go back to that topic in this month's SleuthSayer's post. If two or three people on the planet still remember my old Sleuth's Ink blog--and that's undoubtedly a generous estimate--I can assure you this post will be different. Among other things, two of the authors I'll discuss this time are new.

"Write what you know"--next to "show, don't tell," that's probably the advice fiction writers hear most often. It can feel painfully limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you've never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers' memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward into a barrage of bullets or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or tempting toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else your personal experience has taught you how to do?

Jane Austen stuck to writing what she knew, and she apparently made a conscious decision to do so. In letters written in 1815  and 1816, James Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, urges her to broaden her horizons. But when he suggests she write about a learned clergyman, Austen says she lacks the necessary education. When Clarke suggests she write a historical romance about the royal house of Belgium, her refusal is more emphatic. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem," she says. "I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life." Austen insists she should write only about the people, places, and situations she knows best.: "I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way."

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpgDid she think all writers should follow her example? In an 1816 letter to her nephew Edward, Austen praises his "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." She contrasts them with her own novels, which she describes as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor." Some writers, Austen seems to imply, are right to attempt works with greater "variety" than her own.

It's possible, of course, that she didn't really admire her nephew's writing as much as she claims, and didn't really think so little of her own work. We all know how unreliable beta readers can be. But it's clear she thought some writers are wise to limit themselves to writing about what they know best.

Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, rejects such limits. "As to experience," she says, "the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break." The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn't experience itself. Even if your experiences are limited, your imagination can help you use what you've experienced as a basis for writing about what you haven't.

The Writing of FictionIf writers don't need to experience the things they write about, what do they need? Wharton sees two things as essential. First, writers must have emotional depth: "they must have hearts that can break." Could an emotionally stunted person create characters with powerful feelings, characters readers will care about? Also, writers must spend time reflecting about the events and emotions they've experienced, trying to understand them. Writers may not immediately recognize the significance in their own experiences. After an experience "remains long enough in the mind," however, its potential as the basis for fiction may become clear. 

Wharton's words echo Wordsworth's statement that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Both writers seem to agree that we should write not when experiences are new and emotions are raw but after some time has passed, after we've had time to think about what what happened. I'm struck, too, by Wharton's use of the word "brood." It calls to mind the image of a hen brooding over her eggs, warming them, nurturing the life within them. If we brood about our experiences, will we awaken the hidden life they hold? If so, maybe it's the quality of the brooding that matters most, rather than the experiences themselves. Maybe brooding is the key to finding a way to, in Wharton's phrase, "make a little go a long way."

Flannery O'Connor agrees. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she has nothing good to say about people who "think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had." "These people," she says, "should be stifled with all deliberate speed." Not all Senators can write riveting political thrillers, and not all police detectives can write gripping mysteries.

If you're meant to be a writer, O'Connor says, you don't need a wide variety of experiences: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." Like Wharton, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of contemplating or brooding upon experience.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg Both Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor led quiet lives. Neither ever married. Both died young. Unlike Austen, however, O'Connor sometimes chose to write about bizarre characters and violent situations that lay far outside her personal experience. These two authors chose different paths, but both created enduring works of fiction.

Henry James agrees a good writer can "make something out of a little experience." In "The Art of Fiction," James describes experience as a "huge spider-web" that can catch "every air-borne particle in its tissue." Like a spider web, an imaginative mind "takes to itself the faintest hints of life." A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.

To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants. When, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to be able to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James she'd simply passed an open door in Paris and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. "The glimpse made a picture," James says. "It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience." Writers don't need much actual experience, not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to "try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!"

Henry James.jpg"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"--has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at "the faintest hints of life" and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.

Write what you know? Sure. But if your talents and interests lead you in other directions, you can also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience any single human life supplies.

If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into what it feels like to be locked in a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and infuse it into a situation you've never directly experienced. If you've observed closely enough, if you've brooded long enough, if you've analyzed deeply enough and imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

(One final note--when this post appears, I'll be at Bouchercon. I'll have access to my husband's laptop, but I hate laptops. It takes me many minutes to peck out a single sentence, and I utter many unpleasant words while I'm doing it. I'll try, but I may not do a good job of replying to comments on Saturday. But I'll reply to every one once I get home on Sunday.)

