M. R. Arnold: The truth behind Mary Shelley’s famous Waking Dream illustrates the difficulty in interpreting fact for use in historical novels.
Questions related to writing historical novels often include a discussion about the research and verification of information. Often overlooked is the interpretation of information. I believe this is because most writers assume what historians have written is true. While there are several reasons why this is not the case, there can be few stories more illustrative of the problems in interpreting historic fact than that of Mary Shelley’s Waking Dream. Most literary people have heard the story of how Mary Shelley’s attributed the genesis of Frankenstein to a dream, however few people have stopped to question what such a thing is.
When I was writing my book, Monster: The Story of Young Mary Shelley, I identified four possible reasons for Mary’s explanation that her inspiration was what she called a waking dream.
The first is something very like a daydream or the types of thoughts that come when one simply cannot sleep. This is the explanation most people imagine when they bother to question her inspiration at all.
The second is an exercise called, ‘conscious dreaming.’ Percy cultivated the practice of getting in touch with his subconscious while a student at Oxford. He describes the process as falling asleep, having a dream, and then forcing oneself to wake and write down what was seen, or felt, during that episode. There can, and most often are, several such occurrences each night.
On a personal note, I do not recommend this. I tried this while I was a grad student and found that while achieving results from the practice is fairly easy, ending it is not. It was more than a year after I determined to end the experiment with recalling my dreams that I was able to sleep normally without waking following a dream again.
The third is a 200 year old lie. As outlined by Catherine Godwin in her wonderfully researched book, Romantic Outlaws, telling people the concept of Frankenstein came to Mary in a dream was an invention of Percy’s to deflect the approbation that attended Mary’s little book. The question asked by a public fascinated by such a horror story became, ‘what kind of person could conceive of such horrors?’ For many, the answer was, an unbalanced mind. To have such thoughts enter Mary’s head in a dream was more acceptable than that her creative imagination was responsible.
It is worth noting that Percy’s threesome had plenty of trouble by this time because of the rumors of wild debauchery attendant to their menage-a-trois lifestyle. Less than two years earlier, an English aristocrat and poet laureate of the realm, Lord Byron, had been driven from the sceptered isle because of a lascivious lifestyle that caused one former lover to brand him for posterity as “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Rumors of an affair with his half-sister did nothing to help his reputation. The idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity rebounded on Byron and he was forced to leave England. Percy feared the same fate might befall his little family.
The fourth is my Occam’s Razor solution. The weeks Mary, Percy and Claire spent with Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva can be characterized as an exercise in the type of debauchery we associate with the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of mid 1960s San Francisco; a time of unbridled creativity, philosophic freedom, and lifestyle experimentation. One slogan from the Haight that echoed throughout America was, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” Those denizens of the late 1700s and early 1800s might well have voiced the rallying cry, “Sex, Drugs and Poetry.”
A family friend of Mary’s famously succumbed to the temptation to use drugs as a road to creativity. Samuel Taylor Coleridge found himself ostracized from England for his use of Opioids, but he also gave the world, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Xanadu. In The Villa Diodatti, Lord Byron introduced his guests to Laudanum as a way to pass a few rainy hours in blissful conversation. I tend to the belief that Mary’s waking dream was drug induced.
There are at least three reasons why this 200 year old lie has been perpetuated. One: it could be due to the victorian’s tacit censorship of anything to do with sexuality or a lack of propriety, especially anything to do with a famous woman.
A second cause of inaccuracy is evident in the way I portrayed Mary Shelley. I chose a first person present point of view of her as a young girl growing up. There are few more unreliable narrators than someone telling of his or her exploits. While most people wish to appear in a favorable light, social pressures to conform on young people are magnified.
Three: Mary Shelley seems to be canonized by many historians seeking to make the point of her status in terms of authorship or as a figurehead for a cause. They have sought to sanitize her life of any possible impropriety.
Regardless which of these reasons for promoting the genesis of Frankenstein is operating, these reasons for a character’s actions must be examined in order to properly portray any historic personality.
Such, I believe, is the case with the waking dream.
I suppose there is a recipe for writing the right amount of “romance” and the right amount of “suspense” in the combo genre, however, I have always been one to tippy-toe around the norm. Writing in either genre is challenging enough without adding the additional stress of tracking how many “oh, baby’s” versus how many “oh nooooo’s”! Simply put, it’s all about the story.
Romance, as a stand-alone genre, is pretty formulaic. Boy meets girl, pursuit begins, and some type of turbulence ensues, leading up to a love-scene and a happy ending. Adding suspense ups the stakes, and what better way to test a relationship than to add an element of fear. In “The Red Chair”, the first book of my romantic/suspense trilogy, psychotherapist Grace Simms suspects she’s being stalked. But by whom? In her profession, it could be any one of her clients, and then there is the college crush who calls out of the blue and wants to get together for “old times sake”. The story begins with the character experiencing a triple dose of fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown, and fear of rejection. Fear affects everyone in one way or another, making it a good foundation for interesting characters, and nail-biting scenes. In the mix we examine love. Grace’s emotional attachment to a man she hadn’t heard from in years is spurred by memories. The fine line drawn between love and fear creates a plethora of plot ideas, and conflict. The amount of love and suspense is interchangeable as long as both are supported by strong writing and believable characters.
