Back to School

Ah, fall, when the air is redolent with the scent of woodsmoke and new pencil erasers. The kids are back to school today, and we somehow have a third grader. I swear she just started kindergarten yesterday. But no, amazingly she is eight and I can hardly believe it because eight is a significant year in my memory. It’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer. (Spoiler alert: it’s going to take more than three decades to accomplish this goal.) More than that, though, age eight feels contiguous with who I am now. That eight-year-old and me, man, we’re the same. I look at my daughter now and wonder if she will experience eight the same way.

How the heck do we have a third grader already?

She sometimes wants to be a writer. Sometimes a chef. Also sometimes a rock star. These days she spends a lot of time making up plays for the neighborhood. The latest one is called “Me and My American Ninja Warrior.” (It is hilariously misspelled “My American Ninja Worrier” on some of the fliers.) The story involves a girl named Amelia who leaves her country home to become the first female to fight in the army in a great war for truth, justice and freedom (the opponent here is somewhat murky, but it’s men who are telling her no and she is standing up to them). When Amelia’s mother begs her not to go, Amelia demurs, saying, “My home is the battlefield now.”

What is most interesting about this play is that she and her friend next door have conceived a second role that shadows Amelia and plays her inner self. Eleanor performs Amelia’s outer actions, while the friend gives her inner thoughts. There is a prescient tune (yes, it’s a musical…) in the first act where Amelia is musing on how society asks her to behave one way but what she really wants is to be valiant in battle. It includes a line about how “my insides sing a different song.”

I find it amazing and inspiring that these eight-year-olds are already wise enough to listen to their inner voices. I hope they sing loudly and proudly, this year and every year.

An Author Brand That Burns

I’ve spent a lot of time this year learning about how authors connect themselves to their work. You are supposed to figure out the parts of your personal story that intersects with your fiction and this overlap becomes part and parcel of your “brand.” So if you are a late-in-life divorcée and so is your heroine, you would emphasize this relationship to underscore your authenticity. To prove that the story is rightfully yours.

In mysteries, authors often draw on personal experience as some form of investigator. Archer Mayor, who writes the popular Joe Gunther series, has worked as a death investigator for the Vermont State Medical Examiner’s office. Lisa Scottoline, who’s penned many award-winning legal thrillers, spent years working as a lawyer before turning her talents to fiction. Hank Phillippi Ryan, who writes terrific page-turners about female investigative reporters, is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter herself. These writers clearly know their stuff!

So when the publishing director asked me in a hopeful voice about my background in criminal law, I had to admit the truth: I’ve watched a lot of Law & Order. Oh, I’ve also done a lot of other homework and research, but I’ve never worked as a cop or lawyer. My experience at police stations is purely recreational.

Old fashioned cattle branding irons.
My brand is seared deep, always a part of me.

No, the part of The Vanishing Season that belongs to me is the ugly side. Like Ellery in the story, I was sexually assaulted at a young age (in my case five years old) by an adult neighbor who said he would kill my family if I ever told. So I said nothing for a long time. Eventually, I turned to books to help me process what had happened to me. I started checking out books on rape from the library at age eight, both fiction and non, looking for a roadmap forward from those who had been through it before me. These stories were tremendously helpful, a real lifeline. You’re not alone, they told me. It will be okay.

It is okay and I have a lovely life, with a husband and daughter who is now eight years old herself. She knows only vaguely the kind of predators that lurk in the world, and I hope she can retain that innocence as long as possible. I’ve learned from experience, however, that there are many others out there who have lived through the same kind of agony I endured. I know because they’ve written to tell me so. For years now I’ve told fictional stories that touch on sexual assault in one way or another, and in return, I’ve received real, heart-rending tales from women who say yes, me too. One woman was awoken one night by a man who climbed through her bedroom window with a knife. Another had an uncle protected by her extended family even as he spirited her away into the basement for regular “private time.”

Like me, these women are relieved to find stories that verify their own experiences. We’re not crazy. We’re not broken. It wasn’t our fault. But this brand is just that—burning and permanent, a mark put there by someone else that fades with time but never quite goes away.

