Thursday, October 19, 2017

CODE GIRLS: Author Liza Mundy Talks to Rogue Women

By Francine Mathews
We're fortunate today to have New York Times bestselling author Liza Mundy (whose books include Michelle, a biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama, and The Richer Sex, a study of the transformative power of female breadwinners) stop by Rogue Women to discuss CODE GIRLS, an utterly engrossing history of the American women who signed on to break Japanese and German codes at Arlington Hall and the Naval Annex during World War II. It's a new chapter in the great narrative of that global conflict, one Liza has been researching for years in public and secret archives, and through lengthy interviews with some of the women themselves. Liza discovered that almost 70 percent of Army codebreakers were women, as were nearly 80 percent of the Navy's, and their story is a microcosm of the anguish and hope that characterized the excitement and sacrifice of the war years. Her starred Kirkus review echoes our thoughts: "Mundy is a fine storyteller, effectively shaping a massive amount of raw research into a sleek, compelling narrative." 
We're giving away two signed copies of CODE GIRLS in a random drawing of those who comment here, or on our Facebook page at Rogue Women Writers!
I asked Liza--who has spent decades writing long narrative fiction for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Politico and other national publications--what it meant to her to tell this story.

Liza Mundy:
So I have spent a lot of time in assisted living facilities over the past three years; I have eaten a lot of tuna fish, cottage cheese, saltine crackers, and in one case, old cheese that had been saved from a swing dance at the assisted living facility the night before. My subjects were women who grew up in the Depression and even today, nothing must go to waste. But it was worth it, not so much because of the fare on offer but because in the process I’ve met a series of extraordinary women—women who were sharp, spirited and adventurous when, back in the 1940s, in the heat of a global war, at a time when it was not at all apparent that the Allies would prevail, they picked up and came to Washington, D.C. to do secret intelligence work and help win the war. They were in their early twenties at the time and are equally sharp today, and equally adventurous; one of my subjects liked to meet for our interviews at the Cosmos Club in D.C., over Bloody Marys, and when the Metro broke down on a day she was supposed to travel from her suburban facility to meet me in the city, she stood in line for the bus. She was in her mid-90s. All of them are.

Three years ago, I was at the first of these interviews. I was at a facility in Midlothian, Virginia, trying to convince 94 year old Dot Braden that it was finally okay to talk about the secret work she did during World War II. Seated with me was her son Jim, who all his adult life had been trying to convince his mother to talk. Jim knew, growing up, that his father had been a meteorologist during the war; he knew that his dad had spent the war in Africa and the Middle East, predicting weather patterns in order to keep Allied pilots safe. He’d grown up reading the correspondence between his mother and father, who were not married at the time but who corresponded, as many couples did, during the entire war; he did not know that in fact his mother was writing five or six other men. That was also common at the time; women during World War II were encouraged to write soldiers and sailors and keep up morale. They sent tons of little snapshots, which were the selfies of the time.

Anyway, Jim had always been avid to know the wartime work his mother did; at some point, in her 80s, she had hinted at something about breaking Japanese codes, but would never divulge more than that. We sat there for about an hour trying to convince her that the federal government has finally permitted her to talk. I think she was enjoying our misery, up to a point. But she also wanted to tell the tale of what she did, and to get some credit, and rightly so. If nothing else, she hoped to get her picture on the Wall of Honor at her living facility, along with male veterans who served. That was really all she hoped for. So finally she said, “Well, what are they doing to do to me at my age—put me in prison?” I told her that at her age it would probably be a nice prison, and she laughed and began to unspool the most extraordinary tale. 
Women working at Arlington Hall, site of the Army's codebreaking effort
I was motivated to do this research in large part because I could not believe this tale had not already been told. Ten thousand women, packing their suitcases and boarding trains and coming to Washington to do top-secret intelligence and code-breaking work: what is not to like about this story? I also was attracted to it because of the research I’d done during my prior book, The Richer Sex. The two books may not appear to have much in common, but in fact, the research I did for The Richer Sex—about women breadwinners today—showed me just how limited the labor market opportunities were for women in the 1940s. Only four percent of women went to a four-year college back then, and the ones who did were usually confined to teaching school afterward. There were very few other jobs available. Huge sectors of the labor market were completely denied to women. 

