Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What Makes us the Writers We Are?

It was a combination of things that led to my storytelling. There weren't many books available in our house. There was no library or bookstore in town, except the small school libraries that were available once every other week for about thirty minutes. I read through the section of our school library within the first month of my school year, about three times by Christmas break, and had nothing left for the spring session. My family was too poor for magazines or outside entertainments. The best I could manage to feed my imagination after the holidays was to spend my evenings with an old set of the World Book Encyclopedia. All these obstacles and others came together to make me look inside for an escape from the ordinary.

I suppose I owe a debt to World Book for the flights of imagination it inspired. Far away places, historic events, and interesting people populated those pages. From those books, and the stories I read, I created adventures in my head. Long before I ever started writing, I told stories to my sister. A little boy who lived in a coconut shell entertained my little sister as she fell asleep at night. Princesses and spaceships, generals and giants wandered through our bedroom until she fell asleep and I crawled under the covers with a flashlight and the next volume.

A lot of things have changed since I moved away from that small town in Eastern Kentucky. I've traveled half-way around the world, and seen most of the places I read about. The stars above Tobago inspired poetry as did the school children of Nicaragua who studied in an open field while we built them a new school. I don't know if those nights of reading the encyclopedia by flashlight sparked my interest in poetry, or history, or the wanderlust that took me far from home. I do know that poetry inspired other writing.

Flash stories were my first love. They are lean, full of imagery, and as close to poetry as stories can be. Later I tried short stories, and then a novel. I don't know if I would have been a different sort of writer if I had come from another background. Maybe... but maybe the blend of history and mystery would have called to me from whatever path I followed.

We mystery writers are a strange group. We eavesdrop on other people's conversations. We visit places with an eye toward hiding a body or committing a murder there. I'm not sure what makes us who we are, but I would love to hear your opinion.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Writers on Vacation

Sarah and I left our house in the care of a friend and are on vacation in Tarpon Springs, Florida until January 5. The trouble with writers on vacation is that there isn't really a vacation from writing. Ideas crop up when they crop up. Our Sisters in Crime chapter is putting together an anthology of stories about the bourbon industry in Kentucky. After each of us had finished a story on our own, the group suggested we try writing together. Now here we are discussing setting a novel in Florida that involves the characters we came up with for our short story.

No, the characters are not vampires. What we write is very different. For us to write together, she had to step back in time and do an historical mystery. The characters fit with my historical mystery writing, but were far enough removed from the time I usually set stories in to be comfortable for her to contribute equally to the research. The story was discussed for some time before we came up with writing a short story involving a couple of World War I nurses. She had a great aunt who was a World War I nurse, and we drew from her experiences in France to develop the idea. It worked so well that we are planning to visit the North Carolina archives, where here great-aunt's papers are kept, to do more research on what it was like to be a nurse at that time.

Does this mean either of us are giving up the characters we write?

No. Each of us will continue to work on the novels we have in progress. We each have short story ideas, on of which is an idea we may work together on.

Fortunately we work with the same publisher. We are hoping that when the book we are planning together is finished, Pill Hill Press will consider publishing it. If not, we will look for someone who is interested.

What matters is that ideas come from all sorts of places. Vacation or not, we are writers. Our minds are always asking: what if this happened. and this person got involved because...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All This and Family Too

For those readers who don't know, ALL THIS AND FAMILY TOO is the title of my wife's first novel. It will be coming out next year from Pill Hill Press. It is a very funny story of what can happen to a nice lesbian vampire who has to uproot her family from their home in North Carolina and move into a gated community in California to escape a vampire hunter.

Life after death isn't easy for a vampire with a heroic streak, but Cynthia wouldn't have been a vampire if she had been able to resist the urge to rescue women in trouble. Undeath hasn't taught her much. On the way west she impulsively rescues a teen and ends up saddled with taking care of the lovelorn baby dyke through the rest of the novel.

By now you are probably asking yourself why I am writing about this book in my blog. It is not my story, it is not a mystery and it is not historical. Aside from the fact my spouse wrote it, there is not much about ALL THIS AND FAMILY TOO that connects it to me.