Murder U

I’m working a story about a murder that takes place on a university campus. The leafy grounds of higher education might not seem like they would be a popular spot for murderers to hang out, but I’ve got personal experience that says otherwise. My academic pursuits have brushed up against three infamous murder cases—each lurid enough tales to be fictionalized on programs like Law and Order and Cold Case. In the first one, I lived in the same dorm with Gina Grant, a young woman convicted at age fourteen of murdering her mother.

In Gina’s telling, her mother was an abusive alcoholic. In the prosecution’s version, Gina resented her mother’s interference in her relationship with her boyfriend. The boyfriend was also convicted in the murder of Gina’s mother, although he didn’t arrive on the scene until the woman was already dead. Gina had originally been bound for Harvard, but they rescinded their invitation when they discovered her crime. No murderers are welcome at Harvard, it would seem. Gina ended up instead in my biology class at Tufts University, where she behaved like any other student. We’d had meetings prior to her arrival where university staff explained that we should treat her no differently and that we should not talk to the press about her. Notably, however, they did not assign her a roommate…

Meanwhile, despite Harvard’s best efforts to keep its campus free from homicide, they did have a murder that year, when Sinedu Tadesse stabbed her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, to death and then committed suicide. Tadesse was lonely at Harvard and apparently clung to her relationship with Ho. When Ho decided to stop living with Tadesse and instead wanted room with a different group of girls, Tadesse fell into rage and despair.  Before the murder/suicide, Tadesse mailed a photograph of herself with an anonymous note to the Harvard paper with a note saying, “Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman.” Then she stabbed Ho forty-five times and hanged herself in the bathroom. In an odd postscript, Trang Ho’s sister Tram ended up in Gina Grant’s class at Tufts.

Then I moved to Yale, where we had an unusual student in our neuroscience classes named Tonica Jenkins. Unlike most graduate students who were eager to make friends and study hard, Tonica presented as standoffish, almost paranoid, and didn’t seem prepared for class. She didn’t seem to take the classes seriously and she bailed on exams. When a fellow student’s car got scraped up by a key, there were whispers that Tonica had done it.

Ex-Yale student Tonica Jenkins was convicted of attempted murder. I sat next to her in class.

The university investigated and discovered Tonica’s perfect 4.0 grades on her transcripts were a lie. Jenkins had not only forged the transcripts and letters, but she didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. Yale sued Jenkins for the $15,000 in stipend money they had paid her. During the hearings, Tonica sent pictures of herself to Yale in which she appeared bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. She said the dean had done it to her. We couldn’t believe we’d sat in class next to someone this crazy! No one believed her story about the kidnapping, and she was ordered to repay the money she had defrauded from the school. Amazingly, though, this proved only the beginning of Tonica’s life of crime.

Tonica was later arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine. To avoid these charges, she hatched a plan to fake her death by murdering another young woman. With the help of a male cousin, Tonica grabbed a woman who resembled her off the street. For two days, they drugged the woman, Melissa Latham, with crack and marijuana. They also took her to the dentist under Tonica Jenkins’ name to establish a dental record so that Melissa’s body would be identified as Tonica. Tonica’s plan was to murder Latham, burn her body, and dump it in an abandoned building. She would then assume Latham’s identity.

The plan went awry at the point Tonica and her cousin tried to kill Latham. They beat her with a brick until she pretended to be dead, at which point she escaped and ran next door to a KFC restaurant. Tonica was eventually convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Finally, I have no idea if I’ve crossed paths with murderer #3 or not because the culprit has never been caught. While I was living at Yale, an undergraduate named Suzanne Jovin was stabbed to death one night a couple of blocks from my apartment. Just prior to this, witnesses had seen Suzanne in downtown New Haven, and it’s not clear how she made it across town in fifteen. Her boyfriend was out of town at the time, and police could find no one with motive to kill Suzanne. They zeroed in on one her thesis advisor, who lived in the area, but intense investigation revealed no apparent link between the two outside of class. The suspicion alone cost James Van de Velde his job.

Someone must have picked up Suzanne and brought her across town, probably someone she knew. Then they murdered her out in the open on a city street, not that late at night, in an area crammed with students. The odds that someone would witness the crime were high, and yet no eyewitness has ever come forward. The case remains open and unsolved.

