Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts

26 July 2021

The Impeccable Poirot


I've been treating myself to a leisurely nostalgia trip through the Art Deco settings of the early seasons of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot on Britbox. David Suchet is the embodiment of the dapper little detective with his perfectly waxed mustache, spotless spats, and compassion for the emotions of others, even though for himself he prefers to rely on the "little gray cells" of his exceptional brain.

The fact that Poirot never changes makes him tiresome to some readers. Christie herself hinted she eventually found him tedious by giving her fictional alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, similar feelings toward her own protagonist. And Poirot on the page is a flat, even cartoonish character, especially compared to the fully realized characters we write and read about today. But as Suchet inhabits this character, he brings the finicky, precise, keen-witted little Belgian to life. An émigré and an outsider in English society, sometimes lionized and sometimes dismissed, he is sensitive to slights but manages to keep his temper, his sense of humor, and a sense of irony. And in the end, he solves the case without fear or favor.

Like most mystery writers who've been dabbling in deceit and death for a while, I can usually spot a few more tricks of the crime fiction trade than I'm supposed to, whether they show up in a novel, a short story, a movie, or a TV show. Furthermore, binge watching the series is giving me a further advantage, in that neither the prolific Dame Agatha nor the producers (ITV et al), with their ambitious goal of filming the entire Poirot canon, could help repeating some of their techniques.

We know the sweet damsel in distress whom Poirot unmasks at the end as the contemptuous murderess...the disregarded maidservant...the pair who detest each other most convincingly yet turn out to be lovers in cahoots...the victim who comes back to life. We've seen them before, these most unlikely villains, as we have the cluster of murders to conceal the motive for a single death. We may even have used them ourselves.

What we mustn't forget is that these classic devices—the least likely suspect, the unreliable narrator—are familiar to us because Agatha Christie thought of them first and sprang them on a vast audience who were as truly baffled as the witnesses and suspects Poirot gathers together for the revelatory dénouement of each episode.

Fashions in crime fiction have changed. Readers no longer care about the clock set forward or back, the scrap of fabric caught in a latch, the second spoon in the saucer of a coffee cup. But in the Poirot TV series, these details still give us pleasure, because they form part of the vanished world of "society" between the two World Wars when details of dress, manners, and decor still mattered to a lot of people. Such details become clues that help Poirot solve the crime at hand.

In Suchet's interpretation, Poirot is not merely observant. He has a touch of OCD, constantly straightening table settings laid awry or ornaments on a mantelpiece. I particularly loved the moment when he realized the missing will, or was it a compromising letter, had been torn up into "spills," twisted strips of paper meant for lighting the fire, in a jar on the mantel. They caught his eye because the other objects on the mantel were out of order—and he had straightened them the day before.

28 June 2021

Why I Still Don't Outline


I am not and never have been an outliner. Short story writers don't use the contemptuous word "pantsers" (for "writing by the seat of the pants") for people who don't outline as much as novelists do. I prefer the term "writing into the mist." There's nothing wrong with writers who outline. I believe that most of us, the more experienced we become in our craft, realize that each of us has a personal process, applying structure and intuition in varying proportions, depending on what works.

Is it honing our craft to keep re-examining our own process, or is it gazing into the mirror à la Narcissus? Maybe a bit of both? With more certainty, I can say it's always worthwhile to hear about the process of others. If a writer admits to using a bit of intuitive magic, it helps me understand why I can't get the same results—I don't have the same gifts. If another writer shares a technique, I can try it. Maybe it will work for me. If it does, I've added to the tools of my craft. If it doesn't, I've gained understanding of the nature of my process and how it differs from that of other writers.

Here's how it works for me. I'm not saying I start by sitting down to a blank page. In fact, I never sit down to a blank page. That doesn't work for me, which is why some writers' tenets of writing every day, writing at a certain hour, or writing a certain number of pages daily wouldn't work for me. There's an "out of the mist" as well as an "into the mist," and "out of the mist" (otherwise known as inspiration, the Muse, the unconscious, or a Higher Power, depending on your belief system and what century you live in) is where the ideas that get me going come to me. It may be a title, a theme, the rough idea for a story, a line of narrative, or characters talking in my head.

This burst of creativity usually comes when my mind is relaxed—and when it's inconvenient to rush immediately to the computer. Some of my best stories have been born while I was lying on my back on the living room floor doing my stretches. But as soon as possible, I get down these initial thoughts and take them as far as I can until the mist closes in again. Sometimes I end up with a page of notes for a story, sometimes with the first page or two of the story itself with notes for where it's going. Now I know what I have to work on next time I sit down to write.

Why don't I outline now? you may ask. Wouldn't it make my task easier? Not if I want to bring the story to life. Over the years, I've finally learned to plot a twisty tale. But I know my greatest strength is character and all that goes into it: dialogue, humor, emotion, and relationships. And the process of creating them is completely intuitive for me. Until the main characters meet and interact with the secondary characters, and until I know who they are and what they'll say, I don't know exactly what the scenes will be and how the story will arrive at what I think will be the conclusion. I have a lot of "maybes" in my notes. But I know there'll be surprises.

I have two major sets of series characters with distinctive and entirely different voices. And I write standalones, mostly in first person, in voices that I try to make distinctive enough that they don't sound like my contemporary series protagonist's voice. I am bemused when I come across writing workshops that suggest aspiring writers learn to "build a character." Even when my notes identify the secondary characters in advance, an unexpected one may pop up—lively, quirky, even important to the plot. As for "building"—I could pre-plan appearance, but who cares about appearance? I could plan personality traits, but I want to "show, not tell." Nothing irritates me more than to read that a character has "a wicked sense of humor," and have that character say nothing more exciting than, "Pass the peanut butter."

There's a certain amount of anxiety in writing into the mist. Until I complete the first draft, even if I have an idea of the outcome, I'm never quite sure I'll make it until I get there. But the joy of creation is very much alive for me in the writing. I haven't squandered any of it in advance.

31 May 2021

Verbal Issues That Go Beyond Pet Peeves


I originally thought I was going to write the usual frivolous rant.

You know the kind of thing—how people say, "just between you and I." Would they say, "just between we?" Why can't they figure this out?

Or, "Let's face it," as a preface to a generalized assumption about what people think, usually one that I don't share. I once heard a highly respected mystery writer say, "Let's face it, you can never have too many handbags." I responded tactlessly because I honestly thought she was kidding.

But mere verbal peccadillos are hardly worth talking about these days. What's really making me bite nails is the way today's extremists insist on making language, beautiful language, political, and try to impose it on us all with extreme prejudice.

My first post-motherhood job in 1977 was an editorial job at McGraw-Hill, a publisher that was proud to have created the first guide to nonsexist language for its editors' use. I felt like Wonder Woman as I changed the likes of "workmen" to "workers" and "every man" to "everyone" in my big project, an accounting textbook. It felt wonderful, and there's no question in my mind that it made a difference to women. What's happening now feels more like an attack on free speech. More than one fellow writer has said to me privately that it's not safe to say what you think. There's a fine line between changes and censorship, between the evolution of language and the imposition of a political party line that uses language to impose its views.

