Lessons from a Bad Neighbor

He’s long gone. In fact, I wrote the first draft of this post back in September and just now rediscovered it in my files. Some of these lessons I learned from enduring a bad neighbor for six weeks were things I already knew conceptually, but experiencing them emotionally last summer was enlightening for me as a writer.

Shortly after Bad Neighbor’s arrival in our lovely old adobe apartment building, which is entirely non-smoking, even the courtyard, I began to smell tobacco smoke leaking through the gaps around the kitchen and bathroom pipes. Second-hand smoke causes low-level carbon monoxide poisoning, and opening windows and running fans isn’t enough to clear it out. He smoked so much, I got headaches and dizzy spells and had trouble concentrating, and the stink often woke me up in the middle of the night. To make it worse, he seemed to be a drug dealer. People stopped by for five to ten minutes at all hours. He left his outdoor light on all night for them. When one of my good neighbors confronted him (“Are you selling dope?”), Bad Neighbor threatened to knock his head off. Bad Neighbor accused me of harassing him when I complained, and he was furious with me for getting him evicted by telling our landlord about the smoking. Not that Bad Neighbor let the eviction notice cramp his style. After a month, instead of leaving, he moved his equally hostile, smoking girlfriend in with him. They had no lease. They paid no rent. They didn’t move out until a few days before he had to appear in court. Meanwhile, I acquired some insights.

One: How con artists work. This squatter took advantage of my kind, soft-hearted landlord with a sob story about why he couldn’t get a place to rent or afford a deposit and why he could only pay for one week at a time. My landlord was new in town. If he’d been in the rental business here longer, he might have heard about this guy’s history as a serial evictee, sort of a professional squatter. Bad Neighbor found a perfect mark. I suspect he knows the law as well as anyone and exploits it to make sure he can live rent free, utilities included, as long as possible.

Two: Why people could get the urge to be amateur sleuths. My good neighbors and I were convinced there were drug sales going on, and so was the gentleman next door. But we couldn’t prove anything. The temptation to ask each of the five-minute visitors what they were doing was strong. So was the desire to find a way to prove Bad Neighbor was not just a squatter but a criminal. I could see it especially in the old soldiers—a Korean War vet and a Vietnam vet. They wanted to be brave and see justice done.

Three: How frustration could drive people to act on their own when the law can’t move swiftly enough to suit them. In my best moments, I sent positive intentions toward Bad Neighbor, visualizing him quitting smoking, acquiring a conscience, and paying what he owed, but at other times I fantasized having superpowers that would make him wander off in the desert and fall into a canyon, never to be seen again. Not that I would actually have hurt him, but … I got it. How a peaceful person—I’m a yoga teacher, for Pete’s sake!—could wish harm on an enemy.

One of my good neighbors suggested I might break with my “no murder, just mystery” approach and write a story in which Bad Neighbor dies. Good idea, but I plan to write it without murder. I’m thinking of giving one of my recurring characters such a neighbor. In keeping with an ongoing theme in my series, she could recruit help from someone with paranormal powers, taking justice into her own hands. Actions like that have a way of biting back. I like this plot idea, but I have two books to revise before I can get to it.

New Year- New Insights

Several of the Ladies of Mystery have some info about how they begin a new year or resolutions they make.


Amber in tree final

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. When I discover the need for change, I do it, no matter what time of year. I recently caught myself reading too much when I should have been writing—not exactly a vice for a writer, but still, it was taking me away from my work in progress. I now start the day writing. I limit myself to reading one book at a time, and have cut back on magazines and news articles. Not so much as to slip into ignorance, just reading in moderation. Writing before I do anything else is energizing and keeps the ideas percolating as I do other things before I resume writing at night. I’ve always written daily, but the morning writing is new.

