When cases were solved by a corpse's pointing finger....how does that fit with the "Detective's Oath"?
Recently* I came across the Detective’s Oath, written by Dorothy Sayers and first administered by G.K. Chesterton, as part of the initiation ceremony for the British Detective Club. The club, created in 1930, included the likes of Sayers, Agatha Christie, and a slew of other Golden Age mystery writers.
The oath was this: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
While I think we’ve all seen authors—well-known ones at that—break these principles regularly (after all, why can’t a ghost solve a crime? Or for that matter, a cat?), there was something to these expectations that made sense. A reader should be able to work out whodunit, at least after the fact, to be fair.
But when I first read the oath, I had to laugh. I have situated my mysteries in early modern England, a time when divine revelation, providence, acts of God (or the Devil, for that matter) often served as the explanation for most mishaps and misfortune. It would have been so easy—and realistic—to have my sleuth solve crimes in that fashion.
After all, there are many incidences of a community “solving” a murder when a corpse’s finger pointed to its murderer. Or when the corpse’s eyes would open and stare in the direction of the murderer’s house. There are even examples of a corpse bleeding from the nose or ears, indicating that the murderer was in the vicinity.
Sometimes, logic and reason and evidence would prevail and sometimes…they did not. There are many examples of superstitions, hearsay, and feelings making their way into court testimony, especially in ecclesiastical courts.
Certainly in A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET, when a young woman is found dazed and confused with blood on her clothes, there is immediate suspicion that she might be bewitched.
But I wanted Lucy Campion, my chambermaid turned printer's apprentice, to be someone who was resourceful and intelligent, despite having little formal education. But it wasn’t just about creating a character who would use her wits and evidence to solve crimes; I wanted her to question how the community identified murderers in the first place.
I also wanted Lucy to be someone who rejects the notion of providence as a means to explain murder. I wanted her to dismiss the idea that divine revelation could be a reliable way to identify a murderer—even if that meant challenging the expectations of her community.
I’d like to think that Lucy would approve of the Detective’s Oath.
This post was first published on the Bloody Good Read.
Probably one of the most frequently asked questions I get from people seeking to write historical fiction is this: How much research should I include in my historical novel?
And my reply, which may sound more flippant than I intend, is just this: Enough to tell the story.
I've written elsewhere about balancing historical accuracy and authenticity. So, I thought today I'd given an example of how I seek to have my characters interact with historical details, hopefully without just dumping my research on my readers.
I could have picked any passage, but in honor of Easter, I picked an excerpt from my forthcoming novel, A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET. In this, scene Master Aubrey has just returned from selling pamphlets (unsuccessfully) on Maundy Thursday, (known in other parts of the world as "Holy Thursday.")
There were a couple of factual details about Easter that I wanted to bring up in the scene. First, since the Middle Ages, there was a tradition in England that on Maundy Thursday, the monarch would give money to the poor and wash the feet of twelve poor people. [Indeed, while the etymology is not certain, the word "Maundy" may have come from the Latin world mendicare ("to beg.")] But we know from the diarist Samuel Pepys, in 1667, King Charles II opted against the practice that year, asking the Bishop of London to do it for him.
Second, there had been an ongoing debate about the moveable date of Easter--some scholars of the time insisted that the date should be the same each year, similar to how Christmas was always on December 25.
Third, in general, I wanted to allude to the fact that England was on a different calendar (the Julian Calendar) than Catholic nations like France and Italy, which had adopted the calendar created by Pope Gregory (the Gregorian Calendar).
I couldn't use all the research I had at my fingertips, but I tried to work in a few of the more salient points within their trade as the printers and sellers of books. So you can see what details I managed to include...
Master Aubrey laid his pack down. “I sold a few. I went to Whitehall to see the King wash the feet of the poor people, but the Bishop of London did it on his behalf.”
The printer seemed a bit disgruntled. It had long been the custom for the monarchs of England to wash the feet of twelve men and women, as Jesus had washed the feet of the Apostles before the Last Supper. Having the Bishop of London take on the task instead of the king clearly irked him. Sometimes Lucy suspected the printer had Leveller sensibilities and liked it when the royals took on more mundane responsibilities.
“Which pieces did you bring?” Lucy asked, changing the subject. In truth, she was always intrigued to know how the packs got decided. Master Aubrey had a knack for knowing what to sell to attract a crowd that she desperately hoped to learn for herself one day.
