Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bouncing Ideas

My friend Weldon and I are having a fine time bouncing about ideas for my mystery--we do this by email. One night at dinner with Weldon and his wife, Elizabeth, I mentioned the novel and sketched some ideas I had. I have to back up here--Elizabeth was a work-study student in my office I don't know how many years ago, a "nontraditional" student, which means she was a bit older than the average student. When she applied for the job, she introduced herself as Elizabeth, and Elizabeth she has remained in my mind all these years, even though the entire rest of the world calls her Beth. She has gone on to a great career (in publishing, although not my kind of publishing) and a lot of civic involvement--I'm very proud to think I had any influence on her at all. We've remained friends over the years since her graduation and I meet them for dinner every so often.
I got to know Weldon when Elizabeth began dating him. I've always known he is very very knowledgeable about collectible comic books and fantasy and a whole world I don't udnerstand, but I thought of Elizabeth as the writer who understood my world--as an undergraduate one year she walked away with about half of the creative writing awards. But I had no idea how Weldon would take to the mystery plot. As Elizabeth said to me in an email, "He thinks logically, and he really understands story-telling." Boy, does he. He gives me ideas, possibilities that kick my mind into high gear. Sometimes my reaction is "Oh, that's a great idea," and other times, it's "No, it's not going to happen that way." But that prods me into thinking how it is going to happen, and in explaining it to Weldon, I work it out in my own mind. Sometimes it's like I'm his amanuensis, except that the novel really is mine--he just contributes. And because he makes me think, I'm amazed at the richness of ideas that come to me.
A big bonus: Weldon has made me believe that the novel might really come to pass.
Another bonus: I've gotten Elizabeth to blogging, which may get her back to writing, which her busy life hasn't left much time for.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Cooking, Grandmothering, and word about writing

Weekends are sometimes long for single women who live alone, at least they are for me, and I've heard others say that. So this weekend I decided I would cook single portions of a couple of recipes I found on the Bon Appetit website. Tonight I had sea scallops sauteed with green onions, cherry tomatoes, Italian parsley, and lemon (I added a little white wine so the lemon wouldn't evaporate before I got the tomatoes cooked--the tomatoes were large and from Mexico). In Fort Worth, we are blessed with H. E.B. Central Market, a wonderful store that has the freshest produce, meat, poultry (never been frozen) and fish (if it's been frozen, they tell you) and lots of other good things. It usually costs me $50 to walk in the door but today I avoided impulse shopping and walked out for $20. I got braseola for my dinner tomorrow night--I've just discovered this wonderful Italian cured beef, sort of the beef version of proscuitto. The recipe calls for a sauce with chopped hard-boiled egg, capers, grated Romano, and I forget what else. But three slices of braseola cost eighty cents--can't beat that. I've written a cookbook (whole 'nother story) and am waiting to hear if it will be published. It occurs to me I should save grocery slips, because if it is published pricey items like scallops and Mexican tomatoes would be deductible as research.
That good meal brightened my spirits considerably, so now I have to decide what to do the rest of the evening. I could knit and watch TV, because "Law and Order" is on--I'm knitting a baby blanket for the next expected grandchild, due in October, and it goes slowly because there's not much on TV I want to watch and I'm not good at JUST knitting. (I am an avid fan of the evening news and the Jim Lehrer Show and I knit while I watch those.) I could read more in the book of interviews with crime writers that I bought on for forty-four cents (and $5 postage)--one is with Robert Parker, whose Spenser books I like. He talked about three titles and why he did what he did in them. They were ones I hadn't read--The Judas Goat, A Savage Place, Early Autumn--so I went out and bought them. So now I could either read one of them or apply some of the notes I took from Parker to my own novel. What a nice dilemma.
Beside knitting, I did another bit of grandmothering last night--kept two-month-old Jacob by myself for the first time. He was fine for a while, then fussy--everything I tried worked for five minutes--rocking chair, vibrating baby chair, clean diaper, etc. He was screaming when his mother called and asked, "Are you all right?" "I am," I answered, "but he isn't." I fed him, even though he'd just eaten, and he went to sleep in my arms. When I went to put him in the bassinet he let me know that would not work, So when Jordan came for him she found us in my chair, Jacob asleep and me watching TV. A delicious experience--and now I'm ready to do it again, my uncertainty gone.
It occurs to me (and probably everyone else found this out long ago) that blogging is a delicious chance to ramble on about yourself! Of course writers are egotists!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Old Friends

