Promoting Depth in Fiction

In a recent conversation, author, editor, and publicist Diana Kathryn Plopa mentioned how struck she is by what she called all the layers in my books.

I’ve been reflecting on how much I appreciated that comment. We all like to hear nice things about our books, but Diana’s remark about layers particularly resonated with me. I understood her to mean a kind of richness of meaning in the stories and characters that she finds in my work.

Diana’s comment was so interesting because that’s just the term that I use in thinking about my novels: layering.

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Remember those transparencies in old-fashioned biology textbooks? Layered atop an image of the human body, one transparency would have bones, another would show muscles, another would have organs, blood vessels, nerves, and so on. Put them all together and you get a full picture of the fullness and complexity of the human body.

Novels (and not just mine) can have a similar kind of depth. It doesn’t happen accidentally, but results from working the following “overlays” into the books.

1. One layer consists of conventions of the genre or type of writing, including reader expectations.

For example, for a crime novel (my own genre), conventions might include a crime or some violation of the personal, social, or political order; efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator (often this is the focus of the mystery novel; think of the “Law” part of “Law and Order”); the perpetrator is brought to justice (the “Order” part of “Law and Order”); and the world is either set right or order and law are not re-established.

Often a particular kind of crime novel will focus on one or more of those elements. A mystery novel like the Martin Preuss mysteries (to take just one example chosen completely at random) would focus on the efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator of the violation of the order.

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To take another example, in heist novels like Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker books, or a movie like Baby Driver, plot conventions include planning the crime, the meeting/gathering of participants, execution of the crime with ensuing complications, and resolution or justice (or not).

Conventions may also include character types, that is, recurring kinds of characters. Many mysteries offer variations on the eccentric, socially maladjusted genius, a type that comes down to us from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and includes all his modern counterparts, such as Sherlock Holmes in literature and Dr. House and Monk on TV, as well as the solitary counter-authoritarian knight-errant like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Lew Archer, to name just three examples.

Along with these conventions come the expectations the reader brings, such as that she will be challenged, misled, or misdirected along with way, or that the heist will not go well, involving double- or triple-crosses.

On top of this overlay, add:

2. Elements of the setting—the place or places where events happen

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Setting not only supplies the locations for the action (not only names and specific locales, establishments, and so on, but also history, politics, media, etc.). Setting also suggests actions and language arising from places, provides characters particular to certain places, and helps set the tone of the books. Think of how historical mysteries accomplish all of these; think also of what Elmore Leonard’s Detroit setting means for his books. The setting is always crucial.

Finally, on top of these, overlay:

3. An author’s individual concerns: recurring characters and character types, themes, styles

Read enough of any author’s work and you’ll find certain constants. In my mysteries, for example, there’s always a sympathy for marginal characters; a focus on the cascading effects of greed, violence, and misplaced loyalties; issues of social class; and care of a son with cerebral palsy. Here is where an author’s particular point of view and insights turn stock flat characters in round, living people.

I also have another concern that serves as what I think of as the heart of the Preuss series (besides sweet Toby, that is), informing each book. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog posts, at this moment in history, I believe we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. As Camus said in one of his essays, “In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish.” This echoes Auden’s line “We must love one another or die,” from his great poem, “September 1, 1939,” and what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote, 

sontag“A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.”

In my writing, I’m trying to expand our sympathies and sense of the world. Writing mystery fiction allows me to enter into the minds and hearts of characters acting under the stresses and extremities of crime and see the world through their eyes, and help readers see it as well.

(This is the reason I get a little nuts when I hear a writer talk about writing for “self-expression.” I remember hearing poets and their critics/interpreters talking about “the self,” and images of the self, and the poetry of self, and the self’s multiplicity, and so on. I’m not a fan of the kind of solipsistic, cryptic writing that results from this approach.)

I want to tell a good story, sure, but I also want the reading experience to be more than simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours. I’m hoping that when readers finish my novels, they will be transformed somehow—even if it’s a slightly expanded understanding of what it takes to care for a child with handicaps, or acknowledge how the effects of violence cascade down through generations, or even appreciate the way a grief-stricken detective tries to do his best in a world rife with corruption.

Such transformations are my ultimate intention, and I rely on the layering strategy I talked about here to accomplish it. 

Whether or not I succeed, of course, is up to my readers.

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Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Wendy Thomson

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Today I’m happy to offer another Indie Thursday entry. Each week, I’ll feature other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Wendy Thomson. Wendy is the author of two books, Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, a novel, and as she will discuss, has several other projects in the works.

