Monday, March 31, 2014

What we're writing: Tales from Hallie's OUT file

HALLIE EPHRON: It's What We're Writing week, and I am so happy to report: I am not!

Not writing a draft, that is. Three weeks ago I sent my editor a the finished manuscript for Night, Night, Sleep Tight. A few days ago I got an email back, and I quote: "This is my FAVORITE of all your books. I LOVE IT." Her caps. 

And I thought, OF COURSE! 

I began writing this novel two long years ago. It's morphed and twisted, and finally I wrestled it into some semblance of order. I have plots. Subplots. Characters I adore. Themes! I don't even know where they came from but there they are!

But honestly? If my editor had written me and said, "Uh oh. I hate to say this, but it's just not that good..." I would have believed it.

Instead of toasting myself with Prosecco Bellinis and baking a celebratory pineapple upside down cake, I'd be flagellating myself with recriminations and saying, "I knew it was terrible. What ever made me think I could write a novel?"

I might even have highlighted the entire 309-page manuscript and dumped the whole thing into my OUT file which is already 229 pages long.

Every novel I write has an "OUT" file. It's where I put the stuff I write and then delete. Plot twists that go nowhere useful. Characters I no longer need. Overwritten description. Underwritten description. Passages that are too dark or too snarky or just plain boring.

This is why it takes me so long to finish a novel. Even though I outline, when I go to write it I'm constantly second-guessing myself, taking out, revising, doing what I hope amounts to making it better but sometimes only making it shorter.

So today I thought I'd entertain you with an excerpt from my OUT file.

Here's a passage from what I thought would Page One of the novel but which now lives in the OUT file. Back then, the main character was  named Beth (she's now Deirdre.) She was living in New York (now she's in San Diego.) And she's received an invitation to attend her 20th Beverly Hills High School reunion (the entire reunion is gone from the book).

Beth hasn't been back to Beverly Hills, never mind her old high school, for ages. The prospect of seeing girls she went to school with brings back a flood of unpleasant memories.

From my OUT file:
The invitation to Beth’s 20th Beverly Hills High School reunion came on a Saturday.  Don’t miss this evening and chance to visit with “old friends."

Her gut twisted just thinking about it. Up came memories of shoes—that’s what growing up there had been about.  This seemed perfectly ludicrous in retrospect, and even back in 1961 she'd known that getting Those Shoes wouldn’t make her fit in.  And yet in ninth grade, what she lusted after, dreamed about, obsessed over were baby-blue, pink, or avocado-green ballerina flats with a T-strap low across the instep and three petal-shaped cutouts over the toe.  They were made by Pappagallo.

Sure, you could get knock-offs at Chandlers a few blocks away, but they weren’t soft and supple, and they didn’t flex when you wiggled your toes. Even Beth could have spotted wannabe shoes, though the term wannabe had yet to be invented in what would be 90210 when they got around to using zip codes. 
Can you tell this comes from experience? Which is why I had to take it out. Because this did not turn out to be a book about me. It did not turn out to be about not fitting in in high school. And the fictional main character I created evolved so much over the course of writing the novel that she no longer sounded like this. 

Still, I love those paragraphs so I shall keep them for perpetuity rather than wipe them out completely. Maybe one day I will write something it fits into.

I did, in fact, go to my twentieth high school reunion. I wore a blue flowered shirtwaist dress and the popular girls were there in short-short lace baby-doll dresses and footless tights. I felt like a piece of outsider art.

Which brings me to today's question: What were "those shoes" at your high school, the object of desire that seemed to separate the kids who had it all from the rest of us?

Sunday, March 30, 2014


SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: My next book, THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT (Maggie Hope #4) is coming out this July. I'm finally, finally, finally done with corrections and it's in ARC form now, with my last edits in. (Whew!)

And so I'm now working on Maggie Hope #5, MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE. Some of you may remember my post about visiting Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, VA, tracing Winston Churchill's steps as he visited President Roosevelt and the First Lady in December 1941, after Pearl Harbor.

But how to get from there to actually plotting a World War II mystery? 

Research, research, research.

What's fascinating to me is that the UK's "Official Secrets Act" — which cloaked much of what went on behind-the-scenes in World War II has been lifted — giving us access to people and stories we've never heard before.

