The Mystery of the Brain

Making time to Brain Powerblog has been harder this summer. I’m revising my traditional mystery manuscript, and I’ve become obsessed. After having breakfast and spending an hour or so reading in the morning, I move to my computer where I remain for the rest of the day. Today I made myself promise to make time for exercise. If I were someone else, I’d worry about me. Words like hyper-focus and perseveration would come to mind. 

            I really love revising. Writing a first draft has been described as “starting with nothing and creating something only slightly better than nothing (Kathy Leonard Czepiel).” But revising is starting with something (however lame) and polishing it until it shines. Not once has the process felt burdensome. I go to sleep thinking about the book, and I wake up thinking about it. In fact, I often wake up with a new thought or a previously missed insight. This morning I woke up thinking about two needed corrections.  

            That elusive time between sleep and wakefulness often gives rise to creative thinking, but some of the ideas, when exposed to the clear light of day, turn out to be hairbrained. Several years ago, my husband and I were planning a new house, and I awoke one morning with an idea for the perfect floor plan. Absolutely Astonishingly Perfect. But as the mists of sleep fled, I realized that the plan was not only unbuildable but laughable.  

My waking thoughts about the book, however, have been really helpful. Maybe it’s because my mind has already constructed a framework. I’ve heard people say (don’t know if it’s true) that everything our brain registers sticks there permanently. But to actually remember something, we need a connection—a link. Sometimes a tiny fact, thought, or impression can rattle around by itself in our brain for years, and then one day a connection is made and it reappears. This may account for what people call déjà vu 

Have you ever had a thought that nudged you all day, flitting on the fringes of your consciousness but refusing to materialize? Then, suddenly, when you’re least expecting it, a connection is made and the thought springs to mind full blown? It was there all along. It just needed something to attach itself to. 

My protagonist, Kate Hamilton, experiences this phenomenon. As an amateur sleuth, she can only observe and ask questions. But some of the things she hears and observes, having nothing to attach themselves to, remain hidden until her brain makes the connection. One of Kate’s elusive thoughts materializes, leading her to the truth.

Remind Me Again: Who Is That Character?

Dickens' Characters

Recently, a mystery-writing friend and I have been reading and commenting on each other’s manuscripts–a very helpful thing to do. And we’ve found ourselves making some of the same comments: “I’m getting confused about who’s who here.” “Had to go back and remind myself of who that character is.” “Getting the names mixed up again.”

Authors know their characters inside and out. They know things about them that will never appear on the printed page. They know their personalities, motivations, character flaws, and vulnerabilities. They know what will happen to each character in the future. They have given them their very names. During the writing of a novel, an author’s characters often become more real to her—certainly more transparent—than the actual human beings with whom she lives and works.

Because of this God-like omniscience, it is often difficult to see in your own work where a reader might need a little help keeping the characters straight. Authors have handled this problem in various ways:

1. Before the first chapter, include a “cast of characters” with a short blurb on each one, to which readers can refer as needed. This was a method employed frequently in the past, notably by Charles Dickens, whose novel Bleak House featured no fewer than sixty characters, 21 major and 39 minor. Some modern writers use this method too, like Agatha-award-winning mystery writer G. M. Malliet (Death of a Cozy Writer, Wicked Autumn).

2. Introduce the characters slowly. This is a good idea, but sometimes the plot requires that a number of characters appear in a fairly short period of time. And mysteries today tend to start “in medias res,” i.e. in the middle of the action, without the luxury of a leisurely build-up.

3. Keep reminding the reader who the characters are, at least in the beginning. The downside to this method is the “soap opera syndrome” where a character is mentioned and someone says, “Oh, you mean our former Mayor who was married to the District Attorney but got that messy divorce and then spent a month in prison for a murder he didn’t commit until the real murderer was found but by then was so stressed out that he had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental institution for six months?” Yes, that one.

4. Give each character a colorful name and an unusual character trait (physical or otherwise) that will imprint that character forever on the reader’s mind. Charles Dickens was the master. Who can forget such characters as Wopsie, Sweedlepipe, Bumble, Purnblechook, M’Choakumchild, and (of course) Scrooge?

Right now I’m thinking about how to make my characters memorable enough to keep the reader on track and reading. But I also know that a reader must exercise a certain amount of concentration, especially at the beginning of a novel. I just started reading Catriona McPherson’s second Dandy Gilver mystery, The Burry Man’s Day. I’m loving it, but I’m having a little trouble keeping the characters straight. I really don’t mind. But a smart author doesn’t make the reader work too hard or he might just put the book down and never pick it up again.

I’d like to hear from you. How much trouble do you have remembering the characters in the books you read? Do some books do a better job of this than others; and if so, what makes the difference? And oh yes, remind me who you are, will you?

Smell the Roses

      smell the rosesThe sense of smell, scientists tell us, is the most powerful of all the human senses. It is the only one hard-wired to the brain. Helen Keller, who was born without the sense of sight and hearing said, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have live.”   

          The scent of crushed pine needles always takes me back to my sixteenth summer at Young Life Camp in Colorado. The aroma of coffee brewing reminds me of the first years of our marriage, when my husband and I “christened” every new apartment (we had nine in the first four years) with a pot of coffee, perked on the stove. Cardamom renders me a child again, eating Danish Systekage [sweet raisin bread] in Grandma Geraldson’s warm kitchen. The spicy smell of root beer reminds me of summer evenings during high school, crammed in a car, drinking large frosty mugs of the stuff and eating waffle fries at The Alps, the local drive-in.  

          Not all smells are pleasant, of course, and I don’t need to remind you of them. Some smells alert us to danger or tell us that action is called for. New parents become intimately familiar with the scent of diapers that need changing. Mystery writers frequently use the smell of blood to alert a sleuth to murder.  

          An interesting story could be structured around the sense of smell—a sleuth who smells things that others don’t, for example. Or a murderer who, knowing that the sense of smell is connected with the sense of taste, takes advantage an elderly person’s diminished sense of smell to introduce poison into a bedtime drink. (Sorry—mystery writers are always dreaming of unusual ways to knock people off.) 

          Smells are powerful images in writing, but they’re not easy to express in words. You can tell your reader that a character smells something, but try to describe what they smell and you’re in deep waters. One writer said that fear smells like vinegar. She may be right, but I’m not sure it helps me as a reader.   

          I’ve used the sense of smell lightly in my manuscript, precisely because the sense is so powerful. As in real life, a little goes a long way.