Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Monday, July 27, 2015
Friday, July 24, 2015
This week's question—"Is your protagonist really you? How do you separate him/her from you?"—seems to be a pretty common one, popping up in the q&a portion of book readings and maybe inevitably crossing readers' minds whenever the author and character have anything remotely in common (age, gender, geography).
For me, the answer might seem an easy one. I'm a late-fortysomething guy, and Louise, the narrator of the stories in On the Road with Del & Louise, is a woman nearly two decades younger—and probably a lot better looking too, at least how I imagine her. Even in the stories I'm working on now, about a crime-solving duo—a bookseller and accountant (I'm not kidding)—there's great distance between me and them: Emerson Royce is agoraphobic, a full decade older than me, and he carries a linebacker's build, and Zoe Jacobs is mid-twenties, sports an attentively tousled pixie cut, and often suspects the universe is telling her something.
No similarities whatsoever, right?
And yet... Louise and I both grew up in small-town North Carolina, both remember fondly the smell of cut grass on a dewy morning and the taste of honeysuckles, and both had similar reactions to the price of wine tastings in Napa Valley. Emerson—Emmery, to his friends—and I drink the same teas and browse online for similar first editions and limited printings of rare books. And Zoe drives a Karmann Ghia convertible very much like the one I once wanted when I was a kid. Oh, and I read my horoscope every day.
So how do you draw from yourself and on your own experiences on the one hand and yet keep some distance on the other?
Each day lately when I've sat down to write, I've taken a moment to read a little about writing—just a way to kick-start the process, I guess (I hope), in the same way that I try to read a short story at some point almost every day to stay sharp on craft and structure. The book I've been keeping on my desk lately is Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville and suggested to me originally by the great flash fiction writer Kathy Fish (read Kathy's recent story "A Proper Party" here—charming, disturbing, and heartbreaking in equal measure).
The essays in Rules of Thumb range between a half-page and three pages usually, so a quick bit of inspiration, and just this week I read one that seems to speak to the questions at hand in interesting ways. In "The Great I-Am," Brian Kiteley offers the following passage, quoting William Vollmann before expanding and articulating his own thoughts:
"William Vollmann says, 'We should never write without feeling. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other as equal partners.' The Self in fiction is the given, and the Other is the icing on the cake—humor is possible only with two or more characters. Tragedy deals with individuals, and comedy with classes of people. We want fiction to explore someone else's consciousness—we read fiction to feel the way someone else feels.... Young writers should use the I sparingly. We should look outside ourselves, beyond our own small worlds. We can imagine a larger space than we usually do.
Too much looking inward, too much navel-gazing—that's a danger. Even as we must inevitably draw to some degree on what we know, there's a larger world out there too, a larger group of people very much unlike ourselves, and our job as writers is to let our curiosity, our sense of inquiry, draw us into that bigger world, toward meeting those people. Whether I succeed or not, that's part of my aim in writing my own stories.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Is your protagonist really you? How do you separate him/her from you?
I am not my characters. I’m not a depressed stand-up comic. I’m not a rich workaholic. I’m not a radio talk show host. I’m definitely not someone who must eat human flesh to survive (at least I’m pretty sure I’m not).
I am my characters. I laugh. I cry. I strive to be a good person. I get annoyed. I’m rude (not very often, but it happens!). I know what it’s like to wait in line to buy a ticket, and when I get to the front, they’re sold out. I hate traffic. I like cake (actually, I love cake).
Sometimes I even talk out of both sides of my mouth (just like my characters!).
Of course, I don’t consciously try to pattern my protagonists after myself. I mean, who in their right mind would want to read about me? I’m dull (seriously). Readers would be bored after a page and a half. And I don’t try to write characters who are simply an exaggerated version of me. That just seems weird and egocentric. Introducing Alvin Worloff, the smartest, funniest, most interesting man in the world. He doesn’t drink beer often, but when he does, it’s Dom Perignon! There he goes on his jetpack to rid the world of talking velociraptors!
On the other hand, how can my characters be anything but me, at least on some level? I mean, they emerged from my head; their actions are informed by my thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Their every thought is filtered through my lens. They have to be part of me, almost by definition.
Sure, I do my best to portray them as being unique individuals, unlike me for the most part. Give them a different set of values, have them believe in stuff I don’t. Make them do things I would never, ever, ever do (cannibalism comes to mind). But I think if you’ll examine any of my characters, you’ll recognize at least some aspect of me, no matter how hard I try not to let any of my DNA creep in.
But what should I expect? I created them.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
by Tracy Kiely
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Monday, July 20, 2015
Many readers are under the impression that all writers "write what they know." So your protagonist is probably you, too, right?
Uh, no. My protagonist in my first two books was a single photographer named Lydia McKenzie. Apparently I was convincing in describing her photography since a couple of readers asked me about my photography career. I like taking pictures, and used to be a filmmaker--but I've never worked as a photographer.
I suppose really Lydia McKenzie and I have many more differences than similarities. She's younger, single, loves wearing crazy vintage clothes and desperately trying to get her art career off the ground by landing a show. I'm married, a mom, and I write books. I like clothes, but certainly never put together crazy outfits. At least, not ones I ever thought were crazy.
