Many people inspire me for many reasons, but the one who comes to mind right now is Tony Hillerman.
When I began writing mystery and suspense fiction, I thought I had to know the whole story before I started. It’s like what they teach in English class–first you outline, then you write.*
Good mystery plots are tight. They’re puzzles; everything has to fit. Clues have to be planted in the right places. Events have to happen at the right time and in the right order. Red herrings have to be put in specific places. Advance plotting makes sense.
I admire Ruth Rendell, whose novels are, as far as I’m concerned, perfectly plotted. At the end, the puzzle has been solved. Then, in the last chapter, sometimes on the last page, she slides one more bolt into place. How could she do that without knowing everything from the beginning?
There are a zillion books on how to write, so I read several whose authors stated that plots have to be carefully thought out. One author said every scene must be sketched out in advance on a note card, and always in sequence–never jump ahead.
I was working on a novel. At the time, I knew only the first five or six scenes, and I believed note cards would help me progress. So I bought note cards–and more note cards–and sketched out the same scenes, over and over. Sounds stupid and it was.
I pretended to be writing a novel but my brain was empty. I met with my critique group every week but submitted nothing, and wondered when they were going to kick me out. The other members tolerated me because, first, they were nice people, and, I think, they liked my comments on their manuscripts. I can offer decent criticism. I drank a lot of coffee and enjoyed their company and read some great writing.
Then I came across an essay by Tony Hillerman describing his writing process. He would start a book with a vague idea of where he was going but no set plot. Once, he said, a dog appeared–he didn’t know why, but he wrote the dog into his draft; later, the dog played an important part in the story. He gave a number of similar examples. At the outset, Hillerman said, he didn’t know exactly where he was going, but he got there in the end.
In fact, he said the only book he plotted out in detail before writing turned out to be the worst book he ever published.
That essay gave me hope. I usually begin with a character and a line and a vague idea of what happens next–but not necessarily what happens after that. I’ve published short stories, and every one began that way.
I’m not a plotter. I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants.
My novel is still in partial draft form (Hillerman’s essay didn’t inspire me to get down to business and finish the thing). But I have written a lot more than five or six scenes and have even jumped ahead and drafted the ending. I’ve figured out what characters will do, and when–maybe–but they sometimes surprise me. Their ideas are often better than mine, so I let them lead. I’ve relaxed. Mysteries do have to be tightly plotted, but not from page #1 of draft #1.
E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, said “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go …It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I don’t know whether Doctorow was talking about pantsing, but his definition of writing as exploration fits with Hillerman’s description of his process.
So. That’s how I learned I’m a pantser.
I learned something else, too: When authors say, “This is the only way you can write fiction”–what they’re really saying is, “This is the only way I can write fiction.”
We all have to find our own way.
*If they’re still teaching to outline in detail first, they shouldn’t be. If you can outline an essay, you’ve already written it in your head. Sometimes students’ heads are empty, and they have to start writing to find out what they know about the topic. Then, when they have some ideas on paper, they can organize them. In the words of E. M. Forster, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
Further note: I taught English and for the first years told students to outline before writing their essays. It had never worked for me, but that’s what I’d been taught, so I passed the word along. Participation in a seminar following guidelines of the Bay Area Writing Project gave me a new perspective, and I gave students a break–write first, outline later.
I had a total knee replacement two days ago. It isn’t as much fun as it sounds.
Lying in bed at Ascension Setonis delightful. Nurses are wonderful. The cafeteria is too good for my good.
But physical therapists won’t leave me alone. They keep showing up and wanting me to get out of bed and walk.
The one who came in the morning after surgery asked if I was ready to get up and move. I said I never wanted to get up and move again. That was the wrong answer.
The afternoon PT had me walk halfway to El Paso. And back. He taught me–or tried to teach–me to use the two-wheeled walker (as opposed to the four-wheeler I’ve been using). (In British literature, two-wheeled walkers are referred to by the brand name, Zimmer frames. The phrase sounds so sophisticated that I may adopt it.)
This morning I walked to Santa Fe. The pain people had awakened me at eight and I said I had no pain. After the walk, I told the nurse to tell them I’d changed my mind. She gave me something to go with the something I’d already had. They’re free with the pain meds, which I appreciate.
