A short, but happy post. At long last, I have finished the draft of Book 5 in the Leah Nash series, Dangerous Flaws. For a variety of reasons, which I will not bore you with here (those who wish to be bored may contact me via email and I will be happy to oblige), I fell behind on my writing schedule. Like, way beyond the-dog-ate- my-homework behind.
Which I hate to do. To make up for it, I have abandoned normal things like cooking, cleaning, and washing my hair for a greater percentage of the last few weeks than I am comfortable specifying. I have not read for pleasure, nor written a blog post, nor kept up with my friends and family the way that I like to.
But today, I typed “The End,” on the last page of my 300+ page manuscript. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s not really the end. Editing and proofing and formatting and many other things must happen over the coming weeks before publication, I know. But for this brief, shining moment, I’m going to say I’m done. At least until tomorrow.
Now, I am going to drink a glass of wine, eat something I shouldn’t, and sleep the sleep of the just. Good night.
I saw a lemonade stand last week. Just a little kid with a sign and a table. It wasn’t remarkable, except for the fact that I realized I haven’t seen one in years. Which got me thinking that it’s been a long while since I drove by a park in the afternoon, and saw it filled with children, and I can’t remember the last time I saw kids dressed up in cast-off adult clothes, playing a game of make believe, or marching down the street in a neighborhood parade.
Times change, and so do customs. Carefully orchestrated play dates and scheduled activities have taken the place of pick up games of baseball or bike rides that ranged all over town. The internet and its unlimited horizons may have eclipsed the joy of exploring neighborhood boundaries. Parents made wary by the 24/7 cable news focus on abductions and other dangers now keep children more tightly tethered than my siblings and I were, or than my own kids were when they were little.
This is not to say that ‘back in the day it’ was better, but it was definitely different. When I was a child, we left the house in the morning, came back for lunch, left again until dinner, then we were outside until the street lights came on. The only thing that brought us back home betimes was grievous personal injury — a serious scrape needing a bandaid and a little sympathy, or maybe a broken bone. Though there were surprisingly few of those, given the many trees climbed, bike miles ridden and forbidden bridges crossed.
And there was endless time on hot summer days to do nothing but lie on a blanket in the shade of a tree and watch the clouds passing by, while the leaves whispered softly overhead. And though my own children had more scheduled activities than I did as a child, they still spent most of their free time with neighborhood friends in self-generated play — producing “radio” shows with a tape recorder, organizing dog circuses with our long suffering pet Carrie, sailing on a pirate ship (that also doubled as our front porch) with their friends.
But in this worrisome world, it may well be a luxury with too high a price for parents to allow their offspring the freedom to ramble. And families that need two incomes must juggle jobs and day care with organized ways to give their children play time. I get it, but still …
I miss the sound of joyful whoops and indignant howls as games are won and lost in neighborhood backyards on long summer nights, and the sight of kids playing dress-up in cast-off formal wear, and the taste of watery lemonade on a hot summer afternoon, handed to me with a chubby, grubby hand, and the happy smile of a young entrepreneur.
At the heart of the matter, I suppose, my longing for the return of free and unfettered play isn’t really for the kids’ loss. It’s for mine.
Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, a fellow reporter and I broke a story that was centered in our small town, but which had tentacles that stretched across the country. It was a very complex tale that was told over several days with multiple related articles appearing in each day’s paper.
After it ran, the story was picked up by papers around the country, and a number of reporters from other newspapers called for background and source information as they did their own follow-ups. There was nothing unusual about that until I took a call and the voice on the other end of the line said, “Hi, this is Wally Turner from the New York Times.”
The New York Times was then the height to which young journalists aspired. That a Times reporter was calling me for help on a story was thrilling beyond measure. Sadly, instead of coolly taking it in stride, as though major daily newspaper reporters called me every week to ask for my insights and help, I went full Aunt Barbara on him.
My much-loved Aunt Barbara was a woman who could not pass on information without a large helping of extraneous material. If you asked her where she got her shoes, her answer usually included the name, medical history, and genealogy of everyone she saw at the store where she purchased them. And she knew a lot of people. Eventually, you would get the information you sought, but not without a lot of side trips down roads you hadn’t intended to travel. A variation on that is what the Times reporter got from me.
I was so excited to be sought out by the Times that I couldn’t stop the outpouring of details that rushed out of me as I tried to ensure that he really, truly, fully, understood the complexities of the story and that he had everything he needed. Finally, he reined me in gently and said that he only had sixteen column inches to fill and more than enough background. “It looks to me like I’ll be trying to stuff a ten-pound story into a five-pound sack,” he said.
