I’m delighted to welcome Maia Chance to Birth of a Novel. Maia writes historical mystery novels that are rife with absurd predicaments and romantic adventure. She is the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal and The Discreet Retrieval Agency series. Her first mystery, Snow White Red-Handed, was a national bestseller. Her latest releases are Cinderella Six Feet Under and Come Hell or Highball.
And now, here’s Maia:
The name of this blog—Birth of a Novel—got me thinking about all of the things that go into producing and promoting a book. Self-discipline, organization, stamina, social skills, good research habits, and beefy thesauruses all play a part. Yet the bottom line is, book-birthing is a creative enterprise, and so I spend oodles of time trying to figure out how to encourage that special, juicy, synthesizing state.
Here are three of the trusty standbys in my creativity tool belt:
- Read Weird Stuff. I love cozy mysteries, which is why I write them, but I don’t read very many of them. I read other stuff, because I need to keep replenishing my well. Believe it or not, I get ideas for my novels when I read critical theory and history for my academic work, and biographies on Wikipedia. Truth will always be stranger than fiction, and there is a limitless crop of ideas just ripe for the picking in those biographies and history books.
- Be a Health Nut. When I was a teenager and writing my first (luckily never published) novels, I had heard that some famous authors—Ernest Hemingway?—wrote drunk. So I tried it. That lasted about 10 minutes before I went to bed.* Over the years I have become, increasingly, a health nut and one of the huge driving forces behind this is I really, really, really want to be able to think clearly. Being creative means making snappy connections. Being creative means being able to dip your cup deeply into that well of ideas/feelings/memories/words inside of you. Being an efficient writer means being able to zoom in and out from the micro (comma!) to the macro (plot arc!) and back again. Over and over. Sadly, I have discovered that I can’t do that while eating chocolate chip cookies, or without having worked out.
*As a former musician, I do get that creative people need ways to turn off the inner critic. I wish I had an amazing tool for that. Right now my tactic is: “give your inner critic the finger and keeping plowing forward on all sixes.” It works okay.
- Follow Your Most Bizarre Ideas. They say “follow your dreams”; I say, “go with the idea that sounds too outrageous to work.” Because do you know why it sounds too outrageous to work? Because you haven’t seen it done before. Some of the parts of my books that turned out the best were the ideas that, at first, made me throw back my head and laugh with disbelieving, quasi-diabolical glee.
There is nothing new under the sun, sure, but there are infinite new combinations of ideas. My goal is to bring familiar ideas and settings to the cozy mystery genre, where they haven’t been done before. My Fairy Tale Fatal series, for instance, explores classic fairy tales within the structure of adventurous whodunit plots. And my Discreet Retrieval Agency presents F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish, jazz-age motifs within the structure of humorous mystery capers. I also enjoy bringing Hollywood devices—like the “chase in the marketplace with overturned fruit carts”—to the cozy mystery. These devices are simply recognizable chunks of “story” that are available to writers as they assemble their own, unique mosaics.
Stoke the fire, replenish the well, gas your guzzler, feed the chickens, and happy reading and writing!
Thank you, Maia, for sharing some of your writing secrets with the readers of Birth of a Novel. Love the sound of your books – fun titles and intriguing covers.
Readers, you may visit Maia on the web at:
The ebook version of Lethal Journal, a Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor mystery, is on sale now. Here’s the first chapter for anyone who might be interested.
Jennie Connors stood for a moment at the turning of the corridor, assessing the activity in the large open area that served as a lounge. Voices hummed in an easygoing camaraderie, providing soundtrack for a series of tableaux that, for Jennie, defined the retirement community known as Riverview Manor.
In one corner, a few of the more serious residents stared at the TV, their expressions bemused and skeptical, while a political know-it-all held forth on the all-news station. At a round table near the window, the tea ladies had their heads together, no doubt plotting something Jennie would, at some point, be asked to subvert. In another corner, a foursome studied the Scrabble tiles in front of them with calculating solemnity. Near the window, with the sun shining on him like a spotlight, Nathanial Pynchon strutted back and forth, declaiming eloquently: “Wherein I spake of most disastrous–”
“I wish you’d go ‘spake’ somewhere else,” one of the TV watchers called out.
Nate rolled his eyes and lowered his voice, but only minimally.
The TV watcher held out the remote and clicked the volume up a notch. His action was, in its own way, as dramatic as Nate’s theatrics.
Everyone else ignored the old actor.