30 April 2015

Useful and Necessary Knowledge

by Janice Law

I just finished a novel, always a satisfying moment, even if the product never quite lives up to the initial inspiration. Novels begin in careless rapture with hints of genius, run into complications toward the middle, and end, if one is lucky, somewhere in the realistic realm of ‘good enough.’

But this one, being set in the 1920‘s, got me to thinking about how one gets information for historical novels and the differences in what is needed for history, on the one hand, and a story, on the other. In my opinion, it comes down to minutia, and while I don’t like to criticize historians, whose ranks I’ve joined on occasion, they usually skimp of the day-to-day details that are the blood and bones of any novel.

Money, in particular, is always tricky. Not only did earlier eras have different coinage – the UK went decimal within living memory – but it is extremely hard to determine equivalents in today’s money. You don’t need to be a Jane Austen or a Karl Marx to feel that lacking a grasp of how much and what value leaves a gap in a manuscript.

Of course, historians venture into the realm of economics, but they tend to like the big scale and the overall trend. Only occasionally do they include the price of a modest lunch or the cost of a subway ticket or a ride on a mail coach. What would a woman pay for a dress and how much would her seamstress clear? These are often hard to determine.

Consider Weimar, the ill fated Republic and its rowdy capital, Berlin, where I’ve recently been spending time in the service of the very young Francis Bacon. It’s easy to find statistics on everything from housing to political preferences, but I really had to struggle to find out what was served in the local bars, where I’m afraid Francis spent a lot of time. Fortunately a memoir came to the rescue with the menu: pea soup, sausages and beer. Memoirists are notoriously unreliable about their personal history, but I think they’re probably trustworthy on fast food.

Memoirs, particularly Christopher Isherwood’s, were useful in another way, because Berlin suffered extensive bombing damage during the war. It was then divided by the wall, and ,when the wall came down, reintegrated with the east. All this has meant buildings lost, areas redeveloped, old haunts vanished except in the mind of the memoirist who helpfully resurrects forgotten districts and seedy cafes. Sometimes, though, one must finesse a problem. I read whole books on the so called combat leagues, the groups of political activists that slid from providing bodyguards to fueling street warfare. Their motives, their sociological backgrounds, their financial support, their aims, their resentments were all laid out in neat columns. But what about the colors of their shirts? Except for the Brownshirts, no dice.

Of course, occasionally one comes across a volume that seems written with other writers in mind. I can recommend two. Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic, the Erotic Worlds of Weimar Berlin is beyond lurid but the vocabulary and the venues, not to mention the goings-on of the notorious sex trade, are all usefully laid out. With pictures. Want to know who patronized the Cozy Corner, the “boy bar” beloved of Auden and Isherwood? Care to take a gander at the Eldorado, the great transvestite club and cabaret? Gordon has the info and the illustrations. A picture really is worth a thousand words in this case.

Not related to Weimar but useful for anyone who cares to dip into the Victorian world is Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Divided up by topic ranging from transportation to marriage to money to etiquette, it can help you distinguish a barouche from a victoria, and a ladies maid from a housemaid. A useful volume indeed.

But sometimes there are no useful memoirs or frivolous historians. Then the writer must improvise.

Soon after we moved to eastern Connecticut, I was asked to write a local history, and wanting to do something a little different, I came up with the idea of ending each chapter with short blurbs like what’s for dinner? what did they do for fun? travel time to some local town or attraction? how were they educated? and how did they die?

You can probably guess which ones were easy to discover, New England being proud of its education and mortality being popular with medical historians. Travel was another matter. I wound up checking with a local cross country coach to estimate how long it would take a tribal runner to cover rough ground and with the university equestrian center for the time it would take a decent horse to make a ten mile journey on dirt roads.

Historians need the big picture, bless them, but novelists have – or should have – their own big, or little, picture in mind. What we need are the details, the minutia and the ephemera that allow us to conjure the ghosts of the past.

03 November 2013

Old Characters, New Novels

by Leigh Lundin

Criminal Brief readers might remember pastiches have to be damn good to win me over. That doesn't mean I dismiss or entirely dislike old heroes brought back to life by other than their original authors, but they must attain a high standard. One of our own, Dale Andrews with his thorough research, sets a high bar with his Ellery Queen stories.

