On Husbands, Fellow Writers, and Cats

As we drove across the San Joaquin Valley watching for high water, my husband asked me about a plot I was developing. He is a great listener, asks the kinds of questions that lead to better plots, and as someone who rammed through most of his nine lives, has a fine background in adventure. So, he was all on board with my plot involving three boys disappearing from school in hopes of floating down a tributary or two to the Mississippi River. Mind you he used up one of his lives on a homemade raft in a river at flood stage when a mite older than the boys in question.

Spoon River

He asked why the boys hadn’t chosen the closest tributary to their hometown. I explained it was across open ground and farmland. A far more romantic river was nearer, treelined, and wound around for miles before merging with the Illinois River, then the Mississippi. Besides, who wouldn’t want to float down Spoon River?

Then he asked what happened to the boys. When I told him. He gave me that look. You know the one, somewhere between are you mad and don’t do that, just don’t.

Holy smokes. I immediately began to retool the plot. I’d like to say this was the first time I’ve received the look, but it isn’t.

As for the rafting part, he is an expert on being swept off a self-made raft, driven under trees, and pounded on the bottom of a river dashing to the ocean.  And if I ever need to know what it is like to leap off a cliff onto a beach, I know where to go.

Writers/readers who read a few drafts…

… and gently steer. Having read my latest book, two readers made the same comment. I responded to each that the paragraph in question foreshadowed the book’s conclusion.

Then, I read it again.

Here it is: “I believe I did. But, Cora, if you know who struck down that poor girl, you must tell me true. You must bear witness to it!”

When what was meant was: “I believe I did. But, Cora, I, too, have heard the Railtown men grousing that Eliza had another suitor. If you suspect a second suitor and know his name, if he exists, you must tell me.”

Notice any difference?

And later, another character says: “Constable McKie is but one who believes you know the killer’s name. And there is one man who will do anything to stop you from revealing it. Now, do you understand?”

Versus: “Constable McKie is but one who believes you think Michael Thomas innocent but are less sure of Eliza’s other suitor. Even if innocent, that man might wish to stop you from discovering his name hoping for a future in this town. And if he is Eliza’s killer? Now, do you understand?”

Thank heavens for readers, right?

Cats

I have a Russian Blue named Blue because it is a lot better than Do-do which was his given name. He is not the sort of cat who sleeps on computers or printers, but he is compulsive about his schedule like the Germans operating the Louisa in The African Queen.

At 9:15 he picks out his canned food. This entails walking up the hall, tail up, to the cupboard, waiting for me to open it, then sticking his head in for a look.

At 2:15 he demands I pick him up, hug and lug him to the sliding door so that he has a better angle from which to watch the birds on the deck. Mostly, he wants hugs.

At 4:15 he demands, in a loud Russian Blue voice, that his soup be stirred. I go to the kitchen and stir his wet food so that it is refreshed, or if he is having one of those gravy sorts of things, add water to make more gravy.

When he seeks my attention, he sits next to me, staring up until I respond. And in so doing provides me a bit of time to refresh my thinking, ponder my next sentence, and edit my next word.

I simply cannot imagine writing without all three. And, so you know, the book above, Unbecoming a Lady, will land in ebook and paperback formats around the Ides of March.

All in the lyrics

Christmas songs are blaring in the great room, and baby, it’s cold outside. Now and again, the lyrics to a song are so evocative they stop me in my tracks. Why? The precision, economy of words, and an image so clear that I would sell my right ear to create the same power in my writing.

Songwriters are lucky, they have a score and a singer to sell their lyrics. As writers, we have only our words, no chords, no major shifts, just the rattle of a turned page or a finger swipe. We rely on careful construction of characters, the description of a setting that is sufficient to create an image but not so detailed as to bore, and our ability to put it all together in a way that readers arrive where we want them to through the warp and weft of the narrative.

Lyrics are no different, they are images drawn so well and so clearly that they travel with us throughout our lives. Sometimes changing us, creating a longing to be or see or do. The lean, poetic cleanliness of a great lyric is something we might strive for daily.

