Something new is always a good idea

I’ve been enjoying learning the ropes from a cool bunch of writers on Facebook who are dedicated to writing LOTS of books. They say the more books you have out, the easier it is for readers to find you and thus, the better your revenue stream will be. That means money, to the writer. Crass and commercial as that may seem to some writers and readers, it’s impossible to not think about money. It gives the writer space to be creative, time to dream, and a reason to write another book.

Frenchman announcementAs my fifth book in my Bennett Sisters Mysteries launches I feel this effect. When I run some cheap ads on Facebook for the new book, people discover the whole series. Now at five, there is some heft, some reason for people to think about connecting long-term to these characters.

I’ve also been doing a blog tour for The Frenchman, the new one, and wrote this guest post about how the characters have changed, and I’ve changed in my understanding of them over the years. (See Beth’s post on Shelf Rider.)

As I launch the fifth installment in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series it occurs to me that one of the joys of writing a long series is the chance to really dig deep into the personalities of the characters. Although I originally conceived of the series as linked stand-alones about each of the five sisters, the first book, Blackbird Fly, centered on the middle sister, Merle. When I eventually continued the series, I continued Merle’s journey of self-discovery after the sudden death of her husband. It just made sense that one summer sojourn in France wouldn’t cure all her problems, lovely as France might be.

discoverFranceagainSo Merle has a Frenchman. Initially, like Merle, I didn’t see how a long-distance relationship with a man who lived across an ocean would work. How could she work in New York City and Pascal work all over France’s wine country and they continue a romance? Because, although I didn’t write the series as a romance, women have love affairs— have you noticed? And they like to read about them. Merle’s affair with Pascal might have just been a fling, a curative, that first summer. But as the series goes along it’s obvious that Pascal thinks of it as something more. Although Merle isn’t sure what he thinks— he’s a Frenchman and you know how they are— her feelings mature, especially in this fifth book.

Their relationship is an underpinning in the novels to intrigue, sisterhood, and the joys and trials of mid-life. The sisters range in age from 40 to 55, or so, and I try to find aspects of women’s lives that are interesting and challenging. Life can be hard but reading about how other women make choices and navigate the pitfalls is helpful and revealing to me, and I hope to readers.

As a writer you never know how readers will react to your characters. Will they think them weak and stupid for their choices? (Yes, I’ve had that review.) Or will they identify with them, cheer for them, hope for them? That’s what I live for, that identification from the reader. I am not an Everywoman myself. I am opinionated and cranky and sometimes not that nice. Also, funny, a good friend, a loving parent— I hope. We all have so many aspects. I see some of myself in each of the five Bennett Sisters. I am a middle sister myself though, that’s why Merle appeals to me.

I recently had a review of Blackbird Fly that made all the writing worthwhile. (I love that readers are still discovering the series.) A reader said “The main character, Merle Bennett, could have been me, though I’m not a lawyer, have never inherited a house in France, and never had her problems. The writing puts you in the book.”

Right there, that’s why I write.

Then, if you love France like I do, the reviewer says that for her, at least, I got something right: “I’ve spent enough time in France to know that Albert, Mme Suchet, and the others in the village who snubbed, helped, or sabotaged Merle are just so … French. The story unfolds just as it should along with Merle’s self-discovery and personal regrets.”

And so Merle’s journey continues in The Frenchman. Who is the Frenchman, you ask? There is of course Pascal, Merle’s Frenchman. But there are many more in this book, policemen and old villagers, young punks and charming neighbors. And in Merle’s novel, chapters of which are included in the novel, there are Frenchmen from the Revolutionary period: farmers and rebels, nobles and royals, villagers and strangers. I had such fun writing Merle’s novel— which will be fleshed out and published separately as well— about a goat-herder who flees the terror in Paris for a farm in the Dordogne. Merle calls it ‘Odette and the Great Fear,’ and it will be available soon as an e-book.

I hope your writing and reading goes well as we ease into chilly weather– the best time to read and write! Happy autumn.

