A Thousand Thanks

Recently a fellow writer, Jacqueline Seewald, posted an article written by a mystery reader in response to one of her short stories. Along with several others, I commented that this was a gratifying response from a reader, and then I got thinking.

I began writing and publishing mysteries and mystery related articles, reviews, essays over thirty years ago, and to be singled out by a reader for praise is always a thrill. Like any other writer, I want readers to enjoy my work. The number of mystery-related conferences spread throughout the year and scattered around the US and the rest of the world means we are often thrown into contact with current and future (and sometimes past) readers. Both of us—writers and readers—have learned to take this in stride. I make note of which characters a reader liked particularly, a question about a character’s backstory, or hints at a new series or a new direction. But fans don’t have to wait for a conference to find us.

Writers get emails through our websites or blogs, posts on other blogs about a meeting or a particular story, or conversation about a book club. Readers can engage almost any writer on FB or Twitter, on Goodreads or other sites. Writing may be a solitary business, but the readership is ever present. Writers and readers almost can’t avoid meeting each other and engaging in an ongoing conversation. For most of those writing today, this is the norm and always has been. But not for me.

When my first mystery was published, Murder in Mellingham(1993), I was thrilled to have a book launch at Kate’s Mystery Books and meet other writers and readers. After this I attended Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, and met lots of other writers including those I’d never expected to meet in person let alone speak to or have dinner with. It was quite an experience.

But nothing since then has matched the first piece of mail (yes, snail mail) I received from a fan. I was a newbie, still very little known, but a man who read my mystery took the time to write to tell me how much a specific passage had moved him. He had recently lost his mother, and that one line seemed a particular comfort. I’d never received this kind of letter before (And why would I? This was my first mystery.) and barely managed to write a coherent reply.

I remember that letter because it took time to compose, write on paper, address, stamp, and send (and came through my publisher, as I recall) and was very personal. Of all the warm and enthusiastic responses I’ve had from readers, that one is still the one I remember. Did Jacqueline Seewald feel as excited about her reader’s response? Of course she did. Do younger writers who may never have taken to letter writing feel the same way, I wonder, about email notes from readers telling them how much they liked a book? I’m sure they do. But for me, a letter in the mail will always be the ultimate form of communication.

For the article inspired by Jacqueline Seewald’s story, go to: https://jacquelineseewald.blogspot.com/2020/01/how-readers-relate-to-fiction.html?

The Neglected Senses

In the middle of my current WIP I noticed that once again I’d fallen prey to my particular weakness in writing. I’m not the only one with this flaw but I have been working on correcting it. What is it? The tendency is something so obvious that I even wondered if I should write about it at all, but here it is. Despite all my workshops in which I encourage students to use all their senses when writing, I make the same mistake. I focus on the visual and sometimes the auditory and neglect the senses of taste and smell. (And in the above sentence I didn’t even mention the sense of touch.)

Writers are visual people. We tend to describe the landscape or an interior setting in great detail. We note clothing, especially as it indicates class or wealth, and physical mannerisms especially if they indicate emotional states or character. We tease out special feelings as two people become aware of each other, or we cogitate on clues, drawing the reader into the intricate web of evil. We feel the weather on our faces, our skin under a spring shower, or our fingers in thin gloves going numb in the cold. But we rarely catch a whiff of anything that matters–a lingering scent of a person we dislike or are suspicious of, a dinner of capons and carrots that distract us from a conversation we should be listening to.

In a recent mystery the protagonist enters a strange home where he will be staying and is visibly struck by the level of poverty of the village and the neglect in the home, but this is all visual. Poverty has a smell, and neglect has another smell. Because we don’t emphasize these experiences in our day-to-day lives, they may be harder to describe, but they are vivid for us when we undergo them.

When I’m confronted with a scene in which I want the olfactory sense to be dominant, I recall such experiences, usually around food but not always, and draw on those. These moments are never without people in them. I know these moments are important because I remember them so vividly, partly because of the unusual or captivating tastes and partly because of the environment or setting in which they occur and without which they would not.

During my first week in India, in 1976, I met a social worker who invited me to tea at her apartment. She was about my age, wearing a sweater over her sari (it was January in North India, which can get very chilly), and lived in an attractive two-bedroom apartment, small by Western standards but quite comfortable. She explained she was able to get this flat because of her occupation. (I’ve since learned that the job title Social Worker is closer to our Human Resources Director.) We sat on a small veranda/balcony for tea. Her maidservant (at that time, everyone in India had a maidservant, even the poor) brought in a plate of cheeses and samosas. The slice of cheese had been rolled in flour and dry roasted. I don’t know what kind of cheese, what flour, or what spices were used but to this day I remember this as one of the most succulent, delightful tastes my tongue has ever known.