My central character in Code Girls, Dot, was making $900 a year teaching school in rural Virginia, when she signed up for a secret job in Washington, D.C. Another important future codebreaker was stuck teaching home economics to teenaged girls, and hating it. The women fell all over themselves to take a secret government job, even though they did not know what it would be. I was also struck by how many of these women really did want and need the money, and government work paid slightly better than teaching school. Patriotism was a motivation but so was subsistence and a steady salary. For all the talk today about “making America great again” and going back to some glory time in American history when men could earn the money and women could stay home—I presume that’s one subtext behind that slogan—the fact is, so many of these women really needed to work, even in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Interviewing them and reading oral histories, I was struck by how many of them were working, even before the war, in any job they could get—schoolteacher, beautician, helping their mothers run boarding houses—because they, their parents and siblings needed to live. Many had single mothers; there was a fair amount of separation, divorce, ill fathers. So there really never has been a halcyon time where women could sit at home and eat bon-bons. These women never did. They do, however, certainly represent a shining example of American greatness.

Thanks so much, Liza.
Rogue Readers: watch the trailer for CODE GIRLS.

For more wonderful information on the book and Liza's work, or to order your own copy, please go to www.lizamundy.com.




Wednesday, October 18, 2017

O CANADA! WHEN THE ROGUES WENT NORTH FOR BOUCHERCON 2017...


Francine Mathews writes:
Just got back from Bouchercon 2017, the World Mystery Convention, which took Toronto by storm this past weekend. I'll offer up a smattering of impressions--the way the bell in the neighboring old Town Hall tolled the hour and made me feel, as I fell off to sleep each night, that I must somehow be in England; the excitement of so many people who love mystery and suspense talking about it in one place; and the glorious orchid pink silk jacket Sara Paretsky wore to our Saturday morning panel. I wish I had a picture of that, and the jaunty way her matching scarf framed her beautiful silver hair, but what I'll remember instead is her sobering plea to everyone in the audience: Post on your social media accounts that the enrollment period for Obamacare has been cut from twelve weeks to six. She received an ovation from the standing-room only crowd.

The enrollment period for Obamacare has been cut from twelve weeks to six.

I'm enough of an introvert that the impact of so many people and voices gave me a headache each day, so I ventured out into the misty northern city for a blast of fresh air whenever I could. Toronto is diverse, cosmopolitan, invigorating. I trekked to the Hockey Hall of Fame on behalf of my two sons, where I zeroed in on a case full of pucks and bought commemorative T-shirts. I had dinner with an editor at the Fifth Grill--a rooftop aerie perched on a renovated warehouse. And I connected with some of my fellow Rogues over food and wine. They have Bouchercon  adventures of their own...

S. Lee Manning writes:
It was hours of driving from Vermont: across the border into Quebec, where I stopped to try out my meager French, then spanning the plains of Ontario while listening to jazz and country music on my I-Phone, an hour of crawling through rush hour Toronto traffic, until I finally reached the Sheraton and Bouchercon - and it was worth every minute of the drive.

The best panel that I attended: the Exonerations - true stories of innocent people who spent decades behind bars before the truth was uncovered. 

The best meal - hard to say.  For lunches and dinners, I visited with old friends and made new friends. There was the day I ate two lunches, and yes, ate dinner as well. 

The best time - poker. I finally found the legendary Bouchercon poker game. It was a twenty dollar buy-in, and eleven of us played for hours. The first night, I walked away four dollars down. The second night, won back my stake and an extra two dollars. Fellow Rogue Chris Goff, and a fellow player, was convinced that I bluffed my way into winning a few hands. Did I? You'll never know.

Chris Goff writes: 
S. Lee, you were definitely bluffing on at least one of the hands—I think. Heck, it's a crazy enough poker game it's impossible to ever know who is or isn't bluffing. Half the time it's impossible to know what game is being played. But the whiskey is good, the company outstanding, and sometimes you win. Not this time for me! Up on Friday, down on Saturday. Still worth it!


While Francine admired Sara Paretsky's beautiful pink jacket (she wore it to the Sisters in Crime breakfast that morning, too—gorgeous), I did a little panel hopping, bidding on silent auction offerings, and perusing of vintage paperbacks. I couldn't resist and came home with four. I may be on the way to a new collection. I also bought three
books by Chris Grabenstein, which he graciously signed to The
Burton Middle School Students. Burton is a Title 1 school where my youngest daughter teaches history. Lots of ESL students and reluctant readers, and they love getting new books for their in-class library.

