Values in Today’s Life

The other day I was talking with one of my sons, and he mentioned bingeing on 007 movies. His comments about them surprised me. He said it was incredible to see how women were depicted and regarded as mere objects. He had watched the same movies as a kid, but then saw the films as all about action, excitement and adventure. We agreed, the old James Bond movies had a lot of Playboy character to them. He commented they were so bad and blatant they were comical in a way. I hadn’t joined him in the binge, and haven’t seen a 007 movie in a long time, but could agree even from memory. He attributed his change in perspective to all the recent news revealing sexual harassment on the part of male celebrities and men in positions of power. I think that’s a good outcome of the attention these accusations have gained in recent news. We need to re-see the behaviors and values we grew up with, have lived with, and have taken for granted. Those old movies not only dramatized a sexist view of the world, they normalized sexist behavior. Seeing those old scenes as violating the rights and dignity of women is a great wake-up. I hope we men carry today’s condemnation of female harassment on the part of popular and powerful men into everyday life and relationships ourselves. I doubt any of us are completely guilt free. We have a lot of work to do in our society, and men and women must be onboard together to truly make progress. We are not going to get there by means of example from our public leaders; we must get there from a shift in our social values.

It should be no surprise that I enjoy reading mysteries; after all, I write them. Similar to cozies, I prefer mysteries that stay away from gratuitous sex and violence. I don’t care for drama that relies on piquing a reader’s interest through brutality, gore and raw abuse of others. Those things exist in life, but they don’t have to be accepted and we don’t have to normalize them in our literature. A good mystery has conflict. Murder is always violence against another person, but we don’t have to make that aspect the object of the story.  We have values opposing the abuse of others. That’s why people want to solve the mystery and bring the culprit to justice and restore the community to safety.

When I write my Bobby Navarro mysteries, I like to think my fascination with community comes through in my writing along with my love of the open road and wild, natural places. Those things should predominate. Bobby Navarro solves murders. That means people have suffered horrible abuse and their community has suffered the trauma of trampled values because the murders took place. In the end, however, decent values win. The victory of human decency doesn’t make the stories fiction. After all, good fiction reflects facts. Human decency is not a fiction, but it must be fought for and insisted on to make it dominate in our lives. But, that seems a reasonable societal goal and a good reason for writing.

 

 

A High and Distant Ridge

 

When I sit on our front porch and look out, I love seeing the ridge on the other side of the highway leading out of town. We’re heading south for the winter. I’ll miss it. The evergreens at the summit have thinned out, and I can see patches of sky through them. The hardwood trees lower down have shed their leaves and bare limbs reveal things hidden away behind a green canopy all summer. At times, cloud masses have blanketed the ridge entirely. In other moments, cloud and fog have floated up the hillside like smoke escaping into the sky. Sometimes, dark thunderclouds have carried a threat of rain.

When I was growing up in California, looking out across the ridges of hills toward the west provoked a sense of longing. Often, that longing was for the adventures I felt awaited, perhaps in far corners of the world. Sometimes as a teenager, the longing had to do with more immediate associations. It was in the valley, where I got together with my high school associates, went to football games and after-game dances. New delights at the time, like an A&W Root Beer drive-in and a Foster’s Freeze soft ice cream stand offered oases of pleasure to any kid with a car. Delights waiting in the valley.

I’ve seen many distant ridges, and crossed them to their other sides. The Blue Ridge Mountains, the steep hills coming out of Virginia into North Carolina and highway 40 west. The land settles into rolling hills once past Tennessee and into Arkansas and Oklahoma. Then it flattens into a great open expanse punctuated by distant mesas as you go through New Mexico and Arizona.

I’ve never tired of the beauty of a distant ridge, never failed to feel its lure. A distant ridge makes me want to put my fate into a new cross-country run, even down an old highway.

Driving through New YorkI don’t know that everyone feels this way when they see a high ridge in the distance. I suspect many don’t. For me, it’s a feeling that something almost magical lies just over the hills. It’s a sense of new discovery being within my grasp. An editor I was talking with some years ago heard me remark that looking for home was what kept my protagonist on the road. She insisted I stop and write that down immediately. I did. It captures an essential aspect of Bobby Navarro, along with his insistence that there be some morality and justice in the world. I’d love to hear what sights tug at the emotions of other people, and in the case of other writers, what compels their characters to step into another adventure or solve another murder.

