Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Local Color

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming weeks we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published April 21, 2013.

By Liane Spicer

Writing coaches recommend that writers use local color in their stories to make them come alive. Every location, real or fictional, has unique sounds, sights and flavors. The characters in a story don't live in a generic town; they live in a town in a particular place where the stench of the swamp permeates when the wind blows south,
where little blue buses called "Conchita" bustle along the main street, where a paraplegic veteran sits in a cart in front the courthouse and curses the gov'mint every Saturday morning.

I'm from the Caribbean so a reader might expect to find a certain island flavor in my storiesinfusions of hot sunshine, white beaches, clear turquoise waters, lush vegetation, and market stalls heaped with mangoes and pineapples forming the perfect pictorial background to my scenes. They might expect colorful characters from the postcolonial melange of cultures, the syncopation of soca, calypso and reggaeand they would very likely find these. But local color extends far past the touristic image of a tropical paradise. Those elements are not the whole picture.

Particularly exciting to me are the languages, myths and legends of the region. There are many versions of English, English Creole and French Creole spoken in the Anglophone Caribbean, varying from island to island and even within territories. Then there are the mythsthe tales of jumbies in Trinidad (duppies in Jamaica, ghosts elsewhere), the lagahoo (loup-garou or werewolf elsewhere), douens and La Diablesse... Penetrate deeper and a kaleidoscope of fantastical human, animal and supernatural characters emerge.

Some myths blur the lines between reality and fiction. When I was a child one of the tales with which my father held us in thrall was the story of the giant snake. It lived in forest pools, he said, and every so often it would come out and raid nearby villages, swallowing livestock and children whole. This horrifying creature was called a wheel, and years later, whenever I swam in deep forest pools after a long hike, the image of the wheel lurking below never failed to send shivers down my spine even as I laughed and splashed with my fellow adventurers. Suppose the thing was real? Why was it called a wheel anyway? Did it put its tail in its mouth and roll through the forest like a hoop? Suppose one lived down there? Would it emerge from the green, shadowy depths and pull me under where it would proceed to swallow me whole as I thrashed in vain, while my companions ran (or swam) for cover?

I subsequently discovered that the snake is not a wheel but a huile, French lexicon creole for oil, and the name is derived from its fluid movements in the water. The huile is also known locally as macajuel, a Spanish creole form, I think. It is a type of boa constrictor and is related to that famous South American giant... the anaconda. My father did not invent the huile; the darned monster is real.

The more I write, the more I feel the urgency to capture the colors of this place. The old spaces are being razed; the old words are dying out, replaced with the Americanisms of cable television. I remember standing in front of a literature class a few years agowe were reading a novel by local novelist Michael Anthonyand not one of those teenage suburbanites knew what laglee was. (It's the sticky white sap of the chataigne or breadfruit tree that's spread on twigs to trap birds.) When I was a child no boy worthy of the name would be ignorant of the existence and applications of laglee. The colors are fading fast, including those of the old characters, the lagahous, douens and that man-eating she-devil, La Diablesse, who are retreating further and further into what's left of the tropical forests.

There's only one way to keep them alive: on the pages of our books. Keeping them alive has become an important part of my mission. Do you feel a compulsion to conserve the colors of your patch of earth?

Liane Spicer

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

How “Real” Are My Characters?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming weeks we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published April 21, 2018.

By Maggie King

Are my characters modeled after real life people? This is always an interesting question. The answer is yes. And the answer is no! As my characters are a hodge-podge of the many “real” people I’ve known over the years, snippets of their experiences wind up on my pages. And I’ve known people who live turbulent lives; Carlene Arness, the victim in Murder at the Book Group, #1 in my Hazel Rose Book Group series, is a case in point.

I think people expect similarities between myself and my sleuth, Hazel Rose. Like Hazel, I was born on the east coast, moved to Los Angeles in my twenties, and started my career as a computer programmer. Like Hazel, I had a calico cat named Shammy who accompanied me when I moved back east in 1996 and settled in Richmond, Virginia. Hazel and I share a commitment to the environment, we’re both frugal and unimpressed with the high life.