I'm not talking about the use of "they" and "them" as singular subject and object pronouns for a trans, non-binary, or gender fluid individual. That's the usage that's evolved, so let's accept it. The problem starts when self-appointed language police start "correcting" users of traditional pronouns, ie "he, she, him, her," in reference to individual men and women.

We hear a lot lately about the right for groups of people to call themselves what they themselves wish to be called. Most of us take this very seriously. We respect the right of former Hispanics to be called Latinx, of former African-Americans to be called people of color, or former transsexuals to be called trans people. In fact, I was corrected the other day when I referred to someone not present who'd changed their name from Someone-a to Someone-o as a trans person. Apparently, since that person might be gender fluid, gender expansive, or non-binary rather than trans (neither of us knew), I wasn't supposed to use a noun at all, but stick to a pronoun, they, in a sentence in which a noun was called for. I've been fighting for the rights of others my whole life, and I'm not afraid to stand up and say, If this be treason, I'm still gonna use a noun.

I thought an online corporate training module on workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation went too far when it counseled employees to avoid the term "pregnant women," substituting "pregnant people." I googled "pregnant men," and it seems trans men do get pregnant. It's a serious issue. A significant number become depressed or suicidal as a result. But if pregnant women become invisible—well, women have been invisible before, and it's not a good thing.

One last beef. We all have the right to be called what we want to be called. Really? All of us? Speaking of invisible, I'm not happy, as a Jewish woman (only two degrees of separation from people who died in Auschwitz), to be labeled a "privileged white." If so, why are white supremacists throwing bombs into synagogues? Evidently they're reading a different set of labels. Finally, I'm a woman with the organs and identity I was born with, and I never asked to be called a cis. I do not give my permission to be called a cis. I am woman, hear me roar.

03 May 2021

Sources of Historical Fiction: Trivia and Iconia vs Writing What You Lived


In a December 2020 post titled "Historical Fiction (Or Not)," SleuthSayer Steve Liskow made the case for Not by revealing he's a "trivia junkie" who must avoid research because for him it's "the best way to avoid actually writing." He then described the historical fiction he's written, all set in periods he lived through and drawing on powerful, even traumatic experiences of his own.

I was going to write a comment on Steve's post when it occurred to me that it provided several jumping off points for an essay of my own. For one thing, when I do research, I don't stray far afield of my topic, though I love collecting relevant information. I came to my Mendoza Family Saga after a lifetime of hating research. I was charmed by what I learned about my subject matter—the Jews of the Sephardic Diaspora, the Taino of the Caribbean, and the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire. And I was astonished at how much I enjoyed learning it. For example, my mystery short story protagonist Rachel Mendoza is a kira in Istanbul. The kiras were Jewish women who served as purveyors or personal shoppers to the ladies of the Sultan's harem in the 16th and 17th centuries. I learned about them in a footnote in a book I found a reference to in another book I found in a bibliography I was given by a professor at my alma mater whom I contacted. Academics respond nicely to emails saying, "I'm an alumna; may I pick your brains?"

I googled "1950s trivia." In one multiple choice test, I had no trouble remembering that M&Ms "melt in your mouth, not in your hand"; Animal Farm was written by George Orwell; Audrey Hepburn played the princess in Roman Holiday; Dr Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine; Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus; and Roger Bannister first broke the four-minute mile. But I was stumped by the questions about the history of cars and credit cars and have no idea what year Disneyland opened. In another, I knew that JD Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye; that Nixon's "Checkers" speech referred to his cocker spaniel; that Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mt Everest; that Watson and Crick discovered the double helix of DNA; that Brown vs Board of Education prohibited school segregation; and that Congress added "In God We Trust" to American currency in (if they say so) 1953. I flunked the ones on cars, TV, where the Brinks Robbery took place, which general said, "Old soldiers never die," and the ad for Burger King. I wouldn't use any of these in a novel or short story.

Rosa Parks, the only name on both lists, was and is not trivial.

I don't necessarily think historical writers who look for their background material in books are looking for trivia. For a long time between the era of ancient Rome and that of modern quiz nights, the term connoted information of little value. That's not the same as detail. But besides detail, writers outside their own period and setting are looking for iconia (my own word—I googled it, and it's not there, except as a formerly inhabited planet in the Beta Quadrant). If you set your novel in ancient Greece, you'll look up the Parthenon and the Oracle at Delphi. If your period is 19th century San Francisco, you'll focus on the Goldrush, Chinatown, and Nob Hill.

But when you write what you know—the past as it occurred within your own lifetime—you can supply a unique perspective that can't be found in books.

I've reached an age when I'm willing to let others consider my high school years, the late 1950s, "historical" and enjoy writing about them. What it was like for me is similar to and different from what they say the 1950s was like. I googled "1950s fashion." I found plenty of poodle skirts. I didn't have one. There were plenty of saddle shoes. I didn't have those either, though I know they were hell to polish, white fore and aft and black in the middle. How a girl felt about her mother buying her brown oxfords instead of saddle shoes like the other girls– now that starts to get into territory that might interest a writer. Or let's consider Elvis and rock 'n roll. In my house, it was folk and union songs. My short story, "The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat," drew on an event that affected many and had haunted me for decades—the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953. I couldn't write it until I was old enough to write about the 1950s as a historical period; mature enough to put it into the context of the Queens I grew up in; and skilled enough as a writer to weave it into a story that added a memorable protagonist and themes of domestic violence and betrayal.

05 April 2021

Nuts Is Not A Diagnosis - Unless A Shrink Is Making A Joke


Every time I think surely everyone knows what schizophrenic means, I hear someone in a novel—or in life, for that matter—say, "I'm schizophrenic," meaning anything from, "I'm in two different minds about this," ie ambivalent, to, "Sometimes I'm like two different people," ie, metaphorically variable in mood and/or behavior. The origin of the psychiatric term, "schizophrenia" is indeed "divided mind," but the disorder today's mental health professionals diagnose as schizophrenia has nothing to do with that.

According to DSM-5, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, schizophrenia is "a severe and chronic mental disorder characterized by disturbances in thought, perception, and behavior." It comes with delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and/or "grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior." To keep it straight, remember it's a thought disorder rather than an affective or, in lay terms, emotional disorder. Before cell phones got popular, most of the people talking to themselves on buses were probably schizophrenics conversing with their auditory hallucinations. "Ideas of reference"—thinking the person on the TV is talking to you personally—is something a schizophrenic might think.

While the closest I think a person gets to what most of us think of as crazy is people with thought disorders and psychotic symptoms, such as chronic schizophrenics, many of them, even while they're being treated, don't think they're crazy. In fact, I've met many who were afraid the medications doctors gave them would make them crazy. They also thought that street drugs would make them better, a fantasy too many writers romanticize.

Now let's talk about "being two different people," or that "rare disorder," "split personality." First, it's not a rare disorder. It stopped being rare as soon as people started believing the people who reported having been sexually abused is children, which is how it usually starts. When helpless people, especially the very young, experience trauma they can't cope with or comprehend—sexual abuse and torture—they survive by dissociating. Their minds take part of them to another place, where what's happening to their bodies has nothing to do with them. This dissociation takes root and becomes a powerful coping mechanism. In extreme cases, it becomes what's now called dissociative identity disorder (formerly split personality disorder). Typically, there's a main personality who's unaware of the existence of alters, ie from a couple to dozens of personalities that coexist in the adult's mind.

