Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Olympics and crime fiction

After reading Charlotte's and Aline's posts on fuzzy endings and playing fair, I got to thinking about what is so compelling about crime novels. I've asked myself this question many times, of course, and use the answers to guide my writing all the time, but this time, because of the Olympics, I'm coming at it from a different angle. Like much of the world, I've been immersed in the Olympics and caught up not only in the sports I always love like figure skating and hockey, but also in those I've barely heard of, like snowboard slopestyle and skeleton (no, not that kind). Suspense, risk, the unknown, the twist, the battle of heroes - the Olympics has it all.

When I give writing workshops, I start off with what I consider the four key elements of any good story:
1. A character worth caring about
2. A question worth answering
3. Three hundred pages of complications (in a novel)
4. An answer that satisfies.

Every word in this list is carefully chosen, and I think if you hit all these points, you have the core of a great story. Which brings me back to the Olympics. Take the first point - a character worth caring about. Almost all the Olympians (except the dopers) are worthy, just by the nature of their long, passionate struggle to get there. But those I cared about the most were those whose struggle had been personalized in some way so that I understood the meaning of that moment for them. Ice dancers Virtue and Moir striving to end their glorious twenty-year career with one final Olympic medal; snowboarder Mark McMorris striving to come back from a catastrophic crash only months earlier that nearly cost him his life. On the sidelines, as readers and watchers, we identify with these characters and care deeply about whether they succeed or fail.

The second point has two key words - worth and answering. The question has to be important and life-challenging enough for us to want to find out the answer. Not only the asking is important, but the answering - a subtle distinction brought into focus with the Olympics example again. It's worth asking whether Mark McMorris will win a medal (or indeed in his case, even get down the course without crashing), but it's not enough. We need to know the answer. It is that drive to know the answer that keeps us glued to the TV through all the other competitors and the endless commercials.

In crime fiction, the question is usually whodunit or whydunit or howdunit. Because crime fiction deals with the most heinous act one human can do to another– with human nature stripped to the bone– that question is almost always worth asking. But even in that, there are some questions that grab the reader more than others, that make us identify and care more deeply. They have to do with character (hero, villain, and victim) and motive, which is why novels that deal with primal human emotions like jealousy, betrayal, and fear are more powerful than greed alone (unless paired with the above).

If Olympic triumph was just about the medal around one's neck or the prize money or the lucrative endorsements, it would be far less compelling to watch, but for all the athletes, I believe it is the personal achievement that is most important. That sense of triumph at overcoming the odds, doing their best, and coming out on top. It is the ultimate goal they've been striving for, of which the medal is just a symbol. You can tell by the tears and smiles at the finish line, by the respect they have for their fellow athletes, by the gratitude they express for their families and colleagues, that this has been a deeply personal journey and a profound personal affirmation.

The three hundred pages of complications refers to the obstacles and detours along the way - the lost competitions, the injuries, the disappointments - each one serving to heighten the suspense and make the quest more personal, meaningful, and uncertain. Will he make it? Can he recover? And on the day of the competition itself, can he beat the incredible score laid down by the athlete just before him? In crime fiction, the obstacles must be meaningful and not mere page-stuffing, serving to deepen the mystery, make alternative solutions more believable, and leave the resolution in doubt.

The fourth point addresses what both Charlotte and Aline raised. Nothing is worse than watching an entire competition, with suspense at its height and the winner about to be revealed, only to have the cable or Wi-Fi die. If a writer has posed a question and tantalized the reader through three hundred pages of ramped-up expectations, trepidation and hope, it is the height of cruelty not to give them an answer. It would be like writing a story about climbing Mount Everest and ending it a hundred feet from the summit. Every story, whether crime fiction or not, deserves an end.

I'm okay with a lot of grey. I don't need all the loose ends tied up, or perfect justice dispensed, or even the bad guys necessarily caught, as long as I know the answer to the question and the writer gives me a compelling reason for letting the bad guy go (as in they're about to meet their nemesis in some other way, or their actions were righteous, etc.) The reader needs to feel satisfied that the solution fits the story. In the case of the Olympics, where winning can hinge on flukes and hundredths of a second, an athlete who gives their all and beats their personal best, even if they don't medal, can leave us deeply happy for and proud of them. As they are of themselves. Mark McMorris got a bronze medal. Gold would have been nice, but what he achieved, coming back from near death, was just a great. Deeply satisfying. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Holy Moley!

by Rick Blechta

I’m sitting here somewhat in shock. Quite possibly by the end of this month our “little blog that could” will welcome its 1,000,000 guest. That is just remarkable and not many blogs reach this kind of pinnacle.

