Closure–Is It a Realistic Goal?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote two web posts about a real-life murder that took place in Atlantic County, New Jersey, in 2012. Still unsolved. My summaries were based on a pages-long newspaper story by Rebecca Everett. Several of the people she interviewed said outright or implied that the mishandling of the investigation and prosecution kept the family from having closure.

“Closure” is something we hear a lot about after tragedies. But that seems a slippery concept to me. Is there such a thing, really? Or, after a violent episode are people haunted by some combination of guilt and wishful thinking that suggests they or Someone surely could have done Something? They don’t even have to say specifically what those Somethings were, though they may have specifics in mind. Do they tell themselves that they shouldn’t have let their teenager take the car on that rainy night? That they should have kept their child with a stuffy nose home from school that day? That they always knew there was something off about Uncle Max? And on and on.

Even in cases where a death isn’t unexpected, when it isn’t a sudden catastrophe, does this same second-guessing come into play? Do was ask ourselves, Why didn’t I insist she get her mammogram? Why didn’t I say I’d drive him to those AA meetings? Maybe I’m mixing up “closure” and “guilt” or “responsibility.” Or maybe they are somehow cousins.

You’d think the most unequivocal sort of closure would come in death penalty cases, in which victims’ family members are allowed to witness the execution of their loved one’s murderer. It turns out it doesn’t work that way. Not always.

Said the mother of a slain Houston police officer, “I wanted to be sure it was finished, and that’s why I went.” Possibly, this mother did achieve closure. “It was just too humane,” said the mother of a murdered daughter. No closure for her. (The first quote is from a 2017 New York Times story, the second from WebMD.) Perhaps the experience gives the viewer a feeling of retribution, but it doesn’t offer consolation. The loss is still real and present, the empty chair still there. Revenge seems to me a totally different animal than closure.

As a writer of crime fiction, I have to think about this, even in my stumbling way. Recently, I read a story about a private investigator whose client was murdered in a set-up the investigator himself engineered. Although I didn’t expect (or want) the fictional investigator to lapse into a full-blown depression, he doesn’t question his actions, take any responsibility for the death, demonstrate any regret. This struck me as unrealistic and unsatisfying. I guess you could say this particular character achieved closure with no trouble at all. He would have been a better person if he hadn’t.

To Warn or Not To Warn

Author Jamie Beck has written an excellent post for Writer Unboxed summarizing the arguments for and against putting trigger warnings on novels. Does the novel deal with crime, violence, bad childhoods? If so, some people feel potential readers should be warned. Does the warning need to describe so much of what happens in the book (airplane crash, page 73; dog dies, page 159) that it gives the story away? Surely not.

But where’s the middle ground? And, is there one? There’s no single answer that can possibly fit every case, much less every reader. To customize their approach to the actual text of a manuscript, writers (and their publishers) have come to employ “sensitivity readers” when a book is about a culture or a disability that is not the author’s own (and sometimes even if it is). The goal—to avoid stereotypes, mischaracterization, bias and other problems—seems laudable. This issue blipped loudly onto my radar during the dust-up over Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel about Mexican migrants, American Dirt.

But authors have been quick to point out that the issue of “standing” can be a slippery slope. Can ONLY a Black person write about Black characters? Or ONLY a person with a mental disability write about a character with one?

In Nita Prose’s excellent mystery The Maid, the protagonist, Molly, has difficulty reading people, can be overly literal, and has more than a touch of OCD (not a totally bad thing, if she’s cleaning your hotel room). Some readers thought the author should have spelled out that Molly is on the autism spectrum. But is she? Should Prose have given Molly an actual diagnosis, one freighted with a lot of extraneous stuff? She didn’t, instead merely describing Molly’s thoughts and reactions in a very straightforward way.

