Friday, October 21, 2016

Characters, Ideas, and Settings

The posts by my colleagues this week has been so thought-provoking, I had a hard time deciding what to blog about today. Characters who take over? Where ideas come from? Setting as character?

I have experienced that phenomenon of a character who refuses to do what he or she was intended to do. In my third Lizzie Stuart book, Old Murders, the character who was to have been the killer refused that assignment and insisted on having a subplot. In the fourth book, You Should Have Died on Monday, Lizzie's mother, Becca, made an appearance that threatened to upstage Lizzie, my first-person protagonist. Becca is still out there and now that I've returned to the series for a new book, I'm sure she will be making another appearance. I hate to have her ruin Lizzie's wedding, but I'm pretty sure she will show up during the honeymoon. And when she reappears, I will be torn. She is the most take-no-prisoners character I have ever created. A femme fatale who disrupts Lizzie's life, but shouldn't overshadow her.

The idea for my historical mystery came to me when I was thinking about 1939 and the events that symbolized the struggle in America between past and present, inequality and justice. In 1939, Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, the New York World's Fair opened that summer, Billie Holiday performed "Strange Fruit," a song about lynching, at Cafe Society in NYC, and that December, Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta. This idea -- even more than most of my ideas -- has required a lot of thought to get to workable plot.

On the other hand, the idea for my sixth Lizzie Stuart book, now in progress, came to me as an image of a woman running out of her house toward her car. I wanted to try my hand at a flash story for the New England Crime Bake contest. It wasn't a great story -- I needed more words -- but I did discover where that woman was going. She drives up into the mountains to rescue her child, who is being held hostage by an old enemy. The story was pure noir. In my head it played out like a graphic novel. And my protagonist Lizzie Stuart was nowhere in sight.

But that dark, rainy night wouldn't go away. When I was ready to start my new book, the plot changed and the characters changed. But the book begins with Lizzie, driving home on a rainy night in Gallagher and coming upon a car by the side of the road. A woman is trying to change a tire. . .

The book begins there. But the next day, Lizzie and her fiance, John Quinn, fly off to Santa Fe to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
Lizzie has never met his family and wants to make a good impression. But now she is distracted by what is going on back in Gallagher. A woman is missing. Her car was found by the side of the road. . .

Since the murder mystery is back in Gallagher, I might have done some reading about Santa Fe and watched some YouTube videos. But my Thanksgiving gathering -- when Lizzie meets Quinn's family, all of whom have been mentioned in earlier books -- is important to readers who have been following the series. I'm curious about Quinn's family, too, and I want to do those scenes justice. Lizzie and Quinn will soon be on a plane back to Gallagher, Virginia, but I want the family gathering to ring true. So I'm going to Santa Fe for three days in November to find the neighborhood that Quinn's half-sister lives in and the street where her art gallery is located. I'm going to do the tour of the area that Lizzie will have when she goes there. I want the setting to have as much significance in the story as Gallagher.

I have one other idea that I'm playing with, but need to work out. I need to resolve a series arc from my two Hannah McCabe police procedural novels set in Albany. The two books, The Red Queen Dies and What the Fly Saw, are set in 2019 and 2020, respectively. My Lizzie Stuart series is set in the recent past. The year in the sixth book is 2004. But Lizzie is an alum of the University at Albany, School of Criminal Justice. I've been thinking of a cameo appearance by a professor in Gallagher, Virginia, who Detective McCabe contacts to ask a key question about the threat that she is facing in Albany, NY in 2020. Lizzie would be in her 50s, and I wonder what would be going on in her life and how she would be different in McCabe's alternate universe. Just playing with the idea. . .

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Idea Worth Pursuing

I have a good idea for a story. One of the cliche questions authors are often asked is where the story ideas come from. After Bob Dylan received his Nobel Prize last week, 60 Minutes (click on to see the interview) showed a brief clip from an earlier interview with Dylan in which Ed Bradley asked him that very question. The answer is: who knows? Dylan said it was rather like magic, and I can’t argue with that. I think sometimes you just achieve the right state of consciousness, and the ideas are bestowed upon you out of the aether. In my series, I’ve used ideas that have come to me in every conceivable fashion.

A recurring character in the series came to me in all his fully realized glory several years ago when I was at a concert of the Black Watch and Cameron Highlanders Massed Bagpipe Bands and watching a very young, very serious, athletic, rose-lipped, red-cheeked Scottish sword dancer with dewy black eyes and a shag of black hair.

The murder in The Drop Edge of Yonder is based on an actual incident that happened to one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side during the Civil War. (A lot of the incidents in my books are inspired by my own and my husband’s wild and wooly family backgrounds.)

