The Art of the Literary Device by Heather Haven

Google states a “Literary Device is a writing technique that writers use to express ideas, convey meaning, and highlight important themes in a piece of text. A metaphor, for instance, is a famous example of a literary device. These devices serve a wide range of purposes in literature.”

And that’s probably as good of an explanation of a literary device as any other. It changes hues from one genre to another. Probably not that much, but enough to separate the people who know what they’re doing from the attempters. I was an attempter in the field of romance. Once. At about chapter 8, I was bored out of my mind. Where’d the dead body go, I asked? So, I added one. Instantly, there was a lot more zip to everything, including my step. But it was no longer a romance story. Let’s face it, if there’s no dead body in my novel, I’m not interested in writing it.

According to song and legend, Edgar Allen Poe was one of the first to qualify as a mystery writer. One of his short stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” from 1841, paved the way for a lot of us. Arguably, there are 10 device steps that are needed in order to write a good mystery: a hook, atmosphere, a crime, a sleuth, a villain, narrative momentum, a trail of clues, foreshadowing, red herrings, and, of course, a satisfying ending. It sounds a lot easier to do than it is.

But other genres have latched on to their own devices. I don’t always know what they are or recognize them when they’re hurled out at me. But when I do catch on, I try to learn from them, even if they aren’t applicable to what I do.

Recently we went to see the national tour of Ain’t Too Proud the Life and Times of the Temptations, the Broadway musical. The musical is based on the book “Temptations” by the group’s founder, Otis Williams. For those of you arriving from another planet or born after the year 2010, they were the biggest singing group to come out of Motown, rivals to Diana Ross and the Supremes. And if you’re going to ask who Diana Ross and the Supremes are, please don’t do it in my presence. Or allow me to get a strong scotch first.

Ain’t Too Proud was one of the best productions of any show I’ve seen in a long, long time. Each performer was of star quality, from the leads to people playing multiple roles. The acting, singing, dancing, costumes, lighting, and sets went to a level of perfection seldom achieved in live theater. I have a background in theater and worked backstage on Broadway for 10 years, so naturally, I think I know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t mean I do, but try telling me that.

Anyway, the writer of the musical’s book, Dominique Morrisseau, is first-class. The storyline was clear, well-paced, entertaining, emotionally moving, and all the stuff a really fine book to a musical ought to be but seldom is. And the writer applied a device using verb tenses that astonished me. I will try to explain it. There would be a scene where one character would initially say they were going to do a specific thing. Then after a small amount of dialog, that same character would repeat the same line, but state they were doing that specific thing.  Further on in the scene, the same character would use the same sentence, but this time announcing the long-term result or outcome of what they’d done. So we would go future, present, past, in one fell swoop. Whether it was a few months or years, the plot advanced solely due to these tense changes. I did note that the same words had to be used each time in the sentence and said by the same character for clarity, but this device worked.

It would be great to know if any of you have either seen this device used before or have used it yourself. It was a first for me. And I loved learning about it! But whatever you do, try going to see Ain’t Too Proud. It will make you and your heart sing.

NOT THE THANKSGIVING I HOPED FOR

We’d been invited to have Thanksgiving with one of our grandsons and family and I really looked forward to it. We’ve gone there in the past. He lives in another foothill community, up a winding road to a hill top retreat. His father-in-law, a master chef, prepares the feast—always gourmet.

Besides the wonderful food, many other relatives and friends join the festivities.

However, this year for us it wasn’t too be. I came down with a vicious bug. No way could I go anywhere.

All was not lost, however. We share our home with our granddaughter and family and she looked forward to doing her own Thanksgiving. She and her hubby made the food with the help of her two oldest daughters.

Though I didn’t have much of an appetite, what I did eat was delicious, and hubby didn’t miss out on a Thanksgiving meal.

What does this have to do with writing? Not much, only that I haven’t felt like doing any. I’ve kept in touch with family members via Facebook. I learned my brother-in-law was too sick to go to their big family feast. One of my author friends has the same symptoms as I do, and she had chicken soup for her Thanksgiving meal.

I’ve had many great Thanksgivings in the past, many I prepared myself. These days, I’m happy that the younger generation is taking over those duties.

Despite not feeling well, I’m thankful for so much in my life, having my husband of 71 years, my big family, and my friends including all my author friends, the joy of creating a fictional world and sharing it with others, and still being able to enjoy life.

My hope is that all of you who read this post, had a wonderful holiday and are looking forward to what’s coming next.

Marilyn

My First DSLR

I was returning to India after a seventeen-year hiatus, and my husband suggested I take a digital camera. He gave me his. The first time I returned I took a film camera. The DSLR would be much easier—no film to load and unload throughout the day, not to mention the added cost to develop and weight in my luggage.

One of my favorite side ventures is photography, something that I first tried as an eight-year-old and then again as a college student, but didn’t pick up again until my forties. Since then I’ve had two solo shows, exhibited in juried shows, and sold a few images. But the camera I use has its own story.

Michael began working in photography in college, and immediately showed an aptitude for all things photographic. He began with a Pentax and remained loyal to the brand for practical as well as technical reasons. Every Pentax lens is interchangeable on a Pentax body, and over the years he accumulated lots of lenses. Before my trip he’d been having trouble with his current DSLR, and took it to a specialist, at Hunt’s. The two men along with a technician inspected, tested, retried, retested, opened, fiddled, and couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t register an image. The camera simply didn’t work. He didn’t buy it from Hunt’s, but the man offered him something reasonable for it. Instead, Michael brought it home and told me of the very disappointing visit. This is where it gets weird.

He came in and told me the whole story of his visit to Hunt’s, and his discussion with the owner, whom he’d worked with before and trusted. I picked up the camera, sighted it, and snapped the shutter. The image appeared and looked fine to me.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “It looks okay.”

Michael looked at the image, at me holding the camera out to him, at the image, at me. He agreed it did look okay. I’ll never forget the look on his face, though I didn’t understand why his expression was so odd.

“Why don’t you take it with you to India, along with the other one.” He was referring to a small pocket digital Pentax I’d given him a few years ago that he didn’t use.

I did, and took tons of photographs. The camera was the most reliable tool I’ve ever worked with. It always worked for me. I never had any trouble with it. It never worked for him again, no matter what he did. I use it still, though I now have access to his other, more advanced cameras and lenses.

At the time I said the problem with the camera was a matter of electricity. I had less in my hands, or body, than he had. My touch didn’t interfere with the operation of the camera. Maybe I have more than he has and that helps the camera work. I have no idea. But it’s one of those odd incidents in life that reminds me of how little we know about how the physical world around us operates. 

And it perhaps explains why some of us love our tools, as though they are a part of our body, an extension of our imaginative selves as we manipulate the physical world to fit our vision. Writers do it with paper and pen, or computer and printer; carpenters with hammers and chisels and wood; photographers with camera and lenses and paper and ink. It doesn’t matter what you use; the result is the same—a world remade according to the singular vision of one particular person, a lens into another mind and its world.

Winter — characterized

What a wonderful time of year to consider all that winter can bring to a mystery/thriller. The season when days grow shorter, the dark seems darker, and death closer than life. It is time to take stock of the year past and plan for the year to come. Any farmer will tell you it is in the darkest months in which the seeds of change are set.

Winter can be tricky, especially if you write historical novels, so do your research. Here’s a hint: the weather has changed such that we can’t rely on our current relationship with winter when describing the season even ten years ago. The changes evident in the last twenty-five years are particularly striking. I did most of my growing up in a Michigan town where it started snowing in November and didn’t stop until the crocus popped up. It’s not like that anymore.

Back when I spent my days gathering climatological data that became the foundation of the American weather prediction model, an older meteorologist I knew would begin the morning weather briefings to a rapt gaggle of meteorologists with: Back in the year of the big snow. It was a lame weather joke, but he wasn’t kidding. North America used to get big, frigid, wind-driven snows. Like Buffalo, NY, just endured.

Clouds. Snow. Cold. Ice.

Hard, deep, cold, lasting snow. Whipping across the plains, stalling life. A time to read, time to plan, a time to learn, there’s a lot for writers to work with there. Snow that blots out all the familiar sights, so that going to the barn, or to school, or the outhouse is an adventure from which one might never return. And ice, the first melt creating a layer of ice sharp enough to cut skin, a second snow atop it, another melt, and so on until spring.  Then one wrong step and your character stovepipes in three-feet-deep, forcing them to either wait for the spring thaw to get their foot out, yell for help, or tear their pants and skin to break free. All under skies flat with purple-bellied nimbostratus, spitting tough little pelts at you, not just the lofty, fluffy snowflakes that come with romance.

