Today my Special Guest is Keith McCafferty, author of The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders, and the new Dead Man’s Fancy. When I was sent the first book for review I wasn’t sure if this non-fishing lady was gong to like it but I did. It stirred up memories of my grandfather who was an avid fisherman. The writing also drew me right into the story. You can read my whole review here. The next book in this series made my Best Reads of 2013. Review here. When I saw there was a new book coming in January I just had to reach out to the publisher to see if Keith would stop be for a visit. I was surprised and thrilled when he said YES!!
The Writer and the Philosopher’s Stone
A long time ago in a mountain range not far from home, I shouldered a backpack to go hunting. At the time my family very much depended upon the year’s worth of venison an elk would provide, and my method of collecting it was to pick up a track and follow, sometimes for days, sleeping in scoops of snow where elk had slept before me, until I had meat to pack off the mountain. On one such night a pack of wolves were persistent in their serenade, and though I knew I had nothing to fear from them, I built up my fire, as much for company as for warmth, and sat up long into the night. The next morning I found that my right eye was irritated, which I attributed to the smoke from the fire. As the sun rose the irritation increased until the pain became unbearable. I had to shut the eye, and then, as the pelt of snow glistened in the daylight, I had to shut the other eye as well, and thus I was rendered snow-blind on the cold breast of a mountain wilderness.
I had occasion to recall this experience last week, when a severe corneal abrasion left me similarly impaired and I spent several days sitting with my eyes closed and the blinds drawn. My wife told me to quit feeling sorry for myself and make use of the down time thinking out the plot of the novel I was working on, which is the fourth book in the Sean Stranahan series. She might as well have asked me to solve the riddle of alchemy by creating the philosopher’s stone, and so discover the secret of turning lead into gold. For I am one of those instinctive writers who seems to be incapable of sketching out plot lines, either in my head or on paper. The story flows from my fingers; it is not formed in the brain, at least not in a region of which I am conscious. In this regard I am of the school of writing my literary agent, Dominick Abel, calls the “muddler throughers.” I start with an idea, usually an opening scene. I write a first sentence, the second is coaxed by hook or by crook, the third by spade or by providence, and in this manner I write the entire novel.
It is an exercise in sequential thinking and, in my case, a form of therapy. For in so-called real life, my mind does not operate in a linear progression of thoughts or synapses. My reading habits are a good example. I read a novel by flipping it open to a random page, read a sentence or two, skip to another page, maybe read the last paragraph, maybe then read the first, and so on until I have read every sentence, though not in any particular order. This makes most books a disappointment. In a technical sense I have read them. But I have no idea what they are about.
Now one of the occupational hazards of being a novelist is that readers, and especially aspiring writers, ask you to put into words the magic formula of novel writing, to reveal to them the philosopers stone, as it were, of turning words, the building blocks of language, into story. I knew I might be asked this very question at a reading I was scheduled to give at Bozeman, Montana’s wonderful independent bookstore, the Country Bookshelf, provided I recovered from my eye injury. And having been on a number of author panels where I was called on to expound upon the craft, I knew I couldn’t just say, well, I muddle my way through. So I had an answer prepared, thanks to E.L. Doctorow, who famously compared writing to driving a car at night. “You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Then I thought of the wolves and it dawned on me that my experience of going snow-blind was an equally apt metaphor for the way that I and many other writers work. The howling was the inspiration (in the case of my latest novel, Dead Man’s Fancy, it was quite literally so, for wolves were howling in the first sentence). And the process of writing a novel is to me reminiscent of the progression of snow-blindness. Before the sun rises, you can see clearly some small distance, enough to know where to place your feet, just as at the beginning of a novel, I have a fairy clear idea of its direction over the first few chapters. But then the snow-blindness hits and the writer must work through the heart of the story in the manner in which I hiked out of the mountains that day, by squeezing open one eye for a second to see down the path 10 or 20 feet, then closing the eye and walking blindly in that direction several paces, and repeating the process, mile after mile, hoping I didn’t stumble into too many trees or over too many rocks. Towards the end of that interminably long day, as night once more claimed the mountains, the irritation in my eyes diminished and I was able to see a little better, a little farther down the path. So, too, it is with the novel. As the writer nears the end, the trail is finally to be seen again and he can work more confidently in that direction. It is the long blind slog through the middle of the book that makes one want to take an elk rifle to his forehead.
At the bookstore reading, I told the story of going snow-blind, which the audience seemed to appreciate, and then talked a while about the more pragmatic aspects of writing, the overriding importance of character in the series novel, how plot is to pace as lyrics are to music, the fact that narrative non-fiction is driven by the declarative sentence where fiction is driven by dialogue, and so on. All relevant, but what I failed to address, and which I had spent a great deal of time thinking about before my eye recovered (fortunately on the morning of the reading), was the alchemy, the magic that leads the snow-blind writer through the heart of the novel. I have said that I write through my fingers and conscious thought plays little part in the process. But what about the subconscious?
My series protagonist, Sean Stranahan, is a fisherman, and I recall writing a passage in The Royal Wulff Murders. my first book, in which he says that he would never make a serious decision without first turning it over with a fly rod in hand. In the second novel, The The Gray Ghost Murders. he arrives at a different conclusion.
