The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.
And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?
I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.
My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas. As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.
Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!
Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.
Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.
Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.
So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.
If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!
When I was four years old, I took a pair of scissors and a roll of red, gooey adhesive tape and wrote my name on the inside of the kitchen door. It didn’t occurred to me I shouldn’t, and my parents never said a word. I’m sure they discussed it, but I wasn’t privy to that conversation. The crooked red letters stayed on the door for years. When they were finally removed, a heavy red stain remained.
When I was eight, my father gave me a ream of legal-sized paper. I produced a newspaper, one copy per issue, focusing on the social activities of dogs, cats, and horses in the neighborhood. I reported on the wedding of Mr. Pat Boone, my rat terrier, and Miss Bootsie, my grandfather’s evil gray-and-white cat. Miss Bootsie was really Mr. Bootsie, but even then I knew the value of poetic license. Mr. Tommy, my cousin’s orange tabby, married someone, too, but I don’t remember whom or what gender. Or what genus and species for that matter.
For years, I loved writing—the paper, the pencils and pens, the ink, the facts, the improved facts, and the outright fiction.
The feeling lasted until high school, when I began taking courses labeled English. Writing became torture. What will I write about, how many words does it have to be, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t have anything to say. Through high school and two college degrees–in English–I produced the required papers but agonized over every word.
There were bright spots: writing the junior class prophecy, which made even the teachers laugh when I read it at the junior-senior banquet; composing a satire on life in the teachers’ lounge I hid in when I was a teacher, issued serially on an irregular basis whenever the Muse moved me.
Overall, however, my relationship with writing remained conflicted. I pretended it didn’t. After all, I taught English.
Things began to change when I told a therapist about my early love affair with words. He responded, “I think you’d better start writing.” He suggested I join the Austin Writers’ League.
The next day, I joined. James Michener didn’t object. I took informal classes at universities. An instructor invited me to a Saturday-morning writing practice group. The next weekend, I drove fifty miles, parked in front of the café where it met, watched people carry notebooks inside, backed my car out, and drove home. It took another week to build the courage to pick up my notebook to join them and become a regular.
The result? Once again, I fell in love with writing. I also fell in love with a member of the writing practice group and, after a decent interval, married him.
And I published some short stores in anthologies and online, and one novella.
But my romance with writing hasn’t ended happily ever after. I don’t have a long list of appealing topics. I don’t have a file of perfect first sentences. I still have to write to find out what I know and what I think. I always wonder what happens next (and understand why Hemingway, Faulker, and Fitgerald drank to excess). I’m still driven by deadlines—my brain doesn’t turn on till one is upon me—and I write furiously up until the deadline (or, as now, after it).
Starting any piece is difficult. But once I (finally) begin, the words flow.
I wouldn’t exchange that feeling for anything.
In fifteen years, I’ve come from I can’t join the Austin Writers’ League to I’m working on a novel, attending Austin Mystery Writers critique group, writing for publication, blogging, writing every day.
And, contrary to the moans I make when asked how the writing is going, I love every second of it. Mostly.
The therapist actually said, “If you don’t start writing, you’re going to explode.” Since I took his suggestion, more things have changed. The Austin Writers’ League has morphed into the Writers’ League of Texas. The writing practice group that met at the cafe dissolved, and I joined another, Writing from the Heart, which met at BookPeople Bookstore; later it moved to various branches of the Austin Public Library. Now as 15 Minutes of Fame (More or Less), it meets online.
Invitation: 15 Minutes of Fame is free and all are invited to attend—no fees, no dues, no membership registration, no RSVP, no critique, no need write and spell as if your English teacher will scribble on your paper. No need to be a published author or to write “well.” Just have pen and paper or computer ready and show up. We do timed writings—choose a time, write, read aloud what we’ve written (IF we want to read; reading isn’t required), then do it all again. We meet from 10:00 a.m. to noon, on Saturdays; the schedule has been irregular recently but we’re in the process of getting back on track. When it’s stable, we’ll update the website, http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com If you’re interesting in writing with us, email kathywaller1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
Bootsie had long gray hair and green eyes, was beautiful, and slashed both a little girl who tried to pet him every time she saw him, and her owner, my grandfather, who thought he was peachy keen. Pat Boone was mine, and one of the dearest dogs who ever lived.
This post first appeared, with modifications, on Telling the Truth, Mainly.
May 8 was VE Day. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in Europe. Three-quarters of a century ago, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, also known as the Nazis hid in their bunkers, committed suicide or melted into the general population and escaped justice.
Thanks to Hitler’s diabolical determination to have Germany rule the world, over 100 countries were dragged into the conflagration, defined by two major groups. Germany, Japan, and Italy, the major powers of the Axis Alliance, and the major powers of the Allied forces, led by Great Britain, the United States, the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), and to a lesser extent, China. The remainder of the world lined up with one side or the other, with some exceptions, most notably Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal, and they too had to arm and defend their borders. Some of these impartial countries ended up occupied regardless of the “neutrality,” but no matter which side any nation fought on from 1939-1945, now, 75 years later, the world remembers once again and all are glad for its end.
This year’s tributes are, however, quiet, lonely affairs, as the world battles another monster: COVID-19, which is preventing large public ceremonies from marking the end of a war that cost 40 – 50 million lives worldwide, both military and civilian. Lest we forget when we speak and write of the human cost so long ago as numbers and statistics, these were people. They were sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and children, which gives us one inescapable truth. War is hell!
Great Britain lost 450,700 souls. They scaled back their big, planned celebrations: no mass gatherings, no hugging, and kissing. Tragically, many of the remaining veterans who fought in that war are living and dying sad and lonely deaths in nursing homes in Great Britain and throughout the world.
The United States gave up 418,500+ lives. Of these, 2,000 were civilians. The rest died in uniform.
France – Despite their initial collapse and surrender to Hitler, both in their home nation and Indochina, gave 567,600 souls to the war.