Recently I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Wendy. Here’s what she told me.

DLWendy, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

WST: I grew up here in Michigan—Birmingham, to be precise—but spent nearly ten years away, living in Florida and Chicago. I got to Florida by jumping ship, literally. My father had purchased an old Dutch freighter and outfitted it for a two-year journey around the world. That adventure didn’t go exactly as planned, so I got off, found a job, got an apartment, and was on my own.

I had dropped out of Michigan State, where I was pursuing a degree in Linguistics, to join the ship. When I did go back to school to finish my undergrad degree, it was at University of Miami, and it was in Business. I moved to Tallahassee for a man . . . that was a bust, but I did end up going back to school at Florida State for a Master’s degree. I was working full time and going to school at night. When my company transferred me to Chicago, I finished that degree at University of Chicago. I moved back to where I grew up forty years ago—again, for a man (again a bust.) I have spent those forty years working full time, raising a couple of sons, and occasionally performing classical music around town, in addition to performing a concert tour in Italy.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

WST: My most recent published work is The Third Order, which came out in 2018. The plot was the last thing that fell into place. My first book, Summon the Tiger (2016), was a memoir, a reflection on how my values and determination have taken me to extraordinary destinations, and given me the strength and grit to face any hardships that came my way. I wanted to write a second book, and I felt most comfortable writing about things and places I know. Well, I know Italy fairly well, and I especially fell in love with Assisi. I also know Scotland fairly well, since my father was born there. Those were my two major constraints: I needed a way to tie those two places together. I started looking into St. Francis, and details of his life started shaping the plot. I then looked for a tie to Scotland, which I found in the Third Crusade. The rest started to fall into place. It was a fun romp.

Thomson book 3I currently have two works underway: the first is The Man from Burntisland—a saga of a hard-scrabble Scot born in 1899 who emigrates to the US, enduring both World Wars and the Great Depression. I am very excited about this work, as I feel it demonstrates the strength of determination and tenacity in the face of great odds. Life was comparatively so much more difficult for folks like him. I am basing this historical fiction on snippets of what I know of my grandfather’s life.

The other work underway is Silo Six. It is a sci-fi/dystopia novella about the end of humanity on earth. I was asked to contribute this for an anthology as one of three authors. The other two authors are amazing, and I am honored to have been asked.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

WST: I sometimes ask myself that very question. I write because it is a generally enjoyable activity, especially during long winter evenings. I write because people keep telling me they like to read what I write. What do I hope to accomplish? That varies by book. In Summon the Tiger, my goal was to tell a story of determination and grit. One of my sons suggested I write it. I realized that my sons had no idea of the forces that helped shape who I became. I hope that as they grow older, they will come to appreciate the events detailed in the book more and more.

For The Third Order, my main goal is to entertain my audience. If they learn a little bit about history while doing so, then that is an extra added bonus. Just fun.

My hope for The Man from Burntisland is to both educate readers on life in the early 1900’s and to describe a man of particular tenacity and pragmatism. It’s not all pretty, and he is in no way a saint. I hope that readers will see the complexity of a driven man whose life circumstances caused him to make uncomfortable choices.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

WST: I have a rather fluid writing process. Topics seem to bubble up from my sub-conscious—I call that part of my brain my Co-Processor. I never force myself to write on any particular day, but I do set very generalized goals . . . for instance, I would like to get The Man from Burntisland published this year. That might be too lofty a goal, given the work I need to do for Silo Six. I tried to set a daily word goal once, but life has a way of being a great disruptor. I do get antsy to write if I’ve been away from it for a couple of days.

I never outline. The most I have ever done is to jot down notes on character’s back stories and to create cheat sheets on characters and specifics (who they are married to, what jobs they have, etc.) so I don’t need to scroll back and find what I may have said before. My little Co-Processor seems to think about plot lines and required prose all on its own while I am busy doing life. When I pull out my laptop, the words and story direction are developed and only require being committed to paper.

My very favorite part of the process is finding logical solutions to the issues the plot hands me. Case in point is in The Third Order. How in the world can I wrap a story around Assisi and Scotland? So I started researching, and I found one Alan FitzWalter, second Steward of Scotland, who returned from the Third Crusade in 1192. That’s fact. Then I found an old Italian farce of a movie à la Monty Python, and I learned that, many times, soldiers would travel to the boot of Italy and sail for the Holy Land instead of trudging around the Mediterranean. Then I learned that St. Francis became a soldier as a young man. Taking small snippets and crafting them into a woven fabric of logic is my very, very favorite part.