Driving through New York

Editing on the Right Side of the Brain

As I edit my latest manuscript of the Bobby Navarro series, I’ve been struck with how different the editing process is from first creating the draft. I once read a very interesting book on drawing. It talked about our brain functions differing from one side the brain to the other. If the left side dominates, we tend to be very practical and businesslike. When the right side dominates, we become more expressive, creative. When it comes to writing, both aspects are important, but I think the right side often dominates when the major writing takes place. That’s how we achieve flowing prose, memorable descriptions of landscapes, objects and people, and scenes that bring out the emotions. Then there’s the editing process. . .

Those wonderful paragraphs we putdown as the best prose we ever wrote probably need severe editing. I’ve listened to prose so filled with expression and feeling that I had to question whether the writing should only have been read in private, and not aloud. It seemed so metaphorically enriched that it had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the writer’s personal needs and wants. At best, it reflected the writer’s love affair with words and not the tempo and purpose of the story. At the worst, it expressed the writer’s sexual frustration. Time for the left side of the brain to stand up and insist on those decisions to shorten, change or cut unneeded or irrelevant verbiage.

I’ve also read prose that had been carefully crafted to adhere to every rule taught in an undergraduate English class, as well as reflect all the ‘advice’ from myriad sources talking about what you can and cannot do when writing. This sort of writing chokes off any creativity the writer might have remaining, hidden in shame in the background of his or her mind. For those writers, there needs to be some inner permission to express feelings, emotions, thoughts, fears, and so forth. The right side of the brain needs to stand up to the tyranny of the left for a while.

Editing calls for both sides of the brain to get an intensive workout, almost simultaneously, and pretty much consciously. When first writing a manuscript, you can let your creative side run free of excess thought or control. Right brain dominance. But when editing, you need to pick up the grammatical errors, instances of poor wording, and fix problems of plot holes or errors. You also need to come up with creative writing solutions and wording improvement as you go. Perhaps this is why it is so easy to miss something in the first place. If we are thinking about the scene we are working on or trying to achieve better wording, it is easy to overlook a misspelling or erroneous detail.

Writers talk about tricks they use in the editing process. For example, it’s good to read your work aloud. Hearing the prose read aloud makes it easier to know something doesn’t work well. If you stumble over your own words while reading aloud, your reader will probably have difficulty too. Then, there is something I call the sleep factor. If you find yourself skipping over sentences or sections of your manuscript, or mentally drifting off to sleep, it needs reworking. I think you need both sides of your brain fired up to hear a story falter. No wonder editing is difficult work. Any thoughts?

 

 

Heroes We Can Live With

This week, we watched the Ken Burns’ special series on Vietnam. As a Vietnam vet, I was particularly interested in what he would have to say. He said a lot. The series was informative and compelling. It certainly took me back to the sixties, especially the early sixties when I served in the military after I graduated from Berkley. It took me back to a war that was said to have triggered a national loss of innocence. It was a war that had to be questioned, along with how and why it was fought in the first place.

As a student, and pretty much all my life, I have felt both a need and a right to question things. Ultimately, a lot of troops asked themselves questions about that war, our involvement in it, and what they personally were doing there. The ability to question and reason: part of what makes us human. Therefore, an inherent responsibility.

As writers, we seek to entertain, to share our thoughts and ideas, and perhaps to inform. I think we should do this responsibly. Being a writer does not give us tacit license to dump our opinions and values on others, but we do have a voice through our writing and should be conscious of what messages our stories impart. Especially those of us who write about murder.

I have long felt dislike for gratuitous violence. I have been uncomfortable with fictional characters who used torture and committed other unlawful things to get information they wanted, or to achieve a sense of payback against someone considered a villain. I grew up on westerns. In some westerns, the good guy only shot the gun out of the hand of the bad guy. Always found that hard to believe. In others, the lone hero rode into town and ended up killing the bad guys. He was a romantic hero, basically a good person attempting to overcome daunting odds and achieve justice. That was pretty cathartic. It was never a matter of two killers fighting each other with any resultant good only a coincidental benefit. It was a hero fighting a bad guy for the sake of what was right.