I hope to go to inpatient rehab. Doctors are on board. I’m convinced going straight home would be a recipe for a fall, considering I have to have someone with me every time I stand and walk. And for transport home, they’ll have to tie me to the top of the car. The knee bends a bit but on a good day it doesn’t like to get in and out of the car.
But enough of my griping. I’m fine.
Because I have a killer painkiller–a new book. A book book, paper and everything.
a site devoted to reviews of books that are great reads. Under this umbrella are books written by bestselling authors as well as by debut novelists in both ebook and paper format. Some are traditionally published authors and some are indies.
It’s for recommendations, not rants.
Now to my new book. It’s The Plunge by Nancy G. West, author of the Aggie Mundeen mysteries. Aggie and her good (very good) friend, Sam Vanderhoven, live in San Antonio, where Sam is a detective with the police force. Aggie’s penchant for helping Sam with his cases sometimes gets in his way–at least he thinks so–but that doesn’t discourage Aggie. She’s willing to stay out of his business, but when she thinks she can help . . . and she’s impulsive . . . and when she has the opportunity to check out a new acquaintance’s medicine cabinet . . . impulsive or not, she’s a pretty good amateur detective.
The Plunge takes Aggie in a new direction–away from San Antonio, east about thirty miles to the Guadalupe River in Central Texas. When the Guadalupe floods, the effects can be disastrous, especially for people living nearby. And when there’s so much rain that surrounding creeks, and sometimes even the San Antonio River, overflow, results are devastating for miles around. That happened in 1998.
It’s in October of 1998 that Aggie and Sam plan a getaway at the home of Sam’s friend on Lake Placid, one of the river’s several lakes, ostensibly for pleasure but really so Sam can quietly investigate the disappearance of his friend’s boat. Even a little rain won’t ruin the retreat. But the pleasure weekend quickly turns into a rapid–critical–evacuation. Sam has left Aggie at the cottage to start his investigation and must reach her before the water does. Car motors stall, and at one time Aggie is looking for trees to climb.
Complicating things is that while on the water, in the dark, they see something–a drowning? Or a murder? Now there’s more than a missing boat to investigate.
As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know how the story ends, you’ll have to read the book. It’s a good one.
The Plunge touches me personally because I drove across the Guadalupe River near Lake Placid nearly every working day for twenty-eight years. I worked with people who lost everything, one whose house floated off its foundation. Another, who lived west near San Antonio, watched a car almost wash away on Interstate 10; her son raced to pull it out with a tractor, and the tractor floated. Even where I lived, thirty miles east of the Guadalupe on a smaller, quieter river, houses flooded, and several people were airlifted out.
Using this setting, Nancy G. West combines a first-rate mystery with the urgency and personal toll of the ’98 flood. The Plunge makes for a suspenseful read.
In fairness–and to avoid lying–I admit that the physical therapists are not modern-day Torquemadas. They’re smiling, friendly, and encouraging, and if you look like you’re going to tip over, they grab you. They’re also great at what they do. I have nothing but admiration and gratitude for them.
Disclaimer: As I said, I won my copy of The Plunge from Nightstand Book Reviews. I didn’t buy it, but Nightstand Book Reviews didn’t pay for the review either. We don’t do that. The gift had no influence on my views.
I also said Nany G. West is a friend. We’ve been on a writers’ retreat together (where I don’t think anyone wrote a word, but we went to a lovely tea room). We’ve been to Malice Domestic, where we met at the Guppies Breakfast. She allowed me to take a snapshot of her. She didn’t pay me to say nice things about her book or in any way influence my review.
Patti Phillipsof Nightstand Book Reviews has been a dedicated reader all her life. When not reading or writing about books, she now writes a blog in the voice of Detective Charlie Kerrian. Follow his adventures at www.kerriansnotebook.com,
STABBED, co-written with Manning Wolfe, is celebrating its first birthday!
From October 13 through October 17, the ebook edition is FREE.
Click the link above or the image below to download your free copy from Amazon.
See the book trailer here. Read the excerpt below.