Pastiche authors also have to capture the flavor of the original stories, the era, the settings, and especially the characters. More often than not, one of these will fall flat. Then the question becomes whether readers (and movie viewers) accept the character.

The Saint
The Saint
Saintly Motives

Often acceptance hinges upon what a reader or viewer is first exposed to. I recall an English friend complaining bitterly about the Roger Moore version of The Saint. At first blush, what wasn't to like? The cast and crew were British and whilst the series wasn't as good as anything the Patricks  appeared in (McGoohan and MacNee (not to mention Diana Rigg's Emma Peel)), it was a good diversion.

And then I started reading The Saint novels and became properly hooked. I understood ITC failed to capture the period and much of the ambiance of Leslie Charteris' characters.

Shelfish Motives

One other reason I'm slow to embrace pastiches is the abundance of fresh and perhaps unique stories that might never see the light of day (at least a bookstore day) thanks to being elbowed aside by better known heroes and authors. It's bad enough movie makers recycle characters and plots, but it seems a shame when book publishers do it.

Yes, I can understand hankering and hungering for more of characters one's grown to love. Perhaps for this reason and because it's not my chosen genre, I'm less critical of classic romance characters resurfacing than I am of mystery reprises. Recycle the Janes (Austen and Eyre) but don't touch Marple!

(Romance fans might be interested to learn new Jane Austen novels are in the pipeline including updates of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. And for the particular attention of our friend Travis Erwin, not all fans are pleased one of those authors is male, Alexander McCall Smith.)

If anything, romance fans are even more engaged and critical. You might remember the harsh criticism of Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. The music field witnessed bitter, even vicious comments about Hayley Westenra covering Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. While I rarely prefer remakes to the originals, I compliment Bush's creative genius but I find her little-girl performance a bit shrill for my ears, although I seem to be an exception.

Solar Powered

Okay, I confess a bit of tongue in cheek (cheeky lad, that!). There is another way: I very much like the Solar Pons stories. August Derleth was such an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote Conan Doyle for permission to pick up pen and continue the series. Doyle declined, but not to be entirely put off, Derleth invented the great detective, Solar Pons.

The character became so popular, that when an edition came out that edited some of the Americanisms and timelines, the fan base reacted harshly, and an omnibus correcting the corrections soon followed.

But here it gets curious: A few years after August Derleth died, British author Basil Copper began writing further Solar Pons stories. In other words, Copper wrote pastiches of Derleth's pastiches! (And to be perfectly clear, Basil Copper was the editor who'd corrected Derleth's occasional Americanisms.)

Bonding with Fans

Only recently, we learned Jeffrey Deaver was engaged by the Fleming estate to write an 'official' new James Bond novel. Deaver, an American as you know, received not unpleasant mixed reviews for his effort, some positive, some not so much but they were better received than his immediate predecessor, Sebastian Faulks (who rather sounds like a Bond bad guy). As some have pointed out, Deaver is a better writer than Ian Fleming was, but critics are tough when it comes to capturing the essence of a character.

Deaver wasn't the first American appointed to write official 007 tales– that was novelist Raymond Benson– but I was surprised to learn we're about to see another new pastiche, this one by British writer William Boyd.

Wait, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Samantha Weinberg's chicklit trilogy, The Moneypenny Diaries. And I should mention internationalism works both ways: Irish author John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, is channeling Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

James Bond is hardly the only character brought back to life. I do my best to ignore the Batman-like parody of Sherlock Holmes that Robert Downey, Jr came up with. But other works have either arrived or are on the way.

British children's novelist Anthony Horowitz was licensed to write a new 'official' Sherlock Holmes with an Edith Wharton sounding title, The House of Silk.

Bourne Again

Apparently Robert Ludlum's estate didn't feel the Bourne Trilogy satisfactorily wrapped up the series. They've authorized yet another retake called The Bourne Dominion by Eric Van Lustbader.

And finally, we return to Agatha Christie, not Jane Marple but Hercule Poirot. You may remember Christie hoped to prevent pastiches following on her novels, but her estate had other ideas. They've contracted with writer Sophie Hannah to produce a new novel featuring the egg-headed Belgian detective.

While I may criticize errant pastiches, one parting thought occurs to me: Wouldn't we authors like to reach that pinnacle, one where readers love our works so much, they can't get enough even after we're gone?