After 75 years, Germany must live with the fact that it all began with them. Hidden behind an effort to reestablish the German peoples’ right to live and thrive, was an evil intent that would poison the nation and take upwards of 8,000,000 German lives.
The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic, then in the hands of Josef Stalin, another up and coming devil in history, lost 24,000,000
In Italy, official tributes began on April 25, Liberation Day, marking the date when Allied forces and Italian partisans drove the German occupation army out of the country. Italian losses stacked up at 457,000, including deaths from the civil war that took place simultaneously with the world conflict. For Italy, the war did not end on April 25 or May 8. Italians suffered through three distinctive battles between 1943-1945: Liberation against the Germans, the fight against fascism, the class war that underpinned both, and the struggle to reorganize a nation. On April 25, Italians came out on their balconies and sang Bella Ciao, the Italian protest song. It rang out across the nation.
Often in wars, fight songs are inspired, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, written in 1814, during the War of 1812, and The Marseilles, in 1792, when France declared war against Austria. Bella Caio, the Italian protest song against oppression, originated with the protests of the Mondina women who worked the northern rice paddy fields in the late 19th century. It reemerged during WW II, and has since been translated into 30 languages and has become an international anthem of resistance.
Tributes to the final battles of WW II are not over on May 8. Although the war with Japan ended on August 14, the official surrender date was September 2, 1945. At the war’s end, Japan lost upwards of 3,100,000. September 2, will officially mark the end of WW II, 75 years ago and this commemoration will also be muted by COVID-19, but not ignored.
Several years ago AMW member Laura Oles suggested that I might like listening to true crime podcasts. She kept talking about one titled, Serial.
“Yeah, yeah, I don’t really do the podcast thing.”
Then our family was scheduled to take a trip to West Texas. It’s not exactly a short drive to get there, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to try it out. I downloaded the whole first season onto my iPad and we were off. And ever since then, I’ve been hooked.
Serial’s description of season 1 (2014) from their website,
“A high-school senior named Hae Min Lee disappeared one day after school in 1999, in Baltimore County, Maryland. A month later, her body was found in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.”
And let me tell you, Serial has won many awards and they are well-deserved.
As we left the rolling hills for flat roads flanked by mesas, we were pulled into the story. After each episode, we’d dissect the new evidence and theories. We felt like detectives. Are the witnesses telling the truth? Who is lying and why? Is there other evidence? Why would they make such bad decisions? Hearing the voices of the real people involved made it even more real. Sometimes we’d be certain that someone was going to lie, but after their interview, we were sure that they were telling the truth. *conundrum* It’s not easy being a detective.
And while we were caught up in the drama and intrigue, there were also somber reminders that these were real people who have been caught up in horror and heartache. When you hear how much they hurt, that they just want answers, it pulls at you. How can detectives and reports handle talking to them? I don’t think that just anyone could put together one of these investigative reports. It takes months and even years to follow leads. And it also takes a special talent to walk that thin line of pushing to get answers, and yet remaining sensitive to the feelings of friends and family. The reporters often say to the listeners that they purposefully hold back in order not to re-traumatize people. I think that’s extremely important to mention. And all of the podcasts that I mention follow that rule of conduct. I’m constantly amazed at the editing skills of these shows. Their sense of story is strong. They know how to piece it together while still uncovering new evidence.
Here are other podcasts that I’ve enjoyed. They are fascinating.
“John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”
It doesn’t go like you think it will. But it’s a peek into a fascinating man’s life and the people that know him.
I thought that this show was called “Finding Cleo” and I was confused that the first season was about a woman named Alberta Williams. So don’t let that confuse you.
Season 1 “Sparked by a chilling tip, Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? is an eight-part podcast investigation that unearths new information and potential suspects in the cold case of a young Indigenous woman murdered in British Columbia in 1989.”
The second season is about finding out what happened to a girl named, Cleo. “Like many Indigenous children, Cleo’s brothers and sisters were taken from their community, displayed in advertisements, and sent to live with white adoptive families across North America, through a controversial program called “Adopt Indian and Metis.” They’ve reconnected as adults and are determined to find their missing sister and penetrate the secrets shrouding the truth about Cleo. CBC’s Connie Walker joins in their search, uncovering disturbing new details about how and why Cleo was taken, where she wound up, and how she died.”
Both of these stories are about indigenous families in Canada and the suffering that that communities still experience. I knew that there is an epidemic of women being killed and their plight is just now getting media attention. But I hadn’t known about the Highway of Tears. It’s a highway in British Columbia where many indigenous women have either been killed or dumped. The reporter, Connie Walker, is Cree, so she brings an extra knowledge and sensitivity to her work.
This series has 5 seasons. I’ve listened to the first two seasons.
“In 1972, five-year-old Adrien McNaughton vanished while on a family fishing trip in Eastern Ontario. Despite an intensive search and investigation, no sign of Adrien was found, no clue as to where he might be. The case has hung over the area like a dark mass ever since, especially in the small town of Arnprior, where the McNaughton family lived.”
It was sad and fascinating. I learned a lot about cadaver dogs. (It’s not as gruesome as it sounds.)
“On December 31, 1997, at a New Year’s Eve party broadcast on live TV, Sheryl Sheppard accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, Michael Lavoie. Two days later, she disappeared. In Season 2 of SKS, David Ridgen joins Sheppard’s mother Odette on her search for answers.”
I’m very impressed with his laidback technique for speaking with people. He’s a good reporter.
(I’m interested in season 6, Satanic Panic, but I’m sure I’ll start with season 1. I always have to start with the first one.)
So there you have a list of very good true crime podcasts that will keep you busy. I’ve found that they make a long drive or doing housework more enjoyable. *Forewarning, not all mysteries are solvable. Unlike fiction, they can’t be solved and wrapped up in a bow. I think that adds to the tension and desire for a conclusion. But it also gives the listener a sense of what families and police face in trying to find the truth.
Do you have a favorite? Please, let me know. I’d like to add it to my library.
So, did you dress up for Halloween? Did you buy a mask in New Orleans, or Venice, perhaps one with feathers? What would you wear to a costume ball?
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Oscar Wilde
“Man is a make-believe animal—he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” William Hazlitt
Both statements have some truth. Maybe Oscar Wilde meant that when we can hide our faces, or adopt a disguise, we feel free to do what we want––without hesitation or regret. Yell “trick or treat!” Dance at the masked ball as a glamorous mystery person! Rob the stagecoach! Maybe writers understand Hazlitt: we’re at our best, writing, as we invent characters, invent parts for the characters, invent disguises. Yes, we’re at our best “acting a part…” and we act many parts as we write.
At my college there was a costume room where students could buy clothes from decades earlier. One year a group of us rummaged around and found remarkable outfits which we’d don sometimes for fun. For $1.50 I acquired a stunning long black silk evening sheath from maybe 1919, with black sequin trim under the bodice, slits in the sides of the skirt, and two long black “wings” attached to the shoulders that I could use like a shawl, or like… wings. When I put that dress on––SHAZAM! I wasn’t a young thing from Texas, I was the embodiment of glamour. (Where is that dress?) So, what’s the outfit you wear, or dream about, when you’re ready to put on that black cat-eyed mask from (New Orleans) (Venice) and enter the party? The disguise you’d choose? The disguise that would let you do what you want, learn what you want, go where you want?
Two genres especially abound in disguise: children’s literature, and mysteries.
Disguise lets us learn what may otherwise be unavailable. Think of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn (White’s spelling) enchants Wart (the future King Arthur) by turning him into a perch in the moat. Wart learns to swim from a fish called a tench, who reminds him, “Put your back into it.” He’s taken to learn about power from the King of the Moat, a murderously hungry four-foot long fish: “The power of strength decides everything in the end, and only Might is right.” He learns from his night as a merlin, in the terrifying catechism imposed by the peregrine, that the first law of the foot is “Never to let go.”
Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron need information to foil the Dark Lord, and to raid Gringotts Bank and the Ministry of Magic. They resort to the invisibility cloak, or use Polyjuice Potion to look like Bellatrix, or Crabbe and Goyle.
But knowledge won by disguise carries peril. Wart barely survives the unscrupulous King of the Moat, having to dive “the heartiest jack-knife he had ever given.” The moment when Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak slips, when the Polyjuice potion wears off, threatens exposure and punishment.
Kim, in Kipling’s beloved novel, disguises himself to learn secrets as a child spy for the Company’s intelligence service in India. But Kim doesn’t see disguise as work. He revels in the sheer joy of successful impersonation. He rejoices in the walnut dye that lets him escape on a railroad journey to meet his lama, where he tries out various personae, explaining to the passengers “that he was assistant to a juggler who had left him behind sick with fever.” As the occupants of the train car change, “he varied this tale, or adorned it with all the shoots of a budding fancy…” This joyous talent becomes dangerous as he adopts Mohammedan garb, spying for Mahbub Ali, and priestly garb as he chases Russian spies across the Himalayan foothills.
Maybe Kim’s an exemplar of Hazlitt’s statement, that “man is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” When fate requires a disguise—or just for fun on the Indian railway––Kim uses all of himself to create that disguise, summoning memory, imagination, accent, intonation, clothing, gesture, posture. As actors do! Perhaps all these disguises are part of him…though not all of him.
Like Kim, Sherlock Holmes (or Arthur Conan Doyle) loves disguise. Remember “A Scandal in Bohemia?” Disguises everywhere! First, a client sporting a “black vizard mask” seeks help from Sherlock Holmes. The client’s disguised as the Count von Kramm, a Bohemian nobleman, but confesses he’s actually King of Bohemia. He wants Holmes to “repossess” (snitch) a compromising photograph of the King and the famous beauty Irene Adler.
Holmes himself then adopts disguises. First, to spy on Adler, he appears as “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes,” so convincing that Watson “had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” Next he plots a disguise to gain entry to Adler’s house, where the photograph is hidden:
“He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equaled.”
Watson notes that it was not merely that Holmes changed his costume: “His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.”
But Conan Doyle fools us yet again. Holmes orchestrates a street melée whereby a crowd (of accomplices) carry the clergyman into Adler’s house. When Watson throws a fire rocket through the window, Holmes, as predicted, sees Adler rush toward the photograph’s hiding place. On their way back to Baker Street Holmes happily tells Watson about his ploy, but as he searches for his door key, he hears “Good-night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” from “a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.”
Foiled again––Holmes, that is. Irene Adler, disguised as a boy, has followed him home and confirmed the “clergyman” was Holmes. The next morning Holmes and Watson discover her house is empty, the photograph’s gone, and his disguises were in vain. That’s “how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit,” says Watson.
Holmes does love a good disguise, and maybe that’s why he can recognize one. For another example of his Hazlitt-esque behavior, see “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” where Watson almost doesn’t recognize Holmes as an aged opium smoker, and Holmes susses out the (disguised) truth about the disappearance of a client’s highly respectable husband by (literally) washing clean the face of a notorious street beggar.
Josephine Tey teases us with disguise in Brat Farrar where the mystery turns on whether Brat Farrar, a young man who introduces himself as the long-lost heir to the Ashby family estate, is or is not Patrick Ashby, thought to have killed himself, leaving his minutes younger twin Simon as putative heir. Simon will be dispossessed if Brat Farrar is for real. The point of view is frequently in in Brat’s head, and we must decide if we like this disguised pretender as a protagonist, or not. He himself is ambivalent, arguing with himself about the whole scheme: On the one hand, he thinks, “But I’m not a crook! I can’t do something that is criminal.” But then: “All he could do was sit in the saddle and hope for the best. But at least it would be a breath-taking ride; a unique, heart-stopping ride. Danger to life and limb he was used to; but far more exciting was this new mental danger, this pitting of wits.” As he feels his way along, still in disguise, Brat slowly learns who did kill Patrick. That knowledge nearly kills Brat Farrar.