Way back in June 2006 at the (late, great) Bloody Words Convention in Toronto, Vicki Delany, Charles Benoit, Michael Blair, Alex Brett and I sat around in the hotel bar, talking about getting on the blog bandwagon which was gathering steam at that time.

It seemed like a good idea to help us promote ourselves — promotion being as difficult then as it is now. Vicki did the initial spadework, finding the blogger website, choosing a design and look for our creative and writing the first post.

To say the least, readers were scarce for us for the first few years. In a good month we’d get only 1000 or so pageviews which was pretty darned disheartening. More than once we discussed just abandoning the whole thing, but fortunately that never quite happened. Of those original five, only Vicki (who took a brief holiday from Type M at one point) and I remain. Charles still drops by for a guest spot when I can talk him into it.

Our current roster:
  • Barbara arrived in January 2007 (for a brief time before settling in for good in August of 2010).
  • Donis arrived 6 months after Barbara. So she’s an 11-year vet.
  • John first posted in May 2009
  • Frankie Bailey arrived in February of 2011
  • Aline first appeared as Peter’s guest in December 2010 before coming onboard in
  • Charlotte arrived at the end of April in 2011
  • Mario first graced these pages in March 2012
  • Sybil joined us in August 2014
  • And finally our “newbie”, Marianne first darkened our door in September 2017
Some other long-time members of note:
  • Deborah Atkinson — featured in this spot just last week — who came on board with Donis and was with us from July 2007 until August 2010.
  • Hannah Dennison, September 2010 to June 2014
  • Tom Curran, November 2011 to February 2014
  • Peter May, March 2010 to January 2011
This post also has to mention the many guests we’ve hosted over the years (some even became permanent members). Quite often those posts are really interesting and add a lot to the “overall flavor” of Type M. Many thanks to all those who’ve shared their thoughts in our weekend spots over the past 12 years. We all appreciate it a lot!

So here we are. I can scarcely believe our blog has been looked at nearly 1,000,000 times (we’re at 989,352 right now). That is really “some special” as they say in Eastern Canada!

Mostly, though, we all need to say thank you to everyone who has dropped by for a look — and many of you have been watching and reading here for quite a long time. Thanks to all you who’ve commented and joined into what have often developed into some really excellent conversations. (And please feel to weigh in if haven’t yet. We heartily encourage dialogue. It makes the blog that much better — even if we disagree.)

Here’s to the next million!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Playing Fair

I did enjoy Charlotte's post about her dislike of 'fuzzy endings' – where the author hasn't really told you what happened and you have to make up your own mind – as well as the comments about it afterwards.

They seemed to echo something I'd been thinking of writing today – the question of what a detective story ought to be. Perhaps Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism summed it up in her defense of the three-volume novel: 'The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.'

It was Monsignor Ronald Knox who made the first attempt in his tongue-in-cheek '10 Commandments for Detective Fiction.' They included prohibitions like, 'Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable,' 'No undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end,' and 'No Chinaman must figure in the story,' – possibly a dig at the Chinese opium dens that featured in Sherlock Holmes' cases and then became a feature much imitated in the 'penny-dreadful.'

The great thing about having rules is the effect when someone breaks them. When Agatha Christie, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, transgressed by breaking the first commandment, 'The criminal must be someone mentioned in the first part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to share,' the shock propelled the book to the top of the best-seller list.

Now, of course, rules have been long superseded. As Butch Cassidy was told, 'There are no rules in a knife fight' and in crime fiction today anything goes. In some of the very best crime novels we know right at the start 'whodunit,' and the suspense is about the why or how.

But I still have an affection for the classic type, and I was wondering how other writers and readers today feel about Knox's commandment no 8: 'The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.'

I've always felt when I was writing a book that I have the intelligent reader at my shoulder. I want to conceal the villain from them so that they don't guess who it is too early and I will do my very best to mislead them, but I like to think that the clues to the answer are there if they want to follow them. I try to play fair but I can go to elaborate lengths with red herrings - I remember rewriting one scene half-a-dozen times so that the clue I ought to give them remained unnoticed. But I couldn't get any satisfaction from the reader who says, 'I didn't guess' if I had actually cheated.