I sympathized with the approach Fabian Nicieza took in his first highly comic mystery, Suburban Dicks. His acknowledgements express thanks to his multicultural reading group, by name, “for providing their thoughts on the cultural portrayals contained in the book and their understanding that its intent was to be an equal opportunity mocker.” An intent at which he most certainly succeeded. A reader would have to be extremely thin-skinned indeed to take his jibes seriously, but then we do seem to be in such an era.

Jamie Beck lays all this out, then reveals the conclusion she came to for her own recent book. Not only is her essay thought-provoking in itself, it’s prompted excellent comments from a range of other writers and readers. Take a look!

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Where Crime Goes, Fiction May Follow

Photo: Vasanth Rajkumar

A recent lecture on the country’s dramatic drop in crime rates and “the next war on violence” dovetailed nicely with a Mystery Writers of America discussion on where crime-writing is headed.

Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace, is a Princeton Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. As you undoubtedly know, from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s or so, all across the country, in urban and rural areas, in large communities and small ones, crime rates—especially violent crime rates—dropped dramatically, with the greatest drops in the most disadvantaged communities.

Much as this decline was a cause for celebration, Sharkey says, this progress was always precarious because the go-to policies used to respond to crime—more prisons and police, more aggressive policing, and increased surveillance—weaken communities and build resentment and unrest in the population as a whole, especially in the populations most affected. These feelings boiled over most dramatically after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Unfortunately, punitive strategies, Sharkey believes, are an ineffective response to the core problems.

Now, as we’ve read, the murder rate is increasing again (see the stats) from its low-points of a few years ago. What can be done to avoid the Bad Old Days? A different body of research that Sharkey has examined in detail shows that community-based organizations that focus on building stronger neighborhoods make a big difference in local rates of murder and crime of all types. He believes ample evidence exists to support a new model of crime prevention emphasizing community investment rather than individual punishment.

But will that happen? The covid epidemic has intensified the difficulty. It caused people to withdraw from public spaces and to return to them uneasily. It contributed to a notable rise in incivility. Also during the pandemic, gun sales exceeded any preceding levels (stats here). Confrontations and angry flare-ups happen; firearms make them more lethal. Covid and the associated isolation is also linked to unaddressed mental health problems in children, teens, and adults, some of which play out violently.

When author-members of MWA-New York met online last week to talk about where we think crime fiction is headed over the next decade, Sharkey’s assessment of the shifts in society were a useful backdrop for me. The discussion, led by Gary E. Ross, raised a number of issues that seem on the cusp of breakout. Clearly, crime fiction authors may want to take into account the increase in number of guns and unaddressed mental health problems.

In the background are other worsening problems that fiction might explore, like electronic crimes, unwanted surveillance, implementation of artificial intelligence models, the downside of Big Data (just don’t make me try to understand Bitcoin).

On the science side, our authors foresaw the increased capacity to bioengineer viruses and produce chemical weapons as likely to appear in fiction. The military’s cautious acceptance of what we used to call Unidentified Flying Objects and now call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena opens a lot of intriguing story directions. But, here on earth, the persistent and growing political divisions, domestically and internationally, create social instability where crimes can occur. All these will affect what authors may want to write about and (we hope) readers may want to read.

Further Reading:

Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence (2019) Order it here.

Social Fabric: A New Model for Public Safety and Vital Neighborhoods, March 2021. Get a copy here.

Halloween Countdown: The Story Behind the Story

tiger, mask

If you asked, I’d say I don’t write horror, but two of my published short stories do include a ghost—maybe. The closest I’ve come to horror is a story Kings River Life published for Halloween 2021. (You can read it here.) “A Question of Identity” is a much-reworked and rethought tale originally written in response to a request for stories about masks. Because our home is full of masks, this was a theme I could resonate with!

In it, two preadolescent girls, neighbors and best friends, each receive a box with a Halloween costume in it—a fox for one and a tiger for the other. Where did they come from? No one knows. Few questions are asked. The moms are just grateful that’s one shopping errand they can cross off their very long lists.

