Monday, May 20, 2019

Babies and developing characters

This past weekend, my wife and I flew to Kentucky, to visit my family and my new grandchildren, twins Thomas and Caroline.  We were both over the moon to be able to hold the little ones and watch their little personalities start to shine through.

On our last day in Kentucky, I was driving to a local Outlet Shopping Mall (it’s not all playing with the kiddos), I mentioned to Cindy that I needed to do a blog for Type M for Murder for Monday and I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write about.  She suggested that I talk a little bit about character development.

She suggested that creating characters is a little like babies growing up.  They start out as tiny blank slates, but instead of looking vaguely like a tiny Winston Churchill, our developing characters often start as people we know.

Babies, as they grow, take on their own personality, adopting traits of their parents, traits of their extended families, their friends, their teachers, and others that they emulate, knowingly or not.  Our characters grow out of the back stories we give them.

Thomas and Caroline, fraternal twins, already seem to have two distinct personalities, even at five months.  Thomas is quiet, observant, physical, sometimes wriggling out a short, loud temper tantrum.  But he’s also curious, loves to interact with his toys, and loves to snuggle.  So far, he’s the introvert.

Caroline is a verbal chatterbox (as much as a five month old can be), loves to smile, loves to be held and also loves to snuggle.  She’s the obvious extrovert.

What amazed me was the way they reached for each other as they lay on their backs on a blanket on the floor.  Did they already have a telepathic connection?

As I create my characters, they don’t emerge from my imagination as fully formed individuals. They are often based on people that I know or have met but with a Thomas Kies slant.  I’ll give an example.  One of my favorite recurring characters in the Geneva Chase series is Frank Mancini.  Frank is a successful estate attorney, very attractive, bright, funny, athletic, and, according Geneva Chase, dynamite in the sack.

Frank’s flaws?  He’s egocentric, a cad, and a serial adulterer. He’s married but that doesn’t get in his way.

The actual person I based Frank on is physically very similar.  He’s also intelligent and funny.  But my friend is fiercely devoted to his wife and a really nice guy.  I’ll never tell him that Frank Mancini is his evil doppelganger.

I’ve found that character development, much like in real life, comes over time.  People develop and change within the arc of the story.  Sometimes they change in good ways, sometimes in bad.  But change is a constant, nothing stays the same.

Because I’m writing this from a hotel room while my wife is out shopping, this blog is purposely short.  I’d better put my computer away, drive out to the Outlet Shops, and pick up Cindy before her charge card goes up in flames.

Post script…when I picked Cindy up at the Outlet Mall, she hadn’t purchased a thing.   That’s not how I would have written that at all.

Post post script... a good suggested writing exercise—while waiting for your flight, describe the people you see and create an interesting back story for them.  What is their profession?  What is their romantic status?  Where are they flying to and why?

Exercise advice, don’t stare too long.  You could find out more about their personality than you really want to.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Guest Post: Marni Graff

Aline here.  I'm delighted to be able to introduce you today to Marni Graff.  She's the award-winning author of two series - The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and the Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries - as well as being the managing editor of Bridle Path Press.  She also writes the popular crime review blog,  And we had a much-loved mutual friend, though she knew her better than I did and and I'm very jealous of the coffee and biscuits!


The Genesis of a New Series

When your mentor and eventual friend is the celebrated Queen of Crime, P.D. James, her suggestion that your write a second series is one you don't ignore.

Studying Gothic Literature one summer at Oxford University, I took the train to interview the Baroness for Mystery Review magazine. I was researching Oxford as the setting for the first Nora Tierney English Mystery, The Blue Virgin, mostly written, when the octogenarian opened the door to her Holland Square townhouse. Warm and funny, I was thrilled to even be in the same room with my idol, much less in her home conducting an interview and snapping photos of her signing my copy of her autobiography to accompany the piece.

After an hour of answering my questions, James invited me to have coffee in her downstairs kitchen (Nescafe’ instant accompanied by Walker’s shortbread biscuits). That more casual conversation cemented what would be a fifteen-year friendship until her death in 2014, with letters, emails, cards, and tea time whenever I visited the UK for more setting research after that.

That day, James had me describe my plans for the English mystery series, featuring an American writer who lives in England, while we sat at the scrubbed pine table where I knew she often wrote her outlines and first drafts in longhand. Then she asked about the various nursing positions I’d held before turning to full-time writing. When I mentioned my years working as a medical consultant for a New York television and movie studio, her face lit up and her eyes glowed.