As an adult, I enjoyed things like the 007 series. James Bond seemed tough but principled.  He was understood to be fighting for queen and country and the good of all. Kind of like a modern-day cowboy hero. I didn’t mind that he exercised his license to kill against bad people out to hurt the world. But, I have gotten tired of the myriad near-nuclear explosions in scene after scene. Gratuitous violence. And, as in the sixties, I think we need to question whether political power and authority means something is right, or good or just.

As writers, we create our heroes and villains and their social settings. We own the narrative. We create the story that entertains, possibly informs, and may exemplify moral character. Or it may not. Does it matter? I think it does. What’s your opinion?

When I was developing my mystery series, and its protagonist Bobby Navarro, I liked the idea of him being a biker because it seemed romantic, reminiscent of a western hero, or the old television series, Route Sixty-six. I didn’t make him an outlaw, even though he lived on the fringes of society. I didn’t want him to be a tattooed hate-monger who would ride as part of a gang to enjoy a sense of power through intimidation. I wanted him to be a decent person others might relate to, think of him as someone they might like to know, or even be like.

I think contemporary fiction is producing interesting and complex characters, all the more believable because they are not overly simplistic. But I think the good guys should have and reflect moral value. I can’t say we always find that moral value in our real-life leaders. But, we’re writers. Now more than ever, we need to reinforce that which is good and decent and honorable. We need to create heroes our readers can love, but ones we can respect as well.

It’s About Surprises

I’m noticing a lot of the mysteries I read or watch these days have an understory that appears to drive the protagonist’s behavior. It may be their drinking behavior, or their attraction to the wrong people in their personal life, or an unresolved issue from an earlier trauma.  I like that. It gives the story depth. And, since I enjoy mysteries but think they ought to be more than a simple whodunit, depth is important. But so is surprise. Life is full of surprises, and we usually like our mysteries to contain some elements of surprise. Of course, the surprises should also move and enrich the plot. They may provide an unexpected clue as to who the villain might be, or why the villain is a murderer. They may impede the ability of our protagonist to carry on the investigation into what happened. They may develop character.

Surprises don’t have to be whimsical events, though, like an airplane engine falling out of the sky and landing on the hero’s head. In fact, I think it’s better if they’re not. If the protagonist is suddenly injured, it works better if we have known all along the protagonist is prone to taking risks. Getting injured at some point is almost predictable then, and thus believable. The timing of the surprise mishap adds excitement to the story. Realizing at some level that the potential is there all along adds tension. The surprise event also adds an element of challenge for the hero to overcome, and overcoming obstacles is what it’s all about. Getting injured makes danger real. So, writing a good mystery should include some ‘predictable’ element of surprise that still catches us off-guard.

Surprises don’t have to be calamitous or even major events to add to the fun. Occasional little surprises are a part of everyday life, and can add reality and tension to our hero’s quest. Bumping into someone unexpectedly, discovering a surprising relationship between characters in the story, etc. can provide telling information about someone, or just create an awkward moment for the hero to deal with. Still adds to the fun for the reader.

As I’ve been working on my latest Bobby Navarro mystery, I’ve had a few surprises of my own as a writer. That happens, and I usually enjoy it when it does. In this work-in-progress, I dropped a character Bobby knows well onto the scene of his latest investigation—his mother. The thing I hadn’t anticipated was how much it would impact him and how it would shape his personal growth in this novel. He also has several other unexpected encounters in the story, which hopefully will add to the readers’ enjoyment when the work is finally done and the book comes out. So, I think surprises should affect the plot, be ‘predictable’ at least after the fact, and add tension to the story. What are your thoughts?