To make my point, I picked stanzas from four songs. The first song was written long before I was a twinkle. But it is one I have known all my life and each time I hear it, I feel longing, hope, and loss. I dare you not to.

“I’ll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new. I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

‘I’ll be Seeing You’ written in 1938 saw the country through WWII and onward, into infinity. NASA sent Billie Holiday‘s 1944 recording as its final transmission to the Opportunity rover when its mission ended on Mars in February 2019.  How fitting. Don’t you wish you packed a wallop like that with every line in a book?

The second song creates an indelible picture of freedom and the ties that bind us.

“Fly the ocean in a silver plane. See the jungle when it’s wet with rain. Just remember till you’re home again, you belong to me.”

Of course, it helps if Jo Stafford is singing it. If you’ve never heard her classic version of ‘You Belong to Me’ run to Pandora or U-Tube. But with or without Ms. Stafford, the imagery and emotion of the lyrics are undeniable.

Having grown up in Michigan with Motown 126 miles away, Smokey Robinson’s poetry fueled much of my music. The lyrics of my third selection never fail to get a grin and a singalong from me. Why?

“I’m stickin’ to my guy like a stamp to a letter, like the birds of a feather, we stick together. I’m telling you from the start, I can’t be torn apart from my guy.”

Because Mr. Robinson created a fulsome female protagonist with a clear agenda in only thirty-four words.

And number four brings us back to Christmas.

Christmas songs ring all the old familiar bells, a few lines, and you’re shivering in the back of your parent’s car, filled with excitement, knowing you’ll never sleep. Yet I admit that when it comes to indelible pictures, well – ‘Santa Baby.’

“Come and trim my Christmas tree with some decorations bought at Tiffany’s. I really do believe in you, let’s see if you believe in me.”

Well, do you? Money-grubbing little … gold digger.

I hope I’ve made my case that as writers with 70,000 words or more at our disposal, we might take a lesson from our favorite songs and etch rather than paint. You may disagree with the lyrics I picked, but really, how could you?

I’ll Be Seeing You by Sammy Fain / Irving Kahal

You Belong to Me by Chilton Price / Pee Wee King / Redd Stewart

My Guy by Ronald White / Smokey Robinson

Santa Baby by Philip Springer / Joan Javits / Anthony Fred Springer

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.

Ghosts — present, past and future

As mystery and thriller writers we deal with death – a lot. What follows is my view of how death colors a story, as informed by being farm-bred, knowing where animals go on the big truck, and the host of ghosts who populated our old frame farmhouse.

Ghosts

Ghosts were as much a part of my early life as was the knacker man, to use a British expression. There was the guy who checked the non-existent, though once-existent, oil lamps in the upstairs hallway to ensure the gas was off. He walked down the hall to a window overlooking the hog pens, stood for a moment, then walked back. Every night.

There were brothers, one that occupied a cold spot in the corncrib, and one who looked endlessly into the house through a sashed window. They died on the same day, one after another, one from want, the other from the loss. Their story fueled my imagination.

And David whose sister waited for him to knock on her wall each night before going to sleep. I met David when he warned me of a small fire in the farmyard. When I returned, the fire out, he knocked.

This leads one to believe that life is like the loaf of bread used to describe time travel, we are never far from intersecting the previous or next slices of bread.

When someone dies and refuses to move on

Booth Island deals with the death of a brother who drowned off the family island in Canada. It is he who lures his sister back nine years later.

 “I can’t. The minute I relax, my brother comes to me. I need to exorcise him, or help him cross over, or whatever the mediums would say. If not, I’ll never be happy.”

“I prescribe two servings of Finn Sturdevant with a side of Tiger Tail.” Penny hugged me. “Poor Boo. Is there an Ouija Board stashed on Booth Island?”

I wiggled my eyebrows.

When one death haunts the characters

Dead Legend begins The Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, centering around the mysterious death of Mac Cooper. His sons navigate his legacy and his loss:  anger in Dead Legend, bargaining in Head First, acceptance in Pay Back, and resolution in Don’t Tell.

