How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

by Cynthia Ray

chapter one pic

Writing short stories, poetry and flash fiction is fun, interesting and doable for me.  Undertaking a longer work scares the pen off my pages, because the skills and commitment required for writing a novel are very different from those needed for the short story.  I didn’t realize exactly how different until I ambitiously started a novella over two years ago.  I spent a few months on the task, became bogged down in the middle, frustrated with myself and the process and in a self-induced state of embarrassment, shame and regret I quit writing.  I gave up on myself and the book.

once upon a time

Recently, inspired by a friend’s publication, I dug out my draft and read it again.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t  as atrocious and stinky as I remembered.  In fact, I liked it enough to finish it after all.  Now that I am re-engaged with the project, and recovering from my feelings about my wobbly process,  I wondered how long it takes for someone, who is not me, to write a book. Is there an average?  Is there a right answer?  Do people start and stop, and then start again?  Is the process consistent among authors?  As you would imagine, the answer varies wildly among authors.  That, too, gave me hope and inspiration to write on to the end of my project, no longer alone in my leaky canoe.

In the writers who “git r’ done” category:

  • Jane Austen, according to family tradition, began writing First Impressions, the novel we know today as Pride and Prejudice, in October 1796 at the age of 20. She completed it in August 1797, just 10 months later. (Has it really been 300 years and they are still making movies of this story?!!)
  • Victor Frankl wrote his amazing and inspirational book, Man’s Search for Meaning, over the course of nine consecutive days, but he had thought about it for years during his time in the camps, and written it in his head.
  • It only took Charles Dickens six weeks to write a Christmas Carol- Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit helped speed up the process. When Dickens wrote he “saw” his characters much like the way that young Ebenezer Scrooge saw the characters from the books he had read.
  • Stephen King says that “”The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season,” he says. If you spend too long on your piece, King believes the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.

But take heart, my slow writing friends. Look how long these famous books took to produce:

  • Melville’s tome, Moby Dick, took 18 months (but that was a year longer than he had planned).
  • Margaret Atwood took over a year, with starts and stops, to write the Handmaids tale.
  • JK Rowling worked on her first novel for more than six years.
  • George Martin also took six years to write Game of Thrones.
  • It took Tolkien more than 12 years to write Lord of the Rings, and he kept on tweaking his books even after that.

Finally, here is a short list of novels that took from 10 to 20 years to write.  Mine won’t take that long to finish.  I promise.  By the way, what are you doing here?  Shouldn’t you be writing?!

the end

The Definition of Insanity

By Christina Lay

© Adrian Ionut Virgil Pop | Dreamstime.com

I once again found myself on the periphery of one of those conversations between mothers. You know the one, where they coo over newborn baby photos and then quickly descend into recounting the horrors of a 48 hour birth procedure that included suction cups, multiple doctors and gravity. Then, as always, one of the mothers leans back smiling and says “But then you forget about all that, and have another one!”

I nod sagely. Yup. Writing novels is just like that.

Now I know there are mothers out their gritting their teeth and composing terse missives to me about how writing is NOTHING like giving birth and are lining up many terrifying and explicit examples for me to ponder. But I will blithely continue in my ignorance, because poetic license.

As you might know if you read my posts, I’ve been consumed in a two-year birthing process of a novella that turned into a novel that turned into a many tentacled monster that has no intention of every leaving the cozy confines of my computer to enter the harsh fluorescence of a published reality. And you know what my go-to solution is? Well, I’ll just write another one. That one will go smoothly and will require no suction cups.

Haven’t we all been there? After a tortuous year or two or ten, we deliver onto the world a misshapen squalling mess of a thing. It is beautiful in our eyes only, and requires more attention than ever, which we give it in the hopes that it will someday move out and stay in touch via the form of royalty checks. So what do we do once the thing no longer requires 24-hour care? We immediately start another, sure this one will be much less painful, and more easily pushed out of our brains into the light of day.

And the really sad thing for us writers, and why we deserve more sympathy than actual mothers, is that nowhere in this process is sex involved. In many ways, writing is anti-sex, because it’s a lone endeavor, and one that doesn’t promote social skills or bathing. If there’s any comparison to be made, it is that those first moments of inspiration, those early pages of infinite possibility and gleeful spewing of words, is a tiny bit orgasmic. But there’s no climax. No, the flirtatious tease that is our muse develops a sudden headache, and we are left to bring up baby on our own.

If we’re lucky, we belong to a coffee klatch of writers who gather occasionally to recount tales of horror and express sympathy, and maybe one of them is even lucky enough to have pictures to coo over in the form of cover art. Oh, blessed day!

