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.

A Day of Beginnings by Susan Oleksiw

This month seems to be a time of new beginnings for me and for Ladies of Mystery, with four new writers joining the blog. I already know several of my colleagues from their books and blogs, and I’m delighted to find myself now writing among them.

Unlike many mystery writers, I came to crime fiction relatively late, in graduate school. Someone gave me a copy of They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie, and in the first few pages I knew this was the writer for me. I had the book in hand when I went to see my professor, and he saw it and smiled. “I read those when I was trying to improve my English,” he said. He grew up speaking Dutch and French, studied German, and then learned English. So, instead of talking about my research, that day we talked about Agatha Christie.

Christie’s influence, along with that of a number of other British writers, is obvious in my first series, the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva. After reading lots of British and American mysteries, I knew not only what I wanted to write but what I didn’t want to write. I did not want my detective, in this case a police chief in a small town, to be depressed, an alcoholic, divorced, alienated from his birth family or children, a broken-down guy trying to get it together. (I said this once in a conference, and hilarity and applause ensued.) Joe is single but working on it in the first three books, calls his parents every week, and gets along with his siblings. He speaks Portuguese and is easy going except where crime is concerned. He knows what it takes to manage life in a small town.

In the Anita Ray series I got to indulge my love of India–palm trees, sunshine, the ocean, spicy food, lots of color everywhere. Anita is a young Indian-American photographer living at her aunt’s tourist hotel, resistant to marriage and a magnet for murder, to the despair of her Auntie Meena. When a reader picks up one of these books, I want her to smell the spices, feel the heat and the cooling breeze, and spot the moon through the palm leaves at night.

My third series features Felicity O’Brien, farmer and healer, who finds a body on her land while an out of town buyer is offering outrageous sums for what she considers substandard farm land. This story was fun to write for very different reasons. I got to explore a life I lived briefly but relived for years while listening to my parents and older brothers reminisce about our long-gone farm.

You can probably tell that setting is all important to me, and it’s the first element I think of when sitting down to write. Instead of a book in one of the series, right now I’m working on a stand-alone that covers some of the issues I explore in my earlier novels–the clash between old and new, the shock of unexpected change and how people cope with it. I plan to share some of these thoughts and others on writing issues here on Ladies of Mystery.

But today, while new readers are getting to know me, I’ll be driving most of the day to pick up our new dog, a rescue lab waiting for us in Brattleboro, Vermont. No doubt this pooch will play a role in a story to come. So, yes, today is a day of new beginnings, and I have lots to be excited about. Next month I’ll have photos of our new dog and more.