Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reading 'Mid Chaos

I had a Murphy's Law kind of morning yesterday.  First, while watering my veggie garden, I stepped in dog poop.  I had on the sneakers that I'd need to wear an hour later, to catch a train into Philly for a voice therapy appointment.  The shoes had to be cleaned instead of answering work-related emails that really shouldn't wait.

When I arrived at the station, a train was pulling out as I got out of my car.  I was 13 minutes early, so I deduced that the 9:03 was late.  But my train, the 9:23, never came.  Turns out that SEPTA changed the schedule 9 days ago.  I called the therapist and asked if I could come in a bit late.  The gist was, it was my dime, I'd get a shorter session for the same price.  My voice needed the workout, so I took the next train.

I'd brought a new paperback to read on the commute.  As I took a seat and opened the book, my mind was flitting from the work I'd wanted to get done that morning, to how short a session I'd be paying full price for, to "What else could possibly go wrong today?"  My blood pressure was definitely above par.

Halfway through page two of the novel, I realized it just wasn't pulling me in.  I decided, if the book wouldn't help me forget my troubles, I'd forget them by analyzing why the opening wasn't working for me.

Oddly enough, the story didn't begin at the beginning.  The first scene was really the 3rd, then 2 chapters of flashbacks were needed to bring the reader up to speed.  I saw why the author chose to start with that particular scene.  It contained the essence of what made this murder different from every other one on the market--a character study of the victim presented through a description of the victim's house.  The prose was well-written.  Problem was, though, not much happened in those first pages.  They were mostly descriptive detail.

I think most authors (myself included) like to imagine their readers sitting beside a cosy fire, with no place to go and nothing to do but read.  We envision readers who come to our works with receptive minds, ready to sink into and mentally participate in our tales.  We like to picture our novels being read straight through, so the reader only need be pulled into the action once. We don't envision hectic commuters, or people passing the time in doctor's offices and grocery lines, or even sleepy folks only awake enough to spend a chapter with us at bedtime.

I learned yesterday that I need to think of the reader as an outsider, peeking into my strange world, with the many concerns of their own world tugging them away.  What are they looking for? Possibly just a few moments of escape.

You can't invite visitors into your garden, then insist they look at every pedal and leaf immediately.  No matter how proud you are of your garden, that's no way to treat your guests.  Make them comfortable and show them something interesting, with the promise of more to come if they stick around or come back later.  Start with story, not details.

By the way, on my way home, I got soaked by a downpour.  Today, I'm hiding out under my bed.


Sunday, June 19, 2011


THIS week I attacked the weeds in my flower garden.  The word "weed" conjures in most American minds the image of dandelions (or marijuana, depending on your perspective).  Like Miss Maggie in my novels, I don't mind dandelions, or the white blossoms of clover, or purple of ground ivy in my lawn.  Adds interest to the relentless green of grass (much of my grass is off the crab variety, but it is green).

The worst of my weed archenemies are

-- morning glories - sure, they look pretty, but they cover the shrubs like kudzu, until every leaf below their canopies withers and dies for lack of sunlight,

-- deadly nightshade - while an appropriate vine for a mystery writer's garden, like the morning glories, it gets out of hand quickly.  I'd also rather not tempt the neighborhood kids to taste the pretty red berries,

-- ragweed - the most vile and evil of my weeds.  It lurks below ground, waiting until your back is turned, then sends up shoots that hide beneath, well, morning glories.  Their pollen makes me miserable from August through late November each year, so even if I let the morning glories and nightshade grow, the ragweed must
be evicted, the sooner, the better.

This past week I also worked on rewriting an old manuscript.  Weeding and rewriting are similar processes--the pulling out of the bad, ugly, and harmful to keep the flowers alive.  Yet many of my writing students have no patience with rewriting.  They think they're done right after planting.

What weeds can be found in a manuscript?  The first choice of many people would be "adverbs."  I liken adverbs to dandelions.  Sure, they can be annoying, they can be rampant, but they aren't going to kill a piece of writing unless you let them take over.  A reasonable amount of adverbs can even lend interest to your prose.

Poorly drawn characters are the morning glories of a story--characters who are, at best, unlikeable, and at worst, uninteresting.  A reader who doesn't care what happens to the protagonist will put the book down.  Bad characters can overshadow and kill an otherwise great work of fiction.

The ragweed of writing, in my opinion, is boring prose.  Very rarely will you find one small, lackluster patch of narration in a book.  Drab prose, allowed to take root, will often infest every page.  Lots of writers will banish snooze-inducing paragraphs from their first chapters, yet don't weed as meticulously as the book continues.