Like all Bullet Bullet Book Speed Reads, STABBED is for readers who want to escape into a good—and fast—read.
I didn’t want to call Hart. I knew him too well.
I didn’t hate him. I’ve never liked extreme emotion. It clouds the brain. It can lead to obsession.
At one time, I guess, I loved him. But love is also an emotion taken to the extreme. I couldn’t afford to feel it again.
Except for Trace. Years before, I had vowed to do my best to keep my son safe and happy. That meant breaking with Hart. He could cut with words like no one else I’d ever met. Sweet Trace cowered in his presence when Hart went on a yelling spree.
But I had no choice. When I found myself that night alone in the dark, covered with blood, I knew I had to call him. Because he would never believe I was capable of murder.
Kathy Waller, co-author of STABBED, is the author of this blog as well as a number of short stories. Read her bio here. Read the rest of her bio all over this blog. She’s still working on a novel. She still lives in Austin with the same two cats and the same one husband.
When we tried to medicate William last night, a pill fell into the pit between the seat of my recliner and the arm, and we weren’t able to locate it. It’s in there somewhere, or it fell through onto the floor under the chair. After a cursory look, we gave up. We feel safe leaving it there because it’s a sure thing neither cat will gobble it up. If it were one of my pills, they would vacuum it up in a nanosecond.
The pill fell because I was careless and William got his tongue in gear and spat it out. We got another pill. Which means he’ll get only twenty-nine pills instead of thirty. William thinks that’s okay.
William is being dosed for pancreatitis. David is the cat holder. Due to my vast experience, I am the pill poker. It took a week for me to remember that coating the pill with butter makes the job easier. William doesn’t resist as enthusiastically and once in his mouth, the pill slides down more easily. He also doesn’t run upstairs after the ordeal, just jumps down and licks the inside of his mouth with vigor but no expression of distaste. Hurrah for butter. We have about two more weeks to go.
Ernest is probably unpillable. We haven’t tried, and I don’t want to.
I use a piller now. I had a piller in years past, but Chloe didn’t take to it, and I didn’t take to Chloe’s offer to use her fangs on my fingers while they were nearby. Every time she had to be pilled, I left her with the vet and let the experts handle her. Same with Christabel. Chloe was wiry and muscular and if she didn’t bite me, she wriggled out of my grasp. Christabel was big and built like Jello and rolled out of every half Nelson I applied.
At the end of this post, there’s a link to a video tutorial on pilling cats. I include it so you can see the piller. The starring vet says the process is easy peasy. Take that with a grain of salt. He’s a vet. He’s had practice. The cat knows resistance if futile. I suspect he’s a clinic cat. Those animals tolerate many outrages with aplomb. I suspect they have no reflexes at all.
My old neighbor, Steve Dauchy, a big orange tom, was a retired clinic cat. One cold winter day, his family smelled something burning and found Steve sleeping on a propane space heater in the kitchen with his tail hanging down beside the vent. His hair was singeing. He woke up when they pulled him off.
One winter night, I woke, reached out my hand, and touched fur I recognized as not my cat. Scared me half to death. I turned the light on, and there was Steve, snoozing away, the third cat on the bed. He’d sneaked into the house when I opened the door, hidden somewhere, and emerged at lights out, I guess. He was very astute. On cold nights, he slept on the seat of the riding lawnmower in his humans’ garden shed, a nice, tight bedroom, but when he saw a chance of a mattress, he jumped at it. The next morning, while Steve breakfasted in my kitchen, I called next door and told the worried humans about the slumber party he’d engineered, and later, when it warmed up, put him outside.
Tonight’s dose went down in record time. David wanted to medicate him before he went to the grocery store, but we waited for him to come downstairs under his own steam. Between four and five-thirty every day, awakened by his circadian rhythms, he waltzes downstairs for insulin and dinner. Mainly dinner. He hardly notices the insulin.
When I was a teen, I read a book about caring for cats. There was a chapter about medicating them. The authors, a married couple, used the terms cat holder and pill poker.
When I pilled my Siamese, Ms., I was both cat holder and pill poker, but after the first few confrontations, she cooperated. I didn’t have a piller, but she didn’t Didn’t open her mouth on command, but I didn’t have to use much force, and she sat still. She was highly intelligent and behaved more like a dog than a cat, except for pilling. Dogs never cooperated.
