|Playa, Summer Lake, Oregon|
Amidst an anxiety-inducing election cycle, the loss of some of our great musicians, an unstable world, and whatever is going on in your personal life (I know many of you have had a tough year), I hold onto the belief that art carries us, gives us means of expression (meaningful expression, the opposite of trolling), and fills us with hope.
Art in all its forms I believe is evidence that humans are worthy of existence. The only other evidence is our social contract to help others in times of need.
Right now, after a tough personal beginning to the year, I have the good fortune to be at Playa, a month-long residency in southern Oregon to work on Vida Flats my memoir that takes place during the early 70s on the McKenzie River. The memoir has been a work in progress over the years with journaling, scene writing, examining, researching—everything that memoir demands.
Writing memoir leaves me psychologically naked, heart cut open, old wounds surfacing, and ultimately in the end is a method of holding myself accountable for what happened to me.
For the first two weeks at Playa, I spread printouts on my bed of everything I’d written so far and went at them with scissors and tape, eliminating replications, combining scenes with notes, moving notes around, highlighting the most emotional scenes, axing bad writing and tirades—well you get the idea. I cried. New memories surfaced. I tried to have as much compassion for my twenty-four-year old self as I have now for others at that age. Memoir is not about blaming others, even if they’ve done you harm. Memoir is about writing truth, my messy truth, about my choices when I experienced harm or love, ignorance or awareness, failure or success. Memoir is mainly about recognizing that big conscious moment when I knew life had to change, or else. It’s about what I did, or tried to do to make that change. It didn’t happen on the first attempt, or even the second, but it did happen.
So what does this have to do with turning to crime?
This year I had one of those moments when I knew my writing life had to change. I’d written three novels, represented by three incredibly hard working agents, but none sold. This last one is still alive, but I was tired, burned out. I could indie publish all three, but I was too tired and burned out to do that. I knew I needed to change a few things in the third novel, but I just couldn’t go back to it, not yet. Plus I had this memoir. I wasn’t having fun anymore, not that writing a novel or memoir is fun, but I’d lost the passion I’d had for years and seriously considered giving up writing.
Then somewhere along the line, I had an idea. Why not write something fun and short. When I thought that, my shoulders relaxed. The pit in my stomach dissolved. I no longer had heartburn. Writing something fun sounded … fun.
But what would be fun to write? Lately, amidst reading memoirs and literary novels, I’d been reading Scandinavian crime novels, recently ones written by women. My husband liked to tease me because I was hooked on what he called “murder and sex” series like “The Tunnel,” “Rebus,” “The Night Manager,” “The Americans,” and “Shades of Blue.” I said, “No, not the murder and sex. I like the politics and the flawed characters.” As a writer, I think of myself as a behavioral diagnostician. What makes people do what they do? What are their motives? What personal demons or desires drive them? How do their actions affect world events, culture, politics, the economy?
When I was a kid, I read Nancy Drew stories and a mystery series my English relatives sent at Christmas.?
During my teens, I read in bed under the blanket with a penlight until one or two in the morning, stories by de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and O. Henry. Twisty, dark, atmospheric stories I sucked down like cherry sodas.
Mysteries. They would be fun to write, but they weren’t serious works.
Then I remembered Rick Moody.
Rick and I met at Vermont Studio while I was there on a month-long writers residency. He’s the author of one of my favorite novels The Ice Storm, also made into a movie.
The Ice Storm hit something deep in me. Rick and I were New Englanders from ultra-conservative families, instilled with a Puritan work ethic, and discouraged from following our creative dreams. I’d wanted to be an artist. He’d wanted to be a musician. We compared stories about our upbringing. He attended a prep school in New Hampshire near my hometown, but not the prep school in my hometown. The prep school in my hometown of Tilton, New Hampshire where I went to high school sat high on a hill overlooking the mill town and main street. The “preppies” often hung out at the same pizza joint I did and preyed on the “townies.” I was not a popular target so I watched in fascination. I also observed what went on in the homes of our New England picture-perfect towns, something Rick depicted well in The Ice Storm. Something Grace Metalious captured decades earlier in Peyton Place.
In Vermont, Rick and I walked through a familiar stark winter landscape and, inside VSC’s library, he gave me feedback on the first twenty-five pages of my work-in-progress. When I returned to my room, I looked at the pages and at the top of the first page he wrote:
“You’ve got the chops, now loosen up.”
I’ve puzzled over this for years. At the time, I was so incredibly grateful for those words “You’ve got the chops,” that I didn’t realize I didn’t know what he meant by “loosen up.” Was he referring to my language, the voice? The way the story unfolded? Too structured? Too forced? And why, after these many years, am I remembering this now?
I noodled on that for a few days, finally admitting that my first novel was the one I loved writing the most, a dark story about a young woman’s coming of age in the claustrophobic controlled scary confines of a New England town run by her father who was afraid of the mysterious woman who moved in next door. It contained a mystery!
I also reminded myself how much I enjoyed writing “The Hotel Deluxe.” I’d been on assignment for an upcoming online travel magazine where I’d been sent to Portland, Oregon to write a travel piece. I was told to let my imagination fly and encouraged to write something “different.” So I embedded a travelogue in a mystery. I didn’t kill anyone, but the voice was pure noir.
I got goose bumps. Always a good sign. I also had to laugh. Mom once described me as “a good girl who wanted to be a bad.” Writing mysteries was for good girls. Noir was for bad.
Why it took me so long to figure this out, I have no idea. During college I’d studied film noir in a course titled “Film as Literature.” We watched and dissected films, and Matty Walker, Catherine Tramell, and Lynn Bracken, characters motived by hypocrisy, love, betrayal, and money, captivated me. Flawed, intriguing, greedy, messed up characters. No one you’d want to be friends with, but damn! I sure could have fun writing them.
But the book marketplace was flooded with mysteries and thrillers. What could set my short noirs apart from the rest? The travel noir piece I wrote gave me an idea. Why couldn’t I set each noir in a place Dan and I had traveled? Weren’t there people who would love to know more about the setting, the places mentioned in the story, if they knew they were real? I could add a back section to each short story with links and photos and. … More goose bumps.
Plus not everyone had the time to read or even focus on novels. My short noir-travel stories could be read while sitting in the car waiting for the kids to get out of school, during the inevitable long wait at the doctors, eating pie and drinking coffee at a café while their car was being fixed. With the back travel section, the reader could plan a trip to the setting or just live vicariously off the photos and links.
Sometimes life works in your favor. Over the 2015 Holiday season on a two-week vacation in Paris with Dan, I’d kept a journal and saved every receipt and brochure. Gold! I fleshed out a character and a plot, and wrote my first Noir Travel Story “Revenge in Paris.”
And that’s why and how I ended up writing crime, or more accurately noir.
My first e-story in the series “Revenge in Paris” will launch December 1 to coincide with the holidays, and the story will be FREE to download to your e-reader. I’m giving it away to celebrate my launch of the NOIR TRAVEL STORY SERIES. Plus, you’ll have access to a gift card to print out and insert in your holiday cards so you can give this free NOIR TRAVEL STORY to everyone you know.
Because you’ve been with me a long time, you get the first peek at the cover—before I reveal it on my social media!
Thanks for following me. You’ll receive an announcement when the e-book is available.
And, please, if I end up in jail, post my bail. I’ll mention you in the credits of my next noir.
WOMEN CRIME WRITERS ARE NOT A FAD