Thursday, December 2, 2021

How a Dare Got Me Out of Writers Block or How I Merged History with Mystery: Guest Post by Joanna FitzPatrick


How a Dare Got Me Out of Writers Block or How I Merged History with Mystery 

I have a confession: Five years ago, I was overwhelmed by writer's block. In other words, my fountain pen felt so heavy I couldn't pick it up. 

After graduating with an MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, I'd written and published two novels: a bio-novel of the short story writer "Katherine Mansfield" and a contemporary novel The Drummer's Widow. So what was the problem? Why couldn't I start my third novel? 

I was desperate to find a way into writing again but how? 

My MFA teachers had hammered into me that when you get stuck write what you love to read. Well, I'd grown up solving Agatha Christie mysteries and binging on Jeremy Brett's performance as Sherlock Holmes, all 46 episodes. Even earlier, when I was a Brownie, I scared the other girls sitting around the campfire with my tales of suspense about innocent girls being strangled by hairy monsters. 

"I'll write a quick caper," I said bravely, brushing one last tear of misery from my cheek. 

I shamefully signed up for an online mystery writing course at Stanford (Published writers with an MFA in writing don't take writing classes!). We were assigned to read and discuss the classic mystery writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Patricia Highsmith. 

At the end of the 10-week mystery course I'd written the first chapter of a caper while very aware that my story was being influenced by the historical research I was doing at the same time on my great-aunt, the painter Ada Belle Champlin. 

As I wrote in The Artist Colony Introduction: "If I hadn't inherited a landscape painting by my great-aunt, Ada Belle Champlin, and if I hadn't moved to Carmel Valley, California because of this wondrous painting, I would still be in Manhattan and I would have written a different story." 

During my writer's block imprisonment, I'd often escape into that landscape painting that hung over the stone fireplace in my new home. I'm not a painter, but I think the first brushstrokes of The Artist Colony were laid on the canvas of my imagination while I wandered inside the Carmel landscape. 

You see, this painting had hung in several of my homes when I lived on the East Coast. But I hadn't understood its true significance until several visitors told me the painting had been painted in Carmel Valley near where I was now living. I was intrigued. 

I went in search of the many historical locations where Ada Belle might have painted the landscape I'd inherited and I also sought out her Carmel-by-the-Sea seascapes. 

One day, working with a very old town map, my research led me to Block CC, Lot 13, on Camino Real, where, my great-aunt had supposedly lived. I had low expectations. Few original houses are left in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Why would my aunt's studio built in 1926 be an exception? 

I got very lucky. I not only found Ada Belle's studio but the artist living there invited me inside. Stepping over that threshold was like entering another world, another time. Lofty multipaned windows and skylights filled the North-facing wall. A shaft of sunlight illuminated a canvas layered in vibrant colors propped on a large, paint-stained, wooden easel. Dripping paintbrushes stuck out of glass jars near a tray of metallic oil tubes and a messy painter's palette. All my senses took in this painter’s world and I felt the spirit of my great-aunt applauding my arrival. 

How could I not be tempted to weave the history of Carmel's art colony into the mystery plot I was working on? How could I not have the legendary artists who lived in Carmel during the 1920's be my characters' friends in my scene-making? How could I not scout the gorgeous locations in Carmel and place a dead body on its pristine beach? 

With an overload of pent-up enthusiasm, I rushed through the first draft of my caper and sent it to my editor expecting her to love it. She didn't. "I think you are writing historical fiction with a mystery element," she said, heartlessly. "There's so much you can do here with these characters and this setting. You should dig deeper. Don't create a cozy mystery. Instead develop a sweeping historical mystery!" 

Wait a minute, I argued, this was to be a quick caper! It wasn't until I calmed down and read all of her astute comments in red pencil on that first MS that I accepted her editorial wisdom. 

I went back to the proverbial drawing board, which meant hanging out at the local historical library. I dug deeper into Carmel's history in the 1920s and mined a rich vein: multiracial taboos, Asian migration, white supremacy, artist suicides, Prohibition, rum runners, and women's right to vote to name a few. 

And when my research led me to the influential, early 20th Century art critic Arthur E. Bye's damning critique: “Women artists cannot sustain the force, the strength, the power of concentration, the prophetic insight that genius demanded. To create a child is the greatest aspiration of a woman’s life and when she can do that she rightly cares for nothing else,” I read this stupid prejudice as a challenge. 

Many drafts later The Artist Colony went to print or as I like to say, an historical mystery was born from my maternal labor. Writer's Block and Arthur E. Bye be damned! 


JOANNA FITZPATRICK is the author of two novels, Katherine Mansfield, Bronze Winner of the 2021 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in Historical Fiction, and The Drummer’s Widow. The Artist Colony is her third book. Presently, FitzPatrick divides her time between a cottage by the sea in Pacific Grove, California and a hameau in rural southern France where she begins all her book projects. Find her online here: Author website: Facebook: Twitter: Instagram:


Joanna FitzPatrick said...

Thank you, Janet, for posting my essay on "How a Dare Got Me Out of Writers Block or How I Merged History with Mystery"
I hope it is supportive to other writers who struggle with "Writers Block" as I do.
It's so wonderful that you give writers the space to speak their minds as it gives us an opportunity to break out of Writers Block!

Janet Rudolph said...

My pleasure. Thanks for stopping by..