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Monday, December 15, 2014

Five Things I Learned from Patricia Highsmith

by Bobbi A. Chukran

Last week, while re-arranging my book hoard, I came across Patricia Highsmith's book, PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION. Then a member of my Sisters-in-Crime group mentioned it, so I decided to re-read it. 

Last time I read the book, it didn't "resonate" with me but I decided to give it another try. It's a short volume and easy to get through in a Sunday evening when there isn't much else on PBS besides the Boisterous Boy's Bell Choir from Belgravia or some such.

Patricia Highsmith was a suspense author from Ft. Worth, Texas (my birth town) who wrote THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, her debut novel that was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into one of my favorite movies.

Ms. Highsmith admitted that the book is NOT a "how-to write" but a series of things she learned throughout her career. Throughout my re-reading of the book, I learned things about my own writing and had a few mini-epiphanies that will definitely change the way I think about my work.

1. I learned that "who-dunnits" might not be the best thing for me to write.

Ms. Highsmith admitted that she was "not an inventor of puzzles" and that the "mystery who-dunnit" story was "definitely not my forte." She goes on to say that her worst book (A GAME FOR THE LIVING) was of that type. 

This made me think about the types of stories I'm writing. I've been reading lots of cozies and traditional locked room (puzzle) mysteries, and increasingly I have to admit that they aren't my favorite, either. I've actually been trying to write some and have that unsettled "queasy" feeling that comes when I go off track.

Turns out, my favorite short stories I've written have not been the traditional "who-dunnits,"—they've been SUSPENSE. Even my literary short stories have an element of suspense in them (see "Sadie and the Museum Lady" -- free to read on The Dead Mule).  My first mystery novel, LONE STAR DEATH is a sort of hybrid of suspense and traditional who-dunnit. I'm not sure why I never noticed this before.
The stories I like to read the most aren't traditional "who-dunnits" or cozies. Or should I call them "dozies"? Just kidding, sort of.

The ones I like the most are the more suspenseful types with lots of action and  little twists at the end. Stories like you might have seen on the Alfred Hitchcock TV show, or The Twilight Zone. So if I don't like those other types, why write them? Good question!

 I think one of my best stories is "Dewey Laudermilk & the Peckerwood Tree." I consider it more of a suspense story than anything else. And the one that sells the most is my "Aunt Jewel and the Purloined Pork Loin" story. It's a comedy caper with suspense and not a who-dunnit at all.

2. I learned that it's OK not to like all of my characters.

I recently admitted to some writer friends that I don't like many of my characters, and I wondered why this was so. In her book, Highsmith also talked a lot about liking characters and the importance of the reader caring about them. Her amoral, warped characters are actually sympathetic. Highsmith invented characters like Tom Ripley, a con man who became a rich sociopath. Her admiration for the character came through as she talked about him. And, according to Highsmith, it's valid for the author to actually like characters like these—even the bad ones--but we don't have to in order to write a good story.

After reading that, I realized that I DO like some of mine, but I was thinking about my protagonist when I should have been looking in the other direction. I DO like my villains and those like the poor luckless slob in "Dead Dames Don't Wear Diamonds," published recently in THE ANTHOLOGY OF COZY-NOIR (Darkhouse Books).

Now, I need to figure what it is about the characters I DO like and about the ones I do NOT like. Maybe I can apply some of that knowledge to new characters to make them more sympathetic to my readers.

3.  I learned that my main recurring theme seems to be REVENGE and that's OK.

 Ms. Highsmith claims that every author has a "theme" that will eventually emerge and that they should pay attention to it. Her theme, she said, was the relationship between people (especially men) and those sometimes life-changing or threatening encounters. This is certainly illustrated in her first novel, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

Knowing a theme is useful for an author because it helps with plotting and coming up with ideas for new stories. Sure enough, when I flipped through my files, I found that six stories have "revenge" as the theme. Instead of cringing and feeling like I'm a bad person, I'm running with it.

4.  I learned where that "really sour feeling about the whole project" comes from.

I've been calling it that "queasy feeling" and am glad to know that it's not just me and it's not the stomach flu. The feeling that a story is "forced, self-conscious and utterly without life" comes about when an author doesn't identify with her character and isn't feeling the emotions of the character. Now that I know where it comes from, perhaps I can pay more attention to it and take steps to alleviate it. Without Pepto-Bismol.

5.   I learned that authors have always struggled with some of the same things.

Ms. Highsmith stated, "I have scarcely a morning that doesn't bring something in the post that could be called psychically disturbing" and brings about "anguish and muted screams." She mentioned taxes, not being able to go on four hours' sleep any more like we used to and the feeling that "the aim of society is to put us all out of business." She ends the book with this advice: "…remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of."

Good to know. And to remember.

About the Author

Bobbi A. Chukran writes short tales of mystery & suspense from "Nameless, Texas" featuring mirth & murder, holidays & homicide.
A complete list of Bobbi's stories and books can be found here:

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Cottage Cat Does Christmas

So I says to Roja Consuela Ann Chukran, "Leave that tree alone!"

To which she replied, "Who, me? I am NOT messin' with the Christmas tree. You must be mistaken," she sniffed, looking disdainful.

 Likely story.

Roja looking suspicious, crafty and downright guilty.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Friday, November 28, 2014

Another snippet from CATTYWAMPUS CHRISTMAS

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A heartwarming tale with bite.

