Monday, November 23, 2015

Opening Lines Quiz - The Answers

Here are the answers to yesterday's first lines quiz.

1. They threw me off the hay truck about noon—The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

2. Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write—A Judgment in Stone, by Ruth Rendell

3. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again—Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

4. My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky—Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris

5. When I finally caught up with Abraham Traherne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon—The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley

Stephanie Patterson

Sunday, November 22, 2015

First Lines That Keep You Reading: A Brief Quiz

So below you will find five of my favorite opening lines in mystery novels. What are the books? The answers will appear tomorrow. Feel free to add your own favorites. (No fair looking on Google.)

1. They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

2. Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

3. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

4. My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.

5. When I finally caught up with Abraham Traherne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mike Welch Goes to Rome

I wished, when I was younger, and then as I got older, to be able to travel to Europe and do The Grand Tour. It seemed like a lot of kids did it the year after they graduated college. But it is pretty much rich kids, or poor ones much more adventurous than me, who end up doing such things.

The Grand Tour is a tradition wherein, and, as a way to complete your education before you begin a lifetime of work (or at least of exploiting the working class), you spend a year, and Daddy’s money, wandering Europe in the way the idle rich do, learning about how Western Europe came to dominate everything (and pretty much screw it up). It’s the kind of thing you would do if you were a character in a Henry James novel (along with reading a lot of Henry James novels), or if you were one of those loveable young nitwits like, say, Lady Mary on Downton Abbey.

I will be 53 this Sunday, and I never thought I would get the chance to do such a thing. And yet, as I write this, I am sitting in a 16th Century Roman villa outside Rome, in Pomezia, a kind of suburb Mussolini had hastily erected in the years before WW2. Yes, here I am, and I am going to see Rome, and perhaps Prague, Budapest and Vienna, in the next two weeks.

My friend David loves Opera. Nevertheless, I like him quite a bit. He belongs to this group of opera buffs who go around to all manner of these bellowing fests, and the group organized a trip to Rome and Krakow, of all places. I signed on for the ride, and will be going on some tours with these people (who are a little bit out there, I think I can say without fear of being contradicted, but who seem harmless enough) in the mornings, and then escaping in the afternoons to wander Rome and the above-mentioned cities, learning what I guessed I should have learned a long time ago.

If I was doing this when I was 23, I would be hoping to fall in love, a love which would probably break my young heart, teach me about the ways of the world, and which would remain something I could throw in the face of the woman I eventually married whenever she fell short of the ridiculous expectations I had for her after the love itself was long a bittersweet memory. But I guess I won’t be doing that. Especially with a much older woman, like in those coming of age movies, because women much older than me are pretty much already dead.

There are two candidates I have found so far for the role of tragic lover. One, whose name is Anne, is a tenor, a lovely tenor, as delicate as a flower but who apparently has lungs that could blow your windows out. Unfortunately, she is married to an Israeli fellow (aren’t they all in the military, and they know how to kill you with their bare hands in a depressing number of ways?), and from the way she talks about him, they are copacetic. Oh, well.

The other is named Simonetta. She is apparently a real big deal in opera circles, and is very pretty, in a dark Italian way—olive complexion, big eyes that look always ready to fill with tears or light up with the wonder she seems to still feel for the world even though she must be familiar with the darker side of life, if not in practice, then in theory, for all these operas are filled with passion and deceit and double dealing and tragic and poignant circumstance. Her English is not too good, but then again, neither is mine. Stay tuned.

The trip down to JFK from Albany was uneventful, just the way I like it. I sat all the way in the back corner of the plane in a seat that was made for a kindergartner. The woman next to me was German, and she had a kind face, and would occasionally look at me and say things in German that I think were kind, although most things in German to me seem somehow less than kind. Eight hours, and my butt was hurting after four, and asleep after six. Finally, I fell into a fitful doze, dreaming that my lower legs, completely asleep from the awkward position I sat in, had been amputated in some freak accident in Italy, a place where freak accidents are expected to occur.