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh has the murderer disguise his or her true identity in both Photo Finish and A Clutch of Constables. In the first case, the murderer creates a new identity from whole cloth. He accidentally gives himself away to Detective Rory Alleyn in part when Alleyn overhears his soft-voiced use of a Mafia expression. In A Clutch of Constables, the murderer––a master of disguise––entirely steals another’s identity, including his butterfly-hunting expertise, for the duration of a cruise. He relishes his persona and manipulates the unwitting characters like chess pieces on the board of the plot––more in the Hazlitt manner, being most truly himself as he throws himself into the role.
Mystery writers disguise their murderers, their sleuths, sometimes their victims, sometimes their protagonists. I use disguise in my new murder mystery Ghost Cat. I’ll be interested in what you think. Happy reading and writing, everyone!
If we are fortunate enough to have our health and our jobs, we are grateful but still struggling to create a new normal for ourselves and our families. So many of us now have kids finishing their semesters through online school while we’re working full time. Many of our touchstones and daily routines have been upended. We are doing our best each day, although the definition of ‘our best’ also changes on the daily.
Andy Boyle is here to help.
You see, his book, BIG PROBLEMS, was released by Penguin on March 31st. He is one of many authors who has found himself promoting a new book in the middle of this pandemic. Today, Andy shares what he learned while writing BIG PROBLEMS and offers advice on how to keep moving towards our goals—and why taking a break is not only fine, but necessary.
LO: First off, congratulations on your new book! Can you share a bit about the life experiences that culminated in your writing BIG PROBLEMS?
AB: Thank you so much! I’ve been a journalist for about 15 years, and it’s impossible for me to look through things without that lens. So after my first book, Adulthood for Beginners, came out, I was trying to find a meaty subject to sick my teeth into, something that would allow me to use myself as the storytelling and thematic vehicle to explain a big topic. But also, in the end, hopefully help people, which is one of the reasons I became a journalist in the first place.
And the topic I chose is, well, at its heart a mystery. How come a person like me—allegedly well-educated—managed to get so fat, just like millions of others? And then, to add another mystery, how come I was able to lose so much weight (and keep it off), unlike most people?
That led to the pitch for BIG PROBLEMS: A Former Fat Guy’s Look At Why We’re Getting Fatter And What You Can Do To Fix It. My agent liked it, my publisher liked it, and voila. I would research the macro and micro levels that led to myself—and others—getting fat, told through that journalistic lens, while also including quite a bit of levity and humor throughout.
I rewrote the book multiple times to get it right. At one point, I went back and redid about 50,000 words, replacing entire portions of the book, adding in more research, doing more journalism. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of running and weight-lifting and sweating.
But, in the end, I’m quite proud of the end result. I even narrated the audiobook! And I even had a director for that. The entire time I kept complaining about how “the guy who wrote this should’ve done a better job with these sentences.” The joke never got old.
LO: Do you find the habits you learned are harder/easier to stick to in this particular time of being in a pandemic?
AB: I think everything is harder for everyone right now, and folks who are saying it isn’t are, uh, perhaps misstating the facts a little. So, everyone needs to first cut themselves an incredible amount of slack.
But for me, the same habits that led to me losing weight, staying productive, and pushing myself toward healthier decisions, are the same habits I’m using now, which were all focused on certain goals. (For me, objective goals work best. Write 1,000 words a day, eat 200 grams of protein a day, read 90 minutes a day, that sort of thing.)
The only difference is, with everything going on, I’ve changed my goals substantially. Before my book came out, my goal was to be able to bench press a certain amount (225 pounds) for 5 sets of 5 reps, and deadlift 405 pounds for 5 reps. That was what kept me going to the gym regularly, following my strength program, eating properly, everything. When the gym practically disappeared from my life (when I was 10 and 30 pounds from my two goals, respectively), I decided my goals needed to change. With nothing heavy to regularly lift up and down, how could I have that kind of objective goal?
Now it’s much more simple: Workout four days a week (that’s mostly consisted of running 3-5 miles, with the occasional body weight/cables-attached-to-my-door strength training), hit a certain caloric and protein goal and get a good amount of sleep.
I’ve got a full-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times, plus I’ve been promoting a book, plus trying to plot out a novel. So my artistic goals have changed quite substantially, too. I just try and set aside 30 minutes a day now for my non-work projects. That could be spending 30 minutes learning a card trick. Or 30 minutes outlining my novel. Or 30 minutes writing up a character sketch. For me, 30 minutes is quite achievable after my normal work day, and it often ends up being longer than that. If I were a full-time writer, I would definitely have bigger goals. (For instance, when I was drafting my book, my goal was 1,500 words a day, which usually involved the research/interviews/etc., which wasn’t exactly easy when I had a full-time job. But hey, I did it. Somehow.)
Another important point: I don’t beat myself up if I don’t hit my goals. The idea is to try to hit them. If I only exercise three days a week, I still exercised. If I only write 500 words a day, I still wrote. Having goals helps you push yourself toward whatever you’re trying to get done. (Making daily lists of TO DOs helps with this immensely, especially for my day job. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment after I check each one off, even if it’s as simple as “Answer Laura’s wonderful questions she emailed you.”)
LO: Many writers consider themselves introverts, so working in isolation may not be a huge adjustment, but what advice do you have for the more extroverted among us? How are you adapting?
AB: I can walk between both worlds, but if I had my choice, I would be a hermit who lived on a plot of land in my home state of Nebraska with beautiful prairie vistas. I value my private time, especially when I am being creative. But I am also quite adept at putting on “The Andy Show,” to quote a former girlfriend, when I am around other people, AKA being entertaining and fun and Mr. Life of The Party. So, my Nebraska home would need to be like a five-minute drive from a hangout spot at the very least.
