Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Writing out of the box

This is the new cover for the Kindle version of my 1988 novel, Mattie, which won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. I've had the text scanned and just need to proof but I hope to get it up in a week or so. The novel is roughly based on the story of pioneer physician Georgia Arbuckle Fix who rode the western Nebraska prairie to see patients and learned to "read" the prairie as though it had roads. When Doubleday published the novel, they put her soddie in a lush green setting, ripe with trees and other foliage. It looked a bit like England but certainly not western Nebraska. I had emphasized that her soddie on the river was at the only tree crossing for miles--she had three trees. I think the cover above captures the barrenness much better, and I love the sense of space that sky gives. Kudos to Vicki Whistler, who designed it.
When my novel, Libbie, about Elizabeth Bacon Custer, was published, the cover was truly a misrepresentation--some New York artist's concept of the West. As one friend said, Libbie looked like Madonna in 19th century dress. She stood in a prairie, with tall grass all around, by a barbed wire fence--oops! Barbed wire was introduced, I think at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, in 1874 and Custer was killed in 1876. No way the prairie was fenced in those two years. In the background is a fort, sitting on barren tan ground, the soil of Arizona in contrast to the Kansas prairie she stands in. The fort is built of sturdy logs, with a stockade around it. I had made the point in the book that Army posts in the West did not have fences of any kind--their very openness bothered Libbie, but there were no trees to build stockades. So much for artistic accuracy. At the time I was so glad a NY publisher was putting out my work that I didn't complain until too late. Lesson learned.
I read somewhere the other day that in order to attract an agent or a publisher, the author of a mystery had to think outside the box. The author cited as an example was Charlaine Harris who writes paranormal-vampire books and has indeed been wildly successful. I'm not going there. I have no interest in the paranormal/vampire material that is so popular today (my granddaughter loves it). But I got to thinking about the three mysteries I've written--I'm pretty happy about the first but intend to revise; not so sure about the second; pretty happy about the third, though it is in draft stage. But they are nowhere outside the box. They're perfectly typical cozies--the kind I like to read. Single heroines who are amateur sleuths but also beset by romance problems, clever with-it girls who manage to rescue themselves and solve murders but at the same time ordinary people like you and me. Okay, I admit it, sort of Nancy Drew all grown up and sophisticated--and in more dangerous situations.Hmm. I decided I should begin to think outside the box--but how? Then I thought of Kaye George, a friend and fellow writer who has created a mystery set in the Neanderthal era. Think she can sell it? She's come close a lot but no banana. There have of course been successes with such novels, notably Jean Auel's work and that of  Michael and Kathleen Gear. But I wonder if maybe outside the box is part of the problem--that and publishing trends. Right now, while vampires are big, thinking outside the box in that direction is fine; take it in another direction and you might be in trouble. All this circular thinking leads me to suspect that thinking outside the box is not the answer: witing the very best novel you can is! And watch for Kaye's novel--from all I've read about it, it's darn good and her reserch into that period of history is spot on.

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