Category Archives: writing

Materialistic or Spiritual?

A wonderful man belongs to my writers’ group.  He’s a retired cop from Milwaukee, AND he teaches philosophy.  He’s writing a memoir about the experiences he had on the force from the time he was young and inexperienced to the time he retired, and his stories go from laugh out loud to deadly serious.  I love listening to him read when it’s his turn to share.

Since he has a philosophical bent, he told me that he believes most modern literature is materialistic, not spiritual.  I replied that I wasn’t sure I agreed with that.  But when he asked me why, I had a harder time coming up with an answer.  I’m not a fast thinker.  I have to ponder ideas and sort them.  But after pondering away, I haven’t changed my mind.  Maybe that’s because of the reading material I choose.

I read predominately mysteries, but I intersperse them with other genres.  And here’s what I think and the authors who’ve made me think it:

First, I don’t necessarily equate the spiritual with religion, just as I don’t necessarily equate justice with the law.  To me, being a spiritual person equates with trying to find the greatest good in ourselves, the divine.  And I’ll be honest.  I struggle with that, because I’m never sure exactly what I believe that means.  Anyway, here are my thoughts about the spiritual in literature:

I’ve only read two William Kent Krueger mystery/thrillers featuring Cork O’Connor–Iron Lake and Boundary Waters–but Cork wrestles with doing the right thing and balancing his Native American culture and beliefs with his Irish-Catholic upbringing.  Indian mysticism flavors everything in the stories.  Nature plays a powerful force.  The books are as much about Cork’s character as they are about surviving and catching the bad guys.

I’m a fan of Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby historical mysteries.  Kiera Darby survived a horrible first marriage.  In the 1830s, husbands OWNED their wives.  They could abuse them nearly any way they chose.  Sebastian Gage’s mother married beneath her, a commoner, and her family taunted and ridiculed young Sebastian.  When Kiera and Sebastian meet and fall in love, they both struggle to overcome their pasts and to treat those they meet, even their servants, even people who have wronged them, with respect.  They work to rise above the harsh lessons they’ve endured in life.  The quality of a person matters more to them than titles or wealth.  Is that a spiritual journey?  It feels like one to me.

But I’ve read lots of books where a plot revolves around people trying to find answers and overcoming their faults and shortcomings even while the main plot might rotate around a murder or romance.  M.L. Rigdon’s The Gracarin is a fantasy where the warrior Torak rules a country whose religion is based on nature and music, harmony, and where women are treated as equals.  He forms an alliance with another country that has a more structured religion, but the leaders of both worlds abhor debauchery, cruelty, and excess. They join forces to conquer the corrupt rulers of the wharf.  In many urban fantasies, the theme is good vs. evil.  Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series has an over arcing story question of Kate battling her father, who wants power for power’s sake.   Kate often doubts herself and her choices, which makes her journey all the more real.  Many mysteries star protagonists who try not to be stained by the bad people they battle.  They try not to stoop to their enemies’ levels.

In an extreme example, in Mark Lawrence’s fantasy, PRINCE OF THORNS, Jorg watched enemies kill his mother and young brother before they leave him for dead.  Worse, when he’s rescued and his father, the king, learns what has happened, he chooses not to go to war over the incident.  It would be too costly.  Angry and disillusioned, Jorg runs away and joins a band of ruffian misfits.  While he’s away, the king remarries, and when his new bride has a son, the king–his own father–wants Jorg dead.  Jorg does despicable things in the book, but it’s hard to hate him, because everyone else is worse, even the peasants.  Their hate is selfish and random.  Jorg’s enemies kill for land or profit, but Jorg kills to build an army strong enough to ultimately make him a ruler.  And he swears he’ll be a good one.  He has a conscience and a code of ethics, but they’re brutal by any standards.  But then, so are the times.  Jorg’s far from the spiritual journey most think of, but his struggles are real and beg the question: Does the end ever justify the means?  Everything in Jorg’s world is relative.  Does that preclude his journey from being spiritual?

I still don’t know if I have an answer to my friend’s question.  It’s possible I’m too practical to be philosophical.  Can a person be idealistic and practical at the same time?  I’m not sure.  But it was fun to consider the books I’ve read in a different light.  Any opinions you’d like to share?