My least favorite part of writing? Trying to make sure I have perfect copy. It is So. Damn. Difficult to publish a flawless work. Even with a professional editor, things get through. And while it’s not difficult to correct the found error in the next printed copy, it irritates me that there are different versions out and about.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

WST: I spent the vast majority of my life in quantitative fields. My highest tested aptitude in school was mechanical engineering. And while I was often told that I developed creative solutions in processes and analyses, I never considered myself particularly creative, and definitely not particularly emotional. And now comes Kirkus, which announces to the world at large that The Third Order “taps into the powerful emotional satisfaction that comes with solving a puzzle,” and that the book is “a satisfying synthesis of mystery, history, and emotion.” “Me” and “emotion” have rarely been seen in close company.

That is probably a long way of saying that writing has brought out a side of me that, apparently, has been quite latent. I am a writer. I can create, and I can imagine.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

WST: The Amazon page for Summon the Tiger is https://www.amazon.com/dp/1537137441/ref=nav_timeline_asin?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1.

The Amazon page for The Third Order is https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HP9GX59/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1537997744&sr=1-4&keywords=wendy+sura+thomson.

My Goodreads page is https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15801291.Wendy_Sura_Thomson.

My website is www.quittandquinn.com, which also contains my writing blog.

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Wendy Thomson.

 

 

Why I Stopped Writing

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for most people who want to write, the urge begins early in life.

So it was with me. I can’t remember a time when I was young when I didn’t want to be a writer, even when I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I just knew I loved reading, and the natural partner to that was making up my own stories. I’m not sure where that came from. My parents weren’t readers; the only books we had in our house when I was growing up were the ones in my room. But I was a voracious reader in our library at Bagley Elementary School (my favorite books were the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series) (yes, I am that old), and lying in bed at night I used to pretend my hands were the characters and I would act out stories with them (most of which ended in finger/thumb fistfights accompanied by much tongue-clucking sound effects). 

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One day my father brought home an old monster manual typewriter from his office. As soon as I started playing with it, I realized from the letters that appeared through its raucous clacking that I had found my instrument, the same way a pianist is moved by the note made by the first touch of cool ivory on a keyboard. At one point, somebody gave me a toy printing press—surely an act of almost psychic precognition—and I started printing up my little stories.

My reading habits were helped along by my painful, almost pathological shyness while growing up. It seriously curtailed my social development, but gave me all the time I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. While other kids were out playing sports or going on dates, I was the quintessential bookworm, holed up at home discovering new authors and plowing through as much of their work as I could find.

As I grew older and life took shape for me with more clarity, I followed the well-trodden path of young writers everywhere. (I hate the term “aspiring writer” . . . to paraphrase a certain short green Jedi master: write or do not write, there is no aspire.) I wrote my stories and sent them out, got my rejections, revised the stories, and sent them out again. Occasionally I wrote a poem that was also rejected, but for me, fiction was where the heavy lifting of literature took place, so that’s what I concentrated on, with the aim of working my way up to writing novels.

I sent stuff out; I got it back. Once in a blue moon, I placed a story with some small journal or other, and that was enough to keep me going for a while. But for the most part, I sent work out; I got work back. This was pre-internet, so there were no online publication opportunities. There was no online, no internet, no word processing, just a typewriter and the US mail.

I kept at it despite the rejections, which is what people tell you to do. It goes out, it comes back. Sooner or later, I believed, if something was good enough, it would find a home.

Stories went out, they came back.

Then novel drafts went out, and they came back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Finally, one day, when I was in my thirties, I thought all my hard work had paid off. I had written a mystery novel (The Ramp of the Chinese Dog), and after making the rounds of agents, I found one who accepted me. He was the real deal, the guy who sold a pair of books that became the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno. I thought I was in.

I went to meet him in New York City, taking the bus down from Binghamton, where I was living at the time. He told me he was “cautiously optimistic”; I remember the words to this day, as well as his soothing voice. He believed in the book. He believed in me. My spirits soared. Success was in sight.

Except now he was the one sending the manuscript out and getting it back. Periodically he would send me the pile of rejection notes he got from publishers, and they were not helpful (but were, gallingly, peppered with typos, grammatical errors, and misinformation about the book).

Finally, after three years of this, he returned the manuscript to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I like the book, but I just can’t do anything more with it.”

