Writer Unblocked




I wrote the blog above last summer after several people suggested I write a mystery. In it I lament my inability to get started. The post is about writer’s block. When I complained to those urging me that I couldn’t come up with an idea, they started brainstorming. Between us, we came up with a series of crimes, involving eco-terrorism, acts of protest or revenge against those who mistreat the environment. I brought the notes home with me when I returned home to Toronto in November. First, I had to catch up on a whole bunch of things after being away for six months – see the doctor and the dentist, that sort of thing. Then my brother visited from Brussels for several weeks and I was immersed in family. All the while I was thinking. By the beginning of January, I was ready to begin.

One morning, I sat down at the computer and bought Microsoft Office. I had found that Pages wasn’t what I wanted, but I had had an older version of Microsoft Word on an earlier computer and knew I would like it. Having done so, I thought, “You can’t waste that money,” and just started writing. The upshot has been that I have neglected this blog. Fortunately, readers have not and the stats have remained what they were when I was posting at least once a week. I thank Eleanor Catton and her book The Luminaries for that in large measure. Readers have helpfully corrected and added to the time line I posted so long ago that they now are closer to the material than I am.


I have over 70,000 words of the mystery written and probably 30,000 more to write. I set it in same sort of the mountain village I spent the summer in in Kern County, California as well as in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. So the setting is in part high desert in a time of drought, which gives scope for ecological angst. It is also home to a newly flourishing flock of giant birds, the reintroduced Californian condor. At the same time, the area is threatened by development, particularly on one of the biggest ranches in North America and ground zero for the endangered condor. Although much of the area is set aside as Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles National Forest and a privately owned wild wolf conservation area, where bears, cougars, deer and mountain lions roam, there is also hunting. A recent regulation prohibits the use of lead shot because the condors, scavengers, die after eating unclaimed creatures killed with lead shot. Since there has been almost no precipitation for over three years, the forest is tinder dry and yet bright sparks (pardon the pun) are still lighting campfires and starting wildfire.

We had come up with six possible crimes and, drawing on my personal history, I created a group of ecological activists, who seem to be responsible as one event succeeds another.

In the beginning, the narration is third person, but soon switches to first person, the narrator, Joanna, a woman of my age -78 – who is more or less stuck in the mountain village with not much to do, except speculate about the ‘crime wave’. She has a companion, who is even older and who has a gift for befriending everyone she meets and the curiosity to gather information.


Chapter One: Too Many Bears

The bear came down from the mountain in late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.

 She turned at the bottom along the well-worn path, picking up the scent of honey in the distance, and closer up, traces of many other bears, including the cub. The cub was old enough to manage on her own now and there would be a new cub in late winter. She was almost there when another darker smell stopped her in her tracks. Blood. Bear blood. She took it in. Not just any bear blood, the cub’s blood.)

The first ‘crime’ is committed by a vengeful bear, a bear that shouldn’t be there and may have had a human accomplice.

I haven’t settled on a title. At first I saved it under the heading Bear Mountain Mystery. Now it’s Murder at the Center of the World, which is what the Chumash Indians called the place. Bear Mountain -not its real name- the center of the center and the highest point was where everything was in balance. The bear comes from there and seems intent on restoring balance on the lower slopes.

A good deal of the action, however, occurs in Bakersfield, or Bako, as it is fondly known. The Kern County Sheriff’s Dept is headquartered there and the nearest hospitals. The Bakersfield farmland is part of the Central Valley and produces an astonishing amount of food consumed by North Americans. It also produces Valley Fever spores, that live in desert soil and are released by development. In addition, farmers are draining the aquifers, as irrigation is being cutback by drought regulations. The land is actually sinking in places.

The most surprising thing about writing this is the interesting characters that emerge effortlessly. The main detective, Al Guevara, is not at all the good old boy I expected. His belly doesn’t hang over his belt, he has a sense of humor, he is unusually forthcoming, he is married to a defense lawyer, has five children and has trouble making ends meet. Another surprise was a romance novelist, Arta Dietzen, a best seller in your local drugstore, who is writing her way through the alphabet, beginning with Love at the Aswan Dam. Joanna can’t read these books, but finds herself admiring the writer.

This is not the first book I have written. My memoir Never Tell, an e-book, has a link on my blog’s home page or http://nevertell.ca/.

Here is another except. This part depicts Arta Dietzen at a public meeting which is about the proposed new Condor Ranch Village, which she supports, but which ecologists oppose.

Good evening,” said Arta and she was speaking directly to me, warmly, just short of taking me in her arms. Of course, everyone else was having the same intimate experience. “I’m soo glad you could take some time out of your busy lives to support me here. Thank God for PVR’s.” And we all laughed a little too long.

