Gaudy Bath

My favorite part of the writing process is plotting. Next favorite? Revising. I’m weird that way. When I start plotting a new storyline, I use the simple “What if…?” technique. What if Letty found a bloody sock on her floor after one of her clients left his therapy session? What if Letty ran into an old friend who pretended not to recognize her? What if the murderer was a one-armed librarian who, after a lifetime of shushing people, decided to silence them forever? (All fake what-ifs, by the way, although I kind of like the psycho librarian one.) It starts like that and then I just follow the trail of more what-ifs making life more complicated for Letty and, hopefully, adding suspense and complexity to the story.

Strangely enough, the first what-if in my writing career came not at a desk but in a bathtub one day while I was reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers—a lady who ranks right up there with Dame Agatha in my heart. I was first introduced to Sayers when Gaudy Night was an assigned read in a women’s study class in college. Although I’m not at all an anti-feminist, it was still the best thing I got out of that class.

Gaudy Night is a mystery about a poison-pen writer who sends obscene and abusive letters to the students and professors of Harriet Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College. As the threats gain in intensity, Harriet calls in Lord Peter Whimsey to help her stop the prankster before it’s too late.

On a deeper level, Harriet Vane goes through a self-examination process regarding the choices she’s made in her life, her decision to continue writing mysteries, especially in light of her own past (read Strong Poison if you want to learn that), and her tumultuous relationship with Lord Peter.  Sayers writes, “[Harriet] had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery.”

Back to the bath…

So, there I was, reading about Harriet’s decision—no, compulsion—to write and I realized how deeply that sentiment resonated in me. There were differences, of course. For one thing, despite loving to write and, of course, read, I’d never have believed I could write a book. Honestly, it just never occurred to me. To me, authors seemed like some strange, mystical beings that flitted through the shadows and hid from “regular” people in caves and dark woods. Kind of like fairies, but with pens and paper. Or, I guess, laptops, which would require long, long extension cords. (My metaphor is falling apart.)

So, as I lay there soaking, I dared to asked myself “What if… I wrote a book?” The image felt as fragile as the lavender-scented bubbles softly popping all around me. (I didn’t have kids then. Bubble baths are now a distant, almost decadent memory.)But I held on to it, toweled off, and did what every good reader does when confronted with a new idea—I ordered up a bunch of books so I could read about writing. And eventually, still hanging onto that pivotal, new vision of myself, I started writing.

I hope one day that I might give that gift of encouragement to someone who, for whatever reason, thinks he or she just isn’t good enough to reach for their dream. Heck, I’d even settle for the “Well, if she can do it, I know I can” variety of inspiration.

My advice to them would be: whatever it takes, follow that what-if.

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The Gift of Writing — You’ve got it

Gifts are most often physical expressions of love. Especially this time of year. Something to be received, torn open, cooed over and cherished.

But it’s the other use of the word that is such a spot of difficulty for writers.

Every writer loves writing. Cherishes it. The ability just to be able to do it—in whatever capacity you prefer—is a gift.

And it’s wonderful to be able to tell stories. Create characters. Weave a plot that keeps even your own brain guessing.

But then there’s always that bit of doubt in the back of a writer’s mind. Magnified by the subjective nature of the business.

Do you have the gift?

Is your very favorite thing to do something you’re actually good at? Something  you’re gifted at? And does it matter?

Here’s how I look at this. It might not be a popular opinion. It might be considered a bit to hippy-dippy to be accurate. But here it is anyway: If you like to write, you’re gifted at writing.

We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, to be sure.

It’s one thing to be gifted at plotting. Agatha Christie? Probably the most gifted plotter of all time.

It’s one thing to be gifted at characterization. Tim Dorsey? His characters leap off the page and threaten to strangle you with their off-the-wall realness.

It’s another thing to be able to create a story and characters so beloved that households across the globe know every intricate bit—J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, I’m looking at you.

We all have our strengths, even the everyday, non-household name writer.

The ones with book deals but not big names, or with agents but no contracts, or those just tootling around hoping to get an agent or small press interest or, heck, have more than just their own eyes reading the first line?

Those people have the gift, too.

The gift of writing strikes us all differently, but it’s there, whether your work has been praised or ripped apart or—most likely—both.

No matter where you are in the process or where you think you might go with it, repeat the following four words to yourself, especially in those deep moments of doubt: I have a gift.

Now, go write your heart out.

Interview: Carol Goodman

Please welcome Carol Goodman, author of fourteen novels — most recently, Blythewood.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Write in the morning, walk with a friend at nearby Poet’s Walk in the afternoon, dinner with family at night, then curled up with my dog, a cup of tea and a good book.

Do you haBLYTHEWOOD COVERve a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My Cath Kidston bag, dark green, rosemary mint, “Would you like some tea?”, tea and scones.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dubinsky, who introduced me to creative writing; my eight grade teacher, Jim Johnson, who first told me I could write; and the writer Sheila Kohler, who said to keep going with my story about a Latin teacher and her students.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I keep the radio tuned to my local NPR classical station.  Even when they talk it’s kind of soothing.  I also love the little bios they give of famous composers.  My favorite one starts, “Depressed and deeply in debt, Handel wrote his masterpiece …”  It always gives me hope!

