Friday, September 30, 2011

Translating our Characters' Obsessions into Fiction by Nancy Means Wright

Nancy Means Wright has published 17 books, including 5 mystery novels from St Martin’s Press, and most recently two historicals: The Nightmare: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press,’11) and its prequel, Midnight Fires,’10. Her children’s mysteries received both an Agatha Award and Agatha nomination. Short stories have appeared in American Literary Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Level Best Books, and elsewhere. Longtime teacher, actress-director, and Bread Loaf Scholar for a first novel, Nancy lives with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats in Middlebury, Vermont.


Translating our Characters’ Obsessions into Fiction 
(or Are we writers as crazy as our characters?)
by Nancy Means Wright

     I was watching the rushing falls in Middlebury, Vermont and started to put a leg over the railing. “Hey!” my spouse cried, grabbing my arm. “You wanna fall in? Are you mad?”

     For a moment I wasn’t sure. But I knew I wanted to feel what Mary Wollstonecraft felt when she filled her pockets with stones and then jumped into the Thames River.

     “Well, let her do it, not you,” was my man’s response. But how else was I to write about real-life Mary’s sense of loss and hopelessness after her lover abandoned her and child, when she’d been so deeply, blindly in love with him?

     True, I do recall when a boy I was obsessed with rejected me and I just wanted to get in a car and drive off a cliff (a scene in a movie I’d experienced vicariously…)

    But for Mary’s obsessive need to live with artist Henry Fuseli and wife in a ménage à trois (“I must be with him daily…”)—and for which his wife slammed the door and turned Mary into a scandalous woman—I had no clue. I’d never in my life contemplated such a thing. How was I to fictionalize the scene in my novel, The Nightmare?

     The 18th-century attracted me in part because it was an age of Enlightenment and reason. And yet, as I discovered in my research, madness was an accepted part of that world. The last witch had been hanged, but superstitions hung on. There was not only the infamous Bedlam, but a plethora of unregulated madhouses. A husband could put his wife into one with impunity, I discovered, and yes, there is one in my novel. To introduce her protagonist in Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, her unfinished novel, Mary visited Bedlam to research the poor wretches in their filthy shifts and dirty feet.

     Though the real Mary already had madness at home to fictionalize. Her brother Henry, apprenticed to an apothecary at 14, became an unspeakable name in the household; in her letters Mary mentions only “a hurrying” of her heart.  Biographers conclude that he either committed a horrible crime, or more likely, was committed to an asylum. And wasn’t it a touch of “desperation” that led Mary herself to kidnap her ranting postpartum sister from an abusive husband?  Sister Bess bit her wedding ring “to pieces” as they careened through the London streets, husband in hot pursuit. I’ve tried to describe the scene, but my sole act of kidnapping has been to cram howling cats into carriers to go to the vet’s.  

     While researching my book I read a few novels by Mary’s contemporary, Fanny Burney. In Burney’s Cecilia, the protagonist loses a lover and dashes through the streets, at first losing her speech, and then ‘raving incessantly.” Doctors and other men of the period saw females as emotional beings, prone to madness.  So novelist Burney put her character to flight, the way I put Mary Wollstonecraft after her humiliating rejection by Fuseli. Physical action, I’ve discovered, calms and liberates the spirit, just as a momentary madness freed Mary from having to fulfill social expectations. In fact, Burney herself had taken a flight of madness after the collapse of her romance with a young clergyman. “I can’t think where you got so much invention,” a reader once told Burney. Ha!

     Action and flight also help Charlotte Gilman’s postpartum character in her autobiographical “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Confined to her room after a nervous collapse, not allowed to write or read, the narrator goes mad, creeping about the room, peeling wallpaper, gnawing the the bedstead, flouting the patriarchy, breaking society’s rules. “I’ve got out at last,” she cries, “so you can’t put me back!”