What makes romantic suspense a delicious sub-genre is the way the brain processes the written word. The amygdala, which is part of our brain’s limbic system, deals with emotional responses, such as love, fear, anger, sexual desire, and memory. Two different chemical reactions occur while reading. Fear activates cortisol, which makes the heart race, and creates that creepy, uneasy feeling. The reaction is increased when associated with personal memories. Writing scenes that address familiar fear based scenarios not only draw the reader in, they “feel” what the characters are feeling. Dopamine, the chemical response to love, produces that warm fuzzy feeling that connects the reader to the character on an intimate level. (Steamy love scenes keep the amygdala working overtime.) Combining “romance” and “Suspense” allows the author to create a roller coaster ride that keeps the reader turning pages deep into the night, with the lights on, and falling in love, over and over again. Imagine salted caramel, Hawaiian pizza. Some combinations are meant to be.
Photo credit Study.com
Q: Hello Peter. Thanks for visiting L’Artiste. Can you give us your writing background. I see you use the word “beat” to mean a pause in the dialogue. I generally see this word in playwriting. Are you a playwright, as well as a novelist? Or does this “silent beat” come from your music background?
A: Hello Diann. Thanks for having me. It’s a real pleasure. As early as Jr. High School I’ve been writing short stories. I had a reading/writing teacher who introduced me to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury, and I fell in love with the short story form. So much so, in fact, that I continue to write them to this day. Although I have never written a play, I have dabbled a bit in screenwriting. I’ve written a couple of full-length scripts and a few teleplays. It’s a fascinating and useful medium.
As for the use of “beat” to mean a pause in the dialogue, it is actually a combination of the two reasons you mentioned. I’ve read a number of scripts over the years, and their use of “beat” appealed to me. Often writers go out of their way to come up with some innocuous action for the speaker to perform in order to have that brief pause during dialogue, but it always appears forced and out of place to me. I don’t like to put anything into my stories that doesn’t have a specific purpose. That being said, my musical background definitely does play a role here. I agonize over dialogue in order to get the flow right. When I hear it in my head, I hear it musically, as if it’s a melody or march of sorts, there needs to be a fluid cadence. If that fluidity of speech isn’t there, the reader will trip herself up and stumble. I don’t want that. Unless, of course, I want the character to have awkward speech patterns.
Q: There are as many heroes in your story as antagonists. Very few of your characters seem to take on minor roles. Is this intentional, as part of your style? Or do you use this as a method for creating the novel’s pace?
A: I think the best answer to this question is yes and yes. We’ve all read books in which the writer has introduced a few characters who prove inessential to the story. Number ten in Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing reads: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This is the absolute best advice for any writer. I always ask myself Who cares? The answer to that simple question tells me whether something stays or goes, whether a character has earned his place in the story or not.
I’d like to say that everything I do in my novels is intentional, but that would not be completely true. For example, Toni Lee was initially intended as a minor character. I suspected she would only appear in two or three chapters. However, once she walked onto the page she proved herself to be an entertaining and valuable force to be reckoned with. And while I care about all my characters, in regards to Shelter From the Storm, I would say two of my favorites are Toni Lee and Lawrence Blackwell, both of whom began as minor characters.
Q: Pacing…you start off with a bang…twist…twist…then we’re off! The reader races toward the end. How do you keep such a fast pace going without missing important plot support?
A: I mentioned short stories earlier; they play a major role in my writing style. When you’re working on a short story, you have limited space, maybe fifteen to thirty pages, depending on the market. There’s no time for fluff or excessive exposition or tangents, you have to know where the end is and begin writing toward it from word one. I see novels the same way, only on a grander scale. I always know the end before I begin to write, so when I start on page one I’m already working toward the finish line. The plot support is already in my notes, I just need to keep my eyes open for the best places to plant the seeds. And sometimes those seeds grow into much more than I had originally anticipated, thus demanding that I restructure the original road map and take the story in a different direction. I nearly always end up at the same place, just not always by the route I had originally mapped out.
Q: Like a good movie, I was sitting on the edge of my recliner the entire day reading your book. I come away knowing your characters more by their plot motives more than their emotions. Except for maybe your major protagonist, Miranda. Would you say that you are less motived by character than action?
A: Thank you so much! I think this is something every writer hopes to hear regarding the books he or she writes. In regards to character versus action, I think it would be safe to say both are equally important to me and each plays a significant role in my writing. Let’s look at Lawrence Blackwell for a moment. While writing a number of his scenes, I literally had tears in my eyes. The fragile relationship he has with Gillian, his second wife, at times makes me feel sorry for him. There is a lot he needs and feels, little of which is actually fulfilled by his wife. But then Miranda comes into the picture and he once again feels alive, has suddenly gained greater purpose. It’s a delicate balancing act. First and foremost, the character must move the story forward, so he or she needs to play an active role. But without a certain amount of character development and emotion, those characters will fall flat.
Q: Okay, I do know about your music background. How does your musical muse speak to you when you story write? Or are they two separate muses?
A: The two muses definitely mingle. For example, when I’m writing dialogue I can hear the rhythm in the speech patterns, so I’ll edit to make sure the dialogue has a nice, comfortable flow. This is very important to a novel’s pacing. If your reader is gliding along smoothly, there’s less to get in the way of flipping those pages. There is another equally important role music plays in my writing: it influences my mood. When I know I’m about to write a sad, emotional scene, I’ll play certain songs I know will put me in a melancholy mood. This works the other way, as well. I might play the same song on repeat for an hour or two while I’m writing a particular scene. It drives my son crazy.