“Now first thing, I know I’m going to disappoint you. I promised y’all that Oliver my good friend Oliver Warren, the CEO of Condor Ranch, would be here. He isn’t. Just wait till I get my hands on that no-good, low-life critter.” She screwed up her face and hunched over so that she looked like the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Whoops of laughter. Howls of laughter. Tears of laughter. The audience had been well and truly salted with supporters.

She straightened up, did a resigned face and said, “He has sent Roger, dear Roger in his stead, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. I only hope God and this audience will appreciate his willingness and not demand his head. I give you Roger Smith, Public Relations Officer for Condor Mountain Village. I’m just a shill, a poster girl if you will.” She withdrew to the seat in front of the podium that had been reserved for her.




Just One Evil Act: Elizabeth George’s latest

I searched in vain for newspaper reviews of Elizabeth George’s most recent novel, Just One Evil Act. There are plenty of reviews by readers on Goodreads, but the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail not so much. And readers were less than kind.

Their main beef was the novel’s length – 719 pages, but they also go on at length about beloved characters, Lynley and Barbara Havers, acting uncharacteristically. Many of them recommended better editing, particularly with regard to the “excessive” detail of the Italian setting where the major crimes occur. In short, they felt the same irritation I did as I read it.

I began with gratitude. There was another Lynley mystery to occupy my imagination during a particularly cold and wintry season and I got it from my sister for Christmas. So thank you, Elizabeth George and Georgia, the latter of whom confessed that she had actually ready my copy, but she is such a tidy reader I couldn’t tell.

Now, it’s true that, of late, both Georgia and I have complained that George’s books are getting too long. It seems as if she actually enjoys -how to say this politely?- fooling with the reader’s brain. As she is reported to have said, she doesn’t take the reader’s feelings into account. She is capable  of killing off a beloved character even while said character is pregnant. She can then go on to devote her next book to a sympathetic examination of the murderer and then drag us through the husband’s resulting breakdown. Clearly, we do not own the characters. She does and as their creator, she is capable of dispassionate distance.

What are we to make of the fact that Inspector Thomas Lynley, 8th Earl of Asherton, opens the novel, as part of a shouting crowd of 200 in Brompton Hall, he and his man Denton, cheering on Kickarse Electra, one of Bristol’s Boedicia Broads, a roller derby team? Totally out of character, a chorus of reviewing readers say. Not so fast, say I. People fall in love unpredictably. Frankly, I can’t even remember Daidre Trahair, large animal vet and, evidently, the owner of a seaside cottage that Lynley broke into in the previous novel. Lynley can, and is willing to pass Denton off as a pal so as not to intimidate Daidre. Daidre who is tall, athletic and given to plain-speaking as well as roller-skating violence, is the antithesis of the well-bred, beautifully turned-out, shopaholic, Helen, Lynley’s late wife.

Which brings to mind Barbara Havers, Lynley’s partner in crime solving. Never well turned-out, given to wearing t-shirts with printed slogans such as “No Toads Need to Pucker Up’ and red, high-topped training shoes with white socks, Barbara lives in Chalk Farm. a district in London, in a converted carriage house behind an Edwardian Villa done into flats. In the first floor flat lives Taymullah Azar, a microbiologist, whom Barbara has loved from a distance for many years and many George novels. That love has been sublimated into his daughter, Haddiyah, now 9 years-old, who has been kidnapped by her mother, Angelina. Initially, Barbara is determined to find the child and return her to Azar, even though Azar was not married to Angelina, was not named as her father on her birth certificate and has no legal claim to her. To do this, Barbara enlists the help of a shady private detective, Dwayne Doughty and his side-kick, Em Cass.

At a certain point, Azar tells Barbara that Doughty has hit a dead end and that seems to be that. Suddenly, Angelina arrives back at the flat, a passionate Italian lover in tow, demanding that Azar return their daughter – who has been kidnapped in the Italian town of Lucca. Time for key characters to fly there, including Lynley, who falls victim to Barbara’s machinations and is assigned as a liaison officer. These machinations involve a tabloid reporter, Bryan Smythe, to whom Barbara feeds the story.

Is it believable that Barbara, who is a good detective but obviously a bit of a loose canon, would go so completely off the rails? The implication by several other characters is that she does it out of her love for Azar. I find it easier to believe initially that it was more out of concern for the child, but as things progress, it is harder to rationalize that. Whatever the motivation, the thing that bothered me was her profound stupidity. Reporters can’t be managed. Blatant disregard of police protocol is bound to come back to bite badly. Still, it is clear that she has weighed the loss of her career against the happiness of Haddiyah and her father and decided to risk all.

The initial kidnapping mystery is resolved in the first half of the book. More or less. This is thanks to a lovely new character, Chief Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco, of the Lucca police department. Salvatore is separated from his wife and daughters and back living in a tower with his mother, where he escapes to the roof at sunset. His superior, Piero Fanucci, il Pubblico Ministero is stupid and corrupt and removes Salvatore, from the kidnapping case as soon as possible. But Salvatore is one of those detectives that doesn’t let a little thing like an official order stop him.