Well, that's not exactly true. Professor Leach started out as a character I invented for a vampire role playing game my wife and I played with several other friends. The game ended years ago, but Sarah found the idea of a vampire uptight enough to have a stick up her butt outrageously funny. So, I turned Cynthia over to her. The result is an over-the-top romp through Irvine, CA mixed with the terror of bureaucrats protecting their turf.

What would a vampire story be without a little horror? Professor Cynthia Leach, the vampire, discovers the true meaning of horror when she has to deal with the president of the neighborhood association,  maneuver through the university bureaucracy, and manage to survive her unlife in a world where she no longer belongs. It isn't easy being an undead hero, but Cynthia does it with her own special style.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Historical Holiday Dishes for the 1879 Table

Through Circle of Dishonor, beaten biscuits, maple fudge, stack cakes, and country ham are just a few of the dishes consumed by Nessa and her friends. We are coming into the holiday season and I thought it would be fun  to talk about the differences in today's holiday menus and those popular in Nessa's time. The popular choices for opening dishes were oysters on the half shell or fried oysters. This was followed by the soup: green turtle, burgoo, gumbo, or rabbit stew were popular choices.

Next up was the Christmas bird. Chicken was a little too ordinary to be selected for Christmas feasting, but there would be some sort of fowl on the menu. Roasted wild turkey with cranberry sauce might show up on Nessa's table, but it is just as likely the holiday bird would be duck, goose, quail, dove or pheasant. Oysters, giblets, sausages, and sometimes all of the above made their way into the dressing. Serve it up with mashed potatoes and gravy and you are not so far removed from our time.

Of course, the holiday table cannot just have one kind of meat. Bring on the bear? Yes, a nice roasted leg of bear with sauce poivrade or, if that doesn't strike your fancy, Beulah could serve up a saddle of venison with red currant jelly.  Either would go nicely with a roasted blend of squash, carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes, and onions. Does that make you hungry? How about a nice coon with devil's sauce? A side of sweet potatoes baked with butter and brown sugar would set it off nicely. In Nessa's house, a tablespoon of bourbon might find its way into the baking dish with those sweet potatoes along with a sprinkle of orange zest. Yum!

I hope you've left room for dessert: there's molasses stack cake with dried apple filling, pumpkin and apple pie, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and homemade fudge on the sideboard.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Not Winning Nanowrimo

I'm not sure it is possible to lose Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), but I'm not one of the thousands of people who managed to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I started doing Nanowrimo in 2005. I have never won the event. My best effort was slightly over 27,000 words. This time, I started out the month behind the pack and struggled with each day. By the end of the first week things looked bleak. My word count hardly made a tiny little blue speck at the tip of the long empty bar marking my progress. I had to fight the urge to give the pep talks the finger (I was reading them at the office and it doesn't look good to flip off the computer there.)

Time was still on my side. I wasn't going to let a little thing like being further behind than I had ever been stop me. No excuses. Never mind that my month began at Magna Cum Murder where I was promoting my novel. That wasn't an excuse. I could catch up, really. It was early November and I could write on the weekend...who needs clean laundry, groceries, or clean dishes. We ordered take-out and kept working. That blue bar didn't budge much, but it budged. I was feeling better about myself when I went back to work on Monday.

Then came the weekend of the 12th and 13th and the Kentucky Book Fair. I'm not a good multitasker. I've never come up with a way to talk to large numbers of people about my book and work on the next one at the same time. Never mind that my phone sat on the table beside the stack of books as I waited for the call telling me my dear friend Dr. Haydon was gone. Never mind that I was at the hospital every evening in those final days. In this situation, what did it matter that it was the middle of the month and I was about 20,000 words behind? The long Thanksgiving weekend was ahead, and I would write.

Now it is December. Nanowrimo for 2010 is a memory. Mixed with that memory is the loss of a dear friend. His funeral was the day before Thanksgiving. I didn't write a lot the last two weeks of November. There were days when I didn't write at all, and others where I managed to eke out 200-400 words. Through it all I continued to write. I gave it my best shot, and kept writing right up to 11:59 PM on November 30th. I didn't win Nanowrimo, but day by day I will win the battle to finish this book. In the end it doesn't matter if I finish it next month or the one after. It matters that I keep writing, editing, and working to make it better than the last book.