Rolling hills, steep gullies and fields

Place makes a difference in stories.

I’ve been inspired to write mysteries every time I visit Galena, Illinois. It’s not just the mid-19th century rebuilding of an early-19th century town that fascinates me. It’s also the roads I take to get there — the rolling hills and steep gullies always make the drive new to me. I love getting to Stockton and seeing the land dip and open on the west side of town. And then arriving in Elizabeth, with another surprise vista and a curve that — for a brief moment — reminds me of the hazards early settlers faced. And in that, I include the earliest settlers, the nomadic early Americans who followed buffalo, built burial mounds and peopled the region long before my European ancestors even knew the place existed.

I have also been inspired by the vast, flat black soil around the Illinois town where I grew up. Fields that grew corn, peas, asparagus and pumpkins surrounded my home town, a kind of cocoon holding us all together. And those miles of even landscape led me to believe — naively, I know now — that people were also level, the same, with the same opportunities and resources.

The land makes a difference.

For another perspective, take a look at this old post from Writing Rural.


Lessons from the dust of Beautiful Ruins

brcover   Last month most of the members of our In Print Writers as Readers book discussion group said they had no trouble finishing our selection – The Language of Flowers. This month several writers admitted they kept reading Beautiful Ruins just because it was our selection of the month. For several, it was a chore, not a treat.

And yet, when we started talking about it, we realized author Jess Walter had shown us much worth discussing.

Walter’s novel about the intersections of several lives during and after the making of the movie “Cleopatra” was less than straightforward in its style. Its constant structural changes sometimes amused and sometimes annoyed members of the group.

The novel opens in 1962 like this:

The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly – in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

We agreed that the Walter’s prose style immediately brought to mind the era in which the opening scene was set. And that’s where some of the group took a deep breath and settled in for a nice long read with descriptions and pace that evoked the people and places of half a century ago. Others, though, just slogged along, determined to get through what seemed destined to be a conventional, literary novel.

In the rest of the chapter, we learned a bit about the actress Dee Moray and more about Pasquale Tursi, who “watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.”

But when we got to chapter two, our readers seemed to move to the opposite sides of the appreciation/toleration coin.  Here’s a sample of that chapter:

Claire wakes jonesing for data; she fumbles on the crowded bedside table for her BlackBerry, takes a digital hit. Fourteen e-mails, six tweets, five friend requests, three texts, and her calendar – life in a palm. General stuff too: Friday, sixty-six degrees on the way to seventy-four. Five phone calls scheduled today. Six pitch meetings. Then, amid the info-dump, she sees a life-changing e-mail. From  She opens it.

Walter takes us instantly into the 21st century. The changes – from old-school, almost languid prose to rat-a-tat delivery, from sleepy Italy to speedy Hollywood, from past tense to present – jarred nearly everyone. And these weren’t the only sudden changes in the novel’s style and structure.

I picked this novel for us to dissect specifically because I was interested in how Walter handled the long time frame. We agreed that his approach was unexpected and, for some of us, less than enjoyable, but it was effective. There was no question that we knew where we were in the timeline between 1962 and 20-something in most chapters.

We also agreed that Walter was able to paint distinct pictures of most of the main characters.  And there were lots of them in different places and times. One of us, among our visual thinkers, created color-coded charts to help her keep track of people and places.


Another launched a short discussion when she mentioned how much she disliked Michael Deane, a Hollywood producer today and a “fixer” in the 1960s. We agreed quickly that our dislike was an indication of Walter’s success in describing Deane physically – “The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed.” – and psychologically – he agrees to promote a script he knows the studio will reject just so he can use the rejection as a way to get out of his contract.

The book is billed as humorous, but the humor escaped several of us. And when we saw it, it was generally of an ironic or sarcastic nature. Some drew parallels with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Moore.

There are several love stories – or lack-of-love stories – in the novel. So, was love a theme of the book, we wondered. We concluded there are certainly examples of familial love and responsible love, as well as “it’s depressing and people suck” love and time- and obstacle-conquering love.

We had mixed feelings about whether we would recommend the book. Despite agreeing that Walter has a gift for description and character development, we also agreed that the jarring format he used to “travel” through time and space just wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

Are we glad we finished it? Yes.

And we think we’d like to see the movie.


“I can’t believe Becky even said,” that, Miriam growled, slamming her books onto her desk in the dorm room. “I mean, what business is it of hers whether I go out with Dick?”

“Slow down,” her roommate Sandy said, surprising herself when she realized she was waving her hands in the air, as if she could somehow slow Becky’s tirade that way. “What did you say she said?”

Becky paced the four open feet between the desks. “She said I might want to be careful before I got too involved with him. “


“I have no idea. She said she didn’t want to talk about it, but she knew he’d done something awful to another girl he went out with.”

“So, you’re saying she never actually went out with Dick herself?” Sandy asked.

“No, she didn’t,” Becky responded. She finally plopped down on the edge of the window sill, her back to the palette of fall leaves that colored the entire campus. “So, what difference does it make to her?”

“Well, maybe she’s jealous. Otherwise, why would she even pay that much attention to him?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. What do you think I should do?” Becky asked, sounding a little dejected.

“Well, as the bard said, ‘All the past is prologue,” Sandy said. “Or, as Scarlett put it, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ Guess you just need to wait to see what she – or he – does next.”

Christmas Messages

Emily could feel the package slipping from her grasp. NO, she thought. I’ll never be able to pick it up if I drop it. But she could gain no purchase on the box, not without dropping one of the other four she was carrying.

She bobbled, trying to balance it, but just as she felt it slipping irretrievably to her left, a hand reached forward to grab it and push it back to the top of her pile.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, turning to see who had come to her aid.

“No problem,” he responded, before she’d even finished speaking.

Her brown eyes widened, and so did the matching orbs she saw before her.



“I had no idea you were in town,” Emily said, unsure what else she could say. It had been all of 20 years since he’d left to join the Air Force, to learn to fly. His father had been determined that Matt become a lawyer, forcing their son to go to the U of I before sending him to law school at Notre Dame. As soon as the degree was in his hand, Matt headed to the recruiter’s office.

“I did what he wanted,” Matt had told his mother that day. “Now I’m doing what I want.”

That was the last she’d seen him. His father, for whom Matt had been named, refused to go to basic training graduation, wouldn’t talk to him on the phone, forced Emily to cut their conversations short, was too busy to visit him when he moved from base to base. After a few years, he’d stopped calling home.

Now, he stood there looking almost exactly as he had all those years ago, hair still dark, the soft waves barely showing up in the short cut he’d always worn. His eyes were bright, but the grin she’d seen when she’d first turned around had faded.

“Uh, yeah, yeah,” he said, dropping his gaze and mumbling.

“Are you living here now?”

“No,” he replied. “I’m staying with Brent Davis. You remember him? From my class in high school?”

Emily nodded.

“Can you two move ahead?” came a frazzled voice behind them.

“Sorry,” Emily responded, turning to shuffle a few feet ahead in the long pre-Christmas line at the post office. She turned back to Matt. “Yes, I remember Brent. He was at the house nearly every day.”

“I’m staying with him while I figure out where I’m going to live now.”

“Live now …?”

“I’m retired from the Air Force.”

“Retired,” Emily repeated quietly. Her son, retired? She noticed he was carrying packages, too. On his hand was a pale strip where a wedding ring might have been. Had he been married? What had happened? Did he have children?

“Retired,” she repeated. “Are you thinking about coming back home?”

“To Rockford?” he asked. “I don’t think so, but I’ll probably stay in the Midwest somewhere.”

She looked at him, wondered if he knew that his father had died a few years ago.  She didn’t really want to tell him that in a line at the post office.

“What are your plans for Christmas?” she asked. “Would you like to come to the house for dinner? I’d love it if you’d join us. There are things,” she paused. “… things we should talk about.”

“I, uh,” he looked over her head. “You need to move up again,” he said, nodding toward the front.

She turned, moved a few feet closer to the counter, then turned back.

He was gone.

“Hey, lady, the line moved again,” said the stranger behind her. “Go forward.”