But divorce and widowhood have not touched my life—I will soon celebrate 29 years with my one and only husband. I may get stuck in ruts, but not for long. And, alas, I don’t have Hazel’s “money green” eyes.

The biggest difference between me and Hazel is this: if I needed to re-purpose my life a murder investigation would not be the method I’d choose. No question about it. 

But real people did find their way into Murder at the Book Group, like a woman I used to see at a gym in Richmond. I never knew her name or even talked to her except for a hi and a wave. She was partial to leopard prints and chartreuse. The last time I saw her she sashayed into the gym sporting chartreuse stiletto boots and a leopard cowgirl hat, platinum blonde curls cascading down her back. She became Kat Berenger in the Hazel Rose series. As a perk, I gave her a personal trainer job at the same gym.

Jeanette Thacker “reminds” me of a former co-worker. Jeanette doesn’t feel the need to censor her speech.  However, her language was much saltier in earlier versions. My editor advised me to ditch the swear words. If the real Jeanette reads my tome and recognizes herself I think she’ll be pleased but will probably wonder why she’s using words like “frigging.”

Another character is based on a woman with whom I once had an adversarial work relationship. I made her nasty as all get out. But I had a runaway word count and some ruthless editing was in order. Ms. Nasty got whittled down and, lo and behold, she became quite nice! I’m still scratching my head about that. Do other writers unwittingly transform their characters via literary nip n tuck? Is writing a vehicle for forgiveness? Someone with savvy in the spiritual realm can weigh in on this question.

Here is a list of some classic characters you may not have known were based on real people. Dorian Gray is one of them.

Image from

How about you, my fellow writers: how “real” are your characters?

Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and to the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and two overly-indulged cats.

Instagram: authormaggieking

Amazon author page:

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Method of my madness

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming weeks we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published July 28, 2010.

By Carol Ottley-Mitchell

Let me share a little secret with you. I am very old fashioned when it comes to writing.

We have to keep this to ourselves because in my other life, I work with computers; I write computer software, consult on information management and create websites. When it is time to create literature, however, I find it impossible to do so at the computer, I must put pen to paper. I suspect that seeing the words on paper, the way that my readers would, provides some level of inspiration. I probably would have done very well with a manual typewriter.

This stumbling block makes writing a very laborious process since, having written the words, I must then transcribe my scrawls into an electronic form so that they can easily be edited and shared. Being a techie, I have done some research in an attempt to make this process a little less painful.

Intelligent character recognition software is one possible solution to my problem. I could scan my jottings and use optical character recognition software to electronically translate my written words into characters that can be edited with a word processing document. The problem is that no software has yet been created that can decipher my handwriting. Years of computer use have caused my writing to deteriorate significantly. The legibility of my writing is often exacerbated by the fact that I often write in the car on long commutes on bumpy roads and sometimes I scrawl a paragraph or two in the dark on the pad that I keep next to my bed.

At one point I dabbled with electronic writing tools, a pen stylus to be exact. I connected it to my computer and wrote on a Tablet. This was several years ago, and the technology may have improved considerably by now, however, I was extremely frustrated with this method. The main problem was that the software reading the handwriting relied on me to make each letter basically the same way each time I wrote it. You see the problem. When I am on a writing roll, my thoughts are often flowing faster than I can write and the last thing that I need to worry about is forming my letters.

One more option that I have considered is speech or voice recognition software, which would require me to read my work aloud into a microphone and then have my words translated into electronic text. This would work well for me, because as a writer of children's books, I find it very useful to hear the words as they would be read by a caregiver. I have not yet made the step to purchasing and testing the software, however.

I am very interested in hearing if I am in a minority in terms of writing on paper and also, how others are using technology to enhance the creative writing experience.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Where Words Get Their Power

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming weeks we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published November 27, 2010. Enjoy!

By Charles Gramlich

I’ve finally finished Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power, and I have to admit to being fairly disappointed. Elbow is almost a mythic figure among academics who write about writing, but I found much of the book to be rather vague and, often, contradictory. I also found, almost to an example, that Elbow’s selections of good and bad writing seemed exactly the opposite to me. However, there were some things I liked quite a lot and one of those was Elbow’s discussion about where words get their power. It was something I’d not really thought of before but it made perfect sense to me.

