Sunday, January 14, 2018

From baking pies in the UK to never sleeping in New York

Last year I ended on a very British note with a recipe for mince pies. I’m going to start this one in New York with shocking revelations. Lovers be warned.
I recently read an article by Ray Setterfield, a feature writer in the UK. You know how we Brits are sticklers for the law.
I love the city that never sleeps and have been lucky enough to visit New York twice so far in my life. I adored Times Square with its apparent no holes barred attitude to street entertainment. We were enticed by cowgirls wearing virtually nothing but…paint, and cowboys with carefully positioned guitars. Of course, our eyes were held by bright lights, impressive NYPD cars and the man in uniform with a gun standing next to one. We were even approached by my all time Super Hero Spider-Man. Unfortunately we weren’t in any danger and I didn’t need saving.

But we were breaking the law.

In January 1902 flirting in public was outlawed. As my partner and I gazed around at all the sites in this wonderful city, we were constantly giving each knowing, even flirtatious, looks as we were getting caught up in the excitement and hoping to have some of our own.
To make the situation graver, I happened to be married at the time. To someone I hadn’t seen for many years. I was in New York with the love of my life, just waiting for a divorce to come through—we’re married now, by the way. It seems adultery was outlawed in 1907. I could have been thrown into jail for upto 90 days!
I was so glad I’d been wearing my old cloak at the time as I went on to read about another law still in place in New York—it’s illegal for a woman to be on the street wearing “body-hugging clothing”.
Perhaps that’s why those girls wear paint, and there’s always a policeman hanging around, ready to pounce on the guilty!
One of the many good things about being an author is the freedom to have your characters break laws and get away with it, or not, as the story dictates. For my research into crime, I have used reports by The Serious Organised Crime Agency, a friend who was a policewoman, and a lawyer I used to work with, among other sources.

Now it looks as though I need to read up on local laws next time we visit a major city, just in case. It would seem we might not all be as innocent as we think.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Don't Think about Your Reader (But Do Care about Them)

During my sabbatical from Novel Spaces I toyed with ideas for a year’s worth of columns – and often resolved to write them while the were fresh in my mind. I did not. And this morning, when I realized my first column for 2018 was due, I was caught completely flat footed.

While flapping in circles wondering what to do, I came across some old advice about never thinking about your audience or market when you write, just write! I realized I had something to add to that. Because, like all absolutes, it’s not really.

My current novel series, Dirt and Stars, is young adult science fiction. The protagonists’ ages are 15 to 16 in book one, Down to Dirt, and age through 16 to 18 over the course of books two and three, Life on Dirt and Rise from Dirt. The market for YA fiction is, of course, everyone, but publishers usually target readers a year or two younger than the protagonists – in this case, 13 to 16. This perception of who will be reading the novel impacts how the editor and publisher feel topics like cursing, sexuality, emotional trauma, social issues, and other potentially sensitive issues are addressed.

And they’re right to be concerned – I live and have taught in a North Carolina county where Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is banned from public schools and libraries because a 15-year-old boy describes the joy of – not the act of – masturbation. The novel intelligently depicts eating disorders, racism, poverty, alcoholism, suicide, and cultural identity – topics that should be addressed and discussed in middle and high schools. But that one paragraph has kept it out of untold numbers of school districts – which translates to the loss of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of copies sold to English classes.

Dirt and Stars is written in multiple first-person, told through the frequently-intersecting journals of five characters. Mara Duval of Tombaugh Station must write about her visit to dirt (Earth) for academic credit; Jael Alden intends to do great things and her father (half jokingly) told her to keep a record so she’d have the facts right in her memoir; Beth Duval writes because her best friend Jael writes; Lije Bronislav dreams of being an entrepreneur and believes great ideas can come from random observations; and Fatima Kielani has a social communications disorder and records her daily interactions for discussion with her therapist.

For thirty years I taught in an alternative high school, or taught “those kids” – the ones in the self-contained room at the end of the hall – in a traditional school, was a community support case manager, and did in-home and community “coaching” for family preservation services. When you’ve been around teenagers long enough that you’re part of the furniture, they’ll converse about all kinds of things in front of you. (Especially if you cultivate the impression you’re a little hard of hearing.) I drew on the things I learned and observed working with kids in crisis when creating my characters, how they thought and felt and how they spoke. And my first try was pretty upsetting for everyone who saw it. Eventually I figured out that realistically depicting what I’d experienced didn’t work for my story – all of my characters came from stable homes, were clean and sober, and didn’t have kids of their own. I had to draw on what I knew, not reproduce it; be authentic without being graphic; and make my people accessible without being generic.

Cursing, as Maggie King wrote so well about on December 22, Do You Let Your Characters Swear?, was an issue. Science fiction tends to attract younger readers and has a tradition of using made up curses. Firefly gave us gorram an evolution of “goddamn” and Battlestar Gallactica simply replaced “uc” with “ra” to give us the ever-popular Frak!
There’s one actual curse word in Down to Dirt, and it’s there for legitimate effect. The rest of the time the dirt kids say “crap” a lot and Mara says “blow” – which is, you guessed it, a made-up curse word. The trick was making this work without being too cute about it. I imply, but do not explicitly state, that while they only say crap "on camera", they use other words in other situations. And, about a third of the way in, after Mara vehemently exclaims “blow”, I have her explain it in this entry from Beth’s journal.