One of my favorite memories was sitting on the Motivation panel. I was sandwiched between Simon Gervais, a Canadian spy thriller writer with a sexy French accent, and Peter Robinson, a Canadian procedural writer with a sexy British accent. Along with the other panelists we talked about motives for writing, characters, murder, and how the fire alarm bell sounded more like a gentle reminder than a warning. If I would admit to a fan girl moment, this was it!

Jamie Freveletti writes:
Sandy and Chris you attended the famed and secret Bouchercon Poker Party! I've been trying to jump in on this for years, but something always comes up and I miss it. I remember one year asking Lee Child if I should go and he said, "Can you play poker?" I replied no, and he said "Then we want you there!" Which made me laugh. 

The panel close to my heart was the one for the non fiction book that I contributed to, along with Laurie King, Lee Child, Sara Paretsky, our own Gayle Lynds, and others, called  Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted and that's because writing for this book impacted me profoundly. The true stories hit you and all of the proceeds go to the Life After Innocence Project founded by writer Laura Caldwell. Alafair Burke later posted that she loved the panel and I'm glad she did because it's a book that gives to a very good cause. 
El Catrin Restaurant The Distillery District Toronto

After the panel local friends took me to the Distillery District in Toronto and it's another highlight! Picture old brick warehouses turned into art galleries and stores and restaurants. Families strolled and the restaurants were lively. We went to Elcatrin, a wonderful Mexican restaurant with the coolest, almost surreal decor that I have ever seen. I snapped this picture of the far wall. The food was excellent and if you head to Toronto I highly recommend this restaurant.I loved Toronto and Bouchercon is always memorable. Already looking forward to St. Petersburg Florida next year!

Hey, Rogue Readers! Any memories of Bouchercon you'd like to share? Post in the comments below!



Sunday, October 15, 2017

A scary scenario?

....by Karna Small Bodman

Leading up to what is reported to be the "Second Favorite Holiday" (after Christmas), in addition to the great guest blog about inspiring settings posted earlier, my Rogue colleagues have been writing blogs here about the frightening aspects of Halloween.  Why is it scary? What is the history of one of the oldest holidays still celebrated today -- one associated with ghosts, goblins, and evil spirits?

You see, October 31st is the last day of the Celtic calendar -- originally it was a pagan holiday when they honored the dead.  We've all heard the term "All Hallows Eve" -- which actually goes back some 2,000 years. It was scary because the Celtics believed that the dead roamed around at night - throughout the fields and villages. And since not all spirits were friendly souls, the folks wanted to ward off danger by leaving treats out to placate them -- thus "Trick or Treat Night" (Not sure where the "Trick" part came from though).


The next day was known as All Saints Day. That one was created by Christians as a time to try and convert the pagans.  In fact, the Catholic church honored saints on November 1st.

Put it all together and you have a time when people were scared of a lot of things -- of pagan ideas, dead souls rummaging around in the field just before harvest time, people dressing up to ward them off -- and you have a day, well a night really, that has evolved over the millennia from a pagan ritual to a time of costumes, parades, parties and treats. But for me, while it was fun gathering little Hershey bars from friendly neighbors when I was young enough to dress up as a ballerina in a tutu, later on when I was exposed to more
ghosts, witches and skeletons and dragged through haunted houses, I decided I didn't really like to be scared and would rather avoid the whole exercise (and wait for happier times like Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

So those were childish fears - the question is: what frightens us today? And I wonder if endeavoring to "handle" our fears plays some part in leading me and my Rogue Women Writer friends here to decide to write thrillers? I thought about that and figure it may be a combination of childhood experiences coupled with jobs we have held -- both giving us inspiration for our stories.  In thrillers I see two types of scary scenarios. First you often have a threat to the national security of our country that a heroine and/or hero race to prevent.  But this is often paired with a threat to their personal security. 



Perfect examples of this combination are found in the James Bond books and films. While James is racing down a mountain to stop Doctor No from carrying out his evil scheme, the guy with the steel teeth is chasing James -- remember those scenes? The author certainly had professional experiences that he was able to weave into his terrific novels.


Author Francine Matthews

Our own Rogue members also have combined their experiences into their great stories. For example, one of our members, Francine Matthews, served as an intelligence analyst at the CIA and worked on the Counter  Terrorism Center's investigation of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Talk about a frightening and horrible scenario. She also debriefed President George Bush in Houston. Since then she has written some 20 terrific thrillers.

Author Gayle Lynds
Another one of our bestselling thriller writers, Gayle Lynds also gleaned first-hand knowledge about threats to our country when she had a Top Secret clearance at a government think tank. In her novels, we see how she combines a national security threat with heroes and heroines running for their lives.