 

 

Finishing Up

I’ve mentioned before that I rewrite as I go when I work on a book.  This time, for the Lux novel I’m working on, I felt as though I’d written too lean.  I have a habit of doing that.  So before I reached the last chapters, I went back and polished everything I’d already done.  I added a character because I thought the story needed it.  And as always, I added more description and details.  Then I read the first chapter to my writers’ group on Wednesday, and they wanted even MORE description.  I must have REALLY written lean this time:)

The result is, I think I’ve made this book too short, but that’s how I’d planned it when I started out.  I intended to self-publish it on Amazon.  When I write a Muddy River, I purposely aim for about 60,000 words.  I’ve said many, many times that I’m a plotter.  I’m not only a plotter, I pretty much know how many plot points I need to get the number of words I want.

For a Muddy River book, I write out 30 plot points.  30 plot points usually equate to 60,000 words for me.  IF, which I don’t, I wrote chapters that were at least 10 pages, I’d end up with 300 pages and close to 70,000 words, but many of my chapters are much shorter, sometimes only 6-8 pages, so I need the 30 points to reach the word count I want.  And 30 always have worked on Hester, Raven, and their supernatural friends.  So, when I sat down to plot Lux, I made myself come up with 30 ideas and an extra one for good measure.  But I don’t have as many descriptions and as many characters in this mystery.  Hester and Raven meet friends at Derek’s bar to discuss what’s happening, and they travel back and forth to interview people in other towns.  That doesn’t happen with Lux, so I’m coming up short on words.  I had to come up with a few extra ideas.  I could have FORCED each chapter to be longer, but then the writing would FEEL forced.  This book has a fast pace I like.  Right now, I’m at 50,000 words with three more plot points before I finish the story and I still need to polish the chapter I worked on today.  That will add words.  It always does, but I’m not sure I’m going to able to summon even 60,000 before I write The End.  No problem if I still planned to self-publish.

BUT, I like this book so much, I’d really like to find a publisher for it.  Most publishers want at least 70,000 words for a  mystery, though, and there’s NO WAY I’m going to make that.  To come up with a book that length, I plot out 40-45 plot points and end up with about 35 chapters.  I just don’t have enough to make Lux a longer book, and the thing is, I really like it the way it is.  I don’t want to tear it apart and rework it to make it longer.  So I have a dilemma.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do.  I’ve always believed in sending in stories I believe in, with the idea that my agent or editor can always turn me down.  And if they do, then I can self-publish.  But my fearless critique partner, M.L. Rigdon, swears I write sparse enough, she can find lots of places for me to expand descriptions that will make the book better and the right length.  I’ve learned an important lesson, though.  The next time I write a Lux novel, I’ll need more plot points just because her books don’t have as many  “down” times or “soft” scenes that my other books have.  They move faster, so they need more ideas to fill them.

Toward that end, I came up with a list to fill out before I start plotting my next one.  It should give me more characters to choose from and more things to keep in mind: (and remember, this is for mysteries):

  1.  Who’s killed (the first victim), or what is the crime?
  2.   Why is the crime committed?
  3.   Who commits it?  List how and when he commits it.
  4.   Who are the suspects?  At least two.  Why are they suspects?  Any more?
  5.   Any witnesses?  Innocent bystanders?
  6.   What’s the ending?  (I always know the ending before I start a book).
  7.   Any special clues or red herrings?  Any alibis or fake alibis?  Accusations?  (I don’t always know these before I begin and have to fill them in later).
  8.   A subplot (something going on with a character besides solving the murder)
  9.   A second subplot (smaller)

I usually don’t bother with answering all of these questions, but I’m going to make myself for the next Lux,  because I know now that I’m going to need them.

Whatever you’re working on, good luck and happy writing!

Being Benched Is A Bummer

We’ve had a lot of company and seen a lot of people over the holidays.  Most of our friends have retired and their kids are grown.  But all of us can still be rattled when our kids hit a bumpy patch, friends hit snags, or health problems knock us sideways .  It’s frustrating to feel helpless.  The thing is, there are a myriad of things we can’t do much about.

Once kids grow up and move away, there’s only so much you can do to help them.  Sometimes–and this is even worse–you have to watch them make mistakes, get hurt, and lick their wounds.  It’s hard.  When you really care about people, the first instinct is to fix things for them.  But often, that’s not possible.  It’s not always even the best thing to do.