Lise

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That Old Autumn Feeling

tumblr_maiujcqypo1r3sm6co1_500As writers we sometimes feel blessed — or cursed — with a continuing education. Every day we write we are on some learning curve or other, struggling to remember what happened yesterday in the story, where it’s going, what the research says, and how to put the perfect sentence together. The advent of brisk fall weather reminds us of back-to-school, even though most of us haven’t been to actual school for decades. Autumn is a time of endings, but also beginnings. New pencils, new friends and old, clean reams of paper, spotless notebooks ready to be scribbled in: this is autumn.

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This 9/11 we remember the victims of the terrorist attacks as well as honoring the first responders and those who still suffer physical and psychological trauma from that time.  And here’s to us getting out of the Big Muddy to paraphrase Pete Seeger.


On a happier note, I am glad to be attending this year’s Bouchercon in New Orleans doing a couple of panels, celebrating Down & Out Books’ 5th anniversary, and participating in group signings for anthologies I’m in – The Highway Kind, Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, Crime + Music, Occupied Earth and Blood on the Bayou.

Lise McClendon

img_2048Lise is not happy about NOT attending this year’s World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, in New Orleans. It’s always a blast, a sort of writers high school reunion. So she adds this silly photo from last year’s event in Raleigh, NC, to remember the good times.

Katy and Lise hope there are some big chairs in New Orleans. Because what is a convention without giant seating?! Laissez les bons temps rouler!

This August marked the release of Lise’s newest Bennett Sisters novel, The Things We Said Today. The third full-length novel (there is also a novella) comes two years after the last things-we-said-webone, The Girl in the Empty Dress. To mark the occasion and thank readers she is giving away copies of Blackbird Fly, the first in the series. Click here to get the details. 

The new one finds the five sisters in the Scottish Highlands for the oldest sister’s wedding. But does she even want to get married at the ripe old age of 55? Weather, whisky, and intrigue threaten to shatter the happy day.

Lise also refurbished her website at lisemcclendon.com and would love to hear what you think of it. Also check out how to join her review team. Free books: were two better words ever combined?

J.D. Rhoades

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J.D. (aka Dusty) will also be at Bouchercon in New Orleans this week, September 15-18.  Come by Mardi Gras “D” at 4:30 Thursday for the panel “Telling Lies”, moderated by the extremely funny Johnny Shaw. See if you can separate true stories from lies told by professionals!


He just turned in final edits on a new Jack Keller novel, HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL. Check out the cover!

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Here is the cover for Kate’s soon to be released 5th Joe Burgess police procedural, Led Astray. Watch for it on Amazon.

In other news, A Good Man with a Dog, the memoir Kate co-wrote with a retired Maine game warden, won second place in the 2016 Public Safety Writers Association annual writing contest.

May your pencils be as sharp as your mind! Happy autumn 🍁🍂

“I DON’T READ WOMEN WRITERS”

Recently, author Gay Talese caused a firestorm when he answered a question during a Q & A at a literary event about what women writers had inspired him. Talese was clearly a little nonplussed by the question: “Uh, I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. I would, um, [pause] think [pause] of my generation [pause] um, none.”

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By the time he’d gotten home, the 84 year old Talese, who’d penned such classics of literary journalism as “Honor Thy Father”, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” and “The Kingdom and The Power,” was being told by the Red Caps at the Amtrak station that he’d “gotten himself in trouble” up in Boston (according to the account in the New York Times). His wife told him “Welcome home. You’re all over Twitter.” And so he was. The online service had exploded with tweets calling him “sexist” and “out of touch.” They reacted with disbelief to his further remarks that, in his day, women weren’t tending to do “exploratory” journalism like he was doing, “Because…women, educated women, writerly women, don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable.” They pointed out female non-fiction writers like Joan Didion, Gloria Steinem, Mary McGrory, Ellen Willis, Edna Buchanan—the list goes on and on.

Now, Talese claims he misunderstood the question, and maybe that’s true. And this was Twitter, after all, which is famous for demonizing and ruining people before its hive-mind has had a chance to think.