Q: Will you be branding yourself as a Thriller author, or do you plan to also write in other genres, too?
A: I think it would be safe to consider me a thriller writer first and foremost. Most of what I write, or see myself writing in the future, could be categorized as thriller. That being said, one of the best short stories I have ever written was a tragic love story. I suppose the short answer is: I’m very happy to continue writing thrillers, and I feel quite comfortable in that sub-genre. However, should circumstances afford me the opportunity to write a full-length love story (or anything else) down the road, I’d be happy to do that. Honestly, so long as it’s a story that I’ll enjoy writing that readers will want to read . . . anything’s possible.
Q: Are you working on something new?
A: I am, thank you for asking. I’m currently working on the first book in a series of cop thrillers called Mercy Street which features a female detective named Angela Poole. I’m very excited to introduce Angela to the world. She’s an interesting woman with a troubled past she had to conquer in order to survive and achieve all she has. The youngest woman to make detective in her department, she’s thrown a major curve in Mercy Street when she discovers she’s pregnant. Reluctantly, she prepares to leave a career she loves in order to become a full-time stay-at-home mom. Alas, as they often do in real life, tragic circumstances conspire to cause Angela to reevaluate once again, and by the end of Mercy Street we see her digging into the career she loves, the career that, in a very real way, saved her and gave her life -meaning and purpose.
Q: Tell us where your next book signings are so that readers can meet you.
A: My next signing appearance will be Sunday, July 1. I’ll be the Featured Reader at the Sisters in Crime/L.A. meeting at the Pasadena Public Library, 1115 El Centro Street, South Pasadena, CA 91030. My reading begins at 2:30, followed by a signing. This event is FREE TO THE PUBLIC.
Thanks for your time, Peter.
A: Thank you very much, Diann.
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The Little Luxuries
Janet Elizabeth Lynn
My husband, Will Zeilinger and I co-write the Skylar Drake Murder Mystery series, a hardboiled series that takes the reader to 1950s Los Angeles and other areas of the west. Our new book, Slick Deal, begins News Year's Eve 1956 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, The first murder and clues lead to Avalon, Catalina.
Dressing our characters in 1950s style, required much research to match the style and the personality of each character. Furs no matter what style were extremely popular in that decade and were worn regardless if you lived in the frigid north east or mild southwestern part of the US. Hollywood/Los Angeles, however, was known for its stylish furs.
Though I couldn't find any backup to support my personal opinion, at least in the 50s, I feel that once an animal has given up its life for a coat, we should use all of the fur, even put the scraps to good use. Hence, the scraps left over from the coats were made into other popular pieces. I hope that is why fur pieces were manufactured.
The Fur Stole can be pieces of a fur or set of furs, (usually fox). It was most popularly worn with a suit or gown. The pelage or skin, of a single animal (head included) was generally used with dressy street dress. More formal affairs required a finished length of fur using the skins of more than one animal.
Other popular way to use fur remnants of were fur collars worn for business, i.e. blouse or suit jacket, and scarves. Of course the price tag showed the difference. We spent a week in Catalina to research this book. A tour of the Casino and historical pictures helped us dress the ladies appropriately in our book. Even in So. California they wore fur stoles and scarves.
I have fond memories of my aunts and neighbors (I was born in Queens, New York) wearing their furs on cold winter days. Especially the charming stoles with fox heads as clasps. I loved running my fingers along the head clasp and feel the softness of the fur.
SLICK DEAL is the fourth in the series and yes we are still married!
Website: Janet Elizabeth Lynn www.janetlynnauthor.com
Website: Will Zeilinger www.willzeilingerauthor.com
On the eve of the New Year, 1956, oil tycoon, Oliver Wright dies suspiciously at a swanky Hollywood New Years Eve party. Some think it was suicide.
His death is soon followed by threats against the rest of his family.
Private Investigator Skylar Drake and his partner Casey Dolan are hired by an L.A. gangster to protect the family and solve Oliver’s mysterious death.
Clues lead them to Avalon, on Santa Catalina Island, a Hollywood movie star playground.
A high profile scandal, mysterious women, treason and more deaths complicate matters, putting Drake and his partner in danger.
Twenty-three miles may not seem far away but false identity and corruption on this island could squash their efforts to answer the question—How in the world can a dead man commit suicide?
Website: Janet Elizabeth Lynn www.janetlynnauthor.com
Website: Will Zeilinger www.willzeilingerauthor.com
By Janet Elizabeth Lynn and Will Zeilinger
Almost midnight. I was working security for the New Year’s Eve bash at the posh Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with my partner Casey Dolan. The rented tuxedos we were wearing made us look like we belonged with the rich crowd down on the ballroom floor, but we were working. This was one of the most exclusive parties in the city. I’d been here before and I’ve never known any other hotel with the kind of history this place had. Our job tonight was to keep an eye out for trouble...and I suppose this was a much better way to greet the new year than sitting at home in front of the television with a bottle of whiskey. As a matter of principle, I didn’t take security work. But Dolan thought D&D Investigations would benefit from this job by keeping the lights on and paying our secretary. He was right.