The joyfulness of winter fun: Skates. Sleds. Icicles. Hockey.

My grandparents met ice skating on the Fox River in Illinois. They were from opposite sides of the river and met gliding down the middle. After WWI, the same couple was married across the county line by a justice of the peace in the headlights of my grandfather’s car. Romance.

The point is they met on the ice, ice skating, holding hands and skating side by side.

“She threw open the window sash, a blast of frigid air accompanied by giggles and guffaws rushed in to greet her. From the sounds of laughter and excited voices, ice skaters had discovered the frozen pond.” From One Horse Too Many, a coming Wanee Mystery

There was a time when every kid who grew up in snow country had a favorite sledding hill with a stream at the bottom, all dubbed Devil something, where they tested their metal. Towns had ponds, rivers, even streets that froze, where the boys met on ice and battled it out with sticks.

And icicles really were so big they could put your eye out. Watching an icicle grow could take up the better part of early evening. Wonderful, drippy, prismatic, and deadly.

Dark. Short Days.  Death.

It is a fact that we are all statistically more likely to die in winter. It is the shortness of the days, the incessant dark, and the sense that more is ending than beginning. Things just naturally slow down.

It also is true most murders occur in summer — heat, irritability – just watch the old movie Body Heat, who wouldn’t kill?

Still, as with all weather, at all times of year, writers who don’t look to the skies are missing an opportunity. It is far too easy to go for the steam heat over the slow freeze. Everyone understands sunny and bright, rainy and threatening, but the cold, darkness, isolation, joy, and fragile passing beauty of life and death under winter skies – oh my!

Winter kills. As a character.

“The day was sullen, low dark-bellied clouds bumped together like the bottom of apple pandowdy, fat and stationary they continued to dump snow.”  From One Horse Too Many, a coming Wanee Mystery.

November: A Prologue by Karen Shughart

After my first Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery, Murder in the Museum, was published, I decided to play around with the concept of having two prologues for subsequent books and contacted my publisher to see what she thought. She basically told me to ” go for it”, and in book two, Murder in the Cemetery, that’s what I did: the first to set the historical back story that alerts readers to why the murder may have been committed, and the second to describe the seasonal tone for the crime.

In book two I described the month of May in Lighthouse Cove, with its profusion of flowers and abundance of sun, a fitting backdrop to the crime that’s about to occur. In Murder at Freedom Hill, the third book in the series (now on sale in paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon and other book outlets) the second prologue is entitled “November”. I thought it was appropriate for this month’s blog, so here goes:

  For residents of Lighthouse Cove, NY, November was always a month of mixed emotions.  

There was a yearning for the blazing colors of October, the cool, crisp nights, starlit skies, bright days. For a low-hanging sun that could still warm the bones and ease the joints.  For the farm stands, now shuttered until spring, that had offered up a bounty of ripe produce, local honey, homemade baked goods and jams, fresh herbs.  For the hayrides and bonfires and deer spotting among the apple orchards. For the unbridled joy of chattering, costumed children extending small hands for treats as their parents kept a watchful eye; glowing lights illuminating their way.

There was also the peace that comes with tourists gone for another year and the ease of getting about.  The sound of waves, ambling onto the beach like lazy sloths. The geese and swans gliding effortlessly around the bay, no longer competing for space with boats and bathers, and the eagles soaring silently above on currents of wind. The rumbling and grumbling of street noises now muffled by a thick carpet of brown, fallen leaves.

 There was excitement and anticipation, too, in November.  For a day, later in the month, when families would gather to give thanks and then soon after, start to prepare for the hustle and bustle of the upcoming holiday season. For the hunters who had been looking forward all year to donning their camo, retrieving their guns, and stalking their prey in fields and woods, hoping to bestow upon their loved ones a largess befitting of their labors.

For some, November was also the month of grieving. A month of decay that precedes death.  Where what was past was past and would be no more, and what lay ahead was the chill and dark of winter.