I can't simply sell my house and leave every time the ragweed in my garden give me fits of sneezing.  Readers (and editors) will walk away from a manuscript infested with weeds.  Rewriting is necessary not only to the aesthetic beauty of the final product, but to its health and longevity as well.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Just Visiting

 I had a nice spontaneous visit with a cousin the other day.  Unusual for me.  I don't get out much.

When my writing's going well, I lose track of time.  I spend hours in front of my PC, or sitting with a notebook on my lap, getting words down.  Even when I go out to an appointment or planned event, I'm anxious to get back to my writing.  When I'm away, I feel like I'm slighting my Muse and to get revenge, she'll go catch a bus for Vegas or something.

When my writing's not going well, I feel like I ought to chain myself to my desk chair until I produce something.  Even after my left brain overcomes the guilt and gets me out of the room, I usually don't go farther than to work in the garden or take a walk or grab a snack.  Again, I feel like I don't want to be away if my Muse shows up ready to work.

Lately, the only times I've traveled farther afield is for grocery shopping and other necessary errands (which I try to do only one or two days a week, to save gas and carbon emissions).  In this economy, vacations are few and far between.  In the long run, though, I know this is counterproductive to writing.  My best ideas are seldom found close to home or while staring at a computer monitor.  Routine errands are, well, routine, with nothing to make me stop and say, "That needs to go into a book."

The latest novel in the Possessed Mystery Series, FEAR ITSELF, is set in my hometown.  I was a bit wary of setting it there, in so familiar a setting.  One's own backyard is rarely a place of discovery and a good story is, at its core, one person saying to another, "Listen to what I just found out."  I purposefully went around my town "visiting" places I'd been to before, snooping here and there, seeing things I hadn't noticed before.  For the Montgomery Cemetery chapters, I took several tours of the place, learning lots of history, legends, and terrific grave-robbing tales.  I was especially grateful to our historic society for their moonlight tour of the cemetery last year so I could make my night scenes in the old burial ground authentic.  The photo at the top of this blog is from that graveyard.

If anyone reading this is within driving distance of Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown, PA, they've got a tour scheduled on Sunday, June 26th at 2 pm, and a concert of Civil War songs on June 12th at 2 pm, to kick off the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  For more information, click here.

As for me, I know I need to get out and visit places and people more, to keep my writing fresh.  This month, that includes being a guest on other mystery blogs as well.  Here are the links if you want to check them out.

Buried Under Books Blog:  Don't Know Much About History

I'll be at the "Birth of a Novel" blog next week and will post the link on a future blog.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Farm, Therefore I Am (a Santangelo)

Bean plant and edible wild purslane
You may have noticed, my May blogs were scarce.  I can blame this partly on FEAR ITSELF.  The first month of a book's life is filled with signings, library talks and the like.  But my May blogs were scarce last year, too.  May is planting time.

The bell peppers, green beans, Genovese basil and beefsteak tomato plants have been in a week or more.  This morning I finished up by putting in the kumato tomatoes and sweet basil.  The first of the lettuce was harvested on Memorial Day, and my herbs are in decent shape, especially the oregano, chives, and sage (God bless 'em (see my last blog on superstitions)).

Purple sage flowers
Why do I do this?  I could say there's nothing like vegetables fresh from the garden.  It's true.  I could point out that growing your own is economical.  For the price of a pack of seeds per crop, I get a summer's worth of produce.  This year I dried my own sweet basil and tomato seeds, and the lettuce reseeded itself, so the yield from those plants is free.  Plus I give my extra plants to friends.  If everyone did this, we could feed the world.

Really, though, I think farming's in my blood.  On the 1920 U.S. census and on his WWI draft card, my Santangelo grandfather listed his profession as "farmer" even though he also made shoes and kept a small grocery store.  When my father was growing up in the 1920s and '30s, his older sisters sometimes took him to New Jersey in the summer.  They weren't after a vacation at the shore-- they were migrant farm workers, picking blueberries, peaches, whatever. 
Almost all of my dad's seven siblings raised vegetables.  My Aunt Marie also had an amazing concord grape arbor and made jam.  My Uncle Louis was a professional farmer.  Two of his sons still are.  My dad's biggest compliment when I made good in the garden was "Now you're a farmer."

Of all the things I do--writing, singing, accounting, historical research, ranting about politicians--nothing gives me the same solid, wholesome feeling as when I'm growing something to eat.  I feel connected to the earth and to a long line of my ancestors.

Beefsteak tomato
So, even though it means getting up before the heat of the day, to water everything, hoe up weeds, tie up vines, and maybe jury-rig ways to keep the neighborhood cats from digging up my plants, I'll keep up my little veggie/herb patch as long as I'm physically able.

When I farm, I know who I am.



Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors