Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Using all the Senses

When I was a new writer, I wrote a short story that I was proud of. I gave it to a friend who wrote short stories to critique. He said he liked it, but that I needed to learn to use all my senses in writing. It was a story set in the 30s, and in it a young boy ran after his father’s horse and buggy at night to find out where he was going. My reader said he wanted to smell the dust as the boy ran after the buggy, he wanted to feel the grit of the dust in his nose and eyes, feel his heart beat speeding up as he ran, hear the squeak of the buggy wheels.

When I write now, I go back to that advice. My first draft is bare bones, letting the characters and the plot lead me to tell the story. When I go back to edit, I pause at each scene and ask myself how I can bring the scene alive with my senses. Is there something I can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel that will help the reader get closer to the characters? Is there something specific to that time or place? Is there smoke in the air? A storm brewing? Has someone been drinking, so another character smells the alcohol on his breath or clothing? Is someone dressed differently from the way he usually does—or from the way everyone else is dressed? Is there a sound present that warns that everything isn’t right?

A conversation or a narrative passage can only take the reader so far. Readers need something specific to ground them. Someone lies down on a bed and the springs squeak, or he groans after a long day, or the covers are too hot. Someone is driving and sees a car stopped by the side of the road, or a dilapidated house, or dead grass in a yard, or a car up on blocks. Every single thing you describe tells the reader where she is, how the place feels, how the characters fit into the scene. Or if a character doesn’t fit in, and why.

In everyday life, our senses work constantly to tell us details about what’s going on around us. If the reader doesn’t have these clues in a story, he doesn’t get the sense clues he needs, what dangers or joys might be in store. As a writer, it’s up to me to provide the clues readers use in their lives to help them understand the fullness of the story.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Dorothy Sayers didn’t; nor did Dashiell Hammett, James McClure, Rex Stout or Agatha Christie. These days P.D. James, Alan Furst and Marcia Clark don’t either.

But Laura Lippman, Louise Penny, Cara Black, Mark Pryor, and Craig Johnson do. And so do the great majority of current crime writers. They write long acknowledgements. They acknowledge those who helped them get background for their book, supported them during the writing process, edited the work, and helped get the book published. They name family, friends, people they’ve paid, and people who helped them gratis.

When the subject of writing acknowledgements came up for my next novel, I wondered if everyone wrote them. I couldn’t remember reading them when I read classic crime novels: They seemed like a relatively new phenomenon. But I had heard for a long time that if someone was looking for an agent, they should look in the acknowledgements in books they thought were like theirs or the name of the author’s agent. I plucked many classic mystery novels from my shelves to check my theory. I was right. Very few past writers acknowledged in any way the help they got from others for their work, much less wrote the long, heartfelt paeans we see in books these days.

Lucy helping me write

I’d love to know why and when this changed. I don’t think it’s because people have become more generous, or more mannerly. Nor do I think it’s because finding a way to get published is any harder than it ever was. It may be easier than ever. Traditional publishers may be harder to find, but getting your book out in front of the public is easier than it has ever been. One reason may be is that the world has gotten more complicated, and writers need help from a variety of people when they research their subjects. In other words, it takes a village

I like to read brisk acknowledgements of the professional support a writer received. But I also like reading the more intimate acknowledgements. I like knowing that Aunt Sally gave an author her first Nancy Drew book. I like knowing the names of the animals who snooze patiently while an author muddles on—and who remind the author when dinnertime rolls around.

I don’t think any less of authors who don’t write them. I doubt that they believe they didn’t get help along the way.

When asked to write an acknowledgement page for my first book, I didn’t hesitate. My biggest problem was paring the list to a manageable, dignified page. To be honest, I would have had to write a second book to fully acknowledge all those who helped me along the way.

I’d love to hear if anyone has any idea about why this trend has become so popular. And why is it mostly mystery writers who tend to do this? Literary writers who write acknowledgements seem to be in a distinct minority, even these days.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Real World

Is there life after book?

Last weekend as president of Sisters in Crime Northern California, I was responsible for coordinating our booth at the Bay Area Book festival. Thank goodness I turned in my latest book on Tuesday, giving me three days to see to little details like picking up a new banner, having flyers copied, arranging for posters to hang in the booth, learning how sales would be handled, etc.