When I walk through my neighborhood I sometimes notice a particular perfume and know that a certain woman has taken her afternoon walk. The fragrance isn’t strong in the usual sense but it does linger, and usually on the main street, rarely on side streets. Another aroma that still stands out is a cleaning material used mainly in Asia but starting to show up here. It was startling to encounter it in a store in New Hampshire until I remembered that this was an Asian grocery store.

All of these experiences remind me of how powerful taste and smell are in my life, and how effective they can be in deepening a mystery or adding to the description of a scene. One of my goals of the novel I’m currently working on is to use more of these two senses in the solution of the mystery as well as in the vividness of the story telling.

 

 

The Ones I Keep

Still on my bookshelf are books that I loved as a child: . . . And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold, The Fur Person by May Sarton, and Asian stories. But one day in my teen years I came across a book my mother purchased for herself, by a man everyone in town knew. Some books have an inexplicable pull on us because of what they teach us, and this is one in my life.

John Leggett worked in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s before moving back to New York City and a job in publishing; he had always wanted to write. He and his wife were well known in the small town where I grew up. They and their three sons lived a few houses away from us, and my best friend at the time babysat for the boys. Sometimes, usually in the summer, I kept her company. We walked to the small beach nearby, or passed a quiet afternoon at home. I don’t remember the boys being particularly rambunctious.

His second novel, The Gloucester Branch, published in 1964, was read by all in town largely because of its local setting. I had read his first book some years earlier, much to my mother’s dismay, and expected to like his second. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and had already published one essay. I was only months away from writing my first short story.

The first news I had of Leggett’s second book was a spirited discussion among my parents’ friends about the title. One insisted it was bad because no one outside of the Boston area would recognize it. The Gloucester branch was the name of the B&M line that ran out to Cape Ann. The debate raged. Next came the characterization of the protagonist’s wife. I can still hear one woman saying, “That’s Mary to a tee. Why didn’t he disguise her better?” All of this whetted my appetite for the novel, and I dove in. I recognized the house the fictional family lived in, the streets they walked, even some of the minor characters (or so I thought). I read avidly from page one to the end.

Most writers I’ve talked to mention a well-known title or author as seminal in their development, usually someone I’ve read or at least heard of. When I think back, of course I can list numerous titles by important writers that swept me away, inspired me, and linger even now. So why do I remember a little-known writer of the last century? Why not remember another, better-known book of the same period: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Herzog (1964), Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), or any of the classics I read during that decade?

John Leggett never achieved great fame, though he ran the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and mentored a long list of award-winning writers. From there he moved on to California to become head of another writing program. He never became a household name outside of my hometown.

But in reading his novel The Gloucester Branch, I could see exactly what he had done, how he had taken real life and reshaped it, added twists and enhanced details to layer on meaning where there had been none or only the dull quotidian. I recognized the details, understood the changes he wrought, and appreciated the result. No other work of fiction had given me the same insight perhaps because no other had been so transparent in its reshaping of reality into story. Many books inspired me to write, tell a better story, or invent a richer character. But only one opened the window onto the simple transformations made by a writer’s mind.

Changing over Time

After one of my novels comes out in print, I rarely reread it. If asked, I’ll read passages and discuss them, but once the work has gone to press, it’s out of my life except for promotion. All that changed recently when my agent reported the interest of a new publisher in taking on earlier series. This wasn’t simply a nice bit of news. It was an assignment—a synopsis of each and every book.

Like almost any other writer, I dread writing a synopsis. I don’t know why I find these so onerous and difficult. Nevertheless, I turned to the Mellingham series and pulled the first book from the shelf, Murder in Mellingham(Scribner, 1993). No one ever asked for a synopsis. No one or five page treatment lurked in a now-defunct format anywhere on my computer. After much gnashing of teeth, I had a page that pretty much covered the story of the book. On to the next in the series, Double Take. On this title, the Kirkus reviewer commented, “Oleksiw is growing as a writer.” I thought that was nice, wondered what passage prompted it, and thought no more about it. By the time I got to Family AlbumI was actually reading the story. I came across paragraphs I enjoyed, lingered on the phrasing, and stalled. Did I write that? Apparently, yes. I had the same experience with the remaining four books in the series.