“Could not very well sell murder ballads and monstrous births on Maundy Thursday, hey? Brought along John Booker’s Tractatus paschalis and John Pell’s Easter Not Mis-Timed. Too many of them, it seems. Only the sinners’ journeys, like the one you wrote about that Quaker, sold today.”
He kicked the still-full bag, looking in that moment a bit like Lach, causing Lucy to hide a smile. A rare miss for Master Aubrey. Most people did not care how the date of the moveable holy day was affixed in the almanacs each year. Nor did they care why Catholic nations celebrated Easter and Christmas on different days than they did in England.
I'm sure some readers might think that I have provided too much detail here, and other people think I have not offered enough. But, for me, this was "enough to tell the story."
I am delighted to be joined on my blog today by Bridgette R Alexander, author of SOUTHERN GOTHIC: A Celine Caldwell Mystery (to be released March 15, 2016).
I had the pleasure of reading Bridgette's debut novel a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the authenticity of her main character's voice. I thought that her amateur sleuth, Celine Caldwell, came across as a "real" teenager--which is actually not an easy feat. So I asked Bridgette to talk about her experience with writing YA fiction.
SC: Bridgette, why did you decide to write YA?
BA: I grew up loving ABC’s after school specials. What I liked about them was that each story was told from the perspective of a teenage girl, usually, and it gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone in my day-to-day struggles as an adolescent. By that I mean, adolescence is a tough place to be in and you’re there for a long period of time. You are caught between two worlds, one world of a child – its only two or three years ago you were taken to the junior’s section of a department store and your mother was selecting clothes for you. Your world was pretty much being established by the adults around you. Then, there is this other world of [looming] adulthood. Total and complete agency – by you; at 14 or 16 you can make some decisions for yourself, at least what you’re going to wear and who your friends are; and the biggest of all – eros – your attraction and your identity.
For me, those moments were paramount. So much so, that I like to view being an adult as an old-kid with benefits.
SC: Are there any authors who particularly inspired you?
BA: I was introduced to some of my all-time favorite authors when I was in the 7th grade: Mark Twain; John Steinbeck; James Baldwin; William Faulkner; Tennessee Williams; and Hermann Melville. I loved how those works transformed me into the worlds the authors created and caused me to think about the world I inhabited. Then on my own I found the works of other authors and also fell in love with them: Jackie Collins; Harold Robbins; Judith Krantz; I know, I know…they are not exactly children’s authors, but I so loved their works. Mystery and thriller writers I just adore – Agatha Christie, Steven King Joyce Carol Oates and Sarah Paretsky; and of YA writers I really love the work of Sarah Dessen, I love her stories. She totally captures the voice of a strong, independent teenage girl. There are sooo many writers I love, these are just a few of them.
SC: What do you enjoy most about writing YA?
BA: I like seeing the world fresh again.
SC: What kinds of challenges have you faced in writing YA?
BA: In writing…not so much. At the moment when I could visualize Celine Caldwell and her life, then her all of her friends and their lives, it was like a motion picture – fluid, moving, colorful and rich with characters.
For me it’s been more of a head-game I've had to overcome. The notion of the solitary artist…alone in his or her misery as the only path to creativity is a romantic construct. One that at the on-start of developing and trying to write the Celine Caldwell Mysteries, I thought I was bound to adapt. It was difficult. As a scholar my life was writing among other scholars; sharing my works and dissecting that work with other scholars. As a scholar and thinker I led a fully engaged life. Only in the archives and the library stacks would I actually be in solitude. When I adapted to my writing the engaged-life I was used to, it felt real and true. I am creating characters, developing scenes, structuring the chapters, going back and forth with my editors.
SC: How do you make sure your characters are “authentic”? In terms of voice, dialogue, mannerisms?
BA: At the beginning of writing Celine Caldwell Mystery series, I organized a teen council made up of girls between the ages of 12 and 18. We’d meet and I’d give them a Celine-Scenario and ask them what would they do or if Celine’s actions were authentic for a teenager, and not just as a teen being driven by an adult. It was important for me to remove myself as much as possible from the equation of Celine Caldwell, 16 year old art world sleuth. Now that’s more of the technical work I’ve done, compared to the easy going fun time I make time for in talking and listening to teen voices. I continue to spend a good deal of time with teenagers because I strongly believe from where I stand it easy for me to “slip” back into the voice and mannerism of an adult person.