Hiking on the Lake

 

Write Up a Storm

I’ve loved storms since I was a kid growing up in the hills of northern California. They were so dramatic, especially at night. Massive clouds driven before the wind would nearly obliterate the sky. Wind-slanted rain lashed against the flesh on my face, and threatened to knock me off balance. In other storms, a brilliant moon would shine high above everything and you could look upward and catch glimpses of it through breaks in the bulky darkness. Lightning flashes outlined trees and hills and cloud shapes, and I could count the interval between flash and the boom of thunder to estimate how far away the lightning had been. I’d fantasize that it was what being on a ship at sea would be like. I wanted to sail across the ocean. Later, I did.

When I came East, thunderstorms provided dramatic interludes to summer heat and humidity. You can sometimes predict a storm when you see maple leaves turn upside down and shimmer in the wind. Clouds hang low and mass heavily in the sky overhead and a distant roll of thunder will announce the storm’s approach. We were at a block party recently, trying to guess whether the storm would pass a little to the north of our location and allow the party to continue unaffected or we needed to seek shelter. A Torrential downpour announced the winners and losers of that speculation. Fortunately for a time, the rain came down straight onto the tent-like roof of the shelter we sat under and the party went on. Had we been caught in the rain, we would have been drenched in seconds.

I’ve seen eastern rainstorms pound heavily for a few minutes then suddenly stop, leaving the streets and sidewalks steaming in the humid aftermath, the rain not having managed to dry the air out. Sometimes, the other side of the street will still be dry and everyday activity unaffected.

It’s always dramatic watching, even enjoying, a storm. Lighting strikes pose a real threat, though. A neighbor of mine was hit by lightning that jumped across the room from her furnace and struck her. She was lucky, and walked away uninjured. A lightning strike split a fireplace chimney a few feet from me in a house I had in Connecticut. It nearly knocked me off the couch I was sitting on. During a storm in Oklahoma, the sky filled with lightning as though a strange meteor shower had erupted overhead. I was on a motorcycle, and thankful it didn’t rain until I reached my destination.

In the West, I’ve watched storms approach from miles across the open desert, hurtling lightning bolts earthward and wetting the parched land with rain from the moving column of moisture. It’s beautiful. It’s awesome, and humbling. I once raced an approaching storm on my motorcycle out west in an attempt to slip through a pass in the hills ahead of it. As I cleared the pass, another front struck violently from the other side of the hills. There was a motel just through the pass, so I bailed out, happy to have the opportunity to do so. Storms are dramatic, and I often love them, but not on a motorcycle. Of course, I have put my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, at peril in storms on several occasions, and he gets hurt in one.

When you think about it, a storm is a lot like a good mystery. Signs foretell a storm’s approach. The threat builds. Wind picks up, letting you know the storm is getting closer. Then thunder explodes and lightning flashes to announce the storm’s arrival. Wind and rain punish anyone out in the open. Humankind, thrown to the mercy of malevolent violence. It’s how we try to write mysteries. It’s how we should write mysteries. And, if we’re good at it, there will be something dramatic and memorable in the telling. I think that’s a worthwhile goal—to write up a storm.

Approaching Storm

Finger Lakes and Freedom

We recently paid a visit to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. You often hear it talked about as wine country, and the vineyards and wineries provide a good reason for visiting. Small distilleries have grown up in the region as well, the same way they’re popping up in other places with a healthy micro-brewery industry. The area has a lot to offer beyond scenic enjoyment and a glass of wine and good, local cheese though. This time, we visited the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Senaca Falls, where the Suffragist Movement began. 

What struck me about the display, which was thought provoking and moving, was the way the suffragist cause was linked to other causes such as anti-slavery in America and the plight of people seeking asylum from war and oppression around the world. Part of the exhibit consisted of a cluster of bronze statues of people associated with the suffragists’ movement. I had my picture taken next to Frederic Douglass. While some people in the larger society opposed the Suffragist Movement as a violation of an order they took to be natural and sacred, and others sympathized but didn’t want to anger the men in their lives, Frederick Douglass responded by recognizing the oppression of women by men. White men. The same men who defended  the slavery of blacks.

I am a white man, and while I’ve sometimes been treated badly as a member of some category or other, being a white male has had its advantages. The exhibits made me take some time to think about that. It didn’t put me on a guilt trip. It just made me take some time to be more aware of the negative effects of forcing people into categories and excluding them from basic rights we tout as inalienable.