I am blessed with more friends than most people, I think, and yet I miss them when one or two drop away, even temporarily. Today two dear friends resurfaced, and I was delighted. Sheila is in Boulder, where she and husband H.G. spend most of their time to be near grandchildren. She is usually an active emailer but had been silent for weeks, and I was worried. Last night I sent another short message, just saying I missed hearing from her. Nice long email this morning, and we are, I hope, back in touch.
Jeannie has been buried with rennovating her youngest son's house, seeing her husband through some scary medical procedures (thank goodness he seems fine), and, for the last three weeks, doing contract work for graduate orientation at TCU's School of Business--that meant 12-14 hour days. But we had lunch today, caught up, and are, I hope, back in the rhythm of friendship.
A nice note: both had been keeping up with me through the blog.
Last night I had dinner with another good friend. Betty and I eat out more Wednesday evenings than not, and we have our favorite places. But last night we were boldly adventuresome and went to a new restaurant. It was "trendy," with metal furniture--chairs so lightweight that when the wait staff bumped into them, which seemed to happen often, they made a terrific crash. The people were also trendy--which means, in Fort Worth, young West Side residents with plenty of money (they'd need it to eat there!). I had an absolutely marvelous appetizer--one large seared scallop topped with crispy foie gras and sitting on a bed of pureed cauliflower (okay the cauliflower didn't do much for me) and for dessert a Texas peach, sweet cream marscapone and blueberry Napoleon--plus wine. Our waitress, however, was condescending, writing us off I think because we were middle-aged (or more) women alone and didn't order entrees (we never do--appetizers or split plates are our style). We got the last laugh though. I thought last night the bill was surprisingly low and figured out this morning that she didn't charge us for the wine--two glasses each. Moral dilemma: would I have told her if I figured it out last night? If she had been genuinely friendly and concerned about us, absolutely--my children all waited tables, and I know the difficulties. But as it was--I don't know. I'm sure not going to call the next day!
Meantime, the mystery has been languishing--a major signing party for a TCU Press title one night, dinner with Betty another, and Dead Wrong, the J. A. Jance new book to finish--I had gotten to the really absorbing last part of the novel. But I read an author who said that when an author carries a novel in his or her head and "sees" the scene, that's the time to write. And that's what I haven't been doing--carrying it in my head. Oh, I've had scattered ideas here and there, even written them down, but the whole novel hasn't been playing itself in my head. I'll get back to it tonight.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Judy's Household Hint for the Day

I can't seem to eat a meal at home in the T-shirt and cotton pants I customarily wear around the house without getting food on my T-shirt. I use more Spray 'n Wash than anyone I know. But yesterday I dropped a raspberry on the front of a white shirt. You got it--a deep pink stain that Spray 'n Wash might well set permanently. I went for my mother's old advice. After changing shirts, I boiled water in the teakettle, draped the shirt over the sink with the offending spot prominent, and poured boiling water through it until the stain disappeared. Sounds like the worse thing you could ever do, doesn't it? But it works every time with fresh fruit stains. I sure wouldn't try it with anything else. But if you get strawberries on that good new pink shirt you just bought--as I once did--boiling water is the answer.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