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Earl Grey infused dark chocolate with a crystallized violet on top.  Ava and her friends often take tea at Violet House in Rhinebeck, which was once the violet capital of the world.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
My daughter Maggie started a webcomic a few years ago (Pennydreadfulcomics.com) set in 1911 and I loved the era.  I also love books about girls’ schools set in the turn of the century.  I started picturing a girl of that period who worked trimming feathered hats and who heard bells in her head.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
People haunted by the past, the sometimes frightening power of the imagination, the journey to find the place where you belong and the people you belong with.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Avaline Hall has grown up with a secretive mother who is hiding from her past.  Ava has been isolated from family and her social class.  After her mother dies she is on her own, trying to survive in 1911 New York City, supporting herself by working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  She hears bells in her head and is afraid that she might be prone to the same melancholy and delusions that plagued her mother.  She doesn’t know where she belongs.  When she finds out that she is not suffering delusions, but that there is magic in the world, she’s determined to find out the secrets of her mother’s past and find a place where she belongs.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Jane Addams meets Hawkgirl meets Veronica Mars

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, PD James, Val MacDermid, and Elly Griffiths.

What’s next for you?
Tea … and then the second Blythewood book, Ravencliffe.

***

Carol Goodman is the author of fourteen novels, including The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize, and, under the pseudonym Juliet Dark, The Demon Lover, which Booklist named a top ten science fiction/fantasy book for 2012.  She has taught creative writing at The New School and SUNY New Paltz.  She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.

Website: carolgoodman.com

Twitter: @C_Goodmania

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

If you’re like me, you were over the “doorbuster savings” and “great holiday deals” about five minutes after the Thanksgiving turkey was cleared off the table.

Face it, gift-giving is hard. Is it the right size/style/color? Will he like it? Does it go with the color of the walls in the living room? Maybe I should get a gift receipt, just in case.

Bah, humbug.

I’ve lived through a fair number of Christmases and birthdays, and gotten a lot of gifts – some good, some, well, not so good. But in looking back, it strikes me that some of the best gifts didn’t come in boxes. They were invisible treasures, things that stuck with me my entire life.

And one of the best gifts was a love of reading.

I’ve been reading since, oh, the womb? Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. I have bedraggled copies of Madeline, and Beatrix Potter that clearly show I’ve been reading longer than I’ve been doing almost anything else. When I disappeared at holiday meals, my parents knew where to find me: I was curled up with a book (and headphones, as I got older). Family vacation? I traveled in the back of the station wagon with the luggage – and a book.

I very clearly remember receiving my very first “adult” mystery for a Christmas gift – Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Twelve people, plus Poirot and the victim, stuck on a train, in the snow, and… wait a minute? Really? REALLY?

Mind. Blown.

From that point on, I was hooked on whodunit. Mysteries, thrillers, suspense. I still am. Oh, I read widely then, and I read widely now. But there is no doubt that one, seemingly minor gift – the love of the written word – has made me the person, the writer, I am today.

I’ve managed to give this gift to my daughter. My son embraced it a little later in life, but I think he might be growing into it. It’s really a gift without price, and of immense value. We might not all be able to travel the world, or go into space, and we certainly can’t experience first-hand the grandeur of Camelot or Victorian England. But we can all crack a book, and for a little while at least, all these things are ours.

So this Christmas, when you’re shopping for that perfect gift, check out your local bookstore. There be treasure there. The book you buy this Christmas just might make a huge difference in someone’s life.

And besides, who needs another ugly sweater?

Give the Gift of Books

I’m a minimalist.

Except when it comes to books.

I’m not positive but I suspect it stems from moving so much in my life. Several times I’ve moved with all my belongings crammed in a car — a rolled-up futon, some clothes, and of course, a ton of books.

A few of those books were ones from my childhood. During all those times of culling my belongings and packing up my car to move cross-country, a few treasured childhood books have always made the cut.

In fact, the only items I have from when I was a child are those books.

That is why when it comes to gift giving time, the first thing I think about for a child is a book.

Books opened up the world to me when I was a child living in a small Northern California town.

Here’s what has made the cut in my life:

A set of mystery books by Wylly Folk St. John.

My oversized “This is Paris” book. Inside, my mother’s friend who went to Paris wrote that she hoped I would visit that city one day. I have.

A Babar book I loved to pieces.

A Fox in Sox book signed by my grandmother.

But my favorite is a child’s thesaurus my fourth grade teacher gave me. Inside, she wrote about how she knew one day I was going to be an author!

I would love to find Mrs. Ward and let her know that my dream came true. If find her, I’m going to let her know that she was one of those remarkable teachers that change a child’s life. But that’s a whole different post.

So, now as an adult, I give kids books as gifts. Maybe my book and its inscription will encourage them to write a book, to move to Paris, or simply to take pleasure in reading.

