Hail, queen of psychological thrillers

Ruth RendellTo say that Ruth Rendell writes thrillers is to say that Alfred Hitchcock directed scary movies. It is the most under of understatements.

Like Hitchcock, Ruth Rendell gets inside the skins of her disturbed characters. We, the readers, learn to understand the obsessions that serve as their reasonable (to them) and compulsive motives to kill and kill again. Although each of her more than 60 novels involves murders, they rarely are mysteries to her readers. The “who” of the who-done-its are known, and its these characters, both fascinating and repulsive, that keep us turning page after page.

Rendell, whose body of work spans more than 50 years, has won three Edgars in the U.S., as well as four Gold and a Diamond Dagger from England’s Crime Writers’ Association. Whether chronicling a single deranged person as she does in A Judgment in Stone, following the intelligent and sensitive Inspector Wexford in The Vault and 22 other book, or writing as Barbara Vine in A Dark-Adapted Eye and other novels, the British writer has served as a model for me, as I immerse myself in the minds of my characters.

I admire Ruth Rendell’s writing tremendously. She, the late P.D. James, who died in November, and Elizabeth George are among a handful of contemporary master storytellers that I think have set the modern-day standard for intelligent crime novels, crafting three-dimensional characters and rich stories.

If you haven’t read P.D. James, the crime and dystopian novelist whose books Death Comes to Pemberley and The Children of Men were made into a PBS series and movie, respectively, check her out. Although all her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh novels are listed on Goodreads, she has written other excellent novels. Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley also shows up on PBS. Like James, books outside her detective series are enjoyable reading.

However, for believable psychological thrillers, no one does it better than Ruth Rendell, making you give your quirky neighbor a second glance. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of her books. She holds you in thrall all the way through the final page.


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When cultures collide

worldmapWrite about what you know.

We’ve all heard that piece of advice. Even so, sometimes we slip in a place or person about which we know very little. When it’s something obvious, such as a location, means for murder or prosecutorial procedure, we do research. We don’t wing historical details in period pieces, or defy the laws of physics in futuristic fables.

However, writers often do not take the time we should with getting the details right about minor characters from a culture different from their own. We can’t simply take our own experiences and world views and slap them on someone who most likely would behave and see things differently than we do.

For example, a name cannot always be chosen at random. It must convey, at least to the author, characteristics about the fictional person that bears it. If a character hails from another culture, his or her name might be thought to be auspicious or describe the characteristics the parents hope the child will embody. For my novella set in Afghanistan, I spent hours researching names for the Tajik and Pashtun characters. Arman means ideal, hope and aspiration in Dari, attributes that I wanted the moderate Tajik mujahideen to possess. His friend Farokh, who lost his leg but not his life when an unexploded bomb blew up, lived up to his moniker, which means happy, fortunate. The two friends faced Hanif in a deadly battle. The young talib’s name means true believer in Arabic.


If your work has a character with Chinese heritage, don’t situate him in a fourth-floor apartment or give her four flowers, a four-door car or phone number with the number 4, the numeral for death. Eight, on the other hand, would be a good choice. That number is so auspicious for the Chinese that the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies began at 8 p.m. China Standard Time on 8/8/08.

Characters often learn a lot by watching facial expressions. However, if people from different countries are watching each other, they might not learn much. Facial expressions, too, might have different cross-cultural interpretations, according to Rachael L. Jack, who said that Western Caucasians rely on the eyebrows and mouth to pick up cues, while Chinese focus on the eyes.

There is a host of other differences among cultures from what “on time” means to which hand (if any) to proffer in a greeting. Good international advertising agencies have become finally attuned to those differences. Successful marketers understand they can’t just translate an American ad into another language. Rather, they need an entirely different, culturally appropriate campaign. Electrolux was smart enough not to bring its “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” ads from Great Britain to the U.S. Writers could learn from them, a warning that even in our mother tongue, the words we choose might have unintended meanings.

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I resolve

skyline_wordsThe new year brings a fresh start and a list of personal resolutions designed to make us healthier, happier and better people. Writers are no exception. We vow to write more and more consistently and hone our craft. However, like the gym memberships that boom in January, we can’t allow our resolutions to go bust by mid-March. Not if we are serious writers.

I’ve seen dozens of articles and websites devoted to writers’ resolutions. However, I think the best was the one that poet and The Charlotte Observer columnist Dannye Romine Powell penned: “Advice to writers: Work hard, write to win.”

