Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Women doing men. And vice versa

Got a great fan letter the other day from a lady named Rose O'Hara:

Dear P.J.: My husband is a Stephen King fan. Has read all his books and needed a new author. We went to the bookstore and found your first Louis Kincaid book. Well, he is hooked and is always looking forward to the next one. Here's the funny part. He doesn't think women can write as good as men. He thinks P.J. Parrish is a black man. I just found out when I went to your website [that you are women]. This is a good one. I can't wait to tell him."

Wish I could say this is rare. But we get a lot of fan letters that come addressed to Mr. Parrish. Most of them, in fact. Whatever the reason -- that our protag is a man or our style hardboiled -- many of our readers assume we are male.

Now I'm a card-carrying feminist. (Well, I would carry one if there WAS a card). And I used to be miffed about this Mr. Parrish thing, believing that I had a duty to carry the standard for female crime writers. (Maybe I did strike a blow for the crime writing sisterhood in the O'Hara household at least.) But you know, after living nearly ten years now as the neuter P.J. Parrish, I no longer take offense. I'll let reader Wade Beeson, in his recent email to us, tell you why:

"As a compliment, I could not decide if you were male or female, as you seem sensitive and understanding of both sexes. Thank you for a provocative read."

The women writing men and men writing women thing is a pretty hackneyed subject. It's dragged out for at least one conference panel a year. And I suspect Joe Konrath, Jerry Healy, T. Jefferson Parker et al, are as tired of explaining how they "do" women as I am tired of talking about how I "do" men.

It boils down to one thing for me: If you can't slip into the skin of another sex (or race or anyone outside your paltry sphere of experience) you have no business even trying to write. Failure to write believable characters of ANY kind is the supreme failure of the imagination.

"Madame Bovary" is one of my favorite books. From the first time I read it, I was awed by Emma. And by her creator's ability to bring her to such vivid life. I mean, I had just run my Visa up buying three pair of Charles Jourdan shoes when my rent was overdue. How did Flaubert know how I got to that nadar?

Flaubert "did" women well. But when he said "Bovary, c'est moi," he wasn't claiming he was his character. Actually, he once admitted he was terrified by "the need to invent." (Which I find vastly comforting!) He was a literary magpie who read medical textbooks to write about clubfeet, observed the town folks around him, and when he had to write a chapter about a agricultural fair, actually went to one.

It's said he probably even stole the whole idea for Bovary from a scandal that was going on near his town at the time, buying into the advice of his friends who told him "write what you know."

For years after his book came out, he peevishly maintained he just made the whole damn thing up.

But Flaubert WAS Bovary in a very basic way. His powers of observation, his imagination, his sensory antennae, his understanding of human nature --- all those things that make up what we call writer's talent -- it all allowed him to inhabit other skins. It allowed him to create one of literature's greatest female archetypes.

This man-woman thing is swirling in my head today as my sister and I write chapter 38 of our new book. The finish line is in sight, but it has been a hard race. See, this book is the first in a new series featuring a female protagonist name Joe Frye. But we are so used to living in a man's skin, that we are having a bitch of a time getting into her head. For the first time in years, I can sympathize with those of you just starting out -- those of you still trying to fit into that new skin.

Joe is taking shape. As are the men around her. A whole new world is coming to life every day under my fingertips. It is frustrating, frightening all over again. And deeply thrilling. I tapped into something inside myself to become Louis. I will plumb the female side of myself for Joe. And in the process, I will willingly lose something of myself.

Here's Flaubert talking about that process:

"What a delicious thing writing is --- not to be you anymore but to move through the whole universe you are talking about. Take me today, for instance: I was a man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were heavy with passion."

Isn't that, in a nutshell, why we write?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

No. 13: Why I like this business

For M. Carson Black, who likes his Arizona "office" view:

My normal desk faces a wall. I take my PC and my dog Bailey outside when I can't stand it anymore. Like I said, I am a lucky dog. So is my dog, who I found on the "remainder" pile at the Humane Society.

To quote Jerry Rubin, Buy My Books Or I Shoot This Dog.

Just kidding. My husband would shoot ME.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Twelve things we LIKE about this crappy business.

