Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Some names are easy. Opal Jones in As She Left It had her name when she popped into my head. The working title for the story was Opal Jones Comes Home; it's a terrible name for a mystery but it's fun to say and I said it about ten times a day while I was working on the first draft. And she looks like an Opal.
Late on in the final draft, I realised that I couldn't have a character, in the same book as Opal, who was called Olive. That leads me to one of the few pieces of writing advice I will stand by, no matter what: when changing a character's name from Olive to Norah via global search and replace, watch out for scenes with pizza.
It's not always as easy as Opal Jones. The heroine of the book I'm working on now was born as Tash Harkness and, no matter how I wooed her, she wouldn't come out and show herself. Then I changed her name to Gloria Morrison and boom! She was fifteen years older, with a different job, a completely different personality and a new story she wouldn't shut up about. I feel a bit sorry for Tash Harkness, though, floating around in limbo. Maybe she'll parachute into a new story one day.
I suppose the most important names to get right are those you're going to be living with, year in and year out, in a series, til you're ancient and bitter and dead (it's going well; thanks for asking). And I'm okay with Dandy Gilver. It's unusual enough to be memorable but it's plain enough not be annoying when I type it for the thousandth time.
You've got feel for Agatha Christie, who got so sick of Hercule Poirot that she ended up parodying herself in the character of Ariadne Oliver, who invented a Finnish detective called Sven Hjerson. Some of the irritation was about nationality - Oliver knew as little about Finland as Christie knew about Belgium - but "Hercule" and "Poirot" can't have helped, right?
Some of my favourite names are just flat-out stolen. In the first draft of A Bothersome Number of Corpses I named a gaggle of characters after my brand-new California friends. I always meant to change the names once I had time to research them, but with only a tweak or two these 21st-century American women made perfect 1920s Scottish schoolgirls. Sally Madden was fine, Katie Howard was fine, Eileen Rendahl became the slightly less Scandinavian Eileen Rendall, Stella Ruiz became the quite a lot less Latina (and very posh) Stella Rowe-Issing. Spring Warren worried if maybe "Spring" wasn't a name then. I reassured her that it's not a name now.
And in the newest Dandy Gilver, The Reek of Red Herrings, I've pinched another one. A friend, going through family papers while settling an estate, found an ancestor called Euphemia Clatchie and immediately emailed me. I challenge anyone to think "Euphemia Clatchie" and not get a clear picture of her. Sometimes characters just write themselves . . .
The Name Gameby Clare O'Donohue
Q: Do you give careful thought to the names of your characters or do you draw them out of a hat?
My mother wanted to name me Madonna, after her eldest sister who had become a Franciscan nun. My father didn't care for it, so I got named after the county in Ireland where he had been born. Explaining the spelling of my name has taken up a fair amount of my time, but at least no one suggests I wear a cone bra and gyrate on stage, so a bullet dodged.
As a result, I take the name thing pretty seriously. Though, I have to admit, naming characters is usually one of my least favorite things. It feels so important - especially in a series, because I will be stuck with my choice for book after book - and yet it's so hard to embody everything you want to say in just the right name.
Many times I've taken names from people I know. Kate Conway, for example, is named after Kathleen Sweeney, my aunt, who is an incredibly kind woman with a very sarcastic wit. I wanted Kate to be similar. Conway is my grandmother's maiden name, and it felt right to honor that part of my family. After I published Missing Persons, I heard from several distant cousins in England who I had not met, or known, before. Two of them, you guessed it, were named Kate Conway. I thought I was being clever but really I was just using a name that had, apparently, been part of my family for generations.
Vera, the girlfriend of Kate's late husband, is actually the name of my Aunt Kathleen's sister. Though they share no qualities in common, it sort of slipped into my consciousness as a good name, and thankfully the real Vera felt honored by the inclusion rather than offended to be the other woman in my book.
Andres Pena and Victor Pilot, the other main characters, were specific choices. I wanted Andres to have a Hispanic name so I kept mixing and matching the first and last names of friends, and did a Google search on names, until I found what I wanted. I knew Victor's last name, Pilot, would be a lie - something he made up to sound cool, so I played around until that popped in my head.