Writers and, unfortunately, some therapists may romanticize the alters, wanting to grant them "freedom" rather than understanding that they are truly parts of a single person and that the therapeutic goal must be integration. While the main personality may be a competent, conventional adult with an ordinary job and a family, one alter might be a brawler, another a prostitute, another the frightened four-year-old who was molested. Not all the alters may have the same sexual orientation. Some alters may want help, others may not. But even if it's not apparent, that main personality is missing some important aspects of wholeness.

I've come in contact with DID a couple of times in the course of my career as a mental health professional. The first time, I was working in a hospital alcoholism treatment setting in which most of the medical and psychiatric team didn't "believe" in DID. The patient seeking treatment for alcoholism had been convicted for molesting his ten-year-old daughter. He said he had no recollection of doing so but believed he must have done it and was filled with remorse. He came from an extremely strict religion, community, and family. After ruling out memory loss due to drinking and working with him for a while, I suspected that he had been severely abused as a child and was suffering from DID. My guess was that an alter he was unaware of had committed the abuse.

In my online practice, a woman with a very chaotic family life came to me for therapy. My antennae went up when she signed her email with one name and paid from the Paypal account of someone with the same last name but a different first name. As she told me more about her history, she revealed she'd started an affair with an uncle at age ten, but assured me it was not abuse because they "really loved each other"—one of the fantasies with which predatory adults "seduce" children. When a pedophile successfully cons a child, it's still child molestation. At other times, she wrote letters that seemed to come from different alters, refused to take certain actions in her marriage because "it wouldn't be fair to the others," and admitted she'd been told before that she had DID, but that she didn't believe it. When she stopped coming to treatment, I emailed her, gently encouraging her to return. She wrote back, saying, "We don't need therapy." That "we" spoke volumes.

Dissociation isn't always so extreme. You've experienced it yourself if you've ever been lost in a good book or gone into road trance. Schizophrenia, on the other hand—well, if you hear Rachel Maddow say, "Leigh, that's you I'm talking to!" you may want to get yourself checked out.

08 March 2021

Revisiting Early Work


Does a novel I wrote at age 28 count as juvenilia? It certainly does by the definition in Collins English Dictionary: "works of...literature...produced in youth...before the ...author...has formed a mature style."

I recently dug out the unpublished manuscript of my first mystery novel, A Friendly Glass of Poison, which I started writing more than fifty years ago, to mine it for material for a short story. It had been gathering dust on a shelf since I withdrew it from a respected agent who failed to sell it in three years of trying.

I finished Poison and wrote two more mysteries in the early 1970s, all marketed unsuccessfully by the same agent, still well known today. Here are the Edgar Best Novel nominees from 1970 to 1974 as examples of good mysteries at that time.

1970
• Dick Francis, Forfeit
• Chester Himes, Blind Man with a Pistol
• Shaun Herron, Miro
• Peter Dickinson, The Old English Peep Show
• Emma Lathen, When in Greece
• Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Where the Dark Streets Go
1971
• Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman
• Pat Stadley, Autumn of a Hunter
• Margaret Millar, Beyond this Point Are Monsters
• Patricia Moyes, Many Deadly Returns
• Donald E. Westlake, The Hot Rock
• Shaun Herron, The Hound and the Fox and the Harper
1972
• Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
• P. D. James, Shroud for a Nightingale
• G. F. Newman, Sir, You Bastard
• Tony Hillerman, The Fly on the Wall
• Arthur Wise, Who Killed Enoch Powell?
1973
• Warren Kiefer, The Lingala Code
• Martin Cruz Smith, Canto for a Gypsy
• John Ball, Five Pieces of Jade
• Hugh C. Rae, The Shooting Gallery
• Ngaio Marsh, Tied Up in Tinsel
1974
• Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead
• Francis Clifford, Amigo, Amigo
• P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
• Jean Stubbs, Dear Laura
• Victor Canning, The Rainbird Pattern

I was reading Moyes and Marsh. I eventually read Dick Francis, Emma Lathen, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Millar, Westlake, and Ball, and Peter Dickinson and PD James became great favorites. But when I wrote my novels, I hadn't yet met most of these authors. I had recently read my way through all of Agatha Christie, and I structured my mysteries as Christie did many of hers: by beginning with a passage from the POV of each of the characters who would become murderer, victim, and suspects before proceeding to the murder. I had read Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Margery Allingham. But how do you model yourself on the greats when you don't yet have a voice?

The novel, as I read it over at age 76, is embarrassingly clichéd and overwritten. The parts I thought were funny are painfully "humorous"--a word I don't mean as a compliment. It's quaintly typed in Courier with the italicized words (many, as the novel was set in France) underlined and page numbers added by hand. I did it on an old Royal manual typewriter, starting a new sheet each time I made a revision and making carbon copies on onionskin. I feel compassion for my younger self, who always wanted to be a writer. And I'm so glad that novel never got published!

Many years later, I was invited to submit a short story to a proposed anthology on the theme of bars, pubs, and taverns. All who know me know that my contemporary fiction is all about recovery from alcoholism. Many also know that I've been an alcoholism treatment professional for the past thirty-five years. That makes this theme a challenge.

My protagonist in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries is a recovering alcoholic. Readers met him in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day in the first novel, Death Will Get You Sober. Four novels, a novella, and eight short stories later, he hasn't relapsed, and he never will. He has better things to do than hang out in bars or spend his time thinking about booze. A Bruce story was not the solution.

Then I remembered A Friendly Glass of Poison. Why not go back to an era when not only didn't anybody know about alcoholism (except a few drunks reading the Big Book in a few obscure church basements with complete anonymity), but I knew nothing about alcoholism? Why not set a story in my, ahem, mature voice in a medieval village in the South of France in 1962, in a bar called the Chat Gris that I'd already invented, and let everybody there get drunk and have a jolly good time--until someone gets poisoned? I found I could write such a story without a single pang of conscience. I called it "A Friendly Glass."

I hope the story works. I hope the structure will satisfy modern editors. I hope the redesigned motives are plausible to modern readers, though they still reflect the culture and values of the early 1960s. I had great fun writing it. I learned to be profoundly grateful that my first novel was published not when I was in my twenties and desperately wanted it, but in my sixties, when I was ready. I am even more grateful that since that first novel, and as I have gone on to write more novels and dozens of short stories, my craft and voice continue to mature.

08 February 2021

Writing to the Don'ts


In an era when short crime fiction has far fewer and more specialized markets than in the great days when writers could actually make a living writing it, oldtimers give aspiring authors some wise but contradictory advice: "Don't write to the market," and "Don't ignore the guidelines of the market you're submitting to."

If you can't do six impossible things before breakfast, you have no business writing fiction in the 21st century. But lately, the directives of journals and e-zines have become so demanding and exclude so much that one begins to wonder how the struggling authors can find anywhere to place their stories.

Here are excerpts from a few of my favorite sets of guidelines.

