Friday, May 31, 2019

Characters and Their Lives

I'm finally coming up for air after spending the week racing ahead of a deadline. I've been thinking about the questions about characters my blog mates have asked this week. I have to admit that I am always more interested in the characters in a book or short story than in the details of plot. Not that I don't notice when the plot is weak or lackluster or ridiculous. But if the characters are intriguing and thought-provoking, I will read on and even pick up another book by the same author to find out what is happening with them. On the other hand, no matter how clever the plotting, if the characters are irritating, two-dimensional, or clueless (in both senses of the word), I am not likely to look for another book about them.

I, too, have had that question about how I avoid getting my two protagonists, Lizzie Stuart and Hannah McCabe, mixed up when I'm writing. I don't have that problem because I've written much more about Lizzie than about Hannah. I know Lizzie so well that I would recognize her if she came to life and walked into a room. I am in her head because she is a first-person narrator. She does
occasionally surprise me because she is changing as her life changes. But I can hear her voice. We also share a way of thinking about how to go about being a sleuth because we both do research in the archives and in old newspapers. In contrast, Hannah is "McCabe" in the books. She is the protagonist in the two books I've written so far, but the books are police procedurals. I write in third person, and sometimes from the point of view of other characters.

That brings me to the question about having characters from different series share the stage. I've been thinking about that because I did a radio interview recently and the host asked me a fun question -- one that only a mystery writer (or reader) would love and that I had never been asked. It was, if you were murdered (God forbid!) what fictional character would you like to investigate. My immediate response was Adrian Monk. Then I added Lt. Columbo. I'm sure there are other sleuths who could be as effective and would draw on all the latest in forensics, but as I lingered, waiting to be freed to travel on by having my crime solved, I would be able to enjoy watching those two investigate. Still, as soon as I said I'd like to have both of them work on my case, I started to think of what would happen with their very different styles.

I have thought about bringing my two female protagonists together in a story. I could have McCabe call Lizzie in Virginia to ask her about something. Or Lizzie, who attended graduate school in Albany, could come back for a conference or an award or stop in as she's in the area. I would love to hear a conversation between them. But, I'm sure McCabe would find it much easier to work with John Quinn, Lizzie's former homicide detective fiance. Quinn and McCabe would be on the same page and talk the same language. Not to say that they would be in complete agreement, but they would share the "cop thing." But the problem about trying to bring these characters together is that they don't exist in the same space. Lizzie is in the year 2004 right now, in the recent past of "our" world. McCabe is in 2020, in a world that is much like our own, but has an alternate history/timeline. The series that began as near-future will soon be in the present because the first book is set in October 2019.

The idea of bringing Lizzie and Hannah together is intriguing because they have an overlapping plot. This plot -- stretching over decades -- includes Jo Radcliffe, a character who has appeared only in a short story I have in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Jo lives in a village in upstate New York. She is in 1946, a former Army nurse, and she has a secret. Her life, overlaps with Lizzie's and her legacy affects McCabe. I once did a chart with all of the characters on a timeline. I've even played with having one of them provide the frame for my 1939 historical thriller that references these connections. But I'm still pondering. I don't know if I can pull it off. It might be safer to keep the secret that links them all to myself. But I'm thinking. . .

Thursday, May 30, 2019

My Take on Character

All right, I (Donis) am so far behind in both work and daily life that it isn't funny, but I have to weigh in on the character question, the subject my blogmates have written so skillfully about over the past few days. I’ve read many books with clever plots that delighted me at the time, but no matter how skillfully a plot is constructed, months later I don’t remember the story nearly as well as I remember the characters. And if I liked the characters, I want to keep company with them again.

Reviewers and the literati elite seem to go all breathless over dark and tortured characters in hopeless situations. This isn’t a new phenomenon. This kind of book can be a brilliant art form, as it is with noir novels, when it’s full of dark humor and a thoughtful, perhaps cynical, exploration of human nature. I find that even though I still love a good dark novel, I can’t take a steady diet of self-destruction and hopelessness any more. As the English say, I think I’ve had enough of both in my real life to be going on with. If I’m going to spend many hours of my life with these characters, I damn well want to like them.

