Keep It or Toss It?

Like many other writers, I make a lot of notes and keep files on all sorts of things that I’m sure I’ll get to someday. But when the paper files start to spill out onto the floor or the desk, I know it’s time to cull the newspaper cuttings, scribbled notes for story ideas, and quotes from books that I was sure would prove useful or important.

This week I went through a three-ring binder where I’ve kept notes on the three series I’ve been working on beginning in 1991 and a few stand-alones that I never got to. Going through material I collected some years ago brought me back to ways I’d been thinking about writing—ideas for opening scenes or character sketches that no longer seemed strong or compelling. It was interesting to look over pages of ideas and see how much my thinking has changed. I was especially interested in how my ideas on craft had developed.

Included in all this were several ideas sketched out that meant nothing to me. I had no idea what I meant by some of it. So the question became, should I keep it or toss it? The answer was easier when I went through the news clippings that recorded peculiar people or bizarre incidents or twisted crimes. Most of them seemed blah to me now, so out they went. But one note was different.

I found a typed two-page single-spaced plot description for a thriller about a group of women who have been friends for years and sign up for an overseas tour. The tour is waylaid and the women and others held hostage. (Had I just read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett?) Hostages are killed, the police storm the site, and the women are saved. They head home and celebrate, glad to be alive. That seems like enough for a straightforward thriller, but the plot description goes on, covering the years after the women return to the States. 

This outline, neatly typed, stands out for its focus on plot, and the use of a story line that I had been thinking about over the years but never used. I couldn’t figure out a title, had named some of the characters, and wasn’t sure how to end it. That may be why it goes on for so long—because I couldn’t find a point of rest, of climax and recovery and ending. In some paragraph transitions it almost feels like I didn’t know where to stop or how to stop.

When I began this clearing-out I expected at most to find some of the story ideas I had set aside while I worked on other things, or at least some of the ideas that come when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next. I like those because they get me thinking. They prime the pump, I suppose, and get the ideas flowing. 

But that typed outline is getting into my head. And now I have to figure out what I’m going to do with it. Write it or file it again? When other writers talk about writer’s block, I keep my mouth shut. It doesn’t happen for me. I have the other problem—way too many ideas to follow up on. And right now I have that big thriller idea, all neatly laid out for me to work on. As one of my friends in India used to say, What to do? What to do? Very great problem, madam.

Books and More

Like many others in my circle, I am in constant conflict with the standards of my culture. Collecting. But then disposing. 

This morning, after having coffee with a good friend, I stopped at the library to collect two nonfiction books I’d put on reserve and pick out one or two mysteries to read. This is a pretty normal visit for me—I usually leave with two fiction and two nonfiction, and keep them for the full three weeks, if not one or two more. I like to try different writers, so I’m usually in the New Fiction section, and the same is true for nonfiction. This doesn’t mean I have no books at home to read. Quite the opposite. Every room has books in it. But I’m one of those people who find going to the library a necessary activity, and borrowing books is about more than finding something to read. It’s partly the activity of discovery and partly the pleasure of just being around so many publications.

But I have a lot of books at home. And over the years thousands more have passed through my hands, rested on my shelves, been read and shared and reread, until one day I decided it was time for them to move on. It occurred to me today that I have no idea why a book suddenly comes to the end of its visit. Do I need the space? Of course not. There’s always room for more. Have I changed? Possibly.

One small shelf is dedicated to the books I had as a child and which have survived numerous cleanings-out. Another equally small shelf is dedicated to a few I kept from my teen years, including Conrad Richter’s trilogy and The Gloucester Branch by John Leggett. Another dozen or so are integrated into general fiction and nonfiction, but those that seemed to be seminal in my development as a writer are held discretely apart, and every few years I ponder the prospect of donating them to the library or a thrift shop with a book section. But it never seems to be the right time.

My mother, another reader, kept her Girl Scout’s uniform and another few dresses from her early years. I found them in the back of a closet after she died. My father never kept anything that could be recycled for those of greater need. A businessman since the age of 15 (this was before World War I when such was possible), his wardrobe was spare to say the least. My closet is more like his than my mother’s, and I avoid associating with anyone who might invite me to an event for which I would be expected to wear a fancy dress. You can’t take a book to something like that and read, so why would I go?

What else do I keep? Art. My walls are a record of the eclectic tastes of me, my husband, his family, and mine, not to mention our grandparents and other relatives. Furniture doesn’t interest me, though I concede its usefulness. I’ve disposed of plenty over the years.

I am convinced that any American dropped into any town or city on earth will in a matter of weeks have too many possessions to tolerate and have to set out weeding and recycling. And yet every day, on TV, the radio, in junk mail, we’re urged to buy more. As a good member of the larger community and culture, I comply and buy more books.