The Siamese’s first name was Mademoiselle–for some ridiculous reason–until I realized she was liberated, the Gloria Steinem of cats, good looks and all–and I changed it to Ms. That was ridiculous, too, because I called her Kitty. And Puddy. And Puddy-Wuddy. And Feetie-Pie. All the usual cat names.
She produced kittens when she was eleven months old. Her idea, not mine. Wonder of wonders, they were Siamese kittens. Praise goodness for the gentleman Siamese down the street. The kittens would probably have been just as easy to give away as if they’d been generic, but people seemed extra pleased to have purebreds. No official papers, of course. Ms. was not an aristocrat, and considering the kittens were conceived under dubious circumstances, they would never have been accepted into High Society.
My one disastrous encounter with a sick cat occurred at the veterinarian’s. The tech was attending to one end of William and I was holding the other end, the one with teeth. He’d buried his head as far back between my body and my forearm as he could go, considering I had my arm clamped to my side. After suffering indignity for longer than I thought he would, he rebelled. I think he tried to bite me, but he managed only to rub his fang against my arm, hard enough to scrape the skin slightly. Within minutes, I had a budding case of cellulitis–I recognized it as such because I’d had it before from an encounter with cat teeth–and I had to go to the urgent care clinic for pills of my own plus shot of antibiotic. It turned out that William wasn’t sick. That night I wrote a verse about the experience and posted it on my blog, here:
William bit me at the vet,
Didn’t like the aide’s assistance,
Used his claws and fangs to set
On the path of most resistance.
Say I’m teary, say I’m mad,
Say that pills and needles hit me,
Say my arm’s inflamed, and add,
William bit me.
It’s patterned after one of my favorite poems, Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me”:
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
If Hunt and Jane (Jenny) Carlyle were around to read the parody, they might not approve, but if I didn’t like the original, I wouldn’t have used it. I don’t consider my version an homage, exactly, but I’m fond of it. I’m a rotten poet, but I do pretty well at parody, if I do say so myself. I wish I could write them for a living.
I’m can’t write anything for a living. I don’t write fast enough, and as yet I haven’t hit upon the Great American Novel. I haven’t hit upon any novels at all, just short stories. A couple have brought in a few dollars from contests, and those that have been anthologized bring in a few cents in royalties (which are divided with the other authors), but the cents are donated to charity every year (supplemented, of course). The truth is–like many lightly published authors, I would be tempted to pay to get my stories in print or online. But I wouldn’t do that. My efforts are worth at least $0.00.
I didn’t plan to say anything about my literary efforts, but in a stream-of-consciousness post, things just happen, so I’ll happen to add that my stories appear in the three anthologies pictured in the sidebar–MURDER ON WHEELS, LONE STAR LAWLESS, and DAY OF THE DARK. My best stories, two of them, are in Murder on Wheels, which has an unimpressive cover but good stuff inside, so if you buy one, please buy that one. They’re all available in paperback and ebook formats. They might be available from your local public library–if they’re not, I’d appreciate your requesting the library acquire copies.
Royalties from Murder on Wheels go to Meals on Wheels in Austin, Texas. Royalties from Lone Star Lawless go to the Port Aransas Public Library, which lost its collection and everything else to Hurricane Harvey in 2018. Royalties from Day of the Dark go to Earth & Sky, which through its website presents information about science and nature. The radio program Earth & Sky (EarthSky) used to air on commercial, NPR, and other public radio stations, but since June 2013 has concentrated on its website and social media.
So there it is, a disjointed post. I went to bed too late last night and woke up too early this morning, so I can’t work on my novella-in-progress, because the characters are too tired to do or say anything interesting. They’ve already said and done one hundred + pages, but they need to do and say it better. Anyway, since they’re not cooperating, and since I’m tired, too, I abandoned them for this post.
The novella will be out this fall. I won’t mention the title or anything else, because it’s a secret, but you can be sure more Blatant Self Promotion will appear in a future post. Not a disjointed one, I hope.
