Friday, May 27, 2022

The People We've Never Met

Ray Liotta died this week. We had never met, but I felt the blow to my heart when I saw the headline. Dead at 67. A secret illness? A mob hit --- Goodfellas style.  Someone who had confused the gangster roles he had played with reality.

On the way from dropping my dog off at daycare this morning, there was an update on the radio. The morning show host who also was feeling the loss of this actor who neither one of us had met, reported that Ray Liotta had died in his sleep while on location in the Dominican Republic. No foul play was suspected. His fiancee had been with him. He had been working. He had been contemplating the future and his next film.

I don't know what it was about Ray Liotta that I loved. Maybe it was that smile. Maybe it was his jauntiness. Maybe was the emotions that played across his face or the voice that was always recognizable. Whatever it was, I felt his loss. 

There was other losses this week. Nineteen of them were children in a school in Texas. The father of one of them wept as he asked Anderson Cooper or someone from CNN how an 18 year old gunman could look at his little girl -- his beautiful, happy little girl -- and shoot her. Anderson or who ever the reporter was reached out to touch his arm as he wept. And I felt as if I knew that little girl and that father.

I cried again when I read the story of the man "who died of grief" -- his wife of 24 years and the mother of his four children had been one of the teachers who died in that school when an 18 year old boy with a high-powered gun in his hand opened fire. He died of a heart attack -- a "broken heart" -- two days later.

This week has been sad. During our three-day celebration of "the unofficial beginning of summer," I am going to pause and think about Ray Liotta and a weeping father and a man whose heart broke.  And about all the other losses we have had -- losses of people and stability. 

At some point this weekend, I will sit down at my computer, and I will write one of the scenes of the book I am working on. I don't know what I want to say or how I will say it. But I know I need to say something about what it means to be human. I need to say something about how we mourn for and with people we have never met.


Thursday, May 26, 2022

This Is Not How It Was Supposed to Turn Out

 Donis here. It's Wednesday afternoon, and I've been sitting in front of my computer for an hour, trying to muster the energy and the wit to come up with something meaningful - or at least cogent - to say. 

Yesterday did not go well. I spent most of the morning at a doctor's office with my husband. He was there for a follow-up appointment after a minor outpatient surgery a couple of weeks ago to remove several kidney stones. To begin with, we sat in the waiting room for nearly an hour before the doctor saw us - something that has certainly happened to us before, but unusual for this doctor. Then, to make a long long story short, when we finally saw doctor he told us that he was unable to remove all the stones and Don is going to have to go through the surgery all over again. He's barely recovered from the painful effects of the first procedure.

Then, after we finally finally got home, I got a call informing me that a dear friend who has been having some scary symptoms lately has been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. I knew something was wrong, but oh, my God...

And then I turned on the news.

I think about a quote I heard in a movie once: "Men are wretched creatures."

It feels like all the years of activism have done nothing. It's hard not to be tired. Right now I just need to concentrate on something small and sweet. Agatha Christie once said, (I paraphrase) "Sometimes I wonder at my age what's the point. Why I should keep on living. But then I have a lovely cup of tea and a nice scone and think life can still be pleasant." 

After taking a moment to rest and recoup, there's nothing to do besides keep on trying to make something better. 


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

In celebration of mystery conferences

 One of the most unexpected and gratifying side effects of writing mysteries has been the discovery of the mystery community. Other genres have their groups of like-minded souls with a passion for fantasy or sci-fi or romance, but I wonder if any of them have quite the welcoming warmth and touch of devilry of those who plot murders  Some of the friendliest, most fun-loving people I know spend their time researching poisons and autopsies and ways to blow people up.

Writing is a solitary pursuit and we have to  spend a lot of time in our own heads, but it's nice to get out every now and then, and social media only goes so far. Book launches, tours, signings, readings, and book clubs allow us to connect with real people who share our love of books, and they are crucial to feed the soul. Literary conferences and festivals are like a huge feeding frenzy for the soul. I have attended some wonderful festivals over the years, some small and intimate, others almost overwhelming. 

Festivals and conferences devoted to the crime genre have a very special place because they give mysteries their chance to shine, and they bring together mystery lovers from all across the spectrum from cozy to terrifying. I have attended conferences in the United States, Canada, and England, among them big events like Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Bloody Words, and small ones like Scene of the Crime and Women Killing it! I've loved them all and made new friends each time as well as reconnecting with old ones.