When the girls put on the costumes, the unexpected happens, which is why it evolved into a story that’s much more about identity than Halloween. When they exchange costumes, their parents don’t recognize them, and even after Halloween is over and each girl has her own costume again, their effects linger. You may conclude that those new identities have a dark side.

It isn’t a mystery story leading to a solution, so you never know where the costumes came from, and that uncertainty contributes to the spookiness. As Charles Baxter says in his wonderful book, The Art of Subtext, “the half-visible and the unspoken—all those subtextual matters—are evoked when the action and dialogue of the scene angle downward, when by their multiplicity they imply as much as they show. A slippery surface causes you to skid into the subtext.”

At least, that’s what I was going for!

My Best (Genealogy) Research Tips

library, Morgan Library
Morgan Library (photo: Jim Forest, Creative Commons license)

My best tip for any kind of research is straight out of comedian Jonathan Winters’s mouth in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! “We have GOT to get organized!” Knowing my own tendencies in the opposite directions—piles of books and papers, urgen notes that I can’t make sense of, numbers written down that mean . . . ? I have developed a number of habits—compulsions, you could say—to get past my disorder disability.

If you want to do genealogy or really any complicated or long-term, even short-term, research project, you might want to think about what “systems” (yes, I’m laughing) you can develop to make your life easier. Think of them as supports, not burdens.

A good example is maintaining a list of books you want to consult. A lot of information I need is online, but often a source lists a book or journal that isn’t. But it may be available in a library somewhere. HathiTrust lets me find out which US libraries have it (possibly even electronic copies).

I copy and paste the bibliographic information about these elusive publications into a file called “Library Searches,” organized by, naturally, library. When my genealogy club visits the New York Public Library, for example, I have a ready-made list of books that I know they have. A recent vacation in Virginia included two days in the Library of Virginia, ditto.

Another benefit of the list is that, during COVID, when I couldn’t visit to libraries, I could still request books through InterLibrary Loan. Given my flea-sized attention span, I naturally learned to write a few words in the description of each book about what to look for and which family, otherwise . . . When I’ve seen a book, I flag it in the list so that I don’t search for it again. (You hear the voice of experience.). My Library Searches list is now thirty-three pages long. Thirty-three pages! That may sound onerous, but bear in mind, it’s been built up one book at a time, over a period of years.

Creating footnotes (reference-type) is another good habit to develop. When you write down a fact, add a footnote, preferably with a link. While you can always delete excessive footnotes at some point, it is a cardinal rule of research that, if there’s a fact you neglect to document, that is the one piece of information you’ll want to double-check later. Again, I learned this the hard way. I keep a list of “facts sources” at the end of short stories when I’m working on them, for exactly that reason.

Knowing I would have time at the Library of Virginia, I copied and pasted the section of the Library Searches list into its own file and used it to query the library’s online catalog. When I showed up in Richmond, I gave the librarian my list with the call numbers, and she knew exactly what I was looking for. This advance online catalog research identified a number of promising books I hadn’t known about too.

With this next thought, you may think we’re wandering off into OCD territory, but I’ve found that libraries with family history information tend to have some books and records organized by county—early marriage records, will books, and the like. So I made a list of my ancestors who lived in each county and generally when. Again, this was something I could do in advance of my visit. And, when my bored husband turned up at the library to see whether I was ready to leave yet, I gave him that list, pointed him toward the county shelves, and he became an able research assistant.

Whatever systems work for you, they’re an antidote to the stress of trying to remember stuff. Help yourself out. Find a way to stay at least somewhat organized!

Reading Lessons: Green Monsters & Flawed Characters

see, eye, green

In Nicky Shearsby’s new psychological thriller, Green Monsters, the first-person narrator, Stacey Adams, makes no secret of her hatred (her word, not mine) for her married older sister, Emma. Emma is a successful businesswoman, lives in a huge house with her dishy husband Jason and toddler daughter, has a designer wardrobe, yada-yada-yada. Perfect, in other words.