So I’ll happily while away the time reading about Bertie Wooster’s pointless night out, because it’s a lot more fun than sitting in a hospital waiting room pondering unhappy possibilities.

Speaking of which, until a couple of years ago I had never read anything by New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, but during one of my husband's many hospitalizations, I picked her up because one of his nurses was also a Kiwi, and she and I spent quite a while discussing mystery novels. The one book I have read is called A Man Lay Dead. It’s a typical 1930s style English country-house mystery, full of upper class ladies and dandies and stalwart servants. The plot is convoluted beyond belief, involving an antique dagger, a gong, a game of Murder, a single calf-skin glove, a bannister, and a mysterious Russian secret society. And Marsh’s writing style is adverb-y to the max.

The sleuth, however, is a humorous, upper-class, Oxford man. None of the other characters can figure out why someone with his background and breeding has deigned to become a common detective. Turns out he’s so brilliant that he simply has to have puzzles to occupy his feverish mind. Sort of a Sherlock Holmes with a sense of humor.

He entertained me. However, though I finished reading the book before I went to sleep one night, by morning I had already forgotten why the murderer did it. One of my favorite examples of the importance of character versus plot is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The plot is so complicated that Chandler himself couldn’t quite figure it out. But the characters, setting, and dialog are so compelling that nobody cares.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Character mashups

In the past week on Type M, characters seem to have marched onto centre stage. There have been posts about creating them, describing them, trying to control them, and bringing them back from the dead.

I write three series and so have three separate casts of characters. Readers have their favourites; some only want to read about Inspector Green while others are happy to follow Amanda's adventures. At author events, people are always more interested in discussing characters than plot or setting, the two other pillars of the story. They want to know not only why they acted as they did in the book and what will they do in the next book, but they want to know about my relationship with my characters. Where do they come from, how do I keep track of them, and are they based on real people?

We writers relate to our characters as if they are real people in our lives. They are often on our minds when we should be doing other things like emptying the dishwasher. We argue with them, worry about them, revel in their triumphs and laugh at their follies. It's delightful to discover that readers care about them in the same way.

Because I write more than one series, people also ask me how I keep the characters separate. Do I have to finish with one series and one set of characters before I can start the other? I don't like writing more than one book at a time, mainly because I have to get immersed in the flow of the story and I lose that momentum each time I switch from one to the other. The characters, however, seem to inhabit different rooms or houses in my head, and when I switch books, it feels as if I've walked through a curtain into a different place. The two worlds do not meet.

This brings to another question readers sometimes ask me at author events. Would I ever write a story in which Inspector Green and Amanda Doucette work together. I admit it's fun for about two minutes to contemplate how that would work (badly) and I can see the appeal for readers of watching two smart, strong characters they enjoy duking it out over who would resolve the case first. But purely from a story-telling standpoint, the combination wouldn't work. Both these characters are used to being the centre of attention. They are the heroes of the piece, and making them work as an ensemble would fundamentally alter not only their characters but also the style of the story. I'm pretty sure one of them would be forced into a subordinate role, and although the ensuing sparks might be entertaining, I don't think it suits either of their characters. I don't think I'd enjoy the experience, and ultimately, I don't think readers would either.

Another reason it wouldn't work is that in an ensemble story, the members of the team typically complement each other. One funny and the other serious. One impulsive and the other cautious. This is the reason why sidekicks are almost always a contrast to the hero. The story just feels balanced and right this way. Green and Doucette are not a complementary team. They are both alphas, too similar to provide balance in the story.

But the main reason I think it wouldn't work is that I'm not sure I could tear down the curtain that separates the two worlds, and walk freely from Inspector Green's world to Amanda's.

I'm interested to know whether any of the writers have thought of doing this with their series leads and whether readers think the idea would work. Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

How's this for an interesting idea?

by Rick Blechta

How’s this for an interesting idea?

I just had an intriguing thought based on recent posts by Aline and Thomas.

But first a bit of preamble about what I’m thinking about.

There have been many example of the pastiche in crime fiction. Publishers don’t want a financially successful series die when the author does (or quits). Many contracts of beginning authors now include a clause that the series characters belong to the publisher once the contract is signed.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some excellent pastiches. The stories of Nero Wolfe have been added to by other authors, not to mention Sherlock Holmes, and those examples are just two examples off the top of my head.