I sent him another manuscript that I had written in the meantime. He sent that one back, too. “Sorry, no.”

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I was crushed.

After trying to break into publication for all of my twenties and most of my thirties, experiencing virtual nonstop rejection, I was back where I started. Cynthia Ozick writes about the little holy light like a pilot light that keeps a writer going. Mine went out.

This writing life must not be for me, I decided. I’m just not good enough. Don’t have what it takes. So I gave up writing fiction. It was painful, even devastating. I had failed at the one thing I had wanted to do since I was little.

Failure: a terrible word for someone in love with words.

But I still thought I had some chops as a writer, just not a fiction writer; I had already worked several public relations jobs. In what I now understand was despair-fueled self-flagellation in penance for my failure, I joined a small advertising agency as a copywriter. If I can’t publish the stuff I want, I thought, I’ll become a hack. I turned away from literature; I turned away from reading. I turned away from writing about important subjects and instead churned out dreck like copy for rebate ads for Masonite paneling, and news releases for small town jewelry stores.

And yet I did well in that world. Working freelance after getting fired from the ad agency for having a bad attitude (big surprise), I wrote reports and proposals and video scripts for companies like General Electric and IBM. I once wrote a video program promoting military attack helicopters for two wild-eyed crazies at IBM who ranted about the joys of “killing tanks” like a couple of tweakers playing video games.

When my wife and I moved to New York City so she could take a job teaching at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I found more work there. I wrote grant proposals and project summaries and donor appreciation letters for the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center Fund in upper Manhattan. I took a job as speechwriter for the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and wrote literally hundreds of speeches, articles, testimonies, and newspaper editorials on AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, window falls, pit bulls, child-care centers, and restaurant inspection scandals, among other public health issues. I wrote op-eds on needle-exchange programs for the New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The commissioner was delivering my speeches in Washington to Congressional committees; the mayor of New York was using my speeches to promote anti-smoking legislation at Sloan-Kettering.

It came to pass that working at such a high level of productivity and visibility, the writing I was doing for others relit that little holy pilot light. I started thinking about returning to fiction, and about writing under my own name. About the importance of stories in our lives.

The other thing that happened around this time was the birth of my grandson Jamie, whom I’ve mentioned before and whose presence had profound effects on me and everyone around him.

Except as soon as I thought, Man, I’d really to like do some imaginative writing again, the equal and opposite thought arose: Why? Do you really want to enter that world of rejection again? Seriously?

The answer, of course, was no. As much as I wanted to write fiction again, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending my work out and getting back into the cycle of rejection, especially after working so hard to wrestle back my confidence. So I resisted the urge, and instead retreated to private journal entries that alternately (1) agonized over my need to write fiction, and (2) scolded myself for even thinking about giving in to it.

But here was the problem: that little pilot light? It was on again. And the pressure to write fiction continued to build, along with my conflicted feelings about what that would mean.

When I started to have angry thoughts about pushing people off of subway platforms, I knew I had to do something.

So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and started another novel. Not a mystery, but a mainstream book about a group of people who lived together in one house in an effort to create a new type of family. I learned to put out of my mind any thoughts about what I would do with the manuscript once I finished it—and once I started, I knew I would finish. I brought to this new project all the disciplined work habits and writing skills that I had honed over the years I spent writing other people’s stuff. It took a few years, but the result was a novel, The House of Grins.

A1325325-BC74-488F-AC22-29C390E02462But what to do with it?

A friend put me in touch with an editor he knew at one of the big NYC publishing houses. When I called the editor, she told me to send her the manuscript, and if she “really loved it” she would recommend publishing it. Her tone of voice dripped with the kind of derisive smarm very few can match outside NYC publishing; it told me the chances of her “loving it” were somewhere between zero and fuhgedaboudit. To spite her, I decided not to send anything (I showed her!).

In the interregnum between my fleeing from imaginative writing and returning to it—a ten-year gap—a new development had begun in publishing. Prompted by advances in technology, the self-publishing movement was just starting to take off in the ‘90s, apart from the dreaded “vanity press” industry. I discovered that I could take back the means of production, like independent filmmakers and almost every other artist. 

But more: in those ten years, I grappled with what success as a writer really meant, and more importantly what it wasn’t. I met editors, and became an editor myself, and realized how capricious and unpredictable the process really is.