On rewriting and believing

An immodest thought: I like my short stories. I think the style is spare and straightforward, and I like that. I had this thought on the way to church this morning, so maybe it was an epiphany. But my next thought was that I'm not writing the novel the same way. I was writing the expected words, and it sounded like anybody's writing. Not mine. So I spent the afternoon rewriting the first two chapters that I've done. Problem there is that this is about the fourth day I've spent rewriting those chapters. I've got to move on to Chapter Three, or I'll spend my life rewriting two chapters. I keep thinking of things I want to add, change, tweak in those chapters, but I think moving on is part of the discipline of writing. This afternoon I wrote 450+ words on Chapter Three.
When I taught college freshmen last spring I harped about extra, empty words. Today when I went back over my own writing, with style in mind, I found lots of those dreaded meaningless words. The things that drag your writing down and make it ordinary. Someone else will have to judge if I succeeded in cutting enough, too much, etc. When you are writing with the knowledge you need at least 70,000 words, it's tempting to put in those empty words, hard to cut them out.
In my last post, I talked about the difficulty of believing. I think that revelation about style made me believe a ittle more because it improved the writing, made it my own. I'm not convinced but I can see it possible that this will find an agent and a publisher. But I've thought more about believing--and maybe I just don't believe that great success will be mine. I'm not aware of feeling unworthy but I've never seen myself as, say J. A. Jance. In other ways, too, I doubt--there are a couple of my projects out there that, if the gods smile on me, could fatten my nest egg nicely. But I have been afraid to let myself believe in them. Maybe that's the trouble--maybe I should start believing with all my heart that those gods will smile.
A note: I love it when people comment--those I know and those I don't. Leave your thoughts, and maybe we can talk.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Believing it Myself

A nice nice day--lunch with my neighbor, whose company I enjoy, some work at my computer in the afternoon--redoing the two chapters I've written--and leftovers (their favorite casserole) for Jordan and Christian tonight. Jacob, two months tomorrow, was happier and showed more personality--lots of grins--than I've seen so far. All in all, a day to be savored.
I've now written two chapters on the mystery, and on the whole, for this stage of the game, I'm happy with them. And, thanks to Weldon's inspiration the other night, I know where I'm going with the next chapter--one of the characters I thought was going to die isn't, at least not yet. (I have always been a big believer that novelists should isten to their characters.) Which brings me to a new word I found today--prowling among blogs (I found some fascinating ones, both about mysteries and politics) I came across the term "pantser." A pantser is the opposite of a plotter, a writer who writes literally "by the seat of the pants." Aha! That's the notion I got from J. A. Jance, and it's the way I'm going about this novel.
But I realized a huge problem--I myself don't have faith that it will work. I don't believe deep down that I can ever publish a mystery. I think a part of me believes that, left bereft by the demise of westerns, I'm so adrift in the world of publishing that I'll never get an agent, never sell the mystery. It could turn out to be Agatha-Christie-good (okay, I don't think it will do that, but it is beginning to incorporate some social themes so maybe it would move beyond the dreaded "chick lit" category) but nothing would happen with it. And to me that's the huge problem--if I don't believe in it myself, no one else will. I simply have to work to convince myself that I'll find an agent--I do know one I can approach--and that the book will find a major publisher. I'm afraid, as one well-meaning and very good friend once suggested, that I've already had more success than most writers, and maybe that's all there is. I may just never reach bigtime New York. But if I don't believe, who will? I have to start working on my subconscious.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nothing happened--or mabye it did