I scanned the crowd and checked my watch—a minute before midnight. The noise level in the room escalated with anticipation. I spotted Dolan at his post under an archway on the other side of the room and smiled. He nodded. From my spot on the catwalk above the ballroom floor I watched as they counted down the last seconds—five, four, three, two… Just as the clock on stage struck midnight, the room exploded with shouts, horns, balloons, and a snowstorm of confetti. The band played “Auld Lang Syne” while a banner unfurled above the bandstand that proclaimed: HAPPY NEW YEAR 1956.
It seemed as though everyone in the world was dancing, hugging, and kissing. My mind disappeared into the past. I remembered my late wife, Claire, and how we celebrated every New Year together. Even when she was big with our daughter, Ellie, Claire was stunning. I pulled out my wallet and gazed at her photo. I miss you honey, so very much.
A man’s voice boomed over the P.A., “Is there a doctor in the house?” My dream with Claire evaporated. I looked down at the stage where a man had grabbed the microphone from the band leader’s hands and shouted, “We need help in the main lobby.”
I motioned for Dolan to stay put while I ducked behind the heavy drapes and crossed the hall to the lobby mezzanine. Fourteen steps would take me down to the lobby floor. I think I only used five. My hand automatically went to my holster, just in case. Pushing through the crowd, I found a portly man on his back in a pool of blood on the terracotta-tiled floor. A tuxedo-clad man loosened the tie of the victim but I knew he was gone. I'd seen that vacant look in his eyes a hundred times back when I worked LAPD homicide.
Somewhere in the crowd I heard “Make way please, we're nurses.” A couple of women in evening gowns appeared. I held the curious crowd back while the women knelt on the bloody floor and checked for a pulse. One shook her head and placed a lacy handkerchief over the dead man's face.
Screaming sirens outside announced the arrival of the police. Partygoers scrambled. More than a few were probably here with someone other than the one to whom they were legally and lawfully wed. I identified myself as hotel security to the first officers to come through the door.
“You were first on the scene?” one asked.
I nodded. “Me and about a hundred other people.”
“You see this happen?” I shook my head. Another officer shouted to the crowd, “Anybody here see this happen?”
More police swarmed the lobby with news reporters on their heels. I wasn't surprised. This party attracted reporters like flies on a dead cat. All around camera flashbulbs popped, making the room as bright as day.
Someone grabbed my arm. I looked into the eyes of a dark-haired woman wearing a full-length fur coat. With all the commotion, I thought she was a tipsy guest who wanted to kiss me. Instead, she pulled in close and whispered in my ear, “Please help me get out of this place. I can’t be seen here.” She turned her back to the cameras. With one hand, she yanked the combs from her hair and let it cascade down to her shoulders. She had the aroma of flowers. Then she turned up the collar of her fur coat to cover part of her face. Tears rolled down her cheeks. I saw the desperation in her eyes.
“Please.” She squeezed my arm. “I don’t know this hotel.”
The elevators and outside doors were blocked by uniformed cops. I whisked her toward a side room.
A cop in a cheap brown suit noticed us walking away and yelled, “Hey, you two. Get back here.” I used to be a cop and I knew one when I saw one. This guy was probably a plainclothes detective. “You're interfering with a police investigation,” he yelled.
“Maybe we should go back.” She stopped. “I’d hate to get you into trouble.”
“Believe me. It wouldn’t be the first time. This way.”
I noticed her striking resemblance to Ava Gardner. I pulled her along and headed to an empty room.
The cop caught up with us as I pushed open the door and turned on the light. I pulled out my PI license. He grabbed it from my hand just as I moved my jacket to show him my gun.
“Oh hell. Skylar Drake. I should have known.” He tossed my license back. “Why do you have to mess around with this investigation?”
“You have your job and I have mine.” I nodded toward the raven-haired beauty standing behind me.
“You stay put, Drake, while we sort this out.” I held up three fingers in a Boy Scout salute. He frowned and backed out the door.
I reached into my tuxedo jacket pocket and handed her my business card. Her perfectly shaped eyebrows went up. “Skylar Drake, Private Investigator.”
I nodded. “Now I need to get back to work.”
“I can’t be seen here.” Her tearful emerald green eyes sparkled in the light. “May I count on you to be discreet?”
My mind raced with a hundred things she wanted me to be discreet about.
Another plainclothes detective from my old precinct stormed in. I remember him as a real blowhard. “Drake. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Working and I was just leaving.” I nodded to the woman. “Nice to have met you, miss.”
Before the detective could get out another word, I slipped out the door and walked back to the lobby.
I checked the time—two a.m. The police had finished with most of the guests and allowed them to leave. The party was over. My job was done.
Janet Elizabeth Lynn and Will Zeilinger
Published authors Will Zeilinger and Janet Lynn write individually until they got together and created the Skylar Drake Mystery Series. These hard-boiled tales are based in old Hollywood of 1955. Janet has published seven mystery novels and Will has three plus a couple of short stories. Their world travels have sparked several ideas for murder and crime stories. This creative couple is married and live in Southern California.
The next Skylar Drake Mystery, fourth in the series, SLICK DEAL will be available April 16, 2018 and yes...we are still married!
How to keep fans engaged “Between the Books”
I did what most writing experts tell you not to: I wrote the first three books in my mystery series before finding a publisher. Normally if you are planning a series it’s best to perfect the first novel and pitch it before diving head first into writing a series. But alas, I did. So when my first book, Town Red, was picked up and published by Black Opal Books, I already knew what was going to happen in books two and three.
