Even in the winter, there's always something beautiful to see, if you look hard enough. A miniature garden of lichen growing on a branch, for instance, or a delicately frosted rock or a glistening tangle of grasses, heavy with dew. Foggy and chilly this morning--26 degrees when the dogs and I went out for our walk. Afterwards, hot oatmeal with raisins and Bill's pecans, a mug of hot cocoa, and the Sunday New York Times online. Out here in the country, until the Internet, there was no such thing as the Sunday Times. It didn't arrive until Thursday, and by that time, it was out of date. These days, I'm spoiled: the Sunday paper on Sunday. Good news, whatever the news it brings.
I've been wanting to comment on an observation I read on a blog last week, by a reader who has just encountered Thyme of Death, the first of the China Bayles mysteries. She found the book too "formulaic," with a lawyer who left the fast track, bought a shop in a small town, grew a garden, etc.--not quoting exactly, but that was the gist. The problem for her: the book was just too much like other books she reads. So she's decided not to read the rest of the series.
For me as an author, this is an interesting problem, for in 1991, when I was writing this book, I knew of no lawyers who had left the fast track, no small-town shops (except for Carolyn Hart's book shop in her Death on Demand series), and only one gardener (a short-lived British series featuring a landscape gardener). There were no recipes in books, except for a few in Virginia Rich's early 80s mysteries. The elements that were fresh and new in Thyme of Death and the other early China mysteries have been borrowed, spun, and reused so often that they now seem formulaic to readers who are just entering the series.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not whining about being "copied" or "misread," and I'm quite aware of the many problems I didn't solve very well in Thyme of Death--although formula isn't one of them. I am, however, suggesting that when you pick up a new (to you) author, you might want to do a little homework, especially if you're publishing your ideas about the book. Look at the copyright date and think about where the book fits in the genre. Is it 10 years old? (Thyme of Death is nearly 20.) If it reminds you of other work, look to see if those books are earlier or later. Look at lists of the author's other work--that's very easy to do on the Internet. Even if you're not blogging or reviewing a book, you'll find that considering it in the context of its first publication and in the context of the author's other work will give you a better understanding of it. What differences can you see, for instance, between the author's 20-year-old publications and her latest novel? (There ought to be a whole lot of them, I'd say--or the author hasn't learned very much about writing as the years have gone by!)
And one more thing: never underestimate the temptations of formulas or the efforts of authors who try their damndest to resist them. The hardest thing about writing a long-running series (I'm sure Sue Grafton and Carolyn Hart and Robert B. Parker would agree) is to avoid repeating yourself. What you can't avoid is other authors' repetitions of your work.
I'll be interested in your comments on this subject, so do weigh in with your opinions.
Reading note, on formulas: Cleaning out his desk after he left the Warner Brothers writing factory in Hollywood, co-workers found the fruits of William Faulkner's labor: an empty whiskey bottle and a piece of paper on which he had written, 500 times, "Boy meets girl."--Robert Hendrickson