Reality Imitates Fiction

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I paid a visit to the real “Grace Church” recently.  It’s been undergoing an exterior facelift.  New grout for the cladding stones, and cleaning and repair of the stained glass.  It was just in time.  Above one of the window casings, the workers found a whole section of wall that was held together by – nothing.  In my fictional account, loose stones from the church tower fell (and were thrown) into the Memorial Garden.  In real life, part of an exterior wall was poised to crash onto one of downtown Seattle’s east west arterials !

I’ll never forget another close call in 2002, when the church was rocked by the Seattle  earthquake.  My husband Paul was getting ready to perform a baptism.  When things started to shake he was standing at the back of the church.  There were exits to his right and left.  He decided to run right, a few seconds before a stone crashed through the roof to his left.  And that wasn’t all.  When the structural inspectors looked at the big, I mean huge, marble altar at the front of the sanctuary, they found that nothing, yes nothing, was attaching it the back wall, and never had been.  The congregation had bought it at an early- 1900′s fire sale from a Roman Catholic church back east and had it shipped around the horn.  I guess they decided to just prop it up against the wall. 

Readers sometimes accuse writers of stretching their imagination beyond  its breaking point.  When a writer protests, “But it really happened!”  the reader is not satisfied.   Like when I described Lucy’s cats as playing a game of kitty hockey on her kitchen floor with their kibbles.  “I’ve seen cats do that!” I say.  Or the two homeless guys sitting on top of an outdoor heat grate, looking at dirty pictures on a laptop.  Allright, there was only one guy, and I didn’t get close enough to see what he was looking at.  But still, the thought of someone using a heat grate for a desk is too much for some imaginations.

When challenged, I feel like a magician forced to give up her trade secrets. “Alright,  I didn’t spend hours creating that scene.  I just copied it down from memory.  Are you happy now?!” 

Readers, including myself, don’t like to be messed with.  Unless it’s fantasy, science fiction, or speculative fiction, we don’t want the sky to be green or animals (except parrots) to talk. But what about a blue-green sky,– or a thinking animal?

The mystery writer Martha Grimes www.marthagrimes.com/ found herself in the middle of a tempest a few years ago when she introduced two new characters to her Inspector Jury series.  Harry Johnson is a villian and Mungo is a hero. Harry is a human and Mungo is his thinking dog. 

Jury has tried for three books now to get the goods on Harry, and Mungo has done his telepathic darndest to help him.  In his spare time, Mungo drives the housecat to distraction by hiding her kittens.  He’s become one of my favorite fictional characters. In real life, Ms. Grimes has devoted her time and resources to animal rights causes, and has probably not minded losing some of her more literal-minded readership.    

We all know that Lassie led Timmy to safety. We saw it on TV.  So why shouldn’t Mungo be able to lead Jury to an arrest?  In honor of Mungo, I’m expanding the role played by Spike, the German Shepherd, in the sequel I’m writing to Death in the Memorial Garden.  No, Spike doesn’t think on the page; at least not for now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Inspiration and Apprenticeship

Here are the answers I provided to bloggers during the virtual book tour I took after the mystery was published last October.  They asked on why I write and the journey I’ve been on as a writer. I’m sure my experiences reflect those of many others.

I think my inspiration came from a lifetime of reading every chance I got and learning through osmosis what makes for decent writing. My mother loved mysteries, and so do I, especially the cozy kind. In essence, I wanted to do what these authors did, because what they did gave me so much pleasure. I was fortunate to be the descendant of people who read and wrote and taught, so that the writing basics came fairly easily.
 
 After a career as a social worker, I took a series of creative writing classes over a period of ten years to learn the ‘beyond the basics’, which extend well beyond a mastery of sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar. I found that dialogue and characterization came fairly easily, but not physical and sensory description or plotting.
 
I suppose the other inspiration has been my grounding in both social service and the religious tradition. I want to let readers know how ordinary people can make a positive contribution and receive much in return by participation in a loving community.
 
When I began to study creative writing in my 50′s, I wanted to document what it was like to have Stage Three breast cancer. Time was of the essence, since I didn’t know how long remained. I had translated my oncologist’s prognosis of “cautiously optimistic” to a fifty-fifty chance of long term survival. I had always wanted to be a writer, so now was the time.
 
I signed up for a week-long workshop in Cannon Beach, Oregon, taught by the memoirist and poet Judith Barrington, whose recently published book about her family had sent shivers up and down my spine. Her students were a diverse group. Two men, as I recall, were writing autobiographies to share with their families. One young woman’s parents had been involved with the famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, and her description of assembling a Cassoulet with her father had the sensuality and beauty of a love sonnet.
 
I selected my fiercest writing to share, one a piece titled, “Cancer of Unknown Origin,” and another comparing my chemotherapy hair loss to the shaved heads of Auschwitz victims. I expected that Ms. Barrington would declare my work compelling, important, and ready for immediate publication. Possibly she could introduce me to her agent. I had been writing for about eight months at the time.
 
We spent much of the time outside our readings in free ranging discussion, and I challenged her when she criticized another, arguably more famous memoirist, for not being supportive of other women authors. I countered by saying, in effect, that geniuses operated under different rules.
 
