Thursday, August 28, 2014

Guest author Lesley A. Diehl: Writing Closer to Home

Lesley A. Diehl
Lesley retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in the Butternut River Valley in upstate New York. In the winter she migrates to old Florida—cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office, and gators make golf a contact sport. Back north, the shy ghost inhabiting the cottage serves as her literary muse. When not writing, she gardens, cooks and renovates the 1874 cottage with the help of her husband, two cats, and Fred the ghost who gives artistic direction to their work. She is author of numerous short stories and several mystery series including the microbrewing series (A Deadly Draught; Poisoned Pairings), two rural Florida mystery series (Dumpster Dying; Grilled, Chilled and Killed), and the Eve Appel mystery series—A Secondhand Murder; Dead in the Water.  Other mysteries include Angel Sleuth,and Murder is Academic.

I’ve been writing and publishing for about ten years.  Lately I’ve found that my writing has changed in ways that I don’t think readers would be aware of, but I am.  I’ve said that I’m “mining my family” for my ideas and my characters, but it’s more than that.  My work is coming from a place closer to my center.

The first advice I ever received when I began writing fiction was to write what I know.  Since I was a retired psychologist, it seemed clear that meant I should use my career as the basis for my work.  The first manuscript I wrote featured a professor of psychology as an amateur sleuth.  She was, as you would imagine, me in a younger, feistier, more in-your-face persona.  Not a bad character, but the manuscript was originally well over one hundred thousand words.  You guessed it.  I didn’t know how to write fiction.  The work got  no interest from agents and editors.  They were wise not to want to bore their readers.

So what else did I know?  Early in my career I ran a part-time private practice, so I had some clinical experience and an interest in multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder.  I constructed a story about a multiple, the dominant personality written in first person, the alternates in third person.  That’s not an uncommon approach now, but at that time, although some agents thought it was an enticing idea, I was a newbie with no fiction writing credentials.  And I made the story humorous which horrified some agents.  And that one went nowhere also.

I decided I had run out of what I knew, so I carefully researched a protagonist for the first book a small publishing house bought.  The research was fun because my protagonist was a microbrewer.  Now I knew nothing about craft brewing, but I learned fast by touring small breweries in New York and Florida and picked brewers’ minds and sampled their products.

I seemed to find my humorous voice in a series set in rural Florida, a story about a retired preschool teacher turned bartender who was a winter visitor to Florida.  Emily Rhodes found the fields of cattle, the lakes, swamps and the honest nature of the people to her liking, and she adopted rural Florida as her home much as I had.  I loved it so much that I set another series there with a protagonist who owned a consignment shop and who loved secondhand merchandise.  So do I.  Where did that come from?  My paternal grandmother liked to reuse things even her daughter’s clothes which were sizes too big for her, but she adjusted them with scotch tape, safety pins, staples and some basting thread.  She taught me at a young age about repurposing, reusing, reclaiming and rehabbing everything from clothes to furniture.  Suddenly, writing my Eve Appel consignment shop owner protagonist seemed like I was coming home.  At the same time I wrote several Thanksgiving short stories about a red-haired aunt of Amazonian proportions and a couple of quirky grandmothers as the major characters.  They really were my family, albeit a bit exaggerated.  Recently I learned that the fourth story featuring my “Aunt Nozzie” will be published in yet another Thanksgiving anthology.

The writing process felt different because it seemed to come from deep inside me where all my childhood memories of family resided.  These bits and pieces of my life seemed to be aching to become a story.

Not all childhood remembrances are happy ones.  In my case the joyful times find their way into funny stories.  Others are percolating around in my psyche waiting for a darker vehicle for expression.  Perhaps I’m finding yet another writing voice, one of dark humor and noir atmosphere.  Regardless, as a writer I think I’m writing nearer to what is important to me—family.  It’s always found its way into my work, but now it feels more genuinely mine.

I wonder how your writing has evolved.  Is my journey similar to yours?


Charles Gramlich said...

When I retire from psychology I'm gonna write more too. And retire to my country roots, although mine are in Arkansas!

Lesley Diehl said...

Before we returned to Upstate New York, we considered Arkansas as a home. It's country too!

Dac said...

I think it's true. At first we write what we've been told, with an eye to what's being published, advice from agents, and so forth. After a while you find a core, and your voice settles down. The story finds its way into the electrons - mind to computer. Then, the story reverberates -- look out the window, earth to sky, let it flow uncensored.

Anonymous said...

My journey is similar to yours Lelsey, though I had been freelancing for newspapers and magazines for years before turning to write fiction. I've mined my own experience as a fire fighter and those of some friends of mine that are police officers. I've used my own family's history to give depth to my characters-good guys and bad.

Patricia Gligor said...

Before I wrote my first novel, I wrote tons of short stories. Looking back now, I realize how much of "me" was in them. The characters in my Malone Mystery series are based on bits and pieces of imaginary people and people I've known - not on me.
My settings are another story - no pun intended. My books take place in my hometown and, in future books, in places I've visited and come to know.

Linda Reilly said...

Lesley, I first want to say that I love your Aunt Nozzie character, and I'm looking forward to the next Thanksgiving story! I'm curious--in your real life did you ever treat a patient with so-called multiple personality disorder?

Lesley Diehl said...

I have had multiples in my practice, but I find I feel more centered writing about family members, or my "take" on them. I'm both lucky and unlucky. Most of my relatives are deceased (and I miss them), but that means they can't yell at me if they think I did them wrong in a story. As for Aunt Nozzie? Well, she is my aunt to a "T". Although my aunt is no longer with us, she'd love Aunt Nozzie and probably make me a Scarlet O'Hara to celebrate!

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome back to Novel Spaces, Lesley!

I too find I'm focusing more and more on stories inspired by my family history with its larger than life characters. Part of it (I think) is a desire to make sense--even the fictional variety--of my life and its influences.

Another part is the acute awareness that the older members of my extended family are dying out and their stories are dying with them. I now listen very carefully to the (usually repetitive) stories of my mother who's now the oldest member of her family. When she goes the stories of an era go with her--unless I preserve some of them in my work.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I started out writing novels for kids. Most of my protagonists are boys, probably because I am the mother of two sons. I began writing mysteries about 13 years ago. My sleuths are all women. I still write the occasional kids' novel. Except for my first published novel, the characters in my books aren't based on relatives or friends.

Lesley Diehl said...

You make a good point, Lianne. Writing about family members no matter how disguised as characters in our work can help make sense of our family history and ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Good post, and oh so true. Writing only what we know is so limiting. We always use bits and pieces of what we know, but we must spread out and learn new things if we're to have a fulfilling writing career. My first published books were set in Montana, a state I had never visited. But I researched for a long time and they were successful, even with readers from Montana. I write about the things I want to know. Give me an excuse to learn about them.

Marja said...

I have one character who's loosely based on someone I loved, my grandmother. Maybe there are traits of others in my life, but if there are, it's not intentional. I'm more inclined to create a fictional story based on something that actually happened to me or someone I care about. From family legend to actual incidents, they spur the imagination. I guess it would be up to the reader to decide if they thought a story was based on something real or imagined. Maybe they can relate to some incidents.

Excellent post, Lesley!

Marja McGraw

Jewel Amethyst said...

Writing close to your profession usually make for a novel bogged down in detail. I try to limit characters in similar profession to me.

I find my characters like yours are caricatures of my family, friends and acquaintances.