Wednesdays are for Writing

I’ve been sharing thoughts about writing on my Facebook page recently, and thought I should share them here, too. I hope they hit the spot!

My desk

Writing Wednesday. You said you liked my weekly comments on some aspect of writing that I’m dealing with at the moment, so I’ll try to share them more consistently.

Several years ago, I attended a Don Maass Break-Out Novel Intensive workshop — which I highly recommend, by the way. He suggested “emotional research,” a phrase I’d never heard but instantly knew was critical for me. I was writing Death al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, with a main character who was 32 but lost her father in a hit-and-run at 17. My father died when I was 30, so not at all the same. I sat down with a notebook and hand-wrote everything I remembered from observing friends who’d lost a parent when they were in their teens or early 20s. (Handwriting is best b/c of the direct emotional connection it evokes.) I consulted online guides for teachers and counselors on working with students or young clients who had lost a parent. I quizzed a classmate who had two teenagers. And at the end, I was able to see quite clearly not only how Erin would have responded, but how her friend Kim would have responded — creating a central conflict that carried through the first three books in the series and made both women deeper and, I think, more relatable.

Today, I’m doing something similar with my killer. Not that I’m consulting actual killers among my friends, mind you 🙂 but I’m looking at news accounts, books, reports, and articles to help me better understand the motivation, the drive, that led this person to believe murder was the only choice, the right response, to a situation. And I’m following the lead of a once-famous criminal defendant and free-writing my killer’s “If I did it” confession, by hand, using his/her favorite pen.

My desk

The Saturday Writing Quote

Bitterroot Winter, by Rachel Warner (collection of the author)

“[L]ove what you do. If you don’t love it and find it all rather lonely because it is, find something else. Most of all, use what is already there. You cannot reinvent the conditions you are in, but these conditions are your fuel – anger, frustration, despair, revenge, love, silliness, need. and writing is your way to clarity, to understanding what is important. That is its power.

Know this in your heart. No one gives you power freely. You have to take it. Then own it. And whatever fee they offer you, ask for more.”
– Suzanne Moore, British journalist, The Guardian, “Find A Room of Your Own: 10 tips for women who want to write”

The Saturday Writing Quote — the spark

Spark: How Creativity Works by [Andersen, Kurt, Julie Burstein]I’m wrapping up two months of quotes from Spark: How Creativity Works (2011) by Julie Burstein, based on interviews conducted with artists of all media for Studio 360, which she produced.

Painter Chuck Close on how he creates his portraits: “I know where I’m going to end up but I don’t know the route I”m going to take. So much is embedded in the process of following that path wherever it leads, and the things you bump into, the ideas that occur to you through the act of painting, through the process of building a painting, are so different from the ones that you sit around and dream up. I don’t wait for inspiration. If you wait for the clouds to part and be struck in the head with a bolt of lightning, you’re likely to be waiting the rest of your life. But if you simply get going something will occur to you.”

So much like writing a story or a novel. I often find that I’m “sparked” by interaction with other arts — going to a concert or a gallery opening, taking a painting class, sitting nearby when my singer-songwriter husband and his friends take turns around the circle with their song. I hope these quotes have done something similar for you.

The Saturday Writing Post — on perseverance

“Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it – coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.”

– Ursula K. LeGuin

Wednesday Writing Quote — Ursula LeGuin on making art

“Writing can be [self-expression, therapy, or a spiritual adventure], but first of all — and in the end, too — it’s an art, a craft, a making. To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.”

— Ursula LeGuin, American novelist, essayist, and teacher (1929-2018)

And, American goddess. 

Classic or cliche — the power of details

This piece was originally published in First Draft, the SinC Guppy chapter newsletter. I thought of it last week after watching THE ROAD TO PERDITION, with Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, and Jude Law. All their performances were excellent, but Newman’s reminded me of the power of the right gesture, no matter how small. He could convey with a creased brow his approval of his foster, a message not lost on his biological son, and so embodied a character that we nearly forgot it was one of the most famous screen actors ever. As writers, we need those reminders, and lessons. 

CLASSIC OR CLICHE — a brief meditation on the death of Paul Newman–and what his roles say to writers

Remembering an actor who got the details right.

