Thursday, June 7, 2018

HIdden Gem #1


I live in New York. Everyone knows about the world famous landmarks like the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway, so I thought it would be fun to write and post  a few blogs about some more hidden yet fascinating places.   I am starting at the subway stop called “81st St- Museum of Natural History.”

 “What? Come on!" You are saying that, aren't you?  Anyone who has ever visited New York or even thought of visiting knows about the museum. Who can resist the dinosaurs? Or the great blue whale? Who hasn’t seen Night at the Museum? Or Splash?




Ah, but we are not visiting the museum here. We are visiting the subway station.

You emerge from your train and are greeted by huge and dazzling wall mosaics  of wild animals.  That’s suitable for this stop, of course, a bow to its main attraction.




Look again. Behind each one, there is another, shadowy, gray, and you soon realize it is a prehistoric ancestor. An inspired combination of art and science is at work here.  Have fun identifying  the living species and its forebear.




Look up and you may discover tree dwellers


Look down and you will discover ocean dwellers.   Keep your eyes open for insects too.




And if you go down a level, perhaps to catch a train going back to where you started, you will be greeted by a look at whole other world.



Welcome to my favorite subway station.  And look here in a two weeks for Hidden Gem #2.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

RESEARCH STORIES


  Last week,I was at Malice Domestic, the large and lively annual fan convention devoted to the traditional mystery. I was on a panel about research. It was great fun, moderated by the always intelligent and good-natured Cathy Pickens. We didn’t come close to discussing all the astute questions she had sent us beforehand but they have kept me thinking.  So here are a few more stories from the mystery writing trenches.

Do you have an example of how research informed or altered the course of your story?  Why, yes, as it happens I do. Brooklyn Secrets is about Brownsville, one of the lowest income and highest crime-rate neighborhoods in New York. It is about hard times growing up there now, in the days of gangs and drugs, and hard times growing up in the 1920/30s when it was famously the home of the brutal mob enforcers nicknamed Murder Inc. As I was reading up on the bad old days, I stumbled across an article by the grandson of Meyer Lansky, one of the founders and bosses of the whole organized crime system. The author maintained his grandad was a fine gentlemen who admired Lincoln and Gandhi, quoted his take on various actors who had portrayed him, and called his gangster colleagues "the boys.” It would have been funny if it had not been so bizarre. A new fictional character, somewhat comical and definitely strange, became part of my story.







Has anyone ever called you on an error? Yes,embarrassingly. I wrote a description of what my heroine sees as she is driving across of the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. It is a breathtaking sight: skyscrapers, boats, other bridges, the whole harbor all the way to the ocean.  




 Only someone wrote to tell me you can’t see the ocean from that bridge! I checked. I had combined that view with the one from the Verrazano Bridge somewhat to the south. There you see the Atlantic spread out in all its majesty

 Have you ever encountered a fact that you knew you couldn’t use because it sounded too unbelievable? Why? Well, I haven’t found a way to use it yet. Mystery Writers of America local chapter arranged a private tour of Woodlawn, a beautiful historic cemetery in the Bronx. Having recently published Brooklyn Graves, partly about Green-Wood, a similar landmark in Brooklyn, naturally I went along. Do you think cremation ashes are always kept in a dignified urn or scattered at a scenic spot special to the deceased?



 We learned that they can also be incorporated into jewelry that a mourner can wear (Keeping the loved one close?) and into bullets. Yes. Bullets. Seriously. There has to be a way to get that into a story, right?

I have also encountered facts that were fascinating but would not fit into the book I was then writing. (I tried) Yet they were too good to ignore: did you know selling the Brooklyn Bridge actually happened? Many times? So they became short stories. You can find “Legends of Brooklyn” in the anthology Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder NY Style #4,  and “Girls With Tools” in the Stories tab of my webpage or the anthology Bound by Mystery. And I’m holding onto a few more good ones. For someday. 










Friday, April 6, 2018

MYSTERY CONVENTION TIPS




Malice Domestic, a popular mystery convention, is just a few weeks away, and the MWA Edgar Week Symposium, which is like  a one day mini-conference, is even sooner. They are followed by several other mystery conventions, including Bouchercon, the biggest. This is not about which event to attend –contact me if you’d like advice on that- but the really practical tidbits.


 Although they offer different topics  (some focus on writing business, others fan interests) and programs, and some are in one place (Malice in DC) and some offer a chance to travel ( Bouchercon in Toronto last year, St. Petersburg this year, Dallas in 2019) they all have a few things in common. 

 
 Here are my tips for making the most of the event, learned over many Malices, several Bouchercons, and one Left Coast Crime. 




Packing:            

           Dress for comfort. You will have long, busy days.
           A sweater, a warm stole or both – the hotel meeting rooms are often freezing.
Shoes for comfort, not style– you will walk miles, even if you never leave the hotel
            Banquet clothes – if there is a formal banquet, don’t stress over what to wear. (Ok, maybe if you are an award nominee, you can stress) If you want to Dress to Kill, the Edgar banquet slogan, fine. However, office suitable attire will do. Mystery writers  and fans are informal folks. (At romance  events, you might see prom dresses, though. And definitely costumes at science-fiction cons) And, I've never been in a banquet room that wasn’t freezing!


Scheduling:
         You are spending money and time to be there so you must attend an event every single moment, right? Wrong.  It took me awhile to learn that I don’t need to run around madly trying to squeeze in an activity for every time slot. Some of the best experiences I’ve ever had were in the hospitality suites, just seeing who came by and making some friends. The bars are always lively spots, too.     

            You will hit a moment or two when the crowds, the rushing around, the constant socializing, the hotel size all be come too much. It is ok to chill in your room! Nap, read, work, order room service. If you need it, do it.




Socializing:
            Definitely, definitely do it.  Writers are there to hang out with their tribe and meet readers. And there aren’t many writers- maybe none - who don’t enjoy hearing “I love your books.” Even famous ones.


            Talk to everyone. Fans are there to talk about their favorite books. They will talk to you!  You may make a new friend. Remember, you have something in common with every single person there.
            Of course use common sense. If you see a writer you idolize and he or she is deep in conversation, it’s rude to interrupt. Following someone into the rest room?  Bad idea!  (Yes, it’s happened). And yes, it is true that even among mystery writers, a notably friendly bunch, there are some famous ones who really only want to hang out with other famous ones, and no one else. But not as many as you might fear.

Have fun!  That is the first rule. And always remember the hotel will ship home the excess books you buy


   



Sunday, March 18, 2018

WRITING WHAT SCARES US




Writing fiction doesn’t look scary to anyone else.  Perhaps writing an autobiographical novel with recognizable characters is as  scary as it gets. In that case you might want to decide how much you want to antagonize your family and friends.

I don't do that. I write mysteries. There are recognizable places, bits from my own life no one seems to  spot, puzzles and social issues. Nothing is very violent or very gruesome. I don’t intend to scare my readers, but I do sometimes scare myself. 




A scary thought for the writer is the possibility that the skills are not up to the subject. That is much scarier than any suspenseful scene you could write.  If you don’t challenge yourself then you are writing the same book over and over.  True, there could be a reason for that. It could be laziness but it is likely to be an editor or agent you says, “Give the reader what worked before. Why mess with success?”

For many writers, though, taking a leap in a new book is the way to stay interested.  Stretching those writing muscles is as important as stretching the physical ones.  (Maybe more important) It’s scary. That is good.

For me, just getting the first few books in the Brooklyn series written was enough of a challenge.  My books are about neighborhoods and the people who live there, the history, issues and changes unique to each place. The first, Brooklyn Bones, was about my own neighborhood.  I had it covered. The second, Brooklyn Graves, was about a famous place, not far, and easily researched.  I had that covered too. For Brooklyn Secrets, the third? Ah. Another situation entirely.  I wanted to write about a neighborhood where I used to work. It has a surprising history and I soon realized I could not write it without also writing about the neighborhood in the present. But could I do it?