One of my friends is a therapist, and he uses the term “helicopter parents.”  They hover over their children, trying to protect them and shield them from being hurt or disappointed.  They think they’re helping.  They’re not.  Life isn’t always smooth or easy, and kids need to learn to deal with that.  But, if the problem is too big, and you CAN make a difference, wouldn’t you be tempted?

In the mysteries I write, my protagonists are usually dragged into trying to find a killer because they’re trying to help someone they care about.  In all three series, my protagonists are amateur sleuths, so the stakes have to be high enough to make them get involved.  In my Jazzi Zanders series, Jazzi usually knows the person who was killed or the person who’s a likely suspect and might be blamed.  In Muddy River, Raven’s the area’s enforcer.  It’s his job to find a culprit and punish him.  But Hester’s a teacher and the leader of the town’s coven.  She joins in trying to solve the crime because she takes any injury to someone in Muddy River personally.   In the new series I’m working on, Lux is a journalist who’d rather report a crime than try to solve one, but when her friends are in danger, she digs deeper to find the killer before someone she loves gets hurt.

I’ve read mysteries–and enjoy them–where the amateur sleuth takes risks just to satisfy her curiosity.  I’m sure there are people like that, and writers can make them believable, but myself, I’d steer clear of anything that might cause me bodily harm unless I was REALLY motivated.  That’s my protagonists’ approach to crime solving, too, and I think watching a loved one suffer for whatever reason–fear of going to prison, blamed for a crime they didn’t commit, fear that they might be the next victim, or grief because someone they loved died would be enough to make them jump in to help.  They’re not helicopter friends, but the type of friends you can count on in your time of need.

My protagonists aren’t the type to stay on the bench when they can make a difference.  They can’t stand sitting on the sidelines.  In life, sometimes, that’s all a friend can do.  And it’s awful.  We can’t fix the problem or make it go away.  The most we can do, at times, is to be there for moral support, to listen, and to share part of the burden.  But in mysteries, sleuths find the clues they need to solve the crimes.  And that’s the beauty of them.  As writers, we can make justice prevail and provide a satisfying ending.

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

Time’s Running Out

I’m beginning to sympathize with the people who did NaNoWriMo in November.  They had a short amount of time to write a whole lot of words.  When I decided to try to write two books at the same time, I thought I had plenty of time to finish them before January.  And I would have, if everything had gone according to plan.  I know, I know.  How many times does that happen?  How many times do the best laid of plans of …well, you know.

I had both the Muddy River book–TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–and the contemporary mystery novel–OLD FRIENDS, NEW HABITS–plotted out.  I’d work on Muddy River in the morning, take a break to look at e-mails and twitter, etc. and eat lunch, then work on the Lux mystery in the afternoon.  And honestly, I was making great progress.  Until I had to stop to write plot points for my sixth Jazzi Zanders book.  The book isn’t due until May 4th, and I’ve never had to send in plot points way ahead before.  But there’s a funny little thing called a contract, and it listed Dec. 15th as the deadline for my cozy mystery outline.  Not sure why.  Maybe my publisher wanted to remind me that I had a book to write.  But it is, what it is.  So I had to put on my writing brakes and pound out plot points.  I need enough suspects, twists and turns, and clues to keep things interesting, and they took longer to figure out than I’d expected.   By the time I sent them, I’d lost almost two weeks.  Those two weeks pretty much doomed me.

I’m not sure that I can work on Jazzi, then if I get my pages done for the day, work on one of my other books.  The problem?  I get hopelessly messed up if I try to switch back and forth between first person and third.  And believe me, when that happens, you notice.

My daughter who’s a nurse in Indy and my grandson and his wife who live in Indy are all coming up to celebrate a late Christmas with us this weekend.  Cheers and happy dance!  We get to exchange presents and have the big, holiday meal.  By the time they leave on Sunday, though, there’s not a whole of December left.  Even if I took coffee intravenously and didn’t sleep at all, I wouldn’t have enough time to finish both books.  So, I’m playing with options.

Maybe I could write on Jazzi during the week and work on Muddy River or Lux on the weekends.  My husband would still remember who I was, wouldn’t he?  Or maybe I could write on Jazzi during the day, take a LONG break, and then work on one of my other books for an hour or two in the evening.  HH likes basketball this time of year:)

I’m guessing it’s obvious by now that I’m not sure what I’m going to do.  But I’ll think of something.  I always (okay, usually) do.  I’m too close to The End to give up now.  Light candles for me.  Send me happy thoughts.   And whatever you’re working on now, best of luck!



