Talking Funny

Language Lounge is a monthly column for word-lovers, and writers seem automatic members of that tribe.  I access the column through Visual Thesaurus, which is a graphical thesaurus that creates a network of word similarities, rather than a list, and helps in finding that word that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach.

The columnist, Orin Hargraves, this month talks about discourse markers (a new one on me), which help writers create and readers follow the flow of a narrative. As he describes them, “they’re linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken.” Perhaps the most obvious example is a negative one. How many times in the truncated communication environment of social media has one of your comments been completely misconstrued? Jokes and sarcasm, especially, are easily misunderstood. At least my jokes are. Why I insert a {ha!} at the end.

Examples of discourse markers he provides include “of course,” which indicate the writer (or speaker) knows the audience probably already understands the next bit. Of course you do. Writers (or speakers) can signal that what’s coming is an opinion with a discourse marker like “In my mind,” or “I think.” I knew someone who liberally used phrases like “To be honest,” or “Candidly.” It took me a while to catch onto the fact that whatever followed was likely an untruth. So, in a perverse way, his usage was actually quite helpful. Similarly, “With all due respect” usually signals an impending insult.

In particular, Hargreaves focused on the word “funny,” as in “Funny you should say that,” or “funnily enough,” when what follows is unlikely to be funny (ha-ha) at all. Nor is it “odd” or “peculiar,” which funny, by extension, sometimes means. What this discourse marker seems to signal is, “I’m about to say something that doesn’t exactly follow what you just said, but is somehow related to it.” Like this:

Joe: “I really hate broccoli.”

Jane: “Funny you should mention it. I feel the same about peas.” Nothing to do with broccoli at all, but related to the larger category, cringy foods.

Hargraves says people use a great many “funny” signals:

  • “that’s funny,” preceding an observation the speaker finds remarkable or unusual. (“That’s funny, I could swear I left my keys on the counter.”)
  • “funny enough” introducing a slight or suspicious coincidence (“The body was in the alley and, funny enough, in the exact place the psychic said it would be.”)
  • “funny how” about things not funny at all (“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”)
  • “it’s funny to” introducing something unexpected (“It’s funny to picture them searching for that missing gun, while I had it all along.”)

When a character’s conversation is taking an unexpected turn, you can keep readers (and hearers) on track if you send a funny signal.

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

Order The Quarter Storm here from Amazon
Or here from an independent bookseller.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

Available from Amazon on preorder!

Where Story Ideas Come From: Who’s Number Two?

A fine line exists between making secondary characters memorable and turning them into caricatures, distinctive, but not clichés. Even though the trope of the comical sidekick is common, in skilled hands it still works.

The main character, beset by story problems, may need to retain some seriousness. Even so, sometimes a little lightening of the mood is needed. Strong, funny number twos who retain their individuality include Lewis in Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash books and Juanell Dodson in Joe Ide’s I.Q. stories. I start chuckling the minute they appear.

As protagonists, investigators—law enforcement or p.i.’s—have more freedom for snark and gallows humor than crime victims do, being one step removed from the tragedy. I’ve laughed out loud at John Sandford’s jokes and Tami Hoag’s squadroom putdowns. Knowing how to keep a balance is key. I recall a police procedural where every bit of dialog generated a snarky response from a secondary character. That became annoying. It was too transparently a device.

In a short story, an author may have two or three additional characters to sketch out, and in a novel, quite a few. Giving them distinct characteristics keeps readers from becoming confused. Like the terra cotta warriors, each should be different. Compared to the main character, there’s probably less detail about secondary players, and finding the right broad strokes to convey them is an art. It’s iffy whether to term rough-around-the-edges Nina Borisovna Markova a secondary character, as she’s the third point-of-view character in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Quinn has thoroughly worked out who Nina is and how she got that way. Nina’s behavior, which breezes past “distinctive” into outrageous territory, is nevertheless consistent and believable. And, of course, she’s a perfect contrast with the main character, a sophisticated, erudite Englishman (and Nazi-hunter).

I don’t know how Quinn developed Nina’s character, but I can imagine her starting with the Englishman and constructing a new character who is the total opposite of him in important ways. Then, perhaps, she constructed the kind of background story for Nina that would produce such an unusual person.

My novel, Architect of Courage (available 6/4) has a number of secondary characters that were fun to work out. Colm O’Hanlon is the attorney for the architecture firm Landis + Porter and for Landis himself. He’s a genial guy and affects Irishisms for his own amusement, but he never takes his eyes off the ball—that is, whatever is needed to protect his clients.

Landis’s two principal assistants, Charleston Lee and Ty Geller are very different personalities, alike in that they’re both harboring secrets. Charleston is polite and deferential, a child of the South. He’s steady, deliberate. Ty has a short fuse and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Charleston has to learn to take more risks, and Ty has to learn how to manage people.