Photo: Writers participating in the Bay Area Book Festival

It was a big effort, but participating fully in the festival reminded me that there is life outside of writing. I loved hanging out with my fellow writers who came to sell and sign books and to help with running the show. I loved talking to the people who stopped by the booth to ask questions. I had plenty of questions of my own: Do you like mysteries? If so, what kind? Often that sent us off on a great discussion of subgenres, writers we used to like to read and ones we liked to read now.

Some people said they didn’t like mysteries and I immediately asked what they did like to read. That’s because I read all kinds of books, and like to hear about them. I talked to a man who likes alternate history sci-fi, another who likes to read math books! Sometimes I saw my fellow writers looking askance at me for having in-depth discussions of other types of books. Weren’t we there to promote and sell mysteries?

Yes, but there is a method to my madness over and above the fact that I like to talk about books in general. There is still a stigma among some readers of “literary” fiction that mystery novels are somehow lesser—that they are not worth the time it takes to read them. I think that by engaging readers in conversations about books in general I promote the idea that mystery writers are well-read, intelligent people—which is true! And when I can, I gently slip in a suggestion that someone who likes a particular type of book may enjoy reading a mystery novel that is every bit as well written and compelling as “literary” fiction.

Although the weekend was exhausting, I also feel strangely exhilarated. I think it’s because I participated for several hours in the “real world.” People want to know where writers get their ideas, and it is from the real world. Even as I talked to people this weekend, there was a constant hum in the back of my head: Ooo, wouldn’t that be an interesting idea? Or, hmmm, that is a very unusual looking man. Maybe someone who looks like him will be on the pages of my next book.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The End for Real

When is The End actually The End?

Last week I wrote “The End” to my sixth Samuel Craddock novel, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t actually the end. No, I’m not talking about the need to revise, edit, revise again, edit again. I’m talking about knowing I galloped to the finish line leaving little threads of story line unresolved.

I tell myself I’m done. Clues have come together to the protagonist’s satisfaction, the bad guys are dead, or have been marched off to jail, or otherwise punished. The victim has received justice. The police or the detective or the lone avenger has proven his mettle once again. So I’ve done my job.

But wait. What about the subplot that limped to a conclusion? What about the character who was promised something and never got it? What happened to the character who wandered into a scene, got readers’ attention, and never showed up again? How about that titillating scene between the cop and the showgirl? How was their relationship resolved? Has order been restored in the community? That’s what the final chapter is for. After the investigation, the chase, the climax, the arrest, comes the wrap-up.

The resolution chapter has always been the hardest for me to write, not because I can’t figure out what to write. No, the problem is making myself sit down to write it. I’ve already written “The End,” okay? What more do you want from me?

That’s where my writer’s group and my agent come in. “Wonderful book. Love it. You’re not done yet.” I shut my ears and shout “lalalala.” I’m done. I am done. Readers can use their imagination, okay? They’re not stupid. They can figure it out. Their voices continue to nudge me, and grudgingly my voice joins them, “You’re not done.”

Yes, but…I prowl around my desk, play a game on my phone, read a chapter of a book. Then I force myself to open the file and write “Chapter xx.” I type a couple of paragraphs. Oops, better see what’s happening on Facebook. And I really do need to pep up my Twitter use—no time like the present. I descend into gloom, and wander around the house. Finally I remember that I’m almost done. Rejoice. I sit down and write a few more paragraphs. Then I repeat the above about ten times. Write, mess around, pout, perk up, etc.

What is that all about? I suspect it’s that I’m not ready to leave the world I’ve inhabited for the last few months. I love some of my new pals and I don’t want to stop playing with them. I don’t want them to continue their lives without me. It’s like being dead. Or like sending your child off to college, knowing that she’ll come home, but she’ll never really be yours in the same way again.

But the deadline looms, and other stories are nagging to be written, so finally I finish the chapter, rejoice because it really, really is finished, go through the manuscript one more time looking for overused words…..The End.

Last night I sent Samuel #6, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, off to my editor.