Archive | April, 2012

A Good Book I Read Lately

28 Apr

“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They
read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t
buy any more. The first page sells that book. The last
page sells your next book.”
                         MICKEY SPILLANE

I am a sucker for a good mystery, especially one set in Italy. Besides the sheer pleasure of getting lost in a good book, as a mystery writer, I love to see how other writers in the genre practice their craft. There is probably room for as many mystery novels as there are writers with unique mystery voices. This is one of the best and most unique that I have ready late.

The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri

Translated from the Italian, The Potter’s Field in the latest in the series featuring Inspector Montalbano, a police detective in the fictional town of Vigáta, Sicily.

The story begins when a local man finds a dismembered body in a plastic bag in an area called “‘u critaru,” which is Sicilian for “the clay-field.”  Even as the police officers fight a driving rainstorm to reach the site where the body was found, their personality quirks illustrate the relationships of these men. Montalbano must identify the victim, find the killer and deal with personality conflicts in the police department at the same time. The first of those tasks turns out to be comparatively simple, due to skillful forensic work when a dental bridge is found in the victim’s stomach.

The case becomes much more involved when the victim is found to have connections to a local Mafia boss. To complicate matters further, one of Montalbano’s officers has been in a particularly bad humor for some time, and his romantic entanglements also have a bearing on the case.

With all these pressures going on in his life, Montalbano begins to dream of retirement, but he is able to see through the complexities and identify the betrayals, as he connects the potter’s field where the body was found to the Bible and the betrayal of Judas for thirty pieces of silver.

This is the first in this series that I have read, and I felt that I missed out not knowing the background. However, Camilleri’s descriptions of the foibles of the police officers often had me laughing out loud, even as I read the gruesome details of the crime. Only an author with true knowledge of Sicilian life could create a story which reflects the unusual setting, as well as the human weaknesses and idiosyncrasies that are universal.

Where Do I Set My Story?

25 Apr

“There is no happiness in love, except at the endof an English novel.” (Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers)

The passage through Dover Castle at the right just can’t help sparking my imagination.

How Does an Author Choose a Setting

Why did I set The Gate House in England?

The simple answer to that question is — because that’s where the story is. But obviously there is more to it than that.

Setting is one of the crucial elements of fiction, but it is not arbitrary. A writer cannot pick up the plot and characters of a story from one location and drop them down unchanged in another. Even though the characters are what make readers care and keep turning the page, setting shapes the characters as much as the other influences in their lives.

I think my fascination with setting comes from my love of travel. I often “see stories” when I visit a location away from home. Different locations evoke ideas of different kinds of emotions and plot ideas. Washington, DC, where I spent a recent week-end, is a setting full of enormous political power and history. A story set there must somehow touch on those elements. A trip to Lincolnshire, England, where my husband’s family originated, inspired The Gate House, when we spent an unplanned couple of nights in a bed and breakfast of that name. This setting called me to create a story of mystery and the layers of history that are so present in England.

Setting can almost be considered another character, as the time and place of the story interact with the other elements. Literary themes and human emotions may not change over time, but how the pieces fall together can create unique and compelling stories.

Do you every choose a novel based on the setting? Are there certain setting you prefer?

Solving Mysteries at the Library

22 Apr

I spent yesterday afternoon hanging out with the reference librarian at Haverford Township Free Library in Pennsylvania. Although spending time at a library is not a new experience, this was a special event.

As a member of Sisters in Crime, an organization that promotes writers and readers of quality crime fiction, I participated in this event in order to find out how librarians solve mysteries everyday. Haverford Township is in suburban Philadelphia, and there was a steady stream of library clients of all ages during the three hours of the Saturday afternoon whenwas present.

(At left is Keegan Fink, reference librarian at work.)

While sleuths in mystery fiction often rely on their hunches to solve a crime, I soon found out that librarian frequently rely on that same intuition to figure out what a client wants when he or she asks a question. For example, people often approach a librarian saying, “I’m looking for a good book. What do you suggest?” The librarian then needs to ask a few questions to direct the reader toward a book that would be of interest, because everyone has a preference of what they like or do not like to read. They are often just looking for something new.

I also learned that at the Haverford library a client can “book a librarian” for an hour for help with a specific problem. Some common topics are writing a resume and help with technology. Many people who have new e-readers come to the library for help in learning how to use these devices.

I loved the lively atmosphere of the library, and the willingness of the staff to answer questions and just generally be of help. When a client asked, “Do you have a magnifying glass?” Sure enough, the reference librarian pulled one out of a desk drawer.

My conclusions: People are reading more everyday, both traditional books and e-book. Libraries are on top of the newest technology, but still maintain a wonderful person-to-person outlook.

Walking and Writing

18 Apr

East Coast Pink Dogwood

With the early arrival of spring on the east coast of North America, I am thrilled to be out once again for my daily walks. But I have to confess that I don’t do earphones. All right, I carried my smart phone with me to use the camera, but I resisted pulling it out to check Twitter or Facebook while I walked. Yes, I have done that.

As a writer, it is important for me to allow my mind to relax to make room for creative ideas. I have never felt comfortable with earphones in my ears, not even on long plane trips. I may have deformed ears, but they just aren’t comfortable. I’ve tried listening to audio books and podcasts while I walk, but I end up fiddling around with my phone and do not come back with my mind refreshed. So I walk the old-fashioned way, with my eyes and ears open to the world around me, and allow the ideas and thoughts to bounce around in my head unimpeded by music or talk. Some of the ideas are even worthwhile.

How do you clear your mind to write? Or if you are not a writer, how do you unplug and relax?

How much do writers read?

14 Apr

I was a guest author on a mystery panel at a local library last week, and we were asked the question: How much do you read while you are writing a book,and do you worry that what you are reading will influence your writing?

I read constantly. I read before I go to sleep, while I eat lunch, in doctors’ waiting rooms, while I brush my teeth (yes, I really do), and other odd moments throughout the day. And with the things that happen in my life, I have quite a few really odd moments.

But I don’t worry that what I read will influence what I write in more than the most subtle ways. I learn from my reading, and am constantly motivated to write better because of what I read.

I don’t understand people who say they don’t have time to read. For me, reading is like breathing. Would I not have time to breathe? If I didn’t read, how would I know how to write?