Now I’ll go back to those characters and try to rev them up. They produced pretty well yesterday, when they were rested, so I know they can do it. With the deadline they’re working under, they need to get on a stick.
This turned out less disjointed than I expected it to. Half about cats, my default topic, and the rest about books and writing. All about me, my perpetual topic. The experts say not to write about yourself, but except for Helen Hunt Jackson’s nineteenth-century novel RAMONA, I’m about all I know.
I’m putting what I know about Ramona on a separate blog, but doing so requires typing a lot of footnotes, and that’s a slow and sleep-inducing procedure. The text is interesting, though, if I do say so myself.
A good day at the Boerne Book and Arts Fest in Boerne, Texas with a group of my Sisters in Crime from the Heart of Texas Chapter
I sold four times as many copies of MURDER ON WHEELS and LONE STAR LAWLESS as I did last spring in Fort Worth–no need to say how many I sold then–but the company of the Sisters would have made it a good day if I’d sold no books at all.
I surprised myself by un-introverting and not only saying hello to browsers but also telling them MURDER ON WHEELS is better than LONE STAR LAWLESS because I have two stories in MOW and only one in LSL. I also said I like my stories in MOW more than the ones in LSL. The not-my stories in LSL might be better than their counterparts in MOW, but let’s face it, when I’m selling my own books, I get to say what’s what.
For future reference, anyone contemplating buying one of the anthologies should buy MURDER ON WHEELS, unless he or she already has a copy. In that case, take the other. My story in LONE STAR LAWLESS is excellent, too. I showed it to my high school English teacher and she said so.
In other news, at The Bosslight in Nacogdoches a couple of weeks ago, I bought a copy of Book Riot’s READ HARDER. Failing to examine it carefully, I thought it was for keeping a record of books read. Imagine my surprise when I later discovered it’s a series of twelve reading challenges. Among them are
-a book about book
-a book about a current social or political issue
-an award-winning young adult book
-a book about space
-a book published by an independent press
-a book that was originally published in another language
So I must make decisions.
I’m tempted to re-read some books–for a book originally published in another language, for example, I’d like to re-read Giants in the Earth, originally published in 1926, which I read in 1975. Written in Norwegian, it was then translated into English by author Ole Rolvaag. It’s the story of Per Hansa, who in 1873 settles with his family in the Dakota Territory. A look at Wikipedia to check my facts reminds me that Giants is the first book in a trilogy, so I’m free to read the sequels, Peder Victorious (Peder Seier) (1928) and Their Fathers’ God (Den signede dag) (1931).
For an award-winning YA book, I’d like to re-read Katherine Paterson‘s Newbery winner Jacob Have I Loved. Although the Newbery is given for children’s books, Jacob is really for older readers, and, I contend, for adults.* As a person of integrity, though, I’ll read a book that’s new to me. Then I’ll read Jacob again.
Note: All of Paterson’s book are exquisite. She believes that once children reach a certain age, they should not be given fairy tale happily-ever-after endings. Her books carry the message that life can be difficult–as it will be–but that readers have the knowledge, courage, and strength to endure, and that there is always hope. The daughter of missionaries to China, herself a missionary to Japan for a year, and the wife of a Presbyterian minister, Paterson writes realistic–and drop-dead funny–books that hold a prominent place among titles most often banned in the United States: Sometimes, when pushed to their limits, her characters say, Damn. They also have problems, have to make hard choices, and are not happy all the time, conditions some adults have forgotten from their own childhoods. Young readers, however, love her stories.
I read part of Madwoman years for a graduate course and found it fascinating. According to Wikipedia, some critics say it’s outdated, but that won’t keep me from being fascinated again. A second edition was released in 2000.
I’ll check the Internet and journals for the subjects of other challenges. The only book I’ll have trouble choosing is one I “would normally consider a guilty pleasure.”
I can’t imagine feeling guilty about reading.
*The best children’s and YA books are for grown-ups, too. Adults who don’t read pictures books don’t know what they’re missing. A good book is a good book.
Here’s a grandmother reading The Wonky Donkeyto her grandchild. Or trying to read it. Pay no attention to background noise.
The man standing beside the SINC Heart of Texas banner is author Nichols Grimes, who kindly let us take his picture.