What’s Your Lane?

Choices: I’ve made many of them. I have a problem staying in my own lane, which, when I think about it, doesn’t really seem like a problem. It seems interesting and fun and adventurous. Or as adventurous as you can be when sitting in a chair typing in a room all day.

Looking on my book page, I see the variety of genres and forms of writing I’ve tried through the years. And I don’t even have my poetry chapbook or my dozen or so literary short stories on there! I never published those early stories, except a few in magazines, and the poems were privately printed.

Early on, I decided I was not a literary writer, at least not in the way publishers define literature. Maybe (I thought) I could write women’s fiction (in my mind, so much women’s fiction IS literary) or romance or mystery or fantasy. I ended up writing in all the genres where women writers are most likely to be offered publishing contracts.

I tried on each genre like shoes, and (briefly) loved them all. This is a lot like my love life before Al. I can’t count how many times I’ve been in love. Or on a diet. Or changed jobs. Or the color of my hair. It’s just life, or at least my life, anyway.

Still, somehow, with each new book, I’m always hoping I’ve finally found my sweet spot. A place to rest and get to know the view. Mostly the new genre-love turns out to be the good place for now, for however long it holds my fickle interest. Luckily I have settled down to one lasting human love, because the other way was too much drama, which I save now for my characters. Let them go through all that. I’m done, got my one and only.

I see this flirting with different genres, falling in and out of love with “the one” in a read-through of the free short story (now on my website forever) “The Charming Criminal.” Sometimes I try very hard to hit a specific target, like I did with Lily White in Detroit. I really wanted to write a psychological thriller. What I wrote was a crime novel. That’s fine; I’m still proud I was able to finish it and my dad liked it. But the violence of it, while true to Lily’s story, was the end.

I made what for me was the good choice. I don’t write to torture myself. I write for satisfaction, and I really didn’t want to go down Procedural Road anymore. I wanted to get cozy. And yet when I read through my story, the end didn’t feel like The End. It feels like What Happens Next? So I kept my criminal and FBI agent going into a new book and now into my second series. Along the way, I dodged about a million FBI bullets.

Editing is done (as of last week) on Jane in St Pete. Just waiting for a release date. And messing around with getting this short story, which like my other short stories, was never meant to be published, online. If you read it and like it, maybe you’ll like Jane, too. At the very least, you’ll find closure. Until the next book.

Research Rewards

This is one of the books I’m using to research my second book in the “Jane in St Pete” series. When I decided on an amateur sleuth series, I made Jane a retired art lecturer because I thought the research would be fun. And it is. I’ve read three books about Frida. A biography, then a book of her portraits, and finally this one, her diary. The diary plays a key role in the mystery.

But my interest in Frida Kahlo goes beyond researching my novel. I’m a devoted fan of her work and admire most everything about her short, painful life. There’s a painting, watercolor with colored pencils, from the diary that shows Frida consumed by fire in the midst of greenery. The title, Te Vas? No. Alas Rotes, translates to “Are you going? No. Broken Wings.” The diary Frida kept in the last ten years of her life, when for medical reasons she was mostly confined to her home near Mexico City, is a made thing. There are drawings, paintings, and poems along with some actual diary entries.

I’ve just ordered a few more research books, not on Frida, because in the Jane in St Pete novels, I don’t want to overwhelm readers with art. As with all research in fiction, you don’t want to do an info dump. This can be tricky, as I always find one more thing I want to say about Frida. A light touch works better for the reader and the book.

How to Fix a Book

Novels are easy to write if you turn off your thinking and dive into the story stream. They might be easy, but the results are not always pretty. Such was the case with my WIP, Jane. I got a first very bad extremely horrible draft done in a couple of months last year.

This year I am revising. Jane needs to be almost completely rewritten, despite the fact that I really kept the first plot I came up with and all the original characters. I had to lose one subplot, snip an annoying thread and significantly improve upon one character. Nobody who read my early draft liked her, they wondered why she was even in the book. I considered cutting her but I couldn’t do it.

I liked her even though I didn’t know her very well. She intrigued me. That was good news but also a problem. I’d written Barb into a short story I wrote after Lily White was finished and I needed something to bring my critique group. I caught a charming criminal and pinned him to the page. It felt effortless. And just as easy to sketch was his foil, an FBI agent who captures him and suggests he change his ways.

Short stories are fun. In and out. None of this hundreds of pages stuff. But novels propel themselves from the inside out and after a few short stories, I had one in me, begging to be let out. And it involved the reformed and relocated criminal. Also, the FBI agent, Barb. Also a few other people, but Barb is the one my critique group was hung up about, she felt like air. How right they were.

In the short story, I’d been able to do quick and dirty FBI research. After months of thinking about it, trying not to think about it, making excuses to myself, and continually running into walls with Barb, I sat down and did my homework. With revision, I have to stop rewriting and do some research, because I don’t do much research in the first draft. When it becomes apparent to me that I need to research, I’ll just take a day to read, jot notes, form a first scene and, most important, adjust my attitude.

