I Go Virally (to the tune of “Aura Lee”

Whether there is such a thing as a written dialect in the strict sense of the term has to interest writers of fiction, because language differences set people apart more than anything–politics or religion or geographic distance.  Language as a tool of characterization weighs even heavier in novels and short stories than it does in drama.

I suppose headline-talk may be taken as a variety of written dialect, its own very peculiar language.  It connects to the general topic of fiction writing only because headline cliches seep into speech and using them in fiction is a good way to establish the era in which the story takes place.  When I was trolling Yahoo news headline the other day, looking for newspeak, I discovered that we are in the “adorable” era, at least in the world of Yahoo.  Babies and small animals are always adorable as are female celebrities sporting “baby bumps,” an expression that makes me grateful to be past the age of bumping babies out.  “Iconic” and “going viral” could be erased from the language with no loss, but they too are signals of the times.

Wars are now conducted by means of stale cliches (as opposed to fresh ones like going viral).  I noticed, for instance, that someone or something was “on the front lines” of the war against ISIS.  It used to be that each war generated its own jargon, but Yahoo seems stuck in World War I.  The great German novel of that war had a title that could have been translated as “Nothing New in the West,” but that would have lacked the punch of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  The idea of front lines made sense in the western theater of WWI, but was already nonsense by 1940 and is certainly so today.  A military term that has been cut loose and wanders pitifully in newspeech is “to take by storm.”  A successful ad campaign can take a whole country by storm these days.

Not all newspeak cliches derive from military usage.  My favorite is “event.”  Our neighborhood grocery store had not just a sale of wine but a “wine event” last week.  And President Obama and the Dalai Lama are apparently scheduled for a “prayer event,” meaning a prayer breakfast, which is an odd enough idea in itself.  I was raised to think in terms of prayer and fasting, but we now have prayer and sausage.

However obnoxious, these examples of news dialect will serve to set a story firmly in our time, as authors writing historical novels collect terms that first popped up in the middle ages or Shakespeare’s day or the Regency for their works.

Re-reading Patrick O’Brian over the past month has led me to marvel at his use of dialects and especially the peculiar dialect called a jargon–in his case nautical speech.  Belay the mizzen there, lubber.  I’m bound to say I think he overdoes it, especially in Master and Commander, but he has the huge task of transporting readers from their recliners to the deck of a three-masted vessel full of English sailors in mid-ocean, as like as not in a storm.  I feel a bit seasick at the beginning of each lump of nautical jargon but nothing less would take me there so virally.

Newspeak ransacks jargons in its search for headline lingo.  The obvious one is medicalese with business/economics a close second.  Film-making contributes a surprising number of technical terms like “segue,” but let us “cut to the chase.”  Most fiction writers consider regional speech usage when drawing characters.  Mystery writers like Margaret Maron are masters of regional dialect, suggesting it without sinking into it too far for the general reader to follow.  Most mystery writers also master the basic jargon of policework.  Jargons and timely phrases can help set character as well as place and time–excuse enough to collect them.



In the Beginning . . .

Happy New Year, if January 1 is not totally arbitrary.  I thought a small discussion of openings might be a suitable topic for the day and the season.

Every writer knows the most frequently asked question (“where do you get your ideas”) is followed by half a dozen others, among them “how do you know when to start the story?”  The first answer (at the beginning”) provokes a justified wail, “but how do you know when it all began?”  Uh.  The second real answer is “in medias res,” in the middle of things.  In other words, you plunge into the ongoing story at what seems like a good spot.  For me, that spot doesn’t occur until the characters have begun to talk to each other and I can hear distinct voices.  For that reason, my stories often begin with a dialog between two characters, one of whom is a viewpoint character and the other of whom has some importance in the plot.

With murder mysteries, the cliche opening is discovery of the corpse.  There are variations–discovery of the corpse by the amateur detective in the amateur detective’s quaint home town, discovery of the corpse by a cop who goes directly to the amateur detective to consult (or arrest) him or her, discovery of the ambulant victim, a viewpoint character, by the killer who pulls a gun or other weapon and everything goes black, presumably in mid-sentence.

