Tag: writing

Short, dark and than some

My short story “Taming the Tiger” will be published in the collection, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, later this spring by Untreed Reads. I wrote the story more than a year ago, so it was a little jarring to look back through it as it’s being prepared for publication and realize how dark it is. There is a sinister love triangle, a twisted power struggle, and a Talented Mr. Ripley-style murder. This isn’t the first time I’ve written dark short fiction. In fact, when I started thinking about it, all of my short stories, both published and unpublished, explore disquieting themes and paint bleak pictures of humans and their motivations.

All of this got me wondering: just what kind of monster am I?!

It’s probably common for people to assume that writers match their writing. Ernest Hemingway, whose books center on dashing, macho men battling their inner demons, was a dashing, macho man, battling inner demons. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Gatsby-like party boy. When asked where his dark inspirations stemmed from, Stephen King had this answer: “People think I must be a strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It’s in a jar on my desk.” (For the record, King isn’t quite the sicko his books would make him appear, but he was a raging alcoholic for decades, and even now he’s known for being quirky and elusive).

In my case, though, the darkness of my imaginary worlds doesn’t match up with my personality. I’m generally jolly and usually upbeat. I like wiener dog races and the color yellow and pictures of newborn babies wearing giant hair bows. My childhood had the usual share of minor traumas, but I grew up surrounded by loving family members. So why, when I sit down at a computer, does blood and fire pour out of my fingertips?

My fellow mystery writer and good friend, Tracee DeHahn, and I were talking about this phenomenon recently. She, too, is a uniformly upbeat person who comes from a stable background. We’re both relatively new to the world of mystery writing and have been wowed by the kindness and affability of the mystery authors we meet. Seriously, Malice Domestic, the annual gathering of writers who spend their days mentally murdering people, is filled with folks who are, on the whole, kinder than your average church bake sale committee (though, it has to be said, much, much raunchier).

My theory is that for many writers, the page is a safe place to process negative emotions. For me at least, fiction is like an external hard drive to store my darkness. Even cheerful people like me have heaps and heaps of bad thoughts that need to find expression.

Maybe I particularly like to visit those dark places in short fiction because it seems to allow me just enough time to explore those themes without absorbing them. Short fiction is a long weekend in the Land of Id — the raw, exposed, and sometimes downright yucky swamp in my emotional landscape. Visiting Id-Land allows me to appreciate life back at my emotional dwelling place: Giant Baby Bow Town.

 

Underneath it all

I’ve been tinkering with a new story lately and I was reminded of a phrase that’s always driven me batty: s/he is “a good person underneath it all.”

The story I’m writing is written from first person point of view, a perspective I haven’t used in awhile. Being inside your character’s head can allow a little more scope for introspection and give space for your character to explain his or her actions to the reader. As I was creating my protagonist, it struck me just how unlike real life that is. What a luxury to be able to do something crappy and then be able to spend a few paragraphs explaining your underlying motivations, limitations, and experiences!

As a society, we rarely afford one another this luxury. Say some NASCAR wannabe cuts me off on the highway and causes me to swerve. Perhaps I’m feeling generous enough to sketch out an appropriate justification and backstory for her — maybe she was rushing to her child’s school because she got a call from the nurse? maybe she’s a doctor who’s just been called in to consult on a critical patient?

But nine times out of ten, I’m going to flip that crazy driver the bird, mentally or verbally. (Sorry, kids in the backseat. Don’t repeat what Mommy just said at daycare.) Maybe then the cycle of judgement continues. Another driver who missed seeing the near-accident happens to drive past my car a moment later. They’ll see me swerve, and then pass me as I’m red-faced and screaming, with my wide-eyed kiddos in the backseat, trying to process the colorful vocabulary they just learned.  Neither crazy NASCAR driver nor I will have a chance to hand out explanatory pamphlets to justify our actions.