If writing a novel is like giving birth, than composing a blog post is like passing a kidney stone. No, I’ve never done that either, but a kidney stone is smaller, so I’m assuming the process is proportionally shorter and less painful. But no tickle fest either. If there’s one thing I deeply regret as I look back over this past year, it’s allowing my post to be scheduled for New Year’s Day. This is the day when any writer worth their salt summons up all the Facebook meme wisdom they’ve absorbed over the past year and distills it into an inspirational post that will lift their fellows from the mire of despair and bring relief to the hearts of those pummeled into whimpering piles of sleep-deprived misery by the unrelenting joy of growing a novel in their brains.

I could probably come up with something inspirational if I dug deep, altered my perceptions, took on an attitude of gratitude, had more coffee and attended a 12-Step meeting or two, but I’m not feeling it. My baby refuses to move out. It’s a surly teen now and lurks in the basement wearing all black and not speaking to me (yeah, I’m gonna milk this metaphor for all it’s worth).

So as I am locked in this battle yet again, I reflect upon a piece of wisdom I’ve heard many times in many Al-Anon meetings: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I have to ask myself, has my compulsion to craft stories become an addiction? Is it insane to think that I will ever “get the hang of” the noveling thing? Is it self-deluding to hope for an easy birth? The answer to all of those things is Yes. Does that mean I should stop? Hell, no.

The problem isn’t the writing, No, never the writing. The problem is that word “expect”. Here’s another bit of annoying 12-Step wisdom: An expectation is a resentment waiting to happen. In this case, a writer who expects an easy go of it, who expects their next novel to be perfect, wonderful, Harvard-educated, with great posture and clear skin, is doomed to fall into resentment. Resentment of the very story they’ve conceived and nurtured, resentment of themselves for not living up to their goals and dreams. Insanity is expecting that we’ll be able to do this thing, write these novels, and look good doing it. That we will one day become that person in the memes who wallows in joy, wildness, creativity and spirituality all while looking great in a flowing frock on a beach or a mountain top, backlit by a sunrise.

No, there will be drool. Blood maybe. Tears definitely. All days will be bad hair days. Mysterious stains will appear on all our favorite things. We will trudge, fall down, ugly cry, and doubt. Oh, there will be so much doubt.

Inspired yet?

Okay, let’s try that again. The thing to remember is that we will forget. Forget the pain. Remember those exciting moments of foreplay, and the wonder of creating something new. Insanity is believing the resentments and doubts and drool and letting them stop us from doing our thing. Sanity is doing what we love no matter how much it hurts. For someday we’ll look back on those stories and novels and oh-so-many pages, and be able to say, “I did that” and be proud. Maybe we’ll even have pictures to show.

Puzzling It All Out

By Lisa Alber

My sister recently sent me a puzzle. It’s a beautiful, laser-cut wooden puzzle with intricate shapes and over 500 pieces. She had discovered the joy of puzzles to while away the winter and thought I might find the pastime therapeutic.

She sent me this “Twelve Days of Christmas” puzzle. A hundred bucks for a puzzle? Outrageous! But you know what? So worth it to experience the solid click of two pieces fitting together. It’s ridiculously satisfying.

The puzzle pieces are gorgeous, and, being real wood, they’re also sensual. Many of the pieces are shaped like birds or bows or figures. I love picking them up, holding them, fooling around with them as I binge-watch some Netflix show on a dull evening. (I’ve got a medical thing I’ve been recuperating from that’s ongoing — but that’s another story for another time.)

The puzzle sits on the coffee table. At first, slow going as it was, I spent dedicated time putting it together. Now, I’m savoring its pleasing disarray. Perusing it, I may pick up a piece here and a piece there, or collect together pieces that belong in certain areas. I’m not actively trying to complete it, and in the act of not trying so hard, I’ll all of a sudden grab two pieces and snap them together. Or, I’ll suddenly see how a little portion of the puzzle fits into the whole. Some area of my addled brain is working on the puzzle even when I’m not really working on it.

Sounds a little bit like the writing process, doesn’t it? I’m once again reminded that the brain is an amazing apparatus. I’d been having trouble with my standalone, and my enforced break from anything creative (talk about pain and suffering) hasn’t helped. However, the little puzzle moments — A-HA! — give me hope and the tiniest bit of inspiration that maybe I will get back to writing fiction in a serious way in 2020.

As 2019 approaches its end, I send you good will and peace and love. xoxo, Lisa

P.S. Here’s Fawn, hoping for a holiday treat. The ornaments in the background are vintage from my childhood.