 Conferences take a lot of work and require dedication, passion, and a tremendous time commitment from the organizers, and eventually they grow tired and stop. Bloody Words, Canada's premiere mystery conference, lasted about twelve years before the organizers pulled the plan, and it left a huge hole in the fabric of the Canadian crime writing community. Bloody Words was our chance as Canadian crime writers to highlight our own stories and to connect with one another. Without the chance to get together every year at Bloody Words, the ties that bind us across this sprawling, sparsely populated country have weakened or had no chance to form. 

There has been sporadic talk of starting something new, but then the pandemic landed with a thud into the middle of our lives, and all thoughts of getting together were put on hold. But now there is a new effort to create a truly Canadian mystery conference, founded by a small group of writers determined to highlight Canadian writers, who so often are overshadowed on the world stage. The Maple Leaf Mystery Conference is online this year, but will hopefully be in person in the future, and it runs from Tuesday May 24 to Saturday May 28. Evenings during the week and all day on Saturday. There are guests of honour in major categories as well as a slate of panels that range from cosy to thrilling. A single registration fee gets you access to everything all week.

I myself am moderating a panel called "Thrilling and chilling" on Saturday afternoon, with four other authors. Their books, all unique and powerful, make you rethink your definition of a thriller, even as they keep you up late into the night. Check out the whole schedule here, and treat yourself to some cool Canadian crime.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Letters, etc.

by Charlotte Hinger

Several years ago, The New Yorker ran a hilarious column written by Heather Havrilesky. It was entitled "How to Contact the Author." In it the cartoonish author declares "I love to hear from my readers. My readers are everything to me, and hearing from them makes me feel so blessed." 

She continues with her email address, begs her readers to friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, add her name to the LinkedIn Network, and follow her on Instagram. She begs the reader to tweet her questions no matter how personal or prying saying that she can't wait to reply and having the answers available to hundreds of strangers. She goes on to give her text number and urges the fan to call her at home or drop by the house. "Dinnertime works fine. Middle of the night, also perfect. I am so incredibly humble to have you in my life, whoever the hell you are."

There was much more to this satire. It ends, of course, with an appeal for the reader to buys her books on Amazon. All writers nowadays are acutely aware of the value of BSP. Blatant Self Promotion.

How far does one go and does bombarding the public actually sell books? Frankly, I am totally turned off by daily emails from writers regarding their latest activities. They are quickly routed to junk email.

Do authors welcome contact with fans? Actually, I do. When someone cares enough to write me about a book I feel honored and deeply grateful to know they like my series. I also appreciate knowing why they like my books.

Recently a lady wrote to correct a historical detail in Hidden Heritage. I was humiliated because I spend a lot of time on research and really thought I knew in this case. I quickly learned I was wrong and will apply that lesson to future books. We corresponded and became friends. I sent her a free book and she sent me some priceless information about a real madstone that had been handed down through seven generations.

There have been a couple of exceptions to enjoying contacts with fan. When my historical novel, Come Spring came out, I was contacted by a man who wrote a nice letter (in pencil) saying how much he liked my book. I sent my usual personal reply saying how much I appreciated his interest in my writing. He wrote back saying he was in a maximum security prison for criminal sexual assault against little boys.

 He bet my grandchildren were cute. My blood chilled. That finished polite responses on my part.

It wasn't the end as far as he was concerned. I started receiving collect phone calls from his prison. Naturally I refused. My husband worried that he would show up on my doorstep some day.

I contacted my lawyer who was a good friend and was subjected to a general bawling out in the form of "what in the hell were you thinking?" Following that, he instructed me to take the letters to the sheriff so there would be a paper trail.

Don commented that was to make sure when the sheriff found my dismembered body in the vacant field next to our house the detectives would know where to start with suspects. No more came of this.

Now that I've established that I love hearing from fans, those of us on Type M would love to hear from our readers. How much contact do you want with authors? Lots? None? or somewhere in between? For that matter, what would you like to know?

Monday, May 23, 2022

Dog Day Afternoons

I've been thinking of memories and how they lie dormant until something resurrects them, sometimes like a butterfly emerging from the pupa stage, other times like Dracula rising from the grave.