My friend Joe Konrath sounds a little down over at his blog today, talking about the twelve things writers won't admit. (For the record, he's absolutely right about most of them). But Jude Hardin sez he got depressed reading it and wants to hear some things writers LIKE about the business.

My coauthor sister Kelly is sitting across the room this morning, banging out chapter 35, so I asked her. Here is what we came up with:

1. You can drink on the job and no one makes you pee in a bottle.
2. You can write off trips to New York.
3. You don't have to wear a bra at work.
4. You get to kill people you hate and not go to prison.
5. You can have mindblowing sex with whoever you want and not worry about rubbers, disease or your spouse leaving you.
6. You get to read fan letters (we love and answer every one we get and save them forever like old love letters. Honest.)
7. You get to be in the Library of Congress. (In 1983, I went there and asked for the librarian to bring me a copy of my paperback romance. She did. Quite humbling.)
8. You get to walk into a tiny bookstore in Moose-Butt Maine and see your book on the shelf. And then find out the old lady behind the counter has read your entire oeuvre and remembers each character better than you do.
9. You get to live inside your head for day, weeks, months, at a time and not get carted away.
10. You get to find a note taped to your bathroom mirror from your spouse or kid saying, "I'm proud of you."
11. You get to do something that gives others pleasure.
12. You get to do something that gives you joy.

Now I have to go write because we are up against a nasty deadline and Kelly is giving me dirty looks. Deadlines are one of the things I DON'T like about this crappy business. But no complaining. I am a lucky dog. And I know it.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Heed this advice!" she said desperately

I was sitting in a restaurant the other day when my friend and fellow author, Tom Swift, happened to stop by and ask if he could join me.

"Yes," I said cordially.

He sat down, his eyes slipping secretly to the paperback book lying wantonly near my wine glass. "I see," he said insightfully, "that you are reading a popular author."

"Yes," I said affirmatively, nodding energetically.

"Do you like the book?" he asked inquiringly.

I wasn't sure how to answer. Both of us had just returned from SleuthFest, which was geared for aspiring writers. There was a lot of good advice about plot structure, the differences between thrillers and mysteries, and character building.

My friend wisely picked up on my silence. "So," he said flatly. "I take it you don't like the book?"

"It was hard to read," I said effortlessly.

"In what way?" he asked inquisitively.

"Well, I'm not sure what it was," I said perplexedly.

"How was the plotting?" he asked ploddingly.

"The plot was okay. But it kind of fell apart toward the end," I added brokenly.

"That's too bad," he said sympathetically. "Anything else?"

"The characters were okay but kind of cardboard," I added woodenly.

"Really?" he said shockingly.

"Yes," I acknowledged.

"But the book was a New York Times bestseller," he interjected suddenly, jabbing at the book pointedly. "You are suppose to love the bestsellers. This one got great blurbs. And all the reviewers loved it."

"Well," I said deeply. "I just don't know what it was about the book that I found tiresome but there was something."

Tom Swift gave me a nod of his head, shaking it up and down, and then added a small, understanding smile, displaying his Hollywood teeth. "Well," he said philosophically. "Some books are just like that."

And with that, Tom sauntered away, slowly and casually disappearing into the misty dark inky black night.

I was left with my thoughts -- and that bad book. I was thinking about all the good advice I had heard at SleuthFest. Really good stuff, even a great debate about talent versus technique. But one thing kept coming back to me -- the thing all the good authors stressed. Robert Crais had said it best in his keynote speech: "Adverbs are not your friend.”

He didn't say it lightly. He didn't it dramatically. He didn't even say it succinctly. He just said it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Up to my ass in alligators

Hi folks,
Just checking in to tell you I am busy with SleuthFest this week. My sister and I are teaching a rather intensive workshop on suspense, so my brain is elsewhere. Be patient and I will be back with utterly enchanting, fascinating, trenchant and full-of-myself things to say about our writer's conference.

In the meantime, I leave you with the immortal words of one of my fave old bands, the Blues Magoos:

We're gonna take a little break
But we'll be back so don't be late.
Gonna grab a little smoke
And powder our nose
And then we'll be back
To tickle your toes...


(cue cacophonous 60s psychedelic rift)