What I learned about writing from reading The White City by Alec Michod

WhiteCityThe White City
By Alec Michod
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004

I’ll start off by saying that I didn’t actually like this book. I finished it not because I needed to know how it ended, or because I cared about the characters, but because I am revising a book of my own right now and I do care deeply about what breaks an otherwise promising novel.

What works about The White City

In this case, the location is excellent, and the premise is solid — one of America’s first female forensic detectives investigating one of America’s first serial killers. I enjoyed Michod’s descriptions of life in Chicago during the World’s Fair of 1893 and Michod’s descriptions of the White City which Chicago built to house the fair. The subplots with the boy and his kidnapper were also interesting, as were the descriptions of the impact the boy’s disappearance had upon his family.

The rest of the book was just one teachable moment after another in how to ruin a story’s potential.

Teachable Moment #1: If you limit your main character’s emotional arc, your readers’ interest in the story will be limited as well. 

In my opinion, the main character’s storyline is the most problematic thing about the entire book.

Michod’s protagonist, Elizabeth Handley, starts the book exhausted and hungry and proceeds to spend the rest of the book becoming more exhausted and more hungry, all the while telling herself that what she really needs to do is stop and rest and maybe eat something because walking up and down the streets of Chicago is no way to hunt for a serial killer.

But here’s the thing — she walks aimlessly for hours anyway because she’s too tired to think of anything better to do. The mystery is only solved because Handley stops stumbling around the city long enough for the deus ex machina (in the form of a survivor of the serial killer) to appear to tell Handley who the serial killer is.

Handley never evolves beyond the exhausted, hungry, restless, insecure, self-involved woman she was at the start of the story. That’s a pretty limited emotional arc. It prevented me from making any sort of emotional investment in Handley as a character, and by extension in this book.

Teachable Moment #2: If you are going to include a tidbit from your research, make sure you get the details right. Also, only use details that actually support the story.

For the most part, I enjoyed Michod’s descriptions of 1893 Chicago. But there were a few distracting flaws in his research. Some are super picky, like the fact that he calls the asylum outside of Boston McClean instead of McLean.

One though, really bugged me. At the tail end of the book, it suddenly becomes important to Michod to describe Handley’s clothing. He dresses her in a hoop skirt and uses the skirt to great effect to emphasize the cramped spooky monster’s lair she’s found herself in at the end of the novel. This would have been awesome if it had been at all believable that Handley would have worn a hoop skirt.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, mind you. The hoop skirt made a brief comeback in the Midwest in the 1890s, however, nothing about Handley’s character led me to believe that she cared at all about fashion. She can hardly be troubled to stop walking long enough to take the most basic care of herself. Frankly, it’s impossible for me to believe that this woman would sacrifice her beloved freedom of movement in the interest of fashion.

If Handley must wear a skirt and not pants, it seems more credible that she’d wear the slimmer tailored skirts prevalent at the time, perhaps hemmed a few inches higher than was strictly proper so that they wouldn’t drag in the streets on her ramblings or interfere unduly with the toting of tripods to crime scenes. By all means, have her trip on her skirts on the stairs in the monster’s lair, but don’t distract me with talk of hoop skirts scraping against walls. I just can’t believe this woman would wear them.

Teachable Moment #3: Mysteries are not enhanced by shortcuts. 

Finally, it bugs me a bit that the serial killer himself doesn’t actually appear as a character in the story until the Survivor tells us about him, relatively late in the game.

It bugs me more, however, that Handley is simply told outright who the killer was. That undercuts the entire point of telling a story about one of America’s first female forensic detectives. In the end, her forensic skills (if in fact she had any) don’t matter at all. If she just wanders around the city long enough, she’ll stumble across someone who’ll tell her the answer. And if you’re just going to tell a story about a case like that, why bother?

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Happy Fourth of July!

Photo by Michael Howell, of a long-ago July day somewhere on Cape Cod.

Photo by Michael Howell, of a long-ago July day somewhere on Cape Cod.