SC: I know you have a daughter...did you learn anything from her that helped you write your book, or offer insight into the teenager experience?
BA: My daughter is the inspiration behind Celine Caldwell. I created [Celine] when my daughter was a newborn. I’d often imagine her future -- how would she relate to the world; what would she look like once she becomes a teenager. My daughter’s life is very different from my upbringing. Her life looks more like the character Celine Caldwell’s with the big exception, my daughter has a doting mother and father.
SC: What advice if any would you offer someone interested in writing YA?
People or writers hear this a lot…but it stands to be repeated. Write what you know and do it from your soul.
Bridgette R. Alexander is a modern art historian. She received her graduate training in 19th century French art history at the University of Chicago. Alexander worked with some of the world’s greatest museums in New York, Paris, Berlin and Chicago and developed art education programs; curated exhibits; she has taught and published in art history. She’s been featured in a number of publications including, Art + Auction Magazine; the Wall Street Journal; and the Washington Post.
SOUTHERN GOTHIC is her debut novel. Alexander currently lives in Chicago and when not writing, she takes her husband, daughter and friends on midnight tours of the cultural institutions. Visit her website (http://celinecaldwell.com).
There is a long tradition of authors using pseudonyms or writing under Anonymous, and I'm always curious about what makes someone wish to write under someone else's name. I asked Sharon Pisacreta to join me on my blog today, to discuss why she uses pseudonyms (FOUR!) and how she chose them. Her first book in a new series, DYING FOR STRAWBERRIES, will be released November 1, 2016.
Along with spies and people in the witness protection program, authors often feel compelled to change identities. My upcoming mystery series will be released under ‘Sharon Farrow’. It will be the fourth name I’ve used as an author.
When my stories and articles first began to appear in magazines, I proudly used the name I was born with. Although it was a tricky Italian name that few non-Italians could pronounce, it made my family happy. However I learned that Shakespeare’s question “What’s in a name?” has special meaning for authors.
After I sold my first novel, I thought I’d make things easier for my readers and decided on ‘Sharon Kirk’ as a pseudonym (yes, I’m a Trekkie). Unfortunately, someone in production forgot to read my contract and released that first book under my Italian name. Two other books followed, accompanied by numerous calls from my publisher asking how to pronounce ‘Pisacreta’. Sales reps ran into problems with my name when speaking with distributors. One of my novels was sold as part of a six-book package on the Home Shopping Network, eliciting more questions on exactly how the TV host should say my name. My editor finally asked if I would mind taking a pseudonym. I was happy to oblige. This time I went with ‘Cynthia Kirk’. It sounded British, elegant, and impossible to mispronounce.
Soon after, I put aside novel writing and returned to magazine work under my maiden name. I got back in the novel writing game when a friend and fellow author convinced me to team up with her on a mystery series. Because our previous novels were in the romance and western genres, we needed a pen name for our historical mystery series. Marketing is everything in publishing, and an author’s name is a form of branding. If readers want to buy your mystery novel, they don’t want to be confused if you also write science fiction under the same name.
We wanted an easy name to spell and remember. The result was D.E. Ireland. Since our series is based on Shaw’s Pygmalion and stars Eliza Doolittle, we chose her initials, transposing them for our first name. Ireland was selected because George Bernard Shaw was born and raised in Dublin. As a writing team, a pen name seemed necessary. Few teams publish under one of the pair’s real name. A notable exception is the Ian Rutledge mystery series by Charles Todd, written by Charles and his mother Caroline. Normally, a new pseudonym is created for the duo, such as Alice Alfonsi and husband Marc Cerasino who write as ‘Cleo Coyle’.
All writers should keep a few pen names in their back pocket. If you’re prolific, publishers don’t want to flood the market with too any books under one name in the same year. Because Dean Koontz sometimes published eight books a year, he wrote under eleven different names. Famous authors may feel constrained by their success and want to try something new under a pseudonym. J.K. Rowling writes mystery novels as Robert Galbraith, Stephen King’s alter ego is Richard Bachman. When Anne Rice switched from vampires to erotica, she did so under two pen names. And prolific romance author Nora Roberts chose to write as J.D. Robb for her futuristic mysteries.
