Sunday, October 28, 2018

Seasonal Settings

Often when I’m writing, the story takes place in a different time of year than what is occurring outside my window.  For example, I’m about sixty pages into the first draft of the next Jefferson Chene mystery and this one takes place in the heat of the summer.  The idea for this story is that it will all happen within a week’s time, and include a few flashbacks.

Yet outside it’s cold, gloomy and rainy, the last weekend in October. Around here many people are gearing up for Halloween. Yesterday we drove to a cider mill to pick up some apples and sample donuts fresh out of the oven. Definitely a sign of the season in Michigan.

Writers use different approaches to help with the setting. I know one person that will play Beach Boys tunes when working on a project that takes place in the summer. She will also use Christmas carols for the end of the year, or dial up a movie on the Hallmark Channel. Often I’ll dredge up memories from different seasons and fit those in with the story.

So as an author, you use whatever it takes.  Whether it’s music, a photo album or revisiting a particular show, when you’re writing, it’s up to you to figure out what works.  Depending on the length of the story, it may be summertime before you finish it, even if you’re working on it steadily.
The setting and the season can play a big part in your work. 

In “Your Turn to Die”, the story takes place in early June. There are several scenes when Chene conducts part of the investigation in the middle of Lake St. Clair, a body of water outside of Detroit that connects the Great Lakes. When I was working on that piece, it was the dead of winter.  Just proof that your imagination can really make a difference in the story.

Here’s an excerpt from “Devious”.  In this scene, Jamie is considering life’s changes during the first snowfall of the winter.  One reader actually felt the chills from this scene, even though she was reading the book in the middle of an Atlanta summer.

I piled the pillows on the floor by the bay window and watched the snowfall. Something about the way snow shines as it falls pleases and depresses me at the same time.  Fresh snow always seems so clean and fragile, as if it's giving the city a gentle bath. Here's a chance to hide all the filth and debris we leave behind, buried under a lily-white blanket. For some reason, tonight I felt like getting pleasantly buzzed. I warmed some apple cider in the microwave and added a healthy shot of Southern Comfort. Sitting like a sultan on the pillows, sipping my potent brew, I watched the snow. The heat from the booze warmed me and my thoughts turned to Malone.

I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to men. I meet a guy and my weird sense of humor tends to scare him off. Or it’s my career. Or it’s my body. I have always been slender and I don’t have fabulous curves. I’ve got a small chest, narrow waist, small hips. There is nothing about my physique that would set the world on fire.  Romance is something that happens to other people. I write about it only if I can work it into a story.  But Malone…  

Geez, what a difference he was. He seemed to like my body just fine. And he had me so wrapped up, I couldn't think straight. The other day I was doodling while on the phone with Shannon. When I hung up I almost screamed. I'd written "Mrs. Jamie Malone" half a dozen times in a notebook and circled it with little Cupid hearts.  High school shit.  Hell, it was more like grammar school shit. But it scared me nonetheless. How had I let myself fall so quickly, so completely, for this guy I had just met? A guy I really knew very little about.  Maybe it was part of my genetics, passed down from my crazy mother.

When I finished my cider, I slipped off the pillows and went for a refill. I kept thinking about Malone's reaction to the baby book. It didn't take a detective to recognize how uncomfortable the subject made him. He wasn't too old to have kids—for that matter, neither was I. We hadn't been together that long and already I was doodling about marriage and Malone sounded ready to run.

Was I blowing this relationship too? Like every other one worth mentioning in the last ten years? Was this courtship doomed from the start?  I resumed my perch and watched the snowflakes perform their gravitational dance.

Shortly after midnight the snow stopped. Everything outside my window appeared pure and freshly made. There were no wrappers stuck in the bushes, no cigarette butts or used condoms visible. Everything was brand new. A row of pine trees in the park across the street made me think of the holidays. Light from the street lamps and the stars above reflected in the white powder. There were no tire tracks or footprints to mar it. I was looking at a new creation, a world untouched by human hands. It was beautiful.

When it comes to music, I like variety. While catching a video on Youtube for a  boogie woogie number, this clip came up in the cue.  I don't know the artists, but the drummer is incredible.  Hope you like it.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Let's Get Started

If you’ve visited this page before, you’ve probably learned that I rarely start in the beginning.  No ‘Once upon a time’ or ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, although truth be told, I did use the latter once in a humorous attempt at a Sam Spade short story that was accepted for publication.  

But I rarely begin there.

What usually happens is I’ll have a glimmer of an idea for a story. The parts of a conflict, maybe a character or two in mind. But the first scene or two that I write could be a little dialogue between characters or some broad strokes of the setting, getting the time of year and location in place.  On more than one occasion, I’ll have a hundred pages or more in place before I write the beginning. That gives me a stronger sense of how to hook the reader, to draw them in. In some cases, this will turn out to be the prologue for the story.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can always move paragraphs or pages around.  That’s a blessing for me, since I’m notorious for blasting out scenes as they strike me, then going back later and making sense of it all.

So my writing may not start on page one, but eventually it comes together. For me, it’s a matter of getting started. Then when the words start to flow and the story moves along, I don’t want to stop. 

