Around We Go
While developing my sleuth Charlotte’s romantic life, I noticed that she had a history of getting together with men who were not truly suitable for her. There was, somewhere in her makeup, a conflict between her outer life and her inner self, or perhaps a fear of being true to herself, since she chose relationships that she thought she ought to have instead of what she really wanted. Facing this fact and going for what she really wanted was the main subplot of An Unexamined Wife.
So I asked myself, what are Charlotte’s strongest characteristics? Maternal and domestic, for certain. Easily hurt and remembers hurt a long time. Tenaciously loyal, even when it is detrimental. Loves creature comforts. These traits are the hallmark of the astrological sign of Cancer.
I know just enough about astrology to know that a person’s Moon and Ascendant signs add depth and complexity to the Sun sign. So as I read various online astrological descriptions of Cancer, I also tried to match up what Charlotte appears like to others and the way her brain and/or creativity works with corresponding Ascendant and Moon signs. From there I read about compatibility, which signs were better bets in a relationship than others and why. Read more »
An Unexamined Wife is finished and available on Amazon.com! It’s also FREE ON CHRISTMAS DAY AND BOXING DAY, so I hope you’ll take advantage of this holiday present. It’s also a good way to get a review copy that is also an Authorized Purchase, and I’d be tickled pink if you left a review.
What a ride it’s been to write this book. An Uncollected Death took me sixteen months to write, as I learned the craft. This new book took just over eight months. I’m hoping the next one will take just six months, so that I can have a publishing rate of two novels per year. My books are considerably longer than most contemporary mysteries, so turning out three or more per year is not going to happen, or at least not in the Charlotte Anthony series. I’m being encouraged to shorten the books to save myself a lot of grief, but I’m balking. This may be my inner prima donna at work.
That being said, I did manage to knock of 16,000 words between the version that my Reader Team read and the version that has been published. This makes it a little shorter than the first book, at just over 103,000 words. I’m willing to make the next one just under 100,000. Word count shouldn’t have to be such a consideration–after all, a book should be a long as it needs to be to tell the story, but I know there’s a point past which it gets ridiculous.
Anyway, Charlotte is about to spend the holidays in Aspen with her daughter, but manages to first stumble across the body of Dr. Garibaldi. She gets caught up in another murder investigation, and along the way she manages to fall in love with one of the least likely guys in Elm Grove, a character who played a big role in An Uncollected Death. He’s going to play a big role in future books, too, and will hopefully bring another element to Charlotte’s particular way of sleuthing.
Now, off to get ready to turn my office into a guest room and get ready to make Christmas dinner!
All lined up–for a different game?
Strictly speaking, I’m supposed to be working on Act III, but I’ve been spending a lot of time on the two-chapter spread that makes up the midpoint of the novel, the middle of Act II. For me, this is a danger area, because it’s the point where the protagonist is supposed to become fully committed to solving the problem in the novel, after something happens which clarifies the course of action that she must take. It’s often something that has to do with the subplot.
My characters have gone and pulled a fast one on me. A major character has become a bit of a boring letdown, and a side character has taken a starring role, despite all the disadvantages I’ve dumped on him. Or maybe because of the disadvantages. Neither of these guys were supposed to have that much of a starring role. As it is, they’ve created a real dilemma for my heroine Charlotte, one I hadn’t planned on.
So I should just go with the flow, right? Not necessarily. Because everything that happens at this point now becomes an essential part of Charlotte’s story all the way through to the end of the novel, and quite possibly having reverberations into Book Three. Oh, who am I kidding. I know it’s going to have reverberations in Book Three. This is a story line that’s screaming to be written. And it threatens to change the nature of what I’m writing.
Back when I first decided to write a novel, I thought I would write a cozy mystery, under the illusion that I wanted to write something light and fun. But my cozy premise warped into women’s fiction/amateur female sleuth more than a mystery with a “hook,” as certain publishers are currently describing cozies. I soon realized that I couldn’t do funny, or talking cats (although Charlotte does talk to Shamus), or a hobby-based theme such as knitting or cooking or witchcraft. I could do midlife angst, though, and thus wrote the novel that was actually in me. It qualified as a cozy because it didn’t have any explicit violence, language, or sex, but a woman of a certain age who has downsized, then turned the skills of observation she acquired in her former profession into a means of uncovering motivation is not much of a hook. It’s a dramatic premise.
So what do I do? Market it as a straight mystery? Change the cover art from vector graphics to a moody photo? No one seems to be saying no, but of course I don’t want to fix what ain’t broke. It’s been a really hard one to call.
