Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The things put into that opening scene are SO important!

by Rick Blechta

I enjoyed Tom’s post from yesterday, not only because Raiders of the Lost Ark is particular favourite movie of mine, but for how brilliant that first sequence is in establishing many of the things you need to know about the main characters and the direction the movie’s plot will eventually take, even though the goal of this sequence is too build excitement and pull viewers into the movie. It really is quite extraordinary how many moving parts it all has and how masterfully its done.

So here’s my quick breakdown of what is going on “behind the machinery” that makes this scene work so well.

First, Indy is introduced as being smart, knowledgeable, resourceful, brave but a bit reckless, cool in a crisis, but still very human (his fear of snakes), and more than a little lucky. All of these are important in building his character rapidly and is accomplished with breathtaking skill by the script, direction and acting.

We’re also introduced to his skill with a whip and his cool hat. (Interesting factoid: the part was nearly handed to Tom Selleck!)

Secondly, the character of his antagonist is also rapidly established. With barely a dozen lines, we learn everything we need to know about Belloq. (Actor Paul Freeman does a magnificent job but this role in Raiders also got him typecast into villainous characters which is too bad. He really is a fine actor with a lot more scope than this.)

What is really interesting to me is that the opening sequence has little relation to the coming main plot idea. In the movie’s next sequence, the plot takes an extreme left turn. But since we’ve already learned so much about Indy’s character, all we can think is, “Yeah, he’s the right person for this job.” And that is very important.

To me, I can’t imagine an opening sequence that could be better. Regardless that it’s part of a movie and not a novel, every writer can learn a lot about how to open a story with a bang while sneaking in nearly everything you need to know about the protagonist and the antagonist to make the rest of the story work. And all this is accomplished so effortlessly. Without the viewer noticing, we’re learning everything we need to know about why these two characters do what they do.

That is, we’re not privy to all the hard work and thought behind what we’re watching. We can only aspire to do as well in our own works.

Do you have a favourite opening scene/sequence for a movie or book, and why do you think it works so well? Please tell us!

Below is a good bit of that opening sequence for your viewing pleasure. (Sorry about the ad at the beginning.)

Monday, October 21, 2019

It was a dark and stormy night!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of your book's first line.  You can't let up after that first sentence though, you have to have a dynamite opening scene.

But first, let me tell you about a discussion I had a few weeks ago with an editor I know.  She told me about the hundreds of submissions she looks at every year.  She said, “I can’t tell you how many of them start with the weather.  If I’ve got to give a budding novelist one bit of advice, unless it’s a key part of your opening chapter, never, never , never write about the weather except as background."

Back to my original topic, a boffo first scene.

My wife is out of town so I can watch anything I want on Netflix.  Last night I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the millionth time.  The opening scene in that movie is classic.

The intrepid adventurer in the fedora, traveling with a troupe of shady characters through an Amazonian forest.  Indiana Jones, coming upon the tomb in the thick of the jungle, filled with bats and spiders and traps.  Indie taking the weird golden icon and outrunning the giant boulder, only to find himself ambushed by jungle natives.  Then watching Indiana Jones sprint for his life, swimming to the airplane, and upon getting into the plane, his seatmate is a snake named Reggie.  We find out Indiana has, of all things, a fear of snakes.  When he complains, the pilot says, “Show some backbone.”

During a book event last year, I was asked if I thought European mysteries move more slowly than American mysteries.  The answer to that is yes!!

American readers are impatient.  They want to be gripped immediately and taken for a tense, page turning thrill ride.

I try to do that with my Geneva Chase mystery series.  In my first book, Random Road, I open with six nude bodies found hacked to death in a mansion on an island.  I’d originally written the scene with two people found dead, decided to spice it up by adding two more bodies.  By the time I was done, I’d made it a six-pack.  When it comes to murder, more is better, isn't it?

Do you always have to start a mystery with a murder?  No, but you still have to start by grabbing the reader by the collar.  In my second novel, Darkness Lane, the book opens with Geneva, my intrepid crime reporter, finding out that her fifteen-year-old ward’s best friend (also fifteen) has disappeared.

Well, I’m fudging a little, there is a murder, but we know upfront who the killer is.   In that same first scene ,we find out that a woman who’s been physically and mentally abused for years finally snapped.  She waited until her husband is drunk and passed out, coverd him in gasoline and lit a match.  As the fire department struggled to quell the spreading flames, the cops found her outside with a glass of wine.  When they asked her what happened, she said, “I’m just toasting my husband.”

My third book, Graveyard Bay, has the darkest opening of all.  Geneva is watching the scene unfold in the middle of winter at a marina where two nude bodies are found under the icy surface of the bay, chained to the prongs of a massive forklift used to lift boats in and out of the water.  Brrrrrr.

