Guest Post: Jim Jackson

Today we welcome Jim Jackson, author of the Seamus McCree Mysteries, back to Mysteristas. Take it away, Jim!

Deep Texture

dr-cover-480x300When Mary Sutton (aka Liz Milliron) said Mysteristas would be delighted to have me return to Mysteristas (well, that’s my word for it, she can tell you in the comments what she really thought), she said, “Our monthly theme is ‘texture, but you can do whatever.”

There’s a deep down piece of me that believes guest bloggers should support the blogs that offer them space, and one way to do that is to stick to their themes. Given the timing of my blog at the end of the month, others have already discussed the feel of texture, the layering of texture, the rich, textured descriptions a skilled author paints with words used and words left out. It’s all great stuff, leaving me—what? Those who know me know I was not going to bail and write “whatever.”

And it hit me: how about deep texture? Humans can apply makeup in base layers, shadows, color schemes, using broad strokes and feathering techniques. The effects can take one face and change all the way from Alice Cooper goth to Doris Day pure. Underneath the makeup, however, the bone structure has not changed.

With a bit of hubris, I searched on the term “deep texture” to see if I had invented the nomenclature. Hardly, but I did come upon a fascinating paper out of U Mass. Feel free to ignore the math and concentrate on the pictures that illustrate the transformation caused by different “masks.” Here’s the link, now hurry back y’all. [Short article intro here, longer w/ more pictures PDF here.)

Welcome back. (Whew! I was worried I might lose you with those fascinating pictures.) Now, consider this picture of Tybee Island beach at low tide. The sand has texture, for sure, and a skilled author could make us feel the undulations beneath our bare feet. But the deep texture of the scene is what caused the sand to form that way. Wave action and water depth and I don’t know what else molded that sand differently than its sister grains of loose stuff above the high tide line. It’s difficult to change that hardened form without something major happening to bulldoze the area—a hurricane would do.

The same can be said of the deep texture of personality, the moral and attitudinal equivalent of our skeleton. It’s that deep texture that forms my decision to write this blog, not something about “whatever.” The underlying warp and woof of our lives are often formed from early experiences. That’s what I chose to explore in Doubtful Relations.

For Seamus McCree a major event was the death of his father when Seamus was a grade-schooler. The texture of his life is constrained by his fierce family loyalty and a need to be in control. His mother, his son, his ex-wife, all have their own moral frameworks and supporting structures, and they are all threatened by the hurricane of a missing family member. The external texture of their lives can’t help but change as the winds of crisis push and pull them, threatening to blow them off their feet or drown them in loss.

Will all of their internal structures weather the storm, or will some break under the fierce pressure. And if someone’s internal structure breaks down and is reformed, how does that change the texture of his or her life? Well, I see I’m out of time, so I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out the answers.

*****

DOUBTFUL RELATIONS

Financial crimes investigator Seamus McCree has wife problems, and Lizzie’s not even his wife anymore. Her current husband disappeared while traveling, and Lizzie turns to Seamus for help.
Equal parts road trip, who done what, and domestic thriller, Doubtful Relations takes psychological suspense to a new level. Seamus McCree fans and newcomers alike will delight in this fast-paced novel that leaves no one in the family unchanged and keeps you guessing until the very end.

Available online or from your favorite Indy bookseller. You can find direct online links at http://jamesmjackson.com/Novels/doubtful-relations.html

*****

james-m-jackson James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. ANT FARM, BAD POLICY, CABIN FEVER, and the recently released DOUBTFUL RELATIONS. Jim splits his time between the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the open spaces of Georgia’s Lowcountry. He is the current president of the 600+ member Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find information about Jim and his books at http://jamesmjackson.com.

Interview: Lea Wait

Please welcome Lea Wait, author of the Antique Print Mysteries and the Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries.

 What’s your idea of a perfect day?

A day in which I write at least 2,000 new words on my latest manuscript, temperatures are in the low 70s, my husband and I are both in good health …. and we have time to sit outside on our porch overlooking the river and Shadows on a Morning in Mainetalk, sip beverages of choice (maybe my artist husband sold a painting and we celebrate with champagne!) and read a chapter or two in new books by favorite authors. Right now I’m reading the latest Sharon McCrumb, and Bob’s reading the latest Linda Fairstein. Perfect!

