On Writing: Learning the Craft

Head shotToday, Maine Crime Writers welcome author Charlene D’Avanzo. She’s author of the Oceanographer Mara Tusconi mysteries, marine ecologist, and emerita professor at Hampshire College, has received awards both as an author and environmental educator. Her environmental mysteries help readers learn about climate change and other issues in the context of a fast-paced, exciting story. Cold Blood, Hot Seaand Secrets Haunt the Lobsters’ Seaare both Foreward Indies finalist and Demon Spirit, Devil Seais an IPPY award winner. A long-time sea kayaker, a sport featured in her stories, D’Avanzo lives on Little John Island in Yarmouth, Maine.

I’m still pretty new at this mystery writing business. The first book in my series was published in 2016, and I had zero experience writing fiction before then. To be sure, I’d written lots of scientific proposals and research papers, and the discipline that required has served me well.

But the transition to fiction was understandably a major one. I had to shed the writing practice of a scientist-precise, concise, exact-and assume a literary style that would bring to life Oceanographer Mara Tusconi, everyone around her, and the natural world she studies and relishes.

But what, exactly, does that mean? To address that here, I’ll focus on “the natural world”, specifically what comprises ninety percent of Living Earth-the ocean. When readers turn the pages of my books I want them to experience that domain-to know what it’s like to be on, in, and under seawater.

How does a rookie writer of nature fiction learn how to bring the outdoors alive? Stephen King’s advice for hopeful writers made a lot of sense to me. “You become a writer simply by reading and writing,” he has said. King is right. How prominent writers captured the ocean’s essence has instructed and inspired me. Here are a few examples:

“The sea is everything … It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.” Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.

“There is, one knows not what, sweet mystery about the sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 12.10.56 PMthat when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.” Dave Barry

“Many church steeples piled on upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.” Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid

Each of these quite different excerpts has something in common. The style and choice of words evoke deep emotion or vivid images and the phrasing is clever. “Gently awful stirring”, “church steeples piled on one another”, “an immense desert where man is never lonely”, “staring at the outside of the tent”. It’s brilliant, which is why, of course, everyone knows these writers.

I’m fuzzy on how, in practice, these and other examples of writing excellence impact my own wordsmith skills. Since we don’t copy words and phrases, I guess something rubs off. I’m still working on that.

Practicing the craft

I’m now working on the next book in my series, “Glass Eels, Shattered Sea”. This time of year Maine fishermen are netting these tiny, transparent creatures (they are fish) from rivers all along the coast. Glass eels net these fishermen a whole lot of cash-upwards of two thousand dollars a pound. Big money begets crime and the occasional dead body, good fodder for a mystery.

In the story, Mara and her buddies from “The Maine Oceanographic Institution” travel on a research vessel to the Sargasso Sea. They are studying the one place in the Atlantic where all eels swim thousands of miles to mate and die. Also the only sea in the world with no land boundaries, the Sargasso is reputed to be a dangerous place were planes disappear and ships are hopelessly tangled in floating mats of seaweed. More inspiration for a mystery!

I’ll end with a paragraph from the book. In this scene, Mara sits on the fantail of the research vessel, pulls on her dive mask, and jumps into the Sargasso to collect seaweed for a study. I’ve been to the Sargasso Sea but didn’t jump off the back of the ship into the water. It was terrific to imagine what that’s like.

I can’t think of an experience more extraordinary, and liberating, than to leap- hundreds of miles from any land and thousands from the seabed- from the safety of a boat. As land creatures we literally loose our footing and come face-to-face with extraordinary creatures we barely understand who live in a fluid, amorphous domain.

Looking down, the first thing that struck me was the mind-boggling clarity of the water. The upper, well-lit layer of the Sargasso Sea is at least three-hundred feet. While that’s a thin slice in an ocean thousands of feet deep, to a human floating around on the surface, three-hundred looks like quite a lot.

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4 Responses to On Writing: Learning the Craft

  1. Julianne says:

    Welcome to the group! I am intrigued by your story line and will ferret out a copy at the local library. Growing up in the 60′ I’m an obsessive-compulsive reuser/recycler who is angered and frustrated by the general population’s attitude toward the oceans. They are not finite, and we are all responsible for their care. Again, welcome. You are in great company.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Juliane – Thanks so very much! Earth Day is later this month, the 22nd. So “cli-fi” (climate fiction) would be a good thing to take a look at.

  2. Darcy Scott says:

    Really enjoyed the first two books in Charlene’s series, and looking forward to the next. It takes a unique protagonist with an equally unique perspective to make a splash in the crowded mystery genre. Mara Tusconi is a complicated and empathetic character, and Charlene’s certainly got the writing chops to pull it off!

    • Anonymous says:

      Hey there, Darcy. My goodness, I appreciate comments like that from a writer as talented as you are!

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