I don’t know why I should be so surprised at how much my style has changed over twenty-seven years. The real surprise would be if it hadn’t. When I first began reading mysteries, I had very catholic tastes, but one day I wanted to read all of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books in a row for a reason I’ve since forgotten. With copies of her twelve mysteries on hand (excluding Sleeping Murder, published after her death though written thirty years before), I began reading. Although these mysteries are somewhat evenly spaced over forty years, the style ranges widely. I had never noticed this until I read them one after the other, when the differences become evident.

The typical cozy mystery reader may not think of Christie as a writer of several distinct styles but I do. I think the variations are masked by her consistent approach to exploring crime and the attitudes of the period. This rereading also helped me recognize at least one reason for a flagging interest in writers I used to enjoy—the sense of sameness in the work. Each story feels like the last one I read, and I no longer feel the sense of anticipation when I pick up those writers’ newest title.

Now that the synopses are done, I’ve turned to my current WIP, a stand-alone that is a departure for me both in narrative style and structure. This story is written in first person with more physical action and draws on my experience with home renovation. I like the concreteness of the work. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, described an exercise he gave his students that was a turning point for many of them. Take an ordinary object in your home, something you use or see every day, and describe it and how it works. I gave my students this in-class writing assignment: What is a zipper and how does it work? The students talked about it for days.

I used to think that an artist’s or writer’s style changed with the subject matter, but no longer. The change may be the result of no more than the passage of time, of assimilating what we’ve learned from the just completed work, and transforming that into something new, where again we learn and change. Now that I’ve seen how my work has evolved over twenty-five plus years and twelve published mysteries (not to mention the ones that failed and sit not quite forgotten in a drawer), I’m curious about how my work will change over the coming five or ten years.

 

Writing without Pen in Hand

Numerous myths have grown around writers, and all are almost unshakable. One of these is that real writers write every day.

I was thinking about this last week because I finished a manuscript, wrote a blurb and a short synopsis, and sent everything off to my agent. And then I tackled a short story that had been germinating in the back of my mind for weeks. When that was done, I looked around and wondered, “So, what’s next?”

Last year at Crime Bake, Walter Mosley said, “When I finish a book one day, I begin another the following day.” He just keeps writing, day after day, and never gives a thought to taking a break. Many writers I know take their laptops or notepads with them on vacation, and make sure to get in a few hours or less on their current project. I’ve done the same. These thoughts rambled through my brain as I spent more time on FB, reading articles on crime fiction, and wondering if now was the time to wash the windows. It was.

Before I headed off to remove the grime of years in the living room panes, I made two pages of notes on a talk I plan to give later in the year. But because it wasn’t a story or a novel, I didn’t consider it real writing. Standing on a stepladder outside trying to reach the top storm window (we have windows built and installed in the 1880s), I got a different look into the house. The dog stood in the doorway looking back at me, confused and hurt that I was outside and he was still inside. I could see into the hallway, where my husband had left his shoes. I took note of more details, the new perspective, thinking, I could use this in a story. It was a sunny day, perfect for a stroll and dog walking. I enjoy watching people pass by from the porch. But outside, hidden behind shrubbery, I heard more and longer snatches of conversation, and, again I thought, I could use this in a story.

By late afternoon I finished washing the fourth window just as it started to rain. I collected my ladder and Windex and towels, and headed inside. This was a good day of rest away from writing, or was it?

Whenever I think I’m going to take time to regenerate after finishing a story or novel, I come back to the same observation: I can’t stop seeing the world in terms of writing and story, as a moving frame of scenes to be captured and considered, with certain ones pulled out to use in other narratives. While on vacation in India a few years ago, I came across an article about rising debt in the villages, which reminded me of the debts our maidservant had contracted when she worked for us years ago. In a moment, waiting for my tea in a cafe as I watched waders in the shallow waves, an entire novel came to me. I hadn’t been looking for a new story idea, but there it was, When Krishna Calls, the fourth Anita Ray mystery.

Writers write every day with or without pen or laptop because we never stop seeing the world in terms of narrative, story-telling, a drama playing out in front of us, inviting us to reinvent, shape, and share what we see and imagine with the rest of the world.

Writing the Whole Person by Susan Oleksiw

Writers agonize over developing a character that will be considered well rounded and fully realized. We take workshops, read how-to books by some of our favorite crime writers, and write out short or lengthy bios of our protagonists, including a backstory that will elicit sympathy and the reader’s allegiance. I’ve done all of these things, but if this is all I’ve done, the character will fall flat in my view. Only recently have I figured out why this is so.