 

Supernaturals at Winter Solstice

I’m knee deep into my fourth Muddy River novel that I’ve been posting here.  My fictional supernatural town is populated by witches, vampires, a fire demon, shifters, a siren, Fae, and Succubi, among others.   Part of the fun of writing them is the background that goes with each of them.  I’m a fan of myths and legends, old tales and beliefs.  Demons were often described as incubi, the infamous creatures who supposedly entered women’s dreams and led them astray.  Vampires, of course, have all kinds of baggage that go with them.  In some stories, they drain mortals dry while “nice” ones sip from them, but they leave two bite marks on their victims’ necks.  Sunlight was their enemy.  And writers tweaked how they described them to suit their needs.  Almost everyone agrees they were sexy and alluring and could glamour people.  Witches have been shown as everything from old crones with wild gray hair and warts on their noses, who offer young girls poisoned apples, to mortals gifted with magic who can use it for evil or good.

In Muddy River, my witches are all good.  They have to be with Hester as the leader of the town’s coven.  Those who resort to the dark arts are punished or banished.  As a matter of fact, every supernatural in my southern Indiana town has to obey the rules or Raven, Muddy River’s enforcer, will banish or incinerate them.  And anyone foolish enough to interfere with the town’s citizens will face Hester and Raven, who’ll hunt them down.

In this book–TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–the story takes place in December leading up to Christmas, so I wondered how a witch would celebrate the holiday.  And that led me to Yule or the Winter Solstice.  For witches, it’s the time of year when the days begin to grow longer and Light returns to the world–a time to celebrate.  Yule logs are lit in the fireplace, and candles glow on mantles and window cases.  In the books, I’ve put a Druid settlement close to Muddy River, and the witches and Druids share some of the old Celt practices.  Aengus and his fellow Druids collect and sell mistletoe.  I’ve also put a voodoo village, run by a high priestess, just across the Ohio River.  Their religion, too, is based a lot on Nature, but their magic differs from the others.

Occasionally, I’ve bent beliefs and legends to suit my story, but I try to give a true feel to each supernatural.  In the chapter today, I introduced a man who’s half Phoenix, half warlock–Cein.  Since supernaturals had to scatter and hide to avoid being hunted by mortals, it’s common for them to intermarry, mixing one gene with another.  He got lucky.  His combination of strengths made him very powerful.  But it’s not just genes that have mingled with one another.  Over time, supernaturals adopted some of the customs of the mortals they have to deal with so often.  So gift giving has become a happy tradition to celebrate friendship and love.

For the holiday season, Muddy River’s streets are decorated with evergreens and lots of lights.   Hester’s baking cookies and making candies for when her coven comes to her house to celebrate.  Troubles don’t disappear at holidays, though, so Hester and Raven have to find a voodoo priest who’s kidnapping witches, even as they struggle to finish up their holiday chores.  And just like them, I hope you can juggle the busyness of the season with the joy it symbolizes.  Happy writing!

Nothing on the calendar next week

I finished writing my plot points for Jazzi 6 and sent them to my editor.  38 of them.  And they were long.  But that’s one chore done.  This book will have two different unrelated murders in it, and my plot points ended up stretching more than usual.  I guess I should have expected that.  If one murder takes a lot of scenes to solve, two murders with different motives take more.   But they’re done.  And I’m not going to start writing the book until January, so the ideas have plenty of time to stew in my mind.  I like giving them time to settle and ferment and maybe even change.

Speaking of outlining, our writers’ club carry-in was Wednesday, and one of our members is studying K.M. Weiland’s book on how to outline.  It’s detailed, so we talked about how we developed our stories a little.  He’s like me and needs structure to find his way.  We’re in the minority in my group, but that’s okay.

Now that my Jazzi book is planned out, I can return to working on the two books I’m writing simultaneously.  I’ve missed them.  Hester’s had to find substitute teachers to take her place in her school for young witches twice now, and she’s ready to get back in the classroom to check on her students.  They’ve been so good to the friends who stepped in for her that she decides to reward them by letting them make witchy ornaments for their Christmas trees at home.  The ornaments serve a double purpose.  First, the kids love making them.  And second, she explains the meaning of each one while they work.