Emma’s every remark is perceived as a subtle dig at Stacey’s lack of achievement, her lower status, all the ways she is less. Implications all the more piercing by being true. Stacey lives alone in a cramped apartment and squeaks by with work for a temp agency at a job she cares about not one little bit.

This is a book that, despite its strengths, has a number of significant challenges buried in the set-up described above. Stacey has an almost Manichean view of the world. People are unambiguously either bad (Emma) or good (herself). There’s no gray here.

Shearsby does a powerful job conveying Stacey’s obsessions. The book cover describes her as a “narcissistic psychopath”; however, no mental health professional makes that diagnosis. When, eventually, the plot requires a reversal of Stacy’s attitude, I had been so persuaded of her pathology, I doubted whether Stacey would be capable of any recalibration. If she’s truly a psychopath, it isn’t plausible to me that one day she would simply get past it.

Any story where the main character has a severe mental disorder faces difficulties. And, in Green Monsters is also the narrator Leaving aside that a character’s quirks could become tiresome to the reader, it can be almost too easy to predict their actions. (Of course she sleeps with her sister’s husband—not a spoiler, says so on the cover. Of course, he’ll pursue revenge to the ends of the earth.) Such characters, propelled by their pathology, typically have little control over their lives, and all the reader can do is watch their downward spiral. (By contrast, in Tana French’s Broken Harbor, the apparent schizophrenia of the main character’s younger sister is brilliantly portrayed and viewed not through her eyes, but his.)

This isn’t to say that all characters need to be “likeable,” far from it. But they do need dimension. What do they do all day? What do they value? What are they interested in, and is it something that makes the reader interested in them? I never had the impression Stacey was interested in anything other than her sister’s husband and their trysts.

In the right hands, with the right project, there are always exceptions to any general observations about writing. But I’ve read enough stories that take the point of view of a deranged serial killer (which, thankfully, Stacey is not) that I have seen how hard that is to pull off. If I were trying to distill the main lesson for me from reading Green Monsters, it would be to give my characters the kinds of lives that will keep readers interested even when they are monsters, green or otherwise.

A Small Focus Can Yield Big Insights

Most Americans may recognize Ernest J. Gaines’s name—he died in 2019—through his most famous novels, A Lesson Before Dying, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, In My Father’s House, and the televised version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which received eight Emmys. His awards were plentiful in both the United States and France, where Pittman, the first neo-slave narrative, was for a time required reading in schools.

Gaines tackled the problem of race relations that haunt American society through the careful exploration of his characters’ interior lives. He took his time writing them—A Lesson Before Dying was written over seven summers. Summer was his writing-time, because during the rest of the year, he was teaching at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (alma mater of author James Lee Burke). Such a long gestation gave him time to reflect on his characters and develop them to the extent he desired, a practice treasured by some authors and shunned by others (you know who they are).

He started early. When he was 16, around 1950, he wrote his first novel. When, to his adolescent mind it was “done,” he wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with a string, and sent it to New York. “It looked more like a warehouse lunchbag than it looked like a novel manuscript,” he said in a 1995 interview. He’d cut his paper in half to be book-sized and written on both sides. “I had done everything wrong that you possibly could do.” If that book was a failure, when it reappeared fourteen years later in more conventional and complete form as Catherine Carmier, it was a success and is still available on Amazon as a reissue in paper, Kindle, and audio.

Gaines had a solid education and credited the influence of Turgenev, Hemingway, and Faulkner as influences. Mississippi’s small communities and the people who lived there, in the way Faulkner described them, closely paralleled the places and people of Louisiana—except for the Cajun cooking and music! Just as Faulkner confined his stories to the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Gaines too concentrated on a limited setting for his Louisiana stories, Bayonne Parish. (This is much as current best-seller Scott Turow sets all his novels in fictional Kindle County, Illinois.)

From Hemingway, he believed he acquired a sense of understatement and short sentences. From Turgenev, short chapters. Put it all together with a number of other classic influences and you have what became unique voice. One that could produce many memorable lines, including: “Everything’s been said, but it needs saying again.” Applies to so much of life.