     Virginia Woolf complained about the same isolating “rest cure” for hysteria and depression that drove Gilman’s character to madness. But for Woolf, the act of writing was therapeutic for this “whirring of wings in the brain.” Her mental illness, she said, made her think about her mind and write her introspective novels. In my favorite Mrs Dalloway, the hostess plans a fancy party while her mad double, Septimus Smith, a shell- hocked veteran (inspired by Woolf’s grief at her brother Thoby’s death in Greece) leaps from a window. In her essay, “Professions for Women,” Woolf wrote of female writers: “The line raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pool, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber.” 

     So to describe a harrowing experience for one’s character, it helps to take flight, outward or inward, into one’s own life. For myself, as a longtime actress-director, I use the Stanislavky method of diving into those dark pools of grief, anger or humilation, or even the brighter ones of joy and celebration in order to (try to) become my character.

     When Fuseli’s wife slammed the door that day on conflicted Mary Wollstonecraft, I had her thoughts race toward the river, but slowly realize what a cad he was (a lot like the guy who once threw me over), how vain, how jealous of her own celebrity. What a hypocrite! To write her steamy letters and then hide behind his wife when Mary dared to invade his “respectability.”

     So in The Nightmare, I had her turn toward home. “She did not take a sedan chair. She did not care if her gown got muddy. She did not care if she stepped in dung. She did not look back.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

John Barth and My Favorite Late Night Snack

What on earth could John Barth, author of "Giles Goat-Boy," "The Sot-Weed Factor," and "Chimera" (National Book Award winner)  have to do with my favorite late night snack?  

Well - bear with me and I'll tell you.

When I met John Barth back in the early or mid-sixties what he was most famous for in Cambridge, Maryland was being the son of Judge John J. "Whitey" Barth, owner of Whitey's Candy Land.   This was before a good deal of his work became required reading on college campuses throughout the country.

The work most of Cambridge was most interested in was John Barth's first book,  "The Floating Opera," (a National Book Award nominee).   That's the book that was always selling out at Whitey's.   Although fiction, it still seemed a bit "familiar" to local residents who continue to swear they can spot certain individuals in the cast of characters in this novel based on a small coastal town in Maryland.

Cambridge honored one of her most famous sons on June 14, 2010.  Sadly, I was not there for this grand occasion, I would have loved it.  Not that I would ever expect him to remember me - the 60s was, after all - a long, long time ago.  Along with the fact that he was beginning to become quite famous when we met, and I was a skinny little 16 year old bookworm in awe of meeting a real author.  

John Barth concluded his day of honor by noting that “Cambridge, the rivershore, and the great down county salt marshes were my life’s coordinates from birth through high school through college and my first efforts as a writer of fiction, and they remain as touchstones of my imagination.”

What does any of this have to do with me?

I was working in Whitey's Candy Land while I was in high school, along with one of my very best girlfriends (then and now), Pam Howell Mills.  (Oh, the stories). 

It was my first ever job, and I loved it, and I loved Whitey.  It was a fun place to work, and working with Pam was just the icing on the cake.  The cherry on top was that it was where some of our high school friends would come to hang out after classes while we were working, so it was really more fun than work.

And it was here at Whitey's Candy Land, of course, that I met John Barth.  My first author meeting ever.  Who knew what that was going to lead to??!

Whitey's, in addition to being an old fashioned candy store, was also a luncheonette with a soda fountain.  Because Whitey didn't like the smell of grease, there were only cold plate lunches; tuna salad or chicken salad sandwiches, served with Miss Georgia's (Whitey's wife) homemade soup, which she would make at home and bring in every day.  When Pam and I worked on Saturdays, our workday included lunch.  Pam loves to remind me that my lunch was always (always!) tuna salad on toast and a coke.  Followed by dessert.  Ice cream with chocolate syrup and a bag of potato chips.   A lot of people don't really "get" that combination . . . .

Which leads me to My Favorite Late Night (morning, noon OR night, actually!) Snack - ta DA!!!!!!

Ben & Jerry's Late Night Snack Ice Cream.


Vanilla bean ice cream with a salty caramel swirl and fudge-covered potato chip clusters.  

It's dedicated to Jimmy Fallon to thank him and his late night crew for singing an ode to snacking on Vermont’s Finest, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. 