Because mysteries are so popular, many authors meet demand by writing more than one series under different names. Vicki Delaney writes cozies and suspense novels under both the pseudonym Eva Gates and her own name. Eva K. Sandstrom uses the pseudonym JoAnna Carl for her long running Chocoholic series. Some authors simply prefer using a pseudonym. Janet Quin-Harkin became Rhys Bowen. Juliet Marion Hulme writes as Anne Perry.
As we did with D.E. Ireland, choosing a gender neutral pen name also helps attract male readers not prone to buying novels by women. Famous examples include Marion McChesney Gibbons writing as M.C. Beaton, and Edith Mary Pargeter as Ellis Peters. A publisher might also insist on a pseudonym if books written under a previous name had lackluster sales. They often feel it is best to start fresh with a new writing identity.
Whether it’s due to a difficult name to pronounce, being too prolific, a poor sales record, switching genres, a writing collaboration, or a desire to conceal your gender, taking on a pseudonym is always an adventure. Finally, writing under a pen name provides a measure of anonymity – and a bit of welcome distance. A bad review directed at books written under your real name cuts a little sharper than one aimed at one written under a pseudonym. It may sound odd, but it’s true. That alone may be worth a name change.
Sharon Farrow writes The Berry Basket Mysteries set in Oriole Point, Michigan. The first book in the series, DYING FOR STRAWBERRIES, will be released on November 1, 2016. While this is her debut as ‘Sharon Farrow’, she wrote romance novels under both ‘Sharon Pisacreta’ and ‘Cynthia Kirk’. In 2013, she took on another pseudonym as one half of the writing duo, ‘D.E. Ireland’, the Agatha Award nominated authors of the Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins mystery series.
I'm joined on my blog today by Amy Shojai, author of the recently released Show and Tell. Because Amy is an expert on pet care and animal behavior and writes dog-viewpoint thrillers, I asked her to speak about what she had learned about writing pets into fiction.
I love reading stories that incorporate animals in a believable fashion, but far too many authors insert pet characters for the wrong reason—or fail to execute in a believable fashion.
Reading fiction is all about a suspension of disbelief, and a large percentage of avid readers also love pets. About 65 percent of US Households have a pet—that’s a lot of potential book buyers!
The trick, of course, is making your “talking cat” or “thinking dog” so natural that readers accept this ability as fact within your story world. The really avid pet parents already have opinions and insight into how cats and dogs act, and aren’t forgiving of missed paw-steps.
PETS AS PROPS. Writers often give the hero a pet to make them more likable, or they’ll have the villain kill an animal to illustrate an unsympathetic character. Most pet-loving readers object to critter-killing simply for shock value. When pets appear in the first chapter and last, with no mention in between, pet lovers recognize this as artificial manipulation. When your hero’s call to action leaves the cat/dog alone at home for weeks, readers wonder why the house isn’t full of crappiocca and hissed-off pets when s/he returns. Please, for the love of doG (and cat), create a character’s relationship with the pet, which builds character depth and reader engagement.
TALKING PETS. How your animal characters interact with the humans depends a great deal on the genre and what readers expect. Fantasy’s shape-shifters certainly may have all kinds of critters thinking and speaking the same as the human characters, and many children’s books use anthropomorphized characters to advantage. Based on your story, genre, and reader expectations, decide whether your animals will be “humans in fur coats” or true to their species. Mysteries today are full of talking dogs and cats, and the successful series make clear that these critters have both species-appropriate “extra” skills and limitations. In my September Day series, service dog Shadow has his own viewpoint chapters. He never says a word, yet speaks volumes.
GOALS & REWARDS. When creating an animal viewpoint character, go beyond the gift of speech or tail semaphore. Just as your hero and villain require opposing story goals and motivations to fuel the plot, give your pet character reasons to care. Shadow’s story goal and motivation is quite different than his human partner September, and he’s able to offer an enriched reader experience through his enhanced senses.
Because of my background as a certified animal behavior consultant, I wanted Shadow to act and react, communicate and feel emotion in a true reflection of the canine species I know (with a bit of fiction speculation). For me, that’s not just a plot device but shows respect for these unique creatures. Shadow has his own character arc in each book. He is not the same clueless nine-month-old puppy that began the series, and has grown and developed alongside his human partner September with each new story.
One caution: when writing a series, be aware of the timeline, because pets age much more quickly than human characters. I don’t what Shadow to “age out” of the series too quickly, so the first book LOST AND FOUND happens at Thanksgiving, the second one HIDE AND SEEK follows at Christmas, and now SHOW AND TELL takes place right after Valentine’s Day.