In writing a series with a recurring protagonist and back-up characters, I had the luxury of a story arc that covered several books, giving me as well as the reader several experiences in which to get to know my lead. Since these were traditional mysteries, I had ample opportunity to explore how she or he lived outside of a particular murder investigation. She had a job and other responsibilities, or a family or close friend or lover. The reader followed her into various corners of her life that promised a little bit of personal history as well as clues to the murder and its perpetrator. Without even thinking about it, I was giving the reader the one crucial element that was missing from the courses I took and the books I read.

This has become more and more clear to me since I’ve started writing a stand-alone mystery. In certain ways, this is a very different writing challenge from the series mystery, and I saw at once as I read more in that genre what was missing. In a traditional mystery the reader gets to know the protagonist in her chosen setting among friends and neighbors, and this device requires the heroine to reveal more of her ordinary self. How does she get along with her friends? What makes her laugh? How does she feel about various aspects of life deep down? In most stand-alones, we meet the main characters one or two pages away from a crisis, and never get to know them in moments of lightheartedness, the way we are when we’re not facing a threat to our lives or those we love.

In his book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder points out that a character can get away with any vile behavior if at the outset he does something the audience will cheer–he saves a cat or a dog or a child. You get the idea. And the idea works. But I’m talking about something more.

In any novel I want to discover the whole person, who she is when she’s happy as well as when she’s frightened and confused and feeing overwhelmed. The challenge is balancing all facets of a single personality in a story of suspense and murder, but in the end I want to come away with a feeling of having lived with a real person, enjoyed her sense of humor, felt the darkness she struggled against, understood her choices, and sympathized with her frailties.

Perhaps I’m especially sensitive to this absence in most suspense characters because I have a wry sense of humor that tends to show up all the time, whatever the circumstances. I admire men and women who can step back from danger and ease the fear and pain with a joke or flash of kindness, some sense of keeping a larger perspective. I seek the same level of character development in the stories I read and write, and I admire any writer who gets it on the page for me to enjoy.

 

Transitions

Right now I’m making the transition from writing a series to writing a stand-alone. There are similarities between the two forms, of course. Setting is still all important, for example. We need to know where the story takes place and how this affects the characters. Is the story set in a city? If yes, then at least some characters will travel by public transportation–the subway or bus or zip car or Uber/Lyft or bicycle. If the setting is a small town or even a farm community, the bus will be a once a day opportunity, and most people will drive everywhere.

The variety of characters around the protagonist will remain important, but here some less obvious differences start to emerge. In any mystery the reader expects a diversity in age, occupation, gender, and race. That’s a given. The list of characters should reflect the makeup of the setting in all its variety and richness. Even in the most traditional stories from the Golden Age, the characters, especially the suspects, had a sense of individuality and diversity within the given bounds of the time. The Anita Ray series is set in a tourist resort in South India, which gives me unlimited possibilities for characters.

In a mystery novel that is part of a series, the suspects orbited around the protagonist and her or his circle of friends and relatives, the recurring personae of the series. We enjoy seeing some of our favorite fictional friends fall in and out of trouble, knowing that in the end, the real culprit will be found out. Our literary friends, of course, will be fine. I was glad of this because I grew very fond of some of Felicity O’Brien’s relatives in Below the Tree Line, my newest series.

In a stand-alone, every single character is equally suspect. There is no protected circle of recurring characters, and there is no single character who cannot be the culprit, not even the narrator in a first person tale. Perhaps I should say, especially not the protagonist now that there are so many stories with unreliable narrators.

As I tackle my first stand-alone, writing every character as though he or she is the villain changes some fundamental aspects of the story. The narrator in a first person story really has no one she can rely on as a trustworthy confidante. We have to suspect everyone. Never can we say, Oh, that’s just Aunt Ida. She’s always like that, right from Book One. In a stand-alone, Aunt Ida, as flaky as she may be, remains a viable candidate for the role of murderer. If the narrator is confiding in her about her suspicions, Aunt Ida could be gathering information that will enable her to foist the guilt onto someone else. Or Aunt Ida could be discerning an important detail that would allow her to blackmail the real villain. Or the narrator could be planting ideas in Aunt Ida’s mind to propel her to act in a certain way. Poor Aunt Ida. She’s landed in the wrong script, and there’s no getting out of it.

The other change that seems most notable to me should be obvious in the preceding paragraph. No matter how dire the situation, I tend to see things through a particular lens, and it shows up in my wry humor. Aunt Ida can’t become a comedic character that undermines the tension of the story.

I’m working on all of this, and when I finally finish this ms I hope I’ll have mastered what is for me partly a new form. Stay tuned as we used to say. More to come.