Late Night Snack should win over the "salty" fans, along with the "sweet" fans.   Put me at the head of that salty/sweet line!

And I'll think of Cambridge and Whitey and his son John, and my friend Pam with every single spoon full.

Join me, won't you?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

One Day by Ashley McConnell

Ashley McConnell has written fantasy, horror,  and media tie-in novels, half a dozen short stories, and edited more nonfiction than she likes to think about.  She lives "back East," in the soggiest drought she's ever seen, with horses, dogs, cats, and books.  She publishes the Bloodstained Bookshelf, a list of projected mysteries in print, and is currently working on getting her backlist available as e-books.  Her website is  

by Ashley McConnell

One day, not too terribly long ago, I sat on the back patio of my house in a fair-sized Southwestern city, and I counted the number of roofs I could see.


            Eight houses all around me, hemming me in.

            And traffic roaring, all day and all night, on the main street two blocks over.

            I sort of knew the neighbors on either side—the agoraphobe and her mother, the family with kids who kept hitting baseballs into my back yard and complaining when the dogs came to find out where they were coming from.  I knew the guy in one of the houses that backed onto mind had a little kid who teased my German Shepherd, and hated the fact that the dogs barked invitations for him to come and play.  I wasn’t really on bad terms with anyone, but wasn’t particularly close to anyone either.  Most of the folks I shared interests with were either at work, or on the internet, which is a much wider neighborhood with no roofs encroaching at all.

            So I retired, and I moved, back East where there was water (“But we’re having a drought!”  “How can you have a drought when there’s running water in that creek?”  Easterners don’t really understand drought, I think).  There are a lot more people in the East than in the Southwest, but you couldn’t prove it by me.  I live far away (sometimes, I admit, a bit too far away) from fair-sized cities or even good-sized towns.  I can sit on my back porch and count roofs, yes—but I have to squint to see them, and if the clouds are low, the ones across the valley (at least a mile as the crow is supposed to fly and doesn’t) are invisible.  My next-door neighbors have more dogs than I ever did, but they’re a couple hundred yards up the road.  We say hello when we go out to our respective barns to feed horses, and exchange tips on hay prices.  They mow my steepish places, and I bake pumpkin bread.  The dogs have acres in which to explore, and only bark at the folks who get lost on our dirt roads.

We have deer who are lovely and graceful and devastate gardens.  We have wild turkeys—a clutch of them, eight or ten, fly across the dirt road in front of my car in the morning.  Turkeys, it turns out, really are stupid birds.

Down the road a piece (and it’s a phrase that makes sense, the same way that “Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” does, when you have to cross that creek to get home, and when it rains, it’s running fast enough to whip your car sideways between the banks—and they still think it’s a drought) someone has built a Fresh Produce stand, where you can get tomatoes and squash and pumpkins and corn and all the things the deer destroyed in your own garden.  I don’t know where the roof of their house is—I can’t see it from my back porch.  That’s okay.  They can’t see mine either.

I’m not hemmed in here.  I can sit and write and listen to the mockingbirds and cardinals.  It took me ages to figure out that the sound that kept me awake all night was not, in fact, my heat exchanger trying to collapse, but a whippoorwill.  I have acquired far too many cats—two things you will never lack in this part of the world, alas, are deer and stray cats.  I get up early to feed the horses, and pause at the paddock gate to look over the valley and count the roofs in the early morning light.

There are eight of them.

It's all in where you sit.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Free Your Mind - READ a Banned Book.

Celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.

From the American Library Association (ALA) Webpage:

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week 2011

September 24−October 1, 2011

Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.  Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.

Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas . . .  (read the rest here:

 From The Marshall University Webpage:  "Banned Books Week (September 24−October 1, 2011) is an annual event which celebrates the freedom to choose and the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular, stressing the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them. It is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association (ALA), the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores. It is endorsed by the Library of Congress' Center for the Book.