Unlike a novel set in an investigative agency, Landis doesn’t have all the skills he needs for what he hopes to do. He’s backstopped by the introduction of Carlos Salvadore, an investigator in the criminal law department of O’Hanlon’s law firm, whose job description involves “heavy lifting.” Carlos goes about his business with quiet efficiency, solving problems Landis doesn’t even know he has. Good or bad, strong or weak, all these characters serve the story. You’ve probably heard authors say that sometimes, a character intended to have a walk-on part take over, and I can imagine that happening! Sometimes it leads to a new series, too.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Creating a 360-degree Character

Archer Landis, protagonist of my forthcoming murder mystery, Architect of Courage, is not one of those characters who seems to have no life outside the confines and events of the story. Writing about his role as the head of a large architecture firm with offices across the United States and in Dubai, with all its challenges and demands, allowed me to develop him as a more fully rounded character, a person with a “real life.” Using a single point of view in this story may make that total immersion easier.

When bad things start happening to Landis, he has to take into account their effects on his family and staff. He’s running a big business, he employs hundreds of people and encourages new architects, clients have invested millions of dollars in projects his firm is leading. The world isn’t waiting while he recovers from events directed at him; decisions have to be made. He can’t just ignore all that and, in the story, dealing with familiar issues reassures him he can handle the unexpected.

As an example in which the character’s life didn’t mesh realistically with the story, I think of a mystery in which the protagonist (a police detective) had a partner who was a female hockey player. Possibly interesting, no? Some possible plot implications too, right? In that novel, the women’s hockey team had an important all-star game coming up. The pressure was on. But in the month or so of story time, she never attends a single practice. The author introduced hockey as an important part of her world and barely mentioned it thereafter. Missed opportunity.

One of the parts of Archer Landis I gave attention to is his role as mentor to his principal assistants. How much leeway does he give them? How does he reward, critique, and support them? They responded in unexpected ways, as people do, and there are still some Grand Canyon sized opportunities for misunderstanding. Landis is devoted to many aspects of his work, but one he doesn’t like? H.R. problems. And there are always those.

His relationships with his fellow architects, several of whom are close friends, are also important, if dwelt on less. When he needs them, they rally around. As do his firm’s attorney and public relations manager. It’s clear he’s been the kind of person whom others have confidence in and want to help, even though he’s stumbled here and there. I never have to come out and say this, it’s obvious in their actions toward him. Showing, not telling. At least that’s my hope!

Spies, Spies, Spies!

You might with justification believe that John le Carré’s death marked the end of sophisticated spy fiction. Three reasons to take heart.

First up, le Carré may be gone, but his work isn’t quite finished. While I enjoyed what at the time was termed his “last” espionage novel—Agent Running in the Field—the posthumously published, rather slender, novel Silverview is also worth a read. Both are expert at focusing your attention in one direction, while all along, the protagonist is engaged in a much bigger, much more complicated game. It’s that combination of spywork and grifter that I find so intriguing.

Over his career, le Carré had done such a convincing job of peopling the various sides in the Cold War and setting their minions against one another, that I for one wondered what he would write about after the breakup. I shouldn’t have worried. Not only were there many more books, but the Russian menace was apparently just on pause. Too bad he’s not still here to probe its current-day secrets. (You’ll recall that in The Russia House, set in the Gorbachev years, le Carré’s premise was that the Soviet military menace was not all it was cracked up to be. Fast-forward to 2022.)

Second, let me introduce you to a 21st century spy novelist who I believe is a potential heir to le Carré’s mantle as chronicler of the cynical, conflicted, mistake-prone and sometimes baffling and baffled espionage agent: author James Wolff. A member of the UK government for fifteen years, he writes under a pseudonym. His two books—2018’s Beside the Syrian Sea, and 2021’s How to Betray Your Country—are a different breed than the usual spy story, more complex, like the people he portrays.

In Wolff’s work, you have a strong sense that the context and actions of the characters are grounded in reality, as the agents are, too, flaws and all. As Wolff said in an interview with the Harrogate Festivals, “I don’t think that a book can be thrilling if the reader doesn’t believe that the characters are real.” No need to amp up the energy with over-the-top, implausible situations and confrontations. I’ve lost patience with authors struggling to pack in yet another far-fetched idea or action scene.

And third, finally, Apple TV has finally started showing its original production of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, witty and quick-witted. As Apple describes it, the spy drama “follows a dysfunctional team of MI5 agents—and their obnoxious boss, the notorious Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman)—as they navigate the espionage world’s smoke and mirrors to defend England from sinister forces.” And Mick Jagger singing the theme song! What more can you ask? There are eight novels and three novellas in Herron’s series, so, fingers crossed, there will be lots of good watching ahead.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: What Kind of Trip is It?

