Blind Date with a Murder Mystery

A couple of weeks ago I plucked a novel by Sara Paretsky off a library shelf. I was vaguely familiar with her name, in part because she has written nineteen novels, but it was sort of a blind date and we just didn’t hit it off. I read a bit and set it aside. Then I heard an interview with Lee Childs on BBC World Book Club. Childs praised Paretsky. He is quoted on the front cover of her book: “Sara Paretsky is a genius.” I like his novels, so I decided to give her another chance. Right decision!

Back to the library, this time I checked out a V. I. Warshawski mystery, Fallout. My first clue that I was in for a good read was the acknowledgements at the front of the book, what I imagine might be like a speed dating intro. The book is set in Kansas; I’m working on a novel set in Kansas; a county sheriff figures prominently in the action; I have a county sheriff as an important character; racial tensions play an important part in Fallout; I have biracial characters; cars are important in Paretsky’s book; my fictional car is a Porsche, a very important Porsche. Oh, yes, and one of her characters is connected to the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As a military wife, I spent several months there while my spouse was enrolled.

Then again, there’s the coincidence of my surname, Douglass, and Paretsky’s setting in the Kansas county of Douglas. Yikes! I’m happy to report that I’m already halfway through the initial draft of my novel, so I don’t fear her influence, and I welcome her company. I have only the final conflict to read in Fallout. I had to stop. I’d missed my usual bedtime by two hours last night, but I will resume reading today. I am so glad I took Childs’ advice and remet Sara Paretsky. I think we will have a long and fruitful relationship.

Stagecraft in Fiction & Memoir

Immersed in writing a fourth novel, I’m thinking about the overlap between live theater and the narrative forms of fiction and memoir. Theater has the advantage of the visual set, no need for description of the place or the characters.There they are, well lighted, voices projected to the upper gallery, free to move in meaningful ways.

However, (You knew there was a turn coming, didn’t you?) the written narrative has the advantage of taking us inside the character. Those internal monologues are useful to the reader who cares about things like motivation and impulse control, etc. No need for squishy dialogue between characters to enlighten us.

I read up about directing in theater, a role somewhat like that of the author, who must create a workable story from the following bits and pieces:

Casting: appearance, attitudes, demographics, fear, love, etc. All named and every single one necessary to the story.

Blocking: entrances, exits, proximity to other characters or to important props. I fret if a character is standing idle while others talk. I tend to send them off stage, go get lunch or use the bathroom. Just don’t hang around while others discuss the murder suspect.

Set: too much is too much; in fiction it leads to description overkill; think interior scene or exterior; lighting; noises off stage.

Props: every item has meaning; Chekov’s famous dictum says a gun that appears in Act One must be fired in Act Three. I’m probably going to ignore this, because there is a gun that must not go off in my story.

Dialogue: concise, meaningful, not an info dump telling the reader by means of cross talk, and the wonderful option of interior monologue: She thought, I should not have gone down those cellar stairs.

Time frames: stage time, aka, elapsed time in the story, vs audience time. How long will theater patrons sit? How many hours will a reader devote to the book?

Action: meaningful (see dialogue, speaking is action), reveals emotion, includes posture, voice modulation, facial expression in addition to the punching, the stabbing, the driving while angry.

Tension: rising action, interaction between characters as well as between text and the reader: often a result of resistance, suffering.

I’ve written exactly one play and vowed never to do it again. Once the script was in the hands of the director and out of my hands, I felt like I had abandoned a child in the train station, and it was going on a long journey without me. But story is story and has its place on stage or between the covers of a book. Think about it.

Persistence & Politics

Regular readers here will recall that from time to time I urge them to READ FOR EQUALITY. In our fractured, limping-along democracy this continues to be a responsibility, although some days I wonder why I bother.

Then I read something like Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water, and I’m reawakened to the power of creative writing. Smith uses as some of her poems verbattem letters written by black soldiers in the War Between the States. (It was anything but civil.) That we have a black female Poet Laureate of the US matters too.

Now I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s  Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”  written in 1927 about Cudjo, an African who entered the US as a slave in 1859. The book was just published in 2018. Why it took so long to have this on my library shelves, I cannot fathom, but thanks to an astute librarian and Alice Walker, it’s finally available.

I remind myself, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by “the little woman who started this big war” in President Lincoln’s words, more or less.

And there’s Nellie Bly, who, in Ten Days in A Mad-House, wrote about the  rotten mental health care in this land of the free and helped bring about reforms in that milieu.  And lest we forget, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about change in the meat-packing industry and led to our Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Both of these two matter to us all, an issue of equality between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

When you think that what we do as writers doesn’t matter, read these books and others like them and again give your gifts to a sore and tired world. Even if you provide respite from worry, it’s important. Just do it, persist–please.

