The Housecat and the Resurrection

My parent’s cat, 11-year-old Freddy Astaire went missing. He walked out onto the front porch and never returned.

Day by day, we lost hope. We offered a hundred dollar reward and scouted the neighborhood for him — or his body. Gradually it sank in that never again would we stroke his handsome coat or hear his ruffled baby meow, so sweet and endearing in such a dignified cat.

Two weeks after he disappeared we agreed he was dead.

Early the next morning my mother phoned, “Do you believe in miracles?” Freddy Astaire had slipped into the house through the cat door.

Phone in hand, I became dizzy. Freddy was dead. I had walked the neighborhood searching. I had felt the emptiness in my parents’ house. As I talked to my mother, a need rose within me to see the cat before the day was over, a need so shaking and primitive that it must have been pure instinct, a magic belief that to see him would gather him into the world and make his return secure. The joy came later when I saw him and held his thin and hungry body in my arms and smelled the woods deep in his fur.

And yes, a house cat’s return showed me something about the Resurrection.

For you see, a little later I thought that my sense of dislocation and shock at facts violated – my stunned reluctance to allow myself to grasp joy because the grief had been so severe – these might have been the feelings of people who heard that Jesus was risen. They, like me, may have thought it too great a piece of good news to accept. Perhaps they, too, were overwhelmed by what seemed impossible.

For us Easter is pure joy because we know the story.

This year I will think of the feelings of those who lived it – how it must have been to experience it without a script. The breaking of expectation, of natural law, of all that had come before — to hear without preparation the great news – that Jesus was risen – alive and among his people — teaching the new truth.

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My “First Person” P.O.V. Post

This “It happened to me” viewpoint is common in cozies. To a new writer, it can seem to be the easiest choice. You and your main character tell the story into the computer keyboard.

“I, Jane Doe, trip over a body in my driveway and life goes on — with the following adventures. Come along and hear about them.”

Consider your Jane Doe’s arenas of daily activity. Would anyone want to spend a few days with her? In cozies an ordinary person is forced to turn sleuth. Ordinary people are not always, well, not all that interesting. Because a first person narrator must be at the scene of events, the book is stuck in her routine or must come up with events that take her out of her daily cozy world. Suppose Jane Doe is a junior file clerk who just left college? Do many people want to hear about her life? If Jane Doe, however, travels with a circus and trains dogs there’s a mix of routine and novelty with potential.

Too, the marriage of reader to Jane Doe’s thoughts can become dull. To compensate, authors often write witty internal dialogue in which Jane puts herself down or makes cruelly funny observations about others. The danger in this is that these asides can become predictable and then tiresome. How many times can one stand to hear about someone’s insecurities? Real life supplies the answer that a very limited amount is enough. How many cutting observations about people in her life before readers conclude that Jane Doe is a poor friend?

In other words, while first person may seem to be a natural choice, it’s not that simple. Take a good hard look at your fictional world. A first-person cozy mystery must have a strong, hopefully unique character to tell the story and the world in which she lives must be compelling. Is it possible for you to alter your plans to make certain these elements are present? If they are present already, can you strengthen them?

Or would you be better served by choosing a different p.o.v.? Authors who tell a story from a position external to the main character have more ways to make their fictional world interesting.

If you’re uncertain, write three chapters in first person and see if you’re faltering. If so, write three chapters in third person. These are drafts, not polished pieces of work, so don’t stress about the time taken. Choosing the correct p.o.v. is crucial to your success, especially if you are planning a series.

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Review: The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery

by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick; Dell Publishing; Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.; New York; 1998.

 I approach my copy of this book with a sigh of boredom. When I open it, however, I’m surprised to see how many pages at the book’s beginning are filled with notes and underlines. Reading a few of these, I shamefacedly think, “I got some valuable information from this book. I shouldn’t be so hard on it.”

 “From empty page to finished mystery novel in just 52 weekends” is the promise, and I believe it’s possible. Weekends have assigned tasks, singly or in blocks, and examples from a fake “novel in progress,” named Murder on Drake Island, illustrate what kind of work must be produced.  

 This is a good book if you can create your mystery novel as you would cook a complicated dish: step by step, actions completed in the order dictated with no dawdling, hesitations, second thoughts, or writer’s block.

 The great difficulty was that my creative mind does not work in the way needed to complete the 52 weekends. I could do the initial assignments. It was easy, for instance, to write reams of text creating a monologue that links the killer to the victim and thereby pile up all sorts of backstory and revealing character quirks and details about the victim’s bedroom decor, and so forth. Feeling in a smugly accomplishing mode, I categorized the elements and saw the growing information about my characters, and felt I was indeed on my way to painlessly producing my first mystery novel.