I came through that decade of despair by learning that—yes—the writing and the changed qualities of mind and heart that accompany writing really are more important than the faux approval suggested by acceptance by others. As if that insight broke some self-imposed spell, in the years since I fantasized pushing people off subway platforms, I’ve published seven novels (six in the Martin Preuss mystery series), two books of poetry, a handful of stories, and dozens of poems in print and online journals.

That voice shouting in your ear, the voice my friend Jerry van Rossum personifies as “Sid”—Self-Inflicted Doubts—never goes away. But with practice and wisdom, you can silence it long enough to get some good work done.

And in the end, that’s really all that matters. 

Indie Thursday

[My Monday blog post took a Memorial Day break, but it’ll back next week.]

Today’s guest: Mark Love

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Today I’m happy to offer another Indie Thursday entry. Periodically, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Mark Love. A friend and fellow mystery writer, Mark is the author of two mystery series: the Jamie Richmond mystery series, including the novels Devious, Vanishing Act, Fleeting Beauty, and Stealing Haven, and a story in the anthology Once Upon a Summer; and the Jefferson Chene mystery series, including Why 319? and the newly-published Your Turn to Die.

Recently I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Mark. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Mark, welcome. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?

ML: I was born and raised in metropolitan Detroit and lived there for many years. From an early age I enjoyed getting lost in a good story. As a teen, I discovered the great John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and quickly became hooked on mysteries. A while later it was Elmore Leonard’s work that caught my attention. It became a goal to someday write a mystery.

Growing up in Detroit, there was always a lot on the news about crime and scandals. I would follow stories and try to figure out who was behind such activity and imagine unraveling the case. At one point I was working as a freelance reporter for a couple of area newspapers. One of my assignments was a crime beat, visiting police departments in Oakland County. That was the equivalent of turning a kid loose in a candy store. I learned a lot and it helped sharpen my writing skills.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works-in-progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

ML: The latest book, just published in print and audiobook, is Your Turn to Die. It’s the second book in the Jefferson Chene Series.

perf5.000x8.000.inddChene is a Sergeant with the Michigan State Police, part of a squad of detectives that work on major cases. Most of their assignments center around investigations that cover multiple municipal jurisdictions. This story is about a successful businessman who is murdered at a paintball game. With over a hundred suspects to consider, Chene and his team know this won’t be an easy case to solve. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this victim was no choirboy and more than one person wanted him dead. Every turn brings out more suspects. Soon they’re looking into illicit affairs, possible connections with organized crime, and a fortune in jewels.

Currently I’m working on the third book in the series. I’m also considering dusting off a novel I wrote years ago and bringing that up to date.

My story ideas can be triggered by anything. I’ll start with the germ of an idea and kick it around in my head for a while. If it gains a little traction, I’ll write a couple of pages and see where it leads.

DL: You’ve published quite a few works of fiction. Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

ML: I think we all have stories to share. For me, it’s a chance to entertain. Maybe you’ll grow to like my cast of characters and see some traits you can recognize or relate to. I always share a little local flavor along the way. All of my novels take place in the Motown area and often include local venues that many readers may be familiar with. That’s something as a reader I enjoy.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

ML: Despite all those years at Catholic school (yes, I still bear the scars from the nuns wielding their rulers), I can’t write with an outline. It’s too restrictive. So I’ll begin with an idea and one of my main characters, like Jamie or Chene, and see where it goes. More than once, I’ll be writing a scene when suddenly it takes a dramatic ninety-degree turn.  Upon review I know it’s perfect but it wasn’t anything planned. It just happens. The characters make the transition and I follow along.

I will write scenes as they occur to me. Then it’s a matter of weaving them into the timeline of the story where they make the most sense. As one of the nuns in elementary school would say, “crude, but effective.”

Dialogue to me is the most fun. It’s crucial to the story and can help convey so much information. And there are emotions that can be shown as well. The dialogue can make the difference between a great story and a dud.

My least favorite part? Editing is tough. It’s difficult to trim your work, to shape it, to make it flow better. But it’s so important. I’ve gone through some novels half a dozen times before submitting it to a publisher, only to do it again while working with an editor. But the end results are definitely worth it.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

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ML: Once I seriously started writing, I was pleasantly surprised at how the stories came together. Writing is not easy. It’s a lot of hard work. But when I’m able to finish a book or short story, there is a true sense of accomplishment. When those efforts have then been selected by a publisher and come to life in print, that just sweetens the deal. But the real icing on the cake is when someone reads my stories and enjoys them. I’ve had people tell me how much they love my characters and how realistic they are. Some have even told me “this would make a great movie,” which is a fantastic compliment.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today, Mark. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

ML: My Amazon Author’s Page is https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B009P7HVZQ.