Is this an idea whose time has passed? What do you think?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Recreating Sherlock and Having Fun With It.

By Vicki Delany

Now that I’ve switched my focus from darker, grittier crime novels (standalones like More than Sorrow, the eight novels in the Constable Molly Smith series) to cozies, my only aim as a writer is to have fun with it.

And I’m having a lot of fun with the Sherlock Holmes Bookshops series, in which the third, The Cat of the Baskervilles, came out this week.

There isn’t much hotter in the world of popular culture today than Sherlock Holmes.  The continuing popularity of the original books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the massive number of modern short story collections and pastiche novels; two TV series, several movies.

I’m a writer and I’m also a keen mystery reader. So when I was looking for inspiration for a new series, I thought a bookstore would be fun.  And then the idea popped into my head: A bookstore dedicated to Sherlock Holmes.

When I started to do some research on that, I quickly discovered it’s not such an unfeasible idea.  You could easily stock a store with nothing but Sherlock.  Not only things I mentioned above but all the stuff that goes with it: mugs, tea towels, games, puzzles, action figures, colouring books, cardboard cut-out figures. The list is just about endless. Throw in nonfiction works on Sir Arthur and his contemporaries, maybe a few books set in the “gaslight” era. And, presto, a fully stocked bookstore.

And thus was born the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium.   Because cozy lovers (and me) love food to go with their reading, I put Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room next door, run by her best friend Jayne Wilson.

Every book and every piece of merchandise sold in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium exists in the real world (with one exception as readers of Body on Baker Street will understand).  I haven’t read all the books I mention, and I’m not necessarily recommending them, but I enjoy dropping the names of books into the story as customers browse and shop and ask Gemma for suggestions: something suitable for a middle aged man laid up after falling off the roof; a book for a friend who loves historical mysteries; a YA with a female protagonist; even a hostess present for a hated mother-in-law!

My original intent when I began the series, was that the main character would be a normal cozy character. A nice young woman who owns an interesting bookshop, lives in a pleasant community (in this case, on Cape Cod), and has a circle of friends.

But, by the time I got to page 2, Gemma Doyle had become “sherlockian”.

And that’s been enormous fun to write. Gemma has the amazing memory (for things she wants to remember), and incredible observational skills, and a lightning fast mind.  She is also, shall we say, somewhat lacking on occasion in the finger points of social skills.  Jayne is ever-confused, but loyal.
Sometimes Gemma’s observations don’t go down well with a skeptical police officer:

“It was perfectly obvious,” I said. “I smelled flour, tea, and sugar the moment we came in. Those are normal scents in anyone’s house, but tonight they’re of a strength that indicates they’ve been recently dumped from their containers. Overlaid with the odor of rotting vegetables, by which I assume the fridge door has been left open. I keep meaning to eat that kale because it’s supposed to be healthy, but I really don’t care for it.
“We can also assume that our intruder is a nonsmoker and doesn’t apply perfume or aftershave regularly. Unfortunately, it hasn’t rained for several days, although the forecast did call for some, so they didn’t track mud into the house. The flour! An unforgiveable oversight on my part. You will, of course, want to take casts of footprints that have tracked through the spilled flour and sugar.”
“It didn’t get on the floor,” Estrada said. “But it’s all over the counter.”
“As the front door appears to be untampered with, and I don’t hand spare keys for my house to all and sundry, I’ll assume our intruder came in through the back door. Therefore the kitchen would be the logical first place to search.”
“Enough, Gemma,” Jayne whispered to me.
“I only want to point out the obvious facts.” I’ve been told on more than one occasion that some people don’t understand my attention to detail and thus misunderstand the conclusions I draw from it. I have tried to stop, but I might as well stop thinking. And this didn’t seem like a suitable time in which to stop thinking.
“The back door’s been forced open, yes,” Estrada said. “I’ll admit, that was a good guess.”
I was about to inform her that I never guess, but Jayne elbowed me in the ribs.

                                                                                Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, reimagined as modern young women just trying to get on with life.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Uncertain Endings

Three times lately I've read mysteries where the ending is up to my imagination. How everything turns out is entirely up to me.

The three books have one thing in common. I will never buy another book from these authors.

