The Mystery of Mystery


By Karen Wills

My adored one and I have been discussing elements most found in best-loved fiction. We came up with the following: mystery, conflict, suspense, doubt, implied or real sex, implied or real violence, and resolution.

Mystery to me is that haunting element in a character, situation, place, or series of events that eludes easy explanation. It’s the thing that keeps us reading to grasp or comprehend. We don’t want to be hopelessly mystified. We do want to be endlessly intrigued. It’s why we want to talk about the book afterwards with other readers. It’s something that made an internal shift in our thinking and feeling and awareness. My mystery is an element, not a genre centered on crime and murders. The mystery I mean can exist in any genre.

It is to literature what outer space is to the physical world.


For example, how could Lonesome Dove’s Woodrow Call refuse to ever acknowledge Newt as his son? Yes, Call is stiff necked and proud, but this has to do with a paralyzing personal reticence. Where did it come from? And what about the fairy tale element in Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See? Fairy tales always have mystery.

Mystery isn’t magic realism, because the explanation for that is that it’s, you know, plain old magic, and so we don’t have to think and search for explanation. Likewise with reports of religious miracles where the conclusion will always be that God caused them. End of story.

Poetry always has mystery, so perhaps poetic writing, prose with metaphors and similes that reveal amazing connections, has it. A deep connection to nature or any passion may have it.

Mystery is delightfully hard to pin down, but think about your favorite books.

I’ll bet they have at least a little tantalizing mystery.

Judge a Book by Its Cover?

by Karen Wills

Who doesn’t love to browse in the fiction section of bookstores? Much of that joy comes from perusing book covers. Did you ever wonder how the publishers draw us in, how they pick their cover art designs? I found a few answers at the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference.

The session on The Art of Book Cover Design taught me that those pictures with the “headless bodice” are a strong trend right now. They let readers imagine themselves in those ball gowns or romantic negligees. Another reason is that sometimes everything in a photo shoot is right, the pose, the dress, the setting—all but the model’s face. So, she appears from the neck down. Full-face covers say, “Nice to see you!” We want to know the story behind that compelling stranger’s expression. There’s also the “Got your back” cover which is a woman seen from the back. We sense she’s facing a trial or challenge and we’re behind her to give support.

There are also covers with evocative, symbolic images like flowers or castles (or my own Remarkable Silence). Some covers feature accessories like shoes by a doorway or a dress thrown across a divan. These are mysterious.
And even type font chosen for the title is a factor. It can let people know the time of the story. For example, we’ve all seen

the Art Deco typeset for books set in that era. Classic font still rules, however, because it’s timeless and easy to read.
Book covers are part of the joy of choosing what we read. They invite us inside irresistible worlds. Let’s find a bookstore, or look through our e-books menu, and browse.

Remarkable Silence Karen Wills

Leaving My Camera at Home

by Karen WillsIM003737

I have nothing against photographs. They enrich our memories, our knowledge of nature and the world of people, they can make us laugh or weep or take action or be silent in appreciation. One photograph can tell a story whole. Walls in our home are more filled with photographs than paintings, although there are plenty of both.

But when I go hiking in Glacier National Park, I leave the camera at home. I am a writer. I started leaving the camera behind and carrying a small notebook and pen in my pack to force myself to stretch to convey in words accurate pictures of natural scenes peaceful as a doe in a meadow nursing her spotted fawn, powerful as spring waterfalls, or grand as mountain vistas.

Tennyson’s poem, The Eagle: A Fragment, started me on this. When I was young, the poet brought me up short with the eagle watching “from his mountain walls” as “The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.” I saw the ocean exactly and at once as the raptor did. So I search for the right metaphor, simile, or descriptive phrase. I take it home and try to fit it like a jigsaw piece in the perfect empty space in my writing to complete something that includes shape and shading, like a memorable photograph, but in words. I dream of giving my readers the rare and magical gift of eagle sight.


by Karen Wills
On a decade-delayed honeymoon, my husband and I took a road trip. Part of our trip included visiting the homes of two writers who had extraordinarily supportive partners. This was appropriate as Jerry and I met at a writers critique group. He has ever been supportive of my writing, especially when I need to talk through plot issues. (Not to mention he built me a writing cabin.)

The partnership I’ll write of today was that of Jack London and his second wife Charmian. Charmian, an adventurous, progressive woman with a ready laugh, captivated Jack London, an advocate of women’s equality. He referred to her as his “Mate Woman.” Although some friends criticized her as too plain, she suited him. She proved a good companion on their South Sea voyages, and a help to his writing. He had already become famous as the author of Call of the Wild when they met. She typed manuscripts and business letters, and, as an accomplished pianist played Chopin and Lizst to accompany London’s writing hours.

On the edge of the Sonoma Valley in California’s wine country is what is now Jack London State Park. There, the Londons once set out to build what Jack called “my dream house on my dream ranch.” He thought that barring an act of God it would last 1000 years. Instead, the Romanesque mansion of stone and redwood burned one month before the London’s were to move in. He died shortly thereafter at age 40. Charmian built a more modest home on the ranch that also served as a museum for artifacts of their travels and London’s life and writing career. She never remarried. Their partnership was a short union of soul mates. After her death, her ashes were buried next to his, the only marker a red stone from the beautiful ruins that rises among the old madrone trees in one of the most peaceful settings one could imagine.

Writers who have supportive partners are truly blessed.


Lighthouse Keeping

by Karen Wills

My adored one and I just returned from a fourteen day road trip/excellent adventure. We saw many terrific things as we drove down the Pacific Coast, but I wound up falling in love at first sight with lighthouses. The first was the Haceda Head Lighthouse in Oregon, the perfect combination of beauty and utility. Red and white, appearing at a distance high above the rocky coastline where sea lions bobbed to feed in the waters that crashed in noisy waves around them.

Besides being picturesque, it’s an icon of comfort to the storm tossed, to those literally at sea. It is sturdy and, in spite of the sort of phallic inevitability of the tower, there is something both romantic and maternal in its purpose. It is shelter and light. We marveled at how hard all the lighthouse keepers and their families had to work to keep the beacon from the fresnel lens shining through the nights. It meant staying on watch until morning, keeping logs, maintaining food and repairs, educating children, hosting inspectors who did not give advance notice, and greeting curious visitors.

I think the truest authors try to be both beacons and lighthouse keepers. Writers’ work is to shed light on  what Robinson Jeffers calls “the honor and hardship of being human.” It’s often stormy business. Authors have to build, polish, repair, and maintain the structures that we strive to create. At our best we, too, can combine beauty and utility.