Writing from the distaff side of life

It’s time to switch genders.

In the genre of mystery and suspense, women have pioneered a tradition of writing as men: Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Martha Grimes. Poirot, Linley, Wexford, Jury . . . masculine characters come alive in the hands of female writers. The men seem real, the writing accepted by the public.

But what happens when men write about the distaff side of life?

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548Sure, men have written about women since cave days. Their work ranges from sparkling (Robert B. Parker’s Susan Silverman) to riotous (P.G. Wodehouse’s characterization of Honoria Glossop and other females in the Jeeves and Wooster stories). But when it comes to getting into women’s heads, do men get it right?

Some authors seem to meet the challenge without effort: Anthony Doerr’s blind French girl, Marie Laure, in All the Light We Cannot See and Tony Hillerman in Listening Woman. Others, like Parker in his Sunny Randall series, seem to present female versions of their male characters.

Ignorant or undaunted, I’ve entered the fray with Peak Season, a novel about a former detective who surrenders her gun, her badge her and confidence after shooting a fellow officer. Moving to Southwest Florida to care for her ailing grandfather, CW McCoy swears off violence until a fugitive kidnaps her family and she’s forced to decide which side of the law she’s on.

In portraying life through CW’s eyes, I’ve steered clear of stereotypical male and female roles. She swears off guns but will defend herself. She longs for a relationship but doesn’t make it her life’s pursuit. Even while navigating the mostly male world of law enforcement, she puts a high premium on family and friends, qualities exhibited by both women and men.

When I began the CW McCoy series, I wondered whether I could voice the feelings of a woman. Now I wonder about a more practical question: can the public embrace that voice?

Brave new (digital) world

Everything old is new again . . . thanks to a little help from my friends.

My new website launched today. In the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, it was a long time coming.

Checking the Internet Archive, affectionately known as the Wayback Machine, my first website went live in 2002, back in the day of dialup service. It was designed by Tom Thornton, a true artist and a gentleman if ever there was one.

The next iteration, the version we just replaced, went online in 2009 with an update a few years ago by a blessing of a designer, Robyn Dombrowski of Creative Heads in Sarasota, Florida. For her fortitude, she gets the patience-in-the-face-of-ignorance award.

After six years, we discovered the custom features of the site didn’t play well with WordPress anymore. The site didn’t look like the home of an author, either, since we’d designed it to sell marketing communications services to corporate clients.

The new site emphasizes my shift in focus from nonfiction to fiction, specifically to a series of crime novels I’m developing around two characters, former detective CW McCoy and a defrocked journalist known as Brinker. The website incorporates new ways to share stories about them and the publishing industry through social media links and an e-newsletter called Behind the Book. And wonder of wonders, the new contraption is responsive, which means the site should adapt to any browser or device that taps into it.

It was a long time coming but we’ve finally caught up with the digital age. Here’s to good friends and guidance . . . and another decade on the Web.

Jeff Widmer

Pulp Fiction: On the Bayfront

They skulked into my office like Dodger fans the day Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard ’round the world. Guy and his frail, both pulling faces. The mug must have lifted weights in his sleep. The dame had killer legs and a top that couldn’t contain her enthusiasm.

Neither could I.

“You Doyle?” muscles said, his voice tight as a dog collar.

I checked the black letters on the door. “Can Judy Garland sing?”

Popeye mouthed a cigarette. Tough baby.

“Take a load off,” I said, and we did the introductions. Dutch Malone worked the Navy Yard. Helga Nordmann worked on me. Her blue eyes could cut glass. Two kids squatting in a cold-water walkup in Bay Ridge. Out of money and out of luck.

Helga cracked her gum. “We got trouble.”

“So does Korea,” I said.

“Somebody’s trying to kill me.”

I smiled. “Now that’s a crime.”

Jeff Widmer

You can see this entry in the New York Times pulp fiction contest at this link.

The infectious prediction of thrillers

Some writers land in the right place at the right time. Others anticipate, showing us what life might look like in a few years if things go horribly wrong. Many of the near-futurists build their plots on epidemics. Bob Reiss (Black Monday) did it with oil. Patricia Gussin (Weapon of Choice) does it with biologics.

In Gussin’s novel, published in 2012 but set in 1985, thoracic surgeon Dr. Laura Nelson gets caught in a medical and bureaucratic firestorm when a fast-moving staph infection spreads through her hospital at the same time the facility receives its first AIDS patient. Aside from delivering a decent thriller, the author shows what happens when antibiotic-resistant infections spread, and how hospitals and agencies such as the CDC must work quickly to contain the disease.

Weapon-of-Choice-3DSince Gussin is not only a physician but the former vice president of consumer pharmaceuticals at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, she writes with great detail . . . and frightening authority. Frightening because people can use these microbes as weapons.

All of which leads us to the latest crisis in healthcare, the threat of an Ebola pandemic. People worry about travel and transmission. Writers evoke images of the plague. Institutions scramble to contain, treat and reassure.

In Gussin’s book, she details CDC protocols for isolation and decontamination. Have they improved since 1985? Do they work as well in airports as they do in books?

When you look into the near future, what do you see?

The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?

Keeping the novel above stall speed

A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.

Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.

Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.

I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.

I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.

When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?