As Pretty As An Airport

 

“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.”
― Douglas AdamsThe Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

I’m new to Douglas Adams’ works.

References to THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY movie (2005) have whirled around in the background of my awareness, but when it was released, I was very much involved in that thing called life: first grandchild, wedding of the eldest, death of the maternal unit, perhaps a mid-life crisis (the purchase of a sports car was involved).

So I first became consciously aware of Douglas Adams only recently when I read in an Irish writers blog about how much he was missed.

Dirk Gently

At the same time, because I have a few Acorn videos, I’ve sat through promotions of the TV series, DIRK GENTLY,[1]. It looked quirky. Quirky is good. So I watched the  series on Amazon, fell in love with the mind of Douglas Adams, listened to Martin Freeman’s reading of THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE, and watched the HITCHHIKER’S movie.

This is what I’ve noticed about Douglas Adam’s writing: many of his scenes are recognizable from daily living. In RESTAURANT, there is a scene that sure looks like a collection of Hollywoodies and another scene that looks a lot like Las Vegas. My favorite quote is: “Who would want to blow up a publishing house?” (or words to that effect).

(I just love it when writers write about writing. It’s like their sending coded messages to writers who read.)

Anyway, even though his writing is in the genre of “comic science fiction,” Adams wrote pointed observations of the human condition. It seems that his genre gave him permission to escalate his satire. After all, it wasn’t about us anymore, it was about them.

Which brings me back to the quote. Funny because it is oh, so true.

My premise today is: It is by writing made-up stories that we have the power to excavate truth.

What say you, Mysteristas?

[] A new version is in production by Netflix and BBC America for release in December 2016.

Imagination Plots a Novel

Recently I had the pleasure of teaching a mystery workshop.  In such situations, I like to encourage as much audience participation as possible.  One of the most fun activities we did together was an exercise in plotting a mystery.  While the participants worked the game, their imagination bounced off the walls!  Here’s how it went:

First, we reviewed many of the special elements that make up a mystery story, specifically the differences between 5 of the following subgenres:  cozy, P.I., hard-boiled, noir, and police procedurals.

Then we broke up into small groups, and I assigned one of the subgenres to each group.  One person in each group volunteered to record that group’s plotting.

I gave the participants a series of questions, one at a time.  They were the same 8 questions for everyone, regardless of which subgenre their group was plotting.  Their answers reflected the issues we’d discussed for each subgenre.  I gave them several minutes to discuss each question among themselves, but then they had to pick an answer, and the recorder wrote it down.

The 8 questions, in this order:

  1. What is the crime?
  2. Who is the villain?
  3. Who is the victim?
  4. Who is the detective?
  5. What are the clues that will be uncovered?
  6. Who are the suspects?
  7. What is the resolution?
  8. How does the detective solve the mystery and bring the criminal to justice?

When their time was up, each recorder read what his/her group had created.  Each group turned out to have a full plot, from beginning, through saggy middles, all the way to the end.  And the imagination behind each plot was off the charts!  It was a fun exercise, and any of those plots could be fleshed out to become a finished mystery novel.

Do you ever start a new novel by asking similar questions?

Mind Altering Books

In college, I student taught a freshman seminar about imagination. I remember reading one batch of papers. The assignment had asked the students to write an imaginative story. Almost every student wrote about a superhero.

Although it made me wonder, I don’t think that meant they were unimaginative people, but it certainly meant something. The common experiences of that group (probably TV and video games) created pathways and triggers in their minds. It was like they had all uploaded the same imagination software package designed by Marvel. When you fed them that assignment, it bounced through the circuits in their brains and spit out “superhero.” It’s probably also why there were four Lilas in my daughter, Lila’s, pre-school class.

I think that’s why the power of a child’s imagination is compelling. At a young age, a child has almost no context to describe their experiences and very little language to do so. Marvel hasn’t gotten to them yet. At the same time, their experience of the world is just as vibrant. Many times, they are experiencing things for the first time: snow, puddle jumping, big dogs, you name it–to them it’s magical and new.

Oftentimes when my kids, who are still little, describe something, it takes me a minute to figure out what they’re talking about because they don’t use the preloaded language adults use. For instance: “I want the orange juice without feathers” means pulp-free. “The alarm clock in my toe is going off” means Daphne’s foot fell asleep. “Fanny lost her nose” means there’s an avocado pit in the compost that looks just like the dog’s nose. It’s the kind of honest, cliche free communication that writers strive for.

