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Interview with Larry D. Sweazy, author of the Marjorie Trumaine murder mystery series

2016-06-16 22.44.03

I met with Larry on the eve of the ASI/ISC 2016 Indexing Conference in Chicago, just before the conference’s official reception. Just like in his novels, my walk to our meeting place was blustery and foreboding, but the welcome I received from him and his lovely wife, Rose (whom I recognized instantly from one of her accessories as a fellow cat-lover), could not have been more reassuring. After warning him that I was not attempting to stalk him (since I was also writing a review of his second book for EAC’s Toronto Branch blog, BoldFace, and summarizing his keynote speech the next day for the ISC’s upcoming edition ofThe Bulletin newsletter), we sat down to talk business: that of writing and indexing and how the two connect.

In the first book of the series, See Also Murder[1], there had been mention of a magpie, so I started by asking him if that had been a total coincidence: indeed, it was only by fluke that he had used a species that is the mascot of theIndexing Society of Canada, since he lives in Indiana and didn’t know our connection to the aviary collector.

I also was interested in his attention to detail about the prairies. My mum was a Saskatchewan emigrant, and many of his references seemed straight out of her life: hating the wind, a Mountie hat (my grandfather was in the RCMP), and people who keep their problems to themselves (I’m definitely stiff upper lip as a result of her influence). He did live in North Dakota (the series setting) for a time, so the environs had permeated him. A strong sense of place is pervasive in his writing and features in his other historical, western and thriller novels and short stories.

One of the most interesting aspects of Larry’s writing is his ability to create a credible female protagonist voice. I mentioned having heard a radio interview of Clive Greave (author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven) in which he was praised for his successful treatment of the same choice. It is remarkable to do this so convincingly and in an ongoing way (i.e. a series, not just a one-off book). The details Larry captures were striking: for example, in See Also Deception, he mentions the wind coming up and the women all grabbing at their skirts automatically. So real! The purse contents, menthol cigarettes, McCall’s-pattern dresses—it all works. While Larry did have strong women in his life as a youngster, he also credits good communication with his wife as another source of empathy for things he couldn’t initially know as much about, and he says it has made him a better person for that development: but, he adds, you have to have empathy for humans, not just women, and then you have to carry that empathy out into the world via the writing. Well, he’s got that down.

Another thing he has down is humour. As I said in my BoldFace review, I have no experience with the murder mystery genre, so I was surprised to trip across some laughs in a dark storyline. But what appealed to me was the subtlety as opposed to being hit over the head with guffaws. Larry was pleased that this was evident and said he felt it was important to respect the reader’s intelligence. Sometimes these were comments that just sounded like a conversation with your friend, others were funny because I heard myself in them. Apparently a laugh’s okay—perhaps necessary—when you’re talking murder, and while I don’t particularly enjoy reading humorous books per se, it was another thing that made my introduction to this genre easier.

I and others at the conclusion of his keynote talk asked about the writing and indexing process, their connection and how they affected Larry’s stories. There are clearly commonalities: you can’t very well expect to get repeat contracts if you procrastinate on getting (good) writing or indexing done. Both require discipline, which is helped by an organized approach. I could relate to his separating tasks into parts of the day, suitable to his psychic energy and his abilities, and to his being very literal in dividing up the time available by the pages required to achieve personal and work deadlines. A curious mind is facilitated by an orderly approach to life, and the ability to break things down into discrete elements and re-group them by their connections works for both key entries and key clues. He acknowledged the unravelling of the mystery with the process of indexing for Marjorie, too. Upon reflection, I’m sure my experience in private investigation was good training for my inquisitive mind and honed the skills I need for effective and systematic editing and indexing. We may love order and classification, but as indexers we need to be detail-oriented and able to see the big picture simultaneously.

Speaking of parts of the whole, I asked Larry what he envisioned the scope of this series to be—a trilogy? More? He couldn’t say for sure, but there’s at least one more coming: See Also Deadline, available May 2017. That’s good news. But the problem with discovering and glomming on to a new-to-me author is finding the time to go back and read the other stories they’ve produced. Social media and the advantages of the Information Age expose us to new pleasures more quickly and easily. The fallout means less time for other stuff; in my case, that usually leads to letting cooking go. Based on my Wine and Cheese award system (see blog sidebar), Marjorie Trumaine has caused a fair bit of order-in. Although not for too many days, since her stories are hard to put down.

 

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[1] For those readers who are not familiar with indexing, “See also” is a conventional indicator to cross-references in back-of-the-book indexes; it tells readers that other closely related and additional information is available under another key word. “See” plus a key word indicates that the reader should look up a synonymous term that is actually used in the text, in case they have not chosen the indexed word to start their search with. Larry’s titles are little homages to the indexer’s work.

Book review: See Also Deception, by Larry D. Sweazy

(Released May 2015)

By Vanessa Wells

Book review: See Also Deception, by Larry D. Sweazy

Full disclosure: I have never been into murder mysteries. No early Nancy Drews, no later Agatha Christies—frankly, I just felt like I would never be able to figure the mystery out and would feel kinda dumb, so I never embraced the genre. The only reason I was interested in the Marjorie Trumaine books by Larry D. Sweazy was that I’d heard they were written by and about an indexer.