Here’s an example with the beginning from “Fleeing Beauty” the third Jamie Richmond novel. 

I don’t want to die.

I’m not ready for it. There are too many things I haven’t experienced yet. Places to go, people to meet, adventures waiting to be discovered. I want to gaze at the stars over the Mediterranean Sea while making love with Malone. I want to fly in a sailplane. I want to stand on a beach in Key West and dip my toes in the ocean and the gulf. I want to travel to exotic lands, dine on their cuisine and dance my little ass off to the local music. I want all of that and much more. 

But I don’t think any of that is going to happen.

We’re all going to die.

Once this gang gets what they’re after, there is no reason to leave us behind. They’re not going to lock us in a closet and make a run for it. We’ve all seen their faces. We know their names. We can identify them. There is no way they will let us live. Their leader has a violent streak and it’s only a matter of time before he lashes out again.

My mind is flashing through ways out of this. But nothing makes sense, nothing that will allow me to stop them, to guide us out of here safely.

I don’t want to die.

But there is nothing I can do to prevent it.

This week's musical feature is from Queen. Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

What's Cookin'?

I like to cook. 

In my youth I worked in a few restaurants in different roles. On occasion I might jump behind the line with the trained culinary people to help out, but that was not my primary function, so for the most part, I left that to the people who knew what they were doing.  

Sometimes I’ll fire up the grill and roast some chicken or burgers and corn on the cob, smeared with butter and sprinkled with a little bit of sugar. Trust me, it’s worth it. Wrap the corn in aluminum foil, give it four minutes on a side with a hot grill and as Gleason used to say, "away we go"!

There are a few dishes I make that have become family favorites. Chicken picatta and stir-fry beef with asparagus and red peppers are a couple that come to mind. I still recall the boys charging down the stairs for my banana bread coming fresh out of the oven. 

Chene and Malone, two of my main characters, both cook. This happens in stories where it seems like the most natural thing in the world for them to do. And it works.  Cooking is a form of creativity and when you’re done, you and your guests (or readers) get a tasty treat.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Inkspell, which publishes the Jamie Richmond series, was going to put out a cookbook.  Along with recipes there would be some writing advice as well.  So I dusted off a favorite and sent it along. Turns out the collection from over a dozen authors will be released November 1. Check it out and head for the kitchen. 

Talking about food brings this excerpt to mind from “Why 319?”.  In this scene, Chene has returned to the apartment of the serial killer’s latest victim, at the request of her roommate, Simone Bettencourt.  

Simone might have reached for me. Or I might have reached for her. It was one of those things that I could never definitively answer. All I know is that one moment I was standing in front of her, the next she was in my arms. She buried her face in my chest and started sobbing. Somehow, I guided her back into the apartment and closed the door behind us.

At some point in time, Simone seemed to slowly run out of tears. She pulled back a little, wiping her face with her fingertips. Her body was warm. I could feel it through the thin material of the sweater as my hand slid slowly up and down her back. She started to turn away and stumbled. I caught her around the waist and steadied her. I was surprised at how little she weighed.

“I should be all cried out by now.” Her voice caught. “You must think I’m some kind of basket case.”

“Not at all. People deal with grief differently. Some never let it out. Others get angry, resentful. Some seek vengeance.” I realized I was still holding her. It took some difficulty, but I guided her over to the sofa. She collapsed onto the cushions.

I went into the kitchen. The muffin tin she had used yesterday morning was still sitting on the counter, residue from the batter stuck hard to the surface. There were four fingers worth of cold coffee in the pot. I sensed she hadn’t eaten since we’d been here.

Back in the living room, Simone stared vacantly at the windows. I’m no therapist, but even I could tell that her body would start shutting down if she couldn’t get past this point. She would also need fuel in her system. I turned back to the kitchen to check the supplies.

What the hell was I doing here?

The kitchen was surprisingly well stocked. I would have expected two young, single women sharing an apartment to eat out frequently. Apparently, one of them liked to cook. I found some boneless chicken breasts in the refrigerator, along with a fresh box of mushrooms. There was a lemon just starting to shrivel and a bottle of Chardonnay already opened. Hunting around, I discovered a bin with flour and some linguini noodles. I got started.

After slicing the chicken into thin strips, I dredged it in flour. The skillet was heated with a chunk of butter slowly melting in the center. I added the chicken and sliced the mushrooms. While it was browning, I found a pot for the pasta and got that boiling. With the chicken brown on both sides, I added the mushrooms, the juice from half the lemon and a generous glug of wine. I found a small skillet and used it to sauté some onions and minced garlic in a few spoons of olive oil. When the pasta was done, I drained it, then tossed it in the oil mixture. I was serving it onto a platter when Simone appeared in the doorway.

“You’re cooking?” Her voice was incredulous.

“Somebody’s got to. I’m betting you haven’t eaten since Friday night.”

She shrugged. “I haven’t had much of an appetite.”

I guided her to the table and set a plate in front of her. She looked at me suspiciously. 

“It’s comfort food.”

There's been plenty of classic rock on my stereo this week. Here's a favorite from the Eagles.