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What I learned about writing from reading all 19 Thomas Lynley mysteries in order

Every once in a while, I like to pick an established author who has written a respectable set of books and read their books in the order in which they were written. I first did this back in the mid-aughts with Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries.

I started it not because I expected to pick up anything interesting about writing, but because I wanted to read a lot of brain candy while pretending I was doing something literary.  I could tell people that I was reading the Peabody mystery series in order to learn something about the craft of writing, but in truth I was doing it because the Amelia Peabody mysteries were excellently sized for a plane ride. And for whatever reason, I took a lot of plane rides back in 2005-6.

RiverInSkyBut by reading her mysteries in order, I accidentally discovered that Elizabeth Peters developed a lot as a writer over the course of writing these novels. Turns out, it actually was fascinating to watch Peters gain mastery over the craft in the years between the publication of her first Amelia Peabody, Crocodile on the Sandbank in 1975, and the completion of her last, A River in the Sky in 2010.

The experience was such a wonderful — and frankly — encouraging one that in 2014 I decided to repeat it with Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley mysteries. With 19 fairly sizeable and emotionally intense novels in the Lynley canon, I’ve been working on this one in fits and starts. Elizabeth George demands rather more of me emotionally than Peters did, so I found that I could only read two or three George novels in a row before retreating to lighter fare.

After one last intense push through the final three novels in the series (so far), I finally finished my Elizabeth George survey last month.

This time around it wasn’t so much George’s development as a writer that struck me (frankly after all this time, I don’t remember the details of her early books well enough to make comparisons), but the striking differences in the quality of her writing in the last three Lynley novels.

While I enjoyed both Believing the Lie and Just One Evil Act, I felt those particular books had a lot of plot bloat that her editor should have cut out. It made me wonder if George had become so successful that her editor was giving her a freer rein than he or she should.

And then I discovered in the acknowledgments for Just One Evil Act that George’s longtime UK editor at Hodder and Stoughton, Sue Fletcher, had retired from editing in December 2012, and that George was just starting a new editing relationship with Nick Sayers. Thus, my working theory evolved into one in which Elizabeth George and her new editor were still figuring out how to work together. Perhaps in the course of sorting out the dynamics of the experienced-writer-with-new-editor relationship, some issues didn’t get addressed that maybe should have.

I will obviously never know the truth of it, but what I do know is that  A Banquet of Consequences marks the third book George has completed under the auspices of her new UK editor, Nick Sayers, and the second with her US editor at Dutton, Brian Tart.  Banquet is much tighter and much more engaging than its two immediate predecessors. Once again, George is back to crafting novels in which her characters are richly drawn, the mystery and the relationship muddles complex and compelling, and the steady push forward in both Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers’ private lives is both believably paced and intriguing.

Apparently, even experienced writers at the top of their game really rely on their editors to bring out the best in their writing.

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This week’s Twitter crop of #writing angst

It took me a long time to come to terms with Twitter’s weird blend of watercooler/cocktail party/retail culture. But now I find it to be a fairly useful source of #writing tips and news. Here’s what I found most helpful this week.

A Couple of Writing Tidbits

Tweet 1In Kate Krake’s world, if you can write, write. If you can’t, plan. It’s all good.
I’ve always considered the sessions I spend planning, editing, or brainstorming future projects to be fairly blatant procrastination. A slightly higher, potentially more on target form than the kind of procrastination that involves me tackling our six-foot high laundry pile, but procrastination nonetheless. After all, it’s time spent doing something other than stringing words together on a page.

I plan, edit, or brainstorm on the days when I don’t feel up to putting even two words together, much less 200, or 2000. But Kate Krake makes a good argument for viewing those thinking marathons as time spent feeding my writing — not simply time taken away from it.

Tweet2 These all sound great, but you know what I really need? An app that will #FinishTheDamnBookAlready for me.