When I started Jane, I promised myself it would be a lighter book than Lily White. More caper than crime. Amateur sleuth falls into murder mystery. Sure there was a cop because with murder there’s always a cop. But the FBI? I decided to let Barb be on vacation. No FBI business to attend to. No FBI rules to follow. What I concluded was that Barb’s vacation was in fact my own vacation. From research and the hard work of revising a weak first draft.

When I first begin a novel, I have some set ideas. I have a firm concept of the overall theme. I want this character of this age with this background in this setting. I want X point of view voices. Usually there are at least a few elements I’ve never tried before. I like to challenge myself to try new things with each book.

For this particular book, I was determined to write the whole thing in one point of view. One character tells the entire story. That would be Jane. The problem before me was Jane. She is a law abiding civilian. She knows nothing about the FBI. From Jane’s pov Barb is just a woman in love with her friend who has come to St Pete on vacation. Sure she’s in the FBI but that doesn’t impact the story from Jane’s pov.

You can see where the problem comes in. I had to decide if I wanted to keep trying to stay in one person’s head the entire book. I’d never done it before. I just wanted to see if I could do it. By the end of that excellent FBI book in the featured image photo above, I had a lot of ideas about Barb, none of which I could convincingly convey via Jane. That’s fine. I know enough about revision to stay open to new ideas, to be flexible with my first idea wish list.

So I wrote a scene starring Barb. I like it. I think I just solved several problems, one of the biggest being the book was way too short. It needed a substantial meaty subplot. I’d made a start before I gave Barb a primo role, and it was good. But she’s going to take things up a notch. Sure, now there’s a huge problem I didn’t know about before my research weekend.

But huge problems are conflict by another name and novels thrive on conflict. Almost the minute I cracked open the book, I read this FBI mantra “Never fall in love with your informant.” In fact, agents are not allowed to socialize in any way with informants. It apparently always leads to tears. The pages I’d written for Barb on vacation and in love with George blew up and scattered around me like gleeful confetti.

Fine. I already knew this was a major rewrite. Now I at least have an idea how to fix it. And more conflict. Always a good thing.

Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.


Strawberry Moon

Full moons are always about the fullness of life, when something or everything has reached a peak. This full moon is special because it is happening at Solstice, the longest day of the year. Native Americans called this particular moon the Strawberry Moon because it signaled that the fruit had ripened to its fullest flavor.

My life has been pretty full-to-bursting in the last few weeks. Feels like I’ve been on roller skates half the time. Let’s see, bought a house, finished edits on my Christmas novel, designed and ordered promotional material for my series, wrote out the lecture for my workshop coming mid-July, joined Sisters in Crime, signed up for a workshop in police procedure in Wisconsin, revised WIP chapter for critique, started summer walking program…I am replete with this summer moon energy.

Now, it’s time to relax. Now it’s time to release. To let go. To spend some time quietly gathering strength for the work to come. To refill the well. To make strawberry crumble and serve it with vanilla ice cream. Because as much as I want and need to replenish my inner self, I also need to replenish those pantry and fridge shelves with healthy food. Grocery shopping waits for no woman.

I realize I slipped “bought a house” in there … the deal is not yet complete. It’s an awesome step of a lifetime, I’ll say that. Al and I are happy and amazed, and you’ll be hearing a lot about this decision in the weeks and months to come, as the impact is going to change my life in considerable ways. But not for awhile.

Other changes are coming sooner. Smaller but significant ones, like the turn my writing life is taking toward the darker parts of the human heart. I have written six novels loosely classified as “women’s fiction.” I wanted to write about the light. About love. About home and family. It’s what I knew, it’s what I struggled to make real for the first half of my actual (as opposed to fictional) life.

I’ve had a bit of resistance to this turn in my fiction writing toward the darker aspects of the human heart, but only a little. I know I need to follow where my creativity wants to take me. I’m gathering my courage, and my research, for this new direction, this new work-in-progress. Yet another something that is too new, too unfinished, to talk much about. Just to say that when I took one of my characters out of Blue Lake and put her in Detroit I really had no idea what I was in for. But it’s fine.

Character and setting are so aligned in my mind that I soon realized I would not be able to write this book without being honest about Detroit and that means I need to talk about race. Also guns, drugs, and corruption, but race, that’s a scary thing. The thing I resisted writing about the most. Racism is so far from love.

And yet, I am going there. I’m taking my writing, and in fact my life, to places that will require courage. Also knowledge, which is why I’m doing the police academy seminar, but mostly the new things in my life, the things just coming now, will require courage. I have never thought of myself as a particularly courageous person, in fact quite the opposite. I like feeling safe. But to grow into fullness, in writing and in life, I must gather my courage. Also strawberries.