First, in writing, words get their power from the readers, not the writers. Elbow didn’t really stress this point but I believe that’s what he was saying. The word “tiger,” for example, only has power if the reader invests that power in it. But where exactly does the power that the reader invests come from? Here’s where Elbow made me think.

Basically, for Elbow, a word only has power in as much as it is able to evoke an image, experience, or thought about the thing the word represents. If the word “tiger” makes you see a tiger, hear its growl, and fear its hunger, then the word has power. I found myself agreeing absolutely, and this is actually what I’ve been trying to say on my own blog in my posts about “lushness” without being quite able to capture it.

But Elbow goes further, and he took me with him. He suggested that, for children, pretty much all words come imbued with power because of how they learn them.The child acquires the word “dog” from being shown a dog and playing with it. For the child, the “word” dog comes to evoke an image and experience of that particular animal every time it is used. The word itself has something of “dogness” about it. It’s as if the symbol has siphoned off some of the power of the real object. As we get older and more sophisticated, though, the word dog becomes a common rather than a unique experience, and the symbols of “d o g” become less and less about a particular dog and more about a general concept. Eventually, the word stops evoking images and experiences when we hear it, and it loses its power.

Elbow uses the example of curse words and taboo words to illustrate his concept. The word “shit” has power because many people still hear that word and react emotionally to it. It still represents, at least a little bit and for some of us, the material that it names. In a similar way, the word “God” has power for those who are believers. For such folks, the word is treated as if it has some element of “godness” within itself.

I remember very clearly as a child how I decided one day to say a particular curse word. I’d heard others curse and wanted to do it too. It took an intense effort of will to make myself say that word. I actually had to fight with myself to get it out, and once I’d said it I felt absolutely awful. What incredible power that word had for me at that moment. And yet, today, I use the word far too frequently and barely even notice when I do. It’s lost its power, at least for me. That word was “damn.”

I’ve known this truth of Elbow’s for a long time but I never knew how to put it into language. I remember perhaps 30 years ago hearing a rap song that seemed to consist almost entirely of the “F” word. I was angry, not so much at the use of the word, which I’d heard plenty of times, but at its “overuse.” My comment at the time was that songs like this were destroying the power of the word,that once the word came to serve as little more than punctuation it would become useless to writers. I was mad because they were taking away one more word of power from us writers and were just wasting it, like pumping gasoline on the ground or burning money.

The worst offenders these days are in politics, where it seems every minor disagreement between Democrats and Republicans has to be magnified to the point of “Warfare,” and where every opponent is a Nazi, or a Socialist, or an Atheist, or a Jesus Freak, or something else along those lines . All of us who use language, and that means all of us, have a vested interest in maintaining the effectiveness of the words we use. I, for one, am getting tired of the idiots trying to steal the power of my words. I’m rising up against them. I’m saying, right here and right now, leave my words the **** alone.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Second Time Around

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published June 5, 2018.

By Linda Thorne

Is writing that second book like the song says? “Lovelier the second time around. Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground.”

My answer is no, nope, nada. None of the above.

With the first book, I felt like Mad Max in Beyond Thunderdome, not knowing what obstacles I’d face until they were there, me fighting to mow them down and keep moving with one major goal, publication. I’d been so forewarned about rejections and criticisms that no matter how many hundreds of them I received, they only fueled me to keep churning toward my most important goal.

I’m no longer scything through underbrush seeking to become a published novelist. I’m already there with a publisher by my side. Yet, this second-time-around experience is more intimidating because others are counting on me to produce a book that is at least as good as my first and hopefully better. This scares me. Almost everyone I talk to about writing and books, asks me the same question: “When is your second book coming out?”

Time flies by and still no number two. This time I recognize when my writing is bad and this time it’s downright mortifying because I should be better just like everyone else seems to assume, presume, or expect. The second-time-around pressure is tremendous in a different way because there is something very tragic-sounding in the words, a one-book author.