I had dinner with good friends tonight, and when I mentioned that I hadn't posted a blog in several days, Elizabeth said almost accusingly, "I know. I check it every day." (She's Beth to the whole world, but years ago she introduced herself to me, as a work-study student, as Elizabeth--and for me, that's her name ever since.) I said it was partly because nothing's happened, and Weldon said, "That's what you post. 'Nothing's happened.'"
But that's not really true. The heat has happened--105 today and something like 34 100+ days which puts this in the top ten of hottest summers. It does depress the spirit a bit. But in spite of heat, I've been having a good time, going to dinner with friends several nights. (I've about had my fill of Asian food for a while.)
Another reason I hadn't posted--my mystery had stalled. I had a strong first chapter, had rewritten it, fleshed it out, etc., and was generally pleased with it. But my start at a second chapter seemed boring--I knew what was going to happen but couldn't rush into it (my whole novel would be about 50 pages if I did that) and, oh classic avoidance, I started reading other people's mysteries instead of working on my own.
But tonight I was telling Weldon and Elizabeth the basic idea, and we got into a really spirited discussion of possibilities. Weldon particularly got interested in it and came up with several great ideas (I have to make notes as soon as I finish this.)
Funny how work can engage you and get you past the "nothing happened" feeling. A slight slow spell at work ended today when three or four things crashed on my desk, and now I've got lots to do on the mystery, plus a newspaper column to write that I've been stalling on. Yeah, something's happened--more than one something, and it's all good.
I read a post tonight by one of my favorite mystery writers about two older authors who opened the door for many women. Both took their own lives, and the writer, newly 60--a mere child!--wondered about the invisibility of older women. With all that's going on in my life, from grandbabies to writing projects, I surely don't feel invisible. And I'm grateful.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Maybe My Life's Changing