My goal for the year is to complete the seventh Mae Martin mystery.  I’m entering such major revisions on it, the process will be quite an adventure. ~ Amber Fox

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Me at Caruthers Library 2I never write New Year’s Resolutions, but my plan—and you know what happens to plans—is to be more regular about my writing if possible. I’ve actually gotten rid of a couple of jobs so I should have more time, right? In any case, what I really want is to enjoy my writing. ~Marilyn Meredith

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2017 headshot newI don’t make resolutions, I make goals. My goal for the coming year is to put out a product (box set, book, novella, audio book) a month. I like to have something to tell my newsletter readers about.  And I  like to keep pushing out new material. My brain is so full of ideas for the series I have started and some I don’t that I have to keep pushing out the words and stories to make more room in my head.  ~Paty Jager

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Asking an Expert

I wish the author had asked me some questions. Asked someone with expertise in exercise science. The plot of a book that shall remain nameless depended on a near-impossible event having to do with exercise physiology. While this diminished my enjoyment of the book, it did remind me to do my own research diligently. A minor factual error doesn’t bother me much, one that slides by and doesn’t change the story. In another book, I noted a character saying that spring is nice in New Mexico, and I thought: Have you been here in April? Do you like high winds blowing grit in your eyes? But the plot didn’t revolve around the weather. And, well, the  spring temperatures are nice.

I’m partially confessing to an error that plagues me in one of my books. It wouldn’t change the plot, just some descriptive details, so I’m not going to tell you what it is, but if I’d asked an expert in person rather than looking things up, I wouldn’t have made it. Readers who catch the error may be a bit annoyed, though none have contacted me. Yet.

One of my beta readers does a lot of camping, something I’ve done in the past, but not for a long time. Ghost Sickness includes a camping scene, and she caught all the places where my memory hadn’t served me well. Sometimes we think we know, and we don’t. Or we used to know, and we forgot more than we realized.

I’m working on a book in which two characters are trivia buffs and play pub trivia. There aren’t any trivia game scenes, but I decided to go the Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. on trivia night anyway, just get a feel for their experience. I’m now hooked on the monthly trivia night. One time, I teamed up with two tourists from Chicago who were hiking in the area, and I found out that the world’s longest trivia tournament takes place in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I can picture one of my trivia buff characters attending that event in a future book, or I could invent such a tournament in in T or C, and have fun with the portion where competitors have to explore the town to get answers. Another night, I teamed up with a friend’s daughter who is a wild land firefighter. I have a character who’s in that line of work, and have only featured him in one book so far, while he’s home between fires. I’d wanted to ask her questions for future books, in case I gave him a larger role in the future, and she was eager to share. The great thing about talking to the expert, not simply looking things up, was that she could tell me things I didn’t think to ask. We stayed after trivia and I took lots of notes and got her contact information. I can’t wait to bring back the firefighter character, though it may have to be three books in the future.

My research contact list is growing.  I’ve talked to my neighbor who is the county medical investigator. She loves talking about her work, dead bodies and all. (There’s still no murder in my future books, but there may be a death under extremely awkward circumstances.) My meeting with an antiques dealer radically changed my plans for a crime in my work in progress. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but I’ll have to discard it and plan anew. It’s okay.  I don’t want anyone reading my book and thinking : The whole plot turned on that one thing, and she didn’t get it right. Why didn’t she just ask someone?

*****

Curious about mysteries without murder? The boxed set of the first three Mae Martin Mysteries is on sale for $2.99 for the next two weeks.

What we are Thankful for.

Several of the Ladies of Mystery authors sent paragraphs about what they are thankful for to be put on this 5th Thursday of the month post.

~Marilyn Meredith~

Me at Caruthers Library 2

My family is at the top of the list. I have so many grands, great-grands and after Christmas, it’ll be 4 great-great grands, that I’ve quit trying to count them all.

They truly give me great joy—those I don’t get to see all the time keep in touch by email or Facebook. Three live in our home with us. They make us smile and laugh a lot.

Of course I’m thankful for having a comfortable home and living in America. And I’m thankful for the pleasure that being an author has given me.

