Month: January 2014

On Mulberry Street

As the author of an amateur sleuth mystery series, I have lived in a fictional world for the last decade. I’ve had breakfast with Cassie at The Eggery, ordering my eggs and potatoes from Greta, the Eggery’s popular  waitress with Tourette’s. I’ve spent the night with Cassie at the Bhait’s Motel (we have a very close and entirely platonic relationship, me and Cassie) and met it’s unfailingly polite, but eerily creepy proprietor, Mr. Beejit Bhait. I’ve ridden shotgun with Cassie in her classic Mustang, in the hour before the sun comes up, hunting for the Jersey Devil and I’ve sat with her at the Mall of New Jersey, nursing a flat soda and hunting for a story.

But for the last few years, there’s another world that’s been stuck inside my head.  Richie’s world. Richie goes away for the week-end with his girlfriend.  One things leads to another and now she’s dead.  Richie doesn’t really think he killed her, but his memory is a little hazy. The one thing he knows for sure is that when her body is found, he’s going to be the prime suspect in a murder investigation. So Richie decides that the smart thing to do is to make sure her body is never found. And we haven’t even gotten to the bad stuff yet.

But what I’ve learned from my experience as an author is that the writer by himself (or herself) does not create the book world.  The book world happens as a result of a partnership that develops between an author and his/her readers.  You see, for a very long time, I carry that fictional world around inside my head.  It is so real to me that I nearly forget, at that stage, that I am the only person who has visited that particular world.  And then, through some magical process, I download the mess from my head to my computer.  Amazingly, a publisher sends me a check and arranges for the world to be captured between the book’s covers.

And then, the truly magical thing happens, the most amazing thing of all.  Other people read the book and suddenly, they’re carrying that world around inside their head too.  It’s only then that the book world can truly be said to exist.  When you find it not in the author’s head, but in the reader’s head.  That is the partnership between a writer and a reader.  That is the magic of books. That is why I write.

I hope to make an announcement soon about Richie’s world. In the meantime I find myself thinking about the question from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.  What is it that draws me, as a reader, into the writer’s fictional world? If I could live in any book world, which one would it be?  I am tempted to go On the Road with Jack Kerouac.  Or perhaps I could hang out in Horse Badorties’ Number One Pad.

“I am all alone in my pad, man, my piled-up-to-the-ceiling-with-junk pad.  Piled with sheet music, with piles of garbage bags bursting with rubbish and encrusted frying pans piled on the floor, embedded with unnameable flecks of putrified wretchedness in grease.  My pad, man, my own little Lower East Side Horse Badorties pad.”  (from The Fan Man, by William Kotzwinkle).

Maybe I could check out what’s going on at Queenie’s apartment.

“Queenie was a blond, and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
Grey eyes.
Lips like coals aglow.
Her face was a tinted mask of snow.
What hips-
What shoulders-
What a back she had!
Her legs were built to drive men mad.
And she did.
She would skid.
But sooner or later they bored her:
Sixteen a year was her order.”  (from The Wild Party, by Joseph Moncure March)

As tempting as that all sounds, I think if I really had to choose, I’d like to live on Mulberry Street where a writer’s genius and a little boy’s imagination conspire to turn a “plain horse and wagon” into the most fantastical of parades and, somewhere along that parade route, cement a lifetime love affair with books.

“With a roar of its motor an airplane appears
And dumps out confetti while everyone cheers.
And that makes a story that’s really not Bad!
But it still could be better.  Suppose that I add…
A Chinese man who eats with sticks…
A big Magician doing tricks…
A ten-foot beard that needs a comb…
No time for more, I’m almost home.”
(from And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, by Dr. Seuss)

If I could live in a fictional world, which one would it be? Mulberry Street. What about you?  Is there a book world stuck inside your head?

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Do you (chalk) outline?

I am often asked how I plan my books.  Do you outline, people ask, or do you free write?

Image(cartoon retrieved from bizarro.com, Dan Piraro, 2007)

Some writers say they like to let the story develop organically, but I don’t know how to write a traditional mystery without a certain amount of planning.  Readers of traditional mysteries want to match wits with the author.  If the story’s going to work, I need to know, in advance, which are the important clues, and which the red herrings. I need you to be surprised by the ending, but also to recognize that the clues were there if only you were paying attention.  So I don’t write an outline, but I do a certain amount of planning.