 One of those stories is told by Helen Fry, in her 2012 book, THE M ROOM: Secret Listeners Who Bugged the Nazis During World War II.  Here's a brief description: 

As seen on pbs and Channel 4 documentary "Spying on Hitler's Army"... This is the story of the German émigrés who fled Hitler’s regime and became secret listeners for British Intelligence during the Second World War. Behind the walls of the M Room (M for 'miked') they bugged the conversations of over 10,000 German PoWs, including 59 German Generals at Trent Park in North London. Providing a detailed, oft humorous, insight into life of the Generals in captivity, the book shows the farcical ‘stage-set’ in which they found themselves. But against this backdrop, the secret listeners eavesdropped on admission of war crimes and terrible atrocities against Russians, Poles and Jews; as well as details of an SS mutiny in a concentration camp in 1936, and Hitler’s human ‘stud farms’. This story places firmly on record just how much British and American Intelligence knew about Hitler's annihilation programme and how early. Why at the end of the war were these files not released for the war crimes trials to bring the perpetrators to justice? Was this one of the darkest secrets of the war? These transcripts, and thousands of others, of some of the most important Nazi secrets remained classified until 1999. During their clandestine work the secret listeners did not set eyes on a single German PoW, yet their work and the intelligence they gained was as significant for winning the war as Bletchley Park and cracking the Enigma Code. For over sixty years the listeners never spoke about their work, not even to their families. Many went to their grave bearing the secrets of the nation which had saved them from certain death.

The story of the M Room was also a documentary, called BUGGING HITLER'S GENERALS, which was first broadcast on PBS in the U.S, in May 2013.

Now, this is where it gets fun, like those children's "follow the dots" games...

The book and documentary talk about how Nazi officers let slip information about the V2 rocket program. That led me to:



and the NOVA documentary on PBS: 3D SPIES OF WORLD WAR II. 


So, we have a secret Nazi rocket-building facility. 

We have RAF Spitfires flying over and taking photos, not really understanding what they're seeing.

We have a round-up of high level Nazis in British held prisoner in a British manor house, with every conversation being secretly recorded.

We have some of the Brits looking at the photos who believe that what they're seeing is the next Nazi mega-weopon.

On the other hand, we have people like Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his advisors not convinced and not willing to pledge manpower to bomb the site....

What they need is a something called a Wild (pronounced "vilt") A5 machine to turn the photographs in to 3D and give them more information....

Britain doesn't have one, so they'll need to — somehow — smuggle one out of Germany.... 

And we now have a ticking clock — can the Brits (and now the Americans) find the Wild A5 and bring it back to England and convince Churchill and the others to bomb the site before the Nazi V2 program is fully operational?

And I think we have the building blocks of a subplot!

(Thank you for playing along at home.)

Reds, how do you get from research to a plot line? 

Readers who are also writers, what do you do?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

James Benn and "Gateway Mysteries"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I've been honored to introduce
many wonderful authors, but must confess — I'm a huge fan of James Benn and his Billy Boyle series from way back. I remember reading the first novel, Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery, in 2007 — and being absolutely bowled over. A World War II mystery — told in such a fresh and exciting way. (It was what I wanted to do — but with a female protagonist. Jim and I have joked that someday we should write a Billy Boyle/Maggie Hope crossover story.)

Jim is now on his ninth Billy Boyle mystery, and in my humble opinion, they just keep getting better and better. Here's a brief description of his newest, due out in September:

THE REST IS SILENCE (September 2014) is the ninth Billy
Boyle mystery. As preparations for D-Day continue, Billy and Kaz are sent to southwest England to investigate the discovery of a body washed up on a beach in a restricted training area. As the case proceeds, Billy comes face to face with the cost of war for the English people. After five long years with their nation on the front lines, the wounded and maimed in body and soul are returning home. In the midst of all this, an American training exercise goes horribly wrong as German E-boats intercept a convoy headed for the beach at Slapton Sands. Nearly a thousand men are killed in the Channel waters, but Billy and Kaz are tasked to find ten of them; BIGOTs, those who know the secrets of D-Day.

