Writing Wednesday – Charlie Chaplin and suspense

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A few weeks ago, Mr. Right and I took a road trip through central Montana, where we grew up, though in different towns. We spent a couple of nights in Great Falls, staying in a historic hotel where I cribbed details for my WIP. Prowled the galleries at the Charles M. Russell Museum, which we love, and visited a few other favorite spots. And Saturday evening, we went to the Mansfield Civic Center to watch Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, his 1931 silent romantic comedy, accompanied by the Great Falls Symphony playing Chaplin’s original score. (The last time we heard them? With guest artist Joshua Bell. So, yeah, we knew they can play. And play they did.)

The entire experience was wacky and delightful. Though we’d both seen snippets of the movie, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp, neither of us had seen the full movie.

What struck me was how Chaplin pushes the gags. The Little Tramp is in a fancy club with his billionaire friend, eating noodles on New Year’s Eve. He’s slurping them up, one at a time. A curly streamer drops down and winds around a noodle and he keeps slurping. And slurping. And slurping. Just watching makes you respond physically. You lean forward. You wonder how long this can go on. You physically need some relief. And when it comes, your body relaxes and you laugh and laugh. And then it happens again, with the Tramp and the Billionaire lighting a cigar, and the Tramp and the lady whose dress he’s set on fire and another man exchanging seats in a sort of game of musical chairs. The gag goes on to the point where it is almost but not quite too long. You want, you need, a resolution, and when it comes, he has you.

As writers, we can’t do that the way music or physical comedy can. But we can make our readers physically respond, make them want and need a resolution of the tension on the page.

What other lessons can you learn from other art forms? Have you seen City Lights? If you get a chance to see it with a live orchestra, go! And be prepared to laugh, silly and wacky as it is.

BY THE WAY, you’re a writer. That’s why you subscribe to this blog. I don’t very often post here about my books, except around launch time, which is coming up — Peppermint Barked, the 6th Spice Shop Mystery, will be out July 19, and Blind Faith, Alicia’s second suspense novel will be out October 11. If you are interested in more book news, including what I’m writing and reading, where I’ll be and more, I do hope you’ll subscribe to my newsletter, through this link. Subscribers get a free download for a short story, currently “The End of the Line” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Dec, 2006) featuring an elderly Greek man who seriously hates change.

Writing Wednesay – The Language of Setting

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A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation to the Mystery Writers of America Northwest Chapter on setting. I love crafting the settings of my stories, and preparing the presentation—a new topic for me—was great fun. The audience was very complimentary and I hope to give the presentation again to other writers’ groups. (Drop me a line if you’re interested.)

But of course, you can’t say everything! And one aspect I didn’t talk about was the language of a locale.

Language and place are highly interconnected. How do your story people talk about the places where your story occurs? Are they intimately familiar with them, or still trying to figure the place out? How does the language of setting relate to the plot or characterization?

Listen to actual usage. Do locals say the highway, the freeway, the Interstate, the toll road, or something else? I-5, 101, the 101? When a character uses the wrong term, does another correct them, mock them, dismiss them? Does your gangster recognize that the newcomer is really new and begin to suspect him?

In my small town, the original townsite, now home to restaurants and retail but few essential services, is always referred to as “the village.” Anywhere else it would probably be downtown. Towns can outgrow geographic references, even though everyone still uses them—I’m thinking of the Northside and the West End in Billings, neither of which is north or west anymore. Neighborhoods can emerge through development or good PR and acquire a name some residents won’t recognize, like the Tangletown area in Seattle that used to just be a corner of Green Lake or a spot north of Wallingford.

What words do locals know that might need an explanation?
My husband and I were driving through farm and ranch country in central Montana. I spotted a compound of long low buildings, some obviously metal farm buildings, others wooden and harder to see.
Me: Is that a colony?
Him: I think so.
Half a mile later, we saw the sign for Miller Colony, Fresh Flowers, Eggs. We knew what we meant, no further details required. But a tourist or newcomer unfamiliar with the area might not know what they were seeing or what we were saying. (A colony is a settlement of Hutterites, a German-speaking Anabaptist community similar to the Amish or Mennonites, located mainly in MT, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The group lives and farms and ranches communally.)