But I myself have heard people dismiss female writers, especially in my own area of crime and thriller fiction. I’m thinking in particular about a fellow who asked me at one signing who I was reading at the moment. I mentioned how much I was enjoying one of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan novels. The man (who really did seem like an otherwise nice fellow) pursed his lips in distaste. “I don’t read woman writers,” he said. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t answer for a moment. Finally, I just said “well, you’re missing out on a lot,” which was certainly a lot nicer than what I wanted to say. Since then, other writers have told me they’ve heard the same thing, and I’ve seen similar comments online. “I don’t read female writers.”

To which I can only reply:  WTF?

picard_rikerWTF

I can kindasorta understand the people who tell me “I only read non-fiction.”  I certainly don’t feel that way, but I can see how some people might.

But if I’d said “I don’t read women writers,” I’d have missed out on the above-mentioned Laura Lippman’s amazing work. I’d have missed Val McDermid and Karin Slaughter and Megan Abbott and Barbara Seranella (RIP). I’d have missed the work and thus most likely the friendship of some of my favorite people, like Tasha Alexander and Toni McGee Causey and Margaret Maron and Alexandra Sokoloff. I’d have missed the work and the friendship of the extremely talented ladies on these blog: Sarah and Kate and Lise and Taffy and Sparkle.

In fact, if I’d turned my back on female authors, I probably wouldn’t be writing crime fiction today, at least not in the way I do now, because it was our very own Katy Munger who gave me my earliest encouragement and whose Casey Jones PI novels taught me by example that my native North Carolina could be a pretty cool place to write about (Thanks, Katy).

So, Thalians and friends of the blog: have you ever had someone tell you “I don’t read women writers?” And what would you suggest for them, other than a long walk off a short pier?

Tricksters and Pranksters

The origins of April Fools’ Day are shrouded in a bit of mystery but probably hark back to the time when, in the Middle Ages, the calendar was changed. March 25 had been the beginning of the new year and in some places in Europe it touched off a weeklong celebration, ending on April 1. Whatever the beginnings, April Fools’ Day or something similar, has a long tradition in many cultures around the world.

Loki
Loki

Why would a practice of scamming somebody, embarrassing them and making them look ridiculous, be so popular, you ask? We have only to look at the long list of tricksters and pranksters in mythology and literature to see that playing jokes, taking authority down a peg, and generally creating a little chaos where the heavy hand of tradition rules, have always been widespread practices. They make us laugh, they lighten the heavy load of life— which was much heavier in the Middle Ages when most of us would have been peasants or slaves— and gave hope that the future will be brighter than the present.

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La Chat Botté, or Puss ‘n Boots

Famous tricksters include the Norse god, Loki, whose tales helped explain natural phenomena like earthquakes while providing a naughty, often nasty foe for Odin and Thor. In many Native American cultures Coyote is a trickster who can shape-shift as man or coyote and is often portrayed as being part of creation myths.

Some pranksters are helpful, some harmful. Often they are mix of both. Puss ‘n Boots, a French-Italian character, helps his master, the third and lowly son in the family, find wealth and love through deception. A German trickster, Till Eulenspiegel, was possibly a real vagrant and highwayman whose wicked ways became the stuff of legend, even though many of his pranks were scatological in nature (involving tricking people into touching, smelling, or even eating his… poop.)

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Till Eulenspiegel

[When I read about Till Eulenspiegel I thought of the scene in ‘The Help’ when a disgruntled maid tricks her uppity employer into eating a pie made from— spoiler alert— excrement. She deserves a special April Fools Award, no? Shall we call it Der Eulenspiegel? Jawohl!]

Speaking of the South, the tales of Br’er Rabbit circulated for centuries before they were written down, told on plantations among slaves, and originating in Africa. While the Uncle Remus versions may be distasteful today the originals had a purpose, to create laughter, release stress, and show that sometimes you have to use your wits to get out of the sticky wicket. Algonquin and Cherokee tales incorporated many of these same stories of the trickster rabbit, taken from slaves.