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

My favorite saying is “Destiny is not a matter of course, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” William Jennings Bryan wrote that. My kids would say my favorite expression is, “Keep your options open!” Meal? Cheese fondue, or any seafood.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

So many. Sharon McCrumb’s Appalachian series, for sure. Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was my go-to book as a child, and in some ways I patterned my life after Jo’s. And I love the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. It distracts me and interferes with the rhythms of my sentences.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Very dark chocolate filled with nuts … and a marshmallow filling. In Shadows on a Morning in Maine antique print dealer Maggie Summer moves to Maine to start an antiques mall with her beau, and finally gets an adoption referral. She’s thrilled and excited, of course. But there’s a bitter side. The girl who may become her daughter doesn’t want a mother, harbor seals are being killed, her guy tells her a dark secret … but, yes. There’s a sweet finish.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

Maggie Summer, my protagonist, is a college professor (I’m not) and an antique print dealer (I was for years.) She’s a widow (not me) and wants to adopt as a single parent. (I did, four times.) There’s a special guy in her life, but he doesn’t want to be a father. (Been there.) So – in some ways Maggie’s story is mine. Plus – she moves from New Jersey to Maine! I did that, too … a move I’ve never regretted.

What themes do you regularly revisit in your writing?

The search for family, and for the place that is right for you. That’s a theme in both my adult mysteries and my historical novels for young people.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

Maggie is as serious about her business as the heroine in the movie You’ve Got Mail, and has the same sense of humor. She wants to be a mother, and is prepared to reorganize her life around that goal, like Angelina Jolie did. (But without Angelina’s money!) And she’s sensitive and interested in young adults (who appear in many books in “her” series) as well as children, like Jo March was in Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

Wow! So many choices! I’d bring together Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Mary Stewart, Kate Morton, Anne Perry and Lisa Scottoline. Very different writers, but all women who share some of my own sensibilities regarding families and history.

What’s next for you?

A busy fall! This month I celebrated the launch of Shadows on a Morning in Maine, the eighth in my Shadows Antique Print mystery series, and on October 26, Dangling By a Thread, the fourth in my Mainely Needlepoint series will be published. I’m currently writing the sixth in the Mainely Needlepoint series, and am researching an historical mystery that may or may not be a stand-alone. Not bored, for sure! Thank you for hosting me! You have a great blog.

*****

USA Today best selling author Lea Wait lives on the coast of Maine, where she writes the Shadows Antique Print mystery series, the most recent of which is Shadows on a Morning in Maine, and the Mainely Needlepoint series. Dangling by a Thread, the next in that series, will be published in late October. Lea adopted four older girls as a single parent, and is now married to artist Bob Thomas and the grandmother of eight. To find out more about her, see www.leawait.com or friend her on Goodreads or Facebook.

Guest Post: Jane Gorman

Please welcome Jane Gorman, author of the Adam Kaminski mystery series. Take it away, Jane!

Did You Feel That?

I had the great privilege last week of speaking to my local chapter of the Sisters in Crime about my life experiences and how I use them in my writing. In some ways, it was an easy speech to give—I got to talk about myself! In other ways… not so easy.

There I was, standing in front of a group of accomplished mystery writers, trying to teach them something about how we as writers can best use our adam-kaminski-mystery-seriespersonal experiences to enhance our writing.

I worked on that speech for weeks in advance. I wrote one version. The next day, I deleted that and wrote another. The following weekend I made significant revisions, which I of course then rewrote again the next day.
I managed to produce a version I liked. I even practiced saying it out loud to my husband, and he seemed to like it (not an impartial audience, I realize). I printed it out two days in advance and had it all ready. On the morning of the meeting it came to me while I was in the shower—which is where I have all my best ideas—that the speech I had written was completely wrong.

I reimagined it in my head, made some notes on my printed sheets, and kept making new notes up to the last minute.

As I stood in front of the group, I realized it didn’t really matter what I had on the page in front of me. I spoke from the heart about my personal experiences. I shared stories about going through security to visit a Polish member of parliament—and getting nervous as I was questioned about the hairdryer in my bag (now that’s a long story).