I celebrated the first, but I will celebrate big-time when I have number two .

Monday, April 15, 2019

Hurry Up and Wait

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published February 9, 2010.

By Liane Spicer

This writing business is hell sometimes. No, not the writing writing, but the waiting that never ends. We wait for agents to get back to us. Agent in the bag, we wait for editors to get back to them. Then we wait for the agent to get back to us with the editors' verdicts.

We wait for the sale. For the galleys. For the advance check. For the release. For reviews, royalty statements, sales stats... It all adds up to years of waiting. During this time we obsess. We wonder if the agent/editor ever received the script, and are convinced that if they did they're using it as a footstool to reach the toner on the high shelf of the office supplies cabinet. No matter what stage of the business you're at, it seems, the waiting just never, ever ends. I've read of writers going through this same waiting, wondering and despairing hell with their thirteenth book.

What's a writer to do? Apart from going crazy checking the inbox 40 times a day, and the Amazon stats 60, that is? Here is a by no means exhaustive list of the things I do in my waiting time:

Twiddle thumbs.
Read blogs.
Compare search rankings for novel #1.
Fiddle with widgets.
Shop online catalogs.
Work, albeit distractedly, at the day job.
Fantasize about the perfect writing life - the one where writing pays the bills.
Create wish lists for every category of consumer item.
Drink wine.
Engage in text message flirty war of words with favorite ex.
Eat chocolate.
Eat almond crunch cookies.
Just eat.
Apply to MFA writing program I swore I'd never start.
Sink hours on social media sites. (Don't look at me like that - at least I don't tweet!)
Paint the bedroom.
Paint the living room.
Paint my nails.
Stare into space.
Wonder, often, whether writing for publication is a form of insanity.

Yes, I'm a neophyte. But what do the real writers advise? They tell you to write, that writing keeps your mind off the waiting. I'm ready to begin listening. Today, for the first time in many moons, I completed almost 2,000 words of a brand new novel in one sitting. It felt good to watch the demons crawl off and lick their wounds for a few hours.

The pros are right. Getting deeply involved in a new world and new characters is the only answer.

So, how do you manage the waiting game? Come on, let's have it, the good and the bad.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Greatest Movies Ever. Or Not

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published March 27, 2011.

By Charles Gramlich

Lana and I watched a show on TV the other night about the greatest movies of all time, as voted by—well—people like me and you. There were a number of different lists, greatest overall, greatest musical, greatest action/suspense, etc. Apparently a group of “experts” narrowed the choices down initially and then people were allowed to vote for the top five in each category. Gone with the Wind was first in the greatest overall category, which told me one thing right away: More women than men voted in the poll. I’ve never actually even seen the movie and have no plans to do so. The vote did nothing to change my mind that I probably wouldn’t consider it the greatest movie of all time.

I was much more interested in the picks for greatest Science Fiction flicks of all time. Here’s the TV voters list:

5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
4. The Matrix
3. Avatar
2. E.T.
1. Star Wars

This list is, of course, incorrect! Although, the only real travesty here is Avatar, which does not deserve to be in the top ten even.

The “correct” list(s). That is, “my” lists are as follows:

General SF:
5. Jurassic Park
4. Blade Runner
3. Star Wars
2. The Matrix
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The first three of these are separated by a bare fraction from each other. And honorable mentions in this category include War of the Worlds (Original version), E.T., Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, and Logan’s Run.

5. Predator
4. The Terminator
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (first version)
2. The Thing (Carpenter version)
1. Alien

The first four of these are very close, and honorable mentions that come very close to unseating number 5 are The Road Warrior, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Aliens.

I also struggled a bit with some assignments. Does Jurassic Park go with general SF or SF/Horror/Thriller? The Matrix is certainly a thriller with strong elements of horror. In the end, though, I didn’t think the horror elements of either were the primary strength of these movies. So there you have it, the TV lists and the “true” lists. I’m sure everyone will agree! Feel free to tell me how much you agree. :)

Monday, April 1, 2019

All writing is ...

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published June 3, 2011.

