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

Fair Time

 

Leaving Einstein’s theories aside, time seems a very relative thing. Like the cognitive maps people have of their communities that emphasize familiar and preferred places over others, the year is portioned out in terms of major events or experiences. For me, here in upstate New York spring is the sudden, lush greening of the landscape. It is also the time of weeding the garden and getting vegetable beds cultivated and planted. That said, this year spring was late. I know because we had to cover bushes against freezing temperatures and put off planting vegetables until the weather warmed up a bit. Not much springtime.

Summer is a season of mowing the yard and taking on outdoor projects. It’s also a time to string up my hammock and enjoy lying out under a canopy of willow leaves, or raise the umbrella on the deck and enjoy meals outside. Well, I have managed to spend a few sessions in the hammock, and we’ve had a meal or two on the deck, but we haven’t bothered using the barbecue grill as most afternoons have been wet or cloudy. Am I complaining? A little. I enjoy some rain. A rainy day is a great opportunity to kick back and read a good book and then take a break with a good cup of tea. But summer is supposed to have a lot more sun than this year has produced. Events like golf, hikes through the woods and long rides on the motorcycle have become distant memories. Summertime was waiting for it to happen, then realizing it probably wouldn’t.

My favorite season is fall. Harvest time. A growing chill in the air. A drop in humidity. And, I associate the end of summer and beginning of fall with the annual county fair, going on now. Fortunately, opening day did not produce the expected thunderstorms, but it did get blanketed with heat and high humidity. We walked around and enjoyed the exhibits anyway. It’s how we grew up, and I still love it. The fair gave me a break from the grind of manuscript editing and also provided a good excuse to ignore the diet and eat some fair food. Life can’t be all work. Late summer is fair time. Love it.

When I wrote my second Bobby Navarro novel, I had him enjoy walking around a mountain man rendezvous in Arizona. It’s not a county fair, but it has some similar elements—booths offering things to buy like barbecue, and fun-seeking crowds. Bobby enjoyed the rendezvous, and I’m sure he would take in a county fair if one were available. I see fairs as a celebration of roots for many of us, including some people who grew up in cities but can still relate to the village and agrarian foundations of our country. Of course, I know not everyone enjoys walking around to see the animals and other fair exhibits. And not everyone can walk through the livestock barns and come out with clean shoes, which may be a deterrent for them. Last night, there was a demolition derby. I don’t yet know how Bobby would react to that, but a lot of people love them

. How about you? Are you a fair goer?

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

A Variation on Writing with an Outline

 

Still doing a lot of yard work and finding days-off to be too rainy for the motorcycle or golf. No problem, I have been working on editing my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript. Some of the things I wanted to address required remembering exactly where a series of events took place, and I needed to do that after moving some of the chapters around. Not easy. I settled on a device I hate to recreate once the story is completed—a chapter outline. This always seems a tedious process, and I tried to avoid doing it but ultimately gave in. Several surprises followed.

To make the outline, I took a copy of the manuscript (renaming it as an outline so as not to do away with my hard work once I had the outline done). Then I went chapter by chapter, skimming each chapter and noting the salient points at the beginning, then deleting the rest. It went more quickly and easily than I had expected, and the review let me know what each chapter actually held. In other words, I discovered some things I had forgotten, and in some cases, had repeated. So, first surprise was that this process worked quickly and well. No jumping back and forth between texts, etc. It was just a simple once-through and I had my fresh outline, admittedly different from a couple of others I had constructed mush earlier before finishing the completed draft.

Secondly, I noticed things along the way I needed to attend to, and not forget. In Word, I inserted marginal comments along the way, and was amazed at how many I had generated by the time I finished. The thing was, I was able to operate with the whole manuscript more or less fresh in my mind. The comments provided a roadmap for the adjustments to the story I knew I wanted to make. The outline told me where things were, and once again, the process was quick and easy.

Initially I had wished I could diagram the whole manuscript on a long sheet of paper and post it on a wall so I could see where everything was and where I needed work. I even tried writing something of an outline on a long sheet of packaging paper, but soon decided my hands and patience wouldn’t hold up. I probably wouldn’t have been able to read my writing if I saw it through anyway. The computer approach yielded printed sheets that could be taped end-to-end if I wanted to. Turned out not to be necessary but available just in case. A nice bonus, because I have wanted to flowchart my work from time to time, but always found the print too small or the word limitations for readable print to be too confining. This approach worked much better. Six or eight lines of print per chapter description plus the marginal comments. Really worked for me.