Jennie smiled. Each scene hinted at mild conflict, but taken together, they reinforced her feeling that all was well in Riverview’s world. Not quite all. Where’s Jake? She looked away from the lounge, slightly to her left, down the long hallway that housed residents’ bedrooms. At ten thirty on this Tuesday morning, most doors were open. At the far end of the hall, a glassed-in area looked out over a construction site. Beyond the glass, giant yellow machines were gouging holes in the earth, preparing a foundation for the new activity center that was being added in conjunction with repair work necessitated by a recent fire.
In front of the window, half a dozen low chairs were mounted on swivel bases so they could be turned outward to watch the construction or pivoted toward each other in a manner more conducive to conversation. Only one chair was occupied. Not surprising. Noise from the construction site made conversation impossible and most of Riverview’s residents were of a sociable nature.
Jake Appleton was the exception. He sat alone, with his chair turned toward the window, holding a pair of binoculars against his chest with one hand and scribbling in a spiral notebook with the other. Viewing him in profile, Jennie saw that his lips were moving and knew from his expression that he was dissatisfied about something. “Sour Appleton”, the nickname given him by Nate, sprang to mind.
“Morning, Jennie,” Georgie called to her from the tea ladies’ table.
Doreen pivoted her wheelchair a quarter turn and waved. “Care to join us?”
“Wish I could,” Jennie called back, “but I have a couple of things to do first.” She headed down the hall toward Jake. As Activities Director, it was her job to keep residents busy and engaged in Riverview’s social life–a job that would soon belong to someone else. Jennie had just been named Assistant to Executive Director Leda Barrons, and would assume her new duties as soon as her replacement was hired. Jake Appleton was a relative newcomer and a real challenge–the one resident Jennie hadn’t been able to integrate into Riverview’s social fabric. She stopped when she reached his chair. “Morning, Jake. Anything I can do for you?”
“Doubt it.” He spoke in his customary brusque manner, keeping his eyes on the notebook and not bothering to look at Jennie even when she stepped around the chair so they were face to face. He moved his hand so that his fingers hid the words on the page.
She ignored the rebuff and tried again. This was a nut she was determined to crack and she was running out of time. “Why don’t you join the Scrabble tournament in the lounge? They could use a little new blood down there.”
“Blood! That’s what you’re going to see if somebody doesn’t start paying attention.”
Jennie pushed to the back of her mind the thousand and one things she had on her plate and pulled up a chair beside the old man. “I’m paying attention.”
If that response had come from any other resident, she would have been discouraged but, from Riverview’s resident grouch, it was actually encouraging. At least he was willing to acknowledge her presence. She pasted on her best smile and asked, “Still think the construction company’s cheating us?”
“No doubt about it.”
He closed the notebook and waved it in the direction of the window. “World’s full of crooks.”
There was no doubting his conviction. Jennie looked out the window, trying to gauge what had prompted it. To her, it looked like any construction site. Cumbersome machines made jerky progress amid clouds of dust. Workman dodged around the equipment. Everything and everyone was in motion. She glanced back at Jake. His eyes seemed focused on some point beyond the activity. She looked outside. A flash of heat lightening illuminated the sky.
She said, “Maybe we’ll finally get that rain they’ve been promising.” No response. Maybe he hadn’t heard her. She tried again. “Hope so. We sure could use it.”
Finally, he brushed his fingertips over the notebook. “It’s all in here.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
After a few seconds, he squared his shoulders and looked at her. “Some other time maybe.”
Jennie waved to the source of the recurring booms. “Lot of racket out here,” she said. “How about your room? Later this afternoon?”
“Well, I–”He stopped abruptly and looked over her head.
She turned to see what had distracted him.
Lizzie Stafford and Bruce Appleton, Jake’s children, along with an older man she didn’t recognize, were standing in the hall a few yards from her. She’d been so intent on wooing Jake that she hadn’t heard their footsteps.
“Hi.” She smiled at Lizzie and Bruce. “Nice to see you.” She extended her hand to the older man. “I’m Jennie Connors. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
He grasped her hand and gave it a firm shake. “Bob Walthman. Jake’s brother-in-law.” Walthman was a handsome man with an easygoing, hale-fellow-well-met manner. He directed an engaging smile at Jennie.
The smile set off an itch in her memory. She’d seen him before. Where?
Before she had a chance to pursue the thought, Lizzie said, “Uncle Bob, Jennie’s the woman I told you about. She’s been wonderful to Dad.”