By Kevin Killiany

I'm on record in several places as being firmly in the Robert Heinlein camp when it comes to revising and rewriting. (Heinlein's Rules: "You must write. You must finish what you write. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. You must put the work on the market. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.") and a proponent of Dean Wesley Smith's codicil to Heinlein's Rules: "Write. Mail. Repeat."

Writing instructors often say things like "all writing is rewriting." I think the advice is well-intended. It's meant to take away the pressure many beginning writers feel, the sense of obligation that every word they write must be perfect. The assurance it's okay to throw something onto the page if you know it's only raw material you'll be able to shape and polish until you think it's ready for others to read gives them the courage they need to begin. But outside the classroom? You find very few successful writers give even lip service to the "all writing is rewriting" mantra.

But the prejudice against writing well the first time runs deep. Tell someone you wrote a novel in 90 days and they assume it's junk. Or that it would have been much better if you'd spent three times as many days on it. The fundamental credo underlying these attitudes is that the training wheels of composition/creative writing 101 are welded on; that whatever you write first is by definition simply a lump of raw clay. Weeks and months of further molding and shaping are necessary before it can be seen by anyone else.

The fact is the words written in the flow of creation are almost always the best. Rewriting, proceeding from the assumption that what you've poured out is fundamentally wrong and must be fixed, opens the door to beating all the life and spirit out of your story as you hunt for mythically perfect words.

Does this mean that one should print out and mail first drafts every time? Yes and no. In my response to XXXXX's * column on book signings, I mentioned passing the idle time by reading my own books and finding typos. I also find mechanical problems in my prose. For example, in Wolf Hunters (my 90-day, 93k-word novel) I have found nearly a dozen sentences that began and ended with 'though'. And occasional clusters of telegraphic sentences that I might now have linked with conjunctions. And this one gem: "Concerns such as budget didn't concern him." So there was a lot of housekeeping that would certinly have been taken care of before the ms went to the publisher. But none of them would have seen print if I'd had more than three days to review the proof pages; I'd have liked at least a week. But so far I have found nothing in the story itself that I would change. With short stories, when I am not on deadline, I usually do a pretty thorough job of scouring the grammar – which sometimes requires revising confusing paragraphs, clearing up subject/verb conflicts, eliminating redundancies, and deleting three in five adjectives. It is rare I rewrite any of the story itself. If I find several passages that need rewriting, I usually chuck the lot and write the story again without looking at the first effort. I've done that more than once.

I recently applied to an MFA program that required a selection of my fiction as part of the consideration process. In looking through my stock of unsold stories for examples of my style and craft I came across "Exploring," one of a half-dozen exercises I wrote during a short story workshop in 2005 at the late, and sorely missed, Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshops. Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Gardner Dozois team-taught fourteen intense classes over seven days. In one afternoon session we were asked to write a detailed, multisensory description of a location we hated; someplace so negative we could not think about it without a visceral response. Then we were told to write a description of the same location – changing none of the details – from the perspective of someone who loved the place every bit as much as we hated it. The assignment for next day's session was a 2500-word short story set in that place. I chose the room my mother died in, and writing that story involved staring into space for a couple of hours after dinner, jotting occasional notes and thinking more about how I felt than plot, and two frantic hours of typing just before class. I had not looked at "Exploring" in over half a decade and though I remembered it fondly, I opened the file expecting to find something in need of a ground-up rewrite.

After reading it through twice and eating lunch, I changed one sentence. "The door to the hall had opened all the way and a nurse – at least he thought she looked too young to be a doctor – was in the room." became "The door to the hall had opened all the way and a nurse – or nurse's aid of some sort, since she looked too young to be out of school – was in the room." Anything more – any "polishing" – would have killed the story's spark and energy.

* (Say, did anyone notice the "XXXXX" in the fifth paragraph? Left that there on purpose. As I wrote that sentence I could not remember which Novelnaut had written the column on book signings. Rather than stop the flow of writing, fire up the internet and check, I put a placeholder – in all caps to catch my eye – and kept going. Do this. It prevents loss of momentum – or worse, loss of whatever it was you were writing. When everything up to this point and the closing paragraph were written, I did come online to check before posting. However, rather than put Jewel's name where it belonged, I decided to add a paragraph to the essay about the method. Because I wanted to mention that I also always go back over a story to check for placeholders as well. And yes, adding this paragraph did change the structure of my essay, which would appear to contradict the thrust of said essay. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.)