If I had to name the authors who’ve influenced me, the list would be long. I’d have to include Charles Dickens, who was so expert at creating distinctive characters. I also admire how he tried to write about important things (treatment of orphans, importance of family, overcoming setbacks). That’s why his books really resonate 210 years after his birth. Analyzing Elmore Leonard’s dialog was a revelation. He leaves out so much, all of it unncessary, because what his characters are saying is perfectly understandable. And so many others. Knowing that I do tend to sop up the style of whatever I’m reading, I never read government reports.

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The Malleability of Time: Javier Marias

Award-winning and much-translated Spanish novelist, translator, and short-story writer Javier Marias died September 11 from complications of Covid-19. You have to admire someone as dedicated as Marias, who began seriously writing as a young teenager, and at 17, ran away from home to join his uncle in Paris so he could write his first novel. Despite writing 15 novels and three collections of short stories, he considered himself “more a reader than a writer,” or so I learned in an interview conducted some years ago.

The main characters in his three-volume novel, Your Face Tomorrow, took what could have been a risky path, in that they were based on real people—one of them (even chancier) his own father, including his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, and Sir Peter Edward Lionel Russell of New Zealand, Professor of Spanish Studies and Director of Portuguese Studies at Queen’s College, Oxford. Russell also experienced the Spanish Civil War first-hand, on assignment from British Intelligence. He further served the Intelligence Corps of the British Army during World War II.

In his conversations with the two men, Marias believed they were hopeful the books would be published (they died before the third and final volume appeared). In an interesting way, Marias’s fiction, based however loosely on their own stories, gave them an opportunity to live slightly altered lives Wouldn’t we all like to go back and handle certain people and events differently? “Mistakes, I’ve made a few,” sings Sinatra.

Rethinking one’s history is another example of Marias’s preoccupation with manipulating time, touching it, in order to bring out the important moments that get washed away in the ceaseless flood. In part he has tried to accomplish this by way of numerous digressions. At one point in Your Face Tomorrow, a sword is about to fall, and he makes a left turn to talk about different kinds of swords and their history. Meanwhile, the reader is maybe thinking, “enough already. Get on with it.” But Marias believed the experience of what the sword ultimately does is different if readers have those moments of swordly contemplation.

I’m thinking about how much Riku Onda packed into Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight which is a novel of moderate length that takes place all in one night and, simultaneously, over decades, as twins review their relationships, their suspicions, and the reasons they cannot keep living together. There’s so much more in there than the highlight reel you’d hear if you asked one of them about that night a year, a month, maybe even a week later.

Even experimenting with the elasticity of time, it seems Marias was a pantser (writing by the seat of his pants, rather than carefully plotting in advance). He said, “I’m not the kind of writer who knows everything before I start writing a book, or even while I’m writing it.” When he said, “what I really like, in a way, is to find a story out.” I think of that as “the experience of discovery,” and it’s what makes writing exciting for me too.

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The Demands of Craft: Why Details Matter

Handwriting, boredom

In an interview published a few years ago, but well worth this second look, author Alexander Parsons provided considerable useful advice (and support!) for other writers. Now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Parsons is the author of the award-winning Leaving Disneyland and In the Shadows of the Sun.

New writers, he believes, are lucky they don’t know what they don’t know about writing. It looks deceptively easy. “The more you commit to it, the more time you spend learning the craft, the more overcoming your ignorance feels like an extended alpine stage of the Tour de France,” he said. Good writing—and isn’t that what we all aspire to?—isn’t a skill, or a practice that you just “pick up, like learning to throw a Frisbee.”

Parsons would probably endorse the idea that a good writer is always learning the craft. There’s so much to know, so many craft details, that you can’t take it in all at once. In my own case, I have gradually tried to teach myself to recognize my own writing tics—you know, the weak sentence structures and repetitive word patterns that appear in a first draft, as I’m setting the story down, but need to be scrubbed out later. (Examples: “There is,” “there are,” “things” instead of more concrete nouns; sentences with too many adjectives or too few.)

