MIXING POETRY WITH MURDER

by Nancy Means Wright

The birds are back in the north country, a dozen robins are spinning in and out of my crabapple tree, chomping on the tiny red fruits that had scattered to the winds during a late March blizzard. Happily, the snow is all but gone as I write, and the daffodils I planted in hard, cold earth two Decembers ago are struggling to open.

And April is poetry month! I belong to a group called Otter Creek Poets, and we write about all manner of subjects. One of our poets recently brought in an “Ode to a Washcloth.” We laughed at the title, but it happened to have been a washcloth he shared with his girlfriend. Somewhere there was a mention of Lady Macbeth–but she used her hands to wash clean her guilts, didn’t she? And Shakespeare turned the scene into dynamic iambic pentameter.

Poets do write about guilt and death–a lot. Sometimes it’s suicide and sometimes even murder. I’ve used both in a new chapbook of  poems called Acts of Balance, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. The book alternates the voices of real life 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft (whom I’ve written into mystery novels for Perseverance Press) and a contemporary farmwoman I call Fay, who is a paragon of civil disobedience. Fay has considered poisoning her nasty husband, but thinking better of it, simply walked out of a 30-year marriage instead.

I’ve begun the chapbook with Wollstonecraft’s girlhood when she slept on the landing in front of her mother’s door to keep her drunken father from abusing her timid mother. The ruse didn’t always work, for at night the father would stumble into the house, kick the dog, and clomp upstairs to shove Mary aside. I wrote  in my poem: “I throw / my body between:  his blows/ batter my back…my lungs collapse/ under his boots.”

Some battered women have struck back, even killed the abuser, but Mary couldn’t bring herself to do that–although she did literally kidnap her younger sister from a brutish husband, the pair switching carriages in mid-escape, the sister biting her wedding ring “to pieces. Oh that mis/ carriage of injustice!” Shortly afterward, Mary called her beloved friend Fanny’s death in childbirth “a virtual murder” when tubercular Fanny’s new husband took her to a cold place in Portugal where conditions were poor for birthing. Even the physician never saw “that her lungs were/ coughing up her kidneys.” In the husband’s absence, Fanny died in Mary’s arms.

A few years later Mary was a governess in Ireland, where her employer, Lord Kingsborough, head of his militia group, had devised a punishment for rebel peasants called ‘pitchcapping,” whereby he would pour tar on the victim’s head, light it, and yell: “Run, lad!” Many were in flames before they could run far. Then several years after Mary’s work with the King girls, Lord K shot the youngest daughter’s lover point blank because the girl had refused an arranged marriage. Milord got off with only a slap on the back from his aristocratic pals.

I must mention the French Revolution where Mary was “with child,” then abandoned by her feckless lover Captain Imlay, and where she walked the streets of Paris alone while bloody heads fell from the guillotine. “Murder” she called it. In fact, the first event she saw upon arrival in Paris was Louis XVI “in the prison/ of the passing coach/ en route for death/ his head hanging/ like a stringed puppet.”  Later she visits Olympe de Gouges in prison before the playwright’s decapitation for simply defying the tyrant Robespierre: “I scratch in the straw of her/ prison. I pour cold water/ over her burning feet.”

When Captain Imlay finally left Mary, she flung herself into the Thames River, “but the cloak is a buoy/ in the kicky waters;/ the coins break/ through the pocket threads…death/ turns a cold/ back.” Ultimately, Mary found love and commitment with writer Will Godwin, but after giving birth to a daughter (Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame), the doctor, who had neglected to wash his hands, yanked out the placenta in a dozen pieces and she died of blood poisoning, aged 38.

Call it homicide? Hardly grist for poetry, but as I noted above, poems are filled with death (think Edgar Allan Poe). The literary magazine editors are aware of this, too. The fall issue of Shenandoah will feature crime, mystery, and suspense poems and stories. And  you might consider submitting a poem to The 5-2 Crime Poetry Weekly? Why not? Each Monday the website publishes an original poem on the subject of crime. It could be yours!