The Sky Took Him began with an idea that came to me while I was on the Oklahoma leg of a book tour for Hornswoggled in 2006. I had set up an event in Enid, OK, which is my husband’s home town. I was sitting with my husband and his sister in a restaurant called Pasttimes, the walls of which are covered with historic pictures of Enid. I was facing a 1915 print of a street scene showing two women going into Klein’s Department Store on the town square. You know how they sometimes do the opening of a movie by starting with a still photograph that dissolves into a moving scene? As I sat there and looked at that picture, those two women became Alafair and her daughter Martha on a shopping spree. What, I asked myself, are Alafair and Martha doing in Enid, of all places?

One great thing about writing historical fiction is that when you do your research, you discover that what really happened is often better than anything you could make up. I decided to set the sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On, here in Arizona, where I live, rather than in Oklahoma, where Alafair lives. I figured this would be a nice little diversion for Alafair, and for me as well. But Alafair has ten kids and a large farm, so there are a couple of problems I had to solve before I even begin: 1. Why on earth would Alafair go to Arizona in the first place? 2. Once she gets there, what is going on that she could get herself involved in, how, and why?

So I hied myself off to the Arizona State University library here in Tempe and begin perusing the files of the Arizona Republican newspaper for March of 1916, the date I intended to set the novel. I knew I’d find something really good, for after five previous novels set in the 1910’s I’ve learned that life in the early Twentieth Century Southwest was nothing if not action-packed. Was I ever right. Plot points and atmosphere galore, and all I had to do was spend an afternoon unspooling microfilm.

Hell With the Lid Blown Off  is about a tornado. Because, I thought, I can’t write a series set in Oklahoma and not write about what life is like in tornado alley. I didn’t need to make anything up. I used some incidents from my sister’s experience in the Joplin tornado and some very strange tornado experiences from other relatives and even some pretty odd ones of my own. But it’s impossible to exaggerate reality when it comes to what a big tornado can do.

My upcoming book, The Return of the Raven Mocker (January 2017), revolves around the flu epidemic of 1918. No one knows for sure how many died in the flu pandemic, but modern estimates put the number at somewhere between thirty and fifty million people worldwide. More than six hundred thousand of those were Americans. Twelve times as many Americans died from flu in 1918 than died in battle during World War I. In early 20th Century America, every housewife had her arsenal of remedies for common ailments, and many of were quite effective. Even so, it is likely that more than a few people died from unfortunate home remedies such as turpentine, coal oil, and mercury. Some scientists think that many who died during the epidemic were killed by aspirin poisoning rather than the disease. In the book, I used a story about the curative power of onion, told to me many years ago by the person to whom it happened. My friend was a young boy, he developed such a severe case of pneumonia that the doctor told his mother to prepare herself for his imminent demise. In an act of desperation, his mother sliced up a raw onion and bound it to the bottoms of his feet with strips of sheet, then put cotton socks on him. In the morning, his fever had broken, his lungs had cleared, and the onion poultice had turned black. Is that what saved him? I don’t know. But that didn’t keep me from using the idea.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The inspiration of setting

Barbara here. Aline's post about how spectacular settings inspire an author's imagination is very timely. I am in the very initial stages of imagining my next book and I know almost nothing about it besides its setting. A lot is made of character and plot in the creation of a successful story, but setting is the third pillar upon which great story telling rests. Setting is the cradle of a story, background to the sparkle of characters and action but the supports that hold the story up to the light and allow its facets to show through.

A setting is more than just a place; it is the season, the time period, the weather, the people, and the history. Story grows out of such fertile soil. In fact, a great story could not truly have been told in another place and time.

In my Amanda Doucette series, I deliberately chose to change the setting for each novel in the series. The first, Fire in the Stars, is set in the rugged, beautiful wilderness of Newfoundland, land of brooding forests, crashing surf, soaring cliffs, and stubborn, feisty island people who take on the world their own way. The second novel, The Trickster's Lullaby, is set in Quebec's Mont Tremblant during the winter, and the cold, the blizzards, the stunning monochromatic beauty of winter wilderness are like characters in the story, challenging the players and directing the course of the action.

The nitty-gritty of winter camping

This latest book was just submitted to the publisher this past weekend, and so now I turn my thoughts, and my imagination, to the third book in the series – Prisoners of Hope. It is set during a summer kayaking expedition in the gorgeous granite islands of Georgian Bay. I have some vague plot ideas – wealthy island mansion owners, domestic foreign workers, local villagers, frightened fugitives washing up on remote island shores – but beyond that I will have to explore the setting to find the essence and shape of the story I want to tell. I have topographical maps, maps of Killarney Provincial Park, and several pamphlets about the area spread out on the dining room table. During the long winter, I will immerse myself in them, and in the memories of a previous kayaking trip made to the Georgian Bay Islands some summers ago.