A Wee Bit of Encouragement

Tweet 3A Dash of Writerly Angst

Tweet4Been there. Doing that. This week in fact. #WritingSoulMates

And Finally, My Favorite Writing Tweet of the Week

Tweet5

Cross-posted to my new Storify page

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Writing advice from somewhere in the middle of a great book: Barry Hughart Edition

ChroniclesMasterLiThe Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

By Barry Hughart
Subterranean Press, 2011

From the beginning of Part 2: The Story of the Stone

Jen Wu is a day Master Li sets aside for my literary endeavors, and I was pleased that it was cold and rainy and fit for little else than splashing ink around.

“Ox,” he said, “The writing of your memoirs is doing wonders for your calligraphy, but I must question the content. Why do you choose the rare cases in which matters run melodramatically amok?”

I heroically refrained from saying, “They always do.”

“When you allow sensationalism to do the work, you’re eliminating the need for thought. Besides,” he added somewhat petulantly, “You give the impression that I’m violent and unscrupulous, which is only true when there’s a need for it. Why not explain a case that was calm and rather leisurely and lovely, in which the issues were philosophical rather than frenzied?”

I scratched my nose with my mouse-whiskered writing brush as I tried to think of such a thing. All I wound up with was ink in my nostrils.

Shi tou chi,” he said.

I stared at him incredulously. “You want me to try to explain that awful mess?” I said in a high strangled voice. “Venerable Sir, you know very well it almost broke my heart, and I -”

Shi tou chi,” he repeated.

“But how can I tell the Story of the Stone?” I wailed. “In the first place I don’t understand where it begins and in the second place I’m not sure it has an ending and in the third place even if I understood the ending it wouldn’t do me any good because I don’t understand the beginning in the first place.”

He gazed at me in silence. Then he said, “My boy, stay away from sentences like that. They tend to produce pimples and permanent facial tics.”

If Kevin Hearne and G. K. Chesterton were to get together to write a book about a secular Father Brown character wandering through an ancient China that never was solving mysteries large and small, they might — just might — have come up with something as fun to read as Barry Hughart’s book.

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Aristotle in my lunchbox

AristotleLunchbox

I’ve been slipping notes into my daughter’s lunchbox from almost her first day of preschool. I keep it as simple as possible — using a note from the Lunchbox Love series of notes or today’s cartoon from my 2016 Peanuts a Day calendar as the base.

This particular note popped up in the queue this week. I ought to pass it on, but somehow I think it’s going to end up taped to my computer monitor instead.

 

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Surprising facts about my favorite authors: The Jerome K. Jerome Edition

Jerome K. Jerome in 1890. (Source: National Media Materials, via Wikipedia)

Jerome K. Jerome in 1890. (Source: National Media Materials, via Wikipedia)

I discovered Jerome K. Jerome after reading Connie Willis’ comic time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which Jerome and his boat full of fellow travelers, canine and otherwise, have an extended cameo.

Willis pulled the title of her novel from that of Jerome’s early comic account of his travels down the Thames, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Jerome’s book was a blockbuster in its day. It sold more than a million copies worldwide in its first 20 years and helped turn the Thames into a highly successful tourist attraction.

Last weekend, while reading a nostalgia piece from the New York Times about the moral panic set off by Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, I came across this interesting tidbit about Jerome K. Jerome’s non-literary pursuits:

“A century ago, H. G. Wells, the English titan of science fiction, invented a tabletop game called Little Wars with a friend, Jerome K. Jerome. Though a pacifist, Wells was intrigued by war games. He wrote a handbook for his creation, filled with clear rules of combat for opposing infantry, cavalry and artillery. That was in 1913. A year later, World War I broke out.

You see the connection, don’t you?”

Really, how many books does a guy have to sell to get a proper identification clause in the New York Times? How hard is it to type the words “friend and comic writer Jerome K. Jerome” anyway?

But I digress.

Although the game Little Wars was unlikely to have triggered World War I, it is clear that war was on everyone’s mind at the time the game was created. As you might expect from the name of it, Little Wars involved setting up a battlefield with toy soldiers, wooden blocks, scenery to scale, and toy cannons capable of firing objects to knock stuff and soldiers over during battles. To play it, you’ll also need tons of floor space, as infantry are allowed to move up to a foot and cavalry up to two feet at each turn.

little WarsThe object of the game is to wipe out your opponent by knocking down his soldiers with your cannons (or to at least force him to surrender by cutting him off from his reinforcements).