A second mystery develops in the latter half of the book while the details of the kidnapping are being wrapped up. By then, Lynley has returned to London, but Barbara jets off without authorization, the sleazy reporter in tow. While Lynley was fluent in Italian, having spent time there in his youth, Barbara is not and her interactions with Salvatore are puzzling to both of them. Irritating or amusing depending on your point of view. I was more amused and, for the most part, I enjoyed the local colour, detailed descriptions of the walled city of Lucca and the farm where Haddiyah and her mother live. I did get sick of the constant comments about Barbara’s lack of professionalism. Okay, I get it and now she’s doing something even worse. I can see that. You don’t have to tell me. Yet, she is instrumental in solving the second mystery, handicapped by language and attitude though she is.

The end of the book is a real surprise and has lead some to question its feasibility, but it’s just weird enough to appeal to me.

I hope that Barbara and I have seen the last of Taymullah Azar, frankly. I’m not sure how much more of Daidre I want to see either, although I reserve judgement there. I do know that, like most reader/reviewers I want to see Barbara and Lynley working as a team again and I would like more than the glimpse of Simon St James and his wife Deborah.

Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth George is not about to write to order. Given her ability to create well-rounded characters like Salvatore and genuinely mysterious plots, I will probably forget how she annoys me and buy the next book hot off the press.

Jack Reacher: a long way from Virginia

Will Jack Reacher ever get to Virginia? That’s the burning question.

Lee Child’s novel 61 Hours (March, 2010) opens with Reacher being involved in a bus accident in the middle of a South Dakota winter. Reacher, a former major in the military police, has, as I pointed out in my post “Jack Reacher, Wandering Taoist” no home and travels constantly across the United States, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a toothbrush. His theory is that buying new clothes every fourth day is way cheaper than a mortgage and laundry facilities.) He either hitches rides or takes a bus.

He sets off at the end of 61 Hours, having managed to figure out the truth about what was down there in that strict time frame. Of course, he did, although you might, like me, have entertained the idea that he had vanished in the final mayhem. You could have guessed he would uncover the truth, so it isn’t exactly a spoiler. How could he not? He’s Jack Reacher huge of body and mind, expert in hand to hand combat and pretty good with a rifle. Why is he bound for Virginia? A woman’s voice is luring him there, the voice of a woman major, the voice that helped him through.

Worth Dying For (October 2010) finds Reacher in the corn country of Nebraska, a day or so later, having hitched a ride and ended up in a kind of feudal kingdom where most people keep their heads down and try not to remember the child who vanished many years ago. Reacher gets hooked once again and stays to help the woman who has the courage to stand up against the local oppressor.

The Affair (September 2011) doesn’t advance the journey to Virginia because it is a flashback to Reacher’s adventures in 1997.

But this fall, along came A Wanted Man, which finds Reacher still in wintry Nebraska with the broken nose he got the day before, but it was worth it presumably, since it was Worth Dying For. Given that he has taped his nose up with silver duct tape, it is surprising that he managed to get a ride, but now he’s dropped off at a cloverleaf. He waits there in the bitter cold as car after car slows, takes a look at his size and his smashed-up face and speeds away. Finally, he tears off the duct tape and after 93 bitterly cold minutes gets picked up by a car with three people, wearing identical, ill-fitting blue shirts and claiming to be business cohorts returning from a conference. Reacher thinks things are not as they seem. He is right.

Jack Batten in his review in the Toronto Star, Sunday November 5, 2012, says “What follows adds up to the most satisfying of all 17 thrillers in the series. The secret to its superiority is a matter of pace. The unfolding of events nudges along at just the right pace -deep into the book – things speed up as Reacher pulls toward an authentically gripping climax.”

Reacher makes it into Kansas at one point, but then has to back track to where he first caught the ride. By now his nose is beginning to heal and in the end, he is back at the side of the road, looking for a lift to a bus station where he can get a bus for VIrginia. And no that woman there has not aged greatly – it’s only been a few days in Reacher time.

Just as addendum: Lee Child was in my town and in answer to a question, saw nothing wrong with Tom Cruise playing Reacher in the movie, One Shot. Dismayed listeners cited height. Didn’t seem to bother Lee Child that Cruise, who is shorter than most of his wives, should play 6 ft. 5 in. Jack. Well, fine, but I will watch that movie only if it is the last one on earth and I need the distraction.

How I Developed ‘Low Tastes’ in Reading

For many years I was a reading snob. Certain kinds of books were just beneath my notice. What can I say? I couldn’t help it. I majored in English literature.

