Paying It Forward

By Marni Graff

Studying Gothic Literature one summer at Oxford University, I trained to London to interview the Queen of English Mystery at the time, P. D. James. After a successful nursing career where I wrote “on the side,” I was finally writing full-time and researching Oxford as the setting for the first Nora Tierney English Mystery, The Blue Virgin. I’d been writing feature articles and conducting interviews for Mystery Review magazine for a few years when the octogenarian opened the door to her Holland Square townhouse. Warm and inviting, she immediately put me at ease, and I was thrilled to be in the same room with my idol, much less in her home speaking to her face-to-face, snapping photos of her signing my copy of her autobiography to accompany the piece.

After an hour of answering my questions, James invited me to have coffee in her downstairs kitchen—Nescafe’ instant accompanied by Walker’s shortbread biscuits! That more casual conversation cemented what would be a fifteen-year friendship, with letters, emails, cards, and tea together whenever I visited the UK for more setting research after that. I came to know her PA and we remain friends, and I was invited to James’s London memorial service years later when she passed.

That day, James had me describe my plans for the English mystery series, featuring an American writer who lives in England, while we sat at the scrubbed pine table where I knew she often wrote her outlines and first drafts in longhand. Then she asked about the various nursing positions I’d held before turning to full-time writing. When I mentioned my years working as a medical consultant for a New York television and movie studio, her face lit up and her eyes glowed.

“Promise me one day you’ll write a second series, one featuring a nurse who has that job.” James insisted readers would enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at a different world. I made that promise, and once I had The Green Remains and The Scarlet Wench in print in the Noras, turned my hand to fulfilling it. The first Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, Death Unscripted, is dedicated to James, the woman who’d been instrumental in suggesting the series.

James and I stayed friends until her death in 2014, a loss I still feel acutely. But inspired by her willingness to give support and advice to a much younger and less seasoned writer, I started the Writers Read program in my rural area of eastern North Carolina.

Drawing from the surrounding area, our group met first in a coffee shop, and when that closed, in a local library. Writers brought pages from their works-in-progress, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. I’d bring drinks and cookies or a snack, and over time, others brought food, too, until we had a grazing table that supplanted many dinners for those who’d travel to the evenings. We expanded after a year to include younger writers, and often the parent driving them would stay to listen.

My goals were two-fold: to give writers a chance to read their works aloud, good practice for any writer who would ultimately appear in public; and to receive immediate feedback for their work as they revised.

I’d start each session with a snippet of a mini-lesson, whether about voice, characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, etc. Some nights I’d bring copies of an article I’d found for them to take home to digest; other times we might talk about the importance of revision and how first drafts were just that: first words and thoughts and ideas set to paper, never what a writer would hand in to any publication. I told them to consider their first draft as a lump of clay that they would now proceed to pare away and make lovely as they rewrote.

One of James’s points that stuck with me was “the real writing gets done in revision,” and we would talk about layers of revision and what that would entail, from replacing passive verbs with active ones, and incorporating the five senses in our descriptions. We spoke about beta readers and how to choose them—readers who were not relatives bound to like anything they’d written. And I repeated how reading works out loud allows the writer to hear the cadence, the length of sentences, the places where it jarred. Soon everyone read with a pencil, making notes of things they saw to revise.

The rules were simple: no pornography and no deliberate bashing. We would respect the time and effort and huge risk each writer took to share their fledgling works. Learning to critique and do it well is itself an art form. Saying you dislike something and leaving it there isn’t helpful to any writer (nor is the opposite of saying you liked something without giving any details). I stressed specifics in our critiquing, and we would go around the table and start off with the positives we heard, then mention a negative without belaboring the point. Here’s the type of thing:

“I really liked the sensory words you used. They helped me visualize that setting. I think your dialogue is pretty natural, too. For me, it could be even stronger if you’d add contractions, like people use in real speech, and maybe allow the characters to step on each other’s speech a bit.”

And so it went, for a solid seven years, until this past January when I stopped the group. My teen writers were now at college, two at Duke University, I’m happy to add, and both had strong college application essays. Several poets have won awards, and one gal writing romantic suspense has just brought out her third novel in a trilogy. I participate with the Pamlico Writers Group by teaching at their yearly workshop, and their writers group, more centrally located, has filled the gap for my remaining writers. With two series alternating, I am always bringing out one book while researching or writing the next and there are only so many hours in the day. But I felt good while the program was in progress and think James would have approved, while I wouldn’t have a second series without her recommendation.

I’ve just brought out the second Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery. Death at the Dakota is set in Manhattan‘s iconic Victorian apartment building. Home to millionaires and celebrities through the decades, famous tenants have included Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Boris Karloff, Carly Simon, and Rudolf Nureyev. In modern times its most famous resident, John Lennon, was murdered in its elaborate entryway in 1980. The Dakota’s board is notorious for those applicants it’s denied, too, who include Billy Joel, Cher, and Madonna. Yoko Ono still lives there, as does film critic Rex Reed.

When I was given the floor plan of the apartment that had once been home to Leonard Bernstein and his family, I knew Trudy would work on a TV movie filming at the storied building. In reality, the building only allows filming of its exterior – the supposed interiors used in films like Rosemary’s Baby were all soundstage replicas – but in Trudy’s world anything is possible.

Trudy’s assignment is to protect the film’s star, Monica Kiley, in the early stages of a dicey pregnancy. When Monica goes missing and another cast member dies, Trudy’s nose for murder finds her in the thick of things. At the same time, her NYPD detective boyfriend, Ned O’Malley, is involved in a murder investigation where the victim has been burned beyond recognition. Two victims and two killers challenge Trudy and Ned, when their cases cross paths in this mix of amateur sleuth and police procedural one reviewer has called “the new Nick and Nora.”

I think the Baroness would approve of the direction I’m taking Trudy. And yes, it’s been revised six times before heading into print.

Award-winning author Marni Graff writes The Nora Tierney English Mysteries (The Blue Virgin, The Green Remains, The Scarlet Wench, The Golden Hour), featuring an American writer living in the UK; and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries (Death Unscripted, Death at the Dakota), based on Graff’s work during her nursing career as a medical consultant for a NY movie studio. Her short story, “Quiche Alain” appears in the Malice Domestic Anthology 14: Mystery Most Edible. The Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, Graff also writes a crime review blog: She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, the NC Writer’s Network, and the International Association of Crime Writers. Graff and her husband live in rural eastern NC with two Aussie Doodles, Seamus and Fiona.


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