Me, Myself and I

This morning as I lay in bed bargaining with myself about what could be postponed in favor of continuing to lay in bed listening to the silence, it occurred to me what a huge portion of our fictional journeys seek discovery of self.

Is that not the purpose of the character arc?  We meet the character living a life under normal circumstances, like so many of us do IRL (in real life) going from one mundane task to the next: drive kid to school, office, pick up kid, get dinner on, load dishwasher, fold laundry.

Then the inciting event occurs, a crisis in that person’s life. What are all the possible things it could mean to her? She looks at it from this angle and that angle. Her mother, her husband and her best friend all give their opinions, sometimes unsolicited, sometimes unwelcomed. She mulls over what feels right and what does not. She mulls over whether she will passively accept the event or whether she will take action.

In a complex story like Liane Moriarty’s Truly, Madly, Guilty, there are seven point-of-view characters, three married couples and a teenager, who experience the same inciting event and spend the book hashing it out. Will the marriages survive? If not, is that a good thing?

(Having been thrice married myself, I often say that the divorce WAS the happy ending.)

Once the POV character sorts out the meaning of the event and her actions in response, is she a different person leading a different life, is she the same person, or is she the same person more realized? What does the mundane look like to her after it’s all said and done.

 

Anticipation

Every time I think about our theme of the month (relationships), I hear Carly Simon sing “Anticipation”. I’m sure it makes sense somewhere deep in my psyche, probably because I was in high school when the song was popular and relationships were ever so painful then.

So now, a few decades later, I’m listening to Benjamin Black’s A Death in Summer. I am so amazed at this book, I began listening to it again immediately after the first listen. Now that I know Who Did It and the truth behind all the secrets, it’s fascinating to see how Black seeds and obscures his clues.

Not that it’s a clever puzzle; it isn’t. But Black’s writing is on another level. From his first sentence in a scene to the last, every word, every phrase, every sentence has purpose and it flows in a pace that is just right.

There are scenes reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman film, subtle and filled with tiny details but each detail develops the characters or plot like the scene early in the book where Inspector Hackett is interviewing the grieving widow and the farm manager in the kitchen. There is a fourth character, a uniformed officer, who blends into the background in that scene, green in the gills from having seen his first death-by-shotgun-to-the-head corpse. Black feathers in tiny details and gorgeous analogies through Hackett’s eyes, which on first pass you think: well, he’s just telling us what the other characters look like; and on second pass, you realize he’s laying out the puzzle.

Black’s books are character-driven, even the mysteries. In every scene, we are evaluating whether a character is telling the truth, or lying, and his/her motivation and how the POV character feels about that plus how the POV character fits this event into his or her life, making sense of his or her own identity and purpose including living in Dublin, Ireland in the 1950’s.

It seems everyone is asking “Why am I in this place? Is there somewhere else I should be?” Maybe it’s just the inheritance from those who stayed behind when so many emigrated, but it never occurred to me that they would be wondering whether they should leave too.

There’s a great first date scene where she hands him a ticket for the bus and he spends a couple of sentences evaluating the significance of how she handed the tickets to him.

And there’s a snow globe that shows up meaningfully in a few scenes but the purpose, or symbolism, of which I never figured out. It may just be another Rosebud (Citizen Kane) kind of thing. I’m open to discussion.

I have been dying to get the paperback, pull out my highlighters and outline it. So, when I heard about the Amazon Smile program from Terrie Moran on Facebook, that was all the excuse I needed to order.

Because this is stuff I am focusing on: not just the mystery puzzle but the people puzzle, how they all fit together. A musician told me once, without a baseline, you don’t have a song. The baseline gives the song structure, like the foundation of a house. These character arcs are the base line of our melodies. Because without a character caring about solving the mystery, there is no story. I am grateful to Black for doing these so well.

 

 

Beginnings

I started a short story the other day and I have been staring at the blank screen, the proverbial blood beading upon my forehead.

I had this great idea for a murder which would fit into Bouchercon’s call for submissions. I have a set-up. I have the murder. And after that, I have nothing.

Nothing.