Initially, I just read everything I could get my hands on adventure, romance, historical fiction. As a teenager, I worked as a ‘page” in a library, ‘carding’ returned books and shelving them. (In those days, you could actually tell who had borrowed that book before you by their signatures on the card in the pocket inside the cover.) I carted home huge piles of books, the maximum allowable. I read all the 19th century British novels I could find and then 20th century Americans. I would choose an author like Bernard Shaw and just strip-mine his work and then I would move on to biographies about him. Clearly, there was either no television in those days or there was nothing good on.

Eventually, I was too busy balancing motherhood and teaching to read that much and anyway television got better. I still bought the latest work by Margaret Atwood or Margaret Lawrence or Robertson Davies and Alice Munroe. I was a great Can Lit supporter. (That’s Canadian Literature to the rest of the world.) Atwood had written a book called Survival in which she said that the central theme in all Canadian novels was survival. She could be right, I thought, and I was getting tired of that grimness. Anyway reading had become more of a special event than an obsession, mostly carried out in the half hour before I put my head down to sleep.

The ‘best’ novels began to pall, mainly because I was teaching them. Over and over and over. I knew 1984 and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye by heart. Reading David Copperfield or Jane Eyre or even beloved Wuthering Heights began to have as much appeal for me as water boarding. And so I took my first step down that slippery slope. I started reading fantasy.

I blame J.R.R. Tolkein. One summer when I commuted to a job marking exam papers, an exercise in brain torture if ever there was one, I buried myself in The Fellowship of the Ring before the train left the station and stayed mercifully oblivious until I got off. The really wonderful thing about this book was that it was the first book in a trilogy. Besides the best reviewers approved of Tolkein and his buddy, C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and the Narnia books.

Having given myself permission to read fantasy, I carried on. I read all the books by Carlos Castaneda who vowed that his teachings of don Juan were strictly factual. I entertained the idea that with the requisite spiritual training, I too could fly across canyons. It was a close as a person of my generation got to L.S.D. Eventually, I took up Ursula K. Le Guin who wrote several series and inevitably Harry Potter. I am tempted to blame that on grandchildren, but it wouldn’t be true. Then J.K. Rowland stopped writing.

For a time, I belonged to a book club, five women who met at each others’ houses once a month and talked about a given book. We read The Kiterunner and Saturday, Reading Lolita in Tehran and Ravelstein. We read Booker prize winners, spare, mannered tomes like On Chesil Beach, The Gathering and Banville’s The Sea.  Several members revolted and in response we read In the Company of a Courtesan. In the end, I didn’t want to have my reading assigned to me and I didn’t want to have to go back over the book to find points for discussion. Most of all, I hated the discussion questions that some books now included at the back. True I had taught English but I couldn’t come up with the first thing to say in response to such questions as “Does old age always harden beliefs?”

One day a friend told me she was reading a mystery set in Italy by Donna Leon. This friend was a notorious snob about reading, so I took this as permission granted. I had been reading reviews of mysteries for years, so I knew where to start: P.D. James, Ruth Rendall and Elizabeth George, so called cozy mysteries, set in England, a substantial body of work separately and several years of reading altogether. Then I moved on to Henning Mankell’s Swedish Detective Wallender and Ian Rankin’s Scots Detective Rebus. They were both heavy drinkers, divorced, the father of daughters and singularly morose. Must be the North  Sea influence. It turned out that there were other Swedish detectives – Edwardson’s Eric Winter and Steig Larsson’s computer whizz with the dragon tattoo, as well as Icelandic detectives (Arnaldur Indridason’s), Canadian detectives not to mention American detectives and pathologists.

At a certain point my sister joined me – actually at the cozy mystery stage- and we agree that some are better than others. I like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books because they are set in Los Angeles and I recognize the settings, but we agree that his books are not as good as some. Such mysteries or police procedurals are written to formula, but it’s a good formula: a detailed and realistic setting that makes us feel as if we have been there, a puzzle to solve, and clues that make the final outcome believable. The reader can be confident of a certain kind of good read. Then from book to book in a detective series, we follow the detective’s character arc.

It was when we embarked on our current Lee Child marathon that I began to worry. Child’s hero is Jack Reacher, a former U.S. military policeman, in his own words, more of a brawler than a warrior, who travels across the country with nothing but a folding toothbrush, encountering dire situations and resolving them by his own means. Searching for a new Reacher book, I discovered they were not shelved in the mystery section and this was because they were classified as thrillers.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! And I had to admit, not only that the average mystery caused a little uptick in adrenaline, but also that Lee Child’s books are so positively charged that they are addictive.

Right now I am nearing the end of his second last book, The Affair, set in Mississippi in 1997, earlier than all of the others but one. In it, we learn why he is no longer a serving major, be-medalled though he was.

Is there a reader’s hell supervised by an old-fashioned librarian with a pitchfork just waiting to catch me in my fall?