Needs: cutting edge, hardboiled, horror, literary, noir, psychological/horror. No fanfiction, romance, or swords & sorcery, no fantasy and no erotica. We no longer publish erotica, but if your story contains graphic sex that is essential to the story, that's fine. Absolutely nothing glorifying Satanism!
*No stories involving abuse of children, animals or dead people.
*Seriously folks, animal abuse is our number one no-no! It will get your story kicked back quicker than anything else. Nothing so sick or perverted that even I can’t read it. Nothing racist or bigoted, anti-religion, nothing blasphemous or sacrilegious. Nothing strongly Conservative or blatantly Liberal or so politically correct the ACLU would love it. Seriously, keep your politics to yourself or at least low-key. There’s a happy medium somewhere: Write straight from the heart; call it like you see it, but show some control. Also, no published song lyrics or poetry or quotes from other stories. Material from texts or academic books may be quoted, but must be properly footnoted.
Yellow Mama

We do appreciate clever and poetic turns of phrase, but first and foremost we want a story readers can sink into late at night before they go to bed. We want to stretch people’s minds, but not give them a headache.
*We receive so many brilliant but depressing stories that we must pass on all but the best gems. We strive for emotional balance in each of our issues, and want our readers to leave feeling challenged yet refreshed.
*We love to publish works featuring fiery feminism, a rainbow of LGBTQIA+, skin colours that don’t begin with the letter ‘W’, indigenous and immigrant experiences alike, and people of varying shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities.
*We like some action along with those intriguing personalities, and we want to see characters that grow and change throughout the story arc.
Pulp Literature

We go for stories that are dark, literary; we are looking for the creepy, the weird and the unsettling.
*We do not accept stories with the following: vampires, zombies, werewolves, serial killers, hitmen, excessive gore or sex, excessive abuse against women, revenge fantasies, cannibals, high fantasy.
LampLight

We don’t do cozies. We don’t do procedurals. We’re not a literary magazine, and we don’t do other genres. We like strong characters, and good story telling, and we will not reject anyone based on mainstream morality. Amoral protagonists are encouraged. As the world's only no-limit criminal culture digest magazine, we will consider any twisted/taboo storyline, or deplorable protagonist.
*We want stories featuring the criminal as a protagonist. Legbreakers, hookers, drug pushers, porn stars, junkies, and pimps welcomed. We do mob stories. Keep them original. Write what you know.
SwitchBlade

It's a rare journal that doesn't lose its sense of humor in such a thicket of stipulations, so I want to give a shout-out to Crimeucopia, a UK quarterly whose submission guidelines are generous and include the priceless one-liner, "We’re usually pretty relaxed in regard to manuscript presentation, but please don’t take the piss." I wish the other zines quoted above were taking the piss.

I don't do the kind of story in which a PI who needs therapy and an ending that's a bummer are de rigueur. I don't do horror. Sometimes I do traditional murder mysteries, sometimes police or part-police procedurals, sometimes historicals. I mix them up. I weave in social issues. My standalones can be literary in tone and execution. Sometimes I write about theft instead of murder. A few of my crime stories qualify as urban fantasy, neither gore nor fairy dust involved. Twice, I've written a serial killer, one not quite human.

The net result is that I read these guidelines, throw my hands up in despair, and don't submit. Whenever I've risked going with the positive elements—"we like strong characters and good storytelling," "we want to see characters that grow and change"—I've been told my story is "not what we're looking for." I know the issue is not the quality of my work. Magazines that don't have a lot of restrictive guidelines, like EQMM, AHMM, and Black Cat, have accepted enough of my submissions to reassure me. It really is the don'ts.

11 January 2021

When An Explorer Is Not Equipped With A Vocabulary


 

Quadrant. Check.
Charts. Check.
Quills and ink. Check.

Before setting sail on his voyage of discovery in 1492, Columbus had to make sure he and his ships were well equipped.

EVA suit. Check.
Pistol grip tool. Check.
Safety tethers. Check.

As you can see, the equipment of a 21st-century astronaut differed greatly from that of a 15th- century navigator. But the purpose of explorers across history is always the same: not only to go out and see, but to report back to the rest of us who can't go and see for themselves.

I found a list of the "ten best" real-life adventure books, nominated by a panel of explorers, in esquire.com. The five written by the explorers themselves were:
The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950) by Thor Heyerdahl
The Worst Journey in the World (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Lost In the Jungle (2005) by Yossi Ghinsberg
Touching the Void (1988) by Joe Simpson
Into the Heart of Borneo (1987) by Redmond O'Hanlon

And how about literary figures like the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton? This fascinating man was a soldier, a diplomat, a spy, a translator of the classic Indian and Arabian erotic texts, and more, tarnished only by anti-Semitic beliefs. (Honestly, Sir Richard!) Isabella Bird, the first woman admitted to the Royal Geographical Society? T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, not an explorer but an articulate participant in a culture not his own? In fact, a vast body of travel literature appeared in the 19th century, when exploring became a fever and publishing one's journals and observations a goal for those who made it back. Since then, we've been able to read all about the world beyond our own experience.

But what about explorers who have no gift for describing what they see? What use are their travels to the rest of us?

This is not merely a modern problem.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the hallowed biographer of Columbus, won a Pulitzer for Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Morison, who replicated all the Admiral's voyages in his own sailboat, raves about Columbus's skill as a navigator and creator of charts a modern sailor could still use. Morison doesn't mind that Columbus was no naturalist nor complain that there was no naturalist aboard to describe the abundance of unfamiliar flora and fauna the Europeans saw.

But Kirkpatrick Sale, in Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, complains: "To convey the lush density and stately grandeur of those tropical forests, he had little more than the modifiers 'green' and 'very.'" He goes on to quote from the Admiral's journals and letters back to Spain in late 1492: "'very green trees,' 'trees very green,' 'trees so green and with leaves like those of Castile,' 'large groves very green,' 'trees beautiful and green'..."; as well as his inarticulate expression of diversity: "'trees of a thousand kinds,' 'a thousand sorts of trees,' 'trees different from ours,' 'trees of a thousand kinds'...".

It wasn't only Columbus. Sale quotes Oxford scholar J.H. Elliott as saying that in general, "'the physical appearance of the New World is either totally ignored or else described in the flattest and most conventional phraseology [by 16th-century European explorers].'" Sale says: "This lack of interest was reflected in the lack of vocabulary, the lack of that facility common to nature-based peoples whose cultures are steeped in nature imagery."

It makes perfect sense, right? But it wouldn't happen now, we think. Twenty-first century exploration, whether to the few wild places left on Planet Earth or into space, has or will have all sorts of experts and the equipment to measure minutely and report accurately what they observe.

But who will receive this information? Our spacegoing scientists report the details to NASA, which, depending on the details, usually means the government and/or the military. The rest of us get the media-grabbing highlights. And what are those, these days?

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, we got a few words to inspire:
"One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

On May 12, 2017, the way I heard it, when astronaut Jack Fisher was asked for his impression of space on his first spacewalk, he said, "It was awesomesauce."

When I checked, it turned out what he actually replied to, "What's it like?" was "A ginormous fondue pot, bubbling over with piping hot awesomesauce.” Let that be a lesson to me and all you writers out there. Always check your sources! But that's beside the point.

If all we, the people, learn from our explorers is that what's out there is "green" or "awesomesauce," will exploration eventually be deemed not worth the effort? More likely, our culture will conclude that since pictures do the job and words do not, words have no value whatsoever.