In the Shadows of the Sun included portions that take place in the Philippines and Japan, neither of which he’d visited at the time he wrote about them. Research—in books and photographs—let him visualize the setting, but he believes the lack of first-hand knowledge also freed him. “The landscape of fiction is always the landscape of imagination,” he says. “Fiction organizes and alters the factual to serve the larger truths embodied in the work.” I interpret this to mean not just the larger facts of plot and character development, but also reaching down to the sentence and word level. Possibly many readers gloss over the precise details, but I cannot help but think that at some level, they sense the difference between a red dress that the author describes as “cherry” versus “ruby” versus (god forbid) blood-red.

Parsons’s first novel, Leaving Disneyland, explored prison culture and its effects on inmates, current and former. Learning enough detail about that world to write about it forcefully, honestly, and authentically took him several years, he says. Despite the amount of effort involved, he believes mastering the details of a character, a place, an environment let you write “from a point of view that takes you out of your comfort zone.” Scary, but possible.

When writers take on that challenge, they not only connect with the story they’re trying to tell, but also with their readers. It’s easy to create characters that are thinly disguised versions of oneself, but they are ultimately thin, not very satisfying, gruel.

Writing Tips: Lingua Franca

I read (and liked!) Daniel Mason’s debut novel The Piano Tuner several years after he was interviewed in the late, lamented short story magazine Glimmer Train, and only now rediscovered what he’d said about it.

The Piano Tuner takes place in Myanmar, and Mason faced a dilemma that all of us who write stories set in other countries and cultures face: how much do you express in English, and how much in the language of the people speaking?

The interviewer pointed out that Mason used a lot of Burmese words and phrases in his book, and Mason explained why. He said he usually kept the Burmese word when there was no English equivalent, or at least not a good one. Some of the words he could have explained, but then the novel becomes a dictionary, so he didn’t. Following that decision-rule, he used the word thanaka, rather than “the women whose faces were painted with sandalwood paste.” Good call.

In my upcoming novel set in Rome, the main character is American, but speaks Italian, and except when she’s talking with her brother, all the conversation is in Italian. I make the point about her language skills early (it’s even a plot point), and then drop in an Italian word, here or there to remind the reader that it’s not English being spoken. Certo (sure), Bene (fine), Cara (dear—oddly, a word I’d never use in English, unless the speakers were elderly!) are all words I use as reminder words. I also make sure to use the Italian name of the hospital where my character is taken: Ospidale Fatebenefratelli (Isn’t that great!?) Word order and speech rhythms can serve as reminders readers are in foreign territory too.

I especially admire the way Cormac McCarthy handled Spanish in The Crossing, set in Mexico. There was a lot of Spanish conversation, but he managed to reiterate the thought, not verbatim, but sufficiently, so that I always understood what he meant.

Mason said he used Burmese words for specific jobs, to avoid English connotations that don’t fit the Myanmar context, and, sometimes, just because of the way the word sounds. For example, the Portuguese word caatinga refers to scrubby brush-land, but to Mason simply sounds much more evocative and he used it in another book.

Just in case readers are uncomfortable encountering such an unfamiliar word, Mason put little instructions on how to say it in front of the word—just once, I hope. I don’t remember this, so it must not have been intrusive (and I don’t find any examples of this using Amazon’s “look inside” function). I suppose if an author used a great many foreign words, the pronunciation advice might become tiresome, but there might be other ways to handle it too—for example, including a glossary, correcting a “newbie” to the country, or having a character take language lessons. Readers figure out their own pronunciations for names of characters, for example, and go right on reading, so it isn’t a huge dilemma. But the occasional culture-specific reminder through language helps maintain a sense of the exotic.

Mason’s first collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earthwas a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the Glimmer Train interview, he said he had a lot of ideas that weren’t 300-page ideas, but might make good short stories. “I’d love to try to do that again,” he said. He did. And was right.