On the Someday Quilts series, I did less work. Nell Fitzgerald just was... and Eleanor Cassidy, her grandmother, also came to me as a name, fully formed. When I realized Nell could be an abbreviation for Eleanor, I decided that Nell was named after her - a happy accident! I pulled the other names from a combination of first or last names of friends and relatives (Maggie Sweeney is a cousin's first name, and my mom's maiden name), or just "out of a hat". Jessie Dewalt, though, is my quiet homage to Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. I decided to use an abbreviation of her first name but give it to a male character to remind myself that, though he isn't my main sleuth, he's pretty darn good at detective work.
Right now I'm planning a new series, a husband and wife team, and I've changed their names half a dozen times as I've tried to come up with the right monikers for two very connected, but very different people. Just like with a child, you never know if the name you choose will really fit the person they become, so you have to pick what you like and hope for the best.... or have someone intervene so you don't end up having to say Madonna O'Donohue for the rest of your life (Try it, it's a mouthful.)
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
While I don't always put a ton of thought into the creation of a name, a character would not be the same person if you called them something else.
Monday, July 28, 2014
What's in a name? Everything.
Friday, July 25, 2014
Actually, while some folks (my wife, for one) might turn their noses up at books about writing, I often find them fascinating, and I firmly believe that my own work has been strongly influenced by what I've learned from a handful of writing craft guides. So I'm pleased to offer not just one but four different suggestions in response to this week's question: "What's your favorite writing craft book of all time?"
Each of the books below have offered me something different and specific:
- I've never read all of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, but that hardly matters. The central lesson embedded right there in the title has carried me through more than my fair share of rough patches in the early stages of writing a story.
- Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft was the first craft book in the first writing seminar I participated in—and still stands as the most comprehensive analysis of the different aspects of a short story or novel: character, plot, setting, time, point of view, etc. etc. A central, indispensable reference.
- Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design: Working with Craft, Imagination, and Form impacted me like no other book with its analysis of linear versus modular structures, and it convinced me how much every word, every move, counts in a short story—with careful, almost line-by-line analyses of several stories and how they work.
- And then a new favorite: Francine Prose's Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them was simply brilliant, infused with a love of literature and infectious with its belief that we can learn to write from what we read.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
What's your favorite writing craft book of all time?
Over the years, I’ve read a number of books devoted to the craft of writing. As you might imagine, many have been helpful (to me), while others haven’t, but even in those less worthwhile volumes, I think I’ve always been able to find at least a nugget or two of valuable writing wisdom.
As with most things in life, you need to be careful about what advice to follow (but it doesn’t hurt to listen and read widely).
On Monday, Meredith mentioned two of my favorite books:
On Writing, by Stephen King
And Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott (although I would classify this as being more of an inspirational writing book than a craft book).
Let me add a few (random) others:
For those wanting to pen a best-seller:
How to Write Best Selling Fiction, by Dean Koontz
A long (long) time ago, back before I even really wanted to be a writer, I picked up a book by Dean Koontz (one of my favorite authors at the time), mapping out how to become a best-seller. For some reason, it’s out of print now, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a mere $68.
For those wanting to write a “breakout” novel:
Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass
This book also has an accompanying workbook (which I haven’t used).
For those who have trouble differentiating writing in summary versus writing in scenes:
Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham
When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t know what I was doing. This book helped (a lot!).
Want to see three Criminal Minds, in person, reading their work, AT A BAR?
D.C. area folks will have that chance, this Sunday night at the inaugural D.C. Noir, 8 p.m. at The Wonderland Ballroom. Meredith, Art, and I, along with seven other great writers (Nik Korpon, Steve Weddle, Ed Aymar, Tom Kaufman, Don Lafferty, Tara Laskowski, and Michael R. Underwood), will take turns reading and schmoozing. Come on by—a good time will be had by all.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Monday, July 21, 2014
by Meredith Cole
I admit that one of my time honored procrastination technique is to read books about writing. I tell myself it's to get myself unstuck, or to see if I want to use a new book with the class I'm teaching this fall, but really it's because I'm avoiding actually getting some work done. Occasionally I find a wonderful nugget in a writing book that does help me get unstuck or helps me look at writing in a new way, and then that book becomes a keeper.
