Bad things happen when you don’t invite the right people to your parties, my mom said. I explained why I didn’t want Alice at my baby shower: She sucked the life out of everything she touched.
I didn’t mail her invitation. I burned it at the kitchen sink at midnight. The gold lettering flared and hot metallic air blasted up my nose. I dropped the invitation in the sink, where the flames went out in a puddle of stinking spaghetti sauce, and spent the next hour googling whether breathing gold fumes was bad for the baby.
And yet: There she was, gliding down the path, all lipstick and neat white teeth, trailing her signature frilly pink entrails. I was halfway through tying balloons onto the lamp outside the door of my mom’s house. I backed into the doorway and stood there filling it. If there was one thing I could do, it was take up space.
“Jessa, darling, you look gorgeous! You’re as big as a house,” she said.
“What are you doing here?”
“Don’t be silly. It’s your baby shower! I’m here to celebrate you!” She shook out the ropes of shining organs and viscera that dangled from her pale neck. Only Alice could make entrails look like a party dress.
“Would it have killed you to come with a body?”
Her eyes glinted. “Maybe if you’d invited me properly I would have.” She floated closer and all the hairs on my arms pricked up. I crossed my arms over my stomach.
“Oh, relax, Jessa,” she said. “So much negative energy.” She slid past me into the party and left me on the front porch. My nostrils burned with her perfume.
I could have just walked down the steps, down the street, around the corner, and into the 7-Eleven. They had a table outside, a white plastic chair. Sometimes I liked to close my eyes, whatever I was doing, and think about how I could be sitting in that chair drinking a Blue Shock Mountain Dew Slurpee. For just a dollar ninety-nine, I could be doing that instead.
Alice’s voice tinkled through the open door. She was telling the story again to all my mother’s friends. How she went on a wellness retreat in West Palm Springs and came home with the ability to lift her insides right out of her body.
“It was completely life-changing,” Alice said. “Away from everything like that, you can really get in touch with your true self.” She hovered next to my mom’s chair. Her hair was perfectly coiled. Below her neck a cloud of delicate veins and organs drifted, not quite touching the floor.
I had a resolution: Once I had a baby, I would be a better grownup, the kind that didn’t care what Alice did with her life. So I went back to the party.
“If only Jessa could do one of those,” said my mom’s best friend Gladys. “It expands your horizons.”
“Jessa’s always been a homebody,” said my mom. “Oh, Jessa! There you are.” She pinned a ribbon on my chest that said “Mom-to-be” and whispered in my ear: “You’re neglecting your guests.” She steered me around to all of her friends, so that each of them in turn could congratulate me and touch my stomach. Through it all Alice floated nearby, chatting away in her mosquito voice.
Pat pat pat. “Carrying high! Must be a boy.”
(“Of course I wish she could have come! Well, she’s doing something much more important right now, isn’t she?”)
Pat pat pat. “My dear, you look exhausted! Must be a girl. Jealous little things, they steal all your beauty.”
(“Oh, you’re so sweet. I certainly didn’t master it right away. It took weeks of self-reflection.”)
Pat pat pat. “Only seven months along! It can’t be! Are you sure it isn’t twins?”
(“Diet, too. Eliminating toxins. Nothing processed or artificial.”)
Pat pat pat. “Are you getting any sleep, Jessa? Get it while you can! You won’t be sleeping at all once the baby comes!”
(“People feel so entitled to women’s bodies, you know? It’s so liberating to leave all that behind and force people to see you, really see you, right down to the guts!”)
I turned around and came face-to-face with Alice, who was hovering by the cheese plate.
“That looks delicious,” said Alice.
“So dramatic, Jessa. One bite won’t hurt me.”
“Take some, then.”
“With these?” She waved her intestines at me. “It would be awfully rude.”
“You could have come to the party with hands.”
“You don’t know what it’s like. I can hardly bear to walk around inside my body now. I feel so objectified.”
“What’s wrong, dear?” said Gladys from across the dining room.
“Oh, I’m just wishing I could have some of this cheese plate.”
“Don’t be silly! Jessa, pass her some cheese.”
Alice turned to me with a faint smile and opened her mouth.
“I can’t,” I said.
