Discoveries in the Back Yard

When my husband and I first moved to our current home, over forty years ago, we threw ourselves into the suburban backyard life. We planted flowers, veggies, added a terrace and three stone walls, and planted shrubs in lieu of a fence. Over the years we’ve moved the veggies, added shrubs, and coped with various pests. I pick up ideas from the summer garden tours and I’ve used poisonous plants as murder weapons in some of my stories. 

Some gardens are chaotic in color and placement of plants, and others are neatly arranged beds of one or two colors. Some include chickens, decorative pieces, and unusual shrubs. But most are neat and tidy. I admire neat and tidy because that’s a struggle for me.

This neat arrangement didn’t last long.

Over the years we neglected our gardens because of other demands–work, lack of energy, health. For a long time the uncontrolled mess out back bothered me enough to consider hiring a landscaper, but I never went very far with the idea. Then a few random comments from our neighbors changed my perspective. All around me are flat well-kept lawns leading up to a few shrubs by a foundation, and the occasional flowering tree. All very tidy. Our yard offers something different.

My neighbors look out upon trees, our trees, lots and lots of green, thick enough to block out most of the neighbors behind us and to entice deer and other animals. When I look out back I look into the edge of a forest, where a small path seems to lead deep into the dark recesses, the sunlight blocked by a thick canopy. The trees are ordinary but mature, the quiet is soothing, and animals scurry past me. My neighbors and I have seen a coterie of the usual and the not so usual—squirrels, rabbits, toads, mice, raccoons, skunks, voles, opossum, deer, coyote, and possibly a fox.

It took me a while to realize this is now a wildlife habitat. My unruly neglected yard has become something useful for the animal world. The National Wildlife Federation offers a sign declaring an area like ours a Certified Wildlife Habitat, if it meets certain requirements for wildlife: food, water, cover, places to raise young, and sustainable practices. The certification process is more complicated than this simple list may make it appear, with more specific examples of each criterion. The Federation website includes a certification checklist for those interested in applying.

The certification sign is really a fundraising tool, but an effective one. As I look out over my yard, where the drought has turned the grass to something akin to straw, weeds proliferate along the edges of the shrubbery, and the ground itself has turned lumpy, I imagine the area growing up naturally, with birds bringing in seeds and animals shaping the ground, with native plants, or weeds, emerging in unexpected places. All this happens slowly, but I can sit on my terrace and enjoy the view, and enjoy the visitors scurrying through my mini forest. And not feel guilty for letting the back yard return to a more natural state.

Foreshadowing

I read a lot about craft issues—writing the perfect opening sentence, creating a cliff-hanger ending to a chapter, character description that reveals something more than height and taste in clothes, and the like. One area I’m working on now is foreshadowing. 

When I begin a story I rarely know exactly where the characters are going, but I follow them faithfully through the mine fields of their lives until I reach what seems to be the end. It isn’t until I’m working on the third or fourth draft that I realize instead of foreshadowing an approaching development I’ve anticipated it in a truncated scene. 

There’s a big difference between foreshadowing and getting ahead of myself, revealing too much too soon. In foreshadowing properly done, the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen, only that something will. A character joking about her horoscope on the train into work is a hint that the unexpected is on the horizon, but her report of what the horoscope promised would be getting ahead of the story.

Foreshadowing is a device for increasing or maintaining tension, directing the reader’s attention to a particular issue or relationship, for example, hinting at where danger lies. Anticipating too much too soon or too clearly does the opposite of creating tension; it undermines the climax or twist to come. It takes the air out of the balloon.

This would seem to be an easy technique to master but in my first drafts I often slide right past what I’ve done. It’s not until a much later draft that I notice that I’ve told the reader almost exactly what’s coming, and to make the narrative work effectively I have to cut that part and rewrite. The danger, of course, is that I’ll miss it and be shocked when a Beta reader finds it. (Love my beta readers.)

Someone who has published ten mysteries with three publishers and a few self-published also could be assumed to know all the basic techniques of crafting a novel, but that would be naive. I always find something more to learn. Right now I’m focused on foreshadowing, but next month I could be focusing on dialogue. In some stories the characters emerge clearly in dialogue and I don’t doubt what I’ve written. In others I can’t seem to get them to say a single line that isn’t forced or awkward. But that’s another problem for another post. 

Discovering the Story

This post is both an apology and a discovery. I went off this morning thinking I had attended to everything that needed attending to, and then came home to realize I was wrong. So, late but here is my post along with my apologies.

When I began working on the Anita Ray mystery series I knew there would be a wedding in the story arc, and I assumed I knew who the bride would be. After two entries in the series I zeroed in on the prospective bridegroom. But after another two novels I found I was wrong. The character who was the obvious candidate wasn’t all that obvious anymore for reasons not known at first. I don’t want to give away what happened to him, but he lived to appear in a later story.

I continued with the fifth book in the series, In Sita’s Shadow. Each mystery is named for an Indian deity whose temperament matches one aspect of the story. Sita is the wife of Lord Rama, and is considered the quintessential wife, the spouse deified, her perfection unmatched in this world or any other. 

The choice of this figure for the title was meant to underscore the character of one of the main figures in the plot, but then the story got out of hand, and all of a sudden I had a love story in my lap.

Many Indian weddings, if not most, are still traditional, which means they can take hours. Every step in the ritual must be exact—the roles of the relatives are strictly prescribed, the recitations must be exact (no stumbling over the lines), and the families must meet all the requirements.