I was fascinated by the articles I read about the pentagram inside a circle.  I never realized that each of the five points stands for different elements: earth, air, water, and fire with the top point symbolizing the spirit, and that a witch can rotate the pentagram, not for Satanic purposes, but to concentrate on one element of magic more than another.  The circle stands for infinity and unity, so that the physical and spiritual are combined to channel magic. Interesting, at least to me.  Hester goes on to make other symbols, but I only had room for two of them in the chapter I polished today.

I didn’t get to my contemporary mystery at all while I worked on plot points, but I’m looking forward to writing new pages for it tomorrow.  My daughter Holly asked to see what I’d done with it, so far, so I sent her the pages I have done; and she called today to tell me she was surprised by them, since they’re not at all like a cozy, and she liked them.  Always a relief.  She’s a tough critic.  She gave me plenty of ideas on how to tweak the things she thought I skimmed over (I do that in first drafts), so I’m one step ahead on that.  I’ll have ideas to fix those flaws when I do rewrites.

But the really good news is that I don’t have anything on my calendar for next week.  NOTHING.  I’m hoping to duct tape myself in my office chair and pound on my computer until my fingers grow so thin, I can’t keep my wedding band on anymore.  Okay, that won’t happen.  I’m always telling my HH that I’m working fanny off, but he always tells me it’s still there:)  Regardless, I hope I get a lot of work done on both books next week.  Even if I’m lucky and I do, I’ll still have a lot more to do.  But I’m getting there.  Little by little like the tortoise, and some day in the dim future, I’ll cross over the finish line.

I know December is a busy month for everyone, but I hope you find a minute or two to hit the keys.  Whatever happens, I hope you enjoy the season.  And happy writing!  Or reading!  Or celebrating with friends!

And remember, I welcome comments and questions.  Just saying…

 

Setting

I just finished reading Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger.  He’s a celebrated writer, but that’s not why I bought his book.  I bought it because I met him at Magna cum Murder and he impressed me.  When I listened to him on panels, he gave serious, thoughtful ideas and answers, but he didn’t seem to take himself too seriously.  And he writes mysteries.  I like mysteries.

Iron Lake isn’t the usual type of book I read.  The hero, Cork O’Connor, is flawed with plenty of baggage.  He was the town’s sheriff until he panicked and shot a man not once, which was necessary, but six times because he couldn’t quit pulling the trigger.  His career would have survived that, because he was good at what he did.  But he was a Democrat in a Republican area, and the crooked Republican judge wanted him out, so did the crooked Republican editor of the local newspaper.  Politics can get ugly.  For Cork, it meant he went from being a sheriff to flipping burgers.  On top of that, a year later, his wife asked him to move out of the house he’d grown up in.  Okay, enough said.  The man had had a few rough years with no fairy godmother coming to his rescue.  I usually avoid books like that.  I’m glad I read this one.

Indian lore adds a strong flavor to the story.  Cork is part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, and Aurora, Minnesota is home to enough Anishinaabe to let them open their own casino.  The story takes place in December, and the reader never forgets that Minnesota is REALLY cold in winter.  As a matter of fact, the frozen ground and the frozen lake become almost a character in the book.  So does the Windigo–an Indian legend that calls to its chosen victim when the winds howl and the weather goes crazy.

The Indian mystiques and freezing weather wrap the entire story in their embrace to set an eerie undertone.  So does the understated writing.  Sparse, but telling dialogue.  Things left unsaid.  Blatant lies that flow like honey.  The antagonists and villains are exceptionally well done.  But every part of the story is flavored by the snow and ice and cold.  It fits the grim deaths and greed, the cold-hearted characters who drive the plot.

If cozies are usually set in small towns to add warmth and familiarity, suspense does well with hostile environments–big cities, dark alleys, brooding skies.  Or secluded small towns like Aurora, where the winds whip across the frozen lake and Windigos stalk you in the snowy thickets.

There were times that I wondered why Cork made some of the choices he did, but he was always trying to do the right thing.  And I admired him for that.  All in all, I not only enjoyed Iron Lake, but Krueger’s skillful writing often caught my attention and made me think of how I could make my own writing better.  It’s a good book to study for style.  And it’s a great book to read for setting.

Happy Writing!