Seriously. Fuzzy endings are to be expected in most of The New Yorker short stories and a great many literary books. But when they occur in mysteries I feel betrayed. I don't think I'm unusual in this reaction. We're living in really uncertain times. It's as though we are required to realign our thinking on a daily basis.

Coping with the Orwellian nightmare thrust on us by politicians is bad enough, but we can't open the paper or click on our websites without another icon biting the dust.

I believe so many of the best-sellers right are mysteries because--usually--we know who the good guys are and blessedly, they know who the bad guys are. Villains are brought to justice. The world is aching for stories that draw a line between good and evil.

Recently a friend of mine--another writer--whose father had left at an early age said during an acceptance speech for an award that he learned what men were supposed to be like by watching old westerns when he was a little kid. He had no other role models.

Simplistic? Sentimental? Probably, but he could have done a lot worse. I adored the old Gunsmoke series. And how about the lovable bumbling Columbo who had an uncanny ability to smoke out evil-doers?

I realize that I'm confessing to a broad streak of immaturity, but I insist on proper endings. No one has to tell me the world exists in broad strokes of gray. I can put up with an unhappy ending if I must, but please, end the story.

Fairy tale touches still happen. People still do wonderful things. I read a newspaper article last week about a UPS driver who walked eleven miles to work every day. He was too ashamed to tell anyone he couldn't afford a vehicle. When his co-workers found out about it, they secretly started a fund to buy him a car. The unveiling and his expression of deep gratitude was posted all over the web.

People still care and cry and feel. My idea of an ideal ending was that of the men's snowboard competition at the Olympics and Shaun White's extraordinary display of emotion. For an instant we were allowed to view what was at stake internally after physically dedicating one's life to performing in a single event. For an instant we could participate in his joy and his embrasure of people who had made it all possible.

And this is the end of this post. In case you're wondering how it's all going to turn out in the long run, I'll be back in two weeks.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Little Voices Inside My Head

The little voice in the back of my head began whispering to me around page 200 of the novel I’m writing. I’ve heard the voice before, and like the other times, it began like a bad radio transmission: static muffling a cryptic message.

As always –– when I plant myself in front of the computer to compose, print the hard copy, read that with pencil in hand, and compose again –– the whisper isn’t so distant. Static fades. Eventually the whisper turns to a shout. Plot twists and turns come into view.

I grew up on a steady diet of Conan, Agatha, and detectives like Spenser and Kinsey. I experienced all kinds of plots, from the traditional mystery, to the intricate and complicated, to, dare I say, even the outlandish.

Plot, I’ve come to believe, is simply the natural sequence of events done by people whose personalities dictate said sequence.

Common sense? Of course. But I’m a genre writer (proud to be one, in fact), and even though I consider myself a character-driven writer, I know there’s an unspoken agreement between my reader and me. I’m tasked with having something to say about a contemporary issue, creating a characters you want to spend time with, and keeping you on the edge of your seat while we follow the story together to the end. These tasks are things I’m more likely to be aware of before I start a novel. When working on the book, the end game changes: I’m focused on telling the story as clearly and economically as I can.

So now, around 200 pages in, the little voice is shouting: Would he say that so easily? Wouldn’t the suspect have acted differently? Should she say this?

Revision turns to rewriting. Revision, thanks to the whispers, is truly a re-envisioning of the work. I'm adding scenes and rewriting to make suspects better drawn and clarify the logic behind the sequence of events.

Because of this, composition rarely feels like forward progress. Rather, reclining on my sofa, manuscript pages on my clipboard, pencil cutting words, adding words, drawing arrows, the voice becomes louder and writing becomes clearer and more focused. And I trust that the plot will come into light.

Sometimes, all it takes are the voices inside my head.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day!

I’m taking a break from working on my book, which is due very, very soon, to wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day. My hero, Snoopy, does it better than I can so here’s a short video for you.

Last time you heard from me, I was in a sorry state, quite convinced that I was doomed. Things are looking brighter now. I had a bit of an epiphany regarding the last bit of the book, which I wasn’t terribly happy with. I’m not quite at the G&T stage, but I’m getting there.

I don’t have much else to say right now. I thought you’d enjoy this clip from the TV show “Mike and Molly”, one of the funniest ones on writing I’ve seen. Makes me laugh every time.