Our guest today is Elizabeth Zelvin, a New York City psychotherapist whose new mystery, DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM, features recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends. Also out in October: Liz's story, "Death Will Trim Your Tree," in the holiday crime anthology, THE GIFT OF MURDER, to benefit Toys for Tots. Another short story was nominated for an Agatha award. The first book in the series, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, is up for an Anthony award for cover design. Liz's author website is www.elizabethzelvin.com. She blogs on Poe's Deadly Daughters, and today she shares with us a funny, powerful story of a writer's progress:
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“Where do you get your ideas?” is one of those questions that most authors wish readers wouldn’t ask (along with “I’ve got a great idea for a best seller; will you write it?” and “Why don’t you go on Oprah?”). But in fact, stories do have to come from somewhere.
Since I started hanging out online and in person with other mystery writers, I’ve been pleased to find that, like me, they experience characters springing to life and talking in their heads, ideas that come tapping on the inside of their skulls demanding to be let out, and lines bubbling up from deep within and streaming out onto the page or screen.
The source of these experiences is what in my profession, ie the shrink trade, we call the unconscious. Nineteenth-century poets called it the Muse. In spiritual or religious parlance, it’s being a channel for a Higher Power. And we all know a perfectly good word for it: inspiration.
Whatever you call it, what it casts up still has to come from somewhere. The raw material consists of our own experience (“Write what you know,” we’re told), the experience of others, whether it’s stories we’ve heard or headlines “ripped from the news” (“Use everything,” we’re told), or the stuff of our dreams, our reading, and our fantasies constantly reshuffled like bright bits of color in a kaleidoscope (“Use your imagination”).
An old friend recently unearthed and sent me a short story of mine that was published in our high school literary journal fifty years ago. I read it with interest, especially since I had no recollection whatever of writing it. It was about a college boy who dies after getting what seems to be just a bad cold, told from the point of view of his roommate.
Write what you know? I didn’t know anything when I was in high school, although as a bit of a smart-aleck with a high IQ, I thought I knew a lot. It had a horrible, pretentious title: “Finitude.” (I suspect high school kids in general don’t have much sense of humor. It took decades of increasing maturity to come up with the novel and short story titles of my current mystery series: Death Will Help You Leave Him, Death Will Get You Sober, “Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down,” “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” “Death Will Trim Your Tree.”) It wasn’t a badly written story overall, though I used one word incorrectly, “balmy” for “barmy,” and one sentence made me cringe when I reread it: “He was in labor with a novel.” (After an additional half a century of writing, I’ve learned that one of the greatest tools of revision is embarrassment: If it makes you cringe, delete it, preferably before anyone else sees it.)
So why did I choose to write this particular story? I wasn’t a guy or the girlfriend of a guy. I wasn’t in college yet, and I had certainly never been to the kind of drunken party I described. I had never lost a friend or family member. My parents were so protective that I’d never even been to a funeral. None of the characters seemed to be based on anyone I knew. (They might have been better differentiated and more interesting if they had.) What on earth could have brought this story into being? I read all the way down to the last paragraph before I found the clue I needed.
“In the hall, I met a friend of Sam’s and mine. She looked at me mutely, her eyes begging like those of an anguished puppy. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I put my hand briefly on her arm and nodded reassuringly.”
Okay, two sentences that made me cringe. I’m sorry I didn’t delete the “anguished puppy.” But that moment in the story rang truer than the rest, and a vague recollection stirred. That minor character was me, and the reassuring hand and nod were real. Our “crowd” in high school had a charismatic leader, a big, paternal teddy bear of a guy who played guitar and sang as well as Pete Seeger. He was a year ahead of us, so it must have been in my junior year that his older brother died, of leukemia if I remember correctly.
As I said, I had not yet learned to deal with death. I must have met him in the hall in school right after it happened. I didn’t know what to say. He must have needed comfort, but true to his role in his circle of friends, he tried to comfort me. And I, just old enough at fifteen to recognize the authenticity of that moment, made it the germ of my story.