writer's block

… that’s the wrong term. There’s a period when the story is coalescing, coming together in strange ways in my head. I think about details and snippets of dialog and ask myself questions: what is it Hannah wants here? why is this character so persistant? what does the air smell like just now?

I keep myself busy with research and reading, reading, reading (a study on the history of the British army called Redcoat just now). Making notes to myself, and losing them and spending an hour looking for the notes and then starting all over anyway. Studying maps. Maps are great for helping the process along (for me personally).

Somebody asked on the discussion board at Yahoo whether or not plot comes first, or how that works. I can only answer for myself, and here it is: yes and no. I have the greater historical framework to pay attention to, and that is a kind of mega-plot I can’t change. Or not much, anyway. From there, it’s a fairly organic process for me. I have an overall knowledge of what’s going to happen (at least, I think I do; sometimes big things change half way through because a character just refuses to go along with what I had planned). While my conscious is busy thinking things through (okay, in this next chapter Jennet will have to…) my subconscious is getting up to tricks, and will spring surprises on me at the oddest moments. While I was writing Into the Wilderness I had no idea that Julian had seduced Kitty until she came around the corner in the middle of the night and ran into Elizabeth. Then it made perfect sense. Julian was a healthy male without female companionship and with a terrible habit of acting out on his worst impulses, what else was he going to do? That’s the way my plots develop: by hook and crook.

Just now the whole fifth book is simmering, and I’m jumpy and will remain jumpy until i get the first chapter nailed down. Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitutude) once said that it takes him forever to write the first sentence, and everything flows once he’s got that down. For me it’s a whole chapter. I have thirty pages written that I will rewrite and rewrite until I’m comfortable that I know the setting and the characters and where they’re headed (at least at first).

If you know Márquez’s work or any of the authors who are known for magical realism, you might notice that I actually lean towards such things myself once in a while, in a small way. Think of Treenie.

libraries, ode to; Jetta Carleton

As a little girl I would walk two city miles to the public library on Lincoln Avenue on Chicago’s north side, no matter what the weather. I think I checked out every book in the children’s section before I was ten. If the building hadn’t been converted to condos (I should hate this idea, but then I can imagine what a great place that must be to live) I could show you still where certain books sit the the shelves because I checked them out so often: A Wrinkle in Time or Up a Road Slowly or Our Year Began in April.

I have a great respect for libraries and librarians of all kinds. Here in my small town the public library gets almost no public funding, but they provide wonderful services anyway. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we lived for ten years, there was a fantastic public library with every possible service, as well as the university’s top-ranked research library. I was spoiled, then. Now I have to make due with interlibrary loan, the internet, and buying lots of books I would ordinarily check out for a few weeks and take back.

There’s a ranking of public libraries (of course, we love to rank things). Like any ranking it is flawed, but it does establish one thing: In the big city category, the Denver Public Library ranks first. Now, I have nothing against Denver, really, but this seems to me a case of gluttony. Denver already has The Tattered Cover Bookstore, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. And it’s got a good university library too. Really. I ask you.

So if you have a good public library, count your blessings. If your public library isn’t quite so wonderful, maybe you could help them out a little, eh? Especially when it comes to public funding.
One other thing, because I ran into this book on my shelf today and whenever I do I want to sit down and read it all over again.

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton.

Publisher: Bantam Books; Reprint edition (December 1984)
ASIN: 0553244221
sadly out of print

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years. I gave it to my daughter to read this summer. She was doubtful (the cover of this particular edition was particularly awful, I admit) but she read it on my recommendation and we had long talks about it. The really sad thing, she says, is that Jetta Carleton never wrote another novel.

Jetta Carleton’s obituary, from the Albuquerque Journal on December 31, 1999.