A snatch of music can transports me back to people, places, experiences. 

A glimpse of a movie on tv recalls which cinema I first saw it. And who I was with.

A photograph I've taken drops me instantly back to that day. 

That has been happening a lot lately, because I've been digitising old 35 mm negatives, mostly shots of dogs and cats that have long crossed that rainbow bridge. It's good to see these old pets again, especially as they are generally young and active in the shots. Age has not withered them. These images are moments of time frozen in ink on photographic paper, now immortalised in pixels and bytes of data.

Why am I telling you this?

It's really just an excuse to run some dog pics!








 These are all of Charlie, a bearded collie. I've had a number of dogs over the years, even more cats, and they were all special. My regular reader (she's a lovely person, enjoys a boiled sweet) knows that currently I have Mickey as a companion and he is very much my world, along with Tom the cat.

But Charlie...ah, Charlie.

He was the kind of dog that people smiled at in the street. There was just something about him that made them respond.

My wife found him one day tied to a park bench in a helluva state. His coat was matted, his claws were so long he was walking on the heels of his pads. She took him home and he was named Charlie because he was a bit of a tramp.

Charlie knew a good thing when he saw it and soon made himself at home. And he was a great dog. He loved the car, loved to go on trips. When it was time for me to pick my wife up from her office, he would do a little dance in the hallway because he knew he was coming too. He would sit in the back seat, looking through the windscreen, swaying with the corners.

He even went camping with us and I remember one day in Ullapool in the Scottish highlands when we wondered why people were walking past the back of our tent and giggling. It turned out he was lying inside, his nose and eyes poking out from under it and watching the world going by. 

It's never easy when a pet leaves you and Charlie was a particular wrench. He grew gradually weaker, less active, not nearly as perky. He faded away. And then, one day, he simply breathed once more and was gone. 

He was buried in the corner of a garden I no longer own and I often wonder if the new owners ever see a cheeky, lovable face peering at them through the grass. 

My wife died three years ago and I like to think that somewhere Charlie was waiting for her, along with all the other dogs and cats that have gone before. Young again. Smiling as he is the picture. Perhaps doing a little dance as he anticipates a trip somewhere. 


Thursday, May 19, 2022

Beginnings and Endings

This week is full of emotions: It’s my final week as an employee and resident of Northfield Mount Hermon School. We are moving to Detroit Country Day School in June, where I will take on a new role and a new life –– it’s a day school, so we will move out of the dorm and join the civilian ranks –– and I should hear an update from my agent regarding the status of a manuscript I sent her a few weeks back.

It’s a time of beginnings –– new job; and now that one book is off to my agent, it’s time to start the next. Assuming she can sell the one I sent her, I’ve started the sequel. (I’m an optimist; aren’t we all in this business?)

So what does it mean for me to “start a new book”? It means conceptualizing: sketching the characters and setting. Here’s a section from my pre-writing for the work-in-progress:

Setting

Blaise Academy is a small, traditional blue-blazer and skirt/cardigan New England boarding school with 350 boys and girls located near-ish to Hartford, with a view of the Connecticut River. In a world where “wealth” is relative, Blaise does not have the endowment of Exeter or Andover, and the Academy (and its leaders) can be placed in compromising positions to acquire the donations needed. It is a small school, where everyone knows everyone, a place where the sales pitch is “community,” a place where a few teachers do it all, and students are supposed to feel known by the adults in the community.


Characters

+Bo Whitney, 50-ish, former Hartford Courant reporter. Now an English teacher and hockey coach. Husband to HOS Kate. Out of place in this buttoned-up world. First-person narrator. Cynical about the wealth and privilege he’s surrounded by.

+Kate Whitney, Ph.D., Head of School. The first female head at Blaise Academy. And she feels the responsibility to carry the torch successfully.