“What are you afraid of, Jessa?” said Alice. Her voice was loud, and other conversations around the room paused. Everyone was watching us.
I speared a piece of cheese on a toothpick and held it to her lips. She opened her mouth and took it between her teeth, chewed, swallowed. The lump worked its way down the thick red cord of her esophagus and landed with a plop in her stomach.
“Won’t you have some?” said Alice. “You’re eating for two.”
I swallowed down vomit. “Heartburn,” I said.
“Let’s open gifts,” said my mom. She arranged me in an armchair with the pile of pink packages and bags. What I really needed was cash, but my mom said it was gauche to ask for it, so instead my plan was to unwrap them, pretend to love them, and keep the receipts.
I was almost through the pile when Alice floated towards me with something wrapped in her intestines.
“You haven’t opened mine yet,” she said. Barely visible in the nest of wriggling entrails was a tiny gold box.
“No,” I said.
“Don’t be rude, Jessa. Take the gift,” said my mom.
Alice began to cry. “Why did you even invite me if you hate me so much?”
“I didn’t invite you. I don’t want you here!”
“Jessa!” said my mother.
Alice cried harder.
“Take the gift, Jessa.” said Gladys. “Look what you’ve done.”
Gladys grabbed my hand and shoved it into Alice’s entrails. I felt acid burn my fingers, then nothing. I was out of my body, looking down on the top of my head from somewhere near the kitchen ceiling. My body took out Alice’s gift and opened it. Inside was a gift certificate. Gold lettering.
“It’s the same place I went!” said Alice. “You’ll have to wait until after the birth, of course. But it will be the perfect way to get your body back.”
I tried to imagine myself somewhere else, in a plastic chair. But I couldn’t get away from the tug of my body, sitting in my mom’s house, covered in bits of pink tissue paper. My mom cleared her throat. My body smiled and said thank you, she loved all the gifts.
“That house has become a mausoleum,” Idris Nasr tells his daughter, Ava, as he breaks the news that he is selling the family’s ancestral home in Beirut. In Ava’s mind, the house comes to life through memory: she feels the swampy summer heat and visualizes walls speckled with the blood of mosquitos. But Idris sees it differently. “The life has been taken out of it,” he says.
Home is a tenuous concept in Hala Alyan’s second novel, The Arsonist’s City, a sweeping family saga that examines the insidious long shadow of war. The Nasr family—made up of a Lebanese father, Syrian mother, and three American children—live in far-flung places: Austin, Brooklyn, Beirut, and Blythe, a small town in California. However distant they are from one another, and however far they might be from Beirut, they cannot escape the histories of violence that have left their family reckoning with intergenerational trauma. When they return to Beirut to mark the sale of their family home, long-held secrets and difficult memories begin to unravel, and political tensions in Lebanon escalate into thawra (revolution).
An award-winning Palestian American poet, clinical psychologist, and writer, Hala Alyan brings her talents to examine the ongoing crisis of Palestinian displacement in The Arsonist’s City through deeply imagined characters, place-based descriptions that teem with life, and attention to conflicts from past to present day. Over Zoom, we talked about how Alyan’s work as a clinical psychologist serves her fiction, the idea of home, the intimacy that secrets can offer, and the effects of intergenerational trauma.
Jacqueline Alnes: There is a line early in the novel, “They’d hurt that young man for no reason other than that people were hurting people.” One of the most poignant parts of this book for me is the ways you so deftly capture both the immediate impact of violence as well as the way that trauma radiates outward, oftentimes for generations. What draws you to write about all these different wounds?
Hala Alyan: The ways in which sociopolitical turmoil, occupation, and war trauma have spidered their way through my family’s history is something that I definitely keep gravitating back towards. It is a story that I feel the reverberations of on a daily basis, even as someone who is so privileged and so sheltered. I’m in Brooklyn now, I’m in a safe place, and my family is safe––thank God––but there are ways in which I see traumatic histories play out in myself, my family, and my community, in the anxieties that people have, in the ways that people are waiting for the other shoe to drop, in the ways that there is a deep mistrust of history, of certain institutions, of certain countries, of certain parts of the world. There’s a defeatedness in a lot of people I know around certain countries in my home region who wonder: Will those places ever be revived? Will they ever be actual options of places to live?
