The Exquisite Whole

I went to see “Phantom of the Opera” recently. I hadn’t seen it in many years because it’s really not high on my list of favorites (not a fan of the operatic style), but it was part of our season ticket package so I was looking forward to revisiting it. Frankly, I look forward to every show because there’s always something spectacular happening on stage.

And Phantom was no exception. Gorgeous stagecraft. Goosebump inducing orchestration. Overwhelming special effects. And costumes. Oh, the costumes.

The setting for Phantom is the Paris Opera House in the late 1800s so you have the regular period costumes as well as the costumes for the operas-within-the-opera. What made my theatre experience more interesting was the display of costumes from the show they had set up in the lobby.

As I walked toward the display I saw one of the Phantom’s capes, and three beautiful dresses.

cape 1 beaded 1 multi 1 black dress 1

But then I looked closer.

cape 2    multi 2  black dress 2beaded 2

And then closer still.

beaded 3  multi 3  black dress 3  black dress 4

By focusing closer on each garment, I was able to see details hidden to me before, each one serving a purpose, each one servicing the whole of the garment as well as the entire production. Care was taken on those sequins, each one catching different lights and angles on stage. They certainly could have used fewer — less detail, less care — and perhaps nobody would have been the wiser. But by layering detail upon detail, texture upon texture, all the pieces added up to an exquisite whole.

It’s the same thing I try to do with my writing. I start with my barebones plot, my plain cotton garment, if you will.

Then I stitch on a few ruffles of setting, some beaded metaphors, a sprinkle of telling details so each character and paragraph sparkles. I trim off excess story fabric, nipping and tucking until nothing droops or drags. I snip loose threads or weave them in better.

I want readers to see my books like I saw those costumes in the theatre lobby. Something captivating that when examined, reveals layers and layers of texture adding up to an exquisite whole.

As a reader, do you notice the layers of texture? As a writer who reads, can you overlook the layers and lose yourself in the exquisite whole?

Texture

Dictionary.com defines Texture as:

The characteristic structure of the interwoven or intertwined threads, strands, or the like, that make up a textile fabric: the characteristic physical structure given to a material, an object, etc., by the size, shape, arrangement, and proportions of its parts: an essential or characteristic quality; essence.

The definition goes on to imply that texture only applies in the visual or tactile arts. Pottery, painting, fabric, even movies and stage plays can all have texture. Print media is notable for its absence of mention.

REALLY? I think not! Yesterday Pamela shared some lines from Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn to demonstrate texture on the page. It was the juxtaposition of light and dark, the weather, the mist. The texture that DuMaurier brought to her story drew the reader in. We were right there on the Cornish coast feeling the bite of the wind, the lashing of the mist.

Writers have a responsibility to bring their scenes to life in a visual way. Our characters have to make the leap from the single dimension of the page to the three-D high definition imagination of the reader. The only way that can happen is to create scenes so real, so vibrant, that the reader becomes a part of the story. Not for nothing do readers talk about “getting lost in a book.” They don’t mean they lost their place, they mean they lost themselves.

The blending of colors, contrasts, emotions, smells, touch, all contribute to the texture of a book. The skillful writer takes all these parts and weaves them together, wrapping the tale around the reader, ensnaring her in the story.

What books have you read that leapt off the page?

Texture Magic and a Cat: It’s About the Layers

This past weekend, my daughter had a photo shoot. We watched YouTube videos to learn about makeup (I never really learned how to do it, and I still wear little more than mascara), and a common refrain was this: “layer in your color, blending, to deepen or soften the effect; keep adding color until you achieve the desired look.” Yes! That’s it.

When I write a story, I layer in elements to create texture in my writing, for example description; I work my way through the senses, blending and smoothing, until I deepen or soften the elements to achieve the desired impact on the reader. In my second published story, I needed to evoke a strong sense of imminent danger. Brooding skies, crashing waves, and icy, pelting rain allowed me to send the reader on a journey, one designed to make her uncomfortable at first, then apprehensive, and eventually terrified. Unpredictable, unpleasant weather and cold temperatures helped!