I told them about my awe at seeing Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw on All Saints Day—the love and faith that Poles poured out onto the graves on that day was overwhelming. I spoke about my experiences working at the State Department, from an inspiring, elegant dinner dance at an ambassador’s residence to having the Secretary of State requisition a spoonful of my butter brickle ice cream. Without asking. (And no, I wouldn’t have turned him down). I shared the tension I felt in a meeting with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood (this was a few years ago) and the anger displayed by a UN delegate as he got so worked up he accidentally spit on me.

With each new story, I realized—and shared as I realized it—how each of these experiences has colored my writing. Not necessarily because I captured those experiences exactly in my books (though in one case, I did). No, it’s more that I captured the emotions I associate with each experience. And it is those emotions that give my writing texture.

Other writers, much better than I, have shared their experience of texture on this blog over the past month. As I read each of those posts, I admired and agreed with their understanding that the little details we notice as we spend time in a place—the smells, the sounds, the way certain things feel to the touch—are what make our fictional descriptions so real. It gives them depth.

Capturing emotions from a moment also creates depth and texture. Even if I never write a book in which the Secretary of State surreptitiously eats his subordinate’s ice cream, I know I will write from the point of view of the subordinate who watches her ice cream going in his mouth. And watches it with pride.

*****

gormanauthorcroppedJane Gorman is the author of the Adam Kaminski mystery series. Gorman’s books are informed by her international experiences, both as an anthropologist and through her work with the U.S. State Department. She has previously published in the field of political anthropology, negotiated international instruments on behalf of the U.S. government, and appeared on national television through her efforts to support our nation’s cultural heritage. Her books are each set in a different city or town around the world, building on her eye for detailed settings, appreciation of complex characters, and love of place-based mystery. Learn more about Jane and her books at janegorman.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JaneGormanAuthor and Twitter @Thejanegorman.

Guest Post: Jennifer S. Alderson

Please welcome Jennifer S. Alderson, author of Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking and The Lover’s Portrait: An art Mystery.

theloversportraitHow archival research added texture to my novel

Let me make this clear from the start: I love the smell and feel of archival documents, those yellowing bits of paper and crumbling photographs that rustle ever so slightly when extracted from their manila envelopes. There’s something magical about scouring through meters of racks, drawers and file folders until you find an interesting or odd snippet of information recorded long ago which helps a character or story truly come to life.

While working out the storyline for my second novel, The Lover’s Portrait, I realized early on that the restitution of looted artwork and the treatment of Jewish citizens in the 1930s and 1940s, were going to be central to the plot. To ensure that any potentially controversial aspects of my art mystery were accurately honestly and accurately described, extensive archival research would be essential. What I didn’t expect, is that this same research would add much needed texture and depth to my story, infuse it with universal themes and – according to all the reviewers so far – be what sets it apart.

I knew one of the main characters was going to be an art dealer being blackmailed by a Nazi general during the Second World War. I just didn’t know exactly why he would be forced to give up his collection. Restitution of art was a topic already very familiar to me, one I’d learned much about during art history and museum studies lectures at the University of Amsterdam. However the details surrounding important events in Dutch history, and the attitudes held in Europe during that period, were not.

It was crucial for the plot that this art dealer character not be Jewish, but did need to be considered a ‘dissident’ or threat to the Nazi regime for another reason. I went to the Amsterdam City Archives with an open mind and list of questions. I’d thought up all sorts of plot twists which involved other groups targeted by Hitler’s troops – Roma’s, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents and homosexuals – and decided to see what my adopted hometown’s archives could tell me about how they were affected by the war. The documents I found relating to the treatment of homosexuals were the least known, and therefore most interesting, to me. Before visiting the archives, I’d read several non-fiction books to better understand this turbulent time in European and Dutch history, and seen no mention of how Dutch men could be arrested, castrated and sent off to work camps in Germany based on the mere suspicion that they were homosexual. Or that lesbians were classified as ‘political dissidents’ in work camps. That’s when I realized I’d found a ‘winner’ qua topic, one which hadn’t already been exhaustively explored in mainstream literature.