It’s a craft challenge to convey that insider knowledge. If the details advance plot, setting, or characterization, then try conveying it through context, rather than an info dump, like my parenthetical. If it doesn’t advance at least two of the three elements, you may not need it.

An example:
Her, driving through farm country: Is that a colony?
Him: Must be. (Silence.) Did I ever tell you the story about hustling the Hutterites at Hussmans?
Her: And then one of the guys looked at Brian’s cousin’s girlfriend too long and he went after him with the pool cue?
Him: I always wondered what happened to her. She was way too sweet for him.

Not the best example, maybe, but it shows how language and context can be used to convey both an element of setting and the relationship between this couple. They’ve been together long enough to know each other’s stories, and they feel comfortable skipping the detail and cutting to the punch line. Of course, you’d only include even a short snippet like this if it was relevant to some larger aspect of the story.

How will the language of and about place affect your story?

Writing Wednesday — evoking emotion on the page

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I’ve read a couple of books lately that were totally solid — interesting premise, fun characters, solid plot, a good use of setting. But I didn’t always feel like the characters were responding emotionally to the events on the page. And because they weren’t, neither did I.

Techer and literary agent Don Maass writes a lot about the importance of giving a reader an emotional experience, in both The Fire in Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction, as well as in his posts on Writer UnBoxed and the in-person and online workshops he gives through Free Expressions. He stresses that the trick is not describing emotion on the page—telling a reader what to feel—but evoking it in the reader.

It’s a big subject, and there are a lot of ways to do it, but I want to share with you a post I wrote a little over a year ago for The Kill Zone blog, on emotional research — on how to better understand experiences we haven’t had, or go deeper into experiences we have had. Emotional research goes a long way toward helping us identify those gestures, thoughts, actions and reactions that truly show a reader what a character is feeling, and evoking her own emotional experience and empathy in the process.

I hope it’s helpful.

Writing Wednesday – Voice

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“I could hear your voice throughout,” a friend told me after reading Blind Faith, my standalone coming this fall (written as Alicia Beckman).

That reminded me of a different friend, who read Death al Dente, my first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, when it was newly published and said “it sounds just like you talk.”

And of course, other friends have said Pepper in my Spice Shop mysteries sounds just like me.

I’ve taken great pains to make the books different. To give Lindsay and Erin and Pepper different ways of speaking, of swearing, of talking to themselves. They have different lives, in different places. I’ve been careful to give them different experiences, to write some in first person and some in third.

Did I blow it? Do my main characters really all sound the same? Do they all sound like me? (Lindsay, the main character in Blind Faith, probably shares more of my upbringing and my personal views, even though her life experiences are very different from mine.)

No, not literally. But that’s not what we mean by voice, is it? Yes, it’s in the characteristic phrases, the pet words, the rhythm of the sentences. But it’s also in what the characters care about. How they think of the world.

My characters are concerned about community. About their relationship to their physical surroundings, whether it’s their home, the windswept prairie, or the historic building they work in. If an issue arises in my life, it might show up in one of their lives, because I want to explore it more deeply, and I figure if it snares my attention, it might matter to my readers, too. My main characters are interested in the world around them, even though they don’t all read or watch movies or garden. They do all love food and art! They’re interested in friendships, especially between women. In starting over. In healing the wounds injustice causes.

They sound like me because there’s a little bit of me in each of them. And that’s a good thing, because that’s one of the ways we make our characters come alive.

Tell me, friends. What does voice in a novel mean to you? Do you think about it as you write? Do you try to cultivate it, to change it from one type of story to another? Can it even be changed? Could we pick up any book of yours and hear you, regardless of the genre or subject matter?

Writing Wednesday – The Power of Community

Leslie’s desk

I’m just back from Albuquerque and Left Coast Crime, one of the three main fan conventions in mystery and crime fiction. And next week, I’m headed to Bethesda, MD, for Malice Domestic. My first conventions in three years! I found myself both unsure and excited. Unsure what to pack. How many bookmarks do I need? How many pairs of shoes? What am I forgetting, besides my mind?

And excited to see my community. Readers, writers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, people in the publishing business. People who love curling up with a good book—and who love getting together with others to talk about the experience.

