The Blog Tour, Day #5 — Pat Browning

November 28th, 2011

Pat Browning is a friend I’ve never met, one of the unique gifts of the virtual age.  She’s also a fine novelist, as witness her marvelous Absinthe of Malice, now available on Kindle for (good heavens!) 99 cents, and in paper formats for somewhat more.

Here are some typically cogent thoughts about writing from Pat.

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd: working with the senses

I read somewhere that a writer should evoke all the senses on every page. That sounds like sensory overload to me, but it’s worth considering. As just one real-life example, nothing packs a punch like the sense of smell. One whiff of a gardenia and I’m back at the college prom. Blue taffeta dress, homemade, demure, just right for a coed from the sticks in the 1940s. Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye.

So what does a horse smell like? I had to know for a piece of nostalgia I was writing. We batted the question around on a listserv but nobody really knew the answer. I sifted the suggestions and wrote this: “Outside, muffled voices and laughter mingled with the creak of wagon wheels and the soft snuffling of horses. The smell of dust and dung, fresh hay and old leather hung on the air.”

The memoir, “White Petunias,” is about a Sunday night in 1939 just before a global war scattered “the boys” to the four winds and changed our lives forever. You can read it on my blog at http://tinyurl.com/2ga6hbm.

Writing a smelly horse was nothing compared to writing a murder mystery. I have ridden in a creaky horse-drawn wagon but I have no experience with dead bodies. I started ABSINTHE OF MALICE from Scratch Minus One and was enrolled in online writing classes the whole time I worked on it. Early on, when I finally got around to a murder victim, I set the scene in some detail.

Pat also knows what a camel smells like.

In the scene, the protagonist climbs a circular staircase to the tower of an old jail converted to a bar. It’s based on a real jail/bar. I’ve made that climb to the tower so I felt confident that I got it right:

“The stairway was narrow and winding, and halfway up I stopped to get my breath. No more midnight rambles for me. Music coming up through the door downstairs bounced off the walls. Doody-wop-doody-wop …”

So far, so good, but on my class bulletin board the instructor wanted to know what the scene smelled like. Smelled? It smelled? I didn’t have a clue. Someone suggested a sickroom smell. Someone else suggested the smell of vomit. I don’t vomit on a regular basis so I searched my memory all the way back to a piano bar in Dallas where some pervert slipped me a Mickey Finn. I added this to my scene in the tower:

“I went on up, stopping at the top to call again. Heard nothing. Smelled something, a sick room smell. I forced myself to take a small step inside the room. … I ran to her, got down on my knees, and turned her over. She lay in vomit, her eyes open and staring, her face pale, distorted. I sat back on my haunches, my eyes watering from the smell.”

Later on, when another dead body turns up, a character merely says, “Whoo-ee! Musta been a big rat died up here!”

Don’t blame me. I’ve already told you I don’t have much experience with dead bodies.

James Lee Burke, one of my favorite authors, has a gift for evoking the senses. He may work as hard as everyone else but you’d never guess, given the rhythm and cadence of his words. The reader simply comes upon a lovely passage, such as this one from IN THE MOON OF RED PONIES:

“The wind was up, balmy and smelling of distant rain, denting the alfalfa and timothy in the fields, puffing pine needles out of the trees on the slopes. The two sorrels were running in tandem across the pasture, their necks extended, their muscles rippling. In the distance I could hear thunder echoing in the hills.”

Is there a sweeter smell than distant rain? “Whoo-ee! Musta been a big rat died up here!” just doesn’t compare, does it?

****

Tim, thanks for hosting me today. I had fun, and hope your readers have fun, too.

Well, if they didn’t, they should lighten up.  Thanks so much, Pat.  I loved this piece.

And for those of you who miss me (just a little?) I’m bloviating about unwritten books I want to read over on Jinx Schwartz’s blog,  http://www.jinxschwartz.blogspot.com/

25 Responses to “The Blog Tour, Day #5 — Pat Browning”

  1. W.S. Gager Says:

    Pat: I will never smell vomit the same way again! I also just love your cover. It stops me every time I see it and beckons me to pick it up which is so frustrating because it is on my screen. Rats!
    Wendy
    W.S. Gager on Writing

  2. M.M. Gornell Says:

    Oh Pat, I can see that picture of you on the Camel a thousand times and still smile! Soooo agree with you about the senses. And the passage from In the Moon of Red Ponies–absolutely lovely! I can see why you like it.

    Madeline

  3. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Pat, I enjoyed both versions of your first novel, Full Circle and Absinthe of Malice, and look forward to the sequel. I agree that’s a great picture of you on the camel. 🙂

  4. john m. daniel Says:

    Pat, you’re amazing. I have a defective nose and can’t smell much, but I certainly get the scent (and the sense) of everything you describe from an olfactory point of view.

  5. Jackie King Says:

    I really enjoyed your post. Describing the senses without annoying the reader, is a very hard thing to do. You did it well in your examples.