Dannye, a talented writer, took a contrarian view to some of the advice she was seeing. The bottom line: If you want to be a professional writer, act like one. People who are tops in their fields don’t dabble. They are successful because they work at it. They stand out from the crowd because they aren’t part of the crowd. They find their own paths to go their own way. They work – hard.

In addition to the usual advice of having a time, place and quota for writing, Dannye says to compare the quality of writing and work habits of successful peers with our own and see how we measure up. She advises reading – a lot, especially out-of-the-mainstream works. And, as author James Dickey said, write like a winner. We don’t want to write as well as other authors. We don’t want to be average. We should push ourselves to be the best, to stand out from the pack.

In 2015, I resolve to read, write and revise, meeting my weekly quota without fail. Through practice, I will strengthen my writing and my unique voice. Only then will it become strong and loud and soar sweetly above the din.

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Freezing laughter in amber

the boysPut down that pen and look around.

As writers, we can get stuck inside our heads, spending more time with our characters than with those around us. Bad idea. We need the real world to inform our writing. The way a niece’s fingertips brush the hair from her face and behind her ears. How an uncle’s stammer has his relatives biting their tongues as he struggles to loosen his. The way the water distorts an image reflected in a glass, turning it into a fun house mirror. We draw on our own experiences to breathe life into our work.

Use all your senses to experience life. Not just as writers, but as parents, as children, as friends, as colleagues. Amidst the chaos and stress of daily living, there will be moments we will want to freeze, like living things caught in amber, so that we might hold those memories safe and bring them out when we want to remind ourselves there is wonder in the world.

With each passing year, treasured faces disappear from around our tables. Distance and death sever our tactile connections, but not our memories. And that’s the key. We must make those memories now to be able to retrieve them later.

The things we remember usually aren’t Memories with a capital M. Often we don’t so much create them, as they just happen. My children most remember not the ride at Disney World or the laser light show, not the intergenerational family dinners or Christmas mornings. They remember not the awe-inspiring, but the laugh-inducing. They recall the leftovers forgotten in the Orlando restaurant, the beach campfire in July, and the bedraggled child-made ornaments I stubbornly put on the trees each Christmas. As with a well-written novel, it is the little things, the human things, that touch us.

This holiday season, hold the people you love close. When you dust off those memories, listen for the laughter echoing down the years.

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Falling in love again

TornBookWhen a friend recently said he had fallen out of love with his novels-in-progress, I could relate. There are days when I tire of Janelle or feel the plot is plodding. I want to tell the reporter to get a life, or I want something to happen that shakes things up. Then I realize that unlike with flesh-and-blood people, I can create the change I want to see.

Walking away can help give me the distance I need to come to grips with why I have lost interest in my stories. Being able to identify why I’ve fallen out of love can help me to rekindle the romance. Maybe my characters simply have become too predictable or I know them too well. Maybe the minor characters are flat and clichéd. Or perhaps the plot has become formulaic. Maybe I’m just tired of writing.

Writing can be a chore. We’ve all heard how serious writers set a place and time to write and have a goal of how much they’ll churn out each day. To be honest, I have good intentions, but I’m not always great about following those rules. The place? No problem. The time? It flexes, depending on my other commitments. The goal? When I had deadlines for my magazine articles, speeches and other pieces, I always delivered on time. Now, I usually come close, but I don’t always hit the mark.

While daily writing remains a priority without those hard and fast deadlines, it is no longer the most important thing in my life, and I’m fine with that. My critique group keeps me on track and provides unvarnished feedback to let me know when I miss the mark and when I’m doing it right. Fundamentally, I think I have a solid story, so at least with this book, the faults lie primarily in execution.

Sometimes, even after giving it all I’ve got, there are good reasons to fall out of love with my work. I’ve written pieces, labored over them, only to realize they really are terrible. There might be a salvageable nugget, but I basically have had to blow them up and start entirely different stories.

Usually, I know when to ditch a work. However, when I’m not sure, I get unbiased, honest feedback from trusted readers and other writers. I ask if they picked up this story/article/book and began reading it, would they put it down and pick up a different one. If they would, what lost their interest? If the flaws aren’t fixable, if something is fundamentally wrong and the love can’t be rekindled, the relationship is over. After having invested so much of oneself, breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes, it’s better to cut your losses and move on. As with any relationship, I’ll remember the best parts and, being a writer, they’ll end up in a new work. And I’ll fall in love with my writing again.