The Writer As Hero

 

The drive to write is like any other artistic drive. There’s the deep connection to language, tone, rhythm, color or form, sure—but aside from that in-the-genes need there’s a more conscious and maybe less noble urge to tell our own story, in whatever form it takes. Always wanted to solve a murder? Invent a character who will do it for you. Always wanted to sail a tall ship and steal treasure and make your enemies walk the plank? Sounds like fun.

And a lot safer to write a story about someone else doing those things than living the adventures.

And then there’s the self-righteous need to punish evildoers, the passion to make the miseries of life come out with happy endings.

To justify the dumb things we’ve done in our own lives. To make heroes of ourselves.

I’m not saying any of this is wrong. But we write these stories precisely because we are not really heroes. And oh, how we want to be.

But then I can’t really speak for everyone, can I? I’m really talking about myself. As a child, I wanted to be a pirate, or at least Nancy Drew. The best real adventure was creeping through a secret passageway to call the police while a robber held a gun on my father. Life in a corner store. But there weren’t too many of those. So I made some up. Robbers hiding in a church belfry. A janitor who looked suspicious and needed to be followed until I was late for dinner.

But then I became a teenager and finally an adult and it wasn’t as easy to convince either of those real characters that these stories were true, so I had to resort to making stuff up.

I think it’s best that way. If a story is too true, too close to our souls and our lives, it can become a tortured journey to the bottom of memory and may not work so well as a story. It has to be changed. Formed. Sculpted. And then it’s not that story any more.

It can come down to telling the truth or telling a story. The best art does both. The greatest artists are able to do both.

 

 

On the road again again

Last year about this time my husband and I drove from out home in
Vancouver WA to Colorado so I could attend Left Coast Crime and promote my current mystery, Beyond Confusion.  We brought a massive snowstorm in our wake and didn’t get a chance to see much other than the incidental scenery along the freeway, coming and going.  So we decided to drive to Texas this year for bluebonnet season and dawdle along the way.  We are not good at dawdling.  Both of us grew up with fathers who drove relentlessly.

Well, here we are on Lake Buchanan (near Burnet TX), a week and a day into a trip we think will take three weeks.  The idea that we can stop is starting to percolate through, though we haven’t thrown over the traces completely.  Our virtuous deviations from the freeway have been brief and infrequent, but we seem to be enjoying ourselves more because we can stop.

We drove due south on Interstate Five as far as Bakersfield, stopping at Ashland OR and Santa Nella CA before heading east via Tehachapi and Needles.  This was the reverse direction to last year’s drive.  Springtime is kind to California, and this year it’s spectacular.  All those golden hills are forty shades of green.  This is after a sadly prolonged drought that brought into focus the clash over water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.  The orchardists and wine growers who own the land along the freeway are expressing their feelings with large vituperative signs repeated mile after mile.  You are driving through a dust bowl, the signs claim.  It was caused by the three wicked witches of the West, Pelosi, Feinstein, and Boxer.  I’m sure that a couple of weeks of uninterrupted California sunshine will turn the hillsides brown and make those signs convincing.  When we drove through, that old dust bowl was as green as County Clare.  I wonder whether anyone else noticed.

We weren’t moved to take any side trips on I5.  Arizona and New Mexico were more seductive.  I won’t claim we made a lot of deviations from the freeway, but we did see things our fathers would not have stopped for.  For example, about ten miles beyond Flagstaff AZ we turned off for the Walnut Canyon National Monument, a site I hadn’t heard of.  Walnut Canyon is a steep ravine studded with natural caves that were enlarged and used as dwellings for centuries.  Age and acrophobia barred us from a brisk 200 step hike to the bottom of the canyon and back, but we came away with heightened respect for the ingenuity and courage of the cliff-dwellers of the southwest.

For long stretches of Arizona and New Mexico the view from I40 was its own enchantment, magic enhanced by those useful Roadside Geology books that read the landscape and make even road cuts interesting.  There probably ought to be a similar series on Roadside Gastronomy with critical reference to Gas Station Food.,

We came into Texas at El Paso after a pleasant evening in Las Cruces NM and spent the afternoon in San Antonio, taking a look at the River Walk before retiring from the fray to a motel north of that cheerful city.  Our biggest deviation of the trip was a detour to Fredericksburg with its handsome German churches–and the Nimitz museum–smack in the middle of town.  German settlers established friendly relations with the Comanches, and Fredericksburg has flourished ever since.

We made it to Burnet in time for tea.  Good dawdling.  Maybe we’ll try it again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s a Writer’s Time Worth?

Years ago, when I was speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, I met the writer Evelyn Torton Beck, who I found personable, wise, and funny.  She was the first author to talk to me about accurately assessing what my time was worth when I was invited to speak out of town.

It’s not just the day you’re there, she said, if it’s only a day.  Add getting ready the day before, and then at least one day of re-entry into your regular schedule, sometimes more.

I’d never thought of doing a gig that way before, and it was immensely helpful.  Like the time I was invited to speak in San Francisco, and the speaker’s fee was okay (and I was eager to see a favorite city again).  But in this case, the sponsors were stingy.  They weren’t even offering to cover my hotel and meals, just air fare and “home hospitality.”  The latter is extremely iffy.  The one thing I crave on the road is privacy, since I’m constantly on stage.  I really wanted to do the gig, but then I thought of the jet lag I’d be dealing with, and to me that doubled the time involved.  I simply wasn’t being compensated enough for how much I’d have to put into the event, and I was dubious about staying with strangers, so I said no.

Saying no isn’t easy for us writers.  I’ve had many discussions with other authors and this is a subject that comes up again and again.  Part of the problem is that when we start out, we tend to say yes to everything because we crave the exposure, and somehow feel it’ll magically boost our careers.  We want the attention, the recognition, the respect–and hopefully the  sales that might result.  Our hopes can create a habit of saying yes.

Luckily I have a spouse who not only chimed in on what Evelyn Beck said, but added, “Ask yourself if you think you might end up griping about having to do the gig a few weeks before you go.  Ask yourself if you think it’ll be fun or different or challenging.  Ask yourself if the money really will compensate for being ripped out of your writing schedule.”

Other writers may have different questions that help them decide what to do and where.  But these work pretty well for me, and have helped me turn down gigs that I was sure later on I would regret accepting.

Having now done hundreds of readings on three continents, I’m much more selective than ever about where I go and when, and more and more consider my physical comfort.  I’m six feet tall, and I’m very reluctant to fly small planes when that’s the only choice, or sit in window seats ditto, because they can leave me cramped and cranky.

One more note: the late poet Terri Jewell and I used to talk about the writing life a lot, and she taught me an elegant way of saying no to things I didn’t want to do: “Thank you for asking, but I’m booked.”  It gracefully closes the discussion and I’ve used it more than once to good effect.

A version of this blog originally appeared at brevity.wordpress.com.

To Go, or Not To Go

One of the constant debates among writers of historical fiction is “do you have to visit the places you write about?” Two schools of thought exist on this question. Naturally, they are yes and no. But more specifically, more directly, the question is “does it do you any good to go?” And again, the answers are yes and no.

My first published novel was set in London, 1602, onstage at the Globe Theater. I wasn’t in a financial position to go to London, so I used my money to buy maps and books, anything, everything that told me about Shakespeare’s London. And it worked. I felt good about my period detail, and the book garnered positive reviews for its accuracy. All without having gone to London. But here’s the obvious point: going to London in the present day does little to help you grasp the London that Shakespeare knew. And when I did go to London, I had the rather bizarre experience of feeling as Shakespeare would if he were to return. His city had disappeared.

The Globe is gone, merely a paved parking lot behind a converted 18th century brewery, although the reconstructed Globe gives visitors a feel for how it might have been. But the original Globe is reduced to its foundations, still under excavation when I first went there. His lodgings on Silver Street now lie under a parking garage. He would recognize St. Paul’s, looming as it does over the London skyline. The great London fire of 1666 stole many landmarks familiar to Shakespeare. His gatehouse in Blackfriars is long gone as are the jetties where he would catch a boat taxi across to Bankside and Southwark. Westminster, home to his friend Ben Jonson, was, then as now, outside the City, but then you could tell that it was outside the walls. Not now.

Later, I turned to expatriate Paris and a mystery set among the literary elite of 1922. But once again, I was hampered by finances. The wonderful thing with writing about writers is that nearly all of them left memoirs with exquisite details. And then I found Arlen Hansen’s delightful Expatriate Paris, which literally goes door by door and gives detail down to the bartenders’ names and even the names of the prostitutes. So visiting Paris, while a tempting idea, became unnecessary.

When I turned my hand to King Arthur, it was a completely different story, (no pun intended.) I knew exactly where I wanted to set Arthur’s seat, and the vast majority of the various scenes. Glastonbury, South Cadbury, Ilchester. And I could not have written about them without visiting. Of course, there have been changes in that landscape as well. Glastonbury Tor still rises above the Somerset levels like a great beacon. The countryside is still primarily rural. At South Cadbury, the abandoned ramparts still mark the slope. And I know that people once walked those ramparts and saw the majestic form of the Tor in the distance. I know that that the morning breeze smells much the same today as it did then. And I suspect that the sun sets beyond the levels in the same way.

Now, I have returned to Shakespeare, but travel isn’t quite the financial burden it once was. And as my new book isn’t strictly London-based, the journey made a bit more sense. It was one of the best moves I have made. While Stratford-upon-Avon has changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day, there are still a number of buildings from that time. The Birthplace, of course. Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, and her husband John Hall. Perrott’s tavern, now the White Swan, is still in business. Yes, you can still down a pint where the Bard did, and even spend the night in a chamber in use in 1616. Maps cannot and do not do it justice.

Today, we live in the world of Google Earth and other services that offer a bird’s eye view of even the most remote corner of the world. Unfortunately, staring at a computer screen is a poor substitute for breathing the air and feeling the ground under your feet. But with historical fiction, rather than offer inspiration, such a trip may just leave you saddened at how completely the world you love has disappeared. So, the answer to the question is really, “sometimes, it is necessary; sometimes it’s not.” The key, I think, is in recognizing the difference.

Spring! Or … Second Quarter Goals

Lea Wait, here. For anyone who doesn’t know, I live on the coast of Maine. This winter has been one of the coldest and snowiest in recorded Maine history. (I don’t have all the numbers, but February 2014 was the 3rd coldest February since 1945.)

Of course,  I write historicals, and I know the early 19th century was a lot colder than it is now … I’ve seen records, letters, newspaper accounts of rivers freezing hard enough that people walked across them. Rivers than no one now alive remembers freezing.

But, still, it’s been a long winter. I’m looking forward to the day the thermometer hits 50. March boasted a couple of day in the 40s, so I know there’s hope.

First Crocuses!

First Crocuses!

And yesterday I was excited to see the first crocus of the year, near the house, in an area that gets enough sun that the snow has melted. I was so excited I dragged my husband out to appreciate it, and immortalized it in a picture.

But, despite the harsh winter, and maybe even because of it, the first quarter of 2014 (I spent years in strategic planning, and my brain seems to plan tasks in three month intervals) was a productive one.  One book completed. Joined Goodreads. Two books revised and sent out (one to an editor, one to my agent.) Another book outlined and approved. Plus lots of promotional work done for my just-published historical for ages 8 and up, Uncertain Glory. The launch party my publisher gave me was two days ago, and later this week I’ll be speaking at a conference for children’s librarians in Maine (Reading Roundup), and signing books at a children’s book festival (Cape Author Festival) in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

When on April 1 I looked at the list of first quarter goals I’d written January 1, only two things were incomplete.  My diet (Ah, yes. That diet.) And I’d planned to clean out/dust the mysteries in a guest room in my house we call the “mystery and suspense room” because the bookcases there hold just … guess what?

So those two tasks are now on my list of my Second Quarter Goals, which I made out last week. Promotion for Uncertain Glory and my other books will continue … I have quite a few event commitments. I’ll be visiting one (maybe two) of my daughters and their families. I hope to finish the first draft of a mystery I haven’t  yet started (although I have written that approved outline,) but which is due September 1. Plus, I’ll clean out some more bookcases. Do a spring clean up of the yard. And polish brass and copper and silver than is now dull from winter neglect and smoke from our woodstove.  My husband says those cleaning tasks aren’t necessary … that we can live with dusty books and tarnished copper. But I feel more comfortable and, yes, productive, in a clean house. Plus, writing a book takes months. When you clean something you can see what you’ve done. It feels as though you’ve accomplished something. Plus, as Agatha Christie once said, “Sometimes I get my best ideas while I’m washing the dishes.”

So — onward! I hope by July 1, when I’ll revisit my lists and plan for my third quarter, I’ll have been able to cross off a lot of tasks. And I hope it will also be time to add “wash the porch furniture,” and “trim the bushes.” I hope I’ll even be able to add to my list, “spend a day at the beach.”

Because by July 1 …. I’ll no doubt be complaining about the heat.

And so it goes. Happy spring to everyone!

My Morning Newspaper

For more than thirty years I got up very early in the morning so I could write before going to my day job. Once I established this routine, other things fell by the wayside – eight hours of sleep per night, for example.

And reading my morning newspaper.

I subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle, and have for most of the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in the Bay Area. While I was writing in the very early hours of the day, I never managed to read my newspaper in the morning. I’d scan the headlines and a few pages of the front section while eating my lunch. But usually, I didn’t get around to reading the rest of my newspaper until the evening.

My Monday through Friday routine was this – I got home from work and fed the cats. Yes, they eat first. If they don’t, I hear about it. After fixing dinner for myself and completing whatever evening tasks needed doing, I finally sat down to read my morning newspaper, right before going to bed, very early, because I got up so early.

On the weekends, what a treat! I got to read my morning newspaper before noon!

I vowed that when I retired, I would read my morning newspaper in the morning.

Yes, I know that during the past few years I could have read the newspaper online. But my morning newspaper is meant to be read after breakfast, sitting on the sofa with a cup of coffee on the end table and a cat on my lap.

I was a newspaper reporter on a small-town daily back in the day when I typed my copy on a Smith Corona manual typewriter, on sheets of paper salvaged from the Associated Press wire machine that clattered behind my desk.

To me, reading newspaper on a computer just doesn’t compare. In the interests of disclosure, I will say that I do have an online subscription to the New York Times. But the Chronicle? No, I want to feel newsprint in my hands.

I always read the daily newspaper, even as a kid. When I was in junior high and high school, my parents subscribed to the Denver Post. It was an afternoon newspaper, and I read it cover to cover when I got home from school. When I went to college, I studied journalism.

I graduated from the University of Colorado’s J school over forty years ago. The practice of journalism has changed so much in four decades that I barely recognize it. And so has reading a newspaper. Falling subscription rates indicate that a lot of people don’t bother with newspapers any more. I keep reading that newspapers are going away.

I hope not.

I retired in November of 2013. Since then, with few exceptions, I read my morning newspaper in the morning, as I drink that last cup of coffee, a cat on my lap. I read the sections in a certain order and toss them on the floor when I’m done.

And about that thirty-year sleep deficit? I’m catching up.

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