I’m not saying I have writer’s block. I’m just saying the story isn’t appearing fully formed in my head.

So I’m slogging my way through a paragraph at a time. I figure I’ll just do stream of consciousness until something magical, like a plot twist, happens. After all, you can’t edit a blank page, right?

I’m pretty sure that my favorite scene has no plot point. Not to worry, when I figure out whodunit, I’ll go back and hide a clue in there.

It’s not this way when I write books. The first 15,000 words just flow out of my fingers before I stall out.

The wise and wickedly funny Laurie R. King spoke at the Book Passage Writers Conference earlier this year. She said when she hits a blank spot, she jumps ahead to a scene she knows will be in the book, writes that and goes back and bridges them together.

So, you’re not really writing at the beginning, you’re starting at the end and working backwards.

I’m currently reading Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He kind of writes from the middle working back and forward at the same time, after he gets the story started.

I like that idea too.

So, Mysteristas, do you ever abandon a story? What is the upside/downside of slogging your way to the end?

Wrapping Up 2016: Audiobooks

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I listen to a lot of audiobooks: when I’m trying to rack up those 10,000 steps, when I’m riding my bike, when I’m driving, and when I’m cleaning house (listening to books is the only way I can trick myself into cleaning). In fact, I purchased 52 audiobooks this year. These are some of my favorite authors, books and narrators.

Eoin Colfer is an Irish writer from Wexford, perhaps best known for his middle-grade series, Artemis Fowl. He is frequently narrated by John Keating, one of my favorite narrators, who also narrates for English writers such as Dick Francis. This year, I listened to enjoyed to Plugged and Screwed, two adult mysteries, and Airman, another middle-grade coming-of-age book about a boy who grew up in a castle and fell in love with a princess.

John Banville/Benjamin Black is another Irish author from Wexford. Under the name, John Banville, he writes literary novels. I read The Blue Guitar recently, thin plot but lush exposition. I found myself highlighting quite a bit of it. As Benjamin Black, he writes the Quirke series set in 1950’s Dublin with a protagonist who is a drunken medical examiner, Dr. Quirke. What’s there not to like? The Quirke series, being mysteries, has more plot and less lush exposition but occasionally, he takes your breath away. I read the last one first and the listened to the first one and regret it. I recommend you listen or read them in order. He is also narrated by John Keating.

Code Name Verity by American, now living in Scotland, Elizabeth Wein. I’m still thinking about the two young female British protagonists who find themselves dropped into World War II and become unlikely friends. The characters in this book are so sharply drawn, I wished I had known them in real life.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only just become acquainted with the works of the late Douglas Adams, the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I listened to one of the books in that series, which has smart and funny comments on writing and publishing, as well as the two Dirk Gently books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul. Like Hitchhikers, the Dirk Gentlys seem like fluffy comedy but Adams was a bright and observant man whose funniest jokes are his shrewdest.

In addition to John Keating, I would listen to anything narrated by Gerard Doyle, who has done many of Stuart Neville’s books and has an uncanny ability to distinguish several different provincial Irish accents, and Hugh Fraser, Captain Hastings in the Poirot series. I just finished listening to Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and loved it.

Happy Holidays and see y’all on the other side of 2016.

Gratitude

I’m one of those people who feels wholly inadequate if Thanksgiving doesn’t turn out like a Norman Rockwell illustration.  And it rarely does.

Last year, I canceled Thanksgiving and Christmas because I had a dying dog with contagious skin condition. It wasn’t safe to have the grandkids over and expose them. The dog was happier too. But for me, it was a long, dark winter.

This year, I’m redirecting my thoughts to gratitude. There’s food in the fridge, the mortgage and the heat bill are paid. That’s huge.

Where there is life, there is hope. That’s huge too.

And let’s not forget the mystery community: Mysteristas, Malice Domestic and the wonderful people who work so hard to facilitate that event every year, and the generous, talented, wise and funny mystery-writing community.

Counting my blessings is a great way to pull myself out of a funk. It’s cheaper than shopping and less fattening than chocolate.

What’s going to happen next? It’s a mystery. But, you know, it always is. To think otherwise is delusional.

