Saturday, September 20, 2014

What We're #Writing: @JSpencerFleming

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Is it my turn to do What I'm Writing? So soon? Sigh. Still working on HID FROM OUR EYES. I've been succumbing to a particular type of writer's envy lately; the conviction that everyone is writing more effortlessly than I. I was at the Portland Public Library today waiting for the Smithie, who had a job interview for a substitute librarian position. (Did you have any idea big libraries had substitutes? Neither did I!)

At any rate, I was looking at the new releases shelf. There was Lee Child's latest, out like clockwork. C.J. Box had a new book of short stories - he's getting out a book a year and has time to do a story collection! Peter Lovesey had the 57th book in his Peter Diamond series (not really, but it feels like it.) And of course, there was Louise Penny's fantastic new Inspector Gamache mystery. 

If you pick up any of these books, you'll be struck, as I was, by the impression that the authors' writing simply flows. I know what the process is like, but I can't shake the feeling that these folks sit down with a hot cup of coffee or tea every morning and the words just stream effortlessly out of their imaginations and onto the page.

Of course, on those occasions when I reread my own writing, I get the same impression. It amazes me that a chapter I spent weeks beating my head against sounds like a I typed it out on a lazy afternoon at a cafe. 

So; today's excerpt. We're back in 1972 again, this time in a familiar scene: the investigating team discusses the case. I'm having fun making each era's police department different from the others.    

          “Russ Van Alstyne.” Detective Arlo Simpson held up Russ' mug shot, taken the morning they had brought him in for questioning. Looking at the boy's disheveled, angry face, Jack Liddle realized he should have gotten a better photo from Margy. Anyone would agree Russ was guilty of something, going by that picture.
          “We confirmed positive identification from the bartenders at the Paddock and the Flying Dutchman.”
          “What about Bernie's?” Jack shifted his position on the heavy maple worktable at the head of the officers' desks. He had taken to sitting on it during their meetings when, assuming the chief's badge, he had discovered the wooden briefing podium was just over-tall enough to make him look like a junior high-schooler giving a report on Civics Day.
          “The barkeep at Bernie’s said business was heavy last night. He didn't remember the face in the photo. However, since Van Alstyne places himself at Bernie's first, with the two other establishments coming after, I don't think the lack of corroboration is significant.”
Sargent George Gifford rolled his eyes. Arlo did have a tendency to talk like a dictionary'd been shoved up his ass.
          “What about the Flying Dutchman? Did his story hold up?” Jack tried not to sound hopeful. The last thing he needed was his men thinking he'd lost his objectivity.
     Arlo nodded. “Oh, yes. The bartender remembered the fight very well. He said Van Alstyne was clearly the aggressor, and claims he threatened to call the police on Van Alstyne.” He held up his notebook. “The young man Van Alstyne fought with is a regular. David Rothstein. I'm attempting to find his address so we can follow up with him.”
          “Did anyone recognize the girl?”
          “No. But the barkeep at the Flying Dutchman was quite certain of the time Van Alstyne left. Eleven-thirty.”
     Jack nodded. “And he went to the Golden Banana.” There were some snickers from the rest of the investigating team.
          “What?” Jack stared at Arlo. “Are you sure?”
          “Because of the nature of the establishment, the Golden Banana has three bouncers on duty each night, as well as the bartender and a girl who takes the cover charge. None of them recognized Van Alstyne's photo. I can find no record of his whereabouts between the time he left the Flying Dutchman and the time he appeared on the MacAllen's porch.”
Lieutenant Ken Ogilvie, Jack's second-in-command, whistled. “That's six hours unaccounted for.” He nodded toward Arlo. “This guy starts to look better and better.”
          “Maybe we should retry with a better photograph,” Jack said.
    George and Ken looked at him as if he'd cracked his skull. “If you think it would help, I can go back,” Arlo said doubtfully.
          “Chief, this kid's been trained by the Army to be a killer.” Ken stood up and walked to the case board, where pictures of the still-unknown dead girl were pinned like macabre souvenirs. “We know some of these guys in Viet Nam had ways of killing the enemy without making a sound, with just sticks and ropes.” He rapped his knuckle against a photo of the girl's unblemished skin. “Who else would know how to kill without leaving a mark? And he can't account for his whereabouts for six whole hours around the time of death?” He jerked his thumb to the mug shot still in Arlo's hand. “We might as well ask him 'Will the real murderer stand up and be identified?'”


  1. Oh, it most definitely is not looking good for our intrepid one-day-to-be police chief.
    I love these little excerpts but waiting to find out what happens next is getting harder and harder . . . .

    Love the sturm und drang of the cartoons --- they made me laugh out loud.
    Writing may not always come easy --- they say nothing worthwhile ever does --- but legions of readers are glad that you continue to put pen to paper and share your wonderful stories.

  2. Wonderful Julia--we all can't wait! You KNOW no one's process is as easy as it looks in the finished book:).

    And by the way, if this makes you feel better, most of CJ Box's stories were reprints. I really enjoyed them--but they weren't all new.