I don’t know if these gifted books will end up treasured items or land in the January donation box. Heck, I don’t even know if they’ll read them.

But if there is the slightest chance I can pass on a book that will become a treasured belonging in another person’s life, then I’ve done my job.

It Doesn’t Get Any Easier

It doesn’t get any easier.

Every time I face a book release, I get nervous. An advance review copy of that book has been out for a few months, and at the time I’m generally happy with the story. “Proofing is going to be a piece of cake,” I think. “This book is good to go.” And then I crack the spine of my roof copy and see everything I want to “fix.”

For THE BRIM REAPER, third in the Style & Error Mystery Series (out today), the fixes started on page six. That’s pretty good. That’s Proofing-This-Book-Is–Going-To-Be-A-Breeze good.

Sometimes proofing is as simple as striking a phrase, and sometimes it’s a matter of rephrasing a sentence. Sometimes it’s fixing errors like the 17 examples of “gallery” that should have been “museum,” and sometimes it’s correcting the misspelling of “Novak Djokovic.” And then there are pages like 217 that are more covered in red pen with notes in the margin and XXX’s over the current text. I’d share a screen shot if it wouldn’t give away a plot point.

My biggest challenge is in continuity. When I edit, I sometimes forget the time of day, the location, and the outfit of my characters. (I’ve been fried for this in early reviews on other books so now I’m hyper-sensitive.) So imagine my freak out on page 130 when I realized I’d set the scene in the wrong office of the gallery museum!

But the absolute beauty of proofing comes when  I happen upon something I forgot I wrote and I laugh out loud—which happened twice this time. (The extra bonus is that I can’t remember where it happened, but the Capricorn in me made me find it. I’m not telling.)

I have H-U-G-E respect for any person who writes a book and H-U-G-E respect for any person who puts it out there for others to read. Because no matter how many times we do it, one thing remains constant. There are easier ways to spend our time, but this is what we love to do. So put on your party hats and help celebrate Samantha Kidd’s latest escapade involving an exhibit of hats at the local museum. And whatever you do, don’t fear the reaper!

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No Returns or Exchanges

The holiday season is upon us, robust with the joys and frustrations, excitement and irritation that the season offers. And with the arrival of the holidays comes the giving of gifts! The tangible kind: gaily wrapped packages, stockings or shoes stuffed with treats, boxes full of homemade cookies and candy. The intangible: the innocent joy we see in children’s faces as they view a beautiful menorah or decorated tree, the excitement of watching someone open the gift you’ve chosen for him or her, the warmth exchanged during holiday greetings.

To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year. It gets really cold in New England, and I’m not fond of that temperature (cold). (A New England-er born and bred, I blame my hatred of cold weather on a holiday break spent in Brazil during college; it spoiled me forever, I’m convinced.) I love giving gifts, but I hate shopping for them. I love wrapping gifts, but I hate the waste. I love celebrating with friends and family, but I hate cleaning my house first. Have you ever read Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham? A couple whose only child is out of the country for a year decide to forgo the season and all it’s trappings, and instead go on a cruise. It’s a bit of a farce, really, and I can’t say I loved the tale, but I’ve definitely been tempted to skip the holiday season once or twice.

But then, I remember. I get out of the gift-giving season what I put into it. If I let the gifts overwhelm, if I worry about whether I’ve spent too much or too little or if the color and size are right or if I’ve forgotten someone hates coffee and gave them a Starbucks gift card or if I’ve managed to leave a little something for the mailman (ours really is a man) and gosh, did I get a gift receipt for Aunt Lucy (who never likes her gifts), well then, I’m going to be miserable.

If, however, I remember to appreciate all the gifts of the holiday, like how lovely the house smells when there’s a fresh tree inside, the excitement our child has about the parties and food and decorations (oh, my!), and the anticipation of delivering donations to a local charity, the steady stream of fun, personal mail–well, then I remember that I love the gift-giving season. After all, while there are no returns or exchanges on these gifts, luckily, they are the very best kind to receive.

Choosing a book for myself can be just as challenging as any holiday gift shopping. After all, what more discerning gift-recipient will I buy for than me? And it’s not just the choosing, it’s the actual reading that is often fraught with anxiety for me. I have a huge TO BE READ pile next to my bed. All are by authors I’ve had the good fortune to meet, and some I’ve come to consider friends. But, (lowers voice to whisper), what if I don’t like them? It’s as though I think there’s a direct connection between the thought in my head and the author, and they’ll know, they’ll just know that I didn’t like their work. (Yes, I worry about these things.)

Following my rules on holiday gift-giving however, I remember that I get out of the reading experience what I put into it, and I have to let go of the worries. Maybe I won’t like it, but maybe I’ll find a new favorite author. Did I try a new genre or author? Good for me! Perhaps I chose something simply to support a fellow writer, and shared the author’s joy that sales numbers went up (even if only by one). And, there’s the fact that the TO BE READ pile has shrunk by one (and I can shop for a new book!). If all else fails, maybe I have a gift for Aunt Lucy, signed by the author.

No returns or exchanges, of course.