Material for this page was obtained from the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual FreedomBooks Challenged or Banned in 2010-2011 by Robert P. Doyle. and

  I'm with you - it's pretty unbelievable that in this day and time there are still people out there who are afraid of books.  People who would rather bury their head in the sand rather than actually learn.  People who will deny their children, along with other peoples' children, the opportunity to make a choice on their own as to whether to read or not read a particular book.

In a word - it's disgusting.  Nothing short of.

So, let's celebrate freeing our minds, and the minds of our children.

Read a banned or challenged book.

Here's a list of the Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010-2011

  1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  2. The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  4. Crank by Ellen Hopkins
  5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  6. Lush by Natasha Friend
  7. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
  8. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology by Amy Sonnie
  10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  • On these pages, a BANNED book has been removed from a library, classroom, etc.
  • A CHALLENGED book has been requested to be removed from a library, classroom, etc.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Writing Whom You Know by Mark de Castrique

A native of North Carolina, Mark writes mysteries primarily set in the Appalachian mountains, and has earned high praise from a variety of critics. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “As important and as impressive as the author’s narrative skills are the subtle ways he captures the geography— both physical and human—of a unique part of the American South.”  In a starred review, Library Journal added, “De Castrique’s unassuming but commanding prose style is comparable to James Lee Burke and Margaret Maron.” 

Mark de Castrique is an award-winning film and video producer whose work has been broadcast on PBS, HBO, and network-affiliate stations. Mark de Castrique is the author of the Sam Blackman mystery series, the Buryin’ Barry series, and two mysteries for young adults. The Sandburg Connection (Poisoned Pen Press) is Mark de Castrique’s tenth book.  He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Visit Mark de Castrique online at:

From Publisher's Weekly -
"The Sandburg Connection: A Sam Blackman Mystery

Mark de Castrique. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (298p) ISBN 978-1-59058-941-0; $14.95
trade paper ISBN 978-1-59058-943-4
At the outset of de Castrique's stellar third mystery featuring
Asheville, N.C., PI Sam Blackman (after 2010's The Fitzgerald Ruse), Sam and his partner, Nakayla Robertson, are following professor Janice Wainwright to determine if she's really suffering the pain that has led to her $5 million lawsuit against a surgeon, his clinic, and a hospital. The pair trail her to Glassy Mountain, from whose peak she takes a fatal fall. Before expiring, Wainwright mumbles something about "Sandburg's verses." Convinced Wainwright's death was no accident, Sam vows to find her killer. A missing folk song, a buried treasure from Civil War days, and a pregnant goat all play a part in this marvelous blend of history and mystery seasoned with information about Carl Sandburg's life and times on his Asheville farm and the National Park Service's current operations there. This strong regional mystery should resonate with a much wider audience."

by Mark de Castrique

Writing class 101 encourages you to "write what you know."  But over the years, I've migrated from "write what you know" to "write what you might have known" to "write whom you know."

The first venture from the safety of writing what you know began with my Barry Clayton series.  Barry runs a funeral home in a fictitious mountain town in western North Carolina.  I've never directed a funeral.  I've attended more than I care to, but, as Yogi Berra said, "if I don't go to their funerals, they won't come to mine."

My father was a funeral director in a small, mountain town, and, as that profession tends to stay in families, odds were good I'd one day own a closet filled with dark suits.  What I actually remember from the days living above the business comes down to one event.  I was three and confined to our quarters with my mother during a visitation.  Somehow I made my escape and wandered downstairs to see why we had so much company.

About ten minutes later, my mother was summoned to physically remove me.  I'd crawled up behind the casket and was singing "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You" to the deceased.

We moved out of the funeral home shortly thereafter and within a few years my father changed jobs.  Otherwise, this blog would be about the benefits of opening a pre-burial account.

But the small town funeral director as a character intrigued me, and so I vicariously lived my alternate life through Buryin' Barry.  The mountain setting provided the backdrop I knew for the character I might have been.  Plus, I could make him younger, smarter, and better looking - the real advantage of writing fiction.