But still, each novel takes multiple revisions, and so there was at least a year’s gap between the publication of Town Red and my second book in the series. Town Red had received very good reviews and immediately garnered fans from all over the country. I wanted to keep my readers engaged so they didn’t lose interest before the next book came on the market, so I decided to write a “Between the Books” short story.
I knew my writing pace, and calculated I could get it out by mid-December. It was perfect timing to go with a holiday theme: What do you get your girlfriend who has thirty-million dollars? But that was the B-story. Since my genre is mystery, I had to create a murder and an investigation as the primary plot line. The series is based in Chicago, and I found during my initial research that most of the homicides in Chicago are gang-related. I believed that would make for a great counterpoint to the detective’s other problem of choosing a gift for his new super-wealthy mate.
Once the story was written and edited, I chose to self-publish through Kindle Direct to make it affordable and accessible to my fans. It also lets readers who aren’t familiar with my work to get a quick feel for my writing and my characters. As in all of the books in my series, you don’t have to read the previous one to enjoy my “Between the Books” mystery, Present Tense, but it helps.
My series is heavily character-driven and was inspired by the old hard-boiled detective stories, but with a metaphysical twist. Detective Ryan Doherty’s love interest, Catharine Lulling, is a psychic empath who has visions of people’s pasts. She also clues in that Ryan’s had conversations with his deceased ex-partner, Jon, all of which has him questioning his evidence-based reality.
Present Tense continues the deep relationships that Ryan has with his current partner, Matt Di Santo, his dead partner, Jon, and his new strange love interest, Catharine. It further develops the characters of Catharine’s twin sons and propels the series forward to prepare the reader for book two, which picks up a couple months later in the characters’ lives.
All in all, it was a successful venture and I’m actually planning a second Between-the-Books mystery that takes place between the fourth and fifth books. If you’re an author in the midst a series and the next one won’t be published for a while, I’d recommend giving your readers a little nugget in between. Writing a short story that continues the continuity of your series can serve as both a gift to your fans, a device to keep them interested, and a marketing tool for new readers.
Present Tense is available on Amazon Kindle and is 30 pages in length.
Freewriting has always been my method of choice when putting first words to paper. When inspiration hits, the ideas flow faster in my head than I can spit out. After I have committed all thoughts to paper, the story feels complete and satisfying, the way my stomach feels after a good meal. But, the feeling is brief and then the revision process begins. Rewrite, submit for critiques, rewrite, submit again, etc, until the story feels ready. Ready for what?
Ready to be stashed away to be revisited and revised at a later date?...good idea. Ready to be submitted to publishing houses or agents?...maybe. This year, my story was ready to be submitted to #PBPitch in hopes of acquiring an agent.
#PBPitch is a Twitter party event where writers can pitch a story to participating agents and editors. Writers are allowed to pitch three ideas twice a day from 8am to 8pm. So I did! I submitted the morning round before leaving for work and checked my phone regularly for notifications. Not one editor or agent liked a pitch. Dreadful silence on my phone was not what I had expected. I scrolled through the coveted pitches that received likes and studied how the authors crafted a two line pitch of a story, extracting the spice from an entree. I proceeded to revise my pitches for the PM with my newly acquired knowledge.
At the end of my workday, I re-submitted the three revised pitches. The clock read 6PM. 6PM Pacific Time. Pacific Time? I reread the #PBPitch guidelines. The Twitter party closed at 8PM. 8PM Eastern Time! I was an hour late! I am a timely, organized person. How could I be an hour late? A flush of dejection moved through my body. Click...I posted anyway. Since I had missed the deadline, I did not check my phone for notifications as I did in the morning. Twitter was new to me and I chalked it up as a learning experience..
How does the story end?
A notification appeared on my Twitter app a short time after my post. I eyed it, as I would eye Creme Brulee on a dessert menu. Slow to react, I stared at the 1 notification, pondering the what if? And, it was! An agent liked my pitch! Excitement fluttered throughout, but, in two seconds flat, all excitement dissipated. The agent responded to my weakest story, the story I had put away to be revisited and revised at a later date. Why had I pitched this story? Why? I reread the pitch and reread my story. The pitch was spot on. The story needed work.
The pitch did not lead to signing with this agent, but it did change the way I approach my story writing. I added a new step. After my initial wordy spatterings, I write a two line pitch for the story. Before any revisions take place at all, my character’s wants and struggles must be clearly present. This point seems obvious, but the obvious can be overlooked when running with a inspiring story idea. The obvious can be overlooked when the voice is entertaining and the story is personal and the feedback is positive. The obvious can be overlooked.
Through this process I have discovered that if I cannot write a pitch in two lines, my plot and/or main character needs to be developed BEFORE revisions can be made to shape my story.
The next time I submit to #PBPitch, the pitch will be spot on, and my story will be ready...perfectly, sunny side up!
" I became obsessed. I wanted to be the best. I wanted more than anything…”
Your protagonist states this quote with such conscious certainty. It speaks from the heart of all scientists, artists, authors. YOU?
I suppose when I was younger I had aspirations of being the best. Winning a Pulitzer. The Nobel. Oftentimes daydreaming about what it would be like to be a famous author. But now, not so much. I’m happy with being able to carve out an hour a day to write, another hour to read. I try to write the best book or story that I can, obviously, and I hope others enjoy my work as well, but I don’t think I obsess, especially to the point Coulter did in An Elegant Theory. He was driven mad by his obsession, causing him mental health issues and for him to act out violently. I don’t think obsession constitutes a conducive environment for production, whatever the field. Persistence is good, but so is balance.