In summary, I'm suggesting that the fears we experience as children -- often connected to the ghosts and goblins of Halloween -- really can have an impact on what we do in later life. For me, it's combining the personal experiences with the professional time spent serving on the National Security Council staff in The White House that inspired me to write thrillers.

Now -- what about you? Do you still harbor any fears (from Halloween perhaps) that you can still "feel" today? Or are your memories simply ones of happy times, funny costumes and more Hersey bars? Do leave a comment -- and, oh yes, enjoy All Hallows Eve (if you can!).

...submitted by Karna Small Bodman


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Halloween Terrors


 S. Lee Manning:  I love Halloween – although my perspective on it has changed over the years.  

It was my favorite holiday when I was a child, and when my children were young. It wasn’t just about the candy pumpkins and candy corn – okay, a lot of it was about candy pumpkins and candy corn and Snickers bars and Milky Ways bars and it being the one night of the year that overindulgence in candy was, well, indulged. But beyond the candy, it was the thrill of dark things that went bump in the night – without actually being in danger.

When our kids were small, my husband and I enlisted them in painting pretend tombstones for our yard. Corny tombstones. I Wuz Murdered. Bones R. Us.  Dead A. Doornail.  Morty D. Arthur. (Morty was my contribution – a little sophisticated for a ten year old and a five year old. My neighbor with the BA in English lit got it.)


We painted a black cat and a witch in a black hat to hang from trees, and every year the decorations became more elaborate. We stuffed clothes with leaves to make a headless man and squirted red paint in appropriate areas. We put up orange lights.

On Halloween night, I would dress in one of my capes left over from the 1960s – with green face paint and black lipstick to take the kids trick or treating – or, once they no longer trick or treated with Mom, to scare the children that came to our door.

When our son, Dean, reached in his early teen years, we would go with him to the annual Fright Fest at the nearby Six-Flags,  Great Adventure – when costumed actors jumped out with fake axes and noisy simulations of chain saws.

It was all fun, all pretend terror. There’s something in the human psyche that revels in this mockery of the terror of death  – perhaps until we actually experience it.

The irony still strikes me sometimes – that I was with Dean and my husband at a Fright Fest simulation of horrors – October 4, 2008, when I got the news that my mother might be dying. She wasn’t supposed to die – she went into the hospital on Friday night for back pain. Saturday morning, I was told that nothing was serious, and she would be home Monday morning. She lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and we were living in New Jersey, and given the distance and what I thought was a minor illness, I didn’t fly out immediately. I was planning a visit in two weeks. So, instead, we decided to spent the afternoon with Dean, who’d been having a bit of a rough spell, at Fright Fest – and there, amidst the actors dressed as zombies and vampires, with fake fog wafting over the crowds, I got the call that they were working on my mother, but it wasn’t looking good.

The difference between pretend fear and real terror was never clearer.

We ran to the car and drove the twenty minutes home. I tried to call airports on the way to get the quickest flight I could to Cincinnati. There was nothing until the next morning.

I was never more afraid.

A few minutes after we arrived home, while I was on the phone still trying to find a way out to Ohio, my sister called Jim with the news that my mother was gone. And like that, everything changed.

The year after her death, Halloween wasn’t quite the same. The pretend graves were no longer funny; the children dressed as zombies or vampires no longer amusing. I have never since been able to set foot in Six Flags.

We all know intellectually that life is uncertain, that people we love could leave us at any moment, without any warning, but we don’t really feel it – that primal terror at the uncertainty of life. We can’t feel it all the time – life would be almost unbearable. Instead we plunge ahead in the belief that life will go on, and things will be okay. That was in fact my mother’s attitude towards life – everything will be all right - until it isn't.  Because otherwise, it’s hard to live. It’s hard to breathe.

I felt it then –that primal terror –and for several years – that something terrible could happen at any moment.  Adrenaline was constantly pumping. After my mother’s death and for the next six years, I was responsible for my father, who suffered from dementia.   Every time the phone rang, I’d panic, worried that something had happened to him. And it wasn’t just fear for my father that could set me off. I would have panic attacks and trouble breathing constantly. I have always been afraid of heights – but suddenly, I had trouble driving over bridges. I’d always wanted to drive a motorcycle – my husband, an avid biker, bought me a small one – but I was too terrified to drive it – or even ride on the back of his. Sometimes, I didn't even know what I feared - but I'd feel it - a formless dread of existential nothingness rising from my gut.