Just a couple of other outstanding books  I’ve read this year with dynamite opening chapters.

One is Don Winslow’s The Border. This book starts out with a prologue in which the protagonist is caught up in an active mass shooting.  You have no idea what it’s about and won’t really learn until nearly the end of this 720 page thriller.  But it’s a page turner if there ever was one about drug cartels and politics and the parallels to what’s going on today are incredible.

The other book is a mystery called Head Wounds by Dennis Palumbo.  It starts out with “Miles Davis saved my life”. A domestic dispute outside the protagonist's home explodes into violence and a gunshot nearly kills Daniel Rinaldi.  After that, the tension ramps up and the action never stops.  You can’t put this one down.

To end up where I began, your first scene should grab the reader by the collar.  Oh, and never lead with the weather.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Guest Blogger Karen Odden

Type M 4 Murder is thrilled to welcome historical mystery author Karen Odden, who writes wonderfully evocative novels set in 1870s London, including the smelly Thames and the costermongers, medical puzzles and odd facts about poison, anything Scotland Yard, the true weird stories that surround musicians and visual artists, and good old-fashioned romantic plots.

On Time and Place by Karen Odden

Every year some girlfriends and I hike the Grand Canyon south rim trails, sixteen miles down Kaibab and up Bright Angel, all in one day.

I still remember the first time I did it, how struck I was not only by the beauty of my adopted state (I was raised in upstate New York) but also at how over the course of the 5,000 feet of elevation change from top to bottom, the color of dirt on my boots changed from yellow to brown to red and back to brown. I was literally walking through time, telescoping thousands of years into minutes, and as I turned at the one-mile marker and gazed up toward the rim, I felt surprised, stirred, humbled, and curious. And in that moment, I swear something in my brain sparked and spun in a new direction.

For me, the Canyon collapses time and place—or perhaps, more precisely, it renders time as a material place. I think the sheer enormity of the rocks overhead pressed two truths into my bones: first, that I should start paying attention to those wondrous moments when time collapses and takes a physical shape, and second, that sometimes, when I’m trying to absorb the essence of a site, there is no substitute for getting my feet on the ground, even if it’s decades or centuries later. Like some other writers who have blogged on this site, I write historical fiction and feel it is important to get as close as I can, physically, to the specific time and space of our settings—in my case, 1870s London. I do this partly for authenticity’s sake, but also because being in a place that evokes a particular time lights the creative spark in my brain better than anything else. And I am lucky because there are still bits of Victorian London in today’s city.

One of these bits is Wilton’s Music Hall, which is the last remaining Victorian music hall in London, occupying its original space on Graces Alley in Whitechapel. Most people know that borough as the site of the Jack the Ripper murders in the 1880s. Now the neighborhood is all gentrified and prettied up, but Wilton’s retains some of its Victorian grittiness and charm. I had been playing around with the idea of a novel about a young woman pianist who takes a position in a London music hall as a male entertainer because—yes—men were paid more. (Shocking, I know.) On a trip to London with my husband, I decided I would find Wilton’s.

I entered the twin painted doors and found myself in an irregularly shaped bar area with raw wooden planks.  Peering around and sniffing the lingering smell of hops, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going and my shoe caught on a nail head. Recovering, I proceeded through that room and went down the wooden stairs into a space created by three basements patched together. Again, I had the sensation of descending through time. The concrete floors were uneven; the smell was musty; and the plaster was drawing away from the brick in parts.

All was quiet, and I stood still in the murky light, with the faint clamminess and the tang of rust in the air, and let it all work upon me. At last, I moved slowly along the passageway, pausing to inspect a stone carved with an inscription about the original owner, John Wilton; to read a framed newspaper article about a performer who leapt from the stage to attack his heckler—accidentally killing him; to study a framed piece of sheet music from the 1850s. Then I climbed the stairs and peered through the back door of the hall itself. To my surprise, it was elegantly painted in a pale greenish-blue, with chandeliers and spiraling gilt pillars.

(If you’ve watched the movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey, Jr. you’ve seen this room. It’s where Holmes takes Watson for a bachelor party that devolves into a chase scene with Holmes being pursued by a raging Cossack.) The stage was raised off the wooden floor, and suddenly I could see my heroine Nell at a piano in an alcove at stage right. In that moment, Nell’s world became real. And when I returned to my computer to write, naturally I had to plot out my novel. But often, at first, I would just put Nell in the music hall and back away, so I might observe how that time and place would work upon her.

I’m not one for fiddling with a formula that feels right, so for my next book, I again wanted a world that I’d actually walked through and laid my hands on. In A Trace of Deceit (forthcoming, December 2019), my heroine’s world is the (real) Slade Art School and (a fictional) London auction house.