I have always used a combination of an outline of the story, plus writing from the seat of my pants. I have no problem when creativity pulls my completed chapters away from the original outline, I just revise the outline to match the story. Trouble is, the revisions are time-consuming and not much fun. Remember, I hate redoing these things. With my skim-review-noting-salient-points-at-the-beginning-of-each-chapter-and-deleting-the-rest approach, I think I will be able to get more out of my outlining in the future. After all, I’d hate to be stuck working on a revised outline when the weather suggests riding, golfing, or fishing. Oh, I should have mentioned, I’m learning to fly fish this summer. Maybe more on that later.

I know there is an ongoing discussion about pantsers versus outliners, so I’d love to hear what others think.

Trout Stream

Tip For a Curmudgeon

 I don’t hate tipping, I hate the institution of tipping. It seems too reminiscent of a class structure that treated workers and alms beggars in similar manner. I think workers, minimum wage workers, should be paid enough to live above the poverty level. But, we all know that isn’t the case. Many of us also know that service workers are sometimes paid below minimum wage on the expectation that they will make up for the deficiency in tips. That means a tip, or gratuity if you prefer, does not amount to rewarding good work; it means the business isn’t even paying its employees the minimum wage normally required by law. Doesn’t seem fair.

I had lunch in town, not our village, recently at a popular sandwich and salad place. The food is good, and there isn’t generally a long wait. Of course, you pick up your food order yourself, and bus you table when you finish your meal.  So, while the staff is usually friendly and processes your order quickly, no one waits on you at your table. That’s fine. What bothers me, is this particular place has become pretty aggressive in trying to get customers to tip as well. Tip for what? You serve yourself. Tip because the staff is underpaid? There are tip jars at each cash register where you stand to place your order. In addition, if you use a credit card there is a screen on the card reader that requires you say “yes” you want to leave a tip, or “no” you do not want to leave a tip before your transaction is complete. At that point, you haven’t even picked up your order. It just seems pretty pushy to me. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon. I’ve nothing against the staff. I just hate the idea of tipping, let alone tipping under coercion.

When I tip, I think I’m fairly generous. I had a friend once who didn’t like to leave much of a tip. In fact, you had to kind of watch him because he would wait for everyone else at the table to contribute their share and then cover the bill with his credit card, pocketing the cash. What you had to watch out for, was whether he left an adequate tip for the wait staff or lessened the total due as a result of the generosity of others. I’ve also been in too many situations where a group of coworkers ate together and someone didn’t even leave their fair share, let alone a tip. These are cases of people simply being cheap. Dishonest might be a better word.

I think my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, always leaves a decent tip when tipping is expected. He’s a down-to-earth, generous guy. He would never stiff a waitress, or a coworker. That just would not be in keeping with his character. I like that about Bobby. I just hate the business of tipping though. How about you? Have you ever read of a private detective or amateur sleuth who didn’t tip well? What’s your take on the whole thing?

By the way, in case you were wondering, I just think it’s good to gripe about something other than politics once in a while. Not that minimum wage isn’t a political issue. Maybe I should be more like Bobby Navarro, just tip well and never mind the rest. But then, like I said, he’s a generous guy, and not at all a curmudgeon.

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.

The Mockingbirds’ Nest

This is our last weekend in Okeechobee for the season. This coming week we will join the many others trekking north in the semiannual shift of location. That means we are in the throes of packing things away, loading the pickup, checking out the trailer for the bike, and attending to the many little things that must be done before departure. One of the jobs I took on this week was to prune one of the bushes next to our house. If I don’t, it goes wild and starts to overtake the house. Unfortunately, I discovered a mockingbird’s nest in one of the larger branches I cut off. When I looked, it had three eggs in it. With the damage done and not being sure what to do next, I propped the branch against the house and finished the pruning job. As I did, I became aware of a pair of upset mockingbirds sounding an alarm over what was happening to their happy home. Now what?

The best I could think of under the circumstances was to tie the branch with the nest still in it to the standing bush and secure it enough to hold the nest in place in its modified location. To our amazement the mother came to the nest as soon as I walked away, and started tending her eggs. Mockingbirds are feisty creatures, and the ones around here are used to having people all around. While she flies off if someone comes too close, she isn’t overly frightened and quickly comes back.

Of course, the newly relocated nest was considerably more exposed than in its old spot, both to the sun and to predators. I had to do more. The solution was to cut a couple of palm-like fronds from a nearby tree and tie them in position over the nest to provide a little shade and some protection against predators. Again, she came right back to tend her renovated nest once I was finished. What a role model for hope and endurance.

I don’t know if the attempt to set things right will work well enough to result in the hatching of a healthy brood , but now it’s down to waiting. In the meantime, we peer out the window frequently to see whether she is still tending the nest. So far, so good. Now we can finish packing and loading things up for our own relocation. Looking forward to spending more time on editing my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript. Hope the work awaiting me up north is not so extensive as to slow my writing down too much. It’s easy to lose the feel for a story if you are away from it too long. That worries me. Anyone else have this problem?

The Mockingbird’s Nest