Trent Highsmith, senior, from NYC. Has the world by the ass and knows it. Life comes easy to him. He’s 6’2”, 215 lbs, and will play linebacker at Brown. SATs aren’t quite as good as his haircut, but they’re close, and that’s good enough for Brown –– if you’re All New England. He is a four-year senior at Blaise, and is popular enough to be on the Student Council, but too lazy to do the work, so he doesn’t run. He would receive a Jeep for graduation, except that he got it a year ago. On a campus where cars are prohibited among students, Trent has been seen (by many including the Whitney kids) driving the Jeep. Of course, the deans can’t prove that. The book begins in April, six weeks before graduation, the day before Trent is found severely beaten in the woods behind his dorm. Trent is a difficult character to like, and we need to stress his positives to build sympathy –– he volunteers at home and worked a summer camp where he met and worked closely with Ryan Kinsley, 7, a wheelchair-bound boy, who Trent often took swimming.

+ series’ family of character


Starting a new book also means establishing goals for the book . . .

This book is not about sexual violence; it is about emotional manipulation and toxic masculinity and how far a young girl will go to find approval.

My character list is 14 people long, and I have a plot sketch as well. Part of that sketch is here . . .

. . . This is a dark story, one of manipulation and toxic masculinity. Bo’s cynical voice will highlight this. This is also a story in which readers are forced to consider the role of justice in the criminal justice system: Was Trent’s attack justified? In the end, Trent will recover and go off to Brown, and Hillary will be in therapy, and Bo will be forced to decide whether or not to tell Connecticut State Trooper Mitt Houston what he has learned, essentially defining justice in this book.


And so I’m off and running, looking over my shoulder at my sketches and plot concept and always willing to pivot if need be. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this approach or how they set about writing a new book.






Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Creating Likable Characters

 

by Sybil Johnson

When my first book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series, Fatal Brushstroke, was bought by my publisher they told me a number of things they wanted me to change. Chief among them was the likeability of my main character. As written, they didn’t think she was very likable.

I was surprised when they told me Rory wasn’t likable. I really thought she was. Then I started thinking about how to make a character more likable. I looked at blog posts on the subject, read books on creating characters and thought about it some more.

I realized that she was a little snippy at times, maybe not as kind as she could be. It dawned on me at one point that those kinds of things would work better in a sidekick.

Here are some other things I came across in my quest to improve Rory’s likeability: 

1) If you want to make a character likable, introduce an animal like a dog or a cat. Have that character interact with it on a positive note: save the animal from being run over, treat a neighbor’s animal kindly when they wander into your yard, give the character an animal to take care of. The same goes for children. How a person interacts with a child or an animal tells you a lot about their character. If you want a character to be unlikable have them treat a child or animal badly. Although, in cozies, you should probably not kill an animal off because you’ll hear about it. 

2) If someone says something to them, don’t have your character ignore them. Have them interact with that person even if it’s an annoying person. 

3) Give your character a flaw or two so they don’t appear too saintly. 

4) Give your character something that they’re really scared of, e.g. heights. You could then have them come across a situation in the story where they have to overcome that fear in order to rescue someone or get information they need or escape from a bad guy. 

5) Make your character liked by others. If other people in the story want to be around them, that’s an indication that the character is likable. 

6) Make their goals worthy. If they want to be the head of a company and they’re willing to do anything to reach that goal, that’s not a likable character. It’s an interesting character, but not very likable. At least not to the average person. 

7) Make them have a sense of humor. As long as the humor isn’t at the expense of others. People relate to those who can make fun of themselves or have a sense of humor about situations. As long as it’s not over the top. 

8) Have them be sympathetic/empathetic when someone dies. How they treat that death and those who are affected can make a person likable or unlikable. 

9) Make your character relentless. No matter what obstacles they come across, they should continue to strive to get to the truth, to right the wrong. 

Not every character needs to be or should be likable. In any story, there should be a mix. But, as a reader of cozy mysteries, I want to like the main character. They can be quirky or have flaws, but if I don’t like them, I’ll probably read one book and then I’m gone. Okay, I may not finish the book. I may throw the book across the room if they're particularly annoying. Okay, that happened one time only!

Does anyone have any other methods of making a character likable?

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Ode to Joy

 



Katelyn Bieker

Boy, am I ever proud. My youngest grandchild graduated from Colorado State University Saturday with a major in Biological Sciences and Pre-Med. We have six grandchildren and now all have a college education. 

Best of all, all six are avid readers. 

No one can take a degree away from the beaming graduate. It means that the recipient can adhere to a goal over a period of time. With that precious degree, comes the special elation of completing an arduous task. Ode to joy. Wow. We did it.   