But I certainly know enough about Lydia McKenzie's world to write about it. I am married to an artist, so I know enough about New York galleries to write a plot around one. I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn so I could write confidently about our neighborhood and all the crazy characters. And I have plenty of single friends who told me crazy stories of dating in New York.
Now I've moved on to a standalone. Probably all three of my main characters have elements of myself in them at different times in my life. The 12-year-old girl loves to read. The private eye loves to find out the truth. And the teller has big dreams of an artistic lives. I certainly use things that happened to me. But to be clear, I never robbed a bank or kidnapped someone, so I had to figure out how to write about those things (just like I had to write about finding dead bodies). And that's the truth.
Friday, July 17, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
What would I be doing or what would I want to be doing? Probably two different things.
What I’d probably be doing is teaching or being a lawyer or working in the film biz in one capacity or another, which I did do for many years as a script doctor. But at least it was writing.
What I’d want to be doing, well more on that in a minute.
When I was a young kid, I had a little book called: “The How and Why Wonder Book of: Atomic Energy.” So I wanted to be a physicist, an atomic scientist.
Then I read a book of my mom’s called “Little People Who Became Great,” (her edition published in 1935, though there are earlier ones—and I did say it was my mom’s book, right?), which tells the story of Helen Keller, Jenny Lind, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie and more. And I wanted to be like Andrew Carnegie. Though today I’d prefer being Edison, even with all his flaws.
Then I read a book called “They Met Danger,” stories about real life Medal of Honor winners, and I wanted to be like Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated hero.
Somewhere in the mix I wanted to be an architect, but that actually came later. But at some point, after the three books mentioned above and before wanting to be an architect, everything changed.
Somewhere around February 1964. It was a Sunday night. My dad called me into the den. Wanted me to watch something on TV. What could that be?
|Click here to go to a YouTube video of Sullivan/The Beatles.|
Ed Sullivan came on. He introduced a rock band from England: Yeah, you know who—or should I say “yeah, yeah, yeah,” The Beatles.
My life changed. The lives of almost everyone I knew changed. Eventually everything changed.
They were fresh and effervescent, and their music was boisterous and happy. They were witty and clever. And those harmonies. It was only about three months after JFK’s assassination. The country needed a shot in the arm—a shot of rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll to help it out of the doldrums after Kennedy’s death.
I hated my first name, Paul, until February 9th, 1964 (and I didn’t have to look the date up!), the date of the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan. I had wanted it to be Jeff, named after the Tommy Rettig character on the original Lassie TV series (before the Timmy/Jon Provost-June Lockhart version). After that day, uh, something changed. I liked the name Paul. Wonder why?
|Click here to go to a YouTube link of the Byrds doing this song.|
I was even in a few bands, playing guitar and mostly bass. Singing a little, but something happened to my voice over the years and it’s a nightmare now. Kinda like what Keith Richards talks about with losing his voice.
I had fun, but I knew I didn’t have the talent to really make it. And since I was born in Hollywood and grew up in L.A. I had always wanted to be in the film biz. After driving around the city with my parents, past the Fox backlot in what is now Century City or by all the other studios, it was a natural thing to want to do. And I was lucky enough to have a career as a script doctor. No screen credit, little glory, but still fun and even fulfilling sometimes, even if my dad could never quite figure out what I did since he never saw my name on the silver screen.
But ultimately I’m glad things worked out the way they did. I got out of the film biz because I wanted less chefs over my shoulder. I like writing novels and short stories and I’m having a hell of a good time doing it.
Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks — and please message me telling me where you heard about me.
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Well, I wouldn't be teaching in a university, which is what I did before I was writing. I might be working in a library, which is what I did in between bouts of education, but library work has got awfully technical since I did it, with a wooden carousel of cardboard tickets and an inky stamp, so perhaps not that either (Although I get a twinge of envy when I read about Mira James in Jess Lourey's murder-by-the-month series, running her one-woman library, organising story-time and hanging out with the good people of Battle Lake, MN. Mira's life strikes me as just about perfect, except for all the corpses and for being, you know, fictional.
But speaking of fictional jobs, it's true that I've given the protagonists of three out of four stand-alone novels jobs I'd happily do and enjoyed researching. The fourth I made do a PhD but I let her live above a butcher's shop so she can't complain.
AS SHE LEFT IT is a picker in Tesco. She's the supermarket employee who takes the shopping lists of online customers and fills their trolleys ready for the van driver to deliver. (US: Safeway, cart, truck - sorry.) I like big supermarkets and, being a nosey-parker, I'd love to get the legitimate peek into people's lives that comes with doing their shopping week in and week out. I had assumed it was anonymous. It's not. That was a useful discovery for a suspense novel.
I was tickled to find out about the weekly competition for funniest mistake too. when I was doing research interviews someone had just won for giving a customer, instead of lemon and lime conditioner for oily hair . . . a baguette!