I, You, He/she/it/they?

Recently I attended a workshop on point of view and came away confused and overwhelmed. The teacher presented us with six versions of POV with short examples. Too much for me to absorb in one hour. And it all felt prescriptive, as if I ought to select a POV before the story or memoir begins. (Poetry never entered the room, ever the unwelcome guest in a garden party.)

So what do I think about POV? I think it grows out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. It has to do with distance. Mostly, it has to do with voice. Whose voice does the writer transcribe as the piece develops? And it makes its presence known in the language, especially the pronouns, those pesky little words that mean so much. First person–I, we–suggests but does not guarantee a closeness between the narrator and the reader. And it can be unreliable, or as a plural it can hint at connection or community. If a writer dares speak for others, well, go for it. In some cases, it can be useful. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the whole town seems to be telling the story, and in that process revealing a common displeasure and disinterest in the history of the gentile but rebellious Emily. You might want to read this short story.

Really, there is no shortcut to finding the perfect voice to tell a story. Even in memoir we edit our language and revelations. I say, write the story as it comes, set it aside and go back when your head clears, hoping to find that the narrator keeps us reading and is somewhat consistent in telling the tale. Better still, notice how books you love (or hate) work. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who scored a Pulitzer for the novel. My inner jury is still sequestered. Greer makes some quirky turns in POV, startles me out of the flow of the story. Halfway through, I’m in no position to judge him. Besides, he has a major award, and I don’t. Does that tell you something?

2017 in Review

This weekend many of us will look over our shoulders and see what’s behind us, not what’s stalking us, but what we have accomplished, other than staying alive. Mostly, I think of the work I’ve done. Keeping a positive attitude so that I don’t shred myself to tatters over what’s left undone. So, let’s see what I have accomplished:

Finished and launched a third novel, Invisible Juan; had eight poems published in a variety of venues; coached an enduring group of eight other writers; maintained my poetry output with the help of a weekly critique group (thanks, Gamuts); led a workshop or two, one for the News Writers of the Colorado Independent; participated as an invited guest in the seasonal poetry reading at the Loveland CO Museum; read more good books than I can list; posted a few reviews on Goodreads; wrote regularly with two groups of friends, one the Free Writers, the other a women’s group; maintained this weekly blog; had Providence reviewed in Publishers Weekly; spent many productive hours in libraries and coffee shops with my pen in hand; started yet another novel (what am I thinking?) and met regularly with my climate fiction partner to share ideas and information on writing and publishing.

Thanks to my followers for sticking with me here, on FaceBook, and on Twitter. I’ve learned from you, taken your presence as encouragement, and your discernment as a measure of my skills. Feel free to jump in here and let me know how your year of writing has gone. Next week, let’s set some goals for 2018. HAPPY NEW YEAR.

One-Hundred Word Story

The newest issue of Poets & Writers is on my desk, liberally underlined and already a little creased. Useful, as usual, and challenging. Of note is Grant Faulkner’s article “Imagination Under Pressure,” in which he recommends writing in sprints and in limited ways. Limited as in exactly a 100-word story. Gauntlet thrown, news article recalled, dream images accepted as prompt. Here’s my attempt at the shortest of short stories, exactly 100 words (not counting the title).


RESCUED

At sunrise, Ed awoke. As the forecast had promised, the air was biting cold—not so easy then to die of hypothermia. His bladder demanded relief, stomach rumbled, mouth felt like dryer lint. Poor Marcia had insisted he hike with his survival pack, now pillowed under his head, a water bottle, beside him in the sleeping bag. Body heat had prevented its freezing. The slip of water over his tongue reminded him of coffee, suggested one more day with hot, black coffee. Okay then. He would tie his Day-Glo scarf to a branch and let the search drone find him.

Book Launched

On Saturday a gaggle of friends and fellow writers helped me officially launch Invisible Juan. I talked a little bit about the inception of the book–it’s been lounging on the shelf far too long and needs to get out and earn its keep–and I read an excerpt, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Then signing books, I was winging it all the way. Because I knew these people well, it wasn’t hard to make each book unique.

An event like this one is definitely not a one-woman show. My heartiest thanks to Caribou Coffee on W. 120th in Westminster CO. The baristas were welcoming and efficient and the coffee, as always, delicious. Another grand thank you to my friend and writing partner Carolann Walters. She is my “handler” in these situations. By which I mean that she provided snacks and took care of book sales, even packed up my box when it was all done but the shouting.

Now a shout out to readers: the book is available on Amazon. The gift of a book is a wonderful thing. If you are not yet aware of Juan’s problems and adventures, I have a page on this website, Bookstore, where you’ll find a synopsis. And any writer these days is thankful forreviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Happy Thanksgiving to all.