What I’m getting at is that life is basically one big series of stories written in third-person limited point of view. For the most part, your character (Let’s call her You) is essentially the sum of You’s actions.

The phrase “good person underneath it all” is often rolled out as a sad platitude by kindly former neighbors or classmates after someone does something heinous. It’s like an atomic “bless your heart” — a way of reminding ourselves that even villains have backstories. The underneath it all idea represents a perennial strain of moral philosophy. Just think of the schism between Catholics and Protestants over whether a soul can get to Heaven by faith alone, or whether good works are also needed. Even though I was raised Baptist, I always found myself on #TeamCatholic for this one. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that some absolute stinker who repented in his very last breath would have access to the same harp-strumming, blissful afterlife as, say, Mister Rogers.

Even though I have some definite ideas about this, even I have to admit that my Actions = Character argument has some limitations. Most of the time, bad actions are made more likely by circumstances. It’s easier to be generous if you’re not starving. It’s pretty damn hard to give love if you’ve never received it. I also have to find a moral space for things like mental and physical illness. If a bipolar friend flakes on me because she’s going through a manic episode, that doesn’t make me think she’s a fundamentally bad person.

Still, I maintain that the best path is to recognize that our interior lives are, a majority of the time, inaccessible to our fellow humans. So even if we have Darth Vader-worthy origin stories to explain how we went over to the Dark Side, as much as this dumb old world will allow, let’s try to stay on the sunny side. Smile. Give a compliment. Give a hug. Unless you carry around a stack of explanatory pamphlets, you’re stuck as a third person kind of person.

Competing Narratives

Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative.  As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.

When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.

There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).

History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.

When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.

I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir, On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.

Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.

Word architects

After a long hiatus, I finally started working on a novel again this month. With apologies to all the very patient Lindsay Harding fans, I haven’t started working on the next chaplain mystery. Instead, I’ve begun revising the manuscript for the middle-grade adventure novel I wrote a few years back in the hopes that I can submit it to agents in the fall. It feels good to be back in the saddle!

During this fallow period in which the sum total of my finished writing projects consisted of a single 1,500 word short story, something surprising happened. I’ve been offered two really cool opportunities to put on my Author Hat© and do Cool Author Things©. In my experience, that doesn’t usually happen. I’ve found that if I don’t promote the heck out of my books, attend conferences, and crank out new material, my sales dwindle to a trickle and my Author Hat© gathers dust in its metaphorical closet. Luck was on my side the past few months, though!

jeriandmindy
Celebrating with Jeri Rogers, Literary Editor of Artemis Journal at LitFest Pasadena.

Cool thing No. 1: I got to go to LA and be fancy in a room full of extraordinarily talented people. That 1,500 word short story I mentioned above won the Artemis-Lightbringer “Women hold up half the sky” competition for science fiction with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. My story received dual publication in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in addition to a cash prize from Hollywood NOW. You can check out my story in the 2018 edition of Artemis or hear it performed by actor and filmmaker Kamala Lopez, recorded live at LitFest Pasadena a few weeks ago. My story starts around minute 57. There’s also a little awards ceremony at the end where I give an impromptu, margarita-fueled speech.

Cool thing No. 2: I’ve been invited to go to one of my favorite places in the world, the Outer Banks, and give a book talk on Saturday, September 29th. Here’s how that whole thing came about. My friend Pam is an innkeeper. Kind of an 18th-century throwback job, huh? She keeps inn (inn-keeps?) at the White Doe Inn in Manteo on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She recently started up a series of evening arts events and, knowing that A Death in Duck is set near there, she invited me to come give a book talk as part of the series. I said yes before she even finished inviting me.

Both of these unexpected wonderful opportunities reminded me of something. When you publish something or otherwise put your writing out into the world, you lose control of where that writing goes or how it will impact people. Being a writer is kind of like building a house. You may build that house for a specific client or with a clear vision for who will inhabit it. But years, decades, or, if you’re incredibly lucky, centuries later, that house could be roughly the same. Or maybe it will have undergone a complete renovation or maybe it’ll be a crack den. Once you hand it over to the world, you can’t control who lives there or what they do.