What I’m saying is that it’s nothing new for a different writer to use established characters of another writer to create new works, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so.

Now to my little idea: what if a group of characters were created by two writers working together, sort of assembling a cast for a drama that’s not yet written?

This, too, has been done before. The two writers take on creating alternating chapters and the story is told that way. Or the two writers just work together to create the story, “writing by committee”, as it were.

My idea is to assemble this cast and then the two authors go off and craft whatever story they desire. At the end of the process, the results are then compared. I’m sure they would be intriguingly different.

What do you think?

Monday, May 27, 2019

A Life of Their Own

Thomas's post on Monday about babies and characters developing took me right back to when my first child was born - and that wasn't yesterday!  I can remember being oppressed by the awful sense of responsibility: here was a little unformed being handed over into my inexpert care and what he would become was up to me.  I would feel very proud when he was good and ashamed when he wasn't, and if he turned out to be a disaster then it was All My Fault.

It was only when his sister was born three years later that I understood  retrospect how utterly wrong I was.  She came fully-equipped with her own entirely different personality and there was nothing I could do about that, or about my son's either, I realized.  I think I had seen myself as being like a sculptor, chiselling a creation out of a rock; the relief when I understood that all I had was a nail file was enormous.

They were going to do what they wanted, not what I wanted for them, however many little plans I had.  They're fine adults now, but that's thanks to them not me.

I get much more irritated with characters.  OK, my kids are their own people and entitled to ignore my wishes but  I should be able to force my characters, at least, to do what I want them to. I created them; I know their back story, because I created that too. I know what they ought to be like.  I know what part I have designed them to play in the story.

So why is it that some of them balk at that and take on a life of their own?  I've had characters destined for a very minor part in the proceedings who insist on forcing their way to the front of the action.  I've had connections between characters appear that I would swear I hadn't thought of before - 'Good gracious, I hadn't realized she was his cousin!'

The worst thing is, that if I decide to take them on and insist that they are going to do it my way they become limp and if I persist they drop down dead.  So I have to admit I've got rather feeble about it especially since they are often right about what they wanted to do and they turn out to be some of the most lifelike characters in the end.

After all, when that distinguished poet Pooh Bear described Tigger's weight in 'pounds, shillings and ounces' and Piglet objected that it seemed odd to have 'shillings' in between the 'pounds' and the 'ounces', he explained that 'they wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them.  It is the best way to write poetry, letting things come.'

And possibly crime novels too?

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Magic Lever

While we writers like to portray ourselves as servants to the Muse, as mortal scribes channeling Inspiration, we gotta pay the rent and that means selling books. That and riding herd on the day job. Every established writer gets hit with the question: How do I market my book? Which is another way of asking, How do I make money in this writing gig?

The easy answer, Sell lots of books. Be on notice that if I had my hand on the magic-selling-books-lever, you can be sure that I wouldn't let you put your toner-stained mitts on it. So how to sell books? What helps is getting your name out in public. Let me share my experience of what happens when you don't. Last year I cut back on my touring schedule, appearing only around the Denver area. However, I did keep tabs with my fellow writers working the Bard's Tower booth, formerly the WordFire booth, as they dragged the setup from comic con to comic con and greeted metric tons of people. Make no mistake, working the booth is an effort. Set up and tear down is a real pain, and holding court on the exhibition floor keeps you on your feet for a solid twelve hours. The upside is that you're meeting new readers and occasionally, even fans. Paying for travel and meals takes a bite out of your wallet and even if you sell out stock, which I've done, you won't come close to covering your costs. Even so, I missed the excitement of the shows, the comradery of hanging out with this gang of misfits, and the chance to see a new city. But more importantly, a consequence of not touring was a downturn in my royalties. Not good.

This year I signed up for as many gigs with the Bard's Tower as I could fit into my schedule. Though I haven't appeared in many shows, what I've seen is a lot more traffic to my Facebook book pages and more engagement in Twitter. We'll see if that translates into an uptick in royalties. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 24, 2019

My Canned Personal News

I get a lot of my news on-line. That's a terrible idea. I now realize this practice prevents me from developing an informed opinion.

Instead of a trained journalist with a broad knowledge of the affairs of the world meeting with a seasoned editorial staff to select the most important items to publish for the good of the commonwealth, I'm offered mostly drivel based on my viewing habits. To my great shame, I realize that I have brought this on myself.

Viewing photos of the royal babies is a lot more fun than coping with my dismay over pictures featuring refuges or the latest war torn area. As to ads, it didn't take much for merchants to figure out that I'm a sucker for any site featuring yarn or sewing techniques. I freely admit to being a yarnaholic. Knitting helps me keep my sanity.

Formerly, I kept abreast of the news through print editions of newspapers. The columns and the headlines were not tailored for me. Opinion sections were persuasive and well-reasoned. My overly liberial orientation was kept in check by brilliant conservative columnists such as David Brooks whose arguments added a different dimension to my thinking.

Print is expensive. On-line is not. That's why I started gathering news on-line. I'm thinking of biting the bullet and subscribing to my favorite newspaper. It's a patriotic decision. Yes, honestly!

I think we owe it to these United States to maintain a free press and we cannot if we Americans insist on "news we can use." Give me news I cannot use. Even news I don't like. How about a dose of opinions I don't agree with?

Where are the fashions I cannot wear? I would like to know about them anyway. Why is my news now only about Americans? That was not always the case.

We are living in perilous times. Staying secluded can't be a good idea.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Natural Organic Reduction AKA Human Composting

I grew up in Washington state. Even though I haven’t lived there in a long time, my ears perk up anytime there’s a story in the news about doings in the area. A recent one in the Los Angeles Times talked about a bill that recently passed the Washington state legislature giving residents the option of natural organic reduction aka human composting. Yesterday, Governor Jay Inslee signed it into law. You can read the Seattle Times article here:

I also found this interesting article on the process:

I’d never heard of natural organic reduction. It’s supposed to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to burial or cremation. It reduces the carbon emissions emitted by cremation and takes up less space than a burial. I honestly have never thought about whether or not burial and cremation are green processes or not.

The process works like this: a body is placed with wood chips, alfalfa and straw in a steel vessel where it’s decomposed by microbes. The end product is soil, similar to topsoil you can buy at a local nursery. Customers can take the soil and spread it in their garden or donate it to conservation groups for tree planting. The process takes 30 days. One body produces on average one cubic yard of soil, about two wheelbarrows worth.

Apparently, a similar process is used to dispose of bodies of animals such as cattle in some areas.

I expected the issue to be more controversial than it appears to be. I scoured the internet, but couldn’t find many people expressing negative comments about it. There were some concerns about spreading disease and some people doubted if the process would actually work. But, other than that, not much.

As a mystery writer, I can imagine a number of interesting scenarios. I can also see family members not being particularly enamored with a loved one’s wish to use this process.

What do you all think?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

More on character development exercises -or- how I learned to actually enjoy waiting for my flight to depart

by Rick Blechta

Something in Thomas’s post yesterday caught my eye: “…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?”

First of all, this is a really fabulous idea. Waiting around an airport for a flight has to be one of the most boring exercises ever invented by humans. I usually wait it out by reading a book, but the lure of being able to pass the time constructively is an attractive one. I’d like to add a couple of additional ideas: describe the person as if they’re a minor character just passing through the story, then describe them as if they will have something more important to do in your plot.

A lot of us struggle with character description. I nearly always over-describe them, something that’s easily rectified in one of my rewriting stages: while I’m still working on the novel, or when I’m editing after it’s completed. However, I don’t fret over this anymore because when I do overwrite those descriptions it brings the characters into sharper focus for me — even if it winds up on the cutting room floor. One trick I’ve learned over time is to not throw out that stuff. I now stick it into my “dump file” and have a fuller picture to draw on if the character becomes more important later on.

So either way — speaking of a character’s importance in my plot — I’m ready to go with information about that character.

The other thing I might do is to practice writing those descriptions with a few deft strokes, rather than writing a treatise on my subject. I’m always in awe of a writer who can do this — and not many can. It’s an art as much as dialogue or general description. But it is something that can be practised and improved.

And waiting interminably in some airport is the perfect place to practice! “My flight is delayed for a second time? No problem!”

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.”