Katy's mother, Mary Beth, and her sister Abby help Katy celebrate this happy day. There are smiles all around. 


Naturally the whole family made pigs of themselves. The Crocketts had a little party before the special day. Too much food and temptation. What is a poor grandmother to do? 

Congratulations to all the graduates everywhere. We are proud of all of you. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Plot Twists in Fiction--Good. In Real Life--Not So Much.


 By Thomas Kies

As I write this, my wife and I were supposed to be on an exploration day in Vancouver.  Then, the following day, we were supposed to board a Holland America ship for a cruise of the coastline of Alaska for ten days.  

I’d never been on a cruise before and neither of us had visited Alaska, so this was going to be a real treat.

My wife spent months putting the trip together, planning the shore excursions, picking out the drink and meal packages.  She’s the one who booked the flights from Raleigh to Minneapolis to Vancouver.  She’s the one who booked the hotels we needed when not onboard the ship.

She’s the one who put the sweat equity into what was going to be the trip of a lifetime. 

Then there was a plot twist. 

Even just reading it puts your nerves on edge, doesn’t it? Foreshadowing…yes, there’s trouble brewing ahead.

In order to board the ship, even to gain entrance into Canada, we had to show proof of vaccination (no problem—vaccinated and double boosted) as well as testing negative for covid within 72 hours of entering the country.

We’d decided to catch a favorable flight from Raleigh (a three-hour drive from our home) and figured that if we got tested on our way out of our hometown, the timing would be perfect. Once at the Days Inn in Raleigh, we checked our results.  My wife was negative…I was positive. 

I had no symptoms.  No cough, no runny nose, no fever.  I still had my senses of taste and smell. 

But the results were positive.  Plot twist!

We were supposed to catch a cab at four in the morning for a six-a.m. flight.  At that point, it was after seven in the evening.  Hoping that I’d scored a false positive, we started making phone calls looking for a place that could get me in for another covid test. None…and I mean none…were open at that hour.

Time had run out for us.  We pulled the plug on the trip.

When we got home, I got another test and, yes, I was negative. 

A plot twist is a literary technique that introduces a radical change in the direction or outcome of the plot.  It adds intrigue and suspense and builds reader engagement. 

I could have done without this one.

But let’s face it, plot twists in fiction are the best!

Here are some of my favorite movie plot twists (warning—spoilers ahead):

Planet of the Apes—Who can forget the ending of that movie when the hero, who is riding astride a horse with his love interest up the beach to better days after escaping the “damned, dirty apes”, only to discover he wasn’t on an alien planet after all.  There in front of him, is the remnants of the Statue of Liberty.  He realizes he’s not on an alien world but on Earth, thousands of years into the future.  Mankind had destroyed itself and the planet is now, well, dominated by apes. 

The Sixth Sense—After watching this movie, who didn’t go back and re-watch the film to see how M. Night Shyamalan pulled it off? The plot is simple, a child psychologist works with a boy who claims he can see “dead people”.  The movie itself is creepy enough, but at the end, we find out that the doctor is the one who is dead.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—This is one of my favorite Quentin Tarantino movies.  The protagonists are a fading film star and his stunt double sidekick as they move through the sixties in Tinseltown.  The plot twist here is when the Charles Manson family drives up into the hills to kill Sharon Tate, they get the address wrong and end up at the house of the protagonists.  The ending is the usual brutally violent bloodbath that’s a Tarantino trademark and the Manson family is wiped out. Revisionist history…another Tarantino trademark. 

My neighbor, a health care worker, has advised me to quarantine for five days even though the second test was negative.  Better to be safe than sorry. So, instead of being onboard a Holland American cruise, I'm sitting in my home office in front of my laptop. 

In fiction, a plot twist makes the story memorable.  Plot twists are an adrenaline kick.   

In real life, I’m pretty sure we can take them or leave them. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Going Somewhere Slow

 She's back!  It's me (Frankie), and after missing at least three or four alternate Fridays, I'm getting back to posting. I blame my neglect on a week when I was under the weather. By the time I had been taken to the emergency room because I was dizzy and feared I was going to pass out and then spent two nights being tested (with nothing conclusive), I needed to have some down time. And then came the end of semester. 