I thought it would be fun to write about a traditional Malayali wedding adapted to modern requirements, and it was. The first ritual is the presentation of the dowry. Among the Nayars in Kerala, the groom is required to provide the dowry; his “gifts” must be exactly what was agreed to. The gifts are inspected by the father of the bride and his agent before the ritual can begin. There’s something about watching two men with their agents calculating the pile of gold sovereigns, jewelry, saris with gold borders, and keys to cars or motorcycles, and more.

The guests watch it all. Women sit on one side of the room, men on the other, and we check out what the groom provided. I once made the mistake of saying, “So is that what the groom offered to give?” And the father of the bridge pounced and said, “Must give!” He was adamant, even fierce. Marriage is serious business in India.

The wedding in In Sita’s Shadow is adapted to the needs of a Westerner and an Indian woman, and figuring out how this would work required creativity as well as consulting with an anthropologist, but we figured it out, and it’s now one of my favorite scenes of all I’ve written about India. Auntie Meena, originally a skeptic of this relationship and the marriage rites between them, is won over. I hope the readers will be too.

Coming in August, In Sita’s Shadow: An Anita Ray Mystery.

John Cleese on Creativity

A few years ago I heard a talk by John Cleese on creativity. Readers may remember him from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the antic skits of the characters.

Cleese didn’t talk about the expected issues of creating characters or structuring story lines. His focus was on creativity broadly defined, and how each one of us can learn to be creative. One comment in particular stayed with me because it seemed simple but also hard. It wasn’t particularly profound but it was the kind of insight that came as the result of experience. He said one of his co-workers jumped on the first idea that came, he was sure it would work, and he insisted on going forward with that. I certainly understand the feeling of facing a problem in a story and having a solution fall into my brain that seems absolutely perfect because I want it to be perfect. Not knowing what to write next is extremely uncomfortable. Maybe other writers don’t feel that way, but I certainly do. My instinct is to grab the solution and run, grateful for having an answer to my problem pop up.

Cleese’s warning was this. The first idea to come isn’t the best. His co-worker, Cleese felt, invariably produced something far less successful or not at all successful than what he would have developed if he’d waited. Cleese’s point, put less elegantly, is to consider the first idea the clutter that is concealing the better ideas, which require more time to surface. As frustrating as this can be, he’s right. 

Living with uncertainty is hard especially when you want to maintain the forward motion of the narrative. You’ve set up your characters to act and now you’ve got them marking time, marching back and forth across the page, and you’re worried they’ll lose their mojo. 

My current WIP seemed finished—polished and well put together, the story arc complete. I had a quiet doubt that maybe one or two aspects weren’t quite right, but I was ready to attribute those to the usual insecurities of the writer. I was wrong to do so. I just got the ms back with comments that hit those passages, and they need work. (Thank Heavens for the honest reader.)

This feedback reminded me of an earlier experience when an academic colleague gave me a draft of an article to read and comment on. I pointed out the various spots where he hadn’t answered related questions. He insisted they didn’t matter, but I felt they did. “You have all these puzzle pieces that are part of the question, but you only resolve half of them. You have to resolve all of them,” I told him, “to justify your conclusion.”

In my mystery novel I’m dealing with creating steps in the logic based on facts I created. To solve the problems of the plot, I have to sit with it for several days, listening to the characters, and letting the desire to get things on paper fall away while I wait for my unconscious to work. I have to be patient and trust my own creative resources. I have no idea how long this will take, but it’s necessary. And once the hidden ideas come to light, things will start to make sense, and I can move forward.

If you want to learn more about John Cleese’s approach to creativity, you can explore his book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50719532-creativity

On Reviewing

Like most writers, I read widely and not only in my favorite mystery genres, and post reviews of most of what I read. I read lots of nonfiction as well as fiction, but I only hesitate when it comes to reviewing crime fiction. For many years I happily reviewed for the Drood Review of Mystery, edited by Jim Huang, as well as for Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene. I thought a lot about what to say and how to say it, what to omit and what to emphasize.

An editor I did freelance work for back in the 1980s explained how she approached each manuscript. In general, she said, it takes a lot of work to complete a book that is worthy of publication. No matter how many readers may dislike it after it’s published, that level of quality is still there. She remembered that when she ushered it through the publication process and sent it out for review. Her perspective held very good advice.

I think of her often now when I read a mystery novel that doesn’t work for me. For whatever reason I dislike it, I try to temper my view with the broader understanding that an editor and others in the publishing house saw something worthwhile in it, and were willing to back it financially. This doesn’t mean that I overlook anything that is offensive or stupid or very poorly done. It does mean that I think twice before I eviscerate a book.

Some readers reading this will rise up from their chairs in outrage, to tell me I’m failing as a reviewer because I’m not giving the reader my honest opinion. There is some—only some—truth in that. My honest opinion is not worth more than anyone else’s, but the person who has a blog or a newspaper or magazine column has far more influence than the ordinary reader, and I take that into consideration. This does not mean that I withhold an opinion on the tropes that I’m sick of—young female assaulted and murdered by demented male—or that I give a rating of five to a book that will never have enough substance in it to rate a five only because I know the writer. I know I’m in the minority on this one.

I’m thinking about all this now because I’m increasingly aware that some forms of crime fiction are susceptible to ideas and behaviors that are offensive to most women. The genre is by definition conservative, designed to depict the breakdown of social norms that are restored in some measure by a significant figure, male or female. This isn’t always the happy ending but it is a restoration of some form of stability. When a writer explores this limitation, I find a lot to praise. This is what I look for in my reading—something that challenges both the form and the reader, something for my mind to grapple with, and a story told in a way that will broaden the reader. These are the stories that will get the highest rating, the ones I’ll remember and tell others about. 

What do you look for in a mystery?