As I write this post, I’m sitting with a warm furry cat snuggled up beside me. She’s beautiful (really, all cats are) with her silky fur in a multitude of colors, tickly long whiskers, and rough little tongue with which she delivers the occasional “kiss.” Her colors and textures, along with her princess attitude, make her interesting, appealing. We’re reclining together, Bastet and I, on the most delightful blanket, which has a subtle raised pattern of linked hexagons, and there’s a huge (and unnecessary, according to my husband) pile of pillows behind us.  The pillows vary in color and fabric and size, but the theme is ocean. There’s a gentle breeze wafting over us from a fan on the floor. My bedroom is full of layers, and those layers create a texture, a depth, to the environment that makes it interesting to me. In this case, the goal is a warm, cozy, and welcoming space, a retreat.

Would I include all of those details in a story? It depends on what I wish to accomplish. If I want to settle my reader into a cozy space with my protagonist, then yes, I just might. How much I include will affect whether the reader can successfully enter the scene with my characters, or simply remain on the sidelines. Much like a chef adds layers of flavor to a meal, to emphasize or diminish certain ingredients, writers use texture to evoke emotions and create reactions from our readers.

For instance, in Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier, the author wrote:

“It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.”

Brr! I’m already shivering, picturing a character in need of gloves and hat, or a warm fire in order to chase away the chill.

Writers work with a very flat medium, paper (or a screen), really. By using words to create texture, to add depth, dimension, flavor, action, and so much more, we take that flatness and build entire worlds for our readers. It’s magical!

Guest Post: Judy Penz Sheluk

Ideas, Imagination & A Whole Lot of What Ifs

As an author, one of the questions I get asked most often is “where do you get your ideas?” and my standard answer is “from my life.” And that’s true—to a point. Everything I see and hear and experience is filed away in my head for possible use in a story. But it’s imagination and a whole lot of what ifs that takes an everyday experience and transforms it into something people will (hopefully) want to read.

Skeletons in the Attic Front CoverThe idea for Skeletons first came to me when I was sitting in the reception area of my lawyer’s office. I was waiting with my husband, Mike, and we were there to update our very outdated wills. Here’s the opening scene from the book:

I’d been sitting in the reception area of Hampton & Associates for the better part of an hour when Leith Hampton finally charged in through the main door, his face flushed, a faint scent of sandalwood cologne wafting into the room. He held an overstuffed black briefcase in each hand and muttered an apology about a tough morning in court before barking out a flurry of instructions to a harried-looking associate. A tail-wagging goldendoodle appeared out of nowhere, and I realized the dog had been sleeping under the receptionist’s desk.

Leith nodded towards his office, a signal for me to go in and take a seat, then followed me, plopping both briefcases on his desk. He leaned down to pat the dog and pulled a biscuit out of his pants pocket. “Atticus,” he said, not looking up. “My personal therapy dog. Some days, he’s the only thing that keeps me sane.”

Like my opening scene, our lawyer had been delayed in court, and judging from all appearances, the case had not gone well. And like my opening scene, his goldendoodle hung out in the office. But unless I wanted to write a legal thriller (I didn’t) I needed more than what I had.

Okay…so what if instead of being there to write a will, I was there for the reading of a will? What if the will had a clause that would change my protagonist’s life forever? Maybe even put her in danger? A few more what ifs, a whole lot of imagination and—

What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t always stay there…

Calamity (Callie) Barnstable isn’t surprised to learn she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, though she is shocked to discover she has inherited a house in the town of Marketville—a house she didn’t know existed. However, there are conditions attached to Callie’s inheritance: she must move to Marketville, live in the house, and solve her mother’s murder.

Callie’s not keen on dredging up a thirty-year-old mystery, but if she doesn’t do it, there’s a scheming psychic named Misty Rivers who is more than happy to expose the Barnstable family secrets. Determined to thwart Misty and fulfill her father’s wishes, Callie accepts the challenge. But is she ready to face the skeletons hidden in the attic?

***

Judy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in July 2015. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery Series, was published in August 2016.

Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime, The Whole She-Bang 2, Flash and Bang and Live Free or Tri.

Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Find Judy on her website/blog at www.judypenzsheluk.com, where she interviews other authors and blogs about the writing life.

Find Skeletons in the Attic at: http://www.imajinbooks.com/skeletons-in-the-attic

 

 

 

 

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?