The granite shores of Georgian Bay

But although the internet, maps, and books can tell me a lot about a setting, I believe there is no substitute for visiting the location, ideally in the season I am writing about, because without wandering the place, seeing the sights, listening to the sounds and feeling the breezes, I don't feel I know its secrets well enough to write about it. Visiting the locale is about more than feeding the five senses; it's about finding inspiration. From standing on the top deck of a fishing boat, I get inspiration for a scene in my book, and nothing creates a feeling of authenticity like sharing the same footsteps and struggles as your character.

For Fire in the Stars, I spent weeks in Newfoundland and walked many of the same paths as Amanda. If I hadn't done that I would never have discovered the tuckamore forests which played an important role in the story.

Tuckamore forest with its secret opening into its underworld

For The Trickster's Lullaby, I even took a winter camping expedition. In preparation for Prisoners of Hope, I visited Georgian Bay this summer and walked its pink granite shores, its marinas, and its little villages. In the spring I will make another visit and probably a kayaking trip for further inspiration.

For me, I love exploring setting, bringing it to life, and travelling to distant locales while I write. I hope readers will enjoy the trips too!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When characters won’t behave

by Rick Blechta

My current novel-in-progress has a character who just will not do what she’s supposed to!

To be completely fair, I set her up to be a bit of a handful. She’s super smart, curious, seemingly fearless and her function in the plot at the beginning was primarily to get another character moving since he has great inertia and problems of his own. Think Archie Goodwin to Nero Wolfe here.

All well and good. Once she fulfilled her primary function at the beginning, she was supposed to then become a slight second to the main character – but thus far, she’s not going gentle into that good night. She can take as good as she gets, and consequently, I’m having great trouble reining her in.

To compound the issue, the main character would probably not be willing to put up with her behaviour. Thus far, I’ve pulled his punches, but regardless of how able and talented she is, eventually he’ll get fed up and since he’s the boss, she’ll get shown the door – something that will throw the whole ms into a cocked hat. There will be some locking of horns as the story progresses, but they must be able to work together closely.

For the past several days, I’ve gone back to spots where I might have gone wrong with her. I feel what she needs are brakes for some of her more outspoken character traits and I seem unable to come up with anything.

So today, I went back and cut out every scene she’s in thus far – and there are a number since she’s the catalyst making plot things happen early on in the story. My idea is that by starting over, somehow I’ll frame her character differently based on what I now know about her. I want her strong personality to remain, but she needs to “play better with others”. By simply chucking everything and starting over with her, rather than spend a bunch of time trying to fix her scenes, things just might work out quicker and easier.

Anyone else ever have this kind of problem?

Monday, October 17, 2016


It was great to see Peter May back on the guest slot yesterday. It was Peter who suggested that I join the happy band of Type M-ers; we go back a long way and I wonder if he remembers the night in Wigtown, the Scottish Book Town, where we found ourselves trapped in a very weird book shop by a lady who simply wouldn't let us escape to get to bed, when Peter had to get up at four the next morning for his removal from Scotland to France. It's certainly seared on my soul! And his subsequent triumphs are an inspiration to us all.

I'd actually been planning to do a post on inspiration, prompted by my recent holiday, a cruise which included a voyage down the Rhine Gorge passing the famous Lorelei rock. The name is supposed to derive from the German for 'murmuring rock' because of the sounds made by the heavy currents and a small waterfall.

It is on the most dangerous part of the river. It is both narrow and shallow here – and indeed, the day after we passed a heavy barge grounded itself on a rocky shoal just beyond it and all the other river traffic was unable to get through – a serious headache for the tour companies.

This gave rise to a tale that the ships that were wrecked here were lured to their doom by a beautiful siren, singing so enchantingly sadly about her lover's betrayal that they forgot everything except the music and perished – perhaps being unfamiliar with Odysseus's survival tip.

It's impossible to go anywhere near the Rhine without hearing Heinrich Heine's poem The Lorelei, set to the haunting tune by Frederich Silcher that we probably all remember from school music lessons – 'I know not what thought cometh o'er me, that I am so pensive today, From out of the past and old legend is haunting me with its lay.'