Today, pets are considered to be members of the family, in some cases surrogate children. People read for entertainment, for the spills and thrills and tug-at-the-heart rooting for the underdog human—or pet. So adding a furry character to a book, when done well, enhances the reader experiences and gives everyone an extra emotional tug. September and Shadow have just begun their life together, and have many more adventures to come!
Amy Shojai is a nationally known authority on pet care and behavior, a certified animal behavior consultant, a spokesperson for the pet products industry, and the author of 30+ nonfiction pet books. She also writes THRILLERS WITH BITE! which includes the dog-viewpoint thrillers LOST AND FOUND, HIDE AND SEEK, and SHOW AND TELL.
Amy can be found on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/amyshojai.cabc, on Twitter @amyshojai, and on Pinterest @amyshojai. Check out her website at http://www.shojai.com.
I'm always interested in the process of world-building. While world-building is important for any story, I think that it is even more critical when writers are creating an unfamiliar world for their readers. So, for example, my books are set in 17th century England, during the time of the plague and the Great Fire of London (check out my countdown to the right!!!). While many people know about the Tudor England or the Regency period, the 1660s are a far less familiar period. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about larger cultural, social, political and gender trends that helped define my world, as well as norms, conventions and features of the period.
But I think world-building is also important for those setting their books in the future, by nature an undefined period. So I invited author H.A. Raynes onto my blog today to talk about how she went about conceiving and building the future for her debut novel, NATION OF ENEMIES.
Nation of Enemies is set in the near future world of 2032 in the United States. People ask me why that year, in particular, and how did I go about creating that future world?
First, the choice to set the story in 2032. Integral to the plot is a presidential election, so that was key in determining the year. Next, and importantly, I wanted it to be near enough that we can almost feel it...imagine it. It’s in our lifetime, depending on our age. I didn’t want to get caught up in the technological advances which would put Nation of Enemies more in the sci-fi realm, which would make it a different book entirely. And so then came the research.
In this world I built, the United States is war-torn, like any war-torn country, wrecked by attacks, non-functioning in many ways. People have left the cities, which are easy targets, and fled either to the countryside or else attempt to emigrate to safer shores. They’re less concerned with technology and comfort and more concerned about the safety of their families. As the economy fails, government spending goes toward fighting the war and maintaining hospitals that are on the front line. A doctor is one of my protagonists and for his point of view, I researched the future of medicine. Genetics, equipment, medicine. How a hospital might function with advances in these areas. I interviewed a friend who is a doctor and used the internet at length.
Of course, there’s reality and predictions of what will be in the future. I combined those elements with my imagination. I also combined them with the politics of war when I introduced the legislation of the MedID biochip citizens are forced to wear in 2032. There is an actual biochip in use today, though it is quite simple in comparison to my MedID and how it’s been manipulated by the U.S. government. There’s freedom in creating a future world.
I also considered schools - what would happen if schools became even more of a target than they are today? (Though just this week, several schools in my state of Massachusetts had bomb threats.) Knowing that parents are vulnerable, I imagined terrorists using schools to, well, terrorize society on a whole new, emotional level. That forced me to bring all schools online in 2032. Kids attend class virtually, creating a safer but less social educational experience. But children suffer in this way, locked in their bedroom away from friends and situations that foster personal growth.
Finally, I researched the future of the internet, the language used by experts in the field, and the hackers who exist in a darker but very real realm. It was both fascinating and frightening to discover the skills of these hackers and how they challenge governments and corporations on a daily basis for their own agendas.
To “futurize” my novel, though I used terminology hackers currently use along with society’s (and government’s) fears about their power, I simply ushered them down the path. As firewalls and encryptions become more sophisticated, so do hackers. Already we are experiencing hacks into financial institutions and government agencies - I found it easy to imagine an even more widespread problem, especially when the country is distracted by war. I don’t want to spoil any plot points in Nation of Enemies, but recently there was an aspect of the Paris Attacks that included an element I used (researched and pushed farther) in terrorist communications. It sent a chill up my spine.
My near-future world of 2032 is not one in which I want to live. I’m a hopeful, positive person and I have great hopes for the futures of my children. Sadly, it wasn’t difficult and in fact was quite plausible to imagine the darker side of humanity emerging with the state of the world we live in today.
Let’s hope my imagination does not win out.
