Like a Tree, Ability Will Bloom and Grow*

I’ll bet you’ve had the experience. You enjoy skiing, and you’ve tackled some challenging runs. Then, you don’t get the chance to ski for a while. When you finally do again, it’s back to the bunny slopes, because your skills have gotten a bit rusty. Or, perhaps you’re a card player who takes a break from it for a while. Then, when you get into a poker game, you find yourself making ‘beginner mistakes.’

Whether it’s music, running, poker, or cooking, your skills get and stay sharper if you use them regularly. The same is true for writing. That’s why writers are so often urged to write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences.

If you ask Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, he’ll tell you that detection skills need to be sharpened regularly, too. In The A.B.C. Murders, he works with Chief Inspector Japp and other police detectives to solve a baffling series of murders. It’s a challenging case, and certainly puts Poirot on his mettle. But that actually suits Poirot. At the beginning of the novel, before the first murder actually occurs, he has a conversation with Captain Hastings, who’s returned from Argentina for a stay in London. Hastings makes a comment about Poirot’s being retired; here’s Poirot’s answer:

‘‘And I will admit it, my friend, the retirement, I care for it not at all. If the little grey cells are not exercised, they grow the rust.’’

Research bears him out. Studies show that the more we use our thinking skills, the longer in life we have them.

And it’s not just thinking and detecting, although there are several examples of those in crime fiction. We see plenty of other examples of characters who know the value of regular discipline to keep skills strong. That side of a character can add an interesting dimension; it’s realistic, too.

For example, fans of Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss can tell you that she is a police detective with the Violent Crimes Unit of the Göteborg Police. She is also a former Swedish national judo champion, and former European champion. Her job and family life keep her very busy, but that doesn’t mean she wants to give up martial arts. So, she goes to the dojo sometimes to work out and to keep her skills strong. Her judo sessions are also very useful for keeping her in good physical condition. And sometimes, when she’s on the job, her skill at judo turns out to be very useful.

One of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s series features Beatrice Coleman, a former Atlanta folk art curator who’s retired to the small town of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As we learn in Quilt or Innocence, the first of this series, she originally moved to Dappled Hills to be nearer to her daughter, Piper. But she’s soon drawn into life in her new home. And that includes the Village Quilters, one of several local quilting guilds. When she first gets to know the members of the guild, Beatrice doesn’t know much about how to quilt.  It doesn’t help, either, that some of the members have been quilting for decades, and make it all look very easy (which it’s not, really). Part of the reason for this is that the guild members mees regularly, both to keep their skills sharp and to keep their social network strong. Little by little, Beatrice learns some quilting skills, and is better able to contribute to the group’s work. Among other things, this series shows how something like quilting really has to be done regularly to hone skills.

So does playing baseball. Like any athletes, baseball players have regular workout sessions, even during the off-season. Skills such as pitching, catching, running, and communicating with teammates, have to be kept sharp if a team is going to win. And that doesn’t happen if players spend too much time off the field. There’s a dose of this in Alison Gordon’s Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry series. Henry is a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her specialty is baseball, as was her creator’s. So, she travels with the (American League) Toronto Titans, and, of course, attends their home games. Readers follow along as the team members sharpen their skills during spring training (in Night Game), and work out before games during the baseball season (e.g. in The Dead Pull Hitter). The series gives readers an ‘inside look’ at the way professional athletes keep their skills from getting rusty.

But it’s not just athletic or other physical skills that need to be honed. Just ask John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep. He’s a member of the Royal Thai Police, based in Bangkok. He is also a devout Buddhist. As you’ll know, Buddhism entails the mental discipline of regular meditation and focus. And it doesn’t come easily. It requires patience, lots of repetition and training, and regular mental exercise. And all of that takes time. Still, Jitpleecheep has found that study and meditation help him keep his focus and develop his spiritual and cognitive side.

You might say a similar thing about Tony Hillerman’s Sergeant Jim Chee. As fans can tell you, he is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Chee has kept many of the Navajo traditions, too. In fact, at the beginning of the series, he is studying to be a yata’ali, a Navajo singer/healer. To be a skilled yata’ali takes a great deal of training and time. Each ritual has its own complexities, and Chee aims to learn to do each one exactly correctly. So, he hones his skills regularly, by going through the steps of each ritual. And, at least in the first novels of the series, he doesn’t let a lot of time go by between sessions. He knows the importance of not allowing his skills to rust.

And that’s the thing about skills, whether they are mental or physical. They need to be used, on a regular basis, or they do get rusty. Little wonder we see characters keeping their skills sharp in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman’s Scales and Arpeggios.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Helene Tursten, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman

24 responses to “Like a Tree, Ability Will Bloom and Grow*

  1. Margot: Arthur Beauchamp, in Trial of Passion by William Deverell, is lured from retirement to conduct a rape defence in Vancouver. Away from the courtroom for some time he falters in the early stages of the trial but returns to form. I doubt in real life it would have happened so quickly. Reacting quickly and decisively to the unexpected answer or unforeseen argument is a skill that is hard to regain immediately on returning to the courtroom.

    • I’d suspect it must be difficult, Bill. It’s not only a matter of remembering the relevant legal precedent, if that’s at issue. It’s also a matter of one’s use of language, courtroom presence, and more. Those are skills that I would imagine take time to hone, and fade if not used. Thanks, too, for mentioning the Deverell. It’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post.