Tarifa, Spain

Authors are praised for strong, vivid writing that makes their settings seem “just like another character.” The Virginia countryside of SA Crosby, Val McDermid’s remote reaches of Scotland, a gritty part of Philadelphia in Liz Moore’s Long, Bright River, the barren Utah countryside in The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson.

Yet, our characters are not necessarily glued to one place. Many stories take them away from the familiar, detailed world that’s been established and put them on the road. There may be too little time/space to develop a complete, three-dimensional picture of these secondary settings. This is where you need a few telling details.

You can think of such a destination as a bare-bones stage set, and the writer embellishes it selectively and, to some extent, quite naturally. If there’s danger, there might be the smell of garbage, trash in the streets, ominous sounds (or even more ominous quiet), streetlights blinking out. If there’s romance, there may be beaches and outdoor cafes and bright colors. Ideas about which aspects of a place to describe and how to describe them come from the place, from the character, and from the character’s purpose in being there. These descriptors need to be tightly connected to all three or they risk feeling arbitrary or superficial.

The protagonist, of my forthcoming novel, Manhattan architect Archer Landis, travels to Brussels for work and to Tarifa, Spain, for powerful personal reasons. In Brussels, he has to get a job done. He is organized, deliberate in the parts of the city he chooses to see. But in Spain, he can’t escape the emotional reasons motivating his trip, which calls for a different type of details. Food and street life and contemplation-inspiring vistas are emphasized, as opposed to the newspapers and briefcases and cabs of Brussels.

Even though I’ve been to Tarifa, the geo-linked photos that people post in Google maps were helpful reminders—whitewashed walls, narrow brick streets, flowering plants in clay pots, wrought iron balconies. These were among the features an architect like Archer Landis would notice. If he’d trained as a Navy Seal, there would have been a totally different significance to the claustrophobic streets, the balcony shutters standing ajar (a hidden watcher?), the low-rise, flat-roofed buildings, perfect for snipers.

In my story, these elements were easily worked into the action. For example, Landis naturally notices how the whitewashed buildings bring light into the narrow streets; when his trip is going badly, he hates the red geraniums’ aggressive cheerfulness. Looking across the patio of their penthouse suite, Landis notices the tightly packed buildings, and how hard it will be to find whom they’re looking for. By contrast, his friend and bodyguard Carlos notices how easy it would be to jump from one of these other roofs to theirs.

This is a reconsideration of this issue of setting, which I’ve gone back to now that the publication of Architect of Courage is scheduled for 4 June!

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Seeing the World through a Character’s Eyes

Writing about Manhattan-based architect Archer Landis in Architect of Courage, I had to try to think like he does. Not only does that mean jumping the gender divide, it means bringing to the fore all my instincts about design (my mom was an artist) and my opinions what it takes to be a responsible architect today. Luckily, I’ve subscribed to Metropolis magazine for decades and watched the field’s attention warm to green design, then to sustainability, and, the concern of my post-9/11 character, security.

How can design make buildings safer? In the novel, Archer Landis travels from New York to Brussels to visit the site one of his firm’s major design projects about to break ground. It’s the redesign of a major station in the city’s rail and subway system. The station I chose for his firm to work on was Schuman station, located in the heart of Brussels’ European Union district. Aside from strictly architectural considerations, he faces two major challenges.

Foremost, Landis is worried about terrorism, and he wants to be sure there’s nothing about his firm’s design that makes it more vulnerable. Would a glass canopy make terrorists think access is simple, or that they are too easily scrutinized? I incorporated Schuman station into the novel early on, and had thought a lot about its attractiveness as a target. Nevertheless, I was shocked when, on the morning of March 22, 2016, in real life, suicide bombers attacked Maalbeek metro station, one stop west of Schuman. In this coordinated attack, 35 people were killed and more than 300 injured. I could only wish my fictional choice wasn’t so plausible.

Landis’s second concern arises from protests at the site. Construction will involve removal of a building regarded as “Belgium’s Stonewall,” where a young gay activist was killed some years earlier (again, in real life). The protests seem manageable, and Landis doesn’t immediately realize the danger associated with them.

Eventually, of course, he must deal with both of these dilemmas. I find the melding of fiction and reality a challenge that, for me at least, brings a story vividly to life. To write about Brussels, a city where I’ve never been, I used several detailed maps of the city center and the EU district, and walked the streets with the little Google maps guy. I studied the websites of hotels near Schuman station, restaurant menus, and news outlets, as well as the station itself, which had indeed undergone a major renovation, thoroughly described and dissected online. The availability of that information to me, to you, and to anyone, led to a major epiphany for my fictional architect, in this era of endless information and unpredictable risk.

Architect of Courage is scheduled to be published 4 June 2022.

Where Do Writers’ Ideas Come From? Who Are These Women?