Doesn't this book sound great?! Here's the official blurb:
2032. Turned away by London Immigration because of his family’s inferior DNA, Dr. Cole Fitzgerald returns to work at Boston’s Mass General hospital. He purchases ballistics skins for family, a bulletproof car and a house in a Safe District. As the War at Home escalates, Cole begins an underground revolution to restore civil liberties and wipe away the inequity of biology. Along the way he’ll risk his family, his career and his life when he discovers the U.S. government may pose a greater threat than the terrorists themselves.
H.A. Raynes was inspired to write NATION OF ENEMIES by a family member who was a Titanic survivor and another who escaped Poland in World War II. Combining lessons from the past with a healthy fear of the modern landscape, this novel was born. A longtime member of Boston’s writing community, she was a finalist in the Massachusetts Screenwriting Competition and has published a short story in the online magazine REDIVIDER. H.A. Raynes has a history of trying anything once (acting, diving out of a plane, white water rafting, and parenting). Writing and raising children seem to have stuck.
"Where do you get your ideas?"
I don't know what it is about this question that drives some writers bonkers, but it's one we all get at book talks and literary events.
In response, some authors take the humorous approach ("In Aisle Twelve"), and others try to ignore the question outright ("Next!")
Some will roll their eyes and joke about banning the question before offering their response. Personally, I never really understood the reluctance because I love answering this question. I find it so much fun to tell people about the murder ballads that inspired my first novel, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.
I wonder sometimes whether the real question is not "Where did you get your ideas?" but really, "Where did you get your questions?" Because at the heart of all my books are questions I'm trying to answer, and I suspect this is the same for many authors, perhaps particularly those who write crime fiction.
Indeed, I get a lot of my ideas--and questions-- simply by poking around the Early English Books Online. For example, I've been thinking a lot about poisons lately--because, you know, writer--and I came across this gem. The story from 1677 pretty much writes itself!
"Horrid News from St. Martins: Or, Unheard of Murder and Poyson. Being a true relation how a girl not full Sixteen years of age murdered her own mother at one time, and a servant-maid at another time with ratsbane. As also, how she very lately gave poyson to two gentlewomen that since met her Mother's Death kept and maintained her. Upon which being apprehended, she has confessed the former villanies, and was on Tuesday last the 19th of this instant June, committed to Prison, where she now remain."
What a great story, right? A sixteen-year old serial killer poisoning the women closest to her? What's up with that? And with ratsbane? That's not an easy way to go either... So of course I have lots of questions...
This story may not make it into one of my novels, or who knows? It could be the crux of the whole tale. But the point is, ideas don't come fully formed, they come in bits and pieces. The important thing is what we do with those ideas--the questions we ask when we ponder different ideas. It's not just whodunnit--its all the other questions that drive the story forward.
I think, ultimately, that the idea is not a story until the writer learns to get beyond the "What happened?" and begins to ask "Why?"
But what do you think?
What motivates some writers to complete a novel?
This question has been on my mind for a while. Last week, I did a keynote for another university on motivating and engaging students in higher education (a facet of my day job I won’t go into here). After my talk, someone who knew I was also a novelist said to me, “You know, I used to be a really good writer. All through school, from elementary school through college, everyone thought I would be a novelist. But as an adult, every time I’ve tried to sit down and write a novel, I just can’t do it. How did you do it?”
Obviously, this person wasn’t asking me how to write a novel—I’m sure she is well aware of the scores of books that explore the craft of novel writing. But she was asking me a more fundamental question about motivation. “I want to write a book. I have the skills to write a book. I even have a great idea. Other people have written books, some far less skilled and imaginative than me. So why can’t I actually complete something I want to do?”
The day after I delivered that keynote on motivation, I traveled to Raleigh where Bouchercon, the world mystery convention, was getting underway.
There, I heard variations of the same question being posed over and over to authors everywhere, in panels, in the book room, over drinks in the bar. How did you do it? And underlying that question, the more desperate ones: Why can’t I do this? What do you know that I don’t? To be clear, I am focusing here on the questions posed to novelists about how they complete a book-length manuscript (or do it more than once), not about how they got their books published (a process which generally transcends self-motivation).