But over time, my anxiety began to decrease. I found ways to cope – and to live without expecting catastrophe at any moment, even while remaining aware of the possibility. With my father’s death three years ago, I felt deep grief, but the anxiety at every phone call disappeared.  Bridges for the most part are no longer frightening. Yesterday I rode on the back of my husband’s motorcycle – and it was glorious. I sometimes still experience that formless dread at "Time's winged chariot hurrying near" - but it's rare these days- and thankfully brief.

Now, in October, it’s almost Halloween. I feel sadness in the fall – my father died in the middle of September three years ago and the anniversary of my mother’s death was a few days ago, but there’s a beauty here in the change of light and the colors of the leaves. We have several pumpkins and may get more. I still love the candy – although I’m trying very hard to refrain from buying bags of candy pumpkins.


I live in rural Vermont, where houses are too far apart for children to trick or treat, but I plan to go to a nearby town for the Halloween parades, and maybe I’ll even dress up. There’s still a thrill in the pretense of danger and darkness – why else would I write thrillers –even if I sometimes see the true fear behind the mask. And maybe that’s the point.










Wednesday, October 4, 2017

WHAT MAKES THRILLERS GREAT?


by Gayle Lynds 

Just how nervous are you these days? After all, October is the month of ghosts and goblins, of evil witches in black pointy hats and killer warlocks lurking in dark shadows. Throw some salt over your shoulder!

Those of us in the thriller field deal in terror all year round. We call it suspense. In our corner of the literary universe, we use spies and scientists, politicians and kidnap negotiators, to tell our stories of combating terror. What frightens you most these days? How about dictators waving clenched fists (and nukes) at the world? That makes my blood run with ice.

During the Cold War, political thrillers were one of the most popular and useful means for readers to gain insight and grapple with what we called in those days the Balance of Terror. Freedom vs Communism. The West vs the Evil Empire.

Helen MacInness
Remember the great tales of Helen MacInnes, John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, and others?

Readers learned while being entertained as the authors of that era probed, revealed, and for a few moments gave us a sense of order. Our species relies on adaptability and ingenuity for survival. If reality is too complex and difficult to parse, then give us a good yarn that deals with the same forces. Then we can live through heroes and heroines as they take on master evildoers so powerful that they seem invincible.

How did those Cold War authors do it?

John le Carré
The same way we do it today: In increments. In other words, smaller but significant problems — an assassination plot, a secret weapon, a rigged election, an anthrax cache, a cybercriminal on the verge of bankrupting a nation. One of homo sapiens most primitive drives is to create order to ward off the long black night of nothingness. Many of us still turn to fiction. And along the way, good books probe problems and suggest solutions.

In an earlier blog, I listed events my novels seemed to have predicted, and I’m not the only one who’s done this. Many other contemporary writers — including my fellow Rogues — have had the same predictive experience. Why is that?

The mysterious but not-so-secret ingredient is chaos, not only out in the world but within ourselves. Chaos terrifies us.  But at the same time, it can be useful. As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “[O]ne must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” Chaos forces us to think, to pursue order, to use our imaginations to find new solutions, to be entrepreneurial, to improvise and innovate. To write with a seeming crystal ball.

So in this month of ghosts and goblins, witches and warlocks, look for dancing stars in the shadows ... and read some good books.

Do you have a wonderful Halloween tale to suggest? We’d love to hear it.

Monday, October 2, 2017

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

by Chris Goff

We're talking about settings. Important in books, and important in life.

In the past three years, my husband and I have moved four times. Crazy, right?!

The first move was temporary. My husband's company assigned him to a three year project in Pueblo, Colorado. Or so we thought.

Before that we were living in Evergreen, the small mountain town where I grew up. Back then there were approximately 2,600 residents in the area, living in houses tucked into the hillsides or on ranches sprawled across acres of land. Summers were filled with Saturday night street dances in town, the annual rodeo, hiking, tennis, horseback riding, swimming and canoeing on the lake. Winters were filled with school, Saturday ski bus and ice skating on the lake. Idyllic.

Pueblo was different. Situated in the southern part of the state and at lower elevation, it was an old steel town—but the mills had shut down and the economy suffered. By then was best known for it's annual chili festival, the Pueblo Reservoir, the State Fair, and as the home of the Colorado State Mental Hospital, where all the state's criminally insane were housed.

We loved it. We moved from 4,000 square feet into 1,600 square feet, bringing only what we needed and/or wanted with us and leaving the rest safely locked up at home. It was freeing.