 

 

 

From Fantasy to Reality and Back Again

by Christina Lay

Perhaps you’ve found yourself wanting or needing to write about a place you’ve never been, but you feel confident you can pull it off because you’ve read so many books about the place, watched so many movies, and done so much research when you should’ve been writing that you feel like you’ve been there, that you know it through and through.

This happened to me a while back. I decided to finally write that steam punk fantasy mystery that’s been swirling in my mind for years. I had the story completely figured out. I set pen to paper (or actually, fingers to keyboard) and…wrote about a page. I quickly realized I didn’t have the knowledge, the words, or the grounding that I needed to continue. You see, this story began in London. I’ve never been to London, but I truly felt that I knew it so well I could have my characters walk the streets and the descriptions would come to mind as I went. After all, it’s one of those places that permeate popular culture. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens , even Paddington Bear. I’ve probably read hundreds of books set in London and its environs, and watched even more movies. The images are there, but the grounding details are not.

As I sit here and think the word “London”, innumerable scenes scroll through my head; all supplied by other people’s fiction and news reports. Yes, I can do copious amounts of research and fill in all those missing words and street names, but nothing can replace actually walking the streets, smelling the diesel fumes, turning a corner and stumbling across that unexpected something that unlocks the key to your next scene.

The Expected

I’m writing about this now because I’ve recently had the experience of finally setting foot in another of those iconic places: New York City. If there is anywhere in the world more entrenched in my imagination than London, it’s probably New York, and this mostly from television. Isn’t every other TV show set there? Isn’t every other comedian born there? We studied it in school, starting with pictures of Dutch guys buying Manhattan from the Native Americans for a handful of beads and culminating with a barrage of vivid images from 9/11. Hardly a day goes by without some image being beamed at me from Times Square or Wall Street or Madison Avenue. I had definite and firm images planted in my brain, and not only images, but expectations and emotional responses. I knew NYC would be exciting to visit, and full of interesting things, but I also had a pre-loaded set of expectations fueled mainly by 70s era TV. You know, Starsky & Hutch, Barretta, that sort of gritty crime show. Cold, hard, dirty, scary, unfriendly. Vast blocks of rundown slums. Shady characters menacing people in Central Park and on subway cars.

What I did not expect was the vast amount of historical buildings in fine shape, the beauty of the skyline, the European elegance, and the friendliness of most of the people. And a rather disappointing lack of shady characters.

I’m not here to do a travelogue for Manhattan. What became important to me is how vastly my internal NYC landscape has changed. It has morphed from a frightening, sprawling Metropolis to an endlessly intriguing patchwork of neighborhoods where real people live and work. And the big picture is now peppered with small details, little glimpses into daily life. True, ten days as a tourist does not an expert make, but I can now confidently have a character walk through Central Park without relying wholly on outdated scenery supplied by someone else’s artistic eye.
I thought a lot about the TV show Seinfeld while I was there. So much reminded me of that show, of what I expected to see, and I was happy to see it, but I was even happier to see the unexpected.

The Unexpected

The Highline is a great example; this is an elevated train track that has been converted into a raised park, a pedestrian skyway full of vegetation, art installations, fascinating backstreet views and yes, tourists. I’d read about it, but walking it let me peek not only into the “backyard” of the meat packing district, but it gave me a glimpse into the heart of the people who live there. It’s an amazing civic project, one that says a lot about the city that grew it. And what it says is nothing I ever would have expected.

I can talk about the sensory overload of being in a place, but you know that already: how valuable it is to stand on the corner and smell, touch, listen, and taste the environment. To meet real people instead of observe characters, to walk through Central Park at night and be only a little bit nervous.

Displacing a landscape crafted over decades is a touch trickier, and truly a fascinating experiment in rewiring one’s brain. Even now, I can feel the reality slipping back beneath the layers of fantasy that I, as a compulsive storyteller, can’t help but weave. But now, at least, my fantasy is grounded in reality. There are many places you can’t go; ancient Babylon being one, The third moon of Saturn another. But if you can go, and if you want a place to play a major role in a writing project, there’s no substitute for being there. Only your own experience can displace the imaginary world in your head, and then seed it,feed it and regrow it into a more authentic fantasy when you return.

Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

Ripples

Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

What I Learned From Watching 192 Episodes of The Murdoch Mysteries

by Christina Lay

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Murdoch Mysteries is a long running Canadian series; a cozy historical mystery set in Toronto in the late 1880s/early 1900s. This show is exactly my cup of tea. Cozy, check. Historical, check. Mystery, check.

Perhaps the fact that I’ve watched twelve seasons of sixteen episodes each says more about me than it does about the show, but I think there is a lot we as storytellers can learn from such a durable series.