My blog page is https://motownmysteries.blogspot.com/.

Readers can connect with me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MarkLoveAuthor.

Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Joan H. Young

Joan Young

Periodically I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Joan H. Young. Joan is the prolific author of essays, nonfiction, and fiction. Her works include the award-winning North Country Cache: Adventures on a National Scenic Trail; the six-book Anastasia Raven cozy mystery series: News from Dead Mule Swamp, The Hollow Tree at Dead Mule Swamp, Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp, Bury the Hatchet in Dead Mule Swamp, Dead Mule Swamp Druggist, and Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe; and the four-volume Dubois Files series, a series of mysteries for readers aged 6 to 12 years, including The Secret Cellar, The Hitchhiker, The ABZ Affair, and The Bigg Boss.

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Recently I posed some questions to Joan. Here’s what she told me.

DL: Joan, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JHY: I grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York State, but have now lived in Michigan for almost fifty years. I love the outdoors, and have had the privilege of participating in a number of adventures. Some of the highlights are a 10-day canoe trip in high school with the Girl Scouts, riding a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986, and being the first woman to complete hiking the entire 4600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail on foot.

As a result of that hike, I wrote a book about my experiences called North Country Cache. A few years later, I decided I wanted to write fiction and began the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries. There are now six stories in that series, and a mystery series for children spun off from that. This currently includes four books known collectively as The Dubois Files. These books are suitable for grades 3-6, and good readers who are younger.  

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JHY: North Country Cache was published in 2005, before I finished hiking the North Country Trail. It includes tales from about half the hike. I’m working on the sequel, North Country Quest, which will tell the rest of the story. It will be available this year. (Pre-order discounts available.) 

The general idea for my mysteries was born from a desire to write fiction. I read more mystery/true crime books than any other genre. I read mysteries of all styles from hard-boiled thrillers to light reads, but decided that the style I would be able to write best is the cozy. In these books the violence and sex are kept “off-stage.” The main character is often a woman, and the setting is often a small town. 

Unless you plan to do a significant amount of research, it’s good to write what you know. I know small towns and rural settings. I’ve lived in places like this all my life, and felt I could capture the atmosphere and worldviews of people who live in such places. 

CoverMistletoeEbookMy most recently published book is the sixth Anastasia Raven mystery, Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe.  This book is an attempt to capture the classic British sub-genre of the closed-suspect-pool mystery. It is certainly a cozy, but will appeal to those who like traditional mysteries. 

The idea for this book came directly from a challenge thrown down in a work about British country-house murder mysteries, in which the author states that there is no successful American counterpart. I’ve managed to incorporate thirteen out of fourteen points that author considered essential. The only one I missed is that it takes place in the mythical Forest County, somewhere in the upper Midwest of the United States, rather than in England. Readers will have to decide if I succeeded in meeting the standard.

The children’s mysteries happened because I was continually being asked if I had books for younger readers. One day, I realized that there was a perfect backstory in the Anastasia Raven mysteries to spin off a series told by Cora, one of Ana’s friends. 

Thus, The Dubois Files are set in the 1950s, in the same location as the Anastasia Raven books. So far, the only character that appears in both series is Cora Dubois Baker Caulfield. However, the grandfather of young Jimmie Mosher, also named Jimmie, is Cora’s best friend as a child.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JHY: When I write non-fiction, I sincerely hope to prod readers to see something in a slightly different way, to gain a new perspective on whatever the topic is.

In fiction, I primarily want to entertain. But I try to create a realistic enough setting and story that people can visualize the story without too big a stretch of the imagination. There is humor in my books, but it is subtle.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JHY: Well, the process in fiction is, for me, much different from non-fiction. 

For non-fiction, I need to have a pretty solid outline. Books about my hikes need to conform to notes made and journals recorded, maps, guides, and other historical/cultural information. This is a long process to collect and assimilate that information before I write each chapter. Once I have the basics of each segment in my head, then the writing is easy.

With fiction, I try to have a general sense of the plot, the characters and their interactions laid out before I begin. But since it’s all made up, if something seems to move in a different direction part way through, I can change it. In one book, the guilty person changed quite late in the writing process.