Marilyn Meredith aka F.M. Meredith

Latest books:

A Cold Death, a Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery

Tangled Webs, a Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery

Visit me at http://fictionforyou.com/

Blog: https://marilynmeredith.blogspot.com/

~Amber Foxx~

standing twist better

I am grateful for New Mexico, for its open spaces and unique culture. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I have good friends in a community that thrives on art, eccentricity, diversity, and creativity. I’m in excellent health, for which I am more and more grateful as I get older. My network of supportive fellow writers and my readers who appreciate my unusual take on the mystery genre are reasons to give thanks. Also, I’m grateful to the authors of every book I’ve ever enjoyed, but especially Born to Run, which changed my running life dramatically for the better as well as being a true story well told. And I’m grateful to the teachers who taught me how to teach yoga and who still teach and inspire me, and to the students who honor me by taking my classes. The more I list, the longer the list wants to become. I’m grateful for my fingers as they type and for the invention of word-processing software. Grateful for this moment. For this breath. For you, the person reading this. Namaste.

Latest book: Mae Martin Mysteries Box Set Books 1-3 

Visit me at: https://amberfoxxmysteries.com

~Paty Jager~

20170514_145537

I am thankful for a husband who early in our marriage understood my need to write. Children and family who also take my writing as seriously as I do. I am also grateful to be able to live in a rural area and still be connected to my writer friends and readers through social media even though it gives me fits quite often.  I enjoy our simple life, writing, reading, being with family and friends and sharing my imagination with others.

Latest book: Dangerous Dance: A Shandra Higheagle Mystery

Visit me at: http://www.patyjager.net

Blog: http://www.patyjager. blogspot.com 

 

Writing as a Gratitude Practice

 

Every day is a story. We usually wake up in the world of our status quo from the day before and set goals, and then challenges show up on the way to those goals. We face them, and whether we overcome them, change course, or defer completion, by night we close a chapter. Unlike a chapter in a book, though, that day’s chapter ideally doesn’t have a hook that keeps us awake and wondering what happens next.

To get closure on those daily endings, I keep a journal, following a structure I learned in yoga teacher training as a method for developing self-awareness and which I’ve taught in many stress management workshops. First thing in the morning, I record my dreams, if I remember them, and reflect on their unique and personal meanings (Recommended reading: Mindful Dreaming by David Gordon). In the evening, I record the emotions I experienced in all their complexity and variety. I consider this detailed awareness of feelings to be a mindfulness practice, but it’s also a valuable skill for writing. The next part of the journal covers the day’s events. Some are mundane, and I can skim them in bad handwriting, while others call for exploration, discerning how they related to the emotional landscape of the day.

The final line in each journal entry is something positive. It may be small and subtle or enormous and worth celebrating. It can also be an intention for the night’s fiction writing hours (I’m nocturnal and do the journal before I settle into my work). I never want to wrap up a day feeling negative or pessimistic. The human mind is naturally drawn to what’s wrong in case it requires attention. If my whole body feels great except for a twinge in my left ankle, my mind will go to my left ankle even if the twinge is trivial. Attention to the big picture and its positive aspects is a conscious choice. On a day in which difficult or painful events dominated, this space for hope and healing is even more important than on the more ordinary days when it’s easy to find some light.

With this journal, I train my mind not only to the story line and emotional depth of each day, but to gratitude. Daily.

*****

You can read more of my essays on mindfulness in the collection Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

Undermind at Work

That’s not a typo. I have not been undermined at work. I’m rereading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, and he refers to the slow processes of creativity and insight as the undermind—the part of the brain that’s working beneath the level of verbal expression and logic, the part that can detect patterns the conscious surface of the mind misses. The part that creates what the surface mind cannot. I read the book eighteen years ago when it first came out, but I wasn’t writing fiction back then, just academic research papers. I perceive its ideas differently now.

On this reading, I see in it an explanation of how pantsing a plot works. Those of us who write that way often marvel at how we laid clues we didn’t know were there and how we brought in characters whose purpose was unclear at the time, but who later revealed why they showed up and asked to be included. The undermind is best at solving complex, ambiguous problems and recognizing hidden patterns. The other mode of thinking, what Claxton calls d-mode, for deliberative mode, is better at problems with clear rules and defined parameters. I see d-mode as the revision mind and the undermind as the first draft mind. I’m at a point of indecision near the end of a first draft. D-mode wants me to evaluate my options. The undermind wants me to keep writing and see what happens.

