Monday, May 24, 2010

Where Did Marge Christensen's Talent Come From?

Marge Christensen is a water color pencil artist. Why? I know next to nothing about water color pencil art.

When I first started the Marge Christensen Mystery Series, I was looking for something a little bit different. Cats and crafts and catering were well represented in the cozy mystery genre, and anyway, I wasn’t proficient enough in any of them to make it the “hook” for my series. As it turned out, having Marge be an artist was just right for the way the series developed. I have a feeling it was one of those areas where the characters told me what was true for them rather than the other way around.

In What Did You Do Before Dying?, Marge’s art started as a symbol of what she had given up when she married and had children. After the death of her husband, she began to reclaim her talent and to hope it might be a way to a new beginning. In the end, it was a unique aspect of her talent that helped bring some bad guys to justice. In Why Did You Die In the Park?, that talent led her to questions that would never otherwise have arisen. And by the time Who More Than Wanted You Dead? came about, she was beginning to depend on it to help discover who did the deed. Because, even if she couldn’t otherwise recall something she had seen, her fingers never forgot.

I only knew about water color pencil art as a serious art form because a sister-in-law, Phyllis, who unfortunately died young as a result of an auto accident, practiced it. She painted a picture as an anniversary gift for my husband and me which made me a believer in the medium at first glance. When I adopted that as Marge’s chosen art form (or she chose it for me) I figured it would be a sideline to the plot, a way to honor Phyllis. I wouldn’t have to know anything more about the art. When it became a central element in the series, I knew I was doomed to educate myself.

I purchased a kit for learning water color pencil art. Fine, as long as I was using its templates and following its instructions to the letter. Otherwise, my attempts looked more like something a first grader might do. Then I discovered some artists combined water color pencils with water color paints. That helped, but it wouldn’t make an artist out of me. I took a drawing class (all the painting classes were at bad times for me) from my local community college. The instructor convinced me that my college art teacher who, many years ago, had left me with the impression I couldn’t draw was all wet. But it didn’t make an artist out of me.

So I struggle along, trusting that Marge or Phyllis or whoever put this idea in my head will lead me when I have to deal with it. At a recent book presentation, someone asked if a person’s fingers could really draw something the person couldn’t otherwise remember. I had to tell the truth. I have no idea. But it seems to work for Marge.

Monday, May 17, 2010

My Writing Style

I don’t outline. I try to outline, but it doesn’t seem to work. If I struggle to put together some kind of framework for the book, because that is what you’re supposed to do, it is either destroyed before I finish the first chapter or I am bogged down in fitting the action into the outline and the story doesn’t flow.

Sometimes I wonder if I write the first draft of the books at all or if someone else is channeling through me. The characters often go where they want to go, do what they want to do, and have conversations that seem to come out my fingertips without going through my brain. When they decide to take a break, I might as well put the book aside for a while. It’s time to blog or promote or do the dishes or something until they come back.

Some planning has to be done, however. For instance, it took so long to write the first two books in the Marge Christensen series that I need to fast forward in time between each subsequent one or continually write about the past. That involves knowing what has happened to the characters since the last book before starting the next one, while not skimming over anything the reader will want to be in on. And I normally have to decide who is going to get killed, and usually where, and sometimes how, though I often don’t know any of that or, especially, who did the deed until I’m well into the book.

The first draft of my books are always at least ten thousand words shorter than the shortest books in the mystery genre are supposed to be. That’s because my characters don’t always look around them. They miss clues, which I have to spell out for them. They don’t observe their surroundings, so I, not a visual person myself, have to try to make them clear for the reader. It’s up to me to polish words and sentences, make sure the plot hangs together, and to plug any loopholes. I usually go through three or four drafts before I feel the book works. But it is still too short.

After all of that, I do some word searches. Do you know how many times a person can use the word “then” or “and then” in telling a story? Too many! I find every one of them. Getting rid of them always leads to more active, vibrant language, which means telling what happened in the “then” space always adds good words to the book. Not like the word “just”, which mostly just (oops) gets deleted.

I’ve learned not to worry if the book is still somewhat short before going to the editor. Editors, because they come from a different perspective, have this way of spotting what you have missed. That’s why I have my books edited by two different people. Two different perspectives. The third book in the Marge Christensen series reached the desired length when I revised it after the first editing. That’s good, because one never knows if the second editor will want to take some stuff out!

I’m now trying to get a start on my fourth book in the Marge Christensen Mystery Series. I’m only doing this, you understand, because Marge let me know there was still more going on in her life. Because at the same time I’m trying to start a new series set in Michigan, where I now live. I might have given up on this idea, since Marge is so insistent that I pay attention to her, except that the characters have already taken over. They have let me know they have a story to tell, and I just (oops) have to get started and let them tell it.