What the show does right, IMHO:

The main character, Detective William Murdoch, is an interesting, intelligent, well-drawn protagonist. He is keenly interested in all of the technological revolutions occurring in the time period of the show, and his enthusiasm can’t help but engage the viewer. This was a brilliant piece of story crafting, to meld a fundamental characteristic of the hero with the exciting, ever-ripe-for-conflict reality of the turn of the last century. Detective Murdoch, an exceptionally clever man, is often allied with or pitted against great minds and personalities of the time. The first episode features Nikolai Tesla. Over the years, we meet Alexander Graham Bell, Teddy Roosevelt, Marconi, and a host of other inventors, scientists, authors and politicians. Even Frank Lloyd Wright gets accused of murder. Most of the famous “guest stars” are, of course, accused of murder at some point. All are proven innocent, for which history is thankful.

What can we learn aside from the obvious requirement to write interesting characters? A character is more than a set of characteristics. They are creatures of their milieu. Give them interesting times and people to react with and against, and they will grow and come to life. This is especially effective if the setting is an interesting character in its own right. For instance, Murdoch and his wife end up buying and living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, much to the confusion and pity of their friends. In this case, the viewer gets to “be in the know” and have a gentle laugh at those silly Victorians. (Although personally, I’d rather have one of those lovely Victorian houses featured in every show!)

The secondary characters are also interesting, intelligent and well-drawn. Murdoch’s romantic interest, Dr. Julia Ogden, is not just a foil for Murdoch. She often has her own story lines, pitting her modern, progressive viewpoints against the staid, patriarchal society of the times. She’s a woman doctor who runs for office and is thrown in jail for it. She’s had an abortion, which causes a believable rift between her and the devout Catholic Murdoch. She enjoys cutting edge art and brings levity and wit to many a stuffy social occasion. This is another great conflict generator, and another way to learn about the actual history of suffrage and women’s rights.

I find it amazing that a show can go for so long and not lose or corrupt any of its core cast. The gruff Inspector Brackenreid, the charming and gullible Constable Crabtree, even the annoying journalist Miss Cherry and not-so-bright Constable Higgens are all characters that are fully drawn and reliable, and by reliable I mean that the writers do not resort to having our favorites do stupid or ridiculous things just because the creators are running out of ideas. Consistency and clarity work in the case of a cozy. When readers/viewers develop a fondness for a character, they don’t want them to change too much. Yes, the characters expand their horizons, learn, recognize prejudice inside themselves, become more tolerant, stretch their horizons, etc., but their basic goodness does not change.

A stellar ensemble of actors doesn’t hurt

Now, some readers/viewers might consider this boring. I’d suggest that these are not your target audience if you’re writing this type of series. The audience for cozies does not require great upheavals, radical shifts, or the killing off of regular characters. In fact, they will rebel. In this aspect of coziness, Murdoch excels. Perhaps Canadian actors are less likely to demand more money and leave the show?

The mysteries are often (though not always) blended with scientific developments or social issues of the times. This is another great way that the setting is put to use. Murdoch is always dreaming up innovations right about the time the real inventor shows up in an episode. In the Tesla episode, someone is electrocuted and Tesla helps Murdoch figure out how. Cameras, fingerprinting, night vision goggles, even a lie detector, are all put to good use for the first time and we get to imagine what those developments were really like, and how significantly things were changing. There is a touch of sci-fi to the series, because of all the wild inventions which were in fact real, or just on the horizon.

What the show does wrong, IMHO:

The mysteries themselves are often silly. Or, there is a whopping coincidence (or two) or something just doesn’t make sense. Yes, the show is generally playful in tone, but the writers have trained their viewers to expect truly engaging content and sometimes, the basic structure on which everything else hangs isn’t up to snuff. However, because the characters and setting are so big and well-developed, a weak plot can stumble along and no one minds too much (except a writer who is taking notes).

I spoke of consistency as one of the strong points of the show. The only times I’ve given up on an episode is when my expectation of the show has been let down. In these cases, the disappointment comes in the form of the tired and annoying plot device of the serial killer who develops an obsession with Murdoch and then just won’t die. These characters are always more persistently violent and psychotic than what jives with a cozy, and I personally find them boring, because there’s nothing to solve, only a lunatic to escape from. As a writer, if you have success in creating a cozy mystery, be wary of treading into darker, more grisly and hopeless waters. Probably you’d be better off starting a new series altogether.

