Sunday, July 3, 2011

Random Thoughts on the Writing Life by Shirley Wetzel

Shirley Wetzel is a librarian at Rice University, an archaeologist, a fifth-generation Texan, a reader, a fan, a reviewer, and a writer. She started her first novel back in the Paleolithic, and one day she will finish it. In the meantime, she's counting the months until retirement, when she can do even more reading, writing, and reviewing.

Random Thoughts on the Writing Life
by Shirley Wetzel

It is almost time for my yearly entry in dear Kaye's magnificent blog, and my head feels completely empty. Life has been interfering with writing, and even thoughts of writing, but I can't let my buddy down. What to do?

At first I decided to turn to my trusty file of inspirational quotes. Here are a couple of my favorites, and they are meant to encourage me to say "to heck with writer's block, just sit in the damn chair, put fingers to keyboard, and let the words write themselves down." They usually do. But there is one stumbling block, one thing I cannot seem to finish -- can't even get started on finishing. My first book just refuses to cooperate. I know I must, or my life won't feel complete.  Listen to these folks, they know what I mean:

"Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than the things you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
- Mark Twain, writer/humorist

"There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, "Yes, I've got dreams, of course, I've got dreams." Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they're still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box. It takes an uncommon amount of guts to put your dreams on the line, to hold them up, and say, "How good or how bad am I?" That's where courage comes in."
- Erma Bombeck, humorist

Then I decided to ignore that stack of pages and files containing various forms of the Book and go read DorothyL.  There I found a much happier subject to write about: the fun parts of the writing life. The inspiration came from Jeffrey Cohen's blog for June 26-27. To quote this comedy genius (hi Jeff!):

"Here's the theory: Authors aren't like other people. In order to test said theory, we need to see ourselves from another perspective."

To test his theory, he interviewed his wife, who must be a saint with a great sense of humor. I realized he is correct.  Writers, even those who haven't finished their first novel, are different than other people.

And in the fifteen years or so since I got the courage to put a few of my dreams on the line, and become part of the writing world, I've come to appreciate and love that difference.  Whether I ever finish that first novel or not, my life has been enriched by taking that leap. Some things I've written did get published, and that was a thrill, but the best part of leaping into the strange and wondrous world of writer has been the writers I've come to know and the experiences we've shared.

As well as I can remember, Jeff Cohen was the first "real" author I reached out to, and I've never regretted it. I'd started doing reviews for, and one of the first books I received was "For Whom the Minivan Rolls." The protagonist (I got to learn lots of cool new words, too) has a son with Asperger's Syndrome. My beautiful granddaughter had just been diagnosed with autism, and I was searching for answers, and comfort. I got both from Jeff. He literally wrote the book on how to parent a child with autism, and through the years he's been there whenever I needed him to be. It was a thrill for both of us (it was, wasn't it, Jeff?) when we finally met in person at Houston's fabulous Murder by the Book. It was his first, and probably last, visit to Texas, but as we say down here, I was mighty proud to make your acquaintance, Mr. Cohen.

I didn't mean to go on so long about Mr. Cohen, but you never forget your first.

Author, that is. Eons ago, when I was looking for something else in the Rice University library stacks, I came across a mystery called "The Texas Capitol Murders," by a guy named Bill Crider. I liked it pretty well. At some point I met Bill, who writes the kind of books I aspire to write: small town Texas, where, aside from the occasional murder, the biggest crimes involve wild hogs and cranky alligators. Bill and his lovely wife Judy have become dear friends.  He always reads my wip and always has only good things to say, even when I tell him to be brutally honest. Bill couldn't be brutal, though, even if he was surrounded by a mob of wild hogs and feisty gators and love-struck romance writers.

Another topic on DorothyL that got my attention was how authors interact with their fans. I've met a good many mystery writers over the years, and each and every one has been gracious and kind. My one true love, Lee Child, is a case in point. At his signing for "Hard Luck and Trouble," he held a drawing for five sheriff's badges. I didn't win one, but the guy next to me did. I offered to buy it from him for five bucks, and he taunted me, saying it would be up on e-Bay that night and I could bid on it. He was in front of me in the signing line, and I told on him. When it was my turn, Lee stealthily reached (yes, reached, like Reacher) into a bag beside me and slipped a badge into my hand. Now THAT'S class!

There have been some happy surprises. Mary Reed wrote to asking if she could quote my review of one of the John the Eunuch books, and I was so proud that somebody was reading my reviews and even liked what I had to say. Another time, I opened an ARC of one of Gillian Robert's Amanda Pepper mysteries, glanced at the acknowledgments, and saw MY NAME. Looked again, and it was still there. In a previous review, I'd said something about a wedding that gave her an idea for a plot. I miss Amanda, Judy, and I know a lot of others do too. The day Jeff Cohen came to the MBDB signing, one of the staff commented on a blurb on the back cover. It was by ME!

I'm going on too long, but so many memories are surfacing. I've come to know so many other writers whose work I enjoyed. "Cousin" Lillian Stewart Carl (my mother was a Stewart, so we've adopted each other as cousins whether we are or not), also writes the kind of books I aspire to write. The hilarious Cornelia Read, who, like me, is a fan of Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, also shares my sense of humor and evil.  She posted a photo on FaceBook of three young cigar- smoking friends she'd met on an Alaskan cruise, and described how beautiful the scenery was. I commented that it was the perfect setting for a murder, and she wrote right back that they'd just been discussing that very thing. That's another thing about writers: we're always on the lookout for a good place to kill somebody. When writers get together, at lunch or while hiking around Machu Picchu, their topic of conversation garners some strange looks from people nearby. I love it!