“Promise me one day you’ll write another series, one featuring a nurse who has that job.” James insisted readers would enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at a different world. I made that promise, and once I had The Green Remains and The Scarlet Wench in print in the Noras, turned my hand to fulfilling it. The first Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, Death Unscripted, is dedicated to James, the woman who’d been instrumental in suggesting the series.

Alternating the two now, I’ve just brought out the second Trudy. Death at the Dakota is set in
Manhattan‘s iconic Victorian apartment building. Home to millionaires and celebrities through the decades, famous tenants have included Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Boris Karloff, Carly Simon, and Rudolf Nureyev. In modern times its most famous resident, John Lennon, was murdered in its elaborate entryway in 1980. The Dakota’s board is notorious for those applicants it’s denied, too, who include Billy Joel, Cher, and Madonna. Yoko Ono still lives there, as does film critic Rex Reed.

When I was given the floor plan of the apartment that had once been home to Leonard Bernstein and his family, I knew Trudy would work on a TV movie filming at the storied building. In reality, the building only allows filming of its exterior —the supposed interiors used in films like Rosemary’s Baby were all soundstage replicas­­­­­­—but in Trudy’s world anything is possible.

Trudy’s assignment is to protect the film’s star, Monica Kiley, in the early stages of a dicey pregnancy. When Monica goes missing and another cast member dies, Trudy’s nose for murder finds her in the thick of things. At the same time, her NYPD detective boyfriend, Ned O’Malley, is involved in a murder investigation where the victim has been burned beyond recognition. Two victims and two killers challenge Trudy and Ned, when their cases cross paths in this mix of amateur sleuth and police procedural one reviewer has called “the new Nick and Nora.”

Friday, May 17, 2019

Books to Movies

This is the season when academic types are neck-deep in papers to be read and exams to be graded. I just took part in the commencement ceremony for our wonderful undergrads in the UAlbany School of Criminal Justice. Now I need to get my grades in before deadline. So today I am pointing you to a quiz -- an article in USA Today about the best movies you've probably never seen.

Since I have been thinking about how film techniques can and are used by writers, and some of these movies are based on novels, I scored myself to see how many I had seen. I got 25/50. Not as good as it should be, but I have seen 15 of the top 25.

See if you can beat my score. If you're like me you'll find some films you've heard of  but never sit down to watch.

Have fun. I'm going back to work.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Wrong Girl, The Right Title

I (Donis) have been enjoying our recent posts about elegant variations, but today I want to throw back to last Thursday's entry concerning titles, by John. And the main reason I want to do that is because my publisher recently informed me that they have changed the title of my upcoming novel. They ran the new title by me, of course, and asked if I had objections. I didn't, even thought this is the first time in eleven books that I've had a publisher change the title I put on the manuscript. The upcoming book, which will be out in November, is the first of a new series for me, and I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title in the first place. I love the series title, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, and fortunately that is not changing. The new series is structured like the episodes in an old silent movie serial, and like those movies, I had chosen a book title that was overblown and overdramatic. That's what the publisher thought, too. Overblown and overdramatic.* So they suggested that the book be called The Wrong Girl, because this is what one of the characters says to a man who seduces and kidnaps young women.

"One of these days, you're going to choose the wrong girl."

And does he ever.

I like their thinking, too. Whenever I write an Alafair Tucker mystery, I spend many weeks trying out prospective titles on friends and relatives, judging titleworthiness by the look in their eyes. For most of my past endeavors, I have chosen a title early on in the writing process, and then changed it when the book was finished. For the Alafair series, all the titles are taken from something that one of the book's characters says in the course of the story:

"I think The Old Buzzard Had It Coming"
"He was standing on The Drop Edge of Yonder"
"It looked like Hell With the Lid Blown Off"
"Here's your Forty Dead Men, McBride. Don't waste them, 'cause the man you miss may be the one who kills you."

 And so on... While I'm writing, I'm always waiting for someone in the novel to tell me what to call it.

I love reading about how the titles for my favorite books come about. Titles are important. You want to convey something of the spirit of the story, catch the reader’s eye, intrigue her enough that she wants to read that book. When friends and family hear that a new book is underway, one of the first questions I get is, "What's the title?"

How about you, dear reader? Does a fabulous title make you want to buy a book? I’m trying to think of books that I actually wanted to read because of the title. The only one that comes immediately to mind was Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child. Tom Wolfe titles catch my eye, but which of his books have I actually read? Did I read Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers? No, I did not. I read The Right Stuff, Hooking Up, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Okay, I also read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I was young and it was the ‘60s.)