Sounds like a blast, actually.

Rules for the game are posted at Instructables. H.G. Wells also wrote two books laying out the rules and strategy for the game: Little Wars and Floor Games.

(I’m beginning to see why H.G. Wells gets top billing.)

While it’s clear that the development of Little Wars didn’t actually set off World War I, it would be pretty interesting to know whether any of the strategies H.G. Wells outlined for his game influenced troop movements on the battlefield during the war. Do any of you historians and/or H.G. Wells fans out there know?

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It’s Sunday. Time to drink some tea and catch up on Victorian gossip.

1891Gossip

Excerpt from The Evening Post, Volume XLII, Issue 86, 8 October 1891, Page 2

Victorian gossip columns are a thing of beauty, full of back-handed chatter and salacious innuendo.

In the late 1800s, a well-connected man (or woman) could make quite a nice living printing other people’s secrets and adding a few spots to their reputations.

Gossip writers for newspapers like the Wellington New Zealand Evening Post or the Daily Pall Mall Gazette spent quite a bit of time (and money) gathering juicy tidbits about the private lives of well-heeled gentlefolk from their cash-strapped servants and disaffected friends. Much of the gossip was true, although some less reputable characters simplified their reporting lives by making their rumors up.

It was all published anonymously, of course, to protect the informant’s ability to gather more dirt. But occasionally a journalist would receive a tidbit juicy enough to justify a bit of blackmail. Unless the lady or gentleman in question were particularly brazen, the journalist could make a fair amount of pocket money from the promise of keeping what he or she knew out of the papers.

It was a living.  And judging by the enticing tidbits that remain in The National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past archive, quite an engrossing one.

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24 books you can read in less than an hour & 3 reasons why you should

This month, I came across a fun info graphic from Visually featuring 24 books that the average adult can read in less than an hour.

Normally, when I pick up a book, I look for one that will take more than an hour. I like to sit on our Very Large Red Reading Couch and put my feet up for a while. But my husband reads differently. He reads in fits and starts, snatches of time stolen from elevator rides, bus rides, and in the back of cabs.

Smart man. According to Visually, reading for even 6 minutes can reduce stress by 68%. Compare that to video games, which reduce stress by a paltry 21% over the same time. Those snatched moments of reading are also boosting my husband’s sense of self-worth and giving his imagination a much-needed midday boost.

Hmmm, maybe I should let Reading Break Out in Short Bursts more often.

quickBooks

Who knew it takes less time to read Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain than to watch the movie? (Snippet from Visually’s Infographic. Click the image to see the entire thing.)

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Go Set a Footnote: Reading in the Age of the Smartphone

MockingbirdGoodreads tells me I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in 2007, the year my daughter was born.

Not surprisingly, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember much from 2007 that didn’t have a picture taken of it.

When all the fuss over the release of Go Set a Watchman erupted last year, I thought to myself, I really should read To Kill a Mockingbird again.

The resolution remained vaguely formed, dressed in warm winter layers of good intent until a week or two ago, when Harper Lee’s death reminded me of my plan and a well-timed cold gave me an excuse to spend a day on our Very Large Red Reading Couch.

It had been so long since I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird that the book read like new to me. Perhaps, a friend of mine suggested, it was because I am a mother now, and The (now) Eight-Year-Old gave me a deeper appreciation for Lee’s Scout.

There is definitely something to that. But I also think that some of it had to do with the ease with which I could look up references that puzzled me.

Used to be, when I came across a passage with a reference I didn’t fully understand, I would keep reading in hopes that the reference would either come clear in time or turn out not to be that important for enjoying the book anyway.

Most of the time, I got by just fine, but I couldn’t help suspecting that my reading experiences were a bit poorer for it.

But now all I have to do now to demystify an opaque reference is place the book down for a moment while I google something quickly on my iPhone.