We don't want that, do we?

Liz's Jewish historical adventure novel, Voyage of Strangers, offers an alternative perspective on Columbus's explorations. The sequel is Journey of Strangers, set partly in São Tomé off the coast of West Africa and partly in the Ottoman Empire.

14 December 2020

My Musical Hallucinations



Speaking of books, one of the things that well-meaning people say when I mention that I have musical hallucinations is, "It's too bad Oliver Sacks is not alive." Sure, I'm sorry the the celebrated popularizer of neurological oddities is dead. But not as sorry as I am that Mozart is dead. Or Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, for that matter. The author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat could have written The Woman Whose Right Ear Played "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." But I'd rather have the composer of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" itself or the guys who wrote "Over the Rainbow."  

Sacks could have told my story entertainingly. But I don't need a ghostwraconteur, thank you. I've got one in my head, as every storyteller does—along with the entity I call the Maestro, who's been giving me private concerts since June 2019. 
Don't worry, I'm not nuts. It's simply the name I've given the neurological phenomenon they call musical hallucinations. They’re not in my head, like an earworm, but more like a radio playing close by or sometimes like earphones in my ears. They come from the unconscious, from the musical archives of the person experiencing them. People who have MH have reported hearing a range from nursery rhymes to Chinese opera. Mine are particularly rich, because I have been listening to and making music since early childhood: Girl Scout campfire songs, Broadway show tunes, union songs, and Appalachian ballads on the one hand, classical music on the other. Mozart in, apparently, Mozart out. 
Musical hallucinations sit at the crossroads of neurology, otology, and psychiatry. I already have migraines and partial hearing loss, and I'm a therapist myself. And I’m Jewish. So doctors, I’ve got. They’re on it, they’re on it. And so am I. Having combed the Internet for the literature, we know a few things. It's not as rare as all that, just poorly studied and reported. The causes vary, and there are no treatment protocols. Not only older women get it as usually reported, but also "youts" (don’t you love that word?) who've been playing too much Super Mario. And not a single expert can tell us how to make it stop.

Why would I want to make it stop? you may ask. It sounds fascinating, I hear you say. At any moment, my private concert may be a  baroque string ensemble improvising theme and variations, a world class symphony orchestra, a cello cadenza (right ear) or a coloratura aria (left ear) in the shower. The stimulus of whirling fans or a humming refrigerator may elicit a choral work, eg the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth to Christmas carols in six-part harmony with pipe organ. A brisk walk may summon up a Scottish ballad with bagpipes or a marching band with tuba and bassoon. Sometimes there’s no special stimulus. The Maestro has been known to burst into a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” for no reason in particular. Everyone wants to hear the song of the Sirens, don’t they? I get them for free. So what's the catch? 

The catch is that the Sirens have no Off button. As you may remember, Odysseus had to be tied to the mast so that unearthly beckoning wouldn’t lure him to his death. Lovely as the music is,   it eventually becomes frustrating, even agonizing. The proverbial Beethoven ending of one of those world-class symphonies can become the Chinese water torture as it goes on and on and on and on and on. And while I can sometimes influence the playlist with a nudge of the mind, I don’t get to choose it. I’ve had to endure “My Grandfather’s Clock” and “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and over. And the most intractable moment is every night when my head hits the pillow and the music won't shut up.  


For many months after the MH started, I heard it nonstop throughout my waking hours. Then I started getting periods of respite. It was less intrusive if I didn't treat it as a concert, however tempting. Eventually, my neurologist started prescribing small amounts of scary medications. The neuroleptics, meant for schizophrenics (no, I am not now and never have been), didn’t work, but Aricept, for dementia patients, is beginning to.


So now, I no longer get world-class free entertainment, but only occasional tinny humming. On the other hand, because I don't have dementia, the Aricept doesn't have to fix reality for me. Instead, it's straightening out my unconscious. As a result, I'm having excessively coherent dreams. My husband says I'm making speeches all night long. When I step off a ledge, I wake to find myself with my feet on the floor. There's only the thinnest veil between dream and reality.

But I'm not complaining. I was afraid I'd never have a moment free from music I couldn't control for the rest of my life. In general, I still appreciate music. But please don't invite me to a concert any time soon.              

16 November 2020

The Mystique of the British Aristocrat



I grew up loving British novels—not wisely but too well—and one of their most reliable features was the recurring character of the British aristocrat, who could usually be counted on to have highly polished boots—the mirror-like finish applied by a valet—ride to hounds, spend more time in his London club than in his wife’s company, never mention such a vulgar topic as money, and always, always know with which fork to eat the fish. Found in the pages of Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as more rarefied company, this character had a mystique. Probably mythical to begin with, he certainly exists no longer. The hereditary peer no longer takes his seat in the House of Lords by right. Today, a limited number of them mingle with the peers given lifetime appointments for a wide array of services to the Crown. Mystery writer Janet Neel, for example, bless her heart, sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Cohen of Pimlico. 

 But let’s not talk about the real-life Baroness Cohen, beyond mentioning that Death’s Bright Angel is one of my all-time favorite mysteries, maybe even in the top three, certainly the top five or ten. I don’t even want to talk about that kind and courteous model of the parfait gentil knyght, the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Or the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, who makes a case for landowners like him as responsible for the wellbeing of the land and the people who work it. I want to talk about the meanies. Golden Age and historical mysteries are full of them, as are novels of and TV series about earlier times, when upstairs was upstairs and downstairs was downstairs. 
 
Look at Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt in Pride and Prejudice. She cultivates servility in the
vicar, Mr Collins, and other dependents and takes pleasure in being critical, blunt, and nasty every time she speaks. Furthermore, she couldn’t think more highly of herself. She believes herself a holy terror by right and makes life miserable for everyone around her. Wouldn’t it have been lovely if Elizabeth Bennett could have said to Darcy, “Your aunt is the most obnoxious old bitch I’ve ever met. If you must keep up the connection, you can visit her at Rosings by yourself. She’s never setting foot in my home.” But alas, Jane Austen wouldn’t let her. 

 There is a classic meanie in Downton Abbey: Larry, Lord Merton’s son, who doesn’t want his dad to marry the middle class Mrs. Crawley. Her deceased husband was a doctor, her late son a lawyer before becoming heir to Downton, and that’s the end of it. Being grandmother to the present heir can’t make her anything but hopelessly vulgar in his eyes. He’s also scathing in condemning the Irish socialist chauffeur Tom, who had the temerity to marry the Earl’s daughter. He even slips a mickey in Tom’s drink at the dinner table to make him behave badly. There’s well-bred aristocratic manners for you! 

 
I’m a veteran of many rants about the British aristocrat, but what set me off this time was watching, not for the first time, Nathaniel Parker play the aristocratic father of the motorcycle-riding vicar Will Davenport in Grantchester, set in the 1950s. Papa Davenport is a piece of work. Keeping up appearances in the entrance hall and dining room while the rest of the stately home—moulders away like a set for Miss Havisham’s decline. “We belong to it, not it to us,” he tells his son, not mentioning he’s about to bequeath him enough debt to bury the estate. His son is “a constant disappointment” because he’s a clergyman instead of out committing adultery, gambling, lying, bullying his wife, beating up the servants, and putting on a show with money he doesn’t have, like dear old Dad. He was terribly rude to Will’s friend Inspector Keating as well. I wanted to cheer when the Inspector didn’t bat an eyelash. His worth is based on integrity, not smoke and mirrors. 