Along with the occasional serial killer, the writers will sometimes fall back on tired tropes, such as using the long suffering Doctor Ogden as victim just so Murdoch can suffer the agonizing pains of worry and then be heroic in rescuing her. Also, every single regular character has been falsely accused of murder. That’s a bit much to take. Every time Murdoch and Ogden talk about how happy they are, something goes terribly wrong. That level of loud foreshadowing is just annoying.

What I learned about myself as a consumer of story: I like to know what to expect, even if it’s to expect the unexpected. In other words, I choose what shows to watch based a lot on what mood I’m in. If I’m in the mood for cozy and familiar, then by gum, it had better be cozy and familiar. As writers, we have no control over what readers want; however, if we are writing a series, we can be consistent about our tone, level of violence, and so on.

If I really love the characters, I’ll let a wobbly plot slide.

I have a low tolerance for the unsolvable conundrum of a one-dimensional psychopath.

To sum up, The Murdoch Mysteries is a fine example of one my core beliefs: Character is everything. In the worlds of mystery, fantasy and science fiction, multiple book series have become the norm. I believe this is because readers don’t want to let go of characters they love. How often have we wished a great book would never end? When that happens, it sometimes feels like we’re losing a good friend. If you can create that level of devotion for your characters, you may just achieve a 12-season level of success.

Nostalgia For What I Never Had

By Lisa Alber

I spent last week in Chicago and Lansing, MI, with my two younger sisters. We re-connected with relatives on both sides of the family: Mom’s side in Lansing and Dad’s side in Chicago. My dad passed away in 2001. My mom, last year. One of my maternal cousins, K, had found a five-year journal that Mom kept for one year, 1946. She was 14/15 years old, and she went to the movies every chance she could. She read a lot, sucked at algebra, excelled in English, went to mass and confession, loved horses, and enjoyed scrapbooking.

Except for mass and confession, that could be a description of me at that age. I got to thinking about how much she and I could have bonded. Why didn’t Mom mention her love of horses? Why didn’t she commiserate with me over my math woes? Why didn’t she take an interest in my scrapbooks?

Were we too much alike? I also recently learned that she had curly hair, which I inherited. She told me once that she never liked my hair.

Over in Chicago with my dad’s side, my one remaining aunt, J, mentioned that she’d felt sorry for us girls. She said, and I quote, “Your mom was never meant to be a parent.”

I loved her honesty, and I felt oddly relieved that she validated what I’d always intuited. I grew up with my basic hierarchy of needs met—shelter, food, water—and that was about it. Years ago, a therapist called it “benign neglect.” I was pretty feral considering our suburban lifestyle. I remember crusty, oozing, painful sores behind my ears because I was so dirty.

Aunty J recalled one of our rare family visits to Chicago, and how my parents dumped us at her house for the week and left without saying goodbye. We didn’t notice because for years they’d been handing us off to overnighter child-care minders while they larked off for long weekends in Carmel, CA, or wherever.

Aunty J also said my mom teased her mercilessly about how much she did for her kids. For example, baking cakes. To this day, I remember how amazed I was by her cake-frosting prowess. It was like I’d never seen a cake being frosted. “Wow, you’re so good at that!” She responded with something slightly grumpy, like, of course she was, no duh.

It didn’t occur to me to tell her that I didn’t know a frosted cake could look so tidy and yummy because Mom didn’t do cakes much, even for birthdays unless we begged. As the oldest child, I was the first to become aware that we didn’t celebrate birthdays and other holidays like “normal” families. I started to hector and insist on Easter baskets, birthday cakes, Christmas stockings and pretending that Santa existed (luckily, my dad was a Christmas guy when it came to having a beautiful tree), proper Halloween costumes, and please, could she cook us turkey for Thanksgiving? (Never happened.) I created rituals for us, as best I could.

I still don’t celebrate my birthday much, and I have a hard time remembering other people’s birthdays.

Anyhow, back to Aunty J. Apparently, when she spoke long distance with her brother, my father, he talked about what we girls were up to—he was interested even if he was never around—but Mom never talked about us.

I know many things about Mom now: undiagnosed depression (she was usually in bed when we got home from school); sexual abuse on her mom’s side of the family; a huge family scandal when Mom was a teenager; her own bitter, overly staunch and crusty mom; an out-of-wedlock son given up for adoption; loss of the man who I suspect was Mom’s soul mate; CIA recruitment straight out of college and life in Europe after that …

She will always be a mysterious figure—a figment that reflects too readily back onto me.

Could I write a novel based on nostalgia for what I never had? I suppose I could. A novel about absentee mothers, mother-daugher relationships, misperceptions, family mysteries … but I probably won’t. Or, maybe I already have with Kilmoon.