A few weeks ago, a Northwestern Professor was arrested for murder after the body of a young man was found stabbed to death in his apartment. I didn’t know this guy, but my colleague did. “He seemed like such a nice man,” she said with amazement, and that’s the thing about university murderers: they have to pass as normal at least long enough to assimilate. They could be your teacher, or the kid living down the hall in your dorm, and they look perfectly ordinary…the same as you or me.

Storytelling, Writing Advice

What I Learned from Fanfiction, Part I: Gatekeepers

Lo, many years ago now, I wrote a fair number of X-Files stories and put them on the internet for others to read, enjoy, and critique. The stories were tremendously fun to write, and along the way, I learned a great deal about the craft of writing and how to reach an audience. One day I will tell you about the time I missed the ending to my story by about nine chapters. Today I’m here to talk about the relative benefits and drawbacks to gatekeepers. A gatekeeper in this sense is anyone standing between the writer and her potential reading audience. Fanfic has essentially no gatekeepers, whereas the traditional publishing world is full of them. Each approach has its own advantages.

Fanfiction has no barriers to entry. If you have a story you want to tell, you can type it up and share it with the community in a matter of hours. The downside to this, especially for readers, is that many stories are published before they’ve had time to cook. (“Hey y’all, here’s something I wrote in homeroom!”) It can be difficult to find a quality story among all the noise. The upside is that everyone with a cool idea gets to test it out; there is no gatekeeper to say, “Sorry, there’s no audience for that” or “Shapeshifting aliens are so last year.” The readers get to vote with their clicks and their comments.

I learned a ton about storytelling from The X-Files. One lesson was when to walk away because the story was finished…

Traditional publishers have the same problem as fanfic readers: they want to find the good stuff so that they can put it on the shelves, but the sheer volume of manuscripts coming at them means it’s difficult to sort the quality manuscripts from the ones that are ill-suited. So the publishers transfer the first-pass filter onto literary agents. Most often, if you want a traditional publisher to read your work, you first must acquire an agent. The agent is the first gatekeeper.

If you’re curious what that process looks like, you can go here to see several examples of the query letter, in which the author tries to convince the agent to take a look at his or her work. The agents have weighed in with their responses—and they don’t always agree!

If the agent likes your work enough to represent it, he or she will then try to convince an editor to take your book on. The editor becomes the next gatekeeper. Editors, if they like the book, then turn around and try to convince the publishing house to publish it. So yep…that’s a third round of gatekeeping. If your book manages to get past all the steps, it now has a shot at connecting with an audience. Yay! You’re not done with the gatekeepers, though, because there are still booksellers who decide whether to stock it, publicists who decide how much attention to give it, and reviewers who decide whether to offer any commentary. Whew!

The benefit to all of this is that the process weeds out most of the terrible books with hackneyed plots, wooden dialogue and horrible grammar. The writer also receives a certain amount of “street cred” for having made it to a bookshelf. Moreover, this filtering is a boon to readers. Tens of thousands of books are published each year, and readers have precious little time. They are looking for cues and advice that says, “Read this, not that.” The agents, editors and publishers have done the work to say: here are some excellent books. Choose one of these.

The downside is that this process starts way back with just one or two opinions acting as a go/no-go signal on a book, and these opinions aren’t always right. The agents and the editors may miss books that readers would love, if only they got a chance to see them. For example, romance novelist Rosalind James wrote to several dozen agents seeking representation for her work and was initially turned down by every one of them. So she decided to self-publish her books and has sold thousands upon thousands of copies. The gatekeepers standing between Rosalind and her audience were just plain wrong.

With fanfic, I acted as my own gatekeeper. The only metric I used was whether I thought I would enjoy writing the story or not. Each time, I wasn’t sure how the story would be received. Some were wild hits, popular even fifteen years later. Others were rather duds. I couldn’t have predicted which would be the winners during the writing process. I put the story out there, and the readers got to decide.

So there you go. Writers may not have any idea if they’ve crafted a compelling story. Agents might mistakenly pass on the next bestseller. Readers, though, are the ones who sit in final judgment, and they are never wrong.

And Then There Were None

One of my writing communities recently had a discussion about how many suspects you need to have in a mystery novel. Most people settled on four or five, but a few authors pointed out that you could write a story with only one viable suspect, as long as you kept the audience in suspense the whole time about whether he is guilty or whether the detective would be able to catch him. This is the Columbo model of storytelling, and it can be highly entertaining, especially if you have Peter Falk to pull it off.