My time working there was decades ago.  The library where I worked was then closed for renovation, so a visit was not possible. It is, and was, a tough, poor neighborhood, a culture not my own, and not easy to research. Newspaper stories told me it had not changed much from when I worked there, but nothing told me how it felt. I didn’t know if I could do it and it wasn’t worth doing if I could not do it well.  Could I portray a more complex world than outsiders usually see? I grew anxious each time I drove near it on the way to other places. There were some sleepless nights.  I was scared the whole time I was writing it. 



The next book, Brooklyn Wars, was about a famous place, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it was scary for a different reason. There was so much to tell, the history was so rich, could I select the right pieces to both tell a compelling mystery story and also convey some of the flavor of the place and some of the stories of the people who worked there?  It was a challenge every writing day.

Now I am immersed in a neighborhood with even more history, and it is even harder to line it up into a story.  I know this one, I even lived there many years ago, but there is a religious element added to the usual political issues and it can’t  be ignored. Or at least I can’t ignore it. Can I write it fairly? Honestly? With some complexity?

Doing what scares us is how we get better at this writing game. I will be reminding myself every day until the first draft is done.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

RESEARCH – THE MUSE OR THE DEVIL?





 Erica, my amateur sleuth, is a historian – and there is a case to be made for historian resembling detectives, too. All of my books have a contemporary mystery and also a story line about the history of the setting. It might be a direct plot connection, a reflection of the modern story, or a geographical connection that Erica happens to stumble across an old and a new mystery in the same place.

            All the books begin with a neighborhood and they all begin with some research. I actually love doing research and there is a tiny bit of truth to the idea that the mystery series is an excuse for me to indulge my inner history geek. I head over to the Brooklyn Collection at the public library and ask to see everything they have on the setting of the new book. 


 I know that if I browse through the relevant section of the shelves, and through a mountain of newspaper clippings, I will come across something that says, "Here!  Here is a story." Lights go on in my imagination.

There is a pitfall, though, beyond the obvious one of using research to procrastinate on actually, you know, writing a real book.  Sometimes I have a tough time corralling all those delightful oddball bits into a solid story. Too many lights go on. This not a small problem.

            For the work in progress, the place is Brooklyn Heights, a quaint and scenic neighborhood which is the original suburb of Manhattan, right across the river from Wall Street. Yes, the views are spectacular. When it was developed the crossing was done by ferry; there were no bridges yet.      


It was also the site of part of the Battle of Brooklyn (yes, G. Washington was there), the home of the Brooklyn Bridge (yes, and people who “sold” it), the very first historic district in New York (yes, the fearsome Robert Moses was there), probably the beginning of the urban renovation movement (all those lovely townhouses). Shall I go on? 

  Walt Whitman worked there.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses owned large chunks of property, now worth many millions.  Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and part of In Cold Blood there. WH Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten – and famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee! – shared a house there.

            Famous and colorful characters?  Check. A genteel surface with heated conflicts lurking below? Check that too.  Death defying engineering? Check tragic history of bridge building. Real estate battles? But of course.  Always, in Brooklyn. 


            Though a surprising conflict jumped out at me early on, finding a way to turn it into a coherent plot has taken a lot of wrong paths. Research, which usually gives me what I need to start a book, this time just kept giving me everything I didn’t need.  I even used some of it for a story that appeared in the recent anthology Where Crime Never Sleeps; Murder New York Style #4. Suitably enough, it’s called “Legends of Brooklyn.”

            I think I’m there now. The answer is one any experienced writer should have known but the delightful oddball information kept distracting me.  The key question is – it always is - what does it all mean to the characters?   Erica and the interesting people she has met in the course of her own research?

  Some time next year there should be a new book about Erica and a neighborhood with an excess of stories.
           
           

Saturday, February 10, 2018

WRITING MYSTERIES, PUZZLES ...AND TELEVISION?