And he wasn't the only one to be haunted by the story. Clara Schumann, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Shostakovitch, Sylvia Plath, Stephen Foster – that's just a handful of the diverse poets and musicians who have treated it. And it has even featured in a Pokemon game! The dramatic setting of the gorge where stern fortresses defy each other from either side of the river, an ancient boundary between rival states, is calculated to appeal to any romantic soul.

The great Romantic Poets, like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley found their inspiration in the landscapes of the Lake District in England and the Highlands of Scotland. Their poetry made such an impact that viewing Nature became the sort of tourist attraction that Rhine cruises are today – though it was common when passing in a carriage through the more dramatic glens of 'Caledonia stern and wild' to pull down the blinds because it was all just too scary to contemplate! Rather misses the point, somehow.

The sea is always a great influence on me – the result of a childhood spent in a fishing village, perhaps – and landscape too has an important influence. My Marjory Fleming series is shaped by the character of the Galloway scenery; it's as much a character as some of the people.

And I'm grateful for that. When you spend so much time as a writer just tapping away at the keyboard, whatever promotes the strange tingle of a sudden inspiration is like a ray of sunshine on a dull day.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Type M welcomes back Peter May!

For this weekend’s guest spot, I asked Peter May, who was a regular contributor here a few years back, to return with news of what’s been going on with him ever since. That’s not what he sent. His post is a story I believe should be read by everyone who’s writing or thinking of writing. Welcome back, Peter, and thanks!

It’s been some time since I blogged to followers of Type M for Murder — since when my life and my career as a writer have been turned on their heads.

After many years in journalism, and then television — as a script writer/editor and producer — I set out, in 1996, to dedicate myself to my first true love, writing books… or, at least, trying to make a living from writing books. But as anyone who has tried to do that will know, it is not an easy thing.

I began by writing a thriller set in China, The Firemaker, and was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal from a publisher in London. Over the next several years one book turned into six, and became my China Thrillers series. It was an exciting time of my life, travelling back and forth to China to research the books, and witnessing at first hand the enormous changes that were taking place in that vast country.

The books were well-received by the critics, and moderately successful in terms of sales. And with onward sales to several countries they just about kept me alive. However, I was spending much of the income they were generating on research, and during that time moved permanently to rural France where the cost of living was about two-thirds of that in Scotland.

After each book, I went back to my publisher with an idea for something different. But each time my editor said, “More China!” Until the seventh time. I had been given permission by the Chinese government to go to Tibet to research the next story in the China Thrillers — a unique opportunity to do something completely different. To my utter dismay my editor said, “No more China.” Sales, they felt, had not been good enough to justify a continuation of the series, and it was unceremoniously dumped.

I offered up an idea for a cold case series set in France featuring an ex-pat Scot called Enzo Macleod. The editor sneered that Enzo, a man in his early fifties, was “too old” to be the lead character in a series. I offered her an idea for a crime novel set in the Outer Hebrides — a remote and wild archipelago off the north-west coast of Scotland which I had got to know well during five years of filming there. She dismissed it out of hand.

Life was getting difficult. There was a dwindling return on the China books, and my savings were almost depleted. My wife and I ran writing courses to bring in extra revenue, and I sat down to write my Outer Hebrides book on spec. I went on an expensive return trip to the islands to research it, and the book became a labour of love. I found myself pouring large parts of my own life into the story and characters, and by the time I finished it was convinced that it was the best thing I had ever written.

Which was when disaster struck. Nobody wanted to publish it. It was turned down by all the London publishing houses. My US publisher dismissed it as “unremittingly sad”, and “without a single likeable character”. In desperation I turned to Enzo, and wrote the first book in that series. Again, nobody wanted it — except for a small American publishing house which had just bought the rights to my China books.

However, the income generated was barely enough to cover my costs, before I was rescued from complete ruin by a publisher in France who bought and published my China books. To my delight they were a big critical success there, gaining nominations for two major literary awards and winning one of them. Sales were just about keeping me afloat.

Then came the financial crash of 2007/8, and the last of my savings (foolishly kept in pounds sterling) were virtually wiped out. I was finally facing ruin, and looking at the remains of my pension to see if retirement was an option. It wasn’t. I was at the end of my rope.

It was at this point, at my very lowest ebb, that one of those transformative moments occurred that you could never foresee. I had a chance conversation with my French publisher at a book fair. I told her that tucked away on a floppy disc in a drawer somewhere was the manuscript of a book which I thought was the best thing I had ever written, but that no one wanted to publish. It was called The Blackhouse. She said she would like to read it and I sent it to her. Six weeks later she phoned to tell me she loved the book and wanted to buy world rights. I nearly fell off my chair. After all, it is unheard of for a French publisher to buy world rights in a book written in English. But I jumped at the chance to get the book into print — even if it was in French.