And in observing the mystery revealed, we harvest things so much more rich than we could have expected.

So, Mysteristas, on this T-day, what you grateful for?

Stream of Consciousness: Dark and Still

Fuzzy dim images of certificates and photos are reflected upon the window, the inky night-time beyond mutes the vibrancy of these yellow walls.

They aren’t really yellow. To counteract the greenish light that bounces in from woods behind my home, I painted them a yellow-orange. OK, fine, I didn’t paint them but I picked out the color and I paid the guy who did paint them. It’s the same thing, really.

Anyway, the orange cancels out the green and the effect is a very warm yellow.

Had I mixed orange with green in oil paints, it would have made a color in the realm of taupe, gray or something hideous.

And this is the stuff that wanders through my mind before sunrise on a Saturday in Anchorage, Alaska. The dog is sleeping peacefully in the living room below my home office left. He breathes softly. When he licks his lips, the sound is slick and lazy. He adjusts his position, the rug crunching beneath him.

Whine of tires on a highway two miles from my home is barely audible. Speaking of which, have you ever noticed how that sound sinks into the ambience of the city-dwelling life? You only notice it in its absence . I moved out of Anchorage, briefly, in the early 80’s to a town elsewhere in Alaska and the quiet made me insane. I divorced that guy and moved back.

Now I live next to the airport, gratefully single. Having grown up on air force bases, the roar of jets overhead is like hearing my own heartbeat. It’s reassuring. It’s when the planes quit flying, one worries.

After 9/11, the quiet hanging over Anchorage was heavy, ominous. Everyone in the country, in the world, was waiting for what would happen next.

And neighbors just let their little designer mutt out. He barks, rending the peace. I wonder how long he will live.

To all those veterans among us and who have gone before, we thank you for your service.

Life is a Costume Party

glenda-reilly

Life is a costume party. And then you go to the banquet.

Every day, we dress up in something appropriate for the tasks ahead of us. I wear a suit and pumps to court. To the office, I wear slacks, a shirt or turtleneck, and mules. (I’m playing the role of sole practitioner in Anchorage, Alaska.) For my noon-time walk, hiking pants and a fleece jacket with cleated walking shoes over layers of clothes. For the grocery store, sweat pants and a hoody.

Certainly, clothes are chosen for the function but they are chosen as well to impart an image. My suit is expensive. The image I wish to project is that of a successful lawyer. I’ve won a lot of cases before I walked into this courtroom so you all who are watching me should expect me to win this one, too.

My hiking clothes are in trendy colors as are my walking shoes. They say, I’m having fun while I walk downtown. They also say, “Look at me! I know you see me! I’m not hiding my size. I’m proud that I’m outside moving.”

My grocery store outfit says, “Look at me if you want but I’m not here to impress you.”

But do the images I craft reveal the “real me”? No. Nor are they necessarily interpreted the way that I intend. Someone in the courtroom may see an arrogant lawyer, not a confidant one. Someone on the street might see a fat woman of a certain age with bad taste, not a fitness devotee. Someone in the grocery store might see a slob. (They probably got that one right.)

The “real me” conjures these images for effect. I disguise the “real me” with the costumes I wear while I’m playing a role. And while there is truth at the crucible, only the “real me” would pick that costume for that image for that event, it is only a shard of truth so slender that it cannot be interpreted in a vacuum.

And, so we dress our characters. We craft descriptions to convey the essence of their personality, how they see themselves and the image they are trying to project. In Tana French’s most recent book, The Trespasser, Investigator Antoinette Conway is always dressed in a sharp-looking tailored dark suit. She emphasizes that she looks different. She’s taller than most and has dark features uncharacteristic of the Irish. Feeling different her entire life, being independent and authoritative is important to her. She uses her suit to command attention and respect.

But we can also use these descriptions to show the incongruity between the image the character wants to project and the truth of that character. Conway’s inner conflict is whether she wants to stay on the police force and what she would do if she wasn’t a cop.

And that is why I say: Life is a costume party and then you go to the banquet. The question then becomes: what do you feast upon once you get there?

Mysteristas: Can you think of other characters whose costumes belie their truth?