I began to pay more attention to how authors replied to this question. Setting the flippant replies aside (“Lots of chocolate!” “Wine!”), a lot of them said things like “Find the kind of writing style that works for you and stick to it.” “Write a set amount of words a day!” “Just keep going!” or most succinctly, “Butt. In. Chair.” Everyone has heard this sincerely intended, tried-and-true advice a million times. The questioner would dutifully nod, but the puzzled look would remain. How do I actually do that? I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t actually do it. Why can’t I do what you do? [It's like trying to lose 15 pounds. We all know we're supposed to exercise daily, eat vegetables, avoid sugar, and watch our portions. Or whatever. But it's hard to do.]
On the flip side, when I was chatting with some of these writers, I’d ask them what they thought was keeping them from finishing their novels. Here, there were a few variations on a set of themes. Sometimes they focused on time. I have a full time job. I’m taking care of my children, aging parent etc. I can’t find a set time every day to write. I don’t have time to do the research.
Or sometimes, they focused on the story itself. I don’t know where to begin. I have writer’s block. The middle is completely confusing. I don’t know how to end my story. My critique group has confused me and I don’t know what to do.
Sometimes, they focused on doubt or self-worth or other emotions. I’m just not sure if my story is any good. I don’t know if readers will like it. People are expecting something really great from me, but they’ll know I’m a fraud. I’m not really a good writer.
All challenges. All difficult and stressful things. All things that can keep a person from completing a novel. But I’m telling you with some confidence: Every writer who has successfully completed a book-length novel has probably experienced all or most of the same constraints, challenges and boulders in the road. But the difference is, they successfully managed to navigate the obstacles. So the question is: How? Or maybe, Why?
[And the answer is not, I assure you, that they are somehow better or more talented than everyone else!]
Interestingly, motivation theory can do much to explain why some people successfully complete a given task, and others do not. I’ll say right now that I don’t have a magical novel-completion formula on hand. But I do have a set of questions and some thoughts that might help writers explore their own motivations more fully. These questions include:
Go ahead. Think about these questions. Write down a few thoughts. I’ll wait.
A few weeks ago, I received my editor's notes for A Death Along the River Fleet. As always, the comments were insightful and thorough, but not particularly hard to address or to think through.
And yet I found myself wanting to do anything but sit down and work on them. Everything else was suddenly more immediate, more necessary--organizing a desk drawer, writing a blog post (including this one), and a vast array of other far less important things and activities.
Classic procrastination, right?
But why? Why would I procrastinate on a task that I knew I wouldn't mind doing--that I might even enjoy doing? I mean, usually when I procrastinate, its because there's a task looming that I really don't want to do. Like, cleaning the litter box. Pulling weeds in the garden. Other tedious or annoying tasks like that.
So why was I putting off a task that I didn't really mind doing? If it's not procrastination, is it simple weariness? Or maybe fatigue? But I didn't really feel exhausted.
I mentioned this question to my husband--my alpha reader and in-house cognitive psychologist--because he can offer a psychological explanation for anything that plagues me as a writer (e.g. Me: "Why can't I remember what happens in my books?" Him: "You're not crazy, you're just experiencing proactive interference.")
So in this case, he told me that my most recent issue was probably not truly procrastination, but rather something called a "Schedule of Reinforcement."
So the schedule of reinforcement goes something like this: Imagine that an adorable little rat with a bright twitching nose is in a box with a lever. That rat is on a fixed-ratio (FR) schedule, which just means it will receive a food pellet (reward) after every 100 lever presses. Once the rat begins to press the lever, it will work at a fast steady pace until the food reward is earned (the up slope in the figure below).
(So if I'm the rat in this scenario, I've earned my reward--I've sent my book in to my editor and received my edits.)
However, once the rat earns the reward, it stops responding for a while (the flat point A in the figure). This is known as either the “post-reinforcement pause” or the “pre-ratio pause.”
Essentially, the length of the pause is proportional to the amount of work that was required to get to the reward. The interesting part, he explains, is that, generally, the length of the pause is not due to fatigue.
Instead, the rat--or other organism, like a human being--seems to use that time to mentally prepare for the large amount of work to come. He says it’s not fatigue because if you artificially get the organism to begin (e.g., place rat paws on lever so that it depresses), then the organism will go on a “ratio run” and perform the behavior until the next reward is given (even if it just completed a run and had no break).
So apparently, this has interesting implications for procrastination with humans. As he explains, research on schedules of reinforcement suggest that the best way for a human to overcome procrastination is to artificially get the human to begin the project. For instance, if a college student has to write a term paper, s/he can trick themselves by saying, “I’m only going to write the first two sentences and then I’ll stop.” Often, once they begin, they go on a “ratio run” and write much more than intended (just like when the rat was forced to depress the lever).