When Paul Newman died, I was reading Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about life in small-town Maine. I’d very much enjoyed the HBO series featuring Ed Harris as the protagonist, Miles Roby, and Newman as his father, Max. Newman so embodied the role that as I read, I pictured him every time Max appeared on the page. It’s a classic role – the charming reprobate, a sometime-house painter who abandoned his wife and young sons for months at a time but always seemed to expect them to be waiting – and they were. Now that his wife is long dead and his sons are grown, he treats them no better. Without a car and always short on money, he bums rides then rummages in Miles’ glove box for cash. He pitches in at the café his sons run, cheering up his teenage granddaughter and enjoying wreaking unnecessary havoc. He knows exactly what buttons to push on his hyper-responsible oldest son. You want to smack him. But when he and the town’s senile, retired priest run off to Florida in the parish car, the moment is so unexpectedly perfect that you almost cheer the old guys on.

Then I remembered Newman’s performance as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict,” the washed-up alcoholic lawyer who takes on a loser of a case and then discovers that buried in the boxes of medical records is evidence of appalling hospital malpractice and a cover-up by the Catholic church. Galvin cleans up, dries up, falls down, falls off the wagon, and eventually redeems himself – and wins the case. Along the way, he’s seduced by a beautiful woman, sent to set him up and trick him up – and it almost works. A classic story that goes all the way back to David and Goliath.

Classic – or cliche? What makes the difference? Newman’s performances – and Russo’s writing – demonstrate that it’s the details that make the characters come alive. Russo’s Max Roby is a retired house painter, and he never had much use for the Catholic church that gave his wife comfort. His son Miles is combining penance and community service by painting the church for free – but he hates ladders and that peeling siding of that spire terrifies him. Max pokes and prods Miles about his fear of heights, not very nicely. But he knows that Miles has constrained his own life in part out of fear, and needs to push through it. The author doesn’t spell that out – it’s in the characterization. Eventually Miles does stand up to Max, he does go high up on the ladder, and he gains the courage he needs to pull off a pair of rebellious acts that enable him to save his daughter and change his own life. Small actions, tiny steps that lead inexorably to redemption – not of Max, who isn’t looking for it, but of Miles, who needs it to fully live his own life. The devil may be in the details, but so is the glory.

Newman described himself as a character actor who looked like a leading man. I think he meant that he liked to lose himself in the details and become someone else – he wasn’t always playing himself. As writers, we need to give our characters those same opportunities. What I particularly like about Empire Falls – and Russo’s latest novel, The Bridge of Sighs – is that most of the characters are ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, but the writer is willing to go beneath the surface and explore each individual character’s particular thoughts, feelings, motivations, and reactions. To go beyond cliche. And that’s what makes a classic.

Not a criminal, but a victim — a twist on identity theft

Image0073Some stories are almost too strange to believe — or too strange for fiction. This one is frighteningly real — and may give you a few story ideas.

The Missoulian reported earlier this year that last February, federal Homeland Security agents obtained a search warrant for the home of a NW Montana man they suspected of trafficking child pornography. They quickly concluded that the man was not a trafficker, but himself the victim of a form of identity theft. The real trafficker had used readily-available software called E-Phex to establish what’s called a “peer-to-peer connection,” making it appear that emails he sent distributing child pornography had come from another man’s computer.

Once that became clear, according to a lengthy story in the Daily InterLake, the department publicly announced that the man was “not the subject of, or a person of interest in, an investigation. … We believe he is an innocent victim of cybertheft.” The department would not reveal how the thief obtained the man’s Stell’s IP address or how they concluded that it had been stolen, to avoid revealing their plan to catch the thief and trafficker.

The Homeland Security spokesman acknowledged that it was rare for a law enforcement agency to make such a public announcement, but the computer owner is an older man who volunteers with a local charity that suspended him after learning of the warrant and suspicions, which were widely published in Montana. Local agents asked the regional spokesman to speak out to clear his name. “The agents in Montana saw an injustice was occurring and wanted to make it right,” the InterLake reports.

The computer owner and his wife were questioned extensively, separately and together, for several hours. More details on the investigation and its toll on the couple in the InterLake article.

(Photo: Flathead Lake in winter, by Leslie)

 

On the move …

Sometime soon, probably next week, my two websites will become one, at www.LeslieBudewitz.com, and this blog will be found on that site. I’m hoping to keep the address www.LawandFiction.com/blog, so your favorites and bookmarks will still work, but if you subscribe to the blog, through Feedburner or RSS, you may need to re-subscribe. The website and blog may be down for a day or two while I move hosts.

Please keep this message so you can find me in my new on-line home—I love keeping in touch, and hope you do, too!

Leslie