The inclusion of materials from the WWII Japanese American internment camps  was a reminder of the tenuousness of ‘secure’ social position. Economic vulnerability leaves many people in contemporary society without effective social rights as well.   Without any blatant harangue, the exhibits left a clear message: we all lose something when a group is denied basic rights and liberties, and none of us are safe when some of us are denied.

I don’t intend to turn my series protagonist into a traveling civil rights crusader, although I am glad he cares about others he meets on the road, even to the point of risking his own wellbeing to address the rights and needs of a murder victim or victim’s family. Well, I guess that does make him something of a crusader, doesn’t it? To Bobby, it’s just trying to do what he thinks is right.

It was a fun trip in a picturesque region of upstate New York. I enjoyed it. We all need a break once in awhile. Any comments to share?  

Boat Houses on Seneca Lake

A Moment With Frederick Douglass

Paint Like a Writer–Write Like a Painter

I used to enjoy painting landscapes with watercolors. I find the creative process of painting is very similar to that of writing. A good painting does not come from a recipe, formula, or set of instructions. A good painting does not spring from prescribed colors laid down on a pre-constructed, numbered pattern. It comes from the successful transference of thought to canvas.

A painting likely starts with a few light pencil strokes to make a rough outline of the major objects intended. However, in a form of Japanese ink painting called Sumi-e, the artist is encouraged to sit before the intended subject and meditate before making any brush strokes in order that each one then fully captures the essence of the subject. No pencil outline is needed.

Writers vary as to whether they use an outline, or write from the seat of their pants. In either case, I think most writers have at least a mental outline of where the story is headed, and I think major story ideas have been tried out in the writer’s mind. I like to think story outlines are tentative suggestions to help the writer get started. The creative work comes later.

 If the painter is satisfied with the rough outline on canvas, the painting begins. Heavier, bolder strokes begin to express the intended subject. Suddenly, there is a spark of life to the work. There is form, shape, even the suggestion of movement, if needed. Each stroke is critical for they express the concept the artist is attempting to communicate. They cannot be blotched, too heavy, too tentative, or shaky rather than confident and knowing. They must be just right.

Once the subject has been determined by these initial strokes, the background, shading, and form can be layered-in. Shapes are completed, objects are given greater depth, details are added to give the work authenticity. This is like the middle work of a story, the details that support the plot events and character-defining statements of the story are layered in to support the main plot and character points. The desired object is fleshed out and the work approaches closer to completion.

With details in place and the desired form and shading accomplished, there is still more work to be done. This is a particularly delicate stage because a single stroke too many can ruin the intended effect. An accent stroke left out can leave the final work lacking. A bit of hesitance, a sloppy addition and the work is ruined. But, amazingly, these few, final brush strokes bring the work to the point of perfection. It is finished, and nothing more can be done to improve it. Similarly, in a written story, a small wording change can bring a desired thought or action into bolder view. A single line of dialogue can better capture the intent of the conversation from the writer’s point of view. A stubborn sentence can be reworked to get rid of an awkward expression or fix a tempo-robbing pace. Beyond that, nothing can be improved. Of course for many of us writers, the written work is never completed to perfection. We are always tempted to try another minor word change. And that says nothing of the myriad changes an editor is likely to suggest, but the ideal remains.

So, the story must spring to life with the major plot elements. Our hero’s character must be developed and nuanced with meaningful dialogue and thought description. The plot must unfold as a live experience. It cannot be accomplished by forced and clumsy assertions and explanations. When you view a finished painting, every element is simply there, awaiting the viewer’s emotional reaction. A good story is simply felt. It is not necessary for the reader to first dissect the work to understand and experience the writer’s intent.

I think one can paint like a writer, and write like a painter, but how about living like a work of art. Is that even possible? I think some people do it. I ask myself whether my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro’s life would be like that. What are your thoughts? Now, I’d better get back to work in the garden while the sunshine lasts.