In real life, investigators may winnow the field to just a suspect or two and yet still be unable to prove their case. The most fascinating example of this that I have come across is the murder of Diane Kyne. Diane Kyne was home one afternoon with just her husband, Bill, and her adult son, Kevin, when she was strangled to death. One of the men is surely her killer…but which one?

Who murdered Diane Kyne? It was one of two men, but we may never know which one. Photo credit: NBC News.

Both men called 911 to report the murder at roughly the same time, and each claimed the other one had killed Diane. The police arrived to find Bill and Kevin grappling on the lawn, accusing each other of murder. Investigation of the scene showed Diane dead in her bedroom, a victim of strangulation. There was a pair of glasses and a shoe nearby, and a few drops of blood on the bed near her body.

The son, Kevin, had a wicked temper. He had made violent threats against family members in the past, and the police had been out to the house previously when the fighting with Kevin grew out of hand. Kevin had been kicked out of the house before, but Diane let him back in. Rumor had it she was considering removing him again, possibly for good. Forensic investigation revealed that the sandals found near Diane’s body had Kevin’s DNA on them, and the drops of blood near her body belonged to him.

The husband, Bill, did not go check on his wife after he had found her not breathing…possibly because he knew she was already dead. Diane was strangled to death, and it was Bill’s DNA, not Kevin’s, that was found on her neck. Bill seemed to have the stronger motive for murdering Diane: he stood to collect $750,000 in insurance money after her death. And Bill had experience in this department! He had already collected $250,000 in insurance money following the strange death of his first wife. Wife #1 had supposedly awoken in the night, wandered out into the pool area, somehow hit her head, and drowned. Her death was ruled an accident.

The police eventually arrested Kevin for Diane’s murder, and he was initially convicted and sentenced to life in prison. At a second trial, however, the jury ruled Kevin not guilty. Prosecutors are reluctant to retry the case a third time.

By all accounts, Bill and Kevin despised one another, so it’s improbable that they conspired to kill Diane. This leaves us with a situation where both men know the truth, and yet we from the outside cannot definitively spot the liar. Out of the 7 billion people on the planet Earth, Diane Kyne’s killer can be narrowed to a population of just two men…but that’s all it takes for the guilty party to walk free.

What do you think? Was it Bill or Kevin?

Writing

The Other People in My Head

Not too long ago, I opined to a friend who is not a writer that I understood why certain parts of the writing process could be difficult, such as plotting or structure. “But,” I said, “I don’t understand why dialogue would be hard. We all use dialogue every day when we talk to each other. All you have to do is listen to the characters talking in your head and write down what they say.”

My friend gave me a look that was part humor, part concern. “Joanna,” she replied gently, “most of us do not have other people talking in our heads.”

Oh… Oops.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have other voices with me, other stories playing out behind the scenes as I went about my daily business. Sometimes it feels like I can direct the action, but often, I really am just an observer. The characters have minds of their own and trying to bend them to my will usually means that the story goes off the rails.

The benefit of this scheme is that I can do a lot of writing without having any sort of notepad or keyboard. When a story is going well, I just sit at my computer and download everything I’ve been thinking about in one go. I can write up to 15,000 words per day like this.

The downside to this particular writing process is that the people in my head don’t talk very loudly. Not that this is a bad thing overall. If they were too raucous, I’d probably end up with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Real life has to come first. However, when real life is demanding or stressful, the characters can be hard to hear.

I look like this a lot.

That is sort of where I am these days, as I am endeavoring to get a new book off the ground. These are unfamiliar characters to me, so I don’t know them very well yet. This means I need more silence—inner and outer—to be able to hear them. I am trying to create that space so that I can get started on the story, but it’s difficult with so much going on around me.

All this is to say…if you catch me staring off into space, not paying attention to my surroundings, I’m not deliberately ignoring you. I’m just momentarily listening to someone else.

Happily Ever After

Today is my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Someone asked me if they would be renewing their vows for the occasion. I replied that no, they’re just having a party because they really have those vows down by now. Richer and poorer, sickness and health. There’s no need to go over the fine print again because this marriage is fully battle-tested.