I spend a lot of time crafting things in my head for fiction. I’ve been experimenting with recording with speech to text to get the ideas down. Thinking up the stories and the characters is probably the part I like best. Starting and ending the book is also fun— sometimes I think up a couple of alternate endings in case the characters develop minds of their own. The hardest part seems to be from about two-thirds of the way in till the ending begins to play out. Sometimes my great ideas leave gaps of how we get from point B to C, and then I must work hard to make the connections and present them credibly to readers.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JHY: I have been writing since I was a child. But I’ve also been doing a score of other things. Lack of focus has always been my nemesis. However, once I began writing the mysteries (I now have over a dozen titles altogether), I decided to try to concentrate on being a writer. A year ago, I quit my job to write and sell books (I’m self-published, so marketing is a big piece of what I do). In some ways, this is nothing like retirement—it’s a big job to bring books to completion and to constantly be trying to make sales. However, I do get to do most of this on my own terms and in my own time frames. Since I like being my own boss and having creative control over my works, this has been a good move for me. 

It’s been rewarding to be recognized as an author. I no longer feel sort of red-faced about attempting to be a writer—isn’t everyone trying to write a book? I AM a writer, and have received several awards for books and articles. One always needs to perfect the skills given, and I’m constantly working at this, but the awards give me a real sense of credibility.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JHY: My website is www.booksleavingfootprints.com

I have a personal blog at www.myqualityday.blogspot.com

Writing blog at joanofshark.com

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Joan H. Young.

 

On sonnet chains, mercy, and wisdom

In one of my former lives, I was professor of English and, toward the end of my career, dean of the faculty, at Marygrove College in Detroit. In 2012, a few years before I retired, I was invited to be a speaker at the baccalaureate ceremony for the graduating seniors—a kind of run-up to the Commencement Exercises that would happen in another few days. 

The catch was, my invitation was specific: my contribution would be to offer a reflection on a reading from the Gospel of Luke, which was to be the evening’s reading at the Catholic college’s mass for the graduates.

At first I thought it was a prank. My friends who had invited me couldn’t have picked a more inappropriate faculty member for the job. What could I—non-Christian, confirmed atheist, stubborn pusher-against of the institution’s core (and often more honored in the breach than the observance) religious values—possibly have to say about the Gospel of Luke?

When I realized my friends were serious, I started to take the request more seriously. The more I thought about it—and read and thought about the section of Luke that formed the evening’s reading—the more I warmed to the idea. 

I decided to accept the invitation. I thought it might be a way to invite the students to take a brief look backward at their education, and forward to the rest of their lives. My challenge would be to walk the line between meditating on the spirit of the Gospel to an audience of true believers without violating my personal beliefs—or more properly, lack of beliefs. 

In one of those creative decisions that seemed to come from nowhere, I crafted my reflection in the form of a sonnet chain (a collection of sonnets where the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next). Today I’m not sure why I picked that form; I’m not even sure I could have said then. Maybe I thought it would be best to write an extended meditative poem in short hops.  

I was reminded of the project when a good friend reminded me last week that the school’s 2019 Commencement had just taken place. I don’t do much with poetry anymore, but I thought posting the poems along with this introduction as this week’s blog would make an interesting entry. And maybe it would help get me back to thinking about poetry again.

Either way, it’s a look into a part of my writing background that was important at one time. Hope you enjoy it.

BTW, please check back this Thursday May 23rd, when I’ll host an interview with Joan H. Young, award-winning Michigan author of the essay collection North Country Cache and two mystery series, the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries and a series for children.

The Day is Fulfilled: A Meditation on Luke
Dedicated to the 2012 graduating class at Marygrove College, Detroit

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
—Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”

1
On the pavement by the side of the road
a man walks—no, not walks: staggers, stumbles,
does a slack jitter step down the sidewalk,
hops about to preserve his feet beneath him
(assuming there are feet somewhere inside
those laceless tatters that once were spanky brogans)
as rush-hour traffic thickens, occludes
near the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward
on an overcast weekday in May, warm,
windy, threatening rain, the sun a distant hint
behind a scrim of clouds, a promise, really, or
reminder. And as you idle at the stoplight
on your way to somewhere, late, your mind absent,
you see him halt, stand, and fix you in his gaze.