  2. I must read the Helene Turston – in my crime series I also had someone who was a judo champion who had been forced to retire through injury. I think what happens to sports stars once they retire is very interesting because they’ve had such a very strong focus, being the best they can be and winning. What happens next? It was quite fun having my character Sam Falconer go off the rails a little!

    • Oh, interesting, Victoria! It’s good to learn a bit about Sam. And you do explore a fascinating aspect of the athlete’s life. What happens after retirement? I’d suspect that it means a complete rethinking of everything, which can add a real layer of character development. And I do recommend the Tursten series. Irene Huss is a strong character, and the plots are well-crafted.

  3. As for learning again how to ride that bicycle again, I wonder, “Who are the oldest sleuths in crime fiction?” Those curmudgeons face special challenges — old dogs learning new tricks — and I bet there is a ready-made readers’ market waiting for them (i.e., I suspect the median age for crime fiction readers is well past middle age). Margot, perhaps you and your many followers have some ideas.

    • There are plenty of fictional sleuths, Tim, who aren’t – erm – 20 anymore. A few examples (and there are many more!) are Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson, Derek B. Miller’s Sheldon Horowitz, and Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill’s Hazel and Emily Micallef. I know you folks will think of lots of others.

  4. Thank God for the Internet. I don’t know how earlier generations managed to retrieve anything from the scramble of old brains. Or maybe struggling to do it, makes one sharper.

    • That’s an interesting point, Patti. There is research that suggests that exercising the brain keeps it sharper. And the Internet has certainly made it easier to do that as we search, do crossword puzzles, and so on.

      • I want to exercise my brain and keep it sharper and stronger. I notice with excess time on the internet my brain has gotten rusty, dull, and faint. Definitely not as sharp as it was before. My reading has taken a backseat so I definitely need to return to that. I want to learn new words and keep my own log of words that I’m learning each week. I also want to return to crossword puzzles. I tried my hand at them but they’re so difficult to me which resulted in some of the fun being taken away. When I attempted a crossword I couldn’t even get one whole word in. How do I remedy this? Do I look up the definition of the clues in a dictionary or something?

        • To me, anyway, Brian, doing crossword puzzles is a skill like many others. The more you do it, the skilled you get. And, for what it’s worth, the more read, the bigger vocabulary you develop. The bigger your vocabulary, the better you get at puzzles.

          You make an interesting point about the Internet, too. The Internet is a powerful and, often, very useful and important tool. But it makes a far better servant than master…

  5. Thanks so much for the mention, Margot!
    I think I’m a lot like Beatrice: I know about things in *theory*, but haven’t actually tried any of it. The execution of the hobby can be a lot different from reading about it!

    • It’s always a pleasure to mention your work, Elizabeth. And you are so right about the difference between thinking and reading about something, and actually doing it. I feel that way about a lot of things, myself!

  6. My writing skills have certainly been rusty since I haven’t written anything for a while but like you said, Margot, just a few sentences every day will get those skills sharper and sharper. A few sentences are better than nothing. Those few can turn into pages and thousands of words, whereas no words equal zero, nada!

    • Exactly, Brian. I couldn’t have put that better myself. Even a few sentences a day will help sharpen writing skills and keep the strong. It’s the daily discipline of it that matters.

  7. The tiny details you focus on, Margot, amaze me. All of which nail the concept of each post. Just sayin’. More on point, I remember when I switched back to driving a stick-shift many years ago. Those first few days weren’t pretty. Your example of writing is apt, too, which is why I write every day. Well, lately we’ve been taking time away to have fun, but I still write in the early morning hours before we venture off for the day. Hope you’re enjoying your summer!!!

    • Thanks, Sue. I hope you’re enjoying your summer as well. And thanks for the kind words; I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You have a really good example with driving stick vs automatic shift. It is hard to get back into using a standard shift car when you haven’t in a while. And I’m glad to hear you’re making time to keep writing. That’s how you keep those tale-telling muscles in shape.

  8. Margot, one of Jack Higgins’ most popular characters is Liam Devlin, a retired IRA gunman turned poet and scholar. It’s a pity Higgins cast him in only three novels including THE EAGLE HAS LANDED (1975) where Devlin teaches Irish literature at a Berlin university. He is one of the most endearing literary heroes I have “met” in fiction, and deserved a series of his own.

    • He sounds like an interesting character, Prashant. But that’s the thing about Higgins. He really did create some strong, memorable characters, didn’t he? Thanks for mentioning this one.

  9. I do like it when a protagonist has another main focus in life, a hobby or a skill. It makes the stories more interesting.

    And once again you have reminded me of series I need to get to: those by John Burdett and Tony Hillerman.

    • Both of those series are, in my opinion, very well-written, Tracy. I do recommend them. And I agree with you about a protagonist who has has a focus, such as a special skill or a hobby. It adds to the character.

  10. Col

    It might be time for another Hillerman book, thanks for the reminder!

  11. You need Lord Peter Wimsey. He has thousands of skills, from playing the piano to driving to singing to bellringing, and he NEVER gets rusty at all. It drives me mad, I love the books and many things about them, but Lord Peter’s all round superiority is sickening…

    • 😆 Yes, indeed, Moira. I know just what you mean. The books are engaging, and Sayers did create some interesting mysteries. But it would make Wimsey so much more human if he failed at least a few times, or if there were some things he couldn’t do.

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