They met in college playing bridge. My father, a brilliant bridge player, hates to lose at anything and he quickly deduced my mother was smart enough to keep up with him. Plus, he thought she was cute. They played hours of cards together and his course grades plummeted. Dad was hooked.

Their own parents each had stormy marriages, so my parents had to create a new roadmap for what a happy couple looked like. Mostly, it meant that they strove to be nice to one another. This sounds like a small thing, but it’s actually quite huge. Many times we are polite to strangers but save our worst behavior for our loved ones. Not my parents. My mother would ask my father how his day was and actually listen to the answer. My father would show up periodically with flowers for no particular reason, other than they were pretty and he thought they would make her smile.

My parental units.

Not that they didn’t have arguments. I remember in particular some fun times driving around Europe in the days before GPS. My father drove the car while my mother pored over the map, trying to figure out where we were. By the time she’d located the street name, he’d driven somewhere else. I learned all my best swear words touring Europe with my parents!

But they have always supported each other. Mom proofread his scientific papers (just ask her about middle T!) and Dad took up the viola in middle age so that he could join her orchestra. They order the same meal in restaurants and can finish each other’s stories. One memorable Christmas they even gave each other the same book…wrapped in the same paper.

Happy endings often get a bad rap in fiction. They are dismissed as unrealistic or trite. Serious literature is filled with perennially unhappy characters who do terrible things to one another, sometimes in the name of love, as if purpose cannot exist without suffering. These books aren’t wrong, of course. Pain comes for us all in some form or another. Especially in the span of fifty years, you will find examples of suffering, if that’s what you’re looking for. You’ll also find light and laughter and the beauty of choosing the same person over and over again. It’s all in how you frame the story.

A few years ago, my mother told me she’d briefly broken up with my dad when they were dating. I asked him for his perspective on this apparent blip in their otherwise happy life together. “Dad, I had no idea that Mom broke up with you way back when!”

Dad, lowered his newspaper, a furrow in his brow. “She did?”

“You know, when she moved to New York and was seeing other people.”

“But I visited her in New York!”

“Yeah, so did other people, apparently. You’re telling me that Mom broke up with you and you never even noticed?”

“Huh. Guess so.” He raised his paper again, and I stared at him some more, amazed that he could continue calmly reading in the face of this shattering news. Mom had had serious doubts at one point! She’d dumped my dad for some other guy(s).

“Dad, this doesn’t bother you even a little bit?” I waved my arms around.

He peeked over the paper. “Why should it? I won.”

To Everything There Is A Season

Summer’s here! I love the hazy days of summer, when the sun lingers in the sky and school’s out and the pace of life seems just a bit slower. Summer in Boston means sailboats on the river, neighborhood ice cream trucks, and concerts on the common. There are days hot enough to sizzle the concrete and thunderstorms that rock the sky.

I like to set my stories in locations I know fairly well, either because I have lived there or visited often. Boston and its environs are most familiar to me, and I’ve placed The Vanishing Season in Massachusetts during the summertime. The oppressive heat adds to the sense of dread that Ellery has when she realizes the time has come for another person to go missing.

I’ve also resided in Southern California and traveled extensively in the USA and beyond, so other cities and towns show up in my stories. Each location has its own rhythms and flavors, and it’s fun to try to capture that sense of place on the page. Southern California, for example, gets rain so infrequently that the first time it happens during their “rainy season” the drivers all act like they have never seen water fall from the sky before. They either drive like they’ve got a newborn baby on board or they put the pedal to the metal figuring they’ll just outrun the rain and get home as quickly as possible.

Summer days seem to last forever.

Boston and its fellow East Coast cities are more humid. On hot days your clothes might melt against your body when you step outside. The windows on the subway cars become fogged with condensation—and oh yeah, you can smell your fellow passengers. But you also get blazing orange sunsets and sandy beaches and the bracing cold of the Atlantic Ocean. You get city sprinklers filled with dashing, laughing children, and the especially sweet taste of an icy popsicle on a hot day. There’s the smell of fresh cut grass and ocean breezes and backyard BBQs.