It’s also something I see a lot in clinical work. As a therapist, I work a lot with immigrants, children of immigrants, and folks that have been displaced. A generation later, you see how traumatic histories have trickled down to the folks that never lived in a war-torn zone or have never actually directly interacted with their parents’ house or their grandparents’ house. You see how that intergenerational trauma can touch even the most sheltered, comfortable, suburban kid. If a part of the world has been occupied or colonized, you never fully shed yourself from those shackles. You have the shadow of that for many generations.
JA: Having a safe place to live is a theme that resonates so powerfully throughout the book. Something that I kept thinking about is that homes are often viewed as concrete or permanent in some way, but in the book, some of them are the last vestiges of a wealth that no longer exists. Or, they’re structures that are beautiful and laden with generations of money, but they are located in precarious spaces.
HA: They aren’t safe. That’s something I think about a lot. You can have these ancestral homes that are gorgeous and so meaningful and such a part of your lineage, but if they are in a place where you can’t safely live or visit, then what are they but walls and plaster?
JA: When you mention working with people in the suburbs who still carry intergenerational trauma, I found it interesting that in the book we visit such a sprawl of places: Austin, Brooklyn, Beirut, and a small town in California, Blythe. How do you approach writing about place and home?
HA: I constantly lament the fact that there isn’t enough life for any of us to spend our youth in like ten different places. I am someone, for example, who always felt like I was supposed to live in Boston. I’m very attached to the idea, and I don’t know why. Same thing with Santa Fe and Tucson; I feel like I’m supposed to be in the Southwest. I’m someone who thinks a lot about factored timelines and the way that if you took this turn and you ended up in this place, you’d live an entirely different life. Not only would you have a different history, but your children would have a different history. Place colors the texture and the fabric of everyday life and zooming out also changes the entire trajectory of what happens to you: the opportunities you have, the people you fall in love with, where you go to school, etc.
This book feels to me like a love letter to Beirut.
JA: The novel alternates between present day and the 1960’s through the 1980’s. What drew you to those time periods?
HA: I knew I wanted it to end in present day and I knew I wanted it to span the civil war, so in some ways, those became logistical markers; if I had a character coming of age as the civil war is happening, I would have to adjust the years accordingly. You see this in writers who write about things close to home, I’m fascinated with my parents’ generation. I’m interested in folks who moved to the States in the ‘70s and ‘80s. My parents didn’t move until ‘91, but people who moved during that era fascinate me. It was a time when there was still a high demand on assimilation. You got rid of your accent, taught your kid English; those were values that were being prioritized and communicated to immigrants and people seeking asylum. It’s interesting to really get inside the families that had that pressure. If they had moved to Chicago or New York City, it would have been a different story. But in a small town, the pressure to assimilate is higher.
JA: I felt like the present was a place in the novel where you could lean into queerness.
HA: Naj was one of the first characters I wrote and it was interesting to think about these different tension points of a queer character who is living very authentically to herself, but is in a position where telling her family doesn’t feel like it’s feasible. Playing with that tension also was important for me because there is this narrative––and it’s mostly a Western narrative–—that coming out is the graduation of queerness, that the end goal or destination of being queer is to come out, and I don’t think that’s something that resonates with people in different cultural backgrounds.
There are certainly people who are Muslim and Arab who want to ultimately come out, but imposing that narrative on people gets dicey. Writing a character who does live in this borderland space––and in a lot of ways is fulfilled in it––was really interesting.
JA: The book opens with Zakaria, who lives in the refugee camps outside of Beirut, and an epigraph from Svetlana Boym: “the main feature of exile is a double conscience…a constant bifurcation.” You have written about the Palestinian diaspora in your previous work. What aspects of this ongoing crisis did this book in particular allow you to explore?
HA: In some ways, Palestine is the shadow of the book; Palestine trails story. It’s in many ways the most central plot and one of the most central characters, but the book doesn’t center straightforwardly Palestinian characters or take place in Palestine. I was called upon to research these other countries and conflicts in the rest of the region. I have put a lot of attention on Palestine, and I always will, but writing this book enabled me to learn more about the Lebanese Civil War. I lived in Lebanon for a long time, I’ve taken all the classes, I read all the books, but there is still so much that is incredibly nuanced. The version of history you get depends upon the person who is telling it. Because it was a conflict so marked by sectarianism, many people, even now, will tell different stories of who started the civil war. It enabled me to research that more, to speak with people from different groups, and it also enabled me to think about that region as a gestalt.
These borders are arbitrary. The land kisses each other, these places are close to each other, and what happens in one happens in the others. What happens in Palestine spills over to Lebanon, spills over to Syria. What happens to Syria––I mean, we just saw this in the last decade. Their fates feel inexorably linked. This book allowed me to dig deeper into the history of the region as a whole and just to think more about this relationship between sister countries that have this reciprocal, sometimes mutually symbiotic, and at times a really divided dynamic. It let me dig into it in a way I hadn’t before.
JA: Why was it important to you to write this book now?
HA: When I finished writing this book, the revolution in Lebanon had not begun. The publication date got pushed back, which enabled me to go back and write things in. It was tricky. There was the inflation, the hunger, the poverty that people are experiencing, and I kept needing just one more paragraph; I felt an intense responsibility to capture what was happening in Lebanon. The publishers were very accommodating and generous, but they reminded me that at some point the story has to end; you’re not going to know what happens next.
JA: That’s so interesting. In fiction, I feel like there are varying degrees to which you have to be married to “truth,” however we want to define that. How much of an allegiance did you feel toward representing the world accurately in this book, even though it’s a novel?
HA: I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve never had any issues playing fast and loose with things in fiction. But, what happened in Lebanon post-thawra (revolution) starting, was such a different chapter. It set such a different tenor for the country, and set into motion so many unprecedented things, that I knew I had to allude to it. If I didn’t, it would have been really odd to anyone who knows anything about Lebanon.
Normally, I try to get the facts right so I speak with historians, and I do my research, but the past is much easier; the past is static. Writing about something that was dynamically shifting as I was doing edits was a whole different experience.
JA: They vary from being trivial to not, and some are only revealed when a body can no longer physically hold them. What intrigues you about this withholding of information, which, in itself, seems like a kind of an intimacy?
HA: I am fascinated with why we keep secrets and fascinated by how people decide what the truth is. I’m less interested in how people lie to other people than I am in how people lie to themselves. I am interested in how people decide what needs to be hidden and how it’s almost always tied to some narrative or some story they have about what will be accepted or loved. It’s very rarely tied in reality. It’s connected to their own story about what’s okay and what’s not okay. Writing that out is so gratifying to me.
I’m also, particularly with families, fascinated by the ways that the secrets we keep in families trickle down across generations. So the secrets that my great-grandmother might have kept, have impacted me. They have shot out backwards and forwards. They did something with the trust that my great-grandmother had with her mother and how that trickled down to my grandmother and mother. We learn how to hide things from the people we grow up with. We learn how open we are or how guarded we are from our families or caretakers. This idea that something that happened way before you were born can have a direct influence on you and how you move through the world –– what you share and what you don’t –– is such fertile territory to explore.
JA: I was going to ask if that’s why you love writing these rich, intergenerational stories.
HA: Totally. I think this is where psychology comes in. Something that happens to you is going to impact like three generations later. It just is. There is the epigenetic passing of trauma, but then also these subtle things that we pass down and inherit. This isn’t exclusive to people you’re genetically linked to; it’s also caretakers. We inherit things emotionally and psychologically from people. The fact that that is something I really believe means that the idea that something can go wrong at some point and then fast forward to see how something plays out means that it requires a family to really explore. You have to have several generations to see how a secret plays out so that’s why I think I end up writing these sweeping, long stories.
JA: I’m sure you are asked this often all the time, but you are a clinical psychologist who specialized in trauma and addiction work while earning your PhD. How does that inform your writing and the stories you’re drawn to?
HA: The training that you have to do in order to be a psychologist has been super useful to me as a writer. When you meet somebody for the first time as a therapist, you are taking a few fragmented, unconnected pieces of a story, and someone’s history, and over the few months or however long, you’re trying to help that person create a cohesive narrative. That’s very similar to writing a story: fiction, nonfiction, whatever. You have pieces of interests, hypotheses, interests of characters, and then you’re trying to create something that’s whole.
That kind of sleuthing feels very similar, as do the questions that you ask yourself when you’re doing therapy that have to do with client motivations: why do people do the things they do? People are constantly doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Both you and I, in the span of the next two days, are going to do things that seem super irrational to people outside of us. There are such multifaceted, complex reasons for why people do things. To write good characters, you have to ask those questions about what moves somebody and what are a person’s desires and feelings and what they are moving toward.
You’ve finally typed “The End” on your short story, essay, or book—hooray! But don’t rush into sending submissions just yet. At Writer’s Relief, we know you should thoroughly edit your work before making submissions to literary journals or literary agents. Many writers find the self-editing phase daunting, but if you break your edits down into two main phases, it will be easier to clean up your manuscript and make it look professional. Here’s an editing checklist that will guide you through the process.
A Comprehensive Editing Checklist For Writers
Phase One: Editing for Content
Content edits are addressed by asking yourself bigger scale, developmental questions which will affect the strength of your work as a whole.
Are the characters’ motivations clear? Finding the “why?” that drives your character is crucial to making them seem three-dimensional. Determine what your characters want and how they attempt to achieve those goals.
Are the characters’ voices distinct? Every character should have a unique, clear voice. From the cadence of each individual’s speech to the vocabulary used, the way each character talks will make them stand out. This is especially important for multi-POV works!
Do the characters have clear arcs of growth? No matter how clear and unique your characters are, they’ll fall flat if they don’t learn and grow over the course of the story. As you’re working on your character development, think about what changes occur between when the characters start out and the end of the story—and make sure it’s clear how they get there!
Is the setting fully developed? The time and place in which your story is set can function as its own character. Make sure your descriptions are rich and visceral, grounding your characters and helping your writing come alive for readers.
Is the world-building airtight? Especially if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you need to create a world convincing enough to engage your audience.
Do emotional scenes resonate? While you want to give emotional scenes the gravity they deserve, you also don’t want to drive your story too far into the territory of melodrama. Writing emotional scenes is a tricky balance, but one that’s crucial to strike before considering your story “finished.”
Are you “showing” rather than “telling”? “Show, don’t tell” can make the difference between a story that captures your readers’ interest and one that makes their eyes glaze over. A story that simply “tells” what is happening isn’t likely to hold a reader’s attention. Focus on presenting details about your characters and settings in ways that engage the reader. As novelist Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Phase Two: Polishing Your Work
The polishing stage is when you’ll work on line edits and answer questions about grammar and style details.
Is the word count right for the genre? Many writers tend to overwrite in their first drafts, then tighten the text when editing. If you need to make cuts, hone in on the action driving your story forward. For example, if you have several paragraphs of long, stagnant introduction before the action begins—get out your red pen and start deleting.
Are the characters’ names too similar? If you have multiple characters whose names rhyme or start with the same letter, your readers may get confused and be unable to tell them apart. If you need to rename characters, now’s the time to do it!
Are there too many run-on sentences? While run-on sentences can be useful for internal monologues, make sure they’re not too convoluted—and that you’re not overusing them.
Are the paragraphs long and confusing? It’s important to keep your sentences tight, but remember to look at the forest, not just the trees. If your sentences are short and palatable but your paragraphs are long and rambling, your story will be too cumbersome to enjoy.
Is the language repetitive? Expressing the same idea multiple times simply increases your word count unnecessarily, and repeating yourself is a surefire way to bore readers. Keep an eye out for repetitive writing—you probably only need to make a point once to drive it home for your audience.
Are there too many clichés? While regional colloquialisms can lend color to a character’s vocabulary, make sure you don’t overuse clichés. An overabundance of clichés, especially in your narrative or your characters’ internal monologues, can distract readers during emotional scenes and reveals.
Are there any typos? Turn on your word processing program’s spell-check function and review anything it flags. Even a great typist makes a few errors. Reading your manuscript aloud to yourself is another good way to catch typos and identify any awkward phrases or sentences that need attention. You should also consider having someone else proofread your work. Ask a grammar-savvy friend, another writer, or hire a professional proofreader (psst—we’ve got you covered!).
Is the manuscript properly formatted? Make sure your work is formatted to publishing industry standards—this makes it much easier for editors and agents to read. You want your manuscript to look clean and professional so the reader can focus on the story, not on your wonky margins.
Along with using this checklist, remember that reading more stories in your genre is a smart—and fun!—way to pick up self-editing tips. Once your manuscript is in tip-top shape, you can feel confident making your submissions to literary agents and editors.
Question: What do you think is the most important editing step?
When people “from away” learn I’m from Maine, most respond in one of two ways: they tell me they’ve never been here, but it’s high on their list, or they say they love my home state. More often than not, the latter group spent idyllic summers at sleepaway camps by the lake, peeped at the fall colors, or vacationed on the coast in high season when the nights settle in cool, lobster shells are soft, and the sun stays above the horizon well into the evening hours. And they are right; it’s glorious. What they’ve seen, however, is really just one small corner of a larger, more complex picture of Maine and its people.
My family has lived in New England for twelve generations, the last nine in Maine. Although I spent most of my working life in cities, I never shook the push-pull of this place, never completely slipped its tether. Like my ancestors, I grew up eating fish from Maine’s lakes and bays, potatoes and berries from its farms, rhubarb from the sunny patch by the stone wall; I drank its water and breathed its air. And so, no matter how far I travel or how long I’m gone, my home state is literally in my bones and will be until they’re settled in the frozen ground.
My first novel, The Northern Reach, is set in the fictional Downeast town of Wellbridge, a hardscrabble place that has little in common with the quaint, cutified villages that dot the tourist coast. Rather, I imagine Wellbridge as one of Maine’s many hard, unyielding towns that produce tough, darkly funny people, eking out a living, hand to mouth, day to day, enduring what would break others and sometimes breaks them. It’s long shadows, ever encroaching woods, peeling paint, stinking bait shacks, rusted log skidders, and endless winters under the white snow sky. This is the Maine I know, the place I come from.
Here are a few of my favorite books that convey the broader story of my home state:
The history of Maine comes as much from the woods as the sea, and this is the story of how European loggers claimed, and very nearly destroyed, its forests. Beginning when Maine was part of New France and spanning the next 300 years, Barkskins describes the wretched conditions in those early, excruciating years and offers an unflinching look at the origin story of interloping white settlers in the state and their place in the history of New England.
In 1937, Helen Leidy took a teaching position in a North Woods lumber camp near Churchill Lake, married a local game warden, Curly Hamlin, and moved with him to an isolated cabin in the deep woods, connected to the outside world by a single, vulnerable phone wire and accessible only by dog sled or snowshoe in winter. Her chatty, first-person account of the years in the woods is an intimate time capsule of daily life in the wilds of Aroostook County, on what was then the largest privately owned timber tract in the country.
For all its natural beauty, sparkling air and crystal lakes, Maine has a long history of industrial pollution that went largely unchecked for decades. Paper and textile mills—once productive, now largely disused—still dot the landscape. A descendant of French-speaking Acadian immigrants who came to Maine to work the mills, Kerri Arsenault grew up in one of those towns and deftly weaves together the story of industrial abuse, of the people and the land, with the cultural history of her family in the part of the state called Cancer Valley. (If you’re interested in a fictional account of a dying Maine mill town, try Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.)
Cathie Pelletier’s novel clatters through Maine’s northernmost county in a riot of dark hilarity and looming heartbreak, eavesdropping all the way. She fills the dead-end towns, rolling potato fields and murky woods of Aroostook County with the language of the plain-spoken, such as Old Man Gardener:
“I remember that puny little wife of his going around with a book with bird pictures in it. I could’ve told her in a flash which bird was which . . . I don’t like the way some city folks carry on. I don’t like it. And what’s more the birds don’t like it.”
There is a perception that Maine’s summer people live gilded lives of ease and excess in their grand cottages on the coast, and though there is more than a grain of truth in that, it’s not the whole story. Life is never that simple. Sarah Blake’s gorgeous, chewy novel, as sprawling as the Milton family cottage on the private island they own, shows the dark side of privilege and its ripples across generations.
There is a long Protestant tradition in Maine that goes back to the Pilgrims and Puritans of Massachusetts. In her second novel, Elizabeth Strout explores loss, grief and faith through a religious lens in the story of Tyler Caskey, a minister who “lived with his small daughter in a town up north near the Sabbanock River, up where the river is narrow and the winters used to be especially long.” I loved Strout’s Olive Kittredge books, but this one is my favorite. Taking on great issues amidst small-town concerns, it’s quietly powerful and ultimately uplifting.
Paul Harding’s first novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Deeply evocative, beautifully written, and utterly heartbreaking, the book tells the story of an epileptic tinker and his clock-fixing son, as it meanders through time, from the son’s deathbed hallucinations back to his father’s days as a tinker—a salesman who traveled the back roads and woods of New England by wagon, winter and summer, selling and trading dry goods with farmers and hermits scattered in the wilderness.
No list of Maine books is complete without The King. There are so many to choose from, but for me ‘Salem’s Lot is the best Maine book, diving deep into the insular and secretive way of life in small towns. When the vampires return, called by the dreadful Marsten House, the buried secrets, resentments and hatreds of the townsfolk make them easy pickings. And so the book offers a cautionary tale of what can happen when the aggrieved, made powerful by the vampire’s bite, get a bit of their own back. In harrowing fashion, King sets fire to the image of small towns as idyllic havens of benevolent neighborliness. Read it in daylight is my advice.
Mystery and crime novelist Russ Thomas explains how best to create a police procedural that will hook your reader and keep them coming back for more.
When I set out to write Nighthawking, it was with a certain trepidation. I’d heard about “that tricky second book,” of course, but I now had to deliver something by a certain date (I had about 18 months, which is not unreasonable but a good deal shorter than the ten years I had working on my debut). It had to be different from the first book but essentially contain all the same elements that people enjoyed the first time ’round. Oh, and it had to be good. Aargh!
One minor meltdown and a handful of furious writing sessions later, I realised I had one enormous advantage that I hadn’t had the first time: I’d done it before. I found I was making decisions much more quickly, and, perhaps more importantly, I was doubting them less. I found myself, almost intuitively, thinking things like, “That scene needs to come later” or “I need a conversation about xxx here.” It made me consider what those key ingredients were, and whether or not I might pass them on to writers who are where I was fifteen years ago. So, here they are. They aren’t rules as such, so let’s just call them Tips. 7 Tips for writing Police Procedurals that readers love. I hope they help.
1. Develop Your Cast
The main reason readers come back to a police procedural series again and again is to revisit their favourite characters. Spend time on your protagonist especially but also the supporting cast. Try writing them in different scenarios, unrelated to your main plot. Learn who they are, and by this, I don’t mean what star sign they are or what colour eyes they have (although if these things are important to you, fine, jot them down as you go). I mean, how do they respond in a crisis? Put them in a car crash or a house fire to see how they react. What are the issues that drive them? What are the skeletons in their closets? When you get to the point where the characters seem to be telling you what they want to do, you’ll know you have something special.
2. Maintain the Mystery
Start with a hook. On page one, preferably, but certainly as soon as possible. You then need to keep this central mystery foremost in the reader’s mind. Sometimes you might want to solve the mystery but make sure you set up the next one at the same time. Don’t give the reader time to wander off. Every scene in your book needs to answer a question or ask another one. If you can link this mystery to your protagonist in some way, all the better. Give your protagonist a reason to solve the mystery. ‘Because it’s my job’ is not a good enough reason alone. Explore what drives them to do their job so diligently.
3. Plot, Plot, Plot
If you don’t have a wall in your house that makes it look like an obsessive stalker lives there, you’re either incredibly talented or you’re not a police procedural writer. I have two giant corkboards (each is about 4ft by 6ft). That’s not to say I’m a Planner over a Pants-er: there’s a lot to be said, especially in the early days, for just making things up as you go along. But there comes a point, sooner or later, when you need to start knitting it together. String, photos, maps, timelines, coloured pins, character sheets – there’s no right way to do this so experiment and use what’s right for you. (I use multi-coloured index cards, one for each scene, the colour representing the viewpoint of the character from which I’m writing). This might seem a bit laborious to begin with but you’ll ultimately save time, especially if you have a bad memory like I do.
But how much research is too much? You can put forever into this but if you do you’ll never get the book written. I do very little on my first draft, making notes in the margin or on a separate document about what I need to look into. This avoids me falling down a Google rabbit hole when I’m supposed to be working. It also means if I end up cutting the scene, I didn’t do a load of work for nothing. But at some point, you will have to do it. It might be fiction, but readers need to believe it. There are now any number of resources available online but remember police procedure differs from country to country, sometimes from state to state. Remember too that it is a work of fiction and you’re allowed some poetic licence. Even in real life, people break the rules sometimes. Just make sure the breaking of rules is acknowledged and the consequences explored. Final tip, don’t feel you have to ram it in just because you did the research. It should only be in there if it’s relevant to the story.
5. Keep it Simple
I’m afraid you don’t have as much licence to navel-gaze in a police procedural as you might do in other novels. That’s not to say your writing shouldn’t be beautiful and elegant. You’re allowed to use metaphors and allegories. You’re allowed to use words of more than two syllables. But keep the prose clean, crisp, and easy to follow. I actually think that’s true of all writing. Ursula Le Guin once said: “Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.”
There are a number of different story structure models for you to work from but the W-plot structure is a favourite of mine. Overall, there will be several big events (sometimes called turns or twists) in your story as your protagonist faces the large obstacles you have created for them. But there should also be many more minor ones. Pack every scene full of conflict, no matter how small (losing the car keys, spilling a coffee, taking a wrong turn). As your character triumphs over, or copes, with these, you create a sense of rise and fall through the narrative while keeping things interesting. Just remember to save your biggest bang for last.
7. The Recap Dilemma
There is a danger lurking in police procedurals that I call the Recap Dilemma. There are moments when you need to refresh the reader’s memory about what has happened so far, or indeed, what the investigator plans to do next. These are difficult moments to negotiate for the writer as they inevitably slow down the pace. My advice: use them sparingly. If a character is standing around ‘telling’ the reader what they need to know, I can guarantee you the reader is beginning to switch off (especially if they’re clever and have worked it out for themselves). Dialogue can help (this is why detectives always have sidekicks with them) but even then it can stand out a mile. Set the conversation in an interesting location, have something else happening in the background to add to the flavour of the scene, and keep it short. Finally, finish with a bang! For example—a phone call announcing the discovery of a new body.
February is Great American Pie Month! Whether it’s homemade or store-bought, the bibliophiles at Writer’s Relief believe the best way to celebrate this delicious dessert is to match the pie to a great book. Here are our favorite books to read while enjoying a tasty slice of pie!
5 Books That Go Great With A Slice Of Pie
What’s sweeter than cherry pie? A love story is one of our favorite books to read! Get your sweetness fix with a slice of cherry pie and The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai. Rhiannon Hunter has strict rules for using dating apps until she hits it off with pro-football player Samson Lima. He woos her and now she’s considering abandoning those rules and following her heart.
Don’t set your pumpkin pie on the windowsill to cool unguarded—a neighbor might wander off with it! While enjoying a slice with a big dollop of whipped cream and keeping an eye on the neighbors, we suggest reading Watching You by Lisa Jewell! In this mystery-thriller, neighbors are watching each other from their windows, secrets destroy trust, obsessions upend lives, and someone in the community turns up dead.
Apple pie is the perfect comfort food! If you’re looking for a comforting book to curl up and relax with, check out Every Word You Cannot Say by Iain S. Thomas. This collection of poems puts into words emotions that are often difficult to articulate. A few poems and a melt-in-your-mouth slice of apple pie will warm your heart and soul!
Key lime pie is deliciously refreshing, and so is Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope by Karamo Brown! In his memoir, Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown talks about exploring culture as the way people relate to the world around them and how he has experienced it throughout his life. Brighten up your day with a nice, light slice of key lime pie and get in touch with the world through the eyes of Karamo Brown.
A bite of rich, decadent French silk pie is hard to forget, and so are the mysterious circumstances you’ll find in The Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick. Nick Beron and Hanna Rampe become the live-in caretakers for a museum in an old house. Whispers haunt the couple in their sleep, and they must uncover the secrets of the spirit still attached to the home.
Question: Which pie and book combination are you craving?