I can apply the concepts of the undermind and d-mode to how my characters solve problems as well.  Claxton describes experiments in which trying too hard, having time pressure, or having too much at stake can all inhibit subjects’ problem-solving and pattern-detecting abilities. The slow, unhurried tortoise mind is better at breakthroughs, and yet the nature of a mystery plot is anything but slow and unhurried. Still, a character may encounter a puzzle early on, be unable to solve it, attend to other problems while the initial puzzle simmers in the back of her mind, and then have a flash of insight. The flash isn’t a flash, though. All along, her undermind was at work. I’ve seen mystery writers use this pattern well, showing the protagonist’s frustrating sense that the solution is near while not quite grasping it yet, knowing that something in the mind-shadows wants to be understood.

D-mode works well while talking because it’s verbal and structured. When characters are doing the logical kind of problem-solving, dialogue is natural. Claxton cites studies in which subjects were asked to solve puzzles and either talk or be silent while they did it. With clear though challenging puzzles in which all the information was present and needed to be analyzed, talking improved the outcomes. However, with insight problems, bewildering visual puzzles that required creative shifts of perspective, talking got in the way or turned into babble such as, “I don’t know what I’m thinking. Nothing. I’m not actually thinking.” Silence gave better results. In fiction, this second process might take place in an internal scene, a sequel or reflection. The different modes of problem-solving could lead to conflict, as an analytical type needs to talk things out while an intuitive type needs to stop talking—and stop listening to words—in order to think.

My preference for creating my first draft from the undermind may be why I like a plot mandala better than an outline. I draw a circle and begin writing character names and story themes in what feel like the right places, then let my undermind connect the patterns among them.

Images: 19th century Chinese puzzle ball with the twelve concentric balls inside; puzzle cube; math equation dice.

Book Club Discussion Questions

 

I recently created a set of reading group discussion questions for the first book in my series, The Calling. An unconventional mystery with a coming of age element, set in rural Northeastern North Carolina, I’ve always thought it had “book club” qualities.

As I wrote the questions, I visualized the revision grid I used while I worked on the book, with the themes and plot elements mapped out, and it struck me that imagining a book club discussion could serve as a revision tool or even a plotting tool (for those who actually plot) for a work in progress.

I was in a book club for many years in Virginia. We read fiction of varied genres as well as a good selection of nonfiction, and we had some great discussions about style, structure, themes, and characters, often disagreeing and enjoying our varied points of view. These are the questions I came up with for The Calling and added to its page on my web site.

How did you respond to the book’s mixed genre? It’s been reviewed as mystery, women’s fiction, paranormal, coming of age, and literary fiction. Did you want it to fit a genre more neatly?

 Mystery can mean an enigma, a puzzle, a secret, or something impossible to explain, as well as a novel about solving a crime. Without a crime to solve, what were the mysteries?

 Were there any characters you had especially strong feelings about? What was it about them that affected you?

 Is there a villain in The Calling? If you think there is, who is it and why do you see this person in that role? If you think there isn’t, explain why not.

 Themes in the story include power, professional ethics, personal fulfillment, and privacy. The questions that follow explore those themes.

  • If you had the gift of the Sight, with the same limits and abilities that Mae has, how would you use it? Would you be tempted to use it in ways that might cause you some ethical misgivings?
  • The nature of Mae’s gift provokes concern about privacy in the course of the plot. Are there ever considerations that take priority over privacy?
  • How does each of these characters—Charlie, Randi, Malba, Deborah, and Mae—approach his or her professional ethics?
  • How did you see the issue of power play out in the story, in both personal and professional relationships?
  • The story takes place before the #MeToo movement. What might be different if it was set in 2018?
  • Mae’s desire for personal fulfillment is a driving force in the storyline. Did you identify with any of the obstacles and conflicts she faces?
  • Religion and spirituality—Christianity, Buddhism, indigenous shamanic religions, New Age beliefs, and more—are important to many of the characters and to the development of the plot. Where did you see religion misused, and where did you see it supporting a character spiritually?

 Now I need to write discussion questions for the other five books that follow. Even if book clubs don’t use them—though I hope they will—I can use them to analyze my protagonist’s character arc and the themes I’ve explored throughout the series. This will lay a foundation for a thoughtful revision of the work in progress, focused on the layers of depth and meaning behind the plot as well as the events that structure it.

*****

The Calling is free on all e-book retail sites through September 30th.