Do not ever assume the first thing you write has to be perfect. But just as emphatically, do not ever assume the first thing you write is nothing more than a rough lump of clay. Edit for clarity; revise for impact; regard with dark suspicion any urge to add words; and triple check to be sure all your placeholders have been replaced – but otherwise leave be. If you find yourself changing any more than 10% of your words – and I'm the lax student of prolific writers who put the number at closer to 5% – you are almost certainly robbing your story of the spirit that inspired you.

Because the truth is: All writing is writing.

[Note: If anyone is interested in reading "Exploring," say so in comments and I'll send you a PDF.]

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Purpose Driven Novel

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published October 9, 2011.

By Jewel Amethyst

It’s 3am. My blog post is due, and I hadn’t a clue what to write about. So I did what I should have done nine days ago: I visited the Novelspaces Authors' private blog to view the theme for this month. The theme is totally optional, and most novelnaughts thus far have elected to ignore the themes. But right now, it is serving the purpose it was intended for. It is giving me a topic to blog about when my mind is drawing a blank.

The theme for this month is: “Should novels have a purpose beyond entertaining the reader?”

The short answer is, it depends.

There are many different types of novels. Some have the deliberate purpose of educating the reader. Case in point, Carol Mitchell’s “Caribbean Adventure Series.” They are a series of very entertaining children’s novels set in different Caribbean Islands. It is quite clear that they are meant to expose children to the history and to some extent geography of the Caribbean islands. I myself have embarked on a similar project but with the aim of exposing elementary to middle school students to cell and microbiology through a series of science adventure novels. For children’s books especially, the list of novels that make deliberate attempts to educate is extensive.

Even for adult novels, education is often a secondary (if not primary) purpose of many novels. Some bring awareness to the struggles of racism, classism, discrimination in an entertaining manner. One of my favorite books, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, does just that. Others expose life in certain eras, uplift women, or men or some country. The much talked about book, “The Help” brings to light the life and times of women of color working as home domestics in segregated America. And we cannot forget the timeless classic, “Roots” and its historical impact.

Some books push an agenda or a political opinion. John Grisham’s “The Chamber,” and “A Time to Kill” very entertainingly address some pressing issues like the death penalty. Time won’t permit me to list even 0.00001% of the fiction novels (and I won’t even go into the creative non-fiction genre) that pushes an agenda, political, social, or economic opinion.

But then there are some books whose sole purpose is to entertain. Many romances, horror, sci-fi and yes erotica, fall into that category. Yet even these books can unwittingly educate or promote an agenda. Even when the author’s aim is strictly to entertain the reader, there is still often a secondary purpose, subtle though it may be. Whether that purpose is to inspire, or teach, or expose something, it is there.

So in my opinion, it does not matter whether or not a novel is written solely for the entertainment of the reader. It will still serve a secondary purpose of educating the reader in some fashion. Furthermore, the readers will take away more from the book that the author even intended.

What do you think? Should novels have a purpose beyond entertaining the reader?

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Wake of Charlottesville

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 27, 2017.

By Amy Reade

image courtesy of pixabay, pexels

            Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the get-go: I do not write political posts. I do not post anything political on any social media platform. And in a way, what I’m about to write really isn’t political; rather, it’s a statement of my beliefs about humans, having nothing to do with either or any political party.

            The recent events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, following a despicable display of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance were, simply put, abominable. I grieve for the family of the woman who lost her life and for the people, like me, who felt a deep sadness and icy dread when they saw the images of the people carrying torches through the darkened campus of the University of Virginia and the streets of Charlottesville.