As the series developed, I talked to friends and family about stories and incidents that could be integrated into plots and subplots.  One long-time family friend shared his memory of traveling with his father, a white funeral director, as they helped a black funeral director transport a body from Asheville to north Georgia through the Jim Crow South.  The year was 1919 and my friend, nearly ninety, was only ten.  His vivid memory of that journey and its challenges sparked a story idea that I knew went beyond the world of Barry Clayton.

So, I took as many facts from my friend's experience and shaped them into the mystery Blackman's Coffin.  I opted for real settings and incorporated not only the famous such as the Vanderbilts and Thomas Wolfe, but also people I knew who shared information that my detective, Sam Blackman, would need to uncover.  I thought why make up characters when I've got perfectly good and interesting people right in front of me?  The process was fun for me and for those who saw themselves in print.

With the release of the third Blackman book next month, I've taken this technique to a new level.  The Sandburg Connection is closely tied to Carl Sandburg's farm, Connemara, in Flat Rock, North Carolina.  I didn't know Sandburg, but I walked to school by the farm.  We thought he was "that goat guy" because the pasture was usually teeming with his wife's champion herd.

Sandburg moved from Michigan in 1945 and between then and his death in 1967, he wrote nearly a third of his literary canon.  I knew two people with Sandburg ties.

Louise Bailey, a Flat Rock native, had been his personal secretary.  She shared stories and reflections on her relationship with him as an employer and neighbor.  These are incidents I can't make up.  Like the time Sandburg stayed for dinner and enjoyed Louise's beans and salt pork so much, he finished them all and then picked up the serving bowl and drank the liquid.  I wanted these stories to come from Louise, a marvelous storyteller and preserver of our mountain lore.  I couldn't invent a better character.

Donald Lee Moore, the man who had gone on the coffin journey, was also a musician and composer.  At one time, Donald Lee had published more sacred music than anyone else in North Carolina.  He sat in his funeral home's storage room, surrounded by caskets, and pulled together harmonies of the Eternal while constantly reminded of our existence in the Temporal.  Donald Lee told me of taking his two brothers, their instruments, and ample lubrication from a friendly mountaineer's still to Connemara and swapping songs and the jug with Sandburg.  He let me listen to the tapes they made for personal enjoyment - tapes as they meandered from one song to another with Sandburg's distinctive baritone voice woven throughout.

Separating these stories from the storytellers would have taken some of the life out of them for me and thereby taken some of the life out of them for the reader.  I've come to realize that people are stories - and, at times, rather than create "composite" characters, my fictional tales are better served by letting interesting people be themselves.  If all the world's a stage, as Shakespeare wrote, then the fun for me is setting that stage and letting others play their roles upon it.  Not the famous of today or yesterday, but those who have been a part of my life, a part of my story.

Writing whom you know provides me with companions as I explore the "what if" questions of fiction and, more importantly, gives me the chance to share with others the people I appreciate and admire.


Friday, September 23, 2011

A Reviewer's Conundrum by L.J. Roberts

I can't remember a time I didn't read. I still have the first book I bought with my own money -- Jane Eyre for $0.50 through Scholastic Books. Since 1994, I have coordinated the East Bay Mystery Readers' Group.

My transition into being a reviewer started by keeping notes for my own sake, just so I’d remember which authors’ writing I liked.  Over time, I began sharing my reviews on-line.  Poisoned Pen Press asked me to be a reader for them, evaluating manuscripts.  After reading the vast number of really bad manuscripts, I couldn’t do it anymore, but they had taught me how to evaluate the various elements of a book and I started reviewing seriously.  

My reviews now are found in "The Strand Magazine," "Mystery Readers Journal," international e-zine "Calamity's Corner",  on-line at www.Mystery* , and  as well as being a Top 500 Reviewer on Amazon US, Canada and UK, posting on DorothyL, 4MysteryAddicts, and Crime Thru Time, a distribution list of people to whom I email  my monthly reviews and all of my reviews can be found on GoodReads.  I also have a blog, It is purely my opinion, where I write about books and other things.