I especially love writing about summer when Boston’s showing off its other side—the several gray months of the year when its frozen under a blanket of snow and you find yourself ankle deep in slush when you step off the city curb. Writing about the cheery, sun-filled days helps me hang on until they come ‘round again, so I’m happy to use as many descriptive words as possible to bring them to life.

No, I Won’t Write Your Book for You

It’s a request so common that many authors have a FAQ devoted to it: “I have an idea for a book. What if I told you my idea and then you wrote it?” My book isn’t even out yet, and I’ve already been approached by a couple of people with this proposal, offering to split the profits 50/50.

First of all: 50-50? Putting the words on the page is at least 80% of the work!

Second of all: Just no. Coming up with the ideas is the fun part for most of us, including me, and we’re not looking to outsource that particular aspect of the job.

Still, the craft of writing and the business of publishing have a lot of learning around them, and no one is born knowing it all. Every successful writer has been a clueless newbie at some point, needing to rely on others to show them the way. In fact, I am still very new to all this and seek out the advice of more experienced writers all the time. I am grateful beyond belief when they spare a minute from their busy lives to help me.

If you’re a successful person in any industry or hobby, though, it’s not possible to help everyone. Steven Pressfield wrote a piece this week on how he draws the line at what he calls “clueless asks.” These would be questions from rude people, or those asking for information that is easily findable by looking for it yourself.

My husband, who is a software engineer, has a T-shirt that reads, “No, I won’t fix your computer.” The spoiler is that he totally will fix your computer as long as you are not a jerk about it. I think the same is probably true for writers. We do like to help each other out, even beginners, because we’ve all needed that help at some point in our careers.

I’m still not going to write your whole book for you, though. That kind of fun I am selfishly keeping for myself!

true crime

True Lies

One of my writer communities recently had a discussion on how much police procedure an author needs to know to write a convincing book. I think the answer depends on whom you wish to convince. If you want to sell your authenticity to real cops, then you’d better get every last detail right. If you want to sell your story to the average reader, then accurate legal procedure may actually get in the way.

I’m an avid consumer of true crime, and I marvel at the strange coincidences or jaw-dropping twists that you would have a hard time putting in work of fiction. For example, in one old case, Massachusetts cops visited a suspect’s apartment to ask him about a murder, only they find he wasn’t at home. They left their card in the door with instructions to get in touch, but surprisingly, the murderer instead skipped town. The cops never followed up because this guy was just one of many possible leads at the time. He was eventually apprehended in Pennsylvania after committing a few more homicides.

“We just didn’t get around to it” is not a plausible excuse for most readers, despite it being a very real problem for actual law enforcement officers who must balance competing cases.

Real-life cops must often wade through red tape and deal with budget restrictions that would bog down a novel. A sprinkle of bureaucracy can add realism, but readers don’t want to sit around with your hero or heroine while he/she waits months for a DNA result. Or maybe the result never comes at all. In Massachusetts at the moment, there is a terrible shortage of qualified medical examiners. This means that many bodies are only receiving a cursory external examination, and follow-up tests may take months or never occur at all.

Sheila Davalloo murdered a woman she considered a romantic rival, then tried to kill her husband too.

Or consider the bizarre tale of Sheila Davalloo, who somehow convinced her husband Paul to move to a hotel on the weekends so that she could carry on with her lover. Later she blindfolded Paul and stabbed him several times, all the while insisting she wasn’t actually trying to kill him. And he believed her! Prosecutors had to lay a lot of groundwork for the incredulous jury to accept Paul’s version of events, especially because he was a medical researcher earning a doctorate at Columbia University at the time. If he were a fictional character, we’d expect him to be smart enough to see through his wife’s outrageous lies.

Then there was the part where Sheila acted as her own attorney at trial, leading to a strange moment where she questioned Paul on the witness stand about who really committed her attack. “You…you stabbed me,” he said. Did she really think he was still in the dark after his open-heart surgery?

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it also moves a lot more slowly. It can take years to arrest and convict a murderer, even if the cops know who the guilty party is right away. Most mystery novels, in contrast, feature a case that is solved within days or weeks. If you’re going to tell a complete story in 300 pages, you have to pick up the pace. It’s important to get right what details you can. Beyond that, kindly readers will probably forgive you for fudging some of the finer points in favor of a compelling narrative.