What gave you the idea for this novel?
I’ve always had a fascination with physics, especially quantum mechanics and string theory, and I wanted to explore these themes in my work. Most of all, I wanted to embed them into the novel’s structure, hence the multiple points of view and non-linear narrative arc. The double slit light experiment and complementary pairs really create the structure for An Elegant Theory, and that’s the genesis. I wrote little vignettes, just short scenes that at the time were disparate, with no thought really to plot. It took several years for it to take shape in fact, to know exactly what story was being told.
There is always a little bit of truth in all fiction. Where are you in this story?
When I first started writing this book in 2011, my wife was pregnant with our first child. I suppose the moments that are most true for me would be the worry and angst of being a new parent. There is excitement, and love, but there’s also fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be a good father. Fear that something bad may happen to my child. Fear that she would be unhappy. Fear that something may be wrong. Even now I still struggle with doubt and fear, but I think that just comes with being a parent. But there’s also an immense amount of joy and pride. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but being a father is the greatest thing to happen to me, too.
Where are you hoping this work will take you?
Oh, I don’t know. I just hope people read it and like it. And I hope it affords me an audience that will allow me to continue to publish.
Next book? What and when?
My next book is a short story collection called Five Hundred Poor. It will be released June 1st, 2018, by Central Avenue Publishing, and it has 10 stories in it, 8 of which have been previously published in places like Rathalla Review, MAKE Literary Magazine, Storyscape Literary Journal, and Cowboy Jamboree. The title comes from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and it explores themes of poverty, economic inequality, colonialism, envy, and disillusionment. I’m also working on a new novel called Into Captivity They Will Go about a kid whose mother convinces him he is the second coming of Christ. I think I might be wrapping that one up soon, but you never know sometimes how these things will go.
Want to share your writing process.
I don’t know if I have much of a process. If I do, it includes copious amounts of coffee. It’s just not something I really think about. I sit down at the computer, and I start to write. Most of the time, it’s crap, and I have to revise and revise and revise until I have something that I’m not too embarrassed to send out into the world. Probably the most important part is reading. I try to read everything I can. Novels, short stories, poems, articles, essays, and on and on and on. To be a writer, I strongly believe you have to be a good reader, and not just for entertainment value. Every piece I read, I try to deconstruct it as best I can to figure out exactly what makes that piece work, or if it doesn’t, why. I think that has much more bearing on my writing process than the physical act of hitting the keys on the keyboard.
What element of craft is your weakest?
At times, I’ve gotten trapped in longwinded expository passages. For instance, I’ve had criticisms on An Elegant Theory for the lengthy passages explaining the scientific theories, stalling plot and character development for a dry, textbook-like feel. It’s something I work very hard at, and luckily, I have an excellent editor in Michelle Halket who helped me pare down a lot of that to what I hope was just enough to make the book make sense, but not enough to where people got bored with it.
Which is your strongest?
I’ve been told I write dialogue well, but I don’t know. A lot of times I think it is dependent on the story. I was proudest of the structure in An Elegant Theory, but I’m not sure if many people would agree that it was the strongest part of it. In other stories, for instance “Life Expectancy” in my upcoming collection, I think the imagery and sense of place really stands out as the best element of craft. So, I think it is an ever-evolving thing for me. I get better as I write and read more, and with some works a certain element of craft will really stand out as strong, and in others it will be something completely different. That’s one of the great joys of writing, I think, surprising yourself.
“The fundamental nature of reality is so much stranger than we ever thought it would be.”
Quantum Physics is an undertone in this book throughout—along with Quantum Consciousness.
Is it a major subject of interest for you?
Will it play a major theme in other works?
I’ve always been fascinated with physics. I’ve read Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Feynman. Also, iTunesU is a wonderful resource, offering free lectures on various topics such as electromagnetism or heterophenomenology, and I think certain concepts will probably come up again in different pieces, whether that be short fiction or a new novel, but I don’t think it will again play such a central role in the story. I want to move on to new themes and concepts and research other subjects, so you might see a metaphor or something come up, but nothing that really drives the narrative.
As we approach the frantic season known as "The Holidays," I always ask myself, "Why do we do it?"
Why do I make fake snowdrifts around a dying tree in my sunny California living room and put inflatable snow persons in my beachy drought-tolerant yard?
Finally it came to me. It's all the fault of Charles Dickens.
Mr. Dickens has a lot to answer for.
With the publication of his Christmas Carol in 1843, Charles single-handedly made Christmas our biggest cultural holiday. Before the debut of his (self-published) little novella, celebration of the holiday had all but died out in Anglo-Saxon Christendom. The pen is powerful indeed.
A Christmas Carol revived the custom of taking the day off work, gathering for big family feasts and getting generous with gifts—remnants of an ancient pagan Solstice celebration which had been meshed with the Nativity story by some very clever early Christian marketers.
It was a great idea in Dickens day. People were stuck in their houses and villages and a big feast day gave everybody a chance to gather for some convivial cheer at the darkest time of year.
But I think Mr. Dickens and those early Christians would be appalled to see what the holiday has become. Every year it gets worse: travelers are stranded at airports for days...buried in snowdrifts while trying to buy last minute gifts…or imprisoned in grounded airplanes with nothing to eat but rationed packets of Cheez-Its.
