Friday, April 1, 2016

What We're Writing--Debs and Garden(s)

DEBORAH CROMBIE: The last time What We're Writing Week rolled around, I was celebrating the birth of my brand new granddaughter (and NOT WRITING, at least for a few days.) Now, I can hardly believe that little Wren will be two months old on Sunday. How time flies with babies!  (She is absolutely adorable, by the way.)

Too bad it doesn't fly for me when I'm writing... But you all know by now that I am the slowest writer in the universe. Well, maybe the second slowest... (poking Julia here, grin.) 

But I'm making great progress on Garden of Lamentations, having got past what my quilter friend calls the "ugly quilt" stage. This is where you get a little way into what you thought was going to be the PERFECT book, and you start to think, "This is THE worst idea for a book, ever. It will never work. Why did I think I could write this????" It happens with every book, without fail. I recognize it for what it is, but somehow that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. I also know that the ONLY way to get past it is to WRITE. (Can I make those caps any bigger?) And I do eventually work out those details that seemed completely unmanageable, and then it starts to be fun.

I'm on the downhill now, and having a great time.

One of the things I'm loving about this book is creating my imaginary garden in Notting Hill. This is an enclosed residential garden (remember the garden that Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts climb into in Notting Hill?) but some of my inspiration for the landscape has come from Cannizaro Park in Wimbledon, just south of London. This is a Grade II listed park, small but much grander than my little fictional garden.  But the nice thing about fiction is that you can borrow as much as you like. Oh, and the garden is locked, just to make things more interesting...

Here's a snippet to give you a feel for the garden. Gemma, along with DCI Kerry Boatman, is investigating the death of a young woman, a nanny employed by one of the garden's residents. It's mid-May, so the azaleas and rhododendrons are in full flower.

“I’m getting the crime scene team on this,” Kerry Boatman said when Glenn had left them. “Although I don't think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that there’s anything left to find.” Putting her phone to her ear, she walked away from Gemma and began to pace up and down on the gravel path as she talked.

Gemma moved into a patch of shade and stood, gazing at the spot where Reagan Keating’s body had lain. Why this spot, at the edge of the glade? Did it have some special significance? Was there any possibility the body had been moved here? Kate Ling hadn’t mentioned lividity. Pulling out the little notebook she still carried in her bag, phone notwithstanding, she jotted a reminder to herself to check.
The tree was beautiful, as perfect as a drawing in a children’s picture book, set against the green sweep of lawn. What was it called in some of the old books Kit read aloud to Toby? Greensward, that was it. It had an Old English sound that made Gemma think of knights and enchantments. Or maybe she was just associating the way the girl had been described—laid out like a sleeping princess. She needed to see the crime scene photos for herself.

The turf showed no evidence of a struggle, although she did find a length of foot-wide parallel indentations at the edge of the path. Gemma thought it likely they had been made by the mortuary gurney, but there was always a possibility that it had been something else—a cart or a wagon, used if the body had been moved. She made another note, then looked up, trying to see how this spot related to the rest of the garden. Was it visible from the nearby houses?

She thought the trees and shrubs would have screened it completely from the houses on the left side of the garden. On the right, the small private gardens were dense with shrubs and flowering plants, although she thought it might be just possible to see the patch of lawn from the upper windows of the nearest houses. That left the approach from the center of the garden.

There, casual beds of azaleas swooped down towards the formal beds in the garden’s center, the riot of color punctuated by clumps of spent tulips and daffodils. Gemma thought a witness would have to have been quite close to have had an unimpeded view. She wondered how much light there had been late on Friday evening. The tall houses themselves would block any illumination from street lamps in the surrounding area.

It had been a very private place to die.

REDS and readers, whether dealing with books or projects, what hints do you having for conquering "ugly quilt" syndrome?


  1. Ugly quilt stages, I think, respond most effectively to continued perseverance.
    I do believe I would enjoy joining Gemma on her stroll through that lovely garden. Looking forward to reading this book . . . .

  2. I'm in the "take a deep breath and keep writing" camp. And selfishly glad you got through it - because I want to read the book!

  3. What's so perfect about this is how you use the garden-ness almost as a foil for what's going on - a murder investigation. Such a pleasure to read. Thanks, for sharing, Deb. And so happy to hear you're on the downhill side, from one slowpoke to another.

  4. This must be where you have to trust yourself--because you need to know the difference between 'the ugly quilt stage' and 'this is just plain not working'! I've started a quilt project only to realize that it's not just ugly, it's not 'right' and unpieced the whole thing and tried again (and again) until it looks right. But there does come that moment, after it's pieced and on the frames and I'm slogging along that I think, 'this is awful,' no one would want it, and I keep going anyway, because by then I just want it off the frames. Then I get to finish the edges, and I realize it's turned out fine. And your garden theme here is appropriate, because I find a session outside watching the bluebirds and wandering around looking at the flowers in bloom, along with a cold drink, works wonders for seeing the beauty around me.

    And I can't wait for this book! I miss Duncan and Gemma and their family and friends--and London, too. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Looking forward to this one, as usual.

  6. Gemma is so clever Debs! Like Hallie, I love how you weave the details of the garden into her questions about the murder. No info dump here!

    And I'm surprised Hallie didn't say her famous line: "Just hold your nose and write!" Because there's really no other way. Although Susan earlier this week showed us how sometimes a quilt really is homely and has to be scrapped, as FChurch described so beautifully. Gosh writing is a hard business!

    Keep at it Debs (and Julia, too)--your rabid fans await you!