And here, without further ado, is Jim, talking about his "gateway mystery" — the one that sparked his interest in the genre.

JAMES BENN: How did we all end up here?

No, not here in the cosmos, but at a site dedicated to crime fiction. We all had to start somewhere, picking up a mystery novel for the first time, getting hooked, finding a cultural home base, and gathering online to celebrate our communal interests. 

Mysteries weren’t my first genre. In high school I was all about science fiction. Isaac Asimov and the Foundation Trilogy. After college the appeal of sci-fi faded, and I began to read mainly non-fiction.

In 1974 I was working at the University of Denver Library, as a para-professional cataloger in the serials department, taking library science graduate courses at night. For some unknown reason, the university subscribed to a wide variety of British tabloid newspapers. Hardly research materials.
Until the Lord Lucan murder case.

I don’t recall seeing the case reported in the American press, but when the tabloids came in to the library, the front pages were lit up with it. Dark-haired, tall, and good-looking, Lord Lucan was an aristocrat and a gambler. He gave up the banking profession in 1960 when he won 26,000 pounds gambling over the course of two days. That earned him the nickname “Lucky” Lucan and left him with the mistaken impression he could do it again and again.

He couldn't.

Separated from his wife—and with her in possession of the family

home in London—he evidently came up with a scheme to kill her and gain custody of the home and his children. His career as a murderer was about as rewarding as his gambling life. On Thursday, November 7, 1974, Lucan broke into his wife’s house and waited for her in the kitchen, armed with a length of pipe. He’d unscrewed the light bulb to better hide in the darkness when she came down for her evening cuppa.

Unfortunately for Sandra Rivett, the live-in nanny who usually
took Thursday nights off, she stayed home that night. A young girl, about the same height as Lady Lucan, offered to make tea for her that fateful night.

She died in the darkened kitchen, her head smashed in.

In the dark, Lucky Lucan worked feverishly to stuff her body into a mail sack (still thinking it was Lady Lucan), planning to dump it at sea and report his wife missing. He was interrupted by Veronica Lucan, who’d come down
stairs to check on Sandra. He attacked her, wounding her severely, but not before she grabbed his balls and rendered him hors de combat.

Of course, this all didn’t come out at first. The initial reports were short on details and full of the claims Lucan made—in letters written while on the run—about finding a strange man attacking his wife and sending him packing.
He claimed that the circumstantial evidence would be used to discredit him, and promptly disappeared.

There are a number of websites giving facts and touting different theories. For the basics, visit Wikipedia.

There is a pro-Lucan website, dedicated to his innocence here.

And Lady Lucan’s own site, striking a quite different tone here.

The Lucan family of aristocrats had at least one other infamous

Earl. Lord Lucan’s great-great-grandfather, the Third Earl of Lucan, earned his dubious place in history a hundred and twenty years earlier in the Crimea. He was the officer who ordered the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, which resulted in the deaths of more than 600 men at Balaclava.

A decidedly unlucky Lucan.

Whatever the truth of Lucky Lucan’s guilt or innocence, this case and the British tabloid press whetted my appetite for more. As coincidence would have it, Masterpiece Theatre was showing the first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, starring Ian Carmichael, at the same time. I watched it.

I was hooked. I devoured all the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries and went looking for more. For me, it all started with Lucky Lucan.

So, Jungle Reds, how did you come to the world of crime fiction? 

Readers, what was your gateway mystery?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Scent of a Novel

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: So I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn recently (yes, that alleged hotbed of hipster culture — don't judge!) and found my way into a small shop called CB: I Hate Perfume. (Now, CB, who is really award-winning olfactory genius Christopher Brosius — who doesn't really hate perfume as much as he hates mass-market, corporate-diven, celebrity-endorsed scents that all seem to smell alike.) Some of his fragrances include At the Beach 1966 (Coppertone 1967 blended with the scent of the North Atlantic, with notes of Wet Sand, Seashell, Driftwood, and just a hint of Boardwalk), Memory of Kindness (Tomato Vines, Fresh Earth, and Country Garden), and Where We Are There Is No Here (a blend of jasmines, inspired by the Cocteau film). He's also the "nose" behind actor Alan Cumming's frarances Cumming and Second (Alan) Cumming (with notes of "Sex, Scotch, Cigars and Scotland."