As a writer, being around people is great because you sometimes hear random idioms and turns of phrases, which you can then squirrel away into your phone in the NOTE you have titled “COOL DIALOGUE.” It’s also great to be around others because it reminds you how people react to one another, how people dress, how they smile, how they laugh, how they move their hands when they’re nervous, so many things. Just like reading helps to make you a better writer, being around humans helps to make you understand humans better—and as writers, we mostly deal with humans. Win-win.
I have most definitely missed my occasional coffee get-togethers with my writer friends. I’ve been hopping on video chats with people, reaching out more via text. My writing group had a video get-together to critique a draft of a novel of mine, which was lovely. I also held a Zoom “book launch” event the day my book came out, and about 25 people came. It was lovely.
However folks are getting through right now, though, is the “right way” to get through it all, introverted or extroverted. But one thing I’ve learned in my life is, if you’re ever in doubt of whether or not you should email an old friend or text someone to just say hello, just do it. Those connections are important, especially as you get older.
LO: How do you get your mind into a creative space right now? Or is that an unrealistic expectation during this time?
AB: I do it by making the time for it. That sounds like such a cliched thing, but I’ve never been a person who writes because the muse has spoken to my soul. Or because I have been struck with fantastic inspiration and have the entire writing project fully realized in my head.
No, I write because I’ve made a goal of writing XXX words a day, or for XX minutes, or whatever. And then I will usually schedule the writing time in my calendar, and then I get the message that says “10 minutes until WRITE 1,500 WORDS appointment,” which is enough time to go oh shit oh shit I am hungry I need to clean my entire home oh my cat needs new toys oh I should text my girlfriend oh shit oh shit AND NOW I am writing.
It’s work. And just like you gotta show up to your job to do your job (or at least now, log into your computer while wearing sweatpants at home), you gotta show up to do your creative work. And you make time for the work and make an appointment with yourself that you’ll do the work.
I used to be (still am?) a musician. Went to music school for my first two years of college. Studied vocal music performance. (Maybe 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to make such decisions.) What that taught me about creativity is you gotta make time to sit down, practice scales, try work that stretches your brain and skills (also known as: is hard), and just do the work. You make time for it. Over time, you get better. But it’s still work, and it sometimes still sucks and you can’t tell that you’ve gotten any better.
Mozart and Beethoven didn’t just go “Huzzah, I am going to write a piece of music that shall change the world!” (Which probably would’ve been in German.) No, they created a habit: They will try and write something during certain periods of time, probably while cursing in German. (Das ist Scheiße!). Sometimes the work sucked. Sometimes it was Beethoven’s Ninth. Regardless, they followed their process and the work followed.
I’m currently outlining a novel, a method I’ve never really had much success with before. (And you may be wondering, Andy, how much success have you had with previous novels? As I’ve only gotten non-fiction published, that should tell you a lot about my fiction success.) But I sit there for an extended period of time, legal pad in hand, and I just jot down ideas. I make little timelines and draw when events could occur, which lead to some of those ideas I jotted down.
I have to show up by putting my butt in a chair. The creativity happens somewhere while you’re doing the work. And, when you’re actively working on a project, you’ll be out on a run or sitting watching TV and you’ll get a great idea—WHAT IF THE LOVE INTEREST FROM HIS PAST KILLED HIM???—and then you jot it down into your phone’s NOTES tab under COOL IDEAS.
But that’s for me. I always am in need of a project. If you’re juggling 900 things and just trying to keep your head above water right now, you may not have the mental bandwidth for any sort of creative outlet. And that is completely fine. Anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan trying to sell you something or make themselves seem amazing in comparison. Which means they suck.
Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is let your mind get bored through the drudgery of everyday existence.
Q: What is it like, having a book come out in the midst of a pandemic?
It is a weird time to be promoting a book, especially when folks can’t walk into bookstores, check out the “New Releases” table, pick things up, be sold because of the back cover copy or the front cover artwork. It seems like now, more than ever, word of mouth is one of the best ways to promote books.
That means you should be regularly telling your friends books that you’ve loved, in the hope that they will buy them. And then you should also give links to your friends of the independent bookstores they can order the books from.
And this is me, your new internet friend, telling you to pick up my book. And then to tell everyone about it. And then also get Laura’s book. And tell everyone about it. And then tell everyone about another book you’ve loved that they should read.
Andy Boyle is the author of Adulthood for Beginners and an award-winning journalist and technologist. His work has previously been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, Axios, Esquire, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and on NBC News. His work was cited in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. He was also the runner-up in the 2019 Hugh Holton Award through the Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter. A native of Nebraska, he lives in Chicago.
Laura Oles’ debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice nominee. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her most recent short story, “The Deed” was included DENIM, DIAMONDS AND DEATH: Bouchercon Anthology 2019.
Before turning to crime fiction, Laura spent two decades as a photo industry journalist covering technology trends for a variety of consumer and industry magazines. You can find her at https://lauraoles.com
Writers love to dream. We dream when we’re awake and when we’re asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference. Here’s an example.
I woke to the sound of the TV news coming from the other room. This was no surprise as my husband always turned on the telly when he had his morning coffee. What I heard coming from the TV, however, stunned me.
“My fellow Americans,” the President was saying. “I know these next few weeks and months will be very dark indeed. Thousands will die from Covid-19. Many more thousands will become sick. But remember this. We are Americans. Just as our forefathers fought side by side with people they’d never met, races they’d never before even knew existed, followers of different religions, they came together to create The United States of America. Their goal? To form a more perfect union.”
I swung my legs out of bed and joined my husband in the front room, where he sat mesmerized, staring at the TV.
I saw the President was standing alone behind a podium in the White House Rose Garden. “Today it is in that unity that we must come together to help each other through this trying time. It’s amazing what a smile and a wave to a stranger while social distancing can do not only for that stranger, but for you as well. Giving joy brings joy. Sending an encouraging email tells us we can be a source of comfort. Passing on a Facebook joke brings a smile to our face as well as those we’ve friended.”
