Monday, July 28, 2008

The Writing Gene

Going through my mom’s lifetime collection of Stuff, I’ve finally reached The Bookcase.

Now, the last thing my house needs is more books—especially since moving my mom into our house has entailed sacrificing some precious feet of bookshelf (and just try getting furniture down a hall lined with bookcases!) But what makes THE Bookcase extremely problematical is that all the books on it were written by my mother’s husband or daughters.

What does one do with all of these lovingly inscribed books? There are simply too many to squeeze into her new bedroom. My dad (the historian Raymond L. Proctor) published three history books, with two translated into foreign editions. I have one history book and a dozen novels to my name. I didn’t give her copies of most of the foreign editions, but I did give her some of those that came out in hardcover with interesting covers. And then there’s my sister, the novelist Penelope Williamson. She’s written a good dozen herself, also published in hardcover in numerous foreign translations.

One might be tempted to think my sister and I inherited our writing gifts, such as they are, from my dad. But the truth is that while my father was a wonderful verbal storyteller and an excellent historian, he leaned heavily on my mom in the writing of his books. Tucked away in my mother’s desk, I recently found a collection of short stories that I didn’t even known my mother had written. They are truly wonderful stories, artfully crafted, never missing a beat in story arc or character development. Once, my mother dreamt of becoming a journalist. She even won a scholarship to a local Catholic women’s college, but the Great Depression intervened. My grandfather lost both of his businesses, and rather than go to college and become a journalist, my mother went to work as a secretary to help support her family, then married my father and became an Air Force wife and mother.

My mother is one of those people gifted with a serene temperament, never looking back with regret at what-might-have-beens. But when I found those short stories, I gazed over at that bookcase full of her family’s writings, and wept. For what might have been.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

White Doves at Morning

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers, yet I’ve had this historical novel sitting unread on my shelves for years now. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick it up. Because it isn’t one of Burke’s standard, contemporary crime novels? Because the Civil War is a depressing period? Whatever my reason, I’m glad I saved it, because as hectic as my life has become these days, I needed a treat.

The prose is pure Burke, lush and lyrical, with that magical facility to hone in on the essence of a thought or emotion in a way that makes the reader think, Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like. The characters are pure Burke, as well. Burke follows four young friends from the tense moments that precede the War Between the States, through the first battles, to the arrival of Union soldiers in Louisiana and the beginnings of Reconstruction. Interestingly enough, the novel focuses on Burke’s own ancestor, Willie Burke, a poor but honorable Irish immigrant, and his friend, Robert Perry, wealthier, but also a good, admirable man simply trying to survive and do the right thing in a world gone mad. Despite their personal opposition to both the war and slavery, both men join the Confederate Army—to protect their homes and loved ones, and because that’s what honorable, brave men do when their leaders go to war.

Unusually for Burke, this book also features two strong female protagonists: Flower Jamison, the beautiful half-black slave fathered by the owner of Angola Plantation, Ira Jamison, and Abigail Dowling, a Massachusetts abolitionist with whom both Willie and Robert Perry are in love. I have read that White Doves at Morning is actually Burke’s favorite of his books, and he lists the strong female protagonists as one of the main reasons.

But apart from the protagonists, what would a Burke novel be without a wonderful assortment of villains? There’s Clay Hatcher and Todd McCain, of the “poor white trash”/Knights of the White Camellia stripe; the evil Rufus Atkins, overseer of Angola Plantation; and the wealthy Jamison, his evil flowing more from his self-obsession and weakness rather than from the inherent sociopathic tendencies that drive the others.

Writing about the Civil War is always tricky, but Burke approaches his topic unflinchingly; he never shrinks from portraying either the horrors of slavery, or the barbarity of war, or the horrors of what the Union soldiers did to the South. In so doing, he doubtless p’ed off a whole passel of both Southerners and Yankees, along with those still inclined to see war as a nation’s “finest hour.” Yet, oddly enough, this book is actually not as dark as I’ve found many of his crime novels.

I could go on and on, because I really, really enjoyed this book, but I’m writing this in a hurry. We’ve set Friday as the day we move my mom out of her own home and into our house. Hopefully by next week I’ll manage to get back into a more regular blogging schedule.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lessons Learned

If I could go back in time, one of the many things I’d do differently in my writing career is this: I’d keep a Lessons Learned journal.

What kind of Lessons Learned? All those hard-won insights and Ah ha! moments—large and small—that come in the course of writing every book. One might think that knowledge gleaned at the price of so much pain and suffering would never be forgotten, but I am cursed with a lousy memory. Recently, I’ve found myself repeating mistakes I should have remembered from earlier books.