    And ps Karen in Ohio won KILLER TAKEOUT yesterday. Yay!

  7. What a lovely visual - and yes, a very private place to die. I also think it's a great contrast, the beauty of the garden against the ugliness of murder.

    As for the "ugly quilt stage," that's when Hallie's advice comes in handy for me. Just hold your nose and write!

  8. Oh, thank you, Lucy/Roberta! How will it get to me?

    Debs, the contrast of a murdered woman in a fresh, green and blooming garden is delicious. What a great foil.

    Long before I ever made a single quilt I used to read quilting articles obsessively. One author talked about adding "ugly colors" to the quilt to make the patterns pop; yellow and orange and ocher are lumped into the ugly spectrum. Sometimes you just have to make decisions that seem counter-intuitive, whether making a quilt or writing a compelling story.

  9. P.S. I sent an email via your author page.

  10. The entire passage is lovely, Deborah. Such balance and contrast. And the last line is perfect. I have been looking forward to this book since I heard you speak about it at Bouchercon.

    Thank you for writing about your process. It's always good to hear reassurance from writers I admire that the self-doubt stage is both inevitable and conquerable.

    Congratulations again on your new grandchild with the beautiful name.


  11. "It had been a very private place to die."


    I love this!

    And who isn't intrigued by a secret locked garden?!

    Thanks for sharing this, Debs AND thank you for sharing the wonderful pictures of your lovely Wren at Facebook. She is a perfect little beauty.

  12. You had me at secret locked garden near Notting Hill...

    Has anyone else seen Finding Nemo? I love Dory's little song: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, what do we do? We swim, swim....." Just substitute writing.

  13. Thanks, all! I really do love it when I can't wait to get up and write every day. I just wish it didn't take me so long to get to that point. I think this must be my life challenge:-) For me, outlining is the big key. I worked non-stop the month I was in London, and I know everyone was disappointed when I didn't come back with finished pages. BUT I had twelve chapters blocked out, scene by scene, and that's just a few short of the end of the book. Since then, writing has been a joy.

    But I desperately needed that block of completely uninterrupted time in order to work out the structure of the book. And I badly needed a London fix.

    It seems obvious, doesn't it, that I just need to go to London more often...

    PS Karen, looking for your email.
    PSS Wren's mom and dad are taking her 2 Month picture on Sunday, so I will post on my author page!

  14. I'm at the ugly quilt stage right now, Debs. Before the murder, still setting up and sure everything is boring biting boring. But we need it! Ugh
    And I adore locked gardens in London. One of my friends is a docent at the Chelsea Physik Garden and they have the best cafe as well as fabulous garden.

  15. I paint and there is always that point where I wonder what on earth I am doing! The painting is "a disaster" and will never recover.
    The solution? Keep painting, knowing that this is just a phase I have to work through.

  16. As long as Thomas Pynchon keeps publishing, I'm not the slowest writer around. Slow, I'll grant you. Very slow, even.

    I love the phrase "ugly quilt" - it perfectly describes that stage of the book when you think everything is shite, you have no way to end the story, and you're convinced you'll have to get a REAL job to support yourself. It's always a struggle for me. The best way through it, I've found, is to give yourself permission to write badly. Get the daily word count done, knowing that you can delete the whole thing if it still seems awful when you reread it the next morning. Often, I find it wasn't as bad as I thought...maybe even sort of good.

  17. Isn't that weird, what Julia says? But true. Nothing is ever as bad when I read it the next day as I thought it was while I was writing it. And sometimes I actually think it's pretty good.

    By the way, I totally disagree with that adage--who said this? Stephen King?--that if you think something you've written is good, you should throw it out. Bollocks, I say. If you're a professional novelist and you can't recognize when you've written something that is good, you should probably look for another job.

  18. Oh, Debs, like Susan, you had me at secret locked garden near Notting Hill. Of course, I'm not surprised, as you have thrilled me with all the settings in your previous books. This passage was such a treat to read today. Thinking of Gemma with her little notebook has gotten me so ready to read this book, but I can wait because I know I'm waiting for something special.

    Lucy, I have to tell you, in reference to writing problems, that I thought of Haley and her boss, Palamina, when my son told me he was having trouble with a part of his writing. I advised him that he can't fix anything he hasn't written, so to just keep writing. I didn't get to finish up Killer Takeout after my gallbladder surgery yesterday, which went wonderfully, as a generous friend was staying with me, and I felt it would be rude to read and ignore her. So, I'm finishing it tonight (just put it down to write here), and it is such a fun, exciting book. Thanks!

  19. It happens to me in television stories, too, every single time. every single time! And I finally realized that the "this is the worst thing ever" feeling always happens… But it is always followed by a solution. So I have tried to embrace that moment as just part of the process.
    Sometimes that actually works :-)

    In fact, I am right there, right now. I will have to look for a fabulous secret Garden of my own…

    Debs, you never cease to amaze me. Your writing is so multi layered. And I have to say, selfishly, it is very reassuring to hear that even you have doubts .

  20. I'm delighted to hear that another quilter suffers from "ugly quilt syndrome" too! Thanks, FChurch. I'm always well into the quilting phase when I decide nobody with any taste would allow even their dog to sleep under a quilt as ugly as mine. But, as you say, it generally turns out to be very pretty in the end. I think the quilt metaphor works for Debs' books, too, since she always stitches together so many different colors and patterns, personalities and story lines into a fabulous and deeply satisfying whole. I can't wait to read this one.