  6. Alice Duncan Says:

    You know, I do try to get all the senses in the stuff I write, but I’m always leaving something out. But you did a great job in ABSINTHE, and I’m very impressed, Pat!

  7. Mike Orenduff Says:

    I just finished White Petunias. If I had one wish it would be for a book-length version, preferably around ninety thousand words. Great writing, Pat.

  8. Earl Staggs Says:

    You’re an excellent writer, Pat, whether it’s a novel, a memoir, or an email. That’s why I’m a fan. That’s also why I’m anxious for you to get that next book out.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Pat, it was so great to host you and to get the ever-necessary reminder that “What are we looking at?” isn’t the only question we need to ask ourselves on our readers’ behalf.

    Also loved “Whate Petunias.” Gonna come back when the new book is ready?

  10. Pat Browning Says:

    Mike, you’re right. White Petunias started out as a book 50 years ago and I never got past Chapter 1. Hung onto it and revised it periodically until I turned it into a short piece of nostalgia. But about a book — if I ever finish Metaphor for Murder maybe I’ll pick up Petunias again. Thanks for the encouragement!
    Pat

  11. Jenny Milchman Says:

    Your descriptions are as authentic as if you were amongst horses, vomit, and dead bodies on a regular basis, Pat 🙂 This post brings to mind the research another author talked about doing recently to conjure up the experience of all 5 senses (6–including emotion, in this case fear). He was in a simulated plane crash. I might stop at the horse back riding!

  12. Pat Browning Says:

    Wendy, I can thank Krill Press for that cover. I laughed when I saw it but I rewrote a scene to make it fit the cover and have never been sorry. Well, girl, you can always treat yourself to a print copy. That red and green cover is very Christmas-y, don’t ya think? Just a sales pitch — my hobby these days.
    Pat

  13. Pat Browning Says:

    Hi, Madeline:
    The picture on a camel makes me smile, too. Them wuz the daze! James Lee Burke is in a class by himself when it comes to evoking the senses. My favorites are the Robicheaux books. I lived in Baton Rouge once and the bayous are colorful in every way. He doesn’t have to make anything up. All he has to do is go outside, take a deep breath and look around.
    Best,
    Pat

  14. Pat Browning Says:

    Hi, Jenny:
    A plane crash is too gruesome for me to contemplate. I’ll take the horses any day of the week. Thanks for stopping by!
    Pat Browning

  15. Pat Browning Says:

    John, maybe my acute sense of smell is why I love to eat. I think sense of smell contributes to the appetite, right? Read that somewhere a million years ago. So, with your defective nose, how is your appetite?
    Pat

  16. Pat Browning Says:

    Jackie,

    Putting food and writing together — I made an old-fashioned pound cake for Thanksgiving and it is described as “a dense cake.” I just finished reading a dense book — JITTERBUG by Loren Estleman — and he immerses the reader in wartime Detroit without interrupting the story.

    He’s an expert at it. Every description pertains to a character or the plot. Now … the profanity is something else … don’t get me started. (–:

    Pat

  17. Pat Browning Says:

    Earl, dredging up another member and quoting a member of San Joaquin Sisters in Crime: “Words is my life.” Yours, too. I can tell.
    Pat

  18. Pat Browning Says:

    Earl,
    Dredging up another “member”? Now that would be a neat trick. I meant “memory.”
    I got hung up with this Captcha stuff and lost track of what I was doing.
    Pat

  19. Pat Browning Says:

    Alice, your books make me laugh. That all I ask! (–8

    Pat

  20. Pat Browning Says:

    Jean, what I’d like to know from you is what kind of vitamins do you take? You work harder than anyone I know.
    Pat

  21. Pat Browning Says:

    Tim,
    We have to stop meeting like this.
    Just kidding. Thanks for hosting me here. You have a great blog.
    Pat

  22. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I enjoyed your post. The staircase and body not so much. So I figure you succeeded in setting the scene 🙂 Was the camel bad tempered? I have Absence sitting on my kindle, ready to be read.
    Enjoy your travels around the blog.

  23. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I, of course, meant. “Absinthe.” Forgive me, it’s been a long day.

  24. Dana King Says:

    Smell is my weakest sense as a writer, maybe because I don’t smell all that well myself. (“Well,” I said. I didn’t say I don’t smell good, though I have my moments after yard work.) I do sound well, which could be due to my background as a musician.

    You have made me rethink how to approach getting a few more smells into my writing, and remonded me of what a master James Lee Burke is. Thanks for both.

  25. Jaden Terrell Says:

    Nice post, Pat. I agree, James Lee Burke is the master of evocative description, though I think William Kent Krueger and Tim Hallinan are right up there with him. I think horses smell wonderful, though it is a hard smell to describe. It’s sort of like dust and fresh grass combined with a sweet, animal smell. And you got the smell of the barn exactly right.

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