Commonly authors don't get the final say on what the title of their novel will be. Publishers have the idea that they know what will sell a lot better than some introverted, socially inept author does. Maybe they do. Being introverted and socially inept, I wouldn't know. This time, I think they made a good business decision.
*The old title: Lust for Vengeance. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

More elegant variations

Aline's post this week touched close to home, because I am in the midst of rewrites on my latest Amana Doucette novel, and am very attuned to the style, quality of language, and word use in the text (along with fixing all the plot holes, gaping inconsistencies, and other large failings). It takes many eyes to catch all the word repetitions and find good quality alternatives. First I try to catch as many as I can, and then I pray the copyeditor and proofreader catches even more. But sometimes they sneak through even the most thorough editing, and I only spot them while doing a public reading after the book is out, and the horse has truly left the barn. I've been known to change the offensive word on the fly in these cases.

Reading aloud is very useful not only for catching those pesky repetitions, but for listening to the overall flow of the sentence and the rhythm of the words. Rhythm affects readability and pleasure. Elegant variation can refer to much more than single words. It can refer to sentence structure, sentence length, syllables and accents. Too many long sentences draw out and slow down a story. Too many short sentences make for a jerky ride. Although short vs. long sentences can be effective to vary tension and pacing, in general a paragraph works best with varied sentence length.

Starting three sentences in a row with the same word or structure sounds clumsy. eg. He picked up the book and began to read. He wasn't sure he liked it. He would have preferred a more exciting tale. (Forgive the clunky prose, it's late and my imagination is fried). An elegant variation would be: He picked up the book and began to read. Would he like it? A more exciting tale might be better. Mix up the syntax, create subordinate clauses, invert sentences, etc.

In another elegant variation, I try to mix up long and short words. Some combinations create pleasing rhythms and others land like a thud. I have often resorted to the thesaurus in search of a one-syllable word to replace the existing two-syllable one, because there were already a couple of two or three-syllable words.

There are times, however, when repetition can pack a powerful punch. It makes the message stand out. Alliteration is one example. So is parallel construction – using the same word, phrase, or sentence structure in a series of sentences. Dickens' famous "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", etc. is a memorable example of this technique. Once again, reading the section aloud is useful in determining whether the effect is powerful, clunky, or just plain silly. Here as always, a little repetition goes a long way.

So I return to my rewrites, trying to keep all these ideas in my mind at once, and sure that I will miss some clunker.s When that happens, I can only hope the copyeditor is there to make the catch.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

One of those weeks

by Rick Blechta

Here we are, all good intentions swept away by the four winds, and I’m left with nothing to write this week and no time to write it anyway.

HOWEVER, I do have a most excellent cartoon to share that is very apropos to my current situation.

The more observant of you probably noticed an additional bit of funniness on the name of the piano. Adequate punishment for me, I’d say!

See you all next week. And I’ll have something good…promise!

Monday, May 13, 2019

Elegant Variation

Do you employ elegant variation? Do you even know what it is? You're a cultured lot – probably you do, but I have to confess that I didn't, until comparatively recently.

The phrase was coined in 1826 by HW Fowler, whose Dictionary of Modern English is still the bible for style in the English language. He was in general against it. RW Burchfield, who revised it more recently, is cautiously in favour.

And what is it? It's the consequence of the instinctive prickling of discomfort at the back of your neck that alerts you to having repeated the same word too often in the same passage. If your copy editor is anything like mine, she will frequently draw your attention to any of these you have missed. You then have to come up with another word that means the same. When you change it, you have performed an 'elegant variation'.

Don't reach for the Thesaurus, though – a primrose path that leads easily on to destruction. The term only came to my attention because there was correspondence about it in the Times.

Journalists clearly have a profound aversion to repetition. The one that irritates me most is when they do the, '55% of people believe that...' then 'more than one in six disagree' thing. I didn't like having to do proportion sums when I was at school and still less do I like having to do them over a breakfast read of the papers.

The article that was under discussion was the story about the rat trapped in a manhole cover that needed nine firefighters had to rescue it. The victim (see how I did that!) was described variously as 'the portly rat', 'the rotund rodent' and 'the unfortunate flabby animal.' This was definitely felt to be OTT.

Of course, it's just as my granny always said, moderation in everything (and eat your greens.). I guess we all do it to some extent and I am just delighted to discover that there's a name for it. One of my favourite characters in literature is Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was of uncultured stock but was determined to improve himself with tutors and was enchanted to discover that all his life he has been speaking prose.