Entranced, I sat down beside my husband on the couch.
“When Pearl Harbor was attacked, thus bringing the United States into World War II,” the President continued, “the Japanese admiral who lead the attack said, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.’ His fear came to pass.” The President’s smile was victorious. “The entire U.S. population roared to the support of our common cause. We signed up for the Armed Forces, turned our manufacturers into war machine producers, started food banks, sold and bought war bonds. Normal citizens turned into parachute seamsters, hospital workers, night raid wardens and troops on the front line.”
My husband put his hand around my shoulder. I felt him sending me confidence through that hug.
“In the midst of this war on Covid-19–and it is a war–we as a united people under one flag, must now understand that we, too, can be part of the solution. Put on your armor, your face masks, your gloves, etc., arm yourself with sanitizer. Take orders from your generals, or in our case, the medical experts who tell you to wash your hands, stay at home, and when you do have to go out, wear a mask and stay at least six feet away from every person you see.
“Now is the time for the United States to no longer be that sleeping giant, uninvolved and inactive. Let us roar into action, together, united, knowing our attitude will be the difference between the life and death for millions of our fellow citizens. Be positive! Know you ARE the solution! Only together can we defeat this enemy.”
Yes! I thought. I can be part of the solution!
“As your President,” he continued, “I call all Americans to arms. I call the businesses of this country to retool and make the equipment our soldiers on the front lines, the first responders, need to succeed. I call on the wealthy to have a care for our service workers on whom they depend for their comfort. Remember that bartender who knows exactly how dry you like your martini. Remember that masseuse who is the only one who can get that kink out of your neck. I suspect strongly that the wealthier you are the more workers and businesses you will have on your list. I call on every person to be the support each other needs. A smile. An attitude of ‘We’re in this together and, by God (literally), we will get through this.’
“To my fellow politicians I say this.” He gazed straight into the camera. “Right now is NOT the time for assessing blame, dire predictions, threats to our medical experts, or refusing to follow the restrictions deemed best for our country. Time for all of those arguments, judgements, recriminations belongs to a history yet to be written. Right now we’re fighting a war, and as leader of this country, I say we all, including the government, will fight this war as one.”
My chest swelled with pride. We are the United States of America!
“In conclusion,” he said. “I thank all of the first responders, all of the medical experts, all of the businesses and individuals who are rising up to defeat this disease. We are a mighty country. God bless the United States of America.”
I was invigorated. Hopeful. Determined.
And apparently I was asleep.
Suddenly my alarm screamed into my hopefulness, jerking me awake. What the hell?
Then I realized it had all been a dream. Damn. My sense of empowerment and determination seeped away as I became more and more ensconced in wakefulness.
Time to get back to reality. But wouldn’t it be nice if that dream would someday come true?
Feeling confined? Suffering from a bit of cabin fever? Getting Stir Crazy? While we shelter in place, we have an excellent opportunity to find new OR reconnect with outstanding, thought-provoking, uplifting, and entertaining old books and movies.
Yesterday, I was channel surfing, searching for something that would keep my on the treadmill, and I ran across that marvelous old movie, Dragonwyck. Many years ago, I’d read the book written by Anya Seton in 1941, and made into a film in 1946. The movie starred Vincent Price and Gene Tierney (gosh, she was so-o-o beautiful).
This is a deliciously gothic tale of life in 1844, on the upstate New York estate of Nicholas VanRyn, a fictitious member of the very real “Upper Ten” New Yorkers, as described by a leading journalist of the time, Thomas N. Baker, professor of history at SUNY Potsdam.[i]
The story begins at the home of independent farmers, Ephraim and Abigail Wells, and their children in Greenwich, Connecticut. A letter arrives from Abigail’s rich and powerful cousin, Nicholas VanRyn, who admits that he has looked into her background and decided that she and her husband are worthy and of good character, even if only farmers. He invites Abigail to send one of her daughters to him to be a companion and governess to his eight-year-old daughter, assuring her that the girl will receive every advantage that his wealth and position can provide.
The Wells must decide whether or not to send either Tabitha, who has no desire to leave the farm, or Miranda, who spends her time daydreaming of a different life. Miranda, of course, very much wants to go. Ephraim relents despite his misgivings, and Miranda is allowed to go the VanRyn home, where she becomes enchanted by Nicholas and his wealth.
Miranda realizes that something is amiss in Nicholas’s relationship with his wife Joanna, and both are both distant from their daughter, Katrine. From the servants, Miranda hears that the VanRyn bloodline is cursed. It’s rumored that the VanRyns hear the harpsichord played by the ghost of Nicholas’s great-grandmother Azilde whenever misfortune befalls the family. These stories, however, do not dampen Miranda’s obsession with Nicholas and his wealth.
Soon after her arrival, Joanna dies and Nicholas quickly marries Miranda. It is only after marriage that she begins to see the strange, dark side of his character. Now begins the big reveal of murder, madness, and the road to the final tragedy.
In the movie, the pretty pictures in Miranda’s head begin to fracture when Nicholas objects to the woman she’d hired as a personal maid because she limped, but when Miranda tells Nicholas that she is pregnant, he gives in. After the birth of their baby boy, Miranda demands that her son be baptized immediately because of his defective heart. Nicholas objects but in the end allow it, and just in time. The baby is christened and dies in his mother’s arms, and Nicholas’s personality becomes more sullen. Life at Dragonwyck becomes stranger, and more threatening.
Anya Seton’s inspiration for the story was the historical framework of the “manor system,” the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre, and the steamboat races on the river, that often resulted in crashes and deaths. It was all part of life on the Hudson, with its brand of Yankee gothic and ghosts, and where there existed houses and mansions “not unlike” Seton’s Drangonwyck.