I'm still reading the research papers I required of the students in each of my classes. But yesterday a colleague in another academic unit observed that we seem to have a similar process. When we are working on something important and need a break from the monotony and/or boredom, we tend to take a break and work a little on the next important thing on our list. That keeps us going in spite of ourselves, and we manage to be productive.

My problem, as it has been through most of 2022, is that my list of important things to do has tasks that need to be done. I need to clean up -- or out -- my home office so that I can find what I need for my various writing projects. I have boxes of research stashed in the closet for the nonfiction book on gangsters and the 1939 historical thriller and my 6th Lizzie Stuart novel and for the first book in what I hope will be a new series set in the 1940s and 50s. But -- even though I should know better -- I haven't been as methodical as I should have about sorting and filing so that I know what I have to draw on. That means when I want to break and work on the next important thing, the most important thing seems to be to get the office prepared -- books in order and shelves and desk dusted, deleted messages and junk/spam off my computer, paper in printer, closet boxes sorted and ready to pull out as needed.  Lovely flowers in a vase on my desk like in those glossy magazines. 

Of course, it will take me a week to do all this. More if I pick up and sort the books and papers that have found their way from the bookcases in the dining room and the bookcase/room divider that separates dining room from living room. Not that those divisions matter in my small house. Every room except the two bathrooms has books and papers that need organizing. So, when I look at the next thing on my list, it's always to "get organized". No matter which organizing system I'm looking at -- including the one for "creative people," it seems easier to toss everything and start over with a system that works in mind. And, of course, having a system I would need to use it. 

I've made many a fault start. But with the end of semester this weekend, once I have my grades in, I will try once more. In between sorting, tossing, and donating, I hope I'll use my breaks to get in some exercise. And my exercise -- particular walking -- as time to mentally sort out my plots. I'm an outliner and I can't -- even when I try -- plunge in with no direction in mind. Over the past few months, this has brought me to a standstill as I debate a prologue or a frame story and who among my characters has the opening scene in the historical thriller. 

I also need to do some exciting -- fingers crossed -- tasks related to the trip I hope I will be able to make to England for the Agatha Christie Festival in September. The question is should I purchase the plane ticket now or wait to see if fares stay high. I'm counting on my travel agent to have some thoughts about that. Getting ready, preparing my presentation, I have a lot of books to re-read or read for the first time. 

The most logical approach is to make a list and work from it. I enjoy checking off mundane tasks. But the last time I make a to-be-done list, I had almost 50 items. I would love to have an assistant who could handle the cleaning and sorting and organizing. I can find someone to clean, but the sorting and organizing is another matter. To do it in a way that would be really useful, I would need someone who could read my mind. Someone who would understand how one writing project related to another and why an article or research info was in one box instead of the other. 

Maybe I can figure out how to convey that while I'm cooking. I tried meal delivery services (e.g., Hello Fresh and Daily Harvest). They're useful because the bag for each meal comes with all the ingredients, including the little packets of spices, garlic butter, and sour cream. The only problem was that the boxes for the next week kept arriving before I finished the one before. However, a trip to the supermarket this morning sent me home with sticker shock. So now I really am serious about gardening -- and thinking while I dig and plant about how I'm doing that important thing while taking a break from the organizing that was a break from the research that was a break from the writing. 

Or maybe I'll just take a week or two off to think about getting ready for summer and my sabbatical.


Thursday, May 12, 2022

It's a Mystery

Passing on my vast wisdom ... kind of

After finishing three installments of my new Bianca Dangeruse Hollywood Mystery series, set during the Roaring Twenties, I (Donis) am returning to the past briefly, and working on the manuscript of my eleventh Alafair Tucker mystery. One might think it'd be easier after to get back into the world of rural Oklahoma in the early 20th century, but even though I find dealing with these familiar characters and settings quite comforting, trying to do justice to the story itself always makes me anxious. Can I make the story on the page turn out as good as the story in my head?

If I have learned anything about writing after all this time, it is that the process I undergo to finish every book is unique, even if it’s the nth in a series and is populated with characters you know like the back of your hand. Each book requires something different from you. Some flow out, some are dragged out screaming. Some take more research than others. You always have to respect your reader’s intelligence. Avid mystery readers are often more savvy about how mystery plots are routinely constructed than the writer is, so you’ve really got to be imaginative and on your toes to fool them. And fool them in a logical way. And how you as the author manage to get that done that for each book is totally different from all the others you've written. I don't know why.