“Why do you say ‘blow’ like it’s the f-word?” I asked.
Mara looked at me sharply ... then the corner of her mouth twitched. “Because it is like the f-word,” she said. “Only not about that.”
“Oookay,” I said after waiting for her to add something more. “How is it like the f-word only not about that?”
“A blow is a catastrophic decompression,” Mara said. “Like a hull breach, or when you’re outside and your EVA suit is punctured, or the seals on your waldo rupture.”
I didn’t know what a waldo was, but evidently having its seals rupture in space was really bad.
“So you’re saying that if someone in space has a blow,” I said carefully, “they’re pretty much f-worded?”
“Pretty much,” she agreed solemnly.
Jael laughed. “Beth, you are the only person I know who says ‘f-word’ when there’s no one around.”

Conversations about sex can be both realistic and PG if neither character is sure of the other’s limits or expectations (or orientation) and they’re both sounding each other out without being explicit.

Late in Down to Dirt Mara is sexually assaulted. That scene went through more rewrites than the rest of the scenes combined. In the final iteration I describe just enough of the physicality to give context, but focus not on the act but on Mara’s panic—evoking the horror without detail. In the end, I think this worked better than any graphic description would have. And, relevant to the point, it made the scene accessable to the reader who might be overwhelmed (or offended) by a rawer telling.

So. Don’t worry about your reader when you write? Maybe not in the first draft, when you’re getting everything out so you can work with it. But at the same time, you should be mindful of the person listening to your story. Not readers in the generic – that’s the publisher’s concern, when they’re marketing the story you wrote – but that one reader you want to read, remember, and share what you’ve given them.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Reflecting on Two Authors Who Left Us Before the New Year

by Linda Thorne

As this New Year begins, I can’t help but think of my surprise when I heard of the recent death of author Sue Grafton. Her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone had become a well known character worldwide. My sister caught onto her books when the alphabet series first started in 1982 with the publication of A is for Alibi. After my sister read each of Sue Grafton's books, she normally mailed the book to me and that’s how I caught on to this series.


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Also, earlier in the year B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens left this world abruptly. Her latest novella, The Last Blue Glass, still won the 2017 Anthony Award, but she wasn’t there to personally receive the esteemed award. Her family took care of it on her behalf. Her blogspot, The First Two Pages - B.K. Stevens Mysteries started in 2015 and many mystery writers, myself included, were lucky enough to submit and be accepted to appear on her blog. I looked online and saw that her blogspot is alive. Looks like her daughter along with B.K.'s friend and mystery author Art Taylor are working to keep the First Two Pages blog going. 

When celebrity authors we’ve known or followed leave for that big bookstore in the sky or whatever peaceful place they disappear to, not only are we reminded of our own mortality, we feel their absence. At least I do. I know now that I’ll never enjoy reading a new book by Sue Grafton again, something I’d already considered since she’d talked of retirement after Z is for Zero. There will be no letter Z in her series. I will not see new B.K. Stevens stories in the Alfred Hitchcock Magazine I subscribe to.

Life goes on until it doesn’t and I hope all of us go for the gusto and make the most of what we have while here. I think Sue Grafton and B.K. Stevens did just that.

RIP for Sue Grafton and B.K. Stevens. For the rest of us this may be an exciting new beginning or, maybe, just a continuation of grabbing as much of life as we can knowing how limited our time  is here.  

Happy 2018 New Year!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Of too little reading and drunk men on horses

A fair approximation of my TBR pile 
My TBR pile has reached truly obscene proportions. I suspect I read less fiction this year than any other year of my life: I was way too distracted with the jaw-dropping politics, the death of my favourite aunt who finally succumbed to cancer, moving house (again!), etc. etc. etc. I picked up novel after novel, only to put it down again and return to more fascinating (read 'horrifying') fare.

My disinclination to read fiction began to scare me, so I forced myself to pick up some classic fiction. I re-read Wuthering Heights and realized that Heathcliff, who had impressed me as such a romantic hero when I read some version of the story as a child, was actually a monster. I re-read Jane Eyre after watching the Wide Sargasso Sea film, again having read it when I was very young, and realized that Mr. Rochester, whom I had disliked intensely as a young girl, was actually a very sympathetic figure.


I ventured into the realm of vampire romance with Eugenia O'Neal's Beach Vamp, and was astounded to discover that I could find a vampire character sympathetic. (I should not have been surprised; I absolutely loved William Dafoe's vampire character in Shadow of the Vampire, as well as the classic film on which it is based, Nosferatu.)


The novel that made the greatest impression on me was Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner, first published in 1936. I love Faulkner. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the background to the problems with race relations that beset the US would find his work riveting. While The Sound and the Fury was tough going at times, Absalom was not just very readable, but a great page-turner. I could not put it down. I don't think any other novelist captures the ethos of the decaying American South quite as well as Faulkner. I imagine he was not much beloved of his fellowmen from the southland.

The title of the novel is significant. In the Bible, Absalom was the third son of David. He was charming and handsome, and lived in great style. Absalom's sister was raped by Amnon, who was their half-brother. Amnon was also David's eldest son. Faulkner's novel, while an allegory of the history of the American South, mirrors in many ways the narrative arc of the Bible story.

NOT William Faulkner!
When I was a literature undergrad, one of my lecturers told the class this anecdote. Her father was a student at the U of Virginia when Faulkner was writer-in-residence there. He vividly remembers Faulkner riding his horse across the campus on evenings, drunk as a lord. I was thrilled that someone I knew knew someone who had actually seen Faulkner in the flesh--even if Faulkner had been all but passed-out at the time!

I've disappointed myself enough in the past that I stopped making a list of New Year's resolutions many years ago. But I do intend to return to my lifelong bookworm habits. Here's hoping that 2018 is a happy and productive year for all of us. Happy reading, and happy writing!

~Liane Spicer