“Good,” Walthman said with another huge smile. “Appreciate that.”
Jennie returned the smile, uncomfortable that the family was addressing her instead of Jake, who hadn’t said a word to any of them yet, nor they to him. Instead, he sat ramrod straight in his chair, scowling out the window and grasping the notebook in both hands.
Hoping her departure would lighten the mood, Jennie said, “Sorry, Jake, I don’t mean to steal your family’s attention. We’ll talk later. Say about three o’clock?”
Jake nodded and tilted his head down the hall. “My room. No privacy out here.”
Jennie said, “Fantastic. I’ll be there.”
The whole time they were speaking, intermittent booms intruded from the work site. An unusually loud blast stopped conversation. A whirl of dust rose to engulf one of the yellow giants. About ten yards from the work area, flames licked at the top edge of a metal drum used to burn trash.
Jennie leaned closer to the window, examining the area around the base of the drum and was relieved to see that it was clear. The last thing Riverview needed was another fire. August in Memphis was always hot and frequently dry, but this year threatened to set a record on both counts. She sent up a silent prayer that the weather gurus had it right and the area would get rain overnight. The sky looked promising. To the west, a bank of clouds hovered above the river. Jennie studied the darkening billows. She loved watching the many moods of the river, but there wasn’t time for that now. She smiled at Jake, patted his arm and said, “See you later,” then headed down the hall.
Nate, grinning his most wicked grin, waylaid her. “Dragon Lady’s looking for you.”
Painfully aware that she was poised to become Assistant Dragon Lady, Jennie swallowed the first response that threatened to spill out.
The rat-a-tat of stiletto heels approached.
Jennie stood a little straighter and pushed back an errant curl. Despite the fact that she was pudgy and not much taller than a ten-year-old, Riverview’s Executive Director inspired best-foot-forward demeanor. Every day. Every encounter.
Nate scurried off in the opposite direction as fast as his arthritic knees would allow.
Leda reached Jennie just as another boom sounded. She waited for the echo to subside before she spoke. “Jennifer.” She pronounced the name in three perfectly-enunciated syllables as she always did and paused, making sure she had Jennie’s full attention. “We need to work on finding your replacement. I’ve set up an interview for Thursday afternoon. One thirty. I want you to look this over.” She waved a crisp sheet that Jennie realized with a heavy heart was a resume.
It was almost three thirty by the time Jennie made it back to Jake’s room. The door was firmly closed. She grasped the doorknob, but knocked before she turned it.
She tried again.
She figured he was angry at being kept waiting and prepared to humble herself. She tested the knob. It turned easily so she pushed the door open a couple of inches and called out. “Sorry I’m late. I got here as soon as I could.”
Still no answer.
“Jake?” She pushed the door another six inches and knocked again. “You decent? Okay if I come in?” She listened, heard only the radio, tuned to a station that played oldies–real oldies–big band music and the sweet love songs of the forties. She listened a little longer, reflecting on the inconsistency of his taste in music with his cynical outlook. Another tap on the door, this time louder. When he still didn’t answer, she had no choice but to go in. As much as she hated to violate a resident’s space, especially one who guarded his privacy as jealously as this one, in a retirement community, safety concerns trump modesty.
She called out, “Coming in,” and pushed again. The door moved another couple of inches, then refused to budge. She leaned into it. It still didn’t give, but something on the floor did. She glanced down. A shoe-clad foot. Omigod! He’s fallen. No wonder he didn’t answer the door. Jennie squeezed through the narrow opening. And froze in her tracks. Jake Appleton lay on his back. His face and head . . . She averted her eyes, unable to look. The floor in the area surrounding Jake was dark red. One silver curl stretched like a question mark in a pool that had to be blood.
Jennie’s scream merged with a boom from the construction site.
Would you like to read more?
Amazon Kindle: http://amzn.to/1j7cXnW
I’m pleased to to welcome my friend, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban, to Birth of a Novel. Originally from Spain, Carmen now lives in Bucks County, PA where she works as a writer/translator. She recently published the Spanish translation of her paranormal romance Immortal Love (Crimson Romance, 2012) under the title Bécquer eterno. You can find it at http://goo.gl/d60UfF. She’s also the author of Two Moon Princess, a YA fantasy, which she hopes to translate into Spanish some day.
Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban: Like writers, translators are wordsmiths. They use words to communicate. But, while writers are the creators of their stories/articles, translators are like mirrors; they must render the source document into the target language without distortion, that is, without altering its meaning.