Archer Landis, the Manhattan architect at the center of my forthcoming novel, Architect of Courage (publication date: June 4), has been married and faithful to his wife Marjorie for thirty-odd years. But Julia Fernández, a new associate in his firm, has unexpectedly stolen his heart.

In my manuscript, describing these two women and their worlds didn’t happen all at once. At first, my thoughts were akin to a pencil sketch I kept going back to—adding, subtracting, refining, and shaping details—so that their ultimate descriptions show them to be distinct three-dimensional characters. Writing the book’s early drafts, I did not understand them well enough to do that.

Where They Live

In the novel’s first chapter, you see Julia’s Chelsea apartment as Archer, with his strong design sensibility, sees it. He appreciates all the references to her Spanish origins—the sangria-colored walls, the chaise longues upholstered in deep carmine velvet, the glittering matador suit on display. “It would require all his French curves and a full palette of rose and violet pigments to reproduce the effect.”

In sharp contrast, Archer and Marjorie’s penthouse in an Upper East Side high-rise is light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the East River. All straight lines and pale gray walls, white leather upholstery, with a painting by Joan Miró providing only “a confetti of color.” A totally different woman lives there.

What They Wear

Archer thinks of Julia as the bright bird in his office. She wears simple silk dresses in shades like watermelon pink, lime, and saffron. She has licorice-colored hair. You get the picture. In Landis’s eyes, she’s delicious.

Marjorie wears long knitted skirts and tunics with drapey attached scarves in the palest rose, taupe, beige, and off-white. Colors so faint that, over successive scenes, Archer cannot always identify what they are.

How He Feels about Them

My intent is that these details say much more about the differences between Julia and Marjorie than their taste in interior decorating and clothing. Much later in the book, Landis muses on his love for them both, calling Julia his dazzling sun, and Marjorie his moon, the one who could regulate the tides within him and light the darkness. This analogy (I hope) recalls to the reader the earlier evocative descriptions constructed from specific details.

Beyond the Superficial

When a new character is introduced in a story, the standard inventories (height, hair, eye-color, clothing, voice) tend to be flat and uninteresting. They read like the author is ticking the boxes. They’re nothing like the telling details that reflect the real person and help illuminate their character.

Here’s Flannery O’Connor’s description of a woman at the beginning of her short story, “Parker’s Back.” O’Connor starts by having the woman doing something (snapping beans), rather than stopping the story action while Mrs. Parker stands there, as if waiting to have her photo taken. Then “She was plain, plain. The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks.” From these 35 words, you learn as much about Mrs. P. as a person as you do about how she looks. Such insightful descriptions are something to aspire to!

Where Do Writers’ Ideas Come From? Why an Architect – Take 2

The protagonist of my novel, Architect of Courage (AofC), scheduled for publication June 4, has lived in my head so long, it’s hard to remember when he wasn’t with me. Or, for that matter, where he came from. I wrote a version of this post 18 months ago, but now that the book’s publication date is nearing, it’s time for an update.

One aspect of the choice, is that I didn’t want the story to be about a cop or a p.i., or a former CIA officer–I wanted an everyman. The kind of “ordinary” person who lands in extraordinary circumstances. How such a person deals with trauma and fear is and carries on despite them is of great interest to me. A person whose world is literally “upside down.”

n AofC, Archer Landis recalls a childhood doing a lot of what I had to do, tromping around housing developments, being disappointed in what was on offer. So he created his own design for “the perfect house,” which his parents had built and lived in the rest of their lives. He has this sketch framed in his office, and as the story proceeds, his feelings about it and what it represents change markedly.

In college I lurked around the studios in the architecture school, fascinated by the students’ model buildings and the smell of sharpened pencils, rubber cement, clay. A scene in the novel has Landis ruminating on that kind of by-hand work versus today’s 3-D printing. Decades later, I’m still a rubber cement kind of gal.

Landis is confronted with people who are his symbolic opposite. He wants to build; they want to destroy. Their destructiveness affects him directly, personally and professionally, and threatens his family, his business, his life.

To write about Landis, I had to try to see the world through his eyes, an architect’s eyes—the things he notices, how he approaches relationships, the way he circles back to the touchstone of his calling. Straightedges and French curves and stone samples. Also, quite a lot of the story takes place at his office—interactions with staff, police visits, coping. While I tried hard, I had to make sure the world I’d created rang true, and I asked a prominent architect to read an advance copy. Ralph Hawkins, FAIA, Chairman Emeritus of HKS, Inc., one of the nation’s largest architectural firms read it and, thankfully, not only survived the experience without tearing out his hair, but gave it a nice blurb too!

Photo: Elmgreen & Dragset, The Hive, 2020, stainless steel, aluminum, polycarbonate, LED lights, and lacquer, commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall, Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, NY. See it!