That’s 588 words on a topic I haven’t figured out yet. Sometimes as I sit at my desk, fingers poised over the keys, I wonder what I’ll write about. I look across the room, or to my left, at all the books piled up, sometimes neatly arranged, and I wonder about all those words. So many. Surely I have something to say about them. Then, again, maybe not. Except that they’re old friends and I can’t imagine living without them.

Writers and Their . . . Warnings?

Several articles over the last few weeks have circled around the issue of “trigger warnings.” I’m used to seeing them before certain television shows, but I haven’t seen them on books yet.

Jamie Beck’s essay in Writer Unboxed explored the perplexing and even confounding question of trigger warnings for novelists. Her publisher “engaged a sensitivity reader to evaluate the portrayal of a neurodiverse character in my summer 2023 release (The Beauty of Rain). I eagerly anticipated the reader’s feedback, whose notes on that aspect of the manuscript were ultimately helpful and unsurprising. Conversely, her recommendation that I add trigger warnings about suicidal ideation and prescription drug abuse did momentarily throw me.” In the end, after extensive discussion, she decided to add a warning in the author’s note, as an expression of her commitment to building “a trusting relationship” with her readers.

The essay is reviewed in Victoria Weisfeld’s blog, where she considers other books, including one that seemed hardly to need a trigger warning of any sort. On Fabian Nicieza’s highly comic mystery, Suburban Dicks, she comments, “A reader would have to be extremely thin-skinned indeed to take his jibes seriously, but then we do seem to be in such an era.”

The idea of trigger warnings may have grown out of academia. In 1991, when I attended Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a young MFA student admitted in a workshop that her fellow students were paralyzed in their classes for fear of writing something that would lead the teacher to accuse them of . . . of what wasn’t clear. But in general, they feared writing something considered politically incorrect, and as a result couldn’t write anything. 

At MIT students are sometimes afraid to speak for fear of consequences, which suggests we haven’t made much progress since 1991. According to an article in the Boston Globe, “A recent FIRE survey of 45,000 students at over 200 US colleges found that 60 percent were uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic; at MIT, it’s 68 percent. In the national survey, 63 percent of students worried about damaging their reputations because someone misinterpreted their words or actions. At MIT, 68 percent worried about this.” It should be understandable that my brain jumped to the news of Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, shutting down the AP course on African American History. 

For me the issue isn’t whether or not what I write will offend someone, a reader I’ve never met and probably never will. I write a traditional mystery, and avoid violence in any form. But the question upends my longstanding view of the reader, as someone who comes to my work with an open mind and an optimistic attitude. 

Whenever I’m looking for something to read in the library, I pull several titles off the shelves until I find one that appeals to me. I check the genre (thriller, sci-fi, traditional, cozy, etc.), read the blurbs and jacket copy, and consider the author. Once I make my choice I go home wanting to like the book, and I give it my full attention as a reader, a form of respect for another writer’s best effort to date. Do I look for trigger warnings? No. Have I ever missed one and wished it had been included? No. Have I read into books that I wished I hadn’t? Yes. 

I don’t think I could read a novel and notice every instance that might cause distress in a reader. Would a deadly car crash qualify? Or back story about a child taken from the home because of physical abuse? How about the story of a bully who made high school miserable for a group of students? This is the kind of information I’d expect to find in the jacket copy—a clear indication of the parameters of the story. But I also wouldn’t want the jacket copy to give away important features. 

There’s no easy answer to the question of using or not using trigger warnings, but the discussions have caught my attention and made me think. I don’t want a reader to be distressed by one of my books (very unlikely, considering what I write), but I also don’t want to find myself unable to write freely out of fear or concern about a reader’s reaction. The decision will be different for each writer, and may vary with the book. I look forward to more discussion, and learning more about how this plays out for writers.

Those Pesky Revisions

Once in a while I come across a new writer asking what to do now that he’s finished his novel and is ready to get an agent. As the conversation flows I hear the optimistic assumption that even though this process will take time, it will end well. Left unsaid is the ending—the book will be published to blushingly great acclaim. I seem to come across these discussions when I’m in the deepest slough of revision. Right now I’m on the third rewrite for my current WIP (not to mention all the many drafts I did before I naively thought it was finished). It came back from my agent with lots of compliments on certain parts of it but not the first hundred pages.

“Get rid of the BOGSATs,” she wrote.

BOGSAT? This was new to me, so I had to ask. What is a BOGSAT? It’s embarrassing that I didn’t know what it refers to because I’m certainly guilty of having a lot of BOGSATs in the first third of the book. For those of you who know what I’m talking about, you can stop reading here. You know what follows.