I've been out of sorts lately--I don't know what you'd call it. Antsy? Ill at ease? Not myself. Oh, I sleep well enough at night but I have no appetite. I eat only because I think I'll feel worse if I don't. As a matter of fact, I tried attributing this ill-at-ease feeling to improper eating--an evening when "dinner" was a cup of gazpacho and a really really rich dessert; another when it was chips and dip and pesto and cream cheese, followed by one fresh apricot and a smidgen of dark chocolate. Hardly the stuff of sustenance. And then I thought maybe it was this goshawful heat we're all living through. And of course sometimes I thought it was just me. What's wrong with me?
A couple of weeks in church I'd asked the Lord to wash over me the peace that passes all, but the uneasiness didn't go away. It occurs to me that you can't simply pray for the Lord to fix every problem in your life, like the broken taillight bulb and the Pack-and-Play you can't dismantle (I did consider asking his help on that one but now I'm counting on Christian). But today in church, during the meditation period that accompanies communion, when I was pondering my unease, I remembered breakfast with a friend this week. I was telling her a weird dream I'd had, really weird, and it turned out she's into dream interpretation. "That's very significant," she said solemnly. "Your life is changing." "Why?" I asked. "Someone moved the furniture." Well, it was true. In the dream someone removed my beautiful old dining table and replaced it with a cheap, small blonde wood breakfast table.
So this morning it occurred to me that it was up to me, not the Lord, to figure out how my life is changing. It's not that I'm about to hear from the millionaire or meet Prince Charming--I'd have no clue about those things, so I wouldn't have this funny feeling. The small dining table--a shrinking family? Not hardly, with grandchildren appearing almost as rapidly as the offspring of rabbits. A shrinking social life--don't think so. This week, I have dinner plans five nights out of seven (how am I going to write the great American mystery?). So there it is--the question I don't know how to answer. But, Mary, if you're reading this, thanks for making me think.
Somehow I think it has to do with writing, my career, which way I'm headed, and I do feel a little more at peace today, because I've sort of identified it and I have confidence that I can eventually figure it out.
It's just like I'm sure either Christian or I will figure out how to unlock the rails of the darn Pack-and-Play!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Last week a reviewer (actually it was Susan, the editor in my office, which made it nice and easy) for the local city cable TV station interviewed me about my new book of short stories, Sue Ellen Learns to Dance (available on't resist the pitch). The station kindly gave me a tape of the interview, but being sort of old-fashioned I don't have a VCR, haven't since the kids left home, never did know how to work them. I tried my neighbor--she lost hers in the divorce; I tried my daughter Jordan--theirs isn't hooked up and she doesn't know how to do it; and so it went. I figured I'd never see the show, since I'm too cheap to have cable.
But today I watched it at a friend's house. The first thing Jean said when it began to play was, "That camera put an instant 40 lbs. on you." I blessed her, and then we watched, and I was encouraged because she occasionally laughed out loud. In some ways I wasn't pleased--I not only look heavier on camera, I look older, at least older than I think of myself. And my eyelids droop, not something I notice when I look in the mirror. And I realized that I was shaking my head up and down all the time--Jean pointed out Susan was doing that too. Since I'm to do several more of these for TCU Press this fall, where I'll be doing the interviewing, I'll have to watch that!
But there were things that pleased me--I was able to talk intelligently about the background of a story I wrote in the 1960s. I appeared at ease, sometimes telling funny things about one story or another, orther times waving my hands while I talked but not, thank goodness, jiggling my feet. And I appeared to know western literature--when the interviewer mentioned Joanna Stratton's pioneering work with the diares of western women, I could pick it right up and go on with it. So all in all, the tape made me feel good about myself, which is always a plus. Now the question is, will anybody see it--say at 3:00 a.m.?
I have progress reports: last night, having "happy hour" with Jordan and her sister-in-law, Julie, at my dining table, the blasted hearing aids nearly drove me crazy and I took them out. I could hear those girls fine without them. And we giggled and laughed until 9:30--a long happy hour. But today I tried again and decided I hadn't put the hearing aids in properly last night. Tonight I had dinner with Charles, an old and good friend, at a noisy restaurant, adjusted the setting on my remote control (so sophisticated!) and was aware of the restaurant noise but could still hear him perfectly.
And the mystery--well, it has a title, but I'm not ready to reveal it. And it has a few more words, but I have jotted down several ideas about where it's going. Now, J. A. Jance's advice really does apply: the thing to do is put fingers to the keyboard. And I will do that, though the week ahead looks full, including a luncheon I apparently said I'd host. I called my friend, Margaret, late last night and said, "Did I really say that?" She giggled a lot and said, "You really said that."
It's a great thing that life in semi-retirement isn't dull.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Tonight is a hodge-podge post. I've actually written seven pages of a mystery, but not at all ready to talk about it, share it, any of that.
But I do want to share a recipe. My dear friend from high school, Barbara Ashcraft, sent me her stepmother's recipe for Mexican rice--she called it Luella's Rice. Mix 1 cup Minute Rice (don't use cooked regular--the moisture content is different), 1 can cream of celery soup (I sneaked--snuck?--that by Christian and he liked the rice a lot), 1 cup sour cream, 1 cup grated sharp cheddar, and 1 4-oz. can green chillies. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes. You'll need to double it. I gave some to Jordan and Christian and they loved it; Lisa went out immediatley and bought the ingredients. Megan, with list in hand, met a friend in the grocery and shared it with her. I took it to a church potluck where it was a hit. This is a keeper, not to be missed.
On a totally different topic, the author of Triangle, Katherine Weber, left a comment on my blog that mentioned her book. She said the novel is definitely not about someone "finding herself" and wondered where I got that impression--it was from a review posted on amazon. But I wish Katherine had not posted anonymously and had left me some way to get back to her. I'd love to talk to her about it and the different interpretations of her book. Now I'll have to buy the book and find out for myself--after I finish reading the two new J. A. Jance mysteries I bought.
And speaking of that, Jeff Guinn, who hosted the evening with Jance, arrived at my office yesterday bearing a huge autographed blown-up poster of the jacket of her new book, Dead Wrong. "I figured you should have it," he said. Many thanks to Jeff--for a lot of things.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The J. A. Jance program was tonight, and she was a hoot! Funny, honest, quick-witted, even with a few practical insights for the would-be mystery writer like me. Such as, just start writing--get the title, know who is killed, and find out why. When I met her earlier in the day, she was less open, said the way to get started was to sit at the keyboard (I know that but you have to have the idea!). I later learned, though, that she is under terrible stress with the serious illness of a beloved son-in-law. What magic I had hoped for in the personal meeting didn't happen, but onstage she had me mesmerized--and ultimately inspired. And I've never before seen an author close by singing, but she did--and did it well. Among other things, she said she had once taken a Dale Carnegie course--it certainly paid off in her ability to put personal sorrow aside and shine onstage.
She also told one of the scariest stories I ever heard--she and her first husband crossed paths, unknowingly, with a serial killer who killed his victims on the 22nd of the month. When he was arrested on July 20 (many years ago) he confessed that he had visited their house several times since the initial meeting, and they were slated to be killed on the 22nd of July. No wonder she writes mysteries!
My son-in-law Brandon, who will one day write that novel he's always meant to write, left a comment on one of my earlier postings. He wonders why people who can plot usually can't write very well, and people who write well can't plot. Interesting point, which brings me back to the difference between "belles lettres" and storytelling. Some contemporary authors, to me, use the language wonderfully, but their stories don't go anywhere--I don't identify with the characters or care about what happens to them. And I guess I don't read for the sake of language only. It's why I don't like much of today's literature, why I prefer for my personal reading genre fiction--okay, no romances, but certainly mysteries. But maybe J. A. Jance (she is a Judith Ann like me) has the answer--just sit down and write. The plot will come as the characters take over your story and tell you what's going to happen.
I'm beginning to have ideas though not ready to share them--I think I have a title and the name of a protagonist, but I need to know much more about her. I know about the body and where it's found, but I don't know yet who it is (or was), though I think it was a young woman, and I don't know why she was killed.
Time to go to sleep and see if my subconscious will work.