I don’t think adults are less creative, but our creative pathways tend to harden, especially if we don’t force ourselves to think out of the box. We turn into computers. If you insert the term “imagination,” the computer spits out “superhero.” If you insert “unconventional thinking,” it translates, “out of the box.”

When I had my first baby, I went through a creative renaissance. It was partially born of necessity–I wanted some new things and didn’t have extra money, but it wasn’t just that. I knew that each of us viewed the world from a unique perspective, but I always thought bigger, as in how my status as a middle class white chick influenced my views of socio-political issues. Spending time with a toddler, showed me that my perspective affected how I thought of everything, even something as simple as a glass of orange juice. My baby made the world new for me again.

The beauty of art often lies in perspective. As writers, we tell the same story over and over again, but everyone tells it slightly differently. Oftentimes, I think really successful writers (or doctors, painters, whoever), use a shift in perspective to reveal something true that can’t be seen without exploiting a new angle. I’m sort of kicking myself for saying this because now I have to think of an example… I’m going to say: Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn did a great job of playing with perspective in that book. It didn’t betray an injustice or anything, but it was mind altering.

Can you think of books that do this?

Vacation-inspired settings

Whenever I travel I can’t help but think, “Man, this place would be an amazing setting for a mystery.”

Back in 2011, my husband and I took a trip to Key West, Florida. The haunting City Cemetery, the oppressive humidity, the island’s dark history, it’s buoyant nightlife, and the constant throng of tourists all inspired Dead and Breakfast, the first book in my Cayo Hueso Mystery series. When we were there, I kept jotting down notes. Trying to describe the sounds and smells that emanated from the island. Roosters roam free. Scooters buzz at all hours of the night. Banyan trees encroach on sidewalks. I didn’t finish writing Dead and Breakfast until 2015 but those notes were so instrumental in trying to nail down a sense of place. And I think I achieved the effect.

Recently, my family took a vacation to Niagara Falls. The American side of Niagara Falls is an interesting place — incredibly diverse and incredibly depressed. Lots of boarded up houses and shuttered business. You cross to the Canadian side and you’re inundated with tourists from all over the world. I saw women in headscarves, women in saris, men in sikh turbans, and men in yarmulkes. I heard German and Spanish and French Canadian. Just walking around Downtown, we saw chain restaurants such as Applebees, but we also found hole-in-the-wall, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Kabob places and Indian restaurants and I’m starving just typing this. Niagara Falls on both sides seems like an interesting mix of the bright, cheerfulness of vacationers and the struggling working class of those who support the tourism industry. It also seems like an amazing spot to set a mystery. If only I could’ve been there longer.

What places have you traveled to that you feel would be the perfect setting for a mystery? Where would you like to set a mystery? Please sound off in the comments.

Guest Post: Ellen Byron

Imagination Unhinged

In the late 1970s, I saw a terrifying psychological thriller based on William Goldman’s book, Magic. Anthony Hopkins played a ventriloquist who thought his dummy was alive. Needless to say, this did not end well for him.

The movie has stuck with me all these years because of how perfectly it illustrated the power of an unhinged imagination. I like to think of myself as possessing a relatively hinged imagination. But sometimes I wonder…

image001As an author, I’ve created a fictional village where my Cajun Country Mystery series takes place. Pelican, Louisiana, was inspired by real locations – a couple of charming Cajun Country towns and the ever-bucolic Litchfield, Connecticut, where I spent many summer weekends at a nearby lake. But mostly it was inspired by St. Martinville, Louisiana. Or so I thought.

In the mid-eighties, I meandered through South Louisiana on my own as I researched a play I was working on. I wound up in St. Martinville. The town’s crown jewel is The Church of St. Martin du Tours, a lovely edifice over two hundred years old. It’s fronted by a green park that inspired the town square in my fictional village. (That’s also where Litchfield comes in, with its iconic town green and bandstand.) The square was ringed by charming historic buildings, some featuring wrought iron balconies similar to New Orleans. I remember wandering through a senior center to a back room where I discovered a stunning display of handmade Mardi Gras ball gowns worn by local girls during the town’s holiday celebrations.

image002Over the years, St. Martinville morphed into a sort of Cajun Brigadoon in my imagination, lively and bright. On a recent trip to Louisiana, I was determined to visit the real-life village that inspired the fictional one in my books. The church was there, still lovely. The historic buildings still ringed the square. But everything was, well… different. Faded. But was it? Or had my imagination toyed with me, creating a fantasy location that never really existed? And where was that museum I visited? Because when I mentioned it, no one knew what I was talking about.