And now my characters are really challenging the cozy pigeon hole. Their relationships are complex and increasingly mature, the nature of the crime is colder, the motivation darker. Even in idyllic Elm Grove, and among the good-hearted people that are Charlotte’s friends, the world is not a sweet and cozy place.
I’m gonna have to sleep on this one.
All Lined Up
Last month’s project of creating thirty-one writing prompts was a terrific learning exercise for me. I’m not the fastest writer in the world, but in these days of writers having to do our own marketing and outreach, it’s so useful to be able to quickly turn out a few hundred words on various topics several times per month, if not per week. I’m in awe of anyone who does this well.
In order to write frequently and quickly, a sort of nimbleness is needed to not get in the way of one’s own gift of writerly gab. Posting an average of 350 words daily for a month–while never letting up on writing my novel–forced me to exercise brain muscles that I haven’t used since writing college term papers. That was forty years ago, so maybe I’ve stumbled on a way to stave off brain rot, too.
Perhaps the exercise was made more fun because I was also learning to take photos with my iPod via Instagram, as part of Susannah Conway’s #augustbreak2014 challenge. This also meant using a new social medium, plus thinking about things visually instead of verbally.
I’ve had a visual/verbal dichotomy going on since early childhood, and it’s evident in a lot of my descriptive passages and in my tendency to catalog a scene, describing it in minute and exhaustive detail. That is probably the worst effect of immersing in the likes of Dickens as an impressionable student.
This time I turned the visual/verbal thing on its head and used the pictures I took to think about writing itself. As a result, I’ve become more focused about why I’m including something in my novel’s descriptive passages. The things I want the reader to “see” are best when they are directly relevant to the character or the story, and not just there for general flavor.
Less rambling description is one way in which fiction has changed from the 19th century to the 21st, something which I’ve understood intellectually, yet did not appreciate keenly until creating my Visual Writing Prompts. So there have been two solid benefits from the exercise–faster writing of side pieces on demand and improved control over descriptive elements.
Since I am fond of the flash fiction form, I wonder if these benefits will translate into writing short stories even as I’m writing a novel? Now that would be an incredible bonus! Perhaps it’s time to search online for a month of flash fiction prompts?
A State of Being
The final #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Love,” with the intent of depicting what loves means to you. I have to admit I go wordless when it comes to actual love–and that’s a real dilemma for a writer!
The picture is of a glass paperweight backlit against a window in order to catch its depth and mystery despite its common, iconic shape and color. Then a lot of tweaking with Instagram filters and controls brought out every element while reducing the tree and lawn in the background to a complementary blur. Intensity was my intent.
There are so many different kinds of love, different ways of expressing it, different ways it manifests. I do know it tends to be a constant in me, even when I am feeling cynical or noncommittal about many things. Thus I consider love to be a state of being, a sort of active still point. Some people say that’s God. Might be.
Wordless as I get when actually describing it directly, I do take advantage of being able to describe it indirectly, through the actions and reactions of various characters. The results of love can show in things that are carefully tended, like a garden, but can also show in things that are left in their natural state. Some show love by never letting go, but perhaps the greatest love is being willing to let go for the loved one’s sake. This is what I mean by describing it via action and reaction. If I try to describe it in the normal way, it ends up either as indulgent stream-of-consciousness thoughts or as pontificating.
The thirty-first Visual Writing Prompt: What Love Has to Do With it. Love is a tremendous motivator: what things in your character’s setting or preferences give the reader a hint about their real love? Who or what does your character love, and what does he or she do to show it? Is there awareness of that love–or not? The personal stake that sets the story rolling often has to do with some form of love, whether romantic, platonic, or agape. There’s the love of a calling, too, another driving force to consider when asking what does your character want? Love of succeeding means great frustration when success is thwarted. All of these kinds of love can set the stage for action, reaction, and drama
Then, of course, there’s the love of writing itself in you, the writer. It’s there, I know it is, and yet I can’t quite describe it. It just is.
Silly Soft Socks
“Soft” is the thirtieth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and there were many things to choose from. The most obvious was to be had just by looking down at my cozy house socks. Even in the summer they are nice, keeping the air conditioning off my legs in the evenings.
I’ve always loved soft things, and I think I love them more the older I get. I also recall wanting more soft things during stressful periods of my life. Soft is soothing to skin, muscle, and bone, soft relaxes and calms, make resting and sleeping much easier.