I don’t like to use the discovery of corpse opening, though I grant it does get things going fast.  The obvious trouble is that the murder on page three doesn’t stir the reader’s feelings.  There has been no opportunity to get to know either the victim or the killer.  Few readers enjoy goggling a dead body all that much.  Mysteries are puzzle stories.  Only when the puzzle to be solved has to do with the nature of the killing does opening with the corpse make sense.  If the real puzzle involves why that person was killed, the writer is better off dramatize dramatizing the conflicts that will lead to murder, then laying the corpse down in chapter four or five.

The corpse-in-chapter-one opening is now so common that the devoted mystery reader expects it.  If you don’t giver your readers a dead body, you will be creating a little hum of suspense under the surface of the action you do dramatize.  Delay satisfying the expectation a couple of chapters.  Then when you do deliver the body, you’ll make a big bang.

Well, what else?  I could go on about the imagery of openings.  You can open with a figure of speech that helps define the central question.  Yeats’s “The Second Coming” opens with a falcon circling in spirals that widen until it can no long hear the call of the hunter.  Once we see the falcon, the poet slams us with it’s real meaning.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .”  The falcon image is so strong, I’m sure there are thousands of readers who believe the poem is about hunting.  If you’re writing prose, I think you need to keep your figures of speech infrequent.  One strong one per chapter will have more impact that half a dozen on a single page.

What about sound effects?  Writers of prose fiction are apt to ignore the fact that language is primarily oral and that the sounds the writer makes set the mood of the story subliminally.  Written language hums its own tune.  In English, alliteration is the oldest of the poetic sound effects.  In can be annoying or unintentionally funny, as in A Midsummernight’s Dream:  “. . . with bloody blameful blade, /He bravely broached his boiling, bloody breast.”  But the Anglo Saxons would use only two sound repetitions out of three stressed syllable in the half-line.  They knew when to quit.  So do I, so I’ll just say, listen to your language, especially the opening.


It’s almost the time of year for resolutions of the kind no one keeps or remembers.  I can’t say making resolutions was ever one of my rituals, though beginning a new year is reason enough to reflect on the successes and failures of the previous year;  2014 was not my most productive writing period, so I feel a resolution or two coming on.

I’d like to get rid of some of the obstacles to writing I indulge in.  There are obvious ones, starting in my office with the games on the computer.  Bookshelves in every room on this floor hold another obvious distraction.  I resolve to play no game that involves words (farewell, crosswords and Scrabble) and to stop rereading my favorite writers (no more Jane Austen, goodbye Anthony Trollope).  I also resolve not to watch anything on television other than the news (easy).

Well, that liberates a lot of time, at least in theory.  In fact, what would happen would be a sudden access of housekeeping.  I’m not one of nature’s housewives.  However, a good spell of writer’s bloc will find me polishing kitchen cabinets or vacuuming spider webs from the basement ceiling at two in the morning.  Massive writer’s bloc might conceivably drive me to gardening or canning tomatoes.  So.  I resolve not to clean closets.

All of the above are essentially negative alternatives to writing. Positive alternatives are more powerful and frightening.  Volunteering public service, for example, can blot up weeks, even months.  It takes you out of the house, away from the nagging computer.  You meet interesting and admirable people.  You are praised and patted and told how wonderful you are, and all the time you are HIDING FROM WRITING.

The most dangerous alternative is learning another art form.  In my worst dry spell I took up water color painting.  I accumulated brushes and paints, handbooks, blocks of heavy paper.  I took lessons with a friend.  I met talented and likeable artists and produced a handsome portrait of my cat, Ethel.  The worst thing was I enjoyed painting.  Never mind that I wasn’t very good at it and never would be.  Never mind that I was HIDING FROM WRITING.

I resolve not to sit down at the piano.

Happy new year.

Conventional Wisdom

Sooner or later, authors seeking ways to promote their books consider the prospect of attending conventions.  I have mixed feelings on the subject, probably because I’ve had mixed results.  When I say ‘convention’ I mean a gathering of fans and creators of literary genres like science fiction, romances, and mysteries, not conventions of the American Legion or the Modern Language Association, though I can imagine circumstances that would make that kind of convention a profitable venue for a writer too.  My father, for example, self-published his WWII memoirs, attended a convention of Navy veterans, and sold a healthy number of copies to them.  A friend wrote a mystery involving needlework and sold dozens of copies at a quilting convention.