            The entire incident ignited in me a desire—no, a need—to spend some time in the shoes of people who may not look like me, who may not think like me, who may experience life in ways that are different from the ways in which I experience life. And I’m not talking here about racial differences alone. I’m talking about any differences, whether they be racial, religious, social, economic, educational, or generational.

image courtesy of pixabay, maxlkt

I don’t pretend that I’m suddenly going to understand what it’s like to be anything other than a white woman of early middle-age with a college education living in New Jersey, but I mean to try. And I’m a writer, so what better way to spend time in other people’s shoes than in books?

With that in mind, I’ve done some research into books that deal head-on with issues of separation: things and ideas that separate individuals, that separate people who practice different religions, that separate individuals from society. And I want to share a short list of books that I think might be a good place to start in bridging the gaps that exist in our communities. Some of the books I’ve already read, but I intend to read them again with a renewed intensity and a renewed urgency.   

We have to stop the hatred.

1.      And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
2.      Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
3.      Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns
4.      Generation M by Shelina Janmohamed
5.      God is Not One by Stephan R. Prothero
6.      I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T Suratwala, et al.
7.      The Short and Tragic Life of RobertPeace by Jeff Hobbs
8.      Somewhere Towards theEnd: A Memoir by Diana Athill
9.      To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
10.  White Like Me by Tim Wise
11.  Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start. If nothing else, it’s at least one good thing that came out of Charlottesville. It’s not what happened in the “wake” of Charlottesville, but what happened in the “wake-up” of Charlottesville. A wake-up call to understand “the other,” whomever that may be to each of us. I hope you’ll join me, and I hope you’ll add your reading suggestions to the comments below.

Friday, March 8, 2019

How Gritty Are My Mysteries?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published May 19, 2017.

By Maggie King

My panel topic at Bouchercon 2015 was “How Much Grit Do I Want in My Mystery?” Violent content, bloody images, sexuality, and tough language come to mind when I hear the word “grit.” Gritty movies are rated R. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of gritty is “harsh and unpleasant.” 

Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Henning Mankell, and Ruth Rendell are just a few of our renowned authors who write the “dark stuff”—noir. And they’re really good at it.

I watch many TV shows where violence runs rampant. The British and Swedish do it best—Luther is breathtakingly violent; the characters in the riveting Swedish drama, Beck, don’t flinch at a little blood; the American Animal Kingdom had a mild, if menacing, start but by the end of the season the violence had reached a nearly unbearable level. Sexuality and language are a natural part of these stories— the characters leave the bedroom door wide open and aren’t likely to say, “Oh, fudge!”

I love these depictions of a grim reality, whether in print or on screen. But do I want to write tales with a “darkness of the spirit?”

No, no, a thousand times, no! Maybe spending so much time with my characters and story makes me fear all that darkness. I write cozies, edgy cozies, but cozies all the same. My violence happens off-page and is minimally described. In one story, I have the killer picking up a weapon and using it. But I left the aftermath to the reader’s vivid imagination. In another story, a character gets killed in a pretty horrific way, but all I mention is the murder weapon. Again, I let my readers fill in the blanks. No gritty details. Sometimes a well-chosen word here or there will paint a complete picture.

My characters love sex and love to talk about sex but when they “get right down to the real nitty-gritty” (see how well the song title fits the subject?) they go off-page. I may sprinkle a mild expletive—or two—into the dialogue. My readers object to profanity and I must respect their wishes. There are ways to suggest swearing and mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at this that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”

But Merriam-Webster has an alternative definition of gritty: having or showing a lot of courage and determination.

My main character, Hazel Rose, doesn’t consider herself to be brave and accepts her crime-solving missions with great reluctance. But, once committed, she will run a killer to earth. Mystery writers, regardless of how noir-ish or cozy their story is, want a determined detective, one with an abundance of “true grit.” It’s true grit that unites crime writers as we restore justice to our fictional worlds.

And it’s true grit that I want in my mysteries.

Back to the Bouchercon panel: Laura DiSilverio, Frankie Bailey, Lynn Cahoon, and I had a lively discussion about grit in mysteries and pretty much covered the points I’ve made in this post. Author Lise McClendon moderated. Here’s a non-very-good photo of us: 

Writers, weigh in. How do you feel about grit in your mysteries?