Monday, August 07, 2006

I had an experience in maturity today--or growing old gracefully. I don't know what you'd call it, but I got hearing aids for the first time. I'd resisted, vowed to concentrate on what people were saying to me, listen more carefully in church, pay attention. But it became painfully aware that what two evaluations had told me was true: I had fairly severe hearing loss in both ears. One audiologist tried to hustle me into the first pair of aids that came to her fingertips, at least that was my impression, so I was turned off for months. But finally, with my good friend Jean for support, I went to another audiologist. He took an hour-and-a-half with me, found out lots about me, all the while figuring out what would suit me and what wouldn't.
One interesting thing he told me was that people with claustophobia (that's me, folks) don't like to have their ears plugged up--and was he right! When he took wax impressions of the inside of my ears, I had to have a firm talk with myself, saying "You are in the hands of a professional, and one of your best friends is seated two feet away." So I got behind the ear aids with an openwork piece that goes in my ear.
So today I started out with hearing aids. The first thing I noticed was that my own voice sounded extraordinarily loud in my head. It also sounded like I was stuffy or had a cold. Jean assured me I didn't sound any different than usual. We went to lunch at the local deli, and eating a pickle was the most amazing experience. It crackled all the way through my brain. I could hear other people in the restaurant, but I had a hard time hearing Jean. I thought I adjusted my remote control (I got the fancy Cadillac of hearing aids!) but it didn't help. And she said, "You're talking really softly." I told her it was because I felt like I was shouting, especially when repeating the story about granddaughter Edie's interest in my bum-bum. Jean assured me I wasn't shouting.
Back in the office, where it was quiet, I could hear my own breathing. When I walked across the office, I could hear that. Street noise and keyboard punchings seemed extraordinarily loud to me. Clearly I have a lot of adjusting to do, a lot of learning how to suit the aids to fit me. I wore them for five hours today--that's a source of pride--and I'm determined to keep it up.
But I felt a little like I did when I was told, at 36, that I'd have to take hypertension medicine the rest of my life: this is what it's going to be forever? Yet I'm grateful that I had the resources to buy the kind of aids that don't whistle and sing to me And I'm going to make this work!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