I was a little skeptical about how the second book of the mystery series, See Also Deception, could pick up with a new murder only months after those of the first, but this fell by the wayside once I cracked open the book. In a nutshell, our newbie-sleuth heroine cannot accept that her librarian friend has committed suicide, and her indexer-character tenacity leads her to work the details of the case that are missed by the police. Fortunately, foreshadowing is well handled and carries the reader’s interest rather than handing over the solution to the murder on a silver platter. This is perhaps due to Sweazy’s writing habit of working organically and without complete pre-outlining, which lets the story unfold for himself as much as for his audience.

In his acknowledgments, the author says, “Indexing, like writing, is a job best done in isolation.” In See Also Deception, he has again succeeded in creating an atmosphere that highlights the protagonist’s isolation, both physical and psychological, despite the constant presence of her invalid husband and her community of Dickinson, North Dakota. The bleak feeling also works for the character and plot development that he tantalizingly creates for the reader.

Of course, the fun part for those of us editors who are also indexers is the author’s use of the indexing career and practices as a plot device. I could relate to his reference to Marjorie’s appreciation of the order on her desk and the issues involved in creating an effective index. But fun aside, his inclusion of partial indexes as her way of making sense of the case is absolutely essential to the story: a thriller featuring a doctor could hardly work if medicine wasn’t part of the plot and character development. I think it must also do the indexing industry good to have this kind of work introduced to and described for the general public, since we indexers are all too used to the “What’s that?” and “They still do that?” questions about our work.

On the more serious side, See Also Deception also examines the issue of assisted dying, which is very topical in Canada at the moment. Sweazy handles this difficult topic deftly, but in the interest of not providing any spoilers, that’s all I’ll say.

Finally, my husband (of an arts and advertising background) saw the book and said, “That’s a great cover!” Cover graphic design is not just a consideration for marketability; the visual appeal of this book (and the first in the series) did keep me returning to it—well, I fib a bit: it affected me only twice, since I finished the novel in two days. But it’s a nice little bonus.

Good fun: definitely put it on your beach reading list or, if you want to really immerse yourself in the atmosphere, save it til those long, dark winter nights.

 

This book review appeared on EAC Toronto’s BoldFace blog.

Why Can’t We See Our Own Typos?!

Fear not: even editors use other editors to proofread their own writing. Here’s one take on why you need a professional to catch them.

WHAT’S UP WITH THAT: WHY IT’S SO HARD TO CATCH YOUR OWN TYPOS

by Nick Stockton August 12, 2014  Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2014/08/wuwt-typos/
YOU HAVE FINALLY finished writing your article. You’ve sweat over your choice of words and agonized about the best way to arrange them to effectively get your point across. You comb for errors, and by the time you publish you are absolutely certain that not a single typo survived. But, the first thing your readers notice isn’t your carefully crafted message, it’s the misspelled word in the fourth sentence.

What’s Up With That?
Each week, we’ll explain the science behind a strange phenomenon that you may be wondering about, or may be hearing about for the first time right here.
Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details?

The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in “the” to “hte,” or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article. In fact, I made both of these mistakes when I wrote this story. The first was a misspelling in a sentence that my editor had to read aloud for me before I saw it for myself. The second mistake was leaving out the entire preceding paragraph that explains why we miss our own typos.

Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.

This explains why your readers are more likely to pick up on your errors. Even if you are using words and concepts that they are also familiar with, their brains are on this journey for the first time, so they are paying more attention to the details along the way and not anticipating the final destination.

But even if familiarization handicaps your ability to pick out mistakes in the long run, we’re actually pretty awesome at catching ourselves in the act. (According to Microsoft, backspace is the third-most used button on the keyboard.) In fact, touch typists—people who can type without looking at their fingers—know they’ve made a mistake even before it shows up on the screen. Their brain is so used to turning thoughts into letters that it alerts them when they make even minor mistakes, like hitting the wrong key or transposing two characters. In a study published earlier this year, Stafford and a colleague covered both the screen and keyboard of typists and monitored their word rate. These “blind” typists slowed down their word rate just before they made a mistake.

Touch typists are working off a subconscious map of the keyboard. As they type, their brains are instinctually preparing for their next move. “But, there’s a lag between the signal to hit the key and the actual hitting of the key,” Stafford said. In that split second, your brain has time to run the signal it sent your finger through a simulation telling it what the correct response will feel like. When it senses an error, it sends a signal to the fingers, slowing them down so they have more time to adjust.

As any typist knows, hitting keys happens too fast to divert a finger when it’s in the process of making a mistake. But, Stafford says this evolved from the same mental mechanism that helped our ancestors’ brains make micro adjustments when they were throwing spears.

Unfortunately, that kind of instinctual feedback doesn’t exist in the editing process. When you’re proof reading, you are trying to trick your brain into pretending that it’s reading the thing for the first time. Stafford suggests that if you want to catch your own errors, you should try to make your work as unfamiliar as possible. Change the font or background color, or print it out and edit by hand. “Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form,” he said.