I was drawn to that setting because I worked at Christie’s auction house in New York in the 1990s. For two years, I was their media buyer for all forty-some departments—American Silver, European Furniture, Latin American Paintings, Jewelry, Antique Books, Rugs, and so on. In order to purchase advertising space in magazines and newspapers effectively, I had to read many beautifully illustrated art publications. (Hand to forehead, dramatic sigh.) Under the guise of doing my work, I devoured stories of thefts, absurd wealth, death, sabotage, forgery, corruption, and embezzlement. I found myself enjoying the art but thrilling to the stories behind the pieces—and the passion or anguish or desire on the part of the artist, the subject, or the purchaser.

Upon reflection, I believe part of the attraction of art for me is the way a piece collapses time, or creates layers of it. The time of a painting, for example, invokes both the artist’s present and the viewer’s present; sometimes it calls up the present of the subject of the painting, which can be different from the artist’s. Often when I gaze at a painting, that feeling I had at the Canyon returns, and ideas begin to spark in my brain.

And now I’ll leave you with a question. We all have places that serve as a locus for feelings, sometimes both wonderful and unpleasant. To what extent do we love these places because they materialize and collapse our pasts for us? And do you have a place that makes time material for you?

Note: for more on why the 1870s are my absolutely favorite Victorian decade, see my blog “Why the 1870s?” at www.karenodden.com.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Field Trip

My email today will be short because it's after 2 a.m. and I have a plane to catch this afternoon. I've been in Kansas City, Missouri all week. I had a couple of days off this week because of a school break. I joined a friend on a Road Scholar tour. At first, it was only going to be the vacation that I didn't take this summer. But it has turned into a research trip for my 1939 thriller.

As I was thinking about Kansas City jazz a bell rang in my head, and I realized that it would be the perfect backstory for one of my characters.
In fact, having the character come from Kansas City and giving him those memories and that perspective has made him three-dimensional for me and I hope for readers. I'm much more excited about his voice and how he moves through the story.

Before he was vaguely "Midwest." Now, he is someone who knows the things I've learned and has a worldview shaped by spending the first twenty-four years of his life in this place. The photo is of a Kansas City "Negro baseball team."

My character isn't African American, but he does love baseball. So did he know about this team in his hometown? Did he ever see them play? I've spent the week asking myself such questions. The answers have given me a much better sense of who this character is and what he will do in the book.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

What to Wear

As I (Donis) mentioned when last I wrote, I'll be launching my latest novel The Wrong Girl, A Bianca Dangereuse Old Hollywood Mystery, at 7:00 p.m., October 29, at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ll be appearing with the great Martin Edwards, who is also launching a new series with his book Gallows Lane. I hope that if you are anywhere in the contiguous United States, or heck, why stop there? - anywhere in this wide world - you'll hop a plane and fly in to join me. Or if that's asking too much, pick up a book (or ebook or audiobook) wherever books are sold.

All that may sound like a bit of promotional overkill*, but after writing ten Alafair Tucker mysteries,
The Wrong Girl is the first of a new series for me and I hoping it does well enough to warrant a second. Some of my author friends who are talented and disciplined enough to put out two or three really good books a year, probably don't worry as much about their launches as I do. But I'm a slow writer at best, only managing a book every year or year-and-a-half, so when I launch a book I have a tendency to over-prepare. Even though I've done this many times. Some may say this makes me neurotic. I wouldn't argue.

One thing I spend way too much time on is pondering what to wear. Why oh why so I make such a big deal out of the launch outfit? When I attend book events with well known male authors, it seems that none of them much care what they wear. In fact, I wonder sometimes if some guys cultivate a insouciant artist vibe, like "I live on too high a plane to care what I look like." I haven't noticed quite the same attitude with women authors. I believe that after all this time I've developed a kind of superstition about my outfit. Just the right outfit will - I don't know what - please the gods? I've stopped trying to figure it out and just give in to the inevitable.

This writing game is tough. And when it comes to promoting yourself, you just have to put your head
down and go. What works for one may not work for you, so you try everything you can manage and do the best you can. The really important thing, though, is to do the best you can without making yourself miserable. Life is too short.

It is now 19 years and probably a hundred personal appearances after my first book launch. Here is what I’ve learned:

1. It takes a great deal of practice and repetition to be witty and spontaneous on the spot.

2. There’s nothing wrong with using your 'A' material over and over, especially when you’re traveling.

3. Look at your audience when you speak - make eye contact. They’ll like you better as a person, and you’ll better be able to judge how you’re going over and make adjustments in your presentation as you need to.