Although I recommend On Writing by Stephen King (you think writing is hard? Try doing it when you're in constant pain...) and You Can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts (a short helpful book that is now available again as an ebook) to my mystery classes, my favorite writing book of all time is still Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
Two big and valuable pieces of advice that Lamott gives: Take a project one step at a time and try not to panic about how big it is when you start. Tell yourself you only have to write some tiny amount of words or just fill up a little square on the screen if you're reluctant to get started. And then let yourself write terrible first drafts. The second is something I recommend quite a bit. I've seen far too many promising writers get stuck in an eddy where they perpetually write and rewrite their first chapter ad nauseum and never finish their book. This can sadly go on for years.
Although I don't consult Bird by Bird much these days, I recommend it to beginning writers because she addresses some of the problems we all have when we try out something new. Adults who are accustomed to dashing off an email or writing a contract with no problems suddenly find themselves paralyzed at the idea of making something up and writing something as large as a novel. For me, it was transitioning from screenwriting to novel writing, and not having the least idea how to begin--just knowing that every sentence I wrote was terrible compared to what I was used to reading in published books. But eventually I realized that I had to write a terrible first draft in order to eventually get a polished and wonderful final draft.
Oh--and I would be remiss not to mention a book I contributed to: Making Story: Twenty-one Writers and How They Plot which is, of course, chock full of lots of great advice. And great for when you're procrastinating on your next project.
Friday, July 18, 2014
by Paul D. Marks
L.A. Late @ Night that appeared originally in Murder on Sunset Boulevard (and recently republished in a collection of my stories also called L.A. Late @ Night) about a defense attorney who has second thoughts when she realizes her client is guilty and decides to do something about it...
That leaves the rest of the list:
Coroner's office: Well, I've seen my fair share of blood and guts. That said, I'm also the kind of person who whenever they hear/see symptoms of a disease decides they have that disease. Which is why I can't watch shows like ER or Grey's Anatomy. I guess I can handle blood and guts to some extent, but not symptoms. I think this is what happens with medical students (so maybe I should have been a doctor). So, nope, coroner's office is kaput.
Homicide division: Now we're getting closer. The idea of solving cases and bringing the bad guys to justice strikes home with me. Yeah, I could do that. Third degree and all, with a new energy-saving bulb of course.
Beat cop: Nah. Dealing with all the bad and crazy people you'd have to deal with would make me nuts. And I'd probably end up in the hoosegow myself. That's sort of what my story 51-50, cop slang for crazy, is about. (Originally published in the Psycho Noir issue Dave Zeltserman's Hardluck Stories anthology, but now reprinted in the L.A. Late @ Night collection.)
Criminal psychologist: While psychology interests me, to deal with all those psychos would probably make me psycho and you'd have to have a gun with a hair trigger taped under your desk aiming straight at your client...just in case. Probably not a good way to begin a relationship.
Private investigator: Yeah, now you're talking. Bring the bad guys to justice. And you get to wear a trenchcoat and fedora and use words like gat and gunsel. And slap guys like eternal weasels Elisha Cook, Jr. and Peter Lorre around. Of course, you take your fair share of beatings too, so turnabout is fair play I guess. But still, gumshoe. Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Or P.I., private dick, private eye, shamus, Pinkerton or Continental Op. And though he's more modern, I hope Duke Rogers, my P.I. in White Heat, carries on their tradition with grace and gats. And you get to have an office in a romantically seedy building with the proverbial flashing neon sign outside the window and the perpetual pitter patter of rain on that window that looks out to the City of Angels. Oh, and here's a happy little ditty about our fair city: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_8U93SvVyY
There's one element that was left off the list above: Prosecutor: Probably the best fit for me. A lot of people that have known me through the years say I should have been a lawyer (though I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not...),. I like the idea of being a litigator 'cause I love a good fight. Corporate law, nah. Criminal law, the D.A.'s office, sure. Being able to put the bad guys away, to argue a case. To logically prove a guilty party guilty. Prosecutor would be a good fit for me. But if I chose that route could I still wear the trenchcoat and fedora?
