Celebrating a Life

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The death of a mystery writer: it sounds like the title of a novel (and has been used.) But in this case it is Real Life. It’s a sad but expected part of living, part of knowing lots of people a little over the years as well as having your own close clan. Illness, accidents, and tragedy, well, they exist. Like it or not.

Last week a writer I knew took his own life. A heartbreaking part of the human story. I wasn’t close to Jerry Healy – who wrote under his own name, Jeremiah Healy and a pseudonym Terry Devane – but he was outgoing and friendly and like many newbies he befriended me somewhere along the line, at conventions and conferences. Among other things he’d been an MP in the Army and didn’t mind if you gave his bicep a squeeze. He liked everyone and had a big booming voice and a laugh to match. Once a law professor (always a law professor…?) he could lecture on topics he loved, crime writing, lawyering, and tennis.

In 2006 I was in Europe for an extended time and my husband and I joined the International Crime Writers in Zaragoza, Spain. It was a small group, about 25 or 30 writers plus spouses. We had a great time on that trip, visiting Goya’s childhood home and looking at his etchings, eating traditional Spanish food at a fancy winery, and being feted by the governor in the fabulous capitol building with its trumpeting valets and painted ceilings.

It will surprise no one who knew Jerry that he made a few impromptu speeches during that trip. After awhile the Bulgarian crime writer who bore a striking resemblance to Boris Yeltsin would raise a glass and call out, “Jerry Jerry USA,” with a twinkle in his eye whenever Jerry stood to speak.  Jerry led the IACW for some five years and was known to crime writers from Iceland to Bulgaria, Italy to Cuba. Naturally his last name sometimes became ‘USA!’ He would have liked that, the old Army MP in him, I think.

BluntDarts-small-97x150In celebration of Jerry’s life and work I am giving away a copy of his first book, the one that introduced him and his private eye, John Francis Cuddy, to the world. Of Blunt Darts the New York Times said, “Mr. Healy writes so well that he tends to transcend the cliches…The plotting is impeccable, and everything comes together to make BLUNT DARTS one of the outstanding first mysteries of the year.” Booklist said, “Healy offers a hard-hitting plot full of clever twists and turns. For readers who like the hard-boiled style shorn of any nouvelle flourishes.” 

Jerry will live on through his books. I can’t wait to read them all. Sign up for the mailing list to enter to win BLUNT DARTS. Everyone on the list as of September 7 will be entered.

Spring cleaning, writer-style

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Run AWAY quoteSpringtime!? It’s almost here. In my office it’s a time to regroup, plan, and finish up projects. As I wrap up The Girl in the Empty Dress and before I start my next novel I want to share a little of my writing process for other writers.

This book took me less time to write than most of my other novels in recent memory. (I have written a good handful that have never seen the light of day, including that one where I tried to write ten pages a day. What a mess that one was.) Anyway, I got organized this time. Experience with the process is a big help of course. Every time I write a novel I learn a little more about what works and what doesn’t. I can more swiftly recognize when I’m off track or something is just plain boring. More often I write something off-base that is GORGEOUS and HEARTWRENCHING. That doesn’t mean it makes the cut. Usually the opposite.

This time I uScreen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMsed two tricks. The first is a software program called Scrivener. You may have heard of it or used it yourself. I know I’ve tried to use it before. It looks like this, an on-screen bulletin board with index cards for chapters, files for characters and settings on the left, and so on. So far, so good, right? I’m pretty visual and looking at it on the computer screen, being able to quickly shift back and forth between outline and manuscript is helpful.

I admit, I am a pantser. In the past I have written rough outlines of novels and mostly knew how they were going to start and how they were going to end. The middle? The dark, murky unknown. But guess what? It’s harder that way. One of the problems that comes up is the sudden appearance of a new character, small or large. What is their name? What do they look like? What is their agenda? (Every character has an agenda.) Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.19.06 AM

Scrivener helps you by getting you to think about these characters, name them ahead of time, or at the very least describe them. Here is a sheet I did called “Bad Guys and Secondaries.”

Okay, so I’m getting organized, thinking about all the possible characters, how they interact, what they want. But how is this helping with the plot? In a crime novel especially the plot matters. It matters as much as the characters. Well, almost as much. In some thrillers the plot matters more than the characters. Plotting and structure is the first big hurdle for most beginning writers.

My second trick: using a Scrivener template. Yes, they are out there, templates that use the program but overlay it with story structures based on certain authors or genres. My template is from one of my favorite writing books, Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering. His website, StoryFix.com, is also a wealth of information.

Someone else has developed a Scrivener template based on his Beat Sheet. (Here are a number of useful Scrivener Templates.) I do recommend reading the book first but in case you want to jump in with both hands on the keyboard, here’s the short version. Beats are where the story changes, similar to plot points. There are small beats and large beats. The basic structure is shown in the first screen shot: Set up, Response, Attack, Resolution.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.18.11 AM

Seems simple, right? Well, structure looks simple from the outside but putting it into practice, making your story work the most effective way it can, is both simple and incredibly nuanced. And, just like the old plot outlining you may have done, things go awry. Those chapters you stuck in for part three because you really had no idea how things were going to go? They get changed. Many scenes changed and clarified for me as I went along. That’s called creative writing. But because I knew how much time I had until the next Story Beat, what needed to happen before that Beat, I stayed on track. That’s what these tools do for you. They don’t tell you how to write your book, they make it easier to see your goals, what your story needs to do and when it needs to do it.