  3. This is SO reassuring, I cannot begin to tell you. This is...exactly perfect. I am howling with laughter and crying at the same time. Thank you thank you thank you.

    Oh, and the book is going to be great--you are the envied one, you know!

  4. Oh, Julia - I agree with Hank. So good to hear I'm not the only one. And those cartoons etc. are hilARious (didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The excerpt is riveting.

  5. If you read Louise Penny's blog or FB page you will know that whe has the same problems.

  6. May I say, BRILLIANT post! And among all the great words/phrases/sentences, this stands out: "he had discovered the wooden briefing podium was just over-tall enough to make him look like a junior high-schooler giving a report on Civics Day."
    Write faster!!

  7. Julia, I have to agree with Hank and Hallie — it's a relief to hear I'm not the only struggling one... And the excerpt is fantastic.

  8. LOVE those cartoons, except that the reality office is so much less cluttered than mine that I'm envious of IT. This is why writers take laptops to coffeeshops-- not for the coffee, but to get away from the cascading clutter. A prime contributor to writer's block is the infamous Desk Avalanche.

  9. I love the "Stuff to Write" list and renaming characters. And I can completely relate to the "No wait, just one more change" cartoon because I am right there - I send my MS to an editor on Monday for her review and I'm having panic attacks (one minute it's "no, just one more tweak" and the next "leave it alone, it works and you're going to break it!"

    I love the excerpt, too. Poor Russ - but I'm sure it'll work out for him in the end.

  10. Easy reading is hard writing, and that's the truth. I so look forward to each new Clare and Russ story: Please know that your readers are sending along happy and willing thoughts to help you through the process. Can't wait for the next book to come out!

  11. I completely get writer's envy.

    And those cartoons you posted made me laugh, especially the first one.

    Don't worry, you'll get everything sorted out and the writing will be great.

  12. I'm subbing in for the library director at the Very Small Library today, so this is the first chance I've had to check in. Thanks for the reassurance that we're all struggling with the same issues!

    I suppose it's human nature to think everyone else in the world has it together, with you as the only exception. And Amanda, thanks for the reminder of the Hawthorne quote. I think I'll put a "Easy reading is damn hard writing" on a Post-It and keep it on my computer!

  13. Julia, the excerpt is fab--and thanks for making me laugh!!! I always think it's easier for everyone else!!

  14. Julia--loved all of this. If you ever stop being a novelist I'm sure you'd have a great career as a humorist. And where do you find all the terrific cartoons?
    I confess I don't agonize very often. But I have changed one character's name three times so far in Malice at the Palace.

  15. I enjoy this week where we get a peek into what you are writing or what you are doing. And very happy you are the writers and we are the lucky readers.

  16. Loved the excerpt Julia! I don't believe writing is easy for anyone. Some people just make it look easy!

  17. We readers really do appreciate the vast amounts of blood, sweat, and tears you all go through to keep us in our addiction. It must be maddening to sometimes think about how quickly we read the book you spent a long time on and then we demand more more more! (and truly I wouldn't think about that too much, just write, ok?) And sometimes I'd like to be the proverbial fly on the wall to observe Nora Roberts and how she's able to produce multiple books a year (not that I'm complaining) under both Roberts and JD Robb. Maybe she's given up sleep?

  18. I hope Louise Penny is finding it a little easier. Last month at Toronto Library, she said it took her 43 years to write Still Life,and then was horrified to learn she was expected to produce the 2nd book in ONE YEAR.

    Love these cartoons. Seriously funny.

  19. The excerpt was too short! Now I'll be feeling lost until I get to read the entire book.

    The cartoons were hysterical! I agonize over business letters I must compose. I can't imagine having to write thousands of words, and with a deadline, too!

  20. Julia, the fact that you struggle over your writing shows in the finished result. We, your readers, just get sucked into the story and the characters and the plot and the scenery and the dialogue and and and, then it's over wayyyy too fast! And I am chomping at the bit for Hid From Our Eyes to be finished--these excerpts are driving me crazy!

    Sometimes words just spill effortlessly from me--paragraph after paragraph--and frequently that long gush of verbiage gets pared back to almost nothing, then the paragraph it took me hours to write jumpstarts a whole chapter. Y'all make it look so easy! Wait, isn't that where this blog post started?

  21. See what I mean, FChurch?

    And PK, I think a few blessed souls really can sit down and produce volumes of good work. Have you read Al Lamanda's Edgar-nominated SUNSET? Amazing book. He wrote it in ONE MONTH.

  22. Not Russ!!! I do thank you for the hard work of writing such excellent books . . . well worth the wait for the next one!

  23. Julia, You do not have to compare yourself to other writers. You have your own style that is loved by your readers. We would be impatient for a new book no matter how fast you wrote because we enjoy reading about Russ and Claire so much. Relax, let the ideas and writing come as they may. We'll be here when the next book is ready, and the one after that, and the one after that...

  24. This is so wonderful. I'm going to be smiling about "five chapters with unicorns" all day. ;)