I thought of that recently as I hit the halfway point of the fifth book in the Leah Nash series. Usually, I’m pretty elated to reach that spot, because the second half of writing a book always goes faster than the first for me. But I’m not so happy, because I realized that although I’m halfway through the word count I targeted, I’m only a third of the way through the plot. Oh-oh.
Either I’m going to have to cut a lot out in the editing process, or I’m gonna need a bigger book.
I try to roll with the feedback if a reviewer doesn’t like some aspect of a book I’ve written—or even doesn’t like any aspects of any book I’ve written. To each his own, right? One reader’s can’t-put-down book can be another’s can’t-get-into-it.
However, I can feel quite protective when someone criticizes not the book as a whole, but a character in particular. That is especially true when the character under fire is my lead, Leah Nash. I will be the first to admit that Leah is not always even-tempered, or wise, or mature, or forgiving. She is prone to acting impulsively. She has a quick tongue and doesn’t always filter what she says. And she’s pretty bossy and hates to be wrong. Hmm, as I write this I can see where the critics are coming from. And yet … She is generous of heart, loyal to a fault, quick-thinking, self-aware, fearless and funny. I enjoy writing her because she is a sometimes contradictory combination of light and dark.
But I’ve had to accept that some people don’t see her the way I do. A parallel for me in real life is when a friend informs me that she can’t stand a person we both know, but I find that person delightful. Some readers respond to Leah as I do, and some don’t.
Because the series is set, for the most part, in the small town of Himmel, Wisconsin, a recurring cast of characters pops in and out of the stories as foils and friends of Leah. Sometimes readers take a shine to a minor character and want to see more of her or him. The request I get most often is for “more Miguel, please.” Miguel Santos is a young reporter at the Himmel Times Weekly. He’s extroverted, optimistic, tolerant, good-looking and gay (in both the old-school and the modern sense of the word). No one has a bad time when Miguel is around. He’s a perfect counter-point to Leah’s more cynical outlook on life. And I’m happy to spend more time with him, myself.
On the other hand, Courtnee Fensterman, the receptionist at the Himmel Times is a polarizing figure among my readers. She’s a pretty, vapid, self-centered receptionist in her early 20s, who is described this way:
Self-confident without any basis, incompetent without any awareness, unencumbered by any sense of responsibility, she is perpetually aggrieved and slightly perplexed by job duties that pull her away from Tweeting, Tindering, and [Snap Chatting].
Readers either love her for her blissful state of self-absorption or hate her for it. I understand why some people urge me to kill her off. But despite her ditzy, self-involved ways, I do have a soft spot for her as one of my offspring. And she’s useful at times in furthering the plot.
One of the nice things about a series is that you can allow your characters to grow and change and that can be reflected, in part, by the way they interact with other characters. For example, Charlie Ross, a detective with the sheriff’s department, started out in a small role as an adversary of Leah’s. Eventually, he became a friend. I leave it to readers to decide whether Charlie changed, or Leah did, or if they both grew a little in understanding.
To say that Leah has trust issues is putting it mildly, and given her life experiences, it’s not surprising. However, she has no reservations about trusting her best friend, a man she’s known since they were both 12 years old, growing up in Himmel. David Cooper, known to Leah and almost everyone else as Coop, is a lieutenant in the Himmel Police Department. They both enjoy the easy comfort and tolerance that long-term friendship can bring. I get frequent calls for their friendship to morph into romance, though to date both have chosen other romantic interests. And to be honest, I’m not sure if they will ever be more than very good friends. Then again, I’m not sure that they won’t be.
I think that the characters a writer creates—even the not very nice ones—have a claim on the author’s affections. But, as is the case with parents, writers must send their characters out into the world to face whatever fate awaits them. Some readers will love them, some will hate them. But the worst response to a character isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Because attention, good or bad, is what all characters—and maybe all writers—crave.
Note: This first appeared as a guest post on The Book Diva Reads blog.
When I worked in a traditional job in a traditional office, it was common practice during a push to meet a deadline to retreat to cubicles or offices, close doors, send calls to voicemail, and focus entirely on getting the project done.
I find that harder to do in my home office because the other person who lives in the house cannot easily be ignored by the mere closing of a door. Gary is a very active person for whom to think, is to do. He is in and out of the house at least half a dozen times a day: to have coffee, to attend a meeting, to go to the hardware store, to visit a friend, to talk to a neighbor, to organize a meeting, to go to the post office, to stop at the library. If an idea pops into his head, he acts on it. And he gets an amazing amount of things done in a day.
I, on the other hand, spend quite a lot of time thinking before doing. But once started I like to work straight through for long periods, focused and undisturbed. Gary likes to share regular updates on his progress, and he usually meets this need as he interacts with people on his rounds. Except on the occasional day when he decides to spend time working on projects at home.