The sensitive nature of the themes discussed in this novel warranted that it be historically accurate, yet it was never my intention to write a historical fiction novel, but an art-infused mystery. When my ‘final draft’ clocked in at 110,000 words, I was afraid it was too long or would only appeal to historical fiction buffs, so I slashed many of the chapters which relied heavily on the obscure details I’d worked so hard to find. The end result was shorter and less historical, but without all those enticing tidbits of information to fill in the characters’ backgrounds or help explain plot developments, the whole story fell flat. It was as if I’d ripped the soul out of my novel.

Despite my misgivings about the length, I added everything back in and even wrote three new chapters taking place in wartime Amsterdam to provide more depth and richness to the story, choosing to edit down the present day sections of the book to compensate. Man, am I glad I did! It’s the research that grabs reviewers’ attention, enhanced their enjoyment of the story and characters, and seems to be what distinguishes this novel from others in the ‘amateur sleuth’ category.

My research has also paid off in other ways. Last week, I found out the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is adding The Lover’s Portrait to their library’s permanent collection because they are thrilled with their prominent role in the book. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has already added it to their library based on the merits of my research into the complexities surrounding the restitution of looted artwork. And a prominent local LGBT organization, Pink Point, is helping me promote the book here in the city because they believe the storyline to be unique.

Yes, I spent many long hours browsing through often useless documents, pamphlets, flyers and photographs in far-flung physical and digital archives. I didn’t have to. But without all of the little details adding texture, depth and layers of meaning, my book wouldn’t have been the same. And frankly, I enjoyed every second of it!

Fellow authors, do you conduct archival research in order to add texture to your fiction? Readers, do you expect fiction to be well-researched, or are you just as happy to step into a completely fictitious world?

*****

Jennifer S. Alderson was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her love of travel, art and culture inspired her on-going series of novels following the adventures of Zelda Richardson around the globe. In her first book, Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking, Zelda goes to Nepal to volunteer as an English teacher in Kathmandu, where she gets entangled with an international gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen their diamonds. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery follows Zelda to Amsterdam, where she discovers clues to the whereabouts of a cache of missing masterpieces buried somewhere in the city, hidden away in 1942 by an art dealer who’d rather die than turn his collection over to his Nazi blackmailer. Her third novel – another art-related mystery centered around Papua New Guinean ‘bis poles’, missionaries and anthropologists – will be released in the summer of 2017.

http://www.jennifersalderson.com

http://www.facebook.com/jennifersaldersonauthor

Texture

 

The days grow shorter. Golden leaf-litter trails turn to slime. Overhead, light blares through the trees’ bony limbs. And I want ice cream because I hate winter. Ironic, then, that I moved to Alaska. At least I don’t live in Boston.

Having just finished listening to Benjamin Black’s EVEN THE DEAD: A QUIRKE NOVEL read by John Keating (one of my favorite narrators), this month’s topic, texture, brings to mind how we can use scenic details not only to set our stories but to enhance the mood of a scene.

As the story progresses, Quirke has a series of conversations (confrontations) with his adopted brother’s wife which are progressively tense. He’s conversing; she’s confronting. Towards the end of the book, the weather becomes overcast when they meet. In another scene, Quirke is having a conversation with a lady friend in which “the” question is posed. The candlelight flickers before it stays into a “yellow teardrop.” We don’t find out the answer in this book.

Have you ever noticed how weather is a Hollywood staple for setting the mood of a scene? Happy young lovers picnic in a sun-drenched field. Sad person stares out a window splattered with raindrops. Two dogs share spaghetti over a candlelit dinner. A little of this scenic detail can go a long way.

Writers are fortunate that we can point our readers to particularized details without, hopefully, being Hollywood-heavy-handed. Having just developed the awareness of this technique, I would like to read more well-done use of texture.

Ergo, for my own edification, Mysteristas, I ask you: Can you think of writers who are particularly good at using setting details to bring out the emotions in their scenes?

Rewriting is Texture

Last week I took a fun getaway trip to Mt. Rushmore, my first time there.  My brain was still thinking “texture,” as in what-in-the-heck idea was I going to come up with for my next post??  And there it was in front of me.  Texture, in the form of carved rock.

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I got to thinking about a quote I’d read some years back, likening writing to the process of carving statues.  It’s simply the act of cutting away what doesn’t belong.  The story emerges from all those words as does a statue emerge from stone.  Or something like that.  I’m pretty sure this was attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, although all that I can find is his famous quote that “drama is life with the dull parts cut out.”

