Tag: writing

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.

Two thumbs up for cozy mysteries

To a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, the Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert was the fount of all wisdom. His weekly Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies PBS show, with its famous Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down scoring system, was in regular rotation on lazy Saturday mornings, when my sister and I would flop in front of the TV with bowls of cereal. Because it was the 80s, our mother let us add spoonsful of white sugar to our Cheerios and eat them along with big glasses of milk sweetened with Hershey’s syrup. Apparently, in the 80s, everyone had magical pancreases.

But back to Ebert. This bespectacled, almost cartoonishly jowly Midwesterner somehow embodied the personality traits of a sharp-witted pundit, a polymath genius, and a four-year-old at a birthday party. His arguments with his co-host were literate, civilized precursors to the hair-clawing, manicure-ruining brawls that populate today’s reality TV. Their arguments were every bit as viscous and sometimes even personal, but their disagreements also expanded minds and showed that it was possible for even well-intentioned experts to disagree.

I recently rediscovered that Saturday morning slice of my childhood when I saw Life Itself, a documentary that chronicles Ebert’s diagnosis with jaw cancer, and the aftermath of the disfiguring surgery that spared his life but destroyed both his face and his ability to speak. The documentary is wonderful, even for those who lack the childhood attachment I have. The film is chock-full of touching, profound, hilarious revelations, but it was one quote, as Ebert discussed his scathing review of Blue Velvet, that has stuck with me for weeks:

“Drama holds a mirror up to life, but needn’t reproduce it.”

For Ebert, Blue Velvet’s sadomasochistic depiction of Isabella Rossalini’s character, and by extension the actress herself, crossed a line between art/drama and exploitation. This brought me back to the struggles I had in choosing a comfortable genre in which to write. After my first agent unsuccessfully shopped the Mount Moriah cozy mystery series, she advised that I switch gears and write Romantic Suspense, which she assured me would sell more easily. That genre, also known as “woman in peril” usually features dangerous, even psychopathic, criminals and gritty scenes of life-threatening action. Following my agent’s advice, I started a novel about a female psychiatrist who treated patients suffering from severe phobias using 3D virtual reality immersion. Similar to the villain in the movie Se7en, my baddie was killing my heroine’s patients one-by-one by reproducing the circumstances of their virtual immersions in real life. Terrified of spiders? Well, you’d find yourself trapped in a room full of tarantulas. And so on. Pretty good plot, eh?

Here’s the thing, though. When I worked on that book, I felt gross. It was hard to edit, because I didn’t like going back reading what I’d written. Yes, those horrible things—mental illness, murder, torture, cruelty, happen. But I didn’t want to be the one to give voice to those things. So, I chucked that idea, dropped the agent, and published the Mount Moriah books myself with Nicole Loughan’s Little Spot imprint. There are murders in my books, and baddies. And things like domestic abuse and prejudice are not glossed over. But I try not to hold my reader’s gaze on them for too long, and I never want to inflict unnecessary suffering on my characters. Mostly, my books try to radiate positive energy. Sometimes, when I read a passage I haven’t read in a long time, it will still make me chuckle. That’s the vibe I’m most comfortable putting out in the world.

I’ll leave it to others to meticulously reproduce mass starvation, individual privation, war atrocities, and child abuse. Turns out when I hold up a mirror to life, I want to hold a fun house mirror.

The day Col. Sanders met Lyndon Johnson’s dog

A reviewer once opined that, though she loved my books, she found the speaking in tongues scene in A Murder in Mount Moriah unbelievable. I laughingly noted that that scene, along with the notorious squirrel in the bathroom incident, are just about the only events in the book that are based on true incidents. This reader had happily swallowed the miles of yarn I’d spun and choked on the single nugget of truth.

I was reminded of this recently during a long road trip with a colleague, who I travel with several times a year. You can only talk shop for so long, so we often end up telling stories of our younger days to pass the tedious hours trekking back and forth along I-81. We were regaling one another with tales of pets our families had kept over the years–the bird who angrily demanded everyone in the house go to bed at 9pm, the filthy stray female dog who, because of an anatomically ambiguous mat of fur, was thought to be a boy and thus ended up with the name Bert.

My colleague then said, “Did I ever tell you about Blanco?”

If you’re a keen historian of Presidential dogs, you may know Fala, FDR’s faithful Scottie, who is permanently enshrined on the National Mall. fdr-memorial-falaAlso well known is Checkers, who Nixon famously refused to part with, even though accepting the dog as a gift may have violated campaign contribution laws. Less well remembered is LBJ’s collie, Blanco.

Lyndon Johnson was a beagle kind of guy, owning a pair of dogs named Him and Her and several of their puppies. Blanco joined the family in 1964, when he was given to President Johnson as a gift by a little girl in the Midwest. TBlancohough the Johnsons did their best to integrate him, Blanco was never happy at the White House. The constant noise and action involved in being a Presidential dog grated on the shy, high-strung collie. He didn’t get along with the Johnson’s band of beagles and didn’t like strangers. He ended up on tranquilizers to manage his anxiety. When the time came for the Johnsons to leave office, they started to talk about whether they should bring Blanco back to Texas with them or find a new home where he might be happier.

One of their Secret Service agents was part of these conversations and mentioned that he had a sister who lived on a 28-acre farm in Corbin, Kentucky with her doctor husband and their three children. The place would be perfect for a shy dog like Blanco. The arrangements were top secret, and Liz Carpenter, Johnson’s press secretary, declined to give the media any details. Citing the fact that several trees planted by Lady Bird Johnson had been dug up and filched, she said, “The dog is too likely to be stolen, so we decided not to say where he is.”

Despite these precautions, word spread quickly in tiny Corbin. Even before Blanco’s private charter plane alighted in the small airfield near Corbin, attempts at secrecy were undermined when Air Force One made a low, slow flight over the farm to check it out.

If the story so far isn’t wacky enough, here’s where reality becomes sur-reality. You see, besides being a favored retirement destination for Presidential dogs, Corbin, Kentucky has another claim to fame. It is the home of Colonel Harland Sanders, the man who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken. By the late 1960s, Sanders had moved away, but happened to be in town visiting. When he heard about Blanco from his chiropractor (who was friends with the doctor whose wife was the sister of the Secret Service agent who’d worked for LBJ), that LBJ’s dog was living nearby, he hightailed it out to the farm to visit with the vicariously-famous collie.

And that, my friends, is how Col. Sanders came to meet LBJ’s dog at my colleague’s childhood home. The story comes pre-packed with drama, humor, political intrigue, and small-town wholesomeness. It even has a happy ending, with Blanco living out his days in Corbin, happy, calm, and drug-free. Despite all that, I can never use this tale in a novel. Not even the most credulous reader would believe that reality could be so very much stranger than fiction.