Things went relatively smoothly when we got there, although it was raining hard in Rome. I thought of A Farewell to Arms, where the hero, Frederic Henry, is always drinking grappa and a cold rain is always falling and the boredom of his life is punctuated by the violent death of battle. And he falls in love with that nurse. Simonetta is not a nurse and I’m not Frederic Henry.

On the way to the Villa, I am astounded by how so many ancient buildings are preserved here, as well as how much the Roman suburbs look to me like West New York, NJ, a Cuban enclave near the George Washington Bridge known for bodegas, graffiti, and old men sitting outside on the sidewalk playing dominoes, and talking about the extremely macho exploits of their youths. Anne talked for the last ten kilometers about how wonderful her husband and kid are. Blech. Simonetta talks in animated Italian on her cell phone, and I don’t think she notices me beyond noting I am an ugly American (I hope only metaphorically so).

We stop at a bank to get some Euros, and I am surprised to find you must enter a bulletproof tube and be fingerprinted before you can enter. Are these Italians masters of the bank robbery? I know they specialize in homegrown political terrorism on both the extreme right and left, and kidnappings and strikes by the continually disaffected workers, but I didn’t know bank robbery was on the menu too. I have been looking at all kinds of Italian women but have not been struck by the thunderbolt yet. And I don’t seem to have particularly struck anyone myself. The Villa is as beautiful as advertised, but seems awfully remote from everything. The only things nearby are goats and cows. Tomorrow is another day. We visit the Vatican.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, November 20, 2015

I'm Just Wild About Scrivener

First of all, I must mention that the version of Scrivener I'm running is version 2.6, and I'm running it on a Mac, whose operating system is OS X, version 10.9.5. If you have a PC, it may be that some of the features I find so enthralling are not available to you. Or maybe they are. I have no way of knowing.

Scrivener is available for download at the Literature and Latte site. You can try it out for thirty days and see whether you like it. If you do, it can be yours forever (or until your computer is obsolete; make that six months) for only $45.00.

I don't even know three-quarters of the bells and whistles on this product. The tutorial that comes with it is very good, but to tell you the truth I didn't go through it all the way. Instead I jumped on and began to write my historical spy thriller. I found it to be wonderful for that, because you can keep notes on each character—with pictures—in the sidebar that runs down the left hand side, along with notes on all the locations you're using, timelines, and links to anything you might want to link to for quick reference. You can enter a date when you'd like to be finished, and the number of words long you'd like your work to be, and it shows you how many words you have to write every day, with a thermometer that turns green when you're nearly there.

All this is beyond swell. But the feature I just discovered—dictation!—is the swellest of all.

Did you ever see one of those forties movies with a famous writer as a main character? Do you remember how he was not only rich (he was always a man) but how he had a cute young stenographer taking down his deathless prose while he loafed and invited his muse with his feet up on the desk, chewing the end of a pencil for effect? No carpal tunnel syndrome for that boy. He had a servant. And now I do too. I could even put my feet on the dining room table here and balance the laptop on my lap, dictating into the built-in microphone, if I weren't afraid of dropping the laptop, and even more afraid of disgracing myself by putting my feet on the dining room table. My word, what my grandmother would have had to say about that.

For me the practical effect of being able to dictate the work straight into the computer is to double my productivity in terms of word count. I can talk two or three times as fast as I can type. You can say "period" and "comma," too, and it puts in periods and commas. You have to watch the words as they appear on the screen, of course, and make sure they are the words you meant to go there. My bad guy is named "Ratz," for instance, and Scrivener wanted to say "rats" the first couple of times. But the third time Scrivener got it right. So it follows what you do, and the corrections you make, and adjusts to your style.