The Soul of the Writer

Last weekend I visited an area I had lived in for many years. As always, the roads and highways were the same but somehow looked unfamiliar as I passed through towns and villages along the way. New houses and businesses, new shopping strips and renovated or expanded commercial areas, gave the waysides a very new look. Fortunately, the beautiful character of the area was retained. This was Connecticut, and I remember the state as being very attractive. It still is. And, I enjoyed driving while also listening to some great blues music on the car radio. Of course, this produced a sweet-sad emotional reaction to seeing former stomping grounds.

As I thought about my experience, I first chalked up the emotional bit as simply being nostalgia. However, the guest on the program I was listening to, Guy Davis, happened to be talking about playing music associated with another artist. He said that you don’t want to simply play the same notes, or even attempt to capture the style of another artist. Instead, you need to capture how that artist affects you. And when you do this, it lets the audience see into your own soul a little bit as well, and this should be a goal of the musician. I found his comment very thought-provoking. And, it occurred to me that Guy’s take on music might relate both to my nostalgic experience and to writing as well.

As to the nostalgia bit, revisiting places that brought back memories was like viewing a moving tableau of my own past. The roads were essentially the same, and some of the scenes familiar and even pretty mundane, but they offered me a connection both to past experiences and my emotional reactions to them at the time. It gave me a little glimpse into my own emotional life, or putting it another way, a glimpse into my own soul.

As to how Guy’s comments relate to writing, a compelling story is not simply a bunch of scenes cobbled together with technical skill, it is a glimpse into the characters being written about. It is also a bit of a glimpse into the soul of the writer. Just as a piece of music may be interpreted in many ways, the scenes of a story are created and told with words and a rhythm that is uniquely expressive of the writer herself, or himself. I find this difficult to explain when asked how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. The ideas are relatively easy. However, creating the glimpse into Bobby Navarro, the hero of my mystery series, is more difficult, and more important than coming up with a story idea or coming up with a clever plot twist. But ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. When Bobby is caught-up in solving a mystery or points his Harley down an open highway, I’m telling another, and hopefully more poignant, story than “who dun it”. I’m sharing a bit of Bobby’s soul with my readers along the way, and maybe even a little of mine.

Driving through New York

 

Springtime in Upstate New York

We’ve been hearing Canada geese flying overhead, mostly in the mornings and evenings. They come in low, in two’s and three’s, circling toward the pond nearby. I don’t know if they are early arrivals, but they don’t seem to be part of the larger flocks we saw in the fall heading south. In any case, their sounds are welcome. I’ve missed their music over the winter. One large goose was in the creek, taking a bath the other day, apparently enjoying a clean-up after a long flight. Robins are back in healthy numbers hunting worms in the yard and crows are out and about. I assume the crows have been here all year. A couple of days ago I saw about a dozen large birds circling over the village. I think it was a kettle of migrating hawks, vultures, or both, circling to gain altitude and then moving on.

We’ve been here two weeks now, and it’s a joy to see the birds coming back, as well as all the plants coming to life. I’ve already mowed the yard twice, and it needs it again. That will have to wait, though. It’s promising to rain for the next several days, and threatening snow sometime during the next two. Springtime in upstate New York. Time for boots, sweaters and waterproof jackets, putting away the shorts and summer clothes we started off with when we left Florida. I’ve been busy setting things straight, like cleaning the back room where we store a lot of things we need to move inside when we leave in the fall. Then, there was the light switch I had to replace on the stairs, aka puttering about. There’s always work to be done after a move, even a seasonal one. I need to get back to my writing.

Speaking of writing, from time to time I’ve asked myself why I had my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, living in New York even though his debut book was set in the Southwest. So far, no one has asked that at a program or signing. Hopefully I can make it understandable when I get to the next story, set in the Adirondacks. There are times when the forests of Upstate impart a feeling that Bobby could readily capture in the open, lonely stretches of highway in the Southwest.

If you can put up with or avoid the blackflies, Upstate is an area rich in woods, rural farm scenery, ponds, lakes and streams. Lesley thinks my enjoyment of the cold and rainy weather can be attributed to having too much of the North Sea in my DNA. I even like the bleak scenes from Wallander  or Shetland. I think they offer a mood rich in possibilities for murder mysteries. But, that’s another story. Anybody else like spring rains and gloomy days? Assuming, of course, there aren’t too many of them in a row.