One of my writing communities has long been Sisters in Crime and the Guppies chapter, which I helped start. In 2014, SinC published a book called Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer’s Journey, ed. by Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Writes of Passage

My essay is titled “Group Power, For the Writer Alone in Her Room.” I was reminded of it recently when a member of an online writers’ group I’m in said of the cons, “I’m not sure I could do that. I’m an introvert.” Let me share this passage:

“I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown Books, 2012). Like most writers, I’m an introvert, albeit a noisy one, or maybe an ambivert. Cain contends that most institutions in our culture—schools, corporations, even churches—push extroversion and emphasize group activities and teamwork. That emphasis often results in forming a group to tackle a problem, whether that’s really the best solution or not, and discounts key natural strengths of introverts. But while introverts need quiet time—alone in our rooms, with the voices and stories in our heads—we also like to cooperate. We value each group member’s voice, and we encourage innovation.

“That’s what makes the writers’ group so powerful. A group can help us learn new information or sift through it. SinC’s Guppies chapter thrives on that principle, with subgroups for those seeking an agent, learning Scrivener, and setting goals. A dozen writers in my neck of the woods recently formed a business and marketing group. The writer experienced with Mail Chimp presented a tutorial for would-be newsletter authors terrified by the specter of yet more technology. Those without Facebook or Twitter accounts met at a café with wifi and walked through the setup together. I helped the group learn to use our Word Press blog and conduct a blog tour. We teach, puzzle, brainstorm—and toast sales with champagne.

What groups do best, in my ambiverted opinion, is encourage its members and leverage information. Every opportunity and accomplishment I’ve had as a writer started with something I learned from a group. And with SinC and the Guppies, I didn’t even have to put on shoes.”

I do hope you’ll put on shoes and go find your community—on line or when the time is right for you, in person. And if you’re at Malice, please introduce yourself. Just don’t say anything about my shoes.

Writing Wednesday – The Gratitude Email

Leslie’s desk

I’m a big fan of marketing coach and teacher Dan Blank of We Grow Media, who advocates what he calls a human-centered approach to marketing. Yesterday, in a Zoom session, he talked about putting joy in our marketing and promotion, and suggested making a regular practice of sending “gratitude emails,” short thank you notes to someone who has inspired us, encouraged us, or otherwise influenced us, particularly in our creative work.

My first was an actual snail-mail letter, to a 90+ y.o. Jesuit who taught music when I was a college student at Seattle University more than forty years ago. In search of a break from academics, I signed up for classical guitar lessons, even though my guitar playing was limited to folk songs and singing and playing with a group at Mass. My teacher recruited me to join a trio formed by a music major named Karen. I was definitely the weak link. One evening the three of us gathered in my dorm room to practice for Karen’s upcoming senior recital. She had the brilliant idea to ask Father Waters, the dorm rector, to join us. As we played a modern atonal piece that had me stumbling, he stopped us and gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. “They’ll only know you made a mistake,” he said, speaking of the audience, “if you tell them.” Meaning, of course, through my reaction. It’s a lesson that goes far beyond music performance, and one I’ve never forgotten.

I’m not expecting a reply. I simply wanted to say thanks, and I hope, put a smile on an elderly priest’s face, as the memory and writing the letter have put one on mine.

What do you think? Might a week—or more—of gratitude emails help you find more joy in marketing your books? Reconnect with an old friend? Reassure someone who’s struggling? Add a smile where it might be needed?

(And no, this is not an invitation to thank me, though of course, I always like hearing from you!)

Writing Wednesday — voting rights and felony convictions (an update)

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

In my guide for writers, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011), I gave a quick overview of the issues related to voting by those with a felony conviction, noting that this was a rapidly changing area.

Last month, I attended a Washington State Bar continuing legal education seminar on voting rights and voter suppression, and one resource cited was this report from the Sentencing Project, the national organization promoting sentencing reform that I cited in Books, Crooks, titled Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Due to a Felony Conviction. If your story involves any issues related to voting, racial justice, or post-prison life, or you’re simply interested in these issues, you’ll find it a valuable resource.

A few findings, to give you a taste:

  • “As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has declined by almost 15 percent since 2016, as states enacted new policies to curtail this practice. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, 5.85 million in 2010, and 6.11 million in 2016.
  • One out of 44 adults – 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population–is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.
  • One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population.
  • Approximately 1.2 million women are disenfranchised, comprising over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.”