You do have to remember to turn off the dictation function if you have to answer the phone. Yesterday I got a call from one of my sons. We chatted happily for awhile, and when I returned to work there was a long passage in the middle of the manuscript, which went something like this:

Sure Thursday Ashley well… Give yourself so but will let you today to do some sort of deal was okay Melissa yeah I got that yes okay no that's okay cause she was the mortgage Time is usually easily around dinnertime subclasses and his friends want to do something the middle of the night off I'm sure over here for dinner so I hope you come pick you up and you're out there soon see you tomorrow coming to some extent we have to go to choir practice right at quarter quarter something also six we can eat we will disburse all just you okay okay Wilfong
Tediously noticed right so so chocolate
Great if that's okay anyway I will hurry because they're pretty well trichinosis
Hey Neil would've been very bad okay good night okay okay see them yes yes good good great okey-dokey see you then bye-bye okay

…so you probably don't want to use Scrivener's dictation function to write the minutes of your next meeting, or for much of anything else unless you have your eye on the screen at all times and your fingers on the keyboard ready to make occasional corrections. ("Tediously noticed right so so chocolate?" What was that about?)

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Keeping Time

If you write a mystery series, or if you enjoy reading them, sooner or later the question of “when?” comes up. When is the story set? Assuming it’s not a historical setting, is it current? Like last year? Or a more vague “now”? Or the recent past? And whenever it is, does it ring true? I am finding it is trickier than it sounds.

One way to go is Sue Grafton’s. She has kept Kinsey in 1982, the year the series began. And now it is twenty-four books later! It certainly has the advantage of not dealing with time passing in the plot. The disadvantage is that even if it is a well-remembered period, we do forget details. When did those shoebox size car phones become available? If you want to mention “What’s Love Got to Do With It” playing in the background, was it out in 1982? (Answer: no) Were those Flashdance inspired sweatshirts being worn? (Answer: Not likely. The movie was released in 1983.) So there will be some research and sometimes it will be odd and sometimes you will miss something. (In Mad Men, known for its meticulous depictions of the period, someone pulled on pantyhose when women were still using garters. I remember those.)

Another way is to bring the characters forward in their lives without being too specific about dates. I don’t think Margaret Maron ever pins her Deborah Knott books to a specific news event though they are permeated with a sense of changing North Carolina. That allows for the setting to be a current, but not a defined, now.

(In the recent movie The Intern, Robert DeNiro, playing a seventy year old in current time, is asked his favorite singers, and he mentions a few of the jazz-era greats. Nope. While there is nothing to keep a first year baby boomer from developing a love of jazz—I love it myself—he’d be a lot more likely to name some of the Motown groups, Elvis, the Beach Boys or the Beatles. Or from his college years, the Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin)

In other words, it is surprisingly easy to fall into that trap of forgetting whose perspective is the one in the story. What happens, I think, is that we start writing story in a certain time, and lose track of how time moves on. And sometimes we might forget that the character’s perspective isn’t necessarily ours!

I started my current series in 2002. I had a mid 30’s grad student heroine with a teen-age daughter. At the time, my own daughters were recently teens and I felt confident I could write that family. It was not as if I had forgotten. (No one forgets those teen years). Events interfered and I did not finish that book until years later. Now my daughters are older than my heroine! And her father is not my parents’ age, the World War II generation, but mine, an early baby boomer. It matters because all of the books have a modern crime but also a historic mystery, not necessarily a crime.

So, I frequently stop and ask myself how old someone is. I regularly cover pages with characters' names and what age I need them to be in the now of the story. If I want them to tell stories of Brooklyn in the 1930’s, when were they born, and what does that mean in terms of their present life? That came up in the new book, Brooklyn Secrets. And in Brooklyn Graves, when I wanted to have a voice from the 1890’s, well, I had to find a box of letters. Ah, I mean, Erica had to find the letters. For the WIP I need a World War 11 voice, and I’m thinking someone needs to have left a diary behind. I have no current plans for using ghosts, but who knows how desperate I might become?

And I am beginning to think Erica’s teen is more like the daughters I raised, talking on the phone to her friends, than teens of this decade who probably text. Or do something I haven't even thought of. I must find an actual parent of an actual, right now teen…

Readers, have you ever been jerked out of a story because you just know the time is all out of joint? Writers, do you have a great technique for juggling that shifty calendar?

© 2015 Triss Stein