The same is true of writing. People’s reactions can be scary or disappointing, like when a series of negative reviews from homophobes blights your book’s Amazon page (the literary equivalent of a crack house?). But they can also be thrilling and encouraging, like when you get to travel to both coasts within the space of a few months to share your work. Not bad for an unproductive year.

Mindy Quigley in Space!

I got word a few weeks ago that my short story “Equality Day” was selected as the winner of the 2018 Women Hold Up Half the Sky Award, sponsored by Artemis Journal, Light Bringer Project & the Hollywood Chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The contest required me to write a science fiction story with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. I’ve never attempted anything even remotely like this. Though I did manage to birth an infant, launch a child into middle school, and have my kitchen renovated, 2017 was a spectacularly unproductive year for me in terms of writing. For most of the year, I’d felt all but brain-dead. However, when a writer friend sent me the contest details, I could feel my long-stilled creative juices begin to softly burble.

I’ve written before about how I tend to approach writing like a project to be managed. The contest had a very concise 1,500 word limit, which made it feel like a do-able project. I didn’t have to try to snap my sleep-deprived synapses into shape in order to knit the details of an entire novel together. I just had to maintain concentration for a few hours at a time. Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image

 

Even still, the road to triumph was paved with many false starts and deleted pixels. When I begin a short story, I almost always start with an idea that’s WAY too big for a short story. That was even more true with “Equality Day,” where the story I wanted to tell had enough detail for at least three feature-length films. The world I pictured had achieved a veneer of social equality by eliminating all outward signs of gender. I didn’t want it to be hard-core scifi (no spaceships, no time travel, no blue-skinned creatures sporting ray guns). But despite the similarities to our own world, the story remained stubbornly unwieldy and enormous, and there seemed to be no way to make it smaller. To make matters worse, I had next-to-zero time to sit down and start working through my ideas on paper.

Weirdly, the fact that baby-rearing gave me so little time to write improved the story. What I lacked in computer time, I made up for in many nights of half-conscious cogitation. Throughout November and into December, while I was nursing my son, I kicked around ways to bring the story under control. Late one night, with my little son suctioned to me like a remora fish, a vision dawned on me–a little child who lived in a genderless world, seeing a woman for the first time. Before I slipped back in bed that night, I jotted down what became the first sentence in “Equality Day”:

The first time I saw a woman, I must’ve been about five.

That sentence gave me what I needed to get started. A few furious drafting sessions and many edits later, I’d managed to tell the story I’d wanted to tell, in only 1,468 words.

Look out for “Equality Day” in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in early May. And look out for me at LitFest Pasadena where the story will be read on stage by a celebrity guest on May 19, 2018!

You secretly believe life is fair.

A friend of mine is undergoing treatment for a recurrence of cancer. She has two young daughters who are, for the second time in a year, having to watch their mom fall ill from treatment, lose her vitality and probably her hair (again), and fight for her life. This same friend’s brother died of cancer last week, after years of often agonizing pain. Oh, and her mom is currently in rehab after a debilitating stroke. She’s holding up incredibly well, but the Bible’s Job is probably looking at her like, “Damn, girl. That sucks.”

I confess. Although I am within sniffing distance of my fourth decade of life, I still secretly believe that life is fair. Or at least that it ought to be. I’m guessing you have the same irrational fantasy. Like toddlers complaining that Timmy got more turns on the slide than everybody else, we harbor a feeling that there should be a universal sense of justice, some kind of correlation between the way we live our lives and the things that happen to us. We see this instinct in action every time tragedy rains down. I often think of the public outcry when, a few years back, a toddler was killed by a rogue alligator at Disney World. Comments sections all over the internet filled up with outraged voices asking why the parents would let the boy get so close to the water. Why weren’t they watching their son more closely? Why didn’t Disney take more stringent measures to clear the lake of alligators? Why hadn’t employees warned people not to be near the water at night? The plain fact is that it was a terrible, terrible accident. Like most tragedies, if a hundred small things had gone slightly differently, it could have been prevented. But things went the way that they did, and a young, innocent life ended as a result. How unfair.