“For years, Sean Stranahan had told anyone who cared to ask that the reason he went fishing was to think. On the river, thoughts didn’t pile on top of each other as they tended to when his feet were on land. Rather, his mind became elastic, adapting itself to the creative demands of catching trout. Sean would never make an important decision in life without turning it over with a fly rod in his hand. But lately, it seemed, he came to the river for the opposite reason. He fished to erase the burden of thought, to immerse himself in the moment, and to find recognition in his reflection on the surface of the water — to see there the boy he had been. For the wonder of fishing had nothing to do with the spots or the sheen of a trout’s flanks, but its ability to pull the angler back through time until he was no longer what the world had made of him, but who he was when that world was new.
It is my suspicion that something similar happens in the magic of writing. The alchemy that turns the lead of words into the gold of story is nothing to be seen or conjured. Rather than shine from the riverbed or in the conscious working of the mind, the philosopher’s stone resides deep within, with neither shape nor color, where it works to wash away the masks of personality and courtesy and cunning that are the second skins we have developed to deal with the complexities of life, so that we might rediscover what is original and true about ourselves. I believe that our job as writers is to tap into that process and then simply to stand aside and let the story emerge on the page, without affectation or indulgence of craft. To the extent we are able to accomplish this, so stands the measure of our novels.
As for the rest, it is just hard sailing and long hours, preferably with two eyes open.
Keith after reading this I understand why I love your writing “how plot is to pace as lyrics are to music,” that is just they way I feel about your stories. They read with an almost the ebb and flow of a melody. I hope you will visit again soon!
About This Author
Keith McCafferty is the Survival and Outdoor Skills Editor of Field & Stream. He has written articles for publications as diverse as Fly Fisherman Magazine, Mother Earth News, Gray’s Sporting Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and on subjects ranging from mosquitoes to wolves to mercenaries and exorcism. Based in Montana and working on assignment around the globe–he recently spent a month in India trekking the Himalayas, fishing for golden mahseer and studying tigers–Keith has won numerous awards, including the Robert Traver Award for angling literature. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Find out more about Keith and his books on his webpage here.
Dead Man’s Fancy:
A Sean Stranahan Mystery
3rd in Series
Viking (January 2, 2014)
Published by The Penguin Group
Hardcover: 336 pages
E-Book File Size: 1191 KB
Wolves howl as a riderless horse returns at sunset to the Culpepper Dude Ranch in the Madison Valley. The missing woman, Nanika Martinelli, is better known as the Fly Fishing Venus, a red-haired river guide who lures clients the way dry flies draw trout.
As Sheriff Martha Ettinger follows hoof tracks in the snow, she finds one of the men who has fallen under the temptress’s spell impaled on the antler tine of a giant bull elk, a kill that’s been claimed by a wolf pack. An accident? If not, is the killer human or animal? With painter, fly fisherman, and sometimes private detective Sean Stranahan’s help, Ettinger will follow clues that point to an animal rights group called the Clan of the Three-Clawed Wolf and to their svengali master, whose eyes blaze with pagan fire.
In their most dangerous adventure yet, Stranahan and Ettinger find themselves in the crossfire of wolf lovers, wolf haters, and a sister bent on revenge, and on the trail of an alpha male gone terribly wrong.
Another wonderful read from Keith McCafferty!
This story has so many layers and the author brings them all together with the melodic quality I have to come to expect from him.
Sean Stranahan is just an awesome character. A fly fisherman who loves nature, animals, fish and fowl. He lives most of the year in a tipi. He is a an very easy going guy, who paints and has found himself to be quite a private investigator even though he is techy challenged. He hates carrying a cell phone and when he does it is rarely on. He investigates the old fashioned way. He talks to people and then heads to a river for a bit of fishing to ponder over what they have told him. Surprisingly he can make all the pieces fall into place to solve the crime.
Sheriff Martha Ettinger is the perfect woman for Sean. If they could just realize it themselves. They work well together and see eye to eye on most subjects. One would be truly lost without the other.
The theme that drives this story it the wolf debate taking place out West. I have to stay the author tells both sides of the story very well without being political or preachy. He has created a very captivating mystery that involve parties on both sides.
What I like best about Keith McCafferty stories is his writing style. The characters jump right off the pages. His descriptive quality not only brings the human characters to life but the setting as well. His builds a story that just ebbs and flows and then the clues start to come together and the pages fly. I had an inkling to what was really happening but with the twists I was never sure if I was on the right track. I love books like this.
Controversy, revenge, mystery, extremists, murder, deception, trauma, drama…this story has all that and more.
Thanks to the people at Penguin I have 1 copy of Dead Man’s Fancy
Plus a Paperback copy of The Gray Ghost Murders too!!
ALL FOR ONE WINNER!!
I will also giveaway my hardcover review copy of Dead Man’s Fancy!!
Contest is open to anyone over 18 years old
with a US or Canadian mailing address.
Duplicate entries will be deleted. Void where prohibited.
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something you like here and become a follower.
Followers Will Receive 2 Bonus Entries For Each Way They Follow.
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Leave a comment for Keith for 5 Bonus Entries !
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5 Bonus Entries For Each Link.
Contest Will End February 7, 2014 at 11:59 PM CST
Winners Will Be Chosen By Random.org
Winners Will Be Notified By Email
and Will Be Posted Here In The Sidebar.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Receiving a complimentary copy in no way reflected my review of this book. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”