And — one that I immediately gravitated towards — In the Library.

Only for me it wasn't so much "in the library" as "in book-lovers' paradise." When I closed my eyes and sniffed, I felt transported to the library at Downton Abbey — those first editions, those leather bindings, maybe even a cup of steaming Darjeeling tea on a table.... Brosius describes "The Scent" of In The Library as:

 . . . a warm blend of English Novel*, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish

*The main note in this scent was copied from one of my favorite novels originally published in 1927. I happened to find a signed first edition in pristine condition many years ago in London. I was more than a little excited because there were only ever a hundred of these in the first place. It had a marvelous warm woody slightly sweet smell and I set about immediately to bottle it.

And this is Brosius's "Story" of the inspiration of the creation of the scent:

I have always loved books. I am told this was the case even before I could read for myself. When I was very small, I loved the bedtime story and being read to by my mother. As a child, books provided a fantastic escape from boredom and a rather dreary daily life. As I grew older, I began to read voraciously and spent as much time as possible in the school library. I borrowed books with wild abandon and I read every one....

Whenever I read, the start of the journey is always opening the book and breathing deeply. There are few things more wonderful than the smell of a much-loved book. Newly printed books certainly smell very different from older ones. Their ink is so crisp though the odor of their paper is so faint. Older books smell riper and often sweeter. Illustrated books have a very different odor from those with straight text and this smell often speaks of their quality. I've also noticed that books from different countries and different periods have very individual scents too. These speak not only of their origin, but of their history to this moment. I can distinguish books that were well cared for from those that were neglected. I can often tell books that lived in libraries where pipes or cigars were regularly smoked. Occasionally I run across one that I am certain belonged to an older woman fond of powdery scent. Books from California smell very different from those I buy in New York, London or Paris. I can tell books that have come from humid places - these have a musty richness in the scent of their pages.

And then of course there are the scents of different bindings: the glues, the leathers, the cloths and boards, even the paperbacks all have very unique characteristics and, to my mind, add an extra dash of personality to an otherwise mundane object. And yes, sometimes if a book has had the misfortune of being very poorly kept, I can detect a faint whiff of mildew. This doesn't bother me in the least. It means this book has survived.

To many of course, these various bookish odors mean nothing. But to an avid reader and collector like myself, these smells are as magical as the bouquet of a great wine is to a connoisseur - a sort of literary terroir. These scents mean Excitement, Adventure, Discovery, Enlightenment and Knowledge. Of course my deep love of reading is exactly what lead me in the first place to begin capturing the scent of books and of the libraries where they live. That's what this perfume is all about.

Now, whenever I have the chance, I read aloud to my nieces and nephews. I am delighted they so enjoy this and are so eager to listen. I love sharing with them some of my own childhood favorites. There have been some very interesting discussions afterward about some of these...

But before I begin to read to the children, I always take a moment to open the book and encourage them to take a whiff. I hope for them, as it has been for me, this smell will mark the beginning of a long and wondrous journey.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Readers, I bought it.

But are there other fragrances with the scent of books? 

Lo and behold, I was intrigued to find out — yes. 

There's one from Christopher Brosius's former company, Demeter, called Paperback Writer (inspired by a Barbara Pym novel, "sweet and somewhat musty.")

There's also Paper Passion by Geza Schoen, Gerhard Steidl, and Wallpaper* magazine, with packaging by Karl Lagerfeld and Steidl. “The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world,” Karl Lagerfeld is quoted as saying.

And there's also Comme des Garcons 2, the scent of "Japanese ink drying on parchment in the summer sun," with notes of "
Japanese Sumi ink, incense, patchouli, cedarwood, angelica root, vetiver, magnolia, amber, labdanum, new aldehydes, cumin, cade oil, absolute maté, abslolute folia." 

And so, Reds and gentle readers, do you love the scent of books? Would you be interested in wearing the scent of a book? Spraying it around your home? Spritzing your e-reader?

P.S. I don't know Christopher Brosius personally, this is not an ad in any way, just something that as a book lover (and sniffer) I find fascinating.... Yes, I paid full price for In the Library. Worth every scent, er, cent, too.