Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth, Tamar Myers

While I was visiting my family earlier this month, my mother and I sat down to talk through some of our notes about the mystery we’re starting to write. One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is creating a world for our characters that’s richly developed without being cliché, as well as filled with a fleshed-out supporting cast with the potential for romance, friendship, petty grudges, and of course, murder. It’s not that we have a shortage of ideas – not at all. The problem is that we’ve both read so many cozy mystery novels over the (ahem) decades, we’re afraid of covering over-farmed territory.

In general, when I look at an author’s bio after reading a book or series with a well-drawn community, it turns out that person lives (or lived) in a place very similar to the one in their story. This makes perfect sense. I’m always more comfortable writing about someplace I’ve spent a lot of time, and the details ring truer when you aren’t fabricating them, or trying to write them based on satellite views from Google Maps. (Not that I’m disparaging that method – I’ve done it many times myself – but isn’t it tougher to write when there’s constant breaks for research? It is for me.)

The challenge for us, as a writing team, is that I feel that the town where both of us lived for many years is a less interesting location than some of the places we’ve lived separately. Unfortunately, if we want to write about one of those cities instead, one or the other of us will be at a huge disadvantage. It’s a conundrum. It’s proving to be a roadblock for other elements of the story, which is of course also frustrating.

I suspect that’s why I found the setting for Crooks to be so delightful. It takes place in a bed and breakfast in an Amish and Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, and by choosing such a location, Myers has given herself the perfect constraints to work within. Hernia is a small community, and an old one, so families and neighbors are deeply intertwined (for better or worse). It’s also a town where religion and culture are braided together, and both have to come up against the modern world on a daily basis, in no small part due to the fact that protagonist Magdalena Yoder invites that world into her home in order to make a living.

When I went to Myers’ website, I was fascinated to see that she also has a series that takes place in the Congo. I’m sure this is possible primarily because she spent her first sixteen years living there, and I have to admit to being jealous of such an incredible (albeit dangerous) experience. Could I write a book about the Congo? Sure, I suppose so. Maybe with about twenty books open at a time (not to mention an infinite number of tabs on my computer!), years of detailed research, and maybe a trip to see it for myself, I could consider an attempt. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to the perspective of a person who has lived there for many years and taken that cultural experience into her soul.

The reason I’m so obsessed with this part of my own novel is that I believe setting and community are what set this particular genre apart from other mysteries. Sure, plot is important. Dramatic tension is necessary. Unexpected twists and a healthy sense of humor (especially about murder and incompetent police work) are appreciated. At the end of the day though, fans of the cozy mystery come for the people, and for a seat at the table in a well-drawn world.

 

For more about Tamar Myers, go here.

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

Photo by D Karr
Photo by D Karr

Robert Frost? Really? It feels a little on the nose when I’m spending time with my family in New England, but the truth is, I grew up listening to his words, and to those of Emerson and Thoreau. I used to go swimming every summer in Walden Pond, and we’d walk to the replica of Thoreau’s little cabin some afternoons, and some part of me has always felt tied to that little room. It’s only slightly strange then that years later, I would go to Emerson College to get my degree – only slightly, because certain writers ( along with Alcott, and Wharton, and Dickinson) have always filled me with a sense of my own history. Even though I no longer live here, reading their familiar lines is a coming home all of its own.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My Most Excellent Year: A novel of love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park, Steve Kluger

I had about a hundred things I was supposed to be doing this weekend, and rereading this book was not on the list. The problem was, by about four o’clock on Sunday, I was in such an irritable mood that all I wanted was an old friend.

Unfortunately, my oldest friends live thousands of miles away, and my dear friends within driving distance have marathon training runs, children’s birthday parties and new babies (or boyfriends) to keep their dance cards full. And as much as I cherish my husband (he is a wonderful and very patient man!), I could tell this mood was not going to improve even in his company. I decided to hit up my own private stacks and rediscovered one of my all-time favorite MG/YA novels.

I reread the whole thing in less than twelve hours, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. It’s told from the perspective of three seniors looking back at their freshman year of high school in Boston, and honestly, it just has everything I could ever want from a book like this: effortless diversity across race, orientation, and ability; passionate integration of interests covering topics as broad as baseball to musical theatre to political activism; beautiful, believable friendships; and atypically structured, loving families.

This is the kind of book I wish made it onto the curriculum for required reading in schools. Without being preachy or overly moralistic, it promotes resilient, realistic characters any student could be proud to emulate. It’s almost enough to make me want to rewind and take a second stab at being fourteen (almost).

 

For more about Steve Kluger, head over here.

Wordpress trouble

I’m glad I subscribe to my own blog because it allows me to catch things like a stolen password and new posts very quickly. Note to other WordPress users: don’t be like me and think that two-step authentication is for suckers! It’s not!

Hopefully now that I’ve joined the more savvy internet age, we won’t have any more trouble. Sorry about the inconvenience. Back to your regularly scheduled programs.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More, Janet Mock

“They were all staring at me, like they expected something from me, you know?” I said. “It just made me uncomfortable.”