The atmosphere in the book is set immediately with Edgar Alan Poe’s poem Alone. From childhood hair, I have not been as others were—I have not seen as others see—I could not bring my passions from a common spring. The opening lines describe both Nicholas and Miranda. He for his hedonist/atheist dark madness, and she for her discontent with the life to which she was born.
Seton uses some of the major conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century in her story. In both the movie and the book, Nicholas’s tenant farmers are ready to rebel against his feudal control; their discontent is woven throughout the book. Nicholas, however, insists that he would never relinquish the lands that had been in his family since they arrived in America.
In the Hudson Valley Magazine, David Levine explains. “Feudalism was declared illegal in New York State in 1782, but the practice continued. After the War for Independence, many farmers found themselves still beholden to these old aristocracies. The farmer paid all taxes, while the landowners paid nothing. The farmer had no right to buy the land, even though, in many cases, the landlords did not have legal title to the land they were renting out. They could be evicted for failure to pay the rent even if they had enough personal property to cover the debt.” Farmers began to question why, after their ancestors had fought for freedom 50 years earlier, were they still held under the yoke of another European master.” [ii]
Seton also uses The Astor Place Massacre of 1849 as a major turning point in Miranda’s and Nicholas’s story. By May, 1849, Miranda is in a constant state of anxiety trying to please Nicholas. While in New York City, they go to the theater with friends on May 10. The great actor William Charles Macready is starring in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When they arrive a mob has already formed in front of the theater. At the end of the play, the theater manager tells the audience to exit through the back doors and they would be led to safety. Nicholas refuses and seems frighteningly elated by the prospect of bloodshed. He insists on exiting through the front doors, “the same way they came in.”
Nicholas involves himself in the fight and is wounded. After the incident, he and Miranda return to Dragonwyck, where he becomes more morose and distant, spending most of his time in his tower room. Nicholas’s and Miranda’s marriage and their lives together disintegrate, and the story climaxes, as it must, in an attempted murder and death.
Although the movie takes certain liberties with the story because it cannot delve deeply into all of the author’s characterizations and historical events, it hits the major points well, and Vincent Price as Nicholas is the outstanding performer. Both the movie and the book are well worth becoming (re)acquainted with while confined to home.
In addition to Dragonwyck, if anyone is interested in the Astor Place Massacre, I highly recommend Nigel Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots, which I intend to re-read while sheltered in place.
Stay well, and stay safe!
Maybe you recall an interview like this, a chance for a fellowship.
Three dour English academics at eight a.m., staring skeptically at me, siting tense in my penitentially hard wooden chair.
First question: “Do you like poetry?”
“No!” I blurt.
“Not even Keats?” – the horrified response.
I try, fruitlessly, bootlessly, to explain, a la Marianne Moore. Poetry requires the reader to take a deep dive, to concentrate, commit time, hoping the poet isn’t just producing a clever crossword puzzle with arcane clues, but offering a key to the universe. To the meaning of life. So I don’t “like it” like one likes, say, certain music.
End of interview.
A murder mystery, in contrast (I’m still arguing this decades later), invites the reader to notice the clues and…participate. Even have some fun.
Here are three poets who offer not only fun, but some good advice for mystery writers.
Do you know “Passengers” by Billy Collins, about the airport waiting room? The first couplet grabs all of us:
At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
With the possible company of my death,…
We’re there. We’ve been in those blue seats, we remember the people near us, the girl eating pizza, the kids on the floor, the guy on his interminable work call.
Collins does this so craftily. “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.” Yup. And as we board, doesn’t the thought cross our minds that this plane may be the death of us? He’s got us in the first couplet.
Here’s another, “The Lanyard.” First couplet:
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
Off the pale blue walls of this room…
We’ve all felt like that, bored… then:
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
Where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard…
That word lanyard! We all know one use for a lanyard. We’re straight back to camp, trying to braid gimp into a present for, yes, probably our mom. Billy Collins got us with “lanyard” in the title, and with his “ricocheting slowly” off the walls, which is just how we feel sometimes. In two lines he has our full attention. We’re already there with him, remembering the gimp, the braids, the other campers, and letting our eyes go down the page to see where he’s taking us.
Or how about Elisabeth McKetta’s collection, “The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell”? Take, for example, “An Occasional Elegy for Milk,” with its first couplet:
Weaning my daughter felt
Like breaking up with her.
In short poems in the last sections (2009, 2014) of his vast collection, Oblivion Banjo, Charles Wright takes us outdoors to face big themes (time passing, mortality). Here’s the beginning of “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:
The mares go down for their evening feed
Into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—
Some sway, some don’t sway.
We’re there. Present tense, two mares, evening feed, pine trees. I won’t tell you how it ends: you’ll want to get there yourself. Similarly, his “Tutti Frutti”:
Little Richard in full gear—
What could be better than that?
Obviously you want to know the answer. In eleven lines you’ll have it and be riffling through the pages for more.
Well! Here’s a poem worthy of time and attention. This insight, this simile, zooms straight to the heart and the brain. It’s real. Memory stirs, and we are there inside the poem. Not locked outside waiting to grasp the oh-so-secret clue, but right in the room.
We mystery writers seek vivid images, strong verbs, intriguing details. Like poets. We too want readers picking up each clue, following our character to the end. These poets, these poems, show how a first line can convince the reader to go on to the next line, and the line after that, not feeling that the writer’s just showing off erudition, or hiding a great meaning we’ll be lucky to find, but as if we’re invited into the enterprise, we’re in the waiting room, we’re watching the mares, we’re all in it together.
P.S. If only I’d read Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” before that interview! I could have said something about how we don’t want to “torture a confession out of” a poem….Oh well.
Reading a novel by Alexandra Burt means you must be prepared to ignore everything else because her stories will keep you captive until you reach the last page. Skilled in short stories, true crime and crime fiction, Burt delivers two fantastic reads this year. I asked Alexandra to share her thoughts on world building , true life haunts, and how she approaches the craft of writing suspense.