JETTA LYON , 86, of Santa Fe died Tuesday following a stroke. She was a writer. Her major work, written under her maiden name, Jetta Carleton, was ‘The Moonflower Vine,’ a novel from her childhood in rural Missouri. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1962 and became an immediate best-seller in both hardback and paperback. It was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Readers Digest Condensed Book Club. She was a graduate of Cottey College and the University of Missouri. She taught school briefly, wrote for radio in Kansas city and for television and advertising in New York. She and her husband lived in Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C., before building a home in Santa Fe in 1970. They founded The Lightning Tree press in 1973, publishing nearly 100 titles. The Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association honored them in 1991 with its first Rittenhouse Award for lifetime contributions to regional publishing. She was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years, Jene Lyon. She is survived by a sister and grand-nephew in Wichita, Kan. Friends scatter her ashes at her home in the Santa Fe foothills at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Santa Fe Funeral Options.

research obsessions

Here’s the thing: I can’t fake it. Or to be more exact, I can’t live with faking it. Writing a short scene set in a place I’ve never been, really, how hard can that be? Just… gloss over the fuzzy details. Who cares what this particular place smells like? What color the sea is? How long it takes to get from one place to another?

The answer: my characters care. They are uneasy if there’s insufficient data for them to work with. So today, reading over the first chapter of Queen of Swords the characters tapped me on the shoulder and said, you know you can’t get away with this. Hit the books.

I don’t live in a big city, or anywhere near a good research library. I love our local library; they work really hard to provide good services on an almost non-existant budget. In fact, I’ll have to write a little about libraries, I think, straight away.

But the problem: constructing a fictional island that fits into the overall setting of the Lesser Antilles. What I’d like is a small island with a cove like pictures I’ve seen from Greece or Turkey. Never been to those islands, probably won’t be going. So today I spent three hours researching books on the subject and I gave my credit card a workout. Tomorrow I’ll have to go ahead and start on a different chapter, I suppose.

reading and writing male characters

Someone asked in a comment how reading science fiction and crime novels contributes (if at all) to my own writing. It’s a good question, but I think the answer is fairly simple.

It seems that people who write well are people who read a lot. I don’t know anybody who writes for a living who doesn’t need to read constantly. It’s like… gassing up the car, you gotta have fuel to tell stories. Now this might seem like I’m saying that you take stories from elsewhere, but that’s not what I mean at all.

It has more to do with the fact that storytelling is a community endeavor, something that can’t exist in solitude. If you tell stories you have to listen to them too, or your ear for the rhythms starts to deteriorate.

So I read widely, all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. Pretty much across genres. There are those corners of the storytelling universe where I don’t go often (I’m not a big fan of traditional whodunnits, for example). But I love the needle sharp prose of quality crime fiction, the tight plotting, the strong characterizations (when it’s well done, of course). I read Dennis Lehane, John Sandford, Stephen Hunter (he’s got a new _Earl Swagger_ novel coming out, be still my heart), Lee Child, Andrew Vachss and half a dozen more writers in this genre with great enthusiasm.

Dan Simmon‘s Hardcase and its sequel, Hard Freeze, typify why I like this kind of story: the opening chapter is hair raising, and I defy any reader to put down the book once Joe Kurtz has made his first move. _Here’s a hint:_ it involves, first, a garbage disposal and second, a third story window.

As a writer, I often find it hard to just read for enjoyment. I’m too busy observing how the author did one thing or another, thinking about process and alternates and word choices. If a book draws me in to the point where I forget to pay attention to those details, then the story really works for me. Then I read it a first time for story and a second time in order to observe process. This is especially true when I’m reading crime fiction, because the characterization of the kind of man who populates these stories (hard, hardened, cynical, often sad, almost always with a big simmering lake of anger right at the surface) is a challenge for me in my own work. I think, huh, that’s interesting, how Joe or John or Reacher reacts to this; I wouldn’t have gone there first thing.

So reading outside my genre, reading widely, is an important part of my process. Science fiction feeds into my work in a different way; I’ll try to talk about that sometime soon.

Today I did do some writing of my own. There’s a new male character who shows up for the first time in Thunder at Twilight (I’m fully aware that you haven’t read it yet, I won’t give much away here, don’t worry). He’s a career soldier in the British army, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars in Spain, with some twists that are just being revealed to me as he has jumped feet first into the beginning of Queen of Swords. Uninvited, I might add. There he was, wanting to tell the opening scene from his point of view, so now I’m following him around while he observes, and talks to himself, and tries to convince himself that he’s not neck deep in something that’s threatening to drown him.