August and mysteries

These are truly the dog days of summer. I know Texas isn't alone in enduring extreme heat--this year, a heat wave has held the whole country captive. You'd think in Texas we'd handle it better than someone in, say, New England, where they aren't used to it. But I don't think that's true. Every August there comes a day, one day, when I am suddenly very very tired of summer. It's the day you know the lawn and garden are fried, and you don't even care. And this year, it was yesterday. I declared myself officially frustrated by the heat, though there's not much I can do about it and we've got four to six weeks to go. I find, though, I'm a lot more inclined to read for fun than to do some of the things I ought to be doing. It's like ambition has been melted by the heat. And once I give in to the heat, my conscience stops bothering me.
I just finished a Catherine Coulter mystery, Target, one of her earlier ones but still featuring FBI Agent Savich. This is a particularly poignant one because it involves a child molested and then stalked by her molester. But since I'm trying to be a little more analytical in my reading of mysteries these days, I thought about why I was so riveted to this book that I sat on my front porch reading at 6:30 at night when the temperature was still over 100 (the front porch is the best ever place to read!) It was because the people were so very real to me. I was drawn into their lives, as though I knew them intimately. I laughed with them when they were happy, trembled with them when they were afraid, felt their anger and their joy. It's why many of us are reluctant to finish a book--we don't want to let go of the characters. Which says to me, character is the place to start--not plot. And maybe it says give up thoughts of writing pieces set in the 19th century, which I have long done--readers don't identify as easily with people who lived in the late 1800s as they do someone who lives today.
TheOutfit--A Collective of Chicago Mystery Writers recently had an interesting post about characters taking over a novel. If they're strong characters, of course they do--and an author is foolish not to listen to them. So it's come to me that the best mysteries are character driven, not plot, just like the best of any kind of literature.
Question is, who's my character? I think she's a woman. Today I think maybe she's a doctor, because I've been around medicine a lot, working in hospitals and medical schools years ago, marrying a doctor, with many other doctors, including my father and brother, in the family. But the other day I thought my character was an academic, because Ive spent my career mostly in a university setting. And I often think she's a dithering little old lady who blunders into mystery--a self-portrait? Oh well, it's something to think about at 3 a.m. when even the a/c doesn't seem to cut the August heat.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Storytelling vs. "literature"

J. A. Jance is coming to Fort Worth! Former Star-Telegram book editor Jeff Guinn who's hosting the visit says I may even get to meet her. Since she's my all-time favorite mystery writer, I'm excited--and I decided to check out her web page. She has pages for each of her series--the Joanna Brady books, the J. P. Beaumont books, the new Ali Reynolds series, and the three that don't fit--on that page, I found an interesting statement. Mysteries, she says, work as stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the end, the bad guy has to be caught and/or punished. If that doesn't happen, "we're dealing with literature, and that's another kettle of fish entirely." Mysteries, she says, are puzzles in which the reader doesn't know the killer's identity until the end; thrillers, in which the reader knows the identity but doesn't know how much evil he or she can do before being caught, are examinations of good and evil. Her definitions or distinctions make perfect sense to me and reinforce what I've known for years--as an author and a dedicated reader of mysteries, I want to write a mystery, not a thriller. But it's almost like I have writer's block about it.
The distinction between mysteries and literature struck home with me. I have long said there's a difference between storytelling and "belles lettres" and I prefer the former. I'm a storyteller--I want a beginning, a middle, and an end, not a "slice of life" that leaves me contemplating my navel. In an academic environment, I doubt my writing is much respected by those who run creative writing programs. As director of an academic press, I face this difference all the time in a different way. We can't, and shouldn't, publish genre fiction (which is essentially what many of my books are)--no mysteries, thrillers, romances, or westerns. But we do publish regional literature--and I want the work that comes from "my" press to tell stories, tell the history, involve people. I value literature that captures the feel of the region, the importance in Texas of the landscape and the culture in shaping people's lives. And it simply doesn't have to be enigmatic, in fact shouldn't be.
So why can't I write a mystery? Maybe it's because, as one of my sons suggested, I'm so poor (he used an unrepeatable adjective) at thinking up my own plots that I should write novels about historical incidents and people, which is, of course, exactly what I've done for most of my career. Am I too old to branch out and use my own imagination? I hope not.