 
I’m sure you’ve read as many examples as I have of the self-satisfied British aristocrat who despises, not the working class, with whom they believe they have an “understanding” (the working classes work, and the aristocrats take the fruits of their labors for granted), but the middle class, with their “middle class morality,” which usually comes down to making sure they have the money before they spend it, thinking paying the tailor and the grocer is more important than paying excessive gambling debts incurred while drunk, and thinking “thou shalt not commit adultery” is not such a bad idea. The aristos give them a lot of contempt for taking that one seriously. 

 So here’s my core question. What do they have to be so proud of? What are their values and virtues? Let’s assume for sake of this rant that we’re talking of the least admirable of the fictional or mythical British aristocratic class, back in the days before the concept of class began to break down. The Edwardian era was probably the last era in which they flourished, though their lands and great estates were falling prey to death duties and general economic and social modernization. 

 They go to public schools, at which they are introduced to bullying, early sexualization, and a certain amount of physical torture. They’re removed from female influence, so they lack any models for the relational side of psychological growth, ie connecting rather than competing as a way to be with others in the world. 

 For entertainment, their greatest delight is to be taken to see panto every Christmas. If you’ve never seen it, panto is a broad slapstick rendition of classic fairy tales performed in drag. The “principal boy,” ie the hero, is always played by a woman. The female lead, played for comedy, is always played by a man. Panto has been around since the 18th century and is still popular. I imagine generations of confused children thinking they’re supposed to grow up to be cross-dressers, whether they want to or not. The victim of autoerotic asphyxiation in a ballet tutu in P.D. James comes to mind. (I won’t tell you which novel.) Another feature of panto: the audience shouts, “Look behind you! Look behind you!” to the character who is about to be clobbered. Good training for those public schools and later for the Army, you may say. But the hero never listens and always gets clobbered. What’s the takeaway from that? 

 Here’s what classic British aristocrats value. Breeding: the one quality they share with their dogs and their horses. No wonder they value their dogs and their horses more than people, especially, if they’re meanies, their families and the people who work for them. Breeding is supposed to give them good qualities, but if so, where does all that rudeness come from? They value not talking about money and despise people who do. You read about it in almost all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, some of which are mysteries. They order expensive outfits to wear once to a fashionable ball and don’t pay for them—just order two more to keep the modiste hooked—but are disgraced if they don’t pay their gambling debts. If they go broke, they have to leave the country. Maybe they should talk about money and take in a little common sense. As I said, they despise “middle class morality” and are endlessly proud of screwing around. Doing it is one thing. Being proud of it? Huh? 

 And finally we come to the forks. I can think of a lot of deficits in other people that might tempt me to despise them. But if you tell me there’s a group of people to whom the true measure of worth as a human being is being able to distinguish among perhaps twenty different metal utensils, each to be used to eat a different food, I’d say, “How interesting. Where do they live? Is the tribe extinct yet? And did Margaret Mead ever get to study them before they died out?” 

 Well, they lived in England, some between the pages of a book, some in movies, and some in reality. They’re not extinct yet, but they’re going down fast. And if they want any of them to survive, they’d better get over the forks.

19 October 2020

Body Shaming and Institutionalized Contempt for Legs and Ankles


These days I always download the free sample before investing in a book by an author new to me or one I don't know well. In this case, the author was the highly praised thriller writer Zoe Sharp, the book, Killer Instinct, the first in the Charlie Fox series. Charlie is an attractive woman with martial arts skills who teaches self-defense and fitness and works as a bouncer and bodyguard. She's ex-army, drives a motorcycle, and, I'd infer, has developed a unique style as a result of her experiences. You'd think I'd like it—unless I found the violence too graphic or had finally reached my limit for female protagonists named Charlie, Sam, Alex, and Max. But no, that's not why I deleted the sample and crossed Sharp's series off my list. It was this passage, in Charlie's first person voice, that made me want to puke:
Clare's a mate...more my own age. Tall, slender, she has endless legs and a metabolism that means she can binge peanut butter straight out of the jar without putting on an ounce....I envied Clare the ability not to gain weight more than I envied her her looks, which were stunning. She had long straight hair to go with the legs, golden blonde without bottled assistance, and a sense of style I guess you just have to be born with.

Marlene Dietrich's legs
Zoe, you're killing me! Zoe, how could you? It's bad enough when male novelists bore us with the long blonde hair and legs up to here for the umpteenth time. I expect no better from hard-boiled authors like Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Here's a variation from Mike Hammer - Masquerade for Murder:
The hostess, a stunning redhead in a green evening dress with matching emerald eyes, intercepted me. ...She was ten curvy pounds the right side of plump and had cherry-red lipsticked lips with a bruised Bardot look that made her smile seem knowing and sly without even trying.
When I was 14, I would have agonized over which side was the "right" side of plump and known in my heart that flat-chested wasn't even in the running. I was too sheltered to have known that equating "bruised" with seductive and "sly" is a meta-message that women who are abused are asking for it. You get bruises from being beaten, not from any experience a real woman would enjoy—or at the least from "rough sex," a phrase I associate with psychopathic killer Robert Chambers's defense in the murder of a teenage girl.
My legs

How do we get from long blonde hair and Bardot lips to rape and murder? All too easily. I found a June 2020 article in The Guardian that reported that in the UK:

More than 60 victims have been forced to go to court over the past decade to deny that they consented to strangulation, assaults or violence, according to the campaign to end reliance on the “rough sex” defence.
Once the authors introduce the "blonde" (or redhead) and the "endless legs," they don't even need to develop her character. Back in July, Craig Faustus Buck wrote a SleuthSayers post on "it is what it is," calling it a "thought-terminating cliché," "figuratively avoiding creative solutions (a writer's suicide)." These non-descriptions of women are the same, bypassing the necessity of making the women characters real people.

Illusion: acceptable legs
Stuart Woods, in his fifty-eight Stone Barrington books, is a master of this. I found a typical example in Book 16, when Barrington walks into a restaurant. "An attractive blonde greeted us."

The character's literally a walk-on, and the sentence could have been deleted. But Woods commits crime after literary crime against women. In the same book, "the lights of Santa Catalina Island twinkled like the eyes of a merry whore." Now, there's a male fantasy for you, and not a very nice male at that. Woods wrote two fine books many years ago, Palindrome and Chiefs. Now who's Santa Catalina Island?

It's a short step from describing women in objectifying or shaming clichés to not describing them at all. In Book 56, Woods opens with a woman, Dame Felicity Devonshire, who's introduced as the head of MI6. What she's doing is not her job, but brokering a house deal for Stone Barrington and acting as a featureless foil for his insatiable lust.

Chapter 2 ends: "Then they went upstairs and went to bed, something to which they had both been looking forward."

Chapter 3 ends: "He followed her up watching her ass all the way."

The woman's the head of MI6. Woods has a gift for reducing potentially interesting women to profoundly uninteresting objects of his middle-aged itch.