The wall across from my desk

by L.J. Roberts

CONUNDRUM--don’t you love that word?  It has such a wonderful sound and it’s fun to say: conundrum.  But I digress…

I write reviews of mystery books.  I write them for on-line communities, websites, subscription e-zines, and print publications.  I enjoy writing them, which is a good thing.  Most of the books are ones I buy.  A very few are sent to me by author’s from whom I shamelessly beg.  Even fewer are from authors who, judging by my past reviews of their work, know I’m a fan and send me their newest book.  Two outlets do send me free ARCs, AREs, UPs or some other alphabet soup combination of pre-published works and, even better, from some, I am able to choose the authors whose works I’d like to receive.

There is one publication for which I review that actually pays me.  Real money.  And considering how few paid gigs there are for reviewers, being paid at all is a thrill.  Book publishers pay for advertising which supports this publication.  They also send copies of their new releases to the reviewers in order to spread the word about those new books and, hopefully, boost the sales of those books, thus increasing their revenue and justifying their marketing dollars spent on advertising

Now comes the reviewer, me. As a reviewer, I have always felt my responsibility is to fellow readers.  Over the years, I built my reputation on giving an honest opinion.  I received one of the greatest compliments to date when the publisher of the international e-zine for which I review said, “
I love the way your reviews are teaching tools for authors. You point out how the writer brings the characters to life and makes a story great.”  Through focusing on, and describing the strengths and weaknesses of the elements of a book, I believe other readers may judge whether that book will appeal to them; it is this for which I strive.

Therein lies my—here it comes—conundrum—I do love that word.  When reviewing for an outlet whose revenue comes from publishers, they want you to write positive reviews.  This wouldn’t be bad if the selection of books from which I have to choose were broad and diverse.  But it isn’t. There are three primary houses from whom I receive books:  two of which send me sub-genres I don’t normally read as they are not to my personal taste.  I do, however, love the third house as they are the source for some of my favorite authors.

One conundrum arose when the paid outlet changed the text of the review without my knowing.  For example, I wrote ”The plot is very well constructed.” yet in print, the sentence morphed into ”The novel is superbly constructed.”  Happily, I did receive an apology from the Editor for the copywriters ‘enthusiasm’.  So, the question is: do I own the copy because I wrote it, or do they own the copy as they paid me for it? Since the relationship I have with the magazine’s editor is quite casual, should I expect to view the changes in advance?

The desk, which I did clean up a bit; okay, a lot.

When reviewing books not of my selection, there often arises a double conundrum!  First, I’m faced with reading a genre for which I, personally, don’t care because it is outside my area of interest.  I tend not to read cozies, suspense/thrillers, or noir.  This is a generalization, of course, as there are authors whose books are the exceptions and books that have cross genres.  Second, as a reviewer, I must set aside, as best as possible, my personal preferences and be as objective as possible. 

How do I handle my review?  Carefully, and occasionally with small compromises, I choose from the selection I feel most suits me.  For example, I was asked to review a cozy.  There are a lot of people who love this sub-genre so I needed to look at it from their perspective.  The book did have some stylistic choices that bothered me.  I focused on the book’s strengths but didn’t completely ignore the weaknesses.  In my review, one line, of which I was particularly proud and thought quite clever as it was a play on the book’s setting of a pizza parlor, was:  “The book had more portents than slices of pepperoni one would hope for on their pizza.” The magazine editor disagreed and asked that I remove it or rephrase it. I changed it to:”There are a lot of portents…”, but I still prefer the original. In another review for a book I felt was poorly written, I wrote: “Normally a book such as this would be a good airplane book as one could lose oneself in it for a few hours. In the case of this book, however, one would do best to lose the book.”  Funny, that review wasn’t published. 

Normally, there is a middle ground.  I do strive for that, I really do.  I want to be fair to the publishers, writers, and readers, of all genres.  At the same time, I do feel it would not be fair to anyone, were I not true to myself first.