Jessie Constable, in THE DAY SHE DIED has another job I'd love to do. It combines the nosey-parker's-charter aspect with a good dose of bargain hunting/dumpster-diving. She's the manager of a free-clothing project for a charity: sorts the donations into eBay auction fodder, useable items and dross; washes and irons (I love washing and ironing (yes, really)); spends the eBay money on new underclothes in Primark (shopping again); keeps the stock tidy and helps the customers, some of whom are having a pretty rough old time and need a bit of pampering.
Okay, Jessie's other job - because four days a week at St Vince's doesn't keep her in diamonds - is cleaning caravans at a holiday site by a Scottish beach. I wouldn't fight her for it. But it's a lovely beach.
THE CHILD GARDEN really does have my dream job. She's the registrar in the village in Galloway where I used to live. A registrar, US friends, is someone who registers births and deaths and conducts civil weddings. Come on! Registrars get a wee cuddle at the babies while they do the paperwork and they get to find out the wackadoodle names before anyone else (don't tell me there's not a secret registrars' competition there). They get to go to weddings and judge everyone's outfits. And, while registering deaths must be harrowing at times, it's important work and if you did it well, with sensitivity and compassion, you could be making a big difference to someone when they really needed it.
Truly, one of the things I love about writing fiction is getting to inhabit these other lives and fantasise about these jobs. Except maybe cleaning the caravans.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Winter, West of the Mississippi
Spring, Bethesda, Maryland/D.C-area
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Monday, July 13, 2015
- from Susan
Thank the fates and my step-father's library for turning me into a writer at an early age. I honestly can't think of anything else I could do but write. Even when I was wrapped up in fundraising and running a non-profit, writing was always the key to any successes I had. I've already been a reporter, a freelance writer, a PR person, a marketing director, a VP, an ED, and a fundraiser. What's left?
In college, I worked in the library (big surprise there, I know). In high school, I was a model and salesgirl (and girl, I was) in a local department store. My eyes were opened to many things when I was drafted into being a store detective one year in early adulthood, fending off the racist biases of the head of security who gave me strict instructions to follow any black person who came into the Bridgeport, Connecticut department store. I've never been great at following orders and I shocked the guy by regularly bringing in weepy white housewives with blouses tucked into their handbags.
I was a waitress at a casual breakfast place on Cape Cod for several weeks one summer. There, I was great at taking orders. I was not so great at remembering who ordered what, or even that their eggs and pancakes might be sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be brought out to the increasingly edgy diners. One man left me a $50 tip and invited me to come to his house after work, but my grandmother, hearing about the invitation, made me give the money to the restaurant owner, who was her friend, and between the two of them they decided I wasn't cut out for waitressing.
I am so lucky to be looking at a February publication date for my third Dani O'Rourke Mystery, MIXED UP WITH MURDER, and to have just finished another manuscript and gotten started on a new one. What a life, with all its ups and downs.
Friday, July 10, 2015
Which book have you read that makes you wish you could sit down for a gab fest with the writer, living or dead?
Like many of us in the mystery community, attending events like Malice Domestic and Bouchercon and the Edgars has already given me the opportunity to meet and chat with authors whose books I adore—so in addition to sparking some speculation this week's question also brought back a lot of memories about good times in the past. For example, at the Edgars in 2008, I searched down the banquet list to find where Tana French was sitting just so I could tell her how much I loved loved loved In the Woods, which I'd reviewed for the Post the year before; shaking her hand and chatting briefly meant that I couldn't review any of her future books for the Post, of course, but it was well worth that sacrifice, and we've remained friends since.
Gazing across the current landscape of writers and looking back over the long history of literature—over my own long history of reading—I'm sure I could come up with a whole roomful of writers whose books have prompted me to want to meet them and talk with them. But one jumped to the forefront of my mind as soon as this question came up: Walker Percy.
In addition to being a great novelist, and one of my own favorites clearly, Percy was also a philosopher—and not just the homespun armchair kind. Existential querying lies at the core of both his fiction and some of his nonfiction too, and I could picture sitting on the porch with him and discussing some of those philosophical interests and observations and the way he explored those ideas in his fiction, where he was being truly pensive and where just provocative, just trying to shake a reader's sensibilities—and why.
Plus, Percy was a big fan of bourbon, so we'd have something to drink while we talked too—always a plus.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
I’ve read too many great books to narrow down my answer to the author of a single book, so I’m going to throw an old-fashioned clambake, and invite some of my favorite New England writers to help me polish off the feast. While we’re chowing down on delicacies from the sea, I figure I can pick their crime- (and horror-) writing brains.
On the invitation list:
Mr. Stephen King
Mr. Dennis Lehane
Mr. Robert B. Parker
I don’t think I would have to initiate any of the conversation—with this group, I’d just sit back, enjoy my seafood, and listen to their tales. I mean, together they must have written more than a hundred books, with many landing on the upper echelon of the NY Times Bestseller list.
In fact, there might be so much to talk about that we’d need someone to moderate things, so I’d invite 30-time Emmy Award winning journalist/award-winning mystery writer Hank Phillippi Ryan to keep things running smoothly (and to add some style and class to the event).
After we finished eating, I’d ask everyone to sign my lobstah bib.