Let's go back to Charlie Fox's friend who binges on peanut butter and doesn't gain an ounce. Clare's a compulsive overeater, a shame-based illness that's no fun even if your metabolism saves you from obesity. She may also be a bulimic paying for her slim figure and public admiration with private agonies kneeling over the toilet puking her guts out. These are not the "achievements" for which women should praise their women friends. If they do, it's because the shaming of obesity is so thoroughly institutionalized in our society. Listen to female standup comics and see what percentage of their shtik is based on body shaming of themselves.

I've wanted to throw up myself the many times I've read about a male character falling in love with a woman because she can eat like a horse and not gain an ounce. Ladies, is that really the trait you most want the man of your dreams to value you for? Gentlemen, how shallow and insensitive can you get?

Then there's the universal contempt for thick ankles that I've been coming across in fiction since I started reading novels many decades ago. I have thick ankles. Unlike "style," slim, breakable-looking ankles like those of a thoroughbred horse are something you "have to be born with." Does that mean I don't deserve love?

 

Alas, we're fair game and can be skewered mercilessly. Even Jane Austen took a shot at us. From Northanger Abbey:
Maria's intelligence concluded with a tender effusion of pity for her sister Anne, whom she represented as insupportably cross, from being excluded the party. "She will never forgive me, I am sure; but, you know, how could I help it? John would have me go, for he vowed he would not drive her, because she had such thick ankles. I dare say she will not be in good humour again this month…"


Brainwashing...identification with the aggressor...Stockholm syndrome...If women with slender ankles don't join in jeering at their unfortunate sisters, they might be thrown out of the carriage. And by post-feminist times, it's become unconscious.

Men, of course, have never questioned their right to pass judgment on women's looks. I found this in a short story in Cosmopolitan Magazine, November 1907:
"Don't be a fool, John. You must marry either a German or an English princess."

John Peters shook his head. "Impossible," he declared. "I have acquired your wonderful taste as regards the sex. To save my throne, I couldn't marry a woman with thick ankles." (Anthony Partridge, "The Kingdom of Earth")
The Queen's ankles
Queen Elizabeth has thick ankles, and The temptation to joke about this is almost irresistible—because we have all been programmed not to take women with thick ankles seriously or treat them with the respect we give women we consider beautiful. We've all read novels and seen movies about princes forced into loveless marriages with women who don't meet their standard of beauty who seek love with inappropriate but beautiful women. In America, the "princes" have all the advantages of class and money, while the inappropriate women have Audrey Hepburn's ankles.

There's a double standard at work here, and it's not disappearing any time soon. But there are a few things you can do.

Audrey Hepburn's ankles: remembered

Remember how wretched shaming feels to the person shamed, although you may never know they feel it.

Praise women for their interesting and admirable accomplishments—not for the length of their legs, the radius of their ankles, the color, texture, or provenance of their hair, or the shape and size of their other body parts.

Do not value women inversely by the pound. Love them, or don't, for their character, not for their eating behaviors, which aren't under their control and may not be what you think they are.

21 September 2020

TV Series I Don't Get Tired Of


Like favorite books, there are some tv series that I can watch over and over for the pleasure of hearing the familiar stories retold and revisiting beloved characters. Some of them are crime shows, all are genre fiction and its TV equivalent. Most of my favorite genres and subgenres in reading and viewing overlap.

British police procedurals
Books, a few author examples out of many: Reginald Hill, Deborah Crombie, Jane Casey
TV favorites: Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis

American political drama
Books: American political novels tend to be thrillers, not my favorite genre, but I do love character-driven traditional mysteries that explore social issues and may have a law enforcement or related protagonist, such as a judge, journalist, clergyperson, or social service worker.
Author examples: Margaret Maron, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Nevada Barr, and Dana Stabenow fall into this category
TV favorites: The West Wing, Madam Secretary

Historical and cross-genre with crime and fantasy fiction
Books, author examples: Diana Gabaldon, Laurie King, Jane Austen, Dorothy Dunnette
TV favorite: Outlander

Science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and cross-genre with crime fiction
Books, author examples: Charlaine Harris, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, Naomi Novik
TV favorite: Star Trek Voyager

And what do I write myself? The same or similar categories, for the most part.

Character-driven traditional mysteries that touch on social issues (the Bruce Kohler Mysteries)
Historical literary, mystery, and crime fiction (the Mendoza Family Saga)
Urban fantasy with crime fiction (the Emerald Love series)
And a variety of all of those, including a few police procedurals, in my standalone short stories.
I also read, write, and watch some suspense, which probably covers whatever doesn't fit elsewhere. It's limited by the fact, quite awkward in a crime writer, that I don't like being scared.

What do I like about the TV shows I've mentioned? And what do I learn that helps me as a writer?

Inspector Morse
My appreciation of John Thaw as Morse and the way the TV show tells the stories are untainted by knowledge of the books, which I've never read. As a reader and thus as a writer, I demand at least one endearing character. In Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis we have two, both fully developed and engaged in a relationship that grows and changes over time. They complement each other as detectives and as personalities, both kindred spirits and polar opposites. We don't need violence or extreme language to become and remain absorbed in the action. The sparkling dialogue, the vivid minor characters, the use of setting as character, the twists and turns of each plot—this is how it's done.

I'm not usually tolerant of fictional chronic alcoholics who don't get sober—and come to appreciate sobriety, like my Bruce Kohler. Inspector Morse is the exception. Why do I give him a free pass? I suppose it's a testament to his charm, his intellect, and what I call in Bruce an "ill-concealed heart of gold." In Morse's case, he always falls unerringly for the wrong woman, and it's a much more endearing flaw than if his mistakes were a result of his drinking.

The other outstanding aspect of the series is the all-encompassing presence of Oxford as a character. On TV, much of the impact is visual, and its impressive architectural beauty is brilliantly photographed. But it's far more than that. The crimes are Oxford crimes. They involve intellect; the sense of entitlement, tradition, and hierarchy; and the peculiar insularity of the university as well as the rivalry and mistrust between town and gown. All this makes for a multilayered episode every time.

Inspector Lewis I've come to like the Lewis series, starring Kevin Whately, even better than Morse. Inspector Lewis is an engaging character whose defining characteristic is not a flaw but what Louise Penny would call his goodness. Like his former mentor Moss, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he reserves his rare moment of irascibility for hidebound colleagues and the occasional arrogant aristocrat.

Lewis's sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, is the perfect foil. He's a Cambridge man and an ex-seminarian, ie the brainy one. Lewis's apprenticeship with Morse has left him with enough knowledge of Wagner, Latin, and bits of poetry to keep up. They're both terrific detectives who drive their boss, Superintendent Innocent, crazy with their irreverence toward Oxford and its shibboleths and gods. She accuses them of "chippy copper antics" at one point when they've been rocking the boat of some socially prominent crooks. Their delicious dialogue as they work a case is a model of clever buddy banter. Watching again recently, I wasn't sure if I heard Innocent call them a "dynamic duo" or "demonic duo."

And Oxford is still an essential and fascinating character. Far more than mere scenery or dreaming-spires ambiance, it has unique mores and a varied population that lends itself to crimes that could only happen in Oxford. I'd like to think my New York in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries has a hint of that quality.