Byron Cooper’s burden: The old adage about be careful who you mess on your way up, you may meet them on your way down, went double time when everyone in the Pacific Fleet, WestPac, over the rank of Lieutenant Commander, looked you in the eyes, clapped you on the shoulder, and said knew your old man.

Laury Cooper’s hell: Laury wound the film to the August 8, 1955 edition of the paper. He found the four-paragraph story on Mac Cooper’s death; simple, to the point, almost as though it had been lifted from the police blotter.

At 2:45 a.m. August 8, 1955, the body of Commander MacLaury Cooper was found…

And resolution in Don’t Tell: Laury and Kate held hands in front of a bungalow gleaming white in the soft light of a late Hawaiian afternoon. … He pointed out the carport, the palm where someone had lurked watching the family’s descent into hell, and a hibiscus Mac had planted not long before his death.

When an accident sculpts the future

A single past action drives the narrative in Saving Calypso, consider the action mold from the previous slice of bread, rimming the current slice and slowly eating into the loaf.

“Forgive me. This must be excruciating … I drew up the will for Ray. He insisted. It was finalized the day we reached agreement on your sentencing.” Burridge’s steady brown eyes peered over the top of his glasses into Grieg’s baby-blues until Grieg’s dropped. “It wasn’t a small thing you did, boy.”

Grieg tweaked the pleat of his slacks.

Burridge squinted then poked his glasses up his nose. “Destroying a family. Killing a police officer’s son. Drunk. Chasing a girl.”

To ghosts everywhere

Characters driven by the ghosts of past actions, deaths, and loss give mysteries focus and heart, and protagonists a reason to act, creating a pulse and adding depth to the story. Paradise for a mystery/thriller/suspense writer.

Writing vs Knitting, Different or the Same?

Have you ever found the bag of yarn for an afghan you planned to knit/crochet during the winter months but not the instructions? That’s what it’s like to write a book. Every time you open the bag, it is full of tangled skeins of possibilities, different yarns, weights of yarn, and colors waiting to be knitted into a cohesive whole that matches a picture you’ve concocted in your head.

Add to the various yarns and colors, different sized knitting needles and crochet hooks, the use of which results in different size stitches, different thicknesses of fabric, and different lengths and widths of the finished product that enrich and add depth to the design.

So, you pull out the yarn, decide on the main colors (characters), secondary colors (second bananas), and pattern (plot). You’re knitting this one in twenty squares. You test the gauge of each yarn against the ruler, so you know how many stitches per square, ensuring they will fit together.

Your design set, you wait a day, look at it again and realize square five needs to precede square four, and what the heck were you thinking on square eleven. You move things around a bit, then start. Square one measures the right size, it follows the theme and color scheme, so you move on to square two. About square five, you unravel square two because the pattern doesn’t add to the flow. As you knit, you revise the design, unraveling on occasion, recasting, and reknitting.

When you have all your squares done, you sew them together. And though you took the utmost care with the colors, size, and pattern of each, it turns out you need a new square sixteen to fill a hole in the pattern that foreshadow the red in the last four squares. Now, you have one too many squares. And square six needs more blue, seven more green, and ten through thirteen more white, then you notice that square nine muddles the whole pattern (what the heck is all that purple). You do the fixes, add square sixteen, remove square nine, and voila, you have a gorgeous afghan.

You take it to your knitting club for review. The first reviewer asks why there is so much red, and the next why there is so much green. They shake their heads at your explanation. Steaming, you take your afghan home, hang it on the wall, and stare at it for a few days. In the end, you unravel some red, leave the green, pull out square fifteen, add a new square with a tinge of purple, and try again. Your reviewers love the changes.

You take a photo, write an ad, attach a price, and place it on Amazon. The first Amazon review reads it could have used some red in the square you removed it from at your reviewer’s request, and what about that dropped stitch you missed? You snarl. Then start square four of your newest creation, purling instead of knitting.

You unravel and start over.