Softness sometimes comes with a price. Those with allergies feel worse around soft things like cats, wool, carpets, pillows, sweaters, upholstered furniture, etc. Softness is associated with lack of toughness, as in someone who’s considered a “softie” or someone who is out of shape mentally or in terms of nerve and has “gone soft.” Softies are vulnerable to being pushovers.
Then there’s softness as a disguise, as in the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, or in speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
The young with healthy teeth can eat hard and chewy food, while the old used to gum their way through porridge and soft crustless bread. Then the other way around, compare the softness of babies with the dry rough skin of the elderly who have seen too much sun and hard work.
Detective stories can be hard-boiled–or soft. Same with eggs, the hard ones stand up to chopping into salad, the soft ones are silky and joined with toast.
The thirtieth Visual Writing Prompt: Hard and Soft Traits. In what ways is your character a softie, and in what ways hard as steel? What in the setting or on his or her person reveals the relevant hardness or softness? Is it a photograph? Is it babies? Puppies? Kittens? Or a lack of any connection to them? Is it implied in, for instance, the type of wallet they use? A slim steel case suits the character who can force him or herself to walk away from someone they love. Cashmere socks might suit the calm and unruffled character who will give his or her all to the one that is loved. Little things like that can play up the extent to which your character is hard or soft.
Next Prompt: What Love Has to Do With It
The twenty-ninth #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Nature,” and for me that present the choice between what’s in my garden and what’s out in the larger world. But since my garden is what I interact with the most these days, I stuck with that.
It had just rained and the sky still had that sunlight glowing immediately behind still-dark clouds which brings out deep blue-greens, making this hosta stand out more than usual, and making its curled yellow leaf part of a composition rather than a flaw.
This is where being a garden designer is different than being a gardener–composing a landscape with plants means being able to make things look good together even when they’re not blooming. This hosta, for instance, is a good candidate for mixing with plants with variegated leaves, small frilly leaves, etc. In my garden it sits between red bricks and a purple-red barberry shrub, and there are daylilies and irises behind it. Color, shape, line, texture, shadow, and light–all are at play in the composition of plants as much as in a photograph.
The sort of nature that is in the setting of a story is part of the story. Weather, seasons, types of trees and flowers, types of birds and common wildlife, all play a role in what makes one place different than other places. I’ve noted that settings with attention to the flora and fauna often seem to have more depth and mystery than those that don’t. The characters and their motivations seem to either belong with the surrounding nature–or are so different, that they seem more pathological than those who are a part of the nature.
For the twenty-ninth Visual Writing Prompt: Nature Good and Bad. Does nature or natural elements play a role in your character’s motivation, frustration, discovery, or problem-solving? Is he or she at one with the natural forces of the setting, or at odds with it? Do storms cause problems or reveal solutions? Wild animals? The traditional fortune-telling of a particular number of crows? The fog lends elements of both terror and suspense in many a mystery, as do blizzards. Think of Holmes in London or the sheriff in Fargo. Or think of natural threats like White Oleander, or convenient patches of quicksand. Which side is your character on, and why?
Next Prompt: Hard and Soft Traits
“Something New” was the twenty-eighth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and in particular something that wasn’t necessarily new, but new to me. So I meandered down to one such shop and happened upon this inexpensive handmade ring that insisted on coming home with me. Like it was magic or something.
It’s a big big for most of my fingers, but sits comfortably on my main index finger, sort of enhancing anything I point at, as if I had the power to make whatever I was pointing at to happen, move, or somehow materialize. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I did?
There’s an awful lot of things in the world that have been around for a while that I have not personally experienced, use, or even thought about, and I’m sure it is the same for most people. Someone could suggest that I try cross-country skiing, and it would be as new to me as wearing a jet pack and shooting up into the air.
Writers go through a lot of new-to-me experiences. Back in college, I wrote poetry, short stories, and plays. Nowadays I write blog posts and novels, with a few short-short stories. Poems are now exceedingly rare, and any urge to write a script gets swallowed up in a novel’s dialogue scenes. I’ve written cookbooks and how-to books, so that’s been covered, too. Writing a prompt every day like this is a new experience, though. I can see writing short stories that spin off of my mysteries in the near future, that will be a new-to-me experience. Then again, so would being rich and famous.
The twenty-eighth Visual Writing Prompt: Unexpected Acquisitions. What suddenly shows up on your character’s doorstep, or in the mail, or on his or her birthday? Something that wasn’t expected or asked for or even thought about–how would your character react, and what does the reaction say about his or her background, temperament, education, finances, desires, and motivations? I could almost fancy myself a wizard with my new ring, or a sorceress. Might suggest that I’d like an easier way to make the things I want to come about! When Charlotte unexpectedly re-acquires her beloved painting, her whole world is set right again, and she feels loved, supported, and appreciated–all the best things about feeling “at home.”