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Sweat the small stuff

MovieMistakesWe’ve all seen it – a bruise that moves from the left to right eye after a cutaway, a hat that flies off in one scene but is firmly in place in the next, a lamp broken during a struggle that miraculously mends. Members of movie and TV production crews in charge of continuity try their best not to let these slip-ups occur, but occasionally they creep in – even in animated media. Although these errors are more obvious when we see rather than read them, writers need to be just as vigilant to ensure continuity in their writing.

Last week, I discovered a big one in my novel-in-progress. When Eric Shinseki resigns, Chicago Tribune reporter Janelle Martin is reminded of a year-old bioterrorist case purportedly engineered by a veteran trying to draw attention to the months and years some veterans have to wait for VA health care. So, in late April she drives to Iowa to find out what’s happened to the accused veteran and what would drive him to violence. The problem is that Shinseki didn’t resign until May 30th. The fix wasn’t as easy as changing April references to June. Because I want the action to take place during the college academic year, I had to reset the story in October. That meant going back and changing not only the month that she hit the road but descriptions of the landscaping around her interviewees’ houses, the state of the leaves on the trees and the liturgical activities of the priest with whom she talks. She also would wear fall instead of spring clothes.

Continuity can become more difficult the more detail writers provide. Done well, detail add a richness that engages readers. Lack of continuity can put them off. If a woman breaks a heel running, she can’t dash into a room as if both shoes were the same height. If a character takes a jacket off in a restaurant, be sure he remembers to pick it up when he leaves.

Outlining and pre-writing character descriptions can help avoid big issues, such as conflicting physical descriptions, inconsistent character traits and unresolved plot points.

Writers have different ways of keeping tracks of those details. A few years ago, crime writer Jeffery Deaver told the Charlotte Writers’ Club that since he has a lot of plot twists, he keeps a big board to help him remember. If he makes changes during the writing process, he simply moves things around. I’ve found erasable pens to be an invaluable tool. I use them to note, change, add or delete key events and details on my story arc.

Get the details right now and you’re a step ahead when your book is optioned for a movie.

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Feeling the heartbeat

maze-gyreRon Rash told the Charlotte Observer recently that a first draft is like “an ugly glob of clay on a wheel.”

It is an apt metaphor. The best writers discard the unnecessary bits. They use imagery, actions and dramatic tension to spin their tales, drawing readers in and shaping riveting pieces of art.

Last week at a free Charlotte Writers’ Club workshop, memoirist Gilda Morina Syverson, poet David Radavich and screenwriter Patrick Lee illustrated how that artistry works. The way Gilda described finding the story reminded me of a nautilus shell. You start on the periphery, circling in ever smaller circles closer to its heart.

Imagery helps readers see that heart beat. We all know to use literary devices, such as metaphor and simile, alliteration and meter. We can make our writing even more accessible by creating a sensory impression that’s mental, emotional, visceral. Engage readers’ senses, David said. Don’t tell us you love your grandmother, show love in action. Be specific and linger on the details, letting interactions replace words. Allow readers to see the grandmother push the child’s hair from her face with floury fingers as they bake. Have readers smell those cookies and feel (and taste) that dough.

Action, which is a prerequisite to keep moviegoers engaged, add richness to the written media, too. Patrick underscored how a reader can gauge what is in characters’ hearts by watching what they do, rather than what they say. A proclamation of love could mean affection or signal ulterior motives. Words can be lies; action is truth. The difference between the two creates dramatic tension.

Story telling is not reserved for memoirs, imagery for poetry or action for the screen. Device cross-pollination makes each genre more compelling. Gilda’s memoir is informed by her work as a poet. David’s poetry is influenced by his playwriting. Patrick’s novels draw on his screenwriting experience. We learn from other genres and from other writers, borrowing and adapting.

Novels, poems and scripts can start as loosely crafted works. Then we revise and revise and revise. Ron Rash told the Observer that he will revise a novel 14-16 times, sometimes spending 30 minutes on a single sentence. It took Michelangelo three years to turn a block of stone into David. Art takes patience. Writing is a process. We know we’ve been successful when our readers feel our character’s pulse and can see into his heart, when they want to turn the page and find out what happens next.

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