Take this passage from page 18 for instance:

“Miss Caroline was no more than twenty-one. She had bright auburn hair, pink cheeks, and wore crimson fingernail polish. She also looked and smelled like a peppermint drop. She boarded across the street one door down from us in Miss Maudie Atkinson’s upstairs front room, and when Miss Maudie introduced her to us, Jem was in a haze for days.

Miss Caroline printed her name on the blackboard and said, “This says I am Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

The humor in it shone through for me even as the passage raised all sorts of questions. Did Winston County really secede from Alabama at the start of the Civil War?

And what, my mind whispered a bit trepidatiously, are Big Mules?

I put down To Kill a Mockingbird and picked up my iPhone.

Hey Google, did Winston County really secede from Alabama in 1861?

Wikipedia tells me that Winston County didn’t officially secede from Alabama during the Civil War. But it didn’t exactly buy into the ideals of the Confederacy either.

A Winston Country Farmer. (Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives)

A Winston County farmer. (Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives)

In a nutshell, the shallow soil in Winston County wasn’t suited for plantation-style agriculture, so the residents of Winston County at the time of the Civil War were mostly poor farmers. Few owned slaves. When the Civil War erupted and Alabama voted to secede, Winston Country residents viewed the secession talk with extreme skepticism. As far as they could tell, secession was just another way to consolidate power in the hands of the wealthy plantation elite.

Charles Christopher Sheats, Winston County’s representative at the Alabama Secession Convention, flatly refused to sign Alabama’s Ordinance of Secession when it passed in January 1861. He was so vocal in his opposition that he was arrested and flung in jail. His support for the Union ensured that he would spend most of the war in prison.

Sheats was not the only anti-Confederate voice in Winston County. Many Winston County residents refused to join the Confederate Army. Some went so far as to talk of raising troops to support the Union. Eventually, after repeated attempts by Confederate authorities to impose conscription and loyalty oaths on those recalcitrant Winstonites, Winston County passed a resolution stating that if a state could secede from the Union, then a county could secede from the state.

The resolution created a new name for the region, “The Republic of Winston,” feeding the urban legend that when Alabama seceded from the Union, Winston County had seceded from Alabama.

In fact, Winston County remained part of Alabama throughout the Civil War, although its loyalty to the Confederacy was always in question. When the Union Army invaded northern Alabama in April 1862, many of the pro-Union Winston County residents took the opportunity to join the Union Army as part of its new 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment.

After the war, Winston County became friendly territory for carpet-bagging Republicans in a state run primarily by Democrats. As To Kill a Mockingbird makes clear, the residents of Winston County continued to be viewed with extreme skepticism by the rest of Alabama for generations.

Hey Google, what are Big Mules?

Big Mules, according to this article from the New Yorker, were entrenched corporate interests, the power brokers in the deeply segregated Alabama of the 1950s.

Given the fact that I’m constantly googling things on my iPhone while I read, you’d think I’d love relaxing with a nicely footnoted classic novel.

warPeaceThe funny thing is, I’m reading an annotated edition of War and Peace right now and the zillions of little footnotes explaining the history behind the passages are driving me nuts. I feel compelled to read them, and with one or more on nearly every page I am constantly being taken out of the story.

So why am I pleased to gain a deeper understanding of the story when it comes courtesy of the iPhone, and not when it comes via the super-convenient don’t-even-have-to-put-the-book-down footnote?

I’m pretty sure the difference is that the footnotes are pulling me out of the story at a time not of my choosing. When I’m reading a classic novel, I don’t want to know the nitty-gritty of every historical reference that someone else deems essential to my understanding of the story. I just want to know the basic facts of the historical references that interest me.

Certainly I can elect to ignore that small army of footnotes and plow merrily through War and Peace without pausing to consider each example of Tolstoy’s exquisite use of history in crafting his novel. And I am.

But I can’t help seeing those poor ignored footnotes waiting patiently at the bottom of the page. Ignore us, they seem to say, and you are deliberately choosing a poorer reading experience.

What kind of self-respecting reader of War and Peace would choose to do something like that?

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