Remember that the law varies from state to state and is always changing. Do what you can to get the facts about the law right.

Writing Wednesday — Staying Creative and “The Rules”

Recently, a list has been circulating on Facebook titled “33 Ways to Stay Creative.” (I wasn’t able to trace its origins; when the “My Modern Met” blog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared it in 2011, they couldn’t find the author, either.)

I love this because it’s concrete and specific — these are things we can actually do, and too often don’t. It reminds us that creativity doesn’t just happen by accident; we can feed and nurture it, to better feed and nurture ourselves.

My friend Elaine Snyder, an amazingly creative buckskin clothier, commented that she’d add to #24 “test the rules,” because they can provide insight. And that got me thinking about writers, often beginners, who complain about “the rules” without actually digging for that insight Elaine mentioned. Take, for example, the complaint about “the rule” against adverbs. “Adverbs are perfectly fine,” they say. “X uses them and everyone praises X’s writing.”

This “rule,” and almost every other rule about writing, is really a guideline, a good practice grown from experience. At its core, it’s a reminder to choose every word with care and intention. When you’re tempted to use an adverb, for example, ask yourself first if you’ve used the right verb. Truly think about the action you’re describing, the person taking the action, what they’re feeling at that moment, their motives and inner conflicts, their physical capabilities, the setting—the entire situation. When you find the right verb, you might not need an adverb. If you decide you do need one, like the much-acclaimed X, then it will have been a deliberate choice, not a lazy fallback. You may write an entire story without a single adverb—or you may let them fall drippingly, deliciously, bountifully off every character’s tongue.

So the next time you find yourself griping about “the rules,” test them. Follow, flaunt, fall somewhere in between. See what happens.

And revel in the creativity of it all.

Writing Wednesday — Getting Started in the Mystery Community

Leslie’s desk

Earlier this year, a blog subscriber sent me this email:
I am working on a novel that falls into the mystery genre and it’s time I got involved with the mystery community. I have been to many writing conferences but never focused on any genre before. I see that you are/have been involved with Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America. I’d like your take on what an as-yet-unpublished writer in the genre can expect from their involvement with these (and I know there are others) organizations. I can usually attend one writing conference per year, am comfortable with zoom meetings, and as mentioned I particularly like being connected to writers in the west.

I thought it might be useful to share my reply, edited a bit, since I think my advice applies broadly. I left in the regional references; with more than 60 Sisters in Crime chapters and eleven regional MWA chapters, many with meetings throughout their geographic spread, it’s not hard to find a mystery-focused writing community. And the benefits are top-notch, no matter where you are.

Hi, Lynn –

[Lovely comments about my latest book omitted.]

So where should an aspiring mystery writer start? With reading, of course, but you’ve nailed that. Either SinC or MWA would be a great starting point; MWA is geared toward the professional writer, while SinC’s mission is a little broader. Check out the SinC Guppies chapter; it’s online, a boon for those of us in the boonies, and aimed at the new and unpublished. The Guppies offers a regular slate of classes led by some excellent instructors – I’m sure this year’s schedule is on the website. The Guppies online discussion list is a great resource, although it could be a bit daunting for a newbie. SinC National – you have to be a member to join a chapter – also offers webinars at least once a month on a wide range of craft, promotion, and business topics; members have access to the archives. And both have truly excellent newsletters – the Guppies’ First Draft is bi-monthly and InSinC is quarterly.

You might also check into the Denver SinC chapter, especially if you get there with any regularity – under normal circumstances. I know several of the leaders but I don’t know how they’ve handled programming in the last two years; I imagine that most of it is now online, but that they will begin moving to a hybrid model with in-person events and an online option as soon as it’s reasonable to do so. In-person connections are invaluable.

MWA’s Rocky Mountain chapter meets in Denver, with terrific monthly programming. (I say modestly, having spoken there a few years ago, on common mistakes writers make about the law.) The meetings are in-person and broadcast, with replays of the programs available online and summarized in the monthly newsletter.