 The ease and enthusiasm ended when I progressed to Weekend 9: The Working Synopsis. Suddenly, I realized that every character I had in this murder mystery was dead – dead on the page. I had no desire to tell their story. Trying to write the synopsis was excruciatingly difficult. My creative spirit shrank from pretending enthusiasm for the cardboard elements I had chopped out to fill the assignments.

 Now, as I think back, I see this is why my notes and underlines are confined to the book’s first chapters. When push came to shove, this weekend novelist could not deliberately decide upon a foundation and construct a world upon it, ordering her mind to supply people, motivations, sets, scenes, and complications on demand. I found other requirements and suggestions, too, to be ill suited to my natural way of thinking. For instance, the note card method, in which everything is jotted down and shuffled around until the best order is determined gives me a great sense of tidiness, but no inspiration.

 The comparison that I made above to cooking falls apart when it’s taken into consideration that following a receipt does not require creating the ingredients whole cloth. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? When you have to somehow make the beef, the cheese, the wine, and the vegetables, everything becomes much more complicated unless you are gifted with exactly the abilities needed and can exercise them without any missteps. In terms of writing it means you either do not need to have a subconscious link with your story or that you have somehow unknowingly, unconsciously, been mulling it over and have reached the point where it springs fully developed into your mind as requested.

 This rarely occurs, I would bet, and so The Weekend Novelist is requiring the author to remain external to the story. Your heroine is thus and so because it serves the formula. Your villain’s motivation is whatever cog needed to make the plot organism click along to the end.

 I suppose great works have been made with this method. Certainly, acceptable products frequently are born of it. But for those of us who don’t have the necessary gifts, who need a more organic approach to creating living characters and situations, The Weekend Novelist is not the answer.

 So, my recommendation is to read through this book before buying it. As the hoary, venerable, old grandfather of mystery-writing texts, it is widely available. Get it out of the library and give it a try. If it works for you, that’s great. Thank the authors by buying a copy. If it doesn’t, then treasure up your money and move on to another book. I’ll be going through my library for the next few posts and commenting on several.

 Has anyone tried to use The Weekend Novelist? Did your experience mirror mine? Or do you feel I’m wrong about it?

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Back to Cozies

It’s been a very busy time. Despite my vow to avoid cozies, I was drawn back into reading the remainder of the 40 books. Reading all the Dickens biographies that I found and several of his novels enlarged my point of view about writing and what is possible for a writer to achieve. Of course, his entire life was oriented around allowing him to write as much as he wanted. With ten children and a household to support, his writing talent was the focus of all. I wonder if he also had hypergraphia; after all, he wrote novels, short stories, edited weekly magazines, and collections of his letters run to 14 volumes. Still, he had discipline in addition to his gift and that is certainly a key to success.

In many ways, Dickens ran his career in the way that modern writers are encouraged to behave. He developed what he felt was a personal relationship with his readers and took care to keep his name before them constantly. This was one goal of his weekly magazines. His live readings of his works were a pleasure for him and prompted people to buy his older works.

As for my Cozy Mystery Project, I am nearer the point of writing than I knew. In my next posts I’ll share some of the insights and tools that have helped me move along.

I hope my readers are progressing toward their goals as writers — any news to report?

Here’s a post on hypergraphia — do you have it? Know of another historic personage who lived in a river of words??

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200705/quirky-minds-hypergraphia-river-words

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Now Going Wider than my Cz-Mys Goal

Thankfully, not many people have been on tenterhooks about this blog. Judging by readership numbers, I can discard my worries that aspiring mystery writers have come to this blogo-speck and clicked away with tears of disappointment filling their eyes. No one has been so outraged by my silence that they have written a cozy mystery in which a cozy-mystery-author aspirant blog-writer has been brutally murdered and no one wants to help solve the who-dun-it because everyone is glad it-was-dun.

The only constant reader I have is my cousin, and her take on the blog seems to be supportive hope, tempered by life experience, that someday she might read a Cz-Mys with my name as author. If you want to see a lively blog with lots of entries that are interesting, go to hers. Teri, I hope you will link to your blog in the comments below, so people will have a nice experience after reading this mess.

To summarize briefly: I have backed off the cozy mystery goal because I think I do not write fiction well enough to take on even a short, formula novel. I suppose the parallel idea is to sew a ball gown when one has barely hemmed a dress. Certainly, a lot is going to be learned along the way, but you’ll end up with a gown that is poorly done that it’s the effort to improve it is nearly that of sewing a new one. This, I believe, is the case with my cowboy novel, which isn’t really about cowboys anyway.

So, rather than duplicating that experience, I have backed off and begun looked at my fiction skills. I plunged into Dickens, not because I like him, but because I think he has something to teach me. I’ve begun some different efforts to understand his methods as well as two short stories of my own.

This blog is hereby opened up to include all my writing efforts. The goal of a cozy mystery series still hovers overall, but I hope the other ways in which I pursue improving my writing will make blog posts that are not only more frequent, but more interesting that prolonged periods of silence. That’s a reachable goal.

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The Forty Books

I have something to confess. Cozy mysteries are not my natural choice to read. I like vintage pulp novels with hard-boiled types who live in Los Angeles in the 1940s. There has to be “frails” and “gats” and plenty more slang of the era. Or I will read endless piles of true crime books. The old, old story of the spouse who becomes worth more dead than alive and then disappears never fails to interest.

“Cozies” are certainly the opposite of the hard boiled, with their intimate, lifelong community settings and their light and lively touch. I think of them as fictional world in which people tactfully go off-stage to be murdered and comically fussy old ladies are the rule rather than the exception.

A couple of months ago, having finished at last the 153,000 word draft of a cowboy novel, I recognized that plotting is my weak spot. Because mystery novels demand the tightest plotting and planning, I decided to write one as a lesson. Cozy mysteries’ domesticity is close to my present lifestyle. Although I have lived in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, my present home is rural and I wanted material that was around me.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know that I’ve been having a hard time. In fact, I’ve quit twice and then been lured back by stubbornness and the knowledge that cozies have a lot to teach me. They require good characterization as well as tight plots. Even if I fail at the mystery part, I will grow from the task of building a world.

Here is where the forty books appeared. Looking online for the cheapest way to get a deal of cozies to study, I found an Ebay auction of forty cozies for $40.00. Yes, I bid and won, and they are lined up on a shelf in my basement.

One by one, I am reading them and about thirty are left. A few I’ve thrown across the room against the wall. A few more have been trudged through like an assignment. Others are adequate, and many are fun in one way or another. I’m not going to detail which are which because all of them please someone, and what I am doing is looking for my style by critiquing the style of others.

I also am taking notes on the best ones to see how authors plant good and bad clues, move from chapter to chapter, present the killer and then deflect suspicion, all the clever techniques that make up an absorbing cozy mystery.

It’s worth the effort. I am slowly moving forward with the plot of my cozy and I feel the style that I want is becoming clearer to me. So if you don’t have a free shelf in the basement, go to the public library and read, read, read.

My next post in this blog will share a free software that I am using for plotting and review another that I paid a deal of money to buy. Both have their strengths and weaknesses; the one you like best will depend upon your creative style.

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Writing the Cozy Mystery: Writing What You Don’t Know: 2 Bad Choices

An example of my collage work.

When I make a mistake in planning a story, it is as if the project has been sucked into a black hole: no more inspiration, no “ah-ha!” moments. Only dead silence from my muse.

Big problems have arisen from my poor choices involving the “write what you know” dictum and my idea that it’s better to “write what you want to know about.”

In my cozy mystery, the main character moves to central West Virginia because she inherits a farm from a distant relative. Her initial plan is to sell the land, return to Los Angeles and use the money to further her career as a script doctor. She discovers that she loves rural life and decides to farm. To spice it up a bit, a handsome man lives next door. He raises heritage farm animals. He comes over every day to care for a small herd of rare goats.

This seemed perfect. My six years in the L.A film industry would serve as back story, the farmer genes in my blood would find an outlet on paper, and I could promote preservation of old-time farm breeds.

Something nagged at me though, but I ignored it and pressed forward. Then came the dreadful silence of the muse. I had gone wrong in my planning and she knew it.

First, I have never spent even a weekend on a farm. My character must quickly learn enough about farm life to choose it for herself and I have to present this arc convincingly. Unlike the glass museum choice, where I can remain fairly superficial in my knowledge, farming has many, many arenas of experience that only living on a farm can provide.

Second, while I know something about script doctoring and Hollywood, this isn’t a choice that supports a series. My character could visit L.A. and Hollywood people could visit her, but there’s not much that could deepen as the book series progresses.

It took a long time for me to identify these problems and more to determine on the right changes. As my book now stands, instead of living on the farm, my character is going to lease it to the romantic interest and move into an apartment in a nearby small town. The love interest will then move into the farmhouse, but she will retain the 3rd floor as a little country studio. This allows me room to maneuver around the farm knowledge problem, and her residence in town will cause her to interact with many more people. She will also pursue a career as a collage artist and general craft designer.

The Los Angeles element is now much less important. She was until recently married to a rising movie producer and she has displayed a knack for script doctoring. The divorce led mutual friends in L.A. to choose her ex-husband over her. Bereft of her life, the inheritance of the farm was a surprise. It is the low cost of living in West Virginia that tempts her to stay for a while. By making her a visual artist, I am going to be able to write about my own art experiences.

In summary, my major mistake was to make a choice that required a depth of information impossible to acquire without a lifestyle change! The other was to use a dead-end back story.

The muse is speaking again.

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