This is what my day at the office is like then:
9 a.m. Gary looks at a two-year-old tax return that he has come across “organizing” his files. He calls to me to come downstairs to his desk and look at the item that is disturbing him. I look. It does not disturb me. I go back to my desk.
9:30 a.m. Gary sees something odd on the surface of the river. He goes out to explore. I do not see it because my blinds are closed. He asks me to video what he’s seeing. I go outside to shoot the video. I go back to my desk.
10 a.m. Gary calls me downstairs to hold the tape measurer for him. I do. I do not ask why, or what he is doing. That might land me in a project I want nothing to do with.
10:30 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me we’re out of toner for the printer. I suggest he might like to run to the store to buy some. He does.
11 a.m. Gary returns from the store. He comes to my office to tell me about a person I don’t know, who is doing something I don’t care about. Then he gives me some flowers. Now I find it harder to order him out of my office, but I do anyway.
11:15 a.m. Gary calls up to me from his desk downstairs. He asks me if it’s going to rain tomorrow. I tell him I don’t know.
11:25 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me that yes, it is going to rain tomorrow.
11:26 a.m. I close my door. Loudly.
11:40 a.m. Gary taps softly on my door and whispers—as though the act of speaking softly cancels out the disturbance—asking if I know where his meeting file is. I do not.
11:45 a.m. I have hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob. I can hear Gary walk down the hall toward my office, then footsteps retreating after he sees the sign. Then it is quiet. Then I hear him in the kitchen faux whistling an unrecognizable tune—making half humming, half flutey-sounding noises. Then he stops. Then he starts. Then he stops. A few minutes pass. Then he starts again.
I start laughing. Because, well, Gary. I take the sign off the door and catch up on my email instead of writing the next chapter. Tomorrow is another day.
Note:This post first appeared in March 2016. It’s here again both because I’m hard at work on the fifth Leah Nash Mystery and I’m behind schedule, and because the content is still true. 😉
Nothing in my life, outside of the people that I love, gives me more pleasure, more comfort and more joy than reading. And there is no genre I enjoy more than a murder mystery.
There’s something very reassuring to me about a mystery novel. Perhaps it’s the underlying orderly structure—even in a fast-paced, hit-you-from-all sides thriller. After all, every mystery, from the coziest of cozies to the darkest hardboiled novel is, at its core, about the restoration of order.
Whether the mystery takes place in a quiet English village or on the mean streets of Los Angeles, the story moves from the disruption of the natural order of things to the eventual return to normalcy. The killer is unmasked, punishment is meted out, and the detective, amateur or professional, completes her mission. When the realities of my own life are far messier, I find it very nice—and sometimes necessary—to step into another world for a while.
The rhythms of a mystery series are especially good at drawing me in because, in addition to the puzzle and suspense of a stand-alone like Gone Girl, there’s the added dimension of a cast of characters I’ve come to know. In the most satisfying series, those characters continue to grow and to surprise me. I’m not fussy about subgenres. I like the gritty realism and imperfect hero of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, but I’m just as fond of the lovely writing and more measured pace of Louise Penney’s Inspector Gamache books.
I start a new book in a favorite mystery series with the same anticipation I feel about visiting a good friend I haven’t seen in a while. When I’m reading, I leave my own world and the people in it far behind—even though those people may be as close as a couch cushion away. Quite often when I need it most, I get caught up enough in their fictional problems to forget about my own. A meme that’s been circulating on the Web sums it up pretty well: I don’t want my favorite fictional characters to be real, I want to be in their fictional world with them.
I discovered that as a writer, I experience that longing even more than I do as a reader. When I finish writing another installment in the Leah Nash mystery series, I miss my characters and the small town of Himmel, Wisconsin where they live. I wonder what they’re doing while I’m away. In a way, I feel left out of things, as though their lives are going on without me.
Silly? Yes, of course it is. And yet I can’t help it. I’m not so far gone that I don’t realize my characters aren’t real people. And the small town in Wisconsin where they live is definitely not the small town where I live. For one thing, the per capita murder rate is far too high. But I think that a mystery series, mine or anyone else’s, is reality one-step removed. It’s the world as we’d like it to be, where tragic events may happen, and innocent people may suffer, but in the end, there is justice, and sometimes mercy, for all.
For me, a well-ordered mystery is very satisfying, and I relish the time I spend in its world. And I find there are some places I return to visit quite often. If you’re a reader (and I’m assuming if you’re reading this you must be) you’ll know what I mean. Perhaps we’ll run into each other in Santa Teresa, or Northumberland or Three Pines sometime–or maybe even in Himmel, Wisconsin. Until then, happy reading.
Note: This first appeared as a guest post on Lori’s Reading Corner, part of a virtual book tour I did recently.