All in the middle of flu season. (…she writes after taking another swig of DayQuill.)
OK, Aussies, Kiwis, Africans, and other inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere: you can ignore this rant or read on and chortle.
But seriously, Northern Hemispherians, what’s up with setting our biggest travel-holiday at the time of year when we can count on the worst travel conditions?
It’s not really about the Christian faith, is it? There’s nothing in the Bible about Jesus making his fleshly debut in December. And we know for sure this event did not happen in a place with a lot of snow. Or holly, mistletoe, reindeer, or bearded white guys in furry outfits.
The bearded white guy who was first reputed to reward good children and admonish the bad ones at the winter solstice was a Norse deity called Odin (or Woden or Wotan—whatever you want to call the Wednesday god-guy.) And the rituals involving holly and mistletoe and pointy evergreen trees? Kind of more Druidish than Judeo-Christian.
So do we really need to go through all this suffering to honor a Teutonic war god who slithered down chimneys to put anthracite in the footwear of bad little Vikings?
Not that the Christmas/Druid holiday hasn’t had a good run. But now we’ve got wildly scattered families. And climate change.
Not to mention sadistically dysfunctional air travel.
So I’m going to suggest a change of authors. Boot Charles Dickens in favor of William Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have our big yearly celebration at the SUMMER SOLSTICE—Midsummer’s Night?
OK, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t as heartwarming as the Scrooge tale, but who needs warming in the middle of June?
Wouldn’t it be more fun to go home and visit Mom and Dad in the summertime? To barbeque that turkey on a backyard grill? Inspired by the Bard, you could decorate the front yard with inflatable Rude Mechanicals and any number of sparkly fairies.
Maybe Puck could pop down our chimneys and leave gifts under the potted palm, which could be adorned with little surfboards and beach balls and those lights shaped like chili peppers.
We could still conduct the same kind of retail frenzy, since that seems to be necessary to the well-being of our economic system, but we could shop on safe, sunshiny streets, with evening light to choose them by.
Or maybe we need another story altogether. What about it, writers out there? Anybody up for writing some Summer Solstice tales and carols? About Rudolf the Red-Nosed Surfer, maybe? Or Frosty the Slushy Man? Hark the Herald Fairies Sing?
If Dickens could write a novel that created our biggest holiday, maybe some 21st century scribe can write the book that will give us a new celebration that will fit better with our times.
An awful lot of cranky travelers and flu-sufferers would be grateful.
Anne R. Allen is a popular blogger and the author of 12 books, including the hilarious Camilla Randall Mysteries. Her most recent release is: The Queen of Staves: The Camilla Randall Mysteries #6. She blogs with NYT million-seller Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen's Blog.
So often when trying to figure out what to do writing-wise, I rely upon what I like to read—what pulls me into a novel, and then what keeps me reading. Character and Setting are always my first thoughts. Of course, plot is important. However, I might have in my hand the most intriguing story every written, but if I don’t like the protagonist, or at a minimum, care about what happens to him or her—and most importantly, if I’m not mentally or emotionally “taken away” to where they are in the world—I won’t read the book. Which leads me to “setting,” sometimes referred to as “location.” Though, in my mind the word location is limited to “the place,” while setting encompasses more in my mind. It is the metaphorical envelope for a story.
By my way of thinking, setting done well is a key ingredient—I go as far to say, an essential ingredient—for an enjoyable story. A story a reader wants to read. A book a reader is pulled into. And as a writer, a novel I can feel comfortable putting my name on.
Here’s a quickie list of some of my thoughts about setting from the perspective of a reader and writer:
- Fully developed, setting adds the underlying layer for a story—the glue so to speak, that holds everything together. (Maybe not the best metaphor, but similar to the background in a photo.) It establishes the protagonist for a reader firmly on the time-space-continuum, in a particular place in the universe.
- Where a protagonist “is,” determines in a multitude of ways, what and how the characters face and deal with the dilemmas life throws their way—such as what physical items and constraints are available, not only in daily life, but also on hand to maybe save a life? Or solve a crime?
- The comparison between a protagonist’s current setting versus ones from the past can add an emotional level—e.g., guilt from deeds in a past setting, hope for a future different from where they are now, used to interpret their present world.
- Setting descriptions can also enable a reader to experience through a character’s eyes, the tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feel of their world. And at its best, provides an emotional and visual picture a reader can’t forget. (I have several such pictures from books I’ve read that I will never forget.)
- Indeed, setting is a key way to show personalities--how they deal with their environment. If your character can see, feel, love or hate a desert, a lake, a city, or???—that response to the landscape can be a key to a reader loving or hating them. And not just your hero, but your villain, too.
On a personal level, setting has often also been my story inspiration. Whether walking through a lush green evergreen forest in the pacific northwest, or mesmerized by the sight of long abandoned structures, silhouettes against lower Sierra foothills by a brilliant sunset, or mentally captivated by a rundown mini-mart, neglected and lonely in the Mojave desert, or standing in awe, taking in the expansive view from a Michigan Avenue high-rise apartment of Lake Shore Drive and the lake beyond. Add a few more setting items like abandoned A-frames, Quonset huts, mining caves—the list goes on; all with tales to tell, stories fanciful or real. Setting is the key to that inspiration.
