Friday, June 1, 2012

Authors Strive To Live A Life Of Opposites

I was reading a book of opposites to my four-year-old daughter recently and she asked: “What are opposites?” I thought it would be the easiest thing to teach, but it wasn’t. She did not see small and large or short and tall as things on other ends of a spectrum. She just saw them as different from one another.

A little more explaining got her to grasp the concept, but it made me think about all the things that are in the middle of the opposites – the average, the normal, the mediocre. We tend to ignore those things and seek out only the ones on the edge, the amazingly good and bad, high and low, the beautiful and ugly. Why?

Truth is, most opposites pose problems of practicality. How would you like to be a midget or a 1,000-pound person? There is a burden attached to living in the extremes, yet we pursue the extremes every day. It is almost as if we go to where we have our best chance to be an opposite. Where some try to win 10 games in a row, others are more comfortable in losing 10 straight. Where some focus on making a lot of money, another focuses on creating the world’s largest collection of soda cans. We are comfortable, even if we deny it, with being known for having the most or the least, for being the best or the worst. We just want a tag put on us, to give us definition.

Many books praise the extremes. We have the Guinness Book of World Records and other fact books tell us where things rate.

Many sports and finance books like to talk statistics and compare the greatest and worst performances. Other books like to highlight an extreme situation – the fastest man, the richest person, the dumbest criminals, the sexiest woman, the smartest person, the biggest building, etc.

Fiction does it as well. The basis of many books is to explore some amazing talent, such as a superhero (Superman) or superior athlete (The Natural). We crave to live the life of someone that is known for something – whether the hero or the villain.

Yet, by definition, the vast majority are ordinary in most ways, most of the time. Why don’t we settle for our place in society instead of always striving to be something else? It is hard to accept that we won’t be famous, infamous, or extremely great or even horribly bad for a moment. We desperately want our 15 minutes of fame but we cannot even conjure 15 seconds.

Authors know this state of mind well. Even the humble ones want their book to be read, to be valued, to be talked about. They want to be praised and appreciated. They want the media to legitimize their work with critical praise. They want to earn riches from what they enjoy doing. They want to be immortalized, to live the legacy they hope to achieve. Some – but very few – will achieve what they are looking for.

The rest will be labeled “mediocre” at best, something that has no opposite.

Interview With Fiction Author Frances Brody

What type of books do you write? I write mystery stories, in the classic crime tradition, set in 1920s Yorkshire. My heroine is private detective, Kate Shackleton, First World War widow turned sleuth. Kate began her first investigations through trying to discover what happened to her husband. She had received a wartime telegram telling her that Gerald was missing in action. Kate does not accept that missing means dead. As late as 1922, when the stories begin, she has not given up hope that Gerald may return. Perhaps he has lost his memory, or stayed in France. Her search leads her into helping other women.

Kate Shackleton has been variously described as ‘a young Miss Marple’ (my editor); ‘who I envision Nancy Drew growing up to be’ (reader in Florida) and ‘a splendid heroine’ (fellow crime author). I love writing about Kate. She is thoroughly modern, drives a snazzy car, and has a sharp, wry take on the world.

What is your latest or upcoming book about? The answer to this question is different for the US and Canada than for the UK. The fourth Kate Shackleton mystery will be published in London in September, 2012. In the US and Canada, the first book in the series, Dying in the Wool was published in February 2012, and the second, A Medal for Murder, will follow in February, 2013.

Dying in the Wool sees Kate turning ‘professional.’ A chum from her wartime days in the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) engages her to look into the disappearance of her father.

Tabitha’s millionaire mill-owner father went missing in 1917. The search for him at the time drew a blank. Soon, Tabitha will marry. She hopes Kate will find her father in time for him to walk her down the aisle.

The setting is a Yorkshire village, picturesque but with a working woolen mill at its heart. These were the days when there were more Rolls-Royces in the ‘Wool City’ of Bradford than in London. Has Tabitha’s father run off with his mistress, taking his ill-gotten gains from wartime profiteering, or has something more sinister occurred? The villagers don’t want to talk. There is a lot to keep quiet about. But Kate loves a puzzle and is not easily discouraged.

What inspired you to write it? Like most writers, I have a kind of antenna that alerts me to a new story. Rush at an idea, it may never come to life. Wait too long, it may float away. I was in that state of knowing something would happen soon, and wondering what that something might be.

On a Monday morning, a work colleague told me that she had seen a medium on daytime television. A woman in the audience put a question: Why didn’t my father come back to us? The medium told her that he was prevented from returning. This was an insignificant anecdote, but it gave me a way into the story. Here was a mystery. Someone had to solve it. 

Kate Shackleton, sleuth extraordinaire, leapt from the family album. We have photographs going back to the beginning of the last century. There is a striking photograph of a family friend. She is also an enigma, because I know so little about her. That meant I could create Kate with this image in mind, but the personality, the humor, the insights, are all Kate’s own.

What did you do before you became an author? I’ve always written. When I left school, at sixteen, I worked as a shorthand typist, with an evening job as a cinema usherette. When I was old enough (eighteen) I took an evening job as a barmaid and saved for a typewriter.

Having office skills allowed me to travel. I worked in Washington, D.C., Manhattan, and Chicago. On returning to the UK, I was accepted for a place at Ruskin College, Oxford, and went on to York University. After that, I taught in Further Education full-time for five years, and then lots of part-time work in Higher Education, Adult Education and home tutoring.

My stories and scripts were accepted by the BBC and various magazines. I wrote for touring theatre companies, and BBC Schools History and Drama programs. My first saga (written as Frances McNeil) won the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin Award for the most regionally evocative saga of the millennium.

How does it feel to be a published author? It feels wonderful to have created the Kate Shackleton series and to have reader friends who are waiting for the next book. I’m always making plans for Kate, and admit to spending more time thinking about her life than my own.

I love the covers for the series, drawn by artist Helen Chapman, and am fortunate to have a good editor who likes Kate as much as I do.

Belonging to the Crime Writers’ Association has led me to taking part in all sorts of events, such as the Bristol CrimeFest. There is now a Crime Readers’ section of the CWA, and that’s great because without readers, we’d all be stymied!

I don’t take any of this for granted. It’s a very uncertain world. But of course that’s true for most people, not just authors.

Any advice for struggling writers? Take heart! Writing is a craft you can teach yourself by doing.

Time can be a difficulty when a person is juggling family commitments and paid employment. In my first year of full-time teaching, I carried around a little note in my wallet, a timetable of what hours I would snatch for writing: sixteen and three quarter hours. The three quarters shows how obsessed I was. Make a note of what hours can be yours for writing, no matter how few, and stick to it.

If you get stuck in the slough of despond, read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande, published in the thirties, but still spot-on. She gives helpful exercises designed to keep the writing flowing.

Separate the writer in you from the critic
Once you have something you think is worth showing, put it on one side and look at it again after a period of gestation. Perhaps read it aloud. Be picky, because agents and editors will be. But also, try to be your own helpful friend and be constructive about how the manuscript should be revised.

Genre   If you are writing in a genre, read recently published books to work out what length they are and who is reading them.

Look around you for opportunities. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from writing/editing books that are not in the mainstream.

Where do you see book publishing heading? If I had even a whiff of a clever answer, I’d be advising CEOs and earning a helluva lot more than I am now! My wish would be for publishers to think not only of the books they are publishing today, but to be loyal to their past lists, work closely with libraries, and see our industry in a more holistic way.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer.  You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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