Here’s how my Attack section, part three, looked when I finished. The Attack section, a reaction to the problems set forth in the first two sections, is full of short, punchy chapters, lots of action, comings and goings. The board reflects this with all 14 cards full. In other sections I didn’t have 14 chapters that Scrivener gives you (you can add more.)

There are all sorts of writing tools that help you outline and organize. Finding one that works for you can be a struggle. But after using Scrivener and the template this time, I think I’ve found a winner. But who knows. Maybe I’ll reinvent myself for the next book. (Oof. What a thought!) No, I think I’ve got a system now. Time to get going on the next book!

What happens after

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As a crime writer I often have to deal with death — fictionally. But as most of us have, I also have experienced the loss of a loved one. John Haddaway McClendon, my father, would have been 91 today. I miss him, of course, and wanted to do a memory piece for him today, nearly eight years after his death. There are many things he missed these last years, college graduations, a wedding, the birth of his great-granddaughter. He would have enjoyed them all, in his quiet way. He was a shy man although life made its requirements on him and he adapted. His father was an academic and 40 when he was born. His mother died when he was 16, of cancer, which must have made a mark on him. He followed his father into university life (my grandfather, Jesse F. McClendon taught physiology to medical students at the University of Minnesota) and was above all else a student, a researcher. He graduated from high school as World War II broke out in Europe, and joined ROTC at Minnesota. After college he was in Army Intelligence (maybe that’s where I get my love of intrigue!) and spent six months learning Japanese in preparation for the invasion that never occurred. He had a lifelong love of Japan after spending a year there with his parents and older brother when he was 11. After the war ended he was sent to Japan for the Occupation, where he met my mother, a secretary from Texas who worked in his office. They knew each other for six months before tying the knot, and were married for 57 years.

Those are the basics. John taught and researched plant physiology his entire career and continued his interest in the origin of species in a book he wrote after retirement — we still have to get that book together, sisters! (Grandsons?) It sits on his computer, waiting for us to rediscover it. John had three daughters, none of whom followed him into science, a consequence that never seemed to bother him. Or if it did, like many things, he never mentioned it. He ended up with four darling grandsons to make up for the lack of sons. They often remind me of John. They are tinkerers and thinkers, conjurers of brew, hands-on builders of stuff,  outdoor adventurers, and computer whizzes — all things he loved.

My father had to teach freshman biology every so often at the University of Nebraska. It makes me squint just thinking about. I never took a course from him, but now I wonder why. I should have. I had friends who took classes from him. I’m sure he wasn’t the best lecturer in the world and public speaking was low on his favorites list but I’m also positive that his students felt his genuine love of pure science and the way it relates to the world we live in. (Zero Population Growth was one of his passions.) I can hardly remember one thing my father ever said about his teaching. He wasn’t one to discuss his work, successes or not. Like many academics he felt his work spoke for itself, or maybe that none of us would understand. A family story — when I was about six or so and wanted to be noticed by my father (middle child, what can I say: I always wanted to be noticed) I climbed on his lap, stroked his cheek, and said in a vampish voice: “Tell me about your enzymes.” I still have no idea about enzymes, not really. So if you, blog reader, want to tell me about your enzymes, go ahead.

My father named me Lise after a physicist he admired, Lise Meitner. An Austrian physicist, Meitner helped develop nuclear fission. The spelling is often a problem, people never know how to pronounce it (lee-za) but I will never change it. (Yes, I am still daddy’s girl.) He loved to sail, a consequence of growing up in Minnesota around all those lakes. He had a sixteen-foot sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay when we were young, and made us a little yellow bathtub sailboat with a polka dot sail to learn on. I’ll never forget sailing with him around the Bay, and the time the wind knocked the boom into him, he tumbled overboard, and lost his glasses! Fun times!

In 1999 my parents came out to Montana for a vacation in our ski house at Big Sky. My book, Nordic Nights, had just come out and I was going on a little tour around the state to bookstores. I piled the kids and the grands in the Suburban and hit the road. I love so much that we were able to share that time together. Like my father I don’t like to boast about my work. Writing, like research science, is a pretty private affair. My father loved to read and would often pass me mysteries he loved, like Tony Hillerman or P.D. James. He particularly liked James, whose books include brainy characters like himself. At a reading in Whitefish someone asked me if I was Norwegian like my character, Alix Thorssen. My father popped up in the back of the room (so much for shyness!) and said: “The Scots are just shipwrecked Vikings, you know!”

He had a great sense of humor. Mostly he loved a good pun — “the lowest form of humor.” I will always remember his laugh — even if I have forgotten all those puns. I hope you’re enjoying a pun and a dram of single malt with Darwin, Daddy, wherever you are. Love you always, Lise.