Seeing that some of her students had gotten a little ahead of themselves, and knowing that her own “breakthrough” publication had emerged well into her middle age, Ms. Barrington decided to give us a traditional lecture. Its subject was the writer’s apprenticeship. She began by describing the ages old vocational training path of craftspeople, that of the apprentice. Blacksmiths, barbers, butchers, troubadours, Jesus the carpenter -  all learned from and worked with their elders. They could not ply their trade until worthy to do so. Room and board might be part of the deal, but in effect they were indentured servants, trading youth for livelihood.
 
Why should writers, or musicians, or poets need any less time or supervision to achieve competence, she asked. And it takes a minimum of ten years, she added. Even I knew enough not to argue with her. Hadn’t it been at least ten years before I could get through a whole day in my previous career as a social worker without being desperate for a social work angel to bail me out?
 
The apprenticeship system is a tattered one these days. With the decline of labor unions, the average youth of apprenticeship age today probably doesn’t know what the word means. A new hire is lucky to get one work shift to learn the ropes. Employers cry out for skilled workers, but can’t find them, and apparently can’t take the time for an apprentiship.
 
Ten years. I never forgot what she said. I studied writing for seven years after that workshop, and joined a writing critique group. I finished my unpublished memoir about having cancer. I started writing a mystery. Eight years and many drafts later it’s been published, after a year of revising with my editor. I’m now receiving Medicare. God willing, I’ve begun the transition from from apprentice to journeyman.

My Magical Mystery Tour and Hooray for Indie Bookstores

I’m going on a virtual book tour in November via Partners in Crime.  They tell me I won’t have to leave the house, just let my fingers do the talking as I answer questions and make pronouncements online about the mystery.  Some nice people who blog about mysteries will post what I say, read the book (glad it’s not too many pages), and let their readers know what they think.  This is my kind of tour; no travel, no unattended book signings.

I love real bookstores, and there are some nice ones here in Santa Barbara.  Two of them have agreed to stock my book.  I have a few more to approach but one a month is the limit of my courage.

Friend Chuck from Denver found a list of all the mystery bookstores in the States (and the world!), including the Northwest’s Seattle Mystery Bookshop and Olympia’s Whodunit? Books.  Seattle’s Episcopal Bookstore isn’t on that list, but they have a plump mystery section.  As my character Lucy thinks, why is it that Episcopalians and other Catholics write most of the churcy mysteries?

Partners in Crime Tours; seattlemystery.com; mysterynet.com; whodunitsNW@aol.com

 

 

Mystery Authors Who’ve Inspired Me

I started reading mysteries at age ten with Agatha Christie and Rex Stout, my Mom’s favorites. It was more about the far away locales and characters who grew orchids and wore bowler hats than the plot. I never once figured out who did it. After that, lots of fiction but no mystery until the past fifteen years. My brother and I have traded off buying Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, “The Cat Who”‘ mysteries, Jonathon Kellerman, and Sue Grafton the minute they were released in what used to be known as “hardcover.” Sadly only Jonathon and Sue are still alive. These later favorites also operate in interesting locales and associate with interesting characters, but also let us know that community is important, as is trying to follow the Golden Rule.

On my own, I’ve read Jane Langton. Her novel Divine Inspiration showed me that a church building could be a character. And then Father Tim, in the Mitford Series by Jan Karon. Not technically mysteries, but structured much the same. They taught me that fictional clergy people could be balding, insecure at times, and a little clumsy. Of course I already knew this, being married to my own clergy person. Even more community, funny, interesting characters, and overt spirituality. Then the Reverend Clare Ferguson series by Julia Spencer-Fleming . Another small community on the East Coast with the amazing name of Millers Kill, interesting characters, spirituality, and topical themes, but faster paced, with chills, thrills and an illicit love affair. My recent favorite is Louise Penney’s Inspector Gamache Series, set in Canada, involving an even smaller community and astute commentary on the characters’ interior lives. None of my favorites are set on the unchurched west coast, my editor Jennifer pointed. out. I still very rarely figure out who did it, and that’s been the hardest part of writing Death in the Memorial Garden.

No more mysteries that I remember until fairly recently.

Ashes, Ashes

The inspiration for Death in the Memorial Garden came from an essay I wrote called, “Ashes, Ashes,” about the many ways we honor and “dispose of” our departed loved ones. In it, I described the grassy courtyard between our downtown Seattle church and its parish hall. The courtyard is called the Memorial Garden, and under it are buried the remains of many former members and their families.
To reserve a spot, you must agree that there will be no urn, and no marker other than your name on a plaque inside the church. You must also not be bothered by the idea that the grass above your resting place will be the scene of Easter Egg hunts, summer concerts, and St. Francis Day animal blessings. The soft green grass will also attract urban campers, as well as flocks of pigeons fed by an eccentric lady from the neighborhood.
After finishing the essay, I wondered, what would stop someone from performing a do-it-yourself burial when no one was watching? What if they didn’t bother to remove the ashes from the urn or other container, but just dug a hole big enough for everything, and carefully replaced the sod on top? And what would happen if this was the same location pre-reserved by someone else, someone whose internment was today?  And what if the pigeon lady and her flock decided to attend the service?
So I wrote a mystery to answer those very questions.