The authors I consistently read with anticipation and joy are the ones that have memorable characters that take me to a place--setting--I don’t want to leave. A place where I’m sorry I have to leave at book’s end. Developing “setting,” I think is well worth the time and effort. Challenging, I think; but aiming for a strong sense of place, I also think, is a key ingredient to the “art and craft” of storytelling.
My latest two books take place in Shiné, a fictional town in the setting of California’s Mojave Desert. In my Rhodes books, I’ve certainly tried to “take the reader there.”
Author Page on Amazon link: https://tinyurl.com/yaysqwl9
Madeline (M.M.) Gornell’s mystery novels include—PSWA awarding winners Uncle Si’s Secret and Lies of Convenience (also a Hollywood Book Festival honorable Mention), Death of a Perfect Man, and Reticence of Ravens (a finalist for the Eric Hoffer 2011 fiction Prize, the da Vinci Eye for cover art, and the Montaigne Medal for most thought provoking book). Counsel of Ravens (a London Book Festival Honorary Mention and LA Book Festival Runner-Up) is her first sequel, and was a continuation of Hubert Champion’s Mojave saga. Rhodes — The Movie-Maker is her second sequel, and the continuation of Leiv Rhodes’s Mojave saga.
She continues to be inspired by historic Route 66, and this her second Rhodes novel, reflects that continuing fascination. Madeline lives with her husband and assorted canines in the Mojave High Desert near the internationally revered Route 66.
Rhodes The Movie-Maker synopsis:
From the cover synopsis of Madeline's latest book, "...one such flood of human events plays out in The Movie-Maker. This tale is not a murder mystery, though there are in fact several murders—but there is little-to-no mystery surrounding who the perpetrators are. Neither is this tale meant to be a literary treatise addressing age-old philosophical questions or current day conundrums. This tale’s primary goal is fun and escapism. Nor is The Movie-Maker a police procedural, though happenings do occur that require police activities. Nor is this tale an action drama even though dramatic actions do unfold. A romance? Not exactly, though several love stories—past and present—flavor happenings and decisions. Rhodes—The Movie-Maker is simply one of many human event stories playing themselves out in the Mojave Desert along historic Route 66."
Ken Burn’s recent documentary on the Vietnam War has kept many viewers glued to their television screens. That war divided the country and created scars that are still visible. I know people who fought in that war, who died in that war, and who were broken apart by that war—people who came home with PTSD before most knew the meaning of those four ominous letters.
Before I started writing OUTSIDE THE WIRE, the second hardboiled police procedural featuring LAPD Homicide Detective Davie Richards, all I knew about the plot was that it would have something to do with Vietnam. That initial inspiration became Davie’s investigation into the murder of a retired Army Ranger and Vietnam War veteran. Little did I know that Ken Burns was filming a documentary that would again bring that history to the forefront.
OUTSIDE THE WIRE is a military term that refers to a soldier leaving the relative safety of the base camp and venturing into hostile territory. The title is thematic for many characters in the book but also for Davie Richards. It was cathartic writing this novel. I hope readers feel the same way reading it.
So, why did the author of four novels in a humorous amateur sleuth series go to the dark side? My writing career began on a whim. While in graduate school working on my MBA degree and inspired by Susan Isaac’s book After All These Years, I decided it would be fun to write a humorous mystery novel about Tucker Sinclair, a business consultant who had an MBA and an uncanny ability to solve crimes. That inspiration became FALSE PROFITS.
Deep into that first book, I needed to write a scene in a police station, but I’d never been in a police station. That’s a good thing, right? Some research is difficult. It’s not likely that you could walk into a busy LAPD division and ask for a tour. But by a stroke of divine providence, my wishes were fulfilled. While attending a Neighborhood Watch meeting, the LAPD Senior Lead Officer suggested I apply for the volunteer program. I was accepted, and one of my first duties was to lead a tour through the station! That led to a 15-year stint as a volunteer and Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Tucker Sinclair was smart and fun to be around. But after those early carefree days before publication when I could spend an entire afternoon reworking one paragraph, dreaded deadlines now plagued me. To complicate matters, my mother was in poor health and it fell to me to manage her care. Time allocation became a problem, so after the fourth Tucker book, my writing was put on hold.
That’s when I began a novel about a female homicide detective that would become PACIFIC HOMICIDE. By that time I had worked with the department for fifteen years, the last five of those years in the detective squad room. I knew a lot about police procedure. I took my time crafting those pages because I wasn’t a sworn police officer and I didn’t want to get it wrong. I had too much respect for the people I worked with to risk disappointing them.
PACIFIC HOMICIDE was a huge departure for me. First, it was written in third person, not first. There would be humor, of course. I couldn’t imagine a book without moments of levity, but the tone was hardboiled and darker than my previous books. People warned me it might be difficult for fans to accept this new character, but a writer has to write what a writer feels, and I felt darker. When the book was finished I sent it to a homicide detective friend to read. I held my breath until I heard him say, “You nailed it.”
Publishing is a fickle friend. In the last few days, two people have asked me if I would ever consider writing books that weren’t mysteries. I guess the answer is—it depends on how I feel.
About the author: Patricia Smiley is the author of four mystery novels about amateur-sleuth Tucker Sinclair. The first novel in her new police procedural series, PACIFIC HOMICIDE, debuted in November 2016, and features LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards. The second book, OUTSIDE THE WIRE, is set for release on November 8, 2017.
Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and the anthology Two of the Deadliest. She has been on the faculty of various writers’ conferences in the U.S. and Canada and has served as vice president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles.