The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘mystery

I love it when my own assumptions about how to get a book published are upended! I met Charles Oldham this spring in my Charting Your Path to Publication workshop. In that workshop, I stress that there is no one path to publication, but we can follow and replicate the strategies of accomplished writers. The most important thing is to finish and submit our work. I like to think of getting published as knocking on a series of doors as opposed to hitting a bullseye.

Understanding the nuances in publishing is akin to being very curious and being willing to knock on a wide array of doors.

As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, Charles said he had a book coming out. Of course, we were very excited. What was even more intriguing was that his story was atypical for getting a nonfiction book published and even more heartening, the path was pretty straight forward.

We were also enthralled with the subject matter of Charles’s first book, The Senator’s Son: The Shocking Disappearance, The Celebrated Trial, and The Mystery That Remains a Century Later. He’s written a true crime nonfiction book exploring a 100+ year old North Carolina unsolved mystery that resulted in of one the biggest trials in the state’s history.

For Charles, The Senator’s Son is his first published book, but it is the product of several lifelong passions.

Early on, Charles had a special interest in history and politics, most especially that of North Carolina, where his family roots go back more than two centuries. He also has a keen eye for mysteries, for searching out the details of a story that needs to be explored. It is a talent that led him to become an attorney.

Charles graduated from Davidson College, and from law school at the University of Georgia. He practiced law for many years in Sanford, North Carolina.

He now lives in Charlotte, where for ten years he had a solo legal practice focused on criminal defense and civil litigation.

I knew that as a first time author Charles would be an inspiration to many. I’m delighted that Charles Oldham joins us here on The Practice of Creativity.

Why did you write The Senator’s Son? What is in store for readers?

I first became interested in Kenneth Beasley’s story about thirty years ago. I was about thirteen years old, and I read a brief account of the case in a book that was published in the 1950s. It was only a twenty-page synopsis, and it was just enough to scratch the surface. Even as a middle-schooler, I could see there had to be more to the story, and I thought someone really needed to dig deeper, to research the history completely, and write the definitive account of what happened to Kenneth and why. That is what I have attempted to do with this book. I have definitely done the research, and while I cannot say that I have solved the mystery beyond ALL doubt, I have presented a solid theory that anyone has come up with so far.

Did you always want to write, or did it manifest later in life?

My impression is that I am like a lot of attorneys. We really want to be writers, but have a hard time making it happen. We love interesting people and stories, and think it would be wonderful to create literature based on our experiences. But then we get caught up in the workaday world of billable hours and court calendars. For a long while, I didn’t think I would ever have the time to write a book. But I really wanted to do it, and eventually I just had to make a commitment: that I would take as many weekends and holidays as was necessary to research this story and write it.

What was the most interesting tidbit that you came across while researching?

I found some fascinating details in very unexpected places. It is surprising what can be revealed in some of the most mundane government documents, many of which are now easily accessible with tools like Ancestry.com. For example, in old court records, I found lists of jurors who served on trials back in the 1870s. I compared their names with Census records, and discovered that the jurors had family connections with the defendant on trial. Even something as simple as a military draft registration card can reveal secrets you might not find otherwise: where people live, their jobs, and whom they live with.

 

How did you find your publisher? What did you know about publishing before submitting to Beach Glass Books?

At first, I was not familiar at all with the nuts-and-bolts of finding prospective publishers and making submissions. I knew that, since I was a completely new author, I needed to make a good impression by being prepared. That is why I completed a draft manuscript before making any submissions, which I’m sure is not essential, but may have lent me some credibility. Then I sent query letters to a list of publishers whom I knew were interested in local history, especially that of Eastern North Carolina. Fortunately, one of them was Ray McAllister of Beach Glass Books, who immediately recognized the potential in this story, and was willing to shepherd me through the process.

What are you reading now? What is on your nightstand?

Most recently, I’ve been focused on works that have broadened my knowledge of my own subject matter, which is to say North Carolina history and politics. I’ve always been a fan of Bland Simpson, with his expertise about the Tidewater region. Also, historians like Timothy Tyson and David Cecelski have added so much to our understanding of politics in the 1890s and early 1900s. At the moment, I’m enjoying Dromgoole, Twice Murdered, by E.T. Malone. It is a book which, like my own, delves into one of North Carolina’s historical mysteries to separate fact from legend.

What is the best writing tip you would like to share?

For anyone thinking of starting on the road to writing a book, I would urge them to choose a topic for which they have a sincere passion. That might sound very basic, but I don’t think it is. I suspect a lot of people underestimate the difficulty of completing a book. If you are not working on a story that you sincerely want to tell, and care about getting right, then the stumbling blocks that you inevitably encounter can turn into excuses to quit.

Blurb for The Senator’s Son: On Monday, February 13, 1905, eight-year-old Kenneth Beasley walked to the back of his school’s playground and into the melting snow of the woods beyond. The son of a North Carolina state senator was never seen again. A year and a half later, a political rival was charged in what became one of North Carolina’s biggest trials ever, receiving coverage up and down the East Coast. The eventual verdict and stunning aftermath would rip apart two families and shock a state … yet leave a mystery unsolved. Now Charles Oldham, attorney and author, has reopened the case, along the way investigating not only it but the state’s political, racial, lynching and liquor cultures. The result is an absorbing must read story.

The Senator’s Son is Charles Oldham’s first book. Charles was born and raised in Sanford, North Carolina, the son of a community college professor and a math teacher. His parents instilled in him a natural curiosity and a love for reading. Early on, Charles had a special interest in history and politics, most especially that of North Carolina, where his family roots go back more than two centuries. He also has a keen eye for mysteries, for searching out the details of a story that needs to be explored. It is a talent that led him to become an attorney.

Charles graduated from Davidson College, and from law school at the University of Georgia. Afterward he practiced law in Sanford for a time, including a term as president of the Lee County Bar Association. He now lives in Charlotte, where for ten years he had a solo legal practice focused on criminal defense and civil litigation.

In his spare time, he can be found doing just about anything outdoors, especially hiking and camping. Charles also loves spending time with his family in the summer at their favorite vacation spots, including Ocean Isle Beach and Lake Junaluska in the mountains.

You can pre-order his book beginning Sept 18. Find out more details at his publisher’s website.

 

 

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What makes you write? If you ask that question of ten different writers, you’ll most likely receive ten different answers. Sometimes hearing a true story from someone who survived a horrible situation can compel us to write. Such is the case for Margaret Dardess.

Margaret Dardess has enjoyed a rich and full life. She has lived and traveled across several continents. Her day jobs have included being an international trade lawyer, a corporate executive and most recently, a university administrator.

I know Margaret as the President of the Board of Trustees for the North Carolina Writers’ Network (NCWN). The NCWN is a nonprofit literary organization that serves writers at every stage of development through programs that offer opportunities for professional growth in skills and insight. I’m passionate about the work of NCWN. The expertise, camaraderie and mentoring that I have received as a NCWN member has been invaluable in helping me develop my writing craft and negotiate the ever changing field of publishing. Last year with finesse and deft, Margaret recruited me to serve on the board. NCWN’s meetings are ones that I always look forward to!

In the last few years, Margaret has followed her heart’s desire and made time to write her first novel, Brutal Silence. In this thriller, Dardess tackles the topic of human trafficking. She wrote Brutal Silence after meeting a woman who successfully escaped from human traffickers. She was so angry after hearing the woman’s story that she couldn’t walk away. She had to make others aware of human trafficking. Brutal Silence is the story of resilient and gutsy Alex Harrington, a young woman who is thrown into the terrifying world of sex trafficking.

When I heard a little of Margaret’s inspiration for this novel at a gathering, I was immediately intrigued. I wanted to know more about she came to the topic of human trafficking and how she made space for a creative life. I’m delighted to welcome her to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

Tell us about your recent book, Brutal Silence. Why did you want to write this book?
Brutal Silence begins with every woman’s worst nightmare. Alex Harrington, a twenty-five year old woman who runs a free clinic in Dalton, North Carolina is kidnapped by human traffickers while on vacation in Mexico City. She is dragged from a public bus, and no one, driver or passengers, will help her. She wakes on a grit-covered cement floor, head throbbing, looking up into the terrified faces of a dozen women. Fortunately, Alex is resourceful and a champion runner. She manages to escape, and return to Dalton, but when a battered woman seeks refuge at her clinic, only to die moments later, Alex learns that human traffickers don’t only exist in Mexico. They are operating even in her home town, targeting her, and she has no idea why. Alex learns who she is and who she is not while confronting the brutal world of human trafficking. She wants answers, but when the trail leads back to those she loves the most, she finds that sometimes it’s the most innocent and ordinary places that hide the most terrible secrets.

My inspiration for Brutal Silence came when at the urging of a friend I attended a conference on human trafficking sponsored by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill over ten years ago. At lunch I sat next to a courageous young woman who had escaped after being trafficked and who was speaking out about human trafficking in hopes of saving others. I was so moved by her story that I wanted to learn more about human trafficking, and I found to my surprise that most people did not want to see or talk about it–hence my title, Brutal Silence. I set out to write something that would build awareness and inspire support for the efforts of those who work heroically against human trafficking. Anything I make on Brutal Silence will go to combat human trafficking.

 

 

 

Brutal Silence is a thriller. Have you always enjoyed reading thrillers?

I have always relaxed by reading thrillers, finding them a welcome change from the challenging and often cumbersome writing that filled my days as an academic, an attorney, a corporate executive and a university administrator. I am at heart a romantic, drawn to stories about protagonists who risk everything to overcome evil and make the world a better place. The thriller  genre seemed particularly well suited to a story whose underlying crime was human trafficking because human trafficking with its total disregard to human life in the interests of greed is about as evil as you can get. In good thriller style, in Brutal Silence, Alex Harrington takes on the evil of human trafficking at considerable cost to herself.

-While writing the book were there particular authors that you turned to for inspiration?

I look to good writing of all kinds. In writing Brutal Silence I studied mystery and thriller writers like Dashiell Hammett, Anne Perry and Andrew Gross for craft, and I looked for insight into the struggles of the human psyche in books like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories, Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken among many others.

-What was the most challenging aspect of writing Brutal Silence?

The creation of the character, Emilio Vargas, the Mexican crime boss in Brutal Silence, was especially tough, because I had to think like a sociopathic killer. I don’t spend a lot of time with sociopaths, at least not if I can help it, and I certainly don’t know any from the world of Mexican organized crime. I had to rely on research and my imagination. I immersed myself in The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, El Sicario, the Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin and interviews with really bad guys like El Chopo, and tried see the world through the eyes of someone who cannot feel anything for other people. It was not easy, especially when the sociopaths started showing up at night when I was trying to sleep.

-What’s been the biggest surprise thus far in being published?

I have been surprised and pleased at the support and generosity of many people. Publishing Brutal Silence has brought back into my life friends from my past, some from school days and others from my time practicing law in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Glaxo friends have come to launch parties and author events even bringing with them adult children who I remembered from when they were little. Still more from my days at UNC and the North Carolina Writers’ Network have been especially helpful, and new friends have guided me through the bewildering publication process.

– You’re recently retired. How has your writing practice changed over the past year?

When I was working full time, I squeezed writing into my day whenever I could and wrote on weekends. Now I go to a little office near my house and write every morning. Afternoons, while I take care of the business of living, I think about what I’ll write the following day, often playing ideas over in my head while on the treadmill or driving around town. I have come home from grocery stopping with a rutabaga when I really needed an onion because my mind was somewhere other than in the vegetable section of Whole Foods.

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

When you tell someone that you want to write, ignore the ones who respond, “How are you going to do that?”  A date in college said that to me once when I told him my dream was to write a novel. That was the end of him. There never seems to be a shortage of nay-sayers and wet blankets. Avoid them at all costs. If you want to write, write. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”
 

Many thanks, Michele, for inviting me to post on your blog and to your readers for listening.

 

Margaret Dardess was born and raised just outside of New York City, and has lived and traveled across several continents, landing at last in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where she should have been all along.  She is the daughter of an artist and a poet, who were determined to steer their only daughter away from a life in the arts. For many years they succeeded.