I’m also a big believer in self-education, and a great resource is the new MWA book, How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from the Mystery Writers of America, ed by Lee Child and Laurie R. King. (I do have a small piece in it.) The hardcover came out last April; I think the paperback will be out this spring.

You asked about conferences focused on mystery. Since you’ve attended writing conferences, you probably know the difference between writers conferences, aimed at the craft and business of writing, and fan conventions like Malice, Left Coast Crime, and Bouchercon, where the goal is to create opportunities for fans to interact with authors, although other industry pros also attend. The main conferences focused on mystery writing have changed a bit but I think they are the biennial California Crime Writers conference (a joint event between the MWA SoCal chapter and the CA Writers Club, IIRC), the New England Crime Bake (a joint MWA-SinC event), Killer Nashville, and Book Passage Mystery Conference, sponsored by the Book Passage bookstore just north of San Francisco. I attended the Crime Bake when I was SinC president and it is fabulous. I also attended the BP conference and loved it, but that was 20 years ago and I don’t know much about it now. Several SinC and MWA chapters hold one-day events, too – Desert Sleuths in Phoenix comes to mind; membership is not typically required. I know the Crime Bake and Desert Sleuths offered some sort of Zoom version in the last couple of years. See if you can find a calendar of events on the SinC website – that will provide a lot more info than I can. I did find the conventions helpful when I was starting out, but they are a vastly different type of event, and I hate to see writers attend with the wrong expectations.

So that’s what I can suggest. If you have more questions, do feel free to ask. And my thanks again for your kind words about the More Than Malice panel and Bitterroot Lake. They mean a lot.

All the best to you and your mother in this new year,

Leslie

Writing Wednesday — The Writing Practice

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This is the time of year when many people plan to start a book or a story or a screenplay, some for the umptieth time, some for the first. It’s also the time of year when resolve flags and we think “what was I thinking, imagining I could do this?”

So I want to revisit one common piece of advice, “write every day.” In fact, some people say that’s a rule, maybe even the only rule.

It’s good advice. I certainly heard it when I was starting, twenty-five years ago. (Hand to forehead.) But it didn’t fit my life back then, and it might not fit yours. Let me tell you this: Consistency is what counts, even more than the length of your writing sessions.

I was a single woman lawyer, newly divorced, working in a small litigation firm about a 35 mile drive from home each way. We were handling cases bigger firms wouldn’t touch, which meant long hours and late nights. The internet was on the horizon, but still a ways off, so communication and research required time in the office and our law library. Laptops were just emerging – I didn’t have one – so writing, whether for the firm or myself, meant sitting at a desk. During one stretch, I was able to take Fridays off, and that’s when I wrote. The rest of the week, I might be able to jot down a few notes or read craft books and magazines, but I didn’t have the mental energy to write. On those Fridays, though, I made my coffee, went to my home office, and turned on the computer. Switched on the desk lamp. (I still have it – the one in the picture, with the green shade.) My three dogs loved spending the day on my office floor, taking a break or two for a walk. (The cat didn’t care.) But most importantly, my muse – my creative drive – always joined us. It was as if she knew that when I showed up, she needed to be ready.

We wrote an entire manuscript that way, my border collies and me, on Fridays and the occasional Saturday morning. Then we wrote a second, and a third. They didn’t get published, but they got me an agent and a good amount of editorial interest. They were my practice novels, not just because I was trying out my skills, trying on the craft, but because I was developing my writing practice.

It was that writing practice – that consistent showing up, ready to work – that eventually got me to the point of thirteen published books, with two more novels coming out this year. When I’ve let that consistency waver, the work has wobbled, and so has my confidence and sense of myself.

Merriam-Webster’s defines practice as
1 a: CARRY OUT; APPLY b: to do or perform often, customarily or habitually c: to be professionally engaged in 2 a: to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient b: to train by repeated exercises”

There you have it. Fifteen minutes a day with your lunch in hand. An hour every morning if you’re bent that way. Fridays. Whatever it is, do it “customarily, habitually” “to become proficient. Don’t go more than a week between sessions – I am not sure a muse, no matter how loyal, can keep track of every other Thursday afternoon or the first Saturday of the month. After all, they need to “perform or work at repeatedly,” just like us.

Do what you can, when you can, as often as you can. May the muse be with you.