Now, like many working authors, I occasionally present workshops and classes on how to develop character, construct a mystery, how to plot and how to add suspense to a novel. I have a system all worked out, and it's neat and tidy and easy to understand. The only problem is that I seldom follow my own advice.

I tell my classes that I generally write the first draft from beginning to end, skipping over the places where I find myself stuck so that I can just get it down. That's the dream, anyway. The reality is that I've been known to make books like I make quilts, out of patchwork pieces that I sew together and hope in the end I have a pattern. And when it comes to the "skipping over" part, I have to admit that I have been known to spend day after unproductive day picking at some plot problem as though I'm trying to unravel the Gordian knot with a straight pin.

I advise the writers in my seminars that "writing is rewriting", which I believe to my bones. And yet it is not unknown for me to polish a section of story for a week before moving on.

Write every day without fail, I say. Skipping even a day makes it difficult to pick up where you left off. Excellent advice. If only life never intruded. Or if only I weren't such an undisciplined slob.

The only thing I can always count on when I write a book is that whether I deserve it or not, the Muses always come to my rescue and I end up with a finished mystery novel that hangs together in an interesting and logical way. I don't know how.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Getting to the end

 As usual, I loved Douglas's Monday blog. When my turn on Type M looms and I have no idea what to blog about, I read the blogs immediately before mine and very often, presto, an idea. Or at least something to spin off of.

He was talking about starting points. That blank page that confronts us authors at the beginning of our 300-page journey into the unknown. Full of possibilities, secrets to be unearthed, and terrors to navigate. Then he described on how he navigates the journey.There is no right way to write a book, no shortcuts or guidebooks that guarantee an easy, successful trip, despite their promises. And if there were, what a bore that would be. Writers are often asked two questions: where do we get our ideas, and what is our writing process? People are interested to learn that ideas do not land on our page perfectly formed but rather they are spun from snippets here and there – a conversation overheard on a bus, a news in brief in the newspaper – created much as an oyster forms a pearl from an insignificant grain of sand. 


Our process is whatever works for us to get from that blank page to the words "the end". Some writers are compulsive outliners, others sketch out the high points and major twists ahead of time, but leave the details for first draft. As incredible as it sounds, a great many simply jump in and start to write, with only the vaguest idea what the story is about and who is in it, but not the faintest idea where it's going or how it will end. I am mostly of this latter school, knows as pantsers. As in we fly by the seat of our pants. This is a wild-west style that allows the imagination the greatest freedom but also brings the most terrors. Douglas is quite right - when terror strikes, you have to trust yourself. I usually remind myself that I have written xxx number of books before and in each case have managed to figure out how to end them.

Which brings me, finally, to the point I was going to make in this blog. The ending point. If you and your editor have done a decent job, the end should be neat and only as long as it needs to be to finish the story. I don't mean "tied up in a perfect little bow" neat. I mean it should answer the crucial question(s) posed in the book and tie up most but not all the loose ends. If too many questions are left dangling, the reader feels frustrated and unfulfilled, but if every little question is answered, there is nothing left for the reader to ponder and answer on their own. It all feels too clever and contrived. It also leaves the reader with no curiosity about what may happen in future books.

In most mystery stories, the crucial question(s) to answer is Who dunnit, and will justice be served? It's a rare mystery that doesn't at least tell the reader at the end who the killer is. In most cases, that would leave the reader throwing the book across the room. Very occasionally, the author leaves a hint of doubt and a hint of a possible alternative, so that the reader can weigh the evidence for themselves. Risky, but intriguing! 

The question of "Will justice be served" leaves a lot more leeway. Sometimes this means the killer is not only revealed, but the evidence exists that will convict them. But there may be times when, on balance, justice is served by letting the killer go free. Mysteries that explore that vast gray area between right and wrong, between good and evil, are the most compelling and meaningful of all. When the reader asked themselves, What would I do?


 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

May Misery


 Well, here I am. It's Mother's Day and my daughter, Michele and her husband Harry, invited me over for a lovely meal. My granddaughter Leah drove up for Denver. I was presented with a lovely Pendleton bag. My problems commenced when I joined the family outside on the patio. Literally everyone else was in sandals and lightweight clothing. I was wearing two sweaters (One is a turtleneck) and a jacket.

