Writing . . . and Writing

Time flies . . . when you’re having fun, and even when you’re just doing stuff.

I’ve been finishing up Mayfield – Napolitani number five, Cyberstorm. Draft’s done, and my critique friends are almost finished chewing on it. Number four, Fatal Cure, has been done for a while, but I’m still picking at it. For me, at least, I like to set a book aside when it’s mostly finished, let it marinate. Fatal cure should be pretty tender by now . . . almost ready for final editing. I’m hoping to release it next Spring.

And just when I start feeling that Mayfield – Napolitani is getting a little stale, a couple of interesting new challenges come along. 

  • A five-way novel:  We of Midwest Mystery Works—five of us who write mysteries and band together to do some of the other work of an independent author—have decided to write a novel together. The twist is that it will include each of our protagonists. The story will be contemporary, which gives me an opportunity to write Weezy as a young woman. I’m careful never to show exact years in the Mayfield – Napolitani series. The technology is all recognizable extension of today’s tech, but we’re clearly in the near future. (The inexactitude prevents embarrassment of me miscalling technology events.) Of course, there is a timeline in my mind, and 2023/4 is a lucky slow spot. Weezy graduated from MIT in June, 2020 with a masters in Mathematics and Operations Research. (She meets Joe Mayfield over a decade later, when the first book of the series, Fatal Score, is set, and the first Cyber War happens after the MidWest Mystery Works story will take place.) She was snapped up by a Silicon Valley software startup whose youthful CEO had dazzled potential investors with what he called his Big Freakin’ Idea (Theranos, anyone?) and was listed in Forbes’ 30 under 30. Weezy pointed out that the BFI wouldn’t work, Weezy’s “dumb idea” went viral on the internet, and Weezy was fired. So in 2023, she’s back in Boston working as a lab assistant at MIT, and I get to discover her as a young woman and write her into the 5-way story.
  • A short story with conditions: Sisters in Crime, the go-to mystery writers association in the Twin Cities, is planning a book of short stories. The first three such collections, Festival of Crime, The Dark Side of the Loon, and Minnesota Not So Nice, were great successes. I’d like to submit a short to the fourth, probably coming-out fall of 2024. The tentative title: Dark and Stormy Nights. (And of course, one of the conditions is that the story’s first line must be “It was a dark and stormy night.”) I’ve never set a story in Minnesota, so I’ve never had a chance to write about canoeing in the Boundary Waters, one of my formative experiences. I’m looking forward to it. Any ideas about how to write a mystery set in the lakes and trails of the Minnesota forest? Let me know . . . I’m still cogitating.

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).