Terrorized by Kitsune
Terrorized by Kitsune

Tricksters aren’t limited to the Western Hemisphere. In Japan a nine-tailed fox called Kitsune was originally a Chinese creature. The Japanese lived in close proximity with foxes and during their superstitious periods believed the fox was magical and slightly evil.

Reynard the Fox
Reynard the Fox

Another fox of trickster lore is Reynard who appears in early French tales. His name became so synonymous with ‘fox’ that the French word for fox, goupil, is now archaic. From the Alsace-Lorraine region straddling France and Germany, his stories first appeared in the 12th Century in Latin poems and spread throughout northern Europe.

Doctor Who, Shape-Shifting Thru Time

There are so many more from around the world: Kuma Lisa, a trickster fox of Bulgaria, the Curupira, a red-haired jungle genie in Brazil, and Maui, a Polynesian trickster who hauls islands out of the sea.

We see them regularly in books and on screen: Captain Jack Sparrow, an amoral ‘bricoleur’ who can take a messy situation and somehow make it right, The Doctor in ‘Doctor Who’, the ultimate shape-shifter, and those prankster brothers from another mother: Dennis the Menace and Bart Simpson.

In books and stories we are often drawn to the most colorful characters. Whether we’re writers or readers, villains and jokesters can make or break a book. We love when the hero’s perfect day is shattered by something funny or humiliating, when the heroine is shocked by a little mayhem. Is it any wonder we are fascinated with bad boys, motorcycle gangsters, despicable rich assholes, and the ultimate chaos-creator, the serial killer?

Trickster Russell Brand as Puck

The comical sidekick, or someone like Shakespeare’s Puck, the shrewd knave from Midsummer Night’s Dream, offers a break from the grim business of murder, or falling in love with an ass. Shakespeare knew the incredible value of comic relief in any story. And so did generations of lovers of a good tale before and after.

 

April Fools! Go out and do some dirty work. I’ll be there right after I finish these ‘Kick Me’ signs…

PS: Send nominations for your favorite trickster. Der Eulenspiegel 2016 is on the line.

Of Widgets and Craft

We over here at TPAC think about writing a lot. The doing of it and the marketing of what it is we produce. Particularly in an era when the fight for, dear reader, your attention is an unrelenting and quite daunting task given how many ways you can spend your free time. For instance, there are cable television shows I used to watch every week, Longmire and Hell on Wheels to name two. I got behind on these programs, keeping up with the storylines of other shows, then figured out why sweat it. Wait until the episodes were streaming on Netflix, Hulu or some damn thing yet to come along, and binge watch – a phrase spawned by our digital age. The age where stuff never truly goes away and we can find something to entertain us around the clock via various outlets.

Amazon is a factor in this as the Kindle and other e-readers have had their effects on the pursuit of creative writing as a career. Those who self-publish solely or as part of their writing life as I do, have felt the crush to constantly feed the machine. That it’s not unusual for some writers to produce four novels or mixed with novellas per year. I know at least a couple of writers who work full time at their craft and have managed to pull this off. They write across genres, under a different name or two, and maybe with a partner on one or so of the books they have to get out there. It’s a time when a come on to gather potential readers of your book is not so much a glowing review in the New York Times but putting it on sale for .99 or giving it away for free for a limited period. The book as commodity as opposed to an appreciation of its individual merits, what it gives to you the reader.

Lorraine Devon Wilke in a recent piece in the HuffingtonPost Book section decried these practices of producing books as if making your quota supplying the conveyor belt. She self-published her first novel called After the Sucker Punch. She’d worked years on this effort, wanting it to be a work of art, a book of depth and merit. I can dig that. I too want to write books that have something to say in big and small ways. And that does take time to make happen on the page. Writing and rewriting, thinking about does this passage work as I intended…maybe my man character should really want this and her antagonist talks in this way and those changes will alter the plot That even if you write genre, you might elevate the genre at times.

