Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney
When Phyllis Whitney died in February 2008, I was surprised–I hadn’t realized she was still alive. She was, in fact, 104 years old.
Back when we were both a few decades younger, I never missed a new Whitney novel. I wasn’t a romance reader in the 60s and 70s, but then Phyllis Whitney never considered herself a writer of romance, or even of romantic suspense. She was a mystery writer, honored as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.
Whitney published nearly forty suspense novels over the course of her long career, along with numerous young adult and children’s books. Many of her suspense novels revolved around young women (often first person narrators) searching for answers to old family secrets or recent mysteries. Her heroines frequently found romance as well, usually low key and off page, not the focus of the book.
When I read Whitney’s obituary, I no longer had any of her novels on my shelves. My library has turned over several times during the last thirty or forty years (and most of my long-time keepers are science fiction or fantasy–it’s the world building that draws me back). But I remembered Whitney’s novels fondly, so I stopped by Half-Price Books and tracked down three of her last four books, published in 1992 (The Ebony Swan), 1993 (Star Flight), and 1994 (Daughter of the Stars). Her last novel, Amethyst Dreams, was published in 1997, when Whitney was 93. The books were much as I remembered, thoughtful, atmospheric stories about women with secrets to uncover, well written and enjoyable. (Despite its title, Star Flight contains only a touch of the paranormal, and Daughter of the Stars was an Indian name for the Shenandoah River.)
Whitney was well known for her use of setting, with the location of the story often playing a major role. She traveled extensively and set novels all over the world, although as she grew older she stayed closer to home, setting her last novels in the Virginias and Carolinas. I still remember her vivid descriptions of kudzu covering abandoned buildings, which I think I read before I ever saw the real thing when I went off to college in North Florida.
The only book of Whitney’s in my library when I read her obituary was her Guide to Fiction Writing, published (by The Writer, Inc.) in 1982 and revised in 1988. The Guide is a small book, 141 pages, highly recommended by my writing mentor, BK Reeves, and just as useful and relevant now as it was twenty years ago.
Following a few pages on how Whitney broke into print in the late 1930s, the first part of the Guide, “Methods and Process,” covers her methods of planning a novel, often called the project notebook system. In all honesty, most of Whitney’s organizational tools don’t work well for me (and she never suggests that hers is the only, or even the best, way to plan), but many people swear by her methods. She covers work habits, research, plotting, organizing, and so forth, and any writer will find something useful in these chapters.
The second part of the Guide, “Technique,” is filled with examples from Whitney’s many novels. She covers beginnings (“a character with a problem doing something interesting”), middles and endings, suspense, setting (in a chapter called “Springboard to Fiction, or Where It Happens”), character, emotion, flashbacks, transitions and time, revisions and rewrites: something for everyone, drawn from more than forty years of writing experience.
I expected the last chapter, “Getting Your Novel Published,” to be dated, but except for having been written in the pre-Internet era of market research and submissions, this section is also solid.
Unfortunately, most of Phyllis Whitney’s books, including the Guide to Fiction Writing, are out of print. Fortunately, in the Internet era this doesn’t mean what it once did. On-line sources such as Amazon and Alibris have used copies available (Amazon currently lists 40+ copies of the Guide, Alibris more than 60). Whitney’s Guide to Fiction Writing is worth the hunt. In fact, I think I’ll go back and read the chapter on “Revisions and Rewrites” again. Or maybe, while I’m at it, the whole book.
Kay Hudson is old enough to appreciate the idea of publishing a novel at the age of 93 and young enough to hope it won’t be her first.