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
I don't think many police stations have full canteens with dinnerladies anymore. Shame, because that's about the only thing I'd be any good at.
Unless I was a forensic linguist. I actually was a linguist (non-forensic) once. MA, PhD, teaching in a university - all that. And what I saw of forensic linguistics was fascinating. Correcting miscarriages of justice using the power of grammar is just about the coolest thing in a very uncool discipline.
For instance, a forensic linguist can look at a confession and isolate then analyse elements such as sentence length, clause structure, phrase structure and vocabulary choices to build a linguistic signature for the author. It was a punch-the-air moment the first time I saw an analysed false confession, where a prisoner showed his own signature all through a long piece of discourse and then "unaccountably" started speaking exactly like one of the cops in the room when it came to the mea culpa.
There are more straightforward investigative use too, such as busting hoax 999 calls, ransom demands and even suicide notes, and it's getting easier all the time as the collected corpus of texts gets larger (what a depressing job it must be to input and tag suicide notes, mind you . . .)
When I turned to crime-writing, I scratched my head for a while wondering if I could use any of my former life as material. Could there be a forensic linguistics procedural series? It didn't take long to decide that it would be kinda one-note (like those really specific comic-book heroes who just happen to find themselves in situations where their really specific super-power is just what's needed, over and over (and over) again. Was there any other way linguistics could be useful? It didn't take long to decide "nope".
So I had no justification for feeling aggrieved when another writer - actually a team of two (which is cheating) - recently came up with a brilliant linguistics-based mystery series. Based in Britain. And historical to boot. Ouch.
Yes, I contracted a bad case of premise-envy over DE Ireland's debut Wouldn't It Be Deadly, in which Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle team up to fight crime. Curses! I read it to give a blurb, though, and in all honesty I couldn't have come up with the plot to save my life and I've never written anything as funny as the denouement. So, not at all through gritted teeth, I say three cheers for Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta - and roll on September and the launch day.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Monday, July 14, 2014
Friday, July 11, 2014
This week's question—"Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?"—prompted a number of immediate responses in my mind, several of them a little contradictory:
- Because I have a less strenuous schedule during the summer break (vacation) from my teaching duties at George Mason University, I usually find more time to write then.
- Despite best plans to get some reading and writing done on my recent beach vacation down in North Carolina, it was tough to carve out any time at the computer or even to jot down occasional passages or ideas in a notebook.
- Getting away from the computer or the notebook—a vacation from the daily routine of writing—often frees my mind in ways that staring at the screen or the page doesn't and ultimately results in some of my best ideas.
- But then showing up every day to write build momentum, keeps the mind working and focused, and....
So.... daily focus? occasional short breaks? but not a full vacation, at least not by choice?
Maybe some of this explains why I write at such a glacial pace....
Thursday, July 10, 2014
It's summertime and everyone's downing tools and heading for the hammock (if only). Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?
SPOILER ALERT: This blog post will have nothing to do with writing and everything to do with vacations. Specifically, mine.
Now, did somebody mention vacation?
I just got back from a week in the Denver area, visiting my older son who has a summer internship at a medical center there.
We had a swell time.
We went to the Denver Botanic Gardens, and saw some very cool blown glass from somebody named Chihully.
We ascended Pike’s Peak, all 14,110 feet of it. (We didn’t hike it, but drove a rental Ford Focus. Which, I think, was more strenuous than hiking.)
We saw some animals we don’t usually run across (and we avoided running across them in our rental car): marmots, prairie dogs, black-billed magpies.
We drove up and down Colfax Avenue, which made me appreciate where I live very much.
And we did not stop for any hitchhikers!
A good time was had by all!