Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Carolyn Haines - Guest Blogger

It's a pleasure to welcome Carolyn Haines as guest blogger today. Carolyn is the author of the Bones series, featuring Sarah Booth Delaney, an unconventional Southern Belle from Zinnia, Mississippi. The latest book in the series, Bone Appetit, is due out later this month. Thank you, Carolyn.

Writing, Truth, and Universal Matters

I think I can speak a universal truth about writers—as the drop date for a new book approaches, things get pretty exciting. Each book is unique, with different expectations and hopes and fears. BONE APPETIT, which hits the shelves June 22, takes Sarah Booth and Tinkie into the world of beauty pageants and high cuisine. Neither world is a place in which I’ve actually spent time, but the research for this book was a ton of fun. It was exciting to put myself in the shoes of characters who can strut a runway, twirl a fire baton, and cook a soufflé.

My approach to writing is emotional rather than logical. I suspect that’s another universal truth about writers. We “feel” more readily than we “think.” And we are drawn to storytelling because it allows us hundreds of chances each week to feel what our characters are feeling. If we can’t feel it, we can’t write it. We live in that place where “the gut” has a lot of power.

Were we people who allowed our brains to rule, we’d likely have made different career choices. Logic would dictate a job in business administration or health care or engineering. Those are fields with steady work and mostly good pay. Writing has none of those attributes--it is a passion. The old saw among writers is “if you can quit, do” because it is a hard, demanding life. Only about 5 percent of writers actually make a living from writing. Most have a day job and write on the side because we must write.

While I live an illogical life, I must learn to think clearly to tell a compelling story. Once I have the idea for a story, I fight to apply logic to the plot. I think that I can tell another universal truth about writing—in at least 85 percent of the cases, books are rejected by agents or editors because of a plot or structural problem (this assumes that the writing is good). Plot and structure require logic. This is hard for creative types like writers.

I’ve been teaching fiction writing for the past seven years at the University of South Alabama. In that time I’ve had plenty of talented students come through the class. Some are truly brilliant writers. Some are natural storytellers. But all of them have struggled with plot and structure.

The same is true for me, and even after having published a number of books, I find that each book presents its own unique set of problems and challenges.

This latest Bones book, set in Greenwood, Mississippi in the Alluvian Hotel and the Viking Range cooking school, involves a beauty pageant/spokesperson contest with high stakes that turn deadly. Sarah Booth and Tinkie are there to relax at the Alluvian spa.

The opening foray of the plot is funny—not so dangerous. But when a beauty contestant dies, the stakes rise, as do Sarah Booth’s and Tinkie’s involvement.

Now it is my job as the writer to keep the plot engaged and moving forward at all times—while also developing the personal sides of the characters’ lives. There are a lot of balls in the air. And to keep them all floating and spinning requires the thing writers like to do least of all—think.

In mystery, the laying of clues and red herrings are vital to the enjoyment of the reader. This means the plot must work on a number of levels. This is the challenge of writing mysteries to me. Can I present the pieces of the puzzle with total honesty to the reader—and yet twist the interpretation of them at the end for a surprise conclusion? So that the reader, at the end of the story, can sigh and think, “Oh, yes! That’s exactly right. I should have seen that answer, but I didn’t.”

Playing fair with the reader is really important to me, and that speaks to the laying of the clues, which speaks to plot. I believe this is another writerly universal truth. We have a real sense of honor about playing fair.

In BONE APPETIT one of the beauty contestants becomes the prime suspect in the murder of several of the young women. Though Sarah Booth is considering ending her career as a private investigator, she is pulled into the job of proving this young woman innocent.

Sarah Booth’s conscience pushes her to take action AND the external actions of the murderer push the plot forward.

This combined internal and external conflict should offer plenty of emotional ups and downs for the reader—and for the writer. We experience it first as we create it, and then we try to polish and refine it for the reader’s pleasure.

The process of writing is different for each of us who pen the adventures of a character. But I think ultimately, we have many things in common. Sharing our story with the reader is a universal joy.

One of the best things in my week is to pick up a good book and give myself to another writer’s story. It is a pleasure that’s hard to describe—unless I’m talking to another reader.

I hope BONE APPETIT brings that kind of pleasure to those who decide to crack open the pages.

Thank you, Carolyn. It's always a treat to get a peek inside the writer's world.

Carolyn Haines' website is www.carolynhaines.com

Bone Appetit by Carolyn Haines. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2010. ISBN 978-0312594640 (hardcover), 336p.


Tina said...

I'm thrilled to hear a new one is coming. Carolyn Haines is one of my favorite authors, and Sarah Booth and Tinkie some of my favorite characters. Thanks for the alert. I'm off to get this one!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Carolyn is one of my favorite authors, too! Thanks for hosting her today, Lesa.

I agree--it's a tough balance between being fair with the reader and having a surprise at the end when the murderer is revealed. I think Carolyn does it really well.

Carolyn said...

You guys are great! Thank you so much. And thank you, Lesa, for hosting me today.

Lesa said...

I said it was my pleasure to host Carolyn, and it truly is. I'm sorry I hadn't had time to stop in earlier. Tuesday is usually all day meetings, and I'll be leaving again for the afternoon one. But, I'm glad she had a chance to talk about that balancing act.

Thank you, Carolyn.