BOGSAT refers to Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around Talking. In other words, too much talk, not enough action. In my case, the people sitting around talking were mostly women, the main character’s mother and sisters, and occasionally the MC and her best friend. One of the themes of the book is female relationships, and families. Nevertheless, respecting my agent’s judgment as I do, I set about removing the BOGSATs, and this is where it gets interesting.

What happens in place of talking? Action, of course. As I stripped out a stretch of dialogue I held onto the specific information that needed to be delivered. In one scene, it’s important for Ginny to learn that the parents of two children under the care of the social services agency where she works have been arguing about money. If her co-worker can’t tell her this and ask for her advice, how does Ginny find out there is a money issue in the family? She catches a glimpse of the husband wearing a coat that he can’t possibly afford. How does she know this? Her sister sees it, drools over it, and tells her sister how much it probably cost. Her sister wants one. That took care of one scene, about five pages in the first hundred. On to the next.

Ginny is worried about something from her teen years becoming public. It’s linked to an event long forgotten, or so she thinks. At a celebration of life for an acquaintance, the man leading the program blurts out the deceased’s role in the event. Ginny wonders how long her secret can last.

In a grocery store she can’t simply stop and chat with someone to elicit information. Hmm. She spots an out of town reporter who has been investigating the event of concern to Ginny stopping people as they come out of the store. She notices who rebuffs him, who ignores him, and whom he ignores. The chief has told her about him, and she wonders just how much he’s uncovered. She soon finds out. The reporter wasn’t in the earlier version. He appeared only as the author of an article. Now he’s on the ground, poking around, making Ginny nervous. She’s keeping track of him.

Removing dialogue does more than eliminate the “talkiness” in the ms. It means I have to use the other characters differently, use Ginny differently, uncover little bits I hadn’t thought about before. Getting rid of the BOGSATs is changing the story little by little. Ginny Means will still be who she is doing what she does, but how she interacts with other characters is becoming different. There is a place for the BOGSAT, but it’s not in the first third of my book.

Research for a Setting

In fiction I like a strong sense of place, where the environment has shaped people and their problems. Before I begin a story, I want to have a clear idea of the real place where I’m locating my characters. I may change the name, add buildings and roads, but I begin with something real.

For the stories set in central Massachusetts, I chose the town and surrounding area where my family lived for many years. This was a farm community that had once had an industrial base at the end of the nineteenth century. The mills, small compared to some in other area cities and towns, were small, and the empty brick buildings prone to decay, as well as fires. The village where my family lived is at the northern end of the town. I know the community fairly well, since I visited my family often, but I wanted a better sense of its history, the kind that comes from having grown up there. I listened to people’s stories, looked over historical maps, but the absolute best resource was something I came across by accident.

In 1923, the local Reunion Association authorized the publication of a history of the town, which appeared either in 1924 or soon thereafter, in a sturdy cloth-bound book. The history is interesting, but more interesting from my perspective are the notes. Someone took pen in hand and added names and comments on several of the homes and what happened to them. She (and I think it was a woman) added a few historical notes as well. There was apparently a toll on the road through the hamlet, and she’s marked that page and added dates.

Several buildings marked and annotated are no longer there, but the notes give me a good idea of what kind of tiny hamlet it was—more than homes and a church. The shoemaker’s shop is gone, but I know where it was, and the post office and store are also gone. A chapel was replaced by a library, and a small school disappeared. Not included in the book is the last business in town, a second-hand bookstore that closed down probably in the 1990s. The house is noted in the book, and I visited the bookstore, but now it is only a home.

The former bookstore was also the toll house. According to the writer, “The position of toll-taker was not free from danger, as some persons denied the right of the corporation to tax persons for the use of the highways and at times insisted on passing the barrier without payment of the customary toll. This led to bodily encounters which sometimes ended with the shedding of blood.”

The history is not without its odd characters. “Uncle” Calvin Mayo “insisted that Tully mountain was at one time located where the Lily pond now is, but that some great force of nature took it from there, turned it over and gave it its present location.” The note in the margin says “Can you beat this?” Another story concerns an old cannon that was hauled up a mountain to help the miners, and brought a quick end to their work and part of the mountain.

This little book is giving me more than I had expected. First is the history, some of which is obscure; second is the tone of the writer, Mrs. Ward, who graduated from the Salem Normal School and taught in Lynn, MA. And third is the writer or writers who added details on when a house was auctioned, and who lived in it more recently. One writer made several more personal notes, such as “We lived on this road.”

I’m not sure how much of this history will make it into the next Felicity O’Brien book, but it’s already giving me ideas for a few more stories. It also has me thinking about writing an historical mystery—with lots of humor.