With a couple years left on Wes' contract, we decided it was time to sell the big house. With the kids grown and gone, we didn't need the space and there was a lot of maintenance headed our way—new paint, new decks, new windows...plus we liked our new carefree lifestyle. Then, two weeks after signing a contract on Evergreen, Wes was called back to the Denver Tech Center office and we needed a new place to live! We managed to find a nice place to rent close to Wes' office, and went about the business of moving two houses totaling 5,600 square feet into a 2,600 square foot home. The house had some issues, but came with a giant backyard that offset the seventies décor. Picture the main floor powder room with its flowered wallpaper and sea foam green toilet and sink.

We stayed exactly one year! We discovered we are home owner-types, not renters, so three or four months prior to our lease expiring, we started looking for a place to buy. We looked, and we looked, and we looked. I must have traipsed through over 50 houses in person, and another 150 houses online, before we gave up on the idea of a house and started looking at townhomes and condominiums—which is where we landed.

Our new home is beautiful, recently remodeled, but only 1,727 square feet. It has two bedrooms, a dedicated office (every writer needs an office!) and most importantly, it has a view of the Front Range from Pikes Peak to Longs Peak.

Like I said, location, location, location....

Downsizing has been the biggest challenge. We have way too much stuff. And my blog is late, mostly because I couldn't find my computer. Mea Culpa.

So what's next? 

Research. On settings. I'm working on a new standalone set in southern Colorado. I've spent a lot of time there, so I think I've got that. But the third Raisa Jordan thriller picks up in Prague, a place I've been. I want to get it right, which means I definitely have to visit, right?

What is your home like? If you could read a book set anywhere, where would it be?


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING



by Sonja Stone


Let me begin this post with a disclaimer: setting and description are the weak links in my writer's arsenal. Recently, my blog sisters have written about the importance of setting in thriller novels, and I wholeheartedly agree that setting enhances plot (like the Columbian jungle in Jamie Freveletti's Running From The Devil). HOWEVER, recognizing the importance of setting does not grant me the gift of descriptive writing.

My young adult series is set in the Sonoran Desert. The harshness of the climate lends itself to the rigorous survival courses embarked upon by the students of Desert Mountain Academy, a government-funded boarding school run by the CIA.


Sonja Stone, the Sonoran desert
the Sonoran Desert
Additionally, it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever lived. But how to translate the million shades of green, the ever-changing color of the rock, the smell of wet creosote leaves after a heavy rain? And once I've described the setting--a dorm room, the dining hall, the dojo, why must I ever mention it again? Isn't that redundant?

For those of you with adult attention spans, of course the answer is no, setting must be revisited (and mentioned more than once). When well written, setting adds to the mood of a story. So what's a writer to do?

SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP

The Successful Novelist, by David Morrell, addresses this very issue. Describing a scene visually leaves the reader with a feeling of dissatisfaction. When my setting feels flat or thin, Morrell suggests a "process of triangulation." He says, "I always make a point of crossing a detail of sight with not one but at least two other senses." Ideally, says Morrell, "I take the sight detail for granted and leave it out."

One of my favorite books, All The Light We Cannot See, does this brilliantly. The heroine of the story is a young French girl (who happens to be blind). In this passage, she's just been cornered by a man who believes she's hiding a precious gemstone. Anthony Doerr writes "...she can hear him reaching for her; she smells rot on his breath, hears oblivion in his voice, and something--a fingertip?--grazes her wrist as she jerks away and clangs the gate shut in his face." Doerr has already described the pounding waves against the seawall, the icy water seeping over her shoes, the fishy smell of the cavern hidden deep beneath the wall. The sense of the town is striking.

I believe to be so gifted a descriptive writer one must really pay attention. Therein, my dear friends, lies my problem.

Did anyone else watch USA's PSYCH? Here's a scene I can relate to: The detectives (Carlton Lassiter and Juliette O'Hara) are questioning a witness to a crime. They ask his whereabouts.


psych's black and tan


     Carlton Lassiter: You don't remember where you were this afternoon?
     Hassenfeffer: It was yellow... and boring.
     Juliet O'Hara: Are we talking about a restaurant?
     Hassenfeffer: I don't know. Maybe. Just write down that it was lame.

Yellow, boring, and lame. I feel you, buddy.

For you writers out there, what's your weak link? And for the readers, in your opinion, what makes a setting shine?

photo credit: psych, USA network