I started attending science fiction conventions in the 1960s, here and in Canada and Britain, and I enjoyed them only partly because I like to read s.f. and fantasy.  My first convention was a Worldcon (the big international s.f. convention) held in Los Angeles at a hotel near the airport.  The hotel clearly catered to businessmen most of the time.  As my husband and I went to the desk to register, we saw several wide-eyed men in suits and ties in the check-in line overlooked by a massive Viking dressed in a brown bathmat and wearing a horned helmet.  He was carrying a (bonded) battle axe.  Nobody gave him any lip.  On our way up to our room we got stuck in an elevator with Ray Bradbury.  Bliss.  Since I was not a published author at the time, I could relax, attend panel discussions, and enjoy listening to my favorite s.f. writers arguing with each other over what was hard science fiction and what mere fantasy.  In that era, most of the non-writers at such a convention were compulsive readers of s.f. and fantasy.  These days, many of the attendees are game players and media fans–in other words, they are less likely to buy books than in the olden days.

Fan conventions multiplied in the decades since that LA Con.  Dozens of regional conventions are held every year as well as specialized conventions for fans of comics or games or Harry Potter.  The s.f. conventions, since they did involve compulsive readers, also spun off mystery and romance conventions.  The romance conventions seem to be aimed primarily at writers rather than readers, though attendees share the s.f. fondness for costuming.  Mystery conventions do focus on readers, and they seem more serious to me than either romance or s.f. conventions.  You will occasionally see a mystery fan dressed as Sherlock Holmes, but mostly not.

All of these conventions feature panels of authors, editors, and agents, or authors and fans.  The discussions are almost always interesting and sometimes quite heated.  Many writers spend their convention hours schmoozing in the bar, which is not a bad idea, but it would be a shame to miss all the panels.  Even if the discussion is not world-shaking, it will give readers insight into the favorite writers’ personalities, and the panels are very helpful to beginning writers.

I think conventions, particularly the smaller ones like Left Coast Crime, can provide writers with a good promotional venue, but they are not for the faint-hearted.  Above all, they aren’t for late-comers.  If you intend to go, sign up early and be sure to ask to be put on panels.  You will also be invited to sign books, usually at a specified time and place where your fans can find you.  I also suggest that shy writers take a friend with them because a convention, especially a large one like Bouchercon, can be very isolating.

Band of Brothers

One ghastly feature of modern romantic fiction is how boring the heroes are.  It’s all very well to hire a male model or body-builder, rip his shirt, and pose him, sword in hand, as Rock or Knute or Prince Knuckle of Ramstein for the cover of the book.  But what happens when you have to put him in a conversation?  Not just with the heroine, with anybody.  “Erg, awk, aggghhhh!” he said.

This past week I’ve had reason to think about one of my biggest assets as a creator of characters, romantic and not–I have lots of brothers.  I have four, to be exact, all of them younger than I am, so I got to watch them develop into personalities.  I have only one sister, and she’s ten years younger.  We didn’t interact much.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my male characters are more varied and interesting than my female ones.  This is particularly helpful when I’m writing romances, but it comes in handy elsewhere too.

For the purposes of narrative simplicity, I’m going to call the boys Able, Baker, Charlie, and Dog, with Able the eldest and Dog the youngest.  They are now all retired, some several times, and among them have had six marriages and twelve children.  Three of my brothers are pilots, one a professional, and the same three were sky-divers before sanity prevailed.

We were raised as Catholics, but they have all departed from the bosom of Mother Church with only brother Baker, after a brief deviation into Hinduism, returning to Christianity.  Most are now amiable agnostics.  Among them, they have worked at a wide variety of jobs ranging from mink farmer to postman to canner of green beans to researcher into conversion of bio-mass to fuel.  Three are combat veterans and one a war protester, and, fortunately, all four have senses of humor that permit them to be in the same room for long periods of time, playing their guitars (and banjo and cello) and singing silly songs with each other.

My brothers are at least as verbose as I am.  In fact, Able and I amused ourselves while we washed dishes for all eight family members by reciting narrative poetry at each other, alternating the verses–“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves,” etc.  Able (between mink farming, lawyering, and selling real estate in Mexico) has written two thrillers, Baker is both an actor and a playwright, and Dog has done three novels and a film script.  Charlie, for reasons that will be clear, should write his memoirs and can if he will  just sit down and do it.