4. Don’t worry about it if you’re nervous. Your audience is predisposed to like you.

5. Always wear comfy shoes.

*or a whiff of desperation?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Travel riches

In various ways, the past few Type M posts have been about setting. Airports, our favourite places to write, and visiting new parts of the country. I too have been thinking about setting. I recently returned from a trip to Russia, with brief detours into Finland and Sweden. It's why I missed my last Type M post. I had a fight with Google, who wasn't happy with my trying to log in on a different device (my mini-iPad) in the middle of the Baltic Sea. It was even less happy when I couldn't confirm my identity using the code they sent to my iPhone (which had a Russian sim card that didn't work on the ferry to Stockholm). It deemed me a security threat, and I had to wait until I was home to convince it otherwise. Clearly the tech world has not caught up with world travelling.

I love travelling the world and seeing different landscapes, cultures, city-scapes, and lifestyles. Admittedly, one can do little more than scratch the surface in two weeks, but even two weeks through the eyes of an eager stranger can be enlightening. In preparation for my trip to Russia, I started to read A Gentleman in Moscow, set in the decades following the Communist Revolution. The author's wry, charming observations on Soviet life provided a rich backdrop to the sights I was seeing, especially now that Russia is in the post-Soviet era, allowing me an even longer view of history. I visited the summer and winter palaces of the tsars, which rival le Palais de Versailles in opulent, gilt-dripping excess. It is this lifestyle that our hero in the book lived as a young Count, and it was fun to imagine him, if not in these grand halls, at least dancing in something similar. And it was sobering to imagine the struggles of the peasants on whose backs all this extravagance was built.

The Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg
I wasn't able to finish the book while I was there, so I finished it at home, and this provided another kind of enjoyment. I had walked many of the squares and streets the author described in the book, and I'd sipped champagne at the famed Metropol where the Count spent forty years under house arrest. I could picture the potted palms and the marble floors.

Champagne at the Metropol Hotel with Vicki Delany
I could picture the grandeur of Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg and the bridges over the Fontanka Canal. I could picture the walk up from the Moskva River past St. Basil's Cathedral into Red Square. What fun to follow a character through streets in your mind!

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
I have always made a point of visiting the settings that I write about, spending time there and trying to walk all the paths my characters will walk. I have travelled across Canada for each of the four Amanda Doucette books I have written so far, and have loved every minute of the exploration. Well, perhaps not the snowstorm in Calgary last fall I have learned so much about my country, and I hope that my books take my readers on a virtual voyage of discovery, even if they have never visited the places in reality.

I have also written ten books set in my own city of Ottawa, and I know how much local readers love buzzing around the familiar streets with Inspector Green. Here's a little hint of what is to come... An eleventh Inspector Green novel, which I have only just begun. Who knows what back alleys and elegant neighbourhoods I will drag into the spotlight this time!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hey! What’s everyone doing while waiting for their plane?

by Rick Blechta

Having spent far too much time in airports last week drove home why I don’t like to fly. Problem was, there was no choice in travel modes I could use, considering what needed to be done and how quickly it all had to happen.

So I was forced to spend too many hours in airports waiting to board my various flights. Here’s a list of my itinerary and the minutes spent in each waiting area: Toronto (120 minutes), Philadelphia (80 minutes), Richmond, VA (140 minutes), Philadelphia (60 minutes). It’s a huge waste of time, of course, but that’s the reality of modern airplane travel.

It can all be improved with the aid of a good book. I was in the middle of one on baseball (Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game) which is interesting if one is a baseball nerd (I am), but still, a little dry. By the second stop I was beginning to get tired of reading it. That means Toronto isn’t part of this bit of tabulating.

So I came up with the idea of doing a bit of research: what are people doing while they wait for their plane? I wandered around the seating area for various gates and adjacent restaurants, trying to look nonchalant because you do not want to look suspicious in this day and age.

The expected result did happen at the gates: many people were staring at their smart phones or using them to listen to music, I’d say about 50% of the people 254 I observed. A few had newspapers (5), magazines (4), with an amazing 35 people reading either paper books (15) or e-readers (8).

In the restaurants, I found most (138) staring at some sort of news feed on the overhead TVs that are everywhere these days, followed by people conversing (77), with 36 staring at their smart phone, 12 listening to music, and only 5 people reading.

My numbers may be slightly off because I was having to store information in my head, but it’s reasonably accurate.

Oh! One more bit of counting: 189 were sitting with eyes closed or staring off into space. Any parents with young children I didn’t count because they were, um, rather preoccupied.

What does this mean? I don’t know because I don’t have enough data. However, if anyone wishes to help and has to do some air travel, please help out. I’m sure smart phone watching will win, but how many of your fellow travellers do you observe reading? It can be any medium, by the way.

And to conclude, boy, was I happy to return home!