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Carl Kolchak at his typewriter

This versus the grind to turn out x number of pages a day to get to the finish line so you can start all over again. Little time to shape and hone that one sentence just so or be reflective on how to shade the nuances of your characters as the story unfolds. That like the pulp writers of old, you pound out the work because writing’s a job and you have a deadline to make. The Raymond Chandler versus Erle Stanley Gardner school. The two were friends and Gardner it’s been reported could dictate three novels on a given day, each at its own stage, to his secretaries Even when he was doing his own two finger hunt and peck typing, Gardner was known to write two short stories a day for the pulps with a goal of producing 100,000 words a month – while maintaining his law practice. Chandler penned less than 10 complete novels and a few screenplays, and he sweated long and hard on what he put down on the page. Could you find Gardner more formulaic, yes. Was Chandler more evocative in what he wrote, certainly.

Arguably Chandler’s work has endured but you can’t dismiss Gardner so easily as his ultimate creation, keen witted criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason, has endured as well.

Is there a happy medium between these two approaches? For some it’ll remain a numbers game and for some, they can be prolific and hit a certain standard of writing that can entertain and be insightful. Other can’t be rushed and will take the time they need to write the book and there’s nothing wrong with that either. For yet another recent riff indicates readers like writers are becoming hybrid and consuming their books electronically and the tried and true method of paper.

Could be there’s room for all types of approaches, levels of output and how those stories are received..

The Great Book Schlep

It’s summer so I must have moved again, right? That great wind from the West is a thousand cardboard boxes getting recycled. This is the IMG_1464fourth time in ten years I’ve packed up a house and unpacked it again. Sometimes I do the packing, sometimes, like this time, I have someone else pack for me. The one thing I always pack, and unpack, myself is my books.

The first time I moved in the 10 year span I did a massive clear-out of books. I had piles upon piles, books from contests I’d judged, books I’d read and loved, books I’d bought and never read, books someone else in the household had read and I’d never actually seen before throwing them into a box.FullSizeRender 3

My only regret about that move is that my husband made me sell the massive LIFE magazine collection I had lucked into when the local library went digital. Because I write (sometimes) about the late-thirties and World War 2 years I had scored most of the 1930s and 1940s issues of the large format, fully illustrated, iconic weekly. I tucked just one away, for a book I still haven’t written: the first issue of LIFE after Pearl IMG_1479Harbor. (I have written a short story about it: SNOW TRAIN.) I also still have the first issue of The New Yorker after 9/11, the black cover issue.

Many, many copies of LIFE magazine have survived (just check on Ebay) so it’s not like I can’t track down a particular issue if I wanted to. But leafing through those issues is just golden. My parents subscribed to LIFE when I was growing up and I devoured it. Some issues are full of silly stuff like swimsuit models and college pranks. This issue contains society photos of a VMI formal of all things. But they illustrate what life was like in those times the same way, say, a week on Facebook does today. (There are also, unfortunately, scads of examples of racism and prejudice.)

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Christmas 1941 still arrived, socks and all

So, on this move, I put my lonely copy of LIFE magazine on a shelf with lots of other books that have been schlepped hither and yon over the years. It’s funny the memories that come back when you touch and shelve a book, finding its subject mates or author mates. I will remember buying a book for instance and never getting around to reading it. Or more likely wanting very much to read it again. I made a little pile for myself as I sorted. Not too many books: that just becomes another collection in a different place.


FullSizeRender 12My husband has a large collection of books on Zen Buddhism and meditation. While I have done my share of meditating I have never been able to sustain enough interest to read an entire book about it. So I put one book on the pile. If that one doesn’t take, there are plenty of others.

I also want to re-read this scholarly book about Jane Austen. [Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.] I have been fascinated with Austen since I read Pride and Prejudice in high school. I re-read the books, trying to find clues to why she is so approachable and sly, how she builds characters so effortlessly. And Rich in Love? I have such vivid memories of reading that novel [diminished somewhat by the movie] when I first started seriously writing. I burst into tears as I finished it, knowing I would never write a book so lovely, simple, and moving. A must re-read.

And lastly there is a new book, All The Light I Cannot See, given to me by my friend, Helen, who read it for a book club I used to attend with her. The sorrows of moving, leaving friends and book clubs behind. But I still have the books, my always friends.