After graduating from Connecticut College, Margaret returned to New York to study Japanese history at Columbia University, and after a brief teaching career, went on to tackle the law.  When she finally stopped going to school, she set off on a journey, masquerading as an international trade lawyer, a corporate executive and a university administrator until at last she cast her parents’ warnings to the wind and began to write.

Brutal Silence is Margaret’s first novel. Margaret is hard at work on a sequel that will take Alex to Margaret’s native New York City where vengeance and murder threaten to destroy the new life that Alex is determined to build.

Find out more about Margaret here.

What does an editor want? How can I make my work stand out when submitting to anthologies? What counts as too much backstory to include in a short work of fiction? Writers constantly wrestle with these questions. I’ve asked Karen Pullen, friend and mentor, to share some insights as editor of a new and successful anthology.

 

giraffe walrus cclllWhat do a giraffe, a walrus, and the short-story anthology Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing have in common?*

 

Last August, a batch of short stories arrived in my inbox. I had promised to edit an anthology written by members of Sisters in Crime who lived in the Carolinas. The anthology was a project of the Triangle chapter of SinC, and its theme was sex. Yes. Crime stories motivated by lust, love, and longing.

I am a fiction writer too, and I empathized with the writers of these stories. Each writer had hunched for hours, even days, over her keyboard. She wriggled, sighed, scribbled notes, talked to herself. Typed, deleted, typed, deleted. Moved sentences, changed a word, changed it back again. Eventually she had a draft. She showed it to her critique group, wrote a revision. Wrote another. She submitted it for consideration in our SinC anthology, and it was accepted, conditionally: subject to a satisfactory revision.

Now her story was in my hands. My goal was to work with her to make the story more – more polished, more engrossing, more true to the writer’s vision, more satisfying for the reader. Without changing the writer’s style and voice.

I spent the better part of two months working with the nineteen authors. Here is what I discovered about myself as an editor: I’m a wriggling mass of inconsistencies. The top five:

 
1) I loathe backstory, except when I don’t. Ordinarily I recommended the excision of every speck of backstory; it’s a digression, a drag on forward motion, and usually unnecessary. Unless . . . it isn’t. For example, backstory that explains a character’s behavior or mood can be sprinkled in judiciously.

2) It’s a short story. So shorten it. Delete the second scene with the cops, delete one of the multiple points of view, delete characters that only appear once. Unless . . . you’ve taken shortcuts. Instead of telling us the soon-to-be-murdered boss is a jerk, show us how he treats his employees. Instead of telling us the busboy is in love with the stripper, write a scene where she invites him to her apartment. A full page of pure undiluted dialogue? Ask your characters to interact with the setting. Add emotional reactions, a bit of interior monologue.

3) Plot. I like organic plots. Give me characters who want something, put obstacles in their way, and conflict will ensue. The story will almost tell itself. Unless . . . the characters are passive victims of external forces. So light a fire under your character, make sure there’s something at stake for him, and set him loose.

4) Surprise me. I love a good reversal, a twist, a surprise, a shift in a character’s perception or the reader’s understanding. Unless . . . it comes out of nowhere, results from an impossible coincidence.

5) Language. Clarity and precision, people! Eliminate empty words, phrasal verbs, words ending in –ness and –ing, lazy adjectives like lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly, tautologies. Make the thesaurus your friend. Unless . . . a florid writing style overwhelms the story with its cleverness. Then it must be dampened, a little. Also, I don’t hate adverbs as much as I’m supposed to.

The authors were troupers. They re-wrote then re-wrote some more. They may have gnashed their teeth, pulled out their hair, and stuck pins in my likeness, but they did the work.

I couldn’t be more proud of the result. Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing was published by Wildside Press in paper and e-book formats. It’s available through online retailers and these bookstores in the Raleigh-Durham area: McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge, and Flyleaf. Many of the authors will be reading at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill on August 9 at 2 PM.
*Fifteen months gestation.

***********

Karen Pullen’s stories have appeared in Sixfold, bosque (the magazine), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. Her first novel, Cold Feet, was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, NC where she occasionally teaches in Central Carolina Community College’s creative writing program.

Check out an interview that I conducted with Karen about her first novel, Cold Feet.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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