Doing so, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.
A text is made of words that convey a certain meaning. But, even in the simplest of texts, a translation of meaning cannot be accomplished by a word-by-word translation of the source text. In most cases, this would originate an awkward and, most probably, inaccurate sentence in the target language.
Among other reasons:
- Because words have synonyms that are not interchangeable. Babies don’t wear “sombreros”, nor baseball players “berets”. Although both are translations of the word hat.
- Because the order of the words in a sentence is sometimes inverted. “The white house” translates as “The house white” in French or Spanish.
- Because even ordinary expressions are different in different languages. In English a person “is x years old” while in Spanish “she has x years.”
- Because idioms are specific to each language. Do people turn blue when they are sad or green when they are jealous, in China?
- Because we don’t mean what we say, literary. It never rains cats and dogs and we do not build castles in Spain, nor cry over spilled milk.
But when we talk about the translation of a lyrical text, a poem or a song, we must consider an extra level of sophistication. For the translator must find, not only words that translate the meaning, but words that translate the sound and length of the original ones; she must translate the music embed in the original.
The words maybe different from the ones the author used, but the feeling the poem/song/story elicits in the reader must be the same.
It’s in this context, that a translator transcends the source and creates his/her own piece and translation must be considered art.
A great example of a perfect translation is, in my opinion, Leonard Cohen’s rendition of the poem “Pequeño Vals Vienés” by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca into the haunting song “Take This Waltz”.
Thanks, Carmen, for sharing your expertise with us. I never realized how complex the process is and I have a feeling I’m not alone in that.
Here’s a link to Carmen’s Amazon Author page: amzn.to/1UjNRkB
In the summer of 2013 I set aside a month to immerse myself in the work of one writer and chose Willa Cather. It was a good choice. Note: this is a repeat of a post I wrote a little over a year ago, but since I’m now engaged in a similar reading experiment, I decided to re-visit and re-post my thoughts about this exceptional woman. If you’ve already read this and want to skip it this time, that’s okay – you’re excused – but I do hope you’ll come back.
Why was Ms. Cather a good choice? For me, reading is all about characters. The books that I love and go back to again and again are those with strong characters – people with whom I fall in love and cheer for, or sometimes hate and jeer at. Either way, these people real to me. After I close the book and turn off the light, I worry about them. When the book is finished and back on the shelf, I savor their triumphs and regret their disappointments. And when it comes to creating strong characters, nobody beats Cather – especially strong female characters.
My favorite examples of Cather’s strong women are portrayed in the books known as the Prairie Trilogy: Oh Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. If you want to understand the history of our country, read these three books. They tell the story of a country – growing, changing, and forging itself into a nation. The characters are not heroic in the usual sense of the word, but they, through the lives they led, the hardships they endured, the perseverance they displayed, are the foundation of this country. Their strengths and weakness are at the heart of who we, as Americans, are. In each of them, there’s a strong woman, a woman who’s not afraid to take charge of her own destiny.
Song of the Lark is a little different from the other two in that it looks at the less than admirable side of life in a tight, closed community. It’s the story of an artist, nurtured by the prairie she loves and, at the same time, constricted by the expectations of the community and stifled by small-town life. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Cather’s own experience went into this one.
To round out the month, I read a collection of novellas that included A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. They were all good stories, but I have to admit about half way through Death Comes for the Archbishop, I began to skim. It’s set in an earlier time than the others and was an inspiring story in many ways. The archbishop traveled all over the southwest, including some Native American sites that I’ve visited and found fascinating. I’m not sure why I lost interest. Maybe I was just maxed out on life on the great prairies – in other words, too much of a good thing.
All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in Willa Cather’s books. She was a wise woman, and a fine writer. A few of her observations that I thought worth jotting down:
“There are some things you learn best in calm and some in storm.”
“Where there is great love, there are always wishes.”
“It does not matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.”
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
No fancy language – just seemingly obvious statements, expressed in simple, declarative sentences. Yet I found them provocative. All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in the books of one author enough to do it again. This time around, I’ve picked Pearl Buck, another strong woman. More about her in a future posting.
There is more similarity between quilting and writing than one might think. Both involve a love of the components that go into the makeup of the finished product. I love words. I feel joy in the power they give me to translate ideas into stories to share with other lovers of words. I also love color. I’m fascinated by the way the mood of a color changes according to other colors near it. I enjoy playing with different shapes, curved or straight lines and the texture of fabric.