What kind of mistakes? Well, in the initial drafts of my third book, SEPTEMBER MOON, my heroine came off as a starchy English bitch. She really was a likeable character once we got to know, understand, and sympathize with her, but in the first rendition of the manuscript, my editor had a hard time warming to her. Solution? Instead of beginning the book with Amanda’s arrival in the wilds of Outback Australia, I first introduced readers to her at her employer’s deathbed. We learn that she has missed her ship home, stranding herself penniless and friendless in an alien land in order to comfort a dying woman. Result? Instant sympathy! Lesson learned: if you’re going to have a protagonist display potentially unlikable characteristics, make sure to get your readers solidly on the character’s side before you have her start displaying those characteristics.

In the book I’m writing now (in between ripping out walls and laying floors and packing up my mother’s Stuff, etc, etc, etc) my protagonists do a lot of traveling. We follow them on a breakneck race to Berlin, to Kaliningrad, to Turkey, back to three different cities in Germany, to Lebanon, to Israel, back to Russia… Whew! It’s a lot of fun, so what’s the problem here? Well, this book is a thriller. And in today’s market, this kind of thriller needs to be fast-paced with a loudly ticking clock. I had originally planned to have this book play out over four or five days, max. But it takes time to travel to all these different places. In fact, if you find out on Friday night that you need to fly from New Orleans to Kaliningrad, Russia, you won’t be able to get there until SUNDAY morning. My characters take a lot of overnight flights, and I still had to stretch my ticking clock out to eight days, about twice as long as I’d have liked. Lesson learned: if you want a fast-paced, doom-is-breathing-down-your-neck book, limit the wide-ranging international travel.

These are two lessons I suspect I’ll never forget. But all those other little Lessons Learned? I should have written them down.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another PW Review--and this one's starred!

Okay, this is really weird. The latest edition of Publishers Weekly has another review of The Archangel Project, slightly different from the first. I'm not complaining because this is a starred review--very important to both New York editors and the people who place the orders for bookstores. I'm not sure exactly what happened--maybe they meant to give it a star the first time, and ran the review again when they realized it'd been left off? Anyway, here's the new, starred version:

The Archangel Project C.S. Graham. Harper, $7.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-135120-4
Novelist Candice Proctor (Why Mermaids Sing and others as C.S. Harris) and her husband, army intelligence officer Steven Harris, collaborate on this rollicking suspense novel. October “Tobie” Guinness is a remote viewer who sees unpredictable flashes of things miles away. When she discovers a conspiracy by key defense industry and government personnel to plan a 9/11-type attack in New Orleans and turn public sentiment against Iran, the conspirators decide that she and the professor training her must die. Jax Alexander, a CIA agent one mistake away from being fired, goes to New Orleans to investigate the professor's death and stumbles into the plot. Jax and Tobie run for their lives, trying to stay one step ahead of the killers, piece together the plot and avert an unjust war. While Tobie is trapped by circumstances, shockingly capable and intelligent but tormented by her gift, Jax is the consummate skeptical patriot. Conspiracy fans will love this impressive series opener.(Oct.)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nightmare, Revisited

We’d planned a nice, relaxing weekend. We’ve been working so hard for what seems like forever—rebuilding from Katrina, renovating our newly acquired lakeside weekend getaway/hurricane evacuation house, sorting through my globetrotting mother’s lifetime accumulation of treasures and reconfiguring our house to get ready to move her in with us—that we decided we deserved a few days off. The idea was to go up to the lake, resist doing any of the zillion and one things that still need doing up there, and instead lounge around, sip root beer and eat (vegetarian) hotdogs at the picnic table overlooking the water, and then mosey down into town for the local Red, White, and Blueberry Festival.

Ah, fate. I pushed open the front door to hear the sound of rushing water. At some time in the past three weeks, the hot water heater sprang a leak. At first, from the looks of things, just a fine spray, at some point it turned into a gushing flood.

It could have been so, so much worse. I seriously suspect the final burst occurred just hours before our arrival, which is what saved the house from total destruction. Thanks to our decision to go up there and “goof off” this weekend, the damage was limited to two rooms—the room where the hot water heater is located, and the dining room. The casualties are a bunch of Steve’s tools (which were stored on the shelves and floor of the former), a dining room chair (already refinished once after Katrina!), an antique buffet already in need of refinishing, and of course the walls of said two rooms.

There’s nothing like ripping out moldy sheetrock and soaked insulation to bring back the bad ol’ days of Katrina and provoke on a dose of posttraumatic stress syndrome. At least we know the drill. After bleaching, we’ll now need to let the studs dry for six weeks before we can start rebuilding. But we did get the Sheetrock we need, and I was incensed to see that it is now selling for less than $6 a sheet, despite the recent Midwest floods. Why incensed? Because my house was rebuilt after Katrina using $12 a sheet drywall. Ya gotta love capitalism.