The visit to St. Martinville disturbed me. Not because there’s anything wrong with the town – it’s a lovely place in its own right. But the trip created a disconnect between the real world and the imaginary one in my books that I so very much wanted to be real.

I’ve had years of therapy, so I’m pretty confident I can cling to sanity. But then I remember Anthony Hopkins’ tortured relationship with his dummy, which makes me contemplate how often I totally immerse myself in the fictional world of Pelican, Louisiana. And I wonder if the dividing line between a hinged and unhinged imagination is thinner than I think.

What about you, fellow authors and readers? Has a fictional world ever become a little too real for you?

***

Ellen Byron’s novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, was a Library Journal Debut Mystery of the Month, and nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards.  Book two in the series, Body on the Bayou, was recently released to enthusiastic reviews. TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and many network pilots; she’s written over 200 national magazine articles; her published plays include the award-winning Graceland.

http://www.ellenbyron.com/

Imaginative power of groups

It was hot. It was sticky. A few people had to bail because the humidity (no A/C) plus musty smells aggravated health problems. The doors stuck a little and the upstairs toilet had…issues.

I’m describing my adventures last weekend.

IMG_2877August 12-14, my chapter of Sisters in Crime held their annual “Escape to the Woods” writing retreat. It has been on hiatus for a couple years, replaced with a more formal, workshop-oriented structure. But this year, we returned to our roots. Just a weekend of writing. Nowhere to be, nothing specific to work on. Just us and our stories. Oh, and more food and wine than 12 women really need (but that’s another story).

And despite being held on the hottest weekend of the summer thus far, it was…amazing. I plunked down Saturday and didn’t move except for lunch. I probably wrote around 6,000 words (give or take). I haven’t done that in forever.

All around me, people were writing. People were hammering out plot problems. Brainstorming. Discussing the difficulties of romantic arcs. Scribbling notes. Taking walks in the woods.

And yes, plenty of wine, food, and chocolate was around (no, chocolate does not count in the food – chocolate is its own category, silly reader).

It was awesome.

That is the imaginative power of groups. You show up not really knowing what to expect. But just being around other writers–it gets the imaginative juices flowing. All of a sudden, the “what the heck am I doing in this story?” becomes “I got it – all I have to do is___” (fill in the blanks).

It’s said again and again. Writing is solitary. I mean, no one else can put the words on the screen for you. But anyone who thinks she can “go it alone” is gravely mistaken.

Because no matter how good your imagination, never underestimate the imaginative power of a group.

Working With a Harness

As crime fiction writers, imagination plays a huge role in finding our story. You know the one. The story that will keep readers up at night and leave them wanting more when they finish that last page. The story whose characters ride along with our reader for days after they’ve moved on, like ghosts of friends they want to stay in touch with.

 

The trick becomes to take what’s in that special Imagination Place in our heads (for me it’s a movie room) and transfer the images to words that make sense. Words that flow a lot better than that dream you had the other night.

 

And then, it gets tough. Unless you write fantasy you’re going to have to set your imagination aside and do some investigation into reality. While I thoroughly enjoy doing research (it’s sucked me in more than once), it can be a real trick to keep the magic in the story and make it factually correct.

 

When our project drags, there can be a lot of reasons (a character is acting in a way they never would, we’re repeating things the reader already knows, we’re including a scene that goes nowhere, blah blah blah), but I think one reason might also be that we’ve allowed fact to ride all over imagination. The harness has been put on and the reins pulled tight. Instead of the great imaginer, we’ve become the workhorse, plodding along through something that once made us want to leap.

 

So, what to do? If we’ve checked our characters and our scenes and everything seems good, we need to take a good hard look at our harness and imagine what it would take to soften it. Make it work with us for a change rather than the other way around. Come at it from a different angle. Shake things up. Turn them upside down. Then put the pieces back together in a unique and surprising way.

 

As a writer, what’s your Imagination Place? Do you have a way to get back to it if facts begin to bog you down?

 

As a reader, have you read books where you can identify the exact spot the imagination left and humdrum reality took over? Or on the other hand, a place where the author had something happen completely out of left field and should have been a little more true to reality?

 

It’s all better with friends.