“Mary! Life is uncomfortable,” Wendi said, rolling her eyes as she remained focused on the dark streets ahead of us. “You have to get used to it or you’re going to live your life trying to make people comfortable. I don’t care what people say about me because they don’t have to live as me. You gotta own who you are and keep it moving.” (p. 117)

The first time I realized that my defining characteristic was being a social chameleon, I was in the second grade. We were lining up on the playground, girls on one end of the yard and boys on the other, and I asked my best friend at the time if we were going to be partners for our field trip. She was angry with me for some transgression I no longer remember, and she told me that she didn’t want to have anything to do with me – not because of whatever it was I’d done, but because instead of standing up for myself, I’d sold myself out and lied to try to regain her favor.

Decades later, the bitterness of that truth remains with me – that as a child, I cared more about blending in and avoiding uncomfortable confrontation than I did about doing the right thing. I suspect it still stings because I have so many more memories to back up that first one. I’ve never felt secure wielding my own perspective like a blade against the opposition. Instead, I extend the best and messiest parts of myself only to the people who know me best and remain an easygoing, adaptable stand-in to acquaintances and colleagues. When I read a book like this though, the way I choose to live fills me with a sense of shame and regret. Mock’s acceptance of her own truth in the face of cultural strictures and intolerance reminds me of what an easy life I’ve had, of how fortunate I am to make choices every day that deny some parts of myself while retaining the privilege of being viewed by others the way I want to be.

I compartmentalize because it’s easier to deny certain aspects of my life than it is to explain them at the risk of censure and confrontation. The woman Mock was at thirteen, struggling against insane odds and yet proud and certain of who she needed to be, serves as a reminder of my own laziness of self. I was in college before I felt I needed to take time to examine who I was or what I needed to do to become the person I want to be, and even to this day, I only speak up for myself or for those who need an ally about half the time. This is not an easy thing for me to admit. That failure to use my voice to fight for compassionate acceptance of all people is a flaw that I consider to be unforgivable. I very deeply root myself in the belief that to say nothing is not only to tacitly accept violence and cruelty as acceptable, but to be complicit in their propagation.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that the idea that affected me most deeply when I was reading this book was the unflappable love that surrounded Mock on her journey. Her family was not perfect. They weren’t always able to give her everything she needed, but the message she received over and over, regardless of circumstances, was that she was loved. It’s an idea I cling to when I fail to be proudly myself – that I don’t have to meet the expectations of anyone, even myself, to be deserving of that kind of love.

As I look back , what impresses me about my family is their openness. They patiently let me lead the way and kept any confusion or worry to themselves during a fragile period in my self-discovery. I recognize this as one of the biggest gifts they gave me. On some level, I knew they were afraid for me, afraid that I would be teased and taunted. Instead of trying to change me, they gave me love, letting me know that I was accepted. I could stop pretending and drop the mask. My family fortified my self-esteem, which I counted on as I embarked on openly expressing my rapidly evolving self. (pp. 108-109)

 

For more about Janet Mock, go here.

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

I listened to almost all of Eleanor and Park while I was training for my race this spring. I had a little over an hour of it left after I came back from Colorado, and I eventually got around to listening to it last week while I was making dinner.

It felt strange to play it while I was indoors, to take it from the paths where I had run, feet pounding, brain half engaged with the story and half with the pull of my breath.The story made less sense to me there, in the kitchen, then it had in the hot sunlight of Saturday mornings. Park and Eleanor were more real when I was pushing myself to go just a little further, a little faster. In that vulnerable state, running more than I ever had before, a part of me opened up to their story. The mix tapes and their awkward conversations seemed familiar. I could remember high school the way it really was, sharp and exciting and new, rather than the way it seems when I look at pictures, or listen to songs I used to play on endless repeat in my car. 

In two days, I’m going to be spending a week with thirteen high schoolers. We’re going on a mission trip to work with an organization that is trying to put an end to human trafficking, and even though I’ve known these kids for two years, listening to this book reminds me of how much space exists between us. When I look in the mirror, it sometimes seems like I could still be seventeen, but when I sit and talk with them, I’m just…old. The heady rush of emotion that Rowell writes so well is always just under the surface for them; I can’t believe how big everything seems. SATs. Prom. Pop quizzes in Spanish class. Everything is in technicolor when they tell me about it, as though the world is constantly imploding around them every day.

It’s exhausting. I try to keep up with what they like, and who they like, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because a book like Eleanor and Park reminds me that, emotionally at least, I’m much closer to being the parent of a teenager than I am a teenager myself. It’s not that I don’t feel things deeply, but there is a contained element, even to my eruptions. There’s been a sanding down of intensity that happened so slowly, so subtly, I didn’t even realized it until my edges were soft.

That may be one of the reasons I love books like this. It reminds me of what it feels like to be on the verge of exploding out of my own skin. Of being young and in love and frightened of how little is controllable. These kids, when I’m with them, they’re in constant motion, even when they strive to be still. I listen to the rush of them all around me and wonder if every person who knew me at fifteen felt like this, like a rock in the stream of my life.

 

For more about Rainbow Rowell, go here.