Same difference, right?

Some folks say that writing is rewriting.  Personally, I aim for 3 drafts:

  1. vomit draft–get the story out
  2. puzzle draft–make the pieces fit together
  3. polish draft–make it sparkle

Sadly, my current work-in-progress is not cooperating with that method.  I’m cutting out and throwing away at least half of the first draft.  Because they are pieces that just don’t further along the story.  And yes, it’s painful!

While searching for the source of the carving quote, I came across some others that support the metaphor of rewriting as cutting out the dull parts:

  • In a highly entertaining guest-of-honor dinner speech, Elmore Leonard once quoted his ten rules of writing.  Number ten is:  “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
  • Helen McCloy wrote in her essay “Cutting:  Surgery or Butchery?”:  “The first thing to cut is the beginning.  Almost all amateurs fail to realize that you must begin a story in the middle, not at the beginning.  A great deal must have happened before the curtain rises.”

Whoa!

And I learned another interesting comparison at Mt. Rushmore.  The original plans called for carvings that included presidential torsos, not just their heads.  But once the project started, it required a change of course.  Sometimes that happens in books, too.

Rewriting is the hardest part of writing, I think.  It’s hard to recognize those parts that need to be left out.  And it’s hard to know when to stop carving away.

Fall Reading List

I’ve started working on a YA mystery. To be honest, I’m still flirting with this manuscript. We’re not official or anything, although last week we did go parking; a.k.a., I wrote in a parking lot outside of the kids’ school. All in all, I’ve written ten pages that I’ll probably end up erasing in the long run, but I’m continuing with the dalliance for at least another week. Because I haven’t read a lot of YA mystery or paranormal, I decided to study up. So far, this is what I’ve read recently/plan to read soon:

A Madness so Discreet by Mindi McGinnis. This one has been on my TBR forever. I mean, it has the prettiest cover in the whole world and I loved Not a Drop to Drink, also by McGinnis. Oh, and it was only $1.99 a week ago, which meant I didn’t have wait for a library request because, let me tell you, authors don’t make quite as much as my husband once imagined. Great characters, delicious dark tone, creeptastic setting, and it won an Edgar. I noticed with some interest that the reviewers on Goodreads didn’t seem as bowled over as me or the people who hand out Edgars. I gave it five stars. Well, to be honest, I give most books five stars. I mean, what if I go to a conference and end up in a bar with a bunch of authors to whom I’ve coldly handed out two star reviews? I’ve never been to a conference, so it’s basically an “If Train X is traveling at 20 mph east and Train Y is traveling at 40 mph west” type problem, but it could happen. One day I could be one of those trains! I hope. Regardless, Mindi McGinnis deserved five stars. It’s a great book.

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro. This one features Sherlock Holmes as a teenage girl—very clever, I thought. As I was falling asleep last night I started thinking of Sherlockian characters I’ve enjoyed. Gregory House from House came to mind. TV medical drama character or not, he was definitely a Sherlock.

Dead and Breakfast by fellow mysterista, Kimberly Giarratano! This one is next up on my list. Ghosts, Florida, and teenagers—I’m looking forward to it.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris. I decided to reread this one for fun. I mean, why not? She has a bunch of other series I should probably also read.

The Amateurs by Sara Shepard. Pretty Little Liars might as well have come in pill form as far as I was concerned (should I be embarrassed to admit that?), so this book, also by Shepard, should go down easy.

For inspiration, I might read a few classics. I haven’t read The Tell Tale Heart since high school—and what is it?—twenty pages long. It’d be a crime not to read it. And, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson has been sitting on my nightstand for two years. It’s close to Halloween (my daughter reminded me of this with a 6 a.m. wake-up call to find her witch’s cauldron candy bucket yesterday), so I might as well read some Jackson.

Any YA mysteries I should add to my list and what’s on your list? I mean, Kate Lansing asked the same question a week ago, but perhaps your answers have changed. Just think of everything that happened last week. Hillary fell down. Trump announced his testosterone levels on Dr. Oz. I practiced the violin with my seven-year-old five times. It’s basically been a year.