Choosing the fabric, the colors, and pattern of a quilt is very like choosing the attributes of a fictional character. Combining dark and light shades is like working out the details of a storyline. Writing is almost completely intellectual; quilting is very tactile. When I’m working on a quilt, I’m compulsive about it and resent anything that keeps me away from it. The same is true when I’m deeply involved in a writing project.
A book begins as a tangle of ideas with only the glint of a story shining through. A quilt begins as a mishmash of fabrics with colors and patterns that clash. Both the writer and the quilter begin by examining their components, testing different ways of combining them, seeking an arrangement that will blend the conflicting parts into a harmonious whole. Both as a writer and a quilter, I find this part of the process pure pleasure.
Ah, but the next part – no fun at all. About halfway through a book, I invariably hit a wall. I’m besieged by doubt. Can I turn this idea into a story that readers will actually enjoy? Will they understand what I’m trying to say? Is the idea big enough for a whole book? Are my characters distinctive and yet universal? Will readers believe in them? At the root of all these niggling doubts is the real question, the twofold biggie: Am I really a writer? Can I finish this book?
Somewhere in the process of making a quilt, I wonder why I ever thought these colors worked together. Is this pattern too complicated for my skills? Will I be able to get all of the angles right, the points nice and sharp, the corners square? Will my patience last long enough to see it through? Will I finish this quilt? One of the things that pulls me through the doubt is the anticipation of sharing my creation. A favorite of mine is the bugjar quilt I made for my grandson, Sean’s, fifth birthday. It seemed perfect for the little boy he was.
When I finish a book, I feel an enormous sense of pride, but following that initial high, there’s a letdown. The ideas that have consumed my thoughts (and sometimes my dreams) are ready to stand on their own. It’s time to let them go. I need to explore new ideas – write another book. The same is true when I finish a quilt. I am delighted to be finished with it, but before long, my fingers itch to be engaged. I need to begin anew, but … can I do it again?
Of course I can – at least in part because my two obsessions feed each other.
One last quilt: one that I made for David, the son I told you about in my last post.
My son, David, has always been an animal-lover. I know. Lots of people are. In fact, I’m convinced all the best people are, but David’s a bit goofy about it. I mean that in a good way. I’m incredibly proud of the man my son has become.
He has a whole houseful of pets and they all have distinct personalities. I won’t list them all here. Today, I just want to tell you about Badger, the Jack Russell Terrier. That’s him with David in the picture on the left. Rarely do you catch him in such a quiet moment. He’s usually a study in perpetual motion and is one crazy dog.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Badger, but sometimes he can be too much of a good thing. (I seem to remember thinking the same thing of David when he was little. You’d never guess from the photo what an intrepid little boy he was.)
I grew up surrounded by pets. (I’m pretty sure David inherited his pet-loving gene from my mother, who had a huge heart and was always ready to move over and make room for any creature in need of a little TLC.) Still, looking back over the years and the critters I’ve known, Badger wins the prize for the most individual. To say he is excitable is gross understatement. He can (and does) jump four feet straight up (at least) and can do it an uncountable number of times without stopping. He’s probably the most loving dog I’ve ever known (and that’s saying a lot). Every morning, as soon as he wakes up, he goes through the house and touches noses with all the other pets. Visitors to my son’s home are routinely greeted with a display of Badger’s athletic ability, followed by a series of sloppy kisses and, when you sit down, Badger is immediately on your lap, jumping for joy – a mixed blessing. I usually have bruises all over my legs after an afternoon of Badger’s lap-dancing. As I said, too much of a good thing.
Once, when I’d had more than enough doggy love, I asked David why he loved Badger so much – more, I could tell, than McGee, his majestic Black Lab, or any of his four cats. His answer: “Think about it, Mom. If you had a whole bunch of kids and one of them was a little weird and you knew other people didn’t like him much, wouldn’t you love that one the most?”
That answer stopped me cold. I knew he was right. Most of us love the weirdest kid the most. I try to remember about that when I’m writing. Characters need a bit of weirdness if they are to engage a reader’s heart. One of the better parts of human nature is our instinct to cheer for the underdog. We like to give our love where it’s most needed and, when we’re reading, we like to see our characters overcome their inner demons as well as the foe from without.
One thing I have to add: I would be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to Sue, David’s life partner, and a real sweetheart. As you can imagine, she puts up with a lot. I’ll even give her the ultimate compliment and say she reminds me of my mother.