The wall behind my desk.  The books in my den are  ~1/6 of all my books.  And yes, that is a mini-T.A.R.D.I.S. on top of my monitor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Method Writing by Hilary Davidson

Hilary Davidson
The Damage Done (Forge, 2010) + The Next One to Fall (Forge, February 14, 2012)

Hilary Davidson’s debut novel, The Damage Done— won the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and the Crimespree Award for Best First Novel. It was also a finalist for an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, and a Macavity Award. The sequel, The Next One to Fall—a mystery set in Peru, starting with a suspicious death at Machu Picchu—will be published by Forge on February 14, 2012.
She won the 2010 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story for “Insatiable.” Hilary’s stories appear in anthologies including A Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (Pegasus, 2008), Thuglit Presents: Blood, Guts, & Whiskey (Kensington, 2010), and Crime Factory: The First Shift (New Pulp Press, 2011). She’s also published work in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Beat to a Pulp, and Crimespree Magazine.

Like her main character in The Damage Done and The Next One to Fall, Hilary’s day job for more than a decade was travel journalist. She is also the author of 18 nonfiction books, including Frommer’s New York City Day by Day. Originally from Toronto, she has lived in New York since October 2001.

You can find Hilary online at and on Twitter (@hilarydavidson).

Method Writing
By Hilary Davidson

I have a group of journalist friends I’ve been meeting with for years in New York, and they love to tease me about what I was like while writing my first novel. In particular, there was one evening we were meeting for our usual dinner and gabfest. We take turns hosting these nights out, and I was heading to my friend Ellen’s apartment on Mercer Street, a place I’d been to dozens of times. I remember coming out of the subway on Bleecker Street, and wandering around the neighborhood, looking for my friend’s building and not being able to find it. I found Mercer Street eventually, but not her building; I had to call and ask for directions. When I got there, I told them what had happened, and I blamed the book. But I didn’t tell them the entire truth, which was that I’d been writing that day about a character who was lost in a familiar neighborhood.
When I started writing fiction, I found that characters and stories took up more space in my brain than I ever imagined they would. I was used to writing articles and books of the nonfiction variety, so I thought I understood what it took to be a writer. But fiction made demands I hadn’t expected. Stories lurked in my brain no matter what I was doing or where I was. They weren’t even stories, in a real sense; I would be trying to work out why a character behaved a certain way, prodding at bits of scar tissue in his or her heart until I felt that I understood them. Then, when I wrote about them, they came to life in my mind so vividly that they were more like people I knew instead of people I’d invented.

At the same time, I started to realize that what went down on the page left emotional aftershocks. I can’t claim to have figured this out for myself; it was my husband who picked up on it.

“Did something bad happen in your book today?” he asked me one day.

“Yes! How did you know?”

“Because you’re acting like it happened to you,” he said.

It was an embarrassing thing to admit to, but he was right. There was very little emotional space between my main character and me. Years ago, when I was interning at a magazine in New York, I lived in a Salvation Army residence in Gramercy Park. It was an old-fashioned hotel for ladies, much like the residence in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The residence was filled with actresses who were studying at the Lee Strasberg School, which was nearby. I often came back in the evening to find them trying to stimulate memories and re-create emotions so they could bring these feelings to a part they were playing. I found the practice baffling but intriguing, and I borrowed books from them to try to understand the theory. This was how Strasberg described the Method approach to acting:

“The human being who acts is the human being who lives. That is a terrifying circumstance. Essentially the actor acts a fiction, a dream; in life the stimuli to which we respond are always real. The actor must constantly respond to stimuli that are imaginary. And yet this must happen not only just as it happens in life, but actually more fully and more expressively. Although the actor can do things in life quite easily, when he has to do the same thing on the stage under fictitious conditions he has difficulty because he is not equipped as a human being merely to playact at imitating life. He must somehow believe. He must somehow be able to convince himself of the rightness of what he is doing in order to do things fully on the stage.”

It made a lot of sense, intuitively, but it felt like an impossible task. Being a writer seemed simple by comparison: you just made things up. Only it didn’t quite turn out that way for me.