Susan McBride, you are fabulous, gal, and I still have a galley of one of your first Debutante books. I expect it'll be worth big bucks pretty soon. Earl Darlin' Staggs, you give the best hugs ever!

James Benn, or as I call him now, Jim, your first Billy Boyle mystery came out when I was immersed in all things WWII, and it is my favorite series ever.

Stuart Neville, James Benn, Peter Lovesey at Murder by the Book

Chris Grabenstein, I often ask myself WWCD? Well, maybe not often, but I plan to buy the t-shirt.

Rhys Bowen, I shared with you the story of how my mother's first husband died in that war when his B-26 crashed into a mountain in Wales, and you said there's a book in that story, and I will write it. Jacqueline Winspear, when I told you how kind the English were to my half-sister, whose father is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery, you shared a story about the GIs who gave your mother chocolates and silk stockings when they learned it was her birthday. Tim Hallinan, sawadee khah, my friend, I have enjoyed talking to you about Thailand, where I spent two memorable years during the Vietnam War. Your Poke Rafferty series is also my favorite- a tie with Jim. And with Lillian's Jean and Alistair series, and Rhy's Evan Evans and Lady Georgie ... not to forget Jeff's Haunted Guesthouse series. Dang it, I love all of them the best! And Dean James, I am so proud of how well your new series is doing, it's about time your talent got proper recognition! I could go on, and on, but I'm supposed to be working.

Being a member of this very special bunch means there are some sad times too.  Barbara Burnett Smith, another talented Texas writer whose books I loved, died trying to save a dog who'd wandered into traffic. Lynn Hamilton and I became friends via e-mail. She wrote a book based on an unpublished manuscript from a Thai kingdom, a manuscript I typed for the professor who translated it when I was in graduate school. Way cool! She came to Houston and I gave her my copy of "Motel of the Mysteries" -- a classic for archaeologists and mystery fans. A few years later she wrote and said she loved it, but wanted me to have it, and she sent it back. A few weeks later I learned of her death. I still get chills remembering that. Even though she was so ill, she took the time to think of others.

On that note, I'll wrap this up. There are many other names of writers, readers, reviewers, and other assorted members of the writing world who are special to me. You know who you are. And in case you think I forgot, dear Kaye Barley, you are at the top of my list. Thank you for hosting your blog and letting us muse and meander to our hearts' content. You are one classy lady!


mybillcrider said...

Eons? Really?

Ann Summerville said...

I stopped by your blog today.

jenny milchman said...

What richness you describe here, Shirley. I am glad to get to know you through all these authors whose work we both admire--and I look forward to learning more about your own writing as well.

Anonymous said...


Loved your post and the photos! Your story about visiting Wales to see where your mother's first husband died is still one of the most popular posts on my own blog -- still gets hits from people in other parts of the world.

Hugs from Beautiful Downtown Yukon, where Old Route 66 crosses the Old Chisholm Trail.

Pat Browning

Coco Ihle said...

Shirley, I share your admiration for the authors you mentioned and I believe mystery writers are a special giving, friendly and talented. I'm eager to read your work, as well.

Jinx Schwartz said...

Good thoughts about some of MY favorite authors. I always enjoy your insights, input, and Facebook posts that make me wistful for Texas. Get crackin' on that book...I know it will be grand.

Chris Grabenstein said...

Hi, Shirley! Great blog. I must give credit for WWCD? to my buddy, FDNY Chief Dave Morkal who was the first to tell me he always asked himself that when faced with life's small moral conundrums!!!

Happy 4th

Lillian Stewart Carl said...

Suas Stewart, Shirley! May you long continue to encourage and abet those of us in the community of ink-stained wretches. And I hope one day to read your own magnum opus.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Thank you, Shirley, for reminding me of the many ways I have been blessed by writers I have known, and friends I have met on DL. I guess it's time to get back in the chair and start typing on my novel again...

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome to my buddy, Shirley. ALWAYS a joy to have you, sweetie.

And big hello's to everyone else - thank you for dropping by and I hope you have all had a Happy Fourth of July.

Shirley Wetzel said...

I realized there are a couple of people I wanted to mention. Pat Browning and I share an interest in WWII, and she posted my story about my mother's first husband.his death in Wales, and the part a young Welsh fire fighter and aviation historian played in making sure the death of Lt. Robertson and the other 3 crew members who died on Carn Llidi Mountain will not be forgotten.

David Thompson was a delightful human being who knew everything there was to know about mysteries. He managed my home away from home, Houston's Murder by the book, and was married to the owner, lovely McKenna Jordan. He was like Tigger, full of energy and enthusiasm. He knew all the regular customers and what kinds of books they like to read, and he had friends all over the world. One day he was right as rain, the next morning he was gone. It's still hard for me to walk through that front door, knowing David would not be there to greet me and sell me far more books than I meant to buy. He was a treasure, and impacted many lives in a good way.