I see this same dynamic with my friend’s cancer diagnosis. People will ask her, “Is there cancer in your family?” “Were you exposed to X chemical?” “Did you eat too much of X or drink too little of Y?” As if there’s an answer. As if we must make this logical and fair somehow in our minds.

I think I write in part from this same deep-seated human impulse to make things fair. I’ve given my main character, Lindsay Harding, a lot of baggage. Deadbeat parents, adoption by an aunt whose ideas about child rearing bordered on Dickensian, a traumatic betrayal by her fiance, frequently being targeted by violent criminals. Like me, Lindsay knows that, despite her belief in a benevolent God, life isn’t fair. She even has several conversations in A Murder in Mount Moriah about this age-old philosophical dilemma. But what Lindsay doesn’t know is that <<SPOILER ALERT>> when all is said and done, she will get her happy ending. I get to make things fair for her. That’s the power of creating a fictional world. I’ll kill off the worst of the baddies and reward most of the goodies. That’s how most books and movies work, and I’m not cruel enough to deviate from that formula by subjecting my readers to an ending that results in Lindsay’s slow, painful death. (I know I’m not alone is still being mad at John Boyne for the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.)

Admit it. You know rationally that life isn’t fair. But when you see good people suffering I’m willing to bet that you, like me, have to fight an internal battle against the belief that it damn well ought to be.

Mostly what I’m producing is vomit

I began the month of October all gung-ho to work on Murder on the Mile High Bridge, book four in the Mount Moriah series. I had a plot, a victim, a murderer, and a couple nifty twists all ready to be spun into literary gold. Or, if not precious metal, at least a halfway decent piece of commercial fiction.

Then, the barfing started. I’ve written before about my tendency to upchuck before taking the stage to speak in public and how I’ve used medication as a crutch to overcome my fear. This was a different kind of barfing. Pregnant barfing. The kind of all-day “morning” sickness that only the parasitic invasion of a fetus can produce. That’s right. A small(er) Quigley is being manufactured in my womb.

But wait, you’re saying. Kate Middleton totally made all-day vomiting and nausea seem glamorous. What better way to ensure that you can squeeze right back into your size zero designer frocks moments after giving birth? Well, friends, there is no glamour in spewing partially-digested Saltines out of your mouth and nose in the bushes outside the grocery store. If you’ve ever experienced seasickness or altitude sickness, you’ll have an inkling of what severe morning sickness feels like. It’s that, only times several months.

I’m now a few weeks into my second trimester and my energy and ability to complete the full digestive process are gradually returning. But this is literally the first time I’ve put cursor to screen in any creative way since this whole ordeal/joyous event began. Apologies to anyone waiting for the next installment of Lindsay Harding’s story. Real-life drama has been the order of the day. I’m hoping to complete the manuscript before Baby Q arrives, because I remember the newborn stage also not being a particularly fruitful time in my professional life. Wish me luck.

I know there are many women who have powered through cancer, MS, and other extremely challenging health conditions while simultaneously keeping up with demanding jobs and/or care commitments. Good for them. I, by contrast, am mortal. I can only do one thing at a time–build a human being from scratch or write a lighthearted cozy mystery. One or the other. Not both.  I recently came across a Virginia Woolf quote that’s an old favorite of mine, which lets me know that I am in good company. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Amen, Virginia.

Roll on, second trimester, and let the dining (and writing) recommence.

Oh! Quick shameless plug. The Mount Moriah box set is on sale for only $.99 on Amazon for the new day or so: http://amzn.to/2gGiHKg. Recommend it to a friend who could use a pick-me-up this holiday season.