I wasn’t conscious of deliberately calling up memories to create realistic reactions until I’d written most of The Damage Done. I knew that Lily, the main character, was claustrophobic, but I hadn’t confronted that head-on. When I tried to write about her reaction to being locked in a room, none of it felt very convincing to me. I couldn’t relate to her until I was able to call up a memory of feeling powerless and trapped. For me, that happened while I was scuba diving in the St. Lawrence River, and I lost my dive buddy underwater. The visibility was low, and I had no idea whether she’d been swept away by a current, or if she’d sunk further down. I searched for her, getting more panicked as each minute passed. Rapid breathing uses up oxygen fast, and even though I could move in the water, I couldn’t see more than ten feet around me. I felt the weight of the water pressing on me, and I felt horribly, hopelessly trapped.

That was how I finally figured out how to write about claustrophobia.

I’m writing my third novel now, and I’d love to say that I’ve found a better way to work emotions into the book. But just the other day, I went outside and put up an umbrella, only realizing after that it was bright and sunny out. Of course, I’d just been writing about a place where it was raining.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Finishing the hat by Joelle Charbonneau

Joelle Charbonneau has performed in a variety of operas and musical theatre productions across the Chicagoland area.  She now teaches private voice lessons and uses her stage experience to create compelling characters in her books.  The first of the Rebecca Robbins mysteries, SKATING AROUND THE LAW (Minotaur Books) was called “Sexy and funny” by Kirkus Reviews.  The second book in the series, SKATING OVER THE LINE, will hit shelves on Sept. 27th, 2011.  The first of her newest series, MURDER FOR CHOIR, will be published by Berkley in the fall of 2012.


Finishing the hat
Joelle Charbonneau

I titled this post after a song from the musical Sunday In The Park With George by Stephen Sondheim because—well—I’m a theater girl. I always have been and always will be.

Most of my high school life was spent in the scene shop or belting out songs on the stage. Unsurprisingly, in college I majored in the performing arts and ended up singing and dancing on the professional Chicagoland stages. And I loved it: the curtains, the costumes, the lights, my fellow performers and everything else that went along with the lifestyle. 

Eight shows a week is challenging, but so much fun. Each day gives the cast a chance to create something brand new. That last sentence might confuse a non-performer. I mean, every show is technically the same – same dances, same songs, same script. But every show IS different. Why? Well, the most obvious answer is that the audience is different. Every audience has their own energy. What one audience finds funny, another audience might scowl at. The cast feels that energy and feels off it. A line that doesn’t get the typical laugh changes the pacing and the reactions from the cast members on stage. Not a lot, but enough to create something new. Something different and special.

That ‘different and special’ is why I will always love performing. Some audiences are more challenging than others, but I love the challenge of phrasing a musical line to reach into their hearts and make them feel what the character is feeling. I love the subtle shifts in the other characters on stage that make my character react in new and different ways. Each performance uses the same script, but tells a different story.

I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising that I decided to try my hand at writing. (Although, I admit it shocked the heck out of me!) Theater and writing have so much in common. They are both about creating characters that even at their very best or worst feel real. The best serial killer is one that repels us not only because of the horrible crimes he or she commits, but because something about them feels human and real. More than blood or gore, it is that connection that makes us cringe when the character steps across the page. The same can be said for the outrageously funny characters that we love to laugh with. While those characters are doing their favorite Elvis impersonation or interacting with a hat-wearing circus camel, there is something warm and admirable that shines from within. (At least, I hope so!)

Until I started writing, I didn’t recognize the similarities in the two fields. Now that I am smack in the middle of both, I can easily see the same burning desire to take the impossible and make it seem possible. The need to get the tone and the timbre of a scene or a song just right – to ‘finish the hat’ and make it perfect for the world to see. In Sunday In The Park With George, the character of George is driven by his need to get the hat or the tree or whatever he is painting just right. When Mandy Patinkin played George on Broadway the audience was able to see and feel the struggle that all artists feel when they try to get the character just right. Whenever I experience that struggle, I remember that there are actors, writers, singers, painters and all types of artist who feel the same frustration when the character doesn’t ring true and elation when a true moment clicks into place. As a performer and a writer, I am constantly striving to create those moments that draw the audience and the reader into the story. Who the heck knows if I ever achieve my goal, but I can’t help but keep trying.