2
He halts, stands, and fixes you in his gaze
if gaze there is in eyes that squint, almost closed,
through the soupy blue haze of exhaust, seasoned
with the sweet scent of gasoline; he could be
blind for all you know, looking not at you
but in your direction, puffy-eyed, bruised,
his head a mass of greasy hair and tangled beard,
lanky frame monkish in a hooded coat
stiff with dirt and britches of a startling
cranberry hue, his shape narrow as a nail;
and don’t think I mistake this ragged man in such an
altered mental state for Jesus, though you may,
but I wouldn’t advise it because now
he’s fastened upon you, and here it comes—

3
He’s fastened upon you and here it comes—
“Yo, chief! Got something for me today?”
At least that’s what you think he says, words gleaned
from the sustained confusion of traffic,
the hiss of tires, the shriek of faulty brakes
behind you, as if you’ve often seen him
before, and maybe you have, and you think
about how much there is in this world,
and how little; how close we are, and how
impossibly far apart. And you think
you hear music, floating in the air, remote,
the roar of city buses, the thunder of trucks
unable to veil the strains of a tune
you can’t quite catch but you’re sure it’s there.

4
You can’t quite catch it but you’re sure it’s there—
and “Yo, chief!” he says again, and this time
you hear him plainly, this cumbersome twitchy
bird-man. And you start to believe that you do
have something for him: because all at once
you recognize that face, that snarled beard, that
in-your-face query; and you intuit
the heartbreak that brought him to this corner;
the despair that keeps him reeling down the sidewalk;
whatever illness it was that stripped the flesh
so fully from his spare lurching frame. Luke,
evangelist, patron saint of healers,
artists, students, tell us how we know him,
teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.

5
Teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.
Teach us how we know, what we owe each other.
Move the spirit upon us, finally, that
makes us love the least and most among us.
For we must love, we know this in our hearts.
Such is, surely, the central lesson mastered
from your rigorous years of study, which
we assemble here to celebrate today,
paused not at the end of your education,
but its beginning; for now are you primed
to learn to love the world in earnest, and spread
a gospel of your own of mercy and wisdom,
hope and liberation, your truths suffused with
that music whose soft melodies you hear.

6
That music whose soft melodies you hear—
gentle, distant, undulating on the wind—
now swells, crescendos. Listen: It is the air filled
with the rustling wings of angels wheeling
overhead in the dusk; it is the murmur
of departed spirits who swim through the sky
as they watch over us. It is the inspiration
which some call god, or Christ, or whatever
immense mystery we feel that impels us
past the insufficient sight lines of our world.
It is the bright summons of the sparrow
calling us to fulfill our days’ enduring duty
to bless the sacred weighty world beyond
the pavement by the side of the road.

copyright 2012 by Donald Levin

Launching the Newest Martin Preuss Mystery

 

On Saturday, May 11th, 2019, I held the release party to celebrate the publication of Cold Dark Lies, the sixth volume in my Martin Preuss Mystery series. 

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Photo credit: Lisa Allen

Close to forty people came to join me at the Color & Ink Studio in Hazel Park on the cool spring day. I was delighted to see so many friends I’ve known for years (in one case going all the way back to Bagley Elementary School in the 1950s), friends I’ve met as recently as last week, and family members from around the metropolitan area and as far away as Buffalo, New York, and Dripping Springs, Texas!

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Photo credit: Color & Ink Studio

My heartfelt thanks to all who were able to come, and all who might not have been able to make it but were there in spirit. Your support means more to me than you can know.

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Photo credit: Diana Kathryn Plopa

It was a very casual, comfortable afternoon, and my guests and I enjoyed ourselves. I talked about the new book, had a great conversation with the audience about the series (particularly everybody’s favorite character, Toby Preuss), read a few passages, and then, after a short break, played a trio of songs that are either referenced in the books or are similar to songs that the main characters might listen to or, in the case of musician Martin Preuss, might play on his guitar. 

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Photo credit: Lisa Allen

I played guitar and banjo and accompanied my good friend and partner in crime, Tom Galasso, on guitar and vocals.

Tom is himself the author of a wonderful novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings Street, and as I mentioned at the event, I stole the idea to play live music directly from Tom’s own reading at the Hamtramck library. He joined me to perform last year at the launch party for An Uncertain Accomplice, and we had a terrific time preparing for this one and performing for the crowd on Saturday.

In addition to books and music, there was an excellent spread of food thanks to Suzanne Allen and an art exhibit in the next room (encaustic works from Melissa Rian). A million thanks go to Candace and Eric Law, proprietors of the Color & Ink Studio, for their generosity in allowing me to host my launch party there, and their gracious help in making the day a success.

And it was a great success. Books, music, food, art, good friends—all in all, a perfect day!

Please enjoy these photos of the event. I’ll be adding more photos as they become available.

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Photos credit: Dave Plopa