Next Prompt: Nature Good and Bad
“Lines” was the twenty-sixth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and that was a fun one for me, since I’m aware of lines everywhere, from the lines made by the intersection of the walls, windows, and doors in the house to lines of music and writing. Lines of wires between the poles along the street.
The picture is a closeup of the ratty old throw that I keep on the ottoman in front of my armchair in the living room. The color and texture makes me think of landscapes, aerial views in particular. Funny how looking at something so close up can create an association with something seen from far away.
Lines for a fiction writer, however, tend to refer to the story itself, as in plot lines. I’ve written before about the three story lines that need to be braided together in a mystery, but there are lines within those lines, too. These would be the deep back story, such as a character’s heritage, the history of the location, and other such detail.
There are other lines which are less essential to the success of the story but contribute toward a pleasurable experience in reading it, in particular thematic lines.
I’ve read that “theme” is what a story is really all about, and it is often found in repeated details–such as colors, or the presence of certain kinds of cars or animals, in what triggers a character’s line of thoughts and memory, and descriptive elements such as trees, birds, and shadows.
Repeated details take on a symbolic quality, even if not directly intended by the writer. This is when theme itself is derived from symbolism, and books rich in this are the ones that invite myriad interpretations. Theme is not just what a story is really all about, it can also be the real mystery.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that one of my themes is the genius loci, the “spirit of place.” I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of it in the setting of Elm Grove, Indiana. There are also domestic themes in mugs, cats, coffee, tea, windows, light, and art. But the spirit of place is much more intangible. I don’t try to deliberately create it, but to try to imagine it deeply enough to feel it, and then to write from that depth. Whether or not I succeed in conveying it to others remains to be seen, but allowing for it to emerge on its own terms will give it room for interpretation, and that room is what makes the experience of reading a particular book stick.
And lest you think a theme can’t be accidental–I took a closeup of a piece of green fabric in order to fill the prompt of “lines.” My subconscious–or creative muse–still managed to find something that could be described as a landscape, a place. I’m tuned in, just because I’m wired the way I am, to a sense of place, to its genius loci. It comes if I just let it happen.
The twenty-sixth Visual Writing Prompt: Themes from Details. Are there details which appear again and again in your writing? Do they have any significance in your own life? In your character’s life? Or in your overall message, no matter what you’re writing? Experience as a writer might reveal it, but I’m willing to bet it’s been there since your first efforts.
Next Prompt: Unexpected Acquisitions
The New Universal
The twenty-sixth #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Morning,” and since that morning was pitch black from a thunderstorm even at nine a.m., I wasn’t likely to go out and catch a dewy, misty scene. Instead, I took a pic of what my morning usually looks like: at my desk, laptop in front of me, coffee off to the side. It so happened that someone else had the same idea, and her picture is on the computer screen in this shot.
Morning used to be coffee and newspaper–complete with crossword puzzle and the comics. The printed newspaper was getting too expensive, so now I just read it online, along with things like RSS feeds of different blogs I follow and Twitter, Facebook, and occasionally Google+. It’s a habit now, but it isn’t the same. It’s also now a universal habit. Several participants in the Instagram prompts this month had similar pictures for “Morning.”
The nature of morning rituals has changed in my lifetime. Jogging was unheard of. People who walked their dogs just let them do their thing–the idea of carrying plastic bags to pick up their waste was unheard of. Newspaper delivery was done by kids before school–these days parents often don’t dare let their kids out alone like that when there’s few other people about. A cigarette was a common accompaniment to that first cuppa coffee, then a cigarette on the porch, and now there’s not even many smoking on the porches in most neighborhoods.
Of course what I describe is a very middle-American morning, but different parts of the country have different routines, and different countries have still more differences. It’s part and parcel of one’s geography and background.
The twenty-sixth Visual Writing Prompt: Elements of a Morning. Does your character have a morning routine? Is it commonly shared by others in his or her neighborhood or with his her her cultural background? Has that ritual, like mine, changed in his or her lifetime? What are the objects that comprise the ritual–and what objects, in a sense, are missing? In mine it would be the printed newspaper, and a table near a window. The coffee part has pretty much stayed the same. Oh, and I don’t have a cat at this time–my cats in the past have always seemed to have their breakfast the same time I had mine.
Next Prompt: Themes from Details