Ten days ago I had a call from my sister in law to say that my youngest brother Dog had suffered a stroke.  It was a minor one, fortunately, but it affected his peripheral vision.  It also caused an interruption between hand and eye that makes it hard for him to work the computer or drive a car.  I talked to him the next morning and was relieved to know that his wit and enthusiasm are intact.  He has since dived into physical therapy.  Let’s hope it works.

That woke me up.  I began to think about Dog and the others and wish I could see them face to face.  Then last week I got a phone call at eight in the morning from brother Baker.  “Turn on the tv,” he said.  “Charlie’s on the morning news.”

He was indeed.

Charlie, who lives in Miami Beach, is a pilot, the professional one.  He retired from the Air Force as a lt. colonel and flew for American Airline for some years, mostly in the Caribbean.  When he retired from AA, he ferried Russian millionaires around the globe for a while.  He knows I’m a geography buff, so he called me with a stumper one winter morning.  “Bet you can’t guess where I am.”  “Where?”  “Sharm el Sheik.”  “Ha,” I said.  “Sinai.  Red Sea.  Right?”  He was terribly disappointed, but we had a nice chat about the weather.  He was basking on the beach.

Charlie has his own small plane, but he wanted to fly regularly and that can be expensive, so he got himself a part time job flying a tow plane along Miami Beach.  The planes the company uses were built in the 1950s for forward air control, to use as spotters. High wings, single engine, open cockpit.  You get the picture.

Now visualize Charlie on a peaceful weekday morning, flying along the beach with his banner trailing an advertisement for snake oil.  All of a sudden, with no warning, the engine quit.  He cut the banner away and tried to start the engine.  No dice.  As he told the tv commentator later, “I said to myself, ‘I may have five seconds to live.'”  His face quirked in a typical Charlie grin.  “‘We’ll know in a minute.'”  Both of them cracked up on the air.

In fact, as he told me later, he barely had time to verify that he wasn’t going to land on top of a swimmer before the plane hit the water at 45 miles an hour–800 yards off Miami Beach in about twenty feet of water.  The wings held the plane on the surface for a few moments, then sea water swept into the cockpit.  He took a deep breath, unhooked his seat restraint, and swam up, free of the wreckage.  He could see light.  He swam toward it, inflating his life jacket.  When he reached the surface, a jet-skier whooshed over to him and pulled him aboard.  The entire event lasted less than fifteen minutes.

Well, there you are.  A woman who has four brothers shouldn’t have any difficulty crating male characters who are as nutty and interesting as real people should be.  My problem is that I don’t have any models of male villainy.  SPOILER.  My murderers tend to be women.


Home as a Holiday Camp

I was inspired by Lea Waite’s post extolling the beauty of Maine to consider how being a notable tourist destination may alter the way “natives” think about their home place.  I’ve lived in Vancouver WA for half a century now, so I may be considered at home here, yet every once in a while I’m reminded that I’m not a local product, that my appreciation of the area is shaped by ideas about it that are not based on personal experience.

Vancouver lies north, across the Columbia River, from Portland OR and serves it as a bedroom.  When I first started teaching here and asked my students to go to Portland State University to use the library there, some of them balked.  They had lived eighteen whole years in Vancouver and never gone to Portland though they’d driven through it on Interstate Five.  They were afraid they’d be mugged if they went into the big city five minutes away from home.  I was pitiless.  I told them I thought they’d survive.  Some of them dropped the class.

Their concept of Portland was a gross simplification drawn from television news, the prejudices of their friends and relatives, and a handful of negative events.  Suppose they had drawn their view of Portland from the image projected by the Chamber of Commerce, Triple A Guidebooks, and television coverage of the annual Rose Festival parade.  That image would have been appealing, even seductive, but it would have been at least as much a simplification as their Wicked City nightmare.

Neither Portland nor Vancouver is a tourist destination in the sense that Maine and, say, Hawaii are.  It’s unlikely that a honeymoon couple would sue their travel agency if it rained here–as apparently happened after a less than idyllic honeymoon in Hawaii.  Darned good thing too.  We do get rained on.

If a fiction writer sets a novel in a place like Hawaii, how should the writer deal with the readers’ probable preconceptions about the place?  My current mystery series (Latouche County) is set in a National Scenic Area between two national forests, within viewing distance of three Fujiyama-class volcanic peaks, and, of course, on the banks of a river that makes the Tiber look like a trickle.  When I first began to research the Columbia Gorge as a setting for my mysteries, I wondered how people who lived there full-time could get any work done with natural beauty intruding every time they went outdoors.