Another short excerpt from the new holiday satire:
Dot walked around slowly, taking in the decorations. The room was decked out like an upscale hotel lobby with everything modern—all in black, purple and lime green. A huge wreath the size of a wagon wheel hung above the fireplace and was decorated with black and purple ornaments topped off with a huge lime and white polka dot bow. A string of garland hanging over the front of the fireplace was also festooned with purple glass ornaments.

Dot stared in dismay, but tried to think of something to say that wouldn't hurt her mother's feelings. "Wow, looks like you’ve already done all the decorating. And it looks so . . . modern. And fancy. Not like you at all, to tell the truth." Sort of like you're decorating for Halloween, she thought.

Her mother smiled. "Yes! I know! Don't you love it? We just couldn't wait to get busy. We started decorating the day after Halloween, transitioned right past Falloween, on through Thanksgiving and are headed right smack dab into Christmas!"

"Once we got going, there was no stoppin' us!" Doris explained. "Me and your mama were just a couple of crazy whirlin' dervish decorators!" She flung her hands up, twirled then collapsed on the sofa. "Whew! We've had a bit of eggnog, dear," she explained. "To help the process along."

For more, click through to the sales page on Available in e-book and paperback.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Poem about Thanksgiving. . .and Christmas

Dear Reader-Friends,

A few years back, I wrote a Thanksgiving poem. It's recently been unearthed here in the Cave du Chukran and I thought I'd post it here. Ironically, one of the themes of my new Christmas novella, CATTYWAMPUS CHRISTMAS, is all about WANTING stuff. I thought I'd share the poem with you. Feel free to share, but please give credit to the author, me. :-)

Thankful for ALL my readers!

Thanksgiving Cancelled for Lack of Interest

Christmas wreaths on Credit Union wall
decked with colors never seen in nature.
First week of November, plastic needles
wilting in the hot Texas sun.

Halloween décor still hangs
from trees two blocks away.

Children rush to their parents,
chatter with glee and clamor about
what they WANT for Christmas.

Parents smile and take out
scraps of paper or phones and
take it all down, nodding,
with promises of e-mailing it to Santa.

Straight from sugar shock
to shopping excess
with no pause in between
for gratitude or thankfulness.

Has Thanksgiving
been cancelled,
due to lack of interest?

Copyright © 2014 by Bobbi A. Chukran

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The New ANTHOLOGY OF COZY-NOIR -- Review and a giveaway!

Dear reader-friends,

Please check out the new (great) review of THE ANTHOLOGY OF COZY-NOIR by Cynthia Chow in the Kings River Life magazine.

AND...enter their giveaway and you might win a free copy!

Cynthia gets it right, and saw exactly what Andrew MacRae, the editor/publisher (Darkhouse Books) and authors were trying to do with this unique new genre.

This is my first anthology publication (my story, Dead Dames Don't Wear Diamonds, is a sort of spoof), and I'm so proud to be in the company of these other fine authors!

Happy trails from wet and warm Texas!

bobbi c.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How to Cook Greens in the Crock Pot--A Recipe from Aunt Jewel--Slow Cooker Turnip Greens with Potlikker

Aunt Jewel is one of the spunky main characters in my "Nameless, Texas" fiction series. She's "somewhere between 50 and ancient," she says, and she loves to cook. And she loves to cook things she grew in her own garden. For Thanksgiving, she often makes a mess of greens to go alongside all the other traditional foods. I asked her if she'd share her family recipe for Crock-Pot greens here, and she said "OK, as long as you make sure those folks do 'em right."

So folks--do 'em right, OK? I'd hate for Aunt Jewel to get after me with her rolling pin.

Aunt Jewel’s Slow Cooker Turnip Greens with Potlikker 

 Like any good Southern recipe, this healthy one pot meal doesn't include precise measurements.  You make enough for your family, and have extras for leftovers.  Here are the ingredients I use to make a "mess" of greens.  I use a Corning Ware slow cooker, 10-quart size.  If you want to use a smaller size,just use less greens.

Greens 'n cornbread! The way it's meant to be
Fill the cooker with one large bag of pre-washed greens from the store OR enough fresh greens from your garden—well washed, of course. Get those snails out of there! Don't worry if they won't all fit.  Cram them on in. The lid will hold them down, and the greens will shrink and cook down over the course of the day.

Add 3 cups of organic chicken broth, either canned/boxed from the store (I use organic) or homemade. This is not a precise measurement; if you don't have enough, substitute water.

Pour in a big splash of good olive oil, and some chopped garlic cloves—as many as you can stand.  If desired, add some leftover ham or a small ham bone, bacon or pork fatback cut into small pieces.  This is not required, but does make a traditional "mess" of greens and really adds a lot of flavor and protein to the dish without using a lot of meat.

Add enough water so that the greens are moist. Gently toss the greens so that they're coated with the liquids. 

Replace the lid on the cooker. Have a glass of wine. (optional)

Cook the greens on HIGH for the first four hours, stirring occasionally, then reduce the temperature to LOW and let them cook until they are done—the longer the better. Traditionally, this means that they are cooked down into a very concentrated dish, with lots of lovely potlikker on the bottom.  Serve the greens in a bowl with plenty of the potlikker and serve with homemade cornbread.  Drink the remaining potlikker—that's where all the vitamins are hiding, and it's good for you!


Aunt Jewel