Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Clea Simon, Guest Blogger

Last week, I reviewed Clea Simon's Shades of Grey, and she took time to do an interview. She has an interesting topic to discuss today as the guest blogger. I'll let Clea talk to you about "Ghost Writing". Thanks, Clea!

Ghost Writing

Creating characters is a blast. From an initial spark – an overheard bit of dialogue, a peek through a crowd, a dream – you get an idea for who someone might be. From there, you learn about this new person, your fictional creation. A name, some habits. Friends and tastes. The ways that characters come together never ceases to amaze and thrill me. But one thing I’ve learned about characters: In order for them to be interesting, in order for them to be real, they must have limits, weaknesses, and boundaries.

So how do you write a ghost? This question came up for me while I was working on Shades of Grey, my first Dulcie Schwartz mystery, and again as I was working on the sequel, Grey Matters. The entire Dulcie Schwartz project came out of a simple idea: that a young grad student who was studying Gothic literature would see the ghost of her late, great cat, Mr. Grey. I had an initial scene, in which she would see a cat who looked just like her late cat, and that the cat would try to warn her about entering what she would discover was a murder scene. That was the seed of the entire series. But after that, well… I was on my own.

As mystery writers venture further into the paranormal, many other ghosts have been launched in the world. But the one that stuck in my mind was an unsuccessful one. I’m a fan of novelist Lisa See. I enjoyed her China-set thriller series and have come to enjoy her more ambitious historical novels as well. But two years ago, when she published Peony in Love, I found myself incredibly disappointed. I understand what she was trying to do in this book – to retell great Chinese dramas from the 16th and 17th century from a woman’s perspective. But the female protagonist, Peony, was a ghost, and in See’s retelling, as a ghost, Peony had no flaws and very few distinctive character traits. She also, basically, had no limitations on what she could do in terms of space or time. The result was disappointing. While the peek inside an ancient world was interesting, there wasn’t anything there to connect to emotionally – no conflict or tension or suspense. So when I started writing Shades of Grey, I kept poor Peony in mind. Mr. Grey, while no longer a flesh-and-blood cat, was not going to be a bloodless specter. No way.

Knowing that I wanted an emotional response to this ghostly feline, I used my own emotions as a guide. The basic idea for Mr. Grey was the strange sense I’d gotten after we’d had to put my much loved cat Cyrus to sleep that Cyrus was still, somewhere, around. I know logically that this was because for the previous 16 years, Cyrus had been my pretty much constant companion. In some way, my mind couldn’t accept that the longhaired grey cat, with a face more Siamese than Persian, was no longer there. So I saw him – felt him – sometimes even heard him everywhere. Talking to other bereaved pet lovers, I found out that this experience was common, and so that’s what I worked with. That feeling that you think you see your pet, unlikely as it seems, but you’re just not quite sure…

As for the question of spectral infallibility, well, that was tougher. A ghost, especially a ghost who is helping solve a mystery, probably knows more than a living creature, right? So how come a caring ghost wouldn’t just explain everything to his human and solve the mystery from the start? I wrestled with this one a bit. Should Dulcie not hear everything Mr. Grey says? Should she misinterpret? Well, yes, a little of both. But what ultimately saved me was the realization that, ghost or no, Mr. Grey is a cat. And what is important to a cat is not always what is important to a human, and even the most loving feline will sometimes lose patience with his person and go take a nap. Making Mr. Grey a ghost, or a possible ghost, presented some problems, but recognizing him as a feline paved the way for many enigmatic and, I hope, mysterious puzzles!

(Clea Simon's Cyrus)

Clea Simon's website is www.cleasimon.com

Shades of Grey by Clea Simon. Severn House, ©2009. ISBN 9780727867810 (hardcover), 216p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Clea, I think it would be tough to write a ghost. I love your ideas on tackling the subject and agree that flawless ghosts aren't interesting at all.

I like your idea of getting around the problem with ghostly omniscience. Great solution to play up the fact that cats and humans have different priorities!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. I'm sure Clea will be around later to answer you directly.

For dog lovers, Spencer Quinn also showed that dogs and humans have different priorities in Dog On It. That's what I liked about his book, too. Chet, the dog, helped solve the mystery, but as he discovered clues, he forgot about them, because they weren't important to him, as a dog.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks Elizabeth and Lesa,
I guess learning about our characters' limitations is always key, whether they're human, mortal, or not!

Lover of Books said...

I loved the book Dog on it. And I appreciate what Clea has done for Ghost writing. I am definitely curious to read this series.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks, Lover!
If you want to try an excerpt before committing, I've got the opening on my home website at http://www.cleasimon.com - the ghost appears pretty early on.

MareF said...

I thought I was anxious to read this, but now that you've explained the ghost chat I really can't wait. I'm ordering it next Thursday and hoping it comes quickly. LOL

Wendy said...

You have an award here:



Lesa said...

Mare -

I'm sure Clea is going to be very happy she made a sale! Enjoy the book.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks, Mare!
If you want a signed, personalized copy - and want to support an indie bookstore -please see my blog about where to order (at http://cleasimon.blogspot.com )

BPL Ref said...

I'm a bit perplexed. I would have sworn I left a comment yesterday but I don't see it.

I've gotten Shades of Grey to read as soon as I finish Homer. I find the premise intriguing and I think I'll really enjoy the collegiate background for the character. I think it's a dream of most who have loved and lost a special cat to believe that kitty is still here somewhere. (Of course, they're all special in their own way.) I keep hoping my Rupert will show up and keep the others in line as he did while alive but so far no such luck.

Most of all I like the catish conceit: of course Mr. Grey isn't interested in some of the mundane human things. He has no context for them. It's also a lovely way to get around the problem of ghostly reticence. I was getting my Fred in before I left for work this morning. Fred's a shoulder-rider. So I'm headed in with Fred balanced on my shoulders when a bird flies by.

Here you have a prime example of the divergence of human and feline interests.

Fred can't understand job, time, work or the fact that launching himself from my back involves very sharp hind claws and tender human skin. From Fred's perspective, I obviously don't understand the importance of flying objects, especially ones stupid enough to fly close to a cat.

In the immortal words of Strother Martin, what we have here is a failure to communicate.


Lesa said...

Oh, Jeanne! I can just picture Fred flying off of your shoulder. And, you're right. He had so many more important things to do than you did. (smile)

Thanks for telling that story!

Clea Simon said...

Thanks, Jeanne, for that vivid image!

I'm actually preparing my comments for my first book event tomorrow and I think I'm going to start with that idea of our pets still being there. How not?