I cannot believe that my non-allergic rhinitis is stronger than ever. Springtime brings a special kind of misery. Everyone else was enjoying the sunshine and I was chilly and bundled up. The worst side effect is fatigue and a special kind of brain fog unless I'm dosed up with an antihistamine/decongestant. Then I do quite well. But I didn't have it on hand, and it was Sunday. 

I have a number of historical medicals books on my shelves. From time to time I wonder what folks did about illnesses year ago. When I was a little girl my mother's remedy was lemon juice with aspirin for practically anything--coupled with bed rest. 

Folk medicine played a huge role in my most recent book, The Healer's Daughter (Five Star/Gale Cengage) which was set in the 1800s, a central character, Queen Bess, used maggots to cleanse a mother's wound from a Caesarian incision. If that sounds gross and primitive maggots are still being used today in some of the best hospitals because they work more quickly than other methods and don't spread the infection. Still. I would rather not have this done to me. I'm a rather queasy woman.

In another book, Hidden Heritage, (Poisoned Pen Press) an old Spanish woman combines all kinds of spells with her herbs, and her knowledge of plants is profound and very ancient. Since I mentioned a madstone in this book, a reader wrote to tell me about one in a museum in Missouri. A madstone was used to cure a person of rabies. The stone is actually a hairball from a deer's stomach. A madstone from a white albino deer will also take care of rattlesnake venom. 

My all-time favorite recommendation for wound treatment was whiskey and opium. Taken as requested. It came from a Tennessee hill doctor.  

Monday, May 09, 2022

The blank page

 Every piece of writing begins with a blank page.

Whether you use technology, pen, pencil, crayon, quill or a stick in the sand, you are faced with a pristine surface that urges, goads, bullies you to record your thoughts.

When I was a newspaper editor, I told young journalists struggling with how to begin to just put anything down. Don't sweat an opening, it will come. 

The advantage they had, of course, is that they were merely recording facts (in theory anyway) and not creating something out of thin air. They had the basis of what they were about to write in their notepads but still they hesitated, searching for that killer opening.

I've given would-be authors the same advice in workshops - just put something down - anything, even Once Upon a Time, if you have to. One word will follow another and I guarantee sooner or later the correct opener will present itself. It might be something grabby, it might be something descriptive, it might be something so wonderful that people will quote it for decades to come, damn you.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I don't know if Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Orwell had those lines already factored into their plans. I like to think they occurred to them after they had begun writing, mostly because it suits my premise. 

Speaking personally, I have very little factored into my plans when I write. I fact, I don't have any plans to speak of when I write but there have been times when I have come up with what I believe is a cunning twist - say on page 262 - that makes me realise why I had something happen way back on page 84. It's not a way of working that I would recommend but it's the way I seem to be stuck with, thanks to custom, practice, extreme laziness, lack of focus and a mind that goes off in many directions at once and is easily distracted by....oh look, a shiny thing!

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes, writing from scratch.

I met a friend yesterday who is writing her second book. She told me that she's been sailing along quite happily, she's at chapter nine or ten, but she has no idea how it will end.

Well, it's my theory that she actually does know how it will end. Or at least some part of the brain that governs this sort of thing does. It's just that the part of the brain that governs this sort of thing is very secretive and it simply hasn't told her yet.

The part of the brain that governs this sort of thing is like that person in school. You know who I mean - the one who covered up their work so nobody could see. They usually sat beside me and it was infuriating. I mean, what's the point of sitting beside someone who is smart if you can't crib their work? Frankly, I found it very irritating.

Anyway, I think the part of the brain that governs this sort of thing has much of what we write already worked out. That's why I'm not a great believer in writer's block. I think what happens is that the writer has lost faith in what makes them a writer in the first place. Let's call it a gift, which sounds terribly pretentious but that's what it is. We have to trust the gift and let it find the way ahead and sometimes it's by going back. The answer is there, somewhere in that part of the brain that...etc...etc...

So what made me broach this for my fortnightly Type M entry?

Well, I couldn't think of anything to write, so I typed the first thing that came into my mind.

And then, hey presto, I had a blog.

See? It works...