 Writing mysteries is, among, other things, a process of putting small pieces together to create a whole design. Yes, a mosaic, or a kaleidoscope or a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The general outlines of the plot may be in place, but that’s only the beginning. There needs to be moments that underline that main story. Or enrich it. Or deepen it. Add a new level of complexity.  Reflect a theme. Aha. That puzzle piece slides in here and then, well, then we are somewhere new

It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. I do one over breakfast a few times a week. I’m not very good at it, but we get the NY Times delivered, and I work the easier ones at the beginning of the week.  I can become absurdly obsessed, and of course it also works well as a way to avoid doing anything more productive.  I stare and stare at some interlocking boxes with frustrating blanks, and a clue that doesn’t make sense to me. And then, the letters on the page suddenly take shape into likely words and when I fill in the empty boxes, there are now a few more clues that make sense. Box, box, box. Slip the missing letters into place and then everything  snaps satisfyingly together.

How does television come in?  I have been watching the new series This Is Us, and I have been filled with admiration for the writing from the first, brilliant episode. (I don’t use ‘brilliant” and television the same sentence very often). I will try to explain without spoilers.

It is a series about a family over time, and the scenes are chronologically scrambled. By the end of each episode, not only do we see how the plot points connect, often we see underlying themes connect as well. And sometimes we see how the apparently random story-telling is a reflection of how our human memories work. Whew! I think I’ve said enough without giving it all away.

In the first episode, the individual scenes were compelling but it was impossible to see the connections. Yet. At the end, the camera pulls back from a close-in scene, an intense conversation, to show the background of the location, the other people around, and ...everything changes. Everything snaps into place. Snap! Just like that, the pieces all fit. Make sense.  Fall into place. The overall story comes into perfect clarity.

I was hooked from that moment. I watch each episode and try to guess where they are going. Often they turn my guesses upside down. At the same time, I try to see how they do it, keep so many threads on the loom at once and end up with them woven into a pattern.

The jigsaw puzzle pieces that give us the face, the place, the last bit of sky. The letters that finally interweave to form a crucial word, that gives us the surrounding words, that completes the pattern.  That moment when those bright bits of story slip into the exact right place and make something new.



Wednesday, January 24, 2018

THE RIGHT FRIEND AT THE RIGHT TIME




The recent death of Sue Grafton has rightly inspired a flood of tributes. Her long series  of  Kinsey Milhone books were wildly popular and she – along with Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller- gave us a whole new kind of mystery heroine.  I was also impressed by how many of the memories were about how generous she was with the encouragement for novice or hopeful writers.  The right word at the right time helped so many of the people who have written about her.

I never met her, but I did hear her speak at a long ago Mystery Writers of America program which also included Donald Westlake. Unforgettable? Ya think?

All this set me thinking about the person in my own writing life who was there at the right time.

A mutual acquaintance introduced us, because she had recently moved back to Brooklyn from California and I had written a few mysteries. I knew her name right away. Marilyn Wallace. She had written some successful suspense novels and edited some ground breaking, award-winning  anthologies. 







We started meeting for an occasional afternoon coffee and writing talk.

At that time, my writing career, such as it was, had ended with a shock. I was published by Walker, one of the last independent publishers in New York. The second book had been accepted in a few days, and though I never had any editorial guidance I thought it was the start of a career. The third book sat and sat. And sat.  And then was turned down without a word from them. The ending of their mystery line became public a few weeks later.

There were a lot of other shocks to my life that year, and I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for writing for a long time.

When I met Marilyn I was just starting again, unable to face a novel, experimenting with short stories. I honestly did not know if I even wanted to write anymore. She had also had a pause in her writing and was starting something new with a new name, Maggie Bruce.

 We found it helped to talk. We even started a critique group which became a source of great advice, great encouragement and great fun..      
 
Though she was a far more established writer than I was, she gave me the huge, the enormous, gift of taking me seriously. She treated me like a colleague. Assumed I was a writer. And because she took me seriously, I started to take myself seriously as a writer again.

Though I’d only known her a few years when we lost her to a recurrence of cancer, I missed her terribly. She was the friend I didn’t know I needed, and I hope I was a little of that for her.

When Brooklyn Bones was published, the first book in my new series with Poisoned Pen Press, the dedication read:
           
To the memory of Marilyn Wallace. Borrowing the great words of E. B.
            White, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and
            a good writer.