I don’t know that I solved the problem, but I did try.  I used the viewpoint of a newcomer to the area in the first book (Buffalo Bill’s Defunct) so that moments of scenic rapture would be plausible.  In the second (An Old Chaos) I mucked up the weather beyond the tolerance of skiers let alone tourists.  The third mystery (Beyond Confusion) has guide-bookly moments but focuses on the Latouche Regional Library.  In fact, I put emphasis on work and the grotesqueries of daily life in all the books.  My characters, like the people who live and work in the Gorge, have their minds on things other than the catalog of Chamber of Commerce delights.  And my characters are braver than my students.

Summer Reads

I seem to blog a lot about what I’m reading.  Sorry.  Can’t help it.

It used to annoy me when someone published a list of books to read on summer vacation, books either more relaxing or more mindless than the average tome.  Since I retired and no longer have to have a summer vacation (it’s all vacation, right?), I have noticed that summer does shunt me off onto a different reading track than other seasons.  I have no idea why, but I seem to read more non-fiction in summer.  It’s not usually self-help stuff but history or pre-history or popular science.  I read a lot of fiction too, but that is beginning to feel like a work assignment–here are the latest mysteries, read them.  So let it go without illustration, I’m reading mysteries.  Here are two non-mysteries I found suitable for summer.

Joanna Trollope writes good, leisurely studies of relationships–fiction in the grand style of her family.  The Soldier’s Wife is a lively portrait of a modern woman caught in the archaic role of British officer’s wife, not to mention the more usual soccer mum role.  Trollope even brings off a fairly happy (and fairly fair) ending, all without murdering anybody.

K.J. Parker does heavy fantasy–pre-steam steampunk.  I just finished The Folding Knife, a good study of a very anti hero.  It begins with a murder about which there is no mystery, and it ends down, down, down, but the detail of life in the “Vesani Republic” (a riff on the Venetian Republic) is rich and evocative.  It is refreshing to find fantasy that doesn’t wallow in patterns of bucolic life from the English Middle Ages.

Moving on to non-fiction, a dose of American history.  My history degree was definitely European.  I don’t believe I ever took an American history course at the college level, so my understanding of U.S. history is patchy.  Filling in blanks can be a real pleasure.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has a deft touch with massive arrays of fact that might turn to sludge in a lesser writer’s hands.  I finally got around to reading her 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, No Ordinary Time.  It deals with the last four years of Franklin Roosevelt’s life–they happen to be the first four years of my life–and Goodwin gives sympathetic portraits of both Eleanor and the President without air-brushing their faults.  My parents and grandparents worshiped Eleanor Roosevelt.  In No Ordinary Time I found out why.  Eleanor’s achievements make the First Ladies who succeeded her fade to nothing, with the possible exception of Bess Truman for very different reasons.

Among Eleanor’s projects was day-care for the children of women working in the factories that were building tanks, ships, and airplanes.  No Ordinary Time describes the superb day-care center the Kaiser shipyard was induced to build in Portland OR (and another in Vancouver WA where I now live).  My father was a naval officer during the war.  His ship, a baby aircraft carrier, was built here on the banks of the Columbia, in part by women whose children spent the day–and in some cases the night–at the Kaiser day-care center.  Hooray for Eleanor.

The other U.S. history work I rambled through was Stephen E. Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage (1996).  I live on the Columbia River now, but I was born in Montana near the great falls of the Missouri.  When I was growing up in eastern Oregon, we could still see ruts carved by the wheels of wagons on the Oregon trail.  Needless to say, I’ll read anything about Lewis and Clark.

Ambrose keeps his focus on the tragic figure of Meriwether Lewis.  I have no quarrel with that.  The biographical slant gives ominous urgency to the narrative, and Ambrose makes a convincing case for Lewis’s death as the straightforward suicide of a man whose family had a bipolar history.  Lewis was under a lot of pressure to finish editing his journals.  Right now I’m 90% through writing a mystery and whamming my head against the wall trying to force myself to finish it.  I think poor old Meriwether’s suicide is perfectly understandable.

So–what are the rest of you reading out there on your beach blankets?


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