The book came out in 2009 to a whirlwind of sales and acclaim beyond my wildest dreams. It won several French literary awards and became an immediate bestseller, before being picked up by other publishers around the world — including, finally and ironically, a British publisher (though one which had not been around when the manuscript was originally doing the rounds).

When it came out in the UK The Blackhouse was a sales sensation. Along with the subsequent two books I wrote to turn it into a trilogy — The Lewis Man and The Chessmen — it sold over two million copies. Every book I have written since has been a Top 3 bestseller — Entry Island, Runaway, and my latest, Coffin Road — generating extraordinary sales in very nearly thirty countries. My China Thrillers series has been reissued, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and the Enzo series — remember Enzo, the one who was “too old”? — has now sold more than half a million copies in the UK alone.

So from the brink of failure and financial disaster, my life has turned around, almost faster than I could blink, to make me a bestselling author with no need any longer to worry about how I might finance my retirement! Just a few short years ago I could never have pictured such an outcome — no matter how fertile an imagination I might have had.

And so I guess the lesson for all struggling writers out there is that no matter how bleak things might get, you should never stop writing, and you must never give up hope.

Peter May
France, October 2016


Peter May was born and raised in Scotland. He was an award-winning journalist at the age of twenty-one and a published novelist at twenty-six. When his first book was adapted as a major drama series for the BBC, he quit journalism and during the high-octane fifteen years that followed, became one of Scotland's most successful television dramatists. He created three prime-time drama series, presided over two of the highest-rated serials in his homeland as script editor and producer, and worked on more than 1,000 episodes of ratings-topping drama before deciding to leave television and return to his first love, writing novels.

He has won several literary awards in France, received the USA Barry Award for The Blackhouse — the first in his internationally bestselling Lewis Trilogy; and in 2014 Entry Island was awarded the ITV Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read of the Year, as well as the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year. May now lives in South-West France with his wife, writer Janice Hally.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Tough times and tough questions lead (hopefully) to good books

Things in the US aren’t going swimmingly. I’ve sat through two Presidential “debates” and shaken my head in disbelief. (Are we still calling them debates? I’ve witnessed a lot of insulting, not a lot of debating.) A close friend in Nova Scotia asks via Facebook if these are the best two candidates we can put up, given that the US has 320 million citizens.

It’s a good question. And right now in the US, there are many other questions that need discussion.

More unarmed black men have been shot recently. I teach a course titled Crime Literature in which we discuss everything from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Camus’ The Stranger, to police procedure, to the death penalty, to my school’s long-standing unsolved murder. The recent and well-publicized Tulsa, OK., shooting led to this writing prompt: 


Crime Literature offers readers (and students and teachers) the opportunity to roll up our proverbial sleeves and examine, as your anthology editors Deane Kelley and Lois Marchino write, “the best and worst of society.” Your term paper calls on you to simply (or not so) discuss the symbiotic relationship between society and crime. And there are times, like now, when themes discussed in class (police training, race in the criminal justice system, socio-economics in the CJS, justice in the CJS, systemic racism and its impact on the CJS, the challenges facing members of the CJS) meet American society. Many of your authors, Sara Paretsky among them, tackle large issues like these head on. 

Now it’s your turn.


Please read the following CNN article titled “Tulsa police shooting investigated by Justice Department.” Then write a 750-word response in which you examine how the incident occurred, what went wrong, and where the US criminal justice system goes from here.

This paper, an obvious departure from our daily analysis of Paretsky’s Blacklist, admittedly mixes politics with crime fiction. But, as I say repeatedly in and out of class, that’s what crime fiction offers -- an exploration of themes transcending the genre that Poe established when an orangutan climbed in a window back in 1841. So while there is much ado about much in the US right now, current events provide fodder for water cooler discussion and for writing (not to mention some hysterical Saturday Night Live skits, thanks to Alec Baldwin).

Questions abound in the US right now, questions worthy of contemplation, questions I’m hoping will find their way into our genre and our books: How and why are unarmed black men being shot? (Police officers I know certainly don’t wish to draw their firearms, let alone shoot anyone. In fact, the lone officer I know who has shot someone, returning gunfire, never worked again, of his own accord, due to the emotional anguish upon taking a life). So how is it happening? Why are officers receiving so little de-escalation training in comparison to other types of training? What role does systemic racism play in some of these situations?

Serious times lead to serious questions, so while this isn’t a great time to read newspapers in the US (unless you’re Alec Baldwin imitating Trump on SNL), perhaps we can look forward to some excellent crime novels in the coming years.