It looks like 2020 is a big year for you. You have a new novel and a true crime story coming out this year. Let’s start with your contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories. What can you share about your story?
My contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns is a cold case that happened in my hometown in 1983. It was the height of the Cold War and at its core it is about the threats I faced, literally and figuratively. My hometown, Fulda, is a baroque town in central Germany located between the Rhön and Vogelsberg mountains. Seemingly plucked from Grimm’s fairytales, but Fulda has a dark history. Nothing about the rolling hills and farms dotting the landscape hints at Fulda as the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen. Fulda Gap, two lowland corridors, two obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany from Eastern Europe were the likely invasion route of Russia, the spot where U.S. and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. The threats were ever-present. When I hiked in the marshes by the border, East German look-out towers with guards and spotlights stared back at me in the distance.
In 1983, I happened to be close to the scene of a crime, a quarter of a mile, the way the crow flies. A child died and the killer remains at large, the case was never solved, the killer never apprehended. There’s the story of a life cut short, and then there’s my story. Thirty-seven years have passed and the Cold War summer of 1983 still clings to me like a second skin. I have raised a daughter and I write crime fiction but I have never forgotten the girl that lost her life before her life even began. I have made a life for myself in the Hill Country of Central Texas, in the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau that is not unlike the Hesse highlands of my childhood. But I never learned to trust the world with my daughter’s life. I’ve learned that a watchful eye is not enough, that a simple moment of inattention, a minute of carelessness, can turn into something that cannot be undone. And little girls don’t always make it home alive. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world, and so I write about them.
Shadow Garden is your latest crime novel. Tell us a bit about what inspired this story?
My previous book The Good Daughter was released days after the election in 2016 and during that time I felt as if the majority of the country fell into a dark hole. Including myself. I had the urge to examine if the same was as stake for all of us, if people of wealth, power, and affluence deploy a different set of principles when confronted with crime. It started out as a moral thought experiment, wondering about all the complicated ways money messes with morals. We know wealth impacts our sense of morality, our relationships with others, and our mental health. Is it true that the more you have to lose, the harder you fight to keep it, whatever ‘it’ may be? Money, a reputation, a standing in the community? Is being rich inherently immoral and if so, but what are the consequences? I imagined Donna Pryor, a woman of humble beginnings, who has everything but the truth of what happened to her family. From there I allowed the story to unfold organically and I sat by and watched them get to the truth of who The Pryors really are. Shadow Garden’s initial title was “The Many Incarnations of Donna Pryor” and I mention it because the book had quite a few incarnations itself. It started out as detective novel, purely comprised of interviews, then it turned into a family saga spanning decades before and after a crime occurred, just to arrive at Shadow Garden, an estate at the end of a rural road and a life of privilege that begins to crumble and somewhere in the ruins is the truth.
Many who read your work comment on your ability to combine heightened suspense with fully drawn characters in a compelling setting. Is there a certain aspect of word building that comes more easily to you? Is there a part that’s more challenging?
First of all, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. The beginning of a novel is a very long period of imagining the setting and the people and I don’t take notes nor do I examine plot but I create the characters’ world. There is nothing else for a while, the characters really live at my house and eat at my table and not until the first draft is complete are they allowed to huddle and regroup. I don’t struggle with world building since it is ground zero at the beginning of a new project and anything is possible. There’s huge freedom in the vast scope of a new project. I am always very sure of the setting but the plot changes endlessly and often and the characters usually end up needing work. It’s a matter of having a great editor, which I have, and revising draft after draft, after draft.
When I was younger I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school but then abandoned that path. There is still a lot of visual artist left in me. It’s the first thing I imagine in any project, novel or short story—what is the essence of it; a still-life in oil or a landscape in watercolor—and the setting becomes a place and then it becomes a world and a clock ticks in the background to give it pace and there is structure and meaning which turns into a theme. Long story short: once I commit, I’m all in for however long it takes to make that world come alive the best way I know how.
Readers are often curious about their favorite authors’ habits. What is your daily or weekly schedule like? Do you ever get stuck? If so, how do you find your way out?
Unfortunately I’m still struggling to keep a schedule and all writers are powerless to real life happening as they work. I take it day by day, keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. It’s a best-laid plans kind of thing; most days writing doesn’t turn out as well as one hopes. One should not expect for things to always turn out to plan. My daily schedule looks something like this: after a workout (more often than not a workout competes with falling into a two-hour social media hole), I sit at my desk and pick up where I left off the previous day. Sometimes there’s an abundance of oxygen for that task and I just kind of go with it, other days it’s just not flowing. Be that as it may, there are deadlines and word goals and I swear by something I have discovered a few months ago: focus music. It promises laser productivity and a boost in focus. Simply put, it is music void of both ultra-low and overly loud bass and high pitch sounds that tend to become annoying over time. There are no ruptures, no pauses, no breaks or major volume deviations. The type and number of instruments remains constant through hours of play and the music follows a particular pattern mimicking the brain waves present in a focused state and eventually the brain waves mimic the music. It’s my secret weapon. I will write and look up and realize three hours have passed. It may not be a way ‘out’ but it’s a way to remain ‘in’, if that makes sense?
I do get stuck at times and I wish I knew of a magic potion but I kind of obsess about it and just keep my fingers crossed and hope to spot the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all you can do is chip away at a problem and hope for the best and so far it’s served me well. Still wouldn’t mind some sort of a potion though.
— Alexandra Burt was born in a baroque German town in the East Hesse Highlands. She moved to Texas and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, she decided to tell her own stories. She currently resides in Central Texas. Remember Mia (2015) is her first novel. The Good Daughter was published in February 2017. Her third novel, Shadow Garden, is forthcoming in July, 2020. She is working on her fourth novel. She has contributed to Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime, and The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns. Her short stories have appeared in publications and literary reviews.