It's hard to talk about The West Wing or Madam Secretary without getting political, since they're both fictional demonstrations of how to govern the United States with intelligence and integrity in an increasingly challenging global environment—and what a very complicated job it is. But the lesson for the storyteller's art, I think, is how brilliantly each of these shows deals with huge themes while engaging the viewer with the emotional life and dilemmas of very real individual people.

These shows are also great examples of "show, don't tell" intelligent characters. They absorb and share on demand vast quantities of crucial information on science, politics, economics, world cultures, and a host of other topics. They think on their feet to maintain collaborative strategies with colleagues, political opponents, and foreign ambassadors and heads of state; and to keep adversarial situations from getting out of hand, since "out of hand" could mean anything from a single death to World War III. And they don't do it by having the protagonist shoot the bad guy in the gun hand. Or via insipid dialogue and telling the viewer the characters all went to Harvard. They do it by being a very, very smart team created by a very smart writer.

Outlander is in a class of its own as a historical series that's true to the series of books it's based on while condensing the complicated story lines for relative brevity, clarity, and drama. It's also a case of perfect casting (Sam Heughan as Jamie and Catriona Balfe as Claire), especially impressive because Jamie Fraser is one of those characters about whom many, many readers have fantasies.
I don't think a writer can apply craft to produce that kind of memorability in a character, at least not to guarantee it. When I first read Outlander, the first book in the series, I was swept away to the 18th century and didn't come back till six hundred pages later. The TV show provides a similar immersion in the historical time in which it takes place. To say, "It's a time travel romance" is so misleading, because a book or TV series so described could so easily be shallow, cheesy, anachronistic in all its elements—the romance, the time travel, and the history. Outlander sets a tremendously high standard, and I think that's what it has to teach the writer. Do your research. Love your characters. Take your time. And keep it moving.

Star Trek Voyager is "my" Star Trek, the one with the woman captain—Kate Mulgrew as the redoubtable Captain Janeway—and I watch it not for the proto-iPads and phony science but for the people and their relationships. Talk about a locked room! a handful of people on a starship thrust suddenly into the Delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home. The lesson for me is that if you're most interested in the people, it doesn't matter what the backdrop is; you can always weave it in and make it serve the story. And remember that the story is always about people (of whatever species, not just about technology, however important a role technology plays.) Since I read much more urban fantasy than science fiction and don't write true SF at all, I'd have liked to include a Charlaine Harris screen adaptation on this list. I enjoyed True Blood, especially the first few seasons. But I'm unlikely to watch it all the way through again. Like the science in Star Trek, the gore and biting are incidental to the personalities and relationships of the humans, vampires, and shapeshifters, ie the people, for me. My very favorite Harris books, the Harper Connelly series, haven't made it to the screen. Harper's the one who can find the dead and tell you how they died. I haven't gotten tired of rereading those yet.

24 August 2020

The Joys of Writing Alone


Some writers do their best work on their laptops in busy coffee shops. You can see them keyboarding away, latte, chai, or simple tea or coffee forgotten at their elbow as they take dictation from those voices in their heads that we all love to hear.

I am not one of them. I need silence and better than silence. I need solitude, and the more absolute the solitude is, the more easily I write.

I know I’m lucky in that I have ample access to privacy for writing. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own,” but in some ways it’s even better. It’s been twenty years since my last day job, and my other career is online and intermittent in nature. My husband still goes off to work every weekday, or did till the pandemic. And when he’s home, he’s usually at the computer in his room of his own with his headphones on. The rest of the apartment is mine.

In the summer months, I have the country house. The whole house, because my husband hates the country. It’s a tiny house, eight hundred square feet total. But it’s all mine.

As for children, that perennial drain on women’s writing time especially, my little boy is fifty with a family of his own. So when other women writers yearn for writing retreats and time alone, rejoice in a week or even a weekend away from the everyday lives that make writing such a challenge, I know how lucky I am.

Am I complaining anyway? Not exactly. I’m blogging. Complaining entertainingly is one of the basic categories of blogging. To complain entertainingly about one’s spouse (in case you’ve never heard this priceless writing tip) is to mine a particularly rich vein.

My husband and I have been together for almost forty-five years. He knows that interruption breaks my concentration. He’s been told that once a train of thought has been broken, that particular thought, that exquisite turn of phrase, that connection—especially crucial in plotting a mystery or building an emotional scene—may be lost forever.

And yet he interrupts. He asks me if I have clothes for the laundry. He’s a good man. He doesn’t ask me to do the laundry. He asks me what I want for dinner. Again, good writer’s husband that he is, he doesn’t ask me to make dinner. He knows I’m writing. But he’s still interrupting. Sometimes, what he interrupts to tell me isn’t practical at all. It’s something he’s brimming over with that he simply has to share. He’s so filled with the fascination of it that he forgets I’m writing and mustn’t be interrupted.

“Do you know that Frederick the Great called Maria Theresa the only mensch in Austria?”

Yes, dear, you’ve mentioned it before. You’re an original, and it's lovable, but I need you to control it when I’m in the midst of transferring a brilliant thought that no one’s ever had before and that I’ll never have again from my brain to the computer.

He’s gotten better at not talking to me when I’m writing. Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough. He tiptoes past. Tiptoeing is still interrupting. Sometimes he stops halfway through the room. He breathes. Doesn’t he know how disruptive breathing is? I’ll throw out a hand and bark, “WRITING!” My fragile and irreplaceable thought is already at risk. But if he’ll just go away, maybe I can retrieve it. No way. He says, “Sorry!” In other words, he finds a way to exacerbate the interruption.

When he’s out of the house, I can get some serious writing done. But the hours are limited by his schedule. First, I have to wait for him to get up. My creative thinking time in bed used to be nil because he thought 9 am was “the crack of dawn.” He’s had a major lifestyle change, so he now gets up at 5 am and goes for a power walk in the park. This helps. But I still have to wait till nine or later for him to leave for work before I can focus on my writing. And once he comes home, that’s it. There’s the key in the lock. The big sigh. And my Woolfian “apartment of my own” is gone for the day.

I know it makes a difference because the 24/7 solitude I get when I’m alone in the country has an entirely different rhythm. If I wake up at 4 am and find I’m still awake at 4:15 with Bruce or Rachel talking in my head, I turn on the light and find my slippers and go turn on the laptop and and let them take over. No one interrupts the flow by saying, “What time is it?” or “Are you okay?” Sometimes having an idea at four in the morning is like carrying a basket of eggs. You don’t want anyone to jostle your elbow until you’ve had a chance to set it down.

It’s the same for the rest of the day. I’m not talking about the time I’ve already set aside to write. But if I think I’m done, and then Bruce or Rachel starts talking again, I can reorder my priorities and go back to the computer without consulting anyone. If it’s 6 pm and I’m about to put dinner in the preheated oven, I can turn off the oven. No one says, “What about dinner?” If I’m still going strong at 11 pm, no one says, “Come to bed.”

I don’t need this unlimited freedom all the time, especially since I’m writing short stories rather than a novel these days. But it’s heavenly to have it for three months. And it’s wonderful—I do know this!—to have a husband whose wife the writer drives him crazy—the secret of a successful marriage is knowing that it's a trip for two, not one, to the loony bin—but who also understands.