So, the takeaway for writers (because this is apparently what happened to me): "When you have to dig back into a project (e.g., edits), it’s probably not fatigue that leads to procrastination. That “procrastination time” is used to mentally gear up for the considerable amount of work to come. Even so, simply starting (e.g., on the easy edits), can lead to a ratio run and solid progress."
So a scientific explanation for what we all at heart know is the secret for overcoming procrastination: Get your butt in chair and JUST START....but start with the easiest thing possible.
The rest will come.
And hey, let me know if you have any other writerly conundrums that you would like a professional psychologist to explain. He can come up with a theory for anything. Just address your query to "Dear Alpha Reader." :-)
I received a query from a reader yesterday that gets at the many meddlesome and troublesome questions that writers of British historical fiction inevitably face--How do nobles address each other?
"...I just wanted to know: if the oldest daughter of an earl was going to soon be marrying the oldest son of another earl, how would they address one another? The setting is 1860s London, if this helps answer my question. I have read many websites and guide-books that explain how the peerage would be addressed by various people in various situations, but I am having trouble finding information about two people, both children of earls, who are engaged to be married. Would they be more casual with one another? Or would it be inappropriate to address one another without their appropriate title? Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you." --Maryam.
This is indeed a tricky question. I know something about the forms of address in 17th century England, but I didn't want to assume what was common or expected in the 1660s would be the same 200 years later, in the 1860s. So I threw this question out to the lovely and talented Sleuths in Time, who have spent a lot more time than I have thinking about this question.
So, first, the basics. According to Tessa Arlen: "The eldest daughter of an earl would be called Lady Susan; that would be the extent of her title until she marries. If she were to marry an ordinary man she would be called Lady Susan and then his surname: Lady Susan Blogs for example. The eldest son of an earl might be given an honorary title of his father's of a lower rank this would be given to him until he inherited his father's title. For example, his father who is Roger Parker, Earl of Bainbridge might bestow the honorary title of viscount on his eldest son. So the son's name and title would then be Denis Parker, the Viscount Lord Winslow. It is also important to remember that the Earl of Bainbridge would have a family name, in this case Parker."
This seems pretty straightforward so far, right?
Tessa continues: "I can't imagine why this young couple would call one anything other than by the first names when they were alone together. And if they are English the usual terms of endearment! If they were together out in society Lady Susan would be referred to as the Vicountess Lady Winslow and her husband would be the Viscount Lord Winslow and they would be announced as Lord and Lady Winslow. When Lord Winslow's father dies and he inherits the earldom he will become the next Earl of Bainbridge - and be called Lord Bainbridge and his wife would become the Countess of Bainbridge. The order of precedence can be very confusing - even for Brits. So tell your friend to follow this pattern and she will sound like she knows what she is talking about!"
Alyssa Maxwell also commented: "Sometimes the son and heir would be called by his courtesy title without Lord in front of it, as in Brideshead or Bridey as friends and family called him in the book." She also directed us to Jo Beverley's Guide to English Titles in the 18th and 19th centuries, a very helpful resource!
As Anna Lee Huber further notes: "In the case of an earl, he usually does have a lesser title (viscount or baron) he can grant his eldest son as a courtesy, but it's also possible he doesn't. (Author's choice since it's fiction.) In that case he would be called Mr. Parker by his fiancé in public, Denis in private. The rules for daughters & sons of earls are slightly different. Daughters of dukes, marquesses, & earls receive the honorary Lady before their first name. Only sons of dukes & marquesses receive the honorary Lord before their first name."
And to round us out, Ashley Weaver says, "I have always found [Laura Chinet's] site really useful for reference. She has little charts and everything!" [I will say, however, that what Laura Chinet describes for the 18th and 19th century may be different from 17th century conventions. In my research, I have seen many letters between family members that use endearments, like "My dearest Anne." So it stands to reason that if they use such intimacies in written letters, they would do the same in private conversations. There is a formalization of speech and manners that happened in the mid 18th century that was not as pervasive in earlier centuries-SC].
Ultimately, in my opinion, this comes down to an accuracy vs authenticity kind of question. I think writers of historical fiction should try their best to be as reasonably accurate as possible, but ultimately their focus should be on telling the best story possible, without jarring the reader.
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.