Writing, for me, is a delicate balance between the planned and the unplanned.  I won’t start a manuscript until I have a feel for the story arc, both the main plotline and at least some of the sub-plots.  But I work out much of the story on post-it notes.  The notes pile up on my desk, reminding me of where I’ve been and where I’m going.  I mean, they really pile up, sheets of paper, with ten words or twenty or a hundred, dozens of them.  As the manuscript develops, I add to my notes, filling in the details, clarifying motivations, alerting myself to critical decision points.  But as I travel down that path, things happen which I do not fully anticipate.  A character that I initially perceived to be a bit player asserts his place in the story.  An event that I didn’t see coming explodes on the pages of the story.  But these unplanned elements must fit within the broader story arc or I don’t have a story.  An unplanned scene may reveal a side of the character I had not previously recognized, but it must ring true or I’m just being self-indulgent.

I often compare writing a mystery novel to taking a cross-country road trip.  Before you start the trip, you establish an itinerary.  You know where the trip will start and where it will end.  You make plans to cover a certain amount of territory each day, to make certain stops along the way.  You plan layovers in certain cities, to see the tourist attractions, or to visit family and friends.  But you make changes en route.  Something catches your eye.  Something strikes your fancy.  You make side trips on the spur of the moment.  Your car breaks down.

After  each of these diversions, you find your way back to your planned route.  You rejoin your trip itinerary.  Otherwise you get lost in the heartlands, traveling in circles.  There’s a satisfying feeling of completion, when you arrive, finally, at your destination.  But some of your favorite memories are of those unplanned moments.

Do you outline or do you free write?

Turns out it’s not the shoes, after all; it’s the snowshoes (and the balaclava)

Rather than let a little thing like winter slow us down, we took the opportunity to head north, driving eight hours to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for a week of snowshoeing. We had limited internet, but plenty of cold and now that we’re home, I’ll try to put together a few posts about the week. In the meantime, here are a few teasers.

Diana’s Bath

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Muddy Paw

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The treeline on Mt. Washington

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The ice castle at Loon Mountain

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In my last post, I suggested that shoes make the man. I was wrong.  It’s not the shoes.  It’s the snowshoes.

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And the balaclava (wind chills hovering around 40 degrees below zero at the treeline on Mt. Washington).

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Butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. And booksellers.

I read an interesting post about efforts in France to protect independent bookstores.  And as much as I want to applaud, because I mourn the loss of independent neighborhood bookstores and want to like any efforts to protect them, I find that I can’t.  It began with legislation that made it illegal In France to discount a book by more than 5% off its retail price.  The idea, apparently, was to prevent the large chain stores from cutting prices to a point where the indie bookstores would be unable to compete.  And now, with the success of amazon, the French legislature has made it illegal to offer free shipping on the purchase of books.   And somehow it all just feels wrong to me.

I do not pretend to have intimate knowledge of French shopping habits, so I find myself looking at the issue from an American perspective.  I mourn the loss of indie bookstores, but also indie hardware stores, indie grocers (indie butchers and bakers and candlestick makers).  I mourn the shift from neighborhood shops on Main Street in favor of shopping malls and superstores and now internet marketplaces.  But the change has been happening for nearly seventy years and it is not a simple matter of retail price or  shipping costs.  It is the result of shifting demographics about where people live, about how people shop, about highways and automobiles, about cities and suburbs.  There is a reason why we promote Small Business Saturday, why we need to promote Small Business Saturday. 

I have no animus for Home Depot, but I miss the neighborhood hardware store.  I miss the indie bookstores that have already closed.  I hope that the remaining neighborhood bookstores survive.  Actually, I hope they do more than survive; I hope they thrive.  But preventing their competitors from offering customers a better deal doesn’t feel right to me.  And to be honest, I don’t think it will work.  Because the considerations are as much sociological as economic. 

Happy birthday, Elvis!

Since it’s Elvis’ birthday, today seems like the right day to tell you my Elvis story.  Not an Elvis story, exactly, but you’ll get the point.  It was 1989 and we were in Japan.  Our hosts took us to a karaoke bar and it quickly became clear that the American couple would have to get up and sing.  There were only a handful of songs programmed into the karaoke machine that had English lyrics, so we settled on Love Me Tender.  We were halfway through the song before we realized they were projecting a pornographic video on a screen behind us in the bar, as we sang.  Love me tender, indeed.

Happy birthday Elvis.